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Friday, July 12, 2013

A 1939 Money's Worth


Honolulu Plus A Co-Feature

Pre-Judy Garland Metro musicals often saw need to buttress lead ladies with other performers and specialties to round out a feature's length, as here for Eleanor Powell, whose dancing, mostly tap, was almost supernatural in its perfection, but less matched by charisma otherwise (Powell's manufacture is well covered by Jeanine Basinger in a 2009 book, The Star Machine). EP got by with strong leading men, in this case two Robert Youngs (dual role), and registered also with help of dizzy sidekicks. That last is Gracie Allen for Honolulu's voyage, perversely separated from George Burns, even though he's elsewhere in the show, their meet-up delayed till almost the end. Meanwhile there are numbers on a scale anticipating bigger, if not wiser, spending to come with the 40's and increased size audience (and grosses) for MGM's song catalogue. Show-stoppers include Eleanor paying blackface tribute to Bill Robinson after fashion of Fred Astaire in RKO's 1936 Swing Time, and there's a shipboard party with revelers in movie star guise, including lookalikes of The Marx Bros., W.C. Fields, Laurel-Hardy, etc. Just another Metro musical some would say, as if that were a commonplace thing, but for me, any of these are a treat.

The ad at right has first-run Honolulu playing a Fox West Coast venue with Mr. Moto's Last Warning for a second feature. Double-bills by 1939 were locked into theatre policy, audiences feeling cheated unless they got two-for-one. The majors supplied B's rather than cede the field to independent producers. Big companies that were also theatre owners wanted to control every aspect of the program: features, shorts, the works. They also had resource to make cheap product look good, what with standing sets, players on contract, and eager staff climbing hopeful toward bigger assignments. 20th's Mr. Moto group didn't aspire beyond lower berth. Small towns might play them for a single, but for a most part, Motos backed what patrons primarily came to see, in this case, Honolulu, recalled perhaps less well by fans today than Peter Lorre's Japanese sleuth. Mr. Moto's Last Warning, like other B's, rented on flat terms. 20th was able to calculate earnings based on Fox-owned houses they knew would play it, plus blocked-booked commitment elsewhere. For vertically integrated companies, there was no safer bet than B's. Mr. Moto's Last Warning had a negative cost of $200K, brought back $226K in domestic rentals, with $153K in foreign. Profit, dependable as sun-up for Fox series entries (Moto, Chan, Jones Family, et al), came to $43,000.

3 Comments:

Blogger VP81955 said...

Something doesn't look right here -- we have a "B" picture, and Lynn Bari's not in the cast!

2:16 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

"…Eleanor paying blackface tribute to Bill Robinson after fashion of Fred Astaire in RKO's 1936 Swing Time…"

Or after fashion of Bert Wheeler in RKO Radio's 1937 High Flyers, for that matter.

John, could you please explain how an MGM feature gets top billing in a Fox theater called the "Paramount?" Block booking, where is thy sting?

Best wishes, Mark

7:16 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Mark, this was probably a former Paramount-owned theatre that Fox West Coast bought at some point.

As for the MGM feature getting top-billed, it was common for affiliated houses to share one another's product, an ongoing policy by which they ALL profited.

7:43 PM  

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