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Monday, September 23, 2013

A UK Deluge on American TV

When The Brits Invaded Our Living Rooms ...

To follow up on The Long Memory post of Saturday, 9/21, I checked into release and reception of the 1952 UK pic in America. Producer J. Arthur Rank had made aggressive play for Yank dates to widen a public for his prolific output, principal US distributors being Universal-International and Eagle-Lion, both of which had been hypoed with Rank investment dollars. By 1952 and completion of The Long Memory, those honeymoons had ended (E-L) or were about to (U-I), and Rank had to search anew for stateside handling. January 1953 saw a Variety trade ad announcing ... In Proud Array, the company's slate, which included, among others, The Promoter with popular Alec Guinness, which Universal would handle here, Outpost In Malaya, to be released by United Artists, and The Long Memory, for which there were no so-far takers. The Long Memory being black-and-white with a dark theme and settings was alien to US audiences, its cast other than John Mills unfamiliar to our marquees. Variety had reviewed the film for London's bureau, calling it "conventional," with modest prospect for American theatres. Rank then, was perhaps lucky to secure a mid-1953 release through independent Astor Pictures, former outlet for reissues and program westerns. Astor sold The Long Memory in expected lurid manner, as witness their one-sheet at left, the aim toward exploitation and grind play. So how else  could it have been marketed?

I'd like knowing what rentals The Long Memory collected --- bet it was nickels. Within a scant two years, the '52 noir became part of TV dealing Rank engaged with ABC for much of his backlog, the network hungry for movies and Hollywood majors so far unwilling to sell. Their deal was historic: primetime runs, Sunday night from 7:30-9,  including a best Great Britain had to offer. Odd Man Out was the opener, with Caesar and Cleopatra, Tight Little Island, and Stairway To Heaven for following weeks. The New York Times called it a "British Invasion," pointing out NBC's import, The Constant Husband, going head-to-head against ABC's run of Caesar and Cleopatra. It seemed all the best free-vee movies flew a Union Jack. Local channels were presenting UK standouts for early and late shows as well: Great Expectations, The Man In The White Suit, Brief Encounter, Captain's Paradise, numerous others. Some of these had not been long out of theatres, TV viewership getting privileged access to fresher entertainment than cowboy and cheapies that were majority lot of US features playing the tube.

The trouble was "sheer artistic butchery" resulting from wholesale cuts made to films in order to squeeze them into predetermined time slots. The Man In The White Suit, for instance, had been shaved to fifty-five minutes for its evening broadcast. But, judged by the film norm of TV in recent years, the current British fare is a decided forward step from a viewer's standpoint, said a forbearing Times. The influx of UK movies into American homes was making Anglophiles of many, especially those in metro areas tilting already toward elevated fare. ABC got the message, and increased ratings, for their oversea plunge. Brit pics were whopping the competition on Sunday nights, and the network wanted more of them. A next shopping cart to Rank shelves was filled with 100 titles as opposed to 35 initially purchased, the majority of even more recent vintage. The deals enriched Rank by over $3,000,000, with ABC's playing off the lot on weekday afternoons in addition to continued Sunday primetime.

The new slot would be called Afternoon Film Festival, from 3-5:00 p.m., a lead-in to The Mickey Mouse Club, the start day to be January 16, 1956. ABC got "unlimited use" of the package for "an extended period," a crown jewel of the batch being Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, which, of course, would have to be cut (severely) from its original 155 minute runtime to fit into ABC's time slot. Sales staff for the network stayed busy, the weekday and Sunday movies being "participation buys" with time available to unlimited sponsors rather than a single one buying entire programs. The boon for watchers was film largely new to them, a number of the Rank features having not had a US theatrical release. Others, like The Long Memory, were barely seen by paying crowds thanks to Astor's limited resource. Here, then, was where a mass audience began discovering fineness of British films overlooked (if not avoided) before. Thanks to the Rank packages, viewership could finally adjust to movies done a UK way, the very thing J. Arthur Rank sought and struggled toward over the past two decades. The late 50's and into 60's boom for Brit pics may well have been enabled by ground laid in living rooms across America, television's flow of free samples persuading us finally that entertainment from across the pond could be as satisfying as our own. Do James Bond, The Beatles, and kitchen sink dramas have 50's American TV to thank, at least in part, for their stateside success?


Blogger Michael said...

My parents said that the Ealing comedies in particular were such a breath of fresh air on TV in the days of Uncle Miltie and Queen For a Day and the like, and gave fledgling ABC a real boost at a time when NBC and CBS had the money and the stars. The other boost they gave, of course, was to a mostly supporting actor named Alec Guinness, who suddenly moved into the ranks of actual British stars in US minds and started getting Hollywood roles like The Swan and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Kent said...

Actually, Olivier's "Hamlet" was run in 2 installments, a week apart, when it premiered on Famous Film Festival, as were other "overlong" entries -- such as "Caesar and Cleopatra", "Life and Death of Col. Blimp", and "The Red Shoes." And when they were rerun on Afternoon Film Festival weeks later, they were given the same Part 1/Part 2 showings.

Apart from that, however, your entry was right on target in the way it vividly pointed out that American TV was subjected to the dregs of what minimal packages the Hollywood studios made available and how the UK-Rank films on ABC offered a superior alternative during the mid-50's.

1:31 PM  

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