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Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Rise In Double Features

Getting More For Your Quarter In 1934

So far as film companies were concerned in 1933-34, double features stood for two things: evil and menace. There were other descriptive terms as damning. Argument against combos piled thus: They made shows run too long and so permitted less audience changeover through the day, features took less rental as result of being paired, and twin billing opened the door for independents to horn in on programs. Worst overall was the format taking control away from majors already pinched by collapsing revenue. What was worse timing of two-for-one sales than a Great Depression? ... except where the public was concerned, of course. And there was the argument for double features, the only one perhaps, but enough. Anything that customers bought could not be stopped, and what they wanted was two movies on a single ticket, and in fact, would come to settle for nothing less. Exhibition could fight or give in --- there was plenty of room on the canvas for those who ignored the bell.

Paramount execs sat hours in 1934 "closed meetings" to discuss combat of the scourge, a few promising to carry the fight "all the way to the White House," said Variety, but each knew they'd have to submit. Failure to get resolution among majors and the Motion Picture Code authority led to increased letters on marquees nationwide and a New Deal for picturegoers. The Indiana Theatre in Indianapolis was a "Publix" house, Paramount controlled, and come dawn of '34, one of first company strongholds to give in. So long as Para had to play, they'd make a most of it. Toward filling those 3,133 seats came promise of a Giant Double Show Every Man, Woman, and Child Will Enjoy!, with emphasis on that most dreaded aspect of duals --- Both For The Price Of One. As things worked out, Paramount and the Indiana had their cake and ate too, combined program of Six Of A Kind (62 minutes), Miss Fane's Baby Is Stolen (70), and The Rasslin' Match (11) adding up to less than two and a half hours, little more than duration of a typical single feature show with short subjects. Even with such horn of plenty, the Indiana blew out five shows daily between 11:00 am and 9:15 pm. The answer, of course, laid in brevity of features. Majors, including Paramount, would form "B" units to service bottom-of-bills, careful to keep these just over or under an hour's length.

Six Of A Kind and Miss Fane's Baby Is Stolen were programmers, a form that would adapt to B mould as double featuring became entrenched, being neither specials nor B's as we'd later understand them. Studios in any case never liked "B" as a term applied to product, as it smacked of pejorative. Six Of A Kind could and did play as a single, its cast out of comedic top drawers, but times requiring desperate measure obliged the Indiana to bargain with customers. If Six Of A Kind required two of a kind, in terms of feature offering, then yes, the theatre would serve, and willingly. Question then ... would combos hypo business? In this case, no. The Indiana's dual of Six Of A Kind and Miss Fane's Baby Is Stolen, with Amos n' Andy in The Rasslin' Match, went buzz-to-dud route to tune of mere $4,000 in ticket sales. Double billing may have been panacea elsewhere, but not for Indianapolis. Further tinkering sought a cure in the following week, when a tab version of The Student Prince made for stage-screen tandem with Hi, Nellie from Warners. There was jump to $9,500 in the till, but Variety called that "moderate" because of house nut increased by bringing in legiters.

I wanted to experience the Indiana's February 5-12, 1934 show, and here's what happened: First off, I couldn't see any but the first eight minutes of Miss Fane's Baby Is Stolen, and that glimpse came courtesy You Tube. Miss Fane is owned by Universal, along with balance of Paramount pre-49 talkers, and she's been deep-sixed since days of yore when MCA sent 16mm to tee-vee station buyers. It'll likely stream or DVD-release when pigs take wing, which is too bad, because Miss Fane's Baby Is Stolen starts promisingly, being spun off the Lindbergh case with subject babe (Leroy of Bill Fields contretemps fame) nabbed from his movie star mom. A-1, said Variety, with both boxoffice and punch. I'll not sustain said punch so long as Universal holds out, but came succor with ready access to Six Of A Kind and The Rasslin' Match, these DVD-permitting me to bask at least in two-thirds of what Indiana auds got for their twenty cent and up admission.

To enjoy Six Of A Kind depends upon tolerance of all half-dozen clowns in review. Do Burns and Allen at most aggressive play on your nerves? Then be warned. Would Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland tire rather than amuse? Go elsewhere in that event. I'll assume everyone, here at Greenbriar anyway, likes Bill Fields, but know too that he's only in for half this show, the latter half. Till then, it's B&A making life hell for R&B on a road trip over gravel and dirt that characterized travel in 1934. The way is scarily dotted  with tramps that prey on motorists, in this case familiar threats Walter Long and Leo Wallis of perfidy in Roach comedies. Getting lost amidst such wilds is played for humor, but I found it near as unsettling as things that go wrong for cross-countrying Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night from the same year. Deliverance comes of Uncle Bill taking over the show with reprise of a pool table routine honed on stages through a decade before Six Of A Kind. Fieldsian prattle here, and in search of a "hunchbacked Ethiopian," just had to be ad-libbed or W.C.-writ on back of liquor store receipts. Whichever --- it redeems deposit on this Six pack and leaves refreshing taste at the finish.

And then came The Rasslin' Match, a first of two Amos n' Andy cartoons made of an announced thirteen. Why stop at two? The shorts apparently fell on sword that was creators Gosden and Correll's displeasure, the two a no-show (to read dialogue) after initial Rasslin' and follow-up The Lion Tamers. What should have run smooth had not, The Rasslin' Match adapted from a story already air-used, with translation-to-screen clearly gone kerfloo. Small operator Van Beuren had an RKO release deal, RKO in same Sarnoff/RCA ownership bed with NBC radio, home to A&A. Hopes were high as evinced by a Radio City Music Hall booking for 1/4/33, very nice work when a Van Beuren reel could get it. The Rasslin' Match was sold primarily on voices that fans wouldn't miss if homes caught fire, Gosden/Correll themselves pulling $6,500 per week for vaude and picture house apps. Van Beuren may have figured so what if the cartoons disappointed, but RKO had been bit by flop of non-cat/mouse Tom and Jerry plus The Little King, both series under VB banner and ultimately yanked by the distributor. A specific problem with The Rasslin' Match may have been lack of sentiment that propelled radio's A&A as much as comedy. For animation, the team went only for funny, and based on response, came up a damp blanket. The Rasslin' Match is good as curiosity, however, and Thunderbean has a nice DVD where it abuts other Van Beuren oddities.


Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Hand-in-hand with deciding to cave on double-features, Paramount canceled their contract with two-reel comedy supplier Arvid Gillstrom, which left Harry Langdon out in the cold just as he'd returned from honeymooning with third (and lasting) wife Mabel. Poor Harry fretted for a few months until Columbia's Jules White rode to the rescue.

I often wonder how Columbia managed to sustain its two reel comedy program, which BEGAN in '34, all the way to the late fifties. Having no theaters of their own, they were almost entirely dependent upon independent exhibitors - the ones who MOST needed the draw of double features to fill seats. Even the Stooges weren't a hot commodity for the first year or so, not to mention Langdon, Andy Clyde, Tom Kennedy & Monte Collins, etc.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I think it was because of the independent exhibitors that Columbia shorts lasted so long. The films were crowd pleasers and owners of neighborhood theaters liked the variety -- what with comedies, serials, musicals, sports reels, and various novelty reels -- so they continually found room on their programs for Columbia shorts.

Even when Columbia reduced production in later years (cutting the comedies from 25 new titles a year to 15, and the serials from three new ones annually to two), the studio kept exhibitor demand in mind and made up the loss by reissuing older titles. As late as the 1960s Columbia still offered exhibitors a regular slate of three serials, eight Stooge shorts, 10 "comedy favorites" (non-Stooges), and at least two older series.

Off-topic but please read: Michael's new book "Chaplin's Vintage Year" is a honey. All about the Chaplin Mutuals, and well worth your time.

4:19 PM  
Blogger reprobates said...

The rise of the Double Bill was not as fast a rise as many historians like to think it was. Just look at John's article about the Palace Theater from a few days ago, heck, even live Vaudeville continued to play along side movies into the early 50's, at a number of both RKO and Paramount Theaters! Remember, the showing John's talking about was not particularly a success, so how many other Paramount Publix Theaters immediately followed suit?

Double Bills were actually more of a independent theater thing early on, and gradually the studios moved towards it, but even then, they would frequently keep the Full Program for their major-city big houses. MGM and the Loews Chain was the last serious holdout on the Full Program, not really capitulating to it until near the end of WW2.

And,even with Double Features, theaters frequently ran shorts and cartoons as well. The Nace Chain in Phoenix ran a cartoon before every feature, doubled or not,into the late 1970's.


9:07 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I'm a bit late on this post, but just had to jump in and agree with reprobates! I'm always confounded when histories report trends based only on large or coastal cities.

Over the years, I've gone through hundreds of newspaper theater pages for Duluth, MN and Superior, WI (small cities, not exactly small towns) dating from the late 20's through the end of WW II, and double features were definitely the exception, not the rule. Second run houses, some of the neighborhood theaters with older films maybe, and even then not much until after 1938.

The big first run houses almost always had one feature with a raft of short subjects or some occasional live acts. So called B's with short running times like Laurel and Hardy's or Fox Charlie Chans were not doubled at the big theaters on their area debuts, although they were often propped up with sports specials or, during the war, documentary featurettes (single exception - CHUMP AT OXFORD teamed with PHILO VANCE RETURNS) . And even months later when they might be paired at a smaller house, films like that were never on the bottom half of anyone's bill.

For years, the most prestigious venue was the Lyceum, a Publix theater. Through out the thirties it avoided all double feature bookings, until a sleek new movie palace, the Norshor arrived down the street in 1942. That resulted in a change in management, and only then was a double feature policy adopted, but once again, only with older A's and B Westerns.

As a side note, I kinda think the 'A' and 'B' designations buffs bandy about today can be confusing, or at least misleading. Through out much of the country, I suspect, inexpensive features with short running times were not necessarily banished to added attraction status during Hollywood's Golden era.

12:57 PM  

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