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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ads That Sold Sizzle and Steak

Illicit Precode As Fresh Fruit For 1931

I always figured exhibitors were creative participants in movies because it was them that applied punctuation to what Hollywood produced. No film was really finished till showmen got hold of it. They'd look at a pressbook, trailer, synopsis, or trade ad, and right away know what aspect might sell. A single ad done right could boil a convoluted story to its essence. Scholars have spent book lengths trying to define precode, the job having been done for them long ago by original merchants of the form. What west coast producers shipped each week was less finished product than rawest clay to be molded by east coast personnel, with finishing touch applied by theatre management where all bucks stopped. He/she would size up ad accessories and decide if same could be applied to needs of his/her community. Local desks where promotion got prepared was where rubber met the road insofar as keeping lights lit and staff paid.
Illicit was mother's milk to aggressive selling. Consider first the title --- one word and quick to the point, a natural for marquees needing what space there was to boost support attractions (Illicit plus Mickey Mouse!). The old Embassy Theatre in San Francisco, lately renamed the Warner Bros., had been swallowed by earthquake during construction (1906), then rose from ash to be named, renamed several times during interim. Warners used the site to showcase Vitaphone (as above with Disreali in 1929), then bought the 1,387 seats outright. Illicit would "World Premiere" on 1/9/31 at a dollar per ticket, Jack Warner, Barbara Stanwyck, and Mervyn LeRoy personally appearing. Babs was billed as "San Francisco's Own Daughter," but cursory research says she was Brooklyn-born. Suppose anyone challenged the boast?
Illicit isn't really much of a movie, precode or otherwise, being  stiff in joints thanks to talk and pace still on wobbly feet. There hadn't been a lot of lively WB work out of 1930 gates (a few like The Dawn Patrol being notable exception), but the following year showed big strides. What's good about Illicit is forthrightness of modern girl philosophy as expressed by Barbara Stanwyck. She spends whole of a first reel explaining to dullard live-in James Rennie why they should not be married, speech given from horizontal clinch on a divan. He's tired of "pussyfooting" and shun of standards, ... but I Love Pussyfooting! says she, an excerpt that would decorate a number of docus about precode. These ads from first and holdover weeks at the Warner Bros. cull all of what's hot-cha from Illicit ("If I, the woman, do not ask for marriage ... why should you, the man?"). To it's credit, Illicit does deliver on promise of taglines, if doing so at relax pace. Warner Archive offers a DVD, and Illicit streams in HD at Warner Instant.


Blogger Jeanette Minor said...

I used to attend shows at that theatre in the 70's and 80's. By then it was a dingy grindhouse. Three movies, second and third run for $2.00. It was finally torn down in 1989.

5:32 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Man, if some theatre put up that Vitaphone sign today, whether it showed old movies or not, I'd go every week.

8:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers how "Illicit" and its kin led to strengthening of the Production Code:

The ad campaign for "Illicit" pretty well summarizes why the Prodcution Code was given effect. The woman of the piece is no longer the guardian of marriage and home, but a shill for free love. Consider the "She Dared!" ad, where a "tiny voice," presumably of her conscience, tells her that "if she didn't take her love when she found it...openly and thankfully...she could never take it at all." Any cad in the movies had more or less the same operating philosophy. Everyone else is doing it, too, the ad said, "And who are we to say they are wrong?" Well, certainly none of the Warner brothers would raise a question about it. And probably few people would today. Besides, the mouthpiece is no mere actress but "Miss Barbara Stanwyck," the honorific suggesting the class she brought to the presentation.

It's no wonder, though, that the Roman Catholic Church regarded this and other such offerings as direct assaults on sexual morality and the family, or why Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia threatened a boycott of all Warner Bros. theaters in the city. Harry Warner added up the potential losses and began weeping copious tears, or so it was said. And since Cardinal Dougherty was also campaigning for government oversight of the movies, Warner also got the other members of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to face facts and put some teeth into the Production Code. Will Hays remained head of the MPPDA, but as a functionary. Joseph Breen, the publicity man for the organization, was given the job of reviewing and censoring films. Breen was a Roman Catholic himself and popular with the Church hierarchy. He was an anti-semite as well, but no matter. The important thing was getting the Catholics off their backs and getting the product out.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

It's on Turner Classic Movies on August 5th.

10:29 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Interesting, the posh billing of "Miss Barbara Stanwyck." The only other place I've seen her so billed was on "The Big Valley."

5:08 PM  

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