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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hitting Technicolor High Seas

Piracy Pays for Paramount and Frenchman's Creek (1944) --- Part One

This Paramount budget monstrosity (a whopping $4.8 million cost, said Variety) is just out via Universal's Vault Series, so that now Frenchman's Creek can at least be less forgotten than it's been since 1944. I was always intrigued by stills that promised the moon in terms of costuming and production, plus there was Basil Rathbone in wicked dudgeon, crawling up a staircase to continue assault upon Joan Fontaine even after she's sunk a dagger in him. Frenchman's was adapted from Daphne DeMaurier, she of Rebecca fame, which had been luck for Fontaine and producing boss David Selznick. He loaned her to Paramount for FC in fact, then rained memos upon makers about stuff they did wrong in rushes (lots, by DOS reckoning). Para boss Buddy DeSylva finally told Dave to buzz off or take his girl back, which finally shut the kibitzing up. Selznick truly had juice in that town, getting prominent titles credit for whatever talent he lent. "Miss Fontaine's service by arrangement with David Selznick" is high on Frenchman's masthead, while also-borrowed Basil Rathbone (from Metro) and Nigel Bruce (Universal) get no such designation. The credit require must have been written into every loan contract Selznick signed.

I wish Frenchman's Creek looked better on DVD, but there's the rub re shows most don't know from Adam's tomcat. Well, it's taken me fifty years to see it, so I'll not judge. 16mm prints were nowhere, let alone with decent color (they'd be pink where present on dealer lists). Fact is, Frenchman's Creek should bask in glory of Blu-Ray, or at least HD stream, for it's second to none of 40's Technicolor, a most dazzling of showcases for all-the-more perfected hues we had by wartime. Critics and public welcomed this return to puffed sleeve romance in a midst of world-spread fighting, Frenchman's Creek purest escapism in most needed sense. Paramount knew they had a honey and spent freely, maybe too much so, extravagance here being grim preview of tab movies would run when WWII was done and costs took to skies (as Fox would learn to near-ruin with similar Forever Amber in 1947). Variety kept tally through a year's countdown to Frenchman's release (it was completed in fall '43 --- didn't open till 9/44). Trade insiders could chuckle over loss to come from spending $3.6 million ... then new estimate $3.8 ... topped by one columnist who said it had run to shocker four million (studio leaks were rife then as gov't ones are now). This was GWTW territory!

No little sweating went on behind Para doors. There'd been a June '44 preview for execs that shook some, consensus being that Frenchman's Creek "lacks strong marquee voltage in its top names, and (the) situation presents major merchandising problem to company officials," as reported by Variety. Burning question was whether to exhibit Creek as a "special," that is roadshow, or at least for advanced admission, or let it go out as a regular release. To shoot for enhanced coin would antagonize showmen and worse, strong circuits, both having declared war on the roadshow concept, which was their idea of Paramount pocket-picking. The company's argument? They'd need (way) upwards of five million just to begin breaking even, selling of Frenchman's Creek "admittedly a tough task for the sales and theatre department" (Para owned or controlled over a thousand venues where their pics were shown). Word was that Frenchman's Creek was the most expensive feature in Paramount's history, and the company didn't deny it. What they needed now was an opening as historical as dollars spent.

Roadshow was out --- too much heat from exhibs. They were still aflame over For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Song Of Bernadette, which some had refused to play until terms came down. Trouble with roadshow was upped tickets which management had to explain to regular customers with expectation of regular pricing, ill will ignited when cashiers demanded more. "A virtual ban on roadshowing" was threatened by theatres, but here came two for '44-45 that would aim for bleachers --- Since You Went Away and Wilson, their respective producers Selznick and Zanuck convinced that "prestige of the pictures will be enhanced by upped prices." Whatever Frenchman's Creek had, it wasn't prestige. This was a bodice ripper pure and simple, with pirates and stolen kisses in lieu of critic lure. The trick would be to drumbeat those elements via "pre-release" dates that would show best how to move Frenchman's Creek through a wider market.

Broadway's Rivoli Dresses Up For Frenchman's Creek
A premiere was set, delayed, then had at Broadway's Rivoli (9/19), a 2000+ seat leviathan relieved of another Para biggie, The Story Of Dr. Wassell, that stayed a whopping twelve weeks, not unusual in a war-boom era of extended runs. Much was spent on the Rivoli's front, plus tie-ins up/down Broadway. Top seating, after 5 PM, was $1.50. Paramount's intent was to play for months toward December at the Rivoli, plus "a few selected test runs in various parts of the country to determine sales policy," which was figured to be demand of 50% from theatres booking Frenchman's Creek. Those were steep terms, but preferable to roadshow or upped tickets, and besides, Frenchman's Creek was shaping up a hit, as indicated by lines formed outside the Rivoli and a $9,000 opener day for that venue, followed by two weeks that set all-time house records. Paramount had a souvenir book, sold for a quarter to Rivoli patrons; this was having roadshow cake and eating it too, even if Frenchman's Creek wasn't played on those terms. The "test dates" to follow were in usual keys --- Boston, Detroit, Kansas City, five others --- and there was nationwide magazine coverage with color stills taken of the cast, and action from the film. People would be reading about Frenchman's Creek for months before they could see it, but this was normal strategy for shows big enough to linger in memory as eventual "must-sees."

It was frankly a woman's picture, which in 1944, with most men gone to fight, was a good thing. This was a time for lines, endless ones, to see Greer Garson, Bette Davis ... and Joan Fontaine, who'd shown what profit could derive from distaff travails of Jane Eyre, Suspicion, The Constant Nymph, an unbroke line of success. So what if her leading man was virtual unknown (in the US) Arturo DeCordova? (more of him in Part Two) What mattered was the fair sex taking an interest and projecting themselves upon Fontaine's latest leap to romantic heights. There was a "huge" and historical national tie-up with the Dorothy Gray cosmetics firm, "a natural for the women trade," said Showman's Trade Review. This would canvas department stores and drug chains throughout the country (imagine Dana Andrews' Fred Derry peddling Dorothy Gray cosmetics in his reduced Best Years Of Our Lives drug-clerking circumstances). A lipstick-rouge combination, "Frenchman's Red," was introduced at fashion shows to which local membership of "Social Registers" was invited, and lavish costumes from Frenchman's Creek were shown in stores which offered 40's approximation of 17th century style. The promotion would be "carried through during the entire life of the picture, wherever it is shown, starting with the metropolitan centers and filtering through to the smallest communities." Frenchman's Creek and its spun-off products could thus maintain a high public profile for at least a year.

Part Two of Frenchman's Creek is HERE.


Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

I'll bet after wearing that wig, Rathbone needed a neck brace.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Dawn said...

I have a copy that is a bit wishy washy. I am in the UK how can I get to see this in higher def with nearer to original colour? Thanks for the fantastic blog by the way.

3:28 AM  

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