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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Runt Of Hitchcock Litter Arrives Late To TV

Under Capricorn (1949) Is Hand-Me-Down For Home Viewers

A book was out in summer 1967 that laid down whole of the coming TV season, including most of movies that would play network, with thumbnail reviews by NYT's Howard Thompson (once chairman of the New York Film Critics --- does anyone read his archive today?). Slightly oversized and soft bound, TV 68 was priced high for the time ($1.25), but a joy for heads-up of what we'd watch in a coming year. Sure beat pants off TV Guide's annual Fall Preview, which was sketchier re upcoming net features, with only a handful of titles to tease readership. 1967-68 was a banner year for primetime movies, and peak of exposure for Alfred Hitchcock on all three networks. His vid series was gone, other than syndication, but here was feast of favorites he'd done for theatres, most appearing for a first time on TV. Ratings record setter for the movie season was The Birds, a blockbuster 38.9 rating with a 58.8% audience share for its 1/6/68 Saturday night premiere, stats that beat higher-touted Bridge On The River Kwai on ABC in 9/66. There'd be four Hitchcocks for 1967-68 in addition to The Birds, surprise one being Under Capricorn, made way back in 1949, that decade's output generally shunned by primetime that stuck to later product. I marveled that such an oldie would land on prime real estate that was CBS Friday night (12/7/67), my curiosity whetted to see this seeming rarest of the Master's work.

Under Capricorn had not been syndicated to locals ("Never Shown On TV" said announcement of its sale to CBS), so was fresh produce. Ownership had gone round blocks, first with Transatlantic, which was Hitchcock and partner Sidney Bernstein's company, then to Daniel O'Shea, a Selznick associate well versed in distribution. Warner Bros. had distributed Under Capricorn in 1949 to loss of $500K, and had no residual interest in the negative. O'Shea set up a company, Balboa Distributors, to reissue Capricorn in 1963, but theatre attendance was spotty, the L.A. date and others a letdown according to Variety. A new trailer tried jazzing up the "meller" via emphasis on a shrunken head Ingrid Bergman confronts in her boudoir, patrons realizing to their loss that this was the only scare in an otherwise talkative and untypical for AH show. Still, it was in color and few had seen Under Capricorn over a past decade, so Bill Paley ("himself," said Variety) sat down with O'Shea to make a $600K deal for CBS runs of both Under Capricorn and Joan Of Arc, latter also with Ingrid Bergman and controlled by O'Shea, now doing business as Showcorporation.

Wild and Woolly Art To Promote Capricorn's 1963 Reissue

There was grim competition among network movie programmers for this summit season of ratings war. Overtake of ABC's Bridge On The River Kwai by The Birds at NBC spurred pricing for both feature packages and ad rates --- would supply keep pace with demand? There were but so many blockbusters in any studio kitbag, so net shoppers for '67-'68 had to be creative and find films others had overlooked. That led them to vaulties that for one reason or other had not been on television before. "As the well runs dry on feature pix, the networks have become increasingly susceptible to vintage product --- provided, of course, there's story and marquee values," reported Variety (3/29/67). The Paley pact with Showcorporation resulted in two runs for Under Capricorn, 12/7/67 and 5/24/68. Of  five Hitchcocks network-shown that season, it would rank next to last ratings-wise, with an 18.4 rating and a 30.8 audience share. The Trouble With Harry for ABC would do worse (17.0/30.4), while The Birds, North By Northwest, and Marnie landed among top lures for the feature-driven TV season. Notable was Under Capricorn's 5/24/68 second run during a non-ratings week, these typically a ghetto for little regarded titles.

Prospects Look Drab at TFE '68, Where Under Capricorn
Will Be First Offered To Syndication

Still, it did score network play, and Showcorporation could run with this ball to selling meets for syndication. Under Capricorn would be among "proven pictures" offered at the annual TFE convention (Television Film Exhibit) held 4/68, Showcorporation peddling pix with soothe of free drinks in their hospitality suite at Chicago's Hilton. There's good reason why we seldom saw Under Capricorn after those CBS runs, that being weakness of other titles in the Showcorporation package (Man On The Spying Trapeze, with Wayde Preston, 30 Winchester For El Dorado starring Carl Mohner, others of Euro/Brit origin). Under Capricorn and Joan Of Arc were alone in the group for having had a network run. Showcorporation would within a few years unload Capricorn and Joan to Gold Key Entertainment, latter distributing the pair until 1/81, when King World took reins and put them in a five-feature "Epics" group with Constantine and The Cross, David and Goliath, and Uncle Was A Vampire (!). Is it a wonder that Under Capricorn became so obscure, if not inaccessible? (at least on television) Of 16mm rental houses, Audio Brandon had it for $60, and at least some of prints were IB Technicolor, my having come across one at a collecting con in the mid-80's.

When did TCM last show Under Capricorn? Folks who saw it there said the print was a wash-out. I saw the DVD released by Image in 2003, being one of several Amazon lists, a number of them imports. Quality could be lots better, but the thing is watchable. A Blu-Ray would dazzle, considering Technicolor and the fact Capricorn was photographed by the great Jack Cardiff. I understand the BFI did a restoration, their print shown at UCLA. There are smart scholar/critics who call Under Capricorn one of Hitchcock's greatest films (Dave Kehr put it among a top half-dozen). Long takes AH used for Rope are not Capricorn-confined to a single set, going in/out of doors, up stairs, through room after room, a real tour de force the director intended as just that. Plenty of behind-scenes lore is told by not only Hitchcock bios, but Cardiff, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotten in books they wrote. Under Capricorn disappoints a majority for not being the thriller they expect from Hitchcock, but it's yards better than costume melodramas done elsewhere during the 40's, and should join lion's share of the Master's output now available on Blu-Ray.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Long ago, over consecutive weekends, I watched thee "forgotten" Hitchcock movies: Under Capricorn, I Confess, and Stage Fright. All of them were disappointments. I rewatched I Confess about a year ago, and my opinion hadn't changed. I have a feeling it wouldn't change, either, about Under Capricorn, despite Dave Kehr's rave, but perhaps I'll give it another shot one rainy evening.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

Another Bergman vehicle, "Saratoga Trunk,'' made its TV bow on NBC in 1968. The only other pre-'48 Warner to get a network premiere was "Life With Father'' on CBS in 1970. Unless you count "Mission to Moscow,'' which had no TV exposure until it bowed on PBS in the late 1970s.

4:20 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Lou --- I well remember the night "Saratoga Trunk" came on --- quite an event. It's still a WB favorite of mine. Peaches and brandy!

6:16 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

I feel so old now hearing that Saratoga Trunk's network premiere was in 1968. I well remember it, as well, since I was a huge fan of Gary Cooper and very much looked forward to seeing Coop in this one for the first time.

Didn't know, of course, that he was going to largely take such a backseat in screen time to that French talkin' schemer played by Bergman.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

I can sit through almost anything. I sat through "Hollywood Review of 1929" and "The Show of Shows" without touching the fast forward button. But I cannot make it through "Under Capricorn". It puts me right to sleep every single time. Those long takes bring everything to a screeching halt, instead of propelling it forward. Maybe a SPECTACULAR Technicolor restoration could save it...but I'm skeptical.

12:36 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer finds lots to like in "Under Capricorn":

When I first saw "Under Capricorn" many years ago, it was as a Hitchcock completest. Having already seen "Rope," I was curious as to what variations on the continuous take he employed, but came away only with an appreciation that it had compounded the problems of the film. If I'd hoped that it would prove better than its reputation, however, I was not terribly disappointed, as I had not come to it with any great expectations.

In seeing it again more recently in its showings on TCM, I've found myself increasingly drawn into the story and the characters in its central triangle. I've been rather touched by Ingrid Bergman's broken vulnerability, Michael Wilding's debonair gallantry in restoring her to beauty, and the burning coal of Joseph Cotten's love, waiting to burst violently into flame. The very technique, which I'd earlier dismissed as clever but dramatically misguided, now seems to be the source of my interest, guiding me into their hearts with a sureness surprising for a director better known for his mastery of montage.

Hitchcock had said that the proof of whether any of his films was good was its ability to withstand two of three viewings. On that basis, "Under Capricorn" is certainly a good film, and possibly rather better than that.

7:20 AM  

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