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Monday, November 24, 2014

Fox Wants a Pre-Sold Western


Free-Lancing Gable Does The Tall Men (1955) For 20th

Clark Gable gone to 20th Fox from years at Metro, with new employers doing him a better turn in terms of pay (% participation), plus lavish showcasing. Darryl Zanuck had bought the source novel with reservations, calling it "a very third-rate book from the standpoint of publication and sales." Still, there was epic potential, DFZ aware that The Tall Men would be "a colossal undertaking ... it cannot be touched for less than $3,5000,000 and be done the way it should be done, particularly with an all-star cast." The studio chief had been considering a remake of The Iron Horse, an outstanding Fox success from the silent era, and wondered, "Would it be possible to combine these two properties and utilize the famous classic title, The Iron Horse?" Weakness inherent in The Tall Men's novel source might be tempered by the older film's residual prestige: "As you can see, I am trying in some way to tie this story up with a pre-sold title or something that will give it distinction."


What The Tall Men finally morphed to was variant on Red River, Gable a less cantankerous trail boss than John Wayne in the earlier Hawks western. There was, in fact, another Hawks behind cameras, Howard's brother William serving as co-producer (he had brought the property to Zanuck's attention), while direction was ideally vested in Raoul Walsh, duplicating some of effects achieved in years earlier The Big Trail, to wit Indian raids and wagons being lowered down cliff faces. Zanuck might have tendered a Big Trail remake if not for historic loss posted by that 1930 western, which he (and Fox bookkeepers) would have regarded as anything but a "famous classic" or "pre-sold" title. Critics expressed relief at Gable back in parts worthy of him, Metro having served weak tea in final years of the King's contract (other than notable exception Mogambo). His persona had long since achieved mythic status. Script conference notes from 7/29/54 refer to the Jane Russell character, "Nella," preferring "Ben" (CG), "because he is a man like Clark Gable."


The Tall Men needs watching on widest screens, Blu-ray preferable (from Region 2 in that format), as the story clunks a bit now and then. Do we really care if Gable and Jane Russell settle their romantic differences in the face of larger, landscape-wide issues? Thousands of cow heads in evidence, the largest herd ever rounded up for a film, it was said, and Fox dropped $3.1 million on the negative, a figure somewhat lower than Zanuck had forecast. Ad art played games with Jane Russell's embedded image, "They Don't Come Any Bigger!" a tagline set below her in full-length pose. Of course they were referring to The Tall Men, in case anyone asked ... or objected. If the picture had come out better, Fox might have tried roadshowing The Tall Men. As it was, there came $6.5 million from worldwide rentals, that not enough to put the show in profit (part of reason was large chunk due Gable), but later sale to NBC for two network runs, 10/19/63 and 9/26/64, plus syndication booty, turned red ink to black. The Region Two Blu-Ray is outstanding, and highly recommended.

2 Comments:

Blogger Reg Hartt said...

THE TALL MEN is based on Will Henry (Heck) Allen's novel under the name Clay Fisher. Allen wrote for Tex Avery at MGM. We became friends. I read nearly all of his books. Great stuff. Learned a lot from them.

5:04 PM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

It's also on ENCORE's WEstern channel this week.

Haven't seen it in a while but remember enjoying it at the RKO when I was a kid.

4:33 PM  

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