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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Long Runs and Word-Of-Mouth = A 1950 Hit


The Third Man Makes Beautiful (Zither) Music --- Part Two

Canada Playdates Are Many and Fruitful
There was a very public dust-up between Selznick and producing partner Alex Korda prior to Third Man release. Seems Alex now had second thoughts about US share he relinquished in earlier talks, and so sued to get in on grosses earned stateside. He'd even use The Third Man prints and negative as leverage, denying Selznick these as opener dates loomed. This annoyed DOS the more as he knew Korda for a slick operator and saw himself as badly used by the Brit mogul. Between court decision on some issues and settlement of others, the matter got resolved with The Third Man at last set in stone for 2/1/50 preem at the Victoria Theatre on Broadway. That date had been juggled over a past several months, in part due to the Korda flap, but also because Selznick wanted to time The Third Man release with breakout of underlying zither music he and a merchandising team knew would catch fire among Yank listeners. The till-then obscure instrument had already lit up Euro markets, Variety reporting in 11/49 "a rush on music schools in Vienna by Austrians who wanted to learn how to play the zither." Austrian zither manufacturers were meanwhile swamped with orders from abroad, the fad having canvassed much of Europe before Americans had first glimpse of The Third Man.


Selznick wanted his thriller, and its thrilling sounds, to play several weeks at pre-release engagements before turning the zither loose on radio and disc listeners. Rollout of movie, then music, would be coordinated like D-Day of linked selling. First was Victoria's open on 2/1/50, then Feb.8 for Miami and Chicago, followed by Feb.21 at Los Angeles' Fine Arts Theatre. Through the month of February, audiences would hear those wild, and some said very sexy, zither themes in theatres only. By March 1 and first "public performances" (airwaves, records, night clubs), the zither would be all a rage and send both first-time and repeat business to The Third Man. So how did timing work? Like a charm, said trades. New York and Chicago did a "spurt," said Variety, with ticket sales steeple-jumping after month-long play, a seldom known event as pics usually tailed off after initial weeks. The zither was shaping up as engine that would drive The Third Man into spring months and wider release, 400 to 600 dates skedded for April 9 and after. "The Third Man Theme, the principal tune, will be hitting its peak of popularity in April," said Variety, "just at the time the film is going into general release." By then, there would be seventeen different recordings of the theme music in stores and over the air.


Later 50's Thrillers Trade on Third Man Rep
But recording companies were balking. They'd grown impatient over Selznick dithering on a release date for The Third Man. "Film Tunes Not Worth the Coin Or Grief," said "diskers" to Variety, constant delays and schedule-shifting "an abuse of their facilities." Besides chaotic calendars, "the recent ratio of film-born hits is low and doesn't near compensate for the trouble they cause in many cases." 20th Fox had lately done a reverse on plans and demanded record distribs to get out discs for Wabash Avenue post haste, another instance where aggrieved music merchants felt juice wasn't worth (tight) squeeze. The Third Man Theme was something else, however, a for-real knockout that would take off in even greater earnest when original zither man Anton Karas made US landfall and got cafe, television, and radio dates courtesy hard-driving MCA agents in charge of his time. Karas, who'd been earning $15 per week at an Austrian bistro before director Carol Reed discovered him, became as inseparable from The Third Man and its zither as Chubby Checker would later be with the Twist. He'd spend rest of a long life dining out, and entertaining diners, with music, and an instrument, he'd immortalize.

The Third Man Becomes Available to TV Viewers in 1957

20th Fox Announces a 1956 Reissue
There were further flaps arising out of The Third Man. Largely laughed off were Communist complaints that Vienna had been defamed by onscreen depiction as "a hell of crime and corruption." Calling The Third Man "a dramatically weak gangster film ... without ethics or morals," the Red press merely goosed already lengthy lines in Vienna, patrons eager to see what fuss was about. More serious, and damaging to receipts, was Orson Welles' outburst to a French interviewer wherein he told of a German nightclub in which "the orchestra played Nazi songs and the audience stood up to give the Nazi salute." Welles claimed that he "knocked out the tooth of a German who slapped a woman when she protested the music" (Variety). Thus began the expected firestorm, and boycott of films in which Welles appeared: Prince Of Foxes, Macbeth, and of course, The Third Man. There were demonstrations that "mushroomed" in theatres, as public pressure saw cancellation of Welles pix. One German exhibitor's association went on record as being "against Orson Welles," and 20th Fox's Deutsch rep had to release a statement assuring that his company had "no contract" with the actor/director. The Third Man had played off most of its German dates by then (11/15), but residual effect was felt: at a Dusseldorf night spot, patrons tossed liquor glasses and food at the bandleader when the Third Man Theme was played.

Orson Welles Got a Lucrative Airwave Gig From Harry Lime

Trade reviews for The Third Man gave praise rare to imports: "This is probably the most internationally accepted picture ever made in Britain," said Showman's Trade Review, while Film Bulletin singled out director Carol Reed for extravagant kudos, The Third Man called "another Reed masterpiece" after examples of The Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out. Here was where Reed would be recognized as a next Hitchcock out of England, The Third Man being the best suspense package from there since AH left. New York's Victoria engagement ran nearly six months, Chicago's Selwyn keeping The Third Man ten weeks. L.A.'s Fine Arts sold the film on hard ticket at two-a-day, $1.80 tops. Variety estimated David Selznick's US distribution take at one million. He would lease The Third Man to 20th Fox for a 1956 reissue, but a weak $82K in domestic rentals (foreign $13K) wouldn't cover new prints and advertising, result a $52K loss. Better returns came from sale to television the following year, The Third Man going out with other Selznick properties among NTA's "Champagne" group, an impressive lot that also included High Noon, a major post-48 "get" for TV. Later there'd be an NTA- developed vid series based on the Harry Lime character, with Michael Rennie as star. The Third Man is available from Criterion and other labels (Region Two) on Blu-Ray, the Criterion disc including a feature-length documentary on the film.

2 Comments:

Blogger Mike Cline said...

Great write-up on THE THIRD MAN. I'm sure I'm in the minority, but I have never cared for it.

11:03 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I saw both versions of the film, preferring the longer one. I only noticed the difference between them in the opening and in the scene after they go to see children in the hospital suffering due to lack of penicillin, which was cut by Selznick. I bought a VHS and I was surprised that it was not what they always played on television.

12:04 PM  

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