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Monday, December 22, 2014

Nice Show, But A Tough Sell


V.Johnson and P.Douglas Switch ID's For When In Rome (1952)

Another little Metro that couldn't (break even). Seems that by early 50's, none of theirs in black-and-white, sans vehicles for top names like Gable, Taylor, or Tracy, came back with profit. Didn't matter how good pics were: without color or marquee lure, they were snake-bit. When In Rome should have been a breakout, stoked as it was with humor and heart. Director Clarence Brown had lately done one similar, Angels In The Outfield, a cockles warmer that deserved applause, which it got ... along with red ink. Execs used to say that surest cure for H'wood blues was good pictures, but here they were and not selling. The bogeyman was television, and whatever recreation a public enjoyed other than theatres. It took king-sized worldwide hits like Quo Vadis and Scaramouche to truly fill nets. MGM released thirty-eight features in 1952, but they couldn't all be Quo Vadis. Continuing overhead and need for product to fill distribution channels made small projects essential to studio health, but when even these ran past one million in negative cost, where was chance to balance ledgers?


Director Brown took cameras and principal cast abroad for six weeks locationing in the Eternal City, economic sense lying in fact that impounded lire would otherwise sit idle. "Cold coin" was better spent making movies in countries refusing to allow cash earned within borders to be taken out. Italy wanted Yank dollars spent on native soil. When In Rome would employ locals for crew work and incidental casting, these a boon to troubled economy. Twenty-eight features had been shot by US companies overseas in 1950, and six more were in progress during a first half of 1951, including MGM's team which arrived in June. Others relied on second units to capture backgrounds for process insertion to shows filmed back home, but When In Rome put stars Van Johnson and Paul Douglas on streets and in historic buildings where action took place. Clarence Brown made accomplished use of settings just as he had for a winning hand of Metros made, at least in part, on US locations: Angels In The Outfield, To Please A Lady, Intruder In The Dust, The Yearling.


Metro merchandising knew When In Rome would be a hard sell, their "Promotion Prize" for exhibitors being tip-off to that. If you couldn't figure in-house how to sell problematic pics, then let showmen in the field take a whirl and use ideas they develop, cost being a drop-in-bucket thousand dollars to be split among winners ($500 as first prize, which went to Jack Sidney, manager of Loew's Century in Baltimore). The scheme was used also for Invitation and Just This Once, two others that defied marketers. These were tough nuts New York cursed Dore Schary for making on the coast. How do you let customers know what this product is? Ads ran a gamut at trying, Rome's first act laid out as hopeful lure for patronage to pay ways in and see the rest. "The Story Idea Of The Year!" and "You'll Have A Wonderful Time!" read like admissions of defeat. Variety caught a preview and said frankly that "chances for more than spotty boxoffice are doubtful." The reason? "Lack of star potency and a story not strong enough on its own to carry the film." Standards were exacting then, trades knowing a jaded public would need better reason to leave home for movie shows they could as easily pass up. Final blow-off was a $900K loss from tepid domestic rentals of $503K and foreign $202K. For $1.3 million Metro (over)spent on the negative, this worthy show never had a chance.

2 Comments:

Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Very nice movie... it used to play in the early days of the Latin American TCM in its original language with subtitles... later in a dubbed version. I'm sure it was tough to sell... I have never seen it on VHS or any kind of home video format.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Daniel Kinske said...

Interesting to see Wiley Padan artwork aside from his ubiquitous MGM campaign book "It's True" cartoons ranging in movies from "The Wizard of Oz" to so many in the 30s and 40s.

5:30 PM  

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