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Monday, February 08, 2016

Symptomatic Of A Sinking Fox?


Shallow Biz For Deep Waters (1948)

This was director Henry King's next for 20th after Captain From Castile. He'd again go on location, this time to Maine, where waterfronts and fisher boats supplied authentic flavor, a sort of New England equivalent to streetwise semi-docs being done around a same time by Louis DeRochemont (who was originally tabbed to produce Deep Waters). King had filmed in Maine before, for 1922's The Seventh Day, so knew something of terrain. Fox promoted him as "The Father Of Locations" and put out much press about how King routinely scouted for best sites in his private plane before work began. Interest in Deep Waters derives from these natural settings. Otherwise, it was a loss both critically and financially. I watched a Fox On-Demand disc (an old transfer, per usual for them, but livable), mostly as follow-up to Captain From Castile, which in addition to King shared cast membership of Jean Peters and Caesar Romero. Otherwise, the two ventures could not differ more.


20th Fox was towed in a same hole by 1948 as the rest of a fraught industry. Even pictures made economically were bleeding red. Tightened measures had become policy after cost overruns made losers of otherwise big grossing Forever Amber and Captain From Castile. Zanuck was getting alarmist notes from Spyros Skouras with each mailbag. Skouras predicted collapse for the company unless Zanuck turned grim tide, which he darkly implied might put everyone out of work. A decision had been made to increase volume as well as reduce expense, so as "to keep studio overhead and distribution overhead in line with total picture costs and in line with worldwide film rentals." 20th would release twenty-one features in 1948, up from eighteen in 1947. There would be twenty-four in 1949. Average cost of a 1948 film was $1.870 million, according to Skouras. Deep Waters came in at $1.4 million, pretty thrifty for having been largely shot across the country.


Fox wasn't alone in its panic. Warners and Metro would do a same about-face, more releases for less money. WB reinstated a "B" program, and MGM hired Dore Schary to exert discipline he had learned at RKO. Zanuck would send memos to all staff warning them of dire consequence from waste. The movies would get cheaper, and look it. Compare any wartime-through-1947 Fox feature with those between 1948 and Cinemascope. A DFZ concern was "audiences ... outguessing the producers. They know all the answers. In most cases, they are way ahead of us, and thus most pictures seem formula and routine" (see p. 170-71 in Rudy Behlmer's Memo From Darryl F. Zanuck). Had the public simply grown tired of movies? Falling receipts suggested they had, and "volume" output from hidebound majors wasn't going to bring them back.


Close look at Deep Waters finds little to sell either then or now. It's clear New York had faint confidence in it, for look at misleading ads that totally misrepresent story and situations. Deep Waters is primarily about a wayward boy (Dean Stockwell) who wants to be a lobsterman. His would-be mentor (Dana Andrews) is opposed by social worker Jean Peters because she's afraid both will drown in pursuit of fish. That's about all Deep Waters amounts to. Bosley Crowther for the NY Times called it "basically silly" and deplored "stock Hollywood characters and the things which they do ... as standard as the parts for a sewing machine." Ads implied hot love between Andrews and Peters, a cheat soon enough revealed to viewers suckered in. Receipts were among lowest for Fox that year, $1.1 million in domestic rentals, a miserable $338K foreign, the latter expected thanks to Maine backdrop not likely to engage non-US patronage. Zanuck had warned that foreign grosses were essential to achieve break-even on any Fox release. A flop over there meant loss over here. Was it a mistake to even make Deep Waters? Zanuck, and certainly Skouras, probably thought so in hindsight.


The Crowther pan revealed a wider discontent. Critics had long since mocked Hollywood for its adherence to routine. By the late 40's, audiences were joining the chorus. Filmland's entrenched way of doing things made change difficult, and for many, impossible. In meantime, a postwar public sought sports, family barbecue pits, other suburb relaxation. Television would merely put cap on the bottle that was once record theatre attendance. Wiser heads foresaw draught even as the boom promised forever wealth. Now came draught, and ordinary entertainment like Deep Waters would no longer do. Outstanding Fox product for any late 40's year was counted by single digits, a situation to worsen into the 50's. Against such background, Deep Waters, like others as obscure, assumes a fascination, at least for me. It is well-named for reflecting deep water that Fox was struggling to stay afloat in.

3 Comments:

Blogger Mike Cline said...

I wonder if movie attendance would have declined sooner than it did, if it hadn't been for the WWII newsreels, which were just as much responsible for ticket sales during "The Big One" as the main feature on the program.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

We look back at a delightful late '40s Fox movie such as MR. BLANDINGS--woops, that was RKO! At least Fox had MIRACLE 34th and GHOST MUIR, but we rather forget all the surrounding dross.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Fox was anxious enough about the postwar slump to rehire its B-picture chief Sol Wurtzel, who had retired in 1944. Wurtzel's Bs had generally made money (Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chan, Jane Withers, etc.) but by 1947 even Wurtzel's stuff was slumping. He had signed on as an independent producer releasing through Fox, and his new features had inexpensive featured players instead of established stars and personalities, with very little boxoffice allure (JEWELS OF BRANDENBURG or ARTHUR TAKES OVER, anyone?).

6:08 AM  

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