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Thursday, February 28, 2019

Distributor Wanted --- Inquire To Harold Lloyd


This Freshman Graduated Too Long Ago --- Part Two


September 1950 saw Lloyd still immersed in The Freshman as a reissue prospect. The Motion Picture Sales Corporation, having distributed Movie Crazy, would pass on further of his inventory, receipts from their single try not meeting expectation. A “sneak preview” (Variety) for The Freshman was hosted by the California Theatre in Huntington Park, an electric organ “hauled in” to furnish mood. Lloyd announced that he would add a musical score and narration prior to national release. Only problem: no distributors seemed willing to take it on, a release date “still undetermined” according to trades. Mad Wednesday, as finally sent out by Hughes/RKO, gave glimpse of The Freshman thanks to lengthy footage from the 1925 feature that comprised Wednesday’s opening reel. This belated re-edit of The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock took $550K in domestic rentals and $450K foreign, partial recovery of loss sustained by Lloyd’s comeback. There was even talk as of April 1951 that he would return in a comedy using “frozen coin overseas” by “an undisclosed US producer,” but nothing came of the venture. Lloyd again spoke of the score he’d add to The Freshman and plans to revive it for Fall 1951, again in tandem with the start of football season. Also tested for possible revival was early talker Welcome Danger, latter getting no farther than here-there screenings to gauge audience interest.




Harold Lloyd Guests on What's My Line (4/26/53)


Lloyd still had The Freshman on his mind in June 1952 when he promised its return to Variety (“no distribution deals as yet have been made”). There would also be a “documentary,” The Laugh Parade, which would include “15 scenes from Lloyd’s own pictures.” HL was often as not headed to, or coming from, Shriner events when such bulletins were issued. Lloyd made good copy whatever his sketchy plans, insiders ever-intrigued by the always engaged-and-enthused comic. There was follow-through on The Freshman by December 1952, its new score done, and a booking set for Gotham’s Paris Theatre, the run to follow Hans Christian Andersen. Boxoffice announced on 12/20/52 that Lippert would distribute The Freshman, referred to as Lloyd’s “second try at crashing the modern market” (when quizzed about previous Movie Crazy, HL said it was “handled the wrong way”). He was bullish for The Laugh Parade as announced earlier that year, “still in rough form,” but “previewed successfully on several occasions.” Motion Picture Daily reported Grandma’s Boy and Safety Last “under consideration” should The Freshman click. April 28, 1953 saw Hans Christian Andersen finally give way, after 22 weeks, to The Freshman, Lloyd making publicity rounds to pump attendance. His special Oscar, awarded on 3/19/53, went on display at the Paris, and a guest spot on What’s My Line was slated for 4/26/53, latter an opportunity for Harold to discuss The Freshman with the show’s host and panel, calling attention to the fact his revival would unspool at the Paris Theatre.




Initial response was rosy. The Paris, with 568 seats, took a “lively” $6,000 for its opener week, “unusually fine for an oldie, indicating that Harold Lloyd has developed an entirely new audience,” said Variety. Came slippage, however, for a second, and six-day, week, The Freshman having “dipped to (a) mild $3,500.” Nothing more was heard, or at least reported, by trades, let alone mention of further bookings. Lloyd, it seemed, was done with reissue attempts, at least for the present. Next reference to The Freshman (9/23/58) came when Lloyd cautioned Brit producer J. Arthur Rank not to use the title, of which he “claimed ownership.” Rank backed off, his feature going out instead as Bachelor of Hearts. Lloyd’s objection arose from his own plan to remake The Freshman, said Variety. The following year (1959) saw renewed effort to revive The Freshman, Lloyd again talking of a new score (this time by Walter Scharf), plus narration “to make it more amenable to modern conventions.” Lloyd noted several Chaplin features back in circulation (The Gold Rush, Modern Times), and felt the time may be ripe to put his own top earner in competition, a projected open, as before, in tandem with football season (“If he does not feel it is ready by that time, however, he will hold it off,” added Variety). The usual test screenings were arranged, with by now familiar caveat “No distribution deal to be discussed until after renovating is completed.” A European release to precede US dates was considered, “One reason for this is the generally greater acceptance by European audiences of film figures, such as Lloyd, considered timeless in their film work.” (Variety, 8/27/59)




Further time passed. July 1960 saw Lloyd at the Berlin Film Festival where he “got an ovation” after screening The Freshman. “Consensus was that, although made 35 years back, it had more entertainment value than many of the in-competition entries.” With joy unbound as this at every run he attended, how come Lloyd sank at mainstream venues? “Response was so favorable that Lloyd may put it (The Freshman) into release in the near future,” said Variety, but this was tired refrain to trade observers. Needed cheer came with completion of Harold Lloyd’s World Of Comedy, an HL response to success of Robert Youngson excavations of silent laughter. World Of Comedy was polished work, had bright accompany by Walter Scharf, and stood insiders on their ear at a Director’s Guild fete for Lloyd augmented by “hefty press turnout … HL beaming as the house rocked with laffs.” Again he promised The Freshman to follow, and maybe The Kid Brother now that his library was “finding two new film generations worldwide.” In fact, Harold Lloyd’s World Of Comedy got wider play than any revival the star had yet tried, the Youngson audience figuring this guy might be as funny as Laurel-Hardy, the Keystone Kops, and others of distant past.




Columbia One-Sheet For Overseas Release
The Freshman finally made its way into a second compilation called Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life, trade-mentioned first in Army Archerd’s 6/4/63 column for Variety. Lloyd had sneaked the show to what he called “my lost audience --- the teenagers,” and was encouraged by their response. Funny Side Of Life had an on-camera intro by Lloyd done several years before for an archive run, bulk of footage devoted to The Freshman, which was intact but for twelve or so minutes HL shaved. Initial reels were short highlights from Speedy, Girl Shy, others, before Funny Side balance was given over to The Freshman. Lloyd told Archerd that Columbia would distribute the feature in Europe, “mebbe here too,” the columnist back two years later (5/19/65) with an update, over which time Funny Side of Life did not get a US release. Lloyd was “currently searching (for) a distributor … who understands the audience of young adults.” He still wanted to get The Freshman in front of patrons for the coming football season, but it wasn’t to be. The deal Lloyd finally made was with Janus Films in October 1966. They would spot Funny Side of Life at the Chicago Film Festival on November 5, then follow at whatever university theatres might place the film. An “American Premiere” was set for the Bexley and World art houses, these being sister sites located near Ohio State University in Columbus. Harold Lloyd made the Chicago date and was toasted at a reception following the show. Janus arranged for 1920’s style ads with “pop art cartoon illustrations” to make Funny Side of Life relevant for college-age viewership.


A Remarkably Crude Ad For The Ohio Premiere of Harold Lloyd's Funny Side Of Life 


Lloyd Introduces The Funny Side Of Life
General release dates were announced, but I found no evidence of Funny Side getting playdates beyond what Janus arranged. Columbia did one-sheets, but do not appear to have circulated Funny Side among US theatres, their distribution limited to Euro sites as indicated by the Archerd column. Harold Lloyd’s World Of Comedy had been a qualified success in 1962, but Funny Side of Life came, then departed, with the Janus deal. Beyond their handling of the film, it would not appear that Funny Side was available for the remainder of Lloyd’s lifetime. He would not again float possibility of The Freshman as a reissue. The feature went through several iterations after his death, including TV via Time/Life, sale on 8mm through Blackhawk Films in the late 70’s, then as a video cassette once technology made these viable. In no instance was The Freshman offered complete. DVD and finally Blu-Ray got that done, UCLA’s recent clean-up a best the film has so far looked. Perhaps what we needed all along was for restoration techniques to catch up with timing and polish Harold Lloyd applied to this jewel among his comedic output. Criterion’s release, loaded with extras and pristine as to quality, is truly a Freshman for the ages.




Monday, February 25, 2019

Where Harold Wanted His Freshman Cap Back


A Struggle To Make Silents Speak Again --- Part One

Harold On Criterion's Blu-Ray Cover Tries To Drag 40/50's Showmen Across The Goal Line
Evidence suggests that Harold Lloyd considered The Freshman to be his most commercial, if not best, film. Certainly it was the one that occurred to him first as a revival, at least from a silent-era backlog. I did not realize how many flyers Lloyd took on The Freshman, and how often plans toward a reissue were frustrated. However popular he’d been at a 20’s peak, Harold Lloyd was spent news by the late 40’s, inactive other than a comeback (The Sin of Harold Diddlebock) withdrawn after poor-received dates and languishing now in RKO storage overseen by Howard Hughes. Could audiences again embrace a Jazz Age go-getter whose name was byword for sight-driven comedy? Lloyd was buoyed by isolated runs for selected groups, college crowds … they’d laugh, stand, applaud. If these represented a public at large, why shouldn’t The Freshman and others of like vintage go out and be hits all over again? Still there was reality of marketing and distribution costs to be factored, neither coming cheap. Old films had to test well to get past onus of being old. Most of would-be partners, certainly among major companies, shied from discussion where silent revivals were floated.


Gone Were Days When There Weren't Enough Seats For Harold Lloyd's Eager Mob


Noted critic James Agee did a LIFE magazine salute to “Comedy’s Greatest Era” in September 1949. Millions read that and wondered what became of the films Agee celebrated. If they were so wonderful as he said, why didn’t anyone show them? Reality-based showmen pointed up difference between appreciation in print, and starker prospect of theatres empty should anyone in 1949 try putting silent movies back on paying basis. One who tried and succeeded was Charlie Chaplin with 1950 bring-back of City Lights, his partial ownership of United Artists greasing wheels of distribution. City Lights was less of a risk because Chaplin had thrived before with a 1942 encore of The Gold Rush. Domestic rentals of $507K for City Lights proved that at least this silent comedy could still earn money, but otherwise did not promise others could do as well. Harold Lloyd had common ground with Chaplin for both owning their back libraries. Unlike Buster Keaton, who did not, a deal to revive Lloyd films could be easy-enough brokered, so long as terms were satisfactory to HL. Certainly he wanted a comeback for the oldies, maybe even for his glasses character to return in new comedies, an idea proposed more than once as trades noted Lloyd progress from the late 40’s, through the 50’s, and even into the mid-60’s.




Distributor Pathe Ran This Trade Ad During Flush Days of the 20's
Trades were generous in keeping up with old-timers and reporting efforts they made toward renewed activity. Most of such came to nothing, deals announced, then evaporated by a hot sun of changed markets. Harold Lloyd didn’t need income, saved wealth from flush times more than enough to keep him in cakes/ale. For Lloyd, the old comedies were assets that should be exploited, provided he could renew public interest in them. Toward that, there was still the Lloyd name, plus ideas of how best to update the Harold brand. 1948 contact with Texas circuit owner Rob O’Donnell led to a scheme “that may set the pattern for future sales of reissues to television,” said Lloyd to Variety (10/20/48), starting with a test run of features, refurbished by scores and sound effects. “Lloyd’s purpose in setting the circuit dates is not so much to clean up on the pix via theatre rentals as to increase their value to telecasters.” Lloyd had received “numerous bids … from agencies for tele-advertisers,” but, said Variety, those deals “would be a lot more attractive to Lloyd … with the exploitation value of theatrical bookings behind them.” In order to facilitate this, “the rental terms he is offering the Texas theatre chain are low.” Lloyd figured on a better TV deal if he could come to them fresh off a successful re-run of his comedies before paying audiences. We may assume the plan came to little, since Lloyd’s backlog remained withheld from TV.




Lloyd would go on testing back-product at theatres and college settings, The Freshman and Movie Crazy run on this basis during early months of 1949 (results “proved encouraging,” said trades). The star “will use a new editing technique in preparing films for reissue” (Variety, 2/28/49). Lloyd had negotiated a deal with Neil Agnew, chief of the new Motion Pictures Sales Corp., for “worldwide distribution rights on seven Harold Lloyd films released prior to 1934.” Shunning idle hours, the comic had an “idea for a film,” this delayed for his assuming duties as Grand Potentate for the Shriners in July 1949. This was anyone’s concept of full-time work, but Lloyd could multi-task, so forward he went with Agnew on Movie Crazy for a summer open, balance of the feature group (six) hinged upon B.O. reception to the first. Lloyd was also conferring with Howard Hughes on fresh release for woebegone The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock as new-christened Mad Wednesday, to be handled by RKO now that Hughes was in charge of that shop. Motion Picture Sales Corp. staff meanwhile faced “difficulty … getting bookings” for Movie Crazy, a job made grimmer because “exhibs are afraid (the) Lloyd name is not strong enough to attract a generation which hardly knows him” (Variety, 6/7/49).




A next-day (6/8/49) Variety review blew kisses at Movie Crazy: “packs an amazing wallop, all things considered,” being verdict amidst wordage like “the yok supreme” to describe fun waiting at Broadway’s Globe Theatre. It was “not a whit outside the realm of reason to predict substantial grosses,” Movie Crazy doing “heavy business” after a late-June start, said columnist George E. Phair, this enabling dates at three Los Angeles sites plus the United Artists Theatre in San Francisco. Hopes were high when a first Globe week saw $17,500 in the till, with $14,000 “sighted” for a second frame, Movie Crazy as result holding for a third. Buzz was figured to spur Howard Hughes and RKO to get Mad Wednesday ready for release. Truest test for any reissue, of course, was how it could perform on a wider canvas. The West Coast engagements would tell that tale. Lloyd meanwhile saw prospects brimming. NBC had offered a quarter million to broadcast his backlog, an offer HL turned down flat (2/23/50), him “sympathetic,” but having “too many exhibitor friends to peddle pictures to television” (a later and notable exception: Movie Crazy was included as part of an RKO Teleradio package offered to syndication in 1955 --- this information supplied to Greenbriar by writer/historian Lou Lumenick). There was a $160,000 offer for remake rights in The Freshman that was kicked up to $200K, also “nixed” by Lloyd. Skies seemed the limit in those opener months of 1950 --- might Harold go beyond revive of oldies and make a brand-new comedy?




“At least two new pix” were slated, one to team Lloyd with his son, Harold Jr. That would be a sequel to Grandma’s Boy, one among inventory he continued to test for possible revivals. A “hush-hush” sneak of The Freshman “convinced me that boys and girls of today are exactly the same as those who laughed at my antics 25 years ago,” said Lloyd, who was pleased that “the kids like me.” Action and movement were “still the best cinema recipe for laughs,” his vaults loaded with that. Movie Crazy had sputtered by May 1950 however, pulling “mild” business and being used as support for new product. The Globe success was not duplicated elsewhere in New York. “In that instance, I don’t think the right kind of exploitation was used,” said Lloyd, “I can’t be treated as a personality who is widely known now.” West Coast dates, on the other hand, were handled “just right,” and the film “did very well.” That was past, and now Lloyd was focused on The Freshman for his next reissue, it continuing to test well, and being after all the biggest success he had during 20’s heyday. A Long Island house was picked for yet further experiment, “where the manager was afraid to play it at first because it is a silent film.” Fortunately, said Lloyd, The Freshman went off “beautifully” with help of a piano hauled in to supply background. Brought-round management offered to continue the show for an entire week, said Lloyd.

Part Two of Harold Lloyd and The Freshman is HERE.




Thursday, February 21, 2019

Allied Artists Puts Modest Foot Forward


Would We Pay To See Twenty Plus Two 1961 Mystery Unfold?

I still don't understand the title, nor much of the picture after watching, though it fascinates at level of a TV mystery blown up to theatre scale. Was it intended, or produced, for the tube, then rerouted by Allied Artists to cinemas? David Janssen was fresh off one series (Richard Diamond), soon bound for another (The Fugitive). His was unique enunciation that made line readings fresh; we could regret he didn't do more in features, or at least live longer so as to have that opportunity. Twenty Plus Two installs Janssen as man (and in this case) woman hunter in one hotel room after another, forever on telephones tracking witnesses and clues, little of this stimulus toward interest for us. There is something approaching an "all-star" cast, most of them in for a day's shoot, with probably an early quit-time. You'd think this was a Burke's Law episode but for Twenty Plus Two predating that series. Longest arm of coincidence is summoned to tie ends together for a finish, the tale lagging from convoluted to unbelievable. Gerald Fried jazzes up a score to put you right at 60's "Bachelor Pad" address --- I wish there were a CD of it. He had composed for Stanley Kubrick's first three as director, and television since. Twenty Plus Two was notably a last venture for Scott R. Dunlap, directing/producing since the teens and signer-off on more westerns than he likely could count. His was executive producer credit here --- was it Dunlap who talked AA into backing and distribution? Directing Joseph M. Newman had been competently at 20th Fox through much of the 50's, and had done legendary This Island Earth as well for U-I. He'd live long enough (age 96) to give enlightening interviews.




Monday, February 18, 2019

Jack Is Back and Starring


Boisterous Barrymore Does The Great Profile (1940)


John Barrymore a-huffin' and puffin' through tired reprise of 20th Century and more recent All My Children, which was stage celebration of his fall from performing heights. Jack being degraded was full-time fun of columnists and column readers who came like moths to flame of his romance with Elaine Barrie and efforts at rehab. The Great Profile was Hollywood's reward for honest hit Jack made of All My Children, a comedy he enhanced by nightly abandon of the script and no two ad-libs alike. Orson Welles saw All My Children as fullest expression of Barrymore genius and attended over/again through the play's run. Profile's "Evans Garrick" is undisguised JB as himself, the private life assumed to be as chaotic as foolery indulged in public. Those who'd lament the downfall were figured to lack humor --- after all, wasn't Jack getting as much if not more fun from ridiculing himself? He was nearing sixty, was dissipated sure, but could rouse himself to greatness right unto finish of two years after The Great Profile. Look, if you can find them, at The Great Man Votes or World Premiere, then listen to some of his radio work, which was extensive and varied.






Problem with The Great Profile was its trying too hard to rib-tickle. 20th Century was clearly the model, but this was 20th Century on steroids, with no Howard Hawks to rein it in. Director Walter Lang would recall Barrymore from 70's distance (for interviewer Jon Tuska) as a "great intellect" and "hard worker" who'd post four men about the set, all with cue cards, as he "couldn't remember lines at all." The director had seen Barrymore as Hamlet, so for the Great Man to beclown himself now "hurt me a little bit." The Great Profile begins at shouting pitch and never calms down. It is less amusing than exhausting. Barrymore makes his entrance crashing through a door, and ramps up from there. I've read that Barrymore got a pile from Zanuck for making this film ($200K, according to JB historian John Kobler), and DFZ was engaged enough to give himself a producer credit. How disappointing then, was the quarter-million loss Fox sustained on The Great Profile?






A Saucy Backstage Visitor During My Dear Children's Chicago Engagement
Latter-day 20th flips a bird at buyers with an "On-Demand" DVD transferred from 16mm that will do if you're desperate enough to see the show. Only Barrymore-curious will want to, the media circus that prompted The Great Profile having long since marched by. Was a 1940 public by now weary with his antics? I saw Burt Reynolds do a twilight-of-life chat show where he reminded me of that sad backstage "interview" Barrymore did during My Dear Children. Not that Reynolds was potted, but a light had gone out, and those who recall glory days can but ponder their own expiration date where confronted by this longest yard. Barrymore at least had the tumble-down stage to himself,  most of sidelined peers by such point staying home. Jack had to work due to a mountain of debt he was determined, and honorable, enough to see satisfied. There's little evidence of Barrymore relishing his work beyond a certain point. Maybe he never did. Acting had been a family business, after all. Had they all been slide-rule accountants, he might have been steered into that. JB did admit that he'd rather have been a commercial artist.


Jack with Elaine Barrie. Barrymore Friend Hume Cronyn Later Acknowledged She Was Powerful Hot
and Challenge For Any Man To Resist, So Was Sympathetic to JB's Plight




Co-players in The Great Profile had at least that experience to recount over endless meals for balance of lives. I read that Mary Beth Hughes eventually became a hairdresser. Suppose she ever spoke of Barrymore to customers sat under a salon dryer? Hughes did tell a JB biographer of a first encounter wherein the profile of profiles "ripped the skirt off my dress," an incident she handled with "perfect aplomb," this being Jack's idea of an initiation, which she passed (imagine outcome it would have today). "He was loaded all the time ... and when we were ready to shoot, he was flying." Anne Baxter said JB was so wasted each morning that "his man would have to carry him in and set him down in an easy chair." As to reliance on "idiot cards," as Baxter put it, Barrymore told her that Profile lines "weren't worth learning." You wonder how embellished these stories got over length of time. People after all expected anecdotes about John Barrymore to be outrageous. Baxter noted his overcoming a "flaccid" mind to play scenes flawlessly once cameras rolled, "a lesson in concentration," she called it. Worth noting is fact that both Mary Beth Hughes and Anne Baxter were teenagers when The Great Profile was made. Talk about a baptism of fire ...


Jack Later Referred To This Grind Into Grauman Cement As His "Face On The Barroom Floor" Moment




As obnoxious as Barrymore could be, re come-ons and pinching,  Gregory Ratoff, who was everybody but a public's idea of funny and a canker on The Great Profile, near-topped him at taken liberties plus frying of "ham." The expression referred to actors spreading of theatrics too thick for consumption by a knowing viewership who left lush emoting behind with silent movies. To be a ham was not to be taken seriously again, and there in a nutshell was perception of John Barrymore, drunk or not. That was gross underestimation of course, as Garson Kanin would prove when he used JB in The Great Man Votes, out a same year as The Great Profile. Publicity for Profile employed the cream of caricature artists to depict Jack-japery: Otto Soglow, Rea Irvin, Gardner Rea, Hi Phillips (him for "sparkling lines" to enhance copy) ... they'd each decorate publicity. Movie goers were assured of Barrymore's ad-libbing lines in The Great Profile just as he had nightly for My Dear Children. To complete forfeit of dignity was Fox tie-up with Sid Grauman of the fabled Chinese Theatre, where Jack's profile would be pushed into cement and thereby immortalized forever. Imagine the ride home from that ...




Thursday, February 14, 2019

Jungle Jitters at Paramount


The Jungle Princess Is A  1936 Mating Call


This evidently made a big splash when it came out in 1936, status trampled by copies done afterward. Paramount wanted their own jungle franchise to shade the Tarzan series out of Metro. Para's were less action than sex oriented. Too bad the Code vitiated much of erotic possibility. Censor records show dialogue hamstrung by need to keep relations between titular Dorothy Lamour and exploring (only not exploring her) Ray Milland on purest up and up. Boredom was the outcome lest animal violence filled gaps, but The Jungle Princess falls down for having but one tiger, and he's tamed by her. A first-reel elephant stampede is lifted bodily from Cooper-Schoedsack's previous Chang. Did viewers who got that thrill back in 1927 recall it still? Some might cry foul, but then coming to see a thing called The Jungle Princess might have been gamble enough, as in deserving what you got, or didn't get.






Baboons attack a hostile village preparing to roast Lamour-Milland, except shots don't necessarily match, and I couldn't figure out just what sort of animals, or stuffed props, were being hurled against straw huts, or miniatures made to look like same. Effects were still catch-as-catch-can, like when stars interact with the tiger, only not so convincingly as when Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn did so two years later in Bringing Up Baby. Publicity was naturally all about Dorothy Lamour. "Put Real Animals In The Lobby," advised the pressbook, without spelling out mechanics, or safety measures, called for by such a display. Lamour was a gentler turn on Edwina Booth's Trader Horn character, being right away taken with Milland as interloper to her paradise and an eager partner to embrace. Adolescent boys plus men surely went daffy for this, a given for follow-ups, nearly identical, that Paramount did right up to, and through, the war, all enhanced by Technicolor, which trend-setter The Jungle Princess did not have. Too much monkeyshines (as in tiring chimps) would infect follow-ups, indeed rival Tarzans as well, as jungle pics became less for grown-ups. If anything turned me off these as a child, it was ape antics that were never funny and ate up footage like termites. The Jungle Princess is lately out from Universal's Vault and looks very nice.




Monday, February 11, 2019

His Most Terrifying?


The Birds A Mixed Blessing for Universal

The Birds was a commercial disappointment. Not a flop, but a disappointment. So were 1963 releases Freud and The Ugly American, said a Universal spokesman to Variety. The Birds, an April 1963 release, had earned $4.6 million in domestic rentals by the end of that year. Variety's January 1964 round-up of "Top Rental Films" for the completed 1963 estimated that it would end up with five million. Alfred Hitchcock's previous Psycho had taken $8.9 million and cost way less than The Birds. I was surprised to learn that The Birds did less than expected business, for it had made large impact, especially on my age group. Hitchcock famously said "The Birds Could Be The Most Terrifying Motion Picture I Have Ever Made." Who'd argue at prospect of birds attacking en masse and pecking mankind to death? This seemed cut to order for youth, but therein may have been the rub, for might grown-ups find the concept silly? Similar things had been done along cheap sci-fi lines ... spiders, grasshoppers, all make of nature turned on humanity. Answer to "What's It About?" was/is anyone's threshold query, decision to stay/go based on preferred short answer. If you were nine at the time (which I was), that answer re The Birds represented 1963 ideal, but parents in receipt of same? ("It's about flocks of birds that kill people") Well ... maybe not so much.




Los Angeles Saturation Opening
Did Universal marketing sense a problem? Did Wasserman or anyone warn Hitchcock ahead of production that The Birds might not fly? When I finally caught it on historic NBC broadcast night (1-6-68, and a record audience for a movie on television), The Birds seemed vaguely a letdown for winged terrors not swooping down on San Francisco (or at least Oakland) for a wow finish. I was imposing monster movie expectations on something entirely different. Had others done as much? Did adults as well figure on a showdown where we'd defeat the birds or be overrun by them? I was a few more years adjusting to the quiet ending, was longer realizing that no other wrap could have worked, let alone birds vs. military might ("Guns, tanks, bombs, they're like toys against them!" was OK as applied to Martians, but to feathered former friends?). Hitchcock had taken on William Castle's sort of spook thriller with Psycho and won. Once-benign wildlife felling man gave him but qualified victory. Had AH seen enough sci-fi to realize how locked in its formulas were? Most of us with price of admission and dime bags of popcorn looked for Godzillas on each moviegoing horizon. To withhold essential bumps was to incur our displeasure. Meanwhile Mom and dad sat home where entertainment was comfy and free.




Hordes, as in viewership, came for The Birds when NBC premiered it in January 1968. The network claimed 47,700,000 watchers, which was, said tabulators, an all-time high figure (unseated champ The Bridge On The River Kwai for ABC). You could believe the number or not, but all agreed that Hitchcock had made ratings history, and from that Saturday night came enshrine of The Birds as tip-top of home-audience getters. It would be a sharpest knife in a Universal drawer open to syndication, local stations knowing they could boost ad revenue by scheduling The Birds for prime or late hours. Psycho had been problematic as tube-cast. A network run was skipped thanks to controversy. The Birds went down easier because there was less tension to trim. As I recall, and someone correct me if I'm wrong, the only cut NBC made was close-ups of the farmer with his eyes plucked out. As I recall from that night of fifty years ago, we got a first glimpse only, the two more explicit shots to follow dropped by network censors. The sensation of its NBC broadcast and high profile after-play made The Birds seem in hindsight the biggest hit of all from Hitchcock, television a perfect venue for it.




I've lately watched the Blu-Ray again, and would wager The Birds looks better on this format than even 35mm. I now prefer build-up and quieter scenes to melee that starts almost an hour in. The bird attacks are still a little much for me, especially where children are victims, or worse, when Tippi Hedren ventures into a third act attic, which I chapter-skipped this time, having read more than enough of what Hitchcock put the actress through to get effects he wanted. The Birds' first half, then, is a most pleasing, with pace, structure, crisp editing, trick shots, mainly mattes, to enhance Bodega Bay locations. I could take the birds out of The Birds and like it as much. Was Tippi Hedren's Melanie Daniels the last of madcap heiresses to topline a major movie? Lots that is old-fashioned gets aired here. I ran The Birds at ASU/Greenbriar once and they laughed at the scene where Tippi/Melanie torments over the mother that deserted her, an on-the-nose crowbar of "depth" into the character. The college kids whiffed that and mocked accordingly, a reaction I'd not seen before and which surprised me. Still, The Birds had its legend, passed down by elders no doubt, Hitchcock still a name to be reckoned with among the student body. This was over ten years ago, however, so I wonder if he still has that cache.
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