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Monday, November 18, 2019

Early Instance Of Blockbuster Mentality?


The Show That Would Be A Roadshow


‘Twas 1940 when a fever called Lust For Blockbusting gripped a show world, virus being Gone With The Wind, which from earliest weeks emptied pockets of all within subway or streetcar distance of houses where it played. The industry had seen nothing like this. Snow White was a same sort of smash, if less so, a one-off dress pattern not readily copied. Could there be another GWTW among 375 major studio releases for opener year of a new decade? Such a goal could be met with merit, or by means of smoke-mirror that was road-showing, better called "forced roadshows" by industry wags. Two-a-day was how GWTW played through 1940, a hare that far behind tortoises could not overtake. Some tried, absurdly so at times. Pete Harrison, of plain-spoke Harrison’s Reports, called out 20th Fox in January ’40 for palming off The Blue Bird as a Broadway roadshow attraction (the Hollywood Theatre), an 81 minute Shirley Temple feature audiences were expected to pay fifty-five cents to $1.10 to see in afternoons, or eighty-five cents to $1.65 during evenings. Harrison regarded this as pure ploy to spin stature from a mere kid’s picture that Fox overspent to make. How many would be “taken in,” as Pete put it, paying for a silk purse and getting a pig’s ear? Post-GWTW movie shoppers would need to stay vigilant.








Roadshows had served going back to silents, lately carried bags for The Hurricane, In Old Chicago, Marie Antoinette, quality of which backed their play, as would Fantasia with novelty of content and juiced-up FantaSound. GWTW setting its pace loosed a stream of envy. Where’s our two-a-day?, each asked. Enter All This and Heaven Too, to be hopefully recognized as ATAHT, everyone (again hopefully) knowing what initials stood for. Would ATAHT trip off tongues so readily as GWTW? Book sales of All This and Heaven Too were huge, so here was a film pre-sold, the likeliest to meet Gone With The Wind on equal turf. Warners had Bette Davis and Charles Boyer for lure, plus, as of May 1940, 20,000 feet of movie, a numbing five hours that WB considered releasing in two parts, a plan scotched-but-quick by exhib opinion-maker Ed Kuykendall, who rightly said “such a plan … would find disapproval with audiences throughout the country” (Showman’s Trade Review, 5-18-40). Good sense restored, Warners clung yet to roadshow heft of 141 minutes for a final cut, costumes and décor to fairly scream prestige. East coast offices (an industry’s real nerve center) got behind the scheme and canvassed keys for two-a-day placement. Gradwell Sears was WB’s distribution chief. Now that All This was done, decisions would be his in league with Charles Einfeld, head of advertising and publicity. They knew well the endless chase toward profit end, and how best effort could go begging if a public sniffed cheese rather than caviar. So was All This and Heaven Too good enough to pack roadshow gear? They’d find out.






First came essentials of highest profile East and West premiering. Plan A for Gotham was Radio City Music Hall, if the Hall was game (movies did not choose them … they chose movies). If not, there was the Center (formerly the RKO Roxy), which also seated multitudes, or the Warners-owned Hollywood Theatre, where The Blue Bird achieved ignominy a few months before. The best was got, Radio City accepting the show, while L.A.’s Carthay Circle, site of Snow White and Marie Antoinette, took bit in teeth for a gala open they’d be proven adept at. Chicago, New Orleans, and St. Louis were also nailed down. Seeing as how he had set up a special roadshow department to handle All This and Heaven Too, Sears pondered also The Sea Hawk for two-a-day play (didn't happen). $300K was tabbed for ATAHT promotion at countrywide level, a gamble to be sure, for this kind of spending could eat up gain even from an otherwise hit. Still, there was shining example of Gone With The Wind, still racking up at Broadway’s Astor as of early June ’40 ($13.5K for its twenty-fifth week). “A same policy and basis” for ATAHT as GWTW, said Gradwell Sears, a maximum four runs per day and a minimum of three, more shows thanks to the Warner pic’s shorter duration (Wind a four hour haul w/ intermission). All This and Heaven Too was pulled from WB’s regular release schedule and set for roadshow play throughout the summer. This meant yanking 11,000 contracts already signed with theatres, a wound Sears would need to salve, but what was new about product promised, then withheld?


Bette Davis with Director Anatole Litvak





Did showmen resent such bait-switch? Ones who lacked skill to pick battles might, as greater wisdom understood how to play a sales force, give a little here, bargain for more there. It evened out where cool was kept and relationships maintained. Everyone knew powerful circuits got better terms, but canny enough small town men, experienced ones, stayed afloat thanks to everyday art-of-the-deal made with assist of glad hands and bottles in desk drawers. So let Warners try All This and Heaven Too as a roadshow and we will wait, possibly to get it for less if hard tickets wilt. Hard here was apt … $2.20 tops at the Carthay, advanced admissions elsewhere. Reserved policy was strict at some locales, fudged for others, as in the fat cat RKO circuit running All This and Heaven Too to open seating for matinees, assigned ones for evening. In case anyone thought ATAHT was oversold, Sears set trade screenings so that “every exhibitor would have an opportunity to see the picture before dating it,” local management invited to sit in on conferences and be part of the sales process, a smart means of checking disgruntlement among those at rear of a line to run All This and Heaven Too. Meanwhile, Carthay was sold out, excitement was building! Bette Davis would even be there, her first in-person at a premiere since Seed in 1930. Reviews too, were rave-heavy. Could ATAHT snatch the purse from GWTW?








All This and Heaven Too opened June 13 at the Carthay Circle. 200 police were needed to harness a crowd of 15,000. Film Daily reported the “Smash” a following day, their same front page announcing MGM intent to withdraw Gone With The Wind after seven plus months of roadshow play at 70% terms, the picture to rest until November when test screenings would determine policy for a January 1941 general release. Warners had meanwhile set 100 dates for All This and Heaven Too to roadshow, theatres in play having “cashed in handsomely,” said Film Daily’s Along The Rialto column, which had a distinct bootlick flavor, Warners congratulated for its “wholly unselfish nature” and “only mild” urging for key theatres to play ATAHT on hard ticket basis. Language like this often tipped off discontent among troops, and maybe dawning of knowledge that, after strong starts, All This and Heaven Too was slowing to a canter. July 5 report from the field told the story, Cincinnati cancelling ATAHT’s roadshow run at the 2,000 seat Capital in favor of grind play at popular prices. By July 10, The Exhibitor was helping Warners save face: “ … the company has now benefited through the trial and error method … What ATAHT lacked for the higher priced admission field must be apparent to Warners and other distributors.” The picture “deserved a good try,” but “perhaps ATAHT was not the proper show, nor was this the proper time.” In simpler terms, which a seasoned trade understood, “People will pay for quality, but they must be assured that they will get their money’s worth.”






There was complaint that All Heaven suffered for “freakish” length. Pete Harrison felt for management at Radio City having to open doors at 9:45 AM so they could squeeze in four runs a day, Harrison maintaining that, with GWTW exception, no feature should last over two hours. Patronage was besides having to wait in street lines for three hours to get in, the columnist observing crowds “pretty irritable” by belated escort to seats. Theatres wanting two shows a night had it worse, starting so early that customers would have to skip dinner or “gulp their food down … such a condition does not go for good will.” Harrison’s solution for Gradwell Sears: Cut All This and Heaven Too to two hours tops, “it would entertain even better.” Diminishing receipts for All This and Heaven Too were tied to whipping post that was trade annoyance at “greatly over-written and over-shot” features, and what was worse, “the evil is now getting contagious,” this from W.R. Wilkerson of The Hollywood Reporter. Warners took its medicine, dropped All This as a roadshow, but clung to advanced admission as means toward increased revenue. “20 Percentage Pix” were announced for a 1940-41 season (Film Daily), four at 40%, eight at 35%, and eight at 30%. The split was set however theatres bumped ticket prices, which could mean more for all except customers who’d balk at paying more for one film than another. This problem would not abate as movies got bigger and more expensive. All This and Heaven Too finished in the black, but was not the bonanza Warners counted on. From $1.2 million spent on the negative, $2.4 million came back in worldwide rentals. There was profit, but not as much thanks to considerable outlay for promotion, and recognition on a public’s part that ATAHT, however pleasing, was no GWTW.

9 Comments:

Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Years ago in the 1980s in Toronto I ran films in a small screening room above a porn theatre that offered 4 or 5 films for $1.

My program was priced at $10.00.

When the people lined up for the cheap porn saw the line up for my program they asked, "How much?" I said, "$10."

They asked, "How many films for $10?" I said, "One."

They said, "Must be a good movie."

They switched lines and came in.

Not only did they walked out happy they came back.

The motion picture industry is largely defeated by itself.

Instead of grabbing a thing and going with it they are like the tribes of Israel in the desert fighting with Moses and demanding to return to slavery in Egypt.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Years ago I had a super 16mm short film from Warner Brothers extolling he value of the movies as cheap entertainment and using the high prices of live theater, opera, etc., as an alternative. It had great scenes from past Warner features.

By doing this the movies have always shot themselves in the foot as when they did try higher prices (justified by the higher cost of the production of the films) they ran into resistance they themselves had created in the minds of the theatres, the media and the public.

The media are generally always dismissive of the new. The first movies were regarded as bastard, illegitimate theater. The theatres have always been wary of risk while at the same time nickel and diming. 3D films demand more light on the screen. To save pennies theatres use less light than called for so audiences complain of the 3D image always looking dark.

I use high brightness projectors for my 3D programs. People are astounded by how good they look.

When I brought Grim Natwick to Toronto from Hollywood in 1981 I had him at a discount 99 cent cinema. The ticket was $4.99 for their members, $5.99 for their non-members. When people asked about the price increase instead of being told they were going to meet one of the greatest animation artists in the business (and thus selling the show) they were told, "Blame Reg Hartt."

It was something I never did again in that type of setting.

Cheap entertainment is not great entertainment. People are happy to fork over the admissions required for live events. People pay huge inflated prices to scalpers.

Price is not the problem.

The problem is just do not anymore generate the buzz that Griffith generated with THE BIRTH OF A NATION or Abel Gance generated with NAPOLEON.

9:41 AM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Bette Davis made lots of great films before and after this one. But "All This and Heaven Too" is pretty much a dud, 141 minutes of drearily distended soap operatics. For one thing, Davis and Boyer don't share much chemistry. Only audiences satisfied with super deluxe trappings and Bette in dignified self-sacrifice mode could find much to excite them. Had I been one of those 1940 customers who'd seen it after standing in line-up for three hours, I'd have exited fighting mad.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

The 65-70 minute movies Davis made in her early Warner years are a lot more fun than anything she did afterwards; most have probably aged better than "All This and Heaven Too", even if she likely turned her nose down on them.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

I like Bette Davis, especially when she's in The Letter/All About Eve/The Little Foxes/Jezebel mode...in other words, when she's misbehaving.

But when it came to self-sacrifice roles she seems too contained and stiff....like such emotions didn't come naturally to her.

This property seems like an odd choice for such exhibition ballyhoo...it's a total snooze.

6:42 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO fell short of GONE WITH THE WIND's business, I suspect, because Bette Davis lacked the appeal of Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara, a spoiled firebrand that captured the imagination of the public. Leigh was vivacious while Davis was cold; Leigh was spirited while Davis was dignified. Had Davis not been available, it might have been Katharine Hepburn.

However accomplished the production of ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO was, moviegoers obviously thought twice before spending extra money to see a Drama Queen carrying on for two hours plus.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

Bette Davis was an accomplished actress there is no doubt. Another one of BD's amazing accomplishments is living well into her eighties with a three pack a day cigarette habit.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Bill O said...

As a kid I sat thru this cuz Bugs Bunny did ALL THIS AND RABBIT STEW. Only liked the guy's Pepe LePew impersonation.

12:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer speculates as to why Warners would pick ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO for a roadshow ...


It does seem strange that Warner Bros. would have selected "All This, And Heaven Too" to release on a roadshow basis. Most road show attractions of previous years--films like D. W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance," "Ben-Hur," "Hell's Angels," or "Gone With The Wind"--had a sweep and spectacle lacking in this one. "All This, And Heaven Too" has sumptuous sets and costumes and a top-line cast, but it remains a rather conventional love triangle told against the less than scintillating events of the bourgeois reign of Louis Philippe. Here was a monarch most modest in his style and rule, which only suggested that he had much to be modest about. For the purposes of drama, it was not exactly the French Revolution. The playing is very good, especially by Charles Boyer, but Bette Davis must have have found few opportunities in her role as a most proper governess, whose attraction to her employer could only be expressed through her willing self-sacrifice. "Why, madame, I do not know what you are saying." This is the stuff of melodrama, not life. She and Barbara O'Neil might have found it useful to exchange roles, though, of course, that would have skewed the billing somewhat. It's little wonder, then, that theater owners expressed a certain skepticism and resentment for having such a film foisted on them as though it was rather more than it was.

9:55 AM  

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