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Sunday, February 25, 2007

More Psycho Sightings

Among questions still taboo in celebrity interviews, one has endured and, I suspect, always will. How much were you paid? There’s an impertinence factor there --- the code unwritten. You just don’t ask people what kind of money they earn. Otherwise probing journalists back off in the face of such personal inquiry. Of all the Hitchcock interviews I’ve seen or read, no one broached the topic, yet for me, it’s the most arresting of all the Master’s mysteries. We’re told of his gifts in negotiation, and of those arts he practiced, that of the deal may well have been supreme among them, as it's known that Hitchcock cashed checks in the millions for his end of the Psycho pay-out. If I’d been Francois Truffaut, these would have been my avenues of interrogation, though I’ve no doubt a frosty reception, if not security escort off the Universal lot, would have been my ultimate reward. Still, transcripts of closed door conferences between Hitchcock and super agent Lew Wasserman (shown together here) would at the least offer perspectives undreamt of by writers who never looked, and interviewers that didn’t ask. If more CPA and MBA types were into old movies, maybe one of them would gain access to those estate files, bound to be among the thickest, wherein revenues were divided and negatives reverted. Hitchcock died fantastically rich, more so than any Golden Age director I can think of (excepting possibly Billy Wilder and his art collection), and not knowing details of his business acumen represents a very large gap in our understanding of the man and his career. Commonly accepted is the notion he owned 60% of Psycho after volunteering to finance the show himself in the wake of Paramount’s refusal to back the project. Hitchcock historians can tell you how he filmed the shower scene, but information about his deal with Paramount has always been sketchy. In fact, I’m guessing they’re guessing about a lot of what went on with regards ownership and compensation. Has anyone examined the contract? It’s bound to exist, and must be fascinating. There were two occasions where Paramount realized, at the least ,distribution fees, for in addition to handling the 1960 release, they managed a 1965 reissue, this after Hitchcock had left the company to join Universal. I’ve read he exchanged ownership of Psycho for MCA stock when he made the switch. That's supposed to have happened in 1962, so Paramount must have maintained some residual rights, at least to the extent of a single re-release from which they’d realize one more handling fee. The 1965 run of Psycho brought back $1.2 million in domestic rentals. This was the biggest grossing reissue Paramount had in the sixties, with the exception of The Ten Commandments in 1966 ($8.8 million). Hitchcock participated in new ads emphasizing the now-legendary status of his five-year old thriller. The first time we wouldn’t let you in except at the beginning. Now you can come in and be shocked anytime. Publicity emphasized the shower-bath sequence and other grisly goodies, while Hitchcock’s signature appeared below warnings that Psycho is again on the loose in your fair city. For the first time, Anthony Perkins was shown in advertising holding a knife, an acknowledgement of patrons long since in the know as to the picture’s denouement.

The next major Psycho sighting was an aborted one. It was an event  looked forward to, September 23, 1966 --- and the CBS Friday Night Movie. Psycho would be making its network television premiere (NBC had passed). Controversy was rife among affiliates, conservative markets aghast that CBS would broadcast such a thing. The network paid $800,000 for two runs (but what was Paramount's share of this?). Four days before lift-off, Psycho was postponed. CBS released a statement on Monday. Out of deference to the family of Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, they would not be showing the film. An intruder entering Percy’s house during the previous weekend had murdered his daughter in her bed. The horrific crime remains to this day unsolved. I was twelve then and hadn’t read the news, so imagine disappointment when the Friday Night Movie turned out to be Kings Go Forth. Network execs lamented an eight hundred grand loss they’d sustain in the event Psycho was cancelled altogether, while press inquired as to an eventual broadcast date. It was summer 1960 all over again, with Psycho at the eye of a public relations hurricane. CBS maintained it would be shown later. Toward that end, they previewed a sanitized version in December for New York Times reporter Peggy Hudson. This viewer timed both versions of the scene in which Janet Leigh is murdered in the shower. The TV version of this grisly scene was cut by 45 seconds. The murder is still shown, but the repeated stabbings have been cut. As if to reassure readers that some vestige remained of Psycho’s impact, Hudson closed with a faint endorsement. Viewers are left with a sense of shock, but perhaps not with the sense of stark horror felt by movie audiences. CBS president William H. Tankersley was chided for his defensive attitude re the topic of rescheduling. Possibly in the spring, he said, while bristling at suggestions that those nine minutes CBS had cut were not enough. To rule out the way we’ve edited it would be to rule out any good murder mystery (huh?). By December 18, the network would surrender to public and affiliate pressure with a firm decision never to run Psycho. Syndicators were free to package the feature among titles for an upcoming season. Psycho would be a crown jewel and assured ratings-getter for local stations with nerve enough to telecast it. Our own Channel 9 out of Charlotte took the plunge in Fall of 1968. Station buyers were furnished with complete prints. The 16mm negatives weren’t cut, so local standards would dictate how much footage to trim. Again I took my place in front of the Zenith, this time at home with both parents (unfortunately) watching. WSOC began with a s-l-o-w text crawl warning of extreme adult content in the film we were about to see --- It may be well to send the children to bed. My now alerted parents let that pass, though I found myself silently cursing Hitchcock for his opening scene with Janet Leigh and John Gavin lolling about half-naked in the hotel room. Sure enough, the lights went out for me. Off to bed, for I had no business looking at such a thing as this.

Local censors would now have their turn at Psycho. TV stations in those days edited with hacksaws. Movies were cut by thirds, even halves, to accommodate time slots a fraction of intended length. Dollar-an-hour apprentices hovered over dimly lit benches and mutilated Hitchcock’s design until little was left but the title. I finally caught Psycho when Channel 9 ran a late show repeat in 1970. Was it complete? Perhaps --- but how could I know? A subsequent primetime airing on Greenboro’s WFMY was interrupted by a splice occurring just as the darkened figure approached Janet Leigh’s shower. Next thing we know, she’s on the floor and her killer has left the building. No stabs, no knife, not a scream --- but at least Channel 2 was spared viewer complaints, and so what if we’d been lured into watching under false pretense? Was Hitchcock aware of such wholesale abuse? It wasn’t confined to North Carolina broadcasts. Stations everywhere were taking the safe way out and gelding Psycho for dubious benefit of standards and practices. The director was made aware, but was powerless to intervene. These weren’t exhibitors he could dictate to. See It From The Beginning was a grim joke in the face of prints shorn by entire reels so they could fit into ninety-minute slots. Ever resourceful, Hitchcock found a way of turning such carnage to his advantage for Universal’s first theatrical reissue (1969) of Psycho. See It The Way It Was Originally Made!, said new ads, Every Scene Intact! The master’s unsmiling countenance promised The Version TV Didn’t Dare Show!, and a newly introduced ratings system assigned the (now discarded) "M" designation, hopefully confining access to Mature Audiences. The reassertion of 1960’s No One Will Be Admitted To See "Psycho" Except From The Very Beginning policy was likely ignored by showmen catering to patrons at the least familiar with every bump in this show, having seen it several times at home, if not in theatres. To reissue a feature fresh out of heavy TV rotation was rare in the late sixties, but a complete Psycho still had the lure of forbidden fruit, with fans yet willing to pay admission for a bite (Universal realized $262,000 in domestic rentals). Meanwhile, rental houses proudly displayed Psycho in their show windows. Some  non-theatrical prints bore a Paramount logo, and were much superior to muddy 16mm editions Universal generated for rental markets. Collectors made many an inquiry to dealer contacts before springing for a print liberated from some warehouse or depot. Does it have a Paramount logo? If not, forget it. Those pursuing legitimate rental engagements were confronted with terms in excess of what other Hitchcocks commanded. Swank wanted $125 for a day’s Psycho booking in 1979 --- $200 if you played it between October 5 and November 5 (their listing shown here). The Birds, on the other hand, could be had for $95, up to $125 around Halloween time. Universal was meanwhile tying anchors to designated "special" Psycho by placing it among dogs in a syndicated group known as Universal 53, where Hitchcock’s classic warded off stench of bunkmates Angel In My Pocket, The Ballad Of Josie, and The Far Out West (adapted from episodes of Pistols n’ Petticoats). You’d think these would be specimens TV Wouldn’t Dare Show, but most were at least in color, a main criterion for station buyers during those multi-hued besotted days.

Life is much simpler now. When it’s time to watch Psycho, we go to the shelf and take down our pristine DVD. Sometimes you feel like Lewis and Clark after tenderfoots have settled in on tracks you’ve cleared. Hacking through brush to present a definitive (or at least unsullied) Psycho is but past Quixotic quest that seem peculiar to armchair archivists today. Are we spoiled now or what? My recent collegiate run of Psycho didn’t scratch, tear, or show lines, and the shower scene was all there. I call that progress, but what of the movie? Does it still work? Our showing did. Hitchcock must have anticipated boomerang offspring that besetting retired parents. What is Norman but another  problem child reluctant to leave mother’s nest? He’s almost an identification figure for overgrown adolescents today, minus the cross-dressing and knife murders. I used to encounter one Norman after another in collecting circles (without necessarily discounting the possibility of cross-dressing and knife murders among their numbers). When I caught Pretty Poison at the Liberty in 1968, and Anthony Perkins came in as Tuesday Weld’s unbalanced escort, it was like, Of course --- that’s what Anthony Perkins does. No wonder he finished up doing one dreadful Psycho sequel after another. He was an actor cursed. Remember how everyone used to laugh when they saw Ted Knight standing in the hallway toward the end? Not anymore. Youth today won’t recall Ted Knight, and that’s to the good, for this was always an unwelcome distraction. A final inquiry: Were audiences really that stunned to see Janet Leigh die 44 minutes into the picture? She gets but featured billing after all, often a tip-off that the player won't be there to the end. Can anyone among first-run audiences in 1960 address this?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Psycho Salesmanship --- Part One

What a shame the startling effect of a groundbreaking new film can be only felt by those who come to it first. My initial exposure to Psycho was on television, so I’ll never relate to traumatized viewers wandering out of first-run New York theatres during that summer of 1960. Biggest problem with a life spent in adoration of classic movies is the fact you’ll never get the rocker punch folks received when these things were new. We can read about opening nights of Gone With The Wind, A Star Is Born, or House Of Wax, but never mind feeling what they felt, no matter the restorations placed before us. Chasing a sensation likened to that experienced long ago in crowded and excited auditoriums is pretty much what this site is about, tempered by realization we’ll never come within hailing distance armed with nothing other than yellowed ads, faded photos and a few memories. How many of even veteran moviegoers saw seminal shows on the front end? Southeastern venues were first to get Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch, long before these were discovered by a critical establishment (and prior to TWB being cut for general release length). My sole voyage of discovery, as in being among those truly first in line, took place in the summer of 1975, when our USC class was directed to a screening room on the Universal lot to see a brand new movie about sharks. Beyond that sketchy description, I had no information. Jaws wasn’t set to open for at least another two weeks, so we knew from nothing what lay in wait. I do remember screams among my classmates. For once in our spoiler-contaminated lives, we had no one to prepare us for the experience. I remember the film’s mechanical shark parked forlornly on a trailer as we crossed Universal's lot afterward. Just another prop awaiting storage, but fun encountering such a thing but steps from having watched the movie. My digression here is just by way of imagining what a similar Psycho initiation might have been like --- entering those magic portals (and what striking marquees these are), knowing not that your senses are to be assailed in ways unknown to that time. Reliable accounts say many screamed and fled for home. Police were summoned to calm disturbances. I’ve read of such incidents during first-run engagements of Frankenstein in 1931, but weren’t we past this by 1960? May-be, but was this only because there’d been no one like Hitchcock to upend us anew? Psycho demonstrated it was still possible to shatter senses on a mass scale. Jaws has perhaps come closest since, but what else?

Taking critics off the loop for advance screenings was nothing so radical in 1960, but barring exhibitors from same was a near declaration of war. Who can help launch a film better than an exhibitor who has seen it?, asked Pete Harrison in his June 6, 1960 Reports. Paramount’s excuse can only make theatre-men suspicious of the hidden feature’s merit. Harrison despaired of Psycho’s critical fate as well. Furthermore, it is understood that Paramount will not screen the film for trade reviewers before it opens at a theatre. Under such conditions, even the fairest of critics will have trouble viewing the film objectively. Indeed, Hitchcock had gambled his dollars (Psycho being largely self-financed), reputation, and showman good will in a go-for-broke campaign that might easily have backfired and cost the director everything he’d built up over a twenty-year period in the US. Had grosses not been so extraordinary, would the excesses here have finished Hitchcock’s career, as many predicted after seeing Psycho? It took nerve to put your name on the line for product rough as this, and where was assurance that audiences would sit still for it? If ever a filmmaker read the pulse of his constituency, Hitchcock did that summer, for Psycho lured business vast beyond wildest expectation of ordinary shockers --- so much so as to suggest he’d invented a whole new genre. You could opt for a simplistic explanation and dismiss the new Hitchcock as merely an upscale William Castle, and indeed, he envisioned Psycho as a riposte to all those Hammer, AIP, and, yes, Castle films nipping at Master Of Suspense heels. Summer of 1960’s release schedule is fun for the glimpse it affords of Psycho’s thriller competition. Bowing before and after Hitchcock was American-International’s House Of Usher (June), Universal/Hammer’s Brides Of Dracula (July), and Columbia’s 13 Ghosts (August). Castle (shown at top shilling for 13 Ghosts with moppet "fan club") was a particular thorn in Hitchcock’s side, as their marketing techniques often overlapped, and Hitchcock didn’t enjoy seeing his work confused with the likes of The Tingler and House On Haunted Hill (writer applicants to A.H. faced veto for having worked on previous Castle shows). Was Castle the Hitchcock doppelganger?Comparisons would end at the ticket window, for neither Castle nor fellow shockmeisters ever realized grosses approaching Psycho. This might have proven a mixed blessing for Hitchcock, as adult expectations of star-laden and more or less civilized suspense were now supplanted by newly-won youthful acolytes awaiting a topper to horrific thrills he’d furnished with Psycho, and later, The Birds. I distinctly recall the letdown attendant on my family’s beach outing to see Torn Curtain in August 1966. Owing to the reputation of Psycho and The Birds, this twelve-year old craved stronger meat than Paul Newman and Julie Andrews playing at tepid espionage behind Kremlin lines. Hitchcock was trapped in his own house on a haunted (Psycho) hill, and immature (if exacting) fans such as myself weren’t disposed to let him out.

There was a pair of teaser trailers in addition to the six-minute deluxe wherein Hitchcock hosted a tour of the Bates Motel and environs. The latter attained legendary status and was bootlegged/sold by collectors for years to come. Universal included it among DVD extras, but the teasers have remained unseen. One was a plea urging top secrecy regarding the content of Psycho, while the other set forth policy for all bookings of the feature. See It From The Beginning was used since movies began, but never was it actually enforced with regards arriving patrons. Embattled showmen happy to get their quarters any way they could were alarmed to find these uncompromising terms written into Psycho contracts. Our opening playdates have proved, beyond the shadow of a showman’s doubt, the success of this required policy, said Hitchcock in a trade appeal to exhibitors. If the word "required" startles you, please try to think of a box office besieged by patrons anxious to purchase tickets. Feel better? Hitchcock forecast theatre owners happily startled all the way to the bank if only they’d comply with his absolute bar against late arrivals to Psycho. For first-run houses with definite start schedules (several shown here), this was well and good, and promotional budgets at metro venues allowed for stunt emphasis on Hitchcock’s edict (Pinkerton guards, off-duty officers, etc.), but what of grind situations down the line where double and triple billing prevailed and start times were uncertain at best? My guess is the policy was abandoned after the first month or so of general release, though scrambling for prints of Psycho aroused the ire of circuit heads denied early run privileges. Here is a black-and-white picture for which Paramount could make up at least 100 more prints for "peanuts" and take advantage of the publicity the picture is now receiving, said Allied Theatre’s North Central president. It could then be booked into the smaller towns and earn thousands of more dollars and help keep the small-town exhibitor alive. The problem of popular titles going stale before less populated areas could get them was an ongoing grievance among rural showmen --- Can the revenue derived from the comparatively few who are lured from their communities to the big cities possibly compensate the film company for the losses resulting from the local theatres’ lessened prestige and the positive manner in which such sales policies date a picture and render it passe in the minds of local theatergoers? The backlash stung as Psycho limped its way into the sticks. Not as good as William Castle’s "Macabre" was manager Chuck Gerard’s dismissal in the wake of patrons’ migration to catch Psycho in Iowa City or St. Louis rather than wait months for Warsaw, Illonois’ modest house to book a date.

Photo Captions

William Castle Hits The Road For 13 Ghosts
Three-Sheet Art for Psycho
Hitchcock Lays Down The Rules
New York crowds greet Psycho's opening
Paramount field men working on the campaign
A little context --- Paramount's Line-Up for Summer 1960
More Marquee Magic
Hitchcock preparing to hang the "O" on Psycho (but how'll he reach that far?)
More anxious crowds at the Arcadia
Check Your Watch! Can't come in if you're late!
Mobs amassing for evening show
Skittish patron cows before uniformed admissions guard

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Comedic Jekylls and Hydes

What might Abbott and Costello have accomplished had they used their boxoffice power toward more creative ends? Top ten status on exhibitor polls suggests freedom to experiment and vary the formula, but Bud and Lou cared more about good life stardom conferred than enhancing their output. Rather than develop material, they played cards. Every distraction was catered to. Ad-libbing tolerated on an Abbott and Costello set would likely have been verboten for Laurel and Hardy at Fox or The Marx Brothers  at  Metro, yet imagine what these comedy teams could have achieved had they enjoyed latitude Bud/Lou were given. A&C’s single gesture toward creative control seems to have been insistence upon two offbeat features in which they were more/less split up, Little Giant and The Time Of Their Lives, but was that really an effort toward better picture-making, or just a means of getting a vacation from one another? Lou’s antipathy as regards Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein makes you wonder what he might have preferred in its place. What works in A&C comedy is probably the result of lack of preparedness, and the audience’s sense that much of their stuff is random. According to co-workers, this was a near right assumption. My sense of Abbott and Costello is that they preferred a stage to motion pictures. With early television, the pair very nearly got back what they’d missed since burlesque days in the thirties. Movie slapstick was a commonplace wherein any number of comics surpassed A&C’s experience and expertise, but with regards verbal patter, these two had no peer. Who’s On First is still a miracle of timing and delivery. Skits on The Colgate Comedy Hour were but flimsy preambles to well-honed routines excavated from theatrical trunks, much of it new to home audiences that had ignored their features over the last six or seven years. Were adults still going to see Abbott and Costello in the early fifties? Absence of singers/bands suggest capitulation to simple demand of juve matinees; it seemed the boys were falling down more and talking less. By the time things got round to Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Lou couldn’t even approach a door without falling through it. I don’t wonder that the team preferred TV work (their own series as well as the Colgates --- both running strong by 1953). Universal contract starlets shunned the A&C unit for perceived kiddie ghetto standing, but worse still was over-saturation of the team a result of ancillary marketing after the war that would impact on viewing habits among both viewers at home and audiences in non-theatrical environments.

Realart’s heavy schedule of Abbott and Costello re-issues were in direct competition with the team’s new releases in the early fifties (much as would be the case with Jerry Lewis in the sixties), so much so that Universal was obliged to emphasize All New legends they now attached to posters (including the one shown here for A&C Meet J&H). Realart had leased much of Universal’s backlog for a ten-year period beginning in 1946, and exhibitors were happy to pay their minimal rentals as opposed to higher terms imposed by U-I. United World was a subsidiary of Universal that sold 8 and 16mm movies to home viewers under the name Castle Films. Abbott and Costello were ideally suited to fill these eight-minute souvenir reels, their routines being compatible to shorter lengths and overall plot being of no real consequence. Once you bought a Castle Film, you could do what you liked with it. Ownership was outright. Boomer kids encountered Abbott and Costello at birthday parties, public libraries, church bazaars … wherever someone could plug in a tabletop projector and go to work. Here was a stream of revenue A&C would not drink from, at least initially. A lawsuit filed in 1952 settled in their favor, but by the mid-fifties, a combination of Realart and Castle, plus increasingly tired output, made Abbott and Costello seem played-out. Rurals and grindhouses continued using them. Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Lou shown here with director Charles Lamont) found new glory at a small Vernon, Florida theatre in September, 1958 --- My best grosser in Vernon was not "3:10 To Yuma" nor "Operation Madball"… It was this reissue of an old Abbott and Costello. They laughed long and loud. They whooped and hollered and rolled in the aisles. Well, why would manager I. Roche lie? --- though it’s hard to imagine anyone rolling in the aisles over Bud and Lou’s dispirited antics this time out. Maybe that crowd had something to do with it, as we know from experience how contagious audience laughter can be. Universal was at least considerate enough to withhold their features from television for at least a year or two beyond the dumping date chosen by other studios, for it was 1958 before Screen Gems (U-I’s lessee for most of its pre-48 library) began penetrating markets with A&C oldies. Later comedies with the team (including Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) made it to television via packages from Seven Arts (starting in July 1963), but were split up among mainstream Universal titles. Consequently, your local channel might run Lost In Alaska five times, but Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein not at all. It was July 1971 before MCA packaged all their Abbott and Costellos into a dedicated group of 29 features, the leases with Screen Gems and Seven Arts having run out. By this time, most exposure for the group would come via independent UHF stations.

Abbott and Costello merely used Jekyll and Hyde as a hook to further their Meet The Monsters series. Boris Karloff reprised his mad science template of yore. A Westmore fright mask was donned for publicity, but I wonder if Karloff ever stood before a camera in the Hyde guise. Why impose upon an actor in his sixties when any number of stunt artists could slip the rubber over their face and bound over backlot rooftops? (in fact, one of them broke an ankle doing so) The only authentic spoof on Jekyll and Hyde would come from Jerry Lewis, and his would emerge a cleverest of take-offs. The Nutty Professor is so good you can’t believe JL made it. Every writer has one great story in him/her, and the Professor is Jerry’s. Everything right about his staging, direction, and design is here. I was stunned by use of Technicolor alone when The Nutty Professor unspooled at the Liberty for a 1966 reissue, a late date for catching up, though neighbor kids had told me how fine this one was. Paramount actually bought the back cover of Famous Monster’s 1964 yearbook for promotion, which I’ve shown here primarily because it’s the only time I've seen this ad style used anywhere (and, correct me if I’m wrong, a sole occasion where a major studio bought space in FM). With references to previous J/H enactors (Barrymore, March, Tracy), you’d almost think Paramount customized the page especially for FM readers, which I’m inclined to believe, as I couldn’t locate any mats in the pressbook resembling it. Query --- who’s Buddy Love supposed to be? Another subject flogged to death elsewhere, but I’ll venture he’s a composite of Rat Pack ethos Jerry was said to have deplored (at least then). Though Buddy ended up resembling Jerry himself, I wouldn’t think the man could have harnessed self-awareness to lay bare such a corrosive off-screen persona before an unknowing audience (bearing in mind that 1963 devotees didn’t necessarily know Jerry as we do now). As to speculation Hyde/Love mirrors Lewis’ former partner, he actually seems more Frank than Dean, but just who in Jerry’s show-biz orbit behaved so cruelly as this? Were there multiple Buddy Loves running loose backstage in Vegas or between shots on movie sets? Reading post-mortem bios surfacing over the last decade or so, I’d venture to say yes. Lewis brought them too close for his audience’s comfort. I know fans that grew up with Jerry who draw the line on The Nutty Professor, for Buddy Love’s nastiness has way too much ring of truth about it. All the more credit to him for refusing to soften that alter-ego, for it would have been easy to hone off the edge and still realize the rentals ($3.3 million, his best but for The Bellboy).

They filmed at Arizona State University. Big band Les Brown, once renowned, entertains for a 1963 class of undergrads during a prom night that all but stages a jitterbug rally in its backward retreat toward 40’s sounds Jerry loved. He was down on a pop culture fast going to hell, and said so to reporters who’d listen. No kid of his would go to the theatre and "watch lesbians" (was he thinking of Walk On The Wild Side or The Children’s Hour, both in recent release at the time?). Permissive movies were imprisoning families in front of their televisions --- is this what Hollywood wanted? Buddy Love wows ‘em at the Purple Pit when he gives out with That Old Black Magic, a standard with a beard a mile long, but look at the "students" he’s crooning to --- most thirty at the least --- I even glimpsed Dave Willock, Jimmy Ellison’s old army sidekick from 1943’s The Gang’s All Here. Hindsight might prefer Les Brown to the spectre of a Duane Eddy backing Jerry, but little of this serves the cause of verisimilitude. Music is a happiest element of The Nutty Professor. Re-using Victor Young’s beautiful Stella By Starlight as a principal motif was inspiration itself. Lush scoring was on its way out by 1963. More power to Lewis for keeping the sound alive long after others had abandoned it (and I’m reminded as well of David Raksin’s fine work on The Patsy). I can’t speak for others, but the rapturous series of dissolves with Stella Stevens at Kelp’s classroom door is one of the most perfect weddings of music and visuals I can recall. Lewis lived  a credo of grassroots exhibition. Both would fade around a same time. Jerry went out with The Nutty Professor on a grueling 25-city tour jammed into a 44-day schedule, doing a live show (with the band he brought along) at every stop. No one stumped for product like Lewis. Nearing forty when he split with Paramount (amidst lawsuits and recriminations), the once indestructible wickets champ faced an industry stripped of Code protections he had relied on, and a family audience he had depended upon. Jerry’s attempt to beat back the tide with a string of "G" rated movie theatres bearing his name was dismissed as reactionary. He would spend decades cussing the dirty movies he says put him out of business.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

More On Jekyll and Hyde

There’s nothing so tantalizing as films that go missing. Truant, uncut versions of shows we revere are all the more enticing. Few send pulses racing like reclaimed pre-codes. Bawdy to begin with, what ecstasies await the retrieval of even more intact prints, such as Library Of Congress staffers discovered when they stumbled across the censor-suppressed Baby Face a few years ago. As I watch Warner’s DVD of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the question taunts me surely as those lingering effects from Fredric March’s potion --- Is there more? Could there be more? Well, first of all, how much is enough? For most of us, nothing less than every moment exposed before that rolling camera will do. What of Hyde trampling that little kid? We’ve seen stills of it. One turned up in Famous Monsters years ago. Bryan Senn published a shot in his book, Golden Horrors. The trade ad showing it here dates from December 1931. So did they shoot this? Did folks see it? A perhaps-embarrassed Rouben Mamoulian (here with cast and crew at an on-set birthday party) claimed the moment was limited to publicity. They never actually filmed such a thing. Or so he says. I suspect it was shot, but made it no further than sneak previews Paramount conducted in Glendale, West Adams, and Westwood during mid-December. And what of the infamous Miriam Hopkins strip scene? Don’t know about you, but I want more. I suspect there was more. But just when did we lose it? Now that Greg Mank has covered the background and production so thoroughly in his outstanding DVD commentary (and in an excellent book, Hollywood Cauldron), there’s little left for the rest of us but to obsess over details, picayune questions that haunt one’s sleep at night.

First, how long is it supposed to be? The DVD clocks at ninety-five minutes and fifty seconds. Footage count in 1931 amounted to 8,863 feet, or 98 and one-half minutes. This included exit music, which continued beyond the cast of characters following the end title. Past confusion over missing footage may not have taken this into account (there’s no exit music on the DVD, though I know at least two collectors who have it). The official release date was January 2, 1932 (explanation perhaps for an ongoing assumption it opened that year), but there were runs in Los Angeles and Chicago that began during the third week of December 1931, prior to the New York run which started on New Years Eve (that ad shown here). There’s a little over two minutes between what they (presumably) saw then and what we have now. Part of this is the exit music, unlikely to amount to this much footage, so what of the rest? Day of infamy July 5, 1935 found Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gelded for the sake of a Code Seal Paramount needed in order to re-issue it. 85 minutes was left in the butchery’s wake. Back Issue #18 of indispensable Video Watchdog magazine delineates the cuts. One could cry reading it. 16mm rental house Films, Inc. offered Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in its 1940 catalogue, but none of those prints have thus far surfaced. Based on the description, theirs appears to have been the truncated 1935 version. MGM would buy the negative outright when they decided to remake the property. That purchase took place on May 14, 1940. Variety said they paid $30,000 for both the 1920 and 1931 versions. The Motion Picture Herald claimed it was $125,000. Studio records indicate the latter figure to be the correct one. Metro put both in cold storage so as to avoid distraction while their 1941 adaptation made its rounds. I’d love to know if the 1931 Jekyll and Hyde played anywhere between 1940 and 1966. The only sighting I’m aware of was a partial one, as the 1953 Academy Awards ceremony (which was televised) did feature an excerpt of Fredric March as J/H. The film’s reputation was maintained by way of mouth-watering stills that turned up in late fifties/early sixties publications like Famous Monsters Of Filmland and Castle Of Frankenstein. Few were aware that MGM now owned the negative. I well remember my mother’s vivid account of seeing the March version theatrically in 1932. It seemed I’d never share that thrill, for we all assumed it was a lost film. Controversial pioneer archivist Raymond Rohauer unearthed a print during a search at Metro and cleared a single run for a late 1967 tribute to director Rouben Mamoulian, but his was not the first reclamation of Jekyll and Hyde. Once again, it was collector/scholar William K. Everson who led the way with his showing that took place during a regular gathering of The Theodore Huff Film Society. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was thus reborn among a small group of Manhattan film buffs on March 8, 1966 …

From William K. Everson’s program notes: This long-lost but well-remembered classic hasn’t been screened in the United States for more than twenty-five years. Was he right? Very possibly yes, as I doubt MGM authorized any playdates over that period of time. Everson’s 16mm print likely originated with a Library Of Congress original from which a handful of dupes had been made for in-the-loop collectors. These underground editions were far closer to the complete Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than anything MGM would distribute throughout the seventies and much of the eighties. Everson acknowledged still missing scenes --- There is one very minor (probably censor) cut in the last third of the film; it occurs when Hyde is sitting under a tree in the park. The cut is not at all perceptible, but what is missing is a shot of a cat pouncing on a bird (cat and bird are restored to the DVD). As for that Mamoulian tribute screening, the director himself noted multiple cuts (they'd shown the mutilated re-issue version from 1935). Alerted now to possible interest in a long dormant property, MGM launched their own re-release. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Never Shown On TV, says the one-sheet shown here) was packaged in a triple Superstars Of Shock package with Mark Of The Vampire and a similarly cut (racial sensibilities) Mask Of Fu Manchu for 1972 theatrical bookings. The gaudy campaign implied contemporary chills. Exhibitors weren’t fooled. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, at 83 minutes (two minutes less than the 1935 reissue) managed only 355 bookings, a punk reception from which only $31,079 in domestic rentals was realized. MGM leased J/H to Films, Inc. for non-theatrical 16mm rental in the early seventies. It was listed among "special" titles in a deluxe catalogue, Rediscovering The American Cinema, published in 1972 by the company. Rates varied on a sliding scale from $50 to $250. The running time was indicated at 90 minutes, a first-time designation for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at that length. Metro did not make it available for domestic television, although foreign TV showings did yield $44,000 through April of 1983. MGM/UA released a laser disc in 1991 that put back much of the footage removed in 1935, but the Paramount logo and some of Miriam Hopkins’ strip was still missing. It would be interesting to know what elements MGM acquired in their 1940 purchase of the negative. Was the 1935 re-issue version all that Paramount delivered to them? Did they have to use the Library Of Congress materials to fill in gaps for their more recent restoration to DVD?

Fredric March owned a 16mm print of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He acquired it from MGM some years before his death in 1975. It was never easy getting prints out of studios. You had to sign all sorts of pledges not to exhibit them publicly, loan them out, etc. Worth noting is the fact that March’s acquisition was the truncated 1935 re-issue version. A collector friend who knew the actor and visited him on several occasions inspected it. The 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had been budgeted at $557,000 with a shooting schedule of 44 days, from August 24 to October 13. It ran seven days over that. Fredric March received $1,480,77 per week to play the lead. Miriam Hopkins got $1250 and Rose Hobart $700. Character support included Holmes Herbert ($750), Edgar Norton ($500), and Halliwell Hobbes ($500). All these were per week salaries. Rouben Mamoulian realized a total of $30,769.20 for directing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with a guarantee of eight weeks at $3,846.15 per. Cinematographer Karl Struss was paid $400.00 for each week he was there. The Jekyll and Lanyon home exteriors were shot on the Pathe lot, and that park where March observes the bird and cat was actually Busch Gardens. Latter-day horror fans overwhelmingly prefer the 1931 version over Metro’s 1941 remake. Having watched both this week, I’d say Spencer Tracy is more believable, but March is more fun. March's Hyde was one actor’s liberation from what fans and employers expected, while Jekyll, all lip rouge and courtly restraint, represent much of what this actor sought escape from. Censor correspondence from 1931 indicates a willingness to ease up on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde because of its literary pedigree. This is a movie that got away with a lot more than ordinary horror films could have managed, even pre-code ones. We can thank Robert Louis Stevenson for that. Censor revisions would again come to call on a new Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1941, a situation made apparent by the DVD release and a Video Watchdog article that revealed major cuts most viewers had been unaware of. 

Fredric March recalled, in a 1973 interview, running into Spencer Tracy shortly after the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde opened. I haven’t seen your picture yet, but I hear it’s great, said March to Tracy. Who the hell do you think you’re kidding? When I made that movie, I did you the biggest favor anybody ever did you, replied a disgruntled Tracy. He was never happy with his Jekyll or his Hyde. It embarrassed him to play a monster. Trips to and from the stage were made in a closed car (that's Tracy and Ingrid Bergman on the set with director Victor Fleming). If horror subjects were held in disrepute during the early thirties, they were just that much more so ten years later. Tracy’s J/H was also a projection of dueling screen images. His Jekyll was Edison, The Man by way of Boy’s Town, with Hyde the scruffier Tracy who’d smacked them around in pre-code days at Fox Film Corporation, an image he preferred to leave behind. Although there were stills issued of Tracy as Hyde, few saw publication (most images we see today are frame captures). Posters de-emphasized the horror, though enterprising showmen often manipulated art to juice up the scare stuff. Metro’s re-issue of October 1954 took it a step further with a one-sheet (shown here) that smacked more of what AIP and Allied Artists would be turning out for later exploitation thrillers. Though banned in Memphis owing to Ingrid Bergman’s ongoing scandal, the show managed $185,901 in re-issue rentals. The 2004 DVD release revealed the presence of two differing versions of this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A review in Video Watchdog (Issue #106) was followed by a letter to the editor in #111 that detailed cuts in Warner’s master. Apparently, there were syndicated TV prints containing a minute and fifty-two seconds of content that had been removed prior to the picture’s release in 1941. This had happened before with Metro titles. The Merry Widow and Manhattan Melodrama, both from 1934, have scenes in old 16mm circulation copies missing from video masters made from 35mm. Did these TV prints have material that even first-run audiences were denied? In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there were portions of the dream montages missing, along with some dialogue in front of Jekyll’s mirror at the end. Hays Office records reveal that a request was made to remove this footage prior to general release in 1941. How a print containing this material survived to make its way to an eventual TV negative is anyone’s guess, but evidently, it does exist. Beyond all this, there's a discrepancy in running times between the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde released to theatres, and later television (122 minutes) --- and the version available on DVD (113 minutes). This obviously encompasses more than censor trims, but just what scenes remain missing --- and why were they taken out?

Many thanks to Dr. Karl Thiede for assistance and advice on this posting.
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