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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Citizen Kane --- In and Out Of The Warehouse

Following its general release during the 1941-42 season, Citizen Kane went into hibernation that would last nearly fifteen years. While Orson Welles struggled to resurrect a Hollywood career, exhibitors with bitter memories of Kane in first-run shunned it like a plague. Despite maintaining one of the industry’s heaviest reissue schedules, RKO couldn’t be bothered with this one. European audiences discovered Citizen Kane after the war, but hosannas published in foreign language publications were not enough to revive interest stateside. Further blockage was nitrate-based film being phased out in favor of safety stock. This had been a major issue largely ignored in spite of disastrous booth fires wherein projectionists sometimes lost their lives. Within a few years, nitrate was out, along with thousands of features and shorts previously printed on the unstable stock. Extant prints of Citizen Kane would be cleared from RKO exchanges along with the rest. 35mm prints of old titles were available in the event of a (safety-based) reissue, but who needed the expense of new prints where the feature wasn't wanted? Proven hits naturally lent themselves better to grindhouse situations on the lookout for cheap program filler. Cat People showed $65,000 profits for a 1952 revival, over and above $183,000 it garnered in black ink during the original release ten years earlier. It would be 1956 before Citizen Kane was back on release schedules, just in time for RKO to take its place as exhibition’s supreme pariah

December 1955 saw an announcement that RKO’s film library would be sold to television. Shock waves went through exhibition corridors, but it wasn't an altogether unexpected move. Studios had been hinting possibilities along this line for several years. Howard Hughes sold the caboodle (742 features) to General Teleradio, who quickly firmed a deal with the C&C Super Corporation. Paying $15.2 million for rights, C&C soon had 75% of existing television sets within range of RKO movies, broadcasts begun as of March 1, 1956. Industry observers noted elderly specimens of the same poor quality that most stations want to retire among the 741 offerings, many dating back to early days of sound. C&C sweetened the deal by licensing the group in perpetuity. Member stations could run RKO forevermore, with no limit as to the number of airings. A number of stations could be running Citizen Kane right now, as those 1956 contracts would likely remain in effect, despite Warner’s eventual purchase of the library (there was a Midwest channel that dumped their 16mm prints nine years ago, and titles I ended up with included note cards with a record of broadcasts over the years. The Body Snatcher print had run nineteen times between 12-30-58 and 1-6-98). Exhibitors in 1956 felt betrayed by RKO and said so loudly in print, stopping just short of a boycott against the company’s product. A handful of reissues nevertheless emerged that year. Showmen asked why they should book RKO product that might show up on free television the very night of their engagement. C&C included a rider with TV contracts in which listed titles were withheld from the initial group sold, including ones designated for 1956 theatrical release --- King Kong, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, and Citizen Kane, among others. New campaigns were prepared for these, RKO reasoning perhaps that fresh posters might lessen hostility among theatremen. Availability for TV was promised no sooner than July 31, 1956 --- no later than December 22, 1957, a pretty indefinite window for exhibitors already taking grief from patrons asked to pay for shows they’d just seen at home. Citizen Kane was back in exhibition news when Bryant Haliday and Cyrus Harvey, Jr., former operators of Harvard’s Brattle Theatre, acquired the 55th Street Playhouse in New York and booked Kane there for an "exclusive" revival in February 1956. The renovated art house was the setting for a benefit performance of the 1941 release, with proceeds going to the Film Preservation Fund of The Museum Of Modern Art. Their effort raised $500 for MOMA and favorable publicity for newly viable Kane in theatres. RKO announced a limited art-house re-release for March. Engagements would be carefully selected, said vice-president in charge of worldwide distribution Walter Branson. We are satisfied that there is public acceptance of this unusual picture in the proper theatres, and we feel that by continued careful handling on a very selective basis, appreciative revenue can be realized by exhibitors. Would theatres other than art-houses be considered? Drawing power, location, or policy would determine that, said the RKO executive. One mainstream house did break records with Citizen Kane in 1957 by preceding its run with four days of radio saturation and commercial copy emphasizing the Hearst/Kane link (Hearst had died in 1951). The Casa Linda in Dallas was rewarded with triple the theatre’s best receipts since opening. As with any attraction, exploitation was everything.

RKO closed its exchanges in 1957. Remaining prints went to independents. These small depots scrounged for whatever coin was left in pictures now heavily saturated on television. RKO titles continued playing kid shows and grind schedules well into the sixties. My examination of theatre ads for the Winston-Salem/Greensboro territory found many turning up years after late night TV would have presumably wrung them dry. Mighty Joe Young was an evergreen for triple features at Greensboro’s National Theatre. I found three bookings for it there in 1964 –65. Winston-Salem’s Carolina Theatre regaled youngsters with rock and roll on stage and Gunga Din on screen in 1965. WBTV’s horror host Dr. Evil popped in at the Lincoln a few blocks down and I Walked With A Zombie accompanied his live show. All these would have been booked for no more than fifteen to twenty dollars flat. The situation overall was much the same as it had been ten years earlier. Action and monsters were what sold. Citizen Kane was for art houses and television. With its running time of 119 minutes, Kane came in for particularly brutal treatment by station editors. Two-hour slots were as much time as movies generally got for daytime or early evening telecasts. Imagine whittling twenty or so minutes out of Citizen Kane for a Saturday afternoon run. The opening newsreel was usually first to go. It’s self-contained and easily snipped. The mutilation attendant upon Citizen Kane’s placement in a ninety-minute time frame can only be imagined, yet this is how many viewers saw the film between 1956 and the nineties. Its placement on various ten-best lists assured pride of place among revival house booking sheets, but for distributors, it was hardly worth shipping a 35mm print. Manhattan repertories were paying just fifty dollars flat to play Citizen Kane for three days in 1965. Rentals earned have barely covered the cost of handling, said The New York Times. The tide turned in March 1966 when Janus Films acquired theatrical rights for Citizen Kane (and King Kong) from RKO General, Inc. Withdrawing the two from theatres, Janus partner Saul J. Turell promised their reappearance will be backed by a promotion campaign aimed at the growing audience of what the trade calls film buffs. A fresh campaign might obtain higher prices from exhibitors as well. The existence of this audience is reflected by six theatres devoted almost exclusively to the showing of film classics, as well as in the proliferation of university courses and film societies, said Turell. Citizen Kane would now command $175 against fifty-percent of all gross receipts, whichever was higher. Janus control did not extend to free showings. These were still handled by Films, Inc., the 16mm distributor supplying non-theatrical venues. Their 1971 Rediscovering The American Cinema catalogue labeled Citizen Kane a "special", with prices on a sliding scale. $50 to $100 for schools and convents, $65 to $250 for colleges, universities, museums, and film societies (depending on audience size). Thanks to these, Citizen Kane would at last get back some of its lost prestige.

Digital magic has spoiled twenty-first century Kane watchers. For a cold splash of what patrons settled for three decades (plus) ago, check out grisly frame blow-ups Pauline Kael offered in her groundbreaking (and controversial) The Citizen Kane Book in 1971. Revisionist as to text, her illustrations only emphasized the film’s appalling (and ongoing) state of preservation. Still years away from restoration efforts and DVD (near) perfection, audiences for Kane took what they could get, and often what they got were prints murky as those images Kael relied upon for her book. The fact we can now enjoy home theatre presentations far superior to anything seventies patrons had in public spaces (on discs we can own as well) is something none of us should take for granted. It was video that again banished Citizen Kane from theatres. Why drive across town and pay an admission when you could stay home and watch your Nostalgia Merchant VHS tape (even if it was poorly mastered from 16mm)? These began appearing in the late seventies. As had been the case in 1956 with television, RKO’s library would be among those first available to collectors. Having succeeded to theatrical rights in Citizen Kane, Paramount tried another reissue in May of 1991. Their total gross was a rewarding $1.585 million, unusually good for any library title in our age of video. Projection TV has largely overtaken film as the format of choice for institutions and groups lacking equipment and resources to book 35mm. Swank Motion Pictures, Inc. licenses titles for most of the film companies. Virtually all the other rental houses have gone by the wayside. I wonder if Swank even offers Citizen Kane on 16mm anymore, never mind condition of the print in the event they do. Television runs of Kane are mostly limited to TCM, a good thing as they’re always complete, uninterrupted, and look wonderful --- not so good, however, if your cable service doesn’t offer TCM, or you don’t have cable at all. Minimal effort can put us all by way of an excellent DVD. Incredible you can have something this good starting at $9.81 used on Amazon. Those days of watching it chopped in syndication, riding subways to distant art houses, pursuing worn 16mm costing hundreds of dollars --- all seem remote indeed. Orson Welles lived long enough to see the beginning of this transition. Would he be pleased by its culmination?


Blogger John McElwee said...

Here's a comment just received by e-mail from Scott MacGillivray ---

Hi, John -- The RKO station in Boston played C & C prints until (if memory serves) 1984, the last of which were:


They played in a one-week-only, Monday-through-Friday movie slot... from 5 to 6 p. m.! ONE-HOUR SLOTS for these RKO heavyweights. KING KONG in 52 minutes. I guess the idea was to give them one last run before retirement.

My friend Ted Okuda remembers writing to the RKO station in Chicago (as a teenager) calling attention to the Wheeler and Woolsey films that the station owned but hadn't scheduled. In response, the station ran four consecutive Wheeler & Woolseys on Sunday late shows. Talk about video on demand!

Thanks for some great C&C anecdotes, Scott!

9:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This matter was discussed on several message boards when the KANE DVD was released, so this may be old news to some...

As John M. points out, the DVD is "near" perfection. Problem is that it's too perfect for its own good. On one hand, the film has never looked so gorgeous. On the other, in their apparent efforts to reveal every little detail long hidden in the shadows, the restorers upped the brightness and softened the contrast to the extent that there's not a true black to be seen anywhere in the film.

The first time I saw the DVD, I was surprised to be able to see the reporters' faces during the projection-room scene. When I recognized Joseph Cotten amongst them, I knew something was wrong. This should have been a red flag to those doing the remastering, unless we're supposed to conclude that Jed Leland finally got ahold of that "good cigar" that restored his youth and vitality.

That said, I'd rather watch KANE on DVD than in any other format in which it's been released in the last 50 years. But it needs an additional round of tweaking before it can be declared perfect.

John L.

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi John-

Here in the Chicagoland viewing area, the C & C Television prints still run on a regular basis on WLS Channel 7, late Friday and Saturday nights. The station runs the films of Wheeler & Woolsey, Joe Penner, The Falcon, and The Great Gildersleeve. Is it likely that this is the only station in the US that still runs these edited, beat up looking prints?

Greg H

6:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to brag or anything, but am I the only person to have noticed Joseph Cotten in the screening room way back during the 70s TV showings?

By the way, I hated those TV prints where the C&C logo replaced the RKO tower atop the globe. It made "Room Service" even less enjoyable than it already was.

7:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great post, John. One passing comment ("...South American labs having been commissioned to deliver thousands of them in 16mm at bulk rates.") finally explains something I noticed decades ago, when I was catching 16mm screenings colleges and rec-hall film societies: I never -- repeat never -- saw a good 16mm print of an RKO picture from the 1930s and '40s. No matter the title -- King Kong, The Informer, Gunga Din, Citizen Kane, the Astaire-Rogers pictures -- they all looked just terrible. On those rare occasions when I could catch the same titles in 35mm, they would look just fine, but not in 16mm. Now I have an idea why. I'm sure decent 16mms were out there, but those muddy bulk prints seem to have flooded the market.

1:35 PM  
Blogger J. Theakston said...

Very interesting article, but must disagree about a point:

"Cost-conscious RKO used low-grade newsreel stock to grind out 35mm safeties for these fifties engagements, compromising visual splendors..."

Actually, while News stock is a cheaper, thinner base, the emulsion properties were still high silver and quite good. A well processed safety print on early '50s news stock is comparable in tonalities and sharpness to any good nitrate print, if the labwork is done correctly.

And while a beat up, 16mm print is not the way to see KANE, there's no denying that seeing a 35mm print of it on the BIG screen IS the way to see it. I'll take that any day over a video presentation, if I had my choice. Unfortunately, there are too many institutions turning on film, and it's turning students against the format.

2:19 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

When I was in the University in Argentina, studying media, the teacher decided that we had to watch "Citizen Kane" on video

But since he wanted us to pay attention to the screen and not being distracted by subtitles, he got a dubbed version.

The version, rather obviously, came from a very worn and old 16mm print with a horrible dubbing work. Almost twenty minutes, after the film started, he himself stopped the video and apologized for the bad quality. The following week, he brought a rather good video, this time with Spanish language subtitles.

In Latin America, TNT used to show a good version, visually. But the dubbing was that horrific one I experienced in class. People with SAP televisions were able to watch it in English. I suppose that TCM in Latin America still airs this version.

About those prints that RKO made in South America, I can say that copies of all of them ended in the Roberto Di Chiara archive.

But there are things worth mention. Some were produced in English, some were dubbed in Argentina. Many had their titles altered to remove the RKO logo witht the C&C logo.

And there were curiosities too: a VHS version of Jean Renoir's "This Land is Mine" was lifted from a 16mm print with subtitles in Spanish. "The People's Enemy" (1935) came from another 16mm print with Spanish subtitles... but the opening titles were translated to Spanish and there is no mention to RKO anywhere (I discovered that they made this film, because before the "End" title, I briefly glimpsed something that resembled there logo).

And "The Son of Kong" was issued on VHS also from a 16mm print with Spanish subtitles. However, this version featured original RKO logos and credits... in Spanish! I had two VHS versions of John Ford's "The informer": one was lifted from an American edition with subtitles added; the other one was came also from an original RKO print with titles in Spanish.

Other films were issued (or reissued) with titles in Spanish from all studios.

(All of these VHS versions are being sold by some collectors, I left them in Argentina.)

There were at least five or six video editions of "Citizen Kane", all of them derived from the same VHS version from Turner Entertainment (Since they are opening a Buenos Aires office now, those version are going to vanish). All of them were complete, although some cut the credits or the RKO and one reedited. In order to have a complete good version, I had to manually add the credits from one version to the other; the subtitles in Spanish were different, but that was an insignificant thing.

I remember one night that Roberto Di Chiara decided to see "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" and invited me. He got a C&C print and exhibited for us. Despite the complaints about the quality of the 16mm prints, I can assure you that the film looked great. He always tell me that if you take care of the prints and put an effort in the telecines, you can achieve great results.

7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worked at a Wisconsin TV station in the early 80's. Our corporate station was the keeper of the RKO's. They always arrived in bright red tin cans The films were getting very brittle by then. However, it was my introduction to many fine RKO films.

7:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very informative article!

9:26 AM  

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