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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Buzzsaws and Body Snatching In St. Louis --- The Lewton Conclusion

We can sit home with our DVD’s and think we’ve seen The Body Snatcher, but that’s like steak without garnishment compared with what 1945 audiences reveled in. Do note front displays for the St. Louis premiere. RKO merchandising saw a winner early on, their gusto on The Body Snatcher's behalf surpassing effort for any others in the series. Trade ads were lavish and plentiful. That Missouri Theatre opening (3600 seats) became the centerpiece of suggested campaigns in the pressbook. Showmen at last had something they could chew on. The name Dr. Neff may not ring bells today, but in his glory years, this was the dean of spook showmen. As if a world premiere of The Body Snatcher were not enough, St. Louis also got Neff’s live act to serve as vanguard for a new movement toward audience participation screamers, a format where he was unsurpassed. Bill Neff began doing teenage magic acts with Indiana hometown pal James Stewart. Their lives took divergent paths, though crowds might have said in the late forties that Bill achieved at least as much glory in his field as did Jim at thesping. Neff carried sets worthy of DeMille. Nobody came away from his shows with less than exultant praise. Bela Lugosi sought Neff for a stage partner when the vampire king took his show on the road in 1947. Those sad stories we've heard of Bela sharing degradation with guys in tattered gorilla skins didn't apply here. Neff’s act went beyond mere stage illusion. He dragged girl plants out of the crowd and buzz-sawed off their heads. Bloodthirsty teens blew a gasket when the Neff crew came to town. Getting all this plus The Body Snatcher first-run was nirvana in any fan’s language. I checked St. Louis archives for press accorded the World Premiere. Guess they were more sanguine about such things then, for Dr. Neff and The Body Snatcher received but one multi-column display ad on February 14, 1945, plus holdover into a second week. Unlike the Memphis premiere of Brides Of Dracula, there were no post-opening reports from the front. Ah, the stuff they took for granted then …

There were complications. Manager Harry Crawford had a warrant served on him for disturbing the peace. Seems his ideas for a set piece to adorn the top of the Missouri’s marquee unsettled nearby tenants and otherwise sedate passerbys. Why should a mechanical dog howling at one-second intervals annoy anyone? asked Harry. Gendarmes advised him to tell it to the judge. A fifteen-foot square lobby display (shown here) featured a motorized Karloff figure dragging a female corpse out of its tomb, while a "hundred-year-old hearse" carried dummy cadavers thither and yon with the assist of what was described as two decrepit horses. As The Body Snatcher opened on February 14, valentines were dispatched about town, showing Boris strangling Bela with the caption, Please Give Me A Piece Of Your Heart. RKO’s New York office supervised the campaign. There were horrors staged live that Lewton’s denuded by the Code feature couldn’t begin to duplicate. Kids doubtlessly got more genuine scares out of Neff’s pageant and accompanying front displays than The Body Snatcher would deliver, yet here at last was a solid hit that demonstrated what Val Lewton could do when he turned his hand toward baser shocks. Its success would enable others with a morbid line of goods to sell. Peter Lorre enhanced Body Snatcher presentations (as advertised on a carriage back here) with a ghoulish monologue he had commissioned to show off vocal talent plied in Hollywood thrillers over the last decade. The Man With A Head Of Glass was recited by the actor in hushed auditoriums, followed by bursts of applause and demands for repeated curtain calls. Lorre had initiated the routine in August, 1944, and continued with it on and off for several years thereafter. His would have been an ideal stage warmer for a horror film. The Body Snatcher’s negative was on the high-end at $221,000, but domestic rentals rang up a satisfying $317,000, with foreign money the best ever for this series --- $230,000. Profits amounted to $118,000, the most since I Walked With A Zombie. Were it not for a higher cost, The Body Snatcher would have been the most lucrative of all Lewtons. As it is, the film stands as the biggest single grosser of the nine.

You’d have thought Universal producer Jack Gross would ride herd over Val Lewton once he assumed supervisory duties at RKO, but the man behind Universal’s recent monster sequels seems to have pretty much left VL alone. Gross is credited as Executive Producer on Isle Of The Dead. Lewton portrayed him as another of those studio troglodytes with his cigar in one hand and a racing form in the other. Evidence of the last three in the Lewton series belie such an image. They are, in fact, among the artiest of the nine. Isle Of The Dead took its inspiration from a painting (of the same name) by one Arnold Bocklin, who set his gothic scene to canvas five different times. Boris Karloff assumed patron of the arts duty for a field trip to New York’s Metropolitan Museum, where he was photographed standing alongside one of them. It pleased and flattered Karloff to keep company like this. He was a cultivated man and appreciated that quality in others. Whatever misgivings Lewton had about using this actor dissolved once they met. The producer frequently called upon memories of creepy art he’d been exposed to as a child (that generation’s equivalent of our monster magazines, perhaps?) and Isle Of The Dead would emerge as much a tribute to things that went bump in Lewton’s boyhood nights. Karloff was the first real star to do a Lewton movie. You could wish he’d been in more than just three, but did RKO really pay him a mere $600 per week as I’ve read? There was a serious delay when BK fell out due to back problems. A spinal operation laid him up for months; time enough for the project to lose momentum and Lewton’s interest to wane. A complete mess, he now called it. Slow perhaps, but wasn’t that the case with most Lewton merchandise? Amazing how all nine have their adherents. I’ve read passionate arguments crediting each as best in the series. Life was simpler when they were new. Showmen thought Isle Of The Dead dragged at first, but relished patron screams when a woman gets buried alive in the second half. Even that may not have been enough to offset continuing inertia at ticket windows, as Isle Of The Dead was way down from stellar numbers recorded by The Body Snatcher. A $246,000 negative cost was the highest yet for a Lewton horror, and way more than they were spending for other "B" pictures. Domestic rentals amounted to $266,000, with foreign $117,000. RKO’s profit was the lowest so far --- $13,000. These were slim pickings during a year when expectations ran high, as one couldn’t help making money off movies in 1945. Was the public tiring of horror films, or just Lewton’s horror films?

Bedlam was first to actually go into the hole. It mattered no longer that his was an eccentric approach to the genre. Pictures like these could not sustain. Recent Universal monster rallies invited ridicule. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein would answer that call, but not for another two years. In the meantime, there was She-Wolf Of London and The Spider Woman Strikes Back to confirm how tired horror films had gotten. Was Universal surrendering the field to rivals? If so, RKO wasn’t taking the bait. Kids wanted screen shows gruesome as Dr. Neff with his tossed heads. They instead got extravagant promises and timid fulfillment of same, but that was the PCA applying brakes, not producers. Lewton had no end to censor problems with The Body Snatcher. Indeed, his career might have better flourished had he come along in the sixties. The Innocents from 1961 plays like one of his, and certainly The Haunting (directed by Robert Wise) was nothing if not a homage to Lewton’s technique. Film noir reflected a new toughness in crime thrillers. Horror films could do with a bit less reading between the lines as well. It would seem to me that audiences were ready for Hammer Films ten years before Hammer Films were ready for them. Had these two gotten together sooner, we might well have had a post-war horror boom. Bedlam, like other late-in-the-day chillers, was a tough sell. Neither fish nor fowl was this. A problem picture
about lunatic asylums sounds fine when Olivia DeHavilland is your inmate, but Boris Karloff presiding could mean only one thing, and therein lay the disconnect. The star didn’t help when he insisted that Bedlam wasn’t a horror film at all. A historical picture, said Karloff. Negative cost reflected steady rises in expense these shows generated. Modern writers claim Lewton had a budget of $350,000 plus extended pre-production time, but RKO ledgers indicate $264,000, a more likely figure. Domestic ($257,000) and foreign ($98,000) rentals were sufficiently eroded as to result in $40,000 lost on Bedlam. It’s no disgrace to any filmmaker when his series winnows out. The fact Lewton managed nine horror features, and nine of such extraordinary quality, within confines of a formula-driven system like RKO’s, is some kind of miracle. His standards remained high, even if the boxoffice didn’t. No one else in Hollywood was making chillers so stimulating as Lewton’s. You can pick at any and find minor fault, but who even bothers over most of the stuff Universal was doing after 1942 (Captive Wild Woman, anyone?). Looking at this series during the last several weeks made me realize once again what a unique talent his was.

Lewton might have taken solace over evergreen status these films achieved were it not for his 1951 death. RKO kept the series in circulation for as long as that company remained afloat. Even after closure, Lewton horrors made theatrical rounds via independent franchisees renting them into the mid-sixties. Cat People had a 1952 reissue that scored domestic rentals of $125,000 and resulting profits of $65,000. Most of the others were back as units in double-feature packages. Isle Of The Dead returned with Mighty Joe Young. I Walked With A Zombie supported King Kong in 1956. The only two not reissued were The Ghost Ship and Bedlam. Fifties circulation of Lewton features meant safety prints in 35mm. If you grew up then, chances are you saw some of them theatrically. Television lumped the series into enormous packages of RKO features. Stations purchasing smaller groups might get two or three Lewtons, but seldom all, unless they sprung for C&C’s bulging library of 741 titles. It was May 1963 before stations could unspool all the Lewtons from a syndicated group made up entirely of horror and sci-fi. United Artists’ package of 58 features combined genre offerings from backlogs controlled by UA at the time, thus we had Warner’s Doctor X, Beast With Five Fingers, and The Walking Dead, UA’s own Beast Of Hollow Mountain, Hound Of The Baskervilles (from
Hammer), along with the Lewtons and other RKO favorites (King Kong, The Thing). This was next best to having Screen Gem’s Shock and Son Of Shock groups. Non-theatrical rental went through Films, Inc. Their daily rates reflected critical hierarchy within the series. The rental company’s lavish 1971 Rediscovering The American Cinema catalogue devoted a page (shown here) to the Lewtons (note their promise to add The Ghost Ship among future listings). Worth noting is the fact that Bedlam, The Seventh Victim, and The Leopard Man were available at lower rates than the rest. Could these, then, have been regarded weakest by opinion makers of the day? A check of the Films Inc. second edition (1977) of Rediscovering The American Cinema does include The Ghost Ship, which makes me wonder if it was indeed made available then. Did anyone out there actually rent this title in 16mm?


Blogger Kevin K. said...

If anyone lives in or near New York, they can visit the Museum of Television & Radio to see Lorre's "Man with the Head of Glass" routine on an episode of "Texaco Star Theatre." Creepy stuff.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, East Side, for giving me yet another reason to visit the Museum of Television & Radio if I ever make it back to New York.

And thank you, John, for a splendid three-parter. You sent me back to my Lewton collection for another appreciative look, and even though I still don't get it about The Seventh Victim, even that had its moments; Lewton really was a unique talent.

And by the way, my uncle took me to see King Kong on that 1956 reissue. Looking back, I don't know if I'm sorry or glad that I Walked with a Zombie wasn't on the bill with it at the Stamm Theatre in Antioch, CA. I was only 8, and I'm not sure I could have handled it.

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks much for the Lewton series. I saw 'Bedlam' long before I ever knew who Lewton was and it remains one of my very favorite films. I suppose it was hard to market at the time but it's surprising to me that it actually lost money, and that the others also didn't do so well overall. The WW2 period may just have been a difficult time to sell horror with all the real terror going on in the world.

8:27 PM  
Blogger Joe Gillis said...

It's worth pointing out that neither ISLE OF THE DEAD nor BEDLAM were given a first-run release in the UK, which severely impacted the foreign box-office takings. ISLE wasn't released and the UK until ten years later (probably because of issues with the BBFC in the 40s, though the documents have since been lost), and BEDLAM was definitely banned outright by the BBFC, as documents in the BFI special collection demonstrate.

11:11 AM  

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