Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Thinking Man's Exploitation Shockers --- Part One

The frustrated career of Val Lewton was both inspiration and cautionary fable for Hollywood insiders long before horror fans and writers began taking up his cause in the late sixties. No better evidence exists than 1952’s The Bad and The Beautiful, shooting within a year of Lewton’s death and basing its protagonist’s rise specifically, if not accurately, on Cat People lore and a "B" producer scavenging the lot for props to make his films. Industry folk must have talked lots about Lewton and why he rose and fell. There were few better object lessons on the peril of seeking art over commerce, nor a more effective argument favoring team play and sucking up to supervisors when necessary. Val Lewton held on to integrity, but little else. He was a talent to admire, but forget about emulating him if you wanted a future in movies. Sad stories like his were best told in eulogies. Those nine chillers he made for RKO were a first of Hollywood horrors to be critically embraced, but recognition for Lewton came too late to do him any good (early death at forty-six saw to that). His family at least enjoyed bows he didn’t survive to take. My recollection is of Carlos Clarens getting there first, though An Illustrated History Of The Horror Film was merely the initial Lewton celebration of a second wave starting in 1967. Bigger names recognized him earlier, but did James Agee and Manny Farber’s laudatory reviews during the forties benefit Lewton, or help to bring him down at RKO? I think that few people in Hollywood show in their work that they know or care half as much about movies or human beings as he does, said Agee. He and others praised Lewton as the remarkable exception to philistine standards. Former boss David O. Selznick may have done more harm than good when his post-Cat People congratulatory wire crossed RKO chief Charles Koerner’s desk. (It) is in every way a much better picture than ninety percent of the "A" product that I have seen in recent months. Other studios hopefully have extended such opportunities to would-be producers by the score without getting a result such as you have delivered at the outset. We know corporate intrigues and politics proved Lewton’s undoing. Were jealousies inflamed by these and other plaudits? Koerner was a supporter, but lesser RKO brass sniffed "too arty" when Lewton’s name and accomplishments entered commissary chat. The fact he kept to himself and avoided studio camaraderie was no help (Lewton disliked shaking hands). Lesser talent had but to wait for things to go south. In Lewton’s case, they would not wait long.

The golfing party is here for a reason. These are the men who controlled Val Lewton’s fate at RKO. We read about denizens of the front office like Charles Koerner (he having lately expelled Orson Welles) --- that’s him on the right, flanked from the left by N. Peter Rathvon (RKO president), Robert Woolf (New York district manager), and Ned Depinet (RKO Radio Pictures president). Koerner was vice-president in charge of studio production, and on this 1942 occasion they were competing in the studio’s eighth annual golf tournament. Much studio policy was decided on those links. Perhaps decision to give Welles the heave was made around a third green, and by the fourth, an agreement to hire Lewton. Line-producer underlings weren’t invited to such outings. Lewton was assigned to dream up stories for pre-fab titles these men consumer tested at a ceiling price of $150,000 each. Cat People initiated the series of budget horrors. It became what they called in those days a sleeper. Writer DeWitt Bodeen once estimated a four million dollar gross. Modern historians took him up on that tall tale, and further credited the modest show with saving RKO itself --- their biggest hit of that period (no, those would be Once Upon A Honeymoon, Hitler’s Children, and Mr. Lucky). It is tempting to propagate such myth where we admire the man and his films so much. Cat People did earn $360,000 in domestic rentals. $175,000 came back from foreign. There was $183,000 in profit, an excellent return for a "B" (comparable The Falcon In Danger ended $91,000 in the black, while The Saint Meets The Tiger actually lost $25,000). You could only realize so much on pictures that generally played the bottom of tandem bills. Cat People opened on Broadway as a single, though the Rialto Theatre was not otherwise the sort of venue majors sought for prestige bookings. With a modest 600 seats and no balcony, the Rialto prided itself on ballyhoo techniques otherwise abandoned on the Great White Way. Front displays looked like Grand Guignol. Thriller engagements called for outreach to passer-bys willing to enter and be horrified. Owner and operator Arthur Mayer was a well-respected industry veteran whose career dated back to silents. He thrived on lowdown exploitation. Having supervised Paramount’s Panther Woman search a decade before (for Island Of Lost Souls), he knew how to steer intense bally. Mayer balked at the expense of print ads in The New York Times. With my limited budget, I had little money to spend on newspaper advertising, so I was forced to use the theatre front and the lobby for my major shilling. Replacing marble busts and objects of art with gargoyles and displays of torture instruments, Mayer proudly trumpeted the Rialto’s strictly masculine fare policy, reflecting his wish to satisfy the ancient and unquenchable male thirst for mystery, menace and manslaughter. Cat People's entrance shown here was the handiwork of his creative staff.

Critics enjoyed slumming at the Rialto. The theatre became a running joke in their columns. Like a flower of evil, the Rialto Theatre has endeared itself to a little coterie of necrophiles that haunt the area as a perfect rendezvous for Witches’ Sabbath and Walpurgis Eve celebrations. Admissions were the cheapest around for first runs. Cat People played in December of 1942 for a quarter before noon, forty cents to 5:00, and sixty-five cents to closing. Sometimes they didn’t clear the house till four in the morning. You could smoke in either of two side sections in the auditorium. Pretty punk for a Broadway engagement, but RKO could boast of having opened there when selling Cat People to independent exhibitors. Larger audiences for Val Lewton’s understated chiller found it bringing up the rear behind big ticket crowd-pleasers like Springtime In The Rockies, with which Cat People played in multiple New York City theatres starting January 7. 1943. Though Betty Grable’s musical is barely remembered today, this was the kind of show that actually got those four million dollar grosses (in fact, Springtime In The Rockies took $4.4 million in worldwide rentals). Hollywood's host for Cat People was the Hawaii Theatre, whose boxoffice (as shown) was redressed with a sign reading Feed The Kitty Here. The ticket seller sat inside an enormous cat head that covered the window, sliding both ducats and change along a feline "tongue" draping toward the sidewalk. Cat People shared its first LA run with Warner’s The Gorilla Man, as shown in the above snapshot taken in late 1942. Despite critic applause, Val Lewton got little in the way of recognition from bosses at RKO. Koerner tossed a wet blanket when Lewton reminded him of Cat People’s success. The only people who saw that film were negroes and defense workers, he said. All RKO wanted from the horror unit was horror movies, preferably conventional ones. Fortunately for Lewton, I Walked With A Zombie, his second for RKO, maintained Cat People profits and extended his creative autonomy.

In the picture, the nurse walked with a zombie. The patrons walked out of the theatre, and the exhibitor walked around in circles trying to think what to do to make up for the loss. This was O.E. Simon’s trenchant commentary that followed his Menno, South Dakota booking of Val Lewton’s follow-up to Cat People. Was the producer determined to work against horror expectations as his series went on? I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man suggested he was. People said they didn't understand this so-called horror picture (The Leopard Man). Business was light (Dewey, Oklahoma’s Paramount Theatre). Zombie’s negative cost crept $6,000 beyond the $150,000 limit RKO had set, and its worldwide rentals of $496,000 slipped below those of Cat People, though profits of $181,000 insulated Lewton for the present. He was now getting press recognition as a Merchant Of Menace, Sultan Of Shock, whatever lamebrain tag they chose to hang on him. Profilers wondered what made those chillers tick. Lewton dismissed the recipe as pure formula. The last thing this producer needed was a perception he took horror movies seriously. Ingredients required were plenty of "dark patches" and three bumps per show --- easy as plugging in a waffle iron so it would seem, though Lewton's creative team knew well the efforts he had made to distinguish his thrillers from the rest. Always the last RKO employee to head home at night, Lewton took responsibility for every script page going before a camera. As with mentor Selznick, all set-ups bore the Lewton signature. Despite disappointment his films sometimes yield on first viewing, hanged if they don’t mesmerize with second or more visits. The problem in 1943 was showmen expecting horror to be brightly-lit mummies or wolfmen chasing girls up a tree. I Walked With A Zombie,  despite promise of its title, was Jane Eyre set in the tropics. The Leopard Man was no such thing, being devoid of man-into-leopard technics, and in fact, the apparent cat murders were a red herring for human villainy. Lewton kept snatching rugs from under chill fans, and numbers began to reflect their awareness. The Leopard Man cost $155,000. Domestic rentals were $303,000, with foreign $100,000. Final profits of $104,000 represented a steep fall from the first two entries. Lewton were now running even with, if not behind, the Falcon series. A serious, if inevitable, drop-off would begin with The Seventh Victim. Soon it would become a challenge keeping up with Tim Holt.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful stuff about a great producer; the data on grosses and profits is invaluable. [Say -- are you going to re-tell the story about Lewton and his "special" tie?]

In the '70s, Film Comment published a number of great pictures of various Mayer-dressed Rialto marquees. I'd love to see more -- they would make a great coffee table book!

3:03 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

That photo of the Rialto lobby mentions "Superman and the Arctic Giants." What the heck was that?

6:44 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Maybe one of the Fleischer Superman cartoons?

6:49 AM  
Blogger RobW said...

'The Artic Giant" ( note it is NOT plural ) was the fourth of the Flesicher Superman cartoons and can be found in Warner's 14-disc 'Superman - Ultimate Collector's edition " in a beautiful transfer from original elements, unlike the various public-domain releases that have been available for yyears.

11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Business for The Leopard Man may have been light and profits disappointing, but the movie certainly made an impression on me in the 1950s when it hit TV with the rest of the RKO package. I'll never forget my first viewing of that poor girl being stalked home in the night -- the one killing that was indeed committed by the escaped leopard -- or the horrible sight of her blood trickling under the door. (I read somewhere once that that moment so shocked some viewers that they remembered seeing it in color.) As a child, I was also creeped out by the climactic chase through the eerie funeral procession, although it wasn't until years later, seeing it as an adult, that I was finally clear on the story at that point.

3:14 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023
  • April 2023
  • May 2023
  • June 2023
  • July 2023
  • August 2023
  • September 2023
  • October 2023
  • November 2023
  • December 2023
  • January 2024
  • February 2024
  • March 2024
  • April 2024
  • May 2024