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

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Bonnie and Clyde Turns Forty

There was less celebration over Bonnie and Clyde’s fortieth anniversary than might have been expected. Generational struggles the picture once represented aren’t relevant anymore, as the disapproving establishment circa 1967 is mostly gone now, and victors who claimed cultural dominance are themselves under siege by revisionist-minded youngsters in diapers (or not yet born) when Bonnie and Clyde was released. One of these wrote an interesting piece for The New York Times a few weeks ago, daring to acknowledge merit in Bosley Crowther’s scabrous review which had set off a firestorm in 1967 and led to the critic’s forced retirement after decades with the paper. A.O. Scott speaks of that epochal struggle, but not in fawnish terms agreeable to a sixties generation still flattering themselves for having pulled down a decaying critical hierarchy too mossbound and obtuse to "get" radical chic flicks like Bonnie and Clyde. Least of all would that rebel audience, grayed but clinging tenaciously to their myths, enjoy knowing they were but lemmings enticed to the sea by what I’d call a plain inspired sales plan on Warner Bros’ part. Wait --- weren’t they supposed to have bungled distribution and fought against Warren Beatty’s vision all the way to those cast-off ozoners where Bonnie and Clyde was supposedly dumped? A recent Newsday column addressed the fortieth thus: Warner Bros. thought so little of the film that they released it as a "B" movie, primarily to drive-ins and second-tier theatres. That’s a damning reference to territorial openings common at the time. What more insulting for New York critics and their acolytes than having the season’s pet movie open in Texas and across the South prior to saturation in urban markets far better able to appreciate such ground-breaking artistry? The fact that Bonnie and Clyde went wide first in the South was something camp followers would never get over. To this day, they call it a black mark against Warners.

Once again, it helps to have been there. We got Bonnie and Clyde at the Liberty on September 13, 1967. That was a month before Pauline Kael’s review in The New Yorker, which is supposed to have further stoked the tempest. Down where I lived, Bonnie and Clyde was an unknown quantity. The limited openings in New York had taken place August 13 after a Montreal film festival showing on the fourth of that month. Saturation bookings in the South and Southwest would be the public’s first wide exposure to the film. Warners based much of their campaign on positive reviews Bonnie and Clyde received after the Canada and New York bows. Naysayers like Crowther were more than offset by raves elsewhere. The pressbook was salted with laudatory quotes. Better still for exhibitors was a free package of accessories that normally would have run upwards of ten dollars for rental. I noticed that set of door panels right away when the Liberty started Bonnie and Clyde, and a bullet-hole decal on the back windshield of a parked car out front was reminiscent of ballyhoo they’d done back in 3-D and Cinemascope days. It was only when Colonel Forehand gave me the pressbook that I realized these extras were gratis by courtesy of Warner’s sales force. This wasn’t the first time they’d done a little something extra for showmen. Bookings for Chamber Of Horrors in 1966 included a free Fear Flasher/Horror Horn standee with powered lights and sound effects. There was something distinctly ahead of the curve about Warner campaigns. They had been been trend-setting and showing up the competition for over a year prior to Bonnie and Clyde. I would submit that modern movie advertising began with Warner Bros. Note sassy appeals to seen-it-all patrons encouraged to share a wink with Paul Newman’s Harper in February 1966, among the first camped-up and deliberately sarcastic ad appeals for a straightforward detective thriller. That same month saw Inside Daisy Clover and an almost confrontational tagline (thanks to all the slobs, creeps, and finks ) ideally suited to product demands of fashionably disaffected youth. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (June 1966) could not have been marketed with more precise awareness of what its eventual impact would be. Cunning Warner salesmen had painted targets on the backs of sophisticated moviegoers nationwide by the time Bonnie and Clyde’s campaign hit the drawing board.

A plan this good would still work. They’re young … they’re in love… and they kill people. Anyone claiming Warners botched this sale must have rocks in their head. Here are samples of alternate ads to suggest what I’d consider a major reason for Bonnie and Clyde’s fantastic success. Each are knowingly hip and cutting edge. The pressbook refers to dry wit and violent punch. Advertising delivery on both is what put this show over. Stark contrast is furnished by way of Fox’s conventional effort on behalf of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a not dissimilar product released within months of Bonnie and Clyde. There was nothing wrong with Roger Corman’s movie, other than its running a losing ($264,000) sack race with an arthritic sales force pushing St. Valentine’s as though it were the second coming of Little Caesar --- and what misguided staffer proposed this tie-in for George Segal’s Yama-Yama Man banjo album? Thick with irony is the fact that Bonnie and Clyde filmmakers so brilliantly utilized the same instrument to augment their soundtrack, as I well remember rushing out to buy that 45 RPM single of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I’m betting the Bonnie and Clyde craze was no accident, despite what others have written. Warners knew it would take off in the South, and that’s why we got it early. For us, it was the second coming of Thunder Road. Dixie territorial openings have a noble history. After all, weren’t we first to get Brides Of Dracula, Ghost and Mr. Chicken and The Wild Bunch? Snobs up north accused (and maintain) Warners abandoned Bonnie and Clyde. The problem the Liberty had was retrieving this show once audience demand tied up available prints. By late Fall, they were exhibitor equivalents of Faberge Eggs. Everybody wanted Bonnie and Clyde, and bear in mind that in those days, four hundred prints in circulation was the norm, as opposed to three to four thousand we see on opening weekends now. It took Colonel Forehand until May 25 the following year to score a return booking.

My fervent embrace of Bonnie and Clyde resulted in two trips to the Liberty during the one-week engagement. I realized early on the price I’d pay in the final third for fun I’d had in the first. That may be why I didn’t revisit the DVD for an anniversary look. Forty years have past, but Estelle Parsons screeching non-stop in the back seat of that blood-soaked car is still a daunting prospect. Bonnie and Clyde may take credit for stoking the revolution, but that’s been over a long time now, and even though their side won, that still doesn’t make it easier to sit through an at-times very unpleasant show. Could this explain so few throwing birthday parties? A handful of sites rose to the challenge of explaining Bonnie and Clyde and why it matters --- or doesn’t. The younger ones come across a little doubtful. They missed going straight from University town showings to march on the Chancellor’s house back in 1967. All that’s left to them is the movie, and how likely is that to pack a wallop equal to what it did four decades back? Much of Bonnie and Clyde’s initial reception was weighted down with politics and social issues largely forgotten now. I wasn’t aware of all that when I was thirteen and seeing it new. That’s just as well, for it compels me less to defend the film now against justified revisionist criticism such as Scott’s in The Times. We’ve all had occasion to accept a film’s greatness on someone else’s authority, and that someone is usually the person who saw it brand new and can summon up memories of impact and emotion we’ll never feel. Bonnie and Clyde will not again deliver the goods as once it did, though I’m glad I was there to flinch with other first-run shocked observers, but what of great shows I missed by accident of (too late) birth? Have my perceptions of these been largely shaped by impressions my viewing elders passed down?


Blogger Uncle Gustav said...

Nice reflection. I saw Bonnie & Clyde in the late 60s when Warners reissued it with my pre-teen eyes it paled next to Steve McQueen, especially when Steve uttered the unmentionable "bullshit" to Robert Vaughn. As time went on I recognized Bonnie & Clyde's artistry, but missed its topical relevance due to my age.

In an interview with one of the screenwriters, they described showing the film to Jack Warner for the first time. The mogul was confused and put off by the picture, but when Penn & Co. placated him by saying it was an homage to Warners' gangster pictures of the 30s and 40s, he seemed pleased -- though no one in the room believed Jack knew what 'homage' meant.

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I had little use for A.O. Scott's reflections on BONNIE's 40th, I'm grateful the Greenbriar has so ably -- and thoughtfully -- taken on the task. Sterling observations on Warners' top-flight campaign and a nice primer on how film releases used to be carefully weighted and structured.

What a great picture. It remains one of the seminal experiences of my film-going life.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Erica Simpson said...

I actually really like this movie, not knowing much about B&C myself I am possibly ignorant to it's faults. But I like the sense of the movie, the era that it evokes.

11:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too was there for Bonnie and Clyde the first time around. I thought then what I think now: it was a darn good movie (Bosley Crowther certainly missed the boat), but nowhere near the masterpiece it was cracked up to be (Pauline Kael caught the boat, all right -- then went overboard). I liked everything about it (with the glaring exception of Estelle Parsons; I detested her then, and I have never been able to stomach her in anything since), but calling it "a good ganster movie" wasn't nearly high or deep enough for the campus crowd in those days, whose knowledge of gangster movies went back no further than Robert Stack in TV's The Untouchables.

Was B+C a "watershed film" (a term Time Magazine coined just for it, then graciously retro-fitted to other titles like Birth of a Nation and Singin' in the Rain)? Hardly. And as much as I enjoyed the movie, I did not enjoy being lectured on it by college pseudo-intellectuals who suddenly discovered in 1967 (with the one-two punch of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate) that movies were Art. A bunch of damn Johnny-Come-Latelies if you ask me.

In light of that, I confess to some grim satisfaction in 1977, when the AFI published its first list of the Top 50 American Films -- and Bonnie and Clyde, abandoned by its cult (who had moved on to Star Wars), didn't make the cut at all. This, mind you, only a scant ten years after it was hailed as a supreme masterpiece by the hotshot college intelligentsia. (On the latest AFI list, it's back, at no. 42.)

1:44 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

It's funny to read this, since these days Warners has the worst reputation for promoting its product.

I saw "Bonnie & Clyde" twice when it was released -- and I was only 11 -- the same age as my daughter. No way would I let her see it now.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Larry Aydlette said...

I still love this movie. Thanks for the write-up and the incredible art.

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

People, you MUST read "Pictures at a Revolution", by Mark Harris. He tells the story of a changing Hollywood through the production history of all five Best Picture Oscar nominees for 1967 (BONNIE & CLYDE, THE GRADUATE, GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, DOCTOR DOLITTLE, and ultimate winner IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT).

11:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there,

I have a inquiry for the webmaster/admin here at

Can I use some of the information from your post above if I give a link back to your website?


8:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

James, you can use info from this post if you like. Just let me know when your own article goes up so I can read it.

6:56 AM  

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
  • June 2024
  • July 2024