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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Then It Could Be Told

Atom bombs are most effective in movies when they unleash dinosaurs, krakens, or mutant ants. Serious exploration of the Bomb and its applications are tougher to dramatize. Get technical with audiences and they switch off. Argue moral implications and you’ll empty theatres. Metro found out with a 1947 go at the Manhattan Project that ended with losses of $1.5 million. The Beginning Or The End may have been too close to the actual drop for comfort. Many spoonfuls of sugar were needed to make this medicine go down. When time came to dramatize the mission of Lt. Colonel Paul Tibbetts, the pilot who flew over Hiroshima, MGM knew better which blueprint to use. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo wasn’t about atom bombs, but its set-up worked to a tune of $1.4 million in 1944 profits, and could easily be modified for 1952 application. Above and Beyond was less about the Bomb and more about secrets its architects kept from their wives. Putting over a story like this required getting out of laboratories and into kitchens. Telling it all from a woman’s viewpoint would cinch the deal. Metro marketing know-how followed up on cunning writers-directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank’s shift of emphasis from nuclear force to the force of nuclear families, by far the greater concern of audiences done with war and disinclined to revisit one of its darker chapters.

Writers were hot to get Enola Gay off the ground again since Col. Tibbetts lent technical expertise to the novel that became Twelve O’Clock High. He had appeared by (minor) way of actor Barry Nelson among characters in The Beginning Or The End. Tibbetts was a natural and his Air Force superiors were ready to team with Metro to reveal the Best Kept Secret Of The War. Figured early was the importance of Tibbett’s personal story. Not only was this the better commercial option, it would also boost morale within the Strategic Air Command, where divorce rates among pilots were climbing higher than planes they were flying. If the Tibbetts could withstand pressures brought by so monumental a project as the Atom Bomb, surely military personnel in the audience could put right their own marital discords. You don’t find a lot of romance in war, said Tibbetts, but Metro was determined to shoehorn plenty into Above and Beyond. Recognition of this inspired him to beg off on the studio’s offer to serve as technical advisor. I was too close to the forest to see the trees, said Tibbetts, who did at least approve of Robert Taylor as his screen altar-ego. They got on well, and Tibbetts admired the fact that Taylor had actually served in the military. The Colonel evinced little interest or confidence in war movies. They’re a bunch of bullshit, he said. I found out right away that they took liberties. They made things up. Things about the flight --- at first I felt like correcting them, but they explained to me that this is the way movies work. To make it more entertaining, and to make it move along. So I just accepted that, and watched it as a movie. Like most men of action, Tibbetts cared less about Hollywood in any case. He’d never see Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Best Years Of Our Lives, or the much later Saving Private Ryan. He was impatient with actors and their yak-yak. There’s no use in wasting a lot of damn words when you can do something instead. MGM writers sought to lay a major guilt complex on the Tibbetts character over Hiroshima and weave the show around that, but military brass resisted. It was enough giving them marital strife to chew on, and Tibbetts, who had veto power over degrading and misleading aspects of any script, was surprisingly compliant over dramatization of his domestic woes. He’d later reveal that Above and Beyond really didn’t portray the tensions as bad as they were (the Tibbetts would divorce in 1955). As to guilt, he’d feel none. It was the Colonel’s job and he did it, a position Tibbetts would maintain right up to November 1, 2007, the date of his death at 92. If you give me the same circumstances, hell yeah, I'd do it again.

A love story with tenderness and heartbreak. Ladies, take a couple of hankies with you. You’ll need them, warns Hedda Hopper at the trailer’s conclusion. Above and Beyond was designed to serve its women customers first. Metro’s boxoffice was dependent upon that. The less discussion about bombs the better, lest the show itself bomb, and no need getting excited about planes switching from shot to shot, or staging the Enola Gay’s take-off in daytime when the actual flight left at night. Such nitpicking was confined to war buffs and kids that built airplane models, and besides, Girlfriend and Mom made the decisions about what they’d all go to see. 1952 was long before moviegoing became the near exclusive province of adolescent boys. Pictures lacking femme interest paid for such oversight in (lost) turnstile dollars. Above and Beyond had trouble enough for action minimized in favor of interior drama. This topic was too serious to tread lightly upon. You’d not have the turkey shoot pay-off of a Sergeant York or bombs taking out picturesque factory models as in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. There could be no exhilaration when this payload was dropped. Downplaying the devastation avoided downer exits and bad word of mouth. Stars Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker helped overcome audience dread of the subject matter, plus there was genuine fascination with long delayed unraveling of what had gone on in connection with the military’s biggest hush-hush operation. Fullest Air Force cooperation guaranteed positive depiction of all service branches. Taylor/Tibbetts readjusts a few brass hats with character establishing insubordination during the first act, but that’s to reassure us that he’s the right guy for this mission. Scientists at the top-secret base are tentative eggheads who’d sooner scuttle the project than gamble on its success, typical of movie intellectuals whose usefulness ends when bugles sound.

The US Air Force got on merchandising board with Metro and pushed recruitment in lobbies nationwide. Are you tough enough to go "Above and Beyond"? Uniformed personnel stationed or residing nearby would be encouraged to attend local openings, and Air Force bands were available, provided the band’s appearance constitutes a part of a serious, dignified, semi-civic ceremony. Original crewmembers from the Enola Gay participated in the campaign. MGM’s pressbook actually listed home addresses for a number of them and advised exhibitors in those areas to make contact for possible appearances on radio, television, and in newspapers. The Real Col. Tibbetts (as shown here in a news plant) made a number of dates to promote Above and Beyond. Many of these were in tandem with Robert Taylor, whose guest spot on Ed Sullivan’s Toast Of The Town was one of the first occasions in which a studio contract player went on television to promote a picture currently in release. Taylor also canvassed nationwide on behalf of Above and Beyond, including the stop shown here with Cleveland exhibitors. Women love the idea of "secrets", said publicity, and toward making hay with that, showmen were encouraged to utilize the Sealed Lips Bally. Use a girl to advertise your picture on the streets. Seal her lips with tape. In furtherance of the assault, placards they’d carry would read: Sh-h-h-! I’m the Only One Who Knows the secret Robert Taylor is Keeping from Eleanor Parker in "Above and Beyond" --- Now At Leow’s. Interviewers at corners inquired Should A Husband Keep A Secret From His Wife? As to how many domestic scuffles this provoked, I don’t know. Above and Beyond was produced at a fairly economical (for 1952) $1.3 million. There were domestic rentals of $2.6 million, and foreign rentals of $1.4. Eventual profits of $1.1 million gave MGM one of its larger hits of the season.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Footnotes To Kong

Compulsive further digging into King Kong reissues revealed common threads I’d not noticed while focused on the 1952 engagements. Seems Kong played heaviest in the summer. This was true in 1938, 1942, 1952, and 1956. Reasons went beyond the fact that schools were out. More important was summer doldrums brought on by lack of air conditioning in many theatres. Some closed during July and August rather than face heat waves and patron complaints. Show season proper began for most majors in September. The best of a year’s offerings would open through the Fall and play into winter and Spring months following. By summer, bolts were shot and companies went into vaults for product to ride out dog days. Exhibitors were free to fill shortage by requesting oldies from local exchanges, and if prints were available, they could be had at reasonable terms. Unprecedented was the demand for revivals and reissues by 1938, when The Motion Picture Herald devoted part of a June issue to coverage of library product available again. Warners disdained reissues and announced schedules excluding them. Warner Brothers will not flood the market with reissues of old feature pictures, said that company. Our men feel that a blanket policy of reissues by all the companies may have a negative effect in that it may serve to keep the movie-going public away from the theatres. WB’s counteraction included summer release dates for The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Crime School, and Gold Diggers In Paris, among other first-runs. Competing distributors were less resistant to vault pillage. Even silents returned in 1938. Paramount offered a new campaign for The Sheik, and repeats going back to Birth Of A Nation were filling houses. A growing backlog of talkies meant more of them could be exploited anew. There were actually forty reissues out of major distributors in 1938, with a total of 245 more titles booked on individual exhibitor request. Reissues required application for a Code seal and often new prints and accessories. Certain revivals played heavily in territories particularly receptive to them. Will Rogers was a hit in rural markets for several years past his death, and some theatres toted up eight runs on It Happened One Night. Revival Of The Fittest was a catchphrase showmen introduced to sell oldies. The greatest popularity and profit for oldies would be enjoyed by neighborhood and small town houses.

He’s Loose Again! was the slogan RKO pushed for its 1938 dates on King Kong. Both trade ads shown here, from 1938 (top) and 1942 (above), promise new prints and art. A so-called thirty-foot cutout used in 1933 was again offered to 1938 showmen. Note the one shown here. It’s imposing enough, but doesn’t look to be thirty feet high. Twenty perhaps? I’m basing that on estimated height of the exhibitors standing alongside. This display adorned the Capitol Theatre in Dallas, Texas. It seems bigger was always better when selling King Kong. Ken Collins of Indianapolis customized a thirty-six foot papier-mâché gorilla for his playdate. Local girls working in shifts from 10 AM to 10PM took turns sitting in Kong’s giant paw. Oversized gorilla heads adorned ushers promoting 1938 engagements as this photo shows. One Canadian promoter went so far as to arrange a mock lynching for the Kong double in which he was dragged out on Main Street and hung prominently from a lamppost (!). Like those "Darkest Africa" warriors pressed into service for 1952 dates, this is a stunt unlikely to be repeated in future ballys for King Kong.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Mighty Monarch Of Melodramas!

King Kong the success was born in 1933. King Kong the smash happened in 1952. Sleeper Of The Year was among terms used by The Motion Picture Herald. Reissues were nothing new in the fifties. They’d been around since movies began. Major distributors stepped them up after the war and some clicked beyond expectation. The Wizard Of Oz finally got into the black based on earnings received from its 1949 encore, and Universal strengthened bottom lines with profits derived from a lease arrangement with Realart Pictures. RKO relied heavily upon reissues from that studio’s inception. Cimarron took $86,000 in domestic rentals when it returned in 1934. The Lost Squadron, The Lost Patrol, Of Human Bondage, and Star Of Midnight were all brought back during the thirties, as was hands-down RKO library champ, King Kong. Kong was the surest revival thing outside of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, a property distributed, but not owned, by the company. So many theatres were dedicated action houses, catering to patron appetite for westerns, thrillers, and adventures. They wanted shows to move and shunned ones that dawdled. There was generally but one trip to the well for Irene Dunne mellers, but a Gunga Din could play forever (and seemingly did). For RKO, King Kong defined evergreen. Exaggeration of its financial success became the stuff of many a press release. They said early on that King Kong saved RKO from bankruptcy, but didn’t Little Women cost less and make more? Studio ledgers reveal it did. Domestic rentals of $1.3 million (and $663,000 foreign) against a negative cost of $424,000 resulted in profits of $800,000 for Little Women, while King Kong, having cost a greater amount to produce ($672,000), took $745,000 domestic (plus $1.1 million foreign) to finish $650,000 to the good. Top Hat of the following year would surpass both with a stunning $1.3 million in profit, the largest gain RKO would have on any release during the thirties (with the exception of Disney owned Snow White). King Kong as studio savior became part of the character’s mythology, and sure enough he helped keep wolves at bay for years beyond initial release in 1933.

Application for a Code Seal in 1938 necessitated infamous cuts whose retrieval some forty years later enhanced Janus’ commercial prospects when they took over Kong’s distribution. Audiences during the interim made do with a truncated version further compromised by lab-darkened prints designed to minimize gory visuals. The 1938 reissue being but five years after initial circulation found many viewers recalling footage denied them now. There was $155,000 in domestic rentals that year, with $151,000 foreign. The final profit was $200,000, excellent for a reissue and approaching Little Women status, itself brought back in 1938 to lesser returns of $60,000 domestic and $10,000 foreign. As of 1938, King Kong’s cumulative profits would equal those of Little Women. Another Kong reissue in 1942 brought it neck and neck with Top Hat. On that occasion, King Kong took $170,000 in domestic rentals and another $515,000 foreign (note the disparity … Kong found its biggest audience by far in foreign territories). This time, there was $460,000 in profits. With each reissue there were new prints; those from 1933 having been retired because of Code-banned footage. Fresh campaign material was also prepared. King Kong’s near leading status would be overtaken in 1943 by Mr. Lucky, a Cary Grant vehicle that earned a remarkable $1.6 million in profits (spurred by wartime attendance booms), the all-time highest for an in-house RKO picture on first-run release. It would be nine more years before King Kong would claim pride of place as greatest of all profit getters for its owner. Indeed, the Great Ape would leave his deepest imprint with the 1952 reissue. That would be the year in which Kong truly became the eighth wonder of the (exhibition) world.

The 1952 King Kong was a reissue whose time had come. Recent success of science fiction films had ripened the market for fantastic fare. RKO must have anticipated better than average grosses, as early trade ads reflect unusual confidence. In fact, this was the biggest push they’d made for vault product since the 1949 combo of She with The Last Days Of Pompeii. Both did brisk encore business (in fact, She surpassed its original take). In the wake of a good reception for these and 1951’s The Thing, RKO had reason to believe King Kong would click. A midlands saturation launch found Kong in 400 theatres generally in tandem bookings with Val Lewton's The Leopard Man. Openings were timed with schools out attendance. RKO rolled promotional dice and spent major dollars in the boldest appeal yet made to viewers at home. RKO sent out four open-body trailer trucks to cities in five exchange areas where King Kong was being saturated, these carrying replicas of the giant ape. The vehicles were twenty-four feet long and eight feet wide. Sides and tail pieces were made up to depict a row of city skyscapers, with the Empire State Building overlooking the center. The Kong figure towered ten feet above the trucks and had movable arms and head, while clutching a replica of Fay Wray in his hairy paw. A portable light plant on each truck powered floods to illuminate the display at night. Television spots, used but sparingly by studios over the past two years, were more or less untried as a major selling device. There were, after all, only 109 stations on the air in 1952, and it was no good trying to sell color Hollywood spectaculars on snowy and dimly lit home screens. Many star contracts contained clauses forbidding them to promote films on television. Obstacles were everywhere, yet benefits of TV advertising could not be ignored. The essential debate revolved around who would pay for it. Distributors felt exhibitors should at the least split the cost. The former was spending to customize trailers for bite size video use. They varied from twenty to sixty seconds. Film companies dropped between two and five thousand dollars on preparation of same. Rates for airplay in bigger markets were beyond the reach of most exhibitors, even if distributors supplied the spots for free. At New York’s WNBT, a twenty-second spot commanded $775 in "A" time and $500 during so-called "B" periods when less viewers were watching. There were volume discounts, but to be really effective, a saturation campaign had to run at least twenty to fifty spots a week in support of a feature’s local engagement. It required ten days to two weeks to hammer messages into home audiences for your upcoming theatre show, and such a blitz cost thousands even in smaller territories. RKO had previously spent in excess of $10,000 for the opening of Sudden Fear in Boston and twenty-five surrounding towns. Exhibitors agreed that television was being horribly neglected as a promotional devise, but no one had the answer as to equitable sharing of costs. The situation is not unlike what we’re seeing today with installation of digital projection in theatres. Who gets the tab? Besides, there was still deep suspicion of television as dangerous and harmful competition. The thought of enriching video coffers was unimaginable to showmen who’d assigned enemy status to the upstart medium. TV saturation was thus still regarded as experimental when RKO stepped up with King Kong. They’d seen benefits of tube selling with Sudden Fear and Disney’s Snow White reissue earlier that year. Now they were prepared to shoot the works and invest $200,000 into spot buying. They found out quickly just how much impact these promos would have.

In a lot of places where television didn’t reach, our grosses on "King Kong" were off, said RKO’s exploitation head Terry Turner. In these situations, radio saturation held up the gross. But where we had neither radio nor television, such as places in Idaho, the picture had to be pulled. There were problems in those cities in which newspapers also owned the broadcast stations. Buffalo and Milwaukee TV would not accept King Kong trailers at all. Publishers preferred that RKO spend greater money selling their movie with print ads, thus the freeze-out. Boxoffice was down in these locations as a result. It was becoming clear that television was Kong’s handmaiden in achieving what The Motion Picture Herald referred to as a phenomenal gross that summer. Our use of television has increased the gross at the boxoffice anywhere from twenty-five to two hundred percent, said RKO, adding that where "King Kong" was supported by TV trailers, the opening day was forty percent above normal. Some theatres were getting, in one day, audiences representing a week’s average. By August, trade and even mainstream press was commenting on the King Kong breakout. It was recently reissued, said Harrison’s Reports, mainly for laughs, as we understand it --- and lo and behold, it is again pulling ‘em into the movie houses by the thousands and tens of thousands. Harrison’s viewed Kong as the ticket to greater dollars for revivals in general. This is only one case out of many in which an old picture has been dusted off for another run and has proceeded to act like a fresh new smash hit. With domestic rentals of $1.608 million generated, the 1952 King Kong did indeed trump first-run RKO releases of the same year. Compare that number with domestic rentals received by the following in concurrent play --- Macao ($1.1 million), Tarzan’s Savage Fury ($750,000), Rancho Notorious ($900,000), At Sword’s Point ($950,000), and On Dangerous Ground ($500,000). Kong was walloping just released product everywhere. July 14’s TIME magazine was moved to call it Picture Of The Year, even as editors snickered at ancient biplanes on view and repeated the old canard of Kong having saved RKO from 30’s bankruptcy. Exhibitors nationwide joined the hosannas. A fine old picture, worth playing on your best time. Did very well at B.O. Good print and new sound, and priced right, said Charles R. Reynolds of the Marco Theatre in Waterford, California. Prints were indeed fresh, as it was necessary for RKO to use the new safety stock for 1952 engagements, but were they actually good? Surviving 35mm from the reissue reflect all sorts of problems connected with long-ago loss of original elements and dictates imposed by the Code, still very much in effect as of 1952. In addition to those cuts made in 1938, reels were now being printed out of frame and the picture remained too dark. The new generation discovering King Kong had no access to the picture as it looked in 1933, and so accepted and embraced this degraded Kong as cultural talisman for the Baby Boom, a status maintained and enhanced by RKO’s sale of the feature to television in 1955 (with runs to begin in 1956). As for TV spots used for the 1952 reissue, none appear to have survived. I’ve not run across any over years of collecting 16mm, and that would have been the format sent to stations. Has anyone ever seen these? There should be any number of variations among 20-30-60 second lengths offered at the time. Could they be forever lost?

King Kong was sold to television along with 741 other RKO features in 1955. The first airings would take place in March of 1956. WOR in New York had a sensation that month when they played King Kong for five straight days. Kids were watching every broadcast. This has been the biggest thing since Davy Crockett, said one station executive. In an effort to squeeze final theatrical coin out of Kong prior to the studio’s own demise, RKO reissued the venerable favorite one last time on June 13, 1956, comboed with Val Lewton’s I Walked With A Zombie. Exhibitors were hostile, knowing Kong was all over television and disinclined to play it for an admission now. With the closure of RKO exchanges, prints of King Kong moved over to independent franchisees, where it rented at minimal flat rates into the sixties. The character again lured youngsters when King Kong met Godzilla in 1963 combat. Men in monkey skin substituted for stop-motion photography engineered by the great Willis O’Brien. Despite the risible quality of Universal’s Japanese import, King Kong vs. Godzilla managed a stellar $1.219 million in domestic rentals, this largely due to saturation booking and television campaigns much like those that propelled the 1952 King Kong to boxoffice heights. Another Nippon go at the topic was King Kong Escapes in 1968. This time Universal collected $1.112 million in domestic rentals. Again it was stuntmen flailing about in ape attire. Kong remained king because effects progressed little since 1933 when money was spent to create effects that would remain convincing even unto jaded sixties audiences. Perhaps realizing this, Janus Films leased theatrical rights to King Kong and other RKO favorites in a March 1966 deal that looked toward yet another theatrical revival. Bookings would be spotty until providence supplied footage discovered by a private collector in 1967. Seems a former projectionist had squirreled material cut from previous reissues, scenes out of circulation since first-runs in 1933. Janus acquired a 16mm reduction reel and blew it up to 35mm for another theatrical push in 1970. The hook lured curiosity seekers and press interest took King Kong well beyond art house ghettos where oldies generally unspooled. Despite black-and-white, these effects still dazzled and remained as inspiration for new Sinbad features Ray Harryhausen designed with similar stop-motion techniques. As if to demonstrate how little we’d progressed, Paramount unleashed its own King Kong remake in 1976 that was yet again a man in ape skin. Restoration applied to the original bore fruit. A British Film Institute print was complete and seamless in the bargain, so no more jolts when the outtakes showed up. This was basis for a DVD that finally delivered goods for fans who’d spent lifetimes waiting. A CGI redo of King Kong in 2006 looked like cartoon monsters running alongside panicked actors. It wasn’t always easy telling one from the other. Everything the original did, this one overdid. Merian C. Cooper once said he cut the legendary spider pit sequence because it slowed the pace. Where, oh where, was his guiding spirit when this three-hour colossus lumbered into editing rooms? 104 minutes is plenty to tell the story of a big gorilla. How do you justify a near doubling of that? Still, it’s a devoted fan’s sincerest tribute, and for all that, deserves sympathy if not respect.
Many Thanks to Dr. Karl Thiede for valuable assist and advise with this post.
More about the Janus-RKO 1966 lease at this previous post on Citizen Kane, and much more on 16mm King Kong collecting here.

Lines Await King Kong in 1933.
Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong.
A June 1952 trade ad announcing saturation bookings for King Kong.
Fay Wray menaces producer Merian C. Cooper with Kong's pawprint.
RKO includes Kong among its first-run Summer lineup.
"King Of The Year's Boxoffice!" says this June 28 trade ad.
Local bally with native stand-ins. Note the background marquee.
Silkscreen banner for the 1952 reissue.
A duotone 1952 lobby card. The 1956 reissue would go back to full color sets!
Merian C. Cooper, Willis O'Brien, Fay Wray, and Ernest B. Schoedsack relax.
"King Kong Is Here Again!" says the pressbook cover.
Crowds assemble at the Palace Theatre on Times Square for King Kong.
1956 ad art for the King Kong/I Walked With A Zombie combo.
The 1933 camera crew on Skull Island.
A colorful insert for the 1956 reissue.
Another Summer (1963) and another Kong, this time battling Godzilla.
The ugliest, most unworthy poster ever devised? I'd tap Janus' Kong one-sheet.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Vampira and Other Creatures Of The Late Night

I was 3000 miles away in my cradle when Vampira broke big hosting movies on Los Angeles television. For one who’d achieve such mythic status, she had a mighty short run on airwaves. I’ve scoured obits for possible reasons why in the wake of Maila Nurmi’s death last week at 86. Nurmi said she and her alter ego were blacklisted. The squawk was over KABC’s desire to own Vampira outright. It was less Nurmi they wanted than her patent on the character. She had roamed graveyards in a lavish 40’s spook show Michael Todd staged (just once) in New York. Howard Hawks  got wind of that and signed her to be his next Lauren Bacall . Nurmi broke out on her promised-but-not-delivered big break and married Dean Reisner, former child actor for Charlie Chaplin  and son of director Charles Reisner, who’d done Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. and helmed several Dane and Arthur  comedies. The KABC producer spotting Nurmi at a Hollywood party in her Morticia Addams get-up was pedigreed Hunt Stromberg, Jr., whose father oversaw many Blue Ribbon Metro features. Was Vampira the first horror host (ess) then? Maybe an obscure station someplace used on-camera emcees for chillers prior to 1954, but there’s no record of them, and likely if there were, none would approach sexed-up shenanigans wasp-waisted Vampira delivered weekly. The only thing she lacked were movies engaging enough to sustain viewers between live routines. All were indie/cheapies sold to KABC despite establishment industry edicts withholding filmland product from TV. Bela Lugosi-philes say he watched White Zombie on KABC and dug Vampira's act. To-be classic noirs played as well, but audiences were decades away from embracing the likes of Detour and Decoy, and besides, what were these doing on a late night spook show? Nurmi’s exit (in less than a season) was abrupt and permanent. Why would an on-air personality featured in LIFE and Newsweek fade off the tube at her seeming summit? I’m guessing the station would have maintained Vampira minus Nurmi, for reasons lost to time. Was she too difficult in negotiations? Anyway, Nurmi withstood what must have been high pressure from the station to buy her character. In the end, neither profited. I don’t doubt the blacklist theory. Some phone calls among program managers probably settled future job prospects. Nurmi could be Vampira all day (and night), but what’s the point when cameras aren’t looking? There’d be numerous photo sittings. Ones shown here were out of agency files and suggest Nurmi was spreading her image where she could to score another midnight berth, but programmers weren’t buying. She sat out wee hours in the garb with assorted Hollyweirds in places like Googie’s Coffee Shop, where dame fortune smiled and introduced her to iconoclast of the moment James Dean. She said they hit it off, but he was less ready to scratch the town’s underbelly, telling Hedda Hopper not so gallantly that witches weren’t his thing and neither were dates with cartoons. Vampira retaliated with a publicly cast hex upon him, and sure enough, Dean exited out shortly after. Nurmi caught hell from creeps and sickies nationwide who figured she put the death mark on their idol, though better judgment might have silenced her during interviews where she claimed to have received spectral communications from Dean via her bedside radio.

Desperation’s last straw found Vampira pulling two hundred-dollars for a single workday on Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, a then unimaginable ticket to immortality that became Nurmi’s own equivalent of the Dean curse. No wonder she shunned latter-day interviews! Going through life with Wood cults in single-minded pursuit would consign anyone to retreat behind locked doors. Varied Vampiras were poaching Nurmi’s act by the time horror hosting really took off in the late fifties (one of them here with on-air m.c. John Zacherle at a record promotion). Vampira herself became less a graveyard smash than just another shill for producers peddling horror pictures such as Blood Of The Vampire, which received Vampira’s Good Ghoul-keeping Stamp of Approval in 1958. Horror hosts were meanwhile thicker than bees in a honey tree. American-International established its own Fraternal Registry Of International Ghoulish Horror Telecasters (FRIGHT for short) "in recognition of your gruesome talent and nerve-wracking ability to scare people out of their wits night after night." Incidental to such honorariums was AIP’s campaign on behalf of 1959’s Horrors Of The Black Museum, possibly the first occasion in which a studio made extensive use of horror hosts in selling a theatrical feature. Competition was such as to finally get Maila Nurmi out of costume and into chic attire for a personal appearance at the January 19, 1965 Tomb Of Ligeia premiere. Here she posed with the film’s star Vincent Price and former Bride Of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester, as well as successor horror host Jeepers Keeper (Fred Stutman). The leopard caped countenance at left was in fact the genuine article among screen vampiresses, and predated Nurmi and her pretenders by twenty years at least. Carroll Borland had played opposite Bela Lugosi in 1934’s Mark Of the Vampire, and hers was the template others, including Vampira, would copy from then on. Relations that night between the two must have been chilly. For all of Nurmi’s dogged courtroom pursuit of fake Vampiras (the last of which would be hapless Elvira), here was the High Priestess of them all coming to call at age fifty in shrouds she wore when the model was invented three decades before. Must have been for Maila like someone walking over her grave.

I was of that earnest mindset deploring horror hosts and their cheeky deconstruction of classic monsters. Cookie-cut routines airing weekly seem to have all come out of the same how-to manual for clueless stations with chiller packages and late-night slots to fill. Kids at school littler than me were making sport of Frankenstein and Dracula. I faithfully watched Dr. Evil out of Charlotte and Count Shockula from High Point but cringed over their mockery of horrors played straight in thirties and forties classics. Pure snobbery deprived me of laughs I might have enjoyed at age 12, but someone had to defend the integrity of The Black Cat and Werewolf Of London. Our sixth grade class presented a so-called "chapel program" for the school in 1966. It was a talent show of sorts and everyone had a turn. I would appear as Count Dracula and deliver a humorous monologue penned by another boy in the cast. The much-rehearsed Lugosi impression was down pat, and my mother furnished a resplendent cape with crimson lining. Our audience guffawed when I spoke longingly of the Transylvanian Twist and visits to the local blood bank, but few detected the stake this lousy skit was driving through my adolescent heart. Forgive me, Bela might well have served as my silent coda, yet hadn’t Lugosi himself burlesqued the image on countless stages during hardship bookings in the late forties and fifties? Maybe it was knowledge of these that made me protective of his image now, or possibly (and more likely) I just took such things too seriously. Letters to Channels 3 and 8 offered detailed instruction as to how they might properly present monster movies. Collective groans must have sounded whenever one of these arrived in the post. I chastised Count Shockula for insipid gagging, an inexpressive mask, and too many showings of The Flying Serpent. Station manager Dick Bennick replied. Turns out he was Count Shockula, master of ceremonies for the Mess America Pageants held at tri-city hardtops in addition to his Shock Theatre hosting duties and actually featured in Issue 45 of Famous Monsters (as shown here). Dr. Evil was magician and spook show favorite Philip Morris, who seemed to have brought his live act to every stage except the Liberty’s. Between begging for that and the Curse Of Frankenstein/Horror of Dracula combo, I was truly Colonel Forehand’s worst nightmare in those days. Horror Theatre became Dr. Evil’s Friday night TV address. Channel 3 reached more viewers than any station in North Carolina. New Years Eve 1964 found the good doctor taunting a (he thought) captive gorilla during a broadcast of Teenagers From Outer Space. Upon the feature’s more than welcome finish, the roused ape broke free of its bonds and gave Dr. Evil merry chase through the studio. Even I was moved to relax vigilance on behalf of horror film dignity upon seeing this. Too bad not an inch of tape survives from these shows, as WBTV erased over them all to record Saturday wrestling.

Having on previous occasion confessed of my 1969 disruption of Channel 4-Greenville’s broadcast day, I now relate a bittersweet account of another effort that year to bring better television to our benighted NC airwaves. Being supreme authority regarding such matters, I had shared expertise with stations since the late fifties. A fifth birthday gift of a TV GUIDE subscription was what first inspired me to take childish scrawl to paper and draft revised schedules for nearby channels to implement. Not as experienced during pre-school days in matters of posting same, I must assume my parents deposited them in Amy’s magic mailbox, or some equivalent other than actual dispatch. In any case, my letters brought no replies until the mid-sixties when unfortunates at Channel 12 in Winston-Salem began apprising me of Universal horror films being shown as Saturday fillers. Their lease on these eventually played out, and it seemed to me they’d never been properly exploited. Perhaps if I showed up at their offices one day (unannounced), portfolio in hand, things could be put right. On said occasion in August 1969, my "cold call" to Channel 12 resulted in an hour’s sit-down with two of the vice-presidents, both of whom remembered letters I’d written over the past several years. My mission, if they chose to accept it, was nothing less than repurchase of the entire "Shock!" package and a classy format in which to present them. John Comas was program director. He listened patiently and promised to take my suggestions under advisement. Within a week of the meeting, I received the letter shown below. Success (if partial) at last! The referred-to Halloween special that began in prime time and lasted through the night of October 31 tempered my transport of joy. NBC’s schedule was pre-empted in favor of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and Son Of Frankenstein. There were three horror hosts, none of them practiced in that art, and each determined to one-up the other with tomfoolery resulting in large chunks being cut from the features. Frankenstein began with Fritz dropping the normal brain; Dracula opened as Renfield entered the castle door. All four features were sans credits. Alas, this was television in those days. You took what you could get and made the best of it. A much updated postscript to my 1969 adventure might justify my relating it, for only today I sought out and spoke with John Comas, signator to this and many letters I received from Channel 12 and a vigorous retiree at age 87. We had a great talk about his days in television and the interesting deal he made with Screen Gems to get the ten titles listed in his August 1969 reply. Turns out he received special low terms on the cherry-picked horrors due to Channel 12’s community outreach to schools and local police for the Halloween special. Everyone’s idea was to give kids and teens something they could watch on TV that night in lieu of going out and possibly making mischief on Winston-Salem streets. Mr. Comas pointed out the fact that distributors seldom waived requirements that stations purchase larger packages in order to get movies they wanted. In the case of Screen Gems and the Shock! offerings, there were fifty-two features in one group and twenty in the other. It was highly unusual at the time for local broadcasters to select the best out of both and leave the rest alone. The fact that Channel 12’s Halloween Spooktacular was designed (at least partly) as a public service project was what secured Screen Gems' cooperation, along with generous terms that came with it. Fascinating insight into ways and means these Universal classics were sold to stations, and I thank John Comas for supplying it.

Horror hosts enjoyed but regional glory. Few were syndicated. None to my knowledge cavorted on major networks. There was celebrity to be had in theatres, super markets, and used car lots, but only within reach of your host station’s broadcast signal. A collector I dealt with some twenty years ago turned out to have been one of Tennessee’s legendary monsters of ceremony, but I never realized it until long after he died in 1994. Russ McCown started with WSM in Nashville as film director. Chance substitution for a stage frightened studio performer found him in costume as one Sir Cecil Creape, host of Creature Features and immediate airwave sensation (that’s Russ/Sir Cecil in the color image). McCown brought real imagination to his horror hosting. There were contests, local celebrity guests, and much ad-libbing. Eventually, the act moved over to The Nashville Network, which widened his audience considerably, though execs ultimately let Sir Cecil go because he wasn’t country enough. I met Russ sometime after that. He’d show up at the Charlotte Western Film Fair with 16mm prints junked out of stations in Tennessee. There was nothing about his demeanor to suggest this was one of horror hosting’s leading lights. Russ was friendly, unassuming, and a font of information about inner workings in television. He also brought dynamite stuff in the trunk of his car. At a time when original prints of Sherlock Holmes, pre-48 Warners, and John Wayne Republics were exceedingly hard to come by, Russ had them all. Never once did he mention having been Sir Cecil Creape, let alone his past life signing autographs for hundreds of Memphis-area viewers clamoring to meet him. This man had played through every syndicated package there was over years in broadcasting, and remembered much detail about programming movies in stations where he’d worked. Just for instance, that pre-48 Warner group was one that had fallen out of demand after moves to color programming and the availability of more recent features made them seem archaic by comparison. Prices were consequently way down by the early eighties. Russ said his station had paid just $125 per title for five runs of films like Passage To Marseille, Jezebel, and Captains Of The Clouds. That’s twenty-five dollars per run. It’s a good thing home video came along to rescue these shows and put them on a better revenue-generating basis. I do wonder what sort of coin vintage titles gather in today’s marketplace (such as --- just how much is Cinemax paying Paramount for tomorrow’s telecast of A Place in the Sun?), but these remain closely guarded secrets within the industry. Knowing people like Russ gave me occasional insight into them. I only wish I’d been aware of his alter ego and greater fame as Sir Cecil Creape. That would have made for even more enthralling conversation.

Friday, January 11, 2008

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Bob Hope Comeback

Most of Bob Hope’s sixties comedies list high among "Golden Turkeys." Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number is one of fifty all-time worsts, according to a comical (and not altogether reliable) scorecard tallied three decades back by Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss. Remember the late seventies? That’s when it became fashionable to identify and denigrate "bad" movies. Edward D. Wood, Jr. just missed parties celebrating his endearing rottenness, while establishment icons like Bob Hope were left to drown in acid baths of hipster disdain. Perpetual motion kept Hope in theatrical harness long after artistic decline would have otherwise folded his tent. Somebody paid Bob to do these lousy comedies, so he did them. I was one who tendered admission to see Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number (1966) and Eight On The Lam (1967), but others clearly joined me, as these were hits of the like Hope had not seen since halcyon days with Crosby. Turns out Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number, with $5.1 million in worldwide rentals, outperformed every Hope vehicle going back to the forties. Eight On The Lam scored as well, with $4.1 million worldwide. The comeback was likely unexpected for a comedian in his mid-sixties with a shtick long past prime and an audience of mostly kids. We went to these based on wacky TV spots hammering chases and slapstick (Phyllis Diller crashing hotel lobbies in a golf cart --- sounds like fun!). George Marshall directed both, and hanged if there’s not a Murphy bed routine in Wrong Number staged after the fashion of colleague Norman Taurog over at AIP in Dr. Goldfoot and The Bikini Machine, done the same year. As historians rediscovered silent comedy in museums and archives, these resilient survivors of the era were restaging gags they’d introduced forty years previous. If a routine was good enough for Billy Bevan in 1926, why not use it again with Bob? Who knew lame-o Hope comedies were the last outpost for silent era artisans in old age and final curtain call mode? George Marshall did these in his seventies. Bob, Jerry (Lewis), Gleason, and the rest must have enjoyed keeping the veteran trouper around. After all, he’d forgotten more about comedy than even they’d ever know, and was noted besides for neat anecdotes told on the set. Hope’s writers went back nearly as far. Most had started with him in radio. Bob used them like Kleenex, but underpaid loyally for those many years they toiled in his vineyards. Verbal patter in Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number played stale as last year’s bread. I kept expecting someone to crack wise over ration points and gasoline coupons. Sets in Wrong Number look underdressed and overlit. Everything’s so tired here, as if Hope and director Marshall were running the final dispiriting lap of a relay they'd begun with such energy in The Ghost Breakers. Phyllis Diller recalled showing up with expectations of reading her dialogue off cue cards, this being Hope’s TV habit, but was flummoxed to discover him word perfect on the set. Seems Bob still took features seriously enough to work at a good performance, an ethic maintained since doing better shows for Paramount.

With six you get eggrolls; with seven you get Eight On the Lam. Moppet mobs seemed sure-fire then as now in pedestrian family comedy. The Hopes uneasily mixed kids, dogs, and smarmy sex jokes. Elke Sommer is mirthlessly in and out of bathtubs throughout Wrong Number. Implied nudity on posters doubtlessly impacted on (the many) tickets sold. Post-Goldfinger Shirley Eaton was Bob’s unlikely love interest in Eight On The Lam. He’s a widower with said seven kids. No longer swinger Hope (except offscreen), this was a new day for elder Bob, mired in that same bog sucking James Stewart down in equally dire family farces over at Fox. You’d watch these two in good films on 60’s television, then despair for them in theatres the following day. By the books, Hope was sixty-three and four when Wrong Number and Eight On The Lam came out. Reliable sources suggest he was at least three years past that. Lam is front loaded with hopeful comics getting big-screen breaks. Phyllis Diller has an encore from Wrong Number. She was big stuff in the mid-sixties. Hindsight would credit her with a lot of the money both pics brought. Miss the sixties and you’d never know what it was to live in Diller’s world, nor that of Rowan and Martin, Flip Wilson, and other phenomena peculiar to that era. Will latter generations ever understand what made us laugh with these? Jonathan Winters ad-libs where he can in Eight On The Lam, but even talent bright as his suffocates. Arthur Marx was one of the writers credited. He’d turn on Bob years later with a scathing unauthorized bio, but neglected to explain his own failure to deliver decent gags for his one-time employer. Hope’s caught in compromising positions and someone yells Sex Maniac! as if that amounted to cutting edge humor. The skits on his TV specials were at least tolerable for being shorter. What’s done there in seven minutes is expanded here to 107. Slapstick is deadliest when listlessly staged (do chase scenes have an enemy so implacable as the process screen?). I think I saw director Marshall in a hotel corridor cameo nearly trampled by Hope’s double on a runaway horse. Those Mad, Mad, madly derivative of previous hit Mad World chases in both Wrong Number and Eight On The Lam juiced up trailers, but were clearly dragged in by the heels to accommodate rigid 60’s formula. How come all comedies then had to end with outsized pursuits? Be it Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, Dr. Goldfoot, or Darn Cats; every finish contrived to send entire casts in mad quest of some inconsequential something. Audiences numbed by such repetition bailed out on Hopes to come. Rentals were down by nearly half for The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell ($2.4 million worldwide), and would plunge further with his last starring feature, Cancel My Reservation, with its miserable $807,000 in domestic rentals. Hope theatricals seemed to have faded with matinees themselves, for his vanishing point out of features pretty much coincided with those of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis, two who shared both his audience and their declining numbers.
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