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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Showmen --- Sell It Hot!

When my mother was 11 or so, her favorite actress was Clara Bow. One day they were all sitting in the yard and she asked my grandmother's permission to go see Clara’s newest for 1928 at the within walking distance Joy Theatre. Just then my aunt and some other kids showed up and reported seeing a poster in front of the Joy with Clara Bow taking a bubble bath. That slammed the door on anyone’s trip to the Joy for that day. My grandmother could scarcely have shielded her daughters from the avalanche of pre-code once talkies unleashed those sights and sounds of moral abandon. It might have been as well for staunch Victorian folk to forbid children to attend movies altogether during the early thirties (and indeed, the only film Grandmother had let my mother see as a small child was Mary Pickford's Pollyanna). Never would youth be exposed to such sustained attack upon convention and morality as with pre-code. What they learned on screens represented polar opposites of lessons taught at home. With sound’s arrival, Clara Bow made way for Helen Twelvetrees in my mother’s scrapbook. Something about her must have appealed to a by now 14-year-old girl fascinated by the infusion of adult themes in movies learning to talk. I’d have to assume an ad like this for the Twelvetrees vehicle Millie (Treat ‘em like tramps…they’re all alike!) wasn’t published in their local Kings Mountain Herald, as such lurid graphics and tag lines would certainly have inspired parental edicts against youngsters wanting to attend. Times were sufficiently hard as to disallow lavish promotions for theaters serving smaller markets. It was all most of them could do to buy space just for announcing titles and start times. American movies lost a third of their audience during 1930. The Depression and eroding novelty of sound put theatre going among lower leisure-time priorities. You could listen to radio a lot cheaper and outdoor activity during summer months appealed more than sitting in theaters without air conditioning. The only way out for Hollywood was product with sex and confession themes. How else could someone like Helen Twelvetrees have sustained a career? Indeed, her success would last no longer than the pre-code era itself. Naughtiness too could be staged with greater economy. Negative costs on sex dramas were minimal. RKO spent $338,000 and $339,000 respectively on Constance Bennett vehicles Born To Love and The Common Law, with eventual profits of $90,000 and $150,000. An epic like Cimarron took $1.4 million to finish and lost $565,000 despite its Academy Award for Best Picture. You might gamble a reputation making sex dramas, but they were otherwise a near sure thing. Producers hastened to lay in a supply for the 1931 season once lines began forming. It was plain enough they’d be testing boundaries in order to survive. Trade ads borrowed leaves from lurid magazine covers and pulp illustrators to stimulate patronage. The Bird of Paradise announcement shown here promised island beauty Delores Del Rio au naturel and indeed delivered through much of the feature as released in 1932. That inspired ever-escalating lures and announcement of a follow-up teaming for stars Del Rio and Joel McCrea in Green Mansions, this startling trade ad of which is all that survives of a film RKO never produced.

Exhibitors not boarding up (and many did) called for spicier fare. Adapt or perish, whatever the punitive measures of local censors and bluenoses. If Mae West filled houses, damn the complaints. Small exhibitors doubling as community centers and presumed safe haven for local youth took some knocks. Urban centers were more concerned with dollars pouring forth from largely anonymous patrons. Mae West and She Done Him Wrong shot down Mr. Low Gross on behalf of downtown palaces needing to fill thousands of seats daily just to keep such barns open. Everyone played a wink and nod game. Showman shorthand told customers what to expect. Give Me A Job --- At Any Price, says Loretta Young to Warren William in this teaser ad for Employee’s Entrance, and by February 1933, customers knew Warners wouldn’t let them down. Hold Your Man bade audiences to Learn How To Do It In One Easy Lesson, with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow more than capable instructors. These were the sorts of come-ons that got crusaders hottest under collars. After all, kids were checking out newspapers and heralds given away, even if Mom and Dad prevented them from seeing such films. States Rights hustlers went beyond even relaxed protocol observed by the majors. Things like Blonde Captive hurled kerosene upon community standards already aflame. A White Woman "Gone Native" Among Descendents Of The Oldest Human Race. Venues hawking such product fairly begged for padlocks, but as long as doors stayed open, thrill seekers rewarded them where it counted most (and note this Blonde Captive ad promises Red Headed Woman to open Friday). Things got bad enough aselling clever if insincere. With Shame Our Screen U to make showmen  acknowledge over-the-line outrage and make even that pay, leading to backhanded selling clever if insincere. With shame our screen unfolds The Worst Picture Ever Made, was how Robert S. Guiterman of Manitowoc, Wisconsin’s Capital Theatre peddled Freaks. The scheme filled Guiterman’s house. Well, he warned them. Free and easy screen content attracted lots of kids, especially the horror shows. Will Burns managed the Princess Theatre in Joliet, Illinois. He mounted a four-day run of Freaks with full circus trappings. Barkers out front promised never-before-witnessed monstrosities inside, as a local midget rendered cornet solos for passers-by. Barker and midget then drove a pony cart to visit schools and playgrounds during recess time, urging youngsters to catch Freaks on Saturday. Cunning then was this ad for the engagement, which expressly forbade kiddie attendance. Warning! Children Positively Not Admitted --- Adults Not In Normal Health Advised Not To See This Picture. Of course, Burns had no intention of enforcing that. We haven’t heard of anyone dying from heart failure, he laughed … but were parents and city fathers amused? Studios and their racy output weren’t alone in arousing the inevitable crackdown. Showmen turned cynical by the wild and wooly stuff they played invited civic scrutiny even as Freaks, Blonde Captive, and the rest kept wolves of bankruptcy and closure at bay. Wiser heads had to know chickens were not long to come home.

There were two kinds of fan magazines in the thirties. Photoplay, Screen Romances and dozens of like formula served readers with movie news, star profiles, and reviews of upcoming films. Their disreputable cousins went by names like Stage and Screen Stories, Saucy Movie Tales, and Film Fun. With these you got the same bang for your dime or quarter that pre-code movies gave in the theaters, only more so. Trashy movie mags went for outright cover nudity and hotter-than-hot stories within. Hollywood As It Really Is pervaded text, which emphasized perils awaiting young girls should they venture west in search of film fame. Femmes braving Hollywood jungles laid bare shames of the casting couch and off-set seductions. Studios furnished legit fan publications with dope on stars and films in release but there were also supply lines open to the scavengers. This is where naughtier pre-code images got their first exposure. Portraits and even swimsuit art of Carole Lombard appeared routinely in Photoplay, but this tawdry pose of she and Virtue co-star Mayo Methot was more to the rarified tastes of Film Fun readers and was seasoned further with a spicy limerick as accompanies it here. Teen girls and single women mostly bought Photoplay. Dad and little brother snuck Film Fun. They’re hard to find today, as most were left behind in corn cribs, outhouses, and whatever hiding place beckoned to periodicals you’d rather not bring indoors. No telling what neat stuff a complete run of these would reveal. Sometimes in old scrapbooks I find snaps of contract players way edgier than what mainstream publications were using. Stars were the stuff of fantasy after all, and who could blame pre-code viewers wanting to take fantasies to the next level? Venture toward that included stops under newsstand counters where notorious Tijuana Bibles took pre-code license to its (sometimes un) natural conclusion. These comic speculations fed darker patron appetites titillated to distraction. Monitors stumbling across such magazines and drawings would naturally figure movies to be an industry badly in need of fumigation.

National Screen Service called it LOVE in the trade ad shown here, but this was purest sex their trailers were selling, and talk about wiring into fantasies! When Lupe Valez throws those lips against the hot ones of her lover, every guy in the house is imagining he’s right there (that’s Lupe in her slip adorning this Hal Phyfe portrait). Trailers had been staid affairs prior to talking pictures. A lot of theatres didn’t use them and preferred glass slides to announce coming attractions. Independents supplied graphics-only previews with still glimpses of stars and tentative appeals on behalf of coming attractions. NSS baited their hook with actual scenes and naturally used ones likeliest to excite anticipation for pre-codes to come. Trailers as we now know them would blossom here. Some turn up as extras on DVD’s, including Tarzan, The Ape-Man, Footlight Parade, and others almost productions in themselves. With its newly streamlined preview service, NSS had red meat it could toss to sensation hungry lions. That’s the real thing --- the pulsing, vitalized action that will get every femme in your audience --- flappers, matron, and grandma. Most trailers produced during the pre-code era are lost now. No telling how many of these would have been censorable once Code enforcement took effect in July 1934. Racy previews walked hand-in-hand with posters out front. There were days you’d think those were burlesque houses on small town Main Streets. Parents did complain and often forbade movies altogether for offspring. Exhibitors took heat for little ones venturing too near a Mae West (but look at this half-sheet beckoning them in). Comments in the trades acknowledged scenes and dialogue a little warm, but seldom did showmen attack product they played. Maybe those running and watching films on a regular basis got used to being treated as thinking adults. Theatres advertising in 1931 credited readers for knowing the facts of life. No Limit and Inspiration played competing venues here, yet both address interests their patrons shared, knowing specific curiosities to hone in on. She gets "her man" --- but is he worth the price? (No Limit). She Will Fascinate You Again As the Woman With a Past Who Meets Real Love at Last (Inspiration). Our ancestors didn’t come away from these without a few worldly tips. It was the ones who seldom (if ever) attended movies that stirred up trouble. Urban markets had organized censor bodies ready to pounce when offending product hung in their net. Rural houses played shows through for a night, maybe two, spat them out and threaded up the next. Even dedicated community crusaders had not the time to flag exchange trucks delivering half a dozen or more shows a week to the local Bijou, thus pre-codes played mostly uncut in underpopulated territories. When church ladies and town counsels took action, it was mostly confined to Blue Laws closing theatres on Sunday.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've reminded me of a cartoon I saw in the Saturday Evening Post circa 1958. It was set on one of those cartoon desert islands about the size of a king-size bed, with two palm trees. The island was inhabited by two men, both dressed in rags with long scraggly hair and beards. They had obviously been fighting and one of the castaways had the other down, throttling him and shouting, "Now will you admit that Helen Twelvetrees is prettier than Clara Bow?!"

2:38 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

All technological advances are driven by sex, or so my Microsoftie brother once declared. I love the briar patch advertising campaigns - but oh, those posters for Mae and "Green Mansions" and "Bird of Paradise!

2:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is all fascinating stuff. Pre-code Hollywood gives a nice glimpse into the dissolution that went on pre-Depression - we've got a very quaint view of the Roaring 20s, maybe because we don't like to think of our ancestors gettin' it on.

vanwall's brother is probably right about technology and sex. If it weren't for porn, we'd still be reading a text-only internet.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Jack R said...

Just a small clarification about these magazines: Stage and Screen Stories and Saucy Movies Stories were both 'under the counter' titles. You would never find them on newsstands. They had nudie photos sections and scurrilous short stories about women losing their clothes and honor (maybe not in that order). Film Fun, which was published by Dell,was a newsstand magazine of nothing but photos (no nudes though). Not that it didn't get the publishers in some trouble; it was banned in Japan and Australia, but it was a big money maker and netted Dell over a hundred grand a year.

11:18 PM  

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