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Monday, June 02, 2008

George Stevens Fights The Power

It’s a crusade largely forgotten today, but when director George Stevens (below on location with bathing beauties) took on Paramount and NBC for the latter’s distorted, truncated, and segmented broadcast of A Place In The Sun, he was striking a blow for filmmakers appalled by television’s habitual abuse of theatrical motion pictures. The rape of a creative effort was what he called NBC’s March 12, 1966 televised premiere of the 1951 hit release (it earned three million in domestic rentals against negative costs of $2.2 million on initial bow). Stevens had been simmering over disrespect accorded colleague’s films playing NBC’s Saturday Night At The Movies. Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 saw its 120 minute running time swollen to two and a half hours on the network’s October 23, 1965 playdate, thirty of those minutes given over to commercial interruptions increasing as the feature progressed. Most frustrating was directorial impotence when it came to protecting work completed years before. Slicing and dicing to sell ads was an absolutely immoral practice, said DGA president George Sidney, and others stood behind him. It makes me furious. I refuse to watch them on TV anymore, was John Ford’s response after a local broadcast of Young Mr. Lincoln saw the 1939 classic shorn to ribbons. Frank Capra and Fred Zinnemann girded for action, but cooler heads reminded them of original contracts they’d signed allowing studios to do whatever they liked with property owned outright. I checked 60’s TV GUIDES for the Los Angeles market. Broadcasts of syndicated movies were indeed claustrophobic. Most daytime slots were ninety minutes, a goodly portion of this given over to commercials. One station was running triple features within a three-hour time period. More footage landed on the editor’s floor than likely saw transmission. Stevens filed a lawsuit in February 1966 prevent Paramount and NBC from showing A Place In The Sun. A motion picture should be respected as being more than a tool for selling soap, toothpaste, deodorant, used cars, beer, and the whole gamut. As the network had paid $300,000 for broadcast rights, it was doubtful they’d leave such advertisers out of their Saturday night parade. Stevens cited his original contractual right to edit, cut, and score A Place In the Sun. Defense attorneys said that wouldn’t apply where televised showings were concerned. GS wasn’t the first David to tackle these Goliaths. Otto Preminger tried to protect Anatomy Of A Murder from scissoring. As there was no specific language to address this in his contract, the court dismissed OP's action in January 1966. Preminger failed to cover clearly the issue of cuts and interruptions, therefore giving Columbia whatever the custom of the industry regarded as comprised by the phrase "television rights." The court upheld the studio’s, and its televising lessors, right to interrupt for commercials and to make minor cuts to accommodate time segment requirements. With Anatomy Of A Murder clocking in at 161 minutes, what was the likelihood of syndicated cuts being "minor" ones?

The Preminger precedent may have encouraged Stevens to offer a compromise. He’d permit A Place In The Sun to be televised providing NBC limit commercials to only two breaks. They refused. A sympathetic judge handed down a temporary order forbidding NBC to alter, adversely affect, or emasculate the artistic quality of the picture so as to destroy or distort materially or substantially the mood, effect, or continuity of the picture. Within these limits, the network could broadcast A Place In The Sun. The battle royal got lots of press. Spokesmen for NBC said viewers were conditioned to segmented programs. Columnists disagreed and spoke for home audiences sick of the unrelenting hard sell and chopped movies. Stevens became something of an industry hero. I’d just turned twelve and was intrigued by NBC’s announcement that A Place In the Sun would be shown without cuts (as indicated in the original TV GUIDE listing shown here). Was there hot content in this old film I’d been unaware of? Clearly this was one not to be missed. As it turned out, the only moment at all suggestive was a night-to-morning dissolve on a windowsill radio implying Monty Clift’s having spent the night with Shelley Winters. Otherwise, it was the same two and a half-hour slog that accompanied Stalag 17 the previous October. According to Stevens' angry post-broadcast motion before the court, A Place In the Sun was broken into ten segments with nine commercial interruptions, the average length of drama being twelve minutes and nine seconds before yet more advertising destroyed and distorted the mood, effect, and continuity of the motion picture … as I produced and directed it. NBC seemed to have violated the judge’s directive, and all parties were back to court in June for a reckoning. Stevens counted forty-two commercials during those nine breaks, and what’s more, NBC replaced his careful dissolves with simple fades to black. It’s like taking the cadenza out of a concerto, said the director. This time, unfortunately, there was a different judge hearing the motion, one more inclined toward NBC’s viewpoint.

Some of A Place In the Sun’s artistry was weakened. It just wasn’t substantial or material enough, said the hearing judge. The average television viewer is thick-skinned about commercials and tends to disassociate them from what goes before or after. NBC was found not to have been in contempt of the court’s previous order. It would seem that advertising was sufficiently ingrained into the TV experience as to make it inconceivable that we should do without it. Stevens rightly identified commercial television as the natural enemy of motion pictures, but he was tilting at combined windmills of a studio in receipt of a substantial leasing fee and a network bound on turning a profit for having tendered it. This was big business and no lone complaining director was going to disrupt its flow. Paramount was now supplying most of NBC’s Saturday night movies for the 1965-66 season. It wouldn’t do for these to come with riders attached by disgruntled creative participants, though challenges from these were increasing. William Holden sued Columbia and ABC to enjoin the September 1966 television premiere of The Bridge On The River Kwai, this while Stevens’ suit awaited its final disposition. Holden said giving Kwai away on TV (he was in for an ongoing percentage) would destroy its theatrical value, a theory discounted by the court. The actor was right, of course. Kwai had sixty million viewers that night (far more than ever paid admissions to see it), and did indeed disappear from theatres thereafter. Nothing burned off features like a run on home screens. Paramount felt they’d squeezed the last dollar out of A Place In The Sun. They had reissued it once in 1959 on a combo with Stalag 17 (trade ad shown here) and that yielded $347,000 in domestic rentals. The company maintained theatres wouldn’t want A Place In The Sun beyond that. Reissue money generally dried up in the sixties as more recent titles began surfacing on television. MGM’s 1966 encore for North By Northwest actually showed a loss after print and advertising costs were factored. If new movies were the equivalent of first editions, then old ones were just so many dog-eared paperbacks as far as studio librarians were concerned.

The trial itself was largely anti-climactic. NBC lawyers divined the mood of the court and took the position that commercials enhanced their broadcast of A Place In the Sun. Folks actually benefited from repeated opportunities to stretch and relieve themselves. This time the judge opted for a marathon screening of three separate versions of Stevens’ feature. First would come the theatrical original, followed by NBC’s offering sans commercials, then concluding with the GS alleged distorted, truncated, and segmented version. One of the witnesses was director John Rich, who would colorfully recall the ordeal in his memoir, Warm Up The Snake. Seems Rich, seated in the cramped screening room with parties, lawyers, and other witnesses, found himself desperate for a relief break of his own after testifying to the necessity of viewing features without interruption. The whole matter was mercifully put to rest with the court awarding George Stevens one dollar in damages upon a finding that Paramount and NBC did indeed truncate his film. It was ruled there was no real harm done however, and the defendant’s technical violation was not sufficiently damaging to Mr. Stevens’ reputation for artistic achievement. A Place In The Sun could continue playing television with commercials, though the judge added that Stevens could file a new suit if a future broadcast caused substantial changes in dramatic content. GS claimed a moral victory, but it was a hollow one. No doubt he’d had a snootful of arguing over A Place In The Sun, but dogging his quarry a little farther might well have hoisted the butchers upon their own petard, for once this feature went into syndication in April 1970, local stations unmindful of the judge’s ruling took scissors to hand and made NBC’s broadcast look like an Academy tribute. I watched A Place In The Sun on numerous occasions during the seventies and eighties. You can bet not all those 122-minutes survived daytime and/or primetime showings. Mostly they were squeezed into two-hour berths. You’d have a splice after hitchhiker Monty is picked up during the credits, then it was destination unknown. We’d rejoin him packing boxes for the Eastmans or already headed for disaster with Shelley Winters. Those fabled Stevens dissolves oft-time survived, if at all, garlanded with ugly cue marks stations habitually punched in. A battered by local programmers 16mm print I later came across would have served nicely as Exhibit A had Stevens elected to wade again into combat with Paramount.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This seems like an interesting precursor to Monty Python's suit against ABC in 1976.It's interesting how many late 40's-early 50's Paramount films played network prime-time as late as the 70s.Other studios' films of that vintage had already been in syndication for years.

4:23 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

And here's an interesting factoid ... Paramount's 1956 "The Ten Commandments" is STILL playing network only. I don't think it's ever been syndicated to this day ...

4:41 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Robert Cline of Thornhill Entertainment sent the following just now via e-mail ...

Besides THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, the only other 'biggies' I can think of which have never been syndicated to local stations are THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

Of course, it's more difficult distinguishing between what is a 'network' and a 'local station' these days.

THE SOUND OF MUSIC has played ABC, NBC, TCM (once) and FOX MOVIE CHANNEL, but those are 'networks'.

THE WIZARD OF OZ has played CBS, NBC, TNT and TBS, but those are 'networks'.

Sadly, GWTW was syndicated (or bartered) to local channels. Remember when WCCB played it. It looked awful and was that version with the 'monkeyed' soundtrack.

Wait a minute, has MY FAIR LADY ever been syndicated?

8:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, Mr. John -- (Which sounds like the sequel to "Goodbye Mr. Chips") -- More years-ago than I would care to count (if I could count), I remember seeing the original version of Theodore Driser's novel, which was filmed under its' orig. title, "An American Tragedy", with Sylvia Sidney and Phillips Holmes. Von Sternberg directed, of course, on-break between Dietrich films. As I recall, it was well-made, if unmemorable, but what was interesting -- and worth noting here, were those famous "long-dissolves" of Stevens', were used quite extensively in the orig. -- and with possibly better effect! Stevens' useage, for all the strengths his film had going for it always seemed to me a bit "studied" and slightly-pretentious. You reminded me of an incredibly-poignant story I once heard (Dick Cavett, maybe?) tell. Disgusted by how his old-films were being "mangled" on television, Stan Laurel sent a letter to a local-television manager, saying he would be willing to come down and re-edit them for free -- and he never had even the courtesy of a response! If he had done that now, he may not have gotten a response either, but you can bet the following-week the letter would be for sale on ebay! R.J.

12:32 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Argentina does not have television networks. When the system originally designed, in 1958, the intention was to have independent channels. Yet, in practice, the Buenos Aires television stations operate as sort of networks.

However, due to the current political environment, there is going to be an attempt to pass a new broadcasting law (to replace a 1980 from the days of the dictatorship) that may bring authentic networks to the nation. But we have to see what are they going to do...

Going back to films...

MY FAIR LADY was the very first film to be officially broadcast in color in Argentine television (with a traditional dubbing work from the late 60s), on May 1, 1980.

GONE WITH THE WIND was first released in Argentina in 1986. It was shown in two days.

The next time it was shown, around a year later, it had to face strong competition... another channel showing GWTW as well!!!!!

In those years, and up to recently, it was considered that films that 30 year old film were in the public domain (which explains why so many classics have been available in VHS versions for years).

While one channel was playing an authentic version provided by Turner Entertainment, with a neutral (and contemporary) dubbing, the other one was playing a worn but watchable version print from Spain with a very good Spanish dubbing and all titles reprinted in Spanish as well.

It was the only time that something like that ever happened (and Turner/Time-Warner owns now several Argentine cable channels)

I have never seen THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in an Argentine broadcasting channel. The very first time it surfaced it was in one of the cable channels now owned by Turner/Time-Warner... and the dubbing was not the traditional one but a contemporary one

Contemporary dubbed versions are usually repulsive.

Nowadays, canal 7 in Argentina (and on the internet) plays once in a while A PLACE IN THE SUN and STALAG 17 in English with subtitles.

One footnote of your post, I was able to get a watchable version of the original version of the story directed by Joseph Von Sternberg which I want to watch for comparison.

There are no posters available for this film... yet.

2:33 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

I remember in the 80s watching Superman and 1941 on ABC because they added footage cut from the original film (and filled a 3-hour slot).

Of course, I also remember seeing a hundred monster movies on TV--like The Wolfman--and only learning years later that the station started them 10 or 15 minutes in.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

I vividly remember a few families and extra friends getting together in 1966 to watch the TV broadcast of "The Bridge on the River Kwai" - it was ramped up into a huge deal. I was too young to realize what was happening to the films being broadcast, but a few years later, I was savvy enough to figure out the game - it stank, and still stinks. When I really started looking for films of interest in '69, I wistfully hoped for something personal to view them, like the later video tapes or DVDs, and hated the fact that I was shut out of a lot of films either by lack of available screenings, or scissored versions on the tube. Thanks for the reminder of what was.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

The first time I watched "Horsefeathers" on TV (WBZ-TV, Boston) in the early '70s, Groucho's "I'm Against It" number was completely cut.

When "Wizard of Oz" originally ran on TV, it fit comfortably in a 2-hour slot with roughly 18 minutes of commercials. Last time I looked, the time slot was 150-minutes, increasing the commercial time to nearly an hour!

1:07 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I got a video of AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, Josef Von Sternberg's original version of this film.

I have seen most of it and, with its flaws, I think it is much better film than the Stevens version.

6:30 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Believe it or don't, but someone told me that the Oxygen Network was actually running "An American Tragedy", along with other early-30's Paramounts, in prime-time when they first started up in 2000.

8:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, some people at the networks still haven't learned.

A few years ago, Michael Mann's "Heat" was being prepared for broadcast. The film was 2 hours and 51 minutes in its theatrical release, so Mann suggested that he supervise the television edit.

His plan was to take care of the necessary censorship for broadcast television and insert the commercial breaks at reasonable places within the storyline, as well as to add additional footage which had been filmed but left out of the theatrical release, so the movie could be broadcast over two nights for a total of four hours including commercials.

NBC wasn't interested. They only wanted to devote a single three-hour time slot on one night to "Heat" -- even though that would mean cutting out close to half an hour of the film's content to allow time for commercials.

And so NBC broadcast "Heat" that way. Except that Mann took his directing credit of the television edit, so that they showed "Heat" starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, and directed by Alan Smithee.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I saw the same broadcast of "Horse Feathers" that EastSide did, and they not only cut "I'm Against It," but also one of the "Everyone Says I Love You" vocals.

I think "Wizard of Oz" reached its all-time low a few years ago, when someone in the control room accelerated the speed too much. Dorothy sounded like the Witch, and the Witch sounded like a Munchkin. I haven't seen that phenomenon since, so let's hope someone complained.

My all-time champ for TV edits is still the week Boston's RKO General station ran five RKO prints one last time. KING KONG, BRINGING UP BABY, GUNGA DIN, CAREFREE, and ROOM SERVICE all ran in one-hour time slots.

10:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We had a local station that ran an afternoon movie for years, always in a 90 minute time slot. I'd never really given that any thought until my copy of Leonard Maltin's book of movie reviews arrived (six to eight weeks after I ordered it -- this was pre-internet, kids) and I started to realize how much was being hacked out of these films. Considering how often I started calling the station to complain, the program manager over there probably began to loathe the day that Maltin ever conceived that book.

What I never understood, and what no one at the station could ever explain to me, was the reason for the 90-minute time slot. The extra half-hour was always given over to an old sitcom. With all due respect to Ray Walston and Bill Bixby, I resented 20 minutes being hacked out of "Laura" so that the station could work in a "My Favorite Martian" rerun after the movie.

Sometimes I think people who complain because DVDs of vintage films don't meet their unrealistic expectations of perfection should have to sit through some of those old 16mm TV prints. I have one of "The Wolfman" where almost every dissolve in the movie (after the first ten minutes or so) is marked by a splice and at least one of four sets of cue marks. The end title is almost obliterated by the things.

The absolute worst abuse of time-compression I ever saw was on Chicago's WGN, when they ran "Meet Me in St. Louis" uncut one Sunday afternoon in a two-hour time slot. Now, this movie is something like a 110 minutes long as it is, but I guess WGN figured they could fit it into 120 minutes with their spiffy new time-compression gadget. The results? Well, if you ever wondered what "The Trolley Song" would have sounded like if performed by Alvin and the Chipmunks....

12:02 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Bravo and well said, Mark! I also once had a banged-up 16mm print of "The Wolfman" with a number of dissolves obliterated by splices and cue marks. I tried replacing them with dissolves from a cleaner print, but there was a noticeable difference in contrast between the two and I ended up with an obvious patchwork.

Hey Scott --- Thanks, as always, for your input. By the way, I just re-read that terrific article you wrote on Realart Pictures in a back issue of "Cult Movies" magazine.

7:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

God! Reading Mark's interesting-letter just now, and your reply, John, suddenly zoomed me-back a hell of alot of years. This one may hold the trophy: There was an afternoon-movie out here in L.A. on weekends, "Picture for a Saturday Afternoon", on the local CBS-affiliate called knxt. They had the whole package of pre-48 Paramounts. So, this particular-day, they're running a cute little comedy of the early 40's, "Take a Letter Darling", Roz Russell and Fred MacMurray. Five-minutes before the end, the film-breaks, or something. Announcer comes on, apologizes. "We're experencing technical difficulties, please be patient",so-on. After a couple-minutes it now becomes apparent they can't fix whatever the problem is, and worse, they're running-out of their allotated time. It's like the last-three minutes of the film. So, the announcer comes back on, apologizes and EXPLAINS (so help me!)how the picture ends!

8:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never had much luck trying to patch prints together, John.

One of our local stations didn't punch cue marks into their prints. I don't know exactly how their system worked, but it didn't involve mutilating the film with circles, holes, stars, or crude scratched x marks, and I always appreciated that.

I also have some prints where a station tried to cover up what they hacked out by making a crude wipe effect. They applied tape at an angle over the film on either side of where footage had been spliced out. Ugly and not very convincing results.

11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone remember NBC's broadcast of "2001" in the late 70's /early 80's? I seem to think that they cut the entire space walk scene or most of it out because I think they were showing it in a 2 hour block.
I came to hate the words "Edited for Television". I still know people who can't see any reason to rent or buy films because they can see them on tv for free. I think they're out of their minds.
ABC cut the opening of "Goldfinger" in their showings too. Credits and then into Miami. I understand that's probably a content issue but why show them at all if you can't show the whole thing?

10:58 PM  

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