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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Witnesses For The Exploitation

Film companies have always had to sell bad merchandise as aggressively as the good. Maybe more so. That scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy where George M. Cohan dictates the telegram warning his public not to attend a disappointing play he’s written was not a gesture studios would emulate, despite being presented here as a refreshingly honest exchange between artist and audience. It’s a rare and welcome event when merchandisers get product so good as to sell itself. Witness For The Prosecution was that kind of gift for United Artists. They actually gave away tickets (seven thousand in NYC) so as to generate what they knew would be positive word-of-mouth. The offer was floated on Times pages other than amusement oriented ones in hopes of luring viewers not otherwise inclined to follow movies. Just mail in your request and UA would reply with free ducats to see Billy Wilder’s newest. 20th Fox also took reservations by mail in 1958 (paid in advance) for its two-a-day hard ticket engagement of The Roots Of Heaven, a picture they doubtlessly smelled from as far away as its African locations (final loss: $2.6 million). Big investment in bad pictures, or at least unwanted ones, translated to bucks passed down the line. Distributors were forced to mislead exhibitors, who in turn hid out behind office doors as disgruntled patrons left (or walked out on) their shows. More (and more) people began staying home to watch better old movies on TV. Was anybody’s crystal ball working that year? Wilder’s latest had been The Spirit Of St. Louis. It lost an epic four million. He’d roll dice shooting Witness For The Prosecution in black-and-white. Exhibitors hated black-and-white. They felt color was their only hedge against television. Clever plotting and (especially) Witness’ sock finish compensated for monochrome lensing and brought out the showman in Billy (that’s him behind the studio cop denying Sam Goldwyn access to his rented stage where Witness was shot). This was a picture to be sold on its element of surprise. Unless you read Agatha Christie’s short story or saw it enacted on stage (very popular there), chances are you’d not guess the switcheroo laying in wait. Pledge boards set up in theatre lobbies  beckoned outgoing customers to promise in writing not to spoil the finish for others. There was even one on the set while Witness was in production, as shown here with Hedda Hopper dutifully signing. For purposes of this post, I’ll keep the faith as well, but would note what fifty years and countless imitations have done to make 1958’s surprise less of one in 2008. Certainly those observant of, for instance, Richard Gere’s onscreen contretemps with varied clients, patients, and love interests will be all too aware of how writers since have unashamedly pillaged Agatha Christie.

Witness For The Prosecution had class and mass appeal. One instance found said markets at war with each other as well as United Artists. New York’s opening in February 1958 saw Witness day and date at Broadway’s Astor Theatre and the Plaza art-house on West 57th Street. UA figured longhairs buying coffee concessions would like it as much as popcorn munching thrill seekers attracted by straight-to-the-point advertising (Unmatched In A Half-Century Of Motion Picture Suspense!). Left in the cold Little Carnegie, itself a frequent venue for high profile art films, smelled rats and sued UA after discovering execs of that company held ownership in the Plaza. The Little Carnegie asked to negotiate for the art house run of "Witness For The Prosecution", but was not given the opportunity, said reports. UA brass no doubt figured these were profits too great to be so recklessly shared. Would the court require the company to open bidding for its product and force administrators to get rid of interests in the Plaza? This was the sort of discord aroused when moneymaking shows revealed themselves. Then as now, producers sought to hoard as much potential coin as possible, one way or the other. Small wonder profit participants saw (and continue seeing) so little bounty. Billy Wilder was in for five percent of the gross (in addition to a flat $100,000). I wonder how much he actually collected. Witness For The Prosecution took $3.364 million in domestic rentals, with $3.5 million more from foreign receipts. Star in name only Tyrone Power (Charles Laughton actually had the lead) was hot off the success of The Eddy Duchin Story. His marquee strength and willingness to share laughs (Laughton) and laurels (Marlene Dietrich’s unexpected alter ego) went a long way toward making Witness the ensemble classic it became. Would Wilder’s intended Kirk Douglas have been so generous? Power regarded himself an actor first and a movie star (distant) second. He’s terrific here once you’re on to the game his character is playing. It’s a performance best appreciated in hindsight with all the plot’s evidence digested. To watch him near bursting a blood vessel on the witness stand creates viewer anxiety beyond what the script intended, for latter-day knowing calls up imagery of Power’s collapse within a year doing Solomon and Sheba where exertions led to an on-set fatal heart attack. His Witness character looks for all the world to be rehearsing for that unfortunate event to come. It is a performance perhaps too convincing for his (and our) own good.

I wouldn’t call Wilder’s showmanship a gimmick because here he had the goods and delivered on them. Besides, when a personage we trust like Charles Laughton goes on camera in the trailer to guarantee a series of climaxes that I defy you to guess (his words), we can be sure, as were audiences in 1958, that this will be a courtroom thriller picking up where others leave off. Despite high-flying legal histrionics (and clearly objectionable ones under anyone’s rules of law), Witness For The Prosecution was sold as a legitimate meditation on questions of justice and guilt. Panels of experts representing the police and local bar, discussing finer points of Witness’ Old Bailey showdown, regaled Miami radio listeners and even took the stage in some theatres for post-verdict commentary. It was a tribute to Wilder’s (and author Christie’s) craftsmanship that audiences were willing to suspend their disbelief so completely as to take such forums seriously. For all its fun, Witness For The Prosecution furnishes seeming confirmation that, as Laughton’s character puts it, the scales of justice may tip one way or another, but ultimately they balance out, a Code mandated resolution already on its last legs when the picture was made and perhaps not one Wilder would have chosen had he addressed the subject ten years later. We’ve had sufficient inundation of murders gone unpunished in movies since as to make Witness For The Prosecution seem almost non-conformist. In 1958’s Code context, the ending was a surprise without being too surprising.

Do we take Wilder’s brilliance for granted? I appreciate him best when confronted with modern attempts at thrillers like Witness For The Prosecution, but that’s no fair criteria because there are no thrillers today remotely like Witness. Wilder films defy genre classification in any case. It’s belittling to label Witness as merely a thriller. How many such films have laughs as abundant amidst so much murder and betrayal? Nowadays it’s all darkness at the expense of wit. Wilder knew enough about the former (the real kind, unlike that cadged from old movies, or heaven help us, comic books) to recognize the value of mining humor where he could find it. That’s a facility he shared with other great directors of his generation. I happened to watch John Ford's The Searchers last night and noted again comic asides throughout. Yes, Ford’s humor was of a broader sort, but would his drama play so well minus the relief? Funereal frontiers are the only ones we’ve crossed in the last forty years it seems. No wonder westerns died. Of course, any funeral Wilder stages would have its share of laughs. He lifted weights off Christie's serious approach to Witness For The Prosecution as a matter of policy, reversing that procedure in the following year's Some Like It Hot by putting real menace in the way of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis’ cross-dressing antics. I’m amazed at what Wilder and Laughton do with simple props on a single set in Witness For The Prosecution. Cigars, monocles, a window shade, thermos bottle, a cane to conceal cigars --- was any of this Agatha Christie’s invention? Without having read her story, I’m guessing not. Someone wrote that Laughton received $75,000 to do Witness against Tyrone Power’s $300,000. I don’t disdain Power for collecting such cumulative reward for his twenty years of unbroken boxoffice, and I’d venture Laughton’s love of the craft made whatever payment he received seem more than equitable. What’s inarguable here is that at no time in film history was $75,000 better spent. I even ran Laughton’s trailer speech over and over just so he could de-fy me again and again (if you have this DVD, please get it out and watch a master turn his hand to promotion). What a joy it must have been for Laughton to seize a part so beautifully written, and who but Wilder could have made it possible? I looked at imdb. The actor only had seven feature credits in the whole of the fifties. Were we then so rich in performing talent as to excuse such neglect? Wilder’s appreciation of his player’s screen histories made him second to none at casting. Look at the referential placement of George Raft, Pat O’ Brien, and Joe E. Brown in Some Like It Hot. Wilder was confident we’d know them well from late shows at home and called upon that immediate recognition to lend his twenties story the roar of so many classics these people had done before. Playing upon images associated with Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Power made Witness For The Prosecution a kind of career summation for all three. For Wilder and these iconic players, it is a lasting monument.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Frankenstein/Dracula Forever! --- Part Two

Dracula/Frankenstein was and remains a value pack you can keep on selling. Witness Universal’s continual repackaging of both on DVD. Fans have been special editioned to death seeking perfect delivery of these two. We’ll not reach that higher place for negatives worn to nubbins by those very reissues that kept these images alive for seventy-five plus years. Who dreamed of such commercial mileage, let alone boxoffice longevity, when virtually all films carried boxoffice expiration tags? Universal figured on having strip-mined Dracula and Frankenstein in revivals (1938 and 1947) spread far enough apart to exhaust whatever audience might be interested. By war’s end, the company sought bigger money markets as formulas tried and true were banished off studio rosters. Westerns, serials, "B" musicals --- all discontinued, as was identification with cheap monster movies Universal sought to expunge. Three million dollars from a startup distributor called Realart loosened ties on backlog going back to talkies’ beginning, with Universal signing an unprecedented deal to let the smaller company reissue its big studio wares for ten theatrical (but no television) years. Selling films is like selling anything else, for instance, sport shirts, said Paul Broder, who had bulked out such dry goods, and ran Detroit theatres besides, with enterprising brother Jack. These boys knew their onions for having handled bushels of discard product in houses too often marginalized by circuit competitors and peanut operating budgets. They also knew oldies were still goodies, especially when paired. With hundreds of Universal vaulties now socked away in Realart inventory, the modest distributor could declare itself unequivocally… the largest reissue company in the world, as if others vied for that distinction. Neighborhood houses  waiting a year or more for new releases realized better gains with Realart pics they could rent cheaper and sell harder. Many were using reissues to fill eighty percent of their schedules. Thematic combos became a Broder specialty. Jack tested these at leisure among five LA venues he still operated while serving as VP for Realart, and thirty-four Universals they (profitably) shipped for 1947-48 were bumped to forty-eight in 1948-49. The monster shows became, not unexpectedly, a Broder natural, as they were ideally suited for duallers. Two Mummies here, a couple of Invisible Men there, and before you knew it, towns were overrun with Universal, no, make that Realart, horrors. I had a friend who cut his teeth growing up in Columbus, Ohio during the late forties and early fifties, catching the bus Saturday mornings for a weekly Realart chase through grinders for miles around, scoring up five or six per weekend of what we now call classics. For our NC backwood drive-ins, there would be all-nighters with a quartet (at least) twixt dusk and dawn, ads for which cause latter day fan mouths to water still.

So what of Dracula and Frankenstein in such roving encore madhouses? To launch these specials (and they knew it), Realart waited until 1951. As before, D and F rented singly but scored best when teamed. New York’s Victory Theatre, a stone’s throw up 42nd Street from the legendary Rialto, harnessed lightening in April 1952 not unlike that which galvanized their rival back in 1938. Apparently, there is a brand new audience which has heard of these attractions but has never seen them, said Victory chief William Brandt. They are like nationally advertised brands of merchandise --- well known and accepted. His barn dated back to 1900 when it opened as a legit house, skidded down to burlesque in the thirties, then rose (not so far) out of ashes to become a sub-runner. These interior views of a more recently refurbished Victory Theatre provide rough estimate of the environment in which Dracula and Frankenstein wowed a house seating 982. Never mind DVD’s we now watch largely by ourselves. This was a stairway to paradise for any audience enjoying Dracula and Frankenstein. The Victory’s front saw the fiendish pair hovering from marquees and dressing entrance areas touted as well in newspaper ads that were little changed from ones appearing fourteen years earlier. Realart put fresh coats of paint on campaigns they inherited from Universal. Posters were new and sometimes more arresting than originals. The ones shown here greeted audiences at the Victory and other places where Frankenstein and Dracula bade enter via colorful displays that have since become Most Wanted objects of movie art from the fifties. A turning point, and after all, one had to come, was June 1957. That’s when Frankenstein was finally reinvented. Ground so fertile must be freshly tilled, and red-meat (preferably blood red) appetites could not be sated forever on subdued sensation oldsters (read parents) quaked over since 1931. The Curse Of Frankenstein threw out instruction manuals Universal wrote and added that most crucial of equalizers to combat old movies and TV sets that ran them, namely color. Floating eyeballs and blood spattered lab jackets led fashion parades for a new kind of explicit screen mayhem fans long anticipated via live spook shows far more direct than timidity so far projected on screens. The Curse Of Frankenstein showed for the first time horrific possibilities of monsters laid face up and genuinely repulsive. Here was science creating something like the aftermath of a car wreck you drove by coming to the theatre, a sort of full-color blast to top gross-out gymatorium showings of The Last Prom. It was the same with I Was A Teenage Frankenstein, only that monster began as a crash victim and pretty much entered his Hell through a windshield. The essential fright of both films was unmistakable if subliminal. Drag race or go chicken running and this may be your dead-end. No wonder kids got all shook up. Bally stunting old as the hills on one hand slammed home likely unintended (but hard-hitting) safety warnings on the other, thus girl plants would "faint" in the auditorium and cooperative ambulance services would roll up for showy rescues and siren accompanied pullouts (let’s hope real emergencies weren’t at the same time requiring their services). Victims would be driven around the corner and let out to repeat their stunt for next-arriving crowds. To showmen and most parents, increased gore quotients of a so-called "super deluxe model thriller" (The Curse Of Frankenstein’s merchandising tag) were at least palatable for being attached to a name comfortably familiar from their own youth. That accepted name brand again.

Jim Nicholson was formerly with Realart and knew packaging. He’d grown up loving genre pics and especially monstrous ones. Having teamed with Sam Arkoff to form American-International Pictures, Jim felt teenagers needed a Frankenstein to call their own, and a Dracula too for that matter. The old tag team was good for a new match-up on heels of summer 1957 grosses The Curse Of Frankenstein scored ($1.418 million in domestic rentals), thus I Was A Teenage Frankenstein went out with Blood Of Dracula for Autumn playdates. AIP’s two-for-one policy supplied theatres with black-and-white programs totaling two and a half (or so) hours, enough to keep audiences turning over and make them feel they were getting value for admissions paid. Ninety-five percent of our bookings are for double-bills, but the pictures can later be bought singly, said Nicholson, whose product he road-tested at a Broder-inspired trio of venues in San Diego (two were drive-ins). These helped finalize selling strategies for the wider pitch. Teens were targeted and if critics didn’t like it (and those who noticed razzed in unison) … well, they could just get over it. Was AIP straining credulity so much to imagine vampires in a girl’s reformatory, as in Blood Of Dracula? … and why not Frankenstein’s creation so inflamed by recently installed hormones as to tear off heads at Lover’s Lane? These were new faces for old monsters and kids were grooving with them. AIP got five to seven thousand bookings for such combos and often on percentage. Total domestic rentals for the Teenage/Blood package was $686,000, admittedly under half of what Warners realized on The Curse Of Frankenstein, but remarkable withal for ultra-cheapies that cost less combined than most anyone else’s "B". AIP’s junior varsity Frankenstein and Dracula helped usher Realart’s vintage combination off theatre schedules (besides, their lease term had expired), but in the cases of Karloff and Lugosi’s originals, it was merely a matter of relocating to smaller screens. A "Shock" package of fifty-two Universal thrillers went into syndication for 1957-58, and being they were free on television, seized viewing numbers beyond the wildest dreams of showmen hustling retooled monsters at drive-ins and struggling hard-tops. The real Dracula and Frankenstein reasserted dominance on late shows in 142 broadcast markets as the Shocks took off like few other feature groups so far made available. With many more kids seeing Karloff’s visage repeated over horror hosted weekends, his remained the definitive image, Christopher Lee’s scrambled egg complexion trailing a distant second. It would be the same with Lugosi’s Dracula, despite Lee’s forceful debut with fangs-a-dripping in Universal’s Summer 1958 steamroller, Horror Of Dracula. As both characters resided in the public domain, anyone could sully their names with merchandise unworthy of either, thus there was Frankenstein’s Daughter and Frankenstein – 1970, as well as bush-league vampires reflecting badly upon Dracula. Teens went for these primarily to get out of the house (... for their kicks, said Jim Nicholson) and make mischief with peers, but that took money, and for smaller fry or those with less jangle in their pockets, bonds were closer maintained with vintage monsters at home. That access, which needed not a driver’s license or older sibling to deliver one to monsters beloved, was the ultimate victory of the original Dracula and Frankenstein for a new generation. As theatre attendance continued dwindling into the sixties, homegrown enthusiasm for the golden-agers led to another boom as spectacular as it was unexpected.

Summer 1964 was when it exploded, but a new era of monster madness had been percolating at store and newsstand counters for a long time. Universal awoke to exploitation possibilities in its protected images and licensed Karloff/Lugosi renditions to Frankenstein/Dracula models, billfolds, toys … I can’t remember them all now, but I sure kept tallies then. Aurora had boxes more compelling (as here) than plastic likenesses I built (badly) from contents inside, but hours of struggle with glue and labyrinthine instructions merely reinforced my absolute embrace of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as the only legitimate incarnations of favorite monsters. LOOK magazine analyzed us in its September 8, 1964 issue (above), but could as easily have reprinted The New York Times’ coverage of Universal’s 1938 reissues and put the establishment’s condescending message across. Kids deep into the life combed backs of monster magazines and dreamed of owning 8mm highlights of Dracula, released by Castle Films in 1963 (their Frankenstein reel was strangely absent until late in the day 1971). I joined with a cousin and another neighbor boy to invest in Dracula plus Official Film’s A Lost World, the latter made up of scenes culled from the 1925 dinosaur classic. We put on basement shows for a dime’s admission and even made lobby cards from Lugosi photos (unforgivably) cut out of Famous Monsters. Castle abridgements were the only way you’d play host to Frankenstein or Dracula at your own discretion. Who born of home video convenience could imagine the novelty, if not joy, of threading up favorites at will, let alone projecting same on bedroom walls at a time when possessing movies was a near unheard of concept? Seven Arts’ equivalent of Universal’s parlay was a Summer 1964 reissued The Curse Of Frankenstein with Horror Of Dracula, both negatives having reverted to that company. These saturated marquees, together and apart, right into the seventies, as Horror Of Dracula wouldn’t be syndicated to television until 1966 and The Curse Of Frankenstein showed up finally on June 28, 1974 when CBS played it as a weeknight late movie. Put an aerial on your roof in those days and soon enough you’d be tripping over broadcasts of the originals, so much so as to make likelihood of their appearing again in theatres remote at best. Few exhibitors were so adventurous as to book features now decades old and likely broadcast in homes that very night. My ad search yielded Frankenstein playing our local Starlite Drive-In as late as 1959, while a more distant ozoner rounded out its 1967 dusk-to-dawn offering of Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster and Planet Of The Vampires with "original classics" Dracula and Frankenstein. A Charlotte theatre tried the vintage combo around 1970, though it’s unlikely lines formed as in years past. How might these "Monster Boys" perform in revival situations today? I tried them for a University run and that audience was responsive. Universal horror carries a certain mystique among younger viewers, maybe owing to an increasing sense of unearthliness these films personify as they retreat further toward antiquity. For whatever outmoded technique modern audiences detect, the essential creep factor in play since 1931 has been, at the least, enhanced by their ripening vintage.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Pair That Curled Your Hair --- Part One

There was once a time when giants filled the theatres. Two of these were Frankenstein and Dracula. Singly brand names, together unstoppable. Think rice and gravy, football and beer … American institutions. No, scratch that … Frankenstein and Dracula were (still are?) world institutions. Both had literary origins overseas. They’ve ping-ponged cash registers on both sides for more generations than any of us have been around. Universal draws blood yet from early thirties stones playing more profitably than anything else so old. A Frankenstein or Dracula one-sheet in your attic will buy a new house. For seven years after their initial release in 1931, showmen regarded them separately. Playdates were infrequent as Universal provided sequels (Bride Of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter) beginning right where originals left off, but there were gold deposits untapped even as the mine’s route lay not hidden, but in plain sight. The magic was in combining them, but nobody thought of that until seemingly bungled reissues of Frankenstein and Dracula suddenly caught fire together in August 1938. For months running up, Universal’s salesmanship was as unimaginative as any they’d concocted for talking revivals, a concept just coming into its own by Spring of that year. To have (heavily) circulated oldies prior to this would have meant either pictures too recent, or (heaven forbid) silents. 1938 was the first season for heavy studio exploitation of vault product. A lot of that came of patron and showman requests. Demand was virtually catapulted by a shortage of new product, said the trades. Universal counted twenty-one favorites fans wanted back. Most were supplied by whatever prints an exchange might have on hand. An official re-release necessitated a fresh campaign and submission of the feature for a Code seal. Test engagements determined levels of interest in proposed titles. Universal tried out Frankenstein during March and April with three others, All Quiet On The Western Front, Lady Tubbs (a 1935 comedy with Alice Brady as a madcap crashing society), and Love Before Breakfast (with popular Carole Lombard), in both single and combo berths. Response was mixed. Harold S. Eskin, head of the Eskins Amusement Enterprises, was impressed. You may unreservedly tell your men in the field, if you wish, to sell this show (Frankenstein and Love Before Breakfast) to the exhibitor as a unit, that it did for me more than seventy-five percent in excess of business ordinarily done in my theatre. A New York booking of Frankenstein at 42nd Street’s Liberty Theatre was something else. It played off without causing much excitement (according to The Motion Picture Herald) during April. The few doors down Rialto repeated Dracula the same month, without impressive results. Owner Arthur Mayer spoke of both pictures having played (singly) every shooting gallery (a term for grind theatres) in town. Universal still regarded Frankenstein as promising enough to warrant a May 15 re-release date along with the three other tested oldies. Dracula became Number Five of these for the company’s 1938-39 season in early June. Trade ads promised accessories, including fresh trailers, but nothing was suggested with regards pairing the monsters. Showmen drawing from the list took so many pigs from a poke. B. Hollenbeck of the Rose Theatre in Sumas, Washington tried Dracula with Lady Tubbs. These two reissues were a complete flop here. Didn’t make running expenses. Is it safe to say Dracula was damned on this occasion by the company he kept? Both horrors got into some pretty horrific combinations. One theatre ran Frankenstein and Dracula on separate programs in support of "B" westerns. A lot of houses normally dark during summer months (because they lacked air-conditioning) kept lights burning with such cheaply bought fare. Universal’s monsters were clearly not being sold properly. As is so often the case, it was singular efforts of a genius showman that saved their bacon.

The Regina was an 800-seat theatre at Wilshire and La Cienega in Los Angeles. It had opened on April 21, 1937 with a combo of Black Legion and That Girl From Paris. Seats were twenty-five cents for adults and a dime for children. The Regina got by mostly on sub-runs and reissues. Peter Lorre dropped in once to catch M, the German thriller that had made him famous. It was third on a bill with The Black Room and White Zombie. Lorre fell asleep in his seat waiting for M to start. A lot of patrons slept through parts or all of such double and/or triple bills at the Regina. Their booking of Frankenstein and Dracula, along with RKO’s Son Of Kong, was intended to be a four-day run beginning Thursday, August 4, 1938. I’m specific about that date because it made history. Crowds jammed the front and manager Emil Umann found himself adding late (and later) shows to accommodate them. Legend persists that Umann rented long neglected prints of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" at a film warehouse, but these titles, having been available on reissue for several months, were less neglected than mishandled. The inspiration, and a brilliant one, lay in combining them for the first time with a marquee (shown here) challenging the audience: Dare You See? Umann’s master stroke was no one’s idea but his own. Universal bookers driving to work watched him smash records daily with pictures they’d sold the Regina at flat rate. Within a week, trades were carrying accounts of the theatre’s smash biz and nightly stop-ins by Bela Lugosi, invited by Umann to appear with his star-making (once again) hit. I owe it all to that little man at the Regina Theatre. I was dead, and he brought me back to life, said Lugosi of his showman benefactor. A belatedly alerted Universal began laying plans of its own. Following the local stint, Lugosi will go on a prolonged personal appearance tour with the horror films, first taking in the west coast, then extending it throughout the country. Being a company without its own theatre chain, Universal’s reach was exceeding its grasp. Bookings, let alone favorable ones in "A" houses, came hardest to companies below the "Big Five's" integrated radar, which included Paramount, MGM, 20th Fox, RKO, and Warner Bros. They each owned theatres and together dominated every worthwhile territory in the nation. Universal faced its usual booking challenge with Dracula and Frankenstein, despite the combination’s remarkable success at the Regina. A second August run at Seattle’s Blue Mouse Theatre disabused notions that monsters in tandem were a fluke. Unable Handle Crowds Opening Day, reported manager John Hamrick in a telegram. Combining These Pictures Showman’s Dream Of Good Times Here Again. The Seattle Board Of Theatre Censors crabbed the party somewhat when it barred children under fifteen from attending on grounds that the intense excitement was harmful, a minor bump in Universal’s road toward a profit epidemic (per their ad) now confirmed. A September 3 trade ad shown here promised runs for Denver, Salt Lake City, and hundreds of other cities. Terms were generous to start as the company continued seeking wider traction. They got it after riots at Salt Lake City’s Victory Theatre all but necessitated that state’s militia. The house was sold out by ten o’clock in the morning. Four thousand frenzied Mormons milled around outside, finally broke through the police lines, smashed the plate glass boxoffice, bent in the front doors, and tore off one of the door checks in their eagerness to get in and be frightened. Management was forced to rent an empty theatre across the street to seat the overflow. Reels of Dracula and Frankenstein were bicycled back and forth in twenty-minute intervals throughout the day. The Victory’s triumph was bittersweet for Universal, as this theatre, like the Regina, booked its monster rally at a flat rate and therefore kept a lion's share of bounties. With their fad blossoming for a lucrative autumn, Universal would stiffen its terms and swing for the fences.

Small-timer Umann took the brunt of Universal’s bounce when they yanked the Regina’s prints after a fourth week. Frankenstein and Dracula were moving up to downtown palace digs with more seats and percentage payoffs. It seemed a raw deal for the man who’d conceived such a winning plan. Universal sale staffers were given (and taking) credit for the company’s monstrous success as newspapers began recognizing the phenomenon. Throw Away The Rule Books! said trade ads on October 15, You Play Them Together! You Dare Them To See It! --- And Then The Crowds Break Down Your Doors! Salt Lake's fulfillment of the latter helped get the big circuits on board as of that month. Dracula and Frankenstein played Fox West Coast theatres plus major houses nationwide, and at last Universal was in for a piece of the action. The New York Times wrote up that town’s opening at Broadway’s Rialto Theatre and expressed the mainstream’s customary bemusement over a public’s frenzy for horror. Rialto manager Arthur Mayer was Harvard educated and knew how to milk the press for coverage of goings-on at his all day and night grindhouse. Those six hundred Rialto seats provided refuge for kids playing hooky, husbands who were supposed to be out looking for jobs, and guys on the run from the cops. They had an entrance door from the subway and through a basement arcade known as a hangout for troublemakers. Mayer was called The Merchant Of Menace and relished the tag (his Rialto premiered Universal chillers since Bride Of Frankenstein, which had bowed at the Roxy). Can You Take It? ads for Frankenstein and Dracula (one shown here, and note modesty of the Rialto's ad as compared with those for biggies like Suez and Young Dr. Kildare), plus imaginative front ballys, delivered $12,000 in the first week against an average weekly gross of $5,500. It was inevitable that others would try scaling Universal’s castle walls. Lacking names the equal of Frankenstein and Dracula, they nonetheless copied selling tactics of the We Dare You sort with results satisfactory but nowhere near what the first team was delivering. RKO came closest with its first major revival of King Kong since 1933, but most competing shows ran along lines of one shown here, with its doctor and stretcher attending game efforts to squeeze coin out of pretenders Revolt Of The Zombies and The Walking Dead. Exhibitors who knew better clung to the originals, however. These two pictures together (Frankenstein and Dracula) have all the rest of the horror pictures cheated a mile, said P.G. Held of Griswold, Iowa’s New Strand Theatre. Halloween meanwhile provided another surge for Universal’s monster merchandise. The Orson Welles War Of The Worlds broadcast on October 30, along with upset conditions in Europe and the Orient, further whetted a public’s appetite for shudder pictures, according to The Motion Picture Herald. Universal announced Son Of Frankenstein for production starting November 9, with January 1939 release to follow. A pastiche culled from a Flash Gordon serial was hurriedly prepared and titled Mars Attacks The World in the wake of Welles’ newsmaking event. This went into many theatres right behind Frankenstein and Dracula where it often scored eighty percent of the combo’s business. To maintain flows of reissue cash, Universal test ran a merger of Dracula’s Daughter with Bride Of Frankenstein at the Uptown Theatre in Kansas City during November. Results were sufficiently gratifying as to earn them a nationwide re-release later that month. Everything horrific was hot again, but how long were legs for 1938's monster boomlet?

Explanation for much of Universal’s success was the dearth of new horror films during 1937 and 1938. Patrons frankly missed being chilled and wanted that old goose-bump feeling back. December saw Dracula and Frankenstein still harvesting the money tree. Universal boasted of a thousand bookings for the combo so far, and it expects four thousand more before the trend has run its course. This was really unprecedented, as most reissues stalled well below twelve hundred playdates. Crowded theatres served to benefit still in production Son Of Frankenstein as a duly impressed Universal increased expenditure for its sequel way beyond amounts previously invested in the genre. According to trades, the company had doubled its budget on "Son" to over $500,000, exclusive of large advertising appropriation. Final figures revealed exaggeration on Universal’s part, as negative costs on Son Of Frankenstein totaled $385,000, still a generous outlay for a monster pic. As to still playing originals, an order for five hundred new prints reflected confidence that both would run well into 1939, as Dracula and Frankenstein remained in service even after Son Of Frankenstein was released on January 13 and in some situations competed with the new attraction. If nothing else, the stunning success of Universal’s combo revealed the unique position these characters held in the public’s imagination, for combining them formed, at least in moviegoing parlance, as compelling a brand name as Coca-Cola and Kleenex tissue. Certainly it was Dracula and Frankenstein together that ushered in the second major horror film cycle at Universal. Sequels continued unabated through the war as monsters became more and more the exclusive province of kid and teen audiences. Bleak austerity of early 30’s incarnations seemed all the more so beside mid-forties monster rallies with their non-stop action and wall-to-wall musical scores, yet Dracula and Frankenstein maintained cache right through succeeding decades, and generations of fans. When time came for Universal to again try a thriller combo in 1947, their pick was not surprisingly those standbys that had delivered so well nine years before. "The Horror Boys" had long since been declared the safest bet for filling midnight tandem bills. Dracula and Frankenstein would go on delivering as Realart leased distribution rights in both after the 1947 run. That subject and greater popularity the two enjoyed on television and as revered objects of an even bigger monster boom will be covered in Part Two.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Kay-Rations at TCM

Somebody at Turner must have a big yen for Kay Francis. They’ve shown her a lot over years I’ve watched. This month is another marathon of her Warner (and Monogram!) pics. Last night I watched Raffles off the DVR. This was a Goldwyn/Colman new to me. It’s not as good as The Devil To Pay or The Masquerader, but fun withal and happily precode in letting its crook hero get away at the finish. Colman has this way of keeping at least three quarters of his face before the camera at all times, never mind dialogue directed toward others frequently standing behind him. He’s pleasingly vain and entirely justified in being so. Surely his parents foresaw a future upon Ronnie’s first spoken words --- Now there’s a natural for talkies. Raffles has that measured pace of theatre faithfully transcribed before Hollywood knew sound would need fresh tempos. It revels in a Mayfair weekend party milieu familiar to 30’s audiences not yet dismissive or contemptuous of upper class characters with attendant chauffeurs and footmen. There’s even a cricket match played in some detail, a generous dose of the game that movies did not often give us. It looks like a weird kind of baseball. I thought of Boris Karloff playing it during hours off around this period. In fact, there’s much cross-pollination between Raffles and classic horrors being made across the valley at Universal. Frederick Kerr (Frankenstein), Frances Dade (Dracula), and Bramwell Fletcher (The Mummy) are all here, their parts a seeming continuum from ones they had in the monster pics. Fletcher might as credibly be working his way out of the Raffles mess he’s in before dashing off to Egypt and a fateful Field Expedition, with straight-jackets to complete his odyssey. We take for granted the wondrous continuity supporting players brought to films then, a thing so lacking today when every show exists like an island divorced from other screen fare (unless it's sequels). Raffles thievery is a lark practiced by gloved aristocrats who leave teasing notes for working class Yard men we enjoy seeing trumped. Heists are committed without gunplay or any one getting bashed in the head. Minus fatalities, or even injury, it’s easier to be a good sport at the end and let miscreants off with jaunty farewells (and often the loot). Raffles was less  vehicle for Kay Francis than a showcase for Colman, long sections where she opts out and leaves exposition to him. Reliably slinky and butched out hair-wise, Kay’s so flattered by the look as to make me wonder when it might be coming back.

Jewel Robbery is again a celebration of elegant thieves and how they prosper fleecing dense diamond merchants and dumb gendarmes. You can’t help speculating upon depression-era viewers, already short of bread at home, so inspired by rascally goings-on as to hold up boxoffices on their way out (and indeed, theatre robberies, often at gunpoint, were rife during the early thirties). This is precode beyond mere lacking of moral and legal compensation so soon to be enforced. Jewel Robbery frankly applauds crime and artful means of getting away with it. Casting William Powell as chief purloiner guarantees rooting interest on our part for whatever he does. This actor could drown puppies and make us like it. The great thing about Powell at Warners is how blithely he walks away from consequences of behavior egregious even to modern sensibilities. Adultery and rogueing are games he manages as adroitly as others play checkers. He must have been some role model for young men on already uncertain ethical footing. What a pity he’d spend future years bound up in Code chains at righteous Metro, that strident dispenser of justice to characters blurring societal edicts (watch sometime how he suffers in 1942's Crossroads). Kay Francis would soon be wiped out by her own market crash of censorial intervention. Where was fun seeing KF tiptoe about post-Code drawing rooms when patrons remembered ones she’d heated up in Jewel Robbery? Always the fashion goddess, Francis in precode also modeled the latest attitudes with regards marriage (preferably open), fidelity (optional), and that eternal expediency of trading sex for gifts (diamonds preferred). Once you took these away, there was nothing left for her but clothes (assuredly staying on), a burden groaning beneath scripts with all semblance of reality siphoned off. Audiences listened to Kay Francis prior to 1934. After that, they merely watched (how many cared about fashions without red meat stories behind them?). Her struggle with the "R" enunciation gets laughs yet, but then and now it served as endearing equalizer for a woman who might seem too perfect otherwise. When she answers Powell’s flawless diction with talk of "wobbers" making off with gems, we’re reassured that this is a mere mortal after all. Such impediment registered strongest, if unconsciously, among fans who stayed loyal even as Kay took studio money and ran, serving less art than bottom lines.

One Way Passage may rank among better precodes just for being well remembered by people who saw it new, positive vibes passed down as received wisdom to generations since. Much as we like raw energy of shows from the early-30’s, there’s realization of sameness creeping in with ongoing exposure to them. Seen it all scribes out of city room universities preferred fast and cynical, which explains why love seldom found Lee Tracy. So many precodes were about putting over sock openers, then peppering rest with verbal gagging. How much genuine emotion was managed in running times of seventy minutes or less? I watched my trio of Kay Francis pics in under three and three quarters an hour. Among these One Way Passage puts over romance and tragic dénouement in less time than Ken Maynard took quelling rustlers and runs a straight line contrary to so many Warner precodes where  writers routinely failed sobriety tests at coherent narrative. WB for good reason felt serious romance was indulgence better left to novelists or richer studios. Expanded length allowed Paramount to faithfully engage A Farewell To Arms, and Universal drew tears over Mae Clarke’s fate in Waterloo Bridge. Both these and One Way Passage were talked about years after most titles of like vintage were forgot. We deplore seeing  Powell gallows bound on a bum rap, and indeed, most vehicles from that period would spare him the rope, but unlike post-code morality lectures, One Way Passage is less about justice being served than how easily chance and rotten luck can make us pay for actions justified or at least understandable. Powell forfeits opportunity to escape out of love and/or decent impulses we never feel are imposed upon him. One Way Passage won't patronize viewers in that way post-codes would. It surely traumatized 1932 viewers (jaded ones most of all) to see Bill so close to freedom, only to sacrifice all in a selfless act atypical of precode heroes (he plays it beautifully). No wonder Robert Osborne called One Way Passage the best of co-starring Powell and Francis films.
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