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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.


Blogger Mrs. R said...

Thanks so much for this excellent article. Power not only received $300,000 but a percentage of the gross for a particular reason. He refused to do the film initially, and the project died. At that point in his life he wasn't that interested in making films anymore. Hornblower wanted him for two films, Witness and Solomon and Sheba. Without Power, there wasn't a project. So they sweetened the deal and went back. One of the reasons for the heart attack on the set of S&S (which he would have had sooner or later) was because the sword weighed 15 pound and they were rehearsing and filming quite strenuously.

I don't know if you live in the LA area, but if you do, please try to come to the tribute to Power at the Egyptian theater November 14, 15 and 16, sponsored by American Cinematheque. The films are Nightmare Alley, The Razor's Edge, The Mark of Zorro and Love is News.

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A remake? With Richard Gere? Ugh.

11:00 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Not a remake with Richard Gere. I was actually thinking about several pictures where he's deceived by seeming innocents who turn out to be scheming killers, particularly one where he's a lawyer defending Edward Norton. I recall Gere being similarly victimized by Kim Basinger in another picture. Funny how I can never think of titles when it comes to these things ...

Mrs. R: A fifteen pound sword! Poor Ty. I've actually seen a still of him lying there waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Sad premature death for an actor I've always liked a lot. "The Mark Of Zorro" is one of my favorites of all time, as is "Son Of Fury" and "The Mississippi Gambler". Power made many good films. Too bad I'm a five-hour plane ride away from that LA show you mentioned.

12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, WOW!
There is too much here to touch on, so again I'll really try to be brief. My own little VHS copy is seldom far from the television -- I must watch this on an average of at least once a month. Laughton never fails to fascinate me -- this is truly the "capper" to the man's whole career, and for Power it was a great one to go out on.
I had the great fortune to have lunch with a group that included Ty's daughter Taryn several years ago. At one point we got to talking about her father, speculating on what might have been had he lived. She said he probably would have moved toward directing, which is what he wanted to do. I ventured that I could easily have envisioned him moving into older character/leading man roles, and I strongly suspected that Wilder's first-choice for the Fred MacMurray part in "The Apartment" would probably have been Ty. The enormous success of this, that you talk of, only begs what Wilder said himself in latter-years, that the three men were planning on doing something-else together in the future. By the way, for the record, Taryn, who strongly resembles her father, told us that she had only the dimmest recollection of him from childhood, and mostly that was just a faint sense-memory of "Coppertone" in the family pool -- she knew him almost entirely from his movies, and she told me her favorite among them was "Jesse James".
The Goldwyn studio on Santa Monica Blvd. is still there and operating, (now as Warners). Wilder also shot "Some Like It Hot" and "Irma La Douce" there. My father worked out there on "The Fugitive". Directly next door is The Formosa, which has been there like since forever. My mother and I would be in there having lunch, killing time while Dad was across the street at a story conference. We'd occasionally see David J. at the bar "drinking lunch". Dad said that Sam G. was still an "absentee landlord" at that time. It isn't difficult to assume that probably Ty, Laughton and Billy would go in there after a long-days shoot to knock back a couple.
Quickly, a story about an encounter with Mr. Wilder, years-ago: I was working at The Village Theatre in Westwood while going to college. We had at that time a block-booking policy with UA. The Village was obligated to take everything that was released under the UA umbrella; The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. They had a sneak- preview one night of "Avanti" with Lemmon. The Mirischs and The Wilders showed up. This was still the rough -- I gather not the final cut. It wasn't going so well that night. I noted a number of walkouts during the run.So did someone else, nervously pacing in the lobby -- Billy Wilder. At one point it was just he and myself, and he did not look the proverbial happy camper that night. I felt I should say something, ANYTHING to make him feel better, and I had caught enough "sneaks" at "Avanti" that evening to catch what Wilder had done. 'Excuse me, Mr. Wider", I said timedly, "I'm really enjoying the film because it reminds me of the films you wrote for Mr. Lubitsch". John, swear to God, you would think I had detonated a bomb and thrown it in the middle of the lobby --Mr. Wilder suddenly sprang to life, all smiles, and appreciation and shook my hand (MY hand, mind you), thanking me, and thanking me AND thanking me. If ever at any moment in my life I had said EXACTLY the right thing, this was it. On his way out that night with the Mirischs, he looked across the lobby, caught my eye and waved. "Thank you, sir", he said yet again. Now I've just finished a screenplay -- a romantic adventure/comedy which has gotten some nice feedback, but it was written truly in homage to Billy Wilder -- Thank YOU, sir!
Sorry this went on so long, but thought you'd enjoy that! This was an outstanding piece, John, my congrats! R.J.
P.S.: To Mrs. R: I do live in L.A.. Thanks for mentioning those films -- I'll try to make it!

5:42 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

Great post! My wife and I love this film, and one of our favorite phrases, used for more than its original intent, is Laughton's wonderful "She executed him!". This is also one of the few films where real life man and wife play well together - Elsa Lanchester is priceless. This is my favorite Dietrich film, too, she was perfect, but the two standouts were Laughton, who will never be eclipsed, and Tyrone Power - gee, I loved that guy's films, they often were so much fun.

"Prince of Foxes" has one of his better serious roles, and he really played well with others - Wanda Hendrix never was better, and Everett Sloane's scenes with Power are just magical, as are anyone's with Power in WFTP - he was a fine actor, without a doubt.

A curious incident from this past Saturday: I was at the Laguna Art Museum for a show with a bunch of "Lowbrow" surrealistic art from the magazine Juxtapose, and there was a gigantic tribute painting to King Kong from the artist Todd Schorr - it's amazingly cool just for that, with lots of little Kong touches, like the armature model and even Mecha-Kong, but smack in the middle was a little tableau of a turbaned stage magician and his lovely assistant. I glanced at it and then looked back... believe it or not, I thought I recognized the girl, and then it hit me - Coleen Gray! Molly from "Nightmare Alley"!! That could mean only one thing: the magus was Ty Power!!! Holy Cow, I looked closer, and damn, it was Stanton Carlisle, alright! What a strange coincidence, but altho I'm not sure of the connection to King Kong, I was glad to see a recent painting of Power in my favorite role of his.

12:32 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

... and thank YOU, RJ, for sharing that amazing Billy Wilder encounter. By the way, you may also have seen Power's daughter and his other children on Fox's DVD extras. Interesting stuff. And I agree with Vanwall as to Power's films. I suspect they've been very successful for Fox on DVD, as there have been two volumes released plus many more as singles. There's also a lot of fan coverage on Power around the net. Here's a particularly nice site ---

6:13 AM  
Blogger David said...

A great article on a delightful film. I especially get a kick out of Laughton and Lanchester's bantering--perfectly timed. And Una O'Connor in her last film as the unfortunate victim's maid. Power and Dietrich and the rest of the cast are also superb.

11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Wilder's appreciation of his players' screen histories made him second to none at casting."

Boy, John, you sure hit a homer with that offhand remark. The supreme example of that peerless facility of Wilder's is a movie you don't mention -- no doubt because you don't need to, but I will: Sunset Blvd. That's the reason I've never been even slightly interested in seeing the musical version: Andrew Lloyd Webber's songs and spelling out "Boulevard" could never compensate for the loss of Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner et al. Lordy, what a history was there, and didn't Wilder mine it for gold!

And R.J., I say it again, sir: write that book!

2:16 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

There was a TV remake of this film with Deborah Kerr, Diane Rigg, Beau Bridges and Ralph Richardson.

It was not a memorable version.

8:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've convinced me -- I've added the DVD to my Amazon shopping cart!

I read the story once, years ago. And it had been presented to the American public at least twice before Wilder's film. Radio City Playhouse broadcast a version on the radio (obviously) on 4/25/49. And on 9/17/53 -- a month before the play's debut -- it appeared on television, broadcast on Lux Video Theater, starring Edward G. Robinson.


9:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alright, alright -- now if you guys will be willing to sit there for another minute and keep quiet, here goes -- get this:
My fathers' dearest friend, and a guy he often talked about, was an actor/writer named Tony Ellis. Tony had been one of the students in "The Corn Is Green" with Davis, and in other films of that period. In the late forties, he and Dad were briefly under contract to Leo McCarey on a script for Jimmy Stewart that unfortunately never happened (McCarey, known to imbibe a little, had just suffered another auto crash, according to Dad).
Tony and his actress-wife Georgia, were part of an ensemble-group out here at that time called "The Turnabout" -- a theatre on La Cienega Blvd. that did live puppet-shows. Elsa Lanchester was a regular part of the group. After an opening night, The Ellis's, who lived upstairs above the theatre, held a reception. The Laughtons' were present. So was my father. According to Dad, he found himself sitting on a "murphy bed" in their small, cramped quarters that evening, with Charles Laughton, while the hosts served a spaghetti dinner. I never tired of hearing the account. "My God, Dad", I would would ask, "Laughton! Tell me about him." Word for word (pretty-much), he would say, "Rick, he was the ugliest son of a bitch you ever saw! He would be sitting there, eating this spaghetti, with the sauce dribbling down his chin, and Elsa would keep remanding him , "Charles, wipe your mouth!" And like a dutiful child, he would comply. "Outside of that,(he was) completely colorless, barely talked, and toward the end of the evening he tried telling a joke, but it didn't come-off, and nobody understood it."
Alright, maybe so, but the fact that my father had gotten to share a private moment with the Laughtons' was good enough for me -- I for one was impressed! Thought you would like.
Thanks again for the very kind words -- Mr. Lane, I will get around to writing that book one day -- right now I'm in the midst of a very exciting project -- a play about two relatively obscure(to all but the Greenbriar contingency, that is) but fascinating actors of the 1940's -- William Eythe and Lon McCallister, called "Soul Mates", that has attracted a lot of attention and we have high-hopes for. As a quick P.S.: Someone else told me in the midst of a conversation we were having several-years ago,"You should write a book!" I thought, "I should?" Never occurred to me. I am too embarrassed to say who this person was, because it sounds too self-congratulatory, but let's just say it was a well-known MGM musical star who spent a lot of time in and out of swimming pools!
Thanks again. R.J.

10:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and doing an online search for this title turned up a number of references to a rumored remake in the works, starring Al Pacino and Nicole Kidman. Since those references all date from 2004-2006, with nothing more recent, it's probably safe to say nothing will come of it. (Thank goodness! Why do they always want to remake the good films? Why not try to make a better version of the bad ones?)


10:16 PM  

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