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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Lou Costello's Fractured Fairy Tale

Here’s something I learned from Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo’s Abbott and Costello In The Movies book: A&C signed a five-year deal with NBC in 1951 guaranteeing them fifteen million dollars to do twenty-two half-hour shows on film and four to eight live hour programs during the contract's first year. Over the next four, they would add forty-four TV shows annually, half on film and half live. Now … here’s my question: What did Bud and Lou contemplate filling all those hours with? Material for Colgate Comedy Hours clicked and led to the rich deal with NBC, but that was mostly burlesque mined since first teaming in the thirties. Gags at Universal were largely stale, like features hosting them, a situation plain to both comedians. Television seems in hindsight to have been ideal for A&C. They still conjured stage patter like no one else. I’d like to have been around for their Vegas shows, these  leagues ahead of what A&C were doing in movies by then. Home tubes were most hospitable to acts needing little more than a backdrop curtain fronted by seltzer-bottles. Further detail struggled against tiny screens and snowy reception. What if NBC spent some of fortune on fresh writers for Abbott and Costello? Comic minds (Mel Brooks? Carl Reiner?) starting out with rival vid clowns might have given A&C a freshened lease on mirth-making, but could Bud and Lou have transitioned to unplowed fields of comedy, and would viewers have accepted it if they had? Being far removed from live programming of the day (despite surviving kinescopes) robs us of knowing how hot the team flashed with TV's beckoning. At that point, it wasn’t necessary for Abbott and Costello to come up with anything new. Home delivery of routines tried-and-true was enough to make them sensations again, but like their meteoric feature rise, it wasn’t built to last. I have limited data for A&C’s late-model Universals, but surely they did alright for continued presence of them, team fame sufficient to raise monies for outside work permitted under their U-I contract (The Noose Hangs High and Africa Screams as of 1951). Could competing talent finagle loans needed to start and finish a full-length comedy during the late forties/early fifties? The Marx Brothers managed it twice, while Laurel and Hardy had only Euro dollars to back an offshore venture that would be their last. Abbott and Costello got independent-backed work all the way to the end (Dance With Me, Henry) and might have gone on doing so had they remained a team. With such boxoffice capital as they enjoyed in 1951, why shouldn’t Bud and Lou generate Abbott and Costello comedies to call their own?

Bob Thomas wrote in his 1977 team bio that Banker’s Trust fronted cash for Jack and The Beanstalk, a Lou Costello-produced venture to be released by Warner Bros. It was said the latter wanted to do business with A&C, so internal inquiries must have indicated commercial life left in the boys. Costello realized his audience was increasingly kids and planned accordingly. Jack would mimic The Wizard Of Oz and The Blue Bird in all respects but money spent for production values. Its gaudy Super-Cinecolor looked like a Van Beuren cartoon sprung to live action, while singing passages, other than a few by Lou himself, were grindingly bad (Costello personally talent scouted for Jack’s romantic relievers, Shaye Cogan and James Alexander). Bob Thomas says Bud Abbott collected $200,000 as salary against costs of $450,000 incurred by Jack and The Beanstalk. Lou would then receive the same amount for Bud’s production of Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, to follow within a year. Furmanek/Palumbo offer figures more reliable, to-wit a Jack and The Beanstalk negative cost of $682,580, including $115,000 each for the comedians, leaving $417,742 for the show after A&C's rake-off. Costello for once watched expenditures, as there was more potential profit for him to share in. Stars paying themselves often did so at the expense of what patrons eventually saw. William Boyd’s own Hoppy westerns looked mighty cheap toward the end thanks to monies he pocketed before cameras turned. Lou Costello’s venture lacked surface polish of even their poorest Universal output, which had at least resources of a major studio, even if the best of these were denied A&C comedies. I read of how Jack and The Beanstalk utilized standing sets from Joan Of Arc, a legendary budget-burner shot four to five years previous on rented stages at Hal Roach Studios. For all projects alleged to have borrowed them, Joan flats got threadbare over a seeming decade of low budget re-use.

As was often the case, selling trumped producing for effort and energy. To make a picture is one thing, but to go out on the road on a hectic trip to help bring it to the attention of the public is something else again, said Exhibitor magazine in its coverage of the team’s twelve-city tour. Jack and The Beanstalk brought Lou Costello back to hometown Paterson, New Jersey for a premiere momentous beyond rewards to be found in his movie. There were Lion’s Club and Chamber Of Commerce socials to attend, plus checks for varied charities given higher profiles via their acceptance by Abbott and Costello. I wonder what became of scrolls and plaques received along 8,000 publicity (and philanthropic) miles these comics traveled. When A&C appeared at your podium, it hardly mattered that their picture wasn’t much good. Ten years of stardom had made indelible brand names of both, and you really get a sense of what that celebrity (and now personal contact) meant to home-folks surrounding Bud and Lou during the Jack tour. As to rental figures, Jack and The Beanstalk collected $1.4 million domestic and $1.1 foreign, more than Abbott-produced Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, which realized $1.2 million domestic and $892,000 foreign. Warner Brothers seems to have gotten overall better revenues out of A&C than Universal around that period, as U-I’s Abbott and Costello Go To Mars took $1.0 million in domestic rentals and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stopped at $979,000 domestic. Lou Costello was said to have "owned" Jack and The Beanstalk, which I assume means the negative, so did his estate allow it to slip into the public domain after an initial twenty-eight years of protection? I’d like to know what became of the negative itself, as what survives on present-day DVD is a port-over of Bob Furmanek’s laser-disc'ed 35mm print, which is striking in its SuperCinecolor, with original sepia opening and closings. That LD for Image is actually the preferred presentation of Jack and The Beanstalk, being loaded with extras unique to the disc, and unlike the DVD, acknowledging Furmanek's effort in presenting it.

I scoured YouTube, without success, for an oddball little subject that used to turn up on American Movie Classics back when that was a network worth watching. It was an inside Hollywood filler produced, I think, by Coy Watson, Jr. A Google search reveals these were made in 1949-50 (called Hollywood Reel) and featured stars engaged in offscreen hobbies and activity. One featured Stan Laurel judging a children’s swim meet. Another segment had Lou Costello showing off … what was it … an icemaker he invented? I remember being impressed. Too bad it’s twenty years since seeing it. Did Lou come up with something revolutionary that he never got credit for (or maybe never filed proper patent on)? I’d imagine ongoing royalties on the world’s first icemaker would pay higher than a hundred years of prat-falling in movies, but chances are better I’m just uninformed as to history of icemakers and who initially developed them. It’s just nice to think it might have been Lou Costello. The licking his reputation took (and like Joan Crawford’s, prevails to now) began with publication in 1977 of Bob Thomas’ Bud and Lou, a bio later revealed to have been largely the impressions of soured agent Eddie Sherman, who’d been fired/rehired and generally knocked about by the team throughout most of their (high) commission-generating careers. For those couple of seasons needed to demolish A&C’s image (mostly Lou’s), there was this book and a scurrilous 1978 TV-movie based on it, also titled Bud and Lou. The one-two punch derailed Costello’s standing as a comic artist and demonized him personally. A persuasive rebuttal came from his daughter Chris in a 1981 memoir. I just read Lou’s On First again and am satisfied Costello got a bum rap from re-imaginers who clearly profited from hoisting him down (Chris got quotes from A&C co-workers who hadn’t spoken before, or since). Indeed, the 70’s might have been about the last decade wherein one could score meaningful publication/movie deals bleaching the bones of Golden Age stars. Three decades further on, it isn’t likely anyone will strike gold in those fields again.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Metro's Red Badge Blow-Off

How radical was John Huston’s The Red Badge Of Courage? Those insiders who saw his proposed version were impressed to a man. It was only when hoi-polloi at the previews laughed and walked out that panic ensued. The story reads like a second act for The Magnificent Ambersons, another legendarily mutilated classic still unaccounted for in its entirety. Red Badge should have moved through the Metro system like dozens more literary adaptations going back to the company’s inception, so I’ve got to figure Huston’s treatment was at the least a major departure from formula they’d applied to those. Accounts of production and infighting abound thanks to a remarkable series of articles published in The New Yorker after Red Badge itself was dead and buried. Little time was needed for this one to evaporate out of theatres. Huston would remember it as his first film to lose money, and indeed it did ($940,000), though a lot of other MGM releases shed skin as well during those troubled years when a public seemed to have decided en masse to stop attending movies. For whatever good or bad reason, the studio gave writer Lillian Ross total access to staff involved with Red Badge and received for their hospitality a primer book (the collected articles appeared hardbound in 1952) on corporate myopia and venality. Huston sort of got out unscathed for having charmed the author, but others, including VP in charge of production Dore Schary (below with MGM's Leo the Lion), came off looking like a vacillating fathead bent on vandalizing a talented director’s work. Ross was probably right on that account. The Red Badge Of Courage looks to me to have been another of those pictures too far ahead of 1951 to survive that year intact. Everyone seemed desperate to salvage jobs placed in perceived jeopardy for having worked on it. They all nodded yes to scissors Schary personally applied after those disastrous previews and Huston splitting town to do The African Queen. Like Ambersons, it’s still a terrific show, but you have to decode much of Red Badge’s remains to divine what Huston had in mind. The real story was the off-set smack-down between Schary and soon-to-be-deposed Louis Mayer, who unwisely brandished this modest project (final negative cost: $1.642 million) as Exhibit A for a him-or-me ultimatum to New York studio chief (and deciding voter) Nicholas Schenck. Schary won, but blinked when the Red Badge pet he’d adopted grew teeth at those previews and threatened to become an audience joke received at his expense. To avert that, he’d simply cut it until the laughter stopped.

Red Badge seemed too inconsequential to arouse such backlot rancor, for Huston was at no time extravagant and his budget was actually exceeded by post-tinkering done by others. This was no Von Stroheim challenging studio authority. He’d just made money for them doing The Asphalt Jungle and was shaping up as one of postwar’s first total filmmakers worthy of rank alongside experienced writer-directors prized for being so few in number. His wild man ways were indulged for having delivered goods and showing a keen eye for what sold in theatres. According to some accounts, Huston turned in Red Badge Of Courage at less than ninety minutes (It was never a long picture, he later said). I’ve read variously of running times at 95 and 105 minutes. Some remembered two and a quarter hours of agony during test screenings wherein half the audience jeered and others walked out. Battle scenes were alleged to have been gorier and in greater abundance. Huston’s Civil War was far more hellish than conservative Metro was willing to depict. Mayer blanched at carnage and ruefully commented that it was typical of excess from this director (LB had heartily disapproved of The Asphalt Jungle as well). Other Metro personnel who’d liked Red Badge before chickened out now. Schary went to plucking and yes-men called him a hero for the result lasting just over an hour. The Motion Picture Herald announced release for September 1951 in July of that year, with running time to be 81 minutes, though by the August 18 trade screenings for exhibitors, it was down to a final 69 minutes. Everyone connected with the sorry affair spent remaining years trying to justify actions taken in mutual panic. Longtime MGM editor Margaret Booth told Focus On Film in 1976 that Red Badge was very long at first, that it was better shorter, and still managed somehow to emerge a classic. For his part, Huston seems not to have held grudges. He’d even hire Booth to edit his much later Fat City. Narration from Stephen Crane’s source book was appended to a reshuffled Red Badge to give literary weight and essentially dare patrons to ridicule it as they previously had.

It was clear those 69 minutes had been arrived at by way of hacking. Reviews were laudatory, but critics didn’t cover house nuts ruptured by a black-and-white downer about cowardice on the battlefield. Independent film buyers charting for The Motion Picture Herald called it poor. MGM’s New York sales division, where studio releases were made or broken, admitted indifference to investigating Lillian Ross, saying they’d known all along it would be a dog. Such candor as shared with an outsider was unprecedented. Red Badge ended up an art film (mis) handled by a company unequipped and frankly resentful of that label. Metro’s market was still a mass audience seated in big auditoriums, but here was a show that would reach neither. The fallback was to open (late by a month) at New York’s Trans-Lux 52nd Street art house, which seated 539 and was home to a number of Metro orphans thought unfit for wider bows (their Red Badge ad shown here). Opening a new picture at the Trans-Lux houses instead of on Broadway saves the major companies money for an elaborate house front, said the Herald. The New York newspapers devote an equal amount of space to reviews of pictures at the art houses. Thus the art spots, which formerly played British, Italian, or French product exclusively, are now getting the offbeat pictures from the majors --- and giving them long runs, which gives favorable word-of-mouth a chance to build business. The Trans-Lux was good for a six-to-eight week engagement of Metro peculiars like Teresa, Kind Lady, and The Man With A Cloak, far more than they would have played at a large Broadway house, said Boxoffice. Red Badge was offered up as another Gone With The Wind in print, while its trailer promised a latter-day Birth Of A Nation. Historians would damn Metro for playing it on double features, not realizing this was standard policy for all but potential biggies the company handled. Wider release did find Red Badge occupying lower berths, but so did most other black-and-white Metros done at reduced budget, and Schary’s mutilation was no diamond in the rough. There was little chance of Red Badge breaking out to attain sleeper status. Not with audiences rejecting it wholesale as they continued to do.

Variety spoke for a doubtful trade press as Red Badge went into general release, calling it curiously moody. Big returns do not appear likely, they added. Boxoffice appeal in the general market is rather limited, and in this release film will be best held to companion bookings. MGM’s misgivings having been confirmed, they now sent out The Red Badge Of Courage in support of features likely to perform better. In Boston, it buttressed Texas Carnival, a program held over in mid-October thanks to interest in the Esther Williams starrer (the latter's eventual profit was $709,000). Red Badge was second fiddle to The Strip in Denver, and Detroit saw it first-running beneath Across the Wide Missouri. The Red Badge Of Courage had legs weak as Metro’s other punk release that month, The Man With A Cloak, which was yanked off a single berth in Cincinnati after four days and replaced with oldie combo Luxury Liner and The Barkleys Of Broadway. Bitter experience taught MGM’s sales force not to persist once hothouse plants were identified as such. Best to let them play off and disappear. Final domestic rentals for Red Badge amounted to $789,000, with foreign as usual rejecting all themes Americana with $395,000. The $940,000 loss was no more disgraceful than many other Metro releases awash in red ink. Their Mr. Imperium of high hopes and a Broadway opening (as shown here) went down in crushing defeat to $1.4 million lost, but who remembers that? Now well separated from Metro, it seemed Louis Mayer was vindicated in his apprehension over Red Badge and belief that Civil War subjects invariably fail (save for the obvious exception of GWTW). Ironic then was RKO’s release the same month of Drums In The Deep South, a more straight-forward and actionful Blue-Gray engagement, with square-jaws James Craig and Guy Madison far less tentative in the field than Huston’s ragtag army. Trade support and a splashy Atlanta premiere (star Barbara Payton in person!) greeted Drums, but a worldwide rentals total of $1.025 million actually fell slightly below Red Badge. Many public school showings lay in wait for John Huston’s ruined masterpiece (he’d often say the complete version was perhaps the best film he ever made), as state libraries kept it on hand and many a youngster sat for runs in history class. MGM surprisingly withheld Red Badge from its Perpetual Product reissue program in 1962-3, despite "World Heritage" groupings that would have seemed ideal. Television release came in a syndicated package for 1964, with Red Badge among forty titles the highlights of which included On The Town, The Stratton Story, and Love Me Or Leave Me. Revenue from Red Badge syndication totaled $118,000 as of April 1983, plus a "non-prime" network run on the CBS Late Movie which yielded an additional $34,000. By way of comparison, a pre-48 from Metro, Somewhere I’ll Find You, earned $149,000 from syndication through 4-83 and Mrs. Miniver $332,000.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Exhibition's Own Caine Mutiny

Quality product seldom came cheap to exhibitors. That was true of movies from the beginning. High-end merchandise did not equate with low rentals. Showmen felt both excitement and dread over blockbusters in the pipeline. How much? was always the first question, followed by, Can I earn it back? We assume big hits made profits for everyone, but how much ended up in theatre deposit bags? Warring between exhibition and distribution reflected ongoing distrust on both sides. The worst skirmishes bled into courtrooms. Both sides deplored these for embarrassment to an industry presumed to be working in harmony. Conventions and trade paper rah-rah masked simmering resentment among hands tirelessly picking the other’s pocket. Exhibitors kept a revolving enemies list of film companies trying to gouge them. Leading the rat pack in 1954 was Columbia, with The Caine Mutiny a blackjack applied to theatres waiting in line to play one of that year’s biggest hits. From Here To Eternity had been huge the previous season, with $11.6 million in domestic rentals. It wasn’t unusual to stiffen terms when following up on proven success, but this was a combination of rudeness and arrogance beyond belief, according to North Central Allied Exhibitors, meeting in Minneapolis to combat Columbia’s unprecedently and unbelievably harsh rental demands. To play The Caine Mutiny would require a guaranteed 50% of every dollar coming through the door. "Caine" will stand in motion picture history as a monument to that company’s (Columbia) greed and as a rallying point for exhibitors who will now recognize their peril and organize in effective opposition to the distributor’s tactics. The 50% was Columbia’s assurance it would make money off any booking of The Caine Mutiny, never mind the loss accruing to theatres playing it. Even where ticket sales fell below costs of operating, a showman would still be expected to pony up half of all receipts, a sure path to bankruptcy and eventual closure (He will have played "Caine" to the glory and enrichment of Columbia and the impoverishment of himself, said Harrison’s Reports). Further stoking fires was the company’s demand for a share of concession profits as well (Columbia’s position: It is our pictures that bring this confection business to the theatres). This was a last straw for houses experiencing both decline in attendance and increased film costs.

Allied was an organization of independent exhibitors, so they knew from getting fuzzy ends of lollipops. Dale Baldwin worked theatres around nearby West Jefferson, NC for thirty-five years between the early forties and late seventies. He still remembers the Caine Mutiny altercation and tells of how bigger chains routinely enjoyed preferential treatment from distributors, with under-the-table terms frequently negotiated for companies owning multiple screens. Columbia stomped on Allied’s membership because they could, and didn’t mind saying so (If the exhibitor can’t stand the gaff, that’s his tough luck was among quotes attributed to distributor execs). Allied finally retaliated by putting two picketers in front of the distributor’s exchange in Minneapolis (shown above) during mid-September 1954. Columbia is Unfair to the Independent Theatre Owners, read placards, though Allied wasn’t taking responsibility for the demonstration. It was hoped that booking showmen would go elsewhere for product and let Columbia feel some pain for their hard stance on The Caine Mutiny. For its part, the company moved for a court order to disband the picketers. The Motion Picture Herald, accepting weekly ads for Columbia releases, played down the incident, but had to report it now that parties were before a judge. It was not apparent that the picketers attracted any great stir on film row, said MPH, with the exception of a few photographers from local newspapers, the pickets did not attract any attention. Allied membership meanwhile was canceling Columbia programs and refusing further merchandise from them. North Carolina’s own Statesville Theatre Corporation sent notice to Dale and other managers that The Caine Mutiny would not be booked in member theatres. Baldwin's venue in West Jefferson, NC (735 seats) passed on Caine in accordance with Statesville’s policy. Folks in that small town would have to drive at least 60 miles, on roads a lot more primitive than ones we have now, to see The Caine Mutiny.

Most profits from big pictures came from metropolitan theatres that seated thousands, but smaller markets couldn’t be ignored. Reduced rentals were better than none at all, and no company could afford to alienate independent owners, as they represented by far a majority of US screens. Columbia began to relent on Caine Mutiny terms by mid-October, with theatres reportedly getting contracts at 35%. Part of said willingness was the result of Caine grosses below those collected by From Here To Eternity, its merchandising model and the biggest money picture in Columbia’s history to that time (Caine had $8.5 million in domestic rentals to Eternity's $11.6). The latter had sex angles Caine lacked, plus younger players (Lancaster, Clift, Sinatra) cresting at boxoffice lure. Another 1954 winner for Columbia was On The Waterfront, sold as "Going My Way" with Brass Knuckles and headed for $5.7 million in domestic rentals. By late 1954, Caine was playing combos with Waterfront, and December saw Columbia announcing they’d sell both at flat rates to small theatres (defined as those that customarily pay $100 or less for their top product). The company was ready to deal with independent exhibitors on a fair and equitable basis, though Allied’s member bulletin warned that the above information will not automatically settle your buying problems with Columbia, and you must still use all your wits and ingenuity to make flat deals that are fair and profitable. The pickets that had brought Caine’s exhibitor mutiny to a head were now a memory, having been dismissed after a single week's march. West Jefferson finally got Caine the following year and got it flat. One more show world crisis had passed.
Many thanks to Dale Baldwin for sharing his exhibitor memories of The Caine Mutiny.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Favorites List --- The Caine Mutiny --- Part One

Look back a moment and identify the first grown-up movie you ever watched, and understood as such. For my viewing of features on TV, it was seeing color there for the first time that opened windows to adult content and shades of gray I’d missed (or ignored) in mostly black-and-white monster pics gone before. Late shows on NC stations were resolutely monochrome into the mid-sixties. I’d stay up for Blood and Sand or She Wore A Yellow Ribbon in B/W with little hope of seeing either properly presented. Local channels paid more for color prints then. Fewer of these were made for syndication. Late-night in our markets seemed dull as low contrast 16mm they ran. When The Caine Mutiny showed up on Charlotte’s Channel 3, after their 11:00 news, and in color yet, I knew owl slots had embarked upon a new era, a 60’s equivalent of High-Definition. Remember how TV GUIDE would print little "COLOR" boxes in front of select titles? These were a magnet to viewers for whom color itself was still a novelty. Our late shows never edited features, my surest incentive for watching after prime-time. The Caine Mutiny ran 124 minutes, so imagine treatment it received during daytime or evenings. I recall one station cleaving over twenty minutes to begin at Bogart’s introductory speech on deck. Being up till 2 AM seemed a fair exchange for seeing all of The Caine Mutiny. It clicks for me (still does) as thoughtful drama with rich characters and exceptional performances. Critical reputations wax and wane even among settled classics. Caine just kept waning from status never exalted to begin with. It’s another of those I’m resigned to loving mostly by myself. Sentiment for being introduced at an impressionable age blinds me to weakness others point out (eloquently so at imdb and similar forums), so I’ll not try justifying The Caine Mutiny’s placement among personal favorites. It’s there simply for turning up at a moment in my life when I was ready for it. Doesn’t everyone’s all-time list come about pretty much the same way?

I looked at The Caine Mutiny again last week and was fourteen again, my pleasure enhanced by a widescreen DVD Columbia sells. Many 1954 critics said Caine was muffed by a romance subplot involving screen newcomers Robert Francis and May Wynn. For me, they’re a twisted sort of plus. Ensign Willie Keith was actually the Herman Wouk novel’s focal point, that read by millions and recipient of a Pulitzer Prize. Francis had been plucked from nowhere to supply point-of-view to characters we much prefer to him, called wooden and callow from then to now and standing not a chance beside veterans all at their best. Willie’s love spats and mother/son conflict are perversely allowed to dominate two opening reels of The Caine Mutiny. All this would seem an intrusion had I found the film more recently. As it is, the Willie/May narrative is a cherished friend, being a virtual tour through 50’s Tiki lounging (her crimson dress was a knockout on 16mm IB Tech prints) and furloughing at Yosemite locations there to confirm this is no ordinary Columbia programmer we’re watching. Francis actually paralleled James Dean for circumstances of a brief career and tragic early death. They were less than a year apart in age and both gone within two months of the other. Francis was prominent in four features to Dean’s three. They died violently in mishaps, Francis piloting a small plane (7-31-55) and Dean behind the wheel of a sport-car (9-30-55). Though he and May Wynn made two films together, no one’s tracked her down to ask what it was like working with Robert Francis, while Dean’s co-worker’s have been driven likely mad by inquiries over him. For all their similarities, it was image and disposition where Francis and Dean parted. Jim flatters still our notions of 50’s rebellion and was admittedly the better actor. His forgotten counterpart embodied conformism discredited since (a military man in all five features he did). The distraction of The Caine Mutiny’s Francis/Wynn subplot can be accounted for in part by Columbia’s investment in the careers of both young players. They’d be elevated by placement alongside Humphrey Bogart in a major production millions would see. Columnists more than once spoke of studio policy attaching neophyte talent to coattails of established names. Bogart for one realized he was being used to test-run untried Columbia merchandise and referred harshly (in print) to that company having gummed up Caine via too much emphasis on its love duo.

Producer Stanley Kramer suggested later that he’d have been better shunning Navy Cooperation on The Caine Mutiny, being it required script approval from image conscious Brass. Having had no mutinies on record, they didn’t want patrons thinking such events were fact-based, thus disclaimers/dedications on both credit ends for reassurance. Military endorsement wasn’t then the black mark upon creative integrity it would become in the sixties. As with Air Force-stamped Above and Beyond in 1952, outreach as indicated in the Navy endorsement above, plus a gala and colorful parade on Chicago’s State Street for that city’s opening (also above), neutralized fear that The Caine Mutiny might cast aspersions upon Naval personnel. Ticklish enough having Edward Dmytryk along to direct (shown at top with Robert Francis and May Wynn). He’d borne a Communist taint until recanting Party affiliation and was now fast-tracking a career path delayed by time served. The Caine Mutiny does play safe and was/is dismissed as middlebrow for doing so. Latter day thought police had 1954 counterparts at work here, only this was political correctness favoring the conservative side, and that paid handsomely with $8.5 million in domestic rentals.

For Humphrey Bogart, The Caine Mutiny was promise fulfilled by range he’d confirmed in Oscar-winning The African Queen. Finally he’d break for good with trenchcoat parts the faltering likes of Tokyo Joe and Sirocco. A few more of those might have eased him onto Alan Ladd’s slope, though Bogart was perceptive enough (and actor enough) to know that old ways with a gat were fast closing as patrons got (much) choosier. He was a prestige name now and safer Caine casting than first considered Richard Widmark, who might have been more appropriate as Captain Queeg, but had not the boxoffice insurance Bogart supplied. TIME reported the latter got $200,000 per show by 1954 … he also lends a film an aura of distinction, they added. That was a cover profile (above) showing Bogart as Queeg, sure indication he’d risen to a career peak. The role was sufficiently desirable as to tip the actor’s hand in negotiation … he showed up at a studio meet rolling steel balls to demonstrate fitness for work. That was hardly a way to score top money from paymasters thus made aware of his eagerness, but Bogart cared less about cash than parts he’d find rewarding, a policy that yielded legacy to surpass most every rival of HB’s generation (who else appeared in so many memorable pictures?). Bogart forwarded a Caine draft he knew was lacking to friend John Huston for comment, but was really in no position to force revisions the latter suggested, for he was on this occasion toiling for hire and unable to pull strings as with self-produced pics just previous. Frustration was vented to columnists who delighted in Bogart’s disparaging of movies completed. Distribution/exhibition accepted the knocks as cost of doing business with an iconoclast striving double-time to maintain the title. No wonder up-and-coming backlot rebels looked up to him. The Harvard cult would be youth's ultimate embrace of Bogart’s very calculated image. All it needed was for him to shuffle off (in January 1957) and leave behind a backlog seemingly tailor-made for a coming generation of fans.

Coming in Part Two: 1954 Exhibitors Mutiny Over Caine.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


STRETCHING SCREENS IN 1953: Shane came along at the worst possible moment for a flat western shot on wide-vista locations. If ever there was an ideal subject for expanded projection, this was it. Shane was several years in production. George Stevens had prints ready for release about the time his public discovered 3-D and blown-out screens. Conventional formats were suddenly passé, and exhibitors wanted wide. Paramount hosted three hundred showmen in March 1953 for a jerry-rigged demonstration of features completed in standard ratio, now "enhanced" for panoramic. You are at the crossroads of your business existence, said Paramount chief Y. Frank Freeman to those in attendance, and so are we. He urged all not to discard conventional projection too quickly even as he ran scenes from Shane, War Of The Worlds, Forever Female, and others through a wide-angle lens that (not so)effectively expanded images by shaving off tops and bottoms. Dessert by way of increased ticket sales would reward houses that spent the mere $600 and up needed to retrofit auditoriums, said Freeman. We have no selfish interest in this process apart from the good that it may conceivably do for the industry. To George Stevens’ undoubted chagrin, Shane went the route of a cinematic lab rat and emerged far afield of what its director intended. Chicago’s State-Lake Theatre boasted the Midwest Premiere --- Only Our New Panoramic Screen can bring out it’s magnitude … only our New Stereophonic Sound can emphasize its emotional appeal, with sublime music, which comes to you from every part of the theater! This was May 27, 1953, with Shane coming on the Chicago Loop heels of Man In The Dark (5-8) and Fort Ti (also 5-27), both in 3-D. MGM’s Young Bess was opening the same night as Shane on a Wide-Dimension Radiant Screen at the nearby Oriental Theatre. According to Motion Picture Daily, the State-Lake engagement of Shane was first as well with aforementioned stereo accompaniment, Paramount having re-mixed the track earlier that month in response to patron’s enthusiastic embrace of This Is Cinerama and House Of Wax.
FAULKNER BOOSTS PHAROAHS: Here’s a collaboration literary scholars never saw coming … Bill Faulkner in Memphis helping Warners kick off that city’s Land Of The Pharaohs campaign, posing with WB branch and publicity men. There was a cocktail party for the author and his family, followed by a private screening on June 13, 1955. Pic was to open June 29 and Faulkner’s drop-in enhanced much local interest in the Howard Hawks project for which he was credited scenarist. Bill’s aunt (of Memphis) said Hawks called Oxford, Miss. eight times before its famed resident finally agreed to write Land Of The Pharaohs. For Faulkner, the trip up was both a family reunion and accommodation to Warner sales personnel. As to Hollywood handling of his work, Bill was a realist. Too many hands were in, he said. By the time they’re through, a writer’s effort has been altered or even lost. So how much of Faulkner’s concept survived Land Of The Pharaohs second-guessers? To that, he didn’t comment.

THE DIARY OF JONATHON HARKER: Much effort goes into tracking Hammer veterans. The Horror Of Dracula cast can be mostly accounted for. Of those surviving, many have been contacted and some have reminisced. One was recently knighted. I’m intrigued by those shunning limelight after exposure in 1958's classic. Valerie Gaunt has proven elusive, as did her intended victim in the unforgettable library scene that is probably Dracula’s best remembered. John Van Eyssen was down cast listings as Jonathon Harker, but a lot of fans spent years wondering what became of him afterward. He’d left acting and was said to avoid discussion of screen work put behind. A story's been told of Sammy Davis, Jr. spotting Van Eyssen in a pub and shouting Jonathon Harker!, to the former actor’s considerable embarrassment. Here is the only photo I’ve ever seen of a post-Hammer Van Eyssen, though interestingly, it’s a feature from that company he’s publicizing. Julie Ege (Miss Norway), in the center, was just signed to do Creatures The World Forgot for Hammer when she posed with Van Eyssen, then head of Columbia British Productions, and producer James Carreras. This was July 1970. John Van Eyssen had retired from acting in 1961 to become a literary agent. He seems to have found far greater success there and at Columbia than was to be had in front of cameras at Bray. I’ve not heard of Van Eyssen being interviewed by anyone, though Little Shoppe Of Horrors #13 says he was approached and had promised to sit for a talk, but died in 1994 before that could be arranged.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

King Kong Versus Godzilla!

My obsession over King Kong reissues is documented elsewhere, with 1956’s engagement posing ongoing question as to why RKO would place a feature back in theatres so soon after selling it to television. Further digging into trade magazines and newspapers of that year revealed a strategy that not only generated more admission revenue for the venerable monster classic, but also brought Kong head-to-head with import out of Japan Godzilla, King Of The Monsters! (the exclamation mark being theirs, not mine). We know the two battled seven summers later when Universal released King Kong vs. Godzilla for 1963 school-outers, but here was a preliminary match all but forgotten. Based on its excellent showing on television during the past few weeks, "King Kong" will again be released for theatrical presentation by RKO, said company vice-president Walter Branson in April 1956. It has been withdrawn from future video airings and will be released in June. I’d always assumed that King Kong remained on airwaves once New York’s WOR premiered it in March 1956. The weeklong run (broadcasts every day) had been a sensation. As it turns out, only two stations nationwide played the film that Spring. Besides WOR, there was WHBQ in Memphis, Tennessee. Both were General Teleradio outlets and affiliated with new owners of TV rights in the RKO library. King Kong’s enormous success among limited home viewers did not go unnoticed. Theatrical distribution rights for the backlog remained with RKO, whose 1952 reissue had sold like gangbusters, so precedent was there for King Kong to do it again. Branson announced a 116-date saturation booking for June among California venues carefully picked. As before, summer vacation was adjudged most lucrative for a show with considerable youth appeal. A Val Lewton produced oldie would go out with Kong same as The Leopard Man had for 1952 dates. This time it was I Walked With A Zombie.

The combo bowed at twelve Los Angeles locations on June 27, 1956. Here were two black-and-white flat ratio vaulties plopped down amongst wide screen blockbusters Trapeze (at the Beverly Wilshire) and Cinerama Holiday (at the Hollywood Warner), with Oklahoma and The Man Who Knew Too Much continuing long runs on neighboring blocks. The King and I in Cinemascope-55 would open at Grauman’s Chinese the day after. More attuned to Kong/Zombie’s modest proportion was a horror/sci-fi coupling that started in eighteen locations the same Wednesday as the RKO's . That was The Black Sleep and The Creeping Unknown, with "Glamour Ghoul" Vampira and consort Tor Johnson making lobby appearances in four of the hardtops. According to Gary D. Rhodes in his amazing book Bela Lugosi --- Dreams and Nightmares, the screen’s foremost Dracula showed up as well (and unannounced) for one of those lobby receptions, with Forrest J Ackerman among others lending assist. Did Lugosi realize that two neighborhood Los Angeles theatres were that very night playing yet another engagement of his original Dracula, once again with the 1932 Frankenstein? For such an intersection of old with new, June 27, 1956 was a dazzling occasion for moviegoing in LA, even as King Kong’s determined successor waited in the wings to knock the twenty-three year old monster sovereign off his throne.

Makes "King Kong" Look Like a Midget! said ads for Godzilla, King Of The Monsters!, its arrival (July 11) in fourteen Los Angeles theatres and seven drive-ins being but two weeks behind Kong and I Walked With A Zombie (one venue that played both Kong/Zombie and Godzilla was Burbank’s Sun-Val Drive-In of White Heat fame). The RKO combo had closed after a single week with prints headed for other territories to continue the Summer run-off. Godzilla’s campaign made intentions clear. Here was the proposed new King of monsters, the title’s exclamation mark giving emphasis to Kong’s displacement by a four hundred foot tall, fire-breathing gargantuan (instead of merely punching out a train, Godzilla eats it!). Japanese filming had taken place in 1954. I’d assume it was shot in standard ratio, having watched a recently released DVD and getting no indication of that having been cropped from widescreen. Did 1956 patrons receive Godzilla with top and bottom shaved for projection through wide apertures aimed toward expanded screens? They’d have been firmly in place by that year. King Kong must have been compromised as well in theatres committed to wider presentation and unwilling to switch back to standard ratio for isolated reissues. I had bad experiences of my own during the sixties and seventies at houses where old films were chopped at the top by operators busily framing images up and down so we could see at least part of what was going on (of course, most didn’t bother doing even that). Godzilla was a show I hadn’t watched since childhood. The alternate Japanese version is better regarded these days, but I wanted to see what 1956 stateside audiences experienced, so it was me and Raymond Burr waiting a long twenty-eight minutes for the titular reptile to make his first appearance. After that brief disclosure, it was another eleven before Godzilla surfaced again to wreak signature havoc. Being a man in a rubber (?) suit, he looks best in subdued lighting. The darkness hanging over this picture lends atmosphere, if not conviction, that later color ones would lack. It occurred to me that Godzilla’s fame resulted most from his being given a strong name as opposed to more anonymous King Dinosaurs and Beasts From 20,000 Fathoms that had preceded him. The monicker denotes strength and the fact he was coronated King of all monsters had persuasive force that carried forward to innumerable follow-ups. Would Jurassic Park and sequels endure better had one of its monsters been personalized and elevated to stardom of its own?

The King Kong/I Walked With A Zombie parlay continued successfully through Summer 1956. Pittsburgh reported the combination doing surprisingly well, despite patron knowledge that both would likely be back on television before long (others of the RKO library were meanwhile fanning out on home screens nationwide). Walked in with a home run weekend. I’m still trying to figure out what or why, said incredulous showman Donald L. Rexroad of Falconer, New York’s State Theatre, To have given this to TV when it still has this much business in it is unbelievable. Rexroad’s business with King Kong was reported at 30% above average, but of co-feature I Walked With A Zombie, he was more reserved. This one did not hold up its end of the program --- not enough thrills and chills to keep the audience interest at the peak "King Kong" had left it. Was RKO wise to have dualled these two? Zombie with its subdued effect couldn’t help but pale beside Kong’s dynamic showmanship. Given a choice among that company’s inventory, I’d have picked The Thing to accompany the big ape back into theatres (Howard Hawks’ thriller would instead be reissued the following year). Exhibitors agreed that King Kong was still boxoffice after all these years, unlike numerous oldies written off as decrepit even as they were TV bound. Don’t pay too much and you can bank well on Monday, said manager Joe Meyer of Ione, California after a profitable Kong-weekend. Ballyhoo updated for 50’s consumption included the (above) mechanized King Kong appearing "in person" on WFBM/Indianapolis during its daytime Open House Show, where the gorilla loomed over performing rock n’ rollers. Godzilla, King Of The Monsters! meanwhile played numerous situations in direct competition with King Kong, as here in side-by-side ads from a Cleveland, Ohio newspaper in September 1956. RKO’s Mighty Monarch Of Melodramas would maintain its legendary status into the sixties and beyond, with theatrical life enhanced by replacement of footage out since 1933. Continued television exposure did not disqualify King Kong from paid admissions as it would Godzilla, a flash-in-the-pan recognized as such by distributors who sold the would-be usurper to free-vee in April 1958, less than two years after it premiered in US theatres.
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