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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halloween Harvest For 2010 --- Part Two

I wish gimmick horrors like Macabre and The Hypnotic Eye were better regarded so distributors could do special editions. Here's where lobby goings-on were lots more interesting than placid screen (in)action. Those who were there fifty years ago will swear by these, while unfortunates who missed 1958 and 1960 parties, respectively, can only wonder what so much fuss was about, let alone word-of-mouth that made hits of both. Warner Archives is just out with Macabre and The Hypnotic Eye, plus several other Allied Artists released chillers. They represent a live-wired era when movies were sold town-to-town and everyone got fun beyond what merely arrived in 35mm cans. By 1958, another horror pic was just that, and even good ones suffered for the glut. Competition ran hot among fright peddlers, especially now that major companies entered a fray previously left to bottom-feeding American-International and others prospecting small coin. Genre bills were never about big money, but make them cheap enough and profits were there for taking, especially with tickets selling mostly to kids. William Castle saw comeback potential in horror after someone took him to see Diabolique in 1957. Bill speaks to that in his memoir, Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare The Pants Off America, published in 1976, and lo and behold, just reprinted. He tells of shooting Macabre for $90,000, shopping the neg around for distribution (no takers) and finally getting Allied Artists to roll dice. According to Bill, the thing ended up grossing five million. I'd doubt that (AA estimated something north of two million), although it was a major '58 shock hit (beating Horror Of Dracula, for one). How Castle promoted Macabre was the best thing about it, of course, so those of us left with just an indifferent movie minus recall of its then-sensation can't help feeling ripped (although Warner's DVD quality is plenty compensating).

Castle admitted to 50's trade that Macabre wasn't the most wonderful of films, but would more than float boats from showmanship and maybe entertainment angles. Upon arrival at Boston and Chicago openings, Bill rolled up sleeves and personally called one hundred strangers out of the phone book with invites to guest attend Macabre. He stood at boxoffices and handed out thousand dollar life insurance policies for those who died of fright watching the film. A stewardess was picked from each of Bill's incoming flights to receive gratis coverage, plus ducats for a layover screening. Macabre's indemnification was real enough. Lloyds Of London estimated between five and eight patrons might keel over while inside, a risk they were willing to cover provided Castle tender a five G's premium. Fifteen hundred playdates were secured by AA as of April '58, with Macabre holding steady through a crowded summer, despite heavier-hitters come to challenge it. Here was where Bill got the Castle legend rolling. You've got to get out and sell 'em ... the louder the better, he said of this first producing effort. Some ballyhoo was as macabre as his film's title. A second theatre in Corpus Christi, Texas had to be rented, and riot police engaged, to handle teenage mobs aroused by a Friday the 13th midnight run, and their press screening at a so-called "abandoned cemetery" was augmented with buffet tables offering fried ants, rattlesnakes, and grasshoppers, plus tulips and lilies in syrup. Pity a theatre's staff assigned duty of cleaning up that mess.

Macabre earns its title for a story discomfiting even by modern measure. The idea of a child buried alive is no more appealing today than in 1958, but there it is as primary thrust of a frankly unwholesome tale unraveling s-l-o-wly over 72 minutes. For reasons unknown to me, Macabre had been largely out of circulation for years before Warner Archive restored same to us, so this was first time seeing it. A hallmark of William Castle thrillers must surely be utter disdain for sense or logic in a story's telling. Just give us the bumps and closer scrutiny be hanged. At least there's little predicting what happens next. Castle must have sat in his director chair sketching out ads for a selling end to Macabre that engaged him far more than coherent action before cameras. Still, there was no denying Macabre's appeal to morbid tastes, ticket sales inspiring Allied Artists to forge ahead with The Hypnotic Eye, this time sans Castle, but again with gimmickry not unlike what he'd used to sell 1959's in-between House On Haunted Hill, also for AA release. The Hypnotic Eye was unleashed in early 1960 amidst a waning market for stunt horrors, particularly ones lacking color. Balloons were this time handed to incoming youth, inflatable at an arranged point in the film where on-screen Jacques Bergerac demonstrates power of suggestion for his audience. Fifty years later, a lot of patrons still remember the balloon and anticipation of blowing it up for the Hypno-Magic gag. They've also not forgotten horrific scenes of women mutilating themselves while under sinister spell of the titular eye. Even watching from a half-century's distance, those pack a queasy wallop yet.

Boys would be boys, and ones that bragged home of having seen women rinse faces in sulfuric acid might well have been barred from future horror movies by parents understandably appalled, but youth in those days (including myself) were usually wise enough to keep traps shut as to what they'd seen in theatres. Friend Brick Davis made the Liberty scene for The Hypnotic Eye (his father took him) and remembers well the balloon experience. Allied Artists kind of snuck their gimmick through a back door by making it essential to crowd enjoyment of The Hypnotic Eye ... Pass on the balloons, Mr. Exhibitor, and Hypno-Magic falls flat. Showmen were cool with gimmick attractions so long as they didn't cost beyond film rental. Trouble with The Hypnotic Eye and the William Castles was fact of giveaways, wired seats, and skeletons on wires adding expense up front that might not be got back should shows flop. Allied Artists offered balloons at $20 per thousand (with assurance they were being sold at cost), which seems not too unreasonable a risk, but consider fact that rural houses paid that (or barely more) to book the feature itself ... and how many of small-towners could anticipate a thousand patrons for The Hypnotic Eye? I'm envisioning waste cans filled with balloons or youngsters receiving them for many a 1960 attraction that followed The Hypnotic Eye (could a present day search of the Liberty reveal a box of them still in storage?).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Halloween Harvest For 2010 --- Part One

Universal’s Cult Horror Film Collection missed last year's Harvest, only just, but I didn't want to overlook it for 2010's edition, so here's better late than never praise for five off lower shelves of that companies' thriller inventory. Maybe waiting forty years to see these again was a good idea. For much of that interim, I’d been reminded (over and again) what lousy B’s they were, so pleasure was compounded for their turning out to be such fun. Could this be reward for lowered expectation? I’d not call them good by any standards, but Universal monster fans seldom apply those in any case. Buyers of this set are driven by sentiment for midnights past when black-and-white horrors choked airwaves and ghouls, be they mad or tepid, more than satisfied. To wit, there is The Mad Ghoul at long last among pics included. I can recite when, where, and on what TV station I first saw it. Could I tolerate those stately 65 minutes otherwise? Elder status gives me newfound respect for shows that get on and off in a hurry. None of ones here last much past an hour, being filmic equivalents of fun-sized Baby Ruths for sweet sampling of what pleased in our youth. Being made cheap doesn’t mean low-budgeters have to look that way. House Of Horrors is rendered beautifully with quality leagues beyond what 16mm delivered on syndicated broadcasts of yore, and hanged if I don’t admire what production value Universal got out of a mere $135,412 spent on the negative. That one’s title notwithstanding, you could argue that none of these are horror films at all. Civilians would surely question chiller classification of the lot, excepting maybe parts (small ones) of Murders In The Zoo, The Mad Ghoul, and aforementioned House Of Horrors. Most off-putting to current thrill seekers is preponderance of comic relief snatching rugs from under moments approaching terror. That is something we hardcores long ago accepted, having spent lives culling wheat from chaff and giving thanks for what goose-bumps could be derived from movies seemingly bent on withholding them.

Universal originally made its second cycle chillers (from late 30's on) for general audiences skewed toward youth. Nobody wanted them too scary. Kitchen sinks and more were deployed into shows seeking something for everyone. The Strange Case Of Doctor RX was but momentarily a chiller, detouring there with a caged gorilla and threatened brain transplants. Otherwise we're in trying company of a hopeful Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man not unlike counterfeits Hollywood regularly offered up as means toward scoring cash generators like MGM had with its Bill Powell/Myrna Loy series. Patric Knowles and Anne Gwynne are penthouse pretenders getting by on situations and dialogue drained of wit that popularized the Metro template, yet theirs is a game try, and I liked RX just for being less familiar than overexposed Thin Men long available on DVD. Therein lies much of the appeal of this set. Who ever thought such minor leaguers would be so lovingly disc-presented? Pleasant surprises are in abundance. Everyone says Rondo Hatton was pathetic as an actor (on top of more pathetic acromegaly) in House Of Horrors, but for me his halting way with dialogue rang winningly true, as did quieter exchanges between he and uber-intense Martin Kosleck, another performance till now unappreciated (we know enough of offscreen Hatton and Kosleck to better appreciate different drums they marched to). Much villainy within Universal’s box is practiced by Lionel Atwill, a maestro of menace who could have entranced reading labels off tin cans had he been so disposed. Atwill doubtless felt he’d be better served doing just that rather than engaging The Mad Doctor Of Market Street's dialogue, another hybrid of mad science, jungle frolicking, and dumbbell comedy designed to support higher-profile horrors on 1942 bills. You keep waiting here for Abbott and Costello to come along and tip the whole thing, as they essentially did in that year's thematically similar Pardon My Sarong. I point up such absurdities with utmost love in my heart for programmers once a mainstay of late night broadcasting, before chillers of later vintage eased them off airwaves. Quality like that maintained in the 30's was near beyond retrieval when Universal did these. Why not joke things up now that adults had quit auditoriums? The company sold watered down frights knowing its public was wise, for who'd see The Mad Ghoul other than to laugh at it? I’m frankly glad to have graduated past lofty ideas of what classic horrors should achieve and just happy to embrace what they do offer. Universal’s Cult Collection delivers splendidly on desire to drag the river of titles from a “Shock” group revered in days of narrower viewing choice, and I hope excavation will continue until all of them are restored to us.

Universal's identification with horror goes way back, certainly beyond any fan's lifetime, but what I've wondered is ... when did they first recognize it? At what point did marketers declare Universal home base of horror? I might have suggested 1943, based on a pressbook I came across for The Mad Ghoul featuring a “Graveyard Panorama” to encompass fiends dating to Chaney, Sr., proof that Hollywood's most famous monsters bunked at Universal. Note inclusion here of 1923's Hunchback Of Notre Dame, a then-twenty year ago face incorporated with others into the company's chamber of horrors. So how long had this been going on? Based on what ads and publicity I've found, it would seem Universal staked their brand as early as 1931 and publicity for Frankenstein, for which they called up memories, then fresh, of Chaney's Quasimodo and the Phantom Of The Opera, as well as Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Why not use familiar images to welcome new membership into fright's fraternal order? Universal embraced a winning franchise early on and, based on this Frankenstein ad at least, seemed to have made the most of it. And they continue doing so, of course, with successful modern remakes of The Mummy and The Wolf Man, plus theme park and DVD re-packaging of vintage incarnations.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ads That Sold Cartoons --- Part Two

I submit that we all grew up spoiled rotten on cartoons. For theatre-goers, they were a treat, and usually came one at a time as treats should. Multiple helpings were for special occasions, like a School's Out party or Saturday morning feed while Mom was down blocks shopping. I remember specific cartoons in theatres, but am far less able to call back ones ladled out daily, and to excess, on TV. Asheville's Channel 13 ran two hours of the things every morning, overkill I never could process beyond recognizing logos and music seen/heard ad nauseum. Parental concern was not misplaced for offspring parked before such bottomless pit of molasses. Our generation bitches over video games played incessantly. What were cartoons on a loop other than same hypnosis minus hand controls? It usually took me thirty or so minutes to go numb on them, an hour short of (Winston-Salem) Channel 12's ninety-minute Saturday dollop (the ad here came after they'd reduced that by half). Had I seen those cartoons at the Liberty, and in proper moderation, there'd be specific memories still, like most features experienced there. Imagine if you will a reasoned diet of Donald, Daffy, and Popeye in 35mm, each on and off big screens well short of viewer fatigue. Even now, I won't watch beyond four at a single sitting. To indulge more does neither me nor them proper service.

This time, I wanted to sample ads where theatres laid cartoons on thickest. Were so many animated shorts able to keep a young crowd's undivided attention? I'll bet shows like this one at Bluefield's State Theatre were thoroughgoing madhouses, what with a Tom and Jerry Carnival, Bugs Bunny's Revue, the Three Stooges, and a Bowery Boys leading into Tension at Table Rock. Tension indeed for house staff trying to keep order among patronage so over-stimulated. Are there places today the equivalent of these weekend matinees for letting off steam (other than public school systems)? Vegetating in front of DVD Bugs Bunny revues could not approach this. It just dawns on me that I've never seen Bugs or Tom and Jerry with a large audience, nor more than a handful of cartoons which appeal I presume to understand. What would that have been like? Laughter is contagious enough in a majority of adults. Theatre kids already hopped up on sugar bars and sodie pop must have all but wrenched chair bolts out of floors. More than one exhibitor has told me how vital it was to maintain order during these hyper-thons. Usher help needed, at the least, whips and chairs. Knowing what sweets do to one child, imagine hundreds chasing the same high of concessions plus cartoons. Could an emerging drug culture have been thwarted by simply giving youth continued access to shared euphoria like this? Too much joy of animation was lost when TV swallowed it whole. DVD providers can restore picture and sound, but not tribal rites of discovering cartoons in the company of excited peers.

Something else showmen told me ... it didn't matter if cartoons they booked were old or new. One veteran reported he never had a customer cry foul over animated repeats. You couldn't spot age of a cartoon short of eagle eyes for fleeting copyright notices, and Warners' slapping a Blue Ribbon on their oldies might convey many things other than fact you were watching a reissue. Color had stopped being a novelty by the mid-thirties, so inventories swelled quickly and enabled done shorts to cycle through the marketplace time and again. It was hard enough recalling two hour features you'd seen ten years before, but seven minute drawings? --- unless it was a Three Little Pigs or some such, you could go back in before leaves changed and swear cartoons you saw were brand new. What singled out animateds was also what revitalized features ... namely things new and novel. Audiences woke up when Popeye went 3-D and became an Ace Of Space. Then there was Cinemascope and Tom and Jerry chasing each other to accompaniment of Perspecta sound. Ads like one shown here celebrated new frontiers of Kartoonascope --- Cartoons Seen Thru The Eyes of Cinemascope. These spikes were short-lived but effective for letting customers know their favorites were keeping up with times, but what was difference otherwise between T&J or Bugs in their youth and adventures they'd relive years down the line?

Exhibitors didn't mind new cartoons, so long as they paid old prices. The biggest problem distribution had after the war was theatres reluctant to kick in higher rentals for supporting product. It was bad enough being gouged for features. Why give more for shorts their public took for granted? I gandered as before at Liberty account books from the late 30's. They paid $5.00 for Don Donald in August, 1937 and again that amount for Disney's Woodland Cafe during the same month. Betty Boop in The Foxy Hunter cost $4.80 for a single day's run in February, 1938. Next I moved into war years and a Murphy, NC venue similar in size and seating to our Liberty. This was March 1945 and they paid $3.00 for MGM's Bear Raid Warden. An October 1945 booking of Der Fuhrer's Face enriched RKO/Disney by $3.00. Well after the war, in May 1948, the Murphy house was using a 1940 MGM, Fishing Bear, again at $3.00. In fact, every Metro cartoon they booked that year, new and old, cost the same --- $3.00. The Liberty was meanwhile paying more to MGM, $8.00 in fact for Red Hot Rangers in June, 1947, but only $2.00 to Paramount for Jasper In A Jam, booked the same month. Tom and Jerry's 1945 Academy Award winner, Quiet Please, came to the Liberty in July 1947 at a bargain --- $2.00. Costs to produce cartoons were up across studio boards after WWII, but for at least these two theatres, rates remained stable, if not below prices paid during the late 30's. I realize companies got most of their return out of metropolitan and first-run houses, but modest yields like these from small situations provide insight as to why studios struggled with continued cartoon production, higher costs attendant to that, and diminishing profit new animation realized.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ads That Sold Cartoons --- Part One

It would appear we've reached a point where asking one hundred eight-year-olds if they've heard of Bugs Bunny will yield maybe a third who have. Cartoons that once ran in theatres are now sole concern of "adult collectors," as we're referred to on DVD boxes (along with warnings that Bugs and Daffy may be unsuitable for children!). Animation has seemingly gone full circle as to its target audience. Originally made for grown-ups, in fact for whole families, cartoons would be consigned to playpens thanks to 50's television. Now the old shorts are viewed as too free-wheeling by distributors better equipped to handle safe but inane product aimed at modern youth. I'll offer no defense for cartoons of my own formative years. Clutch Cargo, Deputy Dawg, and Astro Boy were and continue to be deserving of scorn. In fact, even Warner's output slipped a long way by the late fifties (manifestly evidenced in recent DVD collections featuring Bugs and Daffy). Since most agree that animation's Golden Age took place in the 30's and 40's, I'm put to wondering just how important cartoons were to exhibition during said enchanted years. Were Mickey, Porky, Popeye, et al essential to a ticket's worth of screen entertainment? Most (but not all) companies maintained cartoon units. It's safe to say patrons expected at least that or a comedy with each program, even as double features dug inroads. Hal Roach blamed animation for knocking his two-reelers off release charts. Sound and color partnered to make cartoons a most popular bonus with movies. So would a cartoon on the marquee tip scales between going out or staying home? Theatre ads from newspapers are handy for sorting importance of seven or so minutes to an evening's show. What follows here and in Part Two offer at least hints as to how animation ranked among promoting priorities.
Ha! Ha! The Big Bad Wolf Is Stayin' Another Week! says the ad above for a 1933 run of The Three Little Pigs at Rochester's Loew's. I'd read this was cartooning's first social phenomenon. Extended runs, song sheets at every piano, its theme whistled on street corners throughout the land, etc. The ad at least reveals The Three Little Pigs' staying power at the Loew's, as evidenced by fact it's still there as Broadway Through A Keyhole takes over feature duties. Were patrons coming for second and third helpings of Disney's breakout reel? I'm trying to think of another hit tune that emerged from one of his shorts. Der Fuhrer's Face was one ... but lacked permanence of Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?. Still, it was a wartime hit, and Spike Jones among others lent interpretation to considerable success. The Palace Theatre here calls Der Fuhrer's Face "Great Added Joy" and references its Song Sensation. Worth noting too is fact that Disney's cartoon is as prominently advertised as the two features in this Deluxe Three Unit Program.

I've never been to Goat Island State Park, but Google searching reveals its location to be Niagara Falls, N.Y., plus fact that Goat Island is our country's oldest state park. Wish I'd been present for that thousand egg hunt sponsored by the Fox Cataract Theatre, that name denoting either large waterfalls or a medical condition of the eyes. Given the theatre's location, we can assume this Cataract did indeed refer to waterfalls. In fact, Niagara Falls has itself been called Cataract City. The Mickey Mouse Clubs were a nationwide craze that lasted through the thirties and beyond, boasting thousands of participating theatres. Special events were commonplace as showmen sought to involve club membership in activities well beyond boundary of their auditoriums. This Easter egg hunt was even recorded by Fox Movietone cameras, presumably for use in a newsreel. Is it any wonder Mickey Mouse was the Number One cartoon name? His seventh birthday is celebrated in a Loew's State (city unknown) ad wherein eight Mickey and Silly Symphony cartoons are featured, including the ubiquitous Three Little Pigs. I've found innumerable birthday party ads for MM, going right through the thirties and continuing well past television's arrival. Popeye ran close behind Mickey as King Of Cartoons. Here he is commanding top position in an ad for It's Love I'm After, a 1937 Warners feature with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Olivia DeHavilland. This was at least one showman's tacit recognition that an animated extra could be strongest lure on the bill, for Popeye was peaking by that year with shorts like Protek The Weakerist achieving laff summits. The biggest 30's noise was from three Popeye specials extended to two-reel length and animated in Technicolor. They got deluxe placement in many ads I found, one shown here being typical. Fleischer's multi-plane miracles were touted by showmen promising "18 Minutes of 3-Dimensional Laughs." Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor was opener for the color group, its ad designation as a "feature" being so persuasive as to cause many to remember it as such. Considering the fact Sindbad amazes still, just imagine the effect it had on 1936 audiences ...

There was something plenty special about MGM's Red Hot Tex Avery cartoons. They were fast, funny, and sexed up beyond wildest hopes of viewers bound to Code chains. Wolfy and Red surely rivaled Tom and Jerry for cheering among wartime patronage, and stories I've read of managers obliged to repeat Red Hot Riding Hood to enthused throngs are likely true. By 1945 and follow-up Swing Shift Cinderella, Red's heat was white. This Flashy Lassie With The Classy Chassis left no doubt as to what was in store for fans who'd stamped floors for Red Hot Riding Hood. Did Avery's saucy shorts encounter censor trouble? I don't remember Red Hot being on television around here, and am not sure if it's seen revival on DVD, even as other Averys have turned up as disc extras. I do recall 16mm bootleg prints in abundance. This was one cartoon you could always rely on to wake up the house. 40's exhibitors found same to be true with not only Red Hot, but all the Avery envelope pushers.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

These Red Shoes Had Legs

I admit to having been intimidated by The Red Shoes. So were exhibitors when the pic was new. It's a devil of a show to sell. Trade reviewers warned of that from the start. My single night run at Greenbriar's university venue amounted to a game try, but kinda died in spite of well-decorated fronts and an appeal to what there was of a campus dance program. That was in 2003. Running the trailer for two weeks up to playdate, I got the unspoken message from kids unimpressed, Oh, Man, why are you showing that?. Now The Red Shoes is on Blu-Ray and has never looked so pristine (not even on 35mm nitrate, say some), but more of that anon. I need to understand better what's so daunting about this one. A lot of people, including many who otherwise love films, would no more watch The Red Shoes than jump off the Chrysler Building. It has what we'd call specialized appeal, a type showmen would say needs careful handling (those terms heavily bandied at time of TRS's release). To label it the quintessential art film would not be untoward. A plow through trades enlightened me as to just what that careful handling amounted to. J. Arthur Rank was guiding force behind The Red Shoes' domestic release, in partnership with then-recent start-up distributor Eagle-Lion. Rank had been several years trying to crack US markets while holding our product at bay in UK venues he controlled. British movies at the least needed to be really special for us to notice. Theatres here, especially in the heartland, shunned foreign merchandise. Yes, they spoke English in England (barely, claimed showmen), but comparisons ended there. Brit offerings were just too elevated and lacked our common touch. Outside cities with their art houses, it was mostly hands-off.

The Red Shoes would be that something special. Premieres beginning October 21 at New York's Bijou Theatre (a legit house converted for the occasion) were like opening night for live performances. The strategy was to present first screenings as a benefit for known charities and enlist local society doyens for prestige. Ticket sales at the Bijou bow aided The Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen's Club, with a Red Shoes Ball to follow at the Plaza Hotel's Terrace Room. Similar events launched roadshow bookings in key cities through remainder of 1948, all of '49, and most of 1950. The Red Shoes would play two-a-day at advanced prices and set records for longevity in many houses charging up to $2.40 a head. Magazine and newspaper critics were over the moon with praise, while trade scribes had doubt. Variety called The Red Shoes' first hour a commonplace backstage melodrama, but acknowledged the long ballet sequence as breath-taking and out-classing anything that could be done on the stage. Their reviewer summed up thus: there isn't enough in the story for the general public to hold interest for two and a quarter hours. Harrison's Reports recognized an artistic achievement that should win wide critical acclaim, but warned that The Red Shoes' appeal will be limited to cultured audiences, for it is not the sort of picture that the masses will find to their taste. Fortunately however, The Red Shoes played largely to said cultured mob, with ideas tested throughout hard-ticket months to lure mass patronage. Largest challenge for the roadshow was advanced price well beyond what customers generally paid. US distributor Eagle-Lion went all-out to brand The Red Shoes a must-see (and right now!) attraction so as to make up for revenue limits imposed by art house seating capacities (below 1000 in nearly all situations) and fact those houses could be filled but twice in a day.

Canadian venues, with closer ties to the empire, put The Red Shoes before much larger crowds. The new 2,300 seat Odeon-Toronto (above) was also Dominion headquarters for the J. Arthur Rank organization, so there was no surprise having The Red Shoes' biggest Western Hemisphere splash here. Eagle-Lion was meanwhile consolidating tie-in plans for a long US roadshow haul. The most obvious ones were hardest pushed, namely music, dance, and ... shoes. The Capezio Company was on board to link the film with its line of ballet footwear, and red slippers hung off store display windows and marquees for many an engagement. The "Long Leg" art used in advertising and promotion (above) became well-recognized identification for The Red Shoes, one of those lucky poster images people remembered. Columbia Masterworks also issued a soundtrack album in both standard and long-playing versions. There had been recent indication that right handled British-made features might break through in domestic markets. Laurence Olivier's Hamlet grossed nearly two million in its first year of release, and major theatre circuits usually hostile to offshore product expressed willingness to book it. Playing Hamlet and previous Henry V, as well as Great Expectations, amounted to a real community service, said Harrison's Reports, and The Red Shoes, focused as it was on ballet as artistic expression, had no trouble bringing out educators and opinion makers who would spend $2.40 for tickets and advise others to do the same. This was an attraction made for school and club groups. Tampa, Florida's Park Theatre, for instance, scored a live prologue with fifty-six students from the city's dance academy to warm up patronage, and strong word-of-mouth for The Red Shoes had ticket-buyers driving in from far as eighty miles to watch.

With awards showering down through 1949, including three from the Academy, The Red Shoes went into 1950 and popular price engagements with plenty more name recognition than it had starting out. Still, Eagle-Lion salesmen had work cut out for them. Highbrow plaudits didn't count for beans at sites where ballet was at the least an unknown, and unwanted, quantity, and it wasn't as though E-L had muscle to compel bookings. Their season offerings included but one, Tulsa, that could be classed top boxoffice. Indeed, several of features displayed in trade ads from the company (like one above) were British imported with even less appeal than The Red Shoes. Small exhibitors were, as expected, resistant. One in Aguilar, Colorado perhaps summed up things for the rest: No, I didn't play this, but went out of my way to see it. It is a wonderful feature. However, I wouldn't take a chance in my small town. My customers wouldn't understand it. It is an English picture, and in my town that means poison! (his exclamation). So how much did this even matter to Rank and Eagle-Lion? Their two million from The Red Shoes was got over the nearly two years it played roadshow, so rural spots on this occasion could just go fish.

I don't want to go away without mentioning Criterion's new DVD. The Red Shoes is on Blu-Ray now and I guess this is how it will be watched for some while to come (at least until they find a way to simply implant its images onto our brains). Robert Gitt of UCLA's preservation program wrote fascinating notes for a booklet extra about what went into the restoration. That process has achieved such levels that we may finally be safe in saying that The Red Shoes looks better today than what first-run audiences experienced in the late forties. Has digital truly passed film for a truest image? I once had a 16mm Red Shoes in dye-transfer Technicolor. Colors were rich but the image was soft. I came around to thinking maybe the movie always looked that way. Now I've seen this Blu-Ray that's sharp as a pin and harbor few regrets for having let go the 16mm. There are purists who lament classics being shown in digital format. They'll argue of integrity lost with abandonment of emulsion on reels. Film was always unpredictable because no two prints were alike. You could unspool ten Red Shoes on Technicolor stock and get a different sensation with each. My Blu-Ray's a treat but it's going to appear exactly the same next time I watch as it did last night (assuming my own senses remain intact). Notice the 1949 ad above for arc lamps that use imagery from The Red Shoes to promise The Brightest Pictures On The Biggest Screens. Back then, they really had to pour light on dense Technicolor film to make it pop. Were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger pleased with 35mm prints they saw in exhibition? According to Criterion notes, there were problems inherent in these that couldn't be corrected at the time, but can now. Would Powell, if he were with us, say his film looks better today than he could have imagined in 1948? Ease of presentation makes me opt for digital routes, but there'll come a day, I'm afraid, when no one will be around to remember what The Red Shoes was like when it was a movie instead of a disc.
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