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Friday, March 25, 2011

Warners' Tricky Selling of I Confess

Crushed Lips Don't Talk! says manhandling Montgomery Clift in one of numerous ads Warners concocted for I Confess in early 1953. Was director Alfred Hitchcock on board with this wildly misleading campaign? I've put up samples to demonstrate how WB strove overtime to sell a public on something entirely different from what AH put on screens. Books say Warners wasn't happy with this project from its conception. Tough stirring man/woman excitement (a must for merchandisers then) with a priest in the lead, worse still when it's girl idol Clift as cleric. Watch the movie, then take a squint at these ads. In none could I locate Monty in priestly robe. Only stills and a few lobby cards reveal truth of his casting. Holy men (and women) were anathema to merchandisers (RKO sold The Bells Of St. Mary's de-emphasizing Crosby and Bergman in collar and habit). Censorship robbing Hollywood of sex obliged east coast marketing to cover shortfall. Phrasing along lines of a shame confessed, a sin concealed, drew patronage to I Confess beyond what Warners and Hitchcock realized from Strangers On A Train, one better regarded now, but a back-seater then at $2.9 million in worldwide rentals as compared with $3.2 million I Confess brought home.

I Confess plays somber today, but notices in 1953 were positive, if not uniformly so. Reportage from first-running territories credited vibes off entertainment pages that helped business ( ... had crix doing raves was word out of Pittsburgh, while in New York, several strong reviews are contributing to (a) strong initial week). A check through exhibitor reactions found I Confess earning high marks, viewers exiting said to be satisfied. The following year's sock of Rear Window tends to leave just previous Hitchcocks shade-bound, but Confess was by commercial way a tidy success, its $700K profit one the director shared via net participation. What had begun as an independent venture by Hitchcock and British producer/exhibitor Sidney Bernstein, their company called Transatlantic, was taken over in whole by Warners after AH began shooting on location in Quebec. Transatlantic is reported to have run into difficulty setting up outside financing, observed Variety. Warners' previous deal had been to release indie projects Hitchcock oversaw, including Under Capricorn and Rope, while using the director for occasional films done in-house, for which he drew a salary and percentage. I Confess thus began as Transatlantic's and finished as Warner's, the negative becoming distributor property upon receipt.

A primary thing I Confess had over Strangers On A Train was Montgomery Clift, a fresh face whose every move drew notice, going Farley Granger's femme appeal many times better. All this pic needed now was a love ballad to close sales, composer Dimitri Tiomkin prevailed upon in December 1952 to "clef" a title tune after fashion of his High Noon number, then Number One-ing across the country. Though it wouldn't be heard in I Confess, Tiomkin's song was covered by Perry Como, Sarah Vaughan, and others in advance of opening, and fed anticipation, reinforced by ads, that Hitchcock's new thriller would put forbidden love front and center. Quebec was site for a February 12, 1953 premiere, city fathers having sent Hitchcock home from location filming with WB-addressed entreaty (and signed petitions). This was followed by engagements along the east coast through February, possibly to gauge interest before a three-theatre Los Angeles open in that month's final week, a $30,000 take from this called satisfactory by Variety, but perhaps not enough so for the LA first-running trio, as they brought in RKO's oldie, Too Many Girls (1940) to, in Variety's words, bolster the second week of I Confess. Another reason for the pick? Too Many Girls was an early joint appearance of mega-watt tube personalities Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

New York and Chicago saw I Confess bolstered as well, with stage shows weighted toward pop acts familiar off radio and platters. An interesting contrast these must have been ... high-powered singer/bands performing, in Chicago's case, for a full hour, then ceding way to Hitchcock's brooding I Confess. A first week at New York's Paramount Theatre returned $75,000, slightly below hopes said Variety, despite Patti Page, comedian Bobby Sargent, and Jerry Wald's Orchestra doing live honors. Page's highlight was smash hit Tennessee Waltz, followed by Doggie In The Window, sung to a live pooch on stage. Imagine all this with I Confess for a chaser. A final day of the bill's third week was cut short for an evening's "Special Preview" of the 3-D sensation, House Of Wax, set to open April 10 and most hotly anticipated film on Broadway.

A two-week stand at the Chicago Theatre (ad below) during latter weeks of March saw I Confess looking to overcome the usual Lenten low grosses (Variety), Chicago's bill strengthened by local singer made good Joni James, late of Billboard's Number One hit for six weeks, Why Won't You Believe Me, which had sold two million records. Ralph Marterie and Orchestra had been ten weeks on BB charts in 1952 with Caravan, an instrumental soon to become a standard we've all heard. I mention these acts because they were background against which many saw I Confess for a first time. For better or worse, they set moods for Hitchcock's film, and for many, Joni James or Patti Page was reason for going, not I Confess. Minus these stage attractions, Hitchcock's thriller might have gone down to key engagement slumps and from there, lesser revenue and bad showman word-of-mouth. It was, after all, the principal cities that set a tone for any film's boxoffice reception to follow. Smaller towns relying on a feature alone to make the grade often found to detriment how much stage shows were responsible for movies sold to them as established hits. I Confess went into smaller markets with the aura of a hit, and did become a hit, but how much was attributable to now obscure bands and performers that made much of its success possible?


Anonymous DBenson said...

Jack Benny had a gag where he said his movie "The Horn Blows at Midnight" (reportedly a decent film, but constantly referenced as the cinematic equivalent of his violin playing) drew record crowds at one theater. He showed a poster, which listed big name musical acts, Bank Night, door prizes and more -- with the movie title in small print at the bottom.

Since that was on his 1950s TV show, it may well have been inspired by something like this.

3:43 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Great post! Wonderful detective work goes a long way in explaining the sometimes contradictory commercial and critical reputations of some of our favorite oldies. I get a big kick out of the good press and solid box office performance of I CONFESS (regardless of the fancy showmanship behind the big city dates). In the Truffaut interviews Hitch himself passes IC off as a misjudged flop, no doubt reflecting his troubled relationship with Cliff. Writers and fans have been quick to take the director at his word, and the film is often treated as a bit of an aberration in an otherwise brilliant decade long winning streak. I think IC is a terrific film, way better than it's spotty rep... watched it a few months ago and was shocked at how much more I picked up on the umpteenth viewing. Not even sure the advertising was all that deceptive, since the flashback is one of the most dreamily romantic sequences in the master's canon. Great work (as usual), John!

9:49 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I saw I CONFESS for the first time about two years ago and liked it.

Imagine the subject matter if someone made a movie about a priest nowadays.

9:56 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

I'd been avoiding--or at least not seeking out--I Confess because of things like Hitchcock's tepid remarks to Truffaut. But seeing it on the big screen with an appreciative audience a year or two ago was a lot of fun. (I almost found myself thinking "So when does this get bad?")

I love reading about how films were rolled out and sometimes re-marketed after opening, especially in contrast to today when by the saturday morning after opening everyone knows how much the movie will take in.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Linwood said...

I guess I'll give I CONFESS one more chance. I confess, it's one of several, lesser Hitchcock's I do not own.

2:19 AM  

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