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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Part Three of Vertigo and Conclusion

Alfred Hitchcock, Paramount Chief Barney Balaban, and James Stewart Play Hosts at Vertigo "Blood Punch" Reception.

There was a nutty sort of press party for Vertigo held in New York, the sort you'd associate more with same-month's opening Horror Of Dracula. In fact, Vertigo and Universal/Hammer's import played virtually day-and-date to Gothamites. Paramount (and maybe Hitchcock's) confusion over how best to peddle Vertigo was reflected by "Blood Punch" via waiters in medic attire and "nurses" like something out of Charles Addams ("oxygen tanks ... and a ready coffin stood by" as journos numbering 400 were served, said The Motion Picture Herald). A lofty drinking session, as described by Variety, took place in a "Vertigo Room" on the 29th (concrete) floor of an unfinished building at 200 East 42nd Street, guests taken up in the workmen's elevators. Bets were placed as to how long it would take for a dummy tossed from this height to reach the street below (Variety reportage did not indicate if one was actually thrown). Hitchcock, Jim Stewart, and Para chief Barney Balaban --- good sports all --- were there to meet and greet. Following plentiful libation, the party repaired to Sardi's East.

Vertigo opened strong enough, but drops were noted during subsequent weeks in many keys. For interesting comparison, there was $32,000 banked at Broadway's Capital Theatre from the first five days of Vertigo's second week (which is fine, said Variety), while down-the-street Horror Of Dracula collected a solid $15,000 for five days of its own 2nd frame at the Mayfair. Just approaching half of such a big star/studio's take was plenty intoxicating for any humble horror. A distinctly middling June convinced Paramount that Hitchcock's soft-sell wasn't working, however. At these diminishing rates, Vertigo would not grow legs to sustain a summer and attendant drive-in season crucial to anyone's product breaking even.

Duotone Lobby Cards In Accordance with Hitchcock's Low-Key Campaign for Vertigo.

July's third week saw announcement of New Hardsell Ads to salvage Vertigo's boxoffice. The initial ad campaign, said Variety, merely attempted to create a design or a symbol (the Saul Bass art), similar to that employed in the promotion of The Man With The Golden Arm. Paramount was still ruing Vertigo's title, though it was decided they'd keep it, the feeling being that the first campaign served as a "teaser" for establishing Vertigo in the public mind. Fresh ads were indeed generated, entirely different from ones offered in Paramount's pressbook and featuring prominent imagery of Stewart and Kim Novak. By the time our own Liberty Theatre took receipt of a print in August, policy changes were in effect, but did they come too late? Paramount acknowledged "pitfalls in having the production and home office personnel too closely together." Hitchcock had gotten his way with the ad design and it apparently did not register with the public and a change was made to conventional motion picture "sell."

Paramount was hopeful of its rescue lifting Vertigo to receipts The Man Who Knew Too Much had enjoyed (close on $3.6 million in domestic rentals for the '56 release). New ads did help initially, but final tallies told a bleaker story --- $2.8 million in domestic rentals against a negative cost of $2.526 million. Don't know what foreign brought, but it would have to be a lot to get into black. A 1963 reissue with To Catch A Thief was good for an additional $160,000, but showmen preferred Thief with its lure of recent Charade's Cary Grant and still-fascinating-to-her-public "Princess" Grace Kelly (To Catch caught $293,000 in fresh revenue). Vertigo's disappointment was surely reason in part for Paramount's balking at Psycho's projected cost, obliging Hitchcock to bankroll much of it himself (and take home unprecedented % wealth for his trouble). I get no impression from Psycho's ad art of Hitchcock having vetted same (it always looked tacky to me --- but maybe that was Para's intent from get-go).

Ownership of Vertigo's negative would  revert to Hitchcock and James Stewart after a contractually specified period, same as had been the case with Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much. You could say Jim and Hitch were partners for life, at least to extent of negotiating future sale of these valuable assets. NBC bargained for Window/Too Much/Vertigo at rates slightly over $300,000 per title, according to Variety, for their network Nights At The Movies. James Stewart had told interviewers back in '58 that he wouldn't hesitate selling post-48 titles in which he had an interest to television provided prices were right. Them were fightin' words to exhibitors then, but by 1964 such deals were commonplace. Vertigo and tandem-billed Psycho would saturate twelve Los Angeles theatres in March 1965 to burn off what theatrical coin was left before NBC's premiere broadcast set for 11-12-65.

Tele-viewers would be Vertigo'ed to numbness over eight years of repeat runs. All three networks supped on Hitchcock/Stewart's plate. Vertigo was a ratings-getter, first for NBC in '65, again on 5-21-66, yet again for the peacock in 1967, then to ABC for a 5-16-71 run. Few pics got such network (over?)exposure. CBS was last of the webs to play Vertigo, on 1-18-73. This was the point at which Vertigo plunged into its own ten-year abyss. Much has been written about Hitchcock withdrawing "his" films in order to preserve same as a family legacy. To begin with, they weren't solely the Master's to hoard. Ownership was shared with James Stewart, and if truth were told, I'll bet the latter's percentage interest was greater than Hitchcock's. Still is, so far as payment to estates. I'd submit that Vertigo and others were withdrawn because they badly needed a "rest" from airplay. To dangle the group over a next decade was shrewd business, and I can imagine Stewart/Hitchcock laying strategy along these lines over dinner at Bellagio Road. 

Vertigo almost immediately became a sought-after grail. Like fabled Yetis, it would be occasionally sighted. A Filmex-sponsored run at the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art scheduled for November 29, 1973 was cancelled due to legal complications, said Variety (Disney's Snow White was the pinch-hitter). The American Film Institute featured Vertigo among James Stewart tributing to which the actor contributed Q&A (and likely permission to screen the print). This was in October 1976. England's National Film Theatre had hoped to feature Vertigo in a 1979 Hitchcock season, but trades reported it unavailable. Foreign festivals occasionally slipped in runs. Italy got Vertigo in 1980 --- there was a midnight berth at Montreal's World Film Fest in July the same year to commemorate Hitchcock's passing, the latter regarded a coup. Long out of release due to being tied up in litigation, these classics have been sought by fest programmers all over the world, observed Variety (Rear Window and The Trouble With Harry were also included on Montreal's program).

A Variety article Todd McCarthy wrote in May 1980 addressed various features buried for one rights reason or other, the five Hitchcocks a focal point of interest. The director's agent, Herman Citron, was terse in responding to inquiry --- We're not discussing any of them. Colleges mounting AH tribs found non-theatrical doors closed tight. Films, Inc. had handled Vertigo once upon a time ... but no more. You'd not rent the pic legit, but collectors back-doored it by acquiring 16mm rental prints now out of service, from which came dupe negatives and surreptitious bootlegs. Some were surprisingly nice --- better in fact than smeary airline 16's that Universal generated after they leased the package in 1983. Vertigo was tasty and forbidden fruit for movie clubbers in the late 70's/early 80's before legit availability took fun out of sneak screenings, all this confirming that fans would not be denied their Vertigo fix, whatever device was resorted to in getting it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple of years ago my family and I went to the Muir Woods National Forest in California. In the publicity shot showing Stewart standing in a forest, you'll notice a shed and round object to the left. It's still there. Beneath the little roof is a cross-section of a redwood tree. I guess we'll have to go to Mount Rushmore next--and see if it's still there, too.

1:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of the movie poster at the top (Carole Lombard) is that from the film "they knew what they wanted"? I have always wanted to see that film but can't seem to find it anywhere. Has it ever been shown after say, 1941?

12:30 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

The banner art is from "White Woman."

I think there may be a rights issue concerning "They Knew What They Wanted."

3:45 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

I was going to reply the poster is indeed from "White Woman," but since that has been answered, I'll get to the other Lombard question: There apparently is a rights issue with the estate of Sidney Howard (author of the play "They Knew What They Wanted," a Pulitzer Prize winner in the 1920s), which is why it's not on DVD (at least in North America; it has been issued in Spain, though I can't certain whether that's been authorized). It was an RKO VHS release in the 1980s, and I recall it was shown on a Philadelphia UNF station late in that decade. Carole's three other RKO films all have had a DVD release.

4:26 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I still prefer Hugo Del Carril's MAS ALLA DEL OLVIDO to VERTIGO. Beyond the fact that the Argentine film came two years before, it is a much better produced film despite it had everything against it: Del Carril managed to get out of a blacklist for his political ideas that landed him in jail even though he committed no crime.

When it was released, despite it was unable to do big business due to the political climate in Argentina, it became a popular film but it was not followed by critical praise. That was going to happen many years later and for some people it is considered as the best film ever produced in Argentina. I respectfully disagree but it is still a masterpiece.

And like VERTIGO, for years it was impossible to see it, at least on TV or any video format. For almost 10 years the production company, Argentina Sono Film, did not put their films on television (in the case of certain titles, they were not seen in 20). Slowly, their films are becoming available again, if the same lousy versions from those days, and MAS ALLA DEL OLVIDO was unearthed just a few months ago.

12:48 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer e-mails some observations about "Vertigo" ...

When I learned that James Stewart had an affair with Kim Novak during the filming of Vertigo, it completed the movie for me. I hadn’t wanted to believe that he could have given such an intense performance and had it remain only a performance. If he gave so much of himself to “Scotty,” then other things would have necessarily followed. As it was, apart from his age, he was almost perfectly cast for the part. Besides being an actor, he was also an intelligent man, a Princeton graduate, who had led men into combat during the war; not so different from the Scot who earned a degree and was a police inspector often on hazardous assignments. Kim Novak was a more instinctive performer, with a real but unformed intelligence, and with a beauty which juxtaposed the refinement of her face, with the large eyes and delicately modeled nose and lips, with a large-boned and almost slatternly body—very suggestive of “Madeline/Judy,” who could be carefully taught to play a role which, in the end, was not unnatural to her. Vera Miles would have been fine in the part and would have brought better technical skills, but she may not have been as well suited for it as Novak was, or would have allowed Hitchcock to cajole such a performance from her.

8:15 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

My brother and I watched the original TV airing of "Vertigo" on NBC in '65. I was 9 years old at the time, and it would be another twenty years or so before I saw it again -- and two more viewings after that before I understood it. It was well worth the wait. Jimmy Stewart was truly a great actor.

PS: From the get-go, I thought "Vertigo" was a great title.

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Per Dan Mercer's remark: Novak's earthy charms lent a ruttish quality to the role Vera Miles could not have accomplished if she had worn twirling pasties on her nipples. Kim Novak was dangerous; Vera Miles was not. Attaboy, Jimmy Stewart!

10:39 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

Thanks for all the interesting information on Vertigo. I know that Hitchcock aimed higher than usual with this film, but your posts remind me that the movie business is still a business and films are expected to make money.

Interesting stuff

1:51 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Boy, what a lot of fun this series of posts has been! Terrific research and I love all the diverse opinions. I find myself in the curious position of agreeing with many of the observations of lukewarm non-fans (VERTIGO is slow, lacking in humor, centered on a pretty creepy relationship and way off the plausibility meter) while being crazy about the thing! If anything I'd argue the film is is, in a way, underrated; as many of the pro-VERTIGO folk point out it is Hitchcock at his most poetic, but I also happen to believe it does not get credit as one of his most outright entertaining features. Demands repeat viewings but is, visually anyway, among his most accessible works.

Not sure I agree with two of your points, John. The casting alternatives in your readers' comments were a hoot, but all prove the point that Stewart and Stewart alone was born to play the role. Back in the fifties, he cornered the market on all American nutjobs.The goofy age thing really only exists in a line or two of dialog, and could easily have been cleared up in the script if HItch, like Ford, Wilder and other directors of their generation, hadn't been tone deaf to such chronological inconsistencies. The story actually makes more sense with a middle aged man and a much younger woman.

As to VERTIGO being simply a man's movie... not so sure about that either. I certainly have known females who rank this one highly. It was a very young woman who once pointed out to me that Judy only becomes a full fledged character, rather than a plot device, on repeat viewings. But once you do revisit the film, my friend argued, she's revealed as every bit obsessive, complex and fascinating as Scottie. Here's a shopgirl who could assume another identity (part time, one assumes) for money but totally transform herself, permanently, for love. She also pointed out that Scottie was a man so fixated on a fantasy woman he was willing to accept any compromised relationship to be with her; Judy, on the other hand, was so in love with a very real, seriously flawed man that she could happily jump into a fantasy romance.

Great stuff... makes me want to pop it into the DVD player right now!

By the way... I still think the original Bass poster one of the all time greats!

11:16 AM  
Anonymous Gina said...

Stewart and Novak were friends but never lovers, by Novak's own account. She denied ever feeling any romantic interest in him at all, and no one has ever come up with any proof of an affair, or even the slightest evidence that either had feelings for the other.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Thank you Kevin K! Thought I recalled Vertigo being on,I think,SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES but couldn't find ANY info about a TV prem...after the initial action at the start, it settled in as what my 9 year old thought as "boring"....had it been even 4 years later,the creepiness would have definitely appealed to my increasing "weirdness " as far as films were concerned,as the NBC showing of FREUD proved....

6:36 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

And now , re-reading I see the info right in front of me!!!! By the time of the last NBC showing,think I had finally realised, if not great, this was something different and special...

6:50 AM  

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