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Saturday, March 03, 2012

Metro Wants Its Four Million Back --- Part One

For too long, I thought of 40's special effects in terms of Lon Chaney man-to-wolf transform or Mr. Joe Young's nightclub wreckage, all the while truer magic being wrought outside genre boundaries to which I'd confined myself. How many after 1947 were for sitting through 141 minutes of Green Dolphin Street? ... top-grossing then, but very much a product of its time, and among least likely to arouse interest since. Warner Archive is lately out with a DVD, a visual beaut as is customary for them, so finally came my submission to Dolphin's two, plus nearly half, of an hour. For time spent, there was reward of earthquake (by far a biggest staged during the Classic Era), tidal wave, and drama engaging enough to reward the sit. Someone should list big pictures popular in their day, but forgotten now, then view and maybe reassess the inventory. There'd be a learning experience at the least, plus insight of what ancestors liked that appeal less to moderns. Is anyone else a fan of Green Dolphin Street? If so, step up.

It began with a contest. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and I'm spelling that out to emphasize their market primacy at the time, offered a first of promised Annual Novel Awards to whatever published writer showed most promise for adaptation to screens. Pay-off was considerable, $125,000 minimum, with potential of max-out at $175K should best-seller status be achieved. There were ninety-nine contestants in the first wave, from which Green Dolphin Street's author, Elizabeth Goudge, took the prize. This was August, 1944, and well-publicized from there was fact that MGM would fast-track filming the lady's 502 page saga of sister rivals for a seafaring adventurer amidst 1830's setting. Green Dolphin Street was the Literary Guild's selection for September '44, so maybe a fix was in early, as those-in-the-know figured this one for best-selling far ahead of a first copy sold. Readers, like movie audiences, could sometimes be manipulated too. 

What publisher Coward-McCann and Metro couldn't manipulate was reviews. Some were kindly, but all identified prose distinctly purple, fun of excerpting samples hard to resist: There was not enough air to sway the small blue flower that was Marguerite, and Marianne's elfin face was pale and rapt within the deep green of her bonnet. Such was raw material from which screen scribes adapted, proof as if needed that we don't give their membership near credit deserved. For the record, Green Dolphin Street was turned to script form by well-regarded Samson Raphaelson, formerly of Ernst Lubitsch association, who you'd like to think swapped hard-earned GDS fee for a swimming pool, sport car, or whatever Hollywood luxury was there to prostitute one's art for.

MGM's preparation was underway by January, 1945 with  announcement of Technicolor for Green Dolphin Street. That didn't follow through, but cash ran otherwise like flood water in those boom days when theatres were second home for fans following movies plus pop literature circulated paper-bound in soldier backpacks and spun on drug store racks. Pocket books peaked during WWII, being handy and costing a mere quarter or so  besides. Over a near three years it took for Green Dolphin Street to reach the screen, a multitude's readership would be primed for October, 1947 arrival. For so much excitement and anticipation (Twenty Million Readers Await It, said ads), Metro wondered if maybe they had another Gone With The Wind in wings. Certainly there was more cash sunk on Green Dolphin Street than even 1939's high watermark. Publicity claimed a half million spent on the earthquake alone, and little secret was made of 145 sets built, a 40's average being 35. Variety was tipped (7/47) that GDS "already cost more than $4,000,000 and may go to $5,000,000 before completion." 

How else to get back the invested pile than roadshows? A whole industry was consulting that prayer book as of autumn 1947 and an industry's diminished overall boxoffice. The all-time attendance peak of a just previous year saw falling-off few were prepared for, and here came distributors with hugely expensive fare for a holiday season pipeline. Besides Green Dolphin Street at Metro, there was 20th Fox's Captain From Castile and Forever Amber, UA with Arch Of Triumph, Warners and Life With Father, plus Paramount/DeMille's Unconquered. "Still-zooming production costs," said Variety, required higher admissions to recover, on top of advertising and distribution costs on the upswing. How could blockbusters come out even, let alone show profit, with US ticket pricing still at an average of forty-five cents? Critical too was what Variety called a too uncertain foreign market, with newly instituted quota restrictions and blocked currency, overseas money increasingly vital to bottom lines. 

Green Dolphin Street producer Carey Wilson was intent on roadshow play for his epic, hauling a print cross-country to screen for decision-makers in New York, these being Loew's über-boss Nicholas Schenck, at whose desk all Metro bucks stopped, William F. Rodgers, sales chief/maker-or-breaker for many a pic bearing Lion trademark, and Howard Deitz, the firm's advertising/publicity veep. Their August sneak preview in Flushing, N.Y. got thumbs-down for roadshowing, but East Coast overseers promised Wilson and studio exec Al Lichtman a biggest ad budget in five years for Green Dolphin Street. The nixed two-a-day was not unexpected, as rival companies would fold as well on projected hard tickets. For some, roadshow was less a serious goal than effort to garner publicity for super-A's on the way. Even Universal floated notions they'd release The Senator Was Indiscreet on hard-ticket basis, which most knew couldn't happen. 

As Green Dolphin Street sallied forth to join cousins Duel In The Sun, Captain From Castile, and Forever Amber for latter-half '47 dates, showmen boosting ticket-prices naturally asked, What about lower admissions for poor attractions? Or worse, why pay more for frankly disappointing Duel, Castile, and Amber?, the three scarcely better than program pics in fancy dress. The Best Years Of Our Lives from Goldwyn/RKO was cited as alone in giving satisfaction for higher admission. With anti-trust moving to divorce producer/distributors from theatres, buyers questioned value of movies as they would piece goods of any sort. The specter of selling on merit chilled a complacent industry to bones. Metro screeners had finally to admit (to themselves if not a public) that Green Dolphin Street merited not costlier tickets, let alone roadshow. Why submit to ridicule such as Harrison's Reports heaped on Paramount for increasing fare on Unconquered? (It is the belief of this paper that, if you should show Unconquered to your patrons at advanced admission prices, you had better take a quick trip to China and do not show your face again until at least six months have passed, it will take that long for your patrons wrath to subside).

Part Two of Green Dolphin Street here.



Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer shares some thoughts on "Green Dolphin Street:"

There are movies which are perennials and some that enjoy a worthy reputation with the cognoscenti, though they might be rarely shown. Most others were intended as programmers and forgotten soon after their release. Nothing else was exprected of them. Occasionally, however, there are movies released with high expectations, enjoy a brief success, and then are relegated to obscurity. Green Dolphin Street must be one of the latter. The name means virtually nothing to me, yet apparently it was M-G-M’s prestiege picture of the year. The production was undoubtedly lush, but the casting hardly justified such an investment, whether by the studio or the movie-goer, reaching into his pocketbook for the price of a ticket.

Lana Turner? Is there anyone these days interested in her apart from the more sensational aspects of her personal life? Ross Hunter was able to exploit that trashy glamor of hers in some glossy soapers in the fifties, but at this stage of her career, she was only as good as her male co-star, which is to say that she was pretty much on her own here.

Richard Hart? The studio must have had high expectations for this Ivy League-educated actor fresh from the stage, given his prominance in the advertising, but he never caught on. A Zachary Scott, perhaps, but without a mustache or the oily ease. A few roles later, he was back on the stage, and then on television, appearing in DuMont’s The Adventures of Ellery Queen for a few episodes before dying of a heart attack at age 35.

Van Heflin? Certainly an estimable actor, but more in character leads than star parts.

And Donna Reed? An accomplished actress and a most desirable woman, but her big success came years later in From Here to Eternity, while most people today remember her only from her hit television show, which came years after that.

For a picture that cost more than Gone With the Wind, I would have expected a cast with a bit more wattage. Consider The Rains Came, another romantic melodrama climaxing with a disaster sequence. The cast included Tyrone Power, at the height of his physical beauty and skyrocketing towards stardom, Myna Loy, the Queen of Hollywood herself, and…well, George Brent, who gives a terrible performance but was still a name to reckon with at the time.

Now that you bring it up, though, it might be fun to rediscover this one.


8:19 AM  
Anonymous Bob said...

I am always stymied by Van Heflin. Whenever he’s on screen, any movie just dries up. I think he’s the reason the reason 3:10 to Yuma is so cold…..

10:46 AM  

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