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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Thirty Seconds Over L.A. --- Part Two

Hollywood had always been about sweeping out the old in favor of the new. Studios and showmen weren't in business to celebrate history. Sam Zimbalist was self-preserving enough to put oldies in perspective. I believe that only 10 or 15% of the movies sold to TV are really great pictures, and I'm interested in seeing what happens when the lesser product is shown. A lot of those twenty-year-old shows would look "silly and dated" now, said the still active producer. Motion Picture Herald ran with that admission in steel-tipped boots: It's always been painful to look again at old movies that we thought were good, and find out how crude they were. The enthusiasts for ancient films have done more than any others to keep motion pictures in their infancy (Ouch --- They mean us, Greenbriar readers!).

The attack on Hollywood's past was unrelenting. Surviving movie relics amounted to no more than a pox on exhibitor livelihoods. MPH saw broadcasters and their newly-bought oldies  as cut-rate junk dealers: The blunt fact of the matter is that the stations, in order to get one film worth seeing today, will have to buy many which were scarcely worth the price of admission when they were originally shown. Disdain among the trade bled into theatres formerly open to re-plays, as witness hostility toward 1956 reissues Northwest Passage, The Sea Hawk, and others on receiving end of withering showman commentary in back pages of Boxoffice, Motion Picture Herald, varied trades. Lessening receipts from such "Encore Triumphs" was the very reason they'd gone to telecasters, who were grateful and willing to pony meaningful $ for access to them.

It was a no-win fight what with film companies chasing respective windfalls and showmen left holding (empty) bags. Pete Harrison of his weekly Reports warned theatres not to book vintage MGM without a written guarantee that their show wouldn't turn up on local free-vee that very night. As of Fall 1956, the following "Masterpiece Reprints" were labeled smallpox: A Tale Of Two Cities, Marie Antoinette, Mutiny On The Bounty, Boy's Town, others. Even if these weren't actually being televised day-and-date with theatres, they were listed among titles forthcoming to buyer stations in lavish newspaper ads promoting pre-48 MGM's to come. Everyone knew that all came to home viewers who waited. Spokesmen for Metro tried convincing exhibs that the library's sale to TV was a good thing --- after all, think of all that free publicity via alliance with the tube, and "a rise of interest in MGM films." Such was purest banana oil that showmen would not swallow.

KTTV saw ratings drop nearly a third for its next Friday night MGM special. That was Mrs. Miniver. Further erosion came with They Met In Bombay the following week. Viewership was considered disappointing after fantastic numbers posted by Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. One explanation for the decline is that there was less promotion for the subsequent weeks' pictures, said Billboard. Newspaper ad buys had settled down to the quarter-page class. Interesting was viewer fluctuation over the two-hour slots --- Bombay fell off sharply in its second half, whereas Miniver built up almost steadily. Movies on TV were being evaluated by thirty-minute increments, the question being less whether folks tuned in than would they stay tuned in. Still, Colgate was more than happy with "the greatest sales volume in this (LA) market of all time."

It didn't take long for KTTV, and other stations, to figure out which side old movies were buttered on. After a first season of Colgate Theater, trends were clear as Trendex figures confirming them. Said Billboard: The general rule of thumb now is that the action-adventure pictures will get ratings; comedies, musicals, problem or love stories will not (but hadn't exhibitors already known this from reissue experience? --- guess nobody asked them). Here then, was KTTV's Top Ten Metros for its first season of Colgate Theater: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Honky Tonk, Boom Town, Anchors Aweigh (thanks to Sinatra, said trades), They Were Expendable, They Met In Bombay, A Guy Named Joe, Test Pilot, Command Decision, and Homecoming.

It's the he-man type of star which gathers the audience, observed Billboard ... Female stars, except for the Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow type, are poor draws. The kings of TV's boxoffice, at least on KTTV's corner, were Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, he-men both. Comedies and musicals were considered outdated. People just don't dig them anymore, said Billboard. As far as television is concerned ... the best musical may command less (advertising) money than only an ordinary adventure film. Competing salvage dealers meanwhile worked double-time to pull the Metro oldies off their perch. Associated Artists, distributor of the pre-48 Warners library, filed their "Most Honorable Report" trade ad, replete with a bowing Japanese caricature, to declare Destination Tokyo a bigger ratings-getter (at least in Miami) than L.A. titan Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. 1956-57 was fast becoming a My Backlog's Better Than Yours contest.

Leo's TV Roar Now A Grunt, said Variety in a January, 1957 headline. Seems the Pre-48 Greats yielded a less than great $40 million from sales so far of the vaunted package against expectations they'd collect upwards of $60-70 million. Trouble was paucity of buyers after deep-pocket stations grabbed their marbles. Smaller markets just couldn't afford what Loew's demanded, to-wit a one-million dollar single-station tariff. Recouping that kind of money (an enormous outlay, said Variety) within a seven-year license period would be tough sledding for telecasters in secondary markets. Could they go into profit before time to send the movies back? For stations outside the largest cities, it didn't seem likely. Metro seemed to have priced their "too rich" features out of the market, and humbler outlets made do with lower-tagged product from rival sellers (NC stations were notably shy of Metros until post-48 groups came available in the sixties).

Another Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo story, too good not to mention. Chicago's WBBM premiered it on 1-5-57 after a build-up approaching KTTV's. Their projectionist grabbed three 16mm reels out of the station's time vault just before the Saturday night broadcast. The vault locked behind him and would not reopen until the following morning. To the man's horror, it became clear that Tokyo's final seventeen minutes were on a fourth reel now inaccessible thanks to the vault setting. Came the dawn and debacle ... hundreds of phone complaints, eighty per hour throughout Sunday. In an aftermath Variety tabbed "How To Go Broke-eo With Tokyo," WBBM lost $20,000 making amends, with the final reel playing off on Sunday night, followed by a commercial-free repeat of the entire film. All their regular advertising clients had to be bumped and reimbursed for commercial time lost. It was a disastrous error, said a WBBM spokesman, adding that the projectionist responsible had been fired that day.

One more irresistible footnote, also dated 1957. June of that year saw Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo finally opening theatrically in Japan, Tokyo in fact, and on a roadshow basis. It was a ten-day stand, "disappointing" at the boxoffice, according to Variety: Viewers expressed dismay over the too obvious fabrication of the Tokyo targets. Others claimed they were duped into thinking it was a new film. No protests or demonstrations otherwise took place. The film had been considered for release in Japan four years earlier, but the idea was scotched after it was screened to local dignitaries. Eihai, the firm who'd bought distribution rights from Metro, hoped Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo would gain wickets altitude at venues outside its premiere city to compensate for the Tokyo freeze.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best blog anywhere. Thank you for enchanting me every week with so many wonderful photos and great information on my favorite topic- Hollywood.

Sigh. I can always guarantee I won't get any work done one I visit your blog. I especially love the reminisces about the conventions you have visited in the past and your memories of Moon Mullins.

5:54 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

We were darn lucky in Los Angeles in the 60s, if only because we had so many channels.

Channel 2 (KNXT) had a variety of things, but I mostly remember early Universals (particularly "A&C Meet Frankenstein" [shown at 4 pm every Halloween] and "The Phantom of the Opera").

Channel 4 (KNBC) didn't seem to have much of anything other than Universals from the 60s. They did have an afternoon movie, though, and the TV Guide would mention that "Live segments are in color." Before I realized this meant the stuff from the in-studio host, I thought it meant that the actors reunited and did scenes in the studio.

Channel 5 (KTLA) had Paramounts and Goldwyns, and Tom Hatten's Sunday afternoon movie, which was almost a precursor to Robert Osborne -- albeit with sketches of Popeye.

Channel 7 (KABC) had more Universals, maybe? Whatever they were, they were usually crummy b-pictures from the 60s.

Channel 9 (KHJ) had RKOs and at least some, yes, Universals; I remember I fell in love with "The Spirit of St. Louis" when it ran on the Million Dollar Movie. They also had the Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan packages that they ran on weekend afternoons, as well as a million low-budget monster movies.

Channel 11 (KTTV) was home to MGM, as well as Ben Hunter's afternoon movie (which was the basis for Carson's "Teatime Movie"). I remember once they showed the Carroll Baker "Harlow" and went to commercial at almost the very end, and came back for, literally, the last 30-seconds of the film.

Channel 13 (KCOP) had no budget and was the bottom of the barrel. God knows what they showed.

Who had Warners, Columbia, and Fox pictures, I can't remember. I assume KTTV had the Warners package, as they were the gold standard for old movies. (Though even Channel 5 had some gems.)

Later on, the UHF stations had some syndie packages. Channel 56 had the Three Stooges, but not much else.

Say what you will about TCM (and I couldn't live without it), but there was still something of a thrill in just running across a "Grand Hotel" or "Shall We Dance" in the middle of the night.

I still remember a night in the late 70s when "The Bride of Frankenstein" was going to air at, like, midnight on a Saturday for the first time in -years-, and I got stuck in massive traffic coming home from Anaheim (probably from The Movie Theatre and Motion Picture Hall of Fame) at 11 at night. I missed about the first 45 minutes, and I was furious, since who knew when it would ever be on again?

9:38 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

They ought to bring back "Wallace Beery Theatre." The ratings couldn't be any worse than whatever they're airing now.

1:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer shares thoughts about old movies on TV and impressions they made:

There is a scene in the movie The Happy Ending where the character played by Jean Simmons is sitting in her living room, sipping wine, and watching a telecast of Casablanca. She's had perhaps a little too much wine, and as Rick toasts Ilsa in Paris, she toasts the two of them.

The Happy Ending is set in the late 1960s, the period in which it was filmed. The Jean Simmons character might have seen Casablanca for the first time at a movie theater when she was an adolescent. For all the things that were forming her character then, this movie might have been the seeding of her romantic yearning. She might not have seen it again, except that it had been sold to television. Now she realized how very different her life was from what she might have dreamt of, all those years before.

I thought of this as I read the comments of studio executives and trade publications in your piece, saying that the movies being released to television by M-G-M and the other major studios in the 1950s might seem a little dated, a little crude. No doubt they would, though the 12 years that had passed between the theatrical release of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and its initial telecast doesn't seem an immense amount of time, nor would the 15 or 20 years for the others.

What these comments miss, however, is that television was allowing an audience to see movies in quantities far greater than those few accessible as theatrical reissues. Even the less important or affecting movies could now be watched by those who had perhaps seen them before when they were much younger. Whatever the quality of these movies, they would have provided people with a special perspective, formed in the time that had passed, which would have allowed them to consider where their lives were and where they had previously been.

As with the Jean Simmons character in The Happy Ending, they would have realized that they were now living in the time they had once dreamed of, with all the fulfillment or disappointment they had experienced. Or possibly their lives were just very different from what they had expected or hoped for. At any rate, sitting in their living rooms, in the privacy of their homes, watching television, they would have had cause for reflection.


1:23 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson poses an interesting question ...

Were there exhibitor uprisings over studios selling non-feature fare
to TV?

Old theatrical cartoons were everywhere in my childhood. You could always
find Three Stooges and Little Rascals shorts. And while I personally don't
remember serials on kiddie shows, they were evidently big as well.

They may have been dying as regular theater fare, but they still featured
big stars (or characters) and looked lavish next to early low-budget TV. For
that matter, any kid could tell the old cartoons on television were visibly
slicker and funnier than the new, almost limited-animation versions reaching

Donald, I haven't come across a lot of showman complaints over cartoons and shorts being released to TV during the 50's, as most attention seemed to be directed toward features, but as you say, kids had to notice better animation quality of old cartoons on TV vs. compromised stuff in theatres by the late 50's. A lot of the vault cartoons were being reissued theatrically during this period as well,so some of what folks paid admissions to watch was probably being run on their local channels at the same time. That must have gotten some interesting reactions ...

5:45 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Was the MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE title part of the MGM package? When I first encountered it, the music was the theme to GONE WITH THE WIND....which makes me think it was sold as a show concept with all the bally intact ie ad layouts,trailers etc....even down to how presenters approached each film,in Leo's case, respectfully.... no "horror host " lampooning here.

5:40 PM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

The MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE was really the ultimate programming for a newer audience of the older movies, and channel 9 KHJ-TV showed the CLASSIC RKO titles. When KING KONG was showing TWICE NIGHTLY for a week's engagement. just like a local theatre would show them...THAT seemed like MOVIE HEAVEN--and IT WAS--until AMC, and THEN later in the 90's-with cable, which FINALLY brought us TED TURNER'S TCM- our ULTIMATE MOVIELOVERS BLESSING that FINALLY presented CLASSIC, UNCUT MOVIES IN THEIR CORRECT FORMATS(2017)!! Then came(don't recall just when) KTLA CHANNEL 5, LOS ANGELES seemed like THE place to be for night-folks with their "MOVIES 'TILL DAWN" PROGRAMING which was ground-breaker for sure; KTTV-11 followed with the same. Gradually TV discovered the all-night people who, didn"t complain TOO much about breaking up the feature films with BELOVED CAL WORTHINGTON and his DOG SPOT, who were ALWAYS trying to sell us a good, used automobile and CHEAPER than any other dealer in town. CAL would indeed 'stand upon his head' (and DID SO--!)'TILL HIS "EARS WERE TURNIN' RED!',in order to sell us a car, singing the same little jingle-with EACH BREAK! Well, it was a great time then, for local-tv -station programing; putting up with commercials and such was the ONLY COST of TV then, because TELEVISION THEN, was FREE. Repeat, FREE! All you needed was a TV to plug in, along with a cheap pair of 'rabbit ears'. However, in Southern California, if a mountain stood in the way between you and a TV STATION, it meant that you were outta luck..! But THEN all you needed was SOMEONE who was just as nuts about movies as you were, a friend maybe, WHO COULD "get that channel"- WHO WOULD WANT to watch '"SINBAD THE SAILOR"(RKO) (in B&W!) at 3:AM ??!!......?

2:31 AM  

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