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Saturday, June 09, 2012

High Hopes for The Lawless --- Part One

The Lawless was a 1950 Paramount release that some say fell into a sinkhole (for its hard-hitting socio/political stance?) and only now is rescued via Olive's DVD sub-license of Para vaulties. Spun off incidents where Mexican-American fruit pickers were California-oppressed, The Lawless was tabbed by producers William Pine and William Thomas to depart genre formula up-to-then adhered to and try something "significant" after profit-making example of late 40's Crossfire, Gentleman's Agreement, and others scraped off cultural underbellies. "The Dollar Bills" were so-named as purest expression of showman love --- fifty-four pics from Pine/Thomas so far were as many hits for theatres playing them --- both Bills up from exhibitor ranks to deliver product they knew buddies still in trenches could sell. The two kept a winning streak, and used it, to play this wild card called The Lawless and wangle Paramount financing of the negative. Remember heroic King Vidor talking Metro/Thalberg into The Crowd? Well, the Bills went him one better here, and against bigger odds. Too bad theirs came a cropper and put both in retreat back to formula.

Sixty years' seeming internment of The Lawless was no one's plan. It was just placement of the show among Pine/Thomas holdings sold outside Paramount post-48 packages and consequently used by less TV station outlets. We've had as tough a time seeing The Eagle and The Hawk (1950), Captain China, and The Last Outpost (still do). I don't know of any P/T's being released to video thus far --- is The Lawless a first? (Run For Cover is also just out). Anyway, there's not another one like it, at least not in their inventory. Bill Pine died young (59) in 1955. Up to then, he and Thomas were the whirling-est dervishes in all independent picturemaking. A look at unceasing output makes me wonder when the two slept (they'd slowed down from eight a year to four when The Lawless got made).

Paramount had been distributing for Pine/Thomas since 1941, stuff like Power Dive, Wildcat, and I Live On Danger. Where theatres needed second features and action filling, such was made to order. The Bills had served time sufficient to try something different, though The Lawless wouldn't stray too far off beaten paths of action melodrama that provides plenty of exploitation elements (Variety). Certainly a trade wanted these good soldiers to succeed. Pine/Thomas hedged bets by spending a minimum ... The Lawless cost $435,000 and was shot in eighteen days on small town location (Marysville, Calif.). This was good value for product that Paramount hoped could be sold as a single-billed "A."

Macdonald Carey Chats with Theatremen During The Lawless Selling Trip

The studio got its peek in February '50 and "received enthusiastically" The Lawless. According to Variety, execs agreed with Pine and Thomas that Lalo Rios, the LA carpenter-turned-actor making his screen debut as the would-be lynch victim, should receive a special "introduction" screen credit. Para also promised "big budget ballyhoo" to launch The Lawless. An "all-out exploitation surge" would send players Macdonald Carey, Gail Russell, and aforementioned Rios to cross country barnstorm (Russell dropped out, but the others hit roads extensively on the pic's behalf). By mid-March, and midwest exhibitor previewing, Paramount was convinced this was homegrown merchandise to outshine Paisan, Open City, and others of Euro art origin. The Lawless had the appeal for both the adventure trade and for the trade which has shifted to the art theatre in search of pictures which are fearlessly true to life, said spokesmen.

The Dollar Bills were pragmatic enough to canvass friends in the field for a best selling strategy. These two spent at least as much time in far-flung showman offices as on movie sets, and knew well that theatres were best test ground for promoting. Pine and Thomas figure that "gimmick" selling ideas direct from the owners of the boxoffice will supply plenty of material for a comprehensive exploitation manual which can be used as a guide by all field men, reported Variety. The Independent Film Journal reported P/T clearing decks for their on-the-road market research by insisting Paramount not schedule production for weeks surrounding openings "so it will not interfere with extensive pre-release ballyhoo junkets conducted by the team." In fact, the Bills brought The Lawless along to opening cities of their April '50 The Eagle and The Hawk, so that they could show the pic to local opinion makers and build anticipation for their release now set for July.

Parent's Magazine gave The Lawless its Special Merit Award in early May after Pine/Thomas advance screened for the editorial staff. A special one-sheet (gratis to theatres) touted the award to further position The Lawless as an attraction well out of the ordinary. But would their prestige actioner attract? The Bills banked that it would, so much so as to be planning more social-themed dramas, that is, if "Lawless" comes across with a profit, said Variety. Unless that picture does business, added Bill Pine, they (meaning Paramount) won't let us make the others. He hoped to explore problems of modern-day Indians next. Para sales was meanwhile mulling how to sell The Lawless. Pine said long runs in art houses was the answer, to go slowly with the film for maximum penetration. What P/T and Paramount settled on was eight pre-release dates for June '50 in selected cities following a world premiere in San Antonio. The sites were Buffalo, San Francisco, Detroit, Boston, Cleveland, Fall River, Mass., and New Bedford, Mass. The fate of The Lawless would rise or fall upon these engagements.

Part Two of The Lawless is HERE.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, you're covering "The Lawless"? I've heard zero buzz about it when Olive was releasing this and other Paramount films. Still, I bought it.

The DVD picture and sound quality are quite good, derived from a quality source elements.

This is not likely to be considered a lost classic, at least when stacked up to other films of the same period that deal with American prejudice. It still has points worth recommending it.

The movie does contain some genuine-looking scenes of Mexican Americans living in the sorts of small-town neighborhoods in southern California, particularly during the first 30 minutes. The cinematography handles the riot/mob scenes quite well and the runaway "hoodlum" is depicted in a pretty complex way--a kid who's gotten more sensitive to the needling and lashed out in the wrong place at the wrong time.

By far the most impressive aspect of the film is its depiction of the power of the local press in shaping public opinion against the runaway boy and later against "fruit pickers" in general. It's a an element of spreading community prejudice that is not often explored in these sorts of films. It also has quite a bit of a then-contemporary allusion to the press's role on sustaining the "Red Scare" with similarly sensationalized stories that helped sell papers and stir paranoia.

5:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I avoided reviewing the film itself, mostly because Glenn Erickson (DVD Savant) has done a definitive job of that at his Best In The Business disc coverage page, and there's little I could add that he hasn't more than discussed and dissected. As a matter of fact, it was Glenn's review that inspired me to write this post (not the first time that's happened):

5:42 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

I'm looking foward to this one. I've never seen it. I had heard of it in passing remarks made on Joseph Losey, but had never seen it.......Glenn and John are to be commended for bringing this little-known film to light.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

This is such a great Joseph Losey film, I'm glad that it is finally getting a DVD release. I enjoyed reading in your post a lot of the background information on this film. I hope this DVD sells well and that more people are exposed to this underrated movie.

11:14 PM  
Anonymous Jason said...

Off-topic, though it does concern Paramount, and I thought this might be a good place to ask. Does anyone know of a website that lists all of Paramount's releases, year by year? Or other studio's releases, for that matter. I don't need the kind of detailed information found in, say, the AFI database. I would just like to have lists of what Paramount released each year, and if the release dates were included, that would be nice. For all the movie information I've seen available on the internet, I haven't been able to find a site that offers lists like this. Wikipedia offers something along the lines of what I have in mind, but predictably, their information is weighted towards recent years and information on older releases in these lists is woefully inadequate.

Thanks in advance.

9:28 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I don't know of any P/Ts being released to video thus far -- is The Lawless a first?

I think you're right about the post-'48 Pine-Thomases. There must be a dozen of the wartime titles on DVD. Offhand I know of MINESWEEPER, HIGH POWERED, SUBMARINE ALERT, THE NAVY WAY, ONE BODY TOO MANY, SCARED STIFF, MIDNIGHT MANHUNT, THEY MADE ME A KILLER, and PEOPLE ARE FUNNY.

11:15 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

Didja know. . .

The pre-1950 Pine-Thomas pictures, around 35 of them, were not part of the MCA sales deal. They were being peddled to television as early as 1955, but didn't land a buyer until an outfit named Wintree Productions bought them in 1957 and syndicated them though Signet TV, their syndication arm. Many, if not all, of them have fallen into the public domain, thus their availability on DVD.

7:29 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Terror...Horror...Excitement...Mystery is THEM!, although I should say is THEY!

9:49 AM  
Anonymous Louis said...

That is interesting about the Pine Thomas movies that Universal does not own. I thought Universal owned all of Paramount's talking movies from pre 1948.

4:44 PM  

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