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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Enterprise, Metro, and Force Of Evil --- Part Two

By September '48, Harry Sherman had taken back studio facilities and Enterprise was down to skeletal staff of fifty to edit/post-produce Force Of Evil and Caught. Improvements to the lot were forfeited to Sherman as hope hung on whatever commercial prospects No Minor Vices/Force Of Evil/Caught had. Enterprise told columnists that a $300K loan would get them back in business, with banks holding out until they see what business the Metro releases will do. For its part, MGM stood loyal despite uncertainty, this reflected by a "Leo Loves Enterprise" ad run in 10-25-48 trades. Garfield and Roberts placed their own boost the same day, positioning Bob Roberts Productions as "an active force in making good pictures." Whatever confidence Metro lacked, the distributor would take charge, fully, of publicity/promotion.

Limits placed on mention of "rackets" in print advertising did not extend to MGM's preview, so a call went out for John Garfield to on-camera host an explanation of the numbers game and how it worked. Trailer will be shown in theatres one week ahead of (the) regular trailer for (the) film, said Variety. Unfortunately for later generations, MGM's specially prepared glimpse, with Garfield's unique footage, would not see light of day due to Force Of Evil's changing ownership. Since Metro didn't TV-distribute the film, there were no trailers for it printed on 16mm, and search among prior video releases, TCM's website, and You Tube do not reveal it. Of all unaccounted-for previews, this one for Force Of Evil ranks among losses most keenly felt.

MGM warned exhibitors as to "numbers racket" --- "a term you cannot use in theatre exploitation, advertising, or publicity." But there were backdoors. Garfield could be sold as a "numbers king," and "Lucky Number" contests were encouraged. Newspaper plants weren't shy in revealing that a real-life numbers man served as "technical advisor" for the film, his identity a secret to all but Garfield, his producer, and writer/director. Adherence to Code policy in fact saw Force Of Evil merchandisers dancing on heads of promotional pins. Abraham Polonsky complained from the beginning of a wreck censors made of his film, calling the finished product fundamentally a failure. He said the ending, wherein Garfield resolves to assist law enforcement, was imposed on Force Of Evil. In fact, it's not dissimilar to Marlon Brando turning informant at On The Waterfront's wrap. Did this comparison further sour Polonsky's Force Of Evil rearview?

Much of the team, save Polonsky, attended opener events in New York, Garfield in town for the latter half of December to stir interest and prop up Force Of Evil's Christmas Day premiere at Loew's State. Prior to that, he'd gone with Bob Roberts "to twenty key cities where the numbers racket flourishes," according to trades, Force Of Evil being screened before "forces of good" (Parent-Teacher organizations, Better Business Bureaus). Gala was a first several weeks at Loew's State (a "fancy" $44K in its first), biz buttressed by holiday crowds. Trouble was attendance "dipping" after celebratory December, elsewhere receipts doing a skid as well. Reviewers pointed out lack of gangster thrilling expected of Garfield and the theme. Ads saw gats blazing with JG in a siren's embrace, but the latter as embodied by Marie Windsor was there for only a couple of scenes in Force Of Evil.

Polonsky intended Force Of Evil to be a "destructive analysis of the system," a reading far more embraced now than then. Corruption from the bottom up was his Force-ful headline. Small-timer Thomas Gomez gives a speech lamenting crime inherent even in the garage and insurance businesses he used to be in. Again, these were realities known well to go-getters of a precode era --- but characters then worried less about fixes they knew were locked in. Did 1948-49 audiences figure Polonsky for stating what to them was obvious? Anyhow, something was keeping biz away. William Rodgers, chief of Metro's east coast selling, asked why receipts overall were so unsettled, expressing wonder that first-runs, even of films considered to be good, were returning barely enough to cover production costs. MGM features averaged 14,500 bookings as of 1948's end --- Rodgers sought 17,000 for a coming 25th Anniversary year. Toward that, he'd look forward to solid prospect of Command Decision, Words and Music, and The Three Musketeers, all with potential Force Of Evil seemed so far to lack.

Did Metro marketers let Force Of Evil wilt? I found little trade support. This wasn't an MGM production after all. There's no indication of Leo sharing Force's production expense, their pay-off a distribution fee (25-30% of the gross a usual arrangement) plus prints and advertising. Final tallies on Force Of Evil reflected a public's (if not Metro) indifference. There was $948,000 in domestic rentals and $217,000 foreign for a worldwide $1.165 million total. Against the negative cost of $1.15 million, and factoring out MGM's distribution fee, this would have been a tough loss for Enterprise and Bob Roberts Productions. As to a future for Enterprise, there was none. The company struck a January 1949 deal with MGM for a fourth feature the major would release, The Third Secret, to be directed by Lewis Milestone, but by April, that deal was cancelled, owing to monies Milestone/Enterprise couldn't raise and the February release of Caught, which did worse even (a worldwide $776K) than Force Of Evil.

Many Thanks to Dr. Karl Thiede for valuable info on Force Of Evil.


Anonymous mido505 said...


Was $1.15 million considered high for this type of flick in 1949? Gun Crazy, a gritty, B&W urban noir written by fellow black-listed scribe Dalton Trumbo, and released a year later, came in at around $400,000.00, according to IMDB. Seems to me Force of Evil should have come in for about half of its budget, and would have counted as a relative hit had it done so.

3:23 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I'd say "Force Of Evil" did cost too much to return much profit. So many of what call "film noir" lost money. Going over a million would have made it difficult to come out later in the black.

4:18 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer speaks to the topic of Enterprise and post-war independent production (Part One) ...

What a sweet deal M-G-M had with Enterprise Pictures, getting new product for its distribution arm at no risk to itself, with a fee so generously set that it couldn’t help but make a profit, even if the producing company took a bad loss.

Enterprise Pictures wasn’t the only such company that came into being after the Second World War, however. There was Liberty Films, a partnership of Frank Capra, William Wyler, and George Stevens, Argosy Pictures, with John Ford and Merian C. Cooper, Howard Hawks’ Winchester Pictures Corporation, and Wayne/Fellows Productions, with John Wayne and Robert Fellows, later known as Batjac Productions.

All of them were intended to give a free hand to the stars and directors who created them, but also to tap into the profits that had previously been going to the studios. To varying degrees, however, they all suffered from the same problem of undercapitalization. With a limited number of productions, they couldn’t sustain a loss as the studios could, and without a studio infrastructure to plow their profits into, they often faced serious tax problems. The heavy burden of distribution further reduced such profits as there were. One way or the other, the studios were determined to get their money.

Rampart Productions is a typical example. It was formed in 1947 by Joan Fontaine with her husband, the producer William Dozier, after her contract with David O. Selznick finally expired. She loathed some of the films Selznick had sent her out on, so the first production of her own company, Letter from an Unknown Woman, was an expensive and artistically ambitious one, directed by the brilliant Max Ophuls. “Expensive and artistically ambitious” is another way of saying “very risky.” They followed up with You Gotta Stay Happy, a comedy with James Stewart, no doubt trying to balance that risk with a film more likely to please the public. Both were released through Universal-International, which may have been alright for the comedy, but was assuredly not the best choice for such a sophisticated work as Letter from an Unknown Woman. As it was, the film took such a beating that Rampart couldn’t survive.

8:14 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer and Part Two on postwar independent filmmakers.

I see that Ophuls also directed the intriguing Caught for Enterprise, and that it, too, was a commercial disappointment. Evidently he didn’t have the common touch, however much his films are celebrated today, though working for an independent meant that he could make a personal work, but also that the studio distributing it wouldn’t necessarily be sympathetic to his vision.

Less typical was Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Productions, formed by writer James Hill, producer Harold Hecht, and movie star Burt Lancaster. Releasing through United Artists, it had one profitable picture after another, including Marty, Vera Cruz, Sweet Smell of Success, and Run Silent, Run Deep before finally stumbling with The Unforgiven in 1960, after which they wrapped it up.

David O. Selznick was shrewd enough to appreciate the benefits of releasing his own productions, so he formed the Selznick Releasing Organization in 1946 to handle Duel in the Sun. To do so, however, he had to walk out on the distribution arrangement he had with United Artists, which brought its most prominent stockholder, one Charles Chaplin, to a state of apoplexy. As it was, however, SRO was never a profitable enterprise for Selznick. He never made enough films himself through his production company, Vanguard Films, to make it worthwhile, and he was never able to interest the independent producers into entering into those lucrative, one-sided deals the major studios did, since he didn’t have the same extensive network of exchanges to tempt them with.

The one independent producer who escaped this trap was Walt Disney. Beginning with his Silly Symphonies, he’d been releasing his productions through Columbia Pictures, then United Artists, and finally RKO Radio Pictures, and had made better and better deals all along the way, especially with RKO, since his pictures were far more popular than anything it was making. When there was a dispute over the value of his True-Life Adventures series, however, he and his brother Roy put together Buena Vista Distribution, named after the street running in front of his studio. Its first big release was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and between new productions and the re-releases of such perennials as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinnochio, Buena Vista allowed Disney at last to obtain a most satisfactory return on his creations.


8:15 PM  

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