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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Billing and Books

I've seen repeated book reference to certain shorts and cartoons that were advertised more prominently than features in theatre ads, or displayed above same on marquees. Less common is evidence of this by way of surviving ads or photos that show single or two-reelers getting favored treatment. In fact, I've not seen one ad or marquee from the sound era where the short was positioned over a feature for promotion purpose. The biggest push I recall for a cartoon short was Popeye Meets Sindbad The Sailor, which many venues actually sold as a "feature," despite its actual length equivalent to two standard animated subjects, meaning sixteen or so minutes. But even this Popeye special took a lower ad berth to whatever feature theatres were offering. I'd dearly love seeing a 1936 ad where Popeye/Sindbad took advertised lead, but it's not (so far) come my way.

Now in the silent era, particularly early on in the feature era, it was not at all uncommon for short subjects to be billed first. In fact, they were tendered as feature attractions of respective shows in a day when the term had as much to do with merit as length. Two reels of Charlie Chaplin's newest could be a whole reason for going to the show, as here with The Immigrant in first-run. It was unusual for a bill to last three days at most theatres; certainly a Chaplin or comparable was needed to sustain such extended run (but was there anyone comparable to CC?), especially in smaller towns where daily program turnover was expected. "A Great Metro Picture" The Soul of Magdalene places last among offerings here at the Palace, this the long-form attraction, and sole example that evening of a feature film as we would come to understand them. Together with five vaudeville acts, this was the Palace's offering for a dime and up admission. Original ads I've seen for Chaplin Mutual comedies during 1916-17 almost always placed them at the top of bills as lead attraction, this priority continuing after his move to First National, in fact, for as long as the comedian made short subjects.

Bumping Into Broadway was a 1919 Harold Lloyd short lasting under a half-hour, but it's clearly positioned by the Yale Theatre to head up their "Today Only" bill. Lloyd was a fast-risen comedy star by 1919, the "glass" character having vaulted him to position second only to Chaplin. In fact, I'd guess that during that year, he and Roscoe Arbuckle dueled for runner-up position. Ad art supplied by distributing Pathé refers to Bumping Into Broadway as "The Feature Comedy," another instance where quality qualifies two reels as something more. The Lurking Peril chapter-play gets second ad placement, this at a time when serials were at a peak and often regarded the headliner among theatre offerings. Again, the putative "feature," which we assume to be of multiple-reel duration, is at the bottom of the bill. I say "assume" because I can find no record at all of Across The Line, and precious little mention anywhere of John Lowell or Dakota Lawrence. Did such a film, or these people starring, even exist? They might just as well not have for all that remains of this title or Lowell/Lawrence.

Here is Buster Keaton lording it over Irene Castle with his 1922 two-reeler, The Blacksmith. No Trespassing is listed as 70 minutes at IMDB. There's apparently a print at the Library Of Congress, which means we could replicate this silent era program ninety-one years after the California Theatre presented it. Note the size of Keaton's name in the ad. There was obviously a following in place, and he'd only been doing solo shorts a couple of years by then. I'm all the more convinced for shuffling through vintage ads that comedies were indeed the main draw to movie houses; certainly in smaller towns, that seems to have been the case. They'd lure children for sure, and based on name-size comparison with Irene Castle, Keaton and The Blacksmith was what the California counted on to hypo this engagement. Such would remain the case today, of course, except maybe among hardest-core film buffs for whom No Trespassing would be fresh viewing. So, query: Has anyone seen the Irene Castle starring vehicle?

TWO BOOKS, the first I'll mention having been published in 1968. There was a paperback later, but I don't think it's been reprinted since. Hollywood: The Haunted House was written by Paul Mayersberg, a scribe for movies whose outstanding credit was The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1976. He also did an "uncredited script rewrite" for Tomb Of Ligeia, the book acknowledging Roger Corman, "who collaborated on making my trip to Hollywood possible," Mayersberg researched Haunted House during the filmland sojourn, having begun his career with critic work for newspapers and mags. He made good contacts, a number of prominent producers and mostly directors opening up to him in most candid terms about up/downs of their careers as of 1968. In Don Siegel's case, that was a bleak year, just before an association with Clint Eastwood put the director's career on a high swing. Siegel bitterly puts down the town to Mayersberg, as plain spoken as he'd ever be to an interviewer, more so even than in blunt memoirs to come. There's also Delmer Daves, Nicholas Ray, Stanley Kramer, John Sturges, Richard Brooks, plus a few we seldom heard from, like David Swift of Disney animation and live action fame. Much fascinating stuff here, forthright looks back from men who were still busy with the industry, but took time to reflect for inquiring Mayersberg, who was neither cultist nor auteurist, but seeker after truth as to depth of H'wood tar pits, these guys dishing it out unvarnished. Hollywood: The Haunted House isn't a well-known book, but it's worth tracking down, and is easily got (cheap) from various used dealers at Amazon and elsewhere.

B-WESTERN MOVIE REVIEWS: VOLUME 1, by Boyd Magers: It's well known that Boyd Magers is our leading authority on series westerns, having maintained a terrific website dedicated to them, plus a monthly print publication, Western Clippings, among very few subscriptions I still maintain and will not give up so long as it continues to print. Magers has for years penned reviews of virtually every B western extant, and now he has compiled them in a reference book that makes cowboy viewing an interactive gallop between DVD's and his expert coverage. This first of a proposed three-volume set has 825 evaluations representing 43 different stars and series. There is Tom Mix, John Wayne, Tom Tyler, Ken Maynard, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, the list goes on. Magers says he's been watching B westerns for over 65 years. Based on erudition here, I can well believe it. I like his straightforward style and way with wordage, plus there's backstories on casts and crews who rode in support of lead saddle aces. If you watch these cowboys, you'll want Mager's guide, and the two volumes to come. I'll not be without it for so long as westerns unspool at Greenbriar.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson speaks to cartoon presence on marquees and to his so-far reading of "Showmen, Sell It Hot!":

They may not have ranked in print ads, but cartoons seemed to command a fair amount of display space at the theaters themselves.

There are photos showing cartoons on theater marquees. And full-sized posters are plentiful, from generic character or studio models (sometimes with a space for a title to be added) to lavish artwork for specific shorts.

Since theaters used to be on busy main streets, this must have counted for something.

In my own memory, Disney was the last to really promote cartoons or short subjects of any kind. They were usually packaged with a specific feature and sometimes shared the same poster, so popular Winnie the Pooh propped up a generic live action comedy.

PS -- Got your book, up to Flying Down to Rio. Pleasantly surprised that, on top of everything else, it's practically a coffee table volume.

Thanks for your boost of "Showmen," Donald.

As to the cartoons, I too have seen them featured on photos of marquees, but not (so far) in a position OVER the feature that is playing.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

A Three Stooges short in front of a Columbia feature meant a packed house. Credit always went to the feature not the short which is how Harry Cohn got away with paying them what they were worth. Their budgets were cut so that they had to rehash footage from older films to meet costs. The studio had no idea of the real value of THE STOOGES which was why they dumped as soon as harry breathed his last breath.

That was good for THE STOOGES as they came back HUGE.

Shorts never kept people out of a theater. More often they brought them into it.

In the THE CINEMA YEAR BY YEAR 1894 to 2002 I read that over 65% of the public went to the movies during the silent era when first run A features cost $2 a seat (around $50 today) while today that figure is less than 15%.

I have seen theaters physically shake from the sound of a thousand people laughing hysterically at Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and others. Today's comedies just don't compare.

Goin' to the movies ain't what it used to be IN A BIG WAY. Once upon a time it was fun. But then the people who made the movies were supermen and superwomen.

5:28 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Okay, you made me curious enough to look up Dakota Lawrence and John Lowell at the Imdb, as I'm sure you did.

Looks like a little unit making westerns which flourished very briefly; most of the people involved seem to have no credits before or since. (Lowell apparently had a modest career in westerns.) A local project, maybe, like twentysomethings today making an indie film? Except back then the difference between indie and industry was not so stark.

Anyway, the few films shown there seem to be shorts, and Across the Line might be too if you take "Short Subjects" as a header for everything listed below it. To me this looks like there was no feature at all, just a grab-bag of shorts with one big attraction to carry the rest. I suspect this ad is a last 1919 gasp of the pre-feature days (which would only have been a half dozen years earlier, after all) in which you routinely made a whole program out of one and two-reelers-- with a popular comedian as the draw.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Can certainly back you up, at least as far as the sound shorts. Our Sons of the Desert Tent has been digging up local ads for Laurel and Hardy films for years and no matter how minor the feature attraction, its title is always billed first, font size bigger or no smaller than any added short subject. Now, Eddie Quillan in NIGHT WORK supported by Stan and Ollie in BLOTTO might come the closest; the boys are still on the bottom half of the ad, but type is nearly as big and L&H rate a caricature slug (Eddie doesn't!)

On the other hand, the Boys' shorts are often plugged with some pretty great blurbs in the ads.

HELPMATE: 'You'll laugh till it hurts!"

THE MUSIC BOX: 'Laugh and the whole world laughs with you and everyone laughs at Laurel and Hardy!"

THE CHIMP: 'The Boys own a monkey! Imagine!'

BE BIG (which first showed up in Duluth as THE CHISELERS): 'Zowie!! Biggest... Craziest... bunch of laughs they ever gave you! 30 minutes of howls!'

1:54 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

John, if you can access your copy of my book FLIGHTS OF FANTASY, turn to page 46 and behold a newspaper ad for the first Max Fleischer SUPERMAN cartoon that lords it over the feature (LAW OF THE TROPICS) in type size and placement. Unfortunately the theater name (THE STATE) was cropped from the bottom, and inexcusably I did not keep the name and date of the newspaper from which it originated in my files. I would have retrieved it from in 2008.

8:37 PM  

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