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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Paramount Sells Spooks To The Carriage Trade

Would The Masses Buy Class Chills of The Uninvited?

I'm thinking The Uninvited was Hollywood's first "class" ghost story done seriously (MGM's A Guy Named Joe from 1943 being sort of a warm-up). Notwithstanding Universal monsters from the 30's, I don't know of big studios floating supernatural themes to prestige extent of The Uninvited prior to 1944, and selling them in terms of general audience appeal as opposed to specialized crowd predisposed to thrill topic. Here was where Paramount departed from norm, but played safe by targeting a wide as possible public. They went for those who'd like scares, but pulled punches where necessary by linking The Uninvited with "mystery romance" as tendered in the novel and film that was Rebecca, a hit still in pic-goer memory that Paramount evoked in 1944 ads. The year was significant for A-budget chills aimed at plush seats. Universal remade Phantom Of The Opera with Technicolor, had The Climax on deck for '44, and spent way more than they'd have put into horrors till then (1943) --- Para would acknowledge the splurge by materializing the Phantom in teaser art (below) for The Uninvited. Then there was 20th Fox's The Lodger, a more intense shocker than had been attempted before. The Val Lewton series at RKO, though B's by definition, had an ongoing and greater influence than historians yet realize. These echoes are heard through The Uninvited.

Paramount wouldn't chicken out with its ghosts being real, but invited healthy skepticism by way of Ray Milland's doubt and humorous asides. At one point, he even jumps under bed covers when a door shuts by itself, a moment that threatens to tip The Uninvited into Cat and Canary farce, thankfully averted as tension mounts later on. Para had prestige and unbroken success in wartime. Movie attendance was nearing all-time peak, this company owning a greatest number of theatres to draw crowds. We pay less attention to Paramount because so little of their 40's stuff circulates today, thanks to vagaries of distribution (Universal owns the pre-49 inventory but has done little with it). The Uninvited was designed to serve purpose beyond mere scaring of customers, being a careful calibrated showcase for introducing a personality the company had pre-programmed to become a star.

Stardom as a fait accompli was not uncommon then. There was enough confidence in this game and its outcome to go ahead and cast a promising enough face in two of three vehicles before patronage had even a first glimpse, it being possible to impose a newcomer on filmgoers and make them like it. Calibration did have to be set just so, as was case with Paramount vis-à-vis Gail Russell. They just didn't figure on her crippling inability to play the H'wood game. Tinseltown tragedy was borne upon wings of the Gail Russells, ones lacking survival skill in what could be a cruelest jungle --- ones who in the end had no business in this business. Russell was plucked off a high school campus. Someone there said she looked like Hedy Lamarr. Fate dealt the rest. The Uninvited for Paramount was as much about Gail as ghosts. We've forgotten that too. Gail Russell might have preferred to as well after stardom went wrong and most of her close-ups got made in police court. Publicity shown here assumes a sadness in light of what would happen. Today it's as easy to think of Gail Russell as real-life counterpart to the weeping ghost we hear in The Uninvited.

There were devices reliable to sell horror movies, most set in concrete. Paramount might have preferred a more dignified approach, but die was cast upon this mode of showmanship, and in final analysis, a spook show was a spook show, so far as exhibs were concerned. Yes, Dorothy MacCardle's best-seller had been read by three million, and indeed you could call hers a "mystery romance," but vet vendor Louis Brandt knew where bodies were buried when it came to selling scares, and he wasn't for measuring The Uninvited to elegant fit. Whatever his Globe Theatre's approach, it worked for the New York premiere. Brandt dressed the building's front with black cats (at right) that flashed menacingly by night, a lighting effect that drew attention from pedestrians up and down Broadway. Reward came of four week fill-up for the Globe and an effusive, if joshing, wire (above) sent by Brandt to pals in Paramount sales. This sort of congrats was mostly meant to let other showmen know that dollars were percolating and they should get in on it quick.

We have advantage of customized home viewing to create atmosphere for Uninvited viewing. But compare our lights- out and reverent sit with wild and wooly first-runs where The Uninvited was tail end to sky-the-limit vaudeville. Washington's Capitol Theatre gave 'em fifty-five minutes of hoke before Paramount's ghosts were let in. Would Henny Youngman onstage spoil your mood for The Uninvited? If not him, what about community singing ("as never before," said Variety) with a house organist pulling his final week? Or maybe Pistol Packin' Mama as sung by the Murtah Sisters --- they got a "riotous hand." Then came Wally Boag blowing up toy balloons to comic effect, with Pansy The Horse doing tricks with "an eccentric blonde" for a sock finish. Such, and more, is what you got with admission to The Uninvited at the Capitol in 1944.

Campaign ideas looked like pillage from Universal's old playbook. Arrange for a brave soul to spend a night alone in your local haunted house (but be sure to get permission from owners!) ... Hold a séance in your lobby ... Have ushers hold open doors for "invisible" patronage ... the list goes on. Showmen had their own gags for spook peddling and most were pretty timeworn, but what worked ten or twenty years before still would for generations coming up who liked being creeped out. Suggested ads from Paramount and poster art centered on Gail Russell, she being The Uninvited's investment toward future grossing (the actress would be back in a follow-up, The Unseen). Fulfillment of our own latter-day hope and anticipation for The Uninvited came this month with Criterion release on Blu-Ray, giving us finally a visual experience close to what audiences enjoyed in 1944 (minus Pansy The Horse, of course), and there are admirable extras, including a fine booklet essay by Faran Nehme and an interview with director Lewis Allen by noted genre historian Tom Weaver.

More at Greenbriar Archives on The Uninvited, and a Glamour Starter look at Gail Russell.


Blogger Dave K said...

Wow! Love the cartoony ghost slugs in these ads! Must have drawn the crowds in, but totally out of sync with the actual tone of the movie!

3:09 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson supplies some welcome info on stage performers at the Capitol's "Uninvited" show:

Two notes on that live show:

Wally Boag went on to a lifetime gig at the Golden Horseshoe Revue at Disneyland (and, for a few years, in Walt Disney World). Recently watched a 60s Disney hour where he slipped in a few odd lines: "You'll be reading about me. I smoke in bed." Walt Disney was a huge fan who not only kept Boag at the park but put him on the Mickey Mouse Club, in a few Disney movies and as a voice (and writer) for the Tiki Room. But for all his power, Disney wasn't always a starmaker (Michael Barrier makes a case that Disney bungled Fess Parker's promising career, but Parker -- who ended up incredibly successful off-camera -- essentially shrugged it off).

In VCI's release of the known remnants of the "Brenda Starr" serial (1945), there's a bit of soundtrack without film where a nightclub emcee announces Pansy the Horse, and it sounds like Pansy gets at least some screen time. Nothing about the eccentric blonde.

7:52 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer offers some comparison between "The Uninvited" and a much later "The Exorcist" ...

I remember seeing "The Exorcist" for the first time many years ago. The Carolina Theater in Hickory, North Carolina had been newly renovated--really just carpeting and some paint--and this was the attraction for its grand re-opening. The theater was packed, as the reputation of the film preceded it. We'd heard of how intense it was, of people running in terror from the theaters where it was shown. I was not affected by it in that way at the Carolina. I found the effects somewhat mechanical, while the world of my childhood imagination had been steeped in stories of "ghoulies and ghastlies and things that go bump in the night." It held no surprises for me, nor any terror. I appreciated the power it had upon others in the audience, though. It told its own story in a contemporary setting, free of the stock characters and conventions of other horror films that, perversely, allowed the audience to distance itself from whatever reality masqueraded upon the screen. Its strength was that it took something incredible and unreal and made all too credible and real. People were overwhelmed by possibilities that until that evening they had never had cause to consider.

Looking at the advertising materials for "The Uninvited," it seemed that it was being marketed in much the same way, as no mere ghost story or a way of saying, "Boo!", before the mask was whipped away from the crooked attorney or evil brother, seeking to frighten the others out their inheritance--the stuff of a hundred "old dark house" mysteries. Instead, the idea of some kind of survival after bodily death was offered as something as real as the theater itself or the city streets outside. I wonder if its effect on the audience of its time was as pronounced as that of "The Exorcist" upon its audience some thirty years later.


P.S. By the way, that was an especially well-wrought phrase: "Tinseltown tragedy was borne upon the wings of the Gail Russells...the ones who had no business being in that business."

5:33 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Scott MacGillivray reveals shocking truth about Pansy The Horse:

Pansy the Wonder Horse was really vaudevillian Andy Mayo and his brother in a two-man horse suit. The ringmaster accompanying the horse was originally Mrs. (Florence) Mayo, replaced later by Virginia Jones, who took the professional name Virginia Mayo.

YouTube has a vintage-1942 Soundie of Pansy in action (called HORSE HAIRS; someone has considerately removed the soundtrack and overdubbed something contemporary):

10:20 AM  

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