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Friday, June 27, 2014

Metro Takes A Bold Postwar Step

Chicago's Monroe Theatre Is Among Carefully Selected Key City Hosts for The Search

The Search (1948) and Selling Outside The Box

A real heartthrob, and a rare MGM flirtation with art movies. So what put Leo to poaching on highbrow preserves? First there was money to be had from product foreign set-and-shot, Open City a forceful example of late. Then there was restless Arthur Loew, Euro-based  and heading Metro's international division. He was scion of the founding Loew family, as in father Marcus who set up MGM. Arthur's brother David had been producing independently in the US (A Night In Casablanca, the Enterprise venture, etc.), Arthur figuring he could do as much offshore. Putting a deal together was duck soup for the well-positioned exec, being he could pledge both completion dollars and assured worldwide playoff. The Search came of Arthur dealing with Lazar Wechsler, ID'ed by trades as head of Switzerland's Praesens Films. In fact, most of The Search would be lensed on bombed-out German location, with but portions filmed in Swiss clime, but Metro would issue no publicity to effect that it was a "German" film, instead positioning The Search as an American venture utilizing Deutsch background for authenticity's sake.

Fred Zinnemann Directs Montgomery Clift and Child Player Ivan Jandl

Arthur Loew would put $300K toward The Search and take personal charge of US distribution, an unusual move as New York's Metro office was at the least territorial when it came to stateside handling of company product, but this was a Loew after all, and highly placed enough to trump objections to his running the Search show. It would be a tough sell in any event, what with "the apparent antipathy of filmgoers outside the key cities against foreign-made films" (Variety). And The Search was in many ways a grim sit, being about children displaced by war and confinement in German camps. Director Fred Zinnemann, sent over from Hollywood to lend studio expertise, was Euro-born and knew the background. He understood necessity to soften horror visited on innocents, he and rest of personnel eyeing a wider viewership for The Search that might shun anything too graphic. This wouldn't be another Italian street pic snuck into the states as before, but a major release with all of Metro muscle behind it. For that, you'd need content at the least palatable.

No Glamour Like This in The Search, But Where's Harm Of Implying There Is?

Toward that end would come new-minted star Montgomery Clift, lately off Broadway and completion of his first co-starring film (with John Wayne), Red River, that one delayed with result The Search being Clift's first released film. His was the sole name that MGM could promote, other cast members being foreign, or character (Aline MacMahon). Clift would be sold on dreamboat terms, a surest and maybe only way that bobby-soxers could be lured to such downer enterprise as The Search. Negotiation with Radio City Music Hall looked toward premiere at that prestige address, but manager Gus Eyssell turned Arthur Leow down, so second choice Victoria, with 811 seats, opened The Search in late March, 1948. Reviews were the expected rapturous, but caution was needed: Metro is spotting further bookings on the film carefully so that word-of-mouth can permeate to other cities, said Variety. In fact, there would be only two further dates set as of mid-April, in Washington (an art house owned by Ilya Lopert, a familiar importer of foreign product) and Los Angeles, where the 4 Star Theatre, known host to higher-brow releases, ran The Search for seven successful weeks.

Few doubted The Search would play well in cities, what with critic huzzahs and more sophisticated patronage. The Victoria ran daily matinees for schoolchildren by request of teachers, a welcome badge of "good citizenship" that MGM, indeed every film company, sought. The Washington first night got $50 per seat for benefit of the National Symphony Orchestra, with a Marine Band out front plus television coverage, an early instance of the latter. Business at these sites, plus Chicago's Monroe Theatre ($16K for a first week), was good, but not outstanding. Whatever notion Arthur Leow had of leaving his prexy post at MGM International was dampened by figures shown him by East Coast chief Nicholas Schenck, who didn't want Loew to ankle the firm, and used sobering numbers from the Victoria to change the restless exec's mind. Meanwhile, there was selling to subsequents to worry about, smaller towns less impressed by kudos from cosmopolitan critics. How would The Search be marketed to these?

Variety called The Search a "semi-documentary," the label itself an anchor to commercial prospects. There'd be few customers "from the ranks of those looking for light entertainment," said the trade, so how to put this search across? (a big help: the pic's happy ending) One way was by positioning The Search as something really special, a sort of show to bring out folks who'd otherwise balk at filmland artifice: "I seldom go to the movies but I'm going to The Search," said unsigned testimonials. Other teasers playfully implied that where The Search was concerned, "press agents" were for once telling the truth --- this is a wonderful motion picture. MGM admitted to exhibs that these were "daring" approaches, in fact "two-fisted and plain-speaking," but had been tried, and successfully, in test engagements. It was clear to MGM sales and showmen in the field that The Search would have to be promoted outside the box, a bold merchandising approach to support bold screen content.

Easiest aspect to pitch was Montgomery Clift, Red River in circulation by the time The Search made general release, so sensation of Howard Hawks' western became coattail The Search could ride. Exhibitors were advised to mention Red River in tandem with The Search, and emphasize Clift as a newcomer "with all the natural charm of Jimmy Stewart ... and the simplicity of Gregory Peck." Monty's Omaha origin was similarly played up in ads, message being that while The Search was Euro-set, he at least was All-American. Some ads ran with a sex angle implying the search was for someone other than a little kid who was focal point of The Search, glamour art not at all reflective of somber characters in the film. Outcome of the sales effort was positive: MGM got back $1.4 million from $300K they'd invested, plus ownership of the negative. Final profit was $609K, very good for merchandise so far off beaten paths. The Search is available on DVD from Warner Archive and plays Warner Instant in HD.


Blogger magicalbeck said...

This is a really delightful and informative blog post! "The Search" has always been a favorite of mine, a gripping film that pulls me in and keeps me there from start to finish, no easy task with my sort of "ADD" personality traits, and with today's many tech distractions! lol
I had no idea how the film was marketed. It's sadly forgotten by many, or altogether unknown. I enjoyed your piece tremendously. Monty and the expressive child are the standouts for me but the women are also very solid performers. The ending is a little too quick, that's its only flaw. I don't mind the happy ending but they should have let it sink in a little deeper. Part of me always wants him ("Jim") to go to America with "Steve" though! ;-)
Thanks again. These clippings are superfabulous!!! I often wish I'd grown up in the 30s/40s... :-)

2:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for your very kind words. Glad to know that you enjoyed the piece.

3:13 PM  
Blogger magicalbeck said...

Well, you're very welcome. I saw that you had no comments and had written such an interesting and detailed blog, how could I not ?! Sometimes these blogs are hard to comment on from iPad and I just give up. Glad I didn't.
I'm recommending "The Search" as a Mother's Day movie in a classic group I'm in on FB. (A Vivien Leigh group but we talk about others). I'll post this link if you don't mind!

11:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

By all means. I appreciate it.

12:23 AM  
Blogger Fab said...

Watched the film yesterday and found this very informative post today. Such a great and interesting footnote of marketing history.

4:56 AM  

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