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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Rank and Eagle-Lion On Thin Ice

Scott Of The Antarctic (1948) Freezes Up At US Boxoffices

A shoot-the-works Ealing production, their most expensive to date (negative cost $1.2 million), about the doomed Scott expedition to the South Pole. Average time shooting a feature at Ealing (and other Rank studios) was ten weeks. Scott Of The Antarctic took nineteen. It didn't do well as hoped, at home or here. There are DVD's available, Amazon reviews all over a map as to quality. Mine was a Region Two boxed with others from Ealing, and looks fine. Had no idea how controversial Robert Scott remains in exploration circles. Painted as a national hero since death, some since have branded him a fraud and incompetent that led his party to avoidable disaster. These claim too that Scott Of The Antarctic was a whitewash, Scott's widow as assist foreclosing chance for an honest treatment. I didn't read Scott at all that way. John Mills plays him as determined and in many ways admirable, but judgment errors are made from a start, accumulation leading to failure and demise for the crew. Missteps he makes are subtly indicated, Scott/Mills dismissing advise to use dogs for all of pulling instead of primitive tractors and ponies that couldn't sustain coldest temperatures.

What may have doomed Scott Of The Antarctic was public awareness of how the title character's venture ended --- that history could not be changed. Success of any mission that movies depict is a given. Why sit two hours to see them fail? Answer was to ennoble the team by emphasis on sacrifice that enabled others to conquer the Pole. To loss of Scott and his men was added a midway stinger of someone else having reached the Pole first, a rival expedition led by a Norwegian. Scott Of The Antarctic had to be told in terms of victory rising out of defeat, and if that worked, Ealing would have a click. Hardship onscreen was matched to degree by ordeal a cast/crew endured, icy exteriors found in Switzerland at 11,300 feet above sea level, then move to Norway to capture backgrounds close-in-look to real thing captured in Antarctica by a second unit said by Ealing to have spent six months gathering footage.

Ealing was a satellite in J. Arthur Rank's orbit, his benign oversee granting a degree of autonomy for artists who'd not enjoy such leeway from other big companies. And Rank was England's filmic leader, from his far-flung and busy shooting facilities to cinema circuit ownership (Odeon and Gaumont) that insured bookings for all of output. What Rank wanted was entree to lucrative US markets, his sizeable interest in Universal-International a pry to stateside theatres resistant to imports. Mutual back-scratch saw Universal distributing select Rank features for domestic play, while Rank would make room for Uni product on Brit screens he controlled. Problem was sheer quantity of pics Rank produced; Universal couldn't release them all. Choice of his best was theirs, and so 1949 would see the following get a U-I berth: Christopher Columbus, in Technicolor with Fredric March, The Blue Lagoon, also color, and Nevermore, aka The Passionate Friends, a David Lean romance with Ann Todd, Trevor Howard, and Claude Rains.

Others of Rank origin went to Eagle-Lion Classics, another entity where the UK producer had investment. Theirs for the '49 season would include Saraband and Blanche Fury, both with casts obscure to Yank viewership, but enhanced by Technicolor. Between Universal and Eagle-Lion, there would be 24 Rank features US distributed for the 1948-49 season (up from 20 in 1947). J. Arthur Rank had learned that prolific output as his would need more than one stateside handler, and so built these relationships to insure exposure for promising product. Scott Of The Antarctic as Rank/Ealing's most ambitious venture to date would seem to guarantee placement on U-I's release schedule, but arrangement had been made in 3-48 for Eagle-Lion to distribute. Trade talk from overseas indicated wan US prospects, Variety's man at the Royal Command performance wiring home that Scott's "appeal will be restricted to audiences interested in a chapter of British history," the film not falling into "top category" for boxoffice success. Upshot was their celebrated hero not being our own. Besides, we had homegrown Admiral Richard Byrd to teach Yank youth in terms of success --- he flew over both Poles and lived to tell about it.

And so Scott Of The Antarctic went with Eagle-Lion, meaning spottier and harder-earned dates. They could make waves with something really exceptional like The Red Shoes, but had a hill, or rather a glacier, to climb with Scott. Variety didn't help with a 5-26-49 stateside review, bespeaking "doubtful" prospects. "It won't attract run-of-the-mill theatregoers and will take all of the E-L ballyhoo talent to enable it to meet expenses," damning words to imply that loss was a fait accompli. US release was announced for April 1949, with a Washington benefit premiere to be attended by Mrs. Truman. Also to this fete came MGM's Nicholas Schenck and Paramount's Barney Balaban, "helping Anglo-American film relation by lending their names and themselves ..." said Variety's "Washington Hullabaloo" column on 4/20/49. This followed a benefit preview in Miami (2/9/49) to aid "British needy children," and a "special" showing at the Museum Of Modern Art the following month.

Eagle-Lion seemed to be positioning Scott as most prestigious of their current line, but that wouldn't translate to boxoffice, despite promise of "The Noblest Adventure Man Ever Dared" (itself problematic for US viewers with faint interest in "noble" adventurers). Ads with heading of "Had We Lived ..." tipped off the downer finish, word-of-mouth doing the rest. Scott Of The Antarctic ended up doing some of poorest business recorded by any Brit/Euro offering for 1949. Los Angeles' Four Star Theatre, a haven for arties, saw a miserable five days, Scott yanked before completing its week with receipts at $900.00. A reissue of ten-year-old Pygmalion had preceded and done $4,400 a first week, $2,700 the second. Replacing Scott was a duo of more oldies, The Seventh Veil and Great Expectations, which earned $2,500. It was as if the public specifically did not want to see Scott Of The Antarctic. Philadelphia's experience was much the same, Scott doing half the $5,000 that Brit predecessor The Small Back Room earned for the 500-seat Trans-Lux, while failing to match Italy's Bitter Rice, which snagged $3,000 in its 24th week. Scott Of The Antarctic froze at ticket windows sure as members of that doomed expedition. Maybe it was a story better told in documentary rather than dramatic terms. A public then as now was reluctant to invest emotion in two hours they knew would end disastrously. Jack Cardiff, principal cameraman for the film, might have been on to something when he said: "It was so faithfully portrayed that it was almost unbearable to watch."


Blogger Kevin K. said...

And yet "Titanic" was the biggest movie of all time. Must have been the bogus love story.

Maybe I'm getting old, but I can't watch any of these doomed-adventure movies. I don't get what the entertainment value is supposed to be.

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post on the attempt to make this film a success in the USA. I'm prejudiced because I've read about the competing explorers to be the first at the South Pole. Norway's Roald Amundsen being much better prepared than Scott.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

The Ralph Vaughn Williams score is one of the greatest ever. He took some themes from his score for his seventh symphony, Sinfonia Antartica.

4:07 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson ponders the Scott expedition as basis for British comedy:

Early on, Monty Python had a sketch about a Scott remake being shot at a British seaside resort by a drunken director. The cast includes a bikini-clad Mrs. Scott, who walks in a trench while standing on boxes; the locale is changed to the Sahara when it's realized that would remove the need to cover all the sand with white sheets; and the (American?) producer insists on a lion fight, a giant laser-shooting penguin and carnivorous furniture.

Here we often reference Custer's Last Stand in comedy; did the British have a similar attitude towards Scott and/or the movie or would this have been risky satire?

4:44 PM  
Blogger b piper said...

"And yet "Titanic" was the biggest movie of all time. Must have been the bogus love story."

By dollars earned, maybe. By tickets sold, it's number five, behind GONE WITH THE WIND, STAR WARS, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and ET.

8:36 PM  

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