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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

"Twas Anti-German Feeling That Thwarted "M"

Plunkett vs. Paramount For M Marbles

Trade reviews knew a quality thing when they saw it, but expressed deep reservation about M. "A new high note in German production," said Motion Picture Herald, "but doubly unfortunate ... that there are several inherent factors which may be handicaps for the American exhibitor." The language barrier was overcome somewhat by "expertness of its dramatic action," but M needed "at least fifty percent ... more subtitles" to be fully understandable. Lack of humor or even "occasional lightness" to relieve "stark, tragic stuff" put further weight to the anchor. "More readily appreciated by the class, rather than the mass audience" was kiss of death in a trade where mass was essential to keep doors open, outside of art housing where empty chairs were a given. "By no means should this be shown to children" was salt to wound inflicted by MPH, their review adding that "women, especially mothers, are apt to be somewhat horrified by the subject." Again, and considering M's ongoing power, wouldn't that remain the case today?

Variety found M "morbid to an extreme" despite its being "compelling and at times almost thrilling." All this would "stand against it in its bid for popular appeal" (worth noting is fact that trade reviewers for M saw the original German-language version as opposed to the English alternative as substituted at the Mayfair by Joe Plunkett and Walter Reade). Motion Picture Herald, Variety and others had to address product from standpoint of commercial interest; theirs was not to celebrate aesthetics, however much they'd recognize a "thing simply yet beautifully done." Variety knew there was a classic in M, and even acknowledged its potential use in classrooms, a neat foretell considering the visual textbook Lang's film would become once schools took cinema seriously. All this is well and good to us looking back, but showmen tending turnstiles saw only risk of hosting morbid content from a nation seemingly gone mad and branded outlaw by the civilized world. What worse time for M to go into general US release than spring of 1933, that is, if Plunkett and Reade could interest any distributor in handling the feature nationwide?

Whatever the down side, M had been a hit for the Mayfair, and critics outside the trade were unqualified in their praise. Within a month of initial bow in America, Plunkett/Reade arranged with Paramount for wide circulation of M. By this time, Walter Reade had bought a 25% interest in the film, attorney L. Lawrence Green, who represented Joe Plunkett, kicking in for another 25%. Plunkett himself held the rest. Paramount would take 30% of the "gross rental return" in exchange for distributing M "throughout the country." Offered as a "sensational international film success," M was available in two versions, "Spoken English or German with English titles." A stark trade ad ran in Variety on 5/2/33, four days after Plunkett/Reade's deal with Paramount was announced. Given their enthusiasm for M and its wider prospects, the pair rather than Paramount may have picked up the tab for Variety's ad, owing to distinctly minor interest the major distributor would take in their foreign acquisition.

It didn't take long for fruit of the deal to sour. According to a $100,000 lawsuit filed by Plunkett's company, Foremco Pictures, Paramount had fumbled the ball re distribution of M and stolen story elements besides, their 8/33 release This Day and Age a plagiarized yarn directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Nonsense, countered Paramount, This Day and Age was "diametrically opposite" in theme, concerning itself with "depredations of schoolboy gangs," while M was about "a fiendish murderer of children." The stolen plot allegation may have been icing on cake of Foremco's real concern, which was Paramount's utter indifference to M once they took control of it, most of promised bookings never fulfilled. This, according to Foremco, was "conspiracy to suppress the feature, M, through failure to release it." Para's defense was spirited: M had "poor sales results" based on exhibitors' "natural antipathy to foreign pictures to begin with, and, secondly, that Nazi propaganda was partially responsible." This was a position that showmen, if not a sitting judge/jury, could certainly understand, Paramount making it known to a trade likely to sympathize with them. The lawsuit was settled, as most are, in 6/34 (there was a cash payment, and plaintiffs "get back the picture," said Film Daily) . By then, M was past possibility of mainstream acceptance and headed for exploitation oddity status.

Where you'd catch it at all was art houses, or down-dirty grinds where M played with horrors of more conventional stripe. Peter Lorre, by then a star in American movies, wanted to catch his old act and did so at L.A.'s Regina Theatre, legendary site of doubling for Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938. Lorre saw M on a triple with White Zombie and The Black Room, an observant trade columnist seeing the actor fall fast asleep over the very long haul. Here then, was M's for-most-part US fate, to play as sickie attraction like that other cast-off from polite houses, Freaks. It was inevitable, perhaps, that a refuse dealer like Sherman Krellberg would get hold of it. He was a long time associate of Joe Plunkett's. They had linked during the 30's to acquire a circuit of ten theatres in Gotham, and were further associated in takeover of the prestigious Astor on Broadway. Krellberg practiced law when he wasn't swapping screens or buying up features. He'd peddle M (as M --- The Kidnapper) in trashier-than-trash terms for a 1943 combo with his earlier The Lost City, re-edited yet again from 1935 serial format and re-titled City Of Lost Men. You could wonder from sleazy ads which was nastier. M was sold on basest terms and trimmed from Lang's original to 96 minutes, music/sound fx added to pep up pace. To watch something like this beside Criterion's Blu-Ray would be like experiencing two entirely different movies.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

That caricature of Lorre in the President Theatre ad makes it look like a comedy.

As with other movies of its time -- especially foreign productions -- I never realized how great "M" was until I finally saw the restored version. If Lorre made no other movie, he'd still be remembered for this.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Today's banner photo reminds me of the kids in Spanky's basement waiting for the Our Gang Follies to begin.

2:19 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Kevin, I remember that caricature art of Peter Lorre from a 1964 "Castle Of Frankenstein" magazine, and I wondered at the time just what sort of a movie "M" was --- five more years would pass before I would see it on a Public Television station. You can imagine what the print looked like ...

3:14 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer shares some thoughts about the effect of "M" on long-ago audiences:

"M" is a great discovery for anyone who loves film. Fritz Lang's technique is audacious, with his near documentary approach to matters which become increasingly surreal, or his overlapping use of sound, which makes more and more apparent the realization by the people of the evil in their midst. Peter Lorre's portrayal of a man capable of such horrendous crimes, yet so innocuous in appearance that he must be marked with a chalked "M" on his shoulder, in order for his stalkers to identify him, is simply stunning. And our hearts break to see the little girl's ball rolling slowly through the underbrush, while her mother's voice in the distance dies away, calling her name.

What makes this website so fascinating in its treatment of such films, however, is that it restores the living connection between them and the audience they were intended for. "M" was deliberately contrived as great art, for Lang wanted to probe the distinction between good and evil, or how it is realized in such a world as ours. If the distributors recognized this, however, it was simply one of the things they wanted to sell to the public. But why would the public want to see this film? An advertisement shouts that it "Staggers the senses...SHOCKS the imagination." It is the "Sensation of 3 Continents." And, in a way, the ballyhoo does reach to its emotional truth, for you cannot watch the film with an open mind and heart and not be shocked and appalled, and finally moved to pity, not merely for the victims, but also for their murderer. But a person reading such an advertisement would not necessarily be prepared for the film itself, even if he could be persuaded to step into the theater.

From a commercial standpoint, "M" apparently failed in this country. Its distributors fought over the scraps afterwards and rationales were provided for why it never found an audience. No doubt its German origin and subtitles and all the rest played a part. I think, however, that the real reason for its lack of success is that it probed too deeply into aspects of the human condition most would not want to consider, leaving only the nastier parts to be exploited for those with an appetite for them. The film did not disappear, however, and remained for those who would take it up again, in the grind houses and art houses, in college repertory showings, as where I encountered it for the first time, and now in this age of wonders, where it is available in something very like its original form, to be discovered by a new generation alive to the power of films that were already old when we were young.

3:18 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson remembers "M" on "Fractured Flickers"!:

I confess to not having seen "M" in its entirety, but I did catch what may be regarded as the final insult.

In 1963 Jay Ward ("Bullwinkle", etc.) produced "Fractured Flickers", where clips from silents (and some talkies with sound removed) were edited together and fitted with funny voices. Understandably reviled by purists, it did manage a few clever initial episodes before a rushed schedule and low budget resulted in weak material using the same slapstick gags over and over. In the end the only appeal was the voicework by Paul Frees and June Foray, Hans Conried's sarcastic host, and a nifty opening animation.

"M" was repurposed as the tale of a man trying to quit smoking; so there were all those tortured closeups of Lorre accompanied by wheezes and tinny canned laughs. Was a bit unsettled when informed this was actually a movie about a child murderer.

3:32 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

One person certainly insulted by "Fractured Flickers" was Lon Chaney Jr., who hated what they did to his dad's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" and unsuccessfully tried to sue Ward et al.

I remember seeing "M" on PBS' Cinema Showcase (I think that was the title, the show that used "Pictures at an Exhibition" as its theme) as a kid in the '70s. Had quite the impact, it did.

9:51 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Yes I seem to recall the PBS showing of a somewhat battered compared to what we have now,is the power of the vision changed? Still lots of people who will not or maybe cannot watch this...maybe its non explicit approach,compared to modern film,is just too sinister or maybe too close to everyday life to cope with.

5:14 AM  

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