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Monday, September 12, 2016

What Lit Them Up in '74

The Longest Yard: A Hit Then, Forgot Now?

If anyone wants to know how in the world Burt Reynolds became such a big star in our misguided 70's, show them this. It was directed by Robert Aldrich, who might have made an indelible star/helmsman team with Reynolds had not ego issues soured milk after Yard's follow-up, the also fine Hustle. I booked The Longest Yard at college as sop to peer posture that programming was tilted too much toward old movies (yeah --- well, so what?). The football squad all showed up to cheer --- where were they when I ran Meet Me In St. Louis? The print was from Swank and rented flat against percentage --- we never took enough for the % to kick in, it being a small campus. People forget since '74 how popular The Longest Yard was. When I revived it for a college crowd in 2004 ... wait, did I say crowd? Make that crickets, and bombs away. Nobody had heard of the pic and cared less, The Longest Yard part of a two-night Aldrich fest that died like dogs. Anytime we saluted a director, we flopped, unless it was Hitchcock, or Stanley Kubrick.

Now The Longest Yard shows up on Epix-HD and looks a million on 1.85. Aldrich wasn't much for scope, but he filled wide, if not widest, screens, and likes of Yard and earlier The Dirty Dozen suffer for cropping to 4:3. The director stayed modern for knowing how to open his shows with bangs --- the first few minutes of The Longest Yard a whale of an action ride. What a regret that Aldrich couldn't stay with Reynolds, or maybe tie up with Clint Eastwood whenever that star wasn't doing hard-hitters for Don Siegel. If you were there in 1974, memories of The Longest Yard's third act football game are bound to be fresh still. I've not forgotten whoops and howls over grid action, the closest movies got to excitement of a real game. This is still one of the 70's best entertainments, but oddly not recognized as such. Surely there's not snobbery toward Aldrich --- so is it faded name Reynolds? He's bound to regret not hanging on to Aldrich. Maybe stardom wouldn't have slipped away so soon if he had.

UPDATE: 9/13/16 --- Fascinating insight into merchandising of The Longest Yard as supplied by reader and longtime GPS correspondent "Griff" (with illustrations graciously supplied by him) ---

Dear John:

Loved your take on one of my favorite Aldrich movies, a picture that played explosively with audiences every time I saw this back in '74. It may not have been a masterpiece, but it was such a film of its moment. It was impossible not to see Eddie Albert's warden as basically our recently deposed president. Reynolds, who had been flirting with major stardom up to this point, crafted a surprisingly complex characterization as the movie's anti-hero. Paul Crewe isn't really much of a human being, and there would seem no good reason for us to care what happens to him. But thanks to Burt's wry, (and, yes, charismatic) performance -- and Aldrich's canny re-working of his favored theme of men hitting bottom hard and then slowly daring to rise above their fate -- we see and believe that he can somewhat redeem himself. this is among the actor's very best performances. And no movie had ever captured the ferocity of football in such a powerful manner. In retrospect, it seems a big mistake that Reynolds didn't go on to make more films with Aldrich (Burt seems to hint as much in his memoir).

The piece lacked only a little bit of background regarding the marketing of the movie. When THE LONGEST YARD opened in New York on August 21, 1974, it did so with a... I don't know how to put this... tremendously off-putting piece of key-art. It's sort of a conceptually interesting illustration of Burt literally locked into a football helmet. [See attached.] I'd be curious to see a full color example of this sometime. It's actually kind of handsome in its way. But it's not right for this picture, not at all. You can barely see Burt's face! There's nothing here that would remotely speak to women! Anyway, the art was featured in ads for the movie in the New York for the first week of the run, through August 27.

On Wednesday, August 28, a week after the movie opened, Par ran the first version of the "Fiercest and Funniest" campaign as a full page ad in the Times
. [Also attached.] It's almost all there -- the photo of Burt is a little different from the picture that they would ultimately use, and the studio would tweak the text slightly. [Interestingly, the picture that Paramount eventually decided to use is an image of Reynolds from early in the film -- he still has his trademark mustache -- which does not reference football at all.] The previous key-art would never be seen again. I guess early pressbooks might have a sample of it. I've never seen a poster for the movie with that design; I suppose the NY Loews houses must have had posters with this image, but I've never run across one.   

I wish I knew more about the backstory of the sudden and complete re-design of the movie's print-ads and posters (said revamping was probably simplified by the fact that YARD was still exclusively playing in New York at this point). I want to say that there was a mention of this in Variety back in the day, but I could be wrong. [Aldrich, whose previous picture had gone through not only a major retooling of its ads and posters but also a title change, must have had some strong opinions on the matter, even if he was only a hired hand on this project.]



Blogger Ed Watz said...

I wonder if screenwriter Albert Ruddy ever saw Wheeler & Woolsey's HOLD 'EM JAIL (1932), with its prison team and another football-fanatic warden, played by Edgar Kennedy. Frankly I'm surprised that JAIL was one W&W film that John Grant didn't attempt to adapt for Abbott & Costello in the forties, it would've been a novel slant on their string of military comedies.

6:34 AM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

Another sports picture from that time period that seems to have developed a strong cult/fan base over the years is "Slap Shot".

It has two things going for it with contemporary audiences. It's genuinely funny and has a certain nostalgia value, capturing the kind of rag-tag minor league hockey of the time and working class factory towns in the northeast.

"Slap Shot" is for guys who grew up in the 70s what "Grease" is for girls that grew up in the 70s.

8:35 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

This movie is OK and it was never a classic nor it does not qualify as one either. I vividly remember when it was issued on VHS in Argentina (original English soundtrack with Spanish subtitles, presented at 4:3). I was about to rent it when it appeared on a Brazilian TV channel where I saw it for free in Portuguese. Shortly after, I found in on Argentine TV in Spanish.

In any case, I did not like it nor its abrupt switches from serious drama to ufunny comedy. This movie could have only worked within the United States. Football is unpopular outside here and I actually dislike and can't stand that fake sport and the circus that is always built around it.

10:01 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Not to paint with a broad brush, but do today's youthful audiences remember anything, other than a star or director associated with some sort of cult of personality?

Very good point about Aldrich's use of the screen. Seeing these things on the TV, I assumed they were 'scope, because there seemed to be so much missing.

Poor Burt. Robert Aldrich or Hal Needham? Bad call.

10:31 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

It's certainly better than the unnecessary Adam Sandler remake from not long ago - audiences could probably buy him as a hockey player-turned-golfer in "Happy Gilmore," but as a quarterback? Uh-uh. And why Burt decided to appear in the remake - the need for money, or what, I don't know.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

During my tenure as a theatre exhibitor (1971-1977), once Labor Day weekend was over, your theatre was generally a cemetery until Thanksgiving. The one exception year for me was 1974. I opened THE LONGEST YARD the week before Labor Day. It was still playing as Halloween approached (and this a smaller town of 28,000). Yes, that was a time when Burt Reynolds drew money no matter what the movie. He could have put on a dress and done Little Mary Sunshine, and my auditorium would have been full. But take Burt, add football, add Autumn and it couldn't miss. Theatres struggled during that ten or so weeks between the Autumn holidays to pay the light bill. TLY more than took care of that in 1974. And, from a money standpoint, the longer you could successfully play a picture, the better, because the rental terms went down the longer the run went. And THE LONGEST YARD had legs. Repeat business for TLY was huge. It was another BILLY JACK, WALKING TALL or SUMMER OF '42. Audiences couldn't see them enough, and they had no home video at the time. How many football teams in the country called themselves Mean Machine after The Longest Yard? Answer? Plenty.

11:02 AM  
Blogger opticalguy said...

I despise football but this picture is a fine example of a "revenge story" (the inmates turning the tables the brutal warden) and "underdogs gaining their self-respect by working together" story which was satisfying.

I am a bit confused. I believe the film was shot with normal lenses (not CinemaScope or Panavision squeezed lenses) and it is highly unlikely that it was shot with a hard mask. So it should have gained picture information top and bottom on TV and in 16mm showings and not lost picture side to side.

2:45 PM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

"Incidental punishment after the ball has been blown dead."

11:22 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

For Aldrich movies of the seventies, I prefer TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING, which is far more interesting and memorable and has always being more accessible.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Probably the only sports-themed movie I ever liked.

1:25 PM  
Blogger RobW said...

Hi opticalguy ;

I ran 16mm and owned a print of The Longest Yard many years ago and it was definitely hard-matted.

10:44 PM  

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