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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Part Two and RKO The Bring-Back Champ For 1948-49

A Five Week Rush on New York's RKO Palace for Late '48 Combo of Pompeii with She

Postwar Lines A-Plenty For The Last Days of Pompeii and She

Merian Cooper and most-of-time partner Ernest Shoedsack were the team to make magic of movies during early-to-mid 30's. Nascent fan culture of that decade saw rapture in each they did, King Kong to remain a near-religious experience for boys born soon enough to know it new, and chase reissues from there on. Ray Harryhausen was among them, and Ray Bradbury, Forrest Ackerman, their circle of friends. I read somewhere that one would call the others on sighting of fantasy revived, She at a far-flung venue, or Kong back, either but an L.A. bus ride away. The group would gather and go, as we might thirty years later when there was more of this stuff to chase. Among senior class of fandom was George Turner, who loved She enough to hunt down principals involved in its making and interview them for what later became a splendid American Cinematographer piece (June 1995). Then there was super-fan and eventual writer Alan Barbour, who looked longingly back (in his book, A Thousand and One Delights) to boyhood 40's when he caught She with The Last Days Of Pompeii during their 1948 revival. For this generation, She/Pompeii was brocade to savor where and when possible. I wish there were more of their recollections left. What's there lies most between covers of OOP books or old magazines, as fewer of these fans would last unto blogging and forums generation. An online loss we feel is limit to first-hand recall of moviegoing and fan culture, the 50's for most part as far back as Internet participants go.

Boston Braces For The Mighty Pair, Shows From Early Morn Till Late Into Night

She and The Last Days Of Pompeii made big industry news in 1948, their reissue a resounding vote for viability of old pics. Encores were crutch to postwar biz hobbled by higher production costs and product shortage. Short-run theatres and burgeoning drive-ins were knives through butter of available stock. Distribs figured oldies for tonic, so back came stuff of yore, including She/Pompeii in Chicago and New York to gauge viewer interest. Encores never were offered on faith. All had to be vetted at regional level to make sure a wider audience was there. Only then and with B.O assurance did vaulties venture beyond test ground. November saw the pair getting business to top even first-runs in Gotham and the Windy City, the Palace in New York, former legendary vaude address, decking out its lobby with an active volcano toward "circusing" the show (Variety). Results were a best gross since Sinbad The Sailor two years before. Final tally saw She/Pompeii pulling $97K over a 30 day stand at the Palace, with $72K a total after a month at Chicago's Grand. By mid-November, decision was made to send She/Pompeii countrywide.

Merian Cooper noted the splash and took initiative. He and Argosy producing partner John Ford, the two having hung independent shingle, "moved quickly on behalf of Argosy to clear other works of Ryder Haggard and Edward Bulwer-Lytton" (Variety, 11-16-48). These included "three other (Haggard) properties in the high imagination vein of She," and an "unpublished sequel" to Last Days Of Pompeii from Bulwer-Lytton's heirs in possession. Ford-Cooper had concocted a "Special Adventure" concept to go forward with these and similar properties. Was John Ford as enthused for such lavish plan, or was the trade announcement mere fruit of Cooper's over-excitement? Whichever way, nothing along adventure lines happened beyond Mighty Joe Young being "raced" toward May 1949 release, Argosy's newest a beneficiary of the reissue combo's success. Cooper had confidence that his gorilla-on-loose would click for audiences that thrilled to the vintage duo.

Chicago First Week Sees 34,000 Admissions to the 1100 Seat RKO Grand Theatre, Lines "A Block Long"

Trades applauding them saw She/Pompeii as "extra gravy" for RKO, the venerable pair reaching "a completely new audience" not around when the pics were new. She/Pompeii continued to astound as they crossed country, gross at L.A.'s Hillstreet Theatre taking in one day what the shows individually got in a week back in 1935. RKO had let Last Days Of Pompeii go non-theatrical route prior to the new dates, schools and churches in receipt of 16mm prints --- these would now be called back in favor of paid admissions. Variety acknowledged that certain oldies, "like whiskey, improve with age," all the sweeter for mere $25K it cost RKO to make new prints plus fresh paper. Rivals sniffed dollars and wanted their share, Warners sending out Angels With Dirty Faces and They Drive By Night to fight fire with B.O. fire. MGM would float The Wizard Of Oz again, and Paramount, whose only 1948 revival was DeMille's The Crusades, began the new year with expanded list of vaulties.

Plover, Wisconsin Gets Open Air Dose of Combo Action
So what was explanation for She/Pompeii's mop-up? Variety cited teens as eager patronage, plus "public's desire to see the costly spectacle films which current sky-high production costs have ruled out for most of the majors." RKO searched shelves for more that might click: a Tarzan pair from earlier in the 40's, six of George O'Brien westerns dating back to the 30's, a Disney two-fer of Dumbo with Saludos, Amigos, and encore of Top Hat plus maybe more of Astaire/Rogers to ride wake of MGM's re-teaming of the pair as The Barkleys Of Broadway. Brightest of RKO ideas for follow-up reviving was Gunga Din with The Lost Patrol, a handshake to make evergreens of both (they'd be back yet again on 50's safety stock and stay in some territories for years after). All told, She/Pompeii would take nearly a million in worldwide rentals, ultimate profit a joyous $550K, more gain than any new release for RKO in 1949. As previous noted, She is available on Blu-Ray, while The Last Days Of Pompeii streams in HD at Vudu and Amazon.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

That Blu-ray of SHE (1935) comes from Raymond Rohauer's collection. Here is a companion post:

7:33 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers the several versions of "She":

I can appreciate your mother not allowing you to see Hammer’s version of “She.” I had similar experiences growing up, when our parents, especially our mothers, took such an active interest in our well-being. Every neighborhood seemed to have a “League of Concerned Mothers,” the members of which were in close contact with one another. My own special disaster concerned “Children of the Damned,” which was on the Roman Catholic Church’s condemned list, as my friend Andy’s mother informed my mother. No matter that we were Lutherans, I was not permitted to see it.

In your case, however, if a neighborhood parent really thought that “She” was more or less pornography, then the show was way oversold by the Hammer advertising art. Having seen the picture myself, I can assure the readers that there is not a cough in car load regarding it.

The Cooper and Schoedsack version is by far the better of the two, with a lost civilization that is at least plausible in its Art Deco style and vastness of scale. Unfortunately, it is rather let down by the miscasting of Helen Gahagan as the central character, “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.” No doubt that she was a beautiful woman, but as an actress she was simply unable to suggest the sustaining passion of someone who’d waited two millennia for her lover. She was statuesque in both figure and deportment, as though her appearance was removed from anything having to do with flesh and blood. Karloff, playing a similar trope as Imhotep in “The Mummy,” seemed to animate his withered body through sheer force of will, and this out of his continuing desire for his own beloved. His destruction was of course justified, but also the stuff of tragedy, as for any character possessed of such a love. Gahagan is simply arrayed in a series of poses, not always without effect, but never touching the heart. This coolness works well when she stands in authority over others, but it will hardly do in suggesting what ought to have been a desperate need. Her demise is spectacular, but no more than that. And since our interest must turn upon a belief in her desire and willingness to risk all, in order to bring her love to consummation, the picture never finds an emotional reality to complement the skill with which physical reality of the story was conveyed.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Brother Herbert said...

I hate that when I see the title LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, all I hear is Paul Ford in THE MUSIC MAN pronouncing it "pomp-ee-eye."

2:30 PM  

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