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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Samples Of How It Played

Pulling Ambersons Plow Through Exhibition

Here are ads from The Magnificent Ambersons. There are thousands more for whoever might give effort to flush them out. The truest story of public reception to any film is told by ads, not critics or reviews. Showmen had to gauge pulse of their customers and sell accordingly. They knew better than Hollywood what a public would buy, and how preference could change from one week, or day, to the next. The Magnificent Ambersons would have been but vaguely familiar to most theatre men. There was a novel source, but published in 1918. How many busy exhibs read it, or cared to? Radio listeners may have recalled the story from Welles' Campbell Playhouse of several years before (ad for that above). The Magnificent Ambersons would have been part of a season commitment with RKO for independents not part of that company's theatre chain. A pressbook might advise on how to sell, but that help only went so far. Much of management considered pressbooks useless, if not a joke. Putting a man on the street with a sandwich board --- that's as inspired as home offices often got. The Magnificent Ambersons had been shortened to a point where it could play top or bottom of a double feature. Key spots had live performers to back up the doubtful attraction: Bert Wheeler, Ned Sparks, and Buster West in Baltimore, Phil (Laughing Irish Eyes) Ragan for Frisco's first-run, Shirley Ross in Milwaukee. Think anyone was impatient to get past these for The Magnificent Ambersons?

Double feature placement was no more degrading than for any RKO release. Yes, The Magnificent Ambersons did play with Mexican Spitfire Sees A Ghost in Chicago and L.A., at least at the top of the bill, and goodness knows customers could use a laugh after time spent with the Ambersons. The Film Daily saw things that way and called The Magnificent Ambersons "pointlessly depressing." There were holdovers in Syracuse, New Orleans, Washington, other places, but subsequent runs knew these for anomaly you got with urban trade. "Scandal staggered the city" was how best to sell the Ambersons, even if no such thing happens in the movie, but what was that but RKO overlooking a swell spin that local management could now augment? Powder magazine to heat up staid Ambersons was war-driven and often the lead lure for ads, as here for John Ford's The Battle Of Midway topping a three-day stand. Or RKO's Orpheum tendering India At War as March Of Time buttress to The Magnificent Ambersons and crackerjack thriller Kid Glove Killer from MGM. Note outgoing Mrs. Miniver as "The Greatest Picture Ever Made." The Magnificent Ambersons from a start labored under bad timing and worse luck. First a war, then the cuts, and finally an audience disposed toward anything but an Indianapolis family in decline near turn of a century. I'll footnote with more of these ads as I come across them, as nothing shows so vivid the struggle RKO and The Magnificent Ambersons faced.

UPDATE: 3/2/18 --- 7:20 PM --- Got an e-mail from "Griff" wherein he attached the ad below for the Los Angeles first-run of Ambersons. Thanks, Griff!


Blogger Dave K said...

"The truest story of public reception to any film is told by ads, not critics or reviews." Great line!

Oddly, I caught MA on 35mm 30 something years ago on a double bill with CITIZEN KANE as part of the last ditch effort of our last remaining downtown movie palace to fire up new life as an all-revival cinema. The small crowd got a lot smaller at the end of KANE, but my wife, a friend and I had actually came in late to the earlier film (had already seen a few million times and once very recently) so AMBERSONS was the big attraction for us.

By the way, the theater close shortly thereafter, suffered decades of neglect and false starts. Had its main auditorium gutted, balcony briefly turned into a mini art movie theater and a couple of short lived bars installed. Then came a stretch as a strip club, all the time several well intended but underfunded efforts to seriously renovate the joint sputtered alive then withered. Finally the city, a local theater group, some investors and assorted grants gave life to a real restoration. They opened this month, and I just toured the place last week. And it is magnificent!

For those interested in such things:

12:02 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

Just watched this's still powerful. Bought it on iTunes (looks quite good). The front door opening and the wind blowing that giant chandelier at the ball is worth the price of admission.

11:31 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

WGAR was a CBS affiliate in Stinky's hometown, broadcasting The Mercury Theater with young staff announcer Jack Parr calming a panicked Cleveland populace after the War of the Worlds broadcast. Stinky learns so much on The Internets!

1:59 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I like the ad that says it was made by the director of "The Best Picture of 1941". Was "Citizen Kane" still that much of a hot potato that they couldn't speak of it by name?

"Ambersons" is a really, really good movie that you can tell could have been great, had Welles stuck around the studio to edit it rather than doing it by proxy in South America. (It wasn't all RKO's fault that an hour or so was cut before release.) In the second volume of a recent 3-part bio of Welles, it's stated that he left his personal, two-and-a-half hour edit of "Ambersons" with a friend in South America, who often showed it to friends well into the late '50s. When he moved circa 1960, the print vanished with him.

The same book also quoted audience reaction cards from preview audiences. Most were really negative, reminding Welles that, in wartime, they were looking for escapism, not depressing drama.

1:42 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

E-mail from "Griff" boosts Booth Tarkington, wonders why Welles didn't play George, and other matters (plus a neat L.A. Ambersons ad that I've added to the post):

Dear John:

An analysis of marketing and playoff of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, assuming you could come up with enough clippings from papers around the country, would be a good chapter for one of your books.

MINIVER, a gigantic popular and even critical success (and, one might add, almost perfectly marketed by Metro) isn't an ideal analog to TMA -- for one thing, Greer Garson was in it. My admiration for RKO's George Schaefer is boundless; he trusted Welles and believed in the project to the extent that he didn't insist that the filmmaker enlist any stars to commercially buoy the not inexpensive movie. The Mercury players are brilliant, of course, but still little known. That said, I will go to my grave puzzling over Welles' decision not to play George. [He would have been ideal casting in so many ways. A lot of Hollywood was anxious to see OW get his comeuppance -- if he'd played George, who gets his own comeuppance several times over, many might have enjoyed seeing that...]

In your piece, it's possible that you may slightly lowball the importance (and exploitability) of the source material. Tarkington (still alive and writing in 1942) was a very well known and highly regarded popular novelist. His Alice Adams (which, like Ambersons, won the Pulitzer Prize), had been memorably filmed by Stevens in 1935. his Penrod and Sam became a popular 1922 silent comedy (and was remade by Warners in '31 and '37). Tarkington's Seventeen, Clarence, Monsieur Beaucaire, Cameo Kirby, The Turmoil, Presenting Lily Mars, Gentle Julia were all adapted to the screen, some more than once. [The Flirt was adapted as BAD SISTER in 1931; Magnolia was filmed three times, most famously as 1935's MISSISSIPPI with Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields.] In addition, many of the author's books were still in print and widely read in '42. Back in the day, a film adaptation of Ambersons wasn't necessarily regarded as a movie of an obscure, forgotten book -- Tarkington was arguably one of America's favorite storytellers, and Ambersons was one of his most famous works.

But the film, even in its truncated form, is a lot to deal with emotionally. [Nothing could be done about it, but 1942, with the country newly at war, was really a bad time for this to be released.] It must have been difficult to market, almost impossible to find selling points. The reviews ranged from very good to respectful (the movie would eventually receive an Academy nomination for Best Picture; Agnes Moorehead would win the N.Y. Film Critics award for Best Actress as well nabbing a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), but these weren't useful in terms of promotion. MINIVER was loved. People went to see it twice. AMBERSONS would have to wait decades to receive something commensurate to its due. [Speaking of that "due" -- where's that long rumored restoration, Warners? The cut scenes will probably never be found, but the movie could use some sprucing up...]

It must have been a little disconcerting for RKO execs to see that THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY/AMBERSONS ad. Ford's (great) documentary was just eighteen minutes long! The theatre probably got it at short subject flat rate! But it heads the bill.

As you note, if one digs around, AMBERSONS ads can be found. This LA Times ad (attached) establishes that Welles' movie was clearly at the top of bill when it premiered at the Pantages (some inattentive scholars have asserted that AMBERSONS was billed below MEXICAN SPITFIRE SEES A GHOST). I don't know the origins of this other (attached) ad for the initial LA engagement, featuring the Norman Rockwell painting of the cast (also featured on an AMBERSONS poster); perhaps it was a handbill.

-- Griff

7:31 PM  

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