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Monday, February 25, 2019

Where Harold Wanted His Freshman Cap Back

A Struggle To Make Silents Speak Again --- Part One

Harold On Criterion's Blu-Ray Cover Tries To Drag 40/50's Showmen Across The Goal Line
Evidence suggests that Harold Lloyd considered The Freshman to be his most commercial, if not best, film. Certainly it was the one that occurred to him first as a revival, at least from a silent-era backlog. I did not realize how many flyers Lloyd took on The Freshman, and how often plans toward a reissue were frustrated. However popular he’d been at a 20’s peak, Harold Lloyd was spent news by the late 40’s, inactive other than a comeback (The Sin of Harold Diddlebock) withdrawn after poor-received dates and languishing in RKO storage overseen by Howard Hughes. Could audiences again embrace a Jazz Age go-getter whose name was byword for sight-driven comedy? Lloyd was buoyed by isolated runs for selected groups, college crowds … they’d laugh, stand, applaud. If these represented a public at large, why shouldn’t The Freshman and others of like vintage go out and be hits all over again? Still there was reality of marketing and distribution costs to be factored, neither coming cheap. Old films had to test well to get past onus of being old. Most of would-be partners, certainly among major companies, shied from discussion where silent revivals were floated.

Gone Were Days When There Weren't Enough Seats For Harold Lloyd's Eager Mob

Noted critic James Agee did a LIFE magazine salute to “Comedy’s Greatest Era” in September 1949. Millions read that and wondered what became of the films Agee celebrated. If they were so wonderful as he said, why didn’t anyone show them? Reality-based exhibitors pointed up difference between appreciation in print, and starker prospect of theatres empty should anyone in 1949 try putting silent movies back on paying basis. One who tried and succeeded was Charlie Chaplin with 1950 revive of City Lights, his partial ownership of United Artists greasing wheels of distribution. City Lights was less of a risk because Chaplin had thrived before with a 1942 encore of The Gold Rush. Domestic rentals of $507K for City Lights proved that at least this silent comedy could still earn money, but otherwise did not promise others could do as well. Harold Lloyd had common ground with Chaplin for both owning their back libraries. Unlike Buster Keaton, who did not, a deal to revive Lloyd films could be easy-enough brokered, so long as terms were satisfactory to HL. Certainly he wanted a comeback for the oldies, maybe even for his glasses character to return in new comedies, an idea proposed more than once as trades noted Lloyd progress from the late 40’s, through the 50’s, and even into the mid-60’s.

Distributor Pathe Ran This Trade Ad During Flush Days of the 20's
Trades were generous in keeping up with old-timers and reporting efforts they made toward renewed activity. Most of such came to nothing, deals announced, then evaporated by a hot sun of changed markets. Harold Lloyd didn’t need income, saved wealth from flush times more than enough to keep him in cakes/ale. For Lloyd, the old comedies were assets that should be exploited, provided he could renew public interest in them. Toward that, there was still the Lloyd name, plus ideas of how best to update the Harold brand. 1948 contact with Texas circuit owner Rob O’Donnell led to a scheme “that may set the pattern for future sales of reissues to television,” said Lloyd to Variety (10/20/48), starting with a test run of features, refurbished by scores and sound effects. “Lloyd’s purpose in setting the circuit dates is not so much to clean up on the pix via theatre rentals as to increase their value to telecasters.” Lloyd had received “numerous bids … from agencies for tele-advertisers,” but, said Variety, those deals “would be a lot more attractive to Lloyd … with the exploitation value of theatrical bookings behind them.” In order to facilitate this, “the rental terms he is offering the Texas theatre chain are low.” Lloyd figured on a better TV deal if he could come to them fresh off a successful re-run of his comedies before paying audiences. We may assume the plan came to little, since Lloyd’s backlog remained withheld from TV.

Lloyd would go on testing back-product at theatres and college settings, The Freshman and Movie Crazy run on this basis during early months of 1949 (results “proved encouraging,” said trades). The star “will use a new editing technique in preparing films for reissue” (Variety, 2/28/49). Lloyd had negotiated a deal with Neil Agnew, chief of the new Motion Pictures Sales Corp., for “worldwide distribution rights on seven Harold Lloyd films released prior to 1934.” Shunning idle hours, the comic had an “idea for a film,” this delayed for his assuming duties as Grand Potentate for the Shriners in July 1949. This was anyone’s concept of full-time work, but Lloyd could multi-task, so forward he went with Agnew on Movie Crazy for a summer open, balance of the feature group (six) hinged upon B.O. reception to the first. Lloyd was also conferring with Howard Hughes on fresh release for woebegone The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock as new-christened Mad Wednesday, to be handled by RKO now that Hughes was in charge of that shop. Motion Picture Sales Corp. staff meanwhile faced “difficulty … getting bookings” for Movie Crazy, a job made grimmer because “exhibs are afraid (the) Lloyd name is not strong enough to attract a generation which hardly knows him” (Variety, 6/7/49).

A next-day (6/8/49) Variety review blew kisses at Movie Crazy: “packs an amazing wallop, all things considered,” being verdict amidst wordage like “the yok supreme” to describe fun waiting at Broadway’s Globe Theatre. It was “not a whit outside the realm of reason to predict substantial grosses,” Movie Crazy doing “heavy business” after a late-June start, said columnist George E. Phair, this enabling dates at three Los Angeles sites plus the United Artists Theatre in San Francisco. Hopes were high when a first Globe week saw $17,500 in the till, with $14,000 “sighted” for a second frame, Movie Crazy as result holding for a third. Buzz was figured to spur Howard Hughes and RKO to get Mad Wednesday ready for release. Truest test for any reissue, of course, was how it could perform on a wider canvas. The West Coast engagements would tell that tale. Lloyd meanwhile saw prospects brimming. NBC had offered a quarter million to broadcast his backlog, an offer HL turned down flat (2/23/50), him “sympathetic,” but having “too many exhibitor friends to peddle pictures to television” (a later and notable exception: Movie Crazy was included as part of an RKO Teleradio package offered to syndication in 1955 --- this information supplied to Greenbriar by writer/historian Lou Lumenick). There was a $160,000 offer for remake rights in The Freshman that was kicked up to $200K, also “nixed” by Lloyd. Skies seemed the limit in those opener months of 1950 --- might Harold go beyond revive of oldies and make a brand-new comedy?

“At least two new pix” were slated, one to team Lloyd with his son, Harold Jr. That would be a sequel to Grandma’s Boy, one among inventory he continued to test for possible revivals. A “hush-hush” sneak of The Freshman “convinced me that boys and girls of today are exactly the same as those who laughed at my antics 25 years ago,” said Lloyd, who was pleased that “the kids like me.” Action and movement were “still the best cinema recipe for laughs,” his vaults loaded with that. Movie Crazy had sputtered by May 1950 however, pulling “mild” business and being used as support for new product. The Globe success was not duplicated elsewhere in New York. “In that instance, I don’t think the right kind of exploitation was used,” said Lloyd, “I can’t be treated as a personality who is widely known now.” West Coast dates, on the other hand, were handled “just right,” and the film “did very well.” That was past, and now Lloyd was focused on The Freshman for his next reissue, it continuing to test well, and being after all the biggest success he had during 20’s heyday. A Long Island house was picked for yet further experiment, “where the manager was afraid to play it at first because it is a silent film.” Fortunately, said Lloyd, The Freshman went off “beautifully” with help of a piano hauled in to supply background. Brought-round management offered to continue the show for an entire week, said Lloyd.

Part Two of Harold Lloyd and The Freshman is HERE.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this, John. Harold Lloyd was always an astute businessman, and I was intrigued by your mention that he wouldn't sell to TV in 1949 because he had too many exhibitor friends.

Suppose he had sold to TV... he might have gone the same route as Hopalong Cassidy, exploding on the TV scene and rejuvenating his career with a whole new national audience. A new NBC series might even have followed, like NBC had planned for Laurel & Hardy a few years later.

I suspect that Lloyd shied away from television because he would be surrendering a measure of control. He wouldn't have known what projection speed would be employed, what kind of music would be used for accompaniment, and how much editing would be required for rigid time slots. I think he was enough of a realist to know that his pictures would have to be updated somehow, but enough of a perfectionist that he couldn't risk any mishandling of his merchandise.

My hat is off to Neil Agnew's company for promoting MOVIE CRAZY so shrewdly. The full-color lobby cards were actually very clever duotones (printed in the cheaper two-color form), with the two colors blended so carefully that they gave the illusion of full-color illustrations.

1:31 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Did Chaplin films ever really fade out? Chaplin may have been poison in the 50s, but he'd appeared on the big screen within most people's memories -- and not just in Chaplin's own releases. Your "Art of Selling Movies" includes a 1942 ad for a show cobbled out of Mutual shorts. It probably helped that a lot of his early work was out of his control and, if not public domain, almost as available and cheap.

I still remember a 1960s Chaplin show that offered two-reelers tricked out with sound effects, relentless narration, and the same stock music heard on nearly every low-rent show, cartoon or commercial of the era. It was on a local independent station when I saw it. Was it ever a network show, like "Silents Please"? Was it a Robert Youngson production, or somebody aping the style of his theatrical compilations?

Buster Keaton soldiered on everywhere, doing lots of stage, TV and movie work (In "Buster Keaton Rides Again", his wife says he'd "retire", then get upset if he wasn't getting offers). He must have been a recognizable face even in the 50s-60s; much more than Lloyd certainly. But I suspect that public knew Keaton exclusively as the straight-faced old man who did physical comedy, his silent stardom always being mentioned but his classics being as hard fto see as Lloyd's.

9:59 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

One aspect of Harold Lloyd that nobody ever discusses or mentions is about the distribution of his films outside the United States. In Argentina and Brazil they basically arrived more or less on time, with only a few months of delay, although (based on the available online newspapers and magazines from Brazil that nobody reading this have ever seen) there seem that there was a gap of releases between 1924 (when SAFETY LAST was released) and 1926 (when GIRL SHY was released).

This gap is probably the reason why Lloyd switched distribution from Pathé to Paramount. In Europe, this gap was actually bigger that in Latin America. SAFETY LAST was not released in Spain until 1927... and it was distributed by Paramount. In fact, all of his Roach features were not released in Spain until 1926 and, as I said before, all of them were Paramount releases, not Pathé. And I have ads to show this.

In other territories it seems that there was also that was resolved in 1926.

Here are Paramount ads for THE FRESHMAN, from different countries.

2:25 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

"The Charlie Chaplin Comedy Theatre" was a series of half-hours produced in 1965 by Vernon P. Becker for television syndication. A good many of Chaplin's Keystones, most of the Essanays, and all of the Mutuals were included in the series. The stock music was licensed from Thomas J. Valentino, a specialist in canned music for TV shows and commercials. There was indeed lots of narration, some of it being of historical interest and putting the films into context. Unfortunately, much of it was redundant with the visual action. in THE ADVENTURER, as Chaplin spills some ice cream that runs down his leg, the narrator explains, "Charlie loses his ice cream -- down his pants." Silent movies for the blind! (Becker also prepared alternate versions without the narration, with the international market in mind; American stations could have their choice of soundtracks.)

Producer Becker made two feature films: THE FUNNIEST MAN IN THE WORLD (Chaplin clips, narrated by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) and THE GREAT STONE FACE (Buster Keaton clips, narrated by Henry Morgan).

8:35 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Wonderful post! Can't wait until part two! An item that always got my curiosity going was the story behind FEET FIRST, the one Lloyd controlled feature that apparently was released to television during his lifetime. That 50's-60's(?) re-edited re-issue version (clipping off the cute opening gag!) used to pop up on cable from time to time. Anyone know what that was all about?

8:51 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

For years, the only Lloyd film that seemed to turn up on tv in my neck of the woods was PROFESSOR BEWARE, probably owing to its status as a Paramount-controlled release, as opposed to a Lloyd-owned production.

5:50 PM  

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