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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

1957's Sharpest Knife In The Drawer


It's 12 Angry Men, But Let's Call It Twelve

I’ve got a sock new ending for Twelve Angry Men that re-makers may feel free to use. The jurors are coming down the courthouse steps, having done the right and conscience-salving thing, then all of a sudden the sweet-faced kid they acquitted comes skipping behind them to announce, “Hey you chumps, thanks for turning me loose --- and by the way, I killed that old man and glad as hell I did!” Now that would turn the makers’ righteous intent on its head, righteous being right/proper label for much of what was grafted off anthology TV for movies wanting to swing a progressive 50’s stick. Crowds who got fun out of a precode era knew the court system was for most part a rigged parlay, juries there to be fixed or listened in on. The Code would sap joy in myriad and subtle ways. A Lawyer Man or The Mouthpiece could not have been made in 1957, nor anything so defaming our system of justice, mockery the better term perhaps for what fun films once had with this sort of content. Had Hollywood completely lost a sense of humor by the 50’s? Twelve Angry Men was not of west coast origin, but born/bred of New York sensibility and independent filming. The story had been written (by Reginald Rose) and performed for live television in 1954. Critics fell over selves to tell how enlightened it was. For stone-age TV, Twelve Angry Men was the goods, proving tubes could be more than mere place for Milton Berle to cavort. We’re blessed to have Kinescope evidence of Twelve Angry Men done live for 9/20/54 home-sitters, it being an extra on Criterion’s Blu-Ray along with the feature film.




The vid version has Robert Cummings in the Fonda role, Franchot Tone in for Lee J. Cobb, Edward Arnold taking the Ed Begley part. We could debate who was better or more appropriate for respective roles, or maybe it’s well enough to note that Cummings by 1957 would not have been trusted, in terms of boxoffice, with a drama slot like this, however good he was for the broadcast. A lot of wonderful players lost movie bids this way. Studios casted less on ability than name value. What bank would have floated loans to make Twelve Angry Men for theatres with Robert Cummings and Franchot Tone as leads? And yet they did for Henry Fonda, him no sure bet for headlining but three features so far in the 50’s. Was Fonda star enough to pull Twelve Angry Men into profit? Humphrey Bogart, who had worked with Fonda in a 1955 TV adapt of The Petrified Forest, put it bluntly that, no, he was not. An interview with writer Tad Mosel for the Television Academy Foundation quoted Bogart on the Forest set as he addressed himself re Fonda (as in, saying it directly to Fonda): “There are no really big stars left in the world. When I say stars, I mean a name that you say at the loneliest crossroad in the world, and they’ll know who it is. There’s Gable and there’s me. Hank here, he’s no star.” Mosel referred to this as “loving needling,” but it sounds pretty tactless to me, however accurate Bogart's observation was.


United Artists Applies a Sharp Knife Edge to Promotion For The L.A. Fox Wilshire Open


For many, it would be a movie-as-TV experience, this no grim prospect, as hadn’t Dragnet been a smash? (yes), and didn’t Marty ring bells way beyond a modest cost? Success of Marty for United Artists was probably what got them behind Twelve Angry Men, plus Henry Fonda and Reginald Rose willingness to defer salaries. Fonda and Rose had been on the project from late 1955, Twelve Angry Men among three scripts the actor was developing (Variety, 1/5/56). Orion-Nova was the independent shingle Fonda and Rose hung over Twelve Angry Men, set for NY filming in June, 1956. New York had not been such a hotbed for filmmaking since silent days. Variety meanwhile noted “the rush to picturize TV properties, none of which looks like the boxoffice success that Marty proved.” Were trades already putting the Indian sign on Twelve Angry Men and others from TV? Early switch of the title (6/56) went from Twelve Angry Men to 12 Angry Men; was the numeral figured to lend more impact, or, trades asked, was it effort to avoid confusion with two-years-previous Seven Angry Men? Hollywood claimed that picture-making ran smoother amidst their clime than Gotham’s, but Angry production supervisor George Justin said no, “it is cheaper to film pictures in Manhattan than on the coast.” H’wood now faced two opponents, it seemed, Euro location and NY lensing, both burs in union saddles particularly.




Variety’s 2/27/57 review of Twelve Angry Men admitted this was a “small” picture, from which “good, if not socko returns should result.” Debate arose over how best to showcase Twelve Angry Men. Fonda felt it should start in art houses and have opportunity to build. UA saw things different and opened at the Capitol on Broadway, a spot antithetical to all things art, seating 5230. Fonda’s “as told to” book in 1981 recalled Twelve Angry Men lasting but a week at the Capitol (not so) and said only a first four or five rows were filled. UA, however, was for plenty of seats in L.A. as well, 1900 at the Fox Wilshire, where Twelve Angry Men had “a slow $7,000” for its first week. Similar product from UA, The Bachelor Party, was at the same time running at a more congenial L.A. address, the Fine Arts, and did better as result. Expecting “wheelbarrows” of cash at ticket windows, UA stuck with large venues despite Fonda misgivings. As the distributor had supplied financing, according to Fonda in memoirs, it was their call to make, strategy being to follow NY-LA dates with 44 key openings around the country (Motion Picture Daily). The star canvassed all points to promote, something he shrank from on former occasions as actor-for-hire. Now he had a personal stake, and so played ball. Returns varied, Men “rugged” (as in good) at Omaha, stellar in Boston, but “dull” in Chicago. Both coast runs were branded disappointments, maybe due to big barn opens, as Fonda predicted (“close to fair” at the Capitol for a first week, as faint praise as Variety could devise). Funny thing though, Twelve Angry Men picked up for the Capitol’s second frame, so word-of-mouth must have been good. Reception was overall spotty, however, according to Variety’s 5/1/57 tally for the Easter month, Twelve Angry Men “having some difficulty in getting started.”


Again The Knife Art For Purpose of First-Run Exploitation


It seemed Twelve Angry Men was a two-edged sword, or “switch-knife,” a prop emphasized in UA selling. Overheard by Variety (5/1/57) was this exchange between moviegoers: “There’s a good movie at the Capitol, 12 Angry Men,” said one, to which response, “I don’t want to see that. I remember seeing it on television.” Receipts at the Capitol had sagged to a “dull” $13K for a third and last frame, Twelve Angry Men ceding to Metro’s The Little Hut. Army Archerd waggishly suggested a double feature of 12 Angry Men and Three Violent Men: “Better keep an ambulance at the door.” By Fall of 1957, Twelve Angry Men was being sub-run as a combo with The Bachelor Party, both awash with awards from oversea fests as well as multiple placement on Ten Best lists, Twelve Angry Men lauded as “The Film Best Serving The National Interest” by at least one presenter. Such plaudits were well and good, but UA had to spike punch to fill paying seats, and this meant selling Twelve Angry Men on excitement basis, a threat of violence there, if not actually depicted on screen. The switch-knife as crucial to narrative became more so for merchandising the film, an enlarged image of the weapon used in most of promotional art. “Angry” words in copy also played a part: “Life In Their Hands, Death On Their Minds” --- “No Motion Picture Ever Stabbed So Deep” --- “It Explodes Like Twelve Sticks Of Dynamite.”


Ads Trumpet Twelve Angry Men Arrival To Los Angeles Television


Few films from 1957 are so revered as Twelve Angry Men. There was, oddly, not a network run, the film going into first-run syndication as part of UA’s “A-OK Package,” announced to TV in June, 1961, and sold afterward to “over 39 markets.” Much of 28 titles in the group were along horror/sci-fi cheapie lines, plus Paths Of Glory for prestige company. So was Twelve Angry Men a commercial bust as most writers since 1957 contend? Answer is an emphatic No --- it did fine. In fact, better than fine, thanks to costs kept way down on the negative. Twelve Angry Men was made for $358,000. Domestic rentals were $1,342,244.88. Foreign took an even better $2,273,920.04. Total worldwide rentals were $3,616,164.92. There were 14,744 domestic bookings, 26,469 foreign bookings. As of 2/24/90, Twelve Angry Men had earned $3.849 million in profit. This then, was a considerable hit. Henry Fonda’s view would persist, however; he'd call Twelve Angry Men a “failure” in his 1981 book. Had this producing partner been misled by UA bookkeepers? It would not be the first time a star was so ill-used. Actor/producers had to smarten up quick to play a numbers game. Maybe that’s a reason Fonda pledged never to produce another movie after Twelve Angry Men. 

11 Comments:

Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

Sidney Lumet's staging is a masterclass in composing shots. I wonder if he was influenced by Hitchcock's Rope, as there is a similarity in moving the camera from one strong composition to another.

9:09 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff considers Bogart's remark to Henry Fonda during THE PETRIFIED FOREST:

Dear John:

Assuming that Tad Mosel's recounting of Bogart's 1955 comments about Henry Fonda is accurate -- and lacking any other context for the actor's remarks -- I want to say that I sort of understand what he's saying. And I don't necessarily see any malice in his observations.

Remember, Fonda returned to the screen in '55 in MISTER ROBERTS after a seven year absence. Seven years. It's possible that some of the '30s pictures that Fonda had made for Wanger had seen some exposure on TV by that time, and a few of his movies (FORT APACHE, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, GRAPES) had received some theatrical reissue play, but for seven years the actor had mostly been out of sight and even out of mind to film audiences. Yes, he had a major (even gigantic) Broadway success in "Mister Roberts," and widely toured in the show, but that's just not the same thing as movie stardom. By contrast, Bogart, always a hard-working performer and very conscious of maintaining his stature in the industry, starred in thirteen films in those years (including three films in both 1951 and 1954). He was still a draw; a top, beloved star who could lure adults away from their television sets and back into theatres.

Fonda was not nearly at any similar level after being away from the game for so long. Warners, Leland Hayward and Joshua Logan even briefly contemplated casting somebody else as Roberts in the '55 film adaptation. [Fonda was probably too old by then to play the part, but he is wonderful in the uneven movie; that said, years later, longtime Fonda pal Logan reportedly would still daydream occasionally about what Brando might have done with the role onscreen). It could also be argued that Fonda, despite his great talent, didn't make enough outstanding pictures in the '30s and '40s (though he was always excellent, even in something like THE MAGNIFICENT DOPE). Lack of quality, challenging roles and dissatisfaction with the movie business led the actor to return to the stage in the late '40s.

The plentiful availability of vintage great movies in our culture is a great boon. Even before the advent of home video, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, THE MALE ANIMAL, THE LADY EVE would frequently air on television, reminding us of Fonda's immense talent. But these were mostly sitting in the vaults when Bogart spoke to Tad Mosel. Many might remember Fonda with affection and admiration, but it had indeed been a long time since a sizable movie audience had seen him on the screen.

Regards,
-- Griff

2:29 PM  
Blogger Glenn Erickson said...

"A Lawyer Man or The Mouthpiece could not have been made in 1957". Well, THE MOUTHPIECE was made in 1955, as ILLEGAL. And Joshua Logan's daydream about Brando doesn't impress, as I imagine he daydreamed about Brando reflexively.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

To Glenn Erickson's point, there's also Nicholas Ray's Party Girl (1958), in which Robert Taylor plays Al Capone-alike Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb)'s mouthpiece, Thomas Farrell. Thomas Farrell, like Billy Flynn (Roxie Hart/Chicago), is pretty clearly meant to suggest William Fallon, attorney for Arnold Rothstein in the Black Sox scandal and the one who gave the name "mouthpiece" to mob lawyers. But as you say, it's the 50s, so Farrell is more victim of the gangster than his cleverer accessory.

1:34 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Some thoughts from Dan Mercer:


Yes, that would have been a startling denouement, if the kid who was the epitome of the deprived and downtrodden should traipse down the court house steps chortling over having gotten over on the system. Henry Fonda would probably have felt as though he was back at RKO Radio Pictures in some comedy programmer, quizzically tilting Jack Warden’s hat back on his head and putting his hands on his hips as a comic trombone on the sound track went bwa-bwa-bwap.

What I dislike about “12 Angry Men” is the way it presents its perspective as being the only one aligned with truth, justice, and the American way, or that a person could be opposed to it only if he was stupid, indifferent, or consumed by irrational prejudices. Fonda is obviously dealing from a packed deck here. Betting against him would be like betting against the house.

It is the same failing I find in “Inherit the Wind,” which was inspired in part by the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. The Henry Drummond character played by Spencer Tracy, based on that of the defense attorney at the trial, Clarence Darrow, represents science, reason, and the enlightened attitudes of the intelligentsia, while that of the character played by Fredric March, Matthew Harrison Brady, based on William Jennings Bryan, is the expression of bigotry and reaction and the representative of fools and knaves. Tracy is quite good, as usual, and provides the subtle touches and little pauses that suggest a thoughtful, mature man. March is all sound and fury, the comic caricature of a man who could not possibly have had a popular following at any time, even this one, except perhaps on the vaudeville stage.

That Drummond would destroy Brady, when Brady took the stand to defend Biblical precepts, is as foregone a conclusion as one that a balloon will pop when pricked with a needle. That there was more to it in reality might be found in the informal agreement Darrow and Bryan struck, that Darrow could examine Bryan regarding the Biblical story, and then Bryan would return the favor, examining Darrow on the stand as to the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution. One needs to know only a little about that theory to understand that Darrow would have been as embarrassed at Bryan’s hands as Bryan had been at his. Bryan was not, after all, a stupid man. That is probably why, in the actual case, unlike the one in the film, Darrow declined to take the stand and immediately entered a plea of guilty for his client. He had a reputation for being a sharp defense attorney but not necessarily a scrupulous one. As for his client, well, Darrow had really been engaged to defend a particular viewpoint and not a small-town teacher who had obviously violated his commission. For this client, he gave good service, whatever became of the teacher.

When I consider the staged fights that “12 Angry Men” and “Inherit the Wind” are, I’m all the more impressed by that master of melodrama, Alfred Hitchcock, who never failed to imbue his villains with their own minds and values, their own courage and daring, making the question of who would prevail in contest with such a man depend upon more than one’s assumed moral superiority.

1:31 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff checks in on the topic of Henry Fonda and TWELVE ANGRY MEN:


John:

I had no clue that 12 ANGRY MEN not only turned a profit, but in fact earned a substantial one. As you note, Fonda's numerous interviews on the subject over the years made it clear that he believed the movie was a succes d'estime, and while he remained proud of the film, he described his experience as a producer as basically discouraging. Looking at your rental figures, and even bearing in mind possible industry creative accounting practices, those profits are impressive for such an inexpensive picture. I wonder, does the Fonda estate still share in "12" revenues? Some of these may continue to be significant. Would Fonda and author Rose, as original producers and profit participants, share any portion of ancillary licensing monies from MGM's 1997 Friedkin-directed cable remake or Mikhalkov's 2007 Russian adaptation (the rather interesting "12") or the Chinese 2015 re-imagining "12 Citizens"? Of course, someone at UA back in the day might have buttoned Fonda and generously offered to buy out his ownership of the perceived flop for a nominal sum. Such things happened.

I don't know what to make of Josh Logan's late-in-life thoughts of Brando as Doug Roberts, but it's the sort of comment, given Logan's lifelong friendship with Fonda, that has stuck in my mind for many years. With the possible exception of Jack Lemmon (who received an incredible career boost from the film, not to mention an Oscar), it seems that almost everyone involved with the troubled-but-commercially-sock 1955 ROBERTS movie regarded it as a sad botch and altogether unfortunate experience. Fonda biographer Devin McKinney quotes the actor as tersely saying, "I despised that film." It is true that Logan badly wanted to direct the ROBERTS film -- he had developed (and co-authored) the play and helmed the Broadway production. It is also known that Brando and William Holden were at one point strong candidates to play the part when Warners worried about Fonda's age.

Regards,
-- Griff

1:35 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

My problem with 12 Angry Men is that you know from the get-go that Fonda HAS to be the good guy, and Cobb the opposite. Now if they had switched roles, then you'd have an interesting movie.

8:00 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The reason Fonda like ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was because he got to play not just the bad guy but also a real over the top 100% monster. Love that film. Never been "fond a" this one.

8:52 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

I really enjoy this film, as you generally can't miss with a courtroom drama. One thing always struck me as odd: jury foreman Martin Balsam is wearing a necktie with a polo shirt!

11:56 AM  
Blogger rcocean said...

Fonda not only was NOT a bankable star in 1955, because he didn't care about being one. He'd married a wealthy woman in 1941, taken off for WW2 in 1942 and raced through his 6 picture commitment to 20th Century Fox 1946-1948, and then stayed off silver screen for six years. If you want to be a "bankable Star" you don't limit yourself to 6 movies in 11 years, including supporting Joan Crawford in "Daisy Kenyon" and co-starring with Jimmy Stewart and 10 other stars in the dismal "On Our Merry way".

11:31 PM  
Blogger rcocean said...

12 Angry men is a great movie, its just that Lee J. Cobb was right.

11:32 PM  

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