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Friday, May 17, 2019

Bring Back Blockbusters ...

What a 1950 Exhibitor Could Request ... and Get

Mutiny Revived for 1957 Dates
The best showmen were not averse to risk. Harry Brandt was such a showman, July-August 1950 being instance of his taking bit in teeth to revive a pair of way-back oldies and triumph with them. Brandt explained himself in “very expensive” ads he ran in the New York Daily News for a double-bill of Mutiny On The Bounty with A Day At The Races, these dated 1935 and 1937, respectively. “When I was planning the best film show anybody could see, I made a list of the ten most spectacular dramatic pictures and the ten funniest comedies,” wrote Brandt in his “double-truck” display (a pair of facing pages in a newspaper or magazine, with content that stretches over two pages). “Here is a show that stacks up with the best films they are making today,” to which Brandt added a money-back guarantee in the unlikely event audience members disagreed with him. Brandt, controlling Broadway’s venerable Globe Theatre, along with numerous other venues, was no stranger to reissues. He had lately seen success with Chaplin’s City Lights, and so knew value of top-tier encores. Getting MGM permit to use two of their past hits was surely a cinch, few exhibs so strongly positioned as Harry Brandt (he was, among other things, president of the Independent Theatre Owners Association).

A 1962 One-Sheet for Races Reissue
Further incentive for Metro was Brandt and the Globe as test lab for what might be a national spread for Bounty/Races. Let him throw dice, spend for promotion (the Motion Picture Herald figured Brandt laid out upwards of $5,000, maybe as much as $8K, for the Daily News splash), then take the fall should his combo crash. Except Harry Brandt did not fail. In fact, he had “a best opening stanza in many weeks,” $25K of “smash” business, according to Variety. The bill opened in July 1950 and stayed for six weeks, “a surprisingly big, long run for oldies,” according to the trade. Receipts for each frame are worth noting: After that first week of $25K came $15K for the second, $12K in a third, $11K the fourth, then, and surprisingly, back up to $12K in the fifth week. Sixth and final frame took $8,500. Credit for this went in large part to the films, naturally, but there too was high energy Brandt poured into promotion. Not only the imaginative ads, but the Globe marquee and front to dazzle passer-bys. MGM distribution was convinced --- they put Mutiny On The Bounty and A Day At The Races out nationwide. If Harry Brandt made a hit of such relics, couldn’t anyone? The answer would be hard reminder that one man’s success at selling might not translate to another.

Half-Sheet, and Below, a 30X40, for Mutiny's 1957 Bring-Back

First obstacle: The combo ran over four hours, both pictures unusually long (Mutiny at 132 minutes, Races 111). This meant fewer programs, less audience turnover per day. Also missing was the kind of handling such product needed, and Brandt knew how to apply. You couldn’t just toss these on the board and expect them to move. Had Harry Brandt traveled with the show and supervised each stop, then flow of gravy might have run from the Globe’s boxoffice to each stop thereafter, but Brandt had neither time or inclination to follow MGM’s caravan, being independent, and very independent-minded. He had conceived the notion, now let them run with it. In this case unfortunately, most of runners stumbled, Variety’s key date evaluations going thus: slim, slow, weak, a best report indicating “better than expected” biz. It took skill to move atypical merchandise, and however popular Mutiny and Races had been, they were still from 30’s stock and had to be sold anew to a fresh generation. The scheme could work, did work, four years later when New York’s Holiday Theatre, managed by Mike Rose, paired Little Caesar with Public Enemy to sensational response. That combo had juice to thrive from coast-to-coast. Here then, was proof that not all such ventures were created equal --- for each Caesar/Enemy sock, or She/Last Days Of Pompeii, a 1949 mop-up reported previous at Greenbriar, there were fizzles like Mutiny On The Bounty and A Day At The Races, which however deserving of wide business, just couldn’t rate it, largely because they didn’t have selling acumen like Harry Brandt’s to see them across a finish line.


Blogger DBenson said...

What strikes me here is that the two films had no real kinship, aside from the nostalgia implicit in "2 of M-G-M's Biggest Hits". I wonder how many patrons came for one film and tolerated the other, or maybe even stayed for just one -- either title was arguably money's worth on its own. Maybe moviegoers in other markets felt that wanting to see just one of the films was like paying for a steak and only eating half.

The revival pairings that prospered more widely offered a full evening in the same key, with both features of the same genre: here gangsters and fanciful spectacle. You've also covered the success of the vintage Frankenstein and Dracula as a double header, and how the Bond films kept coming back as twofers. With moviegoing becoming more an occasion than a habit, revivals had to deliver an Event targeting a specific audience, not just some good flicks.

The surviving revival houses I know of have taken this to heart. Double features are carefully matched, so the people who come for one are almost definitely staying for the other.

3:03 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

You've rarely offered a clearer look at pure showmanship.

8:45 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

That sure is one wacky double-bill. But to paraphrase Sam Goldwyn, include me in!

12:24 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

I wonder if the Marx Bros. received a cut in their re-issues.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Remember Bugs Bunny doing a great impersonation of Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh?

4:38 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer recalls a night in 1973 when Greenbriar in college years presented its own Blockbuster Double Feature:

DBenson makes an excellent point. I remember a showing at my college of "The Black Cat" and "Horse Feathers," put on by a intrepid student exhibitor who'd rented the big auditorium on campus. I'd only just discovered "The Black Cat"--the Edgar Ulmer version, that is--courtesy of this fellow, and had quite fallen in love with it for its style and literate script, the wonderful pastiche of its film score, and the splendid performances of Lugosi and Karloff. The auditorium was almost filled before the lights went down and I recognized members of the football team and their dates in attendance, also some members of a fraternity known from broadening the boundaries of merriment through the use of therapeutic drugs. The first off was "The Black Cat," and I was rather afraid that the audience had really come to see The Marx Brothers and would have little patience with a curious horror film from the early 'thirties. I could not have been more wrong. They were seemingly entranced with the film from its opening moments. When Lugosi reached out on the train trip to touch Jacqueline Wells' hair as she slept, while David Manners looked on, there was not a murmur or any laughter. I knew then that it had them, just as it had captivated me. It was thrilling to realize this. If anything, they seemed to be impatient with "Horse Feathers," not finding it all that funny. Was a college football comedy too close to home for the football players? No, I simply think that neither they nor anyone else in the auditorium wanted the reverie they had been lulled into to be disturbed.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I pair a film I want people to see with a film I know people want to see with only one show time and always with the one I want them to see first. Often people would get upset at first but then after having seen the film they would say thank you. That's how I built audiences.

4:31 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I know I probably related this before, but ...

Back in 1980, when Disney's "The Black Hole" disappointed at the box office, it was paired with a re-release of "Sleeping Beauty" (itself a financial letdown on first release). Special ads heralded the combo as "Two Worlds of Disney Fantasy". A Google search confirms those ads existed and ran. What you'll have to take my word for is that one day the San Francisco Chronicle placed "The Black Hole and Sleeping Beauty" smack amongst the porno movie ads.

12:35 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...


9:31 PM  

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