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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Trek Through Ad-Man Jungle


Director Jack Conway Poses With The Star Cast

The Hucksters (1947) Gives Radio a Close Shave

Whatever its merit for drama or romance, The Hucksters opens a door to workaday 1947 among advertising agents, radio folk, and Hollywood reps. Diluted from harder-hitting Frederic Wakeman novel, anyone then or now knew an industry under Code edict had to hide Easter eggs where it could. To attack ad agencies would be seen by some as an assault upon America itself, a drilling into capitalist foundations, sale of goods widely viewed as a way back from war and highest hope for reclaim of normalcy. New forming families had lots to consume, advertisers a needed guide toward that. Plus people were fascinated by in-outs of salesmanship, an occupation almost as glamorous as being in movies. The Hucksters too had been a “hot” novel. Would they dare adapt it as written? Everyone knew not, but there was fun in imagining.

Conway Reviews the Script with Gable and Deborah Kerr

Clark Gable could not (some say would not) play a heel and adulterer as Wakeman-penned. Again --- unreasonable to expect he would. This was Gable back from service and staying true to his uniform, image never so critical as now. There is first-reel reminder of maleness --- hugs with old ladies who want but can't have him (Connie Gilchrist), and kootchy phone chat with last night's date. All this was required but not in sync with a war-wearied Gable who should be up to more serious pursuit. We’re to understand his descent into ad-manning goes against Gable grain, a best of The Hucksters being his fight for integrity amidst a corrupt trade. Gable had been there and done this, Wife vs. Secretary of 1936 differing because in that instance, it was his ad agency, one that would reflect standards we expect of go-getting, but always fair play “Clark Gable.” Here he is tied to salaries and bonuses, other men as boss, an untenable state for the lone achiever we want Gable to be. Expectation for stars, particularly ones returned from real-life struggle as was his (bombing missions) meant formula had to be righter applied than ever, missteps a risk as many of these personalities, having lost three-four years off career momentum, had fragile paths to walk.

The Hucksters
wasn't appreciated in 1947 for things that make it fascinating now. As document, if sanitized, of what went on in post-war agency corridors, it is peerless. Deals close on the Super Chief in club cars a public then took for granted. Such settings are for us like Disneyland, a romantic mode of travel long gone. Night clubs and penthouse apartments are dwelt in as if we'd always have them. People wear more attractive clothes than what hangs off us now, a given in 40's-set film. Gable is another of eternal optimists who will use his last dollar to buy a tie, and yes, this was believable in 1947 thanks to plentiful jobs for men who merchandised, Madison Avenue’s a solid grip over decades to come. The Hucksters takes off on radio, surprising in view of MGM history of bedding with wireless. Programs and especially ads we hear are inane to a point of nausea, Gable’s reaction when hearing them a mirror for anyone with passable sense. He does everything but a Babe Hardy camera-look to show disgust with what listeners presumably coped with every night at home. Was this Metro bid for us to shut off radio and get back into theatre seats where quality was a given? Could be, but critics were carping that movies had slipped since before the war. Coming dips in boxoffice revenue would seem to bear them out. Intriguing too is no Hucksters mention of television, popularly around the corner by mere months. The industry knew, had known, the looming threat this posed, a threat perhaps better ignored.

Publicity Stills Were Often Done in Gable's Private Dressing Room, As Here and In Several Below

Inside-advertising is ripest fruit of The Hucksters. When Gable adjourns to romance Deborah Kerr or Ava Gardner, pace falters but bad. Who'd have thought his love stuff would become so tiring, yet here it was. Kerr was a Brit import, having done better things over there, The Hucksters a splash intro worth the trip and submission to Metro handling that made her a seeming younger sister to Greer Garson, latter soon to fade (Kerr, Rhymes With Star!, said publicists). Like Garson, Kerr was uneasy fit for Gable, to whom Ava Gardner acquitted better. Kerr was called "prissy" beside the King, and yes, she seems so. There is quarreling, and much eaten footage, over his apparent booking of connected rooms at an inn they visit. She is morally outraged on behalf of Code precepts any Gable character would have laughed at (or ignored) in freewheel days past, the issue a non-issue as audiences were increasingly aware. Alert eyes saw industry decline a Hucksters forecast via such a dated and unwelcome device. It is boardrooms where the film lights up, known un-trustworthies Adolphe Menjou and Edward Arnold lending spice to watered soup. These two had been double-dealing long enough for us to at least hope they will do so here, and if that doesn't altogether jell, their presence is comfort at least. Gable and Menjou were friends, Menjou’s later memoir, It Took Nine Tailors, boasting an intro by Gable. They are relaxed and congenial in scenes played opposite one another.

Back Caption Says Gable is Gifting Gardner With a Tin of Candy. Wonder What Flavor.

Greenstreet and Conway Prep For a Next Scene

Nasties retained from Wakeman's book are embodied in Sydney Greenstreet's despotic sponsor boss. From an intro where he spits on a table top, there is no question of cast seniority. The Hucksters needs Greenstreet for the rest of participants draining its swamp with PCA-forced decency. He's in for three or so segments, all of them key. When Greenstreet enters, it is like Gorgo loose on London, him destructive to the cast, but a gift to viewers. Business of developing a comedy skein for radio looks authentic, Gable's ad man and last minute hired writers punching out a pilot script in a smoke-filled cabana. Was radio so lousy as presented here? MGM said it was "all in fun," but what's depicted is done with stilettos, a seeming chuck of whatever relationship they had with broadcasters for the sake of putting it to them now, but this came of the source novel, they'd argue, so if radio-knocks were blunted, why make The Hucksters at all? A novel that sold this well was going to be adapted for pictures, sure as snow. If Metro did not do it with The Hucksters, someone else would, best-sellers understood to be a closest thing to a sure thing studios had left. Lines where drawn were generally over cost or otherwise onerous terms. Gable wanted very much for MGM to acquire The Fountainhead for him. They didn’t, and he stewed (the more so when career-long rival Gary Cooper got the lead at Warners).

The Hucksters Settled Into a Long Chicago Run

For a picture that skewered advertising, The Hucksters held many a cross-promotional hand. There was "no limit," said merchandisers, to tie-in with every product imaginable. The mid-forties was a peak of pic mention in ads for candies, whiskey, fountain pens, any product to profit from push. Stars weren't shy to endorse these, as every back was scratched and product endorsement was nice adjunct to what studios paid (if employers took the fees, at least players could have a fresh set of tires or lifetime cartons of Chesterfield). Concrete proof of strides Madison Avenue made would reflect in marketing for The Hucksters. Wakeman's novel got a reprint --- it had topped Best Seller lists for half a year and was still "whispered about" in book club circles. The movie was a hit, even against inflated cost of postwar producing. So too did Adventure thrive, Gable's first out of uniform. His tumble as claimed by writers was a matter of degree of gain for employers, not absence of it. Of those Gable-done at Metro after WWII, only Command Decision (very expensive to make) and Never Let Me Go lost money.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I began doing my film programs in Toronto in the mid-1960s people who worked in advertising told me I should not use copy in my ads as people would not read it. I felt most people knew nothing about the films I was offering. I used copy to tell them what about the film interested myself and why the pictures mattered. Twenty years later I saw a bundle of books by the side of the road. I leafed through them. I found a few I wanted to read. One was titled THE CONFESSIONS OF AN ADVERTISING MAN. It was by David Ogilvy. In it Ogilvy wrote, "Yes, if you use copy fewer people will read your ad however THE PEOPLE INTERESTED IN YOUR PRODUCT WILL READ IT." Ogilvy was a big booster of copy.

I also felt the audience would appreciate a spoken word introduction to the films I was showing. Film buffs said to me on the street, "We would come to your programs if only you would not speak before them."

Others, a very great many others, said to me on the street, "I come to your programs BECAUSE you introduce them."

My point here is not to celebrate myself but simply to point out that the best people to ignore are the buffs. There aren't enough of them to make chasing after them worthwhile. Most are as dull as yesterday's dishwater.

Because I chose to work without funding (and had no money of my own) I had to interest people in my work. I did and do that by telling them why the work interests me.

For example, Bela Lugosi is the star of DRACULA, yes. He also was the actor paid the least among the principals. Some of the others, David Manners for example, were paid way more than Lugosi was. They thought him eccentric on the set. Bela, however, delivers a performance that simply blows all of them out of the water.

Sometimes I would show an important film that people might have difficulty with. I would watch most of the audience leave half way through. I found that by telling them in advance they might not like the picture 100% of my audience not only stayed through to the end, they thanked me after.

Advertising, really effective advertising is not about hucksterism. It is about teaching. Ogilvy always looked for something substantial he could write about in his ads that would have interest and meaning for consumers. When he was asked to design ads for gasoline he asked what gasoline is made from. He was told, "All gasoline is made the same."

Ogilvy replied, "The public does not know that."

10:18 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

John! I never thought I'd see Gorgo in the same sentence with Sydney Greenstreet!

Here's the "Warner cartoon" take on THE HUCKSTERS, skewering radio for seven minutes:

1:43 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

A rant:

Back in boomer days it seemed like ad men were disproportionately represented in movies and television. I suspect a lot of it was writers coming out of advertising and electing to write what they knew rather than research other occupations. Also, it was lazy writing. Characters could pitch jokes and do gags on the excuse they're creating advertising, and not have to grow it out of stories or characters.

I worked in a newspaper PR office starting in 1980. We were the non-glamorous fringe of what was still a glamorous field, doing print, radio and occasionally television advertising on usually minimal budget. When there WAS budget, the company used a big outside agency of the sort celebrated on "Mad Men". I remember blowing up when a supervisor showed me one of the outside agency's pitches -- a big, slick billboard that said absolutely nothing except We Hired a Hip Agency -- and expected me to be impressed. It wasn't even that hip. I had a strong suspicion the agency was showing my bosses flashy specs created for unrelated clients, hoping we'd pay to run them so they could enter them for industry awards.

We in-house people had to produce the ads that actually sold things, generated traffic, and produced measurable results. The guys doing Super Bowl spots and getting profiled in Advertising Age often seemed to be working just to impress other insiders, and getting huge money to do so. It wasn't the public that was being hustled -- it was the clients. Did anybody buy a beer because that million-dollar special-effects-laden commercial ended with that logo?

The television show "Thirtysomething" addressed this: An advertising heavyweight is overseeing an MTV-type commercial shoot with sexy dancers surrounding a copy machine. He tells two visiting admen -- the show's stars -- that trade magazine ads will produce the sales results the client wants all by themselves, but this commercial will impress the client's golf buddies and generate business for the ad agency.

Advertising is, scarily, becoming the exact science it always pretended to be. Marketers have the ability to target precise demographics, and can often push our buttons to frightening effect. And they're nearly invisible, even though they're more powerful than the Hucksters ever were.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I tried watching "The Hucksters" about a year ago, and bailed after about 20 or 25 minutes. I think I was expecting something along the lines of "Patterns" or "Executive Suite".

As for Reg Hartt's intros: If I've DVR'd a movie on TCM and it has an intro, my wife always wants to see it. A good intro really does get people in the mood.

Scott: I don't know if it's true, but I read somewhere that "The Ducksters" was banned from TV for years.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Note for DBenson. Ogilvy stated repeatedly that ads that win awards are not the ads that sell.

Reading James Michener's novel Texas in the 1970s I learned that the bulls that win awards would break their backs if called upon to do the work of a bull.

Been leery of awards ever since.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I'm a fan of this picture, if only for Greenstreet's admirable grossness.

That said, where it falls apart for me is Gable's character dropping Gardner for Kerr/ Who in their right mind does that?

2:21 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I've seen thousands of people and animals be wounded, tortured, and "killed" on TV and in the movies. Yet few things disgusted me as much as Greenstreet hawking a big gleaming oyster onto the table. People are funny, no?

10:00 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

I skip Ben M's intros on TCM. He reveals too much of the plot, bordering on spoilers plus he's a little too snarky. But sometimes I do watch the intros after watching the movie. He does dole out some interesting historical facts once in a while.

10:24 AM  

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