NitrateVille Interviews John McElwee, Author of Showmen, Sell It Hot!
There are lots of old movie blogs, but one of the few I follow religiously is John McElwee's Greenbriar Picture Shows. McElwee's approach is to keep his writing on old movies practical in two directions— he only writes about movies that have recently had a new edition of some kind come out (and writes about how they look today), but he looks at them in terms of their original release and how they were marketed and how audiences responded. By focusing on the exhibition history of these movies, he brings back the reality of how they were made and received in their own times— illustrated with large numbers of rare original images from his collection of stills, ad campaigns, showbiz periodicals, promotional materials and more. (A few examples will appear here.)
His focus on the exhibition side of the great movie equation has now resulted in his oversized, handsomely illustrated book Showmen, Sell It Hot!, a fascinating look inside the world of exhibition, ballyhoo and audience response from the silent era to the 1960s. Part of what's great about it is that, as a resident of North Carolina since childhood-moviegoing days (at his local Liberty Theater in North Wilkesboro), McElwee brings back the days of the regional showman, who knew his audience better than Hollywood and sometimes made hits despite the studio in his own part of the world, an approach to the movie biz which ended in the 1970s, to be replaced by the era of the TV-saturating national ad campaign.
I'll talk to John about his new book in two parts, moving chronologically through the years as the book does. (Fittingly given our proximity to Halloween, how horror films were marketed is a recurrent theme, John being of what we might call the Famous Monsters generation.) Here's part one; part two will follow in a few days, and he'll also be happy to answer questions in the thread from NitrateVillains. To buy the book at Amazon, go here.
You provide the ballyhoo, Orson Welles will provide the Kane.
So why is exhibition the emphasis for you? Of course box office success or failure affects what got made, but at some point... does it matter how Citizen Kane did? Doesn't it exist by itself as a work of art after so many years?
Exhibition in general has been addressed in a number of books, so I'm far from a first to venture there. I like the topic, however, because it hasn't been explored so much with regard to specific films. It matters to me how Citizen Kane was received, sold, revived, etc., even as I realize that for most people, the film does "exist by itself as a work of art," as you put it. After seventy years of others writing perceptively on Citizen Kane as said work of art, it wasn't likely I'd lay fresh meat at that table, so why not explore an aspect less pounded to burger? --- namely Kane's exhibition saga and the afterlife of Welles' "work of art." What interests me as much as exhibition in terms of first-run is tracking revered movies through an afterlife of reissues, non-theatrical, television, and home formats that include 16mm collecting, video cassette, and lately DVD/Blu-Ray.
What was a typical week's worth of programming for these exhibitors, and how did they approach individually promoting so many movies?
For most exhibitors changing three or more a week, there wasn't time or financial resource to promote individual movies to their fullest potential. Pressbooks were almost cruel in proposing lavish ballyhoo to showmen who could barely afford film rental and keeping lights on. Unless it was a really special attraction, many houses were content to run modest ads, put up a one-sheet, and hope to break-even. Movies tended to come and go in a hurry. Anything you wanted to see during a product-heavy Studio Era had to be caught on the fly. In small towns especially, one could wink and a show was gone. My hometown's Liberty Theatre, which I refer to often and utilize as a kind of template at Greenbriar Picture Shows, often ran must-see titles on a "Late Show Only" basis, which meant The Last Man On Earth, Invaders From Mars (a 1965 booking), and The Unearthly Stranger, to name three I missed, unspooled but once, and then were put on a truck for Charlotte the next day.
Hardly seems worth the shipping cost to get it from one theater to the next! I know that within a city, you had big houses for premieres, you had neighborhood houses which got things a few weeks later, you had little theaters that specialized in westerns or whatever. Were there also regional differences across the country in what played well and got promoted where?
The larger city theatres were dominated by the "Big Five" cartel of Paramount, Fox, MGM, Warners, and RKO, each of whom owned first-run houses in desired locations. Then there were large circuits allied with these companies and thus able to access the most promising releases. Independent venues block-booked with the majors as well. Beyond urban areas, there was much variation on what played best and was promoted most. Regions were targeted for openings and became test areas for many films that became hits and even classics. Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch were examples of this. A certain territory might take a movie to its bosom and run the thing for decades past shelf-life elsewhere. Thunder Road played North Carolina theatres into the mid-seventies, years after United Artists had sold it to television. So too did oldies Stars In My Crown, I'd Climb The Highest Mountain, Tobacco Road, Jesse James, and others that were seemingly customized for appeal to our mostly rural patronage.
Educating the nation about the Carioca.
I had never thought of Flying Down To Rio as a particularly pivotal film of the 1930s, but I thought you made a really good argument for how alien, in an aspirational way, that kind of Art Deco fantasy and in particular a figure like Fred Astaire must have been for a still relatively poor, rural, unsophisticated country in 1933.
A lot of what Hollywood released in the early 30's had to seem foreign to parts of the country not so far removed from frontier roots, but that very difference may have increased interest and curiosity over Fred Astaire and Flying Down To Rio, for instance, assuming a local showman could get out word within the short time his venue had the show. An exhibitor I knew, Garland Morrison, got his early start in the business passing out heralds for Flying Down To Rio among rural folk, many of whom had never seen an airplane or heard of Rio. Going afoot with his advertising, Garland met customers for Elkin, N.C.'s Amuzu Theatre on home ground of cow pastures and chicken houses. This wasn't Broadway, and the Amuzu wasn't Radio City Music Hall, where Flying Down To Rio had its opening, but Elkin's money folded good as any, even if there was less of it, and Rio was months late flying down to North Carolina.
Reading about the Frankenstein and Dracula reissues in 1938, I realized you could really make a case that our whole geek culture traces back to one theater owner who made hits out of them, thus kicking off horror as an essential genre for kids, which led to the monster toy and makeup craze of the 50s and 60s and the fact that horror and fantasy have been so central to pop culture ever since. How did that come about?
Frankenstein and Dracula were bound to be paired. I'm actually surprised it didn't happen before 1938. The so-called "geek culture" that sprang up among young people was stimulated, I think, by spook shows that enabled rowdy kids to participate by way of cat-calling response to would-be frighteners on stage. Spook shows could also be a lot more explicit than anything presented on screens. Monster movies would be plainer sold in the 40's as "all-in-fun," which made the serious chillers from Val Lewton really stand out, part of why those RKO films, at least initial ones, did so well critically. What really got monster fads going, I think, was a postwar market flooded with Realart reissues of the Universal horrors. These rented cheap, played often in pairs, or even as triple bill/all-night drive-in programs, and that's how a lot of children and teens discovered them prior to television release beginning in 1957. This, of course, was what touched off the explosion in popularity for classic monsters, for here was a first opportunity to see all the originals, plus sequels, spread across weekly tube schedules. It was syndicated TV's equivalent to taking online Master's courses, with toys, models, and magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland as accompanying text.
The whole monster movie craze goes back to this package of Universal reissues. History would be very different if 8-year-olds had gone crazy for Lady Tubbs.
One thing about the reissues in the late 30s, which went from horror to silent reissues and so on— they also kind of mainstreamed the idea that we might occasionally prefer to see the best of the past over what was playing now. Which I think was also kind of a sign that audiences found the late 30s a bit boring compared to the first half of the decade. I mean, take out Capra and Errol Flynn and personally I have a hard time thinking of many late 30s movies that I have real love for, compared to the pre-Code era and just after.
There had been reissues throughout the 30's, 1938 being trade-recognized as a banner year for them. I don't know if audiences found late 30's films "a bit boring" compared with earlier releases. Guess that would depend on the age of an individual viewer, and how she/he remembered moviegoing experiences. Certainly there were movies that stayed long in the consciousness of those who'd seen them first-run, and many would be requested in later years. Older titles were often unavailable, however, to showmen who asked for them. Enough demand might result in a reissue, as was case with King Kong, A Farewell To Arms, and others that were revived in 1938, the only letdown being cuts demanded by a strict-enforcing Production Code.
to be continued...
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