Columbia Strikes Back

Columbia Strikes Back

The Close Encounters story continues (and another brief hiatus for #1939TheMiracleYear)

When “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind” was set by bid for Tom Moyer’s Westgate theater in Beaverton it was months before it was to open in December of 1977. They offered their largest theater in that complex, and there should have been no problem with opening the film in the normal course of business.

But that exact same house was the exclusive venue for a film that opened in Portland in May – Star Wars (aka Star Wars IV – A New Hope). Most films exhaust the available audience within a month or six weeks. Not so with this juggernaut. Yet there would not have been any problem if Star Wars could have been moved into a smaller house at the same complex. The contract, however, that Tom Moyer Theaters had with Fox for this film precluded such an arrangement. It possessed a provision that almost never kicks in – a ”hold over” clause. According to this provision, if the three day (Fri-Sat-Sun) gross exceeded a set amount, then it automatically held over for another week. When it became apparent that Star Wars was not losing steam, but actually picking up force six months after its opening, they contacted Columbia (the distributor of CE3K) to ask to move the opening of their film onto another (smaller) screen in the same complex.

That was not acceptable to Columbia – either CE3K went into the contracted theater on schedule or they would sue TMT for breach of contract. In any event TMT was going to be sued for breach of contract, for Fox would insist on suing if Star Wars was taken off while still doing holdover business.

Columbia took CE3K away from TMT and gave it to their competitor Larry Moyer (Tom’s estranged brother) and brought a breach of contract suit against TMT. When Tom brought a restraining order against Columbia, the distributor went another step further, by removing TMT from the bid list in Portland, effectively giving all of their upcoming films to Larry. This led Tom to claim that Columbia’s actions were in essence a group boycott and hence a breach of antitrust law.

The District Court ruling went against Columbia on their breach of contract claim, but against Tom on his antitrust claims. As these things go, appeals dragged the suits on well after the life of the films in the theaters. In fact, Star Wars V – The Empire Strikes Back came out in Tom’s theaters before the decision from the appellate court came down.

When it did come, the 9th District Appellate Court upheld the District Court’s judgement against TMT’s antitrust claims.

Per the Entertainment Law Reporter 4:19:5
“Columbia had sound justification for its refusal to deal with Tom Moyer on the basis of the ‘Close Encounters’ episode. In Columbia’s view, Larry Moyer had the next best available facilities in the area. And, even assuming that there was some type of ‘conspiracy’ between Columbia and Larry Moyer, there was no showing of any anticompetitive purpose or effect.”
(Evidently the records I dug up for the lawyers to analyse were the basis for the following section of the report):
“Tom Moyer was the only party likely to suffer from any conspiracy, and his system-wide grosses and profits had increased each year; the profits from the Portland market declined only four per cent from July 1979 to February 1980.”

I would like to close this out with a comment as to what happened afterwards, but I don’t recall how long Columbia locked TMT out of their product.  (A project for another day, when I can access some newspapers from the time period to check the ads).  I can’t help but think that Columbia got the worst of the bargain.

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Benny the Smuggler #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Benny the Smuggler

I came across a surprising little bit in Variety dated 1/10/1939. The radio comedian/violinist Jack Benny made a court appearance in New York to answer to a charge of smuggling.

Based on the strength of his popularity over the air waves he had returned to the silver screen with a contract at Paramount (an initial contract with MGM in the late 1920s, was cancelled due to low grosses on his films for them). So, for a decade now he and his wife Sadie Marks (aka Mary Livingstone) were living in LA. These charges forced him to make repeated trips across the nation to tend to this matter. And in January 1939, as the case came to a close, he had to to leave off production on his then current Paramount film – “Man About Town.”

The article goes on to list his lawyer and his agent who were advising him. The best advice, however, came from his New York lawyer – another surprise – a man by the name of Colonel Bill Donovan.

This was a name I immediately recognized – the future founder of the OSS (the precursor of the CIA).

Of course, this immediately raised all sorts of speculation, indeed plots for screenplays percolated in my brain, involving a reluctant performer doing the bidding of a spymaster in a bumbling manner behind the lines in Fortress Europe in the coming world war.  (Not quite the plot for “To Be or Not to Be,” but what if?)

Further research revealed a more mundane course of events. Mr. Benny had been preyed upon by a conman on a trip to France where he bought over $2000 worth of jewels for his wife. The gentleman falsely claimed to hold diplomatic immunity when he offered to carry Benny’s valuables through customs, thereby avoiding duty taxes. In this the comedian foolishly acquiesced (as the judge duly noted when he passed sentence on him – a suspended sentence and a $10,000 fine).

Donovan, in his capacity as Benny’s legal advisor had wisely counseled him to plead no contest, and to take an apologetic stance before the bench. To do otherwise Wild Bill thought would threaten any good will his audience felt towards him.

His film ‘Man About Town’ premiered in Benny’s hometown of Waukegan IL on June 25th, with general release in early July 1939.

Other than this post I don’t plan to cover it any further in this series. It did smash summer business, which in itself was a minor miracle for Paramount, but it has not stood the test of time. As its contemporary critics noted, the music numbers ground the forward momentum to halt, something for which today’s audience have little patience.

Hoorah for Vaudeville #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Hoorah for Vaudeville

There is a large section in the first edition of Variety for January 1939 given over to the discussion of vaudeville. Unlike their reports on the state of film and radio which floated a generally upbeat prognosis, the future for vaudeville was looking rather bleak. Yes, it had been pronounced down and out before, but it was still with them – with even signs of a tiny resurgence. Emphasis on ‘tiny.’

Many performers in vaudeville had and were translating themselves into careers in film and/or radio. For example, Buster Keaton, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and George and Gracie Burns.

But as history has proved vaudeville as they knew it did pass from the scene.

[Aside – I have had the thought lately that it has reappeared in our age under the form and content of the reality talent shows].

One of the articles in this section entitled ‘Firsts’ by Joe Laurie jr.  enumerates for us milestones and first time acts in the world of vaudeville.

Several caught my attention and I now bring them to yours.

Michael Leavitt is generally credited to have first used the term “vaudeville.” Originally a blackface minstrel show singer in the mid 18th Century, he rose to become a theatrical entrepreneur by touring the country with US and European acts with his variety shows.  In France such entertainments were called “vaudeville.”

An early reference had a Civil War connection that captured my Civil War geekiness. “Nick Norton and Bill Emmett did the first ‘double-dutch’ act in 1864.” A double dutch act was a skit acted out by two people speaking an ethnic English, in this case German (called at the time dutch, springing from the name of their language Deutch). Humor arose from their fractured application of the language arising from their mother tongue. They would close with a song – in this instance “Going to Fight Mitt Siegel,” a reference to the Union general Franz Sigel, who led other German immigrants into battle against the southern armies in the Civil War.

Al Jolson was the first to sing on his knees. (Needing no further explanation).

Then, this oddity – “Harper & Stencil were the first and about the only double one-legged song and dance men. Harper had his right leg off while Stencil had his left. They wore the same size shoes and would buy a pair for both of them, one wearing the right and the other the left.”

“Lumiere’s motion pictures were first shown at Keith’s Union Square in July 1895.” The French brothers, inventors of the motion picture in France were here used as filler between the acts in this vaudeville house. Increasingly, this would be the case until the matter flipped topsy-turvy as vaudeville acts were used as filler in cinemas. RKO studios – (Radio Keith Orpheum) was put together with the old Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville circuit making up its exhibition wing.

“Lew Randall the first buck and wing dancer.” I couldn’t find much on this individual, other than acknowledgements that he was first. The buck and wing is a particular tap dance style. The first time I became cognizant of the form was my viewing of “Singin’ in the Rain,” in which Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor left me breathless with astonishment in their “Fit as a Fiddle” number early on in that film. The scene in this 1952 film is a flashback to when the pair were a couple of barnstorming vaudevillians, prior to landing in Hollywood where they landed work at the studios.

Many vaudevillians will be making appearances in this series. So, stay tuned and Watch This Space.

Tidbits from Variety #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Tidbits from Variety

I like perusing the pages of old film related periodicals (such as Hollywood Reporter, Photoplay, Motion Picture World,  American Cinematographer), and among such titles Variety is a particular favorite. I am especially attracted to the shorter blurbs when a name or film title catches my eye.

Below I have a selection of a few from its pages for the month of January 1939. With some exceptions I will be writing about these films as I continue in #1939TheMiracleYear.

“Boris Morros, draws the musical direction on Walter Wanger’s “Stage Coach.”
It’s his first assignment since leaving Paramount, where he headed the music department. Louis Lipstone succeeded him there.”

“Desert near Yuma Ariz., is the location of main operations for Paramount’s ‘Beau Geste’ slated to roll late this month with William Wellman producing and directing.
Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston are cast as the three brothers. J. Carroll Naish and Brian Donlevy the heavies.”

“C. B. De Mille Monday (1/9) directed ‘Union Pacific’ from a stretcher.
He suffered a recurrent attack of an ailment, which forced him to undergo surgery last summer.”

“Ernst Lubitsch’s two-picture deal with Metro is due to net him more than $200,000. First job is the direction of ‘Mme Curie’ starring Greta Garbo. Second is ‘Shop around the Corner,’ which he intended to produce on his own before he made the Metro deal.”

“’Titanic’ story of the greatest modern sea disaster, gets the gun April 1 at the Selznick-International studio. Alfred Hitchcock, British director, arrives late this month with Richard Blaker, English novelist, who is doing the script.
Hitchcock was also set to direct ‘Rebecca,’ but it is not likely to be filmed this year.”

“Lee Garmes is en route from London to be chief cameraman for David O. Selznick on “Gone with the Wind.”  
Susan Myrick, Macon Ga., newspaper columnist and friend of Margaret Mitchell gets the job of head coach of Southern accents and customs on ‘Wind.’ Latest addition to the cast is Hattie McDaniel in the mammy role.”

So – as a quiz to you, dear reader, which of the titles above do you think won’t be written about as part of the 1939 the miracle year series?

Close Encounters across the Street and of Another Sort

Close Encounters across the street

[Taking a brief recess from #1939TheMiracle Year]

I’ve written before about attending film screenings as part of my job. Both those in film industry screening rooms and those scheduled in theaters for press and word of mouth purposes. All of which I gained entree via my position as a film booker.

[The screening of “Star Wars” was one example of the latter kind, see this post]

Less than seven months later, my wife and I attended another film that was destined to be a ground breaking bit of cinema and another blockbuster. Our invitation was to the King Theater in Seattle on December 8, 1977 for Steven Spielberg’s latest picture “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

It was a familiar theater. It set right across the street from my former place of employment, the UA 150 and 70 (the site of our Star Wars viewing).

Dazzle – Din – Drive. A 3D trifecta in 2D, of sight and sound and emotion.

Eye-popping special effects.  That moved you between suspense and wonder.

A sound track and score that surrounded and carried you along.

And a story with characters that swept you up in their struggle and longing.

It was clear that Columbia had a hit on their hands. Both from the evidence of my own eyes, and from the reaction of the crowd.

I had an encounter of another kind with CE3K after our move to Portland for a booking position with Tom Moyer Theaters.

But first, there was another switch to be mentioned.  Within a year of moving down, my position was changed from that of a film booker to one in the accounting department. I was now responsible for paying the film rentals due to the studios – the biggest outlay of monies from the company.

Besides the normal activities of drawing up estimate and final payments, there was a whole lot of record keeping involved. And it was these records that were the point of my limited involvement with CE3K soon after this switch. Records that I myself had not created, for they hailed back a couple of years prior to my time at TMT. But now I was responsible for curating them. And it was in this new capacity that I was called upon to pull up the pertinent records needed by the lawyers in one of the lawsuits the company was embroiled in, which just happened to involve two blockbuster film titles.

It was then that I learned the curious details of this matter – when CE3K and Star Wars collided.

But more of that story next time.

Boo Jr #1939The MiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Boo Jr

You got to hand it to Variety for their eye-catching and funny headlines, titles, and phrasing. They christened ‘The Son of Frankenstein” with the moniker – BOO, JR which at once encapsulated and entertained.

In its January 4 edition, it announced:

“Boo, Jr.
Hollywood Jan 1 [1939]

‘Son of Frankenstein’ completed Saturday (31) at Universal, goes into national release Jan
13 with heavier advance bookings than any other U feature.
Cutters kept pace with the shooting schedule to speed up the distribution.”

There is an excellent reason that Universal garnered “heavier advance bookings” than usual. Back in the spring and summer of 1938, when a dearth of product hit the theaters, an enterprising theater manager (Emil Uman at the Regina Theater in Beverly Hills) put together a triple bill of older films for his venue.

The unspooling of “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and “Son of Kong” caused the cops to be called out to control the crowds. Word spread and soon other theaters were looking to book the reissues. Universal gladly offered their titles “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” as a stand alone double bill (Kong, both original and Son were RKO properties – I’m sure Universal did not want to share the film rentals). And the crowds – and the cops – were repeated – from San Francisco to Boston. Initial short bookings were held over, in some instances, multiple weeks (Philadelphia ran seven).  St Louis packed in over 34,000 people in the first three days.

Such business was a bellwether indication that the horror genre was ready for a new installment. Thus, Universal decided to take the money coming in from the revivals and make a sequel. By October 1938 they were negotiating for talent. Boris Karloff took another turn in the monster role; and Bela Lugosi lurked menacingly as the murderous deranged cripple. Willis Cooper, a writer for radio horror programs and three Mr Moto films at Fox, was tapped for the scripting chores. By the 18th the cameras were turning, but not without a few hiccups. No director was listed for the first day of shooting (a role filled soon after by Rowland V Lee), and a principal actor (Peter Lorre) announced for the title roll dropped out. He was replaced on the 24th by Basil Rathbone.

It was given an ‘A’ picture status – better production values, sets, costumes etc., and shoehorned into the few available soundstages at Universal. (Their ‘B’ lineup, judged to be ahead of schedule for upcoming release, caused others of the same designation to be put on hold, freeing up stage space for the ‘A’s). Another ‘A’ production at Universal at the same time was the W. C. Fields vehicle, “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.”

I recently watched the film online and enjoyed it despite its predictability and formulaic writing. The atmosphere was fittingly dark and foreboding. And it wasn’t too far along when I realized that Mel Brooks must have used the plot as a template for his “Young Frankenstein.” Here too the son of the monster creator was returning to the scene of his father’s ‘crime.’ The clincher was the local police inspector, played by Lionel Atwill. The character sports an artificial arm, which Kenneth Mars spoofs in Brooks’ version.  The only thing is, Mars wasn’t all that far off of what Atwill had done in his characterization, even down to using the wooden arm when striking a light and while using darts.

A viewing is worthwhile just for the comparison.

What Tech Had to Do with It #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year The Set Up What Tech Had to Do with It

By 1939 the technology behind filmmaking had attained a comfortable maturity. It was a decade after the innovation of sound so that element of the process had been integrated into the studio factory system  (Inroads also were being made for the standardization of sound systems in the field for better quality – for the equipment in theaters tended to be a hodgepodge mix).

Sound was now a reliable instrument in the tool-belt of the artistic minds charged with creating the projects. In fact coming to grips with the disciplines that good sound recording called for, led to other time and money saving innovations. For instance advances in process backgrounds like rear-projection and matte shots (originally developed to get around noisy environments), were now saving money.

Add to this the special effects and miniature departments (the film King King, for instance) which opened the imagination to become filmed ‘reality.’ If someone could think it, they could figure a way to capture it on film.

Improvements also came to the very basics – the film stock – faster and finer grain panchromatic films made for crisper black and white pictures – first introduced by Agfa-Ansco – and then right behind them, Eastman Kodak. One could almost “see” color in black and white for the range of gradations was expanded. As for color film, though fifteen different companies claimed to have their own version in the works, only Technicolor was then in use. And it was glorious and gorgeous.

Advances in cameras did their part. The Mitchell swaddled in its hood (aka ‘the blimp’) kept the noise of the camera machinery from intruding upon the soundtrack. And Walt Disney’s multi-plane camera would lead to more and better advances in the field of animation.

It was indeed a good time to have a studio in Hollywood.

the ragged world

the ragged world

the bright bauble
that clogs our minds
impels us into
its embrace

at what point
do we realize
we cannot
measure it
with the span
of our hand
nor subdue
its breadth
to our knowing

man is not
the gauge
of everything
pride warps the
boundary lines
and fudges
the increments

through
the humble door
alone
can the thread-bare
ragged world
be seen
in clarity

RWOz2

The Set Up – What the Studios Did #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year The Set Up What the Studios Did

Expansion was the word. In fact one could say that the year 1938 was one of expansion throughout Hollywood. When you total up all they spent on their facilities it was a respectable figure – 112 million.

Fox held an enviable position. They had already spread their productions across their two lots. The original on Western Avenue, and their brand new plant in Westwood.

Paramount, on the other hand, pinched by the confines of its lot on Marathon Street, was looking for other properties on which to expand, either, like Fox, up in Westwood or some place farther up in the Valley. In the meantime they were forced to build outdoor sets on their ranch property forty miles away in Malibu.

Columbia had a similar problem – and solution, utilizing their nearby ranch to ease the crush at their original lot on Gower Street. In addition they took a lease on another studio, the old B P Schulberg lot on Bronson Avenue.

Universal did not have the same problem – with 365 acres it had ample room. But what it did not have was enough sound stages for their productions. Two brand new ones were under construction and a new 6 story admin building. A recent turnover at the top (their principal founder- Carl Laemmle had been deposed) saw plans for major changes around the lot. Work was underway to modernize and soundproof three of the oldest stages on their lot – (one of which was nicknamed the “Phantom” after the Lon Chaney silent, The Phantom of the Opera, filmed there).

In 1938 MGM in Culver City, completed their Thalberg Memorial building at the cost of 2 million dollars. This administration office building was so named as a tribute to their recently deceased ‘wunderkind’ head of production, Irving J. Thalberg, the man singularly responsible for setting the precedent that the studio held the reins over the talent it employed.

Even smaller companies were feeling the need to expand. Monogram had maxed out all the space at the Talisman studios. Hal Roach, who recently switched from MGM to UA to release his comedies, was thinking about pulling down the admin building and replacing it with one larger that would house three stages and business offices. Republic was hampered in their expansion efforts by their relations with their landlord. They either wanted to buy it outright if they could negotiate a good price, or hammer out a longer lease for the property.

Only two film outfits had more pressing needs. Walt Disney, though riding the success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” was busy reorganizing his three companies (one of which was a realty firm) down into one unit. And RKO, which by the way had released Snow White, was in the midst of a financial reorganization, having just emerged from a 77b receivership (the prior bankruptcy instrument to the present-day Chapter 11).

So the stage was set, and the studios were humming.

The Set Up – By the Numbers #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year The Set Up By theNumbers

When it comes down to it, the film business is exactly that. It is a business.

And it is also an art form, and more specifically in the studios of Hollywood, a collaboration of artists.

The two come together in a marriage of sorts. But by no means is it a marriage of equals. The business side, by dint of the numbers it collects (i.e. the monies come their way first), is the dog that wags the tail.

So a look at some numbers:

On the production side for the prior year of 1938, a total of 769 films were released, 362 from major companies and 407 from the independents (with a mix of US produced and foreign imports for both). This marked a slow climb from the 595 films in 1930 when the squeeze of the depression that hit in 1929 could be visualized. (1928 had reached a high of 834, and stumbled in 1929 to 707). Things were looking up on the production side.

In 1938 there were 18,182 motion picture theaters in the US.  They saw roughly 85,000,000 paying customers pass through their doors that year, yielding a total gross of 1,016,600,000.

Attendance for 1938 showed a drop off from the 88 million of 1937. This disparity showed up in the weak numbers for the spring and early summer of 1938. A panic set in at the studios, so they came up with a campaign to ballyhoo the box office – calling it the ‘Motion Pictures Greatest Year” campaign.

This hype came true – not for 1938, but for the year 1939.