The Year Was 1938 – May 19th

Virginia Weidler in 1938
  • Today child actor Virginia Weidler was added to the RKO production ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens.’ She was borrowed from MGM where she was at work in ‘Too Hot to Handle.’ She is also currently loaned out to Paramount on ‘Men with Wings.’
  • United Artists board to meet today to finalize the releasing deal with Hal Roach. Roach can bring his own production money. Dr A H Gianninni, president of UA prepared the way for him. Mary Pickford to attend the meeting also.
  • Independent exihibitors at a confab in Pittsburgh have asked the government to do an investigation into the picture industry, especially pricing policies and terms of film leasing, all to be included in any anti-trust action that is pending in Washington.
  • Silent film actress Alla Nazimova has been brought into Paramount to help tutor the Italian actress Isa Miranda. Producer Albert Lewis and director George Cukor brought Nazimova in to help Miranda recreate a role that Nazimova played on the Russian stage 37 years prior. [The film was released in 1938 – but not with Isa Miranda. Claudette Colbert took the role instead. I wonder what happened].

Columnist Sidney Skolsky often wrote about “Watching Them Make Pictures” for this week he details three happenings:

  • On the MGM backlot, Jack Conway was directing Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon in a scene for ‘Too Hot to Handle.’ Playing competing newsreelmen Pidgeon was to chase Gable and Gable was to trip and fall face first into a mud puddle especially prepared for him. He fell into the mud perfectly – but Pidgeon blew his line, so they had to do it all over again.
  • Out on the movie ranch in the Valley, Richard Thorpe was shooting a scene for “Give and Take” with Robert Taylor and Maureen O’Sullivan. A man was plowing in the far background and was whistling. The sound man warned the director that his mic was picking up this whistling. Thorpe said to just keep it as background – but then the sound man broke in again and told him that they would not be able to use it as the man was whistling “Thanks for the Memory,” a Paramount song. [The film was released as ‘The Crowd Roars’].
  • He checked in at Paramount and entered a sound stage where “The Spawn of the North” was being shot. Business was on hold for the moment, for they were celebrating Henry Fonda’s birthday (May 16th). Fonda was serving out the cake when two Western Union messengers arrived and sang Happy Birthday to Fonda. They had been sent by his former roommates John Swope and James Stewart. Before he knew it Fonda had handed out all the pieces, not having reserved one for himself. One of the visitors surrendered his piece to Hank. Soon, director Henry Hathaway had Fonda, Dorothy Lamour, Louise Platt and George Raft back to work.

ITEMS OF INTEREST

  • Ed Sullivan in his column extolls a list of names you were never meant to see in the credits. Claire Meyers – Sally Sage – Marjorie Lane – Eadie Adams – Virginia Verrill. The legs of Meyers, or more properly Myers, stood in for closeups of those of Joan Crawford, Virgina Bruce and other ladies in the MGM stable. Sage’s hands stood in for those of Bette Davis in ‘Jezebel.’ [She had uncredited parts in six WB films for 1939]. The last three lent their voices for songs that came from the lips of, respectively, Eleanor Powell for ‘Broadway Melody of 1936,’  ‘Born to Dance,’ ‘Rosalie,’ as well as ‘Broadway Melody of 1938’; for Jean Harlow in ’Suzy’ and ‘Reckless’; and for Andrea Leeds in ‘The Goldwyn Follies.’
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The Year Was 1938 – May 12th

  • Exhibitors who recently complained about producers paying huge salaries to stars who are Box Office poison, are now complaining about double bills as the root of all evil in the film industry.
  • Strained relations between the producers and directors continues. Frank Capra accuses Zanuck of trying to split the Directors’ Guild and that Zanuck and the pesident of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Joseph Schenck, have acted for the producers without authority. [I’m not sure how Capra could make that last statement, given that Schenck was the president of the producer organization. Unless perhaps by inference he was trying to divide the two from the other producers, by making it known what they were doing or not doing in the negotiations]. (See May 9th).
  • Stan Laurel as producer releases his western feature ‘Songs and Bullets,’ – director Sam Newfield with Fred Scott, Al St John, and Alice Ardell. Variety pans it. [Laurel has another film (Swiss Miss) with his partner Oliver Hardy coming out this month from Hal Roach. Laurel’s foray into production petered out after his 1939 offering ‘Two Gun Troubador,’ another western with Fred Scott. For the most part here on out, he stays in front of the camera].
  • Shirley Temple is appointed sponsor of National Airmail Week. She is visited on the set of ‘Little Miss Broadway’ for the presentation by acting Postmistress of Los Angeles, Mary D Briggs.
  • Nancy Kelly, a 17 year old actress, is just in from New York and her role in the play ‘Susan and God.’ Feeling very much the new face and lonely her first day on the 20th Century Fox lot, she spotted two actors that she had worked with as a child in films made in New York – Warner Baxter and Jean Hersholt – and felt more at home. [Fox had three films for her in 1939 – Jesse James, Tail Spin, and Stanley and Livingstone].
  • In an article about Clark Gable, it is noted that his girl friend Carole Lombard has a nickname for him – “Moose.” [Once married they began calling each other ‘Pa’ or ‘Ma’].

Moving on Up to Booking Films

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The Seeley Theater in Pomeroy, WA

After I left the UA Cinemas 150 and 70, I applied for other “film biz” jobs in the Seattle area. One of the first places I applied was the Saffle Theater Service, a film buying and booking firm that covered the Northwest. I did not hear anything from them then, but soon after an assistant manager position opened up with Mann Theaters at their Fifth Avenue Theater, so I forgot about that application. However, the owner, Bud Saffle, must have remembered me, for a less than a year later something had changed and he contacted me with an offer for a position as his booker.

When I was hired on at the Saffle Theater Service, it was a big promotion in more ways than one. The salary was better to be sure. But so were the hours. They were regular “bankers’ hours.” A nine to five job. No more late, late nights. And there were other perks as well, but more on that later.

It was in a part of Seattle that was “new” to me, (possibly explained by the fact that it was in the opposite direction from the Fifth Avenue theater, and hence off my normal path). From our apartment on Fifth Avenue, I just had to head over to Westlake – a boulevard that cut diagonally across the regular grid. On the other side of Denny Way I took a right on John Street, and another right on Terry Avenue and looked for a spot to park.

I always took the Roadrunner and parked on the side of the small two story office building on the corner of John and Terry. The Saffle Theater Service was on the second floor on the Terry Avenue side. You entered through glass doors into a large open area, presided over by the company secretary and the company records. Mr Saffle had the office on the right; mine was beside his on the left (from its window, I could keep tabs on my Roadrunner).

Mr Saffle’s company represented about thirty independent exhibitors, i.e. theater owners, spread throughout the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. They were small town cinemas dating back to the thirties or before; or drive-ins from the fifties. Mr Saffle personally handled the larger accounts, the Mike Mercy Theaters of Yakima and the Kenworthy theaters of Moscow/Pullman. I had the smaller theaters around the hinterlands, like the Seeley in Pomeroy, WA. (It was only open a few months, being closed to store potatoes the bulk of the year). Of particular interest to me, was the Alpine Theater in Colville, WA. It was my Mom’s home town, and I was familiar with this theater, having lived in Colville when a boy.

Mornings were taken up with collecting grosses from our theaters and disseminating them to the pertinent distributors. You can be sure the distribs wanted to know, especially on Mondays after the weekend. They would press us to hold their films over (or try to get us to take off a competitor’s to bring their new title in – exhibitors and distributors have a notorious love-hate relationship). Monday mornings could be a real trial, especially for my boss, for he made all the big decisions – regarding hold overs and terms.

I had to learn new aspects of the “film biz.” Contracts, terms, booking dates and cutoff cards. Much of it was phone work, calling my counterparts with the distributors for film availabilities and terms, and advising my clients about what would perform well in their locations. Mr Saffle tutored me in the whole system that was in place governing the split of the box office monies, which is an interesting topic. Some films were flat $100 or $125, but those were always older films, usually booked as a lower half to a double bill. The newer films were paid on a percentage basis.

The stated percentage is what the exhibitor paid the distributor. So, for instance if the terms were 35%, that meant my client kept 65%. And that’s the way we liked it. Subsequent weeks bottomed out at 25%, and we liked that even better. Bigger films had bigger terms and required playtime commitments. For our bigger towns the minimum was four weeks. The first week was 70%, the second 60%, the third 50%, and the fourth 40%. If business held up the film could be held beyond that for 35%.

But there could be another wrinkle to the big term pictures – the dreaded 90/10. Each theater had an agreed upon house expense, the cost the exhibitor incurred just to open the doors for a week. (One which our firm always tried to negotiate up as high as possible). You would subtract that “nut” from your gross for the week, and of the balance you only kept 10%.  But hold on. There was an “if” involved. The distributor always took whichever was greater, the result of the 90/10 calculation, or the floor percentage for that week.

[Aside – I had heard one time that the whole 90/10 business had its origin back in the late thirties. An exhibitor came up with the formula in a bid that he put forth in an attempt to win the rights to show “Gone with the Wind” over his competitor. Then the floor was 25%]

When you ended up paying the floor percentage, you theoretically might not be covering your costs in that week. (And you always wondered why concessions cost so much. Many exhibitors would claim they weren’t in the film business, but in the popcorn business. They probably still do).

Then at multiple times during the week we had screenings to go to, (and the main reason I drove to work rather than walked). The distributors arranged these for film buyers in the exchange area to see their new product in advance of their release.

It was a much anticipated perk.

But more on that next time – so stay tuned and Watch This Space.