Archive for August, 2009

August 20, 2009

Dualled In The Run: The Paramount Westerns of A.C. Lyles (for those that stayed for the second feature)

by Dean Brandum

(As we return from our popcorn break)

PART FOUR: MAKING AN INDUSTRIAL MOUNTAIN INTO A MOLEHILL – PARAMOUNT’S DISASTROUS POSTWAR PERIOD.

By 1946 Paramount had established itself as market leader in the American film industry. In a year that was bountiful for nearly all studios (only United Artists suffered a loss), the company realised profits of $39.2 million, nearly double of its nearest rival, 20th Century Fox. This was a record for Paramount – in fact, it would take over 30 years for any film company to better that figure. (Finler 151)

Paramount’s success was based on a two factors: firstly, a well-crafted slate of features. For 1946 the studio had produced twenty-one films, of which perhaps only two could be classed as ‘super-specials’. The remainder were a mix of specials and programmers, all afforded the quality sheen of a well-honed production line. The slate also included three B-films, from the Pine-Thomas production unit. A wide range of genres were encompassed and the films starred a variety of the more popular performers of the period. (Eames 178-180) This formula had been perfected over many years, but 1946’s range of films appeared no more remarkable than a number of previous years, with no particular blockbuster hit accounting for such high returns. What enabled Paramount to achieve such profits can be attributed to the second factor – exhibition.

In 1945 Paramount owned (outright) 14 theatre chains comprising of 455 theatres, had controlling interests in another 775 and was a minority partner in another 275. Paramount could channel their product directly through their own cinemas, thereby collecting the entire gross, rather than just the rental, which is the amount customarily returned to distributors. Naturally, if the films are of a higher quality (ie: with greater audience appeal), the theatre’s revenues – and in turn the parent company’s – will increase exponentially. (Izod 118-120) In 1946 Paramount’s fortunes were aided immeasurably by Americans attending the cinema in record numbers. 82 million tickets were being sold per week, an amount consistent with the previous three years. (Finler 288) Now, with the Second World War won and service personnel having returned home and reunited with their families it would appear that with peace would flow even greater riches for America’s favourite ticket of entertainment.

Paramount’s holdings of 1500 cinemas were the most of any film-production company. In total, the studios owned approximately 3100 theatres, around 15% of the 18,000 operating in 1946. Overall this may have seemed a small percentage, but in terms of theatre value, the studios controlled 70% of the lucrative first run houses in American cities with populations of 100,000 or more and 60% of towns 25-100,000 in size. (Dick 37-9) The major studios had formed a business cartel with their theatre holdings and their control of the market had squeezed all but the most tenacious independent operators out of the exhibition business. The position of power allowed the majors to be almost at the point of managing the entire system. Yet such a position was necessary for these companies. The combination of theatres and studios had resulted in a vast number of employees and huge amounts of capital invested in production. It was imperative that the exhibition arm offered – as close to possible – a guaranteed and obstacle-free means of screening these films to the greatest number of ticket buyers as possible. By 1946 a theatre-owning studio such as Paramount would have planned its slate of films well in advance, booking them to their screens and allocating dates for when each film was to play. Entire schedules and financial forecasts would be built around such a practice. With over 3000 staff employed on their 23 acre West Hollywood lot producing 125,000 feet of film per week, it was essential that the company ran smoothly and with as few obstacles as possible in getting their films seen by the public. (Dick 41)

During the war years Hollywood had co-operated with the U.S. government to produce films encouraging of the war effort and in this period the Justice Department anti-trust investigations, which had been brewing since 1938 were, if not officially suspended, then at least deferred. When international hostilities ceased they soon resumed in courtrooms of Washington. A 1946 ruling outlawed (again) the practice of block-booking and two years later the Supreme Court’s “Paramount Decree of 1948” finally outlawed the vertically integrated business model that had been underpinned the majors’ success (and dictated their business practices) for over 20 years. As previous chapters have explained, the legislation caused a complete restructuring of the motion picture industry and its methods of exhibition. (Izod 120-8) Each of the major studios would be effected and, in most cases, adversely. In 1958 RKO would close and by the late 1960s, excepting 20th Century Fox and Columbia, all the major studios would no longer exist as independent entities, having been swallowed into larger conglomerates, their entertainment brands now only part of a diverse portfolio.

When taking into consideration that Paramount had the most theatres to lose and combined with the loss of audience in the 1950s and the rise of television, one would think that, when examining the following graph, that the studio did remarkably well to remain in constant profit throughout the period.

Paramount profit and lossYet the chart is misleading for a substantial proportion of the profits not from the revenue on film grosses (which were generally lacklustre) but through the sale of assets and corporate restructuring.

The most dramatic fall in profits came in 1949, the year after the divestiture order. In the unfamiliar role of having to negotiate nearly all of its distribution deals, the company suffered significantly. Yet the company was not entirely without its own options for exhibition. Although the studio controlled 1500 theatres, as a reward for early compliance with the ruling, Paramount was allowed a longer period of time to shed its holdings and to also retain 650 screens under its United Paramount Theatres banner. Although a separate company with no common stockholders it could still strike exclusive deals with the production company. Naturally, the theatres it chose to sell first were the least profitable in its stable (mostly later run houses). (Izod 163)

It was the revenue from the theatre sales that raised profits in 1950, aided by the returns from Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, a release from late in the previous year which, with rentals of $9 million, was the studio’s highest grosser of the 1940s. Artistically, the company maintained a high standard for the first half of the new decade and attained peer plaudits by being nominated for the Best Film Academy Award each year between 1949-55 and winning 35 awards in the period. In the following fifteen years Paramount only won 15 and most of those were in minor, technical categories. (Finler 290-3)

The drop in quality may be attributed to the drain of talent from the company as a number of famed filmmakers left the lot (including Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, Billy Wilder and George Stevens, disgruntled with budgetary cutbacks, inadequate marketing campaigns and a general attitude that Paramount management held little respect for their talents and abilities. (Dick 44-56). The cost-cutting measures also hampered Paramount’s ability to develop a pool of new actors and of the few that were popular with the public most, including Charlton Heston, Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster decided to further their careers elsewhere, in roles better suited to their talents. Only the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and musical star Elvis Presley (alternating with an MGM contract) were ongoing successes at Paramount into the 1960s. In turn, the studio turned to a number of aging, free-lancing actors to star in their films. However, the Paramount films of Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney did little for the company’s financial fortunes and even less for its reputation as a vital and innovative filmmaking community. (Dick 44-63)

Many of the performers and directors who left Paramount, found their fortunes flourishing at United Artists, the least successful major studio of the War years. United Artists was never a true production company, instead it distributed the work of independent producers, with whom they shared the profits. During the classical Hollywood era this was a practice fraught with difficulties. Top talent was mostly aligned with studios and with a diverse group of films being handled it was difficult to maintain a continuity of releases. Yet in the mid-1950s, United Artists’ methods were clearly viewed as the future for the industry. With talent contracts being eliminated from the studios, stars, producers and directors began their own boutique companies to produce their own films. This offered them greater creative control over their careers but it also diverted their fees into the company, an option that incurred far less tax than that of a highly paid, salaried studio contract player. United Artists (now also involved in financing their releases) offered the strong incentive of near-autonomy to these independent companies and, with no overhead added on to budgets to cover operating expenses, budgets were kept at a level whereby both parties would prosper. (Gomery ‘Studio’ 191-227)

Paramount continued to retain an ‘in-house’ production operation of mostly staff producers overseeing projects. There were a couple of notable exceptions to this rule. The aforementioned Pine-Thomas B-unit developed projects with little interference from management, but with their low budgets and strong track record for profits they could be entrusted with virtual autonomy. The other was Hal Wallis. Poached from Warner Brothers in 1944 after he felt snubbed for lack of credit on the success of Casablanca (1943: Curtiz), Wallis joined Paramount with the promise of creative freedom and a very enticing financial arrangement. The belief was that Wallis could bring both prestige and commercial hits to the studio. Although he initially delivered the former with films such as Come Back Little Sheba (1952), The Rose Tattoo (1955) and The Rainmaker (1956), he tended to lose interest in artistic endeavour and instead concentrated on two of his discoveries, Jerry Lewis (firstly with Dean Martin) and Elvis Presley. (Dick 33-8) In box office terms, these were successful films, but due to the arrangement with Wallis, Paramount saw little in the way of profit. In fact, between 1954-1962 Wallis’ company had made $11 million on his films with Paramount. The studio managed a cut of under $800,000. (Dick 71-2) The reason for this was that Wallis was paid outright upon delivery of his films, whereas the studio had to make its money through distribution only, so revenues would trickle into the studio. At United Artists this was not a problem as there was little to no overhead to pay (the independent producers paid for the advertising), but for Paramount there was still an entire backlot to service, including thousands of employees. Thus Paramount were compelled to add an overhead of around 25% to any production (including independent) to cover such costs, a fee which dissuaded independent talent from working at the studio. (Dick 71-6)

In order to attract the talent, Paramount had to offer a better deal, one in which overhead was reduced (on certain productions) and separate (and often complex) deals were individually arranged. Overhead would continue to be charged (at a slightly higher rate) to in-house productions, which would then service the studio costs. As a result, Paramount began to attract the independent talent they longed for, but found they were producing films (both in-house and independent) simply to service the overhead. The following graph illustrates how Paramount ceased being a virtual in-house production studio and attempted to follow United Artists’ lead.

Paramount origin of productionThe process was slow and involved a continual wrestle with balancing overhead servicing with enticing talent to the company, especially when several deals with experienced producer-directors (Otto Preminger, Samuel Bronston) delivered costly failures. (Dick 59, 65)

Yet somehow the company was still making money, garnering profits in the low millions each year. The sale of theatres in the early 1950s may attribute to the profits of the those years and Paramount finally found themselves with a true blockbuster with Cecil B. DeMille’s final film, The Ten Commandments, its $34 million in rentals placed it as the second most popular film of the decade and covering the losses of many of the company’s costly failures of 1956-7. (Finler 154) The impact of television upon Hollywood was profound and many companies had waged desperate battles to fight the new medium. Paramount however, had attempted to control television, firstly by owning a share in a television network (the failed DuMont, which eventually ceased broadcast in 1955), then through the expensive theatre-television concept by which movie audiences would be entertained with television broadcasts on the big screen before the film was projected. A cumbersome exercise, it was never embraced by audiences who preferred to keep a distance between the two media. This was also the case of their ambitious ‘Telemeter’ pay-television service by which customers would purchase broadcasts by dropping coins into a box, fitted to the television and wired to closed-circuit lines. For a company so seemingly attuned to the potential of television, it seems inconceivable that, in 1958, Paramount would sell almost all of their pre-1948 film catalogue to Universal-MCA, ignoring the usual practice of leasing films to networks for short periods. Although displaying a remarkable lack of foresight for future ancillary returns, Paramount received $50 million over three years which enabled them to maintain a small profit for the 1958-60 financial years. (White 145-164)

PART FIVE: ENTER LYLES

Paramount suffered a number of financially disappointing years in the post-war period, but 1962 was the worst of all. Hatari! was the studio’s biggest hit of the year and had the eighth highest rentals of any film that year. However, it was an expensive production and due to a generous arrangement with Howard Hawks, the film’s producer-director received half the profits and a handsome dividend was also paid to its star, John Wayne. The $7 million in domestic rentals may have looked impressive in boastful trade announcements, but resulted in little return for the studio. (Dick 70-3) Of the other releases that year, only The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford) was received with any critical enthusiasm, but could only manage 25th place among the top earners of the year. (‘rentals 1962’ 5) As had been the case for a number of years, the only reliable audience-pleasers for Paramount were Jerry Lewis, but his films were becoming too expensive to produce and advertise for the capped gross they could return and Elvis Presley, whose films may have been inexpensive, but as Hal Wallis productions the producer was seeing a greater cut that the studio. (Dick 73-8)

1963 offered little improvement, with only 14 releases for the year, just over half of a decade earlier. Escape from Zahrain (Ronald Neame) and Hell for Heroes (Don Siegel) premiered late in the previous year and went into a disastrous wide release in early of 1963. The studio’s biggest hit was The Nutty Professor, but as was becoming indicative of the company’s struggles, the increasing budgets approved to director-producer-star Jerry Lewis were inverse to his declining audience base. Initially Lewis had been provided with $150,000 to promote his film (decided on a basis of its expected gross) but Lewis demanded an extra half million, threatening to sever his ties with the company if they refused. With so few consistent performers at the studio, they had little choice but to acquiesce. The Nutty Professor was scheduled for limited first runs before a quick move to the second run circuit was only able to gross to a certain (although potentially profitable) cap. Yet as a result of the overspends, this quite popular (and seemingly small-scale) film found it impossible to make a profit, a fact the company was resigned to prior to its release. Similarly, Come Blow Your Horn (Bud Yorkin) was so steeped in profit-sharing arrangements with its producers and star (Frank Sinatra) that its moderate budget of $2.8 million (entirely financed by the studio) would only be covered by rentals of $6 million. That it managed such a take proved its hit status, but with negligible returns for Paramount. Even Hud (Martin Ritt), the company’s one critical success of the year was only moderately popular with audiences. (Dick 80-108)

That same year Paramount made their second foray into importing Italian peplum adventure films. Duel of the Titans (Sergio Corbucci) was picked up by sales executive Charles Boasberg for $70,000 when on a tour of European distribution operations. Following on from The Siege of Syracuse (Pietro Francisci) the following year, these films buffered the studio’s meagre distribution calendars and turned healthy profits for their miniscule investments. They were also a sign that Paramount were now prepared to follow the lead of the likes of American International Pictures by importing low budget genre product for the second-feature and second run market. (Eames 244)

When on his excursion to Italy Boasberg was continually asked by his sales divisions why there were few, if any westerns appearing on Paramount production slates. (‘oaters’ 3) Appendix #1 clearly illustrates why the western was no longer a staple of Hollywood production. Between 1960-1963 the only westerns to prove dominant box-office performers were excessively expensive productions that barely recouped their costs. Of the remaining western releases, few made any impact with audiences. In 1963 the western and Paramount had one thing in common: both were at their lowest ebb.

Yet in Italy the genre was far from dead – in fact it was more popular than ever. The resurgence in the genre was a trend felt across Europe and one which had led to a boom in western pulp literature, clothing and fashion. The dearth of new American westerns in cinemas had led to the defunct Republic’s back catalogue of B-westerns being purchased by enterprising distributors and re-released with commercial success. Even more innovative were some West German producers who began producing a series of smash-hit, locally made westerns featuring faded American performers. In Italy Buffalo Bill Hero of the West (1964: Massimo Dallamano) was in production and director Sergio Leone was in the process of arranging and Italian western of his own. With some foresight, American producer Lester Welch had already taken advantage of the European market (and its various beneficial co-production agreements) by shooting a pair of westerns back-to-back in Spain for international release by MGM. (‘U.S. Westerns’ 3)

Boasberg took the western request back to Paramount in Hollywood where initially the plan was to film a low-budget western in Italy, with American leads and key creative talent. However the location was changed to the studio’s Hollywood backlot. With so few films due to be shot on the studio premises, a large amount of space and employees were being under-utilised and by filming on the lot the studio could roll its much needed overhead into the production cost. Paramount also had a ready-made western main street available that had been constructed for the hit TV series Bonanza (1959-1972), for which NBC television rented Paramount’s studio space. As with the television series, any necessary location shooting for the proposed film would occur at nearby Vasquez Rocks National Park. (‘oaters’ 3)

Paramount management approached a long time mid-ranking associate producer named A.C. Lyles with the proposal. Lyles had worked with Paramount since the early 1930s, firstly at their theatres and then moving to the studio. In time he became head of publicity for Pine-Thomas and in the process learnt the rigours of how to make B-films on a tight budget and how to sell them to theatres. After Pine-Thomas ceased production, Lyles remained with Paramount, dividing his time between associate production on large scale films and independently producing his own for the company. He also had a stint in television, producing the first series of Rawhide in 1959. (Buscombe 327)

Told that they wanted a western as quickly and as cheaply as possible, Lyles immediately accepted, stating that he had a screenplay ready to film, written by veteran crime-pulp author Steve Fisher. Titled Invitation to a Hanging, it went into production in August of 1963 with a ten day shooting schedule and a budget of under $500,000. Lyles raised the finance himself, with Paramount due to purchase the finished product and A.C. Lyles productions taking a cut of any profits (perpetual copyright would be jointly held). (oaters 3)

Rory Calhoun, a star of programmer western features in the 1950s and the short-lived The Texan (1959-1960) television series was chosen as the leading man, but was replaced shortly before filming commenced by Dale Robertson, whose career in westerns had followed a similar path to Calhoun’s except that his television series (Tales of Wells Fargo 1957-1962) had been far more successful. (Buscombe 380) The director was William F. Claxton, a former B-film editor who had worked successfully as a television director since the 1950s, including for a number of westerns, including Rawhide, Tales of Wells Fargo and Rifleman. (Buscombe 381) In fact it appears that Claxton, having spent most of 1963 filming episodes filming Bonanza, barely had to move his director’s chair to film Invitation to a Hanging. In a number of interviews Lyles has explained that no actor ever turned him down when he offered them a part in his films. He credits this with the friendships he had made through his long experience in the industry coupled with the fact that these performers were just hungry to work again – not for the money (Lyles paid them nominal fees) but for a return to the sort of roles and on-set family atmosphere they’d so enjoyed during the Hollywood’s classical era. Such an explanation may allude to an estimation that performers were of a certain vintage. And such a guess would be correct. Lyles populated his casts with fading stars of the classical era, along with recognisable character performers. Appendix #3 displays a full listing of those leading players plus any supporting actors who appeared in more than one of Lyles’ westerns. It shows that Lyles had a stock company regularly rotated through films. It would be churlish to doubt the producer’s claims that friendship was the key to the familiar casts, but there would probably have been the economic prerogative of the veteran performers being professional on set and not required many time (and stock)-consuming takes to complete their scenes. It also added to the ability to sell the films, with the familiar names impressively filling a cast list on advertising and creating immediate audience recognition. The casting was certainly recognised by critics, as their generally lukewarm responses were quite often enlivened with nostalgic fondness of the casting. Then successful television series that rejuvenated their careers. During the classical Hollywood era major studios would often use their B-units to train promising young talent. A.C. Lyles Productions may have not been a B-unit, but the fact that it very rarely featured young performers (or characters) among its casts is indicative of their utility at the time. These were stop-gap productions, made to fill soundstages , create overhead, exploit an overseas market opening and bolster domestic release schedules. Like Paramount itself, they looked to the moment, with thought of the future. Yet there is a trend evident in the careers of the many of the leading players. A second tier stardom in during the classical period but a loss of direction once they were forced to work freelance, followed by a successful television series that rejuvenated their careers. So although young talent rarely figured in Lyles’ productions, younger audiences would be familiar with the veterans’ recent television work, whilst their parents would be attracted by the stars of their youth.

lawless admat

Invitation to a Hanging was retitled Law of the Lawless after completion and released first in Italy in November of 1963. According to Lyles, by the time it has finished its Italian run it had recouped its negative cost. (Marks 43) The film was released domestically the following year, with the studio offering a number of methods to sell the production, including radio spots, TV trailers and the standard sets of lobby cards an posters, including a billboard-sized 24 sheet, usually reserved for blockbuster productions. The ad copy – provided as free press ‘stories’ for the print media, emphasised the film’s all star cast and its action-packed narrative. Over twenty admat options were available for print advertising, including one stating that Law of the Lawless had been held over for its fifth week. (pressbook 5) It is highly unlikely such an ad was ever used. The film’s premiere first-run engagement appearing to be in Los Angles beginning March 18th as a support to Paramount’s Son of Captain Blood, a European co-produced, low-budget swashbuckler that featured the gimmick of Sean Flynn, the son of Errol, in the titular role. According to Variety, business was ‘slow’ and the engagement only lasted a week. The lacklustre boxoffice was repeated as the double-feature made its way across eight Midwestern cities in first run engagements, including a multiple run at six Kansas City drive-ins, the engagement’s only healthy box-office returns.

It took Law of the Lawless five months to open in New York, without a first-run engagement and now supporting Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Son of Captain Blood did not appear in America’s largest city until the end of the year and in true co-feature style it had by then been dropped to the bottom of the bill). This new double feature was premiered in New York as part of Paramount’s ‘showcase’ presentation method, first used by the studio in June of that year for Love With a Proper Stranger (1963: Richard Mulligan). Sixteen screens were used and $98,000 was the week’s take. Compared to the slow returns during the film’s first run releases, this was hefty and quick injection into the distributor’s revenue stream. (‘Par takes turn’ 5)

And at this point of time, Paramount needed all the revenue they could find. Two years earlier the studio had committed to investing in The Fall of the Roman Empire, an Anthony Mann directed epic to be shot in Spain. Although Paramount management had concerns over the screenplay, they did not want to pass on a potential El Cid (1961) that had been a blockbuster hit for producer Samuel Bronston and Allied Artists, the company that financed it. Paramount paid $5 million for the North American distribution rights only – an amount that would have been nearly impossible to recoup, even if the film was a success. Such an argument remained moot as The Fall of the Roman Empire was a colossal disaster, netting under $2 million in rentals for the studio, with little of that left after paying for its expensive roadshow campaign. Paramount also had to endure a $3 million loss on Paris When it Sizzles, a romantic comedy starring William Holden and Audrey Hepburn. It was fortunate that the studio had entered a five-picture agreement with Joseph E. Levine and his Embassy production company. The first film from the deal, The Carpetbaggers, was among the year’s top money earners and allowed the company to show a modest profit for the year. Two years later, after delivering mostly hits and all of the salacious variety to the company, Levine was to depart fearing Paramount would collapse. Unable to convince him to stay, the company could only watch in disbelief as Levine’s moderately budgeted The Graduate saw his new distributor, Columbia, share in nearly $40 million of rentals from the year’s blockbuster hit. (Dick 67-91)

Even before Law of the Lawless had opened domestically, Lyles had another film completed, Stagecoach to Hell, made immediately after Paramount commissioned Lyles to produce a further four films, based on his first effort’s success in Europe. Retitled Stage to Thunder Rock, the second of Lyles’ westerns was once again directed by William F. Claxton, this time from a screenplay by Charles Wallace, a writer for television’s Tales of Wells Fargo and Zane Grey Theater.stage to thunder rock

Greeted with similar reviews to Lyles last film, Stage to Thunder Rock opened in June of 1964 simultaneously in Providence and Seattle, ironically as the support to Robinson Crusoe in Mars. Business was pallid, but it picked up substantially when the western was used to fill the bill on Roustabout (John Rich) in Los Angeles (managing two first-run weeks) and The Disorderly Orderly (for three weeks) in Portland. As had been proven since the late 1950s, Paramount’s only two reliable stars were Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis and as was becoming evident, a supporting co-feature is only as successful as the main attraction at the top of the bill. For New York in November the successful Presley-Lyles combination was retained with a showcase presentation on 23 hardtops and a drive-in. For its only true first-run theatre in the group (The Forum on 47th Street), Roustabout screened without support.

In June of 1964 it was reported that A.C. Lyles was the only in-house filmmaker on Paramount’s lot. (‘quickened 3) Studio Production Head George Weltner hoped to add more, but it was now clear that the studio’s backlot was hopelessly under-ulitised and existing as rental space for television production. In 1962, Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal-International had wanted a new production space for his Revue television company. He approached Paramount with the notion of buying their entire backlot and transferring Universal’s feature production there, and moving the Revue arm onto the old Universal soundstages. Although the idea did appeal to some on the Paramount board, as it would leave the company without overhead and allow it to simply work as a distributor, the offer was declined. A year later Desilu Productions made similar overtures, to no avail. The studio was still proclaiming that while it was continuing to turn a profit there was no need to for such drastic action. Indeed the company did continue to make a profit, but in 1965 it was finally revealed that from 1962-65 all profits reported as from film revenue were infact losses topped up by $23 million worth of leasing the residual rights of failed films to television broadcasters and disguising the generous income as production revenue. After its premature and inexplicable sale of its pre-1948 catalouge to television in 1958, the company was now hanging on grimly to its post-1948 features and rationing them out on short term network broadcasts. Paramount was hoping in vain for the emergence of pay-television when company could cash in on these over-200 titles. Yet such a viable format was still a decade away and the stock of the company was growing at a negligible rate compared to the market value of the films in the vaults, ready for syndication and, for some of the lesser titles, in danger of losing their immediacy if not soon into the marketplace. When these details were revealed at a shareholders meeting in 1965, the corporate vultures began circling. (Dick 118-121)

In April of 1964 Lyles put Young Fury into production, with Christian Nyby directing. A former editor, Nyby is best remembered for his directing debut, The Thing From Another World (1951). Yet for Lyles it was probably more pertinent that Nyby was a regular director of Bonanza who had also had stints on Gunsmoke and Rawhide. Once again Steve Fisher contributed the screenplay. It was two months later that Paramount’s President Barney Balaban announced that the studio was “not in the business of making B-movies” (Mesca 13) and that he refused to dilute his slate with such fare, aiming for only productions in the A-bracket. Technically Babalan was correct as nobody in Hollywood was making true B-films, sold on a flat rate to exhibitors. However, as he was describing the studio’s upcoming productions, shareholders must have wondered how such upcoming titles as Lyles’ westerns, teen surf-capades The Girls on the Beach and Beachball, British horrors The Skull and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and the Italian peplum Revenge of the Gladiators counted as true A-bracket fare. (Eames 249-260) As all of these were pickups from independent producers, Paramount was not actually ‘making’ these films, but then again, almost all of their releases at this time had independent involvement as between 1963-65, of the 54 films released with the Paramount logo in the United States, only one was a completely in-house studio production.

Yet, with the big-budget fare not making money, it was these low-budget releases that were bringing in modest profits for the company (although far from offsetting the extravagant failures). In September that year it was reported that double features, having been out of favour with exhibitors since early in the decade, were now making a comeback. (Kalish ‘doubles’ 7) The popular showcase concept, that had now spread as to Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, was acknowledged as the main reason for the popularity of the double feature, as was the multiple second-run release, ulitised for lower-budget and independent fare. With independents and studios all importing more foreign genre features than ever, there was a lucrative (although limited) market opportunity available.

By the time Young Fury was released in the US in March of 1965 as a support to the science fiction thriller The Crack in the World, Lyles already had fulfilled his four-film contract by having a further two films completed. Black Spurs was filmed in September of 1964 and by the end of December, shooting had finished on Town Tamer.

blackspurs admat

Another from the prolific pen of Steve Fisher, Black Spurs was the first Lyles film to be directed by R. G. Springsteen, a prolific B-western director of the 1950s who had also recently spent time with Bonanza. Paramount took the unusual step of premiering Black Spurs in the US at New York’s grand 3665-seat Paramount theatre, the studio’s former flagship venue. Its $28,000 first week take may have seemed impressive, but was only rated as ‘fair’ by Variety. This was due to the fact that the western was playing as a support to a live ‘rock and soul show’ with tickets at substantially higher prices. Although a regular method of screening films in the 1920s-30s, live acts were rare accompaniment for feature films by the mid-1960s, although the Radio City Music Hall continued the tradition – and successfully too – with high profile studio productions after the stage show. Unfortunately for The Paramount theatre, Black Spurs was one of the last films to screen at the cinema and, after a period of closure, it was demolished the following year. In June, Black Spurs would enjoy a successful showcase run in Boston as a second feature to The Family Jewels, a Jerry Lewis director-star comedy and then in Los Angeles, on showcase with the John Wayne western The Sons of Katie Elder (Henry Hathaway). By the time Black Spurs was released in the United States, its female lead, Linda Darnell, had perished in a fire. Although she admitted her final film was a “ten day quickie”, it was her first feature in six years after battling alcoholism (Davis 247). Both The New York Times and Variety noted that it was the one notable aspect of the film. (17 & 9)

towntamer admatAccording to its pressbook, (5) “Action, excitement and robust drama makes Town Tamer an unforgettably exciting film of western adventure!” Lesley Selander, a director of mostly B-westerns since the early 1930s took directing duties on this production. Adapted by Frank Gruber from his own novel, it had apparently once been optioned as a project for Gary Cooper.

In the summer of 1965, Town Tamer was part of Paramount’s most ambitious showcasing endeavour. Having done a deal with the RKO chain of theatres in New York, the company announced a summer program of showcasing events as a way of displaying their renewed production vigour. Each engagement was to play in close to 100 theatres in what was the most saturated single city first-run yet.

The double features to screen were:

*Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors & The Girls on the Beach

*In Harms Way & Town Tamer

*The Family Jewels & Seven Slaves Against the World

*The Sons of Katie Elder & Revenge of the Gladiators (‘brief encounters’ 25)

Town Tamer’s showcase consisted of 94 screens (including 18 drive-ins), but it was reported that Lyle’s film was pulled from many engagement’s by the weekend due to the inordinate length of the program (In Harm’s Way had a running time of 165 mins).

Interestingly, Town Tamer’s next listed North American first run screening was supporting Universal’s Charlton Heston costume epic The War Lord (Franklin J. Schaffer) for two weeks in Denver (for excellent business). Paramount then used it as a second feature for the British-South African co-production of Sands of the Kalahari (Cy Enfield) but it finally made showcase in Boston and Seattle below the bill with the auctioneer Red Line 7000 (Howard Hawks).

By this time it was evident that Lyles’ westerns ran to a narrative and stylistic formula. From the viewing of seven of his productions, one can almost plot the narrative arc on a chart. Each film opens with an outdoor action sequence which introduces the hero. He may be fighting Indians (Red Tomahawk; Apache Uprising) or criminals (Johnny Reno; Buckskin). He then arrives in a town where he is treated suspiciously by some of the locals, with a street fistfight (Apache Uprising, Buckskin) or a barroom brawl occurring (Johnny Reno, Black Spurs, Hostile Guns). Tended to by a caring woman who is either a saloon worker or with a salacious past, the hero then must reluctantly take on a law-making role in the town, due to the weak, ineffectual sheriff being unable to control the villain. Eventually, in another location sequence, the hero and villain with have a chase / shootout / fistfight, with the hero winning. He then leaves town, usually accompanied by the woman.

With storylines that could be efficiently told in a tight 75 minutes, the Lyles westerns move out of the B-film length by adding superfluous sequences (such as trying to convince the female gambling hostess to part with her Gatling Guns in Red Tomahawk which she eventually agrees to with little explanation). Lyles films also include extraneous characters (such as the hired gun with a conscience in Buckskin and the convicts in Hostile Guns) who each require a backstory and provide it in lengthy dialogue-laden sequences. In fact, Lyles even noted in the Buckskin pressbook that he ensured every character had at least three strong scenes. (5)

Stylistically and technically, the Lyles films are grounded in a tele-visual sensibility. Most action occurs indoors on studio sets, with even a number of supposed exteriors being filmed on soundstages, its film stock and lighting poorly matched with the location-filmed establishing shots. There is something almost surreal about the stage-bound nature of many of these sequences, with several shadows being cast by performers as they stand on incorrectly lit sets, among lifeless shrubbery brought in from the prop-department. Scenes are blocked with such consistency that a two-way conversation in a room will have the characters move in a ritualistic manner around the room, in order to benefit the two cameras covering the sequence. With an establishing shot followed by a series of two-shots, a stationery conversation is given little visual flair. In one scene, in Johnny Reno, the gunman and saloon girl have a conversation that contains 23 cuts back and forth between two-shots, with only the establishing shot being used a second time in an effort to break the visual monotony.

Indeed, the Lyles films appear to have been created in the editing room from the smallest amount of coverage possible. The following table compares five Lyles films with a number of other westerns – Paradise Canyon (1935: Carl Pierson); Dodge City (1939: Michael Curtiz); Storm Over Wyoming (1950: Lesley Selander) No Name on the Bullet (1959: Jack Arnold) and The Sons of Katie Elder (1965: Henry Hathaway). As each film was carefully viewed, the number of edits were recorded, as was the number of new camera set-ups within the film (those that had not occurred within the past three scenes). The number of edits is divided by the number of new set ups, resulting in an average number of edits per set-up. As the table illustrates, a B-western of the 1930s, one from 1950, big budget westerns from 1939 and 1965 and a standard town western co-feature from 1959 all manage to less frugal with their coverage. It must be noted that such a formula is not supposed to be an indicator of quality, but it does indicate that Lyles filmmakers got as much out of their limited coverage as possible and preferred as few set-ups as they could manage. The high average on his films would be due to the scene that was earlier described – so many characters, in so many conversations, with so much backstory and exposition to tell.

TITLE

MINS

EDITS

NEW SETUPS

AVERAGE EDITS PER SETUP

Paradise Canyon

52

553

318

1.73

Dodge City

104

913

571

1.59

Storm over Wyoming

58

618

345

1.79

No Name on the Bullet

77

616

331

1.86

Law of the Lawless

87

609

198

3.07

Sons of Katie Elder

117

830

554

1.49

Apache Uprising

87

613

312

1.96

Red Tomahawk

82

782

304

2.57

Johnny Reno

83

718

308

2.33

Hostile Guns

90

691

309

2.23

The tele-visual blandness is offset by all the Lyles westerns being shot in Techniscope, a low cost, widescreen format which did not require special lens. Instead, the film stock was then enlarged to suit 2.35:1 projection. Much favoured by Italian western filmmakers due to its grainy aesthetic (caused by the lack of clarity in the enlarging process), Lyles was one of the first filmmakers to embrace the technology. (Holben 96-107)

In May of 1965 Lyles had his contract extended to a further ten films in 30 months. The report referred to a contract for “ten colour tinters”, which reflects their formulaic, production-line quality. (‘a.c. lyles’ 3) Apache Uprising (filmed in April of 1965) was the first of the new commission. Adapted by Harry Sanford and Max Lamb from their novel Way Station, R.G. Springsteen was directing again. However, after a four hardtop and two drive-in showcasing in Toronto supporting The Naked Prey in March of 1966, the film only received one more first run engagement, with the independent western Forty-Acre Feud. It was quickly followed into theatres by Johnny Reno, released in May of 1966 to a 6 Drive-in multiple in Toronto, second billed to Night of the Grizzly. In Detroit in July it had a week of good business supporting a musical live performance.

In March of 1966, Paramount was purchased by the oil company Gulf & Western, whose chairman saw the studio as an ideal component for his company’s conglomerate. Initially interested in the film library, he considering closing down the production unit and concentrating on just distribution. Robert Evans was appointed vice-president in charge of production and was given the seemingly impossible task of turning the studio into a money-making venture, allowing it a reprieve. At the shareholders’ meeting that year he stated that capitalisation was in place for a new series of expensive productions, including a number of European and British co-productions. The Lyles westerns would continue due to their European popularity. (‘evans’ 5) Indeed the western was still popular in Italy. It was reported in August that year that there were 24 westerns playing in Rome theatres, compared to only six in New York. The majority of these westerns were European productions and, insofar as their advertising, they were disguised as Hollywood product. The following four Italian one-sheet posters illustrate how, with their iconic imagery and promotion of American performers in the cast, it was difficult to tell the authentic Hollywood (Lyles) western from the European variant. (The films depicted are Fort Utah, Navajo Joe (1966: Sergio Corbucci), Johnny Reno and Cost of Dying (1968: Sergio Merolle).

fort utah ital

Quanto_costa_morire

johnnyreno4f

Navajo_Joe_(1966)

Yet the market there was changing, with a particular sadism and excessive sex and violence evident in the Italian westerns as they reached a saturation point in the Italian industry. (‘Rome’ 15)

In May of 1966 A.C. Lyles was presented with the Golden Spurs award for his “extraordinary contribution to western lore, through the medium of films”. His latest production, Waco (directed by Springsteen from a Steve Fisher screenplay) received its world premiere at the Reno Rodeo in June, with stars Jane Russell, Wendell Corey and Brian Donlevy promoting the film by co-marshalling the rodeo’s parade. Putting a little more effort than usual into promoting a Lyles’ film, Paramount even released a single of Lorne Greene singing the title song. Variety was not impressed by the film, calling it a “run of the treadmill western” and singling out Howard Keel for “Particularly bad acting”. waco

In New York, it appeared in a saturation showcase of over seventy screens, including two first runs. According to Robert Evans, the main feature Assault on a Queen was so poor they had to get rid of it as quickly as possible. (167) Interestingly, Waco represents the only Lyles film to receive a feature-only booking in Variety’s listings. In Minneapolis it managed a week for a ‘small’ take of $4000.

From this point, Lyles’ westerns received fewer first-run North American screenings. Paramount was heavily investing in production and increasing its European dealings. From 1966-9 over half of the studio’s releases involved foreign investment, but even domestically production was increasing. Sixty-five films were released in just 1967-8 and A.C. Lyles was no longer the only low budget independent producer at Paramount. Horror specialist William Castle and family filmmaker Ivan Tors had also joined the lot and their films were often taking the places of Lyles’ westerns on double-bills around the country. For the first two years of his contracts, A.C. Lyles managed to fill some gaps in Paramount’s bare production slates. Now, with a new management team in place, committed to increased production (with the capital to follow through on such promises), the need for Lyles and his films was no longer imperative. (Dick 167-188)

redtomahawk admatRed Tomahawk, filmed in May of 1966 was another Springsteen directorial effort form a Fisher screenplay. It opened in January of 1967 and it took until July to register its third (and seemingly last) first run supporting engagement. However, in February Red Tomahawk, did ‘big’ business in Detroit, supporting the ‘Jewel Box Revue’ live music act.

Filmed in July of 1966 as “Fort Siege”, Fort Utah was Lesley Selander’s 150th feature film as a director, a fact suggested as a selling point in the film’s pressbook, along with such promotional ideas as having men in western garb stroll the city streets, their backs adorned with signs “which plug and credit the film, as well as your theatre and playdate”.

Yet apart from a solitary engagement in Cincinnati in September of 1967, it appears that there were no other first run theatres wanting to accept the film.

fortutah admat

By this time Lyles already had two other films completed – Huntsville and Buckskin. Although it would appear that Lyles films were no longer making an impact in the United States, they presumably must have continued to do well in overseas territories, as Paramount extended his deal again, for a further ten films. The first of these, Bushwhackers, was due to film in December of 1967, but the fact that the next scheduled production was an espionage drama titled Rogues’ Gallery shows that Lyles (and Paramount’s) thoughts had moved from the western to other exploitable genres. Rouges’ Gallery was made, but released directly to television. (‘lyles no time’ 3) ( For the second run marketplace where Lyles now appeared to be working, he had to compete not only with American films (studio and independent) but also imported fare. When he began his cycle in 1963 his films appeared curiously nostalgic, four years later, with violent Italian westerns now an accepted part of the cinema mainstream and with Sam Peckinpah on pre-production on The Wild Bunch, Lyles’ ‘oaters’, having changed little over the course of a dozen productions, must appeared as anachronistic relics of a long-gone era. Lyles had mentioned that “Saddle Fire” was due to be filmed in mid-1968. It never eventuated. Nor is it clear whether an announced illustrated dictionary of western slang to be compiled by Lyles and accompanied by a television special ever materialised. (‘inside stuff’ 18)

hostileguns admatHuntsville was retitled Hostile Guns and although it is difficult to locate an American release date, an unfavourable review in Variety in July of 1967 would indicate it played in cinemas around that time, nearly a year after it was filmed. Yet another Springsteen / Fisher collaboration and as per usual the key selling points for the film were its star cas

arizonabush admat

t. In February of 1968 Variety complained of studios no longer previewing second feature films for the press and that their reviewers were forced to seek them out on general release (Byron). One of the titles mentioned was Arizona Bushwhackers (formerly Bushwhackers), which they found playing in a “42nd street grindhouse”. An investigation of the New York newspapers of the time failed to locate the cinema and nor does there appear to be any engagements listed for the film at all. The last American film to be directed by Lesley Selander, the pressbook offers ad copy stating the film was the “veteran director’s latest hit!” The screenwriting duties were undertaken by Steve Fisher and the pressbook also maintained that Arizona Bushwhackers was “free of western clichés!” It is doubtful such a description has ever been sincerely used – then or now – about an A.C. Lyles western.

buckskin admat

The final Lyles western, Buckskin, was reviewed in May of 1968 in Variety and like the previous two releases, appears tohave had scant distribution in the United States. Buckskin was directed by Michael Moore (a former editor with mostly television direction experience) from a screenplay by Michael Fisher, the son of regular Lyles’ writer, Steve. Although shot back-to-back with Arizona Buswhackers, Buckskin was the first completed of the pair, yet inexplicably, the last released.

THAT’S A WRAP.

Paramount sold the Lyles output to television among various film packages in the late 1960s – early 1970s. By then it was estimated that an adequate quality film, suitable for prime-time broadcast, could potentially earn a million dollars by the time in was sold for syndication. (‘western fare’ 7) With their well-known casts, lack of violence and sex and a general tele-visual aspect, the Lyles westerns were suited to small screens throughout the next decade. With such potential evident by the mid-1960s it is possible to surmise that Paramount continued producing the Lyles westerns with such a future market in mind. When Robert Evans arrived at Paramount he stated that there were eight studios in Hollywood and Paramount were ranked tenth. (‘Confessions’ 83) By 1970, when The Godfather became the highest grossing film of all time and won the studio their first Best Picture Oscar since 1952, the company was back at number one and the Lyles westerns were long forgotten.

But for a few years they helped an ailing studio survive.

If this post has succeeded in its aims it has explained not only the reasons for why the Lyles films were produced, but it has also placed them at the locus of several divergent streams of a troubled industry, proving that the film industry (production distribution and exhibition) is never static.

For an industry once finely attuned to the most acute demands of the ticket-buying public, the 1960s found Hollywood now uncertain of its audience and with little idea how to locate it. In the case of the Lyles’ westerns it was a matter of seeking offshore viewers – those still appreciative of classical genre product. Yet, for their domestic release Paramount were still attempting to find the lost audience and with scant success, tacking these low-budget features onto the tail of a variety of productions and only finding an acceptable market in the form of showcase exhibition.

Yet although their merits as artistic endeavours are debatable for forums elsewhere, the Lyles westerns remain an important exhibit of a tumultuous period, their humble aesthetic belying the desperate measures that necessitated their production, creating one final gasp of the traditional Hollywood western when the rest of Hollywood had bid it farewell.

THE LYLE’S WESTERNS – MAJOR CAST MEMBERS AND

BRIEF PLOT SYNOPSES

Stage to Thunder Rock (1964: William F. Claxton) starring Barry Sullivan, Marilyn Maxwell and Scott Brady. Plot: Sheriff tried to keep a bank robber under guard in a stagecoach station full of people eager to steal the loot.

Young Fury (1965: Christian Nyby) starring Rory Calhoun, Virginia Mayo and William Bendix. Plot: Fugitive finds his son is part of a young gang terrorizing a town. He must stop them.

Town Tamer (1965: Lesley Selander) starring Dana Andrews, Pat O’Brien, Terry Moore and Lon Chaney Jnr. Plot: After his wife is killed by a bullet meant for him, a gunman declares war on the killers.

Black Spurs (1965: R.G. Springsteen) starring Rory Calhoun, Terry Moore, Linda Darnell and Scott Brady. Plot: A bounty hunter finds redemption by cleaning up a corrupt town.

Apache Uprising (1966: Springsteen) starring Rory Calhoun, Corrine Calvet, John Russell and Lon Chaney Jnr. Plot: When he decides to ride shotgun on a stagecoach, a gunman must contend with robbers, corrupt businessmen and rampaging Indians.

Johnny Reno (1966: Springsteen) starring Dana Andrews, Jane Russell, Lyle Bettinger and Lon Chaney Jnr. Plot: A marshal captures a fugitive and takes him to town. He finds the man is innocent and the real villains are the local landowner and his cronies. They are determined to kill the framed man, the marshal determined to save him.

Waco (1966: Springsteen) starring Howard Keel, Jane Russell, Wendell Corey and Brian Donlevy. Plot: Townsfolk release a gunman from jail to protect them from a gang that are terrorizing them.

Red Tomahawk (1967: Springsteen) starring Howard Keel, Joan Caulfield, Broderick Crawford and Wendell Corey. After the massacre at Little Big Horn, a government agent rides into nearby Deadwood to warn them of impending attack. Finding Gatling guns in the town, he tries to get them to a besieged cavalry platoon.

Fort Utah (1967: Selander) starring John Ireland, Virginia Mayo, John Russell and Scott Brady. When a mutinous cavalry sergeant incites Indians to attack a fort, a couple of westerners team up to defend the women inside and capture the troublemaker.

Hostile Guns (1967: Springsteen) starring George Montgomery, Yvonne De Carlo, Tab Hunter and Brian Donlevy. Plot: A veteran marshal enlists a hot-headed deputy to help him transport a coach of prisoners across Texas. The brother of one of the convicts is in pursuit.

Arizona Bushwhackers (1968: Selander) starring Howard Keel, Yvonne De Carlo, Scott Brady and Brian Donlevy. Plot: Due to his civil war past, a gunman is shunned in an Arizona town. However he succeeds in keeping the law.

Buckskin (1968: Michael D. Moore) starring Barry Sullivan, Joan Caulfield, Wendell Corey and Lon Chaney Jnr. A widowed marshal travelling with his half-Indian son confronts prejudice as he attempts to stop a ruthless mine-owner from damming a town’s water supply.

Buckskin (1968: Michael D. Moore) starring Barry Sullivan, Joan Caulfield, Wendell Corey and Lon Chaney Jnr. A widowed marshal travelling with his half-Indian son confronts prejudice as he attempts to stop a ruthless mine-owner from damming a town’s water supply.


LEADING PLAYERS IN LYLES’ WESTERNS

Lyles leading performers

NOTE: The second column header, ‘LW’ stands for the number of Lyles’ westerns the performer appeared in.

  • All of the performers made numerous guest appearances in television series. Those listed are where the performer had an ongoing leading role.

  • The final column only intends to provide a brief description to when the performer was most popular and the level of fame they achieved.


RECURRING OR NOTABLE SUPPORT PLAYERS IN

LYLES’ WESTERNS

Lyles support performers

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“A.C. Lyles Begins 10 for Par, Never heard of Freud but loyal to Dick Arlen and Virginia Mayo.” Variety 26th July 1967: 5.

“A.C. Lyles Begins 10 for Par, Never heard of Freud but loyal to Dick Arlen and Virginia Mayo.” Variety 26th July 1967: 5.

“A.C. Lyles contracts ten tinters with Paramount.” Variety April 24 1965: 7.

Archer, Eugene. Rev. of Law of the Lawless, By William F. Claxton. New York Times 27th August 1964: 17.

Archer, Eugene. Rev. of Black Spurs, By R.G. Springsteen. New York Times 29th May 1965: 17.

Arizona Bushwhackers: Paramount Merchandising Manual and Pressbook. [USA] Paramount Pictures Corporation And A.C. Lyles Productions, 1967.

Boddy, William. “Sixty Million Viewers Can’t Be Wrong: The Rise And Fall Of The Television Western.” Back In The Saddle Again: New Essays On The Western. Ed. Ed Buscombe & Roberta E. Pearson. London: Bfi, 1998. 119-141.

Black Spurs: Paramount Merchandising Manual and Pressbook. [USA] Paramount Pictures Corporation And A.C. Lyles Productions, 1964.

Buckskin: Paramount Merchandising Manual and Pressbook. [USA] Paramount Pictures Corporation And A.C. Lyles Productions, 1968.

“Big Picture Rentals of 1960.” Variety January 4th 1961: 6 & 36.

“Big Picture Rentals of 1961.” Variety January 8th 1962: 7 & 53.

“Big Picture Rentals of 1962.” Variety January 5th 1963: 5 & 60.

“Big Picture Rentals of 1963.” Variety January 1st 1964: 5 & 74.

“Big Picture Rentals of 1964.” Variety January 7th 1965: 7 & 39.

“Big Picture Rentals of 1965.” Variety January 2nd 1966: 9 & 57.

“Big Picture Rentals of 1966.” Variety January 5th 1967: 11 & 97.

“Big Rental Films of 1967.” Variety January 3rd 1968: 19

“Big Rental Films of 1968.” Variety January 4th 1969: 17 & 29

“Big Rental Films of 1969.” Variety January 7th 1970: 15

“Brief Encounters on RKO Tactics for Par’s Summer Doubles.” Variety March 26th 1965: 25.

Buscombe, Ed. “The Western: A Short History.” The BFI Companion To The Western. Ed. Ed Buscombe. London: Andre Deutsch, 1988. 36-7.

Byron, Stuart. “Torpedo Trade Reviewing: Second Feature Rarely Shown.” Variety February 21st 1968: 7, 28.

Coyne, Michael. The Crowded Prairie: American International Identity in the Hollywood Western. London: I.B. Taurus, 1997.

‘Dale’. “Stage to Thunder Rock (review)” Variety June 10th 1964: 6.

Davis, Ronald L. Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream. Norman: University Of Oklahoma, 1991.

Dick, Bernard F. . Engulfed: The Death of Paramount Pictures and the Birth of Corporate Hollywood. Lexington: University Press Of Kentucky, 2001.

Eames, John Douglas. The Paramount Story. London: Octopus, 1985.

Evans, Robert. “Confessions Of A Kid Mogul.” Anatomy Of The Movies. Ed. David Pirie. New York: Macmillan, 1981. 80-87.

Evans, Robert. The Kid Stays in the Picture. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

“Evans’ ‘Sleeping giant now awakes’ – Par’s holly and product in pep rally.” Variety [New York ] Nov 16 1966, 3.

Finler, Joel W. . The Hollywood Story. London: Pyramid, 1989.

Flynn, Charles & Todd McCarthy. “The Economic Imperative: Why Was The B-movie Necessary?.” King Of The B’s: Working Within The Hollywood System. Ed. Todd McCarthy & Charles Flynn. New York: E.p. Dutton , 1975. 13-44.

Fort Utah: Paramount Merchandising Manual and Pressbook. [USA] Paramount Pictures Corporation And A.C. Lyles Productions, 1966.

Gomery, Douglas. Shared Pleasures. Madison: Universty Of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Gomery, Douglas. The Hollywood Studio System: A History. London: Bfi, 2005.

Heffernan, Kevin. Ghouls, Gimmicks and Gold: Horror FIlms and the American Movie Business 1953-1968. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Hostile Guns: Paramount Merchandising Manual and Pressbook. [USA] Paramount Pictures Corporation And A.C. Lyles Productions, 1967.

“It’s Not Art, But….” Time 6th August 1945: 34-5.

Holben, Jay & Douglas Bankston. “Inventive New Options for Film.” American Cinematographer Feb 2000: 96-107.

“Inside Stuff – Pictures.” Variety August 2nd 1967: 18.

Izod, John. Hollywood and the Box Office: 1895-1986. London: Macmillan, 1988.

Joyner, C. Courtney. “A.C. Lyles: Gentleman of the West.” Wildest Westerns Collectors Edition #3 2001: 44-50.

Kalish, Eddie. “Anyone Else for Showcase?.” Variety December 11th 1963: 3.

Kalish, Eddie. “Quickend outside production deals for Par. studio now likely.” Variety 24th June 1964: 3.

Kalish, Eddie. “Double bills strike back or: the return of the dualler.” Variety July 7th 1964: 7

‘Kash’. “Arizona Bushwhackers (review).” Variety May 16th 1968: 8.

Law of the Lawless: Paramount Merchandising Manual and Pressbook. [USA] Paramount Pictures Corporation And A.C. Lyles Productions, 1963.

Loy, R. Philip. Westerns in a Changing America: 1955-2000. Jefferson: Mcfarland, 2004.

Marks, Ed. “From Lawmen to Lepus: An interview with A.C. Lyles.” Filmfax #117 June 2007: 41-7.

Monaco. History of American Cinema: The Sixties. Volume 8. 10 vols. New York: Gale Group, 2001.

Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge, 2000.

“Nix westerns-Smith. Too inflated: Gotta load ’em with Stars.” Variety [New York ] Jan 8th 1964, 13.

“Oaters profitable overseas, so Par gives reins to Lyles.” Variety November 20th 1963: 3.

“Par takes turn at showcase bat with ‘Stranger’ via 2 first runs then 20 theatre expansion.” Variety June 29th 1964: 5.

Puttnam, David. The Undeclared War: The Struggle for Control of the World’s Film Industry. London: Harper Collins, 1997.

Red Tomahawk: Paramount Press Book and Merchandising Manual. [USA]

Paramount Pictures Corporation and A.C. Lyles Productions, 1966.

“Rome Wickets Hip for Oaters .” Variety June 19th 1967: 7.

Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System. New York: Metropolitan, 1988.

“Showcasing: What is a studio to do?.” Variety 12th May 65: 3.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

Stanfield, Peter. Hollywood, Westerns and the 1930s: The Lost Trail. Exeter: University Of Exeter Press, 2001.

Town Tamer: Paramount Merchandising Manual and Pressbook. [USA] Paramount Pictures Corporation And A.C. Lyles Productions, 1965.

‘Tube’. “Law of the Lawless.” Variety March 25th 1964: 6.

Tuska, John. The Filming of the West. New York: Doubleday, 1976.

“US Westerns Went Thataway: To Europe.” Variety September 18th 1963:

Waco: Paramount Merchandising Manual and Pressbook. [USA] Paramount Pictures Corporation and A.C. Lyles Productions, 1966.

“Western Fare Prime for Network Skeds.” Variety March 3rd 1968: 17.

White, Timothy R.. “Hollywood’s Attempt At Appropriating Television: The Case Of Paramount Pictures.” Hollywood In The Age Of Television. Ed. Tino Bailo. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990. 115-145.

August 19, 2009

Dualled In The Run: The Paramount Westerns of A.C. Lyles (before the intermission)

by Dean Brandum

Compared to film scholars of years past, modern-day cinema historians and theorists are graced with a certain distinct advantage. The passing of time allows theories to be proposed, argued and established (and occasionally dismissed and replaced). Particular films are recused from obscurity, their merits reassessed as they are viewed with fresh eyes years after their brief moment of contemporeality. Conversely, others once regarded as significant examples of their form may fall by the critical wayside as the later consensus finds that time has been less than kind to the measure of its quality. Knowledge is accumulated as facts are exhumed. Social, political and cultural notions are formed. It was always known what came before a particular film, but the benefit of temporal distance allows us to see what transpired afterwards. As a result, tendencies of filmmakers may be evaluated, national cinemas characterised, and films slotted into genres, then trends and cycles. It is then, theoretically possible to take any film from a bygone era and categorise it in a number of ways, placing it as a piece in the vast, never-ending puzzle of cinema past.

Yet from time to time there appears the occasional aberration within cinema history – films, trends, decisions and other aspects that are seemingly unaccounted for and, upon a cursory examination, defy explanation. This thesis will attempt to deal with one overlooked series of films that so far have been relegated to little more than footnotes within published cinema histories.

In August of 1964 a new film engagement opened in New York cinemas for a week.

law of the lawless

We shall ignore the striking artwork of Robinson Crusoe on Mars and instead pay attention to the second feature on the engagement, Law of the Lawless. For the cinema scholar, on a cursory glance it would appear that there is little to explain. A ‘B-western’ rounding out a double feature. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of such films made, so what makes Law of the Lawless worthy of any more attention?

It is a reasonable assumption to begin with, considering that the film has not yet been critically revived. Nor for that matter has there been any reappraisal of the director’s career. William F. Claxton was a veteran editor of B-films before enjoying a busy career in the early 1950s as a television director. Dotted through his filmography are a handful of features, mostly low budget westerns. Of some interest is the film’s cast, which includes Dale Robertson who had made a number of moderately budgeted westerns in the 1950s before starring the in the popular television series Tales of Wells Fargo which ran from 1957-1962. The supporting cast included large notably large number of performers who were once either stars or in-demand character performers during the years of the Hollywood studio system – Yvonne De Carlo, William Bendix, John Agar, Barton MacLane, Bruce Cabot and Lon Chaney among them. A synopsis of the plot does not offer any particular hints of this being an unusual genre entry –

Judge Clem Rogers arrives in the Kansas town of Stone Junction where he is to preside over a murder trial. Known as ‘the hanging judge’ due to his predilection for handing out death sentences, the town is beginning to fill with various gunman wanting to kill Rogers as revenge for relatives and friends he sent to the gallows. To complicate matters the accused in his current trail is his childhood friend whose wealthy father controls Stone Junction, a town divided over whether justice should be served or if the corrupt status quo should remain. (Pressbook 1)

Judging by the description, it would appear that Law of the Lawless qualifies as a ‘town western’, the genre cycle that was popularised in the early 1950s by successful features such as The Gunfighter (1950: Henry King) and High Noon (1952: Fred Zinnemann). In The Crowded Prairie, Michael Coyne describes the town western as one in which the “heroism and integrity of a solitary gunman is contrasted with the cowardice, hypocrisy and avarice of the local community”. This is in direct contrast to the celebratory westerns of the 1930s and 1940s in which a gunfighter would eradicate villainy from a town, much to the populace’s joy. As the hero usually left in the final scenes, the viewer is left believing that the town will now thrive and prosper and have the necessary fortitude to keep the town clean themselves. In the town western the mood is far more cynical – the hero will eventually rid the town of villainy, but he leaves with a certain amount of disgust, wondering if the town was really worth saving at all. Some theorists (such as Coyne and Loy) have detected certain subtexts running through the town-western cycle, believing them to be allegories of contemporary small-town America. A number of these films depicted paranoia, small-mindedness, corruption, racism, greed and distrust as among the obstacles the lawman must face from the townsfolk. The potential for such thematic explorations may have appealed to filmmakers in the 1950s as allegories of that Cold-War era, but for the studios the town western offered the convenience of a quality western on a lower budget. With an emphasis on dialogue over action and many scenes occurring indoors, these westerns could have a greater number of scenes shot on soundstages, not incurring the difficulties of location shooting and thereby shortening the schedule and reducing the budget. (67-74)

That Law of the Lawless is a town western should be the first clue to its unique nature. For although the cycle was popular in the 1950s, but the turn of the decade it had had lost favour. Certainly there were some town westerns being produced, but these were generally for the completion of contracts of stars losing their lustre. Among these later entries were those starring Audie Murphy for producer Gordon Kaye at Universal. (Loy 29-34) It was rare to find any new town westerns commissioned by that time. Several new trends were evident in the genre at this time, including the ‘professional western’, in which a band of fortune seekers embarked on a mission, usually south of the border. Inspired by Vera Cruz (1954: Robert Aldrich), these films were best exemplified by The Magnificent Seven (1960: John Sturges) and The Professionals (1965: Richard Brooks). (Carroll 46-63) The ‘contemporary westerns’ such as The Misfits (1961: John Huston) and Lonely are the Brave (1962: David Miller) depicted modern cowboys unable to function in a society that no longer values individuality and that has no frontier left to conquer. (Coyne 105-115)

Law of the Lawless was released in 1964, not only after the town western was waning, but two years after a pair of elegiac westerns were released. Ride the High Country (1962: Sam Peckinpah) saw two stalwarts of the genre, Randolph Scott and Joel McRea retire from the screen and take three decades of western values with them. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) pondered the notion of whether the myth of the west (both in cinema and the national consciousness) was actually more desirable than the more mundane truth. His players were another pair of veterans, John Wayne and James Stewart. Long since youthful performers, they aged into old men by the time the film had finished. It seemed as if the traditional western was in its last throes. For the fan of the time it seemed as if the options were either cowpokes in modern guise embodying western values or authentic gunmen with a more mercenary code. When one factors in that 1964 was the year that A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone’s violent and cynical Italian western was released, then Law of the Lawless does appear more than a little anachronistic.

For that matter, westerns of all types had lost then venerable status in Hollywood. The following graph charts the number of westerns made in the United States between 1926-1970, distinguishing between studio and independent productions and stating what percentage the genre constituted of total film output each year. It also provides the number of first run television series playing on American television

westerns 26-70

It is clear that, after a lull in the 1940s, the genre rode a wave of production highs for a short period in the early 1950s. Total westerns fell dramatically late in the decade as the number of television series exploded in popularity. Yet the drop for the major studios was less severe than for the independents, who found their low budget market stolen by the small screen. However all lines on the chart begin to dip and the general record low occurs in 1963. Only 11 westerns were made in the United States that year with just six by the majors. In 1953 there were 98 American westerns released. It is true that the overall output of Hollywood decreased in that period, but when placed in context the numbers represent a huge reduction. For while westerns accounted for 27% of total releases in 1953, it constituted a mere 9% a decade later. The blame cannot be laid entirely with television, for that medium had also lost interest in the genre, as from 1959-1963 the number of series was slashed by nearly two-thirds. It is clear that 1963 was when the western genre, as a form of filmed entertainment, slumped to its nadir. (Buscombe 428-6)

1963 was also the year that Paramount commissioned producer A.C. Lyles to make Law of the Lawless. With the information now provided it should be apparent that a level of mystery surrounds this film. Why would a major studio commission a traditional western of a cycle that was winding up, at a time when it seemed that the genre had no future? One can perhaps mark it down to necessity – a studio (even one as formidable as Paramount) needing quick, low-budget filler for an under-nourished production slate. This is a reasonable assumption and certainly one-off aberrations are not uncommon in Hollywood. Yet the intrigue that surrounds Law of the Lawless is only the starting point of this thesis’s concerns. As the film received nothing more than lukewarm reviews at best and barely made a impression at the box office (Variety does not list it among its 85 films collecting over $500,000 in rentals for the year), we need to ask, why did Paramount release another twelve of these films from A.C. Lyles (one reaching the screen every 3-4 months), the last of them reaching the screen in June of 1968?

These westerns had narratives as formulaic as their titles. The Hollywood trade paper Variety once published a brief report announcing a new, ten-film contract extension for Lyles with Paramount studios. The article stated that the dozen western features already made by Lyles in the preceding four years constitute:

“not only the most prolific, but also the most consistent output (in subject matter and style as well as in casting) of any producer in recent memory”.

The reporter describes these films with a tone of slight bemusement and even incredulity.

“(They) are all old-fashioned westerns, with barely a hint of ‘modern’ cinematic sadism or sex. The men are men and fight like oath-bound boy scouts, while the women are invariably of the schoolteacher or (for spice) saloon hostess persuasion. Psychology is uncomplicated to the point of non-existence and the plots are straight-forward action fare”. (‘A.C. Lyles Begins 10 for Par’ 5)

There appears to be no definitive published explanation for why Lyles’ films were produced. However, if we return to the advertisement of Robinson Crusoe on Mars & Law of the Lawless, we can find clues for some of the reasons for their domestic purpose. With careful examination one needs to consider the potential market for the main feature, the space on the admat reserved for the support feature, the name of the studio releasing the films and the spread of theatres the films were provided with for their New York release. The ad states it is a ‘Showcase’ presentation and the film was to open at fifteen theatres in both the city and suburbs.

This post will contend that, as commodities, the A.C. Lyles westerns were produced to conform to certain expectations and utilities of distribution and exhibition, their budgets, running times, production values and subject matter adhering to specific avenues of product dissemination. Although designed to American production and release standards, they were, in fact, made primarily for the purposes of overseas distribution, for although such film appear anachronistic for American theatres in the mid 1960s, they were highly popular, headline product in Europe, where the western was still a favourite genre with audiences. Apart from the viability of the genre, foreign earnings were of an increasing importance to the American film industry. In the early 1940s such revenue accounted for 20-25% of distribution rentals, by 1956 40-50% of earnings would emanate from overseas and the rate was increasing. For their American releases they accomplished the role of filling a space in ‘Showcase’ presentations, a new form of theatrical exhibition primarily aiming for the juvenile and suburban market. In regards their genre, the western was chosen due to its lull on screens large and small, with the promise of later television sales to bring lucrative rewards. Overall though, the A.C. Lyles westerns were created out of necessity by a studio in turmoil. The security and stability of the classical era was evaporating in the 1950s. The following decade was one of uncertainty in which once venerable practices (including in-house production, overhead, genre, star systems and established release formats) were no longer accountable. By the end of the decade the lost audience would begin to return to the films of the ‘New Hollywood’ – cinema produced with a younger target audience, often with international financial backing and artistic input and produced independently for major studio distribution. The reasons for the existence of the Lyles’ western cycle are complex and sourced in the evolution of exhibition methods and the delicate relationship between film and television and streams of finance from an increasingly global market, made in those ‘in-between’ years, as the ‘old’ Hollywood attempted consolidation. A time of crisis for Paramount and the industry overall, it seemed as if Hollywood no longer had the answers for its malaise. In the chase for a box-office hit large amounts of money was sunk into seemingly sure-fire formulae. Inevitably few succeeded and just as inexplicable was the surprise and unheralded hit, which the studios often had difficulty accounting for. Such failures (and the occasional success) of the period have been documented. But little has been written of the stop-gap measures employed to stem the financial haemorrhaging. This post will attempt to illuminate an aspect of these practices.

The first part of this post will discuss the notion of the ‘zone-run-clearance’ system of film exhibition and how it affected film production in the United States. Forming a hierarchy of cinemas and in turn films, the system was a dictating force in the way markets were established and then targeted by the industry. Remaining stable for nearly fifty years, it was a new form of presentation attempted by the studios that created a market for the likes of the Lyles and his westerns.

The second part is devoted to the evolution of double feature film presentations and the creation of a gulf between ‘A’ and ‘B’ westerns within both the industry and through audience perception. Over time, for a variety of reasons, the distinction became blurred, leading to the concept of the ‘co-feature’, a unique category into which the Lyles’ westerns fell.

Part three will detail the crumbling fortunes Paramount in the period after the Second World War. Inefficient management, poor decision-making and an inability to adapt to the post-studio system era eventually led to the company’s takeover. Paramount desperately turned to European markets for both exporting and importing. Such ventures illustrate the uncertainty of the period as it was the purchase of a low-budget, dubbed ‘sword-and-sandal’ epic that proved to be (on a cost: return ratio) the studio’s most profitable film of 1963. It was on this buying expedition that the notion of a low budget series of westerns for the European market was raised and, needing product cheaply and quickly, they looked to A.C. Lyles. This part will also discuss how these features were produced, marketed and exhibited, using extensive box office data from the period.

In order to establish the merits of an in-depth discussion of the westerns of A.C. Lyles, this introduction has already placed these town westerns within their generic context. Having found that they anachronisms of their time, the only future allusions to generic discussion will be in regards to the impact it had upon the industry of western production. As this thesis is primarily an industrial-economic study, it shall be restricted from any textual analysis, although such a study would make for a worthwhile endeavour. This thesis will view any films discussed as industrial commodities – product manufactured for the purposes of gaining an audience.

PART TWO: THE HEIRARCHY OF THE AMERICAN WESTERN – THE ‘ZONE-RUN-CLEARANCE’ SYSTEM AND DIVISION IN THE MARKETPLACE.

Western scholar Ed Buscombe has written that –

“Until the early 1930s we cannot really speak of ‘A’ and ‘B’ features. Before then all westerns had to make their own way in the market on equal terms with other productions.” (36-7)

This claim is true in regards to the emergence of the double-feature method of exhibition in the early 1930s, but to claim that prior to that time a free market operated is not entirely accurate.

The laissez-faire policy of film exhibition in the United States only determined the market for a little more than its first decade. In the industry’s infancy, exhibitors gained the right to screen films via a bidding system, one that was dogged by corruption. Theatre owners bribed booking agents in order to receive the most desirable titles and often owners would collude to keep prices down, by alternating on not bidding against each other for particular films. The dishonesty was affecting both producers and exhibitors so the General Film Company was formed in 1910 to establish order. The company bought up the licensed film exchanges and instituted the ‘zone-run-clearance’ system, an exhibition standard that would last, with few alterations, for over half a century. (Izod 19-20)

The system entailed dividing markets (generally cities or towns) into ‘zones’ determined by population size and spread. Within a particular zone, each theatre would be classified depending on its size, seating capacity and the superiority of its equipment and comfort – in essence, its ability to generate revenue. Those rated best within the zone were classified with a ‘first run’ rating, the next grouping as ‘second run’ and so forth, down to the smallest ‘fleapit’ theatres which were generally third runs in most towns, but in large cities such as New York and Chicago there existed fifth and sixth run theatres.

First run theatres would be given first-refusal rights on all new films. Once a film had completed its run at the theatre it would then be withdrawn for a period of time (anywhere from 7-30 days) for what was known as the ‘clearance’. Then the film would move to a second-run theatre and the process would continue as the film wended its way through the class of runs. Naturally the first-run theatres would be charged the higher rental fee for new films, with later run houses paying as little as 20% by the time they secured the title. Initially the fee was determined by the length of the film (exhibitors paid by the foot), irrespective of the budget or production values. (Izod 40-41) In time that rule was scrapped and for most first-run films a revenue sharing arrangement was agreed upon, with the general rule being a 60/40 split between distributor and exhibitor (although, on certain popular or expensive titles it may have been as high as 90/10 for the first week and on a sliding scale thereafter. (Dick 36-9)

The most marked effect of the strictly enforced system was that the first-run theatre was overly privileged and protected. By securing the premiere engagements, they also gained the most ardent filmgoers and with the clearance factor, the potential audience soon became aware that a popular title might be withdrawn for up to a month before it arrived at another, lesser (albeit closer) cinema.

The zone-run-clearance system created a hierarchy of cinemas. (Izod 20) With all new films at their disposal, the first-run theatre owners became the arbiters of quality (also only insofar as its relativity to revenue generation). The second and later run theatres were left to pick over what was left. It must be reiterated that every new film did not have to play at a first run theatres. If the owners decided to pass on a film, the discretion was then left to the second-run owner and so on. For later run owners the choice was one of taking popular title that had already been in release and being charged a reasonably high rate of rental. The downside was that the film had already be seen by many of the potential audience, however it was advantageous that the title had been well publicised and was a known commodity to that remaining audience, and if the film was particularly appealing, then the repeat viewing was a strong possibility. On the other hand, the later-run owner could choose to take an unknown, cheaper title which would generally be of a lower budget and be viewed in the industry as a less attractive proposition. Yet with a lower operating base and a less-discerning audience such a film could prove profitable in the later-run situation. (Gomery ‘Shared Pleasures’ 77-9)

This opened the market for a number of low-budget filmmakers who, overlooked by the first-run houses, could target the later venues. Even within the first run market there existed diversity. Apart from fulfilling a designated criteria, there was little uniformity within the class of runs. During the 1920s each year averaged over six hundred feature films and many more of a shorter length. With a diverse range of product on offer to an audience with a wide variety of tastes, many theatres attempted to lure and retain niches of the market. This strategy became a necessity in the late 1920s as the first run theatres became congested into the central business districts of each city, complimenting the restaurants, live theatres, musical venues and other forms of entertainment. (Finler 14-17) A picture palace may specialise in glamorous Hollywood productions predominately featuring female stars in order to attract one audience and around the corner the less salubrious venue may concentrate on male-dominated action for their patronage. Audiences became accustomed to identifying theatres with the types of films they played. (Izod 40-1) Such a notion became more intense when the film producers began buying the theatres.

In 1910 the system was implemented to provide a fair and equitable market for the producer and exhibitor. At that time most theatres were run independently and ‘chains’ only consisted of little more than a handful of houses under single ownership. The film industry was also a loosely structured notion, with filmmakers spread across the country and many small, ad-hoc companies existing for only a few features before disbanding or merging with others. In time though, as the film industry evolved, so too did the business of theatre ownership. Many of Hollywood’s later moguls began their industry careers as owners of single Nickelodeon screens and building upon that success. It did not take long for production and exhibition to merge and the most perceptive film producers knew that it was the first run theatres that delivered the greatest returns for their own product. (Finler 14-17)

A cause-and-effect cycle soon began for the film companies that owned studios. By channelling their own product into their cinemas, they collected the entire revenue of not just the rental fee, but the entire gross. With production and exhibition consolidated, distribution costs were streamlined and the potential for theatres under-reporting their takings were eliminated. This enabled greater returns for these companies who would then invest in films with higher production values, the most popular stars and a greater audience appeal. They would also purchase, lease or build the most opulent cinemas in each city. It was a twinned strategy of the best theatres playing the finest films, enabled by exponential profits created by the success of production directly funnelled into exhibition. By the 1930s the major studios’ oligopoly not only controlled the American film industry but also exerted the most power in the exhibition business, at the expense of the independent film producer and theatre owner.

In many cities and larger towns the theatre district may have venues owned by a number of production companies (although the mix was dependent on the area – Paramount was strong in the south and the New England States, MGM (Loews) and RKO dominated New York and its neighbours, Warners down the east coast and Fox the west). (Finler 17) Studios’ house-style helped differentiate between films and in some cases where a studio owned more than a single first run venue in a zone, they would channel their product into the theatre most suitable. ‘Action-houses’ became a standard venue in each city, relying on a steady diet of westerns, horror, war, and adventure films. In the 1920s these were the cinemas where a western fan would hope to see the latest, moderately budgeted Tom Mix or William S. Hart feature. For expensive ‘epic outdoor dramas’ such as The Covered Wagon (1924) or The Iron Horse (1924) they would probably expect to buy their tickets at the lavish picture palace down the street. (Izod 54-8) By the 1930s the studios two sorted their productions into two groups of films – ‘A’ and ‘B’. Within the ‘A’ film bracket there existed three more divisions – the ‘supers-special’ of which there were few – expensive epic narratives featured their most popular performers; ‘specials’ were well-budgeted star vehicles designed for the top of the bill and ‘programmers’ were modestly budgeted A-films featuring minor leads that could play either end of the bill. (Neale 239-245) The production of these films was intrinsically linked to the suitability of the theatres they would later play in, So upon close inspection, the hierarchy of theatres contained a division within the run and in some cases it was divided further between a sole owner.

The zone-run-clearance system continued with little change (except for an increasing dominance by the major studios) until the 1948 Supreme Court Consent decree (often referred to as ‘The Paramount Decree) which attempted to break the studios’ vertically integrated control of the exhibition business. In the mid 1940s the studios owned approximately 3000 of the nation’s 18000 theatres. At only 17% of the total it may have seemed a minor amount considering their control. However, these venues constituted a lucrative 70% of all first-run in the country. Independent producers had to struggle to have their films seen and independent exhibitors struggled to screen anything from the studios, unless they were willing to agree to impractical terms of screening a feature for longer than its market worth and by having to take a slew of inferior features along with the one desirable title. From 1948 the major studios could produce and distribute, but not exhibit film. (Dick 37-40)

In the 1950s average weekly attendances plummeted at American theatres. From a 1944 peak of 84 million, by 1963 only 22 million tickets were being sold per week. (Finler 288) For the studios that owned theatres, hindsight may have led them to believe that the enforced divestiture of theatres was a blessing in disguise. For in the same period half the ‘hard-top’ venues had closed in the United States. Having exited exhibition when business was good they had been able to sell their theatres as sound investments. A decade later they were worth little more than their land value for redevelopment. It was a combination of several factors that caused the audience downturn – television and the rise of the suburban lifestyle in the postwar period. With new diversions taking the disposable entertainment time and dollar, the once loyal audience had other ways to spend their time. They no longer went in such numbers to the movies for a night out. Instead, they went to specific films. Yet for the expanding suburbs the theatres were not in place or were somewhat tatty later run venues. According to one theatre operator at the time, there were not too many cinema seats, it was just that they were in the wrong places. (Balio 5-12)

The theatres that closed in the period were mostly later run venues, but the decrease in screens was somewhat made by for by the boom of drive-in cinemas which targeted the new youth audience. American teenagers had both the cars and disposable income that the youth of the past did not. Drive-ins were popular markets for science-fiction, horror and films with teenage protagonists and although the major studios benefited from the popularity of this form of screening, it was the smaller studios such as American International who tailored their product directly to such venues, with both domestically produced films and imported (then dubbed) material. Popular ‘ozoner’ fare would generally not warrant a first-run hardtop release, but with lower overheads and an audience that was coming to the drive-in for the entertainment ‘experience’ rather than the particular film (as was once the case with hardtop screens), such films were viable (and inexpensive) options for 1950s film producers. (Heffernan 151-2)

With the number of hardtop theatres declining, the studios decreased their film output, concentrating on A-films with larger budgets and various widescreen formats in an attempt to lure audiences back to the cinema with spectacles they would not find on Television. For the surviving theatre owner it meant large investments in the installation of new, larger screens and sound equipment. The 1948 ‘Paramount Decree’ had intended to provide theatres with the advantage of choosing the films they wished to screen, but a decade later, with far fewer films on offer, the studios returned to the winning position as theatres were forced to accept outrageous terms to screen the rationed product. For the traditional zone-run-clearance system to be most effective it required a high volume of films being filtered through a large number of theatres. With the films not forthcoming and the later runs base eroded in many cities, the system was weakened. The first run houses were overpaying and the second runs were waiting far longer for films to screen. (Monaco 41-56)

From the mid 1950s through to the late 1960s there were a number of new initiatives in exhibition release formats and patterns in yet another attempt to create a market division and product differentiation:

  • ROADSHOW – Almost always reserved for the most prestigious and spectacular fare, this form of presentation involved the film opening initially in one or two cities (usually New York and Los Angeles) at the grandest of venues. All seating would be reserved and tickets priced higher (‘hardticket’) for the occasion. With an overture and intermission, a roadshow release was a cinema ‘event’ rather than a regular night at the movies. The film would gradually roll out over the country would sometimes play in the one theatre for over a year before moving into a smaller first run venue at regular (‘popscale’) ticket pricing and reverting to the traditional release pattern. Roadshow gross splits were heavily in favour of the distributor for the first few weeks with a sliding scale thereafter and with the high ticket prices this could provide a bountiful take. But with the film usually playing only once per day (to retain its event value) and with the distributor having to pay for the extra staff required for the complicated booking procedures, the returns were slow to come in. If a film was a failure on roadshow, it would almost definitely be a disaster when on traditional first run. Roadshows reached saturation point in the late 1960s and returns suffered. A number of westerns such as How the West was Won (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) were released with this method, the former far more successful than the latter. (Monaco 48)

  • TRADITIONAL FIRST RUN releases were those A-films not deemed spectacular enough for roadshowing. Most films continued to be released in this manner and although their grosses could seldom match that of roadshows, the campaign costs were far less prohibitive. Paramount’s The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) was one of the highest grossing non-roadshows of its year.

  • SHOWCASE: A concept initiated by United Artists in New York in the early 1960s, showcasing involved releasing a first release film in multiple first runs within a single city. For these presentations many second-run houses (including drive-ins) were granted first-run status. Occasionally a film would be given an exclusive opening for a couple of weeks at a single city theatre before moving into showcase, but just as often it was a direct wide release across a city. Theatres would bid for the rights to screen showcase product and the distributors and exhibitors would save on advertising by just listing the venues under the promotional item. Paramount was quick to endorse the concept and tried it in other cities. Soon, all of the majors followed suit. Showcasing was ideal for double-feature, especially those of a dubious quality. A clever marketing campaign could reap strong grosses over the opening weekend (of a usual single week booking), before word of mouth could harm the films’ chances. The system was not without its disadvantages. First-run city theatres involved in the showcase could expect lower returns than usual and a poor campaign could result in a failure on a large scale (especially as some later New York presentations included over 60 venues) and there was little time to build momentum of ‘difficult’ titles which required care and planning. Therefore showcasing was usually restricted to easily marketed genre titles. (‘Showcasing’ 3)

  • ARTHOUSE cinemas flourished during the period. Generally small venues on converted premises they eschewed the traditional release patterns by exhibiting independently distributed (often imported) fare. Apart form the expected, critically acclaimed arthouse films, the trade press also designated cinemas that were just as likely to screen titillating exploitation with the same description. Major studios rarely bothered with such theatres, except when attempted to distribute particularly difficult material picked up through European distribution deals. (Gomery ‘Shared’ 180-195)

  • DRIVE-IN and LATER RUN FIRST RELEASE. Akin to the former independent theatre exhibition practices in the pre-1948 era, this usually involved regional and states-rights distributed films bypassing traditional release schedules. Neither major studios or theatre chains were likely to be involved. (Heffernan (151-2)

Although the film industry was still struggling in the 1960s, box office receipts had slowly improved and the freefall of attendances had stalled. After a traumatic period in the 1950s when methods of exhibition had a stolid monotony, the new practices and innovations once again created divisions and niches in the marketplace, allowing films to be produced and promoted for select audiences and creating new windows of opportunity for both the major studios and the independent operator. Having established the streams of exhibition available to distributors, the following chapter shall examine how the product was developed to suit these particular markets and patterns of release.

PART THREE: ADDED ATTRACTIONS – THE SECOND FEATURE – BRIDGING THE GULF FROM B-MOVIES TO CO-FEATURES.

The coming of sound preceded the Great Depression by around two years and the success and novelty of the ‘talkies’ enabled the motion picture industry to weather the ensuing financial meltdown, but with much duress and by incurring crippling losses. Between 1929-1935 the number of theatres in North America dropped by 8000 to 15,300. However it must be noted that most of the closures were of silent theatres that did not make the conversion to sound and during that period the number of sound-equipped theatres progressively increased. (finler 288) There was no disguising the drop in audience attendance though; 25 million fewer tickets were sold in 1932 than in 1930. In an attempt to lure back viewers, theatre owners offered prizes of household goods an games of chance for lucky ticket buyers. This practice was outlawed in 1933 (albeit for less than two years) as an unfair practice by the National Recovery Act. (Gomery ‘Shared’ 77-8)

As a means of survival, desperate theatre owners turned to a practice that had been trialled by several regional theatre chains in the late 1920s, the concept of offering ‘two for one’ movies. By adding a second feature to the bill at the expense of the customary short subject, the now-frugal public were promised a full night’s entertainment for their 75 cents admission. (Gomery ‘Shared’ 77-8)

It must be noted that the studio-owned theatres (accounting for a large percentage of first-run houses) were initially reluctant to play a second feature due to their belief that it would diminish the quality of their (often expensive) main attraction. For its first few years the double-bill was confined to independent theatres (the majority being later run, neighbourhood venues) struggling to compete with the grand, studio-owned picture palaces that may have been spiralling into debt, but were determined to offer their customary extravagant entertainment. Paramount was the most resistant of the major studios, holding out until 1938 when the pressure of declining profits saw them add second features to many of their bills, often at the expense of the lavish musical revues that had accompanied films in their finest theatres. (Gomery ‘Shared’ 78)

At first, the second feature was generally a well-worn and inexpensive print taken from the film exchange of a once regular release now a few years old. The true ‘B-film’, as the second-feature came to be known, appeared shortly afterwards as smart producers tailored ‘all new’ features with running times more amenable for pairing with a lengthy main attraction. It would be over generalising to offer a description that suited all B-films, however they did share a number of traits including a low budget, limited shooting schedule and a running time of around 50-70 minutes. Due to their undersized length, scenes were pared down to their most basic necessities in order to convey as much plot as possible. These films often featured former high-profile performers whose stars were on the wane and in most cases their storylines were downsized derivatives of popular screen genres. With advertising of B-films kept to a minimum (in many cases no more than a single line in a newspaper advertisement) their titles would have to convey a representation of what the audience would be paying to see. (McCarthy 14-20)

In discussing the concept of ‘dualling’, it must be recognised that there was no fixed practice to how the engagements were structured. What compromised a double feature was entirely dependent upon the theatre – its ownership, class of run, patronage and region. As the major studios succumbed to the production practice, they developed their own B-units to fill the second feature slots in their theatres (especially the action houses and second run venues). Independent operators of first-run houses continued to resist the true ‘B’ film and preferred to continue to screen older, former A-titles as second features (their rental fee declining with age). It was in the later-run theatres where the B-film enjoyed its strongest following. Bypassing the major studios completely, the owners could deal with the ‘poverty row’ studios such as Mascot, Monogram, Lone Star and PRC – companies which thrived in the B-film market. (McCarthy 15-23) As a rule, the B-film was booked at a flat fee, unlike the main attraction that would be charged at a rate dependent upon factors such as the house’s run and seating capacity. For the low run theatres this could mean picking up a title for as little as $25 and if their viewers were not overly discerning, this could reap a tidy profit. For that amount they could receive a 1930s Buck Jones B-western from Columbia. It may seem that a $25 fee could hardly deliver a profit for the studio, but with 10,000 domestic playdates (not uncommon for the B-market) the return of $250,000 would realise a healthy profit on the film’s modest $25,000 budget. Such a cost was miniscule by the standards of the major studios, but it was quite lavish compared to some poverty row productions. In the early 1930s John Wayne was shooting 3-day westerns at Monogram budgeted at $5000 each. (Buscombe 39-40) With so much product available and a diverse audience to cater for, theatres would experiment with the films they twinned together. Peter Stanfield has discovered that in some rural areas, series westerns that were restricted to the bottom of the bill in urban situations were screened as the main attraction and they filled the weekend run, often at the expense of costlier and prestigious A-films which were relegated to the quieter mid-week slot. (52-71)

The poverty row studios did not have the resources to maintain a national distribution network, so their films were managed through the States’ Rights System. This involved an independent distributor purchasing poverty row titles and brokering deals with theatres in specified states. A studio may deal with many of these franchisees to ensure their films played across the country and the franchisee (as the states’ rights distributor was known) would commonly handle the films of a number of companies. Eventually Republic and Monogram grew strong enough to manage their own distribution, but the States Rights method continued into the late 1970s the films they handled then being mostly of the low budget horror and sex variety. (McCarthy 18)

It may have taken Paramount until late in the decade to screen B-films in their first run theatres, yet they were happy enough to provide rival theatres with a steady stream of B’s. For 1935 the Paramount B-film slate consisted of 35 films which were mostly musicals, comedies, mysteries and westerns. Among the westerns were the first three that featured William Boyd as ‘Hopalong Cassidy’. (Eames 107-113) Producer Harry Sherman had approached Paramount to finance a film based on the character but the studio agreed to release the film, they declined to invest in it. Even in 1935 the $85,000 cost of Hop-a-Long Cassidy was a very low budget but the studio’s reluctance shows their pessimism of the market potential and prestige value of such a film. They still eventually released the independently financed feature to huge success and over the next six years they released a further forty films featuring Boyd in the role. (Tuska 312-13)

In 1940 Paramount began a partnership with the Pine-Thomas company to produce B-films for their production schedules. William Pine and William Thomas were former press agents and at Paramount they reworked a lucrative narrative formula for the next fifteen years. They concentrated mostly within two genres, either action-filled melodramas featuring a hero working in a deadly profession encountering life-threatening situations (minesweeper, lumberjack) or romantic musicals in which struggling performers realise their dreams. Pine-Thomas were extremely successful for Paramount, by the mid 1940s their films were averaging $600,000 grosses on $125,000 budgets. Their arrangement was that the studio would finance all their films and pay them 25% of all profits over 125% of the films’ cost. As a result ‘the dollar bills’ (as the producers were known) were earning $700,000 a year at their peak. Frugal and efficient, they recycled sets, had a staff of only 11 on each film and paid their actors by the hour. Overhead was kept to a 4%, nearly a tenth of the average Paramount production. (‘It’s not art, but…’ 34-5)

By the mid 1940s the B-film was an established standard at most American cinemas. Audiences may have remained divided on the worth of such films, but all were aware of their characteristics (including limitations). In the previous chapter it was explained how the zone-run-clearance system created a hierarchy of theatres which led to a division of the (perceived) quality of films. The introduction of the double-feature created yet another (immutable) division, a gulf between A and B films that was seemingly impossible to bridge. Certainly the major studios found a use for the B-film other than revenue raising, grooming promising stars and creative personnel in their low-budget training grounds, but for the most part actors and directors never crossed back and forth between the A and B gulf. One of the few to manage the feat was John Wayne, whose career had begun with a leading role in the potential blockbuster The Big Trail (1930: Raoul Walsh). However after that film’s boxoffice failure Wayne toiled away in scores of the cheapest westerns produced on poverty row for the best part of a decade. With some luck he managed to land the lead in John Ford’s Stagecoach in 1939 and never left A-films again. (Stanfield 31-55) Gene Autry, William Boyd and Roy Rogers may have had large and loyal followings and their films may have made them extremely wealthy but they remained B-film stars and were unable to cross the gulf into the respected realms of the A-film. (Buscombe 39-42) Indeed, for mush of the 1930s the only way the western myth found a cinematic retelling was through the ghetto of the B-movie. After the failure of several ‘outdoor epics’ at the start of the decade the major studios abandoned the western. There was even little room for the moderately budgeted efforts of the 1920s with the likes of Tim McCoy and William S. Hart that had been so successful. For the most part the majors avoided westerns entirely – even as B-films – knowing that the poverty row studios could churn out product of a similar quality cheaper and more efficiently. (Neale 138-9) It was not until late in the decade that the majors, led by Paramount, returned to the large-scale western and they kept it as a staple of their slates for the next quarter century.

It took the combined efforts of the television and the break-up of the studio’s stranglehold upon the exhibition industry to finally end the production of the true B-movie. With no studios to funnel their products into, the major studios had little incentive to produce B-films and although the films had retained a (decreasing) profitability, due to the flat booking fee arrangement their profits were always capped. These films could never break out of the second feature ‘ghetto’ and realise the substantial profits the majors desired. By the mid 1950s the studios had eliminated their B-units. After 71 films in fourteen years, 1955 saw Paramount and Pine-Thomas dissolve their partnership. (Dick 39)

The poverty rows studios exited the B-film market in the same decade. In 1947 PRC was bought out by the British owned Eagle-Lion distribution company which in turn was absorbed by United Artists in 1951. Monogram moved up from the B-film ghetto and became Allied Artists in 1953, raising the budgets and production values in the determined hope of finding a new audience. Republic’s expansion into expensive productions in the late 1940s saw their profit base eroded and the greater concentration on such features in the 1950s resulted in losses in 1957 A belated return to their once profitable B-westerns (on $150,000 budgets) in 1957-8 was to no avail. (McCarthy 31-2) The situation did not improve and the company closed in 1959. For the western this virtually eradicated the foundations of the genre. For although there was little cross-communication between A and B films, the low end of the market did maintain a steady re-telling of the western myth and kept the audience aware of the form, including its codes, and traits. With the basic foundations removed, the western’s role as a staple of the American cinema-going experience was seriously weakened and with film production decreasing in the A-market, it would require other means to keep the genre in the public consciousness.

That role was taken by television and from 1955-9 the unabated popularity of the western saw the number of prime-time series leap from one to forty-nine. (Buscombe 488) It appeared that the public’s appetite for the western was not restricted to the super-specials being made by Hollywood. There was still a need for small-scale western drama, but no longer were the public prepared to leave home and pay to see it. Unfortunately, the glut of prime-time westerns led to an over-saturation on the small screen. It was in the late 1950s that the American networks stopped relying on just the number of viewers to attract advertisers and instead began examining the demographics of their audiences. The data revealed that westerns were most popular among children and males of a low socio-economic standing – the demographic least popular with advertisers. So the prime-time western was slashed from schedules, with only a quarter of 1959’s number on screen four years later. Although unpopular, the audience for smaller-scale westerns still existed. (Boddy 119-140)

Yet although the true B-film was no longer a viable option, the double feature was still prominent and for some production companies the post-divestment era offered new opportunities. Columbia and Universal were referred to as among the ‘little three’ of the major studios (with United Artists being the other). Throughout the 1930s they had specialised in high quality B-films with a number of modestly budgeted A-films also on their slates. (Gomery ‘Studio’ 157-163) It is arguable that much of their product could be described as ‘programmers’. Among the 1948 Paramount decree’s acts was to ban the policy of blind booking. From that point, films would be sold individually and not as enforced package deals. This extended to B-films which had long been taken sight unseen. Now the theatre-owners could pick and choose their second features. Low quality productions stood little chance of being booked so across the industry standards were raised in competition. The B-film was close to extinction, but the ‘co-feature’ film emerged to take its place, with Universal and Columbia at the forefront of their production. (Izod 120-4)

The co-feature had a higher budget than the B-film, a longer running time (80-95 minutes) and better production values. Their performers may have not been A-list stars, but they were usually established performers able to attract a healthy audience interest. Plots may have had generic origins, but the extended length and need for product differentiation resulted in greater character depth and the movement away from the formulaic second-feature standard of the past. It has been theorised that the emergence of the co-feature was one of the factors that enabled the film noir trend of the late 1940s-early 1950s. (Izod 124) Although the budgets were higher on co-features, they retained their profitability due to being paired not with expensive A-features, but with other co-features of a similar production cost and, unlike the regular B-film, their initial releases were booking on a rental basis, with the two films sharing the split. When advertised, co-features would often share the engagement with a 50/50 billing, but one of the films could have its emphasis increased / decreased depending upon the theatre and its audience. In many cases this could be determined by which film would take the first billing and the titles swapped depending on the situation. (Izod 128) As a point of clarification, a ‘co-feature’ did differ from a ‘programmer’. The programmer was made for situations where it could play the second feature slot alongside a ‘special’ in upmarket theatres, but take the top of the bill in late-run houses with a true B-film as support. (Neale 237-9) Co-features almost always supported films of a similar production status and had a more equitable share of the bill and advertising.

For Universal, it resulted in a market for many of their series comedies. Once their popularity had tapered they no longer had the clout to carry a theatrical engagement. They were still too high profile to be relegated to B-status, but when twinned with a feature of equal entertainment value they could be a suitable engagement. The studio’s Francis, Ma and Pa Kettle and Abbott and Costello features all sustained long runs due to the co-feature concept. (Gomery ‘Studio’ 202-213)

For the western, the co-feature concept enabled a revival in the fortunes of some performers. Randolph Scott, Rory Calhoun and Dale Robertson were prolific in the 1950s. It has been stated that the James Stewart-Anthony Mann westerns of the decade could also be classified as such, although one would class these as ‘A minus’ westerns, rather than the ‘B plus’ description given to other co-feature films of the period. (Buscombe 47-8)

Whereas the big-four majors (Paramount, Fox, MGM and Warner Brothers) initially concentrated upon true A-films, the new exhibition trends, aided by the boom in drive-in theatres, opened the market for new and far smaller production companies. American International Pictures, Allied Artists were among those tailoring films specifically for the co-feature audience. (Heffernan 77-9)

It took a severe downturn in the industry for the major studios to begin exploring other avenues of exhibition and the production of films suited to such outlets.As the next chapter shall explain, for Paramount it was one of the few options left available, when the once trusted methods had failed. It was the combination of the co-feature, the new exhibition methods and a still viable foreign market willing to see standard studio fare that paved the way for Paramount’s investment in the low-budget oater.

(NEXT: THE ONGOING HISTORY OF THE LYLES WESTERNS)