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.
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
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)