Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

May 28, 2011

Objectively Speaking….

by Dean Brandum

With an adaptation of Atlas Shrugged finally hitting the screens (and slinking out quickly, its boxoffice would indicate), I got to thinking about the other, infamous Ayn Rand cinema excursion, King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (1949). As detested as it is by some critics, I actually find it most loopily enjoyable.

Anyway, the hero of the story is Howard Roarke, a brilliant architect who refuses to compromise his designs to placate the dimwitted, the close-minded, anyone who wants a neo-Roman touch or anyone who wants to include amenities that may be beneficial to poor people. Yeah, he’s a helluva guy.

So in the movie he is played by Gary Cooper and in one pivotal scene he unveils his masterpiece –

Unique and with no concession to architectural traditions, this skyscraper’s beauty lay in its pure functionality. Patricia Neal swooned, but sadly the scared, lunk-headed public would not buy such a proposition. Poor Howie becomes a martyr to all those free-thinkers unwilling to bend to the collective.

Were such a situation ever to occur many of us would be outraged at such talent and ideology being so encumbered. But the very first time I saw The Fountainhead (maybe 25 years ago) something struck be about the design presented in the film. What cinema’s Howard Roarke had essentially designed were Melbourne’s Gas and Fuel Buildings.

Completed in 1967 and despised by the public from the day they opened, there was close to a mass celebration when they were finally torn down in 1997 to make way for the generally well-liked Federation Square complex.

And you can make of that what you will.

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.


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.


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.


June 10, 2009

Lazy Fuckers

Well no, we’re not acually.

We are out seeing films  – lots of them.

Just to write about on this blog. It is all we think about and what we devote our lives to.  And very soon we will be posting all about them, right here.*

Here is a recent picture of the film bunnies (Craig is out getting popcorn) at our local theatre, all primed for blog research.

Right after this photo was taken, Alex said to me “If you don’t get those fuckin’ sideburns out of my Katherine Ross inspired hair your “If…” badge will be pinned to your scrotum.”

film buffs

I went from “If…” to “O Lucky Man!” to “Britannia Hospital” in the space of a few minutes.

*certain parts (perhaps even all) of this statement may not necessarily be 100% accurate.

April 10, 2009

Still crazy after all these years – The Star Cinema part 1: 1963-1971 – Mondo Schlock

by Dean Brandum

Alighting at the Elizabeth St exit of Flinders St Station, you’ll be greeted with the sort of view that seldom makes the Melbourne tourist brochures. Get past the newspaper hawkers and you’ll be greeted by a run of natty shops on either side of the Elizabeth St intersection. Crossing the wind tunnel of a road (there always seems to be MacDonalds rubbish billowing around your ankles) you can then wander down Elizabeth Street. You won’t see much of interest – it is the type of street not designed for a stroll, you only ever go there if you have a reason to, or on the way to get somewhere else. Some shitty little souvenir stores dot the path, along with those shop fronts that open for a few weeks to cash in on the Grand Prix and other such communal wankfests. Eventually you’ll make it to the motorcycle strip if that is your thing or the backdoor to Melbourne Central (Highpoint with trains). For those of us with a more discerning and slightly devilish bent we can spot Minotaur Books, Inferno Video and that import DVD place I can never remember the name of. Afterwards there is the Stork hotel to enjoy a quiet ale as you peruse your purchases. To most of us that is pretty much it for Elizabeth Street. A bit shabby, pretty grubby and where the rents are cheap(ish). You are guaranteed to be asked at least once for money and you’ll probably have your eyes fixed to somewhere distant – somewhere else.


Most of you have wandered that strip and have probably quickened the step just a little bit more as you pass the Crazyhorse Cinema on the corner of Elizabeth and Flinders Lane. Maybe you have skirted it on the way to Missing Link records and have tried to avert eye contact with the businessman sheepishly sneaking out the pornhouse’s side exit. Its garish neon and peeling grey exterior adorned with panels of pouty-lipped gals have the aura of sleazy delight but you’d never fall for thinking it was a sad shadow of a once proud burlesque house. And it wasn’t. If you take the step and venture down the Crazyhorse stairs you’ll find…not much at all. Greeting you is a ticket booth staffed by the affable manager Steve, who’ll give you change for the peep shows (two bucks a throw…or is that a toss?) or sell you a ticket for a seat in the cinema (valid for 12 hours – better value that a metcard!)The peeps are on the left and the cinema entrance to its right. Seating an exact hundred patrons, its screen is akin to that of one in a a small arthouse multiplex and the seats surprisingly comfortable and without the expected pong of pine-o-cleen. Offering pensioner discounts and generous rates for bucks’ turns, the Crazyhorse operates 24 hours over weekends. This was how I first encountered the cinema, around 20 years back after I missed the last train home one winter’s evening. With only a few quid in my pocket I figured that any all-night café would soon lose patience with me sitting on a couple of cups of coffee over 5 hours so I ended up at the Crazyhorse and dozed off to the grunts and groans of some long forgotten late 80s porn loop (if I recall correctly Ginger Lynn was the star…but wasn’t she the star of all of them around that time?) I tell ya though, a lot of places could take a leaf out of the Crazyhorse’s customer service manual. At 5am I was given a soft tap on the shoulder and told that my first train home would be leaving shortly. I stumbled out into the darkness and managed to knock off a tray of donuts from out the front of a nearby milkbar along with a newspaper from the freshly delivered pile and shuffled off home.

I have never had the occasion or desire to revisit the Crazyhorse. Hardcore porn generally bores me (although Michael Ninn’s stuff interested me for a while) and if I ever have the desire to peruse such material I do so in the privacy of my loungeroom. A few weeks back I returned to the Crazyhorse in preparation for this article and found not much had changed. I had a friendly chat with the manager of 20 years who seemed quite bemused that anyone would be interested in reading about the history of the place. Short-staffed that day he generously gave me a look around, detailing their policies and practices and basically explaining that the Crazyhorse has had to fight pretty hard against an increasingly prudish council and society to remain running. From what I saw during our chinwag it was hardly a clientele of perverted psychopaths lining up for tickets, instead it was a few old pensioners and a couple of jaded guys in suits. Men whose wives or marriages had passed on, getting a brief thrill before returning to their gloomy loneliness. If that makes the whole enterprise sound rather sad and depressing then it is only describing the reality of the adult theatre these days, although it was explained to me that there are often couples purchasing tickets along with footy club groups and even hen’s nights. Whatever is screened is from an anonymous DVD. Almost nothing specific has been advertised in 20 years so the days of being intrigued by a certain title have long gone. Since then it has just been the promise of sex – as to when they went ‘hardcore’ is a hard (heh) fact to pin down. That seems to be a taboo word – ‘non violent erotica’ is the preferred expression and although I was told it is entirely legal I was left with the impression that the whole area could best be described as ‘shady’.

So why devote so much time to the Crazyhorse, an anonymous grindhouse churning out one dispiriting porn loop after another? Surely I have told all there is to tell? Well, it wasn’t always that way. No, the Crazyhorse was never a grand picture palace that has since fallen on hard times. It always took the lowest rung on Melbourne’s cinema ladder, but did you know that this little theatre is the longest running in the CBD? Yes, since 1951 that premises has been operating and it has outlasted all of its contemporaries. The Regent, the Odeon, The Barclay and the Metro have long closed or have met the wrecker’s ball. The Capitol and State were converted in that time and only open now for festivals, Hoyts and Village both built much heralded state-of-the-art multiplexes that have come and gone. Fewer and fewer people venture into the city to see a movie these days – the suburban mall is the venue of choice, yet the Crazyhorse has quietly kept persevering, now into its sixth decade. But let’s start at the very beginning, as it’s a very good place to start.

In 1951 Melbourne had four cinemas specialising is screening newsreel programs. A fifth joined them that year when The Star theatrette (renamed the Crazyhorse in 1985) opened in February of 1951 at 34 Elizabeth Street, in the Basement of Carlow House, a building still intact and renowned for its distinct architecture. From the blueprint of Harry Norris and finally finished in 1939, Carlow House is one of Melbourne’s finest examples of art-deco design. On its opening the building housed the popular Croft’s grocery store at number 32, stretching around the corner into Flinders Lane. The Star took over the premises of the old Carlow House coffee lounge. The managers of the new cinema were the husband and wife team of Tom and Billie Virgona. Tom had been experienced in Sydney newsreel theatres before this venture south of the border and his father had been a well-regarded cinema operator in NSW.

Initially the Star seated 238 patrons and their diet was one of Paramount newsreels and shorts, along with a selection of short films for Warners, Columbia and RKO. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a newsreel theatre, it operated on a program of around an hour, comprising of a weekly newsreel (highlights of world events), along with a number of cartoons (Tom and Jerry, Popeye etc) and a short film, perhaps a Pete Smith Speciality for a laugh or a Scotland Yard mystery for something a little heavier. Often highlights of a newsreel1recent prizefight or Wimbledon tennis match would be the main attraction, but for that matter it may be an operatic performance or a tour of a famous art gallery. There were rarely set times for programs and customers could walk in at a whim and stay as long as they wished for a program run continuously throughout the day for the cost of a ticket far below that of a standard cinema program.

Now all of the major chains offered newsreels as part of the program in most of their theatres and they had the benefit of providing local newsreels, giving viewers the chance to see Australian stories and content. This was a luxury unavailable to The Star. Undeterred, the Virgonas improvised by filming the Melbourne Cup themselves one year and running it on the screen. In time they made a deal with British Empire films to provide the Cinesound Review – an Australian newsreel – and they were now on similar territory to the other newsreel theatres a few blocks away.

And so the Star and its competitors (including the Tatler and Albany on Collins Street, the Century on Swanston and the Times on Bourke) continued on throughout the 1950s. News, cartoons and featurettes, week after week. No, this could not last and you don’t need me to tell you that it was television was the culprit. America and Europe had already felt the effects of box and, combined with the break-up of the studio system and the diversity of post-war pursuits favoured by the now expanding and more affluent middle class, the industry was in crisis mode. In 1956 television was introduced to Australia and its effects were immediate and quite devastating. Within a year cinema audience numbers fell by 5 million. By 1961 admissions were down 52% on 1956 figures.

In this atmosphere of panic and paranoia the exhibitors could be excused for their near-sighted and knee-jerk reaction. Instead of a reluctant embrace of their new competitor and the forging of a symbiotic relationship they decided on a course of defence, then attack. Venue numbers were slashed, with the suburbs the hardest hit. 33% of Melbourne’s cinemas had closed by 1959 and many lovely suburban picture palaces met the wrecker’s ball or were converted into warehouses, shops and reception rooms. This streamlining of resources also saw both the massive State and Capitol theatres close in the city, to be later re-opened in smaller, most cost-efficient versions.

Drive-ins were opened across the suburbs with strong appeal to younger viewers and various new innovations were tried to lure back viewers. Some succeeded (stereo sound, widescreen projection) but others found their novelty did not last (3-D). Into the early 1960s the industry kept its head above water and by the middle of that decade the audiences left their loungerooms and began returning to the movies. New (smaller) theatres were built and film production increased. The industry had survived its greatest test.

One of the casualties of the introduction of television was the newsreel show. By the time it had cranked out of a theatrette’s projector, news footage had long since been transmitted into the lounge rooms of the potential audience. The other components of the programs – cartoons and short subjects – were plentiful fodder on the tele. The newsreel theatrette was obsolete within a few short years. Oddly enough, as the grand palaces were turning out the lights for good, all of Melbourne’s newsreel theatrettes managed to adapt and survive. The Tatler led the charge by changing its name to The Curzon in 1961 and initiating a policy of mostly foreign fare – a mixture of critically acclaimed arthouse hits and some rather risqué material. A couple of years later the Albany followed suit, but they seemed to favour more generic tastes, giving a good run to lots of thrillers and sword and sandal yarns. Around the same time Century joined them and they screened a similar output. The Times (located under the Odeon Theatre) stubbornly refused to drop the newsreel policy until 1968 when they leapt straight into the flesh film bin.

The Star had flirted briefly with a non-newsreel program, offering the odd feature length documentary as a main attraction, often with some healthy audience interest. However, for this article I’m going to pinpoint the Star’s changeover to full-time features as September 26th, 1963, for this was the opening date of Varietease, the Irving Klaw strip classic starring Betty Page. I’ll admit I am cheating here a little as when that film finished its run after three weeks the cinema went back to a newsreel program for a further eight weeks, before ditching the format permanently. But gee, how can you leave out a film of this importance in such a study?

This gaze back over the history of the Star cinema will be divided into 4 time periods, beginning with 1963 – 1971 (actually October of ’71) which is the pre-‘R’-certificate era. Further still, each of these periods will be divided again, into discussions focusing on various themes, genres and other such movements found in the films playing during those particular years.

For the Star was a barometer of the public taste in adult cinema. Also, when reading over a listing of the films that graced its screen, one can see definite trends emerging and then evaporating, certain narrative themes being key selling points and various countries being the key suppliers at different times over the cinema’s history. In many ways the Star was a microcosm of adult film exhibition within Australia. Of course the state of Victoria never legally allowed the screening of hardcore pornography and for its duration as the Star cinema (as opposed to the no-holds/holes barred policy of the Crazyhorse) it adhered to the cuts imposed by the Office of Film and Literature Classification. In many cases the uptight little muppets at the OFLC would act like Edward Scissorhands and hack films beyond comprehension. This fate even befell the ‘tame’ cuts imported from overseas, already shorn of much of their explicit nature for prudish markets such as Australia.

Naturally the introduction of the ‘R’-certificate did enable the exhibition of more salacious content (to a degree) within films, but prior to 1971 Melbourne viewers had to make do with just the inference of sexual content. You can imagine the sort of stuff on offer – An attractive woman in her lingerie kissing some lucky fella, then immediately cutting to a scene of her lying in bed with a sheet covering her modesty, smoking a cigarette and asking the man buttoning his shirt when he would return. Otherwise the film would be concerned with an inordinate amount of time spent at the beach or by the pool with lots of opportunities for starlets to be filmed in their bikinis or, for those wishing to push the boundaries a little, topless shots of the gal from behind as she strips off and runs uninhibited into the waves.

So this is the era where we will begin our journey. Henry Bolte was Victoria’s premier, Collins Street still had a Paris end, draconian licensing laws had the six o’clock swill in full swing and Melbourne was a ghost town on a Sunday. An attractive, uptight and rather dull city, this was indeed the home of Edna Everage. Yet ever so quietly the Star Theatrette toiled away – tentatively at first (their early feature programs were mostly a mix of innocuous comedies and tired genre flicks) – but soon they cottoned on to the fact that there was a market for the skin, the strange and the nasty. The story of the films of the Star will be divided into four eras: 1963 – October 1971 (the introduction of the ‘R’ certificate); November ’71 – 1975 (when adult softcore cinema was at its most inventive); 1976 – 1980 (vast changes in the international industry saw the softcore market fade and things take a turn from the sexy to the sleazy) and 1981 onwards (the cinema market for all sex films collapsed entirely).

Countries of Origin (1963 – 10/1971)

USA – 55

ITALY – 35


UK – 21





Predictably, American films were the most favoured at the Star but the fact that French and Italian films were so popular in this period points to the vibrant international market for those national cinemas in the period and the fact that they were leaders in providing the salacious material that was booming around the world in the 1960s. In time the Americans and the British would also target these markets and by the late 70s they had it cornered.

Initially I had planned a straight chronology of the films the Star screened, however to provide a little cultural and cinematic context I have instead decided to categorise them into genres. Some, such as horror, comedy and science fiction are easily identifiable. However, the Star’s managers quickly recognised that the trick was to lure customers by the promise of skin – whether the content matched the advertising is a different matter altogether. So the most prominent genre was ‘sex’ and that I have divvied into various themes as well.


In 1962 Italian directors Gualitero Jacopetti, Paolo Cavara and Franco Prosperi unleashed Mondo Cane into cinemas. Culled from footage shot across the globe, it was a bizarre hodge-podge of sequences with a theme intending to show that we really do live ‘a dog’s life’ (the film’s literal title translation). So we have hogs bashed to death for a ritual feast in Papua New Guinea, aging Italian sex symbol Rossano Brazzi being mobbed by female fans in New York, gourmets dining on fried beetles at an upscale American restaurant, sexy teenage lifesavers in Sydney, the ruination of the ecology on Bikini atoll, a strange commemoration of the birth of Rudolph Valentino in his Italian hometown and so on and so forth.

There is a pretty primitive effort to tie each clip together, generally on the tenuous notion of irony – juxtaposing native cultural acts with supposed civilised ones to show, I suppose, that the west is just as capable of excessive and weird behaviour. For example, rich Hollywood stars laid their pet dogs to rest in special cemeteries, complete with engraved headstones and plaques. Cut to Hong Kong, where puppies sit in cramped cages, unaware they are to be the main ingredients of a stew much enjoyed by the locals. Or, on a Pacific island potential brides are force fed fatty foodstuffs to attain the obese weight desired by their tribal chief but in America women will go to crazy extremes to lose just a couple of pounds. Sure, it is all a little obvious, but even today Mondo Cane can offer some sensational sights for the first-time viewer. Shot in quite glorious colour and cut together with a rapid fluency, the film is aided no-end by a luscious Riz Ortolani score, which has the lyrical, loungey feel of the jet-setting early 1960s.

Massively popular upon release, this ‘shockumentary’ was actually the recipient of many favourable reviews upon its release and managed a Golden Palm nomination at Cannes that year. Just as successful in America it was nominated for a best song (of all things) Oscar for Ortolani’s “More”, which was also a surprise chart-hit. In Melbourne Mondo Cane had a long run at the prestigious Odeon Cinema before moving down the ranks and onto the suburban circuit.

Naturally a hit of this magnitude would warrant a sequel and Mondo Cane was on the screen within a year. Relatively cheap to produce and assemble, the market was soon flooded with imitators and it has been estimated that around 100 such variations were produced in Europe alone in the 1960s (British, American and even Asian filmmakers also jumped on the Mondo bandwagon during the boom).

It must be stated that, although Mondo Cane was a phenomenon in its day, the lurid documentary had a long established history in world cinema, its appeal rooted in within the notion of the ‘cinema of attractions’ that popularised the medium in its earliest days. The safari film and its variations would see a noted big-game hunter, explorer or (apparent) anthropologist take a camera into one of the dark continents and present a world once only read about to startled western audiences. Savage animals, spectacular scenery, bizarre tribal customs and rituals, exotic costumes and violent acts we in the civilised world would generally abhor. Due to their ‘educational’ purposes and for the fact they contained documented actualities, these films would be allowed a certain leniency by censors. So they would contain (or at least sell to the public) some tame nudity and a smattering of blood. Although a number of these films were sincere efforts, a vast majority were lurid bits of sensationalism and the racist attitudes of the filmmakers leave you wincing when viewing today. Mostly relegated to the seedier theatres of downtown, a number of these early ‘mondos’ played at the Star and were occasionally re-released to cash in on the popularity of the Italian wave.

Eventually the Mondo craze wore itself out and their numbers decreased into the 1970s, as the filmmakers tried their hands at more profitable quick-fire genres such as spaghetti westerns and giallo thrillers. During the 1960s the Star (by my criteria) played 22 Mondos as main features, the following decade, as the theatre’s focused on sex and basically sex only, the numbers fell to a small handful. However the Mondo continued to live on, and finding homes on drive-in screens, delivering content more sadistic and gruelling than Mondo Cane would ever have imagined showing. With the 70s and early 80s providing all manner of savage dictators perpetrating ghastly atrocities across the third world, Mondo filmmakers happily cashed in of the public fascination and audiences lapped it up.

But by this time the Star Cinema had long since moved on and we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a look at the Mondo films on offer during the first period of the Star’s life as a feature cinema…


Mau Mau (USA: 1955 – Elwood Price). Having a healthy 3 week run in March 1964, this tatty doco was already nearly a decade old when the Star gave it a burl. In the early 1950s the Mau-Mau tribe (correctly known as the Kikuyu) nabbed international headlines when they incited an uprising in their native Kenya against the colonial settlers over land occupation (among other issues). The Brits sent in the troops to quell the unrest, but not before many thousands (mostly rebels) had been killed. Producer Joe Rock, an old time exploitationer knew a good opportunity when it came knocking and threw together a few reels of old stock footage and spliced in some hastily shot sequences (filmed in L.A.) of wild-eyed savages attacking poor white farmers. Designed for a few quick ‘four-wall’ pay-offs, the film did terrific business before the public caught on that they were duped. By that time the flick had moved onto the next city. The true issues behind the uprising were complex with both sides guilty of atrocities, yet also with genuine grievances. Take a look at the Star’s admat and tell me if Mau-Mau’s presentation was going to be even-handed.


Zanzubuku (USA: 1956 – Lewis Cotlow) Director Lewis Cotlow had achieved a degree of fame as an intrepid explorer (pith helmet, safari zanzubuku2suit – the whole get up), documenting his adventures in best-selling books and on film. This flick covered his third trip to the Dark Continent, covering some 15,000 miles through Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and the Belgian Congo over a period of 8 months. Although the film is more concerned with getting up close and personal with dangerous animals, I believe it traverses the confines of the ‘safari film’ and becomes an early forerunner of the Mondo. For Zanzubuku is fascinated with a number of tribal rituals and curiosities, such as headwear, dancing and piercings. Cotlow later used pieces of this film for Vanishing Africa (1969) a film he screened at a series of lecture tours. Zanzubuku managed a solitary week in December ’63.

Karamoja – Land of the Naked People (USA: 1954 – William B. Treutle). Okay how does this grab ya? A Washington dentist (director karamoja1

Treutle) visits the doctor and is told that he has only six months to live. Bummer. Having always wanted to visit Africa and with no time to lose, he packs up and heads off. In the Belgian Congo he meets an American woman with little faith in western medicine who cannot believe his prognosis. They fall in love, marry and make their way through 17,000 miles of jungle to Karamoja in northern Uganda. There they live among the Karamojans and document their ancient and often barbaric lifestyle. The naked warriors tattoo the number of enemies they have killed upon their arms, there are painful piercings and stone-age dentistry (which no doubt caught Treutle’s attention). Animals are captured and boobies jiggle about in true National Geographic fashion. Oh, and guess what? By the time he leaves Africa, he is cured of whatever disease had ailed him! Back to the dental clinic for William, whether he took to employing the Karamojan practice of smashing out teeth with a rock is anyone’s guess. Karamoja – Land of the Naked People was quite a hit at the Star, lasting 4 weeks from late June of ’64.

Naked Africa (USA: 1957 – Ray Phoenix & Cedric Worth). Bouncing boobs ahoy as once again we journey into the jungle. More naked-africapiercings and some firewalking are on the menu and much discussion of initiation rites as boys become men. The only notable contributor to the piece is narrator Quentin Reynolds, a popular columnist of the day, who no doubt had a gas bill needing payment when he knocked off this effort one afternoon after lunch. Naked Africa found enough takers to play for 2 weeks from July of 1966 (it then reappeared for a fortnight in March of 1969 as a support for the Raquel Welch sex comedy, The Queens). The co-director of Naked Africa, Ray Phoenix, only has one other filmmaking credit and this is as a cinematographer on The Mating Urge (USA: 1959 – no matingurgedirector credited). He contributed the footage for the South African segment of a travelogue that discusses courtship customs of various young indigenous folk of the world, basically “How native boys get their chicks into the sack”. From Africa to the Orient we see knife-fights, forms of bungee jumping and (naturally) nude bathing. The commentary by Art Gilmore (on a break from providing the narration for “Highway Patrol”) is the sort that refers any couples together as “having a date”. Believe it or not, this film (probably the heavily censored version that played in the UK) turned a lot of coin for the Star, dragged out for three engagements during the period of 4 weeks at a time – in July ’64, March ’68 and July ’70.

Africa Goodbye (Italy: 1966 – Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi) After the success of Mondo Cane , its sequel and Women of the World, Jacopetti and Prosperi embarked on their most ambitious project, Africa Addio. Now presenting a sideshow of worldwide grotesquities for Mondo Cane is one thing, but purporting to present a thesis detailing Africa’s end to colonialism is another. You have to bear in mind that in the post WW2 era a number of European colonisers were upping their flags and moving back home, leaving the continent in the hands of its original owners. When this film was released in 1966 it was both topical and contentious and believe me, it is an understatement to describe Africa Addio as controversial. Now as this particular article is only a basic roundup of the films to play at the Star during a certain period, I do not have the scope to provide an in-depth review of this film and man it needs one. Banned in all of Africa, except South Africa where it broke box office records (that may tell you something) and withdrawn from screens in Europe and the USA after public and official protest (that may tell you something more) it is an extraordinary piece of cinema. There is sex and there is (lots of) gore all woven into a most touchy polemic that many took to be endorsing the most orientalist and reactionary views of African independence. africa-goodbye

In a few weeks I will (hopefully) get around to submitting a proper review of this film. Suffice to say that if one conducts an internet search one may find certain grubby far-right websites raving about its merits. A disaster for the filmmakers that harmed their bank balance and destroyed their reputations, it limped into the Star for a single week in September of 1968, under the clumsy title of Africa Goodbye (if you take a look at the admat you can see the slipshod alteration of the poster). In 1970 it was shorn of around an hour and re-released as Africa Blood and Guts. With must of the polemic left in the editor’s bin this version was a minor hit on the drive-in circuit. In the face of the initial resultant criticism Jacopetti and Prosperi withdrew for several years, finally returning with an attempted apologia entitled Farewell Uncle Tom in 1971 which, they declared, would show them to be sincerely sympathetic to the plight of Africans at the hands of the white man. Sadly the road to hell is paved with good intentions and that film was a disaster that caused riots in Times Square but broke box office records in Melbourne. But that, as they say, is a story for another time….


West End Jungle (UK: 1961 – Arnold L. Miller). Running just under an hour this feature takes an undercover look at the seamier side of London after the Street Offences Act of 1959 supposedly cleared prostitutes from the streets. Focusing on the sexual urges of men in general whose desires create the demand for the sex industry. Strip clubs, massage parlours and grubby bars are explored, along with peep shows of ‘photographic models’. The tone is one of outrage at an underside that demeans and destroys vulnerable girls. The BBFC refused to pass the film as suitable for screening (and never has) and the London City Council would not issue approval either, westendjunglemeaning West End Jungle was basically banned in the city it depicted. One consolation was that this controversy (its content was even discussed in the House of Lords!) made for a juicy tagline in the advertising. More than likely the censors were more concerned with some of the staged sequences with actors that purported to be ‘real’. It had a healthy 4 week run at the Star from September of ’67 with Naked in the Deep (a nudie doc) rounding it out to an acceptable session length. West End Jungle was the work of director Arnold L. Miller and producer Stanley A. Long. These two entrepreneurs had began the Stag company in 1958 producing 8mm striptease flicks and nudie photos for the Soho trade. Although they made industrial films to keep the cash flowing and an attempt at a crime flick (1962’s The Skin Game), sex was their stock in trade and the Mondo variety proved mighty popular.

In 1964 Miller and Long delivered London In The Raw to a grateful public. This time they had the backing of Tony Tenser’s and london-in-the-rawMichael Klinger’s Compton-Cameo Films, a burgeoning British production and distribution company that had hit paydirt with several low budget exploitationers. Although it had been pre-dated by West End Jungle, Mondo Cane was the film creating queues around the block in late ’63. With that in mind the producers hit upon the idea of a local version which, if shot on the quick, could be in theatres before the Italian film had left the screen. Miller and Long were then signed to complete this task. Joining Miller as co-director in London in the Raw was Norman Cohen (later to helm a number of the very successful Confessions… sex comedies) and Long handled the camera work. Depicting 24 hours in the life of the city, the film gave us strippers, drunks, beatniks and most controversially, an actual hair transplant in all its gory glory. By all accounts this sequence created headlines due to horrified punters fainting in the theatres. A smash hit in its homeland, it managed three weeks in September of ’66 at the Star and an encore appearance of a week in December ‘68.

Originally titled London in the Raw 2, Primitive London premiered in March of 1965. Once again made for Compton-Cameo, Miller was sole director and Long shared producing duties with Klinger. A little more ambitious than their previous efforts, Primitive London began with a child birth, gave us mods, rockers and beats and showcased martial arts. There were wife-swappers and strippers and even recreations of the murders of Jack the Ripper!…oh, and there was an unfortunate sequence with chickens. This was apparently the ‘Swinging London’ the world did not see, but local audiences did and it had a very tidy release at the Windmill Theatre which paraded noted dancer Vicki Grey dressed in leopard skins and leading a cheetah on a leash around the district for some eye-catching publicity. Unfortunately, receipts tapered off and it was decided that the London shockumentary had had its day. After one more film together Long and Miller went their separate ways, although remaining predominantly within the sexploitation field. However Miller gained some lasting respect for producing a couple of films for director Michael Reeves, including the classic Witchfinder General. The Star Theatre managed to squeeze only a week out of Primitive London in November of ’67, but left us with some quite startling artwork to remember it by.



Oddly enough, for a nation often pilloried for is excess, the USA was rarely the focus for the Mondo camera. In fact, the pair I list here americas-by-nightcould possibly be categorized as ‘sexy’ flicks, but the inclusion of a few weird items in the mix has them inching into Mondo territory. The Americas By Night (Italy: 1961 – Carlos Alberto De Souza Barros & Giuseppe Maria Scotese) was a travelogue through the continent that concentrated on the US with a little time also spent south of its border. Nightclub acts abound, with burlesque and striptease acts interspersed with noted musical performers such as Lionel Hampton. The decadence of the continent is the purported theme of Americas by Night, but the colourful costumes and jazzy tunes were the selling point. The co-directors (and seven producers, for that matter) all toiled away in careers working the lower end of the exploitation market in Italy, from peplums to westerns to crime flicks, with little of particular note. However one the cinematographers, Massimo Dallamano, was later lauded for his forays into the horror & giallo genres, helming such masterworks as A Black Veil For Lisa (1968) & What Have They Done to Solange? (1972). The Americas By Night played a week at the Star in July of 1968 with the 1957 British comedy Carry on Admiral which, belying its title, was not one of the long-running saucy comedy series.

Had it been advertised with its star as the main attraction during its fortnight engagement at the Star in 1969, then Las Vegas by Night (USA: 1967 – Walon Green & Mitchell Leisen) would have probably been discussed later, in the lasvegas‘bombshell’ category. However, instead of extolling the virtues of the busty Jayne Mansfield, the admat tells us absolutely nothing. Not a single word of copy, just a montage of Vegas showgals. It is had to fathom the reason for that, but in any case, Mansfield is definitely the attraction of this show and she sings a couple of numbers when showcased at her gigs at the Tropicana and Dunes nightspots. Vic Damone, Constance Moore and Juliet Prowse (who sued the producers for her inclusion) are among the other featured acts. Now one would think that these names would be enough for a low rent musical collage, yet boxing, cockfighting, gambling and other seamier aspects of the Nevadan city are thrown in for good measure, along with requisite showgals and strippers. The pairing of directors is sorta strange. Leisen had been a respected contract director at Paramount in the 30s-50s, working with the likes of Alan Ladd, Marlene Dietrich and Joan Fontaine. Not too many acknowledged ‘classics’ in his filmography, but few duds either. After a decade directing for television he was lured back to the big screen for this, his final film, released in the USA as Spree. Walon Green is now an executive producer on “Law and Order”, but alongside Sam Peckinpah he co-wrote The Wild Bunch (1969). As a director Green made the cult classic The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) along with a number of nature-related pieces. How he came to Las Vegas by Night is anyone’s guess. Like I said, it is a bizarre combination. Thankfully though, the film’s trashy pedigree can be found with the producer Carroll Case who gave us Billy the Kid Versus Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (both 1966). And for that we are eternally grateful. Filling out the program was the cult classic 1955 car-chase thriller, The Fast and the Furious.


It is sorta strange to see how the word ‘Orient’ and its variations have fell from favour in the common usage. This is particularly the case in reference to describing persons and races. There is something a little condescending in the term and it bears too many connotations of a colonial past which no longer holds the pride it once did to we of the west. Within this little sub-section of the Mondo genre we find two films with the word ‘Orient’ in the title and sadly, of the three films within the category, I was only able to track own worthwhile information on a single title.

orient-by-night2Italian Roberto Bianchi Montero was a director who had the dubious distinction of having five films play at the Star during the 1963-71 period. Here was a bloke who would leap onto any bandwagon in order to keep working, with peplums, crime flicks and melodramas the mainstay of his career before his first foray into Mondo territory with Orient By Night (1962). Now this may be perhaps classified as an example of the ‘sexy’ film. This offshoot of the mondo will be explored separately in the next part on the Star Theatre, but as a brief description, these were mondo-variations, that concentrated on the female form, usually within the setting of a nightclub, dance or strip act. Eschewing the grotesque angle of the Mondo, the ‘sexy’ films maintained a level of eroticism throughout, without interrupting the mood with nausea-inducing sequence. There were over a hundred ‘sexy’ films produced, from around 1960 to the middle of that decade. As a rule of thumb they did not have the international currency of the mondos and their exhibition was usually restricted to the adult theatres, whereas the mondos could at least claim a (pseudo) anthropological/social value to their content.

In any case, returning to Orient by Night, it appears that this may be a Mondo due to its theme of cultural rituals and traditions with an apparent shock value stirred into the pot. In this case the ‘Orient’ comprises mostly of the Middle-East and its women (uncovered cat’s meat, anyone?) are the usual suspects – dancers, tribe members etc. Montero knocked off nine mondo/sexy films within two years and, reading the winds of exploitation well, jumped ship for a spell in spaghetti westerns and war flicks, caught the horror wave in the 70s and spent his final years in the 1980s directing porn. He’s an overlooked figure whose filmography reads like a timeline of Italian exploitation cinema. Orient by Night was supported during its 3 week run at the Star from May of ’68 by the middling British ship-bound comedy, Not Wanted on Voyage (1955).

The only Asian film to play at the Star in this period was one of the very few Mondos produced by that region, the Japanese It’s a womans-worldWoman’s World (1964). This was the sole directing credit for Taijiro Tamura, a popular author of pulp fiction. Around the time of this film’s release he was between gigs adapting two of his most popular novels – “Gate of Flesh” and “Story of a Prostitute” for director Seijun Suzuki. The ensuing films have become acknowledged classics. Once again it is difficult to place It’s a Woman’s World, as I am unable to find much information about it. However I will call it a ‘mondo’ rather than a ‘sexy’ for the sole (and perhaps feeble) reasoning that a writer of Tamura’s style and note would include a little more in his film than a travelogue of dancers and strippers. Then again the admat states that we will see the ‘exotic-wierd and wonderful’. When they can’t even spell the second adjective correctly, who knows what the film contained? It’s a Woman’s World scored a single week at the Star, in August of 1968.

Talking of mysterious, if anyone can tell me about Women of the Orient then I’d be pleased to hear it. Unfortunately I can locate orient1nothing on this title, but I have the sneaking suspicion it may be Women…Oh, Women! a title that does not exactly roll off the tongue in its original version. This 1963 Japanese mondo found a way to fit junkies, massage parlour gals and other assorted taboos into the usual parade of pretty young things in various states of undress. That film’s director, Tetsuji Takechi, has his last credit listed as Captured for Sex (1987). A veritable charmer, no doubt. Anyway, for now Women of the Orient will remain a mystery. For now all I can be certain of is that it played for one week in July of 1969 at the Star, with the William Bendix service comedy, The Phony American (actually a West German production from 1961) as its support.

Unsurprisingly, it was not often that the Star Theatre unspooled an Academy Award winning documentary but such was the case in October of 1968 when The Sky Above, The Mud Below (France: 1961- Pierre-Dominique Gaissieu) ran for a week. More akin to a safari-type doco than a true mondo, this film is included for the way it was sold – “Weird Love Rites”, “Girls Offered To Guests as Hospitality” and my favourite, “Savage Brutality as Men and Women Celebrate the Cult of the Severed Head” screamed the ad copy. This flick follows an expedition into West Papua in 1959 where the filmmakers lived with the natives and observed their way of life. An arduous undertaking, three native porters died on the trek and the party had to survive disease, animal attacks and physical exhaustion. A remarkable film for its day, it not only took home the Oscar, but was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes. On its first release The Sky Above, The Mud Below was treated with deserved respect. Less than a decade later it became an unwilling mondo by default, when the most sensational aspects of a sincere story were highlighted to appeal to a jaded public. It is an interesting study in how a few short years can so affect the value of popular culture. Joining it at the Star was yet another in the run of low budget British comedies the Star was so fond of, It’s a Great Day starring Sid James in a feature film version of the popular TV sitcom, “The Grove Family”.


MONDO Europa

Although he would probably not remember much of the experience, Ennio De Concini co-penned the 1959 Italian pre-mondo, European european-nightsNights. Just a few years later he would pick up an Academy Award for his Divorce Italian Style (1961) screenplay and over a long and prolific career he worked on the scripts of directors as diverse as Mario Bava, Vittoria De Sica, Monte Hellman and Tinto Brass. I can only gather that he wrote the narration for European Nights and who knows how much was left intact when revoiced for the American market by the acid-tongued Henry Morgan? In any case, De Concini’s co-writer was none other than Gualitero Jacopetti, the big daddy of the Mondo scene who was soon to step into the director’s chair with Mondo Cane (1963). So we can establish this film’s pedigree, although it could well be argued that it would make a better fit into the ‘sexy’ category with its strippers and belly-dancers doing their nightclub thing. However it does also include an interlude with a weird and savage clown act, a few magic tricks and a number of musical performances (including The Platters) so it scrapes into the mondo category by taking a few naïve steps into some odd terrain. The director was Allesandro Blasetti whose long but spotty career had included the epic Fabiola (1949) and some early Sophia Loren vehicles. European Nights clocked up a healthy 3 weeks at The Star in August 1968. As its evening support was the troubled-youth drama, The Girl in Lover’s Lane (USA:1959) which starred Brett Halsey, an actor who would later carve out an interesting career in European exploitation, working four times with Lucio Fulci.

These days, producer Arthur Cohn is accustomed to stepping up to the podium to collect awards for the likes of Central Station (1998), paris-secretOne Day in September (1999) and The Chorists (2004). But it wasn’t always that way. Back in 1961 he gained his first producing credit on the aforementioned The Sky Above, The Mud Below and he followed that with Paris Secret in 1964. A rare French foray into the overcrowded Mondo genre, Paris Secret featured gourmets chowing down on bats, voodoo practitioners, a chap who has a fetish for being covered in bees and a gal who has the Eiffel Tower tattooed on her arse so she can sell the skin at a later date (her date not included). These choice cuts are interspersed amongst the usual parade of prostitutes, transvestites and strippers. A hit in its native France, (beating out Connery’s The Hill for number one box office spot the week they both opened) It was directed by Edouard Logereau who worked the bulk of his career in television. Paris Secret staked out a fortnight at The Star in July of 1968 and it was paired for its evening sessions with the British musical comedy It’s a Wonderful World (1956), directed by Val Guest who would later be highly regarded by fans for his horror and science fiction work.


You really do have to wonder about the appeal of the ‘sex-slavery-expose’ Mondo. For here is subject matter that really should repulse an outrage the viewer an yet here it is playing at The Star, a cinema making a name for itself as Melbourne’s home of the erotic. How do you reconcile that? Then again, we’ll see in later instalments of the history of this cinema that a large number of prostitution and slavery narrative films would advertised for their titillating qualities so it is apparent that there was an audience that found a certain attraction to such material. It takes all types, I guess, that is why the term ‘taboo’ was invented…


When I was a boy things were all very “Andy Griffith Show”. Dad would take me fishing, we’d make go karts together and play catch in the yard. Well no, not really it wasn’t quite like that but nor was it like the relationship between Maleno Malenotti and his son Roberto, who formed a loving father-son bond while co-directing Slave Trade in the World Today (Italy/France:1964). To be honest I would have preferred that experience (“son, always remember, if she has tits then go from medium to close-up”) as being taught how to kick a torpedo punt never really held me in great stead throughout my life, but I digress. Slave Trade in the World Today took the trouble to look for explanations for why, contrary to Article 4 of the Declaration of Human Rights, slaves were still being bought and sold on the world market in the 1960s. With the grand sweeping statement that would make Michael Moore proud, they declared it to be oil. So begins the procession of initiation ceremonies, flagellation, rain dancing, slave caravans and harems and the startling shot of crabs on an island picking at the bones of skeletons. Naturally, if these women are to be treated like commodities, then the Malenottis do us the service of displaying the goods with enough belly dancing, strip-tease and jiggly boobies to pad out the running time. Maleno Malenotti had a rather highbrow start to his career as a producer with a keen interest in films about opera. Slave Trade in the World Today was his second and final shot at directing and he roped his son into the production after the original co-director, Folco Quilici (a long time documenter of the exotic), left the production due to the usual ‘creative differences’. I would guess that Maleno was not overly impressed by the genre and he quickly returned to producing a number of respectable comedies and dramas that featured the likes of Diana Dors, Sophia Loren and Vittorio Gassman. Son Roberto managed a final cinema direction credit with The Sisters, a turgid 1969 melodrama starring Susan Strasberg, before landing a couple of TV credits in the following decades. Slave Trade in the World Today only lasted a week at the Star in July of 1968 with the 1958 prison-break melodrama Revolt in the Big House as its support. The latter would be worth a look just for its top-draw leading men – Gene Evans, Timothy Carey and Robert Blake. The capable R.G. Springsteen kept the director’s chair warm.

MONDO mondo

After taking on countries then continents, next comes the world. An intended sequel to European Nights, 1959’s World by Night ran a world-by-nightsimilar course stating its aim to show “night people and their pleasures”. Mostly nightclub and revue footage, like European Night it is neither strictly a Mondo nor a sexy, sort of a combination of both before each forked off into their own sub-genre. This time around we have ballet, strip, dancing whales, gospel, rock n’ roll, cabaret, wrestling and a comedic dog and his trainer. Their film makers had their passports stamped with visits to Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Harlem, Las Vegas and Hollywood. It is no great surprise to see that it was scripted by Gualitero Jacopetti who also provided the spoken original commentary. However for the English-language market dub George Sanders filled in some downtime by providing his caddish tones. Making a brief appearance as herself is Belinda Lee. Now late night viewers of the ABC may be familiar with the breathtakingly lovely Belinda through her roles in numerous British J. Arthur Rank films of the 1950s. By the end of that decade and tiring of being eye candy in British films, Lee moved to Europe where her roles became darker but hardly of better quality. During this time she fell in love with Gaulitero Jacopetti and began a well-publicised relationship. Tragically, it is during the making of Women of the World in 1961 that they are involved in a car accident near San Bernadino in California. Jacopetti breaks his leg but Lee has her head nearly severed and dies at the scene. That film is dedicated to her, a desperately sad ending for a most beautiful and quite talented actress. World by Night was the directorial debut for Luigi Vanzi who, under the pseudonym of ‘Vance Lewis’ later directed the Tony Anthony ‘Stranger’ trio of spaghetti westerns, which were minor international hits. The cinematographer on World by Night was the young Tonino Delli Colli who would later find acclaim for his stunning work with many key Italian directors including Fellini, Leone, Pasolini and Wertmuller. This film, distributed worldwide by Warner Brothers, had a 2 week run at the Star in August 1966.

MONDO Bizarro

Roberto Bianchi Montero once again provides us with the Star’s two examples of true mondo – a removal of all geographic boundaries for a focus on the weird. Sex may get a run off the bench but the real attraction is the strange customs, habits and fetishes of the world’s population. This is the very heart and definition of the ‘shockumentary’.

Now Montero, as explained in the description of Orient by Night was a stunningly prolific director of mondo and sexy features and is credited with nine such films in just three years (seven in 1963 alone!!!). How did he do it? Well, there were cannibals in the Italian film mondo-infameindustry long before Ruggero Deodato took his camera into the jungle. Basically, Montero would hack up other films – mostly of the documentary variety – and re-edit his own footage into new features complete with an added commentary. So prolific was Montero that his 1963 effort Mondo Infame is not even listed on Imdb. From what I gather it is yet another journey into the more lurid aspects of various cultures and takes in Great Britain, Kenya, Ceylon, India, New Guinea, Indonesia, Ecuador, the Amazon and Colombia among other hotspots. Mondo Infame (AKA: This Vile World) screened for a fortnight in May of 1968 with its support being “The Raffle”, Vittorio De Sica’s segment from Boccaccio ’70 (1962), starring Sophia Loren.

Montero’s last trip to the mondo well came in 1964 with Mondo Balordo (AKA: A Fool’s World), a shopping list of the usual atrocities including transvestites, dwarf romance, women who bathe in camel’s urine, Japanese bondage, strange veterinary practices, drug mondo-balordoracketeers, exorcism rituals plus lesbians, strippers and brothels. By the end of the 1960s was there a single strip-club in the world that had not been visited by mondo’s cameras? Now it is pretty obvious that one had best take the claims of these films with a biblical-sized pillar of salt. This is particularly recommended in regards to the Montero collection. Between the cut-n-pasting of the stock footage, the need to be spicier than the previous flick, whatever dialogue has been scribbled for the narration and what is mangled in the English-language dub, you are left with a pretty tenuous notion of veracity in the image. More than likely this matter was hardly helped by the English dub of Mondo Balordo being provided by none other than Boris Karloff (in his most sinister delivery). Boris had previously worked for Montero on the 1954 Italian crime flick, The Island Monster and I would assume that Karloff recorded this in Italy in 1963 on a break from filming Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath. He happily plays himself in this narration, stating that nothing he had played in his film career could be as horrifying as the real-life acts featured in this very film. I would hazard a guess that nothing could be as sleep-inducing either (save, perhaps, for that quartet of rubbish he made for Juan Ibanez at the fag end of his career). At least Boris picked up a pay cheque for his toil. However Mondo Balordo kept the Star’s punters entertained, playing for three weeks in January 1969.


Later on down the track I will work my way up to discussing The Star Theatre’s 70’s screening schedule and that is where you’ll see the name ‘Harry H. Novak’ crop up time and time again. Novak ran Box Office International Pictures, a company that distributed a large number of trash films (violent westerns, nasty thrillers, a few horrors and plenty of softcore porn). BIOP was also a production company and they made a tidy fortune from tapping into the softcore market that had once been the domain of the European import. More specifically they worked their own little niche – hillbilly porn – featuring backwards chicken ranchers and lots of busty gals in tight denim shorts flouncing around in the hay of the barn and the mud of the pigsty. The very titles alone will leave no further explanation required – Tobacco Roody, Country Hooker, Country Cuzzins (all 1970), Southern Comforts, Midnight Plowboy (both 1971) and The Pigkeeper’s Daughter (1972). Yes, they are all pretty inbred and a chore to sit through but I will admit the girls are sexy as all get-up and I am not completely adverse to the odd bit of cornpone humour. All of these flicks were hits in Melbourne and most had a run at the Star (they also were playing at suburban drive-ins into the 1980s) and all were directed by a fellow named Peter Perry. Well, not that you would know, for Perry hid behind the pseudonym ‘Bethel Buckalew’ for the hillbilly sex films. Perry also snuck in a few costume adorned skin flicks during that time (The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill in 1966, The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet in 1969 and The Notorious Cleopatra in 1970)…and credited himself on those as ‘Arthur P. Stootsberry’.

Peter Perry’s greatest achievement is one of the 1960s most extraordinary American sex films, Kiss Me Quick! (1964 and produced by Novak). Originally titled Dr. Breedlove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love, its title was changed after Novak became paranoid that he would find a letter from Stanley Kubrick’s lawyers in his mailbox. It is a film that has to be seen to be believed – a horror, sci-fi, comedy sex flick. Making claims to be a Freudian fantasy, it is best enjoyed as a whacked-out strip-flick with a lashing of go-go dancing goodness. Oh, Perry filmed this smash hit under the name of Seymour Tuchas (!)

Believe it or not though, Perry did use his own name a couple of times, most notably on Mondo Mod (1967), one of the handful of American Mondo flicks of the 1960s. Now if you think that a film of that title was somewhat missing the boat in terms of 60s culture, then yes you are right. The Mods, as history sees them today, were an English subculture of the late 50s – early 60s. Basically their time was over by the second half of that decade as the hippy movement geared into full swing. However, from an American standpoint of the time, ‘Mod’ referred to the counter-culture in general – a sort of catchall term for hippies, beatniks bums and pretty much anyone with hair lower than the earlobe. Mondo Mod covers all of these bases over its haemorrhoid-inducing 140 minute running time and throws in bikers and surfers for an added bonus. We visit the Whiskey-A-Go-Go nightclub, pop into a dope-den, see go-go dancers in cages, acid trips and girly strips. The filmmakers never depart from Southern California and for the fuck of it we are bombed with statistic after statistic and if they were all made up on the spot I would not be at all surprised. Quite a bore and with far too many staged scenes, one remarkable aspect of the film is that its co-cinematographers were Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. Since the early 70s these gentlemen are regarded as among the best in the business. You may find one DOP of this calibre credited on a flick of this ilk, from this period – it does happen from time to time. But two on the same film, sharing the same duties? Amazing stuff. The Star took this one as a first run and it did well enough run for three weeks in October of 1971 (quite a belated release for a first-run). Mondo Mod has the minor distinction of being the very last film to play at the Star before the official introduction of the R-rating in Australia.


I need to make a couple of acknowledgements here. Firstly to Brian Miller and Edward Landsdowne for their article “Star Newsreel Theartette” in Cinemarecord Issue 14; November 1996 for their invaluable early history of the cinema.

Secondly to John Hamilton for his excellent book Beasts in the Cellar:The Exploitation Films of Tony Tenser, which provided much of the background information on the films of Stanley Long and Arnold L. Miller.

So, that’s it for the Mondo-cycle at the Star Theatrette. In part two of The Star: 1963-71 we’ll be looking at sexy flicks and vicesquad sleaze. Catchya then!

March 2, 2009

Randy Did Not Ride Alone: The B-Film Status of Randolph Scott.

by Dean Brandum

I have recently been finding the time to enjoy the Budd Boetticher box set released on R1 by Columbia last year. For some inexplicable reason no mention is made on the cover of the star of the five films contained – the legendary Randolph Scott. In any case the set is splendid. The prints are excellent and the supplementary materials are thoughtful.

I have long been a Scott fan, having enjoyed many Saturday afternoons as a kid sitting with my dad in front of the box watching the actor go about his business in his assured, unfussy way. Even at that young age I could recognise that there occurred a marked change in Scott’s acting and characterisation as he aged, no longer was he the cheerful hero of his earlier films, instead (like his physical features) he took on a leaner, leathery and harder look and his characters followed suit. It was this persona that was to be found in the cycle of seven films he made with Budd Boetticher.

Although we are an forum for open ideas here at Filmbunnies, I think it is outside this blog’s paracinema parameters to spend a great deal of time talking about the westerns of Randolph Scott. For that matter there is little more I could add to the seminal work of Jim Kitses in Horizons West, along with a number of other fine scholars who have nailed this actor-director partnership in print. Might I also mention our friend Livius over at Riding the High Country  –  – who has done a sterling job in covering the films of the Scott-Boetticher boxset.

However, one aspect of the series that has not been given the coverage it deserves is the assertion that these were ‘B-films’. Nowadays the term ‘B-Movie’ is tossed about with such thoughtless abandon that it has become commonplace to apply the description to any piece of cinema that is based on low culture material (Tarantino, comic book adaptations), is low budget (the Saw series) or is just plain ‘bad’ (Battlefield Earth). The term has basically lost all meaning. In its truest industrial sense, B-films were introduced in the years of the Great Depression as an addition to the bill so that audiences would be provided with a full night’s entertainment for the cost of a ticket. All the major studios had B-units which would churn out a vast quantity of such entertainments to accompany their more expensive A-features. Rarely running more than 75 minutes (and occasionally as few as 50 minutes) these films were almost always of a specific genre and often used as a training ground for young talent (and often as a last stop for those on the way down the star scale). Independent producers also got in on the B-film act with the Poverty Row likes of Monogram and Republic specialising in such product. Unlike A-features that would share a percentage of box-office receipts, B-films were sold at a flat rate, so distributors knew exactly how much money they could make. Once they had sold a certain number of playdates they had a floor ensuring a profit, but they also had a ceiling which would limit that revenue. This should all be common knowledge to any self-respecting film buff, as should the fact that B-films fell out of favour in the mid 1950s as audiences preferred to stay at home to watch television; if Hollywood were to lure them out of the house it was not going to be with low budget B-films, instead it had to be for something they could not get at home.

Here is where previous smaller studios came into their own. Columbia and Universal had always been seen as the poor cousins of the majors, with little in the way of theatre holdings and rarely spending much on their product. As the other majors were in mass panic over having to divest their theatre holdings (as per the 1948 ‘Paramount decree’) and were investing in big budget spectaculars and the poverty row production houses were closing shop, Columbia and Universal (and to an extent, Warner Brothers) stepped in the breach by offering a selection of mid-budget features starring performers with a pleasing marquee value. These were ‘programmers’ or ‘intermediates’ (sometimes referred to as A- or B+ pictures) that would paired with a similar feature, either of which could play the top of the bill, depending on which market the engagement was to screen.

Here’s where Randolph steps in. Up until the late 1940s Scott had been a reliable but minor A-star drifting through most of the majors and although prominently in western garb he had been in everything from Shirley Temple vehicles to supporting Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. From 1948 Scott worked in westerns exclusively and although he still provided his services as a performer only, he also appeared in a number of films in which he also co-produced with Harry Joe Brown (firstly through the company ‘Producers-Actors’ then ‘Ranown’). These films were distributed through either Columbia or Warner Brothers and often packaged with another of that studio’s features, although, in the case of the Columbia films, they could be picked up by any major who wanted a quality co-feature to partner one of their own mid-budget features on a quality double-bill.

To watch the Scott-Boetticher westerns on pristine DVD prints has been a fine privilege, but via such a medium they have been removed from their original context. For these films almost never played as solitary features. If one lived in certain markets – say, Kansas or even here in Melbourne – a Scott film would usually receive top billing and given a prominent release. For other, generally urban centres, the Scott fan would have to wait, sometimes many months, for an appropriate slot for the latest Randy western to appear. In either case the films only existed to be screened as half of a night’s entertainment and although they can be watched individually today, for viewers lucky enough to see them on first release, the Scott westerns (like any co-features of that time) would be mired in the memory with whatever film shared that bill.

The Scott westerns of the mid-late 50s featured their star as a loner, often embittered, who in trying to go about his business as unobtrusively as possible, is unwillingly thrown together with a a disparate group of villains, damsels and fools. By maintaining his calm and by adhering to his own personal code of decency, the Scott character will see the fools and cowards gunned down, will outwit his flashier adversaries and do the decent thing for the women he finds himself accompanying.

Scott once made a western called Riding Shotgun and for much of his later career he spent his time riding shotgun for a slew of studio product that needed a quality hand to guide it through the dangerous plains of showcase release. Poor Scott. Although he almost always was the star of the better film on the bill, when it came to urban market he was forced to support a number of unsuitable main features. Let’s take a look at his time in New York in the late 1950s and into the early 60s.sevenmenfromnowny

A homicidal child.

7thcavalrynyA newlywed couple – one a shrill American and the other a taciturn Italian. (apologies about the poor reproduction)


A hip-swivelling warbler with a dubious thesping talent.


An ill-matched pair for a romantic comedy.


Look closely at the top of this ad for the film playing at the Met – The Robert Taylor starrer Saddle the Wind (1958) had Scott’s Decision at Sundown as its support. When the MGM film went wide a week later, Scott took  well-earned rest and the fine Anthony Mann feature The Tall Target, on re-release, took Scott’s place on the bottom of the bill.

buchanan-nyA gurning clown.westboundnyThe re-release of a hand-drawn wicked stepmother.


A swashbuckling fop.


Yul and Kay? There’s a comedy match made in heaven.


Dubbed Italian musclemen.

Pity the poor Scott fan having to purchase tickets to this dispiriting (other than The Bad Seed) lot in order to catch their favourite star’s ltest feature.  But if they were anything like the actor they would have gritted their teeth and got on with it. No fuss, no concern, satisfied with their lot and getting their companions through a week in New York.  That was Scott – the rest have mostly fallen by the wayside, whereas the great western star now has a boxset of DVDs available for viewing.

As Scott says at the end of The Tall T – “Come on now, it’s gonna be a nice day”.

March 1, 2009

Happy Birthday to Us

Filmbunnies is now 1 year old! To celebrate, here’s all the deaths from J. Lee Thompson’s seminal “Happy Birthday to Me” (1981):

February 26, 2009

Oliver Missed: Sitting Target (1972) and the downward spiral of Oliver Reed.

by Dean Brandum

Where did it all go wrong for Oliver Reed? The 1960s had promised so much for the actor and the audience and his early turns in such Hammer fare as Brigand of Kandahar (1965), Curse of the Werewolf (1965) and Paranoiac (1963) had delivered a glimpse of a most assured screen presence. Perhaps brutish but undoubtedly handsome, his smouldering and slightly swarthy good looks kept in check the emotional anguish ready to explode from deep within his barrel-like burl. Among the cardboard contrivances of the Hammer romps, Reed, even in silly costume, provided a vitality to the material of an actor definitely a product of the present. Without the stage affectations of his peers and (at least in persona) neither a chinless chap nor a victim of early 60s kitchen-sink miserablism, Reed carried the swagger and cynicism of a young man who knew the game, who was on the up, who had the flash motor and the smashing birds. And yet, rather than revelling in his success, the Reed characters of the period find themselves poisoned by materialism, the artifice and emptiness of 1960s Britain. In only a matter of years Reed shuffled between the low rent of Hammer, the zeitgeist grabbing likes of Michael Winner and the restrained phase of Ken Russell when the director’s period adaptations and biopics were actually praised by the critical establishment.

 Generally, it is regarded that Reed’s best film of the 1960s is Russell’s Women in Love (1969) an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel in which the actor played the homosexual Gerald Critch. At his brooding, subdued best, Reed is a match for his highly trained co-stars, Alan Bates and Glenda Jackson (the latter winning an Academy Award for her performance). Arty it may have been but, along with a pair of earlier Russell TV projects, it was apparent that the actor could move effortlessly between the commercial and the marginal, although ironically Women in Love proved to be his most commercially successful endeavour of the period. The Winner period, on the whole, established his box-office clout, at least at home. The System (1964), I’ll Never Forget What’s-isname (1967) and The Jokers (1967) were all popular performers that exposed uglier side of swinging London. The Winner film’s also allowed Reed to show his flair for subtle comedy; the actor well aware that his physical appearance only required the mildest cheeky contrast to break any tonal tension.  However domestic success would no longer ensure a long career for a British film star. With British film finances so intrinsically linked to American backing and stateside release, the British star of the 1960s needed to find appeal abroad or else suffocate at home.

The American studios had a long-established presence in Britain, their most important foreign market. Yet as popular as Hollywood product was in the UK, the return flow was far from equal. In fact it was barely a trickle. If British films were screened at all in the United States during the heady days of 1930s-1950s they either filled the B-slots on double features or took root in art houses with occasional, but marginal, success. It took until the 1960s for genuine cross-over appeal to occur. In quick succession the Bonds, Tom Jones, the Beatles, Alfie and Georgy Girl were all breakout hits and it didn’t take long for the Hollywood executives to realise that these modestly produced, vibrant efforts had hit a chord with the American public. At this same time other national cinemas were making their presence felt in the American market as French, Italian and Swedish features captured critical acclaim and a widening box-office interest. Was it the quality of the these imports that accounted for their popularity or the fact that Hollywood productions looked decidedly tired and old-fashioned in comparison? Not to mention their escalating costs were seldom being recuperated at an indifferent box-office.

As a consequence, Hollywood upped its investment in foreign production, with an emphasis on British film. Of all the studios, MGM, by their very nature, were the most conservative in their production slate. Cheap but popular Miss Marples and dull but expensive Anthony Asquith-directed middlebrow nonsense. After an early presence at Denham studios in the late 1930s, MGM took over the lease of Borehamwood Studios in 1948 and a number of British-set films followed, generally of the costume variety. By the mid – 1960s when contemporary British productions were in vogue, MGM gave us The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964). Hardly edgy stuff there. Thankfully, Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) was a superb film but barely scraped together an audience. Where Eagles Dare (1968) did, something also managed by a pair of productions too unusual to be associated with the studio – Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But any revenue returned from those investments was quickly wiped with an ill-advised musical remake of Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969). With the parent company in near-financial ruin the doors to Borehamwood were shut and MGM quickly formed an alliance with EMI, subsidising the company with co-productions and distribution deals. The success rate was, to be kind, quite mixed.

As MGM were finding the going tough at Borehamwood, Oliver Reed had his first blockbuster hit with a supporting role in his Uncle Carol’s adaptation of the stage musical Oliver! (1968). Providing Reed with international exposure, the film was a roadshow smash and managed to win the Best Picture Academy Award. Yet in the year of Rosemary’s Baby, 2001, Faces, Bullitt, Rachel, Rachel, If…, Charge of the Light Brigade, The Boston Strangler and Poor Cow among the English language films eligible for nomination (let’s not even bother with listing the splendid foreign flicks on offer), that the rank throw-back to an earlier era should be voted by the establishment as the worthiest film of the year should have made Oliver Reed’s management extremely nervous. For an actor so of his present it seemed as if the Academy were hell-bent on turning back the clock. Indeed, one may think that Oliver! was an MGM production, with its determination to avoid any reference to concerns of the present, but the fact it was popular should dispel that notion. Oliver! was released by Columbia a company with thrifty origins that had survived the difficulties of the early 1950s and had thrived into the next decade. Of all the Hollywood studios it was probably Columbia that best utilised the foray into Britain. By tendering out its productions to independent producers they may have had less share of profits, but also negated much of the risk (not to mention the costly overheads). A number of expensive ‘prestige’ productions were made in this manner, including Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and A Man for All Seasons (1966) which were financial and critical triumphs. They also had a timeless, classical quality unlike some of Columbia’s attempts to embrace all things swinging in London – Casino Royale (1967), anyone? On the other hand, Columbia were responsible for two of the most audience-pleasing swinging London films, Georgy Girl and To Sir With Love (both 1966). Recent viewings of both films only confirm that for all their happening affectations, they were as artistically conservative as the company’s period pieces. Less celebrated but far more interesting to this viewer were several of Columbia’s smaller British productions, such as The Reckoning (1969) and Ten Rillington Place (1969), which stripped away any veneer of overt parochial identity to focus on character development and narrative tension. Nicol Williamson stars in The Reckoning as a ruthless executive forced to return to his dreary hometown of Liverpool when told his father has been bashed to death outside of a pub. Reconciling his past, reconnecting with his family and willed into the role of avenger, his regeneration does not lead to him forgoing his high-flying lifestyle. For he was well aware of its nihilistic nature to begin with. Instead, he returns to London rejuvenated. He committed a killing and now he was going to make a killing in business. It is the pragmatic, clear-headed cousin to I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname that is devoid of Winner’s trendiness and patronising redemption.

 In 1969 Oliver Reed should have been starring in something akin to The Reckoning to break from his swinging London ghetto and to prove he was capable of carrying a feature that had neither Winner nor Russell behind the camera. The story is apparently true that when Reed was later leaving to make a film in America, Richard Harris sent him a pair of crutches – on one was inscribed “Ken Russell” and on the other, “Glenda Jackson”. The accompanying note said “You are going to need these”. 1969 of course was the year of Women in Love but for strictly commercial purposes Reed was dicking about on the mildly amusing but inconsequential romp, The Assassination Bureau, a period comedy which may have been a better film than that year’s The Best House in London, but to those that have seen the David Hemmings bordello farce, such praise is thin indeed.

 By 1971 Hollywood had all but pulled out of Britain and with them went the foundations on which the British film industry had relied for the best part of a decade. Reed had two choices – firstly he could depart for America and reinvent himself as a Hollywood leading man. This would require skill, determination and good behaviour and sadly, Reed only possessed the first of those qualities. But what hope would he have had anyway? The British stars who had decamped over the previous decade were hardly faring well. Caine had endured almost nothing but flops since the last Harry Palmer thriller; Connery was struggling without a martini; Burton (and Taylor for that matter) were in box-office freefall; Harris was more notable for being a pain in the arse than for his actual work on screen and O’Toole’s career had obviously peaked with his first starring role. Britain was no longer flavour of the month and its performers were sliding off the A-list as a result. Indeed, after a decade in which its homegrown product appeared inert, old-fashioned and inordinately costly, American cinema was revitalised in the late 60s by a group of new filmmakers, the abolition of the Production Code and a generation of young stars. Hoffman, Beatty, Dunaway, Redford and a little later, Hackman, Pacino and De Niro pushed out those foreigners that had filled the void when the post WW2 stars’ appeal began to wane with audiences.

To my mind, there was no place for Reed in the United States in 1970, his opportunity missed by about five years. His other choice was to stay in Britain and enjoy being the biggest fish in an ever-evaporating pond. And this was what he did, even proclaiming that “I am the British film industry”. To a degree this was true, as he was the only major star still based in his homeland, but he had to suffer increasing competition from the flood of expats returning home in search of a good script and the career boost that would go with it. O’Toole was home for Under Milkwood and was gearing up for The Ruling Class (1972) and Connery would soon cross the Atlantic for The Offence (1972). Yet it was the stripped-down British arm of MGM that managed to lure back two of the brightest names back from Hollywood for a most remarkable pair of films. In 1971 the company released Villain and Get Carter starring, respectively, Richard Burton and Michael Caine. Two of the finest crime films to ever be produced in Britain, it took a number of years for Get Carter to receive due acclaim and to find a well-deserved following. Popularity at the time of its release was never a problem for Villain which was a sizeable hit in Britain (although it did not capture an audience in the US). Unfortunately, as Get Carter’s classic status has been assured, Villian has drifted into a near obscurity in recent years, a critical oversight that really should be rectified.

With all this last-gasp activity in a British film industry that would soon be swamped with horror, sex-comedies and TV spinoffs, Oliver Reed was treading water – a couple of European-shot features (The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and the Gun and the western The Hunting Party) aroused little interest and the public only seemed to take notice when Russell came calling, casting him the notorious The Devils (1971). Yes, Russell again. Winner was off Bronsoning in Hollywood by this time and one can only conclude that Reed was floundering; his career only resuscitated by Ken Russell’s casting largesse.

In 1965 Reed made a film titled The Party’s Over, a prophetic title for the star’s career fortunes by the end of such a promising decade. Interestingly, many years later it was revealed that Reed was shortlisted to replace Sean Connery when he first quit as Bond but due to financial considerations they decided upon George Lazenby. I’m far from being a Bond aficionado so I’ll leave the ponderings on his suitability for the role to others, but suffice to say it would have brought the actor international exposure and may have provided the stability and he so desperately lacked in his professional life.

Instead of acting On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the on-screen Reed found himself serving at her Majesty’s pleasure. MGM’s success with their crime films of 1971 led the company to greenlight a script by Alexander Jacobs who had written Point Blank for the screen in 1967. Sitting Target (1972) told of a violent career criminal imprisoned for the killing of a security guard during a botched robbery. Facing many years alone, his long-suffering wife tells him their marriage is over and reveals she is pregnant to another man. Enraged, her husband escapes from prison, intent on killing her and her lover. It all sounds promising enough, but do not be fooled. John Boorman has said that when he and Lee Marvin were preparing to film Point Blank, the actor only agreed to make the film after throwing the script out of the hotel window. Boorman then brought in Jacobs and together they worked on the rewrite of what would become a modern classic. One can only presume that Boorman’s contribution was considerable, given the by-the-numbers formula of Sitting Target. Had Marvin been involved I would think this screenplay would have been hurled across the English Channel.

From the film's pressbook

 Naturally, Reed plays Harry, with Jill St. John (on a last feature stop before spending the rest of the decade in TV movie purgatory) as Pat. Ian McShane is along for the ride as the younger inmate who makes the break with Reed and Edward Woodward is rather thanklessly and pointlessly cast as Milton, the cop on the case. Frank Finlay, Freddie Jones, Tony Beckley and Robert Beatty round out the support cast as various neer-do-wells.

The performers in the film all do what is asked of them and rise to level of mere adequacy that the project requests. Similarly, the production values also meet such requirements and the director Douglas Hickox gets from the MGM logo to the closing credits without doing himself any disfavour…by hardly making his presence felt at all. It is hard to reconcile that this was the filmmaker responsible for the élan of Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, the black wit of Entertaining Mr. Sloane and the hilarious, high campery of Theatre of Blood. But when handed straight drama, Hickox was a barely a competent journeyman (see Brannigan and Zulu Dawn) and one could only wish that some of the vitality and deft lightness that the director was capable of employing could have been rationed Sitting Target’s way just to enliven the stodge of it all.

But as much as the viewer begs for some shade to the characters, some zest to the narrative and some purposeful visual aesthetic, Sitting Target refuses to deliver. It does not want to, it does not need to. For this is a film made purely to boil pots to. A slate filler, an identifiable, paid up genre member, a one-dimensional programmer for a one-dimensional demographic; unwilling to offer the slightest variation to a tired and worn generic staple, its only compensation for the market is to ensure a requisite number of breasts and moments of quite nasty violence. So calculated and so cynical, Sitting Target’s grim determination to adhere strictly to formula and to employ actors to function as little more than props that are moved about, shaken around and dismissed as the conventions of that formula dictate, causes Sitting Target to be seen today as one of the most depressing examples of British cinema of the 1970s. This is especially so when one considers how the film uses Oliver Reed.

How does it use its star? As a marketing tool. I have nothing against actors playing to type – careers and genres have been built on the backs of such casting and career management. But in those cases it has been a gradual accumulation of an on-screen persona with the baggage past built into the roles and the audiences’ expectations. But in Sitting Target Reed is cast as a one-dimensional thug who is allowed but the briefest moments in which to show any emotion other than rage, a colour-by-numbers characterisation in which any alteration to the single dimension only exists to explain an action about to occur in the most literal definition of narrative cause and effect. If any past baggage was a requirement, the producers of Sitting Target have gone back to the Reed of The Angry Silence and The Bulldog Breed (both 1960) – his early bit parts as stock thugs in which he would menace and brawl.

What happened to the years in-between? Winner, Russell and Bill Sykes all forgotten. It was as if London had ever swung. Hell, even Hammer offered a greater range than what was on offer in Sitting Target. Where is the insouciance, the wry, knowing cynicsm and the voice that delivered even the most inconsequential line with a near-Burton like resonance? All those qualities that had made Reed a star and that carried the essence of a certain strain of British cinema ignored in the effort to cast a barrel-chested hulk driven by the basest of instinct to kill without remorse and consequence. Perhaps his character (and the actor’s screen persona) could be compensated by at least having him feared by his enemies but instead the only fear is of his brutality, otherwise he is played for a fool.

What a worthless role for a fine and talented actor, but even more tragic is the damage done to his professional standing. Having not been asked to carry a British film for several years, Sitting Target, made on the cusp of an industry collapse, needed to be a renewed calling card for the actor to let the industry know that he could cross into the new decade and redefine his persona for a less auspicious period while remaining relevant and commercial. Instead he is reduced to his lowest common denominator – 190lbs of sneer, shooting guns, smashing cars and punching heads. He is lucky he ws male, otherwise it would have been ‘tits out for the lads’ time. 

In spite of unanimously poor reviews, Sitting Target  did manage a successful four week run at the ABC 1 cinema in Shaftsbury Avenue when released in London on May 5th 1972. Oddly, when it reached here – Melbourne, Australia – on June 8th its title had been changed and only those when the keenest eyes could scan through the credits to find Reed mentioned at all.


Playing at the Metro Collins Street, a once grand palace whose fall from favour mirrored that of the studio whose product it (at the time) played exclusively, Screaming Target lastd one desulutory week.







One June 20th it New York admatmade it to New York where it was shunted to the bottom of the bill on a double feature with One is a Lonely Number, a story of a divorcee trying to get her life back together. The mix of testosterone and estrogen proved disastrous and the combo was yanked from its showcase run after a dismal week.

Mild success at home and failure abroad. Playing almost concurrently as Sitting Target in Britain was Z.P.G. a futuristic tale in which Reed and Geraldine Chaplin play a couple who defy the state’s ban on children and decide to have one of their own, risking all their lives in the process. At least here Reed gets the chance to attempt a performance, but some shoddy effects work and an overbearing glumness compelled audiences to stay away.

Four of Reed’s next five films were barely (if at all) released in Britain, with the exception being the popular Three Musketeers (1973) which finally gave the actor a chance to unleash some charisma and dash. It is not co-incidental that the swashbuckler’s director was Richard Lester who had made is mark in swinging London features. Similar, showy character roles were provided by Russell (again!) with Tommy (1975) and Lester (again!) with Royal Flash (1975). But in terms of leading man material the decent parts were over. Other actors could return to the stage or take on television but for Reed who had no experience of the former and no temperament for the latter, th international co-production ghetto was his only route and by the end of the 1970s his star cache was spent. 

I have no doubt that the booze and general unruliness also played their parts in derailing Reed’s career, but frankly I am sick of reading such stories which turn a formidible talent into a lad’s mag laughing stock. The waste of Reed’s talent is one of cinema’s minor tragedies and although we cannot blame the likes of Sitting Target,  its total disregard for the actor’s capabilities leaves a sour taste in my mouth every time I stumble across it on television.


December 14, 2008

Rethinking the Cannon

by Dean Brandum

I’m guessing it was around March of 1986 when I saw Runaway Train at Hoyts’ Midcity complex on its opening weekend here in Melbourne. The film had been praised by a number of critics as a thoughtful and exciting action film, the fact it was based on an unproduced screenplay by Akira Kurosawa validated its potential of quality. With several Oscar nominations to boot, the expectations of the small, but anticipative audience were high.

The trailers and ads finished, the curtains adjusted – we were ready. And then it happened. The Cannon logo appeared onscreen and the audience groaned with dismay. We were to be duped. No philosophical musings on man’s savagery to come, instead it would be a cheap and nasty flick churned out for that lowest-common-denominator viewer, the dimwitted fan of Dudikoff and Bronson, one turned on by the putrid vigilante violence of such bottom shelf of the video store sludge. Never had I heard an audience diss a film logo before and nor have I since, but such was the notoriety of Cannon films that such outrage was justified.

Do you remember the Cannon logo? Look it up on youtube. That cold, blue metallic style so favoured by corporate promoters in the 1980s, ticking all the necessary boxes of the day – efficiency, synthesis, functionality – complete with a reverbing synthesizer.

Pretty soon the audience at Runaway Train settled into the experience and presumably enjoyed it – I know I did and to me it remains possibly Cannon’s finest achievement. Yet at the time I was well aware of the film being a Cannon production and to myself might have given a small cheer, for although Cannon’s reputation was for junk (which I invariably paid to see) I knew that the company, in its bizarrely schizophrenic manner, was determined to be seen a purveyor of high art cinema and taken seriously as such. It was this attitude, this desperate need for critical and peer respect that helped make the company the laughing stock of the industry and the critics’ whipping boy. Perhaps if they’d known their place and been happy to just mine the low-budget exploitation market they would have been ignored, but for a while, their ambitions, riding on a wave of bravura, chutzpah and just plain bullshit took them to the position of Hollywood’s foremost mini-major, their share price riding high even though few people were actually interested in seeing their films. Eventually the bubble burst and in the dying years of the 1980s the company collapsed, its heads Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus parting ways and since reduced to the smaller tables in the corners of world film markets.

Nearly that nearly two decades have passed since Cannon’s demise, how can and should we look back on their output?

If you mention Cannon to an aging buff you would more than likely elicit a hearty chuckle and memories of a tired Charles Bronson, a young Van Damme and Chuck Norris in his prime. This appears to be Cannon’s legacy – medium-low budget action flicks; suitable for drive-ins and grindhouses but produced a decade after such venues had closed. So instead of the romantic nostalgia of seeing Death Wish 3 at the mothbitten Albany/Roma/Star/Galaxy/Metro (insert your own, much loved fleapit here) or local ozoner, it would have more likely been screened in the pokier screens of your larger inner-city multiplex, a 100-seat box with floor to ceiling carpet.

Combine that with the Cannon visual aesthetic (cold, fluorescent and lots of concrete – call it cinematic brutalism) and those too-recent-romanticize fashions cobbled together by the cash-strapped costume and hair departments (the characters, even those apprently in positions of power, always looked so darn cut-rate and suburban) and the memories of Cannon are pretty grim. The aural chintzings of the synthesising Gary Changs and Jay Chattaways only compounds the pain.

There were times when Cannon aimed to have their fare last longer then a week on screen but their forays into matching it with the majors have passed into Hollywood lore for their sheer ineptitude. Perhaps Cannon’s entire legacy is best exemplified by its dealings with Sylvester Stallone. In 1985 Sly was, without a doubt, the biggest star in the world. In that year he managed the one-two punch of Rocky IV (domestic gross: $125 million) and Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (domestic gross: $150 million). Cannon spent that year trumpeting (and boy did they carry on about it!) the fact he was to star in their upcoming Over the Top and paying him $12 million to sign on (and to sign off much of his future career). With the boxoffice’s most bankable name on board, how could they go wrong? Well, by having him star in a story about professional arm wrestlers (gee, there’s one ‘sport’ that has been crying out for the big screen treatment) was one way to do it. Having Menaham Golan himself direct the film in his own inimitable manner (lunk of head and ham of fist) was another. Cannon’s marketing department, responsible for the least appealing campaigns of the decade, completed the task by making Over the Top look as cheap and tacky as the usual Cannon fodder they could not sell. When it was released in 1986 Over the Top grossed $16 million domestic – an abysmal return considering Stallone’s calibre, worse still considering the rentals would have not covered half of the star’s wage. Ahh Cannon – if only they put as much effort into making and selling their films as they did announcing their imminent production.

Other such attempts at playing the blockbuster game included obtaining the rights to make Superman IV, then pruning back the budget to above-the-line costs only (Reeve and Hackman) and managing to bury the franchise entirely with the worst of the series. Masters of the Universe seems to have its defenders but I’ll reserve judgement as even 20 years ago I was loath to part with my hard-earned for comic-book action figurey flicks.

To my mind the best of Cannon’s blockbuster efforts was Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce – a batty B-premise given the A-treatment (to the tune of $25 million in 1985 coin). Mathilda May’s gratuitous nudity, crazed space vampires, London as the setting and the notion that Steve Railsback could carry a film. Absolutely enjoyable and a prime example of how Golan and Globus had little idea of how to forge an audience-pleasing project. And thank god for that. Any major studio would have vetoed Life Force as an expensive Hammer film. In their naivety, Cannon thought they were on a box-office winner. Hey guys, I did my bit and showed up.

I also showed up to 52 Pick-Up (1985), in which Cannon provided cinematic asylum to the once mighty John Frankenheimer, allowing him to direct one of the very best Elmore Leonard adaptations to screen. This is one of the rare cases when the aforementioned Cannon aesthetic works to a film’s advantage. The scuzzy atmosphere, exploitative nudity and gratuitous violence do justice to Leonard’s milieu of low life on the outskirts of the Los Angeles skin industry. Once again, Golan and Globus were unable to see that such content would dissuade more viewers than it would bring in. Never let it be said that these moguls delivered overly slick product. Slick was not in their vocabulary. Their effect was even felt on films which they did not produce. Case in point was the Stallone vehicle, Cobra (1986). This was a Warner Brothers release that only had a nominal Golan-Globus on-screen production credit (this was due to Cannon nullifying an agreement they had with the actor in order to pocket a million much-needed dollars from Warners). Otherwise, Cannon had no creative input into Cobra and nor would they receive any financial return from the project. However, for all of Warners’ expense and experienced sheen, Cobra – one of the more putrid releases of a mostly putrid decade – had the fetid stench of Cannon wafting from every sprocket hole.

But…but…it is far too easy to rip into Cannon and if that was the only purpose of this post then it would not have been written in the first place. For harking back to my opening comments, the poor reputation of Cannon may have infected their better films to the point of audience turn-off, but better films they did produce or distribute. Rather than being just ill-bred cowboys, Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus were true film lovers and did wish to be appreciated by those of a higher brow. Indeed, for all the atrocious work Golan directed in his time with Cannon, he had once been recognised as Israel’s most promising director. Films such as Fortuna (1966), My Margo (1969) and Highway Queen (1971) all received international distribution and some acclaim leading to his best feature as director, Lepke (1975), with Tony Curtis (in fine form) as the Jewish gangster. It must also be acknowledged that his Operation Thunderbolt (1977) was better than either of the more star laden, American productions that retold the events of rescuing the hostages from Entebbe airport.

Sadly there is little that follows that is evident of such early talent. Quite typical of the later Golan is that he can hack out such dreck as Death Game (2001) and Final Combat (2003) yet in the year between helm a version of Crime and Punishment. Such is the story of Golan as it was with Cannon: there was no real distinction between high and low cinema. Arthouse and exploitation, they were all handled and marketed as the same goods and unfortunately, the rotten produce contaminated the many fine films the company released.

Which other major studio (or even mini-major, for that matter) in the 1980s would have given the time of day to the likes of Jean Luc-Godard, Norman Mailer, Andrei Konchalovsky, Emir Kusterica, Barbet Schroeder, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Jason Miller, Liliana Cavani, Lina Wertmuller, Franco Zefirelli, Harry Hook, Neil Jordan, Dusan Mackavejev, Godfrey Reggio, Fons Rademakers and Nicholas Roeg? Not many.

Miramax were held up as a later business model that would differentiate its product and market it appropriately. Cannon had no qualms about announcing Death Wish 3 alongside Fool for Love and selling them both in the same, crude manner. Yet the still employed these filmmakers, most of whom spoke highly of their time with the company but sadly, although some of these films met with critical acclaim, few made any money. But this was the story of Cannon – for even most of their Bronson and Norris flicks barely went into profit (due to the excessively wide releases afforded to such junk) and on the few occasions they had a bankable star they would somehow botch the deal.

Cannon have long gone and sadly we will probably never see their likes again. As a final treat I would like to end with a gallery of films the company announced but never produced. Would these titles have made a difference to Cannon’s reputation or bottom line? Who knows?

(Apologies for the blurry quality of some of these images. Too big for the scanner, the camera did not do them justice.)

Yes, when I think of a modern Judy Holliday, I think 'Whoopi Goldberg'.

Yes, when I think of a modern Judy Holliday, I think 'Whoopi Goldberg'.

In 1970 'Joe' had been a remarkable success for Cannon before Golan and Globus took over the company. This ressurection may have been interesting in the depths of the Reagan era.

In 1970 'Joe' had been a remarkable success for Cannon before Golan and Globus took over the company. This ressurection may have been interesting in the depths of the Reagan era.


A remake of Elio Petri's 'Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion'. Konchalovsky directing, Schraeder scripting and Pacino starring. Sounds to good to be true for Cannon. It was.

A remake of Elio Petri's 'Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion'. Konchalovsky directing, Schraeder scripting and Pacino starring. Sounds to good to be true for Cannon. It was.

Hoffman sulked off when Cannon used his image in a promotion without his permission. They tried to shoehorn Pacino into the project, to no avail.

Hoffman sulked off when Cannon used his image in a promotion without his permission. They tried to shoehorn Pacino into the project, to no avail.

The Final Chapter' Zito directing? Where's my ticket!?!

With Joseph 'Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter' Zito directing? Where's my ticket!?!

I'm sorry, make that Albert 'Cyborg' Pyun.

I'm sorry, make that Albert 'Cyborg' Pyun.

Tobe Hooper? You'd get a guy who made his name directing gory horror flicks to do 'Spiderman'? Like THAT would ever happen!

Tobe Hooper? You'd get a guy who made his name directing gory horror flicks to do 'Spiderman'? Like THAT would ever happen!

John Travolta was also attached at one stage. Just what the world needed.

John Travolta was also attached at one stage. Just what the world needed.

Spare me.

Spare me.

You aren't fooling anyone.

You aren't fooling anyone.

Yes, you read correctly - Michael Winner. M-I-C-H-A-E-L  W-I-N-N-E-R.

Yes, you read correctly - Michael Winner. M-I-C-H-A-E-L W-I-N-N-E-R.

Look, now you are just being silly.

Look, now you are just being silly.

December 14, 2008

From the Files on a Dumber Plight

by Dean Brandum

As printed in the New York Times cinema section in February 1975.


Ya really think this made much of a difference?

Nah, nor do I.

Damn those bloody Swedish names. The good folk at Filmways knew one of them had an extra ‘n’ on the end. Must have tossed a coin to decide which one.

October 9, 2008

Hotel Du Pud (part two): Harry Alan Towers and “Ten Little Indians” (1974)

by Dean Brandum

By 1973 the two-year partnership between the British EMI and Hollywood’s MGM had fractured to the point where the American organization decided to finalize its British production involvement and keep all of its dealings on its home side of the Atlantic. This was pleasing for EMI (the owners of the expansive and proficient Elstree Studios) as they had been suffering losses incurred by MGM’s disastrous losses in the USA. As a now single corporation, EMI company head Nat Cohen choose the 1973 Cannes film festival to announce a £5 million package of seven films, most of which would be American features with an EMI distribution interest. Of the domestically produced EMI features announced that year, it was an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s bestseller Murder on the Orient Express that garnered the most interest. It had taken a lot of strenuous negotiation between Christie and Cohen, but he eventually secured the rights to three of her Hercule Poirot novels, believing that such material would be the ideal screen antidote for Britain in what was a gloomy time of industrial, social and civil unrest.

Filming did not begin on Murder on the Orient Express until March of 1974, ten months after the announcement at Cannes. Yet in that time another Christie adaptation was conceived, financed, cast, prepared and already filming.

“Same Script different locations. You always kill off the most expensive stars first!” – Harry Alan Towers on his three versions of “Ten Little Indians”

In October that year, Variety‘s “international wrap” included a brief mention that Towers was producing a new version of Ten Little Indians. The news was from their correspondent in Madrid, so it seemed the film would either be shot there or at least based in that country. Towers, based at the time in Lichtenstein had attracted a strong cast for this project – Oliver Reed, James Mason, Elke Sommer and Herbert Lom were verified, with Adolfo Celi in talks and negotiations continuing with several international names.  Each week would bring new casting news with the November 7th column stating that the British-French-German-Italian-Spanish production was looking for two Spaniards to round out the cast and that James Mason had left the production. 20th Century Fox was expected to distribute the film in the USA.

Towers had arranged his most widespread production yet, involving five nations. It took some delicate work to make the arrangement as equitable as possible for each participating company to benefit from their local subsidies and rebates.

The companies and incentives involved were:

Oceania (French) who had previously worked with Towers on Call of the Wild and had a history of involvement in multi-national productions, especially genre-based films including westerns and crime thrillers. Tax rebates and no interest loans were available from the Centre du Cinema.

Talia (Spain) were a reasonably new company also in the co-production business. With Spain having equal partnership in this production they were eligible for a 15% rebate on ticket sales.

Coralta: (Italy) had, until this time restricted themselves to either local productions or partnerships with French companies. In those cases they were eligible for low-interest loans from the Film Credit Section of the Banca Nazionale (SACC) as a not majority participant on Towers’ film, the loan would be far smaller.

Corona (Germany), a well-established company that had previously funded several of Towers’ collaborations with Jess Franco. Germany offered State Aid, in which films German companies shared equal partnership were eligible. Companies could also offset.

The British component was Towers himself, through the aptly named Filibuster Films, a company created for this production only. Towers packaged the production and although Filibuster did not contribute any capital, it acted as a broker between the other companies. The creation of Filibuster was for the purposes of Eady levy rebate eligibility, yet although nominally British it was listed as located in elsewhere. This was due to these four companies had another, silent partner.

In the 1970s Tehran had an established film festival, one which showcased both Iranian and world cinema. Endorsed by the Shah or Iran, the festival spared no expense in attracting stars and directors to attend the festival, held late each year. The success of the festival led to the Iranian government believing that cinema was the ideal medium to promote the country internationally as a progressive nation. The Film Development Company of Iran was created and endowed with a large budget to attract international filmmakers. The 1974 Film Festival brought news of the first international film to be shot there – Ten Little Indians. The Film Development company offered the superb location of the Shah Abbas Hotel for filming (and five star accommodation for the cast and crew) there was also an added inducement that Towers could not resist – moving his company Filibuster to Iran which would act as a tax shelter for the entire budget and all of Tower’s personal fees. In this way, Towers took the money from his four partners and did not have to pay any tax on the amount until the film had grossed a certain percentage of the cost. Even then, this tax shelter offered minimal taxation rates.

The cast was finalised with a not quite equal spread of actors – there were two Britons (Oliver Reed and Richard Attenborough), two Germans (Gert Frobe and Elke Sommer) and two French (Stephane Audran and Charles Aznavour). However there was only one Italian (Adolfo Celi) and a single Spaniard (Alberto de Mendoza). Rounding out the cast were Herbert Lom (Czech) and Maria Rohm (Towers’ Austrian wife). This problem was solved by providing extra credits for Spaniards and Italians on the film. Jess Franco has spoken of this as a regular practice on Towers’ films. In order to meet a country’s co-production guidelines they would invent roles or create ‘strawmen’. This would entail paying a small amount to a certain artist or technician to agree for his name to be used and, if asked by the authorities, to state he did work on the film. Although there is no official record of these ‘strawmen’ being used, two extra producers are listed alongside Towers. These men (Juan Estelrich and Tibor Reeves) had fulfilled minor production roles on previous Towers’ films. One may also wonder about the names credited alongside that of screenwriter Peter Wellbeck (actually Towers’ pseudonym), Erich Kronke and Enrique Llovet. Although screenwriters, it seems unlikely that they had any true input, for the screenplay is almost identical (to the very word) with the once Towers wrote for the 1965 film. The only changes were very minor, detailing characters commenting on the outside landscape (changed from snowy alps to sandy desert).

Briton Peter Collinson was hired to direct. In his short career he had worked in a number of countries across a variety of genres. He had one true hit film to his credit, the 1969 caper comedy The Italian Job. After that, with the British film industry in difficulties he had travelled the world making films in Greece – You Can’t Win ‘em All (1970), Hollywood – A Man Called Noon and Spain – Open Season. He joined Towers just before production began, having left pre-production on a project titled “Nights of the Moulin Rouge” which appears to have never been made. Filming in Iran started in late December and seems to have taken around 3-4 weeks. The Iranian backers had requested that two of their popular stars be given roles, so a short sequence where two detectives stumble across the bodies was also filmed. Although mentioned in the press material, these cameos were excised from English language market prints. Several cast members then returned to Spain to film some interior shots and the film was then taken to Teddington Studios in Britain for post-production work, including the dubbing of Celi, Frobe, de Mendoza and Aznavour into English. They had spoken their lines in their natural languages during shooting, not fluent enough to have mastered the dialogue in English.

It must be mentioned that Oliver Reed has commented only that he did “a movie in Iran for the money”, which was to pay the upkeep on his large English estate, not even mentioning its title in his autobiography. Attenborough has stated that after having retired from acting he spent so long trying to finance his long-cherished Gandhi project (which he eventually directed in 1981) that he took what work he could find for the money. James Mason (originally cast) had relocated to Switzerland for tax reasons and although his biography does not mention his involvement in this film, that year he worked on four films in Europe which he’d described as ‘rubbish’, yet once again, he needed the money. These were harsh times for British actors, with little work available at home and high tax rates meaning they had to find work where they could. This explains why so many British actors and American tax exiles seemed to spend much of the 1960s-1970s jetting from one European co-production to another. Arthur Kennedy, an American character actor who managed a prolific career in Europe has said that he generally read only his part of the script for those films and seldom saw the finished product.

A scan of the actors’ credits reveals that after working with Towers, most of the cast worked predominantly in international genre co-productions for the rest of their careers. It would seem that having chosen such work, it was difficult to return to cinema with a distinct national flavour.

Murder on the Orient Express exceeded the expectations of all involved. Running for over a year in both Britain and the USA, it amassed a splendid $19 million in US rentals alone and a similar amount again internationally. Praised by critics, the film was nominated for six Academy Awards, with Ingrid Bergman winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in the film.

Ten Little Indians opened late in 1974 in West Germany to “good” business and was rated as “popular” when it was released in Spain in December. Under the title of And Then There Were None (a late change as the pressbook still uses the original title), it was not released in the United States until August of 1975, (through Avco-Embassy, with Fox having passed) where it received unanimous negative reviews from the New York critics. It rose as high as eleventh on Variety’s Top 50 Box Office chart in its only week of wide release then quickly dropped away, grossing under a million dollars in the United States. Although it has been reported that the film never played theatrically in Britain, it was kept on the shelf for 16 months until it finally managed a solitary week in London in 1976 and was promptly withdrawn after a £1013 gross. There is no report of it playing provincially. Its poor British performance may be due to the fact it was distributed by EMI who had produced and distributed Murder on the Orient Express and did not want the rival film harming its business. There is also a theory that many of Towers films did not play in Britain due to his creditors there having the legal right to seize any returns from his films. France, the final official partner in the production, did not release the film until two years after it first screened in Europe.

Ten Little Indians has all the hallmarks that critics reviled of the international co-production: It rode on the coattails of a successful British/American production; it had performers chosen due to their passport rather then suitability for the role and a setting determined by investor demands. The film also is guilty of the most rank opportunism. Charles Aznavour, the first victim, is in the film for less then ten minutes and only has a couple of lines which are dubbed into English anyway, yet his one scene features him singing (in its entirety) his hit song “Dance the old fashion way”. The pressbook for Ten Little Indians even urges exhibitors to emphasise that point through radio and record store promotions. The film is also guilty of the criticism that such productions have their inspiration in antiquated and well-recycled narratives that lost their freshness early in the century. With such adherence to stock and stereotypes they ignore modern political realities and prefer to exist in a purely fictional temporal and spatial universe, one where the same narratives are repeated beyond exhaustion and invention and innovation are shunned in favour of formulae.

Rather than attempt to hide the fact, Towers’ film wore its international pedigree with pride. The American advertising stated it had an “international all star cast” and the pressbook contained several stories telling of the production and how various nations were ‘represented’ in the casting and how some performers were ‘obtained’ from countries, as if this was a film sanctioned by government.  Perhaps Charlton Heston closer to the truth then he knew when he had complained of Towers’ business practices amounting to ‘United Nations -style filmmaking’.

One can see the influences within the narrative. There is the obvious connection to the all-star casting aspect of Murder on the Orient Express (a film Ten Little Indians’ pressbook has no shame in continually referencing, even name-checking it on the film’s poster), yet this is an aspect both films share with the disaster movie cycle of the time. It has been theorized that audiences of the 1970s took great delight in watching luminaries of the screen being killed in gruesome ways. The advertising of Towers’ film also shares the ‘picture-box’ theme of several disaster movie posters in which the studio portraits of the cast are situated around the border, each identified by name. This method feeds the impression that it will be the performers we may pay to see die, rather then the characters they portry. But rather than a disaster movie, Ten Little Indians resembles an entry in the Italian giallo genre. One of the pioneers of that form of thriller, Mario Bava, has admitted that one of his films, Bay of Blood (1971) was inspired by the Christie story and that another, Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) was a direct rip off. Ten Little Indians (1974) has a dour nature that is not evident in other versions of the story and, with its gloved hand seen dispatching victims, inventive manners of death and surprise revelation of the killer, it is clearly giallo-influenced. Cinematographer Fernando Arribas and composer Bruno Nicolai had previously worked on gialli, so their styles help in creating such an aesthetic. Yet it must be noted that of all the versions made of Ten Little Indians, not a single one has been filmed, or set, in England. With its lack of detective and misanthropic world-view, it does adhere to the European tradition of darker, rival variants of popular American and British culture. James Bond had Fantomas, Dr. No had Fu Manchu and John Wayne had ‘The Man with No Name’. With this theory in mind, Ten Little Indians is Christie’s anti-Murder on the Orient Express.

Note the Giallo-esque alterations to the advertising campaign

Note the Giallo-esque alterations to the advertising campaign

However, the most apt influence upon this international film is its own creation. With its financing and production methods Ten Little Indians manipulated the system to its fullest so it is only apt that the system is eulogized by the narrative. If the disaster influence valued stardom over character, then Towers’ film takes the theme a step further.

Ten Little Indians opens with a helicopter landing at a grand hotel in an unnamed country. Ten jet-lagged people step out and try to gain their bearings. Strangers to each other but with some acquainted by reputation, they have been invited there to a party by a mysterious host, ostensibly because he admires their professional capabilities. Instead, he wishes to sentence them for crimes they have committed (mostly) in the course of those very professions. There is no escape from the location and he kills them off, one by one, the only survivors being the two who he falsely accused.

One can read such a synopsis as a metaphor for the international film, perhaps this very film. Ten jetlagged actors arrive at a grand hotel in an unknown country, having been invited by a mysterious producer to participate in a film, believing it was their talents that have brought them there. The producer never appears, yet via the recorded voice of Orson Welles, who scoured the world for film work, he tells them they had each long sold out their integrity for financial gain. Their punishment will be to never escape the international film system, as represented by the hotel in the non-specific nation. They are destined to re-enact these roles, killed off for the audience’s delight, for the remainder of their careers. It is the two youngest stars who escape the punishment and they have the opportunity to return to careers with integrity and substance.

However, like so many co-productions, this is the imposed and unrealistic happy conclusion. Had Christie’s original ending remained then the truth would have been preserved, for there was no salvation for either Oliver Reed or Elke Sommer, both seldom found film work outside of international co-productions and their stars faded as the 1970s drew to a close. It is Attenborough who plays the judge and is revealed as Ten Little Indians‘ killer. Ironically, Attenborough  extricated himself from the international film roundabout and he barely acted again, realizing his dream of directing grand and respectable, middlebrow entertainments. The other members of the cast (and the director) spent their careers jetsetting from one unidentifiable country to the next and in that regard they never left the Shah Abbas hotel.

Ten Little Indians is a rare form of self-reflexive cinema, in that such self commentary is probably unintentional. Had the European co-production never existed, and had Harry Alan Towers and his ilk been restricted from practice then the film, as we see it today would be little more than a curio. Yet, it is impossible to see it existing anyway, had such productions and producers never occurred. It remains a film of a time, a place and a method and a film whose method creates its own time and a place.

As for Harry Alan Towers, well you can’t keep a cunning old rogue down. From Ten Little Indians he returned to his blue territory, producing efforts for Italo sleazers Joe D’Amato and Massimo Dallamano and failing to make much of a star of Annie Belle in the process. It was then back to the public domain classics for a while, raiding H. Rider Haggard, Jack London and H.G. Wells and giving work to Jack Palance, David McCallum and Rod Steiger while taking advantage of tax breaks in Canada and South Africa. More soft porn kept him busy in the 1980s along with forays into the sword n’ sandal epics that were briefly popular at the time (the Gor movies, for example). Michael Dudikoff was his star for a while and Towers took to buying up the fag-ends of spent series for Howling IV – The Original Nightmare (1988), American Ninja 3 (1989), Delta Force 3 – The Killing Game (1991) and a pair of Michael Caine Harry Palmer spy flicks – Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in St. Petersburg (1996). A slew of South African filmed Edgar Allan Poe adaptations from Towers gathered dust on video store shelves in the late 80s -early 90s, wringing whatever marquee value was left from Donald Pleasance, Oliver Reed and um, Ginger Lynn Allen.

But if you thought he was done with Christie well another decade, another Ten Little Indians. In 1989 he produced what was originally to be titled Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, but was forced to abbreviate the title when the novelist’s estate complained. This time his then regular director Alan Birkinshaw took duties behind the camera and the cast included Brenda Vaccaro, Herbert Lom, Donald Pleasance and (yes!) Frank Stallone. Shot in South Africa it went directly to video in most territories.

Towers, now back in Britain having settled his legal difficulties is still in action today. For 2009 he has announced a version of Moll Flanders, with none other than Ken Russell as director. At 88 years of age there appears to be no stopping this great vagabond of the international co-production.

Harry, here’s to you.