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Chuck Ross

How Television Saved the Movies From … Television. Marketer’s Delight

Dec 31, 2016

An assessment of the Hollywood movie experience in theaters, circa fall 1953: “The screen widens, the dimension deepens, the track trebles, carpenters arrive to alter the ratio, the industry shifts massively to meet the threat of television. Like a tyrannosaurus with a cultural brain little larger than a walnut, TV has, with the casual lash of its tail, knocked some of the rococo off the ceilings of movie palaces and loosened the plaster generally.”

So wrote Norman Corwin, the poet laureate of American radio, in the 23rd anniversary issue of The Hollywood Reporter on Oct. 26, 1953.

A year earlier, on Nov. 3, 1952, a piece in Daily Variety said that in 1951 the movie business “began to skid alarmingly and it became apparent that Hollywood had to expend greater effort and provide special film quality if it was to stave off the rush of that ubiquitous enfant terrible, television.”

In that same issue of Daily Variety the (then) well-known humorist Carroll Carroll (really) wrote, “Everybody in Hollywood continues to be dismayed and upset by the tumult of TV. Everything is going in circles. Nobody quite knows what he is doing, or doing quite what he knows. Confusion is in command.”

If you were working as part of the Hollywood movie machine back then you’d be confused and panicked as well. A peek into my trusty Film Daily yearbook of the time explains it all. In 1946, ’47 and ’48, U.S. movie attendance peaked at an all-time high of about 90 million people during each of those years. Then it started to drop. Precipitously. The slide continued, and by the end of 1953, when Norman Corwin called TV a tyrannosaurus, annual movie attendance had dropped by almost half from its 90 million peak just five years earlier.

Correspondingly, in 1946 only a minuscule 6,476 TV sets were made in the U.S., according to historical documents from the Radio-Electronics-Television Manufacturers Association. By the end of 1953, just over 30 million TV sets had been made in seven years. So many TV sets were being made because sales were brisk.

In Hollywood, if you worked in the movies, the demarcation was clear: TV was enemy No. 1. As Corwin noted above, the way the movies fought back was mostly on the technology side: CinemaScope, Cinerama, 3-D and stereophonic sound. Make the theater experience wider, taller, more dimensional and louder, remind the public that there were no commercials at the movies and voilà, the arses will once again fill the seats. Or so went the theory.

In the midst of this battle with TV, on Sept. 30, 1953, there was this item, by Howard Thompson, in The New York Times:

“Whatever the attitude in general of most independent film producers toward the competitive formidability of television, at least one such unit obviously intends to make the newer medium serve its own purposes. Last week Norma Productions, the Burt Lancaster-Harold Hecht company, acquired screen rights to ‘Marty,’ an hour-long romantic drama presented on [NBC’s] Goodyear Television Playhouse last May 24 and written by Paddy Chayefsky, who has been retained to develop his brainchild into a screen [feature].”

The Times story adds, “Mr. Chayefsky’s story, a simple one, describes the lonely plight of an unprepossessing male ‘wallflower,’ nearing maturity, who finally manages to establish a rapport with a lady of like predicament at a Saturday night neighborhood dance.”

It was the first time a TV property had been bought by the movies.

Flash forward a year and a half later to Easter Sunday, 1955. On that day, in a New York Times that totaled 324 pages, about 183 of those pages were black and white ads. Of the ads, this was the most visually arresting:

The next most interesting ad, visually, that day was this full page, found on page four of the drama section:

A page in The Times advertising movies typically looked like the following mess, which is a movie ad page from the previous Friday:

So let’s examine the “Marty” ad. First, it grabbed readers by being a full-page newspaper ad for a movie, which in itself was fairly unusual in The Times at that time. The ad has a lot of empty space, dominated by a striking illustration of an overweight man, seen from behind, sitting, putting money in a pay phone. And the ad has very little copy. At the top one learns that this is the American premiere of this movie — which leads one to suspect that it’s played before in some other country.

Next one learns that the man in the phone booth is Marty, that that’s the name of the picture, that he’s a wonderful guy and that he’s unforgettable. No stars are mentioned. One is not told who the director is, nor the screenwriter. No producer is mentioned. In fact, no talent, either in front of the camera or behind the camera, is mentioned. Nor is any studio named.

Finally, one learns that the film will be playing at the Sutton theater on 57th Street and 3rd Avenue on the East side. An astute movie-going reader of The Times back then would have known that the Sutton, a mid-size theater seating about 570 patrons, was known for playing foreign movies, or other art-house fare. For example, in November of 1953 the Disney documentary “Living Desert” had an exclusive 17-week run at the Sutton.

Overall, the ad is very minimalist, and so unlike most other movie ads of the day, it becomes memorable. In fact it looks like it could be an ad from Saul Bass, whose similarly minimalist consumer and trade ads for “The Man with the Golden Arm” would begin showing up several months later, closer to that film’s December 1955 debut:

 

So “Marty” had its American premiere the day after Easter, on Monday, April 11, 1955, at the Sutton. The following day, in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther began his review by addressing the “movie vs. television” question straight away: “No matter what the movie people may say or think about television, they have it to thank for ‘Marty,’ which came to the Sutton yesterday.”

Crowther continues, saying that that transfer from TV “is well worth a tribute, for ‘Marty’ makes a warm and winning film, full of the sort of candid comment on plain, drab people that seldom reaches the screen.”

He continues, “In essence, this ninety-minute playlet, which Paddy Chayefsky has prepared from his own TV original, is just a good-natured, wistful kicking around of some of the socially awkward folkways of the great unban middle class. The hero, a stocky, moon-faced butcher, is 34 years old — unmarried, uninspired, unimaginative and lost in boredom and loneliness. He lives with his quaint Italian mother and he spends dull time with his equally helpless friends whose ideal of feminity is a busty pick-up, whose intellectual level is Mickey Spillane.”

All of this is true enough, and most likely a kiss of death to any serious box-office potential for “Marty.” It was a story of a common man that had already been seen by millions on TV two years earlier. The film featured no stars and was directed by someone who had never worked on a feature film before. Clearly it was no accident that it opened at a theater, on the quiet East Side, known for its art-house offerings, rather than the huge Times Square movie palaces known for showing big-budget Hollywood fare.

As the trade Box Office Digest wrote in its issue of Oct. 31, 1955, the producers of “Marty,” onetime agent Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster (who had been a client of Hecht’s), “have already established their solid position in the independent field. In business only two years, they have already hit box office highs with three hits, ‘Apache,’ ‘Vera Cruz’ and ‘The Kentuckian.’ [All three starred Lancaster, and ‘Vera Cruz’ also starred box-office draw Gary Cooper.] That’s consistency commercially.”

The Box Office Digest piece continues, “Now ‘Marty’ was originally a well-received television play, a human tale of family life in unpretentious surroundings. Consider the courage it called for on the part of an independent producer to jeopardize his highly successful box office record and decide to make a theatrical motion picture of this TV offering.

“We doubt if many would have had the stamina. And if one did, his first insistence would probably have been to get insurance by signing a couple money stars. And then call for veterans of the screen on direction and screenplay. That isn’t what Harold Hecht did.”

Delbert Mann, the director of both the TV and movie versions of “Marty,” wrote, years later, about being hired by Hecht to direct the movie version.

First, he notes that it was Chayefsky who insisted that Hecht hire him: “When Paddy was approached to do ‘Marty’ as a film, he felt a desperate need for help and protection from those whom he feared would cheapen and distort his work,” wrote Mann in his 1998 memoir published by the Directors Guild, “Looking Back… at Live Television and Other Matters.” “He and I had worked closely and well together. He insisted that I go along to help him protect his baby from the Philistines of Hollywood.”

Mann, who was very comfortable directing live TV dramas, continues, saying that Hecht offered him, to do the picture, “eight thousand dollars plus transportation, no living allowance. I turned it down, but not just because of the money. I had no great desire to do it, and had never even thought about Hollywood and a film career.” [At that time, most drama on TV was produced live from New York City, not Hollywood.] His salary was sweetened, and Chayefsky — who initially told Mann that he’d co-direct the film — pleaded with Mann to take the gig.

Mann adds, “When Harold Hecht signed me, I had never been to Hollywood, never been on a film set.” Mann then told what happened months later, when he actually filmed his first shot for the “Marty” movie. “We got it rehearsed and ready to shoot, rolled the camera and I called, ‘Action!’ for the first time. We went all the way through [the scene] without a hitch. ‘Cut. Print it,’ I proudly announced, ready to move on to the next item on the list.

“‘Wait a minute, hold it!’ Both Harold and Paddy came charging up the sidelines. A hasty conference informed me that film methods allowed for a scene to be played more than once and perhaps there were a few elements that could be improved if we tried it again. Rather sheepishly I allowed as how that was probably true and that I had gotten carried away. Quite awhile later we got the scene worked out to our satisfaction. And on we went through the first night.”

Another anecdote worth repeating is from Shaun Considine’s indispensable 1994 book “Mad as Hell: The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky.”

The film version of “Marty” began filming in September 1954 in New York City, mostly outside at night in the Bronx. Writes Considine, “The location shots were completed on Sept. 18. The next day, a Saturday, the company flew to California for the filming of the interior scenes at the Goldwyn Studios. Arriving at the studio on Monday morning, Chayefsky was given some dire news: shooting on ‘Marty’ has been suspended indefinitely.”

“They were junking the movie, that’s what I was told,” said the man who was playing Marty in the movie, Ernest Borgnine. “In fact they never intended to finish it in the first place. The whole thing had been planned as a tax write-off.” Borgnine, who had been a respected supporting player before being tapped to star in “Marty,” repeated this story most of his life,  believing that finally Hecht-Lancaster came up with the rest of the money to finish the movie.

In fact, Considine found out the real story. He writes, “The previous year, when producer Harold Hecht had first broached the idea of making the movie of ‘Marty,’ everyone told him he was crazy. ‘Marty’ had been on TV not long before, for free. Why would audiences want to pay to see it a second time in movie theaters? But Hecht persisted. He assured United Artists that he could make the film without stars, for very little money. They could book it in art houses, and even if it flopped there, they would make their money back from sales to the foreign markets, where the TV version had never been seen.”

UA gave its OK to make “Marty” for $150,000. By the summer of 1954, when the film was ready to start shooting, the budget was to be $286,000. At the same time “Vera Cruz” was still in production, and, it turned out Hecht-Lancaster was co-mingling funds for both those films. Then, costs for “The Kentuckian” were included in the mix. Hecht was getting resistance from both UA and Lancaster to get the monies that were supposed to go to “Marty,” Considine writes.

Finally, in October 1954, UA got a bank loan for $319,000 to complete “Marty.” In the end, with some re-shooting,“Marty” cost $349,000. This was an extraordinarily low budget for a major feature film release, even in 1955. Hecht financed the last shots “by taking out another mortgage on his Los Angeles house,” Considine writes.

According to Variety, Hecht truly believed that if “Marty” were marketed properly, it could be a hit. The first effort to build awareness and excitement for the movie was to enter it in the Cannes Film Festival. On May 16, 1955, a little more than a month after “Marty” opened to positive reviews at the Sutton theater, UA took out full-page ads in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter congratulating “Marty” for being the first winner of the Grand Prize at the International Film Festival at Cannes.

Two months later, in both of the major Hollywood trades, UA ran five pages introducing “Marty” to the trade. This was very common back then. Instead of the illustration of the big man talking in a phone booth as seen from behind, as would be seen in the ad for film’s premiere at the Sutton theater, the five ad pages started with this image:

Hecht had hired Walter Seltzer and George Glass to publicize the movie, writes director Mann. And in his book about Chayefsky, Considine writes, “We didn’t have the money for a professional illustrator,” said Seltzer, “so I gave this guy Harold Tritel, who was a window decorator, fifty bucks to do a sketch” of a man in a phone booth. In fact, Tritel, who died this past June, just two months shy of his 93rd birthday, was more accomplished when Seltzer hired him than Seltzer let on. More on that in my next column. Tritel did both images of the man in the phone booth, from behind and from in front.

The second part of the campaign to get audiences to see “Marty” in big numbers was to get the movie an Academy Award or two. That campaign began in earnest the week of Nov. 6, 1955. From then on, for the next four months, Seltzer created, on average, two different ads a week, graphically designed and illustrated by Tritel. The ads usually ran on Tuesdays in The Hollywood Reporter, and Fridays in Daily Variety.

The first ad, On Tuesday, Nov. 8, 1955, featured a letter by George Jessel. Jessel was known as the Toastmaster General of the country, a comedian with a light touch who occasionally acted in movies but was better known as both a fundraiser and one who gave great eulogies at funerals. In all, the campaign ran 5 letters from Jessel. Here’s one of them:

On Nov 27, in The Hollywood Reporter, Seltzer ran this ad, quoting the most important radio personality of the day, Walter Winchell:

Publicist Bernie Kamber tells Considine how the Winchell endorsement happened. Kamber’s job was to get columnists to see “Marty” and then write something about it.

“‘I used to go to the Victoria Barber Shop every Friday night at six o’clock,’ [Kamber] said. ‘In those days you got a haircut every week. In the barbershop one night was Walter Winchell. … [T]his evening he came over to me and said, “What’s doing?” I told him about the picture “Marty,” and how I couldn’t get anyone to see the goddamn thing at a screening. The following week he wrote it up in his column. He said that “Marty” was going to be one of the great sleepers of all time. And all of a sudden that same day my phone never stopped ringing. That was the power of Winchell. He never saw the movie, but he started it off for us.’”

A number of ads run during the campaign just quoted critics about the film. Here are some of those:

One of the trade ads that ran as part of the “Marty” “for your consideration” campaign was one that solely consisted of that Box Office Digest story I quoted earlier in this piece.

The following ad, which ran on Dec. 22 in Daily Variety, became news itself. It was an envelope, as you see below, lightly glued onto a page:

This short article, under the headline “Ballyhooligans: People and Mail” ran in Daily Variety several weeks later, on Jan. 11, 1956:

“Novel trade advertising stunt produced unexpected result for Hecht-Lancaster Productions. Gimmick, conceived by Walter Seltzer, consisted of an envelope pasted [to a page] in Daily Variety. … Inside [the envelope] was the latest in a series of letters from George Jessel, raving about H-L’s ‘Marty.’

“Within 48 hours, more than 40 of the envelopes had been returned, all with notes explaining that the letter had somehow reached the wrong party. A few notes admitted that the writers had ‘peeked’ at the contents. Additionally, the firm had more than 60 telephone calls from various Hollywoodites reporting that they had inexplicitly received a letter belonging to H-L which had ‘somehow become stuck to my copy of Daily Variety’ and asking if the missive should be forwarded.”

In December 1955, around Christmastime, both trades ran this “Marty” ad on their back page:

Come January, “Marty” opened a prestigious run at the Bruin Theater in Westwood (a movie theater that’s still showing movies 60 years later) :

And then the next week:

Included in the campaign starting in January were ads in the form of cartoons. Here’s one:

Also in January this ad ran as part of the campaign — an offer to show “Marty” in your home if you were part of the industry:

On Saturday, Feb. 18, the Academy Award nominees were announced. On Monday the 20th, this ad ran in both Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter:

Soon thereafter ran these ads, touting some of the nominations:

In this ad Ernest Borgnine thanked everyone for his nomination:

On Friday, March 9, as the campaign wound down, this ad, listing all the nominees in striking gold and black and white, ran in Daily Variety:

The following Tuesday, March 13, this ad, showing the iconic “Marty” telephone booth logo interacting with the Addams family, and drawn by Charles Addams, ran in The Hollywood Reporter:

When I found this cartoon used in the “Marty” Oscar trade campaign, I contacted Kevin Miserocchi, the executive director of the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation, to find out if he could give me the history behind it.

Turns out that it’s likely that the only time this cartoon was printed was during that campaign 60 years ago. Kevin said the Foundation was unaware of the existence of the cartoon before I showed it to him. “We do have copies of a number of film campaigns [that Charles Addams did], but nothing for ‘Marty.’”

He added, “Just to refresh your memory of the Family characters, the first three cartoon panels show Lurch, the butler, with Pugsley wiring Marty’s phone booth to the basement, where in the fourth panel Wednesday, Grandma and Gomez stand alongside Morticia, who is speaking on the phone with Marty while Thing looks on from beneath the floorboards.”

On Thursday, March 15, 1956, this classic “Marty” ad ran as the final ad in its Oscar campaign:

The Academy Awards ceremony was held Wednesday night, March 21, 1956. It was broadcast from Hollywood and New York.

For Best Picture, “Marty” was up against “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,” “Mister Roberts,” “Picnic” and “The Rose Tattoo.”

“Marty” won Oscars for Best Actor, Ernest Borgnine; Best Director, Delbert Mann; Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay, Paddy Chayefsky; Best Motion Picture, Harold Hecht, Producer.

Hecht, excitedly accepting the Best Picture Academy Award from presenter Audrey Hepburn and MC Jerry Lewis, said, “We are very fortunate to live in a country where any man, no matter how humble his origin, can become president — and in an industry where any picture, no matter how low its budget, can win an Oscar.”

A week later, on Wednesday, March 28, Variety ran a piece that confirmed the importance of Hecht’s Oscar strategy as the right business plan. Its headline read: ‘56 Oscar a $1,000,000 Baby,’ with the subhead: “Will Add That to ‘Marty’ Take.”

“Oscar this year is a $1,000,000 baby,” the Variety piece reads. “Hecht-Lancaster’s ‘Marty,’ on the basis of its early distribution returns, looked headed for United States and Canadian rentals of about $1,800,000. The estimate jumped to $2,100,000 when business strengthened via the Academy Award nomination. Now it’s figured at $2,800,000 — meaning a total gain of $1,000,000 thanks to Oscar.”

The article adds, “The accolades for ‘Marty’ are more meaningful, moneywise, than is usually the situation. Previous Acad winners in most cases were blockbusters that had taken nearly all the coin the market would yield, prior to the announcement of victory at the polls. These were of the $5,000,000-and-up variety.

“But ‘Marty’ never rated as such a blue-chip entry. Thus it has more market to play to — specifically, a greater number of potential customers than its predecessor award winners.”

Importantly, Variety also notes, “Mainly for the trade, the most intriguing aspect of ‘Marty’ is the initial investment. It was made by H-L at a negative cost of $350,000, and this at a time when the industry trend was toward more and more budgets in the millions. The percentage profit for H-L, measuring the returns against original outlay, likely will establish a modern-day high.”

Also of note is that “Marty’s” trade “for your consideration” campaign likely cost as much as the the film did.

Moreover, with both the critical and financial success of “Marty,” Hollywood realized it could finally embrace television. Thus, writes Considine in his book about Chayefsky, Hollywood “went on a stampede, buying up other original plays that had appeared on television. Among the 75 properties they acquired were ‘Patterns’ and ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight,’ by Rod Sterling, ‘Twelve Angry Men,’ by Reginald Rose, [and] ‘The Rainmaker’ by N. Richard Nash.”

Chayefsky himself, the author of the TV and then movie version of “Marty,” would go on to win two more best screenplay Oscars, one for “Hospital” and then one for his prescient comedy-drama about the TV business, “Network.”

TVWeek would like to thank the following, without whom this piece could not have been written:

The Charles Young Research Library at the University of California, Los Angeles

The Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The Tee and Charles Addams Foundation

The ads were reprinted with the permission of the MGM licensing department

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