My pal Leonard Maltin’s essential site Movie Crazy alerted me to the fact that pretty much the entire run of the exhibitor tradezine Boxoffice — some 3000 issues — is now available online. They run from 1925 to the present, as Boxoffice is one of the few golden era tradezines still published today. That’s a lot of movie history!
When I was a kid in the 50s, a friend of my father’s ran the since-vanished Ledgewood Drive-In in New Jersey, and he would sometimes give me issues of Boxoffice when he was through with them. They had lots of ads for then-new releases, projectors and snack bar items, plus local coverage of every market, big and small. Apart from the reviews (where they always tried to say something nice about everything, including many obscure independent pictures never covered elsewhere), a semi-regular feature I always enjoyed was The Exhibitor Has His Say.
Theater owners would report honestly about the movies they played and how well they did a their local box offices. You could always count on a chorus of groans about why isn’t every black and white movie in color and a pervasive mood of doom and gloom as to barely broke even, the studio terms are killing us. They resented being forced to adopt Cinemascope (many complaints about how hard it was to focus the lens) and there were many mentions that their audiences disliked the preponderance of Indian characters in westerns. Surprisingly, this coincided with an ongoing progressive change in how Native Americans were being depicted in films like Chief Crazy Horse and Walk the Proud Land.
These were often telling comments about various movies and how they were received, and Hollywood took notice. Alan Ladd once responded to an appreciative notice about his personally produced Drumbeat, saying he’d certainly be looking for that exhibitor’s comments on his next picture. Although these comments tended toward the negative, most studios took them seriously.
Here are some examples from 1955:
On Ricochet Romance: “Give us good clean stories with popularstars and we don’t need costly Cinemascope and gadgets”.
On The High and the Mighty: “The price being asked of the small towns for the Cinemascope product does not warrant the installation at all”.
On Hondo: “Terms are too high for the rotten print Warners sent me. I can’t get them to put leaders on their prints.”
On Titanic: “Many compliments. Some said the ending was too sad.”
On Secret of the Incas: “Could have been a good picture but they keep putting those foreign ‘natives’ in pictures which the public hates.”
On Fire Over Africa: “Macdonald Carey was shot three times in the chest and after a mere two hour rest rose to his feet and captured every villain except the one who wrote the screenplay.”
On Dragnet: “If this guy (Jack Webb) is television’s gift to movies, we came out on the short end…Talk talk talk was all he did, and after awhile he had all of the audience doing the same, until I went nuts trying to keep them still.”
And of course certain words were still dicey in 1955–
On Garden of Evil: “Let’s watch the titles, Fox. It is very important. Evil, Love, Hell, Murder will kill the best show ever.”
Guess Trailers from Hell would’ve been a tougher sell in ’55.
If you have a few minutes to spare I recommend a quick gander at these enlightening artifacts from a very different era, just to get a sense of how movies and the way they’re marketed to audiences has, and hasn’t, changed.
— Michael Redgrave, The Go Between.