Sunday, September 13, 2009

The 1944-45 Motion Picture Almanac

Movietone News has just returned from its holiday with a copy of the 1944-45 Motion Picture Almanac tucked under its arm, found in a Cornish second-hand book shop and a snip at only a tenner.
It's an absolutely fascinating snapshot of the industry at a crucial, pivotal time in its life, celebrating fifty years of history, enjoying an upsurge of financial success and looking ahead to the mirage of endless long hot summers to come.
Among the great stuff inside...
Table upon table of fascinating statistical data:
Financial statements! Compare one studio's incomings and outgoings with another! I had no idea this kind of information was made generally available!Statistical breakdown of the average forties film budget: 25% to cast, 20% to director, 1.2% to crew and labour. 62, 000, 000 tickets a week - all this and World War Two!
And what are they going to see? Good-looking broads, some laughs and a song or two - same as always. Oh, and cowboys too, but they get their own list:
The British recipe for morale: George Formby, Arthur Askey, Old Mother Riley. And we prefer Gene Autry to Roy Rogers. Interesting to compare the rate and quality of output of the different studios over a specific two-year period: I do love Monogram...
There's also some really interesting stuff about legislation and litigation, including a complete copy of the Production Code. I'd only seen extracts before. Some great rules I didn't know about. Here are some of the words and phrases that "must be omitted from all motion pictures before approval": "In your hat", Nerts, Nuts (except when meaning "crazy"), Goose (in a vulgar sense), "Hold your hat" or "hats", Hot (applied to a woman), Razzberry (the sound), "Bronx cheer" (the sound), Toilet gags, "Travelling salesman" and "Farmer's daughter" jokes. Apparently "shyster" is allowed in America but not England, "Stick 'em up" is not allowed in America or Canada, and American political censor boards "invariably" delete "specific names of poisons." Interesting to see that racial and national nicknames (including chink, hun, nigger and yid) are banned on the grounds that they are "obviously offensive to many patrons".
Unsurprisingly, the book's editorial content focuses largely on two topics. The first is the war:
Rationing, it seems has hit the film business pretty hard:Those poor movie-makers, having to make do with black and white film! They should try queuing all day for powdered egg. I like this advert. It doesn't tell us how buying their product will hasten the end of the war, it just assures us it will...

The other big topic, is the fiftieth anniversary of the movies themselves. Naturally, the studios are queuing up to pat themselves on the back, each trying to top the other in bold claims for their future success. Universal reckons to know the winning formula:

According to the blurb elsewhere in their ad, "we at Universal don't think there's any mystery in developing a successful formula... it's based on integrity, efficiency and those most important elements of show business: Integrity and Creative Talent." And there's me thinking that Universal's continued existence, never mind success, in the early forties was pretty much down to these most important elements of show business:

Apart from stressing their own twentieth rather than the industry's fiftieth, there's a pleasant and surprising lack of pomposity about MGM's ad:

But who knows, maybe 1944 will be the year that PRC breaks into the big leagues?Sorry, boys. It'll take more than 24 features, two thirds of them oaters, to bust you out of poverty row. Neither, for the time being at least, do Bud and Lou have much to worry about from rival double-acts:

These personnel adverts are the most interesting part of the book. They are a varied and intriguing bunch. Some are straightforward plugs for would-be up and comers like the boys above, with studio, agent and film appearances all listed. Here's another, who's also, coincidentally, in Adventures of a Rookie - some kind of jinxed film, one assumes:Sorry, Lee. No matter how hard you try.
But most of the others are people in no need of special plugging, yet the selection is incredibly random:

Why on earth would Gabby Hayes, one of the most professionally secure and least ambitious actors on the planet, feel the need to take out a half-page ad with photo, unless planning an image change which, judging from the choice of photo, it's a pretty fair bet he isn't.
Likewise, the great Cecil Kellaway, one of Hollywood's best and busiest character actors, takes out a full page to let us know he plays "William" in Frenchman's Creek.
Others so pointedly do not need to take out an ad that taking out an ad is the whole point. How cocky is this? No studio, no agent, no films, no contact details, just the name - on a full page. Gregory Peck does the same. Jack Benny contents himself with half a page. So, inexplicably, does How to account for this? Delusions of grandeur? Maybe Preston Sturges took it out as a joke.
Another amusing variation, if you have a famous surname, is to just put the first names; the advert then says "you know who we are, and we know you know who we are..." In just a year or two, Robert Mitchum would be an obvious candidate for the name-only approach, but for now he's still just Robert "Bob" Mitchum, and the most he's got to brag about are eight Hopalong Cassidys and We've Never Been Licked:

There's a good game you can have with these ads. Imagine you're putting together a movie, and you want to choose who to hire for it. You can only pick the people who have taken out adverts. Here's some of my choices. For director: who else but the great Eddie Cline?For production manager, I'll go for Doc Merman. Not because I know who he is, but because he's the only production manager who felt the need to advertise in the book.For music, I'm bagging the guy that scored Cobra Woman and Gypsy Wildcat.And because it's my film and I can do what the hell I want, the lead role is going to the peerless Mantan Moreland.

Here are some of the other adverts that caught my eye...Greetings from the Harris Amusement Company, industry pioneers.Anybody know who this lot are?Now here's a little business with a solid, sunny future in post-war America.And would you look who we have here! It's Irving Klaw, Betty Page's mentor and smut-peddler to the sophisticates, in the earlier, more innocent guise of "The Pin-Up King".
But the most important advert, for me, is the following one. As we all know, the amazing prosperity and success that the film industry was celebrating in these years was a kind of illusion. The best days were already behind them, and the long decline was about to begin. But for now, blissful innocence reigns, even though the assassin is lurking right here, in the very same pages...