Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Shock!: How Television Revived the Universal Monsters

In 1957 a most unusual thing happened. Old horror movies, some of them just slightly over 25 years old, became the hottest thing on television. It was in 1957 that Screen Gems, the television division of Columbia Pictures, released Shock!, a package of old Universal horror movies, for television syndication. Shock! not only revived interest in the classic Universal horror movies, but sparked a monster craze that lasted through the late Fifties and much of the Sixties.

The Shock! package emerged  from Universal-International's desire to capitalise on their classic horror films made before 1948. Beginning in 1948 Universal-International licensed a minor distribution company, Film Classics, Inc., to reissue many of the studio's older films, including the classic horror films, the Abbot and Costello movies, the old W. C. Fields comedies, the Deanna Durbin musicals, and many others. In 1950 Film Classics, Inc. merged with British production company Eagle-Lion Films to become Eagle-Lion Classics. Thereafter Universal-International licensed Realart Pictures Inc., a distribution company founded in 1948 by Jack Broder and Joseph Harris, to reissue their movies made before 1948. Through 1954 Universal-International's older films, including their classic horror movies, played at drive-in theatres and smaller neighbourhood theatres, usually on double bills and often at children's matinees.

After Universal-International's agreement with Realart had come to an end, the studio quite naturally wished to continue to make money off their older films. At the time the most obvious way to do this would be releasing them into television syndication. The problem was that Universal-International had never been in the business of television distribution. As a result Universal-International had a choice between either establishing an organisation for distributing its films made before August 1 1948 or licensing those films to an already existing television distribution organisation. As history shows, Universal-International decided upon the latter.

While Universal-International had never been in the business of television distribution, Columbia Pictures had been in the business for many years. In 1948 Columbia established a television production and distribution subsidiary called "Screen Gems", earlier the name of their then defunct animation studio. By the mid-Fifties Screen Gems was already a well-established company in the television industry. It was on July 1 1957 that Screen Gems contracted an agreement with Universal-International to distribute 550 Universal films made before August 1 1948 on television for the next ten years. This distribution agreement was executed on August 2 1957. The deal cost Screen Gems $220 million, but history shows that it would prove be a very worthwhile investment.

Screen Gems wasted no time in assembling their first package of 52 old Universal films for television distribution. Marketed under the name Shock!, the package included such classic horrors as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and The Invisible Man (1933). Curiously, some of Universal's best known classics were excluded from the package, most notably The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) as well as House of Frankenstein(1944) and House of Dracula (1945). One can only suspect Screen Gems must have been holding them back for a future package. What is even curiouser is that Screen Gems included some movies that were not horror as part of Shock!: the 1934 mystery film Secret of the Château, the 1935 crime film Chinatown Squad, and the 1940 spy movie Enemy Agent.

To promote Shock! Screen Gems assembled a pressbook. The pressbook recommended that local stations promote the Shock! package through some very unconventional means, such as "Frankenstein's monster is first in line at a box office waiting to buy a ticket to a sporting event or an important theatrical opening" and "The live news program on your station should interview a different monster every day for 3 or 4 days prior to the premiere." The pressbook also included synopses for each movie, as well as TV news releases for each movie and biographies of some of the casts in the films. Screen Gems also provided both television stations, as well as magazines and newspapers that might give Shock! some publicity, sets of 8X10 still photographs.

Shock! proved extremely popular with television stations.By mid-November 1957 it had been sold to 78 television stations around the country, so that the package could be seen almost across the entire United States. Many of the local television stations elected to name their shows "Shock Theatre" after the package itself. Many of the stations also elected to feature hosts on their shows. In 1957 horror hosts were hardly anything new. Vampira, generally accepted to be the first horror host, had hosted a late night horror movie show as early as 1954. Generally the horror hosts were part of the existing staff at the various stations--a weatherman, floor manager, or announcer. Most did not remain in the position of horror host for more than a couple of years at most, although some would actually make a career out of it. Famous horror host Zacherley started his career as the host of Shock Theatre at WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, using the name "Roland". In 1958 he moved to WABC in New York City where he became "Zacherley" (a variant spelling of his surname--his given name was John Zacherle). Zacherley remained a horror host for literally decades and would even release several record albums and singles.

Most stations showed every film in the Shock! package, even those films that were not horror movies. This was not the case with Chicago station WBKB-TV, which refused to air several films in the package on their Shock Theatre, including The Great Impersonation (1942), Secret of the Château (1932), Enemy Agent (1940), Destination Uknown (1933),  and other films that, well, simply weren't horror movies. One can only guess that WBKB-TV wanted their Shock Theatre to be entirely dedicated to horror, and so they eschewed the crime and mystery movies. This is not to say that they did not show some of these movies at all. For instance, some were shown at other times of the week. On those occasions when WBKB-TV chose not to air a movie in the Shock! package on Shock Theatre, they simply aired another horror movie available to television. Among the movies WBKB-TV showed on their Shock Theatre that were not part of the package were Son of Kong (1933), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and The Body Snatcher (1945).

Shock! proved enormously successful, perhaps even exceeding Screen Gems and Universal-International's expectations. When WABC-TV started showing the package at 11:15 PM on Thursday night, their ratings for the slot rose from a rather pathetic 1.6 rating with a 9.5 share to a rather incredible 8.8 rating with a 41.7 share. When the package debuted on KTLA in Los Angeles, it catapulted the station from 6th to 2nd place for the Tuesday 9:30 PM time slot. According to an article in Billboard dated October 14 1957, TV stations showing the Shock! package were seeing a boost in ratings anywhere from 38 to 1,125 percent.

Screen Gems followed the success of Shock! with another package, Son of Shock in May 1958. Son of Shock included such Universal classics as Bride of Frankenstein, Black Friday (1940), House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula. Unlike Shock!, which contained only Universal titles, a slight majority of Son of Shock's titles were actually Columbia horror films, including The Black Room (1935), The Man They Could Not Hang (1935), and The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942).

Screen Gems also followed Shock! with packages of films belonging to genres other than horror. Before they even released Son of Shock, Screen Gems released Triple Crown, a package of 104 films evenly divided between Columbia movies and Universal movies in December 1957. Included in the packages were such films as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), It Happened One Night (1934), Green Hell (1940), and My Sister Eileen (1942). Triple Crown and Son of Shock were followed by such packages as Sweet 65, Powerhouse (which included such films as The Invisible Woman and Charlie McCarthy, Detective), and Triumph, all including both Universal and Columbia titles. While Screen Gems released further packages in different genres following the success of Shock!, other television distributors would jump on the horror bandwagon. In late 1957 Associated Artists Productions (known by their initials a.a.p.) released their own package of 52 horror movies, mostly consisting of such Monogram titles as The Ape (1940) and King of the Zombies (1941).

Despite the success of the Shock! package not everyone was a fan. In the November 14 1957 issue of Variety it was reported that the Television Code Review Board of the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters (NARTB) claimed Shock! was "bad programming" and horror movies "have an injurious effect on children". The NARTB Television Code Review Board then proposed a ban on the classic horrors among its member stations. Stations that violated the ban could be denied the NARTB Seal of Good Practice. Fortunately nothing ever came of the NARTB Television Code Review Board's proposed ban, probably because too many stations were airing the Shock! package and it was far too lucrative for them to give it up.

The distribution agreement between Screen Gems and Universal-International would also create problems for Columbia Pictures and Universal-International with the government. On  April 10 1958 the United States government filed a complaint alleging that the distribution agreement between Screen Gems and Universal-International violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act and Section 7 of the Clayton Act, two antitrust laws. The defendants in the case were Columbia Pictures Corporation, Screen Gems, Inc., and Universal Pictures Company, Inc.  At the time that the United States government filed the complaint, Screen Gems had only released the Shock! and Triple Crown packages. The case, afterwards known as United States v. Columbia Pictures Corporation, dragged on for over two years. Ultimately, on June 29 1960, it was decided that the United States government had failed to prove the defendants had violated either Section 1 of the Sherman Act or Section 7 of the Clayton Act, and as a result the complaint was dismissed.

Having survived both a proposed ban by the NARTB Television Review Code Board and an antitrust complaint from the United States government, Shock! and Son of Shock continued to air on various stations until 1967. In the meantime it sparked a monster craze that would last through much of the Sixties. The first issue of the classic magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland was published in February 1958. Aurora Plastics Corporation issued the first of its Movie Monsters series of model kits in 1961, a model of the Frankenstein Monster (although called "Frankenstein" on the box and in advertising). In 1962 the song "Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Crypt Kickers was released. It went to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The 1964-1965 television season saw the debut of the monster sitcom The Munsters. In 1967 the classic stop-motion animation film Mad Monster Party was released. The Sixties were filled with monster toys, model kits, drinking glasses, and assorted other memorabilia.

Of course, looking back it should have been no surprise that Shock! should be so successful. Even before October 1 1957 there were signs that the Universal Monsters were due for a comeback. In 1956 Columbia Pictures released The Werewolf  and in 1957 American International Pictures released I Was a Teenage Werewolf. While both films gave science fiction explanations for their monsters, the fact remains that both utilised the traditional figure of the werewolf familiar from horror movies of the Thirties and the Forties. On June 25 1957 a British film that eschewed science fiction in favour of traditional Gothic horror was released in the United States. Hammer Films' The Curse of Frankenstein was a new adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic novel. It proved to be as big a hit in the United States as it had been in the United Kingdom. In fact, it led to a string of Gothic horrors produced by Hammer Films that would last into the Seventies. After several years of such science fiction horrors as aliens, giant insects, and gill-men, it would seem the public was ready for vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and goblins again.

The monster craze sparked by the Shock! film package appears to have peaked in the years 1961 to 1964, although interest in the classic movie monsters would remain high into the Seventies. At no point since that time has there probably been any American who does not recognise the image of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster or Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Shock! did not simply start a monster craze that would last for literally years. It also insured that the Universal Monsters would be introduced to successive generations of Americans. Perhaps more so than the various re-releases of the classic Universal horror movies in the Thirties and Forties, the Shock! TV package guaranteed the survival of the Universal Monsters for years to come.

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