Friday, May 11, 2012

The Phil Silvers Show

Today it was 101 years ago that Phil Silvers was born. Of course, the comedian would be best known for The Phil Silvers Show, also known as Sgt. Bilko. In its first season it would surpass the seemingly unstoppable Milton Berle Show. Throughout its run it would win 8 Emmy Awards and it would be nominated for 9 more. In 1999 TV Guide placed Sgt. Bilko at #16 on its list of the 50 Greatest TV Characters. In 2003 The Radio Times named The Phil Silvers Show the best sitcom of all time. It beat out such native British shows as Fawlty Towers, and Yes, Minister.

The Phil Silvers Show centred around Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko (played by Phil Silvers), in charge of the motor pool, at least for the first three seasons, at the sleepy U. S. Army base  Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas. With very little to do, Sgt. Bilko actually spent most of his time in money making schemes, more often than not dishonest. The commander of Fort Baxter was Colonel John T. Hall (Paul Ford), who always suspects that Bilko is up to something, but never can catch him in the act. Bilko was usually assisted in his schemes by Coporals Steve Henshaw and Rocco Barbella (played by Allan Melvin and Harvey Lembeck respectively).

The Phil Silvers Show would emerge as a collaboration between comedian Phil Silvers and writer Nat Hiken. Phil Silvers had actually been a stand up comic and comedic actor for years by the time he received the starring role in The Phil Silvers Show. He had first appeared on screen in the Vitaphone short subject "Ups and Downs" in 1937. He would go on to appear in such films as You're in the Army Now (1941), Cover Girl (1944), and Summer Stock. Phil Silver also had a thriving career on Broadway. He appeared in such productions as High Kickers (1941-1942) and High Button Shoes (1947-1949). His biggest success on Broadway would come with Top Banana (1951-1952), for which he won the Tony Award. A film adaptation of Top Banana, with Phil Silvers in the lead role, would be released in 1954.

As a writer Nat Hiken had gotten his start in radio. It was in 1940 that he was hired by popular radio comedian Fred Allen. He would go on to write for Milton Berle on the radio version of Texaco Star Theatre. In the Fifties Mr. Hiken moved into television. He both wrote and for The Colgate Comedy Hour, Four Star Revue, and Your Show of Shows, and The Martha Raye Show. By the mid-Fifties Nat Hiken had a reputation for being able to write and direct quality programmes.

It was on 6 February 1954 that Phil Silvers appeared at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. It would prove to be one of the most important gigs of his career. In the audience was Hubbell Robinson, then vice president in charge of programming at CBS. Hubbell Robinson was impressed enough with Mr. Silvers that he offered him a contract with the network for a situation comedy. Mr. Robinson also told him that the writer, director, and producer on the project would be Nat Hiken.

For the next several months Nat Hiken and Phil Silvers tried to find a concept that would suit the comedian. Mr. Hiken had initially wanted Mr. Silvers to play a conniving Army sergeant. Mr. Silvers dismissed the idea. At last Nat Hiken and Phil Silvers came up with eight different ideas, including Nat Hiken's idea of a conniving master sergeant. When they offered their eight different ideas to CBS, it was Mr. Hiken's initial idea of Phil Silvers as a master sergeant that the network liked. The Phil Silvers Show was born.

Of course in the beginning it was not called The Phil Silvers Show. Its original title was You'll Never Get Rich. The series' title would be changed after its first few months on to the air to The Phil Silvers Show. It was also not an immediate hit. You'll Never Get Rich was scheduled at 8:30 EST against The Martha Raye Show and The Milton Berle Show (the two show rotated each week) on Tuesday night. For its first month You'll Never Get Rich performed miserably in the ratings. CBS then decided to move You'll Never Get Rich to 8:00 CST on Tuesday night, so that it would begin at the same time as NBC's two rotating variety shows. The ratings for The Phil Silvers Show began to improve. By 29 November 1955, after two months on the air, it actually matched the ratings for The Milton Berle Show. By December The Phil Silvers Show was regularly beating both The Milton Berle Show and The Martha Raye Show. Of course, while You'll Never Get Rich opened to poor ratings, it received sterling reviews. From the very beginning critics loved the show.

The Phil Silvers Show would be one of the last great shows to be filmed in New York City. In its early days it was also filmed live, as it was performed before a studio audience. It was when film producer Mike Todd guest starred in a 1958 episode that changed the way The Phil Silvers Show was shot. Mr. Todd insisted that it be shot as a movie, using the techniques of a feature film. The cast and crew actually found they preferred this style of shooting, as it was much more relaxed and less stressful. This meant that there would no longer be a studio audience. To make up for the lack of a studio audience, finished episode would be screened and then the audience's laughter would be recorded and added later (sort of a more honest version of the laugh track).

While The Phil Silvers Show proved to be a hit in the United States, it may have been even more popular in the United Kingdom. The show debuted there in 1957 and it was not long before 75% of all fan mail sent to Phil Silvers came from Great Britain. The show would be repeated frequently on BBC One as part of its late night line up in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. In the Nineties it moved to BBC Two, where it was run not only late at night, but during the daytime and early evening. As mentioned earlier, in 2003 The Radio Times named The Phil Silvers Show the best sitcom of all time. The Phil Silvers Show would also prove to be a hit elsewhere in the world. In 1975 Mr. Silvers joked, "I go to Italy, and they follow me around and sing under my hotel window."

Curiously, during the initial success of The Phil Silvers Show, the character of Private Duane Doberman (played by Maurice Gosfield), became an outright phenomenon. Private Doberman was the overweight, slovenly dimwit of the motor pool, often falling for Sgt. Bilko's various scams.  Sluggish, naive, and none too bright, Private Doberman made the comic strip character Sad Sack look like General Patton. With the success of The Phil Silvers Show the character would become a cult figure, easily the most popular member of Sgt. Bilko's motor pool. It came to the point that Maurice Gosfield was recognised anywhere he went. CBS received very nearly as much fan mail for Maurice Gosfield as they did Phil Silvers himself. Nation Periodical Publications (now DC Comics) would not only publish Sgt Bilko comic books, but eleven issues of Private Doberman from 1957 to 1960 as well! For the 1958-1959 season Maurice Gosfield was nominated for the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor (Continuing Character) in a Comedy Series!
Maurice Gosfield's nomination for an Emmy was perhaps ironic in that in playing Doberman he was to some degree playing himself. Mr. Gosfield was so famous for blowing his lines that the cast and crew had a running betting pool on how soon Mr. Gosfield would botch his lines on any specific day. More often than not he would miss his mark in front of the camera.

While The Phil Silvers Show was the darling of critics and won several Emmy awards, it would also enjoy another place in television history. It was one of the first shows on American television to feature African Americans in roles that were something other than stereotypes.  P. Jay Sidney and Terry Carter played Private Palmer and Private Sugarman respectively, both soldiers in Bilko's motor pool. Billie Allen played one of the WACs. While none of these characters would necessarily have very many lines in any given episode, the fact that they appeared at all and were treated as equals to the other characters was at the time revolutionary. In fact, a few stations in the South were offended enough by the presence of African Americans on the show that one of the sponsors' advertising agencies asked that the African American characters on The Phil Silvers Show be dropped. Nat Hiken refused and the African American characters remained on the show.

A little known fact is that the technical advisor on The Phil Silvers Show was George Kennedy. Prior to World War II he acted both on stage and on the radio. With the war Mr. Kennedy joined  the United States Army, where he would remain for 16 years. He served with General Patton and would play a role in the opening of the Army Information Office. His military career would end because of a back injury. George Kennedy would make his first on screen appearance on The Phil Silvers Show, usually playing such small parts as an MP. It would mark his return to what would become a very successful acting career.

As a hit series The Phil Silvers Show would be able to attract some big name guest stars. Dick Van Dyke, film producer Mike Todd (playing himself), Ed Sullivan (playing himself), Professor Iwin Corey, Dagmar (playing herself), Lucille Ball, Bing Crosy (playing himself), Tom Poston, and many others. The show also featured several actors who would soon become famous, including Fred Gwynne, Alan Alda, Larry Storch, Al Lewis, Paul Lynde, Tina Louise, Pat Hingle, and many others.

Unfortunately the success of The Phil Silvers Show would prove to be a strain on Nat Hiken. It was not unusual for him to work twelve hour days. Eventually the stress of working on the show would even affect his health. After two seasons Mr. Hiken was simply exhausted. It was then in 1957 that he left the show. Regardless, The Phil Silvers Show would continue for two more seasons without him. Although no longer working regularly on the show, Nat Hiken would continue writing episodes for it into its final season.

It would be the departure of Nat Hiken from The Phil Silvers Show that would result in a very big change in the series starting in its fourth season. Everyone at Fort Baxter was reassigned to  Camp Fremont in Grover City, California. While such a mass transfer is unlikely, if not downright improbable in the real life United States Army, on the show it was explained as being the result of one of Bilko's scams having gone horribly wrong. In reality for the fourth season the show's production was moved to Los Angeles.

The fourth season would the last for The Phil Silvers Show. While highly successful, with a cast of 22 recurring characters and several regular characters, it was also an expensive show. It was then in spring 1959 that CBS announced that it has cancelled The Phil Silvers Show. The reason the network did so was simply to take advantage of its potential for syndication while the show was still extremely popular. The Phil Silvers Show would prove very successful in syndication. After The Phil Silvers Show left the air, NBC aired repeats of the show five days a week. It would continue to be popular on local stations until the Seventies, when black and white series fell out of favour with local station managers. It would once more prove highly popular when it aired on such cable channels as Comedy Central and as part of Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite line up in the Eighties. Since then it has aired on cable channels and networks ranging from TV Land to ME-TV. Here it must be noted that while the show was informally known as Sgt. Bilko in its first run, it was in syndication that Sgt. Bilko would become one of the official names of The Phil Silvers Show.

The Phil Silvers Show would prove to have a lasting impact on pop culture. Hanna-Barbera's prime time cartoon Top Cat. Not only was the character of Top Cat clearly based on Sgt. Ernie Bilko, but the character of Benny the Ball was not only based on Private Doberman, but voiced by Maurice Gosfield as well. Like Top Cat, the hit sitcom McHale's Navy also owed a great deal to The Phil Silvers Show. McHale's Navy starred Ernest Borgnine as Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale who, like Sgt. Bilko, was a fast talking con man. While the series was set U.S. Navy PT boat, PT-73, it resembled The Phil Silvers Show a good deal. This should come as no surprise. The show's producer was Edward J. Montagne, who had also produced The Phil Silvers Show. Mr. Montagne would even recruit writers from The Phil Silvers Show. McHale's Navy was essentially "Sgt. Bilko in the Navy." In 1996 a film loosely based on the series, Sgt. Bilko, was released.

Over the years The Phil Silvers Show would be referenced in various ways in movies and TV shows. In The Manchurian Candidate (1962), members of Major Marco's platoon are named for cast and crew from The Phil Silvers Show: Corporal Allen Melvin (named for Allan Melvin, who played Corporal Henshaw), Lembeck (named for Harvey Lemeck, who played Corporal Barbella), Silvers (named for Phil Silvers), Gossfeld (although the name was altered, clearly named for Maurice Gossfield), Little (named for Jimmy Little, who played Sgt. Grover), Freeman (named for Mickey Freeman, who played Private Zimmerman), and Hiken (named, of course, for Nat Hiken himself).  The series itself would be mentioned on such diverse TV shows as The Patty Duke Show, The Goodies, Cheers, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Red Dwarf, The Simpsons, and Ballykissangel.

To a large degree the success of The Phil Silvers Show was largely due to Nat Hiken. Nat Hiken was, quite simply, one of the greatest television writers of all time. It was because of Mr. Hiken that The Phil Silvers Show was character driven. All of the plots emerged from Sgt. Bilko or his men. What is more, The Phil Silvers Show featured plots that were very complex for the time. In fact, Coleman Jacoby, one of the writers on the show, pointed out that, "Most shows had one plot line for the whole 29 minutes; we had 10 ... turning and twisting, almost like a novel." The show was also very fast paced for the era. More happened in one episode of The Phil Silvers Show than three episodes of any other sitcom at the time.

In addition to being a great writer, Nat Hiken also had a great eye for casting. Arguably, The Phil Silvers Show had one of the greatest casts of all time. If Private Doberman became a phenomenon, it was not necessarily because of any talent on Maurice Gosfield's part, but because Nat Hiken had the wisdom to cast him in a role perfectly suited to him. There can be no doubt that the reason The Phil Silvers Show featured so many soon to be famous guest stars was because of Nat Hiken's eye for talent.

Of course, much of the show's success also rested with its star, Phil Silvers himself. Although he was not a household name when You'll Never Get Rich debuted, he had already established his credentials as a performer. As classic film buffs know, even before The Phil Silvers Show, Mr. Silvers had an impressive array of credits playing bit parts in movies. He excelled at playing fast talking wiseguys (a prime example being in Cover Girl), precisely the same sort of character as Sgt. Bilko. Having polished his craft for years in burlesque, vaudeville, and on film, Phil Silvers was able to take the fasting talking con man Sgt. Ernie Bilko and not only make him three dimensional, but to make him likeable as well.

Not only was Phil Silvers perfectly for the role of Sgt. Bilko, but his talents would come to good use on the set as well. After years in burlesque and in vaudeville, Phil Silvers was fully capable of ad libbing lines on the spot. In the episode "The Court Martial," Fort Baxter inadvertently drafts a chimpanzee whom they named Private Harry Speakup (played by Zippo the Chimp). In an effort to hide this error so that it does not show up on record, they decided to court martial Private Speakup and assign Sgt. Bilko as his defence. While filming the court martial Zippo unexpectedly lead up and grabbed a telephone. Phil Silvers swiftly extemporised and said to the officer presiding over the trial, "Just a moment, sir, I think he's calling for another lawyer." Not only did Phil Silvers save the scene, but his ad lib was actually better than what had been written in the script.

The fast paced style of comedy that Phil Silvers had developed over the years also suited Nat Hiken's fast paced writing as well. Television and film director and producer Garry Marshall once said that sitcoms before The Phil Silvers Show "...were like the hum of an air conditioner--hmmmmm--they were nice and smooth. Then in came Phil Silvers like gangbusters and really turned it around. He would get the audience's attention and make them pay attention and he was quick and fast." Between Nat Hiken's fast moving plots and Phil Silvers' fast paced style of comedy, The Phil Silvers Show may have been the first fast paced sitcom, easily matching the screwball comedies and farces Hollywood had produced in the Thirties and Forties.

Nat Hiken would go onto further success after The Phil Silvers Show. He would create the classic sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?. While it would only run for two seasons, it would have a very successful run in syndication and is today regarded as a classic. He would go onto write the screenplay for the Don Knotts comedy The Love God? (1969). Sadly, he would die of a heart attack on 7 December 1968.

Sadly, Phil Silvers would never again have success on the level of The Phil Silvers Show. He would make an attempt at another sitcom, The New Phil Silvers Show, but it would only last for the 1963-1964 season. He would make several guest appearances on various television shows throughout the years, including Gilligan's Island (which his company Gladsaya Productions co-produced), The Jack Benny Programme, The Lucy Show, Kolchak the Night Stalker, and Happy Days. He had a recurring role on The Beverly Hilbillies as con man Shifty Shafer (AKA Honest John). Mr. Silvers would also appear in various feature films over the years, including 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), Something's Got to Give (1962),  It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) , A Guide for the Married Man (1967), Carry on in the Legion (1967), The Boatniks (1970), The Strongest Man in the World (1975),  The Cheap Detective (1978), and There Goes the Bride (1980).  Phil Silvers died on 1 November 1985 at the age of 74.

Today The Phil Silvers Show remains one of the best known comedies of its era. In 2010 the first season of The Phil Silvers Show was released on DVD in both Region 1 and Region 2,  a rarity for most sitcoms from the Fifties. To this day it continues to be rerun on TV stations and cable channels in the United States, as well as throughout the world. It is still counted as one of the greatest comedies of all time. Quite simply, the talents of Phil Silvers and Nat Hiken produced a high quality television show that became a phenomenon in its day and remains one of the most popular shows of all time.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Paramount's 100th Anniversary Part Three

While dates vary according to the sources, in the mid to late spring of 1912 Paramount Pictures was founded as Famous Players Film Company. The company would grow until at one point it was the largest motion pictures concern in the world. It not only produced some of the greatest films of all time, but owned a large chain of theatres. In many ways the company invented Hollywood, as one of the first studios to emphasise stars and to develop the studio system. Paramount Pictures became well known for its comedies and released some of the greatest animated cartoons ever made by way of Fleischer Studios. The Supreme Court's decision in the case United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc. would force the company to divest itself of its theatre chain. Due to this and other factors, Paramount Pictures Inc. would find itself struggling to survive in the Fifties and Sixties.

Much of the reason Paramount Pictures Inc. grew into one of the biggest of the major studios, perhaps surpassed only by MGM during the Golden Age of Hollywood, is that the company was often willing to take risks the other studios would not. Indeed, Paramount Pictures Inc. was the first studio to become involved in the medium of television. Paramount was actually on the ground floor of what would become one of the most powerful television networks in the world, when it was only a fledgeling radio network. In 1929 Paramount obtained 50% interest in the brand new Columbia Broadcasting System. Paramount would not own part of CBS for long. In 1931, with the studio hit hard by the Great Depression, Paramount sold its 50% interest in CBS back to the network.

Despite the fact that Paramount gave up its stake in CBS, it would still play an important role in the history of television. It was in 1938 that Paramount bought a stake in television manufacturer DuMont Laboratories for $200,000 in cash and loans. In 1939 Paramount started an experimental station in Los Angeles which would later become KTLA and an experimental station in Chicago that would later become WBBM-TV.  In 1940 DuMont would build its own experimental station in New York City, W2XWV. W2XWV was only New York City's second television station (after NBC's W2XBS, now WNBT) and would eventually become WABD. DuMont's experimental station W2XWV was its first step in its planned television network.

That network would become a reality. It was on 15 August 1946 that DuMont launched what Newsweek at the time referred to it as "...the country's first permanent commercial television network." Regardless, DuMont would have a troubled history. DuMont's association with Paramount would hamper its growth. The FCC had ruled that any given company could only own and operate a maximum of five stations. Because Paramount owned two stations of its own and owned shares in DuMont, the DuMont Television Network was restricted to owning only three stations. Sadly, Paramount refused to sell its shares in DuMont, which would have allowed the DuMont Television Network to own the maximum of five stations.

Strangely enough, even though Paramount owned shares in DuMont, it went ahead with plans to create its own television network. It was in January 1949 that the Paramount Television Network was launched. Like the DuMont Television Network, the Paramount Television Network would effectively be hampered by the shares the studio owned in DuMont. Because of the FCC rule that any given company could own only five stations, the Paramount Television Network was restricted to two.

In the end neither the Paramount Television Network nor the DuMont Television Network would survive. As to the Paramount Television Network, it would schedule far fewer hours of programming and have far fewer affiliates than even DuMont and ABC, the smallest of the four major television networks. The Paramount Television Network would stagger along until 1953, when it finally ceased operations. Even given the disadvantage of being able to own three stations, there was a time when the DuMont Television Network could have beat ABC to become the United States' third network. Unfortunately, a spectre from Paramount's past would insure this would not happen. It was in 1953 that Paramount's old theatre chain, the now independent United Paramount Theatres, merged with ABC. Following the merger of United Paramount Theatres and ABC, ABC-UPT proposed a merger with DuMont that would have created a network to rival CBS and NBC. Paramount vetoed the plan, as it could have raised doubts as to whether United Paramount Theatres had really separated from Paramount.

Ultimately ABC's merger with United Paramount Theatres gave ABC the cash to finally compete with CBS and NBC. Constantly short of cash, the DuMont Television Network struggled to survive until August 1955 Paramount and other stockholders seized control of the company. It broadcast its last regularly scheduled programme, What's the Story, on 23 September 1955. Afterwards only sporting events would air on the network. Even this would not last. On 6 August 1956 DuMont made its last broadcast, that of a boxing match.

As history shows, DuMont would not be the last television network in which Paramount was involved. In 1974 then Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Paramount Pictures Barry Diller proposed the idea of a fourth broadcast network to Paramount's board. The planned network, the Paramount Television Service (PTVS) would broadcast only one night a week. Plans were made for PTVS to launch in April or May 1978. Unfortunately, the Paramount Television Service would never come into being. Only six months before the new network was set to launch, Paramount aborted the project.

Paramount would successfully launch its own network in the Nineties. In 1994 Chris-Craft Industries would join forces with Paramount Pictures to create the United Paramount Network (UPN). Unfortunately UPN's survival would be complicated by the fact that Warner Brothers would launch its own network, The WB, at the same time. In the beginning UPN was slightly ahead of The WB in ratings, a situation that would change when UPN made some tactical errors in programming. In 2000 Viacom, Paramount's parent company, would buy out Chris-Craft Industries' shares in UPN, giving Paramount sole control over the network. In 2005 UPN would cease to be a Paramount company. In that year Viacom, which owned both Paramount and CBS, split into two companies--Viacom and CBS Corporation. Viacom retained ownership of Paramount and CBS Corporation retained ownership of UPN. Regardless, UPN did not last much longer as it was. In 2006 Warner Brothers and CBS Corporation shut down both UPN and The WB in order to start a new network, The CW. Regardless, in its nearly eleven years of existence, UPN proved more successful than either DuMont or the Paramount Television Network.

Strangely enough given its importance in television broadcast history, beyond programmes produced for the Paramount Television Network, Paramount would not be heavily involved in the production of television programmes until the late Sixties. In the Fifties Paramount made very little effort to produce television shows. In 1952 Paramount produced the syndicated series Cowboy G-Men in conjunction with the Mutual Broadcasting System, using the name "Telemount" for the television production company. In 1957 Paramount produced the sitcom Sally, which aired on NBC. Once more this was done under the name Telemount. Paramount would not produce any more television programmes until the late Sixties.

In the end it would be a corporate takeover that would result in Paramount re-entering television production. In 1966 Paramount Pictures was sold to Gulf + Western Industries Corporation. In 1967 Gulf + Western bought Desilu Productions from Lucille Ball. The legendary television production company had not only produced I Love Lucy, but such classic shows as Our Miss Brooks, The Untouchables, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible. Gulf + Western would re-incorporate Desilu Productions as Paramount Television. Paramount Television would continue producing those Desilu shows still on the air, including Star Trek and Mission: Impossible (both of which would become important franchises for Paramount). In the following years Paramount Television would produce such shows as The Odd Couple, Happy Days, Cheers, MacGyver, the various Star Trek series, and NCIS.

Unfortunately, Paramount Television would not remain with Paramount. When Viacom was split into Viacom and CBS Corporation in 2006, it was CBS Corporation who retained ownership of Paramount Television. Initially called CBS Paramount Television, it would be renamed CBS Television Studios in 2009. Paramount would return to television. Paramount would join forces with Trifecta Entertainment & Media to distribute what remains of the Paramount and Republic film libraries. In 2009 Paramount, MGM, and Lionsgate together launched the Epix premium cable channel.

Even as Paramount Pictures ventured into television in the Fifties, the studio was going into decline. The company cut costs and even released its stars from their contracts. While it would be the last studio to do so, Paramount would even sell much of its library of films made between 1929 and 1949.  In 1958 talent agency MCA bought 764 titles from Paramount for $50 million, a deal that included many of the studio's classics, including such films as Death Takes a Holiday (1934), Double Indemnity (1944), many of the Marx Brothers' movies, and many of Bob Hope's movies. In 1962 MCA bought rival studio Universal Studios. As a result Universal has controlled the rights to the majority of the Paramount films made between 1929 and 1949.

While the sale of Paramount's library of films from 1929 to 1949 to MCA would provide the studio with a good deal of cash in the short run, in the end it was probably a mistake. By 1965 alone MCA had grossed a reported $70 million on the films in the Paramount library simply by selling the right to show the movies to local stations alone. Universal would make even more money from Paramount's 1929 to 1949 library with the advent of VHS tapes and later DVDs. MCA and later Universal would not simply make money from the Paramount library through television syndication, VHS tapes, and DVDs. The films in the Paramount library would also provide the basis for TV series and remakes. In 1962 Revue Studios (MCA's television production company) debuted a TV series based on the classic Paramount feature Going My Way. Universal would remake a few classic Paramount films. The Magnificent Fraud (1939) was remade as Moon Over Paradour (1988).  Death Takes a Holiday was remade as Meet Joe Black (1998). While Paramount's sale of its 1929-1949 library to MCA gave it a good deal of cash, it could have made much more money at a time when the studio really needed it had it simply held onto its library and marketed it to TV stations itself.

Paramount Pictures would continue to decline until the late Sixties, when at last the studio began to recover. Starting in the late Sixties and continuing into the Seventies, Paramount would release a number of hit movies, including Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Odd Couple (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The Godfather (1972), and Chinatown (1974). The company would also profit from finally entering television production. Over the years Paramount Television would produce several hit TV series, from The Odd Couple to NCIS. Paramount Pictures would continue its success into the 21st Century, releasing such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Footloose (1984), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Ghost (1990), Forrest Gump (1994), Titanic (1997), and Dreamgirls (2006). Paramount was able to make a good deal of money capitalising on old television shows it had inherited from Desilu. Both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible became movie franchises for the studio. The Untouchables provided the basis for the 1987 movie of the same name.

Of course, through the years Paramount Pictures would undergo changes in ownership. In 1966. Gulf+Western acquired Paramount. Paramount Pictures would prove so important to Gulf+Western that in 1989 the conglomerate renamed itself Paramount Communications. In 1994 Viacom took over Paramount Communications. In 1999 Viacom would also acquire the television network CBS. Viacom would split into two companies in 2006--Viacom and CBS Corporation Inc. CBS Corporation would gain control of companies once controlled by Paramount, namely Paramount Television and UPN.

At 100 years of age Paramount has had a long and often illustrious history. Following its founding in 1912 the company became the most powerful studio in Hollywood in little over a decade. In the process Paramount virtually created the concept of the movie star and helped create the studio system that dominated the movie industry in the Golden Age of Hollywood. From the beginning it was one of the first studios to specialise in feature films. During the Great Depression Paramount would go bankrupt, but it would continue to produce some of the greatest films ever made. Eventually Paramount would recover from bankruptcy, to become once more one of the most powerful studios in the world. Paramount would venture further into television broadcasting than any other studio. And while its fortunes would decline in the Fifties and Sixties, it would once more become one of the biggest studios in the world.

In the end Paramount would survive while other major studios from the Golden Age of Hollywood would not. While the company would not always adapt to the changing times (the sale of its 1929-1949 library was a grave error in retrospect), the company always displayed a resiliency that many of its competitors did not. After all, it took  resiliency to recover from bankruptcy in the Thirties and later to recover from a decline that lasted from the Fifties into the Sixties. At the same time Paramount would show a willingness to take risks that many of its rivals did not. While its ventures into television broadcasting would not always prove successful, they were daring moves on the part of the studio nonetheless.

Ultimately, it can be argued that Paramount Pictures produced more classic films than any other studio, even MGM. It produced the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Wings (1927). It also produced some of the greatest films from some of the best directors ever to live, including Cecil B. DeMille, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Mitchell Leisen, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Alfred Hitchcock. The studio would become known for its comedies, producing everything from the sophisticated comedies of Preston Sturges to the farcical "Road to..." films to the slapstick of Jerry Lewis' movies. Having survived into the 21st Century, Paramount Pictures continues to create hit films, from Star Trek (2009) to The Adventures of Tintin (2011). It is safe to say that Paramount Pictures could well survive for another 100 years.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Paramount's 100th Anniversary Part Two

The exact date varies, but it was in the mid to late spring of 1912 that Paramount Pictures was founded as Famous Players Film Company by Adolph Zukor and Daniel Frohman. The studio would pioneer the production of feature films. With the slogan "Famous players in famous plays," it was the first studio to emphasise its stars. The studio amassed a huge chain of theatres, through which it could release its own movies. Paramount would prove instrumental in the creation of the studio system that dominated Hollywood from the Thirties through the Fifties. Paramount would also pioneer such practices as block booking, which would ultimately lead to the end of the studio system with the Supreme Court decision on the case United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc. in 1948.

At one point in its history Paramount Pictures Inc. was the largest motion picture concern in the world. During the Golden Age of Hollywood it was still among the biggest of the major studios, surpassed perhaps only by MGM. Like the other major studios Paramount Pictures developed its own niche. MGM specialised in melodramas and lavish musicals. Warner Brothers was known for its gangster movies and swashbuckler films. Universal was known for its horror movies. Fox specialised in social dramas. RKO was known for both its musicals and literary adaptations. Paramount's particular niche would be comedy.

Paramount's association with comedy goes back to the earliest days of the company. It was in 1916 that the company made Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle the then unprecedented offer of  $1000 a day and complete creative control. Mr. Arbuckle formed his own company, Comique, with Joseph Schenck to produce short subjects that would be distributed by Paramount. This arrangement would prove so successful that Fatty Arbuckle would graduate to making feature films at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. His features at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation included the second screen adaptation of Brewster's Millions (1921), The Dollar a Year Man (1921), The Travelling Salesman (1921), and others. Roscoe Arbuckle's feature films at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation were very successful. Unfortunately, Mr. Arbuckle's career as an actor would be all but ended by the infamous scandal involving the death of aspiring actress Virginia Rappe.

The Fatty Arbuckle scandal would hardly impede Paramount with regards to comedy. During the Twenties Paramount would release such comedies as Ruggles of Red Gap (1923), Are Parents People? (1925), and The Kid Brother (1927). The studio's association with comedy would be cemented in the late Twenties. It was in 1929 that Paramount released The Cocoanuts, the feature film debut of the Marx Brothers. From the late Twenties into the Thirties it would be Paramount who would distribute the Marx Brothers' movies, including their best known films: Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933). The studio would also benefit from the Lubitsch Touch, as many of director Ernst Lubitch's comedic musicals and outright comedies would be released through Paramount. Love Parade (1929), Monte Carlo (1930), The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), One Hour with You (1932), Trouble in Paradise (1932), Design for Living (1933), Angel (1937), and Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) were all Paramount releases. Throughout the Thirties Paramount would also release a number of collegiate comedies: College Humour (1933), She Loves Me Not (1934), College Holiday (1935), College Swing (1938), College Confessions (1938), Million Dollar Legs (1939), and $1000 a Touchdown (1939). Mae West's classics, from Night After Night (1932) to Everyday's a Holiday (1937) were released through Paramount.

If anything Paramount would become even more associated with comedy in the Forties and even into the Fifties. In fact, perhaps the most famous comedies released by Paramount were those starring Bob Hope. Mr. Hope would make his feature film debut in The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938). He became a major comedy star with The Cat & the Canary in 1939. By far Bob Hope's most famous comedies were those in which he appeared with friend, partner, and fellow Paramount star, Bing Crosby--the "Road to..." pictures. All of the "Road to..." movies except for the final one (Road to Hong Kong in 1962, released through United Artists) were released through Paramount. Mr. Hope's movies would all be released through Paramount through to Beau James in 1957.

Hope & Crosby would not be Paramount's only famous comedy team. Starting with My Friend Irma in 1949, Paramount released movies starring Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis as well. All of the team's classics were Paramount films, including At War with the Army (1950), Scared Stiff (1953), and Artists & Models (1955). After the team broke Paramount continued to release movies starring Jerry Lewis. All of the comic's films were released through Paramount until Three on a Couch in 1965, including The Bellboy (1960), The Nutty Professor (1963), and The Disorderly Orderly (1965). In addition to Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis, Paramount would be home to some of the greatest comedic actors of all time, including Dorothy Lamour, Danny Kaye, Betty Hutton, and others.

Given Paramount's close ties to the genre of comedy, it should come as no surprise that it would produce some of the greatest comedies ever made. Indeed, Paramount was the home of auteur Preston Sturges for many years. It was at Paramount Pictures that screenwriter Preston Sturges would make his directorial debut with The Great McGinty in 1940. Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (filmed 1942, released 1944), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), and The Great Moment (filmed 1942, released 1944) were all released through Paramount. Indeed, Sullivan's Travels is not only often counted among the greatest comedies of all time, but the greatest films of all time as well.

The fact that both Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges called Paramount home not only shows that the studio produced some of the greatest comedies of all time, but that it was also a studio that showcased some of the greatest directors in the history of motion pictures. This was the case from the earliest days of the studio. One of the companies that became part of Paramount, the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, was co-founded by none other than Cecil B. DeMille. With but few exceptions Mr. DeMile's movies would be released either through the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company or Paramount Pictures. Cleopatra (1934), Union Pacific (1939), The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944), Samson and Delilah (1949), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and The Ten Commandments (1956) were all Paramount Productions. Cecil B. DeMille was one of the first directors to become a celebrity on his own and as a result he put in cameos in Paramount films, including Son of Paleface (1952) and most famously in Sunset Blvd. (1950).

For years Paramount would also be the home of Billy Wilder. Mr Wilder would make his American directorial debut at the studio with The Major and the Minor in 1942. Billy Wilder directed some of the greatest films released through Paramount, including Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Stalag 17 (1953), and Sabrina (1954).  Indeed, Paramount Pictures Inc. is as much as star of Sunset Blvd. as Gloria Swanson was, its back lot figuring prominently in the film. Sabrina would be his last film at Paramount and Billy Wilder would go onto even greater heights of success at other studios, but his long, illustrious career began at Paramount.

Mitchell Leisen would work the majority of his career as a director at Paramount. Mitchell Leisen started his film career as a set and costume designer. He worked with Cecil B. DeMile on such films as Madam Satan (1930--released through MGM), The King of Kings (1927, released through Pathé Exchange), and Male and Female (1919). Mitchell Leisen directed his very first film at Paramount, Cradle Song, in 1933. He would direct all of his best known and arguably his very best movies at the studio, including Death Takes a Holiday (1934), Easy Living (1937), Midnight (1939), Frenchmen's Creek (1944), and Golden Earrings (1947).

Not only could Paramount Pictures boast having released films directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Cecil B. DeMille, and Mitchell Leisen, but it could also boast that it released films directed by Sir Alfred Hitchcock at the height of his career. Starting with Rear Window in 1954, Paramount would release To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960--although it would later be distributed by Universal).  These six films are often counted among the best that Hitchcock ever directed.

While Paramount was the studio for great comedies and home to some of the greatest directors of all time, for a time it also released animated cartoons that rivalled and sometimes even surpassed those of Warner Brothers and Disney. It was in 1928 that Fleischer Studios, Inc., founded in 1921 by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, signed a production and distribution deal with Paramount. While the Fleischer Brothers were already well established and respected animators in the Twenties, it was arguably during their years with Paramount that they released their best work. It was at Paramount that they introduced their best known creation, Betty Boop. Betty would be an incredible success from her introduction until the Production Code would force the Fleischers to tone down the raciness of her cartoons in 1934. Even thereafter she remained a popular character and continued to appear in animated shorts until 1939.

Fleischer Studios would see even more success with a series of cartoons based on Popeye the Sailor from the King Features comic strip Thimble Theatre. The first cartoon featuring the character, "Popeye the Sailor," would begin 25 years worth of Popeye cartoons, with the character continuing to appear in animated shorts following Paramount's takeover the Fleischer Studios. It would also be the Fleischer Studios who would introduce Superman to the big screen. The Fleischers' Superman cartoons were among the most lavish, exquisite animated shorts ever produced. Indeed, the initial entry in the series, "Superman (AKA "Mad Scientist") was even nominated for the 1941 Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons). Paramount would continue producing Superman cartoons for a year after their acquisition of Fleischer Studios. Fleischer Studios would also produce two animated feature films, Gulliver's Travels (1939) and  Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941).

Fleischer Studios would produce some of the finest animated cartoons ever made. They would be nominated four times for the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons). Arguably, not only should they have been nominated more times, but they should have also won many times as well. Unfortunately, quality costs money, so that the Fleischers' cartoons were often expensive to produce. To make matters worse for Fleischer Studios, in 1938 the company borrowed money from Paramount to move to Miami, Florida both to take advantage of tax breaks and escape the reach of the unions. Producing two animated feature films would also place a strain Fleischer Studios' finances. Despite the continued popularity of their cartoons, Fleischer Studios continued to lose money and as a result they continued to request loans from Paramount. On 24 May 1941 Paramount Pictures Inc. finally called in the Fleischers' loans and as a result acquired Fleischer Studios. The Fleischer brothers both tendered their resignations.

Paramount renamed the animation house "Famous Studios." While veterans of Fleischer Studios would be placed in charge of the studio, it is generally agreed by animation historians that the quality of Famous Studios' work would be dramatically less than that of Fleischer Studios. Much of this was due to the fact that Paramount downsized the studio a great deal, cutting both the staff and the budgets of animated shorts. While the popular Popeye cartoons would continue for years, the costly Superman shorts would be ended a year after Paramount took over Fleischer Studios. Famous Studios would introduce its own characters who would go onto become famous in their own right. Casper the Friendly Ghost, Herman & Katnip, Baby Huey, and Little Audrey were all characters who emerged in Famous Studios' cartoons. The studio also licensed popular comic strip character Little Lulu for successful series of cartoons.

Unfortunately, Famous Studios would never see either the quality or the success of Fleischer Studios. In 1956 the studio was downsized again and renamed  Paramount Cartoon Studios. In 1960 Paramount sold many of their characters (Casper, Baby Huey, and so on) and the cartoons featuring them to Harvey Comics, who had published comic books featuring the characters for years. Paramount attempted to create new characters, such as The Cat and Honey Halfwitch, none of which saw much success.  Paramount Cartoon Studios would eventually close up shop on 31 December 1967.

Paramount did not simply release cel animated shorts, but also released stop motion animation shorts as well. George Pal had made several animated puppet films in Europe. Following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 he remained in the United States. In 1940 he signed a contract with Paramount to produce a series of Puppetoons. George Pal would produce and direct several Puppetoons for Paramount, many of which would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons). George Pal would continue his Puppetoons series until 1947, after which he switched to producing live action films. He would go onto produce such classics as When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), The Time Machine (1960), and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964).

From its founding in 1912 Paramount had grown into what was at one point the biggest movie studio in the world. It owned a thriving theatre chain and released some of the most successful movies ever made. The studio became identified with comedies and released some of the best films in the genre. It was home to some of the greatest directors in the history of film. Through Fleischer Studios it produced some of the greatest animated films ever made. Paramount would also become the first studio to become involved in the medium of television. It would also increase its involvement in the new medium even as its own fate hung in the balance in the Fifties.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Paramount's 100th Anniversary Part One

It was 100 years ago that Paramount Pictures was founded as The Famous Players Film Company.  It would go onto become the biggest studio in the world. At its height the company owned both production studios and a chain of theatres. Paramount Pictures would play a pivotal role both in the history of motion pictures and the history of television. It is the second oldest American studio (Universal is the oldest) and the third oldest studio in the world (Gaumont Pictures in France is the oldest). Paramount Pictures is also the last studio still located in Hollywood itself.

While sources agree that Famous Players Film Company was founded in 1912, they disagree as to the exact date when it was founded.  Wikipedia and several other sources give the date as 8 May 1912, which would make today Paramount's 100th anniversary. In their chronology of Paramount Pictures, TheStudioTour.Com gives 7 June 1912 as the date that Famous Players was founded. At least two books, Early American Cinema and The American Film Industry: A Historical Dictionary, both by Anthony Slide, give 1 June 1912 as the date that Famous Players Film Company was founded. Regardless, Famous Players Film Company was clearly in existence by 12 July 1912. It was on that date that the first film distributed by the company, Les Amours de la reine Élisabeth starring Sarah Bernhardt, premiered in New York City (here I must point out that issues of Variety make it clear the film was distributed by Famous Players).

While sources might disagree on the date that Paramount was founded, all of them agree that its founder was Adolph Zukor. Mr. Zukor was born on 7 January 1873 in Ricse, Hungary. He was sixteen years old when he emigrated to the United States. In New York City he stayed with a friend of his mother and later a cousin. He took a job working in an upholstery shop, at which he worked only briefly before a friend got him an apprenticeship at a furrier. He remained with the furrier for two years before he struck out on his own. Adolph Zukor would eventually move to Chicago where he would continue to work in the fur trade there, first one of the partners in the Novelty Fur Company and later as one of the partners of Kohn and Company.

It was in 1903 that Adolph Zukor was introduced to the film industry. That year his cousin, Max Goldstein asked Mr. Zukor and his partner in the fur business, Morris Kohn, to invest in a penny arcade that would feature, among other things, Kinetoscopes(early machines on which a single person could watch a film). The Automatic One-Cent Vaudeville, located Fourteenth Street in New York City, proved to be a success. Adolph Zukor would open another arcade in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and still later other arcades. It was in 1910 that Adolph Zukor would merge his chain of nickelodeons with that of Marcus Loew to form Loew's Consolidated Enterprises. Of course, Loew's would eventually become the foundation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the other giant studio of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Adolph Zukor did not remain with Loew's for long. In 1912 he left the company to form Famous Players Film Company with theatrical producer David Frohman. Sources vary as to the extent of his involvement with Les Amours de la reine Élisabeth. Some sources state that he helped finance the film. Other sources indicate that he merely purchased the American rights to distribute the film. What is clear is that Famous Players Film Company did indeed distribute the film, making it the first film ever distributed by what would become Paramount Pictures. It would not be long before Famous Players Film Company would begin producing its own films. Its very first production was the very first adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda, released in 1913.  It was followed by productions of adaptations of Tess of the D'Urbervilles and The Count of Monte Cristo, as well as original films.

Even in 1913 and 1914,  before it became Paramount Pictures, Famous Players Film Company stood apart from other motion picture companies. First, while Carl Laemmle's Independent Moving Pictures Company (one of the companies that would form Universal) was the first to credit its stars and use them to promote films, Famous Players Film Company may have been the first to place an emphasis on its stars. Famous Players Film Company's featured such famous theatrical stars as James O'Neil, John Barrymore, Minnie Maddern Fiske, and Lily Langtry.  The list of Hollywood legends who worked for Famous Players Film Company was a long one: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Reid, and many others.

Second, Famous Players Film Company was the first American company to place an emphasis on feature films. Even before the formation of the company Adolph Zukor was convinced that the future of motion picture lie in the production of feature films. Unfortunately, in 1912 the patents on cameras and projectors were controlled by the Motion Picture Patents Company or MPCC (the MPCC, also known as the Edison Trust), a trust of the major film companies in the United States. Having control of the various patents on the technology needed for film making, the MPCC virtually controlled the movie industry at the time. Sadly, despite the success of feature films in Europe, the MPCC  demanded American movie makers continue making one reel films that were ten to twelve minutes in length at the most. Fortunately, Daniel Frohman was able to convince Thomas Edison, the head of the MPCC, to let Adolph Zukor use cameras to make feature films. Famous Players Film Company's features would prove very successful and, as history shows, eventually the feature film would come to dominate the movie industry.

While Adolph Zukor was among the first Americans to produce feature films, he was by no means the only one who saw that the future of motion pictures was in features. Jesse L. Lasky was born in San Francisco, Californian in 1880. Jesse L. Lasky was a cornetist who had a career in vaudeville. Eventually Jesse L. Lasky would shift from performing on stage to collaborating on operettas with Cecil B. DeMille. It was in 1910 that Mr. Lasky's sister, Blanche (with whom he had performed in vaudeville) married a man named  Samuel Goldfish, who would gain lasting fame under the name Samuel Goldwyn. Even in the early teens Mr. Goldfish was fascinated by film and began a campaign to get his brother in law, vaudeville producer Jesse L. Lasky, into the movie making business. In the end Mr. Goldfish won Mr. Lasky over and in 1913 Jesse L. Lasky, Samuel Goldfish, Cecil B. DeMille, and Arthur Friend founded the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. The company's goal was to produce feature films.

The first movie produced by the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company would be an adaptation of the play The Squaw Man by Edwin Milton Royle. The film was co-directed by Oscar Apfel and Cecil B. DeMille. After finding Flagstaff, Arizona unacceptable for shooting the film, Cecil B. DeMille and Jesse L. Lasky leased a barn on the corner of Selma and Vine Streets in Hollywood, California. While several shorts had already been shot in Hollywood, The Squaw Man then became the first feature film shot in the Hollywood area, as well as Cecil B. Demille's motion picture debut. The Squaw Man proved to be a hit. The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company would have further success with such films as Brewster's Millions (1914), and an adaptation of The Virginian (1914).

While Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky were revolutionising motion pictures by producing feature films, a man named W. W. Hodkinson would found the company that would eventually give Paramount its name. W. W. Hodkinson was a theatre owner who went to work for the General Film Company, an early West Coast motion picture distributor. It was on 8 May 1911 that Mr. Hodkinson merged eleven different distribution companies to form the Paramount Pictures Corporation. Not only would Paramount Pictures Corporation give Paramount its name, but it would also give the company its logo. Upon thinking of the name, Mr. Hodkinson sketched a mountain to which he later added a circlet of stars. Although it has changed slightly over time, the basic Paramount logo is still more or less the same. Paramount Pictures Corporation was the first successful, nationwide distributor of films in the United States. Aside from being truly nationwide, Paramount Pictures Corporation also differed from other distributors in another way--it would only distribute feature films.

Both Famous Players Film Company and the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company would distribute their movies through Paramount Pictures Corporation. Unfortunately, W. W. Hodkinson and Jesse L. Lasky would not get along. Mr. Lasky would begin buying shares of Paramount Pictures Corporation until he controlled the company. As a result, W. W. Hodkinson would be voted out as president of the very corporation he had founded. It was that same year, on 28 September 1916, that Famous Players Film Company and the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company merged to form Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. Paramount Pictures Corporation was part of the company.

Famous Players-Lasky Corporation would see changes almost immediately. No longer president of the company he founded, W. W. Hodkinson sold his shares to theatre owner S. A. Lynch. Samuel Goldfish had been named the chairman of the board of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, but soon came to regret it. He found himself constantly at odds with the company's president, Adolph Zukor. Samuel Goldfish resigned as chairman of the board in 1916, although he kept his stock in the company and remained a member of its board of directors. Mr. Goldfish then founded Goldwyn Pictures with Edgar and Archibald Selwyn.  It would not be long before he changed his name legally to Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn Pictures would be acquired by Marcus Loew in 1924 and merged with Metro Pictures to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, better known as MGM. Although his company was one of the building blocks of MGM, Samuel Goldwyn never worked there.

By the late teens Famous Players-Lasky Corporation was easily one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful studios in the United States. The majority of the most popular stars were all under contract to Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Margeurite Clark,  William S. Hart, and Wallace Reid. It was because of this that Famous Players-Lasky Corporation was able to create the practice of block booking. Block booking was essentially a system by which a theatre would have to buy blocks of films, both the big features starring well known stars as well as lesser films. To varying degrees the other studios would also take up block booking, to the point that it became common practice in the Thirties.

The practice of block booking would run Famous Players-Lasky Corporation into trouble with the First National Exhibitions Circuit, an association of independent theatre owners. First National consisted of some of the biggest first run theatre chains in the United States, about 596 theatres in all nationwide. First National disagreed with the practice of block booking, which often required theatres to buy large blocks of films, some of which might not have even been produced yet. First National then threatened a boycott of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. The answer to this problem for Famous Players-Lasky Corporation was simply to buy its own theatres.

It was then in the period 1919-1920 that Famous Players-Lasky Corporation began buying theatres. Among those the company asked for help in this process was S. A. Lynch, who already owned considerable stock in Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. S. A. Lynch convinced Famous Players-Lasky Corporation to form a new company, Southern Enterprises Inc., whose purpose was not only to take over Mr. Lynch's own theatres, but to acquire theatres throughout the South through whatever means necessary. In 1922 Famous Players-Lasky paid the loan it taken from S. A. Lynch to finance Southern Enterprises Inc. and bought out his shares in the company, making them sole owners of the theatre chain. In 1919 and 1920 Famous Players-Lasky Corporation would also gain controlling interest in the Rialto and Rivoli in New York City and Graumann's Million Dollar Theatre in Los Angeles, as well as a half interest in the New England Theatres chain and a share of Saenger Amusement Company in New Orleans. Famous Players-Lasky Corporation would gain total control of a Canadian theatre chain, renamed Famous Players Theatres (Canada). It was in 1926 that Famous Players-Lasky acquired the Balaban & Katz theatre chain. (Note: the picture is the Brooklyn Paramount circa 1948)

As early as 1921 Famous Players-Lasky Corporation was the most powerful company in the motion picture industry. It should not come as a surprise then that the Federal Trade Commission on 30 August 1921 charged the company with restraint of trade due to the practice of block booking and also charged that it used theatre acquisition as a means of forcing theatre operators into accepting block booking deals. The FTC described Famous Players-Lasky Corporation as "...largest concern in the motion picture industry and the biggest theater owner in the world." In 1927 the FTC concluded that block booking was an unfair practice. It issued a cease and desist order to Famous Players-Lasky Corporation with regards to block booking and ordered the company to reform its policies regarding theatre acquisition. In the end Famous Players-Lasky Corporation did not comply with the FTC's orders, an action that would eventually lead to the Federal government taking further action against Paramount.

It was in 1927 that Famous Players-Lasky would finally incorporate "Paramount" into its name. That year the company was formally renamed "Paramount-Famous-Lasky." Three years later it would be renamed the Paramount-Publix Corporation (Publix Corporation was the name of the company's theatre chain). It was easily the most successful studio in the United States, if not the world. Many of the most successful films of the Silent Era were made by Paramount, including The Sheik (1921), Blood and Sand (1922), The Ten Commandments (1923), Beau Geste (1926), and Wings (1927).  The company had virtually invented the concept of the "movie star" and many of the biggest names of the day had worked for Paramount at some point in their careers, including Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, Clara Bow, Ronald Colman, and Gary Cooper. Some of the best known directors had worked for Paramount as well, including Cecille B. DeMille,  William Wellman, Erich von Stroheim, and Ernst Lubitsch.

Unfortunately, Paramount's fortunes would change due to the Great Depression and the coming of sound to film. On 29 October 1929 the United States stock market collapsed. This was disastrous for Paramount, who in the coming years would lose money due to a stock redemption arrangement with theatres, by which Paramount had to pay the full original price for stocks that were now worth much less. This was complicated by the fact that theatre attendance dropped in the early Thirties. As more and more people became unemployed, more and more people could not afford to go to the movies. Worse yet, in order to compete with the other studios, Paramount had to make the conversion to sound in both its studios and theatres. Conversion to sound was extremely costly. Despite seeing successes at the box office (such as Mae West's early films), Paramount continued to lose money and in 1933 was forced to declare bankruptcy.

In the wake of the bankruptcy Paramount was reorganised. A board of directors headed by John Hertz (founder of Yellow Cab) and Otto Kahn (banker and philanthropist). In 1935 Paramount-Publix Corporation was given the name by which it is now known--Paramount Pictures Inc. Adolph Zukor became chairman of the board of the company . Amazingly, even while in receivership Paramount was able to make films that are today regarded as classics. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Duck Soup (1933), She Done Him Wrong (1933), and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) were all made during this period. The studio would continue to produce classic films once it was out of receivership. Indeed, the late Thirties and the Forties could be considered Paramount's best period. Such films as Road to Singapore (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1941), Holiday Inn (1942), Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), and Samson and Delilah (1949) were released during this era.

Unfortunately for Paramount, the business practices it had innovated in the 1910's, practices soon adopted by the other studios, would soon come back to haunt it. In 1938 the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Paramount and the other major studios because of block booking and other unfair trade practices. The lawsuit would be settled in 1940 with a consent decree that allowed the government to revive the lawsuit if they thought it necessary. According to the consent decree the studios could no longer block book short subjects along with feature films (although they could still block book a maximum of five feature films at a time), and they could not force exhibitors to book films that they had not seen. In 1943 the government decided that there had not been sufficient progress on the part of the studios and reinstated the lawsuit. It went to court in 1945.

In the end the case, known as United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., would go to the Supreme Court. The case was decided on 3 May 1948. Unfortunately for Paramount and the other major Hollywood studios, the verdict went against them. Not only did the Supreme Court's decision bring an end to such practices as block booking, but it also forced the studios to divest themselves of their theatre chains.  United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. would effectively bring an end to the studio system, a system Paramount had largely helped to create.

As a result of the Supreme Court's decision in  United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., Paramount Pictures Corporation would be divided into two companies. Paramount Pictures Corporation would continue as a motion picture production and distribution company. United Paramount Theatres was created from the chain of 1500 theatres Paramount had amassed over the years. The only theatres Paramount Pictures retained were those belonging to the Famous Players Theatres (Canada). Located in Canada and unaffected by the Supreme Court decision, they continued to be owned by Paramount Pictures until it was sold to Cineplex Odeon Corporation in 2006.

In the Fifties it would appear that Paramount Pictures was no worse for wear in losing their theatre chains. Throughout the Fifties Paramount released films that were both financially successful and acclaimed, including When Worlds Collide (1951), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Shane (1953), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), The Court Jester (1956), and The Ten Commandments (1956). While Paramount may have appeared to audiences to have been doing well in the Fifties, in truth with the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. Paramount Pictures went into a decline that continued well into the Sixties.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

George Lindsey Passes On

George Lindsey, best known for his role as Goober Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D.,
died today at the age of 83.

George Lindsey was born in Fairfield, Alabama on 17 December 1928. He grew up in Jasper, Alabama and attended the Kemper Military Academy in Booneville, Missouri. He attended Florence State College (now the University of North Alabama) in Florence, Alabama, majoring in biological science and physical education. After he graduated Florence State College he served in the United States Air Force for four years. Following his service in the Air Force, he was a history teacher and head basketball coach at Hazel Green High School in Hazel Green, Alabama for a year. Afterwards he studied acting at the American Theatre Wing in New York City.

Mr. Lindsey appeared as one of the impostors on the game show To Tell The Truth. He also became a stand up comic. It was in 1963 that he made his television debut in an episode of The Rifleman. In the Sixties he would guest star on such shows as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Twilight Zone, Daniel Boone, Gunsmoke, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It was in 1964 that he first appeared as friendly, childlike, none too bright mechanic Goober Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show. Introduced as Gomer Pyle's cousin, Goober became one of the regular characters on the show. He made a guest appearance on Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. in the role and continued to play Goober on the follow up to The Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry R.F.D., from its debut in 1968 to its cancellation as part of the Rural Purge in 1971.  George Lindsey also appeared in the film Ensign Pulver (1964). In 1962 he appeared on Broadway in All American.

In 1971 George Lindsey began a twenty year run on Hee-Haw. There he played essentially the same character he had on The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D.--Goober.  During the Seventies he guest starred on such shows as The New Andy Griffith Show (once more as Goober Pyle, even though Andy Griffith was playing a wholly different character), Gunsmoke, Banacek, Love American Style, Movin' On, and M*A*S*H.  In 1978 he appeared as Goober Pyle in a pilot for a spinoff from The Andy Griffith Show--Goober and the Truckers' Paradise. He provided voices for the Disney animated features The Aristocats (1971), Robin Hood (1973), and The Rescuers (1977). Mr. Lindsey also appeared in the movies Snowball Express (1972),  Charley and the Angel (1973), and Treasure of Matecumbe (1976) .

In the Eighties George Lindsey appeared on the shows Fantasy Island, CHiPS, and Herbie the Love Bug. He also appeared in The Andy Griffith Show reunion show, Return to Mayberry. He appeared in the films Take This Job and Shove It (1981) and Cannonball Run II. In the Naughts he appeared in the movie When I Find the Ocean (2006). In the teens he provided voices in the three part anime series Starzinger in 2011.

George Lindsey is so identified with the role of Goober Pyle that it is sometimes hard to picture himself in any other role. Indeed, he played Goober in 86 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, 58 episodes of Mayberry R.F.D., one episode of Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., one episode of The New Andy Griffith Show, and one television pilot. Arguably, he played essentially the same character for 71 episodes of Hee-Haw. While he may be best known for playing one character, however, there can be no doubt of Mr. Lindsey's talent. In fact, those who watch a good deal of vintage television know that before he played Goober on The Andy Griffith Show, George Lindsey mostly played heavies. He was quite capable of giving impressive performances. In The Alfred Hitchcock Hour he was quite good as Juke Marmer, a country bumpkin who remembers a traumatic experience from his childhood. He also had a memorable appearance on M*A*S*H., playing a crude, unrefined surgeon who takes Hawkeye's place.

Indeed, while George Lindsey's most famous character, Goober Pyle, was not particularly bright, Mr. Lindsey himself was a very intelligent, articulate man. If the fact that he received a degree in biological science was not enough to prove such, one need only to watch interviews with him. I can remember one such interview in which through logic and simple statistics he proved CBS was wrong to cancel every single rural comedy in the Rural Purge of 1971. Indeed, in some ways I think it was Mr. Lindsey's talent and intelligence that allowed him to play Goober so well--only someone who was intelligent enough to reason how such a character would think and then have the talent to make the performance convincing could have done it successfully. Sadly, in some respects, it seems that George Lindsey was too successful in playing Goober. Although he played many other roles, some often far removed from that of Mayberry's congenial mechanic, it is Goober Pyle for which he is best known. He should really be remembered for much more.