These days, he’d just contact Gable’s agent, but under the old monopolistic studio system, Gable “belonged” to MGM, which didn’t make a practice of loaning out its stars. So a deal was struck, and three years later GWTW opened in Loews theaters nationwide; Loews was MGM’s parent company. Yep, that’s a monopoly alright, when an entity or class of entities has exclusive possession or control of a commodityor service.
Before 1948, theaters that bore the Paramount, Loews, 20th Century Fox, or RKO logo on their marquees showed largely that parent company’s product. If you ran a Fox theater, you took what was given to you, the way a child eats the family meal, and never mind liking broccoli. But it was even worse for the small mom and pop operations: those theaters had to take a “block” of films, including some turkeys, in order to get one or two good titles. Block booking, it was called.
After 1948, a lot of theater properties went up for sale, and Paramount and its brothers found themselves short capital. The lawsuit had been going on, one way or another, since the 1920’s, with some intermissions (the Depression, WWII) during which the studios argued hardship and got away with it, thanks to an indulgent FDR. In the end, it had been the small producers (Selznick, Disney, Orson Welles, and the like) who’d nagged the Department of Justice into paying more attention. Now that it was over, the studios had to recoup their losses, which they managed, by selling parts of their film libraries to television, and, well, you know the rest. Ninety million people went weekly to the movies in 1948; ten years later, it was 46 million, and TV was king.
By the time I came along — in league with other brave young entrepreneurs keen on opening the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, a 2672-seat movie palace — the studio system was dead. During our theater year and beyond, its remains continued to molder away, like a giant forest tree fallen some decades before. Nobody “owned” stars anymore; the movies they appeared in were sometimes indies, and the stars were basically “free agents” (to borrow a term from baseball). Theater chains, Mann and the like, were separate from film companies; the chains bid for pictures, letting the chaff (The Last Tycoon, for example) fall to us small-time theater operators. We got some good stuff, including second- or third-run classics, some obscure stuff that ought to remain obscure, like Don’t Open the Window, and classic bombs like Gable and Lombard. Not so different from block booking, when you think about it.
I can’t say it was a living, running a movie palace in 1976, but it was a great adventure, and a fine decade for film. The studio system could never have produced the rebellious, quirky or gritty films of the seventies like Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Blazing Saddles, The Exorcist, or Logan’s Run, not to mention sleepers like Coolie High and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These were movies we had the privilege of showing, but the year also produced films we never got our hands on, like Network, The Seven Percent Solution, Marathon Man, Breaking Point and Bound for Glory. Not to mention Obsession, which could well have come out of the studio system in its heyday (Roger Ebert called it “a 1940s melodrama out of the ‘CBS Radio Mystery Theater’ by way of a gothic novel...”).
1976 was smack in the middle of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era and it spoke to the rebellious, questioning attitude of that zeitgeist. We in the five boroughs and their surrounds had also survived the near-bankruptcy of New York City (they were talking, after all, about selling off parts of Central Park and certain items stored in the Met’s attic!). By 1976, the recession was on the wane, but we wouldn’t know it till the nineteen eighties.
In early March, 1977, we were out of the theater, our magnificent dream over. That’s when I finally had time to catch up with movie going: to see Rocky Horror with the rest of humanity, and some of the movies listed above — at other theaters, like the Quad in the Village — that were still open.
1.For an interesting treatment of United States vs. Paramount Pictures, Inc., check this out. Please forgive the Constitution Center in the link above for its incorrect citing of the date, May 4, 1948. In all other sources, the date is listed as May 3 of that year.
2.Gone With the Wind, mentioned at the start of this post, had inhabited the St. George’s giant screen, if not when we ran the place.
3.Since television plays a role in this post, here’s a little treatment of technologies, as they have enfolded each other, like so many Russian dolls.