‘What were they thinking?” is the subtext of virtually every page in Matthew Kennedy’s informative history of the Hollywood roadshow — those bloated movies, including many musicals, whose budgets threatened the very survival of the studio system.
Why would Jack Warner spend $13 million (about $88 million in 2014 dollars) to film the modest Broadway hit “Camelot”? What made Universal take a charming, unpretentious bit of fluff like “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and weigh it down with 20 minutes of filler and an intermission?
Why did Paramount hire Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood — neither of whom could sing — to do just that in “Paint Your Wagon”? And how on earth did Twentieth Century Fox manage to make three back-to-back flops — “Doctor Doolittle” (1967), “Star!” (1968) and “Hello, Dolly!” (1969) — so expensive that they propelled the studio to a $146 million pre-tax loss?
The short answer to all these questions is: “The Sound of Music,” which Kennedy dubs in “Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s” as “The Musical That Ate Hollywood.” Critics might disdain the schmaltzy 1965 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s smash play, but audiences loved it. It took only 18 months for “The Sound of Music” to surpass “Gone With the Wind” as the No. 1 box-office movie of all time.
When the film finally ended its record-breaking first run in December 1969, rental fees had brought Fox more than four times the amount required to break even — and the studio had spent plenty. Every other studio scrambled to duplicate its success.
“The Sound of Music” was a “roadshow,” the industry term for a big-budget film that played reserved-seat engagements in major cities before being rolled out nationwide. Ticket prices were substantially higher; moviegoers had to pay $2 or $3 to see “The Sound of Music” in a roadshow house, while their neighborhood movie theaters playing less popular fare charged about a buck. For their money, the upscale patrons got a lavish experience in a glamorous urban movie palace: Programs and LPs were on sale in the lobby; the film was shown on a wide screen with both an overture and an intermission.
The roadshow had been around since D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent “The Birth of a Nation,” but in the 1950s it became a key component of studio executives’ strategy to lure audiences away from a new threat invading living rooms: television. As Kennedy points out, “By several measures, including tickets sold and awards won, roadshows dominated the American film industry from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s.”
What changed after 1965, he notes, is that studios began to rely to a dangerous extent on roadshows, which could be lucrative but were always expensive, just as the zeitgeist was shifting and the movie audience was fragmenting. Yes, there were plenty of people out there who longed for family entertainment such as “The Sound of Music,” but they didn’t necessarily want to pay $3 for it, especially not when the glut of roadshows in the late ’60s lessened their status as special events.
Also, while roadshows in the past had often been dramas, the studios increasingly dedicated the format to musicals, apparently not realizing that Broadway show tunes didn’t have the same mass appeal in the age of Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
The rock-and-roll generation may have eventually saved Hollywood, as Peter Biskind claimed in “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” but they had to kill it first, by making small, iconoclastic films whose startling successes spotlighted just how out of touch the studios were. Compared with “Bonnie and Clyde” or “The Graduate,” “Song of Norway” and “The Great Waltz” looked pretty darned square.
It didn’t have to be this way, critic Pauline Kael pointed out in an astute assessment that Kennedy quotes at length. It wasn’t that people didn’t like musicals; they didn’t like bad, expensive musicals. Director Bob Fosse, who saw his “Sweet Charity” sink under the roadshow treatment in 1969, proved Kael’s point with “Cabaret,” a virtual anti-roadshow whose dark themes and unabashed pansexuality captured the countercultural spirit of the moment in 1972. It was a smash.
By then, five of the major studios were awash in red ink, much of it because of roadshow disasters, and the roadshow was basically dead. Kennedy’s wincingly detailed chronicle of out-of-control spending and egos makes it clear that many of the musicals he focuses on deserved to die, but he doesn’t think the roadshow itself deserved to go with them.
“A bit of good old movie magic died with the roadshow,” he writes, deploring the advent of saturation booking that has us “herded into musty Cineplex boxes and subjected to ads for breath mints.” Indeed, anyone who has forked over $17.50 for the 3-D version of “The Green Hornet” may feel positively nostalgic for the roadshow era. At least with “Camelot” you got an overture and an intermission — and no commercials.
Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940” and a contributing editor at the American Scholar.
The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s
By Matthew Kennedy
Oxford Univ. 320 pp. $35