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Saturday, March 17, 2012

WB Burning Hills Campaign Inflames Exhibs!

Star-selling jumped to warp speed with television. Whereas radio, newspapers (plus fan mags) mostly got messages out before, now there was quicker-than-ever delivery of fresh faces with over (broadcast) night impact. Natalie Wood heated up among teens not just from Rebel Without A Cause in Autumn 1955 theatres, but for anthology TV that put her before more eyes than attended even hit movies. Then there was weekly Warner Brothers Presents using the actress on behalf of pics she was and wasn't in. The maybe unforeseen result of all this was stardom running ahead of even fast-tracks WB laid, the pace and impact of television far from fully understood whatever one's experience with the new medium.

The Burning Hills was, by definition, a program western done for change ($877K negative cost, among lowest of that WB season). Scant months passed between production and release, but it was time enough for merchandisers to know better how to promote Natalie Wood and co-star Tab Hunter. They were twin hula hoops for an advertising age of much increased sexual awareness. So chaste a vehicle as The Burning Hills gave Warner staff less than nothing to exploit. Teenage innocence was a gone concept, ticket-buying youth least of all desirous of it. Marketers knew they had a flat tire and used misleading ads to pump interest. Who knew a few frisky come-on's, borne of sales necessity, would land The Burning Hills on angry letter pages of The New York Post, Variety, Boxoffice, and Harrison's Reports?

"Downright misrepresentation" was how complaining exhibitors summed up "trashy" ads for The Burning Hills. The audience is long accustomed to having its sex on the outside of the theatre rather than on the inside, but Warners' Cloud-Cuckoo Land of publicists had this time gone too far. Boxoffice heard from the president of Kansas and Missouri's Allied Theatre Owners, who likened Warner policy to "selling horsemeat and calling it first-grade hamburger." Let's stay somewhere within the reasonable bounds of truth, the letter said, If we don't, not only will we drive away the few remaining customers we have, but we will end up having someone like the Better Business Bureaus or Federal Trade Commission analyzing and censoring our ads and then we'll be in some real trouble.

That censorship part was a truest concern, as there had for some time been a Producer's Advertising Code administered by the MPAA to assure that illustrations and text in advertising shall faithfully represent the pictures themselves. Unlike the better enforced Production Code, rules of honest promotion were violated with abandon, and by September of 1956 and release of The Burning Hills, matters were at a head. The Boston Catholic archdiocese decried lurid and suggestive merchandising of pictures that consistently failed to deliver promised goods. The fast buck is once again the obvious motive --- get the people into the theatre, even if you trick them into it. Customers were indeed being played a confidence game that would surely result in patron loss of confidence in studio merchandise.

Said a Resigned Showman at the Time: Perhaps It's OK To Picture a Barebacked Young Man Atop a Young Girl When There's Nothing Like It In The Picture --- After All, Everyone Realizes That This Sort of Thing Wouldn't Be In An American Picture.

The Burning Hills was truly enough hamburger, if not horsemeat. Made to service a teen-fueled market who'd voted Tab Hunter an "Audience Award" via lobby-cast ballots, the western served therapeutic purpose in that year or two wake of James Dean's passing, Tab offered up as heart balm to bereaved youth still in the grip of loss, though newcomer Elvis would better ease their pain with Love Me Tender right around a corner for November '56 release. The Burning Hills played down many a street from Giant, the last of the Deans, and Natalie Wood benefited large from her association with the departed star and their Rebel Without A Cause tandem.

Larger markets played safe by doubling The Burning Hills with Warner westerns past and new, a common thread being veteran names to lure older patronage less than gaga over Tab and Nat. The Chicago Theatre used Seven Men From Now with Randolph Scott to back the teen team and attributed double-billing to a scarcity of top product (it was only a second time the venerable house had gone with a combo bill ... ever). Personal appearing by Hunter and Wood drew $12,000 on the first day, mostly thanks to autograph-seeking kids. Los Angeles got The Burning Hills saturated among hardtops and drive-ins with reissued Dallas, a 1950 Gary Cooper by then evergreen for supporting soft newcomers. Such bills were Driver's Education for green personalities Hunter/Wood, their first co-starring vehicle guided from the back seat by tried-and-true Scott/Cooper.

So now the ad controversy's forgotten and we're in recent receipt of The Burning Hills on DVD from WB Archive. It's in Cinemascope and burnt toast Warnercolor, the first time available wide since '56 playdates. Hills is a comfort western in the best 94-minute sense of the term, flush with reliable support off 50's wanted posters (Ray Teal, Claude Akins, Earl Holliman, Skip Homeier among heavies) and directed without distinction (but who needs it?) by Stuart Heisler. There are fisticuffs rougher than you'd expect Tab Hunter to engage (two exceptional brawls) and he's believable in the saddle. Natalie Wood effects south-of-the-border accenting as effectively as her fans might have in a school pageant, which reduced not the slightest their regard for her. Teen players, idols first and actors second, improved on the job, or didn't. Wood did eventually, as would Tab Hunter in shorter time (Gunman's Walk). Warner Archive has done its customarily fine job with The Burning Hills on DVD. By all means, get it and be closer to the 1956 fan-driven moviegoing experience. Just don't expect these ads to represent any of what you'll see!


Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Interesting that you say Tab Hunter developed acting chops sooner...but then, Natalie Wood's wound up more respected.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just watched tab hunter in "the arrousers" a few nights ago. its an extremely rare and unpleasant film, though leonard maltin has championed it . hunter is quite impressive, and theres also a glimpse of isabel jewell! by the way, a decent widescreen print of burning hills surfaced on a sunday morning double bill on the BBC a couple of weeks back. betcha mainstream american TV hasnt shown it since the 80's, at least?

8:06 PM  

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