22 August 2014

The Scarlet Letters

Big-budget studio films were heavily promoted, and The Scarlet Empress was no exception. In addition to press coverage and ads, there were publicity stunts – worldwide.

Paramount's pitch to showmen.
In London, a waxwork of Marlene Dietrich was unveiled at Madame Tussaud's in conjunction with the opening of the film. John Armstrong, director of advertising at Paramount Theatres there arranged that the unveiling be broadcast via a transatlantic radio link to the US via NBC. The waxwork was dressed in ostrich feathers from South Africa – gaining press for the movie in far-flung parts of the British Empire. Even department store Selfridges joined in with displays. Across the channel, a special premiere was held at the Theatre Agriculteurs in Paris, with American envoy in France, J I Strauss in attendance. And cinemas from New York to Shanghai lured their patrons with special displays.

In the US, independent exhibitors were encouraged to make their own ballyhoo. Ross Hobson – who ran the Granada Theatre in Lewiston, Idaho – for example, had a masked “Scarlet Empress” do the rounds at shops around his home town. Shoppers who recognised the masked lady won free tickets and other prizes. Local dance halls also held a “Scarlet Empress” ball with prizes for the best Dietrich impersonator. Some theatres in other towns made their own front-of-house artwork.

Despite all the promotion, and whatever the critical consensus may have been be on The Scarlet Empress – and however it may have played in cities – independent, small town movie houses saw Dietrich's latest picture spilling scarlet ink all over their ledgers. They warned their fellow businessmen to avoid this one in the exhibitor's trade paper, Motion Picture Herald:

“Thirteen reels of thundering music and long-haired lovers. Things are getting better if anyone does any business on this colossal flop.”
Deluxe Theatre, St John, Kansas

“I did not have a single person tell me they liked this picture. Some wanted their money back. Personally, I thought it was a fair picture. I guess I was wrong.”
Opera House, Abbeville, S.C

“Marlene Dietrich – a black eye for the small town and if you don't have to play it shelve it and you'll be better off. Beautiful settings and all music. Dietrich says about 20 words...”
Majestic Theate, Lake Mills, Wisconsin

“The star alone was the picture...”
Lyric Theatre Circuit, McIntonsh S. Dakota

“100 minutes of 'opus' acting, direction and camera work – but unappreciated! Hot in spots – a real picture – better than Rasputin – but how many small towns care about Russia? Wake up, fellows! Kick about these Hollywood American versions of pictures intended for Europe! A few are O.K., but they are making too many.”
Granada Theatre, Monte Vista, Colorado

“a wonderful spectacle but failed to get rental”
New Piedmont Theatre, Piedmont, Mo

“grandeur wasted on a poor story … Let's get away from these 'costume' bewhiskered extravaganzas”
Grand Theatre, Preston, Idaho

“Business below expectations. This picture is excellent if your audience likes grandeur in settings and acting; mine does not care for it, though we had a few favourable comments. The direction is excellent.”
Colonial Theatre, Grandview, Washington

It's not surprising that, when Motion Picture Herald named their biggest box-office stars of 1933 – 1934, Marlene was way down on the list, which was headed by Will Rodgers and Clark Gable. Marlene's fellow Paramount co-star Mae West, riding high on Belle of the Nineties, was ranked fifth. Dietrich was ranked equally with Dolores Del Rio and John Barrymore, just above Charles Farrell and John Wayne.

The biggest box-office stars. (Click to enlarge.)

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