That fine old phrase “truth in advertising” is not one you often find applied to the movies, and if you do, it’s probably a lie.
Perhaps that’s only reasonable, since movies themselves are, if not lies, at least a sort of conjuring trick. They’re made up of scenes with bits and pieces shot at various times and places and hooked together to present the illusion of a single stretch of time. I once made a 16mm film in which a character ducked through some bushes in the woods to emerge at a fancy garden party on a palatial estate. The only thing was the palatial estate was a good 20 miles from those woods and the scene he stepped into had been shot weeks earlier. That’s not the way it looks on the screen, but it’s the truth. In the case of the movies, it’s the illusion that matters. The truth is a distant second.
The selling of a movie itself is a strange business, because what’s being sold is less a product than an idea of a product that — as far as watching it in a theater is concerned — is transitory in nature. (The idea of actually owning a movie is a fairly recent one, at least where the general public is concerned.) What’s being sold is the opportunity to experience two hours or so of someone else’s dream that, for a price, you can share.
Brand names factor into this in terms of a star or a director, and those can be the featured selling point. But even this can be dicey. Consider the phrase you often see festooning trailers — “From the people who brought you.” That sounds very reassuring, doesn’t it? Well, in the words of the song, it ain’t necessarily so. In 1977 Ken Russell’s extravagant, operatic, over-the-top biopic Valentino had a trailer that included the phrase, “From the producers of Rocky.”
True enough, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff did produce both movies, but the two films couldn’t have less in common if they tried. The idea of selling the connection to last year’s big hit was too tempting, even if it was peddling an idea that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. Today, when they hand out producer credits like candy by way of contractual agreements, the selling point becomes comical. We now find movies emblazoned with the phrase, “From a producer of (insert hit movie title here),” and it means nothing.
Think you’re on safer ground with a star? Don’t bet on it. Take for example the movie being hawked in the picture at the top of this column — the image that boldly proclaims, “You’ll forget you ever saw Frankenstein and Dracula.” This one’s a peach of a pitch. Not only is the movie being hawked a B movie, dark house comedy called The Black Cat (1941) and not a horror picture, but the trailer was re-cut to prominently bill Alan Ladd. Yes, Alan Ladd is in the film, in a very minor supporting role. But in the meantime, This Gun for Hire (1942) had come out and made Ladd into a huge star. So why not rework the trailer to get the good out of that? By the time the hapless viewer realized that Ladd spent most of his limited screen time standing around in the background, he or she’d already bought a ticket — to a horror movie starring Alan Ladd, which in truth was neither.
And that was back in 1941. A few months ago, this same Black Cat came out on DVD as part of a collection called Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive. The more things change, the more they remain remarkably familiar. At least they didn’t build up Alan Ladd, but then he’s no longer much of a selling point.
Of course, no one really expects truth on a poster or in a trailer or, if you’re a critic, in a press-kit. (Hands up everyone who honestly believes that Rip Torn considered it an “honor” to appear with Tom Green in Freddy Got Fingered, even if the press-kit assures us he did). This is promotional ballyhoo, a carnival barker with a budget. Sometimes these things are even amusing. Take the announcer on the trailer for Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) breathlessly assuring us, “Here is drama completely strange!” Is there a large market for that?
Other times, a promotional classic is born, like the the tag line for Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) — “There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby: it’s alive!” Rarer still are those wonderful moments when the advertising boys simply have no clue what to do and desperation sets in — “See Ken Russell’s new film Lisztomania — You won’t understand it, but you’ll love every minute of it!”
This sort of thing has been with the movies for a very long time. Studios are all about the sell. When the Warner Bros. hired that grand old man of theatre George Arliss back in 1929—and to their (or more correctly, Darryl F. Zanuck’s) credit, they did allow him the freedom to make what he wanted the way he wanted—they naturally wanted him to make film versions of his greatest stage successes. It followed that a film of his biggest hit, Disraeli, would be made, but they really wanted to do something about that title. Couldn’t someone come up with something with a little more oomph? Arliss jokingly suggested Wild Nights with Queen Victoria—and had to withdraw the suggestion when he learned they were actually considering it.
A somewhat less amusing—and even troubling—side of movie promotion comes in the form of the “break-out” quote. These are lines of praise (presumably) culled from reviews and slapped onto posters, newspaper advertising and occasionally trailers.Here the studios go outside their ranks—or so it seems—to find a review that says their movie is Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz all wrapped into one—and at popular prices. Theoreticaly, this assures the viewer that a disinterested party loves the movie in question. It’s a reasonable theory, but it can—and often does—fall apart in impure practice.
The “break-out” quote is only reliable if the potential customer knows the critic. You’re on pretty firm ground if, say, Roger Ebert or Andrew Sarris or David Edelstein has raved about the movie. On the other hand, you know—or you should—that if the best the studio boys could come up with is a quote from someone on a 6 a.m. local morning news show, they were scrambling for anything they could find. The studios know that you likely know this, too, and that’s why they’re very fond of an entirely different kind of critic—the quote whore.
Quote whores are nothing new. There have long been critics who have sought fame—or were willing to settle for notoriety—by gushing enthusiastically over almost everything that comes down the pike. In the 1950s and 60s (though she dates back the 1930s), it was rare indeed not to encounter a four star review from Wanda Hale of the New York Daily News in all manner of advertising. In fact, she became something of a joke among film students, who would offer the response, “Four stars—Wanda Hale,” when asked for an opinion on a film. The alternative to this—at least in his earlier days—was Rex Reed, who at one time could be counted on to enthuse with unseemly hyperbole. Indeed, “I loved it—Rex Reed,” was the proper film student rejoinder to the Wanda Hale assessment.
They’re still around, of course. You can spot the tendency to almost constantly wax ecstatic in certain critics—especially, when he or she is virtually the only voice of support. Sure, all critics have their moments when they’re going to be wildly out of step with the concensus, but it’s not hard to tell the sincere alternate opinion from the one in search of being quoted in the ads.
Not content with this, studios have also invented reviews—and even reviewers and newspapers—when all else has failed. Sony Pictures found themselves on the bad end of a law suit when they created the fictional critic “David Manning” to heap praise on a few of their movies in 2001. When you’re looking for someone to say nice things about the Rob Schneider stinker The Animal that’s kind of understandable, but why they felt it necessary with the generally well-received A Knight’s Tale is harder to grasp. Again, this wasn’t exactly unprecedented—Bob Hope had pulled the stunt years earlier with an utterly bogus review for one of his TV specials, but since that could only be laid to vanity and the desire to make NBC think he was still a hot commodity nothing came of it.
Now, of course, we have the Internet and that’s opened a new can of worms for the studios to court. Just take a look at Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News. Having set himself up as a hip trend-setter on the internet, he’s become the darling of the movies as someone to be relied on to promote movies with the abandon of a water buffalo in a fine china emporium. His ethics have been called into question, owing to being taken on expensive junkets by the studios, but he charges on in his inimitable—and improbably vulgar (to see the nadir of criticism, Google his review of Blade 2 (2002))—style.
The most frightening development brought about by the democratization of the internet, though, is the apparent emergence of the studio shill. These aren’t reviews in the strict sense. These come under the heading of “user comments,” which are reviews posted on websites by supposedly “regular folks.” But are they? It’s hard to believe. They’re almost always written in a style intended to suggest as much, though just as often they read like someone’s idea of how young people talk.
It’s impossible to say just how rife the practice is, but a trip to the Internet Movie Database will reveal an improbable number of glowing user reviews posted by users who have never posted anything other than the review at hand. (This is easily ascertained by clicking on the user name, which reveals their posting histories.) In addition, the reviewer has almost invariably “just returned from a special screening” of the film. Whenever you see that phrase—or some variation of it—a degree of skepticism ought to set in.
The surprising thing about this is how few people seem to be skeptical. The IMDb provides a feature allowing readers to vote on whether or not they find a user review “helpful,” and the number of voters who find these decidedly suspect raves useful is often shockingly high. Yes, I know Mr. Barnum had a saying about this a long, long time ago. All the same, credulity seems to be at an all-time high these days.