Monday, March 19, 2007

Previews and Playing to the Audience

The film industry in its early years was extremely sensitive to audience reaction. This sometimes went as far as changing the movie they had just finished if an audience viewing a preview didn’t like the ending.

At the end of “The Champ,” Wallace Beery lost the fight and died. At least, he was dead until the preview audiences saw, were horrified, and wrote as much on their questionnaires. The studio, horrified, released a new version. Wallace Beery won the fight, lived and everybody was happy.

Keeping the audience happy was more important than what might be defended today as artistic integrity. Actually, artistic integrity is not always terribly common today, either. A bit more business is sometimes added to films today to bring an otherwise G-rated film to a more sophisticated audience and to what the producers may feel is a more acceptable film to today’s paying customer.

Making the film more acceptable to the paying customer back then required sometimes the opposite effect: making things nicer, not nastier. Gene Kelly played such a rat in “For Me and My Gal,” that audiences couldn’t stand to see him paired with Judy Garland. They felt such a nice girl was much better off with a swell guy like George Murphy. But, since Kelly was the actor the studio wanted to showcase, they re-vamped his character and made him a hero at the end of the film. This took some doing, because his character maimed his hand trying to dodge the World War draft, but Hollywood always has a way of making things better.

Gary Cooper, at the end of “Meet John Doe” was supposed to jump off a building in protest to Edward Arnold’s group of big-business fascists trying to take over the country. The preview audience again intervened, not liking one bit the idea of Gary Cooper splattered all over the pavement. The film was released with the version of Barbara Stanwyck stopping him in time, and Cooper carrying her off the rooftop in his arms, with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony swelling in the background.

Hollywood of the time is sometimes mocked for its happy endings, but it evidently gave the customer what the customer wanted. It was the audience that wanted happy endings.

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