Posted by David Kalat on May 3, 2014
This week’s story begins with the Three Stooges, and ends with zombies.
The story starts in 1957, when Columbia Pictures shut down the Three Stooges’ production unit and released the aging comedy stars. The Stooges had been poking each other in the eye for 22 years—and that’s just for Columbia Pictures’ theatrical shorts division—they’d been a comedy team for over three decades by that point.
In one of the crazy ironies that make life so baffling and interesting, being fired by Columbia more or less coincided with the pinnacle of their popularity. The studio’s licensing arm Screen Gems sold a package of Stooges comedies to TV, where they ended up on after-school broadcasts to a whole generation of viewers.
The ratings went through the roof, and Columbia could barely keep up, selling old Stooges comedies to meet the demand.
But here’s the thing: the actual comedians responsible for those insanely successful films weren’t getting a dime from any of this resurgent interest. They were unemployed, with no direct way to profit in their own popularity.
Moe Howard’s son-in-law formed a production company, and started making new Stooges comedies to leverage this popularity into actual revenue to the comedians. Curly and Shemp had both passed away, and Joe Besser had withdrawn from the team for personal reasons, so in order to make these new Three Stooges films they had to hire a new third Stooge—Joe DeRita. He shaved his head and consciously conformed his performance to slot comfortably into memories of the late Curly—and the films were little more than remakes of past glories.
You’d have to be a cold-hearted Grinch of a Stooges fan not to find these 1960s era films passably entertaining; at the same time you’d have to be very easily pleased to find them anything more than passably entertaining. They exist for purely crass commercial reasons—they are there to cash in. But because the Stooges were denied any profit participation in their original work, they had no other way to benefit from being some of the most popular comedians of the late 50s and early 1960s.
A few weeks ago, I very inelegantly stated that the only reason movies get made is to make money. A fair number of commenters weighed in with their objections, pointing out all the creative individuals who went into filmmaking for reasons other than just money. And of course they exist—movies would be a pretty dreary experience without them. But that wasn’t what I meant—so let me try to clarify my original point.
There are an enormous number of aspiring artists—screenwriters, directors, actors, etc—with visions they wish to share with the world. The only thing that separates the dreamers from those lucky few who actually do get to make movies is that a small percentage of them have managed to find someone to bankroll their visions. When I said the only reason movies get made is to make money, what I mean is that without the financial backing of investors or corporate entities that pay for the production, the movie isn’t going to get made. And those investors or corporate entities may be willing to endure a loss or two in the pursuit of a bigger hit, but if they don’t consistently make money on the deal they won’t keep financing your films.
There’s nothing evil about this. It’s just a fact of life. Movies are expensive. Even the independent filmmakers who finance their low-budget productions on credit cards and deferred payments eventually have to pay their bills or they don’t get to make a second film. A studio that consistently loses money on its films will go bankrupt and stop making movies. If you want to enjoy movies, someone has to pay for them—and they’ll only do that if it makes financial sense for them to do so.
Too often the money men are portrayed as the villains in the story of film, and as movie buffs we fall into reflexive habits of thoughtlessly accepting this bias without thinking about it. I won’t pretend there aren’t some villainous bean counters, and this week’s post tells some of their stories, but I want to exorcise the cliché that the commercial imperative behind filmmaking is inherently something tawdry and undesirable.
And to that end, as one small step in a larger theme I expect to return to over time in this blog, I want to highlight some movies that are unambiguously made for the crassest of reasons, in order to celebrate them.
Consider Monty Python, for example. Like the Three Stooges, they did not originally have an ownership stake in their groundbreaking TV comedy Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It had been made by the BBC, which controlled the circumstances under which episodes would be licensed to other broadcasters or distributors. Eventually, the Pythons bought back ownership of their show (and saved the master tapes from being destroyed), but that didn’t happen until they had the money to do so—and that in turn couldn’t happen until they started to make real money off their comedy, and that in turn depended on making feature films, and that in turn meant breaking into the world of feature filmmaking, and that in turn depended on having a viable American fanbase because all the money in filmmaking is in the American market…
The first Monty Python feature film was just a sampler platter of some of their TV sketches, remade on 35mm film instead of the videotape and 16mm of their TV show. And Now For Something Completely Different is a fairly disappointing thing to actually watch. It has higher production values than the TV version, but it lacks some of the same sense of rule-breaking and risk-taking that gave the TV show such an enduring energy.
Like the Stooges’ 1960s films, it’s mostly for completists, and pales in comparison to the original material—and like the Stooges’ 60s films, it exists for legal reasons, not creative ones. They needed a low-cost way to start establishing an American fanbase, and the American distribution of the TV show wasn’t going very well. Remaking the show was an inexpensive, low-risk way of asserting some ownership control over their intellectual property and better manage the cash-flow from its exploitation. Without And Now For Something Completely Different there would never have been a Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Life of Brian, or The Meaning of Life.
Which brings us to zombies. I promised you zombies.
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was one of the best horror films of the 1960s, and a profoundly influential work of pop culture. The lasting effects of Romero’s vision can be felt anytime you tune in to The Walking Dead today, to name just the most obvious, low-hanging fruit of an example.
The problem was that Romero’s production team placed the copyright notice on the opening title card, but not anywhere else (like the closing titles), and when distributor Walter Reade changed the title from Night of the Flesh Eaters to Night of the Living Dead, the replaced title card omitted the copyright notice. Without an onscreen statement of copyright ownership, Night of the Living Dead was technically in the public domain.
Like the Three Stooges, Romero found himself in the unenviable position of watching as the culture at large around him went gaga for his hard work and creativity, his passion and vision, while he was denied the chance to profit from that success directly.
There have been several attempts to reestablish ownership over Night of the Living Dead. In 1990, Tom Savini directed a remake, under the aegis of the original film’s creative team. The remake directly benefitted that production team, in a way that the original no longer could. As with the examples cited above, however, there remained a cachet to the original that the remake couldn’t surpass. For fans, the original remained superior.
Night of the Living Dead’s screenwriter John Russo later produced Night of the Living Dead-The 30th Anniversary Edition which re-edited the original film and included newly shot material. It was widely rejected by fans as a bastardization of Romero’s original film.
And that’s the final irony of these examples. When movies are remade, an oft-heard concern voiced by fans of the originals is that the remakes will supplant the originals. But here we have examples of remakes that failed to replace the originals, even though they were made by the original creators specifically for that purpose. In each of these cases, the creative team was undone by their own fans, who never stopped preferring the originals. Even if the creators’ bank accounts would very much have preferred otherwise.
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