Reading Lillian Roth’s account of the making of John Huston’s film “The Red Badge of Courage” I’m struck by two things. None of the powers at M.G.M. really wanted to make this movie. It suffered “death-by-preview.” I suspect that the kiss-of-death-preview was one of those sneaky devices Hollywood came up with to dispose of films they never wanted in the first place.
By Roth’s account, Huston made a gripping 83-minute black-and-white film that was rather uncomprmising and intense. So what does M.G.M. do with it? They “Sneak Preview” it in tandem with a sunny June Allyson romantic comedy. Did they understand nothing about audience dynamics? Did it never occur to them that folks who willingly parted with fifty cents to see June Allyson probably wouldn’t part with fifty cents to see WWII hero Audie Murphy and a bunch of unknown character actors in a serious drama set during the long-past War Between the States? And what did they expect this sunny-romance-loving-audience to make of grim scenes of carnage and death? Did they actually expect them to LIKE the film? I for one don’t think that the Metro people were that stupid. But the less-than-glowing audience response cards did allow them to tinker with Huston’s movie–adjusting it fit the tastes of those who enjoyed June Allyson romantic comedies. To prove that the folks at Metro weren’t stupid, they then arranged a second preview, this time in Pasadena–where, if memory serves, Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” met its fate. They even chose the same type of audience–a bunch of teenagers who were probably more interested in the balcony action than anything happening on the screen. Of course this group of sophisticated cineastes really sent the film back to Metro covered in scorn. Just what the doctor ordered; now there can be still more cuts, still more compromises, and an 83-minute film can wind up playing at a little over an hour.
The fact that the executives at R.K.O., who hated “Ambersons” chose to run Welles’ autumnal meditation at a sneak preview paired with a Lupe Velez “Mexican Spitfire” comedy, and before an audience of teenagers out for nothing more than a good laugh suggests to me that they were actively seeking the sort of negative feedback that they received–anything to cut big-head Welles down to size. Now I’m not saying that those Pasadena bobby-soxers were the most insensitive audiences ever to crowd a movie theater–but almost killing off two classic American films, and causing irrepable damage to them both, is a pretty good score in my opinion.
I wonder how it would turn out if Hollywood “sneak-previewed” the latest effects-laden “Transformers” opus or the latest “Godzilla” make-over to an audience of old farts like me?