General Articles


Meet the flacks, Hollywood’s mad masters of publicity, who float you into their theatres on rivers of ink and ballyhoo

KATE HOLLIDAY December 15 1947
General Articles


Meet the flacks, Hollywood’s mad masters of publicity, who float you into their theatres on rivers of ink and ballyhoo

KATE HOLLIDAY December 15 1947


Meet the flacks, Hollywood’s mad masters of publicity, who float you into their theatres on rivers of ink and ballyhoo


THE LETTER began, “Dear Miss Holliday ...” But the title had been crossed out as too formal and “Kate” substituted in ink. Also in ink a note had been penned at the bottom of the page.

“Dear Kate,” it read, “I hear all is wonderful with you. That’s swell! Sincerely, Bird.”

The author of all this intimate charm was a gentleman named Russell Birdwell. The only catch was that I had never laid eyes on him.

But that didn’t matter to “Bird.” He’s a publicity man, and to drum up trade for Charlie Chaplin’s film, “Monsieur Verdoux,” he’d be ready to do much more than write familiarly to someone he’d never seen.

There are in Los Angeles about 20 independent publicity men like Russell Birdwell, who run their own offices and usually gild the name of some movie actor or picture, though they’ve also taken money from shoe manufacturers, publishers, distillers and the diamond industry. These independents are outnumbered by the publicity men and women (called “flacks” in the charming argot of Variety, the entertainment trade journal) who are under salary the year around to motion picture studios. These individuals are ordered by their bosses

not only to get the players’ monikers across to the public but, more importantly, to pound and pound the label of a film into the public ear until nearillness results. The theory is that the more the world knows about a production, its story, its making and its cast, the more it will rush to its local theatre and plunk down its admission money.

Strangely, this works. The tactics are obvious, but they keep the theatres full.

The classic example occurred recently.

Mr. David O. Selznick, an astute hombre who in the past has produced some superb pictures, created probably the most expensive turkey ever to reach the screen. At a cost of something like five million clams, he dreamed up a thing called “Duel in the Sun,” complete with a cast of eight honest-to-goodness stars, the wide open spaces in Technicolor and a lush icing of sex.

I haven’t Mr. Selznick’s words on the subject, but it is possible that (1) he realized “Duel” was no “Gone With the Wind,” and

(2) that he hankered to get his five millions back anyway. Therefore, each man, woman and child on his lot was instructed to sell the picture—and sell it good.

Words by the Million

BROTHER, they did. Perhaps the only persons alive today who haven’t heard of this epic are the monks at Shangri-la. And word is on its way to them by flying saucer.

The advertising, exploitation and publicity campaign on “Duel” cost, according to the studio, two millions. Discounting the gusto of the Selznick stable, it is safe to say that it cost at least a million. For the official list of what went where only starts with the following: 94,375 words were written on general publicity items to be planted in newspapers; a million words were sent to the home-town newspapers of persons working in the film, a radio letter was mailed weekly to 1,154 stations; a news letter was mailed weekly to 800 newspapers and columnists; 400,000 words were used in special stories to trade journals; 700 industrial house organs received monthly stories; OO-plus stories appeared in national magazines; 20 seven-minute interviews with personalities wore recorded and sent to 288 radio stations; every fan magazine published stories and pictures from “Duel”; and every writer in Hollywood was wined, dined, and generally fawned on.

These things are more or less usual to the Hollywood flacks. These are the fields they try to hit first. But the Selznick boys considered them only the beginning.

For months during the spring of 1946, for instance, four glamour girls, led by Anita Colby, toured the country, beamingly visiting newspapers, radio stations, etc., in every major city in America, plugging the picture like mad. Duel in the Sun slickers were distributed in schools, public build-

ings, and stuck onto every piece of mail emanating from the Selznick offices. (One was even planted in a ladies’ room at Universal-International, a rival studio!) There were blondes with “Duel in the Sun” printed on them by the action of the sun on their bare skins. There were “Duel” crossword puzzles, “Duel” pencils (sent to columnists as a gentle hint), “Duel” fashions and nail jMilish, “Duel” telephone pads, gin rummy pads, matches, lollipops, ash trays, postcards, T-shirts and so on and on.

Mr. Selznick was not through, however. For when, after the press preview, he and his minions read the not overly enthusiastic reviews, something further had to be done. So, instead of letting the word get around slowly and perhaps do unpleasant things at the box office, he conceived the idea of opening “Duel” simultaneously in three or four theatres in each city. This was new and different and, from Mr. Seiznick’s standpoint, it worked.

Ill-Fame Pays Off

MEANWHILE, incidentally, the picture had received more notoriety from an unexpected source. For, acting on advance reports, the Legion of Decency requested that Catholics in the United States stay away from the film until

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They Go Cruzy - in Technicolor

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it got an official rating. The organization took approximately 30 days to make up its mind on the epic’s suitability, during which time it ran at several theatres in Los Angeles and reams of free newspaper space were acquired by Mr. Selznick. At the end of that period, The Legion intimated that it would ban the production as far as Catholics were concerned if certain scenes were not deleted. And, not wishing the ban, naturally, David 0. and his cohorts got out the shears and went to work, after which “Duel” was given a “B” classification by the Legion. (So was “The Best Years of Our Lives,” by the way.)

1 was, to some degree, on the receiving end of this whooping and hollering, as were all Hollywood writers. And I am constantly on the receiving end of other war dances like it.

For weeks before the release of “It’s a Wonderful Life” I received an almost daily box of matches from the Capra unit, each packet bearing the title of the production, the theory being, evidently, that I got around and would leave them in conspicuous spots. Just before “The Razor’s Edge” came out, á silver pin in the form of the symbol used by Maugham on the original book’s cover appeared one day in the mail. It was very good-looking; the only trouble was that it was so made that one had to wear it upside down. One company recently gave a piece of desert land to each of a hundred correspondents, to plug a movie about the Wild West. RKO studios have just begun a gag which is, for once, intelligent: they send the book on

which a new picture is based to the writers before the film version hits the theatres.

Oh Boy! Real “News”

The one thing that most gladdens the heart of a publicity man is when a gag gets into the papers as a straight news story, especially when the name of the film is included.

There was the painting of dissolute “Dorian Grey’s” portrait by the famous Albright brothers. That hit the biggest news-picture magazines and so did the name of the production. There was the shot of Agnes Moorhead made up to look 105 which you may have seen in picture magazines. The lady will wear the plastering job in her new opus for Universal-International, “The Lost Moment.”

Perhaps the greatest of these legitimate-not-legitimate breaks happened only a short time ago. A Mrs. Bradford Washburn hit the front pages across the land as the first woman to climb Mt. McKinley. There were shots of her and her husband braving the storm, shots of their trail up the peak, and shots of them smiling triumphantly at the uppermost point. (Where the photographer was standing remains a mystery to this day.)

The news stories stated that Mr. and Mrs. Washburn were sent on the expedition by the New England Museum of Natural History. The trip was called “Operation White Tower” and was all very scientific. And it was. Olí, yes, it was. But it also was that RKO was about to shoot a film called “White Tower” which dealt with mountain climbing and that the studio handed the museum approximately $25,000 to go on with its “research.” Catch?

The only unfortunate part of this

was that the picture was subsequently postponed for at least a year.

There are other ways to keep a picture’s name in print: Edward Small, for instance, has made the columns on a projected “Life of Rudolph Valentino” for over a year now by testing everyone but the attendant in the Paramount parking lot for the lead role. Selznick did the same with his search for Scarlett O’Hara, Zanuck did it with who should play Amber, and MGM did it trying to find Jody for “The Yearling.” It’s an old gag but it always works.

Trips to Wonderland

And there are the junkets. Warners is king bee in this department. • They toted 50 top correspondents in plushlined luxury to Santa Fe for “Santa Fe Trail,” to Virginia City for that film, toSouth Bend for “Knute Rockne, AllAmerican,” and, with no thought to their digestions, they put 150 of them on board the S. S. America and ferried them to San Francisco for “The Sea Wolf.”

This is rougher on the correspondents than you would imagine. Usually, you see, such goings-on denote immediately to the veteran reporter that the picture is an unhallowed stinker or they wouldn’t have to sell it so hard. Since this is usually true, the writers not only have to sit through it but, because they have laughed and played at the expense of the studio, must dream up a review which doesn’t condemn the piece entirely. This is not exactly buying the press, you understand, but it’s about as close to it as you can get.

There are stunts which Hollywood remembers with affection, which really were press-agent miracles.

MGM wanted to publicize “Leo the Lion” as its trademark. So they hired Roscoe Turner, the great flying ace, to transport the big cat across the country. Suddenly, the wires began to hum. Turner and the beast had crashed in the wilds of New Mexico and the lion was loose. The news desks on papers across the nation began to prick up their ears as rescue parties were organized, scientists were consulted on the best way to find and trap Friend Leo, and other planes set off in search of the pair. Day after day, the world waited for information on the man and the monster.

Was it on the level? What do you think?

My own favorite story concerns a man whom I have, unfortunately, never met. I wish I had. He was one of the old-timers, a tall, cadaverouslooking, hook-nosed gentleman named Tom Reed, and he must have been wonderful.

"They Taught Me Treason”

In view of the large number of requests for extra copies of John Hladun’s "They Taught Me Treason” (Maclean's Magazine, Oct. 1, Oct. 15, Nov. 1), the three articles of the series have been reprinted in pamphlet form and are now available at cost.

Prices, postage included, are:

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On intermediate quantities, prices wall he quoted on request. All orders and enquiries should be addressed to Room 24, Maclean’s Magazine, 481 University Avenue, Toronto.

It seems Mr. Reed was having trouble getting space on a film titled “Sherlock Holmes.” He had done everything he could think of, but there still weren’t many clippings to show.

Then, just before the release date, things took a turn for the better. A woman was killed in a bungalow across town. As the story was breaking in the evening papers, the police received a phone call. “There’s a strange man prowling around that murder house,” an anonymous voice said. “Maybe you’d better check on him.”

The police checked. They discovered a tall, cadaverous, hook-nosed gentleman, decked out in a plaid, twinbrimmed cap with the sides tied up, crawling slowly around the lawn of the place on his hands and knees, his eyes fixed steadily on spots on the ground directly under a magnifying glass he held in his right hand. He was occasionally muttering to himself, and when they asked him who he was he drew himself up and replied, with enormous dignity, “I am Sherlock Holmes.” Well, nobody could prove that he

wasn't, so they took him down to headquarters for a hit of questioning. When interrogated, he said he was investigating the crime, natch. He was finding the murderer for the stupid police, as he had always done.

By midnight the entire police force was sweating. ” Was he Sherlock Holmes? He looked the part. Had there really been a character on whom Doyle based his stories? Maybe. And, if not, who was this guy and what could they charge him with? He hadn’t done anything criminal: if anything he was just a little loony. And every paper in town had the facte so what should they do now?

Finally, Mr. Reed—for such it was, of course-put them out of their misery. When he had safely seen the reporters off to nearby telephones, he smiled sweetly, divulged his identity, and handed every cop in sight a pass to the opening of the great epic, “Sherlock Holmes.”

Then he went home to bed, conscious that he had done a good day’s work. ★