April 16th, 2008

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A film revival Lombard lived to see

Perusing eBay listings of Carole Lombard-related memorabilia often leads to some interesting tangential information. Here's a splendid example.

Currently on eBay is an item referred to as a "herald," although it might also have served as a program. It's from the Alden Theater in Manhattan, on Broadway at 67th Street. The front looks like this:



Okay, so the Alden is showing "Brief Moment" (even if whomever put this together thought the film was actually titled "Brief Moments"). If you have some knowledge of Carole's career, you're aware that "Brief Moment," a Columbia release, came out in the fall of 1933 -- and judging from the dates listed, Jan. 1-2, this showing probably came late in the run, around New Year's of 1934, right?

Not so fast. Let's flip to the back:



The Dionne quintuplets -- one of the media sensations of the decade -- were born in 1934, but not until May 28. Need more proof? Turn to the other two pages:



In 1934, no one outside her family knew who Deanna Durbin was. Luise Rainer was unknown to American audiences.

Confused? You really shouldn't be. What we have here is an example of Golden Age film exhibition that tends to be forgotten by many movie buffs...the "subsequent-run" house. The Lombard film was actually shown on Jan. 1 and 2 of 1939! (Jan. 1, 1934 fell on a Monday.)

While most U.S. movie theaters of the 1930s were either huge downtown palaces such as the New York or Brooklyn Paramount or smaller neighborhood houses where films would go a few weeks later, some theaters -- especially in big cities -- provided specialized fare. Some houses showed foreign films, a few carried only newsreels, and a few, like the Alden, made their living by showing films some months -- or years -- after their original run. The term "revival house" had yet to be coined, and these weren't repertory theaters, such as the current Film Forum in New York City or the American Film Institute's Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Md. They were merely places to show older movies, invariably at bargain prices.

Keep in mind that in the 1930s, television was in its infancy and no real commercial tie-in between TV and the movie industry had yet been developed. Home video was a fantasy, and few if any reels of feature films were in the hands of the general public (and not that many owned projectors). So some exhibitors found showing older films to audiences who either missed them the first time around or who wanted to see them again could be lucrative. Studios discovered it was a source of ancillary profit.



Perhaps both Alden and Columbia believed it was a good time to reissue some Lombard product. Her last release, the lackluster "Fools For Scandal," had come out several months before, and "Made For Each Other" with James Stewart wouldn't be out until a bit later in the year. Throw in her romance with Clark Gable for good measure, and people wanted to see Carole in theaters -- even if she looked significantly younger and different. (The photo of Lombard used to advertise "Brief Moment" was of a more recent vintage.)

By this time, reissues were probably the biggest source of contention over censorship between the studios and the Hays office. Movies made before strict enforcement of the Production Code in mid-1934 underwent post-Code scrutiny; some were not allowed to be reissued because of their subject matter, while others underwent cuts to satisfy Joseph Breen. In several cases, the cut footage was not retained and is feared to be permanently lost.

The Alden, which only seated 600 despite having a balcony, has an intriguing history in itself. Founded in 1931, it was a subsequent-run house until the early 1950s, when TV began showing old films and the appeal of such theaters rapidly diminished. It reopened in the mid-sixties as a repertory house called the Regency; with the esteemed Frank Rowley as curator, the Regency's programs appealed to many classic film fans. By the eighties, with many revival houses struggling, the Regency evolved into a first-run facility that also showed art house fare.

The Regency's exterior was occasionally used as a scene setting on "Seinfeld" (though none of the actors were actually filmed on location), most notably in the classic episode "The Opposite," where Elaine's precipitious downfall begins when she buys Jujubes instead of hurrying to see her boyfriend, whom she learns has been hospitalized following an automobile accident.

Not long after "Seinfeld" left prime time, the Regency was itself canceled. Facing competition down the street from a new Lincoln Square megaplex, the new owners decided to close up shop in late 1998, and a Victoria's Secret store was built on the site. Ironically, it may soon be goodbye lingerie, hello computers: in December 2007, the New York Post reported the Victoria's Secret would close and be replaced by an Apple store.

Oh, and the herald? It can be found on eBay at http://cgi.ebay.com/CAROLE-LOMBARD-1930s-Movie-Herald-VEIDT-DURBIN-RAINER_W0QQitemZ120247131309QQihZ002QQcategoryZ60278QQssPageNameZWDVWQQrdZ1QQcmdZViewItem. Bidding lasts through Monday morning.
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