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Working the First-Run Market - SELLING MILDRED PIERCE : A CASE STUDY IN MOVIE PROMOTION, Mary Beth Haralovich

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With the financial stakes and profit potential going up with each wartime release, and with the 1940 consent decree spurring a move to unit sales, the studios steadily adjusted both their market strategies and their marketing operations. Variety reported in September 1942 that the majors were increasing their “exploitation” budgets by 25 percent that year, and in April 1943 Advertising Age noted that overall motion picture advertising in all media—radio, newspapers, magazines—was up 10 percent. 69 Newspapers continued to be the primary means of movie advertising and promotion, although radio became increasingly popular during the war. Spot radio ad campaigns pushed individual pictures in specific first-run markets, and radio adaptations of top releases became a viable promotional strategy as well.

With its reduced output, increased emphasis on top product, and single-unit sales policy, it is scarcely surprising that Warners was the most aggressive in its promotion and advertising. 70 The other majors followed suit in 1943 as they, too, shifted to unit sales. The last to come around was MGM, which in 1943 still was selling groups of eight to twelve pictures. (MRS.MINIVER was the only picture Loew’s sold singly in the early war years.) Metro had little choice but to adjust, however, since the trend toward longer runs and holdovers virtually demanded that pictures be marketed individually.

Most of Warners’ efforts to promote its top features involved product tie-ins, which effectively sold the film while creating (or enhancing) the story property’s currency in other media venues. During a single month in 1943, for instance, Warners featured condensed radio versions of seven releases, including YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), Now, VOYAGER (1942), and CASABLANCA (1942). 71 For an early 1944 biopic, THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN , Warners came up with five 15-minute programs to promote the picture on 200 network radio stations.

The war boom also brought an increased emphasis on presold story properties, especially best-selling novels and hit plays. Relying on presold properties had a long history in the movie industry, of course, but the trend took a slightly different turn during the war, when presold stories were generally perceived as one means (like the use of Technicolor) of offsetting the loss of top male stars. 73 Here again, Warner Bros. led the way, and its success in securing presold properties was due largely to its willingness to make participation deals with authors and playwrights. This practice generally was avoided by the other studios, particularly MGM and Paramount, and for good reason. 74 Warners’ deal with George M. Cohan for YANKEE DOODLE DANDY , for instance, paid Cohan $125,000 up front plus 10 percent of the gross revenues over $1.5 million, which turned out to be another $320,000. 75 But Warners was satisfied with such arrangements and continued to cut participation deals throughout the war.

The significant increase in book sales early in the war skewed the presold story market toward literary properties. The studios stocked up on successful titles, setting a record in February 1942 for number of story buys in a single month (65). War stories dominated, especially nonfiction accounts of combat like Guadalcanal Diary (1942) and They Were Expendable (1942). 76 Several popular religious novels in 1942-1943—notably The Robe, The Song of Bernadette , and The Keys of the Kingdom —also were bought by Hollywood for hefty sums.

One rather remarkable development which spoke volumes about the wartime fiction market, the movie industry’s reliance on pre-sold properties, and the complex relationship between publishing and moviemaking involved MGM’s 1943 hit THE HUMAN COMEDY . The novelist-screenwriter William Saroyan sold the story to MGM in early 1942, but disagreements over the script led Saroyan to withdraw his story and turn it into a novel instead of a film. A saccharine comedy-drama about life in small-town, wartime America, The Human Comedy (1943) was an immediate best-seller. That brought MGM back into the picture, and in March 1943 the film version was released. Aptly described by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times as “sentimental showman-ship,” the film was even more successful commercially than the novel and brought Saroyan an Academy Award for his “original” story.

Another significant promotional trend was the boom in low-priced book editions with direct tie-ins to motion pictures, a strategy that developed along several different lines. Warners had an arrangement with Grosset & Dunlap to sell low-cost paperbacks based on original screen stories—a practice that dated back to the 1930s but really took off during the war with successful “adaptations” like SERGEANT YORK and AIR FORCE . Pocket Books had a similar arrangement with MGM; its 25-cent edition of MRS.MINIVER sold 550,000 copies within a year of the film’s release. There were other types of cooperative ventures between publishers and studios, with film adaptations often turning moderately successful novels into best-sellers. Kings Row by Henry Bellamann, for example, had sold a respectable 30,000 copies before Warners’ adaptation came out in December 1941; in the ensuing year, it sold 500,000.

Another publishing tie-in which boosted the value of the print work was the serialization in newspapers of stories timed to coincide with a film’s release. MGM serialized some thirty-five films in 1942, for instance, usually either in six-chapter versions in daily newspapers or three-chapter versions in weeklies. Among Metro’s releases concurrently serialized were popular adaptations like RANDOM HARVEST (1942), based on the James Hilton story, THE HUMAN COMEDY (1943), and THE MOON IS DOWN an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s story which already had appeared as both a play and a novel.

By late 1943, the trend was shifting to popular stage hits. A key trendsetter was Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army , a 1942 Broadway hit which Warners in 1943 adapted into a phenomenally successful movie musical. 81 Variety in early 1944 noted the growing controversy and exhibitor dissatisfaction with “war-themed material,” especially combat-related stories, and suggested that the studios were turning to stage hits “because Broadway offered more escapist material than the book marts,” which many felt “were following the news headlines too closely for screen-purpose comfort.” 82 The trend to stage adaptations intensified in 1944, a record year for Broadway—and for playwrights cutting motion picture deals. 83 One indication of the feeding frenzy was the reported asking price of $3 million for John Van Druten’s three-character comedy hit Voice of the Turtle (1943). 84 Warner Bros., which led all companies in play purchases in 1944 (spending $1,650,000 on seven stage hits), eventually bought the rights to Van Druten’s play for $500,000, the same price it paid that year for Clarence Day’s Life with Father (1935; dramatized 1939).

This Broadway-to-Hollywood trend eased considerably in 1945 as plays were deemed overpriced and too many playwrights were demanding percentage deals. Thus, the pendulum swung back to fiction; in early 1945, for instance, the independent star-producer James Cagney paid a record $250,000 for Adria Locke Langley’s novel A Lion Is in the Streets (1945). 86 Variety noted the “growing feeling that published works are generally better source material for the studios than plays,” and it later reported that the screen rights to novels with over $1 million in sales could be bought for as little as $ 100,000. 87 Variety also noted that Broadway in 1945 was suffering through its second straight season of musical flops.

While stage musicals were falling on hard times in the later war years, the music and recording industries were doing record business. Indeed, another of Hollywood’s key wartime marketing strategies involved tie-ins with popular music. Considering the importance of popular music during World War II, with live performances, concerts, recordings, jukebox, and radio plays providing vital amusement for soldiers and civilians alike, music provided Hollywood with a viable presold commodity. Big-name bandleaders like Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Spike Jones, and Guy Lombardo were signed (along with their bands) to studio contracts and worked into pictures. 89 Radio and recording stars like Bing Crosby and the newcomer Frank Sinatra enjoyed unprecedented crossover success. And songwriters enjoyed a boom as well, with sheet-music sales—particularly of songs featured in motion pictures—reaching record heights.

Audience research played an increasingly important role in Hollywood’s cultivation of the volatile, high-stakes wartime marketplace. Gallup’s Audience Research Institute remained the industry’s leading market research firm, and in fact ARI hit its stride during the war. The company began referring to itself as Audience Research “Incorporated” in 1942, and in 1943 Gallup made an important change in ARI’s management, replacing David Ogilvy as executive vice president with Albert Sindlinger, who had an extensive background in movie distribution and promotion. ARI’s chief clients were still RKO and leading independents like Selznick, Goldwyn, and Disney, but the company also began doing business with other studios and producers as well.

ARI’s primary product was still its assessment of the drawing power of Hollywood’s top stars, the “Audit of Marquee Values,” which it updated every three months. ARI steadily refined its testing of story, casting, and title ideas. By 1942, its surveys were broken down along various lines: male versus female respondents; size of community (over 100,000, between 10,000 and 100,000, under 10,000); frequency of attendance (habitual versus occasional); income level (prosperous, upper-middle, middle, poor); and age (age 12-17, age 18—30, age 31 and older). 92 ARI also refined its "Index of Publicity Penetration " during the war and developed a “jury preview system,” which provided far more detailed data on audience response than were generated by traditional studio previews. Clearly ARI’s market research was making great strides and becoming increasingly comprehensive. As Shannon James Kelley notes, during the war "the ARI’s research program took on a sort of all-inclusive logical closure in regard to ‘the average “A” picture’ and its audience."

Whatever its claims to scientific validity and predictive reliability, market research in the movie industry was barely out of its infancy and was still far from reliable. Moreover, Hollywood producers and studio executives were not about to put a higher stake in researchers’ figures than in their own talent, taste, and intuition. And yet as the economic stakes went up, the marketplace grew more complex, and research methods were steadily refined, market research became an unavoidable if troublesome and costly necessity.

While the studios pursued innovations in marketing and promotion, they continued to rely on established practices as well. Developed along with the vertically integrated industrial system, these practices included a range of promotional tactics, from movie previews (“trailers”) shown in theaters to posters and print ads in newspapers and magazines and exploitation stunts in local communities. The vast majority of the studios’ efforts and expenditures in their sales campaigns for individual films went toward newspaper ads. In 1945, according to the Film Daily Year Bsook , $52 million of the total industry expenditure of $63 million went to newspaper advertising. 94 The print ad campaign for each film and the national sales campaign were planned in detail in each studio’s New York office, and these plans were contained in the “pressbook” which accompanied each studio release. As Mary Beth Haralovich shows in the following section, pressbooks provided a veritable blueprint for a film’s national sales campaign, and they also reveal a great deal about the industry’s perceptions of its products and its audience.

SELLING MILDRED PIERCE : A CASE STUDY IN MOVIE PROMOTION

Mary Beth Haralovich

Throughout Hollywood’s classical era, every studio release was accompanied by a press-book, an oversized and glossy booklet which outlined the film’s national sales campaign and contained basic materials crucial to that campaign. Pressbooks included two types of material: advertising (primarily mats used for newspaper ads) and publicity (stories and exploitation ideas). Advertising was designed to engage the potential moviegoer’s interest in the film’s story by stressing genre, the conjunctures of star and character, narrative suspense, and the special qualities of a film, such as its adaptation from a popular novel. Publicity presented a film in more detail through prepared reviews, and it also extended beyond the film itself through production stories and stills, merchandising tieins, praise for the studio’s expertise, suggestions for exploitation stunts, and so on.

Generally speaking, sales campaigns for individual films began in Hollywood and were completed in New York. The sales and promotional campaign for a film was initiated in discussions between advertising personnel and the producer prior to shooting. During production, staff publicists wrote synopses of the plot and created stories about production events and stars, planting these items in newspapers during production. Syndicated columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, as well as feature writers across the country, were fed information about the film and its stars. As shooting drew to a close, studio photographers took production stills and poster-art photographs, which were used by staff artists to create posters and advertising illustrations. Unlike frame enlargements from the film, poster-art stills guaranteed frontal positioning and concentrated on the performers’ faces and bodies.

Distribution of films and advertising was conducted out of the New York office, where staff assembled promotional materials and distributed pressbooks and advertising packages to trade papers, magazines, and theaters. Individual exhibitors were given considerable latitude in handling advertising materials and were encouraged to do more on their own to stimulate local interest in the film. Some theaters had staff artists who modified posters and pressbook materials to suit the local environment and the exhibitor’s specific ideas. Each issue of the Motion Picture Herald also provided advice for theater owners on advertising layouts and publicity stunts.

Pressbooks invariably opened with a call for exhibitor confidence in the studio’s box-office track record, its resources for a national campaign, and its promotional expertise. This appeal was most pronounced with A-class star vehicles and prestige-level films. The pressbook for MILDRED PIERCE (1945) reminds exhibitors about the “full page ads appearing regularly in leading national magazines” for other Warner Bros. films, from CASABLANCA (1942) and THIS IS THE ARMY (1943) to current releases like OBJECTIVE BURMA (1945) and RHAPSODY IN BLUE (1945). The pressbook also lists the magazines in which the ads appear, including Life, Look, Collier’s, Time, Fortune, Redbook, Liberty, Cosmopolitan, Parents, Newsweek, Harper’s, American Legion , and Foreign Service .

Poster art was crucial to ad campaigns, and in fact newspaper advertising based on posters was a primary use (if not the use) of pressbook materials. Pressbooks offered posters in a range of sizes: the familiar one-sheet, larger three- and six-sheets, a gargantuan twenty-four-sheet. Also, variations on the posters were offered in the form of lobby cards, slides, mats in various sizes, and more. Poster ads transmitted the essential attributes of the film, generating viewer expectations and forming what Barbara Klinger has termed “a tentative contract between producer and consumer.” Posters identified the genre of the film and placed its stars/characters at a point of narrative suspense. Poster graphics often linked head shots of stars/characters to each other and to a central narrative enigma through glances and tag lines.

A new “maturity” and sexual explicitness introduced in films like THE OUTLAW , as well as the pinup, a prevalent wartime phenomenon, resulted in posters that often displayed much more than head shots, especially during the early-to-mid-1940s. During World War II, the pinup brought a new dimension to poster art, marking a radical change in the presentation of women in movie advertising from the more wholesome, more fully clad, and less overtly sexual depiction in 1930s film posters. This change caused a bit of a stir within the industry’s Advertising Advisory Council (AAC), whose task was to approve (and thus regulate) all film advertising. Created in the 1930s as part of the MPPDA’s self-regulation effort, the AAC developed and continually refined its own Advertising Code, which underwent considerable revision in the 1940s.

Pressbooks also contained an official billing chart of the cast and top production personnel. This chart tacitly announced the status of these individuals in that the value of each was measured against a common standard: the type size of the title of the film. The names of a film’s stars would appear in type size of 50 to 100 percent of the title type size, with top stars invariably appearing “above the title” and in the same type size. Lesser stars and featured players appeared below the title in increasingly smaller type. For prestige-level pictures involving top producers and directors, a type size of 25 percent of the title size was not uncommon. However, type size for other above-the-line talent, while included, could be minuscule; the names of writers and composers often appeared at less than 5 percent of the title size. While these credits were small but legible on posters and in the larger newspaper ads (that appeared on a film’s opening day), they were dropped in smaller newspaper ads.

While film advertising was designed for potential ticket buyers and keyed to story, genre, characters, and performers, publicity was designed to “linger” over a film and to treat its personnel and production in a much wider context. While advertising centered on a few well-chosen elements, prepared reviews and stories could elaborate on a film’s narrative and commend the cast and other studio personnel for their work on the production. Performance stories could discuss an actor’s interpretation of a role or the studio’s efforts to build a new star, or they could alert the industry to an Oscar-level performance. The assessment of production values and summary of the story also provided reviewers with basic information, while prompting positive reviews of the film.

Production stories played a complex role in the publicity process. In circulation to the public through newspapers, gossip columns, fan magazines, and so on, these stories illustrated the high level of expertise involved in the production of a film. In circulation to the industry, they gave the studio an opportunity to boast about its excellence and to establish industrial expectations about its products. Rather than maintaining the invisibility of the production process, production stories identified personnel and how they worked, discussing the filmmaking activities and atmosphere in some detail. Thus, these stories assumed an audience interested in and knowledgeable about the production process. As they promoted the film, the stories also served as a means of self-pro-motion within the industry and of bolstering exhibitor confidence.

Another important form of publicity was the product tie-in, defined by Maria LaPlace as “the display of products in films and of stars in product advertisements.” Tie-ins might push specific name-brand products, but they also involved generic statements about fashion and commodities. Moreover, they predominantly were aimed at women. As Maria LaPlace points out, “The main industries involved in tie-ins…are all aimed at female consumers: fashion, cosmetics, home furnishings and appliances.” In tie-in publicity, a film’s actors tended to function simply as models displaying products rather than as people making genuine use of the merchandise. Pressbooks offered premade tie-in stills for display in local shops and also asked exhibitors to develop additional tieins with local merchants. While film costumes were not duplicated for the retail market, fashion played an important and complex role in film promotion.

The exploitation section of the pressbook suggested stunts and “ballys” (as in “ballyhoo”) to local exhibitors to supplement the studio’s advertising and publicity campaign. Designed to grab immediate attention, exploitation often involved amusing and boisterous antics, and unlike the print-oriented ad and publicity campaigns, exploitation could take place inside and outside the theater.

As even this general treatment of movie pressbooks suggests, the studios adopted complex and varied strategies for advertising and publicizing individual films. To indicate the nature and range of these strategies, what follows is a more detailed look at the pressbook and general advertising and promotion campaign of a single film, Warners’ 1945 release MILDRED PIERCE .

MILDRED PIERCE was an A-class Warners production starring the newly signed Joan Crawford as the title character and adapted from the recent, controversial best-seller by James M. Cain. The film is an interesting blend 0f film noir -style crime thriller and domestic melodrama, and a brief plot synopsis is necessary to fully appreciate Warners’ efforts to market and promote the film. MILDRED PIERCE opens with the murder of a suave, middle-aged man (Zachary Scott) whose dying word is “Mildred.” The scene is photographed from the point of view of the killer, who thus is not revealed to the audience; the rest of the film involves the search—mainly through extended flashbacks—to identify the murderer. These flashbacks trace the separation of Mildred from her husband Bruce, her obsessive devotion to her thankless daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), her partnership in a successful string of restaurants with the lecherous Wally (Jack Carson), and her eventual marriage to Monty Barrigan, the murder victim. Although Mildred initially confesses to the crime, the film ends with two dramatic revelations: that Veda had been carrying on an affair with her stepfather, and that she killed him when he spurned her for Mildred.

Released in September 1945 within weeks of V-J Day, MILDRED PIERCE , was accompanied by a lush pressbook with a twelve-page advertising section and a fourteen-page publicity section. The pressbook presents the film as a prestige production in the tradition of other Warners hits and pledges national visibility through an aggressive magazine advertising campaign. “It is in this way the public is being told of the Warner way … the American way of motion picture making.” Crawford, in her first screen role since leaving MGM in 1943, is accorded the attentive treatment of a star and a valued performer, and the production is lauded as an exemplar of studio craft and expertise.

The advertising for MILDRED PIERCE centers, of course, on the title character, who is presented as a film noir femme fatale . Interestingly enough, a primary image used in the ad mats is a drawing which dominates the cover of the pressbook: a figure of a woman who is not immediately recognizable as Joan Crawford. She stands in long shot wearing a low-cut gown, holding a smoking gun in one hand and clutching a drapery with the other, and staring directly at the spectator. The tag line accompanying the image and appearing in most of the advertising mats asserts: “She’s the kind of woman men want…but shouldn’t have!” In the mats which have a clearly recognizable image of Crawford, the star is integrated into the film noir -style murder mystery—the primary means of engaging audience interest—with tag lines such as: “She knew there was trouble coming—trouble she made for herself—a love affair—and a loaded gun.…She had no right playing around with either!”

Through this focus on film noir and the dominance of the title character, Mildred is assigned direct responsibility for aggressive sexuality and for violence. While not precisely faithful to the film, this ad strategy was efficient and effective since it promoted the title of the film and emphasized the lead character (and star) rather than the secondary character of Mildred’s daughter, Veda. In both the novel and the film, Veda may have had the more obvious femme fatale status and the greater narrative agency (as an adulteress and also as the murderer being sought by the police). But her name was not tied to the title, nor was the actress playing Veda, the relative newcomer Ann Blyth, likely to appeal to potential moviegoers.

Three actors are allocated type size equal to the title: Crawford, Jack Carson, and Zachary Scott. Crawford’s name appears first and occasionally above the title; also, her full name shares type size with only the last names of the two male costars. Poster graphics situate the two men in relation to Mildred and film noir , as do their respective tag lines. On Zachary Scott/Monty: “He’d rather die than double-cross her…so he did both!” On Jack Carson/Wally: “Mildred!…she had more to offer a man in a glance than most women give in a lifetime!”

This billing and ad strategy sustained the film noir murder mystery and Mildred’s femme fatale concentration, qualities further reinforced by a small box containing an appeal to the film’s entertainment value as suspense: “Please don’t tell anyone what she did! We know our patrons will thank us if no one is seated during the last 7 minutes. No One Seated During Last Seven Minutes!” This promise of thrills is reinforced by the ubiquitous reminders that MILDRED PIERCE is adapted from Cain’s sensational novel. Many of the mats contain a small drawing of the novel lying open with steam rising from its pages and tag lines like “From the daring book by James M. Cain!” or, “From that sizzling best-seller.”

While advertising concentrates on story and stars, it also contains production credits. The MILDRED PIERCE ad mats are peppered with studio name recognition, such as “Warner sensation!” and “Warner hit!” The names of the producer Jerry Wald and the director Michael Curtiz, two of the studio’s leading talents, are accorded 25 percent of the title type size—while the screenwriter Ranald MacDougall and the composer Max Steiner are at 3 percent and the novelist Cain at a mere 2 percent. The prepared reviews also praise Wald and Curtiz. The former is described as “Hollywood’s most aggressive young movie-maker,” and the latter as an “infallible” director and an “Academy Award winner” (for CASABLANCA ) who is “liked as well as admired by the people who work for him.”

Just as the advertising material focuses on Crawford’s title character, the main focus of the publicity material is on Joan Crawford the actress and star. MILDRED PIERCE was termed “the high-water mark in the career of one of screenland’s most important ladies”; she “offers an unforgettable, intensely human characterization.” And beyond the repeated accolades for her performance, the pressbook stresses that the depth of portrayal was born of human experience as well as professional acumen. 100 In this sense, the pressbook’s publicity treatment of Crawford shifts the genre focus from the film noir angle to that of the woman’s film and motherhood. Stories highlight her experiences—as a woman, mother, and actress—that provide the basis for her “truthful” interpretation of Mildred. The mother, not the femme fatale , is privileged here, providing the primary motivations for her character. “Miss Crawford is the sacrificing, doubt-ridden, incorruptible Mildred Pierce, squaring off against the world, true to what she conceives to be a duty to her daughter, for whom she unflinchingly undergoes every privation.” Crawford, asserts the pressbook, brings “a remarkable knowledge of the inner workings of the mind and heart of a woman for whom life has gone bitterly wrong at every turn.”

Only one story in the pressbook, “Actress’ Rise to Stardom Was Difficult Journey for Crawford,” makes reference to the star’s departure from MGM—the result, supposedly, of Crawford’s refusal “to accept further roles which she considered trite.” And even the history of the star is given a slant which brings it in line with the film. Crawford, like Mildred, “came up the hard way, earning her success.” In presenting Crawford’s career as an ongoing process of hard work and overcoming obstacles, the star image contributes to her interpretation of Mildred and justifies Warners’ expertise in finding a role worthy of Crawford at this point in her career.

The publicity related to merchandising and commercial tie-ins also focuses on Crawford. One story begins with a dual address as luxurious detail about the star’s costume invokes the pleasure of consumption as well as the realistic spectacle of the production itself. “Star ‘All Dressed To Kill’—Even Herself” treats the opening scene in which Mildred, alone on the Santa Monica pier (actually a studio set) seems to be contemplating suicide. It opens with a description of the “bright green wool dress [the film was shot in black and white], shoes with very high heels and big purse…fur cape-style coat with matching fur hat…the most expensive items of the wardrobe.”

Here and elsewhere, publicity about costumes in MILDRED PIERCE draws on three functions of costuming: the expectation that a Hollywood star will wear glamorous costumes; the role that costumes play in establishing character traits and a plausible story; and the value of costumes as a mark of the stature and prestige of the production. In its treatment of Crawford’s costumes, the pressbook highlights the studio’s drive for excellence and its achievement of both realism and glamour. But it also acknowledges that in some instances the narrative demands that glamour be subordinated to realism and dramatic clarity: “Joan Crawford usually has a wardrobe to make most women gasp with envy. For her present role, however, she had fourteen aprons and twenty-one house dress changes—a new kind of record for one of the screen’s most glamorous personalities.” Most of the product tie-ins are of the generic variety—including the quarter-page piece on men’s “dresswear,” “sportswear,” and the like.

The exploitation section of the pressbook concentrates on the adaptation of the Cain novel and “the film’s dramatic punch.” While the pressbook does not offer newspaper serialization of the novel, which was often done with adaptations, it does promote Tower Books’ “special 49¢ movie edition” of Mildred Pierce and points out that similar promotion will appear in Variety , the Hollywood Reporter , and the New York Times . Exhibitors are encouraged to tie in to this national campaign through lobby displays of Cain’s books, cooperative displays with local libraries and bookstores, and two specific stunts. One stunt is a quiz about movie adaptations involving "the fairer sex. " The other is a newspaper “best-seller-to-hit-movie contest” in which contestants identify other recent Warner Bros. adaptations.

The exploitation campaign designed to sell the film’s “title and drama” entailed “four attractive teaser ads” for newspapers, lobby displays, and “store windows and counters around town.” Like the ad mats, these stress Crawford’s femme noir status and underscore the mystery angle. One even invites patrons to sign a postcard stating: “I just saw ‘Mildred Pierce’ and I promise not to tell anyone what Mildred Pierce did.” In one radio spot announcement, a woman’s voice pleads: “You mustn’t tell them what you saw here tonight!…Please keep my secret!”

Local promotion for MILDRED PIERCE followed the pressbook’s general strategy fairly closely, although both the box-office success and critical accolades for the film were quickly incorporated as well. For example, in Los Angeles, where the film opened at three Warners theaters on Friday, 12 October 1945, each successive day of the preceding week incorporated some facet of the pressbook’s femme noir and suspense gambits, culminating on opening day with this pitch: “Today!!! Please don’t tell anyone what she did! ‘Even a woman like me can be hurt once too often!!!’ It’s all about that talked-about Mildred Pierce, Warner’s New Sensation. It’s That story! The sizzling best-seller by James M. Cain.”

Five days later, Los Angeles advertising was using quotes (“Raves!”) from reviews by Louella Parsons, Walter Winchell, and Edwin Shallert of the Los Angeles Times that extended beyond the mystery angle to embrace Crawford’s performance and to position MILDRED PIERCE as a woman’s picture. Two days later, after a full week in release in L.A., the ads began touting the film in terms of its box-office performance. On 26 October, the ads even began an ironic twist on the earlier campaign strategy: “We MUST tell you what ‘Mildred Pierce’ did!!! Broke every existing house record at Warners 3 First-Run Theatres! Earned the critical acclaim of every outstanding reviewer in the nation! Took L.A. by storm with one of the most unusual and engrossing pictures ever produced! Join the throngs!! See for yourself!!!” 103 When the film opened at the Balaban and Katz Roosevelt in Chicago in December, a similar pattern emerged, with the studio-designed promotional campaign augmented by testimony of the film’s popular and critical success in New York and Los Angeles.

One aspect of market conditions clearly avoided by the MILDRED PIERCE sales campaign, and by the film itself for that matter, was the war. As discussed in the following chapter, the film managed to convey a range of wartime conditions—working women, absent husbands, housing shortages—without directly invoking the war. In this sense, it was among the more subtle wartime dramas and in fact was more typical of films released toward the end of the war, when Hollywood had grown more adept at incorporating war themes into its feature films. Early on, however, the conversion to war production was decidedly more aggressive and overt, as Hollywood’s established stars and genres, indeed its vast filmmaking repertoire, were effectively retooled for the war effort.

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