This post is more of a working notebook than anything else, but I knew of no better way to compile the info into one place. The idea for actually researching this was sparked the other night after I wrote my Bogie and Surfboards post though the basic thought has been with me since I mentioned the film Midnight Madonna (1937) in a post on my Warren William site and included the following IMDb trivia note:
One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since.
Note: This imdb.com exclusive Google Advanced Search is about the closest I've come to creating a list of those titles.
The Bogie post included mention of a Bosley Crowther article where he writes about the perception of seeing our older stars looking much younger in TV reruns of their classic movies. Add that to my Midnight Madonna curiosities and I was left wondering how TV got all those good old movies in the first place.
I had about 7 articles left on a New York Times 10-pack archives purchase and I blew through those last night largely chasing down the origins of WOR-TV's famed "Million Dollar Movie." I got a little further tonight when I remembered that Google has now archived most of the old issues of Billboard Magazine as well as other relevant mid-century titles featuring a lot of early TV coverage. But at the heart of every good search are the prime keywords and I feel I must be missing a few here. From "Million Dollar Movie" I drifted to other programming titles I found such as "The Late Show" (too generic for search), "Six-Gun Playhouse" (just TV listings), WOR-TV + movies in a date restricted search (information overload!) and more.
The other benefit of putting what I've found here is people who know better than I can contribute. After all my Dad (and apparently every Boomer on the net) recalls watching King Kong over and over on "Million Dollar Movie" almost to the point where I've come to believe the "King Kong Network" must have been it's own channel in the New York area! And while memories are awesome (please do share them in the comments!) maybe what I really need is a television historian or just someone with an extensive collection of TV Guides to fill in the gaps on what follows.
It seems that television was already saturated with old movies at the time that the 700-plus Paramount films were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958. I wanted to go earlier and see how that saturation occurred and while what follows is surely nowhere near completion hopefully it offers a general overview that can be filled in some as I run into more info down the line.
Poverty Row and Hopalong Cassidy
I have a hard time finding specific reference to feature films airing on television prior to the 1950's except for occasional references to films licensed to TV by poverty row companies such as Monogram and Republic. An article in the March 1948 issue of The Rotarian by Charles L. Sherman may best sum up the earliest television efforts at airing past Hollywood releases when he writes, "the movies are old chestnuts that only a squirrel would dig up. They are nearly all old 'westerns' and if you have seen one you've seen them all."
The reason for these slim pickings are directly related to the Supreme Court's 1948 Paramount Decision which was the beginning of the end to the Hollywood studio system in place throughout our beloved Golden Age of film. Anyway, the movie industry was hunkered down with this case and questions of monopoly delayed any deals tying the studios in with the television industry. Radio swooped in and formed affiliate relationships with the TV networks and effectively the best Hollywood product was kept off of the small screen until a little later in the 1950's. The small time studios could and did license their product, as did the British film industry, populating early TV with low budget Westerns and British movies including prestige work such as that of Alexander Korda.
*This page from filmreference.com is a mess, but if you scroll though the mixed-in Sidney Lumet references you'll actually find a pretty good summary of this. That article states an estimate of approximately 5,000 feature films having been available to television by 1950.
An interesting early TV story I found in the June 10, 1950 issue of Billboard Magazine told how Hopalong Cassidy movies first came to television in July 1948. The seeds were sown as far back as 1934 when Hoppy writer/creator Clarence E. Mulford had TV rights included in his Paramount contract. William Boyd, who, of course, played Hoppy, first saw the clause in 1938 and was later quoted as saying "I figured that he must have had something in mind." From the time of his discovery Boyd went about buying the actual films and reissue rights himself and then struck a deal with Mulford on TV rights which gave the writer half of all profits before taxes. An L.A. TV station paid $200 per movie to air them beginning in July 1948, the article notes that it's now showing the same films for the fifth time around at $1,000 per film.
A January 23, 1950 Times article announces that a new 15-minute series titled "Comedy Carnival" will air Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7 pm on WOR-TV (later the "Million Dollar Movie" station) and feature comedy shorts specially edited for television featuring the likes of Buter Keaton, Harry Langdon, Moran and Mack, Bob Hope, Bert Lahr, Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, Al St. John, the Ritz Brothers, plus others.
"Italian Film Theater" on WOR-TV beginning April 29, 1950
Billboard Magazine covers the deal between WOR-TV and Eberto Landi, Italian language advertising rep, in their April 22, 1950 issue. An interesting deal that involved cross promotion between the TV network and the local New York foreign-language theaters whereby the theaters would promote the coming TV airings and WOR-TV, who edited the films down to fit a one-hour time slot would tell viewers to catch the entire film uncut at their local theaters. The films aired Saturday afternoons, 5:30-6:30 pm, and were referred to as "top Italian-made feature films with English subtitles."
WOR-TV's "Italian Film Theater" is referenced over a year later when in the November 10, 1951 edition of Billboard it's reported that a new technique for displaying sub-titles will be used in the next broadcast. "Technique is said to eliminate distortion and cutting of sub-titles on a TV screen, via use of two perfectly synchronized projectors-a 35mm for the Italian film and a 16mm for the English sub-titles. Latter are superimposed on the screen."
Finally, I must think "Italian Film Theater" was on its way out at WOR-TV when I read "New Idea in Cliffhanging" in the August 22, 1953 edition of Billboard. In what's called an "unusual contest" it's reported that WOR-TV aired The Bridge of Sighs (1921, I suppose) "uncut, for an hour's run, but did not include the ending." Viewers were to write-in, in 35 words or less, how they'd like the movie to end with the best answers winning prizes. The following week WOR-TV will begin "Italian Film Theater" with the ending of The Bridge of Sighs, immediately followed by the next Italian film, sans ending as the contest repeats itself.
WOR-TV's "Million Dollar Movie"
WOR-TV's Million Dollar Movie was pre-dated by WPIX's purchase of a movie package from the Standard Television Company of Hollywood in 1952. Beginning September 17 of that year WPIX was to show the same film on weekday evenings from 7:30 to 9:00 pm with a new movie starting each Wednesday. The Times article by Sidney Lohman notes the quality: "According to WPIX, new laboratory prints on 35-mm film have been prepared on all the movies to achieve high fidelity sound and better picture quality, and will be shown full length as originally presented in theaters." The September 17, 1952 debut movie will be So Ends Our Night (1941), which last aired on TV two years earlier.
In January 1953 WOR-TV purchased rights to 35 films in two separate deals. Ten of the films were leased from TV Exploitation, titles were included but it's said they were made between 1947-1950 and feature stars such as Charles Ruggles, Peggy Ann Garner, Gene Raymond and Mischa Auer. The other deal was for 25 films of British origin, 1947-1951, with stars named as Michael Wilding, Clive Brook and Robert Morley.
Fun note from the October 23, 1954 issue of Billboard states that the films selected to be shown by WOR-TV during its "Million Dollar Movie" telecast are not random. The first "Million Dollar Movie" to be aired was Magic Town (1947) starring James Stewart and Jane Wyman. It was selected to coincide with promotion of the recent releases of Rear Window (1954) starring Stewart and Magnificent Obsession (1954) with Wyman. On a more playful note they've chosen The Senator Was Indiscreet (1947) to air the week of November 8, the date the senate reconvenes in deciding the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy!
The November 6, 1954 issue of Billboard Magazine reports that not only has WOR-TV decided to continue "Million Dollar Movie" indefinitely, but that they followed up the announcement by purchasing 56 additional titles from Eliot Hyman's Associated Artist's Productions. At the time of this article WOR-TV trailed only CBS and NBC in the New York television market having climbed to third place from sixth in the ratings with the inception of the popular "Millon Dollar Movie." Films named as acquired in the Hyman deal are Algiers (1938), The Winslow Boy (1948), So Young, So Bad (1950), The Long Dark Hall (1951), Pardon My French (1951), and Lucky Nick Cain (1951). It's said that only 20 of the 56 films will run as part of "Million Dollar Movie" (why, I don't know--quality issues, perhaps?) but that WOR-TV is pondering starting another film series during the weekday daylight hours which would use the other films.
*Also listed in the article as coming from the Associated Artists deal: Derby Day, Captain Blackjack, The Fighter, St. Benny the Dip, The Inspector Calls, Cure for Love, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, Heart of the Matter, Case of the Frightened Lady, Bells of St. Trinians, Duffy of San Quentin, The Groom Wore Spurs, Woman on the Run, Naked Heart, Four Sided Triangle, The Green Scarf, Golden Marie, Devil on Horseback, The Intruder, Eight O'Clock Walk, Front Page Story, Game of Danger, Behind the Headstone, Appointment in London, Babes in Bagdad, Forbidden, Happiest Days of Your Life, Lady With a Lamp, Speed Limited, Over the Rainbow.
There was a big deal in 1955 when General Teleradio, owners of "Million Dollar Movie" purveyor WOR-TV, sold 750 R.K.O. films to a Matthew Fox, owner of Motion Pictures for Television, Inc. and notably Skiatron, an early Pay-Per-View source, for $12 million. General Teleradio had purchased the films from R.K.O.-Radio Pictures in July 1955. While General Teleradio was awaiting union clearance from the American Federation of Musicians and the Screen Actors Guild before completing the sale to Fox, this was only thought a matter of formality as most of the films were made between 1935-1948 leaving them uncovered by the unions. Upon completion of the sale General Teleradio would retain the right to use all of the films on their own six stations plus retain first-run television rights on 150 of the films.
The July 1955 deal when General Teleradio originally acquired the films from R.K.O.-Radio Pictures for $25 million was referred to by Jack Gould of the New York Times as "another illustration of the unpredictable economics of television." The deal was made to bolster General Teleradio's "Million Dollar Movie" programming on WOR-TV which had become extremely popular viewing in the New York area. The "Million Dollar Movie" typically repeats the same film over WOR-TV as often as 16 times per week*. As to the exorbitant price paid by General Teleradio they expect it to wind up a bargain when they start racking up rental fees from other networks across the country.
*An August 25, 1956 article in Billboard Magazine notes WOR-TV's plans for Fall 1956, based largely around their RKO library purchase, calls for airing 30 different films per week in a total of 64 showings altogether.
Previous to the 1955 deal with R.K.O., General Teleradio had filled the "Million Dollar Movie" air time through purchase of a batch of 30 films held by the Bank of America at approximately $42,000 per film. According to General Teleradio at the time of this July 1955 article each of those 30 films had already profited an average of $28,000 per film through rental to 95 other TV stations. Thus the R.K.O. deal was not unprecedented for General Teleradio, who appeared to only be expanding on an already good thing.
Hmm, R.K.O., huh? Wonder if King Kong was among those 750 films that General Teleradio bought!
The Selznick Package
Apparently David O. Selznick was hawking his films to television for quite awhile, eventually settling for half of his original asking price. The Selznick Package of what's reported over the years to be between 10-12 films, not including Gone With the Wind (1939), is first mentioned in the December 29, 1951 issue of Billboard Magazine when a "WOR-TV Deal Is Near" for 12 films including Since You Went Away (1944), The Paradine Case (1947), Love Letters (1945) and Duel in the Sun (1946). Selznick was asking $2 million to cover four showings of the package over 2 years.
A deal was not to be completed until very late December 1955 when Selznick sold 11 films to National Telefilm Associates for what the January 9, 1956 edition of Time Magazine reported as $1 million. I could not find specific terms, but Time also adds Notorious (1946) and The Farmer's Daughter (1947) to the list of titles. The December 24, 1955 Billboard ups the money a little, saying terms undisclosed but reported to be over $100,000 per picture for a term of five years. Initial reports indicate NTA didn't originally plan to syndicate the Selznick films, but within a few months I see they are part of an overall 40-film "TNT" package being offered by NTA. WOR-TV bought rights to the 10 Selznick's only for a rumored $198,000 for future use in their "Million Dollar Movie" series (Billboard, February 25, 1956).
I'm definitely interested in hearing memories, facts, corrections, quotations, and more pertaining to Hollywood films released to and airing on television from about 1958 and earlier.