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In Barnum’s footsteps

In the pre-PMK era, stunt publicity and studio 'exploitation' were the norm

LONDON — While researching my new book on the stories of the “Sons of Barnum,” focusing on the movie publicists who first took control of the media and did as much to create the legend of Hollywood as any filmmaker or actor, I’ve been reminded just how mindboggling “moving pictures” actually were to the medium’s first generation of viewers.

Today the juggernaut of the junket rolls ceaselessly on, as one blockbuster after another is given “the treatment” in the media and sent forth to earn back (hopefully) the zillions it cost to produce.

But in the beginning there was everything to play for — it was virgin territory, no less, with a hungry public and a hungrier press, which saw in cinema a direct reflection of the American dream: a place where anything was possible, and good always triumphed over evil.

Let’s not be too nostalgic — the modern 21st-century battlefield for positive press is a far more sophisticated beast, but there will always be a need for creative inspiration to sell a movie.

The Reichenbach test

One of the most successful earliest exponents of movie publicity was Harry Reichenbach, who began his career perfecting the art of street ballyhoo. For instance, a struggling actor client of his was instructed to attend a meeting with a top agent by walking 20 blocks down to a Park Avenue office surreptitiously dropping coins on the sidewalk. By the time he arrived outside the agent’s window, the actor had gathered an enthusiastic crowd of followers, and, apparently already popular, was immediately signed up.

Reichenbach was a sophisticated, handsome, well-traveled individual with the sharpest of wits. As his career progressed, his personal charisma made his clients flock to hear his words of wis … ah, hang on … the only source of information about Reichenbach is the book “Phantom Fame,” an “as-told-by” Reichenbach to a writer who worked for him. That’s how to handle PR: Get people’s attention and stay mercilessly in control, even from beyond the grave.

A typical Reichenbach stunt was part of the promotion of a tricky film to market. In 1918, a top New York hotel — the Belleclaire — was asked if it would accept the booking of a suite for a Mr. Zann, a visiting concert pianist, who would also need to have his grand piano installed. No problem. His dietary needs also had to be met: A large quantity of raw meat was to be delivered every day. After a few days of meat delivery, a total absence of music and a disgusting smell wafting from under the door, the hotel decided enough was enough. So accompanied by tipped-off (and probably well-tipped) journalists, the management forced entry to the suite. Inside they found a healthy lion. Soon afterwards word “got out” that Zann’s initials were T.R. and the crowds that attended the showing of the first “Tarzan” movie testify to the stunt’s success.

With the rise of Hollywood in the 1920s, the movie business began selling the USA, its attitudes and values, all over the world. The studios employed offices full of supposedly creative and well-connected publicists to come up with ideas that might get into print or the newsreels. If you knew that Paul Muni was an extremely serious Russian classical actor with an impressive beard, you’d understand why Humphrey Bogart enjoyed his visits to Warner Bros.’ “Exploitation Department.”

“I like publicity,” insisted Bogie. “I like to watch it operate. When I was bored I used to drop into the publicity office and invent stories. I invented a story about Paul Muni’s beard to the effect that Muni had a beard room at his home, and that he left the window open and all the beards flew into the ocean. The story got printed.”

Mae West once made a movie called “It Ain’t No Sin,” and a nameless press agent hit upon the bright idea of claiming to be training 50 parrots to repeat the title of the film and appear at cinemas at the nationwide launch. All went well until the studio changed the name of the movie to “I’m No Angel” and threw a well-attended press conference at which execs admitted that the birds had had to be released back into the jungle. Of course! But Mae West’s new movie was well and truly on the map.

‘Horsepitality’ suite

My favorite story brings us into living memory, toward the end of publicist Marty Weiser’s 50 years with Warner Bros. In 1972, he had to promote the highly original Mel Brooks comedy “Blazing Saddles,” and he did it by staging the premiere at a drive-in movie theater and only inviting horses, but allowing them to bring along friends and riders. Los Angeles police had to escort over 250 four-legged “guests” down the freeway to get to the screening, where special “horsepitality” was in effect, featuring horses d’oeuvres.

Although it might be argued that the movie was good enough and Mel Brooks funny enough to make it on its own, the stunt proved a great success, and effectively put a rocket booster under the whole launch. However, even then it was a stunt of the kind few would have dared attempt for fear of failure and ridicule.

Today, while character and mischief still have a role to play, the spirit of audacity isn’t quite what it was. The sophistication of moviegoers, the struggle to be original and the fact that the audience is expecting something wacky makes it that much less cost-effective to deliver the kind of craziness Jim Moran used to sell. Another “Son of Barnum,” he was once arrested for attempting to fly midgets on kites over Central Park to promote a new restaurant. No, now it’s the business end of show business that must come first, leaving the show to get on as best it can.

Life and soul

So spare a thought, when you think of P.R. men and women, for the hapless Eddie Jaffey, a brave soul, not without wit, who approached Life magazine with photographs and the amazing news that the world’s most beautiful women were now being represented by the world’s ugliest press agent — Eddie Jaffey. After the briefest of discussions, the editorial team replied that, yes, he was the world’s ugliest press agent, but these were certainly not the world’s most beautiful women.

Take Henry Rogers, who told Look magazine that his new and unknown client had just won an award for being the Best Dressed Actress in the World; i.e., the U.S. She claimed to spend all of her $15,000 annual salary on clothes, so no wonder. When the magazine bit and wanted to see some photographs, Rogers somehow had to beg or borrow clothes that might look the part, since at the time his client, Rita Hayworth, had barely a stitch to her name. But he did it: In the space of a few days he wrangled enough haute couture to see that she appeared on the cover and on no fewer than nine inside pages — and duly became a star. She promptly sacked Rogers and switched to a publicist who didn’t know the truth.

Opportunism is the mother of the best spontaneous P.R. ideas. Vet publicist Julian Myers recalls a great stunt from his early career. In 1950, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, across the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theater, was persuaded by the studio publicists to black out all the letters on its neon sign except for “EVE.” It was for only one night, the premiere of “All About Eve.”

Peak of success

But it’s not always as subtle as that. Howard Hughes’ “The Outlaw,” starring the amply endowed Jane Russell (who once had twin peaks in Alaska named in her honor) immediately ran into trouble with the censors. A Maryland judge upheld his state’s ban on the film: “Her breasts,” he complained, “hung over the picture like a summer thunderstorm spread out over a landscape.”

Perhaps inspired by this remark (and just think how pleased he must have been to see it printed) the brilliant publicist Russell Birdwell (“Gone With the Wind”) later promoted the movie’s release by hiring skywriters to emblazon the skies of Southern California with a pair of enormous circles — with dots in the centers.

Happy birthday, Variety, and many happy returns.

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