Occasionally in Variety history a headline has totally upstaged the story it was supposed to highlight. That was the case with the paper’s famous “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” banner, which was blazoned across the July 17, 1935, issue.
Variety lore attributes the headline to the paper’s longtime editor Abel Green; the uninspired story was penned by George McCall, who was based in Hollywood.
The reporter did have the gumption to get out of the bicoastal mindset by sitting down with a visiting exhibitor from the Midwest, who fortunately had strong views on what worked and what didn’t in the country’s hinterland.
As Variety put it, the exhib’s visit was “an educational (sic) for producers who have regarded exhibition as a foreign language.”
The theater owner in question, one Joe Kinsky, ran the TriState chain of 77 moviehouses based in Davenport, Iowa, with his largest market in Omaha (pop. then 225,000).
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So what movies did the average American in the silo belt like to see during the deepest years of the Depression?
Well, as the headline succinctly put it, not movies about Ma and Pa Kettle, but pics about the uppercrust: Bumpkins flocked that year to “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “Monte Cristo.”
A theatrical roadshow about the Barretts starring Katharine Cornell a year earlier did its biggest business in Omaha.
But farmers, it seems, were just as unpredictable back then as moviegoers are today: They gave a thumbs-down to just about anything with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, but they loved George Arliss, Charlie Chan and “Ruggles of Red Gap.”
Perhaps most astutely, the exhibitor tried to remind Hollywood types about what really matters in moviemaking:
“Farmers,” he told Variety, “are not interested in farming pictures, but when a ‘State Fair’ comes along they pack the theaters. That picture would be a good story if the locale was a boiler factory. Stars are draws only when they appear in stories that are worthwhile.”