Picture

Source: Lillian Ross, Picture (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), pp. 151-153 [orig. pub. as five New Yorker magazine articles in 1952 and in book form the same year]

Text: I went in and sat down in the rear. When The Red Badge of Courage flashed on the screen, there was a gasp from the audience and a scattering of applause. As the showing went along, some of the preview-goers laughed at the right times, and some laughed at the wrong times, and some did not laugh at all. When John Dierkes, in the part of the Tall Soldier, and Royal Dano, in the part of the Tattered Man, played their death scenes, which had been much admired before, some people laughed and some murmured in horror. The audience at the private showing had been deeply and unanimously moved by the death scenes. There was no unanimity in the audience now. Several elderly ladies walked out. Now and then, there were irrelevant calls from the balcony; one masculine voice, obviously in the process of changing, called out, ‘Hooray for Red Skelton!’ Two or three babies cried. Men posted at the exits counted all departures. I could not see where Huston and Reinhardt were sitting. Across the aisle from me I could see L.B. Mayer, white-haired and bespectacled, sitting with his arms folded, looking fiercl blank-faced. Several M-G-M people nearby were watching him instead of the movie. During a particularly violent battle scene, Mayer turned to a lady sitting on his right and said, ‘That’s Huston for you.’ There was a slight stir in his vicinity, but Mayer said nothing more.

In the lobby, the Picwood manager, assisted by several M-G-M men, stood ready to hand out what are known as preview cards – questionnaires for the audience to fill out. The first question was: ‘How would you rate this picture?’ Five alternatives were offered: ‘Outstanding’, ‘Excellent’, ‘Very good’, ‘Good’ and ‘Fair’. Other questions were: ‘Whom did you like best in the picture?’ ‘Which scenes did you like the most?’ ‘Which scenes, if any, did you dislike?’ ‘Would you recommend this picture to your friends?’ Below the questions there was this additional request:

We don’t need to know your name, but we would like to know the following facts about you:

(A) Male.
Female.

(B) Please check your age group:
Between 12 and 17.
Between 18 and 30.
Between 31 and 45.
Over 45.

When the showing ended, the preview-goers milled about in the lobby, filling out the cards under the resentful surveillance of the men who had made the movie. Mayer walked out of the theatre and stood at the kerb out front, looking as though he would like to have somebody talk to him. Reinhardt and Huston went into the manager’s office, and sat down to await the verdict. Johnny Green, Margaret Booth, Bronislau Kaper, and Albert Band alternately watched the people filling out cards and Mayer. Most of the other executives had already departed. Benny Thau joined Mayer at the kerb. Mayer got into his town-and-county Chrysler, and his chauffeur drove him off. Benny Thau got into a black limousine and his chauffeur drive him off. Band went into the manager’s office. Huston and Reinhardt sat looking glumly at each other.

‘Did Mayer talk to anybody?’ Reinhardt asked.

Band reported that Mayer had talked to Benny Thau.

The manager came in and handed Reinhardt and Huston a batch of preview cards he had collected from the audience. Reinhardt read through them rapidly. Huston read some of the comments aloud. ‘”This would be a wonderful picture on television,”‘ he read. ‘”With all the money in Hollywood, why can’t you make some good pictures?”‘

‘Fair. Fair. Good. Fair,’ Band read. ‘Here’s one with Fair crossed out and Stinks substituted.’

‘Here’s an Excellent,’ Huston said.

‘No Outstandings yet,’ said Reinhardt. He was perspiring, and he looked grim. ‘Here’s a Lousy,’ he said.

‘The audience hated the picture,’ Band said.

Comments: Lillian Ross (1918-2017) was an American journalist, attached to The New Yorker from 1945 onwards. She wrote a series of articles on the production of the MGM feature film The Red Badge of Courage (USA 1951), directed by John Huston, which were turned into her classic book Picture. The film’s first preview, described here, was held at Picwood in Los Angeles, a cinema regularly used for testing audience reactions prior to a film’s release. Ross’s book documents other preview screenings that followed after re-edits in response to audience comment. People mentioned include MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, producer Gottfried Reinhardt, MGM vice-president Benny Thau, and screenwriter Albert Band. The film flopped on release, but Huston swiftly followed it with one of his greatest successes, The African Queen. Lillian Ross died on 20 September 2017, aged 99.

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