The movie industry brought in $1.6 billion in revenue in 1962. What were the big movies half a century ago?
After the recent talk of 1982 being the best summer in the history of the movies, I dug out my Collier’s Year Book 1963 — “covering the year 1962.”
The big news in motion pictures that year was the strength of the blockbusters, “the costliest productions of all time.” Topping that list was Liz Taylor‘s Cleopatra — and it wasn’t even released until the next year. Still, its production costs in 1962 exceeded the next costliest movie, Mutiny on the Bounty, with its budget of $22 million. This year’s John Carter is said to have cost $300 million to make.
Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Marlon Brando, went on to be a box office success. Not so John Carter (yet).
Also that year: How the West Was Won (costing $15 million), The Longest Day ($10 million) and Lawrence of Arabia (about $6 million). Collier’s also mentions that the biblical spectacle The Greatest Story Ever Told had spent $5 million “before the first camera turned.” It wasn’t released until 1965.
Politics also made it into movie news, thanks to what were called “runaway” productions. Those were movies made outside the Hollywood studio system, most of them made outside the U.S. Of 88 movies released in the second half of 1962, only 36 were made entirely in the United States.
This became a political problem because it meant unemployment for Hollywood union workers. The House of Representatives had a subcommittee look into it. The subcommittee “urged State Department action against those nations receiving U.S. aid on the one hand and subsidizing film production on the other.” Collier’s doesn’t say if any action was taken.
It was a sign that the studio system was fading. Along with “runaway” productions, film companies were popping up without having a studio. The Mirisch Corporation, for example, had $100 million in gross sales, with a permanent staff of only 12. A big chunk of their revenues came from West Side Story, a surprise hit “despite a total lack of star names and its supposedly too-sophisticated book and music by Leonard Bernstein.”
And MCA, originally a talent agency, got into the movie business and was told by the U.S. Department of Justice they couldn’t do both. So they got out of the agency business and stayed in the movie business.
The movie industry was also facing increased criticism over thematic content. Back in 1962 there was not the rating system we know now, and studios were trying a voluntary system. So movies such as Stanley Kubrick‘s Lolita — also described as a surprise hit — included a warning that it wasn’t appropriate for children.
An anecdote gives an idea of what things were like:
Mrs. Christine Gilliam Smith, the longtime censor of Atlanta, Georgia, was stripped of her powers by the Georgia Supreme Court in April. When she reappeared a month later as the city’s “motion picture reviewer” virtually all the major companies joined in a suit to halt her practice of rating pictures and fining theater owners who neglected to display her ratings outside their houses.
The hits that year included Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? — it recovered its production costs in the first week. Both the “controversial” Bird Man of Alcatraz (with Burt Lancaster) and the “even more controversial” The Manchurian Candidate (with Angela Lansbury) were hits for director John Frankenheimer, a filmmaker described as “a youthful recruit from television.”
And the “film surprise of the year” was said to be the independently-made David and Lisa, starring newcomers Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin. He later starred in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as the astronaut who short-circuits HAL 9000.
Finally, Collier’s ends their report with this:
Necrology. The death of Marilyn Monroe at thirty-six was both startling and saddening. Heatedly criticized for causing 20th Century-Fox to jettison Something’s Got to Give (and $2 million) when she quit the picture early in 1962, she won heartfelt testimonials from the entire world after her suicide a few months later.
Oh, and by the way, remember I said the total revenues for 1962 amounted to $1.6 billion? The Avengers has already brought in more than $1 billion, in its first three weeks. James Cameron‘s Avatar has grossed $2.8 billion in two and a half years.
(Were you born in 1962? So were all these people.)