5 Times Hollywood Ruthlessly Beat A Profitable Idea To Death
It seems like the only things Hollywood announces these days are new superhero movies, reboots of classic franchises, or the umpteenth Transformers sequel -- we're pretty sure the next one is literally the umpteenth. They straight up ran out of numbers. But while it might feel like show business gets more desperate every day, the truth is that it's always been this way. In fact, it may have once even been worse. Consider how ...
Halloween Spawned Endless Holiday-Themed Slasher Movies
John Carpenter's Halloween was inspired by the weird proto-slasher Black Christmas, a film about a mysterious killer murdering sorority babes during the holiday break. But relatively few people remember Black Christmas, while Halloween grossed $47 million on a budget of $325,000. That's because A) John Carpenter is a genius and B) Halloween is the only holiday that makes sense for a horror movie.
But because of the movie's commercial success, every studio was dying to make their own holiday slasher movie. Unfortunately, after Friday The 13th, they ran out of scary dates.
First came the obvious big holidays, like Christmas:
Then there were slashers set during Valentine's Day. It's not a particularly scary holiday (unless you're very, very lonely), but at least it provides a good excuse to focus on that classic slasher trope of teenagers getting naked.
But then, with the good holidays taken, writers were forced to branch out to slightly less eerie days on the calendar, like ... April Fool's Day?
And everyone's least-favorite holiday, New Year's Eve:
Of course, random holidays aren't the only thing hapless teens mark on their calendars, so hacky writers then moved on to birthdays ...
... graduation day ...
... and the ever awkward prom night:
And that's to say nothing about all the sequels made for some of these. Over the span of one decade, there were eight Friday The 13th movies and four Halloweens. Hell, even Silent Night, Deadly Night got two sequels. We're just glad they ran out of steam before we got Labor Day: The Devil's Work.
Studios Hired Charlie Chaplin Clones To Make Even More Tramp Movies
Do you have a hard time distinguishing between all the buff blond witty Chrises on today's movie scene? Do you find it difficult to track all 37 Hemsworth brothers currently working in Hollywood? It seems that studios not only like movie rehashes, but they'd also prefer to keep copies of the same actor too. Just ask Charlie Chaplin.
By 1918, Chaplin was the most famous person in the world, and the Tramp was the most beloved fictional character since whatever religious deity you don't believe in. But although he was making as many as six movies a year (check that work ethic, Tom Cruise), distributors felt like there wasn't enough of the man with a small mustache to go around. And since they couldn't make Chaplin do more movies, they decided to simply make more Chaplins.
Given Chaplin's incredible stardom, there was no shortage of impersonators touring the vaudeville circuit. So instead of negotiating with the real Chaplin, studios would hire these fake Chaplins to make fake Tramp movies. And by far the most successful of those was Billy West, an impersonator whom Chaplin himself supposedly said was almost as good as the real deal. By 1919, West was making up to 15 fake Chaplin movies a year, because it's a lot easier and quicker to shoot a movie someone else had basically done before you.
But that doesn't mean West was some a lazy hack. He was dedicated, going so far as to wear curlers and learn to use his less-dominant left hand to more closely resemble the star. He also hired Chaplin's own cast and crew whenever they were available, and gave Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy fame) his first Hollywood break. West's films were such quality homages to Chaplin that many of them still get wrongly listed as actual Chaplin movies.
Jaws Unleashed A Whole Aquarium's Worth Of Marine Murder Movies
Barely a year after Jaws came the blatant copycat The Jaws Of Death, a movie about a telepathic serial killer that clearly hoped you stopped reading the poster after the first two words.
In 1977, directors started asking "What else is in water and scary?" A dumb question that brought us movies like Tentacles, a hack job which amazingly stars John Huston and Henry Fonda.
That same year came Orca, which is totally different from Jaws because ... this killer aquatic predator has ... lungs?
Next came Piranha (which gave way to Piranha II: The Spawning, the debut feature from James Cameron):
And then there was Barracuda, a movie thief so bold that it even taunts Jaws in its tagline:
And finally, by 1981, we went full circle back to sharks with Great White:
But Universal blocked it from appearing in American cinemas due to all the shameless plagiarism. And in a universe where Orca could go around un-sued, that's saying a lot.
Hollywood Made Dozens Of Movies About Street Kids
Movies have sold us on a lot of weird team-ups: a gang of motley superheroes in The Avengers, a troop of old mercenaries in The Expendables, a litany of dying careers in Mamma Mia, etc.
And it all started with underage New York street toughs.
In 1937, United Artists adapted the hit Broadway play Dead End, about a tough band of city punks who got kicked out of the school of hard knocks for being too rowdy. The studio hired the original Broadway cast, but sold their contracts before the movie was released because the young ruffians method-acted too hard and drove a truck through a soundstage. But it turned out that United Artists were the ones who trucked this deal up, because Dead End was a massive hit. After its box office success, Warner Brothers snapped up the cast, branded them "the Dead End Kids," and launched their own dirty-faced franchise.
The Dead End Kids starred in seven movies between 1937 and 1939. And they were mostly quite good! Humphrey Bogart gave an acclaimed performance as an evil Bugs Bunny in the original Dead End. Another Dead End movie, Angels With Dirty Faces, turned out to be career-defining for James Cagney, who was nominated for an Oscar for his sensational turn as a gangster who tries to save the kids from following in his footsteps (it's a terrible fate to grow up to be James Cagney).
The films gradually dropped in quality, but instead of scrapping the franchise, Warner Bros. started passing their boys around to other studios for money. After their first Dead End movie, the actors were loaned out to Universal Pictures, where they became the Little Tough Guys and featured in 15 movies between 1938 and 1943. By the end of their grueling contract, these scamps looked like they were 15 going on 50.
Then the gang was sent over to Monogram Pictures, which reassembled them as the East Side Kids and released another 22 movies between 1940 and 1945.
Meanwhile, a new group of ragamuffins, the Gas House Kids, failed to take off over at Producers Releasing Corporation, releasing a pathetic three movies in two years. Welp, back to the streets with those punks.
After a while, the gangs started swirling into each other like the Great Annual Boy Band Orgy. After Universal "borrowed" several of the Dead End Kids for the first Little Tough Guys movie, they hired an all-new cast as the New Little Tough Guys for the next three movies. But then they rehired some of the Dead Ends back, and started billing the movies as "the Dead End Kids And Little Tough Guys," with many of the discarded Little Tough Guys leaving to join the East Side Kids, and Original Dead End heartthrob Billy Halop even joined the Gas House Kids. Honestly, there were Deep South serials less incestuous than these movies.
By 1945, the boyish street gang craze passed, but that didn't stop one poverty row studio from making a final offer to the original gang to pump out a ridiculous 48 comedies as the Bowery Boys. Though the only joke in any of those movies is that everyone kept calling the characters "boys," even though the actors are clearly riffing with the grim reaper by this point.
Every '30s Studio Had To Have A Singing Cowboy Movie
In 1934, while being pumped full of laughing gas at the dentist, writer/producer Wallace McDonald had the idea for Phantom Empire, a 12-part movie serial about a cowboy, played by professional yodeling hillbilly (yes, that was a thing) Gene Autry, who has to sing on the radio every day or he'll lose his ranch. But his broadcasts risk disruption when he discovers a secret underground civilization containing the lost tribe of Mu, complete with ray guns, a sexy evil queen, and a nefarious professor who wants to conquer everything. You know, your typical '30s movie plot.
Phantom Empire was somehow a huge hit, and thus started the incredibly unlikely fad of the wild west musical, which saw all of Hollywood scrambling to get a singing cowboy of their own. After Autry, who signed with Republic Pictures Corp., there was Dick Smith (Warner Bros.), Bob Baker (Universal), Smith Ballew (Fox), Tex Ritter (Columbia), and George Houston (PRC). There was even a series aimed at African American audiences starring Herb Jeffrey as the "Bronze Buckaroo."
The singing cowboy craze lasted 20 entire years, and boy howdy did they pump them out fast. RPC (not to be confused with PRC, keep up now) alone released over 90 movies in that era, which means writers had to figure out dozens of stories about a guy in a Stetson who can yodel each year. Luckily, like Phantom Empire, these flicks had a license to be weird as hell. Often the stars were traditional cowboys -- riding horses and fighting injustice with their six-shooters -- but the movies were set in modern America, featuring cars and electricity. No effort was made to explain this. In one movie, a covered wagon full of uranium is robbed by quick-drawing Soviet agents on horseback, who have to be stopped by Roy Rogers, who took over from Autry after a contract dispute. In fact, the uranium-stealing plot was such a hit that they did it twice.
Since the movies were made quick and cheap, they often latched onto whatever trend was popular. When Tarzan was a big hit, Autry played a rancher who has to drive a herd through Africa, conveniently reusing stock footage from the Tarzan films. When movies set in Hawaii were popular, they released Hawaiian Buckaroo, starring Smith Ballew as a cowboy on a pineapple plantation. And if you're wondering why a cowboy is needed on a pineapple plantation, you're really overthinking this genre.
Adam Koski is the author of the taut urban fantasy novel Not Meant To Know.
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