Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951) remains as timely as today's breaking news, and this fictional account of a newspaper reporter's cynically contrived media circus delivers a powerful cinematic punch three decades after its release.
While speculating on why Paramount changed the film's title to The Big Carnival we discovered that Bijou friend and fellow-cinephile John McElwee has written a fascinating account of this history over at his always captivating Greenbriar Picture Shows. We are grateful for John's permission to reprint his article, along with some splendid images he uncovered associated with the film's release.
Paramount Has a Tough Sale
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: This article originally posted at Greenbriar Picture Shows on February 1, 2007. Since that time,
licensed Ace In The Hole to Criterion for a long-awaited DVD release, and Turner Classic Movies has broadcast the film on several further occasions. Instead of updating Greenbriar's text to reflect all this, I decided to leave the post as is, to show if nothing else how a classic once abandoned can sometimes come roaring back. We now have Ace In The Hole on disc, satellite TV, and streaming over the Net. A happy ending for what seemed for years a lost film.) Paramount
TCM showed Ace In The Hole last week, which was the cinematic equivalent of raising the Titanic, though this treasure was less lost than unwanted. Satellite customers of Paramount TV Sales have long preferred safer Sabrina /Shane alternatives when time came to lease features for assorted Encore or Cinemax outlets, and in that sense, Billy Wilder’s poison pill maintains repute it acquired sixty plus years ago.
Cultists would make a martyr of Wilder’s film. Maurice Zolotow got balls rolling with a first published bio of the director (1977) --- "Ace In The Hole was castigated by the critics and shunned by the public. Wilder was called a cynical man. The film was denounced as an untruthful attack on the integrity of American newspapers and on the new medium of television." Subsequent writers picked up and ran with Zolotow's spin: "A disaster at the box office," said Ed Sikov in his 1998 Wilder book, "but in the early 1950’s, with faith in the nation’s ideological institutions assuming fanatical religious proportions, Wilder was offering a vision of Americans and their news media that few Americans themselves wished to confront, let alone applaud." Indeed, the director himself was eventually persuaded. "They never gave it a chance," Wilder said. I only hope Billy wasn’t referring to Paramount, because evidence indicates they gave it every chance, with a campaign as aggressive as any mounted during 1951.
As to its box-office disaster, Ace In The Hole no doubt took a loss, but no more so than a lot of other features the company was distributing that year. With $1.2 million in domestic rentals, it equaled The Last Outpost and Submarine Command, while outperforming Hal Wallis’ production of Peking Express ($936,000) and a comedy sequel thought to be promising, Dear Brat ($890,000).
The thing that was killing Paramount and other majors was television. By mid-1951, there was a set in millions more homes than even one year before, and Hollywood movies were beginning to surface there. Republic had announced imminent sales of its backlog, and hundreds of independent features were dumped on airwaves with each passing week. You had to have something really special to entice people away from all that free entertainment.
Paramount kept a man in the field by the name of Rufus Blair. He’d been with newspapers and was a crack merchandiser. You might classify him as a Chuck Tatum with ethics. Rufus spent April and May canvassing thirty-four cities on behalf of Ace In The Hole. He had an open door with publishers, having worked with a number of them, and his mission was to target media folk --- editors, reviewers, radio personalities, whatever. Armed with a print of the feature, Blair knew Ace would click with newshound colleagues. Trade critics were already flipping over Wilder’s trenchant drama, and Paramount brandished raves among the trades at least two months prior to release.
Further promotion in advance of the play date found Jan Sterling getting a New York build-up on behalf of Ace In the Hole.
Paramount tied in with Royal Desserts for recorded ads with Sterling, all of which concluded with a pitch for the feature, while millions of pudding packs and gelatin boxes went out with her picture emblazoned thereon. The Hallicrafters Corporation, then one of the big three radio/television manufacturers, continued their mutual sales push with Paramount that had begun with The Mating Season earlier that year. Field men for both companies linked up with local dealers, and Hellicrafter’s equipment was featured onscreen during Ace In The Hole.
Two Weeks With Love and Inside Straight represented good product badly sold. The Herald felt both could have benefited from exhibitor input on the front end. "Inside Straight fell flat on its title during Easter week on Broadway because people assumed it dealt with card playing," whereas this was actually a period show about the California gold rush. Ace In The Hole was also adjudged misleading. Was it too about gambling? If so, women weren’t interested. Many patrons had no idea as to the meaning of the phrase. Would they wait until after paying an admission to find out? Circuit heads thought not, and these were men charged with getting pedestrians off the street and into their theaters.
Latter-day cultists would consign Emanuel to the role of philistine, but I suspect he knew exactly what he was doing --- "I personally supervised the campaign in each city to make certain it was proper and adequate. I also checked the comments of our patrons. The results can be summed up briefly. The people who came to see the picture enjoyed it immensely but the picture did not roll up the gross to which I felt it was entitled." This was a sort of grassroots movement on the part of exhibitors from which a newly re-christened The Big Carnival emerged.
So what happened to The Big Carnival when it got into the general release market? "For my money, the title would not change box office," was the report from Hollister, California’s State Theatre. "The picture is different, but drawing power, in spite of exploitation, is limited --- the second and third day died." Could this have been the result of bad word-of-mouth among locals? The Booth Theatre’s manager in Rich Hill, Missouri spoke to that --- "Our patrons thought it a little heavy. Got a bunch of kids who did not know what the show was about." No, it sure wasn’t for kids, but really, was it for anyone? "OK picture, but did poor business," was curt appraisal from the Jackson Theatre in Flomation, Alabama. Well, you couldn’t bring them into theaters at gunpoint after all, and Wilder’s line in nihilism really wouldn’t come into fashion for at least another twenty years.
during the seventies on a sliding scale. Titles in their catalog were ranked by stars --- anywhere from one, two, three, to "special." ---based on perceived merit. The Big Carnival got a one, which means you could have it for anywhere from $15 a day for schools and convents (!) with less than 100 in your audience (probably a cinch with this one) to a maximum $100 for colleges and film societies with over 1251 heads in the room.
Paramount passed on a VHS release, and has remained deaf to DVD availability. Bootlegs are occasionally intermingled on eBay with a 2005 docu-drama entitled Ace in the Hole, wherein it's Saddam Hussein instead of the films Leo Minosa who's buried. One enterprising VHS peddler offers attractive box art likely to fool the unwary, while the rest of us go on waiting for Paramount to pull the trigger with an authorized release. Let's hope it won't be too long.
Turner Classic Movies will be airing Ace in the Hole on Feb 24 at 10:00 pm ET. The Criterion DVD, that includes the original theatrical trailer, a featurette and other extras is available for purchase at Movies Unlimited. And here you can enjoy the original theatrical trailer for Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole.