When The Godfather premiered 50 years ago, people knew it was sensational, controversial, heartbreaking, a masterpiece even. But they couldn’t know what we know now: it was a bridge between old Hollywood and new.
The motion picture industry had struggled throughout the 1960s, a difficult decade for big-screen entertainment as color television siphoned off much of what was left of the movie-going audience.
Cinemas had tried everything to compete. They had enlarged screens, adopted stereophonic sound and even experimented with 3D glasses, but American cinema, having peaked in the 1930s, had fallen precipitously with the advent of home viewing.
Movie attendance hit its nadir in 1971, which until the pandemic had the lowest ticket sales ever, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Large old movie palaces were demolished to make way for parking lots. Rudimentary low-budget indies like Easy Rider and Five easy pieces captured the public imagination, while extravagant studio projects were made and marketed like the Gertrude Lawrence biopic Star!starring Julie Andrews, were falling apart.
Things have gotten so tough for the industry that actor and memoirist David Niven has speculated that we might one day look back at movies the way we now look at vaudeville – like a quaint pastime the public had briefly appreciated and abandoned.
And in the middle of it all comes this kid, Francis Ford Coppola, with a gangster movie.
“It’s a Sicilian message: Luca Brasi sleeps with the fish.”
The 32-year-old filmmaker had first – and insistently – turned The Godfather down. He had just co-founded American Zoetrope with George Lucas in hopes of avoiding big Hollywood projects after his recent experience directing the Fred Astaire/Petula Clark musical. Finian’s Rainbow. He wanted to make smaller, more personal films.
But Zoetrope needed the money so Coppola bit the bullet. Producer Robert Evans thought it was important that the film be directed by someone of Italian descent, so he pushed hard.
Coppola eventually agreed, on the condition that he be allowed to co-write the screenplay (with Mario Puzo, author of the novel) and that the period setting be retained (the producers had hoped to save money by resetting the story in the 1970s).
He immediately alarmed studio executives by insisting on casting Marlon Brando, who, at 47, was considered by many in the industry to be both difficult and overwhelmed.
“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
The cast team at Paramount Pictures weren’t thrilled at all about all of this – mob movies hadn’t done well at the box office for years – but the book was a runaway bestseller and they bought the rights for only $80,000.
Once engaged, they knew how to stir up the media frenzy. And they were helped to grab headlines when Italian-American anti-defamation groups staged a rally in Madison Square Garden to protest what they predicted would be a film of ethnic slurs and mob glorification.
This was when high-profile films premiered with month-long “roadshow” engagements in major cities – exclusive races with reserved seats and, often, intermissions – before playing in theaters. neighborhood at popular prices.
The Godfather, at nearly three o’clock, definitely could have gone that route. His klieg-lit and celebrity-studded charity gala on March 14, 1972 was held at the Manhattan Movie Palace which had hosted the exclusive engagement and world premiere of Ben Hur for 74 weeks.
Although the former 3,300-seat Loew’s State Theater had recently been transformed into Loew’s State I and II, albeit cut in half, it remained a prestigious house that the Godfather could have filled indefinitely before letting other theaters join us. But Paramount had a different plan.
“It’s business, not personal, Sonny.”
He asked theater owners across the country to bid to play the film days after the premiere in exchange for an upfront, non-refundable monetary guarantee against 90% of the box office take, according to the highest value. Theater owners would only keep 10 cents of every dollar that entered their box office. But that would be a lot of money.
With the novel a runaway bestseller, competition among theater owners was fierce. Paramount ended up accepting over 300 offers, and when these lucky theater owners secured their initial guarantees, the producers had over $15 million in the cash before opening night, more than double what they had spent to make the film.
So what The Godfather opened, and critics and audiences saw what Coppola had done: not an Edward G. Robinson gangster movie; not even the Marmite Mafia that Puzo had written about in his novel.
Coppola had crafted an almost Shakespearean epic about a mafia family in crisis. It was the violent, harrowing and bloody story of a collapsing dynasty: “King” Corleone and his princes.
It was extremely moving. As producer Robert Evans recalled Henry Kissinger saying at the film’s premiere, “Here’s Brando playing a mobster who had killed hundreds of people, and when he died the whole audience was crying…a touch of grandeur .”
“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli”
By the time the film was released nationwide 10 days later, absolutely everyone was buying tickets, albeit sometimes for odd reasons, as member station KCUR’s Dave Berg said. “All things Considered” while reporting on the film’s sold-out but empty premiere at the Empire Theater in Kansas City, Missouri.
“According to Giles Fowler, film critic for the Kansas City Star, The Godfather is a triumph of traditional storytelling cinema in an era that had pretty much forgotten such things. But no matter, no one has seen the film. The Italian-American Unification Council of Greater Kansas City purchased the 1,000 tickets for $2,500 so that The Godfather would play in an empty house.”
They also won a court injunction prohibiting Stan Durwood, the theater operator, from scheduling a matinee that day and spoiling their optics. For obvious reasons, he was okay with that.
“Durwood said he was just happy with all the publicity the movie is getting,” Berg reported.
So the band got their optics, the theater got their first of several sold-out shows.
And what did the audience get? A portrait of the mafia that seemed real, even to members of gang families. Also, a series of star-making performances – Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, James Caan – and a story that reached the point where a conventional mob film would end at around 90 minutes, and still had half of its story remains to be told – the half that delighted.
“I thought when it was your turn, you’d be the one holding the strings.”
Critics were enthusiastic about the film’s boldest departures from Hollywood tradition. Regardless of the realistic performances and mood, this is a gangster epic told, not as a morality tale from an outsider’s perspective, but with sympathy for – and from the perspective of – its central family, completely amoral.
That said, there were some things that weren’t entirely new. That line everyone quotes about an offer someone can’t refuse? Forrest Taylor said it almost verbatim to John Wayne in the 1933 Western Riders of Destinythree decades before the Godfather novel was written.
And that swooning earworm of a love theme composer that Nino Rota planned The Godfather seemed awfully familiar to people who had seen Eduardo De Filippo’s Italian comedy fortune 14 years earlier. Rota scored that one too, but his little recycling cost him an Oscar nod.
“There wasn’t enough time.” “We will get there, dad.
The Godfather received 11 Oscar nominations, though even those came with complications. Brando decided best actor was an honor he could refuse and sent Apache representative Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse, citing the film industry’s treatment of Native Americans.
Al Pacino also boycotted the ceremony. It was reported at the time that he was annoyed at being named a supporting actor when he had more screen time than Brando, although he now says that was not the case. Either way, it was only a temporary setback: Pacino earned his Best Actor nomination for The Godfather, part II.
This all qualified as blood under the bridge as far as the public is concerned. The Godfather was the No. 1 film at the box office for 23 consecutive weeks in 1972, then spent a week at No. 2 (replaced by the comedy Goldie Hawn Butterflies are free), before returning three more weeks to the top of the rankings.
It made $100 million faster than any movie before it. And having cost less than $7 million to manufacture, it was so profitable that the Los Angeles Time reported that the stock price of Gulf & Western, the huge conglomerate that owned Paramount, more than quadrupled from 77 cents per share to $3.30 per share.
Film also began an era in which Coppola’s generation—ostensibly fed up with the studio system—essentially took over the studio system. Three years later The Godfather rewrote the rules of cinematic exploitation, Steven Spielberg did Jaws, which established a new, even wider distribution model, complemented by a first-ever national television advertising campaign. Two years later, George Lucas rewrote the rules again with star wars.
Old Hollywood had met new. The Godfather had been the bridge. And the dynasty had changed.
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