Old Hollywood owes a lot to the circus. The Big Top was where talent like Tod Browning, the director of Freaks and Dracula, and Burt Lancaster, the leading man in From Here to Eternity, got their starts. But it was also home to publicity masters like Harry Reichenbach, the legendary film promoter who supposedly ran off with the circus at the age of 13.
Reichenbach worked with traveling acts and a magician called either “The Great Raymond” or “The Great Griffith” (accounts vary, so clearly he wasn’t that great) before coming to New York and seeking work on Broadway. It was there that he attracted the attention of Hollywood’s first film companies, which were just forming in the 1910s. Reichenbach helped set the tone for movie publicity with his carnivalesque stunts, all designed to generate headlines and, with them, wider audiences. (In a nod to his circus roots, he once snuck a live lion into a hotel room for a Tarzan film.) When he died in 1931, newspapers called him both the “inheritor of Barnum’s mantle” and “the founder of motion picture publicity technique.”
Thanks to Reichenbach and other pioneers, the classic era of Hollywood was full of wacky, ridiculous gimmicks designed to pack seats. Promotional teams might shave women’s heads in busy movie theaters or hire a lewd skywriter to turn heads. Not all of these stunts were in great taste (especially if you were Howard Hughes), but they always drew notice, and paved the way for internet marketing ploys like the Blair Witch Project mystery. Here are some of the greatest publicity hits from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The Revenge of Tarzan (1920)
Early Hollywood studios and stars threw money at Harry Reichenbach, so much so that he reportedly bagged $1,000 a week at the height of his career. He hired fake search parties to look for The Virgin of Stamboul (1920) and even planned to have actress Clara Kimball Young kidnapped in a “fake Mexican raid.” But he’s probably best known for his lion room-service stunt. To prime audiences for the release of The Revenge of Tarzan (sometimes labeled The Return of Tarzan), Reichenbach rented a room in New York’s Hotel Belleclaire under the name T.R. Zann. Zann was a professed musician who brought along a piano in a box, which the bellhops hoisted into his room through the window. But there was no Steinway in that crate, as the poor staffers soon discovered. The next morning, Reichenbach called to request ten pounds of raw steak for breakfast — for his pet lion. The hotel manager, clerk, bellhops, and house detective raced into the room to find a lion cub prowling the carpet. This stunt was well-reported in the New York media, earning plenty of advance buzz for T.R. Zann — or rather, Tarzan.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Like Reichenbach, Joe Weil made a name for himself as an exploitation maestro. The longtime Universal publicity manhandled many of the studio’s monster movies, including the 1936 queer classic Dracula’s Daughter. The film’s publicity campaign leaned heavily on the fact that Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) targets women, pulling them under her trance with her mystical ring and seductive charms. So Weil hired a woman to pose as one of Zaleska’s victims in a Pittsburgh storefront. As he told Variety, the actress laid on a couch in the window, pretending to be in the thrall of an unseen force. A curtain would intermittently open and close throughout the day, until it was time for the premiere of Dracula’s Daughter. The woman was then taken to the movie theater and “revived” on stage. In addition to this elaborate stunt, Weil circulated fake birth announcements from Dracula, welcoming his daughter to Universal City.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
As Walt Disney’s first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs entered theaters in 1937 with tremendous buzz — and tremendous expectations. Disney Productions and its distributor RKO went on a publicity blitz, building out an entire “Dwarfland” of replica cottages for the world premiere. It was a perfect preview of the theme parks to come. Costumed characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, and the seven dwarfs posed for pictures with Shirley Temple on the red carpet, as thousands of spectators looked on. RKO also organized a “special messenger staff of lilliputians to distribute publicity, tickets, and other matters connected with the Disney picture,” in New York, according to a Variety report from January 1938. The studio coordinated the uniformed staff of little people with the help of Jimmy Rosen, an actor who played a dwarf in a 1912 stage production of Snow White.
The Outlaw (1943)
Howard Hughes mounted the most boob-forward publicity campaign in history for The Outlaw, the Billy the Kid western that was really about Jane Russell’s eye-popping cleavage. Ads featured Russell reclining on a bale of hay in low-cut peasant blouses, with copy asking, “How would you like to tussle with Russell?” and, “What are the two greatest reasons for Jane Russell’s rise to stardom?” But the most notorious advertisement didn’t appear in a newspaper. It was in the clouds. Hughes hired a skywriter to spell out “The Outlaw” over Los Angeles — and punctuate it with two circles, each with a dot in its center.
The Egg and I (1947)
When it came time to promote the chicken-farmer comedy The Egg and I, publicity man Jim Moran looked no further than the film’s title. The veteran huckster showed up at the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm on a spring day in 1946 and sat on an egg. He kept up the charade for 19 days, squatting in a specially designed wheelchair with a basket containing the egg nestled underneath. Visitors paid 40 cents each to see Moran vamp in his feathered headband and matching “hatching pants,” even as he told them to go home and do something better with their time. When the egg finally hatched, Moran left the farm and Universal actually began production on the movie, which wouldn’t hit theaters for another year.
Baby Doll (1956)
The posters and ads for Baby Doll, a Tennessee Williams adaptation concerning a middle-aged man and his teenage bride, featured the same infamous image. It was a picture of star Carroll Baker in a baby-doll nightie, curled up in a crib and sucking her thumb. That photo was scandalous enough in newsprint, but director Elia Kazan had it painted onto a billboard that spanned an entire block of Times Square, blowing Baker’s body up to 135 feet. Kazan called it “the greatest idea since the days of Barnum,” but the Catholic Church was less amused. Cardinal Francis J. Spellman condemned Baby Doll from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral two days before its New York premiere at the Victoria Theatre, where stars were snapped with the billboard hovering in the distance.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Cecil B. DeMille sparked a legal disaster with his promotion for his 1956 Biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. Partnering with the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the director/producer had granite replicas of the Ten Commandments tablets placed in cities across America — somewhere between 100 and 4,000, depending on the source. Stars Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston were deployed to some of these locations to christen the commandments and generate buzz for the film’s release. But the stones set off a legal controversy years after the fact, inspiring multiple lawsuits over the separation of church and state. One of them went all the way to the Supreme Court.
The Girl in the Kremlin (1957)
In this ’50s thriller, Joseph Stalin never died. It was all just a ruse to give the Russian dictator cover to flee to a secret hideaway, with a brand new face from a plastic surgeon. But before making his escape, Stalin punishes a young prisoner by shaving off all her hair. This scene serves as the opening to The Girl in the Kremlin, which Universal promoted by shaving heads on the street. At San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theater, a 24-year-old housewife and mother named Patricia Smith hopped in a barber chair for a dramatic haircut. Universal gave her $300 for letting them shave her head as the cameras rolled — and a wig to wear until her hair grew back.