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'The Godfather' bridged old and new Hollywood to save American moviegoing

Marlon Brando in the film adaptation of The Godfather (1972)
Allstar Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo
Marlon Brando in the film adaptation of The Godfather (1972)

When The Godfather premiered 50 years ago, people knew it was sensational, controversial, precedent-shattering, a masterpiece even. But they couldn't know what we know now: It was a bridge between old Hollywood and new.

The film industry had been struggling all through the 1960s, a rough decade for big-screen entertainment as color television siphoned off much of what was left of the moviegoing audience.

Cinemas had tried everything they could think of to compete. They'd widened screens, adopted stereophonic sound, even experimented with 3-D glasses, but American moviegoing, having peaked in the 1930s, had dropped precipitously with the advent of home viewing.

Film attendance reached its nadir in 1971, which until the pandemic, had the lowest ticket sales on record, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

Grand old movie palaces were being torn down to make way for parking lots. Rough-hewn, low-budget indies like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces were capturing the audience's imagination, while extravagantly made and marketed studio projects like the Gertrude Lawrence bio-pic Star!, starring Julie Andrews, were going belly-up.

Things got so rough for the industry that actor and memoirist David Niven speculated that we might someday look back on movies the way we now look back on vaudeville – as a quaint pastime the public had briefly enjoyed and abandoned.

And in the middle of all that, along comes this kid, Francis Ford Coppola, with a gangster flick.

"It's a Sicilian message: Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes."

The 32-year-old filmmaker had initially – and emphatically — turned The Godfather down. He'd just co-founded American Zoetrope with George Lucas specifically hoping to steer clear of 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 cash so Coppola bit the bullet. Producer Robert Evans thought it was important that the film be directed by someone of Italian descent so he was pushing hard.

Coppola finally 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 (producers had hoped to save money by resetting the story in the 1970s).

He immediately alarmed studio execs by insisting on casting Marlon Brando, who at 47 was thought by many in the industry to be both difficult, and past his prime.

"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."

The distribution team at Paramount Pictures was less than excited about all of this — mob films had not done well at the box office for years — but the book was a runaway bestseller, and they'd bought the rights for just $80,000.

Once committed, they did know how to whip up a media frenzy. And they were aided in garnering headlines when Italian-American anti-defamation groups staged a Madison Square Garden rally protesting what they predicted would be a film of ethnic slurs and glorification of the Mafia.

These were the days when prestige films premiered with months-long "roadshow" engagements in big cities — exclusive runs with reserved seats and, often, intermissions — before playing neighborhood theaters at popular prices.

The Godfather, at almost three hours, could certainly have gone that route. Its klieg-lighted, celebrity-studded charity gala on March 14, 1972 was at the Manhattan movie palace that had hosted the exclusive, world premiere engagement of Ben-Hur for 74 weeks.

Though the once 3,300-seat Loew's State Theater had recently been remodeled as Loew's State I and II, even cut-in-half it was still a prestigious house that The Godfather could have filled indefinitely before letting other theaters join in. But Paramount had a different plan.

"This is business, not personal, Sonny."

It asked theater owners across the country to bid to play the film days after the premiere in return for an upfront, non-refundable monetary guarantee against 90% of the box office take, whichever was greater. Theater owners would keep just 10 cents of every dollar that came into their box offices. But it would be a lot of dimes.

With the novel a runaway bestseller, competition among theater owners was fierce. Paramount ended up accepting more than 300 bids, and when those lucky theater owners ponied up their up-front guarantees, the producers had more than $15 million in the till before opening night — more than twice what they'd spent making the picture.

And then The Godfather opened, and critics and audiences saw what Coppola had wrought: Not an Edward G. Robinson-style gangster flick; not even the mob potboiler Puzo had written in his novel.

Coppola had crafted a quasi-Shakespearean epic about a mob family in crisis. It was the violent, wrenching, bloodily epic story of a dynasty giving way: "King" Corleone and his princes.

It was enormously emotional. As producer Robert Evans remembers Henry Kissinger saying at the film's premiere, "Here was Brando playing a gangster who'd killed hundreds of people, and when he died, the whole audience was crying ...a touch of greatness."

"Leave the gun. Take the cannoli"

Actor Al Pacino and actress Jill Clayburgh attend the world premiere of "The Godfather," in which he stars as Michael Corleone.
Actor Al Pacino and actress Jill Clayburgh attend the world premiere of "The Godfather," in which he stars as Michael Corleone.

By the time the film opened nationwide 10 days later, absolutely everyone was buying tickets, though sometimes for odd reasons, as Dave Berg of member station KCUR told 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 age that had just about forgotten such things. But no matter — nobody saw the film. The Italian American Unification Council of Greater Kansas City bought all 1,000 tickets for $2,500 so that The Godfather would play to an empty house."

They also got a court injunction barring Stan Durwood, the theater operator, from scheduling a matinee that day and spoiling their optics. For obvious reasons, he was fine with that.

"Durwood said he's just happy with all the publicity the film is getting," reported Berg.

So, the group got its optics, the theater got its first of several sold out performances.

And what did audiences get? A portrait of the Mafia that felt real, reportedly even to members of gang families. Also, a raft of star-making performances — Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, James Caan — and a story that reached the point where a conventional mob movie would end at about the 90-minute mark, and still had half its story left to tell — the half that thrilled.

"I thought when it was your turn, you would be the one to hold the strings."

Critics were enthusiastic about the film's most daring departures from Hollywood tradition. Quite apart from the realistic performances and ambiance, here was a gangster epic told, not as a morality tale from an outsiders' point of view, but with sympathy for — and from the viewpoint of — its central, thoroughly amoral family.

That said, there were things that were not altogether new. That line everyone quotes about an offer someone can't refuse? Forrest Taylor said it almost word-for-word to John Wayne in the 1933 western Riders of Destiny, a full three decades before the Godfather novel was written.

And that swoony earworm of a love theme composer Nino Rota provided for The Godfather sounded awfully familiar to folks who'd seen Eduardo De Filippo's Italian comedy Fortunella 14 years earlier. Rota scored that one too, but his bit of recycling cost him an Oscar nod.

"There wasn't enough time." "We'll get there, Pop."

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 decline it, citing the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry.

Al Pacino also boycotted the ceremony. It was reported at the time that he was annoyed at being nominated as Supporting Actor when he had more screen time than Brando did, though he now says that wasn't the case. Regardless, it was just a temporary setback: Pacino got his Best Actor nomination for The Godfather, Part II.

All of which qualified as blood under the bridge as far as the audience was concerned. The Godfather was the No. 1 film at the box office for 23 consecutive weeks in 1972, then spent one week at No. 2 (supplanted by the Goldie Hawn comedy Butterflies Are Free), before coming back for three more weeks at the top of the chart.

It earned $100 million faster than any film before it. And having cost less than $7 million to make, it was so profitable that the L.A. Times reported the stock price of Gulf & Western, the huge conglomerate that owned Paramount, more than quadrupled from 77 cents a share to $3.30 a share.

The 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 after The Godfather rewrote the rules of film exhibition, Steven Spielberg made Jaws, which established a new pattern of even broader release augmented by a first-ever national TV ad campaign. Two years after that, 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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.