“Let’s Talk Turkey,” 1939.
Motion picture studios and exhibitors dreamed up great exploitation campaigns in the early decades of cinema in order to build interest in a title, increase word of mouth, and hopefully draw larger audiences to theatres. They created elaborate promotional campaigns with a variety of media outlets like magazines and newspapers to reach diverse audiences, as well as partnering with consumer product manufacturers connecting in some way with the film, as well as putting together key art, lobby cards, photographs, ads, and even stories that could be employed in programs, handbills, and local newspapers.
Often they accomplished this through great ballyhoo, such as producer David O. Selznick and Selznick International Pictures’ intense two-year casting campaign for the perfect Scarlett O’Hara to star in “Gone With The Wind,” or through staging film premieres at the city where a film was set or which included some unusual name or feature.
“Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays” by Karie Bible and Mary Mallory is now available at Amazon and at local bookstores.
Pete Smith, Sally Payne and a large turkey.
Film companies usually concentrated their major publicity and promotional campaigns for what they considered “special” and important features or those starring well known actors. They occasionally devised unique selling campaigns for short films, especially crowd-pleasing serial titles or those featuring popular comedy teams or players. Shorts often worked as filler for theaters looking to complete a full program of entertainment for moviegoing audiences, especially those in smaller towns without large stage shows or prologues.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and astute comedy short producer Pete Smith hatched an extremely successful and thoughtful promotional campaign to sell his 1939 Pete Smith Specialty short, “Let’s Talk Turkey,” one that dealt with the correct way to carve that holiday bird. Arranging special tie-ups with the Los Angeles Times, A & P Food Stores, Pilgrim’s Brand turkeys, and O’Keefe and Merritt gas stoves, the studio gained huge word of mouth and free publicity for the short even before it opened in theaters, employing a wide variety of publicity stills picturing both producer Smith and female star Sally Payne. One of these stills is included in Karie Bible’s and my book, “Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays,” showing how craftily studios employed lavishly produced photographs to gain free publicity for their movies and stars in various media.
The November 10, 1939 Los Angeles Times reported that their Los Angeles Times Cooking School starting November 14 at the Shrine Auditorium would preview “Let’s Talk Turkey” as part of festivities, one day before the short would open on Wednesday, November 15 at Hollywood’s Grauman ’s Chinese Theatre and downtown Los Angeles’ Loew’s State Theatre. Though the paper claimed the school was “noncommercial in every respect,” they continually mentioned the playing of the short in multiple stories in the fashion and food sections of the newspaper for four days, including running a variety of publicity stills from the film humorously showing producer Smith and actress Sally Payne posing with a cooked turkey as well as mentioning the short’s tie-in partners O’Keefe and Merritt stoves, Pilgrim Brand turkeys, SoCal Gas, and A & P Food Stores.
Standalone shots of the two appeared in the paper as well as illustrated stories about the Cooking School. The Times even ran a lengthy feature announcing “Let’s Talk Turkey” opening at the Chinese and Loew’s State, describing how the short featured newly wed character Abner J. Poodlebean carving the turkey for his in-laws at their first Thanksgiving together. The newspaper even announced that Loew’s State would feature turkey carving with all the trimmings twice daily in the mezzanine level of the theatre, where Pilgrim Brand turkeys would be prepared on O’Keefe and Merritt gas stoves run on SoCal gas, with stoves on display.
Los Angeles Times, Nov. 13, 1939.
At the same time, MGM’s promotional partners purchased advertisements in the newspapers extolling the same products and companies, featuring Pete Smith and Sally Payne photos to help illustrate them. A & P Food Store and Pilgrim Brand turkey ads mentioning the short and running a photo provided by MGM appeared in other local newspapers as well. In this way, MGM received free advertising and publicity from all the product ads mentioning the title, a harbinger of things to come.
Trade magazines praised the short, with Motion Picture Herald calling it an “excellent and instructive subject” and others describing it as entertaining and “swell.”
Showman’s Trade Review described the exploitation campaign as outstanding on January 13, 1940, noting that Loew’s State and the Chinese ran a promotional campaign with the Los Angeles Times including double truck ads sixteen column stream two page advertisements, two two column stories including one with photos of Smith and Sally Payne, a six column layout with A & P Food Stores, the local gas company ran five column layout promoting the stove, May Company displayed an ad featuring with the O’Keefe and Merritt gas range and short. They noted that A & P stores featured booklets and classes on how to carve turkeys and that Loew’s State offered turkey and trimmings twice daily, using all the same products.
Poultry Processing and Marketing magazine, Turkey World magazine, and Coronet Garden Book ran stories on “Let’s Talk Turkey” as well. Newspapers featured one of a variety of stills showing Pete Smith and Sally Payne humorously posing with the turkey, like the November 26, 1939 Racine Journal Times. These well produced photos amply illustrated the basic theme of the short as well as provided eye-catching, fun filler for a variety of media.
While most shorts enjoyed a short shelf life when first released, playing for several months before replaced with new product, “Let’s Talk Turkey” won over audiences so much that MGM re-released it in some places in 1940, along with the Los Angeles Times again employing it as entertainment filler at its 1940 Food and Fashion Festival, the newly enlarged former Cooking School.
Though seemingly innocuous and entertaining, meticulously designed publicity stills and carefully crafted campaigns garnered free word of mouth recognition for motion picture titles and stars, developing an iconography of Hollywood glamour and success at the same time as they served as marketing and sales tool.