“Bluff City Law” & Indie Memphis, Continuing a Long Tradition of Film History in the Mid-South

SPECIAL KEYSTONE – FILM BOARD 

By Charlie Lambert

Years ago, in 1982 to be exact, there was a very short-lived TV series called “Filthy Rich,” starring Delta Burke and Dixie Carter, about a post-wealth family in Memphis pretending to still belong to the social elite. It was filmed here and, as I recall, was absolutely hilarious (four of the episodes are available for viewing on YouTube). For some reason, the series lasted only 15 episodes.

Since then, many movies and shows have been filmed in whole or in part on Memphis locations. But nothing as ambitious as the currently filming “Bluff City Law” has landed in our sights in a long time, certainly not a (perhaps) seasons-long series actually filmed here. But Memphis has always been a player in the cinema since the silent era.

Film reels and canisters in a store front on Film Row.
photo: Mark Fleischer

Early Mid-South Movie-dom

Numerous movies have been made in Memphis since the 1920s, including the 1929 film Hallelujah, with an all-black cast at the very beginning of the talking film era. Even earlier than that, Memphis was one of the cities that began to benefit from the movie industry starting around the turn of the 20th century. The history of movie houses that evolved from primitive Nickelodeons all over the country had strong support in our city. Hundreds of such penny and nickel machines, placed in large rooms were frequented by huge crowds of curious visitors. When someone came up with the idea of flashing the Nickelodeon fare onto a wall and having viewers all see it at once, movie houses, and then movie palaces, began to crop up.

By the early 1920s Memphis had an untold number of venues to view films. Beale Street had four theatres, Main Street was graced with five luxury palaces, and the surrounding area bloomed with smaller houses where films that had premiered downtown could be shown for a lesser price. All theatres were segregated into the 1960s.

The Golden Age of Hollywood, Thru Memphis

By the 1930s, Hollywood had developed an impressive and efficient distribution system for providing films to small and large theatres across the country. Memphis was a major distribution point for West Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and parts of Missouri starting in 1930 or so. Each of the many studios that made movies needed a physical location in strategic cities to receive and distribute films to the outlying venues. It is estimated Memphis serviced as many as 400-500 theatres in its heyday.  By 1936 there were 25-30 distribution centers downtown off Second Street and it was dubbed “Film Row.” Studios from MGM, Columbia, 20th Century Fox, Republic, and Monogram had shelves of tin cans full of film coming and going on an almost daily basis.

Left: This Film Row placard adorns the brick facade of 492 S. 2nd Street. Right: The Paramount logo above the awning at 265 S. Front St., now the fictional offices of Strait & Associates in “Bluff City Law.” (photos by Mark Fleischer)

My friend, Sue Eubanks, worked at the 20th Century Fox Distribution Office and she remembers being very busy and challenged by the meticulous work of keeping films properly catalogued and ready for transport. Each night a company called Film Transit would pick up the films designated for a particular route and deliver them in the middle of the night to the lobbies of hundreds of theatres for next-day showing, at the same time picking up the films that showed that day for return to Memphis distributors.

MGM was here. Metro Goldwyn Mayor’s film distribution center was once in this building at 492 S. 2nd Street. (photos by Mark Fleischer)

Let me dwell for a few moments on Film Transit (FT), founded in 1936 by M.H. Brandon to deliver not only film stock, but small parcels and local newspapers like The Commercial Appeal to outlying vendors.   FT had one hundred trucks, and at one time, over 400 employees. According to Gil Brandon, who succeeded his father in running the company, the trucks drove 15,000 per night, every night, 365 days a year. To make the process easier, FT developed a storage facility called Memphis Film Service to actually store films in transit between Hollywood and the vendors in six nearby states. That facility lessened the burden of film storage that had been the responsibility of the studio distribution offices. That allowed the distributors more time to concentrate their efforts on selling the films to theatres and negotiating the deals through a team of salesmen who drove to theatres to arrange the showings and any specials being offered. Once a deal was struck, the distributor would notify the storage facility and the process began. Not only did FT ship feature films, but also shorts, cartoons, newsreels, and some concessions and popcorn. The almost flawless procedures lasted from 1936 well into the 70s and 80s. At any given time, Brandon said they had 80,000 reels of film in their warehouses in the prime years of physical distribution.

The awesome burden of distribution ended in the 1990s when electronic transmission began invading the older ways of distribution. Today, most movies are digital and can be transmitted anywhere in the world without much effort. As efficient as that may be, it must have been exciting to have lived in the time when schedules were rigid, getting all the many reels of a film to market was mandatory, and the human element of the movie industry played a vital part in satisfying hundreds of thousands of movie-goers in burgs and cities everywhere.

Left: Poster for the 1929 King Vidor, MGM Production of the musical Hallelujah. Filmed in Memphis, Hallelujah was one of the first “talkies” and also one of the first films to feature an all- black cast. Top right: Infamous Memphis film censor, Lloyd T. Binford (Commercial Appeal). Lower Right: An old Film Transit truck that was once part of a fleet of 100 distributing films throughout the Mid-South.

Banned by Binford

Another thing Memphis was “famous” for in the 40s through the 70s was Lloyd T. Binford — the nationally known, self-proclaimed censor of films that played in Memphis. He was the head of the Memphis Censor Board under Mayor Crump from 1928-1954. During those years he banned dozens of films from being shown on Memphis screens. The basis of his bans ranged from integrated scenes involving characters of different races, Biblical inaccuracy, sex, evil behavior, and his utter hatred for Charlie Chaplin and Gregory Peck. Memphians had to drive to the Sunset Drive-In in West Memphis, Arkansas to see such films as Duel in the Sun, Night of the Hunter, The French Line, and The King of Kings – all banned in the city by Binford.

Air-Conditioned Palaces

Memphis enjoyed elaborate monuments to the studios in the downtown area. Loew’s Incorporated owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio (MGM). For some reason Memphis was favored with two Loew’s theatres, the Loews State and the Loews Palace, just blocks from one another. Both showed mostly MGM films just as the fabulous Pantages (later, Warner Theatre) showed only Warner films. The two other behemoths, the Malco and, to a lesser extent, the Strand, showed films from Columbia, Republic, Paramount, Universal, Fox, and lots of other small “B” studios. “First-run” movies always played downtown and then moved to the neighborhood theatres all over Memphis. Downtown, the advanced price to see a single movie in a huge, air-conditioned palace was a real special occasion. Once the first-run crowd had viewed the film it was put on neighborhood screens with, usually, a “B” grade film as a “double feature” for ten to twenty-cents a seat. The extras included cartoons, newsreels, and previews, sometimes even a serial. 

Memphis’ Air-Conditioned Palaces: Loews State, Warner, and Loews Palace (CinemaTreasures.org).

In the 1940s every major studio had its own newsreel department where they made 10-minute newsreels to screen all over America and abroad. During WWII, these newsreels were the sole source of film coverage for the actions in Europe and the Pacific. People went to the movies to see the newsreels as much as they did to see the films. Of course, we had no internet or nightly news on TV to provide such vital coverage to people who had sons and fathers in the war.

A serial was a ten to fifteen-minute film that had numerous chapters, shown once a week for fifteen or twenty weeks in a row. It was always about bad guys, superheroes, and other perils where the hero saved the day one chapter at a time. Each week at the end of that segment, there was an imminent tragedy (a “cliffhanger”) that concluded the next week. Today’s serials are full films like the Star Wars series and Harry Potter.

End of an Era

In the 1950s, a new concept in entertainment entered the fray. Television threatened to destroy the practice of going to movies. Why not stay home and watch TV instead? The three major networks provided up-to nine hours a day of comedies, dramas, news, and a few “B” movies, mostly westerns.  It was a start but not enough to deliver the knock-out punch to movie-going.

Memphis started dressing up its neighborhood theatres. The spiffy Plaza Theatre in east Memphis was in the middle of a shopping center. It often showed big films immediately after they left first-run houses and premiered films that would not start out as first-runs. The Cianciolo family ran the Plaza, the Rosemary and the Luciann Theatres (the latter two named for his three daughters). The Luciann building is now vacant but there is some hope that it will rise again as the movie home for some local movie organization.

The gruesome changes to the movie industry came after the breakup of the grand, old studio system in the mid-fifties, emanating from an anti-trust law suit against monopolies in 1946, which made it possible for anyone to make, distribute, and screen a film anywhere without studio sanction.

By the 1970s, the concept of multi-screens in one venue with a common lobby area were all the rage. The Lightman (M. A. Lightman equals M-A-L-CO) family that dominates the movie scene in Memphis to this day, opened the first of these experiments in 1971, the Malco Quartet at Poplar and Highland. Soon after, The Plaza, built by the Cianciolo’s in 1955, added a second screen. Paramount, another suburban theatre on White Station, also added a second screen.

Finally, the idea of placing a multi-screen theatre in every shopping mall, sometimes with a dozen or more screens, became the trend. The funny thing is that all these new markets began showing the same films at the same time. Prices went up, attendance was down from its highs in the 1940s, and the variety of untold numbers of neighborhood theatres with different features (two of them) on every screen became passé.

The bean-counters in Hollywood who now managed the output and distribution process found that higher prices, especially in the popcorn and coke offerings, would bring more profit and de-emphasized the quality of the films they offered. If you peruse the films produced in the 1970-1990 period, you may find few that were actually good films. The prime audience for films today is a 13-year-old male who will see films over and over, buy as much junk as possible, and then purchase by-products from the films, especially space and action-hero objects and collectibles. 

The best thing that can be said about the state of movies today is that there are still a few films made for mature audiences and screened, often at a loss, by companies like Malco. A good example is Downton Abbey, a PBS miniseries that has been turned into a major film. Such fare does not often make any money but it allows people who have given up on going to movies a chance to be delighted by something worthy of their attention. In the case of Downton, it received wide release and may actually turn a profit.

Indie Memphis

Another source of joy and hope in Memphis is the Indie Memphis (IM) organization. IM provides a major film festival in the fall of each year with dozens of foreign, independent, and documentary films over a three or four day period, and has begun a weekly series of films from various sources and of varying genres year round. IM would like to open an arts theatre in Memphis and if that were to happen, we would be on the road to even more film options at a dedicated place.

Check out this year’s IM lineup and purchase tickets here at the Indie Memphis website.

Highlights from this year’s Indie Memphis. Clockwise from top left: Images of Jim Jarmusch, Kasi Lemmons’ HARRIET, Eli Daughdrill’s FAITH, Mati Diop’s ATLANTICS, ​Brad Ellis & Allen C. Gardner’s COLD FEET, and P​aul Duane’s B​EST BEFORE DEATH (courtesy Indie Memphis)

Other local opportunities to see new and retrospective films emanate from the Dixon Galleries, Brooks Museum, and periodic special showings that crop up from time to time. We are lucky to be in a city with as much variety of film as we have on a regular basis.

Back to the Future

Linn Sitler, who leads the Memphis and Shelby County Film Commission, has put Memphis on the map more than once since that organization began in 1989. She has a gift for selling Memphis to filmmakers despite the regressive tax benefits that result from filming here instead of in Atlanta or Louisiana. Locally-oriented movies such as 21 Grams, Hustle & Flow, Walk the Line, The Firm, The Rainmaker, Cast Away, The Client, Great Balls of Fire!, Forty Shades of Blue, and The People vs. Larry Flynt, were all filmed in whole or in part in Memphis over the last 25 or so years. The recent film Brian Banks is also a Memphis product.

The indie favorite Mystery Train, followed by big hits like The Firm, The Rainmaker (spot the Shelby County Courthouse again!), Cast Away, 21 Grams and Walk the Line have been filmed in Memphis since the late ‘80s. Local filmmaker Craig Brewer is a Memphis favorite with the hit Hustle & Flow and the well-received Black Snake Moan.

Our future is bright as our successes pile up. “Bluff City Law” cannot hurt. (And we do hope it lasts more than a season.) Jimmy Smits, interviewed in TV Guide about the show, said that Memphis would not be just a backdrop, but a major factor in filming. And, hopefully, this show will show a better side of our city than some of the past projects have. We do have crime and poverty problems, but isn’t it time to put our best foot forward with a show or two about the better city we are? 

So here we are in the midst of an ever-changing, ever-evolving world of on-screen (movie and TV) entertainment- be it at the local multiplex, in a museum auditorium, at home on our own TV, or outdoors under the stars at Elmwood Cemetery. We still love movies of all kinds. When Thomas Edison invented the movie camera, the movie projector, and dozens of other rudimentary products to make life come alive on the screen in the 1890s, he could never have envisioned what he wrought and how far his vision would go in the next 120 years. <>

I want to acknowledge the help I received for this article from Gil Brandon of Film Transit whom I interviewed a few year ago about his company, Vincent Astor’s insights and history in his book, Memphis Movie Theatres, The Commercial Appeal, and dozens of other resources I have read and cited over the years that have stayed in my mind and ended up included here. 

An aficionado of Memphis film history, Charlie Lambert is a long-time Keystone contributor, and his passions for historic preservation are matched by his love for the classic films of old Hollywood. 

This article appears in the October One-Year Anniversary Issue of StoryBoard on the front page and pages 30-31.

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About Charlie Lambert 6 Articles
Memphis native Charlie Lambert has been the lead writer for the Memphis Heritage Keystone newsletter for years. A retired lawyer for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, his passions range from historic preservation to the classic films of old Hollywood. He is a film historian and has written a book on his search for all Academy-nominated films, which took over 50-years to achieve. He is writing a new book that he hopes to finish soon.

1 Comment

  1. Movies will have to have appeal to a more diverse age group. Memphis has a great history and it is ignored mostly. A treasure of stories awaits.

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