The Bootleg Files: Main Street to Broadway

BOOTLEG FILES 679: “Main Street to Broadway” (1953 all-star film).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public exhibition of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only as a bootleg.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Never made available for U.S. commercial home entertainment release.


One of the most curious flops of the 1950s was an all-star feature called “Main Street to Broadway.” Originally intended as a fundraising vehicle for a nonprofit devoted to the promotion of live theater, the film went through an excessively ambitious pre-production cycle but emerged as a predictable and strangely unsatisfactory effort that fell considerably short of its lofty mission.

The intended beneficiary of this endeavor was the Council of the Living Theatre, an organization that sought to expand audience interest in live theatrical productions around the United States. In an unusual fundraising strategy, an all-star film was planned with the goals of funneling 25 percent of the box office receipts directly to the Council of the Living Theatre. An independent company called Cinema Productions Inc. was created to handle this initiative, and film producer Lester Cowan (best known for “My Little Chickadee” and “The Story of G.I. Joe”) and director Tay Garnett (the man behind “Bataan,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”) were brought in to helm the project.

Planning on this film began in 1952 and the entertainment trade journals were filled with stories of an upcoming Technicolor work featuring the creative input of such luminaries as Katherine Cornell, Henry Fonda, Olivia de Haviland, Ethel Merman, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, George Balanchine and Benny Goodman. None of these individuals were anywhere to be seen when “Main Street to Broadway” finally opened in 1953, and the grand Technicolor production that was promised was switched to black-and-white presentation, albeit with a fairly substantial budget ($1.3 million) for an independent film and the presence of ace cinematographer James Wong Howe behind the camera.

But that’s not to say “Main Street to Broadway” skimped on star wattage. Quite the contrary, the film brought in an impressive array of celebrities, although most were strictly on-screen in distracting cameos and some barely registered a few seconds before the camera. Oddly, the center of attention was provided to a pair of unknown actors who got their proverbial big breaks in the film, but never managed to leverage their roles into star-quality careers.

“Main Street to Broadway” opens with the First Lady of the American Theater, Helen Hayes, speaking directly to the camera to introduce the film. The crux of the story involves a seriously mismatched pair: aspiring playwright Tony Monaco (Tom Morton, speaking with a heavy Noo Yawk accent) and drama student Mary Craig (Mary Murphy). Tony is nervous because Mary is in a reading of his new play with Hollywood star Cornel Wilde – if the reading goes well, Wilde will take the work to Broadway. But after the reading, Mary tells Wilde that she thinks the play is terrible and he decides not to pursue its production. As you can imagine, Tony is not happy with Mary. But because this is a movie, he quickly falls in love with her and follows her back to her hometown in Indiana, where her parents gladly allow him to move in and work on a new play. That work is supposed to be an innocuous rural drama created for the bawdy Broadway icon Tallulah Bankhead (she claims to be seeking a change of pace from her usual homicidal roles), but Tony instead bangs out something called “Calico and Lust” that involves criminal machinations and a fatal revenge denouement. After a seemingly endless number of twists and turns – I could soak up all available Internet bandwidth trying to inventory them all – Tony’s show winds up on Broadway and fails on its opening night, but he doesn’t mind because Mary is in love with him.

The story of “Main Street to Broadway” was written by the distinguished playwright Robert E. Sherwood, but it is difficult to imagine that the winner of four Pulitzer Prizes could have come with something as cliché-choked as this work. Rather than offer something resembling an honest view of the Broadway scene, Sherwood cobbled together every hoary device from well-worn backstage dramas along with sticky tributes to small-town life that are too corny to consider. Sherwood donated his $50,000 writer’s fee to the Council of the Living Theatre, perhaps as an act of penance.

Today, anyone watching “Main Street to Broadway” would be interested in the spot-the-star element of the film. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II join theater director Joshua Logan in watching Mary Martin rehearse a new song; theatrical couple Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer have a good-natured argument over sandwich preparation; Shirley Booth signs autographs outside of a theater; Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and Louis Calhern come to the rescue of Tony when they hear a radio news report that he despondently threw the scripts to his play into the East River; Vivian Blaine, Elsa Maxwell and Brooks Atkinson walk about the theater lobby on Tony’s opening night; and baseball manager Leo Durocher fields a phone call from Tallulah Bankhead. Estelle Winwood, Stuart Erwin, Sam Jaffe and caricaturist Al Hirschfeld are also visible in uncredited bit parts.

A few stars are cast as characters with some involvement to the central story: Agnes Moorehead is Tony’s waspish agent, Gertrude Berg is his too-generous neighbor, Rosemary DeCamp and Clinton Sundberg are Mary’s parents, and Jack Gilford is a ticket booth cashier. Gilford’s involvement in the film is notable: he was cited in the Red Channels booklet and blacklisted from appearing in Hollywood films and on television, so his appearance here helped to push back against McCarthy-era politics.

Perhaps the best performance in “Main Street to Broadway” came from a star who is virtually forgotten today: humorist Herb Shriner co-starred as a pleasant small-town Indiana hardware store owner who rivals Tony for Mary’s attention. Shriner was a low-key personality whose stories of offbeat Hoosier life were popular on radio and television, and he gained a national audience as the host of the game show “Two for the Money.” This was Shriner’s only film appearance and he exuded a likable charm that counterbalanced the story’s cosmopolitan New York vibe.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picked up the distribution rights to “Main Street to Broadway,” with the hope that the stellar cast could sell the film. That didn’t happen. Reviews were negative, particularly Bosley Crowther in The New York Times who dismissed it as “a long and styleless picture.” The film grossed a limp $444,000 – remember, it cost $1.3 million to make – and wound up as one of the costliest failures of 1953.

“Main Street to Broadway” failed to launch leading man Tom Morton into the A-list and he disappeared from the entertainment world within a few years. Leading lady Mary Murphy had a bit more luck, following up this film as Marlon Brando’s leading lady in “The Wild One,” but she never quite hit her mark and her career continued in smaller roles and increasingly minor films. “Main Street to Broadway” turned up in Great Britain in 1957 with roughly 20 minutes cut from the running time, but British audiences were not interested.

To date, “Main Street to Broadway” has yet to receive a commercial home entertainment release. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer only had the theatrical rights, and it appears the film’s ownership is in a state of legal limbo. Bootleg DVDs can be located, but this is one oblivion-stuck work that is not in need of being rescued.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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