Upon release The Gunfighter received much critical acclaim, but it was not a commercial success making only a slight profit. Often cited as one of the main reasons for the film's mediocre performance at the box-office is Gregory Peck's moustache. Peck's unfamiliar look reportedly kept away audiences, especially female fans who wanted to see their idol clean-shaven, not sport a thick moustache while wearing grungy clothes.
|A moustached Peck in a publicity shot for The Gunfighter and clean-shaven in Twelve O'Clock High.|
On 13 July 1950, a month after the film had been released to the public, Zanuck wrote to producer Nunally Johnson about the film's disappointing box-office results. He mentioned two major complaints people were having about the film, among them Peck's "walrus" moustache. Concluding his memo, Zanuck pondered the unpredictability of the film business, wondering why certain films become box-office hits while others "that belong in the same category do not do fifty percent of the business".
NB! If you haven't seen The Gunfighter, Zanuck's memo contains a MAJOR SPOILER!
July 13, 1950
Mr. Nunally Johnson
20th Century-Fox Productions, Ltd.
Here is the story to date on The Gunfighter. It did miserable business at the Roxy Theatre in New York where, with the exception of Yellow Sky, no Western has done well in New York. It did ordinary business here in Los Angeles. It has done much better however in most places in the rest of the country.
It will be a profit-making picture, but in spite of its sensational reviews it receives everywhere, and the unstinted praise, we will be lucky if we do seventy or seventy-five percent of the business we did on Yellow Sky. Perhaps, in the outlying districts and western areas it will eventually come up to anticipation. As I said, in any event, it will be a profit-making picture but certainly nothing like we had every right to anticipate.
It is unquestionably a minor classic, but I really believe that it violates so many true Western traditions that it goes over the heads of the type of people who patronize Westerns, and there are not enough of the others to give us the top business we anticipated.
By way of passing, [Fox executive] Al Lichtman showed me a report from the ushers at the Roxy Theatre [in New York City]. As you know, they have more than 100 ushers and floor employees and they are trained to talk to patrons whenever there is a gracious opportunity. What do you think the complaint is on the picture? I will list them separately:
a.) Why do they cast Gregory Peck in this kind of role and then put a walrus moustache on him and hide his face? If they wanted an ugly man, why didn't they take an ugly actor? Why waste Peck? This comment occurred hundreds of times, particularly from women and young girls.
b.) Why didn't they let him live at the finish? After all, he had been reformed. He could have been wounded, if they wanted to shoot him. But he should have been allowed to live.
The only thing I can say is that we live and learn. Sometimes, you wonder why classic pictures like The Snake Pit, Twelve O'Clock High and Pinky* are enormous box-office hits and other pictures that belong in the same category do not do fifty percent of the business. Yellow Sky, in my opinion, is not half the picture The Gunfighter is. Yet it went into a more formula mold and obviously had broader popular appeal. But, on the other hand, there was certainly no formula mold about The Snake Pit and look what it did....
*Note: The Snake Pit (1948) and Pinky (1949) are two Fox movies that deal with issues that were controversial at the time, resp. mental illness and racism. The western Yellow Sky (1948) and war film Twelve O'Clock High (1949) are two other films that starred Gregory Peck.Source: Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years At Twentieth Century-Fox (1993); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.
|Above: Producer/screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (left) and 20th Century-Fox boss Darryl Zanuck (r.) / Below: Millard Mitchell and Gregory Peck in a scene from The Gunfighter --who has the biggest moustache?-- with Helen Westcott in the middle.|
This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fall Blogathon OUTLAWS. Click here for links to all the other entries.