sneak preview

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 27 09:07:57 UTC 2010

Now, for antedating.

Earliest GB hits say 1851, 1866 and 1873 but all have obviously screwed
up metadata. The first is a snippet of clearly a mid-to-late twentieth
century publication (clear from the font), the second is a triple-digit
volume of Popular Science [Monthly] (which puts it in the 1960s or 1970s
range--not sure of exact numbering, but it's a fairly late publication
date) and the last is a bound volume of assorted periodicals from 1873
through 1953--and it is the latter that has the phrase (December 1953).
There are hits for 1917 and 1918 with no previews--and, again, these are
periodicals, so likely mishits. The 1920 hit should be 1990 or so,
because Jerry B Jenkins is a contemporary writer. The 1933 hit is to a
book with 1951 copyright (and a 1969 printing date); the 1934 hit is to
the New York Times Film Encyclopedia 1929-1936, which is absurd; and
1935 is the correct original publication date of The Silver Streak, but
plays/scripts are notorious for wrong metadata and the snip in question
may easily come from additional material, like the promos for other
scripts (almost always the source of error in these publications, in my
experience) or it may accurately represent the content. There is one
other hit from 1935, but, for reasons that should become clear, I am
listing it at the end.

That leaves about a dozen hits from 1937-38--which means that checking
periodical indexes for 1935-36 (or perhaps even earlier) is likely to
give a few more hits. The hit from The Coast is certainly correct for
Vol 1 (1937), but it is not clear if there are multiple volumes bound
together, as is the case with others. And most of the rest are
periodicals as well, but the dates do appear to be accurate.

The 1935 hit for The Silver Streak is actually interesting because it
amounts to the definition of the phrase.
> SNEAK PREVIEW— First theatre showing intended for restricted group of
> studio people at which crowds exceeding seating capacity often appear
> when notified by Hollywood grapevine system.

The use in The Coast is quite different--and, in fact, different from
all the other hits for 1937-38:
> After be read the sneak-preview cards of True Confession, Fred
> MacMurray resolved never to wear another moustache in a film.

The other descriptions are all similar to the one in The Silver Streak,
but with a few additional details.
> But there is a variation — a "sneak" preview with a studio- packed house.
> ... members of his executive staff, discusses the audience reaction to
> a new Goldwyn production after a "sneak preview" at a Hollywood
> neighborhood theatre.
> They finished it toward the end of September, and gave it a sneak
> preview in Glendale. I thought it was so lousy I went just out of
> curiosity to see how bad...
> The gloomy realism of Cliff Reid, who had just attended a sneak
> preview of one of his own productions, in replying to the query of a
> friend on the audience reaction ...
> /Sneak/--Term given to the first preview of a picture, which occurs at
> a remote theater where the reaction will be that of an average
> audience. The film is usually overlength, and the "sneak" preview
> indicates the points at which it may be cut or edited.
> Now the picture is ready for a sneak preview. By this is meant the
> custom in Hollywood of taking a rough cut to one of theneighborhood
> small towns without any announcement to either the press or to the
> [public]...
> ...
> At a sneak preview we will show a picture which should run about six
> thousand feet in about seven thousand feet, and judge what to
> eliminate by the reaction of the [audience].
> The industry is very picture conscious, and if you sneak-preview a
> picture in Hollywood, you get a professional audience which is prone
> to be either tooenthusiastic or too critical, depending entirely on
> personal motives. Sidney, for one, isn't taking a chance on having a
> Brand production catalogued until he is sure of his product.
> ...
> From: Sidney Brand
> This is to advise you that "Sinners in Asylum" goes back for retakes.
> The new title is to be "That Gentleman from the South". An unforeseen
> crisis developed at the sneak-preview making these revisions imperative.
[Note that IMDB has no entries either for Sidney Brand or Brand
[Pictures] or for either of the two listed titles, so this is either a
piece of fiction or one of the "names changed" features.]
> [She] called Cornelia to tell her that there would be a sneak preview
> that same evening in one of the suburb. It was all a great secret and
> even Florabel wouldn't know where it was until David's [?] called for her.

All of these identify the same pattern--a sneak preview is an attempt by
a Hollywood studio to take a rough cut of the film to the "average"
audience in the area (not too far from the studio) to gauge audience
reaction to parts of the film and the length of the film to determine
what needs to be cut. Some of the titles are unquestionably dated
correctly (Scribner's and Hearst International volume numbers correspond
to 1937-38, for example) so it is quite clear that the term was in wide
use. More importantly, the consistency of use and the fact that the term
appeared in a couple of studio histories suggest that it was well
established. Also note that at least one reference identified "sneak" as
jargon, not "sneak preview". And none of the references show the later
tendency to use the term more broadly, i.e., to have a "sneak peek" at
some material, e.g., a book--which leads to an associated question, when
was the secondary meaning established (it was already in use in the 1950s)?

Finally, the "sneak" part makes sense in this context as well--no
advertising for the preview and it is "announced" through word of mouth,
still leading to overcrowded theaters. Local SoCal papers should be full
of comments on sneak previews during the period. For example, one
[final] GB hit from pre-1938 is for Vol 17(6) of The Frater [of the Pi
Lambda Phi fraternity] (1935).
> The sneak preview of Warner Baxter in "Robin Hood of Eldorado" was
> caught by one
> trade paper which went into hysterics. A great entertainment hit!

The date seems to be accurate as there are at least two other entries
for Vol 17 that are dated 1935. Furthermore, the film was officially
released on 17 March 1936, which makes mid-to-late 1935 as a plausible
time frame for a sneak preview. This leaves two 1935 hits--The Silver
Streak and The Frater--as [likely] the earliest sources in *my* search.
[Please forgive all the qualifiers.] But I am also certain the line can
be pushed further with either local periodicals or industry magazines
(which were quite prolific at the time) or with archived or published
letters of studio executives, writer, actors, etc.

Quick search of Google News Archives revealed that ALL their 1930 and
1931 entries are bogus--they are later descriptions of events that
occurred in 1931.

There are two entries for 1932 and the first one is similar to the 1931
ones. The second, however, appears to be from the LATimes for 12 June
1932. [pasted from multiple sources--Google and ProQuest]
> Jun 12, 1932 -
> Warning to all preview chasers! They are reviving the "sneak preview"
> with a vengeance. Precious Celluloid 'Sneaked. Into Village Shows.
> Studios Hard Put to Obtain ... Recently a picture was given a sneak
> preview in one of the sub- urban houses. During the second reel, the
> head cutter (the man who pieces the film ...

This is almost shocking to me. On one hand, the clip features "sneak
preview" in quotation marks, which suggests that the term was still
relatively unfamiliar. On the other hand, it claims a "revival" of sneak
preview, which suggests that it must have been popular *much* earlier.
Either way

Another shocker *would have been* a January 1933 reference to
alternative usage:
> Washington's Twenty-third Legislature, a sneak preview of the New Deal
> to come in Washington, DC, convened January 9,1933. The House had
> seventy Democrats, twenty-seven Republicans.

Alas, it came from a 1997 book and is *not* an authentic 1933 text. Oh,

The second authentic hit comes from The Chicago Daily Tribune 3 July
1934 in Sidney Skolsky's article or column "Hollywood".
> The studio preview: This differs from the much publicized sneak
> preview which every one knows about. A studio preview is one to which
> the press is graciously invited; it is a special occasion and a
> special picture.

This is immediately followed by another LATimes article, from 15 July
1934 (there are several other hits, but they appear to be duds--or, at
least, the relevant text does not appear in the preview).
> The season's first "sneak preview" of extreme fall fashions was
> witnessed yesterday when Miriam Hopkins gave an informal affair for
> friends, at which she modeled seventeen complete changes, from
> pajamas, to fur coats.

This one *is* the earliest non-film usage that I found!

Another Tribune hit is from 12 June 1936.
> Katharine Hepburn's volatile moodiness sometimes amazes even herself.
> She got her manager, Leland Hayward, to drive her to Santa Barbara,
> where a "sneak" preview of her recently completed picture, "Mary of
> Scotland," was being shown.

But this is already getting into the book territory covered previously,
although I like the fact that here "sneak" is in quotation marks and not
"sneak preview".

There are other 1933-1936 hits in ProQuest, but I could not confirm the
relevant phrase from the limited preview (simple archival search for
someone with access to PQ should resolve any further doubt). The
earliest hits are from the LATimes, from 1933 in the Hartford Courant,
from 1934 in Chicago Tribune and from 1935 in Atlanta
Journal-Constitution, CSM and WaPo (some column overlap between the
Courant and the AJC). Note that UCLA alumni have free access to ProQuest
archives ( universities may have similar
policies (my options seem to be limited as my degree institutions do not
offer free alumni access to e-resources).


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