sneak preview

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Jan 28 18:49:02 UTC 2010

I'm reading a compilation of interviews with Buster Keaton right now.  The silent comedies he did were made by his own company; the talking comedies of the very early 1930s were made for MGM.

In an interview done in 1958 he explains that when he controlled the production process, his movies were all previewed outside of Los Angeles and were not announced as new movies, because he wanted to get a spontaneous reaction from the audience.   "Our system was not lettin' the audience know so that the audience wouldn't yes us." (p. 42)  If there were gags that didn't get the laughs he expected, he would refilm them or replace them.
But MGM would "ballyhoo" the preview; the audience knew they were seeing a preview, and would applaud from the moment they saw "MGM Presents", through the credits and on into the movie itself.  "They applauded the director's name, they went out of their way to laugh at things the normal audience didn't laugh at.  They yessed the b'j-- the life -- right out of ya."  (p. 42)  The producer of the movie wanted the "high brass of the studio" to think that the movie was going to be a hit, from the reaction to the preview.

I doubt that the practice of revising a movie based on the reaction at the preview was unique to Keaton, but I don't know whether it was general in the silent era, even for dramatic movies.  But this may indicate that in the 20s the only kind of preview was what was later called a sneak preview, and the term "sneak preview" didn't come about until it was necessary to contrast it with a ballyhooed preview.

I'm only up to p. 62, and the index is poor -- it covers names, mostly, and very few topics; there's no entry for "preview".  So I don't know whether it will be come up again.

I think, by the way, that the fact that Keaton caught himself about to say "They yessed the bejesus right out of ya" and censored it to "the life" is a sign that this was a broadcast interview later transcribed for print.  Probably it was, but it's credited to Image, 17:4 (1974), although dated to 1958 in the book.

Buster Keaton: Interviews.  Kevin W. Sweeney, editor.  University Press of Mississippi, 2007, pp. 41-42.  (An interesting book for Keaton fans, and who isn't?)


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

The American Dialect Society -

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