Box-office flop has big impact

Dr. Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and department chair who contributes frequently to the Chico News & Review.

Occasionally my journalism students would ask what movie about the press I liked most. My answer: Ace in the Hole, produced and directed by the legendary Billy Wilder. When I added it had been a box-office flop, they wondered why I would choose an unpopular film. Two reasons: Ace had a lot to say, and it established a legal precedent that changed Hollywood.

In the film, Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a former star newspaper reporter who ends up at a small New Mexico newspaper after losing his job in New York for drunken orgies, lying, and sleeping with his boss’s wife. Tatum learns of a man trapped in an Indian burial cave and turns the crisis into a vehicle for his return to the big time by selling a series of exclusive, hyped stories about the rescue to major newspapers.

He manipulates the engineer in charge of the rescue and the corrupt sheriff, up for re-election and in control of the scene, to prolong the effort for days as the victim, who was stealing Indian artifacts when a cave-in occured, slowly dies. A big crowd gathers as the sensationalized story gains national status, and an entrepreneur sets up a carnival—thus the term “media circus"—with rides and entertainment. The victim’s wife develops eyes for Tatum and doesn’t pray for hubby’s survival because “kneeling bags my nylons.” The cynical movie has no sympathetic figure.

As to legalities, problems arose after its plot was presented to Wilder in 1949 by screenwriter Victor Desny through Wilder’s secretary, Rosella Stewart, who screened her boss’s phone calls. Desny read the “treatment” by phone to Stewart, who took it down in shorthand. Promising to get back to him, Stewart said Wilder would pay for the story line if he used it.

Desny heard nothing and was surprised by the 1951 appearance of the black-and-white movie. He sued, claiming intellectual property theft and asked for $150,000—1.5 million in today’s dollars.

Ruling that ideas are free and thus can’t be protected, the trial court dismissed his suit. An appeals court reversed, saying that while ideas may be free, disclosing them is not. The California Supreme Court upheld the appeals court, and Desney won his $150,000 settlement in 1956. The resulting legal shock wave moved studios to turn away unsolicited treatments or manuscripts, forcing everything to go through professional agents.

Wilder later tabbed the movie as his best, and some critics now call it the most important flick ever done on the press. Meanwhile, another term, “media feeding frenzy,” as with sharks, has arrived to supplement “media circus.”