THE MAN FROM HARLEM MEETS THE CINCINNATI KID
by Keller Whalen
In 1965 Cab Calloway appeared in a superb dramatic supporting role in the Steve McQueen film The Cincinnati Kid. Cab’s previous dramatic movie appearance was in the lackluster St. Louis Blues (1958). Read all about that film in our article here.
The cover of the paperback version of The Cincinnati Kid by Richard Jessup.
The film was based on the best-selling novel The Cincinnati Kid by Richard Jessup published in 1964. Jessup got his start writing for the 1950s TV show Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. He published over 30 novels between 1954 and 1981, most of them originals for Fawcett Gold Medal. Kid remains his best known work. The novel was plainly inspired by the 1959 novel The Hustler by Walter Tevis.
The Cincinnati Kid was produced by Martin Ransohoff, whose independent production company was aligned with MGM. He had recently produced The Sandpiper (1965) with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, The Loved One (1965) starring Robert Morse, and The Americanization of Emily (1964) with Julie Andrews.
The director was Canadian-born Norman Jewison, at the time a TV journeyman who had made a couple of Doris Day movies, The Thrill of It All and Send Me No Flowers. He later went on to direct In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Moonstruck (1987) and many others during a distinguished 50+ year career. He called The Cincinnati Kid his ‘ugly duckling’ film since it was his first major drama that helped his career blossom.
THE PLOT (NO SPOILERS)
It’s 1936 and Eric Stoner, the Kid (Steve McQueen), is a hotshot young poker player visiting New Orleans to play against the dapper old pro Lancey Howard, the Man (Edward G. Robinson). The Kid’s naïve girlfriend Christian (Tuesday Weld) is with him. Early in the film, the Kid explores the back streets of New Orleans, soaking in the atmosphere, seeing old acquaintances, gambling for small stakes and generally creating a little trouble for some sub-plot dramatics.
The KID meets the MAN in early advertising.
Shooter (Karl Malden), an old friend of the Kid’s and the dealer for the upcoming match, is in debt to Slade (Rip Torn), the wealthy villain who is backing the big poker game. Meanwhile, Shooter’s wife Melba (Ann-Margret) is busy hitting on the Kid. Others who gather around the table for the climactic game include Yeller (Cab Calloway), Pig (Jack Weston), ‘Doc’ Sokal (Milton Selzer) and the relief dealer, Lady Fingers (Joan Blondell).
The final poker game is suspenseful and packed with sweat, smoke, anger and grief. The formidable players are all battling against and in awe of each other. Cab’s character Yeller says, “I swear I don’t know what I’m doing sitting down with you titans, but maybe it’s worth putting up five thousand for the educational value.”
Illustrations for the posters were by Bob Peak. He also provided the iconic poster artwork for West Side Story (1961)
Steve McQueen as Eric ‘Kid’ Stoner. The Cincinnati Kid was the first of many major hits in a row for McQueen along with The Thomas Crown Affair, The Sand Pebbles and Bullitt.
Early in the film Steve McQueen collects his winnings from a pick-up poker game and makes his great escape.
Although McQueen didn’t think the film would be a successful money-maker, it became one of his biggest hits to date, with a fine under-stated performance by the star. A brief fight scene in the film was included in the film for him, since it was written into his contract that he be featured in at least one action scene. Loren Janes was Steve McQueen’s uncredited stunt double on this and most other McQueen features.
Edward G Robinson at 72 co-starred as the enigmatic Lancey Howard, the Man. In his autobiography Robinson found a parallel between himself and McQueen -- he had been the confident, ambitious young actor early in his Hollywood career and he admired McQueen’s progress as an actor.
Early publicity for the film included Spencer Tracy.
Spencer Tracy was originally in the Robinson role, but he quit before filming began because he wanted the part to be built up more and he couldn’t get final script approval. Variety’s headline explained, “Refuse Spencer Tracy Xincy Kid Script Okay So Actor Takes Powder”.
Tracy and Robinson were lifelong friends. Although they never made a film together, they had both acted on the stage in a 1923 Broadway flop called A Royal Fandango starring Ethel Barrymore.
Karl Malden’s performance is a highlight of the film. Winner of multiple Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes, he brought melancholy and depth to his role as the put-upon, debt-ridden, cuckolded Shooter, an old friend of the Kid’s and primary dealer for the big poker game. Malden had earlier spent some time in New Orleans (cinematically) as Stanley’s friend Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire – but only Vivien Leigh had any scenes on location in New Orleans for that 1951 film.
Joan Blondell, as Lady Fingers, the standby dealer, was the only person associated with the film to win any kind of award – she was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress and won the award from the National Board of Review in the same category.
Mitzi Gaynor had campaigned for the role of Lady Fingers as she had done similarly for the part of Sugar in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959) that ultimately went to Marilyn Monroe.
Joan Blondell had acted once previously with Edward G. Robinson in Bullets or Ballots (1936). In The Cincinnati Kid, Lady Fingers and Lancey are presented as old friends with a considerable back story – and an undercurrent of some conflict -- but scenes of the two characters reminiscing were deleted to put more mystery behind the Man.
Blondell appeared in a short promotional film The Cincinnati Kid Plays According to Hoyle with magician Jay Ose, a technical advisor on the film. Watch an excerpt from that film here.
Tuesday Weld in the 1936 setting with her 1965 hairstyle.
Tuesday Weld plays Christian, the simple country girl, in love with the Kid. She’s sweet and loving with a delicate southern accent. Weld had previously appeared with Steve McQueen in Soldier in the Rain (1963). She might be best remembered on TV as the gold digging Thalia Menninger in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963).
Christian goes with Melba to see a “Frenchie movie” with “writing on the bottom.” Her description of the plot would indicate the film was La kermesse héroïque (1935) (aka Carnival in Flanders).
Tuesday Weld once sent a cease and desist letter to a British rock band that called itself “Tuesday Weld.” In response, the group changed its name to “The Real Tuesday Weld”. They must have kissed and made up because on a later CD, the band thanked “the real real Tuesday Weld.”
Don’t look for Sharon Tate – she’s not in the film.
Sharon Tate was originally selected for the role of Christian – both Ransohoff and McQueen thought she’d be good for the part, but Peckinpah insisted on Tuesday Weld instead. Ransohoff had been using Tate in his TV shows to gain exposure, including 15 appearances on The Beverly Hillbillies. But the producer ultimately agreed with Peckinpah that she didn’t have enough experience for this role.
Trade advertising promised a date with Ann-Margret.
Ann-Margret (her surname is Olsson) plays Melba, Shooter’s wife, a restless and conniving sexpot, who takes Christian under her wing and later tries to get under The Kid.
By 1965, Ann-Margret had done a handful of films, including Viva Las Vegas with Elvis Presley and Bye Bye Birdie, but she was just getting started in dramatic parts. Actor Jeff Corey was hired both to work with Ann-Margret on her acting skills as well as taking a small part in the film.
Ann-Margret looking like Ann-Margret should.
Ann-Margret’s character, the ‘bad girl’ Melba, cheats at jigsaw puzzles by cutting the pieces to fit.
Leonard Lyons in his “Best of Broadway” column announced Cab Calloway’s involvement in the picture on February 17, 1965. Filming on-location in New Orleans had already been completed by the end of January, so Cab and several other actors were needed only for the climactic poker scenes back in Hollywood.
Cab had signed his contract with Ransohoff’s company Filmways on February 9, 1965 and started work on the film immediately. Other than a couple of appearances on the Mike Douglas Show, Cab didn’t seem to have any other work in February 1965.
Cab’s contract for The Cincinnati Kid.
Cab received $7,500 per week (about $65K in today’s dollars), travel expenses from New York, plus $50 per diem for the expected three weeks work. McQueen was paid about $320,000 to star.
In April 1965 The Sunday News reports the role of Yeller was to be played by “Cab Calloway, renowned as a jazz pianist.” A pianist? That’s news to us.
In his autobiography, director Norman Jewison explained that the casting was ideal because it allowed the viewer to easily differentiate among the various players at the table – Joan Blondell (Lady Fingers) was the woman, Jack Weston (Pig) was the cigar smoker, Milton Selzer (Sokal) was the nervous guy with glasses, and Cab Calloway (Yeller) was the Black player.
Cab Calloway and Steven McQueen playing poker.
In the screenplay, Yeller is described as “a light-skinned Negro who has achieved stature in what is mainly a white man’s world, through diplomacy and quick wit.” Cab’s character’s name “Yeller” probably refers to his skin color. The term usually spelled “Yaller” is vintage slang for a mixed-race or light-skinned Black person. In 1930 Cab recorded a song entitled “Yaller”:
Ain't even black, I ain't even white,
I ain't like the day and I ain't like the night.
Feeling mean, so in-between, I'm just a high yaller.
Bill Cosby claimed that he was offered the role of Yeller. He told the Los Angeles Times, “I turned it down. I don’t know how to play cards.” Such a beacon of morality!
Cab on his card-playing pals: “I love to play poker with them because they can never quite figure me out.”
Cab Calloway was no stranger to gambling. Poker was a common pastime during the long road trips with his band and Cab was always a fan of the racetrack. In the early 1950s, with his career at a low point, he was often found at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga Springs, sometimes losing huge amounts of money. In later years he hosted several friends (Cab’s wife Nuffie called them “the cub scouts”) in his basement den for poker games.
A memory from Calloway uber-fan Jean-Francois Pitet: “When I was staying at Cab's house in Westchester in December 2008, [his daughter Cece] led me to the house's basement. You could access it from the kitchen or directly from a back door near the parking in the garden. A steep staircase led you to a dark room. On the right, there was a counter, a sort of bar. From there Cab could serve drinks. Cece told me that Cab could remain there playing poker with his friends for hours, nights, sometimes a full 24-hours. [Cab’s wife] Nuffie was the only person allowed there to bring food and new bottles.”
Cab Calloway enjoying his role as Sportin’ Life.
And of course in the previous decade, Cab played the ultimate gambler and roué, Sportin’ Life, in several productions of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess.
Cab’s dialogue during the poker game included a few lines that were not in the original shooting script, and sound like genuine Calloway jive talk (after all, he wrote the dictionary!):
When he thinks he has a good hand: “This king, and my natural rhythm, says twenty dollars.”
When he knows he has a bad hand: “Man, I’m outside!”
When Sokal loses a big bet: “Better write yourself a new book, daddy.”
Magician Jay Ose was on the set to show Blondell and Malden how to deal cards realistically, act as a hand double, and to teach the rest of the cast some of the intricacies of poker. Cab didn’t need any tutoring on how to play cards.
Other familiar faces appearing in the film are Jeff Corey, Milton Selzer, Rip Torn and Jack Weston.
Jeff Corey, Milton Selzer
Jeff Corey played Hoban, who didn’t play in the game, but was responsible for supplying fresh cards and destroying the old ones. Milton Selzer played ‘Doc’ Sokal, the nervous player in the climactic poker game; he was constantly calculating the percentages in his little notebook.
Jack Weston, Rip Torn
Jack Weston played Pig, another player in the game, the first one to lose and quit. Rip Torn was Slade, the slimy villain, only a spectator at the game but heavily involved behind the scenes.
Robert Doqui in a scene with Steve McQueen
Robert Doqui, as Philly, the dealer in a pickup poker game early in the film, was a busy TV actor. He also played one of the 24 central characters in Robert Altman’s epic Nashville (1975) and had a wonderful turn as an unlucky pimp in Coffy (1973).
Plus these other Hollywood perennials have brief parts in The Cincinnati Kid:
Paul Verdier, Burt Mustin
Look fast for Paul Verdier, a French stage actor and playwright who claimed his niche as a stereotypical Frenchman in many American movies and TV shows in the 60s, including The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) also directed by Norman Jewison and starring Steve McQueen.
Burt Mustin, an old man in the pool hall scene, only started acting at age 67 but he can be glimpsed in over 200 movie and TV roles through 1975.
Harry Wilson, Dub Taylor
Harry Wilson, with a face and voice that only Hollywood could love, is one of the spectators at the cock fight. He made hilarious appearances in Some Like It Hot, Guys and Dolls, Abbott and Costello In the Foreign Legion and many others, playing the same goofy tough guy over 350 times between 1928 and 1965. The Cincinnati Kid was probably his last film appearance.
Dub Taylor was a fixture of western and comedies in both movies and TV shows, with featured roles in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and other Peckinpah films.
Ken Grant as the shoeshine boy.
John Bustin’s Show World column in The Austin American Statesman singled out 14 year-old Ken Grant as “a real hit in the show”. A street-wise shoeshine boy, he challenges the Kid to pitching nickels. Ken Grant (born 12/12/50) appeared as a dancer in Mame (1974) and Funny Lady (1975) and later became an acting and dancing coach in Hollywood.
You can see Charlotte Borchers in a film clip link later in this article.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Martin Ransohoff was a determined independent producer. He was already pushing the envelope of censorship issues in The Americanization of Emily (1964) with Julie Andrews and James Garner and The Sandpiper (1965) starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. His next acquisition for film was the Alistair MacLean bestseller Ice Station Zebra. He co-founded Filmways Television, home of Mr. Ed, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Addams Family. John Calley was Ransohoff’s Associate Producer.
After a viewing Ride the High Country (1962), Ransohoff hired its director Sam Peckinpah to helm the new picture. The producer thought The Cincinnati Kid “had the feel of a western….a gunfight with a deck of cards” so he determined that Peckinpah’s experience and sensibility would be ideal.
Peckinpah, however, was fired after only four days work – he was filming in black and white when Ransohoff expected color (to properly differentiate between the red and black playing cards), and he was already deviating from the script. Another story claimed that Peckinpah had spent the whole four days filming a nude scene that could only be included in international prints. When asked if the scene was meant for the European version, Peckinpah replied, “It’s for my own version.”
Sam Peckinpah and Norman Jewison had different ideas for the film.
Filming had begun in Hollywood on November 30, 1964, but throwing out Peckinpah and bringing in Norman Jewison to replace him had caused a month’s delay in the filming, costing the production $500,000. Peckinpah said, “Marty Ransohoff and I really never got along. He’s the only guy I know who goes home at noon everyday to change his sweat.”
Paddy Chayevsky wrote the original screenplay which Sam Peckinpah had disliked and it was quickly rejected by the producer as well. Ring Lardner, Jr., who had been blacklisted since 1947, and Frank Gilroy and Charles Eastman were brought in to work on the script. Terry Southern was also hired and the final screenplay is credited to Lardner and Southern.
The film was edited by Hal Ashby who went on to direct classic films including Harold and Maude, Shampoo and Being There. Philip Lathrop was the director of photography, having worked often with Blake Edwards on movies like The Pink Panther and Days of Wine and Roses.
A laugh between takes.
On January 16th, 1965, on location shooting began in New Orleans lasting about eight days. For the 1936 period atmosphere, the production had 22 vintage cars shipped in from California, and 57 local extras were hired and dressed in period costumes also brought in from California. McQueen, Robinson, Ann-Margret, Malden and Weld were the only starring actors needed for the location filming.
Shockingly for a location shoot in the food-centric city of New Orleans, the production imported their catering service from Hollywood. I still don’t believe it.
The temperature was below freezing on the day they filmed at the Algiers ferry landing for multiple takes of McQueen and Weld disembarking. Before each take, they had to wait for the ferry to complete its real-time scheduled back-and-forth service. Director Jewison collected about a minute of final screen time for that day’s work. You can spot modern-day ships out in the Mississippi during this sequence.
Later in the week, Jewison was thrilled when the weather turned warmer, but rainy. He lamented the cheerful sunlight, “it was just too pretty, too much light.”
Lourraine Goreau of the New Orleans States-Item quotes Jewison.
Back to Hollywood for filming on the soundstages.
The remainder of the movie was filmed on soundstages at the MGM lot in Hollywood. Behind the scenes during the card game scenes, everyone had to be on call for reaction shots. Those climactic scenes took three weeks to film.
Norman Jewison on The Cincinnati Kid: “I took out all the primaries. There are no reds, greens, whites or blues in the film outside of the red cards and the cockfight.”
And Jewison from his autobiography This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me, “Day after day, we worked in an atmosphere laced with…thick, choking smoke. Everybody developed rasping coughs and terrible colds. Worse of all was the diarrhea. People kept bolting from the set to the bathroom.”
The smoke-filled room (that’s Cab with his back to us).
Jeff Corey describes the filming of the poker game, “Poor Annie was placed directly behind Edward G. Robinson and Steve McQueen. As a result, she had to sit there as background for nearly 90 percent of the poker name footage, which took weeks to shoot. Joan and I, on the other hand, when we weren’t directly in the shot, could sneak off and play a game of Scrabble or catch up on our reading.”
Director of photography Philip Lathrop preparing for Steve’s bathtub scene.
The Kid gives the stink-eye to Yeller.
A wonderful anecdote from My Life Teaching Hollywood to Act by Jeff Corey:
“One day when we had some free time on the set, I told Annie about Cab Calloway’s celebrated panache in the 1930s at the popular Cotton Club and his inimitable style of scat singing. I asked Cab if he would sing “St. James Infirmary” for her. That wonderful man graciously provided us with the momentous song, a cappella, his voice ringing throughout the soundstage. Annie, who had her own original manner of presenting a song, watched and listened to the one-of-a-kind Cab Calloway with delight and awe.”
Socializing before the big poker game.
The opening credits follow the Eureka Brass Band playing WC Handy’s “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble” for the reenactment of a New Orleans funeral parade. In 2003 there was a running discussion in the letters column of JazzBeat Magazine – some viewers of the film insisted they had heard a different song played for the funeral procession. The reason is that the production did not obtain the full rights to use “Ramble”, so international releases substituted the public domain tune “When the Saints Go Marching In” dubbed over the soundtrack.
Click here to watch the opening credits and hear the Eureka Brass Band (includes one of Ken Grant’s scenes).
The title song by Ray Charles is sung over the end credits. Charles insisted on being paid in advance before recording the song on July 22, 1965. It was released as a single and peaked at #115 on the Billboard chart. Written by Lalo Schifrin, the first jazz-inspired piece he composed, the title song as well as some of the musical cues sound like they belong in a western movie:
He came with the name Cincinnati
A kid with no ace in the hole
On a hot poker pot, Cincinnati
Had staked his heart and soul
Click here to listen to the title song performed by Ray Charles (it certainly sounds like an inspiration for the theme from Blazing Saddles).
“The Cincinnati Kid” sheet music.
“The Cincinnati Kid” theme isn’t exactly a jazz or pop standard, but it has been recorded several times with vocal or instrumental versions by the Earl Klugh Trio, Roger Whittaker, Leroy Larson, Andre Kostelanetz, Laurindo Almeida, JJ Vianello (in Italian), and Les Moustaches and Lucky Blondo (both in French).
During the Kid’s wanderings around New Orleans, he passes by Preservation Hall and he catches a bit of the band playing a jazz-blues number with Sweet Emma Barrett (1897-1983) on piano and vocals, George Lewis on clarinet, Cie Frazier on drums, Jim Robinson on trombone, Allan Jaffe on tuba, and Punch Miller on trumpet. The song has been often argued by blues aficionados on YouTube and movie sites to be either “Stingeree Blues” or “Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning” but in fact it’s just a generic blues verse written especially for the scene by Sweet Emma at the request of the director.
Sweet Emma Barrett, New Orleans jazz pianist and singer (photo from 1960).
Click here for a clip of the Kid listening to Sweet Emma’s number at Preservation Hall (in the first few seconds you can spot the tiny speaking role as a street-walker won by Charlotte Borchers -- she says “Hi, Honey.”)
Cab played Al Hirt’s club in New Orleans, August 1965.
Unfortunately, Cab’s amazing singing voice is not heard anywhere in the movie. Between the filming and the premiere, however, he appeared for a week in New Orleans at Al Hirt’s Club on Bourbon Street.
The cover of “The Cincinnati Kid: Music from the Original Sound Track”
Musical cues based on the title theme are heard throughout the film, but notably there is no music at all heard during the final suspenseful poker game sequence.
The soundtrack album on MGM Records for The Cincinnati Kid included various themes from the actual film, an instrumental version of the title song, and a few other tracks that weren’t used for the film itself. For a new CD release in 2002, Lalo Schifrin put together all the original tracks from the soundtrack LP, a jazz quartet version of the title song not previously heard, many alternate versions of scene-specific sound cues, plus the original recording of Sweet Emma’s number with the Preservation Hall Band. For some scenes, Schifrin had composed two different pieces, expecting either the producer or the director to ask to hear something else, which they often did.
In his liner notes for the soundtrack LP, Norman Jewison wrote that “Schifrin is a member of the new generation of musical composer-conductor-arrangers and his composition and styling of music possess a unique sound of their own.”
While the original novel was set in St. Louis, the setting was changed to New Orleans because the Big Easy still had its 1930s architecture intact, especially in the French Quarter.
In addition to the jazz funeral parade, more New Orleans atmosphere includes arrivals by Mississippi ferryboat at the docks, a walk in the rain through Jackson Square Park, street scenes around the French Quarter, and a bloody cockfight (which was actually filmed on a soundstage at MGM).
The Man (Edward G. Robinson) arrives at the Lafayette Hotel in New Orleans.
The Lafayette Hotel today.
The Evening Post, Reading (UK): “It is not for nothing that the film is set in the New Orleans of the mid-30s; the abominable décor of the period; the shuffling poverty and the occasional bursts of the jazz so indeginous (sic) to the city, create exactly the right atmosphere.”
Christian (Tuesday Weld) and Melba (Ann-Margret) take in the sights of the French Quarter; here they stroll on St. Peter Street
The Evening Post also said “Brilliant use of colour; remarkable use of sound and even more remarkable use of silence, not only in the long poker sequence itself, but also in the build-up sense in the streets, along the river, and in the cock-fight booth.”
The Kid walks through Jackson Square Park in the rain with St. Louis Cathedral in the background.
McQueen told Hedda Hopper that while he enjoyed the location filming, he had previously enjoyed much more of New Orleans when at the age of 15 he caught a tanker out of Yonkers and traveled to The Big Easy and the Caribbean. Ms. Hopper didn’t entirely believe that story.
NOTE: No animals were harmed during the filming of The Cincinnati Kid – the roosters in the cockfight sequence were fitted with rubber spurs and clever editing ensured that no injuries were sustained.
PROMOTION and ADVERTISING
There was a regular stream of stories released to the newspapers about the real or imagined goings-on around the set. Early in the shoot Steve McQueen injured himself falling off his motorcycle and Tuesday Weld accidentally stuck a cigarette in her eye; later McQueen and Ann-Margret often took off on their motorcycles between scenes; Ann-Margret sported a chinchilla motorcycle jacket.
Tuesday Weld screamed and was revolted when required to eat crawfish for a scene; Joan Blondell would retreat to her trailer to work on a novel she was writing. Weld brought a ping-pong table and dartboard with her to New Orleans. (McQueen wouldn’t allow any photographs of him playing darts since he thought it didn’t fit his image.) Harry Mines was the press agent who disseminated these stories.
Thomas Griffin’s ‘Lagniappe’ column in the States-Item summarized some of the off-set activity.
Steven McQueen asked around for a nightspot where he could do his favorite dance, the Watusi. It’s not recorded whether he went to Ched’s Tower Lounge or La Casa.
Christian and Melba enjoy a Turkish bath; the press agent reports that the set was crowded that day.
Hoyle Playing Cards provided tie-in advertising with special Cincinnati Kid displays hawking their decks in retailers around the country and of course using their cards in the film.
No shortage of poker puns for the trade promotions.
In January newspapers around the country reported that for the first time, real currency was being used in a Hollywood movie. A federal law prohibiting the photography or copying of currency had been recently clarified to allow real money to be filmed.
They’re playing with $38,000 worth of real money.
The official “Exhibitor’s Campaign Book” included an alleged quote from Cab.
For the Mexican poster, Steve McQueen inexplicably goes blonde.
The evocative French poster by Gilbert Allard for Le Kid de Cincinnati.
The Italian poster includes a still photo of the poker game
Other international posters presented a variety of fine artwork.
THE WORLD PREMIERE
You’re invited! On October 13th, 1965 MGM held an invitation-only preview in Hollywood two days before the official world premiere.
Promising to be the most glamorous premiere since Gone With the Wind, the mayor of New Orleans, Miss Louisiana and MGM executives welcomed the stars at the airport the day before. There was A “get acquainted’ party in the Vieux Carre room at the Royal Orleans Hotel and a cocktail party aboard the Mississippi cruise ship, the “Mark Twain” before the parade and premiere the next day.
The New Orleans States-Item ran a short piece looking for the extras who worked in the film was on location so that they could attend the premiere.
If you were an extra, “Call JA 5-5237 to claim your share of the spotlight.”
If the States-Item had checked its competition, the Times-Picayune, they could have identified some of the missing extras --in January during the location work, reporter Paul Atkinson interviewed Sue and Talbot Walker; brothers Stanley and Jules Richard; Lee Kelley; R. Tom Graham; three bike-riding teens -- Todd Cobena, Ronnie Brien and Jack Hunter; Gay Batson (he discovered that he was wearing a suit previously worn by William Powell); Ernestine Barnett (the widow at the opening funeral); Earline Lemoine, and Mrs. Amalie Batson of 7356 Spanish Fort Blvd, New Orleans, who was Tuesday Weld’s New Orleans stand-in.
Reporter Laurraine Goreau caught Ernestine Barnett instructing one of the other extras, “You don’t cry too louder than me, because I’m the head crier!” And when Ernestine saw one of the Eureka Brass Band’s instruments partially hiding her, she directed the musician to get out of the way, “I’m being photographed; they just listening to you.” Steven McQueen was convulsed with laughter.
The Cincinnati Kid had its world premiere at the Saenger Theatre on Canal Street in New Orleans which is still operating today.
All seats for the world premiere were $5.00.
Leading up to the premiere, New Orleans put on a parade on Canal Street with sixty horses, period cars, and Phil Zito’s Dixieland Band. Thousands of fans lined Canal Street.
Governor John McKeithen of Louisiana, along with McQueen, Robinson, Ann-Margret, Karl Malden and Tuesday Weld were scheduled to attend the premiere festivities. McQueen had to bow out at the last minute when his mother took ill and subsequently died. Cab was appearing in Detroit at the time of the premiere.
Canal Street in front of the Saenger Theatre for the world premiere of The Cincinnati Kid.
After the parade, there was a press conference in the Bonaparte Room at the Royal Orleans Hotel. A fund-raiser banquet followed that collected $7,250 for recovery from Hurricane Betsy, a category 4 hurricane that hit southern Louisiana the month before. Tuesday Weld attended the banquet but skipped the press conference, and later at the Saenger, she wouldn’t go up onstage along with the other actors to accept accolades presented by the governor.
Looking altogether cheerful, from left to right are Morris E. Lefko, MGM VP and Sales manager, Ann-Margret and producer Martin Ransohoff.
The next day, October 14, 1965, Ann-Margret traveled to Pittsburgh to accept the “Star of the Year” award by the Allied States Association of Motion Picture Exhibitors. Martin Ransohoff was named “Producer of the Year” at the same ceremony.
An alternate poster for the film.
What did the critics think of The Cincinnati Kid? Reviewers of the time ran the gamut from perceptive to clueless. Most were positive, though not ecstatic.
Almost all the critics immediately compared the film to The Hustler, pointing out the similar theme of the young upstart (Paul Newman vs. Steve McQueen) playing the high-stakes game (pool vs. poker) against the old champ (Jackie Gleason vs. Edward G. Robinson).
On that theme, Dan Jardine of Cinemania calls the film “A slighter version of The Hustler, on a different sort of felt.”
On the other hand, Wanda Hale in the Daily News, pointing out the differences to The Hustler, wrote that “The picture buzzes with more characters on the seamy side of life, and this one is photographed in color.”
The New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Don Lee Keith published the first review the morning after the premiere, claiming that “a Svengali-like approach apparently used by the producer and director…have managed to inject into what could otherwise have been another ho-hum lesson in life, an intrigue dealing primarily with emotions.” He was generally kind to the cast but said that “it was Malden and Robinson, however, who stacked the deck.”
In The Van Nuys News, Mike Marth made the inevitable comparison to The Hustler, “The impact of the pool table, perhaps because of the noise and action, was greater than the card table.”
Tuesday Weld and Steve McQueen in a staring contest between scenes.
Dan Lewis in the Morning Call titled his review “The Cincinnati Kid just shuffles along.” He wrote that the film “takes too long to introduce the key characters and establish a pattern.” He then compliments each of the main the main actors – Robinson is “an old pro” and “stylish”, Karl Malden “does an adequate job” and Tuesday Weld has “credibility” but on McQueen he pronounces that “this is a role which did not require great skill, and, although it is the title role, the good acting surrounds it.” Ann-Margret, he goes on to say, “has never been one of our favorite actresses and her performance this time reaffirms our conviction.” “It was meant to be a gripping drama, building up to the big pot. Unfortunately, the picture takes too long to get its grip.”
“’The Cincinnati Kid’ is ‘The Hustler’ in spades!” says Judith Crist.
The South China Morning Post appreciated the “seedy New Orleans scene” and pointed out “memorable vignettes from Cab Calloway (”Yellow”) and Joan Blondell (“Lady Light-fingers”) – characters who might have stepped out of Runyon.” The mangled characters’ names must have been translated into Chinese first and then rendered back into English again for this review.
The Washington Post’s Richard L. Coe called it “a wholly absorbing picture.” “Not even the usual overblown performance by Ann-Margret causes the critical damage to the edgy lines of Ring Lardner Jr., and Terry Southern.” “Side attractions” included “three game washouts delineated by Cab Calloway, Jack Weston and Jeff Corey.”
The Houston Chronicle pointed out the ridiculousness of the cards dealt and played and complained that “We’re asked to swallow the hokey, melodramatic sub-plots.”
New York promoted the film with a Dixieland band.
Several reviewers were concerned that the game of poker was not a universal theme that everyone could understand.
Boston Globe’s Marjory Adams: “I am not certain how audiences will appreciate “The Cincinnati Kid” as it is impossible for a motion picture critic to figure out how many people know the game.” She reported that the young members of the audience at her screening mistakenly cheered at a crucial card that was drawn while it should have been obvious that another player already had the better hand.
In The Evening Post Peter Davalle thought that a 104-minute film about poker “had the dice loaded against it” but still managed to pull out the tension.
Variety’s “Whit” (Whitney Williams) wrote that Cab and Jack Weston “register effectively” and said regarding the gambling theme: “There are moments when femme interest may be questioned.”
The climactic poker game in progress.
In the Pittsburgh Press, Kaspar Monahan prefaced his review by assuring us that “the ladies” will also enjoy this movie even though it revolves around a poker game. “Stud poker, you girls should know, is the simplest of all card games.”
[For a detailed analysis of the last hand of the poker game in the film, see Strategy and Politics: An Introduction to Game Theory by Emerson Niou and Peter C. Ordeshook, page 318. Ladies beware: it’s complicated.]
A lobby card from the original release. The stamp reads “not suitable for children.”
Variety: Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld are “adequate and very pretty.” Van Nuys News: “Both Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld are fair, just that”
In The Austin American Ann-Margret is again dismissed with “not our favorite role for her.”
Danbury News-Times: “Even Tuesday Weld and Ann-Margret are palatable.”
The Monthly Film Bulletin reported that “Ann-Margret, as the big bad girl, adds body to the film, and little else.” I guess that was supposed to be a pun.
Yes, the critics were generally harsh with both Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld – neither of the ladies responded to my requests for rebuttal or comments.
Atlanta Constitution’s Tom Gray called it “the motion picture to see this year.” He loved the performances of all the actors. “Cab Calloway sweats profusely in his one big scene and Jack Weston smokes a cigar like no one else.” Yes, those are compliments.
“You should hear Cab squawk when he drops out with a pair of fives, then to learn the winner held an ace for high.” (Variety)
The game begins.
The iconic critic Richard Schickel in LIFE was happy to see poker come to the forefront where it’s usually relegated to incidental scenes of Westerns. He appreciated the ambiance, tradition and tension of poker, “The game is a metaphor which captures the essence of a good deal of human behavior under very lifelike pressures.” He loved the “soft-colored, smoky haze” of the climactic scenes.
Schickel’s worst was reserved for Ann-Margret, “as if she were an unaccountably sex-crazed Barbie Doll, adds nothing to our understanding of the major characters and situation. Her function is merely to titillate those who don’t know the difference between a straight and a flush.” The other participants, Joan Blondell, Cab Calloway, Jack Weston and Milton Selzer, “could not be improved on.”
That’s a vintage Tiffany lamp shade hanging up there.
Howard Thompson in The New York Times wrote “strictly for those who relish – or at least play – stud poker.” EGR and Joan Blondell are “the film’s two genuine bright spots.” The other players do “reasonably well” including the “noteless” Cab Calloway.
The National Legion of Decency rated the film “Objectionable for All”-- just one rating above “Condemned”.
More current reviews are not so generous even though The Rotten Tomatoes review consolidator website calculates an 86% rating on its TomatometerTM.
British film journalist Leigh Singer says Kid is “a highly watchable, if somewhat superficial drama that bluffed its way to critical respectability on release.”
Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide: The Modern Era summarizes the plot: “Roving cardsharks get together in New Orleans for big poker game; side episodes of meaningless romance.”
Did you ever wonder how many ways there are to misspell “Cincinnati”? There are at least eight apparently:
Vowel uncertainty and consonant confusion with local movie houses.
For Steve McQueen, The Cincinnati Kid was the first of five hits in a row and the start of ten years as one of the top ten box office draws.
Cab Calloway went on to fine dramatic parts on the TV shows Madigan and Harry-O as well as other music and musical-comedy guest spots. The Blues Brothers (1984) was his next (and last) major feature film. In 1976 Cab called The Cincinnati Kid his second favorite film, after Stormy Weather (1943). In his autobiography, he summarized his memory of working on the film: “It was a wow.”
The Cincinnati Kid was a hit, grossing $15,260,000 on its initial release (a respectable $140 million in 2023 dollars). We have a winner!
- Advertisement, Variety, May 19, 1965, p20
- Advertisement, Variety, March 10, 1965, p80
- Advertisement, Box Office, October 9, 1964, p9
- “Ann-Margret Into The Cash Splash,” Variety, July 22, 1964, p5
- “Fear Ann-Margret Going Wrongo In Her Screen Image,” Variety, March 24, 1965, p5
- “Fox Holds Ann-Margret To Stagecoach, Denying Her For Mastroianni,” Variety, April 14, 1965, p4
- “Jewison Replacement for Sam Peckinpah,” Variety, December 9, 1964, p24
- “Martin Ransohoff To Seek Code Changes,” Box Office, November 25, 1963, p6
- “More Cincinnati Kid Books,” Box Office, October 24, 1964, pW-5
- “Refuse Spencer Tracy Xincy Kid Script Okay So Actor Takes Powder,” Variety, November 11, 1964, p24
- Ann-Margret with Todd Gold, Ann-Margret: My Story, Penguin Publishing Group, 1994, pp102-106
- Cab Calloway and Bryant Rollins, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976, pp248-250
- Floyd Connor, Pretty Poison: The Tuesday Weld Story, Barricade Books, 1995, pp138-141
- Jeff Corey, Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood How to Act, University Press of Kentucky, 2017, p116
- Roster Hirsch, Edward G. Robinson, Pyramid Publications, 1975, pp134-139
- Richard Jessup, The Cincinnati Kid: Tango Edition, Empty Grave Publishing, 2013 (includes the novel and the shooting script)
- Norman Jewison, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me, Thomas Dunne Books, 2004; p106
- Norman Jewison, “The Cincinnati Kid Commentary by Director”, Turner Entertainment Company, 2005
- Matthew Kennedy, Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes, University Press of Mississippi, 2014, pp190-192
- Brian Legan & John Rothwell, Those Other New Orleans Musicians Biodiscographies, unpublished, 2013
- Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide: The Modern Era, Penguin Publishing, 2017, p252
- Malachy McCoy, Steve McQueen: The Unauthorized Biography, New American Library, 1974, pp166-167
- Edward G. Robinson with Leonard Spigelgass, All My Yesterdays, New American Library, 1973, pp208-210
- Ed Sanders, Sharon Tate: A Life, Da Capo Press, 2015, p29
- Christopher Sandford, McQueen: The Biography, Harper Collins, 2002, pp165, 170-176
- Garner Simmons, Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage, University of Texas Press, 1982
- Penina Spiegel, Steve McQueen: The Untold Story of a Bad Boy in Hollywood, Collins, 1986, pp162, 169-173
- Sherrie Tucker, A Feminist Perspective on New Orleans Jazzwomen, unpublished, 2004
- David Weddle, If They Move…Kill ‘Em! The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, Grove/Atlantic, 1994, p259
- Dwight Jon Zimmerman, The Life of Steve McQueen, Quarto Publishing Group USA, 2017, p85
Thanks to the resourceful Tony SULLIVAN and his avelyman.com website;
and eternal gratitude to Jean-François PITET, master of the indispensible thehidehoblog.com, as well as my editor and friend.