May 30, 2015

This week in TV Guide: June 1, 1968

There is a tendency to assume that those of a certain age - my age, for example - will immediately get the significance of this week, and that they expect to see something about it.  And in fact it is difficult to avoid, this being one of those weeks when everything was turned upside down and very little of what was scheduled to be shown for much of the week would up being seen, at least not right away.

A couple of years ago I devoted an entire edition of "This Week in TV Guide" to this single event, and while it would be redundant to rehash it all again, it does demand a certain amount of attention.  You can't, for example, avoid seeing the programming note on Tuesday evening, in that innocuous language that absolutely nobody notices unless, like us today, they know what's coming up.  By Wednesday morning the story of Tuesday's presidential primaries had been completely overshadowed by what had happened overnight in California - not the victory by Robert F. Kennedy in the state's Democratic primary, but his shooting by Sirhan Sirhan and subsequent, lingering death early Thursday morning.  Two weeks ago I linked to a remarkable program by Fred Rogers dealing with how adults should explain the assassination to children; you're not going to find that program listed in this issue, and indeed you shouldn't have expected, or hoped, to ever see something like that.

One can argue whether or not Kennedy would have won the Democratic nomination had he lived.  Based on the contemporary evidence prior to the shooting, which you can see in videos here and here (including footage from earlier that very night), I tend to think that he would not have won, which means that the results of November's election might well have been the same, though the road to it might have been considerably less painful.  On the other hand, politics is a strange animal; as our frequent commenter Mike Doran reminds us, who knows what Chicago's Mayor Daley, for example, might have been capable of?  But as the philosopher once said, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts,...

Therefore this is an unusual issue, in that half of it is exactly what it seems, while the other half is nothing like that.  According to Broadcasting magazine, the three networks combined to broadcast over 200 hours of coverage between Wednesday morning and the burial Saturday night.When regular programming did resume the next week, it would be with what turned out to be a temporary deemphasis on violent programming.  Some thought the change might be permanent, and should be; I wonder what they'd think of programming today?

It is said that nothing on TV is ever what it seems; for much of this week, we don't even get the chance.

***

During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Sullivan:  The first of two parts commemorating Ed's 20th anniversary celebration, with guests Alan King, singers Jerry Vale and Lana Cantrell, comedienne Sue Carson, magician Norm Neilson and Mr. Jiggs, a performing monkey.  In the anniversary segment, King delves into the photo album for a lighthearted tracing of Ed's life.

Palace*:  Donald O'Connor plays host to comedians Sid Caesar and Bob Melvin; singer-puppeteer Shari Lewis and Lambchop; singers Don Ho, Ted Lewis and Marilyn Maye; and juggler Rudy Cardenas.

*As is their wont, KMSP, the Twin Cities' ABC affiliate, has moved Palace from its Saturday night slot to Thursday, preferring a local movie on Saturday.  Considering that Kennedy dies early Thursday morning, I don't know if this is broadcast or not.

I don't think either show has its best lineup this week.  I like Alan King and Sid Casesar, Donald O'Connor is a classic, and Jerry Vale has a very smooth voice.  The rest, though?  Too many vaudeville acts, not enough quality.  Next week Ed really brings the stars for part two of his anniversary special, but this week is strictly a warm-up.  The verdict: Push.

***

Perhaps we should have had an idea of the shape of things to come with the premiere, Saturday night on CBS, of one of the most disturbing, unsettling programs ever seen on television, the British drama The Prisoner.  The brilliant, enigmatic, often maddening series is the brainchild of the brilliant, enigmatic, often maddening Patrick McGoohan, and if you ever had the slightest paranoia about government and Big Brother, this series about a former secret agent who may or may not be a prisoner of the government he once served will be right up your alley.

I've written about The Prisoner before; it's #4 on my all-time top ten list, so I won't go into great detail here.  But in the more than 40 years since its debut, it's puzzled, infuriated and captivated generations of television viewers; one can only imagine the effect it had on viewers back in 1968 who, accustomed to seeing McGoohan's character on Danger Man, tuned in to see this new series that was the summer replacement for The Jackie Gleason Show.  Can you possibly imagine two more different series?

Now that you mention it, we're in something of a golden age for British shows on American television.  Up against The Prisoner on Saturday is NBC's The Saint with Roger Moore, while ABC counters with The Avengers on Wednesday night and Man in a Suitcase on Friday.  Then there are the other Brit imports of the late '60s and early '70, everything from the aforementioned Secret Agent to The Baron, The Protectors, The Persuaders! and Thunderbirds.  Many of these series come from ITC, which first moved into the American market with The Adventures of Robin Hood, and had a big Saturday morning hit on NBC with Fury, with future Misison: Impossible star Peter Graves.  I've always had a fond spot in my heart for these shows, which is why so many of them have wound up in my DVD library.*  They are such products of the hip '60s, with brilliantly saturated color, swinging themes from Ron Grainer and Edwin Astley, and a mixture of adventure and bizarre fantasy.  It's a wonderful time in television.

*Not The Thunderbirds, though.  One has to draw the line somewhere.

***

The Belmont Stakes is the featured sporting event of the week, and as is the case this year, one horse has the chance to win the fabled Triple Crown.  The atmosphere in 1968 is subdued, though; as we read last month Dancer's Image, the Derby winner, was subsequently disqualified, with the result that many people think Forward Pass, who was handed the Derby win and took the Preakness on his own, would have an asterisk next to his name if he were to win the Belmont as well.  Don't deny it, though: you tuned in to CBS on Saturday at 4pm (CT) to watch the 45-minute broadcast and see if Forward Pass can do it.  Fortunately for those who feared that the mythical quest for the Triple Crown would be tainted, Stage Door Johnny brings home the bread with a length-and-a-half victory.

Otherwise, it's a quiet week in sports.  The Atlanta Classic is the featured golf tournament, with a syndicated broadcast Saturday and Sunday.  ABC's Wide World of Sports gives us the Champions Track Meet from San Diego, featuring world mile-record holder Jim Ryun, CBS has Sunday afternoon soccer between the St. Louis Stars and Oakland Clippers, and NBC's Major League Baseball Game of the Week on Saturday is the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals, plus a Monday night special pitting the Detroit Tigers against the Boston Red Sox.  The Minnesota Twins are on the road with a weekend series against the Chicago White Sox, a midweek series against the Yankees, and - irony of ironies - a Friday night game against the Washington Senators.  That game will be played in Washington's D.C. Stadium, which by next year will be known as Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

***

Let's see, what else might we be interested in?

How about some culture?  On Sunday afternoon, Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic in an all-Beethoven Young People's Concert on CBS, including the first movement from the Symphony Number 5.  Six days later, on Saturday, Bernstein will be conducting members of the Phil in the Adagietto from Mahler's Symphony Number 5 at Kennedy's funeral.

Wish I had this issue!
Meanwhile, ABC presents a repeat broadcast* of their documentary The Actor, narrated by Alec Guinness from a script by Kenneth Tynan, with appearances by Harold Pinter, Nicol Williamson, Harold Pinter and Joan Plowright.  Plowright is back on Friday night, with her husband Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Michael Redgrave in Chekov's "Uncle Vanya" on NET Playhouse.  Also on NET, NET Festival on Tuesday night has the great jazz saxophonist Stan Getz along with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops from the Pops' summer home at Tanglewood.

*Knowing KMSP, the ABC affiliate, it was probably recorded from a broadcast on a previous weeknight, when Channel 9 would have showed a local movie instead.

How about a preview of coming attractions?  TV Teletype tells us that "One Life to Live, ABC's new daytime serial, bows on July 15."  It will stay on ABC for over 43 years, finally leaving the network in 2012.  "NBC has signed comedian Flip Wilson to an exclusive contract; as part of the deal he'll get his own fall special, which may develop into a series."  Indeed it does, from 1970 through 1974.  And Gale Fisher will take over as Mike Connors' secretary when Mannix returns for its second season in September.  She'll stay with the series for the remainder of its run, until 1975.

How about some movies?  Well, maybe not - according to Judith Crist, "If some Swiftian satirist decided to epitomize the worst of commercial movie-making, he'd probably wind up with a network-movie week like this one."  But isn't this just hype?  I mean, how bad can it be?  "The week also boasts a rerun of the TV version of Laura, as cruel a travesty of one of Hollywood's better films as ever fell into the hands of a pretentious rewriter (Truman Capote), an obviously embarrassed supporting case of pros and a thoroughly inept would-be star (Lee Bouvier)."  That bad, I guess.

***

The later part of the week is unremarkable, made up largely of reruns.  Once the Kennedy story has taken shape and the schedule mapped out, regular programs will be preempted and rescheduled at will.  In the weeks to come there will be a lot of talk about toning down violence on television, and certain episodes of certain series will be pulled from the schedule until things have died down.  In the end the changes are anything but permanent; The Untouchables, perennially cited as one of the most violent shows on the air, is almost tame when viewed today.

It's always the little things that make the biggest impact. There's ABC's Issues and Answers with Robert F. Kennedy on Sunday afternoon, the last network program on which he'd appear. His rival, Senator Eugene McCarthy, is on CBS' Face the Nation.  The topic, of course, is the California primary on Tuesday.  There's the blurb I repeated at the top of the page, outlining the network coverage of the primary, coverage that went on far longer than anyone could have predicted.  There's the stadium in Washington D.C., the one that will be known by a very different set of initials next year at this time.

As I said, the little things.

May 29, 2015

Around the dial

As we look around the classic TV blogosphere this week, most of my colleagues in the Classic TV Blog Association are engaged in our annual Summer of Me-TV Blogathon.  This is really a fun event, and many of your favorites are on display this week, so take a moment to go here for the complete list, and then go to each one of these blogs and enjoy.  You won't be sorry.,

In other news, The Classic TV History Blog has an in-depth profile of the mid '60s true crime series Lawbreaker, hosted by Lee Marvin.  I caught this series when it came out on DVD a few years ago.  Fun, though I wouldn't be likely to watch it again.  Where possible, it features the actual people - sometimes including the criminals themselves - who were involved in the case, which means the acting isn't always up to snuff.  My minor claim to fame is that I know someone whose family was involved in one of these cases.

Ah, Kelo-land!  During my sentence in the World’s Worst Town™, one of the few bright spots was the opportunity (when the stars were aligned) to catch the signal from one of the Kelo-land stations.  I can't remember for sure which one we got up there - might have been KDLO - but the South Dakota station gave us one of the few looks at the outside world, courtesy of CBS.  Fond memories, and they were brought back with this great KELO ad at Faded Signals.  Plenty of other cool old ads there as well!

Since I'm sitting here typing this on Thursday night, I'll link to Television Obscurities' TV Guide review from last week, in which the focus was on May 22, 1965.  I'm particularly partial to reviews of issues I don't have, such as this one.  I love these writeups; I wind up feeling as if I've read the whole issue, which is about the highest compliment I can think of, and I really enjoy the pictures and closeups that are used.  Even by the early '70s, much of that charm seems to be gone.

Does this seem as if it's been kind of short?  In a way, it has; just three individual links.  But when you consider how many blogs I've given you to look at because of the blogathon, I don't feel too bad. Why not come back tomorrow, and see what else I've got to offer?

May 28, 2015

The best thirty minutes on television

"HOW, LIEUTENANT, CAN YOU BE SURE WHICH IS THE ACTUAL MURDER WEAPON?"
Now I know what you're thinking: how can I possibly have anything more to say about Perry Mason other than what I've already said?  And it's true; in addition to my essay on Mason as one of my Top 10 shows of all time, I've frequently alluded to the show in one way or another.  So what?  We all have our quirks, our pleasures, the shows we keep coming back to again and again.  Still, what else can I say?  Well, let's talk about the most entertaining thirty minutes of television anywhere, surely the most entertaining thirty minutes to be found in a sixty minute show.

Someone once wrote that the courtroom was the perfect theater, as it provided a stage for the entire range of human emotion, and this is certainly true of Perry Mason.  About half of each episode, more or less, is spent in the courtroom, and I sometimes think you could skip the entire first thirty minutes or so and still be enthralled by the drama of Perry once again taking on Hamilton Burger (or whichever poor soul winds up on the opposite side of the table)*.  After all, we already know that the defendant is innocent, we already know the killer is somewhere in the courtroom, and if we sit through enough testimony we're going to figure out the premise and get a chance to guess who the guilty party is.  We're guaranteed that nine times out of ten Perry is going to get someone on the stand and, under a withering battery of questions starting with, "Isn't it true...", that person is going to crumble, blurting out either "I didn't mean to do it!" or "I killed him, and I'm glad I killed him - he deserved to die!"  After the final commercial break, we'll see Perry, Della and Paul sitting around a table in a restaurant, or sitting around a desk in Perry's office, or sitting around a desk in Hamilton Burger's office, whereupon Perry will modestly explain how he'd uncovered the guilty party in the first place.  It's so predictable - and oh, so entertaining.

*I'm not suggesting, by the way, that you skip the first half hour of the show.  You'll miss a lot of great lines that way, such as Perry explaining to Paul why they can't be arrested for burglary when they''re breaking into a suspect's office after hours: first, they didn't break anything to get in, and second, you have to take something for it to be burglary, and Perry only wants to get a look at what's in those files.  Stick to sleuthing, Paul, and leave the law to Perry.

As I've said before, we don't really know much about Perry, Della and Paul.  We know that Perry lives alone, that he lives in an apartment, and that even when he's home he reads his law books.  We suspect that he and Della have a closer relationship than most employers and employees, but we never see them out socially unless they're taking a break from working on a case.  We figure Della doesn't have any other man in her life; who'd ever put up with the kind of hours she keeps at the office?  We know Paul has an eye for the trim ankle, from which we can infer he's not married either, and we know Perry's his biggest client, but beyond that?  Nothing.  For that matter, we don't know much about Hamilton Burger, either.  Is he married?  And if so, how does his wife cope with him losing every single case he tries against Mason?

We don't know these things, and we don't have to.  What we do know is that Perry is the best lawyer around, one who will use any legal tactic to get benefit his client, no matter how much he has to stretch the envelope.  We know that Della's devoted to Perry, and that she'll see he gets everything he needs.  And we know that Paul, despite whatever doubts he might have about the innocence of Perry's client, will do whatever Perry asks him to do.  It doesn't take long to establish something like that; in fact, considering the popularity of Erle Stanley Gardner's Mason books, it's likely many in the audience already knew this before the series even started.

In our serialized era of television, shows tend to get so wrapped up in the private lives of the lead characters, their backstories and their continuing dramas and their evolutionary processes, that they forget Shakespeare's maxim: the play's the thing.  And once the play begins, once the participants have entered the squared circle of the courtroom, that's when things start cooking, when the panoply of human drama plays out.  One witness after another lays out the case against the defendant, who looks desperately at Mason: "He's twisting my words," she might say, or "I never said that!" or "I know I should have told you before, but I was afraid you wouldn't take my case!"*

*Whenever his client pulls that one, you can almost see the adding machine clicking away in Perry's head, wondering how much that's going to add to the bill when all's said and done.  "Let's see, that's $10,000 for lying, $5,000 for failing to tell me about the other woman, $2,750 for Paul's expenses in traveling to Mexico to check out a false alibi. . . Looks as if Della's going to get that new fur for Christmas after all."

Things start to look bleak for Perry and his client, and you can see it in Burger's smug expression, the satisfied way he confers with Lieutenant Tragg to head off one of Mason's surprise moves.  At last, I'm going to beat him!  And then, with no warning, the tide begins to turn.  Maybe Paul's rushed in a last-minute piece of advice, or Perry's noticed something that a previous witness said; whatever, the lightbulb goes on over Perry's head, and suddenly he launches two, three, four questions at the witness, who begins to stammer and sweat.  Burger, seeing that certain victory starting to slip away, desperately launches objection after objection, most of which are shot down by the judge who seems as curious as we are to find out what Mason's up to.  (Occasionally, the judge takes a little dig at Burger while he's overruling his objection, which makes it even better.)

In one recent episode, the breakdown in courtroom decorum was so egregious that the judge told Perry he'd look favorably on a motion for a mistrial.  From off-screen comes Burger's anguished shout: "Mistrial??!!"  No matter how great it is seeing Burger's face contort in pain, nothing compares to that off-screen shriek.  Perhaps, as is the case with Fibber McGee's closet, imagination is better that seeing.  In any event, Perry smoothly thanks the judge but says he's willing to continue his questioning, because he believes a couple more questions could "clear everything up."  Of course, he's right.  Sometimes it's the person you thought it would be, sometimes it's a particularly smarmy suspect who finally gets her comeuppance, but in the end it's the sheer pleasure of watching Perry at work: puncturing an executive's pomposity, taking a gossipy crone to task, turning a wiley witness into a quivering bowl of Jell-O.  From that first "Isn't it true" you know where things are going.  And you love it.  "Here he goes!" you think, and you're right.

If I make this sound too simplistic, I don't mean to, because what Perry Mason does isn't simple at all.  To keep a formulaic program like this going for nine successful years, continuing to entertain audiences for week after week, takes a good staff of writers to come up with scripts, and an exceptional cast to execute them.  Raymond Burr so inhabited the role of Mason that he became a favorite speaker at law conventions and meetings of bar associations.  He infuses his character with an indefatigable desire for justice, and an unwavering belief in his client; even if he thinks that client has lied or withheld information, he's going to make damn sure that Burger, et al don't get a whiff of that doubt.  I've referred in the past to Mason as a single-combat warrior, a solitary figure standing in front of the bench, prepared to engage in a battle to the death in behalf of an innocent person.  In Mason's hands, or rather, in Raymond Burr's hands, the law becomes the most noble of professions, Mason the most distinguished of its practitioners.

It's quite a legacy to leave, not only the entertainment value of the series but the portrayal of the man in it, for Perry Mason is one of the most enjoyable programs on television in any era, and Perry Mason is one of the most heroic characters the medium has produced.  Forget the lack of development, the characters frozen in time year after year, unchanging from season to season.  Ignore the flaws and imperfections which never seem to manifest themselves in our heroes.  Concentrate instead on that courtroom scene, the thirty minutes that close out the episode, the most entertaining half hour on television.

This post is part of the the 2015 Summer of Me-TV Classic Television Blogathon. Click here to view the lineup of all the great posts in this blogathon. 

May 25, 2015

What's on TV? Monday, May 26, 1980

We're making a return trip to the Phoenix area this week.  I don't have a lot of local insight, but there's more that one interesting sidebar to the week's programming.  The programs du jour are from Monday, May 26, and let's see what the stations have to offer.

May 23, 2015

This week in TV Guide: May 24, 1980

In the mid-60s, when I was but a wee lad, there were few sporting events that were quite as mysterious as the Indianapolis 500.  For one thing, it was always held on Memorial Day, which back then meant May 30, so it was one of the few events to take place in the middle of the week.  Because of the length of the race, it started in the morning for those of us in the Central time zone and points west.  And there was no live home television, which meant that if you were curious about the race, there were two ways to follow it: listen to the live radio broadcast, or go to a movie theater and pay a few bucks to watch the closed circuit telecast.  Otherwise, your best bet was to catch about 40 minutes of highlights the next week on Wide World of Sports.

The difficulties would be worth it though, because the Indianapolis 500 was the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.  Many drivers and car owners would work the entire year in hopes of making the pilgrimage to Indianapolis for a shot at qualifying for the race.  On race day itself, over 200,000 fans would cram into the old Speedway to spend about four hours or so watching the cars whiz around the oval at increasingly faster speeds, driven by men who freely risked their lives for a chance at the first-prize trophy.  More often than not, at least one driver wouldn't make it to try again the next day.

By 1980, things had changed. Memorial Day was now the fourth Monday in May, and the race itself, which in the past had been held every day of the week but Sunday*, was now scheduled specifically on Sunday, with Monday as a backup in case of rain.  There was still no live TV coverage (although the radio broadcast remained, as it does to this day) but instead of having to wait until the following Saturday for Wide World, race fans could see a same-day telecast that night on ABC.  Not everything had changed, though, for the Indianapolis 500 was still the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, not to mention the biggest sporting event of the week, and fans and drivers alike still circled the entire month of May on their calendars, for there was no greater prize in racing than Indianapolis.

*The race was treated much the same way as the New Year's Day bowl games; when Memorial Day fell on a Sunday, the race was moved to Monday.  When Memorial Day was transferred to a Monday, the 500 was moved first to Saturday, then Memorial Day Monday itself, before settling in with the current Sunday/Monday schedule.

The 1980 broadcast of the 500 was held on Sunday, May 25, with Jim McKay and former world champion Jackie Stewart in the broadcast booth.  For the first time, ABC's same-day coverage had been expanded to three hours, all the better to present complete coverage of what was sure to be a battle for the ages.  No less than seven former champions were in the field, including A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al and Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock, defending champion Rick Mears, and two-time winner and pole sitter Johnny Rutherford.  Twenty-nine other drivers would try and fail to qualify.  A crowd estimated at 300,000 filled the Brickyard to watch Rutherford turn in a dominant performance, beating future champion Tom Sneva by nearly a half-minute to become the sixth three-time Indy 500 champion.

I mention all this detail for a couple of reasons.  First, I've always been a racing fan, and as I pointed out in this article last year, Indianapolis always held a special place in my heart.  I was one of those who would sit for four hours listening to the radio broadcast, imagining the action taking place hundreds of miles away, then spending two or three hours watching the highlights even though I already knew who'd won.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
The second reason is that anyone under the age of, say, 30, might have a hard time appreciating just how big Indy once was.  With the exception of the 500, Indycar racing has all but disappeared from the American consciousness, and empty seats at the 500 itself, once unthinkable, are now commonplace.  NASCAR is the king of the American racing hill, and drivers such as Jimmy Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who would have been natural Indy drivers at one time, typify the talent which has been lost.  Whereas 100 drivers would battle for the 33 prize spots in the 500 back in the day, race organizers now struggle to even attract 33.  They're somehow able to do it every year (this year there were 34 trying to make the field) but one of these days they're bound to fall short.

It's true that things are constantly changing; nothing lasts forever, after all, but the changes can sometimes be cruel.  The mystery of the Indianapolis 500 has long since disappeared, along with much of the glamour and excitement, and almost all of what made it unique.  Today it's just one more sporting event on a Sunday that's crammed with sports from early morning until late at night.  It's not even the biggest race of the day, let alone the year; Formula 1 fans point to the glamorous Grand Prix of Monaco, which NBC covers at 6:30 am, while NASCAR fans wait for their longest race of the year, the Coke 600, on Fox later in the afternoon.  The Indianapolis 500 is nothing more than the centerpiece of a racing series that hardly anyone cares about anymore; I don't even bother watching it anymore, live or on tape.  There's just too much to do, too much life to live, to spend four hours you'll never get back watching a race that no longer makes the heart beat faster.  That's life, and maybe it's progress as well, but that doesn't mean it's anything to celebrate.

***

It's possible that another reason for the length of the preceding is TV Guide fatigue, but I think the most likely reason is that I'm not getting much inspiration from this issue.  I've complained about the '80s before, although I think it's good to dip into the decade once in a while and see what's going on, but there doesn't seem to be a lot attracting me here.  As an example of what we have to work with, witness the four shows NBC has just cancelled, and the five that are being introduced as replacements.

Going from the schedule are United States, the Larry Gelbart dramedy starring Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver that probably would have done much better a decade later; Hello, Larry, the latest bomb in the television career of McLean Stevenson; and The Best of Saturday Night Live, which has "filler" written all over it.  As for the new shows, four of them probably won't ring many more bells: Harper Valley, P.T.A., starring Barbara Eden, which somehow managed to last for 30 episodes; Flamingo Road, a Dallas wannabee with Howard Duff, Stella Stevens, Morgan Fairchild and Mark Harmon which outdid Harper Valley by eight episodes; Thursday Games, a reality-based sports series that eventually made it to the schedule as Games People Play and survived barely a season; and Speak Up, America, a Real World spinoff that featured Marjoe Gortner as one of the stars, which was also was a one-and-done series.

Oh, the fifth series that I mentioned?  That one might be more familiar to you.  It's a gritty police comedy-drama called Hill Street Blues.

***

Two shows on this week provide a stark look at the times - in fact, although they're not very good, they wouldn't make any sense at all without understanding the political strife boiling away in the background.

The two are The Golden Moment: An Olympic Love Story, a two-part (Sunday and Monday) TV movie on NBC, and Phyl & Mikhy, a sitcom premiering on CBS Monday night.  What they both have in common (other than being pretty bad) is that they're staged against the backdrop of the Moscow Olympics and they involve romances between American and Russian athletes.  The problem (other than that they're pretty bad) is that the United States isn't going to be taking part in the Moscow Olympics, and therein lies the story.

As has so often been the case in the last four decades or so, this one happens as a result of military action in Afghanistan.  The Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, which began in December 1979 and lasted over nine years, was met with widespread international condemnation, peaking with President Carter's call for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics*, ultimately joined by numerous countries.

*There were many who protested the U.S.S.R. being awarded the Olympics in the first place, given the country's miserable human rights record; nowadays, it seems as if only totalitarian countries have the political clout to put the Games together.

The international ramifications of the boycott can be debated, but one thing beyond debate is the effect it had on movies and series such as the two I mentioned above.  To be blunt, they were gimmicky concept shows whose gimmick was now shot all to hell, leaving their messages of universal understanding and love trumping political differences ringing somewhat hollow.  Of course, if you're like me, with little tolerance for corn like that, you were probably cackling all the way at the irony of it all.  Ain't I a stinker?

***

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Finally, a quick look at some odds and ends.

On Wednesday night NBC celebrates Bob Hope's 77th birthday.  You're probably thinking the same thing I am: 77 isn't a milestone number*, so why is NBC doing this?  I don't know; it might have been an annual tradition by that point, or NBC might not have wanted to take the chance of waiting three years longer.  At any rate, it's another example of a star-studded special filled with the stars of the late '70s; big names for the time to be sure, but not exactly the names one typically associates with Bob Hope - unless you're willing to role play a bit, in which case the show makes perfect sense.  For example, there's Loni Anderson as Dorothy Lamour, Andy Gibb as Bing Crosby, Barbara Mandrell as one of the Andrews Sisters (take your pick), Diana Ross as jazz singer Nancy Wilson, Alan Shepard as Dwight D. Eisenhower and the figure skating team of Babilonia and Gardner as two of the Seven Little Foys.  At least that's the only way I can make sense of it.

*Unless it's followed by the words "Sunset Strip."

Best of the new movies this week, according to Judith Crist, is The Henderson Monster by Ernest Kinoy, starring Jason Miller, Christine Lahti and David Spielberg in a later-day Frankenstein movie dealing with DNA research.  Crist finds it "wonderfully credible" and praises Kinoy's script, "marked with wit, irony and a sophistication rare in TV 'social' drama."  The movie airs Tuesday on CBS.

There is sports other than Indy; NBC carries the U.S. Olympic Trials which, as the network notes, are now all that American athletes have to shoot for.  CBS has live coverage of portions of NASCAR's Coke 600 - then known as the World 600 - on Sports Spectacular; the network isn't quite there as far as showing all 600 miles, the way Fox does today.  And a possible baseball strike is averted at the last minute, making possible the Saturday Game of the Week between the Dodgers and Cubs.

Oh, that cover story about whether or not sitcoms are getting better?  The gist is that they're able to deal with more adult topics than they used to, and that gravitas can tend to increase the number of storylines.  So I guess they're better.

And to round things up, you'll recall that a couple of weeks ago I mentioned TV Guide's defense of the number of hours which Americans spend watching TV.  The idea that the average viewer watches over six hours a day, the editorial remarked, was ridiculous - that may be the number of hours the television is on, but the average individual viewer only watches about two and a half hours.  A year later, with a new survey out by Nielsen, the magazine makes the same argument.  Now, the TV is on for nearly six and a half hours a day, but the amount of time the average individual spends watching it is still lower - although it's risen to over four hours.  Hmm.  I don't know if that's good or bad.  One thing I do know, and agree with, is TV Guide's conclusion that "We don't think the total amount of time spent watching TV is as important as what we choose to watch."  And the what, after all, is what this blog is all about.

May 22, 2015

Around the dial - coming attractions and more!

Just a note to remind everyone that next week is the Classic TV Blog Association's annual Summer of Me-TV Blogathon.  Yours truly along with some of the finest classic TV bloggers around will be writing about some of the shows that make Me-TV one of the few networks worth watching.  You can read all about it here, but that's no substitute for reading about them all next week.

Outspoken and Freckled says goodbye to Mad Men, and I'll take this opportunity to admit once again that I've never seen a full episode of the series.  That doesn't mean I'm unaware of it though; I've read many a review at the A.V. Club, and I've got to admit that last week's last scene sounds pretty clever.  Now that I know how it ends, will that ruin it for me if I ever watch it?

Cult TV Blog introduces us to the world of Charley Says, and though I don't understand much about it, I really enjoyed reading it, as usual.  I think there are some very perceptive comments about the '70s as well; I, too, find it too easy to forget how fatalistic the 1970s were.  That doesn't mean things aren't bad today, but it seems as if we're always convinced that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.

Sorry to read that The Old Movie House is closing down, at least temporarily.  Get well soon, Tom!

Comfort TV introduces us to yet another exhibit in the Museum of Comfort TV: the Hoyt-Clagwell Tractor that Oliver and Lisa Douglas rode on Green Acres.  I know the Museum is all in the mind, but when it becomes a physical reality call me, David - I'll be glad to work there!

Television's New Frontier: the 1960s takes us back to one of the iconic shows of the '60s: My Three Sons.  I remember watching that show in my youth, though my memories are more of the show's later years, when I was too young to realize that Beverly Garland really was quite a babe at one time.

Television Obscurities will have another great TV Guide review up on Friday, but as of the time I'm writing this (late Thursday night) it isn't up yet.  So when you go over there, don't forget to read this piece on the wonderfully-named "new obscurities" of this television season.

Every single site on the sidebar has something worth reading, so just because I only gave you a handful here, take some time to look at the rest of these sites as well.  But make sure you remember to come back here tomorrow for another trip into the past of TV Guide.

May 20, 2015

G.E. College Bowl and the changing of the times

Continuing our little May video series, let's look at a couple of episodes from the long-running G.E. College Bowl.  As usual, following the clips we'll have a few observations.

The first is from March 29, 1959, when the series ran on CBS and was hosted by Allen Ludden.  The contest pits Barnard College of New York City versus the University of Southern California.  Enjoy the commercials!


The second match is later, from March 9, 1966.  The show has moved from CBS to NBC, from black and white to color, and from Alan Ludden as host to Robert Earle.  Our competitors this time are Princeton University and tiny Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.  The show is divided into three parts; parts two and three can be seen here and here.


As one might expect, there's more to see here than a simple nostalgia for old television.  From the purely technical side, the later show is, as you would expect, a more polished and compelling production.*  The addition of color makes the graphics pop, and the repeated focus on the clock, with the sweep second hand approaching zero, enhances the sense of urgency and drama in the cliffhanger ending.

*Understandable, since the 1959 game was only the show's tenth telecast.

Robert Earle was a far more compelling choice as host than the somewhat smarmy Ludden, who just can't resist calling attention to himself in the best tradition of game show hosts.*  Earle never lets his role detract from that of the students, and unlike Ludden seems far more at ease with the academic nature of the questions.  One gets the idea that Earle might have been able to answer a few of the questions himself, whereas Ludden comes across as more condescending, reminding you that he's the host, whether he knows the answers or not.

*Rather like the difference between Bill Cullen and, say, Richard Dawson.

The questions themselves are challenging enough on their own, let alone having to answer them quickly, on live television and in front of a studio audience, before someone on the other side buzzes in.  I personally feel fortunate when I can answer one or two of them.  One can argue that the knowledge required to win is too specific, not as relevant to modern life, but that makes sense only when you look at college as a vocational tool rather than what it originally was, a place where the individual's knowledge is burnished and the student himself comes out as a more well-rounded person.*

*In fact, this spawns an entirely new question: the role of a college education in modern society.  In an era when college degrees seem to be a requirement for all but the most menial jobs, with advanced degrees often preferred, have we gotten away from the original intent of higher education?  Should we revisit the difference between a vocational college and one specializing in liberal arts?  Do we put too much of a premium on college degrees, with the result a milieu of entitlement, debt and political indoctrination?  Interesting questions all, ones that can easily be considered in the context of television's portrayal through the years, from a program like College Bowl to series such as Halls of Ivy, Hank and The Paper Chase.

Furthermore, the eternal struggle over college has always been a staple of family dramas and sitcoms, particularly in the mid-part of the century, when so many first generation Americans were under pressure to become the first in their family to attend college.  At that point it was a mark not only of achievement but assimilation into the American way.  Even then the tension existed between parents who wanted their children to do better than they did, to get that degree and then become a professional, a doctor or a lawyer, and children who wanted to follow their hearts and be a mechanic, a singer or an actress; in later years, we'd see those same children rebel against the system and become dropouts, peace activists, or non-profit advocates, much to the consternation of their parents.  And except in the most frothy comedies, college is often portrayed as a struggle of pressure to achieve, measured against either the expectations of others or the student's own expectation.

In the end, do we perhaps see in television's portrayal of higher education an evolution in the depiction of college life, as the quest for knowledge becomes, instead, the quest for a better, higher-paying and more prestigious job?

Alas, probably a topic for another day.

And look at the students on College Bowl; my wife commented on how mature and poised they were, particularly the girls of Barnard.  Cherry White*, for example, has a lot more moxie than people I've seen in the business world.  Nerdish overtones, of course, but still very polished for college students.  Even in 1966, when knowledge was becoming a weapon that students would use against the establishment, there's still something clean-cut and adult about the players.  I remember my wife commenting, as we watched the episode, on whether or not any of them wound up involved in campus riots or antiwar protests.  The point is, would young people today be as poised, as adult, in a culture that seems to adore perpetual adolescence?  Would they look as if they were headed for success, a cocktail party, or back to their parents' basements?

*Whose actual first name, by the way, was "Heritage."  I wonder what ever happened to her?

According to one source, General Electric dropped their sponsorship of College Bowl due to that very college unrest, after which the show disappeared from weekly airwaves.  If that's true then it's a sure a sign as any of the cultural upheavals enveloping the country, and a reminder of how that manifests itself on television.

May 18, 2015

What's on TV? Wednesday, May 19, 1965

A few years ago I had the chance to pick up a number of old TV Guides at an antique store, for prices that were probably better than they are online.  (No offense intended; saving on shipping is a big part of this equation.)  I passed, because the issues were not from the Twin Cities, and therefore I had no memories against which to measure them.  Most of them were from Wisconsin, as I recall, which would have been a good enough reason in and of itself to skip them.*  Big mistake.  Had I known I'd be doing this blog I would have snapped them up; even though my first choices continue to be Minneapolis/St. Paul and my new home, Dallas/Fort Worth, I find looking at new areas to be fun.  Educational, even.  As long as we don't overdo it.

*This joke only works if you're living in a state that borders Wisconsin.  Now that I live in Texas, I actually have fairly kind thoughts about the Cheese State.

This week we make a trip to the Big Apple, with a couple of stops in Connecticut for good measure.  Of all the places we could choose, New York is probably one of the more interesting; notice how many of their local newscasters go on to success at the network level.  You also see staples of TV cliches such as The Late Show.  But enough talking; let's get on with it.

May 16, 2015

This week in TV Guide: May 15, 1965

I told you it was a big day today, didn't I?  For the second half of today's doubleheader*, we'll start with a look at Robert Lansing, currently - but not for long - the star of ABC's 12 O'Clock High.  I've read various accounts of why Lansing was sacked from the show after one season;  Quinn Martin, the legendary producer of 12 O'Clock High and many other shows, offers one of the strangest reasons I've ever read: Lansing's an actor who plays best with the audience at a late hour, say 10:00 pm (ET), which is the time that 12 O'Clock High airs.

*See here for today's curtain-riser.

Problem is, next season the show's moving to 7:30 pm, and Martin claims that ABC asked him to "find another series for him" that ran at 10 pm.  "Had we remained at 10 P.M., Bob would have continued."  Now, quite frankly that sounds ridiculous to me, but Lansing, who's being replaced by former Naked City star Paul Burke, is sanguine about it.  "My contract was with Quinn Martin, and he's the only one I've talked to.  I can't be mad at Quinn, either.  He says it was the network's decision, and I have no evidence to make me doubt him."  To show that he's a team player, Lansing adds that he feels the show's quality will suffer from being moved to an earlier time with, presumably, a younger audience.  "12 hours a day is too long to work at something you don't like."

I don't know about all this.  I've always liked Robert Lansing; he projects a tough, masculine image but has a softer side that still resonates with the audience.  For instance, as Detective Carella in 87th Precinct, he was able to portray a no-nonsense cop who still had a sense of humor, not to mention a dedication to protecting the public.  As the character Gary Seven, he's one of the few guest stars to hold his own with Mr. Spock and the rest of the Star Trek crew, outwitting them at almost every turn.  He did a better job on the short-lived series The Man Who Never Was than the series deserved, and he had a memorable guest role in The Equalizer many years later. Cleveland Amory, a hard man to please, describes Lansing's work in 12 O'Clock High:  "Make no mistake about it.  Robert Lansing is magnificent."  The idea that he has to have a "10 pm" timeslot is just - odd.

 A second theory about Lansing's departure is that it was hard for the audience to accept that his character, General Frank Savage, would be out there in the middle of the war himself rather than directing things from behind a desk.*  The series was based on the Academy Award-winning movie of the same name, which starred Gregory Peck as Savage and Dean Jagger as Colonel Harvey Stovall, played in the series by Frank Overton. and if memory serves there were a couple other characters from the movie who show up in the series (played by different actors, of course.)

*Paul Burke's character, by contrast, is a Colonel.

This leads to today's trivia question, which might make for some fun comments below.  The second season of 12 O'Clock High begins with Savage's plane being shot down and the General being killed. Paul Burke's previous series, Naked City, was also based on a movie, the stars of which were Barry Fitzgerald as Detective Lt. Dan Muldoon and Don Taylor as his partner, Jimmy Halloran.  When the series transitioned to television, John McIntire assumed the Muldoon role (right down to Fitzgerald's Irish brogue; it's a wonderful portrayal), while James Franciscus played Halloran.  McIntire soon tired of the weekly grind of a series, however, and was killed off late in the first season, to be replaced by Horace McMahon as Mike Parker.*

*I'll bet you thought I was going to say he was replaced by Paul Burke, right?  No, his character replaces Halloran, who disappears for no apparent reason.

Having given you those examples, can you name any other television series adapted from a movie that then proceeded to kill off one of that movie's star characters?  I can't, but then I don't want to think too hard about it.
***

During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Sullivan: Ed's special guests are Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn, stars of London's Royal Ballet Company.  Also on the bill are Welsh recording star Petula Clark; comedian Alan King, who tells about the New York World's Fair; the West Point Glee Club; the rock 'n' rolling Beach Boys; comedienne Sue Carson and pop singer Frankie Randall.

Palace: Host George Burns introduces operatic soprano Mary Costa; singer Jack Jones; comics Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks in an interview sketch on dating; the Young Americans, vocal group; pantomimists Cully Richards and Company; the Flying Zacchinis, trapeze artists; and the Almiros, jugglers.

The Palace really starts strong this week, both musically (Costa and Jones) and comedically (Burns, Reiner and Brooks), but just when I was starting to get excited - the Young Americans, mimes (I hate mimes), jugglers, trapeze artists...

On the other hand, your affection for Ed will depend largely on what you think of ballet; since Nureyev and Dame Margot are two of the very biggest names in the business, you can bet they're getting a lot of airtime, with three excerpts from Nureyev's version of Swan Lake.  I happen to like ballet, and since this is my blog, and since I also like Petula Clark and Alan King and think the Beach Boys are probably the best American rock act of the time (which may not be saying much, granted), I'm giving this week to Ed as he dances rings around Palace.

***

As much as I love the hometown TV Guides from my youth, it's always fun to see other markets from time to time.  A couple of this month's offerings are from Phoenix, and this week's issue is from New York City.  Let's see how things are done in the Big Apple.

One thing to notice: lots of movies.  But that doesn't necessarily mean more movies, just more times that movies are on.  For example, WNEW, Channel 5 (now WNYW, the Fox affiliate, but an independent in 1965) has a movie which they show daily at 10:00 am and 1:30 pm*, presumably for those housewives who either go shopping or have to pick up the kids from kindergarten or, I don't know, entertain the milkman in the morning.  Whatever the case, when a movie's shown twice during the day, you don't really have any excuse for missing it unless you work outside the office, in which case it wouldn't matter how many times it's on.

*Just so there's no confusion, they show the same movie at 10am and 1:30pm.  Not part 2 of the movie, the same movie.  The same exact movie.

Next, there's Million Dollar Movie on WOR, Channel 9.  Million Dollar Movie, which began in 1955, was really a quite clever way of exploiting the showing of a big-time movie - which, due to the continuing antagonism between movie studios and television, weren't always that commonplace.  Million Dollar Movie's hook was twofold: the movies would have never before been seen on television, and they would be shown multiple times a day for the entire week - as many as sixteen times a week, according to some.  By 1965, the number was down to seven times a week: 11:00 am and 11:00 pm on Sunday, and then 11:25 pm Monday through Friday.  This week's feature: The Lost Missile, starring Robert Loggia and Ellen Parker.  "New Yorkers have little more than an hour left to live, as a radioactive missile circles the earth, destroying everything in a 10-mile-wide swath." *

*In other words, they only have a hour to live - until the next showing.  And you should not confuse this with Channel 3's Satellite in the Sky airing Monday at 11:20pm, in which "a rocket ship heads for outer space to explode an experimental bomb," or Channel 2's Abandon Ship, where 27 passengers of a luxury liner that sank try to fit into a lifeboat that can only hold 12 .



And then there are the two movie shows that have the most iconic names of all: The Late Show and The Late Late Show, both of which air on WCBS, Channel 2. Here's the famous opening to The Late Show:


Channel 2's couplet of The Late Show and The Late Late Show were billed as "post-midnight entertainment for 'television's other audience'," back in a time when it was somewhat sophisticated and grown up to stay up late during the week.  The Late Show stars at 11:20 pm, and The Late Late Show at about 1:25 am, which brings us up to about 3 am most times, when Channel 2 airs a couple more movies to take the viewing audience up to Summer Semester that morning.

***

Of course, there's a lot more to local television than movies.  There's news, for example, and it's probably no surprise that many of the local news anchors in New York are also tied in to network broadcasts.  WNBC's (Channel 4) early evening newscast, for example, was anchored variously by NBC correspondents Gabe Pressman, Robert MacNeil and Bill Ryan, while Frank McGee appears as the anchor of a 10-minute news update at 11pm, with Jim Hartz (like McGee, a future host of The Today Show) presents 15 minutes of local news at 11:15.  Robert Trout augmented his correspondent's work for CBS by anchoring the 6:30 pm news on WCBS,

On the left: Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel
Some local personalities, while not graduating to the network level, became local legends.  Tex Antoine, who gives the 11:10 weather on Channel 4, was a fixture on local television for three decades.*  Bill Beutel did time with ABC as a reporter and, later, as co-host of the morning show A.M. America, but he's probably best known for his years with Roger Grimsby as co-anchor of WABC's Eyewitness News, and in 1965 he hosts the station's 11:00 news.  Incidentally, WABC would boast of one of the epic local lineups of all time in the late '60s, with Beutel and Grimsby doing the news, Antoine (who'd moved over from WNBC) with the weather, and sports commentary being provided by a guy named Howard Cosell.  Beat that, huh?

*If you want to find out how his career came to an end, check his Wikipedia page.

Of course, not being from New York, I'm sure I'm missing a lot of names and data here, so if any of you want to chime in with more details, you're always welcome!

***

Here's a quick look at the rest of the TV week:

Sports:  The Preakness, live from Pimlico in Baltimore.  The favorite is Lucky Debonair, winner of the Kentucky Derby, but Dapper Dan winds up in the winner's circle with the Black-Eyed Susans.  If horse racing's not your game, there's plenty of baseball, with both the Yankees and Mets appearing numerous times throughout the week, and the final round of the New Orleans Open golf tournament airs on Sunday.

Comedy:  I'll be talking about Gilligan's Island in a moment, but on Saturday we have that delightful situation that finds Jim Backus competing against himself, as Gilligan airs on CBS at 8:30 pm, up against NBC's Mr. Magoo.  Only time in TV history that an actor has competed against himself with two shows on different networks at the same time.

Game Shows:  Paul Anka is the guest panelist on What's My Line? Sunday night.  Roger Smith and singer Carmel Quinn are on What's This Song? on CBS daytime, while Hermoine Gingold is the week's celebrity guest on ABC's The Price is Right.  Selma Diamond and Les Crane appear on Call My Bluff on NBC, followed by singer Gogi Grant and her husband Bob Rifkind taking on Alan and Virginia Young on I'll Bet.  George Grizzard and Joan Fontaine are on CBS' Password, singers Mel Torme and Sally Ann Howes are on NBC's You Don't Say!, and Henry Morgan and Lauren Bacall (!) follow on The Match Game.  Not a bad week of celebrity sightings.

Drama  A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the wonderful Twilight Zone episode "On Thursday We Leave for Home."  Well, it's the first of 17 reruns to debut in the show's Sunday night slot.  A sea monster terrorizes a Norwegian village on ABC's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Monday night.  And on Thursday, Perry Mason gets involved in the case of an actor taking part in one of Shakespeare's sword-dueling scenes - and winds up dead.

Culture:  On Monday, Channel 9 presents the movie version of Gian-Carlo Menotti's sinister opera The Medium, starring Marie Powers, Leo Coleman and Anna Maria Alberghetti.  Channel 2 has a documentary Tuesday about a place that'll get plenty of culture: the newly constructed Lincoln Center.  And what could possibly be more cultural than the New York State finals of the Miss Universe pageant, shown live Thursday night on Channel 11? The winner is Gloria Jon; I was hoping it might be someone who went on to great fame and stardom, but being Miss New York isn't bad at all.

***

Finally, Sherwood Schwartz tells Richards Warren Lewis about the difficulties he's had in getting Gilligan's Island from the drawing board to the screen.

For one thing, everyone in the executive suite at CBS loved it - except for Jim Aubrey.  And the problem there was that Jim Aubrey was the president of CBS.  United Artists, co-producers with Schwartz, hated the idea of a theme song that told the backstory.  He submitted the pilot to CBS, sans music, and it was rejected without comment.

At this point, Schwartz takes matters into his own hands.  He reedits the pilot the way he wants it done; "Is everybody through with the film now?  Can I do it my way?"  He writes the theme song himself, assembled a new version, and shipped it to New York, with a note that read, "This is the pilot I had in mind."

The results were a smash.  The test audience loved it so much that CBS made another audience sit through it, unable to believe the show had scored so high.  When the second audience seconded its approval, the show finally got on the schedule.  But even then, Schwartz's problems weren't done.  The suits didn't like the Hollywood actress character: "Who can identify?"  They didn't like the billionaire: "Who's going to understand a billionaire?"  They didn't like the science teacher: "What kind of flair does that have to it?"  Schwartz fought their suggestions, and won.  Then the network fired three of the seven actors who appeared in the pilot, which required further filming and editing.

The episode that winds up debuting on television is actually a combination of three separate shows, including about half of that pilot.  "It was an outlandish beginning," Schwartz says of that first episode.  "If you're telling a story about people who get shipwrecked, the only honest way is if the first show is about how they got wrecked.  Instead, it was about how they were trying to get off the island.  It's like starting on chapter two.  You didn't know who they were."  He thinks that has something to do with the bad initial reviews from some critics.

Even now, having spent the entire season in the top 40, not everyone at CBS is happy, but it doesn't matter to Schwartz.  He's proud of the way audiences have identified with the characters and the situation; "Whether you like my show or not, you turn into Gilligan's Island and in one second you know what show you're looking at."

Reading this, I'm struck by the thought that, for all the accusations that Gilligan was part of the dumbing-down of television, the objections from the suits at CBS suggest they didn't have much confidence in their audience's ability to identify with characters and figure things out.  Indeed, one can assume that if the network had had their way, Gilligan's Island would have been far, far dumber than even the harshest critics suggested.  And it wouldn't be as loved today.

Getting lost in the mystery of 2001: A Space Odyssey


It was a Sunday night, February 13, 1977. It was also a school night, which meant I was already in a funk, as you would be too if you went to school in the World’s Worst Town ™. Maybe the surrealism of my own life, having spent the first 12 years of my life in the big city before winding up in a Hicksville town of less than a thousand, made me more susceptible, I don’t know. What I do know is that this was the night that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey made its television premiere, and since the only two television stations we had access to were Channel 7 and Channel 10, it was either watch 2001 or Masterpiece Theatre, and I wasn't ready yet for British costume drama.

It may be hard to appreciate now, when movies seem to be on TV or in stores before you even knew they were in theaters, but back then it sometimes took years before a movie made it from the movie theater to your television screen.*  Even at that, however, it was noteworthy that nearly ten years had passed since 2001 had opened, which made that Sunday night's premiere on NBC a real event.

*Oftentimes, movies would be re-released every few years, and in the days before DVDs and streaming video, studios and theater owners were understandably concerned about protecting the investment on a real blockbuster.  

For most of the movie I was like everyone else, equal parts impressed and confused.  The movie's reputation preceded it, of course, so it wasn't as if I were expecting an episode of Star Trek or any other run-of-the-mill sci fi flicks.  Still, that didn't prepare me for the movie's climactic scene, the trip through the Stargate - but then, I don't know that anything would have prepared me for it.


Not before nor since have I felt that I've actually been hypnotized, but if that isn't what happened as I watched that scene, it was damn close.*  It wasn't just that I couldn't take my eyes off the screen; it was almost as if I'd actually entered the screen, that somehow the picture on television had come alive and filled the entire living room.  I was enveloped by it, and the fact I couldn't really understand what the ending of the movie meant became almost irrelevant.  I may have been watching on a small black-and-white television, but neither that nor NBC's inexplicable decision to split the scene in two with a commercial could dilute the impact.  I was hooked, but good.

*The critic Andrew Sarris famously reversed his negative review of 2001 after seeing the movie again "under the influence of a smoked substance"; I can assure you that this was not what happened in my case.  It is possible, I'll grant, that I was starting to nod off with my eyes wide open - after all, it's not as if there was a lot of action in that movie.  However, I've done that many times while I was watching TV, and those times never seemed quite the same.  

Fast forward a few years; by then the movie had gravitated to local television.  I don't think I understood it any more than I had the first time, but I was able to notice more: the acting, low key to the point of surrealism, especially by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood; the score, hand-picked by Kubrick - everyone remembers "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss in the opening and closing titles, but I was struck most by the music of Aram Khachaturian and György Ligeti*; the disquieting use of the silence of space; the extreme close-ups, the soundless dialogue, the white room, and of course the glowing red light of everyone's favorite computer, the HAL 9000.  Was HAL's voice the inspiration for Marvin the Paranoid Android in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?  There's something so gently sinister about him, so discomforting - I mean, not only does he have the best lines in the movie, he probably has more lines than anyone else.  I don't know for sure what HAL symbolizes, and I'm not sure I want to know, but whatever it is isn't good.  There was a Bud Light commercial a few years ago that was a spoof of Dave and HAL; I thought it was terrific.

*A word or two about the music.  Strauss' theme may be the most famous, and Ligeti's "Atmospheres," played during that Stargate scene, may be the most notorious (our cat hated it so much she used to run from the room whenever I played the soundtrack), but for my money the most affecting is Khachaturian's Adagio from his Guyan Ballet Suite, which is played in the scene where Dave Bowman watches the birthday video from his family.  Once you know the fate for which the astronauts are destined, it becomes profoundly moving.



Since those days, I've seen 2001 twice on the big screen, the way it was supposed to be seen, where the sheer scope of it is even more overwhelming.  I've got the DVD, and every once in a while I'll run across it on TCM, where I'll still pause and see how close I am to the Stargate scene.  In much the same way that Raymond Chandler's books transcended the mystery genre. 2001 transcended the science fiction movie.  Check that: it transcended film, period.   In a year when the Best Picture Oscar nominees included Oliver, Funny Girl and Romeo and Juliet, 2001 should have garnered a nod, but it was too far ahead of its time.  Kubrick's win for Special Effects and nominations for Director and Screenplay (with Arthur C. Clarke) would have to suffice.

Things have changed since then.  Pan American's no longer in business, nor is the Bell System, and Gravity testifies to how the Oscars have evolved with the times. Special effects, too, have changed dramatically since 1968, but would this have made 2001 any better?  I don't think so, because it was never really about the effects, nor was it really a genre movie.  It was about a lot more than that.  Do I, at the end of the day, really "get" 2001?  Probably not, though I do see something new every time I watch.  It changed me in many ways: not just the way in which I watch visual media, but in the visual aspect that's so much a part of the way I write, and in the soundtrack that can influence those words even when the reader doesn't hear it.

The fact is, I don't think I ever want to understand this movie, in the way that one might understand Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon.  In the end, 2001 is a mystery, one of those ethereal substances that never quite settle into a solid object.  When you understand too much about anything, you lose some of the mystery, and it was the mystery that first captured my attention all those years ago - and continues to do so today.

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.  And then watch a classic movie!

May 15, 2015

Coming attractions

No Friday links list today, but don't despair, because tomorrow is a rare double-header day!  In addition to the regular Saturday TV Guide feature, I'll have a second piece up* commemorating National Classic Movie Day!  Bet you didn't know that existed, did you?  Well, as of this year, it does!  I'll be part of what looks to be a terrific blogathon celebrating it, so you'll have far more links to look at if you can just hold on one more day.  You can read more about it here, and of course I'll expect you back at this site tomorrow to read my own contribution.

*Or a first piece, depending on the order in which you read them.

And stay tuned for another classic blogathon in a couple of weeks: the annual Summer of ME-TV.  More details next week.

May 13, 2015

Sid Caesar does opera: October 10, 1955

I posted this at the other blog a couple of weeks ago, but thought it might be appreciated over here as well.  It's a wonderful spoof of the opera Pagliacci by Sid Caesar and his merry band of crazies, as seen on NBC's Caesar's Hour broadcast of October 10, 1955.  Don't worry; you don't have to understand opera to appreciate it; you don't even have to speak Italian.  Sid sure isn't!



I just saw Pagliacci last month on one of the Metropolitan Opera's HD presentations, so this is particularly timely.  The thing of it is, I don't believe Caesar was considered a highbrow, elitist comedian.  Literate and intelligent to be sure, but at the same time there's a lot of slapstick involved in his bits.  As well, you probably remember his famous send-up of This Is Your Life that he did on his previous series, Your Show of Shows with Imogene Coca, which indicates his proclivity to satirize conventions with which the audience would be familiar.

And that brings me to my point, which is that the costume, the pathos of the story, all the trappings we see in this skit - they're as iconic to opera as the image of a large woman with pigtails, a horned helmet, and a breastplate and shield.  What's more, they're images that people know even if they don't know much of anything else about opera.  The television audience - the "middlebrow" audience of which Terry Teachout frequently writes - would have been expected to recognize these images, to know the gist of what Caesar is lampooning.  Far from being incomprehensible, the skit was written and performed in order to entertain, to make people laugh - and that entertainment quotient depends on a general familiarity with the premise.  The television audience of the mid-'50s would have had that familiarity.  Would mainstream audiences today?  I doubt it.  That's unfortunate; not only do we lose a good amount of comedy because of that, the topical comedy we do get comes from an incredibly fragmented society, targeted not to a general audience (I don't think such a thing exists anymore) but to a very small niche.  And today's niche for opera humor - well, you've heard the one about the number of angels on the head of a pin, right?

The writeup of this skit at by the person who posted it at YouTube is very good; take a minute to read it if you can, as it shows just how it matches up with the actual opera.  And if you're interested in seeing the actual Pagliacci (a wonderful piece, by the way; I don't think the Met production did it justice), you can see it in its entirety here.  Don't be afraid - it's a short opera.

May 11, 2015

What's on TV? Monday, May 7, 1979

This week we make our first of two visits this month to Phoenix.  In terms of programming, the Mountain time zone tends to mimic the Central, particularly in the prime time schedule.  I know virtually nothing about the television history of this area, but even there we'll be able to note a couple of things, so let's get started.

May 9, 2015

This week in TV Guide: May 5, 1979

There's nothing particularly outstanding to focus on in this week's issue (which comes to us from the Phoenix metropolitan area), so we'll just do a little of this and a little of that.  Think of it as a night with friends where, instead of having a formal dinner with a main course, you decide to nosh on appetizers and finger food.  After all, as long as you have desert, it's all good, right?

***

We're just about to the end of the variety show era; in fact, there are only two on this week, both on Sunday night.  First is ABC's Osmond Family Show features Cathy Rigby and Johnny Dark, with a spotlight on "talented kids," including Adam Rich and Andrea McArdle.  Later that night, it's an episode of CBS' Mary Tyler Moore Hour, a kind of quasi variety hour-sitcom, with Nancy Walker as this week's guest.

If you're in the mood for such, I'm recommending two specials that should cover the bases.  First up is The Johnny Cash Spring Special on CBS Wednesday night, as Johnny and his wife June Carter Cash welcome the Carter Family, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Earl Scruggs, Hank Williams Jr., and The Tennessee Three, among others.

On Friday night, NBC offers what is probably the best hour of the week, a two-hour retrospective on The Dean Martin Show, with highlights from the show's nine-season run.  It's hosted by Jimmy Stewart, Gene Kelly, Don Rickles, Orson Welles and Bob Newhart, and the clipfest includes appearances by Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Gina Lollobrigida, Phil Silvers, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Victor Borge, Ella Fitzgerald, Gordon MacRae, Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne.  That's just a few of the names, but I think it's enough to give you a pretty good idea of what a great show Dean's series was, as well as how good this special must be.

***

I've mentioned before that Judith Crist's movie reviews are often more entertaining than the movies themselves, and this week is no exception.  She has good words for the blockbuster movie of the week, 1977's Rollercoaster, calling it "good unqueasy fun."  It doesn't hurt that the screenplay was by Levinson and Link, who created Columbo, among others.

Such is not the case for Irwin Allen's two-part disaster flick Hanging by a Thread, which she describes as "about three hours of endlessly attenuated movie in two two-hour slots."  Her conclusion: "The total and unspecial effect is of excruciating boredom."

She also has harsh words for Anatomy of a Seduction, the story of a 40-year old divorcee (Susan Flannery, "though it could be Lee Remick or Elizabeth Montgomery") having an affair with the 20-year old friend of her son (Jameson Parker).  Crist calls the movie "another in the series of recent dramatic defamations of mature women through lip service to the 'new' morality," and offers a comment that might well serve today as the epitaph of the feminist movement, noting that the moral of the story is that women have the "ability to be as irresponsible and lecherous as the next guy."

Her best comment, however, is on the 1975 Western Take a Hard Ride, starring former football players Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, and spaghetti Western icon Lee Van Cleef.  Says Crist, the movie "is written as if for a fifth-grade remedial reader and performed to match."  In her non-recommendation, she warns us that "You've been there before."  Presumably, we won't want to go back.

***

One movie that Crist does spare is CBS' The Wild Wild West Revisited, a 10-year reunion of Robert Conrad and Ross Martin reprising their roles as James West and Artemus Gordon from the classic '60s Western/fantasy series.

I always thought The Wild Wild West was a fun show, though I was far more impressed with Martin, the master of disguise, than Conrad, the show's "star."  However, the real gem of the series was Michael Dunn, the Oscar-nominated actor who stole the show in his recurring role as Dr. Miguelito Loveless, the megalomaniacal dwarf-villain bent on world domination.  Unfortunately, by the time of the movie, Dunn has died, and in his place we have Paul Williams as his son, determined to seek revenge on agents West and Gordon.  Without Dunn, the movie can't possibly match up to the series, but as Crist says, it's "good to look at and very much for those who liked the series."

***

Care for a little sports?

As was the case last week, this week's sports highlight is the 105th running of the Kentucky Derby.  Since that TV Guide last week, coverage of the race has morphed from CBS to ABC, and now Jim McKay is host of the show instead of Jack Whittaker.  The favorite going into the race is Spectacular Bid, and the Bid does in fact come through with a big win.  He goes one to win the Preakness as well, but his attempt to become the third successive Triple Crown winner will fall short when he finishes third to Coastal in the Belmont Stakes.

The NBA is in the midst of the playoffs, and CBS has double-header coverage on Sunday afternoon, as well as a game on Friday night - and therein lies another story, that of the status (or lack thereof) of the NBA on national television.  The Friday night game, between teams to be determined, will be shown at 10:30 MT on tape delay.  That's right, no live coverage - wouldn't want to preempt CBS' triumvirate of The Incredible Hulk, The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas.  That would be hard to believe a few years later, when the NBA's moved to NBC and stars such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird have made professional basketball the "it" sport on TV.  Nowadays, if you're talking about prime-time sports on TV you won't see it much on the networks, but that's because most sports have made the transition to cable, with the result that - if you have the right package - you can now see every single game of the NBA playoffs live on one channel or another.  What a difference.

***

This week's starlet report is on JoAnna Cameron, who has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for having appeared in 105 TV commercials.  Advertisers, according to Ellen Torgerson's article, "have spent more than $100 million using JoAnna as the beauteous centerpiece of their commercials for cosmetics, shampoo, wine, beer, panty hose and breath freshener, among other things."

Yes, looking at the picture, I can understand that; she certainly has a face that can sell a product.  She's branched out into directing as well, and hopes someday to direct a feature film, in which she'd also star.

She has appeared in movies, albeit in small roles.  She was in How to Commit Marriage with Bob Hope, and did a TV movie called It Couldn't Happen to a Nicer Guy, as well as appearing in an episode of Columbo that same year, and as of this writing she's doing spots for the US Navy that run on ships.  She adds that she's turned down prime-time series that weren't "quite right," but her major claim to fame, to this day, remains her gig as Isis in the Saturday morning kids' program of the same name.  "It was only a minute part of my career," she says in the article, noting that "We shot it in two and a half months," but there's nothing in her CV that tops it.  According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, her career continued until 1980, at which time she transitioned to the home health care industry and then marketing for several hotels.  Not a hint of that upcoming change in this article.

***

Do any of you remember Scared Straight?  In the late '70s, it was quite the thing, winning the 1978 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.  Narrated by Peter Falk, the film gives a group of juvenile delinquents a look at their possible future by putting them in a three-hour conversation with convicts at Rahway State Prison in New Jersey.  The convicts attempt to scare the kids straight by stripping away the glamour and mystique of crime, and it's a brutal movie.

Scared Straight is airing on Thursday night at 9pm on KTAR, the NBC affiliate in Phoenix, with a viewer discretion advisory in the print ad, warning that "explicit and crude street language and graphic descriptions" will be present.   The aforementioned always-reliable Wikipedia notes that it was the first time words such as "fuck" and "shit" were broadcast on non-cable television.

I've always associated Scared Straight with the "tough love" method of crimefighting. I've wondered how effective it actually was.  I've no doubt that the students involved in the movie may well have been moved to change their behavior, but I think adults often think that these kinds of programs have a bigger impact than they do.  A 2013 study concluded that "programs like ‘Scared Straight’ are likely to have a harmful effect and increase delinquency relative to doing nothing at all to the same youths. Given these results, we cannot recommend this program as a crime prevention strategy. Agencies that permit such programs, however, must rigorously evaluate them not only to ensure that they are doing what they purport to do (prevent crime) – but at the very least they do not cause more harm than good to the very citizens they pledge to protect."

That sounds about right to me, unfortunately.  So Thursday's airing of Scared Straight is very much a product of late '70s thinking.  Very earnest, but perhaps not very effective.

***

This week's TV Teletype gives us a hint of things to come, with a note that producer Dan Curtis is starting work on ABC's adaptation of Herman Wouk's The Winds of War.  Curtis promises the miniseries will run for at least 12 hours, and will be an epic "played against the backdrop of the beginning of World War II."  No names are mentioned, but the finished product (running nearly 15 hours) was indeed an epic, starring Robert Mitchum, Ali McGraw, Polly Bergin, John Houseman, Topol, Ralph Bellamy, Peter Graves and many others, and spawning an even more massive sequel, War and Remembrance (also based on Wouk's book) that runs in 1988.

In TV Update, we learn that ABC has axed six series, including some with familiar names: Battlestar Galactica, Welcome Back, Kotter, What's Happening!!, Delta House, Makin' It and Starsky & Hutch.  Replacing these series are hoped-for hits The Associates, 240-Robert, Hart in San Francisco [which wound up with the title Nobody's Perfect], The Lazarus Syndrome, and a couple of series that did pay off as hits, Benson and Hart to Hart.  Well, I suppose a 33% success ration is nothing to complain about.

And this week's editorial notes that it's a fallacy that Americans watch TV for more than six hours a day."  In fact, the household television is on for more than six hours a day, but members of the household aren't all watching it at the same time.  Toddlers watch Captain Kangaroo, moms are glued to Phil Donahue, teens coming home from school hit the soaps and game shows, and then most of the family watches the news and prime-time programming.  (This also includes periods of time when the set is on and nobody's watching.)  The actual amount of television an individual watches per day: about two and a half hours.  Now that everyone has their own viewing device, and including the internet and video games, I wonder how many hours a day the average person spends in front of a glowing rectangle?