Telefilm Time Machine: That Certain Summer (1972)

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Just three short years after the Stonewall riots took place in New York ABC made television history when they aired THAT CERTAIN SUMMER (1972), the first gay-themed made-for-TV movie. This landmark telefilm is often left out of discussions about gay cinema but its significance shouldn’t be underestimated. This surprisingly smart and sensitive drama is well worth revisiting for the stand out performances, progressive script and Lamont Johnson’s understated and effective direction.

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Telefilm Time Machine: Daughter of the Mind (1969)

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Ray Milland and Gene Tierney in DAUGHTER OF THE MIND (1969)

Ray Milland sees dead people. Or to be more precise, Ray Milland begins seeing the ghost of his dead daughter in the made-for-TV movie DAUGHTER OF THE MIND (1969). I thought I’d kick start my year-long look at telefilms with this compelling thriller based on a novel by author Paul Gallico (THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES; 1942, BITTER VICTORY; 1957, THE SNOW GOOSE; 1971, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE; 1972, etc.) and directed by Walter Grauman. DAUGHTER OF THE MIND was one of the first telefilms that premiered on ABC’s Movie of the Week and it’s one that I’m particularly fond of due to its supernatural premise and stellar cast.

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A Brief History of the Telefilm

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One of the best gifts I received during the holidays was a set of books that I’ve been eager to get my hands on, Michael Karol’s ABC Movie of the Week Companion and David Deal’s Television Fright Films of the 1970’s. I grew up watching and enjoying telefilms and last year I spent a lot of time revisiting some of my favorites. Today telefilms, much like direct-to-video movies, are often looked at with disdain and are considered unworthy of critical evaluation. But they frequently featured talented actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age such as Bette Davis, Ray Milland, Myrna Loy, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Melvin Douglas, Gene Tierney and Walter Brennan and were occasionally directed by noteworthy filmmakers including Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Don Siegel, John Badham, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and Curtis Harrington. These small screen films were usually made in just a few short days with very little money but the performances, writing and directing choices periodically elevated the material and many of the best telefilms are still surprisingly effective and entertaining.

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After the Party’s Over: Gerry Anderson 1929-2012

Gerry Anderson Producer of 'Captain Scarlet and the Spectrum', 1967
I celebrate my birthday on December 26th and this year I woke up to the sad news that the man who was responsible for some of my favorite childhood memories had passed away on the same day that I was born. It’s not the kind of news you want to hear when you’re trying to celebrate your birthday but instead of becoming melancholy about Gerry Anderson’s death I became nostalgic about my childhood and increasingly grateful for the various opportunities I had thanks to being born and (mostly) raised in the Bay Area.

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We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate

This is a season of traditions: those comforting rituals that we reiterate on an annual basis because no matter how small some of them may be (like the making of home-baked ginger snaps), they have become imbued with powerful memories of home and loved ones, such that these little ceremonies carry a weight of meaning far in excess of their actual ability to signify.

There used to be a coterie of movies that belonged to these same holiday traditions—certain films like The Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life that were consistently and regularly replayed on commercial television on certain holidays.  You could almost set your watch to them. 

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Since its original broadcast in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been one of the most enduring and beloved holiday mainstays—and its history has a curious Mobius strip like effect.  When you watch A Charlie Brown Christmas this year—in whatever media you do (broadcast, on-demand, iTunes download, DVD, Blu-Ray, hallucinatory memory)—you are participating in a metatextual reconfiguration of its core themes!  Betcha didn’t even know that!

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Goodnight Phyllis, We Love You.

She was brash, she was bold and she was damn funny. Phyllis Diller took a road less traveled and in the process she helped pave the way for many female comedians who followed in her footsteps including Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr and Tina Fey. Comedy is still considered somewhat of a “boy’s club” but Phyllis Diller’s self-deprecating sense of humor helped her crack that glass ceiling and today she’s often credited for making the world a better place for female comedians to practice their craft.

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Toshiro Mifune Conquers American TV

With apologies to all the film aficionados and experts frequently present here on Movie Morlocks, I don’t believe I’m going out on much of a limb in saying that many other people know or have heard of Toshiro Mifune not from his appearances in masterworks of Japanese cinema but from his appearance in one of the most famous broadcast television miniseries ever presented.  On September 15, 1980, NBC presented Part 1 of their five-part adaptation of Shogun, novelist James Clavell’s sweeping saga about a British sailor shipwrecked in 17th century Japan who ends up smack in the middle of an intense rivalry between two powerful and ambitious men who crave the same thing — to win the title of Shogun.

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The Battle Hymn of Republic Pictures

On July 18th, Olive Films will begin their roll-out of the Republic Pictures library with DVD/Blu-Ray releases of High Noon (1952) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Republic has long been one of the most underutilized holdings in the home video market, passing from corporation to corporation with little concern for the treasures it contained. But upstart Olive has closed a massive licensing deal with Republic parent Paramount Pictures, and is set to release a flood of material (from B-Westerns to prestige pics) in 2012 that had mostly been overlooked in the digital age. While these first two releases have been well-represented on DVD, it is their premiere on Blu-Ray, and there are plenty of rare gems coming down the pike (all transferred in HD), including Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar,  Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door and Orson Welles’ Macbeth.

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40 Years of Masterpiece on PBS: A Look Back & Ahead

2011 marked the 40th anniversary of Masterpiece on PBS and I couldn’t let the year pass without making note of the show’s accomplishments and sharing some highlights from their current schedule. After 40 long and impressive years Masterpiece is better than ever and if you’re not watching you’re missing some of the most thoughtful, well-written and wonderfully acted programs on television. I also happen to think that some of the shows currently airing on Masterpiece are more interesting and entertaining than anything you’ll find playing at your local multiplex.

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Netflixing: Showtime’s Rebel Highway (1994)

In one of the stranger experiments in cable television history, Showtime’s 1994 Rebel Highway series commissioned ten filmmakers to remake a 1950s exploitation movie. It was the brainchild of Lou Arkoff (the son of American International Pictures founder Samuel Z. Arkoff) and Debra Hill (producer of Halloween). They gave directors $ 1.3 million and a 12 day shooting schedule, to roughly approximate the original shooting conditions (modified for inflation). Unlike the ’50s cheapies, though, they were given final cut, and could choose their own screenwriter, editor and director of photography. This proved irresistible to the (mostly) impressive list of talents who signed on: Robert Rodriguez (Machete), John McNaughton (Wild Things), Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary), Allan Arkush (Rock ‘N’ Roll High School), Joe Dante (Gremlins), Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused), John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), William Friedkin (The Exorcist), Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) and Uli Edel (The Baader Meinhof Complex).

All of the filmmakers, except for Rodriguez, were old enough to have lived through the era of the film they remade, engaging the aesthetics and politics of the originals in strikingly different ways, alternating between affection and parody often in the same film. Since its original airing, the series has completely disappeared from cultural memory, but Netflix Watch Instantly, that haphazard repository of moving image detritus, is now streaming every entry, and it’s well worth sampling the project’s eccentric film-historical time travel. Below, some thoughts on my favorites.

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