James Dean on the Small Screen

blogthiefLong ago, in a former life, I edited a coffee-table book on James Dean called James Dean: Tribute to a Rebel. My favorite part of Dean’s life story was the time he spent in New York during the early days of live television. I thoroughly enjoyed fact-checking and researching his television career, which was not only more extensive than his movie appearances but far more diverse. This Friday, September 25, TCM offers a rare look at some of Dean’s live TV performances.

New York City was the hub of the television industry when Dean moved there to study at the Actors Studio in the fall of 1951. Prime-time programming consisted of weekly anthology dramas, meaning each installment was a new story with a different cast. Anthology series provided substantial work to young writers and a new generation of serious young actors whose careers were jump-started by live TV, including Rod Steiger, Anne Bancroft, Paul Newman, Martin Landau, Steve McQueen, Eva Marie Saint, and James Dean. The writers socialized together, compared notes, and created a community among themselves, while the actors represented a kind of repertory of talent for television producers and their casting agents.

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Dust Off Your Bippy

bippyposterTwice in one day I was reminded of one of the strangest lines from one of my favorite television series. It’s not like “You bet your sweet bippy”—which was muttered every week for four seasons on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In—is part of contemporary slang or TV-speak. After all, Laugh-In was cancelled in 1973. And, yet the word “bippy” crossed my path twice last week. While looking over the TCM schedule last Thursday, I noticed that The Maltese Bippy is airing tomorrow, Tuesday, April 21 at 6:15pm. Just a few minutes later, while watching General Hospital, one of the characters blurted, “You bet your sweet bippy.” You know you are a true TV-geek when a nonsense word like bippy makes you instantly nostalgic for a 40-year-old series.

The series’ full title was Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In because it was hosted by the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. The two met in 1952, though both had been kicking around show biz for several years. The son of carnies, who were killed when he was a boy, the hard-luck Rowan had been a junior writer at Paramount before WWII, while the college-educated Martin wrote for radio comedy programs. After teaming up, they honed their act on television and in clubs. In 1958, they starred in a lackluster comedy western called Once Upon a Horse, which I actually saw on television decades ago, but they did not come close to the big time until Dean Martin tagged them as regulars for his summer show in 1966. Like all comedy teams, the two developed personas that formed the basis for their shtick. Rowan was the pipe-smoking straight man to Martin’s loony skirt-chaser.

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The Trek to Stardom for the Stars of ‘Star Trek’

startrioWhen Leonard Nimoy died at the end of last week, many from my generation mourned the loss by posting photos and quotes related to Mr. Spock, Nimoy’s iconic television character, to social media outlets. The outpouring of sorrow and the testimonials of childhood devotion reveal the profound impact that a beloved television program can have on a generation.

Like William Shatner, Nimoy did not always relish his identification as one of television’s most recognizable characters. When Star Trek ended in 1969 after three seasons, both tried to shake off their Trek personas by pursuing other roles. Nimoy even penned an autobiography titled I Am Not Spock in 1975. DeForest Kelley, the third in the trio of interstellar comrades, was not as vocal about moving on to new opportunities, but he, too, was eager to continue his career. It took several decades for the trio to realize what fans knew all along—Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy were more than characters from an old TV series. Eventually, Shatner and Nimoy embraced their iconic characters, discussing them at length in their bios Star Trek Memories and I Am Spock.

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End of an Era: THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD (1974)

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“I am not among your ruins. I live in a world of castles, of palaces and mansions. In dreams! My world is invulnerable to your machines.” – Jack Cassidy aka the Phantom of Hollywood

It’s 1974 and one of Hollywood’s oldest and most majestic movie studios is on the verge of collapse. Worldwide Films is deep in debt and in order to stay afloat they’ve decided to sell vast amounts of land they own that is currently occupied by dilapidated sets and abandoned sound stages. As bulldozers and wrecking balls begin to lay waste to decades of film history a lone cloaked figure arises from the devastation to take revenge on hapless vandals and careless construction workers. This masked ‘Phantom of Hollywood’ (Jack Cassidy) is determined to be classic cinema’s avenger and he kidnaps a studio executive’s daughter (Skye Aubrey) for leverage. But his flowery dialogue and medieval weapons are no match for the greedy studio moguls (Peter Lawford and Broderick Crawford ) eager to make a quick profit from property sales.

Unfortunately for classic film fans THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD (1974) isn’t 100% invention. In fact, many aspects of the telefilm’s plot are taken right from news headlines at the time. The fictional Worldwide Films studios are actually a stand-in for the world renowned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, which began systematically selling off its backlots in the early 1970s while auctioning off costumes and props from the beloved films they once produced. Director Gene Levitt (RUN A CROOKED MILE; 1969, NIGHT GALLERY; 1971, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER; 1975) and writer George Schenck (KILL A DRAGON; 1967, MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE; 1969, FUTUREWORLD; 1976) managed to capture the appalling demolition of MGM and turn it into a melancholy made-for-TV movie that borrows generously from Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. But instead of a vengeful musician living underneath a Parisian opera house, THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD features a vengeful actor living underneath the ruins of what was once Mrs. Miniver’s house as seen in William Wyler’s 1942 film.

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The Plumber

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I can’t let a month featuring a Friday Night Spotlight on Australian Cinema go by without putting in a plug for a small gem coming up later this week; Peter Weir’s The Plumber (1979). Shot on 16mm and made for TV, this quickie project shot in under three weeks was a middle step-child between Weir’s The Last Wave (1977) and Gallipoli (1981), and as such is often overlooked. Interestingly, water plays an important and ominous role in all three films.  [...MORE]

Salute to the Small Screen: ‘Screen Directors Playhouse’

sdpopenerMy generation grew up watching Hollywood classics on television, expanded our tastes through the provocative movies of the Film School Generation, and then witnessed the return to genre–based filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s. I am eternally grateful for this extensive knowledge of movies from different eras, which seems like a shared experience for baby boomers. The down side of this informal education in film studies is that many of us struggle to accept the narrow, limited, and often dumbed-down contemporary fare that the studios now pump out for their beloved demographic of young male viewers. If it weren’t for indie films, or even pseudo-indie films, American filmmaking would be little more than CGI-driven eye candy. In recent months, discussions about the primacy of television over the movies have increased on the Internet, with claims that the small screen has easily out-matched the big screen for meaningful drama, intelligent genre work, and juicy roles for former film stars and character actors. I can’t disagree that television—especially cable—is experiencing a new “golden age,” especially considering the defection of film directors and actors to the small screen.

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Telefilm Time Machine: Home for the Holidays (1972)

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Eleanor Parker in 1972

The holidays can be a very difficult time for some. I know from firsthand experience that when you don’t have any family to rely on or any kind of financial security to speak of Christmas can feel like a national nightmare inhabited by drunken revelers, crazed shoppers and merciless merchants. This is only compounded by what author Anthony Trollope once called “the perils of winter.” More folks tend to die during the winter months than any other time of the year so when you’re coping with the death of a loved one or a life threatening illness the pressure to remain “merry and bright” can become wearisome and demoralizing. I mention all of this because one of my favorite telefilms seems to perfectly capture the darker aspects of the holidays that are so often swept under the rug. Throughout 2013 I’ve spotlighted a few of my favorite made-for-TV movies so it seems appropriate to conclude this unofficial series with a look at HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972), a surprisingly grim and suspenseful Christmas themed thriller that also happens to star Eleanor Parker who recently passed away at the age of 91.

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Telefilm Time Machine: SATAN’S TRIANGLE (1975)

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Kim Novak & Doug McClure in SATAN’S TRIANGLE (1975)

One of my favorite actresses is the beautiful and enigmatic Kim Novak and she happens to be TCM’s Star of the Month. Every Thursday night throughout the month of September you can catch Novak in a number of great films airing on TCM and in celebration of the event I thought I’d devote my latest installment of Telefilm Time Machine to SATAN’S TRIANGLE (1975), which happens to be one of the first made-for-TV movies she appeared in. SATAN’S TRIANGLE has developed somewhat of a cult following over the years thanks to its noteworthy cast and a skilled crew who managed to craft a surprisingly effective little thriller combining elements of classic horror films such as PHANTOM SHIP (1935) and GHOST SHIP (1955) as well as THE EXORCIST (1973) into a spine-tingling original tale set on the stormy seas of the Bermuda Triangle.

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Telefilm Time Machine: Steven Spielberg’s SOMETHING EVIL (1972)

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I recently sat through James Wan’s THE CONJURING (2013). I haven’t particularly liked anything else the director’s done but being a horror film aficionado myself, I assumed that all the critical praise and fanfare the movie was receiving meant that that it would probably deliver a few good thrills and chills. It is being hailed as one of the “scariest movies ever made” in some circles so it couldn’t be all that bad, right? Unfortunately I was very wrong. While THE CONJURING is obviously working some kind of magic on a large percentage of viewers I personally found this utterly predictable throwback to ‘70s horror cinema so clichéd, schmaltzy, devoid of compelling characters, lacking in atmosphere and flat out boring that I almost walked out of the theater midway through the movie. It seemed to be a poorly concocted smorgasbord of jump scares borrowed from much better films (THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE EXORCIST, THE HAUNTING, THE CHANGELING, THE BIRDS, HALLOWEEN, THE ORPHANAGE, EVIL DEAD, Etc.) that left me desperately hungry for something more tasty and fulfilling. Afterward I decided to cleanse my palate with a genuine ‘70s thriller about a family tormented by ghosts and combating demonic possession directed by Steven Spielberg called SOMETHING EVIL (1972). This low-budget telefilm rarely gets any attention by Spielberg fans or horror enthusiasts who seem to prefer DUEL (1971) or his later attempt at producing a supernatural thriller, POLTERGEIST (1982). But in some ways I think that SOMETHING EVIL is superior to them both. Why? Read on and I’ll tell you.

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Richard Matheson enters The Twilight Zone

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Richard Matheson was already an established writer in 1959, the year he started contributing to The Twilight Zone. But it took him a while. Over the course of the 1950s he rose from pitching sci-fi magazines on his off hours as a mailman, to adapting his own material to screens large and small. He  sold his first story, “Born of Man and Woman”, to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. After a couple of suspense novels fizzled, he garnered notice with his post-apocalyptic survival staple, I Am Legend (1954). It was his follow-up, The Shrinking Man (1956), that cemented his place in popular consciousness. He ingeniously sold himself as screenwriter as part of the film rights deal to Universal, and he would be a prolific writer for film and TV for decades to come (alongside his novels and short stories). As part of our week-long tribute to Matheson, following his death last month at the age of 87, I’ll be looking at the Twilight Zone episodes he declared to be his favorite, Steel and Night Call, both from Season 5. They present fantastical premises with procedural detail, as he also did with I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, bringing the spectacular down to earth.

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