Bogart + Bacall’s Rarely Seen Final Team-up – And Where to Watch It

picTurner Classic Movies announced today that they will preempt scheduled programming on September 15 and 16 for a 24-hour marathon honoring the life and career of Lauren Bacall, who died on August 12 at age 89.

Following Robert Osborne’s delightfully candid 2005 interview with the then-81-year-old legend at 8 p.m. (ET) on September 15, TCM will air eleven of Bacall’s films, including four team-ups with real life leading man Humphrey Bogart: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), her Howard Hawks-directed debut, sets sail at 9 p.m.; Hawks’ narratively inscrutable (but who cares) THE BIG SLEEP (1946) follows at 11 p.m.; Delmer Daves’ pulpy noir DARK PASSAGE (1947) un-bandages on September 16 at 10 a.m., and John Huston’s Academy Award-winning KEY LARGO (1948) blows in at noon.(September 16 would have been Bacall’s 90th birthday.)

The four Bogart/Bacall noirs are arguably her best-known films, but they don’t tell the whole story of the iconic duo’s on-screen partnership. Missing from TCM’s schedule is their final team-up, a production so rare that many classic film fans haven’t even heard of it, let alone seen it.

Laughing StarsOn May 30, 1955, nearly seven years after the release of KEY LARGO, Mr. and Mrs. Bogart reunited on-screen one last time for NBC’s live television remake of The Petrified ForestBroadcast in color – still a rarity at the time – Tad Mosel’s adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s play for the RCA-sponsored Producer’s Showcase featured 55-year-old Bogart recreating the role of Duke Mantee, the Dillinger-esque gangster he played on Broadway two decades earlier and in the 1936 Warner Bros. film. Bacall, in a role originated by an ingénue-y Bette Davis in the film, is waitress Gabrielle “Gabby” Maple, daughter of the owner of the dusty roadside diner Mantee and his gang appropriate as a hideout. And for the lead character of ennui-afflicted Englishman Alan Squier (played by Leslie Howard on stage and screen), director Delbert Mann cast the decidedly un-British Henry Fonda.

No, I’m not kidding. Tom Joad as a British intellectual.

PFLike many live dramas from the Golden Age of Television, The Petrified Forest is stage-bound and talky, but you could say the same for Archie Mayo’s 1936 film, which makes very little effort to transcend the walls of Warner Bros. Stage 8. Still, the film is highly regarded by many classic film fans (including this one) for providing Bogie with his big break, courtesy of Howard, who insisted to Jack Warner that the actor reprise his stage role. (Bogart honored Howard posthumously for going to bat for him with the studio by naming his daughter Leslie. Howard died in 1943 at age 50; Leslie Bogart was born in 1952.)

The 1936 film edition of Duke Mantee was the world’s first glimpse of Bogart as a “complicated” gangster. The real John Dillinger was 31 when he was finally taken out by Melvin Purvis in Chicago in 1934 and Bogart, just a few years older, was virile, ruggedly handsome, and genuinely menacing in his film portrayal. Amazingly, he pulls it off again two decades later, and then some. Defying his age and the developing illness within him, Bogart gives an energetic, almost feral performance, matching the physicality and distinctive line readings that were so memorable in the film.

PBacall does not necessarily fare as well. While her youthful bravado allowed her to believably portray older women in her first few films, here the situation is reversed: she’s 30 playing a character supposedly in her late teens. Her older-than-her-years maturity seems wildly out of place; while Davis – Bacall’s idol as a youngster –was 28 when she played Gabby, she still pulled off a nervous, dewey-eyed innocence that Bacall had aged out of by 1955, or perhaps never had to begin with. (Except when she bops out of the bar with Bogie at the end of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, my favorite moment from her film career.)

Faring the worst is Fonda, whose casting necessitated changing Alan’s origins from (olde) England to New England. His folksy, uncomplicated charm runs counter to the Shakespearean fatalism of the character, and he and Bacall never seem to be doing anything but reciting lines of dialogue in each other’s general direction. And, at 50, Fonda’s too old for the part. Alan’s world-weariness has little to do with age.

Still, this is a must-watch curiosity for even the casual fan. While Bogart and Bacall don’t melt the screen like they do in their other pairings, seeing them together again so close to the end of his life is like the missing piece to a puzzle. The Petrified Forest also was the only pairing of Bogart and Fonda, two of the greatest stars of the Studio Era, and it’s Bogart’s only dramatic TV appearance (save for a very hip parody of his gangster persona Bogie did on The Jack Benny Program in 1953).

As an extra bonus, a few beloved classic TV figures show up in smaller roles in The Petrified Forest. Jack Warden is a far more menacing college football player than the harmless doofus played by singer Dick Foran in 1936, and he gets to spout some 1950s-style anti-Commie propaganda. Natalie Schafer, who would go on to three seasons (and countless reunions) as Gilligan’s Island’s Mrs. Howell, is the wealthy woman whose car is commandeered by the thugs. And 33-year-old Jack Klugman shows up as Duke’s henchman Jackie (played in the film by Joe Sawyer) delivering the film’s most famous line – “This is Duke Mantee, the world famous killer. And he’s hungry.” – in a manner so Oscar Madison-y you practically expect a honking Tony Randall to walk through the door.

duoBut the real reason to watch The Petrified Forest, which aired just once and survived only in Bacall’s personal kinescope copy – available for viewing at the Paley Center in New York and L.A. and in a fuzzy You Tube posting – is Humphrey Bogart. Watching his ferocity here, you’d never imagine he’d be dead 20 months later from cancer.

Although Bogart appeared in four more films before his untimely demise (including his 1956 swan song THE HARDER THEY FALL, which I love), I’m now romantically regarding the 1955 version of The Petrified Forest as the bookend to Bogart’s film career. He came in tough and he went out tough, and Bacall– and the audience– loved him for it.

You can watch “The Petrified Forest” on YouTube here, but I strongly suggest you view it on a small screen (I watched on my iPhone) and use headphones (the sound is audible, but low). Bogart and Bacall also make a cameo as themselves in TWO GUYS FROM MILWAUKEE (1946), which you can watch here. A tip ‘o the hat to classic film historian and New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick for that piece of knowledge.


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5 Reasons to Watch NIGHT NURSE (1931)

night-nurse-1931Tough broads, bootleggers, drug-abusing doctors, debauched rich people, and Barbara Stanwyck – William A. Wellman’s NIGHT NURSE (1931) has everything I love about Pre-Code movies.

Stanwyck is Lora Hart, a determined young nursing student in a busy metropolitan hospital in this lurid melodrama, released by Warner Bros. in 1931. Joan Blondell is Maloney, her wise-cracking, gum-snapping partner in mischief (think Lucy and Ethel, only sexier). And Clark Gable is Nick, a murderous chauffeur who will stop at nothing to get his boss’ money, including killing her children. 

High school-dropout Lora sweet talks her way into nursing school where she meets Maloney, an old pro who knows how to game the system– and fight off the amorous orderlies. Their lives are complicated by Miss Dillon (Vera Lewis), the sourpuss head nurse who lies in wait for the pretty young things to slip up. And speaking of slips, Stanwyck and Blondell strip down to their skivvies so frequently it’s hard to keep count. Not that I’m complaining, because half-naked women bucking authority is what Pre-Code film is all about.

After graduation, Lora gets her eponymous assignment: caring for the inexplicably ill children (Marcia Mae Jones and Betty Jane Graham) of wealthy Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam). There she meets Nick (Gable), who’s keeping his boss permanently plastered in hopes of killing off her kids and making off with her dough. (Another child has already died in a hit and run accident, and it’s strongly suggested that Nick is responsible.)

Lora fights to save the children, with the help of Mortie (Ben Lyon), a bootlegger she rescued when he stumbled into the E.R. with a bullet wound. But will it be too late?

*music sting!*


william_wellman1. William A. Wellman

Unlike some other directors of the early Talkie Era, “Wild Bill” Wellman didn’t let the limitations of unwieldy sound recording technology get in the way of storytelling. His camera is remarkably fluid in NIGHT NURSE, in a year when many films were static and stagy. Wellman was one of the early proponents of the boom mic, and makes ample use of it here, tracking along with dialogue scenes. If you don’t believe me, look for the boom shadow in a wide shot of Stanwyck and Blondell running through a hospital hallway.

That’s another thing I love about Pre-Code films: lack of polish. The studios were figuring out how to navigate a paradigm shift in the industry, and the obvious experimentation on-screen and off- can be exhilarating, even when it doesn’t work (and there are plenty of Pre-Codes that don’t).

Stan_lyon2. Barbara Stanwyck

Born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn in 1907, Stanwyck represents everything I love about liberated Pre-Code women. As both the title character and hero(ine) of NIGHT NURSE, she dominates the film with street-smart moxie and an unglamorous sexuality that reached its apex two years later in Alfred E. Green’s BABY FACE (1933), the prototypical Pre-Code.

And speaking of lack of polish, I’ll watch anything with Stanwyck, but if her teeth are still crooked, it’s a must.

Gab3. Clark Gable

If you only know Gable as the charming cad in iconic films like GONE WITH THE WIND, NIGHT NURSE will be an education. Here he’s an unapologetic child murderer, throwing punches at Stanwyck and staring down the camera with a feral ferocity that is genuinely frightening. Had the 30-year-old Ohio native been a Warner Bros. contractee, would the studio have allowed him to play such a villain? He wasn’t, of course, and within a year he was well on his way to name-above-the-title stardom at MGM.

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 5.28.46 PM4. Fun with Dipsomania

Charlotte Merriam as the wealthy and dissolute Mrs. Ritchey has two great moments in NIGHT NURSE. When Lora reports to work on for the first time to care for little Nanny (Marcia Mae Jones) and Desney (Betty Jane Graham), she discovers their mom (Merriam) passed out drunk on a bearskin rug, an empty champagne glass dangling from her hand. Later, when Lora confronts her, Mrs. Ritchey shrieks one of the most memorable lines in in Pre-Code film:

“I’m a dipsomaniac, and I’m proud of it! Ya hear?” she slurs. “I’m a dipsomaniac and I like it! I like it!”

5. The End

I’m not going to spoil it, but the happy ending of NIGHT NURSE involves a character’s murder. That’s the kind of thing you didn’t see anymore when enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code began in 1934. And movies were the worse for it.

 NIGHT NURSE airs today on TCM at 10 PM (ET) as part of Summer Under the Stars. For the complete schedule and background on Stanwyck, visit TCM’s site. The film is also available on DVD as part of Forbidden Hollywood” Volume 2, available from Warner Home Video. You can read more about NIGHT NURSE at 



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In Praise of Vintage: 10 Classic TV Shows + Where to Watch Them

the_man_has_style_cary_grant_style_icon_1943“I can’t stand old movies,” my Uncle Tommy once said to me. “Any time I see a guy wearing a hat, I change the channel.”

Despite his dismissal of a filmmaking era I love, and have since childhood, I kept my cool. (I learned that from Cary Grant, who, by the way, knew how to rock a hat.) Opinions are subjective reflections of personal taste, I reminded myself. That explains why some people are Yankee fans, or Republicans.

Then I asked him, calmly, what he didn’t like about “old movies.”

“They’re dated.”

“What you may think of as ‘dated’ other people consider ‘classic,’” I said.

“They’re boring, and the acting is terrible!” he added. “Katharine Hepburn is the worst. I can’t stand her.”

Funny thing: I have a picture of Katharine Hepburn from THE PHILADELPHIA STORY hanging in my apartment; I have no such picture of my Uncle Tommy, love him though I do. So I decided to change the subject to something less controversial, like Obamacare.

I was reminded of this conversation when I read critic Neil Genzlinger’s take down of “Retro TV” in yesterday’s New York Times, an article crafted with such a broad brush I don’t even know where to begin rebutting it.

Apparently, Mr. Genzlinger was channel surfing on Saturday afternoon and was dismayed to find a bunch of “old stuff” clogging his cable on channels with funny names like Inspire, Aspire, and Up! Uplifting Entertainment. (And don’t even get him started on new-fangled Internet streaming of old-fangled TV! Because, how crazy is that?) He then took pen to paper to slice up some sacred cows.

“Sluggish pacing, wooden acting, wince-inducing jokes and obvious plot twists abound,” he opined, metaphorically shaking a remote-clutching fist. “Too much of this will turn your brain to mush as surely as too much of today’s reality TV will.”

And then he added a zinger of particular interest to me (and many people I know):

“(I)f you’re watching this fare all day, every day, you need help,” he wrote.

For the record, this past weekend I watched The Odd Couple, Get Smart, Lost in Space, The Honeymooners, and a Blu-ray of Betty Boop cartoons. It’s a wonder I can even write this, what with the tightness of my straight jacket.

LucyMr. Genzlinger then provided a hit list of “old stuff’ you should avoid (in convenient chronological order): I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Gilligan’s Island, Green Acres, Welcome Back Kotter, Dallas, Boy Meets World, and Sex and the City.

Let’s ignore the fact that any list that equates I Love Lucy, the first TV sitcom shot on film, and Sex & the City, the first TV sitcom to base an episode around the taste of a man’s semen, is impossible to logically refute. Or that he thinks Boy Meets World (which left the air a mere 14 years ago) is a “wonderful show,” but you still shouldn’t watch it (because the spin-off Girl Meets World is bad). Or that he’s hardly the first TV critic to suggest that Gilligan’s Island isn’t Peabody-worthy.

Mr. Genzlinger is a respected critic who is entitled to his beliefs, as is my Uncle Tommy. But whereas my uncle’s opinion was overheard by a handful of family members at a Christmas party, a New York Times columnist wields a bit more influence.

What irks me most is Mr. Genzlinger’s reiteration of an endemic prejudice that has existed for years: that “old” is somehow a flaw. This same perspective inspired colorization a generation ago and leads contemporary distributors and networks to crop (or stretch) shows produced in olde-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio to widescreen, or to re-do special effects, in an effort to convince younger audiences that a show is of a more recent vintage. It’s the perspective that led to a 500-channel universe in which only one network – Turner Classic Movies – routinely aired black & white programming. And it’s the perspective that led the generation after mine to grow up with less-than-ready access to anything “classic.”

Then, happily, technology interceded. In recent years, the explosion in basic cable networks, broadcast digital sub-channels, and streaming media has led to a renaissance in the availability of classic content. TCM has gotten two broadcast competitors airing classic movies 24/7: getTV and MOVIES! TV Network. The niche left open by Nick at Nite and TV Land (already eschewing classics in favor of newer stuff) was filled by digi-nets like Me-TV, Antenna TV, COZI-TV, and Retro TV. Subscription VOD platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime began loading up on binge-able retro content, and Warner Bros. launched Warner Archive Instant, a boutique streaming service for classic TV shows and movies, many restored from original source material.

Adam West and Burt Ward in Batman 60s series pic2Classic film and TV is just about the only segment of the physical media business still thriving. Expensive DVD and Blu-ray collections of Twin Peaks (out today), The Wonder Years (due in early October), and Batman with Adam West (coming November 11) are expected to do big business, and not just with the nostalgic. A new generation is embracing classic content, a fact underscored by TCM’s audience, two-thirds of which they say is between 18-54.

In that sense, the market rebuts Mr. Genzlinger more effectively than I ever could. Because, if nobody wanted to watch this stuff, it would be back “in the vault” where he believes it belongs.

I hold equal respect for classic film and TV, since my affection for both developed in the cable-less 1970s when the handful of channels I got filled their schedules with both. To be clear: while Mr. Genzlinger did not include classic film in his dismissal of “old stuff,” his complaints against non-contemporary TV are the same my uncle used to condemn movies of the same era: pacing, acting, and predictability.

It’s a fact that the pace of filmed entertainment of a generation (or more) ago differs from that of today. But I find the frenetic quality of contemporary blockbusters to be headache-inducing, so, for me, that’s a selling point. Mr. Genzlinger worries that my brain will turn “to mush” if I watch too many of these old shows. I appreciate his concern, but I have the same concern for my seven-year-old nephew, whose senses are assaulted daily by ADHD-inducing entertainments on multiple screens.

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 11.20.44 AMI liken the slower pace of (some, not all) classic TV and movies to visiting with a grandparent. Once you tune yourself to their wavelength, you may suddenly feel more relaxed. Heck (as they say on Andy Griffith), you might even set a spell and enjoy yourself.

Regarding acting, as clothing styles have altered over the years, so has performing technique. The theatricality of silent film evolved into the presentational style of early Talkies, then filtered through the Actors Studio and American New Wave, etc. TV acting evolved as well, from stage-y live TV drama to high definition naturalism. Mr. Genzlinger dismisses an entire era of TV acting as “wooden;” I prefer to think of it as a different approach to the craft. I’ll agree that supporting players in some classic show can be hit or miss, but sometimes imperfection is part of the fun.

What many fans love about classic content is the evocation of an era, and all that comes with it (including, at times, the political incorrectness that Mr. Genzlinger references from a show like Gilligan’s Island). It’s not necessarily nostalgia for stuff we saw, as he puts it, “the first time around.” It’s interest in, and affection for a time and a style that’s unlike today. Can you be nostalgic for something you don’t remember, or weren’t even alive to experience? You can, and classic film and TV fans do that every day.

Which leads me to what may be the crux of the matter: how do you define classic (a word, admittedly, that Mr. Genzlinger does not use in his artcle)? There’s no better way to start an argument among fans than by raising this question.

“There’s no cutoff date, no strict definition for classic,” on-air host Ben Mankiewicz said at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2013. “It’s not really about years removed from a movie’s release.”

welcome-back-kotter-castIn fact, “classic” is often a moving target that depends largely on the age of the person you ask. For Millennials, the 1980s may be classic (and even the ‘90s, George Burns help us.) I look at films and TV shows from the ‘80s and and laugh at how dated they are, because I remember looking just like that (and still cringe at the pictures). My uncle, who is in his 70s, likely feels the same about films as far back as the late 1940s. I don’t know Mr. Genzlinger’s age, but I could introduce him to a number of 20-somethings who watch Welcome Back Kotter on Me-TV for all the reasons he says they should avoid it.

Are all old TV shows worth seeking out? No. As Mr. Genzlinger suggests, many are contrived and predictable. Some were products of zeitgeist, spinning long runs out of teen idols and lunchbox-ready catch phrases, and will hold little interest for contemporary audiences. But I’ll bet that any I might condemn here would still have plenty of vocal fans today, and not just those who are ‘wistful,” as Mr. Genzlinger puts it, for a simpler time.

Because one person’s “dated” is another person’s “classic.”

As a rebuttal to Mr. Genzlinger, here are ten classic shows I think are worth seeking out (and where you can watch them). Note: this list is by no means definitive. There are plenty more where these came from:

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 11.38.46 AM

1. The Honeymooners (1955-56, CBS)
Jackie Gleason’s one-season spin-off of a variety sketch that first appeared on Cavalcade of Stars in 1951 still crackles with wit, pathos, and aspirational resonance. The relationship between Audrey Meadows’ “long-suffering” Alice and Gleason’s blowhard bus driver Ralph serves as an antidote to the fiction of the perfect ‘50s family, and Gleason and Art Carney are as entertaining a comedy duo as TV has ever seen. (39 episodes)
Me-TV Tues 10p.m. + 10:30 pm/Sat nights 2 a.m. + 2:30 a.m. (ET)
On Blu-ray and DVD


2. The Twilight Zone (1959-64, CBS)
Rod Serling’s sci-fi drama has been a rerun staple ever since its original airing, and with good reason. Unlike other anthologies of the era, the series benefits from its lack of regular characters, instead letting a steady stream of still-recognizable guest stars and brilliant teleplays take center stage. Serling himself, as on-screen narrator, holds it all together, spookily popping up in each episode, smoking an ever-present cigarette.
(156 episodes)
Me-TV Mon-Fri 11 p.m. (ET) + occasionally on SyFy
All episodes in HD on Amazon, Netflix and Hulu (w/ ads)
On Blu-ray and DVD


3. Get Smart! (1965-69, NBC + 1969-70, CBS)
Mel Brooks and Buck Henry developed comedian Don Adams’ hotel detective character from The Bill Dana Show into a hip and often-hilarious James Bond parody (with a dash of Inspector Clouseau). Adams and Barbara Feldon (as Agent 99) had hot chemistry from the get-go, and the visual gags (e.g. the “Cone of Silence”) are often top notch. (138 episodes)
Me-TV Sat nights 1 a.m. + 1:30 a.m./Mon 10 p.m. + 10:30 p.m. (ET)


4. Dark Shadows (1966-71, ABC)
Producer Dan Curtis mashed up every conceivable horror movie plot in five years of daily installments of this off-the-wall supernatural soap opera. With a threadbare budget and 1960s-era technology, Curtis wove an addictive continuing story that unfolded over hundreds of years and multiple parallel universes, most of it headlined by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid as the original (non-sparkling) reluctant vampire. Once you acclimate to the not-so-special-effects and occasional flubbed dialogue, you may find yourself under its spell. (1,225 episodes)
240 episodes on Hulu (w/ ads) – 80 episodes on Amazon (VOD)


5. Batman (1966-68, ABC)
Just two years removed from its 50th anniversary, this show has even better legs than Batgirl. Adam West, Burt Ward and Yvonne Craig (added in the third season) fight a rogue’s gallery of classic film stars (many of them one-time Fox contractees) in a piece of 1960s pop art that works as parody for the grown-ups and straight-up adventure for the kids. And Holy octogenarian! Adam West still looks great. (120 episodes)
Me-TV Sat 7 p.m. + 7:30 p.m. (ET) + various times on IFC
On DVD and Blu-ray Nov 11


6. The Odd Couple (1970-75, ABC)
Tony Randall and Jack Klugman star in this adaptation of Neil Simon’s stage play and film of the same name. Skip the single-camera first season; the show really found its rhythm in season 2, when producer Garry Marshall (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley) switched to a multiple-camera format, filmed in front of a live studio audience. (114 episodes)
Me-TV Fri 10 p.m. + 10:30 p.m. (ET)
66 episodes on Hulu (w/ ads)


7. The Waltons (1971-1981, CBS)
Creator Earl Hamner Jr.’s autobiographical tale of life in a rural Virginia town during the Great Depression and World War II is best remembered today for it’s “Goodnight, John Boy” closing gag. In reality the show is a beautifully written, resonant family drama with naturalistic performances by Ralph Waite and Michael Learned as parents John and Olivia, Will Geer and Ellen Corby as grandparents Zeb and Esther, and Richard Thomas, Judy Norton-Taylor, Jon Walmsley, Mary Elizabeth McDonough, Eric Scott, David W. Harper, and Kami Kotler as the kids. And thanks to cable TV, you can watch seven(!) episodes each weekday. (210 episodes)
INSP Mon-Fri 3 p.m., 4 p.m., 8 p.m. (ET)
Hallmark Channel Mon-Fri 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m. (ET)
72 episodes on Amazon (VOD)


8. Family Ties (1982-89, NBC)
There are more iconic and, arguably, better comedies of the 1970s and ‘80s that I’ve excluded from this list, but I include Gary David Goldberg’s family sitcom for one reason: Michael J. Fox. His Alex P. Keaton, the Nixon-revering son of former ‘60s radicals (Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross), stands out as one of the great characters in TV comedy. Plus, the smart writing transcends the sometimes drab look of shot-on-video, multi-camera comedy. (168 episodes)
TVGN various times
All episodes on Netflix and Amazon (Season 1 is Prime, the rest are VOD)
Complete series on DVD


9. The Wonder Years (1988-93, ABC)
Twenty-five years later, middle schoolers (and later, high schoolers) Kevin and Winnie still pack an emotional punch. Note that the episodes streaming on Netflix contain an alternate version of the theme (sans Joe Cocker vocals) and missing/replaced songs, due to rights issues. Time-Life has indicated they will clear “more than 300 songs” for the upcoming DVD release, and include hours of newly created extras. (115 episodes)
All episodes on Netflix
On DVD in October


10. Twin Peaks (1990-91, ABC)
The extent to which David Lynch’s serio-comic murder mystery informs TV of today is almost immeasurable. But while many shows seek to capture the otherworldly mood of this short-lived series, none have ever come close. Wow, BOB. Wow. (30 episodes)
All episodes on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu (w/ commercials)
On Blu-ray (with the 1992 feature film FIRE WALK WITH ME + lost footage)

Posted in Classic TV | 34 Comments

The 1979 “Rockford Files” Episode that Inspired “The Sopranos”

the-rockford-files--A gang from Newark’s South Side is hiding Vinnie Martine’s body in a restaurant freezer. Tony’s mad because Anthony Jr. got caught pranking another mobster. And a boss who’s trying to reform gets his mansion sprayed with bullets.

Remember that episode of The Sopranos? If you do, your memory’s playing tricks on you, because all these things happened on a 1979 episode of The Rockford Files — written by Sopranos creator David Chase.

Chase signed on to James Garner’s hugely popular NBC series in 1976 and remained until its premature conclusion midway through the sixth season in 1980, writing and/or producing nearly two-dozen shows. And Rockford’s penultimate installment was actually a backdoor pilot for what would have been a Chase-produced spin-off about New Jersey mobsters – nearly two decades before The Sopranos premiered on HBO.

CouplaBroadcast on December 14, 1979, Just a Coupla Guys is the story of a pair of loveable losers trying to make names for themselves. Because they’re from the Garden State, that means one thing: they gotta get mobbed up. Eugene Conigliaro (Greg Antonacci) is the stylish but malapropism-inclined brains (sort-of) of the duo, and Mickey Long (Gene Davis) is the dumb but genial brawn.  The mostly useless pair of wiseguy wannabes operates from the back room of a deli – you might even call it a pork shop – in Newark, owned by Eugene’s hot-tempered Uncle Beppy (Simon Oakland, who played Tony Vincenzo on the Chase-penned Kolchak: the Night Stalker in 1974-75).

What does L.A.-based private eye Jim Rockford have to do with this? Not much, but since his name’s in the title, he has to show up.

Rockford flies to Newark at the request of a retired mob boss’ daughter (Lisa Bowman) only to have his rental car and luggage stolen upon arrival. This leaves the storytelling spotlight open for Eugene and Mickey, who can be seen as younger prototypes of Paulie (Tony Sircio) and Silvio (Steven Van Zandt), two of The Sopranos’ more memorable characters. But the similarities between Chase’s failed NBC pilot and his HBO series (which ran for six seasons and 86 episodes) don’t stop there.

postIn Just a Coupla Guys, Tony the mob boss (Antony Ponzini) is a doting father who also happens to be a killer. Anthony Jr. (Doug Tobey) is a good kid acting up to get his dad’s attention.  Jean (Jennifer Rhodes) is the long-suffering mob wife, trapped in a suburban mansion. And Mr. Lombard (Gilbert Green), is an aging former boss who may or may not have lost his marbles. There’s even a Catholic priest (Arch Johnson), although he’s nowhere near as attractive as Father Phil, the clergyman who caught Carmela Soprano’s eye.

The shared character types between the two stories are striking, though not surprising, considering Chase was a Jersey boy who grew up watching classic gangster films. Unfortunately, the Coupla Guys he cast are (or at least, were, to put it mildly) not particularly engaging screen presences, a fact that’s painfully obvious when they share scenes with the charismatic Garner, who died on Saturday at age 86. And, while The Sopranos managed to balance light comedy with occasionally horrific violence, Just a Coupla Guys is dopey and contrived, meandering through 50 minutes like an endless sitcom with no punchlines.  I kept waiting for the show to be rescued by a laugh track, which was not uncommon in hour-long dramedies of the era, like The Love Boat and Eight is Enough.

Ironically, Antonacci and Long had first appeared together a season earlier on Rockford, as harder-edged versions of the same characters. In The Jersey Bounce, also written by Chase, Eugene and Mickey are drug dealers who move in next door to Jim’s dad Rocky (Noah Beery Jr.), kill a guy, and frame Rockford for the crime – a fact which the P.I. conveniently forgets when he meets them again on the other side of the country in Just a Coupla Guys. 

AntonnaciSopranos DNA also runs through The Jersey Bounce, with a reference to Carmela, a bald guy named Artie, meta conversations about movie gangsters, and a character who says, “Bada-bing.” Antonacci, a native of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, is more of a stereotypical cugine in the earlier episode, and far more menacing; he both wears a wife beater and beats his wife (actually his girlfriend, who’s played by Doney Oatman, better known as Felix’s daughter Edna on ABC’s The Odd Couple). A year later, Chase and series creator Stephen J. Cannell gave Antonacci a perm and a sweater vest, and forgot that Long’s character had been introduced cutting lines of coke.  Sadly, the end result is like lukewarm ziti. Daily Variety called it “amateurish tedium” and NBC passed on the series, which is probably for the best.

To be clear: no network would never have allowed David Chase to do anything remotely resembling The Sopranos on primetime television in 1980. But Hill Street Blues was only a year away, and St. Elsewhere two, and with them (and others) came a new wave of primetime realism. If Chase had chosen to keep the lead characters in Just a Coupla Guys more anti-heroic, who knows what might have happened.

Greg+Antonacci+HBO+Caesars+Revisit+1920s+Celebrate+0AqhiyURpGFlBest of all, the story has a happy ending. An older, wiser Chase gave us the The Sopranos in 1999, kicking off what is now widely considered to be The Second Golden Age of Television. And, nearly three decades after Just a Coupla Guys, Chase cast Greg Antonacci again – in The Sopranos. The then-60-year-old actor played Phil Leotardo’s underboss Butch “The Little Guy” DeConcini, the rival mobster who cuts the deal with Tony that saves his life in the series’ final episode. Considering that (SPOILER ALERT!) Phil meets his maker in the finale, it’s likely that Butch became the boss of the Lupertazzi crime family.

It may have taken him thirty years, but Eugene Conigliaro ended up on top after all.

The Rockford Files airs weekdays at 12 p.m. (ET) and Sundays at 6 p.m. on Me-TV. The entire series is streaming in HD on Netflix, and the seasons 1-3 are available (with commercials) on Hulu.

Sopranos v2

Posted in Classic TV | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Classic Soap Opera Comes Back From the Dead – Will Others Follow?

Cinematically Insane v2Here’s something I probably shouldn’t admit, but what the hell: in 1982 I was a regular viewer of six daytime soap operas: The Edge of Night, The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, Search for Tomorrow, Another World, and Texas (a daytime knock-off of Dallas.)

When I tell people that, as a 13-year-old eighth grader, I watched five hours of soap operas every day, they look at me like I’m a survivor of child abuse. And yes, my obsessive (what else is new?) daytime drama habit was entirely the fault of my mother. When she went back to work in the late ‘70s, my job was to watch her “stories” after school and report on what happened. By the time we got our first VCR in 1979 I was hooked like a playground crack head.

Sister Dorothy, my teacher and tormentor, didn’t think this was a good idea, of course. And, as with most things, she was proven wrong. As I got older and began enduring epic battles with my mom over otherwise trivial matters, we’d call a truce every night to watch our time-shifted soaps. Then we’d go back to fighting. No wonder my father used to go to bed early.

Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 10.52.02 PMAll of this has been on my mind because Retro TV, “the original classic programming digital network,” announced this week that they’ll be airing the Emmy-winning 1963-82 NBC soap The Doctors beginning later this year. Sadly, this was one of the few soaps I didn’t watch as a kid, so I’m not as over the moon as I might be if some of my old friends from Monticello, Springfield, Oakdale, Henderson and Bay City were coming back from beyond the cancellation grave.

But still, Retro’s announcement is significant for a number of reasons.

First: daytime soap operas are almost never rerun, particularly on broadcast TV. A few have bucked this trend, notably the 1960s supernatural sudser Dark Shadows, which I first discovered in syndication on WNBC in 1982. (So that really makes seven soaps I watched that summer before high school). The Edge of Night and Search for Tomorrow also got second lives on the USA Network cable channel in the late ‘80s, and rebroadcasts of NBC’s Another World and ABC’s Ryan’s Hope graced the airwaves of SoapNet, which faded to black at the end of last year. Sadly, despite its content, the first and only 24/7 cable soap channel has not yet come back from the dead.

Also: the networks are slowly killing off the art form, going from a high of 19 daytime dramas in 1970 to four in 2014 (despite the ratings renaissance the contracted genre is experiencing). And, as each long-running series comes to a close, thousands of episodes and decades of storytelling history sit on a shelf gathering dust, awaiting rediscovery. (Sadly, most episodes of Procter and Gamble-produced soaps only exist post-1978; prior to that, videotapes were routinely “wiped” as a cost-saving measure.)

BN-AG090_1101ct_DV_20131101192642Finally: Today, thanks to digital technology, and the wealth of programming opportunities offered by free, over-the-air digital sub-channels like Retro, a cliffhanger exists for fans of classic soap operas. Will modern audiences look beyond old school production values and wide lapels and once again get hooked on the continuing stories that captivated viewers a generation (or two) ago? Will the physicians at Hope Memorial Hospital help save a dying patient and kick off a wave of nostalgia that will bring back other long-lost daytime dramas? And will The Doctors last long enough on Retro for us to see Alec Baldwin as Billy Aldrich, a role he first played in 1980?

For answers to these and other exciting questions tune in again…right now for my chat with Matthew Golden, Retro TV’s vice-president of production. (The following is an edited transcript.)

WILL MCKINLEY: When will The Doctors premiere? Will it air during the afternoon in typical soap fashion?
MATTHEW GOLDEN: We haven’t yet announced a premiere date for The Doctors. We’re still in the process of assembling all of the assets; this extends somewhat to the schedule for it, but as it stands right now, we plan to double-strip it Monday through Friday in the early afternoons. (Editor’s Note: “double-strip” means two episodes will air back-to-back.)

WM: Will you start the series from the beginning of the run in 1963? Or, as with many other soaps of the era, are some early episodes no longer extant?
MG: We will begin with the 1967 season, which is the first of the show to be produced in color.

WM: Is this the first time The Doctors has been rerun since its original network broadcast?
MG: I believe this is the first time The Doctors has been rerun in the USA.

WM: Has there been any re-mastering of source material?
MG: We are preparing new air copies directly from original 2” master tapes, digitizing them in archival quality, and doing cleanup where possible.

WM: The fear with fans is often that a network will begin airing a soap and then discontinue it, with no way to see additional episodes. Will your commitment to airing the series in its entirety be based upon ratings/audience response?
MG: There are a great number of episodes, and even double-stripping the series would run over six years with no repetition. We are committed to the series, and our commitment, like all networks’, is rooted in favorable response. That said, this is not a test: we will be running the episodes we’ve licensed, and if the response is good, then we’ll renew and continue.

WM: Daytime dramas, even extremely popular ones, are almost never rerun. Why do you think that is, and why do you think contemporary audiences will care about The Doctors?
MG:I think the largest part is the inherently unwieldy nature of daytime serials; this show alone ran over 5,000 episodes, all heavily serialized. The bounty of episodes produced for a daily serial effectively means that it will never run in repeats on a general-interest or current-programming network. The commitment necessary to re-run something like a soap opera is something Retro TV can offer, and a lot of other broadcast outlets can’t (or don’t). We have an opportunity with Retro TV to return this kind of serialized drama to audiences on a large scale. The bottom line is that enjoyable storytelling is universal and timeless, and can captivate audiences of any era. We believe The Doctors to be one of the series that most typifies these qualities.

WM: Will you be editing the individual episodes?
MG: I doubt we’ll have to cut much, if anything.

DarkShadows02-00cvrWM: Dark Shadows is the only soap to be extensively rerun, and it retains a large fan base today. Would you consider airing it, and have you made any overtures to MPI Media Group regarding it?
MG: We have not, but I’d certainly be open to speaking with them.

WM: If fans of a particular soap (like Dark Shadows) would like to see their favorite show on Retro, how can they communicate those wishes to you?
MG: Programming suggestions are best submitted to Side note: since announcing The Doctors, soap fans have vociferously been advocating for their own favorites, and I have been delighted to find that they are uniformly pleasant and polite.

WM: After our chat about Retro’s airing of classic Doctor Who episodes beginning later this summer, readers have asked how they can get the channel in their city. What’s the best strategy?
MG: Retro TV is a broadcast network, not direct to cable, satellite, or Internet. We require local stations to affiliate with us on one of their channels, and often cable or satellite providers in those markets pick up and serve the channel on their offerings. The best way to get Retro TV in your area is to call and write your local TV stations and let them know that you want Retro TV. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve welcomed new affiliates in Albuquerque/Santa Fe (KYNM) and Tri-Cities, TN-VA (WLFG), and next week should hopefully bring even more. Stations have been very receptive and excited about the new programming coming to Retro TV.

WM: Last question: Am I speaking with Matthew or his evil twin?
MG: I’m not entirely certain. The acute amnesia I experienced after the car crash that resulted in me being lost at sea and declared legally dead for three years makes it impossible for me to know for sure.

For more info on Retro TV, visit their website. For some background on The Doctors and its best known cast members, click here

The Doctors



Posted in Classic TV, Retro TV | Tagged , | 31 Comments

How a Fox/Time Warner Merger Might Impact Classic Film Fans

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 7.45.29 PM“There’s a storm blowin’ up – a whopper, to speak in the vernacular of the peasantry!” Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) says to Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

If you’re a fan of that beloved 1939 MGM film, or of Warner Bros., the studio that now controls it, or of Turner Classic Movies, the cable network that frequently airs it, it may be time to start paying attention to business news. Because a corporate twister is on the horizon – one that could completely change the media landscape, particularly for classic film fans.

Time Warner, the parent of Warner Bros. and Turner Broadcasting, announced today that they had rejected an unsolicited $80 billion takeover offer from Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox. In a video message posted to YouTube, CEO Jeff Bewkes revealed that the company’s board had rejected Fox’s cash-and-stock bid, issued in June, which valued Time Warner at roughly $85 per share.

TW“The board, after consulting with our financial and legal advisors, determined that it is not in the best interest of Time Warner or our shareholders to accept the proposal, or to pursue any discussions with Fox,” Bewkes said. “The board concluded that continuing to execute our strategic plan and our business plans will create significantly more value for the company and our share holders, and that that’s superior to any proposal that Fox is in a position to offer.” (The bolding is mine, not his.)

End of story, right? Not necessarily, according to CNBC analyst Jim Cramer.

“The company is going to get sold, I really believe that,” Cramer said on CNBC today. “I think it’s very hard to fight a guy who has unlimited firepower, and Murdoch has unlimited firepower.”

Ken Griffin, founder and CEO of the Citadel hedge fund, appears to agree with Cramer.

“We’ll get to a yes,” Griffin said this morning in the keynote address at the Delivering Alpha conference in New York City.

Citadel owns stock in both companies, as do 70 percent of Time Warner’s shareholders. Time Warner (TWX) stock rose on the news of the potential merger, closing at $83, up more than 12 percent.

For some, a merger of Fox and the now-Time-less Time Warner is a dream more than 80 years in the making, ever since Warner’s head of production Darryl F. Zanuck left the Burbank-based studio in 1933 to form the pre-cursor of 20th Century Fox. For others, the concept of the controversial Australian mogul owning CASABLANCA, GONE WITH THE WIND, and a majority of the films made during Hollywood’s Classic Era is akin to the Wicked Witch winning.

launchFor TCM, the corporate revolving door is nothing new. In fact, the channel was created by an acquisition: Ted Turner’s $1.5 billion purchase of MGM/UA in 1986, a controversial deal that transferred ownership of more than 2,000 MGM, RKO, and pre-1950 Warner Bros. films to the Atlanta-based cable TV mogul. Initially these films served as programming for Superstation WTBS, and then later for TNT (launched in 1988) and TCM, which debuted in 1994. (Turner later sold MGM, UA, and the historic backlot, but kept the film library.) In 1996, Turner cashed out and sold the company that bore his name to Time Warner, which itself had been formed by the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications in 1989. AOL (remember them?) then bought Time Warner for $164 billion in 2000 (at the time the largest merger in corporate history), a disastrous deal that was finally un-spun nine years later. And earlier this year, Time Inc. was spun off, leaving Time Warner in the awkward position of being half-named after a company it no longer owned. (Time Warner Cable was also spun off in 2009, and now has nothing to do with Time Warner, despite its name, which will likely disappear if/when it merges with Comcast.)

Got all that?

Even if you don’t, here’s the point: TCM has survived through two decades of mergers and acquisitions, with a vast library of films it once owned and then no longer owned (it now licenses those movies from Warner Bros. Entertainment). And it has remained, at least on-air, remarkably unchanged.

But here’s where a potential Fox/Time Warner team-up may be different.

“The company estimated that a combination would create $1 billion in cost savings and possibly more,” Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in the New York Times today. And Fox, the owner of the Fox News Channel, has indicated that they would sell CNN, the 24-hour news network Ted Turner founded in 1980, to smooth potential regulatory concerns.

Throughout its 18 years as a unit of Time Warner, Turner Broadcasting has largely remained autonomous. But if a merged entity begins to shed key Turner assets, that autonomy may change. Would TCM survive? And, if so, would the network’s management remain empowered to program a niche cable channel as they do today, with no regard for ratings or advertising revenue? Or will TCM suffer the same fate as the late, lamented Fox Movie Channel, which began life as a commercial-free classic film channel and recently rebranded as FXM, with (mostly) contemporary films – edited “for content” – and plenty of commercials.

MoviesAnd what about MOVIES!, the digital broadcast network programmed with classic films that Fox launched a year ago? Available over-the-air in 49 percent of the US, often as a sub-channel on Fox owned-and-operated local stations, MOVIES! airs Fox releases from the 1940s through the ‘80s, many of which formerly appeared on the Fox Movie Channel. A combined Fox/Time Warner could eventually augment MOVIES! with the library Turner bought nearly 30 years ago, and which Warner Bros. now controls. And, considering that MOVIES! and TCM target the same viewer base, there’s even the possibility that programming and branding could be shared between the two channels. Might we see Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz hosting on MOVIES? I’d do that in a heartbeat, if I were in charge. (I’m available, by the way, and thoroughly qualified.)

And what about Warner Bros.? A merger of two of the Big Six movie studios would give the new entity roughly 30 percent of the theatrical market share in the United States and Canada (based on 2013 numbers). But where the merger may have a larger impact, at least for classic film fans, is in home video and digital distribution.

logoIn 2009, the studio launched the Warner Archive Collection, a manufacture-on-demand DVD service that has gone on to release thousands of rare movies and hundreds of hours of TV shows, many restored or remastered for the first time in decades (or ever). Much of that content is also available on a subscription video-on-demand streaming platform, Warner Archive Instant, launched last year. Considering that WAC is a small, efficiently run organization generating revenue out of previously-under-exploited assets, it’s probable they would continue. But, even better, a post-merger WAC might gain access to the deeper cuts in the extensive Fox library, which heretofore has largely been (mis)handled by Fox Cinema Archives, an MOD service notorious for releasing sub-par transfers that are often in the incorrect aspect ratio.

Considering the recent success WAC has had with licensing and releasing titles from the Paramount library, access to 80 years of Fox assets would be a boon – and classic film fans would rejoice. And Warner Home Video, with their industry leading market share, would also likely take the lead in exploiting the better-known Fox classics on Blu-ray and across new media distribution platforms, like V.O.D.

There are a lot of questions regarding a potential merger of Fox and Time Warner, but one thing is always certain: content is king. That was true when Ted Turner paid $1 billion for 2,000 films in 1986, and it’s true today. And at first glance, it appears to me that this merger would only likely increase access to, and availability of, classic films and TV shows. Does it matter who owns them? Probably not. What matters most is that we can continue to see them with friends and family.

Because, regardless of who you send the rent check to, “There’s no place like home.”



Posted in Contemporary Film, TCM | Tagged | 13 Comments

My Anniversary Gift to You

BoMS-FRONTOver the past three years I’ve written more than 200 articles, reviews, and essays for this site and others. I’ve had a lot of fun and made a lot of money (just kidding), but the best part of the process has been the opportunity to collaborate with people who creatively inspire me and whose work I respect.

And, as I celebrate the second anniversary of Cinematically Insane this weekend, I’m proud to announce that one of my favorite pieces of writing has been included in a new book – one that also features the work of some of my favorite colleagues.

My essay What I Learned from ROSEMARY’S BABY is featured in Bride of Monster Serial, a new anthology of writing about horror movies past and present. Edited by the lovely and talented Wallace McBride, the book covers an eclectic collection of fright films, from early Talkies like DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931) to contemporary creepfests like HOSTEL: PART 2. Most of the movies were released in the the 1970s and ‘80s, when many of us first cut our fangs as fans. And some, like NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), expand the definition of the word “horror.”

postContributors include McBride (who also runs the award-winning Collinsport Historical Society blog, a must for fans of the Dark Shadows TV series), Pre-Code film expert Danny Reid, Professor Frank Jay Gruber (my go-to for classic TV knowledge), comic book author and man-about-town Patrick McCray, Badass Digest writer Phil Nobile Jr., humorist Morgan Ashley Harrell, filmmaker Ansel Faraj, graphic designer Jonathan M. Chaffin, podcast personality Sara McBride, Desmond Reddick from, and Jim MacKenzie and Sarah Giavedoni, creators of

The book also features an introduction by Peter H. Gilmore from the Church of Satan, which I probably won’t mention when I donate copies to my old Catholic school for summer book club. It’s also got cover art by McBride and some inventive, smile-inducing layout, done in the style of retro newspaper advertising. Bride of Monster Serial is available in ye olde print form, with a Kindle edition to come. And if you buy a copy (and send me proof) I will email you an exclusive picture of me as a teenager, dressed up like a vampire (with hair).

Seriously, how can you resist? It’s like the best anniversary present ever.

Best of all, as befits a book about genre films, Bride of Monster Serial is a sequel. The first installment of Monster Serial, published earlier this year, is also available in paperback and Kindle formats. And it also features an essay by me, of course.

Here’s a list of the shocking, horrifying, etc. films reviewed in Bride of Monster Serial:


THE RAVEN (1963)
SEIZURE (1974)
THE THING (1982)
THE STUFF (1985)
THE FLY (1986)

As always, thanks for reading.


Posted in Books | Tagged | 16 Comments