Adam West vs. “Alice” in 1976

castRemember that episode of Alice with Batman’s Adam West as a Sex Ed teacher and Lara Parker – Angelique the witch from Dark Shadows – as a sexually permissive mom?

If you’re under 40, you may have answered “no” to that question, because the 1976-85 CBS sitcom has only been broadcast sporadically in reruns over the past three decades (most recently on the pre-Kardashian E! Channel and Ion Television).

But fear not, nostalgia loving Millennials and latter-era Gen X’ers! Because unlike Mel’s Diner, Warner Archive Instant delivers. The subscription video-on-demand service is now streaming all 24 episodes from the first season of the long-running series, which featured actress and singer Linda Lavin in a role originated by Academy Award-winner Ellen Burstyn in Martin Scorsese’s ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974).

alice-linda-lavin-1And best of all, the episodes are completely uncut, clocking in at more than 25 minutes. While it’s great news that so many nostalgia-themed digital sub-channels have popped up in recent years, Me-TV, Antenna TV, and COZI-TV often edit classic series in order to squeeze in additional commercials. This can mean as many as three minutes cut from half-hour sitcoms, bringing the running time down to 22 minutes and removing key plot points.

In the case of Warner Archive’s release of Alice (which is also available on DVD, along with seasons 2, 3, and 4), the episodes are likely being seen in their original broadcast length for the first time since their network broadcast. If you’re a longtime fan, that’s a huge selling point. And if you’re new to the show, intact episodes are a far better introduction.

West_LavinIn Sex Education, originally aired on November 6, 1976, single mother Alice Hyatt (Lavin) discovers a picture of a naked lady in her 12-year-old son’s wallet. When Tommy (Phillip McKeon) starts “studying” behind closed doors with a pretty classmate (Michele Tobin), Alice begins to fear that her little boy is engaging in extracurricular activity.  She decides to talk with Tommy’s teacher Mr. Turner (West), who offers to show Alice the instructional film he screened for the class. Alice suggests they use Mel’s Diner, which is convenient, considering that the show only has two sets.

For reasons unexplained by the writers (and probably prohibited by the Phoenix School Board), Alice’s boss Mel (Vic Tayback) and her co-workers Flo (Polly Holliday) and Vera (Beth Howland) also watch the movie, gawking away at the (unseen by us) 16mm footage of seemingly explicit sexual congress. All the while West narrates in tight slacks, disco shirt, and his trademark stoner baritone

“I liked it,” Vera says when the lights come up. “But there really wasn’t much of a plot.

Lara_ParkerAlso in attendance at the diner is Mrs. Randolph (Parker), a mom who has put her 14-year-old daughter on the birth control pill. Alice is horrified at the wealthy woman’s liberal attitude toward sex and takes the opportunity to engage in some down-home moralizing. Demonstrating some of the attitude that made her a formidable foe for Jonathan Frid’s vampire Barnabas Collins, Parker’s character shoots back at our heroine with ferocity in her eyes:

“We have to face the fact that we’re living in the ‘70s.  There’s movies and television and kids are just turned on earlier,” she says.  “My daughter knows what it’s all about.”

Surprisingly, the writers give the last word in this argument to West’s Mr. Turner who schools Alice on her responsibilities to her child.

“Values must come from the home; we can only do so much in education,” he says. “The rest is up to you.”

The episode wraps up with Alice and the notoriously promiscuous Flo giving Tommy a speech about commitment, followed by a hug, in true “very special episode” style. Ironically, Alice waxes poetic about Tommy’s late father and how much she swooned for him. In Scorsese’s far darker film, Tommy’s dad is a complete asshole whose death is something of a blessing for Alice and her son.

Alice will never be regarded with the same reverence as Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, M*A*S*H, or even shot-on-video contemporaries like All in the Family and Maude, but it’s a fun workplace comedy with very likeable performers. Polly Holliday is the typical second banana that steals the show, and she and Lavin make a great duo. (Holliday’s short-lived spin-off Flo is also available on DVD from Warner Archive.)

WestIt’s fascinating to see Adam West in 1976, during his post-Batman lean years as a working actor, before his icon status took hold. And it’s a real treat to see Parker, who turned on every Dark Shadows fan – male, female, straight, and gay – with her evil vulnerability as Angelique. She had a thriving career in film and episodic TV after Dark Shadows ended in 1971 and she should be better known than she is. (Today, she’s an author of novels that continue the exploits of her most famous character.)

This was such an interesting time in TV, as writers tackled previously taboo topics sometimes with a light touch, and sometimes with a heavy hand. If you can look beyond the ugly 1970s videotape (which looks better here than it probably ever has before), there’s a lot to learn about television and its impact on the national conversation 40 years ago.

Plus, there are plenty of dirty jokes from Polly Holliday to keep the grits nice and light. So start enjoyin’, cause life’s too short.

Warner Archive Instant is available on PC, Mac, iPad, Apple TV (via Airplay) and the Roku Streaming player. A free 30-day trial is available for new customers. For more information, click here

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Posted in Classic TV, Warner Archive Collection | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

How the Death of Aereo Impacts Classic Film + TV Fans

Philco AereoAt 11:30 a.m. (ET) on Saturday, June 28, Aereo suspended service to subscribers in the eleven U.S. television markets it served – including as many as 135,000 in New York City.

I was one of them.

For me, the Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday that the company violated U.S. copyright law by retransmitting broadcasters’ signals without permission – or payment –wasn’t just another bloodless battle of media behemoths. It was a personal defeat that will alter the way I watch television immediately, and in the future.

And, if you’re a fan of classic film and TV you may be a loser, too.  

Aereo was founded two years ago by Chaitanya Kanojia and backed by Barry Diller’s IAC, a company that owns more than 150 Internet brands, including Match.com. The service launched in New York in 2012, remotely “renting” subscribers individual TV antennas, miniscule versions of the metallic monstrosities that cluttered the skylines of pre-Cable America. In return for $8 per-month, Aereo streamed local TV channels to a user’s computer, smartphone, or tablet, with the option to watch on big screen TVs via a channel on the Roku Streaming Player, and to record using a cloud-based DVR (with added storage for an additional fee).

TV Guide Christmas Cover 1977aTherein lied Aereo’s defense against the copyright infringement argument: they were selling antennas, not channels. Broadcasters didn’t buy this argument, of course, but Justices Thomas, Alito, and Scalia did in their dissenting opinion (which puts me in the unaccustomed position of agreeing with three Conservatives). Issues of legality aside, Aereo was a perfect solution for cable cord-cutters in major cities like New York, where giant sightline obstructions known as “skyscrapers” prevent olde-fashioned antennae from accessing over-the-air TV signals as God (and Philo T. Farnsworth) intended.

But it was the “$8 per-month” part of the equation that caught the attention of broadcasters who, thanks to retransmission consent regulation, can now charge cable providers for signals that are otherwise available over-the-air for free. In some cases, these negotiations have even resulted in local stations being temporarily yanked from cable packages, like the monthlong CBS blackout affecting more than 3 million Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Dallas during the summer of 2013. Coincidentally(?) Aereo operated in three of those affected cities, with plans to expand to 22 markets until the Roberts Court altered their strategy.

At this point in our story you may be thinking, “Will, you watch Turner Classic Movies every day. How are you a cord-cutter?” Short answer: I’m not.

DUSU07 start-nw.inddIn fact, I may be one of the few Aereo customers who is also a cable subscriber. But here’s the thing about cable providers like the soon-to-be-merged Time Warner and Comcast and an ever-consolidating number of others: they’re required to carry full-power, broadcast TV stations in the markets in which they operate if the owner wants them to, but they’re not required to carry the digital sub-channels that many of those stations now broadcast (unless carriage of sub-channels is a condition of retransmission negotiation).

What’s a digital sub-channel? If you watch the classic TV network Me-TV, you already know.

When American television switched from analog to digital broadcast in 2009, the available bandwidth for each channel allowed the station owner to transmit multiple programming streams. What used to be one channel could now be two, three, or a dozen, depending upon image quality (HD vs. standard definition), aspect ratio (16:9 widescreen vs. 4:3), and video compression. But what to air on these hundreds of new channels in the largest land boom in broadcast TV since its invention?

Enter the Digi-Net: turnkey networks available to air in your city at little or no cost to a local station owner (depending upon how commercial advertising revenue is divvied up). Retro TV was born in 2005, followed by This TV in 2008, the national roll-out of Me-TV (which began life as a Chicago independent station) in 2010, Antenna TV and Bounce TV in 2011, COZI-TV in 2012, Movies! TV Network in 2013, and getTV in 2014. All (except Bounce) are primarily programmed with classic TV series or movies that are controlled by the network’s parent, or licensed from third parties at relatively low cost. And more are on the way.

KDAF_AntennaTVThe Digi-Nets are available over the air, as “.2” or “.3” (pronounced “dot two” or “dot three”) sub-channels of local stations that have existed for generations. In New York City, for example: COZI TV is broadcast on 4.2 (a sub-channel of the local NBC affiliate); MOVIES! TV Network is 5.2, multicasting from the Fox affiliate WNYW (not surprising, considering  MOVIES! is half-owned by Fox and programmed with Fox films); Bounce TV (targeted to African-Americans and privately held) is offered by WWOR (which is also owned by Fox) on channel 9.3; Antenna TV is 11.2 and This TV is 11.3, both sub-channels of WPIX (owned by Tribune Broadcasting); and Sony’s getTV classic film network multicasts on channels 41.2 and 68.2, both controlled by Spanish language broadcaster Univision, though getTV broadcasts in English (proving that the Digi-Net and its parent channel can be unrelated). Note: Me-TV on Time Warner Cable in New York is a direct feed from the network, not a retransmission of a local sub-channel, as it is in most other markets.

As of the first of this year, only two of these six sub-channels were available to me on Time Warner Cable in New York City. After unsuccessfully trying to access the others with a $25 pair of Radio Shack rabbit ears, I turned to Aereo. I signed up for a monthly $8 subscription and began watching on my Roku with, in most cases, a reliably clear image on my 52″ TV. I also watched on my laptop, but not while traveling, since the service blocked access to local signals when a user was out of the market. It was seemingly a win-win: I got more choice, the DigiNets got more viewers, and we both avoided a cable gatekeeper. But it was not to be.

Time Warner has since added getTV to their lineup, but the death of Aereo means I lose This TV, Bounce TV, and MOVIES! – and the programming they control. If, like me, you watch TCM on a regular basis, you have already seen the impact of the rise of the digital sub-channels, with certain films no longer being available to license, or airing less frequently. This will likely only get worse, as more Digi-Nets launch and seek to stand out in an increasingly competitive space with exclusive content.

So what are my alternatives? Other than moving somewhere without tall buildings, or becoming a Supreme Court justice, not many. FilmOn is an internet TV provider that repackages some broadcast TV stations using a similar remote antenna/cloud DVR strategy. But, after successfully stillborning Aereo, emboldened broadcasters are likely to be out for digital blood, and FilmOn may be next on the hit list.

While I understand the legal theory behind this case, and even its resolution, it all seems  regressive to me. In an era when on-demand streaming media is redefining the concept of TV, can broadcasters afford to make moves that take eyeballs off their product? Because that’s just what’s happening with me, and potentially you in the future, even if you’ve never even heard of Aereo. How far they could have gone to extend the reach of these specialty channels, and their classic content? Unfortunately we’ll never know.

So goodbye, Aereo. And so long MOVIES! TV Network, This TV, Bounce TV, and any other new broadcast digital sub-channels Time Warner Cable doesn’t think I should see. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be streaming classic movies and TV shows via Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime – whenever, wherever, and however I want.

For my interview with the getTV programmer, click here. For my interview with the Retro TV programmer, click here.

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Posted in Classic Film, Classic TV, getTV, Technology | 12 Comments

Remembering Eli Wallach + 5 of His Films

eli-wallachSometime in the mid-1990s, on the corner of 82nd Street and Riverside Drive, I stopped to gawk at an icon.

“Yes, it’s me,” Eli Wallach said, apparently accustomed to silent, slack-jawed admirers on New York City street corners. He greeted me with a smile, shook my hand, and patted me on the shoulder as if we were old pals – which, sadly, we were not. Then he took off down the street with his wife, Anne Jackson. I’m not often at a loss for words, especially around celebrities, but I was on this particular occasion. I think I mumbled, “pleased to meet you,” or “I’m a big fan of your work,” or something equally witty. But I don’t really remember because, you know, I was standing right next to Eli Wallach.

I first discovered Wallach in the ’70s as the “frigid fiend” Mr. Freeze on reruns of Batman, a show I watched daily after school with a religious fervor the nuns at St. Joseph’s couldn’t even hope to inspire. As a high school student, I saw the work for which he was better known: the conniving Tuco in Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966), and the existential bandit Calvera in John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960). Even panned-and-scanned on the 19-inch TV I leased from Rent-A-Center, both were unforgettable.

#93-94 AIn 2010, at the first TCM Classic Film Festival, I was a bleary eyed audience member at Grauman’s Chinese Theater when Robert Osborne interviewed Wallach before an early morning screening of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. Osborne mentioned that the then-94-year-old was appearing in two movies that year, and had been in two the year before, and two the year before that.

“I never stop,” Wallach said. “When I die, I’ll stop.”

Sadly, Eli Wallach stopped on Tuesday at the age of 98. But, thanks to TCM, our appreciation of his work continues. The network has announced that they’ll pre-empt scheduled programming on Monday, June 30 for an 11-hour tribute to the Red Hook, Brooklyn native with five films from the early years of his half-century Hollywood career.

The selections are surprisingly eclectic, like a pot luck supper whipped together for surprise guests. And the retrospective excludes his two most enduring movies (see above), both of which TCM has aired previously. Taken as a whole, the five films demonstrate that Wallach could pretty much play any part believably – especially if there was facial hair involved.

KissesThe day begins at 9 a.m. (ET) with KISSES FOR MY PRESIDENT (1964), with Polly Bergen as the first female commander in chief, top-billed Fred MacMurray as her emasculated “first gentleman,” Anna Capri and Ronnie Dapo as their wisecracking son and teen daughter, and Wallach (“also starring”) as a visiting Central American dictator.

Curtis Bernhardt’s farce, released by Warner Bros in December of 1964, feels like a situation comedy pilot, with knee-slappers like: “You’re with the Secret Service? Do you know any good secrets?” It’s unlikely that it was, though, considering MacMurray was already committed to a popular sitcom: My Three Sons. The former film noir tough guy was then in his fifth season as pipe-smoking pop Steve Douglas on ABC (the show would move to CBS the following year, where it continued until 1972).

Not surprisingly, Wallach is the funniest thing in KISSES FOR MY PRESIDENT. As military strongman Rodriguez Valdez, Jr., he shows up half an hour into the film, to salsa-inflected fanfare, and immediately seeks to charm the chief executive (who he calls “Miss”). He fails, of course, and is handed off to the First Gent, who takes him on a broadly slapstick tour of the Capitol.

With the exception of MacMurray and Wallach’s stop-off at a burlesque show, KISSES FOR MY PRESIDENT feels like a Disney family comedy, the kind of films the tireless MacMurray was already making at the Mouse House, like THE SHAGGY DOG (1959), THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961), and SON OF FLUBBER (1963). Still, it’s a lot of fun, particularly if you enjoy the comedic talents Wallach demonstrated in his iconic Westerns. But beware the cop-out ending, which drowns the Second Wave Feminist concept in a warm pool of Mad Men-era chauvinism.

FACIAL HAIR: Mustache • RECOMMENDED: Yes

act-one-movie-poster-1964-1020461800Next up is ACT ONE (1963) at 11 a.m. Former MGM studio chief Dore Schary directed this Moss Hart biopic, adapted by Schary from Hart’s autobiography of the same name.

George Hamilton (age 24) stars as a blandly charming Hart with the far-more-interesting Jason Robards as the notorious George S. Kaufman, with whom the playwright first collaborated on Once in a Lifetime (1930) and later You Can’t Take it With You (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). Bert Convy plays Hart’s buddy Archie Leach, better known as Cary Grant, and here completely lacking the accent that any moderately talented impressionist could pull off. Jack Klugman is producer friend Joe Hyman and Sam Levene is agent Richard Maxwell.

Screen Shot 2014-06-25 at 9.30.46 PMWallach plays Broadway producer Warren Stone, and if you blink, you’ll miss him. So don’t blink.

Any charm to be found in the mostly mediocre ACT ONE lies in its Algonquin Roundtable-Era setting, with icons like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Alexander Wolcott hovering around the periphery. Fun fact: Kaufman and Hart based The Man Who Came to Dinner’s Sheridan Whiteside (played by Monty Wooley in the hilarious 1942 film) on Wolcott. Feel free to mention that to the Literati at your next cocktail party.

With Hamilton’s contrived narration (“It’s happening, Moss! It’s all true!”), ACT ONE is cornball hokum that feels much older than its 1963 vintage. It’s stunning to think that Wallach would make a film as different as THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY less than three years later.

FACIAL HAIR: None • RECOMMENDED: Not really 

bfi-00n-e8oCalling the Cinerama epic HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962), which follows at 1 p.m., an “Eli Wallach film” is sort of like calling STAR WARS (1977) a “Peter Cushing movie.” Wallach (11th-billed in the alphabetical credits) plays desperado Charlie Gant in the Henry Hathaway-directed, train robbery climax, which must have been a logistical nightmare to shoot with three synchronized cameras. Wallach’s mustachioed bandit here is reminiscent of his bearded bandit in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, only less fun. He does his best to lighten up the beautiful but bombastic proceedings, but ten minutes out of 164 doesn’t make much of an impact.

Just about every famous actor you’ve ever heard of shows up in what the trailer proclaims is “the most fabulous film ever conceived.” In retrospect it may not even be the most fabulous film of 1962, but it’s certainly fascinating for what it tried, but ultimately failed, to do. (Due to the complicated nature of the shooting process, the prohibitive cost, and the difficulty in retrofitting the film for non-Cinerama venues, only one other narrative film was shot in in the format. All other releases were documentaries.)

Warner Bros. did an excellent job stitching together the “cinematic panorama” of the original three-screen Cinerama process into one 2.89 aspect ratio image for the 2011 Blu-ray, but no TV set of any size will ever capture the immersive quality of seeing a film like this in the theater in its native format. I somehow managed to miss HOW THE WEST WAS WON when it was screened digitally at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood during the 2012 TCM Film Fest, which is something I still haven’t forgiven myself for.

FACIAL HAIR: Mustache • RECOMMENDED: Yes (for historical significance)

AP6101010863“We’re all dying, aren’t we?” Marilyn Monroe says to Wallach in John Huston’s THE MISFITS (1961), which airs at 3:45 p.m. This line (and a disturbing number of others) from Arthur Miller’s relentlessly quotable screenplay proved to be prophetic. Clark Gable succumbed to a heart attack within days of the wrap, Monroe died the following year, and Montgomery Clift five years later – all well before their time.

Now that we’ve gotten past that gruesome piece of trivia, on to the movie.

Monroe plays Roslyn, a recently divorced dancer in Reno, Nevada taken under the mentoring wing of veteran divorcee Isabelle (the always stellar Thelma Ritter). Gable is Gay, the aging cowboy who falls for Roslyn, and Montgomery Clift is the young rodeo cowpoke who complicates matters. Wallach plays Guido, a mechanic who falls under Roslyn’s spell from the get-go, but remains fourth in a three-man race. Monroe and Wallach first worked together at the Actors Studio in New York in 1955, and they have a clear rapport on screen. The brief scene in which Guido discusses the death of his wife with Roslyn is nearly perfect: smartly written, subtly directed, and memorably underplayed.

Not a whole lot happens in THE MISFITS, but what does feels experimental, autobiographical, and haunted. Gable deconstructs his smirking lothario persona, the once boyish Clift looks frozen and frightened (following a 1956 car wreck that left his face partially paralyzed), and Monroe seems overcome by the nervous, damaged personality that ultimately defeated her.

Lots of Old Movie Weirdos debate the end of the “Classic Film Era.” I think you can make a case for the end being THE MISFITS, as Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe ride off into the moonlight without even so much as a goodbye.

FACIAL HAIR: Five o’clock shadow • RECOMMENDED: Highly 

BabyBABY DOLL (1956) at 6 p.m. was Wallach’s first film role after a decade on stage, and it’s one of his best. With a screenplay by Tennessee Williams, adapted from his one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Elia Kazan’s film is set (and shot) in Mississippi, where two cotton farmers compete for the attentions of a 19-year-old nymphette.

Karl Malden is Archie Lee, the middle-aged failure who’s married to the manipulative “Baby Doll,” but isn’t allowed to touch her until she turns 20. Wallach plays Vacarro, the hot blooded Sicilian Baby Doll can’t keep her hands off. And Oscar-nominated Carroll Baker is the title character, a woman-child who sleeps in a crib in the nursery and spends much of the film “slopping around in a slip,” to the consternation of her husband.

There’s so much to recommend here: Williams’ oddball script, Kazan’s documentary-like staging, Boris Kaufman’s gorgeous black and white cinematography (also Oscar-nominated), and the courageously esoteric performances of the leads. This is a perversely hot and sexy film, surprisingly so for 1956. According to TCM, the Legion of Decency condemned the film as “grievously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency,” and New York’s Cardinal Spellman forbade his parishioners from seeing it. If that’s not an incentive to watch it, I don’t know what is.

If you can only catch one of the movies on Monday, this is it. While THE MISFITS may be a better film all around, Wallach is front and center in BABY DOLL, and he gives a passionate, playful performance that teases the greatness that was to come.

“We’ve got nothing to do but wait for tomorrow, and see if we’re remembered or forgotten” Carroll Baker says at the end of BABY DOLL. Thanks to his legacy of great work, Eli Wallach will never be forgotten.

FACIAL HAIR: Mustache • RECOMMENDED: Highly 

One more thing: if you’re in or near the New York City area, the new restoration of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY screens in DCP on July 2 at the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of the Big Screen Epics series. BAM says the historic Harvey, which began life as a Vaudeville house in 1904, is the “largest, grandest movie venue in Brooklyn.” I say it’s worth the trip to the borough of Eli Wallach’s birth to watch what is, arguably, the greatest of his films.

Thanks to Elise Crane Derby for posting the videos from TCMFF. To watch the TCM Celebrates Eli Wallach retrospective video from TCMFF 2010 click here

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Posted in Classic Film, TCM | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

TCM Remembers Ruby Dee w/ Two-Film Tribute

ruby_dee_youth2“Why can’t we image makers become peacemakers, too?” Ruby Dee asked after accepting a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2000, alongside husband Ossie Davis.

Until her death on June 11 at age 91, Dee endeavored to do just that. And, on June 28, Turner Classic Movies will honor her 70-year legacy of peaceful activism through art with two groundbreaking films from early in her career.

The network announced today that they’ll pre-empt Saturday’s scheduled programming for two dramas featuring Dee and longtime collaborator Sidney Poitier: Martin Ritt’s EDGE OF THE CITY (1957) will air at 4:15 p.m. (ET) followed by Daniel Petrie’s film of Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961) at 5:45 p.m.

Dee and Poitier first worked tobfi-00m-xkwgether on stage at Harlem’s American Negro Theater, and went on to co-star in the original Broadway production of Hansberry’s now-iconic play beginning in March of 1959. For 530 performances, Poitier played limousine driver Walter Lee Younger, Dee was his wife Ruth, Glynn Turman was their young son Travis, Claudia McNeil was Walter’s long-suffering mother Lena, and Diana Sands his sister, Beneatha – all living together in a small apartment in segregated Chicago.

The four adult leads, along with Louis Gossett Jr. as Beneatha’s boyfriend and John Fiedler as their politely racist new neighbor, recreated their roles for Petrie’s film, released by Columbia Pictures in 1961. As adapted by Hansberry, the celluloid version changes little from the stage, save for the addition of the previously unseen Willie, the man who bilks the family and creates an unfortunate opportunity for soul-searching and redemption.

ruby-dee-edge-of-the-cityI’ve seen A RAISIN IN THE SUN on TCM more than once, and it’s always a pleasure to revisit. But EDGE OF THE CITY, which I had never seen until I streamed it earlier today via Warner V.O.D. on Amazon Instant, is a revelation.

Produced by former Warner Bros. press agent (and future talk show host) David Susskind, directed by Blacklist survivor Ritt, and released by MGM, this gritty drama about corruption and racial tension amongst New York City longshoremen feels like ON THE WATERFRONT PART 2. While it’s not as good as Kazan’s film, it’s narratively braver, with a rough-hewn, indie quality and a dream cast, including Dee, Poitier, John Cassavetes, Jack Warden, and Kathleen Maguire.

Poitier plays Tommy, a good-natured stevedore who befriends the brooding new-kid-on-the-dock Axel Nordmann (Cassavetes, looking far younger than his 28 years). Dee, adorable in a ponytail and bobby socks, is Tommy’s non-nonsense wife, Lucy. Maguire is the (slightly) older woman who takes a liking to the damaged, painfully emo Axel (Cassavetes gives what feels, at times, like a James Dean homage here). And Jack Warden is delightfully hissable as the John Friendly-esque foreman, a man guided more by his hatred of the “other” than by the desire to illicitly make a buck.

DONDE LA CIUDAD TERMINA - Edge of the City - 1957Like MARTY (1955), REQUIM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT (1962) and other popular films of the era, EDGE OF THE CITY got its start on television, as a 1955 episode of NBC’s live dramatic anthology series The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. The Emmy nominated teleplay, called The Man is Ten Feet Tall, also featured Poitier as Tommy (with Don Murray in the Cassavetes role) and was written by Robert Alan Aurthur, who adapted it for the screen. EDGE OF THE CITY occasionally descends into overwrought soapiness, but it’s more than redeemed by excellent performances, a Saul Bass title sequence, and some excellent New York City location photography (some of it even sync-sound). Poitier and Cassavetes are excellent as buddies who see beyond skin color, and Dee is fiercely realistic as a young woman caught in the crossfire of racism. Her climatic catharsis scene is a triumph, at a time when words of that strength by African-American characters (especially women) were still surprising.

I’m not sure why this film doesn’t get screened more, especially considering its pedigree. If you’re a fan of Poitier and his Oscar-nominated performance opposite Tony Curtis in THE DEFIANT ONES (1958), it’s a must.

And even though TCM isn’t airing it, I recommend you make Saturday a triple feature with the addition of Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING (1989), a film which was released 25 years ago this week and is (sadly) as relevant today as it was then. Plus you’ll get a chance to see Dee (as neighborhood elder Mother Sister) perform opposite Ossie Davis, her partner in image making and peacemaking for 57 years. They are truly a duo for the ages.

For more information on TCM’s schedule, click here. Note: this article was updated and expanded on 6/24/14. 

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Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones Drive Miss Daisy to the Multiplex

SV 1409There’s a new Angela Lansbury film in theaters this week, which is news that will delight any classic movie and TV fan.

But the version of Driving Miss Daisy in which the legendary actress stars opposite James Earl Jones isn’t a remake of Bruce Beresford’s 1989 Best Picture winner. It isn’t even a film, in the traditional sense. The Miss Daisy driving to multiplexes in the U.S. and Canada for the next week is actually a recording of a play, captured on high definition video live on stage in Melbourne, Australia last spring, and distributed to 500 U.S. movie theaters via satellite.

And it looks like a play, which is both good and bad news. The producers of Driving Miss Daisy appear to have recorded the performance (or multiple performances, seamlessly combined) without much alteration for filming. While there’s cutting between as many as five camera angles, there’s no editorial tightening of the live production, meaning we wait for dramatic, transitional lighting cues and see the actors themselves moving set pieces, all part of director David Esbjornson’s inventive live staging. (For the car scenes, Jones and Lansbury sit in wooden chairs on a rotating stage piece.)

postWe also see (and hear) the actors projecting as if they’re performing live in a theater, but with shots often framed like a director might shoot them for a film. This allows us to see James Earl Jones sweating profusely throughout the second half of the production, which the audience in Australia probably never noticed from the balcony. But thanks to the camera, we’re right on stage with him, sweaty brow and all.

Even worse: Jones is costumed in a black suit against a mostly limbo background, which often results in him being too dark, particularly on a stage in which pools of light function as scenic elements. Hopefully this will be mitigated by the 4K projection in your local theater, though satellite delivery can also result in its own set of technical challenges and image quality issues. (I watched a Blu-ray screener with my monitor adjusted to the brightest setting.)

The result is something that looks like a film but feels like a play, or vice-versa. And, at times, it’s distractingly incongruous.

Distributing live theatrical events to movie houses is not new; the Metropolitan Opera has been broadcasting signature productions since 2006, and the reunion of the surviving members of the Monty Python troupe at the O2 Arena in London will be simulcast to US multiplexes in July. But these live events are usually actually live and bring with them a certain, you-are-there excitement. The recent Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom was also broadcast theatrically in HD, but I didn’t see it, so I can’t comment on that experience. Regardless, I’m sure that Orlando Bloom up-close and sweaty in tights has huge appeal for certain members of the multiplex-going public.

James Earl Jones, Angela LansburyBut an intimate, three-character play like Driving Miss Daisy is a Chrysler of a different color. While filming a play may be nothing new, calling it a “film,” shooting it like a film, and releasing it to movie theaters is. And when the property is already best known as an iconic Academy Award-winning motion picture, it brings with it an entirely different set of expectations.

I found the “stagecast” of Driving Miss Daisy entertaining, but frustratingly non-immersive. That said, I’m still recommending it for two reasons: Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones. The opportunity to see Lansbury and Jones carry a ninety-minute performance at age 88 and 83, respectively, outweighs any imperfections I may find in this format.

Lansbury’s Miss Daisy Werthan is lighter and arguably more sympathetic than the brilliantly belligerent film portrayal that earned Jessica Tandy a Best Actress Oscar. Her performance is also funnier, and so, in general is the entire enterprise on stage. While Alfred Uhry adapted his own work for the screen (and won an Oscar for it), the film, with its literal depictions of the Jim Crow South, is a more somber affair. Even the heartbreaking final scene in the retirement home – shot by Beresford in a single take that runs nearly three minutes without an edit – elicits surprising laughter in the recording of the stage version.

Jones’ Hoke, a role he played on Broadway in the 2010-11 revival (which I stupidly missed), is fascinatingly different as well. He’s broader and more commanding than the quietly heroic Morgan Freeman in the film, but it’s hard not to sound commanding when you’re speaking in the voice of Darth Vader.

Watching Driving Miss Daisy inspired me to revisit the film for the first time in years, and I’m glad I did. Back-to-back viewing allowed for the development of all sorts of theories about Uhry’s process, why he altered dialogue and key elements of the narrative between the two, and which version works better. Short answer: they both do.

I wish the producers had partnered with Warner Bros. and made this release a two-night event, with the play and the movie for one price. But since they didn’t, I recommend you plan a do-it-yourself double feature. And best of all: the 1989 film is available for rental on-demand for as little as $1.99. That’s a price even the parsimonious Miss Daisy would love. 

“Driving Miss Daisy” is in theaters in the United States and Canada June 4-14 from Screenvision and Broadway Near You. For more information, click here. NOTE: This piece was revised and clarified 6/4/14 at 9:15 a.m.

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Ben and Frank Mankiewicz Talk CITIZEN KANE, Bobby Kennedy, and Living up to a Famous Name

2014_06_01_Mankiewicz_02As a host of Turner Classic Movies, Ben Mankiewicz is accustomed to interviewing living legends. Yesterday in New York City, he turned the mic on a legend he knows better than any other: his dad, Frank Mankiewicz.

“There aren’t many fathers who have started the show Morning Edition on National Public Radio, led the Peace Corps in Latin America, served as Bobby Kennedy’s press secretary and George McGovern’s campaign manager, and killed Nazis as part of the 69th infantry in World War II,” the TCM emcee told a packed house at Film Forum, the downtown Manhattan movie mecca. “It’s great to have my father as my father, but it’s a challenge, because you just can’t live up to what he’s accomplished.”

The younger Mankiewicz, 47, chatted with his father in a program that included movie clips, photos, and candid reminiscences of turning points in American film and political history. Based on an event presented last year during the TCM Cruise, Film Forum’s Growing Up Mankiewicz kicked off with a conversation about another legendary family member: Frank’s father, CITIZEN KANE screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.

IMG_5282“He didn’t like movies, didn’t like the business,” Frank said of his dad, a newspaper man lured to Hollywood in the final days of the Silent Era. “He never went to movies. I don’t think he saw any movies except CITIZEN KANE.”

According to his son, Herman was a frequent guest at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon estate in the 1930s, and it was Herman’s idea to base his Academy Award-winning KANE script “loosely” on the life of the newspaper magnate. Somewhere along the way, authorship became hazy – a hornet’s nest publicly kicked by film critic Pauline Kael thirty years later in a controversial essay for The New Yorker.

“When he went to see the final version of the movie at the studio he noticed it said in the credits, ‘screenplay by Orson Welles,’” Frank remembered. “And my father said, ‘Orson, there’s been a mistake, a typographical error in the credits.’ Welles said, ‘I have to have screen credit for writing, because my contract (requires) me to write, produce, direct, and act in the movie. And if I don’t do all those, I don’t get paid at all.’ So he literally begged my father to share the credit.”

Herman agreed, and the shared trophy became Welles’ only competitive Oscar. (He was presented with an honorary award in 1971.)

Added Ben: “It doesn’t diminish in any way whose movie it is; it’s Orson Welles’ movie. He directs, produces and is the driving force behind it. He gives a brilliant performance. He just didn’t write it. “

Herman chose not to be present to share the accolades with the then-26-year-old Welles at the fourteenth Academy Awards, presented in February of 1942 at the Biltmore Hotel.

“He never went to a movie, and he certainly never went to an Oscar ceremony,” Frank recalled. “He did waltz my mother around the room for a while after he heard he had won.”

Film Forum also screened scenes from George Cukor’s THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY (1930) and DINNER AT EIGHT (1933), both adapted by Herman from plays by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, and the Marx Brothers comedy HORSE FEATHERS (1932), on which Herman served as an uncredited producer.

“Harpo was a friend; he used to come to all of our Seders,” Frank Mankiewicz remembered. “He would pick up the Pascal lamb bone and lead a parade around the table.”

“So it was a traditional Seder,” Ben quipped, one of the afternoon’s many examples of charming father/son repartee.

VV2AF00ZThe conversation next turned to THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, the 1942 biopic which earned Herman his next Oscar nomination (this time shared with Jo Swerling). After screening a sequence from the film, Ben Mankiewicz introduced Maria Cooper Janis, daughter of star Gary Cooper and his wife Veronica.

“The great Gary Cooper,” Ben said, “was the only man that could play Lou Gehrig.”

“I loved it, still do,” Frank agreed, sharing a story of how producer Sam Goldwyn refused to pay Babe Dahlgren, the real-life ballplayer who replaced The Iron Horse as Yankees first baseman, for the use of his name.

“So, if you ever see the movie, there’s just a murmur when the announcer says, ‘(mumble mumble) is now playing first base for the Yankees.”

The price Goldwyn refused to pay for this pivotal moment in the film: $200.

Despite Herman’s accolades and success, Frank had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps in Tinsel Town.

“I would never have dreamt of going into the movie business,” he said. “He kept telling me all these years about all these terrible people.”

Following a three year tour of duty during World War II (which included nearly losing his toes to frostbite during the Battle of the Bulge), Frank went back to school and became an entertainment lawyer, representing celebrity clients like Steve McQueen.

“I got him acquitted twice in one day in the same courthouse,” Frank said. “Once for driving too fast on the Hollywood Freeway, and the other time for driving too slow.”

postIt was during a stint with the Peace Corps as Latin America Regional Director in 1964 that Frank made a connection that would change his life.

“I got a call one day from a voice that said, ‘Are you Frank Mankiewicz?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ ” And he said, ‘This is Senator Robert Kennedy.’ And I thought this must be some kind of joke. So I said, ‘Yeah? Well this is Joseph Stalin. What can I do for you?'”

Turns out that it really was Kennedy, and the newly elected senator from New York would soon offer Frank a job as his press secretary.

“It took me about five minutes to say yes,” Frank said.

Frank’s tenure with Kennedy continued through his candidacy for president and ended tragically, when an assassin took the senator’s life on June 6, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It was Frank Mankiewicz who told the world that Kennedy had died, ending his brief but emotional statement with the tragic words, “He was 42 years-old.”

“I’m enormously proud of how you handled that,” Ben said to his father, after black-and-white archival footage of his announcement was screened.

“He might very well have been elected,” Frank said matter-of-factly. “I think he was the logical successor to President Johnson.”

Mankiewicz went on to serve as manager of Senator George McGovern’s ill-fated campaign in 1972. And in 1977, he became the first president of National Public Radio, helping to launch programming that endures to this day. He later joined the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, advised the campaigns of Senator Gary Hart in 1984 and 1988, and appeared (briefly) in Ivan Reitman’s 1993 political satire DAVE.

“Your acting career started and stopped with one line,” Ben joked. “It was an Academy Award-winning line.”

Today, Frank Mankiewicz lives in the heart of Washington D.C., takes the bus to work each day, and dotes on his new granddaughter, Josie (named after his younger sister, author Johanna Mankiewicz Davis, who died in 1975). His brother, Don Mankiewicz, pursued a career as a screenwriter despite their father’s wishes, and continues to pursue it at age 92. Frank’s son Josh Mankiewicz is an investigative reporter and a correspondent for Dateline: NBC. And Ben Mankiewicz has been a host on Turner Classic Movies for eleven years.

“I was hoping you wouldn’t go into the movie business,” Frank said of his sons. “And neither of you did,”

“Well, I’d like to think I’m tangentially involved,” Ben protested, to laughter and applause from the loyal TCM fans in attendance. “It’s interesting that Herman didn’t want his kids to go into the movie business and neither did Frank.”

“You can’t really run your children’s’ lives. You can’t tell them what to do, what course to take, or what business to go into,” Frank Mankiewicz said. “So you give them all the information you can, and you let them make up their minds. These two guys did and, I think, made it up very well.”

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Posted in Film Forum, Screening Report, TCM | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Update #2: Classic “Doctor Who” Time Travels Back to American TV

Update: 7/10/14  2 p.m. 

It’s time to clear off your DVRs.

Retro TV announced today that classic Doctor Who will premiere on Monday, August 4. Two episodes will air each weeknight at 8 p.m. (ET/PT), beginning with the 1963 first episode, An Unearthly Child. A “second run” will also be available on Saturday nights, as part of the newly branded Sci-Fi Saturday. 

The Saturday programming block will kick off with two installments of One Step Beyond (1959-61, ABC) at 5 p.m. (ET/PT), followed by four Who episodes starting at 6 p.m., then reruns of Mystery Science Theater 3000 at 8 p.m. Saturday night Who broadcasts will continue in order, with episodes 1-4 airing on Saturday, August 9, then 5-8 on Saturday, August 16, etc.

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Original Post – 5/29/14: 

Film Title: Dr Who.Doctor Who fans in the United States are getting a (slightly late) 50th anniversary present. And it involves jelly babies.

Starting this summer, 489 episodes from the sci-fi series’ initial, 26-season BBC run (1963-1989) will begin airing nationally on Retro TV, “the original classic programming digital network.” Owned by the Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Luken Communications, Retro is currently available in more than 61 million homes in 74 U.S. television markets.

And good news for you cord-cutting Whovians: Retro TV is free. The network is available over-the-air (in many cases as a digital subchannel of a broadcast television station) with some affiliates carried by local cable providers. (You can check availability in your neck of the galaxy here.)

Unlike the contemporary BBC series, which regenerated in 2005 and currently features Peter Capaldi as the twelfth incarnation of the titular Time Lord, most “classic” Doctor Who stories are serialized, typically unfolding in a handful of thirty-minute chapters, with memorable, cliffhanger endings (accompanied by the distinctive theme music sting).

PeterDuring the height of the show’s first-wave popularity in the U.S. in the 1980s, daily half hour installments aired on many local PBS affiliates, with some channels also broadcasting re-edited, feature-length compilations on weekends. I won’t tell you how many Saturday nights I spent during high school watching Tom Baker (the Fourth Doctor) and Peter Davison (the Fifth) on New Jersey Network with my little sister. Or maybe I just did.

Retro’s deal with BBC Worldwide North America will give the network broadcast rights to remastered episodes featuring the first seven doctors: William Hartnell (seasons 1-3, 1963-66), Patrick Troughton (seasons 4-6, 1966-69), Jon Pertwee (seasons 7-11, 1970-74), Tom Baker (seasons 12-18, 1974-81), Peter Davison (19-21, 1981-84), Colin Baker (22-23, 1984-86), and Sylvester McCoy (24-26, 1987-89). McCoy also briefly reprised his role in a 1996 BBC TV movie with Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. That film is not part of this package.

Doctor 2-3Best of all: Retro will offer more episodes than are currently available on subscription video-on-demand platforms like Hulu Plus (which streams 387 classic installments) or Netflix (94, by my count). It also exceeds the number of digital downloads that are available on iTunes, which offers roughly 350 shows at varying price points, both as individual episodes and in a variety of collections. Sadly, nearly 100 episodes from the 1960s are lost, many intentionally purged by BBC technicians who, hopefully, have all been exterminated by Daleks.

For longtime fans, an announcement of this magnitude leads to many questions. So I fired up the TARDIS and went right to the source: Matthew Golden, Retro TV’s vice-president of production. As befits the topic, we chatted electronically. The following is an edited transcript:

WM: When will the classic Doctor Who debut on Retro TV? 
MG: TBA, but this summer. (see above for updated info)

WM: Do you plan to start with the black-and-white episodes from Season 1 and broadcast in order? Or will you begin with the more familiar color shows, like the Tom Baker series?
MG: We will start at the beginning, with An Unearthly Child and proceed chronologically (or, at least, as chronologically as a series about a time traveler gets) through Sylvester McCoy’s final story, Survival.

WM: Does your package include any of the lost episodes that were rediscovered in 2013, such as The Enemy of the World or The Web of Fear from Season Five?
MG: Our license does not currently cover these recently recovered serials. We are investigating the option to add later.

WM: Can you confirm that Retro will be airing 4:3 transfers, not the stretched 16:9 versions that have been offered in some home video releases?
MG: Correct, 4:3 all the way.

WM: Classic episodes available from other sources typically run 24-26 minutes. Will Retro be airing the shows intact, or making edits to allow for more commercials?
MG: Retro TV has contractual obligations to meet regarding commercial time for our affiliates. However, based on our preliminary information, it appears that most shows will meet our requirement as-is; those that aren’t will be reviewed with the utmost care, and not a single frame will be cut that isn’t absolutely necessary. This is for fans, by fans, and we’re a protective lot.

WM: What other programming does Retro air that would appeal to classic film and TV fans? 
MG: We recently announced the addition of episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (not seen on television in nearly fifteen years), and other shows include Naked City, I Spy, Highway to Heaven, Lassie, Route 66, The Beverly Hillbillies, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Dragnet, One Step Beyond, and many more. Additionally, for film fans, we air Off Beat Cinema.

WM: For viewers who want Retro but don’t get it, what can they do?
MG: Call, write, email, or otherwise inundate your local TV channels to request that they add Retro TV to their digital subchannel lineup.

WM: Last question. Would you like a jelly baby?
MG: I would indeed, thank you. Never trust someone who doesn’t accept one.

Update 6/4/14: According to comments posted on the network’s Facebook page and a report on Nerdist: Retro will be broadcasting 489 of the 591 classic episodes that are extant (in total, 694 were produced). Retro’s package excludes a total of 102 classic episodes that exist, but for which broadcast rights are unavailable. In addition to the aforementioned The Enemy of the World (6 chapters) and The Web of Fear (6 chapters, with one still missing), these include any stories penned by Dalek creator Terry Nation, who wrote for the series between 1963 and 1979. It also seems to include all classic stories featuring the Daleks, including those not written by Nation, due to rights issues with Nation and his estate.

For more info on Retro TV, visit their website. Special thanks to Frank Gruber for assistance with this article. 

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