The First Talking Pictures Regain their Voice

0997ae1c908de0568b58bce84c3ec334“What was the first movie?” my 9-year-old niece asked after a recent trip to the multiplex.

I hate questions like that. Because I’m a “movie guy,” I feel like I should have an easy reply, but I never do.

The first time pictures moved? The first narrative short film? The first feature? There’s not really one answer. So I started talking about Magic Lanterns, galloping horses, workers leaving the factory, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, the spaceship in the moon’s eye, and Al Jolson. She asked a simple question and she got a Cinema Studies class.

But like they say on Facebook, it’s complicated. And it gets even more complicated when you start talking about Talkies. I was reminded of this on Saturday when I attended a screening of newly restored Edison “Kinetophone” sound shorts from 1913-1914 at the Museum of Modern Art.

You read that right. Short subjects with sound. From 1913.

A total of 200 Kinetophone shorts were produced by Thomas Edison between 1913 and 1914 at his studio in the Bronx, New York. Similar to the better-known Warner Bros. Vitaphone sound shorts (shot in nearby Brooklyn), Edison’s shorts were mute films with synchronous audio recorded on a phonograph. Both were screened using a complex system that synched film projectors with separate audio playback: shellac discs for Vitaphone, wax cylinders for Kinetophone. But Edison’s shorts pre-dated Vitaphone by 13 years and came 14 years before Jolson promised You ain’t heard nothing yet! in THE JAZZ SINGER – the moment generally considered to be the birth of Talking Pictures.

Film elements for 12 of the 200 Kinetophones are known to survive, with soundtracks extant for 15. To date, eight films have been fully restored, with picture and audio reunited (in some cases) for the first time in more than a century. Six of the restorations were screened on Saturday as part of To Save and Project: The 14th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation.

Titles included: NURSERY FAVORITES (1913) starring Little Miss Muffet, a giant spider, and a dog in pajamas; THE OLD GUARD (1914) with Napoleon’s ghost; THE DEAF MUTE (1914), a multi-part Civil War mystery filmed entirely on location; the Edison Quartette in MUSICAL BLACKSMITH (1914); and JACK’S JOKE (1913) a drawing room farce featuring Arthur Housman, a familiar face from Laurel & Hardy films. The final short ended with a delightfully protracted curtain call sequence that elicited good-natured cheers from the packed house at MoMA.

Edward Boulden and Arthur Housman in JACK'S JOKE (1913)

Edward Boulden and Arthur Housman in JACK’S JOKE (1913)

“This has been my pet project for 25 years,” said George Willeman, Nitrate Film Vault Manager at the Library of Congress and the host of MoMA’s screening. “When I started with the Library back in the 1980s and discovered these films on the shelf and realized what they were, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if someday we could see them with their soundtracks put back on?’”

That day finally came earlier this year, when audio from wax cylinders archived at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey was captured digitally, cleaned up, and married to 2K scans of picture elements housed at the Library of Congress (some surviving in original negatives). In an illustrated lecture that preceded the screening, Willeman explained the history of the shorts and their restoration.

As always, profit was a primary motivating factor in Edison’s early attempt to make pictures talk. (Some things never change.) He controlled patents on both audio and film recording technology and, as early as 1894, was experimenting with technology that would unite the two. The 17-second-long Dickson Experimental Sound Film – two men dancing while Edison collaborator William Dickson plays violin – was shot at the Edison Company’s “Black Maria” studio in West Orange, New Jersey and was the first moving picture with a synchronized soundtrack.

kinetophoneA year later, Edison began producing short “Kinetoscope” film loops for coin-operated players. These standalone devices were also called Kinetophones, because they allowed viewers to watch movies with (non-synchronous) sound. Soundtracks were played on cylinder phonographs housed inside the box while viewers listened via rubber “ear tubes.”

If you’re having trouble visualizing this, imagine watching a short YouTube video on your iPad with earbuds, but in dedicated arcades where many other people are doing the same thing. And every time you replay it it costs another coin. Not a bad business for simple, inexpensively produced shorts that were essentially the Keyboard Cat of the turn of the 20th Century.

By 1913 Edison was in full production of Kinetophone sound shorts that would be presented in Vaudeville houses on the Albee theater circuit, rather than on individual players. Like with all early attempts at sound filmmaking, synchronization of disparate picture and audio sources was the principal challenge. According to Willeman, theaters were rigged with a hand-cranked Edison projector in the back, a specially built phonograph in the front, and a long linen belt running along the ceiling to connect the two. Operators wore headphones, and each projection set-up came with a synchronizer that moved the film four frames in either direction if audio sync began to drift (which it did, often).

kinetophoneadThe Edison Kinetophone shorts were introduced on February 13, 1913 at a presentation in New York City that earned rave reviews and a 15-minute standing ovation. In the film that accompanied that presentation (which has been restored and was screened at MoMA), Allen Ramsey of the Edison Company brags that viewers are watching “the first genuine talking picture ever produced” and promises that people will be able to watch and listen 100 years from now. That line brought cheers at MoMA, 103 years later.

But the success of the series was short-lived. The Kinetophones were discontinued after 1914, in part due to reduced international business during World War I, a devastating fire at the Edison plant, and a desire on the part of the audience for “longer subjects and first class acting.” Unlike the Vitaphones, which were mostly filmed records of Vaudeville acts or band performances, the Kinetophones were six-minute narratives that told self-contained or continuing stories. But the technological limitations of sync sound recording – a single, static shot with no edits and broad performances by actors shouting for the benefit of the the recording – were obvious to viewers spoiled by silent cinema’s increasingly lavish production values and complex storytelling.

But it was the technological limitations that ultimately killed the Kinetophones.

“It was just too darn complicated,” Willeman said. “They tried all the different devices they had in 1913 and 1914, but the technology just wasn’t there.”

To Save and Project: The 14th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation continues through November 23. A DVD release for the Kinetophone shorts is planned. An un-restored version of the introductory short is below. 

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I Discuss Horror Movie Hosts on New Podcast

miguel-1Over the last five years I’ve co-hosted two classic film podcasts and been a guest on countless others. But my favorite chats have always been with Miguel Rodriguez, host of the Horrible Imaginings podcast.

Miguel and I have only met in person a handful of times at the annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, but I feel like we’re kindred spirits. We share a deep commitment to classic media of all types, and love to talk at length about its past and future. And Miguel’s knowledge of, and commitment to, both classic and contemporary horror and genre films is unmatched.

He also reminds me how many movies I haven’t seen and need to, which makes me vaguely anxious. But that’s a topic for another day.

The occasion that brings me to Miguel’s show this week is a sad one: the death of legendary horror movie host John Zacherle at age 98 on October 27. (I wrote about his life and career here.)

As often happens when Miguel and I get together, our conversation started with Zacherle and expanded in other directions, including: the history of classic film on television; the role of on-camera hosts as horror film “ambassadors” to a generation of young fans; how the horror boom on TV in the 1950s reinvigorated the careers of icons like Boris Karloff; the horror hosts of our own youth in the 1980s; and how a straight line can be drawn from the hosts of half a century ago to Mystery Science Theater 3000 and even Turner Classic Movies.

So have a listen here or using the player below. You can also subscribe to the podcast and listen to past episodes here. And Happy Halloween!

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Horror Fan Celebrates Halloween w/ Classic Movie Cakes

MBDPLNI EC009Halloween is like Comic Con for Old Movie Weirdos.

For a few brief weeks, the mainstream sheds its confounding anti-classic bias and embraces our pop culture past. You see it in retro-themed decorations and costumes, old horror movies on TV and in local venues, and in a cultural ubiquity that reminds us how icons actually become icons: they stand the test of time.

Halloween season is a rare opportunity for those of us who love these movies to come out of the classic film closet. It’s also a chance to share our lifelong weirdness with friends and family, and maybe even add to our ranks (while chanting “One of us! One of us!”).

One fan has found a surprising – and delicious –way to pay tribute to the old movies that inspire her. New York based filmmaker and photographer Lisa Stock bakes classic film-themed cakes, and this year’s model celebrates a star of one of the most belovedly low-rent horror/sci-fi mashups ever made.

My friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent…My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts about a Vampira cake from Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE?!

"A flying saucer? You mean the kind from up there?"

“A flying saucer? You mean the kind from up there?”

WILL McKINLEY: How long have you been a classic film fan? 
LISA STOCK: Since I was about 4. No joke. I waited every year for THE WIZARD OF OZ to come on TV at Thanksgiving back in the 70’s. It was more captivating to me than any cartoon or TV show. It’s also why I became a filmmaker.

Do old movies influence your work?
Definitely. I’ve always loved how sci-fi films view the world in metaphor. In the Noir genre, the narrative structure is like no other – how stories and clues and the deep inner-selves of each character unfold and surprise us at each turn.

Filmmaker and photographer Lisa Stock.

Filmmaker and photographer Lisa Stock.

What do you love about PLAN 9?
How can you not love a film that has everything AND Tor Johnson? But what I really love is that Ed Wood didn’t let his (lack of) budget stop him from telling his story. That’s so me, I often create what I need for a film in Photoshop mattes. I’m sorry films have gotten away from “scenery” that looks like scenery, from the cemetery in PLAN 9 to the forest in OZ. One day I’ll make a movie like that.

Are you a frequent baker? Is this your first classic film cake?
I am, but only do big cakes like this for special occasions and holidays. In years past I’ve made cakes of: the BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (my favorite); a Headless Horseman victim from SLEEPY HOLLOW (made a 17th century dress and took the head off); and CARRIE (with all the pig blood, which was delicious).

carrie-cake

“Red. I might have known it would be red!”

How did you make the PLAN 9 Vampira cake?
It’s a Wilton cake kit. The pan is her skirt (cake part) and the doll is only half a doll. The bottom half of her is a pick that sinks into the cake and holds her upright. The kit box shows mostly princesses and brides. Then there are those twisted bakers like me that take it up a notch.

Is the frosting black? What does black frosting taste like?
Bakers pro-tip: You have to start with chocolate frosting to get black or red, otherwise when you mix your frosting colors, if you use vanilla, you’ll just get grey or pink. So it tastes like chocolate and will make for interesting stained lips and teeth.

Where will you serve it?
I brought it to work! We need a little humor in the office on Halloween, yes? I also brought her flying saucer and tree branches and set it up in the break room kitchen. I printed out pictures of Vampira (aka Los Angeles horror movie hostess of the 1950s Maila Nurmi) and taped them to the cabinet above the cake in the break room.

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“We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”

Any advice for other classic film fans who like to bake?
DO IT!  I want to see them. There are so many characters that are fitting for doll cakes. I mean, if Mattel can make a Hitchcock THE BIRDS and Ann Darrow KING KONG Barbie – both of which I own – then we can make anyone out of cake. Don’t let the big skirt deter you. It goes with a lot of classic film ladies.

Have your cakes made any classic film converts?
I hear people say, “Oh my kids would love this.”  Yeah, sure. Use them as an excuse, whatever gets you to watch the film and give it a chance! Then that leads to you watching another movie in the same genre and so on. And before you know it, we’re talking about THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL or THE LADY VANISHES over the water cooler.

So, your Halloween cakes are like a gateway drug?
Halloween is just the door by which to show others a whole set of film work that has inspired so many storytellers after them. If anything I create gets someone to dig deeper into the genre, then its been a good day.

For more information on Lisa Stock, visit her website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram

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John Zacherle (1918-2016) Horror Host, TV’s Cool Ghoul

photo-zacherleyUpdated 11/1/16 – New info in italics.

In the 1950s, the new medium of television was hungry for inexpensive, plentiful content. So local stations turned to classic movies, particularly those of the spooky variety.

Fright films from studios like Universal became an early TV staple, launching a revival of interest in the genre and giving careers to local personalities who became hosts of horror movie broadcasts. These larger-than-life characters introduced films in-costume during late night airings and turned a new generation of viewers into “Monster Kids.” And the greatest of these horror hosts, at least for those who grew up in New York and Philadelphia, was John Zacherle.

Zacherle was a Philly native, graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and World War II veteran. In 1954 he was hired by local Philadelphia station WCAU to appear in Action in the Afternoon, a live Western serial broadcast daily on CBS affiliates. Station execs liked his performance as an undertaker and gave him his first job as a horror host: as “Roland” on the station’s Shock Theater in 1957. His darkly comic wrap-arounds, shot on inexpensive yet inventive sets, were a welcome alternative to the straightforward salesmanship of early TV.

In 1958, Zacherle wrote and performed the novelty single “Dinner with Drac,” released by Philadelphia-based label Cameo-Parkway Records and backed by Dave Appell and The Applejacks. At the request of Dick Clark, Zacherle also recorded a second, less-graphic version of the song which Clark played on his Philly-based teen dance series American Bandstand. It was the eternally boyish host who dubbed Zacherle “The Cool Ghoul,” a nickname that would follow him for the rest of his life.

In 1958, Zacherle left WCAU for WABC in New York. Airing pre-1948 Universal horror films from the same syndication package, WABC’s Shock Theater was essentially the same as Philadelphia’s. But with the star’s popularity growing, the show soon was rechristened Zacherley at Large (with the “y” added to his name to help with pronunciation.) He switched to WOR in 1960, launching his new series with a highly publicized campaign for president in the election between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. As part of his platform, “Transylvania’s favorite son” released a pun-filled record called “Spook Along with Zacherley” (1960) that was popular with young listeners (and collectors today).

Zacherle moved to WPIX in 1963, hosting broadcasts of cartoons and Three Stooges shorts during the day and the legendary Chiller Theatre movie series on Saturday nights. In 1964 he launched the dance show Disc-O-Teen for WNJU in Newark, which he hosted (in his Zacherley costume) for three seasons. In a 2012 profile, The New York Times described the show as “American Bandstand, Transylvania-style” and Zacherle recalled a particularly famous guest.

“Jim Morrison looked at our weird set and mumbled, ‘This is the damnedest TV show I’ve ever seen,’” he remembered.

After leaving Chiller in 1965Zacherle went on a long career as radio disc jockey in the New York City market with stints on WNEW, WPLJ, WXRK, and WCBS. He also acted, appearing in horror films like Brain Damage (1988) and Frankenhooker (1990). Zacherle edited anthologies of short horror stories and revived his horror host character periodically, including for heavily promoted 3-D broadcasts of classic horror films on New York TV in the early 1980s. Glasses were distributed at local convenience stores and the results were inconsistent, but lots of fun.

In 2008, the classic Zacherley character made a triumphant return to WPIX for a one-night revival of Chiller Theatre that delighted fans of all ages. The movie that night was Tarantula (1956) and John Zacherle brought the same macabre wit to the broadcast that had captivated viewers half a century earlier.

In recent years, Zacherle made frequent appearances at horror movie conventions like the Chiller Theatre Expo in New Jersey, greeting fans young and old. I met him at one of these on Halloween Day in 2009.

“With that haircut you look like a ghoul yourself!” the legend said to me.

John Zacherle died yesterday at age 98. He’ll be remembered fondly by Monster Kids this Halloween weekend and for the rest of our lives.

Update 11/1/16 – I’m a guest on the Horrible Imaginings podcast this week discussing Zacherle’s career and the history of horror hosts. Listen here or with the player below 

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Remembering Uncle George

uncle-george-billy-1“He sounds like a second father,” a friend said when I told him about Uncle George.

Honestly, I didn’t need another father. I had two before I was six months old. I never met the first one (his loss) but the second treated me like the best thing that ever happened to him. What I needed was an uncle, and that’s where Uncle George came in.

Easter is a season of rebirth and my parents took that literally, adopting Christian Beaton in March of 1969 and rechristening him William McKinley, Jr. A few months later, George Reiber married my Aunt Margaret and became Uncle George. Both of us were new to the family at the same time, with new roles to play, relationships to build, and memories to create.

Fathers can be dull and responsible; Uncle George was fun and slightly dangerous. He would get my cousins and me wound up and then hand us back to our parents, always with a mischievous, gap-toothed grin. Every time I saw Uncle George in those days I did a swan dive right at him with no doubt that he would catch me, boost me up to the ceiling, and return me to the floor safely. There were three of us nephews, all competing to be hoisted on his shoulders (often two at a time) or dangled from his arms like they were monkey bars. He always obliged, ignoring my grandmother’s reprimands that “somebody was going to end up crying.” And, when my parents adopted my sister a few years later, Uncle George’s fan club added a niece.

shark-1He was in his early 30s then and in unusually good shape during an era when Madison Avenue advertised men into early graves. Uncle George had been an athlete since childhood, from high school wrestler to college boxer to Air Force Reservist and police officer. He lifeguarded on the beaches of Long Island and once killed a seven-foot shark after being “alerted by endangered bathers,” according to a clipping Aunt Margaret kept in one of her meticulously organized photo albums. As a kid I used to stare at the newspaper picture of him posing next to the vanquished monster and imagine Uncle George battling it with his bare hands. (He actually took it out with a spear gun, which is even cooler.) If only Roy Scheider had called Uncle George first, Jaws might have have turned out differently.

A lot of guys betray their athleticism as they age, but Uncle George doubled down. He jogged, water-and snow-skied, kayaked, did yoga, and practiced every martial arts discipline he could learn from a book, magazine, or videotape. Sometimes I’d peek through the door and watch him do his Taekwondo workout, yelling “Hi-YA!” as he sliced through the air at an invisible opponent. By day, he was a cop on the beat. By night, he was the Kung-Fu Master of East Rockaway, New York. The Nassau County Police Department even gave him a costume and a special car to drive as he fought the bad guys.

I don’t know what your uncle did for a living, but mine was a superhero. Still, he always found time to do stuff with us kids.

“Remember when you took the boys to see Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?” Aunt Margaret asked him recently. “I bet William remembers.”

Truth be told, my memories of that day back in 1972 are dim, but it’s a story that’s become legend. Somehow Uncle George managed to get my cousins and me – two 3-year-olds and a 7-year-old – to sit still for 90 minutes in a theater packed with kids. And nobody cried. He must have plied us with a lot of popcorn.

“That was the first and last time!” Aunt Margaret said with a laugh.

Perhaps, but Uncle George obviously did something right that day. In the years since, I’ve spent more time in movie theaters than practically anywhere else on Earth, and I’m always well-behaved and call out those who aren’t. That’s a mission accomplished in my book.

giii-1After practicing on his nephews and niece for a decade, Uncle George became a father himself. He brought that same playful spirit to his parenting, less reckless perhaps, but active and fun. Even though he was well into his 40s, he still loved to carry his son (also named George) on his shoulders.

My sister and I became our new cousin’s playmates and babysitters, spending more time than ever at Aunt Margaret and Uncle George’s house. It was a welcome refuge during my teen years, when I needed a neutral corner during battles with my mother. Uncle George would fire up the grill and cook some steaks, always followed by ice cream and maybe some popcorn. And then Aunt Margaret would listen to me complain about my overly controlling mom (her sister, by the way) while Uncle George poured a drink and watched Magnum P.I. He never admitted it, but I’m pretty sure Tom Selleck was his mustache idol.

When my sister starting having children of her own in the late ‘90s, I took all my uncling cues from Uncle George. I started going to the gym so I’d be prepared for heavy lifting and my mom scolded me for roughhousing just like Nanny had done with Uncle George. My time with the kids is always filled with joy and gratitude, even if I can’t lift them quite as high as Uncle George did me.

xmasIn recent years, he and Aunt Margaret would take my sister’s kids for weeks at a time in the summer. And after my father died, Uncle George made a point of calling me often and inviting all of us to the picnics and barbecues sponsored by his endless roster of retired cop organizations. He was always proud to show us off to his co-workers and friends, so maybe that “second father” thing wasn’t too far from the mark.

Some people look at our extended family and marvel at how close we are, like it’s good luck. In reality, keeping family close takes work, and Uncle George and Aunt Margaret did a good amount of that work across two generations . We had more gatherings at their place than anywhere else, celebrations that were always filled with kids, including their own grandchildren.

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After my oldest niece’s high school graduation party this past June, Uncle George and Aunt Margaret sat on their deck, flipping through an old photo album. I noticed him leaning on a cane for the first time, but I dismissed it as part of his recovery from a recent heart valve replacement. I had been his advisor on that surgery, thanks to my own near-fatal heart valve ailment in my 20s. But he was on the mend and itching to get back to yoga, so it was a surprise when Aunt Margaret called two weeks later to tell me he had been hospitalized.

“Perfect timing,” Aunt Margaret said as I walked into Uncle George’s hospital room. “I’ll go home and take a shower and you can feed him dinner.”

Why did a guy who was recovering from heart surgery need me to feed him? I must have communicated that confusion with a grimace, because she immediately backtracked.

“I can do it if you’d rather,” Aunt Margaret said with no judgment.

I looked at Uncle George and he nodded his head as if to say, “What the hell, I’m hungry!” So I sat down next to his bed and began feeding him beef and mashed potatoes.

“Not as good as you used to make,” I said, trying to make small talk while being careful not to overload the fork.

He nodded in agreement.

“And Sarge doesn’t get to lick the cutting board,” I added, referring to the big dog he adopted when he switched to the night shift and worried about leaving Aunt Margaret alone.

Uncle George was clearly confused, suffering the after effects of what we would later learn was one or more strokes. But while his memory was impacted, he was still very much himself. So, with Aunt Margaret gone for a much-needed break, I took it upon myself to unofficially begin his rehab. I quizzed him on current events, family history, names, addresses, phone numbers. His answers to my questions were all spot on, except for one.

“What year is it?

The first time he guessed 1970, the year he married Aunt Margaret. I corrected him and asked again. “1969,” the year cousin Patrick and I came along. Again. “1980,” the year his son George was born. Then 1973, 1977, 1983, 1987. He seemed to understand intellectually that we were in the future, but his answers remained locked in the past we both remembered so fondly.

After awhile I stopped trying to correct him. By my third visit just a week later he was talking about his suitcase, a staircase, heading home to the beach. This was his truth now. For the first time in my life, Uncle George was headed to a party the rest of us weren’t going to attend, at least not yet.

The last time I visited him I kissed him on the cheek, my lips brushing against the coarse white hair of his beard. It was the first time I had kissed him since the age that little boys stop kissing their uncles. He still felt strong and invincible.

“Just do what you’re meant to do,” I said. “We’ll take care of things here.”

And then my sister and I picked up her two youngest daughters and took them to the movies, because there are new memories to make, new albums to fill. I bought the popcorn and the ice cream. That’s what uncles do.

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Update #3: TCM + Criterion’s FilmStruck Launches Oct 19

05176a42e9ecea7fb967f16610315fdcUpdated 11/1/16 – New info in italics.

Streaming video was supposed to be the great equalizer.

With a century’s worth of movies from all genres available on-demand – without the programing or advertising constraints of a linear TV channel  – fans of obscurities old and new would finally be on a level playing field with the mainstream masses.

Sadly, that’s not how things turned out, as subscription video on demand services like Netflix have shifted focus to high profile originals and shed niche and library content at an alarming pace

But now there’s a new option for viewers who prefer Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977) to Fuller House.

Turner announced today that it will launch FilmStruck, the company’s first domestic subscription streaming service, on October 19 in November. Developed and managed by Turner Classic Movies in collaboration with the Criterion Collection, FilmStruck will include access to the the largest streaming library of contemporary and classic arthouse, indie, foreign and cult films.”

Update 10/18/16 – Filmstruck announced today that the launch has been “delayed until November as we work to complete a seamless and easy registration process for subscribers.” No specific date was provided. 

Update 11/1/16 – Filmstruck launched today and is currently available on desktop, Android, and Amazon Fire TV, with iOS support expected “later today.”

For $6.99 per month, FilmStruck will include a curated library of hard to find and critically acclaimed films refreshed and updated weekly. And FilmStruck subscribers will be able to add the newly created Criterion Channel for an additional $4 monthly, with exclusive access to more than 1,000 titles available from the Criterion Collection and a wealth of special features – some created specifically for the service. A $99 annual pricing option will also be offered with a savings of $30 annually, and FilmStruck will offer a free two-week trial. (Criterion titles have been available on Hulu since 2011. They’ll be leaving November 11 and exclusive to FilmStruck thereafter.)

Update 10/14/16 – The Wall Street Journal reports that FilmStruck will offer “500 films at a time” and that the Criterion Channel “will house 1,200 movies.”

tcm_criterionAt launch, FilmStruck will be available to watch on TV via the Amazon Fire TV streaming player as well as on the web and iOS & Android Devices (like iPads and other tablets). Turner said that the service will be added to the fourth generation Apple TV  in November, with devices like Chromecast and Roku to be added “in the coming months.”

While FilmStruck is not the standalone streaming version of Turner Classic Movies many loyal viewers have wished for, it is programmed by the masterminds behind the network and the annual TCM Classic Film Festival. That team is led by Charles Tabesh, senior V.P. of programming and production for TCM and the principal architect of the channel for more than two decades.

“Charlie will lead the programming of the FilmStruck service and Criterion will lead the programming of their special experience inside FilmStruck,” Jennifer Dorian, general manager of TCM and FilmStruck, told me at the TCM Film Fest earlier this year. “It’s a testament to the great brand they’ve built over the decades that our management instantly got that only the TCM programmers could really do FilmStruck justice.”

TCM programming guru Charlie Tabesh (Photo courtesy TCM)

TCM programming guru Charlie Tabesh (Photo courtesy TCM)

Dorian told me that the project, which had the working title of TCM Art House, is the product of “research and brainstorming” over the last few years and is designed to be “additive” to TCM’s business, not “cannibalistic.” Like TCM, FilmStruck will offer movies uncut and commercial-free and feature a roster of on-camera talent hosting programming organized with innovative themes. (A sample of three programming themes is at their website.)

“(FilmStruck) will provide context thoughtfully, like we try to do for the main channel,” Tabesh told me at TCMFF. “That same philosophy will permeate both in terms of giving people a reason for the films to be there, and to explain that reason.”

Hosts at launch will include: actor Bill Hader, a frequent face on Turner Classic Movies over the last few years; film reporter and critic Alicia Malone, a correspondent for CNN, Entertainment Tonight and others; and actor and comedian Lucky Yates. The role TCM on-air talent will play at FilmStruck (if any) is still to be determined, but Ben Mankeiwicz, a 13-year on-air veteran of the channel, was genuinely excited about the service when I spoke with him at TCMFF.

“This is a really big deal for Turner and really great, I think, for TCM that the executives at all those other Turner networks entrusted the people at TCM to do this,” Mankiewicz told me. “That’s a huge vote of confidence.”

For my previous coverage of FilmStruck, including details on content partners, click here. You can’t subscribe to FilmStruck until launch date, but you can sign up for more information on their website. And sorry Canadian viewers, at launch FilmStruck is only available in the U.S.

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Barbra Streisand + Mitzi Gaynor Specials – Tonight on getTV

c7a590e38e8e3c0e0790c470075ef264Since its launch in February of 2014, getTV has been home to some of the most innovative classic-themed content available on television today. And that trend continues tonight with two rarely seen 1960s variety shows and a brand new special featuring Barbra Streisand in performance.

First up at 8 p.m. (ET) is Encore: Behind the Scenes with Barbra Streisand, a documentary on Streisand’s new album Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway (which dropped, as the kids say, last Friday). Narrated by Alec Baldwin, the special includes an interview with the iconic entertainer and duets with the “impressive roster of all-star guests” who join her on her 35th studio record, including Hugh Jackman, Jamie Foxx, Anne Hathaway, Melissa McCarthy and Baldwin, himself. (Daisy Ridley also sings on the album, which makes me wonder why J.J. Abrams didn’t write a karaoke scene at Maz Kanata’s cantina in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Maybe he’ll add one, Lucas-style, for a 20th anniversary “special edition.”)

mitzi-gaynor-1950s-1349696831_bThen at 9 pm, getTV will air Mitzi, a rarely seen 1968 NBC special featuring the actress, singer and dancer best known for her Golden Globe-nominated performance as Ensign Nellie Forbush in SOUTH PACIFIC (1958). The show was the first of eight primetime specials starring Gaynor, all produced by Jack Bean, her husband and manager for more than half a century (until his death in 2006 at age 84). This installment features perma-tanned George Hamilton and former Jack Benny bandleader Phil Harris, as well as the great comedic actor Jack Riley (best known as Elliot Carlin on The Bob Newhart Show) who died on August 19 at age 80.

Capping off the night at 10 p.m. (ET) is Mitzi’s second special, which was called, um, Mitzi’s 2nd Special. Originally broadcast by NBC in 1969, this Emmy-winning show also starred Ross Martin, then completing a four-year stint as Artemus Gordon on The Wild Wild West. The special features Mitzi singing, dancing and doing comedy sketches (including one based on GONE WITH THE WIND), but the highlight is her performance of “Let Go” in an infamous “nude” gown designed by Bob Mackie. Mackie would go on to win two Emmys for his work on the Mitzi Gaynor variety specials, which moved to CBS in 1973 and concluded with Mitzi…What’s Hot, What’s Not in 1978.

mitzi-gaynor-3If you enjoy movie musicals, you’ll be a fan of the Mitzi Gaynor specials. They have the energy and buzz of a live cabaret performance with the staging, choreography, costuming and production value of big budget television. They’re an absolute delight to watch and, if you don’t already love Gaynor from her classic films, you’ll be a convert after the first five minutes. Kudos to getTV for bringing these (and other) delightful variety shows out of the vault and introducing them to a new generation of viewers.

All three shows repeat beginning at 11 p.m. (ET). 

NOTE: Tonight’s lineup – and Mitzi’s Bob Mackie-designed costumes – will whet your whistle for the triumphant return of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, which joins the getTV schedule on Monday, September 12 at 8 p.m. (ET). The 1971-1974 CBS series will share its timeslot with episodes of Cher (1975-76) and the post-divorce “reunion” series The Sonny and Cher Show (1976-77). Mackie was honored with five Emmy nominations for his work with Cher during this era, and watching the shows will truly make you feel like you can turn back time.

To see if getTV is available in your area, click here. To read Kimberly Truhler’s interview with Mitzi Gaynor on the getTV website, click here. And yes, Mitzi Gaynor is on Twitter. You can follow her here

Mitzi Gaynor and Bob Mackie at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival (Photo by Will)

Mitzi Gaynor and Bob Mackie at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival (Photo by Will)

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