NYFF Review: Ousmane Sembene’s BLACK GIRL (1965)

cccThe more films I watch, the more films I realize I need to watch.

This sobering realty usually strikes me during the annual New York Film Festival, now in the home stretch of its densely packed, 17-day schedule. Because of my proclivity for classics and the ready access I have to contemporary releases after they premiere at the NYFF, I usually forego new films and refocus my attention on revivals. And this year’s offerings don’t disappoint, with sixteen pre-1985 releases, five of which I’ve already seen. (I wrote about two here.)

Last night’s selection was BLACK GIRL (1965), the feature film debut from Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene. Described by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s programming director Dennis Lim as “the film that paved the way for African cinema,” this spare, neorealist work tells the story of Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a young woman who leaves her impoverished village in Senegal to nanny for a wealthy French couple.

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 5.14.25 PMAll is well until Diouana arrives at the family’s home, where her cell-like bedroom overlooks the French Riviera. But her dreams of a glamorous life on the Côte d’Azur are soon dashed, as her mistress (Anne-Marie Jelinck) begins to treat her more like an indentured servant than a caretaker for her children.

“I’m no cook, no cleaning woman!” Diouana laments (in an internal dialogue that serves as the film’s narration) as she scrubs dishes and floors in her fanciest dress.

The exploitation reaches its zenith when Diouana is displayed to dinner guests as an exotic curiosity, with one pervy male guest rising to kiss the “negress,” something he proudly announces he has never done before.

Diouana’s increasing hopelessness is heightened by Sembene’s narrative structure, which weaves her dispiriting present with moments from a more optimistic past. We see her dance with joy when she gets the job, an image rendered all the more tragic by the drudgery dumped upon her by her shrill, entitled mistress.

That the story ends sadly will not come as a surprise, yet Sembene avoids the easy payoff, despite our desire for justice. BLACK GIRL is a remarkably restrained film, but still thoroughly engaging. I found obvious narrative parallels to contemporary New York City, where privileged Yuppies routinely bark orders at foreign-born au pairs seeking a better life.

BLACK GIRL has been beautifully restored by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project in collaboration with the Sembene Estate. It screened at the NYFF in DCP, courtesy of Janus Films. It’s highly recommended.


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Detroit Indie Movie House Launches Fundraising Campaign to Bring Classics to the Big Screen

Guthat - 1When classic film lovers gather, the conversation often turns to one question: what movies would I play if I ran my own theater?

For Paula and Tim Guthat, those fantasies became a life-changing reality in 2013 when they founded Cinema Detroit, one of only two seven-day-a-week movie theaters in the City of Detroit. But even as the popular theater moves to a new, more visible and accessible location this week, they’ll be unable to screen many of the classic films they once dreamed of programming – unless they get new projection equipment.

“Owning a movie theater in 2015 is so much about technology,” Paula Guthat told me. “And many of the classic film restorations I’d love to play won’t be available to us, because we don’t have all of the necessary digital projection technology.”

postWhile Cinema Detroit has screened independent and specialty releases on professionally mastered digital formats since the theater’s inception, high profile restorations of classic movies from major studios have been out of reach, due to modern encryption technology. It’s a common problem among independently operated theaters in a post-film world (particularly those who avoid screening from consumer home video formats like DVD).

“It’s not as simple as just shipping us a 35 mm print anymore,” Guthat said. “Without getting too complicated, screening content from certain distributors requires us to acquire and upgrade our digital projection. Once we’ve done that, our options increase enormously.”

But costs are high. Industry standard, DCI-compliant digital projection – the same technology you find at national theater chains – requires at least a $50,000 investment, a substantial sum for any small business. So the Guthats have launched Cinema Detroit’s Projection Campaign, a crowd funding initiative designed to make Version 2.0 of their dream come true. And, just days before their new location (located in a former furniture factory) opens for business, they’re well on their way toward the goal.

TCM PartyIn addition to upgraded technology, Cinema Detroit’s new home will also offer a café where attendees can gather for good, olde fashioned conversation. Creating a physical space where people can share their love of movies makes particular sense for Paula, who co-founded the TCM Party live tweeting community for viewers of Turner Classic Movies in 2011. Four years later, hundreds of people use the Twitter hashtag 24/7, with new converts joining daily.

“The only thing movie fans love more than talking about movies is watching them,” Guthat said. “And we love giving them a place to do both.”

For more information on Cinema Detroit’s Projection Campaign click here.


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Classic Film Fans Get Lucky on Fox’s 100th Birthday

gggggggg - 1Christmas comes early this year for classic movie buffs, courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

On Thursday night at the New York Film Festival, Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos announced that the studio will celebrate its centenary by making 100 classic movies available to buy or rent digitally in high definition for the first time ever. The films in Fox’s Century of Cinema series range from the 1920s to the 1990s, but the vast majority are pre-1950 releases  many unavailable since their original release.

Gianopulos made the announcement at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall before a screening of Ernst Lubitsch’s HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943), one of seven Fox restorations presented at the 53rd edition of the NYFF. All seven have been restored in conjunction with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2015. (Scorsese also participated in a Q&A following the film.)

“At 20th Century Fox, we consider ourselves custodians of the great legacy of filmmakers past and present, and we owe them out best effort to restore and protect their work and to make their films accessible to new audiences,” Gianopulos said. “That’s a responsibility my colleagues and I accept with pride and devotion.”

047-sunrise-theredlistThe Fox 100 digital releases are enough to make any classic film fan weep with joy. Ten are from the Silent Era, including F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE: A TALE OF TWO HUMANS (1927), an Oscar winner at the first Academy Awards in 1929. One-third of the titles are from the 1930s, with nearly 20 coming from the Pre-Code Era. At least ten of the films have never before been on home video in any format, including five from director Raoul Walsh and one from John Ford (MEN WITHOUT WOMEN). Selections include silent films (with Fox’s original Movietone soundtracks), musicals, comedies, dramas, historical epics, films noir, the first movie ever shot in CinemaScope (HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE), the only Shirley Temple film not on DVD (POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL), and the feature film debuts of Judy Garland (PIG SKIN PARADE), the Three Stooges (SOUP TO NUTS), and Marilyn Monroe (SCUDDA HOO! SCUDDA HAY!)

And all have been re-mastered in HD, an increasingly important requirement for collectors and the best way to inspire sampling from a new generation of viewers.

The first ten films in the Fox 100 series are already available for digital rental or purchase on a dedicated iTunes page (some titles are also streaming at Amazon), with the remainder expected in periodic releases in the coming weeks. Titles typically rent for $2.99 for a standard definition stream or $3.99 for HD, with most available to own for $9.99. Once you rent a film, you have 30 days to start watching and 24 hours to complete it after clicking play. Purchased films can be viewed any time (via streaming) or anywhere (including offline, via a digital download to your device).

marilyn-monroe-how-marry-millionaire-glasses“I like to watch movies on my TV, not my telephone!” I heard a naysayer grumble on the way out of Alice Tully on Thursday. And while I fought the temptation to evangelize in person, let me say this here (even though most of you know it already): buying or renting a film digitally does not mean you have to watch it on a computer, tablet or smartphone. Films available digitally in Fox’s Century of Cinema series can be viewed on your TV in HD via easy-to-use streaming players like Apple TVRoku or the Amazon Fire TV. (Use Apple TV to watch iTunes videos, and Roku or Amazon Fire TV for Amazon purchases or rentals.) And once you own a film digitally, you own it. No backsies.

While a handful of these titles have been available on Blu-ray (some in now out-of-print, limited editions from Twilight Time), most are not likely to ever see a physical media release. Though some collectors mourn the move away from physical media, digital distribution may be the best news ever for classic film fans. According to Variety, older films now make up 40% of digital sales, up from only 5% four years ago. HD digital copies also offer far better image quality than standard def, manufacture-on-demand DVDs, and almost always cost less. Plus, they don’t take up shelf space, either in stores or at home.

“It allows you to have more of your catalog readily available, because you put it on iTunes and it stays there,” Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, told Variety. “You’re not being judged by how many units it sells.”

As classics continue to get kicked to the curb by Netflix in favor of original programming, accessibility is more important than ever in keeping old movies alive. That’s why mainstream venues like Turner Classic Movies are so important. And for TCM fetishists, this announcement is particularly good news. Fox classics have traditionally not had a high profile on the channel and, while that relationship has thawed in recent years, the Fox 100 digital releases provide an excellent opportunity for TCM viewers (like me) to fill in some holes in our classic film knowledge.

With TCM making their on-demand app available on TV via the Amazon Fire beginning later this year, and 100 Fox classics soon to be available in what Gianopulos called “pristine” form, it’s time for you Luddites to get off the digital fence. Nobody’s going to take our DVDs or VHS tapes away (despite what our spouses and interior decorators might prefer), but I promise you, the ability to watch beloved movies at the touch of a button will change your life. And the more film lovers support these preservation and accessibility efforts, the more once-hard-to-find movies we may be able to see – looking better than ever.

Merry Christmas.

FOX: A Century of Cinema digital releases (all in HD)

1920s – 10
Just Pals (1920)
Three Bad Men (1926)
Sunrise (1927) AVAILABLE NOW
Four Sons (1928)
Hangman’s House (1928)
The Red Dance (1928) NEVER ON HOME VIDEO
Street Angel (1928)
The Black Watch (1929)
The Cock-Eyed World (1929) NEVER ON HOME VIDEO
In Old Arizona (1929)

1930s – 32
The Big Trail (1930)
Born Reckless (1930)
Men Without Women (1930) NEVER ON HOME VIDEO
Soup to Nuts (1930)
Up the River (1930)
Bad Girl (1931)
A Connecticut Yankee (1931) NEVER ON DVD
The Seas Beneath (1931)
Me and My Gal (1932)
The Bowery (1933) NEVER ON HOME VIDEO
Doctor Bull (1933)
Hello, Sister (1933) NEVER ON HOME VIDEO
Sailor’s Luck (1933) NEVER ON HOME VIDEO
State Fair (1933) NEVER ON HOME VIDEO
The Affairs of Cellini (1934)
Baby, Take a Bow (1934)
Judge Priest (1934)
Stand Up and Cheer! (1934)
World Moves On (1934)
The Call of the Wild (1935)
King of Burlesque (1935)
Gay Deception (1935)
Metropolitan (1935) NEVER ON HOME VIDEO
Under Pressure (1935)
Pigskin Parade (1936)
Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) NEVER ON DVD
Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)
Sing, Baby, Sing (1936)
Kentucky (1938)
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) AVAILABLE NOW
The Rains Came (1939)
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

1940s – 31
Down Argentine Way (1940)
Lillian Russell (1940)
The Mark of Zorro (1940)
The Blue Bird (1940)
Blood and Sand (1941)
Man Hunt (1941) AVAILABLE NOW
Sun Valley Serenade (1941) NEVER ON DVD
Tall, Dark and Handsome (1941)
Tobacco Road (1941)
This Above All (1942)
To The Shores of Tripoli (1942)
Crash Dive (1943)
Guadalcanal Diary (1943)
Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943)
Greenwich Village (1944)
Jane Eyre (1944)
The Keys to the Kingdom (1944)
The House on 92nd Street (1945)
Anna and the King of Siam (1946)
My Darling Clementine (1946) AVAILABLE NOW
Captain from Castile (1947)
The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947)
Call Northside 777 (1948)
Dangerous Years (1948)
The Luck of the Irish (1948)
Scudda Hoo Scudda Hay (1948)
The Snake Pit (1948)
Come to the Stable (1949)
It Happens Every Spring (1949)
Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) NEVER ON HOME VIDEO
Prince of Foxes (1949)

1950s – 14
Cheaper by the Dozen (1950)
Mister 880 (1950)
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) AVAILABLE NOW
The President’s Lady (1953)
Black Widow (1954)
Daddy Long Legs (1955)
The Tall Men (1955)
Teenage Rebel (1956)
Boy on a Dolphin (1957)
A Hatful of Rain (1957)
The Sun Also Rises (1957)
The Young Lions (1958)
The Best of Everything (1959)
A Private’s Affair (1959)

1960s – 5
Can-Can (1960)
Marines Let’s Go (1961)
Marilyn (1963) NEVER ON HOME VIDEO
The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) AVAILABLE NOW
The Detective (1968)

1970s – 1
Wizards (1977)

1980s – 4
Kagemusha (1980)
The Star Chamber (1983)
Romancing the Stone (1984) AVAILABLE NOW
Alien Nation (1988) AVAILABLE NOW

1990s – 3
Sleeping With the Enemy (1991) AVAILABLE NOW
Rookie of the Year (1993) AVAILABLE NOW
Blood and Wine (1996)

This post was updated October 3 with additional info regarding DVD availability from Lou Lumenick

Fox100_iTunes Room_Ad_r4.indd

Posted in Classic Film, Fox Cinema Archives | 24 Comments

Privacy Notice

As of September 28th, 2015 at 07:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, I do not give Dr. Henry Frankenstein or any entities associated with the Frankenstein family or its consignees permission to use my brain or body parts (internal or external) in the creation of new humanoid entities, living, undead or any combination thereof. By this statement, I give notice to Frankenstein (and his man-made creations, heirs, brides, mentors, or possessors of his secret notebooks) that he/she/they/it are strictly forbidden to chase, kidnap, molest, disinter or otherwise menace me, secure me to a gurney with straps (made of leather or any other material), connect me to electrodes or devices through which electricity may be conducted, or otherwise accost my physical person while alive or after my death(s). My body is private and confidential and, with this posting, is hereby registered with the Writers Guild of American East. The violation of privacy can be punished by law (UCC 1-308- 1 1 308-103 and the Rome Statute). NOTE: Dr. Frankenstein is not currently alive, but can always return in a sequel, reboot, adaptation, or narrative reimagining. Anyone fearing this must post a similar note. If you do not publish a statement at least once, it will be tactically allowing Frankenstein (et al.) to use you in experiments, both in the United States of America and in unnamed, vaguely Bavarian nations created on the Universal backlot, both in the past and the future.



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Classics are Born Again at the 53rd New York Film Festival

AUDAudrey Hepburn kicked off the 53rd edition of the New York Film Festival in style on Friday, as the Film Society of Lincoln Center screened Stanley Donen’s TWO FOR THE ROAD (1967) as part of a day of free classics restored by Fox and the Film Foundation.

Shot on location in France, TWO FOR THE ROAD tracks the romantic twists and turns between architect Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) and his eventual bride, the increasingly (and often outlandishly) modish Joanna. Donen uses ingenious, non-linear storytelling techniques to chart the ebb and flow of their 12-year relationship, from the giddy “meet cute,” to marriage, the birth of a child, infidelity, career success, and some very Continental ennui. Often using cars (with dated inspection stickers) as transitional devices, Donen cuts from one time period to another, juxtaposing narrative circumstances to demonstrate the compromises of couplehood.

The film is also well remembered for its Golden Globe-nominated soundtrack by Henry Mancini, which, like the storyline, careens from poignant to light and back again. Shot by British cinematographer Christopher Challis, a camera operator on Powell and Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES (1948), TWO FOR THE ROAD was rescued from the ravages of time with the Film Foundation’s meticulous 4K restoration, which looked stunning in DCP at the Film Society’s Francesca Beale Theater.

gggggThe day began on Friday with an eye-popping restoration of John Ford’s DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939), the director’s first Technicolor film. Based on the 1936 novel by Walter D. Edmonds set during the Revolutionary War, MOHAWK tells the tale of plain-speaking farmer Gil Martin (Henry Fonda, of course) and his new bride Lana (Claudette Colbert) as they attempt to settle in New York without benefit of subways, bodegas or rent-stabilized apartments. Soon war intervenes, as a one-eyed Tory scoundrel (John Caradine) leads a raiding party of torch-wielding Indians against the settlers, and the locals – men and women, alike – must take up arms to fight for their land and their lives.

edaLike all Ford films, MOHAWK is filled with familiar faces, including Ward Bond and Francis Ford (the director’s older brother), but the best of the bunch is Edna May Oliver as a wealthy widow who hires Gil and Lana. The Technicolor cameras make Oliver look years younger than she seems in black and white films of the era (with some surprisingly ruddy cheeks), but she still delivers the sour-pussed shenanigans classic film fans love her for.

Ford and cinematographers Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan pack DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK with one stunning shot after another (including a few that made me gasp yesterday). Every close-up looks like a beautifully painted portrait, but the stand-outs for me are Colbert in a bonnet when she meets her new neighbors, Carradine calling the Senecas to attack from the fog, and Fonda pursued by Indians as the sun rises behind them. Even if you’re not a fan of historical dramas from the Studio Era, this film will knock your britches off.

In addition to the two I saw, the Film Society also screened John M. Stahl’s LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), Elia Kazan’s WILD RIVER (1960), Bob Fosse’s ALL THAT JAZZ (1979) and Martin Scorsese’s THE KING OF COMEDY (1982) on Friday. All are available on Blu-ray except TWO FOR THE ROAD, my favorite of the bunch. Somebody needs to rectify that soon (so I can silently weep in the comfort of my own apartment).

gggggggOver the next 17 days, the New York Film Festival will debut some of the most anticipated films of the awards season. But in addition to high profile premieres like THE WALK, BRIDGE OF SPIES and STEVE JOBS (plus a sneak preview of Ridley Scott’s THE MARTIAN), the NYFF will also feature more than a dozen films, documentaries and events of interest to classic movie lovers. Most have been restored, one is making its North American premiere, and two – John Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (1940) and Ernst Lubitsch’s HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943) – will be presented in newly struck 35 mm prints from Fox. Seven of the films in the lineup will screen in honor of the 25th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation – one, with Scorsese in attendance.

The NYFF will also co-host a tribute to documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, who died in March at age 88. The free event will take place Sunday, October 4 at 10 AM at Alice Tully Hall and will feature appearances by family members, special guests and selections from his films. Tickets are free and will be distributed an hour before the event.

Finally, a new documentary honoring Ingrid Bergman on her centenary will play twice at NYFF – Monday, October 5 at 6 PM the Walter Reade Theater and Tuesday, October 6 at 8:30 PM at the Howard Gilman Theater – both with director Stig Bjorkman in person. According to the Film Society, INGRID BERGMAN – IN HER OWN WORDS  “is composed from her letters and diaries (extracts of which are read by Alicia Vikander), the memories of her children (Pia Lindström and Isabella, Ingrid, and Roberto Rossellini), and a few close friends and colleagues (including Liv Ullmann and Sigourney Weaver), photographs, and moments from thousands of feet of Super-8 and 16mm footage shot by Bergman herself.”

Here’s a schedule for revivals playing at the New York Film Festival:

Sunday, September 27
12 PM Marcel Ophuls’ THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE (1976) at the Walter Reade Theater (DCP, with Marcel Ophuls in person)

Monday, September 28
6 PM Lino Brocka’s INSIANG (1976) at the Francesca Beale Theater (Restored, in DCP)

Wednesday, September 30 – standby tickets only
9 PM Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT (1980) at the Walter Reade Theater (DCP)

Thursday, October 1
6 PM Ernst Lubitsch’s HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943) at Alice Tully Hall (Restored, in 35mm, followed by Q&A w/ Martin Scorsese)

Friday, October 2 – standby tickets only
9 PM Kurosawa’s RAN (1985) at the Walter Reade Theater (Restored, in DCP)

Sunday, October 4
12 PM Manoel de Oliveira’s VISIT, OR MEMORIES AND CONFESSIONS (1982) at the Walter Reade Theater (North American premiere, in 35mm)

2 PM Luchino Visconti’s ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (1960) at the Walter Reade Theater (Restored, in DCP)

Monday October 5
9 PM King Hu’s A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971/1975) at the Walter Reade Theater (Restored, in DCP)

Tuesday October 6
8:30 PM Ousmane Sembene’s BLACK GIRL (1965) at the Francesca Beale Theater (Restored, in DCP)

Wednesday, October 7
6:00 PM John Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (1940) at the Francesca Beale Theater (Restored, in 35mm)

Friday October 9
6:00 PM Hou Hsiao-hsien’s THE BOYS FROM FENGKUEI (1983) at the Walter Reade Theater (Restored, in DCP, with Hou Hsiao-hsien in person)

The NYFF offers a discount when you purchase tickets to three or more revival screenings. For more info on that, click here


Posted in Film Society of Lincoln Society, New York Film Festival | 5 Comments

ABC’s “The Muppets” isn’t Perverted, It’s Hilarious

coverI was all set to hate The Muppets until the conservative Christians stepped in.

For months now, Disney – they own this piece of your childhood, too – has been bombarding social media with promotion for ABC’s “reimagining” of The Muppet Show (1976-81), hyping the soapy shenanigans of beloved characters Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. They broke up! He has a new girlfriend! Piggy is jealous! Piggy is seeking solace in the arms of handsome Liam Hemsworth!

As with their exhausting STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS hype, Disney’s hard sell of The Muppets felt assaultive and unnecessary. We’re all going to see the new STAR WARS movie whether they tells us to or not, and we’re all going to sample the first new Muppets TV series in a generation because they’re the Muppets. 

But there were more red flags. The tone of the promotion felt distinctly different, and the extreme focus on the characters’ personal lives risked a venture into unchartered territory for the franchise. Plus, the faux-documentary style – the most overused cliche since the wacky neighbor – often trades storytelling and character interaction for jokiness, especially in today’s shorter duration primetime shows (thanks to the need for more ads). It seemed like a desperate ploy to appeal to contemporary viewers of Modern Family, 30 Rock, The Office and countless others.

So that’s where I was, emotionally, as the premiere approached: conflicted, loaded for (Fozzie) bear and prepared to trash the show because these Muppets weren’t my Muppets.

Then the fundamentalists showed up.

Before the first episode even aired, a conservative Christian advocacy group called One Million Moms condemned the series as “perverted” and launched a campaign to kill it. “Miss Piggy came out as a pro-choice feminist during an MSNBC interview” they pearl-clutched on their protest page (with more than 21,000 Facebook shares as of this writing). Created by the Mississippi-based American Family Association (deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), One Million Moms insisted The Muppets was going to be all about sex, drugs, promiscuity and abortion(!) and was “not what Jim Henson imagined and created.” (Note that these are the same people who tried to get Ellen DeGeneres fired for being gay.)

Nothing makes me want to watch something more than being told I shouldn’t, particularly when the guy telling me is Donald Wildmon. A Methodist minister, notorious homophobe, and the founder of the AFA, Wildmon got his start in hate-based advocacy by boycotting sponsors of All in the Family forty years ago (I assume because he shared Archie Bunker’s prejudices). He also penned a letter sent home with every kid in my Catholic school in 1980 warning parents about Adam and Yves, a proposed ABC sitcom from Barney Miller producer Danny Arnold that would have been the first network TV series with gay protagonists. (Primetime’s only other gay character at that point was Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas on ABC’s daytime drama parody, Soap.)

Wildmon led protests of Disney (for welcoming LGBT guests to their parks), Madonna (for her blasphemous Like A Prayer video), Three’s Company, M*A*S*H, Dallas, and The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse (alleging that the cartoon superhero snorted cocaine). In short, Wildmon was against a whole bunch of things I enjoyed as a kid, and still do today.

If his small-minded cabal was against the series, it was already looking better to me. And last night, finally, it was time for me to meet The Muppets.

the-muppets (1)Like the original syndicated series (and ABC’s last primetime reboot, Muppets Tonight in 1996), this update uses a show-within-a-show concept. This time around it’s Up Late with Miss Piggy, a fictional (obviously) late night talk show hosted by America’s favorite egotistical pig. Kermit is the harried show-runner, a job made more challenging by his complicated relationship with the hot-headed host. As the pilot reveals, Kermit broke off his longstanding relationship with Piggy due to her self-involvement and obsession with fame (what else is new). But, proving that this is a Kermit for a new generation, the frog has already moved on to a new pig: Denise, the head of marketing at ABC.

“What can I say?” Kermit tells the documentary camera. “I’m attracted to pigs.”

Also on hand is Fozzie, who serves as Piggy’s announcer and the warm-up comic for the live studio audience. Much time is spent in the pilot on Fozzie and his absurdly attractive girlfriend (Riki Lindhome) and their efforts to win over her prejudiced father (he’s anti-bear, apparently). Nobody ever mentions the fact that he’s a felt puppet, or that he speaks with the anxious cadence of a young Woody Allen (either that’s new, or I didn’t notice it about Fozzie as a kid).

The rest of the familiar faces are back as well: Gonzo is a joke writer; Scooter is the talent coordinator; Sam the Eagle handles Standards and Practices; the Swedish Chef does craft service; Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (featuring Animal) serve as house band; and old coots Statler and Waldorf are in the audience every night to hate-watch the proceedings. There was even a sample of the original theme song during the cold open.

Despite the fear mongering, The Muppets is the same show as it was 39 years ago, with some updating of concept, tone, and setting (and Elizabeth Banks as a guest star instead of Vincent Price). There’s no reference to abortion, drugs, or any of the other hot button, culture war topics the protest calls out. Yes, there are a few jokes that are clearly meant as double entendres: Fozzie makes a reference to “bears” that could also mean burly gay men; Zoot acknowledges (without saying the word) that he’s an alcoholic; and Pepe the King Prawn puts the moves on a female colleague. Kermit also refers to Piggy as “sexy,” but that’s nothing new, considering that one of the original pilots for The Muppet Show was called Sex and Violence. In 1975!

Like the jokes in classic Looney Tunes, Rocky & Bullwinkle, or many of the shows on Cartoon Network today, the double meanings will sail right over the heads of most younger viewers, while keeping things interesting for parents. And, regardless of One Million Moms’ claim about the “family-friendly design” of the franchise, multi-generational appeal was Henson’s strategy from the get-go, with Muppets making appearances on late night talk shows in the 1960s and NBC’s less-than-family-friendly Saturday Night Live in 1975-76. (And if you don’t believe me, here’s an excerpt from Henson’s 1975 Muppet Show pitch reel, where he hypes the shows cross-generational appeal.)

Was I a more sympathetic viewer because of my opposition to everything One Million Moms and their legacy of hate stands for? Probably. But The Muppets is good. It’s smartly written, hip, and it deftly navigates the tightrope of inter-generational appeal without falling too hard to either side. And, most importantly, it does not sell out the iconic characters of my youth in a crass effort to appeal to lowest common denominator tastes. I will most definitely watch it again and, from the looks of the overnight ratings, so will millions of others.

It’s not 1976 anymore, despite what some people wish. We can embrace creative updates of our childhood favorites that will help keep them relevant for contemporary audiences, or we can bolt our doors, put in our old DVDs, and try to convince ourselves that the world hasn’t changed. I know which direction I’m marching, and with whom, and it’s not the haters. Unless you’re talking about Statler and Waldorf.

The first episode of The Muppets is streaming at Hulu and ABC’s website and app. The series airs Tuesday at 8 p.m (ET).  This article was updated September 24.


Posted in Classic TV, Contemporary TV | Tagged | 6 Comments

50 Years of “I Dream of Jeannie”

p184165_b_v7_aaSeptember 18, 1965. Astronaut Tony Nelson pilots the manned space capsule Stardust One on an experimental mission into Earth’s orbit. Technical difficulties force him to crash land on a deserted island in the South Pacific, where he discovers a beautiful girl – a genie imprisoned in a bejeweled bottle for 2,000 years. Tony is rescued, but the genie stows away and infiltrates his life with one goal in mind: to become his wife.

Such is the high-concept premise of I Dream of Jeannie, the timeless TV classic that debuted on NBC fifty years ago today. To celebrate the anniversary, nostalgic broadcast network Antenna TV will present a 24-hour, 48-episode marathon this weekend hosted by Barbara Eden – Jeannie herself – still gorgeous at age 84. The binge kicks off Saturday at 8 p.m. with the 1965 pilot and concludes Sunday with a series of episodes in which Jeannie and Tony finally tie the knot. It may have taken her five seasons, but Jeannie eventually got her wish.

jeannie5In a recent (and highly dubious) Hollywood Reporter poll of 2,800 entertainment industry professionals, I Dream of Jeannie ranked 70th in the “100 Favorite TV shows” of all time. For me, it’s easily in the top 20. Although I didn’t materialize until late in the show’s original run, Jeannie was required after-school viewing in syndicated reruns on New York’s WPIX throughout my late ‘70s and early ’80s childhood. My little sister and I even played our own real-life version of the show, which mostly involved me ordering her to get me snacks from the kitchen. My sister also insists that I did a “shimmy dance” every time the iconic theme song played, though I have conveniently forgotten all about that (and wish you would, too). Much as I love nostalgia, some things are better left in the past.

Inspired by the 1964 fantasy film THE BRASS BOTTLE (which featured Barbara Eden as a mortal), Jeannie was created by Sidney Sheldon as NBC’s answer to ABC’s supernatural sitcom Bewitched (number 62 on The Hollywood Reporter list). Neither show has left the air in the half century since and, though I loved them both as a kid, Jeannie is the one I enjoy more in my middle-aged dotage. I’ve always dug the deadpan slapstick antics of Larry Hagman (as Tony) and Bill Daily (as his wacko wingman Roger Healey) but the enduring appeal of the series rests firmly on the hot pink-clad shoulders of Barbara Eden.

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 7.32.52 PMOn paper, I Dream of Jeannie is a prototypical, Mad Men-era male fantasy: a gorgeous chick in a skimpy outfit living in a single man’s pad without (for most of the series) benefit of a marriage license. But Eden turns the sexist concept on its ear with a knowing wink (and a powerful blink). Her Jeannie dominates every dude she encounters, while still maintaining a charming, girl-next-bottle sweetness. She may have called Tony her “Master,” but Jeannie was clearly the one in charge. And, as a woman who bridged the chasm between the black-and-white conservatism of the mid-1960s and the go-go-boot-wearing liberation of the early ’70s, Barbara Eden must be acknowledged as one of the great female icons in the history of television.

And now, thanks to Antenna TV, we get to share this anniversary with her. For classic TV fans like me, that’s a wish come true.

Antenna TV is a free, over-the-air network available on the digital signal of local affiliates in more than 75% of the US. To see if Antenna TV is available in your city, click here. For those who don’t get Antenna TV, “I Dream of Jeannie” is also available to stream at Amazon, iTunes and Vudu for $1.99 per-episode or $19.99 per season. Note that Amazon only offers colorized versions of Season 1. Original black and white episodes are also available on DVD. The following is an episode guide to the Antenna TV marathon:


Saturday, September 19 
8 PM The Lady in the Bottle (Season 1/Episode 1 – Airdate: 9/18/1965)
8:30 PM The Americanization of Jeannie (S1/E8 – 11/6/1965)
9 PM Whatever Happened to Baby Custer (S1/E11 – 11/27/1965)
9:30 PM What House Across the Street (S1/E14 – 12/18/1965)
10 PM The Richest Astronaut in the Whole Wide World (S1/E17 – 1/15/1966)
10:30 PM How Lucky Can You Get (S1/E22 – 2/19/1966)
11 PM Watch the Birdie (S1/E23 – 2/26/1966)
11:30 PM My Master, the Great Rembrandt (S1/E26 – 3/19/1966)

Sunday, September 20 
12 AM  I’ll Never Forget What’s Her Name (S1/E30 – 5/7/1966)
12:30 AM Jeannie Breaks the Bank (S2/E14 – 12/19/1966)
1 AM Happy Anniversary (S2/E1 – 9/12/1966)
1:30 AM My Master, the Rich Tycoon (S2/E3 – 9/26/1966)
2 AM My Master, the Great Caruso (S2/E13 – 12/5/1966)
2:30 AM The World’s Greatest Lover (S2/E14 – 12/12/1966)
3 AM You Can’t Arrest Me, I Don’t Have a Driver’s License (S2/E19 – 1/23/1967)
3:30 AM The Greatest Entertainer in the World (S2/E23 – 2/27/1967)
4 AM Jeannie or the Tiger (S3/E2 – 9/19/1967)
4:30 AM Second Greatest Con Artist in the World (S3/E3 – 9/26/1967)
5 AM My Master the Weakling (S3/E5 – 10/10/1967)
5:30 AM Everybody’s a Movie Star (S3/E7 – 10/31/1967)
6 AM Meet My Master’s Mother (S3/E9 – 11/14/1967)
6:30 AM Here Comes Bootsie Nightingale (S3/E10 – 11/21/1967)
7 AM Jeannie and the Great Bank Robbery (S3/E12 – 12/5/1967)
7:30 AM Jeannie Goes to Honolulu (S3/E14 – 12/26/1967)
8 AM Genie, Genie, Who’s Got the Genie Part 1 (S3/E16 – 1/16/1968)
8:30 AM Genie, Genie, Who’s Got the Genie Part 2 (S3/E17 – 1/23/1968)
9 AM Genie, Genie, Who’s Got the Genie Part 3 (S3/E18 – 1/30/1968)
9:30 AM Genie, Genie, Who’s Got the Genie Part 4 (S3/E19 – 2/6/1968)
10 AM Please Don’t Feed the Astronauts (S3/E20 – 2/13/1968)
10:30 AM Divorce, Genie Style (S3/E22 – 2/27/1968)
11 AM Tomorrow is Not Another Day (S4/E3 – 10/7/1968)
11:30 AM The Strongest Man in the World (S4/E7 – 11/18/1968)
12 PM The Indispensable Jeannie (S4/E8 – 11/25/1968)
12:30 PM How to Marry an Astronaut (S4/E10 – 12/9/1968)
1 PM Dr. Bellows Goes Sane (S4/E11 – 12/16/1968)
1:30 PM The Case of My Vanishing Master Part 1 (S4/E13 – 1/6/1969)
2 PM The Case of My Vanishing Master Part 2 (S4/E14 – 1/13/1969)
2:30 PM Invisible House for Sale (S4/E16 – 2/3/1969)
3 PM Jeannie, the Governor’s Wife (S4/E17 – 2/10/1969)
3:30 PM The Biggest Star in Hollywood (S4/E19 – 2/24/1969)
4 PM Jeannie-Go-Round (S4/E24 – 4/7/1969)
4:30 PM Blackmail-Order Bride (S4/E26 – 5/12/1969)
5 PM Jeannie at the Piano (S5/E1 – 9/16/1969)
5:30 PM Jeannie and the Bachelor Party (S5/E6 – 10/21/1969)
6 PM The Wedding (S5/E11 – 12/2/1969)
6:30 PM My Sister, the Homewrecker (S5/E12 – 12/9/1969)
7 PM Never Put a Genie on a Budget (S5/E14 – 12/30/1969)
7:30 PM Mrs. Djinn Djinn (S5/E18 – 2/3/1970)

October, 2010 - In Jeannie's bottle with Bill Daily (Roger), Barbara Eden, and Larry Hagman.

October, 2010 – In Jeannie’s bottle with Bill Daily (Roger), Barbara Eden, and Larry Hagman.

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