THE PHANTOM SPEAKS (1945) from the Paramount Vault – And I Obey

phantom_speaks_poster_01The more classic films I watch, the more affection I develop for B movies.

These low budget “programmers” from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s are often faster-paced, rougher, and more creatively daring than their better-known contemporaries. But many are forgotten today, because they don’t have deep pocketed rightsholders to exploit them.

That’s why I was happy to discover a treasure trove of films from the Republic Pictures library – most never on home video – streaming on the Paramount Vault, a free YouTube channel available on computers, mobile devices and TVs. I’ve watched ten of the 27 Republic rarities on The Vault so far and all are a treat. But the stand-out has got to be THE PHANTOM SPEAKS, an exhilaratingly odd crime/horror hybrid from 1945 that establishes narrative precedents still used in genre movies and TV shows today.

Any film that opens with a trench coat-wearing mobster firing a gun into the camera is pretty jake in my book, and THE PHANTOM SPEAKS only gets better – and stranger –from there. As we meet aging tough guy Harvey Bogardus (Tom Powers) he’s about to rub out Frankie (Ralf Harolde), a small time hood who’s been making big time with his wife. But Harvey mistakenly drops a photo of his showgirl missus (Marion Martin) at the murder scene, which is only slightly less incriminating than a confession.

Bogardus is tried, convicted and sentenced to death, all in an efficient, newspaper headline montage that allows us to skip right to the good stuff. But, on the night of his execution, Harvey is visited by Dr. Paul Renwick (Stanley Ridges), an occult scientist and author of the book Contact with the World Beyond. Considering the two men have never met before, the condemned man is suspicious

“What are you trying to sell me?” Bogardus demands.

“Another life, after tonight,” Renwick promises.

All it takes for a dead man’s spirit to reach back from beyond the grave, Renwick tells him, is a strong will – and the spiritual guidance of the good doctor. Oddly, Renwick has decided that the first person to benefit from his “lifetime of work with the supernatural” should be a vindictive murderer. (I would have gone with the recently deceased Milton Hershey, but that’s my sweet tooth talking.)

“I’m not through yet,” Bogardus promises, as he’s strapped in the electric chair with Renwick looking on. “Not yet.”

RenwickAnd soon, he makes good on his threat. Renwick locks himself in his lab – really just a black curtain with two chairs that look borrowed from Santa Land – and attempts to summon the dead gangster by placing his hands on his head and repeating “Harvey Bogardus” over and over. The first attempt is unsuccessful, probably because Harvey was busy at the afterlife equivalent of Customs. But on the next try, the dead man materializes in the chair.

“I did it!” Renwick proclaims.

“You mean, we did it,” the ghost/spirit/whatever of Bogardus says. “But there are some things I can’t do without you.”

Pretty much all of those things involve killing people, which Harvey – in spiritual possession of the doctor’s body – does for the remainder of the film. Renwick murders Harvey’s lawyer, his wife, and the witness who squealed on him, but all the evidence points to Bogardus. The authorities even dig up his grave, just to make sure he’s actually still in it.

THE PHANTOM SPEAKS is clearly inspired by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the doctor and the mobster’s malevolent spirit battling for dominance of Renwick’s psyche. Stanley Ridges does a nice job with this struggle, alternating between sadistic murder and suicidal depression while evading the reporter (former silent film heartthrob Richard Arlen) who just happens to be dating his daughter (Lynne Roberts).

Like Frankenstein, THE PHANTOM SPEAKS is a parable about the overreach of science and ego. It’s also a batshit crazy genre-bender that packs a lot of weirdness into 69 minutes. If David Lynch had directed a film in 1945, it probably would have looked a lot like THE PHANTOM SPEAKS.

But if you’re thinking the plot sounds vaguely familiar, you’re right.

black_friday_poster_01Universal’s BLACK FRIDAY, a 1940 Karloff/Lugosi team-up written by Curt Siodmak (screenwriter of THE WOLF MAN) features a remarkably similar story, as well as Stanley Ridges (Renwick from THE PHANTOM SPEAKS) as an academic who turns into a murderous monster. In BLACK FRIDAY, he’s assisted by mad scientist Karloff, who transplants the brain of a gangster into the head of the dying professor (again, not the best plan).

Siodmak recycled the brain-gone-amok story into his 1942 sci-fi novel Donovan’s Brain, which was the basis for another Republic film, THE LADY AND THE MONSTER, released just months before THE PHANTOM SPEAKS and also starring Richard Arlen. (LADY is also worth checking out for its noirish cinematography by John Alton and some delightful scenery chewing by Erich von Stroheim as the mad doctor.)

Despite the similarities, Siodmak is not credited on THE PHANTOM SPEAKS (the screenplay is by prolific Republic contractee John K Butler). But Siodmak’s story would be revived again and again, including in Felix Feist’s DONOVAN’S BRAIN (1953) with Lew Ayres and Nancy (future First Lady) Davis, in a CBS-TV production in 1955 with Wendell Corey, and in THE BRAIN (1962), a British/German co-production directed by Freddie Francis. Siodmak even went to the well again in CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN (1955), proof that you can’t keep a good idea (or brain) down.

richard_arlenFor my money, THE PHANTOM SPEAKS beats them all because it dispenses with any semblance of logic and dives head-first into the supernatural. It’s efficiently directed by Republic workhorse John English, the cast (led by Arlen, nearly two decades after his co-starring role in WINGS) is surprisingly strong, and the score by Edward H. Plumb is all kinds of creepy. Even on a limited budget, PHANTOM has more than its share of atmospheric style and the B-grade patina I love.

Have a look and tell me if you don’t see influences on subsequent genre classics like The Twilight Zone, Dark Shadows and even Twin Peaks and The X-Files. And who knows, if enough of us watch THE PHANTOM SPEAKS on YouTube, maybe Paramount licensee Olive Films will release a Blu-ray.

Just in case, I’ll be in my lab with my hands on my head, repeating “Olive Films” over and over again.

To watch THE PHANTOM SPEAKS click here. For my previous article on the Paramount Vault, including links to all the Republic films, click here.

Lobby

Posted in Classic Film, Cord-Cutting, Paramount Vault, Republic Pictures, Streaming | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: a Musical with Modern Sensibility + a Classic Heart

keyart-single-crazy-exgirlfriend-verticalA few months ago Netflix released the results of a fascinating study. By analyzing viewing patterns across 25 of their most popular TV series – both originals and acquired – they were able to determine which episode gets viewers “hooked.” If we’ve gotten as far as that one, Netflix says, 70 percent of us go on to complete the season.

In not a single case was that episode the pilot.

Knowing that the nerds at Netflix are Big Brother’ing what we watch is kind of creepy, but I have no doubt they’re right about this. The ability to binge has radically altered the way I sample new shows and my willingness to give them time to grow on me. And, ironically, I proved Netflix’s point this weekend, but I did it on Hulu.

Snowed in with more TV time on my hands than normal, I decided to give the CW sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a try. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary network comedies, but this series about a neurotic New Yorker (Rachel Bloom) who relocates to SoCal in pursuit of a long lost love from summer camp has an unusual hook: it’s a musical.

Twice per sixty-minute show, Bloom and/or members of the supporting cast break into song and dance numbers that both parody and pay homage to the tropes of musical theater and film. The songs are often hilariously suggestive, which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that Bloom first went viral with Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury, a 2010 YouTube video in which she declares her love for “the greatest sci-fi writer in history.”

But the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend musical number that hooked me was anything but suggestive.

In episode four, Bloom’s Rebecca Bunch, an overachieving attorney in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, goes on a date – not with former camp crush Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), but with his self-deprecating best friend Greg (Santino Fontana). Greg, who has discovered Rebecca’s secret obsession with his easygoing buddy, woos her with a charming musical number that temporarily wins her over.

635817426725893161-CEG104B-0439ba1“Settle for me,” he serenades, as the low-rent sports bar in which he works morphs into a 1930s supper club and his t-shirt and jeans transform into evening clothes. Soon he’s twirling Rebecca around an Art Deco dance floor like Fred Astaire did with Ginger Rogers eighty years ago. And, just in case you didn’t get the Fred & Ginger connection, “Settle For Me” is in black-and-white.

It’s like they made it especially for me.

Because Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a comedy, the lyrics (by Bloom and Adam Schlesinger) are over-the-top funny. But, as in Astaire & Rogers films like TOP HAT (1935) and SWING TIME (1936), dance doubles for courtship and song conveys feelings otherwise unsaid. Just like a real musical.

Although the songs in the series–  all co-written by Bloom–  routinely make me laugh out loud, the casting of vocal talents like Fontana, a Tony nominee for Cinderella on Broadway and the voice of Prince Hans in FROZEN (2013), demonstrates that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend takes its music very seriously. Every member of the cast has musical theater creds, including Tony Award winner Tovah Feldshuh as Rebecca’s manipulative mother.

CEG1CAST3_0509ra.max-620x600Which leads me to another thing I like about the show: its multiculturalism. Josh is Filipino-American, and his family’s ethnic heritage (and devout Catholicism) plays a key role in the Thanksgiving episode. Josh’s evil girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) is Mexican, as is Rebecca’s co-worker Mrs. Hernandez (Gina Gallego). Her hipster next-door neighbor Heather is played by Vella Lovell, an actress of Indian descent. And Rebecca’s Judaism is integral to her character, and her mother’s. It’s not every sitcom that ends a Christmas episode with the star promising to come home for Passover.

There are plenty of other standout moments in the first eight episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, including a Busby Berkley-esque showstopper with Rebecca swinging on a pretzel, an ode to Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS (1960) called “Sexy French Depression,” and a Saved By the Bell-style number called “I Have Friends” – a duet between Rebecca and her tween self. And unexpurgated versions of a few of the songs are posted on Bloom’s YouTube channel.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend hasn’t exactly been killing it in the ratings, with episodes averaging fewer than a million viewers. But Bloom’s Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a TV Musical or Comedy has brought new eyes to the show, including mine. The series returns tonight from a two-month hiatus with an episode directed by Kenny Ortega, the director of HOCUS POCUS (1993) and NEWSIES (1992) and choreographer of DIRTY DANCING (1987) and XANADU (1980). All episodes are now available on Hulu and CW’s website and app, but the first four are due to expire shortly. I recommend an immediate binge.

UPDATE: Only episodes 5-9 are now streaming free at CW.com and for subscribers at Hulu. Episodes 1-4  remain available via iTunes and Amazon for $2.99 per show or $19.99 per season. New episodes air on the CW Mondays at 8 p.m. 

CRAZY

Posted in Contemporary TV | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Rarely Seen Films from Republic Pictures – Now Streaming!

BusterIf you love old movies you probably have shelves filled with favorites in every physical media format ever invented. But for every one beloved film in your personal collection, there are hundreds of other undiscovered gems languishing in studio vaults. These films exist, so they can’t be considered “lost,” but they may as well be, because they can’t be seen.

Case in point: the more than 700 pre-1948 Paramount films acquired by MCA in 1958 and controlled by Universal since the 1962 merger of MCA and Universal parent Decca Records. To date, fewer than 200 of them have been made available on DVD. Universal – now owned by Comcast – barely seems interested in exploiting even its own vast library, outside of endlessly repackaging a handful of iconic monster movies from the 1930s and ‘40s.

DracFor instance: Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931) with Bela Lugosi is currently available at Amazon in no less than ten different DVD or Blu-ray releases. You may have the Definitive Collection, but what about the Legacy Collection? Or the Complete Legacy Collection? Or the Spotlight? The Essential? And what about the Deluxe Complete Definitive Essential Spotlight Edition with the commemorative wooden stake? (Okay, that doesn’t actually exist. But I might buy it if it did.)

Factor in digital distribution options, and you have a seemingly endless variety of ways to watch one iconic film, while the vast majority of Universal and Paramount’s combined output from the 1930s and ’40s remains interred in the Comcast Coffin.

“Stay tuned” for future plans regarding ways to “improve” access to the shared libraries, a Universal spokesperson told business columnist Michael Hiltzik in a recent edition of The Los Angeles Times. (I’m quoted in the article along with my friend Nora Fiore, who blogs as the Nitrate Diva.)

Universal’s plans may not yet be clear, but, happily, Paramount’s are. While the studio no longer controls their own output from the first two decades of the sound era, they do own a different, equally under-exploited library from the same period: the films produced and distributed by Republic Pictures. And some of those titles – most never before available on home video are now available streaming.  

4-c_republic_logoIn recent weeks, Paramount has quietly added 27 Republic releases to the Paramount Vault, a YouTube portal available on computers, handheld devices, and TVs. Paramount launched the streaming service in December of 2014 and had posted 91 full length feature films when I first wrote about it last October. Twenty-seven additional titles were added in November and December, including 23 produced by Republic and four additional, Republic-controlled rarities from British-National Films, Central National Pictures, Allied Artists and United Artists.

And good news for all you cord-cutters: the films on the Paramount Vault are free to watch for viewers in the United States. On mobile devices and computers, each movie includes a (skipable) 15-second ad every ten minutes or so. If you’re streaming on TV via YouTube on Roku (or similar streaming devices), you only have to watch a single pre-roll commercial – a small price to pay for free access to a rare film.

Formed in 1935 when Consolidated Film Industries owner Herbert Yates acquired and merged a handful of independent production houses, Republic was a “mini-major” nestled between Poverty Row and the Big Eight Hollywood studios. Between 1935 and 1958, the studio churned out nearly 1,000 feature films, from Westerns to crime pictures to broad musical comedies, most with B-level budgets and sensibilities. They were also one of the most prolific producers of serials, thanks initially to Yates’ acquisition of Monogram Pictures. (Monogram re-formed in 1937 and continued as an indie through the 1970s, after morphing into Allied Artists in the 1950s.

How Paramount came to control a library of films it neither produced nor distributed is a typically twisty tale of mergers and acquisitions. After television brought on a gradual slowdown in film production in the ’50s, Republic finally pulled the plug in 1958 and was sold. The studio lot was later bought by CBS and the library acquired by TV distributor National Telefilm Associates (NTA), which renamed itself “Republic Pictures” in the mid-1980s. In 1994, the rechristened Republic was acquired by Spelling Entertainment, then a subsidiary of Blockbuster (which was also a stakeholder in Republic). Blockbuster was acquired by Viacom later that year, and the Republic library came under the control of Paramount, which had been acquired by Viacom in 1993.

Got all that? Good. Now you can apply to business school.

Poster_-_Quiet_Man,_The_01If you’re a classic film fan, you may recognize Republic as the studio that made John Ford’s THE QUIET MAN (1952) with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in glorious Technicolor. But that Oscar-winning high-water mark was the exception. The rule at Republic was quickly produced genre fare, usually in black-and-white, with predictable profitability. And, while you’ll never find a cash cow like THE QUIET MAN for free on the Paramount Vault, Republic’s ANGEL AND THE BAD MAN (1947) with John Wayne and THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN (1949) with Wayne and Vera Ralston (aka Mrs. Herbert Yates, ahem) are streaming, despite recent Blu-ray releases from Olive films. (Two other recent adds to the Vault are also on Blu from Olive, 1955’s TRACK THE MAN DOWN and 1947’s CHRISTMAS EVE, which came out this week.)

If, like me, B-movies have a special place in your heart, you’ll eat the Republic selections on the Paramount Vault up with a digital spoon. The offerings include Westerns, war pictures, crime films, B-musicals, a “Hillbilly” comedy with cornpone radio comedian Judy Canova, and even feature film re-edits of two of the studio’s most popular serials. I’ve watched seven of the films in recent days and was delighted by both the diverse selection and the quality of the transfers. (I hope to post a review of one or two in the near future).

With only four of the 27 new titles on the Paramount Vault also available on DVD or Blu-ray, collectors will undoubtedly be disappointed. But, as one of the the only major studios without a manufacture-on-demand label, Paramount seems to have decided that making money on ad-supported streaming is better than having obscure films gather dust. I agree with that strategy wholeheartedly. And if you really must have a physical copy, you can always save the media to your desktop via a free YouTube video downloader and burn a copy to a DVD-R.

As business paradigms and delivery methods evolve, one thing remains constant: access is key to keeping classic film alive for current fans and relevant for a new generations of viewers. And if new media initiatives like the Paramount Vault and Fox’s Century of Cinema on iTunes prove successful, perhaps Comcast will take notice and crack open the vaults to the long-unseen Paramount and Universal titles. In the meantime, I’ll be watching Judy Canova in PUDDIN’ HEAD (1941) – along with the more than 2,700 other people who’ve enjoyed it in just the last two months.

To access the Republic titles on the Paramount Vault, visit my YouTube playlist or click the links below. For my October, 2015 article (which includes links to all the films on the service), click here.

studio

Republic Pictures on the Paramount Vault  – 27 films 
Links take you to YouTube. Unless indicated, these films are unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray. 

1930s – 1 film
Pride of the Navy (1939, Charles Lamont)

1940s – 18 films
Laugh it Off (1940, directed by John Baxter, produced by British National Films)
Barnyard Follies (1940, Frank McDonald)
Gangs of Chicago (1940, Arthur Lubin)
Puddin’ Head (1941, Joseph Santley)
Remember Pearl Harbor (1942, Joseph Santley)
Stagecoach Express (1942, George Sherman)
The Man from the Rio Grande (1943, Howard Bretherton)
O, My Darling Clementine (1943, Frank McDonald)
Tahiti Honey (1943, John H. Auer)
Jamboree (1944, Joseph Santley)
Rosie the Riveter (1944, Joseph Santley)
Mexicana (1945, Alfred Santell)
The Phantom Speaks (1945, John English)
The Trail of Kit Carson (1945, Lesley Selander)
Angel and the Bad Man (1947, James Edward Grant) On Blu-ray
Christmas Eve (1947, Edwin L. Marin – United Artists) On Blu-ray
Train to Alcatraz (1948, Philip Ford)
The Fighting Kentuckian (1949, George Waggner) On Blu-ray

1950s – 6
The Golden Gloves Story (1951, Felix Feist – Central Nat’l Pictures/Eagle-Lion)
Million Dollar Pursuit (1951, R.G. Springsteen)
Track the Man Down (1955, R.G. Springsteen) On Blu-ray
Zanabuku (1956, Lewis Cotlow)
Satan’s Satellites (1958, Fred C. Brannon)
New Orleans After Dark (1958, John Sledge – Allied Artists)

1960s – 1
Cyclotrode X (1966, Fred C. Brannon)

1990s – 1
Betty Boop Confidential (1995, compilation)

CANOVA

Posted in Classic Film, Cord-Cutting, Paramount Vault, Republic Pictures, Streaming | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Update: New Year, New Way to Watch TCM

2012+TCM+Classic+Film+Festival+Opening+Night+Yv-Y7ncfbf7lUpdated 1/19/16 -New info in italics.

Turner made lots of announcements this week at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena. Sadly, one piece of news TCM viewers have been waiting for – an option to subscribe directly, without committing to other channels they don’t watch – was not among them.

Don’t blame me. I said a novena to the patron saint of television and even lit my Golden Girls votive candles. But the lack of TCM news from TCA is not surprising. TCM’s unique status as a commercial-free, non-premium cable TV network – the last in the Turner portfolio after Boomerang became advertiser-supported in 2015 – usually leaves it out of the headlines at events like this.

But there is some good news for classic film fans who made a resolution to cut the cable cord in 2016. And it may radically alter the way many viewers watch TCM.

bbenSling TV, the broadband TV service from Dish Network, has quietly added dozens of on-demand movies to its TCM channel. (I wrote about TCM’s launch on Sling in June of 2015 here.) In addition to the live broadcast feed, Sling now offers more than 80 films that aired on the channel in the last 7 days, on-demand. For the same $25 per-month subscription fee, Sling customers can now access what is, essentially, a full week of programming, with the same hosted intros from Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz that appeared on-air. And, best of all, with a streaming player like Roku, these films can be viewed on your TV, in high definition, with DVR functionality.

If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like a TV version of Watch TCM, the streaming app that launched two years ago, you’re right. With a handful of exceptions, Sling now offers the same on-demand titles as Watch TCM. (As of this writing there are 90 films on the app, and 84 on Sling.) But the Watch TCM app has previously only been accessible on mobile devices and computers; if you wanted to Watch TCM on your TV, you were in the wrong gin joint.

SlingSling TV changes all that. Don’t like what’s on in primetime tonight? Just watch that obscure film noir that aired at 4 a.m. Don’t think TCM should air movies released after 1970/80/90/whenever? Don’t watch them. With a week’s worth of movies on-demand on Sling, you can self-program TCM to reflect your own definition of classic, with the network’s expert content curation at the core.

Loyal Cinematically Insane readers (hi Aunt Margaret!) may get an odd sense of déjà vu from this news. In September of last year, the network announced plans to make the Watch TCM app available for viewing on TV (by cable and satellite subscribers who pay for the channel) via the Amazon Fire TV streaming player. That offering was promised “soon,” but so far nothing else has been said about it. And trust me, I’ve asked. So unless I’ve missed something, it looks like Sling has leapfrogged ahead of Amazon with this exclusive functionality.

Updated 1/19/16 – Multichannel News columnist Jeff Baumgartner reports that Amazon and TCM are still “working out some of the technical aspects” of Watch TCM on Amazon Fire TV, which may explain the delay in launch. No word yet on when it will go live. Thanks to reader “What in the World?” for this update. 

ddd - 1For classic film-loving Time Warner Cable customers, this is particularly welcome news. Of the 25 largest cable and satellite providers in the U.S., TWC and their Bright House affiliate are the only ones not currently supporting the Watch TCM app. Now, TWC customers who cut the cord and switch to Sling TV can get the vast majority of the Watch TCM content on Sling’s mobile app and choose from on-demand options while watching on TV – all for less than they’re currently paying Time Warner Cable. (Note: you’ll still have to pay your local cable provider for broadband, because that’s how monopolies work.)

Sling has been experimenting with on-demand options for TCM for months now. At least 45 films were made available as far back as September 3, but disappeared without explanation soon thereafter. Others have come and gone since, but this is the first time on-demand offerings have remained on Sling for an extended period, and been refreshed as TCM’s traditional week-long streaming windows expire.

Which brings me to the only downside of TCM on Sling TV: rights issues.

When TCM licenses a film, the channel must negotiate multiple types of rights, including broadcast, live streaming, and on-demand streaming. Although Sling TV carries TCM’s broadcast feed, they deliver it via the Internet, which makes them a streaming venue. If TCM cannot secure streaming rights to a film, Sling TV’s feed will be blacked out for the duration of the movie. When this happens on the Watch TCM app’s live feed (for the same reason), viewers have the option of selecting another film on-demand. But Sling TV subscribers have been dead in the water. Until now.

ChrisTo be clear, blackouts are rare, but they may happen that one time you really want to watch something. Sling TV subscriber (and TCM Party Twitter host) Joel Williams tells me it’s only “2-3% of the time during primetime.” I first noticed this issue when the network altered its schedule for the TCM Remembers Christopher Lee marathon last June. A number of films were unavailable on Sling that day, owing perhaps to the last-minute nature of the scheduling or demonic possession. I can’t really say for sure.

Remember: not every film airing on TCM is made available to stream on-demand on Sling, even if it aired live on the service during the initial broadcast, and even if it’s available on-demand on the Watch TCM app! (Of the eight films available on the app today but not on Sling, six are controlled by Warner Bros or Criterion, rightsholders that have their own subscription video-on-demand venues.)

Don’t ask me to explain this stuff; TCM has people who are paid to understand the spiderwork of digital rights and clearances, and I’m not one of them. But, as a Sling subscriber for the last eight months, I can tell you the blackouts are a minor drawback. Plus, Sling offers TCM films on-demand as soon as the live broadcast ends (on the app you have to wait three hours). That’s nice when you tune in to a film in the middle, get hooked, and want to re-watch from the beginning as soon as possible.

Is Sling TV right for you? Ask your doctor. Seriously, it depends on what you watch. Or, in my case, what my significant other watches when I’m not making her watch TCM.

With channels like AMC, Cartoon Network, CNN, Disney, and TNT, the $20 “Best of Live TV” package provides a compelling alternative for folks who want to narrow the cord but not sever it completely. And when you add the $5 “Hollywood Extra” option with TCM, Sundance and four EPIX channels, you’ll have as many movie options as some basic cable packages offer.

And no disloyalty to TCM, but EPIX will tempt the hell out of you with hundreds of movies each month, including many classics, all without commercials and available on-demand. There’s also the option to add HBO and to test drive the service with a seven-day free trial. But I’m not a Sling salesman, so I’ll let you take it from here.

Sling may not be the TCM-only subscription model we’ve been waiting for, but it’s the closest we’ve gotten so far. And even with its occasionally wonky functionality and a somewhat clunky user interface, Sling TV may now be the best, most cost-effective way to watch TCM. Anywhere.

How’s that for a nice way to start off the new year?

Sling TV is available in the U.S. only. For more information, visit the website

Planet-of-the-Apes-120715

Posted in Classic Film, Cord-Cutting, Streaming, TCM | Tagged , , , | 17 Comments

My Highlight of 2015

BusterThis is the time when people make lists of accomplishments in an effort to prove another year has not passed in vain.

I’m too lazy to do that.

And you’re too busy to read it. So I’ll save us both the trouble and say what you already know: I saw a lot of (mostly old) movies in a lot of theaters and had a lot of fun. If you want to fill in the blanks, just scroll through my last 15,000 or so tweets. That will pretty much catch you up.

There are a few things from 2015 worth mentioning: chatting with NPR’s All Things Considered about TCM’s summer film noir series; being the first outlet to report on TV Land’s cancellation of The Dukes of Hazzard reruns in the wake of Confederate flag controversy (and breaking what became a national news story); talking with The International Business Times about The X-Files revival; getting a shout-out from CNN; contributing to a Los Angeles Times article about classic films that remain locked in studio vaults; and even getting quoted in the Wall Street Journal this week.

But my favorite moment of 2015 came on December 20, when I interviewed New York Post chief film critic Lou Lumenick on stage at the former Loews 175th Street Theater in New York City before a screening of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947). Talking about one of my favorite films in a genuine 1930s movie palace in front of an audience of hundreds of fellow fans was more fun than should be allowed.

The bad news: you couldn’t be there. The good news: somebody recorded it. It’s like a New Year’s Eve miracle!

My thanks to Lou Lumenick for inviting me, to the United Palace Theater for hosting us, and to you for reading, watching, retweeting, “liking” and generally supporting my Old Movie Weirdo efforts.

Happy new year! Here’s to another year spent (mostly) in the past.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Why I Won’t Be Watching SyFy’s Twilight Zone Marathon This New Year

Rod_SerlingAs the calendar turns each December, SyFy interrupts its regular schedule of supernatural dramas, paranormal reality shows, and SHARKNADO sequels for a marathon visit to the middle ground between light and shadow: The Twilight Zone

For many of us, a New Year’s Eve smoke with host and creator Rod Serling followed by a Talky Tina-exacerbated hangover has been a holiday tradition for twenty years. But this year, as the The Twilight Zone marathon begins its third decade, SyFy is entering a new dimension: high definition. The NBCUniversal-owned network has finally junked the blurry, hissy, standard definition video masters they’ve been airing since they were called The Sci-Fi Channel in favor of new HD versions from CBS Television Distribution.

Plus, after programming 46 hours last New Year, the network has has nearly doubled the duration of this year’s marathon. Between Wednesday, December 30 at 7 p.m. (ET) and Sunday, January 3 at noon, SyFy will air every episode of The Twilight Zone, in chronological order. That’s 87 hours of stops at Willoughby, monsters on Maple Street, and trips to the cornfield.

twilight-zoneThese are welcome developments to be sure, but the marathon still has one fatal flaw that renders it unwatchable for me: the Twilight Zone episodes SyFy airs are edited.

Unless the network alters its business model and decides to go ad-free for the next five days, SyFy will broadcast The Twilight Zone with roughly ten percent of each episode cut in favor of extra commercials. That means that if you binge all 156 episodes in a row — and there are surely people who will try — you’ll miss at least 348 minutes, or nearly six hours of material.

It’s not necessarily their fault, of course. SyFy is an ad-supported channel, and half-hour shows in 2015 have eight minutes (or more) of commercials, whereas they had five (or fewer) during Zone’s initial 1959-1964 run. And to be fair, it’s not like the network has a monkey with Final Cut Pro randomly lopping off two minutes from every show. The masters provided to SyFy by CBS are pre-cut for syndication, and care is taken to insure that edits don’t remove vital plot points.

But the episodes are still edited. Beats are missed, pacing is changed, and the closing credits from each show are usually minimized and muted by SyFy in place of a promo. That means each episode airs without the theme song reprise at the end. That alone bugs the hell out of me.

12df0c777de27cce0d44842b4022b53aWhile I’m glad to see SyFy upgrade to high def, as long as they air edited versions I won’t be tuning in. Which begs the question: why, in the age of streaming, are we watching one of the most beloved TV series of all time in an altered form?

When I asked this question last year, one viewer on Twitter cited the shared experience of watching live with fellow fans. As a frequent live-tweeter, I share that sentiment. But streaming gives us the option to duplicate the broadcast experience in high def with no edits or commercials – and without dropping $170.99 on a Blu-ray box set.

With apologies to my fellow Netflix-and-Chill’ers, the world’s most popular subscription VOD service is not the best place to stream The Twilight Zone. That distinction goes to Hulu, which is the only SVOD service offering the entire series in HD without commercials. (Both Netflix and Amazon don’t offer the rarely-seen hour-long episodes from the fourth season, nor do they stream the series in HD, though Amazon does offer HD streams for $2.99 per-show.)

Like all good Twilight Zone episodes, this story has a twist. Hulu does have commercials, but you can avoid them simply, and at little or no cost. If you’re not already a Hulu subscriber, simply sign up for a free, one-week trial and choose the commercial-free plan. Then you can cancel after the marathon ends and owe nothing. If you are a subscriber, upgrade to the commercial-free plan for an additional $4-per-month ($11.99 vs. $7.99), then cancel on Sunday. Your pro-rated costs will be minimal. (Note to conspiracy theorists: I don’t own Hulu stock, so I have nothing to gain from this scheme.)

Or, if you want no part of Hulu, subscribe to the CBS All Access subscription VOD service, where you can watch every episode of The Twilight Zone ad-free in standard definition. They also offer a free one-week trial and you can also binge on retro staples like Mission Impossible and the classic Hawaii Five-0, both of which are no longer available on Netflix Instant.

Like Netflix, Hulu and CBS All-Access are available to watch on your TV via Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Google Chromecast. And both have easy-to-use apps for phones and tablets if you want to keep watching while you go to the gym to work off your New Year’s Eve revelry.

To be clear: I think it’s good that SyFy has kept this show I love so much in the public eye for the last two decades. I think it’s real good. And I appreciate the fact that a mainstream basic cable network is going black-and-white for five straight days. Nobody does that anymore, not even Turner Classic Movies.

I also understand that the vast majority of viewers will ignore me and gleefully watch SyFy’s marathon with 17 minutes of commercials each hour, and 2+ minutes of each episode lost to the cutting room floor. And that’s fine. But while I give the channel all due credit for creating new generations of Twilight Zone fans, this old school viewer will be entering The Hulu Zone this weekend.

To track along with SyFy’s broadcasts while you stream, follow this helpful schedule. And if  the world ends this New Year’s weekend and you find yourself locked in a vault, make sure you don’t step on your glasses. 

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MIRACLE on 175th Street

MiracleI like old movies. Okay, that’s an understatement. I don’t just like them, I want to live in them.

I’m not the first person to feel this way, of course. Woody Allen based an entire film — THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO — on the desire to intermingle the real and the reel, and others did it before him (notably Buster Keaton). Don’t worry, though, I’m not sad and lonely like Mia Farrow’s Depression Era waitress in that 1985 film, nor does my significant other verbally abuse me (except when I forget to buy cat food). My life in the present day is just fine, thanks for asking.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the monochrome milieu of 1930s and ‘40s Hollywood calls to me in a deep, instinctual way I have never completely understood. And, given the opportunity, I would go there to live and never come back.

hhhBefore you dismiss this as the sloppy sentimentality of an aging movie buff, you should know that these feelings aren’t new. For a seventh grade school assignment in 1981, I wrote myself into the story of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, the holiday classic starring Edmund Gwenn as a man who may or may not be Santa Claus. Tragically, I didn’t keep a copy of that essay (which earned me an A, by the way). Even more tragically, my wish never came true. But the next best thing is happening this weekend: I’ll be introducing a special holiday screening of the film in a genuine 1930s movie palace in New York City.

On Sunday, December 20 I’ll join movie historian and New York Post chief film critic Lou Lumenick on stage at the United Palace of Cultural Arts in Upper Manhattan to introduce MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Doors open at 4 p.m. and teen musical theater group Statement Arts kicks off the merriment with Christmas carols (I won’t be singing, which is for the best. Trust me.) Next up is a Fox Movietone newsreel from 1947, the year of MIRACLE’s original release. Then Lou and I will chat on stage and take questions from the audience with the able assistance of executive director Mike Fitelson. (Lou will answer the hard ones; I will smile politely.)

175th StreetAnd what a stage it is. The United Palace began life on February 22, 1930 as the Loews 175th Street Theater, one of five “Wonder Theaters” in the New York City area. The program that day featured Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery in E. Mason Hopper’s THEIR OWN DESIRE on the big screen, along with a live stage show featuring the deadpan comedy stylings of Shaw and Lee. The Washington Heights landmark entertained audiences for nearly 40 years before Loews ceased operations in 1969 and sold the theater to evangelist Rev. Ike Eikerenkoetter, who maintained it — in pristine condition — as a house of worship for four decades. Film screenings returned in 2013, thanks to Indiegogo campaigns that continue to raise needed funds. (Films are currently presented on consumer formats with Spanish sub-titles. Professional grade projection in the offing.)

Ironically, Sunday’s United Palace event will go head-to-head with the nationwide screenings of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET from my friends at Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events. With all due respect to Robert Osborne, I think a 1930s movie palace is a better setting for this beloved classic than a multiplex – plus, there are two additional TCM screenings on Wednesday, December 23 (at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.) If you’re conflicted, why not see both and impress your friends with all the fun facts you’ll learn from Lou and me (mostly Lou)?

And remember, if you wear a tuxedo or evening gown, admission is free. And if you wear both, I’ll buy you a popcorn. There will also be raffle prizes and the opportunity to gawk at a perfectly preserved, 85-year-old movie palace with a film from its heyday on the big screen. If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)
Sunday, December 20 at United Palace of Cultural Arts
4140 Broadway (at W. 175th Street)
4 p.m. Doors  – 5 p.m. Pre-show entertainment – 5:30 p.m. Movie
Admission: $10 adults – $5 children under 12/seniors (online)
$15 adults – $8 children under 12/seniors (at door)
Subway: A to 175th Street
Parking: Broadway b/w 176th & 177th Streets

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Posted in Classic Film | Tagged , , | 30 Comments