“In Search Of…” Leonard Nimoy’s 1970s Reality Show

leonard-nimoyLeonard Nimoy called his 1975 autobiography I Am Not Spock. For me, at least at the time, that sentiment was accurate.

I first discovered Nimoy, who died today at age 83, as the host and narrator of In Search Of…, a weekly “documentary” series focusing on paranormal, mysterious, or unexplained events. Though the syndicated series scared the daylights out of me as an impressionable 7-year-old, it had me hooked almost immediately upon its premiere in April of 1977.

That spring was the calm before my sci-fi storm; weekly Star Trek reruns on my local independent station had not yet captured my attention, and the STAR WARS tractor beam was still a few months away from sucking me in for life. But I was always up for a good scare, and everything about In Search Of… creeped me out.

SearchCreated by Alan Lansburg, producer and writer of Biography, The World of Jacques Cousteau, and the National Geographic specialsIn Search Of… was arguably one of TV’s first reality shows, if your definition of “reality show” is a slightly exagerated take on an actual person or event, and not the Kabuki theatrics of The Real Housewives. 

Each week – it aired on Saturday nights in New York – In Search Of… would take on a sensational, often zeitgeist-capturing topic, like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or UFOs, and attempt to explain it with a combination of talking head interviews, actor reenactments, news footage, spooky music and a heavy dose of “conjecture” (as the opening montage confessed). Nimoy lent the often hyperbolic proceedings a necessary gravitas, delivering his lines in his best Spock deadpan. Think Robert Stack in Unsolved Mysteries, but with fewer trenchcoats and more turtlenecks (and ghosts).

DVDNowadays, cable TV is littered with programs that blur the widening line between truth and bullshit, but such was not the case in the pre-SPINAL TAP dark ages of 1977. Documentary parodies existed on sketch shows like Monty Python and Saturday Night Live, but experts speaking seriously on fantastic topics were a rare thing. And they held a lot of weight, particularly if you were young, impressionable, and desperate to believe that there were other forces at play in the natural world.

And that was the thesis of In Search Of…, that unexplainable things were unexplainable simply because society wasn’t prepared to accept the explanations. The truth was out there in 1977, and it was thanks to Leonard Nimoy.

In Search Of… began as a series of three, hour-long documentaries airing between 1973 and 1975, all hosted by Rod Serling. Sadly, The Twilight Zone host died by the time Lansburg had sold the series, so Nimoy was transported into the host role. He’d go on to emcee all 144 episodes, until the success of the STAR TREK reunion films insured that Leonard Nimoy was, once again, Spock. (Appropriately, his second autobiography, published in 1995, is entitled I Am Spock.)

Happily, all 144 episodes of In Search Of… are available un-cut on DVD from VEI, both as individual season sets and a complete series box (which includes the Rod Serling specials, and 2002 re-boot hosted by The X-Files star Mitch Pileggi). And, while the show is not currently streaming legitimately, all six seasons are available on YouTube thanks to a mysterious phenomena known as “piracy.”

If you’re so inclined, I’d suggest you begin your Search with the Bermuda Triangle episode (original airdate April 17, 1977). This show made me fearful of flying for years, and I still think of it whenever I board a plane.

Thanks, Mr. Nimoy.

Posted in Classic TV | Tagged , | 6 Comments

50 Years of THE ODD COUPLE

odd-couple-posterThe Odd Couple has been rebooted so many times in the last half century it’s difficult to keep track without a Felix Unger-style spreadsheet.

So, as sloppy sports reporter Oscar Madison and persnickety photographer Felix Unger move in together again, this time on CBS in the person of Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon, here’s a look back at 50 years of “two divorced men sharing an apartment without driving each crazy.”

Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple first got together March 8, 1965 at Broadway’s Plymouth Theater, with Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney (Norton from The Honeymooners) as Felix. (In the play he’s a TV news writer, and his name is spelled Ungar; don’t ask me why.) The Mike Nichols-directed production took home four Tonys, including awards for Matthau, Simon and Nichols. Jack Klugman (later to play the role on TV) replaced Matthau as Oscar, followed by Pat Hingle and Mike Kellin; Eddie Bracken (star of Preston Sturges’ MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK and HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO) replaced Carney as Felix. The show closed on July 2, 1967 after 964 performances, but the story was just beginning.

1968Simon wrote an Oscar-nominated adaptation of his play for Gene Saks’ 1968 Paramount film, with Matthau back as Oscar and Jack Lemmon taking on the role of Felix (the duo had co-starred previously in Billy Wilder’s THE FORTUNE COOKIE) Original Broadway cast members John Fiedler, Carole Shelley, and Monica Evans returned as poker pal Vinnie and the flighty Pigeon sisters, Oscar’s next door neighbors and objects of affection. If you’ve seen it you know Saks’ THE ODD COUPLE is the most darkly comic iteration of the story, with a lengthy opening sequence devoted to Felix’s attempted suicide that takes place off-stage in the play. Raising the narrative stakes gives the story a heightened resonance, and Felix’s on-the-ledge desperation makes his unlikely union with Oscar a legitimate life-saver, not just a narrative contrivance. (And if you haven’t seen it, it’s streaming at Netflix.)

n6lmlm4k8cdmmlk6In 1970, producer Garry Marshall brought The Odd Couple to TV, with Klugman once again as Oscar and Tony Randall as Felix. (Shelly and Evans were also back for a handful of episodes as Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon.) After an inconsistent first season shot feature film-style with a laugh track, Marshall began filming in front of a live audience in season 2 and the show found its voice. Supporting characters were added for TV, including Oscar’s secretary Myrna Turner (Penny Marshall), Murray the cop (Al Molinaro taking over for Herb Edelman, who played the character in the film), Felix’s girlfriend Miriam (Elinor Donahue), his ex-wife Gloria (Janis Hansen), and Oscar’s ex Blanche (Brett Somers, the former Mrs. Klugman).

Though never a huge ratings hit, the series lasted for five years on ABC, and its 114 episodes played endlessly in syndicated reruns throughout the ’70s and ’80s (much to my delight as a kid). It can still be seen Friday nights at 10 p.m. (ET) on MeTV and 66 episodes are streaming at Hulu (much to my delight as a middle-aged man).

And then it gets weird.

1975In 1975, six months after sitcom’s final episode, ABC launched an animated adaptation re-titled The Oddball Couple. Felix and Oscar were reimagined as Spiffy the cat (voiced by Frank Nelson) and Fleabag the dog (Paul Winchell, the first voice of Tigger), two anthropomorphized animals living together (and most assuredly driving each crazy) in a half mansion/half slum. The series also featured the vocal talents of one-time Stooge Joe Besser and original Scooby-Doo cast members Don Messick (Fred) and Frank Welker (Scooby). DePatie-Freleng Enterprises only produced 16 episodes of The Oddball Couple, though ABC sure got their money’s worth; the show aired weekly for two years, first on Saturday mornings, then on Sundays, then back to Saturdays. (It’s not available via streaming or DVD, but you can watch the opening sequence on YouTube.)

1982In 1982, just seven years after the sitcom’s cancellation, ABC dusted off old scripts and reshot them with an African-American cast. The New Odd Couple starred Demond Wilson (Lamont from Sanford and Son) as Oscar with Ron Glass (the nattily attired Det. Harris from the just-cancelled Barney Miller) as Felix. Originally conceived during a Writers Guild of American strike, this “urban” reboot eventually generated its own storylines, but even Garry Marshall’s producing and a jazzy arrangement of Neil Hefti’s iconic theme couldn’t save it from cancellation in May of 1983. (Not available streaming or on DVD, so YouTube to the rescue.)

oddcouple-femaleTwo years later, The Odd Couple got a sex change and came back to Broadway, with Rita Moreno (and later Brenda Vaccaro) as Olive Madison and Sally Struthers as Florence Ungar. Gene Saks directed the revival, and Simon adapted his script, changing the poker game to Trivial Pursuit and the Pigeon sisters to the Costazuela brothers (played by Tony Shaloub and Lewis J. Stadlen). The show played 295 performances at the Broadhurst Theatre, one of which included me in the audience rolling my eyes in dismay. It closed on February 23, 1986, and a tour followed. (As far as I can tell the production was never recorded, but there are dozens of clips of community theater versions on YouTube.)

Nearly 20 years after the sitcom’s cancellation, Klugman and Randall reunited for THE ODD COUPLE: TOGETHER AGAIN, a 1993 CBS TV movie also featuring Penny Marshall. Felix, now back with wife Gloria, is planning his daughter Edna’s wedding while helping Oscar recover from surgery for throat cancer (as Klugman was doing in real life). Klugman would live for 20 more years, but the illness aspect of the storyline casts a bit of a pall over the otherwise lighthearted proceedings. Still, it was a treat to see Klugman and Randall working together again, and it must have been for them, too; they toured in a revival of the play later that year.  (Not streaming or on DVD, but there’s a lengthy clip on YouTube.)

oc2In 1998, Matthau and Lemmon staged their own wedding-based reunion in THE ODD COUPLE II, wherein Oscar’s son Brucey (mentioned in the 1968 film but never on the TV series) and Felix’s daughter Hannah get married. Even with a script by Simon, and the renewed popularity of Matthau and Lemmon with contemporary audiences thanks to the GRUMPY OLD MEN franchise, this sequel was a flop. (You can see why at Amazon.)

In 2002, Simon updated his original play, and a revival was produced at the Geffen Playhousein Los Angeles with John Larroquette (Night Court) as Oscar and Joe Regalbuto (Murphy Brown) as Felix. This updated Odd Couple made it back to Broadway in 2005, starring a post-Producers Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, for 249 mostly-sold-out performances. (An amateur recording is on YouTube.)

Which brings us to 2015, and the new CBS sitcom with Friends star Matthew Perry as Oscar and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911!) as Felix.

THE ODD COUPLEPerry and Lennon have big shoes to fill – two sets of them, in fact – and, if the first episode is any indication, they fail as miserably as Oscar and Felix’s respective marriages. Much of the fault has to fall on the flannel-wearing shoulders of Perry, who as executive producer and co-writer has generated the first reboot that doesn’t update the story or characters in any interesting way (other than making Oscar a sports talk radio host who broadcasts from his apartment in boxer shorts, and transforming Felix in a yoga-practicing vegan).

That may sound like this Odd Couple is a (somewhat) faithful homage to the original(s), which it is not. This is a crass, lazy retread that capitalizes on the history and name recognition of the characters, while stripping the property of just about every element that made previous versions memorable.

At its core, The Odd Couple is about a relationship. Call it a bromance if you like, but if that relationship is believable, the stories can go off in all sort of crazy directions and still work. Just read some plot descriptions from the ’70s series: Oscar and Felix get robbed; Oscar tries video dating and gets paired with Felix’s ex; Oscar and Felix appear on a game show, etc. It’s typical sitcom stuff, but each episode of the original series is elevated by nuanced performances by Klugman and Randall and the inherent truth in the often prickly partnership between the two characters.

When you have broadly drawn characters you have to find a way to ground them in reality, and make them pleasant to visit with each week. Matthau and Klugman played jerks, but they were charming jerks; Lemmon and Randall found a way to be neurotic but still lovable. On TV, larger than life supporting characters like Myrna and Murray the Cop were portrayed with idiosyncratic legitimacy, even when reality was heightened for comedic impact. None of that depth is here.

There was a sort of musicality to Matthau’s Oscar, his voice rising and falling as Felix drove him increasingly crazy. Perry delivers all his lines with a strained urgency that feels desperate and quickly descends into a sort of white noise. He wanders through the the first episode like he’s on his way to another show, and his third act epiphany is straight out of sitcom writing school (complete with the canned “awww” from the nonexistent audience).

FelixBut the bigger disappointment is Lennon, whose Felix is a one-dimensional cartoon, betraying what should be his character’s amusingly tragic origin story with dumb jokes. Part of what makes the premise of these two polar opposites living together believable is that Felix truly has “nowhere else to go.” At least initially, he desperately needs Oscar to keep his sanity, and Oscar comes to need him. No such texture exists in this reboot, and the likelihood that these two would even be friends, let alone live together, is complete contrivance.

Garry Marshall (who is a consultant on the new show) has talked in interviews about network execs fearing that Oscar and Felix might be perceived as a gay couple. In 1970 that thought might not even have occurred to many viewers, because there were no out characters on TV. That’s no longer the case in 2015, and this Odd Couple has to navigate cultural waters that no previous version has. But the writers of the reboot have chosen to address this in the most obvious of ways, with Oscar and his poker buddies cracking mean jokes about how “gay” Felix seems. Because being gay is hilarious.

Watching that scene, one thing occurred to me: what if the 2015 version of The Odd Couple had updated the premise in a way that’s never been done before, making Felix not just effeminate, but an actual gay man who comes out in middle age and reluctantly has to split from his wife because of it. That would surely change the narrative crux of the story, but it would be a far more novel update than making him a cat, a woman, or an African-American. And it would give this show a contemporary relevance it sorely lacks.

After 50 years, The Odd Couple deserves better. As Tony Randall’s Felix would tell you, when you bungle an iconic property this badly, “you make an ass out of you and me.”

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Posted in Classic TV, Contemporary TV | Tagged | 10 Comments

Sophia Loren to Appear at 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival

SophiaSometime in the early 1980s, my mom brought home a new perfume.

“What’s ‘So-peeya’?” my sister Missy asked, adorably mispronouncing the name inscribed on the fancy glass bottle.

“It’s Sophia,” my mother corrected. “It’s a perfume named after a beautiful movie actress. I always wanted to look like her.”

Missy looked at the bottle on the table for a few seconds, then glanced up at Mom.

“Well, if you can’t look like her, at least you can smell like her!”

In my sister’s defense, she was only 7 or so when she issued this unintentional dis, and my mom got plenty of mileage from it, repeating the story at just about every family party for the next thirty years.

I thought of that unforgettable moment from my childhood when Turner Classic Movies announced today that Sophia Loren will attend the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood next month. The two-time Oscar-winner will introduce a screening of MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE (1964) and sit down with host Robert Osborne for a interview to be broadcast on the channel next year. Sophia Loren: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival will be recorded on Saturday, March 28 at the Ricardo Montalban Theater in Hollywood, in front of what is likely to be a capacity crowd of TCMFF passholders.

96-1Born Sofia Scicolone in Rome in 1934, Loren first came to international prominence in Italian comedy films of the mid-1950s from directors like Dino Risi and Vittorio De Sica. Hollywood soon came calling, and the young actress was cast opposite some of the biggest stars of the era, including Gregory Peck, John Wayne, and Cary Grant. (Loren’s vocal rendition of “Bing! Bang! Bong!” opposite Grant in 1958’s HOUSEBOAT is a thing of perverse beauty). She won an Oscar in 1962 for her role as a fiercely protective mother in war-torn Italy in the heart-wrenching drama TWO WOMEN and was nominated three years later for MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE (both directed by De Sica). Despite slowing down to raise her children, Loren continued to be one of the most popular international stars in the ensuing decades, and she was recognized with an honorary Oscar by the Academy in 1991.

Loren continues to work sporadically today, earning accolades for Rob Marshall’s NINE (2009), appearing in an Italian TV miniseries in 2010, voicing the character of Mama Topolino in the non-English language versions of CARS 2 (2011), and starring in her son Edoardo Ponti’s short film HUMAN VOICE (2014). Last year she appeared at the Cannes Film Festival, presenting an acting master class and introducing MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE as part of the Cannes Classics series.

And, of course, she’s still beautiful at age 80.

Mom

My mom, mid-1950s

My mother would also have celebrated her 80th birthday in March, just days before Loren’s appearance at the TCM Classic Film Festival, so I’m sure she’ll be there in spirit. And if you’re planning to be there in person, I suggest you line up early. The Montalban Theater only seats 300, and Robert Osborne’s chat with this living legend is likely to be one of the hottest tickets in a weekend filled with must-see events.

Sadly, my sister won’t be able to attend, because she’ll be busy taking care of her kids. By the way, her youngest daughter, age 3, is beautiful and loves having her picture taken. Which makes perfect sense, considering her name is Sophia.

Passes are on sale now for the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. For more information, visit their website. To read my coverage of TCMFF in past years, click here

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UPDATE #3: Original “Dark Shadows” Rises from the Dead on CBS’ DECADES TV Network

Jonathan-Frid-portrayed-the-200-year-old-vampire-in-the-1966-71-gothic-soap-opera-Dark-Shadows.-Johnny-Depp-has-reprised-the-rUpdated 2/13/15 – new info in italics

You can’t keep a good vampire down.

Nearly half a century after its debut, the original Dark Shadows TV series is returning to television on DECADES, an over-the-air digital TV network co-owned by CBS and Weigel Broadcasting (the folks behind MeTV). DECADES will “binge” the undyingly popular 1960s supernatural soap opera for a 68-hour marathon beginning Wednesday, May 13 at 6 p.m. and concluding Saturday, May 16 at 2 p.m. (ET).

No word yet if Dark Shadows will become a regular part of the channel’s schedule, or how many episodes will be included in the marathon. But if DECADES maintains the original half-hour format (and the binge is interrupted for three hours of required educational programming on Saturday morning), the marathon would include 130 episodes, or roughly six months worth of storyline.

Update 1/26/15 – DECADES’ broadcast will start with episode 210, the introduction of vampire Barnabas Collins.  

Dark Shadows is part of a unique, five-month programming stunt called (appropriately) The Binge, leading to DECADES’ official launch on May 25 as a digital sub-channel on CBS-owned TV stations. The network soft-launched on January 16 on 16 CBS affiliates, including stations in 8 of the top 10 TV markets. Like other nostalgic digital multicast networks (MeTV, NBC’s COZI TV, Tribune’s Antenna TV), DECADES is available for free with a digital antenna (just like TV used to be), with carriage on local cable systems varying from market to market. Weigel, which also owns the MOVIES! and Heroes & Icons digi-nets and created This TV, is also expected to offer DECADES! directly to local cable systems in markets without a broadcast affiliate. No word yet on satellite availability, but COZI TV is carried part-time on DISH and AT&T U-Verse, so there’s hope for DECADES.

6a00e55127ad3588330163047310ee970d-800wiBetween June of 1966 and April of 1971, Dark Shadows aired an astounding 1,225 episodes, nearly all of which are still extant. America’s first – and still only – supernatural daytime drama starred Canadian actor Jonathan Frid as Barnabas, the “reluctant vampire” who became an unlikely teen heartthrob. The ABC series spawned toys, comic books, trading cards, a Billboard-charting soundtrack album, and two MGM feature films, both directed by series creator Dan Curtis: HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970) with Frid reprising his TV role and NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (1971) with David Selby as Quentin Collins. Dark Shadows was revived by NBC in 1991 for a 12-episode primetime series with Ben Cross as Barnabas, and again by Warner Bros. in 2012 as a feature film directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp. (A pilot for a proposed 2004 reboot was not picked up by The WB.)

The DECADES broadcast will mark Dark Shadows’ return to free, over-the-air TV for the first time in more than 20 years. The series aired in syndicated reruns on broadcast stations and PBS affiliates nationwide from April of 1982 until the early 1990s, then moved to cable for an 11-year run on the Sci-Fi channel that concluded in December of 2003. Since then, the only access to Dark Shadows has been home video and V.O.D. (240 episodes stream on Hulu Plus and 280 are available on Amazon for $1.99 each, or $39.99 per 40-episode set.)

Update 2/3/15 – Shadowgram, the official Dark Shadows newsletter, is reporting that DECADES will air “upgraded copies of various episodes from previous rerun broadcasts.” Because of the series’ origins on analog videotape, high definition remastering is not possible. Although DECADES broadcasts in widescreen (16:9), Dark Shadows will air in its original, 4:3 aspect ratio. 

darkshadows02-00cvrDECADES will initially be available in 33 percent of the U.S., including CBS-owned stations in New York City (WCBS, where it airs on channel 2.2), Los Angeles (KCBS, 2.2, where it soft launches on February 3), Chicago (WBBM, 2.2), Philadelphia (KYW, 3.3), Dallas (KTVT, 11.2, Feb 3), San Francisco (KPIX, 5.2, also Feb 3), Boston (WBZ, 4.2), Detroit (WWJ, 62.2), Minneapolis-St. Paul (WCCO, 4.2 and its satellite stations KCCO and KCCW), Miami (WFOR, 4.2), Denver (KCNC, 4.2), Sacramento (KOVR, 13.2, Feb 3), Pittsburgh (KDKA, 2.2), and Baltimore (WJZ, 13.2), with non-CBS affiliates in Nashville (WJDE, 32.3) and Green Bay (WBAY, 2.3, expected to begin carriage in March). Weigel-owned Milwaukee CBS station WDJT (58.4) also carries the station, with more affiliates expected to be announced as launch approaches. DECADES will be programmed with a library of more than 100 classic television series owned, controlled, or licensed by CBS. Despite its initial broadcast on ABC, Dark Shadows falls into this category because its longtime syndication distributor Worldvision Enterprises was absorbed into CBS in a dizzying flurry of mergers, acquisitions and corporate spin-offs.

In addition to Dark Shadows, the DECADES soft launch will include binges of The Twilight Zone, I Love Lucy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Mission Impossible (which airs non-stop for a full week). The full schedule is here.

Update 2/13/15 – According to a Wikipedia listing, DECADES may also broadcast the 1991 primetime reboot of Dark Shadows, which originally aired on NBC. 

I’ll report additional information as it becomes available and you should also follow the Collinsport Historical Society (the definitive Dark Shadows blog) for updates. In the meantime, if you’d like DECADES to make Dark Shadows part of their regular lineup, why not email them at feedback@decades.com?

Because once Barnabas has risen, he won’t go back in his coffin without a fight.

Hat tip to Dark Shadows News on Facebook for breaking this news. 

JF

Posted in Dark Shadows | 50 Comments

TCM Introduces Jennifer Dorian as New GM, Seeks to “Grow”

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New TCM G.M. Jennifer Dorian

To paraphrase THE WIZARD OF OZ, Turner Classic Movies has two new women behind the curtain, and they’re not to be ignored.

Variety and Deadline Hollywood reported today that Jennifer Dorian has been named general manager of TCM, a development I first reported exclusively more than two months ago. (TV Week credits Cinematically Insane with the scoop here.) In fact, Dorian’s new role took effect at the end of October, in a corporate restructuring following the completion of the Turner 20/20 cost-cutting initiative.

Dorian, a fifteen year veteran of the company and previously the chief strategy officer for Turner Entertainment Networks, will report directly to Coleman Breland, president of Turner Network Sales.

“Jennifer is an incredibly smart and strategic executive as well as a standout leader with a proven track record of innovation,” Breland said today in a statement. “I have complete confidence she will perfectly position the TCM brand and implement successful, out-of-the-box ideas as we move the business forward into the future of the TV industry.”

Jeff Gregor at the 2013 TCM Film Fest (photo: John Nowak)

Former G.M. Jeff Gregor at the 2013 TCM Film Fest (photo: John Nowak)

Today’s announcement confirms that TCM will now function as a separate and autonomous unit within Turner Broadcasting, no longer connected in reporting structure to its sister networks. Jeff Gregor, who had previously served as TCM general manager and chief marketing officer for TNT and TBS, will continue his role at TNT and TBS only, with Kevin Reilly as president of TNT and TBS and chief creative officer of Turner Entertainment. The hiring of Reilly, former head of programming for Fox and NBC, was announced on November 4. Reilly replaced Steve Koonin, who stepped down in April as president of Turner Entertainment Networks to become chief executive of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, which used to be owned by Turner but was spun off in 2004. Got all that? Good.

In addition to confirming what readers of this blog already knew, Turner also announced today that Genevieve McGillicuddy has been promoted to vice president of brand activation and partnerships for TCM, up from senior director.

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Genevieve McGillicuddy, V.P. of Brand Activation and Partnerships

McGillicuddy is a familiar face to attendees of the annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, where she has served as managing director since the Festival’s inception in 2010. She joined Turner in 2004 and previously was director of the Atlanta Film & Video Festival and Out on Film, the Atlanta Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. McGillicuddy will report to Dorian, and both will continue to be based in Atlanta. 

“Genevieve has been vital to the growth of TCM and her branding expertise, knowledge of the industry, and innovative thinking make her one of the best in the business,” said Dorian.” “I’m thrilled to have her lead our team as we look to expand and grow the TCM brand moving forward.”

If you’re a Turner Classic Movies viewer you have to love these changes. Dorian has been described as a “champion” of TCM, and McGillicuddy has demonstrated a remarkable ability to cater to the uniquely demanding sensibilities of classic film fans. The growth of the TCMFF from a boutique experiment in 2010 to a destination experience demonstrates that.

TCM’s status as a commercial-free network makes it unusual in the basic cable landscape. There’s a lot of money lost by passing through 85 million households without commercials, but the network’s new status as standalone unit may allow for entrepreneurial expansion that will both generate revenue and delight the fan base. (And we’re hard to please, and resistant to change. Did I mention that?)

What that expansion will entail remains to be seen, but one clue may lie in the recent announcement of Sling TV, an Internet TV service expected to launch in the first quarter of this year. For just 20 bucks per month, cord-cutters can get Turner networks TNT, TBS, CNN, Cartoon Network, and Adult Swim (along with seven other channels) – all without a pricey cable or satellite subscription. They can add sister networks HLN and Boomerang for a few dollars more, and all can be watched anywhere, anytime, on a computer, mobile device, or TV (via a streaming player like Roku).

With seven Turner networks soon to be available sans cable or satellite, can a streaming version of TCM be far behind? As more and more viewers cut the cable cord and transition to over-the-top TV, the need to serve that audience is a requirement TCM has to consider. The Watch TCM mobile app (launched in November of 2013) is brilliantly constructed and could be also be offered direct to viewers for a monthly fee, but the risk is cannibalizing the existing business model. Even though Turner charges cable and satellite providers only pennies per month for TCM, 85 million pennies add up.

Only time will tell how Dorian, McGillicuddy, and TCM handle the challenges of the “future of the TV industry,” but one thing is certain: the opportunity to experience classic film in new ways will have many viewers over the rainbow.

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Posted in TCM, TCM Classic Film Festival | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Bacall and Bogart Personal Items up for Auction

picDeath is a way of life for classic movie fans. And if you don’t believe me, just search YouTube for TCM Remembers (and remember to have plenty of Kleenex handy).

For many of us, the passing of Lauren Bacall last summer at age 89 was a loss deeply felt, and one that still stings. Humphrey Bogart’s co-star in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), THE BIG SLEEP (1946), DARK PASSAGE (1947), and KEY LARGO (1948) – and his partner in life from 1944 until his death in 1957 – remained vital until the end, acting in more films and TV shows in the last decade of her career than the first. (And yes, I know TV didn’t exist in 1944, but you get my point).

Seventy years after her film debut, Bacall made her final “appearance” in March of 2014 as the voice of a sultry senior on the Fox animated series Family Guy. It was a fitting, satirical end to the career of an icon whose husky pipes made her a sex symbol and who never seemed to take herself too seriously (despite our tendency to do so).

6a00d8341c706153ef0168e5a3df04970c-piWe still have Bacall’s iconic film work to remember her by, of course. But for fans who want more, on March 31 and April 1 Bonhams will be auctioning personal items owned by the actress over the course of seven decades. And the venerable auctioneer, well known to classic film fans thanks to their record-breaking TCM auctions in 2013 and 2014, announced today that the Lauren Bacall Collection will be available for viewing on a worldwide tour prior to the auction date.

The tour begins in Hong Kong January 14 – 19, before traveling to Paris (January 29 –February 3), the Grand Palais (February 4 – 5), London (February 15 – 19), and Los Angeles (February 27 – March 6). The entire collection will be previewed in New York from March 25 – 30, prior to the four-part auction event.

The touring collection speaks to Bacall’s taste which was, in a word, classy. It includes sculptures by Henry Moore and David Graham, jewelry by Jean Schlumberger, and signed lithographs by David Hockney. But there are also a handful of lots of particular appeal to classic film fans, and they’re estimated to sell at surprisingly low prices.

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One lot includes two silver-plated “table items” presented to Bogart. The first is an engraved pitcher from his friend Spencer Tracy jokily recognizing “Hump-Free” Bogart’s prowess at poker. The second is a silver-plated bowl honoring the victory of Bogart’s boat the Santana in the 1950 Santa Barbara Island Race. In 1947 Bogart named his production company Santana Productions after his beloved yacht, and the current films made by the Bogart estate including THIS LAST LONELY PLACE (2014) are produced under the Santana banner. (Estimated price: $1,500 – $2,000)

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Another lot of interest is a beautiful 1953 sketch by Hungarian Marcel Vertès of the artist painting a portrait of Lauren Bacall. It’s signed and inscribed Madame Humphrey Bogart quand elle était Betty Bacall / Avec ma fidèle amitié Vertès / 1953. (Estimated at $1,000 – $1,500)

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The next is a delightful classic film trifecta: a lithograph of a painting Henry Fonda did for co-star Katharine Hepburn during production of ON GOLDEN POND (1981), his final theatrically released film. The painting, entitled “Norman Thayer Jr.” (the name of Fonda’s character in the Mark Rydell film), is of three hats Fonda wore throughout filming, including a brown Fedora Hepburn gave him on the first day of production. That Fedora had been Spencer Tracy’s lucky hat.

According to Bonhams, Fonda presented Hepburn with the original watercolor, and subsequently produced an edition of 200 lithographs of the painting. He signed, numbered and presented a lithograph to cast and crew of the film. Fonda died at age 77 just six months after the release of ON GOLDEN POND. (Estimated at $ 600 – 800.)

image (3)And finally, perhaps the most enticing of all for movie buffs: a bronze statuette of Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade in John Huston’s THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), standing of a film reel.

There’s not much information in the listing about the provenance of this 14 1/4-inch “patinated bronze figure cast by the Otto Strehle foundry,” but a statuette of Bogart as Sam Spade that belonged to Lauren Bacall would make the perfect gift for any classic film fan – particularly this one. (Estimated at $ 600 – 800.)

These few items really give you a sense of the private relationships that classic film stars had. They aren’t just icons, they were real people with friendships that often stretched across decades. And the preview items in the Bacall Collection represent only a small portion of the 750 that will eventually be presented at auction, so check back at the Bonhams website as we get closer to the auction date. But whatever you do, don’t bid on the Sam Spade statue – unless you plan to give it to me. Because that one is mine.

For more information on the Bacall Collection, visit  Bonhams.com

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Rare Ernst Lubitsch Film Screens at New York Jewish Film Fest

1218702“What would Lubitsch do?” a sign in Billy Wilder’s office famously read. It was both a testament to Wilder’s respect for the German-born director (for whom he co-wrote two films) and a tribute to Ernst Lubitsch’s ability to balance light comedy with resonant humanity.

If you love classic film, you love Lubitsch. From his cheeky early musicals like THE SMILING LIEUTENANT, to seminal Pre-Codes like the free love farce DESIGN FOR LIVING, to romantic comedies like NINOTCHKA and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, Lubitsch had a wit, elegance, and attention to detail that is largely unmatched.

But there’s another Lubitsch – a silent film stylist who mastered the art form and used the absence of dialogue as a storytelling tool. This is a Lubitsch with whom some classic film fans (like me, admittedly) have not much experience. But thanks to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, I’m one step closer to correcting that oversight.

On Sunday, the Film Society presented an “ultra-rare” screening of Lubitsch’s THREE WOMEN as part of the 24th annual New York Jewish Film Festival with an introduction by Variety chief film critic Scott Foundas. The 1924 film (which is not available legitimately on DVD or illegitimately on YouTube, as far as I can tell) unspooled in a newly restored 35 mm print from the George Eastman House, with delightful live accompaniment by Donald Sosin on piano.

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.43.27 PMAfter a successful career as both actor and director in Germany, Lubitsch was lured to America in 1922 with a contract from producer/superstar/United Artists co-founder Mary Pickford. Their first project was ROSITA, an adaptation of the comic opera Don César de Bazan, with Pickford in a rare adult role as a street singer. The film was not a success, nor was the behind-the-scenes collaboration between producer and director.

“They clashed like cats and dogs,” Foundas said.

Although Lubitsch usually prevailed in their disagreements, the director questioned whether Pickford and U.A. were the right partners. Then Warner Bros. entered the picture.

“Lubitsch was used to making movies in Germany on his own terms: final cut, you obey me, nobody tells me what to do. That was not his experience with Mary Pickford,” Foundas said. “Warner Bros. offered him what, at the time, was fairly unprecedented. ROSITA hadn’t even opened yet, but they were willing to give him a contract to make films upon which he would have complete control over everything except budget.”

600full-the-marriage-circle-posterLubitsch signed with the studio and made THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, a comedy with Adophe Menjou and Marie Prevost. Foundas called the film – which was remade by Lubitsch and George Cukor in 1932 as the comic musical ONE HOUR WITH YOU – one of the director’s “silent masterpieces.” THREE WOMEN, which also features Prevost in a small but pivotal role, was next.

“These actors were used to churning out these fast Warner Bros. quickies by directors who moved very quickly,” Foundas said. “Marie Prevost is on the record as saying it was an awkward experience for her at first, because she didn’t know what he wanted when he kept doing all these takes. Eventually she understood, and it gave her a new perspective on the art of acting.”

Foundas said the director’s repetition of incidental things like walking through a door contributed to the subtle nuances of behavior that became his trademark. And this is on full display in THREE WOMEN, wherein a romantic quadrangle implodes with tragic results.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 12.17.31 AMWealthy widow Mable Wilton (Pauline Frederick) – the first of the titular WOMEN – meets cute with lothario Edmund Lamont (Lew Cody) at the bottom of a playground slide built in the ballroom of a Jazz Age Bacchanal. Mable is just young enough to pass for thirty-ish, but old enough that she needs to dispatch her nearly adult daughter to boarding school to camouflage impending dowager-dom. Lamont doesn’t care about her age, because he doesn’t care about her. This is obvious to everyone, of course. Except Mable.

Cut to school, where Jeannie Wilton (May McAvoy) – the second of the WOMEN – is celebrating her 18th birthday (accompanied by Donald Sosin’s buoyantly jazzy rendition of “Happy Birthday.”) In a set piece that’s typical Lubitsch, her milquetoast med-student beau Fred (Pierre Gendron) tries to maneuver Jeannie out the door, only to be repeatedly blocked by wildly dancing couples. Before Fred can present his gift – a bracelet bought from a jeweler played unstereotypically (for the era) by Max Davison – Jeannie opens an ostentatious package from her mother. Fred realizes he’s too broke to marry a rich girl, so he punts on his proposal.

7onvbm9x3qhmvnmmJeannie heads off to the big City (with some fun 1924 footage of the exterior of Grand Central Station) and surprises her mother with an unplanned visit. Lamont knows who she is, but she doesn’t know who he is, so he starts pursuing Jeannie behind Mable’s back. Inexplicably, his wooing works, and soon THREE WOMEN transforms into bedroom farce, with the creepy Casanova dating both generations of Wilton women.

The quadrangle is completed by Woman #3 (Marie Prevost), a flapper Lamont continues to dally with whilst stringing along mother and daughter. Mable eventually discovers the duplicity and tries to save Jeannie, but Lamont is having none of it, and threatens blackmail with embarrassing love letters. This earns him a bullet in the gut, and it earns Mable a trial.

ErnstLubitschAnd, in perhaps the most inventive moment of the film, Lubitsch chooses to not reveal the jury’s verdict in a text inter-title. Instead, we watch the behavior on screen to determine Mable’s fate. It’s a moment of storytelling that might have been handled more obviously by a lesser filmmaker.

“You certainly recognize all the signature Lubitsch touches in (in THREE WOMEN),” Foundas concluded. “When it opened in October of 1924, my own publication Variety said, ‘This is as pretty a piece of direction as has been seen on screen in some time.’ And I have a feeling that you will agree.”

The New York Jewish Film Festival continues through January 29 with more than 40 contemporary and classic films, documentaries, and shorts. For more details, click here or visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center website

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