Remembering Uncle George

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded in agreement.

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

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

“What year is it?

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in Previously Owned | 27 Comments

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

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

Streaming video was supposed to be the great equalizer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TCM programming guru Charlie Tabesh (Photo courtesy TCM)

TCM programming guru Charlie Tabesh (Photo courtesy TCM)

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in FilmStruck, TCM | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Barbra Streisand + Mitzi Gaynor Specials – Tonight on getTV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TCM Names “Ultimate Fan” as On-Air Host

postIt’s a story right out of the movies: plucky newcomer dances her way from the chorus to center stage. And where else but TCM would a classic movie dream like that become a reality?

Turner Classic Movies announced today that Tiffany Vazquez, the winner of the TCM Ultimate Fan Contest in 2014, will be the new host of the channel’s Saturday daytime programming block. The 29-year-old joins Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz as just the third on-camera host hired in the network’s 22-year history and the first woman.

Beginning in June, Vazquez will provide intros and outros for a collection of iconic titles airing between noon and 8 p.m. Eastern on Saturdays, including REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) on June 4, RIO BRAVO (1959) on June 11, ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) on June 18, and DARK PASSAGE (1947) on June 25. She’ll typically host three or four films each Saturday and her introductions will also be available on the Watch TCM streaming app for a week after broadcast.

Vazquez first came to TCM’s attention two years ago when she was one of hundreds of fans who submitted a video for a contest celebrating the channel’s 20th anniversary. Her winning entry was a black-and-white intro for Jules Dassin’s THE NAKED CITY (1948), wherein the New York native waxed noirish about the film in a trench coat, while the city skyline loomed behind her. TCM judges were impressed with her “content, staging, and creative use of effects, which resulted in the video looking like the movie.”

Vazquez went on to introduce the film at the TCM Classic Film Festival in April of 2014 and again on-air a few days later with venerable host Robert Osborne. She also emceed a month of relationship-themed films as part of the network’s Spotlight franchise in December of 2015 and was a roving correspondent at the 2016 edition of the film festival last month.

TiffanyWhile actress and author Illeana Douglas has become a popular fixture on the channel and at the film festival (and hopefully will continue to be so), Vazquez will be the first female on-camera personality with a regular presence on TCM. She’s also the first person of color to be a TCM host and the youngest in the channel’s history. Ben Mankiewicz was 36 when he joined the channel in September of 2003 and Robert Osborne was 61 when TCM launched in April, 1994. As regular viewers know, Osborne has been off the air for some months tending to a “health issue.” At the Meet TCM staff panel that kicked off the 2016 TCMFF, V.P. of Studio Production Sean Cameron had this to say about the patron saint of classic film:

“He’s doing really well. He’s in good spirits. He’s just got more he’s got to do and a little more time off. But we’re working with him and we’ll have him back on the air soon.”

While Vazquez may be younger face than some TCM viewers are accustomed to, she comes to her new role with a background in film scholarship, including a graduate degree from New York University in cinema studies, a day job as a senior editor in charge of film content for GIPHY, and a past position at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. She also brings with her the infectious enthusiasm and hunger for knowledge that unites classic film fans of all ages.

“TCM does an incredible job in giving you an education; for me it was a secondary film education,” Vazquez said in a video released by TCM today. “It’s just amazing to me that I can get to do this. It’s really, really a dream come true.”


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Update: KING OF JAZZ (1930) Restoration Debuts to Cheers and Tears

gutchrlein-sisters-king-of-jazz-1Updated 8/24/16 – New info in italics.

“You will be the second audience to have seen this film in a close approximation to its original form since 1930,” film curator Dave Kehr told a capacity crowd at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Saturday.

The movie about to screen was KING OF JAZZ, a Universal musical re-edited by the studio not long after its initial release and only available since then missing one-third of its original running time. It’s recently undergone an extensive (and costly) reconstruction, much to the delight of film buffs – including the 800 or so of us lucky enough to be at MoMA this weekend. The digital restoration brings this seminal film back to full-length for the first time since the Hoover administration.

“It’s something,” Kehr deadpanned. And brother, is it ever.

To demonstrate how excited those of us in attendance were to share this moment, we all applauded in unison at the opening title – before anybody played a note, sang a song, danced a number, or told a joke. And all of that varied performing artistry is on display in this Technicolor revue, headlined by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra (the most popular dance band of the 1920s) and featuring a “spectacular array of screen, stage and radio stars,” including the dance troupe that would become the Radio City Rockettes. Universal contract players like Laura LaPlante provide comic relief in blackout sketches, 26-year-old Bing Crosby croons with a trio called the Rhythm Boys, and there’s even a cartoon by Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz explaining Whiteman’s origins as “king” (it involves a lion and an Al Jolson imitation).

jazzIt’s all brilliantly staged by New York theatrical director John Murray Anderson, who first collaborated with Whiteman on live musical “prologues” for Paramount’s Publix Theaters circuit. (Anyone who’s seen Jimmy Cagney in 1933’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE knows what these are.) I was shocked to hear that KING OF JAZZ was Anderson’s first and only film, considering its inventive camera placement, use of double exposure, and elaborately choreographed overhead shots that pre-date Busby Berkeley. This is particularly notable at a time when musical numbers and dance sequences were often shot in static wide shots, with few variations in camera placement or focal length.

“There are really no films like what we’re going to see,” film historian and author David Pierce said in his introduction to the screening. “I’ve seen a lot of Technicolor films, both two-color and three-color, and you never see anything like this, because it’s so carefully thought out from a stage aesthetic.”

Book coverWhen it comes to unique uses of Technicolor, Pierce knows his reds and greens. He and MoMA’s James Layton are the authors of Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935 and the forthcoming King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue, a crowd-funded book on the film’s troubled history and redemptive restoration.

Between the mid-1930s and the early-1960s no one was able to see KING OF JAZZ. It was effectively lost. It was not until a collector in England uncovered a nitrate print and copied it to 16mm that the film became accessible again,” Layton told me in March. “Later, Universal identified the two-color Technicolor camera negative in its collections, but it was only 65 minutes long as it had been cut down for the 1933 reissue. It was these two elements that were used for the 1980s VHS release.”

That nitrate print and Universal’s truncated camera negative were used for the restoration, along with an un-cut soundtrack negative from 1930. Missing footage was cobbled together from archives around the world, with a handful (five, by my count) of bridging introductions ostensibly lost forever and recreated with still pictures. (One other musical segment remains lost, and several skits added to the 1933 reissue were excluded, since they didn’t appear in the original release.) The end result is an eye-popping 98-minute film in the original running order replacing the shopworn cut-down that’s circulated for generations. And it likely looks better today than it did for original audiences 86 years ago.

But, according to film historian and preservationist Ron Hutchinson, the rescue of this seminal piece of film history almost didn’t happen.

 KingOfJazzAd1“This restoration, three years ago, was dead as a doornail. There was absolutely no interest,” he told me at MoMA. “The turning point was, about two and a half years ago, a bunch of film buffs including me were able to convince all of the voting members on the National Film Registry that KING OF JAZZ ought to be on the Registry. And it was unanimous. Because of that, you can immediately start clocking progress.”

And it seems that Universal has caught a case of Restoration Fever, thanks perhaps in part to positive response for this effort. And that’s great news for classic film fans, considering that the studio controls both its own library and most of Paramount’s pre-1948 releases. (I talked with the Los Angeles Times‘ Michael Hiltzik about this last October.)

“Not only did they do KING OF JAZZ, I think they’ve done 39 other film restorations. They’ve done the five Marx Bros. Paramount films and some silent films. They have a nice sizable group now doing film preservation and restoration,” Hutchinson said. “So, you went from very little being done three years ago, to this being the cornerstone of getting Universal to really recognize the wealth of stuff they have.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 10.33.36 AMThere’s much to love in KING OF JAZZ, from Whiteman’s impish charisma, to performances by renown jazz artists like Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, and Henry Busse, to vocalist John Boles’ rousing anthem “The Song of the Dawn,” to acrobatic dance numbers like “Happy Feet” and “Ragamuffin Romeo,” to a rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” staged ironically with a green palette (owning to the limitations of the Technicolor’s two-color process at the time). Each number got enthusiastic applause from the MoMA audience on Saturday, which included granddaughters of two of The Brox Sisters, who perform “A Bench in the Park” in the film with Crosby and The Rhythm Boys.

And unlike other restorations that make use of stills or supplement master material with lower quality footage, the final assembly is mostly seamless. And much of the music is studio quality, owing to Whiteman’s decision to pre-record and perform to backing tracks in the film (which was common in later musicals, but almost unheard of in 1930.) The lush soundtrack and vivid, restored picture (screened at MoMA on DCP) make the film look and sound unlike any early Talkie I’ve seen.

But will physical-media-loving classic film collectors get a chance to add KING OF JAZZ to their home video libraries, considering the potential complication of music clearances? Hutchinson thinks that may be “a year or two away,” but added that “music clearances aren’t going to prevent something this beautiful” from getting what could be an “award-winning” home video release.

In the meantime, film fans are encouraged to ask their local art or revival house to book the film. (KING OF JAZZ is being distributed by Universal in DCP, so screening venues must have digital projection capability.)

“It’s available to any venue in the world now,” Hutchinson said. “There will be screenings in Rome, New York at Capitolfest and it’s going to be at CineCon (in Hollywood) and Film Forum (New York) in the fall.” (There’s also one more show at MoMA in June, and James Layton tells me other engagements are in the works.)

Hutchinson added, “I think it was gratifying for the Universal restoration people to see the turnout at two sold-out shows.”

As someone who saw at least two people wipe away tears while the closing credits rolled, I can attest that the audience at MoMA was pretty gratified, as well.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Layton told me via email, as his book on KING OF JAZZ continues to garner support weeks after surpassing its fundraising goal. “A lot of people really love this film and they probably never thought they’d get to see it like this.”

For more information on MoMA’s “Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928-1937” click here. To support the Kickstarter for King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue and get a copy of the book, click here. The Nitrate Diva’s coverage of KING OF JAZZ is here and Lou Lumenick’s is here.

Update 8/24/16 – King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue will be published on November 21, 2016. You can pre-order a signed copy here

Paul Whiteman and his band

Posted in Museum of Modern Art, Pre-Code Film, Screening Report, Uncategorized | Tagged | 10 Comments

TCM + Criterion Partner for FilmStruck Streaming Service

Film Struck“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon wrote in “Beautiful Boy.”

And FilmStruck, a just-announced subscription video-on-demand service from TCM, is what happens to Old Movie Weirdos while we’re waiting for the option to subscribe directly to TCM without cable or satellite.

To be clear: FilmStruck is not a standalone streaming version of Turner Classic Movies. But what it is (or will be when it launches this fall) is potentially something even better – a unique programming alternative to the linear TV channel with the same expert curation that’s made TCM beloved by fans for more than two decades. And while the service will not focus primarily on the Studio Era (as TCM does on-air), FilmStruck is expected to include a wealth of content that will appeal to those who prefer films of an older vintage. 

For a monthly subscription price expected to be in “the single digits,” Turner’s first-ever streaming service available direct to consumers will offer hundreds of “contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign, and cult films,” from the libraries of the Criterion Collection, Janus Films, Flicker Alley, Icarus Films, Kino, Milestone and Zeitgeist, “along with movies from Hollywood’s major movie studios including Warner Bros.”

tumblr_mavfo250mV1qd3lbbo1_1280Thanks to TCM’s new partnership with Criterion, FilmStruck will offer exclusive streaming access to Criterion’s extensive library, which includes hundreds of essential classics, most newly restored (and some not previously available to TCM for broadcast). The basic service is expected to include a curated selection of Criterion titles each month, with a library of more than 1,100 Criterion films available 24/7/365 on a dedicated “channel” for an additional (still to be determined) fee. To facilitate this, Criterion will end its current licensing agreement with Hulu (which began five years ago) in November and will likely discontinue offering select titles to Fandor, Mubi or other competing services. (For the record, Hulu is $7.99 per-month, Mubi is $5.99 and Fandor is as much as $10. And yes, I subscribe to all three.)

FilmStruck’s Criterion channel is also expected to include more than 1,000 films from Janus  – “many unavailable on disc or anywhere else” – as well as Criterion’s unique special features, previously available only on DVD or Blu-ray releases. Peter Becker, president of the Criterion Collection, outlines the “new dimension to the Criterion experience” that FilmStruck will provide here. (The “steady stream of original content” is very compelling, as are the “archival discoveries” that are promised in the press release.)

362230967With the Flicker Alley and Kino libraries comes access to silent films, foreign and independent classics, and cult obscurities, many in new restorations. Icarus Films brings a collection of documentaries from independent producers. Zeitgeist Films specializes in foreign and indie features and documentaries. And Milestone Films focuses on “classic cinema masterpieces, groundbreaking documentaries and American independent features.” And it sounds like TCM will supplement material from these boutique labels with films licensed from major studios, as well.

This eclectic mix sounds similar to what TCM already does on-air, especially with thematic stunts like The Story of Film, a 15-week, 119-film programming series that aired in 2013.

All content on FilmStruck will be un-cut and commercial free, presented in HD (when available) and in its original aspect ratio (not every SVOD service can say that). And because TCM programmers don’t need to worry about basic cable content restrictions when programming a streaming service, films with more mature content will be viewable anytime (unlike on TV, where they air only in latenight slots.) The service will be available to watch on TV via streaming players (models to be announced), mobile devices, computers and wherever else people watch movies nowadays. (I’m predicting “smart” toaster ovens to be the next big thing.)

There’s also the opportunity for some of TCM’s on-air content to crossover to the service, as well as the potential for TCM to expand relationships with rightsholders, since it will be “buying a different piece of the library that we never had before,” as Coleman Breland, president of TCM and Turner Content Distribution, told the Wall Street Journal. And that increased leverage could benefit TCM’s on-air programming when it comes to prying open doors of studio vaults.

screen-shot-2015-03-22-at-10-48-25-amBest of all, by placing the TCM name on its first streaming offering, Turner is demonstrating enormous faith and confidence in the power of the brand. This bodes well for a network that survived a corporate restructuring in 2014 as Turner’s only remaining commercial-free cable network. Also: FilmStruck doesn’t preclude the possibility of a standalone streaming version of TCM in the future and, in the meantime, it extends the brand to potential new viewers, which is vital to long-term viability.

To my eyes, FilmStruck will be like TCM’s hipper younger brother. Some of us will ignore it and some will embrace its quirkiness, but, either way, it’s great news for those who love the cable channel and want it to stay true to its mission. A successful streaming offering (and the revenue it will bring) makes that more likely.

Will FilmStruck be right for you? Ask your doctor (assuming he’s a movie buff). Or wait until it launches this fall, and take advantage of the “free trial period.” But if you’re like me, and you have a shelf filled with Criterion, Kino, and Flicker Alley DVDs and Blu-rays next to a TV that’s usually tuned to TCM, FilmStruck seems like a match made in movie heaven.

For more information on FilmStruck visit their website, Tumblr, or Facebook


Posted in Streaming, TCM | Tagged | 18 Comments

Update #2: KING OF JAZZ (1930) Reigns Again w/ Restoration + New Book

Whiteman - 1Updated 8/24/16 – New info in italics.

It’s a story right out of the movies: forgotten star gets a second chance at fame.

Only this time, the star is actually a film – and the second chance is both a new restoration and a new book. But best of all: you get to be the hero.

Very soon, film fans will get a chance to see a sparkling new restoration of KING OF JAZZ (1930), a seminal, two-color Technicolor musical starring band leader Paul Whiteman (who was born on this day in 1890). If the story ends there, it’s still huge news. But even huger, a book about the film’s troubled history and redemptive restoration is also due this year, but only with your help.

James Layton and David Pierce, co-authors of Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935, today launched a Kickstarter to fund the publication of King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue, a book that belongs on every classic film fan’s coffee table. The good news: on Day One, the project is already more than one-third funded. The bad news: if they don’t raise the the other two-thirds, there may be no book.

Update 5/7/16 – With a little more than two weeks left in the campaign, the publication of “King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue” has been fully funded by 200 donors. A stretch goal has been added, as have additional premiums. For more info visit the Kickstarter page. 

To talk about why you should care about KING OF JAZZ and a thoroughly researched and gloriously illustrated book about its history, I sat down (virtually) with co-author James Layton. The following is an edited transcript:

WM: What is KING OF JAZZ ?
JL: KING OF JAZZ was one of a string of Hollywood revue films to come out during the brief musicals boom in 1929-1930. M-G-M had HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929, Warners had THE SHOW OF SHOWS, and Paramount had PARAMOUNT ON PARADE, to name a few. Most of these were showcases for the studios’ existing contract talent. KOJ was one of the last to come out — in April 1930 — as it took so long to get made following a year of setbacks. The film’s original director, Paul Fejos was eventually replaced by John Murray Anderson, who came out west from Broadway.

WM: How does KING OF JAZZ differ from those other films?
JL: KOJ is an oddity among film revues because the stars, Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, were brought in by Universal as the main attraction, and the film was then structured around them. Several of Universals contract stars appear — like Slim Summerville, Laura La Plante and Glenn Tryon — but Anderson gathered most of the performers from the cream Broadway and vaudeville. The end result is a unique mixture of the stage and screen — a cinematic interpretation of jazz music and stage spectacle, all in early Technicolor. The film is also of particular note as the screen debut of a young Bing Crosby, and the Russell Markert dancers, who later became the famous Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.

The Russell Markert Dancers in KING OF JAZZ (1930)

The Russell Markert Dancers in KING OF JAZZ (1930)

WM: Was KING OF JAZZ a big hit in its initial release?
JL: KING OF JAZZ was so expensive to make that it struggled to return its production cost. Interestingly the film was more popular in its international release — it was simultaneously made in nine foreign language versions — than in the United States. Whiteman’s celebrity and the high production values undoubtedly helped attract foreign audiences. As the film still lost money on its initial release, Universal tried reissuing it in 1933 when there was a second wave of interest in musicals following the release of 42ND STREET.

WM: Was the film lost (all or in part)? What were the circumstances of its rediscovery and its restoration?
JL: Between the mid-1930s and the early-1960s no one was able to see KING OF JAZZ. It was effectively lost. It was not until a collector in England uncovered a nitrate print and copied it to 16mm that the film became accessible again. Some might remember 16mm screenings at the New York Film Festival, MoMA and LACMA in the early 1970s. Later, Universal identified the two-color Technicolor camera negative in its collections, but it was only 65 minutes long as it had been cut down for the 1933 reissue. It was these two elements that were used for the 1980s VHS release (blurry clips of which are on Youtube). Both this nitrate print (now stored at the Library of Congress) and Universal’s camera negative are being used for the new restoration, and some additional footage — effectively not seen by audiences since 1930 — is being added back from print elements at other archives.

Book cover

“King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue” coming in September (with your help)

WM: What is “King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue”?
JL: This is the title of our new book. David Pierce and I had originally been working with Universal to document and write an article about the film’s restoration. But as we did more and more research were amazed at what we kept finding. We uncovered the film’s original production designs at Williams College in Massachusetts, incredible behind-the-scene photographs in archives and private collections, and we were very lucky that historians Richard and Diane Koszarski shared with us the research they had undertaken into Universal’s studio files in the 1970s, much of which is no longer available to scholars today. As such, our book is not only a fascinating history of the film’s influences, production, release, and restoration, but also a rich visual narrative with hundreds of beautiful high-quality illustrations.

WM: Why did you choose a crowdfunding platform to finance publication? 
JL: The book is being published by Media History Press, an imprint of David Pierce’s Media History Digital Library, a not-for-profit organization. As this is MHP’s first publication, we need outside support to help to make the book a reality. We have already been successful in raising funds for the majority of the book’s pre-print costs — a huge thanks to Greenbriar Picture Shows and The Vitaphone Project! — but we need the help of the larger film fan community to get the book finished and printed. We opted for this route as we want to get the book to readers in a timely manner and to keep the book at an affordable price without cutting any corners on quality.

Vocalist John Boles in KING OF JAZZ (1930)

Vocalist John Boles in KING OF JAZZ (1930)

WM: What is your funding goal and what will those funds finance?
JL: We need to raise $15,000 to guarantee a limited print run for this book.  These funds will support image clearances, professional book design, copyediting and proofreading, and printing costs. If we can raise more, we can afford even more images we wouldn’t otherwise be able to include, and we can enhance many finer details of the printing, including possibly adding embossed lettering on the dust jacket and illustrated end pages.

Update 5/7/16 – A stretch fundraising goal of $20,000 will allow the book to include never-before-published snapshots of Whiteman and his orchestra members, reproductions of rare lobby cards, and behind-the-scenes stills. It will also allow for upgraded printing including a cloth-covered hard case, an improved dust jacket, and full-color end pages.

WM: Beside a copy of the published book, what other perks do you offer? 
JL: We’re offering some great perks! First off, every reward package includes a signed copy of the book. Then if you are able to commit more we’re also offering KOJ T-shirts designed by Joe Busam, a copy of the now out-of-print The Dawn of Technicolor [now sold out], the chance to have your name printed in the book’s acknowledgements, and a special VIP invitation to the book’s launch party in October, with a chance to spend time with David, me, Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project, and the celebrated musicians Vince Giordano and the Nitehawks, plus other special guests.

Update 5/7/16 – In addition to the book, donors of $100 can also select an 8″ x 10″ art print of a scene from Walter Lantz’s cartoon sequence, illustrated by Joe Busam and printed on high-quality archival photo paper. 


WM: Will the book only be available to those who contribute to the Kickstarter?
JL: That is to be decided. We obviously want the book to reach as wide an audience as possible. If we reach our goal, we can guarantee we will get the book to all Kickstarter supporters. If we exceed our goal, then we can start thinking about printing more copies. If you want to 100% guarantee you will be able to get a copy, the best option is to pledge to our campaign.

Update 8/24/16 – King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue will be published on November 21, 2016. You can pre-order a signed copy here.

WM: Is this book only for scholars and aficionados of the era? Or will it appeal to all classic film fans?
JL: The book will appeal to a wide range of readers, including classic film fans, music aficionados, and theater enthusiasts.

The Melting Pot number in KING OF JAZZ (1930)

The Melting Pot number in KING OF JAZZ (1930)

WM: When and where will the restoration of KING OF JAZZ be available to see?
JL: I’m delighted to announce that Universal’s new restoration of KING OF JAZZ will premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in May. It will be the opening night film in a series dedicated to Universal’s output under Carl Laemmle, Jr. in the 1930s. MoMA curator Dave Kehr is programming the impressive 32-film series, which will run for a month and will include the premieres of several new preservations and restorations from Universal. We then anticipate that the restoration will be seen at archival venues across the country. I’m particularly looking forward to catching up with the restoration a second time at Capitolfest in upstate New York in August.

WM: What is about this era that fascinates you both?
JL: Both David and I are fascinated by the brief period of Hollywood’s conversion to sound. It was a time of enormous transition and uncertainty, both for filmmakers, as well as the studios. The genesis, production and release of KING OF JAZZ epitomizes much of the widespread excitement around early musicals, but also aptly demonstrates the challenges that filmmakers faced. The film is a rare blend of cinema, popular music and the Broadway revue. It is brimming with ambition and artistry, and is definitely in a class of its own.

For donate to the Kickstarter for “King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue,” and to receive a copy of the book, click here. For the Nitrate Diva’s coverage of this story, click here

The Sisters G (Eleanor and Karla Gutchrlein) in KING OF JAZZ (1930)

The Sisters G (Eleanor and Karla Gutchrlein) in KING OF JAZZ (1930)

Posted in Classic Film, Museum of Modern Art | 8 Comments

Update: Classic Horror + Sci-Fi Films Streaming Free on Comet TV

TheAbominableDrPhibes-Still1Updated 3/9/16 -New info in italics.

You may not know what a digital sub-channel is, but, if you enjoy classic movies and TV shows, there’s a good chance you’ve watched one.

More than two dozen nostalgia-themed TV networks have debuted since 2009, when the switch from analog to digital broadcasting allowed American television stations to offer multiple channels in their signal instead of just one. This TV launched in 2008, followed by Me-TV (which began as a Chicago independent station) in 2010, Antenna TV in 2011, COZI-TV in 2012, Movies! TV Network in 2013, getTV, Escape, Grit, Heroes & Icons, and The Works in 2014, and Laff, Buzzr, Decades, and Comet in 2015. And a new one seems to pop up every few months.

Most of these turnkey “diginets” are programmed with classic TV series or movies that are controlled by the network’s owner/partner or licensed from third parties at relatively low cost. All are available free, over-the-air with an antenna (ask your grandpa) as “.2” or “.3” sub-channels of local stations that have existed for generations. Some are also carried by cable systems in local markets where they have an affiliate. But no retro digital TV network has ever offered a live, 24/7 stream of its broadcast signal on-line. 

Until now.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 10.20.37 PMComet, a science-fiction and horror-themed network that launched last Halloween on 100 stations covering 60 percent of the U.S., is now offering a Watch Live streaming option via their website. And, unlike “TV Everywhere” apps that require you to be a cable or satellite subscriber in order to view the live streaming feed of a free channel, Comet’s stream does not require viewer authentication. Apparently, anybody can watch Comet anywhere now, even if there’s no affiliate in your city.   

But here’s the best part: Comet’s streaming feed is commercial-free. The ad breaks are still there, but the commercials aren’t (replaced with a We’ll be right back slate). And, while Comet doesn’t have a mobile app (yet?), you can stream to your Apple or Android device via the device’s web browser. You can even watch on your TV at home by using Airplay to “cast” from your computer to an Apple TV, or with similar programs available for other streaming players.

Update 3/9/16 – Readers Chris and Vanessa tell me they’re able to watch in the U.K. and Canada, respectively. That means Comet’s stream is not region-blocked, which is practically unheard of. 

So, now that we’ve gotten the technical stuff out of the way, is there anything worth watching on Comet? Plenty, actually.

Comet is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting and programmed with movies and TV shows from the MGM library. But before you get excited about watching THE WIZARD OF OZ or GONE WITH THE WIND for free, remember that MGM sold its library to Ted Turner in 1986 and no longer owns any of the films it produced during Hollywood’s Golden Age. (Thanks, Mr. Kerkorian.) The good news: that sale led to the creation of TCM, which has done more in the last 22 years to keep classic film in the mainstream than any other entity. The bad news: you won’t be able to watch any pre-1986 MGM movies for free on Comet.

So what’s left? More than 4,000 films, most from other libraries that the current MGM has bought over the years through typically twisty mergers and acquisitions.

In addition to the studio’s post-1986 film releases and TV productions, MGM also controls much of the United Artists library, which Turner sold back to MGM (it’s complicated), as well as all or part of: Orion Pictures; Filmways; the Cannon Group; Polygram Filmed Entertainment; Island Pictures; Atlantic Entertainment Group; the Samuel Goldwyn Company (founded in 1979); and American International Pictures. 

return_of_count_yorga_poster_04Of these, the AIP library is the most enticing to me, with hundreds of horror and sci-fi titles, including many of my favorite films of all time. In recent weeks, Comet has aired COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) and its sequel, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) and its sequel, BLACULA (1972) and its sequel, and more than twenty other AIP classics, many unavailable through any other streaming source. Comet also broadcasts rarities like THE TWONKY (1953), VOODOO ISLAND (1957), ALAKAZAM THE GREAT (1960), BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER (1960), and COUNTESS DRACULA (1971) as part of their Saturday afternoon Cult Classics Theater programming block.

Films are the largest component of the Comet schedule, with five airing each weekday, eight on Saturday, and nine on Sunday. Of course, with more than 40 timeslots dedicated to movies each week, you can expect some reruns. In that regard, Comet follows a pay TV model, releasing a slate of films each month that play over and over again. For example, ONCE BITTEN, the 1985 vampire “classic” with Jim Carrey, is on the schedule ten times in the first two weeks of this month. But you also get a number of higher profile titles like THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976), the original MAD MAX (1979), THE TERMINATOR (1984), THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI (1984), and CHILD’S PLAY (1988) sprinkled into the mix.

MarchAs with all over-the-air TV stations, Comet censors contemporary movies “for content,” so expect audio drops on curse words and an occasional edit. And, even though the network offers a widescreen broadcast feed to affiliates and streams in 16:9, many of the movies screen in 4:3 transfers. In fairness, this is no different than the popular Svengoolie broadcasts on MeTV Saturday nights, which draw large audiences of genre fans despite frequent Aspect Ratio Police infractions.

Comet airs TV shows as well, with multiple daily broadcasts of MGM-produced series like Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007) and the remake of The Outer Limits (1995-2002). And even though most of the MGM-produced classic TV shows are now controlled by Warner Bros. (thanks to the Turner acquisition and subsequent merger with Time Warner), Comet still has a few TV rarities, including Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot (1967-1968) and the black-and-white adventure series Men Into Space (1959-1960). Both air early on weekend mornings, with Men also popping up elsewhere on the schedule.

If you’re a cord-cutting sci-fi and horror fan with a particular fondness for 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s films, Comet is a great addition to your viewing options. Even if you’re not, a streaming diginet is a big game changer for all fans of classic movies and TV. Others may follow their lead, but I doubt they’ll be commercial-free and subscription-free.

I’m not even sure why Comet is, but I’m not complaining.

To watch Comet streaming, click here. Note: the channel airs paid programming from 4-6 a.m., so nothing is likely to be on the on-line feed at that time. A complete schedule is on their website

Posted in Cord-Cutting, Streaming | Tagged | 15 Comments

Film Censorship in Focus – This Month on TCM

baby faceI’ll never forget the day our pastor Fr. Tunney told my mom I shouldn’t watch The Benny Hill Show.

For a newly minted adolescent in the pre-cable Dark Ages of 1980, this was an unconscionable attack on my God-given right to gawk at scantily clad British women. But it was non-negotiable. Because in our house, as in the homes of millions of other Catholics then and now, a priest’s opinion is like a decree from the Lord Himself.

And God, apparently, did not appreciate the subtle humor of The Benny Hill Show.

The Catholic Church’s generations-long influence over what Americans watched is front and center this month with Condemned, a 27-film series on Turner Classic Movies focusing on the Legion of Decency and its impact on the American film industry. Every Thursday night in March, TCM will screen films condemned or found objectionable by the Legion – an organization founded in 1933 by Archbishop John T. McNicholas of Cincinnati to “combat moral decline and protest salacious motion pictures.”

SPOILER ALERT! They failed (at least in the first part). But they succeeded in the “protest,” with more than 150 films falling on the wrong side of the organization’s moral compass over its 47-year history. Most of the offenders roughly 105 – were released before enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code content guidelines began in 1934 or after it was replaced by the MPAA’s rating system in 1968. And all touch the hot buttons that remain controversial (for some) today: sex; blasphemy; nudity; abortion; divorce; homosexuality, etc.

To contemporary eyes, there’s not much moral decline on display in the 27 selections that earned the Legion’s scarlet letters: C (condemned); B (morally objectionable in part); or O (for offensive, which replaced B and C in the organization’s final days). But viewed through a historical prism, TCM’s brilliantly curated series tracks the censorship history of the American film industry from the early days of Talkies until the Reagan administration. And they do it in mostly chronological order, which gives the series the feel of a cinema studies seminar.

SisterThe instructor/host for this college course on your couch is Sister Rose Pacatte, a film critic who also happens to be a Catholic nun. Sixty-something Sister Rose is also the author or co-author of nine books and four blogs, as well as the founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies. (Keep that in mind the next time you tell somebody you’re “too busy.”) She’ll introduce and provide context for 18 of the 27 films in the series, hopefully explaining what the Legion could possibly find objectionable about the 1978 Robby Benson tear-jerker ICE CASTLES (which airs on March 24).

Condemned kicks off March 3 with a schedule that includes four seminal films from 1933: THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE, a lurid Southern Gothic melodrama with Miriam Hopkins as a party girl raped by a sadistic gangster; DESIGN FOR LIVING, Ernst Lubitsch’s love letter to polyamory, with Miriam Hopkins (again) as the object of Fredric March and Gary Cooper’s affections; BABY FACE, with Barbara Stanwyck as the “sweetheart of the nightshift” who sleeps her way to the top of New York society; and William Wellman’s WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, a gritty parable of Depression Era youth on the run.

Each of these films became infamous for portraying upended behavioral conventions during a period of social, political and economic upheaval. But ironically, though these envelope-pushing movies are beloved today by admirers of the free-wheeling Pre-Code Era, they also bear direct responsibility for its demise. While the studios were mostly ignoring the Code guidelines (written in 1930 by – wait for it – a Catholic priest), other entities were not. Regional censorship boards were unilaterally cutting films with frank content to ribbons, returning dozens of now-worthless prints to studios after local engagements.  And groups like the Legion were engaging in grass roots advocacy, condemning movies from the pulpit and discouraging local theaters from screening them.

Finally, with calls for government regulation growing, the industry decided to get serious about self-monitoring. The Production Code Administration (PCA) was established in July of 1934 and every film released thereafter was required to carry a PCA seal of approval. While many classic film buffs mourn the loss of creative control that came with these strict ground rules, the Code made good sense from business standpoint, at least at first. And it won’t surprise anyone to learn that the studios’ Censor-in-Chief Joseph Breen was a devout Catholic.

51h22wghNqLThe journey back to artistic freedom in Hollywood was a long one, often requiring advocacy that rivaled that of the Legion itself. After World War II, foreign films began filtering into the U.S., playing metropolitan areas without PCA approval and expanding boundaries. When Roberto Rossellini’s L’AMORE was deemed “sacrilegious” and banned in New York in 1950, independent distributor Joseph Burstyn battled back, taking his fight all the way to the Supreme Court. A year later, the Court ruled that movies were protected under the First Amendment, reversing a 1915 ruling. (L’AMORE airs on March 31.)

In the wake of this decision, iconoclastic filmmakers like Otto Preminger began to routinely challenge the Code. Preminger’s THE MOON IS BLUE (1953), a harmless sex farce with William Holden, David Niven and newcomer Maggie McNamara, was rejected by the PCA after Preminger and writer Hugh Herbert refused requested changes in the script. United Artists released the film anyway and the director and studio fought local censors who banned it, eventually taking their case to the Supreme Court. (THE MOON IS BLUE screens March 31.)

Elia Kazan’s BABY DOLL (1956) was condemned by the Legion but approved by the post-Breen PCA and released by Warner Bros. intact. While denouncements of the film by prominent members of the clergy – including Cardinal Spellman of the Archdiocese of New York – may have negatively impacted the box office, BABY DOLL still garnered a Best Actress nomination for Carroll Baker as the title character, a 19-year-old virgin bride who sleeps in a crib. (BABY DOLL screens March 31.)

By the time Michelangelo Antonioni’s experimental murder mystery BLOW-UP (1966) was released in the U.S. by MGM without PCA approval, it was clear that the Code had outlived its usefulness. It was briefly augmented with an SMA rating (“Suggested for Mature Audiences”) and then replaced entirely by the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system in 1968. (BLOW-UP airs March 17). 

The Legion, now renamed the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, attempted to put the cinematic toothpaste back in the tube, increasing the number of condemned films from 3 in 1967 to 32 in 1970. The organization persevered for another decade, attempting to discourage business for films like THOSE LIPS THOSE EYES (1980) and THE COMPETITION (1980) before it was absorbed in the National Conference for Catholic Bishops. During its half century of operation, the Legion of Decency reviewed 16,251 films and dictated the moviegoing habits of all Americans, Catholic or otherwise. (THOSE LIPS THOSE EYES and THE COMPETITION screen May 24).

So what you should you watch in this series? Everything.

janeFailing that, make sure to catch the films that are not available legitimately on DVD in this country: THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (1933) on March 3 at 8 p.m.; Joseph Losey’s M (1951), the remake of the Fritz Lang classic, on March 10 at 8 p.m.; Lloyd Bacon’s THE FRENCH LINE (1954), a sexy RKO musical w/ Jane Russell that was originally released in 3-D, on March 10 at 9:45 p.m.; and Robert Rossellini’s L’AMORE (1948) on March 31 at 12:15 a.m.

If you can devote full nights to the series I recommend Week 1 on March 3 with its Pre-Code heavy line-up and Powell and Pressburger’s “blasphemous” BLACK NARCISSUS (1947) and Week 5 on March 31, which includes THE MOON IS BLUE, BABY DOLL, L’AMORE and other films released under “special circumstances.”

Sister Rose has also suggested a number of books to read, for those who are genuinely interested in pursing this like a college class. And why not? I took similar courses at NYU and I (my parents) paid thousands of dollars for them. This is free and you get to eat popcorn in class. How can you beat that?

And one more thing: Not long after I was forbidden from watching The Benny Hill Show, Fr. Tunney was reassigned and left our parish. I got my own TV soon thereafter, a 13-inch black-and-white. And I discovered that, while God may be watching, he can’t change the channel.

Posted in TCM | 5 Comments

Lost Marx Brothers Musical Returning to the New York Stage

10379471_499873956822760_8288268246857649914_oOn May 19, 1924 the Marx Brothers made their Broadway debut in I’ll Say She Is, a musical comedy revue at the Casino Theater in New York. The show closed on February 7, 1925 after 313 performances and has never been revived.

Until now.

This May, I’ll Say She Is returns to the New York stage with a five week run at the historic Connelly Theater, the first fully realized production in more than 90 years. Ironically, I’ll Say She Is was the comedy team’s most successful stage show, with more performances than subsequent hits The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. But today it’s a forgotten footnote, known only by the most dedicated Marxists.

“It’s the lost Marx Brothers musical, the one that got away, the one that they never made into a film,” said Noah Diamond, the writer, performer, and lifelong fan who has “adapted and expanded” the show for this new production.

Diamond, who also plays Groucho, hosted a preview showcase for I’ll Say She Is at The Lambs in New York City last night. He and members of the cast performed songs from the show for the invited audience, which included Groucho’s friend and occasional foil, talk show host Dick Cavett. It’s a role Diamond has been preparing for his entire life.

“I used to steal my mother’s eyebrow pencil, lock myself in the bathroom, and rehearse,” he said. “I was in love with the Marx Brothers and became obsessed with writing and performing in musicals.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 7.39.29 PMThat obsession led to Diamond’s mission to bring I’ll Say She Is back to the stage, a project that began in 2009. But there was one small challenge: no complete script from the original production survives.

“I spent weeks, months and eventually years digging as deep as I could into newspaper and magazine archives, museum and university library collections, and the recorded recollections of people involved with the original production,” Diamond said. “As I dug deeper and deeper, I became aware that the show was revealing itself to me in fragments.”

In the Library of Congress, Diamond found a 1923 I’ll Say She Is rehearsal outline by Will B. Johnstone, the writer of the show’s book and lyrics (and, later, the co-writer of MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS). In the original production, Johnstone’s bridging story of a bored heiress seeking thrills served as the “clothesline” for some of the Marx Brothers’ most popular Vaudeville routines, as well as newly written comedy bits and music by Tom Johnstone, Will’s brother.

“I filled in the blanks with material quoted in reviews, Groucho’s ad-libs recorded by Broadway columnists, material from Will B. Johnstone’s newspaper prose, surviving fragments of the Marx Brothers Vaudeville act, and (material) from previous shows written by the Johnstones,” Diamond said. “I also had the pleasure of occasionally adding my own Marxist intuition and fulfilling an unlikely dream of writing for the Marx Brothers”

postDiamond’s exhaustive reconstruction of I’ll Say She Is was done in partnership with musicologist and musical theater historian Meg Farrell, who also happens to be Will B. Johnstone’s great-granddaughter. Farrell provided access to Johnstone’s diaries, which included details on the original production and provided a perspective unavailable to other researchers.

The delightful end result made its debut in 2014, first as a series of staged readings, then as the hit of the New York International Fringe Festival (directed by Trav S.D.). This new production will be presented as a fully staged 1920s-style revue with most of the Fringe cast returning, including Kathy Biehl as a Margaret DuMont-esque dowager, Melody Jane as the scandalous “She” of the title, and Seth Shelden as Harpo, complete with trench coat, red wig, and cascading silverware.

Diamond will be there as well, living out his greasepaint dreams.

I’ll Say She Is survives,” Diamond said. “It’s like we’re getting a whole new early Marx Brothers movie we’ve never seen.”

For information on contributing to the “I’ll Say She Is” crowdfunding campaign, click here. Perks include a speaking role in the production, so this may be the big break you’ve been waiting for. Photos from the 2014 Fringe production by Don Spiro.


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