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 | 14 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.


Posted in Classic Film | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

I’m a Contributor to a Book Nominated for an Award!

RondoIf you know me, you know I enjoy writing about obscure old movies most people have never even heard of, let alone want to read about.

While this strategy has done nothing to reduce my high-interest credit card debt, it has allowed me to collaborate on some fun projects and make some IRL friends (always a plus, considering I don’t usually like people in real life).

One of the most fulfilling of these endeavors has been the Monster Serial anthologies of horror film criticism. Over the last few years I’ve contributed to all three published volumes in the series, which has given me the chance to check “Get Published in a Book” off my bucket list. It’s also provided me with an “author page” on Amazon, which is something I hope to expand on in coming years (and/or use to impress women on Tinder if I’m ever single again).

The Monster Serial books are brilliantly art directed and edited by Wallace MacBride, the mad genius who runs the Collinsport Historical Society blog and its hydra-headed social media offshoots. Over the three volumes, Monster Serial has featured more than 100 essays on scary movies from the silent era to the present day, written by some of the wittiest and most knowledgeable horror authorities around.

SerialAnd I’m proud to announce that the third and final(?) installment in the series, Taste the Blood of Monster Serial, has been nominated for a prestigious Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award for Best Book.

Founded in 2002 and named for the unforgettable character actor who became a film icon, The Rondo is the only award dedicated to classic horror and the contemporary media that celebrates it. This year’s awards are dedicated to Christopher Lee, and recognize nominees in 27 categories, from “Best Movie” to “Monster Kid of the Year.” (You can peep the full list of nominees here.)

Best of all, the winners of the Rondo Awards are chosen entirely by fans. And that’s where you come in.

If you’re so inclined, you can cast your ballot for just the following two awards:

10. BOOK OF THE YEAR: Taste the Blood of Monster Serial
16. BEST WEBSITE OR BLOG: the Collinsport Historical Society

All you have to do is copy and paste the entries above and e-mail them to David Colton at taraco@aol.com by midnight, April 10, 2016 (but do it right now, because you’ve got a lot going on and a tendency to procrastinate).

HODSOne vote is allowed per person, and your e-mail must include your name in order to be counted (so if you’re on the run from collection agencies like a certain classic film blogger I know, I’ll totally understand if you have to opt out). They also promise they won’t spam you or sell your email address to foreign horror fans seeking spouses in the U.S. with extensive DVD collections and access to green cards.

If you’re interested in picking up a copy of Taste the Blood of Monster Serial, it’s available at Amazon for only $11.99(!) and includes a forward by Kathryn Leigh Scott, co-star of the film I wrote about: Dan Curtis’ HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970). The book also includes the work of the following talented contributors:

To get you in the mood for voting, here’s a short bio of Rondo Hatton from the Svengoolie show on MeTV. It’s kind of depressing, but don’t let that stop you from voting. Thanks for reading, voting, and your continued support of my Old Movie Weirdo endeavors.

Posted in Books | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Honoring a Forgotten Chapter in Film History w/ “Pioneers of African-American Cinema”

DDDevilI spent Valentine’s Day with the devil on a train to Hell.

That’s not a euphemism for a relationship gone sour, it’s the plot of HELL-BOUND TRAIN (1930), a newly restored silent rarity that screened on Sunday at Film Forum in New York City. The double feature (along 1941’s THE BLOOD OF JESUS) was the first installment in the downtown Manhattan movie mecca’s four-part Pioneers of African-American Cinema series, programmed with rarely seen “race films” from the upcoming Kickstarter-funded Kino Lorber DVD and Blu-ray collection of the same name.

While the Hollywood studio system of the 1920s through ’40s relegated black actors to roles as servants or comic relief, a thriving independent film industry cranked out hundreds of films for the more than 1,000 theaters in the U.S. that catered to African-American audiences. Most were produced, financed and distributed by people of color and almost all are hard to find today, if they survive at all.

HELL-BOUND TRAIN stars the one and only Satan – complete with horns and Batman-style cape – tempting the faithful with a variety of vices as he (SPOILER ALERT!) drives a train into the Everlasting Fire. Like the training films many of us watched in school a generation (or two) ago, HELL-BOUND is broad propaganda, but it’s still memorably powerful stuff. And it’s more than a bit haunting, thanks to a new score composed and performed by Samuel Waymon, best known for his work on Bill Gunn’s 1973 cult classic GANJA & HESS.

“There’s a whole generation of people out there who don’t even know this kind of film exists,” Waymon told the Film Forum audience, who braved hellishly cold New York City temperatures to explore a little-known chapter in movie history. “But even though this is African-American cinema, it’s also for people of all colors.”

HELL-BOUND TRAIN was the work of husband and wife moviemaking duo James and Eloyce Gist, African-American evangelists who produced Christian-themed movies and screened them at churches and meeting halls, funding their efforts with proceeds from the collection plate. Also in attendance on Sunday was S. Torriano Berry, a filmmaker and historian who began restoration work on HELL-BOUND TRAIN two decades ago.

“The films had been donated to the Library of Congress by the Gists’ granddaughter-in-law and had just fallen to pieces,” Berry said. “It was very difficult for me to figure out the original structure.”

In addition to disjointed fragments, Berry also discovered multiple versions of the complete film, often with alternate takes of the same sequences, and different establishing scenes. Relying on his perspective as a filmmaker and research into the Gists’ intentions (but no original script, apparently), he restructured HELL-BOUND TRAIN into a complete narrative. The result is a multi-chapter morality play wherein Satan busts a move each time someone falls victim to drink, gambling, jazz or other immoral pastimes. (Guess which side I was rooting for.)

BLOODThe other half of the program was THE BLOOD OF JESUS (1941), the second film from director Spencer Williams (who would go on to play Andy in the 1950s Amos and Andy TV series). Williams also stars as Razz Jackson, a backsliding hunter who skips the baptism of his wife Martha Ann (Cathryn Caviness) so he can poach a neighbor’s boar for dinner. In a plot twist that elicited a gasp from the Film Forum audience, Razz inadvertently shoots Martha Ann when she returns from her anointing in the river and, as she hovers between life and death, an angel and the devil (this time in a better-fitting costume) battle for her eternal soul.

THE BLOOD OF JESUS is a surprisingly well made film, with an emotional conclusion that finds Martha Ann literally born again in Christ’s titular blood. It also bears some striking similarities to Cabin the Sky, the Broadway musical with an all African-American cast that had opened just months earlier and would be made into a film in 1943 by MGM.

The Pioneers series continues at Film Forum on February 15 with Oscar Micheaux’s WITHIN OUR GATES (1919), the earliest surviving feature film of any African-American director. (D.J. Spooky, executive producer of the Kino Lorber series, provides the recorded score.) Next month’s installments include the premiere of the restoration of Micheaux’s BIRTHRIGHT (1939) on March 6 and Spencer Williams’ DIRTY GERTIE FROM HARLEM USA (1946), an unauthorized adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Rain, on March 7. That screening will be introduced by film critic Armond White, and I recommend you buy your tickets well in advance.

Kino Lorber’s DVD and Blu-ray set (which exceeded its Kickstarter funding goal last year by more than $18,000) is expected to be available in June. The collection will include a dozen newly restored features, more than 10 shorts and fragments, interviews with curators and film scholars, and a mini-documentary.

For more information visit the Film Forum website or Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” Facebook page


Posted in Film Forum, Screening Report | Tagged | 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Another life, after tonight,” Renwick promises.

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

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

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

“I did it!” Renwick proclaims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in Classic Film, Cord-Cutting, Paramount Vault, Republic Pictures, Streaming | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

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

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

In not a single case was that episode the pilot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s like they made it especially for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in Contemporary TV | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments