Dead on Arrival at the TCM Film Fest

TWAIf in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, in the following one it should be fired. – Anton Chehkov

ACT ONE: (Interior) A plane bound for Hollywood. WILL, a handsome reporter who looks younger than his 45 years thanks to decades of moisturizer use, boards expectantly. Before he can stow his valise, Will is greeted with a propulsive sneeze from a WHEEZING WOMAN seated across the aisle leaning miserably on a tissue-stacked tray table.

Will surveys the packed plane, and rushes toward a FLIGHT ATTENDANT who is busily doing flight attendant things.

WILL: (nervously) “I need to change my seat. I really need to move.”

FLIGHT ATTENDANT: “It’s a sold out flight. Over-sold, actually.”

WILL: “You don’t understand. I’m about to physically exert myself for the next four days. I cannot get sick!”

FLIGHT ATTENDANT: “Sir, I appreciate that, but there aren’t any available seats. Are you going to Los Angeles to run a marathon?”

WILL: (defeated) “Something like that…”

Will sinks into his seat, flips his hoodie over his head Obi-Wan Kenobi-style, and hopes the Force will protect him.

END SCENE

TCMCFF_2015-Key-Art_Steamboat-Bill-Jr_8513_-270x400Although it only involves watching, listening, and the occasional sprint across Hollywood Blvd., the TCM Classic Film Festival is as much of an endurance test as any competitive athletic event.

Each spring, Turner Classic Movies packs more than 100 screenings and events into 80 short hours that recapture the spirit of a lost and legendary era. What began as a once-in-lifetime experiment in 2010 has grown into an ecstatic annual pilgrimage that tests the mettle of classic film fans and unites us, however briefly, into a utopian community. It’s like Woodstock for Old Movie Weirdos, with Sid Grauman standing in for Max Yasgur.

In short, this is a thing I cannot miss. And I sure as hell can’t get sick before it even begins.

As one of the privileged few who have attended every year, I’ve learned that a successful TCM Film Fest experience requires elaborate preparation and training. For weeks beforehand I sleep and eat heartily, knowing that both will be in short supply during the four days of TCMFF. I also avoid seeing any movies in theaters – a challenge, since I can often be found haunting New York City revival houses five nights per week. Like a boxer who swears off female companionship, I cleanse my cinematic palate to keep the eye of the tiger, and to retain the flood of narratives my brain will need to process in rapid succession.

And, as a five-year veteran, I had perfected a singularly unforgiving technique: minimal sleep, no sit-down meals (other than popcorn and Diet Coke during screenings), and a determination to see as many movies as (in)humanly possible. Because when your body is exhausted, eating a meal is like getting slipped a Mickey in your bourbon. And I’ve seen enough old movies to know that is something to be avoided.

In past years, when social media friends (many of whom I only see in person at TCMFF) would invite me to take a lunch or dinner break, I’d reject them with dismissive contempt, paraphrasing Warren Zevon: I’ll sleep – or eat – when I’m dead. 

But this year, things were going to be different. From the scratchy throat that roused me from sleep like a bill collector on my first morning in Tinsel Town, I knew it was only a matter of time before my debt would be due.

edmondobrienMy mind immediately flashed to the classic film noir D.O.A. (1950), and I imagined myself as Edmond O’Brien, pacing through the halls of the Roosevelt Hotel to the TCM production office, accompanied by the music of Dimiri Tiomkin.

“I wanna report a murder,” I’d say to Ben Mankiewicz, dramatically removing my Fedora.

“Who was murdered?” Mankiewicz would ask.

“I was.”

I may have been dead on arrival at the TCM Film Fest, but I wasn’t about to go down without a fight. Avoidance of change is inherent to my nature, which may be part of why I still enjoy the same movies my parents introduced me to almost 40 years ago (and also Spaghetti-Os). But, like America in 1933, I was in need of a New Deal.

“Which way to the gym?” I asked the Roosevelt Hotel concierge, uttering words I had never spoken in five years of previous stays.

“It’s right next to the pool. And we’ve got TCM on the TVs!” the concierge bragged, noticing the picture of Henry Fonda on the lanyard dangling from my neck.

Fast-and-Furious-1939I logged a full hour on the cross trainer on each of my first three days at the Roosevelt, while watching the very channel I had come to celebrate. My Day One workout was accompanied by Howard Hawks’ COME AND GET IT (1936) with “lusty” Edward Arnold and Joel McCrea. Day Two started again with McCrea, this time in FAST AND FURIOUS (1939), which is way better than any of the sequels with Vin Diesel. On the Third Day I rose again, this time to SPRING IS HERE (1930) with Inez Courtney and Frank Albertson. If you’ve never worked out to early Talkies I highly recommend it, especially musicals. It gives a whole new meaning to “sweatin’ to the oldies.”

While I was boosting my immune system with healing endorphins, friends were holding seats for me at the first screening of the morning; Joel secured a center seat for me at the fascinating Dawn of Technicolor presentation at the Egyptian Theater on Friday and Alan at THEY WON’T FORGET (1937) at the Chinese Multiplex on Saturday. This technique earned me the moniker “Save Me a Seat Will”, which I’m sure was meant affectionately.

Also kaput: the over-priced popcorn sack as 700-calorie dinner.

This year I consumed six sit-down meals with my fellow attendees during the festival, which may not sound like a lot, until you compare it to zero. And on Sunday morning, with one long day to go, I threw a Hail (Typhoid) Mary pass and skipped the first movie for a breakfast of CinemaScopic proportions. All this eating and socializing would have earned me the withering scorn of Past Will (2010-2014), but it allowed me to break bread, consume a beverage, or just chat with a collection of people whose company I really enjoy (again, words I almost never say).

Polish PosterWhen things looked the most dire, these are the people who had my back. “Fussy” plied me with green tea, brewed in hot water Nitrate Diva negotiated from Starbucks after they had closed. Karen gave me Airborne tablets from her personal stock. And Aurora donated M&Ms when I needed a sugar boost to power through a midnight screening of the memorably awful BOOM! (1968), which Joel shamed me into not skipping. (SPOILER ALERT! It didn’t work; I ended up napping through most of it.)

Against all odds, I remained healthy enough throughout the weekend to close down the wrap party on Sunday night, when Roosevelt Hotel security politely informed me, Ariel, and Chris that we didn’t have to go home, but we couldn’t stay there.

All told, at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, I attended 20 screenings (15 all or part in 35mm), three Club TCM events, three social media meet-ups, and two parties, and sent countless tweets, Instagrams, and Facebook postings. Plus I saw Angie Dickinson, Shirley MacLaine, and Sophia Loren up close and personal (but not close/personal enough to infect them with my germs).

I survived the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival with the help of my friends. And it’s a group that grows each year, thanks to our shared mania for films most people wouldn’t even watch on TV, let alone fly across the country to see.

“When we started we loved the idea of taking TCM into a new dimension, but also uniting the community and getting people together,” TCM programming guru Charlie Tabesh said at a press conference before the event began. “I think that’s happened. And that community aspect of it is very important.”

A father and daughter from Texas I chatted with on line at the Egyptian before THE CHILDREN’S HOUR summed it up perfectly.

“These movies are pretty much the only thing we agree on,” the sixty-something dad told me, and his daughter’s smile suggested she agreed.

They were just one of many parent/child duos attending the TCM Classic Film Festival together. And there were probably hundreds more parents and grandparents, the people who first said, “Watch this. I think you’ll like it,” who were there with us in spirit.

But like all noir, this story must comes to a sad and violent end. My luck finally ran out on the flight back to New York, and what would turn out to be the worst flu of my life hit me like a ton of film cans. My sneezing and coughing might have attracted more scorn from fellow passengers, if not for the young woman seated across the aisle who kept getting airsick in her Caesar salad container.

Was she my cover or my victim? We’ll never know. But one thing is for certain: in the final act, Chekhov’s gun went off loud and clear.

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Posted in TCM Classic Film Festival | Tagged | 15 Comments

UPDATE: “Lost in Space” Launches on Blu-ray September 15

LIS_CastUpdated 4/7/15 – New info in italics.

I don’t remember exactly when I watched Lost in Space for the first time, but I do recall the following details: it was sometime in the mid-1970s; it was on my grandmother’s Zenith (with the remote control clicker); and my cousins John (older) and Patrick (younger) were with me.

And I’m pretty sure one of us imitated the Robot, and that I got to play Will.

My cousins and I were too young to experience the show, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, during its initial 1965-68 primetime run on CBS. But Lost In Space became a huge part of our lives a decade later, thanks to after-school syndicated reruns that were required viewing in the pre-STAR WARS years. The interstellar mis-adventures of the Robinson family (John, Maureen, Judy, Penny and Will), perma-pissed-off Major Don West, and stowaway saboteur Dr. Zachary Smith inspired us in some delightfully analog play, which usually involved running around, sweating profusely, getting injured and/or crying. (That’s the way we rolled in the ’70s, and we have the scars to prove it.)

We even built a replica of the show’s iconic Robot B-9 using milk cartons from the school cafeteria where my grandmother worked, with buttons drawn in magic marker on paper plates. Try doing that on your iPads, you young whippersnappers! (*shakes cane*)

Bill_AngelaLost in Space had everything a kid could want: pulpy adventure; trippy visuals; a killer theme song (actually two of them, both by John Williams); a heroic pre-teen protagonist (11-year-old Billy Mumy as Will); and a pretty girl (Angela Cartwright as Penny, age 13 when the show began) who inspired inexplicable, um, stirrings in certain young viewers (sorry Yvonne Craig and Julie Newmar, but Angela had me first). The show evolved during its three-year primetime run from straight-up adventure (led by former TV Zorro Guy Williams as Dr. John Robinson) in the black-and-white first season to a delightfully absurd sci-fi sitcom in the second and third seasons (in eye-popping color), with Dr. Smith, the Robot, and Will taking the lead. In that sense, the 84 episodes produced by Irwin Allen truly include something for viewers of all ages. There’s even some second-wave feminism, despite the devolution of June Lockhart’s Dr. Maureen Robinson from biochemist to laundry-folding, inter-planetary housewife.

Those Lost in Space reruns primed the sci-fi pump in mid-1970s kids for STAR WARS mania, the Star Trek feature film revival and the genre boom that still reverberates today. And without the Robinson family, I might never have been infected with the old-things-are-better mindset that inspired my lifelong love of classic TV and film. In short, without Lost in Space, I might not have ended up as the proud Old Movie Weirdo I am today.

And soon, a whole new generation of viewers will have the chance to experience the unique joys of go-go dancing space hippies, talking carrot men, and a bloop named Debbie.

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 7.09.45 PMAt WonderCon in Anaheim today, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment announced the 50th anniversary Lost In Space: Complete Collection Blu-ray set, on sale September 15. The 18-disc set includes new, high definition transfers of all 84 episodes remastered from original elements, along with seven hours of bonus features, including: newly shot interviews; commentary tracks on eight episodes; and a “table read” of a series epilogue written by Bill Mumy, with surviving cast members reprising their characters. There are also “as-aired versions” of six episodes, complete with original commercials and program bumpers.

Update 4/7/15 – No DVD version of this set will be offered.

PennyFox Connect is offering a special deal on pre-orders from their websiteIf you register your email address on the site, you get 30 percent off the suggested retail price of $200, with free shipping. Clearly, this a deal only a bubble-headed booby would pass up.

And if you’re thinking, “Why do I need to buy something I can watch on MeTV or Hulu,” WARNING!  As much as I’ve enjoyed revisiting the show on their Saturday midnight broadcasts, MeTV airs edited syndicated transfers, often with two or more minutes cut from the show, Hulu inserts commercials, and both are running fuzzy video transfers that are years (if not decades) old. I’m happy the show is still on the air and available via streaming, but neither of these are perfect solutions, particularly for new audiences.

Lost in Space has never looked as good as it will look on Blu-ray, not even in its original broadcast. And going back to original negatives and remastering classic shows in HD is not cheap. If fans don’t support these efforts, studios will stop doing it and we’ll be forced to watch fuzzy old analog transfers for the rest of our lives. And I don’t know about you, but my eyes are not what they used to be.

Oh, the pain.

Update 4/7/15 – Fox officially announced the complete list of special features today.

Lost in Space – Blu-ray Special Features

  • New On-Camera Original Cast Interviews Featuring Bill Mumy, Mark Goddard, Angela Cartwright, Marta Kristen, Guy Williams Jr. & Toni Williams
  • Original Cast Audio Commentaries (8 episodes) 
    • No Place to Hide (Un-Aired Pilot/Long Version) w/Bill Mumy, Mark Goddard, Angela Cartwright, Marta Kristen and Mike Clark
    • My Friend, Mr. Nobody (S1/E7, Airdate: 10/27/1965) w/Bill Mumy, Mark Goddard, Angela Cartwright, Marta Kristen and Mike Clark
    • Attack of the Monster Plants (S1/E14, Airdate: 12/15/1965) w/Bill Mumy, Mark Goddard, Angela Cartwright, Marta Kristen and Mike Clark
    • Return From Outer Space (S1/E15, Airdate: 12/29/1965) w/Bill Mumy, Mark Goddard, Angela Cartwright, Marta Kristen, Kevin Burns and Mike Clark
    • The Phantom Family (S2/E27, Airdate: 3/29/1967) w/Bill Mumy, Mark Goddard, Angela Cartwright, Marta Kristen and Mike Clark
    • The Anti-Matter Man (S3/E15, Airdate: 12/27/1967) w/Bill Mumy, Mark Goddard, Angela Cartwright, Marta Kristen and Mike Clark
    • The Promised Planet (S3/E19, Airdate: 1/24/1968) w/Bill Mumy, Mark Goddard, Angela Cartwright, Marta Kristen and Mike Clark
    • The Great Vegetable Rebellion (S3/E23, Airdate: 2/28/1968) w/Bill Mumy, Mark Goddard, Angela Cartwright, Marta Kristen and Mike Clark
  • Lost in Space: The Epilogue” – Special Cast Reunion Performance of Bill Mumy’s 1980 Un-Produced Script w/Bill Mumy, Mark Goddard, Marta Kristen, Angela Cartwright, Veronica Cartwright, Guy Williams Jr., Toni Williams, Kevin Burns and Robot B-9

Archive Material:

  • No Place to Hide – Original Un-Aired Pilot (Version #1/Long Version)
  • No Place to Hide – Original Un-Aired Pilot (Version #2/Short Version)
  • Guy Williams Screen Test for Lost in Space(1964)
  • Bob May’s Home Movies (1965)
  • Lost in Space 1965 CBS Advertisers and Affiliates Presentation
  • “Seven Wonderful Nights” Lost In Space Excerpt (1965/66 CBS Promo w/Dick Van Dyke)
  • CBS Network Season One Television Spots (1965)
  • CBS Network Season Two Television Spots (1966)
  • CBS Network Preemption Bumpers w/Jonathan Harris and the Robot (Season Two)
  • Lost in Space Season Two/ Main Title (with alternate/unused theme music by Warren Barker)
  • Lost in Space Special FX Outtakes (1965-68) (w/Lost in Space Rare Music Outtakes)
  • Original Dick Strout Fox Promotional Interview with June Lockhart and Guy Williams (1966)
  • Original Dick Strout Fox Promotional Interview with Jonathan Harris (1966)
  • Lost in Space Animated Special (1973)
  • Syndication TV Spots (1970s)
  • Syndication TV Spots (1983)
  • “Studs in Space” Promo #1 (Radio Promo for STUDS) (“Classic TV”)(1992)
  • “Studs in Space” Promo #2 (Radio Promo for STUDS) (“I’m Thinking”)(1992)
  • Never-before-released 20th Anniversary Interview with Irwin Allen (1985)
  • The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen (1996)
  • Lost in Space Memories” (Program Interstitials for The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen) (1996)
  • Lost in Space Forever” (Segment with Dr. Smith, Robot and Will Robinson Only) (1998)
  • “Never Fear, Smith is Here” (Jonathan Harris profiled on A&E Biography – 2002)
  • Lost in Space Animated Series Pitch (2005) (by Scott O’Brien)
  • The Ballad of William Robinson” (Music Video by Bill Mumy)
  • Jonathan Harris and Al Lewis on MANCOW(Chicago Radio Show)

“As-aired” CBS Versions of Original Episodes (6 episodes w/ commercials)

Photo Galleries:

  • Publicity Stills
  • Episode Stills
  • Behind-the-Scenes Stills
  • Vintage Merchandise
  • Props
  • Artwork

Special thanks to TVShowsonDVD.com which published Fox’s press release.   To listen to my chat w/ Angela Cartwright on “Hollywood Time Machine”, click here. It’s safe to say I swooned a bit during the interview. 

Posted in Classic TV | 5 Comments

UPDATE: How “The X-Files” Revival Impacts the Original – And Where to Stream it

17499_expediente-x-mulder-y-scullyUpdated 4/27/15 -New info in italics.

After more than 200 episodes, two feature films, and countless ripoffs loving homages, The X-Files is set to return to TV as a six-episode limited series from creator Chris Carter, with stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprising their roles as F.B.I. agents Mulder and Scully.

“I think of it as a 13-year commercial break,” Carter told Variety.

When The X-Files left the air in 2002, longtime viewers who had followed the series’ complex mythology for nine seasons were disappointed by a lack of closure. That frustration only grew when Duchovny and Anderson returned for Carter’s THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE, a 2008 theatrical spin-off some fans found narratively unfulfilling.

Whether The X-Files – which earned 16 Emmy Awards, five Golden Globes, and a legion of loyal fans – should return (again) is academic; it’s happening as surely as the next alien invasion. But why Mulder and Scully are coming back now has a lot more to do with the old episodes than with new ones.

In short, The X-Files in 2015 is an under-valued property. At a time when streaming platforms distinguish themselves with big-ticket exclusives, the original 1993-2002 series is unusually ubiquitous, streaming on all three of the largest subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) platforms: Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus. Yet none offer episodes in HD, not even for purchase, nor is the series available on Blu-ray. And to make matters even more confusing, Netflix streams all nine seasons in 4:3 aspect ratio, Amazon Prime switches to 16:9 widescreen with season 5, and Hulu Plus switches to widescreen at the start of season 6.

A side-by-side comparison of the second episode from season 6 shows that Hulu is clearly streaming a native 16:9 transfer, while Netflix offers the same episode in a native 4:3 transfer (though neither are in high def). So what gives?

X-Files

To help explain this inconsistency, it’s important to remember that the original run of The X-Files essentially bridges television’s two aspect ratios: square (4:3) and widescreen (16:9). When The X-Files debuted in 1992, widescreen TVs were still a decade or so away from mainstream acceptance, but Chris Carter already had his eye on the future.

“When we began filming the show in 1992, we actually (except for maybe the pilot) considered HD (widescreen) all along,” he said in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) chat last year. “And so there was image and opportunity to expand and modify the aspect ratio.”

ms_09As many fans know, The X-Files switched officially to a 16:9 shooting format (1.78 aspect ratio) beginning with season 5 in 1997 (though Fox didn’t begin broadcasting in HD until 2004, two years after the series had left the air). Subsequent DVD releases have maintained the original 4:3 aspect ratio for the first four seasons with seasons 5-9 in 16:9 SD.

In my day job as chief inspector of the Aspect Ratio Police, I’m almost always an advocate of maintaining the format the creator intended. But, if Chris Carter protected even the earliest episodes for widescreen when he shot them, that implies his blessing. So where are the HD remasters?

Apparently, re-formatted HD transfers have already been created (at least for the early episodes), and those transfers have aired on the German satellite TV network ProSieben Maxx. (There are some good 4:3 to 16:9 comparison screenshots here.) Here in the U.S., the El Rey Network has also aired some episodes in what appears to be HD. But streaming is still all SD, all the time.

One possible reason we haven’t seen The X-Files streaming in HD is that Fox has a timeline in mind, probably tied to the revival. A new series creates demand for both a definitive HD streaming option and a Blu-ray release, with original fans revisiting an old favorite and new fans discovering a binge-worthy obsession. And nothing helps a commitment to a binge like a definitive end, which is what the new episodes are likely to offer.

If Netflix was willing to pay $500,000 per-episode for exclusive streaming rights to Friends remastered in HD, and Seinfeld is expected to generate more than $100 million when it sells, what would Fox get for an SVOD exclusive to more than 200 episodes The X-Files in HD? The truth, and the money, is out there.

In the meantime, enjoy The X-Files in all its 4:3, standard definition glory at these sites:

Update 4/27/15 – Netflix is now streaming 22 of the 24 Season 1 episodes in high definition. The list below has been updated to reflect that. 

SVOD Services (Episodes included in subscription fee) 
NETFLIX: Season 1 in HD (excluding 14 + 24). Seasons 2-9 in 4:3 (season 9 finale in 16:9)
AMAZON: Seasons 1-4 in 4:3, Seasons 5-9 in 16:9
HULU PLUS: Seasons 1-5 in 4:3, Seasons 6-9 in 16:9

VOD Services ($1.99/episode or $19.99/season)
iTUNES: Seasons 1-5 in 4:3, Seasons 6-9 in 16:9
VUDU: Seasons 1-5 in 4:3, Seasons 6-9 in 16:9
CINEMANOW: Seasons 1-4 in 4:3, Seasons 7-9 in 16:9
M-GO: Season 9 only, in 16:9

Thanks for Wallace McBride, Frank J. Gruber and Angela (aka The Lone Gunmen) for their help with this article. 

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Posted in Classic TV | Tagged | 6 Comments

TCM Takes First Step to Cutting the Cable Cord

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 10.48.25 AMIt’s the news classic film fans have been waiting for: you can now watch Turner Classic Movies without cable or satellite.  Sort of.

On Wednesday, Sony launched PlayStation Vue, an Internet-delivered, subscription television service designed to compete with traditional cable and satellite TV. And TCM is one of the 85 channels available to subscribers at launch. But before you pull a Norman Bates on your coaxial cable, be aware that there’s a catch. Actually, there are more catches than there were in ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD.

Initially, Vue is only being offered in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, with plans to “expand to new cities” at some, as yet undetermined, point. And the service is only available via Playstation video gaming consoles (specifically the PS3 and PS4, which retail for between $220 and $399), with iPad support expected “shortly.” And Vue is only accessible in the subscriber’s home so, while you can unplug your PS4 and carry it to your buddy’s house, your TV won’t come with you.

But wait, there’s more (catches)!

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 7.17.12 PMIf you decide to cut the cord and sign up for Vue, you’ll still need broadband Internet (like you do with any other over-the-top video service, such as Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu, etc). And while Turner Classic Movies is available, it’s not included in Vue’s basic, 54-channel “Access” programming package ($49.99 per-month). Oddly, TCM is bundled in the $59.99 “Core” tier with three other channels – all of which are sports-related: the Big Ten Network, the Golf Channel, and a regional sports channel (the Yankees’ YES Network in New York, Comcast Sportsnet Philly, or Comcast SportsNet Chicago). Ben Mankiewicz’s frequent references to baseball must have confused somebody at Sony.

Vue’s highest-tier “Elite” package offers all 85 channels (including TCM) for $69.99, and all tiers include a cloud-based DVR with unlimited capacity. There’s also a “catch up” feature, which allows you to watch any show or movie that’s aired within the last three days. If TCM supports this functionality – and that’s not yet confirmed – it would essentially make the last 40 or so films broadcast on the channel available on-demand, roughly half as many as are available at any time on the Watch TCM app. (No word yet on whether access to the app will also be available to Vue users for remote viewing, as it is to most authenticated cable and satellite subscribers.)

If your love for classics also extends to TV shows, NBC’s nostalgia-themed COZI TV is included in all Vue tiers. The only other way to get COZI is in the markets that carry it as a broadcast digital sub-channel, or part time on DISH Network and AT&T U-Verse. (I explain sub-channels here.) COZI also occasionally airs classic films that are controlled by Universal, including pre-1950 Paramount titles.

Now, let’s run the numbers for folks who decide to give Playstation Vue a try.

Playstation-Vue-Screenshot-05

With a monthly subscription fee of $59.99 paid to Sony, plus at least $40 for decent speed (10-megabit or more) broadband service paid to, you guessed it, your local cable provider (those bastards!) your monthly cost will net out at about $100. That may be a little less than you’re paying now for a basic cable/broadband package, but probably not much (although you’ll also be getting a gaming console and a full-featured DVD and Blu-ray player in the PS3 or PS4). Further negatives: Vue does not offer any premium movie channels (like HBO or Showtime) and Sony has yet to finalize an agreement with Disney, which means no ABC, ESPN, or any of the Disney channels at launch. (AMC is also not yet available, but is promised in April as part of the Access package.)

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 6.53.16 PMOutside of classic film fans who live in markets that don’t offer TCM – which is unlikely in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Philly – Vue, at least as currently constituted, probably isn’t much of an improvement. But, as the first legitimate option for watching TCM without a cable or satellite subscription, it’s an extraordinarily significant development for classic film fans.

What comes next is hard to say, but it’s clear that the traditional cable and satellite business model of large bundles of channels available from a single, local monopoly (or duopoly) is falling apart faster than an IKEA couch.

You’ve probably already seen the headlines. Apple is rumored to be planning an Internet-based, 25-channel cable-buster to launch later this year (viewable via their Apple TV box at a monthly cost of $30-$40) and DISH’s $20-per-month Sling TV service is already available via Roku, Amazon Fire TV, computer, and iOS and Android devices. Oddly, TCM is not offered on Sling, even though nearly all its sister Turner networks are.

With the HBO Now standalone streaming service set to launch in a few weeks (at $15 per month), and a subscription-based Showtime to follow, it’s inevitable that opportunities to access TCM in non-traditional ways will increase. And with the extremely user-friendly Watch TCM (launched in November of 2013), Turner has the basic architecture in place to launch a standalone, subscription based version of TCM. The challenge, as always, will be how to do that without destroying the business model that’s kept the network on the air for the last 21 years.

Playstation Vue is TCM’s first step on the Yellow Brick Road to a streaming future. Hopefully we’ll get to Oz sooner rather than later.

wizard-of-oz-original1

Posted in COZI TV, TCM, Technology | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

UPDATE #2: Robert Osborne Will Miss TCM Film Festival due to “Minor Health Procedure”

Updated 3/20/15 – 2:30 p.m. (ET)

sophia_loren_gallery_38In an update posted to the TCM Classic Film Festival website, TCM revealed that the previously scheduled Robert Osborne interview with Sophia Loren at TCMFF will instead be conducted by Edoardo Ponti, Loren’s son with producer Carlo Ponti Sr.

Ponti directed his mother in the 2014 short film HUMAN VOICE, which was screened at last year’s Cannes Film Festival with Loren in attendance. He also wrote and directed BETWEEN STRANGERS (2002), in which Loren co-starred with Mira Sorvino, Debra Kara Unger, Pete Postlethwaite, and Klaus Maria Brandauer. (This news was first reported by Christy Putnam.)

In addition, Ben Mankiewicz will fill in for Osborne at the Wednesday, March 25 TCMFF “Preview Event” with Angie Dickinson in the Blossom Room (site of the first Academy Awards) at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Admission to this event is $25 and it’s open only to Citi customers. On the event website Citi says “Due to medical reasons, Robert Osborne is no longer able to host this event.”

Original article – Published March 18

osborne1Turner Classic Movies announced today on Twitter and Facebook that primetime host Robert Osborne, the face of the network since its launch in 1994, will not attend the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood next week, due to a “medical procedure.”

In a letter from the 82-year-old host to attendees of the network’s sixth annual classic film confab (which kicks off next Thursday) Osborne writes, “I’ve been putting off a minor health procedure (as everyone tends to do now and then). I planned to take care of it as soon as the Festival was over but my doctor said, ‘enough already, Osborne. Let’s get this done now so that sooner rather than later you can get back to introducing movies on TCM.'”

In addition to emceeing the opening night 50th anniversary tribute to THE SOUND OF MUSIC with guests Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, and many other of the festival’s highest profile screenings, Osborne was also slated to interview Oscar-winning actress Sophia Loren for a special to be broadcast next year. Osborne has conducted his Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival interviews in each of the TCMFF’s first five go-rounds, with those specials subsequently airing on the channel and getting a DVD release.

OsboNo word yet on who will cover Osborne’s duties on-site, which were also expected to include daily primetime wrap-arounds and interviews recorded in a lobby studio at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and appearances at events for top-tier Spotlight passholders. (Those passes – priced at $1,649 – sold out in early December, just three weeks after they were announced.)

How (or if) Osborne’s medical treatment will impact his on-air appearances on the channel is also unclear, though a brief convalescence would likely not be noticeable to viewers, due to TCM’s practice of pre-taping wrap-arounds several weeks in advance.

While the abrupt nature of this announcement, just days before an event that is heavily promoted as an opportunity to meet and interact with Osborne, is worrisome to fans of the channel (this one in particular), it’s also not the first time that health issues have taken him out of the spotlight.

In July of 2011, TCM announced that Osborne would be taking a three-month hiatus for minor surgery. That leave of absence ended up being longer than expected, with the beloved host returning to air December 1. Primetime hosting duties were filled for nearly five months by a parade of guest stars, beginning with actors Robert Wagner, Tippi Hedren and Jane Powell, and including stints from Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, singer Chris Isaak, New York Magazine critic David Edelstein, film historian Donald Bogel and actresses Lorraine Bracco, Winona Ryder and Illeana Douglas. When Osborne did finally return, fans responded with expected enthusiasm, and the groundswell of emotion received national press coverage.

A year later, in August of 2012, TCM again announced that Osborne would be “taking some time off,” this time offering no expected duration. That on-air hiatus lasted from August 30 until October 1, with Osborne explaining in a letter posted on the TCM website that his absence was actually a “vacation,” due primarily to his increasing workload at the network. Osborne’s note made only an oblique reference to health, suggesting that his new schedule would allow him to “occasionally sleep and stay as healthy as possible” for non-broadcast responsibilities, like the TCM Film Festival and the annual TCM Cruise.

The on-air configuration of the network changed during that period, with Mankiewicz’s role expanded from weekend daytime host to fellow primetime host. Mankiewicz took over Tuesday nights, Friday nights, and Silent Sunday Nights and TCM Imports in the overnight hours on Sundays. (He later ceded Friday nights to guest hosts under the TCM Spotlight banner of themed programming.) TCM also changed the nature of how their hosting segments were shot, with Mankiewicz moving into a newly designed set at the TCM studios in Atlanta and Osborne’s segments now being recorded in New York (where he is based).

And this year, though no official announcement was made, Osborne has been absent from the channel on a handful of nights, with Mankiewicz hosting in his stead. (On those occasions, Mankiewicz said he was “in for Robert Osborne” or that Osborne “has the night off.”)

23632_006_2945.jpgThough Osborne will be absent from this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, his presence will undoubtedly be strongly felt. And blogger Elise Crane Derby reports that attendees will be able to offer their “get well” wishes to Osborne via a mailbox at the festival information desk, outside of Club TCM in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel.

Finally, on a personal note, the prospect of meeting Robert Osborne and my fellow classic film fans in person at the first TCMFF in 2010 got me through a life threatening illness and open heart surgery in December of 2009. I know I’m not alone in that sentiment, as countless viewers have reported that Osborne has been a comfort in times of sickness and difficulty. That speaks to the unique qualities of the man and the channel he represents, and I know I join with all TCM viewers in hopes for his speedy and complete recovery.

Robert Osborne and Jane Powell christen the first TCM SIghtseeing Bus Tour in New York in 2013 (photo by Will)

Robert Osborne and actress Jane Powell christen the inaugural voyage of the TCM Sightseeing Bus Tour in New York in 2013 (photo by Will)

Posted in TCM Classic Film Festival | Tagged , | 12 Comments

Previously Owned: Many Happy Returns

MomMarch 14, 2006

I almost forgot that today was my mother’s 71st birthday.

I say almost because I finally remembered at 11:16 p.m. And I was presented with a dilemma.

My parents, objectively speaking, are old. They live in a retirement community in Port St. Lucie, Florida. And there’s not much to keep them up late at night, other than arthritis, Turner Classic Movies, or the occasional ambulance dispatching a soon-to-be-former neighbor. Do I call at 11:16 p.m. to wish my mom a happy birthday and run the risk of waking them up – or worse yet, giving them both heart attacks? Because in my parents’ world, any phone call received after 11 p.m. means somebody is dead, dying, or arrested. (Don’t ask me how I know about that last option.)

Or do I wait until tomorrow, when my birthday wishes would be tainted by belated – a word that practically shrieks, “I am self-involved and thoughtless.” (Both of which are true, but that’s beside the point.)

Cynics might think: “Will, you’re adopted. What do you care? It’s not like she’s your real mother.”

In fact, it’s just the opposite. While many woman can get pregnant and have a baby if they chose to, my mother could not, despite repeated efforts. And while conceiving (for some) is effortless (and fun, or so I’m told), adopting is not – especially in in the analog Dark Ages of 1969.

My parents had to fill out all manner of government paperwork, sit through countless interviews and inspections by social workers, and go through extensive background checks before they became my proud new owners. They even fostered kids, and had to fend off at least one troubled father who wanted his back. The process of acquiring the Smartass Who Became Known as William McKinley Jr. took years, and generated more than a few disappointments.

And why did they go to all this trouble? So they would have someone to call them on their 71st birthday.

It’s not really that much to ask. They took me in, fed me, clothed me, put up with my teenaged obsession with Dark Shadows, paid for me to go to private school and NYU, and continue to lend me money as I approach the age of 40. And I’m not even technically related to them. That’s a pretty sweet deal. And all they ask for in return is a phone call on their respective birthdays.

So I decided to call. Thankfully they were both still awake, probably watching something on TCM.

“I just got out of work,” I lied when my mother answered the phone. “Sorry I couldn’t call earlier.”

I wished my mom a happy birthday, told her what I had been up to, and asked what she was doing to celebrate.

“Talking to you,” she said.

Today would have been my mother’s 80th birthday. She died on December 28, 2007. An earlier version of this essay was originally published on March 14, 2006. She thought it was funny, but didn’t appreciate being called “old.” 

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Shampoo = Sex in SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN (1936)

SONY DSCI’m a Pre-Code film snob. Or at least I’ve become one in recent years.

If a sound film was released before July of 1934 (when enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines began in earnest), it’s a good bet I’ll watch it. I don’t care who stars in it, who directed it, what it’s about, or which studio made it. There’s just something about the early Talkie Era that speaks to me – in a slightly tinny New York accent.

My heart always sinks a bit when I see a film on Turner Classic Movies that’s clearly of a ’30s vintage but carries a release date of 1935 or later.

“Oh, how much better it could have been!” I lament, beating my breast in mourning for the debauchery that will undoubtedly be missing.

But every now and then I get a nice surprise, and I’m reminded why the 1930s – the entire 1930s – has been my favorite film decade since I first discovered old movies. And Joseph Santley’s SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN, an RKO comedy from 1936 with a sharply satirical script by Viola Brothers Shore, is one such cinematic surprise.

Featured on TCM as part of a month-long salute to Star of the Month Ann Sothern (and available on DVD from Warner Archive), SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN was the sassy blonde’s third pairing with genial leading man Gene Raymond (think Dick Powell by way of Van Johnson). This time around Ann is Cookie, a broke model gold-digging for a sugar daddy to rescue her from cheap gigs in expensive clothes she can’t afford.

Cookie lives with her wise-cracking guardian angel/older sister Gwen (the always reliable Helen Broderick) who doesn’t hold out much hope that our heroine will land a big-pocketed fish.

“(You’ll) do the same thing I did: fall in love with some boob who doesn’t have a thin dime,” Gwen says. “Some big slug will come along who needs mothering, and you’ll wake up one morning and find you’ve taken on the job for life.”

GRCookie protests, but this is a romantic comedy and we all know what has to happen next. The “slug” she falls for is Dick Smith, who Cookie thinks is a dim but handsome male model with a “million dollar profile” (which was the working title of the film). In fact, Dick is actually Richard Stuyvesant Smith, a millionaire playboy with a penchant for writing checks to ladies he dismisses after breakfast. And just to remind Dick of his past “breaches of promise,” his loyal valet Lucious Philbean (Eric Blore, hilarious as usual) keeps copies of the pay-off checks framed on his bedroom wall.

To stop Cookie from falling into the wealthy Italian arms of Baron Enrico Torene (Erik Rhodes), Dick sets up a faux modeling agency with Philbean as boss. Each night brings another bogus modeling shoot, and eventually Cookie and Dick end up in a clinch. And here’s where it gets interesting.

SMARTStripped of the freedoms of Pre-Code filmmaking (where heroes and heroines could canoodle sans matrimony), Santley stages a brilliantly chaste love scene wherein Sothern simply washes Gene Raymond’s hair. What must have sounded harmless to the Hays office on the printed page becomes a hilariously hot stand-in for sex, as Dick strips down to his skivvies and Cookie vigorously massages his scalp, stopping only to admire his undershirt-clad torso. Sothern pushes it about as far as she could in 1936, clearly playing the scene as a woman who is sexually attracted to a man.

Not that I’m a perv, but that’s where SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN won me over. There is a subtext at work here that follows the letter of the Code, but subverts the spirit of it. And, in the process, Santley (and Sothern, mostly) create a more powerful love scene than might have been achieved with the standard fade out on kiss/fade up on breakfast approach. In effect, they out-Coded the Code.

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 10.20.41 PMYou can probably guess the rest (and if you can’t, you should watch more old movies). In addition to its subtle sexiness, SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN boasts an all-star cast of 1930s character actors, many of them familiar from other beloved RKO films of the era. And if you’re thinking this all sounds remarkably like TOP HAT (1935), you’re right. SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN is an Astaire/Rogers film without Astaire and Rogers, with some sexy haircare standing in for Fred and Ginger’s brand of lovemaking: dance. And there’s even a bit of music, as Raymond croons “Will You,” a catchy ballad of his own composition.

With its economical 57-minute running time, SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN might have been a forgettably slight B-grade rom com. But with Ann Sothern, Gene Raymond and RKO’s best character actors, it’s a delightfully witty surprise, and a film that truly deserves the rare title of “Post-Code Pre-Code.”

SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN is available on manufacture-on-demand DVD from  Warner Archive in a two-film set with SHE’S GOT EVERYTHING (1937), also featuring Ann Sothern and Gene Raymond. You can read more about the film at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings

Posted in Pre-Code Film, Uncategorized, Warner Archive Collection | Tagged , , | 5 Comments