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Friday, July 29, 2011

SOME TV vs. FILM HISTORY

Although the early days of television hurt the movie business, they didn’t ruin it like they did radio. Sure, starting in the late 1940s TV was new and exciting even if it was on a 7” to 16” black and white screen. However, not every home had one for two main reasons: Sets were very expensive and they were hard to get.

As a kid in Cincinnati, I can remember our first TV. It was a 16” B&W “National” and it cost about $500. Those were big bucks in 1949 and there was no remote, just 3 channels, and “rabbit ears” on top of the set for an antenna. When reception got bad, a little Reynold’s Wrap around the antenna helped a bit except when an airplane passed over. Nothing could help that but it at least was just a brief interruption.

Most of the shows were local but NBC from New York had a network followed shortly after by CBS and ABC. One of the events responsible for the great interest in TV in the late 1940s was NBC’s successful broadcast of the 1947 baseball World Series. One of the popular showcases for TV was the local bar. Almost every one of them had a TV and packed in the customers who wanted to watch sporting events.

OUR FIRST TV, A 1949 NATIONAL 16" BLACK AND WHITE

It took about six months to get a set as the demand was high. Everyone was in the business including brands you probably never heard of like Muntz, Hallicrafters, and Capehart. I mentioned above our National was $500 but if you wanted an “entertainment center” you could get a 7” TV, 78 rpm record player, and AM radio combination for about $800!

TV broadcasts in the early ‘50s usually came on about 5:00 in the afternoon and signed off at about midnight or 1:00 a.m. Popular network shows were the Texaco Star Theater, Arthur Godfrey, and Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” which, a few years later, would cause a controversy when Elvis appeared with his swiveling hips. The camera could only show him from the waist up because of protests.

For the kids, there was Howdy Doody. Before we had a set, all the kids in my neighborhood would crowd every afternoon at 5:30 into the living room of a girl up the street and watch Howdy Doody, Buffalo Bob, and the Peanut Gallery. The TV was a 14" Admiral B&W trable model but it looked like a 60" color flatscreen to us.

If you turned on the TV before “sign on” you would see a “test pattern” which was a bullseye looking thing usually with an Indian’s head that showed on the screen accompanied by an annoying hum.

AN EARLY 1950s TV TEST PATTERN



It all sounds primitive now, but at the time it did a lot of damage to theater ticket sales. From 1948 to 1953, home ownership of TVs in the US increased from 1% to 50% and by the 1960s was 90%. Suddenly, color films were flowing out of Hollywood in response to the black and white one eyed monster in all those living rooms across America.

In 1952, a gigantic screen with three projectors and a superior sound system made its debut in select theaters. It was called Cinerama and was followed closely by 3-D with its flimsy cardboard glasses. Other attempts by the film business to thwart TV were Cinemascope and Vista Vision which we already mentioned in another blog.

Cinerama was discontinued in 1962 and 3-D only lasted a couple years in the 50s. Both systems plus the more standard wide screen stuff were basically stopgap methods used to try to win customers back into the theaters. Eventually, both genres found their niche and gimmicks gave way to more quality films while the movie studios started working with TV making “made for TV” films.

The dust had settled.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Remakes: Good or Ripoffs?

At the risk of sounding wishy-washy, I think some film remakes are good and some bad. Some film makers try to cash in with remakes of blockbusters just to take advantage of the good fortune some other guy took on a big career risk.

Regardless, remakes are nothing new. Even in the early 1930’s, the philosophy was that if something was a hit, let’s beat it to death until the audiences say “No, we’ve had enough!” Remakes then were as they are now: either a remake of the same film (sometimes scene for scene) or sequel the audience to death.

An early example is “The Maltese Falcon”. There was an excellent version made in 1931 starring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. In 1936, it was copied poorly as “Satan Met a Lady” with Warren William. Hollywood was not satisfied that they got all they could out of that story so in 1941 we got the benchmark version with Bogart and Astor. In this case, the third version was worth waiting for.

Next, we have “The Front Page”. There have been four versions of it with all of them good: 1931, 1940 (as “His Girl Friday”), 1974, and 1988 (as “Switching Channels”). My favorite? It has to be “His Girl Friday”. It was done as one of the last screwball comedies and how can we improve on a cast of Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy plus a room full of great character actors?

“High Sierra” is in my top five favorites and the remakes (“I Died a Thousand Times”, 1955), and Colorado Territory (1949), are decent.

Now, we have the stinkers: “Doctor Doolittle” (1967), (1998). Why even do a remake? The first version with Rex Harrison was a snoozer at 144 minutes in length. The second with Eddie Murphy was a little better but still induced yawning.

It’s the same with “Rollerball” (1975). It was OK and had a good cast with James Caan and John Houseman but did it warrant a remake? If you saw the 2002 version, I’m sure you’ll agree that once was enough.

In the case of “Stagecoach” (1939), it isn’t that the 1966 version is bad, it's just that the original from 1939 was so good that it was impossible to improve upon. “Stagecoach” re-launched John Wayne as a major star after he floundered in the 1930’s. With the combination of the Duke with Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine and others the 1966 cast with Bing Crosby, Robert Cummings, Ann-Margret and Slim Pickens had no chance.

Do I dare mention “Psycho” from 1998 vs. the 1960 Hitchcock version? Think Janet Leigh vs. Ann Heche as Marion Crane and Anthony Perkins vs. Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. Enough said?

Test yourself: Name four films made during the 1940s that included Barton MacLean and Humphrey Bogart.

John Wayne in "Stagecoach". So long to "The Three Mesquiteers".

Thursday, July 14, 2011

LET'S NOT FORGET "HOPPY"

This is “singing cowboys month” on TCM and although William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy was not a singing cowboy, I think he deserves a mention for the contributions he made to the western genre.

Unless you are a certain age, you may be scratching your head and wondering, “Who was Hopalong Cassidy?” “Hoppy” was, along with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, one of the great western heroes in the movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Also, like Autry and Rogers, he was very successful on television in the late 1940s and for years afterward.

Bill Boyd was 12 years older than Autry and 17 years older than Rogers. Although they all had success on TV and in films, Boyd led the way. Unlike many western heroes, he wore a totally black outfit including a black hat instead of the usual “good guy” white hat. At age 40 in 1935, he became Hopalong Cassidy along with co-star and future Roy Rogers and Gene Autry sidekick, Gabby Hayes.

His series of 66 quickly made “B” westerns was very successful as kids loved to watch Hoppy beat up the bad guys. With his black outfit, silver hair, and white horse Topper, he was quite an imposing figure as his fast paced action made quick work of the villains.

HOPPY WITH TOPPER

By 1944, the producer of his films ended the series. Bill Boyd mortgaged everything he had to buy the rights to the films and by 1946 was back in business as Hoppy. By 1948, the “B” western was losing its edge in theaters but, like Rogers and Autry, Boyd was a good businessman and saw a future in the new world of television.

NBC was a new network at that time and Boyd sold his films to them in edited versions that would fit into the television format. Later he made a series of 30 minute shows which ran from 1949-1951 on NBC and for years afterward in syndication. At age 58, he retired in 1953.

William Boyd’s future wife, Grace Bradley, married him three weeks after they met in 1937. Although she was 18 years younger, she said he was “the love of my life.” They were together until 1972 when he died at 77.

At the Lone Pine Film Festival in 1995, 82 year old Grace said, “Everybody I talk to is looking for a hero. They say ‘If only we had Hoppy again’, or somebody like him. The children have no role models. Who do we have?” I understand her point.

Grace Bradley Boyd died on her birthday last September in Dana Point, California. She was 97 and died of age related causes.

I feel lucky to have grown up in the Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers era. It was exciting to see their movies and TV shows on cold Ohio winter days with a cup of Ovaltine or Campbell’s tomato soup as we eagerly watched them round up the bad guys on our 16” Admiral black and white TV.

Trivia question: Where did Hoppy's horse Topper get his name?

Lobby poster for a Hoppy western

Monday, July 04, 2011

Hooray For Hollywood (1930s style)

Do you have memories of going to the show as a kid? I remember my mom telling me to not let my head touch the back of the seat or I might get ringworm. We also never worried about starting times for shows. We would simply leave “where we came in.” Do you remember the “Air Cooled” banner on the marquee to indicate air conditioning?

Here is guest writer Joe Finnerty's account of a day at the movies with his buddies in the 1930’s.

HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD (1930's style)

By Joe Finnerty

Hollywood is to blame. Moguls such as Cecil B. De Mille stopped me from experiencing real life as a child. Movies, with their dream world of adventure and comedy, captivated me while growing up. Thank goodness for TV documentaries which allow me to catch up on the events that passed me by while the big screen kept me glued to my seat.

I joined legions of Hoboken’s waifs every Saturday afternoon to watch endless numbers of films at the nearby U. S. Theater, a grand name for a somewhat shopworn venue. Half the fun of attending the matinee was trying to sneak in without paying. Two fire escape doors on either side of the balcony led to steel stairways. With precision, at an appointed time, some paying customer would open one of the exit doors, allowing a horde of waiting boys to race inside. This mad dash came to mind when recently reading a news report of a mob of illegal immigrants who charged en masse across a border checkpoint. A few lucky ones managed to elude the police. That is the way it was with my boyhood pals. Only a small number managed to avoid detection. Most were corralled and booted out by the ushers. The excitement generated by this storming of the gates sometimes exceeded that of the latest adventure film which followed.

Sneaking in to see a show this way was not my style. Rather than rely upon cohorts to help me enter the theater, my preference was to steal a few deposit milk bottles to earn my ten-cent admission fee. I had SOME pride, after all.

Most of the pre-teen boys chose to sit in the balcony. The pre-teen girls sat in the orchestra. This seating preference allowed the boys to shower the girls with wads of gum and candy wrappers. The mezzanine was an unmarked hard-hat area. Usually this barrage ended when the first serial began showing. Then, everyone focused their attention on the screen for the next three to four hours.

Few ‘B’ movies made in Hollywood from 1935 to 1940 escaped my viewing. It was a time of innocence. The plots taught me values that became etched in my psyche. Good guys always won. Bad guys always got their comeuppance. A few Native Americans were okay, like Tonto, but most of them were low-down (inappropriate term). Mexican cowpokes, especially the Cisco Kid, always spoke broken English in a hilarious way. The Chinese were definitely inscrutable, especially Charlie Chan, although his son was a nerd. Some Black people had rhythm. Did you see that old butler Bojangles dancing with Shirley Temple?

One afternoon, in the summer of 1938, while returning home after spending four hours of movie watching, my weary eyes began to observe that something unusual had occurred outdoors that afternoon. In plain view were many canvas window awnings torn to shreds, flapping loosely. It puzzled me, but not sufficiently to discuss my observation with my family who never brought up the subject either. Not until years later did I learn that a great hurricane had smashed the eastern seaboard that afternoon, destroying lives and property across a wide region of the northeast including metropolitan New York, Long Island and much of New England.

All the movies I saw that day were memorable, legendary even. In one, Tom Mix and his horse Tony became lost in New York City. The Marx Brothers stole his nag and took it to the races. Meanwhile, Mickey Mouse chased a big ape up a tall building. I know. I was there. I saw it.

The marquee of the Orpheum Theater in downtown Phoenix in 1942. Notice the "Cooled by Refrigeration" banner.