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Our First TV Set: 1955-1962

24 Dec

This picture shows my older brother Dennis playing in front of the TV set in the living room on Christmas Day, 1955. This is the only picture I have of the family set that I did all my early watching on, from 1955 to the spring of 1962, when it broke down for good. We watched tons of movies on that set, as well as all manner of TV shows, from cartoons to the Mickey Mouse Club, the Three Stooges to Abbott & Costello, westerns, crime shows, adventure shows, sitcoms and assorted kiddie hosts. From about the age of five, I paid enough attention to remember the titles of most of what I saw, especially the movies, so I thought I’d reminisce about the viewing highlights of those years. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

KING KONG (1933) is usually the first movie I think of when I recall sitting down with my siblings in front of that set. It was in late 1961 or early 1962 on a weeknight at 7:30PM, I think, and the time slot was WOR-TV’s Million Dollar Movie, famous for showing the same movie multiple times during the week. For years we’d anticipated KONG because we’d already seen its sequel, SON OF KONG (1933), which opened with the spectacular finale of KONG, in which Kong stands atop the Empire State Building fending off attacks by airplanes. We’d also seen the similarly-themed MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), which was made by the same writer-director-producer-special effects team that did KONG and featured the star of KONG, Robert Armstrong, in a similar role. So we were all hyped for the real deal when it came to giant gorillas and we weren’t disappointed. I don’t believe I’d ever seen a film before then (and possibly since) with so much action and suspense and so many awe-inspiring special effects. I’d seen lots of dinosaur movies, too, but none compared with the dinosaurs we got in KONG, from the brontosaurus and stegosaurus who attack the crewmen who have set out to rescue Fay Wray from Kong’s hairy clutches to the pterodactyl who tries to carry Fay off and, especially the powerful Tyrannosaurus who fights Kong in a vicious bloody death match which ends with Kong snapping the lifeless Tyrannosaurus’s jaws open and closed just to make sure it’s dead. And then they bring him to New York City…!

SON OF KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG were much more sanitized versions of KONG, but we enjoyed them immensely back then, especially the latter, which holds up quite well today. When I finally did see SON OF KONG again as an adult, I was disappointed that it takes so long to get the protagonists back to the island where they encounter Kong’s significantly gentler offspring. A lot is packed into the last quarter of the film, but what a slog to get there. Of course, there will always be that memorable image of the submerged Kong Jr. holding up Carl Denham (Armstrong) in his palm above the water until the Captain can get to him in the boat and rescue him, while the poor ape goes under to his death. And in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, we get that harrowing sequence where the title ape rescues a ton of children from a burning orphanage and almost burns up himself.

A favorite dinosaur movie from that period was THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), which I believe was also on Million Dollar Movie. This was the first feature on which Ray Harryhausen was credited as technical effects director and the title dinosaur, a fictional creature called the Rhedosaurus, was entirely the result of Harryhausen’s model animation. (Harryhausen had done most of the actual effects work on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, under the direction of his mentor, Willis O’Brien.) When the dinosaur attacks lower Manhattan, the animated monster is matted in with actual shots of Manhattan taken for the film with dozens of New York extras fleeing. I’ll never forget the lone cop striding purposefully through traffic up to the monster and firing his pistol, only to get snatched up in its jaws and eaten.

The effects were less intricate in ONE MILLION B.C. (1940), but we didn’t care back then. A tale of rival tribes of cavemen starring Victor Mature, it featured lots of dinosaurs, all of them played by live lizards, some dressed up with fake fins and such to look like dinosaurs. It all ended with a volcanic eruption and floods of lava, which our heroes escaped with nary a second to spare.

We saw another eruption, the resultant earthquake, and more lava in THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1935), another favorite back then, which also featured some gladiator action and a dramatic story preceding the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which covered the Roman city of Pompeii in lava and volcanic ash.

I’ve already written about GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956) here a few times, another film about a giant dinosaur that had quite an impact. The Americanized re-edit of the Japanese film GOJIRA (1954), it starred Raymond Burr in newly shot scenes, giving the film some added cachet for us, since Burr had become a star on “Perry Mason” in the time between the initial release of the film and its premiere on television.

The Japanese setting of the film paved the way for the full acceptance the following year of a Japanese monster film with no American actors added and very little re-editing. That film was RODAN (1957), which featured a giant flying pterosaur which terrorizes Japan, along with some subsidiary monsters.

Possibly the worst dinosaur movie we saw back then was KING DINOSAUR (1955), which took place on another planet and pitted two astronaut couples against several live reptiles (and one armored mammal) posing as giant dinosaurs and doing a poor job of it. Most of the film was shot in L.A.’s Griffith Park.  As a kid, I remember liking it, but when I bought the DVD a few years ago and re-watched it, I was amused at how inept it was. I need to see the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. It can only be an improvement.

Other fantasy and effects films we saw back then included THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940), a Technicolor Arabian Nights tale that we only saw in black-and-white. It starred Indian actor Sabu in the title role and had a flying carpet, a flying horse, a giant spider and a giant, flying genie freed from a bottle.

Sabu was in lots of things we saw back then, including Universal’s non-fantasy ARABIAN NIGHTS (1942), which starred Maria Montez and Jon Hall. Hall and Montez also starred in ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944), which we also saw back then and which struck a chord with us because it co-starred Andy Devine, whom we knew from his role as the sidekick on “Wild Bill Hickok” and his stint as host of “Andy’s Gang,” a Saturday morning children’s show that sometimes featured Sabu as a guest, as well as footage from some of Sabu’s movies.

Two family films with fantasy elements that became annual TV events were THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) and MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS (aka BABES IN TOYLAND, 1934). My older siblings had seen WIZARD OF OZ in a theater when it was reissued in 1955. It began its annual broadcasts on CBS the following year. When we saw it on TV, they told us how everything turned to color when Dorothy (Judy Garland) first stepped foot in Oz. We watched it every year, but alas, only in black-and-white. I had to wait till I was in college to finally see it on the big screen.

MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS starred Laurel and Hardy, whose comedy shorts were a staple of local TV schedules back then, in a tale based on Mother Goose’s fairy tale characters, with Laurel and Hardy as nursery rhyme versions of themselves, Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee. On hand were Little Bo Peep, Tom Tom the Piper’s Son, the Three Little Pigs, Old King Cole and an original villain named Barnaby, who seeks to foreclose on the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe unless she lets him marry Bo Peep. When a thwarted Barnaby leads an attack on the happy kingdom by the Boogiemen from underground caves, the title soldiers are turned on to counterattack, making for a suspense-filled action-packed finale. All most memorable, especially since we saw it every Christmas.

Another fantasy classic was the annual live TV broadcast of the “Peter Pan” musical which had played on Broadway with Mary Martin in the lead role. Martin reprised the role for television and at some point they began broadcasting it in color and recording it on video, something I wouldn’t find out till NBC re-ran a tape of it sometime in the 1980s and I recorded it so my daughter could watch it.

Another great musical that was a staple of family viewing back then was YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), starring James Cagney as Broadway showman George M. Cohan.

We were also big horror fans back then, which was great timing since the old Universal horror movies were first released to television during my early years of movie-watching. I remember seeing FRANKENSTEIN (1931), starring Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s misshapen creation and being quite entranced with the character at a young age. We also saw Karloff in THE MUMMY (1932), which disappointed because he’s an actual mummy for only a few seconds. We wanted to see monsters, dammit! I remember liking THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) a lot, with its effects scenes showing the title character stripping off his clothes and bandages to reveal…nothing! I eventually saw BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE WOLF MAN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, but I’m not sure how many we saw on the old TV set or the one we got in 1964 to replace it (leaving us two years without a set). I don’t recall seeing DRACULA until I was in college.

But there were plenty of other horror films on TV back then. CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) has quite a glowing much deserved reputation today, but I was disappointed as a child because there were no actual cat people in it. CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943) was pretty tawdry, but it did have a “wild woman” on display.  MAN-MADE MONSTER (1941) starred Lon Chaney Jr. as a subject of an experiment who becomes a monster controlled via electric current by a mad scientist. THE CRAWLING EYE (1958) was made in England and came from a later era of horror. This was about a giant eye with tentacles that takes over a Swiss mountain lodge.

Going as far from horror as we can, Shirley Temple was also a big favorite of kids and I remember watching lots of her movies from the 1930s, including HEIDI, CAPTAIN JANUARY, and REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM. The grown-up Temple also hosted the Sunday night TV series, “Shirley Temple’s Storybook Theater” (1958-61) which featured hour-long versions of classic tales. We watched it regularly, but the only story I directly remember is Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Black Arrow.” Temple introduced each episode but also acted frequently in the tales. By seeing her in her prime as a child star in her old movies and then also watching her host a current show 20-odd years later, we got a sense of how film history worked.

The Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello were comedy favorites back then. The Three Stooges shorts, originally made for theaters, were packaged into half-hour programs by WPIX-TV, a local New York station found on Channel 11, and hosted by “Officer Joe” Bolton.

Abbott and Costello were seen on reruns of their own TV show, but also in lots of movies they made at Universal Pictures in the 1940s and ’50s. The one movie I remember the most, aside from ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, was HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), which included comedienne Joan Davis in the cast. Davis was also seen in the sitcom, “I Married Joan,” reruns of which ran during the daytime.

Animation was another favorite back then, thanks to the tons of old cartoons that ran on local stations, usually in the mornings. We saw lots of the 1930s Max Fleischer-produced cartoons featuring Betty Boop and Popeye, as well as some of the more surreal offerings produced by Walter Lantz and Terrytoons, among other studios. Our heads were filled with so much bizarre imagery from these shorts that it’s no wonder so many Baby Boomers turned to hallucinogenic drugs in their teens and twenties, all, I daresay, an attempt to recapture the mind-blowing experiences of our early TV viewing.

GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (1939) was another animated favorite, a rare feature-length work of animation from the Golden Age of Hollywood that wasn’t produced by Walt Disney. It would be a couple of decades before we got to see it in its original Technicolor.

Speaking of Disney, we watched his weekly show regularly although I don’t remember a lot of animation on it. I mostly remember watching installments of “Swamp Fox,” a Revolutionary War tale starring Leslie Nielsen; “Zorro,” starring Guy Williams; and the western “Texas John Slaughter,” starring Tom Tryon.

I remember seeing the trailer for the Hollywood feature, THE STORY OF RUTH (1960), in a theater and being impressed at seeing Tom Tryon on the big screen and in color.

We watched lots of westerns, adventure shows and sitcoms, too many to recount all. Most of these series were syndicated, which meant they ran in the afternoons and on weekends and not in prime time, when our TV viewing was restricted. Here are sample images of some of the shows we used to watch.

Here I’ve taken shots from poor-quality public domain prints of some of these shows which replicate what it was like watching fuzzy, grainy black-and-white imagery on a cathode ray tube set on which the reception of the TV signal had to be adjusted by moving the antenna, aka “rabbit ears,” around to best catch the over-the-air image.

“Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” a favorite half-hour adventure show, was in color, but I didn’t see it that way till I bought a box set of the series a few years ago.

The episodes we saw looked more like this image from a public domain disc of the show:

And all this material was found on only six commercial broadcast stations available to us. (A seventh channel, WNET/Channel 13, was an educational station and I don’t remember what we watched on it in those years.)

And I still haven’t gotten to ANDROCLES AND THE LION, Tarzan, the East Side Kids, the Flintstones and other Hanna-Barbera made-for TV cartoons, The Honeymooners, Mr. Ed, The Life of Riley, Burns & Allen, Topper, The Jack Benny Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, the various kiddie show hosts, and assorted grown-up movies we saw on Million Dollar Movie like ONE MINUTE TO ZERO, UNCHAINED, SUDDENLY and BACK FROM ETERNITY.

The last thing I remember seeing on this set was a Million Dollar Movie showing of the John Wayne western, THE SEARCHERS (1956). Luckily, I got to see it on the big screen some ten years later, in all its Technicolor/VistaVision glory.

As stated above, this particular TV broke down in 1962. We got a replacement in 1964, a set I have no photos of, and that broke down in 1966. (In each case the sets were given to us, not purchased.) We had no TV set in the apartment after that until I bought a used 20-inch black-and-white Zenith off a friend of mine as a college freshman in 1971. (Our parents wanted us to focus on schoolwork.) I’ve tried not to be without one since.



Aliens, Gunslingers, Samurai and One-Armed Swordsmen: The Genre Films of 1967

15 Nov

The 50th anniversaries of various landmark films from 1967 have been celebrated widely, including in a couple of previous entries here, but this time I want to look back at the unprecedented variety of genre films that came out that year, particularly from other countries, all part of the global cinematic landscape that only gradually came into view to a budding film buff in his formative years and still expanding the more I discover.

I’ve seen more films from 1967 than from any other individual year, 162 at last count, with 71 from the U.S. and 91 from other countries, chiefly Japan, Hong Kong, England and Italy, but also from France, Germany, Mexico and the Soviet Union. My 14th birthday was in 1967 and I saw a total of twenty 1967 releases in theaters in 1967 and early 1968 when lots of 1967 releases finally turned up in the Bronx, nearly all of them Hollywood releases. I saw others in theaters in the following years, including some of my favorites of 1967–EL DORADO, THE DIRTY DOZEN, and Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy–and then quite a few more on TV broadcasts and in revival theaters in the 1970s. I would add more favorites from that year in the home video era as I discovered previously unseen titles on video and DVD, particularly from Japan and Hong Kong. For instance, it wasn’t until 1997 that I finally saw the Jimmy Wang Yu Shaw Bros. classic, ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN.

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Robert Mitchum Centennial

6 Aug

Robert Mitchum was born on August 6th, 1917, 100 years ago today. (My father was born less than two months later.) I was born on August 6th also, on Mitchum’s 36th birthday. Mitchum died on July 1, 1997, a little over a month shy of his 80th birthday. He happens to be my favorite movie star. I wrote about him here three times already, covering his debut film, BORDER PATROL (1943); his 1949 film, HOLIDAY AFFAIR; and in a piece about Sam Fuller’s THE BIG RED ONE, his appearance in THE LONGEST DAY (1962), where he played the general leading the attack on Omaha Beach, site of the bloodiest fighting on D-Day.

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The Art of EL DORADO

29 Jun

50 years ago today, EL DORADO opened in New York City. It was the next-to-last film directed by Howard Hawks and it starred John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. I didn’t see it in 1967; I had to wait till it came back as part of a double feature with William Wyler’s last movie, THE LIBERATION OF L.B. JONES, in 1970, shown at the Earl Theater on 161st Street in the Bronx, just a block away from Yankee Stadium. It’s something of a follow-up to Hawks’ earlier western, RIO BRAVO (1959), which had a similar situation of a small band of lawmen holding a powerful prisoner and fending off attempts by the prisoner’s army of gunslingers to free him. In both films, one of the lawmen is a drunk and has to sober up fast when all hell breaks loose. I wrote about RIO BRAVO in my Dean Martin Centennial piece and I’ll write more about EL DORADO in my upcoming Robert Mitchum Centennial piece, slated for August 6, and in an upcoming piece on the best films of 1967. RIO BRAVO is arguably the better film, offering more layered characters and focusing less on plot mechanics than on character relationships and interactions. It’s a more complex, serious film while EL DORADO is more light-hearted and entertaining. RIO BRAVO is more demanding and, ultimately, more satisfying, but I’ve seen EL DORADO much more often (about ten times to RIO BRAVO’s four or five). It has more clever scenes and imaginative bits of action and great chemistry among its group of lead actors (Wayne, Mitchum, James Caan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Charlene Holt). It also introduces the drunk character (Mitchum) when he’s sober and in full command of his faculties, so we know what he’s like before he sinks into an alcoholic daze. In RIO BRAVO, we just have to accept Wayne’s word that the drunk (Dean Martin) was once his best man with a gun, since we only see him in his drunk phase for roughly the first half of the movie.

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Dean Martin Centennial

7 Jun

Dean Martin would have turned 100 today, June 7, 2017. (He died on Christmas Day, 1995.) Martin was initially world-famous as the singing comedy partner of Jerry Lewis in an act that had extraordinary success on stage, in clubs, on TV and in the movies before it broke up in 1956 after escalating tensions between the two finally exploded. Martin went on to a successful solo career singing, recording, acting and teaming up with Frank Sinatra and other performers to make up what has affectionately been called “the Rat Pack.” I don’t recall what my first exposure to Martin was, although I’m sure I saw him on a TV variety show before seeing my first Martin movie, AT WAR WITH THE ARMY (1950), his third movie with Jerry Lewis, at summer camp in 1963.

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Steve Cochran Centennial

25 May

Steve Cochran would have turned 100 today, May 25, 2017. (He died in 1965.) He was a character actor who was most active in the 1940s and ’50s, most often playing dark, good-looking heavies in crime films and westerns. He was under contract for a while to Samuel Goldwyn Productions and later to Warner Bros. where he made what I consider to be his best films. He’s probably best known for WHITE HEAT (1949), in which he had a key supporting role as one of the robbery gang led by cold-blooded killer Cody Jarrett, played masterfully by James Cagney in his spectacular return to gangster roles after a decade away from the genre.

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Raymond Burr Centennial

21 May

Raymond Burr would have turned 100 today, May 21, 2017. He’s most famous for three roles, two on television and one in the movies. On television he first starred in “Perry Mason,” portraying the title character, a criminal defense attorney who won almost every case he took. The series premiered on CBS in 1957 (sixty years ago this fall) and ran for nine seasons (until 1966). He then returned to the role in a run of 26 TV movies that began in 1985 and continued until his death in 1993. (The final film aired after his death.)

Perry Mason 1957:

Perry Mason 1985:

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