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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.



2016: The Year in Film

30 Dec
The audience amasses for SHIN GODZILLA at the Village East Cinema on October 11.

The audience amasses for SHIN GODZILLA at the Village East Cinema on October 11.

2016 was my first full year of retirement. I made 33 trips to movie theaters, the most trips I’ve made in a single year in over two decades, and I saw 34 movies there. Ten were Hollywood films, 19 were foreign films, mostly from Japan, and the rest were indies. Five were documentaries and eight were animated.

I picked 15 films to highlight from the year, eight new films seen in New York theaters, three revivals, two films seen in theaters in Japan, and two more recent Japanese films seen on the airplane flight to Japan. One of the revivals is generally considered to be a masterpiece, while the film at the top of the list may one day be considered one. As for the others, their virtues outweighed their flaws enough to put them on such a list. Nine of the fifteen are Japanese. Four of the fifteen are documentaries. I only saw ten current Hollywood studio releases in theaters this year and only one is on this list. When the final tally for the U.S. boxoffice is announced, there’ll be very few films in the top ten—or the top 100—that I’ve seen. Since I’m no longer at the office discussing superhero and comic book movies with my younger co-workers, I no longer feel the need to rush out to see these films. My two favorites of the year are at the top of the list. The rest are grouped this way: films I saw in theaters in New York; revivals; films seen in Japan and on the flight to Japan. Most of these descriptions are taken from the notes I composed for my daily film log after seeing the films. Where applicable, I’ve included links to complete reviews I did, including blog entries and IMDB reviews.

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The Best Films of 1956

18 Dec

The older I get, the more I like watching films from the 1950s, the decade in which I was born, especially the mid-1950s. I like revisiting my favorites from that period and continually discovering new films from that time, be they westerns, dramas, crime movies, historical epics, musicals, sci-fi, horror, etc. It was a unique period for filmmaking, as Hollywood was undergoing a transition from the studio era, its ironclad contracts and ownership of theaters to one of independent production, independent theater chains, a loosening of the Production Code, more location shooting and greater acceptance by the public of foreign films. The old guard was still turning out exemplary work, as seen in the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, William Wyler and King Vidor, all of whom had gotten their start during the silent era, while younger directors with bolder visions and new stylistic approaches had emerged during and after the war, including Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Don Siegel, Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger. In addition, a host of new talent was emerging from television, Broadway and documentaries and quickly finding their way to Hollywood, including Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Martin Ritt, Delbert Mann, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and Robert Altman. These overlapping waves of directors offered an unprecedented talent pool the likes of which Hollywood has never seen since. It’s no coincidence that a group of French film critics developed the auteur theory around this time.

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November 3, 1954: Brigitte Lin and Godzilla

3 Nov

62 years ago today, on November 3, 1954, the Japanese monster movie, GOJIRA, premiered in Japan. Directed by Ishiro Honda, the film established a whole new Japanese film genre, dubbed kaiju (giant monster). When the film was picked up by an American distributor, Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy Pictures, it was re-edited and partly dubbed in English, with new scenes added to it featuring an American actor (Raymond Burr) playing a reporter visiting Tokyo when the monster strikes, and retitled GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS for its April 1956 U.S. release. Godzilla became a worldwide phenomenon and more such films were made, 32 in all, several of which I’ve covered on this blog, including the very latest, SHIN GOJIRA (aka GODZILLA RESURGENCE), which was released this year.

Also on November 3, 1954, approximately 1300 miles to the southwest of Japan, in Taiwan, a baby girl was born and named Lin Ching-hsia. 19 years later, Ms. Lin would begin making movies in Taiwan, mostly romantic comedies and contemporary melodramas, with a brief trip to Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. studio to appear in the leading male role of Jia Baoyu in the literary adaptation, DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (1977). A few years later, she would return to Hong Kong to appear in Tsui Hark’s groundbreaking “wire-fu” fantasy adventure, ZU: WARRIORS OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1983), where she played a high-flying warrior priestess called the Countess who resides with her band of priestess followers on the title mountain, and her career took a whole new direction.

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SHIN GODZILLA: Japan’s Newest Godzilla Movie—and One of the Best!

15 Oct

SHIN GODZILLA (2016), co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi (who also supervised the special effects), is the first new Godzilla movie to be made by the Japanese since GODZILLA FINAL WARS in 2004 and was released to theaters in Japan in July 2016 and given a limited release in the U.S. in October. (In some listings the film is referred to by its English release title, GODZILLA RESURGENCE.) Coming two years after Hollywood’s most recent attempt to duplicate the success of Godzilla (see my piece of May 25, 2014), this film takes the Godzilla franchise in a completely new and different direction, setting it in the current political landscape of contemporary Tokyo and functioning as if Japan has never seen a giant monster before. How would the Japanese government and its bureaucrats and various ministries react to the appearance of an actual giant monster in Tokyo? What would it take to get the Prime Minister to make timely decisions and get the various departments to work together? This is not an atypical scene from the movie:

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American Stars in Japanese Films: Nick Adams in GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO

6 Sep


Nick Adams was the first American star to go to Japan to appear in Japanese films that would get significant distribution in the U.S. He made three films there and I wrote about his first, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965), here on July 8, 2013. His second was GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO (1965), as the film is widely known today, although its original U.S. title was MONSTER ZERO and its official English title, as decreed by Toho Pictures, was INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER. (The original Japanese title, KAIJU DAISENSO, is translated as THE GREAT MONSTER WAR. KAIJU DAISENSO remains the best-sounding and most dramatic title.) Americans had appeared in two earlier Godzilla films, but only in scenes added to the re-edited versions shown in the U.S., most notably GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956), in which scenes of Raymond Burr, as American reporter Steve Martin, were newly written and shot for the American release version two years after its original release in Japan under the title, GOJIRA (1954). The other one was KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1963), in which a few scenes with American character actors were added to the U.S. release version. Adams was a co-star of MONSTER ZERO right from the start, in both its Japanese-language and English-dubbed versions. Adams’ third film in Japan, THE KILLING BOTTLE (1967), is a detective film that was never released in the U.S. although it was, according to IMDB, dubbed into English.

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More Kaiju Poetry: Mothra in 1961, 1992 and 1996

11 Jul

Back on June 1, 2014, I wrote about “The Poetry of Kaiju,” as found in the 1964 kaiju (Japanese monster) film, GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (aka GODZILLA VS. THE THING), with its stunning images of Mothra eggs and the otherworldly twin fairies who guard them.

This past month I opted to watch three additional films about Mothra, the giant caterpillar-turned-butterfly, and its fairy guardians, in search of similar poetic imagery.

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