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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.

 

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Old Cartoons: Adventures in Surrealism

31 Aug

I was in Barnes & Noble last Monday checking out the cheap DVD section and found something called “200 Classic Cartoons” for $4.99 with 4 discs worth of old cartoons. (The distributor is Mill Creek.) There were enough titles on it that I didn’t have that I either wanted to own or was curious enough about to make it worth $4.99 despite what would surely be a preponderance of poor quality prints and transfers.

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Annette Funicello: My First Hollywood Heartthrob

9 Apr

News of Annette Funicello’s death after a decades-long battle with multiple sclerosis was announced yesterday. I first knew “Annette,” as she was commonly known, from her tenure on “The Mickey Mouse Club” on TV when I was a child in the late 1950s. However, I didn’t come to appreciate her fully until I was a little older and saw BEACH PARTY when it opened in the Bronx in October 1963 (50 years ago this fall) on a double bill with Roger Corman’s race-car drama, THE YOUNG RACERS. Annette was absolutely beautiful in the film and even though I’d have to count Natalie Wood in WEST SIDE STORY, first seen earlier that year, as my first movie star crush (and the one that directly influenced, consciously or subconsciously, my future choice of mate), I have to say Annette imprinted herself on my consciousness that day as the ideal woman, particularly in the scene where her mirror image sings back to her, “Treat Him Nicely.”

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Revisiting SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) in its 75th Year

2 Sep

I’ve been reading “The Disney Version,” Richard Schickel’s critical biography of Walt Disney, and after I finished the chapter on SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, which was released 75 years ago this December, I pulled out my DVD copy of the film and watched it. It may be the first time I’ve seen this since I took my daughter to it when it was theatrically re-released in 1987. Before that I’d seen it in two other theatrical re-releases: in 1958, when I was four and 1967, when I took my younger brothers. And I bought the DVD in 2001.

 

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Disney’s Tomorrowland: A Source of Science Fiction Art

19 Aug

On disc 1 of the Walt Disney Treasures Tomorrowland set, there are three Tomorrowland episodes from the Disneyland TV show: “Man in Space” (1955), “Man and the Moon” (1955), and “Mars and Beyond.” All are documentaries with actual space and rocket scientists contributing on-camera appearances (including former Nazi Wernher Von Braun) and all contain elaborate animated sequences. All were directed by veteran Disney animator Ward Kimball and of course are all introduced by Uncle Walt himself.

While real life space explorations have far surpassed the science depicted in these shows (and probably answered all the questions raised therein), the science fiction aspects remain fascinating and aesthetically beautiful. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen science fiction art this detailed outside of the sf pulp magazine and paperback covers we used to get in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Each of the three shows offers a speculative animated sequence offering then-current ideas of what missions in space, on the moon and on Mars would look like. While the shots are mostly static illustrations, there is some animation showing the movements of craft and astronauts.

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