Friday, October 28, 2011

I’m Shreve…he’s Dickens…and that’s Fenster

There were a number of classic-TV-coming-to-DVD announcements up at this week, but the one that I’m really juiced about is a collection that I actually found out about before seeing it on TSoD (I got a heads-up via e-mail)—the long-awaited Volume 1 set of I’m Dickens…He’s Fenster, due to be released on April 10th next year.  However, if you take advantage of the exclusive pre-order option at the show’s website, it will ship to you beginning December 6th…more on that in a moment.

I’ve talked a bit about this show on the blog in the past, but for those of you with only a passing familiarity with the series I’ll try to bring you up to speed.  I’m Dickens…He’s Fenster was created and produced by the late Leonard Stern, the veteran comedy scribe who wrote for the likes of The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show and later served as the executive producer on Get Smart.  Before Smart—and before later creating He & She and McMillan & Wife—Stern concocted this show starring future Addams Family patriarch John Astin (as Harry Dickens) and future Mr. Shirley Jones Marty Ingels (as Arch Fenster) as a pair of comically inept carpenters who were also best friends.  The show also co-starred future “Amanda Bellows” Emmaline Henry as Harry’s wife Kate, and Moundsville, WV’s own Frank DeVol as the boys’ deadpan boss, Myron Bannister.  Other performers seen regularly on the show include character veterans Dave Ketchum, Noam Pitlik and Henry Beckman as Arch and Harry’s co-workers.

The show ran on ABC for a single season in 1962-63 (a total of 32 episodes), and even though it did extremely well against its competition (Sing Along With Mitch on NBC, Route 66 on CBS) the network tossed it onto the scrapheap…then had a change of heart and tried to put it back on but by that time everyone on the series had moved on to other projects.  The show was seen in syndication briefly afterward, but is pretty much forgotten today save for a few diehard fans.  TV Time Machine and Lightyear Entertainment obtained the rights to the fine-grain 35mm masters of all the show’s episodes a while back and had originally planned to release a “Best of” collection; then wiser folk intervened and decided to go whole hog with the entire enchilada (don’t let anybody doubt that I can’t mix a metaphor with the best of them). 

The company’s commitment to release the entire series rather than the original “greatest hits” idea is the main reason why I’m not bitching about the split-season thing (though if you listen closely, the sound of teeth grinding you hear are probably mine); I’ve amassed a small collection of the shows (courtesy of your friendly neighborhood bootlegger) and think the show is falling-down funny…though your mileage may vary, of course.  Dickens/Fenster has always reminded me of Car 54, Where are You? (probably because of Stern’s Bilko connection) so I’m sure the show will leave at least one person stone-faced…but the program featured some first-rate physical comedy and funny one-liners—and it got the seal of approval from the legendary Stan Laurel, which is pretty heady praise as far as I’m concerned.  (If you’ve never seen an episode, the pilot for the series—“A Small Matter of Being Fired”—is available for viewing at the I’m Dickens…He’s Fenster website.)

I’m Dickens…He’s Fenster, Volume 1 is a 3-DVD collection containing the first sixteen episodes of the sitcom (newly remastered), and is chock full of extras including commentaries from Astin, Ingels, Stern (he worked on this project before his death in June), Ketchum and guest stars Lee “Catwoman” Meriwether and Yvonne “Batgirl” Craig.  (There are also interviews with some of the principals, and also directors like Arthur Hiller and Norman Abbott.)  A few featurettes about individual episodes are also on tap, including one for the show that I think is probably the funniest of the Dickens/Fenster outings, “The Joke.” 

Other goodies include commercial bumpers and network promos, and a collectible booklet.  This DVD-set will be sold in stores next April…but you can pre-order it ahead of the crowd (I just did, as a matter of fact…and I’m not proud of this, but it involved mugging a Girl Scout) and if you do so, you’ll receive a nifty bonus in the form of a collectible postcard autographed by one of the stars.  (I should point out here that Meriwether and Craig participated in this…and I think that’s stretching the “show’s stars” description a bit.)  Plus, everyone who orders the set will get an acknowledgement as a “co-architect” when Volume 2 is released, and a “members-only” website (kind of like a secret clubhouse) will be made available with videos, photos, scripts, etc.  This is a limited edition deal, so let’s line up single file and try to avoid any ugly pushing or shoving, shall we?

Another TV rarity soon to make its DVD debut…well, that’s actually a misnomer because the 1963-64 series Arrest and Trial—starring Ben “Run For Your Life” Gazzara and Chuck “Rifleman” Connors—has actually seen disc action before in the form of two previous releases (each containing nine episodes) from Timeless Media Group in October 2007 and March 2008.  But this November 22, Timeless will release all thirty episodes of the show that predated the celebrated Law & Order with a ten-disc collection that I must reluctantly admit makes me regret that I purchased Parts 1 and 2 in the first place (sort of like the Checkmate and Tales of Wells Fargo releases).  So I’ll probably wait on this one a while; incidentally, if you’re not all that familiar with the series you might be interested in reading what Stephen Bowie of The Classic TV History Blog has to say in this well-worth-your-time essay.

Timeless will also release Season 2 of TV’s The Gene Autry Show to DVD on that same November 22 date (the company offered up Gene’s freshman season this past summer) in a 4-DVD set containing 26 episodes.  They’ll also be fully restored (since the prints have been culled from Autry’s personal film and television archive) and the SRP ($24.98) on this would seem to suggest that if you shop around a little online you might be able to get it for less.

I’ve always been effusively supportive of Timeless and their releases because of their tireless efforts to pull rarities out of the vaults and make them available to the TV-curious (let’s face it; you’re not likely to see any of this material on cable anytime soon—though Encore Westerns did run The Gene Autry Show at one time, to their credit) but every now and then the company is entitled to a mulligan, even though I can’t endorse how they handled it.  Back in April of this year, Timeless released a 3-DVD set of the 1961 boob tube oater Whispering Smith, a western-detective show starring Audie Murphy that filmed twenty-six episodes between 1959 and 1960—twenty of which aired over NBC between May and September.  The set contained 25 of the 26 episodes—the missing installment, “The Interpreter,” could not be located in either NBC-Universal or UCLA’s archives.

A little more detective work turned up “Interpreter” in the Library of Congress’ vaults, and so later production runs of the DVD set included the missing episode, marked with a yellow sticker to indicate such.  But for the fans that purchased the set originally…well, I’ve related enough Fugitive stories here to the point where you don’t have to guess that they got the fuzzy end of the lollipop.  The door on this fox paw isn’t completely closed; Timeless hasn’t officially announced whether or not they’ll institute a disc replacement program…but they haven’t ruled out the possibility, either.  What they did do was put “Interpreter” up on their website for public viewing (don’t try to download it, though…it will not work) as sort of a half-hearted contrite measure…but until the company dopes out a way to make things right for those people who bought the earlier release of Whispering they’re going to have to use a little pancake for that black eye of theirs.

While I’m on the subject of The Fugitive, CBS Home Entertainment has announced a recall of the show’s Most Wanted Edition boxset (which was due out November 1) “because it was inadvertently manufactured with discs that have potential technical issues.”  CBS-Paramount did not elaborate further, only to say that they will issue a new release date once everything has been ironed out—but a commenter at Stephen’s blog hints that the company has once again screwed up with the music and that might be the reason for yanking the product off the shelves.  I wish I could express my disappointment with this development, but CBS-Paramount has dicked so many people over with this series that all I can express is a detached ennui.  In other “not-ready-for-store-shelves” news, the release of eOne Entertainment’s It Takes a Thief: The Complete Series set has been moved up to November 15th.

In the fall of 1979 what was at that time television’s longest-running crime drama, Hawaii Five-O, started its twelfth and final season on the air without the services of James MacArthur…who decided to hang it up and was subsequently awarded a medal of valor for having put up with star Jack Lord for eleven years.  The final season of Five-O is not held in particularly high esteem by the show’s fans—but it does feature the final showdown between Steve McGarrett (Lord) and his longtime nemesis Wo Fat (Khigh Dhiegh) in the series wrap-up, “Woe to Wo Fat.”  (I know many Five-O devotees don’t care for it, but the completist in me enjoyed it…especially since it left an “out” at the end.)  Anyway, the show’s final nineteen episodes will be available on a 5-disc set due out January 10th—the same day a honkin’ big collection entitled Hawaii Five-O: The Complete Original Series will also hit the streets and will not, according to TSoD’s David Lambert, “be a special release of the type we normally cover, but rather just a shrinkwrapped ‘brick’ of the existing season sets bundled together.” 

Inside the offices of CBS Home Entertainment:

FIRST EXECUTIVE: Sir, we’re on track for the Hawaii Five-O: The Complete Original Series release in January…those fans that haven’t yet picked up any of the sets will be able to do so in one fell swoop…
BOSS EXECUTIVE: I see…and what sort of extras will be offered?
BOSS EXECUTIVE: Extras, you idiot!  Bonus material!  What will motivate consumers to buy this collection a second time?!!
SECOND EXECUTIVE: Well, it would seem to me that if people have already purchased each set individually there’d be no reason for a second purchase…would there?
BOSS EXECUTIVE: That’s why you’re a mere second executive, and I’m the boss, Wilkins…how much money do you think the company is going to make if we don’t put something in this collection that wasn’t available previously?
SECOND EXECUTIVE: Gosh…I wasn’t thinking, sir…
BOSS EXECUTIVE: Well, it’s about time you started, you dunderhead…I want some ideas thrown out, and now!
INTERN: If I may offer a suggestion even though I’m not qualified to speak, sir…there’s a second season episode of the series that was removed from syndication after its initial airing and hasn’t been since…
BOSS EXECUTIVE: Go on, lowly office plebe…I’m listening…
INTERN: If this new set were to contain that “lost” episode, “Bored, She Hung Herself”—fans would line up around the block to shell out money one more time!
(The Boss Executive is quiet…but only for a moment.  He then begins to laugh in a diabolical fashion while stroking a white cat sleeping in his lap.  His laughter is soon joined by the intern and the other two executives, as a third sits at an organ and plays the fictional scene out.)

By the way, those weren’t human actors in the above sketch—those were actual weasels, made to look as if they were speaking with the use of clever CGI effects.  Give it up for them!

We’ll close our little production (since my chances of getting any freebies from CBS-Paramount are pretty well shot) with one last little TV-on-DVD nugget: Time-Life will follow up their June release of The Dean Martin Show: The Best of, Collector’s Edition with The Dean Martin Show: The King of Cool, Collector’s Edition.  It’s a six-DVD set priced at $59.95 SRP and will, according to TSoD’s Lambert, “contain as much material and music as Time Life is able to get clearances for.”  Loosely translated, that means that if you’re expecting to see the original telecasts of the popular 1965-74 comedy-variety hour…then you’re seriously boned.  (Many of the show’s fans who purchased the first set were disappointed, so I’m not entirely certain why Time-Life is going to the well a second time unless they’re pure dagnasty evil.)  That sort of thing does not serve “The King of Cool” well…and really, everybody knows Steve McQueen is the coolness monarch.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fabulous prizes!

Since the last time I gave away any free swag here on the blog was back in April, I figured it was high time that I grant the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful the opportunity to get in on a little literary largess courtesy of Christina Foxley and Crown/Random House.  Crown has just released Marc Eliot’s Steve McQueen: A Biography, a hardcover tome about the life of the actor, known for such films as The Sand Pebbles, The Reivers and The Getaway…and of course, the classic TV oater Wanted: Dead or Alive.

Steve McQueen remains one of America’s legendary movie stars.  Known for his anti-hero persona in now-classics such as The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Bullitt, McQueen was one of the top box-office draws of the 1960s and 70s.  His unforgettable physical beauty, his soft-spoken manner, his tough but tender roughness and his aching vulnerability had women swooning and men wanting to be like him. In 1974 he became the highest-paid movie star in the world. Although McQueen was combative with directors and producers, his popularity put him in high demand in Hollywood and enabled him to command exorbitant salaries. He was wild and rebellious and “the King of Cool.” Yet few know the truth of what bubbled beneath his cool exterior and shaped his career, his passions, and his private life. 

Now, in  STEVE McQUEEN: A Biography  (Crown Archetype; On Sale October 25, 2011; Hardcover), New York Times bestselling author, acclaimed biographer and film historian, Marc Eliot brilliantly captures the complexity of this Hollywood screen legend by examining the intertwining arcs of his complex life and his fascinating career in film. Filled with original material, rare photos, and new interviews with McQueen’s publicist and long time friend, David Foster, and McQueen’s manager, Hilly Ekins,  STEVE McQUEEN: A Biography breaks new boundaries in the understanding of the life and the work of Steve McQueen, providing a full portrait of the “King of Cool,” including:

• A complete reassessment of McQueen's films and early television work.

• McQueen’s tumultuous life both on and off the screen, from his hardscrabble childhood to his rise to Hollywood superstar status.

• McQueen’s struggles with alcohol and drugs, and his obsession with racing fast cars and motorcycles.

• His obsession with Paul Newman and how it shaped his career

• The intimate details of McQueen’s passionate yet failed marriages to Neile Adams and Ali MacGraw as well as his numerous affairs.

• McQueen’s eternal search for his real father and his uneasy relationship with his mother.

• Inside information behind his incredible yet often perplexing career that ranged from great films to embarrassing misfires.

With meticulous detail, Eliot redraws the landscape of McQueen's life from a filmmaker’s perspective, making this book at once a revisionist look at McQueen's life, as well as the world and business of making movies that McQueen toiled in up to  and until his untimely death at the age of 50.  STEVE McQUEEN is the first fully comprehensive biography of Steve McQueen.

Thanks to the generosity of Christina and the folks at Crown, I have two copies of this book to give away…and if you’re interested in entering for a chance to score a copy, simply shoot me an e-mail at igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com (with “Steve McQueen Giveaway” in the subject header) with your name and snail mail address, and you’ll be good to go.  Now, if you’re squeamish about my having access to this address before you’ve actually won anything (I would like to say that those stories of my selling people’s addresses to companies for DVD money has been completely blown out of proportion), you can certainly leave that out until you get confirmation—and the winners will be notified on the morning of November 3rd (next Thursday) when I pick two names via  This book would make a splendid gift for any classic movie fan on your Christmas list…or if they’ve been particularly naughty this year you can put it on your own shelf while they try to figure out who put all that coal in their stocking.  So be sure to enter today and keep an eye peeled for future free swag at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, where the winning tradition continues!

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Don’t stop the carnival

Above is one of my favorite “music videos” of all time—Harry Belafonte’s amazing rendition of Don’t Stop the Carnival as performed on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in September 1968.  It was a sequence that the show’s fans did not see until many years after its original airing because CBS objected to the content of the song (Belafonte cleverly mixes in a medley of his hits like Mama Look at Bubu and Jump in the Line while rewriting some of the song’s lyrics with overt political statements) and its visuals (footage of the chaos that went on during the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago), so they cut the piece and substituted a Q&A session with Tom and Dick (and Tom, clearly becoming more and more pissed off during the session, finally lets loose with an improvised editorial on censorship).  (Both of these pieces are available on the DVD set The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3, which I talked about here.)

I mention this because I watched the HBO documentary Sing Your Song over the weekend, an amazing film (directed by Susanne Rostock) that chronicles the career of Belafonte, an actor-singer who was also a political activist long before it became the celebrity vogue.  It’s part of a retrospective on Harry that also includes the publication of his memoir, My Song, and when I read about both projects at The Daily Beast two Sundays back my first thought was “Can I talk sister Kat into recording this for me so that I can see it…?”  As it turns out, I didn’t have to—Edward Copeland lent me a copy (he has an in with HBO Documentaries) and all I had to do in return was write about it at his blog, which you’ll find here.  The documentary runs an hour and 45 minutes but because it’s not nearly long enough to chronicle all of his achievements it looks as if I’m going to have to track down a copy of the book soon.

True story: When I was but a lowly CSR (Customer Service Representative) toiling at Ballbuster Blockbuster Video, we were required to put on a videotape about every two hours that contained promos and trailers for many of the movies on VHS in the store…and for some odd reason, whenever the Beetlejuice trailer came on we’d get down with our bad selves boogieing to Belafonte’s Jump in the Line, which is used so memorably in the film.  Ah, youth…

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

“Calling all stations…clear the air lanes…clear all air lanes for the big broadcast!”

For those of you fortunate to receive Me-TV in your households, one of TDOY’s favorite Halloween treats is going to be shown tonight on the channel at 10pm EDT: the 1948 horror comedy classic, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.  Faithful readers of the blog know that I unspool this movie every year on Halloween—I’m not sure when the tradition started, but it’s been going quite a while…even before the advent of DVDs (I had a VHS copy of the movie, and in fact it was one of the first pre-records I bought).

But I will probably watch it pre-October 31st because it’s going to be hosted by Svengoolie, Me-TV’s resident horror movie host.  Sven, the alter ego of Rich Koz, found a home on the channel not long ago but he’s also been a presence on Chicago’s WCIU and UToo—both entities owned by Chicago TV programming guru Neil Sabin.  Out of the Svengoolie garb, Koz also hosts Me-Too’s Stooge-a-Palooza, which presents five two-reelers featuring the knockabout clowns of comedy on a Saturday night program that Mike “Mr. Television” Doran calls “the best possible presentation of these that I have ever seen.”

Rich Koz as he normally looks.  (No, "Svengoolie" is not played by Bob Newhart.)
In fact, it was Mike who had asked me a while back what I thought of Svengoolie and I didn’t formulate an opinion at the time because I had only watched a couple of segments—but suffice it to say, he’s becoming a Saturday night tradition here at Castle Yesteryear preceded by reruns of Lost in Space at 8pm (“Oh, the pain…the pain…”) followed by Star Trek at 9.  I’m sometimes a little hesitant to see some of the movies shown on Svengoolie made sport of (the program features some of the classic and not-so-classic Universal horror films), however; it’s okay when they’re featuring some odious piece of fromage like The Mole People (1956) but last week they had a rare showing of Dracula (1931) and poking fun at that at times seems like cinematic blasphemy.  But then I remember that Mom and I often spend time watching that movie seeing who can do the best Bela Lugosi impression, so maybe I’m being a little hypocritical.

I think what I enjoy best about Svengoolie is that it’s nice to see the horror movie host tradition continue on at a time when seeing a classic movie run on a local station these days would surely send vintage movie fans into severe shock.  Back in the day, as the kids say nowadays, local affiliates would show horror movies (some great, some…not-so-great) and often featured station employees who would don monster garb to introduce the flicks…and sometimes doing comedy bits in between.  A list of these hosts would eat up indeterminate amounts of Internets bandwidth, but among the famous included Vampira, Zacherley, Ghoulardi, Sir Graves Ghastly—up to modern day characters like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and Commander USA (“Soarin’ superhero!  Legion of Decency…retired…”).

Pittsburgh's legendary Bill Cardille...who stopped being "Chilly Billy" in 1983.  (A shame, because I didn't move to Morgantown, which was in Channel 11's viewing area, until 1992.)
Growing up in the Mountain State and becoming a regular viewer of Chiller Theater on Saturday nights (on WHTN, which then became WOWK-TV) I didn’t get any exposure to horror movie hosts because WOWK didn’t have one.  Before WOWK started showing horror movies, the films had been a mainstay at rival WSAZ, which began its horror movie presentation franchise in 1959 with a program called Shockwatch, hosted by “Gaylord” (the alter ego of WSAZ news announcer Fred Briggs).  Briggs left WSAZ less than two years later (and took Gaylord with him) and eventually wound up at Atlanta’s WSB (he later became an NBC news correspondent, winning an Emmy in 1969 for his reporting).  Gaylord, on the other hand, turned up at Baltimore’s WBFF in the 1970s on a show produced by George Lewis, who went on to produce the popular Ghost Host show in that area.

Since Gaylord was before my time, the only horror movie host in the Mountain State that remains in my memory is Fat Drac, “the King of Corpuscular Corpulence”—who was the host of WVAH-TV’s Friday Night Dead.  (A show I caught quite often in the early 80s while I was matriculating at Marshall UniversityDead was where I saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time, btw.)  “Drac” was played by veteran Charleston, WV radio personality Al Sahley, and was also known as “the biggest name in Mountain State monsters.”

I get nostalgic for the old days when I watched cheesy horror flicks on late night Fridays and Saturdays, their awfulness tempered by the wisecracking of the hosts…so it’s nice to see Svengoolie still going strong.  Sven has been a Chicagoland tradition since the 1970s, when he was the host of WFLD’s Screaming Yellow Theater and played by Jerry G. Bishop.  One of Bishop’s colleagues and a writer for the Svengoolie program was Rich Koz, who became “Son of Svengoolie” in 1979 on WFLD (the original Svengoolie closed up shop in 1973) and continued to host horror movies until 1986, when the new owners of the station (Rupert Murdoch and the evil empire known as Fox) handed him his pink slip.  Koz resurrected the character for WCIU in 1994, and Bishop allowed him to drop the “Son of” since he “believed he was grown up enough now to no longer be just the Son.”

So again…if you’re getting Me-TV in your neck of the woods, tune in tonight for a true TDOY favorite:

CHICK: I know there’s no such person as Dracula…you know there’s no such person as Dracula…
WILBUR: But does Dracula know it?

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

“Are you ready for Dr. Phibes? Hmm…???”

Professor Dennis Cozzalio, the distinguished online educator at SLIFR University, has collaborated with the noted musicology professor Anton Phibes on a horror movie quiz that I approached with trepidation; I like horror films but I can’t even come close to the level of proficiency exhibited by Dr. Cozzalio.  If you’re interested in taking this brain buster, you’ll find it at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule—as for myself, I can only hope to do a little apple polishing with my worthlessly feeble Blue Book answers:

1) Favorite Vincent Price/American International Pictures release.

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

2) What horror classic (or non-classic) that has not yet been remade would you like to see upgraded for modern audiences?

I think my position on remakes of classic movies is pretty well-known the length and longth of the Internets.  So I’ll saunter on to question 3…

3) Jonathan Frid or Thayer David?

When I think of Frid, all I can come up with is Barnabas Collins.  With David, I remember him not only on Dark Shadows but also as Nero Wolfe (he was great) and stand-out parts in films like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Little Big Man and House Calls.  Advantage Thayer.

4) Name the one horror movie you need to see that has so far eluded you.

The one that immediately comes to mind is Let the Right One In (2008).

5) Favorite film director most closely associated with the horror genre.

James Whale.

6) Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele?


7) Favorite 50’s sci-fi/horror creature.

The Creature from that black lagoon.

8) Favorite/best sequel to an established horror classic.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is the best sequel to an established horror classic; I’m also partial to Dracula’s Daughter (1936).

9) Name a sequel in a horror series which clearly signaled that the once-vital franchise had run out of gas.

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

10) John Carradine or Lon Chaney Jr.?

Carradine.  He had more range than Lon (though I love the big guy, don’t get me wrong) and if he had played Count Alucard in Son of Dracula the movie would be held in far more reverence today.

11) What was the last horror movie you saw in a theater? On DVD or Blu-ray?

The last horror movie I watched physically in a theater was Scream (1996).  On DVD, it’s Drag Me to Hell (2009) (recorded it on DVD-R).

12) Best foreign-language fiend/monster.

The only one I can think of is Godzilla, so I’ll go with that.

13) Favorite Mario Bava movie.

La maschera del demonio aka Black Sunday (1960).

14) Favorite horror actor and actress.

Horror actor is Boris Karloff, without question.  Actress…well, I’ll go with Barbara Steele.

15) Name a great horror director’s least effective movie.

Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend (1986).

16) Grayson Hall or Joan Bennett?

Joan.  Not even close.

17) When did you realize that you were a fan of the horror genre? And if you’re not, when did you realize you weren’t?

When I was but a young tad, I’d live for the Saturday nights when my parents went out for the evening and I could stay up to watch Chiller Theater on WOWK-TV.  I guess that’s as good an education as any.

18) Favorite Bert I. Gordon (B.I.G.) movie.

The Amazing Colossal Man (1957).

19) Name an obscure horror favorite that you wish more people knew about.

Haunts (1977) is a particular favorite, a moody little oddity featuring a great performance by May Britt.

20) The Human Centipede-- yes or no?

I haven’t seen it…and after looking it up on Wikipedia I’m going to have to say “Pasadena.”

21) And while we’re in the neighborhood, is there a horror film you can think of that you felt “went too far”?

Since I’m not a splatter movie fan, I have to admit nearly losing my lunch when I watched Peter Jackson’s Deadalive (aka Brain Dead).

22) Name a film that is technically outside the horror genre that you might still feel comfortable describing as a horror film.

The first one that immediately comes to mind is The Woodsman (2004).

23) Lara Parker or Kathryn Leigh Scott?

Lara.  (Gotta love the bad girls.)

24) If you’re a horror fan, at some point in your past your dad, grandmother, teacher or some other disgusted figure of authority probably wagged her/his finger at you and said, “Why do you insist on reading/watching all this morbid monster/horror junk?” How did you reply? And if that reply fell short somehow, how would you have liked to have replied?

I can’t ever recall any authority figure ever expressing that sentiment to me in those terms.  My parents were pretty cool about horror movies, even though they weren’t their particular cup of Orange Pekoe; my Mom doesn’t care for the modern or splatter stuff but she grooves on the old Universal output: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, etc.  If my Dad ever broaches the subject I’ll simply ask how a man who can sit glued to Operation Repo for hours on end can judge me.

25) Name the critic or Web site you most enjoy reading on the subject of the horror genre.

Never let it be said that I can’t suck up with the best of them.  The answer would be Dennis Cozzalio.

26) Most frightening image you’ve ever taken away from a horror movie.

That alien head from John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing.  I still have nightmares about that.

27) Your favorite memory associated with watching a horror movie.

I took my high school chum The Duchess to see Halloween II when we were in college and it was playing in theaters.  On the way home, she was wringing her hands in fear because she found the film so scary and I was only half-listening to her, fingering the change in my pocket.  I heard a coin drop, and when I bent over to pick it up off the sidewalk, four of my friends from the dorm jumped out from behind a building and scared every bodily fluid out of her that was possible.  I looked up to see a cloud of dust zooming up the street, just like a Road Runner cartoon.

28) What would you say is the most important/significant horror movie of the past 20 years (1992-2012)? Why?

Well, from a personal perspective—even though the last horror film I saw in a theater was Scream, I didn’t find it all that scary…and I think its reputation is inflated and far too jokey.  The last horror flick that I saw in a theater setting that really did a number on me as far as creeping me out was Candyman (1992).  So that’s the one I would pick, and it’s obvious that my expertise on this question is scanty at best.

29) Favorite Dr. Phibes curse (from either film).

The guy who crashes his plane while being attacked by rats…though to be honest, I would have bailed out of that mutha faster than you can sing “Ben.”

30) You are programming an all-night Halloween horror-thon for your favorite old movie palace. What five movies make up your schedule?

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is a yearly tradition here at Cinema Yesteryear, so that makes the list right off the bat.  I also like Night of the Demon (1958), a movie I often describe as “the best film Val Lewton never made.”  Next on the list would be The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), a film I’ve always championed because it’s not nearly as bad as its reputation (or title) would indicate, and I’d probably follow that with Night of the Living Dead (1968), a movie that I still find unsettling (I love both Massacre and Living Dead because their low budgets make the horror that much more convincing).  Naturally, the festivities would come to a close with—what else?—Halloween (1978).

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Passing the hat around (again)

Before I mention a few upcoming classic TV-on-DVD releases that have been announced within the last week or so, I wanted to take just a couple of seconds to hit the TDOY faithful up for a little scratch as part of Sam Nelson’s project at to raise the necessary funds for restoration of his grandparents’ landmark TV sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.  The series, a boob tube adaptation of their popular radio series (which began in 1944), was the longest running live-action sitcom in American TV history, an audience favorite from 1952 to 1966 and churning out a staggering 435 episodes…quite a few adventures there, to be sure.  Sam, the son of Ricky Nelson, has access to the negatives of these shows and would love to transfer and digitize all of them in order to make the entire run of the series available to the fans.  The price tag on this project is $55,000, which he hopes to raise (or come as close as he can) by November 3—and the great thing about Kickstarter is even if you just happen to have some change lying on top of a dresser somewhere that’s more than enough to donate to the cause.

Sam was nice enough to send me an e-mail message thanking me for mentioning the project here at TDOY and as of this writing there’s $22,130 in the Nelsons’ kitty...with a little more than two weeks left to obtain a little more fundage, so anything you can do would be most appreciated.  If I could, I’d hand out a tote bag to everyone who throws some money in the pot…just let me say that if you’ve already parted with some wherewithal or are planning to do so, I personally offer you a hearty handclasp:

I’ve got a couple of updates on a pair of TV-on-DVD sets that I mentioned the last time I did one of these round-ups; reports that MPI Home Video’s upcoming December 20 release of The Donna Reed Show: Season 4 (The Lost Episodes!) will contain all 39 episodes from the sitcom’s fourth year…and that those outings will be unedited and digitally remastered, so…yay Stone family!  These episodes will also include the hit records recorded by stars Shelley Fabares (Johnny Angel)…

…and Paul Peterson (She Can’t Find Her Keys)…

…plus a guest hit from James Darren, Goodbye Cruel World.

The other update involves the January 24th release of Underdog: The Complete Collector’s Edition—which (and this will no doubt come as reassuring news to the “Vinnie” half of TeamBart) will be as close as an approximation to the original Underdog series (Shout! Factory will not be using the syndicated masters, which contained some replacement music) including the Go-Go Gophers, Klondike Kat and The World of Commander McBragg segments included with the canine superhero.  (As for Tennessee and Chumley—their segments may have been showcased on the Underdog series at one time, but they weren’t technically part of the original show because they had their own showcase, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, which premiered about a year before Underdog.)  Great news to hear that the Factory is going to put some special care into this set, even though the individuals who invested in the original releases have cause for a redress of grievances.

In the Underdog update, TSOD’s David Lambert calls Shout! Factory “the kings of TV-DVD nostalgia”…and with this blurb reveals that the Factory has picked up the rights to several TV series that were victims of “one-and-done” at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.  The second and final season of Here Come the Brides is scheduled to be released sometime in 2012 (its first season hit the streets in 2006), not to mention second seasons on tap for S.W.A.T. (first released in 2003), Police Woman (2006) and The Rookies (2007).  Once again, kudos to SF for stepping up to the plate though I’m not quite ready to coronate them as TV-on-DVD monarchs—when the third season of the ClassicBecky-despised The Flying Nun gets a release, then we’ll talk.

Besides, there’s a contender for the throne in Timeless Home Video, who’s announced a couple of rarities straight from the NBC-Universal vaults that are headed for DVD.  Bing Crosby may have asked if we’d like to swing on a star in the 1944 Oscar winner Going My Way, but it was actor-singer-hoofer (and Pam favorite) Gene Kelly who played the part of Father O’Malley on a short-lived comedy-drama on ABC-TV during the 1962-63 season.  Before he was telling Robert Vaughn and David McCallum to “open channel D” Leo G. Carroll was Father Fitzgibbon (the role played in the film by Academy Award-winner Barry Fitzgerald) in this series and Dick York essayed the role of O’Malley’s boyhood chum (and now youth center supervisor) Tom Colwell.  All thirty episodes of this series will be released in an 8-DVD set on December 6th with a SRP of $49.98.

For their other television rarity release, Timeless will reintroduce a classic oater that ran on NBC from 1960-62 and starred veteran rat bastard Barry Sullivan as sheriff Pat Garrett plus future Virginian co-star Clu Gulager as William H. Bonney…better known as “Billy the Kid.”  The Tall Man (the title of the show refers to Garrett) has already seen DVD action before (Timeless released a “best of” collection in 2007) but this 8-DVD set also due out December 6 is the full enchilada; all 75 episodes in a set that has also a SRP of $49.98.  I’ve only seen one episode of this series (the first season outing “Bad Company” is available on Timeless’ Classic TV Westerns Collection set) but I remember being entertained by it, and since I am a sucker for relatively obscure TV series I might have to find a way to pick this one up when it comes out.

Another NBC-Universal property that will see a DVD release soon (though not through Timeless; Universal Home Entertainment will do the heavy lifting on this one) is Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  It’s been over two years since we last saw a DVD collection of the this show (the fourth season came out in 2009) so it’s nice that the company will release the fifth season of the anthology classic on January 3rd.  Thirty-eight episodes will be made available on a 5-DVD set that will retail for $39.98…another collection I will have to make an investment in.

And for you soap opera fans in the TDOY audience, you might want to keep an eye peeled for an unusual collection that’s slated for release…as a matter of fact, you can put your order in right now.  In conjunction with Procter & Gamble (though the set is produced by Broadway Video), a 4-DVD set entitled As the World Turns – 20 Classic Episodes may be purchased at for the direct-sale web tariff of $19.95 (plus shipping and tax).  Kind of a novel way to allow ATWT fans a chance to collect some shows from the long-running daytime weepie, particularly since season-by-season sets would be a nightmare (the series was on TV for fifty-four years…and if CBS-Paramount were handling something like this, with their propensity for split-season sets you’d see the last of them released just about time the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse came galloping into view)…but I can’t help but wonder whatever happened to Shout! Factory’s intention to release Peyton Place in its entirety on DVD (I bought the first two sets; you can’t say I didn’t do my part), a project of equally epic proportions.

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And the CiMBA goes to…

The Classic Movie Blog Association, an august body (they wanted December, but didn’t get the paperwork in on time) of bloggers who share a passion for writing about the vintage stuff, announced the winners of this year’s (2011) CiMBA Awards yesterday at a star-studded affair that was particularly notable for their running out of shrimp puffs far too early.  Okay, I am kidding about that—but I’m definitely not joking when I rap the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear podium for attention in order to applaud those blogs who took home the coveted leonine trophies.

Due to numerous online and offline projects that I was keeping in the air like spinning plates around the time of the nominations, I opted out of submitting anything from TDOY but because True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film copped top honors for Best Classic Movie Blog Event with The Loving Lucy Blogathon I like to think I can share a teensy piece of the glory because I was a participant in that ‘thon.  (Brandie has informed me that this has afforded me the privilege of polishing the statuette on every other Thursday…and that I must supply my own chamois.)  The women of True Classics were multiple CiMBA winners in that they were also recognized in the Best Profile of a Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker category with their post on Celebrating Women in Film: The Silent Directors, so congrats to them on that as well.  Other winners include TDOY pal ClassicBecky (who this year avoided another “wardrobe malfunction” incident that gave the 2010 ceremony a black eye) with recognition for Best Classic Movie Article (Mobsters,Pals and Skirts – The Golden Age Of Gangster Movies – 1930-1949 [The Complete Series]), The Lady Eve (positively the same dame!) with Best Dramatic Film Review honors (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) and the irrepressible Page at My Love of Old Hollywood winning the Best Musical/Comedy Film Review trophy (The Women [1939]).

Rounding out the winners were a Barbra Streisand-Katharine Hepburn tie (or Wallace Berry-Fredric March, if you prefer) in the Best Classic Movie Discussion category between Backlots (The Final Scene of "The Heiress") and the Classic Film and TV Café (3 on 3 Panel Discussions: Disney's Animated Films, Gangster Films, Film Noir, and Hammer Films)…and last (but certainly not least) Clara of Via Margutta 51’s win for Best Classic Movie Blog Design.  Kudos and victory laps all around to the winners!

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Project Keaton: “How about a little dinner and a show?”

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to Project Keaton—a tribute to the man I truly believe was the greatest motion picture comedian in the history of cinema.  The project was instituted at The Kitty Packard Pictorial in recognition of Buster’s 118th birthday on October 4th, a new Kino DVD release of his classic silent two-reel comedies and being chosen as Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month for October.

By the end of the 1930s, the form of motion picture entertainment known as the two-reel comedy was pretty much on life support.  Granted, R-K-O was still making shorts, with the likes of Edgar Kennedy and Leon Errol, and both Warner Bros. and M-G-M dabbled in short subjects though they preferred the one-reel variety (M-G-M with the Our Gang, Pete Smith and Robert Benchley comedies).  But the studio that had established itself as the heir to the kind of two-reel entertainment made famous by such comedy producers as Mack Sennett and Hal Roach was Columbia, which under the supervision of department head Jules White continued the slapstick comedy tradition with such stars as Andy Clyde and the Three Stooges.

White hired many of the creative minds behind those classic comedies of the 20s and 30s to work at Columbia; for example, he found one of Mack Sennett’s best directors, Del Lord, languishing in retirement as a car salesman…and hired him on the spot (Lord, considered by Mack to be one of “the masters,” would later work magic with many of the Columbia funsters).  Other veteran directors hired by White included Arthur Ripley and Harry Edwards, while the writing pool was made up of talents like Clyde Bruckman, Felix Adler and Al Geibler.  Jules was also able to poach comedians from other studios, most notably the Stooges (who had split with Ted Healy and were no longer working at M-G-M) and Clyde (who had once been Sennett’s biggest star for a period of time).  He signed former silent comedy great Harry Langdon to a Columbia contract in 1934, and obtained the services of Charley Chase in 1937 after Chase was let go by Hal Roach. 

White’s hiring of Clyde Bruckman (who had once worked for the likes of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields, to name just a few) would actually lead to his landing Keaton to work on the Columbia lot; Bruckman approached Jules one day and told him that Buster wasn’t working but that it would be possible to get him for something not costing an arm and a leg.  The three men met in White’s office and not long after that, Keaton was on the Columbia payroll.  Buster, whose stock in the industry had plummeted since his silent movie classics (due to personal and professional troubles that led to a nasty bout with alcoholism), had headlined a number of two-reel comedies for Educational Pictures between 1934 and 1937 but his short stint at Columbia (in which he made ten comedies from 1939-41) would be the last time he starred in any series for a motion picture studio.

Ted Okuda and Ed Watz, the authors of the invaluable reference book The Columbia Comedy Shorts, acknowledge that “Buster Keaton was undoubtedly the greatest comedy talent to work for Columbia” but are also careful to point out that the “shorts are the worst comedies he ever appeared in.”  I flatly refuse to agree with this assessment, and I’ll be more than happy to tell you why.  I’ll concede that Buster’s Columbia output can’t even begin to compare with—and in fact, probably shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as—his classic silent comedies.  But when I was in my formative years as a young couch potato, a TV station in Charleston, WV showcased a package of the Columbia shorts (titled The Hilarious Hundred—which was a bit of a misnomer in that there were two hundred shorts in the package) along with the popular comedies featuring the Stooges, and that was my first exposure to Buster Keaton.

The most vivid memory I retained from my childhood was seeing Buster dressed up in bizarre costumes running back and forth to a boat, and when he would try to run off the boat he ended up in the drink, with two men dressed as sailors attempting to fish him out.  It wasn’t until the 1980s when I purchased a number of the Columbia comedies on VHS from a dealer in Tennessee that it all came flooding back to me…and that what I was remembering was Buster’s first effort for the studio, Pest from the West (1939).  It’s considered by most Keaton fans to be the best two-reeler he made at Columbia; a funny outing in which he attempts to woo a Mexican senorita (Lorna Grey, aka Adrian Booth) despite risking the wrath of her jealous employer (Gino Corrado).  The falling-in-the-water gag was a recurring bit in the short where Buster’s millionaire intends to pay for some cigarettes he’s purchased from Lorna but, forgetting his wallet, keeps rushing back to get the money…and when the two men (Ned Glass, Eddie Laughton) in his employ see him tearing back to the boat they assume he’s on the run from a jealous husband and make every effort to set sail…resulting in a thorough soaking of the hapless Keaton.

Pest from the West is a condensed version of a feature film Keaton made in 1935, The Invader (aka An Old Spanish Custom), and the highlight of Pest is a sequence in which Buster attempts to serenade lady love Lorna by singing In a Little Spanish Town and playing the ukulele as accompaniment.  Alas, our hero is under the wrong window—and above is a cranky Bud Jamison who objects to Keaton’s repeated interrupting of his siesta with his musical interlude…so he periodically pelts Buster with pieces of fruit and crockery, adding comic  punctuation to certain moments in his rendition.  The scene never fails to break me up, and Pest is one of my favorite outings of the comedian; he has this line in the short that he delivers to Grey in that wonderful baritone croak of his (“That’s darn nice of ya…”) that I use to this very day.

Pest, which could be considered the “pilot” for Keaton’s series at Columbia, had a bit more budget and polish than the usual two-reeler from the studio…unfortunately, the remaining nine shorts that followed can’t quite match it for laughs and/or inventiveness.  Though both Keaton and Columbia comedy department head Jules White were members in good standing in the Church of Physical Comedy, the two men diverged wildly in their devotion to the slapstick arts.  White hailed from the “rock ‘em, sock ‘em” school of slapstick; his comedies have an uncomfortable violent streak that on occasion tends to mar one’s enjoyment of potentially funny films.  Keaton’s style of physical comedy was much more nuanced and cerebral…and did not mesh well at all with White’s roughhouse approach, which was far more suited to the studio’s bread-and-butterers, the Three Stooges.  (White’s philosophy of comedy direction was simply “make those pictures move so fast that even if the gags didn’t work, the audiences wouldn’t get bored.”  Keaton believed that the most important thing was structuring the comedy so the audience wouldn’t be restless regardless of the film’s pace.)

The key to enjoying Buster’s Columbia work is finding those moments (described by one film critic as “a whisper”) where there is but the briefest glimpse of some of the master’s old magic.  There are other watchable shorts in Keaton’s Columbia canon, don’t get me wrong—I think Pardon My Berth Marks (1940) is a lot of fun; an entertaining outing in which Buster plays cub reporter by trying to get the goods on a notorious gangster (Richard Fiske) but winds up wreaking havoc on a moving train bound for Reno with the gangster’s wife (Dorothy Appleby).  (As entertaining as Berth Marks is, it worked even better when the studio remade it in 1947 as a vehicle for announcer Harry Von Zell, Rolling Down to Reno.)  Some of Berth Marks’ early sequences involving Buster and irascible editor Vernon Dent are very funny, and there are also some first-rate gags on the train as well.

Nothing But Pleasure (1940) is another good Keaton offering; Buster and Dorothy (she’s his wife in this one) are driving their new car back from Detroit and encounter a misadventure or two along the way.  Writer Bruckman revamped a well-known sequence from W.C. Fields’ Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) in a funny bit involving Buster and a traffic cop (Bud Jamison again), and there are echoes of Keaton’s Spite Marriage (1929) in another scene where Buster has his hands full dealing with a woman (Beatrice Blinn) who’s invaded his cabin and is completely spiffed.  She’s Oil Mine (1941), the last of the Keaton Columbias, delightfully reworks Keaton’s M-G-M feature The Passionate Plumber (1932) but contains some newly inventive gags (the sequence in Buster and partner Monty Collins’ workshop is hysterical) and highlights a routine that Keaton later used in his extensive touring of circuses in the 1940s, “A Duel to the Death.”

General Nuisance (1941), the penultimate Keaton Columbia comedy, features one of the most entertaining sequences in any of the studio’s two-reelers in which Buster (whose character's name, "Peter Hedley Lamar, Jr.," may have inspired Mel Brooks to borrow part of it for his Blazing Saddles villain) and “leading lady” Elsie Ames do a wonderful musical slapstick duet (anytime you see a musical number in a Columbia comedy it’s cause for celebration).  Ames, a talented acrobat whose acting talent was miniscule (not to mention obnoxious) at best, was featured in about half of Keaton’s two-reelers beginning with 1940’s The Taming of the Snood—an abysmal comedy rescued by a routine in which the two of them perform some breathtaking antics on a table that harkens back to the act Buster did in vaudeville with his mother and father.  The nadir of Buster’s Columbia comedies is considered by many to be The Spook Speaks (1940) (though to be honest, I dislike His Ex Marks the Spot [1940] even more), simply because “scare comedy” simply wasn’t Buster’s forte—and yet oddly on its initial release, audiences were quite taken with Speaks…according to film historian Ed Watz.

She’s Oil Mine also scored a hit with movie audiences, and White wanted to sign Buster to an extended contract at the studio but he vowed “not to make another crummy two-reeler” and he was good as his word.  But as I previously mentioned, I grew up watching those “crummy” two-reelers and immediately became a big fan of the Great Stone Face.  I didn’t get to see Keaton’s classic silent two-reelers and features until the 1990s (save for The General [1926], which I saw on public TV in 1975)…so if watching what so many consider the worst films of his career spurred me on to seek out his more critically-lauded work—how bad could the comedies be?  (And it wasn’t just Keaton; I developed an affinity for Harry Langdon and Charley Chase through their Columbia shorts, too.)

Keaton fans can judge for themselves because in March 2006 Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released all ten of Buster’s Columbia two-reel comedies in a “65th Anniversary” DVD collection—the first time the company ever issued any of their classic short comedies in anything other than DVD paeans to the Three Stooges.  The shorts are accompanied by commentaries from historians Watz, David Weedle and Patricia Tobias (in tandem with her hubby, Joe Adamson), plus there’s an interesting featurette (Buster Keaton: From Silents to Shorts) and a reproduction of the script for She’s Oil Mine.  According to the grapevine, the sales of the set impressed many of the PTB at Sony and until the economy went into a tailspin there were plans to release a set of Charley Chase’s Columbia two-reelers (boo economy!).

In The Columbia Comedy Shorts, Watz and his collaborator Ted Okuda observe: “While these shorts invariably disappoint, they’re important as Keaton’s final starring series for any movie studio.  Like his later television work and Beach Party epics, these films are worth a look only because he’s in them.”  I’m probably a little sloppier with sentiment than Ed and Ted; these ten two-reelers allowed a young boy from the hills of West Virginia to see the comedic brilliance that was Buster Keaton…and because of them, they will always occupy a special place in my heart.

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