Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The 60th Anniversary of The Untouchables

For a time The Untouchables was one of the more popular TV shows of its era. It was also one of the most controversial, facing outcry from both moral watchdogs and Italian American groups, among others. Regardless, it would spawn several imitators and would have a lasting impact on television that is still felt even now. It debuted sixty years ago today.

The Untouchables was very loosely on a group of special agents of the United States Bureau of Prohibition, led by Eliot Ness. It was not long after he had taken office that President Herbert Hoover came up with the idea of using small teams of Prohibition agents to tackle large bootlegging operations. With Al Capone and the Chicago Outfit having built an empire based upon bootlegging, it was then in late 1930 that Attorney General William D. Mitchell decided to implement President Hoover's plan. United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois George Q. Johnson, then investigating Capone, selected Eliot Ness to head the new team in Chicago. Special consideration was taken in choosing agents who would not be corruptible. In fact, the agents were so resistant to Capone's attempts to bribe or threaten them that Chicago Daily News journalist Charles Schwartz called them "untouchables." While Al Capone would never be prosecuted for violating the Volstead Act (the act that enforced Prohibition in the United States), he would be convicted of income tax evasion. The Untouchables were disbanded by 1932.

It was in 1956 that Oscar Fraley, a reporter for UPI, met Eliot Ness.  Messrs. Fraley and Ness co-wrote a memoir on Mr. Ness and the Untouchables' efforts to bring down Al Capone. Titled The Untouchables and published after Eliot Ness's death, the book proved to be a bestseller. By 1957 Eliot Ness and the Untouchables had mostly been forgotten, but the book catapulted both Mr. Ness and his team to fame again.

The success of the book The Untouchables would not be lost on Desilu Productions, the television production company responsible for such shows as I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, and December Bride. It was in early 1958 that Desi Arnaz, who co-starred with his wife Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy and was the head of Desilu, persuaded CBS to buy a new anthology series from the studio. As part of the deal, the hour-long specials starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, which had aired since 1957, would air on the new anthology series alongside various dramas. Westinghouse Electric Corporation came on board as the new show's sponsor, paying a record setting $12 million to do so. The new show, titled Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, debuted on CBS on October 6 1958.

Although it only ran for two years, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse would prove to have a lasting impact on television. On November 24 1958 Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse aired "The Time Element," a science fiction teleplay by Rod Serling. It was the success of "The Time Element" that would lead to Rod Serling's now legendary TV series The Twilight Zone. It was on April 20 1959 and April 27 1959 that Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse aired "The Untouchables," a two part adaptation of Oscar Fraley and Eliot Ness's book of the same name. The adaptation was written by Paul Monash, who had written for shows from Suspense to Studio One.

The two-part episode proved very successful, so much so that Desilu decided to turn it into a regular TV series. At the time CBS had the right of first refusal with regards to Desilu's shows, so Desilu approached the Tiffany Network with an offer of The Untouchables first. Unfortunately for Desliu, CBS rejected the series. While CBS turned Desilu's offer of The Untouchables down, then perpetually third ranked ABC jumped at the chance to air the new show.

Of course, The Untouchables would depart a good deal from history. The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse episode "The Untouchables" had depicted not only the investigation of Al Capone, but his eventual conviction on tax evasion. It ended with him sentenced to prison. While the Untouchables continued to attack the Chicago Outfit's bootlegging operation following Al Capone's conviction, they did not do so for very long. The new series would then depict the Untouchables pursuing Capone's heir apparent, Frank Nitti, and other criminals after Capone was already in prison, a stark departure from history.

The Untouchables debuted on ABC on October 15 1959. While it did not rank in the top thirty shows for the season, The Untouchables proved popular nonetheless. The Untouchables even picked up two Emmy Awards for the 1959-1960 season: Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Series (Lead or Support) for Robert Stack and Outstanding Achievement in Film Editing for Television for editors Ben Ray and Robert L. Swanson. The Untouchables also won a Writers Guild of America award for Episodic TV show, Longer Than 30 Minutes in Length for the two part episode "The Unhired Assassin" by William Spier and was nominated for the Directors Guild of America's award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Television for Tay Garnett's work on the episode "The Jake Lingle Killing."

While The Untouchables was both popular and received some acclaim, it also had its share of detractors. To a large degree this is understandable. If The Untouchables was not the most violent broadcast network television show of all time, it would certainly be among the most violent. While the violence on The Untouchables was not graphic in the way that scenes from modern day police procedurals are today, the show probably featured more scenes of violence than any modern day broadcast network show ever has. On The Untouchables scenes in which several people are mown down by Tommy guns were par for the course. Here it must be pointed out that, despite this, the violence on The Untouchables was never gratuitous. The Untouchables was a realistic portrayal of Chicago in the early Thirties, a city where mob violence was hardly unknown.

While the violence on The Untouchables was not gratuitous, the fact there was a lot of it led moral watchdogs to attack the show. The October 22-28 1960 issue of TV Guide featured the article "Do You Like The Untouchables?" by psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, then as now best known for his 1954 attack on comic books Seduction of the Innocent. Newspaper columnist John Crosby referred to The Untouchables as "a national disgrace" and "the worst show ever shown on television." Given the level of violence on The Untouchables, it should come as no surprise that it became a prime target for the Senate Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee and its chairman, Senator Thomas J. Dodd (long a crusader against television violence) in their hearings held in 1961. Carl Perian, the chief counsel to Senator Dodd, said of The Untouchables, "We made films for each hearing. ABC complained that we took them out of context, so I said… ‘If they don’t want us showing excerpts, let’s show their own trailers.’ The next week, I ran 30 minutes of trailers for The Untouchables, and I swear to God, when it was over the room was shell-shocked. It was nothing but machine guns, bombings, and stabbings. We said, ‘All right, now what’s your complaint about showing excerpts?’”

Violence was not the only source of controversy for The Untouchables. The show as also attacked by Italian Americans, who believed that the show relied on negative Italian stereotypes. Historically many of the gangsters of the early Thirties were Italian in descent, including Vito Genovese, Lucky Luciano, Frank Nitti, and others. And The Untouchables did tackle gangsters from other ethnicities, including Bugs Moran, Dutch Schultz, and Legs Diamond. Unfortunately, The Untouchables would sometimes given Italian names even to fictional gangsters featured on the show, such as Joe Bucco in "The Noise of Death." Between historical gangsters who were Italian in descent and fictional gangsters with Italian names, The Untouchables presented a skewed view of Italian Americans.

Quite naturally, various Italian American groups took umbrage with this. The Order Sons of Italy called for a boycott of the sponsor shortly before the episode "The Noise of Death" was set to air. The president elect of the Italian American service organisation UNICO National remarked that the ethnic stereotyping on The Untouchables had gotten so bad that "people have started referring to The Untouchables as 'The Italian Hour.'" Among the groups upset by Italian American stereotyping on The Untouchables was the Federation of Italian-American Democratic Organizations, who picketed ABC. What is more, the Federation of Italian-American Democratic Organizations warned that unless The Untouchables stopped using Italian names for fictional gangsters, then longshoremen (many of who were Italian in descent) would refuse to handle Liggett & Myers tobacco products (Liggett & Myers was one of the sponsors of the show).  Ultimately ABC had to make a promise that unless a character was a historical Italian American gangster, no more Italian surnames would be used on the show. They also promised that Agent Enrico "Rico" Rossi of the Untouchables would be featured much more prominently on the series. While the tendency of The Untouchables to stereotype Italians was certainly regrettable, it was also not unusual for television in the late Fifties and early Sixties to stereotype various ethnic groups. Indeed, the Westerns of the era were filled with stereotypes of Native Americans and Mexicans.

Of course, one Italian American family had been unhappy even before The Untouchables debuted. After the two part episode "The Untouchables" aired on Westinghouse Desliu Playhouse, the estate of Al Capone sued Desilu Productions and Westinghouse Electric Corporation for appropriation of Capone's "name, likeness and personality" and a claim for invasion of privacy. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed as the courts rejected the plaintiff's claim of property rights over Capone's "name, likeness and personality" and rejected their claim that their right to privacy had been violated as, under Illinois law, the right to privacy dies with the individual.

As if The Untouchables did not already have enough detractors, among them was the Federal Bureau of Investigations, particularly its Director, J. Edgar Hoover. Throughout the show's run Hoover and the FBI were in nearly constant contact with Desilu concerning the inaccuracies on The Untouchables. J. Edgar Hoover was particularly upset by the show's second episode, "Ma Barker and Her Boys," which portrayed the Untouchables taking out Ma Barker and her sons. Historically this was done by FBI Agents. The producers of The Untouchables ultimately had to insert a disclaimer in reruns of the episode acknowledging the FBI's role in bringing down Ma Barker. The FBI had an entire file on the TV show The Untouchables composed mostly of newspaper clippings regarding the show.

Despite the many controversies surrounding The Untouchables, it would only become more popular in its second season. It climbed to no. 8 in the Nielsen for the 1960-1969 season. Unfortunately, The Untouchables would not maintain such ratings. For its third season ABC moved it a half hour later on Thursday night, from 9:30 PM Eastern/8:30 PM Central to 10:00 PM Eastern/9:00 PM Central. This had a deleterious effect on The Untouchables, which lost the time slot to Sing Along with Mitch (which ranked 15th for the season). For its fourth season ABC moved The Untouchables from Thursday night, when it had always aired, to 9:30 Eastern/8:30 Central on Tuesday night. There it aired against the high rated Jack Benny Program. Its ratings dropped further and it was cancelled the end of the season.

For the most part The Untouchables' cast remained stable for its entire run. The show turned Robert Stack, who played Eliot Ness, into a household name. Even though Eliot Ness would become Robert Stack's best known role, he was not Desi Arnaz's first choice for the part when the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse episode "The Untouchables" was being made. Originally Mr. Arnaz had wanted Van Johnson for the role, but he demanded too much money. Desi Arnaz then looked to other actors to play the role, including Fred MacMurray and Jack Lord, before finally casting Robert Stack.

Of course, Robert Stack would not be the only cast member to remain with The Untouchables for its entire run. Abel Fernandez as Native American agent Bill Youngfellow, Nicholas Georgiade as Italian American Agent Rico Rossi, and Steve London as Agent Jack Rossman were all with The Untouchables from the start of its run to its very end. Paul Picerni joined the show in its second run as Agent Lee Hobson and remained with it until it was cancelled. Several other actors portrayed various Untouchables in only the first season.

In addition to the various Prohibition Agents, The Untouchables also featured several actors in recurring roles. Most notable of these was Bruce Gordon as Frank Nitti, who was the head of the Chicago Outfit in Al Capone's absence. Frank Wilcox also appeared frequently as Federal District Attorney Beecher Asbury. Robert Brice appeared in several episodes as Captain Johnson of the Chicago Police Department. Throughout the show's run it was narrated by columnist Walter Winchell in terse, staccato fashion. He was reportedly paid $25,000 per episode for his narration.

Among the production staff of The Untouchables was Quinn Martin, who was its original executive producer. After having produced various anthology series, it was the first episodic television series he ever produced. Quinn Martin left The Untouchables in 1960 to form his own company, QM Productions. He would go onto produce such shows as The Fugitive, The F.B.I., The Invaders, The Streets of San Francisco, and Barnaby Jones. Among the other executive producers on the show were Alan A. Amer (who would serve as a producer on The Fugitive, Lancer, and Cannon), Jerry Thorpe (who would serve as a producer on Kung Fu and Harry O), and Leonard Freeman (who created and produced Hawaii Five-O).

Given its success, The Untouchables would give rise to imitators, some of which were produced by individuals who had been associated with the show. The first of these was The Roaring 20's, which debuted during the 1960-1961 season. Produced by Warner Bros. the show combined a similar period milieu to The Untouchables with the set-up of young protagonists and a beautiful woman from 77 Sunset Strip and its imitators. The young protagonists were newspaper reporters Scott Norris (played by Rex Reason) and Pat Garrison (played by Donald May), who investigated crime in 1920s New York City. The beautiful woman was Pinky Pinkham (played by Dorothy Provine), who sang at the Charleston Club. The other imitators of The Untouchables debuted in the 1961-1962 season, all of them set in the present day. Cain's Hundred centred on former mob lawyer Nicholas Cain (played by Peter Mark Richman), who teams up with the FBI after the Mob murders his fiancée. The show was created by Paul Monash, who had written the episode "The Untouchables" for Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse.

Target: The Corruptors! was the next imitator of The Untouchables to debut. The series was created by Lester Velie, who had written on everything from organised crime to the slums of New York City. Target! The Corruptors! centred on reporter Paul Marino (played by Stephen McNally) who, with his undercover investigator Jack Flood (played by Robert Harland), investigated crime and corruption. The final imitator of The Untouchables to debut was The New Breed, which was the first show produced by Quinn Martin's QM Productions. The show centred on Lieutenant Price Adams (played by Leslie Nielsen) of a special detail of the Los Angeles Police Department's Metro Squad.

None of the Untouchables imitators lasted beyond the end of the 1961-1962 season. Given the Senate Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee's hearings on television held in 1961, one might be tempted to believe that the show's cancellations were largely due to concerns over violence. That having been said, it seems more likely that they were simply cancelled due to low ratings. For instance, Cain's Hundred on NBC had the misfortune to air opposite the high rated Garry Moore Show on CBS. The New Breed on ABC was scheduled against the high rated Dobie Gillis and The Red Skelton Show on CBS. Against already established hits, the new shows did not have a chance. The following season The Untouchables would also fall victim to low ratings.

While The Untouchables left network television at the end of the 1962-1963 season, it would prove to be popular as a rerun in syndication. This would change as the Seventies progressed, as The Untouchables started being shown on fewer and fewer stations. The Seventies saw a bias arise in local television station managers against black and white programming, a bias which only a few extremely popular shows (such as I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, and The Dick Van Dyke Show) could overcome. The outcry over television violence that had begun in the Sixties also continued well into the Seventies. As an exceedingly violent show shot in black and white, The Untouchables looked less and less attractive to television station managers as the Seventies progressed.

While The Untouchables was seen on fewer television stations as the Seventies progressed, the impact of the show was still felt. While the 1987 feature film The Untouchables was based on Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley's book of the same name much as the television series was, it seems likely that the TV series not only paved the way for the feature film, but gave it name recognition it might not have otherwise had. In 1993 a new syndicated television series entitled The Untouchables debuted. This new show was based on both the original series that had run from 1959 to 1963 and the 1987 feature film. It would not see the success of the original series, lasting only two seasons.

Over the years The Untouchables would inspire yet other imitators on television, including The F.B.I., Hawaii Five-O, S.W.A.T., Most Wanted (which also starred Robert Stack), Strike Force (again starring Robert Stack), and Crime Story. Along with The Detectives (which also debuted in 1959), it was among the first television shows to portray a team devoted to fighting crime. Previous crime dramas had either centred on a single character (Rocky King Detective, M Squad) or a police officer and his partner (Dragnet, The Lineup, Naked City). Along with The Detectives, The Untouchables then paved the way for such shows featuring crime fighting teams as Ironside, Crime Story, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and NCIS.

Of course, even today The Untouchables has a complicated legacy.  In its first season The Untouchables relied a bit too much on the Italian gangster stereotype, to the point where it is perfectly understandable why Italian Americans at the time were upset. At the same time, however, The Untouchables featured one of the few Native American characters (Bill Youngfellow) of the time who was not a stereotype. While the violence that upset so many in the late Fifties and early Sixties is still intense by today's standards, as pointed out above, it is never gratuitous. Today The Untouchables stands as a particularly hard-edged, well-executed, if not particularly historically accurate crime drama.

While it would be seen on fewer television stations following the Seventies, The Untouchables has never entirely fallen out of popularity. It has been more recently rerun on such venues as MeTV. In 2009 CBS DVD released the first three seasons on DVD, followed by the fourth season in 2012. It was also in 2012 that they released a box set of the complete series. The Untouchables was controversial in its day and it seems likely that it will always remain one of the most violent broadcast network shows ever aired, but it seems likely it will always remain popular.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Xfinity's Folly or How to Make TCM Fans Very Angry

On those rare occasions that I might be inclined to complain about my cable provider, I remind myself that it could be much worse. This latest reminder has come courtesy of Xfinity (Comcast's cable television and internet subsidiary). The past few days fans of Turner Classic Movies have switched to their favourite channel only to see the following message on screen: "This requires a subscription. To watch this program, you'll need to subscribe to this channel... " It seems that Xfinity has moved TCM to their "Sports Entertainment Package," which will require TCM fans to pay more for the channel.

To say that Turner Classic Movie fans are not happy with Xfinity is an understatement. Every single TCM fan I know who is an Xfinity customer has complained. Some are unhappy with having to pay substantially more for their favourite channel. Others are unhappy with having to pay substantially more for their favourite channel while getting a bunch of sports channels that they will never watch. Not a one of them is happy about the change.

In their statement regarding why they moved TCM to their expensive "Sports Entertainment Package," Xfinity said, "Viewership of TCM is low, as over 90% of our customers watch less than two movies per month. Given this and contractual limitations on offering TCM a la carte, we decided to move TCM to the Sports Entertainment Package, which will help us manage programming costs that are passed on to our customers while continuing to make the channel available to those who want to watch it." To be quite frank (and quoting Col. Potter from M*A*S*H), I think this is a load of horse hockey.

First, I find Xfinity's claim that "over 90% of our customers watch less than two movies per month..." to be significant. I mean, they did not say "over 90% of our customers never watch TCM." It seems to me that if the average Xfinity viewer even watches one movie on TCM each month, then it may well be doing better than many cable channels. Indeed, according to Nielsen back in 2014, on average American homes receive 189.1 cable channels but only watch 17.5 of those channels. That means that there are a large number of viewers with cable channels that they never watch. I know this is true of myself. The vast majority of channels on my cable system's line-up I simply don't watch at all, not even one programme.

Second, I have to refute the idea that "viewership of TCM is low." Okay, I think every TCM fan realises that the channel does not have the viewership of such channels as AMC, TNT, or USA, but then that is true of the vast majority of cable channels. That it does have a good sized viewership is borne out by the fact that TCM is not simply a cable channel, but a brand. The TCM Shop sells a large number of TCM branded merchandise, from t-shirts to coffee mugs. One doesn't see that with the vast majority of cable channels. What is more, every year the TCM Classic Movie Festival has massive attendance. The Eighth Annual TCM Classic Film Festival had around 28,000 attendees. When one keeps in mind that most TCM fans don't get to attend the festival because of finances or work schedules, that gives him or her an idea of just how many viewers TCM may well have, not to mention how loyal TCM's viewers are to the brand.

Third, because of the above I have to think Xfinity moved TCM to the "Sports Entertainment Package" for reasons other than allegedly low viewership. To wit, I have to suspect that some of the channels Xfinity has on its Limited Basic and Economy Packages are far less popular than TCM. Indeed, some of the channels they have on those packages I have never even heard of.  While I cannot claim complete and total knowledge of every cable channel out there, I like to think I am fairly knowledgeable of such matters. If I haven't heard of a cable channel, I am thinking that it simply isn't very popular. Given that everyone, even people who never watch it, know about TCM, I would have to think it is very popular.

Ultimately, I think Comcast realised that TCM is very popular and that its fans are extremely loyal to the channel. To this end they concocted what is nothing more or less than a "money grab." That is, they are counting on TCM fans paying more for a package filled with sports channels that they will never watch simply to continue watching Turner Classic Movies. Here I have to state that I also think that they have made a drastic miscalculation in doing so.

Quite simply, every single one of my friends who are Xfinity customers are so unhappy that, instead of subscribing to that "Sports Entertainment Package," they are talking about switching cable providers entirely. What is more, I think Xfinity should have expected this. I seriously doubt there is any cable channel with fans more loyal than TCM fans. In fact, we are so loyal that the availability of TCM determines which cable providers we subscribe to and even which hotels in which we stay when travelling. When a cable provider does not have Turner Classic Movies or moves it to a package that makes it prohibitively expensive, we simply find another cable provider. It is not like there aren't multiple choices these days. Indeed, where I live we can choose from two cable providers, the two direct broadcast satellite service providers (DirecTV and Dish Network), and any number of streaming services. Keep in mind I live in a small town. Larger cities might well have even more choices. In the end, I think Xfinity is going to see TCM fans dropping their service for something else. And given just how many TCM fans are out there, they might well pay dearly for their hubris.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The People Against O'Hara (1951)

The early Fifties were a good time for Spencer Tracy. The late Forties saw Spencer Tracy in such hits as Adam's Rib (1949) and Father of the Bride (1950). The sequel to Father of the Bride, Father's Little Dividend (1951), also proved to be a hit. Pat and Mike (1952) proved to be a success as well. All of these films are well remembered today. Not so well remembered is the courtroom drama The People Against O'Hara (1951). While the film made a profit, today it not nearly as well remembered as Father of the Bride, Adam's Rib, or Pat and Mike. In some ways, this is a shame, as it features one of Spencer Tracy's best performances.

The People Against O'Hara centres on James Curtayne (played by Spencer Tracy), a retired lawyer. He comes out of retirement to defend a boy from his neighbourhood, Johnny O'Hara (James Arness), against a charge of murder. 

The People Against O'Hara was based on the novel of the same name by Eleazar Lipsky. MGM had purchased the film rights for $40,000, although ultimately it wound up costing the studio more money. Gustave B. Garfield, a New York attorney, alleged that Eleazer Lipsy had edited his story "Murder in Jest" and then used it as the basis for The People Against O'Hara. Mr. Garfield then sued both Eleazar Lipsky and MGM. The lawsuit was dropped when MGM bought "Murder in Jest" for $5000.

One of the more remarkable things about The People Against O'Hara is its casting. Spencer Tracy had known Pat O'Brien since childhood and the two were close friends. Despite this, the two had never appeared together in a film. As of the early Fifties, Pat O'Brien was having trouble finding roles. As a favour to his old friend, then, Spencer Tracy insisted that Mr. O'Brien be cast in the film. He played Detective Vincent Ricks, and the role effectively revitalised Pat O'Brien's career. 

Pat O'Brien's role in the film was not the only notable bit of casting. Former child star Diana Lynn appeared in one of her earliest adult roles as James Curtayne's daughter Ginny. A young James Arness, fresh from appearing as the monster in The Thing from Another World (1951) and before he appeared in Them! (1954) and the TV series Gunsmoke, played James Curtayne's young client. It was Charles Bronson's second film. He played one of the Korvac brothers. William Campbell, now best known as Koloth in the classic Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," played another Korvac brother. Richard Anderson, later a regular on Perry Mason and The Six Million Dollar Man, played Ginny's boyfriend Jeff Chapman.

Aside from an interesting cast, it must also be pointed out that much of The People Against O'Hara was shot on location in New York City. The Criminal Courts Building, the Fulton Fish Market, and the Manhattan Bridge all appear in the film. As might be expected, the interiors were shot at MGM's Culver City studios in Los Angeles. 

The People Against O'Hara would be released to mixed reviews. The critic for The Nation said of the film, "An adroit scholarly example of sound storytelling..." Time commented, "..the film is played as though everyone concerned enjoyed making it." At the other end of the spectrum was Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote of the film as "...on the whole the picture moves ploddingly." The critic for Variety said  of movie, "A basically good idea for a film melodrama [from a novel by Eleazar Lipsky] is cluttered up with too many unnecessary side twists and turns, and the presentation is uncomfortably overlong."

I have to agree with the critics at both The New York Times and Variety to a degree. The People Against O'Hara does move slow at times and it could have been well served by a shorter running time. That having been said, it benefits from a sterling cast at the top of their game. Spencer Tracy gives a startlingly realistic portrayal of the alcoholic James Curtayne, perhaps drawing upon his own experiences as an alcoholic. Pat O'Brien does well as Detective Ricks, as does Diana Lynn as Ginny. Although his part is brief, William Campbell gives a sterling performance as Pete Korvac. John Sturges' direction is also excellent, making the film better than it might have been in lesser hands. 

Today The People Against O'Hara is not as well known as many of Spencer Tracy's films from the early Fifties. That having been said, given it features what may be his best performance of the era, it is well worth seeking out.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Turner Classic Movies in St. Louis

The Tivoli Theatre
Each year TCM Backlot holds a "TCM in Your Hometown" contest, in which Turner Classic Movies selects a city in which to hold events. TCM Backlot members submit pitches arguing why Turner Classic Movies should hold an event in their home town. This year's winning entrant was Lisa Buchhold, who sent in a pitch for St. Louis, Missouri. It was then on September 26 2019 that Turner Classic Movies held a free screening of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) at the Tivoli Theatre in St. Louis. The screening included a special introduction by Ben Mankiewicz before the movie, followed by a Q&A with Margaret O'Brien (who played Tootie in Meet Me in St. Louis).

With Turner Classic Movies in my home state and St. Louis only about two hours away, there was no way I was going to miss the TCM in Your Hometown in St. Louis. I got two tickets to the event as soon as it was announced. I also entered to win an entry to the VIP Meet and Greet, in which one would get to meet Margaret O'Brien and Ben Mankiewicz in person. I had a good fortune to be one of the people to win an entry to the VIP Meet and Greet.

With two tickets for the screening of Meet Me in St. Louis, I used the other one for my friend Meredith of Vitaphone Dreamer. Meredith also happens to be the TCM fan who lives closest to me, and graciously chauffeured me to the event. We met up with the local St. Louis TCM fans at the Three Kings Public House, which is right there on Delmar across from the Tivoli. Sadly, I couldn't stay long as I had to get to the VIP Meet and Greet. It was nice finally getting to meet fellow TCM fans from my home state (Meredith is the only one I've met in person before). For those unfamiliar with University City (the neighbourhood where the Tivoli Theatre is located), it is home to the St. Louis Walk of Fame. On the way to the VIP Meet and Greet I was able to see the stars for such St. Louis notables as the Rockettes (which was formed in St. Louis in 1926) and Sally Benson (the author of the novel Meet Me in St. Louis upon which the movie was based).

Moonrise Hotel
The VIP Meet and Greet was held at in the Twilight Room of the Moonrise Hotel just down the street on Delmar Boulevard. Upon entering I was greeted by an employee of TCM, who automatically knew I was there for the Meet and Greet. From there I made my way to the elevator to get to the Twilight Room. Here I have to point out that the Moonrise Hotel has a Space Age theme, so it is a dream come true for a sci-fi fan like myself. Throughout the hotel there are displays filled with sci-fi merchandise. The Twilight Room itself is located on the eighth floor, so that one gets a good view of the University City skyline.

I have to say that the VIP Meet and Greet was absolutely wonderful. I had talked with Ben Mankiewicz on video chat when I introduced A Hard Day's Night (1964) with him in one of TCM's Fan Favourite segments. He was very nice on video chat and is even nicer in person. As to Margaret O'Brien, what can I say. She is incredibly sweet and very personable. One would not think she is a genuine movie star from the Golden Age of Hollywood! I talked to her a little bit about her guest appearance on Perry Mason, which she said she loved doing.

As if meeting Margaret O'Brien and Ben Mankiewicz wasn't enough, at the VIP Meet and Greet I also got to meet many people with whom I have been in contact with online for years. Among them was Annette of Hometowns to Hollywood, who came all the way from Chicago for the event. Annette is as sweet as can be, and very enthusiastic about classic film. I also got to meet Diana Bosch of the blog Flickin' It and currently with TCM. Diana is charming and has great tastes in movies (Christmas in Connecticut is one of her favourite holiday movies). I also got to meet Yacov Freedman, who runs TCM Backot. I got my exclusive collectable pin for TCM in Your Hometown in St. Louis from him. Yacov is very friendly and enthusiastic about classic film. I have to confess I was almost as excited about finally meeting him in person as I was meeting Margaret O'Brien!

After the VIP Meet and Greet I met up with Meredith and we made our way to the Tivoli for Meet Me in St. Louis. We sat with Jeff from St. Louis, who like Meredith and I are part of the #TCMParty crowd. Jeff is in person exactly as I expected him to be, congenial with a love of classic movies. Ben's introduction was both funny and informative. At one point he asked how many people had not seen Meet Me in St. Louis. Only two people hadn't. Of course, here I have to point out that Meet Me in St. Louis is not only the unofficial movie of St. Louis, but the unofficial state movie of Missouri. It is then no surprise that only two people had not seen it! As to the Q&A with Margaret O'Brien, it was wonderful. Margaret is so funny and witty, and she has a bit of mischievous streak just like Tootie has in the movie. Before the movie they showed promos for TCM, one of which was the one for TCM Backlot that includes KC of A Classic Movie Blog. I later teased KC on Twitter that this makes her a movie star. As to Meet Me in St. Louis itself, it was incredible on the big screen. I have seen it many times since childhood, but never in a movie theatre. What is more, this was a perfect print of the movie, crisp and clean with no flaws.

The Tivoli sign by night
As to the Tivoli Theatre itself, it is beautiful. I wish I had gotten some pictures of its interior. The Tivoli opened on May 10, 1924. It closed in 1994, but fortunately it was rescued when Joe and Linda Edwards (owners of Blueberry Hill Restaurant and Music Club, also on Delmar) bought it. The theatre was then renovated and restored back to its glory days in the Twenties and Thirties. It reopened on May 19 1995. The Tivoli Theatre is a true movie palace, and hence it was the ideal venue for Meet Me in St. Louis.

Of course, here I have to say that Vanessa was on my mind for much of my time in University City. She was a huge Judy Garland fan and Miss Garland was much of the reason she became an actress. As might be expected, Meet Me in St. Louis was one of her favourite movies. As an enormous sci-fi fan (I have never known a bigger Star Wars fan), she would have adored the Moonrise Hotel. So she could be present for the event after a fashion, I wore the pinback button I designed in her memory for this year's TCM Classic Film Festival.

Over all, I have to say TCM in Your Hometown in St. Louis was one of the most wonderful experiences in my life. The various employees of TCM were all very friendly, and it was wonderful getting to meet in person many people with whom I have been in touch online for years. Of course, it was an incredible pleasure meeting Margaret O'Brien and Ben Mankiewicz. One sometimes hears horror stories of people who meet their idols only to learn they aren't very nice in person, but both Margaret O'Brien and Ben Mankiewicz were wonderful. Given the amount of attention TCM gave to the TCM in Your Hometown event, I can only imagine the amount of attention they must devoted to the TCM Classic Film Festival and the TCM Classic Cruise. I only hope I can make it to those one day!

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Late Great Rip Taylor

Rip Taylor, the confetti throwing comedian who appeared frequently on talk shows and games shows in the Sixties and Seventies, as well as guest starred such shows as The Monkees, died on October 6 2019 at the age of 88. He had been hospitalised the prior week from an epileptic seizure.

Rip Taylor was born Charles Elmer Taylor Jr. on January 13 1931 in Washington, D.C. He served as a page in the United States Congress. Afterwards he served in the Signal Corps of the United States Army during the Korean War. After his discharge from the Army Mr. Taylor began performing stand up in nightclubs and restaurants.

Rip Taylor made his television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1961. He appeared on the show five more times. In the Sixties he appeared frequently on talk shows and game shows, including Jackie Gleason: American Scene Magazine, The Clay Cole Show, The Michael Douglas Show, Dream Girl of '67, The Woody Woodbury Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Joey Bishop Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The David Frost Show, and Della. He guest starred on The Monkees. He was a regular on The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show. He made his film debut in I'd Rather Be Rich in 1964.

In the Seventies Mr. Taylor was the host of The $1.98 Beauty Show. He was a regular on Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and The Brady Bunch Variety Hour. He was the voice of the title character on the Saturday morning cartoon Here Comes the Grump. He guest starred on the show The Comedy Shop. Rip Taylor appeared on such talk shows and game shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The David Frost Show, Dean Martin Presents: The Bobby Darin Amusement Co., Laugh In, Match Game 73, Break the Bank, The David Steinberg Show, American Bandstand, The Chuck Barris Rah-Rah Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and The Toni Tennille Show. He appeared in the films Chatterbox! (1977), The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977), and The Gong Show Movie (1980).

In the Eighties Rip Taylor he guest starred on the TV shows Down to Earth, Kids Incorporated, Pryor's Place, The Charmings, and Santa Barbara. He was a regular voice on the Saturday morning cartoon Popeye and Son. He appeared on such talk shows and game shows as The Mike Douglas Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Tomorrow Show, The New Hollywood Squares, Super Password, The Pat Sajack Show, and Match Game. He provided voices for the animated feature film DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990).

In the Nineties Rip Taylor was the voice of Uncle Fester on the Saturday morning cartoon The Addams Family. He guest starred on the shows Johnny Bago, The Kids in the Hall, Vicki, The Naked Truth, MadTV, Saturday Night Live, and Brotherly Love. He appeared on such talk shows as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Rosie O'Donnell Show, and The Daily Show. He appeared in the movies Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), Indecent Proposal (1993), Wayne's World 2 (1993), Il silenzio dei prosciutti (1994), and The Boys Behind the Desk (2000).

In the Naughts through the Teens Rip Taylor appeared in the films Alex & Emma (2003), The Dukes of Hazzard (2005), and Silent But Deadly (2012). He had a recurring role on the television sitcom Life with Bonnie and was a regular voice on the animated series The Emperor's New School. He guest starred on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, Will & Grace, George Lopez, and The Aquabats! Super Show!. He was a panellist on Hollwyood Squares. He appeared on the talk shows The Florence Henderson Show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and After Dark with Julian Clark.

Rip Taylor was one of the most memorable comedians of the mid to late 20th Century. He was notorious for his use of props, particularly showering his audiences with loads of confetti. His humour was flamboyant and outrageous. He had a gift for sarcasm and self-deprecating humour, all of it delivered rapid-fire. It was no wonder he was so much in demand on the talk shows, variety shows, of the late 20th Century. While he did not do that many guest appearances on narrative TV shows, when he did he was unforgettable. He made two guest appearances on The Monkees, the last of which was as the Wizard Glick in the show's final episode, "Mijacogeo." When it came to outrageous comedy, no one was better than Rip Taylor.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Late Great Ginger Baker

Ginger Baker, the legendary drummer from Cream and Blind Faith among other bands, died on October 6 2019 at the age of 80.

Ginger Baker was born Peter Baker in Lewisham, South London on August 19 1939. He was nicknamed "Ginger" because of his red hair. His father died during World War II when Ginger Baker was only four years old. He began drumming while very young and by the time he was a teenager he began playing with local bands. He studied drums under British jazz drummer Phil Seamen.

In 1963 Mr. Baker began playing drums with The Graham Bond Organization, of which future Cream band mate Jack Bruce was also a part. By 1966 he had grown tied of playing with The Graham Bond Organization and decided to form his own supergroup. He asked Eric Clapton, who had played with  The Yardbirds and was then part of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, to join him. Feeling constrained as one of The Bluesbreakers, he agreed right away on the condition that they bring Jack Bruce into the group as their bassist. While Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce had never gotten along, Jack Bruce was brought in as the new band's bassist. The new band was named Cream based on the idea that drummer Ginger Baker, bassist Jack Bruce, and guitarist Eric Clapton were "the cream of the crop."

Cream proved to be highly successful, recording four hit albums and releasing several hit singles. Unfortunately, Cream would also be beset by problems. Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce did not get along during the entire time. Eventually the tension between the two got to be too much and so Cream broke up in 1968.

Following the breakup of Cream, Ginger Baker joined the supergroup Blind Faith, which had been formed by Eric Clapton and former Spencer Davis Group member Steve Windwood. Blind Faith would record only one album before disbanding.

It was upon Blind Faith splitting up that Ginger Baker formed Ginger Baker's Air Force. The initial lineup included of fellow Blind Faith members Steve Winwood and Ric Grech. Ginger Baker's Air Force released two albums in 1970. In 2016 Ginger Baker formed a new version of Ginger Baker's Air Force, that played one show as Ginger Baker's Air Force 3 in 2015. A tour had been planned, but had to be cancelled due to Mr. Baker's health.

Ginger Baker's first solo album was released in 1972. He would follow it with several more solo albums. In the Seventies he would form Baker Gurvitz Army with Adrian Gurvitz. The band's self-titled debut album would be released in 1974. It would be followed by two more studio albums, one in 1975 an done in 1976. They disbanded in 1976. In 1980 Ginger Baker was briefly part of Hawkwind. Material featuring him would appear on three Hawkwind albums in total.

Ginger Baker reunited with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce for Cream concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and Madison Square Garden in 2005. In 2013 and 2014 Ginger Baker toured with the Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion.

There can be little doubt that Ginger Baker was one of the greatest rock drummers of all time, although Mr. Baker considered himself a "jazz drummer" or simply a "drummer." His performances could range from flamboyant to a more restrained jazz style. He was one of the pioneers of the double bass drum setup in rock music. He had been inspired to do so after seeing drummer Sam Woodyard at a Duke Ellington concert. He was also known for his drum solos, such as "Toad" from Cream's debut album Fresh Cream (a drum solo that was a full five minutes). Ginger Baker was a lasting influence on future rock drummers, including John Bonham, Stewart Copeland, Neil Peart, and Alex Van Halen.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Late Great Diahann Carroll

Diahann Carroll, who appeared in such films as Carmen Jones (1954), and Porgy and Bess (1959) and starred on such TV shows as Julia, Dynasty, and White Collar, died on October 4 2019 at the age of 84. The cause was complications from breast cancer.

Diahann Carroll was born Carol Diahann Johnson in the Bronx on July 17 1935. She grew up in Harlem. She took to singing while still very young, and she was singing at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem by the time she was six years old. She attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, during which time she worked as a model for Ebony magazine. She entered various television talent contests, including Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and Chance of a Lifetime. She won Chance of a Lifetime three weeks in a row. The prize was $1000 and appearing at the Latin Quarter, a nightclub in Manhattan. As her family wished for her to attend college Miss Carroll attended New York University, but left college to pursue a career in show business. She had promised her family that if it did not work out in two years she would return to college. Fortunately, she did not have to.

It was in 1954 that Diahann Carroll made her film debut in Carmen Jones (1954). It was the same year that she made her debut on Broadway in House of Flowers. Later in the decade she appeared in the film Porgy and Bess (1959). Miss Carroll made her television debut the following year in an episode of General Electric Theatre. She later guest starred on Peter Gunn and appeared in the television movie The Man in the Moon.

In the Sixties she appeared on Broadway in No Strings, for which she won Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. She also appeared in the films Goodbye Again (1961), Paris Blues (1961), Hurry Sundown (1967), and The Split (1968). On television she appeared in the groundbreaking sitcom Julia. Diahann Carroll was the first African American woman to star on a sitcom not playing a domestic worker. While Julia proved popular with viewers, there were those who criticised the show for ignoring the realities faced by many African Americans at the time. That having been said, the November 1968 issue of Ebony took a more positive view of the series in the article "Diahanne Carroll Stars in Family TV Series." The article stated, "As a slice of Black Americana, Julia does not explode on the TV screen with the impact of a ghetto riot. It is not that kind of show. Since the networks have had a rash of shows dealing with the nation's racial problems, the light-hearted Julia provides welcome relief, if indeed, relief is even acceptable in these troubled times." In 1969 she was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series.

During the Sixties, Diahann Carroll also guest starred on episodes of Naked City and The Eleventh Hour. For her guest appearance on Naked City she was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.

In the Seventies Diahann Carroll appeared in the film Claudine (1974), for which she for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. She appeared on television in The Star Wars Holiday Special and the mini-series Roots: The Next Generations. She also appeared in the TV movies Death Scream and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

In the Eighties Diahann Carroll appeared on Broadway as a replacement in the role of Doctor Martha Livingstone in the play Agnes of God. On television she starred as Dominique Deveraux on the night time soap opera Dynasty, a role she also played on the spin-off The Colbys. She also had a recurring role on the sitcom A Different World. She appeared in the TV movies Sister, Sister in 1982, From the Dead of Night in 1989, and Murder in Black and White in 1990.

In the Nineties Miss Carroll appeared in the films The Five Heartbeats (1991) and Eve's Bayou (1997). She had a recurring role on the TV show Lonesome Dove: The Series. She guest starred on the shows The Sinbad Show, Burke's Law, Evening Shade, ABC Weekend Specials, Touched by an Angel, and Twice in a Lifetime. She appeared in the TV movies A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Lethal Lifestyle, The Sweetest Gift, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, The Courage to Love, Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, and Livin' for Love: The Natalie Cole Story. She was a guest voice on the HBO animated series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. She played herself in the television mockumentary Jackie's Back!.

In the Naughts Diahann Carroll had recurring roles on the TV shows Grey's Anatomy, Diary of a Single Mom, and White Collar. She guest starred on the shows The Court, Half & Half, Strong Medicine, Whoopi, Soul Food, and Back to You. In the Teens she continued to appear on White Collar. She appeared in the movies Peeples (2013) and The Masked Saint (2016).

Diahann Carroll also had a successful career as a singer. She performed in nightclubs and in Las Vegas. Starting with the late Fifties she recorded several albums, including Diahann Carroll Sings Harold Arlen Songs (1957), Fun Life (1960), Diahann Carroll (1974), and The Time of My Life (1997).

I have to confess that I have had a crush on Diahann Carroll since childhood. She was just so beautiful and elegant, and she had a mellifluous voice. Of course, as I grew older I realised that she was remarkable not only for her beauty and grace, but for the fact that she was just so very talented. As an actress she was very versatile and played a wide variety of roles in her career. In her guest appearance on Naked City in the episode "A Horse Has a Big Head – Let Him Worry!", she played a teacher trying to convince a boy's parents that he could learn to live with his limited eyesight. On Julia she played the title character, a hard working and sweet natured nurse. On White Collar she played the protagonist Neal Caffrey's landlady, the widow of a con man with considerable skills herself. Miss Carroll's talent was on display in movies as well. In Claudine she played the title character, a single mother on welfare living in Harlem. In Eve's Bayou (1997) she played the fortune teller Elzora. Diahann Carroll was capable of playing a wide variety of roles and did so throughout her career.

Of course, Miss Carroll was also an incredibly talented singer. She had a beautiful voice with an incredible range. Indeed, even had she never gone into acting she would have had a very profitable career as a singer.

Diahann Carroll's was a true pioneer with regards to African American actresses. She appeared in major motion pictures and made guest appearances on television shows in non-stereotypical roles at a time when black women were rarely seen in movies or TV shows as anything except domestics. While Julia received criticism for not addressing issues, it was a groundbreaking show. Before Julia the only show to feature a black woman in the lead was Beulah, a sitcom featuring a very stereotypical maid. Julia paved the way for every African American lead on a sitcom ever since. Diahann Carroll was a remarkable woman and one for whom the word "legend" is truly fitting.