Saturday, July 9, 2005

From the Small Screen to the Big Screen

Lately I have been thinking of television series that have made their way from the small screen to the silver screen. I am not talking about the big budget, theatrical features made with all new casts years (sometimes decades) after a show has gone off the air (The Wild Wild West with Will Smith and the recent Honeymooners movie are examples of this). Nor am I talking about theatrical films made by compiling several episodes of a series to make a movie (The Sign of Zorro, made up of episodes from Disney's Zorro series in the Fifties, and the various Man From U.N.C.L.E. movies from the Sixties). I am talking about movies based on American television series featuring the original casts and crews, films that can be described as spinoffs from the TV shows.

Surprisingly, it seems to me that this has not happened very often. This seems odd to me given the many sources of inspiration that exist for motion pictures. There have been movies based on books, comic books, comic strips, radio shows (The Great Gildersleeve), video games (Mortal Kombat), and even board games (Clue). But until the past twenty years, when feature films based on TV shows have become common place (albeit with entirely different casts), it was rare that a movie was based on television series. Not surpisingly, in the early days when a movie was based on a TV series, it usually featured the original cast and was usually made while the series was still on the air or shortly thereafter.

Despite the rarity of TV shows being spun off into movies, it seems to me that it happened fairly early in the history of network television broadcasts. I am not sure what the first TV show to be spun off into a feature film was, but I am thinking it could well have been Dragnet. Dragnet debuted on radio in 1949. The radio show did not differ from the TV show at all. Even then producer and star Jack Webb focused on the nuts and bolts of police work, with Lt. Joe Friday and his partner at the time investigating various cases. The series debuted on television in 1951, where it was one of the big hits that year. While Dragnet was still on the air, a feature film was released in 1954. The movie Dragnet featured the same cast as the TV show--Jack Webb as Friday, Ben Alexander as Frank Smith, and so on. It also remained loyal to the concept of the series. Friday and Smith investigate a murder, following various leads, questioning witnesses, and so on. Given the success of Dragnet on the small screen, it was perhaps inevitable that it would do well on the big screen as well. Regardless, there were no more theatrical features based on Dragnet featuring the cast of the TV show (of course, there was the 1987 parody featuring Dan Akroyd....).

While Dragnet may well have been the first TV show that was spun off into a movie, other police procedurals did not follow it to the big screen. Instead, it seems to me that prior to the Eighties it was most often sitcoms which would be spun off into movies featuring the original casts. The first sitcom to be made into a theatrical feature was Our Miss Brooks. Our Miss Brooks debuted on radio in 1948, where it received respectable ratings. In 1952 Our Miss Brooks moved to television, where the series proved to be a hit. Our Miss Brooks featured Eve Arden as Connie Brooks, the English teacher at the fictional Madison Hgh School. Miss Brooks was surrounded by a number of eccentric characters at Madison High. She often found herself at odds with cantakerous principal Mr. Conklin (played by Gale Gordon). And she longed for shy, nerdy biology teacher Mr. Boynton (played by Robert Rockwell). A source of exasperation for Miss Brooks was dim witted student Walter Denton (played by a young Richard Crenna). The ratings for the series eventually started to slip, precipitating a change of format in which Miss Brooks moved from Madison High to a private school. Regardless, Warner Brothers released a theatrical feature based on the series in 1956. The movie saw the long suffering Miss Brooks finally win the hand of Mr. Boynton in marriage. Unfortunately, the movie did not help the series--it was still cancelled at the end of the 1955-1956 season.

Another sitcom that made the trip from the television screen to the movie screen was McHale's Navy, which debuted in 1962. In many respects, McHale's Navy was simply the Navy's variation on The Phil Silvers Show (also known as Sgt. Bilko). Lt. Commander Quinton McHale was an easy going officer who wantonly ignored regulations and was always developing new ways of conning people. The commander of a P.T. boat in World War II, McHale led a crew of some of the most eccentric characters on television. Perhaps no character was more eccentric than Ensign Charles Parker (played by Tim Conway). The meek ensign was as bumbling as McHale was shrewd. Between McHale and Parker, their commanding officer, Capt. Binghamton, had no end of problems. McHale's Navy proved successful enough that in 1964 Universal released a theatrical feature with the original cast. The movie McHale's Navy centred on McHale and his crew frantically trying to pay off gambling debts. The movie did respectably well at the box office. With the show's continued success and the movie's success, Universal released a second feature drawing on the sitcom; however, McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force actually bears little relation to the TV show. In fact, McHale doesn't even appear in the movie! McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force centred on Ensign Parker, who is mistaken for a successful Air Force officer. McHale's Navy went off the air in 1966 and there would be no more movies featuring the original cast. There was a 1997 feature, with Tom Arnold, as McHale based on the hit show, which updated it from World War II to the present day (losing much of the series' charm in the process).

If sitcoms could make it to the big screen, then it seems reasonable to assume that animated series could as well. Yogi Bear first appeared in segments on Hanna-Barbera's Huckleberry Hound Show in 1958. The irrepresible bear, always scheming to steal food in Jellystone National Park, proved to be the most popular character on the show. By 1961 he would have his own series. By 1964 he would be featured in a theatrical movie. Hey There, It's Yogi Bear was released through Columbia Pictures and was Hanna-Barbera Studios' first feature film. The movie centred on Yogi's efforts to keep from becoming a resident of the San Diego Zoo.

Yogi Bear would not be the only Hanna-Barbera character to get his own theatrical feature film. Fred Flintstone would as well. The Flintstones debuted in primetime in 1960. The show was to some extent an animated, Stone Age version of The Honeymooners, in which various aspects of modern society would be parodied in the prehistoric setting (for instance, Europe wold be "Eurock"). The series proved very successful, running for a full six years on ABC. Following the series' cancellation in 1966, Hanna-Barbera produced a theatrical movie based on the hit show, The Man Called Flintstone. In the film, Fred Flinstone finds himself called upon to replace an injured secret agent for whom he is an exact double. This takes the poor caveman globetrotting, as he tries to foil the plot of the evil Green Goose. The Flintstones with their original cast would be seen in no further theatrical movies, although there would be numerous television spinoffs and TV movies based on the series. Eventually, two live action movies (The Flintstones and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas) based on the series would be released).

While Yogi Bear and The Flintstones were animated cartoons, The Munsters could best be described as a live action cartoon. Created by the same team which produced Leave It to Beaver, The Munsters debuted in 1964. The show centred on the family of the same name, who looked like classic movie monsters. Herman Munster was a dead ringer for the Frankenstein Monster. Wife Lilly and Grandpa Munster were vampires. Son Eddie was a werewolf. Only pretty, blonde Marilyn looked normal. Despite their appearances, the Musnters thought they were an average American family. The humour largely grew from people's reactions to the Munsters and very broad slapstick. The Munsters proved successful in its first season, although by its second season the ratings faltered badly enough that it was cancelled. Despite this, Universal released Munster, Go Home! to theatres in 1966. The plot concerned Herman Munster inheriting a castle in England, where people reacted to the family exactly as they did here in America--with abject fear. The movie was not a spectacular success at the box office, so that there were no more movies featuring the Munsters and the original cast.

Of course, not every movie spun off from a TV show in the Sixties was from a sitcom or an animated cartoon. Gunn, released in 1967, was spun off from the 1958-1961 detective series Peter Gunn, created by Blake Edwards (best known for the Pink Panther movies). The show featured Craig Stevens as Peter Gunn, a suave, sophisticated private eye and a jazz score by Henry Mancini. Stephens once more played Gunn in the theatrical feature, although he was the only one of the original cast to make the move to the big screen. Ed Asner played Lt. Jacoby, originally played by Herschel Berardi in the TV series, while Laura Devon played Edie, originally played by Lola Albright in the show. It is perhaps for this reason that Gunn captures very little of the flavour of the original series, even with Stephens back as Gunn and Edwards directing.

Most theatrical movies based on TV shows featuring the original cast vary only a little from the shows they are based on. This is not the case with Head, the film featuring The Monkees of the sitcom of the same name. In fact, it is even debatable whether the movie can be considered to be based on the TV show. The Monkees debuted in 1966, featuring a rock group (created specifically for the show) of the same name. Mike Nesmith was the leader of the group, possessed of a dry wit. Micky Dolenz was the drummer and the crazy one. Davy Jones was the "cute" one that was always in love with some girl or another. Peter Tork was the none too bright Monkee, more or less a male Gracie Allen. The show was in some ways The Beatles movie Help! adapted for the small screen. The struggling rock group called The Monkees would find themselves in various situations (often parodies of the stock plots of various movie genres--they encountered spies, gangsters, and even monsters) from which they would have to extricate themselves. The series moved at a rapid pace and the jokes and gags came nonstop. Short of The Dick Van Dyke Show, it may well have been the funniest sitcom of the Sixties. Both the TV show and the rock group proved very popular with youngsters in the Sixties. Unfortunately, this was never reflected in the series' ratings. As a result it was cancelled after only two years on the air.

Regardless, creator Bob Rafelson (later known for such films as Five Easy Pieces and Black Widow) decided to use The Monkees in his first feature film. In some respects Head (released in 1968) feels like a continuation of the TV series. Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter play essentially the same "characters" that they did on the TV series. They live in the same pad as they did on the show, although it is a bit different from what it was on the series. The jokes and gags still come nonstop. But that is largely where the similarities end. While The Monkees relied on plots (or parodies of plots, as the case may be) largely borrowed from old Hollywood movies, Head is literally plotless, with the movie moving from one scenario to another. The movie is also much darker than the TV series ever was, touching upon the Vietnam War and the pressures of celebrity. While Head largely draws upon the TV show for much of its inspiration, it is also very different in many ways. It is then questionable as to whether Head is a movie that is based on The Monkees or simply a movie starring The Monkees. Regardless, because of a poor promotional campaign, the movie bombed at the box office. As to The Monkees, they would break up within two years of the film's release.

Not all movies based on TV shows featuring the original casts were dramas, sitcoms, or cartoons. In 1968 a movie based on the original reality show was released. Candid Camera had debuted on radio in 1947. In 1948 the show moved to television. Originally called by its radio title, it was soon renamed Candid Camera. The format of the show was simple. Unsuspecting people would be placed in an unusual and humourous situtation. At last they would be let in on the joke, being told "Smile, you're on Candid Camera! The series proved to be a hit, lasting nearly twenty years in its original run and being revived many times. In 1968 the show's creator and star, Alan Funt, spun the series off into a movie called What Do You Say to a Naked Lady. The movie featured pranks and gags that could not be shown on television at that time, although it is very tame by today's standards (Funt himself called it "the cleanest dirty movie ever made"). Of course, Candid Camera would not be the only show spun off into a film. The MTV show Jackass would be made into a movie in 2002.

As odd as it may seem for a reality show to spawn a movie, there was a soap opera from which two movies were spun off. Dark Shadows debuted on ABC in 1965. Initially the show was a straight soap opera taking its cues from the Gothic novels popular at the time. With the introduction of vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), Dark Shadows became something else entirely, the world's first Gothic horror soap opera. It also became something of a fad with college students and the youth of the day. The show was successful enough that a movie based on the series, House of Dark Shadows was released in 1970. The movie was fairly loyal to the initial plotline in which Barnabas first arrived at Collinswood. A sequel, Night of Dark Shadows released in 1971, was less faithful, loosely adapting a storyline dealing with the ghost of Quentin Collins. By 1971 the Dark Shadows fad had pretty much run its course. There would be no more theatrical features based on the show.

If movies based on soap operas and reality shows sound strange, believe it or not, there was a movie based on a game show. The Gong Show debuted as part of NBC's daytime lineup in 1975. It soon became a smash hit. The Gong Show was essentially a talent show, or perhaps more accurately a parody of a talent show. On the show a number of often strange acts would compete for a prize of $516.32, judged by a celebrity panel. The show took its name by the fact that if one of the celebrity panel did not like an act, they would get up and bang a gong. Of course, acts that were gonged had no chance of winning. The Gong Show became a veritable fad in the mid-Seventies, quite possibly one of the most successful game shows of all time. In 1980 creator Chuck Barris (who also created The Dating Game) turned the show into a theatrical feature. The movie was essentially a raunchier version of the TV show, with material that could not possibly be shown on network television at that time. Released as the Gong Show fad was ending, the movie tanked at the box office.

The Gong Show Movie aside, it seems to me that very few movies were spun off from American TV series, featuring their original casts, after 1970. In fact, I can think of only one other film from the Seventies based on a TV show and reaturing the original cast members. Star Trek had debuted on NBC in 1966. While it developed a cult following, the series bombed in the ratings. It was barely renewed for its second and third seasons. There would be no fourth season, as the series was cancelled in 1969. In syndicated reruns, however, Star Trek became a smash hit. In fact, besides I Love Lucy and Gilligan's Island, it could well be the most successful syndicated rerun in the history of American television. With such success there came efforts to revive the series, either as a TV show or as a major motion picture. At last these efforts came to fruition. Star Trek: the Motion Picture hit theatres in 1979. While the movie reunited the cast in their original roles, it proved to be somewhat of a disappointment with the series' fans. Perhaps the largest source of complaints was a script that was largely derivative of the Star Trek episode "The Changeling." In both "The Changeling" and Star Trek: the Motion Picture a probe from Earth encounters alien technology to become something much more dangerous. Star Trek: the Motion Picture not only displeased Star Trek fans, but apparently audiences as well. The movie failed at the box office.

Fortunatey, the continued popularity of Star Trek would give the series another chance at the big screen. Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan not only reunited the cast, but revived one of the villains from the original series--Ricardo Montalban as Khan (the bad guy from the episode "Space Seed."). Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan not only pleased the show's fans (it is perhaps the most popular of the movies with them), but pleased audiences as well. It was one of the hit movies of 1982. In fact, it was successful enough that it started an entire series of Star Trek movies. Eventually, once it seemed that movies based on the original series had run their course, Paramount would start releasing movies based on the spinoff Star Trek: the Next Generation, starting with Star Trek: Generations in 1994.

The following year after Star Trek: the Motion Picture was released saw another Sixties series make the move to the big screen. Get Smart was the creation of Buck Henry and Mel Brooks, a parody of the spy series so popular in the Sixties. It followed the misadventures of Maxwell Smart, Agent 86 for Control, and his partner Agent 99 as they battled the forces of the criminal group KAOS. Debuting on NBC in 1965, Get Smart proved to be a hit and ran for five years. In 1980 The Nude Bomb debuted, a movie based on the series. Unfortunately, it is debatable how much The Nude Bomb really owes to the original show. Indeed, much of the show's original cast is absent. Don Adams returned as Maxwell Smart, as did Robert Karvelas as Larrabee. Joey Forman (a frequent guest star on the original show) appeared as Agent 13 (a part played originally on the TV series by Dave Ketchum). Unfortunately, Ed Platt, who played the Chief, had died since the series had gone off the air. And, for whatever reason neither Barbara Feldon (Agent 99) or Bernie Kopell (Siegfried, the head of criminal organisation KAOS) appeared in the movie. Indeed, Smart does not even work for Control; instead, he works for PITS (Provisional Intelligence Tactical Service). Regardless, The Nude Bomb retains little of the flavour of Get Smart.

For the most part in the United States, when movies featuring the original cast of a TV series have been spun off from shows, the movies have been spun off shows that had lasted at least two seasons (even Star Trek, as poorly as it had done in the ratings, had managed to last three seasons). A big exception to this rule was Police Squad!, a hilarious parody of police dramas. Created by David and Jerry Zucker, the brothers who had been responsible for the Airplane movies, the series lasted all of one month on ABC in 1982. Despite its short run, Police Squad! developed a loyal following, both among audiences and with television critics. Perhaps becuase of this, the Zucker brothers turned their short lived TV series into a theatrical movie. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! debuted in 1988. There were some changes in the cast. George Kennedy replaced Alan Noth as Captain Ed Hocken; however, Leslie Nielsen returned in the lead role of Detective Frank Drebin, as did Ed Williams as police scientist Ted Olson. The Naked Gun proved successful enough to warrant two sequels--The Naked Gun 2 1/2: the Smell of Fear in 1991 and The Naked Gun 33 1/3 in 1994. That isn't bad at all for a series that barely lasted four weeks!

With regards to American TV shows that have made their way to the big screen, I can think of perhaps only two other of note. The first was The Jetsons: the Movie. The Jetsons: the Movie was based on the primetime animated cartoon, debuting on ABC in 1962. While The Flintstones featured a Stone Age family, The Jetsons focused on one in the near future, when space travel was routine. Although it lasted only one season, The Jetsons proved popular in reruns. The second significant show from which a movie was spun off was The X-Files. The X-Files debuted on Fox in 1993. Although its ratings were not spectacular in the beginning, the show developed a loyal following and eventually became one of Fox's biggest hits. In 1998 Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully made the trip from the small screen to the big screen. The movie saw the two FBI agents tracking down a deadly virus which may have originally come from another world. In the tradition of The X-Files, the movie answered many of the questions posed by the TV series while bringing up new ones. As to the TV show, it ran many more seasons and is still popular in syndication. Rumours have persisted of another X-Files movie ever since.

Of course, the Nineties would see a whole new phenomenon, in which old TV shows would be revived as major motion pictures with all new, often big name casts. The Addams Family may not have been the first of these, but as one of the hits of 1991 it insured that there would be many more such movies. The Beverly Hillbillies, The Wild Wild West, Charlie's Angels, and other old TV shows have been adapted to the big screen in this way. And yet more such movies are coming to theatres soon. That having been said, since these movies do not use the original casts (except for Charlie's Angels, in which John Forsythe returned as Charlie--I suppose in some ways the two Charlie's Angels are more sequels to the original series rather than adaptations of it), I would count them as an entirely different phenomenon and so I won't discuss them here.

As I said, it has been rare that TV shows have made it to the big screen with their original casts. I suspect that there are some basic reasons for this. The first and foremost is that for the first several years of American network broadcasts, Hollywood regarded television as competition for audiences. Movie stars were often forbidden to work in the new medium and the major studios would not release their newer movies to be run on television. Given that Hollywood regarded the television networks as rivals, there was little reason for them to turn TV shows into movies--why help promote a rival? This changed once the TV show Disneyland debuted. Disney proved that television could be a powerful tool for promoting feature films. The studios also soon realised that the new medium could also be a new source of revenue. They could sell the rights to exhibit their movies to the networks, not to mention produce TV shows for them. Soon Warner Brothers, Universal, and the other movie studios would go into television production. Once the studios no longer viewed television as a bitter rival, it seems to me that more TV shows were spun off into movies. In the Fifties there were only Dragnet and Our Miss Brooks. The Sixties would see more TV shows making the move from the small screen to the big screen.

Second, the influence that the television networks have had on American society has varied. In the early days, when only the biggest cities (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles) could boast TV stations, their influence was minimal. It is quite possible that in the Fifties and the Sixties, the networks were at the peak of their influence. Television may well have been the most popular medium in the United States. This is also the period when more TV shows were made into movies featuring the original casts than any other time. By the Seventies, viewership for network television was in decline. The growth of cable television, video games, the VCR, and other factors saw the networks getting smaller and smaller audiences for their shows. As a result, it was rare that a TV show would be seen as successful enough to warrant bringing it to the big screen. Since then the networks have seen their influence shrink even more.

Third, another factor that may have prevented more TV series from becoming theatrical features with their original casts may be the simple logistics of getting a TV show's cast together to make a movie. During the breaks between the filming of a series, actors naturally would not want to spend their time filming a big budget, movie version of the series on which they are currently working. After a series has ended, actors might naturally prefer to pursue other roles rather than reviving one that they may have played for years. This would make it very difficult for shows to make the transition from the small screen to the silver screen with their original casts.

That having been said, none of this has meant an end to television series being spun off into movies with their original casts intact. This fall Serenity will hit theatres. Serenity is based on the short lived sci-fi series Firefly which ran briefly on Fox a few years ago. If successful, we could well see more TV shows making the trip to the big screen with their original casts.

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