Friday, August 13, 2010

The CBS Late Movie

It was in late 1971 that CBS conceived what would be an utterly unique movie anthology series. Unlike other movie anthology series it would air late night--from 10:30 PM CST to 1:30 PM CST (sometimes later). Unlike other movie anthology series it would also air every weeknight. It was simply called The CBS Late Movie. It debuted on February 14, 1972. The first movie it showed was A Patch of Blue (1965), starring Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman.

The CBS Late Movie would survive for nearly twenty years, although over those years its format would undergo various changes. While best known for showing various B-movies, it did show many box office hits for awhile and also saw the network television debuts of various movies that would not be seen anywhere else on broadcast network television. In the end it would be better remembered than some of the late night hosts who would eventually supplant it.

The origins of The CBS Late Movie go back to CBS's efforts to compete against NBC's monolithic The Tonight Show, which had dominated late night viewing since its debut in 1954. In 1969 CBS offered Merv Griffin his own late night show. At the time it perhaps made perfect sense, as Mr. Griffin had hosted his own highly successful talk show in syndication since 1965. Unfortunately, the deal between CBS and Mr. Griffin would turn out to be a marriage made in Hell. The Merv Griffin Show had only been on six weeks when CBS complained to Mr. Griffin that he had only one guest who had spoken on the air in favour of the Vietnam War, John Wayne, and many more who had spoken against it. Mr. Griffin told them that when they found another celebrity as famous as Mr. Wayne who supported the war, he would book him on the show. This would not be the end of CBS's meddling, as they would continue to do so for the rest of the shows run. Worse yet, the ratings for The Merv Griffin Show never matched that of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and had begun to seriously fall in 1971. Merv Griffin secretly negotiated a deal with Metromedia for his own, syndicated daily show (like the one he had before). As for CBS, they cancelled The Merv Griffin Show.

It was around December 6, 1971 that CBS announced that they would replace The Merv Griffin Show with old movies. In many respects it was a very wise move on CBS's part. By late 1971 it must have seemed obvious that NBC could not be beaten at its own game. ABC had tried with The Joey Bishop Show, which ran only from 1967 to 1969. The Merv Griffin Show on CBS had been a failure. While The Dick Cavett Show currently on ABC had its following, its ratings were still much lower than that of The Tonight Show. Rather than attempt to compete with NBC with a late night talk show of its own, CBS then took the step of programming something entirely different against Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show. As it was, many CBS affiliates already aired late night movies on their own.

It was then in 1971 that CBS began negotiations with MGM, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Brothers for packages of movies to show on their new late night movie anthology series. The CBS Late Movie then officially replaced The Merv Griffin Show on February 14, 1974. From the beginning most of the films The CBS Late Movie showed were movies which had already aired on other primetime movie anthology series, sometimes even on other networks .From the beginning The CBS Late Movie would show a duke's mixture of movies, ranging from classics to B-movies. In its first three years on the air, The CBS Late Movie aired its share of movies now regarded as classics, including An American in Paris (1951), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), To Kill a Mockingbird (1963), The Pyjama Game (1957), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Oklahoma (1955), and South Pacific (1958). Sixties sex comedies The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) and How To Murder Your Wife (1965) both aired on The CBS Late Movie in its early years. Westerns, both serious and comedic, aired in the early years, including The Left Handed Gun (1958), The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), and Day of the Evil Gun (1968). The CBS Late Movie would also air various cult favourites in its early years, including The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), The Green Slime (1968), and producer Harry Alan Towers' series of Fu Manchu films starring Christopher Lee, as well as films which would develop cult followings, including Trog (1970) and Willard (1971). From the beginning The CBS Late Movie would show made for television movies, even those made for other networks, but these never outnumbered the feature films.

Starting in March 1973 The CBS Late Movie would start showing horror and, less often, fantasy and sci-fi movies on Friday nights on a semi-regular basis. The horror movies aired on The CBS Late Movie were not the old, classic Universal horror films from the Thirties or Forties, or even the cheesy sci-fi horror movies made in the Fifties, but films of a more recent vintage made in the Sixties and early Seventies. Among the horror movies aired on Friday nights on The CBS Late Movie were classics by American International Pictures, including The House of Usher (1960), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1970), Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), The Haunted Palace (1963), Cry of the Banshee (1970), and the not so classic The Dunwich Horror (1970). The CBS Late Movie aired several movies from Hammer Films, including Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), Dracula Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968), The Mummy (1959), and many others. The CBS Late Movie also showed a variety of other horror movies, including The Creeping Flesh (1973), The Blood Beast Terror (1968), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), Night of the Lepus (1972), and even the classic The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939). As mentioned above, The CBS Late Movie would sometimes air fantasy and sci-fi movies as well, including the aforementioned The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, Valley of the Gwangi (1969), Battle Beneath the Earth (1967), the failed television pilot Genesis II, THX 1138 (1971), Moon Zero Two (1968), and Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969).

While most movies aired on The CBS Late Movie had aired elsewhere first, a few movies did made their network debuts on the movie anthology series. For the most part these were films whose content (whether due to violence or other controversial content) would make them unsuitable for airing in prime time. Among the movies which made their broadcast network debuts on The CBS Late Movie were The Fearless Vampire Killers, Richard Burton's Doctor Faustus (1967),  Frankenstien Must Be Destroyed (1969), and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

Unfortunately, the first movie to ever make its network debut on The CBS Late Movie would be a source of controversy for the Tiffany Network. Among the films scheduled to air in February 1972, the first month of The CBS Late Night Movie, was The Damned, Luchino Visconti's controversial allegory on Nazism starring Sir Dirk Bogarde and Ingrid Thulin. Upon its initial release in the United States, The Damned  had been rated "X" by the MPAA. It was for this reason that Warner Brothers cut twenty five minutes from the film before it was even offered to CBS. CBS's Programme Practices department then cut an additional eleven minutes from the film.. Between Warner Brothers and CBS, there can be no doubt that nothing which warranted the "X" rating for the film remained. Regardless, the very fact that CBS would air a film which had been rated "X" in the first place, even in late night,  touched off a firestorm of controversy. Both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Christian Life Commission individually sent resolutions to the United States Senate and the FCC protesting CBS' decision to broadcast The Damned and furthermore to ban any future broadcasts of "X" rated movies. The Cleaveland City Council held an emergency vote to ban "X" rated movies from the airwaves in Cleveland. Some affiliates decided not to air the movie at all (surprisingly the Cleavland CBS affiliate, WEWS-TV was not among them). In the end, on February 28, 1972, The Damned aired on The CBS Late Movie as planned, although CBS made sure to precede it with a disclaimer. Regardless, controversy over the airing of The Damned would persist for some time. In March 1972 Senator John Pastore questioned then president of CBS John A. Scheider on the decision to air an "X" rated movie, even one that had been sanitised, in a Senate subcommittee. For seventeen months afterwards CBS received letters from viewers worried that the network had actually bought a series of "X" rated films, something which had never happened. The Damned never again aired on any broadcast network. Ironically, after all the fuss over the movie, The Damned is currently rated "R."

Sadly, The CBS Late Movie would not remain purely a movie anthology series. In September 1976 The CBS Late Movie began airing reruns of Kojak on some nights. In the next few subsequent seasons  other primetime series would be rerun on The CBS Late Movie: M*A*S*H, Harry-O, The Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-O, and various reruns from The NBC Mystery Movie (Columbo, McMillan and Wife, Hec Ramsey, and so on). During this period The CBS Late Movie  would still show movies. The Planet of the Apes series aired, as did the films Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1972), The Wrecking Crew (1968), Alfred the Great (1969), and The Man Who Would Be King (1975).

The 1978-1979 season would see the first original television show (at least as the United States was concerned) to air under the umbrella of The CBS Late Movie. In September 1978 The New Avengers made its debut. It success would change the face of The CBS Late Movie. In the 1979-1980 season The CBS Late Movie would air Return of the Saint. These two series would in turn spark renewed interest in the original series, so that The Avengers would start airing on The CBS Late Movie in the 1979-1980 season and The Saint in the 1980-1981 season. The New Avengers would continue to be a part of The CBS Late Movie  on and off until 1985. Unfortunately, The Avengers, The Saint, and Return of the Saint would only last until the end of the 1980-1981 season.

The CBS Late Movie would continue airing its mixture of reruns and movies for the next few years, with shows such as Quincy M.E., Newhart, Hart To Hart, and others joining the mix. It was in 1985 that the show Night Heat joined the line up of The CBS Late Movie, thereby becoming the first Canadian series to air on any American network. It would prove to be popular, so much so that CBS would import more Canadian series. Adderly debuted on The CBS Late Movie in September 1986. It too proved successful. Night Heat would continue to be a part of The CBS Late Movie until 1989. Adderly continued until 1987. Subsequent Canadian series which aired on The CBS Late Movie, such as Hot Shots and Diamonds would not prove nearly as successful.

Of course, during this period The CBS Late Movie continued to show movies. Deathsport (1978), The Swiss Conspiracy (1976), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Medusa Touch (1978), and Excalibur (1981) all aired during this period. Perhaps finally realising that The CBS Late Movie had ceased to be purely a movie anthology series, as of September 23, 1985, it became CBS Late Night. It continued under the new name until January 1989, when it was replaced by The Pat Sajak Show. It would not be the end of CBS Late Night, however, as the once and future Wheel of Fortune host's talk show proved less successful than Merv Griffin had on CBS. Originally ninety minutes in length, it was cut back to an hour in February 1990. This marked the return of CBS Late Night, which filled the hour following The Pat Sajak Show. In April 1990 The Pat Sajak Show was cancelled, so that CBS Late Night had the whole two hours from 10:30-12:30 PM to itself.

Just as it had before, CBS Late Night continued to air reruns of older programmes. The Prisoner joined the line up in February 1990. Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which had aired on CBS Late Night starting in 1987, returned to the line  up.  Reruns of Night Heat and old series such as Wiseguy also aired on CBS Late Night. Unfortunately, CBS Late Night was living on borrowed time. It seems that in 1976 when the network decided to air Kojak reruns on The CBS Late Movie, they had let the genie out of the bottle. Over the years various crime series had proven very popular on The CBS Late Movie. In the end it would be those crime series that would kill it. After a run of nearly twenty years, CBS Late Night ended its run on March 28, 1991.

It was replaced by a new programming block called Crimetime After Primetime. Crimetime After Primetime consisted mostly of Canadian imports, such as Tropical Heat, Forever Knight, and Dark Justice. Scene of the Crime (a mystery anthology series) and Silk Stalkings were the only American series in the line up. Unfortunately, Crimetime After Primetime would fall victim to the late night wars the same way that Merv Griffin had nearly twenty years before. It was replaced on August 30, 1993 by The Late Show with Dave Letterman, who has occupied the time slot ever since. Silk Stalkings would survive, running on the USA Network with original episodes until 1999.

Although The CBS Late Movie has been off the air for nearly twenty years now, it is still fondly remembered by many. For its first several years it was utterly unique, the only movie anthology series on the networks to air five nights a week. In those first several years it saw the network debut of several movies, one of which would be the first movie rated "X" to ever air on a network. For some time it was the only place one could see many of the classic Hammer horror movies. Even after it began airing reruns of primetime series it would still be fondly remembered, as it showed such cult favourites as The Avengers and The Saint alongside reruns of more recent American shows. Later it would be fondly remembered for bringing the first Canadian shows to American network television, Night Heat and Adderly. Even in 1990 and 1991, a mere shadow of its once glorious self, CBS Late Night aired such classics as The Prisoner and cult favourites such as Kolchak: The Night Stalker. While I like David Letterman and I love Craig Ferguson, I must admit there are those nights when I wish I could once more tune into CBS and see The CBS Late Movie.


Unknown said...

wow, I never knew this! The Damned is actually one of the few DB films I still haven't watched, but I had no idea that it was rated X at the time of it's release (and it's amazing that it was shown on broadcast tv!!!) I think when I watch it now I'm going to try to figure out which parts were cut out for the tv broadcast!

Terence Towles Canote said...

You won't have much problems figuring out which parts were cut! I think they're pretty obvious!

M. Raven Brown said...

I have a friend that is desperately trying to find a list of all the movies that aired on the CBS Lat Movie around 1974. Your article is certainly helpful. Can you point me in the direction of your source(s)?

(ravenlb @ yahoo(dot)com)

Terence Towles Canote said...

Raven, the absolute best source would be old television schedules, either in the form of old TV Guides or the schedules one gets with his or her newspaper. After that, the Complete Prime Time Directory is a must have.

Unknown said...

with David Letterman retiring I wish CBS would bring back The CBS Late Movie it could be on after Craig Ferguson Craig would be on in Dave's spot after the news wouldn't any of y'all who watched The CBS Late Movie want to see it come back though there's movie channels like HBO Cinemax Showtime and Starz????!!!!!!...I would though I saw it though I was little

Kent said...

CBS's concerns regarding Merv Griffin's guests on his talk-show may have been justified when considering that in those days, there was still a "Fairness Doctrine" encouraging the eequal airing of both sides on hot political issues.

Also, CBS, the network, was necessarily pro-war. Remember that it was Walter Cronkite's visit to Vietnam during the late 60's that caused him to change his mind regarding the war. It was his reporting that began a rising tide of doubts as to what we were doing in Southeast Asia.