Wednesday, November 30, 2016

More from Warner Archive Instant: Stanwyck, Ewell, and a big elephant (Warner Week)

*Illicit (1931): Another prime example of why we all need to settle down when we see the term "pre-code." It's not always that exciting. I thought this Archie Mayo pic with Babs Stanwyck, Ricardo Cortez, and the "I can never decide if I enjoy his work or if he annoys the hell out of me" Charles Butterworth would provide some thrills. Instead, it epitomized many of the stereotypes of early talkies, all right--only not in terms of crackling banter nor risqué subject matter, but in terms of long, drawn-out  monologues and a general staginess.

Stanwyck is "in a relationship" with James Rennie and wants to just live together despite his constant pushing for marriage. That alone is an interesting gender stereotype reversal, and Babs' independent-minded, assertive (most of the time) female is a compelling character. When she buckles down and agrees to marriage, the relationship starts to fizzle.

This could be the setup for a promising romantic comedy, but the movie fizzles along with the couple's passion, and the movie is just a lot of talk, much of it not particularly interesting. You know how when you were little and watched an R-rated movie hoping to see something cool, only to find out the rating was for "frank language" or something like that? That's kind of the feeling Illicit gives. Even Ricardo Cortez seems generic in this one.

*The Great American Pastime (1956): It's a pleasant enough look at suburban life through the milieu of little league baseball, but it comes off as a lifeless attempt to sort of clone Tom Ewell's Seven Year Itch persona. The most curious aspect of this movie is the casting of the female leads: Anne Francis is wasted in a bland role as Ewell's bland wife, while Ann Miller gets to play the more vixenous (if that's not a word, I'm making it one) role as a widow/mother of one of Ewell's players who makes Francis jealous. There's even a scene of Francis is a bathtub that may be designed to make the audience why in blazes Ewell never seems to notices her. This movie should be better than it is, though I realize I may have just sold it to you by mentioning Anne Francis in a bathtub.

*Maya (1967 TV series): The pilot episode was enough for me. Adapted by Stirling Silliphant from a feature film, this adventure series featured two teenagers exploring India with the titular elephant. I'd give this another shot someday for the location shooting, and the elephant is pretty cook, but I found the first episode uninspiring. My big impression was saying over and over again, "THAT'S Jay North?"

*James Fitzpatrick's Traveltalks: Washington, D.C.: At least, I tried to watch this one, but selecting it giave me the Yellowstone episode. I thought I could outsmart Warner Instant, though, with my brilliant follow-up of selecting the Yellowstone episode. You know what I got then? The Yellowstone episode. I include this item as evidence that Warner Instant still has a lot of bugs in the system.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Marriage Is Alive and Well (1980)/Warner Week

Welcome to Warner Week, in which I re-evaluate the newly relaunched (and apparently still in Beta) Warner Archive Instant SVOD service. later this week I'll give an overall review of WAI, but first I want to talk about something I watched on it: 1980's Lorimar TV movie Marriage Is Alive and Well.

If you ever thought, "I wish they would resurrect Love, American Style," only with Joe Namath, well, you are to be commended for a brilliant idea...except it was already done! Yes, in 1980, NBC aired this TV movie with Namath's wedding photographer linking 3 separate lighthearted stories about marriage and love.

It's funny to see a movie 35 years ago take on the institution of marriage and discuss it as if it were an endangered practice. TV movies are always a bit behind the times ("ripped from the headlines" deals notwithstanding), so it seems like the attitudes about marriage here are reacting to "free love" and women's lib" ideas from the 1970s. Characters act blasé about the idea of being married, as if it were a quaint idea...until, of course, they reaffirm their belief in matrimony, which happens in each story and pushes us back to wayyyy before the 1970s. Ultimately this has a cheeky façade but is as conservative and instutition-affirming as anything from the early days of the medium.

But enough of that talk. Why would you want to see this movie except for Broadway Joe? He is surprisingly laid back in the movie, dialing down the Joe Willie persona to play a "regular guy," but he is the only character to address the camera--he has to guide us through these stories, after all--and his TV charisma is still evident, though it's nowhere near his sports charisma. Come to think of it, he has more star power on that 1970s talk show he hosts with Dick Schaap. Still, if you watch this movie looking for Actor Joe Namath, you get plenty of him.

The best part of the film isn't the Hall of Fame quarterback, though. It's the breezy theme song that opens the movie as the camera tracks a large wedding statue as a truck takes it through the sunny streets of SoCal. Bravo to Deborah Ludwig Davis (singer) and Fred Karlin and Sheldon Harnick (songwriters) for crafting a piece of music that makes me want to get up and stroll barefoot through the park. Only there has to be a breeze running through my hair, and if I see a bird, it better be chirping at me!

As for the stories, there's Judd Hirsch reconnecting with the ex he already divorced twice (Melinda Dillon), then a young bride who fears losing her identity and immediately decides to hide the fact she is married, it seems like a good idea, I guess. She thinks things will be dullsville now that they are not just living together.

Perhaps the most fascinating of the three segments, if not the best, features Jack Albertson as elderly comic Manny Wax  (!) who is dragged to court by his son when he wants to marry a much younger woman. Albertson/Wax is no Groucho Marx, even Old Groucho, and the whole story is bizarre but irresistible for Albertson's game performance in delivering one "quip" after another, even in court.

Namath has been there for all these stories, so of course he shares them with us, but here's the kicker: his own marriage, seen as a model to everyone, is on the rocks. He and Susan Sullivan are apparently growing apart. Can they pull it together? Hey, could YOU say no to Broadway Joe, even a watered-down version?

 So much about this--the tone, that theme song, the lettering in the credits--suggests a light comedy with elements of drama, so it's no surprise that this was a failed TV pilot.  This isn't at all the kind of thing Warner Archive Instant promotes when it touts its service. It usually talks up "the greats of Hollywood's golden age" and all that. The fact is, WAI is not Turner Classic Movies on demand. It has some movies from the classic era, but it also has an awful lot of obscure TV movies from the 1970s and 1980s. If you are into that sort of thing--and I enjoyed Marriage Is Alive and Well--you will get more value out of WAI than you might expect. But customers should know it's not all classics from the dream factory.

Here's an official preview clip that gives you a great look at Joe and a little of Judd, but sadly you will have to get the service to hear that theme song:

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cultureshark Remembers...Florence Henderson

A lot of people are going to remember Florence Henderson, who died last week at 82, for her iconic role as mom Carol Brady. She was so much more than just The Brady Bunch, though. She was also in The Brady Brides, The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, The Bradys, A Very Brady Christmas...

OK, I'm joking. I really don't remember her from much more than Carol Brady and then for being the woman that played Carol Brady showing up on talk shows, game shows, commercials, and such. It felt like she showed up on Love Boat and Fantasy Island every year, but to me it was, hey, it's Florence Henderson of The Brady Bunch.

So what, though? I loved and hated the Bradys growing up. I don't recall ever enjoying it purely for itself on its merits. There was always some degree of, "Man, this is ridiculous," but I sure watched the heck out of The Brady Bunch as a kid, and Henderson was outstanding for what she was asked to do. She was totally corny but always likeable, sexy enough to be a sexy mom but always mom enough to not be too sexy.

I would never say that she was like a mom to me growing up (this is awkward after the way I ended that last paragraph) because I had a mom, and she watched Brady Bunch with me and mocked a lot of the same things I did. But what a TV mom Carol Brady was! I didn't watch TV for a real mom. I watched TV for a TV mom, and Florence Henderson delivered. She always said not to play ball in the house, but she was capable of putting on a silly costume and putting on a show with the best of them. I particularly liked her over-the-top concern, like when they got a trampoline and she spent the whole sequence fretting over the kids doing simple 8-inch jumps and falling on their butts.

All accounts suggest that Henderson was a delightful person off camera. She was a big part of my childhood for her work on camera, and this one does sting.  R.I.P.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Streaming Video Power Rankings: Week 35

On this holiday weekend, I imagine a lot of you had a time for streaming video. Some of you may be streaming video RIGHT NOW as you read this. I have taken all of  your viewings into account for this week's rankings. Oh, don't worry about how I know. I just do.

1) Netflix: I have half a mind to dock Netflix a half a dozen spots or so for trying to force me to care about its Gilmore Girls revival, but I have to acknowledge that in the social media/entertainment bubble, GG was the big story of the week, and I think it satisfied a lot of fans.

As far as engagement and pleasing its audience goes, this and the forthcoming Fuller House season are probably the kinds of shows that drive subscriptions and retain customers. I love to complain about dropping shows like Leave It to Beaver, but I have to face the facts.

But I'm still not watching Gilmore Girls, Netflix, so quit playing that damn Carole King song each time I load your channel.

2) Warner Archive Instant: My free month ends this weekend. Will I continue? I am going to make this Warner Week on the blog and share my thoughts on where WAI is right now. It rates #2 on usage this week as I try to cram as much of it down my gullet as possible before D (for decision) day next week. Movies, TV shows, film shorts...If I'm going down, I'm going down swinging.

3) Pub-D-Hub: You all know by now I give extra credit to an SVOD service that offers themed programming for an occasion, and Pub-D-Hub delivered some Thanksgiving content this week. I enjoyed a Burns and Allen installment on Thanksgiving Eve, and this weekend I plan to check out another new add, an episode of  The Frances Langford-Don Ameche Show. You won't see Entertainment Weekly mention this kind of stuff, dear readers.

4) Shout! Factory TV: I have grown quite fond of these  "Best of the MDA Telethon" compilations on here, though I'd like to see more old footage. I hope these continue. I was disappointed that the Turkey Day MST3K marathon was apparently web-only and not made streamable after the fact, but I still got my money's worth (free) this week.

One interesting thing I watched was the Dick Cavett Show from June 1971 featuring a debate over the Vietnam War between John Kerry and John O'Neill. Cavett dispensed with the monologue and did his best to maintain fairness and order, and the show was a fascinating, often intense snapshot of an America that was deeply divided over the issue. Even the studio audience, while mostly civil, was clearly split. Shout! has a whole category of "Politicians" in its Cavett section, but I would like to see more episodes featuring discussion of social issues, politics, etc.

5) Hulu: Hulu, you are coasting. I suppose gaining the Powerpuff Girls archives is something, though.

6) YouTube: Loving the fact that someone posted a bunch of old 1988 wrestling from Alabama this past week. My children enjoyed numerous toy videos on YT. Plus after becoming temporarily (I hope) obsessed with Glenn Frey's "Smuggler's Blues," (don't ask) I was able to hit YT and hear the song. Oh, it's irritating not to be able to see the actual video, but that's the way the Eagles roll.

(Also, see #10)

7) The CW: Expect this channel to be ranked with regularity over the coming weeks as I scramble to catch up on my "stories."

8) My Retro Flix: Added some more public domain and (ahem) maybe not so public domain movies this past week, including 1934's The Rawhide Terror, which can't possibly be as cool as the DVD cover art this channel cribbed makes it look...but I still want to find out.

9) Amazon Prime: Not a whole lot new going on last week, but Black Friday brought the site a lot of attention and possibly a lot of new eyeballs as people signed up for Prime to get access to deals.

10) PIX11: Much like our ranking of Brown Sugar last week (Come on and give us a Roku version!), we rate this based on potential. Perhaps my single favorite TV channel growing up was WPIX in New York, and the description of the channel sounds intriguing:

PIX11 News, where every story hits home. A friend to New York City since 1948 and now available on your Roku with special digital first features, holiday favorites, and exclusive peeks into the WPIX archive.

Unfortunately, all the videos are lame clips from the current news shows, and I have yet to see any holiday favorites nor what I really want to see, "exclusive peeks into the archive." As with so many Roku channels that should be muchbetter than they are, we'll have to hit YouTube to see what we really want to see. I fear this will be not just the first, but also the last time PIX11 makes the chart.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Hazel: The Early Years: Special Thaksgiving Edition!

This installment of Hazel: The Early Years is light on text because I just wrote about this episode at ClassicFlix. Please check that out! Today, though, who needs all those pesky words? Maybe you ate too much, maybe you're wiped out, maybe you just feel like looking at some screencaps today. You've come to the right place, my friends. Let's go to the Baxter household for a special Thanksgiving as we skip ahead for episode #9: "Everybody's Thankful But Us Turkeys."

Just a reminder that George Baxter is not just a player in the corporate law realm, but a player, period

Uh...should Harold be in the room while Hazel is doing that to the turkey?

The kid's a fast learner, I'll give him that

Hazel Burke: Cult of Personality

George is a workaholic, but he also makes time for his paper

This strikes me as careless technique when wielding a sharp blade, but who am I to question Hazel?

The poor Johnsons! Hazel is always willing to help the 1-percenters, though

"Just DON'T do any damnable card tricks!"

Mother Baxter--A classy woman, no doubt

Standing by to meddle in 5, 4, 3, 2...

Hazel puts everyone at ease

"You'll never believe what this turkey said I did to it earlier!"

"And we're thankful that Sony put the whole series out, even the fifth season, before it gave up on DVD"

Inappropriate to rekindle your romance during the grace, folks

Clearly Hazel is--there is no other word that does it--TICKLED to be invited to join the family at dinner

Thursday, November 24, 2016

TV Time Bonus: Thanksgiving with the Douglas family and Johnny Squanto

If you enjoyed my ClassicFlix piece on Thanksgiving episodes, you might enjoy a closer look at a few of the episodes I discussed. Today let's spend some more time with the Douglas family on My Three Sons in season 1's "Chip's Harvest."

Here's a glamour shot for all you turkey lovers out there

Robbie is already salivating over Bub's planned feast

Steve's thoughtful expression as the boys debate the invitation Chip gave Johnny Squanto. Either that or Freddie Mac is pondering his tee time for the next morning.


There's almost a nourish feel to the sequence when Steve visits Johnny Squanto at his old shack. Almost.
Even Bub can't cook a turkey without a working stove

Let's just not comment on this one

Here's that foxy young teacher Robbie invited to the family dinner

"What are YOU looking at, buddy?"

Seriously, how old is that teacher supposed to be?

Squanto in full gear after saving Thanksgiving

STILL a lot safer than those deep fryers

A good old-fashioned feast after all. Only thing missing is the toast and the popcorn


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Tomorrow on Battle of the Network Shows

Note: I'm running this sneak peek today because I hope to have some Thanksgiving-related content here tomorrow, but I also recommend you check out our podcast tomorrow for a brand-new episode to listen to on your way over the river and through the woods, in between football games, or while you wait on hold to make a reservation because you ruined your turkey.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Journey Into DVD: The Stork Pays Off

It's tough to have a real "journey" with a Columbia Classics DVD. There's no featurettes, no audio commentaries, no trailers, no nothing. The Stork Pays Off doesn't even have a menu. Insert DVD, watch movie  RIGHT AWAY. I must admit, though, the jarring lack of a menu and the disappointing (even in 2016) lack of special and not-so-special features is almost worth it to avoid an FBI warning.

It's cool that Sony is even bothering to release unassuming "minor" pictures from the archives like 1941's The Stork Pays Off, which doesn't even have enough reviews on IMDB to display a user rating. ClassicFlix lists it as a Columbia Classic, another site calls it a Sony Screen Classic by request, and the  top of the packaging calls it part of the "Choice Collection." So what IS this movie? It's a fun, brisk effort headlined--yes, headlined--by Maxie "Slapsie" Rosenbloom, and that alone merits a video release. I recommend you check it out if you can get it at a discount and/or rent it from ClassicFlix.

It's the story of a gangster who has his trio of goons take over a night club, only to discover it's actually a nursery. Once he sees what's going on, Deke Foster falls for the proprietess, divorced mother Irene, and instructs his goons to maintain and grow the daycare operation. Of course Deke and Irene fall in love, but there are enough other things going on to fill 68 minutes without too much strain.

Stork may not be a classic, but it sure feels like a Columbia. I mean, even the fonts used on signs in the movie remind me of those used in the titles of Three Stooges shorts. Rosenbloom, Horace McMahon, and George McKay have lots of comic business as Foster's lieutenants, and a lot of their bits wouldn't be out of place in an old two-reeler. How can you not be drawn into a movie that opens with hoods named Brains, Photofinish, and Ear to the Ground pulling off a protection racket?

Much as I enjoy Rosenbloom's predictable  (I mean that in a positive sense) performance as malaprop-spouting "Brains," the actual story leads are Deke and Irene, played by Victory Jory and Rochelle Hudson. The two are likable enough, but there is zero chemistry between them, and I never buy Jory's character's transformation into earnest father figure/romantic partner/upright citizen.   It seems like the kind of role, say, Richard Conte would have been great in paired with someone like Lynn Bari at Fox, but then again, why recast the movie? I'm not bowled over by the romance, but director Lew Landers spends as much time on the light comedy as he does on that aspect, anyway.

In fact, things happen quickly in this story. When Deke demands his charges go to night school to be better role model for the children, bam, we go to an extended scene set at night school.  We have a good time, too, as Brains exercises some goofy wordplay to confound the teacher (character actor Byron Foulger with amusing exasperation).  Later, a political situation comes up, and, hey, Deke decides to run for local office to become respectable.

The 68-minute film somehow seems to have a lot going on and yet not much of a main plot at the same time, but it's an entertaining diversion nonetheless. Rosenbloom and his colorful cohorts are a delight, with McKay standing out as a guy who talks in horse racing lingo all the time, even to the kids at the daycare center. The Stork Pays Off isn't necessarily something I want to pay 20 bucks for, but it would be great to see it on TCM, and I appreciate that Sony released it, even if through its ultra-bare-bones manufactured-on-demand line.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Streaming Video Power Rankings: Week 34

This week we see the onset of winter weather across much of the United States, which likely means...absolutely nothing in terms of these power rankings. Wait till it affects MY part of the United States, and then you might see these rankings every day!

1) Netflix: Some weeks, Netflix is just gonna win by default. The Crown continues to get good pub, and a new Colin Quinn special is generating some buzz, but really it was an unspectacular week for the #1 SVOD service.'s the #1 SVOD service.

2) Shout! Factory TV: I enjoyed a lot of Dick Cavett episodes, plus some other material that made for good research for another writing project. I should mention here that Shout! rarely has issues with buffering, titles being suddenly unavailable, etc.

3) YouTube: I have been enjoying some seasonal-themed old TV on here lately, and it's been one of those weeks where I hit a good streak of, "Hey, I wonder if that's on YouTube. It IS? Great!"

4) Warner Archive Instant: Shoots all the way up to #4 based on how much I am watching it during my free month. On the good side, buffering issues were much less prevalent this week, the service added dozens of movies this weekend, and there is some fantastic content. On the down side, there is still no "New" category to identify those new titles easily, and the buffering does rear its ugly head at certain times.

5) Pub-D-Hub: Just because two of the new programs I watched here were ghastly--a Pinky Lee show and a rejected pilot called Little Amy--doesn't mean I am going to take it out on the Pub.

6) Hulu: All of the Criterion Collection is gone. Gone, gone, gone. So much for the idea of a November surprise of exciting movies to replace that. Really it looks to me like Hulu is focusing its energy on its "skinny bundle" TV service. Still, Hulu did give us another Triumph special and Creed, so it's not all hopeless.

7) Amazon Prime: I don't really give a toss (is that how they say it over there) about a new Jeremy Clarkson series, but the company did give a $20 discount on Prime to celebrate it, so that's worth mentioning. I'm still waiting for the return of Man in the High Castle

8) Acorn TV: Its head gave an interesting interview to Decider, and then the same site ran a nice puff piece touting how much more successful it is this year (Hmm, funny how that works), but the fact is Acorn's numbers are up, and AMC Networks' parent company just bought a controlling interest. That sounds good for Acorn, not necessarily good for viewers who fled to services like Acorn because AMC changed channels like AMC and Sundance.

9) FloSports TV: This is a sports streaming service that recently launched a pro wrestling component and made headlines with a buzzy (partly for the wrong reasons) live event last weekend. The deal is you  get a monthly subscription for a specific sport for 20 bucks or pay 150 bucks for a year and get access to everything (other channels are devoted to niche sports like volleyball and track). It's an interesting concept worth watching.

10) Brown Sugar: I have no intention of signing up for this 3.99/month SVOD until it gains a Roku component (right now it's almost only on the web), but I have to note a service that says it is "like Netflix, only blacker." This channel from Bounce TV launches with over 100 vintage Blaxploitation movies and promises they are uncut and commercial free. This will be worth checking out when/if it expands to other devices.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

This week on Battle of the Network Shows...

One of the most versatile and talented icons of the 1970s...and Steve Martin.

Nah, we love 'em both! Click right here for this week's pod.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

My Favorite Batmans (or should it be my favorite Batmen)?

Years ago, as I have explained before, I went through a brief phase in which I was embarrassed by the attention the 1966 Adam West Batman got and how that vision of the character crowded out all others in the eyes of the general public. Eventually, it hit me: So what?

There are many different versions of Batman, and I enjoy just about all of them! I was Batman for Halloween last month--sort of--and while my costuming was more reminiscent of Licensing Batman (McDonald's mask) plus 1966 Batman (t-shirt) plus Zorro (cape--hey, it worked in a pinch), my characterization was mostly the Adam West persona. Why? Well, it was more fun, people responded to it, and it's kind of a pain to talk like Christian Bale all day.

What, then, are my favorite versions of Batman? Here is my ranking. If I leave any off, it's probably because they don't stand enough out to me or I just don't enough about them. For example, I don't read New 52 Batman, so there is no current comics Batman here. I revisit this ranking every few years, so I do reserve the right to change my mind:

1) 1970s/1980s Comic Book Batman: I grew up reading the adventures of a Batman who was cool, with  it, dark when he needed to be, but basically a pretty good dude. Oh, he struggled with the sociopathic tendencies instilled by seeing his parents murdered in front of his eyes as a child...but they didn't define him.

I generally think of this Batman--MY comic book  Batman--as the Jim Aparo version. Nothing against Neal Adams Batman, but I loved Aparo's rendering, and Brave and the Bold was one of my favorite comic books (Bats AND another superhero each issue!).

2) Licensing Batman: Very similar to 1970s/1980s Comic Book Batman in my mind because Batman was everywhere when I was growing up, and that Batman looked very much like my comic version. I still find this one everywhere, on t-shirts, magnets, and even on stuff like cups. In fact, I am still bummed that I burned the bottom off my kick-ass tall Licensing Batman plastic cup I bought at Wal-mart a few years ago.

3) DC Animated Universe Batman: The Paul Dini version, more or less, right? This is like the version we wanted to see on screen. He's maybe a little darker than the one I grew up in, but it works. Voice actor Kevin Conroy's characterization over the years has been an outstanding asset. In short, this Batman rules.

4) 1966 Adam West Batman: But so does this one! Yes, he's silly, but you know what? He's also morally sound and dedicated to the cause of justice--a perfect role model. If this were the ONLY Batman around, we might have a beef, but why fret over a funny Bats?

5) Super Friends and other 1970s/1980s Animated Batman: Pretty bland, truth be told, but as a kid, that only made it easier for me to project my vision of Batman on him. Even the Filmation incarnation voiced by Adam West fit right in to this world. Slightly less charismatic than 1) and 2)

6) Brave and the Bold Animated Series Batman: Deidrich Bader surprised me with this one. The only reason it's not higher is the show's relative lack of broader impact and longevity.

7) 1950s/1960s Comic Book Batman: Just like the era he represents: Stolid, blocky, prone to bizarre fantasies involving monsters and space aliens.  Uh...I think I was going for something there that didn't quite come together.

8) Post-Frank Miller's Dark Knight (sometimes kind of a jerk) Comic Book Batman: I haven't read enough Batman comics over the last 10 years to make a judgment, and even in the 1990s on, my comic reading was spotty, but I am combining those Batmans with the post-Crisis one who did stuff like punch out Guy Gardner in Justice League. He wasn't always a total butthead, but he could be kind of a pill, especially as the years went on.

9) Golden Age Batman: Sure, he looks crude by modern standards, but we have to show love for this primitive Caped Crusader. He was offing hoods long before it was trendy.

I have an affinity for the comic books, and the movie guys just don't compare. Hence their placement at the bottom of my list:

10) Christian Bale Batman: The best movie Batman, IMO, though the voice thing still gets to me sometimes.

11) Michael Keaton Batman: He had the advantage of low expectations but did a tremendous job all things considered. I think he could go up on my list next time I see the Tim Burton films.

12) Dark Knight Batman: Frank Miller's version of the character set a template for years of stories to come, and the original miniseries is still a fascinating product of its time. However, it just doesn't "feel" like Batman to me...

13) George Clooney Batman: ...but at least it's not the Clooney Batman. I don't necessarily think Clooney is terrible, but, jeez, would you want to see it again?

14) Old Movie Serials Batman: Often laughable, but they tried. I can't for the life of me remember the difference between Lewis Wilson (the first serial) and Robert Lowery (from the second), and I can't say that I want to expend a whole  lot of effort to do so.

(Note: If it's not on this list, I didn't see it and/or it didn't make enough of an impression. I haven't yet seen Ben Affleck Batman, for example, and something like Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier Batman might have placed had he appeared more often)

Monday, November 14, 2016

Hazel: The Early Years: Episode 1, "Hazel and the Playground"

Finally it's time to begin our episode-by-episode look at the inaugural season of Hazel, the 1961-1966 sitcom based on a comic panel by Ted Post about the know-it-all (that phrase is harsh, but she IS) live-in maid of the Baxter family. We will revisit the Early Years, that is Season 1, when the show was in glorious black and white, courtesy of the Sony DVD set. This week it's "Hazel and the Playground," a show that does a lot to establish the Hazelverse.

I do regret that there isn't a true Hazel Burke origin story. What I wouldn't give for an episode with flashbacks to a young Hazel, just out of Maid College (I know, but bear with me), maybe with, oh, Noreen Corcoran or Sheila James trying to do Shirley Booth's mannerisms. Instead, we see a fine debut outing that features many of the hallmarks of the series: Hazel going on a crusade, Mr. Baxter showing exasperation (I said it before, I'll say it again: Nobody, and I mean nobody does "taken aback" like Don Defore), coincidences-a-plenty, and of course Hazel using her body to get what she wants from a man.

Say what?

We'll get to that in a minute.  There are other important aspects of this first installment of the show. For example, we learn that Mr. Baxter is an amiable but workaholic corporate lover and that his wife Dorothy (Hazel, who has known her since she was a wee lass, still calls her Missy). That's an important bit of info because while George's business interests seem to run counter to Hazel's agenda every episode, it's easy to forget Dorothy actually has a part-time vocation.

We also meet the Baxter's hapless neighbors  the Johnsons, a well-meaning but inept older couple who are lost without their own maid, Phoebe. In "Hazel and the Playground," Hazel "The Toe" Burke kicks a football that lands right in the Johnson's chimney, causing their living room to fill up with smoke. As the elderly couple discusses what to do, we learn that Phoebe has the day off. By the time the idea of "opening the windows" occurs to them, there's so much smoke in there I expect the camera to pan to reveal Edward R. Murrow in an easy chair.

So let's talk about Hazel as a physical specimen.  Oh, don't worry, we'll get to her using her feminine wiles later--and I will keep it PG--but my immediate focus is her supreme athleticism. The first ever scene of the series  depicts Hazel encountering a young girl  on the sidewalk and asking her f she's made her own hopscotch squares. The girl says, nah, she's too old for hopscotch. Well, Hazel ain't!

WITH groceries, no less!

I believe the scene is designed by screenwriters William Cowley and Peggy Chantler Dick (both would write dozens of subsequent episodes), to demonstrate Hazel is sassy, feisty, and not a staid, stuffy domestic. What it really proves is she is a world-class athlete.

Later, when young  Harold asks Mr. B  to teach him how to placekick a football, Dad begs off because he's prepping for an important business meeting. So Hazel volunteers to show Harold how it's done, noting that after graduating high school (not Maid College?) she did a year of semi-pro.  Defore's reaction is priceless:

"You know, I wouldn't put it past her!"

Hazel gives Harold first crack at kicking the football, and while I am not a cruel man and I do not loathe child actors, part of me did wish she would yank the football away so Bobby Buntrock would flail and land flat on his  back with a large thud. It's much less dramatic, though: Harold whiffs, then Hazel shows off her classic straight-on kicking style and booms the pigskin into the Johnson's chimney.

A skilled hopscotcher, a talented placekicker...impressive. But Hazel's true calling is bowling, and she displays her abilities in this episode by winning a local tournament on live TV (Remember this kind of thing next time you lament the days when there were only a few channels) with 3 consecutive strikes--the final one left-handed!

She uses the post-game interview (What would a locally televised live bowling competition be without a post-game interview?) to lobby the audience to sign a petition to convert half of a local botanical garden to a playground so that she doesn't have to kick footballs into chimneys anymore. And you thought bowling and local politics didn't mix.

Now the moment we've all been waiting for, the moment that may get this post stricken from browsers with "safe search"  options. Backing it up a bit, Hazel learns in order to get a playground, she has to talk with the local Park Commissioner.  When told it will be tough to persuade him, a confident Hazel says she ought to wear her flower print, "the one that shows off my figure so good." Not only that she gives Mr. B a literal nudge and wink.

And she does makes sure that commish sees her! Ooh la la!


Her meeting is inconclusive, as she doesn't get tangible help but does learn she needs 5,000 signatures to get a referendum on the ballot for the election that happens to be taking place in a week (Remember what I said about coincidences?).  I wouldn't be surprised, though, if Hazel ended up collecting 5.000 signatures...and one phone number!

Then Mr. Baxter tells her how hard it is to draw up a legal referendum, and she casually relates she had a judge do it that morning. You  know, the one she met when she was foreman of a  jury a few months ago--the judge who was :kind of sweet on her."

HEY, NOW! At this point, I can't help but wonder what I have gotten myself into. I am not sure I am prepared for the rawness of the Early Years of this presumably innocent sitcom.

There really is a lot going on in "Hazel and the Playground," and I am leaving out many plot details, but it's a fine kickoff (sorry) to the series. Rewatching it for this post, I was surprised how many familiar staples of the show were evident right from the beginning.

I can't leave without one final screencap, though. A triumphant Hazel gives Mr. Baxter's client the honor of making the first kick at the new playground, which has a dedicated "Place-kick practice area." Somehow I think that detail didn't find its way into the actual referendum.

After using helium to inflate the football (be thankful I am making no Tom Brady  jokes here, folks), the middle-aged businessman makes his kick, and look at what happens:

You really have to see it to appreciate the little cartoon football, but...special effects, baby! Who needs fancy CGI when you have old-school animation like this?

I think "Hazel and the Playground" is a great premiere, establishing the characters and the tone of the series in fine fashion. What do you think?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Streaming Video Power Rankings: Week 33

Did you stream more or less video this week with everything else  happening? I intended to sit down and watch random stuff on YouTube for no reason, then got sucked into political coverage Tuesday night. Here's to hoping the country moves forward and comes together behind a cause everyone supports: griping about Netflix.

1) Netflix: Yes, we continue to complain about the shrinking Netflix catalog, and it never has enough new movies we want to watch. Yet it sure has a heck of a lot of new content. This week alone, we got some documentary/drama series (What the hell does that mean?) about the Roman Empire (and really, had any of you even heard about this project before this week?), another season of its King  Julian cartoon (that's 4! Seriously, do you realize this stuff is even on Netflix?), A Kathleen Madigan standup special, a new Kevin James movie, And Sing Street, not a Netflix original, but the latest from director John Carney. It's enough to keep Netflix at the top this week.

2) Hulu: To tell the truth, I think Hulu kind of took this week off, but it's nice to have it around if you missed your favorite shows while watching/reacting to you know what this week.

3) Pub-D-Hub: A solid roster of adds last week, including a movie I watched: The Devil Diamond from Conn Pictures with the immortal team of Kane Richmond and Frankie Darro--a cheap programmer complete with sudden jumps due to the poor quality of the print. In other words, exactly the kind of entertainment we want from Pub-D-Hub.

I also enjoyed some new election coverage..from 1980 and 1948.

4) YouTube: Well, just because I didn't sit down and waste 3 hours on YT Tuesday night doesn't mean I couldn't have. I saw plenty of other good stuff throughout the week, and YT hasn't done anything to annoy me in a few weeks, so it stays high on the charts.

5) Amazon Prime: Considering I don't actually subscribe, AP has to do big things to rate so high in the weekly rankings. Red Oaks returns this weekend, and I enjoyed season 1. Plus I read Amazon is producing several animated Christmas specials. I am all in favor of streaming services stepping up and doing what the broadcast networks don't do anymore. Maybe one of them can create a new enduring classic.

Finally, I just read about an upcoming David O. Russell series to star Bobby De Niro and Julianne Moore. Are you kidding me?  Sure, that ballyhooed Woody Allen series generated zero excitement (I had to double-check that it actually premiered already), but this is an even bigger deal.

6) Warner Archive Instant:  I give it a generous boost to #6 because hours after posting last week's rankings, I noticed that WAI did add a bunch of new content recently and it did alert people in the form of a post on the new "News" section of its website. Good for you, Warner Archive.

On the flip side, that was two weeks ago and nothing has been added since, you still can't tell what's new on the Roku site, and the buffering on the Roku version of the channel is infuriating.

7) Shout! Factory TV: Added another "Best of the MDA Telethon" special, a compilation of Jerry Lewis moments.  It also announced it would stream a Turkey Day MST3K marathon with hosts original (Joel) and new (Jonah Ray of the upcoming relaunch).

8) Tune In: I am discovering that on certain channels, if you listen long enough, you discover they have a definite standard rotation. There are plenty of other channels, though! And for those of you who skipped my Rick Astley post on Wednesday, hey, I actually listened to several of the guy's songs this week.

9) The CW: Where else can I watch The Flash and Supergirl? Uh, you know, besides the actual CW, I mean. By the way, I got excited when I read that sister SVOD service CW Seed added V, but then I realized it was the ABC reboot, not the original NBC miniseries (or the continuing series). Bummer.

10) HBO Now: It's cool that HBO is promoting an upcoming Sesame Street holiday special, and Tracy Ullman is back with her umpteenth series, but really I am ranking this because I am sure some people will want to check out Bill Maher and John Oliver this week.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

5 things you didn't know about Rick Astley (Rick reads Entertainment Weekly So You Don't Have to)

I chuckled at finding an article on 80s superstar (it wasn't all fun and games back then, kids) Rick Astley in Entertainment Weekly recently. I don't know if he really is a humble. decent guy, but he sounds like one in the article. Here are 5 things I learned:

1) Astley turned 50 in February, and that's the name of his new album. 50, that is, not February. Hey, wouldn't it be great if someone released an album called February in the fall?

OK, this item isn't all that interesting, but it IS news to me. It'll get better.

2) Astley turned to music to escape a somewhat dark childhood, including a broken home.

3) The producers who discovered Astley in England put him to work as a "tea boy," which is apparently NOT some kind of euphemism.

4) He developed a fear of flying at the height of his fame, and he now believes it was a subconscious desire to get out of the business. So he became a stay-at-home dad.

5) He slowly got back into performing when he accepted an offer to play dates in Japan, mainly so his family could tour the country. Now he tours, playing his hits alongside covers like "Highway to Hell." WHAT?

Am I a Rick Astley fan? No. Am I going to seek out this new album? No. Am I--wait, what was my point again?

Ah, yes. My point was that I actually enjoyed this article by Clark Collis, and to Rick Astley, I say, fair play, mate. Good luck to you.

Plus I was listening to 1980s light hits lately, and I heard Astley's "It Would Take a Strong Strong Man" TWICE. I can't get it out of my head! I hope this post purges it somehow.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Brooks on Books: Into the Dark: The Hidden World of Film Noir 1941-1950

This is a stunning, hefty collection of beautiful pictures of perhaps the COOLEST film genre of all: film noir. It's branded with the TCM logo, and it does justice to The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind.  I was going to say something mildly derogatory at the beginning of this post, but I love the book so much, I want to express how great it is first before I offer a faint criticism.

Into the Dark is great for what it is. The one thing I take some  exception to is the intro by author Mark Vieira.  He says this is the first book to tell the story of noir in its own voice, and he makes what appear to be some pretty big pronouncements about what the text accomplishes. The thing is, the format of the book makes it impossible to be quite as comprehensive as he makes it sound. My advice is to sit back and enjoy the book for what it actually is.

What it is: A collection of entries about 80-some films. The main attraction is the array of gorgeous publicity photos, given to us in glorious black and white (an occasional color pic, like a great one for Out in the Past, shows up) with suitable credit to the set photographers. One could leaf through the book, only viewing these shots, and enjoy the experience. I can't say a whole lot about the illustrated portion of Into the Dark. It's fantastic, and you need to see it to appreciate it.

However, Vieira combed through archival materials to offer outstanding tidbits for each movie. Some entries are bigger than others, but most are about 2-3 pages with the actual text making up about a third or a half of the total entry. For each film, after citing the studio and release date, Vieira lists basic credits, including cinematographer and source material in addition to producer, director, screenwriter, and cast. There is a one-sentence plot summary. Then the fun begins.

In each section, Vieira includes samplings from these categories: Production Quote (archival comment taken from trade paper or The Los Angeles Times or internal studio correspondence); Reviews (quotes from contemporary reviews, usually from The LAT or The New York Times); Letter from Regional Theater Owner (self-explanatory, usually from a trade pub like Motion Picture Herald and usually from some small southern or Midwestern town); and Artist Comment (quote from someone connected to the production, usually with the benefit of some historical perspective).

Each category is fascinating. The Production Quotes offer some alternate histories in their reportage of concepts that changed during filmmaking and roles that were recast. The review excerpts are a riot, but after reading so many negative reviews, you start to wonder why Vieira uses NYT critic Bosley Crowther so much. He's so down on so many (now) classics, I wonder if a wider selection of voices would have given a richer picture of the development of noir.

Similarly, the Letter from Regional Theater Owner bit is almost always compelling, and overall it gives a strong impression that these unsettling crime-based movies we love so much were not at all beloved in "flyover country." But with just one comment for each movie, it doesn't seem like a representative sample.

At the end of each film's text section, when it's available, is the budget and gross of each picture. This is a fabulous addition to each entry, but it's frustrating when it's nor available. For example, Key Largo, the 1948 Bogey/Bacall/Robinson flick, is an iconic Warner Brothers classic. It would be nice to see the numbers for it, especially after seeing that a Missouri theater owner called it an "average show that should have done much better business."

Another brief feature that offers valuable context is Vieira's opening to each year. He arranges the noirs in chronological order and opens each calendar year with a Report on the Crime Story Cycle, something excerpted from a piece that appeared at that time (usually from the LAT), followed by Looking Back at Film Noir, an excerpt taken from a later source (Example: Film Noir Reader 3) and also touching on broader themes.

Frankly, the only thing really "wrong" with Into the Dark is that it isn't twice as long.  I would love to see more movies (though Vieira really covers the big ones and also some relative rarities), more text, more everything. The book is brilliantly designed, beautiful  on every page, and a blast to read. I'd love to see a sequel or even a similar book devoted to, say, screwball comedies.

(Note:   Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to find the book at my library, but the $40.00 MSRP does not seem too far out of line considering the book's heft and production quality, though I do wonder if the $22 Kindle price is out of whack considering how the photo quality seems appropriate for print.)

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Streaming Video Power Rankings: Week 32

The only thing scarier than some of what I saw on Halloween would be another Netflix price increase. Fortunately that didn't happen this week. We DID see a host of new titles arrive with the first of the month.

1) Netflix: This week's first-of-the month update was lame, but that is standard procedure these days. The thing is, even with a weak catalog drop, there is so much else going on that Netflix still gets the top spot.

For one thing, the mega-expensive original series The Crown dropped this weekend. Is it any good? I have no idea (though the reviews I saw were positive), but did I mention it's mega-expensive? Anything with that kind of production cost MUST be good, right? Gee, 140 million. That could have bought another few years of Quincy and Leave It to Beaver, I'd bet.

Other new premieres include a Dana Carvey special, some documentary action--Really this week seemed like something for everyone. Today a smattering of Disney movies "premiered," but this isn't a big deal because they were on Netflix before and never should have been removed in the first place.

2) Hulu: The only good thing about this interminable election season is the fact that new Triumph the Insult Comic Dog specials keep popping up and surprising me. Also, a lot of kid/tween movies showed up lately from both Nickelodeon AND Disney (insert my usual remark about the odd nature of that Disney/Netflix deal). All this plus ongoing fall TV, some MTV Networks series added, and a decent selection of catalog titles arriving at the beginning of the month.

3) Shout! Factory TV: The monthly update is in a real rut: Dick Cavett episodes, two MST3K movies, a new addition to the Backlot series of extras culled from Shout! DVD releases, maybe a random special (this month, another one from the makers of last month's Witch's Night Out), and maybe an update to a variety series (this month, an addition to the Jerry Lewis telethon compilation category). Where are the movies and the old sitcoms?

That said, I had a blast watching a few things on Shout!, one of which I may write about more soon. Stay tuned. And unlike Shout!, I won't make you sit through 3 minutes of ads!

4) Pub-D-Hub: A nice final Halloween weekend, with radio shows, TV episodes, movies, and more tied into the season, elevated Pub-D-Hub this week even though I didn't get to watch anything on it.

5) YouTube: I had a great viewing week on here, catching several rarities, but then I noticed YT yanked several channels I subscribed to, including one on which I was in the middle of something. Boo! I have to admit, I figured the uploader was toast when he put up a whole batch, I'd rather not say. The moral is: If you see something you want to watch, watch it.

6) The CW: I am trying to catch up on several series at once, and I really appreciate the CW channel, but unlike when I first tried this, it's not resuming videos where I left off, and that I do NOT appreciate.

7) Tubi TV: Respectable assortment of titles added to this free service this month, but I am mostly happy I got to see the two 1980s animated Blondie specials. Seriously, folks, dig around here a while and you find all kinds of goofy stuff.

8) Amazon Prime: I forgot to mention new original series Good Girls Revolt last week, mainly because I knew nothing about it.

I still don't. but it's there!

So is The Night Manager, which kind of irritates me because I wanted to see it, and I hoped it would go to Netflix or Hulu.

9) Warner Archive Instant: In my free trial of the beta (It IS still beta, right? Even though they are taking paid customers?) relaunch, I find there is great content, but not enough of it, website functionality isn't there yet (Where is a newly added section?), and the buffering is often maddening. I still rank it because where else are you gonna stream Dr. Kildare and The George Raft Story?  I really, really hope they start putting more new-to-streaming movies in the mix soon, or no one's gonna be paying for more than a month at a time of this.

10) Filmstruck: Hey, it debuted! I have to say, it looks great for what it is. Perhaps after my free trial of WAI ends, I will look at this one. For now, the 6.99 version looks pretty good, and I imagine the 10.99 one will make a lot of people happy. Let's just hope its makers don't abandon it the way they did WAI.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

This Week on Battle of the Network Shows: DEATH PROBE!

This week we discuss a two-part episode for the first time!

Action! Intrigue! International tensions! All here on Battle of the Network Shows! DON'T  YA DARE MISS IT!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Brooks on Books: Ahead of the Curve by Brian Kenny

Longtime ESPN/MLB Network personality Brian Kenny is often confrontational in his new book, Ahead of the Curve, but he does not attack individuals. He attempts to expose lazy analysis, using specific examples to lay out entertaining arguments against outdated conventional wisdom. Kenny's book is lively and entertaining throughout, and it never seems shrill nor unfair. Instead, it is a fun volume that ultimately stands for something more than it does against something--and what it supports is critical thinking.

It was particularly interesting to read Ahead of the Curve during this 2016 Major League Baseball postseason, when one of Kenny's big points--the benefits of revisiting bullpen usage--was being played out before a national audience as managers like Terry Francona summoned top relievers early in the game rather than waiting for traditional spots like the beginnings of late innings. This issue is a great example of what the book accomplishes--Kenny doesn't just try to persuade you that managing for the save stat (and holding your closer in reserve unless it's a save situation) is wrong. He demonstrates why using your best pitchers in high-leverage situations, even in the fifth inning, is optimal. If that isn't enough, Kenny also examines why so many managers DO refuse to use their best relief pitchers if it's not the ninth inning, showing the history of bullpen usage throughout baseball and how it changed.

Kenny does not just throw numbers at you, though he does use cogent advanced stats where they fit and explains them with clarity. He reaches back into the early days of the sport to show, for example, why pitching staffs were handled so differently then and why that traditional approach is no longer the best way. The result blends history and modern baseball with intelligent analysis, all with vivid real-life examples.  Although Kenny is sensitive to critiques of "statheads" ruining the game, he is not defensive; he anticipates common counterarguments and exposes them, often revealing that advanced sabermetrics helps the game rather than ruins it. Without modern analysis, many deserving players would be overlooked or perhaps not even get a chance because of our inherent human biases to certain physical types or things that our minds can see more easily.

Some of Kenny's big suggestions are: Throw away the win as a pitching statistic, ignore errors, deemphasize batting average. These ideas become more and more mainstream each season. Kenny also forecasts a day when  baseball teams are managed by committee, with the charismatic square-jawed traditional leader supplemented by specialists who focus on offense, defense, and other areas of the game.

My favorite chapters deconstruct MVP and Hall of Fame votes and make a case for reevaluating the way they are approached. Again, his ideas sound a lot less unconventional than they would have even 5 years ago, but Kenny's style is so lucid and--let me use this word again--entertaining that it will leave you thinking, "Yeah! Isn't this obvious?"

Kenny does not want you to think just like HE does, though. Quite the opposite--he wants baseball fans and especially sportswriters and analysts who are PAID to look at the sport to avoid groupthink. Ahead of the Curve makes an excellent case for rejecting old ways of looking at things, or at least for not continuing the same ways just because they have always been used.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Instant Gratfication Theater: Was on PBS, then on Netflix...uh, and then not on Netflix anymore

One of the best ways to watch PBS programming, if  you can wait a little bit (more like if you miss it the first time because there is no video on demand component for public broadcasting on your provider, but let's move on from that), is via Netflix. No commercials, no pledge breaks, no muss...Only thing is, it ain't gonna last.

This post is a roundup of stuff I watched on Netflix because it was about to expire. One of these (I'll give you a subtle hint when we get there) actually STILL is on Netflix because I watched IT on the PBS Roku channel. OK, now I'm confusing myself.

Mel Brooks: Make a Noise: An excellent edition of American Masters with the usual blend of archival footage and insightful contemporary interviews. I gotta say, folks, I had some mild Mel Brooks Fatigue--not Mel Brooks material, per se, but specials about Mel Brooks--which is probably why I put this one off so long. I'm glad I finally got around to it.  It's a solid overview of his entire career and covers some things I hadn't seen in other recent specials, like talk about Get Smart.

Richard Pryor: Icon: This one doesn't quite transcend my Richard Pryor Fatigue.  Again, it's not that I'm tired of seeing Richard Pryor perform. It's just that it feels like there is a new tribute/documentary about him each year. No real depth or new insight, but if you're a fan, it's an easy watch if you get a chance.

The Black Kung Fu Experience: Doomed from the start. Why? I thought it was about African-American kung fu movies of the 1970s, the documentary started with some cool footage of African-American kung fu movies of the 1970s, but then it was "only" about actual dudes doing kung fu in real  life. It may well be a great piece of work, but I just wasn't feeling it after experiencing the letdown.

An Honest Liar: NOTE: THIS ONE IS STILL ON NETFLIX! I highly recommend this profile of noted debunker of paranormal frauds James "The Amazing" Randi. It chugs along as a compelling and informative biography of its subject, and then, wham, suddenly becomes about broader issues. It will catch you off guard in a good way if you go into it with as much ignorance as I did (to be fair, that is how I approach most subjects, not entirely by choice).