Thursday, October 30, 2014

THE TALKATHONIES PT. 4: JOE PYNE


Not many remember Joe Pyne now--he is generally ignored when people discuss the birth of conservative talk radio/TV. But ask anyone who remembers him and they will tell you that he was the father of 'in-your-face' talk television--though he began as a radio host. He was insulting people on TV long before it became hip or even simply normal. His program was quite literally "shocking", verbally and physically aggressive. Bob Grant was given his start by Pyne, who asked Grant to take over his radio show when Pyne moved into TV--it's strange to think of these guys as having or beings mentors in this field, but Pyne encouraged Grant (and others) to take up his singular and shocking style.


Pyne was a strange and seemingly dangerous guy--urban legends circulated about him, including one (which was true) about his having a wooden leg (World War 2 accident) which not everybody believed.  Pyne worked in radio on a number of small East Coast stations before he got his first television show in Deleware. He left for California in the late 1950s and, after a stint on LA radio, got a late night talk show on KTLA-TV.

Pyne was perhaps the first angry conseervative to let it all out on TV. He abhored hippies, homosexuals, draft-dodgers and used a trademark phrase "go gargle with razor-blades" to hang up on callers (he sometimes used it face-to-face with guests).  There were physical altercations on his show and all manner of dangerous and unsavory guests--he had on Manson family followers as well as Klan members. His show was so popular that it eventually was syndicated to over 200 markets.  But the cigarettes wound up doing to him just what they say on the side of every pack they are capable of doing to you. Lung Cancer took him out, age 45, in 1970.

 

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

THE TALKATHONIES PT. 3: MORE BOB GRANT


Bob Grant 
Two more Bob Grant items today--a complete show from about six months after the 9/11 attacks, plus a tribute compilation. Grant died last year and a slew of the top "talkers"--Limbaugh, Stern, Sean Hannity, Opie and Anthony, Michael Savage--all took time on their shows to pay their respects to the one who started all of them on the road to ranting, raving, screaming, abusing, demeaning, destroying, accusing etc. etc.





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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

THE TALKATHONIES PART 2: MEET BOB GRANT

Bob Grant came to WMCA radio in 1970 and set the airwaves ablaze with his slashing attacks on liberals and his angry catchphrase, 'Get off my phone!'

Long before the advent of Rush Limbaugh, there was Bob Grant, a legendary New York "conservative"talk radio host who broadcast on WOR for much of the 1970s before leaving for WABC in the eighties and, after getting fired, returned to WOR again in the 90s. (One of his firings was due to his having referred to New York's African-American Mayor David Dinkins as "that mens room attendant"). Grant's act is largely one of yelling at callers who call in with political gripes or complaints about Grant himself. He eschews the long monologue format of Limbaugh, though he does occasionally drift into a ruminative state of mind, and has no sidekick or news segment or even, very often, guests. (Though he did, apparently, have David Dukes on a number of times. Hm.) He accuses most callers who speak with accents of being in the country illegally, contemptuously calling them "pal" before screaming "get off my phone!" and moving onto the next caller. Though Grant always opened the show with the claim that it was everyone's right to "be heard", and that was what the function of his show was, the calls would immediately degenerate into abuse and tirades. (I have a theory that this is where Fox News "fair and balanced" shtick came from--a kind of wink at Grant's own completely false claim at the top of his show). It's his complete lack of courtesy or even interest in any other point of view than his own that I find so bleakly hilarious.

bob grant 660.jpgGrant made national headlines in 1996 when he was fired again for mocking the plane crash death of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. You may (or may not) remember that there was a slim chance of hope for survivors of the crash and Grant speculated that he thought Brown might be alive. Then he added: "That's because I'm essentially a pessimist".

It's odd to hear how much more moderate old 'conservative talk' was--the below clips are from the early 1990s and, save for some prickly nationalism and insulting third world slurs, Grant sounds basically like a right-leaning liberal. But it was really something of an act--the joy of Grant's show is his increasingly irascible and unreasonable attitudes toward the callers, many of whom appear to enjoy the abuse. Like him or loathe him, Grant is an excellent example of what makes a true broadcaster; he has the ability to make you want to stay and here what he's going to say next.


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Monday, October 27, 2014

THE TALKATHONIES: A MINI-HISTORY OF TALK RADIO




This week, I'm going to be posting various videos relating to a new, inexplicable interest of mine, the history of talk radio. Opening up the phone lines to the listeners goes back to the 1950s when, before the technology was available to actually hear the callers voices, a man named Ben Hunter (pictured above...duh) on KFI radio in Los Angeles, took calls and simply repeated the callers comments for his audience to hear, before answering them and engaging in a one-sided conversation. Ludicrous as this sounds, it was a popular enough breakthrough to hasten the development of the technology necessary to perfect the format.

Here's a very nice article on Hunter and the talk radio breakthrough he created on an overnight show called The Night Owl Club. Hunter later became the host of KTTV's Movie Matinee, which showed an old movie every weekday from 12 to 3PM--guests generally followed, along with a Laurel and Hardy short. I wrote about Hunter a few months ago--along with some general reminiscences of LA local movie shows of the 1970s.

One of the necessarily sad things about talk radio as an art form (and I think it qualifies as such) is that it's instantly obsolete, trafficking as it does in the current moment. Thus there appear to be no tapes of Hunter's old show out there. But plenty of radioheads collect what they can and post it on Youtube so in the coming days I'll share whatever I find on this little journey of mine. Meanwhile, dig some LA radio jingles of the past...



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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

THE ORSON WELLES SUNSHINE AND MAGIC HOUR

Below I've posted two clips which, together, give us a view of Welles that is both amusing and sad. First is the infamous audio of Welles at a voiceover session, destroying the director and in general behaving abominably (though it's hard not to empathize with him, given the annoying and confusing direction he's being given). No matter how many times you've heard this very famous clip, it remains freshly cruel and hilarious.

But the second clip I've posted tells us a somewhat darker story. It's a sketch from a 1982 Billy Crystal Comedy Hour in which John Candy plays Welles. It's clear that his rendering of Welles--boorish, rude to technicians and dismissive of other's feelings--is based on knowledge of the audio tapes. And the audiences laughter at the routine suggests that they, too, are in on the Welles tapes. The question is HOW? There was no Youtube to spread the word back then. Weird audio was strictly black market stuff--I know because I used to collect non-Kermit Schaeffer bloopers from various strange sources. Had the original Welles tapes somehow surfaced and lowered the public's opinion of the great man even further?

Public perception of Welles was never lower than in this time period--just a few years before his death. I'm not talking about cineastes but about the mainstream audience--the ones who once-upon-a-time thrilled to his "War of The Worlds" broadcast. Clearly, from the laughter generated by Candy's cruel portrayal, Welles was considered bloated, self-loving, arrogant and rude. Maybe he knew this and didn't care. As he commented to somebody (Bogdanovich? Jaglom?) once: "Oh how they'll love me when I'm dead.

Here's the Welles audio:


And here's the John Candy/Billy Crystal...



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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

THE PECKINPAH ANSWER TO THE ETERNAL QUESTION: WHAT DOES A DIRECTOR REALLY DO?

Here's a brilliant sequence from Sam Peckinpah's "Cross Of Iron" (1977) which, when compared to what was actually scripted, beautifully shows exactly what a great director does with a screenplay that they didn't write. Although Peckinpah was a writer (for awhile) before he became a director, it's clear that he feels little fidelity with the shot-by-shot pacing, description and general dramatization of legendary screenwriter Julius Epstein's attempt at this particular sequence. Indeed, far from struggling with what Epstein--in a script at one time known as "Sergeant Steiner"--wrote, Peckinpah both discards it and takes the most important elements of it and endeavors to create something wildly more ambitious than the writer initially conceived of.  Peckinpah keeps the moral (and in many ways the most important) conflict at center stage while simultaneously(Christ knows how) developing an arresting, visually brilliant and strikingly poignant action sequence out of the tragic circumstances of this particular battle. Trust me when I say that, regardless of any knowledge of the film you may have, you will find this one of the truly most emotional, tragic and moral battle sequences ever created. And it's edited like a motherfucker.

Click here and go to pages 99/100 of the original "Sergeant Steiner" script  to read the two page version of the scene in which a very self-serviing German commander, in search of the all-important military award known as the "Cross Of Iron" decides to fire upon his own men (I simply don't have the energy to explain the plot in any more detail...but one of the great triumphs of Peckinpah's sequence is that you kind of don't need to know much of the plot...he gives it up in his own inimitably organized yet still whacked version of events).

Question: how drunk could Peckinpah truly have been to pull of a scene of this exquisite mastery this late in his career? Was a lot of it an act? Or was he the kind of artist who does his best work just as the fall has begun--assuming that there's nothing left to prove and nobody important enough to not make an enemy of?

The hell with it. Dig one of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed. And let's all learn what a really great director actually does.



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Thursday, September 4, 2014

OTTO PREMINGER: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN DOORMAT

So much of Otto Preminger's persona was severe and forbidding--the shiny bald skull, the tantrums, the thick Vienesse accent, the unrelenting work ethic--that I can't help but put him in the Jack Webb bin, which is to say that the more I think of it, the more Preminger's act seems to be a highly evolved form of comedy. Otto the Terrible was, in fact, a warm-hearted family man who clearly enjoyed his own persona and didn't mind sending it up here and there. I'm not saying that he wasn't really monstrous--clearly he could reduce co-workers to a dithering shambles of their former selves--but merely that he was his own best creation.

Comedy is noticebly absent from his canon--his one straight up attempt, "Skidoo", was a notorious flop when it was released in 1968. The film is a collision course between old Hollywood (Preminger and his stars, who include Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, George Raft, Groucho Marx, Peter Lawford, Mickey Rooney) and the hippie counter-culture (the music is by the very young Harry Nillson, Frankie Avalon is in it, etc.) Though long deplored as one of mainstream Hollywood's worst movies ever, "Skidoo" turned up at a film festival in Hollywood a few years ago and seemed to provoke an affectionate response. The film is posted on Youtube in ten parts and one can now judge (for free) the actual quality of the film versus its reputation. ( I must confess to having started out watching it with great enthusiasm only to turn it off at the end of part two). Clearly Preminger meant well by doing the film--it seemed, to the screenwriter Doran Canon, that the material spoke to the gentle and humorous Otto that was buried beneath the formal and cool exterior. You can't possibly go out and make a film with Groucho Marx playing a gangster named "God" and not, underneath it all, be something of a renegade yourself.

I had my own encounter with Preminger--in a manner of speaking. Actually it was with his house. In a manner of speaking. That is, it was with an article that belonged to the house. Dig:

Preminger's title sequences and poster art were famously designed by Saul Bass--and very cool/hip/ultra-sleek they were, too. So pleased with Bass's work was the director that he incorporated the designer's aesthetic into his personal life as well. Bass designed the lettering on the door of Preminger's offices at 711 Fifth Avenue (black doors, small white lettering: o t t o p r e m i n g e r.) Preminger's taste was severely modern--his home and office were identically decorated with only white and black furniture, Eames chairs, marble tables, and millions of dollars of modern art on the walls. Lots of speaker-phones (then very cutting edge) and Henry Moore sculptures. At his townhouse on East 64th Street (which sort of resembled Preminger--it was tall, hulking and bald looking), he had Bass design small white lettering with the address (1 2 9 E a s t 6 4) on the black front door, and a giant doormat, with the letter "P" on it, done in Bassian script. The house is a mere ten blocks from where I have resided, on and off over the years, in Manhattan.


One day, about five or so years after Preminger's death, I was passing the house and noticed that it seemed deserted. (It's since been sold and completely remodled in a fussy, Empire style that Preminger would have loathed). The Bass lettering was intact on the door, as was the monogrammed doormat. I looked at the doormat and thought, "what the hell is going to become of this artifact?" So I did what any self-respecting film geek would do. I took it. 

I didn't just take it then and there, on the spot, though. I contrived an elaborate and cowardly scheme to snatch it, involving a friend of mine (who was in on the robbery). My friend and I took a cab to the house, loudly discussing the renovation of the interior of Preminger's house that I had supposedly been hired to do. Then I garrulously explained that the doormat needed to be removed in order to be restored to its original glory. Further, I added that my assistant was off for the week and that it was a good thing we happened to be passing by the Preminger house as I could just jump out and take said doormat. By the time the cab pulled up to 129 East 64th, I had established an airtight alibi for my theft. Had the driver been questioned, he would have probably told a confusing story about two men who were renovating doormats. Doormat safely in hand, I had the cab take me back to my apartment.

For many years I hid the doormat guiltily in a closet. Later, when I moved to a house in LA, I took it with me, cleaned it and placed it on the front doorstep, turning it upside down so that the letter "P" now formed the letter "d"--which, of course, is the first letter of my last name. It sits there to this day. I wonder what happened to that friend of mine who helped me steal Otto's doormat? Anyway...


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Thursday, August 21, 2014

LIVE FROM SPAIN...IT'S ORSON WELLES

Blogging from European airports is always a delight, for reasons that I've never fully been able to pin down. Perhaps it's the combination of the remoteness of the on-line world with the remoteness of a foreign airport, the mid-journey lost-ness of it all, that sends me into weirdly euphoric states such as the one I'm in now. That, plus the eleven AM glass of Chardonnay which I've liberally helped myself too, courtesy of the Marco Polo lounge at Marco Polo airport, Venice, Italy.

Speaking of which: here is wonderful little film that I recently ran across on the now by-now indispensable Youtube. It's basically a pitch reel by Orson Welles shot in Spain (where he then lived) sometime in the 1960s (I think mid-decade, based on Welles weight). In it, he tells a group of unidentified people about a film he wants to make, concerning bullfighting and an aging filmmaker. It sounds like an early sketch of "The Other Side Of The Wind" except for the bullfighting stuff--Jake Hanneford, played by John Huston in OSOTW, is clearly being tried out here as a character Welles is interested in developing.

Welles describes to the seemingly agreeable (although perhaps slightly perplexed) audience the new method that he wants to deploy in making the film. Essentially: he wants to script a story but not share the script with actors. Instead he'll tell them each scene as they come to it and get them to improvise and respond realistically to each other within the framework of the scene that Welles has in mind. It's a very new-wave kind of idea, one that alas shows both Welles strengths and weaknesses at the same time; for though it's a wonderfully innovative and unusual approach to making a narrative film, it's also the kind of thing one doesn't necessarily lead with in a pitch. Indeed, one of the audience asks Welles if he isn't worried about this approach leading to "chaos". Welles brusquely assures the person that it will not, without explaining why it won't. The fact that the film never materialized perhaps can be accounted for by the very content of this pitch reel. Welles was never his own best salesman. Peter Bogdanovich once asked him why, with his considerable charm, he couldn't squeeze more money out of people. "I'm not a con-man," Welles replied, "I'm an escape artist!"

At this point in his career, Welles was scrambling for financing, a mission he would soon mostly abandon as he moved into self-financing his later works. Clearly this little reel didn't do the trick he'd hoped--was it ever shown to anyone? Who did he make this for? But it remains a wonderful look at the filmmaker as huckster, a genius coming up with yet another way to display his wares, hoping to generate enough excitement to once again practice his craft, as his road, never typical, grows rougher and rougher.




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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

LOGOS AND BUMPERS (AND HOW MUCH OF MY LIFE THEY CONSUMED)


Recently I wrote about the fabulous film school education I receieved--not at the American Film Institute (whose masters graciously bestowed an MFA upon me before tossing me into the mean streets of early 1990's Hollywood)--but from staring glassy-eyed, hour after hour, at local Los Angeles television in the 1970's and early 80's. Every local station aired movies--old features, old shorts, good and bad fifties and sixties television. In the days before cable, it was possible to catch almost all the necessary-to-be-seen movies on local TV--brutally cut up and, if in Scope, featuring horrible pan-and-scan work. (I often wondered if the job of panning-and-scanning the scope prints fell to the drunks...it seems like the kind of job somebody would be able to perform while inebriated and if they were no good at it, who could say? For there is truly no such things as a "good" pan-and-scan).

What I didn't realize until recently was how emotional my identification with the actual stations that showed these movies was. It makes sense, I suppose, that a young television watcher would find comfort and familiarity with certain trademarks that indicate that something enjoyable is coming up. But until discovering the following cache of logos, I.D.s and intros to movie shows, I had no idea that my real nostalgia for my childhood was centered on something so bitesized, so unsubstantial, so utterly without true artistic redemption. And yet, judging by the number of hits a lot of these clips get on Youtube, apparently I'm not the only child of television eager to revisit these iconographic snatches of the pre-cable, pre-DVD, pre-internet, pre-Iphone, pre-Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/Obama years.

First up is the ID from what I considered my "home station"--KTTV, Metromedia Channel 11. Although the below is technically from a mid-western affiliate, it's the same logo and music that I recall from thirty years ago. Viz:



Ahhhh, those pulsating "eleven, eleven, elevens". I am twelve and eating a complete box of doughnuts, drinking a carton of chocolate milk and awaiting "I Love Lucy". KTTV also had a strange sign-on, filled with facts and figures about their transmission which I used to occasionally catch--if awake too early or up too late--and was always perversely thrilled by. Did I ever think, though, that I would be watching this again, aged fifty...and on a computer? (Warning: it's proceeded by a commercial for a gambling/dining establishment in Gardena, California that runs a brief forty-five seconds.)


KHJ, channel 9, hosted an eight-o-clock movie as well as did KTLA, channel 5. Even though I preferred the latter (as it was heavy on Paramount movies from the 30' and 40's) I occasionally dabbled in the usually Universal Studios-based movies generally presented on KHJ. And on sick days, you could catch the KHJ Midday Movie--in case Ben Hunter was presenting something a little too lame on KTTV.



Here's a nice old KTLA Channel Five logo/bumper that makes me feel truly warm and fuzzy. I always liked the use of "Golden West Broadcasters" in the announcement, accompanied by the golden Channel five logo. Get it? Golden? And Golden?



I'll close this increasingly suspect trip down memory lane with the coolest of all opening movie-program bumpers--which happened to be for the worst of all movie programs. At 4:30 in the afternoons, ABC used to air a two hour movie in a ninety minute time slot with a half hour of commericals. Thus did I see any number of films--mostly sixties product and a good helping of Jerry Lewis (and strangely the George Hamilton starring "Evil Knievel" which seemed to never stop airing)--in "tab" versions. Imagine, editing a film down by fifty percent? The results were toothpicks out of what had once been wooden furniture--the films made little sense and often times the combination of late afternoon sloth, un-followable narrative and constant commericials, led me to simply doze through what was left of the movie. Nevertheless, the intro--and my desire to avoid Algebra homework--kept me coming back for more:


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Thursday, July 24, 2014

JACK WEBB: AMERICAN AUTEUR

What do we really know (or care) about the deeply misanthropic maverick television auteur, Jack   Webb? Mostly that he was Joe Friday on Dragnet. Perhaps that he created Dragnet as well. Some might even know that he was the creative force behind the bland and stupid "Adam-12", which he produced but didn't act in--and which bares little resemblance to the Webb-i-tude of the fifties and early sixties.

And what was that Webb-i-tude, exactly? Well, in my opinion, Jack Webb was the man James Ellroy dearly wishes to be and whose personality he adopts in his non-fiction writing. The crew-cut, tough-ass be-bopper who loves jazz, hates hippies, is one with Los Angeles cops, and takes no b.s. from anyone--unless it's a blonde and he might get laid. The mix of hard-core right wing values (very LA in the fifties) and smoked-out nights staring into drinks in which the ice has melted at Nickodells...you get the idea. Webb elevated squareness and it's icons (cops, military etc.) to a level of super-square that became hep, riffing relentlessly in his trademark monotone and using the camera as a sort of visual partner in his patter --dig the below clip from one of my old KTTV afternoon favorites, "The D.I.", where he plays a relentlessly abusive drill instructor. The camera is as fixed, monotonal and unforgiving as Webb's dialogue and delivery.



Webb was a California kid, born in Santa Monica and raised in Downtown LA, and was living in San Francisco at the time of his 'break'--some sort of radio announcer gig which he adroitly manipulated into a show called "Pat Novak For Hire," a radio series that presaged his later themes of straight but irreverent law enforcers talking turkey to a world full of liars. Indeed, Webb appears to have been something of a fearless self-starter. "Dragnet," which he created for himself, soon followed (after a few movie parts--he's the nice-guy assistant director who William Holden cuckolds in "Sunset Blvd."--a very un-Webbian part) and amazingly, within a couple of years of "Dragnet's" success, Webb was writing, directing, producing and starring in his own movies. He seemed to have no doubt about his abilities and quickly fashioned a series of vehicles tailored to his strengths. There simply were no other American auteurs around at that time--Webb was a one-man band who truly possessed a vision.

Probably his best, from my standpoint, is "Pete Kelly's Blues",  a very underrated mid-fifties (set in the twenties) gangland saga, featuring a fine perfomance (Oscar nominated) by the great Peggy Lee. (Other jazz greats can be seen in the film--Webb was a major jazz fan--including Ella Fitzgerald).

It was also something of a cottage industry for Webb. Apparently it began as a radio show which aired as a summer replacement show in 1951, then became the movie, then later a television series and of course spawned two albums which Webb produced--the above soundtrack featuring Peggy Lee and another called "Pete Kelly Lets His Hair Down". This later appeared as part of a compilation which Webb released, called "Just The Tracks, Maam". Which is further proof of my theory that Webb was, above all, a comedian at heart, one who enjoyed twisting the world to his own darkly humourous viewpoint and seeing who, if anyone, was hip to his game.

For awhile in the early fifties, Webb was married to the  ridiculously sultry and talented Julie London, a union which produced two daughters. After their divorce, she began recording albums and was groomed (I suppose you'd say) and managed by the singer/songwriter Bobby Troup. Then they got married. And they had kids. And then Jack Webb hired them both to be in his TV show "Emergency", which doesn't sound so weird now but forty years ago was about as tois as a menage could get and not be in violation of a morals clause. 

Does that sound extreme? Well dig this. When I was a kid growing up in LA, there was a restaurant on the Sunset Strip called the "Cock and Bull"--an English pub sort of place where they served really good, rare, roast beef. (When the nice, aging black guy in the big white hat cut your slice for you, he'd ask, "Old Jews?" Eventually we realized he was offering au jus...) Oftentimes we'd go there on a Sunday and there would be Jack Webb, sitting at the bar drinking and smoking. I recognized him from Dragnet, of course. (An important detail that for some reason caught my youthful eyes: he had two packs of cigarettes open on the bar. One regular and one menthol). Anyway one day my parents and I went for brunch and there, in plain sight, sat the Troup's dining with Webbs--and this absolutely fascinated my parents, who, despite being pretty hip themselves, were shocked that divorced couples could be socializing openly. I suppose it gave rise to thoughts of swapping, thoughts which perhaps were valid. 

I wish Webb had directed more movies--he had his own tough, articulate directorial style and I see and feel a humor in the entrenched humorlessness that can only be the deep, grimly knowing laugh of the true misanthrope. Alas, he made his fortune in television, producing boring seventies series like "Emergency", "Mobile One" and the aforementioned "Adam-12". These shows have none of Webb's own singular style--only his late sixites revival of "Dragnet" (the color version with Harry Morgan as his sidekick) brought back Webb in all his terse glory. And after all those cigarettes and drinks, Webb only made it to age sixty-two before succumbing to a heart attack that took him out of the game that he'd mastered once and for all. Below is the proof that deep down Webb knew it was all a bit of a sham. It's the classic "Copper Clapper Caper" bit that he did with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show in the early seventies.



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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

L.A. TELEVISION OF THE 70s: A COMPLETE FILM EDUCATION


(The below post was originally published in 2007, shortly after I began this never-ending experiment in blogdom. I forgot all about it until recently, when somebody I didn't know e-mailed me thanking me for having written this piece which brought back so many memories etc. etc. I went back in the archives and found, somewhat remarkably, that people had been posting comments on it for a period of six years. Obviously the subject--old movies on old LA TV stations--seems to be one that elicits nostalgic interest from those of us who grew up in LA in the seventies. So I'm reposting it...largely because I'm too lazy to write a new post. KMA.)

As I found out while growing up, one could get a remarkably full film education by watching local 1970's LA television on a black and white Zenith--while being interrupted by Cal Worthington and his dog spot every ten (five?) minutes. Indeed, I find it astonishing that I was able to acquire as broad a background as I did in movies of the past (twenties, thirties, forties) while growing up in a non-digital universe. There wasn't cable yet (Z channel happened around '75, but showed only new movies at the time) and our first VCR didn't arrive until the summer of '78.

 Revival theaters were around, of course, and we occasionally went to the Vagabond Theater on Wilshire Blvd. where, one stunning night, Rita Hayworth herself Norma Desmondishly dropped in--heavily accompanied of course--to take a gander at her younger self in "Gilda". (Was she already deep into Alzheimers? Did her companions hope that seeing her old movie would spark something?) Also the Tiffany Theater on Sunset was then a revival house--it hosted the first 3D festival that I remember attending. The Vista, in Silverlake, was somehow not on our radar (too gay, perhaps?) and the New Beverly, if I'm not mistaken, was much more foreign-artsy-indie fare-ish, which I didn't get into until teenager-hood. Indeed, most of my old movie education happend via the black-and-white Zenith in my parents bedroom. In LA in the 70's, there were plenty local tv stations showing old movies--albeit of execrable print quality and mercilessly chopped up and shortened for commercials.

Cheif among them were the Ben Hunter Movie Matinee on KTTV (Ch. 11) every weekday at noon. I spent most of my summers indoors, in the air-conditioning, watching this program which was simply a different movie every day--but hosted, for some reason, by the smiling dude on the right. He smoked, drank coffee and even did a little call-you-at-home gimmick called, I think, Hunter's College of Obscure Knowlege. The KTTV library was largely MGM movies and they also had a Saturday afternoon movie which was repeated that same evening at 11PM or so. This was important because I remember the odd effect of seeing a movie in the afternoon and watching it again so close to its first viewing and being able to anticipate not just the plot but the camera angles and the cutting. My first film school? Probably. Ben Hunter's set also sticks in my mind--a faux-wood paneled den with bookshelves, leather "easy chair" and couch, none of which ever convinced me that we were anywhere but in a cheesy television studio. He interviewed people occasionally (who were they?) and use to end the show with a Laurel&Hardy short. (For a fascinating glimpse of LA TV commercials back in the day--including Ben Hunter pitching a Home Loan company--see the first video posted below.)

Then there was KTLA, Channel 5, home of Tom Hatten (and his fake projector) as well the 8PM Channel 5 movie club. This was largely the Paramount film library--or the "MCA" library as it was known thanks to a fit of house-cleaning in the early sixties, when Paramount stupidly sold all there pre-WW2 movies to MCA for a pittance who promptly slapped their logo on the beginning of all the best movies Paramount ever made--Marx Brothers, Mae West, W.C. Fields etc. Comedy wise, at KTLA the Hope-Crosby axis crossed with the Goldwyn Danny Kaye movies. (In fact, I think I remember a KTLA weekend afternoon movie program called "Goldwyn Theater.") I very definately remember seeing my first Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges movies on the Channel 5 movie club--though I rarely was able to stay awake for the ten pm finish. In fact, I didn't see the ending to "The Lost Weekend" until the early 1990s, when I saw it projected at Film Forum. (For a 1989 look at Tom Hatten in all his glory, see the second video posted below).

And KHJ, Channel 9, had "Million Dollar Movie". Which frankly was not usually as good as its competition on KTLA, though they did play the "Tara Theme" ("My Own True Love") at the beginning. Indeed, I can't remember what studios films turned up on Million Dollar Movie. But for a very nice view of some 1970s commercials that interrupt a showing on KHJ of "What's New Pussycat" see the third video posted below.

The loser station was KCOP, Channel 13, who were stuck with the Universal Library. In other words, Ma and Pa Kettle, Francis the Talking Mule, and dramatic fare like "Mississippi Gambler", starring the charisma-free  pre-'Music Man' Robert Preston. And Abbott and Costello, of course, but I seem to remember their movies programmed on weekend mornings. Early on I figured out to avoid the A&C movies where Bud had a pencil-thin moustache and spoke an octave deeper than usual--the unfortunate post 1949 crop.

Finally: KBSC, Channel 52 from Corona, of blessed memory. This strange indie station somehow controlled the Three Stooges and Our Gang--or "Little Rascals" as they were re-dubbed in their television years--movies as well as an outstanding selection of Warner Brothers 30's movies which aired weeknights at 8 PM under the banner "Hollywood Movie Classics." This was where I caught early Busby Berkeley, James Cagney/Pat O'Brien, the pre-Bowery Boys "Dead End Kids" and a pile of John Garfield/George Raft/Bette Davis/Ida Lupino stuff. Weirdly, they also showed Speed Racer as well as some very sexy women's Roller Derby on Saturday nights. All of it, I believe, uninterrupted. (Or was it? I can't remember Channel 52 having any commericials--was it a case of it being simply too obscure a station to attract any advertisers?) For a very nice 'tribute video' to KBSC, see the last video posted below.

Actually, the one commercial I remember on Channel 52 was an ad for Larry Fine's (of the Stooges) autobiography, "A Stroke Of Luck." They filmed Larry at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills and, after plugging his book, he invited any kids who were watching to come out and say hi. One long forgotten day, in 1974, my sister took me out there to meet him. But that's for another time...






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Sunday, July 6, 2014

ORSON WELLES: THE DEPRESSIVE YEARS

The setting is a Paris hotel room in 1960. What better place to find Orson Welles during this dark period of his expatriation? His comeback film,"Touch Of Evil",  had already vanished from the radar after being dumped into wide release without a press screening and having proven to be another "disappointment" for the former prodigy. The future looked gloomy. And Welles--though he does his best to remain magnetic and charming in this interview--is clearly depressed. Indeed he is very very far from  the man who later became a folk hero to the young, underground cinema freaks of the seventies. This isn't the Merv-guesting, Kermit-goofing, Dino-roasting, Jaglom-palling, Bogdanovich-raconteuring, Ma Maison-dining sage of the seventies and early eighties. That Orson was a good deal lighter in spirit and--although always wearing his 'legend' like a burdensome cape into which he might retreat at any given moment--he was somewhat more resigned in a gently philisophical way. Here, though, we see the middle-period Orson--the Welles of the frightful explosion upon re-meeting his old friend John Houseman (a few years earlier, yes, but you can picture the famous eruption coming out of this Welles--"For twenty years you've been doing everything you can to destroy me!" etc. See Thomson's "Rosebud" or Houseman's "Run-Through" or even Leaming's fawning and silly OW bio to read the complete encounter). Indeed everything about this Orson is somehow in the middle. He is exactly middle aged--forty five years old--and appears to be middle-weight (double his youthful size but shy about one hundred pounds of his magnificent blubber peak, circa late seventies). Most importantly, he is in the middle of his journey and as such has not yet settled upon the best way to play out the legend. Striking the right balance between grandiosity and sadness--without descending into self-pity--would come about ten years later. Frankly, the Welles I see in this interview is depressed, ponderous, suspicious and not a little paranoid. Would you finance this man's film?

He shamefully lets the interviewers misstatement that he wrote "Citizen Kane" by himself stand--his silence is gloomy and forbidding and an absolute slap in Herman J. Mankiewicz's dead face--and he turns on the interviewer when he discusses Chaplin and picks up on Welles own suggestion that perhaps the clown was not really his own best director. Welles, who made the point to begin with, Nixon-ishly shifts into paranoia mode and suggests that he's trying to get him to admit that he isn't his own best director..."and I'm not going to do that, I get so few chances to direct as it is". In this moment you see how dangerously Welles could turn on an innocent and credit his own dark scenarios to others--is it any wonder that the multiple explinations for who was to blame for the re-cutting of "Magnificent Ambersons" have never settled the basic question of why Welles didn't simply come back home to save his second masterpiece?

In "Rosebud", Thomson argues that the dark, middle-period Welles was the least attractive and least successful phase of his ever-evolving persona--that it made him seem 'florid' and 'out of date'--and that redemption and spiritual freedom came when Welles was brutally and publicly attacked by Pauline Kael, in her essay "Raising Kane". Thomson's thesis is that Welles--though he never gave up acting hurt by Kael's attack--was secretly relieved not to have to carry the burden of "greatness" and "profundity" that he'd worn since his youth...and that the lighter and easier-going Welles--the man I first saw on Merv and last saw in Jaglom's "Someone To Love"--is perhaps the man he'd always secretly yearned to be...a charmer and a bewitcher who preferred magic over reality and who had a bigger heart than even he knew (it must have been pretty big to have carried him along for seventy years). There is much in the below interview, though, that is wonderful--he begins to rehearse the "directing is the most over-rated profession ever invented" stuff that he pulled on Bogdanovich a few years later (see PB's indispensible "This Is Orson Welles") and he's quite delightful in his insistence that he would always choose to hire a friend over the right person for the role...which ties into his theory that he really isn't all that interested in art and isn't a true professional. "I'm an adventurer" he intones gravely and not altogether sincerely. I wonder if "Touch Of Evil" and its non-success is on his mind at this moment--he was, after all, given a mighty good chance by a Hollywood studio just two years earlier and somehow--despite the magnificent result--it hadn't worked out.

Or maybe this is Welles before he came to his own conclusion that he was, in fact, always a true independent...that it wasn't the fact that Hollywood didn't "give him the same contract" again as it did on "Kane" (as he bemoans here) so much that he was never cut out to be beholden to a larger group or to be subject to a final opinion that wasn't his own. Welles at his most successful is Welles at his free and easiest and in this way he resembles nothing so much as a classic 19th century actor-manager...picking the plays, assigning the parts, staging the show, running the whole thing and getting his troupe out of town before the sheriff catches up. That's the Welles of the 30's--the Mercury years--and that's the Welles of the later sixties and seventies, the years of the self-financed projects. (And the RKO years, of course--but let's face it, that "contract" was an anomaly and one can't hope for mistakes like that--no matter how brilliant--to be repeated). It's also the Welles of "F For Fake"--my third favorite Welles film which I implore anyone who hasn't seen to quickly find a copy of and watch. Shot in 1974, "F For Fake" is Welles at his most charming and slyly philisophical. The Welles from this period, unlike the Welles seen below, has grace and magic to spare. It is this later, gentler Orson--the goo-ier, in touch with his inner-child Orson--who made "The Other Side Of The Wind" which, from the fragments I've seen, looms (just out of reach) as, if not his masterpiece, his one truly and profoundly personal work.

Click here for the full fifty-three minute interview. Below is an excerpt.



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