Every once in awhile, we adjust our home entertainment system to keep up with our changing needs. For the past three years, we’ve been using a TiVo Premiere DVR with an antenna carrying over-the-air local channels. It was a nice and affordable setup, but the hardware was unstable, the antenna reception was glitchy, and increasingly we found ourselves using the TiVo merely to watch Netflix streaming. That’s why we’re transitioning to a Roku streaming player (which works fantastically, unlike the buggy TiVo) along with a monthly subscription to Hulu Plus. Hulu carries most current fare from the over-the-air networks, although CBS is bizarrely absent from it or any of the other digital channels Roku users can download and watch. We may just have to tune into CBS live, with all the commercial breaks. How very 1988.
The Hulu is intended to replace the Netflix streaming, although that may change since Hulu doesn’t have as much variety as Netflix. Their movie selection is lacking, although they do have the fabulous Criterion Collection. With a decent selection of current television (no CBS, however, a point worth repeating), we’ve been using it to watch network shows that everybody else watched 5-8 years ago (Heroes; Community). The television has brief commercial breaks, but I can live with that. Digging deeply enough, one can also find lots of interesting TV from other countries (Canada, Australia, Korea) and a few obscure older series.
The various channels one can download on the Roku also offer a lot of tantalizing viewing options – some free, some on a pay-by-the-month basis. One of our favorite things is the Nowhere TV channel, which allows us to watch the never-ending contents at Archive.org. I knew that the site had a lot of vintage commercials, industrial shorts, public domain and ephemeral films to enjoy, but I was also surprised to find a number of vintage TV shows on there. A couple of failed sitcom pilots caught my eye, which are outlined below:
The Ginger Rogers Show aired as part of ABC’s Vacation Playhouse, a summer variety series used to air unsold pilots (why don’t they do this any more?). Ginger plays a pair of identical twins – one serious, the other frivolous, both sporting the same unique swoopy hairstyle – in this 1963 production. Although Rogers lacks the chops for convincingly playing two separate characters against each other, the pilot at least had some interesting possibilities. At the end of the program, Rogers appears as herself to explain that the series will alternate between comedy and drama, one week with her as the lighthearted sister, the next with her as the serious sister.
Maggie was another fascinating sitcom pilot, produced in 1957 but not broadcast until 1960. This one starred Margaret O’Brien as the overly curious, offbeat teen daughter of parents with a theatrical background. The family’s arrival in a conservative Connecticut enclave causes a stir, not the least of which is due to Maggie’s meddling and quirky behavior. What struck me the most about this marshmallowy domestic comedy was how obviously it was done to capitalize on O’Brien’s best-known role as Tootie in the classic musical Meet Me In St. Louis. The actress may have been older (she was 20 at the time, playing a 17 year-old), but her character’s overactive imagination and cutesy, borderline annoying mannerisms are pure Tootie, updated to contemporary times. O’Brien’s St. Louis dad, Leon Ames, even plays her father once again here. It’s a cute, moderately well-written show that makes me wonder how it would have come out had it been expanded to the 30+ episodes a season commonly produced back then.
In case it wasn’t obvious, stuff that barely made it to the air in 1960-63 interests me a lot more than 99% of the stuff on the air in 2013. Should anything else that’s worth mentioning here pop up, I’ll let you know.
Yep, we only watched two films this week. Much of our viewing time has been spent with the new TV season, including Last Resort, 666 Park Avenue, and the already cancelled Animal Practice (not a fantastic example of sitcom artistry, sure, but we always dig the funny animals). We also started watching season five of Mad Men, the first season of British public school drama Waterloo Road (a DVD Talk screener pool selection), along with episodes of Warehouse 13 on Netflix. On my own time, I watched the Frontline productions on Texas high schools and Mitt Romney/Barack Obama this week. Plenty busy!
Broadway (1929). This splashy early-talkie musical probably should have been the focus of Criterion’s recent Lonesome/Paul Fejos release. Though it’s not a particularly outstanding example of filmmaking, it’s very evocative of the ’20s and Hollywood’s rush to capitalize on sound. Considered a lost film for several decades, Broadway‘s appearance in semi-complete form on Lonesome came as an unexpected surprise. The film is a typical, razzle-dazzle affair with hoofers, gangsters, con-men, an intrepid detective, a virginal chorine and an ambitious vaudevillian. There are some fun if dated numbers and good performances from now-forgotten names like Glenn Tryon (Lonesome‘s lead) and silent star Evelyn Brent. The real star of the show is the gargantuan set for the film’s entertainment venue, The Paradise Club, and its awesome craning shots filmed from atop an unprecedented, giant crane (one of the blu-ray’s extras explains the origins of this crane, apparently a huge deal in the 1920s, and its ignoble fate on the Universal Pictures backlot). Director Paul Fejos still displays some of his inventiveness and playful spirit on this one, but it’s also apparent that filmmaking was becoming routine to him. Shortly after Broadway premiered, he returned to Hungary and pursued his first love in anthropologist studies. Pete’s Dragon (1977). Yeah, I saw this one four years ago. I saw it again this weekend, however, when DVD Talk sent the blu-ray for me to review (my first for that site!). It’s still a bloated, overlong mess. I still enjoyed it, however (nostalgia getting in the way?). My complete review will be posted there in a few days.
This post dovetails into the fact that I left a movie off the last Flick Clique – 1957′s The Big Caper, which we caught on Netflix streaming. I’m not surprised it got left out, actually, since it was a pretty forgettable late noir with Rory Calhoun and a bunch of sleazeballs attempting to break into a bank vault. It’s a decent enough flick to pass the night away, all right, just one without any especially outstanding qualities. The film does boast a rare onscreen leading lady turn by Mary Costa, best known for being the voice of Aurora in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
Speaking of Costa and Calhoun, I came across this oddity from The Jack Benny Show in which Mary and Rory sing a duet and do a bit of shilling for The Big Caper. I actually think current talk shows would be much more worthwhile if they had movie stars doing a bit of song ‘n dance. All the better if it comes out as silly as Mary and Rory’s “Mutual Admiration Society.”
This PBS-endorsed music video of Julia Child is the most mesmerizing thing I’ve seen all week. The idea of Julia remixed into a techno-pop video mashup sounds gimmicky, I know, but John D. Boswell (a.k.a. Melodysheep) weaves voices and music in a beautiful, respectful way that celebrates her love of food and cooking. A good commemoration of the lady’s 100th birthday:
I’m currently busy working on a review that encompasses three of the films that would have been included in tonight’s Flick Clique. So, once that is published I will have the F.C. ready with the more comprehensive DVD review linked. Sit tight, kiddies, and enjoy this publicity still of Pete the Pup from the Our Gang comedies.
Today’s video is something that I uploaded to my own YouTube channel, the result of downloading and watching about 200 old commercials for Alpha-Bits cereal from the ’60s and ’70s. Alpha-Bits was and still is my favorite cereal. You might think watching a bunch of old ads would be boring, but au contrere mon frere — seeing how Post changed its approach to selling this simple food over a short time was an eye-opener. From ’60s straightforward to animated through psychedelic and health-nut ’70s, the shilling ran the gamut in uneven but entertaining fashion. It gives one the distinct feeling that Post’s ad agency during those years had a revolving door of executives.
Starting around 1969, Post started including extras with each cereal box. This started with bubblegum rock records actually printed on the box back, then moved towards assorted small toys mid-decade. This particular commercial was picked because it has one of my favorites, a plastic mini-terrarium. After emptying the included seed packet onto a tiny sponge, with regular watering a plant would grow (“in about 8 days!”). Groovy.
Post’s website says that they are still making Alpha-Bits, although it’s been years since I’ve seen a box. It was good, not horribly sweet like many other products currently clogging the supermarket cereal aisle.