From 1994: How VCRs changed my life

It’s 40 years since the first commercially viable VCR — RCA’s Selectavision, which caught on the with mass market in a way that Sony’s Betamax never did — went on sale. I bought RCA’s very first VCR in 1977, and wrote this remembrance in 1994, when the VHS format was still going strong. I had retired my original $1,000 machine (used so often that the heads were replaced three times) by this point, and finally tossed it in the trash a couple of years later. Here it is, as originally published in February 1994:

I was the first on my block to buy a VCR.

The year was 1977, and RCA had introduced what, to a lot of us, was
the first practical videocassette recorder.

Actually, back in those days practically everyone called them
Betamaxes, the way people call tissues Kleenexes. Sears had introduced a short-lived home video system called Cartrivision in 1972, but it was
Sony that created a sensation with the heavily advertised Betamax three
years later. Early models were built into consoles with 25-inch TV sets,
sold for upward of $3,000 — and could only record only 20 minutes at a time. Even when Sony upped that to an hour and introduced models that
could be hooked to existing TV sets, there were very few takers.

Then RCA entered the picture. It didn’t even make the machines
(Matsushita, which did, soon put out nearly identical ones with
Panasonic nameplates), and its VCRs provided picture quality that was,
truth be told, slightly inferior to that of the Betamax. But the big
enticement of the Video Home System — VHS, which went on to drive the
Beta system into virtual extinction — was its extending running time.
RCA’s first models could record up to 4 hours and 20 minutes at a pop,
enough for two to three movies.

And make no mistake about it, it was movies that fueled the VCR

Contrary to marketers’ expectations, most people did not race out
and buy VCRs to tape their favorite soap operas or, say, “M*A*S*H” for
watching at a more convenient time.

They bought them to watch movies.

Take me. I gladly forked over $1,200 (list price) for the last
available machine at the Friendly Frost appliance store in Garden State
Plaza — three other places I called had instantly sold out that weekend
when RCA’s first model went on sale. It was an imposing chrome and
faux-wood-grain device with a manually operated channel changer and an
analog counter. It must have weighed 50 pounds. To record something, you
had to push down on piano-style keys. If you set the timer for the
middle of the night (which I often did), chances were you’d be awakened
by a loud click when it went on.

Though videotape was both expensive — about $20 a pop — and scarce
in those days, I quickly amassed a library. I had 50 movies on tape
within a month, 100 in 90 days. I lost count after 300. I was hardly
alone; a national videotape shortage occurred when CBS broadcast “Gone
With the Wind” for a second time in 1978.

It didn’t hurt that there was an awful lot of stuff out there to
tape, thanks to the burgeoning growth of cable television. Home Box
Office and Showtime quickly spun off sister services offering all-movie
diets: Cinemax and The Movie Channel. In the late Seventies, my cable
system not only offered round-the-clock movies from Ted Turner’s WTBS
superstation, but additional movies beamed in from Philadelphia, Boston,
and Worcester, Mass. Thanks to the miracle of microwave transmission, it
also beamed in a PBS affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., that showed
something like 60 movies a week. Within a three-year period, I wore out
two sets of recording heads on my VCR.

It wasn’t as if you could go out and buy “Gone With the Wind” — or
“Casablanca,” or almost anything else in the early years. Except for
20th Century Fox, which licensed 50 titles to an obscure Michigan outfit
called Magnetic Video in 1977, Hollywood wasn’t interested in selling
movies to the consumer, to say the least.

The idea of individuals’ owning copies of movies violated a concept
that went back to the beginning of the film industry. Even theaters only
rented them. But thanks to VCRs, people not only owned copies of movies,
they could acquire them without paying for them!

This idea was so threatening that the Walt Disney Co. and MCA
(parent company of Universal Studios) went to court against Sony,
maintaining that taping their movies — even for personal use —
constituted copyright infringement and theft.

U.S. District Judge Warren J. Ferguson thought otherwise.

In a decision with profound ramifications, he ruled in 1979 that
home taping was “a fair use of copyrighted works.”

Hollywood saw the handwriting on the wall. Rather than appeal, it
decided to join the revolution. All of the studios, including Disney and
Universal, set up video divisions.

I remember walking into a video store for the first time. It was
the old Video Shack on Route 4 in Paramus. There were so few titles
available that they were kept under glass. Except for the X-rated ones
in the back.

That quickly began to change. For one thing, nobody had foreseen
that a whole new industry would spring up around the rental of movies on
tape. After all, few people were going to run out and buy new movies,
which were going for $80 to $100 apiece in those days. Before long, you
could rent movies at the supermarket, or at the dry cleaner’s.

Theater owners were nervous. They saw home video as a competitor
that would keep their customers at home. They threatened to boycott when
Fox (which had bought Magnetic Video and renamed it Fox Video) decided
to release “9 to 5” within 90 days of concluding its theatrical
release. But just three years later, there was hardly a peep when
Paramount decided to issue “Flashdance” while the picture was still
playing in theaters.

What had happened in the interim was this: Rather than reducing
theatrical audiences, home video had actually whetted people’s appetites
for moviegoing. Theatrical admissions rose steadily throughout the
1980s. People who hadn’t been the movies in years liked what they saw on
tape or on cable TV and decided to check out what was in the theaters.
It didn’t hurt that the video market had fueled a worldwide film
production boom — in the mid-1980s, it was practically impossible to
lose money making a modestly budgeted movie — so there were a lot more
movies to choose from in theaters than there were in the late Seventies,
when even a dud might linger for a month or two.

I was a movie critic from 1981 to 1989, and from talking with my
readers, it was obvious they were becoming more interested in and more
sophisticated about movies. It was in this period that newspapers and
broadcasters started reporting box-office grosses as if they were sports
scores. Previously, nobody much cared outside of the business. And
thanks to the voracious appetites of cable TV and video for “software,”
movies that hadn’t seen the light of a cathode ray tube for decades —
silents, early talkies — were regularly on public display.

What video did was restore moviegoing as an American habit, in a way
it hadn’t been since the early 1950s. Once TV started force-feeding
movies to people in chopped up, adulterated form, interest waned. But
video enabled people to see what they wanted, when they wanted. Not
everybody thought this was great — I remember a girlfriend’s lament that
“The Wizard of Oz” was no longer an event when you could watch it on
demand (twice in a row, if you liked) instead of anticipating its annual
showings for 12 months. But a whole lot of us thought it was nifty.

James Stewart, 1957: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ seems to please people more on the small screen

“It’s a Wonderful Life” on a vintage TV set in Seneca Falls, New York, which claims to have inspired the Frank Capra classic.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been researching the long and strange history of motion pictures on television before 1980, so I was particularly pleased to run across a piece that ran in the New York Times Magazine on December 8, 1957. This was a year after the major Hollywood studios (save Paramount) began releasing their films to television. Thomas M. Pryor, the paper’s Hollywood correspondent, asked the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Jeanette MacDonald, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck and Van Heflin what it was like to see their old films on TV. I was most intrigued by the quotes from James Stewart, whose “Come Live With Me’’ with Hedy Lamarr happened to be the second film shown on WCBS’ “The Late Show’’ on Sunday December 2, 1956. Instead, he discussed a pair of independent films that hit the tube before the late 1956 deluge — one way before — which he made immediately before and after his lengthy and distinguished World War II service in the Army Air Corps.

The first is by far the more obscure. Just before his enlistment, MGM loaned their newly-minted Oscar winner (for “The Philadelphia Story”) to independent producer James Roosevelt (the president’s son) for “Pot O’Gold’’ (1941), an undistinguished musical based on bandleader Horace Heidt’s radio show, in which Stewart plays a musician named Jimmy opposite Paulette Goddard, on loan from Paramount. Released theatrically by United Artists, it was reissued by Astor Pictures as “Jimmy Steps Out’’ and had its first documented New York City TV showing under that title on Sunday June 20, 1948 — reportedly the first movie ever shown on WPIX, which had launched a few days earlier. It reverted to its original title for a showing later that year on WABC. Stewart apparently caught it during what he describes as his very first glimpse of TV, when it turned up on the “CBS Film Theatre of the Air’’ on Saturday February 25, 1950 (he was possibly in town promoting MGM’s “Malaya,’’ which had opened three days earlier at the Capitol).

“James Stewart acknowledges that TV has brought out a couple of ghosts he would just as soon forget,’’ Pryor wrote in The Times. “He first saw television in a New York hotel room in 1950. Having tuned in a ‘jumble of noise and confused action,’ he was happily thinking ‘if this is television, Hollywood has nothing to worry about, until suddenly I recognized myself on the screen. It took me some time to figure out it was ‘Pot O’Gold,’ a picture that I had done before going into the Army and had never seen.’’

The film Stewart mentions more approvingly in the interview is “It’s a Wonderful Life’’ (1946) which had its NY TV premiere on Saturday April 7, 1956 on WCBS’ “The Late Show.” It was the big draw in the “Seventh Anniversary” package of ten films released to TV by M & A Alexander, which was soon absorbed by National Television Associates. It drew the second-highest rating of “Late Show” features shown in the first half of 1956 (the debut of “Three For Bedroom C,” a forgotten 1952 “NaturalColor” oddity starring Gloria Swanson that was apparently shown in black-and-white did slightly better).  “Wonderful Life” had been repeated in New York at least four times (including showings on “The Late Late Show’’ and “The Early Show’’) by the time the piece appeared, with another scheduled for Christmas Night 1957 on “The Late Show.’’

Stewart continues in The Times piece: “But it’s not all bad. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ which I made with Frank Capra after we both got out of the army, has been on television many times. I’ve seen it and I think is very well adapted to TV. I’ve had more comment and favorable reaction to this picture on television ten years after it was made than when it was first shown in theaters. It seems to please audiences more on a little screen.’’

“It’s a Wonderful Life’’ of course was a box-office disappointment (by dint of Frank Capra going way over budget) that achieved its place in the public consciousness on television. It really picked up momentum after NTA failed to renew its copyright and it fell into the public domain, with wall-to-wall, royalty-free TV showings on multiple cable networks and PBS outlets in the 1980s and 1990s and countless video releases, many sourced from terrible materials. NTA eventually policed its exclusive ownership through underlying copyrights to the story and music, paving the way for lucrative annual showings on NBC — quite a trick for black-and-white pre-’48. Those showings are now licensed by NTA’s corporate successor Paramount Pictures, which had sold the picture to M. & A. Alexander in the first place after acquiring Liberty Pictures, the outfit that co-produced “It’s a Wonderful Life’’ with distributor RKO.

“Pot O’Gold,’’ no masterpiece, remains mired in public domain hell, doomed to haunt YouTube and DVD bargain bins in sketchy fourth-generation transfers apparently derived from old TV prints. By the way, it wasn’t even the first Stewart film to hit television. That honor appears to belong to a much better film — David O. Selznick’s production of “Made for Each Other’’ (1939) co-starring Carole Lombard, which had its first documented showing on WNBT (now WNBC) on September 17, 1945. Like an astonishingly huge percentage of films that showed on early TV, it’s also drifted into the public domain. One is another Capra, “Meet John Doe.” But that’s a story for another day.


Trump, Davies and ‘Mission to Moscow’


Joseph E. Davies (Walter Huston) exhorts American to support Russia at a Madison Square Garden Rally in MISSION TO MOSCOW (1943)

You can’t make this stuff up. The Trump Organization uses (and his trademarked) a coat of arms that was granted by British authorities in 1939 to former American Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies, The New York Times reports today.

“There is one historical parallel between the Mr. Trump and Mr. Davies,” writes The Times’ Danny Hakim, who notes that Trump’s lavish Mar-a-Lago resort was built by Davies’ then-wife, Marjorie Merriwether Post. “Both men were controversially pro-Russian. Mr. Davies, who played an important role as a go-between for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Soviets, has been criticized for being taken in by Stalin’s propaganda machine.”

My longtime readers know that’s something of an understatement. Three-quarters of a century before Trump cozied up to Vladimir Putin, Roosevelt embraced another Soviet dictator — and Hollywood was more than happy to help out by selling Joseph Stalin to a skeptical American public. The most remarkable product of Washington and Tinseltown’s (temporary) celebration of the Soviet Union and its genocidal leader is “Mission to Moscow.” This jaw-dropping, lavish production (reportedly costing $2 million) is essentially a two-hour compendium of what Trump spokeswoman Kellyann Conway famously dubbed “alternative facts’’ about Stalin. With an investigation into whether Putin helped Trump win the presidency picking up steam, to call “Mission to Moscow’’ timely may be an understatement.
Of course, World War II was raging and there were sound strategic reasons for Roosevelt’s embrace of Stalin. Not a few military historians believe that tying up a substantial portion of Hitler’s armies on the Soviet front provided the margin of victory for allied forces over an over-extended Germany in Europe. And there was a legitimate fear that Stalin could forge another truce with Hitler, even if Hitler had broached an earlier non-aggression pact between the nations, forcing the USSR into World War II.

     Screenwriter Howard Koch, who ended up blacklisted because of his reluctant participation, writes in his memoirs that the brothers Jack and Harry Warner both told him that Roosevelt personally asked them to film “Mission to Moscow.’’ It had been a best-selling memoir by Davies, who was FDR’s ambassador in the pre-war period and a Soviet apologist par excellence. Testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee after Roosevelt’s death, Jack Warner repeated this claim but later recanted. Some historians believe the approach may have actually made through Roosevelt administration’s propaganda arm, the Office of War Information. But there is documentation that even during a war, the president found the time to meet with his longtime pal Davies on at least three occasions to be briefed on the film’s progress.
Directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca’’’) with his usual panache and containing copious quantities of Soviet-provided archival footage expertly assembled by future Clint Eastwood directorial mentor Don Siegel, “Mission to Moscow’’ presents a hugely flattering portrait of a prosperous and happy Russia that’s at odds with most accounts by foreign visitors of the era. But the film more insidiously steamrollers history, providing tortured rationalizations for the non-aggression pact (to buy the USSR more time to build up its defenses against Hitler) and the USSR’s invasion of Finland (to protect it from the Nazis).

Walter Huston and Ann Harding as Joe Davies and Marjorie Post in “Mission to Moscow.”
The real Marjorie Post and husband Joseph E. Davies in Moscow, 1938. They brought back a boatload of Russian art.

Davies — who was given unprecedented control over the film — wasn’t satisfied with these lies. At his insistence, the film makes claims that do not appear in his memoirs, most notably excusing the purge trials of Stalin’s political enemies. In the film’s highly fictional retelling, they were all secretly spying on behalf of Germany and Japan! Davies, played in the film by Oscar winner Walter Huston (who had portrayed Abraham Lincoln under D.W. Griffith’s direction) declares that based on his experience as a trial lawyer, the defendants’ “confessions” are credible. In another scene with chilling contemporary relevance, Davies defends the Soviets when a surveillance device is found inside the U.S. embassy. (“We have no secrets’’).

Davies (Walter Huston) cozies up to Stalin (Manart Kippen).

“Mission to Moscow” producer Robert Buckner (who had willfully distorted American history for entertainment purposes in the Errol Flynn vehicle “Santa Fe Trail’’) later later labeled the film (which co-starred Ann Harding as his wife, referred to only as Marjorie) “an expedient lie for political purposes, glossily covering up important facts with full or partial knowledge of their false presentation.’’
Small wonder that “Mission to Moscow” was the first Hollywood film to get an official showing in the Kremlin — Davies was in attendance — and that Stalin even reopened the Soviet market to U.S. movies for the first time in decades, at least until the Cold War began a couple of years later.

The real Joe Davies with Stalin at the Moscow premiere in 1943.

“Three days after viewing it, the Siren still feels as though somebody rewired her brain,’’ wrote my friend Farran Smith Nehme (aka the Self-Styled Siren) after her first viewing on TCM, in 2009. We ultimately programmed “Shadows of Russia,’’ an entire series of films built around “Mission to Moscow,’’ that aired on the network in 2010. (It’s available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection).
I’ve introduced screenings of “Mission to Moscow’’ at both the Museum of the Moving Image and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (the second with a panel discussion). On both occasions, there were audible gasps from the audience during a scene where Davies meets briefly with a warm and cuddly Stalin (character actor Manart Kippen, billed only on some posters), who the film consistently portrays as a progressive whose goals are compatible with American democracy. This is when the ambassador tells the dictator, “Mr. Stalin, I believe history will record you as a great builder for the benefit of mankind.’’

The “Mission to Moscow” press book includes this comic strip to be distributed to local newspapers.

Of course, in the real world, exactly the opposite is true. Because of its talkiness and heavy-handed propaganda, “Mission to Moscow’’ has infrequently been seen since its theatrical release in the spring of 1943, a fascinating historical curiosity. But thanks to the new administration in Washington, it’s acquired a totally unexpected timeliness, even if it seems unlikely that present-day Hollywood will indulge President Trump’s mysterious desire to burnish Putin’s image. Then again, few would have predicted a Russia-loving Republican president could be elected a year ago.

Magazine ad for “Mission to Moscow,” which apparently lost money at the box office.

I’ve written two much longer pieces on the fascinating history of “Mission to Moscow,’’ one for the now-inactive Moving Image Source  and another for the New York Post. “Mission to Moscow’’ was backed by an extensive promotional campaign, including this remarkable 30-page press book that my colleague Gregory Miller posted to Tumblr on my behalf a few years ago.
The New York Times reports that British authorities wouldn’t allow Trump’s properties in Scotland to use the Davies coat-of-arms that is displayed at his U.S. courses (with the word “Integratas” — Latin for “integrity” — replaced by Trump). And that Davies’ descendants contemplated suing the future president few years ago but were dissuaded by his grandson, former U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings.
“The way he operates, you don’t sue Trump, because you’ll be in court for years and years and years.” Grandpa Joe Davies, Tydings told The Times, “would be rolling over in his grave to think he was using his crest.”

Tay Garnett’s ‘Destination Unknown’ (1933) is a major rediscovery at MoMA

Pat O’Brien and Betty Compson adrift in “Destination Unknown”

Some of director Tay Garnett’s best film take place at sea — “One Way Passage,’’ “China Seas,’’ and “Trade Winds.’’ But that didn’t prepare me for the intoxicatingly exotic strangeness of “Destination Unknown’’ (1930), which had its first showing in decades in a crisp new print derived from the original nitrate camera negative.

The extremely vividly evoked milieu is a whiskey-smuggling boat that’s been stranded somewhere in the Pacific after a ferocious storm. The crew is starting to go mad from lack of drinking water — and boy, Garnett and his cast will make you wish you brought along a battle of Poland Spring yourself. The scuzzy bootlegger (Pat O’Brien, who was a much darker and more interesting actor in his pre-Warner period) who hired the ship and his henchman (Russell Hopton) are guarding the last barrel of water with guns while taking swigs in front of the crew.

The vessel’s captain and first mate were swept overboard during the storm, so the crew is being led by a burly Swedish boatswain (Alan Hale) who discovers a cache of water in the galley. He fills empty whiskey bottles with the water and gives them to the crew — with orders to pretend they’re drinking whiskey. The crew is played by a gallery of great character actors like Willard Robertson and Charles Middleton, as well as juvenile lead Tom Brown as newcomer who’s been grievously wounded by trigger-happy Hopton.

Things quickly get seriously worse. The precious water supply is squandered, and the ship starts sinking. As everyone starts helping themselves to the cargo to drink themselves into oblivion as the end is nigh, a mysterious stowaway (Ralph Bellamy in easily the most unusual role of his half-century career) emerges from behind a cross of light — and begins to make things right. Let’s just say his closest collollary in classic Hollywood films is played by Ian Hunter in “Strange Cargo.’’

The metaphors in Tom Buckingham’s highly original screenplay aren’t always subtle, but the uniformly excellent performances make it clear that this rough collection of men are thirsting for more than water. That would include Betty Compson, a former girlfriend of O’Brien’s who apparently has been smuggled aboard by one of his confederates. But her role is so underdeveloped that it almost seems like an afterthought.

A beatific Ralph Bellamy with Rollo Lloyd, playing a doctor whose disability is miraculously cured.

But these are very small complaint about the perfectly titled “Destination Unknown,’’ which Garnett steers to a memorable conclusion with consummate skill. Kudos to MoMA programmer Dave Kehr and his colleagues for rescuing this atmospheric treat from the sea of unseen films.

“Destination Unknown’’ was shown as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s second series of Universal Pictures rarities produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. If you’re in the New York area, I’d strongly recommend checking out MoMA’s repeat showing on Monday May 15 at 5 p.m. as this one has never been on TV, much less video.

And by all means, stick around (at 7 pm) for second program of unseen-for-decades Universal shorts picked out and introduced by Vitaphone Project founder Ron Hutchinson and featuring the likes of Robert Benchley, Ed Sullivan, Rose Marie and Henry Armetta. I haven’t seen these yet, but if they’re half as entertaining as the set shown last week you’re in for another very rare treat.


Someone claiming to be Universal uploads never-on-video 1930s rarities to YouTube

Updated: Someone representing themselves as Universal Pictures has quietly uploaded 28 feature films it released between 1929 to 1938 to a  YouTube channel called “Universal Vault.’’ The transfers vary widely in quality, but there are some real rarities — and only four of them have been released on video. Dave Kehr of the Museum of Modern Art describes them as “low-quality bootlegs.”

Alan Mowbray stars in Lowell Sherman’s ultra-rare “The Night Life of the Gods” (1935).


At least one — Lowell Sherman’s “The Night Life of the Gods’’ (1935) — has never even been shown on TV in this country. This way-out mythological fantasy derived from a novel by “Topper’’ author Thorne Smith has been tied up for decades by rights issues. Alan Mowbray stars in the effects-laden film, which has circulated in murky bootlegs that are vastly inferior to the authorized YouTube upload.

Helen Chandler and Walter Huston in the Eugene O’Neill-influenced “A House Divided” (1931).

A couple of these hard-to-see films have shown at the TCM Classic Film Festival — William Wyler’s superb “A House Divided’’ (1931) starring Walter Houston and John Ford’s “Air Mail’’ (1932) with Pat O’Brien and Ralph Bellamy in a fascinating precursor to “Only Angels Have Wings’’ — are included. Two others — Murray Roth’s “Don’t Bet on Love’’ (1933) with Lew Ayres and Ginger Rogers as well as Roth’s “Chinatown Squad’’ (1935) with Lyle Talbot and Valerie Hobson — are in the series of Universal restorations currently showing at the Museum of Modern Art. Edward L. Cahn’s “Afraid to Talk’’ (1932) with Eric Linden and Sidney Fox showed at MoMA last year — but these do not appear to be transfers of the new restorations.

There are three James Whale films uploaded to the “Universal Vault’’ channel: “The Impatient Maiden’’ (1932) starring Lew Ayres and Mae Clarke; “One More River’’ (1934) with Diana Wynyard and Colin Clive; and “Remember Last Night?’’ (1935) with Robert Young, Constance Cummings and Edward Arnold. Mr. Arnold also has the title role in A. Edward Sutherland’s memorable “Diamond Jim’’ (1935) opposite Jean Arthur as well as in James Cruze’s “Sutter’s Gold’’ (1936) with Lee Tracy.

Other interesting-sounding films on the list include Arthur Lubin’s “I Cover the War!’’ (1937) starring John Wayne; Edwin L. Marin’s “Bombay Mail’’ (1934) with Edmund Lowe; and the Russ Columbo musical “Wake Up and Dream’’ (1934) directed by Kurt Neumann. Also: Harry Beaumont’s “The Girl on the Front Page’’ (1934) starring Gloria Stuart; and Christy Cabanne’s “Graft’’ (1931), the Regis Toomey crime drama that supposedly got Boris Karloff the job of playing Frankenstein’s monster. Plus also a trio of Buck Jones westerns from 1935 (“The Crimson Trail,’’ “Stone of Silver Creek’’ and “Border Brigands’’).

Humphrey Bogart’s image is featured on Universal’s poster for its 1934 release of the independently produced “Midnight,” which was shot at the Astoria studios.

The Universal Vault channel includes four films that are available on DVD, including Frank Borage’s “Little Man, What Know?’’ (1934), released through the Universal Vault Series MOD program; and Tay Garnett’s English-language version of “S.O.S. Iceberg’’ with Rod LaRocque and Leni Riefenstahl, available via licensee Kino Lorber; as well as Pal Fejos’ musical drama “Broadway’’ (1929), which was included as an extra with The Criterion Collection’s DVD and Blu-ray releases of Fejos’ “Lonesome.’’ Perhaps the biggest surprise is a sharp-looking transfer of Chester Erskine’s independently-produced crime drama “Midnight,’’ which Universal originally distributed back in 1934. It’s circulated in terrible public domain transfers on video for decades as “Call it Murder” — the new title it acquired for a 1947 Guaranteed Pictures reissue that promoted Humphrey Bogart from eighth to top billing.

This Universal obscurity surfaced briefly on TV 60 years ago.

Hopefully, Universal will eventually get around to uploading some of the hundreds of pre-1950 Paramount titles it owns, many of which have been unavailable for decades in any format for decades. But in the meantime, there is a lot to savor here — from Ray Milland in H.C. Potter’s “Wings Over Honolulu” (1937) to Joseph Santley’s “Swing Sister, Swing” (1938) starring Ken Murray.

Rediscovering pre-code queen Mary Nolan at MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting “Son of Universal,’’ a sequel to last year’s series of new restorations by that studio of rare films from the late silent and early talkie era produced by Carl Laemmle Jr., many of which haven’t been seen in many decades.

A couple of especially fascinating ones are being repeated this coming Sunday afternoon, May 14. They both star Mary Nolan, whose name didn’t ring a bell with me — though I recognized her face immediately from an iconic image in Kenneth Anger’s notorious (and often factually challenged) collection of vintage Tinseltown gossip, “Hollywood Babylon.’’

Mary Nolan and Ralf Harolde in “Young Desire” (1930)

Nolan first rose to fame as a Ziegfeld girl who danced and sang under the name Imogen “Bubbles’’ Wilson. “Only two people in America would bring every reporter in New York to the docks to see them off,’’ columnist (and future film producer) Mark Hellinger wrote in 1922. “One is The President. The other is Imogene “Bubbles” Wilson.”

A stunningly beautiful blonde, Wilson was undone by her poor romantic choices. An involvement with a married vaudevillian snowballed into such a scandal that Ziegfeld fired her in 1925. She traveled to Germany, where she appeared in 18 silent films under her real name, Imogen Robertson.

She returned to the United States two years later under — rechristened Mary Nolan. Mostly, she was under contract to Universal Pictures, which loaned her out to MGM for her best known role — as Lionel Barrymore’s drug-addled daughter in Tod Browning’s sordid 1928 Lon Chaney vehicle “East of Zanzibar.’’

Ralf Harolde (center) comes between Mary Nolan and her rich admirer (William Janney) in “Young Desire.”

By this time, Nolan was the mistress of MGM executive Eddie Mannix. She later blamed a beating administered by Mannix for extensive surgeries and the morphine addiction that would end her film career.

The two films showing Sunday at MoMA, Lew Collins’ “Young Desire’’ and Tod Browning’s “Outside the Law’’ were both released in 1930, just before Universal dismissed the troubled Nolan, who was around 25, reportedly because she had become so difficult to work with. After that, she toiled on Poverty Row for a couple of years before that before hitting the vaudeville circuit. She died of an overdose at the age of 42.

In both the restored films, art imitates life with Nolan making poor choices in men. She’s a cooch dancer for a sleazy carnival under the thumb of sleazy boss Ralf Harolde in “Young Desire.’’ She decides to run away to Hollywood, but make it only as far as an orange grove where she is picked up by the owner’s son, a rich young college boy played William Janney.

Swedish poster for “Young Desire” (1930)

He is so smitten by the beautiful Nolan that he puts her up in an apartment building owned by his father. Nolan writes to a pal at the circus that she plans to take her younger admirer for every cent he’s got, but she eventually succumbs to his lack of guile and the promise of a better life.

But then Harolde shows up like a bad penny, and the boy’s parents pleads with her not to ruin their son’s life and theirs. Let’s just say Nolan’s “Camille’’ like gesture — which involves a trapeze act on a balloon 100 feet in the air — drew gasps at the screening I attended.

Mary Nolan and third-billed Edward G. Robinson in detail from a hand-tinted lobby card for “Outside the Law” (1930).








It’s a stunning performance and Nolan is almost as good in “Outside the Law,’’ which is a remake of Browning’s 1920 Lon Chaney vehicle. Though she again gets top billing, in the first half Nolan’s part is subsidiary to Owen Moore (the erstwhile Mr. Mary Pickford, who had his own substance abuse issues) as Fingers, clever bank robber she has unwisely hooked up with. Fingers has pulled off a half-million-dollar heist, but crime boss Cobra (Edward G. Robinson) demands a cut from Fingers, who has muscled in on his territory. (Chaney played both the male parts in 1920).

Trade ad for “Outside the Law.”

Nolan dominates the second half of the film, which takes place on Christmas Eve. She and Moore are nervously hiding out with the loot, and both of them are going stir crazy. Moore, a sentimental sort, befriends a child down the hall of their apartment building — and that brings out all sorts of feelings that the Nolan’s hardboiled character has been bottling up.

Nolan is still billed under her real name in this beautiful German poster for “Outside the Law.”

Things end badly for both of them, and even worse for Cobra. There’s a very strange final scene that suggest Nolan may have departed the film rather abruptly. But for all the contrivances, this and “Young Desire’’ reveal that Mary Nolan deserves a spot in the pre-code Hall of Fame alongside Dorothy Mackaill and Jeanne Eagels.

“Outside the Law’’ was restored primarily from an incomplete 35mm negative from Universal’s vaults. Two missing reels were filled in using a digital scan of a 16mm print held by Wesleyan University — and the difference is barely noticeable.

“Sensation Seekers” (1927).

Another 16mm print, from the Library of Congress, was used as the sole source for Universal’s remarkable digital restoration of Lois Weber’s “Sensation Seekers’’ (1927). Silent star Billie Dove is terrific as a wild flapper who falls in love with a hunky young minister (Raymond Bloomer).

Writer-director Weber, who helmed only one minor talkie, expertly toggles between naturalistic romantic scenes and a wildly melodramatic climax at sea.

The series includes some interesting if little-seen films that Universal made after establishment of the Production Code Authority. Murray Roth’s “Million Dollar Ransom’’ (1934), which carries PCA certificate No. 93, is being repeated this Saturday, May 13. It’s an entertaining vehicle for character actor Edward Arnold, who stars as a former bootlegger who stages a fake kidnapping with fateful results in a gimmicky but fun story by Damon Runyon. Also repeating on Saturday is Roth’s “Don’t Bet On Love’’ (1933) stars Lew Ayres as a plumber with a gambling problem and Ginger Rogers (who’s surprisingly only in around a third of the 63-minute programmer) as his long-suffering girlfriend.

I also enjoyed Frank Strayer’s “Sea Spoilers’’ (1936), which apparently hasn’t been seen in New York since a week-long run on WOR’s “Million Dollar Movie’’ 54 years ago. In one of six non-western programmers that John Wayne made for Universal in the 1930s, Wayne stars as a brave Coast Guardsman who rescues his girlfriend (Nan Grey) and commanding officer (William Bakewell) from seal poachers with the help of Fuzzy Knight. The action-packed 63-minute film is enhanced by considerable location shooting.

Before Hollywood, Virginia Mayo did a PG-13 act with a horse

Before she starred with James Cagney (“White Heat”), Dana Andrews (“The Best Years of Our Lives”) or Danny Kaye (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) — much less Gregory Peck, Randolph Scott or Zachary Scott et. al. — Virginia Mayo was part of a PG-13 vaudeville act with a horse.

The libidinous dancing horse, Pansy, was originally played by her sister Florence in front, with her brother-in-law Frank Mayo bringing up the rear.  The former Virginia Clara Jones had adopted Mayo as her stage name by the time the three of them appeared in a 1939 Universal short called “Gals and Gallons.”

Virginia Mayo was still with the act when she made her Broadway debut in “Banjo Eyes” (1942), a musical version of the classic farce “Three Men on a Horse”’ that starred Eddie Cantor. She was photographed with Pansy by Eliot Elisofon for Life Magazine.

Mayo had apparently quit horsing around and was a featured dancer at the Copacabana when she was signed by Samuel Goldwyn, appearing first as a Goldwyn Girl in Kaye’s screen debut, “Up in Arms” before becoming his most frequent leading lady.

It’s unclear whether “Gals and Gallons” has survived. I couldn’t even find a production still online, let alone a clip. It’s supposedly available for download from a dodgy-looking Czech website.

But there is a clip http:// of the Mayo vaudeville routine that was apparently filmed in the mid-1940s. It’s been identified as part of the “Soundies” series — cheaply-shot 16mm musical shorts that were designed to be shown in jukebox-like devices called Panorams.

A woman who’s been identified on YouTube as Connie Haas has Virginia’s old part as Pansy’s whip-wielding mistress in this weirdly mesmerizing routine, which can be viewed in its original film at Vimeo, apparently uploaded from a Library of Congress restoration.

There are several Pansy supercuts on YouTube. The most famous reedits the short to the techno-rock number “The Drill,” reversing the film at some points and zooming in at others to emphasize the act’s sexual aspects.


As for Pansy, her (or she) was still hoofing as late as 1958. Pansy, who has had a makeover, even gets star billing in this more family-friendly number from “The Mickey Mouse Club.”

It’s unclear when Pansy retired. When Mayo passed away in 2005, Pansy was mentioned in her New York Times obituary.

My 1984 interview with Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis and his then-new wife, Sandee, in March 1984

“Jerry Lewis is either terrific or terrible  — he doesn’t have the option of being adequate,” says Jerry Lewis, warming to his favorite topic. “People either hate him, call him a megalomaniac and a moron, or they love him. I’ve never heard anybody say he’s a nice guy.” From time to time, Lewis turns from his interviewer to address one or another of the half-dozen aides who fill his spacious penthouse atop the Helmsley Palace. All of them respond overeagerly to every remotely funny remark by the boss. At one point, even Jerry’s dog wanders into the suite to bark approval.

Love Lewis or hate him, the man is an institution, New Jersey’s second most illustrious (after his good friend Frank Sinatra) contribution to show business. Born Joseph Levitch to a pair of Newark troupers, Lewis was lip-synching records on stage at the old Central Theater in Passaic before he was out of his teens. That was in 1943, three years before his swift ascent to the top in tandem with a laid-back baritone named Dean Martin (nee Dino Crocetti).

Even in this superstar era, the figures remain impressive. Martin and Lewis were Top 10 box office movie stars from 1950 until their acrimonious split in 1958; Lewis alone continued as a major box-office attraction into the late 1960’s. He has appeared in 45 films (total gross: $300 million) during the past 35 years, directing 14, producing and writing many.

During the last 10 years, though, America’s most aggressive clown has starred primarily in the pages of supermarket tabloids. He has declared bankruptcy, overcome an addiction to the painkiller Percodan, undergone open heart surgery, and divorced his wife of 36 years.

Of the six movies he’s appeared in during the decade, only two — “Hardly Working” and “King of Comedy” — received full-scale theatrical releases in this country. There are no U.S. takers so far for “To Catch a Cop,” Lewis’s first movie made in France, the country where he has long been revered as a successor to Chaplin and Keaton.

On this snowy afternoon in March, he is in Manhattan to promote another film, “Slapstick of Another Kind.” (At his press agent’s insistence, the interview is not to be printed until the movie’s release. As it turns out, “Slapstick” will never see the inside of local movie houses; it debuts tomorrow on Home Box Office.)

Jerry, Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn in the ill-fated “Slapstick of Another Kind.”

Impeccably dressed in a conservative blue suit, he speaks rapidly in a low voice only rarely punctuated by his verbal trademark, a high-pitched, raucous laugh. With his jet-black hair and unlined face, Lewis looks nearly two decades younger than his 58 years. The years of struggle are betrayed only by his cold gray eyes — the same eyes that mirrored the occupational ennui afflicting Jerry Langford, the talk-show host he played in “King of Comedy.” During a wide-ranging, two-hour conversation studded with profanity, Lewis charts, sometimes with rancor, the recent downward curve of his film career. He eagerly renews his running war with American film critics, who have invariably dismissed his efforts as sophomoric.

When he isn’t lurching in a somewhat manic way from insufferable egotism to maudlin self-effacement, Lewis enthuses over his upcoming schedule. It would give pause to a man half his age, let alone one who suffered a major heart attack just two years ago.

In the six months since our talk, Lewis has (1) completed a second French film in Algeria; (2) hosted a one-week trial run for a syndicated TV talk show that may lead to a regular series early next year; (3) played Atlantic City for a week; and (4) nearly completed the script for “Nutty Professor II,” a follow-up to his classic 1963 Jekyll-Hyde comedy. He hopes to begin shooting the movie this fall.

For the last month, Jerry’s been at his home in Las Vegas — where he lives with his new wife, 32-year-old SanDee — preparing for his 18th annual telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Lewis will begin his 21 1/2-hour ordeal tonight at 9 on Channel 5.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

Jerry on the set of his directorial debut, “The Bellboy.”

You titled one of your books “The Total Filmmaker,” yet why were three of your last four films directed by others?

If you directed all the time you’d need a rubber room. The role of the director is probably the most arduous job in the world and when I work on a script, whether I write it or not, I break it down for nine months. I don’t roll a camera until I have everything nailed down. Then, I do that homework all over again every day. I used to work 28 hours out of every 24. Since the surgery, I get everything done in a 15-hour day and I’m very satisfied.

How else has your life changed since your heart attack?

After three months, the doctors let me do three days onstage. That was a little scary, because you get crazy physically and you think that all of the stitches are going to come loose.

I feel marvelous, considering the alternative. (Emits his trademark laugh.) God almighty, I walk on the Carson show, and he says, “a grown man and you’re still taking money for making noises and silly voices.” Then I give him regards from Sinatra and thank Johnny for getting us off the . . . cover of [a well-known supermarket tabloid]. When my attorneys were filing a lawsuit against them, their attorneys told mine, “Whenever we have a slump in circulation, we put Sinatra or Jerry on the cover and it comes way up.” So I called them up and told them, instead of making up [stories] call me up. Some of my [stories] play better.

There have been reports you’re moving to France.

No, I’m not going to leave my country, though I do spend a lot of time in France. I bought some land there 15 years ago, and when [French President Francois] Mitterand presented me with the Legion of Honor earlier this year, he mentioned that I am a landowner. From there someone surmised that Jerry was going to move.

What’s your French film like?

It’s called “To Catch a Cop,” and it’s cute. In France or anywhere in Europe, you can play an almost-straight role and it’ll work comically for you. I’m a cop, Michel Blanc is a cop, the whole theme of the picture is that everybody’s a cop. Everybody’s chasing everybody.

Do you speak French in the film?

(He affects a broad Gallic accent.) But of course. All you have to do is say “ze” and “zat.” Why did you choose to do “Slapstick,” an adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut novel?

While I was paid a lot of money, I mostly did it because the director, Steven Paul, had a dream. This kid was in my office annoying me for eight years, since he was 17 years old. He got the option on the book predicated on getting me. I couldn’t walk away from that. I’m doing interviews to sell the picture, but I’m outrageously honest. And I have to tell you it misses. It’s a shame, because this is as close as Vonnegut will ever get to getting his work on the screen. I helped Steven as much as I could technically, but I would never have accepted this film as a directorial assignment. It’s just too weird, not my kind of comedy, really.

Why did Warner Bros. sell another of your films, “Smorgasbord,” directly to cable TV?

My mistake was making the picture for a little more than $4 million. Warners knew it wasn’t a megabuck movie, so they weren’t going to put $3 million in prints and advertising. You put your life’s blood into a theatrical, and without your permission, they made $12 million just putting it on cable and cassettes. I call that . . . dirty pool and I’m going to sue {them}.

It’s interesting that during the entire period, from the coming of talkies to the decline of the studio system in the 1960’s, you were the only comedian who managed to take control of his films as a producer-director.

I had to, only because I wanted to take the autonomy out of the hands of the incompetents. It wasn’t so much for the power, but to make sure that if they wanted a film to be adjusted — say, to have 12 minutes cut — they should let me make the cuts.

Jerry’s masterpiece, “The Nutty Professor.”

Do you consider “The Nutty Professor” [1963] your best film?

I think so; from the writing to the directing to the acting to the producing, for me it was the total work. You only have to do one of those in your career. But I’d like to take a shot at doing it a little better, so that’s why I’m making a sequel.

Many people have assumed that Buddy Love — the womanizing, obnoxious alter ego of the shy, awkward Prof. Julius Kelp — was your way of getting back at Dean Martin. Is this so, is the character based on him?

No way. Buddy was a conglomeration of the bigot, the snob, the heckler in an audience, the Joe McCarthy of the theatrical world. Because he was suave, tall, and good-looking, some people identified him with my ex-partner. But I love my partner. I would never have written that with him in mind.

Jerry’s famous reunion with Dean Martin on the 1976 telethon.

Are you friends with Dean? Do you ever speak?

We don’t socialize, we don’t seek each other out, but when we are brought together there are great moments of reminiscence. We last saw each other two years ago at the Golden Globe Awards. Someone brought us a reunion project a few years ago, but it didn’t work out. One thing I’ve learned in this business is you never say never.

What do you consider your worst work?

I’ve got a list that would take a half-hour. For all the wrong reasons: sometimes a feeling of insecurity, sometimes not feeling well. If a dramatic actor’s baby is sick in the morning, he can turn that into a performance. You tell a comic that and he doesn’t go to work.

Why do you think you’re so much more popular in Europe?

The Martin and Lewis pictures would gross around $2 million there. But a Jerry Lewis film would start at a $5.5 million gross, because he directed it. That’s the way they think.

Moving away from the relatively complicated plots and verbal humor of the Martin-Lewis pictures to a more visually oriented style wouldn’t seem to have hurt.

Plot is the disease that will eat away at the basically simple fun. It’s important, but when it begins to infringe on the humor, it’ll begin to put your funnybone to sleep.

To this day, I wish someone would tell me what Blanche DuBois was yelling about in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” When I first met Tennessee Williams, I told him, “You’ve given me a headache that’s run about 29 years,” and asked him to explain the play. “Jer,” he replied, “you wouldn’t understand if I told you.” I think most people are ashamed to admit they don’t understand something.

Are there any younger comedians working today you particularly respect?

Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Woody Allen, and Charlie Callas, who should have been a big star. I saw a kid last night, Billy Crystal, in a nightclub here and he’s . . . brilliant.

What about Eddie Murphy?

You haven’t even see the tip of the iceberg. He’s got that innate Jewish comic tendency –I’m not being facetious, the Jewish among us that have it, have it from birth — in the black form. He’s got a sense of timing that’s incredible.

As a writer-director-star, in many ways you anticipated the work of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. But unlike them, you’ve never played a definite ethnic character. Why have you continued to downplay your Jewishness on screen?

I never hid it, but I wouldn’t announce it and I wouldn’t exploit it. Plus the fact it had no room in the visual direction I was taking in my work.

Jerry in a scene from “The Day the Clown Died.” In 2014, he donated it along with all of his other film holdings to the Library of Congress, with the stipulation it not be shown to anyone until 2024. (Though he has repeatedly denied it will ever be shown).

What’s the status of “The Day the Clown Died” [1974], in which you played a clown in a World War II German concentration camp?

It’s still tied up legally in the vault in Sweden, along with two [Ingmar] Bergman films and a Louis Malle from the early 1970’s. But I’m fortunate that mine is a period picture. My attorney in London tells me there’s some progress.

Are you planning to play any more serious parts?

Hell, no! Not unless I get another script like “King of Comedy.” Were you gratified by the good reviews you got, virtually your first in this country?

What? (Mock astonishment.) From the critics? No! How can I keep telling them they’re morons and then when they write good about me, tell them they’re wonderful? None of us in the film industry really {cares} about getting ripped as long as the guy takes a look at our work and has a point of view. But a lot of reviews come straight from press brochures.

In your opinion, why are the critics are so hostile to you?

Jerry played multiple roles in “The Family Jewels,” one of his films with few, if any, critical defenders.

They’re prejudiced because I’ve ripped them. I’ve asked for it. But on the other hand, the critics have given me a longevity. The greatest thing that can happen to a young performer is for the critics to jump on him, so the public can defend him, embrace him. The difference between Martin and Lewis’s earning capacity — $8 million a year — and my personal earning capacity at present is only half.

I’ve had over 40 years as a star; that’s unheard of. George Burns is unique, he didn’t become a big name alone until he was 75. Bob Hope cannot be placed in the same category, he’s a national treasure. Other than that, you name for me someone who’s had a pretty consistent position for 40 years. I have had about 8 to 10 years longer in my career than I should have had; and it’s largely thanks to the critics. And my fans.

I’ve grown up with most of you young guys that were a part of my life and I was a part of your lives. Whether you like Jerry or not, the recollection is there. More than likely it’s a good one, because I portrayed you when you were 7 years old.


Robert Osborne (1932-2017)

Robert coaches me through a “Critics Choice” intro at a June 2010 taping in Greenwich Village.

I’m deeply saddened by the death of Robert Osborne, who passed away in his sleep this morning (as his partner of 20 years, David Staller, told the Los Angeles Times). I can’t claim that we close friends, but I knew Robert well enough over a period of years that my life was changed for the better.

Robert was truly one of a kind — deeply knowledgable, unfailingly generous and everything you’d expect from his joyful Turner Classic Movies persona and much more. He was also a quintessential adopted New Yorker — he told me more than once that the smartest thing he’d ever done was to move away from Hollywood (‘’people are so superficial there’’) to the Big Apple, where he was a fixture at Broadway openings for decades. (He kept a pied a terre in Hollywood). For many years, he maintained three apartments at the Osborne Apartments on W. 57th Street (one for his office and one for his immense movie poster collection, which he began selling off in 2014).

I’d interviewed Robert several times on the phone when I was invited to lunch with him and TCM’s vice-president for programmer, Charles Tabesh, in 2009 to talk about TCM’s 15th anniversary. Robert was warm, friendly, and very enthusiastic when I impulsively decided to pitch a film series that my friend Farran Smith Nehme had been developing as a sort of movie-buff fantasy.

It was beyond thrilling when Robert introduced the first night of “Shadows of Russia’’ in January 2010 by saluting Farran and me for coming up a series that would trace Hollywood’s depiction of Russia from before the Revolution through the Cold War. Not long after that, I was invited to tape a couple of segments for another TCM series, “Critics Choice.’’

I had made quite a few TV appearances going back to the 1980s, but was never terribly comfortable in front of the cameras. Robert immediately set me at ease with a few words. My best video work ever was introducing THE LAST FLIGHT (1931) and ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (1942) with Robert.

With Robert and Angela Lansbury at a reception before a screening at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea.

In early 2011, I was invited to a little reception at a restaurant across the street before Robert interviewed Angela Lansbury at a screening of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea. Her eyebrows arched upwards when I made the mistake of noting that Robert’s ex-boss and Lansbury’s bete noir Lucille Ball (think “Mame”) had reportedly been considered for Lansbury’s role in MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

“Not seriously!’’ Robert said with a laugh and demonstrated why he was the interviewer of choice for Hollywood’s legends. (Though he cheerfully admitted he couldn’t get much more than a “yes’’ or “no’’ out of Robert Mitchum).

Robert took an obviously unplanned leave — first announced as three months, it lasted eight — not long after that, and Ben Mankiewicz’ hosting duties began to be expanded after Osborne took another leave in 2012. At one of the TCM Classic Film Festivals, I was interviewed by Robert in the lobby of the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel about THE IRON PETTICOAT, a long-unavailable comedy with Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn that I helped TCM clear the TV and video rights to.

A frame grab from THE IRON PETTICOAT video, which is now sadly out of print.

When TCM threw a 20th-anniversary celebration for Robertat the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival (which turned out to be his last), it was pretty obvious that Robert’s

deteriorating health made it debatable if there would be a 25th. The last time I saw him was at a Manhattan taping in May 2015. He greeted me warmly, but was too tired for a scheduled interview afterwards. Robert’s final TV appearance seems to have been an interview with Mo Rocco of “CBS Sunday Morning’’ that aired the day before the 2016 Oscars (fittingly enough for the man who wrote the academy’s official history of the ceremonies).

Robert had a strict sense of ethics — he was very proud of the fact that while had known about Rock Hudson’s AIDS well before it became public, he had not informed his bosses at the Hollywood Report, where he wrote a column for a quarter-century. He also strictly kept gossip out of his TCM introductions, but let me tell you the man knew everything about everybody (he told me that Ida Lupino’s directing career declined much less because of sexism than her drinking problem).

Robert, Farran Smith Nehme and me in a promo shot for “Shadows of Russia” taken in December 2009 at The Post.

One of Robert’s big dreams was getting his close friend Olivia DeHavilland to appear at the 2014 festival for the 75th anniversary of “Gone With the Wind.’’ He described a frustrating attempt to tape a segment with her in Paris that fell apart because of health issues, but was still hopeful. It didn’t happen, but even after he could no longer appear on air, Robert wrote in TCM’s program guide that as she approached 100 last year, she had set the goal of living to 115.

Robert was a gentleman and a fantastic interviewer who brought joy into many lives — including my Aunt Rose. She unfailingly watched Robert introduce four different movies every single night of the week, and that continued when I joined her in the vigil Aunt Rose kept by the beside of her dying daughter at a Manhattan hospice.

But Robert’s audience was much bigger than the Aunt Roses of the world, who did not turn TCM into the beloved brand that it has become. Robert’s greatest and most enduring accomplishment was turning untold viewers in their 30s, 20s and younger on to the classic films he loved so much. As the man most identified with a single network since Walter Cronkite, Robert Osborne insured that the flame of classic Hollywood will burn brightly for generations to come.

The last time I saw Robert was in May 2015 at a taping for some intros with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel where I took this with my phone.

When ‘King Kong’ came to TV

With SKULL ISLAND coming to theaters on Friday, it’s time to remember the first time that “The Eighth Wonder of the world” arrived on television 60 years ago tonight. If you were a kid in New York City on March 5, 1956, it was a huge deal when KING KONG (1933) made its TV debut on WOR’s “Million Dollar Movie.”


I watched at least five of the 16 showings that week (nightly at 7:30 and 10 p.m., plus matinees on Saturday and Sunday) and this seven-year-0ld had plenty of company. A 1952 theatrical re-release had done better than the original 1933 release, hence the choice of “Kong” to kick off the RKO titles on “Million Dollar Movie,” whose early seasons leaned heavily toward ’40s films leased from the Bank of America (repossessed titles that began with MAGIC TOWN) and titles from the short-lived International Pictures and independent producer David O. Selznick.


The ratings for “Kong’s” week-long debut were so spectacular that RKO General, which was still operating the movie studio as well as broadcast properties, cancelled plans to show it on four of its other TV stations (it had already shown in Memphis) and put it back in theaters for its fourth re-release that summer. (In some markets, it went head to head with the new GODZILLA — the two monsters would actually be pitted against each other six years later in Universal and Toho’s immortal KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, which is slated for a 2020 remake.)

The original “Kong” didn’t surface again on TV until August 4, 1957 when it made its national debut as one of 26 RKO titles — all previously seen on WOR –broadcast on ABC’s “Hollywood Film Theater.” It returned to “Million Dollar Movie” for an encore run beginning on July 7, 1958 and showed for decades in heavy rotation on the station (including what became regular Thanksgiving showings beginning in the 1970s) until RKO General was forced to sell the station in 1986 because the FCC found its parent company, General Tire, engaged in unethical business practices like requiring its suppliers to buy time on the TV stations.


These later showings were generally in two-hour timeslots, but the early showings were all edited to fit into 90 minutes, which meant that, after commercials, we were seeing at most 75 minutes of a movie that originally ran 100 minutes. “Million Dollar Movie” debuted both “Citizen Kane” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in two-hour time slots in 1959, but it would be years before this became the norm on WOR.

In a 1956 article in the New York Times, WOR’s general manager actually claimed that station’s editors were actually “improving” movies by cutting them. But even when WOR began showing “King Kong” in a two-hour time slot in the early 1960s, it wasn’t exactly the same film that wowed audiences when it opened on March 2, 1933 at Radio City Music Hall and the nearby RKO Roxy. The pre-code film had been cut to receive a code certificate for its 1938 reissue, and some portions were optically darkened to satisfy the censors. The most notable omission was a scene where Kong attempts to undress Ann Darrow and smells his fingers.

The missing footage was restored for a 1970 re-release through Janus Films, courtesy of a 16mm print discovered in Philadelphia a year earlier. But it was not until 2005 that then-owner Warner Bros. completed a deluxe 4K restoration from all of the best surviving elements, including a non-darkened 35mm print from the UK that even included 4 minutes of entrance and exit music. This is the excellent version now available on video.