TNT and me

show-of-shows
“The Show of Shows,” a 1929 Warner Bros. studio revue, was among the hundreds of seldom-viewed movies that found new life after TNT debuted in 1988.

How much do I love Turner Classic Movies? A lot, as I have written here. But as delighted as I was to finally have non-commercial-interrupted Golden Age movies piped through my TV set via TCM, the real revelation in small-screen film-watching was my first exposure to TCM’s predecessor in the classics-on-cable field … TNT.

Turner Network Television, as it was called more frequently than now, debuted 30 years ago this week, on October 3, 1988. I have a special affinity for TNT, as its infancy aligned to certain significant events in my personal life.

Even with all the cheesy advertisements breaking up its programs, who among us couldn’t love TNT? With its need for programming came the first real emptying of the Ted Turner-controlled film vault, with hundreds of long-unseen pre-1960 MGM, Warner Bros. and RKO gems suddenly available in our living rooms. I never thought I’d get to pose questions like “Can you believe TNT is showing Show of Shows at 4 a.m. Monday?” Of course, I had to ask these questions to myself, as there were no movie message boards or blogs in the late 1980s, nor did anyone within earshot in Flint, Michigan, know what Show of Shows was.

Here’s where the personal stuff comes in: I had to get married to get TNT.

In 1989, I was living in an apartment complex with an in-house cable menu of about 15 channels, so … no go. My then-fiancée lived in an apartment complex with no TNT but with access to AMC (née American Movie Classics), which was frequently showing rarities from Paramount and Universal.

My wife-to-be was no movie watcher (she still isn’t), but I knew she was right for me when she agreed to allow me to time-tape Night World and Love Comes Along at 5 in the morning on her home VCR. (I also knew she was Ms. Right after I dared to show her Freaks and she didn’t run from the room screaming at the climax.)

You think this isn’t significant? Try finding Night World and Love Comes Along on TV at all anymore.

Anyway, we got married and it was all worth it. We moved to an apartment complex that offered both TNT and AMC. Happy ending. Great times. The marriage was pretty good, too, as I recall.

TNT showed reruns of rarely viewed TV shows such as Medical Center and Mr. Novak and produced its own new programming, but its bread-and-better fare was old movies – many, many of which I saw for the first time on that channel. These would have to be taped on VHS, for collectability purposes and because then, as now on TCM, some of the older rarities were aired at times inconvenient for sleep.

One of these was the early musical The Singing Fool, which I wrote about last week. I was so excited to see it show up on TNT that I couldn’t trust my VCR to go on and off as programmed. So, at 3:30 a.m. on Friday, August 10, 1990, I shuffled out of bed, turned on TNT and my VCR by hand and taped the movie … while editing out the commercials.

(This is how good it was for early talkie buffs in 1990: The Singing Fool was airing at the same time as The Pay-Off (a 1930 Lowell Sherman crime drama from RKO) on AMC and Night Nurse (WB 1931, Barbara Stanwyck) on The Movie Channel.)

Seeing The Singing Fool – even with all of its awkward silence-to-sound-and-back-again transitions and schmaltzy father-son scenes between Al Jolson and little Davey Lee – was nearly the highlight of my week. Would’ve been, too … had my first child not been born two days before.

I learned to time middle-of-the-night bottle feedings to select TNT screenings … The Hollywood Revue of 1929The Thirteenth ChairThe Great Divide … and, yeah, Show of Shows. As I rocked my first boy — and, not long after, my second — to sleep with the black-and-white images flickering in the background, I wanted to think, “Someday, son, maybe you’ll enjoy watching Betty Compson and Lawrence Gray as much as I do.”

Yeah, great times. The movies were pretty good, too, as I recall.

TCM, ‘The Desert Song’ and me

John Boles mesmerizes Carlotta King in the 1929 movie version of “The Desert Song.”

For all the complaints I hear about Turner Classic Movies, I think it’s still a pretty great channel. Maybe it shows too many post-1970 movies, although this is much less of a problem for me than for the Golden Age purists who grumble about it on the Internet. And there are too many promotions for in-house merch; fewer TCM Wine Club ads in heavy rotation would be nice.

But TCM is the best thing on television we, as lovers of old-old flickers, have. We should appreciate it for as long as we can (or have we not learned the lesson provided by what used to be called American Movie Classics?). Why, even as I type this, TCM is airing Roberta, the Astaire-Rogers musical in which Irene Dunne screen-intros “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Heck, I’m old enough to remember when you couldn’t even see Roberta because of rights issues.

TCM is emerging from a long transitory period created by the chasm left by the loss of Robert Osborne as the primary host. Osborne, who died a year and half ago, represented the perfect balance between film buff and TV presenter: He had a great love for the channel’s fare and the industry’s history but didn’t come off as a know-it-all. An actor by training, he had a great rapport with the classic stars he interviewed over the years. (From here, Osborne’s greatest “credential” was that he was a very interesting interview subject himself, as I found out 15 or so years ago during my past life as a newspaper entertainment writer. A real gentleman, he was.)

I have come to like and respect Ben Mankiewicz as Osborne’s main replacement. Some folks think he’s a wee snarky, but he is young enough to connect with the emerging millennials-for-oldies audience that TCM strongly desires to remain relevant – and what the classic-film audience needs at large. It’s nice that Turner Classic Movies has its loyalists, even if they chafe at the modified rebranding of TCM as a lifestyle channel. But as the option of a la carte cable channel selection looms, TCM will need to build viewership, not just placate those of us who have watched from the jump.

Among the other hosts, Dave Karger is a junior version of Osborne but lower on the warmth factor; I think he’ll grow on people, but the jury’s still out. Eddie Muller provides terrific in-depth intros for the “Noir Alley” titles, and he’s good enough sport to grin and bear his assignments to wine promos. As for Alicia Malone, I am still trying to cope with her accent.

But this wouldn’t be a blog about Turner Classic Movies without a programming complaint, so here’s one: Why, TCM, do you torture us with your schedule?

This is a rhetorical question, as I know the answer: Exhibition legalities, the availability of air-worthy material, and other time-fluid factors complicate the airings of many hundreds of vintage films, and these are beyond TCM’s control. But I am prompted to ask anyway because of the appearance, followed by the disappearance, of the 1929 version of The Desert Song from the online slate for August 2.

I’ve seen The Desert Song – which is one of the very first all-talking musicals – multiple times (and if you are so inclined, you can go to a website with a name rhyming with “Moo Rube”), so I’m not missing much by not seeing it on broadcast TV. Still, it’s a historically important movie – filmed as a full talkie (with Technicolor sequences!) in the fall of 1928, just as Warner Bros.’ part-talking Al Jolson vehicle The Singing Fool was setting box-office records with sound-hungry audiences. Desert Song was supposed to be a key follow-up in the Warners lineup, as WB had bought the rights to the Broadway musical for a lofty $65,000 in May 1928 – two months before the debut of that studio’s landmark all-talkie Lights of New York.

But Warners allowed a legal dispute, mounted by the owner of the West Coast territorial rights to the stage play, to keep The Desert Song on the shelf for a key period of months.  Although the dispute was settled in WB’s favor in federal court in February 1929, it wasn’t until April that the studio debuted the film – and by then, other studios had caught up with their own first full-length talkers. Even at that, Desert Song grossed $1.5 million in the U.S. and $3 million worldwide, impressive numbers for the day.

Advertised as “The World’s Most Famous Musical Romance” – which the stage original may well have been – the inaugural cinematic Desert Song trims some of the Otto Harbach-Oscar Hammerstein-Sigmund Romberg stage score, per the customary necessity of shoehorning three-hour footlight parades into an hour or two of celluloid. But right down to the 10-minute mid-section intermission, it’s by far the most loyal to the Broadway operetta than either of the two later, full-color movie incarnations (1943, in which Dennis Morgan battles the Nazis, and 1953, with Gordon McCrae and not-one-of-my-faves Kathryn Grayson).

And it would be nice to see and hear 1929 performers John Boles (as the heroic “Red Shadow,” a white Frenchman masquerading as a Moroccan freedom fighter), Carlotta King (in her only feature), Myrna Loy, Louise Fazenda and even little Johnny Arthur in something other than the faded black-and-white images and muffled tones of the currently circulating unauthored print.

Warners, which liberated the ’43 and ’53 Desert Songs to DVD releases in 2014, has indicated that work is being done on a preservation of the ’29 Desert Song, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were to pop up again on the TCM schedule … and stay there until the first note is played.

Anyway, I don’t think anyone is really that upset over no Desert Song this week. If early-sound enthusiasts can survive the appearance/withdrawal of Seven Footprints to Satan on/from the TCM schedule, which happened in 2008, we can endure this. (For the uninitiated, Seven Footprints is a part-talking 1929 First National horror comedy that is archivally held in Europe but is supposedly lacking sound elements. I remember thinking I might need heart medicine when I first read the words “Seven Footprints to Satan” on the TCM “Coming Soon” slate.)

Even without Seven Footprints to Satan, added to the loss of Osborne’s genial presence, and a dwindling audience of folks who remember watching movies in first-run theaters before 1970, TCM continues to impress. Just this week (July 31), it’s offering a terrific daylong lineup of pre-Code pictures. Among them are Downstairs (John Gilbert’s best talkie), Faithless (Tallulah Bankhead at MGM), Safe in Hell (a surprisingly lurid melodrama with the criminally underrated Dorothy Mackaill), and Three on a Match (with Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Blondell and the less-known but wonderful Ann Dvorak).

So … I promise not to be so hard on the best channel ever invented for the small screen because I’m tempted to be too much of a film geek. To paraphrase George Costanza – but in my case, really meaning it, and with no intent of a breakup: It’s not you, TCM … it’s me.

 

SOURCES:

“Vitaphone Unworried on Desert Song Warning,” The Film Daily, June 1, 1928.

“Talker Version Is Not Stage Play Infringement,” Variety, February 13, 1929.

TCM.com

 

Raising the curtain (or: All About Me)

Welcome to a new blog about old movies!

My name is Edwin M. Bradley … but please call me Ed.  I am a writer, editor, refugee newspaper journalist, and current art museum curator/college English instructor who was a daily newspaper film reviewer for 20 years. I have authored three books about early film history, with emphases on pre-1940 musicals and the transition to sound in Hollywood.

My latest tome, Unsung Hollywood Musicals of the Golden Era (McFarland & Co.), examines 50 obscure and obscure-ish 1929-39 films that are either unfairly unrecognized or deservedly ignored. It was recognized by Huffington Post and Classic Images magazine as one of the top new film-related titles of 2016. My other books are The First Hollywood Musicals (1996) and The First Hollywood Sound Shorts (2005).

The purpose of this blog is to look at unusual and/or little-known movies (not necessarily musicals, for I love pre-1950 horror and science fiction, too) and movie people. I hope you enjoy it.

By the way, I am nearly finished with a fourth book, to be published by McFarland. Its tentative title is Tone-Deaf Divas, Crooning Cowpokes, and Synthetic Songsters: Rediscovering 75 Hollywood Musicals of the 1930s. We’ll have more to say about that later.

Me
Me