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.

Irene Dare, where have you gone?

The astounding rise to stardom of Shirley Temple in the 1930s at Fox prompted the studios to recruit more kiddie performers. And to Hollywood they came: Jane Withers, Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin, Bobby Breen, Bonita Granville, Donald O’Connor, Peggy Ryan – and figure skating prodigy Irene Dare.

irenedare
Irene Dare skated in a pair of late-1930s RKO musicals.

Two-thirds of Dare’s film career consisted of a pair of RKO-released musicals for independent producer Sol Lesser: Breaking the Ice (1938) and Everything’s on Ice (1939), the latter her only “starring” feature. Her other film appearance was as a specialty act in Monogram’s Silver Skates (1943).

But what happened to Irene Dare? We’d like to know as part of our research for a movie book project. And is it true that she acted with a young Paul Winchell – or at least the voice of the future ventriloquist legend – in Everything’s on Ice?

A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Dare (b. 1931?) came to California to support Breen in Breaking the Ice for Lesser’s Principal Productions.  Born Irene Davidson, Dare had been skating since age 4. Dare attracted enough attention, and in and out of her home state, for the standout skater Evelyn Chandler to suggest that the New Yorker Hotel book the girl for its famous ice skating nightclub show.

Dare’s debut at the hotel was abruptly canceled by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia because liquor was sold at the club. The controversy became national news, which prompted RKO Pathe to prepare a newsreel story about Dare. This got her noticed by Lesser, who had been having success with a series of musicals for RKO release starring “boy soprano” Breen — his latest youth protege on a long list that also included Jackie Coogan, Jackie Cooper and Baby Peggy.

Lesser figured he’d found his next prodigy when he watched the newsreel footage of Dare performing her acrobatics in a St. Paul ice carnival. The little girl moved to Hollywood with her parents, Harry and Violet Davidson, and two siblings, Harry and James; a sister, Louise, was born in California, according to U.S. Census records. Irene’s father, a newspaper engraver in Minnesota, obtained a similar job in Los Angeles.

Lesser’s investment in Dare seemed worth it when the girl earned strong reviews for Breaking the Ice, even though she appeared for only a few minutes and two numbers. Lesser acted fast to sign Dare for her own starring feature, announcing to trade reporters that he would aim all his productions for children in an ambitious slate of films for 1939. Lesser put Dare on a lengthy schedule of personal appearances across the country with a company of 60. He engaged longtime dance director Dave Gould, who had supervised the ice sequences in Breaking the Ice, to conceive a touring two-hour ice show to support Dare and a supporting cast of 10 skaters.

Everything’s on Ice placed Dare with veteran comedians Edgar Kennedy and Roscoe Karns. A special 50- by 75-foot ice rink was set up for the film after originally being built for the International Casino in New York City. When she’s not skating, Dare’s character engineers a romance between her sister (Lynne Roberts) and a young man (Eric Linden) who’s secretly a millionaire. Among the film’s stabs at comedy is a scene in which Kennedy, playing the girl’s father, asserts authority over his wife (Mary Hart) by spanking her.

Director Erle C. Kenton, who would become better known for making Universal horror pictures, doesn’t give Dare much to do besides the production numbers; she’s often shown distracted with practicing or exercising – in other words, being a kid — as the other actors emote. Sometimes she recites dialogue in a self-conscious rhythm that matches dance moves, seemingly to make her more comfortable. But Dare is a real ice dancing dynamo, most notably in a jaw-dropping climactic number that features costumed polar bears singing, and costumed penguins dancing to, the original tunes “Birth of a Snowbird” and “Everything’s on Ice.”

A teenager in 1939, Paul Winchell went on to become a famous television personality and cartoon voice actor, but his participation in Everything’s on Ice seems a bit murky. He had won first prize on radio’s Major Bowes Amateur Hour and had been hired to tour with Ted Weems’ band, so his career was just emerging. According to a Los Angeles Times story in June just as shooting of the Dare movie was about to begin, Winchell was a “Rival for Edgar Bergen!” who had contracted for a part in what was to be his first film: “Funny thing about this engagement, though, Winchell himself won’t be seen on the screen, but his dummy will, and Winchell’s voice will be heard.”  This article mentions that plans were in the works to feature Winchell in a series of shorts, which apparently were not filmed.

At least two nationally syndicated articles, both from July, reported that Dare was to do “a duet with a ventriloquist’s dummy,” and the cast list for Everything’s on Ice that appeared in Photoplay magazine just after the film’s release listed Winchell as “Jerry.”  However, there was no sequence of that type, and seemingly no Jerry, in the slightly abridged print of Everything’s on Ice viewed by this writer.

Everything’s on Ice garnered mixed reviews – Variety called it “a moderate program supporter [that] … will suffice for the family and kid trade.”  But any thought of continuing Dare in a series apparently ended after the film’s 65 minutes.

Dare stayed busy on the skating circuit, then reappeared on film, billed fifth in Silver Skates, which was a showcase for Monogram’s new adult ice skating discovery, the singularly named Belita. Dare was a cinematic has-been, although Everything’s on Ice was shown frequently on TV as Frolics on Ice and fell into the public domain.

What happened to Irene Dare/Davidson? I can’t seem to find anything on her after 1950, except that she apparently was married in California to a man named Shockley from the early ’50s until 1970.  Is she still living?  And can someone provide more information on Winchell’s possible appearance with her on screen?

 

SOURCES

“Youngest Star Cashes in on Planned Career,” Washington Post, July 30, 1939.

“Irene Dare on P.A. Tour,” The Film Daily, May 25, 1938.

“Gould to Conceive Show,” The Film Daily, June 29, 1938.

“Another Ventriloquist Signs for Film Duty,” Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1939.

“Jimmie Fidler’s Hollywood,” McNaught Syndicate column, July 1939.

“Film Reviews: Everything’s on Ice,” Variety, September 6, 1939.

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