Thursday, May 7, 2015

Must See Streaming TV Movie of the Week: Betrayal (1974)

Network: ABC 
Original Airdate: December 3, 1974 

A Griftin’ n’ a driftin’. 

That’s the game Jay (Sam Groom) and Adele (Tisha Sterling) are into. And, while I wouldn’t recommend that lifestyle for everyone, it seems to be paying off for the dangerous couple.

The Scam: Adele (or Gretchen as she is known elsewhere) finds lonely old ladies who need some help around the house, and worms, er, warms her way into their good graces, and then Jay steps in and holds the woman hostage until they pay for their freedom. While this scares the bejeezus out of most of their victims (and leaves them broke), it turns deadly when Eunice (the great Lucille Benson still being accidentally funny in a serious role) realizes that the couple are in cahoots. After they off the old lady, the stakes are raised, and the next payoff is looking rather good when Adele hooks up with Helen Mercer (Amanda Blake), a self-made woman who needs someone to help her handle her business affairs. However, things take yet another turn when Adele comes to look up to, and like, Helen, and now she wants out of the game for good.

Based on the novel Only Couples Need Apply by Doris Miles Disney (she also wrote the novel that the excellent TVM Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate was based on), Betrayal was just one of four small screen features that Gordon Hessler directed in 1974! It’s not my favorite of this batch, but I thought Betrayal was quite good, with a few truly suspenseful moments and strong acting from both Sterling and Blake. Like a lot of Hessler’s television films, Betrayal is small in almost every sense of the word. Small cast, limited locations, and light on subplots, this telefilm is brisk, if a bit insubstantial, and is a decent way to spend 74 minutes.

However, what I tend to enjoy most about a Hessler joint is the atmosphere, and that’s largely missing from Betrayal. It certainly would have benefited from a little more mood and perhaps a bit more tension. But, it does its best to keep things ticking, and the story is helped along through the formidable Blake in her TV movie debut.

Yessir, after nineteen years as Miss Kitty on the forever-running Gunsmoke, Blake decided it was time to hang up her bar wench gear, but was far from retiring. It took her only three short weeks after leaving the series to sign up for Betrayal. The actress maintains an air of strength and integrity and it’s easy to see why troubled Adele starts to look outside of a life of crime. Helen, who… in an interesting twist… has also killed before, is at a different but somewhat similar crossroads as Adele. So, while she is unaware of their deeper connection, Adele is not and it’s understandable why the two click so quickly.

The rest of the cast is great, with Groom putting in an especially sleazy performance as the suave but violent Jay, who, despite his own grave circumstances, has the last, morbid laugh.
Not to be confused with the same titled 1978 TVM starring Sterling lookalike Lesley Ann Warren, Betrayal is currently streaming on Amazon Instant Video and is available on DVD.

Friday, April 17, 2015

An Update! An Announcement! Links!

Dude, it’s like I’ve been away for, like, ever.

Who knew graduate school was so intense? Well, OK, everyone knew, but I went on believing I could handle it all. Then, some personal problems got in the way, and here I am, weeks after my last blog post. But I do promise, I have not been away from the world of TV movies, even if I haven’t been able to review them. Here’s what’s up:

The big news is that I am going to be hosting a podcast dedicated to retro television! We will be concentrating on the television movie genre, and have lots of fun in store for all you small screen fanatics! Look for our first podcast in August or September.

My co-host will be the groovy Dan R. Budnik, co-author of Bleeding Skull: A 1980s Horror-Trash Odyssey, and owner of the blog Some Polish American Guy Reviews Things. Dan is awesome, loves TV movies and is super excited to spend some time discussing our favorite titles.

Did you know Dan was on Twitter? Well, you do now.

He's also a Happy Days expert. True story.

A few other awesome people, who I hope can make every podcast, will join us. But we know life is crappy sometimes, so for now they are going to be credited as Special Guests. Aaron Spelling would be proud (and more on them as time draws near).

Elsewhere in Amandaland (hey, if Shonda Rhimes can have land, so can I): 

Did you know I have a fun facebook page that is updated almost daily? While my blog will always be my BFF, the fb page has been a good buddy while I am away. Please stop by and check out all of the TV Guide ads, discussions and links to my archived reviews. (I also have a Twitter that totally gets ignored).

Or, did you know that I helped out a little on Spectacular Optical’s first publication Kid Power? This awesome book looks at all kinds of children’s treats made for both the big and small screen. I offered some images and my proofing and fact checking skillz to the chapter on Afterschool Specials.

Afterschool Specials, you say?

Need I say more?

I thought so. 

I am also part of a fun horror movie roundtable for Podcastmania, and we have a facebook page. Stop by for a little blood and gore.

And, yes, I'm still hanging out with The Movies About Girls crew. We are not podfading!

And finally, I am working on another TVM-centric project, which is moving rather slowly (thank you, life), but I’ll have an update on that endeavor at a later date.

I know. I. know. The next few months are looking pretty cray-cray, but I will be getting a little time off in May, before my summer semester gets rolling. Egads! I’m already burnt out. But I’ll do my best to get some new content up. Seriously guys, for now, please visit the facebook page. There are a lot of great like-minded TV lovers over there waiting for your input!

One of us… 
One of us...

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Classic TV Detectives Blogathon: Blacke's Magic (1986)

This review is part of the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Check out the other great posts here.

When this blogathon was first proposed, I racked my brain trying to think of interesting detectives to write about. There are certainly many. But, I ended up with the non-detective detective show (of which there are also many!) Blacke’s Magic because it was a program I hadn’t seen a lot of people talking about, and because it gave me a reason to sit down once again with the pilot movie. And any excuse that gets me on the couch with Hal Linden is good for me!

Blacke’s Magic made its debut as a made for television movie on NBC on January 5th, 1986. It was a midseason replacement show, put together by Peter Fischer, Richard Levinson and William Link, the trio behind the much loved Murder, She Wrote, which had made its impressive debut in 1984 (and you probably also recognize Levinson and Link as the madly brilliant duo behind Columbo). In many ways, the formula replicates Murder, She Wrote: A non-detective celebrity figure finds a new profession investigating various crimes committed around them. However, whereas Jessica Fletcher worked a sort of intuitive magic solving seemingly unsolvable crimes, Alexander Blacke (Hal Linden looking fit and fine) employs his learned tricks as a way to turn a whodunit into a howdunit!

Linden said he had rejected many television series offers before he decided to hit the small screen again as the retired magician crime fighter. He remarked that the sophisticated Alexander Blacke appealed to him because unlike the good-natured and responsive Barney Miller, Alexander was not just reacting to everyone else. He seemed larger than life, and that enticed Linden, who noticed a hint of Broadway in the charming Alexander.

Also, this opportunity gave Linden a chance to work with the great and oh-so-lovable Harry Morgan, whose last series role had been on the unsuccessful MASH spinoff AfterMASH. Morgan was actually not in the market for a weekly show, but said that after his first wife died in 1985 he wanted to put himself back out there. The combination of these two greats, backed by Levinson and Link, directed by the great John Llewellyn Moxey, and featuring a tasty premise full of magic and wonder should have been just as magical for the audience as it was on the show (the actual tricks were orchestrated by Doug Henning’s “magic designer” Jim Steinmeyer). And, it’s a damn shame that Blacke’s Magic never got a chance to fully explore its potential.

Newspaper promo for Blacke's Magic
Many critics dubbed Blacke’s Magic the new Banacek, and that is not too far off the mark. And it was also part of the problem. Banacek took on some serious mind-boggling crimes, but sometimes the stories were overly confusing (even if George Peppard werked those turtlenecks). The same could be said here, as the pilot movie, while certainly engaging and fun, throws too many rabbits into its hat, confusing the mystery and heart of the story.

The pilot episode, which is titled Breathing Room, starts off with Blacke performing a highly anticipated escape act, only to end up all wet and soon retired. Bored and unfocused, Blacke is invited to a magician's conference where he is due to get an award. Jetting off to San Francisco he soon runs into one of his magician friends, the Great Gasparini (!), played by Ceasare Danova with an extra dose of suave. Gasparini's beautiful daughter, Carla (Kathleen Beller) is dating a hot new magician named Michael (Joseph Cali from Grease, and The Lonely Lady and my heart). Michael basically plagiarizes one of Gasparini’s tricks, much to the dismay of the great suave one! Before you know it, Gasparini is taking one last… you got it… gasp at his infamous dunked coffin bit, only this time he plans to stay underwater one more hour than normal. Everything seems to be going wonderfully, but soon after Gasparini is released from the depths of the hotel’s pool, it quickly become apparent that he’s been shot… from inside the coffin?!?

I know! Crazy, right? 

Luckily for the viewing audience, Alexander's daughter (Claudia Christian) is dating a gorgeous homicide detective played by Mark Shera (lucky girl!), who is so baffled by the murder that he invites Alexander to help him solve the crime… on the down-low of course!

And that’s just about half of the story! Early on Morgan shows up as Leonard Blacke, Alex’s scoundrel of a father. He is an aging con artist who is equally as bored by his retired life and he soon joins Alexander in San Francisco, using his con-style tactics to, well, not get too much information. But Morgan looks like he’s having a blast.

Airing on a Sunday night against a small screen remake of The Defiant Ones, Blacke’s Magic was met with mixed reviews. Certainly, it was an imperfect pilot film – Morgan needed a stronger presence, and the story is buried under subplots and superfluous characters. Sure, we need red herrings, but with abused housewives, con artist illusionists, devilish doctors and hotel managers it feels like the telefilm was trying to cram a whole season into their first two-hour time slot!

However, as a cozy mystery series, ala the aforementioned Murder, She Wrote, it doesn’t get much more charming or comfy than Blacke’s Magic. This is one of those shows where you can simply sit back and let the actors do the driving. It’s an inviting cast, and everyone from Maud Adams to Tricia O’Neil to David Huddleson bring a little bit of their own ol’ black(e) magic of awesome to the screen (trivia: O’Neil was also featured in the Murder, She Wrote pilot telefilm and got her start with the Fischer/Levinson/Link trio all the way back in seventies in an Ellery Queen episode and in another pilot TVM titled Charlie Cobb: Nice Night for a Hanging). It’s really a shame that Blacke’s Magic only ran for 12 episodes before it did its final disappearing act, because I think the series had some great tricks up its sleeve.

Plus it had this wonderful opening:

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Must See Streaming Movie of the Week: The Third Girl From the Left (1973)

Network: ABC
October 16th, 1973

Peter Medak is my favorite director that I never talk about. He has moved effortlessly from the big to small screen, and is behind so many films I absolutely adore (The Changeling, The Krays, The Babysitter… lots of movies starting with the word The). Very early in his career the Hungarian born director was offered a chance to direct both Kim Novak and Tony Curtis in their telefilm debuts. He does not disappoint, and The Third Girl from the Left (which is songwriter Dory Previn’s lone screenplay) is an exquisite and poignant look at how even in the fast lane, life can pass you by.

The main credit sequence fixates an almost fetishistic lens on Novak as she applies her makeup. Despite being an already beautiful woman who transforms herself into an idealized knockout in a matter of seconds, there is a definite sense that Novak’s character Gloria is an unhappy woman in an unhappy place. Even though she is the “number one showgirl” in New York, she works in a small revue and has to deal with younger dancers who constantly vie for her coveted spot. In this respect, the title reflects a sad anonymity for a well-known showgirl, because despite her small grasps at fame she remains a somewhat undistinguished figure languishing in the dying (and decaying) NYC chorus girl circuit.

Previn wrote the script based on her own experiences as a struggling chorus girl. She said in an interview, “The girls never have names. The choreographer says, ‘Third girl from the left, you’re out of step.’ Some try suicide. In my album, Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign, the starlet jumps off the letter H because she didn’t become a star… I wonder about our planet. Is it a lonely little starlet out in the sky? What happens when youth is gone?”

Now, in 2015, the telefilm evokes memories of last year’s Oscar’s, where Novak’s face became the object of derision, criticism and outright bullying. In this context, Third Girl takes on an extra layer of poignancy as we see Gloria as a woman whose age is quietly critiqued by everyone, including herself. She is constantly touted as a “relic” who is seen as either the stereotypical “good girl” that her philandering comedian boyfriend (Tony Curtis) puts on a pedestal while still managing to ignore her, or, in one of the film’s bluest moments, she is relegated as a celebrated antique by a group of young partygoers who only see her as the last of the great chorus girls. All, except for David (Michael Brandon, who would fall in love with Novak during production and spend the next year as her boyfriend), a young delivery boy who is clearly smitten. The two embark on a sad affair. Not sad in any kind of visibly tangible sense, but tragic in that it becomes obvious that he is also not the right guy for a girl who desperately needs the right guy.

There’s some heavy-duty stuff happening in Third Girl, but while a melancholy permeates every frame, the film never overwhelms itself with gloom. Novak is a stunner as Gloria the dejected dancer. The actress came out of a self-imposed four-year absence from acting, stating later that she liked the idea of working in television’s fast paced production atmosphere, while also bemoaning that “There’s too much time wasted in features.” And then, probably after she realized the hectic pace and the temporary life of the telefilm, she added later with some humor, “It sounded like a good idea at the time.”

Heartbreak is the name of Gloria's game and Novak keeps her sympathetic and easy to root for. Previn’s script is very of its time, and she even contributes a wistful folk song about the protagonist (which you will either love or hate, it’s that kind of tune). Produced by Playboy Pictures, Hugh Hefner cast his then-main squeeze, Barbi Benton in a small part as Curtis’ no nonsense mistress. It’s an early role, but she’s already commanding the lens and is one of the more memorable supporting characters.

Third Girl is also a wonderful, if bittersweet, time capsule, capturing the last days of the showgirl, the not-too-hard-knock-life of the Vegas comedian, the dark, grimy streets of New York, and some fantastic not very over the top seventies wear, which Novak wears with style. Whether they knew it or not, Previn, Medak and company composed a love letter to a time that feels too far away now, and despite the less than happy ending, Third Girl is a unique kind of treat and worth a look.

Third Girl From the Left is available on DVD and is currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Must See Streaming TV Movie of the Week: Mrs. R - Death Among Friends (1975)

Network: NBC 
Original Airdate: May 20th, 1975 

Without knowing much of the history behind the pilot telefilm Death Among Friends (the Mrs. R was added later), it would seem that NBC was hoping that putting a gender twist on their trusty ratings lion Columbo would lead to viewing gold... and maybe they were right. Kate Reid is Mrs. R., a dowdy but undeniably kind and smart female police detective, who along with her uniformed partner, Manny (A. Martinez looking all of 20 years old) investigate the murders surrounding a Hugh Hefner type magnate.

With exteriors filmed on a posh four acre estate in Bel Air, and featuring wonderfully indulgent built interiors, the setting is absolutely marvelous and one can get lost in its lushness. But no worries of staring at the wallpaper too much, because the cast is simply delish. Everyone from Martin Balsam to Lynda Day George to Pamela Hensley to William Smith to Jack Cassidy play potential suspects (or, in Balsam’s case, potential victim), and each one is given a little time to look guilty before Mrs. R. moves on to bigger prey. Clearly, the seasoned actors understand the drill, but even better, they seem to really enjoy going through the motions of this likeable, if not particularly brilliant, mystery.

Random trivia: The house used in Death was on the market at the time of filming. Who was the real estate agent? None other than Donna Douglas aka Ellie May Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies!

Mrs. R, which I am assuming was the potential name of the series, definitely follows the Columbo blueprint: Unassuming middle class detective interlopes on the rich, famous and powerful, using under-the-radar-charm in an effort to get the bad guys to let their guard down. Reid’s role as the indefatigable single mother is a nice fit for seventies television though, so comparisons are noted but not a detriment.

She wasn’t the only unpicked up female detective series of this era either. Stella Stevens gave it a go in 1976’s Kiss Me, Kill Me. Barbara Eden also lent her star power to Stonestreet: Who Killed the Centerfold Model (1977), and Donna Mills teamed up with Quinn Martin for the unsold pilot The Hunted Lady (1977). That’s a lot of blondes with concealed weapons!

And, I’m sure that is just a few of the attempts the networks made in their search to perfect the recipe that made Police Woman, and later, Charlie’s Angels such powerhouses. What I really liked about Mrs. R though is that while the settings ooze decadence, the lead character distinctly lacks that glamour (again... Columbo). There is absolutely nothing wrong with Reid (well, despite the frumpy wardrobe), and she’s perfectly attractive. But she also looks like a single mother working long hours as a cop. And I love that the handsome John Anderson plays her affable co-worker/love interest. Even A. Martinez can’t resist this older woman’s charm, and that’s because Reid is the type of appealing that shines through at any age.

A precursor to Angela Lansbury’s similarly matured charisma as Jessica Fletcher, A Death Among Friends is an absolute delight worth discovering or revisiting. It is available on DVD through Warner Archives, and is currently streaming on Warner Archives Instant.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Baxters (1979-1981)

When I think about the 1970s (which, as you might guess, is a lot), sometimes the words “Let’s rap” ring softly through my head. While that phrase may seem mawkishly silly by today’s standards, 70s rapping could be intense, polarizing or even enlightening  (for a modern reference, it is basically like facebook but with actual faces, and maybe a book). But, before you get all “Can you ironically dig it” on me, let’s discuss The Baxters.

The Baxters was a syndicated program brought to national attention by Norman Lear. The Baxters were a traditional family unit who were dealing with many of the same heated issues that the show’s audience members were also struggling with. Women’s rights, teenage sex, alcoholism, and even labor strikes brought up various He Said/She Said conversations that would end without resolution about halfway into the 30 minute running length. At this point, each local station that aired the show hosted an audience who discussed the family's situation. Groovy rapping commenced.

Conceived by Boston Broadcasters, Inc., The Baxters was first locally produced in 1977 before Lear came into the picture in 1979. He loved the idea of the show and picked it up because he felt it was “the comedy and the tears in the reality of our lives.” And, as you know, he also believed that using comedy to explore topical issues brought out the themes in more overt ways, so the audience never had to suss out the meanings, which served to enrich the on-point conversations. 

The first national season of The Baxters consisted of a husband and wife (played by Larry Keith and Anita Gillette who would go on to drive me insane on Quincy M.E.) and three children, an older teenage daughter, who was adopted (Derin Altay), a younger teenaged son (Christ Petersen) and a ten year old daughter (Terri Lynn Wood). One of the series’ biggest selling points was that the time each episode spent discussing an issue (approximately using 51% of the allotted airtime) fulfilled the local station's agreements that they would air a certain amount of public affairs programming per week. That’s a pretty brilliant sales pitch.

However, due to poor ratings, The Baxters was cancelled after one season. Then, a Canadian company picked it up and produced it in Ontario. This season introduced another Baxter clan led by Sean McCann as the patriarch and Terry Tweed, as the mother who was returning to work. They also had three kids of the same ages as the first family's children, played by Marianne McIsaac, Sammy Snyders (of The Pit! Oh. Em. Gee.) and Megan Follows. Again, the show could not gather up enough interest and was cancelled for the final time in 1981.

Despite disappointing ratings, many look back on The Baxters fondly. Mostly viewers remember the experimental sitcom/discussion show hybrid as groundbreaking and fascinating because it engaged real people in very contemporary debates. The Museum of Classic Chicago Television has unearthed the episode Women’s Roles in Marriage! This particular episode aired in Chicago on March 16th, 1980, and I’m thrilled it's available in its entirety. You can watch part one here, and then you can move over to the discussion portion here

Some of the topics discussed on The Baxters that I would like to review are spousal abuse, marital affairs, and alcoholism. Even by syndicated standards, the show seemed a little clunky, even then. But, and for many of the same reasons that I enjoy watching retro game shows, I absolutely love seeing the real people of this era. We were a gorgeous bunch! In the episode posted by the Museum of Classic Chicago Television, the banter between audience members is fairly light, but it’s interesting to note the guy who creates a bit of a stir when he accuses working women of spending both their own salaries and their spouse's (even suggesting that career women tend to keep their own money in a private bank account for themselves). He also states if it's the man who is working, it’s the man who gets to spend the money, and Mrs. Baxter should probably ask for his permission before she touches any of it (even if it's on something both parties had agreed to purchase!). While I disagreed with a lot of what he said, I have to admit, he brought out the then-growing cynicism towards marriage by pointing out the contractual nature behind matrimony. Also, in the days before Jerry Springer, it was nice to see people mostly grumble and politely respond instead of breaking chairs and throwing punches. The seventies were certainly not perfect, but I will always embrace a good rap session, and it looks like The Baxters had plenty of it!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Gramps (aka Relative Fear, 1995)

Network: NBC
Original Airdate: May 20th, 1995

Fans of made for television movies know that actors like John Ritter and Andy Griffith often went against type in carefully chosen one-off roles. With the exception of (maybe) Robert Reed and Elizabeth Montgomery, there aren’t too many others who did it better than Ritter or Griffith, both digging deep into dark dramas that sometimes bordered on horror, using telefilms as vehicles to exercise different acting muscles. I’m sure the casting director of Gramps did a little happy dance when they wrangled these two wonderful talents to star in the pitch black comedy that looks a bit like a gender-bending Lifetime domestic thriller.

Gramps, one of the more culty telefilms of the 1990s, does not disappoint either. Ritter is Clarke MacGruder, a likeable family man who contacts his estranged father, Jack (Andy Griffith) after his mother dies. Charming Jack shows up at the funeral and quickly moves into his long lost family’s good graces. But he’s not planning to leave anytime soon, and begins a series of manipulative, often violent, schemes to stay in the fold. Things quickly escalate to murder, and as the family finds itself ripping apart at the seams, Jack attempts one more deadly reunion.

The above pithy synopsis does not really do any justice to Jack’s dangerous (but oh so fun to watch) plan hatching. He is incredibly devious, and knows how to establish complex manipulation as well, exploiting a maybe-past affair Jack’s wife Betsy (Mary-Margaret Hume of Dawson’s Creek and the quintessentially eighties Charlie’s Angels ripoff Velvet) may have had with her co-worker to the hilt. He hires a hooker to pose as Betsy in a no-tell-motel kind of situation. This enthusiastic woman of the night “accidentally” leaves Betsy’s calendar behind, and drama ensues. Also, gramps gets a little action in that scene too!


He also bashes in knee caps, terrorizes little kids and makes no compunction when it comes to blowing away the grandfatherly competition. In short, I love him.

While Clarke is the guy dealing with all of the collateral damage, it’s his son Matthew (Casey Wurzbach) who is the apple of Jack’s eye. After years of life without his son or a family, Jack wants the little guy all for himself, plying him with candy, and even lying for him in an effort to win his grandson’s undying love. Unfortunately, when this movie ends we don’t get a glimpse of Matthew inheriting Jack’s mean streak. Sure that’s probably way too predictable, but you know, keep the dream alive.

Gramps knows exactly what it’s doing. From the opening sepia toned shot of a young father taking his kid fishing, screenwriter J.B. White and director Bradford May cleverly nod towards the more serene relationship between Andy and Opie, only to cut to a handsome but older Griffith torching a house! So, while Gramps takes a bit of time establishing the relationships between characters, that underlying theme of menace permeates each frame.

According to Ritter’s widow, Amy Yasbeck in her book With Love and Laughter, John Ritter, the film was shot in North and South Carolina, and Yasbeck wrote that she was impressed by the level of evil Griffith brought to the part. I kid you not - she actually wrote, “Evil Andy was riveting.” Yasbeck went on to say that Mr. and Mrs. Griffith loved John so much they named their pet dog after him, Mary-Margaret Ritter (presumably the Mary-Margaret is a loving nod towards Hume). Every holiday season the Ritters could count on a card from the Griffiths with their beloved family dog.

Casey Wurzbach also fell in love with John (as we all did, really) and recently ran a marathon in his honor with Yasbeck in an effort to raise money and give attention to the risks of aortic dissections. Visit Casey’s facebook page for more info.

I’ve written a little bit about both Griffith and Ritter’s post-comedy series work, and watching the two team up in Gramps the other night reminded me of what mammoth talents they both were. While this is really Griffith’s film, and it looks like he’s relishing every freakin’ second, Ritter is the anchor, or the domestic thriller straight man, and is also wonderful in a great little movie that deserves more attention.