I read someone once who stated there comes a moment of decision in every man’s life where he chooses either to move forward or back. At the time it sounded faintly ominous, but after a few years paddling around in what suicidally-bored George Sanders correctly referred to as that “sweet cesspool,” I found it a warning largely beside the point. I don’t believe we move in straight lines in terms of human evolvement (or in terms of anything else, for that matter), but rather in a giant circle. We ride wheels within turning wheels (check it: I’m starting to trill like Noel Harrison…), giving the illusion of movement and progress to those inhabitants on other wheels…when all of us are really just pinned down on a piece of drawing paper like a giant Spirograph. Pretty pictures, destined to endlessly repeat themselves.
In other words: what goes around, comes around. Nothing’s new; what progresses inevitably will regress. We’re seeing that today: during the most technologically advanced era of human history, when we’re hacking voting machines and flying helicopters on Mars (thank god we’re finally doing that), an entire world populace can be convinced to ignore real science and act as if we’re back in the Dark Ages, petrified of plague and pestilence, scuttling around in the dark like the chorus from The Omega Man: The Musical, terrified of an invisible, entirely unprepossessing enemy. An enemy made more of porky pie propaganda than Petri dish.
So with that cheery outlook on life, you’re gonna blame me for being nostalgic about old timey TV? I think not, sir! We take our pleasures where we can here at the Movies and Drinks offices, and we take them fully. We drink deeply of them, figuratively and literally (mostly literally). Normally, our reviews are centered around product
we steal from Walmart generously given to us by the releasing companies, but this month I wanted to do something a little different. I wanted to write about not a DVD…but a memory (cue the wavy lines and warbley music as we go baaack, baack, back…).
By Paul Mavis
Contrary to my long-suffering wife’s shrill insistence that my family is my most prized possession, it’s actually my personal collection of old Showtime program guides from the late 1970s and 80s. You know: the premium cable service that started in the ’70s as competition for Home Box Office and is now totally irrelevant? Somehow I’ve managed to keep these fragile little promotional gems out of harm’s way for over 45 years (frequently rescued from the trash can, carelessly discarded there by my philistine relations), and nothing―no amount of money…short of a few C notes―could ever make me part with them.
Once a year, in April or May, I pull them out of storage and gently flip through them, their viewing schedules and stills and synopses and graphics instantly transporting me back to a seminal moment in my development, a time when I crossed over from A+ honor roll student with a bright future in any field I chose…to a frequently out-of-work bum whose constant TV and movie watching translated into reams of facile, useless reviews, a drinking problem (i.e.: I can never get enough to drink), and several hundred dollars in royalty checks over the course of 40 years. In other words: a writer.
The problem started early. At a young age I found out I was good at lying (writers call that their “imagination”), and so I often pretended to be sick so I could stay home and watch TV. My grades were off the charts, so everyone was cool with the arrangement (yep: enablers). Sitcom reruns, games shows, and particularly the old movies featured on Detroit’s Bill Kennedy at the Movies on WKBD Channel 50, were far more fascinating than hearing Jimmy Zimmerman laugh at his own dire “knock knock” jokes (“Knock Knock.” “Who’s there?” “Your door bell’s not working,”) before milk shot out of his nose (yes…he did grow up to hang himself). Watching the drunken, sneering, increasingly belligerent former B-movie actor Bill Kennedy insult and belittle unsuspecting callers to his show, inbetween his wannabe trivia (“I remember passing Bogie on Sunset once…burp,”) was a revelation to me: you could learn about movies while seeing others denigrated―and all of it on a lie’s dime? I was enthralled.
Add to that sunup-to-sundown TV watching during summer vacation; weekly matinees I either walked to (the former tacky glories of the sticky, moldering Maumee Indoor Theater) or were driven to (the dear, departed Southwyck 8 Theaters and the Jerry Lewis Twin/Glenbyrne Theaters); and of course the weekly excursions to the local drive-ins with Mom or Pop (Mom: safe stuff like Disney and True Grit; the old man: always “R” rated titles, like M*A*S*H or The French Connection)…or the dicey backwoods ones with my older brothers (hello biker sex, kung fu head-crunching and renamed Italian giallos!), and what was coming at me was a future recipe for a fun, wasted life.
At the earliest age, movies and TV were my passion (I not only read my name off the chalkboard on the first day of Kindergarten…I also read that night’s primetime line-up from the TV Guide I brought in my Peanuts lunchbox). However, they weren’t going to be my life. I was never going to be the Toledo Blade‘s “new” Norman Dresser, our dire local newspaper’s unintentionally hilarious movie reviewer in the 1970s, who looked like Howard Sprague and talked like Tweety Bird…and who never once got a movie “right” in his entire g.d. lifetime. Not me. I was going to be a lawyer or a banker or a business executive or some other kind of criminal.
And then…the old man got cable. The Toledo area had been one of the pioneers of premium cable programming with its early Buckeye Cablesystem’s Channel 100―a premium service featuring recent uncut theatrical movies that gave me the whim-whams anytime I saw it at my richer friends’ houses. The night I slept over at Billy Shambaugh’s and watched Diamonds are Forever uncut with him and his old man (one of those cool dads who had a juke box in his rec room and who didn’t swing on you every day) was the night I started begging one Mr. William A. Mavis, esq. for cable.
It took awhile, but eventually, once they cancelled Baretta, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bob Newhart Show, Columbo, Police Woman, Kojak, and Shields and Yarnell, he didn’t have anything else to watch in the spring of 1978. So we got the classic “A/B” split cable, along with two 13″ inch black-and-white portables as promo giveaways for ponying up the dough for one year’s worth of cable and Showtime (by the way, if you think we were rich…my general Oliver Twist attire and vaguely starved countenance would have assured you I wasn’t. I just had parents with severely mixed-up priorities―why do you think I was studying so hard?). When I was presented with my own bedroom TV and cable hook-up, it was later reported by family members that I rolled my eyeballs back into my head, fell to the floor in a spastic heap and began speaking in tongues. They even brought the sick neighbor kid over to watch. They thought it might heal him. It was the beginning of the end for me.
Still…I saw a lot of great and not-so-great movies, and in the end that’s what counts (not security, love, money, or personal fulfillment, I can assure you). I distinctly remember the old man handing over to me the April Showtime programming guide like he was tossing out junk mail, while I took it into my hands like it was Moses’ third tablet. There were only three days left in the month, so I had already missed the final showings of tantalizing titles like Silver Streak, The Mackintosh Man, Audrey Rose, Airport ’77, and The Sting, but I had the weekend to watch Let’s Do It Again, Annie Hall, New York, New York, Slapshot (my old man’s favorite), Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face, and Lepke.
It’s not an exaggeration: all of this was a revelation to me. You mean…I could see actual big-screen movies in my home, on my TV, uncut and commercial free, just like in the theaters? Just sit down and watch them? A variety like that―from J.J. Walker to Woody Allen to Bergman to Scorsese to Tony Curtis―all lined up for me in one afternoon and evening, without leaving my couch? This couldn’t be possible.
Click to purchase King Kong (1976) at Amazon.
Of course in today’s streaming/binge-watching world that sounds incredibly limited (amazing how short the programming day was), and this infatuation with premium cable programming didn’t last very long―just a few short years before I bought my first VCR and everything changed in how I watched TV and movies. But at the time, this was a game changer for me in terms of expanding my access to lots of different kinds of movies. At a time when ABC was still editing G-rated James Bond movies for violence and sex, as cool as Showtime‘s “uncut” aspect was (probably the main selling point for most first-time premium subscribers back during those pre-internet days), it wasn’t that big of a deal for me. I had brothers and a parent who already took me to see stuff that was hardly age-appropriate. Instead, what blew me away with Showtime was the volume and variety of material I could now consume.
As a young kid and early teen, most weeks, I could earn enough money doing chores and neighborhood jobs (ask your grandparents what those are, kids) to see a .50 cent matinee at a local second-run theater. Going to the first-runs, or the drive-ins, happened less frequently…maybe once or twice a month. That meant if I missed, say, a one-week showing of Lepke at the drive-in because the old man didn’t want to see it (not a Tony Curtis fan), I was probably out of luck ever seeing it, unless it showed up years later on TV. Now, with Showtime, I was getting 10 to 14 “new” movies (just about a year after their theatrical releases) every month. Suddenly, I went from the kid who, thanks to Bill Kennedy, knew all the Warner Bros. gangster movies (my first grade p.o.a. teacher Miss Straka loved my Jimmy Cagney imitation), to the kid who knew most of all the movies―old and new, big ones and indies―that came out of Hollywood and the expanding fringes of the industry.
It seems ludicrous to state it, but actually seeing a movie back then was really the only way you could learn about it. Just read some of the sh*t that passes for criticism today, and you’ll understand that far too many “pop culture writers” and “historians” (blech) haven’t really seen enough movies to validate their generalizations and assumptions and stereotypes about Hollywood’s past (and that’s if they’ve seen any at all―too many just crib ideas from the net, anyway). You have to actually watch a lot of titles from all over the spectrum, over decades and decades, to just start to begin to get an idea of what’s what. A couple of p.c.-addled “film classes” (um…hahahahaha!) won’t do it. And certainly Showtime helped me turbocharge that accumulation of viewing experience (just because you buy a couple of Blu-rays a month, and then extrapolate out your guesses on what was going on in that genre, or in that time frame in Hollywood, doesn’t make you an expert. By a long shot).
Just as important, the ability to watch titles over and over again back then (because the viewing hours were as limited as the title selections), helped the receptive would-be critic to more readily see how movies were put together (whether correctly or incorrectly). Watching Annie Hall four times in as many days can let you eventually focus less on the plot and jokes…and more on how it’s constructed. The same for movies like Airport ’77 or Trackdown. You could never do that with a one-shot showing of a movie on regular TV, and if you wanted to do it at the theater, you had better have some dollar bills in your pocket (what a pity that the moviegoers that went to Star Wars over and over again in that summer of ’77 didn’t ever realize how flawed it was, in comparison to say, Lucas’ masterpiece, American Graffiti).
These Showtime guides, in a way, functioned for me rather like the trades, back when there was no 24 hour-a-day entertainment media. Everyone knew about King Kong (the cover attraction on my first full month of Showtime, in May, 1978) when it was released in December 1976, due to its massive publicity push and saturation booking. But how many average moviegoers in 1977 heard about Glenda Jackson’s Watergate spoof, Nasty Habits or Jason Miller’s gangster flick, The Nickel Ride? I learned about those movies on Showtime, not at my local theater. If 20th Century-Fox’s 1977 sky glider actioner Sky Riders didn’t make it to my market (no surprise, since it tanked big-time), it for all intents and purposes didn’t exist to me…until I watched it 9 times on Showtime (yep…every single time it was on). Later, in college, two hours every day of reading Daily Variety down in the library tombs was de rigueur if you wanted a full picture of the picture business. But it wasn’t nearly as much fun as discovering and puzzling over those heretofore unknown titles when the new Showtime guide came in the mail.
What makes those nostalgic feelings for this particular moment in my movie past most ironic, is the fact that very few of these titles from that first full month of Showtime―movies taken in total that made an indelible impression on my memory―are movies that I would call personal favorites (Slapshot, King Kong, and The Bad News Bears are the only three…and I saw those originally in the theaters). I’m not sure how many are even all that good. So, for an experiment, I thought it might be fun to revisit this Showtime month from so many years back, and try and watch a few of these titles to see what all the fuss was about in my memories…a doomed exercise if there ever was one.
First, the MIAs. As far as my efforts went, I could find no extant copies of May 1978 Showtime “special event” programming: Peter Allen’s No Cover, No Minimum entry, filmed at the notorious Bijou in Philadelphia, and the Hacienda Hotel’s famed Spice on Ice, featuring the “Fred Astaire of the Ice,” George Arnold. I remember them both, though: Allen’s show was very gay, and Spice on Ice was very gay with topless women. I enjoyed them both (yes, people in flyover country in the ’70s could tell when someone was gay and no, despite today’s shrieks to the contrary, they mostly didn’t care).
Next, the limiteds. These are the titles that are too difficult to find in the service of an article where a bottle of Scotch is the only expected payment. You can find The Amazing Dobermans on VHS…but I’m not tracking one down for 25 bucks on Ebay. From what I remember of it, I thought its G-rated antics were tame compared to its two predecessors, although I remember liking the circus atmosphere. I also remember thinking the late 70s jeans styles were not kind to Barbara Eden’s hourglass figure, either. And anything featuring James Franciscus in the 1970s blew, so there’s that.
There was quite a bit of hype over Muhammad Ali portraying himself in a biopic…but when The Greatest was released in May, 1977, a huge collective yawn rose up from the American moviegoing ranks. I always felt: why would anyone pay good money to see Ali in a movie about himself, when he had already spent so many years talking about himself on TV for free? Good people behind the camera (director Tom Gries―Will Penny, TV’s Helter Skelter) and in front of it (Ernest Borgnine, James Earl Jones, Robert Duvall), still couldn’t get a rise out of a strangely muted Ali (why didn’t they at least have him doing his shtick? What is he: DeNiro?). That was a one-and-done for me that month.
Next up: the ready-to-wears. These titles are readily available anywhere, either on DVD or streaming formats. To go from watching something mainstream and charming like The Bad News Bears or One on One, to something foreign and exotic and downright bizarre like Fellini’s Casanova, Part I, was one of the exhilarating aspects of that premium service (Showtime split Fellini’s epic into two 90 minute segments―heresy, today, I would imagine). Previously, the only “foreign” movies I saw as a kid were American-financed British titles (like The IPCRESS File or Smashing Time) that showed up the late show. Showtime showed me the beginnings of “world cinema” to me.
Still one of the best sports movies of any decade, as well as a wonderfully perceptive dramedy about adolescents, director Michael Ritchie’s The Bad News Bears was a smash hit in 1976, largely because of the notoriety of the-then “foul-mouthed” screenplay (from Bill Lancaster) where the young players swore and drank beer and acted up like adult ball players. Seen now, that aspect is pretty tame (although Tanner Boyle’s, “You booger-eating spaz,” is still marvelously potent insultery), but it’s surprising how young viewers today still respond to it on an emotional level. They recognize these characters as kids just like themselves, as well as their anxieties about doing well in something to make their parents proud (like all great comedies, its has moments of genuine sadness equal to the belly laughs). You can’t get much more of a “feel good” ending than the one here, as the hapless, underdog Bears belligerently tell their victors to essentially “f*ck off,” while their parents proudly laugh, and share a Coors and a hug with them. I can’t think of a more triumphant, heart-tugging “loser” ending, than the one here.
Click to order The Bad News Bears at Amazon.
My biggest takeaway from seeing One on One in theaters back in 1977 (and endless repeat viewings on Showtime) was that I simply had to have the incandescent Annette O’Toole in my life. A few years later when I finally grew up and realized that wasn’t ever going to happen (sniff)…I was inconsolable (her career should have been so much bigger). Watching One on One now, I best appreciated director Lamont Johnson’s swift, anonymous handling of star Robbie Benson’s tight, efficient script. This is a sure-footed little sports drama/first romance, with particularly appealing performances by the charming leads (hey I like the appealing, earnest, dorky Benson―I don’t care who knows it), and another notable villain turn by the incomparable G. D. Spradlin. God save me, though, from that “instant 70s karma” soundtrack featuring Arts and Crafts.
As for Fellini…there was no way, at the age of 12, that I could have possibly understood what was going on in Casanova…but I do remember being aware of how different the movie looked (as well as ventriloquist dummy-like Donald Sutherland, for that matter), in terms of a coordinated stylization (that black plastic sheet sea still stands out). It didn’t look like The Bad News Bears in any way, and that was clearly on purpose. I just didn’t have a framework yet to figure out why. I certainly didn’t know anything formally about mise-en-scene, or the reoccurring thematic threads of Fellini’s that show up here, but it was enough that at that age, I was watching something that stretched my perception of what movies were supposed to be. Today, it’s not my favorite Fellini by a long shot (I find the perverse decadence of Satryicon far more hilarious), but at a critical stage, it was important to see movies like it, alongside more mainstream fare.
…such as King Kong and The Pink Panther Strikes Again. King Kong I saw a couple of times at the theaters, so repeat viewings on Showtime only added to my imprint of this big-scale fantasy fable. Prior to Star Wars, it was considered technologically quite advanced for that kind of genre movie (although those one or two shots of “Robo-Kong” were pricelessly hysterical). Seeing it now, it still has a delightfully full, lush feel to it (aided immensely by John Barry’s haunting, romantic score)―a revelry in the sensuousness of Jessica Lange’s frankly perfect face and body (as well as the openly weirdo sexuality that Kong displays towards her) that’s matched by the visually epic sweep of the location work and the action scenes. All of that hit this 11-year-old big time when it first premiered, and I never missed it when it repeated on Showtime.
The Pink Panther Strikes Again was a mess―then and now―but there’s no question it, too, was considered “A-level” at the time in terms of delivering big laughs for comedy fans. As a 12-year-old, comedy was far easier to understand than Fellini (especially when you didn’t catch Fellini’s humor the first time around), so I had no trouble charting the further decline of the Pink Panther with this globe-hopping entry, one that was marked by big, big set pieces…but increasingly sloppy work by a distracted, ill Peter Sellers. I knew it wasn’t as funny as the previous entries (nothing could be funnier than A Shot in the Dark, one of the most technically “perfect” comedies of the latter 20th century). No matter, though: Herbert Lom’s eye-twitching, whimpering Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus, finally giving in to full mania in an effort to kill Inspector Clouseau, alone makes the movie worthwhile.
I remember thinking director Robert Mulligan’s gangster flick, The Nickel Ride, was slow and talky when I first saw it on Showtime, but now it’s one of my favorites from the 70s (and stick your pretentious “neo-noir” label―it’s either a “noir” or it’s not). You gotta live some, and get ground down a little by life, before you can appreciate how utterly depressing and cynical The Nickel Ride comes off. Jason Miller, who supposedly turned down Taxi Driver to make this (I don’t think the dates line up, though), shows again what an important screen career he might have had…had he laid off the sauce, while two of my favs show up: talented, lovely Linda Haynes (words cannot describe this tragically underutilized gem) and Bo Hopkins, who nails yet another quirkily friendly villain role. It’s a criminally underappreciated, deliberately non-thrilling thriller.
And finally the freebies, the ones you can find right on YouTube. I’m not writing about The Bobbs-Merrill Company/Richard Williams Productions-guided Raggedy Ann and Andy cartoon. I didn’t watch it then. I’m not watching it now. I didn’t watch RiffTraxx’s ribbing of 1977’s Canadian sci-fi schlocker, Starship Invasions, with Christopher Lee and Robert Vaughn, either (frankly, after the original MST3K―with Joel―the subsequent permutations have been lame). However, I saw Starship Invasions at a Southwyck Mall matinee (our market got all the low-budget crap), and I had great, great memories of being quite scared by it, screaming and yelling jokes at the screen with my friends to show how tough we were. There’s a nice widescreen transfer on YouTube, and I should watch it…but I know I’m going to find it silly and dumb today, so I’d rather just keep that fun memory of it, from all those years ago, intact. Never forget that denial and escape are legitimate forms of self-preservation, and are essential to good mental health.
I wish I had done the same for two other fondly-recalled titles from Showtime‘s May 1978 schedule: Nasty Habits and Sky Riders. Produced and distributed by cosmetics firm Faberge’s Brut Productions (where they were hoping for another big hit like their Oscar-winning comedy, A Touch of Class), Nasty Habits, based on a Muriel Spark novel, was a thinly-veiled spoof of the Watergate scandal, reimagined as a rogue Catholic abbey in Philadelphia, where Nixonian Glenda Jackson schemes to acquire and retain her position as Abbess. Coming so close after the actual Watergate hearings and the subsequent treatments of it (such as All the President’s Men), I remember thinking Nasty Habits was quite funny at the time, since all the situations and references were still so current and accessible.
Watching it now, this sometimes arch/sometimes slapstick spoof is still quite funny, particularly in the beginning, when the plot isn’t as important as some of the inspired performances (Jackson may be the headliner, but Geraldine Page comes up with a remarkable number of amusing expressions and double takes, stealing the movie). It’s only when the movie continues to grind on, too-faithfully following the actual Watergate timeline with director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s leaden pacing, that Nasty Habits becomes increasingly pedantic and unfunny. The gimmick overpowers the comedy.
In director Douglas Hickox hang gliding actioner, Sky Riders, smuggler James Coburn decides to instantly become a world-class glider in order to rescue his ex-wife Susannah York and son from the World Activists Revolutionary Army, a terrorist group bent on chaos and extortion to fight global imperialism (yes…today they’d be on President Bumble’s Christmas card list). The hostages held at an impossible-to-access mountain monastery in Greece (they one they used a few years later in For Your Eyes Only), Coburn and a group of hang gliding circus performers must swing in under the cover of darkness and start blasting away.
I watched Sky Riders every single time it was on Showtime during that month of May. Today, for the life of me…I honestly can’t figure out why. My memories of it fell into “classic” status, but actually watching it now after 40 years or more, all I see is a handsome-looking cartoon, lacking any kind of connective tissue to make its scenes fit together. I love brevity and conciseness in an action movie (Charles Bronson’s and Coburn’s Hard Times is a superlative example of that), but that virtue is taken to debilitating extremes here, with characters we know nothing about, and abbreviated plot mechanics that frankly make no sense. Coburn learns to hang glide in one afternoon? And well enough to circumnavigate those ridiculously hairy peaks? What, exactly, is Robert Culp doing in this movie? Or John Beck, for that matter? These hang gliding clowns suddenly transform themselves into a competent anti-terrorist assault group how? None of it makes any sense, and by the time it’s over, you feel like you’ve watched not a movie, but the world’s longest theatrical trailer. I was so sure I’d love it again.
I had fun revisiting this Showtime schedule from May 1978; however, perhaps not surprisingly, none of the movies evoked anything close to the feelings I had when I first saw them, in total, all those years ago. Big surprise, right?…
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.
Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.