Tuesday, September 28, 2021

September 29 is National Silent Movie Day!

As part of the Silent Movie Day Blogathon, Better Living Through Television comes out of semi-retirement to post about TV and its relationship with silent film.  Click on each image for a readable enlargement.

Vintage Mack Sennett comedies, of course, were seen in chopped-up highlights on HOWDY DOODY, and we've posted before on the silent animation that was being peddled by distributors for the earliest cartoon shows.  As adult programming, silent movies had a harder row to hoe... although, on the local level, a few brave souls gave them a chance.

On June 29, 1953, KRON-TV, San Francisco's NBC affiliate, aired THE EAGLE with Rudolph Valentino as a prime time entry.  No ratings info is available, although the fact that it was slotted opposite I LOVE LUCY's second season finale strongly suggests that it was not a success.

During the last third of 1956, Steve Allen reduced his TONIGHT SHOW duties to three days per week (Ernie Kovacs hosted the other two), and the show was cut back from 90 minutes to an hour.  WNBC in New York City took over the remaining half-hour with a local show called OLD, OLD STORY, consisting of early Hal Roach and Mack Sennett comedies, such as Sennett's LIZZIES OF THE FIELD (1924) and Roach's DODGE YOUR DEBTS (1921) (which starred Harold Lloyd's lesser known brother Gaylord).  The listing above is for November 30, 1956 and if you're a silent comedy expert but don't recall that title, it's actually FATTY AND MABEL ADRIFT (1916), with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle reduced to "we'd better not publicize him so we don't get any nasty letters."

By 1961, Robert Youngson's two silent film compilations (THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY and WHEN COMEDY WAS KING) had proved to be huge draws for kids, while on TV, both the Hal Roach "Little Rascals" and MGM "Our Gang" sound shorts were big successes.  National Telepix put together two 78-episode series culled from various silent comedy series.  The first, MISCHIEF MAKERS, came mainly from the silent Our Gang series produced by Roach.  The second series, still untitled in this trade ad, was eventually called COMEDY CAPERS (featuring "Larry Seaman" among other unknowns).

The early sixties also presented some silent-based prime time shows of varying quality.  FLICKER FLASHBACKS, produced by Jay Ward and his TV cartoon crew, used snippets from comedies, dramas and action pictures assembled in a half-hazard, frantic pace, along with "dialogue" and narration chock full of cheap laughs.  More respectfully, SILENTS PLEASE used vintage footage to pay homage to the era and its stars.  Neither series lasted very long.

When network TV gave up on silents, public (or educational) television picked up the slack.  The WTTW, Chicago-produced series THE TOY THAT GREW UP, which debuted in July 1968, presented uncut features and short subjects in the same respectful manner as SILENTS PLEASE.  Befitting its Public TV origins, host Don Ferris provided background information about the films and their stars.

My initial exposure to Charlie Chaplin was in the November 9, 1969 broadcast of Youngson's 3rd feature, THE DAYS OF THRILLS AND LAUGHTER (1961).  As I freely admitted in its introduction, my book CHAPLIN'S VINTAGE YEAR got its title from the narration in this terrific compilation.  I'm certain the excited 10-year-old that I was sat joyously in front of the set on this Sunday afternoon... and just as certain that I was not permitted to stay up for the 8:30 PM rebroadcast, given I had school the next morning!

Around that same time, New York's Public TV station WNET-13 would run Chaplin comedies regularly on weekday afternoons during Christmas break and in the summer.  These shows were hosted by Herb Graff, a faculty member of NYU and well-known silent comedy aficionado.  In July 1973, Graff and WNET expanded the scope of this programming with a series that highlighted several comedians.  This series provided my first exposure to Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon.

Television's best-known silent film program is probably THE SILENT YEARS, produced for Public TV by renowned film collector and historian Paul Killiam (who'd been one of the contributors to SILENTS PLEASE), which debuted in NYC in July 1971. (What was it about July that Public TV thought ideal for silent film programming?)  Fondly remembered for William Perry's fine piano scores and the erudite Orson Welles as host, THE SILENT YEARS introduced many future historians not only to comedic gems such as THE GOLD RUSH (1925) and THE GENERAL (1926), but also terrific exemplars of silent action-adventure (THE MARK OF ZORRO, 1920) and drama (ORPHANS OF THE STORM, 1922).

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Speaking of the Marx Brothers...

TONIGHT: America After Dark (NBC, Jan-July 1957) is pretty much regarded as one of television's great disasters.  After Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs gave up their respective hosting duties of the original TONIGHT! at the end of 1956, NBC's Pat Weaver tried turning it into a nocturnal TODAY show, with news, interviews and on-the-spot reporting of the country's night life, from coast-to-coast.  Unfortunately, most of America had little interest in seeing what celebrities were up to while the rest of us working stiffs prepared to turn in.  Ratings plummeted, and the network opted to get back to the original format of variety and talk, tapping Jack Paar to host.  America After Dark went to that cathode ray graveyard where few have mourned it since.

One segment, however, is hotly desired by classic comedy fans.  Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers had been touring in a play, Sylvia Regan's The Fifth Season, and he and the stock company would appear in Los Angeles beginning Monday evening, February 18.  His four younger brothers, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo, would be in the audience, and NBC arranged for cameras and one of their emcees to be in Chico's dressing room for an informal post-performance reunion.

To date, a kinescope has failed to turn up; all that exists are these five photographs taken during the course of the segment (or perhaps just before/after its telecast).  Considering its plugging by newspaper TV columnists, who ordinarily had no interest in this show, it's entirely possible that someone, somewhere has a reel of audiotape with the soundtrack.  Check your archives, folks!


Saturday, July 12, 2014


Yesterday my buddy John McElwee posted a gorgeous vintage newspaper ad from the pre-Chico era of The Marx Brothers in vaudeville on his terrific blog, asking "if there are any earlier newspaper ads with Marx imagery."  I've not seen originals, of course, but have plumbed the depths of newspaper databases, mainly for my own entertainment but also with one eye toward a possible Marx tome.  Here's a sampling of what emerged:

This is from the Atlanta Constitution of Valentine's Day 1909; a mere 105 years ago, when the three Marxes were the Four Nightingales.  That's Gummo, Lou Levy, Groucho and Harpo in the lower right photo.  

Just ten months earlier they were two Marxes (sans Harpo) and Three Nightingales, here advertised in the Fitchburg (NY) Sentinel of  April 16, 1908.  Apparently, and despite the legend, comedy was a fixture of their act early on, hence the sub-billing as "The Merry Funsters"... or is it "Punsters"?  (Probably not; no Chico yet.)

The titles listed at top were not acts, but the ditties to be featured in the "illustrated songs" portion.  (If not for that last one, I would've been at a complete loss.)

In Harpo Speaks, the "silent" brother's massive autobiography, an otherwise forgotten vaudevillian named Mons Herbert makes a cameo appearance.  Mr. Herbert was evidently prone to wager his meager salary at the card table, which delighted Harpo as the poor fellow had a habit of tipping the quality of his hand by the number of gold teeth he'd flash.  Onstage, according to Harpo, Herbert "blew up a turkey until music came out of its ass."  This, as you can see, is barely hinted at in an ad for Waterloo Iowa's Orpheum bill of March 14, 1911.  (Note too that in this early stage Fun in Hi Skool was also tltled "Skool Goils and Boiz.")

As is well known among Marxologists, Groucho - Julius, actually - was the first of the brothers to appear on stage.  One of his earliest gigs was in support of Lily Seville in something called The Lady and the Tiger.  This ad is from the San Antonio Gazette of January 6, 1906. Although their act is touted as "direct from Paris," Miss Seville and 15-year-old Master Marx are listed among the extra attractions at bottom, just before the illustrated songs and "Kinetograph Views," a pretentious term for "flickers."

My own favorite discovery comes from much later, when the Four Marx Brothers that we're used to seeing traveled to England in May 1922 - a journey that got them blackballed from big time vaudeville because they didn't clear it through the Keith-Orpheum booking office, which itself led indirectly to I'll Say She Is and Broadway stardom.  Ancestry.com has yielded the brothers' passport photos.  Chico and Groucho are each accompanied by the missus (evidently wives didn't get their own passports in 1922), while bachelors Zeppo and Harpo - the latter looking like he'd been out all night partying before sitting for his picture - are solo.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

So Long, Shirley

Shirley Temple, who passed away at age 85 this past Monday, was twice a showbiz phenomenon.  The first reign has been pretty well covered by the obits: in the space of two years (1933-34) she shot like a rocket from "leading lady" of Educational Pictures' execrable "Baby Burlesk" one-reelers to number one box office attraction in the country, then held that position for four years straight.

Picture Play, 1934
Her second rise is less well-covered.  In 1957, National Telefilm Associates (NTA), looking to build its own syndication network, leased a block of pre-'48 features from 20th Century-Fox, including four of Shirley's: Captain January, Wee Willie Winkie, Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  These were extracted from the main package and offered as "The Shirley Temple Film Festival" to national advertisers.  Ideal Toys immediately signed on for one-third of the package.  Reaction was so solid, NTA immediately added Poor Little Rich Girl and Little Miss Broadway to the lineup.  By mid-1961, all of Shirley's Fox product was on the air, and local stations would keep the "Temple Film Festival" active into the 1970s.

My own experience was on Metromedia's WNEW-5 in New York City.  In my preadolescence, Shirley graced Saturday afternoons as reliably as did Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall on Sundays for channel 5's "East Side Comedy" hour.

Ken Films' releases were worth buying for the covers alone!
          Like any red-blooded youth, I developed a crush on the dimpled darling, albeit aware that it not only transcended distance but time as well.  The closest I could get to everyday company with Shirley was via Ken Films' 8mm releases of four Baby Burlesk titles.  The genuine Shirley Temple was by then engaged in her second vocation with the United Nations and was about to become - most unexpectedly - an empathetic torch carrier for sufferers of breast cancer.

When her films first tallied up huge ratings and grosses in the late fifties, she signed on for a fairy tale program, Shirley Temple's Storybook, broadcast in color on NBC.  Several of the tapes survive and were released to DVD in recent years, but as forshadowed by this 1958 TV GUIDE cover, it's the original, Depression-era Shirley that still gets the glory... and likely always will.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Unfortunate Timing for TV Guide

It must've been a shock when viewers, consulting TV Guide for December 4, 1963, got an eyeful of this listing for The Kennedy Awards.  The President, who'd been shot and killed in Dallas on November 22, had been scheduled to appear on this live broadcast of the awards named for his late elder brother.

Needless to say, this was one show that didn't go on, local Metromedia stations subbing it with movies from their libraries.  The issue in which this listing appeared went on sale the Thursday following the national - indeed, global - tragedy.  If nothing else, it was a sobering lesson to a still-grieving public on how far in advance the listings section of the Guide went to press.

The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination this weekend is, naturally, being marked with various tributes, news specials and documentaries.  Many will focus on the man, others on the event.  Hopefully time will be taken as well to speak of the masterful job television did in covering that horrific day and its aftermath.  At least one hard-boiled TV critic, on the day the Kennedy Awards were to have aired, took time to toss a bouquet to the medium that set aside its "vast wasteland" for four days and united a planet in sorrow and tried to expedite its first steps toward healing.

A few weeks later, TV Guide would more than atone for its unintended gaffe with a commemorative issue recounting everything that had transpired before our eyes.

(A prior BLTT post looks at some of the programming that had been originally scheduled that weekend.)