Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Unhappy reunions

No, I don’t mean those depressing affairs where the cast of some much loved TV series cancel their engagements on the dinner theatre or autograph signing circuits to spend a few weeks in Hollywood taping some cheap two hour TV movie like The Third Marooning on Gilligan’s Island or Haven’t These People Learned to Avoid Three Hour Boat Tours by Now?. Those are certainly unhappy enough, I grant you. In the same—slightly less groan-worthy—vein, there are, of course, such “maybe that wasn’t such a hot idea” items as re-teaming Bing and Bob in “just one more ‘Road’ Picture” 10 years later. And, one could certainly make a case for the mere threat (when it was still possible) of a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis reunion—the prospect of which would likely send most of the civilized world running for underground bunkers until the danger had passed.

Grim as those are, I’m thinking about something entirely different. I’m also not talking about those unfortunate occurences where—for whatever reason—you decide (or it’s decided for you) to get back in touch with someone you haven’t seen for years. You know, the ones that result in wishing you were anywhere else within 10 minutes of the encounter. Those, however, are closer to the unhappy reunions I have in mind. In fact, they’re a pretty good allegory for the pitfalls of revisiting some long unseen favorite movie or TV show from your younger years, since we do tend to think of such in terms of old friends.

I think TV shows are more likely to not merely disappoint, but to actively perplex when revisited at a much later date—you know, setting up a profound sense of “What in God’s name made me think this was actually good?” Over the years I’ve had this experience with such early childhood favorites as I Married Joan (absolutely unwatchable) and the various incarnations of The Ann Sothern Show (not completely bad). On the flip side, I was pleasantly surprised by how well The Bob Cummings Show (or Love That Bob! as it was called in syndication) held up. Friends have warned me off revisiting The Gale Storm Show (aka: Oh! Sussana), but suggested I would find December Bride a pleasant experience. I’ve held off finding out—at least for now.

That sort of mindset nearly prevented me from one of those late night Amazon buying frenzies with which I am sometimes afflicted. I happened to want to be sure that the 1967 TV series Good Morning, World was indeed from 1967, so I looked it up on the IMDb. And what did I find? Why that the entire one season of this youthful favorite about a pair of drive-time DJs (played by Joby Baker and Ronnie Schell) was available on DVD. I went to Amazon and put it in my shopping basket immediately. Then I thought the better of it and just exited the site. I blocked the idea from my mind—forgetting of course that when next I really went to order something, it would still be in the basket. Well, it was and I caved to nostalgia.

To put it bluntly, I’ve made it through exactly one of the episodes. Even the presence of prissy (that’s code for “obvious gay stereotype”) Billy De Wolfe and a young Goldie Hawn wasn’t enough of a help. My wife watched the episode (though did so in an in-and-out-of-the-room manner) and said, “I didn’t think it was that bad.” True enough, I suppose. It wasn’t “that bad,” but I wasn’t looking for “not that bad.” I was looking to reconnect with something I thought was the bee’s knees when I was 13. It might at least have had the decency to be one apian joint, I think, and it wasn’t. It was merely mildly pleasant in a sitcom way—complete with obvious paucity of budget and some really tacky 60s decor. I have pledged to remember this in future—and I am doomed to forget it if ever someone brings out a set of the Paula Prentiss-Richard Benjamin series from the same year, He & She.

Movies run the same risk, of course, though the generally higher production values sometimes make them at least appear less dated and baffling. Note that I said “sometimes.” I spent years trying to figure out what exactly the first horror (loosely defined) movie I ever saw was. I knew only that it had something to do with a room with hideous wallpaper and that someone met a sticky end by being shoved up against the pointy side of a fireman’s axe that was embedded in a wall. I also knew that when I first saw it on TV at the age of six, I thought it was swell.

Someone not only identified it for me as Terror in the Haunted House (aka: My World Dies Screaming) (1958), but sent me a copy of the film. Oh, good Lord, what an unfortunate reunion. I was surprised to find that the film was actually notorious for having been made in a process called “Psycho-Rama,” which was nothing less than subliminal editing where individual frames that were supposed to goose the horror quotient had been inserted into the film. If this process was ever effective, it failed to do much for me upon revisiting this drab little movie. I think I preferred the mystery of not knowing what this marvelous “lost” thriller was, because the reality was neither marvelous, nor thrilling.

Those of us of a certain age trooped dutifully to see each and every Elvis Presley movie that came down the pike—or at least that was the case prior to 1964 and Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night with the Beatles, after which the lameness of the Elvis product became inescapably apparent. Even knowing better, I’ve tried a couple of nostalgic trips into these when they’ve shown up on Turner Classic Movies (where the term “classic” is sometimes loosely defined). I loved It Happened at the World’s Fair and Fun in Acapulco in 1963. Recent attempts at watching them have been somewhat less pleasing. The central flaw in these movies is the one thing that Lester avoided—by instinct or conscious decision—with A Hard Day’s Night.

The Elvis movies are subject to the “old folks makin rhythm” syndrome. They’re movies made by studios using old guard filmmakers—Norman Taurog (World’s Fair) and Richard Thorpe (Acapulco) have credits dating back to the early 1920s—and light musical comedy concepts that had little to do with rock music or Elvis as a rock star. The results had no actual relevance to young audiences, but they had the advantage, I suppose, of not frightening their elders. Seen today, they simply come across as tepid romantic comedies—often marred by cheesy rear-screen and process work (is Elvis within a hundred miles of that cliff “he” dives off in Acapulco?)—with lackluster or even silly songs. (There’s a reason why Vivian Stanshall’s parody recording of “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” is more memorable than the one in the movie.)

The Beach Party movies are largely in the same boat. They’re a little more flamboyant in their comedy, but they all smack today of a bunch of corporate suits sitting around a table deciding what they think young folks want—or perhaps ought—to see. They movies, as a result, are as fresh as a boardroom filled with stale cigar smoke. The juvenile delinquent movies of the 1950s tend to look pretty silly today, but these “youth culture” efforts rather than spoof them seem designed to take those images and emasculate them so that nobody’s threatened.

Another—totally unrelated—burst of disappointment came when I decided to check out the 1960 Blake Edwards’ Bing Crosby picture High Time. I thought this was very good when I was a kid—never missed a chance to catch it on TV when it appeared. As an adult, I was curious to see how it held up, especially when it started being shown in its proper widescreen format on the Fox Movie Channel. The old groaner is still his laid-back, super cool self. The movie has occasional moments of charm, but all in all this is tepid stuff that plays like an overlong TV show—and it’s not helped by the insertion of Fabian into the proceedings. Bing as a 51-year-old college student is a passably amusing idea. Bing as a 51-year-old fraternity initiate in drag is another matter. Some ideas should be allowed to die at birth.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve been pretty content to let my youthful—very youthful—fondness for Jerry Lewis movies rest in the realm of slightly embarassing memories. It’s hard for me to excuse even finding merit in The Geisha Boy (1958) when I was four. It harder still to be unable to erase the memory that I made my parents take to me re-issues of it when I was getting on up to the age of six or seven, though goodness knows I’ve tried.

Unfortunately, I have dipped into some of Lewis’ self-directed efforts, mostly because of his book, The Total Filmmaker, which I picked up for a buck off a remainder table when I was 18. Strangely enough, it’s a pretty good book about being a director. Some of Lewis’ claims are a little bizarre in the realm of history. For instance, the idea that while he was filming My Friend Irma at Paramount in 1949, he could have possibly gone over to see how the model work on Destination Tokyo was being done is absurd—considering Destination Tokyo was made in 1943 at Warner Bros. The book is otherwise filled with often sound practical advice, an obvious passion for the art of filmmaking and descriptions of his own movies that make them sound pretty darn good.

With this in mind, I opted to pick up his 1964 opus The Patsy to give it another chance. I cannot tell you how strongly I advise against taking this rash step. The film is not without its points of interest. Yes, you can see several of Lewis’ more intriguing ideas about the look of a film, and you can even see the validity of them. The rich, bold color scheme is almost shocking when contrasted with the pastels that were prevalent in Hollywood production design at the time. You can even see some pretty extreme ideas about comedy being played with, and the breaking-the-fourth-wall ending is at the very least unusual. Unfortunately, you also get a full dose of Lewis’ love affair with his screen self—and all the unfunny mugging and tediously dragged-out routines that go with it. If a gag is funny for ten seconds, you may be sure Lewis will make certain it’s onscreen for a full minute or more. The relentless Chinese water torture is as nothing by comparison. This is not merely painful, it’s embarassing. Don’t go back.

This sort of thing is not, by the way, limited to childhood memories. There was a screening back in 2005 of the 1970 Bud Yorkin comedy Start the Revolution Without Me. I’d thought this movie was great when I first encountered it during the days when it was a cult “classic” in the late 1970s. Well…as my late publisher-editor friend, Richard Valley, commented upon reading my late in the day review, “You know, this movie was a lot funnier when I was 20-something.” Mr. Valley wasn’t just whistling the “Soldiers’ Chorus” from Faust. What had once seemed almost too hip and edgy seemed forced and a little wheezy all those years later. Yes, there are still clever things in it, but overall it tries too had—and it’s too obvious that it is trying.

I think this sort of thing is the reason why I’m actually more apt to revisit movies that I didn’t like much after long absences. It’s often more pleasant. At least, you know you’re not going to be let down and there’s always the chance that you’ll find you were wrong or simply not in the right mood when you first saw the movie. Of course, if you don’t re-evaluate you tend to get mired in a viewpoint that may no longer have any actual validity—and that goes for both fond and not so fond memories. That’s hardly a desirable thing. A sense of perspective can go a long way here. There are just times when you instinctively know that a film or a TV series or whatever should be left to fond memory. The problem is that every so often we tend to be overcome with a desire to test that. When that happens, I’d suggest thinking carefully. Then go ahead and do it anyway. You might be pleasantly surprised—or not.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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12 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Unhappy reunions

  1. Jim Donato

    You certainly hit the Lewis nail on the head. If he ever had an idea for a throwaway 20 second gag (of course, there’s no such thing in the Lewis canon) he would proceed to milk it dry over the course of 3-4 Chinese water torture minutes… then milk it some more!!!

    But then again, after a few childhood exposures to the completely unfunny Lewis at relatives who seemed to live for WTOG’s Lewis well-played catalog while visiting, I quickly learned that he was not my cup of meat. Many years later, I felt the same way about Chevy Chase. “Dear god, people think this man is funny?!?” Chase had a penchant for masturbatory mugging that I swear was no different at ALL from Lewis’ yet Chase was considered “hip” and “cutting edge” in the 70s to my teenaged bafflement.

    My childhood revisiting that turned out disastrous was the TV show Lost In Space. I remember it being campy, and well, Batman was campy. Maybe this one would be a scream on a whole new level as an adult like Batman. To put it mildly, no. While Batman became one of my three favorite TV shows ever (the older you are the better it gets) Lost In Space was like a slap in the face with a big, wet fish when revisited in my mid-20s through the miracle of the USA network. The infantile character of Dr. Smith was just a painful, grating thing to behold as an adult.

    Thanks for mentioning “Good Morning World.” I used to watch that one as a 4 year old. The only thing from it that stuck with me for years was Billy DeWolfe’s catch phrase “Busy Busy Busy!” Catch phrases. It was a simpler time. Do they still have those? What I associate with “Good Morning World” was the more Thurber-esque series “My World & Welcome To It” starring William Windom, which aired afterward on NBC, I think. That one might be worth revisiting again as it seemed cut from a finer cloth.

    I had strong childhood memories of seeing Arthur Penn’s “Little Big Man” on the TV which stuck with me for years. Decades later I eventually read the incredible novel, which I’d put on the same shelf as “Tom Sawyer!” (Admittedly, I’m past due to re-read that classic) A few years afterward, I watched the film again and while it was watchable, it didn’t hold a candle to the book and seemed diminished in my mind considerably. But I’d stop short of call it a bad rematch.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Chase had a penchant for masturbatory mugging that I swear was no different at ALL from Lewis’ yet Chase was considered “hip” and “cutting edge” in the 70s to my teenaged bafflement.

    I’d never connected the two, but I can see where you’re coming from with this.

    Lost In Space was like a slap in the face with a big, wet fish when revisited in my mid-20s through the miracle of the USA network. The infantile character of Dr. Smith was just a painful, grating thing to behold as an adult.

    Used to watch it when it was new. That would have been slightly before my 11th birthday. I have a vague memory that I didn’t really like it then, but that it seemed like I was supposed to, so I watched. I do recall growing tired of it (or having decided I was too sophisticated for it) before it was canceled a couple years later. However, complete disenchanment set in when WTOG picked it up in syndication 1970 or 71 and ran it every weekday afternoon. You might find it grating as an adult. As a “sophisticated” 15-16 year old, you’d find it the height of embarassment that you might have once watched it seriously.

    Thanks for mentioning “Good Morning World.” I used to watch that one as a 4 year old. The only thing from it that stuck with me for years was Billy DeWolfe’s catch phrase “Busy Busy Busy!” Catch phrases. It was a simpler time. Do they still have those?

    Do they still have catch phrases? Surely, they must, even if none are occurring to me (apart from ones of my own that are drawn from movies) at the moment. Strangely, I ran (or skipped through) another five or six episodes of Good Morning World to get a frame grab (which ultimately didn’t run in the column) from the show, and I could see what appealed to me in broad strokes. Isolated moments are still funny and the premise is good — if they’d ever settled on who and what the characters were. Billy De Wolfe sometimes seems to be a mama’s boy, but other times he’s a henpecked husband of a rich, offscreen wife, while at another point he’s portrayed as having some kind of illicit affair with an offscreen woman. At first, Goldie Hawn has some offscreen boyfriend/fiance. Then suddenly, she’s romantically involved with Ronnie Schell. Episodes later, she asks him not to walk her to her apartment, because she doesn’t “feel like wrestling tonight.” The whole offscreen characters business is interesting. I can’t think of it much in movies, but it seems it was a staple of sitcoms. (I guess the most famous was Harry Morgan’s never seen wife, Gladys, in December Bride, if only because it produced a spin-off series in which she did appear.)

    A few years afterward, I watched the film again and while it was watchable, it didn’t hold a candle to the book and seemed diminished in my mind considerably. But I’d stop short of call it a bad rematch.

    I only recently (past couple years) saw Little Big Man for the first time and I liked it a good bit, but I haven’t read the book and have no point of comparison there.

  3. lisi russell

    Your friend was right. The Gale Storm show is unbearable to revisit.
    Ditto Our Miss Brooks. Things you liked under the age of four may not be the place to go for reminisces,although I’d love to know if The Vikings still holds up. (And why I liked it in the first place.)
    I realise I’m predating you, Ken. But I can recommend Mr Peepers. I like it much better now than I did as a kid, though as with all of the old shows the pace can get irritatingly slow. Maybe I like it because of the imaginative boost of knowing Wally Cox was the love of Marlon Brando’s life. Something riveting about that in itself.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I’d love to know if The Vikings still holds up. (And why I liked it in the first place.)

    I’m too scared to find out the answer to either question. Another puzzler I am not brave enough to find out — why did I go see Ice Station Zebra twice?

    But I can recommend Mr Peepers. I like it much better now than I did as a kid, though as with all of the old shows the pace can get irritatingly slow.

    I must admit to never having seen Mr. Peepers.

    And I’m glad to see you loitering hereabouts. I had become alarmed that I hadn’t heard anything out of you for a while and was on the point of calling you. I may do that anyway.

  5. Nice column that I’m getting to way too late. Some movies and concepts age well, and some don’t necessarily age badly, but we age in different directions.

    In high school, “Heathers” was required viewing, over and over, had to be memorized, a seminal experience. It’s embarrassing to watch now, more so to think there was something that appealed to teen me. I blame the hormones or the boots constricting regular blood flow. The story is strong, but the references and backgrounds have all disappeared.

    It was a first viewing for me, but a few weeks ago I was subjected to a couple of episodes of “Mama’s Family”. How anyone, past or present could watch that was beyond me.

    Not all is lost though… with Australia being a few years behind in TV distribution, I got to see most of “Get Smart” on a “first run” basis. It holds up really well.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Some movies and concepts age well, and some don’t necessarily age badly, but we age in different directions.

    That’s very true. Movies are never quite the same only because we are never quite the same. That’s a good thing, I think.

    In high school, “Heathers” was required viewing, over and over, had to be memorized, a seminal experience. It’s embarrassing to watch now, more so to think there was something that appealed to teen me.

    I more or less like Heathers when it was new — even with the Shannen Doherty factor — but I remember thinking then that it was both very full of its own hipness, and that it lacked the courage of its own nihilistic convictions with its cop-out ending. I can’t imagine watching it today.

    It was a first viewing for me, but a few weeks ago I was subjected to a couple of episodes of “Mama’s Family”. How anyone, past or present could watch that was beyond me

    There are people — I know some of them — who insist that The Beverly Hillbillies were good and still are.

  7. Jim Donato

    Hey! The Beverly Hillbillies is a fascinating program, when you realize it’s all about Milburn Drysdale! But Paul Henning’s coup de grace was the brilliant and surreal Green Acres! The less said about Petticoat Junction, the better.

    But George is absolutely right about Mama’s Family. It’s hard to believe that its forebearer was the great Carol Burnett Show.

    I add to the chorus of “Nays” with all and sundry re: Heathers. It seemed a hoot when it came out but was unwatchable the last time I pulled out the LD a few years ago for a second go at it.

  8. Ken Hanke

    The less said about Petticoat Junction, the better.

    Even with the occasional appearance of the great Charles Levison/Lane as Homer Bedloe, and that great exponent of the bicuspid school of acting Edgar Buchanan, I would agree. Yet there are those who prize the show. And what of The Baileys of Balboa, eh?

    But George is absolutely right about Mama’s Family. It’s hard to believe that its forebearer was the great Carol Burnett Show.

    I cannot but wonder just how great even that would hold up today. I think I will pass on finding out, though I would like to see the old Jonathan Winters Show.

  9. Dionysis

    ” I would like to see the old Jonathan Winters Show.”

    And I would love to see the old Ernie Kovaks Show.

  10. Ken Hanke

    And I would love to see the old Ernie Kovaks Show.

    Now, those I did see quite a few episodes of much more recently than I’ve seen the Winters shows (so far as I know they only aired in 1967-69 and one year had no repeats, but was replaced in summer by a Dom DeLuise show). Maybe it’s because the Kovaks shows had been built up too much for me, but all in all I just didn’t get what the fuss was about. (I felt about the same with Sid Caesar, except I intensely disliked his show and was more baffled by Kovaks.)

  11. Jim Donato

    I enjoyed the Kovaks show when repeated on PBS in the late 70s. It had a strong Mad [comic book] vibe redolent of Harvey Kurtzman’s work with Will Elder. Lots of surreal sight gags coupled with a strong musicality. Anyone who’s seen Kovaks act in films couldn’t help but be surprised at the vast difference in his own show. Now I won’t admit that I “got” The Nairobi Trio,” but I remember my 16 year old self enjoying each week’s kinescope.

    I remember seeing Jonathan Winters all over the TV as a child and getting a kick out of him, but maybe was too young to remember his show, unless my family didn’t watch it. Back in the late 60s there was one TV, and dad decided what to watch. So there was a lot of Dean Martin in the house! As a small child, I found much of the adult “humor” vastly disturbing. Lots of sex-change jokes that no child should have been ever exposed to.

    I had the misfortune to see a clip from the Dean Martin Show about 20 years ago. A friend of a friend edited The Wonder Years and suffice to say, I ended up with dailies of that program [which I had never seen] that were dumped to Beta I [used once] and assembled into a rough edit before being jettisoned. Many cases of these tapes came into my possession for taping over, but not before checking out some of the dailies out of curiosity. Seeing Fred Savage flub lines got old in five minutes, but one episode featured Fred sharing a male bonding moment over the pulchritudinous charms of The Gold Diggers, so the dailies had archival footage of the show – about 5 minutes. Dear god, the horror. The horror. Now there’s an unhappy reunion! Never had I seen such repulsive sexism – and that’s even counting Dean-o’s so-sexist-they-become-gay-camp Matt Helm movies, where every line of dialogue is a double entendre.

  12. Ken Hanke

    Now I won’t admit that I “got” The Nairobi Trio,”

    Well, that makes at least two of us.

    Back in the late 60s there was one TV, and dad decided what to watch. So there was a lot of Dean Martin in the house! As a small child, I found much of the adult “humor” vastly disturbing. Lots of sex-change jokes that no child should have been ever exposed to.

    My parents were big fans of Dino — though I think even they burned out after the second Matt Helm movie (hey, at least The Silencers sets up the George Raft gag in Casino Royale!). As a result, I saw a lot of the show and remember almost nothing about it except his statement that he had wanted to do a show “the whole family could gather around the bar and watch.” I suspect I would find it all appallingly smarmy today, but that’s the way Martin effects me in general now.

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