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by Sam Juliano

It all began as a harmless curiosity.  A few of my seventh-grade friends clued me in on an afternoon soap opera they had been watching daily.  Mind you, they didn’t initially volunteer the information, almost as if to keep this new discovery a private matter that might be compromised if it became too popular.  But when I got frustrated that our after school stickball games had lost the majority of the players, I pressed harder for the cause.  I was told the half hour show, known as Dark Shadows, which ran between 4:00 and 4:30 from Monday through Friday on ABC, had recently introduced a vampire among its characters.  His named was Barnabus Collins, and it seemed that his first appearances on the show brought what was initially a rather tepid affair a new prominence, one that turned into quite a sensation – certainly the equivalent of a present day online viral.  After I got over the shock that some of my teenage jock friends had actually been seduced by a soap opera, I decided I must investigate before damning the practice.  I was after all a big horror fan from the day I can first remember availing myself of the likes Chiller Theater and the re-runs of 1950’s science fiction/horror B flick re-runs.  Like so many of my friends I adored the Universal horror films, and had just at that very time developed an appreciation for the atmospheric productions from Hammer Studios.  In early 1966 I vividly recall walking down to the Embassy Theater about twenty-seven blocks from my home to see Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.  It was love at first site, or more aptly, love at first bite, since the vampire and werewolf tales were at center stage.  Still, I had a problem believing it was hip for a thirteen year-old boy to be watching a soap opera.  These shows were for my mother and those weeping middle-aged women, who enjoyed getting a good cry out of their daytime programming.  After all Dark Shadows was running side-by-side on the schedule with As the World Turns and One Life to Live.  Vampire or not, the target audience couldn’t be little old me, especially during prime outdoor athletic immersion.  No, I was certain this irksome proposition would end up a certain bust.  But, alas, the proof would be in the pudding.

What I could have never foreseen is that afternoon stick ball was in some serious danger.  A few weeks with this quietly enveloping Gothic soap permanently relegated our post-school day games to the weekends, or to be more specific to any free time when Dark Shadows wasn’t enthralling us.  Like the best television, this was a show we not only were entertained by, but one where we became intimate with the characters, and were so entwined with the drama, that we were infuriated every Friday afternoon when we were left hanging, in the manner of soap opera formula.  Of course this narrative design was aimed at keeping people aboard, but we were probably a bit too young to fully understand the nature of ratings and network scheming.  We needed to know immediately what would happen to Dr. Julia Hoffman after she got bitten by Barnabus or what would happen after Barnabus hires Sam to age the portrait of the witch Angelique.  When Julia embarks to hypnotize Willy, what will he reveal?  After Julia locks Barnabus in the basement, we need to know then and there if Barnabus will find a way to escape.  And it went on and on.  Almost every day the show ran they left you in the lurch, causing us to accuse the creators of dragging out a plot line for the full duration of the episode so they could hold back a major revelation for the next day.  That of course is the very business of soap opera, but we thought this show – the show we grew to love- would not be playing by those rules. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Note: This review is dedicated to the memory of Jonathan Crombie, who passed away in New York City at the age of 48 in April of 2015 of an unexpected and tragic brain hemorrhage The beloved actor was, is, and forever will be the world’s only Gilbert Blythe.  The essay has been marginally revised from a prior posting on the Romantic countdown.

I don’t want sunbursts or marble halls.  I just want you.

Anne Shirley to Gilbert Blythe, “Anne of Avonlea”

Mark Twain once described freckled-faced and incorrigible Anne Shirley as fiction’s dearest child since Lewis Carroll’s Alice.  While such a glowing contention would be difficult to contest, it might be harder yet to deny she is the most famous character in all of Canadian literature, and that her creator, Lucy Ward Montgomery  is often referred to as the “American Mark Twain.”  The author’s young heroine was the subject of an eight book series that brought great fame to Montgomery in her lifetime, giving way to translation in twenty-five languages, and bringing sustained scrutiny to the author’s diaries, letters and full body of work.   This brought bringing lasting fame to her birthplace, homes and grave site on the extraordinarily beautiful Prince Edward Island, a tiny province of Canada off the shore of Nova Scotia that now owes much of its prominence to Montgomery and her venerated Anne.  Tourism is a one of the island’s most lucrative assets, and for decades a “Green Gables Tour” has been a godsend for fans of her novels.  Canadian tourism officials report that in excess of 125,000 visitors a year descend on the paradise hamlet to behold the literary landmarks and partake in the related festivities.  It could well be argued that Prince Edward Island can’t be even contemplated without a thought for Anne and the author who best extrapolated on the place’s special and incomparable allure.  To this end there can be no doubt that the mid-80’s television adaptations have taken the franchise to places never seen before.

Though the beloved first book in the series – Anne of Green Gables – was made into a successful RKO film in 1934, its extremely short length didn’t give opportunity for a well-rounded look at Anne, nor at the many narrative and character complexities in the novel.  Some stage plays followed, but not until Kevin Sullivan acquired the rights in 1984 did the book receive the kind of treatment that not only exhibited fidelity to its source but brought an exceeding level of warmth and humanity that has continued to hold thrall with viewers around the world.  Sullivan’s battles in court to defend his acquisition of the rights and the lawsuits connected to them have reached all the way to the shores of Japan, where ironically the most passionate Anne of Green Gables fans reside.  Sullivan took full advantage of the loveliest of rural settings, filming on the island and assembling a dream cast that to this day represents a rare chemistry that is achieved through luck, timing and talent.  Sullivan co-wrote the script for Green Gables with Joe Wiesenfeld and handled the direction, and for all the film’s exemplary components it remains the key ingredient in the work’s enduring appeal.  When the great success of the 200 minute film was assured -Sullivan moved forward on a sequel, which is titled Anne of Avonlea, and as written and adapted solely by him based on three books in the series – Anne of Avonlea (Book Two); Anne of the Island (Book Three) and Anne of Windy Poplars (Book Four) it represented a unique hybrid.   Again the writing was exceptional, and the addition of several characters and sub-plots were woven in successfully.  Avonlea also featured a hefty running time at 230 minutes, though as fans and critics have glowingly attested it remained engrossing throughout.  Following up on the heels of its revered predecessor, Avonlea in short order became the highest rated drama to air on network television in Canadian broadcasting history.  It spawned a spectacularly successful television series Road to Avonlea, which was activated by some of Montgomery’s short stories and novellas.  At 93 episodes it remains the longest running, most popular and lucrative drama series ever produced in Canada.   A third film, Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story arrived in 2000, though to weak reception.  But the first two films, which are the subject of this review, will be considered as a single work, though with the dividing specifications.  Together they comprise what is arguably the most magnificent television work based on fiction ever produced in the western hemisphere.  Sullivan later added an animated Anne of Green Gables, which was fairly well-received, and then a fourth film a few years back that was lesser regarded. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

This towering mute has been shambling around the house forever…He is not a very good butler but a faithful one…One eye is opaque, the scanty hair is damply clinging to his narrow flat head…generally the family regards him as something of a joke.

-Charles Adams, describing Addams Family butler Lurch

A darling octopus named Aristotle.  A pet tarantula called Homer and Lucifer, a domesticated salamander with a hankering to slither around one’s neck.  A cuddly feline known as Kitty Kat, a full-grown African lion prone to roaming the house without restrictions.  An alligator residing in the basement and a piranha that was the aquatic creature of choice that swam in the living room fish tank.  And then there was Zelda, a vulture that was invariably perched in a corner in said den.  In such a unique household one could hardly be surprised some of the culinary delights served with abandon included “henbane soup”,  “baked iguana,” “casserole of yak,” “baked eye of newt”, “casserole of spleen” (with a pinch of hemlock), “fricassee of toad,” “souffle of aardvark” and for desert some delectable “yak fudge” and “a cup of hot sea sludge.”  The favored beverage is “pinecone nectar.” Of course with such wildlife and daily menus one can’t be too surprised that the the female host is dressed in a manner that would have Count Dracula proud, and that she offers her a guest a choice of salt, pepper or cyanide.

But of course these unseemly revelations are only the tip of the iceberg or in the lingo of this decidedly macabre brood the gizzard of a lizard.  Only the most cloistered of souls by now won’t have any kind of a clue as to the identity of such a creatively dysfunctional band of house dwellers, though on the other hand there is an “either or”  condition attached to the anticipated response.  During the 60’s Golden Age of television sitcoms warring networks unearthed their own brand of ghoulish guffawing by way of shows that exhibited remarkable kinship that went far more than just their comparable launchings, duration and common mise en scene.  CBS had The Munsters, a family, whose patriarch was patterned after the Frankenstein monster, and whose wife was nothing if not a reincarnation of Dracula’s daughter.  Her father, an aging Count, a son seemed doomed to lycanthropy, and a beautiful older nice, who is as normal as they come, but to the family an unfortunate (think Planet of the Apes) young lady with physical abnormalities.  Over at at ABC, a similar study in gruesome domestication -the subject of this essay- invaded the tube with the same formula.  The Addams Family, unlike their network siblings and online rivals were a sophisticated and cultured lot, even if they shared the same basic laugh premise with their 1313 Mockingbird Lane cousins with the ongoing running gag of the families, while decidedly odd, consider themselves fairly typical working-class people of the era.  Yet, fans of both shows have come to know that there are many substantial differences in the shows, and those who promote and appreciate the art in television will usually choose The Addams Family as the legitimate representative of this irreverent type of sitcom humor.   (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

It has been maintained that the prolific output of Dame Agatha Christie has outstripped the sales of all published works aside from the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays.  Her works have been translated into a hundred languages,  700 million copies have been sold of her 66 novels and 14 story collections, her beloved And Then There Were None alone has achieved 100 million copies in circulation and her celebrated play “The Mousetrap” has by far enjoy the longest stage run of any ever written.  Witness for the Prosecution’s popularity has never abated and a film version from Billy Wilder is counted as an all-time classic.  These inconceivable statistics for a writer who specialized in a single form and was never seen as a major literary talent to be placed in the company of Poe, Collins or even her contemporary Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are astounding.  Hence, it is her books that have endured in the public’s affectations, and have not only been read and discussed in schools and book groups, but have been honored with endless film and television adaptations, following radio play runs and theatrical treatment.  Her most ardent fans can never seem to get enough of her even with the astonishing six decades-long output that concluded about with her finale Elephants Can Remember, released four years before her passing in 1976 at the age of 85.  The key to the Queen of Crime’s continuing popularity can be succinctly attributed to her ingenious plotting, which arguably places her at poll position among all mystery writers.  While Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved Sherlock Holmes and some fringe creations like John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell have also held the stage, Dame Agatha’s two most celebrated sleuths, the fastidious, egocentric Belgian Detective Hercule Poirot and the English village spinster Jane Marple have been entered into Western culture, incomparable in reader veneration and by way of prolific adaptation.  The American television series Murder She Wrote starring Angela Lansbury was heavily inspired by the character of Miss Marple, while the BBC has also sponsored a few series on Christie’s favorite character, most notably the one that features Joan Hicks.  But the British ITV studio’s monumental study of Poirot, one spanning twenty-five years and entailing seventy episodes is the high watermark of any project ever committed to Dame Agatha’s work.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot or just Poirot debuted in 1989 with a January 8th broadcast of “The Adventure of the Clapham Cook,” a 51 minute episode based on a short story that features the inimitable detective investigating a case in spite of termination by his client’s husband.  Much more than the unveiling of a new series, the show introduced to the world the actor David Suchet, whose incarnation of the stout and mincing mustached Belgian won the highest praise from Dame Agatha’s daughter Rosalind Hicks and grandson Matthew Pritchard, both of whom recommended the actor for the role.  Such renowned thespians like Charles Laughton, Albert Finney, Peter Ustinox, Sir Ian Holm, Alfred Molina, Tony Randall and even Orson Welles have essayed the famous detective over the years.  And new adaptations are an ongoing affair, with yet another version of Murder on the Orient Express set for November of 2017, with Kenneth Branagh playing Poirot and directing.  Yet, by overwhelming consensus, Suchet embodied what Christie envisioned, and fans worldwide have embraced him as the definitive actor.  Mind you, some of the others have done well by the role (Finny won an Academy Award nomination in 1974 for another version of Orient Express) but the character’s famed eccentricities, mannerisms, implied accent and movements have grandly coincided with how he was described on the written page.  And the feat of playing the character in all seventy of his appearances is one unlikely to be duplicated anytime soon if at all.

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by Sam Juliano

Good evening, and welcome to a private showing of three paintings, displayed here for the first time. Each is a collector’s item in its own way—not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas, suspended in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare.

Rod Serling is one of the defining figures in television history.  His career began inauspiciously enough when he took on a position as a radio writer in the late 1940’s after a stint in the service during the Second World War. After the small screen medium began to take hold in living rooms across America the upstate New Yorker found it would be the best way for him to get on his soap box and convey his acute criticisms of war, prejudice and corporate business.  His raw sense of realism was lauded in award winning scripts like Patterns, The Rack, and perhaps most famously in the television classic Emmy and Peabody-winning  Requiem for a Heavyweight, which for many is still unparalleled in live action drama. The heart-breaking story of a broken-down club fighter’s decline was Serling’s favorite among all he had written and the big-screen film starring Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney is a rightly acknowledged masterpiece.  In 1959, he presented a pilot to CBS for a new series called The Twilight Zone, which incorporated science fiction and fantasy in dramas that negotiated social messages and morals.  The show ran for five seasons, 156 episodes, all in the anthology format (four seasons at a half hour, one at a full hour) and began a new life in syndication that to this day has earned the show new generations of fans and a sustained reputation as one of the finest programs in television history.  Serling did write movie scripts for films such as Planet of the Apes and Seven Days in May after The Twilight Zone completed its run in 1964, and served as distinguished creative writing Professor at Ithaca College until his untimely death after undergoing heart bypass surgery brought on in some measure by many years of sleepless nights and chain smoking.  However, he did manage to create one more anthology television series at the end of the 60’s when the form was considered a dying breed.  Over three seasons that final television opus, a tumultuous experience replete with ill-advised decisions and some of the most Godawful scripts any director has ever been handed, the show reached the zenith of television excellence, and sank to the pits of incompetence.  Yet as many admirers, this writer included will enthusiastically opine, there were enough great episodes over the span to make it an essential choice for anyone looking to explore the most creative shows the medium has ever offered.

Night Gallery was intended to achieve the same kind of the success as that enjoyed by The Twilight Zone, but NBC studio bosses were exceedingly skeptical and wouldn’t even entertain the possibility of a series until viewers put their seal of approval on the pilot.  Purportedly few thought the trial balloon would amount to much and fewer still that a television series could be built on the concept even with Serling’s brand as the integral creative talent involved.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the morgue.  The three part two-hour presentation proved a smashing success, and disbelieving executives had little choice but to sign Serling and assemble a crew to commence with production.  The pilot impressively brought together old fashioned horror and suspense, and two of the trio of stories must surely count among the three season show’s very best installments if they are considered.  For the sake of my review of the series I have not, feeling as it is a kind of self entity, an artistic enterprise that attracted some of the cinema’s biggest names -Joan Crawford, Steven Spielberg, Richard Kiley, Roddy McDowall, Ossie Davis among others- in a longer ninety minute window.  “The Cemetery,” written by Serling and featuring McDowell in a deliciously sardonic role as a greedy relative who will stop at nothing to gain a fortune, is set in a gothic mansion and borrows a bit from the plot of The Monkey’s Paw.  Perfectly attuned to the coming show’s concept, the plot involves the use of a series of macabre paintings, that not only bring about the death of the murderous nephew Jeremy, but the equally if reserved butler, who falls victim to the terrifying tale’s supernatural final twist. Crawford, fully in her element, plays a heartless narcissist, a blind New York City socialite living in a penthouse, who blackmails her longtime physician into performing a radical new surgical procedure that will give her sight for eleven hours, but at the expense of depriving the donor of his own eyesight for the remainder of his own life.  Crawford (Claudia Menlo) callously refuses to give the hapless donor, bookie Sidney Resnick a penny more than the nine-thousand dollars he needed to allow to escape certain assassination.  Resnick (Tom Bosley) sadly prioritizes his hopeless predicament to Dr. Heatherton (Barry Sullivan) by telling him:  “You want the eyes, they want my body.”  Menlo plans to spend the precious time window storing up every image of paintings, outdoors lights, colorful signs and sunsets in her mind for re-visitation until her final days.  But fate steps in, seemingly all-too-cognizant of this diabolical act, and just after she begins to see a blackout puts out her own ‘lights’ until the time when her eleven hours are up.  The episode is directly moodily and with great skill by a very young Spielberg, whose first assignment this is, and one that he initially dreaded when he was told he’d have to work with Crawford.  But the results were exemplary and the aptly titled “Eyes” is at least as formidably written and executed a piece as “The Cemetery,” and one readily remembered by fans when asked to identify Night Gallery stories they most fondly regarded.  Once again though I have resisted including it in the run of the show when compiling my own favorite Night Gallery installments for the previously stated disclaimers.  The final pilot episode “The Escape” is set in 1965 Buenos Aires features Kiley, Sam Jaffe and Norma Crane, and it is a chilling tale of guilt and retribution.  As he delineated in the classic Twilight Zone show “Death’s Head Revisited”, there can never be an escape for a Holocaust war criminal according to Serling, and the punishment though horrifying is much deserved. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

 

Dearest Allan:

It has been almost ten months since you departed this earthly realm.  Lucille and I won’t ever forget the last time we spoke, which was by phone two days before you left us on August 29, 2016.  You struggled to speak, but you moved us to the core of our beings with your achingly emotional regard for our eleven year relationship.  Though we saw each other on three occasions, adding up to sixty-seven days in each other’s company over that all-too-brief period, our friendship was fueled by daily correspondence and more marathon phone calls than I have had with any person during my lifetime.  I can’t remember any other person I fought with more regularly nor can I even fathom the vitriolic nature of some e mails we shared in a chain with fellow friends from Brooklyn and Chicago.  Those contentious rows almost always ended with phone conversations initiated by you, with peace branches being accepted on both ends.  I fondly recall the first time we ever spoke on the phone back in 2005, when I recklessly dialed your Kendal number and spoke with you nearly four hours, erroneously thinking I had unlimited time.  I took an eight-hundred and forty dollar hit that day, one that had you and your mum deeply mortified over the colossal gaffe.  As you recall you felt so bad over it that you sent me one-hundred and fifty dollars worth of DVDs to ease the pain, but that now laughable baptism under fire led to more Sunday afternoon conversations than I can remotely recall.  Hence, when you told Lucille that she, I and our family “made my life worth living” you immediately and for all time erased all the acrimony and malice, validating in those tearfully impassioned words “what I say about someone is one thing, what I feel about him is another.”  Just two months before you shattered us with your untimely adieu, you consoled me on the phone after the tragic passing of my brother Joe’s oldest son at age thirty-six.  I shared my eulogy of him with you and you did all you could, even monitoring my own state of grief with Lucille.  Though you yourself began to have seizures at that time -a short while after the dreaded cancer had returned- you did all you could from 3,000 miles away to ease my pain.  You had all that you could handle and them some, yet you had something there left for me.  Whatever time I have left, I won’t ever forget your deepest concern for a friend at a time when your own life was hanging in the balance.  Of course, I won’t likewise ever lose sight of the fact that when I was given the news of Brian’s sudden death (drug related) I was driving on a highway about an hour west of my home.  I jerked the steering wheel and pulled to the side of the road overcome by grief.  The very first thing I did before even allowing such catastrophic news to settle in was to reach you on FB message to appraise you of this horrific event.

Such was the nature of daily communication that as you will fondly recall was in the neighborhood of at least a dozen back and forth e mails, new release announcements, links to other sites and reviews and general banter that often concerned personal matters, finances and family related issues.  Our shared site contains many priceless exchanges, and there isn’t  anything I wouldn’t do to have you back as the yang to my ying.  Heck I just heard over the last few days that you told one of our mutual friends that there was a time you’d have to “rethink our friendship” as a result of my being generally unimpressed by the television show The Wire.  That quip made me think of when you thought I deserved life imprisonment for championing  Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun Sister Moon and Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy.  Those were precious exchanges, and I tear up just reliving them.

But I know you were taken from us for a specific reason.  You had done your job here, and are now bringing the cinema to people who left their earthly origins much too soon, much as you did.  After all your job was to write a film encyclopedia for use by newbies and those expanding their horizons.  Now you have others to teach, to spread the word, to delineate what is exceptional and what is disposable.  As always your persuasiveness is irresistible, a kind of pitch like the one Ed Wynn gave to Mr. Death in The Twilight Zone’s season one gem “One For the Angels.”  When Wynn departed he brought along his box of goodies so he could make pitches to those in heaven, much as your transported file copies of your book are probably all the rage in the movie paradise not too far beyond the pearly gates.  The old phrase “I wish I were a fly on the wall” applies to me as I try to surmise what your lectures are entailing.  Though I quite understand and respect that this is a one way correspondence – you are allowed to read it but cannot respond before the point of departure for others, I have still come to speculate how’d you’d respond to new releases based on your prior assessment of works bearing thematic or stylistic similarities.  I have you down for 3.5 for La La Land, 4.5 for Moonlight, 3.5 for Fences, 4.5 for Indignation, 3.0 for Jackie and the top 5.0 for Manchester for the Sea.  If like you I am fortunate enough to get up there at some point, I would like to compare notes on these and many other releases both old and new.  I am sure you are celebrating over the Arrow blu ray release of the long-unavailable Rainer Warner Fassbinder television release, Eight Hours Don’t Make A Day.  I know that you and Jamie Uhler had many discussions about it, but were doubtful it would ever experience the light of day for cinephiles.  But late in July it will become a reality, following in the paths of your beloved Yoshida, Rivette and Fassbinder sets. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The cowboy is probably the most masculine symbol of Americana, and as a result is the most unfairly vilified in the culture.  There are numerous stereotypes that are mainly perpetuated by western films, John Wayne’s uncompromising persona and a host of characters like Henry Fonda’s ruthless, back-stabbing cold-blooded Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West that are veritable incarnations of evil.  In Anthony Mann’s masterpiece The Man from Laramie, which echoes Shakespeare’s King Lear, depicting a house torn asunder by murderous machinations, one of the most fallacious of all western myths -one that posed that guns were rampant when in fact gun laws back in the hey day of the push westward were more stringent than they are today- played out on an epic scale.  Just as spurious is the idea that cowboys constantly clashed with Indians and that bank-robbing outlaws in cowboy garb ruled the west.  Speaking of apparel, even the ten-gallon hat represents a case where sparse usage came to accepted as the norm, because of the distinctive intimidating aura and it took over as the most emblematic of the cowboy, much as the headdress for the Indians.  Finally, the cowboy didn’t originate in the United States, but were originally Mexican cattlemen, but the perception is no worse than one that has persisted even longer, that which contends that the earliest American settlers were “native Americans.”  With all these misconceptions it is no wonder that cowboys were for the longest time pigeon-holed as ill educated, ignorant, racist, bullying, homophobic and likely to act first and ask questions later.  More recently the accepted stereotypes have taken some hits, none as groundbreaking as in 2005 when Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, a film about two young men – Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, who carried an an elicit affair –  based on a novella by Anne Proulx, helping to lasso old stereotypes and set back the prevailing image of the cowboy on the heels of his boots perhaps for good.  The final irony of course is the labeling of these two men living in Wyoming circa 1963 as cowboys, leading some to refer to it as “that gay cowboy movie.” (more…)

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