Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Summer of MeTV Blogathon: Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983)

It's that time of the year again! This retrospective is part of the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out the blogathon's complete schedule, and you should visit MeTV's awesome schedule too! And watch the shows! Enjoy!

Laverne DaFazio and Shirley Fenney were originally introduced on the wildly popular sitcom Happy Days in the season three episode A Date with Fonzie (O.A.D. 11/11/1975). As Cindy Williams said, the characters looked like they “dated the fleet,” and Fonzie even politely refers to the duo as “more boisterous than I usually like.” Richie thought they were edgy because Laverne drove without insurance (and beat up Shirley!). They easily stole the show with their hip swinging, easy action ways and soon got a chance to carry a series in 1976 when they were given their own spinoff. 

Williams and her costar Penny Marshall had been writing partners in the years leading up working together as actors, and their chemistry was off the charts. While they lost a bit of the trampy innuendo from that Happy Days episode (well Shirley did, Laverne remained a bit aggressive, but in a more innocent way), they played off each other perfectly as best buds in working class 1950s Milwaukee. Focusing on broad physical comedy and wild, cartoonish adventures, Laverne and Shirley became an iconic series that traversed the cultural landscape known as ABC Tuesdays back in the 1970s (where they stayed for the first three seasons, and then returned in 1980 after a few months of ratings woes). ABC's late 70s Tuesday night line up was seminal. During this comedy heyday, the schedule looked a lot like this (with some variations depending on the season, mostly in the 9:30 slot):

Fall 1978:  
8pm: Happy Days 
8:30 pm: Laverne and Shirley 
9pm: Three’s Company 
9:30pm: Taxi 

Promo for ABC's 1978 Tuesday Night lineup: 

And, it was not unusual to see Laverne and Shirley hanging out around the top of the Nielsens, often scoring higher ratings than Happy Days (furthermore, on January 10th, 1978, the girls scored the “largest audience for any TV sitcom ever” with the flashback episode The Anniversary Show, boasting a rating of 37.6, which means they were seen in approximately 27.4 million homes, with an audience of over 60 million viewers! Holy guacamole!). It was hijinks galore and as the show expanded its physical humor shenanigans, it grew not just in popularity but the series also nurtured a devoted fanbase (i.e. me). To its credit (and frankly to the credit of all of ABC’s Tuesday night lineup during the late 1970s), the humor remains wildly relatable and laugh out loud funny.

These types of Nielsens numbers were not unusual for the dynamic duo!
That’s not to say all of America was in love with the put upon working class duo, as noted by a really stuffy critic for the Miami News named Bill von Mauer. I don’t mean to pick on this writer exclusively, but he obviously missed the components that made this show work. One of which was placing two strong (if somewhat overly romantic) women in diverse leading roles that allowed them to exercise their enormous gift for comedy, amongst a fairly male dominated lineup of funnymen, er, people.

A seemingly improvised moment from the Season 2 episode Steppin' Out
von Mauer wrote that he “worried about America,” and felt this show only spoke to “the male viewer with a beer can in one hand and a cigar in the other who sits in front of the tube in his undershirt. By his side is his female counterpart, the woman who still has her apron on, hasn’t done her hair for a week and throws back her beer right from the can the way her husband does.”

I think Laverne's expression speaks to how I feel about Mr. von Mauer's sentiments.
It’s such a strange statement, considering how many sitcoms that dealt with the lower classes of America during the 1970s appealed to a fairly diverse, and large, audience. And as a non-beer guzzling pre-teen during this era, I felt the show really spoke to strong females who may be trapped in a sort of 1950s ideology that basked in middle class Leave it to Beaver living, but who still felt they had the power to exercise choices. If they hadn’t, Shirley would have married Carmine and we would not have a long running series.

Hang in there, baby! We've got your back!
I also feel compelled to note that Laverne and Shirley also ran during the same era as the iconic female detective series Charlie’s Angels, and as a fan of both I can say I am glad that I grew up in a world where I could worship both Kelly Garrett and Laverne DaFasio.

The original Angora Debs, minus Rosie Greenbaum.
But even without the cultural critique, the fact still remains that Laverne and Shirley were completely relatable as flawed but good people who wanted the best for themselves. No amount of pratfalls was going to break them up, and like so many twenty-somethings from any era who are experiencing living as an adult for the first time, they found family with each other. And that’s what keeps drawing us back to Milwaukee and, eventually to Los Angeles, where the series hit a couple of bumps, but still managed to spin gold when it could.

Keepin' it real
I was beyond ecstatic to see that Laverne and Shirley and Carmine, er, I mean Marshall, Williams and Eddie Mekka, are curating the episodes that MeTV will be airing over the summer. And I was inspired to come up with my own list of faves. While this could change at the drop of a hat (except for my number one pick, that will never change!), here are the first five episodes that instantly came to mind.

Life in Hollywood was downright strange!
Sidenote #1: You may notice my picks are very Laverne-centric. Shirley also had her share of relatable problems and foibles, but deep down I’m just a milk and Pepsi girl.

Sidenote #2: My choices are also a little boy-centric as well because I’m basically just as boy crazy as Laverne!

And away we go... 

The bed that eats!
5. Dinner for Four (OAD 12/5/1978): Dinner for Four has the girls working at an event for veterinarians, which is being held at the Pizza Bowl. Laverne and Shirley are, of course, on the make and meet up with handsome doctors Rob (Denny Smith) and Jeff (Jeffrey Kramer, probably best known as Deputy Hendricks from Jaws, or as the captain of my heart). When the two vets invite Laverne and Shirley over for dinner the girls break a date with Lenny and Squiggy only to find that their "dates" want the girls to serve dinner, not enjoy it!

Lenny and Squiggy let you know when you've hurt their feelings!
A lot of Laverne and Shirley episodes are filled with bittersweet moments where the girls realize that whatever that week’s particular dream is, it is just not going to happen. But along the way, they encounter a man-eating bed and Laverne proves that revenge is better served with lasagna (keyword: served). The girls make peace with Len and Squig, dust off their egos and move on to their next adventure.

Cigarette or cracker? Shirley doesn't care!
4. Guinea Pigs (OAD 1/18/1977): Because the girls can’t afford to attend a high-class cocktail party, they sign themselves up as scientific experiments (at the behest of Lenny and Squiggy, which is your first clue it’s all going to hell in a handbasket). After 48 hours of pure torture, where Laverne has to stay awake for two days straight and Shirley has to eat dirt (!), they finally arrive at the party, and are definitely worse for wear!

Who wouldn't want to vodeo-do under the table with this guy?!?
One of my favorite moments of this episode comes at the end when Laverne crawls out from under the table with gorgeous Charles, who is played by Richard Young from Friday the 13th Part V! See I told you I was boy crazy. This episode also features an almost unrecognizable Kip Gilman, and even more cartoonish looking Harry Shear as a man with an acquired taste for dumplings made out of mud!

Royally awesome!
3. The Debutante Ball (OAD 5/9/1978): This episode always makes me misty because it’s all about dignity and pride. When it is discovered that Lenny is heir to a Polish throne, he is invited to an awesomely royal shindig and asks Laverne to be his date. They score their outfits from a wax museum and do their best to fit into the elite party. After a little public humiliation, Laverne seeks shelter in the woman’s room, and Shirley comes to her rescue.

All washed up? Never!
There’s very little to not love about this one. While it’s laugh out loud funny (Laverne’s major pratfall is both hysterical and heartbreaking), it’s equally as sweet, first with Lenny’s crush on Laverne and then with the handsome duke who openly admires Laverne’s dignity. I am actually getting choked up now. Go Laverne!

2. Why Did the Fireman…(OAD 2/4/1980): This episode is perhaps one of the most iconic of the series. For one, it features a super swoon-worthy Ted Danson as a dashing fireman who sweeps Laverne off of her feet. And it’s also a great example of how tragic moments on sitcoms never make it to another episode. After Laverne loses the great love of her life in a fire, she has to come to terms with the tragedy.

**sniff sniff**
Why Did the Fireman… features Phil Foster, who played Laverne’s pop, Frank in an uncharacteristically quietly powerful moment where he compares Laverne’s grief to when he lost his own wife, and he doesn’t shy away from the depth of sadness Laverne is about to endure. Which makes it all the more ironic that the series never refers to Danson’s character again. This also happens in the episode The Slow Child when we learn that Mrs. Babish (the great Betty Garrett who rocked capri pants) has a learning disabled daughter… then poof! Issues begone! Still, Fireman is terribly romantic and heartfelt, and it gives an early glimpse into Danson’s magnetic onscreen presence. Swoon! Swoon! Swoon!

Did I say swoon? 

No caption needed.
1. Laverne and Shirley Meet Fabian (OAD 11/17/1977): Speaking of swoon... After missing out on tickets to see Fabian in concert, and after dealing with Rosie Greenbaum's (Carole Ita White) obnoxious bragging (P.S. I adore Rosie!), our put-upon duo attempt to sneak into Fabian's hotel room and meet him. Unfortunately, they are quickly discovered and try to hide on Fabian's window ledge. Of course, they are soon discovered, but Fabian has a kind heart... and kissable lips. And let's face it, he turns me loose!

Ha! I'm here all week.

It was Laverne and Shirley who introduced me to singing idol Fabian, and it’s hard not to love his sense of humor in this episode. When he starts singing, it's like watching a mini-recreation of The Beatles performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, and is one of the highlights of the series for me. As I've said before, I've always felt a little bit like these lovely ladies, from boy craziness to doing it my way, and this episode gives the girls their just dues, and like the theme song says, they are making their dreams come true!

Tune into Laverne and Shirley every Wednesday night this summer on MeTV!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

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

Network: ABC 
Original Airdate: December 3, 1974 

A Griftin’ n’ a driftin’. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

An Update! An Announcement! Links!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afterschool Specials, you say?

Need I say more?

I thought so. 

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

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

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

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

One of us… 
One of us...

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know! Crazy, right? 

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

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

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

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

Plus it had this wonderful opening:

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

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

Network: ABC
October 16th, 1973

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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