Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Ronald Dahl's 'WAY OUT Television Series

Roald Dahl with a prop from "William and Mary."
You have no doubt viewed The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits and One Step Beyond... tales of the macabre that often lend itself to a twist ending. Often rerun on television and widely available through the market of DVD, these programs have since become mainstream -- often with an episode or two from each series that became imbedded into one's subconscious, never to be forgotten again. But one horror anthology of the time (circa 1961) has since fallen into obscurity and requires a quick revisit. 'Way Out, which aired over CBS on Friday evenings, back-to-back with Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone. Having never been released commercially on VHS, DVD, or rerun on television in more than 50 years, few are aware of this rewarding program. Even more surprising is the fact that the program featured author Roald Dahl as the weekly host, and you would think Dahl's name would lend credence to an official DVD release.

Not ironically, when you consider the literary field, Roald Dahl's short stories appeared in a number of Alfred Hitchcock short story anthologies, and adaptations on Hitchcock's weekly television anthology. It could be said that his stories, along with Henry Slesar and Robert Bloch, were perfectly suited for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Dahl's "Man From the South" was originally scheduled for the evening of January 3, 1960, deemed unacceptable for telecast by CBS executives, and pulled shortly prior to airtime. Speculation, according to one columnist, was that the subject matter was "too gory." The story told of a young man in Las Vegas who accepts a wager that he could not light his lighter a specific number of times without fail... lest he lose a finger to a sharp blade. An executive at CBS was quoted of saying that rescheduling the broadcast "was only postponed to a later airdate because of its similarity to another rather gory segment, 'Specialty of the House.'" (The episode titled "The Dusty Drawer" replaced Dahl's story that evening and "Man From the South" would air at a later date.)

This incident, however, may have left a bad taste in the mouth of the author, who no doubt looked forward to seeing his gruesome story dramatized on the screen with horror icon Peter Lorre. In September of that year, the premiere broadcast of the new season was an adaptation of Dahl's "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat." The story told of a dentist's wife who paid occasional visits to "Aunt Maude in Baltimore." Aunt Maude, however, was actually The Colonel, a wealthy codger to whom she unwillingly plays paramour until a rich widow neighbor of the Colonel's caught his eye. Enter the coat, a wild Labrador mink, to serve as a parting gift. Mrs. Bixby, accepting the terms of the unsanctioned separation, found herself with a problem: how to bring the mink back with a suitable explanation? She pawns the coat and explains to her husband that she found a pawn-ticket in the cab. He insists on picking it up, does so, and promptly presents his wife with a surprise windfall -- a small, rather limp fur neckpiece. Adding injury to insult, she spots her Labrador mink walking out of her husband's office -- around her husband's attractive young dental assistant. 

Roald Dahl, host of 'Way Out
"It was one of the less diabolical, less grisly entries in the series," wrote a reviewer for Variety. "Perhaps a direct result of the lighter tone, but it came off more amusing than this show's average episode." This comment suggested the network's insistence of stories less gory, and to appease Roald Dahl, who may have written a letter of disappointment to the producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. While "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" would not have been the type of story one came to expect from Alfred Hitchcock, this may explain why he chose to take up the directing reins for this episode... a personal touch to express sincerity of Dahl's beloved literary properties. 

Roald Dahl in Central Park for screen tests.
Enter stage left, producer David Susskind. Having fulfilled his contractual obligations for The DuPont Show of the Month, and working alongside Jacqueline Babbin (whom he jointly produced The Heiress, a 1961 television production based on the Henry James novel, Washington Square), the two merged a joint operation to lure Roald Dahl to weekly television. Mike Dann, Vice-President of Programming for CBS Television, was enthusiastic. David Susskind's Talent Associates and CBS-TV jointly developed a new half-hour mystery anthology titled "The Haunted," to replace Jackie Gleason on Friday nights, effective March 31, 1961.

Liggett & Myers, one of the largest sponsors to bankroll television programs at the time, was approached by Susskind during the final week of February. The sales pitch was a series "to comprise offbeat yarns in the Roald Dahl manner, rather than ghost stories or straight whodunits." Like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl's macabre sense of humor derived from spoiled little brats who received their just deserts -- evident in the 'Way Out episode "The Croaker." 

By mid-March, the proposed title changed from "The Haunted" to "Ghosts" and by March 15, settled on 'Way Out. (Note the apostrophe in the beginning of the title, as depicted on the screen.) Executives at Liggett & Myers agreed to sponsor the program with a 14-week commitment. Dahl participated in a photo shoot and camera tests in Central Park, complete with a set of books and telephone, avoiding the horror-hosts firmly established across the country for late-night horror films. The first two broadcasts were originally slated for adaptations of Dahl stories, to establish the style and format for what viewers were to expect. (Only the first episode of the series, "William and Mary," was adapted from a Roald Dahl story.)

Roald Dahl in Central Park for screen tests.
The premiere broadcast was not well receptive among the critics. "William and Mary" concerned a dying professor, whose brain was of such great value as to be preserved and kept alive while the rest of his body was thrown away. A machine that pumped blood into the gray cells made it possible to converse with what was left of the professor. It was sweet revenge for his wife who was constantly reprimanded for smoking cigarettes. So now it was her inning and she taunted "him" while blowing smoke in his "face." Oh yes, they let him have one eye so that he could see what was going on around him. The smoking aspect was considered by many as a deliberate product placement for the sponsor, but when one reviews the original 1959 short story, Mary Pearl was indeed a smoker and her habit was among the many condemned by her husband. 

One critic compared the series to The Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond, remarking: "What Susskind apparently tried to do was top these originals. Still copying and not originating." Another remarked, "Witness to this wild orgy of nightmarish imagery must have shuddered at what popped out of the tube where once Jackie Gleason disported briefly... Television is hardly ready for this kind of grisly business." Roald Dahl went way out beyond human perception but warned it was not for children or those with queasy innards. 

At present, eight episodes of 'Way Out are available for viewing on YouTube. Take note that these were uploaded without permission from the copyright holders and are subject to removal. If you want to take a moment and watch a couple of these delightful gruesome stories, you can find them fairly easy with the YouTube search engine. Of the eight, the most rewarding is an episode titled "Side Show," concerning henpecked Harold, a skeptic who is smitten with Cassandra, the Electric Woman at the side show. With an illuminating light bulb for a head, she entices him to help her escape from the brutality of the carnival side show barker. An inanimate object seeking the affections of blood and bone? You be the judge.

A friend of mine and myself are presently seeking any publicity photographs, newspaper clippings, archival documents and anything that could be used to further our research into the production of this television program, for potential use in an up-coming book. Especially photographs. Please drop me a line if you have any leads. 


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Justice League Movie Review

There is a phrase that goes around at comic cons: “Marvel movies are made by fanboys, DC movies are made by executives.” The latest entry in the DC Movie Universe, Justice League, exemplifies that witticism. Like Wonder Woman before it, this is not the best movie of the year… but it is certainly entertaining. Critics of the major trade were trashing the film before the premiere, with or without just cause. Applied truth in humor, executives at Warner Brothers may have known the movie had “issues” before production was completed. Whatever attempt to salvage the escalating budget may have been the film’s saving grace.
For years executives at Warners maintained an unwritten rule against superhero team-ups, fearing dilution of market value. But with The Avengers (2012) breaking box office records, becoming the fifth-highest grossing movie of all time, Warners knew they had to follow suit. With near-complete ownership of Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Aquaman, and of course Batman and Superman, it was only a matter of time before a live-action Justice League hit the big screen.
Whether Zack Snyder was to blame, or the executives who wanted to differentiate from the Marvel brand of fun and fancy-free, DC Dark became the value proposition. Even in The Lego Movie (2014) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017) you could tell the studio wanted to brand Batman as a brooding vigilante, hell-bent on fisticuffs and killing if crime continued to run rampant. For the most part, both critics and fanboys disapproved and no better an example than Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Somewhere along the way, executives at Warners heard the outcry and it was decided that future movies in the franchise would be lighter in tone.
With a production budget of $300 million and the studio’s only shot to cash in on the success of their rival’s Avengers, it comes as a surprise that Justice League is inconsistent, loaded with unnecessary CGI, and breaks too many laws of physics. The final 20 minutes of the film, the climactic battle sequence, is more cartoon than live action. The heroes are thrown against walls so many times that one has to wonder how they continue standing on their feet. In one scene, Aquaman plunges from the sky on top of a Parademon, through an entire building from the roof to the floor, and walks out of a hole in the wall ready to continue the battle.
During post-production, an additional $25 million was spent on reshoots in London and Los Angeles, scenes scripted by Joss Whedon (who also scripted The Avengers), who was brought in to make the film lighter and more fun than previous installments. Sadly, you can tell which scenes in the movie were shot by Snyder and which were shot by Whedon. The latter’s verbal witticisms include practical jokes, sarcasm, and heart. In one instance Bruce Wayne apologizes for his sins and we, the audience, discover the studio gave us franchise penance. Had executives at Warner Brothers not brought Whedon in to brighten up the film, this would have been another dark, murky aesthetic entry in the DC Dark saga. With respect to Snyder, Whedon saved the film.
Thankfully, even with expectations high, the film has merit. Bruce Wayne, fearing an alien invasion close on the heels of Superman’s death, assembles a team of superheroes with extraordinary powers. Steppenwolf leads an army of Parademons to seek out and retrieve three ancient Mother Boxes, scattered across the globe, in the hopes of destroying our world. Standing in his way is an elite league of their own: The Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, Batman… and the possibility of an additional ally.
Known for carnage and mass deaths in the comic books, Steppenwolf is restricted here to a simple CGI persona who wields an axe and spends much of the movie making threats. Not a drop of blood is spilled — he merely has an axe to grind. Clearly toned down from what we came to expect from the DC Cinematic Universe. Even Batman reminds The Flash in one scene that their job is not to beat up bad guys — their job is to rescue the innocent. When Superman and The Flash race to save a family in distress, the scarlet speedster realizes this is an opportunity to find out who is faster and remarks, “Oh, it is on!” Such moments, sprinkled throughout the film, asserts the notion that Whedon does not look at demographics, nor does he care about product placement: he listens to fanboys.
For concerned parents who question whether the future of Batman and Superman movies continue a dark trend, Justice League may be the light at the end of the tunnel. With but a few vulgar words in the film, and a villain who falls by the making of his own design, parents can be assured this is closer to comic book material than prior installments. If you let your children watch Wonder Woman, you can let them see Justice League.
Behind the scenes, there is a struggle at Warners. The Flash movie (now re-titled Flashpoint) was pushed to a 2020 release, with two directors walking away and a new script being pitched. Zack Snyder returns to the fold for another Batman movie. The studio really needs to map out a game strategy before they continue to invest money in spandex. I would even wager dollars over donuts that Justice League is not the type of movie that will come close to the box office success of The Avengers. All of which merits the question whether Warner Brothers can save a franchise that has potential to rival Marvel.
Take note: There are two post-credits sequences so you have to stay to the very, very end of the movie.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Top 100 Classic Radio Shows

Don't you love it when you come home to find yourself tripping over a package delivered by UPS? This is exactly what happened to me last week and, discovering the box weighs a ton, carried it into the house to discover what was inside. Complimentary copies of the first of three books to be published this winter. Unlike the two reference guides published later this year, this one is a lavish hardcover coffee table book. Titled The Top 100 Classic Radio Shows, the book is a product of our fascination with the era that intrigued, educated and entertained listeners in equal measure. Through archives, personal interviews, and papers of those involved with programming during the golden age of radio, this book is the culmination of three decades of hard work, long road trips, thousands of hours of scanning photographs, and licensing recordings of the vintage radio broadcasts.

My co-author, Carl Amari, is the radio host of Hollywood 360, a weekly four-hour program focused on delivering the best of old-time radio programs, with trivia interlaced in between. Every Monday a new four-hour program is posted on the site and you can become a faithful weekly listener by visiting the link below.

Choosing what would specifically be considered the 100 greatest was not easy. Radio personalities Ed Wynn and Kate Smith were not included because their influence was more historical than entertainment. Few recordings exist from those two personalities, thus it was decided to cover only the programs that recordings commonly circulate among collectors.

From Amos n' Andy, Jack Benny, Little Orphan Annie, Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy and The Lone Ranger, this book serves as a primer for anyone wanting to learn the basics of Old-Time Radio 101, and various bits of trivia sprinkled on every page to serve as Old-Time Radio 102. The graphic layout is spectacular, easy on the eyes, and includes three bonus audio CDs in the inside back cover.

I was shocked to discover that a book this lavish, slick and glossy, full color and 224 large-sized pages is retailing $29.95. One would expect a retail price of $59.95. At least, that is what I usually pay for books produced in this same manner. It is now available on for a discount price.

Friday, November 10, 2017

For Sale: The Original Robby the Robot

Robby the Robot is back in the news again. He made his debut in the 1956 classic, Forbidden Planet, designed by a talented group of individuals at the MGM prop department, a radical advance from the walking tin cans that appeared in such films prior as The Phantom Empire and... well, name a movie that pre-dates Forbidden Planet and you know what I am talking about. He's become an iconic symbol for fans of classic science-fiction films, marketed as wind-up toys and figurines multiple times, and the costume was reused multiple times on other productions. And Robby is up for sale.

Robby was cool. He cost $125,000 to be made (equivalent of more than $1 million by today's inflation), considered themes expensive movie prop made up to that time, and was worth every penny. He looked like a million bucks. The diorama used as a backdrop of Altair IV looked cheap compared to Robby, who overshadowed the cast (with respect to Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis) upon his first entry in Forbidden Planet. It was not until Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey that the bar was raised with science-fiction production. (Some might debate that Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still was equally cool, and I won't dispute that.) 

Because Robby remained a prop on the MGM lot, he was recycled for use on numerous movies and television productions, from The Invisible Boy (1957), four episodes of The Twilight Zone, The Addams Family, My Little Margie, The Thin Man, Morky and Mindy, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.The Love Boat, Wonder WomanThe Monkees, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Hazel, Lost in Space and Columbo. Robby makes a brief appearance either in tribute or as a spoof in such films as Heavy Metal (1981), Gremlins (1984), The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons, and in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

So it might come as a surprise that a recent auction at Bonhams will offer Robby the Robot to the highest bidder. In conjunction with Turner Classic Movies, the annual auction of movie memorabilia, props and costumes usually contains half a dozen eye-brow raisers. Among the items this year is a trench coat worn by Peter Falk on Columbo. 

Robby was on display behind glass as the 2006 San Diego Comic Con and had I known about that beforehand, I would have flown out there just to have my photo taken with the iconic movie prop. My only hope is that Robby will be purchased by someone who can put him on display at a museum for fanboys like myself to pay a visit.

The auction house offers an online catalog for curiosity seekers and potential bidders, with descriptions of the items. (I often read the descriptions for those occasional bits of trivia, which I find fascinating.) The link below offers a direct view of Robby the Robot as promoted on Bonham's website. 

The Bonhams auction will be held November 21. If you cannot wait to see what the gavel price will go for, check out Julien's November 17 auction when an x-ray of Marilyn Monroe's pelvis and Evil Kinevel's motorcycle goes up for sale.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Passing of Lois Laurel and Joan Winwill

In reading the latest issue of Bob King's Classic Images magazine, I was reminded that no matter how many newsgroups, Facebook groups and digital newsletters I subscribe to, there is always something news-related that fell below the radar. Proving that subscribing to hardcopy magazines in a digital age is still worthwhile. Case in point the mention of the passing of two women with minor acting careers.

Lois Laurel with her father, Stan Laurel
Lois Laurel, the only daughter of comedian Stan Laurel, died after a long illness in a Mission Hills, California, hospital on July 28, 2017. Her father was half of a legendary comic team of Laurel and Hardy. Her mother was actress Lois Neilson, the first of the comedian's four wives. She appeared in uncredited roles in several of their comedy shorts, The Chimp (1932), Swiss Miss (1938) and The Bullfighters (1945). She was married to actor Rand Brooks, who plays supporting roles in numerous movies including Scarlet O'Hara's first husband in Gone With the Wind (1939), and Lucky Jenkins in a number of Hopalong Cassidy movies. 

Among her favorite stories to relate was the day she received a phone call from a journalist who asked her if she was "the daughter of Laurel and Hardy." For those familiar with Stan Laurel's appearance on This is Your Life, Lois was among the guests on that telecast. You can watch that loving tribute through the link below and Lois appears at the 23:45 minute mark.

Lois Laurel was 89.

Joan Winmill Brown
Joan Winmill Brown passed away at the age of 89 in June 29, 2017, in Maui, Hawaii. Windmill was born in London, England, on December 21, 1921. She began her career as an actress on stage shortly after World War II. She played a major role in the hit play, The Chiltern Hundreds, at London's West End in 1947. She met Robert F. Kennedy after a stage performance and the two became romantically involved over the following year. The two year affair was ended when Kennedy's family put an end to the relationship. Following the breakup, her career took a downward turn as she frequently turned to barbiturates and sleeping pills to help with her insecurities. She took on a small role on stage as Mary Wells, the maid, in Bela Lugosi's British tour with the play, Dracula, from April through July of 1951. 

Joan Winmill Brown, as she was known during her 30 years of marriage to William F. Brown, was also the author of 18 successfully published books.