March 20, 2010
Ever since the exhausting, and mildly controversial, reports I filed on the twin Route 66 and The Fugitive DVD debacles of ’08, I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid filling this space with too many bad vibes. Infighting among internet outposts is one of the least attractive components of the blogosphere. It’s inside-baseball, it’s often uncivil, and it’s almost always a big waste of time and energy.
But some days, you just need to call an asshole an asshole. This is one of those days.
The Home Theater Forum, for those of you who don’t follow home video matters obsessively, is a website that covers the content that comes out on video disc, and the equipment used to enjoy it. It’s large and, by internet standards, venerable. As the word “forum” suggests, the site is structured as compendium of conversations in which readers drive the discussions and contribute most of the content. But, while the name is democratic, the management is despotic.
For a few years I’ve been an occasional participant at the Home Theater Forum (HTF) – occasional enough to tune out the epic obnoxiousness of its founder, Ronald Epstein, and some of his moderators. Finally, that obnoxiousness has caught up with me.
Earlier this week, I visited the HTF and left a few comments in its TV section, including one in a discussion of Universal’s donation of copies of the entire run of the fifties anthology GE Theater to the Reagan Presidential Library. Reagan, of course, was the host of GE Theater. I’m guessing that the tapes of the show were discovered (along with some other intriguing rarities, like the western Whispering Smith, which is due on DVD next month) during Universal’s inventory of what survived the disastrous, embarrassing vault fire last year. This is what’s called a “silver lining.”
On the Home Theater Forum, I remarked that I’d like to see those GE Theaters emerge commercially, since the show was produced by William Frye (of Thriller), and attracted some talented writers and actors during its later seasons. I also suggested that it might be nice if Universal sent another set of the shows down to Hell, so that Ronnie Reagan could see them again, too.
A few minutes later, I received a message from an Epstein lackey, Michael Reuben, who is an attorney. (I happen know that because Reuben, in his HTF posts, avails himself of the opportunity to point out that he is an attorney quite frequently.) Reuben, who is an attorney, informed me that my comment had been deleted because it was “political.”
Now, I’m not sure that my kind thought for ol’ sweat-drenched Ronnie down in aitch-ee-double hockeysticks really amounted to political commentary, and I noticed that nobody saw fit to remove any of the tired political lies about Reagan’s legacy from the AP story posted (in violation of copyright, incidentally) at the top of that thread. But, whatever. Rather than argue that point, I asked Reuben, who is an attorney, what happened to the inarguably apolitical remarks I made about GE Theater. Why had those been censored? “Move on,” was the non-responsive response from Reuben, who is an attorney.
But wait – it gets better! I also received a message from the Home Theater Forum entitled “Infraction Issued.” Oh, no – an infraction! Now, let’s see, is that more or less severe than a demerit? When I posted my polite question about the deletion of my GE Theater comments, Reuben, who is an attorney, informed me that “the HTF Rules also prohibit public arguments with moderator actions.” Well, it would seem that I just can’t win.
Hmmm … a forum in which talking back to the teacher isn’t allowed? Wouldn’t a better name for such a place be the Home Theater Podium? I’m expecting that the next communiques I receive from the HTF will inform me that I’ll need to cut myself out a dunce cap to wear while standing in the corner during recess, and that I won’t be allowed any dessert after dinner.
I have to wonder: what kind of person spends most of his time handing out “infractions” to other adults? Punishing readers and commenters whom some of us bloggers would consider ourselves lucky to have? And what kind of person would submit to that kind of treatment on an ongoing basis? The ones who stick around seem to have gotten used to looking over their shoulders. Moments after I loosed my little Reagan quip, I received one furtive message from another Home Theater Forum poster who urged me, with lots of exclamation points, to “watch out”!
What mostly happens, of course, is that the people who have the most to contribute get fed up and follow the advice of Michael Reuben (who is an attorney): they move on. I know, personally, at least a half-dozen knowledgeable historians, writers, or collectors who have left the HTF as a direct result of its draconian policing.
(Reuben, who is an attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Of course, I have indulged in a bit of ill-tempered mockery here, but I also have a serious point to make. The Home Theater Forum could be an essential resource, and yet it isn’t, solely because of the hostile, constipated, professional hall-monitor attitude taken by its leadership.
The Home Theater Forum aggregates a lot of valuable information. At the moment, for instance, there’s a very useful thread going about which of the many Spanish DVDs of older American films have acceptable transfers, and which look like mud. But the unfortunate reality is that that kind of information always comes from the readership of the Home Theater Forum, rather than the management, which consistently takes an indifferent or even hostile attitude toward it.
Consider the way Ron Epstein and company reacted to the June 2008 revelation that the original music had been removed from CBS’s second season DVD release of The Fugitive. An HTF reader was, I believe, the first person to break the story anywhere on the internet. Epstein quickly leapt into the fray – with a knee-jerk defense of CBS, before any of the facts were known. When the chorus of complaints grew louder, Epstein locked the thread to staunch further discussion. Eventually the thread was reopened, after numerous readers (including myself) complained, only to be closed again, for good, after the initial furor died down.
In the meantime, the HTF moderators deleted comments directing customer complaints to individuals within CBS’s home video division, and banned members who posted them. The issue that seemed to concern Epstein most was not the violence committed by CBS against the artwork under its copyright, but (quoting one of Epstein’s final comments on the subject) “the poor guy at the studio who fell victim to a rash of nasty e-mails.”
Is that really an acceptable priority? A pro-industry bias makes sense for a trade paper, but for a public, user-oriented website like the Home Theater Forum, consumer advocacy should be a given. When the HTF abdicates that role, it is worse than useless. A first step in the right direction? The HTF could stop treating its members like chattel.
January 29, 2010
Continuing to stall desperately while I work up some actual new content, I give you . . . Selleck Waterfall Sandwich.
September 17, 2009
Paul Burke and Nancy Malone in Naked City (“Requiem For a Sunday Afternoon,” 1961)
The grim reaper has been working overtime this month: Larry Gelbart, Army Archerd, Patrick Swayze, Henry Gibson, Zakes Mokae, Mary Travers, and the estimable Dick Berg, who granted me a good interview last year. One of the weird coincidences in television history is that many of the major players – actors, writers, directors, crew – from the Quinn Martin factory are or, until recently, were still alive and available for interviews. If you were writing about Bewitched or Ben Casey, you were out of luck, but if you tackled a QM show you could compile a decent production narrative by way of oral history.
Now death finally seems to be catching up with QM, claiming Philip Saltzman (a producer of The FBI and Barnaby Jones) a couple of weeks ago, and now both Paul Burke and George Eckstein over the weekend. Burke, of course, was the second star of QM’s World War II drama 12 O’Clock High, replacing Robert Lansing, whom Martin found too diffident and remote to headline his series. Burke had a more likeable, down-to-earth quality than Lansing, although he was a less gifted actor. He was Leno to Lansing’s Letterman.
Burke had also been the replacement star of Naked City, taking over for James Franciscus in what the New York Times’s obituarist, Margalit Fox, called Naked City’s second season. Technically that’s accurate, but Fox’s phrasing reminded me of how it has never felt true. In my mind, there were two Naked Citys, the half-hour and the subsequent hour-long version. Both sprang originally from the pen of the prolific Stirling Silliphant, and both took great advantage of the practical outdoor locations available in New York City. But the casts were different (save for a pair of supporting players), a full TV season separated them, and the extended length of the later episodes occasioned a major shift in tone.
The Los Angeles Times’s obit for Burke called Naked City “gritty,” but that’s more true of the Franciscus version, a lean, action-centric genre piece that turned Manhattan into a giant playground for foot and car chases. The half-hour City had more in common with other contemporary half-hour crime melodramas – there were a wave of these made in New York City in the late fifties, including Big Story, Decoy, and Brenner – than with its own sixty-minute incarnation, which told character-based stories in a much wider tonal range. The Stirling Silliphant of the first Naked City was the terse pulp writer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and late films noir (The Lineup, Five Against the House). By 1960, when the hour Naked City debuted, he was the loquacious beat poet of Route 66, a personal writer working an in an ever more idiosyncratic voice. Because not even Silliphant was prolific enough to write both shows at once, he gradually delegated Naked City to Howard Rodman, whose scripts were even more lyrical and offbeat.
If I haven’t said too much about Paul Burke, it’s because he always struck me as a passive personality, just on the good side of dull. That sounds like a knock, but it may have made Burke ideal for the hour Naked City, which required the regulars to step aside most weeks to let some grand stage actor – Eli Wallach or Lee J. Cobb or George C. Scott – take a whack at one of Silliphant’s or Rodman’s verbose eccentrics. One of the best things about Naked City was the relationship between Burke’s Detective Adam Flint and his girlfriend Libby, played by Nancy Malone, that resided on the margins of the show. The pair were friends as well as lovers, and quite clearly (thanks less to the dialogue than to the sidelong glances between the two actors) sleeping together. Adam and Libby were one of TV’s first modern, urbane, adult couples: Rob and Laura Petrie without the farce. Burke may have done his finest work in those scenes.
George Eckstein produced Banacek, Steven Spielberg’s Duel, and a number of other important television movies of the seventies. But I suspect more TV fans remember him as a story editor and primary writer for Quinn Martin’s two finest hours, The Fugitive (for which Eckstein co-wrote the two-hour series finale) and The Invaders.
Last month Ed Robertson, author of The Fugitive Recaptured, chastized me for expressing only modest enthusiasm toward Philip Saltzman’s Fugitive episodes, which included one of Ed’s favorites, “Cry Uncle.” Well, I’m relieved to report that Eckstein wrote some of my favorite episodes, chiefly “The Survivors” (about Richard Kimble’s complex relationship with his in-laws), “See Hollywood and Die,” and “This’ll Kill You.”
The latter two paired Kimble, the innocent man on the lam, with actual hoodlums of one variety or another, allowing Eckstein to zero in one of the more intriguing aspects of the show’s premise: how does one live among the underworld of criminals without becoming one of them? “This’ll Kill You” showcases Mickey Rooney as a washed-up, mobbed-up comedian, whose infatuation with a treacherous moll (the great Nita Talbot) leads him to his doom. It seems like every TV drama of the sixties wrapped a segment specifically around Rooney’s fireball energy; some were dynamite (Arrest and Trial’s “Funny Man With a Monkey,” with Rooney as a desperate heroin-popper) and some disastrous (The Twilight Zone’s “Last Night of a Jockey,” with Rooney as, well, an annoying short guy). Eckstein’s seedy little neo-noir gave Rooney some scenery worth chewing.
I interviewed Eckstein briefly in 1998 while researching my article on The Invaders. Eckstein is only quoted in the published version a few times, because he was incredibly circumspect. Not only would he not say anything bad about anyone, he’d barely say anything at all about them. I suspect Eckstein agreed to talk to me only because I had gotten his number from another gentleman of the old school, Alan Armer, who had been his boss on the two QM shows. I wish I could have asked him more – especially now, as I am just reaching the point in the run of The Untouchables (which I had never seen before its DVD release) when Eckstein, making his TV debut, became a significant contributor. It’s always a race against time.
March 4, 2009
Horton Foote is dead at 92.
He was the last of the important writers nurtured by producer Fred Coe in the great talent workshop known as the Philco Television Playhouse. And, as far as I can think of off-hand, the last of the major live television playwrights.
August 24, 2008
Back in a couple of weeks.
In the meantime, looking at that image reminds me of a game I used to play with a friend.
Back in the late nineties, when it seemed that every sixties sitcom was being remade as a lousy film nobody had asked for (Dennis the Menace, My Favorite Martian, McHale’s Navy, etc.), Stuart and I used to pass slow afternoons at the archive by speculating on who they’d cast in the inevitable The Andy Griffith Show: The Movie. Judi Dench as Aunt Bee? Adam Sandler as Barney Fife? Bruce Dern as Floyd the barber? Donald Sutherland as Briscoe Darling?
Anyone who wants to play along is invited to do so in the comments.