Thursday, April 13, 2017

Another TV Luncheon






Had a perfect time at lunch today on the Danforth with three great friends: a veteran TV actress, a publicist I've known since 1970 and a TV producer with dozens of critics.
Here are highlights of our chatter:
ME: The big new CBC TV offering, yet another remake of Anne Of Green Gables, was pretty good although darkish compared with previous versions --the best one remains the one made with Sullivan Films starring Megan Follows.
PUBLICIST: My CBC  sources say the network was taken aback by the low ratings. I think they wanted 2 million viewers but had to settle for over 800,000 at least in the overnights I've seem. It may be just a case of a story being overly familiar.
ACTRESS: The irony at CBC this year has been the strong showing of such long running series as Heartland with the poor results of some of the new shows. I mean Rick Mercer routinely hovers just under 900,000 a week.
PRODUCER: Most in my position will not mount a new drama series for Canadian TV until they get an American producer and a U.S. sale. Having said that I still enjoy Saving Hope which ends this season --cheers to CTV for keeping it going after NBC quickly cancelled it.
ACTRESS: U.S. production in T.O. is very high right now because of the low standing of the Canadian dollar. But it never will revert to the glory days of the Nineties when it seemed that every other U.S. miniseries and TV movie was being shot here. That's because American TV movies are no longer made in such huge amounts.
ME: I liked Kim's Convenience which got very big audiences. I's say that's due to Ivan Fecan the executive producer who ran CTV for years and before that reinvigorated production at CBC.
ACTRESS: When Kevin O'Leary says he wants a downsized CBC where only news would be left I shuddered. But as ratings continue to fall I simply wonder how long any federal government can pour such funds into the CBC entertainment arm.
ME: When I started off in 1970 as TV critic at The Hamilton Spectator CBC's dictionary definition of a hit was 1.5 million for a series and 2 million for a TV movie or miniseries like Laurier. In those days CBC made its own dramas and comedies.
ACTRESS: There is no high arts left on any Canadian TV network. Adrienne Clarkson Presents was CBC's last desperate attempt at making operas and ballets. It's too expensive these days. I remember bumping into Norman Campbell --he still had a tiny office at CBC but never could produce anything in the Norman Campbell Theater on the top floor of CBC's downtown Toronto headquarters because there simply was no money.
ME: I once asked CTV President Murray Chercover why CTV never had a fall launch and he said "Our big entertainment shows are Littlest Hobo and Stars On Ice --you want me to publicize these?" But I did --I went on those sets every year and also I was on Half The George Kirby Comedy Hour and The Pat Paulsen Show both up at CFTO.
PUBLICIST: I remember when I first met you Jim in 1971 --Ed Sullivan was giving a press conference at CBC's "Kremlin" headquarters. He was taping a Christmas special to run on CBC which had Canadian rights but he had to tape it up at CFTO because CBC's facilities were so antiquated.
PRODUCER: My favorite Canadian show right now is Schitt's Creek. It's a perfectly made comedy gem.
ME: I told my CBC contacts the network should revive Front Page Challenge with a new cast of young names. I'm saying this only because the last FPC contestant Betty Kennedy just passed. And CTV should revive Headline Hunters --I visited that set in 1971 when Charles Templeton was the moderator.
ACTRESS: In the late Seventies CBC-TV had a similar revenue problem to today so they took old ballets and operas and repackaged the lot as a Sunday afternoon series called Rearview Mirror. Veronica Tennant was the charming hostess and ratings were sturdy. They should do something like that again to retain the loyalty of the artsy crowd.
ME: Just before HM Video folded I asked the store manager on Yonge Street which Canadian series not yet on DVD he was frequently asked about . He mention the CTV hit ENG, CBC's Beachcombers and Tommy Hunter as being on the top of the list
ACTRESS: My young nieces and nephews never watch conventional TV. They group together and watch everything on their devices. So maybe all TV is going to change?
ME: And my final question: Who's footing this bill?

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Truth Reigns In My First 150 Days




The shock of the truth.
It's all there in the brilliant new documentary My First 150 Days  premiering on TVOntario Wednesday April 12 at 9 p.m.
Because "Reality TV" these days is all the rage but it's actually Un-Reality TV where forced situations and staged moments predominate.
Not so with My First 150 Days which documents the highs and lows of a new family arriving at Pearson Airport to lives they never quite anticipated.
The 58-minute documentary was commissioned by TVO to mark Canada's 150th year as a nation and looks at the cultural adjustments made by a family struggling to learn new ways in a new land.
Producers Stuart Henderson and Romilla Karnick chose the family, explains director Diana Dai, before she was selected to direct.
I ask if the film was being commissioned today would it have focused on Syrian immigrants?
"No!" says Dai  on the phone. "Because it is not about refugees but the larger world of immigrants. No doubt I was asked to direct because I, too, am an immigrant. We connected when I met them at the airport. I knew what they were going through, I surely did."
Dai's accomplished group profile is filled with small moments of recognition not melodramatic staged events.
"Of course I didn't know what we all were getting into," she explains. "It was after all a film about them and not me."
"I filmed about every five days. It was very early into this when I learned the children of the mother, Melona who was already in Canada were having great difficulties. They finally said they did not want to be filmed anymore."
Canada just wasn't what they thought it would be. They'd journeyed from rural Philippines to an urban Canadian environment. They scarcely knew their mother who had preceded them eight years earlier.
Dai expertly captures these tension filled encounters as the newcomers seriously think of returning to a more leisurely lifestyle in their native country.
"I could understand all those conflicting emotions,"Dai  admits."I was born in China, took my M.A. in film at Leeds University in England and later emigrated to Canada. I knew how difficult the adjustment process could be. In their cases they were unskilled, that meant very tough jobs and long hours.
"What we are showing is the initial cultural shock which can last for many months. Some newcomers decide it is not worthwhile and want to return home to a land where they feel safe."
Dai is such an accomplished film maker that the family seem unaware of the cameras most of the time. The newcomers emerge as caring, feeling people without the usual cultural cliches.
Dai makes us feel for these people and we become interested in their struggles. It turns into an emotional roller coaster ride for viewers as well.
The production was shot between January and July 2016 but Dai notes "It is a difficult adjustment for everybody going to a new country"--she remembers meeting an Indian-born cabbie at Pearson who had university degrees and expected something better as an immigrant.
But how has the family fared since Dai stopped filming?
"I keep in touch. I still care. They are doing better. They are getting to know each other again. It's a long climb. My heart goes out to them. Their struggles are the struggles of all newcomers."
The film will be shown at a later date on CBC Documentary channel.
MY FIRST 150 DAYS PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO WEDNESDAY APRIL 12 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.



Friday, April 7, 2017

Secrets Of Survival Among the Year's Best








I wonder if Malka Rosenbaum and Juergen Ulloth have ever met?
Because they are the dual subjects of one of the best Canadian documentaries I've seen in years: Secrets Of Survival.
Malka was a student at the University of Toronto when she told her mother about the difficulties of being an only child.
And her mother then told her that she had an older sister who had been given to Polish neighbors during the height of the Holocaust.
Juergen Ullroth found out about his past when he went to the Kassel Municipality in west Germany to retrieve his birth certificate for his marriage license.
And the municipal clerk told a shocked young Juergen that his family name was actually Raenold, his mother's maiden name.
Juergen's mother had married Mr. Ullroth in 1951 four years after his birth.
"And that was the beginning of this dual profile," says veteran film masker Martin Himel on the line from Tel Aviv.
You can check out Secrets Of Survival for yourself --it premieres on the CBC Documentary Channel Sunday April 9 at 9 p.m.
"Originally I chose three subjects," Himel tells me. "But the first two worked out so well I could drop the third."
"Both Malka and Juergen were affected by World War II more than they had ever imagined. And our search for closure for these two extraordinary people turned out so much better than I had ever imagined."
Himel's odyssey took him and his two subjects "all over the place. On several continents.  Part of it depended on good luck, part on the dogged research of people who cared about this theme.It turned out better than I could ever have hoped for."
In Juergen's case Himel and his camera crew follow the resolute German right across the Atlantic where he learns his father was an 18-year old American soldier who very much wanted to marry his 16-year old German girlfriend.
"Juergen told me he didn't think his mother would ever consent to be on camera but just before we were preparing to leave he phoned and said she was ready. First surprise was how well she speaks English. But she also gives us the perspective of a scared teenager --Americans in 1946 were still very much considered to be the enemy."
The scenes of Juergen slowly researching his ancestry in America constitute highs and lows. His father Malcolm continued to visit until Juergen was three and then left forever.
Juergen's voyage of discovery takes him to relatives in North Carolina he never knew existed and one scene finds him in an evangelical church embraced by parishioners.
" An uptight European man suddenly found what it is to be treated as an American," laughs Hiimel.
Forty-five years after hearing of her sister's existence Malka is stunned to learn from an aged aunt that her sibling might indeed have survived the war.
Using extraordinary detection a young researcher in Poland is able to track down some valuable information about the sister.  Malka and her family visit the isolated farm deep in the Polish woods where the baby was secreted.
And what they discover is heart warming and heart breaking --you'll have to watch the entire film to learn more.
Himel says agrees these are only two of thousands of unresolved family secrets --a war that ended 72 years ago still reverberates.
"In both cases the survivors merely wanted to go on with their lives as best as they could," he tells me. "All became victims in some way or another. Juergen and Malka are more closely related than they could ever know."
SECRETS OF SURVIVAL PREMIERES ON CBC DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL SUNDAY APRIL 9 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.







Monday, March 27, 2017

What Canadian TV Series Should Be Revived?






The big news on American TV these days concerns the revival of past series hits.
Gilmore Girls is back for a limited run. and I;m, watchging and enjoying it as I find out what happened to the original characters.
So I'm thinking back on all the Canadian TV sets I was on and wondering which ones could be successfully revived.
The new Anne Of Green Gables is all the ratings rage on CBC-TV these days. So why not revive some other big hits over the years?
One of the first sets I ever attended was up at CFTO studios in Agincourt: Headline Hunters with Charles Templeton.
It was a piece of inexpensive Canadian content and it ran from 1972 through 1983.
And if CTV doesn't want it what about CTV News or even History Channel?
In fact I've already told current CBC programmers Front Page Challenge would be a dandy choice for revival.
I'd use Peter Mansbridge as host and a new gallery of panelists that might include Wendy Crewson, Martin Short, Art Hindle and perhaps one of the stars of Schitt's Creek.
Riverdale was a short lived soap opera on CBC running three years (1997 through 2000).
The reason it failed was simple: lack of money.
Had CBC been able to finance a year of the story instead of just 12 episodes per season the soap would have thrived.
But this one never even came out on .DVD. I'm told some of the sets are still standing and used on the various Degrassi series.
 I simply feel an hour revival would make it if heavily promoted and allowed to flourish for a full year of episodes.
A series far older was Quentin Durgens M.P. starring a very young and lean Gordon Pinsent.
The show debuted in 1966 when I was still a student at the University of Toronto and lasted until 1969 in increments of about six episodes a year.
What I'd do is recast the lead with Leah Pinsent, Gordon's talented actress daughter.
Then I'd plop her into the turmoil of the Canadian House of Commons and be immersed in a great political scandal not of her making.
Then I'd plop in Gordon as the aged but politically cagey Quentin who comes to the rescue of his daughter who represents the Ontario riding he once represented 40 years before.
E,N.G. was a popular hourlong drama running on CTV from 1990 through 1994.
I have no idea why this popular series has never come out in a boxed set.
The clerk at HMV Video told me it was one of the most requested Canadian series not on video.
Sara Botsford and Art Hindle were the stars of this newsroom story and I'd bring them back as the station is threatened with foreclosure by failing ratings.
They want to reinvent TV news by giving it a harsher coverage, confident that telling the truth for once on TV will reap big audiences.
Canadian sitcoms that could be reinvented include Maniac Mansion, Frontier Rabbi and Maniac Mansion.
Some Canadian sitcoms did not make it because they needed more work --that's my rationale for reviving In Opposition and Not My Department.
King Of Kensinton starred the gifted Al Waxman --he has passed but I'd recreate the show with his TV partner played so tellingly by Fiona Reid.
One of the first CBC TV events I ever attended was the lavish premiere for  Whiteoaks Of Jalna which ran for 12 hours starting in January 1972.
Did you know French TV later tried a version with the great French star Danielle Darrieux?
I say try again --but this time use only the original story by Mazo de la Roache. TV's version added a secondary modern story with the same bunch of actors also playing their ancestors.

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

I Remember Robert Osborne





The first time I met Robert Osborne it was 1993 and the genial old movie host was giving interviews at the annual launch for AMC (American Movie Classics).
That's what I said AMC!
Turns out Osborne never did officially join that old movie channel but instead accepted a better bid to become the night time host of TCM ( Turner Classsic Movies).
And for a decade after Osborne joined me in a bid to force the Canadian Radio-television Commission to allow this great haven of film classics to be admitted to the Canadian cablde TV dial.
I remember one CRTC bureaucrat actually telling me TCM was ineligible because there was no Canadian content.
So I got to talk to Osborne on the phone all that time and later when TCM finally hit Canadian TV.
The most important fact: Osborne never did directly program the films shown daily.
"That's a job in itself," he told me. "But there is a lot of give and take. And when I get the lists I get to work researching all films I'll introduce."
When I first met him he'd recently caused some controversy but stating it was TCM's mission to show Congo Maisie as much as it was to show Gone With The Wind."
"Every movie tells us a lot about the times and the people involved in the filming. I guess GWTW is the most shown movie on TCM. But Congo Maisie deserves our attention, too."
AMC was there first and showed the collections of Paramount, Universal, RKO and 20th Century-Fox."
That left Turner with Warners, MGM and RKO (shared with AMC). TCM recently Columbia pictures were added. And now MCA (Paramount and Universal) has also joined.
These days TCM is the last major movie channel around using hosts.
In Canada we had the energetic Elwy Yost in TVOntario for over 20 years. But these days TVO is out of the movie business entirely.
Most people did not know that while Osborne lived in Manhattan he had to fly to TCM headquarters in Atlanta to tape his introductions.
"I started in Hollywood under contract to Lucille Ball as part of a company of aspiring young actors. Lucy trained us in workshops, gave us bit parts in our shows, then told me I should be behind the lights. It was the best career advice ever given to me."
He lived in an apartment in New York called The Osborne. "But it was not named after me! Honest!"
For the past few days TCM has been rerunning all his hour interviews with the likes of Betty Hutton, Debbie Reynolds and Norman Jewison.
In 2011 Osborne was off camera for months recovering from a serious illness and when he returned young Ben Mankiewicz was spelling him off more and more.
Osborne chuckled when I told him Canadian viewers were often perplexed by his introductions. Recently he'd introduced "Claude Rains in a Hitchcockian romance."
Instead Rains appeared in Saturday's Children and not Notorious as Osborne had obviously been publicizing.
"In Canada we have to change seven per cent of titles which we do not own," he admitted. "I dearly wish they'd change the intro, too."
And I'm missing him already.






Thursday, March 2, 2017

All About The Joan Crawford--Bette Davis Feud



On Sunday March 5  at 10 p.m. FX begins showing the new miniseries The Feud : Bette And Joan starring Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and  Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis.
Well, I know a lot about that feud, I met both ladies on several occasioned and interviewed many of their co-workers over the decades.
From my archives I've culled the juiciest quotes to illustrate the great hatred that always exiusted between Joan and Bette.:
VINCENT SHERMAN: I directed Bette in Mr. Skeffington (1944)  and Joan in The Damned Don't Cry (1950). Bette was the more versatile actress but Joan was a star over a longer period and this irritated Bette.
I also had love affairs with both. On Mr Skeffington (1944) Bette's second husband had just died under mysterious circumstances and she was very needy. She wanted me to leave my wife and children and after I refused we never worked again.
Joan used sex to counter her feelings of loneliness. She always became the character she was playing. In the second film we did together Harriet Craig (1950) I used her compulsive need to dust and clean --she was cleaning away one day during a take when she looked up and said "I'm playing myself, right?" And she was right.
EDWARD DYNTRYK: When I directed Where Love Has Gone (1964) I had to cope with the hatred between Bette and Susan Hayward who was a toughie in her own right.
Bette not only had to take second billing but she was playing Susie's mother and was only a decade older than Susie.
Bette would storm onto the set shouting "Don't worry boys I've rewritten a few lines!"
Whereupon Susie would storm off the set, slam her dressing room shut and refuse to leave until all her lines were properly restored.
After I shot the last scene Bette turned to me and said "Am I finished, Mr. Director?"
I assured her that was so and she took off her white wig and tossed it at Susie and it bounced off her forehead.
"You disgusting old bitch!" shouted Susie as Bette exited Stage Left.
IRVING RAPPER: I had just finished directing The Gay Sisters (1942) with Miss Barbara Stanwyck who everybody loved when Warners announced I'd be directing Bette for the first time in Now, Voyager (1942) and Barbara gifted me with a wreath of black roses. She knew the travails I was going to face!
ANNA LEE: On the set of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962) I had the dressing room between Crawford and Davis.
I could feel the great waves of hatred emanating from both dressing rooms. I felt quite noxious at times.
In one Bette had to drag Joan across the living room and Joan claimed Bette had deliberately kicked her in the face.
To retaliate Joan had jockey weights sewn into the hem of her skirt so when Bette had to drag her some more in the next scene the weight was so much Bette's back popped out a d she had to be taken to the hospital.
BETSY PALMER: On every picture Joan had to have a scapegoat and usually it was a young girl just starting out.
On Goodbye, My Fancy it was Janice Rule as the ingenue and Joan barked at her mercilessly.
On the picture I did with her Queen Bee (1955) she latched onto pretty little Lucy Marlowe and in one scene when Lucy forgot her lines because she was frightened Joan sucker punched her just like that!
GERALDINE FITZGERALD: Bette took me under her wing in Dark Victory (1939) which was my first big picture at Warners. I'd been warned by the director she'd try to get me out of focus during my big speech which is why I'm holding onto the piano with all my might. But you see I posed no thereat to her.
But Bette was never collegial. She'd just finished The Old Maid (1939) opposite Miriam Hopkins the greatest scene stealer of them all. Miriam appeared on set the first day wearing one of Bette's dresses from her past hit Jezebel and Bette went crazy.
VINCENT SHERMAN: On Old Acquaintance (1943) Bette and Miriam went on a dizzy field trip of trying to upstage each other. The day I had to photograph Bette slapping Miriam the rafters were filled with employees, Miriam was hated so. And Bette drilled one so hard Miriam's head bobbled up and down.
The next day Miriam phoned in sick saying she was suffering from a huge headache and her absence cost the studio thousands of collars.
GEORGE CUKOR:  On The Women (1939) Joan was forced to take second billing to Norma Shearer and she hated this. During line reading rehearsals she'd click her knitting needles every time Norma had to make a speech. Finally I told her to stop at once and Joan fled from the stage in tears and wouldn't return that day.
CURTIS BERNHARDT: I directed Bette Davis as twins in A Stolen Life (1946) and then Joan Crawford in Possessed (1947) which she took over when Bette went on maternity leave. Joan took an Oscar nomination and Bette was not at all happy I can tell you.
They loathed each other because they saw themselves in each other. Both came from poverty. Both had been deserted by their fathers. Joan's childhood was more oppressive but neither had happy memories of their younger days. Joan would be in full makeup at 9 a.m. and nobody worked harder. Bette needed a lot of direction because she had a tendency to go over the top. Their dressing rooms were side by side but they never talked to each other. Joan was a diet freak, she'd nibble carrots at lunch. Bette would pork it on and then go on killer diets. I think they fascinated each other, they never stopped competing.
JOSEPH COTTEN: Joan started HUSH HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) but claimed Bette was harassing her. Crawford had collected IOUs for the female stars up against Davis for the Oscar for Whatever Happened To Baby Jane and when Ann Bancroft won but couldn't make it (she was on Broadway) Joan whisked past Bette backstage and walked out and took the Oscar and made a great speech for Ann. Needless to say Bette was seething.
VINCENT SHERMAN: Joan pretended she had a virus and was in hospital when I visited her. She claimed she was in perfect health but had faked it to "get away from that bitch!" Then she jumped stark naked out of  bed and we made furious love on the floor of the hospital room.
GERALDINE FITZGERALD: In 1977 Bette was the first woman to win the AFI award,Koan had just passed and I wonder what she would have made of this! Bette was astonished so many of her co-workers refused to attend including Robert Montgomery, George Brent, Irving Rapper and Vincent Sherman. Bette forgot how viciously she'd fought for her place in the sun.
NOTE: In i977 I interviewed Davis at her Hollywood apartment and told her that I had to leave at 5 p.m. to attend the Joan Crawford Salute at the Academy Awards theater.
BETTE DAVIS: Who'd salute that bitch?
ME: Well, the welcoming committee at the door includes John Wayne, Myrna Loy, Robert Young, Virginia Grey, Steven Spielberg (who'd directed Joan on TV's Night Gallery).
BETTE DAVIS: Well, I never said she wasn't important. She was old Hollywood, she worked at it harder than anyone I knew, that stardom which she truly believed in. But she was one tough broad is all I'll say.
VINCENT PRICEL: On Bete's last completed picture The Wales Of August (1984) Bette was her usual obstreperous self. She started picking on Lillian Gish and Miss Lillian was 91 for heaven's sake.
Director Lindsay Anderson was lining up a close-up of Miss Lillian when Bette burst in "Oh, fer gawd's sake, that old bitch invented the close-up!" That's Bette! Feuding and fighting and fussing!
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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Good News: CTV's Cardinal Is Coming Back






Best news of the week" CTV's Cardinal is coming back for two more seasons.
And Cardinal may be the wave of the future for Canadian TV drama.
The first season ends tonight at 10 on CTV and ran a short term of just seven  hourlong episodes.
But audience reaction was fierce: so CTV has ordered two more "cycles" of six hours each.
In the past a Canadian TV series like the currently running Saving Hope would glide along with 13 hours and try competing against the U.S. imports of 22 hours per season.
I think Cardinal works because it is unrelentingly Canadian --it was photographed in Sudbury and North Bay. Although Billy Campbell (The Killing)  is American Karine Vanasse is from Quebec and other  key parts are played by Canadians.
Based on Gilles Blunt's 2000 novel Forty Words For Sorrow the story has cops Campbell and Vanasse figuring out that there was a serial killer in their community.I thing what made the story was the beautifully austere landscape which always seemed so threatening, menacing.I thought Campbell finely cast --I first interviewed him on the set of Dynasty way, way back and we reconnected on the set of Once And Again where he blurted out --"I really hate this character!".
Maybe so but he aced that guy and does so again here.
In past years Canadian TV has been too quick to ditch concepts that were not entirely working.
I'm thinking of CBC's attempts to float a series set in the Eastern Townships starring Nathaniel Parker. Iy was abandoned after one TV movie.
The success of Cardinal comes from the immaculate adaptation by Aubrey Nealon and Daniel Grou's sturdy direction.
The series has already been sold to BBC meaning it must be very good indeed.
You can check out the seasonal finale wednesday night at 10 on CTV.

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