TV Movies: Where Hollywood went to die



When I was at primary school, the tv stations would sometimes show at peak times ‘films’ which, even to my young eyes, were clearly not quite films in the generally-understood sense.
For one thing, they were shorter than most of their vintage: seemingly dating from the early- to mid-seventies, they usually lasted for an hour and a quarter.
For another, there was often something a bit… not cheap, necessarily, but somehow small about them.
Often they would fill regular slots as part of ill-defined seasons; the BBC had one called Date With Danger, ITV’s was called Murder, Mystery, Suspense.
What they were, of course, was TV Movies (or TVMs), the last, most timid, trivial, unimportant yet generally delightful chapter in the story of classical Hollywood.

The background is briefly this.
In the mid-fifties, Hollywood as it had hitherto been known passed away. For the first time in its history an entire generation of its most prestigious stars were put out to grass and replaced with odd, mumbling young people, the studio system collapsed, the Hays Code collapsed and the audience fragmented.
The threat of television appeared, forcing the movies to define themselves by the differences, hence widescreeen, 3-D, huge budgets, drive-ins, exploitation movies and subjects geared towards the 15-30 year olds who were not, at that time, the key audience for television too.
Television, then, became something of a retreat for those in the audience roughly contemporary to those pensioned-off by the new Hollywood. Films made an attractive and popular centrepiece to an evening’s television, but in those days movie companies were greatly averse to releasing their top titles to the upstart rival medium, and product soon began to run out.
The solution was to make films especially for television. Budget restrictions meant that hugely expensive action scenes were out, interiors were in, and the high-priced stars of the current movie scene were simply not worth considering.
Instead, and mindful of the fact that the predominant tv audience was the same as the Golden Age Hollywood audience, these charming films were stocked with all manner of idling Hollywood favourites from ten or twenty, thirty or even forty years before.
This, coupled with the fact that tv censorship remained throughout these years not far more liberal than the original Hays Code had been, gives these films a weird and fascinating sense of being lost in time: they look like early seventies movies, but they feel like old Hollywood.

In a sense, then, the TVM is almost the flip-side of the early-thirties pre-Code films, which look classical but feel more modern, except that that these look modern but feel classical.
They are a ‘what-if’ experience that hints at what Hollywood might have looked like in the early seventies if the old stars hadn’t been packed-off, the old themes and styles hadn’t been abandoned, a modified censorship code still held… and there wasn’t too much money about.

One who instantly saw these films as a valuable escape route for the old subjects, styles and stars was Leslie Halliwell, whose ever-growing dissatisfaction with seventies Hollywood was matched by an enthusiasm for TVM’s that now seems rather quaint if you are unfamiliar with the history outlined above. He even wrote a regular column on the subject in one of the film magazines (I think it was Films and Filming).
A typical one from 1975 included the optimistic sign-off: “British viewers accepted telemovies a while ago as infinitely preferable to the more dated kind of feature film which limps its way onto the box… Perhaps 1975/6 will be the season when the telemovie really comes into its own, with its own branch of the Academy Awards. And why not?”

Alas, budgets fell away as the old restrictions against showing big, new movies on the small screen were dismantled; also inspiration ran dry when they were upgraded from 74 minutes (to fill a ninety-minute slot including commercials) to 94 (to fill two hours).
Today, there are still such things that pass as ‘movies’ made for ‘television’ but like all such ventures there was clearly a golden age.
I’m referring specifically to those one-off movies made between 1967 or so and 1979 or so, rather than to those similar animals the mini-series, feature-length series pilot, or more contemporary ‘based on true events’ movie of the week. To watch them now is to plunge into a world of pure indulgence.
There were remakes of Double Indemnity and Brief Encounter (with Richard Burton and Sophia Loren!), sequels to Rosemary’s Baby, The Dirty Dozen and The Stepford Wives, and even a pop music update of Svengali (with Peter O’Toole and Jodie Foster). Genre-wise, the most popular subjects tended to be supernatural horror, jeopardy (as opposed to disaster, the difference between the two having something to do with the number of zeroes on the budget) and domestic comedy-drama.
They contain a feast of old stars: Myrna Loy, Helen Hayes, Paulette Goddard, Olivia de Havilland, John Carradine (a lot), Gene Tierney, Melvyn Douglas, Ida Lupino, Ray Milland (a lot too).
Most frequently appearing of all is Sylvia Sidney, who seems to have been more or less constantly at work in these years, though a close second has to be sixties starlet Yvette Mimieux, who specialised in TVMs, one of which (1974’s Hit Lady) she wrote for herself.
Bette Davis found she was the centre of attention again in preposterous melodramas (Madame Sin, 1971) and Baby Jane-ish grand guignol (Scream, Pretty Peggy, 1973). Barbara Stanwyck held court in Taste of Evil (Les Diaboliques-type stuff from 1971), The Letters (1972) and The House That Would Not Die (Exorcist-inspired ghost housery from Baby Jane author Henry Farrell, 1975).
Among the directors most associated with the form are Dan Curtis, Irwin Allen (who made as many of his fantasy-disasters for the small screen as for the large) and Curtis Harrington, who made How Awful About Alan (1971, still more Baby Jane malarkey from Henry Farrell), The Cat Creature (1973), Devil Dog- Hound of Hell (1979), The Killer Bees (1974), and The Dead Don’t Die (1975, first rate nonsense from Bloch again, with a cast headed by George Hamilton and Ray Milland, and featuring Joan Blondell and Yvette Vickers, star of Attack of the Giant Leeches and Playboy Playmate of the Year, 1959.)
Harrington also made proper horror films in the outside world but was more prolific and somehow more energetic within; he seems to be having fun on tv, as if he knows it doesn’t matter too much, so his films have a kind of nouveau Monogram or PRC flavour.

TVMs would often tackle bizarre and outrĂ© subjects like the Bermuda Triangle (Satan’s Triangle, with Kim Novak, was one of several), killer bees (again, there were several, but only the 1974 one had Gloria Swanson in the lead), werewolves, men chained in their basements after being bitten by a rabid skunk and threatened by a rampaging flood (A Cry in the Wilderness , 1974) and Killdozer (in which, according to Halliwell, “a bulldozer affected by a strange meteorite murderously attacks a construction crew… and they can’t run fast enough to get out of its way.”)
Because there is felt to be no serious market for them, many of these titles are easy to track down on budget DVD releases (often swelling the head-count on multi-film cheapo box sets) and can still be caught on tv in the graveyard shifts (middle of the night or afternoon).
As long as you know what you are getting – and what you are not – a frequently delightful time is guaranteed for all. Here is my pick of five of the best.

1. Death at Love House (1976)
One of the best examples of pandering directly to the golden age Hollywood audience, this tale of ghostly goings-on at the home of a silent movie star where her biographers are currently at work features Robert Wagner and Kate Jackson in the leads and fantastic support from John Carradine as a vengeful director, Dorothy Lamour as a jealous rival, Joan Blondell as a besotted fan and Sylvia Sidney as – no, that would be telling. But the biggest star is the house itself: a wonderfully authentic relic of Hollywood’s hubristic heyday and – until his death the year before – the home of Harold Lloyd.

2. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1972)
An example of the TVM at its most charmingly inept, with white-haired Stewart Granger as Holmes, an old Paris set as Baker Street, papier mache Dartmoor exteriors so small the actors all stand around in tight huddles and recycled chunks of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Cape Fear on the soundtrack. Needless to say, the villain turns out to be William Shatner.

3. The Cat Creature (1973)
Cat People meets The Mummy by way of Robert Bloch: John Carradine and Gale Sondergaard help out and Kent Smith is killed by a cat person at last!

4. Snowbeast (1977)
There’s an abominable snowman terrorising a ski resort in this Jaws cash-in from Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano, which additionally caters to the TVM audience’s insatiable appetite for all things Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World. A bit stingy on the stars – basically just Sylvia Sidney and Yvette Mimieux again – but otherwise top drawer.


5. The Phantom of Hollywood (1974)
Unquestionably my favourite, this is the one to show newcomers first. It updates Phantom of the Opera to the MGM backlot just as it is in the process of being pulled down for redevelopment, where a scarred ex-actor has been living for forty years after a studio fire ended his promising career! Of huge and genuine value for its use of real old sets just as they were about to be lost forever, the film features cameos by the likes of Broderick Crawford, Jackie Coogan and Billy Halop, and wonderful aerial footage of the MGM lot. The Phantom, by the way, is a smashing actor called Jack Cassidy –apparently a genuine name on his home ground, but best known to British audiences for stuff like this and his three turns as a Columbo villain. Two years later, in a strange echo of the film, he fell asleep on his sofa smoking a cigarette, and burned to death.