In the early-1950s television’s ability to reach into America’s living rooms was taking the country by storm. The advertising industry that was building up around television was becoming hugely influential on the nation’s culture. Many observers saw TV as being in the process of killing off the movie-making industry in Hollywood and the movie-exhibiting business all over the country.
Eventually, one by one, the major studios sold off the rights to their old features to television. To lure audiences into aging downtown movie palaces the most panicked producers in Hollywood reached out to eye candy like CinemaScope and 3-D. Soon the studios decided they had to stop making movies in black and white. Eventually, the businessmen of Hollywood saw they had to throw off the Hays Code, adopted in the early-’30s to keep the smut out of American movies.
A national trend moved the movie theater business to multiplexes in the suburbs. Downtown single-auditorium movie houses fell onto hard times. So, Richmond is fortunate to have an authentic old movie palace still in operation as a cinema: The Byrd Theatre, which opened in 1928, is now owned and operated by a non-profit foundation.
Yet, some 60 years after the doom of big-budget movie-making was being predicted, while the old studio system that thrived in the ‘30s and ‘40s is history, it seems no matter how much it costs to make feature films, determined producers will always figure out ways to keep doing it.
Of course, one of the things that Hollywood has relished doing that television couldn’t do, or wouldn’t do, for a long time, was to tell unflattering, inside stories about how the people who rule the television industry operate ... to expose their real priorities. As a medium, TV was too uptight to pull back the curtain to reveal its inner works. In other words, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" wasn’t a realistic look at the job of producing a weekly sitcom.
However circuitous, that introduction leads us to this week’s list of five film favorites -- movies about television. All of them were made in the 20th century, one of them, just barely:
- “Broadcast News” (1987): Color. 133 minutes. Directed by James L. Brooks. Cast: William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter, Jack Nicholson. Note: The inevitable rivalries that color the relationships of the news producer, writer/reporter and presenter/anchorman are explored. Being overly self-absorbed is an industry requirement. Roger Ebert said: “[As] knowledgeable about the TV news-gathering process as any movie ever made.”
- “The China Syndrome” (1979): Color. 122 minutes. Directed by James Bridges. Cast: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, Scott Brady. Note: A reporter discovers a cover-up of an accident at a nuclear power plant and all hell breaks loose. Her determination to tell the story becomes dangerous to her and anyone close by. Ironically, the infamous Three Mile Island partial meltdown incident in Pennsylvania happened 12 days after this film was released in 1979.
- “A Face in the Crowd” (1957): B&W. 126 minutes. Directed by Elia Kazan. Cast: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick. Note: An early warning about television’s potential to boost a charismatic personality into real power. As corny as this film is, in ways, most of it holds up well. Although Andy Griffith doesn’t play a heavy often, he sure knocks it out of the park in this one.
- “Magnolia” (1999): Color. 188 minutes. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Cast: Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Tom Cruise, Philip Baker Hall. Note: A dark but whimsical story about fate and luck, told from several angles that overlap. The scene that unites all the characters, to sing the same Aimee Mann song is about as risky AND as satisfying as it gets on the big screen.
- “Network” (1976): Color. 121 minutes. Directed by Sydney Lumet. Cast: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall. Note: The future of cable television’s soon-to-be-seen excesses in bad taste is anticipated with chilling accuracy by writer Paddy Chayefsky. Finch’s unhinged anchorman character, Howard “I’m Mad as Hell” Beale, is unforgettable. It won him an Oscar.
Next Thursday another Five Film Favorites episode with a different category will be offered.