It might surprise many people that the dominant TV trend of the 1960s was not westerns (Gunsmoke, Cimarron Strip, The Virginian, Bonanza), lowbrow comedies (The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, Car 54 Where Are You?), crime series (The Untouchables, The Naked City, The Detectives, Felony Squad) or such dramas (remember them?) as Route 66, Run for Your Life and Alcoa Premiere. The dominant trend wasn’t even TV, it was the feature length film. At 9 p.m. on September 23, 1961, NBC transformed the medium with the introduction of Saturday Night at the Movies. Is there any baby boomer who cannot recall with a thrill the voice of announcer Don(ald) Rickles as he promoted the current evening’s fare and the forthcoming one?
Old theatrical films had been sold to TV previously, often as fodder for The Early Show and The Late Show (introduced by Leroy Anderson’s instrumental “The Syncopated Clock”). The Early Show presented severely edited movies in a 90-minute slot. Subtract commercials and you barely had a feature. King Kong, for instance, lopped off the early New York harbor scenes. In the late 1950s Universal Studios sold its classic horror films to TV. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and many others were presented on late-night TV, in the Philadelphia area on Shock Theatre. To the consternation of some, the otherwise delightful vampiric host Roland inserted himself into the films. For instance, if there were a forest scene, we’d see Roland peeking from behind an artificial tree on his set. Roland was such a success that he moved to the larger market of NYC and became Zacherley. (His real name was John Zacherle who to this day attends horror and science fiction film conventions.) Many a 1950s British movie was standard afternoon fare on the new UHF channels.
Beginning in 1959, Schaefer Beer offered The Schaefer Award Theatre and presented complete theatrical films (with commercials) on selected Saturday nights after the late news and weather. In Philly, WCAU telecast Schaefer. Some of the movies under the Schaefer banner were The Pride of the Yankees, Rio Bravo, Battle Cry and The Hanging Tree. Emblazoned with the Schaefer Beer logo, large cardboard posters (John Wayne’s image and hat on Rio Bravo was actually from Legend of the Lost) were set in the windows of Acme Supermarkets and could be obtained by anyone the day after the movie was telecast.
Early and Late Show, Shock and Schaefer were but precursors to that big night in 1961. What was novel about Saturday Night at the Movies was the presentation of semi-recent films (1950s) with major stars, often in color (if you had a color set), broadcast in primetime. This was before VCRs, and back then citizens could only hope for theatrical re-releases, which naturally were of very famous and classic films. Even that might necessitate riding the train into Philly to see the Garbo double feature Mata Hari and Ninotchka or a bus to Chester for the Giant reissue at the Boyd or a double-bill of Ivanhoe and Knights of the Round Table around the corner at the State.
The first season of “SNM” featured 30 movies from the 20th Century-Fox vault. First up was How to Marry a Millionaire, an early CinemaScope feature Betty Grable as Loco, Marilyn Monroe as Pola, and Lauren Bacall as Schatze. Other films that first season included The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Titanic, Garden of Evil, The Desert Fox, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Soldier of Fortune, Halls of Montezuma, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Dreamboat, Broken Arrow, Man on a Tightrope, Destination Gobi, O. Henry’s Full House, On the Riviera, What Price Glory (remake), People Will Talk, Five Fingers, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Frogmen, With a Song in My Heart, Monkey Business, Stars and Stripes Forever, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Black Rose, Where the Sidewalk Ends, No Highway in the Sky, Bird of Paradise (remake), It Happens Every Spring, and Diplomatic Courier. If any viewer did not know them beforehand, Susan Hayward, Richard Widmark, Clifton Webb and Tyrone Power appeared multiple times and became familiar and appreciated talents.
ABC’s answer to SNM on April 8, 1962 was the Hollywood Special, soon to become The Sunday Night Movie. ABC purchased rights to the United Artists film library. The films shown the first season included Pork Chop Hill, Witness for the Prosecution, Man of the West and Run Silent, Run Deep. There was one “ringer” from Warner Bros.: Moby Dick.
Before long each network presented movies in primetime every evening of the week. Some bright executive realized that supply would be exhausted in not too many seasons and also that the term “movie” had cache. Thus, “TV Movies.” Stress “TV” because they were filmed with commercial breaks in mind, were more censored than theatrical fare and featured young actors and actresses or older ones whose glory days were in the past. Telecast on NBC in 1964, See How They Run with John Forsythe is considered the first of this ilk.
In addition to primetime movies, the early 60s witnessed a confluence of significant cinematic events. Boomers were coming of age and would soon write and compile books about their favorite films, directors and stars (Screen World had begun in 1948 but in the 60s became larger and larger; The Films of…. series from Citadel Press expanded its offerings; each decade in cinema history received its own separate analysis); in 1962 Andrew Sarris popularized the French conception of the director as star with his “auteur” theory; colleges began offering film courses; classic movies (including silent films) were revived; and in such TV series as Silents Please (1960-1961) and Hollywood and the Stars (1963-64) the small screen promoted its big brother. Humphrey Bogart, who’d died in 1957, became an existentialist icon.
Saturday Night at the Movies helped convince a mass audience that film was art as well as entertainment. Its films and the other network-telecast movies in primetime provided the background, the grist for the boomer mill, the context from which audiences could decipher films and film history. It was a very big deal.