Vintage Cable Box: “Twice Upon A Time, 1983”

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“Do I get the job, or should we move right onto the shark infested waters test?”

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Twice Upon A Time, 1983 (Lorenzo Music), Warner Bros.

There are strange creatures that appear at night when you sleep. The strange creature bring you sweet dreams. Sometimes those strange creatures, the Figmen of Imagination, are thwarted or subverted by evil creatures from the Murkworks (usually dark-winged birds) that bring you nightmares. Of course because this is a “war” story, the Murkworks are locked in a never-ending battle with the Figmen for domination of the night-time world. The leader of Murkworks, Synonamess Botch (a bizarre hedonistic variation on Salvador Dali), abducts Greensleeves of the Figmen. He sends a message back to Din, the sub-dimensional city that exists between the worlds of reality and fiction.

While on garbage detail after being punished by the Rushers of Din, All-Purpose-Animal Ralph (the voice of Lorenzo Music) and his Harpo-esque sidekick, Mumford, come across Greensleeves’ message. His niece, aspiring actress Flora Fauna plays the part of damsel-in-distress for Bosch’s nightmares. Bosch convinces Ralph and Mum to steal the mainspring from something called a Cosmic Clock. Ralph and Mum do not know that the Cosmic Clock controls all of time … everywhere, thus any alterations will affect the Universe. After liberating the spring from the Cosmic Clock, time freezes. A free-land Fairy Godmother commissions superhero Rod Rescueman, an egotistical muscle-head who spends more time washing his cape than rescuing people, but he is interested in the pretty Flora.

Watching this movie as a kid, I was mesmerized by the animation, which was a mixture of Yellow Submarine (the poster art of Klaus Voorman) and Terry Gilliam’s work for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as well as black & white live-action sequences. I couldn’t follow the convoluted plot, but I enjoyed the (largely) improvised performances of the actors, and remember this was before the advent of “retro-scripting” in later animated works like Dr. Katz, Home Movies, Archer, and Bob’s Burgers. David Fincher and Henry Sellick were among the crew of talented animators who made this movie.

TWICE UPON A TIME, 1983, (c)Warner Bros.
TWICE UPON A TIME, 1983, (c)Warner Bros.

Two versions of this film exist: one with unaltered “adult” language, and the other a “sanitized” version – safe for kids personally approved by the director, John Korty. Korty preferred the “kid” version because it would, presumably, have a wider release at the time. He would be wrong on both counts, as Alan Ladd’s company (which released Twice Upon A Time) was nearing bankruptcy. The Ladd Company was (right up there with Cannon) a defining force in early eighties cinema, producing the titles Outland, Night Shift, Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner, and Once Upon a Time in America.

John Korty animated short films for Sesame Street, and worked for Lucasfilm. George Lucas co-produced Twice Upon A Time and used his influence to get a release for the movie. I saw the original cut of the film and snickered at the off-color dialogue. While younger children would not understand most of the adult humor, the movie was most definitely made for kids, but adults could enjoy it too. When Korty learned HBO had aired the “adult” version of the movie, he threatened lawsuits. Later, the cleaned-up version of the movie was substituted, but fans of the movie noticed the changes, and complained. This was an unusual case of mandated censorship, very much in the way George Lucas tends to alter his work (incidentally some of Lucas’ work appears in the movie via Ibor, the robot-gorilla with a television screen for a head – he shows scenes from Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Some thirty years later, the film holds up. In fact, in my advanced years I can actually follow the plot. The film tends to only be available in truncated form, clocking in at a slender one hour and fifteen minute running time. I have a VHS version of the film that runs five minutes longer. I don’t understand the discrepancy, because this release appears to be Korty’s approved version of the film. In addition my version of the movie contains a song by Michael McDonald, which I have been unable to verify with other releases of the film, which contain only his sister, Maureen’s songs. Perhaps there is a third version of the film.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

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Vintage Cable Box: “Romancing The Stone, 1984”

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“What’d you do?  Wake up this morning and say, ‘Today I’m gonna ruin a man’s life!’?”

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Romancing The Stone, 1984 (Michael Douglas), 20th Century Fox

Romancing The Stone begins as a story-within-a-story, the perils of Angelina and her love-interest, Jessie. She exacts revenge on the evil Grogan, while Jessie dispatches Grogan’s equally-evil brothers. Together they hop on a horse and make tracks for a new frontier. In reality, respected novelist Joan Wilder has just finished her manuscript and brings herself to tears. She celebrates with her cat, feeding him tuna. This is the exact moment we fall in love with Kathleen Turner.

It’s obvious she is lonely, lives vicariously through her work and Angelina, and seems to be waiting for her own Jesse. Most men are not Jesse. Her publisher (played by the great Holland Taylor from Bosom Buddies), her sister, and even her little old lady neighbor want her to settle down, but her standards are too high, or maybe she has standards in the first place.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Cartagena, South America, her sister, Elaine is abducted by two sleazebags Ralph and Ira (Danny DeVito, Zack Norman). Back in New York City, Joan’s apartment is tossed, because earlier in the day she received a package from Elaine’s husband, who had died recently under mysterious circumstances. The only clue is something called El Corazon. Elaine calls Joan, tells her to go to South America with the package or else she’ll be killed.

As a typically introverted New Yorker, Joan is immediately flustered in Colombia. She gets on the wrong bus which crashes into a jeep loaded with birds. From there, she hooks up with American fortune hunter, Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas). He agrees to take her back to civilization for $375 in American Express traveler’s checks. Jack has been smuggling exotic birds out of the country and selling them to fuel his dream of having his own boat so he can sail around the world, and his latest booty has flown south for the winter.

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What follows is textbook culture-clash comedy. Colton and Wilder don’t like each other at first, but they’re stuck with each other enduring the monsoon season, mudslides, corrupt cops, and Danny DeVito. It turns out Joan has a map in her possession, a map to El Corazon, which is a priceless, rare emerald. When Colton figures this out, he starts to get friendlier with Joan.

Inevitable comparisons with Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark aside, this is a highly enjoyable adventure-comedy, and the leads, Turner and Douglas, are very sexy. Their mutual chemistry recalls Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. Devito is an interesting balancing act; while maintaining his criminal backstory, he manages to be likable, and he provides a nice counterpoint to Turner and Douglas. They would work together in two more films. The 1986 sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, and one of my favorites, The War of the Roses (directed by Devito).

Romancing The Stone is the movie that made Robert Zemeckis.  A one-time Spielberg protégé, Zemeckis directed a pair of comedies that didn’t make money.  He co-wrote Spielberg’s comedy flop, 1941.  Producer Michael Douglas pushed for Zemeckis to direct Romancing The Stone, which became a hit in the summer of 1984.  After that, he would go on to direct the enormously popular Back to the Future franchise, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump and a slew of other highly successful films.

This concludes a somewhat impromptu tribute to writers here at Vintage Cable Box.  It’s unusual how many fictional movies were made about writers in the early eighties.  In four films, we’ve cycled the through emotions, desires, victories, and failures of these crazy characters.  We’ve seen them live their dreams and hide from their nightmares.  Next time, we take a look at John Carpenter’s 1976 classic exploitation movie, “Assault On Precinct 13”.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

“Movies At The Colonial”

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It was in a rotten part of town; the high-crime, low-rent section of South Philadelphia now known as Lower Moyamensing. The place has cleaned up considerably since (had to be about thirty years) but the old Colonial is no more; demolished in 1989. It looked like a palace in 1910 when it first opened. All glitter, all neon, art-deco lighting piping, beveled curves and thick red carpets, I could imagine the ticket-takers in red uniforms and little pill-box caps opening the double-doors for the next show. You’d probably get a newsreel, cartoon, two short-subjects, and a feature for a nickel. Even had a pipe organ in residence, just off to the side of the screen.

The pictures were the only place you could escape to in those days. No television, no internet, no cable. Even radio would be interrupted with little snippets of reality from time to time. News of the wars, tragedies, epidemics hung on the limited airwaves. So they went to the movies – en masse, flocks of the curious watching projected stories and eating popcorn and Black Cow chocolate caramels. People still dressed up for the movies. Men in suits with ties, and ladies wearing laced walking gloves and snoods.

All that changed by the time I walked through the double doors under the marquee. In big, red blinking lights, the word “COLONIAL” lit up dark Philly skies. South Philadelphia was very dark and flat at night and you could hear crickets. Strange that you could hear crickets in an area almost completely made up of row houses with very few trees.

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It was creepy but well worth the rather long walk from my house. It was cheap. Anybody could afford it. I’m dating myself a bit, but I remember the shows were a buck a ticket, and it could be any kind of show – double features, triple features. I saw “Ghostbusters”, “Fright Night” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” on a triple bill for one dollar. I saw “Jaws” and “Jaws 2” for one dollar. So it goes.

This was not a multiplex with stadium seating. The seats sloped up to a point and then there was an enormous (off-limits around the time I was a customer) balcony that stretched to both sides. This could just be nostalgia since I was a young man, but everything looked big to me. I was amazed every single time I went through the double doors.

Time was not kind to the Colonial. It had fallen into disrepair starting in the late sixties. The thick, red carpet had worn down. There were gashes in the walls. The incredible chandelier hanging from the ceiling teetered threateningly, and even in packed houses, people moved away from it when the Dolby soundtrack of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (due to the Lucasfilm theater alignment program) thundered and vibrated all across the room. The chandelier would shake and we would gulp and say silent prayers that the crystalline beast would not collapse and devour us all.

The homeless would sneak in after hours and help themselves to the Colonial’s comforts. There was the unmistakable odor of urine in the aisles. There was no maintenance or janitorial upkeep, so popcorn, candy, and sticky soda would litter the floors. In those later years, the Colonial had a roach and rat problem, but people still came to see the very cheap shows. A triple feature I was not permitted to see consisted of “Porky’s”, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, and “The Last American Virgin”. You might get the occasional trailer for a movie the Colonial was scheduled to show, but there were no commercials, no pleas from Roy Rogers for donations, and nobody telling you to turn off your cell phone and shut up.

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In recent years, movies have been turned out to be more of an event. The rising ticket prices and 3D glasses, and the cattle-herding of audiences into and out of the theaters has transformed us into what we suspected we were all along – mindless consumers looking to kill two-plus hours in the dark. As early as the late 70s, Hollywood put all it’s money into the first weekend, and as the quality dropped, the prices for tickets went up dramatically, $15 to $20 (or more) a pop.

Repertory houses were the last thing we had that was close to the roadshow/Roger Corman rollout from many years ago. Movies would roll out in selected territories, do their business and move on, and not all the advertising money was spent in the first week. Very few prints were made (none of this 4,000 screen business), and very rarely did any of those movies lose money.

Sometimes I could hear the ghosts of old, shuffling in and out of the theater. You’d suspect there were well-dressed patrons, the sound of a big band down the street, sailors home on leave making their way into the Colonial to catch the latest James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart. With that news that more than 100 theaters will close by the end of the year because they refuse to make expensive digital improvements to their screens, the Colonial’s demise seemed to be the first warning sign that simply taking in a movie was going to be a thing of the not-so-distant past.

Originally published December 2, 2014.

VINTAGE CABLE BOX: “The Big Chill”, 1983

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“Amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can’t come.”

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The Big Chill , 1983 (Kevin Kline), Columbia Pictures

It’s bizarre and more than a little morose when I think about the fact that I am older than the central characters in Lawrence Kasdan’s classic coming-to-terms-with-things epic, The Big Chill. All in their mid-thirties, more than a few of them established and respected pillars of their respective communities (except rebel-boy Nick), they reunite for the weekend in South Carolina after the suicide of their friend, Alex (Kevin Costner, not appearing in this film). Kasdan made a name for himself, penning screenplays like The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. His first film as director was the brilliant film-noir spoof, Body Heat starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner.

The Big Chill is a movie that resonates with a different age group – that of our parents, the “Baby-Boomers”, children of the war and the “Greatest Generation”; those who turned their backs on what they perceived was a mindless emphasis on patriotism, imperialism, and consumerism (lots of -isms). As they grew into adulthood, they chose an uncomplicated path to self-destruction through drugs and the concept of free-love because they saw those same failings in themselves. A good portion of The Big Chill fixates on this idea. This is where my conflict comes in. I’m the product of a lost generation: the children of the “boomers” who don’t relate to these internalized conflicts, because we’ve nurtured apathy and despair and saw the hypocrisy in our parents long before they did. I’m sorry, this is getting preachy.

The cast of this movie is exceptional. Kevin Kline is Harold, a successful businessman. Glenn Close is his long-suffering wife, Sarah (who once had an affair with Alex). Handsome Tom Berenger is Sam, a television star. JoBeth Williams is bored housewife, Karen. William Hurt is the aforementioned rebel-boy, Nick. Jeff Goldblum is Michael, a writer for People magazine (who once published a hatchet-job on Sam), obviously a stand-in for Kasdan. Mary Kay Place is a successful attorney, unlucky in love. Meg Tilly is Alex’s much-younger girlfriend, Chloe. Shot in a real house in Beaufort, the cast lived together for several weeks before shooting commenced, which explains their unbelievably easy chemistry and mutual affection.

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Kline and Hurt’s characters are disillusioned in their adulthood. Berenger is clingy after his recent divorce. Goldblum is looking to scam his friends out of money so he can open a nightclub. Mary Kay Place wants to have a baby. JoBeth secretly loves Berenger and wants out of her dead-end marriage to boring, dependable Richard. Glenn Close is the emotional center of the group, weeping for Alex. Meg Tilly’s Chloe is the innocent; blissfully ignorant of the group’s woe.

Because these characters tend to run together with their fears and motivations, Chloe is the one truly unique person under this roof. She is sensitive and idealistic, but also lazy and giggly. Chloe is a part of her own lost generation, not quite old enough and not quite young enough. It’s only logical she connects the most with Hurt’s disaffected Nick, because he seems to be closest analog to the mysterious Alex. Alex is another matter entirely. Completely missing (even in spirit) from the film, he appears to be the glue that held this little community together, and without his gentle sway, everything falls apart.

It’s interesting in that I was eleven years old watching this movie (this is a movie explicitly not made for me) for the first time with my mother, who laughed at every joke, and cried at every somber moment, instantly identifying with these characters. The reason I enjoyed the movie had more to do with the very witty dialogue and what’s more, I appreciated the friendships, the connections, and the warmth of the performances. When I watch the movie now, I still think I’m a kid and couldn’t possibly understand the dilemmas of The Big Chill even though I’m much older than I’m younger than that now.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.