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HAL HORN’S VHS GEMS: SEVENTIES SPOTLIGHT
I hope you’re enjoying this latest series as much as I am. While many of the lists so far focus on the 1980’s and 1990’s, I’d like to go back to my favorite decade of filmmaking, the 1970’s, with a particular focus on some examples from the Golden Age of movies made for television. As always, I'm honored to accept Rupert's invite!
MY SWEET CHARLIE (1970)
The late Al Freeman Jr. (he was 78 when he passed away in August) was best known to modern audiences as Elijah Muhammed in MALCOLM X, but he had his best leading role opposite Patty Duke in this Levinson-Link production that Leonard Maltin proclaimed “a television landmark”. Adapted from David Westheimer’s 1965 novel and Broadway play (it starred Bonnie Bedelia and Louis Gossett Jr.), MY SWEET CHARLIE told the tale of two runaways thrown together in a vacant vacation home near the coast in Galveston, TX. She’s white, he’s black. She’s a teen, he’s a lawyer in his thirties. She’s a bigoted southerner (her first line: “It’s a nigger!”) and he’s a newly militant northerner. Freeman is on the run from a murder charge; Duke was kicked out of her home for being unwed and pregnant. After choosing the same hideaway, they soon realize they need each other to survive. Contempt and prejudice gradually turns into mutual respect, and then a platonic romance.
While the novel is excellent (Westheimer also wrote VON RYAN’S EXPRESS) it is this made for TV movie that is remembered today. A massive hit when it aired in January 1970 (a 48 share), MY SWEET CHARLIE earned theatrical showings in those pre-VCR days, almost unheard of for a film everyone had already seen in their homes (BRIAN’S SONG was among the other telefilms that did). Essentially a two character piece that goes nearly ten minutes without dialogue at the outset, the film gave Duke her first acclaimed performance as an adult (sorely needed after her VALLEY OF THE DOLLS miscasting), earning the actress her first Emmy. MY SWEET CHARLIE also opened a decade of astoundingly high quality products from the estimable team of Richard Levinson and William Link (COLUMBO, THAT CERTAIN SUMMER) but curiously remains missing from DVD. The 1986 VHS release from MCA-TV fetches high prices on Ebay and Amazon, and deservedly so. Four decades later, it remains one of the finest films ever made for U.S. television. Highly recommended. Filmed on location in Bolivar, TX.
Another excellent movie originally made for TV in the early Seventies. It occasionally turns up on Fox Movie Channel, but still hasn’t made it to DVD. Perhaps Jan-Michael Vincent’s hippie character makes it something of a period piece, but the theme is timeless and the questions raised by the film still relevant. Vincent is drafted into the Marines and naturally finds himself at odds with DI Darren McGavin. Vincent draws on his internal strength to excel at camp, impressing the DI and even exhibiting unique leadership during the grueling physical tests. Then he’s asked to fire a rifle.
A fascinating study of the individual’s resistance of state control, the limits of said resistance, and the spread of ideas--Vincent’s influence on the DI appears to have a lasting impact. Skillfully directed by Joseph Sargent (THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE), superbly acted by the two leads and very worthy of rediscovery. TRIBES also received theatrical showings after its television premiere (as THE SOLDIER WHO DECLARED PEACE overseas) and the 1988 VHS release now goes for $45 at Amazon.
This adaptation of the Gunard Solberg novel is a dated depiction of a doomed interracial romance that gives gorgeous Brenda Sykes a rare lead and is scored by Quincy Jones. Sykes and John Nelson are high schoolers not only from different races and classes (his family is poor, hers affluent) who fall in love. Prejudice overshadows their union at every turn, and they dream of running away to California, with their adventurous relationship progressing into criminal mischief. William A. Graham’s film is pessimistic at every turn and very hard to find but well worth a look for a great cast that includes Sykes, Marion Ross, William Marshall (BLACULA) and the underrated Lincoln Kilpatrick (Graham’s TOGETHER BROTHERS). More of a curio than a true gem: MY SWEET CHARLIE, it ain’t. Like THE LANDLORD and GEORGIA, GEORGIA, HONKY looks at interracial relationships a few short years after Loving v. Virginia. The title certainly doesn’t help its visibility these days. VHS tapes (mine is a clamshell-talk about old school) go for about $25 on Amazon.
NORMAN…IS THAT YOU? (1976)
The only feature film directed by LAUGH-IN mogul George Schlatter and the only attempt to transfer Redd Foxx’s SANFORD AND SON success to the silver screen. NORMAN…IS THAT YOU is a real cult curio, one of the few gay-themed features produced during the mid-Seventies. Shot on videotape and later transferred to 35MM, the film also features Michael Warren, Pearl Bailey, Dennis Dugan (later Adam Sandler’s go-to director) and gorgeous Tamara Dobson in a blonde wig and her only comedic role. Foxx goes to visit son Warren after wife Bailey leaves him for his brother. He’s further traumatized to learn that Warren is gay (and living with Dugan) and determines to “straighten him out” with an assist from hooker Dobson.
NORMAN was released on VHS by MGM/UA in 1994 and 1999 (the second as part of the “Soul Cinema” series) but is inexplicably still missing from DVD. While no classic, it has a cult following (Peary gives it the "CM" label) and is worth watching. Foxx is at his salty best and has good comic chemistry with the outrageously stereotypical Dugan. Schlatter’s direction is predictably sitcom-ish, and Wayland Flowers makes his only feature film appearance, with Madame in tow of course. As it turns out, a little of the ventriliquist goes a long way, but NORMAN is interesting enough to warrant a re-watch. Smokey Robinson and Thelma Houston are among the soundtrack contributors.
NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY (1976)
A legendary made for TV sickie that lifts liberally from DELIVERANCE, MACON COUNTY LINE and the numerous Women In Prison movies that saturated drive-ins, NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY is still missing from DVD. The Vidmark VHS will set you back $30 at Amazon. Deborah Raffin and Lynne Moody are fresh-faced coeds who unwisely run afoul of corrupt sheriff Chuck Connors when their spring break road trip stops in a small town. Railroaded in Ralph Bellamy’s court, they end up sent to a work farm, with the usual WIP staples of forced lesbianism, murder, white slavery, and statutory rape by the warden (Robert Reed!). Originally with “made for TV” limitations, of course. NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY was popular enough that the filmmakers shot additional scenes featuring nudity and more explicit lesbianism for theatrical release overseas, and it is said that NIGHTMARE was so successful in China that star Deborah Raffin became Hollywood’s unofficial ambassador to the country. Many of the stars probably wouldn’t have appeared in one of Jack Hill’s R-rated genre classics. The cast also includes Tina Louise, Della Reese, Lana Wood and an over the top Fionnula Flanagan. Well worth seeking out in either of its incarnations, NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY is easily the most memorable television stab at the WIP genre.
MURDER BY NATURAL CAUSES (1979)
Earlier I noted that Levinson and Link opened a decade of astoundingly high quality projects with MY SWEET CHARLIE. They ended it with another classic, this one from their specialty, the murder mystery. Hal Holbrook is a mentalist married to Katherine Ross, who’s having an affair with struggling young actor Barry Bostwick. The adulterers plan to use Holbrook’s weak heart against him, with Bostwick playing a reporter in the titular plot. This marvelously scripted telefilm leads the audience in a number of directions, most of them wrong, with lots of double (and triple) crossing among our trio. No landmark social statement here, just a damned good thriller that can stand with many that have ten times the budget and theatrical names in the cast. Another one that commands high prices for the VHS on Amazon; the Lightning Video release currently goes for $40.