Tuesday, July 31, 2007
ELEGY FOR THE 4:30 MOVIE
Since I began blogging a few of years ago, many of you with similar filmic tastes have written in with occasional nostalgic mentions of Channel 7's late, lamented THE 4:30 MOVIE. From the heartfelt musings you’ve sent in I’ve come to realize that the five-day weekly movie festival was beloved by armchair film fans of all stripes and not just by a dyed-in-the-wool freak like Yer Bunche, so I think it's high time we all took a stroll down memory lane, back to the pre -Oprah days when the NYC afternoon airwaves were ruled by giant monsters, superheroes, Roman warriors, societies of talking apes, journeys into unknown realms of sci-fi and horror, beach parties presided over by cute Italian chicks in one-piece bathing suits, and the eerie doings of Vincent Price.
And just to state it right up front, there's already an excellent article on THE 4:30 MOVIE by Joe Cascio elsewhere online — from which I cribbed most of the pics, so I owe Mr. Cascio a debt of acknowledgement and gratitude for having clipped those ads from TV GUIDE — so rather than detail the show's history I will instead concentrate on its meaning to those of us fortunate enough to have had it as part of our fondly-recalled childhood-to-adolescence experiences.
I first discovered THE 4:30 MOVIE upon moving to Connecticut in the summer of 1972, and it was the prefect salve for a movie-loving new kid in town who had no friends. Having spent my formative years in California, I was used to a steady infusion of all manner of crazy television, a cornucopia that spewed forth Japanese cartoons and monster shows, horror and sci-fi movies on CREATURE FEATURES with host Bob Wilkins (R.I.P.), the adventures of the Thunderbirds and their futuristic marionette brethren, and reruns of the original THE OUTER LIMITS, but the TV programming in the Tri-State area at the time was a wasteland that was a mortal enemy to stuff that kids enjoyed. WPIX, Channel 11 out of New York, was particularly heinous, its afternoon schedule consisting of little other than the gameshow BEAT THE CLOCK — more like BEAT ME WITH A CLOCK, because it was so fucking boring — and the Hanna-Barbera chestnut MAGILLA GORILLA, another of their triumphs of character name over character content, while Channel 5 was still abut a year or two away from any decent cartoon reruns other than assorted DC Comics-based cartoons like AQUAMAN that wore out their welcome very swiftly, or the much-enjoyed daily airing of LOST IN SPACE.
But one thing New York TV did have was movies. Lots and lots of movies of all stripes, and all of the local channels had their own small-screen showcases for big screen fare, ranging from classics to B-movies to cult items, an across the board smorgasbord for the young and bored, and fitting the bill of that last description, I was drawn to THE 4:30 MOVIE like a moth to a flame.
Simplicity itself and a master stroke of programming, THE 4:30 MOVIE would regularly air a week of random flicks from disparate genres, but when they went all-out with the genre-themed weeks the viewers flocked and the ratings shot through the roof. For years kids in theTri-State area sat enthralled during Monster Week — usually a parade of giant Toho rubber suit leviathans like Godzilla and Mothra, or a string of competitor Daei’s Gamera cycle — Superhero Week, Edgar Allen Poe Week — a selection of Vincent Price's AIP Gothics — Jerry Lewis Week (never one of my favorites), Animation Week, Epic Week — which would break down films like BEN-HUR and CLEOPATRA into installments that would fill out a whole week with one movie, which in the case of CLEOPATRA was not only agonizing, but also verging on criminal — Ray Harryhausen Week, Beach Party Week — I'd tune in just to watch Annette Funicello breathe, a wondrous sight that gave me my appreciation of the dark-haired Italian ladies and their hypnotic curves — and, of course, PLANET OF THE APES Week, each movie throwing more gasoline onto the fire of our hungry imaginations. And for once the station honchos paid attention and kept the good stuff coming, adopting an attitude of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” that served them well for about fifteen years.
I discovered many of my favorite films through THE 4:30 MOVIE, including FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), PLANET OF THE APES (1968), and other Hollywood goodies, but I most value the experience for inundating me with monsters, monsters, and yet more monsters, inadvertently fostering a lifelong addiction to such oft-derided cinema. It was there that I was schooled in tales of Godzilla and his behemoth brethren, the mostly-forgotten stone warrior Majin, and also of the lesser (read "cheap and idiotic") Gamera, Japanese giants whose movies were the latest expression of a myth base rife with ogres and other such big-assed, badassed, city-stompin' motherfuckers. And when the show gave us a week's worth of Ray Harryhausen it was practically guaranteed that the streets would clear of children, no matter how intense the day's game of "Viet Nam Terrorist" or "Ghost" would get. All that needed to happen was for an older brother or sister (or the occasional film-geek parent) to stick their head out of the front door and scream, "Hey! JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is on! Move it!!!" and move it we did. In fucking droves, dude.
This afternoon wonderland of special effects miracles, alien invasions, and sometimes outright horrors was where I encountered THE FLY (1958), the first film to have an ending that fucked me up for life.
This scene still horrifies me, even though I always knew it made no sense, and every time I see it I'm suddenly eight years old again, staring open-mouthed at the TV in our old house on Ellery Lane.
But it's a far more obscure film that stands at the top of my list of 4:30 MOVIE memories and that's VOYAGE INTO SPACE (1970), a feature cobbled together from several episodes of the Japanese kiddie show JOHNNY SOKKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT (1967). It's a combination sci-fi /secret agent/giant monster flick and, even considering some rather stiff competition, it may just be the most balls-out insane Japanese monster from the pre-1975 period thanks to its patchwork construction.
Very loosely based on Mitsuteru Yokoyama's GIANT ROBO manga, the movie unleashes Emperor Guillotine (from the planet Gargoyle)
and his attempts to conquer the world with the aid of the Nazi-esque Gargoyle Gang
and an endless supply of giant (and fake-looking) critters, among which can be found sea monsters, plant monsters and a whatchamawhoozits that appears to be a bunch of traffic cones hot-glued together and painted silver called "the Nucleon."
Opposing this inter-planetary evil is Unicorn, a secret agency equipped with jet packs and a weird salute that makes a "dweep" noise that isn't remotely possible for a human to generate, and among their number is Johnny Sokko,
an incredibly annoying kid of the type too often found in Japanese monster flicks, who controls a towering death-machine imaginatively named Giant Robot who kicks much hand-to-tentacle ass, fires seemingly limitless missiles from his fingers, and for no adequately explained reason looks like an Egyptian pharaoh.
The film has virtually no plot and is just one monster vs. robot fight after another, and as such it's highly entertaining (if exhausting); the dialogue is ridiculous, the monsters wouldn't scare a four-year-old, and the film is packed with more irresponsible violence than any other children's film you can name, so what's not to love? This one left such an impact on those who saw it as kids that there's even a kickass metal version of the Giant Robot theme tune performed by Buckethead!
But, like all things, it was only inevitable that THE 4:30 MOVIE would pass into our memories, one of the early casualties of lousy 1980's televison. In an era that would see the dawn of infomercials and the blight of MTV, THE 4:30 MOVIE was inexplicably replaced by THE PEOPLE'S COURT, which was in turn unseated by OPRAH, a show that's still dominating weekday afternoons just before EYEWITNESS NEWS on New York's Channel 7 to this very day. In short order all of the local channels followed suit and the great movie shows of yore went the way of the dinosaurs; no more MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE, FRIGHT NIGHT, SCIENCE FICTION THEATER, or the show with the most unforgettable of local TV opening sequences, Channel 11's CHILLER.
So the more I remember those bygone days of movie bliss I realise that even with the eleventy-gajillion channels available on cable, today's Tri-State Area kids are missing out not only on having their imaginations expanded, they're also being deprived of a steady dose of genre film history. And that, dear readers, is truly tragic. I mourn not for THE 4:30 MOVIE, but for those who will never get to know its like.