Thursday, December 12, 2013

NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies

In regard to showing theatrical films, the television landscape has changed mightily over the last 50 years. Back in 1960, there was no streaming video, no DVRs, and no DVDs. Either you saw a theatrical film when it was released, caught it at a revival house, or waited for years for it to pop up on your local TV station. Indeed, most stations were still showing vintage films from the 1930s and 1940s. That changed when NBC ushered in Saturday Night at the Movies on September 23, 1961.

NBC's concept was to broadcast a "world television premiere" of a major motion picture each week. It focused on "recent" post-1950 films, many of which were in color (which was still a big deal since most programming was in black and white). NBC wasn't the first network to launch a movie series, but it was the one that worked. Its debut offering, 1953's How to Marry a Millionaire, garnered strong ratings and Saturday Night at the Movies became a staple on NBC's schedule for the next 16 years. That first year featured The Day the Earth Stood Still, Garden of Evil, People Will Talk, The Black Rose, It Happens Every Spring, and 25 other motion pictures.

The films ran in a two-hour time slot from 9:00 to 11:00, though occasionally longer films (e.g., There's No Business Like Show Business) shifted the local news by fifteen to thirty minutes. If a movie ended early, then NBC would often show a "making of" featurette about an upcoming movie to fill out the time slot.

There was no letter-boxing back then, so wide-screen films were adapted for the smaller television screen ratio using a technique called "pan and scan." Thus, if there were two people talking on opposite sides of the screen, only one of them would be shown when the movie appeared on television. Sometimes, creative framing caused insurmountable problems. I once watched a pan-and-scan version of American Graffiti in which it looked like two noses were having a conversation.

The network also edited movies for time and objectionable content.The latter was not a major concern with the films of the 1950s, but became more prevalent as movies expanded the boundaries of censorship. Sometimes, it was just easier not to show a "racy movie" like Otto Preminger's The Moon Is Blue--which didn't premiere on network TV until 1973--twenty years after its theatrical release.

Kiss of the Vampire before re-editing.
However, some films were so heavily edited that new footage had to be shot to fill out the running time. One example was the excellent 1963 Hammer film Kiss of the Vampire. The film's plot was altered extensively through editing and additional scenes were filmed with other actors. Fortunately, the altered film was retitled Kiss of Evil--which has helped horror film enthusiasts distinguish it from the original Kiss of the Vampire.

The success of Saturday Night at the Movies prompted CBS and ABC to add movie nights. That scheduling tactic became so popular that, during the 1968-69 season, a network movie aired in prime time on each day of the week: NBC showed movies on Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday; ABC did on Sunday and Wednesday; and CBS did on Thursday and Friday.

Clu Gulager and Lee Marvin as The Killers.
The increase in movie nights, the desire to show current films, and rising costs led to the development of made-for-TV movies. These inexpensive films didn't feature big screen stars and frequently doubled as pilots for new TV series (which saved additional money!). The 1964 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's The Killers, starring Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan, was made for Saturday Night at the Movies. However, NBC determined that it was too violent and so The Killers was released theatrically. Therefore, most TV historians consider See How They Run to be the first made-for-TV movie. It starred John Forsyte and Senta Berger in a tale about killers pursuing three orphans who unknowingly possess valuable evidence against a cartel.

By the mid-1970s, spurred by the popularity of ABC's Movie of the Week, telefilms began to outnumber theatrical films shown on network TV. A decade later, cable channels and videotape distributors overtook the television networks as the first option for a post-theatrical movie release. The network's familiar "world premiere" claim was modified to "broadcast television premiere." It was the beginning of the end, although the networks still had sporadic successes. When NBC showed Gone With the Wind in 1976, it became the most-watched broadcast in U.S. television history at that time.

15 comments:

  1. Having lived my whole life in the age of home video, the thought of a time in which the only way of seeing a movie again is waiting and hoping for it to either be theatrically rereleased or for it to show up on television is almost too terrible for me to contemplate. Of course, someone even younger might very well shudder at the thought of life before the internet or streaming video

    I once watched a pan and scan version of Auntie Mame that my dad had taped. When it gets to the scene where there's an extreme closeup of Rosalind Russell as she imagines her nephew transforming into a joyless adult, depicted through a series of images superimposed over her eyes, all the viewer is able to see throughout the shot is just the bridge of Miss Russell's nose, whereas a smart technician might have actually chosen to focus on at least one of her eyes so that the point of the shot would not be totally lost on the viewer. It's little wonder I've always intensely disliked pan and scan.

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    1. Dave, I love the ready access to so many movies in this day and age. Still, there was a certain thrill in the old days when a favorite popped up on TV after an absence of several years.

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  2. Production of (NBC) Saturday Night at the Movies, throughout its run, emanated from the network's "Color City" studios in Burbank, with the films transferred to videotape in advance of air date. The announcers for the program (not just on Saturdays, but also other nights NBC aired them such as Mondays, Wednesdays, Tuesdays . . . ) were from the West Coast outpost, with Don Stanley leading the pack and others (at the time of its debut) including Eddy King, Arch Presby, Frank Barton and Donald Rickles. By the first half of the 1970's both Presby and Barton retired, and Peggy Taylor (a former singer and actress whose credits included Stan Freberg's 15-week-long CBS Radio show in 1957) and Victor Bozeman (the only other African-American announcer employed by NBC besides New York-based Fred Facey) joined the roster of golden voices; following King's 1977 retirement as a full-time staff announcer, the rotation remained as Stanley, Rickles, Taylor and Bozeman until Rickles' death in 1985 and Bozeman's in 1986.

    As for the initial crop of films aired within the show's first two years, gleaned from the 20th Century-Fox library, they would constitute separate film packages aired for many years on local stations, including New York's WABC-TV where, for example, several of the Marilyn Monroe pictures became staples of The 4:30 Movie in its early years on the air (the early to mid-1970's).

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    1. Thanks for adding the great additional background info, especially on NBC's "golden voices." When I was young, I confused the great Donald Rickles with Don Rickles--and, of course, there is no similarity in their voices!

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  3. I understood ABC did surprising well with airing English films in the early Sunday night timeslot in the mid 1950's.

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  4. Great info here! This is Twitter-worthy.

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  5. I wish I could see the old "NBC Saturday Night at the Movies" and "ABC Sunday Night Movie" opens again! NBC SNATM did pop up as a promo in a Mitch Miller show that's on Youtube, but it's in black and white.

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    1. I also like those, plus the intros for THE CBS LATE MOVIE and THE ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK. I've found all the openings on YouTube (though the quality usually isn't good)--except for SNATM. Thanks for pointing out the promo in Mitch's show!

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  6. Interesting article, Rick! I have to admit, there are many things I don't like about this "everything is readily accessible" generation we now live in, but not having instant access to decades worth of fantastic movies is not one of them. Imagine not having your favorite movies on DVD to watch over and over again.

    Still, though, I think it's easy to take things for granted since we have them at our fingertips. Maybe not having instant access made movie-viewing a more special event.

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  7. Another thing that SNATM spurred, upon its debut, was NBC O&O's (and affiliates) squaring for more "major" and "recent" film packages from the big studios, than what they were acquiring up to that point. On the night "How To Marry A Millionaire" first aired on TV, for example, after the late news New York station WNBC-TV's Saturday night edition of Movie 4 (whose time slot is now occupied by Saturday Night Live) aired the New York TV debut of the James Dean film "East Of Eden" which, I.I.N.M., left WCBS-TV's long-running The Late Show in the ratings lurch that night. "EoE" was part of a package of post-'49 Warners' films offered (ironically enough) by the company with which it later merged, Seven Arts - a package that also included varying films including the 1954 pic "The Silver Chalice" for which Paul Newman (making his movie debut) would forever after apologize to his dying day.

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  8. This was a weekly event at my house - and it did not matter what movie they were showing - we watched. Thanks for the memories, Rick!

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    1. I was 11 in 1961, and I was already a film fanatic, thanks to all of the showings of vintage films on local New York City television outlets. I would again love to see the SNATM opening, which I remember so vividly: it was a rotating sculpture of strips of celluloid film. It was on Saturday nights that my generation first saw the films of Susan Hayward and Marilyn Monroe.

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  9. Excellent post, Rick! We watched many "movies of the week" in our home.

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  10. Rick, Really enjoyed this. Sat. Night at the Movies and the ABC Sunday Night movies were staples in my house. So many great films were seen for the first time like these shows..

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  11. As I recall, the original Saturday Night at the Movies was mainly 20th Century Fox films. It's where I fell for Tyrone Power! They introduced a lot of his films on television then. Also Richard Widmark, Marilyn and others. I remember also people like Linda Darnell talked about their own experiences in the breaks.

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