A nostalgic look at TV movies

These days we have access to a vast catalog of movies, through streaming and on-demand, but when I was growing up the choices were slim.

The Saturday matinee on TV rotated through the local channels’ slim selection. Francis the Talking Mule, Ma and Pa Kettle, Tarzan the Ape Man and Abbott & Costello pretty much covered it.

There was also an obscure 1952 film called “It Grows on Trees,” about a family who finds its new saplings sprout $5 bills; one local station showed this movie over and over and over. It appealed to me because my mother was always saying she wished money grew on trees.

The Ma and Pa Kettle series was my favorite, and I waited eagerly for Percy Kilbride as Pa to change the radio station by moving his rocking chair. I thought that was hysterical.

The Kettles were characters introduced by Betty McDonald in her memoir, “The Egg and I,” about the years she spent chicken farming in Washington state with her first husband. I discovered the book when I was 13 and promptly gobbled up its sequels, “The Plague and I,” about her battle with tuberculosis, and “Onions in the Stew,” about settling on a remote island with her daughters and second husband. (There’s another book between, “Anybody Can Do Anything,” which I did not know at the time.) While some of the humor is forced, particularly on more serious subjects, McDonald had a wry outlook fueled by keen observation.

The advent of the TV movie stepped up my film game. The genre began in the 1960s but it was the early 1970s before my mother would let me stay up to watch the ABC “Movie of the Week” or the mini-series that later became popular. TV movies, often dealing with serious subjects and filmed by talented directors (Steven Speilberg had his debut in 1971 with “Duel”), made a deep impression on me. I often mentioned them in my little five-year diaries, and I’ve no doubt they contributed both to my fictional imagination and my nightmares.

“Duel,” of course, is now a classic. I watched it twice – when it premiered, on Nov. 13, 1971, and when it was repeated exactly a year later. I noted it was “really scary.” Dennis Weaver stars as a sort of Everyman (his name is “David Mann”) in a cheap car crossing the Western desert, when he absently passes an aging oil tanker on a rural highway. The truck driver, who is never shown, becomes enraged and begins to tail him; gradually it dawns on Mann that the driver means to kill him. The ending left me flummoxed, and I wondered if it were really a man behind the truck’s wheel.

Fright was often a feature of these movies. There was the ensemble piece, “Home for the Holidays,” starring Eleanor Parker, Jill Haworth and Sally Field as three sisters who gather at the family estate to discover their father (Walter Brennan, in his last screen role) believes his young wife (Julie Harris) is trying to kill him. It had all the gothic trappings I already loved: old house, family trouble, mystery and murder.

TV movies often had casts of stars who had aged out of the “hip” films being released to theaters. Thus we find Bette Davis in the horror film “Scream, Pretty Peggy.” Rex Harrison in “The Adventures of Don Quixote.” Susan Hayward in “Say Goodbye, Maggie Cole.” They lended TV cinema a certain cachet.

TV movies also gave full-time work to a host of emerging stars, such as Cloris Leachman, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, William Devane and Meredith Baxter Birney.

And what movies they were. Adaptations of great literature abounded. TV movies were made of Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony,” “Tom Sawyer,” Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man Without a Country,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” and “Great Expectations,” to name only a few. Some TV movies became instant classics, such as “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “Brian’s Song.”

Gradually, TV filmmakers became more daring in their examination of social issues. I will never forget Elizabeth Montgomery in “A Case of Rape,” a disturbing film about a housewife who is brutally raped and then victimized anew by her husband and the legal system. I was 14 that winter of 1974 and the movie left me stunned and afraid. 

But it was the premier of the fall 1974 season that would create a firestorm of controversy. In “Born Innocent,” Linda Blair plays a girl sentenced to juvenile detention who is raped with a broom handle; the FCC subsequently cracked down on the networks by creating the “Family Hour,” a move later overturned when producer Norman Lear filed suit.

These titles and more are chronicled in Alvin H. Marill’s Movies Made for Television (Arlington House Publishers, 1980), and as I thumb through my copy, I find myself wishing we had a TV movie channel. I would happily rewatch the thriller “When Michael Calls,” a miniseries about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, Natalie Wood in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and a young Sissy Spacek in “The Girls of Huntington House.”

My sensibilities were fine-tuned in my late teens, when a local classic movie house brought film classics to Westerly. More on that later.

Percy Kilbride as Pa and Marjorie Main as Ma Kettle were staples of the Saturday TV matinee.

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