Television Recommendation: Svengoolie

Television and cinema have much in common: namely the moving image.  A good portion of these respective technologies’ histories are bound together in a sometimes uneasy symbiosis.  Cinema is regarded as the higher form of art, the more glamorous image.  Yet television, both the physical technology that dwells within our residences and the various entities that pump programs into that glowing rectangle, promotes and expands the amount of cinema available to us.  Even before the internet and Netflix, television continually expanded to show more and more film; HBO, Showtime, and other channels sprung up as stations designed to broadcast film, not their own productions.  The enormity of channels and the ability to live stream almost any film at any time make the television (or the computer screen) the perfect cinematic conduit.

One of television’s earliest cinematic distributors, one that predates cable, premium channels, and live streaming video, still exists today. Svengoolie, which airs every Saturday night at 10:00 p.m. on MeTV, is one of the best ways to watch cinema on television.  Svengoolie, and shows similar to it, were quite common in the 1960s and 70s.  Prior to the domination of cable movie channels, local stations would produce their own late night movie shows that provided viewers with an opportunity to see films that they would not have otherwise had a chance to view: cult films, B-movies, and classic horror films.  Remember, shows like Svengoolie existed in an era that predated VCRs.  The only films you could see were the ones played in movie theatres or ones that television stations decided to air at days and times of their choosing.

The current program still performs the vital function of providing opportunities to see hard to see cinema.  Sure, while in theory I might be able to find DVDs or streaming versions of the various horror and science-fiction flicks that Svengoolie broadcasts, in reality I would neither never stumble upon them nor watch them. Films such as The Mole People (1956), Dr. Cyclops (1941), and The Deadly Mantis (1957) would remain unwatched by me and others.  And in anticipation of a likely question, I will simply say no, these are not great films.  Yet they are fun and, in a certain way, valuable.  Gobs of B-level horror and sci-fi flicks were produced during the middle decades of the twentieth century, enough to keep Svengoolie around for years to come. These films have a curious relation to both future films and television itself.  Many of these films pioneered the special effects and make-up that later films with higher budgets would later perfect.  The special and practical effects that are now seen as rather pathetic were, in their day, often regarded with tremendous awe. Dr. Cyclops was particularly adept at creating special effects: miniature people who had been shrunk by the maniacal Dr. Cyclops.  (By the way, Dr. Cyclops is one of the best movie titles of all time.  It ranks right up there with Death Rides a Horse.)

These B-movies also predicted future television entertainment.  Major studios and production companies no longer produce these type of B-flicks for cinematic release.  They are too busy producing crap such as The Green Lantern (2011) and any Adam Sandler film.  Instead, the parallels to The Mole People and The Deadly Mantis are to found on the Syfy. (Yes, that is how the Science Fiction channel now spells its name.)  Similar to contemporary television productions, B-movies often utilized canned sets and stock footage and worked on minimal budgets.

The linkage between old Hollywood B-movies and contemporary made-for-television productions can also located within the actors who appeared in some of these B-flicks.  Many of them often went on to work (and find greater fame) in television.  The Mole People alone produced the father from Leave it to Beaver (Hugh Beaumont) and Bruce Wayne’s butler (Alan Napier) in the Adam West Batman show.  In one sense, films such as these were always and already made for television.

Watching the current Svengoolie transports one into a continual time loop.  The television station, MeTV, is devoted to pre-cable era television.  The show itself harkens back to a time when local stations produced their own shows and entertainment, and the films represent artifacts of a now lost and never to be regained era from Hollywood film production.  I am glad that these old B-films have a continuing presence on Svengoolie.

My children and I have developed a tradition of staying up late to watch the show and the films.  And yes, staying up to watch a 10:00 p.m. program counts as late for me; I often have more trouble staying up than my seven year-old.  I am old, which is probably why I appreciate Svengoolie.

The Deadly Mantis is on tap tonight, just in case you are interested.

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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