Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Seen it All Before

It occurred to me the other day exactly what the current state of film and TV has been reminding me of: Hollywood studios in the late forties and fifties.  Most specifically, I realised that the kind of stuff currently being hailed as 'brilliant' and 'innovative', is actually the modern equivalent of Universal Studios policy of exploiting its existing properties by grinding out low budget B-movie series derived from them.  Basically, what happened during the forties was that Ben Pivar, head of Universal's B picture unit decided that their low budget properties would have a greater chance of success if they could ride the coat tails of earlier, more expensive and popular properties.  Hence, the 1933 Boris Karloff version of The Mummy was seized upon as the basis for a whole series of pictures.  Now, whilst financially successful and hailed as a horror classic, the truth is that the Karloff Mummy is something of a slow moving bore, with little in the way of action or even suspense.  It did, however, spawn a 1940 'sequel', The Mummy's Hand, which incorporated a lot of stock footage from the original and featured Tom Tyler as the titular monster.  It was a much more action orientated, not to mention horrific, film than the original.  It was also a huge box office success.  Not surprisingly, Pivar used this movie as a template for three increasingly poverty stricken sequels, all incorporating plenty of stock footage from the first two films.

The other Universal monsters received similar treatment - unable to sustain individual movies in their own right, they found themselves bundled together in a series of cheap, but profitable, sequels, (often incorporating stock footage from their more expensive predecessors).  Other new B-movies included spin off s from more established series: The Spider Woman Strikes Back, for instance, featured Gale Sondergaard playing the titular villainous character, a version of whom had recently been Basil Rathbone's adversary in Sherlock Holmes Meets the Spider Woman.  She even had a henchman  in the shape of Rondo Hatton, who had played a similar role in another Sherlock Holmes film, The Pearl of Death, albeit under a different character name.  Indeed, the latter was then himself spun off into a brief series, reverting to his original character name of 'The Creeper'.  Throughout the fifties, the studios changed tack slightly, simply turning out overt remakes of existing properties, only this time with added colour, cinemascope or 3D.  You get the idea - originality was abandoned as Hollywood struggled against competing forms of media, cutting costs and hoping that what had been successful a few years ago might be successful again if repackaged the right way.

The similarity to current trends is, I think, obvious - studio film production seems dominated by remakes and rehashes of existing properties, be they Star Wars or some once beloved TV series that some star or 'auteur' thinks they can 'reimagine' better than the original, (Man From Uncle, The Lone Ranger, CHiPs, Baywatch, Star Trek - the list is seemingly endless).  TV is now in on the act, as well, with many of the currently much vaunted 'must see' series showing on the various subscription channels little more than rehashes of existing properties.  There's yet another reworking of Star Trek, for instance.  Then there's the current critical darling, Westworld, which is an elephantine over extended reworking of a seventies movie that was able to more than adequately tell the same story in ninety minutes.  There are plenty of other examples currently in productions with a new version of Hawaii Five O still  running and a TV version of Lethal Weapon, not to mention Lost in Space (yet again).  There are more threatened, including a new Magnum PI, not to mention, God forbid, a TV series 'based on' Three Days of the Condor - if that isn't desecration, I don't know what is.  Where's the originality, the new ideas?  Do we really simply want to watch retreads of stuff that is still being rerun elsewhere on a daily basis?  But originality is a risk - there's no guarantee that anyone will watch it.  So, for the money men, redoing something that has already been a proven ratings winner seems a safer bet.  At best this simply serves up predictable mediocrity, at its worse it gives us travesties which, for commercial purposes, carries the name of an established movie or series, but is actually somebody else's crock of shit in disguise, trying to trade on other peoples' earlier successes.  It's another reason I don't subscribe to the likes of Netflix: I've seen it all before.  Usually done better.



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