For, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s a column published in the Deseret News on July 19, 1987, headlined ‘Videos, cable are best bets for good, old movies.’ I was lauding cable TV and VHS tapes for offering movies uncut and from excellent source prints while local television channels were still cutting them up and showing old, worn prints. Today, I no longer have cable TV (digital rabbit ears and streaming Netflix work fine for us, thank you) since HBO and Showtime, among others, devote most of their schedule to hard R-rated original programs. And AMC gave up on commercial-free classic films many moons ago, after Turner Classic Movies came along and did it better. And now hi-def discs have replaced pan-and-scan VHS tapes. Ironically, my daughter Stephanie recently borrowed my DVD of “Witness for the Prosecution” to watch with her family. I’ll bet she’s forgotten this column. I certainly did.

The genesis for this column was an incident that occurred a few months back when my teenage daughter Stephanie and I decided to watch “Witness for the Prosecution” on television.

Billy Wilder’s film version of the classic Agatha Christie play, with a knockout performance by Marlene Dietrich, and notably witty turns by Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester and Tyrone Power, has long been one of my favorite films. And since she is an Agatha Christie freak, I knew Stephanie would love it.

But as soon as it began I could see we were in trouble.

Though the running time is 114 minutes, Ch. 20 placed it in a two-hour slot. I was reasonably sure there would be the usual amount of commercials, so it was obvious heavy cuts had been made. But I was willing to stick it out anyway.

That is until even worse annoyances began: Scratches on the film, cracks, pops and jumps on the soundtrack.

After half-an-hour I gave up, promising Stephanie we would rent the movie and watch it on video instead of seeing it butchered this way.

This was not the first time I’ve been angered while trying to watch a movie on local TV but it was the last. I haven’t watched any film on a local station since.

But then I have the luxury of cable.

Assuming Joe Walker, our friendly neighborhood Deseret News TV critic, will forgive me, I’m going to step into his territory for a bit and talk about small-screen flicks.

First, let’s get something out of the way up front: This is admittedly going to sound like a pitch for cable TV, but I feel the need to advise film fans that if you are watching (or taping) movies only on local commercial channels, you are really missing something.

Movies have long been the staple of TV airwaves, though over the years network and syndicated programming, along with made-for-TV movies, have caused theatrical-movie programming to take a back seat to “newer” shows. Like the remake of “Double Indemnity” and disease-of-the-week “socially relevant” material.


Locally it wasn’t that long ago that Ch. 20 had the best movies in town, programmed in the best time slots, usually uncut, and with the station’s plethora of commercials interrupting the flicks between crucial scenes rather than in the middle of dialogue.

Lately, however, due partly to its grabbing more syndicated shows and linking up with the new Fox Network, that crown has been lost.

There’s even worse news, however. The crown hasn’t been picked up by anyone else.

Movies on local television these days are generally rather pathetic. The same films are shown over and over, and they are often lamentable prints loaded with scratches, soundtrack glitches, and the films are often either severely chopped up or shown so late at night that commercials seem to come every 5 or 10 minutes. And often the prints are over-used, with washed-out color and red dye bleeding into the picture.

Local TV programmers who have whined about video cutting into their movie-showing business may cease to whine now. What do they expect when all you have to do is go to your local video store (which can be found on every street corner and in every grocery and convenience store these days) and rent the same movies with perfect prints, great sound and marvelous color?

And with cable TV, viewers don’t even have to do that.

Recently, especially when it was still feeling its way in the dark, cable TV came forth using movies as their mainstay, particularly subscription channels like The Movie Channel, HBO, Showtime and Cinemax.

However, as HBO and Showtime in particular have begun developing their own programs, basic cable stations have started to rely more heavily on movies: The Arts and Entertainment Channel dishes up foreign and silent films, offbeat independent and foreign movies crop up on the Lifetime Channel, not to mention the variety offered by other basic-cable channels. WTBS, for example, has access to the MGM library like no one else, despite many of their movies now being Colorized.

To be fair, it must be said that some basic-cable stations, like CBN and C-SPAN, hack up their movies – mostly public-domain films – mercilessly, worse than any local channel in Salt Lake City.

But the best cable news to come along since its inception is the recent addition of the American Movie Classics channel.


AMC, as it is listed in the TV logs, shows some great golden oldies, and it shows them uncut, uninterrupted and with some of the best prints you’ve ever seen. In fact, some of the prints are so good I’ve begun to wonder where in the world they get them. And some of the movies – often very good ones – are so obscure, I wonder where they have come from as well.

According to AMC public relations, the movies come directly from the studios, not in the ordinary syndicated packages used by local stations around the country. And if they aren’t the best possible prints, they don’t air on AMC.

I believe it. A recent print of “Bringing Up Baby,” for example, was the best I have ever seen. Pristine quality is the rule, not the exception.

While it’s true AMC doesn’t have access to everything, and there is also a high repeat ratio here, there is still enough variety in the station’s daily programming to fulfill the wishes of even the most ardent film buffs.

In fact, the worst drawback I’ve noticed is that my budget for blank videotapes will have to be adjusted drastically. I’m taping more “keepers” from AMC than I have ever taped before.

While AMC is a subscription channel in some states, here it is part of the basic-cable package.

Does this sound like a pitch? I suppose it is. But only if you care about movies and are tired of seeing them butchered by local stations.

And now that I’ve told the story in print, I’d better get around to renting “Witness for the Prosecution” for Stephanie. (Or maybe I can stall her until it shows up on a cable channel.)