Monthly Archives: January 2017

WJW TV-8’s Late Movie – 1985’s “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (2003)

Time for a sequel post! And not just a post about a sequel, but a post that’s in and of itself a sequel to a previous post. And it’s all the more fitting because the sequel this post is about is the sequel to the prequel that the prequel post was about!

There, wrap your mind around that introduction!

Surely you will recall back in August when I talked about an airing of First Blood as shown by Big Chuck & Lil’ John on May 11, 2001. What? You don’t?! That hurts me deep, but here it is. For a character I had grown up basically knowing of, that was my first time actually watching a Rambo film. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting at first, but before the broadcast ended that Friday night, I had become a fan. The following morning, I was determined to pick up the remastered VHS trilogy set that was then-available.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason (almost certainly due to lack of money on my part – as usual), I didn’t get the set, and thus I didn’t see the sequels as soon as I would have preferred. Add in all the other responsibilities and interests of a teenager, and ultimately, I wouldn’t see First Blood‘s sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, until very nearly two years later, when I taped it off WJW TV-8’s late movie showing. I have no concrete date for the broadcast, but it was the spring of 2003 (late April or early May is the closest I can deduce), but naturally it’s that very recording we’re looking at today.

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In the late-1990s and early-2000s, I had made a semi-habit of staying up late on weekend nights and catching a new-to-me movie on some local channel. More often than not, this was an action film, and it was through this method that I was introduced to flicks I almost certainly wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise. Army of One and One Man’s Justice come to mind. (Which is why I was far too excited to find the latter on DVD for cheap at Value City a few years later!) My love of action films, especially 1980s action films, was fostered via these late night airings, and it was through them that I eventually found myself staying up late to watch First Blood, and ultimately, First Blood Part II.

In retrospect, the broadcast we’re looking at today was from the tail-end of not only this habit of mine, but also of even being able to catch movies on local channels late on weekend nights in general. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen anymore, because it does (our WBNX TV-55 regularly runs movies in the late hours of the weekend), but by and large late night television is a wasteland of syndicated programming and infomercials now. And besides, the way we as a television-viewing audience watch movies nowadays has changed so drastically in the 14 years since that, even if I personally don’t go for the streaming thing, the very thought of a late night movie on television just doesn’t hold the same charm of discovery as it once did. This both saddens me and makes me all the fonder for the recordings I had the foresight to make back then.

Truth be told, I can’t recall if I actually stayed up late to watch this broadcast as it taped, or if I merely watched it soon thereafter, but the sentiment is ultimately the same. And boy does this one take me back. Even that bumper up above, complete with the immortal Bill Ward‘s voiceover, is a cause for nostalgia. Now granted, I wouldn’t be surprised if those same background graphics were used for Fox affiliates all across the country, and I don’t know when they were first utilized or when they were dropped, but they were present for at least a few years afterwards (I have a recording of Miracle Mile from 2006 that uses them), but I love ’em. They’re simple, sure; just that bluish color-scheme, spinning film reel, station I.D., and voiceover, but they work. By 2003, I’m not sure you could ask for all that much more, anyway. The same image was used as the intro to this broadcast, as well as for the commercial-break bumpers. Update your diaries accordingly.

(You’ll note that my title notates this as WJW’s “late movie,” but the bumper mentions nothing of the sort. Yes, this was well past the “8 All Night” days and associated pomp and circumstance. This was a late airing, however; I don’t recall an exact time, 1 AM, 2 AM, something like that.)

I know there won’t be as much vested interest in this post as there was in my First Blood article; Big Chuck & Lil’ John naturally attract local readership. Even beyond that, I know some will look at this and probably think “A 2003 airing of Rambo II? Who cares?” The thing to remember there is that this is a personal blog, and what it comes down to is that it’s all about what makes me, well, me. I mean, yes, the ultimate goal here is to educate readers on an obscure late night television broadcast that would almost-certainly be forgotten otherwise, but as always, a subject has to trip my trigger first. So, maybe this will strike a chord with certain readers, and maybe it won’t, but I’d rather share my memories and have this review out there than, uh, not.

Besides, just because Big Chuck & Lil’ John aren’t hosting this, that doesn’t mean they won’t show up in some form during it. What do I mean by that? Read on!

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Actually, had I been paying more attention, there probably was a Chuck & John showing of this film around the same period; as you’d expect, WJW would get these film packages, and show the same movie in different slots over a relatively short period of time. For example, I taped Iron Eagle II off The Big Chuck & Lil’ John Show (a recording I still have!), a Friday night broadcast, and not long after, maybe even that following Sunday, the movie by itself ran again, in an afternoon slot. (I remember holding a yard sale and having it on to show that a TV I was desperately trying to shill did indeed work, which wasn’t all that successful in the bright sun, but whatever.) The aforementioned Miracle Mile was also aired this way, and it was how I first discovered the movie. Unfortunately, I didn’t tape it, and it didn’t run again until ’06, when I did tape it, in a non-Chuck & John showing. Meh, que sera sera and all that.

So anyway, 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II. If you go back and read my First Blood post, you’ll note that this sequel is more along the lines of the movie I expected to see the first time around. Indeed, when people picture Rambo and his exploits, the plot of this film is probably what first comes to mind. And why wouldn’t it? The movie was a massive hit, it’s still fantastic, and it’s easily one of the defining action films of the 1980s. I mean, this movie is 1985. This is the film that truly drove the Rambo, one-man-against-an-army image into the public consciousness, as evidenced by the wave of merchandise it spawned (including a fantastic Sega Master System game and an odd, Zelda II-esque Nintendo Entertainment System game).

Of course I loved the film right from the start. If you’d ask me to put together a top 10 list of my favorite action films, First Blood Part II would easily, easily make the cut. But then, so would First Blood and Rambo III, too. (and Schwarzenegger’s Commando, while we’re at it.) Maybe a year or so after I taped this, we finally upgraded to DVD, and near as I can recall, Rambo: First Blood Part II was the first film I bought for myself in the format (unless you count the restored Metropolis, which Kino sent me on DVD despite my ordering it on VHS, which I don’t). For me, that’s pretty telling. I love this movie.

That’s the title screen up above, by the way. When you see a fire-filled “Rambo,” pop on-screen, you know you’re in for a ride. That Fox 8 logo in the bottom right corner totally takes me back, too.

(And yes, there is a Big Chuck & Lil’ John airing of this very movie floating around trade circles, though I don’t concern myself with such 2nd gen or more shenanigans, and thus it is presently barred from me. Meh, que sera sera and all that.)

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Caution! Some spoilers for a nearly-32-year-old movie are ahead! 32 years?! Yep, First Blood Part II was released on May 22, 1985 – pretty darn close to a straight 18 years the night this aired. I find it interesting that the film was less than 20 years old when I first saw it, but is now over 30. I’m not sure why I find that interesting, but I do. I think it has to do with the quick passage of time and me being quite a bit older now. Well, now I’m depressed!

Part II isn’t really a direct sequel, but does pick up in the aftermath of the events that transpired by the end of First Blood. In that one, remember how John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, of course!) had pretty much destroyed an entire town, totally outwitted the local police force, and whose life was saved only when his former-commanding officer Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna!) told him to cut it out? (I’m trying not to divulge too much of First Blood, for the 2.6 of you that haven’t seen it yet.) Well, Part II picks up some time after all that; Rambo is serving his sentence, performing back-breaking hard labor, when Trautman shows up at the prison with an offer (above): It’s rumored that some POWs are still left in Vietnam, and a special team is being assembled to go in and get them – if they are indeed still there. Rambo is the best candidate, and with the opportunity to get out of a prison for the time being, as well as a full presidential pardon dangled in front of him, not to mention him being a former-POW himself, of course he accepts.

I like this; less than 5 minutes in, the title hasn’t even appeared on-screen yet, and the movie is already off and running. In short order, Rambo finds himself in the presence of one Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier, who fills the roll of you-just-know-he’s-a-jerk-from-the-start that Brian Dennehy so-ably occupied in the previous film). Rambo’s mission? To head back into Vietnam, and take pictures of a Vietcong camp. Seriously, just take pictures? Rambo expresses his concern over this, but he is again ordered to only take pictures – he is not to engage the enemy. If evidence is found of POWs, a full-fledged rescue team will head in and get ’em. Rambo goes along with this.

Welp, Rambo parachutes in, and yes, there are indeed POWs still there. Despite Murdock’s orders, Rambo has to rescue one, and thus, engage the enemy. This causes Murdock to show his true colors when Rambo meets the extraction site. He and the POW are then (re)captured, and must (re)escape the Vietcong, who it turns out are being supplied by the Russian military (1985, the Cold War and all).

“Murdock, I’m coming to get you!” If you’re not fully rooting for the ‘Bo by the time he utters that line, well then I just don’t know.

(Also, now is as good a time as any to point out that, as you may surmise from the diagonal rainbow “stripes” overlayed in my screencaps, we were using an antenna of the rabbit ears variety at the time, with the resulting reception naturally captured on my tape – a malady that was only exacerbated by my choice of an SLP recording speed. This all looks far uglier as still screen captures than it does in motion, but nevertheless, my tape ain’t Criterion quality.)

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Rambo: First Blood Part II is pretty much a non-stop stream of testosterone. Above left: Blowin’ stuff up with ‘splosive arrows. Above right: Shooting anything and everything in sight (and looking uncannily close to that Rambo action figure they released in the 1980s – or vice versa, rather). Audience manipulation? Well of course it is! It’s pretty much impossible to not cheer Rambo on as he dismantles the enemy camp while long-imprisoned POWs celebrate – that may be the very definition of audience manipulation!

But don’t think this is just a mindless celebration of violence, though; many of the same themes present in First Blood are on display here, but almost from an opposite viewpoint and with an added wrinkle of redemption and hope – the undertones aren’t quite as dark and somber as they were in First Blood. Okay, sure, this is all seen through the “popcorn action movie” lens, I know, and that tends to tone the message of the film down considerably. Well, except when the flick is beating you over the head with it, as in Rambo’s final speech – which I love nevertheless.

Maybe that’s why Rambo: First Blood Part II was a huge hit commercially, but the critics didn’t particularly like it. To that, I say “man, forget that noise.” First Blood may have been more successful at presenting the plight of the Vietnam vet while also remaining an engrossing action film, whereas Part II is, for lack of a better description, more of a “straight-ahead” film, but with some “rah rah” overtones. Except, that’s not quite fair to the movie; it’s deceptively smarter than that (sort of like Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”). Yes, Rambo loves his country and is prepared to die for it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t criticisms of a confusing war – it’s just that the film pulls them off without throwing the soldiers that fought in it under the bus. There’s courage and heroism on display here, both from Rambo and the rescued POWs. As someone who has the utmost respect for any of our veterans, this all strikes a chord with me.

Or maybe the critics just didn’t like the film based on the usual suspects of plot, writing, whatever. I haven’t really gone and checked any of the old reviews online in-depth, because my opinion of a film is the only one I care about. So for all I know, I may be totally full of it right now.

And on that note (ha!), you know what? To me, this is just such a good, solid action movie. No kidding, right here we basically have the archetype for the one-man-army action film. Yes, Missing in Action did the same basic plot in 1984, but it didn’t do it nearly as well, nor as popularly. For all intents and purposes, this type of action movie, which has come to define a good chunk of 1980s mainstream cinema, begins right here. (Furthermore, while I like Chuck Norris’ James Braddock, Rambo is a far more compelling character; the psychological scars he carries with him truly give an added resonance to the proceedings – even though Braddock was also a former POW. But, I digress.)

So, getting back to this broadcast as a whole, was there anything that, in retrospect, makes this 2003 airing significantly unique? Kinda. There’s the usual suspects of the editing for television (sometimes egregiously so; very obvious fade-outs and fade-ins, for example), and this aired at a time when TV broadcasts, particularly local broadcasts, could still look markedly inferior to official home video releases. Even with my SLP recording speed and rabbit ears making things difficult, this is still clearly an older, un-remastered television print of the film; not really bad, but sorta drab looking, and almost certainly a step below any official VHS edition of the film. Or maybe it was just my reception, I don’t know.

Look, if you haven’t seen this film (yeah, sure, uh huh), just go buy your own copy. If nothing else, it’ll certainly look nicer.

You know, the fact that this is from 2003, and thus still fairly ‘new’ in my eyes (nearly 14 years new, ha!), and not being that unique in terms of film-content, aside from TV-editing, it all had me questioning whether I wanted to get a post out of this. As I said near the start of this piece, there would probably be inherently less interest in this, especially without a unique factor such as Big Chuck & Lil’ John hosting it. But then I remembered this is about my nostalgia; what gets my memories fired up.

And on that front, there are the original commercials. It’s funny, there’s stuff during this broadcast that, for the most part, I probably haven’t thought of since the early-2000s, and yet when they came up on-screen, it was like they just aired yesterday to me. Here now are some of my favorite ads found during this late night broadcast of Rambo: First Blood Part II

Affordable Jewelry Coins & Loans Ad

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This is fantastic. Pawn shop/jewelry/etc. ads were all over this broadcast, as you’d expect of late night TV. This was my favorite of the bunch though, simply because it exemplifies local advertising in the wee hours of the day; you can’t not love it!

Here, a Sinatra-ish lounge singer performs “My Kind of Store” in regards to Affordable, complete with back-up singers, all while the screen flashes over their various wares and a voiceover gives their buy-sell-pawn pitch. The spot finishes with a little kid (in the bottom-left in the right screenshot above) exclaiming “It’s so affordable!” This is the kind of advertising that exemplifies local TV.

Affordable Jewelry Coins & Loans is still in business, too! Looks like the ad did its job!

WJW Dharma & Greg Promo

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Remember Dharma & Greg? I’m not sure any channel plays it anymore, and It was never a show I cared much for, but it was one of the hallmarks of ABC’s late-1990s & early-2000s sitcom powerhouse line-up, a line-up that included Spin City, The Norm Show, and of course The Drew Carey Show. So, even though Dharma & Greg never did a lot for me, it still ranks a bit on the nostalgia meter. The premise of the show was the Dharma was a free-spirit, Greg was uptight, and they both married on their first date. At least, that’s how I recall it. It ran for, I think, a respectable six seasons, so apparently more people cared for it than I did. I could Wikipedia the show, but I refuse.

Anyway, WJW became the repository for local reruns when the series entered syndication, and as you can see above, it garnered the weeknights at 7 PM slot. Bill Ward’s voiceover: “Hot comedy with Dharma & Greg! Weeknights at 7 on Fox 8!” For years, that 7 PM to 8 PM block was a cornucopia of comedy on WJW, naturally spearheaded by The Drew Carey Show, and for a time 3rd Rock From the Sun was also a big part of it. Good memories!

Norton Furniture Ad

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Ah ha! A Norton Furniture ad! Now we’re talkin’ some legit Northeast Ohio advertising! Heck, these commercials even went beyond our area, and into the national spotlight! Read on…

There were others ads for the store, even during this broadcast, but the best known were the ones featuring owner Marc Brown, who you’re seeing above. My favorites were those featuring The Ghoul, for obvious reasons, but there was a long, long line of offbeat, sometimes even surreal, commercials. Marc spoke in a quiet, almost halting manner, proclaiming if you can’t get credit there, you can’t get it anywhere. And then the ads would turn strange. The Ghoul ones, for instance, would have The Ghoul popping up and chasing Marc, trying to cut off his pony tail. In another, Marc would turn to a mannequin and ask it a question, apropos of nothing whatsoever. Look, Norton Furniture actually has a bunch of these up on Youtube, so just go see for yourself.

Anyway, this all attracted the attention of national comics, and eventually these ads were being featured on late night shows as joke fodder. I even seem to recall The Soup (which I avidly watched for a time) taking a crack at it. The Norton Furniture ads became well known enough that Taco Bell used one as a basis for one of their commercials – during the Super Bowl. Wikipedia (yes, there’s a Norton Furniture page) says this was only a regional Super Bowl commercial, but nevertheless, I flipped out when I first saw it!

So, the installment found here, this one is actually one of the milder entries, though still kinda out there in a hazy, late night kinda way. In it, Marc gives a lecture to an unseen group of people about the features and benefits of Norton Furniture. Unfortunately, no surreal occurrence in this one, besides some canned applause by the “audience” at the end. Interestingly, this is a minute-long spot; usually they were the standard 30 seconds.

While not one of the wackier Norton Furniture ads, its presence here is still most definitely welcome. And, Norton Furniture is still around! Check out their website!

TeleMaxx Communications Ad

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I’m including this one mainly because it shows just how wildly the cellphone world has changed in the nearly 14 years since this aired.

TeleMaxx was, as you may surmise, a spot for all your wireless needs. As you can see to the left above, the ad features cutting-edge cellphone technology – of the early-2000s. It’s wild how far these things have come in such a relatively short amount of time. Nowadays, we have phones that’ll make you a sandwich if you ask them nice enough, but the ones seen here? They were somewhat bulky things that did little more than make phone calls (go figure!) and maybe, maybe play rudimentary games of bowling and/or solitaire.

And above, to the right! Pagers! Pagers!! Do they even make pagers anymore? The rise of the cellphone pretty much made them obsolete, which means it’s really a trip back in time seeing them spotlighted in this ad. A steal at only $29!

Unfortunately, it looks like TeleMaxx closed up shop some time ago; such is the price of working with transitory products such as these, I suppose.

Big Chuck & Lil’ John For Pizza Pan Ad

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I saved the best for last, and boy is this one phenomenal! Not only because it’s an ad featuring Big Chuck & Lil’ John as spokesmen, though of course that’s the, as I like to say, “cool winnins factor.” But also because, man, it just takes me right back to 2003.

The gimmick of Pizza Pan was this: Order a pizza and have it delivered, you got another pizza free. Order a pizza and pick it up yourself, you got two extra pizzas free! Obviously deals like that are gonna attract some attention, and in short order, Pizza Pan had made a pretty big local name for itself. It seemed there were locations all over, and we patronized the one near us pretty often, because hey, three pizzas for the price of one! This was all bolstered by some pretty heavy advertising, including Big Chuck & Lil’ John, who pitched the chain for a number of years.

Indeed, we’ve already seen Big Chuck & Lil’ John do their Pizza Pan shtick on a larger scale; remember the Big Chuck & Lil’ John Pre-Game Show post? Check it out, because Pizza Pan was all over that one.

Unfortunately, by the mid-2000s or so, Pizza Pan seemed to just sort of fade away. My memories are vague, but I seem to recall them ending the whole free pizza offer, which of course was what their name was built on. I believe it was later brought back in some form, though it might have only been a single free pizza no matter whether it was delivered or picked up. I can’t say for sure, because by that time, the one near us had closed. Anyone wanna give the details in the comments?

But back in 2003, that was when Pizza Pan was still reigning supreme. (Get it? Supreme? Because it’s pizza! Aw never mind.) Here, this commercial summarizes the whole deal succinctly. In it, Chuck explains to John the buy one pizza, get one or two pizzas free gimmick, before telling the staff to pick up the pace because they’re so busy (which is a cue to comically speed up the video as pizzas being assembled are shown). It’s a simple ad, sure, but it got the point across, it had Chuck & John’s endorsement, and it spotlights one of the most memorable aspects of Northeast Ohio pizza-eatin’ in the early 2000s. AND it has a Bill Ward voiceover at the end!

It seems there are still a few Pizza Pans left; here’s the official website, though no matter what link you click, the only page you get is a list of store locations. (A Cleveland store gets a different, full-fledged website; I’m guessing that’s the original, or at least most popular, location?)


And so, some two years after I became a full-fledged Rambo fan, this recording was how I continued the fandom. A little late on all fronts, I know, but hey, it’s always better late than never!

As I said before, when I finally jumped into DVDs a year or so later, this movie was the first I went out and purchased. Indeed, the other two Rambo entries were also among my first purchases on the format, as well. Obviously, I held (and hold!) the series in a severely high regard.

When it comes to what I taped before all that though, this particular recording actually became a bit lost in the shuffle. My earlier First Blood recording had Big Chuck & Lil’ John hosting it, but this one had no such extras (besides that cool Pizza Pan commercial). As such, I watched it, I loved it, but I never did much with it again. Not until 2011 or so, anyway. That’s when I began really getting into the nostalgia of all the stuff I had taped years prior, even the comparatively newer stuff such as our subject today.

But, I was always glad I taped this, because it’s Rambo, and I loved the film. Even though my official DVD ‘replaced’ my TV recording relatively soon thereafter, I was, and am, still pleased that I kept this recording. This was what introduced me to First Blood Part II, man! And what’s more, it turned out to be a very solid example of Cleveland late nights in the early-2000s, when I loved discovering new-to-me movies. As such, I will happily deem this one a “winner.”

Kid Pics – The Amazing Adventures of Alice in Wonderland VHS (1987)

Welcome to 2017! 2017? Yes, 2017! The four-year anniversary of this stupid blog is right around the corner! Four years! I can’t believe it!

What say we start 2017 off with something, well, something a little out there, eh? Found just a week or two before Christmas, today’s subject cost a whopping 60 cents at a thrift shop, and for sheer “say what?” value, it was worth every penny.

Behold! The Amazing Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, on VHS! (It’s below and to your right, obviously; eagle eyes will notice I’m experimenting a bit, but just a bit, with formats this time around. This is a little out-of-the-norm for this blog, and while I can’t promise it’ll continue in the future, right now I feel like a big-time legit newspaper guy or something.)

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When I sauntered into this particular thrift shop, it quickly became evident that someone had dropped off their entire inventory of budget cartoon tapes. Now, I’ve got quite a few of these in my collection already, though I’m by no means on a regular hunt for more specimens. I’m interested in releases of the Fleischer Superman cartoons, and Popeye, but beyond those two, I come across cheapo cartoon releases far, far too often to go all nanners over ’em every single time. Thus, most of the tapes out for sale that night were passed over by yours truly.

And, Alice in Wonderland is even less likely to trip my trigger, because, uh, it’s Alice in Wonderland. We never owned a copy, but growing up I was vaguely familiar with the Disney film, and I of course know the basics of the famous Lewis Carroll story. But I mean, this sort of thing just isn’t really my scene, man.

And in the case of this particular VHS, even the cover art is too competent to raise my eyebrows. Lemme explain: part of the fun with cheap cartoon videos from the 1980s is the oftentimes wildly-amateurish cover art. There are quite a few renditions of Popeye and Superman out there that are too pitiful to not love. Heck, overtly terrible artwork can and sometimes is reason enough for me to drop some coin. But here, the artwork is entirely serviceable. Just look at it up there! It’s competently drawn and colored, and it projects a nice, Easter-ish vibe. No one will ever mistake it for a release of Disney’s version of the story, but for what it is, the artist did a good job.

So, just why did this tape end up coming home with me that fateful night? The answer is found on the back cover…

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No, it wasn’t the featured line-up listing. Sure, you’ve got the “marquee” feature, along with what (I guess) I initially presumed was just another old, subsequently-public-domain-lapsed iteration of Carroll’s heroine, plus a couple of other seemingly-appropriate “wonder-ish” cartoons. It all “fits,” but none of those were why I grabbed this VHS, either.

Nope, the real reason I avidly purchased this tape has to do with the logo you’re seeing to the left: it was a Kid Pics release! What makes Kid Pics so special, you ask? Why, Kid Pics was part of the Amvest Video empire, that’s what! Though the back cover makes no mention of it, Kid Pics was indeed a division or subsidiary or connected-in-some-way-somehow to Amvest, and that’s what made this a must-buy for me. You don’t (or at least I don’t) come across these things in-person very often, and at only 60 cents, hey, I pretty much had to have at it!

Amvest has had no small presence on this blog, especially in regards to this their Al Lewis-hosted Grampa Present video series, which culminated in the ultimate recap this past Halloween. Indeed, I’ve become more and more enamored with the company, to the point where anything I come across by them whilst out and about is more than likely entering my collection. While still decidedly a budget outfit, many of their tapes had a quirky charm to them, and there are more than a few interesting stories regarding the company out there in internet-land, for those inclined to look. While I don’t go after every single Amvest release with the same fervor that I do their Grampa series, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t give the nod to Amvest whenever possible.

So anyway, there I was, an ostensibly-adult, 30-year-old male, carrying a cheap Alice in Wonderland VHS tape around a thrift store, and far more excited about it than any ostensibly-adult, 30-year-old male should have been. Was I a cause for concern to fellow patrons of the establishment? Maybe, maybe not. If I was though, what they didn’t realize was that I had found a rare, or at least wildly-obscure item, and more-importantly, fodder for my silly blog. Though truth be told, it wasn’t until after I checked out the tape and ruminated on it for a bit that I myself realized I could get a post out of this, either.

(Found at the same time as this was a Kid Pics tape featuring public domain Looney Tunes shorts, and months ago I had picked a Superman cartoon comp by them as well. For all I know, I unknowingly have more releases buried in my collection. Any any rate, my big hope with these three tapes was that The Happy Hamster, a bizarre host for some, but not all, Kids Pics releases would show up. Alas, it was not to be. Perhaps it was for the best though, since the sensory overload of The Happy Hamster hosting this tape would have, in all likelihood, caused my face to explode.)

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And that brings us to Alice in Wonderland proper.

Before I actually played the thing, I figured this was just another release of an old cartoon that had been floating around the public domain for centuries decades, an Ub Iwerks or something. That’s not what I got, though. Nope, what I found instead, while not really “disturbing,” was still more than a bit odd, and just a little trippy: a 9-minute, black & white short that combined live-action and stop-motion animation to form a fast, condensed version of the famous story.

Upon my initial perusal, I pretty much just zipped through the tape to see what exactly I had. After discovering that this Alice in Wonderland was what it was, I went looking for it online; I wanted to see what year it was released, who was in it, and so on and so forth. My first thought was that it was an early television production, and when my Google searches and whatnot didn’t turn up the answers I was looking for, I quickly found my interest in the whole matter deepening ever more so, as it is wont to do.

Had I been paying closer attention the first time around, I’d have found my answer easily enough: The title-card’s mention of “Lou Bunin” tells all. Turns out, this is an extremely edited version of the 1949 French film of the same name! The original is 80+ minutes long, and in color, so given the nature of the print found on this tape, not to mention the Castle Films cards that were also included at the open and closing of the feature, it seems to me that this was a VHS re-release of something that was produced for the home market in the decades prior; originally a Sound Super 8 reel or something like that. I’ll go ahead and assume this condensed version has lapsed into the public domain in the US, though apparently the 1949 original has not. Either way, interesting stuff!

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At only about 9 minutes, needless to say there wasn’t much time for exposition. So here, things kind of just “happen.” Now granted, Alice in Wonderland didn’t exactly feature the most lucid story in the first place; that was sort of the point of the whole thing, right? But even so, the quick cuts and fairly choppy nature of the proceedings here, it’s a pretty disconcerting. That may sound fitting for an adaption of Alice in Wonderland, but this turned out to be more of an honest-to-goodness sensory assault than it had any right to be.

The plot, such as it is, starts out with Alice following the famous White Rabbit to Wonderland; that’s seriously how this edit of the film starts. No questioning as to why a rabbit is wearing a coat and walking upright – “Seems legit,” as the hip kids say. Following the rabbit to his lair and drinking a potion to make herself small enough to follow him through the tiny entrance to Wonderland? Sure, why not! Alice in Wonderland was kind of an acid trip of a tale in the first place, and as for the 1949 adaption, since I haven’t seen the full version, I don’t know if there was any initial reluctance on Alice’s part or not, but she seems to go with the flow without hesitation here. Anthropomorphic rabbits? Drinking random potions that have appeared out of nowhere? None of that is cause for concern to Alice, I guess!

What follows is Alice being accused to stealing the Queen’s tarts, and being put on trial. The possibility of having her head chopped off, as the Queen readily insists time and time again? Alice seems only mildly apprehensive of the wacky-jack situation and possibly bad resolution – maybe she’s cognizant of the fact she’s trippin’ perhaps? This is weird stuff, and like I said, things just sort of randomly happen; I’d imagine that kids would have needed some prior knowledge of the story to make any sense (relatively speaking) of this particular iteration. And just like it began, it sort of just concludes; just as the trial is about to rule against her keeping her noggin, Alice suddenly finds herself safely back in “real time,” unsure if it was all a dream but with a, as the narrator states, “wonderful story to tell” nevertheless. I’d hardly say nearly being decapitated over tarts is a “wonderful story,” but I suppose it’s pointless to question any of this.

The special effects and stop-motion are technically pretty impressive for the time; they’re well-done and accurately present the dreamlike world of Wonderland. The scene of Alice shrinking near the start is pretty neat for 1949, and the animation of the Wonderland inhabits is acceptable, though the jerky nature of them, coupled with the black & white picture and already-weird nature of the source material, plus the chopped up quality of this print, it all ends up being a little creepy, honestly.

Look, I find this short impossible to satisfactorily describe. The Internet Archive has a copy (though interestingly, it lacks the title card and first several seconds that are present on this tape), and it’s notated as public domain, so here you go.

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When I first found this tape and gave the contents listed on the back a fleeting-at-best glance, I saw what was on it, but I didn’t really comprehend what the included cartoons were, if that makes any sense. Not beyond the cover art at least, I mean. Look, this was a Kids Pics release; it was coming home with me no matter what. I guess what I’m saying is I didn’t pay all that much attention to the tape I was far too excited to find. If that sounds like an oxymoron of sorts, rest assured it happens a bit more often than I’d care to admit. Buy first, think later!

(In all seriousness, whenever I’m out thrifting, I generally do pay some attention to whatever I’ll be bringing up to the sales counter. Be it an electronic, tape, or what have you, I like to have as few negative surprises as possible when I get home. But in this case, and in instances like it, the content of the tape is basically secondary to the rarity of it. Is the tape moldy? Does it look like it will play? That’s all I really needed to know before the purchase. And in the end, it was only 60 cents.)

Anyway, when the sale was done and I got home with my loot, it wasn’t until I actually saw it that I realized there was a thematic-element going on here. This wasn’t just a short, budget-priced collection of public domain cartoons; Amvest/Kids Pics/whoever put together four shorts that kinda sorta go together (for the most part; read on, you’ll see), despite not being related in any real capacity.

So, Alice’s Tin Pony. On the surface, it sounds like another vintage trip to Wonderland, not unlike how there were multiple theatrical shorts detailing the land of Oz back in the day. One would and could be forgiven for making that Wonderland connection upon first glance, given the title (especially if they weren’t familiar with the various renditions of Alice in Wonderland, as I was/am). Maybe that’s the main reason it was included in the first place, I don’t know.

But, that’s not what this is. Rather, it’s a part of an old, old series of silent Disney shorts from the 1920s that have all lapsed into the public domain. Look up above if you don’t believe me. Alice, Disney. See?!

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Besides the whole “her name is Alice too!” thing, this cartoon makes a fitting pairing with the bizarre Alice in Wonderland edit that precedes it for one very good reason: it’s a combination of live and action and animation.

The gimmick for these “Alice Comedies” was that the titular character was a real human kid, superimposed (?) over the cartoon world in which she lives and takes part in. Truth be told, it’s an effect that works far better than I ever would have expected it to prior. This short is from 1925, and while this isn’t news that will surprise anyone familiar with the series, I found it technologically impressive.

Alice’s partner in these shorts was an animated cat named Julius. There they are up above, and if you think Julius bears more than a passing resemblance to Felix the Cat, that’s because he, uh, doesbig time. Not only does Julius appear to be a dead-ringer for Felix, but he acts pretty much the same, too. Dude can even detach his tail and do things with it. In fact, this short is pretty surreal overall, not unlike a typical Felix the Cat cartoon – which of course makes it an even better pairing with Alice in Wonderland.

In this Alice installment, she and Julius run a railroad line, and that day, it’s carrying a payroll shipment of some sort. Felix’s Julius’ surrealistic powers and a sentient train help stop a bandit and his gang from stealing said payroll.

Listen, this thing is impossibly weird, it’s public domain, and it’s only a bit over seven minutes long, so just watch it for yourself here.

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Now is as good a time as any to mention that this tape would not stay tracked. My screenshots don’t look so bad, but man, while in action I had to keep screwing around with the tracking controls. By the end, even the patience of your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter was being tried, and believe me, I’m no stranger to wonky trackin.’ This was a pretty cheap tape, recorded in EP, and that coupled with one of my lower-end VCRs, well, the results are never gonna be Criterion-quality when I go that route.

The second-half of the tape opens with this, 1936’s Somewhere in Dreamland. Wonderland, Dreamland, the (loose) theme continues! According to Wikipedia, the first few minutes of this cartoon are sometimes cut, though the complete (?) version is found here. Note the black bar obscuring the original copyright info above; was that even necessary? Near as I can tell, this one has been in the public domain for decades. Then again, the bar doesn’t appear then-recently implemented, and there’s a NTA title for the ending card, so maybe it was first used when this one hit television? That’s my best guess, anyway.

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Somewhere in Dreamland is very much a depression-era cartoon. In it, two poor kids haul a wagon around collecting firewood for their home. They can’t afford sweets or any of the other things kids ostensibly desire. A sad moment early on has their mother feeding them stale bread, and crying when one of them says they’re still hungry. Given the then-current situation in pre-WWII US, it’s pretty powerful imagery, especially for a kids cartoon. One can’t help but feel that the early scenes of the short really hit home for more than a few viewers at the time.

No, chief, none of that’s the Dreamland of the title; it’s not an ironically-named cartoon! Rather, Dreamland is where the two kids visit when they go to sleep that night. (I guess they dream in tandem?) Dreamland is filled with all the things they don’t have access to in real life: Nice clothes, sweets, toys, general pleasantness. And it’s all accompanied by a dreamy (“you don’t say?!”) song playing throughout, which is probably exactly how you’re envisioning it to be, if you have any familiarity with cartoons from this era.

There’s a suitably happy resolution to the cartoon that, despite being obligatory, I can’t help but feel was a little disheartening to the real children of the depression that were originally watching this. But then, I’m probably reading too much into this.

Being a Max Fleischer work, there’s also some incredible 3D-rotating backgrounds on display, too. Being a Popeye veteran, I’m well-accustomed to these, but nevertheless, I’m always wowed by them. Go ahead and watch this cartoon for yourself here.

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The tape finishes with Toonerville Picnic, the only cartoon that doesn’t really fit in with the loose dreamy, surrealistic theme of the tape. I mean, there’s wacky, unrealistic situations here, but really no more so than any other cartoon of the time – or now, for that matter. Indeed, Brentwood Video (who had some kind of partnership with Amvest, late in the life of the latter) released a VHS in the 1990s that was pretty much the exact thing content-wise as what we’re looking at today – except Toonerville Picnic, which was dropped from the line-up. At least that’s how I understand it, not personally owning that Brentwood release myself.

From 1936 and based on a long-running comic strip, this was one of Van Beuren Studios’ all-color Rainbow Parade series entries. Actually, it was not only the final Rainbow Parade entry, but from how I understand it, also the final cartoon Van Beuren put out, period. Maybe their final thing ever, for all I know.

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This is my least-favorite short of the tape. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really ga ga over any of these, but as I said, I like the weird, out-there vibes coming from the cassette. Toonerville Picnic kinda stops all that dead. What, Amvest/Kids Pics couldn’t find one more trippy public domain cartoon to finish off their blockbuster VHS release? Bah! Maybe I’d like it more if I had some actual experience with the comic strip it’s based on, but I don’t so I don’t.

Not that it’s really a bad cartoon, mind you. Just not my favorite. In it, Mr. Bang, who has a temper to match his last name (i.e., he’s in a constant bad mood) is ordered to get some rest, so he heads to the beach. What he gets is an annoying dog, an uncooperative chair, and a homicidal octopus. You’ll have that, after all.

Look, I’m tired of talking about this tape. Just watch this one for yourself here. (Link has a different opening card from what my copy features, but whatever.)


My conclusions?

This is a neat tape. It’s a little out there, but it’s neat. On the surface, it looks like just another run-of-the-mill budget cartoon tape. Playing it though, that’s where things get interesting. Instead of being yet another presentation of the “usual suspects” of PD animation, this is instead an interesting collection, featuring four fairly obscure shorts. In fact, all four were new to me.

‘Course, Alice in Wonderland is the centerpiece, and boy, is it a trip. The extreme editing it suffered gives the short a real, I don’t know, stream-of-consciousness feeling, I guess you could say. Whether the complete 1949 original is like that, I do not know. But as to what’s seen here, it’s truly a wild, wacky trip back to budget VHS past, and it totally sets the tone for the rest of the video. Sure, the shorts get progressively less strange as they go along, but all in all, this isn’t a bad 30 minutes or so for lovers of “huh?!” cinema. I didn’t realize how fortuitous the tape would be when I discovered it at that thrift store several weeks back, but boy, good find.

And it was only 60 cents!