The Twin Geeks 152: Change of the Guard, the Films of Peter Bogdanovich – Part 5

The following chapter of Bogdanovich’s career has yet to be recorded in any significant capacity. Previous retrospectives of his works tend to end at his dramatic apex, with the more thorough examinations dipping into the later classics and recent reevaluations recognizing his last theatrical works. Nobody, however, has paid any attention to his TV works from the ‘90s. Nobody. “I did a lot of tv work that I’m very proud of, but television work doesn’t get considered the same as a feature, even though you shoot it like a feature. It’s still a movie. You still get the script right, you still cast it, you shoot it quickly. And it’s harder to do because you’re shooting fast, but it doesn’t get any consideration. It’s snob appeal.” That’s what Bogdanovich had to say in a rare interview in which he was asked about his television works, expressing at least some bitterness at the disregard paid to the work he gave equal efforts to despite the smaller canvas. 

I was directing, but I wasn’t doing theatrical features. I did five television films in five years. I shot them very fast, and nobody saw them except millions of people.” Although these films are all but forgotten today, in their time Bogdanovich’s “movie-of-the-week” work was quite successful. With every household glued to their tvs in search of nightly entertainment throughout the decade, Bogdanovich’s films made waves across the Neilson ratings, but promptly disappeared from the pages of posterity. Even his first television project, a sequel to the classic Sidney Poitier film To Sir, with Love, has made no impression on the Bogdanovich canon. 

In a depressing fit of irony, the two Hollywood legends passed tragically on the same day, making To Sir, with Love II a kind of twilight coda for the both of them, buried within the legacies of their more treasured works. It’s a worthy successor to its predecessor – better, even, in some regards, such as the way it transplants the tangential racial themes of the first movie to the progressive and more critical conversations of the 1990s. Bogdanovich’s films had rarely ventured outside his prerogative for thematic material up until now, but by transitioning to for-hire work on television he’d find a number of new opportunities to explore perspectives and struggles which were beyond his own. 

Blessed Assurance (perhaps also known as The Price of Heaven) attempts to continue this conversation in its portrayal of a Korean War veteran returning home to face a moral dilemma in a job which requires him to prey on the vulnerability of an impoverished Black commune. The truncated structure of the TV-movie mold does the story a disservice and leaves the film little room to flesh out its themes. Its embrace of melodrama betrays the sense of distinction Bogdanovich eloquently bestowed on his first TV production, embodying the kind of schmaltzy, middling productions derisively associated with the genre.

 Rescuers: Stories of Courage: Two Women is the first in a series of three thematically related movies about courageous persons aiding the escape of Jews from Nazi agents in occupied Poland. Bognavoch helmed this first entry, but the film lacks any recognizable features attributable to the director. Despite himself having been conceived in the former Yugoslavia before his parents fled from the Nazis and landed in New York, the film lacks any personal distinction or any significant revelations – as bog standard as Bogdanovich ever got.

Jules Dassin was unfortunately not one of the major Hollywood directors whose influence managed to inspire Bogdanovich to chronicle their legacy, but his important role as an architect of Film Noir’s impact on cinema nonetheless managed to worm its way into Bogdanovich’s career. The Naked City was a seminal 1948 noir which distinguished itself with a documentary-like approach to shooting on the streets of New York. Bogdanovich was hired to make a tv movie continuation of the characters first seen in Dassin’s film, now dealing with the criminals of contemporary New York. Naked City: A Killer Christmas stars Scott Glenn in the role first helmed by grizzled noir everyman Richard Widmark searching for a serial killer terrorizing the city. It’s about as close as Bogdanovich ever got to inheriting the legacy of Fritz Lang or Edgar Ulmer, but more often the film feels like any ordinary cop drama than an expressionistic revival.

The next film from Bogdanovich couldn’t be farther from his usual prerogative. A body swap comedy set in New Orleans where professional football player David Alan Grier and artist wife Vivica A. Fox mend their marriage through the old adage of walking a mile in each other’s shoes. It’s also a Disney film, brimming with the requisite amount of Disney cornball and childish humor. A Saintly Switch maintains a certain affable charm, a universal appeal which speaks to the importance of family and communication, while supplying some fantastical humor in all of Bogdanovich’s illustrious comic career.   

From one sports sphere to another, Bogdanovich’s last TV film was produced, surprisingly, by ESPN. They asked him to make a movie about disgraced baseball legend Pete Rose, whose story interested Bogdanovich as a kind of embodiment of the failures of the American Dream. Rose rose his way up in prominence through a lucrative and record-breaking career in baseball, but squandered it all away thanks to a debilitating gambling addiction. He became a coach for the team he first became famous on, and started fixing games to pay his bills. When he was finally caught, he spent five months in jail and was stripped of all his previous honors. What we see in Hustle is that downfall in full, a depraved portrait of a fallen man finally reaching the end of his rope. If you’re not a fan of baseball, or aren’t particularly familiar with the legend of Pete Rose, then Hustle will likely be a foul ball instead of a home run. 

But regardless of how successful or not these films ultimately were, they kept Bogdanovich employed – and even more than that, they sharpened his skills. “I couldn’t have made The Cat’s Meow, which we did in 31 days, if I hadn’t have done five television films back-to-back in five years — all of them 19, 20, 22, 24 days.” There would never be another Last Picture Show for the enlightened successor of the Hollywood masters, but he did manage some respectable efforts working in an undervalued medium. Bogdanovich never considered his television works any less worthy of consideration than his feature films, and neither should we. Considering how a number of Bogdanovich’s most treasured films still don’t have proper distribution (even Paper Moon lacks a North American blu-ray release), it should come as no surprise that his televisual period languishes thanks to pervasive obscurity. 

We feel very privileged here at The Twin Geeks to have the resources necessary for us to catalog and cover these forgotten films, with special thanks to Scarecrow Video in Seattle, Washington for preserving these works on a physical format, which not even the unsavoriest of internet pirates have thought to claim. It’s up to us to preserve the legacy of filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich; to do for him what he did for Orson Welles, John Ford, and innumerable others. To prop up his legacy and appreciate everything he gave to the world – classics, flops, scriptures, and chronicles –  because, if nothing else, the life and career of Peter Bogdanovich exemplified an appreciation for the art of cinema above all else, and the necessity of its preservation and celebration in equal measure.

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