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Mr. Pop History Presents 1968 Week-By-Week

Overview by Robert Neill


Although the trend toward gimmick-novelty television shows had not yet completely played itself out by 1968, TV was beginning to look a little less bizarre. Only a handful of new supernatural or science-fiction series (Irwin Allen's "Land of The Giants" and the sitcom "The Ghost & Mrs. Muir," for example) and bizarre programs (like the cross-dressing comedy "The Ugliest Girl In Town") were added to the prime-time schedule in 1968. A few earlier offbeat or unusual shows ("The Avengers," "The Wild, Wild West," "I Dream of Jeannie, "Bewitched" and "The Flying Nun" among them) also continued to air on network TV, but many of the quirkier 60's shows were gone by the end of the year. Perhaps the most outre TV series run on American television in 1968 was "The Prisoner," which was imported from England to capitalize on the on-going 1960's spy craze. Whether this series featured brilliant but obscure symbolism or was simply a confusing mess has since been endlessly debated, but, at the time, viewers took the program's outlandish storylines very seriously and hypothesized about what it all really meant.


The networks continued to try to exploit the values of the hippie generation, by catering a few new shows to young, counterculture audiences. 1968's "The Mod Squad," for example, featured hippie cops. The new comedy-variety series "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," which debuted in January, combined psychedelic trappings and sex-and-politics humor with corny, old-time vaudeville-type shtick. The series' producers created an amalgam that was just as hip and contemporary as the Smothers Brothers variety series, but even sillier and raunchier. At the same time, they managed to avoid alienating the sort of viewers who felt the Smothers' show was too offensively left-wing and controversial. For example, Rowan & Martin's recurring joke predicting that Ronald Reagan would be President in the 1980's was deemed too absurd for anyone to take seriously.


Since the TV shows of previous seasons had demonstrated that audiences were not as biased against African-Americans on television as the networks had once believed, NBC experimented by scheduling a sitcom aimed at all races, but featuring a widowed, African-American Nurse and her young son as the central characters. Although this program, "Julia," did encounter some racist backlash, it eventually garnered a loyal, multi-racial following and help pave the way for an even more prominent role for African-American entertainers on television.


Considering the political turmoil taking place in the USA at the time, most of the cop shows telecast in 1968 ("NYPD," "Ironside," "Dragnet") were suprisingly conservative. 1968 was the year "Hawaii Five-0" debuted with the straight-arrow, hippie-mocking lawman Steve McGarrett as its central character. Although Lt. Columbo didn't get his own recurring series until the 1970's, that character made his TV debut in 1968, too, with few viewers at the time realizing Peter Falk would eventually turn Columbo into one of television's most enduring detectives. One other TV perennial that premiered in 1968 was the CBS 'newsmagazine' "60 Minutes."


Many of the other hit TV series in 1968 could just as easily have been programmed in less-tumultuous 1958; three of the most popular--"Gunsmoke," "The Lawrence Welk Show" and "The Ed Sullivan Show"--even had. There may have been a counter-culture revolution taking place in America in 1968, but one wouldn't have gleaned it from top-rated shows like "Family Affair," "Here's Lucy," "The Big Valley," "Mayberry, R.F.D.," "The High Chaparral," "Disney's Wonderful World of Color," "Garrison's Gorillas," "Green Acres," "The Virginian," "Daniel Boone," "Lancer" or the variety series headlined by Carol Burnett, Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton.


Although the entertainment media in the early 1960's had been slow to catch on to the public's fascination for space exploration, by 1968 movies and TV shows featuring astronauts were becoming commonplace enough to qualify as a sub-genre on their own. Two of the most successful films of 1968 were the imperiled-astronaut adventures "Planet of The Apes" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." 1968 was also the release year for Robert Altman's now all-but-forgotten "Countdown," the intriguing exploration of NASA office politics leading up to a manned lunar landing.


The us-vs-them mentality of the 'Generation Gap' of the late-1960's continued to be an influence on the films produced in 1968. Many of the movies of that year exploited and celebrated the hippies' fascination with sex and drugs and rock n' roll, while other more traditional, old-fashioned and conservative films were produced for their elders. Sex, profanity, violence and recreational drug use in mainstream movies continued to become increasingly explicit in 1968 to the chagrin and consternation of many moviegoers who were shocked by what they saw and heard on-screen. While this new-found freedom from censorship in cinema drew into theatres many curious or open-minded people who wanted to see outrageous things they couldn't see on television, it also broke the movie going habit for just as many longtime patrons not interested in the new smutty, bloody, foul-mouthed, drug-soaked Hollywood. To help potential moviegoers anticipate whether they'd be outraged and upset by the content of a movie they were considering seeing, the MPAA instituted in 1968 the same movie rating system a slightly-modified version of which is still in use decades later. Coded letter guidelines warned whether a movie was for General audiences or appropriate only for certain ages or levels of Maturity.


In 1968, the interest in 'old movies' of Hollywood's Golden Era continued to grow among college students and others too young to remember the 1930's through 1950's first-hand. Innocent black-and-white musicals, serials, thrillers and comedies of earlier decades appealed more to many members of the hippie generation than the new films supposedly aimed at them did. Among the younger people with a fondness for Hollywood's rich heritage were talented young writers and directors whose own plays and movies sometimes reflected their knowledge and appreciation of vintage films. Prior to the late 1960's, the film industry had occasionally acknowledged its own past--most notably in the 1950 movie "Sunset Boulevard," which had treated survivors of the silent film era with pathos and as garishly archaic has-beens. From 1968 on, the new generation of 'movie buff' filmmakers celebrated its film industry progenitors by casting old-time actors for their retro-iconic value and by including in their scripts hip, reverential acknowledgements of classic films. For example, to fully comprehend the so-called "Spaghetti Westerns" being produced in Europe in the late 1960's, a viewer needed to be familiar with the cliches and imagery of classic American Westerns, so the viewer could see how the newer films evoked, tweaked and sometimes parodied their predecessors.


The most noteworthy 1968 example of this films-for-film-buffs trend was the Peter Bogdanovich film "Targets," which featured elderly horror movie star Boris Karloff as... an elderly horror movie star. The backstory of the character's life and career were drawn from Karloff's own real-life history. To fully appreciate the film, viewers had to share Bogdanovich's film buff knowledge and attitude. The success of "Targets" led to further productions aimed at admirers of old movies-- a tradition continued on through the present with, among countless others, "Play It Again, Sam" in 1972, "Jackie Brown" in 1997, "Far From Heaven" in 2002 and "Down With Love" in 2003. The frequent referencing of other films and their stars has led to a never-ending cycle of 'in-jokes' within movies, a trend which many film buffs now feel has outlived its value and become extremely overdone and oversaturated.


In addition to catering to the retro-movie crowd, Hollywood continued to produce new films aimed at all types of audiences. Lavishmusicals ("Star!," "Finian's Rainbow," "Funny Girl"), a genre soon to be facing near-extinction, were still evident in 1968, with "Oliver!" even winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Other genres still thriving were Westerns, horror films, WWII dramas, rock n' roll movies, science fiction, family films, comedies and spy / cop / PI crimefighting adventures. Violent movies like "Bullitt" appealed to audiences who enjoyed explosive action.


Although some major movies were still being filmed in black and white as late as the mid-1960's, by 1968 it was very rare to see a film shot not in color. One black and white movie that broke that trend was the grisly, low-budget horror film "Night of The Living Dead." This chiller about flesh-eating zombies was so graphic in its depiction of gore and so financially lucrative for the theatres that ran it, that it led to an escalation in the vivid depiction of on-screen horror. While some post-1968 horror films have maintained the earlier traditions of non-explicit, atmospheric, suggested terror or bloodless monster attacks, other post-1968 horror films have competed to outdo each other in revolting, stomach-churning violence, mayhem and dismemberment. "Nightmare on Elm Street," "Friday the 13th," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," most of the dead-teenager movies and other sequel-generating gorefests can credit their bloody existence to the taboos shattered and precedents established by the 1968 "Night of The Living Dead." The notoriety of that film almost overshadows the fact that the conventional-by-comparison horror thriller "Rosemary's Baby" was also a huge hit in 1968.


Both sides of the Generation Gap fared well with the Oscar nominations for 1968 movies. Several of the acting nominees wererelatively-youthful newcomers being nominated for their film debuts. Of these, not-yet-30 Barbra Streisand won an Oscar for Actress for "Funny Girl," splitting that year's Award in a rare tie. The other Actress Oscar was given to veteran Katharine Hepburn--already in her 4th decade of making movies--for "The Lion In Winter." Also nearing 70 was Best Director winner Sir Carol Reed, who won for "Oliver!" The Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor Awards went to geriatric veterans: Ruth Gordon, who was past 70, and Jack Albertson, who was past 60, winning for "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Subject Was Roses," respectively. Middle-aged Cliff Robertson won the Actor Oscar for "Charly."


Conventional Pop History wisdom sometimes states that Hollywood didn't fully realize until the success of "Easy Rider" in 1969 thatmovies aimed at the younger end of the demographic spectrum could be lucrative, but the film industry showed signs of exploiting that fact already by 1968. Traditionally, movies based on Shakespeare had been marketed as ponderous, serious dramas and literary masterworks, designed to appeal to the PBS crowd. The hit 1968 movie version of "Romeo & Juliet," however, was marketed more to the teen crowd with dreamy, erotic print ads depicting the film's attractive young leads in a romantic moment, while the movie's lush, maudlin Love Theme was obviously geared for Top 40 radio play. It's also hard to believe that M-G-M was oblivious to the fact that "2001: A Space Odyssey" wasn't a hit solely based on ticket sales to science-fiction buffs and cineastes. Surely they suspected a big segment of the film's repeat patronage came from hippies and stoners who ingested hallucinogens and then tripped out on the movie's intense visuals and vibrant imagery.


Although the Monkees' TV show was cancelled in August of 1968 and their record sales dwindled rapidly, their success had helped demonstrate to the music industry that pre-teens were a record-buying niche market worth looking into. Teenybopper bands like the Cowsills were too wholesome to appeal to teenagers who appreciated heavier 1968 bands like Steppenwolf, Vanilla Fudge, Big Brother and Holding Company, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream and Iron Butterfly, but were perfect for those not yet old enough to relate to or understand songs about love, drugs and social revolution.


To appeal to these younger rockers, the music industry created a pop music sub-genre thatbecame known as 'Bubblegum Music.' 1968 hits like "Simon Says" and "1-2-3 Red Light" by the 1910 Fruitgum Company and "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" by Ohio Express were dismissed instantly as worthless trash by 'serious' rock fans, but were enjoyed (repeatedly) by their younger intended market. To fill the void left by the Monkees, their creator Don Kirshner devised another TV-supported rock band, the Archies, based on the famous comic book characters. Talented studio musicians like Ron Dante, Toni Wine, Barry Mann and Andy Kim performed on the Archies' records, but the band was represented visually only by its fictionalized animated likeness in cartoons on TV. Starting in 1968, over the next few years the Archies became one of the most successful of the Bubblegum Music groups--as well as one of the top-selling bands in any musical genre.


As with other years in the 1960's, the big hits of 1968 were an unpredictable collection of styles and genres. Schmaltzy love songs like "This Guy's In Love With You" sung by Tijuana Brass trumpeter-bandleader Herb Alpert and even schmaltzier love songs like Bobby Goldsboro's dead-girlfriend weeper "Honey" co-existed with blues, country, folk, soul, easy-listening and novelty records. The Beatles continued to be hugely popular and increasingly innovative, while other 'British Invasion' artists continued to thrive in the USA, too. The post-Sgt. Pepper psychedelic sound generated 1968 hits like "Green Tambourine" by the Lemon Pipers, "Sky Pilot" by the Animals, "Itchycoo Park" by the Small Faces, "Pictures of Matchstick Men" by Status Quo, "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, "Like To Get To Know You" by Spanky and Our Gang and "She's A Rainbow" by Rolling Stones.

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