The Archivist #95: The Glory Days of TV Movies

When movies of the week were the real events

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory-pressed Blu-rays. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

Few would argue that television is flourishing perhaps now more than ever before. In terms of availability, quality, content and variety, there has never been a more exciting time for the medium in its entire history. Big name talent and sought-after directors alike have embraced television in recent years like never before, instantly latching onto the opportunity to help tell the kinds of stories which challenge and provoke. The darkest of taboo-shattering dramas, the most witty of comedies and even chilling horror have all been able to carve out places for themselves somewhere within the television landscape with their respective audiences only too happy to quickly seek them out. It is a miraculous time for television, which does not seem to be slowing down in the slightest.

If there’s one casualty to the new face of television, it’s the virtual demise of the TV movie. There was a time when TV movies were some of the most thriving elements of television, chock full of engaging, original content which could score big name stars and take on subjects a bit too risque for standard episodic fare. Whether it was in the revolutionary 70s or the conservative 80s, movies made for television served as their own breed. There’s no denying that the image of the TV movie would later become one of fluff and ridicule, with many high-brow viewers proclaiming the sub-genre of television to be nothing more than a place for adaptations of throwaway romance novels and holiday fluff. But for a time, TV movies were a rare breed all their own that managed to bring out the best of both television and cinema through creative and involving stories. On this edition of The Archivist, we spotlight a pair of titles which showcase some of the best of what TV movies once were through the romantic caper Love Among Thieves and the cult thriller Bad Ronald; two prime examples of the creative and (in some cases) subversive levels TV movies dared to venture.

Love Among Thieves (1987)

Audrey Hepburn led this globe-trotting heist story playing Baroness Caroline DuLac; a renowned concert pianist who steals a pair of priceless faberge eggs and heads to South America in order to deliver them to the wealthy collector holding her fiance hostage. On the way, Caroline encounters fellow traveler Mike Chambers (Robert Wagner), whom she can’t shake and ends up journeying with her on an adventure filled with intrigue and romance.

Love Among Thieves is a textbook example of the kind of TV movie fare so popular during the 80s in which former movie stars (in this case, Hepburn in her last leading role) were lured to the small screen. There was a certain dignity and respect movies like these paid to the legends starring in them as evidenced here. The way Love Among Thieves allows Hepburn’s still-potent radiance to shine alone makes the whole affair worth every minute. The actress is wonderfully paired with Wagner, who successfully re-works his Hart to Hart character into a scruffy, but engaging louse, leading to some great comic moments. Besides giving its stars a chance to have some obvious fun with the premise, Love Among Thieves has a decent amount of twists and turns in its own right to keep viewers entertained. The chemistry of the stars and the popularity of the movie itself were both successful enough, that rumors of a sequel and a potential series (perhaps one to rivel Moonlight) were swirled, but sadly never surfaced.

Bad Ronald (1974)

One of the strangest, but heartbreaking TV movies ever made, Bad Ronald stars Scott Jacoby as the title character; a 17-year-old boy living with his overbearing mother (Kim Hunter) who shelters him to no end, causing her son to live in his own made up fairy tale world. Considered weird by the entire neighborhood, Ronald finds himself one day taunted by a local girl, resulting in a scuffle and her accidental death. Panicked, Ronald’s mother decides to hide her son in a secret room within their home until suspicion dies down. When she dies as a result of an operation however, the house is put up for sale and a new family moves in with a young daughter who is sure there is something lurking in the walls.

Horror/suspense themed tales were fairly commonplace in the TV movie realm during the 70s, and Bad Ronald is one of the most notorious from that era. The movie echoes the oftentimes creative cut-and-paste production values that forced these typically low-budget efforts to operate on. What such movies lacked in money, they made up for in rich storytelling, with Bad Ronald being one of the most daring. The movie looks at the incredibly co-dependent relationship between Ronald and his mom and illustrates how her overbearing nature has stunted him emotionally. The death of his mother leads to the loss of whatever identity Ronald had, plunging him further into the fantasy world he always sought refuge in. It’s society’s own view of the oddball outsider that’s partly responsible for Ronald becoming the monster lurking in the walls which the film also makes a strong point of hammering home, leading to devastating results. With long-gestating plans for a feature remake and the movie’s re-release on Blu-Ray, Bad Ronald’s legacy as one of the most telling TV movie thrillers of all time continues.

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