What's that sci-fi movie, multigenerational family drama, time-tripping love story and more

Question: I saw several scenes from some film - a "several decades in the life of a family" tale - as a kid in the '80s and they've been coming back to me for a decade, but my attempts to find the movie have been futile. I don't think I saw the ending, which may explain why it's stayed with me so many years. I'm afraid these snippets are all I can remember:

The family has moved to a large city and invested in a store selling television sets - then a new technology - but their area has no broadcasts. No one is buying the sets, which just show a test pattern, but then the TVs spring to life, showing, I believe, Howdy Doody.

Almost a generation later, this success has been parlayed into a large department store. Some family youngsters are playing there after-hours, and leave a candle lit or set off a firecracker. That night, the store burns to the ground and the kids are guilt-stricken. To their relief, the fire department eventually traces the origin of the blaze to a floor other than the one they were playing on.

In the last scene I remember, one of the same kids gets shut into a car and watches helplessly as his older brother or father is attacked and killed by some shady associates.

Thank you in advance for your help. - Sean

FlickChick: You must be remembering Barry Levinson's Avalon, even though it was released in 1990 rather than the '80s. It's the multigenerational saga of an immigrant family in Baltimore - Levinson's hometown - and chronicles the way their deep family bonds disintegrate as their financial fortunes rise.

The mixed blessing of television is the film's underlying theme, from the store that sets the Krichinskys on the road to middle-class comfort to the set patriarch Sam ( Armin Mueller-Stahl) winds up watching alone in a nursing home.

All three of the scenes you describe are in it, though the father ( Aidan Quinn) is stabbed by a mugger rather than an associate and recovers from his injuries. His son, by the way, is played by a young Elijah Wood.

Question: Last night I watched Footlight Parade, starring Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell. Cagney's character produced live musical "prologues" for movie theaters. My question is, were there really such prologues at the movies? (Obviously, the awesome production numbers that Busby Berkeley created for the movie were beyond the reach of a real movie theater.) Thanks! - Andy

FlickChick: Musical shorts were shown before movies for several years; they succeeded the live musical performances that more upscale theaters offered before feature films in the mid-1920s.

Warner Bros. was the first studio to embrace sound technology, and musical shorts were part of their cost-benefit calculations. Not only were filmed musical shorts vastly cheaper than live shows - for a one-time outlay, you could play them as long as you wanted - but they could also go out to every theater on the Warner circuit, not just the expensive ones in big cities.

You are, however, right about the elaborateness of Footlight Parade's "shorts," which were "Honeymoon Hotel," "By a Waterfall" and "Shanghai Lil." The real things were far less spectacular, but they now provide fascinating glimpses of singers, dancers, popular musicians and other performers whose acts would have otherwise been entirely lost.

Question: I'm looking for a TV-movie, probably from the mid-1990s. It's about a couple that buys a desk, and the man finds a letter hidden in it. He answers the letter and leaves it in the desk, and it goes back through time to the girl who owned the desk during the Civil War. Do you have any idea of the title? - Mark

FlickChick: It's The Love Letter, a 1998 Hallmark movie starring Campbell Scott and Jennifer Jason Leigh - their performances make this improbable story work extraordinarily well.

It was directed by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis and based on a short story by the prolific Jack Finney, whose credits include the much-filmed novel The Body Snatchers and the excellent time-travel novel Time and Again, which has never been filmed.

Question: Here's one for the die-hard sci-fi fans. I've been on the Web searching for an old flick that was probably released in the 1960s and I think was called Time Travelers.

It features a scientific lab where they've got a wall-sized screen that enables them to view the future, which is filled with war and strife. One of the scientists realizes that the screen is actually not solid - he can reach through it. The scientists walk through this portal into the world of the future. I think the scientists could tune this screen to the static/snow, and that was a portal to an even stranger world. Any of this ring a bell? - Marc

FlickChick: Pretty much everything. You're describing The Time Travelers (1964), directed by B-movie stalwart Ib Melchior. As far as I can tell, it's never been released commercially on DVD or VHS, but there are copies available on eBay.

It's widely said to have been the inspiration for the TV series The Time Tunnel, which debuted in 1966. Legendary sci-fi fan Forrest J. Ackerman, founder and editor of the much-loved magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland (1958-1983), made the first of many genre-movie cameo appearances in The Time Travelers.

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