Monday, May 31, 2004

Way Existential

One of the many wonderful things about Amy Heckerling's Clueless is that it's a high school movie that doesn't tell us that high school is hell. Ever since Heathers, we've come to expect high school movies or TV shows to be about pain, humiliation, the losers against the cliques, and so on. It may have a sociological edge to it (Mean Girls), it may turn the high school terrors into B-movie monsters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), it may have a period setting (Freaks and Geeks), but the message is always the same: high school is evil.

Now, I'm sympathetic to this message, because high school, let's face it, was not a pleasant experience. But it's not all bad either, and unless you grew up to become a rich Hollywood producer, we might find that our adult lives aren't all that much better than high school. So there's always room for a movie that takes a different tack, and what Clueless does is to focus on how few real problems a high school student has to face -- particularly if, like Alicia Silverstone's Cher, that student happens to be attractive, rich, and clever enough to argue her way out of any situation. (It's implied that Cher will grow up to be a lawyer like her father.) Cher's problem is that she doesn't have enough problems; like Jane Austen's Emma, she has lived "with very little to distress or vex her," to the point that she can't accept that things won't always turn out exactly as she plans them.

Most teen movies and shows are about characters who are denied the things which they feel they're entitled to, and whose fulfilment comes in getting those things: Molly Ringwald gets her big date, Ferris Bueller bucks authority; the Freaks and Geeks grow up to be Judd Apatow and Paul Feig. Clueless is about a character who learns that she's not always entitled to have her own way, that in fact sometimes good things happen when she's not always scheming to get her own way; that's one of the things that makes it different from other teen movies, and so refreshing.

Also, I'm hardly the first to mention that Clueless is the best movie ever made from a Jane Austen novel. Here is a point-by-point comparison of Clueless with its source, Austen's Emma. There are other, smaller points of similarity; Emma's boredom with village life is parallelled in Cher's boredom with high school boys.

Clueless has the distinction of featuring two actors, of opposite sex, who went on to voice the same cartoon character. Brittany Murphy (Tai) became the voice of Joseph Gribble on King of the Hill (she still does the voice of Luanne), and Breckin Meyer (Travis, Tai's love interest) took over the voice of Joseph after the character went through puberty.

Finally, the best thing about Clueless is the dialogue, a half-literate half-slangy jargon that's sort of the Beverly Hills High School equivalent of Damon Runyon. Some great examples:

CHER: So like, right now for example. The Haiti-ans need to come to America. But some people are all, "What about the strain on our resources?" Well it's like when I had this garden party for my father's birthday, right? I put R.S.V.P. 'cause it was a sit-down dinner. But some people came that like did not R.S.V.P. I was like totally buggin'. I had to haul ass to the kitchen, redistribute the food, and squish in extra place settings. But by the end of the day it was, like, the more the merrier. And so if the government could just get to the kitchen, rearrange some things, we could certainly party with the Haiti-ans. And in conclusion may I please remind you it does not say R.S.V.P. on the Statue of Liberty. Thank you very much.

MURRAY: Street slang is an increasingly valid form of expression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking, but not necessarily misogynistic undertones.

MEL: Anything happens to my daughter, I got a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anyone would miss you.

Obscure Musical of the Week: GOLDILOCKS

Goldilocks (1958) is relatively un-obscure for an obscure flop musical; the cast album is in print, the wonderful overture is still heard sometimes as a pops concert piece, and it has received a few semi-staged productions from the enterprising likes of 42nd Street Moon and Musicals Tonight.

Though the music for this show was composed by Leroy Anderson of "Sleigh Ride" fame, the most important members of the creative team were Walter and Jean Kerr, Broadway's most famous husband and wife team. They weren't a team exactly, at least not usually; Walter Kerr was the drama critic for the New York Herald Tribune (he moved to the Times after the Herald-Tribune folded in the '60s), and Jean Kerr was a playwright. The situation of a critic married to a playwright -- a marriage between two enemy factions, as it were -- inspired a lot of jokes and a whole play, Ira Levin's Critics' Choice about a drama-critic husband who pans his wife's play. (It goes without saying that in real life Walter Kerr did not review plays written by his wife.) The Kerrs' name was really made by Jean's book "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," a very funny collection of short articles, most of which were about her life with Walter and their children in a rather hideous, oversized house in Larchmont. The success of the book made the Kerrs a byword for the advantages of the surburban lifestyle: to readers in the late '50s and early '60s, they were the ideal suburban commuter couple, settling into the suburban family life without losing that City sophistication. There's even an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where Laura explains the improved treatment she's gotten after a magazine publishes an article about Rob: "The butcher shop gave me the steaks they usually save for Jean Kerr." (By the way, it's pronounced to rhyme with "Her.")

Anyway, Walter Kerr took a leave from drama criticism to write a musical, Goldilocks, with his wife: they wrote the book, they wrote the lyrics (in collaboration with someone named Joan Ford, of whom I know nothing), and Walter directed the show. There were out-of-town casting problems; Barry Sullivan, cast in the part of the hustling silent-film director Max Grady, couldn't sing and was replaced by Don Ameche, who could. The female lead was Maggie Harris, an actress who has to make a short movie for Max before she can quit acting and settle down with her boring fiance George (Russell Nype, playing a version of Jean Kerr's favourite punching bag, the sensitive guy -- like Bob in her play Mary, Mary, he's castigated for being too sensible and reasonable and not enough of a "bigoted, reactionary mule"). The role of Maggie was played by Elaine Stritch, a card-carrying member of the "voices only a Broadway buff could love" club but certainly with enough personality to carry a show. The choreography was by Agnes DeMille, and the supporting cast included Pat Stanley -- who the next year would introduce "I Love a Cop" in Fiorello! -- and Margaret Hamilton.

The show takes place in 1913, and deals with the small-time hucksters who made early silent movies. Walter Kerr, one of those critics who was always nostalgic for silent days (he wrote a book on silent comedy, The Silent Clowns) makes it clear that this is where the art of movies begins, that a Max Grady, who makes ten-minute movies for cheap entertainment, is paving the way for the D.W. Griffiths to come. Max even gets a big speech about this, late in the second act:

You know who likes thse five-cent pictures? People -- ordinary, dumb, stupid, honest-to-God people... I like to go into these cheap nickel theaters, sit next to those nuts, and watch them have one hell of a time! You think they're wrong, don't you? But do you know what? This picture is better than the last one, and the last one was better than the one before that, and the next one might even be good if I had someone who just ten-percent believed it!

That's definitely Walter Kerr talking there. Among the major theatre critics of his time, he was sort of the highbrow populist, a fan of fast-paced American fun and of Broadway in general, with all its tryouts, frantic rewrites, script doctoring, the works. ("You worship success," Eric Bentley wrote in a rebuttal to one of Kerr's pieces.) Kerr's coverage of musicals, in particular, was filled with nostalgia for the seemingly unsophisticated, fast, fun musical comedies of the pre-Oklahoma! era; he tended to dislike musicals that took themselves too seriously or included operetta elements, which is why he disliked West Side Story, The Most Happy Fella, and Fiddler on the Roof among others. In writing Goldilocks he and his wife were trying to pay tribute to the brash unspretentiousness of early musicals and early moviemaking, all at once.

Does it work? Well, one point that comes to mind is that if you're going to write a fun musical comedy, you should have lead characters who are fun to be around. Max and Maggie aren't, really; they're arrogant, manipulative and constantly trying to score points off each other; they have a duet called "No One Will Ever Love You Like You Do." George, who gets treated like dirt by everybody, is more likable than the leads, and you're kind of glad to see him get free of Maggie by the end. Interestingly, when Jean Kerr finally had a huge success as a playwright, with Mary, Mary, she did it by combining a Maggie-like heroine with a George-like hero; Mary, Mary plays off the contrast between the wisecracking cynic Mary and the infuriatingly "sensible" Bob, and ends by sort of splitting the difference between them. What we have in Goldilocks is Mary, Mary with Mary as both the male and female lead.

The score is what has kept the show alive; it didn't produce any big hits ("I Never Know When" should have been a big hit ballad; it may have been hurt by Elaine Stritch's vocal unsuitability for a tender ballad), but it has Anderson's trademark of catchy tunes with unpredictable and funny orchestrations (Anderson did his own orchestrations, in collaboration with Broadway veteran Phil Lang). The lyrics are good too, though somewhat overloaded with attempts at clever rhymes; the best lyrics are the ones where the authors' personalities come through most clearly, as in this excerpt from "I Can't Be In Love," which prefigures a similar a/b/c list in Mary, Mary:

I can't be in love, I can't be in love!
Matrimony is
a) too sticky
b) too tricky
c) I believe I'll leave the lions' den to Daniel.
Any time that I get lonely, I have only got to get a cocker spaniel.

The cast album is good, but slightly compromised by the fact that all the dance music was left off (Anderson recorded the dance music himself for another label). Fortunately the overture, one of Broadway's best, is intact.

Edit: in my original post I mistakenly named Ralph Meeker as the original Max. Meeker was in fact originally cast in The Pajama Game, and dropped for much the same reason as Barry Sullivan left Goldilocks.

Edit # 2: Thanks to Noel Katz for correcting me on the name of the Ira Levin play.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Welcome to My Shop, Let Me Cut Your Mop

Greg Duffell is a veteran animator (and sometime voice actor) who runs Lightbox Studios in Toronto. Through his work with animation legends such as Richard Williams and Chuck Jones, and his own tireless viewing of old cartoons, he became the ultimate expert on classic animation styles -- to the point that he could tell you exactly who animated which scenes in an old Warner Brothers cartoon. He used to post some of these observations on usenet, and I thought I would summarize his findings on one of the most famous Looney Tunes cartoons, Chuck Jones' Rabbit of Seville (which is available on the first Looney Tunes DVD collection).

One thing to note is that in WB cartoons, each animator would handle individual scenes or shots. This was a different system from that used for, say, the Disney feature films, where each major character would be assigned to an individual animator (who would, in effect, be the "actor" of that character, since animation is essentially the creation of physical "acting"). This means that the style of drawing and animation of characters can change from scene to scene; in Bob Clampett's cartoons, for example, there's often a sudden switch between the wild, broad movements created by Rod Scribner and the more subtle, fluid acting created by Robert McKimson. Chuck Jones' cartoons don't usually have that level of contrast, because Jones always made a lot of drawings to guide the animators and impose a certain unity of style on his cartoons, but each animator had his own style.

Anyway, see Rabbit of Seville again, and then read this summary of who animated what. This is my own summary, but again, it's based on Greg Duffell's brilliant work of identifying the animators and individual animation styles; I could never do that. So thanks to Mr. Duffell for his great work and his great eye, here is the summary of the animation in Rabbit of Seville:

- The opening sequence, where Elmer Fudd chases Bugs Bunny out of the woods and onto the stage, is animated by Emery Hawkins. (Hawkins wasn't a regular member of Jones' unit; he had animated for Walter Lantz, and then moved to WB to work for director Arthur Davis. When Davis's unit was closed down, Hawkins animated for the three remaining directors at WB, a sort of "rotating" animator, and then left; he mostly worked on commercials after that.)

- When Bugs introduces himself as the barber ("How do! Welcome to my shop -- let me cut your mop"), the animation is by Phil Monroe, who worked in Jones' unit in the late '40s and early '50s, and later animated for Jones at MGM on projects like How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

- Ken Harris, Jones' star animator (he's the guy who animated all the crying scenes in Feed the Kitty, for instance) animates the close shot of Bugs singing "Although your face looks like it might have gone through a machine." Harris was brilliant at doing these kinds of close shots, especially of characters looking toward the camera.

- The next scene, with Bugs in drag, is animated by Emery Hawkins.

- With Elmer back in the barber chair, Ben Washam animates the sequence where Bugs "is massaging Elmer's head and eventually makes a salad there." Washam also animates the subsequent sequence with Bugs as a snake charmer. (Washam is easy to identify, at least in Bugs Bunny cartoons, because he always makes Bugs' teeth pointier -- or "chisel-toothed" as Duffell calls it -- than any other animator.)

- The great chase scene where Elmer and Bugs zoom upward on barber chairs is animated by Lloyd Vaughan (who was with Jones through most of the '40s and the early '50s).

- Ken Harris now takes over in the scene where Elmer gives Bugs the barber a tip, Bugs pushes Elmer around in the revolving door, and then dances Elmer back into the barber chair. As Duffell comments: "This is rare animation, the likes of which we may never see again. The subtlety of action and expression...not to mention the analysis of action from the graceful movement of Bugs' the choreography of the dance with a limp Elmer---all without any live reference I'm sure---is breathtaking."

- Phil Monroe does the shots of Bugs giving Elmer a pedicure.

- Ken Harris is back for the shot of Bugs putting beauty clay on Elmer's face, waiting for it to harden, and then chiselling it off. Duffell again: " Typical of Harris, even in what might seem like a repetitive action of hammering, he subtly modifies each hit, each grimace by Bugs. Bugs seems like a living, breathing character here. What magic!"

- The famous "Figaro Fertilizer" scene, where Bugs applies said fertilizer to Elmer's head (including one shot where Bugs has five fingers all of a sudden) and causes flowers to grow on his bald head, is animated by Lloyd Vaughan.

- Ken Harris now animates the entire final scene of the film: the chase with increasingly large weapons (a perfect visual equivalent of a Rossini crescendo), the marriage sequence, and the final closeup of Bugs saying "next."

My personal note: what's great about Harris's animation -- and the animation of all the great WB animators -- is that it's just so filled with character; every movement made by Bugs or Elmer in this film is perfectly in-character and tells us something about their personalities (Bugs' self-confidence and wit; Elmer's gullibillity and his frustration at being twicked by that wabbit). We're now used to thinking of "acting" in animation as being synonymous with voice acting -- so that the Simpsons voice actors were routinely referred to, in their latest salary dispute, as just "the actors" who play Homer and Lisa and co. -- but acting and characterization comes from the animators too. There is hardly any dialogue in Rabbit of Seville, just one spoken line and a few sung lines, and yet Elmer and Bugs are clearly in character throughout, because of the great actors who were listed as "animators."

Friday, May 28, 2004

Opera Recordings That Never Were

Here's a good article (or rather three articles, by a good writer who unfortunately doesn't post much on the internet any more) about cast changes in opera recordings.

There aren't many complete opera recordings being made these days, but from the '50s (the beginning of the LP era) through the early '90s (the CD boom) there were plenty. One thing to note about opera recordings is that they have never really been an accurate representation of operatic history. For that, you need to go to live performances, in pirate and broadcast recordings, as many hard-core collectors do; I'm not very fond of these, myself, because they tend to be at best a souvenir of an evening. I tend to prefer studio opera recordings (now a dying breed) because, at their best, they can provide a satisfying dramatic experience in themselves, something that is separate from and different from the theatre experience. But anyway, many of the best operatic recordings have nothing to do with who was performing what in the theatre; for example, the famous De Sabata recording of Tosca, with Maria Callas as Tosca and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, made those singers the classic heroine/villain team in this opera, but I think they'd never done this opera together onstage, and as far as I know they didn't appear together in Tosca until the '60s.

In the '50s and '60s, each company had their own "exclusive" artists who were featured in most recordings; Maria Callas and Elizabeth Schwartzkopf at EMI, for example, or Renata Tebaldi and later Joan Sutherland at Decca, or Zinka Milanov and then Leontyne Price at RCA. This meant that a lot of singers never got a chance to record their best parts, singers who were just as good as or better than some of the exclusively-signed artists (not that being less irritating than Elizabeth Schwartzkopf is a big recommendation). Still, this was, all things considered, the best era for complete opera recordings. The coming of LP and then stereo sound were perfect for opera, and the record companies made some effort at idiomatic casting: Italian singers for Italian opera, German singers for German opera, and so on. The Karajan recording of Verdi's Falstaff may have been recorded in London, but all but two or three of the singers were Italian.

By the '70s, the exclusivity system had broken down, but record companies became hyper-reluctant to take any casting risks, which meant that the same few singers wound up being featured in every recording by every company. Placido Domingo recorded Radames Aida at least four times, including three times in one ten-year period. In this era, there was little or no attempt at idiomatic casting, and most operas were recorded in London with non-operatic orchestras (the Philharmonia, the London Symphony, and the for-records only National Philharmonic) because it was cheaper that way. Because of all this, most opera recordings from the '70s, even good ones, have a cookie-cutter, bland feel, like everyone knows the music but doesn't really care much about what's supposed to be happening, dramatically. Conrad L. Osborne complained about this a lot in High Fidelity and James Levine, who conducted many opera recordings in the '70s, recalled:

When you record an opera in London, you have an excellent orchestra, but one that doesn't know the piece. You rehearse the 15 minutes you are going to record, and then you record it. After a while, I thought: This is the reason we have so many anonymous sounding recordings. However good the orchestra is, it's not the same as recording with an orchestra that you play opera with every day.

By the CD era, when companies started churning out dozens of opera recordings to meet what they (falsely) believed to be a huge demand for complete operas in digital sound, casting had become so haphazard that you couldn't even be assured of the anonymous competence of the '70s. The most infamous series of casting blunders was Deutsche Grammophon's insistence on casting their star soprano, Cheryl Studer, in nearly every opera recording they made, no matter what the opera; this resulted in one great recording, Salome, and a lot of disasters (Studer as Lucia, Studer as Violetta, Studer as Gilda). But lots of other recordings from this era suffer from casting that leave you wondering why X was chosen when so many other, better singers were available... and the only conclusion, usually, is that the better singers weren't famous enough or that the recording producers (who often didn't do a great job of keeping up with new talents) hadn't heard of them. One saving grace of this era is that more opera recordings started to be made with real opera orchestras (the Met Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Dresden Staatkapelle) and idiomatic casting started to creep back in, as for instance Decca's all-Italian La Cenerentola with Cecilia Bartoli.

Now opera recordings, which are expensive to make and rarely make back their cost (especially since they're competing with all those great '50s and '60s recordings), have more or less been abandoned by the major labels, and the independents, which are otherwise doing a fine job of keeping classical recording alive, can't afford to make many complete operas. The future of opera recording is probably on DVD... but the patching-together of live performances onto a DVD can't be a true substitute for the pleasure of a good studio audio recording. Opera recording may not really represent operatic history, but it sure offers some solid entertainment.

The Day Before the Day After

The release of The Day After Tomorrow appears to be generating controversy. Seeing politicians and pundits seriously discuss the "issues" raised by a dopey disaster movie is hilarious but not unprecedented. Disaster movies, cheesy and stupid as they are, usually play off some kind of real-life fear that the audience has: the plane will crash, the ship will sink, the building will burn down. Which means that disaster movies always have a veneer of fake social consciousness; the filmmaker, Irwin Allen or whoever, would explain that he made this movie not only to make money but to call the world's attention to the serious dangers of bad construction or killer bees or Shelley Winters. The Swarm, the movie that killed the disaster genre, was actually sold as a serious examination of a real problem: there was some talk that the killer bees were on their way North, so the publicity was something like "They're more dangerous than Jaws... and they're real!" Whether Day After Tomorrow will turn out to be Roland Emmerich's The Swarm remains to be seen. I hope so, but in these days of automatically huge weekend openings, it's rare for a movie to be as big a flop as The Swarm was, even if nobody likes it.

Meanwhile, you can read Ken Begg's long dissection of The Swarm here, and another, more substance-influenced review, here.

Also, in the "stuff I'll never use" department, a year or so ago I set myself the task of trying to write the most depressing song lyric I possibly could, and I came up with something called... yes... "The Day After Tomorrow." But even if movies still used title songs, I don't think they'd go for this one [the tune, such as it was, had a lot of formulaic major/minor seesawing]:

There's a day after tomorrow,
There's a low after the high.
Tomorrow, they say,
Things will be A-okay,
I agree that they may,
But then you get another day.
And there's a crash after the boomlet,
There's a storm after the eye.
Tomorrow you can reach the moon if you try,
But soon you learn it's all a lie,
'Cause there's a day after tomorrow,
The day you kiss tomorrow goodbye.

The 'Scope Trial

The best thing about DVDs, as far as I'm concerned, is that they've made it possible to see all sorts of movies in widescreen format. It used to be that if you wanted to see a widescreen version of a movie made in CinemaScope or Panavision (the 2.35 aspect ratio, almost twice as wide as the screen used for pre-1953 movies) and you didn't have a laserdisc player, you had to hope for a widescreen VHS to be released, and there weren't many of those. Or you could beg a laserdisc owner to make you a VHS copy, or move to the U.S. and subscribe to Turner Classic Movies or something. Websites like the Widescreen Advocacy Page were set up to educate people about the evils of pan-and-scan. But now, with DVD, we can reasonably expect to see 'Scope movies in 'Scope format if we want to. Of course, some studios release alternative "fullscreen" versions, but most sensible people ignore them.

I think that the rise of widescreen DVDs may have influenced the movie business in a particular way: these days, many films -- perhaps even a majority of films -- are shot in the 2.35:1 'Scope format instead of the alternative "flat" format (1.85:1 ratio). In the '80s and '90s, 'Scope was mostly used for big action blockbusters; now it's used more and more for comedies, dramas, even kids' movies. Also, in the '80s, most 'Scope movies didn't make particularly elaborate use of the wide frame, in part because filmmakers knew that the frame would be chopped in half when the film was released on VHS. Now there are more filmmakers who use the whole frame in imaginative ways (Wes Anderson is an example). I think the comeback of 'Scope might have something to do with the fact that the filmmakers know that their compositions will be preserved intact on home video.

Anyway, that's dangerously close to a current topic, so I'll switch to talking about something old. When I see a 'Scope film in widescreen for the first time after years of watching it in pan-and-scan, it's often surprising how different it can be, how the original compositions reveal details and even story points that changes the way the film comes off. My favourite example is from Gigi (directed by Vincente Minnelli, who adapted brilliantly to CinemaScope -- his preference for long takes made him a natural for the new format, since it allowed him to get even more characters in the same frame without having to cut). In the "Thank Heaven For Little Girls" number near the beginning of the film, Honore (Maurice Chevalier) sits at the left of the frame; a little girl in white is in the middle of the frame, and next to the girl, at the right of the frame, is a beautiful young woman dressed in white like the little girl. Honore sings the famous/infamous lyrics:

Thank heaven for little girls,
For little girls get bigger ev'ry day.
Thank heaven for little girls,
They grow up in the most delightful way.

The picture of the little girl next to the grown woman illustrates what the song is about: the little girl will grow up to be a beautiful woman who will captivate men (and, as Gigi discovers, be expected to sell herself to men). But when the film is shown in pan-and-scan, the only characters visible in the shot are Honore and the little girl; the woman, the grown-up version of the little girl, is not seen. Which means that people watching this number on TV get the impression that it's a hymn to pedophilia or something. The pan-and-scan format wrecks the shot, the song, and gets the film off on the wrong foot.

On the other hand, there are some '50s films that arguably work better in pan-and-scan. A lot of Twentieth-Century Fox movies fall into this category. Fox, which introduced CinemaScope, idiotically insisted that all its movies be shot in widescreen (they stuck to this policy until the late '60s at least). This meant that filmmakers who had no particular aptitude or liking for widescreen composition were forced to use the huge 'Scope screen even if they had nothing with which to fill the frame. Which means that a lot of Fox movies from this era are essentially 1.33:1 movies put into a 2.35:1 frame; the directors compose the shots the way they always did, with two characters in the middle of the frame, and then there's a lot of empty space around them. A lot of Leo McCarey's An Affair to Remember is like this. Other directors just became determined to fill that screen come what may, so they would have characters talking to each other from opposite sides of the frame, conveying the impression that they were not so much interacting as hollering to one another from twin peaks in the Alps. I recall Nunnally Johnson's The Three Faces of Eve being like this; Eve (Joanne Woodward, who won an Oscar) on one end of the frame, her psychiatrist on the other. When a film like this is panned and scanned, shots like these are broken up into two, cutting back and forth between characters who were originally in the same frame -- and that actually makes the composition and staging look more normal, because it's probably the kind of composition that the director wanted to have in the first place.

I'm not actually saying that movies like these should be panned and scanned; 'Scope movies should be shown in their original format, period. I'm just saying, I guess, that seeing movies like these in their original format can often shed cruel light on just how badly the directors adapted to that format. As somebody once said (the quote has been attributed to many people, including Fritz Lang), the only thing CinemaScope is really good for is photographing funerals and snakes.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Bring Back the Laugh Track!

In my previous post I predicted that the future of the sitcom is with single-camera shows, without an audience, shot fast and relatively cheap like '60s sitcoms. There's another element of '60s sitcoms that I think will eventually come back, and probably should come back: the laugh track.

People often complain about "laugh tracks" in sitcoms, but in point of fact there are no sitcoms today that use laugh tracks all the way through. There are the live-audience shows, where most of the laughter is from real live people in the studio (some fake laughter is of course used to "sweeten" moments where the audience doesn't laugh enough; as Hugh Wilson used to say when warming up the audience for WKRP in Cincinnati, "We have a laugh machine and we're not afraid to use it, so laugh it up, folks"). And there are the sitcoms that don't use live audiences, and none of them use laugh tracks now. I think the last time this was tried was with the first season of Sports Night, which had a laugh track affixed to it. Everyone complained about it, not least because trying to pass Sports Night off as a funny show was blatant false advertising, and by the time the show ended, it had no laugh track. No single-camera sitcom has a laugh track now.

But I think that, in many ways, not using laugh tracks is misguided purism -- the networks bowing to the complaints of TV critics and other dyspeptics, and forgetting the good reasons why the laugh track was invented. These reasons have very little to do with the need to "tell people when to laugh." They don't even have much to do with the fact that networks don't respect the viewers' intelligence, although networks certainly do not respect our intelligence. The reasons for putting a laugh track on a sitcom are twofold:

1. Branding. A laugh track is useful because it identifies the show as a comedy, right away, for people who have just tuned in. A lot of people discover a show while channel-surfing, turning it on while it's in progress. And when they hear the laugh track, they know what to expect, and what the aim of the show is: it's a comedy, it's meant to make us laugh. A single-camera sitcom without a laugh track can look, so a casual viewer, like a bad drama or some weird, tonally uncertain monster. Why are these people acting so bug-eyed when they talk? Why did they pause after that line? What the heck does this show think it's trying to do? It's not like a movie, where most of the people watching probably made a conscious decision to go see a comedy or a drama. TV shows need a way to hook the channel-surfers. A cartoon, like The Simpsons or King of the Hill, doesn't need a laugh track because people see the amusingly-drawn cartoon characters, and know that it's supposed to be funny. But what do you do with a show with real live actors who could just as easily be on a drama? How would you tune into, say, Barney Miller and know instantly that it's not just a soap opera about cops?

Without a way to clue the viewers in to what kind of show it's supposed to be, a comedy can bomb. To give an example from the live theatre: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was bombing during tryouts because audiences were confused as to what the aim of the show was: was it a period piece? A romance? What? Jerome Robbins, called in to fix the opening, came up with the solution: announce right at the beginning that it's a comedy, and a lowbrow comedy at that; then the audience will know what to expect. Hence the song "Comedy Tonight," and a two-year run on Broadway.

Well, the laugh track is the "Comedy Tonight" of a sitcom: its purpose is not to tell the audience that individual jokes are funny, but to tell people who have just tuned in that it's a comedy. It really does help sometimes.

2. The crowd effect. The other purpose of the laugh track is to create a sense of the communal experience. It's well known that people laugh more in crowds. Watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon on TV alone, and you chuckle. Watch it on TV with a bunch of friends, and you laugh. Watch it on a big screen in the dark with a theatre full of people, and you laugh till it hurts. It's much harder to laugh when you're all alone.

Well, the laugh track isn't a substitute for watching with people. But for people who watch alone, it can at least have the psychological effect of suggesting a shared experience, of being in a room where other people are laughing. And this can cause people to laugh more at a show than they otherwise would. The laugh track is incredibly irritating with an unfunny show, because there's nothing more irritating than hearing forced laughter on the sountrack when you yourself have found nothing to laugh at. But with a show that is funny, it really can help get some extra laughs out of the solitary, non-communal viewer.

I'm not saying, of course, that every sitcom should have a laugh track. Some shows eschew obvious punchlines and therefore don't have a clear place to put the laugh track (Arrested Development); other shows are really hybrids of comedy and drama, and shouldn't have a laugh track telling us, falsely, that it's a comedy through and through (Hugh Wilson's Frank's Place was one such; Wilson didn't have anything against laugh tracks, but he refused to add a laugh track to the show because it just didn't fit with the overall tone). But for a pure old-fashioned setup-punchline sitcom that happens to be filmed without an audience? Yeah, I think a laugh track would help. And I think that's why the laugh track will eventually come back.

Last note: the laugh track isn't completely gone from American TV. On The Daily Show, a mild laugh track is added to every "field piece." The purpose, again, is not so much to tell people when to laugh as to signal that these are comedy pieces -- to prevent people who have just tuned in from thinking that this is supposed to be a straightforward news piece.

Late Update: I stand corrected -- I have been reliably informed that The Daily Show does not use a laugh track for the field pieces; they are shown to the studio audience and the audience response is recorded.

Sitcoms: The Future

The New York Times recently added to the growing list of articles about the death of the sitcom. I'm skeptical that the sitcom form is really dying, for two reasons. One is mentioned at the end of that Times article: the last time the sitcom was dying, all it took to revive it was one massive hit, The Cosby Show. The next massive hit probably won't come this season, but it's not unreasonable to think that it will come eventually. The studios and networks will always be looking for new sitcoms, because a hit sitcom is so enormously valuable to a network and even more to a production company: not only to hit sitcoms run a long time, but they make the kind of syndication money that most dramas never can (the big hits in syndicated reruns are mostly sitcoms, plus the occasional drama like Star Trek or Law and Order).

Second, even if a particular kind of sitcom is dying out, that doesn't mean the form has lost its popularity. The article tells us that "the very look of the network comedy, almost all of which are now shot on videotape by three cameras on a stage in front of a live studio audience, is so numbingly similar that young viewers will not even give new ones a passing glance." Now, one part of that statement is inaccurate: no new sitcom has been shot on videotape since the mid-'90s. Most sitcoms, with or without a live audience, use film; a few newer shows, like Arrested Development, use high-definition video. But let that pass, because the general point seems like a fair one: the format of doing a sitcom like a play, with a live audience and three or four cameras to get the action from multiple angles, strikes a lot of viewers now as tired.

But of course, that's not what defines the sitcom. There was a stretch in the history of the sitcom, from about the late '50s through the early '70s, when almost no sitcoms were shot before a live audience. In the '60s, there were only two hit shows that used the multi-camera, studio-audicence format (the I Love Lucy format): The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Lucy Show. Almost everything else -- The Andy Griffith Show, Leave it to Beaver, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Get Smart -- was shot with a single camera and no studio audience, more like a movie than a play.

The live-audience format took over again in the '70s when Norman Lear and MTM Productions both committed themselves to bringing back the studio audience. Lear wanted to recapture the broad, theatrical style of early TV comedy; MTM's Grant Tinker wanted to harken back to The Dick Van Dyke Show; but both Lear and Tinker established the live-audience sitcom as the "hip" format, by contrast with the single-camera format, which was starting to seem as tired and creaky as the studio-audience format seems now. (What goes around, comes around.) The format took over so completely that two shows, The Odd Couple and Happy Days, switched from single-camera to studio audience in mid run. By the end of the decade, the only sitcoms that didn't have a live studio audience were M*A*S*H and Barney Miller (which had a live audience when it started, but dropped it a few years later when creator Danny Arnold found he couldn't get the scripts rewritten in time for the taping).

The point is, we're used to thinking of that format as the format that defines the sitcom, but it isn't so. And the live-audience format has gotten more and more problematic over the years because sitcoms have gotten much less theatrical. A show like Seinfeld had dozens of short scenes, many of which had to be filmed without an audience; Friends often had a somewhat low-key acting style that played more to the camera than to the people in the studio. Sitcoms have gotten more like movies than plays, and with that, there's less of a justification for shooting them like plays. The future of the sitcom, at least for now, is the Andy Griffith format: no audience, no proscenium staging, one camera.

Now, it's often pointed out that recent single-camera sitcoms have rarely been huge hits: Scrubs and Malcolm in the Middle are successful, but not blockbusters. But those shows aren't really similar to the single-camera sitcoms of the '60s. They tend to have elaborate camerawork, special effects, fantasy sequences -- in other words, they are as elaborately and expensively shot as dramas, but they happen to be comedies. The problem is, first of all, that such shows cost a lot, and second of all, that they don't have the spontaneousness and sense of pure fun interaction that the big hit sitcoms have: there's always a certain consciousness of the camera gimmickry, whereas with a sitcom you ought to be focused on the characters and the way they interact.

The thing to remember about shows like The Andy Griffith Show is not only that they were one-camera, but that they were shot fast. Director Alan Rafkin recalled that an Andy Griffith episode was shot in something like three days, with almost all the shooting done on the standing sets and the backlot. If you try to make a sitcom like an expensive drama, with a weeklong shooting schedule and lots of sets and location shooting, you might as well just be making a drama. The point of a sitcom is to get the actors, give them good material, and turn them loose. That's hard to do if the shooting process becomes too cumbersome.

One single-camera show that does seem to understand this is the overhyped but nonetheless excellent Arrested Development, perhaps because the executive producer, Ron Howard, is Opie and Richie Cunningham. Explaining the hand-held camera format of the show, the director of photography explained:
Ron Howard wanted this to be a single-camera show more like the way sitcoms used to be, from his years on Happy Days. He liked the notion of giving the cast a day to rehearse and rewrite, and then shooting really fast, in a single day, improvising as we go along, changing things, getting as much of that on tape as possible. Instead of spending time on detailed lighting, jelling windows, deliberations over focus, etc., we decided to go for a lightning-fast pace on the shoot

While hand-held cameras still make me kind of nauseous, the basic point is a really good one: a sitcom needs to feel fast and spontaneous, and you can't get that if the director is going to take all day setting up the shots. That's one thing that I think we'll be seeing more of: sitcoms where the actors gather on the set, they turn on the camera, and they just do it, clean and quick and as funny as they can make it.

The other thing I think we'll be seeing, or rather hearing, is the return of the canned laugh track. And I think this will be a good thing for the sitcom. I'll explain why in my next post.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The Men Who Made the Boogaloo Electric

If you make a list of the stupidest, cheesiest, most utterly insane movies of the 1980s -- a list like this one, let's say -- you'll always wind up naming several titles produced by Cannon Films, under the guidance of the last of the B-movie kings, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. They gave us most of Chuck Norris's oeuvre; many sequels to Death Wish; an arm-wrestling adventure starring Sylvester Stallone; a live-action Masters of the Universe movie; a really bad Jean-Luc Godard movie; and various movies based on '80s dance crazes including Breakin' and Breakin' 2, Electric Boogaloo. It kind of sums up the work of this team that when they split up and vowed to compete with one another, their competition took the form of competing Lambada movies.

Patrick Runkle has a whole website,, devoted to this wonderfully bizarre company. He even has a detailed and quite fascinating history of Cannon and the Golan-Globus partnership.

Cannon never exactly made a good movie (even the movies they thought were going to be good, like Franco Zeffirelli's Otello, turned out not so good), but their movies are an '80s time capsule; because Golan and Globus churned out movies so fast, they responded immediately to changing fashions in stories, clothes, music, appropriate villains... it's all there. An example is the schizophrenic politics of the Cannon movies: right-wing revenge fantasies alternated with anti-nuke fantasies (Superman IV: The Quest For Peace) and enviromental messages (Golan's Lambada movie, The Forbidden Dance, is framed as a plea to save the rainforest). This political schizophrenia was part of the '80s -- it was hardly a monolithically right-wing decade, any more than the '50s -- and it's there in Cannon films for any social historians who can stand to sit through more than one Chuck Norris movie.

Aside from the '80s cheese factor, the fun of Cannon movies is simply that they were the last true B-movies, independently and cheaply produced movies that actually played in theatres and entertained people all over the world. Now we've got the big-studio movies, and we've got the "indies," but relatively few campy low-budget movies and no wacky independent showmen like Menahem Golan.

Monday, May 24, 2004

There Was No Mistaking That Invitation

Speaking of parody... I found a link, no doubt illegally posted, to one of my favourite parodies, Don Brown's Body by Jean Kerr. It's a spoof of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels of course. It's also a parody of a 1953 Broadway production based on Stephen Vincent Benet's poem "John Brown's Body", directed by Charles Laughton and starring Raymond Massey, Tyrone Power and Judith Anderson. It used a staged reading format, with the actors and chorus reciting lines from the poem and representing the action using props, pantomime and dance. Kerr takes this style and applies it to a Mickey Spillane type of story, sending up the highbrows and the lowbrows at the same time.

Add.: Turns out "Don Brown's Body" was originally written for a Broadway revue called John Murray Anderson's Almanac, starring Cyril Ritchard and Hermione Gingold. "Don Brown," with Orson Bean as Mike Hammer, was the big hit of the evening, and Kerr incorporated it into her book "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" a few years later.

Read that, and then try to find a copy of Kerr's Please Don't Eat the Daisies, which includes "Don Brown's Body" as well as an almost equally good parody of Francoise Sagan's A Certain Smile, in addition to the funny domestic pieces that Kerr is mostly known for today.

I passed this kid sucking a lollipop. Don Brown dead, and him sucking a lollipop. I rammed it down his throat. I hate injustice.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Wodehouse Addendum

The Russian Wodehouse Society has a bibliography that, among other things, lists the publications where Wodehouse's short stories first appeared. To my surprise, not many of the short stories seem to have made their first U.S. appearance in the Saturday Evening Post (not even the first Mr. Mulliner story, which, as Wodehouse told it, was bought and paid for by his editor at the Saturday Evening Post, George Lorimer). Instead the short stories seem to have mostly appeared in two other magazines: Liberty and Cosmopolitan (no relation to the current one, I'm sure). I'll have to check what kind of stories these magazines published. However, many of Wodehouse's novels were first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, and one of his short stories that did appear in the Post, "Honeysuckle Cottage," is a devastating spoof of the kind of gloopy, syrupy romance stories that often appeared in that magazine. So I think it's still fair to say that Wodehouse made a good living, in part, by sending up the contents of the Saturday Evening Post.

Sitcoms: The Rise of the B Story

I don't want to write yet another essay about The Death of the Sitcom (the sitcom has been dying every few years ever since TV began). Instead I want to write about how sitcoms got to be the way they are today, starting with one little structural element: the B story.

I think it's fair to say that we now expect sitcom episodes to have a subplot, a "B" story -- a small story involving characters who are not heavily involved in the main plot. Some shows, like Seinfeld, will have the main plot intersect with the subplots at the end; others keep them entirely separate. But one way or another, B stories are so familiar in sitcoms that a primer on how to write sitcoms casually mentions that "Each show has more than one story going on."

The thing is, the B story seems to be a relatively recent development in sitcoms. At least, when you look at sitcom episodes from the '50s or the '60s or even the '70s, you almost always find that they tell one story, no other plots, no detours, no nothing. Go through the four DVD sets of The Dick Van Dyke Show and you won't find a single subplot; same with I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners or All in the Family or Three's Company. The traditional sitcom structure seems to be: set up a story and stick with it. Regular characters who are not involved in the main story will get a token line or two, but not an unrelated story of their own.

What I find interesting about this is that sitcoms back then actually had several minutes more running time than current shows, which means that as running time has shrunk, sitcoms are including more stories per episode (which means even less time to tell the main story). I guess part of the explanation for this is that sitcoms have gotten faster-paced, with shorter scenes; as sitcoms are less inclined to spend a lot of time on any individual scene, they become less inclined to spend a lot of time with a particular story.

Anyway, where did the B story start? I don't think I've ever seen a true B story in a sitcom from the '50s or '60s. Some of the '70s sitcoms from MTM, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show, would sometimes include what is now referred to as a "runner," a little running gag that pays off at the end. There was an episode of The Bob Newhart Show where the main plot was about Mr. Carlin being named in a paternity suit (by Loni Anderson, no less), but which included a runner about Bob getting a telephone paging service that doesn't work. This wasn't really a B story, though; it was more a piece of comic business that was strung through the show -- a way of giving a certain structure, and a payoff, to the little physical or verbal jokes that characters do in between plot points. (You know what I'm talking about: Buddy and Sally are joking around about something or other at the beginning of the scene, until Rob comes in and mentions what his problem is this week. The "runner" is a way of taking what would otherwise be filler bits and making them add up to something.)

M*A*S*H may have started the trend toward multi-story episodes; certainly by the later seasons there was almost always a B story. But I don't recall the early seasons of M*A*S*H having many true B stories; they would sometimes do a multi-story episode as a gimmick ("Dear Dad"), but most of the early episodes tended to pick a story and stick with it, much like Hogan's Heroes (where much of the staff came from). So I think the first sitcom to use true A and B stories on a regular basis was Barney Miller. Initially, the use of multiple stories was supposed to be a way of connecting the home and work lives of Barney; the idea was that it would be divided equally between his problems with police work and his problems with his family. The producers and the network soon realized that only the police stories were interesting, and the plots with Barney's family were soon dumped. But the multi-story format remained; every episode had a main plot but at least one other, and sometimes several; an episode would cut between these plots, sometimes connecting them but more often not. It gave the show a feeling of verisimilitude you didn't get with previous ensemble sitcoms: no, people at work (particularly police work) aren't focused on only one problem at a time; different things are going on at the same time.

After Barney Miller, more shows started incorporating subplots, but not a lot. The B story tended to be more common on shows like Barney or M*A*S*H that had dramatic as well as comic elements, and that might benefit from leavening a serious A story with a comic B story. But the Paramount shows that dominated the late '70s -- Taxi, Mork and Mindy, Laverne and Shirley -- basically stuck to the one-story format. Even Cheers, in its early years, didn't do multi-story episodes very often; the supporting characters tended to sit around commenting on the main story, not doing stories of their own.

The Cosby Show, which revived the sitcom the last time it was pronounced dead, probably had a lot to do with establishing the B story as an important part of a sitcom episode. Cosby episodes were deliberately plotless, so the main story often wouldn't fill the entire 24 minutes; and like Barney Miller, the use of multiple stories lent a certain feeling of realism, of parents dealing with all their children's problems at the same time. Anyway, after the success of Cosby, more and more sitcoms started to include B stories on a regular basis. And by the early '90s, B stories were so common that a show like Seinfeld could play around with the multi-story structure by tying all the stories together at the end.

There are a few sitcoms now that almost never use B stories; Everybody Loves Raymond is one such, and that's one of the reasons it seems like a throwback -- instead of a fast-paced, multi-story show, it's a relatively slow-paced show where they set up a single problem and then stick to it, with all the supporting characters focused on thinking and talking about that particular problem. I'm surprised that there haven't been more "throwback" shows, particularly since running time is getting so short.

Anyway, I have a feeling I've missed some milestones in the main story of the "B" story, but that's a (relatively) short primer.

Japes and Counterpoint

I see that Terry Teachout is writing an essay on Edward Elgar, and "trying to make sense out of the peculiar fact that his music has never been popular outside England." Put me down as another Elgar fan who is not from England (I'm from Canada, but that hasn't counted as English since at least the '60s). I've loved Elgar's music ever since I heard Adrian Boult's recording (with the London Symphony Orchestra) of Elgar's most popular work, the "Enigma" variations. And I too find it unfortunate that Elgar's music isn't better-known outside of England. The Variations are well-known enough, the Cello Concerto is a best-seller thanks to the late Jacqueline Du Pre, and everyone who's been to a graduation has heard the first Pomp and Circumstance March, aka "Land of Hope and Glory" (though the second march, in A minor, is probably better -- more wistful than pompous or jingoistic). But Elgar wrote many other masterpieces: the "symphonic study" Falstaff, the only musical work that successfully portrays the multilayered Falstaff of Henry IV instead of the dumbed-down Falstaff of Merry Wives of Windsor. The Introduction and Allegro for strings, an unusual combination of accessible and "difficult" elements: beautiful tunes alternate with complex fugal development (or what Elgar himself referred to as "japes and counterpoint"). The oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, the Second Symphony, the Violin Concerto, the String Quartet... so many great works, and all in a musical style that's unique to Elgar.

I wish I were enough of a musician to describe his style; one site describes it as "a synthesis of European influences, particularly Brahmsian structure and counterpoint, and Wagnerian harmony, with a uniquely English nobility and grace." That's true enough, and one of the things that makes Elgar's music so interesting is that he combined the influences of Brahms and Wagner at a time when those composers were thought to represent two opposing camps (some musicians were "Brahmsian" -- favouring traditional symphonic structure, absolute music, counterpoint, etc; others were "Wagnerian," favouring programmatic music, and privileging advanced harmony over rhythm or traditional structure). But one of the things that makes Elgar so fascinating is that you sometimes don't know, from moment to moment, what mood he'll be in or what side of his style will be predominant. I've already mentioned how the Introduction and Allegro swings back and forth between attractive tunefulness and learned fugues; but perhaps the great Elgar moment comes in the third movement of the Second Symphony, where what starts as a charming, playful scherzo gives way to a "relentless beating" that drowns out the rest of the orchestra and, done properly, can actually scare the audience; the effect was described by Elgar as "similar to that dreadful beating that goes on in the brain" of someone with a high fever. That kind of emotional range is what makes Elgar such a wonderful composer; and the Enigma Variations are a good place to start with his music, because the variations (which are musical portraits of Elgar's friends) show such a wonderful range of moods and styles, all within the variation form. Good recordings include the Boult recording mentioned above, or the recent recording by Mark Elder (who is doing a very fine series of Elgar recordings with the Halle Orchestra).

Outside of England, I think, Elgar is often seen as the embodiment of parochial Englishness, the composer of hymns to Empire like "Land of Hope and Glory" and of the smugness of the Edwardian era. This attitude was actually prevalent in England for some years before and after Elgar's death (in an obituary, the Musical Times expressed the hope that "a few years hence the association of certain works of Elgar’s with the Imperialism of thirty years ago will be no more than a vague memory"), but the English grew out of it. The rest of the world, not so much; and Elgar is still often seen as the musical symbol of everything people don't like about the English.

The irony is that Elgar was the most non-parochial English composer up to that time; he was the man who proved that English music could be "international," and he was accused, if anything, of not being English enough. England had never produced a serious composer of true international stature since the death of Purcell (Sullivan certainly had international appeal, but not for his "serious" works). The prominent English composers of the Victorian age tended to be guys like Stanford and Parry -- people who tried to write in a specifically "English" style, ignoring international influences as much as humanly possible. Elgar would have none of that; his music showed off the influence of Brahms, of Wagner, of Richard Strauss. Unlike many of the English composers who came after him, he didn't have much interest in English folk song or the madrigal or anything else native to England. He wrote music that was of the world, not just of England -- and by doing so, he won international popularity for many of his works, particularly the Enigma Variations. Composers like Benjamin Britten, who also used a melange of styles and didn't worry about including nationalistic elements in their music, owed a debt to Elgar (as a conductor, Britten made probably the greatest recording of the "Introduction and Allegro," included on the World of Elgar CD linked to above). Shaw, who as a music critic repeatedly blasted the English musical establishment for its parochialism, recognized that Elgar represented a new hope for English music, and championed his work.

But maybe that very "internationalism" is, ironically, one of the factors that contributed to Elgar's declining popularity with an international audience. That mixture of international styles, that sort of Germanic Englishness, has sometimes struck non-English critics as representing the failed attempt of an English composer to imitate his "betters" on the Continent. (One American critic sneered that Elgar was an inferior Anton Bruckner.) More importantly, despite the emotional range I mention above, Elgar rarely "cuts loose" -- there's always a certain restraint, no matter what mood he's in; there are few moments of wildness or sheer weirdness like with his contemporary, Mahler. That restraint may be the most typically English thing about Elgar's music, and it may be part of what keeps him from being big with North American audiences, who tend to expect late-romantic music to be a little crazier.

Anyway, that's my two cents -- well, given the length, at least three cents -- on Elgar. Looking forward to the essay.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Wodehouse the Parodist

The cult of P.G. Wodehouse continues on as strong as ever. A recent article by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker is the latest in a seemingly endless series of articles by "serious" critics explaining their fascination with this most un-serious of writers. What more is there to say about him?

Well, there's one element in Wodehouse's work that often gets overlooked, which is the parody element: Almost everything he wrote began life as a parody of some then-popular genre of stories. Stories about idle young men who belong to clubs (the Drones Club stories, the Bertie and Jeeves stories), "frame" stories told by old adventurers (Mr. Mulliner; the golf stories), stories about stern Aunts who won't consent to their niece's marriage (the Blandings series); these were all familiar to readers when Wodehouse started doing funny versions of them. Wodehouse published most of his best work in the Saturday Evening Post -- not only the short stories, but the novels, which were serialized there. (Though he wrote about the England of his youth -- an England which, as Orwell pointed out and as Wodehous eagerly agreed, was an Edwardian fantasy world filled with the insolvent younger sons of peers -- he lived much of the time in America and wrote for a largely American audience.) At the time Wodehouse started writing for the Saturday Evening Post, these were types of stories that were being told seriously in the Post and many other magazines, and Wodehouse basically made his name by writing stories that took those elements and rechannelled them into farce.

Jeeves and Bertie are still funny, but they had an additional layer of humour at the time because they satirized the tropes of then-popular magazine fiction; for example, Madeline Bassett, the soupy young woman who thinks "that the stars are God's daisy chain," is a sendup of the "soulful" heroines of many a Post story. Whenever Wodehouse writes about an intimidatingly tall and handsome young woman (usually to contrast her with his heroines, who tend to be small and slight in build), he's parodying the "queenly" heroines of many novels at the time, particularly those of Ethel M. Dell (I've actually read an Ethel M. Dell novel and hope to write about it after the shell-shock wears off). And the early Mr. Mulliner stories are virtually all spoofs of typical Saturday Evening Post stories. Someday I hope to look at back issues of The Saturday Evening Post and try to better identify the authors who wrote the kinds of stories that Wodehouse was sending up.


At some point I'll write a whole essay about E.Y. Harburg (see below), but I don't have time right now. For now, here are a few of my favourite lines from this great lyricist.

In "Coconut Sweet" from Jamaica, Harburg piles on image after image until you can almost feel what's being described; whereas most love songs are abstract, this is rooted in the physical world:

Catch me the smile you smile
And I'll make this big world my tiny island,
Shining with spice
And sugar plum.
Cage me the laugh you laugh
And I will make this tiny, shiny island
My little slice
Of kingdom come.
The wind may blow,
The hurricane whip up the sky,
The vine go bare,
The leaf go dry,
But when you smile at me,
Spring tumble out of the tree,
The peach is ripe,
The lime is green,
The air is touched with tangerine
And coconut sweet...

And a great comedy line from Bloomer Girl:

Even the rabbits
Inhibit their habits
On Sunday in Cicero Falls.

One of the themes of Harburg's songs, especially his love songs, is the acknowledgement that life is short and that we'd better find happiness while we can. This is a common theme in poetry ("Gather ye rosebuds while ye may"), but acknowledgement of mortality is fairly rare in popular songwriting. Harburg often put it front and centre, as in "Ain't It the Truth," cut from the film of Cabin in the Sky and later interpolated into the Broadway show Jamaica:

Life is short, short, brother,
Ain't it the truth!
And there is no other,
Ain't it the truth!
So if you don't love livin'
Then you're slightly uncouth,
Ain't it the dignified truth!

That "slightly uncouth" line is probably my favourite Harburgism of all time; everyone has their own favourite. (Stephen Sondheim has cited, as his favourite Harburg line, one from "The Eagle and Me" in Bloomer Girl: "Ever since that day when the world was an onion.")
Or in "Sunset Tree" from Darling of the Day, which, though ruined by Vincent Price's attempt to sing, is one of the most beautiful songs in what might be called the "September Song" genre (songs about what love means when one is no longer young):

Let youth have its apple blossoms,
Fair on the bough above,
But not so fair as the fruit we share
In the harvest-time of love.
Spring is a young man's fancy
In a world that is fancy-free,
But to know the grace of a warm embrace
When the heart is folly-free
Is to know why that bold leaf turns to gold
Under the sunset tree,
Under the sunset tree.

Well, I could quote Harburg lines all day, but bandwidth is precious. Until someone comes out with a Complete Lyrics of E.Y. Harburg, I'll end with a quote from "I Don't Think I'll End it All Today" from Jamaica, which, with Harold Arlen's catchy tune, is one of the most, er, unusual love songs ever written:

When I see the world and its wonders, what is there to say?
I don't think, oh, no, I don't think I'll end it all today.
Fish in sea and sun in the heavens, sailboat in the bay,
I don't think, oh, no, I don't think I'll end it all today.
So many sweet things still on my list,
So many sweet lips still to be kissed,
So many sweet dreams still to unfold,
So many sweet lies still to be told.
When I see the world and its wonders, what is there to say?
There's no time for the reaper to fall,
So I don't think I'll end it all today.
Away with the river,
Away with the razor,
Away with the pearly gates,
Away with barbituates,
Away with the seconal,
The fall from the building tall,
No, I don't think I'll end it all

...Is it a love song? A comedy song? A happy song? A sad song? It's unique. So was Yip Harburg.

Friday, May 21, 2004

The Korman Invasion

Anathema! Gordon Korman has rewritten one of his books to make it less dated, and therefore less fun. The War With Mr. Wizzle, from 1980, was one of the "Bruno and Boots" books that made Korman one of the most popular children's-book authors in Canada and a true child prodigy (his first Bruno and Boots book was written at age 13 for a school creative writing project). For those who aren't familiar with Korman, it's hard to explain just how popular he was with Canadian boys of my generation; we read all his books and read them over and over and laughed all the way through. Maybe because he wasn't much older than we were, he seemed to understand what kids really liked in a story: not innocence and righteous morality, but farcical action, comic scheming, and stuff that explodes/implodes/collapses. He more or less lost touch with his audience when he moved to New York and went to college, and he never quite got it back; he wound up as a respectable children's author making a respectable living, but never the same cult figure he had been. As his mother (the president of his fan club) once said to an interviewer: "Gordon didn't abandon you [your generation]. You abandoned him."

Anyway, to get back to Wizzle, the premise of the book (explained here) is that MacDonald Hall, Bruno and Boots' idyllic albeit riot-plagued Ontario boarding school, is taken over by a young man with new-fangled teaching ideas, who proceeds to make life miserable for everyone at the school. Some of Mr. Wizzle's bad ideas are throwbacks: dress codes, writing lines, and so on. But the thing that marks Wizzle as a true villain out to ruin MacDonald Hall is that he brings in -- oh, horror -- a computer. Yes, a large machine called the 515, complete with those reel-to-reel tape things and a huge supply of "computer paper," which has all the students and all Wizzle's plans entered into it. Naturally, no one likes this heartless computerization of the school, and Bruno and Boots successfully get rid of Wizzle and his hated computer.

Needless to say, this "computers must never be allowed in a school" message doesn't quite work now, so in reprinting the Bruno and Boots books, Korman has revised Wizzle. Now called The Wizzle War, the book now gives us a MacDonald Hall where computers are common, and Wizzle's heresy is introducing something called "WizzleWare," which makes the computer screens flicker.

I get why Korman feels he has to update the story, but it works better as a period piece. Fear of computerization was a common theme in the early '80s. I think we can all remember movies, books and TV shows about computers -- usually big, bulky computers that looked nothing like the personal computers then entering people's homes -- taking over the world or reducing us all to automatons and drones; in 1984 it was common to hear that the rise of computerization was in danger of making Orwell's dystopia a reality. Even the works of popular culture that portrayed computers positively tended to portray them as strange things with otherworldly powers; remember John Hughes' Weird Science, where a computer takes on a Frankenstein-like role and creates a living woman (with magical powers, no less). Looking back on this from our current vantage point, we can laugh at the naivety but also appreciate what we've lost; computers are everywhere now, and that's improved our lives in many respects, but it has led to a certain depersonalization and lack of privacy, just as those '80s movies, shows and books warned. Revising Wizzle to take out the computer-phobia also removes some of the charm of the MacDonald Hall books, because part of that charm was in the fact that MacDonald Hall was an old-fashioned place where boys talked and argued and had adventures -- a place without the internet and without video games, in other words. Or as the headmaster's secretary says of computers, in The War With Mr. Wizzle, "Just because a thing is new and different doesn't make it good!" I wonder what's coming now that we'll look upon as indispensable in 20 years?

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Obscure Musical of the Week: "The Happiest Girl in the World"

I think most flop musicals, however good they may sound on a cast album, have good solid reasons for their failure. A show like The Happiest Girl in the World (1961) sounds like huge fun on the cast album, which also reprints several favorable reviews. The basic idea, of doing a musical version of Lysistrata using the music of Offenbach, is pretty solid; the story, cleaned up for a Broadway audience, offers the musical comedy's standard combination of satire (on war and sex) and romance. But there are many obvious reasons why it flopped:
- The star and director, Cyril Ritchard, was mostly a favourite with English audiences. He built practically the whole show around himself -- playing multiple roles and giving undue prominence to his main role of the villain Pluto (who tries to tempt Lysistrata and the other women to go off their sex strike). Not only did this unbalance the show, but Ritchard's prissy Englishman act, sort of Bertie Wooster grown old, couldn't carry a show, nor did his name have big advance appeal at the box-office. It's as if Damn Yankees had been built around Mr. Applegate. Worse yet, the other star of the show, Janice Rule, played another role that should have been minor: Diana, the goddess who, in this retelling, encourages Lysistrata ("To end all wars/Whatever 'tis/That makes him yours/Must not be his"). To have any emotional effectiveness in between the hijinks, a musical comedy needs to have a strong central character who's directly involved in the action, like Pseudolous in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and his genuine desire to be free. The Lysistrata of Happiest Girl is a cypher, with no particular motivation beyond petulance.
- E.Y. Harburg (the Y stood for "Yip," his longtime nickname), who wrote the lyrics and came up with the idea for the show, gave the whole thing a sort of mock-operetta style to match the Offenbach music. The trouble with this is that comedy operetta had been box-office poison on Broadway for years; the most recent "comic operetta," Candide, had failed despite tremendous talent in every aspect of the production. Broadway audiences in the early '60s were increasingly unwilling to tolerate highfalutin' language or other operetta-isms; even the successful shows set in the past, like Hello, Dolly! or Fiddler on the Roof, tended toward brash musical-comedy style with maybe a hint of period flavour. Nobody was going to go for a night of Offenbach tunes with mock-G&S lyrics.

What makes the show worthwhile is those mock-G&S lyrics, by one of the greatest lyricists America ever produced, Yip Harburg. (For those who don't know his work, he's the lyricist-librettist of Finian's Rainbow and author of such songs as "It's Only a Paper Moon," "How Are Things in Glocca Morra," and "April in Paris.") Harburg's work combines two styles; there's the Gilbertian style, full of nutty rhymes and mangling of the English language ("Something Sort of Grandish"). In this he's similar to his old friend Ira Gershwin. But unlike Ira Gershwin, and unlike almost any other Broadway lyricist besides Lorenz Hart, Harburg also had a truly "poetic" side, musing on subjects like the shortness of life and playing with words and sounds to create a unique mood for a whole song, much like a poet does on the page. The poetic side of Harburg comes out sometimes in Happiest Girl, as in a ballad, "Five Minutes of Spring." This was set to one of Offenbach's greatest waltzes (from La Belle Helene,) and sung by Bruce Yarnell, possessor of one of the best baritone voices on Broadway, who died tragically young:

Oh, come, sweet thing,
Life at best is just five minutes of spring,
A heigh-ho fling,
With a hope, a dream, a kiss on the wing.
That wise old clock
Called the moon is just a calendar thing,
And each tick-tock
Says it's all a small five minutes of spring.
Hope, dream, lover and rose
Fade into one
When the wind blows.
Hope, dream, lover and rose,
Kiss on the wing,
Child on a swing,
The song of it all is five minutes of spring....

But most of the lyrics in Happiest Girl in the World show off Harburg at his satirical, Gilbertian, rhyme-happy best, as in "Vive La Virtue" (also to a tune from Belle Helene):

Vice is not averse to virtue,
Though virtue is versa vice,
And the man who would unskirt you
Won't do it unless you're nice.
This is man's ambivalent taste:
Whatever is chased has got to be chaste.
Paradox is deep in his blood:
He's after the rose but leaps at the bud.

Or these bits from "Never Trust a Virgin" (which someone suggested should have been the title of the whole show):

A virgin is a scourge!
She's never had her splurge!
The trouble with a virgin is, she's always on the verge.
A virgin is the worst!
Her method is revers'd:
She'll lead a horse to water and then let him die of thirst.

The cast album is a bit half-hearted -- most of the songs get one refrain and that's it, as if nobody could be bothered to spend more session time on an obvious flop -- but it'll do; the lyrics are crystal-clear, and that's what counts.

We Must Find that Woman!

Have you ever noticed how many people seem to like Inspector Clouseau movies but hate The Pink Panther? I'll often hear, online and in person, from someone who grew up watching RETURN OF THE REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN WHILE HE'S ON THE TRAIL OF A CURSE, and then sees The Pink Panther and says, basically, "It sucks because it's not like the other Inspector Clouseau movies." Of course it isn't. That's why it's so good.

The Pink Panther benefits from being neither 100% slapstick nor 100% Clouseau. a beautiful-looking, sophisticated combination of caper film, romantic comedy and slapstick, and surprisingly dark and morally ambiguous. (The only decent human being in the movie is Clouseau, and he’s cheated, ridiculed, humiliated and finally… well, I won’t give away the ending.) And in the Hollywood of the early '60s, when films were often visually impoverished and looked like bad TV no matter how much money was spent on them, Edwards' sense of style and his beautiful widescreen compositions (I think this was his first film in 'Scope, and all but one or two of his subsequent movies used the 'Scope format) must have been a breath of fresh air. Edwards was also one of the first “film-geek” directors, a director who filled his movies with tributes to a bygone era of Hollywood: Panther obviously borrows elements from Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, and one gag is (as Edwards points out on the DVD commentary) lifted from Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. As a director whose career started just after the studio system fell apart, Edwards’ best work always shows a certain nostalgia for the “Golden Age” he just missed out on participating in.

In its mix of comedy styles, its combination of lowbrow and highbrow elements, and its basic heartlessness, Panther feels very different from earlier Hollywood studio comedies (this despite the many references to older movies). And yet it has a lot to tell about what was going on in Hollywood in the early ‘60s, and particularly about how Hollywood was adjusting to two major recent developments: the collapse of the Production Code in the mid-‘50s, and the collapse of the studio system around the same time.

There are things in The Pink Panther that couldn't have happened under strict enforcement of the Production Code: crime goes unpunished, virtue goes unrewarded, and adultery is condoned. And yet it's essentially a family picture in the way that it would not have been had it been made even five years later: sex is implied but never shown, the Don Juan jewel thief, Sir Charles Litton, never actually gets to sleep with Claudia Cardinale’s Princess Dala (in the great Code-era tradition, she passes out drunk before anything can actually happen), and while the whole movie celebrates immorality, or at least amorality, it doesn’t contain anything that’s Not For the Squeamish. (That's something you don't see much of any more, which is "adult" movies made for squeamish adults -- someone should consider tapping into that market again.) It’s the missing link between the button-down Code era and the anything-goes atmosphere of the late ‘60s onward.

The other thing about Pink Panther is that even though it is an American movie - American director, American producer, American cinematographer - it was made almost entirely in Europe; the interiors, as Edwards mentions in his commentary, were all shot in Cinecitta Studios in Rome. With the end of the studio system, American moviemakers could no longer count on the great in-house studio technicians and facilities; a lot of movies started to come out of Hollywood that were frankly amateurish-looking. The result was that directors who wanted to make a movie with outstanding set design or special effects had to pack up and go to Europe, as Edwards did with Panther, and as Robert Wise did the same year when he made The Haunting in England. Within a few years, more and more American directors would be producing films in England (Star Wars is an obvious example), in part because it was cheaper but in part because it was European studios that were keeping alive the traditions of technical excellence and “movie magic,” while American-made movies increasingly looked like they had come out of a defective Photomat.

That Was a Short Move

...I spoke too soon about moving this blog to another site. The other site turned out to have problems of its own; more importantly, this URL is now in the Google system, which means that a few people may actually find it here. So here it'll stay; the comments feature works now, and I'll keep trying to make the site look decent.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

George Wells

Watched two movies the other day, Designing Woman (1957) and Where the Boys Are (1960). I rented them together because they're connected by the writer, George Wells, a longtime MGM staff writer who, oddly enough, came into his own at the studio only after the studio system fell apart and MGM lost its position as the most-successful studio. I suppose that with the decline of the studio system, those writers who remained under contract to one studio, like Wells, started to get bigger assignments.

So Wells' script for Designing Woman was a step up from the B-comedies and second-level musicals he'd mostly been doing up until then; this was a full-blown prestige picture, produced by the studio's exiting head of production, Dore Schary and directed by the A-list director, Vincente Minnelli. It's not a great comedy, due in part to pacing problems (as I mentioned below, Minnelli doesn't do fast and snappy, which is what this script really calls for) and in part to miscasting (Gregory Peck and Dolores Gray in roles that were written for Jimmy Stewart and Cyd Charisse, respectively). But Wells' script, which won an Academy Award, is one of the better original comedy scripts of the time. In essence it's a silly story, a thin culture-clash situation -- sportswriter marries fashion designer, and his world of Runyonesque characters clashes with her world of glamour and ambiguous sexuality (including the great choreographer Jack Cole as a choreographer who, in a very strange scene, produces a picture of his wife and three sons to prove his straight bona fides). But it's filled out with all kinds of devices meant to make it seem like a sophisticated comedy of manners, most obviously an elaborate system of voice-over narration: almost every character gets to do voice-over narration and every scene contains pauses during which some character, on the soundtrack, fills us in on his or her opinion of what's going on. It's a style of writing that would be common in MGM movies of this period but especially so in Wells' scripts; it's what I call "literate stupidity" -- the use of devices meant to seem "literate" or "sophisticated" in the context of a story that's basically a dopey comedy or melodrama. Perhaps influenced by Schary, who wanted MGM to be the sophisticated studio, George Wells and MGM comedies in general got into this kind of thing, putting in overly elaborate or literate dialogue that was out of synch with the nature of the film itself.

Where the Boys Are, written for longtime schmaltz authority Joe Pasternak (we can, er, credit him with discovering Kathryn Grayson, Deanna Durbin, Mario Lanza, and even a few people who didn't sing), is the same way, except the attempts at literacy are even weirder in the context of what is essentially the first mainstream teen beach comedy. (Not to mention the film that introduced the term "making out" to a mainstream cinema audience.) There are a lot of speeches that are too dumb to be sophisticated but too sophisticated to have the kind of camp appeal that dialogue in a movie like this ought to have. If you're going to make a movie like this, all that comedy-of-ideas dialogue is not a good fit. But it does give rise to one of my favourite speeches in an otherwise so-so movie, from the Fort Lauterdale chief of police (Chill Wills):

Gentlemen, the city of Fort Lauderdale is once again under fire from the north. We've survived it before and I reckon we're gonna survive it again. To you newly installed officers on the force, I'd to give you a little rundown on what to expect. Expect anything. Anything and everything cause that's what you're gonna get. Now, Fort Lauderdale is not the only city to be invaded at this time. In Palm Springs and in Newport, from the beaches of the Mid Atlantic to the snows of Colorado, the students of America are gathering to celebrate the rites of spring. And, if you pardon a pun, they've got that right. They're our future voters, their citizens of our country, and they're our responsibility. But how the hell to handle them, that's a different manner. Now, these kids didn't come down here to break the law. They'll break it for sure, but that's not their main objective. And remember that they are our guests. So, I want every man on the force to try his best, his level best, to try to avoid arresting anyone. I know that this going to take great will power but try. And, above all preserve your scene of humor. Cause you're gonna need it if you want to survive. And God bless you all.

Monday, May 17, 2004

The First and Best Minnelli

I've been meaning to write a long piece about Vincente Minnelli, but I haven't had a chance yet; I've been watching some of his movies lately, and his work is a crash course in the use of design, camera movement, long takes, and screen composition. He doesn't always have much sense of pacing -- a movie like Designing Woman really ought to be at least half again as fast to make the flimsy plot work, but with Minnelli, it just sort of floats along -- but no other director made movies that were so good to look at. And of course Minnelli, in collaboration with Arthur Freed, re-invented the look of the movie musical. Not enough Minnelli films are available on DVD, but The Band Wagon and Bells are Ringing will be released next year, and some other films will make it sooner or later (Warner Brothers, which owns the MGM films, is doing a fine job with their classic-film library, thanks to VP of classics George Feltenstein).

Meanwhile, here's a long and detailed interview with Minnelli from about 1977.

Minnelli's remarkable visual sense made him very popular with the auteurist critics -- who often seemed to feel that how a movie looks is more important than what it's about -- but since he rarely picked his own projects and never produced or wrote his own movies, it's hard to argue that he's the "author" of his films as Hawks or Hitchcock clearly were. Someone once called Minnelli the Michael Curtiz of MGM, and I think the comparison makes sense; like Curtiz, he worked with the scripts and producers he had, worked in many different genres, used his camera brilliantly, and got the best work out of the studio's actors and technicians. Curtiz didn't do much of interest after he left Warner Brothers, and Minnelli was equally dependent on having the resources of a great studio available to him. He was a casualty of the collapse of the studio system and the scattering to the winds of the great studio technicians:

Q. Is it easier or more difficult to make a picture today?
A. Much more difficult. Because you don’t have the people to chose from. They don’t get together automatically.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Obscure Musical of the Week: DRAT! THE CAT!

One thing I'm going to try to do every week is call attention to a musical that isn't well-known, and perhaps shouldn't be, but has something to recommend it, and hopefully, a recording available.

I'll start with Drat! the Cat! This show opened on Broadway on October 10, 1965 and closed on October 16, 1965. And even in the superior Broadway economy of 1965, a one-week run wasn't enough to make a profit. The music was by Milton Schafer, best known for the Danny Kaye novelty song "Mommy, Gimme a Drinka Water," and the book and lyrics were by Ira Levin. Even Sarah was astonished to learn that Ira Levin wrote a musical, but he did, and as I'll argue in a minute, it's too bad he never wrote another one.

Billed as a "musical spoof," it was sort of two parodies in one. First, it was a sendup of late-Victorian melodrama; it takes place in "the latter part of the 19th century" and the hero, a young policeman, is so dimwitted and duty-bound (following his dying father's admonition, "My Son, Uphold the Law") that he could pass for a Gilbert and Sullivan character. Second, like the original The Pink Panther, it was a spoof of caper stories; the plot concerns the hunt for a notorious jewel thief who turns out to be the heroine, a debutante who turned to crime primarily out of boredom with her own social circle ("I don't want their diamonds -- I'll get my own").

The show got some good reviews, especially for its stars, Elliott Gould and Lesley Ann Warren. But not good enough to make it a hit, and the show's novice producers apparently decided to give up and fold instantly rather than try to keep it going. (One of the investors was Barbra Streisand, who later recorded one of the songs from the show, "She Touched Me.") It's never been revived as far as I know; Bruce Kimmel, who produced a studio cast recording of the show, tried to get a concert version going, but it didn't happen.

The show was originally to be called Cat and Mouse; the title change, and a sort of self-conscious wackiness that may have contributed to its failure, came from the director-choreographer, Joe Layton. Layton, a prolific director of Broadway shows and TV specials, specialized in a kind of generic slickness and profusion of stage business; his shows had so much going on, onstage, that people barely noticed the writing. (Barnum, Layton's circus-spectacle show, actually had a fine score, but hardly anybody could notice that in the midst of all the trapeze acts and such.) Perhaps Drat! would have been more successful with a deadpan, Gilbert-and-Sullivan approach to the material. Certainly the only recording, now sadly out of print, reveals a charming score and a sweet if bizarre love story: the hero learns that some things, like love, are more important than duty, while the heroine realizes that the real escape from her boring life will come not from robbing someone, but from loving someone: "I like him," she sings, "And I like me." It also reveals some obvious flaws, like the fact that the story is awfully thin for a full evening -- no secondary couple; plot twists that are so obvious that the characters actually turn to the audience and acknowledge that we all guessed them in advance -- but I'd still like to see this one staged.

The big surprise of the score is what a good lyricist Ira Levin turns out to be. His lyrics don't have any of the clumsiness that you usually find when novelists and/or playwrights turn away from prose; there are few mis-accented words or unsingable lines. And whereas many lyricists in the '60s tended to go for Hammerstein-style simplicity, with simple rhyme schemes and simple, plot-advancing lines, Levin goes the other way, packing his lyrics with rhymes and allusions. One of the best songs from the score is "Holmes and Watson," sung by the heroine offering to help the foolish young policeman (he doesn't know yet that she's the jewel thief he's sworn to track down):

Sherlock Holmes has Doctor Watson,
Watson trots in back of Holmes.
All the plots that Holmes finds knots in,
Watson jots in tomes.
'Cause it takes one to do the heavy brainwork,
One to do the more mundane work,
One to say "it's elementary,"
One to say "amazing!"
You'll be Holmes and I'll be Watson,
In high spots, in catacombs.
Any place the Cat gavottes in,
Watson trots with Holmes....

Two ballads from the show have had a life outside it, "I Like Him" and "She Touched Me" (usually heard as "He Touched Me"), but I also like "Deep in Your Heart," which is a good example of the way a seemingly generic pop song can have its own function within a show. The hero's innocence, his insistence on seeing the larcenous Cat as a heroine even after he's found out about her life of crime, breaks down her resistance and makes the love story possible. Levin's lyric here is both generalized and plot-specific, as a good Broadway ballad should be:

One who's gentle,
Ly gingham and bows,
Kitchens and home-made pies.
Why not free her?
Why not be her?
Drop your disguise,
Try her for size,
She's waiting, watching, from your eyes.
Deep in your heart
You keep in your heart
The girl you were meant to be.
Don't keep us apart,
Please open your heart
And let her come back to me.

All in all, Drat! the Cat! has a lot to make me wish that Levin had written another musical, and that Shafer (a talented composer whose other show, Bravo Giovanni, was also a flop) had had better luck with his projects. The recording is out of print, but if you see a used copy, grab it.