Monday, February 28, 2005

We All Prisoners, Chickie-Baby

For some reason I wound up watching The Love Bug the other day. Oh, well, actually, I know the reason: I love that picture. In some ways it's still the closest anyone has come to making a true live-action cartoon movie. Frank Tashlin's movies are wilder and generally better, but they usually have just a few cartoony gags in the midst of other types of comedy. Recent movies like The Mask have more elaborate special effects, but, quite apart from questions of how good they are, the use of CGI effects means that they sort of are cartoons, period. But large portions of The Love Bug just feel like a cartoon with real people; indeed, gags like David Tomlinson's head winding up inside a glove compartment, or various cars zooming to and fro inside a mineshaft, are nuttier, funnier and faster than almost anything in Walt Disney's actual animated cartoons. Even the ethnic stereotyping of the Chinese characters feels more "cartoony" than offensive; besides, the Benson Fong character has one of the best lines, when he pronounces that Herbie has "Strength of forty horses."

The movie, which was produced by Disney's favorite live-action writer, Bill Walsh (more about him here) and written by Walsh and writer/storyboardist Don DaGradi, should also get some credit for being one of the few movies of the late '60s that actually incorporated elements of late '60s culture without looking embarrassing. Usually there's nothing worse than established Hollywood studio filmmakers trying to "go hippie"; this is what led to such notable eye-gougers as Otto Preminger's Skidoo. But The Love Bug has love beads, Buddhist philosophy, hippies, Haight-Asbury references, and a generally oh-so-'60s message where anti-materialist youth triumphs over materialistic unimaginative guys over 30 -- and somehow it doesn't make you want to retch. It helps that most of the Buddhist philosophy comes from Buddy Hackett and the most notable hippie is played by Dean Jones in disguise: "We all prisoners, chickie-baby. We all locked in."

The movie would be better if it had a finale that really followed up on the themes Walsh sets up in the first hour or so -- the slightly jerky hero who is redeemed by becoming a sort of surrogate father to a magical, childlike car. As the picture is set up, the hero repents of his jerky ways about an hour into the story, and the entire last half-hour is just a straightforward wacky car chase with lots of (funny) cartoony gags; but the end of that is a foregone conclusion, and the story has lost its momentum because it redeems Dean Jones too early. Whereas Walsh and DaGradi's (and director Robert Stevenson's) Mary Poppins, which had far less plot and was much longer, sustains its story interest right to the end, because the end of the picture is the redemption of George Banks (the real protagonist of that movie). Walsh's stuff was leagues better than anything else produced at Disney after Walt died, including the animated movies, but it does seem that without Disney around, his lieutenants were starting to forget how to construct an emotional arc so it lasts for the whole movie, rather than abandoning it in favor of wacky gags. The second Herbie movie, Herbie Rides Again, also written by Walsh and directed by Stevenson, is really little more than wacky gags, though most of them are pretty good. The other two Herbie movies were made after Walsh's death and are not worth discussing.

I think the main thing you remember about The Love Bug, though, is Peter Ellenshaw's matte work. His stylized paintings of San Francisco are so gorgeous that the scenes actually shot in San Francisco suffer by comparison; why bother with the drabness of the real thing when you can get Peter Ellenshaw to create a beautiful, imaginative new version of it?

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Ha Ha, Thassa Joke

I'm a little late on pointing this out, but Archie Comics semi-recently released a collection of Bob Bolling's "Little Archie" stories -- probably the best work to come out of Archie Comics and some of the best kids' comics ever done, period. The selection is a bit disappointing; though it's called "The Best of Little Archie", it restricts itself almost entirely to one kind of story Bolling did: the action-adventure story where Little Archie finds himself up abducted by the Martians, Abercrombie and Stitch, or facing off against robots created by Mad Doctor Doom ("They'll be sorry they kicked me out of the hangnail clinic!"). These are good, but Bolling did a lot of other stuff with these characters, like gentle comedies, and some sweetly sentimental stories like this and this (those sample pages are from the Oddball Comics column, written by Scott Shaw, a big Bolling fan).

The great thing about Bolling is that he not only doesn't write down to kids, he doesn't make the equally common mistake of writing over their heads. As this essay (the illustrations are unfortunately no longer available) points out, many so-called children's comics use words that kids won't understand and concepts that they won't grasp. This is better, perhaps, than dumbing things down for kids. But what Bolling does is to write very simple stories and dialogue that are nonetheless not dumbed down in the least; Bolling had a gift for dialogue that was as great as his drawing ability, and an ear for combinations of words that stick in a kid's mind (he loved alliterative names: "Carson's Creek," "Blue-Tooth Baker," "Fangs Fogarty"). Simple, funny, imaginative and memorable, Bolling's "Little Archie" comics are regarded as something special by people who like good children's comics.

They don't have a lot in common with the regular "Archie" characters; Bolling kept their names, but re-imagined them and their relationships, so that there was no Archie-Betty-Veronica triangle (instead, Betty and Veronica were, alternately or together, trying to get Little Archie interested in girls), and a number of characters who had no place in the regular Archie comics, like Little Ambrose. (When someone asked Bolling why Ambrose doesn't appear with the teenage Archie characters, he drew a picture of a grave with the legend: "R.I.P. Little Ambrose.") In the '60s, after Bolling stopped doing the comics, the publisher ordered the other Little Archie artist, Dexter Taylor -- who did the same kinds of stories as Bolling, but not as well -- to make everything more like the standard Archie comics, and from then on Little Archie stories were just regular Archie stories with smaller kids; these are to be avoided. However, Bolling has occasionally returned to Little Archie over the years, sometimes with excellent results.

Incidentally, "Mad Doctor Doom" was introduced into Little Archie around the same time that "Doctor Doom" turned up in Marvel comics; nobody really knows who came first.

Deerly Beloved

Watching the new DVD of Bambi, a movie I hadn't seen in years, I was reminded of something -- something, I mean, apart from the fact that we don't actually see Bambi's mother die (like most people who watched this movie as a kid, I could have sworn that I saw the death onscreen, so great was its impact). That's the almost complete lack of sound effects in the movie. Have you ever noticed this in Disney's early features? Basically a lot of them use sound effects only for offscreen actions, like the gunshot that kills you-know-who or the sound of Bambi falling into a puddle. And sometimes if a particular action is important enough, like Thumper thumping, it'll be represented by a sound effect. But apart from that, Bambi mostly uses voices, music, and nothing else; the fight scene between Bambi and that other deer is without sound effects, as is Bambi walking through the snow, Bambi's dad (who, I take it, is an old guy who got a girl pregnant, ran off, and doesn't pay child support) running to warn the other deer about Man (tm) in the forest, and almost everything else that would normally be represented by a sound effect in a film, whether animated or live-action. It's rather odd, once you notice it, and I'm not really sure why Disney was so reluctant to make use of sound effects.

The other thing I was reminded of is the way these Disney movies use songs. You'll remember that in the early '90s, almost every animated movie was a musical with big production numbers, a practice that got out of hand in movies like Pocahontas or Hunchback of Notre Dame, which sometimes seemed to have more music than animation. A reaction set in, and now most animated movies either have no songs or use them more or less as background music. Disney's movies aren't exactly musicals, but they aren't exactly nonmusicals either. They have songs, and most of them (though not Bambi) have characters who sing), but there are very few musical "numbers" per se. Instead there are animated sequences that are built around songs, like the Pink Elephants sequence in Dumbo or the "Little April Shower" scene in Bambi; the animation takes its rhythm and basic subject-matter from the song, but the story interest of the sequence is almost entirely created visually, rather than taking visual cues from the lyrics as a full-fledged musical does. The point of having songs -- and this is brought up a couple of times in Disney's story conferences, transcripts of which are read aloud on the DVD's "Inside Walt's Story Meetings" feature -- was as an alternative to doing a scene in dialogue; it was felt that animated movies should have as little dialogue as possible, so using a song to set the basic subject of a scene was preferable to using lines of dialogue.

Friday, February 25, 2005

The New WKRP in Cincinnati

In the comments section below, it was asked whether there was a "New WKRP in Cincinnati." The answer is, yes, there was, and here's the proof. It picked up the story of WKRP several years after the original series ended; most of the characters had moved on, but there remained the three characters whose actors were still available: Mr. Carlson (Gordon Jump), Herb (Frank Bonner) and Les (Richard Sanders). Loni Anderson and Tim Reid made some guest appearances, and Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) was a frequent guest. The only two actors from the original show who never appeared were, ironically, the two who were least in-demand: Gary Sandy was off doing regional theater and Jan Smithers was carving out her niche as the first and/or second Mrs. James Brolin.

The background of this misbegotten show was, of course, greed. "WKRP" was never considered a prestige project by MTM, which produced it. (Asked about it by a magazine, Mary Tyler Moore replied: "I wouldn't watch it.") When CBS cancelled it after four years and 90 episodes, it went into syndication, and surprised everybody by becoming the biggest moneymaker in MTM history: it did better in syndication than "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Bob Newhart," "Rhoda," anything. For a while it was the top-rated sitcom in syndication or very close to it. It was the "Star Trek" of sitcoms.

Meanwhile, since the departure of its founder, Grant Tinker, MTM had floundered and basically collapsed, going from the number one producer of "quality TV" to a second-rate company just trying to stay afloat. In that spirit, the company hoped to get some more mileage out of its most valuable property, WKRP, by producing more episodes directly for syndication: the idea was not only to make money off the new episodes, but to add those episodes to the WKRP syndication package, which in turn would increase the value of the reruns (the one problem with WKRP as a syndication property is that there were so few episodes). Of course, that didn't happen; all syndicated reruns of "WKRP" involve only the original 90 episodes, and "The New WKRP," or "WKRP: The Next Generation," was forgotten as soon as it left the air.

As originally announced, Hugh Wilson, the creator of "WKRP," was supposed to write and direct the pilot of "The New WKRP." He pulled out of the project, though, and the executive producer of "The New WKRP" was Bill Dial, a writer on the original series (he wrote the "Turkeys Away" episode). The new characters he came up with were not much good; that's adequately explained in the piece I linked to above.

The biggest problem with the new series, as I recall, is that it completely misunderstood the style of the original series. MTM apparently thought that "WKRP" was a wild madcap farce about wacky goings-on in a radio station, sort of a broadcasting "Night Court." The original series was nothing like that, for the most part; it had a few farce episodes, but for the most part it was low-key, quirky, understated -- emphasizing character development and character interaction over jokes. The plots of "The New WKRP" mostly put characters in dopey farcical situations and tried to get laughs by coming up with gags to distract from the weak characters; the approach was the exact opposite of the original show. Sample plot from "The New WKRP": Mr. Carlson is accidentally hypnotized into thinking he's a chicken whenever he hears the word "Colonel." Unfortunately, that happens to be the day a Russian Colonel is visiting the station to learn about broadcasting.

The show was a modest success by the standards of first-run syndication, but it never made enough money to support the cost of a large cast, so it went off the air after two years. A few years later MTM got sold to a company owned by Pat Robertson. A happy ending for all concerned.

Speaking of WKRP, a writer for the show, Steve Marshall, once gave an interview mentioning two scripts he'd written for the original show, both from stories by Hugh Wilson (a hands-on showrunner who came up with many of the stories and rewrote many of the scripts), that got nixed by CBS. One was "Jennifer's Wedding," which would have seen Jennifer (Loni Anderson) getting married to one of her elderly boyfriends; the idea was to marry her off in that episode and have the husband die a few weeks later. The death episode got produced ("Jennifer and the Will"), but CBS didn't like the idea of a wedding episode, apparently believing it might hurt Loni Anderson's sex-symbol status or something.

The other script, which was very close to going into production and may actually have gone into rehearsal before CBS had them scrap it, was called "Another Merry Mix-Up." In it, Herb tries to impress some younger advertising clients by scoring some marijuana, only to have Johnny Fever tell him that the dealer cheated him: it's not pot, but oregano. The oregano finds its way into the office of a nervous Mr. Carlson, who is preparing for a meeting with his mother's lawyers. After much temptation, he decides to relax himself by smoking what he thinks is a joint -- and he winds up happy and confident at the meeting, psychologically bucked up by believing he smoked pot (even though he didn't). CBS's standards and practices department finally decided that they wouldn't allow a pot episode, even one where nobody actually smoked pot. But even in summary, that plot shows some of WKRP's strengths: humor based on characterization (Herb's combination of sleaziness and unworldliness; Mr. Carlson's combination of squareness and a desire not to seem completely out of touch with the times), and little misunderstandings rather than big farcical ones (the climax would have been a moment where something wacky doesn't happen). It was a good show.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

And One For Mahler

Michael Gielen is one of the more interesting conductors of his generation, though not one of the best-known. Like Pierre Boulez, he's an avant-garde composer who also conducts, but unlike Boulez, a superstar as composer and conductor, Gielen was more in the mold of the Kappellmeister who produces respected compositions (I've heard one of them; it was OK, similar to Boulez but without the orchestral appeal that make Boulez's serialisms tolerable to people who, like me, don't "get" serialism) and, as a performer, starts in the regional opera houses and works his way up. Gielen's big break came in the late '70s when he became music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, but his repertoire choices and conducting style weren't to the taste of the orchestra or the audience; his tenure there was short, and he never had another post at a big-city orchestra. But starting in 1986, he took over the South-West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden, a very good "provincial" orchestra that specializes in astringent modernistic music of the kind Gielen likes. And because the orchestra has its own recording studio and a deal with state-subsidized radio, Gielen has wound up making more recordings of standard repertoire music than many better-known, better-publicized conductors.

Many of these recordings are available on the Haenssler label, including recordings of The Complete Symphonies of Mahler. This might, overall, be the best Mahler cycle ever recorded (which is not to disparage individual favorite recordings by the likes of Bernstein, Kubelik, Walter, Levine, Chailly, etc). The sound is very good throughout -- all but one of them are studio recordings -- and Gielen is sort of like Pierre Boulez with heart: a lot of attention to detail, an emphasis on the "modernist" elements in Mahler, but no holding back or embarrassment about Mahler's schmaltzy moments, like the Klezmer music in the third movement of the first symphony, or the fifth symphony's adagietto (which Gielen takes very fast -- under nine minutes -- in keeping with the kind of tempo Mahler reportedly preferred for this movement). The set is only available from Germany at the moment, though some of the individual releases came out in the U.S. and Canada; the recording of symphony no. 7, on one disc, is probably the best version of that symphony on any label.

Other Gielen recordings I've heard and liked are his recording of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony (coupled with two other really depressing pieces: Berg's Three Pieces For Orchestra and Ravel's "La Valse"), a sort of Mahlerian approach to a piece that probably influenced Mahler's later work; his fast and furious version of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass, and some of his Beethoven; his recording of the "Pastoral" symphony has the fastest first movement I've ever heard in this piece. Very interesting conductor, with a very interesting discography; David Hurwitz has a review of the Mahler box at Classics Today, which is even more enthusiastic than mine.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Revenge of the MTM Kitten

Finally, at last, The Mary Tyler Moore Show: The Complete Second Season will be released on DVD this summer.

You may recall that the first season came out in Fall of 2002 in a beautifully-remastered, extras-heavy package that was just about perfect (except for a little snippet they cut out of one episode because of music-rights issues). And it tanked, at least by the standards that Fox had set for it; they'd spent a fortune producing it -- outsourcing the extras to a team headed by Ed Asner and his son, who did a great but not cheap job -- and the number of copies they sold just couldn't make back that kind of money. So the whole thing was put on hold until they could figure out a more effective way to market older shows on DVD.

At this point, two and a half years later, things will probably be better for shows like this; Paramount has had some success with releasing old shows like The Andy Griffith Show at low prices, without extras but with uncut, remastered prints, leading to good sales. Fox, which is releasing another MTM show, The Bob Newhart Show, in a very cheap bare-bones package, seems to be following the same strategy, and it's fine; when it comes to shows that aren't on anywhere and have 5-10 minutes cut out of them when they are shown anywhere, just having the uncut episodes is enough.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show improved quite a bit in its second season; the first season had quite a few boilerplate, formulaic, wide-eyed-gal-in-the-city episodes, but in season 2 they started giving the supporting characters -- the non-Mary characters, more to do, which was all to the good; some of the best episodes of the season revolve around supporting characters or guest characters (the Mexican waiter in the season's best episode, "He's No Heavy... He's My Brother").

In fact, I'd say that The Mary Tyler Moore Show got better the less it was about Mary. I'm not saying Mary Tyler Moore was the weak link in her own show, but unlike Dick Van Dyke, who had the versatility to play several roles combined into one (specifically, two roles: the head of the work family and the head of the suburban nuclear family), Moore didn't have a wide range as a performer and Mary didn't have a wide range as a character. And that meant that there were certain limitations in the kinds of stories the show could do with Mary, and much of what she couldn't do wound up being given to the supporting characters: Lou got the darker stuff, Ted the wackier stuff, even Phyllis stepped into the breach to do things that would have been out of character for Mary (like the episode where she helped Ted run for office). That doesn't make Moore a bad star, but it meant that Mary Tyler Moore, which was conceived as a star vehicle, worked better when it wasn't one: the other characters worked best not on the periphery of the star's stories, like Buddy and Sally, but basically starring in their own stories with Mary supporting them. And so what began as a star vehicle became one of the first true ensemble sitcoms, with a sort of rotating lineup of stars.

I think The Mary Tyler Moore Show really hit its stride in the third season, when they finally gave up the idea of doing Mary-centric stories every week and started giving more time to other characters. (The best season of all was season 4, when David Lloyd joined as a writer; he would become the show's star scriptwriter, wining an Emmy for "Chuckles Bites the Dust," and would later write many of the best episodes of "Taxi," "Cheers," "Frasier," and... uh... "Amen.") But let me tell you this: if season 2 doesn't sell, don't expect season 3 in another two-and-a-half years. So get season 2, and hope that Fox's new commitment to MTM shows (Remington Steele is also coming) means that there might be a "WKRP In Cincinnati" release somewhere down the road.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

First Raitt

John Raitt was a great musical-theatre singer. Emphasis on singer. He could act, but he wasn't primarily trained as an actor, and Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't pick him for Carousel for acting chops, but for vocal excellence. (as Ethan Mordden has pointed out, Rodgers always wanted excellent singing voices, even if they belonged to relatively inexperienced actor). His specialty was delivering a great show tune in a big, rich, operatically-trained baritone voice. When we read that he played the lead in Rossini's Barber of Seville before R&H picked him for the Chicago company of Oklahoma! it's a reminder of the fact that in the '40s there wasn't much of a dividing line between musical-theatre singing and classical singing; Broadway musicals abounded in well-produced, well-trained voices that didn't need microphones to be heard in the back of the theatre. Now, of course, what we think of as Broadway singing is almost entirely microphone-directed, and "trained" singers in musical theatre are singers who were specifically trained to do that kind of microphone singing. But for the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, classical training is far more valuable and appropriate than what passes for "musical theatre training" among many singing coaches.

Raitt was never quite a big star; after Carousel, the only hit show he starred in (in the original run, anyway) was The Pajama Game, and he wasn't the first choice for that: he came in to replace Ralph Meeker, who was fired because he couldn't sing. By 1954 musicals were more heavily emphasizing other things besides singing; the rest of the Pajama Game cast consisted of people who were primarily actors (Janis Paige) or dancers (Carol Haney) and could more or less sing. Raitt, like William Johnson (a great Broadway baritone who died young), was first and foremost a singer, and therefore not the first choice for many roles in a time when more and more non-singers were populating the casts of Broadway musicals.

Raitt is sometimes compared with the guy who created the lead in R&H's Oklahoma! Alfred Drake. But the comparison doesn't quite hold. For one thing, Drake really was a big, name-above-the-title star, which Raitt never really was. For another thing, Drake was kind of an ironic, self-aware performer, a specialist in parody (his singing was a spoof of schmaltzy operetta singing, his vehicles, like Kean and Kismet, were at least partly satirical). Raitt was a performer without apparent irony, without distance between himself and the audience or himself and the material. He symbolized the musical-theatre trouper, the guy who didn't think this stuff was corny. If you went in thinking these songs were corny, his sincerity won you over; for the larger portion of the audience that saw nothing corny about Kansas in August, it was great to hear a first-rate singer who didn't condescend to the material.

Mark Evanier has a good post on Raitt and his willingness to give of his best in any venue.

Nothing To See Here... Yet

Sorry I haven't posted lately; I will have something soon (though not the thing about favorite rhymes... consider yourself lucky).

Saturday, February 19, 2005

My Name is Jaime and I'm a Rhymeaholic

I concluded long ago that the defining question about your tastes in song lyrics is this: in "Blowin' in the Wind," do you think "man" rhymes with "banned?"

I remember I once tried to explain to a classmate that it didn't. He foolishly asked why, leaving the door open for me to explain all the rules of proper rhyming, which, basically, are:

1. The vowel sounds must be the same.
2. All consonants and vowels following the rhyming vowel must be exactly the same
3. The consonants before the vowel must be different.

The first of those rules is followed in almost all rhyming, at least in songs (in poetry, of course, there are all kinds of almost-rhymes involving different vowel sounds but similar consonants, e.g. Wilfred Owen rhyming "killed" with "cold"). But the last two rules have pretty much gone out the window since the rise of rock n' roll, fake folk songs, and other such things.

So, to return to "man" and "banned," that's not a rhyme, from a purist's point of view, because the consonants don't match; that extra "d" kills the rhyme. Similarly, "lady" and "baby" fit rules 1 and 3, but the mismatch of "b" and "d" means it fails the # 2 test ("Lady he rhymes with baby! No wonder he's dead!" -- The Sunshine Boys).

If you're a totally uncompromising rhyme purist, as I am, you'll even reject rhymes that fit rules # 1 and # 2 but not # 3. These are not strictly rhymes but "identities," matches of exactly identical sounds, like "belief" and "relief" or "low" and "hello." Now, does anybody really care about the difference between a rhyme and an identity, except the rhyme fundamentalists like me? Probably not. But rules are rules.

The people who are most bothered by impure rhymes are usually professionals. Noel Coward hated the nursery rhyme "Little Tommy Tucker" for rhyming "Tucker" with "supper" with "butter," and expressed his displeasure through Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit ("I hate that, because it doesn't rhyme at all"). Carolyn Leigh lecturing on lyric writing, was adamant that "home and alone don't rhyme, time and mine don't rhyme, and friend and again rhyme only in the area bounded by Nashville and God knows what." (But then, even Leigh, one of the greatest rhymers of all time, once tried to rhyme "belief" with "relief." Even Homer nods.) Stephen Sondheim reportedly objected to Randy Newman rhyming "girl" with "world." Richard Rodgers decided against working with Lionel Bart, in part because of Bart's sloppy rhyming. And so on.

Well, they're professionals; of course they're going to be sticklers for the rules. What's my excuse for being so rhyme-conscious? Well, I just love rhymes. Love them. I think making rhymes is one of the great pleasures of using the English language. And because English, like German, is a relatively rhyme-poor language (look at how few rhymes there are for "love" or "liebe" compared to all the rhymes for "amour" or "amore"), rhyming is difficult; it's a challenge to say something coherent and interesting while also making the words fit music and come up with rhymes all the time. Part of the fun of listening to an English song lyric, then, is the sense of the writer overcoming a challenge. Anything that the writer does to make his or her task easier -- using cliche'd rhymes, sacrificing syntax for the sake of rhyme, or just breaking the rules of what makes a true rhyme -- lessens the feeling of overcoming a challenge; where's the fun in listening to the rhymes, if rhymes are easy to come by?

The great rhymers in lyric writing, people like Leigh, Sondheim, Larry Hart, Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg, are like escape artists: when it comes to rhyme schemes and choice of words to rhyme, they're always setting challenges for themselves that seem hard to get out of. When Carolyn Leigh writes "I'll be up like a rosebud / High on the vine," she's set herself a big challenge: she has to find two rhymes in relatively short lines, including a rhyme for a word that doesn't have anything listed in the rhyming dictionary ("rosebud"), all the while making sense and being funny. And when she comes back a moment later with "Don't thumb your nose, bud / Take a tip from mine," she's pulled another brilliant escape trick.

Also, a real rhyme just sounds more satisfying than an almost-rhyme. When a rhyme doesn't follow the three basic rules, it might be a sort-of-rhyme, close enough for government work, but it just doesn't have the feeling of an absolutely perfect match of sound and sense; it doesn't solidify the music and the meaning the way a real rhyme does. Ira Gershwin wrote about a recording where the singer changed some words, turning a real rhyme (store/more) to an impure one (endure/more). He wrote: "It changes tense and sense, and suddenly rhyme doesn't chime." It's that "chime," the sense that the words balance each other, that I miss in an impure rhyme. Now, I think there's an argument to be made that rock n' roll songs don't need the solidity of pure rhymes, because they depend on the beat (beat, beat) to provide that underlying solidity and unify the song. But still, to a rhymeaholic, there's a pleasure in a pure rhyme -- "man" and "ban" -- that can never be found in an almost-rhyme like "man" and "banned." That one lowercase "d" makes all the capital-d difference.

On a less anal note, I'll be back pretty soon with a post on some of my favorite rhymes and rhyme schemes in songs.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Attention Must Be Paid... To Something Else

I don't have much to say about Arthur Miller. Most obituaries in the blogosphere are divided between arguing that he was a liberal hero (the liberal blogs) and an apologist for tyranny (the conservative blogs). Both are probably correct, and it's beyond me what they have to do with his play writing. Makes me glad I'm not doing a political blog; it must be wearying to be always writing as though the personal is political and the political is personal. In other words: Joe McCarthy is dead, liberal bloggers, and so is Stalin, conservative bloggers. Other stuff happened in the '50s too, you know. Write about something else.

You have to give Miller credit for winding up as a more interesting writer than most of the playwrights of his general background and views. All My Sons is basically a Lillian Hellman type of play -- a well-made three act melodrama, like Ibsen rewritten for the Popular Front. With the success of that play, Miller could have coasted on self-righteous melodramatic cliches for years, the way Hellman did; instead he tried to do different things and actually challenge his audience a bit in terms of stagecraft and even theme (Death of a Salesman may be somewhat simplistic, but it doesn't have the black-and-white morality of, say, The Little Foxes). His writing took a downturn in the '60s when Broadway was crumbling and there were fewer directors and producers like Elia Kazan or Harold Clurman, guys who could make a playwright's work better by telling him what to cut and rewrite. Once Miller was an Institution, impervious to such orders, his work declined accordingly. But that's true of most of the playwrights of his generation.

I think his reputation has suffered because one of his silliest plays, The Crucible, is constantly taught in school as if it's some kind of deep political tract. A while back I speculated that being forced to read The Crucible is what turns kids into Republicans; the speculation is at the end of this post, where I wrote:

By the way, speaking of The Crucible: you know how people sometimes wonder why college students are more right-wing than they used to be? I blame the practice of teaching The Crucible in high school. Teenagers suffer through that play, along with a mess of commentary about how in the '50s there was a dark and evil conspiracy to hunt Communists, yada yada. Then they get to college, start reading on their own, and discover that Communism was evil, the Rosenbergs were guilty, etc. Then they're so disillusioned with everything their teachers told them that they go overboard and start campaigning for a flat tax and wearing business suits with little U.S. flags on the lapel. So if there are any teachers reading: if you don't want your students growing up to be Republicans, I beg of you, don't teach The Crucible. You'll thank me later.

I Close the Iron Door On You!

My two must-have DVD releases for February 22 are Twentieth Century and Leave Her to Heaven.

Columbia/Sony's DVD of Twentieth Century is nothing special: no extras, hideous cover art, and a so-so print of the film (the negative is lost). Still, it's a decent transfer, and the film itself is so very, very, very funny. Exhausting, because unlike most screwball comedies there are no sensible people, at least not in prominent roles; there's no Cary Grant or Joel McRea to be the voice of sanity. Instead everybody's a lunatic, not counting the one character who's an actual lunatic (Etienne Girardot as the religious fanatic putting "REPENT!" stickers all over the train), and while John Barrymore of course gives the most insanely hammy performance in movie history, the others almost keep up with him. It is, as I've said, exhausting, and the central relationship is truly creepy, but it is one of the funniest movies ever made.

It's also an example of the advantages of "Pre-Code" movies (it was made just before the studios started strictly enforcing the Hays Code). In a previous post, I mentioned that Pre-Code movies aren't always all they're cracked up to be, but this is one of many exceptions to my over-generalization. Post-Code, they could just about have gotten away with most of the insinuations about Oscar and Lily's affair (though probably not the bit where Roscoe Karns sees Carole Lombard's boat-shaped bed and asks whether Barrymore was "rowing" last night). What they couldn't have gotten away with was the way the movie, like the play it's based on, constantly makes fun of religion. Indeed, most of the jokes about religious fundamentalism and showbiz types dabbling in religion (Barrymore, anticipating Mel Gibson, wants to produce the Passion as a big-budget spectacular) haven't dated at all. Which should provide a comforting feeling for anyone who feels that these things are new and worrisome.

I think my favorite shot in the movie is the one just after Barrymore meets the two German Passion players (including Herman Bing, father of Metropolitan Opera impresario Rudolf Bing). In a single take, Walter Connolly pushes them out of the stateroom, turns back to Barrymore, pushes him into his seat, and pours out his heart: "O.J., listen, I know you won't believe this, but I'm more than an employee -- I'm the best friend you've got... I'm not gonna let you get mixed up with any phony art." What I love about the shot is that the composition is, in film-school terms, totally wrong: Connolly and Barrymore wind up bunched together in the left-hand corner of the frame, with empty space in the rest of the frame. What clearly happened, as with many of the shots in the film, is that Howard Hawks liked the spontaneous quality of the acting in that take, and left it as was, with no "coverage," no editing. No studio would let a shot like that get by today; they'd have sensible compositions, lots of cutting back and forth between characters, and they'd drain all the life out of the scene.

Leave Her to Heaven is one I haven't seen since I was a kid, but I always liked it, despite the implausible nature of the story (not the Freudian psycho-killer stuff; I mean the fact that two women who look like Gene Tierney and Jeanne Crain are fighting over Cornel Wilde, for Pete's sake). From what I've seen of the DVD so far, it's a great transfer and the Fox Technicolor looks jaw-dropping.

Gene Tierney in Technicolor sort of reminds me of what Pauline Kael said about Candace Bergen in some early '70s movie, to the effect that she was so beautiful she seemed like a science-fiction space creature. I don't really get the fuss about Bergen, but Gene Tierney, in these '40s movies, fits that description very well: she's so beautiful, and Fox's use of Technicolor so gorgeously artificial, that she looks like she's from another planet, albeit a planet of very good-looking people. I remember that when I saw Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait on a big screen (that movie, by the way, is being prepared for DVD release by Criterion) there were actual gasps from the audience when she made her first appearance.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Who Criticizes the Critics?

This post at 2 Blowhards quotes from an interview with Ray Carney, Boston University film professor, writer, and longtime lackey of John Cassavetes, the man who pioneered the aesthetic credo that movies should be just as boring as real life.

Okay, that's unfair. Cassavetes' movies aren't (always) boring, and Carney is an interesting writer sometimes, and as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, he's done good work in praising the work of filmmakers whose work never went Big Media. (Carney has probably been quite influential on Rosenbaum's big theory of the film industry, namely that there are all these great movies out there that aren't famous because the Evil Mainstream Media -- for all I know he might call it the MSM -- doesn't want people to see them. I remain unconvinced by the theory that Mikey and Nicky would have beaten Rocky at the box office if only the big corporate fat cats hadn't been afraid of it.) But for me, Carney is basically useless as a critic because of his Cassavetes obsession. He's constantly comparing movies unfavorably to Cassavetes movies, telling us that other moviemakers should be more like John Cassavetes; every Carney essay is the writerly equivalent of that guy in your dorm who never seems to acknowledge that there are, in fact, other musicians besides Elvis Costello. He is, in other words, an example of a critic who is also a fan, and whose abilities as a critic are impaired by his fandom.

This is pretty common, I think, though usually not on as extreme a scale as that. Sometimes there are other extreme cases; I seem to recall that there was a woman a few years ago who wrote a book on operatic tenors, and concluded with a chapter arguing that a semi-successful tenor she liked (Peter Hoffmann) was the greatest tenor of all time. Usually what happens is that a critic will become such a fan of someone's style that he or she likes everything that artist does; when it came to Sam Peckinpah or Brian DePalma, Pauline Kael (Carney's nemesis) was always bending over backward to see the good in their work.

But that's not a problem, except on the occasions when the critic tells you to go and see a bad work by their favorite artists. The problem is that fandom can be the prism through which one sees everything else even remotely similar. If you're as big a fan of Cassavetes as Carney is, then almost everything is going to be analyzed based on how much it is, or isn't, like a Cassavetes movie; the idea that that approach might be right for one artist, but not for another, is no longer apparent. It happens with music critics too, and used to happen quite a lot; the critic B.H. Haggin was such a Toscanini fan that he basically evaluated every conductor, every performance, based on how much it was or wasn't like a Toscanini performance. (Other critics similarly want every conductor to sound like Furtwangler, or every Beethoven sonata performance to sound like Schnabel.) John Simon, back when he was reviewing movies, was so obsessed with Ingmar Bergman that you got the impression that he liked movies insofar as they could be compared to Bergman movies (eg Simon once said he liked The Rules of the Game, but didn't think much of other Renoir movies -- and Rules has a certain kinship with the types of stories that Bergman liked to do, though it's too entertaining to pass for a Bergman movie). I also recall we used to have a TV critic at The Globe and Mail who would constantly complain that other shows weren't more like, God help us, Sports Night.

The difference between the critic and the fan is that the critic has a certain amount of semi-objective reporting to do. The "objective" part is that the critic is supposed to describe what a work of art, or a performance, is like and what it's trying to do. Then the critic can go on to say whether he or she likes the thing, but at least you know what he or she is reacting to. (A good critic will describe a work so vividly and so accurately that you can know, by comparing your tastes with the critic's, whether you'll like it or not.) But when you're a fan, you become so preoccupied with the object of your fandom that it can blind you to the notion that other approaches might be just as legitimate. If you see something that covers some of the same territory as your personal favorite, but takes a different approach, your inclination might be to reject that approach.

Not to mention that if you're a fan, you just want your favorite to succeed, even if it means rooting against other works that might have their own value; I know I've rooted for the failure of perfectly good, or at least decent, TV shows because they were up against shows of which I was a fan, and I naturally wanted my favorite show to survive. This stuff is an option for a fan, though I'm not saying it's anything to be proud of; it's just natural, when you're a fan of something, to compare other things unfavorably to it. The point is that that isn't, or shouldn't be, an option for a critic. The critic who can't be bothered to say anything about a work or a performance except that it's different from his favorite is a critic who is too lazy, or too much of a fanboy, to figure out what this other work is trying to do.

Fanboys are necessary; we're all fanboys of something (except for those of us who are fangirls). But someone who can't pull himself out of fanboy mode makes for a lousy critic. That's true of Ray Carney, it was sometimes true of B.H. Haggin, and it's frequently true of Harry Knowles.

I'm sure Ray Carney appreciates that last comparison.

I Weep For Our Generation

This is a Wall Street Journal article on the plan to redesign and re-imagine Looney Tunes characters as futuristic crimefighting superheroes. Mike Barrier has a picture of the design for "Buzz Bunny," aka Bugs Beyond.

I had a longer post about this, but accidentally erased it. Probably just as well. That much concentrated rage eats up a lot of bandwidth. Suffice it to say: are you starting to appreciate Tiny Toons a little more now, after the disaster that was Baby Looney Tunes, and the disaster that this show will be? (Yeah, I'm supposed to say "I'll give it a chance" or "I can't judge till I see it." To heck with that. No good ever comes of an idea this bad.)

The No-Spinoff Zone

The Onion AV Club recently had an entertaining article on TV spinoffs and the various categories thereof. But for the real lowdown on spinoffs, you've got to go to The Crossovers and Spinoffs Master Page, which details just about every spinoff and inter-show crossover the author can find. Drawing on that page, Dwayne McDuffie used the many St. Elsewhere crossovers to prove that almost every show ever made was all part of that kid's dream in the St. Elsewhere finale (because if St. Elsewhere crossed over with Cheers, then Cheers never happened, which means Frasier never happened, etc).

One thing that's kind of fun -- well, depending on your definition of fun -- about watching reruns of some '70s and '80s shows is that sometimes you might come across a pilot for a spinoff. The cheapest way for a production company to do a pilot was to produce it as part of an existing show. So you'd get an episode of your favorite show where the main character would appear once at the beginning and once more at the end, and the rest of the episode would be devoted to new actors interacting on a new set. I seem to recall a Matlock (which I watched as a child, and I can't even blame my grandparents for that; I just liked to see Andy outwit those young punks) that was a spinoff pilot where an old, out-of-shape, possibly ill George Peppard teamed up with a young female who may or may not have been his daughter -- I can't remember -- to solve mysteries. Even I knew that wasn't going to fly.

When it comes to the most common type of spinoff, namely taking a supporting player and making him or her the lead, the question is which show suffered the most for spinning off a character. I don't think The Mary Tyler Moore Show suffered too badly for losing Rhoda; all it meant was that most of the stories wound up taking place in the newsroom, which was the most interesting part of the show anyway. And the third season of Soap, the first without Benson, may have been the best; Benson was an expendable character, funny as he was, because he never actually participated in any soap-opera stories of his own, being too sensible to get into that kind of trouble. (By the way, if you have the third season DVD of Soap you'll notice that Benson appears in the first three or so episodes, and they don't hire a replacement right away; the producers sensibly left the door open for him to come back to the show if his spinoff didn't catch on.) I'd say that losing Lionel Jefferson was a big blow to All in the Family. His relationship with Archie -- Lionel quietly deflating Archie with sarcasm, but understanding and liking Archie better than Mike did -- was one of the best and funniest on the show, and his way of dealing with Archie was an antidote to the self-righteous Meathead.

Monday, February 14, 2005

I Dub Thee

MAN: Don't you love foreign movies?
WOMAN: Oh, yes. Don't you hate subtitles?
MAN: Oh, yes.
-- From the Dick Van Dyke Show episode "The Lady and the Tiger and the Lawyer"

In one of his interviews with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock says something offhand that Truffaut doesn't really pick up on (which isn't unusual -- I like Truffaut's movies, but he's a rather clueless interviewer). I don't have the exact quote here, but it's something to the effect that a movie loses a certain percentage of its impact when it's subtitled, and somewhat less than that when it's "well dubbed."

When I first read that, I was a little taken aback, because I'd become accustomed to thinking of dubbing as something awful and crass, done for the benefit of audiences too clueless to accept subtitles. And here's a major filmmaker saying, matter-of-factly, that his movies lose less when they're dubbed than when they're subtitled.

But when I thought about it, I realized that this is pretty much true. It's not hard to read subtitles and watch a movie at the same time, but it does detract from the moviegoing experience to a certain extent, because you can't lose yourself in the movie, focus all your attention on the experience. With a movie in my own language, I can sometimes get so caught up in it that I almost forget I'm watching a movie, and just experience the story as if these are real people in front of me. This experience can even happen with a movie that I don't think is all that great (I don't think Gone With the Wind is great art, but when I'm watching it, I don't feel like it's a movie; I just feel like something's happening before my eyes). But it's very hard for it to happen with a movie in a language I don't understand, because the effort in reading the subtitles, however slight, constantly reminds you that you're watching a movie.

Yet this isn't a plea for dubbing, because I can't stand dubbed movies and I know that many other people feel the same; that's why dubbed movies never really caught on in English-speaking countries. What puzzles me is why this is so. In France, Italy, Japan, Mexico, etc., audiences have no problem with hearing big Hollywood stars dubbed into the appropriate language.

And since Hollywood movies mostly use "direct sound" (that is, the voices are recorded on the set, simultaneously with the action), they arguably lose a lot more in dubbing than in those Italian movies where everybody is dubbed anyway. Remember the Italian actress in Day For Night who is used to just saying nonsense words or numbers while filming, and can't adjust to having to memorize her lines. Or remember Joe Queenan's fury over discovering that the movie Il Postino was subtitled but the voices didn't match the actors' lip movements: "The movie, which lionizes a lazy, semi-literate Commie poet, is both dubbed and subtitled. For this I needed to pay nine bucks?"

Moreover, it's not like English-speaking audiences have never sat still for dubbing. What about Dr. No, the first James Bond movie, where something like half the characters -- including all the female characters -- are dubbed? It seems like we're willing to accept the idea that someone can be dubbed over to disguise their bad Lina Lamont-esque voice, but not so that we can, you know, understand what they're saying.

Of course, I sort of answered my question -- why can't English-speaking audiences accept dubbing -- above, when I noted that English-language movies traditionally try to have dialogue recorded "live," simultaneously with the filming. English-language audiences seem to be fussy about this, about the idea that the voice should exactly match the actions and the lip movements. You can just about get by with re-voicing an English-language movie because the voice will still match the lip movements. But put English words to the lip movements of people who aren't speaking English, and it looks cheesy, stupid, What's Up Tiger Lily-ish. But why does it seem stupid in English, when it's just par for the course in French? Is it something about English, as a language, that makes it hard to match with lip movements in other languages? I'm really not sure.

Here's a follow-up question: what are some good dubbing jobs you've heard in a movie?

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Something Miltonic

And now for something really self-indulgent: a while back I decided to turn my English-major experience into something useful -- a daunting and perhaps impossible goal -- so I decided to write a "what if" piece, namely "what if they made a musical out of a classic work of English literature that could never be musicalized." The result was a libretto for Paradise Lost: The Musical.

I never did anything with it, because I had no idea what could be done with something so silly, but now that I have a blog I might as well put it here, since what's a blog for if not for displaying silly things you've written?

This isn't actually the whole piece; it was, believe it or not, even longer than this, and included some lyrics for full-fledged production numbers. But this gives an idea of what former English majors do with their spare time. Those of you who chose another discipline will be reassured that you chose wisely.

Written by Jaime J. Weinman


Scene: The home of John Milton, 1667. The blind Milton is dictating the last lines of PARADISE LOST to his daughters, who take down his words.

MILTON: ...They--comma--hand in hand--comma--with wandering steps and slow--comma, new line--Through Eden took their solitary way, period. End of poem. Read that back.

DAUGHTERS [reading simultaneously]: "They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,/Through Eden took their solitary way."

DAUGHTER 1 [approvingly]: Lovely, father.

DAUGHTER 2: The best line yet.

DAUGHTER 1: What an ending!

DAUGHTER 2: How inspirational!

MILTON [after a pause]: No, it's no good.

DAUGHTER 1: But that line is--

MILTON: It's not the line. It's the whole poem. I've been thinking about this. The whole poem needs to be re-written.

DAUGHTER 2: You can't be serious.

MILTON: I can't, hm? The whole trouble with this poem is that it seems like I can't not be serious. It's all "of man's first dis-obedience" this, and "hail holy light" that. Too preachy.

DAUGHTER 1 [primly]: Father, you can never be too preachy.

DAUGHTER 2: I agree with her.

DAUGHTER 1: And I agree with her agreeing with me.


MILTON: Stop! My mind's made up. This poem needs some lightening up. It needs some fun. It

DAUGHTER 1 & DAUGHTER 2 [horrified]: Music??

MILTON: And dancing. And singing. And--take this down, kids.

DAUGHTER 1: But, father--

MILTON: Stop talking and start writing! The scene opens in hell, where Satan and his renegade angels have fallen. And they sing...

[Fade out. Fade in on scene 1.]

Scene 1

Scene: Hell. The devils get up from the ground and sing.

Well, well, well, sad to tell,
Here we are
In you-know-where.
Down we fell, down we fell,
Fast and far
To you-know-where.

Boy, are we slobs!

We're just a bunch of jerks!

We've lost our jobs
And all our special perks!

Silence, you imbeciles, you fools;
This place is ideal.
Once we were instruments and tools,
Always brought to heel.
We’ve now our own evil universe
Where we can be bad, and then be worse!

In Home Sweet Hell,
Where we're scorched and torched eternally,
In Home Sweet Hell
Ev'ryone has fun infernally.
Up there, where we sang God's praises,
No one misbehaved;
Down here in the burning blazes,
We've a chance to be depraved!
So here we'll dwell;
From the fire, who'd desire to roam?
We're doing well
In Home Sweet hell,
Our happy hellish home!
Just to embellish,
We really relish
Our happy hellish home!

[The chorus of Devils repeats the refrain, followed by a devilish dance.]

Scene 2

The exit from hell. Satan is fighting with DEATH. Enter SIN.

Oh, Sin! Is that you--you've--er, you've changed--
Your lower half's been rearranged.

I still remember those things you said
The day I popped out of your head.
I still rembember the things we did
That led to this delighful frightful kid.

I don't care that
He's my pappy,
Let me beat him
To a pulp.
I declare that
I'll be happy
If I eat him
In one gulp.

No girl could have a more obliging dad,
You gave me ev'rything you had.
What we did was a hideous crime,
How's about tryin' it one more time?

Hey, hey, big devil daddy,
Do you have to run?
What say, big devil daddy,
Leave your work undone,
Even devils need to have fun.
Let's play, big devil daddy,
You can choose the game.
They call me Sin, big devil daddy,
So come on in, big devil daddy,
And I'll show you how I got my name!

Oh, oh, big devil daddy,
Use that old free will;
Don't go, big devil daddy,
Till I've had my fill
Of that not-so-daughterly thrill.
You know, big devil daddy,
You've got time to spare.
I'm kind and sweet, big devil daddy,
So take a seat, big devil daddy,
And I'll show you why it's nice to share!

Scene 3

The garden of Eden. Enter SATAN.

Am I indeed in
The garden of Eden?
What a green and pleasant land!
It's green, it's clean,
It's keen, I mean--
It's everything I can't stand!
I'm here in this green garden, full of soul.
The challenge: bring disorder to the whole.

[Enter ADAM and EVE.]

It's a pleasant night
In this pleasant place
And the stars shine bright,
Throwing light on your face;
They highlight
Ev’ry section,
So worthy of inspection.

While my ears are filled
With the nightbird's coo,
I behold your build
And I'm thrilled by the view;
By twilight
My affection
Must go in your direction,
Instead of my reflection.

Um--shall we?

No objection.

[They exit. The ANIMALS--or, rather, a bunch of people in painfully phony animal costumes--enter and, after a few mood-setting "oohs," sing "Wedded Love."]

There's no trusting
Licentious lusting
Between a female and male,
It's merely dirty
If they get flirty,
But hail, wedded love, all hail.
Sex that comes up
Without God's thumbs up
Should land a couple in jail,
But married passion
Is simply smashin',
So hail, wedded love, all hail.
They get away with undressing
And messing around;
Once they possess heaven's blessing
They're safe and they're sound...
And they're down on the ground!
Theirs is pleasure
That's apt to measure
A ten-point-five on the scale,
And still it's moral,
So let's get choral
And hail, hail, hail, hail--
It gets a nod from God above,
So hail, without fail,
Wedded love,
Hail, hail, hail, hail,
Wedded love!

It was rude ‘a
Tamar and Judah
To let their hormones prevail,
But they’ve been cookin’
Since she stopped hookin’,
So hail, wedded love, all hail.

O pretty pair, little know you
How low you will stoop.
I'm on the job and I'll throw you
For oh, such a loop,
And you'll land in the soup.

Though they giggle
And squeal and wiggle,
It's fun that none can assail.
The fun's prodigious
When it's religious,
So hail, hail, hail, hail
That lovely thing we're singing of,
Oh, hail, without fail,
Wedded love.
Hail, hail, hail, hail,
Wedded love!

Scene 4
Another part of the garden.

I shall test a bunch of theses
On the female of the species.
I shall find her and waylay her
In a form that's long and scaly;
I'll bamboozle her and play her
Like a human ukelele.
As a serpent who can yammer
I will carry out my plan.
Please forgive my rotten grammar,
But: "Satan, you the man!"

[EVE enters.]

Hey, Eve!

I think I hear my name.

You're wanted for a little chat.

Why, a talking snake! Imagine that!

Oh, I once was a dumb one
In each sense of the word;
Till today I was someone
Who was seen and not heard.
Then I wised up, I woke up,
I stood up, I spoke up,
My inhibitions broke up
And went in smoke up.
My intellect is great,
My thoughts are new and free,
And all because I ate
An apple from that tree.

The apple made you wise?

It opened up my eyes
To secrets that were hidden.

But God says it's forbidden.

God trembles in his tower
Before the apple's power.
You'd beat him if you had it,
And that's why God forbade it.

[Eve plucks an apple from the tree and bites into it.]

I think it's good!

I thought you would.
Now wait a minute, you're not done--
Why not let Adam share the fun?

Why, that's a thought--
Of course I ought!
If this makes Adam twice as smart,
He'll still be dumb--but it's a start.

SERPENT [aside]
I hate humans, I hate all of them;
It's such fun to cause the fall of them!

[The serpent exits as Adam enters.]

EVE [handing him the apple]
Eat, eat, eat,
My sweet,
It's foolish to resist temptation,
Try a little mastication,
Adam, take your fill of it
For the thrill of it!

[Adam bites into the apple.]

I think it's good!

I thought you would.

But oh! Here's something really bad--
I've realized that we're unclad!

Remaining nude
Would be too crude.
Our shame is great, what's more, immense;
Let's get some leafy fashion sense!

[Adam and Eve make some garments out of fig leaves. Thunder and lightening. A group of angels appears.]

You stupid finks,
We're here to tell you:
God thinks this stinks,
And he sent us to expel you!

You've done a very, very, very bad thing,
You've done a very, very, very bad thing.
You two were blessed, now you're screwed,
All because you chewed
The forbidden food.
You're in a very, very, very bad fix,
Your life was going very well until you fell for Satan's tricks,
The law was clearly written:
Once you've bitten, you'll be smitten,
And the verdict's coming down from heaven's king:
You've done a very, very, very bad thing.

Every pomegranate on the planet
Could have been yours by right.
When you had your lunches, grapes in bunches
Would have been yours to bite.
You could pluck any plumb
Or the prune it soon would be,
You had mangoes and bananas
You could pick right off a tree,
You had passion fruit, a smashin' fruit
That others would be glad to have,
But no! It was an apple that you had to have!
There was fruit, lots of fruit, from the Erie to the Tiber,
But your fruitful days are done.
We've a pear for a pair with apparent moral fiber,
But we've none for one with none.

[Dance number. Adam and Eve take their solitary way through Eden. Blackout.]

Scene 5

Hell. Satan enters in triumph.

You did your devils proud,
Exactly as you vowed,
And so we're shouting clear and loud:
Satan! Satan! You're the victor!
Eve was tricky, but you tricked her!
Dressed up as a boa constrictor!
Satan! Satan! YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!
From now on you'll be history!
You'll be his– You'll be hiss--
You'll be hiss--hiss--hiss--

[They have all turned into snakes, which is to say that they fall on the ground and slip into painfully phony-looking snake suits.]

We're serpents! An even worse fate than man's!

Hey, Satan, got any more brilliant plans?

In home sweet hell,
Hear us sighing, crying, dithering.
In home sweet hell,
See us make like snakelike slithering!
We've suffered a super setback,
Life's no longer sweet,
We'd spend any sum to get back
To the days when we had feet!
So give a yell,
From the fire, we desire to roam!
We're not so well,
But home sweet hell
Is still our hellish home!



Milton's home. Milton is dictating in song.

MILTON: ..."But home sweet hell is still our hellish home! Our hellish home! Our hellish ho-o-o-ome!" Big snake dance, or big fire effect, or something, as long as it's big, and that's that.

DAUGHTER 1: Father, if you could see our faces, you would see expressions of shock and horror.

DAUGHTER 2: Mine looks shocked.

DAUGHTER 1: And mine looks horrified. You can't really plan to unleash this sinful songfest on the world?

DAUGHTER 2: Think of your reputation.

DAUGHTER 1: Think of our reputation!

DAUGHTER 2: Especially our reputation!

MILTON: It's brilliant, and it's fun. And if it's sinful, well, tough. The old, boring Milton would have cared about that, but I'm a new, fun-loving Milton, and I want the world to know it. Send it off to my publisher first thing in the morning. Now, I'm going back to my room for a hedonistic celebration: I'm going to drink strong tea and recite French poetry!

[He slowly makes his way offstage.]

DAUGHTER 2: What shall we do? He seems resolute. Oh, how wrong it is to be resolute in the service of pleasure!

DAUGHTER 1: Well put, my sister. But remember, we still have father's first draft. And that is what his publisher, and the world, will see. The work of father as he used to be before this strange obsession with musical theatre: a man dedicated to virtue and opposed to all forms of enjoyment.

DAUGHTER 2: But what will father say when he finds out we've gone against his wishes and had his first draft published?

DAUGHTER 1: Why should he find out? He can't see it.

DAUGHTER 2: And this new, "musical" version?

DAUGHTER 1: It was for literature like this that God created fire. Also for Americans to burn witches with.

DAUGHTER 2: Didn't father say that book-burning is wrong?

DAUGHTER 1: I don't remember it if you don't.

[They start to burn the manuscript as the curtain falls.]

The French Are Glad To Die For Love

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was on the other night. It's a great example of how a movie can be a complete travesty of the source material (in this case both the book and the stage show) and still turn out great. In this case, Anita Loos' portrayal of '20s flapperdom is thrown out, replaced with a '50s setting -- though some anachronistically '20s elements remain in the story -- and turned into a great big spoof of movie sex roles, movie sex symbols, and movie musicals.

The big number, of course, is "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," and I thought I'd take the opportunity to post some Leo Robin lyrics for this number that aren't on the Broadway cast album or in the movie; I believe they were written to be performed as encores.

By the way, the well-known opening line of the song -- "The French are glad to die for love / They delight in fighting duels" -- was something of an obsession with Robin, who returned again and again to the theme of fighting duels whenever he needed an image that would demonstrate the lengths to which people will go for love. ("This is a girl for whom they die in duels"; "Ah, but in Paree they die for love...")

The extra lyrics, consisting of one extra verse and two extra refrains:

Verse 2
A well conducted rendezvous
Makes a maiden's heart beat quicker.
But when the rendezvous is through,
These stones still keep their flicker.

Refrain 4

Romance is divine,
And I'm not one to knock it,
But diamonds are a girl's best friend.
Romance is divine,
Yes, but where can you hock it?
When the flame is gone,
Just try and pawn
A tired Don Juan.
Some men buy
And some just sigh
That to make you their bride they intend.
But buyers or sighers
They're such goddamn liars!
Diamonds are a girl's best friend.

Refrain 5

At Yale there's a lad
Whose appeal I acknowledge,
But diamonds are a gir's best friend.
I might like his dad
But when I meet a college boy,
The thing to say
Is 'ray, 'ray, 'ray
For Cartier!
Some girls find
Some piece of mind
In a trust fund that banks recommend.
But if you are busty
Your trustee gets lusty!
Diamonds are a girl's best friend.

Stash those rocks in your strongbox
For on them you can always depend.
It's not compensation,
It's self-preservation!
Diamonds are a girl's best friend.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

TVTome Fun

Haven't posted much lately, but I have a couple of longer posts that should be up soon. In the meantime: one feature I like at TV Tome is that if you go to the listing for a writer or director and click "More Info," it'll give you a list of all the episodes he or she was credited on (or at least all the credits that have made it into the database). Then you can click on the individual episodes and shows to get a better idea about that person's career. It's a good resource for a credits-geek like myself.

So, for example, click on "More Info" for Mitchell Hurwitz or Marc Cherry and you'll know which TV episodes they wrote before hitting it big (there was a good article recently about how many good shows have been created or run by people who started on The Golden Girls). Or click on Stephen J. Cannell and wonder how he ever found time to sleep or eat. Or learn that there is, in fact, some truth to the rumor that James Burrows has directed a lot of TV episodes.

Want to know which Dobie Gillis episodes Max Shulman wrote himself? (And why are so few of Shulman's books in print now?) Or the Rockford Files contributions of David Chase? It's all there, thanks to "More Info."

The obvious crack is that instead of "More Info" it should be "Too Much Info." But with me, that's a distinction without a difference.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Judge Harry, # 2

After my previous post on Night Court, I was inspired to dig out an old VHS tape of the show's best episode, the two-parter "The Hurricane," written by the show's creator Reinhold Weege. This is the one where a hurricane traps everyone in the courtroom just as four pregnant women (who were arrested, along with their husbands, when a young cop mistook a Lamaze class for a pornography ring) go into labor. It's from the third season, and hopefully the DVDs will sell well enough to make it that far.

This episode pretty much sums up everything the show did, for good or ill: huge laughs, an absolute willingness to go for any kind of joke no matter how old, corny, or vaudevillian (and I mean those words as compliments), a blisteringly fast pace up until the big "serious" speech at the end, and an attempt to put some kind of social-commentary face on the whole thing (each of the guests represents some cross-section of society: the yuppie couple, the proud single mom, the old-fashioned couple adjusting to new realities, and the immigrant couple). It's like one of Weege's Barney Miller scripts rewritten by Paul Henning.

The episode also features the show's most famous recurring characters, Bob and June Wheeler (Brent Spiner and Annie O'Donnell), a perpetually luckless couple from West Virginia. Except that when they first appeared, the stereotyping provoked a lot of angry letters from West Virginia, so when they reappeared in this episode (having bought a hot-dog cart that got destroyed by the hurricane), they announced that they lied: they were not from West Virginia, but from Yugoslavia. ("Isn't the accent obvious?") They became so popular that they were supposed to become permanent characters, but Spiner got the part on Star Trek and put an end to that.

Anyway, here are some quotes from the episode:

JUNE: We sold everything we had in the world just to buy this business, your honor.
BOB: The pickup truck, all the livestock...
JUNE: Granny even wanted to sell her wheelchair, but Bob wouldn't hear of it.
BOB: Well, it isn't really a wheelchair. We strapped her barcalounger to a furniture dolly.

(During the storm, the courthouse runs out of food and people fight over a hot dog that Bob and June have left over from their business)
BOB: Please, I beg of you, no! This is the only memento we have left of our business!
JUNE: I'm warning you, keep your hands off my husband's weiner!

BABS (the yuppie woman): Just so you know, Chad and I feel that motherhood will in no way interfere with my career, and that having a baby will only enhance our status as live-in lovers and friends.
DAN: You both drive Volvos, don't you?
(Babs and Chad both nod.)
CHAD (the yuppie guy): Anyway, your honor, the film that Officer Connor saw was the last in a series of visual aids on the Lamaze method of natural childbirth.
BABS: They were showing the final stages of rhythmic labor. I haven't been that deeply moved since I saw the lobster scene in Annie Hall.
HARRY: Babs, and Chad -- if those are your real names -- so what you're telling me is, this was all part of a childbirth class?
OFFICER CONNOR: But I saw it on the screen! It was bigger than life!
HARRY: What was it you saw?
(After a pause, the officer takes out a pad and pen, draws something, and shows it to Harry.)
HARRY: I'm telling your mother.

DAN: I was just trying to help.
SINGLE MOM: Well, I don't need any help, and I don't need any pity, and I certainly don't need you.
DAN: Fine. I'll just be over here beating myself to death with the Boy Scout manual.

HARRY: All right, people, here is the situation! We have four women in active labor and we have lost all communication with the outside world! Are there any questions?
BUM: Why is the sky blue?
HARRY: Because if it was green, we wouldn't know where to stop mowing! Any other questions?

STANLEY (the sexist husband): Nobody's looking at my wife's private parts except me! Some things are still sacred!
FLO (Selma's first replacement, who also died): Well, if it was sacred, she wouldn't be in this mess right now.

DAN (delivering a baby): Tommy, get me some surgical gloves.
DAN: My briefcase. Top pocket. Great, now I can deduct them.

The other thing you remember watching Night Court again is that one guy in the audience who had the most annoying, intrusive laugh in sitcom history. This was either Reinhold Weege or his father (I'm not sure which); the same laugh was used over Weege's production-company logo at the end. It is a general rule of sitcoms that the loudest, most annoying laughter comes from people who are somehow connected with the show; legend has it that on the soundtracks of Mary Tyler Moore and Taxi, if you hear a really loud laugh at something that doesn't seem all that funny to the rest of the studio audience, that's James L. Brooks.

Thursday, February 10, 2005


This is one of my favorite Peanuts strips, a topical joke on the fact that the big leagues had the mounds lowered after the 1968 season (when, as Charlie Brown accurately states, pitchers dominated the game; so much so that the American League batting champion hit .301).

It's been great seeing the Peanuts website running the 1969 strips; they go backwards -- last year they ran 1970 strips, and 1971 strips the year before that -- and now we're finally getting into Schulz's golden era, the '60s. I think you could make a case that 1969 was the last truly great year for Peanuts. The 1970 strips had some good moments, of course, but they were incredibly Snoopy-dominated; almost every strip and every story was about Snoopy. There's more good Charlie Brown and Schroeder material in the first month or so of 1969 (they just ran the story where the Kite-Eating Tree eats Schroeder's piano) than there was in all of 1970, or so it seems anyway.

There was still a lot of good stuff left in the strip in the '70s, and some of the best extended stories, like the "Mr. Sack" series, come from that decade. But it was around 1970, when Woodstock got a name (he'd previously just been referred to as "that stupid bird") and both daily and Sunday strips started to get Snoopy-centric, that Snoopy clearly displaced Charlie Brown as the central character of the strip, and the strip suffered for it. Even Schulz mentioned around 1972 that the main complaint he was getting from older readers was that there was too much Snoopy and Woodstock -- and to his credit, he responded by creating more long stories focusing on non-Snoopy characters. (The long stories, however, became a separate problem when they started to focus on Peppermint Patty to the exclusion of everyone else.)

Speaking of the Schroeder/tree story, this strip is just plain brilliant. That last panel cracks me up every time I see it, and it's also a model of how to balance separate actions within the same panel, as well as how to get laughs from actions that are kept outside the panel (that "chomp chomp chomp" from the tree). I also love the fact that the kite-eating tree, which started out as Charlie Brown's bizarre explanation for what happens to kites that get caught in trees, here becomes a literal reality that all the other characters accept. It's like for once, all the characters are living in Charlie Brown's own bleak little world, where everything, even nature, is out to get you.

Judge Harry!

I picked up the first season of Night Court on DVD, and watching some of it has inspired the following thoughts on the show which, as a kid, I loved above all other NBC sitcoms:

- Reinhold Weege, the creator, appears in the making-of documentary (as well as doing a good commentary on the pilot). Everyone who ever watched the show remembers that name. Even I, as a kid, noticed that name. And I've got to say, based on that name I always pictured someone... well, less like a generic Hollywood TV writer/producer. Ah, well. Childhood illusions shattered.

- By the way, one of the younger writers on the show (and the de facto showrunner in the fifth season, which may have been the best) was Linwood Boomer, who went on to create Malcolm in the Middle. But a show where the credits include a "Reinhold Weege" and a "Linwood Boomer?" It's a credits-watcher's dream.

- You probably know that Night Court had many cast changes, some unplanned (the death of Selma Diamond), others not. The first cast change actually occurs during the 13-episode first season: Karen Austin, who plays the idealistic young court clerk who comes to worship Harry Stone for his caring ways, disappears after the tenth episode and is never heard from again. They replace her in the last couple of episodes with a ditzy blonde clerk whose name I can't remember.

Starting in the second season, the clerk role had been filled by Charles Robinson (late of NBC's too-good-for-TV Buffalo Bill -- sort of the Arrested Development of its day). And the public defender, Liz (Paula Kelly) was replaced by a succession of guest characters. One of them was Markie Post; Weege claimed that he wanted her to do the show full-time, but she couldn't get out of her contract with The Fall Guy. So in about the fifth episode of the second season, they added Ellen Foley as a "permanent" public defender. Except that starting in the third season she was gone, never to be heard from again, as Post had left The Fall Guy and Foley -- depending on who's writing about this -- either got fired or left to continue her singing career.

- Everybody knows that Night Court was similar to Barney Miller -- Weege had been a major writer/producer on Barney Miller and hired several of his colleagues from that show, and used some of Barney's regular guest stars like Phil Leeds. But until I watched the first season again I'd forgotten just how similar it was to Barney in terms of style. The jokes are not as broad and wild as the Night Court I watched as a kid; instead they're mostly dry, low-key, jokes that don't really sound like jokes. (The big punchline of the pilot is as follows: "It would be an honor to call you Harry." "Then it's lucky I happen to have that name.") That's the kind of humor Barney Miller did; half the time in Barney you couldn't explain why that last line was even supposed to be a joke, even though it was funny. As Night Court went on, of course, Weege started injecting the show with broader and broader comedy, bringing in wilder guest stars, and pumping up the sexual-innuendo quotient to heights previously unimagined on a TV sitcom (Woman: "Dan, you ever fool around at work?" Dan: "Not with another person"). And that worked better, actually, because with such broad and quirky performers, as opposed to the more conventionally actorly cast of Barney Miller, broad and wild worked better than quiet and dry.

- The biggest problem with the first season is that almost every episode seems to follow the formula of Harry solving some guest character's problem with his warm n' wise caring. It gets old, and I'm glad they changed that for the second season, putting more emphasis on the problems of the regular characters, not the guests.

- Not relevant to the first season, but in the second season, this show pulled off its most infamous bit of Barney Miller cloning. Barney Miller once had an episode where Phil Leeds plays a new cop who impresses everybody until it turns out he's not really a cop, just a clerk from Brooklyn. The second season of Night Court had an episode where Phil Leeds plays a new judge who impresses everybody until it turns out he's not really a judge, just a clerk from Brooklyn. But once you get past the surface similarities, they're really very different stories, of course.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Sitcoms Are Forever

Did you notice that the recent Happy Days reunion special was a big hit, while the almost-as-recent Dallas reunion was a ratings disappointment? There are various factors that account for this (time slots, for one). But it seems like for the most part, the shows that do well in these reunion specials, the shows that are still popular enough to draw an audience 30 years later, tend to be sitcoms.

Sitcoms are not usually considered the best TV has to offer; except perhaps in the '70s, when TV drama was going through a rough patch and the experimentation was mostly happening at Norman Lear and MTM, the critical favorites are usually dramas or sketch comedies. But dramas date fast, and so do sketch comedies. Sitcoms, on the other hand, are like roaches: the TV universe may go kaput around them, but they will survive. Most of the shows that remain popular in syndication for decades are sitcoms, apart from Star Trek and a few others.

Part of the reason for this is that comedy acting (as opposed to sketch comedy performance) and comedy storytelling dates less quickly than almost anything else. What seems like serious dramatic performance and great dramatic dialogue today will come to seem silly in a few years; but a performance that seems funny today will usually seem funny a decade later. And since sitcoms all follow the same rules (often century-old rules) of how to construct a story, they don't date as fast as comedy sketches, because there's a lot more turnover when it comes to the rules of how to construct a comedy sketch.

The upshot of all this is that even a cheesy sitcom will often last longer and "hold up" better than a quality drama. Look at Gilligan's Island. It's cheesy, stupid and predictable. But the one thing it isn't is dated; in terms of performance, story construction and jokes, it doesn't feel like a product of another time, or indeed any time at all. And audience reaction to it never changes; in 1966 it looked just as cheesy, stupid and predictable as it looks today, and was popular in spite of all these things. Moving up many notches in quality, a show like All in the Family may include dated references, but it doesn't feel dated in terms of performance and dialogue the way issue-oriented dramas do, and it remains popular where most dramas have become museum pieces.

Which, of course, is why the sitcom will never die: production companies can't afford to give up on them. A drama can be a hit in the here and now; but a hit sitcom can be a money-maker for decades after most of the dramas have been forgotten.

Free Man in the Morning

Warner Brothers' next crack at a "themed" boxed set of classic movies is something called "The Controversial Classics Collection," to be released in May. The box (the movies are available separately as well, of course) consists of movies that deal with some important social theme or controversy like racism, war, juvenile delinquency. And yet, despite that unpromising description, they seem to have found mostly good, non-preachy, non-Stanley-Kramer "issue" movies for the set:

- Fritz Lang's Fury (lynching)
- Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (chain gangs and fugitives therefrom)
- John Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock (racism, not to mention society's deplorable tendency to underestimate the martial-arts abilities of one-armed men)
- Richard Brooks' The Blackboard Jungle (juvenile delinquency; rocking around the clock)
- Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent (dirty tricks in politics, a theme that marks this as so 1962)
- Paddy Chayefsky's anti-war movie -- and in my opinion by far his best script -- The Americanization of Emily
- And last and best, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg's A Face in the Crowd.

According to the article in USA Today where this set was announced, each of the movies will have at least a commentary track or a featurette. Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal and Budd Schulberg all took part in the Face in the Crowd making-of documentary.

All the above movies are, as the director said on Monty Python, "pro-humanity and anti-bad-things," but many of them represent the best of Hollywood's socially-conscious side.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

They Came To Save the World and Win the Gal

So now that the next James Bond movie has been officially announced as Casino Royale, what are the odds of them actually using the plot of the novel? (One way or another they'll probably use more of it than the 1967 movie of the same name.) Obviously, unless they plan to set it in the '50s or '60s, they can't use the Cold War elements of the story, and they'll have to pump it up with more action sequences. But the basic story, villain (Le Chiffre) and Bond girl (Vesper) are pretty solid foundations for a movie. And given the current popularity of film noir and offshoots thereof, it wouldn't hurt to keep at least some of the book's nods to hard-boiled detective fiction.

It'll help if the filmmakers could have the patience, or faith in the audience's patience, to make the baccarat game an important part of the movie and rely on the game to create suspense and tension. The makers of Goldfinger kept the golf game, which does much the same thing, but I've noticed that people of my generation (including me, the first time I saw it) get a little restless during the golf game; we're waiting for something to happen, and the sustained tension between Bond and the bad guy doesn't always strike us as meeting that standard.

The movie would do best to follow the plot of the novel for one basic reason, which is that that's what produces the best Bond movies. The Bond movies that actually use the stories of the books they're based on are Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. (You Only Live Twice would probably have used the story of the book if it had been made after OHMSS, as originally intended; since it wound up being made before, the book's plot had to be dropped because it's a direct sequel to Secret Service.) Some of these are more faithful adaptations than others, but they're all recognizable if you've read the book, whereas most of the others just use the title and a couple of character names. A movie adaptation has to add something to the Fleming books, of course -- humor, most obviously; more action scenes; maybe even some changes to smooth over Fleming's logic gaps (eg changing Goldfinger's big plan from something that's literally impossible to something that's vaguely plausible). But based on the track record, there's not much doubt that the Fleming plots are the best starting point for a strong Bond script.

"It Pays to be a Singing Doorknob"

This article reveals that voice actor Jim Cummings -- who does everything from deep-voiced movie-trailer narration to legit singing to a truly uncanny Sterling Holloway impression -- is one of the top 10 box-office stars in the world based on the amount of money grossed by movies he's participated in.

The late Paul Frees was another voice actor with a big box-office track record; he's best known as Boris Badenov on Rocky and Bullwinkle, but because he was so great at deep announcer voices (including a renowned Orson Welles impression), he can often be heard on the soundtracks of movies that needed some deep-voiced narration, like The Manchurian Candidate and The Carpetbaggers. Frees would also be brought in to dub other actors; he reportedly dubbed Tony Curtis's Josephine voice in Some Like It Hot, and in Louis Jourdan's first scene in Gigi, all the people he talks to are voiced by Frees.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

The Self-Correcting Blogosphere

"Concerned Citizen" has some fair, albeit harsh, comments on my rather reductive post on pre-Code movies.

Friday, February 04, 2005

And It Happens Every Day

Was there ever a recording of the complete title song from Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye? As you know if you've seen the film, Altman and composer John Williams used the song to parody the over-plugging of movie title songs in the '60s and early '70s (think of the Bond movies, for example); the song turns up over and over again in every possible form: crooned by a Sinatra imitator, played as muzak in a store, practiced by a bar pianist, strummed on a guitar Mexican-style. And we never hear the song sung all the way through without interruption, which is another part of the joke. But since the song itself is a good one -- one of the last lyrics written by the great Johnny Mercer, and one of the last tunes in which Williams still remembered that he could do jazz -- seems a shame that no singer ever recorded it for real.

I'm not a big Altmaniac -- in a lot of movies, I just want him to put the boom mike where we can actually hear the words, get on with the plot, and stop using the damn zoom lens -- but I always enjoy The Long Goodbye as a great meta-movie about an Old Hollywood character adrift in a New American Cinema world. One of the interesting things about it is that the controversial ending was in the original script by Leigh Brackett, written long before Altman was attached to the project; he claims that the ending was what convinced him to do the picture in the first place. But what, I wonder, did Brackett mean by the ending; and, indeed, what is the point of it, really? Brackett herself claimed that she just thought the ending of the Chandler novel (not one of his best, anyway) is a cop-out; she felt that the logic of the situation would dictate that Marlowe should give Terry Lennox what he deserves. But it hardly seems logical, under any circumstances, to make your hero into a cold-blooded murderer, no matter how pissed off he is.

Two things might have driven Brackett's decision. One is that she'd spent her entire screenwriting career working for Howard Hawks, a man with a strong preference for happy endings, even when they were complete cop-outs (case in point: the awful ending of Red River). A few years earlier her original, darkly tragic script for Howard Hawks' El Dorado had been tossed out by the director, who had her re-write it to make it more like their Rio Bravo. Maybe after that experience she was interested in writing something with the kind of dark ending that Hawks would never do (though I have to wonder whether there might have been some idea, when she wrote Long Goodbye, that Hawks would direct it; she'd hardly ever written for anyother director before). The other thing was probably the example of Dirty Harry and its introduction of justifiable-homicide elements into the cinema, of the hero who is heroic because he dispenses justice when The System can't. I wonder why Altman liked the ending so much, considering that it's as much a celebration of vigilante justice as anything in Dirty Harry or Death Wish.

The essay on Brackett which I linked to gives some interesting info on her screenwriting career; her association with Hawks started with The Big Sleep and starting with Rio Bravo, she worked on every one of Hawks' movies, including two that she wasn't credited on (Man's Favorite Sport and Red Line 7000). Most of Hawks' movies after Rio Bravo aren't very good -- he seemed unable to try anything new, and so his default solution to any story problem was just to do Rio Bravo again; and his casting instincts, except for the excellent decision to cast Paula Prentiss in Man's Favorite Sport, pretty much went out the window -- but Brackett deserves a good deal of credit for the good things these movies do contain.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

With a Little Sex In It

One more thing about the Hollywood Production Code: ever notice that there were a few words or phrases that, because of their indeterminate meaning, could get into a picture and come off as "dirty" in a way that the censors might not have expected?

"Sex" was one such word. In conversation, it could mean sexual relations, but it could also mean, more generally, sex-appeal or sexiness or physical attraction (when it didn't just mean "gender"). So under the Hays Code some writers would slip in the word "sex" in such a way that it sounded like the (relatively) clean meaning of the word, but could be interpreted to mean sexual relations (which you weren't supposed to talk about openly in a movie). Preston Sturges did this several times.

Another term was "make love." When Jane Austen wrote that a man "made love" to a woman she was not, perish the thought, writing about sexual relations; to "make love" was to profess love, get romantic, and so on. This old meaning of "make love" was still in use in the '30s and '40s, but the new meaning of "make love" -- as a synonym for sexual relations -- was starting to spring up. So movie writers constantly used the term "make love" or "lovemaking," and to those in the know, it sounded dirtier than it actually was. (Pepe Le Pew used to talk about "making love" all the time, and whatever the censors thought he was saying, the real meaning is clear.)

And let's not even get started on the famous use of the word "gay" in Bringing Up Baby.