Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Reruns

I won't be blogging much for the next week or so, which is probably just as well: at a time like this, I don't think the world needs another new post about old movies or wacky TV shows.

Other bloggers bring in guest-bloggers when they are away; my guest-blogger is, well, me. Here are links to some older posts of mine that I still like, and are still as current as they ever were (which is to say, not current at all).

- "Bob McKimson". A post on the career of the most underrated Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies director. An addendum to the post can be found here, and this post discusses McKimson's style as an animator.

- I wrote two posts about Thackeray's Vanity Fair -- here and here -- in anticipation of a movie version that turned out to be a flop. Maybe they should have played more to my tastes and made the whole thing about Amelia Sedley.

- "Freakazoid!". The story of the origins and development of one of the strangest, funniest cartoon shows of the '90s. Also see my post on the rise and fall of "Pinky and the Brain".

- "Obscure Plays: The Star Spangled Girl". A post about one of Neil Simon's worst, yet most intriguing, plays.

- "Conrad L. Osborne: Best Opera Critic Ever". The WWW contains very few quotes from the work of Mr. Osborne, the brilliant critic of opera recordings for the late, great High Fidelity magazine. My post offers a few very brief selections from his amazing body of work. If you're at all interested in opera and/or singing, try to find old issues of High Fidelity at the library and look for C.L.O.'s reviews and essays. Also, my post on Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" includes some more quotes from C.L.O.

- "The Men Who Made the Boogaloo Electric" is a brief tribute to the insane '80s B-movie kings at Cannon Films. On a related note, I explain why Trading Places is The ultimate '80s movie.

- "Peanuts' Peak" offers yet another attempt to answer the question of when Peanuts jumped the shark.

- "Things that Suck: ROCKET ROBIN HOOD". I actually watched an episode of the thing before making fun of it. That's dedication.

Monday, August 29, 2005

But She's Only A Dream

As my recent Lydecker vs. DeWitt post may have indicated, I recently watched Laura again. In many ways it's not a great movie or even a particularly good one: some of the characters aren't all that interesting, it's less than satisfying as a mystery, and it's very claustrophobic and talky -- almost every scene is just Dana Andrews standing around asking questions of somebody. (Rouben Mamoulian, the original director, would probably have made it more visually striking and less talky than Otto Preminger's take on the material.)

And yet it's a fascinating movie, one whose fascination is as strong now as it ever was. A large part of this fascination, I think, comes from the fact that there's so much left unanswered in the movie, whether deliberately or not, that it leaves all kinds of questions for people to argue over. It's one of the few American genre movies of its time that inspires arguments not only over how good it was, but what happened. Well, you argue over what happened after coming out of a bad, incomprehensible movie, but that's not what I'm talking about here: Laura, no less than any Antonioni movie, is a well-made movie that doesn't quite seem to make sense, and we're left with the feeling that it's up to us to make sense of it.

For example, people still argue over whether the last half of the movie is a dream or not. When Dana Andrews falls asleep, and the camera moves in on him and then moves out again, it sure looks like the setup for a "was it all a dream" sequence -- and Johnny Mercer may have picked up on this when he wrote the famous lyric to Laura's musical theme (the lyric was written after the movie opened), saying that Laura is "only a dream." Is Mark really just imagining Laura into being, creating a fantasy where the dead woman he fell in love with comes back to life? It certainly seems all too convenient that she suddenly wants him and that everything seems to break just the way he would have wanted it to, including the ultimate fantasy, of saving Laura from death at the hands of the man who "created" her, and killing off that man so that he, Mark, can have Laura all to himself. I'm not saying that the second half of the film has to be read as a dream, let alone that it was intended that way (though I suspect Preminger wanted to tease us with the possibility that it might be a dream, so we wouldn't be sure if Laura was really alive or not), but the fact that it can be read that way is part of what gives the movie its continuing strength: you can interpret it in so many ways.

The part of the movie most open to interpretation, of course, is the character of Laura, and no one who has seen the movie is without some opinion on the unanswered question that runs throughout the movie: who is Laura, really? Is she an innocent, unspoiled girl molded into a sophisticated career woman by Lydecker? Then why does she seem so calculating and cool with Lydecker when he first comes to see her at the place where she works, almost as if she's manipulating him more than he's manipulating her? Is she, as Lydecker believes, just a beautiful nonentity infused with the best part of Lydecker's own personality, but constantly compromised by her "common" taste in men? Or is that just Lydecker seeing her through his own egotism and self-love? Is she really as much of a regular person as she seems to be when she's with Mark, or is she the unapproachable goddess from the painting that Mark fell in love with? We all wind up seeing Laura a different way -- and that's part of what the movie's about.

I suspect Preminger himself went with the "nonentity" interpretation of Laura: that her unreal beauty makes men and women project qualities onto her that aren't there, and ascribe brilliance or goodness or excellence to her when she's just an unexceptional person. When David Raksin asked Preminger to say what kind of woman Laura was, Preminger shocked the composer by replying: "A whore." Fun guy, that Otto. But it's clear from that quote, if it's true, that he saw Laura the way Lydecker does at the end: just a overhyped Galatea whose main character trait is her fondness for tawdry affairs. But even assuming Preminger saw her that way, we can see her any way we want, and that, again, is what makes it so fascinating to come back to this movie again and again.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Et Piff, Paff, Pouff...

If you're a fan of Jacques Offenbach, you'll be pleased to know that the conductor Marc Minkowski has made a new complete recording of one of Offenbach's best operettas, La Grande Duchesse De Gerolstein ("The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein"). If you are not an Offenbach fan, listen to "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein" and you'll probably become one. (There will probably also be a DVD, but I suspect that I'll get more pleasure out of the studio audio recording; Offenbach productions are often too camped-up.) Minkowski and most of this cast already did an excellent recording of perhaps the best Offenbach operetta, "La Belle Helene" (The Beautiful Helen).

Like most of Offenbach's best operettas, "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein" has a libretto by Meilhac and Halevy, the best and most irreverent librettists of their era; they also wrote "Carmen" for Bizet, Meilhac co-wrote "Manon" for Massenet, and they came up with the brilliantly cynical story of Strauss's "Die Fledermaus." Their genius was in adding a harder edge to operetta, and for that matter opera, replacing the sentimentality of most operetta with satire and cynicism. "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein" is about the army, but it portrays the army as an absurd institution, war as pointless and declared for purely self-interested reasons, and government and the nobility as buffoons. The military songs are not patriotic anthems but sendups thereof; even the love songs are set up in such a way as to be slightly self-parodic. This unrelenting cynicism was like a tonic to Parisian audiences of the time, used as they were to the more uplifting style of the typical operetta and grand opera (which Offenbach spoofed mercilessly, even quoting directly from operas like Meyerbeer's "The Huguenots" the better to make fun of them). It also probably influenced the mocking attitude toward popular culture and patriotism in the librettos of W.S. Gilbert, and the brashness of American musical comedy.

Offenbach was at the height of his melodic powers when he wrote "Gerolstein," and almost every number has an instantly memorable tune or several -- the first big number, Fritz's waltz song, goes from one great waltz tune to another. He was also probably the greatest writer of genuinely funny music; unlike the other great operetta composers of the era, Strauss and Sullivan, Offenbach was willing to write music that wasn't pretty if it would get a laugh, and loaded up some of his songs with deliberately mis-accented words, brief quotations from other composers or even his own hits, and opportunities for crazy vocal effects -- one number, "Ah, C'est Un Fameux Regiment," requires the tenor to imitate the sound of a bugle at the end of each refrain.

There have been several recordings of "Gerolstein," but none of them were completely satisfying; if Minkowski's is anywhere near as good as his "Helene," this one should come the closest. Hopefully he will go on to do "La Vie Parisienne," the nearly-plotless but tune-filled operetta where Offenbach, Meilhac and Halevy turned their satiric attentions to then-contemporary urban life, making it one of the few operettas set in something resembling the "real" world ("Die Fledermaus" is another).

Sunday Love Lyrics

I don't have much to post today, so I'll just take the usual blogger shortcut and post some favorite song lyrics. The theme today is "love," this being the theme of 99% of all popular songs.

First, Larry Hart on the perfect relationship -- between two self-admittedly imperfect people, in "Don't Tell Your Folks" from the musical Simple Simon:

Verse 1

HE
I've told your father that I'm pure as the snow,
That I would rather go to church than a show.
I have dared to tell him more than you think;
I'd be scared to tell him I take a drink.
If I were like the picture he has of me,
Good Lord, what a sap I'd be!

Refrain 1

I'm no plaster saint;
I must chew gum and nibble my nails,
I trifle some with liquor and ales,
Don't tell your folks!
I use words like "Ain't";
My father's wife inherited gout,
I let my life insurance run out,
Don't tell your folks!
Contemplating marriage,
You couldn't do worse;
In my baby carriage
I grabbed for my nurse.
I've no right to coax;
To ask your hand is really a sin,
But if you feel you've got to give in,
Don't tell your folks!

Verse 2

SHE
I've told your mother that I'm bashful and coy,
I've told your brother that you were my first boy.
I've told thirty stories, none of them true;
I tell dirty stories better than you.
If I were all the things your mother could wish,
Then I'd be a tasty dish!

Refrain 2

I'm no plaster saint;
I know I should believe in the stork,
But what's the good, I live in New York --
Don't tell your folks!
My own folks are quaint;
Their social bent is on a small scale,
My uncle spent the summer in jail,
Don't tell your folks!
I don't follow fashion,
Convention I break.
I give in to passion
And order a steak.
Please don't try to coax;
I must use tact, although you appeal,
But if I act the way that I feel,
Don't tell your folks!


Next, Yip Harburg in the big ballad from Darling of the Day (music by Jule Styne), introduced by the great Patricia Routledge. The impact of the song, "That Something Extra Special," was slightly dulled by the fact that the guy she was singing it about was played by Vincent Price.

I don't know what it is,
That magic that is his,
That something extra special
That makes life more livable.
We walk along the river,
And through his eyes I see
A million things I never knew could be.

My puddings and souffl├ęs
To him become bouquets,
That something extra special
That he adds to ev'rything.
A room becomes a garden,
A hatrack is a tree,
And emerald leaves come falling down on me.

If in this world of fancy
A shilling should be missing,
The wealth of love and kissing
Should banish despair.

A cloud will come and go,
A cold wind surely blow,
And oh, it's good to know
Before the breeze blows sweet again
That something extra special
Will sweep the worry out;
And isn't that what love is all about?


And on love in general, the master of the colloquial lyric, Dorothy Fields, from the musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:

Love is the reason you was born,
Love was the gleam in Papa's eye.
People suddenly meet,
People suddenly fit,
People suddenly hit,
And brother, that's it!
Personally
Love is a kick right in the pants,
Love is the aspirin you buy.
If you're flappin' your fins,
If you're climbin' a wall,
There must be a reason for it all.
What is the reason for it all?
Love is the reason for it all!

Love is a night you can't recall,
Love is that extra drink you drank.
Love's a shot in the arm,
Love's a poke in the ribs,
Buyin' bottles and bibs,
And fillin' up cribs.
Obviously
Love is an old established trap,
Ten million suckers walk the plank.
If you land on your tail
Ev'ry time that you fall,
There must be a reason for it all.
Who needs a reason for it all?
Love is the reason for it all!

Love is a toothache in your heart,
Love is a gentlemanly pinch.
Love is stubbin' your toe,
Mashed potatoes with lumps,
Wearin' very tight pumps,
Or catchin' the mumps.
Generally
Love is a blow below the belt,
Love is a holdin' in a clinch.
If you shut your big mouth
When his relatives call,
There must be a reason for it all.
What is the reason for it all?
Always the teasin' in the hall;
Hallways are lovely for a call;
Call it the season,
I say love is the reason for it all.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Gee, Wally...

"Leave It To Beaver," Season 1 is finally coming out on DVD. What took them so long?

And has any show ever been the victim of more undeserved pseudo-ironic sneering? It's not as bad now as it used to be, but there was a time when "Leave it to Beaver" was derided as a symbol of everything that was wrong with television and even everything that was wrong with an entire culture -- namely 1950s American culture. In talking about the sanitized, rose-colored view '50s America had of itself, it was extremely common to point to "Beaver." And those who didn't point to it as a symbol of cultural rot were pointing to it as unintentional camp.

Well, now that we've gotten the sneering out of our system, let's remember what's important about "Leave it To Beaver": It was, and still is, one of the best shows ever made about children, and one of the few works of popular culture at the time that actually presented kids who acted like real kids, instead of cartoonish Little-Rascals style moppets. The fact that it's comedy about children, from the children's point of view, also makes it essentially unimportant that the parents are idealized versions of real parents: when you're a kid, your parents often seem a lot like Ward and June -- all-knowing, all-wise -- and so Ward and June are true to the child's perspective.

It also did a lot to shake up and change the TV sitcom. At the time "Beaver" started, most TV comedy was an extension of radio comedy, and of vaudeville: fast, loud, brash. "Beaver" was much quieter, pulling humor from observational touches, willing to go for chuckles of recognition rather than belly laughs. It may have been the first TV sitcom that really showed how you could use the intimacy of TV to create a kind of comedy you couldn't do on radio or on the stage.

And besides, everybody -- and I mean everybody, even people who don't care for the show otherwise -- agrees that Eddie Haskell is one of the great characters in television history. And like all the best stuff on "Beaver," he's great because he's real: not only do we all know an Eddie Haskell as kids, but we all know several Eddie Haskells as adults. There's an Eddie Haskell in your office; there's an Eddie Haskell in your family. The government sometimes seems like it contains nothing but Eddie Haskells. All Hail Lord Haskell.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Dickens and Second-Act Problems

Any time I re-read David Copperfield, I'm reminded of something that is so widely accepted that it's practically crossed over from opinion into semi-fact (or "fact-esque" as Stephen Colbert would say): this novel has one of the worst-ever cases of second-act troubles. That is to say, at roughly the halfway point or perhaps even a little earlier, the novel runs out of steam, loses momentum, and crumbles into a series of low-energy vignettes. Long novels usually get weaker toward the end, and especially the very end, where lots of plot threads have to be wrapped up, and the process can feel mechanical. David Copperfield extends that mechanical process over hundreds of anti-climactic pages, wrapping up one plot thread after another: will Uriah Heep get his, what's going on with saintly old Dr. Strong and his uncomfortably-young wife, where's Little Emily (who cares?), and so on. David becomes more or less a supporting character in his own story, standing by and observing the resolution of all these storylines; he hardly takes any positive action at all in the last half of the book. You could argue that that fits David's change from being a put-upon child to being a journalist and author -- he's more of an observer now -- but it seems more likely that it's Dickens losing interest in his own alter ego once he becomes an adult.

There are some potentially interesting story threads involving the grown-up David, but Dickens drops them very quickly. There's a chapter showing how the worthless, selfish Steerforth, whom David idolizes, gets David drunk and disorderly and hanging out with bad companions -- but this is the last inkling we get of the possibility that David might be led astray by his relationship with Steerforth. He doesn't even make a real, conscious decision to avoid Steerforth's influence; he gets a warning from Agnes, the most insipid heroine in all of fiction (or as Orwell called her, "That real legless angel of Victorian romance"), to stay out of trouble, and he does, but he doesn't lose his illusions about Steerforth until later. Instead of letting Steerforth come anywhere near close to ruin David, or forcing David to reject Steerforth, Dickens has Steerforth ruin the lives of David's friends and go out of David's life forever -- he doesn't appear in the novel again until his oh-so-convenient death. A good hero has to make moral choices; Dickens seems afraid of letting David make any such thing, or actually letting him confront the fact that he's chosen the wrong friend.

And the same goes for David's predicament of having chosen the wrong wife, the "child-wife" Dora. The dilemma of what the hero does when he realizes he's married a woman who, while sweet, is totally wrong for him -- that's a very interesting dilemma. The fact that everybody, including Dora, understands that David is better suited to Agnes (though Agnes would undoubtedly only be fit to marry a plaster statue) makes it still more interesting. But no sooner does David realize that he and Dora are ill-matched, then Dickens pulls the death card and has her fall ill and die for no particular reason. Apart from the general creepiness of killing a character off just so your hero -- who happens to be based on you -- can marry the perfect woman, Dickens is once again setting up a real problem for his hero and then immediately allowing the hero to avoid facing up to the problem. So the second act of "Copperfield" is weak, but it didn't have to be; it's Dickens' apparent compulsion to keep David's life problem-free that makes the novel go downhill. It's not a coincidence that the best parts of the novel are the ones where David is the most miserable.

I suspect Dickens learned from the less-interesting second part of "David Copperfield," in that all his subsequent novels have certain tricks to keep the reader occupied in the second half. "Bleak House" has that whole murder mystery to keep the second half interesting (the first half revolves around the mystery of Esther Summerson's parentage; once that's solved, Dickens introduces another mystery); "Little Dorrit" pays off certain mystery elements from the first half, and plays up the Mr. Merdle story more; "Great Expectations" keeps the hero front and centre throughout instead of letting him fall away. All Dickens' novels have second-act problems to some degree; it's a natural consequence of the way he wrote and the falling-off of inspiration that occurs when he has to start wrapping things up. But he did get better at second acts, which is part of the reason why his work of the 1850s and '60s probably stands as his best work.

Good Fences Make What Now?

Just for the heck of it, I did a search for references, in news articles, to the line "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors." Almost every article I found referencing the line attributed the line to Frost, as in "Robert Frost said 'Good fences make good neighbors.'" Then the writer proceeds to argue that because Robert Frost says it, it must be true, or that, sorry, Robert, you're wrong.

I'm starting to think that this may well be the most-taken-out-of-context line in all of poetry, surpassing even "To thine own self be true" from Hamlet. Even though Polonius's line is clearly supposed to be a stupid cliche, not to be taken seriously, at least no one explicitly points that out in the play. Whereas in Frost's "Mending Wall," not only is the line "Good fences make good neighbors" spoken (twice) by a character we're not supposed to agree with, but the narrator expressed a desire to question this vapid talking point ("Why do they make good neighbors?"). So blame Robert Frost for lots of things, but don't blame him for saying that good fences make good neighbors. He no more said that than Shakespeare advocated killing all the lawyers.

This has been a Public Service Announcement by the Enemies of Eviscerating Poetry (EEP).

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Dickens and Words

Lines and phrases in classic literature sometimes take on new, unintended meanings over the years because of changes in the meaning of words. "Knock up" is one that turns up a lot in English literature, and causes an unintentional giggle now (it used to mean just to knock at a particular person's door). And while I am not the first person to point this out, David Copperfield contains one line that has taken on an unintended meaning that arguably makes more sense than the original. It's in the big confrontation between Little Emily, Steerforth's ex-mistress who still loves him even though he ruined her reputation, and Rosa Dartle, Steerforth's ex-mistress who still loves him even though he scarred her face:

“What is there in common between us, do you think?”
“Nothing but our sex,” said Emily, with a burst of tears.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Astaire's Veiled Biopics

Watching The Barkleys of Broadway again for the first time in many years, I came to the same conclusion as before about the film, which happens to be the boring old consensus conclusion: not as good as the RKO Astaire-Rogers films, but an entertaining "reunion" picture.

But another thing that occurred to me, which is either interesting or eerie depending on your point of view, is that this is one of at least four MGM musicals that seem to contain thinly veiled references to Astaire's own career. In Easter Parade, his first film for Arthur Freed, he plays a dancer who is primarily thought of as part of a team; when his partner breaks up with him to hit the "big time" (i.e. Rogers' Oscar-winning non-musical roles), he looks for another partner. In Barkleys, he and Rogers play a famous dancing team, and Rogers wants to give up musicals and do serious drama. In Royal Wedding, he and Jane Powell play a brother-sister team, and she quits the act to marry an Englishman -- obviously based on Astaire and his sister Adele. And finally, The Band Wagon is so undisguisedly about Astaire himself that it even opens with somebody auctioning off his top hat and cane and naming "Swinging Down To Panama" as one of his character's movies (Astaire and Rogers were first teamed in Flying Down To Rio).

How much of this was planned, it's hard to say; Easter Parade wasn't written for Astaire, and Barkleys wasn't originally supposed to have Rogers. It's pretty clear overall, though, that Freed and his writers (Betty Comden and Adolph Green for Barkleys and Band Wagon, Alan Lerner for Royal Wedding) were interested in incorporating some references to Astaire's real-life career into the careers of the characters he played onscreen. One of the unusual things about the Freed musicals was that in a time when Hollywood still tended to consider its old movies disposable and forgettable -- older movies were routinely remade, suppressed, chopped up and even destroyed -- the Freed movies teemed with references to earlier musicals and premature nostalgia for early musical movies. All the tributes to Astaire, though they can come off as a little creepy -- enshrining him as a piece of history while he was still actively working -- are part of that awareness of movie history that helped give the Freed films their richness and variety (because the filmmakers, being aware of earlier musicals, had more sources and styles to borrow from).

Incidentally, while I've always been in the Astaire camp in the Astaire-Kelly wars, one difference that's noticeable is that Astaire almost always played a dancer in his movies. Even in Silk Stockings, where he's playing a movie producer, they feel a need to explain that he's also a dancer and have him do a number on stage in a nightclub. Gene Kelly was somewhat more likely to play characters who were not dancers, not in show business.

Correction: Due to a mistake brought on by being totally wrong, I stated that Easter Parade was Astaire's first film for Freed. In fact, he'd already done at least two movies for Freed (Yolanda and the Thief and Ziegfeld Follies).

Saturday, August 20, 2005

It's Just a Broadway Battle...

Via 42nd Street Moon, a New York Times article, "Two Broadway Composers Do Inharmonious Battle."

In brief: Michael John LaChiusa, composer-lyricist of a series of ambitious but short-lived musicals, wrote an article in "Opera News" magazine ripping current musicals for being unambitious and forgettable. Marc Shaiman, composer of one of said unambitious and forgettable musicals, Hairspray, responded to the article on the "All That Chat" message board.

I'd be more interested in the feud if I really had any fondness for the works on either side of this particular divide, but I'm afraid I have a killjoy perspective on the whole thing. LaChiusa -- and even Adam Guettel, who has achieved somewhat more success -- does a kind of musical-theatre writing I don't care for, replacing the concise, efficient writing of the best "serious" musicals with long, rambling songs that are full of musical and lyrical redundancies, and don't sit well with stage action.

To get off the subject of LaChiusa -- though if I attack him, I'll be guaranteed a counterattack in another one of his articles, since he writes articles like this every year or so -- only the other day I was comparing the writing in Guettel's Light in the Piazza to the writing in another musical about Americans in Italy, Do I Hear a Waltz?, with music by his grandfather Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

I respect Guettel's work in the newer show, though he is not as gifted lyrically as musically (Rodgers was a better lyricist than Guettel is, and yet he usually sought a Hart or a Hammerstein or a Sondheim to write lyrics for him). But it's long-winded writing that takes, to my mind, too much time to make its musical and lyrical points. Listening to the score of Do I Hear a Waltz? gives us a different world: character, setting and even theme summed up in broad musical strokes and short, instantly-readable musical hooks, and in songs that are written to lend themselves to fast-paced physical staging so that the show never stops moving, even in the songs. Sondheim, later to move toward a style of longer and more rambling songs, seems uncomfortable with the Rodgers precision and concision -- he has trouble fitting his lyrical thoughts into such short musical structures -- but even he gets into the act sometimes, finding ways to express character, setting and stage action in very few words:

Here we are again,
Sharing things together,
See the pretty people,
Feel the pretty weather.
We don't have to say much,
We're so much of a kind.
Isn't it a marvel
How we read each other's mind?
Here we are again,
What'll we do later?
See the pretty people,
Shall we call the waiter?
Pretty people, two by two,
That's as it ought to be.
And here we are as usual:
I and me.


My point -- ironically, a rambling one -- is that the "serious" musical used to possess all the virtues of the musical comedy: swift pace, punchiness, lack of pretention. You would even have "Serious musical comedies" like Cabaret and Fiorello!, serious subjects presented in a musical-comedy style. They would use all the hoary old showbiz devices -- dancing instead of choreography, "tune-positioning" to put the eleven o'clock number in just exactly the right place -- in the service of a serious story.

That's pretty much gone now, and in its place is the idea that LaChiusa sometimes seems to be advocating: that to be serious works, musicals must distance themselves as far as possible from musical comedy and all that goes with it, including all that showbiz "tune-positioning" and commercialism. As far as I'm concerned, that's precisely backwards: the best serious musicals are those that apply the stylistic lessons of musical comedy, and the showbiz lessons of commercially-oriented directors like George Abbott, to weightier matters.

But if I can't be enthusiastic about the current crop of "serious" musicals, I can't be any more enthusiastic about today's musical comedies. Let's face it, much of what LaChiusa says about the new musical comedies is true: they are synthetic, unmemorable, a big overblown simulation of what musical comedy is supposed to be. (And let's not even get into the self-hating musicals, like the unspeakable Spamalot, a musical entirely dedicated to the proposition that musicals are stupid and people shouldn't sing.) Real musical comedy is brash and wild and unsentimental, filled with corny jokes, opportunities for schtick, sexy costumes, and great songs -- something like Of Thee I Sing or How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or Little Me. Or even Chicago, which is either the last great musical comedy or the last great serious musical comedy (and perhaps the last truly great musical, either way).

A musical comedy that seems calculated, sentimental, or in any way ashamed of its own status as a musical is hardly a musical comedy at all, just something a little more fun than the self-consciously serious stuff. But since real musical comedies historically don't run very long, it's the synthetic type that we're likely to get for a while.

Incidentally, I think The Producers was the closest of the recent musical comedies to "real" musical comedy -- including the fact that it can't really work without its original stars -- but was prevented from being a really good musical comedy by the usual weakness of today's musicals: no great songs. If Brooks had hired his old colleague John Morris to write the music, and fixed some rather obvious structural flaws like the anticlimactic first-act curtain and the succession of nearly-identical scenes in the first act, then he might have had something great.

So the choice, as things stand, is between ascetic, eat-your-vegetables "serious" musicals and "musical comedies" that aren't particularly distinguished for music or comedy. I'm not the type to go into full-on nostalgia mode -- there are lots of things I think are better today than they ever have been. But musicals? Sorry, I'm going to have to be the prematurely old coot droning on about the Good Old Days.

Incidentally, if bloggers can use the inaccurate and stupid acronym "MSM" for "Mainstream Media," can I use the acronym "GOD" for "Good Old Days?" Let's see if that catches on.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Battle of the Evil Critics

With the demise of WWWF Grudge Match, I sometimes feel compelled to propose some matches they never got around to doing. So here's one:

Who would win in a fight between the two meanest, cruellest, wisecrackiest critics in the history of movies: Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in Laura, or Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) in All About Eve?

I'm going with DeWitt. Lydecker may be more dangerous in certain respects, but DeWitt has the size advantage, and a cooler head, and more strategic ability. His decision to blackmail and form a weird alliance with Eve (making them, according to some interpretations, 1950's original Ambiguously Gay Duo), is a far sounder strategic decision than Waldo's Pygmalion act with Laura. Addison in three rounds unless Waldo has something stashed in his old clock.

However, if it's a question of who's better at wisecracks, then Lydecker obviously wins. The man had most of the best lines in the picture and literally destroyed at least one person's career with a bad review. DeWitt really doesn't have all that many great lines (George Sanders makes some of his lines sound cooler than they are, but most of the best dialogue is for Bette Davis), and he's more successful as a behind-the-scenes Machiavellian schemer than as a critic. His spotlight review in the film, remember, is a favorable review, of Eve. Ergo, Lydecker makes DeWitt cry like a schoolgirl. But sonorously.

Your thoughts?

Addendum: Reader Dan W. correctly points out in the comments: "J.J. Hunsecker, on the other hand, would clunk both their heads together like Moe, and leave them in an unconscious heap in under 5 seconds."

Yip Harburg Teaches the Controversy

I don't know how long this has been around, but I see there's now an official website for one of my favorite -- and most-quoted -- song lyricists, "Yip" Harburg. It's a good site that includes a comprehensive song list and even some examples of his light verse.

Anyway, reading about the "intelligent design controversy" didn't make me want to write about it -- fortunately, Kung Fu Monkey has already done a good job of it -- but it did bring to mind Yip Harburg's lyrics (to Harold Arlen music) to the song "The Monkey In the Mango Tree" from the 1957 musical Jamaica -- a song originally written for Harry Belafonte but which wound up being sung by Ricardo Montalban, believe it or not. It sort of gives the opposite perspective on Darwin's theory, namely that it's insulting to simians to point out that they evolved into something so awful as modern man.

Some excerpts, and note that the laundry list of humankind's problems hardly seems to have changed at all except for the line about the Greeks. Note also the reference to Harburg's beloved Gilbert and Sullivan near the end:

Three monkeys in the mango tree
Were indulging in philosophy.
And as I walked by the mango tree,
One of them addressed himself to me:

"Hey, man, is it true what they say?
Hey, man, is it true that today
They claim that my brothers and me
Are the predecessors of humanity?
Hey, man, why you give us bad name?
Hey, man, it's a blight and a shame
To claim this uncivilized cuss
Could have been descended from the likes of us.
How can you have the brazen face
To scandalize our noble race?
Don't identify yourself with me,"
Said the monkey in the mango tree...

"Hey, man, why you give us bad name?
Hey, man, it's a blight and a shame
To claim, most un-biblically,
That this chump could once have been a chimpanzee."

That's the monkey language!
The monkey very clever!
Which is to say, in his own way,
Would a monkey ever

Analyze his psyche, amortize his soul,
Tranquilize his frontal lobes with al-co-houl,
Televise his follies and the life he lives,
Eulogize his gargles and his laxatives,
Simonize his teeth, lanolize his hands,
Hormonize his chromosomes with monkey glands,
Mechanize the Greeks, modernize the Turks,
And then with one little atom -- poof! -- atomize the works?

"Hey, man, do you call it fair play?
Hey, man, is it brilliant to say
That the monkey and his uncles and his cousins and his aunts
Are the parents of such foolishment and de-ca-dance?
Don't identify yourself with me,"
Said the monkey in the mango tree.

Television Recyclables

You ever notice how many episodes of The Andy Griffith Show have been raided by other shows for story material? I've only had the season 3 DVDs for two days and already I've watched two episodes that inspired storylines on later shows. In the season opener, "Mr. McBeevee," Opie meets a man who is repairing a telephone line out in the woods; since nobody else has seen the man, everybody assumes that Opie is just making up his story about having a friend who lives in the treetops. This plot has been re-done a number of times, but most recently on "The Simpsons," where Homer made friends with a repairman whom nobody else had met, and everybody figured Homer just had an imaginary friend. The other episode that inspired something semi-recent -- though this was arguably as much a parody as a borrowing -- is the episode where a man causes a traffic accident but can't pay the damages, so he works off his debt by becoming Andy's valet. That's clearly the inspiration for the plot of Jerry's failed sitcom pilot on "Seinfeld": a man crashes into Jerry's car and can't pay the damages, so he becomes Jerry's butler.

"The Honeymooners," "I Love Lucy" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" are other shows that get raided all the time, usually by lesser shows. To name one example: I remember seeing, as a kid, an episode of "Perfect Strangers" where a hypnotist tries to hypnotize Mark Linn-Baker, fails, but accidentally hypnotizes the guy in the other room, Bronson Pinchot; the post-hypnotic suggestion leaves him believing he's Elvis Presley whenever the phone rings, and going back to normal whenever it rings again. Only later did I discover that this was stolen beat-for-beat from an episode of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (except in that one, Rob was hypnotized into acting like he was drunk).

In the drama field, action/adventure shows used to steal from each other all the time, particularly those produced by Universal, which shared a pool of writers who all needed to come up with lots of story ideas very fast. My favorite example of this: in 1982, Universal's "Knight Rider" did a show called "Good Day at White Rock" where the hero rides into a small town that is being terrorized by an evil biker gang, and helps the sheriff end the biker gang's reign of terror. The very next year, Universal's "The A-Team" did an episode called "Black Day at Bad Rock" where the heroes ride into a small town that is being terrorized by an evil biker gang, and help the sheriff end the biker gang's reign of terror. For all I know they might even have used the same set for the town.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Zug!

I came across a good two-part article called "Albert Zugsmith's Opium Dreams", on one of my favorite auteur producers, the exploitation king and all-around madman Albert Zugsmith. He made four "respectable" pictures, all brilliant: The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Tarnished Angels, Written on the Wind, and Touch of Evil. Most of his career, however, was spent making exploitation movies with titles like Confessions of an Opium Eater, High School Confidential!, and my favorite title ever, Sex Kittens Go to College.

Whether producing an "A" or a "B" picture, he brought the same qualities to everything: an over-the-top imagination, love of overwrought melodrama and lurid storylines, and a constant quest to shock the audience.

It's too bad he didn't make more "A" pictures, because he gave directors the chance to make movies that were more unbuttoned and crazy than their work for other producers. Douglas Sirk spent most of his Hollywood career making "respectable" potboilers for "respectable" albeit terrible producers like Ross Hunter and sneaking bits of subversion into them; his Zugsmith pictures, The Tarnished Angels and Written on the Wind, are just full-blown madness. Zugsmith's interesting albeit self-aggrandizing comments on working with Sirk are here, along with the recollections of the writer of those two films, George Zuckerman.

And Orson Welles may be the writer and director of Touch of Evil, but exploitation/shock moments like the apparent rape scene and the bulging-eyed corpse are pure Zugsmith. One of the many reasons why the recent re-cut of Touch of Evil sucks so badly -- and it does suck; avoid the DVD, which is of the re-cut only, and wait until an earlier version gets released -- is that in trying to make it into a "pure" Welles film, true only to Welles's "vision," the re-cutters (including critic and professional scold Jonathan Rosenbaum) eliminated some typical Zugsmith touches, forgetting -- or denying -- that in classic Hollywood cinema, the producer is as much an auteur on a film as the director.

What Zugsmith's exploitation sensibility would have produced in combination with other "A" directors can only be imagined. But what we got is certainly pretty good, and his pure exploitation films can be great guilty fun.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

My Most Conventional Link Ever

Yes, I know everyone else is linking to this and I'm supposed to be doing something different, but, I mean, come on -- it's Christopher Walken for President!

Given that it's time the U.S. had a president who can sing and dance, I'm supporting him a thousand percent.

Two questions, though:

1. Will Glenn Walken (who appeared with Christopher in the 1963 off-Broadway revival of Best Foot Forward, which had the downside of introducing Liza Minnelli) be one of the better presidential brothers?

2. Christopher Walken vs. Dennis Hopper. Who wins?

Take Off, Mugsy!

Daniel Wiltshire suggests the interesting theory that the Warner Brothers cartoon character Rocky might have been based on the diminutive "B" Western star Bob Steele, whose best-known role in "A" movies was the tough guy Canino in The Big Sleep.

Personally I always thought Rocky and Mugsy were funnier characters to look at than to actually watch in action; their first cartoon with Bugs Bunny, "Bugs and Thugs," is an okay cartoon, but not a patch on Friz Freleng's earlier "Racketeer Rabbit," which does many of the same gags with gangsters who look like Edward G. Robinson and Peter Lorre. By the early '50s Warner Brothers had moved away from doing characters directly based on well-known movie stars and were going more for "timeless" characters who could be used repeatedly (and, perhaps, merchandised), but in many ways it was more fun to see Bugs or Daffy going up against characters based on the Great Gildersleeve or Humphrey Bogart -- direct, easily-identifiable pop-culture references, instead of vague similarities to a vaguely-familiar character actor. For some reason, direct pop-culture references seemed to vanish from WB cartoons around 1951 or '52, only to reappear again in the late '50s in the form of TV parodies; I've never quite figured out why.

Anyway, I think there's something to Daniel's theory; a lot of cartoon designs, and voices, are vaguely inspired by actors, and sometimes even people. On the other hand, since Steele's movies didn't make him look quite as short as he was, and since the WB animators might not have had first-hand knowledge of what he looked like offscreen (the WB animation studio was, until the early '50s, separate from the main WB lot, and the animators didn't see the live-action people very often), it's difficult to say whether Canino was the direct inspiration for Rocky.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Fie On Goodness! Fie!

Mark Evanier has a good post on the musical Camelot, which had its out-of-town tryout here in Toronto and proved, for the first of many times, that the O'Keefe Centre was too damn big.

The big post-opening rewrite of the show that Evanier mentions meant that several songs that were recorded for the cast album were not heard in the show after the first few weeks. Moss Hart dropped the cute but utterly pointless "Then You May Take Me To the Fair," as well as the knights' chorus "Fie On Goodness," a great number that unfortunately held up the show at a crucial moment.

Cast albums in those days were recorded on the first Sunday after the show opened, and released within the first couple of weeks after the show opened; cast albums were huge sellers then, and it was necessary to get them out as quickly as possible to take advantage of a show's success. Because of this, it was quite common for cast albums to preserve arrangements, sections of songs, and even entire songs that were dropped after the opening. Also, because the cast album's liner notes were often prepared before the show had even opened (because of the necessity to get the albums out as quickly as possible), you would sometimes find that the plot synopsis on the album differed from the plot of the actual show.

Sidney Satan Sheldon

Geez -- "Hart to Hart: The Complete First Season?" At the time, it was an antidote to a glut of "gritty" shows and movies, and I like Robert Wagner for his self-deprecating humor (he could have used a livelier partner than Stefanie Powers, though). But like every show created by the Dark Lord Sidney Sheldon, it was basically a knockoff: "The Patty Duke Show" = "The Parent Trap"; "I Dream of Jeannie" = "Bewitched," and "Hart To Hart" was "The Thin Man" for a slightly less boozy era. Interestingly, two shows that were created to ape the success of "Hart to Hart" turned out better than the original: "Remington Steele" and "Moonlighting."

Howard Hawks and the Lost Starlets

You might have noticed that in my recent posts on '60s starlets who should have become big stars -- here and here -- there were several actresses who got their best opportunities in films by Howard Hawks. Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, Paula Prentiss in Man's Favorite Sport? and Marianna Hill in Red Line 7000 all got better roles than they had ever had before or ever would have again in the movies.

It's not the quality of the writing that sets these roles apart; Dickinson's part in Rio Bravo, writing-wise, is a re-hash of various characters in earlier Hawks movies (plus a bit of Marlene Dietrich, courtesy of the writer, Jules Furthman, who wrote many of Dietrich's best movies), Prentiss's part is a knockoff of the female lead in Bringing Up Baby, and Hill's part in Red Line 7000 is as badly-written as everything else in the movie. What sets these roles apart from the other roles the actresses got is that instead of being shoehorned into generic categories (the good girl, the bad girl, the wife), they are given the freedom to be unique and interesting. So while the parts are written as generic "Hawksian women," the actresses invest these roles with some of their own quirky qualities and come up with what amounts to new characters, new qualities we haven't quite seen on the screen before.

More than that, we can see an actress in Hawks movies -- if she's a good actress, anyway -- developing a persona, rather than just playing the same old heroine. If Dickinson, Prentiss and Hill had become superstars, they probably would have done so by adopting personas similar to the ones they displayed in Hawks movies: Dickinson's wisecracking vulnerability, Prentiss's loopiness, Hill's combination of straight-talk and sultriness. A lot of this might simply come from the fact that Hawks was an improvisatory kind of director who believed in giving his actors a lot of freedom within a scene; this allowed talented young actresses to put more of themselves into a part than most directors would allow, and the characters they came up with bore a lot of similarity to the way Dickinson or Hill or Prentiss came off in interviews. Instead they had to repress a lot of what made them interesting in order to fit into the roles they got elsewhere, and that's no way to become a star.

I think that's part of what made Hawks one of the best directors of women, the fact that he allowed actresses to invest a part with some of their own uniqueness. Of course, like most directors, he tried to get people to act a certain way; Jean Arthur rebelled against his attempts to make her do his tough-gal schtick, and we all know about his "molding" of Lauren Bacall's voice and manner. Yet despite that, the Lauren Bacall in her Hawks movies seems a lot more real and natural than the Lauren Bacall who played more generic heroines, with more generic acting, in many of her subsequent movies. But the combination of Hawks's coaching with his laid-back directorial style provided a good framework for an actress to develop a persona: within the general outline of the way a "Hawksian woman" needs to sound and act, she can improvise and put some of herself into the part. Many directors give that kind of freedom to male actors; I don't think there are as many who allow women to go outside the box, so to speak. Renoir was another director who sometimes did that, and like Hawks, he liked his movies to feel loose and improvisational.

The other thing that made Hawks a good director of women was that he was one of the few directors who was willing and even eager to let his heroines make complete asses of themselves. Think of Carole Lombard's screaming fits in 20th Century, Katharine Hepburn's psycho-comedy in Bringing Up Baby, Rosalind Russell talking a million words a minute and tackling a man in His Girl Friday, Joanne Dru shooting off a gun and babbling incoherently in the cop-out ending of Red River. Most directors, even good ones, portray women as either madonnas or whores (coughScorsesecough), giving their actresses little choice but to fit their performances into one category or the other. Hawks was one of the few directors who would allow his actresses to be just as crazy -- and just as uncategorizable -- as the men.

Not to get all mushy about Hawks (and, after all, Man's Favorite Sport? and Red Line 7000 aren't very good movies), he made some bad casting choices of actresses, especially after 1959 when his casting choices seemed largely predicated on how pretty he thought an actress or actor would look on the screen. I still can't figure out why he put Charlene Holt in three movies, including a big role in that rehash of rehashes, El Dorado. All the actresses in Red Line 7000, except Hill, are pretty but pretty bad (same with all the actors who aren't James Caan). Jennifer O'Neill was a perplexing choice for the perplexingly bad Rio Lobo. And who the heck is that strangely-accented young woman who acts as Paula Prentiss's dull sidekick in Favorite Sport? And so on.

However, the list of actresses who did better for Hawks than they had ever done before is even longer. Sometimes it involved an actress developing a new persona or showing hitherto untapped abilities that she would carry over into her other movies, like Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Bacall, Marilyn Monroe. Sometimes an actress would do things in a Hawks movie that she wouldn't try to do again, like Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. And sometimes an actress would just get her first chance to do what she did best, like Joan Collins, hitherto mostly cast as good girls, getting a chance to be a super-bitch in Land of the Pharaohs.

All in all, if you want to see a good part for a woman, you're better off popping in a random Howard Hawks movie than any current "chick flick".

(By the way, I'm starting to think I should expand this "lost starlets of the '60s" concept into a full-fledged article. I'd have to find another title, though, because I just found out another blogger already used it. However, that was for a generic post about "'60s chicks," while I am weirdly concerned with the "'60s chicks" who deserved to be taken seriously as actresses. But in case that interests anybody else, I'll try to write some more about it.)

Harold Lloyd is Still Hanging Around

Good news for all fans of the man who made nerdiness cool: New Line Cinema has announced a huge Harold Lloyd DVD Collection for November 15:

Digitally remastered, restored and rescored, the three-volume, seven-disc DVD collection includes 15 feature films, 10 shorts and a bonus disc containing a treasure chest of extras including Harold Lloyd’s home movies, star tributes, photo galleries, all-new interviews and featurettes, and a 3-D bonus photo disc with a pair of 3-D photo glasses. The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection is available at a $89.95 SRP. Each volume can also be purchased separately at a $29.95 SRP.


The films are:

Volume 1, Disc 1
Feature films and shorts - Girl Shy (1924), Safety Last! (1923), An Eastern Westerner (1920), Ask Father (1919), From Hand to Mouth (1919)

Volume 1, Disc 2
Feature films and shorts - The Milky Way (1936), The Cat’s Paw (1934), Why Worry? (1923)

Volume 2, Disc 1
Feature films and shorts - Kid Brother (1927), The Freshman (1925), Bumping Into Broadway (1919), Billy Blazes, Esq. (1919)

Volume 2, Disc 2
Feature films and shorts - Feet First (1930), Grandma’s Boy (1922), Dr. Jack (1922), Now or Never (1921), High and Dizzy (1920)

Volume 3, Disc 1
Feature films and shorts - Speedy (1928), Hot Water (1924), Never Weaken (1921), Haunted Spooks (1920),

Volume 3, Disc 2
Feature films and shorts - Movie Crazy (1932), For Heaven’s Sake (1926), I Do (1921), Among Those Present (1921), A Sailor-Made Man (1921), Get Out and Get Under (1920), Number Please? (1920)


Special features are:

Commentary by Leonard Maltin and Rich Correll on Safety Last!
Featurette “Harold’s Hollywood: Then and Now”
Commentary by Leonard Maltin, Rich Correll and film historian Richard Bann on The Freshman
Commentary by Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, author Annette Lloyd, and Rich Correll on Kid Brother
“Scoring for Comedy” Featurette
Commentary by Suzanne Lloyd, Annette Lloyd and Rich Correll on Speedy and Haunted Spooks
“Greenacres” Featurette

Bonus Disc (Collector’s Set Only)
* Rare home movies
* Introductions from film critic and historian Leonard Maltin
* Photo galleries, lobby cards and production stills
* Comparisons between domestic and international prints
* “Then-and-now” location comparisons
* Tributes and interviews with family, friends and legendary celebrities including Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner, Tab Hunter and director John Landis
* Rogues’ gallery of autographed photos of celebrities, presidents and sports heroes
* Scrapbook collection - Reviews, programs, etc.
* 3-D photos (3-D glasses included)
* Over 30 featurettes
* And more!


I hope that the music features something better than the usual anachronistic doodlings and noodlings (a hint for all would-be scorers of silent films: listen to the scores of films from the late '20s that were shot silent but had synchronized musical scores, like Buster Keaton's Spite Marriage, and write something like that), but one way or the other this will have to be one of the most impressive DVD sets of the year.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

G&G

The New York Times has a review of the DVD release of the complete series "Profit," one of the most fondly-remembered of the '90s crop of brilliant-but-cancelled shows.

I'd never seen the series before the DVDs came out, but now that I have, I'm surprised that no one has brought up the most obvious comparison for the show: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. That Broadway musical, and the movie version, concerned a young man who starts in the mailroom at a big corporation (that doesn't seem to make anything in particular) and, by following the instructions in a how-to-succeed manual, climbs the corporate ladder by double-crossing, backstabbing and outwitting each person who ranks above him, until finally he winds up as C.E.O. "Profit" was an over-the-top, slightly campy melodrama rather than a comedy, but it's basically the same idea: Jim Profit is a young junior executive with a generic corporation, Grayson and Grayson, who is determined to be second-in-command at the company (his abusive father raised him in a Grayson and Grayson box, and he sees the company as the family he never had), and rises to the top by hatching incredibly elaborate master plans to get other executives fired, arrested or killed.

One of the central jokes of the show is that even though Profit is a complete psychopath who murders his father, sleeps with his stepmother, blackmails a woman who embezzled a few hundred dollars to pay her mother's hospital bills, and has an honorable executive framed for murder (and that's all in the first two episodes), we can't really feel too bad about what Profit does, because he's carrying out a typical revenge fantasy: getting back at those fat-cat executives. The fact that most of his schemes depend on the corporate executives being dumber than a box of rocks only adds to the feeling that he's more likable than they are, because he's so much smarter. Besides which, there are constant hints dropped that the corporation is involved in all kinds of amoral and shady deals; the pilot episode centers around the fact that the corporation bought a company that lies about what it's putting in baby food, and that it's corporate policy to cover it up. Nothing Profit does, in other words, is as evil as what the corporation is doing to the public; and at least he only hurts people within the "family."

Part of the problem with the show, entertaining as it is, is that this joke wears thin, and you (or I at least) start to want to see the other corporate executives be a little less dumb; the fact that hardly anyone catches on to Profit's real character starts to stretch credibility within the first half-hour of the pilot, and by the end of the eighth and last episode, the C.E.O. is starting to seem more and more like J.B. Biggley.

Also, there was a structural problem built into the first and second episodes that probably contributed to the show's failure: the pilot has hardly any real conflict. It's just one vignette after another of Profit executing one of his evil schemes and being one step ahead of everybody. And then the second episode has essentially the same plot as the first. It's not until the third episode that the writers (David Greenwalt and John McNamara) introduce the idea that Profit can sometimes lose and be outsmarted by others, and suddenly the show becomes more interesting, because we're now watching to see if he'll win and how he'll deal with unexpected problems. It's easier to root for the bad guy if he seems to be in trouble; remember Norman Bates trying to sink that car? But by the time the producers added that hook to the show, viewers had tuned out, probably writing the show off as a well-produced but one-note show. Which it sort of was, but at least it wound up as a very entertaining one-note show.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

One More Lost Starlet

There were several other actresses I should have mentioned in my post (see here) about '60s Hollywood starlets who would have become stars in an era with more and better parts for women. One more, much more obscure choice is Marianna Hill, probably best known for a small part in The Godfather, Part II and a guest shot on Star Trek as still another of Kirk's Konquests.

She was one of the best-looking actresses on the screen in the '60s, and she was an excellent actress; after her acting career stalled, she went to London to teach acting at the Lee Strasberg studio (which is perhaps how she got the part in Godfather II, which featured Strasberg). She spoke several languages, which allowed her to do non-embarrassing foreign accents, a big plus in an era when it was considered somehow inappropriate for the heroine in an American movie to have an American accent.

In 1965 she was one of a bunch of attractive young men and women selected by Howard Hawks to play important roles in his disastrous attempt at a "youth" movie, Red Line 7000; a few years later he admitted that of all the people he signed up for the film, the only ones who could actually act were Marianna Hill and another young actor named James Caan. Their scene together in front of a Pepsi-Cola machine (an early instance of blatant product placement in a movie) was one of the few scenes in the film that worked. But Caan went on to bigger things; Hill did not.

I don't want to sound like a broken record here, but you'd think that a spectacular-looking person with acting ability and screen presence to match James Caan would go on to get a few meaty roles. Instead Hill went on to that graveyard of attractive young '60s actresses' careers, an Elvis Presley movie, Paradise Hawaiian Style. (Which, incidentally, was directed by "Michael Moore," thus undoubtedly earning the current Michael Moore a lot of ribbing.) She also got supporting parts in some good movies, like Medium Cool. But with better opportunities, she could have and should have been a big star.

There's a fan page for Ms. Hill that gives some more information on her career, including the fact that she changed her last name from Schwarzkopf -- her cousin, Norman Schwarzkopf, had an interesting career in a different field. And it includes a collection of '60s articles on Ms. Hill, including some fairly candid remarks about Elvis:

"He's always competing with the leading ladies. He doesn't seem to want you to get serious with your work because he knows you're better trained than he. So he likes to break up all the time and throw the scene. He doesn't concentrate on what he's doing. He acts as though he cares, but he doesn't.

"Like his veneer of politeness," Marianna went on to explain. "Elvis is always going Yes, sir and No, sir, Yes ma'am and No, ma'am. He pretends to be humble, but I'm not sure he is. Underneath it all, there seems to be a lot of resentment and defensiveness and hostility.

"Elvis does have a bag of tricks. Even if they're old, though. He has this physical thing-- this jumpy kind of thing-- that's often mistaken for something great coming across on the screen. At first glance you might think that it's warmth or depth. But it's not. It's some sort of nervous tic which, I think, is a result of surpressing impulses and having them come out physically.

"His eyes are always darting about. Very quickly. That's why I think Elvis is much like an animal. He reminds me of a kitten.

"Elvis has changed his image a lot. Remember when he was younger and really wild? That was great! But then he calmed down and got very GI and supposedly became very mature.

"I loved him when he was wild and crazy. Now it's like he's sold out to the enemy. Personally, I think the Colonel made the decision.


Calling Elvis a sellout in a magazine in 1966, and blaming it on Colonel Parker, probably wasn't a good way to advance her career.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Lost Starlets of the '60s

I see that 20th Century Fox is doing a couple of "double feature" DVDs of Rodgers and Hammerstein movies: the long-awaited set of both the CinemaScope and Todd-AO versions of Oklahoma!, and the 1945 and 1962 versions of State Fair.

The 1945 State Fair always struck me as a mediocre musical -- both in script and score -- that wouldn't have endured if the names Rodgers and Hammerstein weren't affixed to it; the original nonmusical version has a better cast and director. The 1962 version, while basically terrible -- another example the kind of family-friendly yet weirdly smutty pap that Charles Brackett produced after splitting with Billy Wilder and became active in the Republican party, not necessarily in that order. Yet I actually enjoy it more than the 1945, mostly because it features early roles for two actresses who should have become big stars but didn't: Ann-Margret and Pamela Tiffin.

The '60s were a very bad time for women's roles in Hollywood movies (European movies took up the slack, though, unlike today, when there just don't seem to be any good women's roles anywhere). The result was that there were a lot of American actresses who might have become headliners in a previous era who instead wound up being used mostly as decoration, because that's basically all women were in most movies in the '60s and '70s.

Ann-Margret became famous, yes, based on a movie where she played second fiddle to Elvis and a lot of TV specials. But she hardly ever headlined a movie; she just missed the golden age of movie musicals, and most directors other than the cheerfully insane Freed Unit veteran George Sidney didn't know what to do with her.

Pamela Tiffin was gorgeous, instantly likable, and a talented performer; in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three she holds her own with James Cagney while Horst Buchholz kind of embarrasses himself. Yet Buchholz got to play some leading roles in movies, both in America and Europe, and Tiffin never got to do much more than dance in a bikini in Harper (though that alone makes her the best thing in that movie). Say what you will about the movie industry of the '30s and '40s, it had a lot more leading roles for women who were attractive and funny -- think Carole Lombard or Claudette Colbert. I'm not saying Pamela Tiffin was in the league of Colbert or Lombard, but she may have had the potential to be; we'll never know, because there just weren't any interesting roles for her.

Angie Dickinson is another actress who joins Ann-Margret in the category of somewhat-famous performers who could have been really famous. After her scene-stealing in Rio Bravo there was no reason why she shouldn't have graduated to starring roles. Instead she graduated to a bunch of decoration roles, including one of the most thankless female roles ever, the token woman in Ocean's Eleven. (What, I wonder, does it feel like to be the only female character in a movie where Dean Martin suggests taking the vote away from women?) She did get a couple of lead roles, but even those were thankless; The Sins of Rachel Cade was a melodramatic potboiler that didn't use the sense of humor that made her so appealing in Rio Bravo, and Jessica was another one of those smutty "family" films of the early '60s, where the story of an entire town leering at the scantily-clad heroine is somehow portrayed as wholesome, bland fun. By the late '60s she was mostly doing movies where she either stripped or got beaten up or both; that's what happened to her in Point Blank, which is a great movie but, like most of the great movies of the era, one in which women are superfluous.

Paula Prentiss is probably number one on the list of '60s starlets who should have been stars; Hawks's Man's Favorite Sport? may be slow and (like everything Hawks did after Rio Bravo) a re-hash of his earlier, better work, but Prentiss is hilarious. She doesn't just hold her own with the original, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, she's arguably better -- more able to convince us that she is, in fact, a real and likable person no matter what horrible things she does to the hero. (And she completely blows away Barbra Streisand in the next decade's Bringing Up Baby ripoff, What's Up, Doc?.) But the rest of her movie career in the '60s was spent, once again, as decoration in guy-oriented flicks. She had a better role on TV in He and She, a Dick Van Dyke Show-style comedy where she was even funnier than Mary Tyler Moore had been. But that show was cancelled after a season. (I should add that women had somewhat better luck on TV in the '60s than they did in movies; there weren't a lot of good women's roles even on TV, but the medium did provide opportunities for actresses who had never gotten the stardom they deserved in movies, like Anne Francis.)

There are others; those are just the four that always come to mind. The American movie industry in the '60s and '70s must have had actresses who had the potential to be the new Colbert or Hepburn (either one) or Davis, or for that matter the equivalents of the big European female stars of the time -- Moreau, Deneuve, Ullmann. We'll never know for sure who would have become the great female stars of the era if Hollywood hadn't overdosed on testosterone.

Template In a Teapot

I'm changing the template of this blog (the one I was using isn't even offered by blogger anymore) to be a little less -- well -- horrible. I still have to figure out how to re-enable comments, but in the meantime there's always email if you want to chew me out.

Update: Comments are back up.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Barbara Bel Geddes

Barbara Bel Geddes, a great theatre, screen and TV actress, has died at the age of 82.

A list of her theatre credits is here. Her best-known stage role was of course Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but she also had tremendous success in comedy, particularly two smash hits opposite Barry Nelson: The Moon is Blue and Mary, Mary. Unfortunately, though these two plays were filmed quite faithfully, she didn't get to appear in either of them; the film of The Moon is Blue used a young and inexperienced performer, Maggie McNamara, perhaps because Bel Geddes wasn't welcome in Hollywood in the mid-'50s due to her politics; and the film of Mary, Mary, though made after Bel Geddes was working in movies again, had Nelson repeating his stage role opposite a very miscast Debbie Reynolds.

Bel Geddes was extremely versatile; the innocent (or is she?) Patty in The Moon is Blue is as different as can be from the cynical Mary in Mary, Mary, and both of them are as different as can be from Maggie the Cat. Add in her tragi-comic sidekick character in Vertigo (she gets the best line in the film, "You know what, Doctor? I don't think Mozart's going to help at all") and her matriarch role on Dallas, and you have some idea of her range.

My longish essay on The Moon is Blue, and the character Bel Geddes played, is here.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Here's a How-De-Do

(Via Terry Teachout) George Hunka at Superfluities has some interesting thoughts on Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, a sort of making-of documentary on The Mikado that just happens to have actors playing the parts of Gilbert, Sullivan and the rest.

I agree with Hunka about the effectiveness of the film at conveying the details of what it takes to mount a production, and of its thematic connections to Leigh's other films:

Topsy-Turvy is nonetheless very much in the Leigh tradition of showing everyday work and frustration, even though there often doesn't seem to be much point beyond the ability to endure.


That theme -- that people do work for its own sake even though there is not "much point beyond the ability to endure" -- is reflected in Leigh's attitude to The Mikado itself, which he clearly dismisses as a featherweight bit of pointless escapism. Leigh has made it clear in interviews that part of what interested him about Gilbert was that he put so much care and effort into mounting such trivial stuff. And in Topsy-Turvy we see that everybody in the film is doing the best work they can do, not because of any great artistic ambition or belief that they will create something that will last, but just because it's their job. Gilbert writes The Mikado only because Sullivan rejected the script Gilbert really wanted to do; Sullivan would rather be doing grand opera; D'Oyly Carte is mostly concerned with keeping the team together and keeping his theatre profitable. It's a backstager that focuses entirely on the craft of theatre, as opposed to the art.

What makes the movie unsatisfying for me, ultimately, is that Leigh is so focused on this theme -- the theme of all the effort that goes into doing something trivial -- that he misses or downplays a lot of aspects of The Mikado and the period. For all the meticulous period details, Topsy-Turvy presents a pretty standard and very modern-day perspective on the Victorian period and the place of The Mikado in it: the Victorians are kind of smug, co-opting all cultures into their own, and The Mikado is an attempt to capitalize on the Victorians' arms-length interest in Japanese culture, a way of gawking at another culture without really having to learn anything about it. What Leigh forgets is that the big joke of The Mikado is that the surface trappings of Japan-mania, all the stuff that Gilbert saw at the Knightsbridge exhibition, are used for a story and characters that are 100% Victorian English. Instead of a look at another culture, it's a look in the mirror, with England's snobbery and sexual prudishness clothed in "funny" costumes. As in a lot of Gilbert's plays, the joke is on his own audience. None of that comes across in Topsy-Turvy, and the question of who exactly the play is making fun of never really seems to come up.

Now, a biopic doesn't need to be accurate about the thing it's portraying -- though in a film so determined to be accurate about other things, this is a bigger problem than in a different kind of biopic -- but Leigh's lack of interest in Gilbert the satirist ultimately makes him a less interesting character onscreen than he was in real life. It also fudges some of the more intriguing differences between Gilbert and Sullivan. The movie conveys their different lifestyles: Gilbert the repressed Victorian gentleman, Sullivan the high-living party animal. But it doesn't fully convey the irony of the fact that their ambitions were exact opposites of their lifestyles. Sullivan was a snob in the old sense of the word, meaning a social climber; he hobnobbed with the nobs and wanted to be the founder of an English national style of serious music (which, in his serious pieces, basically meant a whole lot of songs with titles like "Ho, Jolly Jenkin"). Gilbert was a commercial playwright, but the angriest commercial playwright in Britain before Shaw came along; his plays can be ferociously cynical, he could be corrosively funny about the stupidities of class pride and patriotism, and his favorite target was his audience's own bad taste in theatrical entertainment and culture. This repressed gentleman was in his own topsy-turvy way almost as angry as that other repressed 19th-century gentleman, Henrik Ibsen. Again, if Leigh knows this about Gilbert, he (and Jim Broadbent) doesn't get it across, and so we're left with a duller character than we should be getting. And while there's nothing wrong with taking liberties with a real character, there is something wrong with taking liberties that result in something much less enjoyable than the real thing.

Also, there's a structural problem inherent in Topsy-Turvy's focus on the rehearsals for The Mikado: the rehearsals were dominated by Gilbert, whose detail-by-detail staging of his plays helped to invent what we now think of as the craft of the stage director. Sullivan rarely got to do much more than rehearse the orchestra and the singers, and expressed frustration at being little more than a cypher at the rehearsals. So Topsy-Turvy, supposedly a Gilbert and Sullivan movie, becomes mostly a movie about Gilbert -- who has been drained of most of the elements that could have made him a character worth following for all that time.

In the end, Topsy-Turvy is a movie so focused on work for work's sake that it ignores what all that work was for. And in this context that says more about Mike Leigh than it does about The Mikado.

Concerto Troppo

"New Vivaldi work heard for first time in 250 years"... I don't want to sound snippy or anything, but are we sure they didn't just take one of Vivaldi's identical-sounding pieces and give it a new title?

Okay, that did sound snippy. And it's unfair, because a lot of Vivaldi's reputation for writing pieces that all sounded the same derives from the years when they were mostly all played the same; the advent of "historically informed" performance (which came about in part because people like Nikolaus Harnoncourt wondered why once-innovative composers like Vivaldi sounded so boring when played by modern orchestras) has opened up more of the different possibilities and different sounds in his concertos and choral works.

Still, as a small-p philistine, I do kind of find it hard to tell one piece by Vivaldi from another, just as, according to the article, experts apparently found it hard to tell Vivaldi from Galuppi.

And too much Italian baroque music puts me in mind of that Peter Schickele sketch where a classical music station challenges "I Virtuosi Di Hoople" to identify different pieces by a baroque composer named Arcangelo Spumoni -- each of which is the same melody in a slightly different arrangement. The routine ends with a line that could be the baroque fan's mantra: "The winners will receive the complete works of Vivaldi, which will be sent out to you one record a month for a period of 35 years... and for the losers, we have a consolation prize, the Toscanini recordings of the nine Beethoven symphonies."

Monday, August 08, 2005

Son of Remake of Kong

Most of you are probably aware that Peter "Meet the Feebles" Jackson (I think he did some other movie too, can't remember the name) is doing a remake of King Kong, and many of you probably also know that Jackson has created a making-of documentary for a special DVD edition of the original King Kong. (The details are here; the movie will be available separately and in a box with Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young.)

Someone pointed out on a message board that this is a sign of how much things have improved regarding the attitude of moviemakers and movie studios to the films they remake. The specific point made was that the last time King Kong was remade, in 1976, the producers went out of their way to obscure the fact that it was a remake: they had the original film pulled from TV for a while; they even used a tagline that went "There's only one Kong!"

And, indeed, it used to be common practice for studios to quietly or not-so-quietly bury the films they remade. When MGM remade properties that had already been filmed by other studios, they would actually buy the older films from those studios so they couldn't be re-released; they did this with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (that's why the Oscar-winning Paramount version was out of circulation for many years) and Show Boat. Almost any remake would cause the previous version to become less-seen and less-publicized.

Now, of course, remakes actually enhance the visibility of the original versions; the studios release DVDs of the original movie or TV series to tie in with the new movie, the makers of the new version are always asked to give interviews about how much they love the original, and even the studio heads have to pretend that they remade this old movie out of a deep and abiding respect for the original. So some things have gotten better, at least as far as respect for old movies is concerned.

The Smithsonian Insitute of Tweety

This isn't really much of a post, but I was looking over the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art Interviews, and I noticed that one of the interviewees, Boris Gorelick, was someone whose name I recognized from Warner Brothers cartoons. Specifically, he spent about a year as the background painter/designer for Friz Freleng, doing some of the most far-out and stylized backgrounds ever seen in a WB cartoon; every piece of furniture was crooked. (Freleng's layout man, Hawley Pratt, tended to give background designers more leeway to create the look of the backgrounds, unlike layout men like Robert Gribbroek and Maurice Noble, who basically designed everything and let the background man paint what they had already created.) He didn't work on all that many cartoons at WB, but he did do the Oscar-winning "Birds Anonymous" and the famous "Show Biz Bugs."

The interview with him is, of course, not about his cartoon work but his involvement, as a young man, with the WPA's famous Federal Art Project. However, I think it's kind of interesting that when he mentions his animation work, he mentions his stint at UPA and another one at Playhouse Films, but never mentions Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers cartoons at this time did not have a very high reputation among high-minded types, and histories of American animation up until the mid-'70s or so tend to write as if the only American studios that mattered were Disney and UPA. That's changed, of course, and even some WB artists who used to be somewhat dismissive of their Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies work were, as time went on, more willing to say good things about it.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Oh, That's Who Shot J.R.

A warning to anyone who's planning to pick up the third season of Dallas and doesn't know who shot J.R.: there's a featurette with the DVD set, called "Who Shot J.R.: The Dallas Phenomenon," that gives away the identity of the shooter -- even though it's not revealed until the fourth season, which hasn't been released yet. I don't know if they just assumed everybody knew already, or if they weren't sure what season it was revealed in, or what. Anyway, that's a hell of a spoiler to include in a DVD set.

As to why I rented Dallas: first of all, as I have explained before, I think Dallas helped to create the modern TV drama. Previously there was a clear dividing line between soap operas, which were serialized, and dramas, which consisted of completely self-contained stories. By doing -- at least at first -- episodes with relatively self-contained stories that were part of a larger story arc, Dallas helped paved the way for the serialized dramas of the '80s, '90s and '00s.

The other reason I rented it is that it had audio commentaries on two episodes by Patrick Duffy (Bobby) and Linda Gray (Sue Ellen), and I expected their commentaries to be entertaining. I was right, too. For some reason, audio commentaries by actors in late-'70s, early-'80s TV shows often turn out to be delightful; Lynda Carter on Wonder Woman and the stars of The Dukes of Hazzard are other actors whose commentary tracks have charm, humor and good anecdotes. The two actors on these Dallas tracks don't summarize the action or gush about everybody as commentators often do; instead they tell funny stories and are good at poking fun at certain aspects of their show, and at themselves, without ever sounding like they're putting it down. Some good quotes from the Gray-Duffy commentaries:

DUFFY: Remember the actress Ruta Lee? Ruta Lee did a game show with my wife and myself once, and introduced me as "The talking hair from Dallas." Well, I mean, look at it.
GRAY: It doesn't look bad there.
DUFFY: No, but it's a lot of time under the blow dryer. It was before the gel thing. Thank God for gel.

(After a line about J.R. losing $20 million)
DUFFY: Larry [Hagman] once told me that he did the math on this series, and he [J.R.] lost more money than Ewing oil was worth.

DUFFY: On our show, we only had one line in the entire Ewing house, and whoever answered the phone, that's who it was for. It's the most amazing coincidence.

DUFFY: You guys had good clothes.
GRAY: We had great clothes.
DUFFY: And you know, the other shows that tried to copy Dallas went too far over the top -- they got into fashion that was so bizarre; it wasn't classy... are we into the major shoulder-pad era yet?
GRAY: Not quite. Easing into it.

DUFFY: Wouldn't it have been fun to have been on the story meetings? They must have gone through every member of the cast and said "What can he do to him, what can he do to her, what can he do to her." And in one hour...
GRAY: Give everyone a motive.
DUFFY: And they're all acting their hearts out, knowing that if they shot him, they're history on the show.


They also reveal which cast member did the footsteps in the scene where J.R. gets shot. It's not the one I would have expected. And Duffy has a recurring observation about the fact that the show had the ugliest doors on television: they're supposed to be rich, but every door is flat and faded and ugly.

I'm actually starting to think that cheesy shows get more entertaining commentary tracks than genuinely good ones.

Friday, August 05, 2005

I Am Porky Pig

The "Which Looney Tunes Character Are You" Test provides a fascinating, albeit sometimes misspelled, glimpse at our inner cartoon character.

As the subject line makes clear, I scored as Porky:

Non-aggressive, possibly shy, dapper, well-mannered, and likely far too hard on yourself, you are the prototypical conscientious friend who too often gets taken advantage of. Generally you don’t like to make a fuss and are more or less adverse to risk-taking. There are those out there who make entire careers out of manipulating people like you, and you should be very weary of them. Regardless, try taking a few risks and definitely stick up for yourself more. Maybe quit your safe but boring job, or ask that special person out. You are someone of high moral character and probably deserve far more out of life than you are settling with.


Kind of disappointing, but at least I wasn't Sylvester or Wile E. Coyote. And I knew I wasn't cool enough to be Bugs.

More TV On DVD

The next few months are going to bring a flood of TV on DVD releases. Well, not literally a flood, because floods usually involve liquids and DVD sets are usually solids. But you get what I mean.

I thought I would go over the release schedule at good old TV Shows On DVD and pick out some upcoming sets that are worth a look, apart from the obvious ones like season 6 of "The Simpsons," which has the worst box design ever.

"Profit" - The Complete Series (August 9). I've never actually seen this show, but it is one of the most fondly-remembered of Fox's many cult flops, a melodrama-comedy reworking "Richard III" in a modern corporate setting. The co-creator, David Greenwalt (who provides audio commentary) became the original co-executive producer of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" following the cancellation of this show.

"The Andy Griffith Show" - the Complete Third Season (August 16). This was the season that introduced some new characters like Gomer Pyle who added some wackiness to "The Andy Griffith Show"'s low-key comedy, but it's also the season when the show hit its peak, largely due to the infusion of some new writing talent. In particular, the team of Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell, who had previously written only one episode of the show, became full-time contributors, coming up with some episodes that really deepened the show and its characters. "A Man in a Hurry," where a city visitor to Mayberry is frustrated by the slow pace of rural life, is about as close as a sitcom episode has ever come to being profound. And another episode, "Mr. McBeevee" (written by Harvey Bullock), where Andy mistakenly believes that Opie has an imaginary friend, is such a great episode that it has been copied many times over, most recently in a "Simpsons" episode with Homer standing in for Opie. It also has the dialogue exchange where Andy's decision to trust his son takes on a religious dimension, ending with the famous exchange:

BARNEY: Do you believe in Mr. McBeevee?
ANDY: No. I believe in Opie.


"Undeclared" - the complete series (August 16). And speaking of Fox cult flops... from Judd Apatow, this was basically "Freaks and Geeks Goes to College," with all the F&G elements: quirky-looking cast, painfully realistic story ideas, lots of licensed songs on the soundtrack, and a short run. It's been given the same super-deluxe treatment "Freaks and Geeks" got.

"Taxi" - the complete third season (September 13). Despite the short (20 episode) season, this is by far the best "Taxi" season, with most of the episodes that are responsible for the show's high reputation, including "Elaine's Strange Triangle" (Elaine is interested in a man who is interested in Tony), "Going Home" (Reverend Jim's past explained) and "Latka the Playboy" (Latka becomes Vic Ferrari). This was also the season where the show started to get more surrealistic, with completely nutty moments like Famous Amos turning up in a fantasy sequence; the combination of semi-realistic humor with outright nutty humor in the same show was something that James L. Brooks became interested in with "Taxi," and would carry over into "The Simpsons" (which, early on, was very similar to "Taxi" in a lot of its comedy and story structures).

"King of the Hill," the complete fifth season (November 22). Some of the episodes from this season are as far as the adventures of Hank Hill ever went in the direction of cartoony wackiness, before creator Mike Judge and others sort of reined it in a bit. Episodes like the famous "Ho Yeah!," where Hank is mistaken for a pimp and Snoop Dogg voices a tiny white guy who proclaims himself the baddest pimp in Oklahoma City, are an entertaining glimpse at what a totally unrealistic, crazy "King of the Hill" might be like.

And this post mentions a whole bunch of shows to come from Fox over the next few months, most notably "Hill Street Blues," the show that proved that the MTM company's emphasis on character and theme could be carried over from sitcoms into dramas, thus making drama more character-based and less plot-based than it had ever been before. Also "Alien Nation," another Fox cult flop, and "The Time Tunnel," about which this page says all that needs to be said.