Friday, September 30, 2005


The world's top ten favorite songs, as chosen by a poll of 700,000 people.

Aside from the innate hideousness of the list, do you notice how depressing these songs are, cumulatively? The lesson you take away from this list is that there is no heaven, that she had to go (why, I don't know -- she wouldn't say), that you have no lover and no son, that you've had your share of sand kicked in your face, and that if you did have a lover, he or she would be toxic.

Sad, in so many ways.

(Via Bill Crider.)

My Childhood Memories Confirmed

All the hoopla over "Jeopardy!" and Ken Jennings made me compare him -- unfavorably, of course -- to my favorite long-running game-show champion when I was a kid. This was a guy on the '80s version of "Sale of the Century". This show had started in Australia and had run in several different versions in several different countries; the one I saw as a kid was on NBC and was hosted by Jim Perry, who looked like Guy Smiley come to life and would occasionally make "hip" jokes like: "We're like 'Star Trek.' Sale of the Century -- the search for Nielsen families with people meters!"

Anyway, one week in 1985 there was this guy -- a pleasantly average-looking, curly-haired guy -- who just kept answering every question right. He also mastered the show's Byzantine rules about how to buy prizes with the "money" he won in the question rounds; he bought prize after prize after prize, and by the end of the week he'd walked off with an amount, in cash and prizes, that seemed impressive even to one weaned on "The Price is Right." (A relative was once horrified to find me and my sister watching "The Price is Right" and speaking of large sums of money as though they were nothing: "Only $3,000 at Plinko?" I'd say. "That's not much." And in the context of a game show, it wasn't much, but she was understandably concerned that television was teaching us to regard thousands of dollars as a mere trifle.) Jim Perry told him he was the biggest winner ever. And I was in awe of his incredible knowledge and prize-winning savvy.

According to this, the biggest winner on the show was one "Tim Hollerin." I don't remember the guy's name, but that sounds right, and so does the time frame. So take that, Ken Jennings. You may be super smart, but did you ever get a pair of skis and a living-room set on the same day? No, sir.

I only remember two questions from that week of shows. One was (although I didn't realize this until later) an example of how NBC would work shameless plugs for its own shows into the questions:

JIM: On what show would you find a hulking bailiff named Bull Shannon?
(Tim buzzes in.)
TIM: "Night Court!"
JIM: Correct!

The other was a question about who co-starred with Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? Tim correctly answered "Bette Davis," and that was the first time I'd heard of Bette Davis. I also remember that Jim followed up the question by telling an anecdote about how Bette Davis and Joan Crawford hated each other, so thank you, Jim Perry, for my first exposure to lurid celebrity gossip.

Songs from One, Two, Three: The Musical

I've written about this before, but I've always thought that among movies that could become stage musicals, one of the most promising candidates is Billy Wilder's Cold War farce One, Two, Three.

For those who haven't done the sensible thing and rented the DVD, the movie starred James Cagney as McNamara the head of operations for Coca-Cola in West Berlin, just before the Berlin Wall went up. In Wilder's version of Cold War Germany, the West consists mostly of creepily efficient ex-Nazis, who have channeled their following-orders impulses into being loyal corporate employees, while the Easterners have switched over from Naziism to Communism without missing a beat. Hoping for a promotion, Cagney agrees to play host to Scarlett, the man-crazy teenage daugter of his boss, a red-baiting redneck from Atlanta, won't hear of doing business with Commies. And soon after her arrival in Berlin, the boss's daughter sneaks over to East Berlin and marries Otto, an angry young Communist (a part vaguely based on Leonid Kinskey's angry Bolshevik in Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise). Cagney arranges for the husband to be imprisoned by the East German police (by planting various American products on him, like the Wall Street Journal), but gets him out again when he discovers that Scarlett is pregnant. Changing his plan, Cagney works to turn Otto into the ultimate go-getting Western capitalist -- with a new wardrobe, new manners, new name, even a new adopted father -- so the boss will be impressed with his daughter's husband.

The story combines a number of things that I look for in a musical comedy. It's got the kind of raucous, cynical humor that was such a success in The Producers, but unlike The Producers it actually has enough plot to sustain a full evening, and it has two romantic couples -- McNamara and his wife, and Scarlett and Otto -- always an advantage in a musical. It has a period setting, funny supporting characters to take the pressure off the leads (including the three Russian comissars who are, er, "adapted" from Wilder's script for Lubitsch's Ninotchka, another movie that was successfully musicalized), and plenty of musical opportunities built into the story. In fact, two of the funniest scenes in the movie are musical scenes, one involving the bandleader in an East German nightclub that hasn't changed since the Weimar days, the other involving a sexy table-top dance performed by McNamara's secretary, Fraulein Ingeborg.

Problems making it into a musical? Well, the last third of the movie is almost all frantic farce, which is hard to musicalize. And there's not much in the way of what I suppose we'd have to call "heart." This isn't a problem in a pure farce like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but a musical based on One, Two, Three would have to be part farce, part character comedy (Scarlett, as played by the impossibly charming Pamela Tiffin, is one of my favorite movie characters ever), part satire. The songs would need to dig a little deeper than those in The Producers, because these characters aren't complete cartoons, though they have cartoony elements.

I once tried to write some songs for One, Two, Three as an exercise, but I didn't get very far. (Partly because I didn't have the rights, and I wasn't working with a composer and my own tunes stunk, but hey, it was just an excercise...) The problem, in addition to the ones I mentioned before, was that too many of the songs just came out as straightforward musicalizations of scenes in the movie, begging the question of why you'd bother to set them to music anyway if you're just going to do the same thing that Wilder did with dialogue. Also, while the movie had a lot of plot, it was somewhat static, with characters often standing around and talking. This in turn means that if you just take a scene from the movie and add a song, you'll wind up with nothing going on onstage except the song, and a good musical comedy shouldn't stop moving forward even during the songs. So any effective musical version of One, Two, Three would probably need to shake up the original and add new and more musical-friendly story elements and scenes. But that's true of many movies. The Producers would be more effective if Mel Brooks and his co-writer Thomas Meehan had written something new to replace those static scenes of Max and Leo standing around interviewing people (Franz, Roger, Ulla).

I leave you with some of the less embarrassing lyrics I wrote for the exercise. One of them, "The Bad Old Days" (a nostalgic song for McNamara's ex-Nazi employees), is here (scroll down). Another song, an introductory waltz song for Scarlett, departed from the movie -- in the movie, she's not going around the world because she wants to, but because her parents sent her -- but was meant to establish her insanely optimistic view of the world, with a few jokes thrown in about Cold War philosophers.

The Loveliest Place in the World

From darlin’ Georgia to sweet Berlin
Ev’ry place that I’m in
Makes me giggle and grin,
‘Cause ev’ry place where I’ve ever been
Is the loveliest place in the world.
I’ve been to many a danger spot,
And the soldiers they’ve got
Seem to like me a lot,
And just as long as I don’t get shot,
It’s the loveliest place in the world.
The world, they say,
Is going to pot,
The world’s at strife, at war.
But that’s okay,
As long as it’s not
A bore.
I started touring and knew I’d click;
Ev’ry place has a trick,
There’s too many to pick,
So till the A-Bomb begins to tick,
Ev’ry cramped little space,
Ev’ry den of disgrace
Is the loveliest place in the world.

If I’d stayed and sweltered
In the land of cotton,
I’d’ve been so sheltered,
I’d’ve never gotten
To see my share
Of bombs bursting in air.
If I’d stayed with mother,
Sucking down the julep,
I’d have been another
Little hot-house tulip;
That’s fun, that’s true,
But thugs training
And missiles raining
Are entertaining too!

From Eisenhower to big Fidel,
All the leaders are swell,
They’ve got so much to tell,
Like Tito told me to go to hell
In the loveliest place in the world.
The Europeans all say we’re finks,
Ev’ry one of them thinks
That America stinks,
And then they ask me to buy them drinks
In the loveliest place in the world.
The world is small
But brimming with pain,
The world’s a pool of cess.
But still and all,
The world is my main
I’ve seen the countries where chaos thrives,
When a tourist arrives,
Soon she’s three people’s wives;
And people chase you with guns and knives,
But as long as they chase
At a leisurely pace,
It’s the loveliest place in the world.

The world is collapsing, and maybe imploding,
They tell me "be tense, with a sense of foreboding,"
But I never last through the nasty conjectures
Of strong intellectuals at long intellectures.
When somebody dragged me to hear Bertrand Russell,
I heard what he said, and my head pulled a muscle.
I hope you won’t mind, I declined the kind offer
Of a talk on the dock with Erich Hoffer.

The world's all in,
It's bad as can be,
The world’s without a friend.
But still, I've been
So happy to see
It end.
I went to Monaco; I’ll be frank:
The casinos were rank
And the service just stank;
They kicked me out when I broke the bank,
But as long as there’s Grace,
And her uplifted face,
It’s the loveliest place in the world.
There’s fighting and famine
And bloodshed and strife,
But I won’t examine
The downside of life,
I've got such good timin',
'Cause ev'ry day I'm in
The loveliest place in the world!

Another short song was for the employees when they're asked to help turn Otto into a capitalist:

It’s a Project

Refrain 1

It’s a project!
It’s a plan!
Make a new anti-socialist man!
We’ve been bored since the post-war began,
Can we help you?
Yes, we can!
What a project!
What a fight!
Move a radical Red to the right!
Though the thanks and the pay may be slight,
We will plow on
Day and night,
‘Cause from now on
Our work will be play,
With a project,
A top-secret project,


Once, our lives were disordered and hollow,
We saw the whole world through a sugary haze.
Now there’s order and orders to follow –
It’s just like the good old bad old days!
We’ve been sitting around on our rear ends,
Afraid that our methods became obsolete.
Now’s the moment at last when our fear ends,
At last there’s a task that you ask we complete!
Our efforts are finally needed,
Our theories are finally heeded,
It’s just like we never conceded defeat!

Refrain 2

It’s a project!
Stop the press!
The imposture will be a success
If his posture is less than a mess,
Can we help him?
Golly, yes!
Let this project
Never cease!
May we mention we never liked peace!
May the tension forever increase!
There are borders
To police,
There are orders
We’ll gladly obey;
With a project,
A marvelous project,
A plan with the impact of thunder,
A project where ev’rything’s lost if we blunder,
A project to bring back our old sense of wonder,

And Ingeborg's dance scene was turned into a song-and-dance scene. I actually like some of the jokes and rhymes in this one quite a bit (and because of the syncopations in the tune I came up with, the fact that the accent is placed on the word "of" is actually not a mistake), but ultimately it's just the same thing as the movie, with even the same dialogue, and therefore begs the question of why a song should be there when the movie did it so well. That's the question any musical based on a movie has to sidestep at every turn.

Something About a Russian
There’s something about a Russian
That I love,
There’s something about a Russian
That I can’t get enough of.
As a lover,
Ev’ry Russian man’s
A vodka valentine.
To uncover
All his secret plans,
I’d willingly give him mine.
There’s something about his fish-eyed
Russian glance.
There’s something that makes me wish I’d
Given Marxism a chance.
When he starts to pet, he can set off sparks,
And he shows he knows a lot more than Marx,
So there’s something about a Russian
That I love.

PERIPECHIKOFF: Would you like new automobile? 1961 Moscovitch convertible, two-toned!
MAC: You mean that Russian hot-rod parked outside?
PERIPECHIKOFF: Is wonderful car! Is exact replica of 1937 Nash!
MAC: Not interested.

There’s something about a Russian
That I love,
There’s something about a Russian
That I can’t get enough of.
When he’s flirtin’
I can sort of see
My social concience grow.
I feel certain
That he’ll bury me,
But oh, what a way to go!
His nose is a slightly odd nose,
But it’s great.
He may be a Red, but God knows,
That’s the best color to date.
If he moans and grins and begins the hunt,
Then I’ll fight tonight on his Russian front,
‘Cause there’s something about a Russian
That I love.

PERIPECHIKOFF: We will give you Chinese cigarettes! Armenian rugs! Bulgarian yogurt?
MAC: Piffl or nothing.

If you’re Russian to the core
You’ve a special something more;
What a stroke of luck to see
That something more – times three.

Meaning me –

Plus me –

Plus you.

Plus who?
Plus me?

Times three!

There’s something about a Russian
That I love,
There’s something about a Russian
That I can’t get enough of.
Oh, how I burn
For the splendid size
Of great big Russian feet.
Though Van Cliburn
Can outplay their guys,
Their fingering can’t be beat!
He’s willing and Red and able,
I am too.
He’ll bang on the kitchen table
And I’ll soon lend him a shoe.
Forget Cary Grant, ‘cause I can’t behave
When I have a Slav for my slavish slave,
Oh, there’s something about a Russian
That I love, love, love, love –

(Music & Ingeborg’s dancing continues over the following dialogue)

PERIPECHIKOFF: Wait! Summit conference! Well, comrades, he’s got it, we want it. Are we going to accept this blackmailing capitalistic deal?
MISHKIN: Let us take a vote.
MISHKIN: I vote yes.
PERIPECHIKOFF: Two out of three! Deal is on!
BORODENKO: Comrades, before we get in trouble, I must warn you, I am not really from soft-drink secretariat, I am undercover agent assigned to watch you.
MISHKIN: In that case, I vote no. Deal is off.
BORODENKO: But I vote yes.
PERIPECHIKOFF: Two out of three again! Deal is on!

(Final chords. Blackout.)

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe

Via Davis DVD, Warner Brothers' next batch of DVD releases looks to be interesting:

Just announced from Warner Bros are a number of new-to-DVD catalog titles. Arriving January 10th, 2006...

- Cabin the Sky (with commentary by Dr. Todd Boyd, Dr. Drew Casper, Evangela Anderson, Eva Anderson and Fayard Nicholas with Lena Horne, the 1946 MGM short "Studio Visit," "Ain't It the Truth" audio outtake, trailer)

- The Green Pastures (commentary by LeVar Burton, Herb Boyd and Ed Guerrero, 1933 WB short "Rufus Jones for President," 1935 Vitaphone short "An All-Colored Vaudville Show," trailer)

- Hallelujah (commentary by Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton Pie, 1932 WB short "Pie Blackbird," 1936 Vitaphone short "The Black Network," trailer).

Retail is $19.97 each.

Cabin in the Sky, one of Vincente Minnelli's first and best, is the one I'm most looking forward to, in spite of the presence of Drew Casper on the commentary track. But I'm glad to see all three movies coming out, complete with commentaries to put them into historical context.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Man In the Blue Suit

The Digital Bits reports that we may finally see something approaching a "director's cut" of Superman II, with the footage that was shot by Richard Donner but dropped when the producers -- those weirdly fascinating, disreputable international showmen known as Alexander and Ilya Salkind -- fired him from the picture and replaced him with Richard Lester.

Since Donner was fired before he had shot all the footage, no true director's cut is possible; particularly since (like the Salkind's previous blockbusters, the Musketeers movies) Superman and Superman II were written and shot as one long movie and then broken up in confusing ways. Still, there's no doubt that putting back Donner's footage, and throwing out some of Lester's, would result in a better film; this site details what Lester re-shot at the Salkinds' urging.

Mind you, I'm not that big a fan of the Superman movies -- my favorite incarnation of the character, even above the Fleischer cartoons, is the original '30s incarnation where he was kind of a hard-boiled reporter and actually competed against Lois for newspaper stories.

But what's interesting about the fate of Superman II is that much of the critical response to the film was done along straight auteurist lines. Because Lester was a critical favorite, and Donner wasn't (and based on their overall bodies of work, this is perfectly correct; Donner is a competent technician who happened to be right for this particular project), many reviews of Superman II said that it was better than the original because Lester was so much better than Donner -- and then wound up citing Donner's scenes as examples of how Lester was deepening and improving the series. Look, for example, at Dave Kehr, at that time the critic for the Chicago Reader, who praised "the distinctive Lester touch," tried to put it into the context of Lester's whole career, and cheered for its avoidance of Donner's "facile camp." Another critic pointed to the superior skill with which Lester handled Gene Hackman, prompting the writer, Tom Mankiewicz, to write him a letter revealing that Lester never worked with Gene Hackman (Hackman quit after Donner was fired). The lesson, I suppose, is: don't be too confident that you can spot the distinctive individual touch of a director or a writer in a movie, because if you do it too often you're guaranteed to say something provably wrong.

Lewton's Law of Physics

Fangoria -- a magazine whose covers scared the hell out of me when I went to the magazine store as a kid -- has a very favorable review of next week's Val Lewton DVD set.

If there's an unsung hero of the Lewton cycle it's probably cinematographer Nick Musuraca, who photographed five of the nine films, including the first, Cat People, and the creepiest, The Seventh Victim. His way of lighting a film was basically to use no more lights than were necessary and use source lights to highlight the key figures in the scene; Jane Greer recalled that the set of Out of the Past was so dark that the actors could barely see each other. It was the perfect combination of necessity and artistry -- necessity, because RKO didn't have much money for sets and the dim lighting helped disguise incomplete or recycled sets, and artistry, because Musuraca and the other RKO cinematographers created a look that was more distinctive, and holds up better with the passing years, than many a brightly-lit film with huge sets.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hitch-Ing Post

DVD Beaver has a good point-for-point review, with screenshots, of Universal's attempt to re-dump all their Alfred Hitchcock movies onto the DVD market. In short: the new extras amount to about 15 minutes of clips, and they haven't done much work on improving the transfers, but there are some improvements. Most importantly, Vertigo has its original soundtrack restored; the previous DVD had a stereo soundtrack that was created by dubbing in new and painfully wrong-sounding sound effects.

Unfortunately, Universal isn't making any of these available separately, so those of us who would like to get just two or three are basically forced to get Torn Curtain and Topaz into the bargain. Which I suppose is the point, as far as Universal is concerned.

Regarding Hitchcock's post-Psycho output: Psycho was his last movie for Paramount (Universal now owns the rights, as with some of his other Paramount movies), and following its success, he spent the rest of his career at Universal, where he had near-Godlike status: one of the world's most famous directors, a personal friend and former client of MCA/Universal Superman Lew Wasserman, and an owner of a sizeable chunk of stock in Universal. He had the freedom to make what he wanted, and instead of answering to studio executives, he was more powerful than most of the suits.

And as so often happens with filmmakers who get a lot of freedom, autonomy and power (see Lucas, George), Hitchcock's career decline started from that point. The Birds was a success and has become something of a classic, but it had all kinds of warning signs of what was going to happen with Hitchcock's films: spotty casting, poor direction of the actors, big holes in the script ("Why do I go up to that attic?" Tippi Hedren asked Hitchcock. "Because I tell you to," he replied), and lots of tepid moments in between the big set-pieces.

These things all plague Hitchcock's post-Birds movies to one degree or another. Marnie could have been a great movie... with a better lead actress (or better direction of an inexperienced lead actress), and with a tighter script. Torn Curtain could have been enjoyable... if Paul Newman and Julie Andrews had gotten stronger direction, if the script made sense, and if Hitchcock hadn't listened to the people who told him that the film would be more viable if he fired Bernard Herrmann. Topaz could never have been a great or even interesting movie, but if Hitchcock hadn't let himself be talked out of doing Daddy's Gone a-Hunting instead... (You'll notice a pattern here: as with George Lucas, Hitchcock's autonomy didn't really save him from doing dumb pseudo-commercial things like dumping Herrmann or filming a Leon Uris potboiler; it's just that he was the one making the terrible decisions, instead of having them forced on him.) Frenzy, so clearly meant as a return to form, could have been just that if it hadn't been for the gaping plot holes, and the uneven cast, and the unimpressive music (as with Torn Curtain, a better composer -- in this case, Henry Mancini -- wrote a score for the picture that Hitchcock didn't use), and so on and so on.

The moral is certainly not that it's bad for a director to have autonomy or creative freedom. After all, it's not like Hitchcock at Paramount in the '50s didn't have the power to make the movies he wanted to make. But I am tempted to think that the kind of power Hitchcock had in the '60s, along with his status as an Institution, had a negative effect on his ability to correct some rather obvious flaws in the writing and structure of his films, or to direct actors effectively. There are some scary comparisons to be drawn between the kind of acting Hitchcock gets out of some of his actors in his post-Psycho films, and the acting George Lucas gets in his Star Wars prequels. In both cases it suggests a director who doesn't quite have the ability to communicate with humans.

Oddly enough, my favorite of Hitchcock's post-Psycho films is his last, Family Plot. Here he actually had a good writer (Ernest Lehman), a good cast (Barbara Harris, Bruce Dern), a good score (John Williams). It's not a great movie or anything like that, but it's the first Hitchcock film in a long time that's notable for something other than Hitchcock.

Addendum: On consideration, after writing the post below, I think I may have put too much weight on the "too much freedom" explanation for Hitchcock's decline after setting up his one-man operation at Universal. It might just as easily be true that Hitchcock's position at Universal gave him less freedom, not more. (It's not like a big stockholder in a corporation can then do whatever he wants with company money... not legally, anyway.) He certainly did seem, in his last decade, unusually willing to let the studio talk him out of projects, into others (Topaz), and into firing Herrmann. So perhaps the issue here is not so much an excess of freedom as a lack of artistic confidence, the kind that comes to a lot of aging filmmakers.

Howard Hawks comes to mind as another filmmaker who suffered a crisis of confidence, though it manifested itself in a different way. After the failure of Land of the Pharaohs in 1955 (his attempt to re-do Red River as an Egyptian epic), he took several years off, then came back with a hit, Rio Bravo -- a terrific movie where he and his writers basically revisited all the things they'd done in films past. (It's like a 140-minute catalog of favorite Hawks themes, lines and characters.) Having come back with that hit, Hawks spent the next decade mostly doing outright re-hashes of his earlier work, including two films that he turned into re-hashes of Rio Bravo when he didn't like the original script treatments. That's not a case of a filmmaker with too much freedom, but of a filmmaker afraid of failure, sticking to things that had already worked for him in the past instead of taking a chance (say, on Leigh Brackett's much darker first draft of El Dorado).

Also, there's just the simple point that few directors have made great films beyond a certain age. Indian summers are common in other arts -- music and literature -- but most great films are made by directors under the gold-watch age. (Exceptions, like Ran, are duly noted.) Of course that's partly because most studios won't hire a director over that age, but go over the filmography of many major directors and it does seem that directors, like athletes, tend to have a decline phase.

Monday, September 26, 2005

We Miss Him... By That Much

A good LA times obituary for the great Don Adams. And Defamer recalls an eternally funny and eternally relevant exchange between Agents 86 and 99.

Long before I ever saw an episode of "Get Smart," I was familiar with Adams from "Inspector Gadget" and the low-budget Canadian sitcom "Check It Out" (featuring a character named "Viker Viker" and guest appearances by all-purpose Toronto actor Tom Harvey). It is a tribute to his brilliance that I not only enjoyed that awful show as a kid, but can still remember unfunny lines from the show that stuck in my mind because of his great voice. (I still remember the way he said: "Of course you realize, this means no Christmas bonus!" No kind of a line, but the way he said it was funny.) I'm not rooting for a return of "Check it Out" to the airwaves, but I always rooted for Don Adams.

Lyrics of the Week: "What Takes My Fancy"

Here I go again, posting some old song lyrics I like. This is a song from the musical Wildcat, starring Lucille Ball (who absolutely, positively couldn't sing, but thought she could, as witness the movie version of Mame), with a score by composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh. The only hit from the score was "Hey, Look Me Over!" But probably the most fun song in the score -- and a great showcase for Leigh's unique phraseology and rhyming skill -- was the duet for Ball and Don Tomkins, "What Takes My Fancy."

Leigh loved to come up with phrases that no one had ever heard before in a song, or maybe that was just the way she naturally talked; a person who knew Leigh recalled that her everyday conversation was filled with unusual phrases and syntax. In this song, I particularly like "I'll be piped and peddled for coal-oil," "Them what treats me girly," and "Unravel your undies."

Verse 1

Well, I'll be swacked and pickled in moonshine,
You ain't such an ornery cuss.

Well, I'll be piped and peddled for coal-oil,
You ain't such a gloomy old Gus.

Well, I don't wanna give you no idys,
But you might not make a bad wife.
Cookin' grub and pinnin' up didys --

Hold on, Grandpa, not on your life!
Them what treats me girly
Has to find out early,
In my mama's litter
I'm the independent critter.

Refrain 1

I likes to do what takes my fancy,
What takes my fancy
I likes to do.
And when it comes to things romancy,
What takes my fancy
Ain't the likes of you.

I likes to do what takes my fancy,
What takes my fancy,
That ain't no crime.
That there's what keeps me young and prancy,
What takes my fancy
I do all the time.

Verse 2

Well, bless my boots and paddle my britches,
If you ain't the sociable type.

Well, hootin' owls and sufferin' polecats,
If we ain't a similar stripe.

Well, don't let this unravel your undies,
But you might not make a bad groom.
All cleaned up for company Sundays --

Hold on, sis, you're sealin' your doom!
Here's a tip I'll give you,
Half the ship I'll give you,
But you ain't promotin'
Me from my protective coatin'.

Refrain 2

I likes to do what takes my fancy,
What takes my fancy
I likes to do.
And folks what gives me half a mind to
I'm the kind to
Put a bullet through.

I likes to do what takes my fancy,
What takes my fancy
I likes to do.
And if it makes my pockets fatter,
It doesn't matter
Who I do it to.


You're a dirty rat.


I'll agree to that.

We're a dirty pair.
It's a love affair.

Refrain 3

We likes to do what takes our fancy,
What takes our fancy,
That ain't no yarn.
If folks objects to how we acts up,
What gets their backs up
Ain't no skin off our'n.
We likes to do what takes our fancy,
What takes our fancy,
That ain't no crime.
That there's what keeps us young and prancy,
What takes our fancy
We do all the, we do all the,
Summer, winter, spring or fall, the
Whole darn tootin' time!
We do it all the time!

More Good '60s TV News

TV Shows On DVD reports that the third season of "Green Acres" will be out on DVD this December. I was worried that Sony's takeover of MGM (which owns the show) meant that there wouldn't be any more seasons; happily I was wrong, and we will get to see Arnold Ziffel go to Hollywood among many other merrily insane episodes.

If "The Beverly Hillbillies" brought radio comedy to television, then "Green Acres" was the TV equivalent of the weirdest, wildest kind of radio comedy mixed with cartoon humor. The creator and showrunner, Jay Sommers, was a radio veteran who actually based the show on an unsuccessful radio sitcom he'd created years earlier; Ivan Shreve has more on Sommers and his writing partner, Dick Chevillat, who wrote nearly every single episode of the show's six seasons. And here are my further thoughts on the show.

Opera Not-So-Rara

The new EMI recording of Wagner's Tristan Und Isolde, starring Placido Domingo, is the subject of a very strange publicity blitz that seeks to portray the recording as the end of an era, the last big-star studio opera recording ever. Basically they're trying to make the recording into a success by calling attention to the fact that opera recordings are no longer successful enough to make. Or something.

I have to agree with Alex Ross that this is pure hype and that "What does seem to be dying out is the practice of spending a million or more dollars to make a studio recording of an opera that could just as easily have been taped live." Still, the fact that the big labels are mostly getting out of the studio opera game is nothing to be enthused about. A great studio opera recording, like the Solti "Ring," can be listened to over and over again, whereas a video recording, which is what we'll probably mostly be getting in the future, doesn't hold up as well on repetition (because visual mannerisms pall more on repetitions than musical mannerisms). Besides, it's not good that many important singers will not have a chance to record their best operatic roles.

On the other hand, it's not like big-label opera recording was ever a particularly accurate reflection of who the best singers were in particular roles; the star system, by which labels signed certain artists and recorded them in every standard-repertoire opera, meant that opera recording was more a commercial enterprise than an accurate record of opera history. The obvious example is Maria Callas: EMI signed her to a big contract, but wouldn't let her record most of her favorite roles (mostly bel canto operas, which didn't sell), and instead had her record a lot of operas that she didn't sing all that often on stage(Boheme, Butterfly, Pagliacci, and so on). Some of those recordings are very fine, and reflective of a time when record companies actually understood how to make money off classical recording -- but they are not reflective of opera history. We're always going to have to turn to bootlegs and broadcasts for an idea of who was singing what and when; studio recordings ar a separate form of entertainment, with different rules.

The upside of the collapse of the big labels and the big-label star system is that it gives non-superstar artists a chance to record complete operas, because the smaller labels can record a "Figaro" or an "Orfeo ed Euridice" without fear of competition from the big labels. Hence Rene Jacobs will be recording the Mozart chestnuts La Clemenza Di Tito and Don Giovanni with non-superstar casts, including excellent but under-recorded singers like Alexandrina Pendatchanska. Also coming soon, and also of note, is an English-language studio recording of Smetana's "The Bartered Bride", based on a popular live production and conducted by Czech music specialist Charles Mackerras.

So while I do miss big-label opera recordings -- at their best, they're very entertaining -- there are certain advantages to the collapse of the star system in classical recording.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Best Non-Line of the Night

Tonight's "King of the Hill" episode was very good, but unfortunately it did not include my favorite line from the script (which came to me courtesy of the black market in TV scripts, aka the wimpiest black market around). Minh Souphanousinphone, to her husband Kahn, as they prepare to compete to see who will do the best on the New York Times crossword puzzles:

"I beat you so bad, you cry like middle-aged woman at Nora Ephron movie."

The line was probably cut due to demonic interference from Nora Ephron. Because as her record proves, she is Satan.

Barely Kept His Family Fed

If you buy only one TV show on DVD this week -- though you'll probably buy fewer than one -- make it "The Beverly Hillbillies: the Ultimate Collection." There's a good review, with screenshots, at DVD Beaver.

I have my problems with the way the estate of Paul Henning has elected to handle his shows: not only are they not releasing the entire first season at once, but they're leaving off the Christmas episode for a separate release (jointly with a "Petticoat Junction" Christmas episode), which is not only silly but makes hash of Paul Henning's pioneering use of the story-arc format. Still, you get the original black-and-white episodes in decent prints with decent extras, and since the black-and-white episodes are a) By far the best of the show's run and b) Don't turn up much in syndication, it's worth the fairly reasonable price.

"The Beverly Hillbillies" is a good example of how sometimes the audiences know better than the critics. At the time, it was the number-one target of critics who pined for the Golden Age of preachy New York-based live TV drama, and blamed people like Paul Henning for ruining everything. But what Henning was doing was bringing the style of radio comedy to television. The vaudevillian air to much of the comedy, the culture-clash humor, the loose structure, the then-unusual use of continuing story threads and episodes that ran together in arcs instead of being purely self-contained; this was all stuff that Henning had done in his years as a radio writer for shows like "Fibber McGee and Molly" and "Burns and Allen." Bringing back the freewheeling fun of radio comedy was a greater contribution to television than all those pompous "Playhouse 90" plays combined.

More importantly, "The Beverly Hillbillies" was funny. Funny cast, funny characters, funny stories, funny routines. It was at its best in the first two seasons; after that, director Richard Whorf left, the show switched to color (necessitating a re-shot title sequence and slightly cheesier production values), the Clampetts got dumber -- originally Jed was very smart and even Jethro wasn't as big a dunce as he became -- and the show became more repetitive and more uneven. Still, Henning wrote or co-wrote every episode until the end, and there were always funny episodes even toward the end of the series.

Like a lot of enduring shows, "The Beverly Hillbillies" continues to work because it gets its frivolous comedy from something relevant and true -- in this case, a clash of cultures within an increasingly urbanized America. This being a frivolous comedy, the culture clash is played for laughs and subsumed within that other favorite comedy theme, the good guys vs. the hypocritical snobs; the Clampetts, like the Marx Brothers, always get the best of the stuffed shirts and greedy capitalists, the difference being that the Clampetts never intend to get the best of anybody: they just want to go on living the way they prefer to live, and if anyone tries to interfere with that, they'll just ignore them.

"Petticoat Junction," with which Henning was much less involved, also has a valuable DVD release, showcasing the early black-and-white episodes which are almost never seen in syndication, and which are a lot better than the bland color episodes. (By the time "Petticoat Junction" went to color, the good writers had moved on to other shows, like "Green Acres.") For this set, Henning's daughter Linda (Betty Jo) recorded an introduction for each episode.

Scoring Points

The American Film Institute has revealed the results of another one of its irrelevant polls, this one for the top 25 American movie scores of all time. Inevitably most of the list boils down to "well-known movies with a catchy tune over the opening credits."

Racy Tracy Rattigan

Lance Mannion, working his way through the "Dick Van Dyke Show" DVDs, has some thoughts on a rather strange episode guest-starring Richard Dawson as a British movie star.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Earl-y To Rise

You've probably heard that NBC's new sitcom "My Name is Earl" got surprisingly great ratings in its premiere. It's a bit premature to talk about it as a success, because, as that article points out, even "Joey" got high ratings at the beginning, and look at it now. Still, what intrigues me is that "Earl" has started off with big ratings and a chance to be a big hit -- even though it's heavily influenced by "Arrested Development," a show that has never had good ratings and will probably never be a big hit.

What "Earl" takes from "Arrested Development," apart from several writers, includes the reliance on voice-over narration, the non-linear jokes (flashbacks; showing the punchline first and then showing the setup), and the basic format of having 21 minutes of dysfunctionality followed by one heartwarming minute. There are several other sitcoms this season that borrow some of the same elements -- "Kitchen Confidential," "How I Met Your Mother" -- and I think we're going to be seeing still more, because even though "Arrested Development" isn't a hit, everybody wants to make something that good. And it's not unusual for great but unpopular shows to have elements of their style co-opted by subsequent, more popular shows. Jay Tarses never created a hit, but his shows were highly respected and therefore raided for ideas by creators of later shows, so that "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" was copiously borrowed from by "Ally McBeal" and "Sex and the City," and "Buffalo Bill" probably inspired "The Larry Sanders Show."

So here we have a great but unpopular show, "Arrested Development," and a new show that seems to be doing some of the same things but achieving more success with the public. So the interesting question, and one that the networks are going to be asking if "Earl" becomes a big hit, is what does "Earl" have that the other quirky dysfunctional one-camera (or in "Arrested Development"'s case, two-camera) sitcoms don't?

I put this question to some people and the answer was that NBC promoted the hell out of "Earl" and Fox didn't promote "Arrested Development" enough. This doesn't really satisfy me; lots of shows get a promotional blitz and bomb, and it's become sadly clear that no amount of publicity is going to make "Arrested Development" a hit (we can only hope that it hangs on for a while longer as a prestige item). So what does "Earl" have that could potentially make it more popular than other such shows? Here are my theories:

A Star Character. Sitcoms, more than most shows, succeed on the strength of their central character. Most of the big hit shows have had a clear star character who could anchor the show, like Andy or Lucy or Sam Malone or Cliff Huxtable. ("Friends" was unusual because it became a huge hit with six characters of almost identical importance -- but that success hasn't really been duplicated.) "Arrested Development" is one of those shows that is supposed to have a star character, but can't really focus attention on him, so it becomes a pure ensemble show; "Taxi" was like that, and so was "WKRP In Cincinnati", and I've just named two other shows that were more fan favorites than big hits. I wouldn't call Earl Hickey a great character, but he's clearly the star of the show, the guy any viewer can associate with the show. "Arrested Development" has spent two years trying unsuccessfully to make Michael Bluth into the guy you associate with the show, but it hasn't happened, just as nobody really bought that Judd Hirsch deserved his above-the-title billing on "Taxi."

Unusual setting. Well, a small town in the American Southwest isn't that unusual a setting, but it is for today's sitcoms, which are predominantly set in urban areas and mostly take place in New York or California. This isn't about "Red America" vs. "Blue America" (after all, "Arrested Development" takes place in California, but in the "red" Orange County), just about the fact that "Earl" can use its setting as a calling-card, something to set it apart, in a way that a sitcom set in California or New York or even Miami could not.

Upbeat Tone. "Arrested Development" is a show with a positive message -- selfish people learning to depend on and trust each other a bit more -- but you have to look really, really hard to find it. "Earl" is based on an openly positive, even goofily positive message: make other people feel better and you'll feel better too. Few multi-camera sitcoms could get as sappy and life-affirming and all that as "Earl" got in the last minute of the pilot, not if they wanted to forfeit the good opinion of anti-sitcom snobs. On the other hand, sitcoms with a genuinely dark tone, like "The Honeymooners" or "Taxi," often don't do well in their original broadcast runs.

Visual Branding. I've said before, in arguing in defence of the laugh track, that shows without laugh tracks or studio audiences often have trouble branding themselves as comedies. Despite the wacky music of "Arrested Development," it's not always immediately identifiable as a comedy to someone who happens on it "cold"; it might look like the comedy-relief moment in a drama or something like that. "Earl" seems to be getting around the branding problem by having a protagonist who looks so silly (with that mustache) that you instantly know he's supposed to be funny, whereas you might not know that about Michael Bluth. If Jason Lee ever ditches the mustache, expect the ratings to plummet.

Having said all that, I'm not even sure what I think about "My Name Is Earl" -- the pilot was funny, but there did seem to be a condescending air to much of the humor (oh, those hilarious rednecks) that may grow tiresome if they keep it up. I enjoyed the season premiere of "Arrested Development" much more. But if the ratings keep up the way they are, we're going to be seeing even more people trying to copy "Earl" than are currently trying to copy "Arrested Development" -- because hits spawn even more imitators than respected cult shows.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Yer Dukes

This article, written on the occasion of the recent mega-successful DVD release of The High and the Mighty (it rose to # 2 on Amazon's list of top selling DVDs, not bad for a 50 year-old movie that isn't exactly a masterpiece), mentions the good job John Wayne's estate has done in keeping him famous after his death:

Michael Wayne [John's son] maintained the lustre on his father's name, Gretchen Wayne [Michael's widow] says. "Someone said to my husband: 'Your father was a legend, but you took him and made him an icon!' Part of it has to do with the marketing of that name. My husband was very careful about the way he kept his father's name in the public. I think that's what helped continue John Wayne's presence for later generations.

"Look at Clark Gable. Look at Gary Cooper. They're outstanding actors. But they don't seem to have the same impact that John Wayne, who is their contemporary, has today."

Despite or perhaps because of their willingness to lend out Wayne's image for dopey commercials, the Wayne estate has generally been canny about making sure that Wayne stays marketable in a way that few old-time stars are; Lucille Ball, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are among the select few stars who are still genuine stars fifty years after their heyday. (Humphrey Bogart used to be in that category, but I'm not sure if he is any more; ditto Fred Astaire.)

Apparently the Wayne estate is going to be releasing more of Wayne's self-produced movies through Paramount; the popular McLintock! is on its way soon. Better still, they'll be releasing some movies that Wayne produced but didn't appear in, including William Wellman's weird experiment with color in Track of the Cat (shot in color, but almost everything being filmed is either black or white) and -- this should make Terry Teachout very happy -- the first Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Western, Seven Men From Now. Unfortunately all the other Boetticher/Scott films are owned by Columbia, so we may have to wait a while for those.

It's Turkey Lurk-y Time

Apparently it is "Lurker Day," when people who ordinarily just read blogs without commenting are expected -- nay, ordered -- to post in an open thread and say what they think of the blog, the blogger, or related matters.

So here's an open thread and an open invitation to readers to say what they like about this blog, what they don't like, what they'd like to see in the future, and, particularly, what topics they'd like to see dealt with here (if any).

Addendum: Or, if you prefer, email me and suggest something. And if there are no comments below, you should assume that I got lots of e-mails.

Seriously, though, I know I have a few readers who don't comment, so I'd be interested to hear from anybody. But (and this is my favorite way to end an importunate e-mail) if not, not.

Is This Where They're Auditioning Boomerang, Baby?

The trailer for the movie musical remake of The Producers (with the same stars and director as the Broadway version) is here.

Even adjusting for the fact that the studio clearly wants to disguise the fact that it's a musical, the trailer doesn't look all that impressive; it looks like a visual re-hash of the original movie. The Broadway version had its problems, most of which revolved around the undistinguished songs and the surprisingly poor structure (as I've said before, almost nothing happened in the first act, and most of the plot was crammed into an overstuffed act two), but at least it could be enjoyed as something separate from the original movie, in a different medium. I'm not sure I'll be able to muster up the same indulgence for seeing it on the screen, with the fountain scene and all the other movie moments that the Broadway production couldn't incorporate. But we'll see. I generally root for the success of any movie musical that isn't made by cave trolls, which of course ruled out rooting for Joel Schumacher's Phantom of the Opera.

Monday, September 19, 2005

More Disney Spells

This New York Times article, "Disney Moves Away From Hand-Drawn Animation," is frustrating reading. Frustrating, first of all, because of what it's about: a company abandoning the format that made it famous and sustained its reputation for decades. And second of all, because the article is written in such a way as to leave out any discussion of exactly what the difference is between hand-drawn and computer animation, or why many animators would be against the change besides an irrational fear of computers.

I'll admit that I'm a CGI skeptic; I still think, at this point, that even the best computer animation (which is to say, The Incredibles) looks a little stiff compared to the best hand-drawn animation, and has less individuality in design and color; the ability to do 360 degree pans more easily doesn't compensate. But CGI is still a relatively young art, and it'll get better. Still, there are always going to be some things, indeed many things, that you can do in hand-drawn animation that you can't do as well in CGI. The upshot of this is that huge amounts of time and effort are going to be spent trying to make, say, Rapunzel look good and move well in CGI, instead of just using hand-drawn animation, where it's much easier to make a human character look good and move naturally.

What this means is that Hollywood is viewing hand-drawn animation as an obsolete technology, instead of an art-form with certain unique qualities and capabilities. It's a terribly wrong-headed way to look at it. Abandoning hand-drawn animation in favor of CGI makes no more sense than abandoning live-action actors in favor of animation. Live-action works for some stories and concepts, animation for others. Same with hand-drawn vs. CGI; they're both useful, and it's bizarre to pretend that they're interchangeable. But it's symptomatic of the way that Hollywood has tended to treat the rise of computers as a substitute for other things, rather than as a tool to be used for their own unique capabilities. An obvious example of this is the way many producers have substituted CGI for stunt work and in-the-camera special effects, to generally dismal effect, instead of using CGI to do the things that can't be done with a stuntman or a conventional special effect. In other words, CGI has come to be viewed not as a tool but as an end in itself.

Former Disney-ite Tim Burton, whose new movie Corpse Bride uses old-fashioned stop-motion animation and not CGI, skilfully summarized the problem with the abandonment of all non-CGI formats:

"In Hollywood, they think drawn animation doesn’t work anymore, computers are the way. They forget that the reason computers are the way is that Pixar makes good movies. So everybody tries to copy Pixar. They’re relying too much on the technology and not enough on the artists. The fact that Disney closed down its cel animation division is frightening to me. Someday soon, somebody will come along and do a drawn-animated film, and it’ll be beautiful and connect with people, and they’ll all go, 'Oh, we’ve got to do that!' It’s ridiculous."

And that's the other problem that comes through in that Times article: almost nobody is talking about whether the stories are any good -- and if Disney thinks computer animation, rather than a good story and characters, is the key to renewed success, they're in bigger trouble than we thought. Amid Amidi has some astute comments on this.

The Dissolution of the Dissolve

Others have said their what needs to be said about the late Robert Wise. But one thing in his obituary caught my eye:

In 1959 he filmed "Odds Against Tomorrow," an antiracist drama with Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan about a brutal bank robbery that he made without the customary fades (going to black) or dissolves (overlapping scenes) to denote the passage of time. Fades and dissolves, he remarked, tend to slow the tempo and break the mood.

This goes some way towards answering a question I've always had about the development of film editing, namely when American movies started using direct cuts instead of dissolves or fades. For many decades it was an an almost inviolate rule of the grammar of film editing that there had to be some kind of editing effect to denote the passage of time. Generally, the passage of a full day or more was indicated by a fade-out; the passage of a shorter time was indicated by a dissolve or wipe. Direct cutting could indicate the passage of time only as an extreme special effect, like cutting from "Merry Christmas" to "Happy New Year" in Citizen Kane.

By the '50s, some filmmakers were dissatisfied with this, because, as Wise said, it tended to slow down the pace. Also, creating the dissolves lessened the quality of the shots that were the subjects of the dissolve. So various directors started to just cut from one scene to the next, assuming that the audience would get that time was supposed to have passed. The French New Wave probably had the biggest part in popularizing this technique, but Wise appears to have converted to the direct cut even before Breathless came out.

As to which was the first movie, period, to use direct cuts instead of dissolves, I don't know. And even after most directors and editors had switched to direct cuts, there were some holdouts. The Wild Bunch (1969) uses dissolves between scenes; so does The Man Who Would Be King (1975). And Star Wars used cross-screen wipes, just like the old serials it was borrowing from.

Classical Gas

Some new classical music releases of note, for those of you who are into that kind of thing:

- In my post on Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, I said that there was no good DVD of the opera. Now, happily, there is. The 1970s Glyndebourne Festival Production offers an excellent cast, including young stars-to-be Felicity Lott and Samuel Ramey, Bernard Haitink conducting, and famous sets by David Hockney, giving the whole production an exaggerated look and feel that's half Hogarth and half Pop Art. The sound is fine, though it seems to be mono rather than, as the box claims, stereo. At the low price, definitely worth getting if you want to get better acquainted with this strange but beautiful and funny opera.

Rene Jacobs seems to be on his way to being the superstar of today's recording industry; he's just about the only conductor who is still able to make big recordings of expensive operas and choral works on a regular basis. His recording of The Marriage of Figaro won just about every possible award, and his recording of Haydn's The Seasons looks like it will do the same. His newest recording is of Handel's "Saul", probably the greatest of English oratorios -- a real tragic drama with an excellent libretto. Jacobs, as always, likes to take baroque music to extremes: extreme contrasts of volume and tempo, with every dramatic effect brought out: in Jonathan's first aria, when Jonathan refers to David's "virtue," Jacobs slows down and then slows down the more, the better to emphasize the idea that this is where David and Jonathan's friendship begins. It's excellent music-drama conducting, well executed by a great orchestra. The cast is generally good, except for a somewhat nasal tenor as Jonathan. Also, the chorus, while musically excellent, doesn't have the clearest diction (it's a German chorus). Paul McCreesh's recording of this work is also excellent and is better than Jacobs' in those two respects -- the tenor and the chorus. But you can't go wrong with Jacobs, and since this is one of my favorite classical works of all time, I'm happy to have both.

Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra also have a consistently excellent track record; their last two recordings for the Channel Classics label, Rachmaninov's second symphony and Tchaikovsky's fourth, blew away most modern recordings of these warhorses. Now they've recorded Mahler's Sixth Symphony, complete with exposition repeat on one disc. Based on the one listen I've had so far, it's not quite as mean and ferocious and nasty as my favorite version of the symphony, Georg Solti's, but as a less brutal approach, it's quite enjoyable, with great orchestral playing and a really beautiful slow movement.

The new recording of Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial By Jury didn't impress me, though I don't hate it as much as the Amazon reviewer does. The choral singing is good but stiff, the singers ham it up too much (the singer playing the Counsel for the Plaintiff affects a silly cartoon upper-crust accent instead of, you know, singing the music and words), and it's not very effective musically or dramatically.

Despite that last disappointment, I have to say, despite the constant insistence that classical recording is dying out, classical recordings may be better today than they have been for a long time. When I started collecting classical music on CD, the business was booming, and the big labels were signing artists left and right and letting them record almost everything. The problem was, a lot of the recordings were clearly made more to create product for the then-new CD market, rather than because there was any particular care put into making them or because the artists had a particular reaon for recording these works. So we got a string of forgettable Beethoven cycles, disappointingly cast operas (remember how Deutsche Grammophon had a five-year period where soprano Cheryl Studer was in every single opera recording they made?), and bloodless "authentic" performances.

Now the big labels have mostly gotten out of classical music, and a lot of fine artists aren't getting to record, and that's a shame. But a lot of fine artists didn't get to record during the boom years, either, because the companies were signing up big names or easily-promotable (e.g. pretty or otherwise media-friendly) young artists instead of trying to get the best people into the studio. Now, because there are fewer recordings made for purely commercial reasons, the recordings that do get made often have more care put into them, and more than a reason for being. Jacobs' Figaro was better than any previous period-instrument Figaro and, despite the lack of superstars, better-cast than any Figaro recording in the previous twenty years. And in the last couple of years we've gotten two new recordings of Saul that surpass any previous version.

So it's a good time to be a classical-music record collector. You just have to accept that the best recordings aren't going to be reviewed by the "Penguin Guide," and you'll do fine.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Top 10 Lists Through the Ages

Via "Complications Ensue", a link to the Sight and Sound Top 10 Movie Poll, which they hold every ten years. You can also see the individual top ten lists of various directors.

Going through each director's personal top ten list is fun, but one thing that also interests me is just the history section, detailing the results of the poll since Sight and Sound started polling critics in 1952. The 1952 poll consisted entirely of two categories of film: European films and American silent films. There were no American sound films among the top ten. At the time, it was pretty much gospel among international movie critics that the American film industry had gone into creative free-fall after sound came in, and accordingly the only post-1930 American film worthy of inclusion was Chaplin's mostly silent City Lights.

Ten years later, 1962, the results have changed a little. Now there's one Asian film on the list (Ugetsu), and one American sound film, Citizen Kane, which as a matter of fact has climbed up to # 1 on the list when it wasn't on the 1952 list at all. Notice also that Chaplin has dropped off the list altogether, after having two films on the 1952 list.

In 1972, there are a whopping two American sound films on the list: Kane and, at # 8, The Magnificent Ambersons. Apparently it was okay to pick Welles, but only Welles, if you wanted to pick an American sound movie. Note, however, that Renoir's The Rules of the Game is up to # 2 and Chaplin has been replaced on the list by Buster Keaton (The General).

But in 1982, the increasing critical respectability of American sound movies finally made a breakthrough in the poll. Now Kane and Ambersons have been joined by Singin' in the Rain (a movie that celebrates the death of the silent film and the coming of sound), The Searchers and Vertigo. On the downside, movies that are not American or European are absent from this list.

In 1992, you can see the influence of the increasing critical favor towards the film-brat generation of the '70s, with the Godfather movies and honorary '70s movie Raging Bull supplanting lighter fare like Singin' in the Rain. Also, Japan makes a comeback with two Kurosawa films tied for the # 10 spot -- and Chaplin supplants Keaton again, but with the "edgier" Modern Times.

In 2002, the most recent critics' poll, Kurosawa is (surprisingly) absent, with Ozu representing Japanese films instead; Kubrick's 2001 jumps onto the list, perhaps reflecting a new generation of critics who took enough drugs to make that movie enjoyable. Singin' in the Rain is back, and Vertigo is up to the # 3 spot. Note also that Ambersons isn't anywhere close to making the list now; instead Touch of Evil is the Welles film that comes the closest to making the top 10 (it was tied for # 11), reflecting the change in critical consensus and the general fact that Albert Zugsmith movies are cool.

All in all, while no poll is ever going to produce a top ten list anywhere close to my own, and future lists will probably find more non-American, non-European movies turning up on the lists, I think that in general critical tastes have improved since 1952, when you couldn't be a critic if you believed that there had been any movie worth watching since the stock market crashed.

Plot? Not!

I recently posted about the show "Taxi" (see below). Another thing that occurred to me in watching the show again is how nearly plotless many if not most of the episodes are. Most sitcoms today tend to have plots; they may have super-complex plots like "Arrested Development," or fairly simple plots like a bunch of shows I can't really remember at the moment, but they all try to incorporate some element of twist-and-turn plotting, where the writer works to set up the problem and create some kind of unusual or interesting progression for how the problem gets resolved.

Many episodes of "Taxi" don't have any of that. Instead they set up a situation, and detail the amusing things that come out of that situation, and they end. They usually have a problem that gets resolved, but there are no real complications or twists involved in getting to the resolution; the structure tends to be that they spend act 1 setting up the problem, most of act 2 discussing the problem, and a resolution at the end. No twists, no structural games, no subplots.

For example, one of the best-known episodes of "Taxi" is "Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey," the episode that introduced Jim as a regular. Written by the Charles Brothers and including the famous "What does a yellow light mean?" routine, it's one of the funniest sitcom episodes of all time. And it has essentially no plot at all. Here's a breakdown of the story beats in this episode:

Act 1: The cabbies meet Jim at Mario's (their hangout). They invite him to sit with them. He tells them his life story, filling in his background as the ultimate '60s burnout. The cabbies decide that they should help Jim get a job, and that since he has no skills or qualifications, the only job he could possibly get is cab driving. The entire first act is one continuous scene.

Act 2, scene 1: The cabbies ask Louie to give Jim a job. Louie refuses until Jim slips something into his drink that makes him feel very happy. Louie, Jim and the cabbies join in a chorus of "On Moonlight Bay."

Act 2, scene 2: Jim prepares to take the driving test. He spends most of the scene filling out his personal information ("Psychological problems or drug addiction?" "That's a tough choice"). At the tail end of the scene he starts the written portion of the test, and asks what a yellow light means. Then we dissolve to:

Act 2, scene 3: We find out that Jim passed the test. As a licensed cabbie, he gets his first cab and proceeds to drive it through the wall of the garage. The end.

So there is a problem, which is that Jim needs a job, and a resolution, which is that he gets it. But the problem doesn't take up much screen time, and the resolution occurs offscreen. Instead the 23 minute episode mostly uses the story idea as a hook for a character study of this very weird person. The time that could have been spent on extra plot twists or conflicts or unrelated "B" stories is instead spent allowing the scenes to run long, so the actors can have more time to do their stuff (the story goes that the "What does a yellow light mean" routine was much shorter in the original script, but director James Burrows allowed it to go on and on and on when it got a huge audience response). In many ways it's a script that would be thrown out of a screenwriting class, since it doesn't have much in the way of conflict, stretches out a thin plot and builds a nonexistent conflict to an almost nonexistent resolution. But it's a model of what good TV writing should be: something that is focused on character rather than plot, and considers the actors' opportunities as important as the writers'.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Missed It By That Much

Would you believe that the DVDs of "Get Smart," to be released next year, will outsell Star Wars episode 3? Would you believe that?

Well, would you believe that it will outsell "Friends?" Would you believe that?

How about if it outsells "Baretta: The Complete First Season?"

...Actually, tired old routines aside, I suspect it will sell very well.

And as spy shows go, "Get Smart" is certainly a lot better than "Alias," which is just as ridiculous but not as funny. Plus Agent 99 would unquestionably beat Sidney Bristow at just about anything.

Strouse and Adams, Book I

I keep planning to write a post about the songwriting team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (Bye Bye Birdie, Golden Boy, Superman) and why they are my favorite songwriters of the "second generation" of Broadway composers and lyricists that emerged in the mid-to-late '50s. It's a generation that included Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Cy Coleman, Kander and Ebb, Bock and Harnick, and so on, and so on; a crop of talent worthy to succeed the Old Masters like Rodgers, Hammerstein, Berlin, and Porter.

Strouse and Adams may have been the very best of that generation when it came to songs that instantly stick in the mind and touch the heart, songs that are comparable to Berlin's or Rodgers and Hammerstein's in their direct, universal appeal. Almost every song in Bye Bye Birdie is like that, and there has never been a more beautiful ballad in a Broadway show than their "Once Upon a Time" from All American. They didn't have many hit shows, and in fact Strouse's biggest hit show was written without Adams (Annie, a good score, but written with a lyricist, Martin Charnin, whose work doesn't compare to Adams's). But they were, and are, one of the great songwriting teams.

As I said, I keep meaning to write a long post about their career, but I haven't had time yet. In the meantime, here is the text of an online chat with Lee Adams where he talks some about his and Strouse's work, and gives a surprising choice as their best score. And here are some more excerpts from the lyrics from the show that, in my opinion, is their best score, Golden Boy (here is some background information on that show). First, the first refrain of one of the moodiest, saddest songs ever written, the hero's "Night Song":

Summer, not a bit of breeze.
Neon lights are shining
Through the tired trees.
Lovers, walking to and fro,
Everyone has someone and a place to go.
Listen--hear the cars go past.
They don't even see me,
Driving by so fast.
Moving, going who knows where.
Only thing I know is,
I'm not going there.
Where do you go
When you feel that your brain is on fire?
Where do you go when you don't even know
What it is you desire?
Listen -- laughter everywhere.
Hear it -- life is in the air.
As the night comes
And the town awakes,
Sounds of children calling
And the squeal of brakes.
Music -- but a lonely song,
When I can't help wondering,
Where do I belong?

And from later in the show, one of the most sheerly happy songs, a song about intangible joy (not an easy thing to write about in anything resembling concrete images, but Adams does it), "Can't You See It":

Can't you see it?
It's clear as it can be;
It makes a sunny beam of light
That seems to follow me.
Can't you hear it?
Sopranos ev'rywhere,
A chorus of the choicest voices
Singing in the air.
It makes the soot underfoot flash like diamonds,
And ev'ry cop dances by like Fred Astaire.
Can't you see it?
It's blazed across the sky!
If you can see it,
You're as happy as I.

Rejection-Slip Shock

One of the classic Peanuts strips, which runs through my mind every time I face rejection.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Morningstar is Born

Over in Slate, Alana Newhouse has an interesting essay on the enduring popularity of Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar despite -- or perhaps because of -- its depressing ending. Kevin Drum disputes Newhouse's description of Marjorie as a "rebellious teenager," countering that Marjorie is always "shallow, middlebrow, and never meant to accomplish anything meaningful," and the ending is simply the puncturing of Marjorie's self-delusion.

I guess they're both right. Wouk, being Wouk, probably despised most of the things that make Marjorie appealing for many of his readers: her search for freedom and self-fulfilment is, as far as Wouk's concerned, inherently delusional. As the book itself says, the only thing special about Marjorie is that she presumed to think she was special. But what the author thinks of the character and what we think of the character are two different things, and Marjorie sort of gets away from the author and does give the impression, shallow though she is, that she's on the verge of breaking through to something more. The letdown of the ending is that Wouk takes control of the story and tells us that hoping and dreaming is a fool's game.

In a way the structure is similar to that of the only other Wouk novel that's still widely read today (I refuse to believe not only that anybody still reads "The Winds of War" or "Youngblood Hawke," but that anybody, anywhere, has ever read all the way through them), "The Caine Mutiny." In that novel, Barney Greenwald steps forward near the end to lecture the characters, and us, on the right and proper way to look at the story, which happens to be the way of not questioning The System. Did you get the idea, perhaps, that there might be problems with a system that gives power to people like Captain Queeg? No, sorry, Queeg is the guy who was out there saving your butt, the system works, support our troops, rah rah rah. And yet the story is more interesting than the message the author is trying to convey, and that's what happens with "Marjorie Morningstar" too. It's an illustration of the way an author's work can impact readers in ways he didn't really intend, and how little an author's "intention" really matters sometimes.

Wouk, of course, belongs to the post-WWII generation of writers who wrote huge, bloated novels for the Book-of-the-Month-Club crowd. The "Doorstop Generation," I call them. I'd be interested in reading an explanation of why novels got so huge after WWII, to the point that even concise writers like John O'Hara were writing gigantic potboilers. I would suspect, without knowing much about the business or the era, that it was a combination of two factors. One, book publishing had become big business, and a big huge novel could be marketed as an "event" just like the big huge movies of the era. Two, with bigger cash advances available, authors could actually afford to take a year off to write gigantic novels. A full-time writer in the '30s would have had to make his living by writing as much as he could, which meant at least one novel a year plus lots of short stories, articles -- lots of jobs to compensate for the fact that no one book paid very much. In the '50s, on the other hand, it was actually feasible to spend two years doing almost nothing but writing one book.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Depressing Songs, Cont.

As part of my mission to post the most depressing song lyrics ever written -- songs that are perfect for playing when you don't want to hear about sunshine or lollipops or even rainbows everywhere -- here's one of the greats, the song "Everything's Great" from Golden Boy by composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams:

Everything's great, couldn't be better,
Up to my ears in debt.
Rent's overdue, nothing but worries,
How great can things get?
Here I am, Thomas J. Moody,
Three year-old suit from Robert J. Hall.
Jesus H. Christ, where am I heading?
These lucky feet find the one street
That's guaranteed to lead to a brick wall.
Every old horse has to win sometime,
When is it my big purse?
Things have to change, gotta get better,
They could not get worse.

Here I am, still getting nowhere,
Making believe it's all so divine.
Had to get hung on Mister Married,
Doing things right, that's not my line;
Screwing things up, that's where I shine.

Just what I need, she's gonna kill me,
Milking me dry, my wife.

Everything's great, couldn't be better...

Birds are singing...

(Vultures, maybe...)

Flowers blooming...

(Poison ivy...)

What a perfect life.

Right as the Rain

The New Yorker has an article, "Come Rain or Come Shine", about the life and career of master composer Harold Arlen.

I previously posted about Arlen's uneven but overall successful career as a Broadway show composer here and here.

Monday, September 12, 2005

You're Humming the Theme Song Already

The Rockford Files: The Complete First Season. At last. Little more need be said.

Well, I'll say that this was one of the few Stephen J. Cannell creations that actually got better after its first season, largely due to the fact that David Chase joined the series in mid-run. There used to be a good potted history of the show online, detailing how the show started strong in a serio-comic vein, faltered a bit in its sophomore year when the co-creator, Roy Huggins, left the reins to wunderkind Cannell, and recovered when Chase joined the staff alongside Cannell and Juanita Bartlett.

In an essay about Chase, Cannell told a story about how a Rockford script was devised: he, Chase and Bartlett would pitch ideas for a writer's next script (in this case, Bartlett's), Chase suggested the most cliche'd idea possible -- the prostitute with the heart of gold -- and proceeded to spin an original variation on it. That was the Rockford way, to take stuff we all knew from TV viewing and twist it around a little; the very first episode after the pilot, written by Cannell from a story by Huggins, gets one of its biggest laughs based on a villain's anticipation of a cliche'd trick that Rockford is about to pull on him. In this, it was quite a bit like Huggins and James Garner's previous series, Maverick, but took the detective genre more seriously than Maverick took the Western.

Incidentally, all Huggins's writing contributions to Rockford and a number of other shows were done under the pseudonym "John Thomas James," taken from the names of the veteran producer's three sons.

The Trouble With Today's Soap Operas...

...It's the hair.

When I was a little child in the mythical, magical '80s, soap operas were these terrible things I was never allowed to watch, even when I was home with a fever. One time I was home sick and I happened to catch an episode of a soap opera where some schmucky kid was playing with a gun and wound up shooting himself by accident. As I recall, the gunshot was heard at the end of the act, and when they came back from a commercial, his parents (or they might not have been his real parents; this being a soap opera, probably not) discovered him with blood all over him. It was the first time I had seen blood on TV, and it so horrified me that I started to cry, and my parents, discovering what I'd been watching, advised me never to watch such things again. Whether the kid was actually dead -- the character, I mean -- is something I never waited around to see, and which I will never know.

But the point is, the fascinating thing about soap operas back then was simply the hair. The late '70s and the '80s were of course the golden age of TV hair, with all the men groaning under the weight of ten tons of the stuff, and feathering it to look like they had rare pre-historic birds dying on top of their heads. And the epidermal horrors perpetrated by the women, while not up to the standards of the men (women were more into fashion horrors, like shoulder pads), still gave us plenty of fright wigs that weren't actually wigs, not to mention the whole wholesome punkish coiff that suggested that Jem and the Holograms were going into high society.

Yes, the '80s were a hair paradise, but nowhere was hair more plentiful, or more magnificently arranged, than on soap operas. Oh, there were memorable hairstyles in prime time -- Gary Sandy, Jeff Conaway, and prime-time's hair king, the Hasselhoff -- but in hair, as in dealing with controversial issues, prime time shows were generally behind the curve. Soap operas took the lead in creative male hair styles, just as they took the lead in dealing with sex.

Now soap-opera hair is bland. It is lifeless. All of TV hair is pretty lifeless now, but the soap operas are expected to be pioneers here. Some may say that the decline of soap operas has come about because cable TV shows have come along to do the controversial material before prime-time broadcast shows do it -- thus usurping what was once the main fascination of soap operas, that they were more daring in terms of content than the more timid prime-times stuff. That's true to some degree, but cable has little to offer in terms of hair. So soap opera producers, trim your casts and use the money to hire some great hairstylists instead. Only thus can you achieve your former pre-eminence.

Something Like This...

From McSweeney's: "The Aristocrats as Bob Newhart Would Perform It". (By Tabetha Wells.)

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Buckley's Angel Slowly Fades Away

New interview with Mike Judge from U.S. News & World Report, on the occasion of the beginning of the tenth and almost certainly last season of King of the Hill.

Fox doesn't want to admit that the show is ending because that would mean spending money to publicize it, so Judge and others are likely to do some interviews of their own calling attention to the fact that, for the next few months at least, it's still on the air.

My longish thoughts on this show were posted a couple of months ago, here.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Oh, Brothers

Taxi: the Complete Third Season is out, and while the quality of the show took another leap forward in this season -- the third and fourth seasons were by some distance the best -- one thing that remained consistent was that most of the best episodes were written by the team of Glen and Les Charles.

In fact, for those who keep track of such things, the Charles Brothers' work on "Taxi" may be the most consistently impressive work ever done by one writer or writing team for a television comedy (and I'm including British television series where one writer or team writes everything). Their episodes included:

- "Paper Marriage" (Latka marries a hooker to keep from being deported; introduction of Reverend Jim)
- "Elaine and the Lame Duck" (Elaine dates a U.S. Congressman with pathetically low self-esteem)
- "Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey" (Jim becomes a regular; includes the "what does a yellow light mean?" sequence)
- "Zen and the Art of Cab Driving" (Jim uses the power of positive thinking to reach the ultimate goal: an apartment full of TV sets)
- "Latka the Playboy" (determined to become something more than "that cute little foreigner," Latka transforms himself into lounge-lizard "Vic Ferrari")
- "Going Home" (introduction of Jim's blue-blood family)

This was back when TV writers tended to write many more scripts per year than they do now; the tendency now is to emphasize the rewriting process, which means that individual writers or teams will spend as much time rewriting other people's scripts as they do writing their own. The Charles Brothers, as producers of "Taxi," were involved in rewriting other people's scripts, and their dark sensibility definitely pervaded the whole series, but they also wrote 17 scripts in four seasons.

The Charles Brothers, as I said, had an unusually dark sense of humor for sitcom writers. They were part of the "second generation" of MTM writers, guys who came along after the company was already established; the second generation may well have been better than the first (Jay Tarses, Hugh Wilson, Gary David Goldberg and David Lloyd are other examples of writers who joined MTM in the mid-'70s and took MTM's sitcoms to somewhat edgier places). Their preference, in writing scripts, seemed to be for a rather bleak worldview and darker endings than sitcoms usually had; they'd often have a character wind up less happy than when he or she started, and none the wiser. Example: their first and only "Mary Tyler Moore" show script was about Mary dating an elderly man; the episode ends when the man dumps her for a woman two months older than herself, and Lou lectures her about the fact that there is nothing whatsoever to learn from this horrible experience.

The combination of the dark, often surreal humor of the Charleses -- who loved to focus on the surreal characters like Latka and Jim -- with the bittersweet but more humane comedy of James L. Brooks helped to make "Taxi" what it was, and was a combination that would in a certain sense be repeated with "The Simpsons," where Brooks (and his lieutenant Sam Simon) teamed with a darkly funny cartoonist and a bunch of Harvard grads with a preference for wacky humor.

The Charleses left "Taxi" after the fourth season -- which is why the fifth and final season of "Taxi" was overall a disappointment -- to create "Cheers," which, especially early on, was one of the darkest mainstream sitcoms; every character was a loser, every situation ended with some variant of finding dignity in defeat. They've never created a show since then, but then, they've never needed to.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


Here's a nice tribute to actress Diana Lynn. It was written on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the film The Kentuckian, which I have not seen. But I'm sure Lynn was good in it; she usually was.

Of course I, and many people, know Lynn best as one of the finest of all child actresses. In the '40s, when teenage girls in movies were mostly Deanna Durbin wannabes or screaming bobbysoxers, she played an acid-tongued, prematurely wise character who didn't take any guff from anybody, and who was clearly smarter than the adults. Her most famous version of this character is in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek -- just released on an excellent DVD -- but there must have been a lot of her in that character, because a year earlier she played a very similar character in the similarly excellent (but not on DVD yet) The Major and the Minor.

She was perhaps the best ever version of that indispensable but often dull character, the heroine's wisecracking confidante. She wasn't a mechanical wisecrack machine like Eve Arden could sometimes be, and she wasn't a self-hating, I-can't-land-a-man type like, well, Eve Arden could sometimes be (why Eve Arden, a good-looking woman, was always a spinster was beyond me). She was a charming, funny, pretty, spunky girl who was clearly going to grow up to be a charming, funny, lovely woman, and you always believe in her good heartedness, even when she's advising the heroine to do some nasty things.

Incidentally, I think The Major and the Minor may be Billy Wilder's best movie, but that's an argument for another post.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Deny, Deny, Deny

From an unexpected source -- a webpage for composer John Williams -- comes an interesting article on the creation of the movie A Guide For the Married Man. It was just released in a fine-looking widescreen print on DVD. The widescreen version preserves the excellent Panavision photography of Fox's great cinematographer Joe MacDonald, who is probably the reason why the lighting looks somewhat more imaginative and less flat than in most '60s comedies.

The writer, Frank Tarloff, was a talented comedy writer who was unable to get his career off the ground due to the blacklist. Producer Sheldon Leonard hired him to write TV scripts, including several "Andy Griffith Show" and "Dick Van Dyke Show" episodes, under the pen name David Adler (a name he continued to use for some of his TV work even after he was no longer blacklisted). "Guide," released simultaneously as a movie and a tie-in book, was his biggest success.

As the article makes clear, Tarloff's original idea for the film was to make fun of wives who get cheated on; director Gene Kelly had him change the tone of the film so the philandering husbands were the butt of the joke -- though perhaps I shouldn't use the word "butt" given director Kelly's fixation on the female posterior (or as Pauline Kael put it, "bottoms and bosoms that look like bottoms"). And of course, in true '60s sex-comedy fashion, there's hardly any successful adultery and none at all on the part of the hero.

The film sort of divides people, some finding it unfunny and stupid, others finding it... well... funny and stupid. I'm in the latter camp. Kelly wasn't much of a director, at least not when he wasn't co-directing with Stanley Donen, but he does keep the movie moving very fast, much faster than most '60s comedies, which tended to be stodgy. The borrowings from the French New Wave, de rigeur at the time, are transformed into a then-new, now-common device: the quick cutaway to a comic fantasy sequence. Every few minutes, Robert Morse will be talking about a guy he knew or a problem a would-be adulterer can face, and the movie cuts away to a segment illustrating his point; the segments range from five-minute sketches to ten-second gags. Breaking up the linear story for the sake of a quick gag is common now; "Family Guy" does it badly and shows like "Arrested Development" do it well. But it was pretty new in 1967 story-centred comedy. And Kelly finds ways to keep the material from being offensively sexist; it's so silly, and the husbands are mostly such fools, that it's more inoffensively sexist. Still, while I'd recommend checking out the film, I wouldn't recommend trying to make too many excuses for its sexual politics; the innofensiveness of its sexism just means that it's better than, say, M*A*S*H (another successful Fox movie scripted by a formerly blacklisted writer), not that it's not kinda Paleolithic.

The zillions of star cameos are, inevitably, hit-and-miss; the best sequence is probably the famous one where Terry-Thomas commits adultery with Jayne Mansfield, and then they can't remember where she put her bra.

Terry-Thomas: "I'm worried about my wife coming back and finding it."
Mansfield: "She'll just think it's one of hers."
(Long pause.)
Terry-Thomas: "Don't be ridiculous."

Another good sketch, if overlong, features Carl Reiner basically repeating his Alan Brady character from "Dick Van Dyke," trying to romance a pre-Planet of the Apes Linda Harrison without his wife or the tabloid press finding out.