Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Harburg Lyric of the Day: "Cocoanut Sweet"

I just realized that this Sunday, March 5, marks the 25th anniversary of the death of E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, my favourite song lyricist. In his honour, I'll be posting a few more Harburg song lyrics over the next few days (if you're not interested in such things, there'll be other posts on other subjects), with the occasional nit-picky analytical comment.

The first lyric I'll post is probably my favourite Harburg lyric, "Cocoanut Sweet" from the Broadway musical Jamaica (1957). This show re-united Harburg with his most frequent composer, Harold Arlen, with whom he'd written the songs for The Wizard of Oz and hits like "It's Only a Paper Moon" among many others.

Sung by Lena Horne, "Cocoanut Sweet" is a unique and almost perfect love lyric. It starts as a "comparison" love song, where the singer compares the subject of the song to various nice things, and then moves on to a middle section about the intersection of love and the natural world, and ends by re-stating the premise of the song. The special thing about the lyric is that it overflows with images -- real, concrete images from nature. Most love songs are pretty generic in their imagery and depend on non-specific images: the lyricist will talk about "my heart" when in fact the heart is not directly involved (saying "I give you my heart" makes no more sense than "I give you my pancreas"). Harburg's lyric for "Cocoanut Sweet" overflows with real things, piling image upon image until the singer's love almost takes on a tangible, physical quality: so many physically real things are invoked that love no longer seems an abstract thing at all.

Harburg's gift for unique phraseology is on display too, including one of my favourite Harburg lines: "Spring tumble out of the tree." It turns a hackneyed idea -- it's always springtime when you're in love into -- something physical: spring physically falls out of a tree. And that one line makes clever use of alliteration and of rule-breaking grammar ("spring tumbles out of the tree" wouldn't have the same effect). Finally, note that even though the song is heavily rhymed and floridly poetic, it uses very simple language: a song lyric is no place for big or confusing words. And note also a little shout-out to an earlier song (Ned Washington's "The Nearness of You"). Finally, Harburg was one of the best lyricists when it came to dealing with Harold Arlen's unusually long, complicated song structures; this tune has all kinds of surprises and digressions, and Harburg matches his words perfectly to every twist in Arlen's melody. So here's the lyric:

Cocoanut sweet,
Honeydew new,
Jasmine and cherry
And juniper berry,
That's you.
Cocoanut sweet,
Buttercup true,
Face that I see in
The blue Carribean,
That's you.
Catch me the smile you smile
And I'll make this big world my tiny island,
Shining with spice
And sugar plum.
Cage me the laugh you laugh
And I will make this tiny, shiny island
My little slice
Of kingdom come.
The wind may blow,
The hurricane whip up the sky,
The vine go bare,
The leaf go dry,
But when you smile at me,
Spring tumble out of the tree,
The peach is ripe, the lime is green,
The air is touched with tangerine
And cocoanut sweet,
Honeydew new,
Ev'rything, dear,
That wants to cheer
The nearness of you.
How it all come true
Whenever we meet,
The magic of cherry and berry
And cocoanut sweet.

The show had a tortured history. Harburg and Fred Saidy wrote the script for Harry Belafonte. When Belafonte wasn't available, but Lena Horne was, producer David Merrick had Harburg and Saidy re-write the show to focus on the hero's girlfriend instead of the hero -- and during tryouts, when the show wasn't doing well, Merrick saved it by basically throwing out what was left of the script and turning it into what was effectively Horne's one-woman show. It worked, because the show ran 500 performances and made money, but it wasn't the show Harburg had written.

Harburg's original idea in the show was to satirize '50s consumerism and the way it was homogenizing old-fashioned, traditional culture. (Harburg's leftism is often emphasized in writing about him, but it was a very traditionalist kind of leftism, especially by the '50s, when consumer culture threatened to wipe out a lot of the quirky culture he enjoyed.) The story -- a calm Jamaican island is turned upside-down by exposure to consumerism, get-rich-quick schemes, and fads -- is a bit like Utopia Limited by Harburg's idol W.S. Gilbert, but only the basic kernel of the story survived in the final version. Harburg's satirical tone did come through in some of the songs, like "Push de Button" (an ironic paean to home gadgetry), "Yankee Dollar" (about the commodification of everything, including nature), "The Monkey in the Mango Tree" (about monkeys offended at the idea that man could have evolved from them) and "Leave the Atom Alone" ("Don't you fuss with the nucleus").

Hey, Dave...

Today's TV-DVD must-buy is the third season of "NewsRadio." The set includes, as extras, some short films made by the crew (for their own amusement) while the show was in production, including one of the most bizarre things I've seen: "One-Man NewsRadio," a short film where writer Joe Furey -- like all the staff writers, a proud Harvard-educated nerd -- acts out a "NewsRadio" episode playing all the parts himself. He even bares his midriff when he's playing the midriff-baring receptionist Beth. It's kind of the place where self-parody meets Theatre of the Absurd.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Whooo Is Iiiit?

The two-DVD set of the complete series "Action" was worth getting for a lot of reasons, but one reason was just the chance to see (in the making-of featurette) the creator of the show, Chris Thompson. Somehow he looks and acts the way I'd expect -- sort of a weather-beaten stoner with a deeply cynical and misanthropic view of the world.

Thompson, you see, is one of the odd ducks of the sitcom world, a man known for injecting a kind of unique strangeness into even the most conventional-looking sitcoms. His most famous credit is "Bosom Buddies." After writing and producing for "Laverne and Shirley," Thompson created "Bosom Buddies" for two of the producers of "Laverne and Shirley," Edward Miller and Thomas Boyett. Miller and Boyett would spend most of the '80s as the kings of bland wacky sitcom fare -- "Perfect Strangers," "Family Matters," "Full House" -- and "Bosom Buddies," the Some Like It Hot-ish story of two guys dressing up as women to live in an all-girl apartment building, by all rights should have been equally bland. But almost from the beginning, Thompson was putting in bits of bizarre humour and his young stars, Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari, were being encouraged to cut loose and ad-lib.

By the time "Bosom Buddies" hit its stride, the cross-dressing stuff had become more of an occasional gag (Hanks and Scolari were actually funnier in regular clothes, just riffing and playing off each other), and the focus of the show was on the insane improvised business between Hanks and Scolari, and on the unusually inventive stories and dialogue. Much of the dialogue doesn't even make sense on paper but is absolutely hilarious in context; a poster at Home Theater Forum collected some of the better "Bosom Buddies" lines, and I'll cut-and-paste them here:

"A bird with a hat - a very powerful aphrodisiac."

"I'll cherish this gift for...as long as it lasts. Does anyone have 15 'D' batteries?"

"Could I have your name?"
"You could, but it would be an incredible coincidence."

"But we were gonna live on Cheetos and develop respiratory infections...!"

"I was quite the bohemian at Vassar."

"What do you think of this piece here?...mm-hmm...uh-huh...It's the flag of Japan!!!"

"Mint donut?"

"Bosom Buddies" had, overall, probably the best cast of any '80s sitcom: Hanks, Scolari, Wendie Jo Sperber, Holland Taylor and Donna "How did Dan Aykroyd manage to get her to marry him" Dixon. All the performers cut loose so much, and the dialogue was so offbeat and nutty, and the plots so crazy (sample plot: a character tries to prove he's not uptight by throwing a water-balloon out of the window onto a car; the car belongs to ex-President Nixon, and the characters get hauled off by the Secret Service) that it was like a weekly subversion of the Miller-Boyett formula, a Chris Thompson middle finger extended to the conventional sitcom tradition that spawned him.

"Bosom Buddies" is for some reason not on DVD yet -- it can't have anything to do with Hanks, who is proud of the show and still friendly with the surviving cast members; it might be a problem with licensing the theme song, Billy Joel's "My Life". If it ever comes out, grab it.

And Now the Happy Stuff

In my previous post, I mentioned William Pechter as an example of a critic who wrote for a magazine that had moved to the right-of-center (Commentary) without being expected to follow the magazine's political line in his criticism. (This used to be common before the so-called culture wars.) Well, I notice that Amazon has used copies of "Movies Plus One," a collection of Pechter's criticism from the early '70s. In the thick of the New American Cinema, Pechter turned out long, insightful reviews of movies like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. He also wrote a funny, stinging piece on the decline of Blake Edwards and the inexplicable Edwards cult that was growing among auteurist critics at the time (the piece was called "Block That Cult!" but I can't remember if it's in the book or not). Of the critics of the era, Pechter was similar to Pauline Kael but less of an attention-hog in his writing, more willing to think hard about a film; he was perhaps the best film critic of that period, but he's largely been forgotten. Check the book out if you get a chance.

Conservative Critics Fight For Freedom!!!

The Liberty Film Festival, an anti-Hollywood-perverts thingamajig run by Jason Apuzzo (or, as John Rogers calls him, the stupidest fucking guy on the face of the earth") is always your go-to source for angry movie reviews postulating that:

1. Hollywood has made another movie with an Anti-American, anti-Bush agenda,
2. It'll lose money because Hollywood socialists like Arnold Schwarzenagger and Rupert Murdoch are more interested in spreading their Anti-American propaganda than in making money,
3. Wait, it made money? But why don't those evil capitalists realize that it's not worth tearing down our children's values just so movies can gross millions of dollars?
4. I hate Hollywood enterpreneurs, movies that make money, and people who pay to see them, and this proves I am on the side of capitalism.

We can all expect the new movie V For Vendetta to provoke about 75,000 articles of this kind. And Libertas has risen to the occasion with this magnificent review by someone calling himself "The Road Warrior." (First rule of the conservative blogosphere: always give yourself a name that makes you sound like a wrestler or gay porn star. The classic examples are the genocidal dweebs at Powerline Blog, who used to call themselves "Hindrocket, Big Trunk and Deacon.") Now, the Road Warrior lets down the side in one way: he admits he's seen the movie. This is a no-no in the conservative culture-sphere, where, as Roy Edroso often points out, "Conservatives reviewing movies they haven't seen is the new black." But he makes up for it by his brilliant use of all the other important features of the conservo-review:

1. Plot synopsis in lieu of analysis. -- Nearly the entire review is taken up with summarizing the plot of the film and trashing its message. Apparently such things as acting, pacing, camerawork and dialogue are only discussed by loser liberal critics from California, not us manly men in the heartland.

2. Conservative victimology. -- Road Warrior wants you to know that Liberal Hollywood is out to crush dissent and destroy his values. Clearly special help -- possibly from a government grant, or a Ministry of Pro-American Cinematic Values -- is needed. He writes: "Now consider how many overtly political Hollywood films have been made that voice dissent against Leftist values? None. Whose voice is really being suppressed in this country?"

3. Godwin's Law. -- "Hitler also wanted to eliminate Christianity. Which party is in bed with the ACLU - currently attacking Christianity, crosses, and Christmas at ever [sic] opportunity? The party of the Left. " The conservative blogosphere: where Christmas is under attack all year round!

4. Declaring that a movie is bad because it expresses ideas you don't agree with. -- Road Warrior has one criticism of the movie and one only: it conveys messages that are mean to conservatives and to their cult leader. His review says nothing about why the movie isn't good; it's just a laundry list of mean ideas that those cross-dressing brothers are using to poison the body politic.

5. Creepy obsession with the bad scary Islamofascists who are so prominent in suburban areas. -- "I find it completely hypocritical that every time a Hollywood plot has to have a bad Islamic terrorists (which is a rarity in today’s movies anyway), it has to be balanced by a good Islamist." The corollary of this is complaining that Hollywood is mean to Christians, which combines the victimology stance with what might be called aggrieved majoritarianism: the belief that Hollywood should be sensitive to majorities but hard on minorities. If these guys had been around in the '40s, they'd be reviewing the movie Crossfire and demanding that Hollywood tell us less about Christian soldiers who beat up Jews and more about Jewish bankers running the Truman administration.

6. Predictions of failure for the movie, based on no actual evidence. "Hopefully people will stay away in droves once word gets around from the unlucky few who’ve endured this view askew of modern politics and morality." If the movie flops, this will be direct proof that real Americans reject Time Warner's anti-capitalist agenda, and if it succeeds, expect articles arguing how much more successful it would have been if it had been aimed at rural Utah and exurban South Dakota and all those other places conservative columnists and bloggers wouldn't visit on a bet.

I don't usually get pissed off about these things, but the recent explosion of right-wing cultural philistinism really makes me angry. For one thing, it didn't use to be this way. Some of you may remember that National Review employed John Simon as its movie critic for many years. Simon is at the very least culturally conservative, and his curmudgeonly attitude was a good fit with a conservative magazine -- but he never had to keep to the magazine's editorial line in his reviews, nor introduce any political content into his reviews at all. He gave a positive review to the pro-Sandinista thriller Under Fire (one of the great underrated movies of the '80s, by the way, and quite a bit better than Oliver Stone's Salvador) at the time when the magazine was running article after article about the evil Cuban-sponsored Commies (basically the same articles they're running now, except "Commies" has been replaced by "Islamofascists"). Look at today's National Review and ask yourself whether they'd ever run an article like that. The American Spectator used to have Bruce Bawer as a film critic until they spiked his review of a movie about gay characters (Bawer, a gay semi-conservative, had not expressed sufficient disgust for homosexuality); they replaced Bawer with James Bowman, a man so dumb and such an art-hating philistine that he could get a job on the Wall Street Journal editorial board with no questions asked. And, going back a little further, Commentary magazine replaced its great film critic of the '70s -- the apolitical, brilliant William S. Pechter -- with Richard Grenier, whose right-wing Stalinism (he wrote long essays criticizing movies like Gandhi and even The Empire Strikes Back for expressing dangerous political ideas) has influenced a generation of hacks.

The nuts at Libertas are easy to make fun of, but they're the culmination of twenty years or more of trying to reduce cinema to politics, reduce "Hollywood" to a pejorative, and evaluate movies entirely based on whether their ideas are acceptable to conservatives. (The recent target of this particular crusade appears to be George Clooney, the subject of a jillion articles complaining that he makes movies about the problems of America instead of the tribulations of Danish cartoonists. Yes, George Clooney is condemned for being more concerned with his own country than with Europe -- in other words, conservatives hate patriotism.) Apart from the sheer whininess and victim-envy of this kind of thing -- dudes, if you want a pro-Iraq-war movie, take some of the money away from Scooter Libby's defence fund and make the movie yourself -- it demonstrates a contempt for art, a purely utilitarian conception of art, that is very close to the Stalinists of the '30s. Apuzzo and his boys are funny, but they're not so funny when you consider that their basic premises are taken seriously by a lot of people. Dick Cheney's contempt for the media and paranoid belief that non-conservative reporters are out to destroy him is part of the larger idea that media -- television, movies, whatever -- is only good insofar as it delivers ideas that serve your political interests.

The sad thing is that this kind of thing is actually less dangerous than it was only a couple of years ago, when Fahrenheit 9/11 was pilloried up and down the media not for the factual distortions (fair enough) but for expressing ideas that were and still are perfectly mainstream ideas held by roughly half the population (the Iraq war was a mistake and the American government lied to the people it serves). Perfectly moderate, mainstream people were derided as members of the "angry left" by the likes of the Wall Street Journal's racist snob James Taranto, and many people took these attacks to heart and convinced themselves that they were, in fact, freakishly out of the mainstream when they weren't. And so Hollywood convinced itself that it was out of touch with the "heartland," even though it's become pretty clear that Hollywood's product appeals to the American heartland far more than, say, the President's State of the Union Address. And the philistinism of the Libertas crew was in danger of becoming conventional wisdom. Now things seem to be shifting; Hollywood is starting to recognize that George Clooney is a lot more in touch with the average man than, say, the average politician. He has to be: his living depends on appealing directly to average people, whereas the politician doesn't have to give a damn about average people when he's not out campaigning. I have a feeling that this year's Oscars will have the air of Hollywood's revenge on its attackers, as Hollywood stars and producers recognize that they, not Jason Apuzzo, have their finger on the pulse of the nation. But it's been a tough few years, and the conservative Stalinists seemed to be in serious danger of taking over the cultural conversation. We need to remember that and guard against it, even as we laugh at the ineptitude of their low-level apparatchiks.

The Truck From Duel Finally Got Him

Dennis Weaver has died.

He did so much TV work, so much good work, that it's hard to single one thing out, but his performance in the Twilight Zone episode "Shadow Play" -- as a death row convict trying to convince people that they are all just part of his dream, and that he is doomed to dream his death every night -- may be his best. In movies, I'm especially fond of his small role as the creepy motel manager in Touch of Evil. And of course I haven't gotten into the stuff for which he is best known, like Gunsmoke, McCloud and Duel. Here's his huge list of credits.

It's Finally Coming

"The Facts of Life": Seasons 1 and 2.

If you're having trouble remembering which episodes were which, season 1 was the season with Molly Ringwald and other actresses who didn't make it past the first 13 episodes, and season 2 was the season that narrowed the cast down to the quatrofecta: BlairJoNatalieTootie. All this and Mrs. Garrett teaching lessons too. Life is good.

Oh, come on, you know you watched it, and you know you're going to at least Netflix this. We are drawn to "The Facts of Life" as if by some force we can't control.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Thank Goodness For YouTube

Thanks to YouTube.com, it's now possible for me to link to a video of the complete, uncut Bob Clampett cartoon masterpiece from 1943:

It's not the greatest-looking print of the cartoon, but it's all there and it's a must-see if you haven't already seen it already. "Coal Black" is of course the most famous and by far the best of the "Censored 11" cartoons, Warner Brothers cartoons that were de facto banned from TV and home video due to racial stereotyping. The stereotypes in "Coal Black" are actually fairly mild by comparison with the really offensive stereotypes in, say, Chuck Jones's "Angel Puss" -- in fact, the most truly offensive joke in "Coal Black" is a wartime joke about the Japanese.

"Coal Black" was also one of the few cartoons of its time that actually used African-American performers to voice some of the characters; the wicked queen is voiced by Ruby Dandridge (mother of Dorothy Dandridge) and So White is voiced by Vivian Dandridge (older sister of Dorothy Dandridge). However, all the dwarfs are voiced by Mel Blanc.

A commenter on IMDb pointed out that one of the reasons the film is still controversial today is that cartoons, unlike live-action movies, don't really date: whereas the stereotypes in a live-action movie belong to their time, the stereotypes in "Coal Black" feel current, and therefore still have the power to shock. But the film is so good-natured, and so much of a piece with the exaggerated way Clampett treats all characters in all his cartoons, that the audiences I've seen it with usually get over the shock after the first minute or so, and start to lose themselves in the film.

The important thing about "Coal Black" is that it's one of the best and most imaginative cartoons ever made, with a crazy gimmick or wild experiment in almost every shot, and all kinds of visual ideas that no one had ever tried before (though Clampett's trick of changing the colour of the background to signal a change in mood was probably inspired by Chuck Jones's "The Case of the Missing Hare" from the previous year). Ideas like the words "Blackout So White!" appearing in print above the Queen as she speaks those words (and then bites off the phone she's speaking into); keeping the dwarfs offscreen in one shot and animating their shadows instead; starting a dance sequence with Disney-style rotoscoping and suddenly shifting to a cartoonily-animated jazz dance; having the dwarfs pop up one by one to the rhythm of "Blues in the Night": there's something spectacular or hilarious every second. And Rod Scribner's animation of Prince Chawmin' unsuccessfully trying to revive So White may be the best piece of animation Scribner -- or maybe anyone -- ever did.

The film is also a brilliant slam on Disney, with many mocking references to shots from Snow White and an implied antidote to Disney's lack of interest in dealing with sex and sexuality. And there's even a reference to the then-recent movie Citizen Kane. On a side note, you might notice that the design of So White is oddly similar to that of Tweety, whom Clampett had introduced the year before.

So check it out, and hope and pray that WB will get the guts to release it on DVD. They can have a dozen Whoopi Goldberg introductions for all I care -- I wasn't bothered by her "historical-context" introduction to the last Looney Tunes set, though I'll admit I always hit the menu button to skip it -- they can have a trillion disclaimers and historical explanations, but they need to make it available in a good print.

Update: More thoughts on this cartoon at Sterfish's Place.

More Lyrics: "Too Good For the Average Man"

Another obscure song lyric worth quoting is by Larry Hart, the wordsmith half of the team of Rodgers and Hart, from the 1936 musical On Your Toes. The song is called "Too Good For the Average Man," a duet for a Russian ballet impresario (based on Diaghliev) and a high-society patroness of the arts. To Rodgers' mock-minuet tune, they sing about their shared understanding of the fact that, as wealthy dilettantes, they feel entitled to enjoy certain pleasures that are not available to the lower classes: some things are just "Too Good For the Average Man."

Interestingly, even though most forms of entertainment and comfort have become cheaper and more widely available since 1936, the song actually holds up pretty well in the sense that many of the enjoyments and fads it describes are still mostly the province of the affluent, and many of the observations -- like the line about rich women having easier access to family planning, or the plastic surgery joke -- could be made today with no change whatsoever. The one thing that doesn't hold up is the joke about rich people being overweight; that's been replaced by fitness-mania among the rich. Otherwise, Larry Hart is always relevant.


When Russia was White,
It was White for the classes
And Red for the masses,
Unfortunate asses!
All wealth belonged to few.
When England was Tudor,
The King and his cronies
Had cocktails at Tony's,
The poor had baloneys,
And that's how England grew.
Sing "la and huzzah" for the poor folks
As long as the poor folks are your folks.

Refrain 1

Finer things are for the finer folk,
Thus society began.
Caviar for peasants is a joke;
It's too good for the average man.
Supper clubs are for the upper folk,
Packed like sardines in a can.
Through the smoke you get your check and choke;
It's too good for the average man.
Each poor man has a wife he must stick to,
Rich men have a different habit.
To be caught in flagrante delictu
Is much too good for the average rabbit.
All-night parties, drinking like a Lord,
Fit into our social plan.
Waking in the alcoholic ward
Is too good for the average man.

Refrain 2

Rich old age can blossom like a rose;
Plastic surgeons have a plan.
Cutting off your face to spite your nose
Is too good for the average pan.
Fancy foods are for the fancy taste,
Diets for the poorer man.
Gaining too much weight below the waist
Is too good for the average can.
Lots of kids for a poor wife are dandy,
Girls of fashion can be choosy.
Birth control and the modus operandi
Are much too good for the average floozy.
Psychoanalysts are all the whirl;
Rich men pay them all they can.
Waking up to find that he's a girl
Is too good for the average man.

R.I.P. Don Knotts

The beloved Don Knotts -- the actor behind one of the all-time great television characters, Barney Fife, and whose comedy performance style has had an incalculable influence on two generations of actors and comedians -- has died at the age of 81. Mark Evanier shares some of his memories of Knotts.

Here is perhaps the greatest Barney Fife dialogue exchange, from the episode "One-Punch Opie," where Barney lectures Andy on the necessity of stopping children from becoming delinquents. Of course the dialogue loses a lot without Knotts's superb delivery and his nervous pacing and gestures. He was unique.

BARNEY: I don't like it. I don't like it one bit.
I tell you this is just the beginning: goin' around breaking street lamps -- city property, mind you! Next thing you know they'll be on motorcycles and wearin' them leather jackets and zoomin' around. They'll take over the whole town... a reign of terror!

ANDY: Barney, these are just boys you're talkin' about. They're only about 8 years old.

BARNEY: Yeah, well today's 8-year olds are tomorrow's teenagers. I say this calls for action and now. Nip it in the bud. First sign of youngsters goin' wrong, you got to nip it in the bud!

ANDY: I'm gonna have a talk with 'em. Now what more do you want me to do?

BARNEY: Well, just don't mollycoddle 'em.

ANDY: I won't.

BARNEY: Nip it! You go read any book you want on the subject of child discipline and you'll find that every one of them is in favor of bud-nippin'.

ANDY: I'll take care of it.

BARNEY: Only one way to take care of it.

ANDY: Nip it.

BARNEY: In the bud.

Those Various Wilkin Boys

Since nothing is more important than obscure Archie comics, I am pleased to direct you to Mister Kitty's page on Archie ripoffs by the Archie company itself.

I knew about "Wilbur" and "That Wilkin Boy" (which the company is for some reason attempting to revive now), but "Bippy the Hippy" had completely escaped my notice. As someone said on a message board: "Anyone who uses the spelling 'hippy' clearly has no idea what a hippie is."

The same site also has this and this about Archie knockoffs by other companies. The best of the bunch was Tower's "Tippy Teen," largely due to the excellent artwork by Archie's best artist, Samm Schwartz. Though some have an affection for Marvel's "Millie the Model." Six of one.

I should also point out that the excerpt from the early "Josie" comic is yet another example of the snappy dialogue of Frank Doyle. Who else would start a kids' comic story with a joke that depends on the audience knowing French:

JOSIE: Ouvrez la porte, Pepper.
PEPPER: Later, Josie, but right now I have to open the door.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Obscure Mercer

Johnny Mercer was one of the most successful song lyricists of the 20th century, and you're probably familiar with his work on songs like "Moon River," "Something's Gotta Give," "Hooray For Hollywood," and many others. I thought, for the heck of it, I'd post a few lesser-known Mercer lyrics that give a further idea of his unique voice as a writer -- a combination of sophistication and folksy slang.

From the movie They Got Me Covered, "Palsy Walsy" (music by Harold Arlen)

I need a friend to see me through,
Someone who is tried and true,
Someone who will keep the wolves away.
Nothing is wrong with baby's eyes,
Noting is wrong with baby's size,
Which makes me romantic'ly one-A.
So, you see, I need to be protected,
And, my turtle dove, you are elected.


My old pie-face,
Since I met you,
I'm a dead duck.
You old sly-face,
Can't forget you,
Rock on, I'm stuck.
Through thick, through thin,
Or any "how've you been,"
We'll grin and take it on the chin.
Who's excited?
Plan your campaign,
You'll get my vote,
I'll take champagne
Or beer,
Because you're my palsy-walsy, dear.

From the movie Daddy Long Legs, the weird "dance-sensation about a nonexistent dance that is never really described" song, "Sluefoot" (music by Mercer)

You want a dance that's easy to do,
Then dig the one I'm hippin' you to,
I'm gonna teach you to fall in
On what they are callin'
The Sluefoot.
You make your right point to the north,
You make your left foot point to the south,
And then you stroll sort o' westerly,
Slow and siest-er-ly,
Don't be an oddball,
And don't be a fig.
Try, why be shy?
After all, it's even better if your feet's too big.
You put the old posterior out,
Then you manipulates it about,
It is the most lackadaisiest,
I mean the craziest,

You gotta rock like
A rockin' chair,
The step is clocklike
But slightly square,
You count to one,
Two, three, four,
Then you holler:
You stick your toe out,
You grab it back,
You really go out,
You ball the jack,
Do what you done,
Done, done before
When you holler:

And if you learn to dance it just right,
It shouldn't take but half of the night,
It is the most lackadaisiest,
I mean the craziest,

Mercer also wrote a lot of conventional but lovely pop lyrics, like 1935's "Santa Claus Came in the Spring" (for which he wrote both music and words):


Is it April? Is it snowing?
Have I lost my head completely?
Have blossoms turned to snowflakes on the ground?
Are they robins, are they sleighbells
That I hear sing out so sweetly?
Has someone turned the calendar around?


Santa Claus came in the spring,
Santa Claus came when the skies were blue,
I heard his sleighbells ting-a-ling
The day that I met you.
Santa Claus came in the spring,
Riding along through the daffodils,
And I just saw him vanishing
Across the distant hills.
I heard his reindeer on the ground,
I thought I caught a glimpse of red,
But suddenly I turned around
And you were there instead.
What if he hurried away?
Santa Claus came when the skies were blue,
And now it's Christmas ev'ry day
Because he brought me you.

And from the Danny Kaye movie Merry Andrew, "The Sum of the Hypotenuse" -- fun and educational:

The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle
Is equal to the sum of the squares of two adjacent sides.
You'd not tolerate lettin' your participle dangle,
So please effect the self-same respect for your geometric slides.

Old Einstein said it,
When he was gettin' nowhere.
Give him credit,
He was heard to declare:

The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle [etc.]

Sure as shootin',
When problems get in your hair,
Be like Newton
Who was heard to declare:

The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle [etc.]

The Wright Brothers,
Before they conquered the air,
Like those others,
Orville hollers: "Lookahair,

The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle
Is equal to the sum of the squares of two adjacent sides.
You'd not tolerate lettin' your participle dangle,
So please effect the self-same respect for your geometric slides. 

King of the Hill -- Undead Slasher Cartoon Rises Again!

I have been authorized by an Informed Source (tm) to say that King of the Hill, which was originally going to end this season, is now going back into production on March 17. Fox has ordered 20 more episodes. The show has been getting good reviews and pretty good ratings (when it's on, which isn't often), and it was felt that there's still some good material left in the adventures of Hank Hill.

Most of the animation staff is now working on Family Guy, but KotH is re-staffing and will borrow back directors and animators from other Fox shows when they have time (this is common practice; Family Guy in its first season borrowed a lot of animators from KotH). I don't know who will be on the reconfigured writing staff, but I think John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky will remain the showrunners, as they have been since 2002.

All of which proves that Fox animated sitcoms are like mad slashers in horror movies: no matter how many times they are killed, they are never dead. Family Guy is probably Jason, who comes back several years after being killed, whereas King of the Hill is Michael Myers: it just dies and comes back over and over again. No word yet on whether Futurama will be Freddy Krueger.

If It's Noir, It Doesn't Need to Make Sense

After he hit it big with Laura, Otto Preminger's next project as a director was Fallen Angel (1945). It used most of the same crew as Laura, including cinematographer Joseph La Shelle and composer David Raksin, as well as the same leading man, Dana Andrews. But unlike Laura, which was basically a high-society murder mystery with some film noir touches, Fallen Angel is pure noir in with a touch of murder mystery: Andrews plays a drifter who falls for a slutty waitress (Linda Darnell) and tries to get the money to keep her in style by marrying the local affluent spinster (Alice Faye). There's a greasy-spoon diner, a fake medium (John Carradine) who talks about "a strange vibration coming over me," a smoke-filled nightclub scene, and lots of shadows, cigarettes and hats.

The plot's twists and turns are basically incomprehensible, to the point that by the second half you can't really tell who's in love with which character or who murdered who and where and why. The confusion may be due to the post-production cutting: many of Alice Faye's scenes were apparently cut out in order to put more emphasis on Linda Darnell -- understandable, really, because Darnell is spectacularly sexy in the film and Faye is miscast. But even if the script doesn't always make a lot of sense, Preminger's camerawork is enough to keep the film watchable: whereas Laura had mostly static talking-head shots, Fallen Angel is the start of Preminger's love affair with the moving camera. He pulls off some truly spectacular crane and dolly shots, and complicated long takes that must have taken quite a bit of rehearsal. He also gives us -- albeit in shadow -- what is basically the first tongue-kiss in '40s cinema:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Thursday, February 23, 2006

2D or not 2D

Seward Street has a post on the return of hand-drawn animation, including the impending return of "traditional" animation under the new Pixar-Disney merger.

Getting into the realm of rumor and hearsay, a post on an animation message board said that master Disney animator Glen Keane (supervising animator of Ariel, the Beast, and Aladdin among others), who is directing Rapunzel as a computer-animated movie, was asked if he'd like to switch the project back to hand-drawn, but decided he'd rather continue with the plan to do it with computers. Hopefully the new regime will at least change the title back to "Rapunzel" instead of the most recent (presumably studio-imposed) working title, "Rapunzel Unbraided."

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

We Are DVDs If You Please

Warner Home Video just had their annual chat with Home Theater Forum about their upcoming DVD release plans. Some of the titles planned -- some for this year, some for the approaching high-def Nirvana -- include:

- A Film Noir box, volume 3, including Lady in the Lake, "one nifty Mitchum RKO film, and an MGM film you might not expect." I'm going to guess that the Mitchum/RKO film will be Otto Preminger's Angel Face; a possible guess for the MGM title might be Vincente Minnelli's Undercurrent, but if I'm wrong, you didn't hear it from me. There'll also be a fourth noir box next year.
- Speaking of Minnelli, his great non-musical films are slowly starting to trickle out to the public; Some Came Running will be part of a Frank Sinatra box, and Home From the Hill will be part of a Robert Mitchum box set. There may also be a Glenn Ford box that would include The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (aka "The One Where Ingrid Thulin's Voice is Dubbed by Angela Lansbury").
- A number of silent movies including Greed, The Wind, The Big Parade and The Crowd, and a second Lon Chaney collection.
- 2007 will bring "a promotion with lots of fun films that have been long ignored on home video and deserve a release" -- that is, titles that were never released on VHS or DVD and aren't as well-known to the public as they should be. Among the titles mentioned are Queen of Outer Space and the greatest women-in-prison movie ever, Caged.
- The Bowery Boys films were supposed to be released in chronological order, but may be delayed or released out of order because some of the early titles are in poor shape.
- After Robert Redford "expressed his pleasure" over the new special edition of All the President's Men, Redford will be participating in special editions of Jeremiah Johnson and the eternally relevant The Candidate ("this country cannot house its houseless or feed its foodless").
- Crossing Delancey is a "heavily requested" movie that will be released sometime within the next 12 months. I never realized this movie had that kind of fan base, though I recall that it's a favourite of my mother's, and she's known for shaping public taste.
- Other actors who will get boxed sets devoted to them include James Cagney, Errol Flynn (volume 2, with more of the non-swashbucklers like the boxing biopic Gentleman Jim), and Paul Newman.

Monday, February 20, 2006

WB Animation: "Rabbit of Seville"

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Here's another revised version of an earlier post on WB animation. This is again based on a Greg Duffell post, identifying the animators who animated different scenes in Chuck Jones' Rabbit of Seville (which is available on the first Looney Tunes DVD collection).

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

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

- When Bugs introduces himself as the barber ("How do! Welcome to my shop -- let me cut your mop"), the animation is by Phil Monroe, who worked in Jones' unit in the late '40s and early '50s, and later animated for Jones at MGM on projects like How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Before joining Jones, Monroe had done some work for "wilder" directors like Bob Clampett and Frank Tashlin, and has a slightly looser, wackier style than some of the other Jones animators -- though always keeping closely to Jones's pose drawings (Jones didn't give his animators as much room to improvise as some of the other directors).

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

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

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

- The next scene, with Bugs in drag, is animated by Emery Hawkins, with his skinny and fluidly-moving Bugs, and somewhat Disney-esque look for the befuddled Elmer.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

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

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

- The great chase scene where Elmer and Bugs zoom upward on barber chairs is animated by Lloyd Vaughan (who was with Jones through most of the '40s and the early '50s). Vaughan stuck more than most animators to the way Jones drew Bugs in the mid-'40s, kind of short and hunched over and more vulnerable-looking than the sleek way he was usually drawn by the '50s.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

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

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

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

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

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

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

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

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

- Ken Harris now animates the entire final scene of the film: the chase with increasingly large weapons (a perfect visual equivalent of a Rossini crescendo), the marriage sequence, and the final closeup of Bugs saying "next." Note also that Harris has his own preferred way of drawing Bugs's front teeth, sort of as a solid block with a line down the middle:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

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

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Good Ol' Lucy Brown

One of the all-time great Peanuts Sunday strips.

Gargoyles: So Near and Yet So Far

If you like the show "Gargoyles,", and you haven't picked up the DVD set of season 2, volume 1, you might be well-advised to pick it up pretty soon. According to this, low sales of that set are creating the possibility that Disney won't release season 2, volume 2 (the final episodes of the series). The creator is encouraging people to buy the season 2, volume 1 set to ensure that the rest of the series will be released.

If not, it'll create the ultimate annoyance of TV-on-DVD: a show whose DVD releases almost make it to the end of the series, but not quite.

OT: Electoral Sabermetrics

I grew up as a big fan of Bill James and his analysis of baseball; it's now pretty much mainstream, but "sabermetrics" -- the systematic analysis of baseball statistics -- was absolutely revolutionary at the time. There was this idea that baseball analysis could only be done by insiders, people who really knew how the game worked. James came along and proved that an "outsider" could look at the numbers, analyze them creatively, and come up with analysis that was more accurate than the insiders', not less.

Since political blogging took off, I've been waiting for something like that to spring up, a political equivalent to sabermetrics -- a way for outsiders to look at political polling numbers and come to a better understanding of politics than the "insiders," with their obsession with marginal stuff (does anyone really, truly vote on most of the issues that politicians and consultants are obsessed with?). One thing I've found recently may be the closest thing to a Bill James approach to politics that I've seen. It's in this post as well as this earlier post from the blogger Chris Bowers at the group blog Mydd.com (one of the better political blogs out there).

Bowers was looking at old poll data, and he came across data that showed him two interesting things about U.S. Congressional elections. One, if a sizeable majority of respondents thinks a particular party controls Congress, that party will lose seats in the Congressional elections. And two, there are some years when the vast majority of respondents are flatly wrong about who controls Congress.

Specifically, he discovered that there were three years in which most people identified the wrong party as controlling the U.S. House of Representatives, 1982, 1986, and 2002. In 1982, Democrats controlled the House, yet "68% of the electorate believed that Republicans controlled the House of Representatives" -- and that November, the Republicans lost a bunch of seats in the House. In 2002, the Republicans controlled the House, yet "72% of the electorate believed that Democrats controlled the House of Representatives" -- and that November, the Democrats lost seats in the House.

Bowers realized that what these three "wrong identification" years had in common was that they were years when different parties controlled the House and Senate. In 1982, the Republicans had the Senate but not the House -- but people thought they had the House too, and so they lost seats in the House. In 2002, the Democrats had the Senate but not the House -- but people thought they had the House too, and so they lost seats in the House.

Bowers goes into more about this in his posts, but what I find fascinating is that with a little examination of data, he's found a better predictor of the results of U.S. Congressional elections than anything I've seen before, particularly mid-term Congressional elections. Simply put, whoever controls the Senate will lose seats in the House in the mid-terms, because the voters focus their attention on that party, assume that that party controls Congress, and set out to punish that party. If there's a lot of consensus as to who runs Congress (Bowers goes into more detail about what it takes to create such a consensus), then there will be a swing in seats.

I like stuff like this because, as Bowers himself says, a lot of the big questions about what swings an election -- what is the party's message, what are their policy positions -- may not be all that relevant in the long run. They're relevant in individual races, but if you're talking about the national results of a whole bunch of little elections, you need to look at the bigger trends, and the bigger trend is just that voters tend to want to punish the party that controls Congress. There were all these thousands of articles written analyzing why the Democrats lost seats in 2002; but it all seems to boil down to the fact that voters mistakenly thought that they controlled the House, since that exactly parallels what happened to the Republicans in 1982 and 1986. This makes sense to me, and is true to the way a lot of voters vote.

Therefore, Bowers recommends that the message of the opposition party should simply be to repeat over and over that the other party controls Congress: increase the knowledge of who controls Congress, and you increase your chances of winning. And the best part of it is, this is a winning message that is impossible to contradict, because it's literally true, no ambiguity, no "other side."

If the Democrats make gains in Congress this November (and it doesn't seem far-fetched to think that they will: the split-power factor that worked against them in 2002 doesn't apply this time, and voters will know the Republicans control Congress because of the news reporting on Tom DeLay and so forth) then Bowers' analysis will really seem valid and useful for future horseraces. Just like Bill James's sabermetric tricks are more useful than baseball's conventional wisdom, these political sabermetric tricks seem to describe the real world of voter patterns better than any political pundit.

Update: I see some people are linking here from political blogs (like the good old Daou Report. For anyone linking here from a political blog, I should note that this is not a political blog (hence the "OT," for "off topic"), and is mostly about film and TV and cartooons and stuff.

Admittedly I've gotten more politicized and anti-war in the last few years, like most previously non-political people have. The reason for this can probably be summed up as follows:

TIME: September 12, 2001

SCENE: A hallway

CHARACTERS: Me and my crazy lefty friend

CRAZY LEFTY FRIEND: Do you support the invasion of Afghanistan?

ME: Of course. It's a rational response. Don't you support it, Crazy Lefty?

CRAZY LEFTY FRIEND: No. If the Bush Administration invades Afghanistan, the next thing you know they'll use 9/11 as an excuse to invade Iraq for no reason.

ME: Don't be silly. Iraq has nothing to do with this. The Bush Administration would never be so stupid as to invade Iraq.

CRAZY LEFTY FRIEND: I'm telling you, if you don't oppose the Bush Administration now, they'll exploit 9/11 for political purposes and use it as an excuse for invading Iraq.

ME: Oh, Lefty. You're such a crazy lefty. Only a crazy lefty would say something so crazy -- Lefty.

Flash-Forward to 2003.

ME (chastened): You were right all along, Lefty. They did invade Iraq for no reason. Where can I sign up for the "These People Are Completely Crazy Book of the Month Club?"

And there you have it. However, I comfort myself with the notion that the world is no longer quite as batshit crazy as it was in 2002-4, and otherwise grit my teeth. And so I don't do political posts very often, which is just as well.

Instead, go to the main page if you like posts about King of the Hill and obscure Otto Preminger movies.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Robert Browning on Religious Art

Most of the late poetry of Robert Browning is pretty hard to get through; after his last great work, the blank-verse epic "The Ring and the Book," his bad habits of obscurity and over-rhyming got the better of him. Most of the stuff he turned out in the last two decades of his life is frankly incomprehensible. However, one late Browning poem I find myself returning to quite frequently is Filippo Baldinucci on the Privilege of Burial", from the 1875 collection Pachiarotto. Like many of Browning's poems, this is set in Italy and incorporates Italian cultural history, in this case, the writings of Filippo Baldinucci, from whose Notizie de' Professori del Disegno the story of this poem is taken.

Most of Browning's poems are written in the voice of a speaker who is not the poet (Browning hardly ever wrote in his own voice); in this case, the story is told to the primary speaker by his uncle, a ferocious anti-Semite who detests the increasing tolerance and acceptance of Jews in Florence ("I fear we must not pelt the Jews!") and the "laws, which modern fools enact" in favour of tolerance. To illustrate his point about the devious trickery of the Jews, he tells his nephew a story, but as often in Browning, the point the reader takes from the story is different from the point the speaker thinks he's making.

The basic idea of the story is that a Jewish cemetary adjoins the property of an affluent, anti-semitic farmer. To "gall the unbelievers," the farmer hires the painter Ludovico Buti to create a painting of the Virgin Mary and place it facing the cemetary, so the Jews will have to see the Virgin Mary every time they hold a funeral. When the Jews object, the farmer tells them he'll turn the picture around in exchange for 100 ducats -- and then, when they pay him, hires Buti again to create a painting of Jesus on the other side of the canvas.

A young Jewish man, the son of a woman who was just buried in the cemetary (and whose funeral was ruined by the sight of Buti's painting) arrives at the farmer's house. But he doesn't want to fight, as the cowardly farmer and painter both assume; instead he offers to buy the painting to hang in his house. The farmer accepts the offer and assumes that he has made a convert:

The Farmer—who, though dumb, this while
Had watched advantage—straight conceived
A reason for that tone and smile
So mild and soft! The Jew—believed!

But the purchaser sets him straight: he wants the painting as a work of art, nothing more. He recalls seeing paintings of Greek gods in the home of prominent Christians, and wondering why they would display pagan gods in their homes. The answer he received was that the paintings are displayed for their artistic value only, not as religious works.

“‘Benignant smiles me pity straight
The Cardinal.
’Tis Truth, we prize!
Art’s the sole question in debate!
These subjects are so many lies.
We treat them with a proper scorn
When we turn lies—called gods forsooth—
To lies’ fit use, now Christ is born.
Drawing and coloring are Truth.

“‘Think you I honor lies so much
As scruple to parade the charms
Of Leda—Titian, every touch—
Because the thing within her arms
Means Jupiter who had the praise
And prayer of a benighted world?
He would have mine too, if, in days
Of light, I kept the canvas furled!’

And so, the purchaser concludes, he will apply the same principle to the pictures of Christ and Mary that Christians apply to pictures of Leda and Jupiter: as artistic representations of mythological figures, to be praised or scorned based on artistic considerations only, with the religious figures accorded no more respect than a Christian would give a Greek religious figure:

“‘So ending, with some easy gibe.
What power has logic! I, at once,
Acknowledged error in our tribe
So squeamish that, when friends ensconce
A pretty picture in its niche
To do us honor, deck our graves,
We fret and fume and have an itch
To strangle folk—ungrateful knaves!

“‘No, sir! Be sure that—what’s its style,
Your picture?—shall possess ungrudged
A place among my rank and file
Of Ledas and what not—be judged
Just as a picture! and (because
I fear me much I scarce have bought
A Titian) Master Buti’s flaws
Found there, will have the laugh flaws ought!’

The man leaves with the picture, leaving the farmer nonplussed. The uncle ends the story by ranting about the breakdown of religious repression and the evils of a society that tolerates tolerance:

“Was magic here? Most like! For, since,
Somehow our city’s faith grows still
More and more lukewarm. and our Prince
Or loses heart or wants the will
To check increase of cold. ’Tis ‘Live
And let live! Languidly repress
The Dissident! In short,—contrive
Christians must bear with Jews: no less!’

“The end seems, any Israelite
Wants any picture,—pishes, poohs,
Purchases, hangs it full in sight
In any chamber he may choose!
In Christ’s crown, one more thorn we rue!
In Mary’s bosom, one more sword!
No, boy, you must not pelt a Jew!
O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord?”

As with a lot of Browning's poems, he doesn't specifically tell you what meaning to take from the poem, and there are multiple ways to interpret it. Certainly it's not just about 17th-century Italy; there were plenty of people like the uncle in Browning's time, and today. The idea that art should be judged on its own merits as art and not as religious statements (or political statements) is certainly not something that ever goes away, though Browning is ambiguous about where he comes down on this issue. Is the uncle right -- for the wrong reasons -- in thinking that decoupling art from religious/political significance robs it of its ability to foster intolerance, and therefore creates a more tolerant society over time? Browning is certainly not with the uncle in thinking that intolerance is a good thing, but he might be putting inadvertent truth into the villain's mouth. Or is Browning less than enthusiastic about the idea of using art to make religious/political points, since it winds up backfiring on the person who tries to make the point (as it backfires on the other villains of the piece, the farmer and Buti)? Is it a celebration of the democratic nature of art -- because anyone can enjoy it, whatever their race or religioun or creed, good art is not exclusionary -- or is it more about religious intolerance than about art? The answer to all these questions, as always with a Browning poem, is "yes." He never tells you exactly what he thinks the primary point of a poem is, but he lets all kinds of themes emerge and butt up against each other -- that's what makes his poetry so interesting.

The PH Factor

In the realm of "oddball" comics, nothing is oddball-er than Archie comics' attempt to turn its characters into superheroes with names like "Pureheart the Powerful" and "Captain Hero." Dial B For Blog, braver and with a stronger stomach than I, has an incredibly comprehensive history of the teen superheroes (table of contents to the left, starting with post # 226).

Friday, February 17, 2006

Señor Chance!

Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear has a good post on the beloved character actor Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales (The High and the Mighty, Rio Bravo), who recently died at the age of 80. Ivan posts some excerpts from the "You Bet Your Life" appearance that made Mr. Gonzales-Gonzales famous.

Also, here's something I wrote about him last year:

I know him best from a movie called The Sheepman, because it was a movie that my dad saw as a young man, and years after he'd forgotten the name of the film, he always remembered Gonzales-Gonzales's big line: seeing a shipment of sheep being brought in, he cries out: "The sheep has come in!" Dad said this got a huge laugh in the theatre. One afternoon we were watching TV and we noticed Gonzales-Gonzales in some kind of sheep-herding situation; Dad realized this was it, and we waited for the big line. When we heard it, it was like we'd finally recovered the lost gold or something. So thanks, Pedro.

Royale Pains

So Casino Royale, or as everyone will no doubt be calling it, Bond Begins, now has a cast;

James Bond: Daniel Craig
Le Chiffre: Mads Mikkelsen
Vesper Lynd: Eva Green
Felix Leiter: Jeffrey Wright

Casting actors who haven't been over-exposed around the world (though Mikkelsen is a star in his native Denmark) is a strategy that harks back to Dr. No, which cast relatively little-known people who would go on to hit it big like Sean Connery, Ursula Andress and Jack Lord. Also, assembling an international cast (Danish villain, French leading lady) is a nice throwback to the international casts of the '60s Bonds; I was tired of all the British-accented villains.

Speaking of Casino Royale, Howard Hawks at one point considered making a film of the novel with Cary Grant as Bond. This page speculates on what a Hawks version of Bond might have been like.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

TV DVD News of Note

- Season 2 of "The Rockford Files" comes out on June 13. This was probably the weakest season -- co-creator Roy Huggins gave the younger co-creator, Stephen J. Cannell, more control, and Cannell miscalculated by making Rockford too much of a luckless schlemiel in some episodes. The ratings went down, and, according to the book Thirty Years of the Rockford Files, never quite got back where they'd been in the first season. But Cannell recognized the mistakes and got the show back on track in the third season, with the help of writer-producer Juanita Bartlett and a new addition to the writing staff, David Chase. So while the show really hits its stride in season 3, season 2 is still worth getting for Garner, and some of the better episodes. Incidentally, one thing that's striking about watching Rockford now is the incredible workload that it put on Garner: he's in practically every scene of every episode. Even a show like 24 doesn't ask Keifer Sutherland to work quite that much. Most TV shows now have larger regular casts, and more subplots, to lighten the star's workload; Rockford must have been an exhausting experience for Garner.

- Sitcoms Online reports the possibility of a DVD release for "The Wonder Years," which has been held up due to music-clearance issues. Could this be the sign that the floodgates have opened for music-heavy shows owned by Fox? (coughWKRPcough)

- Season 3 of "Moonlighting" has one of the better bonus features I've encountered on a TV-show set: the episode "The Straight Poop," a self-referential clip show where Rona Barrett interviews the characters about behind-the-scenes tension, has an audio commentary by several fans who run "Moonlighting" websites and fan clubs. They chat about the episode, identify the various clips, share tidbits and gossip about the show, and heap scorn on the cinematographer for photographing Cybill Shepherd through diffusion (though to be fair, he was the cinematographer from "Star Trek" and he always photographed women through gauzy filters). Fun stuff -- like an entertaining version of one of those scholarly commentaries on classic film.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Lyrics: "Double Standard" from Oh, Captain!

To follow up on my post about feminist movies, here are some surprisingly feminist lyrics from an otherwise cheerfully sexist 1958 musical comedy, Oh, Captain!. The song, by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, is called "Double Standard," and is sung to the two-timing hero by his wife and his mistress:

I came to you, a bride to you,
My contract says I'm tied to you,
But you're as free as a little bird is.
There's a word for you, you tainted saint,
But as a lady of restraint,
I can't tell you what that certain word is.
Mine eyes have seen the battle-light,
I'm tired of being a satellite,
Just another gal in your galaxy.
If you want your double standard,
Then you don't want me.

If I should shake my hip a bit,
Then you, you greedy hypocrite,
You dare to tell me I'm being shameless.
You have set a new Olympic mark
For clearing hurdles in the dark,
And yet you stand around acting blameless.
You pull the switch, it's so routine,
And just like any good machine,
I'm to do just what you expect me to.
Well, if that's your double standard,
Then a pox on you.

You're famous on the boulevards,
I bet you pose for postal cards,
I'm sure nobody could do it better.
But if I should let an eyebrow twitch,
I start with "b" and rhyme with "itch"
Like I'm the star of The Scarlet Letter.
Who knows how many times you've been
Cavorting down the street of sin?
Anywhere you hang your pants is home!
If you want your double standard,
I'll just have to roam.

You think I'm sweet and gentle, and never wild,
But we're not children, and I'm no child.
Did it ever occur to you I could give you more?
If you want your double standard --
Demand a double standard --
Then this means war!

Monday, February 13, 2006

"Once You've Driven Your Drunk Father To Your Mom's Parole Hearing, What Else Is There?"

The third and final season of the show "Titus" recently came out on DVD. The DVD sets are good packages -- commentaries, interviews, rehearsal footage, all the bells n' whistles -- and the show is well worth a look. Even by the standards of short-lived Fox Network shows, this one is very strange: based on comedian Christopher Titus's autobiographical one-man show "Norman Rockwell is Bleeding," it's a three-camera, studio-audience sitcom about Titus's attempts to lead a semi-normal life despite his alcoholic, emotionally and physically abusive, frankly evil father (Stacy Keach) and his fear that he will end up succumbing to mental illness like his mother. The show attempts to find comedy in such subjects as murder, suicide, insanity and child molestation; lighter plots include the episode where Titus and his friends stage an intervention to get his dad to start drinking again ("Without the sweet haze of alcohol, you're seeing your life for what it is").

Because it's based on the star's real life, "Titus" goes beyond the usual "dysfunctional family" sitcom: while it has its share of South Park-style bad-taste jokes that call attention to their own taboo breaking, it also has a lot of raw, realistic moments that get humour from genuine pain or hurt. Sometimes it even stops going for laughs and just goes for pure pain, as in an angry, bitter argument between Titus and his girlfriend Erin (Cynthia Watros) in the episode "The Breakup." The fact that the show maintains a certain level of realism and truth to its humour gives it a genuine edge that most "edgy" shows don't really have; unlike most "bad taste" comedy, the subjects it deals with really seem to matter to the characters on some level.

Another interesting thing about the show is the mix of styles: every episode includes black-and-white stand-up sequences with Titus talking to the camera (on a set similar to the set he used for his one-man show) as well as sudden cutaways to flashbacks and fantasy sequences. But the stories themselves are done in a very old-school sitcom style, shot on one or two sets like plays, with long scenes and no subplots. It's like "All in the Family" on acid, and it works quite well.

Like I said, it's worth a look if you enjoy a line like "You come into this world defenseless. That's why God gave us baseball bats. Well, he gave us trees. But we knew what he meant."

Bette Middlin'

The next big DVD box set on the horizon is The Bette Davis Collection Volume 2, featuring new special editions of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Jezebel, Old Acquaintance (which caused many reviewers at the time to write: "Old Acquaintance should be forgot"), Marked Woman and The Man Who Came To Dinner.

Of these, The Man Who Came to Dinner is the one I like best, and Davis is the weakest thing in it -- she's miscast in a small and thankless part as the long-suffering assistant to the Alexander Woolcott-esque Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley). Jack Warner was known for sometimes making his stars play these unrewarding second-banana parts just to keep them from getting swelled heads about their star status. But the cast, aside from Davis, is great -- Woolley repeating his stage role; Jimmy Durante, Ann Sheridan, Reginald Gardiner as a Noel Coward caricature and Mary Wickes as the nurse Miss Preen (who has the best speech in the movie and the play it's based on: "After nursing you, Mr. Whiteside, I am going to work in a munitions factory"). Like most Warner Brothers adaptations of plays, it sticks quite close to the stage script and is therefore very stagy and claustrophobic, but it's a lot of fun.

Leonard Maltin recently wrote that he discovered, from memos in the WB archives, that Jack Warner was initially considering hiring Orson Welles to play Whiteside and direct the movie. Welles met with WB executives for preliminary talks about the idea, but the idea was dropped, possibly due to the box-office failure of Citizen Kane.

My Contribution To the "Hunting Accident" Jokebook

"Because the Vice-President's mishap took place on a private ranch where rich people go to hunt quail, the guy he shot was the only creature getting shot in its natural habitat."


Yeah, well, Letterman and Leno's jokes will probably be still worse.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

For All You Canadian Brian Keith Fans

Looks like we Canadians got lucky, and by "we Canadians" I mean "those of us Canadians who are nostalgic for '80s shows with lots of car chases": a Canadian company has brought out a DVD release of the first season of Stephen J. Cannell's Hardcastle and McCormick. It's only available in Canada, but you can order it from Amazon.ca and they'll ship it Southward.

"Hardcastle and McCormick" was created by Cannell (and one of his better staff writers, Patrick Hasburgh) in the wake of the success of "The A-Team." It followed the same basic formula as "The A-Team": the lead characters team up every week to dole out some vigilante justice. Brian Keith plays a judge who has a list of 200 cases he presided over where the defendant was guilty, but had to be let off due to legal technicalities. When he retires, he teams up with an ex-con (Daniel Hugh Kelly) to track down scumbags who got off on technicalities and bring them to justice. Think of it as "My Name is Earl" meets "Dirty Harry." In other words, it's pure '80s: comedy, Rambo-esque contempt for the law, an odd-couple buddy story, and lots and lots of car crashes. Among the three shows of this kind that Cannell turned out in the year 1983 (the other two were "The A-Team" and "Riptide"), this may have been the best, mostly because of Brian Keith. At the price, it's worth a look if you like '80s nostalgia.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

WB Animation: "Draftee Daffy"

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

The next cartoon in this animation-identification series is Bob Clampett's "Draftee Daffy" (1945). Again, some of the identification here was done with the help of an old usenet post by Greg Duffell.

This is the cartoon where Daffy is reading about Allied victories in WWII, praising the war effort, and wishing he could be part of it -- until the Little Man From the Draft Board arrives with his draft notice, upon which Daffy resorts to anything, even murder, to avoid military service. It's a very subversive cartoon for a major-studio release during the Second World War, making fun both of the draft and of pseudo-patriotism (Daffy's literally being an armchair warrior but doesn't want to actually go and fight); and it's also a very funny cartoon in the time-tested "everywhere you turn, he's there" genre (everywhere Daffy goes, the Little Man follows).

While the credit system at WB at the time allowed only one animator to be credited on each cartoon, there were at least four animators who worked on this one: Rod Scribner, Bob McKimson, Manny Gould, and one other animator Greg couldn't identify -- I'm going to hazard a guess that the fourth animator might have been Basil Davidovich, who worked on another cartoon for Clampett around the same time (before being transferred to Chuck Jones' unit); some of the animation of Daffy looks a bit like what Davidovich would later do for Chuck Jones and Art Davis. That's just my guess, though.

The film starts with Daffy walking across his house and celebrating the U.S. Army's "Smashing Frontal Attack On Enemy Rear." This long shot is animated by Manny Gould:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

What Clampett often did was to let one animator do a long panning shot and then break it up with closeups animated by others. This is the case here, as we cut from Gould's animation to a shot of Daffy in front of a painting of General MacArthur; this shot, and the subsequent shot of Daffy pretending he's in combat, is done by Bob McKimson, with his elegant poses and attention to detail:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Now we're back to Daffy walking across the room, and Manny Gould is animating again, with his trademark broad, wild arm gestures:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Now comes a close-up of Daffy on the phone, animated by Rod Scribner. Evven when Scribner does a relatively restrained close-up, he squeezes and squashes a character's head like it's silly putty, and is more concerned with effective acting than making a character look pretty.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

And then we go once again to Daffy walking across that room, until he realizes he's been drafted, and Manny Gould cuts loose with one of his favourite tricks, having characters shove themselves directly into the camera:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Rod Scribner now does the great squash-and-stretch sequence with Daffy looking out the window and seeing the Little Man From the Draft Board:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

And Manny Gould takes over again for Daffy's wild run upstairs, and the scene where he puts on a fake beard and looks out the window again (only to find the Little Man wearing the same fake beard). Gould's wild takes are less about playing around with body shape than Scribner's are; he achieves a wild take by playing with perspective, in this case making Daffy's head and eyes bigger:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

I'm guessing Basil Davidovich -- or if not him, someone other than Gould, Scribner or McKimson -- does the next scene with Daffy on the phone ordering a one-way ticket to the North Pole:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

When Daffy is hiding in the closet (the Little Man, of course, is there too), several different animators work on it; this first bit may be Scribner:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

The wild eye-take as Daffy realizes the Little Man is there is Manny Gould:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

And when Daffy hands the Little Man a bomb, we have some more elegant drawing and carefully-worked-out arm gestures from Bob McKimson:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

The next bit, with Daffy getting handed the bomb back to him by the Little Man, looks like that fourth animator whom I'm guessing to be Davidovich:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

But the shot of the Little Man watching Daffy get blown up looks like Rod Scribner to me; look at the way his eyes and eyebrows are pushed almost to their limits, as if Scribner is trying to see how much he can manipulate a character's body without making him totally shapeless:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

McKimson now does the scene of the Little Man bending over the prostrate Daffy; as Greg has pointed out, this is the kind of scene that McKimson usually handled, e.g. the scene with Elmer observing Bugs's fake death in "A Wild Hare."

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

For the scene of Daffy locking the Little Man in a safe and then flying off on a rocket, I'm once again going to guess Basil Davidovich:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

But the final scene, in hell, is pure Robert McKimson, with Daffy doing the nonchalant "shrugging" gesture that McKimson was so fond of:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Is this a perfect analysis? "Well, now, I wouldn't say that." But it's a start. Anyone who has a better guess as to who that fourth animator was, feel free to chime in.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

McCarey Madness

I was reading the original script of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, written by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, and Paramount contractee Grover Jones (who isn't credited on the finished film). The film was called Cracked Ice at this time. This page details some of the changes that the script underwent between the submission of this script and the start of filming a few months later. In essence, the story is the same, but lacking most of the routines that made Duck Soup what it was. The script was pumped up in two ways: first, by incorporating a bunch of routines written for a Groucho-Chico radio show by the team of Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman (who received an "additional dialogue" credit) and second, through routines and gags added by the director, Leo McCarey. For example, McCarey added the mirror sequence and several other bits that had been staples of the silent, gag-filled comedies he had done for Hal Roach.

McCarey is one of those directors whose work really deserves a more in-depth study than it has received. There's a very strong argument to be made that McCarey in the '30s was the best director in Hollywood, possibly in the world. The variety and quality of his work in that decade is exceptional: in one year, 1937, he made both a stunning screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, and the most heartbreaking, depressing drama about old age ever filmed, Make Way For Tomorrow (a movie that makes Tokyo Story look like a Shirley Temple picture). He made Duck Soup; he made Harold Lloyd's finest sound movie, The Milky Way; he made Love Affair (which he later remade almost scene-for-scene as An Affair To Remember) and Ruggles of Red Gap and the best of the Eddie Cantor musicals (The Kid From Spain) and the multi-star comedy Six of a Kind. He was versatile, he was adept at comedy and drama, and he could bring out the best qualities in any actor -- Cary Grant adapted some of his Cary Grant persona from McCarey's own personality, and comedians like the Marxes and Lloyd gave of their best when McCarey was behind the camera.

What makes it harder to evaluate McCarey's work is that most cinema criticism focuses on a director's visual style -- how does he compose shots, how does he pace the film, how does he move the camera -- or on his thematic obsessions. McCarey's style isn't displayed in his unfussy compositions or the subject-matter he chooses, but in the way actors act in his films. McCarey was one of the few directors who was able to take the freewheeling, seat-of-your-pants style of silent comedy and bring it to the new era of big-budget sound movies. He preferred to work without a finished script (it's doubtful that Duck Soup really had a completed script by the time he started filming) and work out the dialogue and staging on the set with the actors. The unique quality of his work comes from this, from the fact that the actors seem so loose and unforced, as if they're making the scene up as they go along -- because, in some cases, they were. And the essence of McCarey's style is that he would let actors do things in the finished film that would be outtakes from any other movie: cracking up with laughter, trying to get out of each other's way, trailing off in mid-sentence: his best movies seem "real," and the actors don't seem to be acting, whereas most Hollywood movies, then and now, are very regimented and artificial.

The other thing that makes it difficult to evaluate McCarey is that his best work was basically behind him after 1939; his '40s work was very successful but not up to his best (the two priest movies with Bing Crosby), and his '50s work included one of the most embarrassing movies ever made by a major filmmaker, the McCarthyite My Son John. So it's hard to point to McCarey as an example of sustained greatness, though his later movies do have their moments, and he retained his ability to work with actors (compare Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember with the phoned-in performances he was giving other directors that same year). But in his prime, he was something close to a mad genius.

WB Animation: "Show Biz Bugs"

Following up on my post on "Hillbilly Hare": shortly after I started this blog, I did a couple of similar posts on individual animators in Warner Brothers cartoons. I didn't have the ability to post screenshots at the time, so I thought I'd re-post the analysis with illustrations of the animators' work.

I'll start with "Show Biz Bugs" (1957), directed by Friz Freleng. It's a Bugs-Daffy teaming where Daffy is jealous of Bugs' popularity and tries to either outdo him or bump him off.
The cartoon is very funny, as Freleng's cartoons usually are, because of his superb sense of timing; I saw it on the big screen once and it got some of the biggest laughs of the night, in a program that included a bunch of classics. Freleng knew exactly how long a pause should be, when to cut, how long to hold a character in a particular pose, for maximum comic effect.

From 1955 through 1960, Freleng had only three animators in his unit, all veterans: Gerry Chiniquy, Virgil Ross, and former WB director Art Davis. They all had fairly distinctive styles which are easy to spot -- easy enough that I was able to do this particular analysis without leeching off Greg Duffell's work, for once.

The opening scene with Daffy outside the theatre is animated by Gerry Chiniquy. Chiniquy's animation style had always been kind of jerky, based on spasmodic rhythmic movements rather than full body motion; with the lower budgets of the '50s, his animation mostly consisted of characters bending down and jerking their heads up again, with very stiff and angular poses:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

The next scene, with Daffy outside the dressing-room, is animated by Virgil Ross. His animation is graceful, emphasizing the likability of characters like Bugs; he's particularly identifiable by a habit of having a character tilt his body to one side while talking, and by his fondness for having characters point a lot. His way of drawing Daffy is easy to spot here because it seems closer to the '40s model than the others; Daffy's design had changed quite a bit by the late '50s, but Ross kept drawing the smaller, longer-beaked early Daffy.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

The long dance sequence that follows is animated by Gerry Chiniquy. Freleng preferred to give him the dance and musical sequences (Ross was arguably better at them, but Chiniquy usually got them unless he wasn't available), and the style of Bugs and Daffy's dance to "Tea for Two" is quite close to the style of Chiniquy's animation for the famous "This is It" opening of the Bugs Bunny Show.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

The scene with Daffy and the pigeons is probably Chiniquy again:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

The sawing-in-half sequence is Art Davis. He had been a director at Columbia and Warner Brothers, but when his unit was shut down, he stayed at Warners, stopped directing, and animated for Freleng for many years. His movement is a bit less jerky than Chiniquy's and his drawing for Bugs seems different (more "streamlined" for want of a better word) than Chiniquy or Ross. He also has what someone called a "looser" animation style than the others, going in for slightly more extreme poses and exaggerated movements, as much as Freleng would allow for (Freleng didn't like "extreme" animation).

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Daffy saying "hmm, I can get rid of the rabbit and it'll look like an accident" is Virgil Ross, with Ross's trademark use of hand and finger gestures:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Chiniquy gets the brief shot of Daffy working on the explosive xylophone and laughing evilly:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

The subsequent xylophone sequence, with the famous "Endearing Young Charms" gag (which writer Warren Foster had previously used in the Private Snafu cartoon Booby Traps and the Bugs/Yosemite Sam scuffle Ballot Box Bunny) is Art Davis. Again, Freleng tended to give him a lot of scenes involving something extreme -- extreme anger or extreme violence, both of which are in this particular scene.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Finally, the entire closing scene is Virgil Ross: the old-school drawing of Daffy is one clue, as is the positioning of Bugs' ears; Ross had a trick of characterizing Bugs when he wasn't speaking by positioning his ears in unusual ways, one ear slightly down, ears farther apart than usual, and so on.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

And that's all, folks.

Some more notes on the cartoon itself:

- It recycles two major gags -- the pigeon gag (which cartoon writer Mike Maltese reportedly called his favourite cartoon gag of all time) and the closing gag about a trick that can only be done once -- from an earlier Freleng cartoon, "Curtain Razor," where Porky Pig is a talent agent watching a bunch of bad performers audition.

- "Show Biz Bugs" also features some very stylized backgrounds from avant-garde painter Boris Gorelick, who had a brief and not very happy period as Freleng's background painter.

- The concept of Daffy being jealous of Bugs's stardom was a concept that would be used in the prime-time Bugs Bunny Show, and which unfortunately would take over Daffy's character to the point of ruining him. Up to 1954 or so, Daffy had been getting angrier and more frustrated, but could still become a winner, or a crazy duck, or a con man, if the director preferred it that way. By the late '50s, he was just angry and greedy all the time; by the early '60s, he was basically a villain.