Thursday, March 23, 2006

Noir Town

According to DVD Beaver, the contents of the next Warner Brothers Film Noir box are:

- On Dangerous Ground (1952) - Nicholas Ray directs noir A-lister Robert Ryan as a rogue cop who falls for the sister (Ida Lupino) of the murderer he's trying to catch. Bernard Herrmann wrote the score.
- His Kind of Woman (1951) - A nutty but incredibly enjoyable Howard Hughes production, from the period where he was basically running RKO into the ground. It's got Mr. noir himself, Robert Mitchum, and Hughes favorite Jane Russell shimmying around, and Vincent Price in a movie-stealing performance as an actor trying to be a tough guy in real life. (Mitchum: "I'm too young to die. You?" Price: "Too well-known.")
- The Racket (1951) - I don't know how noir this is; it's more of a straightforward crime-fighting story, with honest cops taking down the titular racket. However, it's an RKO film that has Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum and Lizabeth Scott, so it's noir even if it isn't.
- Border Incident (1949) - One of a surprisingly large number of tough, gritty movies MGM made in the late '40s and early '50s -- after Louis B. Mayer started losing power at the studio, its reputation as a home of family-friendly escapism wasn't really operative any more -- this is about a Mexican federal agent (Ricardo Montalban) who teams up with an American fed (George Murphy) to stop corrupt businessmen who smuggle illegal workers into California and then exploit them for no money. Great location photography by John Alton; the director, Anthony Mann, would the following year become one of the top directors of Westerns.
- Lady in the Lake (1947), also known as "The one where director/star Robert Montgomery shot the whole thing from the point of view of the unseen Philip Marlowe," or "Robert Montgomery's bizarre experiment," or "What was Robert Montgomery thinking?" Something must have been in the air in the late '40s, since the following year Alfred Hitchcock would pull off an almost equally bizarre experiment (shooting Rope in what looked like one uninterrupted take). As for Lady in the Lake, I would have liked to have seen what the underrated Montgomery could have done as an on-screen Philip Marlowe.

But Brain, I'm the Producer!

Platypus Comix has Part 1 of a projected multi-part interview with Tom Ruegger. Ruegger was the senior producer for Warner Brothers TV animation in the '90s; he developed "Tiny Toons," "Animaniacs" and "Freakazoid!" among other shows, and was an executive producer on "Batman: The Animated Series" (he co-wrote the famous "Beware the Grey Ghost" episode). The interview focuses on his work before coming to WB, with Filmation and Hanna-Barbera; the look at what Hanna-Barbera in the '80s is pretty interesting, and a reminder that "A Pup Named Scooby-Doo" was actually a pretty good show.

KotH Protest Too Much

The news about the surprise renewal of "King of the Hill," which I broke on this blog several weeks ago, is now official. It'll be the first and last scoop I'll ever have access to.

This New York Post article describes the process of trying to get a long-cancelled show back into production very quickly: after the renewal, which came in January, the producers had two months to re-negotiate a deal for the show, sign back all the voice talent, find writers and animators, and so on. As with "Family Guy" and "Futurama," Fox cartoons never die.

One thing people don't remember about "King of the Hill" is that when it started in 1997, it was big -- more of a genuine pop-culture phenomenon than "Family Guy" or "Futurama" ever were. The ratings it got in the post-"Simpsons" slot sometimes even surpassed "The Simpsons"; it was named the number-one show of the year by TV Guide; it inspired a tie-in book within the first year ("The Boy Ain't Right"). The show's popularity stumbled in its third season when Fox moved it to a new night, Tuesday, hoping that it could anchor the network on a night on which it hadn't been particularly competitive. This didn't work out, and the following year KotH was in the unglamorous, under-publicized time-slot of 7:30 on Sundays, where it has mostly stayed ever since. It's been a solid fan favourite ever since, especially in syndication, but it never recaptured the media buzz it was getting in 1997-8. Also, since 2001 the show's Texas setting has caused it to be pigeonholed as a Southern/Western show, though its appeal is actually pretty universal and its portrayal of small-town suburban life rings true almost anywhere.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Best Tasmanian Devil Cartoon

"Ducking the Devil."

Created by Bob McKimson, the Tasmanian Devil had an odd history. He appeared in one Bugs Bunny cartoon in 1954, "Devil May Hare," made just before the WB cartoon studio temporarily shut down. After returning, McKimson made two more shorts with the character, both of which appeared in 1957: "Bedevilled Rabbit," and "Ducking" (which teamed him for the first and only time with Daffy Duck). McKimson later said that the character was revived because Jack Warner told the studio's cartoon producer, Eddie Selzer (in his last year at the studio) that he liked the Tasmanian Devil character and wanted to see more of him. But after we saw more of him in 1957, he couldn't have been a particularly big hit with audiences, since there nothing for several years. Suddenly Taz returned again as a foil for Bugs in two more cartoons: 1962's "Bill of Hare" and one of the last Bugs Bunny cartoons, 1964's "Dr. Devil and Mr. Hare." His incredible popularity -- which made him a merchandising favourite and even got him his own TV cartoon show, "Taz-Mania" -- came later, but those two early-'60s cartoons might have been influenced by favourable reaction to broadcasts of the Taz cartoons on the prime-time "Bugs Bunny Show."

Note re "Ducking the Devil" that McKimson is trying to adapt to the new, greedy, craven Daffy popularized around that time by Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, but his heart isn't really in it. Of the three directors at WB in the '50s, McKimson stuck the longest with traditional characterizations, especially of Daffy: the wacky hoo-hooing Daffy was starring in McKimson cartoons as late as 1958. Here Daffy is a "craven little coward," but he can also be wacky in the '40s Daffy way, and he actually wins in the end and is rewarded for his greed -- something Jones would never have allowed even for the "wacky" Daffy.

The Greatest Chimp of All

Better than "Me and the Chimp." Better than "Mr. Smith." Better than various versions of Bonzo. There can be only one "Lancelot Link/Secret Chimp," and he's coming to DVD. Chimp fans everywhere can rejoice.

The Magnificent Ambersons of Cartoons

Here's an interesting thread on what appears to be the newest attempt to reconstruct Richard Williams' animated feature The Thief and the Cobbler. It's a very elaborate bootleg, but apparently of much better quality than scratchy workprint versions of the film that float around.

This feature is the great massacred legend of animation, as famous in its own way as Greed or The Magnificent Ambersons for the studio butchery it suffered. As Eddie Bowers explains, Williams spent over 20 years working on this feature film, borrowing time and money to work on the film whenever possible. Finally he secured a distribution deal with a studio to complete the film, but the studio took the film away from him, re-cut it, re-dubbed it, and re-titled it Arabian Night to make it seem more like an Aladdin knockoff. The product that was released to the public was beautifully animated, since most of the animation was directed by Williams, but it wasn't anything like what it was supposed to be.

The goal of a complete, fully-restored, official release of The Thief and the Cobbler remains a possibility, but, as Wikipedia details, there are problems involving rights, payments, and the preservation of the necessary material. The end result is that animation has its own legend of studio hacks tearing an auteur and his dream project to shreds, and the mystery of what the "real" movie would have been like if the creator had had his way.

Depressing Lyrics: "A Pox Upon the Traitor's Brow!"

Continuing my occasional series of depressing, dark or just-plain-wrong song lyrics from Broadway musicals, here are the lyrics to a song from Drat! The Cat!, lyrics by Ira Levin. The song, "A Pox Upon the Traitor's Brow," is sung by a bunch of cops who think that one of their own turned out to be the titular cat burglar (they are of course wrong, but who cares about the plot), and the song just consists of a list of horrible calamities that they wish upon the traitor. If you need to think of a terrible thing that can happen, it's probably in here:

A pox upon the traitor's brow!
A curse upon his head!
He tricked us with his sacred vow,
Then took the jewels and fled.
He tricked us all and then he fled,
God knows where he is now.
A curse upon the traitor's head!
A pox upon his brow!

A pox upon the traitor's brow!
A pox upon his ear!
A cold that knocks on New Year's Day
And moves in for the year!
Bunions on his toes
And giant blisters on his heels!
May chronic indigestion
Make a folly of his meals!
A siezure that's related
To an apoplectic fit,
A boil or two located
So the creature cannot sit,
Charley horses, strained tendons, and ruptured ligaments,
Baseball fingers, paper cuts, and similar irksome disfigaments.

A scourge upon the traitor's neck!
A foulness on his breath!
In both his eyes a cinder speck
That stings like bitter death!
May vertigo affect him
When he's standing on the ground,
An itchiness he cannot scratch
When people are around!
May dandruff in great showers
Make the turncoat look outrave.
Cuts that bleed for hours
In the wake of ev'ry shave.
Never in all my life have I encountered such diabolical depravity!
May ev'ry one of the blackguard's teeth contain a cavity!

Misfortune take the lowly worm!
May shingles leave him weak!
May ev'ry mischief-making germ
Play house in his physique!
Hangnails on his cuticles,
A constant loss of weight,
A shelf of pharmaceuticals
Entirely out of date!
Measles, mumps, the pip, the grippe,
A classic case of mange,
A thing upon his lower lip
Completely new and strange,
This galaxy of afflictions beyond one man's endurance,
And as the final blow, no medical insurance!

A pox upon the traitor's brow!
A curse upon his head!
He tricked us with his sacred vow,
Then took the jewels and fled.
He tricked us all and then he fled,
God knows where he is now.
A curse upon the traitor's head!
A pox upon his brow!

Monday, March 20, 2006

OT: How I Got Here

You may have noticed, if you're a regular reader (and there's no reason you should be), that my blog has incorporated an increasing number of politicized posts. I want to apologize for that, since I never intended this blog to be that way, and I'm going to try to return the focus to arts and pop culture as originally intended.

But maybe it would help if I posted a little bit about why this happened. If you look at my old posts from usenet -- the ones from 1996 through 2003 or so -- you'll find that whenever I mention politics I come off as neutral or even conservative on many issues. I really wasn't interested in politics; to the extent that I was, I would have defined myself as a moderate, middle-of-the-road type.

And then came the Iraq War. If 9/11 was a defining moment for some people, the Iraq War was a defining moment for many others, particularly for political moderates who tended to believe in the good faith of political leaders. For here was a moment when something big was happening, and it clearly wasn't in good faith. We had governments and media people arguing that the proper response to 9/11 was to invade a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, and that the solution to Fundamentalist Islam was to topple a secular dictator. Even assuming that Saddam needed to go, the constant tie-in with 9/11 made no sense whatsoever. But, of course, polls soon showed that 70% of people believed that Saddam was responsible for 9/11, and without that, there would never have been any kind of popular support for a war. For a lot of us, it was our fullest introduction to how governments can deceive people without actually lying directly (so they can always claim they never actually said X); you just let people believe what they want to believe, and frame the issue so as to encourage these mistaken beliefs. Governments do this all the time, of course, and being as cynical about politics as the next person, I'd come to expect this. But I'd never seen a government try so hard to keep people ill-informed, scared and paranoid in an attempt to get them to support a war. War isn't a farm bill or a drug law; it's the biggest thing a government can do, and there was something deeply fishy about the way it was being done.

One of the odd things about the run-up to the Iraq War was how rare it was to find, in the media, a critique of the war on practical grounds: that is, the idea that such a war would be more trouble than it was worth. The talk shows were split between people who wanted to invade unilaterally and people who wanted to invade only with lots of allies; the idea of not invading at all was hardly discussed. Even the Chomskyite left had trouble stirring up opposition to the war, because the lefties had spent years objecting to the Iraq sanctions regime -- and opposing the war essentially meant defending continued sanctions. It was left to the so-called "paleoconservative" right, the Pat Buchanan, Eric Margolis types, to make the obvious case against the war, but even those of us who agreed with them found it tough to stomach their tendency to blame the whole thing on Israel.

So who was out there speaking for those of us who felt that it was just a terrible idea -- terrible because, bad as Saddam was, there would be a good possibility that what would follow him would be worse; and also because there was no good reason to believe that the West had any vital interest in taking him out? Not many people. There was hard-ass realist Brent Scowcroft, semi-exiled from the Bush II administration for pointing out the obvious; and there was moderate Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who made a speech in February 2003 which, as blogger Glenn Greenwald pointed out, was almost painfully prescient about what could go wrong with a war like this, and stands as a model of moderate good sense compared to most of what you heard on the right and left in 2003, including the simple point that "The Administration has not explained how a lasting peace, and lasting security, will be achieved in Iraq once Saddam Hussein is toppled."

But, you know, when there's so much consensus on a particular point, you tend to doubt your own judgment. Here you had the war supported by most major spokespeople for both U.S. political parties; by Tony Blair (note: it is an example of how pathetic liberals can sometimes be that some liberals of my acquaintance still admire Tony Blair. Stop it. Every lie the Bush administration told, Blair told, and sometimes originated); by most big media spokespeople -- you get the picture. How could all these people be wrong? So I didn't stop believing that the war was a mistake; but I did retain my belief in the good faith of these people, that they had their legitimate reasons for doing things the way they did them. I don't tend to assume that people go into politics just for money or power (they can get those things outside of politics). Even as late as November 2004, I had an argument with someone who was furious at Bush's re-election. I was upset too, believing that Kerry would have hired better foreign-policy people than Bush and listened to them more than Bush did; but I defended the good faith of the Bush administration in the sense that the so-called "neoconservative" approach to foreign policy was based on a legitimate, if misguided, belief. You can be wrong without being evil.

Well, the last years and a half, which has reduced Bush and Blair to new heights of lowness, popularity-wise, has changed a lot of my perceptions. I don't want to elaborate on the various scandals and screw-ups since then. But what's changed is that I no longer believe that there was any good faith involved here. What emerges from the revised picture of the Iraq war is of politicians determined to exploit 9/11 for political gain. We've seen politicians playing on people's paranoia about terrorism and trying to keep people afraid; we've seen the threat of terrorism exaggerated out of all proportion and various fear-crazed politicians and pundits taking to the airwaves to express their cowardly, childish belief that all rational thought must cease because some Muslim, somewhere, might have a box-cutter. And the final straw for me was the revelation of the illegal wiretapping story (yes, it was illegal, yes, I've heard the silly arguments about why it's not "really" illegal, but it's very, very illegal), the final revelation that these people were treating the metaphorical "war on terror" as though it were a real war, and that therefore the government could grab "wartime powers" essentially forever.

I could take the disaster of Iraq as a sad outcome of a good-faith mistake. But the exploitation of 9/11 for political purposes and power-grabbing has been the most shameful thing I have witnessed in my lifetime from a once-admirable political system. And the transformation of "conservatism" and even "libertarianism" into a mixture of cowardice, mendacity and sheer fantasy has been upsetting too. (Guide to the difference between good-faith conservatives and cowardly conservatives: if a writer uses the term "our jihadist enemy," accuses war opponents of being "pacifists," tries to change the subject to the oil-for-food program, or says that the U.S. needs to "win" in Iraq without explaining what winning would entail, he or she supports the war out of sheer cowardly fear of any and all Muslims anywhere. Luckily there are some non-crazy war supporters out there and I have had instructive conversations with them.)

Three years ago today, as the war was starting, I thought some of the people I knew -- who also opposed the war, but doubted the good faith of those running it -- were over-the-top lefties. Some time later, I thought they were over-the-top lefties for talking about torture and illegal government power-grabs.

Now I know they were moderates. Sad, angry moderates who never thought they would witness something like this from governments they had been taught to respect and even admire.

Like me.

More Nessmania

More quotes from Les Nessman of "WKRP in Cincinnati," who has to be one of the most quotable TV characters of all time.

Most quotes courtesy of TV's Other 10 Percent.

LES: My great aunt Eureka Nessman lived in a house very like this once, all alone. She had a little parakeet and she used to let it fly free throughout the house.
LES: Then she bought another parakeet, and another, and more and more until finally there were thousands of parakeets. And the mess they made was beyond belief. Aunt Eureka had gone insane, of course, living all alone in a house very much like this one.

LES: When President Richard Milhous Nixon resigned, I led the news with that story. Looking back, I think I made the right decision.

LES: If the Beatles are the construct of modern music--and I use that word "construct" incorrectly--surely they were given birth to by Elvis Presley. A giant for sure, but the product of the black experience. Ergo--and I use that word correctly--blacks created modern music! Scratch an Allman Brother, and you have black. Scratch Billy Jo-ell, and you have Howling Wolf! I could go on, but my mother is in town. Let's just say that every white rock and roll musician working today should take half of his or her paycheck and mail it directly to Chuck Berry. At least that's what I think. And I won't even go into jazz. Arnold, enjoy your visit to the station. Venus, nice visiting with you too!

JOHNNY: I don't know, Les. What do women want?
LES: Tupperware.

LES (coaching Mr. Carlson before an election debate): The secret is to appear to answer all the questions when in truth it's all mumbo-jumbo. Here, let me show you. Herb, ask me this question.
[Les hands herb a card with a question written on it.]
HERB: Surely. "Mr. Candidate, what is your energy program?"
LES: Right now, I'm devoting a great deal of time and study to that problem. And I intend to issue a position paper on that. A position that is at once simple, yet complex. Flexible, and above all else, fair to every American.

LES: I've often thought about putting Mother into a home. Her apartment seems so large now, what with her getting smaller all the time.

LES: Mr. Carlson, I wanted to wish you a safe journey to Dayton.
MR. CARLSON: Thank you.
LES: Dayton is where Mother lives.
MR. CARLSON: I know, Les.
LES: Well, goodbye, Mr. Carlson, and beware the Dayton Poisoner.

HERB: When you hear "heart operation," what's the first thing that pops into your mind?
LES: Shogun.
HERB: What?
LES: Dr. Kildare was in it.

LES: Have you ever wondered why Russian women look like men?
BAILEY: I hadn't noticed.
LES: I think they kidnap men from all over the world, take them to Moscow, and turn them into Russian women. That's what I think happened to Jimmy Hoffa. By now he's probably a grandmother in the Ukraine.

LES: Last night I was feeling completely alone in the cosmos. An insignificant speck in the sandbox of time. Which is unusual for me, Johnny. I'm generally a pretty "up" fellow.
JOHNNY: I'll say.
LES: But I remembered what Mother Nessman said to do when frustrated, and so, I beat my rugs. Every night this week I've beaten my rugs. They're very clean.

(Jennifer is trying to tell Les that the woman he's dating is a hooker)
JENNIFER: Les, I'm talking about the oldest profession.
LES: Lorraine's a farmer?

STEEL: I like to think that a person's name says a lot about the type of person he is. What was your name again?
LES (after a pause): Les.

(During a tornado, the only emergency warning Les can find is about an impending Russian invasion, so he substitutes the word "tornado" for "Russian")
LES: The city of Cincinnati has just been attacked by the godless... tornadoes! Citizens are advised to arm themselves immediately! If you see a tornado in your area, please call 555-WKRP to keep us appraised of any enemy tornado movements.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Rockford Update

Season 2 of "The Rockford Files" will include the original two-hour pilot (with a different actor as Rockford's dad), which for some reason was left off the season 1 set. The only new special feature is a new interview with Stephen J. Cannell.

When season 3 comes out and the show really hits its stride, it would be nice to see an interview with David Chase, whose arrival on the staff did a lot to turn "Rockford" from a good show to a great one.

The Nessman Factor

This pop-culture comparison's too good to pass up:

Bill O'Reilly on his radio show, March 10, 2006:

"You know, in a sane world, every country would unite against Iran and blow it off the face of the earth. That would be the sane thing to do."

Les Nessman talking about Iran on his WKRP radio show, February 14, 1981:

...And blow the whole country, oil fields and all, right off the map. ... We could take out Iraq, too, then apologize and say it was just a typographical error."

It's Les Nessman's world now, and we just live in it.

Other great Nessman quotes:

"German measles. Russian flu. Montezuma's revenge. And why do we say a foreign word whenever someone sneezes? Tomorrow I'll take a look at swine flu, up close and personal."

"America? Who was that lady I saw you with last night? Could it have been the sweet seductress known as the Communist conspiracy? Was it she who stood under the streetlights, luring the farm boys with her broad shoulders? Beware! Think about it! "

"And finally, did you know that only a miraculous set of circumstances makes life here on Earth possible? For instance, the planet's size is just exactly right to hold our atmosphere. The atmosphere contains just enough oxygen to support life. And our distance from the sun is just perfect for the right temperature. Should there be even a trivial change in any of these conditions, all life here on Earth would certainly be obliterated in a matter of milliseconds. This is Les Nessman saying good day, and may the good news be yours.

"In a situation like this, I always ask myself, what would my hero Edward R. Murrow think? And I think that Ed would think that this was censorship. Then I think about what my other hero, General George Patton, would think, and I think George would think that radio and television ought to be cleaned up, and if he were alive today, he'd take two armoured calvalry divisions into Hollywood and knock all those liberal pinheads into the Pacific! So as you can see, I'm a very confused man. And when I get confused, I watch TV. Television is never confusing. It's all so simple somehow. "

Or as Les's announcement tape put it: "This has been Les Nessman, whose views do represent the views of this station."

In Haydn

This is one music-related Peanuts strip I hadn't seen before.

No comic strip is complete without a Haydn Symphony # 94 reference.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Unexpected Greatness from "Bewitched"

The third season of "Bewitched" was the first in colour. It was not as good as the first two seasons, for a number of reasons: the increasingly repetitive plots, the death of the original Gladys Kravitz (Alice Pearce), and the complete abandonment of the sophisticated screwball tone that first season writer/producer Danny Arnold had sought to bring to the show. (As he mentioned in this 1965 article, Arnold saw "Bewitched" as an opportunity to use fantasy situations as metaphors for everyday, real-life problems like infidelity and bigotry; Elizabeth Montgomery's husband, William Asher, tended to go more for standardized wacky fantasy plots after he took over.) It's still worth watching for the usual reasons: Elizabeth Montgomery, Dick York, Agnes Moorehead, and various special guest witches.

But near the end of the third season comes an episode that is so good -- so much better, in fact, than the rest of the season -- that it would always throw me for a loop whenever it came on in syndication. This was an episode called "Charlie Harper, Winner", an episode that departed from the formula the show had followed for most of the season: no wacky relatives, no magic spells that louse up Darrin's attempt to land a big advertising account. The story instead uses a more down-to-earth sitcom premise: Darrin meets an old college friend who is more successful than he is.

The friend flaunts his success and his conspicuous consumption, and in particular the fact that he's bought his wife an expensive fur coat that Darrin could never afford to give Samantha The only fantasy element in the episode comes when Samantha, upset at the couple's attempts to make Darrin feel inferior, uses witchcraft to create a mink coat of her own. (In popular culture, the mink coat was the ultimate status symbol, the clearest point of differentiation between the middle and upper classes: you had "made it" when you could afford to buy your wife a real mink coat.) The coat impresses the wealthy couple but mortifies Darrin: alone with Samantha, he angrily reveals the real source of his inferiority complex: his knowledge that he can't give Samantha anything that she can't give herself. Because she can do and have anything she wants, there's nothing he can achieve for her. The scene isn't played for laughs, and, indeed, most of the rest of the episode is quite serious and played for emotional impace rather than jokes.

Despite -- no, not despite, because of -- the fantasy elements, the episode has some interesting things to say about what happens when a man is married to a woman who doesn't need him to be the breadwinner; it takes the gender and class issues that were always a part of "Bewitched" (we all agree that Darrin's kind of a jerk, and that Samantha is sort of like a rich woman adjusting to suburban housewifery after a life of upper-class idleness) and brings them to the surface. It also digs deeper than we expect into Samantha and Darrin, making them seem like three-dimensional characters and giving their relationship some real depth. It's one of my favourite television episodes, but it really almost seems too good for this season of "Bewitched." It suggests what "Bewitched" could have been if it had really tried to explore the idea of magic as a metaphor for real-world issues (the kind of thing Danny Arnold was trying to do early on, but only fitfully got onto the show).

The episode was written by a freelancer named Earl Barrett, who also wrote the episode that many of the people involved with "Bewitched" cited as their favourite: the first season's "A is For Aardvark." And, again, that's an episode that digs much deeper than usual for "Bewitched," even in the relatively sophisticated first season. The premise of that episode is that Darrin gets a taste of what it's like to have Samantha's power, and immediately disappoints her by becoming lazy and idle, deciding that he should quit his job and they should just live off magic for the rest of their lives. That episode answered all the nagging questions people ask about the show -- why would Samantha agree to stop using her powers, why did she marry this guy, why does Darrin keep his damn advertising job and live in the suburbs -- and again presented real emotional depth in the couple's relationship. I don't know whether I prefer it to "Charlie Harper," but it's at the very least the second-best episode of the series.

I've always wondered why this Earl Barrett fellow -- a good, solid freelance sitcom writer but not legendary or anything like that -- saw possibilities in the show and the characters that the regular writers didn't seem to see, but I wonder what "Bewitched" would have been like if he'd been running it. It's always tantalizing to see a good show briefly become great when one writer takes it to a new level.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"Bugs Bunny, Greatest Banned Player Ever" has the most elaborate analysis imaginable of the cartoon "Baseball Bugs." It takes the whole cartoon-physics discussion to a new, dare I say sabermetric, level.

Sample quote: "[Bugs] Bunny’s ability to control energy is further demonstrated on a play when, faced with an unconventional defensive alignment in which all nine Gorillas form up off the third base line, is able to hit all nine of them with a batted ball, maintaining the ball’s speed."

Fox In the Henhouse

Via TV Party, here's a strange little promo for the 1969-70 television series "Bracken's World", a soapy drama about behind-the-scenes life at a major motion picture studio.

"Bracken's World" was produced by the TV division of 20th Century-Fox, and made liberal use of the Fox lot (and sometimes Fox contract players) for authentic studio atmosphere. It's therefore valuable as a time capsule of what Fox was like at the time when the Darryl Zanuck regime was falling apart. Fox's productions from the late '60s and early '70s are oddly fascinating because they reveal a studio that (unlike some of the other studios, which had already downsized) retained all the machinery and resources of an old-fashioned big studio -- standing sets, old-school technicians, contract players -- but where there was a behind-the-scenes war going on about how to adapt to the changing cinema culture. So you had the kind of huge, glossy, super-expensive productions Zanuck loved, like Hello, Dolly!, but you also had movies that were sort of greenlit behind Zanuck's back, like M*A*S*H. A studio that could put all its resources behind Myra Breckenridge -- a bizarre combination of Old Hollywood gloss and sheen with a lame attempt at New Hollywood with-it-ness -- is a studio that doesn't quite know what it's doing or where it's going, and it's interesting to see some of the results.

I think the emblematic Fox contract performer of this era is probably Linda Harrison, the spectacularly beautiful Fox contractee who was in Planet of the Apes and "Bracken's World," never really found a niche at the studio, and is mostly remembered as a stunning walk-on who almost never had a line of dialogue. (She also briefly married Darryl Zanuck's son Richard, who apparently was abusive toward her.) Somehow, in any of her appearances in Fox movies or TV shows, she comes off as a '50s starlet lost in a late '60s/early '70s cinema world, which is probably how Darryl Zanuck felt too. More about this in the book "The Fox That Got Away: The Last Days of the Zanuck Dynasty at Twentieth Century-Fox," by Stephen Silverman.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Maureen Stapleton, RIP

The great stage and screen actress Maureen Stapleton has died at the age of 80. Here is a partial list of her theatre credits, which included originating the lead roles in The Rose Tattoo, Toys in the Attic and two Neil Simon dramedies.

My favourite Maureen Stapleton story is from the filming of Bye Bye Birdie, during which the director of the film, George Sidney, had focused more and more attention and screen time on the young and hot (career-wise and sex-appeal-wise) Ann-Margret. At the wrap party, Maureen Stapleton got up and said: "I guess I'm the only person in this room who doesn't want to fuck Ann-Margret."

Whether Paul Lynde was in the room at the time is a question that remains unanswered.

More Cannell-oni

And here are some more main title sequences from '80s Stephen J. Cannell shows with Mike Post theme songs:

The mother of all insanely catchy theme songs, "The Greatest American Hero":

The enjoyable but short-lived "Stingray," starring Nick Mancuso in what might be described as a better-written version of "Knight Rider" (except the car didn't talk):

And last but not least, the ultimate '80s title sequence with the ultimate Mike Post (and his composing partner Pete Carpenter) theme song, "The A-Team." The opening narration, by the way, was by producer John Ashley, formerly an actor in "Beach Party" movies.

Are you all '80s-ed out yet?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Art of the Internet: The "Shorter" Post

Once in a while I'd like to write a post on literary or artistic forms that seem to be exclusive to the Internet -- that, in many cases, couldn't have existed anywhere else but the Internet. I'll start with one of the more intriguing net-exclusive literary forms: The "shorter" post, aka just the "shorter." This is a type of post that has become extremely popular with bloggers, especially snarky, satirical bloggers.

Gavin M. at Sadly, No! gives a brief rundown of the origin and style of the "shorter" post:

The 'shorter' concept was invented in early 2003 by Daniel Davies (now of Crooked Timber), as a way to make fun of long-winded right-blogger Stephen Den Beste. Today, the acknowledged master of the form is Elton Beard of Busy Busy Busy...

The object is to distill a twisty, mendacious... argument into a single brief passage that manages both to accurately portray the thoughts and sentiments of the victim, and to highlight the argument's absurdity.

The form of the "shorter" is simple and precise. It consists of:

a) A link to the essay or post that is being "shortered."
b) The subject heading or caption "Shorter [name of author]"
c) One sentence, as short as the blogger can make it, distilling the entire essay or post into one ridiculous or banal assertion.

The "shorter" derives in particular from many bloggers' contempt for pundits and editorialists, and reflects their desire to show that when you look closely at many long-winded, self-important pieces of punditry, you find that the writer is using up a lot of words to say something ridiculous or stupid.

Here's an example that Gavin M. cites as one of the best "shorters" of all time. Elton Beard of Busy Busy Busy links to a New York Times piece written by Kenneth Pollack, called "Five Ways to Win Back Iraq." The piece lays out five strategies which the author thinks the Bush administration should consider for turning Iraq around. Here's how Beard boils it down:

Shorter Kenneth M. Pollack:

Five Ways to Win Back Iraq

I have some more advice to give about Iraq.

That one line reduces the whole long-winded article to its essence, which is its utter pointlessness: here is another pundit who, having spent years giving advice which no one will ever listen to, proceeds to give more advice which no one will ever listen to. The problem here is not so much what the pundit is saying but the fact that he thinks anyone cares, and that's what Beard focuses on in this particular "shorter."

A more common form of shortering is to take a particularly mendacious or wrong-headed essay and show how mendacious and wrong-headed it is once you strip away all the qualifiers and big words. This works particularly well with Wall Street Journal op-eds, because all the writers for that page are expected to use big words and snobby rhetoric in the service of awful ideas. So bloggers have a fine old time with; here are some examples:

From Sadly, No!:

Shorter Wall Street Journal

A Tortured Debate

Torture's not all that bad when you just call it "aggressive interrogation" instead. See?

Or this particularly perfect one from Busy Busy Busy, pretty prescient when you consider it was posted almost three years ago:

Shorter Wall Street Journal Editorial:

Lack of Intelligence

The task of America's intelligence agencies is not to provide policy makers with reliable data but to fabricate evidence in support of administration policies which the public would reject if it knew the truth.

Or one more, from Roy Edroso's Alicublog, finding an especially vile WSJ editorialist asserting that African-Americans need to stop "cultivating grievances":

SHORTER JAMES TARANTO: Black people had better stop trying to make us feel guilty or we shan't have anything to do with them.

And so on.

Now, satirically boiling down a long-winded argument to its banal essence is not unique to the web. What gives the "shorter" its unique effect is that the web allows the satirist to link directly to the piece he or she is satirizing. This obviates the need for the writer to explain what the original piece is about, or quote from it in order to make fun of it; if you're writing a piece like this for a newspaper or magazine or book, you have to quote from the original or else no one will know what you're talking about. On the net, the satirist just has to send the reader to the original piece, which frees up space to take down the author's argument while wasting very few words on it, as if it's not even worth the blogger's time to write more about it. The hyperlink, something unique to the web, informs and style and effect of the "shorter," making it a peculiarly web-based form.

Update: Paul Denton does a "shorter" on my post above:

Shorter "The Art of the Internet: The 'Shorter' Post":
The 'shorter' concept is very, very clever, and I applaud its use to smugly mock those stupid and irredeemably wicked people with whom I have philosophical differences.

That's about right. The great thing about the "shorter" is that it allows you to reduce any long-winded pontification to its banal essence -- mine included.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Cannell Channel

Having mentioned that "Riptide" was coming to DVD, I felt it necessary to post the opening title sequence of the show (courtesy of the indispensable Retro Junk). Like all the self-produced shows of Stephen J. Cannell, it features lots of clips of things blowing up or falling down, and a Mike Post theme tune that tells you exactly what kind of show this is. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Heaven help me, I miss long title sequences like this.

As I said before, "Riptide" was one of several shows Cannell created very quickly in the wake of the success of "The A-Team" in early 1983. His decision to become a totally independent producer of TV series -- making shows with little or no studio involvement and owning the copyrights himself -- had left him near-bankrupt at one point, with a bunch of flops (including the wonderful "Tenspeed and Brown Shoe," which really needs a DVD release) and one semi-hit ("The Greatest American Hero"). "The A-Team" finally made him a success, and he almost instantly came up with two shows to follow in its footsteps: "Hardcastle and McCormick" arrived in fall 1983, and "Riptide" in January of 1984. Meaning that Cannell was executive-producing, writing for, and renting space for three shows simultaneously. And as a look at the episode guides reveals, he was writing several scripts a season himself for each of these shows. Kind of astounding, really.

The limitations of doing a big action show without studio resources can be seen in each of these shows, which tend to set lots of scenes in warehouses -- which Cannell often used in lieu of studio space -- and recycle lots of footage; there's an "A-Team" episode where the first five minutes consist entirely of a chase scene from an earlier episode, dubbed over with new dialogue. And of course we have to factor in the basic cheesiness and the fact that every show was a re-hash of something else that NBC wanted to cash in on ("Riptide" = Brandon Tartikoff asking for something like Magnum P.I., but with a helicopter like Blue Thunder). But these shows had one thing going for them that most cheesy action shows didn't, and that was Cannell himself. I think Cannell is one of the best television writers ever, and when he writes a script for one of his own shows, no matter how cheesy or derivative the setup, he usually manages to raise the tone of the show with his smart, terse dialogue, balance between humor and seriousness, and ability to make even stereotypical characters interesting. Every character on a Cannell show seems a little more three-dimensional and fleshed out when Cannell is writing for them. For example, I've already mentioned in an earlier post that the only script Cannell wrote for the show "Hunter" -- a show he produced but didn't create -- is so much better than the rest of the first season's episodes that it almost seems incongruous.

I've said before that the unevenness of Cannell's self-produced shows may stem in part from the lack of really good writers to back him up, the way Juanita Bartlett and David Chase backed him up and even surpassed him on "Rockford Files." Of the people Cannell had working for him at his own production company, the best was probably Patrick Hasburgh -- who co-created "Hardcastle" and "21 Jump Street." Frank Lupo, who co-created "A-Team" and "Riptide" and "Wiseguy" and soloed on "Hunter," was sort of Cannell without the sense of humour. Babs Greyhosky, the "token female" on the staff, was very good and funny and given to off-kilter ideas; she wrote an "A-Team" script about the A-Team helping out a bunch of hookers, which NBC wouldn't produce, and when "Riptide" was cancelled due to competition from ABC's "Moonlighting", she and Tom Blomquist sent off "Riptide" with an elaborate Moonlighting parody. But some of the other staff writers in the mid-'80s tended to turn out half-a-dozen undifferentiated scripts a year for several different shows; this meant that these shows could seem dull when Cannell wasn't writing for them, and often collapsed entirely after Cannell turned his attention to another project. The only Cannell show that improved after he stopped writing for it was probably "Wiseguy."

And to close this off with an extra dose of Mike Post/Cannell '80s-ness, here is the main title of "Hardcastle and McCormick," with the opening narration translated into French:

"It's Hummer Time"

Warner Brothers' official Looney Tunes site used to feature very weak, newly-produced Flash cartoons. Recently they've wised up and started offering actual classic cartoons as web content, including some that aren't on DVD yet (but which might be on the next Looney Tunes Golden Collection later this year). Here's the page with all the cartoons they have available for viewing.

One semi-obscure cartoon I'd like to call your attention to is "It's Hummer Time."

This is a 1950 cartoon directed by Robert McKimson, one of many odd and quirky one-shot cartoons he made in the early '50s. The central character is a mischievous hummingbird, sort of a singing version of the early, vicious Tweety Bird -- there's even a Tweety reference in the cartoon -- who is pursued by a cat. The hummingbird keeps turning the tables on him and getting him in trouble with a big grey dog. A standard premise, but the twist is that every time the cat gets in trouble, the dog punishes him with an elaborate, sadistic penalty, despite the cat's pleas for mercy: "Not the Thinker! No, please! NOT THE THINKER!!!" Like many of McKimson's cartoons from this period, it undercuts the stereotype of McKimson as a "square" or unimaginative director; it's got great, off-kilter gags, imaginatively staged with good use of perspective (characters running from background to foreground and back again). Great animation, too, from the likes of Bill Melendez and Rod Scribner.

The cartoon's soundtrack features a whole bunch of popular songs that were regular staples of Carl Stalling's scores: "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover," "By a Waterfall," "Ain't We Got Fun?," "The Teddy Bear's Picnic," "Baby Face." But the biggest presence on the soundtrack is Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse," which underscores every "penalty" scene.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Veal Prince Orloff

The best season of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," season 4, gets DVD-ified on June 20.

The show improved massively in its third season, probably due to the arrival of writer Ed. Weinberger as a producer: all the comedy writing got sharper and several characters suddenly went from caricatures to three-dimensional comic creations (especially Ted and Lou). The fourth season continued the improvement and added Sue Ann (Betty White) to give it an extra edge. Famous episodes include "The Lars Affair" (Phyllis thinks her never-seen husband Lars is having an affair with Sue Ann) and the episode where Lou's wife leaves him, an episode Jay Sandrich was reluctant to direct because he felt the audience would hate her guts for leaving such a beloved character.

This was the season that brought David Lloyd to the writing staff; it was his first sitcom gig, but he instantly got the hang of it and became one of the most prolific writers in television history. His specialty was writing scripts for high-toned ensemble shows in the MTM mode, like "Taxi" -- for which he wrote the episode where Elaine likes a guy who likes Tony, and the episode where Reverend Jim adopts a dying racehorse -- "Cheers," "Cheers in an Airport" (aka "Wings") and "Frasier." His most famous script is unquestionably the one he wrote for the sixth-season MTM episode "Chuckles Bites the Dust." Oddly enough, nearly all his best work was for shows which he didn't have a hand in creating or developing.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


David Cornelius smacks down "Inspector Gadget."

In mild defence of the show, one thing that made it fun to watch as a kid was that most episodes involved Gadget going to some unusual location, often to foreign countries where we could get our first look (in cartoon form) at other culturea snd landmarks. The only one I remember distinctly was the trip to Paris, where Gadget tried to guard against jewel thefts and where a rich woman was, for, some reason voiced by a man with a bad French accent. But at least DIC tried to show us the world.

The other thing kids loved about the show was the fact that Gadget's niece Penny had a "computer book" -- a book that, opened up, turned out to be a vast computerized system of some kind -- that was basically omnipotent: it could jam security systems, take over and steer trucks by remote control, and get her into any place at any time. It was the '80s, personal computers were new, and were therefore portrayed in media as all-powerful magic boxes; this was the most famous example.

The only other thing I remember about "Inspector Gadget" is that it was one of those shows that kept fading out and fading back in on the same scene: they'd fade out on Gadget in trouble and immediately fade back in on said trouble. My impression was that the producers never fixed where to put the act breaks, so they would just keep fading out and in at random points and let the broadcasters break for a commercial whenever they wanted.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Searchers: Did Ethan Kill Lucy?

One of the many reasons why The Searchers is the most fascinating movie ever made -- not necessarily the best, just the most endlessly fascinating -- is that so many important story points are stated indirectly or ambiguously. The movie depends on the fact that Ethan (John Wayne) is in love with his brother's wife Martha, yet no one ever says so. The origin of Ethan's racism is shown to us only in the background, in a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, when young Debbie (Lana Wood) crouches near a gravestone that indicates that Ethan's mother was killed by Comanches. Ethan's criminal past is talked about very vaguely or not at all. Horrible atrocities are committed by both the white man and the Comanches, but almost always offscreen and frequently only hinted at. Ethan has all kinds of parallels with the villain, Scar, that are never explicitly spelled out by anyone. The ending depends on actions by Debbie (Natalie Wood) and Ethan that seem logically unmotivated, yet somehow make emotional sense because of all the little hints the film has given up to that point. It's a big, visually expansive movie, yet all the important information seems to be half-hidden from us.

Some of this comes from the way the film was made -- Frank Nugent's shooting script was heavily modified by Ford during shooting, and many of the hidden motivations and dark hints in the film were semi-improvised. (The famous silent scene that comes the closest to indicating the love and possible involvement of Ethan and Martha, the one where Ward Bond drinks his coffee and pretends not to notice the sexual tension between them, is not in the script at all. And Ford added the scene where Ethan shoots out a dead Comanche's eyes; the script called for Ethan to take his scalp.) But most of it is undoubtedly intentional. Ford liked to point out that many of the critics missed the fact that Ethan was supposed to be in love with Martha. If you don't get that sexual element, the movie becomes more of a standard revenge Western, and that's the way most critics treated it at the time.

The fact that so much in the movie is only hinted at makes it easy to speculate about other things the movie might be trying to tell us; that's where the fascination comes from. Because The Searchers constantly wants us to read between the lines and see what's really happening underneath the surface, it's tempting to look for all kinds of clues to hidden motivations, even ones that Ford might not exactly have intended. The most common speculation is that Ethan was not only in love with Martha, but that he might be the real father of Debbie. If you believe that, it changes the way you read Ethan's quest. Others have speculated that Ethan's whole quest is driven by sexual frustration over having lost Martha to his brother. Another line of speculation is that Ethan might be the father of Martin (Jeffrey Hunter); we are told that Ethan "found" Martin, but Ethan seems defensive and wants to change the subject ("It just happened to be me"). Other speculation involves the question of who taught Ethan the Comanche language and how this ties into his racism; when Ethan indirectly (of course) taunts Scar for having learned English from Debbie, Scar turns the taunt back on Ethan's knowledge of Comanche, suggesting that there might be a Comanche woman in Ethan's past. And so on and so on. There's about a dozen unmade movies lurking in the ellipses and penumbras of this one movie.

One possible interpretation that never occurred to me before is one I just found on a message board somewhere. A poster was writing about the scene where Brad (Harry Carey Jr.) thinks he's spotted Lucy, the older of Ethan's two kidnapped nieces. A distraught Ethan reveals -- as usual, without actually saying everything directly -- that he found Lucy raped and killed earlier that day. Here's the scene as written in the script, which made it to filming more or less intact -- Wayne's performance is of course incredibly powerful in the scene:

ETHAN (voice flat): What you saw wasn't Lucy.

BRAD: It was, I tell you!

ETHAN: What you saw was a buck wearin' Lucy's dress...
(they stare at him)
I found Lucy back there in that canyon...I wrapped her in my blanket an' buried her with m'own hands...I thought it best to keep it from you -- long as I could.

He can't look at Brad or at Martin. Brad can't speak -- and then finally:

BRAD: Did they...? Was she...?

Ethan wheels on him in shouting fury.

ETHAN (blazing): What've I got to do -- draw you a picture?...Spell it out?...Don't ever ask me!...Long as you live don't ever ask me more!

It seems straightforward enough, but a poster -- perhaps picking up on the fact that Ethan never specifically says that the Comanches killed Lucy -- wondered whether Ethan could have killed Lucy after he found that she had been raped. Remember, the rest of the movie is about Ethan's quest to find and kill Debbie for having been "defiled" by the Comanches; who's to say he didn't do the same to Lucy? Ethan is also shown with a knife not long after coming back from finding Lucy, though I can't remember exactly what he's doing with it.

Obviously, it makes just as much sense to stick to the interpretation that Ethan found Lucy dead; the point is that the way the scene is played, it makes just as much sense if you assume that Ethan found her alive and killed her. The interpretation works in the context of the movie and makes Ethan an even scarier character than he already is, because, if you read it that way, he is absolutely deadly serious about wanting to kill Debbie -- he's already done the same to his other niece. I'm not saying that's what Ford intended, but it's part of the fascination of The Searchers: the characters' motivations and even their actions are so murky and hard to figure out that all kinds of interpretations suggest themselves -- and they all work in the context of the story. No other movie makes the audience work as hard to fill in the gaps in the story and the characters, and that's what's great about The Searchers -- it's the original and the best audience-participation movie.

Monday, March 06, 2006

That'll Be the Day

The special edition of The Searchers is out on June 6. Good news and bad news on the special features. The good news is that the second disc will include Nick Redman's documentary A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne and The Searchers, which chronicles the making of the film through scenes from twenty reels' worth of behind-the-scenes footage and portentous voice-over narration. It will also have the various promotional behind-the-scenes segments Warner Brothers produced for TV, among the first examples of a studio making TV infomercials to promote its movies.

Bad news: the commentary is by Peter Bogdanovich. "Now this is the scene where John Wayne finds the dead bodies... you may notice that George Lucas, whom I know personally, borrowed this shot for Star Wars. But as Pappy -- John Ford let me call him 'Pappy' -- told me, 'We all steal from god-damn near everybody.' Pappy said 'god-damn' a lot. Did I mention I know George Lucas?"

Boat Show

Stephen J. Cannell's "Riptide" is coming to DVD (only in Canada).

This was one of several shows Cannell created in the immediate aftermath of the success of "The A-Team," and was sort of a combination of "The A-Team" with his rival Glen Larson's "Magnum, P.I." Or as Cannell's official site describes it:

California beach bums and a mousy computer nerd decide to go into business for themselves as private investigators. Working out of a cabin cruiser dubbed RIPTIDE, most of their cases involve an action-packed series of high speed chases, explosions and beautiful girls in bikinis.

Everything was better in 1983.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

No More Supporting Players

I like George Clooney. He is better and more talented and better-looking than me but has a sense of humor about it. But my heart sank a little when he won -- just because I have kind of a purist approach to the Best Supporting Actor Oscars. The Best Supporting Actor award was created -- several years after the Academy Awards started -- to recognize the work of professional supporting players and character actors, the people who did not play lead roles. Look at the early winners of the award, and they're mostly hard-working character-actor types: Walter Brennan, Donald Crisp, Thomas Mitchell, Barry Fitzgerald, Charles Coburn. And it's the same with the women -- the award recognized the work of people like Hattie McDaniel, Alice Brady and Jane Darwell, who neither got nor aspired to get leading roles.

Hollywood has changed over the years, and the stable of resident character players has more or less dispersed -- many of them work more consistently in television -- so as time went on, the supporting awards became just as much, if not more, for lead actors who take second or third-billed roles. Oddly enough, this has happened much more in the male category than in the female category; by the '80s, the supporting actor awards were going to slumming leads like Jack Nicholson and Sean Connery, but on the distaff side there were still opportunities for the Olympia Dukakisis and Dianne Wiests. But recently we've had four straight years of the supporting actress award being won by actresses who are basically stars (Jennifer Connelly, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, Cate Blanchett), which is not what the award was supposed to be for.

So George Clooney I like, but he's not the kind of actor the award was created for. The award was for the hero's sidekick, not the hero.


So, a few thoughts while we wait for the entrance of Jon Stewart into the wondrous world of Oscar hostage:

1. The most interesting thing about the list of nominees this year is that four of the five Best Picture nominees are very low-budget films. Capote, Crash and Good Night and Good Luck cost only about $7 million each, which on a blockbuster movie would be roughly the cost of the catering. Other acclaimed recent movies aren't quite that cheap, but still fairly low-budget; Walk the Line and The 40 Year-Old Virgin both came in at under $30 million at a time when $100 million is considered about average for a Major Motion Picture. There seems to have developed a kind of unofficial rule that if a filmmaker is going to make a "grown-up" movie -- even a comedy for grown-ups like 40 Year-Old Virgin -- it has to be done inexpensively.

That's fine, and has led to more good, relatively inexpensive movies being made with studio gloss and polish -- sort of a combination of the co-opted "indie" movement with the big-studio ethos. But the age of the big-budget grown-up drama or comedy seems to be gone: fourteen years ago, a major studio could sink a fair amount of money into a multi-story drama about race and crime in Los Angeles (Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon) but today, a similar movie, Crash, has to be made on a very tight budget or not at all. There are a lot of good movies being made, but what we're not seeing very often is the combination of a grown-up subject and approach with a big budget to do it justice. Or think of it this way: The Searchers, a dark Western for grown-ups, cost $3.7 million in 1956, which the inflation calculator estimates would be about $29 million today. In truth, with everything rising in cost over the years, to do what The Searchers did would probably cost much, much more than $29 million. And I don't think any studio would sink that kind of money into a movie as dark as The Searchers; they'd make it, but they'd make it on the cheap -- good, dark, uncompromising, but without the epic sweep and splendour that a big budget can bring.

2. Worst crop of nominated movies ever? It's a tough call. The worst era for Academy Award nominations was probably in the mid-'50s through the late '60s, when the Academy would basically nominate whatever bloated blockbuster the big studios were pushing. The nomination of Dr. Dolittle in 1967 may have been straw that broke that particular camel's back; it was such an absurd nomination -- leading Truman Capote, furious that the film version of In Cold Blood had not been nominated, to say something to the effect of "anything that allows a Dolittle to happen is ridiculous" -- that there seems to have been some effort to make sure that the list of nominees made some kind of rational sense.

If I had to choose a worst crop of Best Picture nominees, I think 1956 probably wins the prize:

Around the World in 80 Days
Friendly Persuasion
The King and I
The Ten Commandments

We're not talking bad movies here (though 80 Days is more fun than good, and The King and I is uneven and cuts too many good songs to be satisfying), but it's not a very inspiring list of movies overall, and when you take into account the movies that weren't nominated -- The Searchers, Baby Doll, Lust For Life, Written on the Wind and Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- you realize that this is one of those years when the list of nominated best pictures bears no resemblance to the best work that Hollywood was actually doing that year.

Last Yip Harburg Lyric of the Day

This is the 25th anniversary of the death of E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, my favourite song lyricist. Here is one of my favourite of his lyrics, "The World is Your Balloon" from his flop musical Flahooley (1951). It has all the Harburg touches: a whimsical tone combined with concrete, specific imagery of things and actions; a happy-go-lucky theme combined with a wistful acceptance of the transience of life.

In the show, it was sung by -- and this will give you an idea of the kind of show it was -- a bunch of puppets (the Bil Baird Marionettes). The cast of characters also included the young Barbara Cook, Irwin Corey as a magical genie, and Yma Sumac.

Love, love, when you're in love,
The world is your balloon.
Rain is confetti rain,
The moon's a lantern moon.
Glow-worms are footlights in the clover,
For they know
Life's a bang-up show;
Why should it irk us?
Ain't it a circus?
Yours is the gate that swings
To clowns and tinkerbells;
Yours is the hope on wings,
The heart on carousels.
Yours is the earth to play with
On a summer afternoon,
For when girl loves boy
The world is a toy balloon.

Pretty little world with valley and stream
Floating in rainbow weather.
Something for a girl and boy with a dream,
Something to share together.
Lucky are they who never lose the string
To youth and spring.

Yours is the gate that swings
To clowns and tinkerbells;
Yours is the hope on wings,
The heart on carousels.
Yours is the earth to play with
On a summer afternoon,
For when girl loves boy
The world is a toy balloon.

The Tootie Connection

In honour of this year's Academy Awards, I would like to point out that this is the first year when two -- not one, but two -- nominated directors are connected with "The Facts of Life." Everyone knows that George Clooney did a stint on the show after the girls had finished school and opened up some kind of store with Mrs. Garrett. (I think there was an episode where he dated Jo, which may be a reason why George Clooney seems so unflappable -- once you've dated Jo, what is there to fear?) But not everyone remembers that Paul Haggis was a writer-producer for several years -- in fact, he was there the year George Clooney was there. So think of Crash as a movie full of people who can't solve their problems because Mrs. Garrett isn't there to tell them what to do.

Haggis, of course, also created "Walker, Texas Ranger," which means that by definition anything he does is good.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Harburg Lyric of the Day: "I Like the Likes of You"

A simple but nutty lyric, this one, and a fairly early Harburg song -- 1934 -- with music by Vernon Duke (whose most famous collaboration with Harburg was on "April in Paris"). The gimmick, simply enough, is that it's a love song sung by someone who is tongue-tied and unable to express himself clearly, with the result that he stumbles over typical phrases, gets confused, and ends the song with a brilliantly confused bit of tongue-twisting ("Your looks are pure deluxe...").


Lady, last Saturday --
Or was it yesterday?
I was rehearsing a speech,
Really, I think it's a peach,
Hope you don't think it a breach
Of recognized etiquette,
I'm from Connecticut --
You see the state that I'm in.
I mean, I'm a mess --
What was that speech? Oh, yes...


I like the likes of you,
I like the things you do,
I mean, I like the likes of you.
I like your eyes of blue,
I think they're blue, don't you?
I mean, I like your eyes of blue.
Oh, dear, if I could only say what I mean...
I mean, if I could mean what I say...
That is, I mean to say that I mean to say that:
I like the likes of you,
Your looks are pure deluxe,
Looks like I like the likes of you.

Why I've Come Around on Network

I was never that big a fan of the movie Network. Compared to Paddy Chayefsky's masterpiece -- the really audacious, taboo-breaking The Americanization of Emily, which took on the still-sacred ideals of heroism and glory and revealed them as fraudulent, I thought Network picked mostly easy targets and didn't hit even those targets hard enough. Chayefsky's portrait of network television seems unduly influenced by a nostalgia for the "golden age" of live New York TV -- that is, a time when TV producers would hire him -- and a seething rage against young people, of whom the Faye Dunaway character is the film's representative (William Holden lectures her on how much more decent and good his generation is than hers). Add in the fact that many of its points about TV had already been made in A Face in the Crowd twenty years earlier, and you get a film that doesn't have nearly as much to say as Chayefsky thinks it does.

But watching the new DVD edition, I've warmed to it a bit more. Not just because of what I recognized as the best performances in the movie, those of William Holden, Peter Finch and Ned Beatty (I'm less impressed with Faye Dunaway, Oscar or no Oscar). The theme that now comes through in the film is not so much the Face in the Crowd-lite theme about the dangerous influence of the media and the endless quest for ratings; it now comes off more as a film about people who feel that their life has no meaning, and the ways in which they try to validate their own existences. Max (Holden) tries to do it by snatching at youth, in the form of his affair with Diana (Faye Dunaway). Diana finds all the validation she needs in the quest for ratings. Howard Beale (Finch), after pulling back from the brink of suicide, decides -- and tells his viewers -- that you can find meaning in your life by getting angry and getting involved. But Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), the crusading business mogul, sets Beale straight: there's nothing we can do, in the modern business-dominated world, to make ourselves meaningful participants in the world; everything is out of our control. And the movie ends by coming down on the side of this bleak message: it's true that we can't find any meaning in our lives; all we can do is escape into the TV and pretend that our lives have value -- and when Beale tries to tell his audience otherwise, his ratings drop and he is killed for it. Bleak, but relevant, especially in downbeat times.

Also, in light of current events, a major plot twist in the film is startlingly current. Beale discovers that the network is about to be secretly taken over by a Saudi company, and tells his viewers to block the deal:

I will tell you who they're buying CCA for. They're buying it for the Saudi-Arabian Investment Corporation. They're buying it for the Arabs...We all know that the Arabs control sixteen billion dollars in this country. They own a chunk of Fifth Avenue, twenty downtown pieces of Boston, a part of the port of New Orleans, an industrial park in Salt Lake City. They own big hunks of the Atlanta Hilton, the Arizona Land and Cattle Company, the Security National Bank in California, the Bank of the Commonwealth in Detroit. They control ARAMCO, so that puts them into Exxon, Texaco, and Mobil Oil. They're all over - New Jersey, Louisville, St. Louis Missouri. And that's only what we know about! There's a hell of a lot more we don't know about because all of the those Arab petro-dollars are washed through Switzerland and Canada and the biggest banks in this country. For example, what we don't know about is this CCA deal and all the other CCA deals. Right now, the Arabs have screwed us out of enough American dollars to come right back and with our own money, buy General Motors, IBM, ITT, AT and T, Dupont, US Steel, and twenty other American companies. Hell, they already own half of England. So listen to me. Listen to me, god-dammit! The Arabs are simply buying us. There's only one thing that can stop them. You! You!

...And Beale's influence causes millions of telegrams to be sent to the White House, an outpouring of outrage that forces the takeover to be blocked.

And, of course, this leads directly to the second-most famous, but best, speech in the film, the speech where Ned Beatty explains to Beale that

"You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it, is that clear? You think you have merely stopped a business deal - that is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity, it is ecological balance. You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians! There are no Arabs! There are no Third Worlds! There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars! Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds and shekels! It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic, and subatomic and galactic structure of things today. And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT and T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon - those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state - Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories and mini-max solutions and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you to preach this evangel, Mr. Beale."

"Why me?"

"Because you're on television, dummy."

Okay, I give. Network is relevant after all.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Harburg Lyric of the Day: "I Don't Think I'll End It All Today"

The next Yip Harburg lyric is another song from Jamaica, and one of the strangest songs ever written: "I Don't ThinK I'll End It All Today" is a happy song about gruesome methods of suicide. The idea of the song is the old one that it's the little things that make life worth living (in the context of Harburg's original conception of the show, it's the idea that natural and traditional things are what last after the commercial culture has been swept away by a storm), but it largely concentrates on the ways you could do away with yourself if life weren't worth living. Combined with one of Harold Arlen's catchiest, most upbeat tunes -- simpler and more easily hummable than usual for Arlen -- it's a strange, funny song that somehow finds a way to make the listener feel happy and queasy at the same time.

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

When I see your smile with its sunshine, what is there to say?
I don't think, oh no, I don't think I'll end it all today.
Tell the coroner and the mourners please to stay away,
I don't think, oh no, I don't think I'll hang myself today.
So many hilltops still to be climbed,
So many good words still to be rhymed,
So many sweet songs still to be sung,
So many slim hips still to be swung.
When I see your smile with its sunshine, what is there to say?
Let me quote from a ditty we wrote:
Oh, I don't think I'll cut my throat today.
Away with the bump-off,
Away with the rub-out,
Away with monoxide,
Away with the one-way ride,
Away with beyond recall,
St. Peter can tell St. Paul
That I don't think I'll end it all today.

So many small hands still to be squeezed,
So many bless-you's still to be sneezed,
So many smart deals still to be clinched,
So many soft spots still to be pinched.
Tell the crocodiles in the river please to swim away,
I don't think, oh no, I don't think,
Don't think I'll drown myself,
Don't think I'll cut my throat,
Don't think I'll commit hari-keri,
Don't think I'll jump from the ferry,
Oh, I don't think I'll end it all today.

Stephen Root is God

Another thing that comes back to me when watching the third season of "Newsradio" is that Jimmy James, as played by Stephen Root, is on my list of the top ten TV performances of all time. As creator Paul Simms originally conceived him, the character of Jimmy wasn't much -- a tough-but-fair, always-busy businessman whose eccentricities may be real or just a way of testing his young station manager, Dave. But Root, who didn't want to do a traditional sitcom boss (Lou Grant, say), took it in a quirkier direction, with weird line readings and unexpected inflections, and brilliant timing. (Root has the gift of knowing when not to pause after a joke: he'll often deliver a punchline and then start the next line without a break, and the lack of a pause actually makes the punchline funnier.) The writers soon followed suit, so by the second there was no longer any doubt of whether Jimmy was truly eccentric: he was a lovable nut, a benevolent tyrant who, in Root's own words on one of the DVD commentaries, kept his employees "as pets."

Some of Root's best performances in season 3 include:

- The season opener, "President," where Jimmy runs for President but hints that he has a strange secret motive for doing so: the climactic press conference, where Jimmy happily confesses to all his past indiscretions ("I was Deep Throat") and finally admits the real reason he's running for President (he just wants to meet women) is a tour de force for Root, with a great moment where he turns the whole press conference into an infomercial to get dates, and his mood suddenly changes from mock-remorse to happy hucksterism.

- The opening scene of "Rose Bowl": Jimmy unveils a bunch of movie memorabilia he bought, all of which turns out to be not only fake, but unconnected to the movies they're supposedly from. Classic moment: "The sword from The Sound of Music." Upon being told that there was no sword in The Sound of Music, Jimmy acts out what he thinks is a scene from the movie, swinging the sword and singing "Sound of Music" to the tune of the Hallelujah chorus, and hearing Root singing in a gravelly, excited voice is absolutely hilarious. (Root is a master at funny-bad singing; the funniest scene ever on "King of the Hill" is in an episode where Root's character, Bill, sings along to "Takin' Care of Business.")

- A scene in the episode "Rap" where Jimmy, a businessman to the core, is offended to hear Lisa say that advertising is "inherently deceptive." Jimmy goes off on a long, long rant about the glories of advertising, getting more and more emotional until he's almost crying at Lisa's failure to grasp that greed is good. The speech , drawing heavily on "Sesame Street" characters, is funny, but Root's over-the-top emotionalism in the service of the subject makes it still funnier.

Don't Be a Wussy!

To follow up on my recommendation of the sitcom "Titus,", DVD Verdict has an interview with Christopher Titus on the show, its cancellation, and its bizarre worldview. Sample quote: "The whole point of the show was how screwed-up people were way stronger than some guy who got everything handed to him. That guy goes out in the world and gets hit by a bus, because nobody taught him anything. He had no pain, he had no problems. I'm not dysfunctional—I'm evolving to the next level."

Important TV Dialogue With Life Lessons

From the third season of NewsRadio, a dialogue exchange where Beth (Vicki Lewis) is angry that Lisa (Maura Tierney) has received an award for "Cutest Reporter in New York":

LISA: All right, look, I did not ask for this stupid award.
BETH: If I were you, I'd be upset too. I mean you? Cute? Come on.
LISA: I am not entirely uncute. Why are you being nasty about this?
BETH: I'm not being nasty. You're pretty. You're very pretty, in fact. But cute? I don't think so.
LISA: Well, I wasn't aware there was a difference.
BETH: Well, of course there is a difference. Pretty means pretty. Cute means pretty but short and/or hyperactive -- like me!
LISA: Uh-huh. What is beautiful?
BETH: Beautiful means pretty and tall.
LISA: Gorgeous?
BETH: Pretty with great hair.
LISA: Striking?
BETH: Pretty with a big nose.
LISA: OK, you're making this up.
BETH: That's ridiculous, why would I make it up?
LISA: Sexy?
BETH: Pretty and easy.
LISA: Exotic?
BETH: Ugly.
LISA: I don't understand what this has to do with anything.
BETH: Look, once they start calling pretty people cute, it devalues the whole word. What's gonna happen next? Cute exotic people? Cute sexy people? It is very important that the word "cute" remain precise terminology for the people who truly have cuteness -- like me!
(Catherine walks up.)
CATHERINE: Hold it, Beth. Don't take it out on Lisa. It's not her fault that she's cute.
BETH: She's not cute, she's pretty.
CATHERINE: Okay, then what am I?
BETH: Sexy.
CATHERINE: Thank you.

Oh Dear God

My previous post on the cultural Stalinism of much of the contemporary right ("Comrade Clooney's film represents decadent bourgeois Hollywood and is counterrevolutionary!") should have been the end of it, but then I found National Review Online's Symposium on the Oscars, where various contributors -- most of whom have not seen all or indeed any of the movies nominated -- are invited to pontificate about the evils of liberal gay commie Hollywood and the "annoying" George Clooney, who has apparently replaced Barbra Streisand as public enemy # 1.

It's all here: reviewing movies you haven't seen; dismissing movies because they have coded "liberal" messages; sheltered hack journalists telling Hollywood producers what the heartland likes to see; the inability to understand the concept that a movie may be about more than one thing (Good Night and Good Luck isn't "about McCarthyism," you dolts; it's about journalism, and it's also a movie that uses the past to comment on the present, which is a tradition going back thousands of years); misunderstanding of the basic capitalistic concept of profit and loss, leading them to dismiss the nominated movies as failures when they're actually low-budget movies that made sizeable profits; obsession with the existence of gay people and scorn toward Hollywood for acknowledging the existence of said gay people; persecution complex; barely suppressed jealousy of people who are richer, smarter and happier than they are (see Clooney, above). On the evidence of this symposium, I believe not only that not a single National Review contributor knows anything about movies, but that none of them know exactly what a movie is.

Among the more dispiriting quotes, which I'll leave unattributed because why embarrass these people further:

"I didn't see [Brokeback Mountain] but the reviews are tediously unanimous: It is a slow-paced, nuanced, and skillfully crafted piece of art that uniquely captures the sweeping majesty of the Rocky Mountains. Oh yeah, and two married sheepherders do it in a tent. I never understood the lure of IMAX — until Brokeback Mountain! Problem is that infidelity is infidelity and if I can't sit through the awkwardness of Diane Lane sneaking around on Richard Gere (Unfaithful), I know I'm going to have trouble stomaching Jake Gyllenhaal cheating on Anne Hathaway with a dude."

"I think we were all amazed by The 40 Year Old Virgin. I mean, who knew there were any virgins left in Hollywood? "

"Best Picture prediction? It doesn't matter, nobody's going to be watching. The average box office for the Best Picture nominees is the lowest since 1984. And Jon Stewart's The Daily Show has half the ratings of Conan O'Brien. So we have an Oscar broadcast celebrating movies nobody saw, hosted by a TV host nobody watches. My prediction: The lowest ratings in 20 years."

"In an ideal world either Cinderella Man or The Great Raid would win. They are both films with values straight out of the Golden Age of Hollywood. They exemplify those virtues of courage and character. Dare I say it? They are both examples of those kinds of films that made old Hollywood great."
[ME: Someone should take this person to a Pre-Code Hollywood film festival and watch her run screaming out of the theatre. Even Old Hollywood hates America!]

"Brokeback Mountain wins for Best Picture — a no brainer. Many of the Academy members ... average age 406 ... probably were mildly homophobic in their youth. Now they get to feel proud of themselves for voting for a gay love story."

[And in case you think AIDS jokes are the height of transgressive humour:]

"Not only is the heartland not as hot for Brokeback as Frank Rich says but neither is Hollywood. I don't believe they're in the mood for a gay Best Picture (Philadelphia won as a disease-of-the-week movie - My Left Foot with stick-on lesions)."

Yes, I know, I should leave this stuff to Roy, but this is depressing. This is a publication that is read by people in government; it can get the head of the National Endowment For the Arts to contribute to their insane little symposium (though he sensibly ducks all politicized questions). And the qualifications for being a contributor to its "culture" features apparently include being a Stalinist lunatic. You may think I've gotten too rant-y, but these are times that call for a rant: whereas twenty years ago a writer for a conservative magazine was expected to know something about... well... anything, now all you have to do is show your Party membership card. Depressing times, depressing times.

I would also add that if I only liked movies whose politics or cultural messages I agreed with, I'd have to condemn to hell all kinds of good movies, from Gone With the Wind to Howard Hawks's explicitly anti-science The Thing to all kinds of movies that conveyed the message that a woman's place is in the home. "Golden Age" Hollywood, just like current Hollywood, made movies with Commie messages and Fascist messages and sometimes both at the same time (see the average Frank Capra movie). They are, however, movies. Doesn't anybody on the contemporary right have any interest in movies anymore? Anybody?

"I have lots of stories about famous people that involve me in some way."

Just a reminder that Shout! Factory has released another Dick Cavett Show collection, the one we've really been waiting for: "Comedy Legends." The twelve hour-long episodes all feature the now-legendary Cavett format: instead of the host dominating the episode and occasionally deigning to interview somebody who's plugging a movie, Cavett does his opening monologue and then devotes the entire show to in-depth, lengthy discussions with the guest. The fact that anybody could have taken an hour on network television to let an elderly comedian talk about his life and career seems almost bizarre now (nowadays they wouldn't even do this kind of thing on public television, where Cavett eventually wound up). As the reviewer notes, this works better with some guests than others, and sometimes has varying results with the same guest: the 1969 interview with Cavett's idol Groucho Marx, which opens the set, is a classic, but Groucho's return appearance in 1971 shows him in poorer health and more inclined to rant about the declining culture (referring to the stage show Oh, Calcutta!, he says: "I heard it was filthy, so I didn't go"). But the best of the episodes -- the first Groucho show, the Jerry Lewis show -- are terrific. The low-tech-ness of it is appealing too; you can sometimes see the boom mike in the shot, and the Lewis interview it punctuated by police sirens outside ("I meant no harm!" Lewis shouts).

Lewis's appearance reminds me that, according to my father, he was the best guest-host the Tonight show ever had when he hosted it in fall 1962; Dad said Lewis was so uninhibited and unpredictable -- as a performer and an interviewer -- that the networks were scared to give him his own talk show.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Harburg Lyric of the Day: "Sunset Tree"

Yip Harburg was over 70 when he wrote the lyrics for Darling of the Day, a musical version of Arnold Bennett's "Married Alive." The show marked Harburg's first and only collaboration with composer Jule Styne (Gypsy and many others). The source material was just about perfect for a musical: Arnold Bennett's "Married Alive," about a famous but eccentric artist who escapes the boredom of English high society by pretending to be his own valet. But the production ran into out-of-town trouble, brought on mostly by the hiring of an inexperienced director who wasn't up to the job and partly by the disastrous miscasting of the lead role (Vincent Price, who wasn't English, couldn't sing, and couldn't play romantic comedy). By the time the show came into New York, the book had been changed so much that writer Nunnally Johnson took his name off the credits; the show closed after 32 performances. It did have two things going for it: a mostly fine score from Harburg and Styne, and a Tony-winning performance by Patricia Routledge.

"Sunset Tree" is a ballad about the advantages of growing older, of love borne of wisdom rather than youthful impetuousness. It shows a mellower, gentler Harburg, who has tempered his most common theme -- the idea that life is short and we must grab happiness as soon as we can -- with a recognition of the virtues of patience and taking one's time. And note that even though the lyric has a deliberately old-fashioned feel to it (appropriately enough for the period setting), it is all achieved with very simple words and phrases; no flowery syntax for Harburg, just simple, direct imagery that adds up to something strangely beautiful.

When April's dreams are over
And all her songs are sung,
When the years are old and the hills are old
And only our hearts are young,
Then ev'ry sweet small wonder
Will still more wond'rous be,
In the brave new light of a world grown bright
Under the sunset tree,
Under the sunset tree.
Let youth have its apple blossoms,
Fair on the bough above,
But not so fair as the fruit we share
In the harvest-time of love.
Spring is a young man's fancy
In a world that is fancy-free,
But to know the grace of a warm embrace
When the heart is folly-free
Is to know why that bold leaf turns to gold
Under the sunset tree,
Under the sunset tree.