Thursday, August 31, 2006

Baskin Without Robbins

Writer Susan Baskin has a very charming article in the L.A. Times about returning to the first show she wrote for, "Remington Steele" (though she'd previously written the Oscar-winning short film Violet), and discovering that it's still good after all these years. The article has some nice observations about the way in which, in today's environment, works of pop culture go through the usual stages (from successful to forgotten to "classic") much more quickly than they used to -- so that a show that's only 20 years old can somehow seem like a beloved classic from a different age.

Unlike my own kids, I didn't grow up in a media-saturated culture, where cashiers, as well as studio heads, can recite weekend box-office receipts. You turned on the TV and images appeared on the screen, like magic. You never wondered how. Now there was magic of another kind, seeing a world made real because of the words I'd written.

I did other episodes for "Remington Steele," went on to different shows, wrote films for television and features. "Remington Steele" went off the air.

Just the other night, I watched the DVD, special features and all, for the first time. As I listened and watched, I realized that in the paradoxical way our culture discards its products ever faster, only to reclaim them in order to savor — and profit from — the past, "Remington Steele" had become something timeless. Like memory.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

In Which I Miss the Point of a Movie

DVD Beaver has some screenshots from Seduced and Abandoned, from Criterion's new DVD; this was the follow-up by Pietro Germi to his surprise blockbuster hit Divorce Italian Style, and it's another dark satire on sexist "codes of honor" in Southern Italy; in Divorce it was the law that allowed a man to serve a lighter sentence if he killed his wife in defence of his honor, and here it's the rules surrounding "dishonored" women. It has a little more heart than Divorce Italian Style, because Germi shows a bit more sympathy for at least some of the characters (and doesn't tell the story from the point of view of a creep, the way he did in Divorce), but it's a similar movie and equally entertaining. And another important and very good thing it shares with Divorce is the presence of Stefania Sandrelli.

But what I wanted to call attention to was the trailer, which is included as an extra on the DVD. Not only is it a very long trailer -- beginning and ending with longish excerpts from the film, instead of just having short clips -- it's narrated entirely in rhymed verse. (And in an Italian verse form that's centuries old, yet, the ABBC rhyme scheme that Italian opera librettists were in love with.) I'm sure I've heard other trailers narrated in rhyme, but I can't think of any at the moment -- any thoughts?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Since I Brought Up "Newhart"...

Not everyone at the time was wild about this ending. I recall some people being annoyed that the show was, effectively, signalling that we'd wasted our time for the last eight years. And on one of the "Simpsons" commentaries, David Mirkin (who executive-produced "Newhart" for two years but wasn't involved with the finale) hints that he's not too fond of it, though he does acknowledge that it got huge laughs.

Incidentally, David Mirkin's work on "Newhart" had a lot of the kind of humor he'd bring to his own show, "Get a Life," and to his two years as showrunner of "The Simpsons" -- particularly a vicious contempt for television, and particularly television news. Here's an excerpt from one of the episodes Mirkin wrote and executive-produced, where Dick (Newhart) has to host a show with a quintessential '80s airhead played by that expert parodist of '80s airheads, Julie Brown. "That's right! He was President."

"Hill Street Blues in a Hospital"

"St. Elsewhere" finally gets a season 1 DVD release. December 12 is the date.

MTM Enterprises, the company that produced "St. Elsewhere," did quite brilliantly in the fall of 1982, when they brought out three new shows: "Elsewhere," "Remington Steele," and "Newhart." All three shows underwent some re-tooling in their sophomore years ("Elsewhere" and "Newhart" for the better, "Steele" for the worse), but basically all three were very high-quality shows that enjoyed healthy runs. The odd thing about that is that this year was not the peak period for MTM, but the very end of its dominance; the company would literally never produce another hit show (it didstributed but did not produce "Evening Shade"). The rest of MTM's existence would be a combination of promising flops like "The Duck Factory" and pointless re-hashes like "Mary" and "The New WKRP in Cincinnati."

The collapse of MTM can presumably be traced to the departure of Grant Tinker, who left in 1982 to become president of NBC. The three hit shows above were probably green-lit while Tinker was still with MTM. It's too bad that such a strong production company declined so quickly and so completely; on many DVD commentaries for MTM shows (all of which are now owned and released by Fox), you can hear a tone of nostalgia for the MTM factory, which in many ways operated like a TV equivalent of the old movie studio system.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

I Loves 2/3 Of Porgy

There's a new recording of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess that is billed as the first recording of the opera as it was performed on opening night in 1935. The published score of Porgy is based on a score that Gershwin prepared before the opera went into rehearsal, and it's very long -- three hours of music, plus two intermissions. During previews, Gershwin and director Rouben Mamoulian cut a lot of material and added some new material; they replaced the prelude to the last scene with a non-musical "symphony of sounds" borrowed from the famous opening of Mamoulian's production of the original Porgy (the non-musical play).

But no score was prepared based on the version that people saw on Broadway, and since then the practice has either been a) Take the original score and perform it uncut, or b) Take the original score and decide what to leave out. Of the previous recordings of Porgy, three are of the uncut score, and one (the first one, from 1951) cuts some material that the 1935 version included while adding back other material that Gershwin and Mamoulian dropped.

I'm surprised that the new recording's solution -- do the opera like it was done originally -- hasn't been tried before. The full score of Porgy and Bess is clearly longer than Gershwin or Mamoulian ever intended the opera to be; they were specifically trying to create a Broadway opera, playing by the rules of Broadway rather than the opera house, and that meant getting the piece down to the average length of a Broadway show, as well as dropping material that didn't go over in previews. Performances and recordings of the uncut score can be interesting, but there's a lot of material in there that was understandably cut from the first performance. For example, the complete score starts with an extended jazz sequence for an out-of-tune piano and chorus chanting "a-wah-doo-wah"; it's very effective, but it's also very long, and the Broadway version understandably cut it in order to get as quickly as possible to the knockout punch of "Summertime." The Broadway version also cuts a lot of the little atmospheric bits for the minor characters, which deprives us of some fine music but also keeps the focus of the opera more clearly on Porgy and Bess.

I just got the recording and I can't yet give an opinion on its quality; it stars Alvy Powell (Porgy) and Marquita Lister (Bess) and is led by conductor John Mauceri and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, made following concert performances earlier this year. Here's an article from the Nashville Tennesseean about the reconstruction of the 1935 score.

One thing I can say is that I'm annoyed with the Gershwin Estate's insistence that this work be billed (as it is on the cover of the recording) as "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess." While I certainly appreciate the importance of giving Ira Gershwin credit as a co-equal partner with his brother, it doesn't apply in this case: DuBose Heyward wrote most of the libretto, including many of the best lyrics ("Summertime," "My Man's Gone Now"), and Ira acted as a sort of creative consultant while writing or co-writing lyrics that needed a Broadway touch (like Sportin' Life's songs). Ira himself would have been the first to admit that this was George Gershwin's opera, and the Gershwin Estate should either accept that fact or bill it as "The Gershwins and DuBose Heyward's Porgy and Bess."

Friday, August 25, 2006

A Straight Down the Line Remake

The new DVD of Double Indemnity includes a fascinatingly bad extra: a 1973 made-forTV remake, directed by Jack Smight (Harper), written by Steven Bochco, and with Richard Crenna, Samantha Eggar and Lee J. Cobb doing MacMurray, Stanwyck and Robinson, respectively.

The first thing you notice about this remake is that even though Steven Bochco is credited with writing the teleplay, he actually did hardly any writing at all: almost every scene, almost every line is taken directly from the 1944 screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. About the only thing Bochco seems to have done is condense the 107-minute original into the 75 minutes allowed for a TV movie on ABC. To be fair to Bochco, being told to rewrite Double Indemnity can't be easy -- what's he supposed to do, write new lines that are better than the old ones? It can't be done. But nevertheless, it seems a little insane to make a line-for-line TV remake of a movie that was constantly being shown on TV.

Hearing all the old favourite lines coming out of the mouths of these very different actors is extremely disorienting. But it also points up how you can have all these great lines and still wind up with a terrible movie: a test case in how a good script does not, in itself, make for a good film if the director and the performers aren't up to it. So the remake tries to replicate the murder scene from the original, with the same close-up of Phyllis Dietrichson as her husband is murdered. But Samantha Eggar and director Smight completely botch the moment by having Phyllis with a blank, who-me? look on her face; they missed the point of the scene, which was Stanwyck's scarily self-satisfied expression. Plus the sound editor or somebody forgets to put in the sound of the husband screaming as he gets killed.

The whole remake of course looks exactly the same as every other TV drama produced by Universal in the early '70s: drab, static and unimaginatively lit, but redeemed by the basic appeal of the real Los Angeles locations. Universal was the last studio to really carry on the old tenets of the studio system; they had contract players and crew members, and a system by which their contractees would rise up through the ranks (so for example, Steven Spielberg went from episodic TV to TV movies to features at Universal). And they kept alive the "factory" way of making TV shows and movies -- fast, cheap and efficient -- long after everybody else's budgets and shooting schedules were going out of control. The downside of this factory production method is that their stuff looks like it was shot fast; the upside is that they would shoot all around Los Angeles (not only did it help the look of their shows, but there would never have been enough studio space for all the projects they had going), meaning that Universal's early '70s TV stuff is even more of a guided tour of L.A. than the original Double Indemnity. Just looking at the city, and trying to figure out where the characters are at a given moment, helps you get through the Indemnity remake.

Finally, the combination of the plot -- people try to plot the perfect murder, but one little mistake trips them up and gets them caught by an eccentric little investigator -- with the Universal crew that shot the remake, means that Double Indemnity plays here as nothing more or less than an episode of Columbo. A bad episode of Columbo -- Lee J. Cobb is no Peter Falk -- but it's amazing how much it plays nothing like a film noir and everything like a Columbo episode with unusually snappy dialogue. Again, the way something is shot can make an immense difference in the way it plays out.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I Missed the Freleng Blog-a-Thon

Monday, August 21, was the 100-somethingth anniversary of the birth of cartoon director Friz Freleng. Hell On Frisco Bay did a Friz Freleng Blog-a-Thon, consisting of a great analysis of Freleng's work and links to other bloggers who, unlike this one, posted something for the occasion.

One thing that doesn't really come across about Freleng's cartoons from the way they're usually seen now -- on TV or on DVD -- is how fantastically effective most of them are on the big screen. Freleng was not a great visual stylist, nor was his sense of humour particularly unique or groundbreaking, but what he was great at was timing. He's best known for his ability to time gags to music, as he did in "Rhapsody Rabbit" and "Pigs in a Polka" and many other cartoons, but his sense of gag timing in general was without parallel. If there's an explosion in a Freleng cartoon, he takes just the right amount of time to build up to it, holds on the explosion for just the right amount of time, and he'll take just the right amount of time to show the aftermath. Like in "Show Biz Bugs" when Freleng repeats the "Endearing Young Charms" gag (previously used by Freleng in "Ballot Box Bunny" and Bob Clampett in a Private Snafu cartoon): not only does he time the explosion just right, but after the smoke clears, he holds on the carnage for a split second and then, just as the audience is laughing at that, throws in an extra gag (the xylophone keys falling to the ground) before the fade-out.

My point is that this sense of timing doesn't really come through on the small screen, because it's the kind of timing that is basically theatrical in nature: it's meant to bounce off the reactions of a large audience in a darkened theatre, not someone sitting on a couch who's free to look away. And that's why Freleng's cartoons get uproarious reactions in theatres but don't necessarily work as well on TV: every gag is timed in such a way as to provoke, and build on, collective audience laughter. A Freleng cartoon without a crowd to watch it is like a standup comic performing in an empty club.

One Freleng cartoon that holds up particularly well is "Pigs in a Polka," which is the Three Little Pigs set to Brahms's Hungarian Dances. The gags aren't particularly great, but they're all so perfectly timed to the music, and so perfectly in keeping with the character of the music, that they get laughs just by how well-timed they are. Whereas Bob Clampett's similar cartoon from the following year, "Corny Concerto," is more imaginative but (by Clampett's own admission) not very well-timed to the music, with the result that it tends to fall flat (in my experience anyway) in theatrical screenings.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

They're Altogether Ooky

You can scratch another title off the "why isn't this on DVD yet" list: "The Addams Family" comes out on October 24. Mildly annoying is the fact that they're releasing it in "volumes" rather than complete seasons -- the first volume has 22 episodes out of the first season's 34 episodes, meaning that the 60+ episodes of the complete series will take three volumes. Still, it's coming, and the first episode has commentary by director Arthur "Love Story" Hiller.

I'm not quite as sold on "Addams Family" as some are, though I certainly can't find any fault with the casting. Its New Yorker origins and openly subversive sensibilities make it sort of the '60s sitcom for people who hate '60s sitcoms -- it doesn't have the corny jokes or broad slapstick that make people recoil from, say "The Beverly Hillbillies." But I have to admit I find it a bit repetitive, and it (of necessity) sacrifices Charles Addams' super-dark humour without finding a lot of really strong jokes to replace Addams's sensibility; hence the repetitiveness, because they kept going back to the fairly limited range of jokes available with this setup and these characters.

Now you're expecting me to get counter-intuitive and say that "The Munsters" was better. But no, I like "Addams" better than "Munsters."

Monday, August 21, 2006


In another instalment of my "cavalcade of YouTube clips of stuff I've already written about" series, here's Hattie McDaniel in the "Ice Cold Katie" number (about hasty marriages by soldiers about to head off to war) from Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943). I've written before that the tune by Arthur Schwartz is one of the catchiest tunes ever, and I still stand by that; the lyrics are by Frank Loesser.

Note that the guy who plays the Minister in this number is wearing his pants like Urkel. And his glasses are somewhat similar to Urkel's too. I can't interpret the significance of that.

Another great Schwartz-Loesser song -- with a superb Loesser lyric that I've previously posted on this blog -- is introduced by a WB contract player who (unlike Bette Davis, who gets the big hit song "They're Either Too Young Or Too Old") could actually sing: Ann Sheridan.

Also from Thank Your Lucky Stars, a non-musical clip, but a good one: Humphrey Bogart gets beaten at tough-guy talk by the un-toughest guy on the Warner Brothers lot, S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Something Downbeat For the Weekend

Well, it's not that downbeat, but nonetheless Leo McCarey's Make Way For Tomorrow is one of the saddest movies ever released by a major studio. It's the story of an old couple (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) who can't afford to keep their own house any more; none of their children will make room for both of them, so they go to separate houses. At the end, Bondi is shipped off to a nursing home while Moore goes to stay in California; the couple spends a last day together in New York -- the first time they've been there together since their honeymoon -- and then they part, knowing that they'll never see one another again. The end. No uplift, no action, not even really any villains that we can have the fun of hating (their children and in-laws are ingrates, but they're not portrayed as evil, just selfish in a very conventional and familiar way). Though it's a sentimental movie, McCarey doesn't sentimentalize the old couple: they're not wise or brilliant or particularly lovable, just a pair of fairly nice, somewhat irritating old people who don't deserve to be forgotten and discarded.

The scenes I'm linking to here -- I posted another scene from the film on YouTube -- are from near the end of the film. First, after a scene with Thomas Mitchell (as the son who's just made the decision to send his mother to the nursing home), Moore and Bondi spend the day in New York -- with, unfortunately, some really bad back projection -- and meet a car salesman who turns out to be very compassionate and nice; it's a running theme of the movie that the couple gets better treatment from complete strangers than they do from their own children.

The next scene has Moore and Bondi at the hotel where they spent their honeymoon. (In the middle of the scene, Moore gets to call one of the kids and finally tell them off for the way they've treated him and Bondi.) The scene showcases McCarey's favourite way of doing a scene: keep the camera still, don't cut much, and let the actors improvise as much as possible. McCarey's love of improv and ad-libbing, which started in his days with Hal Roach and continued right to the end of his career, makes the acting in his movies seem very natural; an actor like Moore, who was mostly known for his stock comic mannerisms, is very real and un-mannered in this movie. The way McCarey made movies can be summed up like this: you know the famous out-take from Apocalypse Now where Marlon Brando says "I swallowed a bug?" McCarey would have left that in the movie.

This is a film that's never been available commercially on home video in any format; it has no stars and not much name recognition. But it's a great movie; it does what Tokyo Story would do 16 years later, but in some ways it's a richer and more interesting film. McCarey was upset that he won the Oscar for The Awful Truth that year instead of this one; all I can say is that his output in 1937 has to make that one of the best years any director ever had.

Time LaMarches On

Quickstop entertainment has a long, long interview with master voice actor Maurice LaMarche.

Call it a quirk, but my favourite part of the interview is the part where he bashes The Popples, because that was the crummiest made-to-sell toys cartoon ever spread over the public -- and because, even suspecting this, I was semi-hypnotized by it as a kid (I was fascinated by the Popple who talked like The Fonz).

I hated The Popples. That it was the job from hell. Because I had to come in every day and just be ultra cute and be “bishi, boffo, hoo hoo hoo!” And I wanted to vomit at the end of every session. I would sooner have sold my body on Santa Monica Boulevard than go back for another one of those.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Speaking of Comedy Directors...

Universal will release a Preston Sturges box set on November 21.

The set will have all of Sturges' Paramount films except for The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, which is available on DVD from Paramount (it's the only pre-1948 sound film that Paramount didn't sell the rights to). His best post-Paramount film, Unfaithfully Yours, is available from Criterion. So though the new set probably won't have any extras -- you'll have to hold onto the Criterion Sullivan's Travels and The Lady Eve discs for those -- it will fill some important gaps in the classic-film catalogue.

Now if Universal would do the same for the lesser-known Paramount films of Wilder, Lubitsch, Sternberg and other big-name directors, we classic-film collectors might really have nothing to complain about.

Paramount, as classic-movie fans may be aware, was the "directors' studio," the one where the directors had the most power and influence over their own movies. Most studios were basically producer-oriented: movies were dominated by creative producers like Hal Wallis (Warners), Irving Thalberg (MGM), Pandro Berman (RKO), and Val Lewton (RKO again). Paramount didn't have many producers with that kind of power. The producer of most of Sturges' films, Paul Jones, was more of a producer in the modern sense, a guy whose job it was to attend to the technical details of getting the movie made while the director did all the creative work. Other Paramount directors, like Lubitsch and DeMille, produced their own films; and Wilder was a co-equal partner with his producer and co-writer Charles Brackett. There wasn't a superstar producer at Paramount until Wallis went over to the studio in the late '40s -- and the studio's output started to decline around the time when the producers got more power.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Still More E.L.

One more great Lubitsch scene available on YouTube (posted by someone other than me, for once), is the opening scene of Design For Living, a meet-cute for Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) and the two men who will share her affections, George (Gary Cooper) and Tom (Fredric March). Because the movie takes place in France, Gilda and George each assume the other is French and speak French to each other. The great thing about the scene -- apart from the chance to hear Gary Cooper speaking French -- is that without subtitles, Lubitsch and the actors manage to convey what they're talking about, even if you don't understand French.

"If I Were a Better Person, I'd Ignore Her and Go On With My Life. But I'm Not."

Animaniacs, volume 2 and Pinky and the Brain, volume 2 are coming out on December 5, to provide more '90s nostalgia and give heartburn to animation purists.

The "Pinky and the Brain" volume will be the weakest of the three volumes it'll take to get the whole series out: most of the show's best episodes were at the very beginning or the very end of its 65-episode run. Specifically, they put out a great first season of 13 episodes, then produced another batch of episodes that was very uneven (they were produced at the time when the network was pressuring the show to change, and when producer Peter Hastings was about to leave the studio; the strain showed in a lot of the writing), then came back strong with some very funny episodes, especially the ones written or story-edited by Gordon Bressack. However, there will be some classics in volume 2, especially the famous "Pinky and the Brain and Larry" where the show satirized network demands for the addition of a third character. I also like the last cartoon Tom Minton wrote for the show, "Mice Don't Dance," set at the 1939 World's Fair and with a prominent role for Grover Whalen (voiced by John Astin, yet).

As for the "Animaniacs" volume, it has some prime stuff: a Minerva Mink cartoon, the best early Pinky and the Brain cartoon ("Bubba Bo Bob Brain," where Brain becomes a country singer), the episode where all the recurring characters are re-teamed in a bizarre parody of crossover stories, and one of the cartoons that even people who don't like Animaniacs tend to like -- once the Ben Stein character comes in, anyway -- "Chairman of the Bored."

Grudge Matches I'd Like to See: Hillbillies vs. Rednecks

An all-out feud between two groups of derogatory stereotypes: HILLBILLIES (who drink moonshine, drive rusty old cars, listen to bluegrass music and carry shotguns) vs. REDNECKS (who drink beer, drive pickup trucks, listen to country music and carry handguns). Which group will prove more ornery?

While I think rednecks tend to be portrayed as more dangerous -- there was a period where angry rednecks were the stock villain in every other TV episode -- hillbillies have the advantage because they lead tougher lives, living in the mountains and all and getting their own food and making their own liquor; the rednecks don't have that kind of resilience, and will get distracted. Plus the hillbillies can call in the nearly-invincible Granny Clampett as part of their team.

(An apology to any readers who take offence at the stereotyping. But this blog being what it is, I'm talking more about these groups as portrayed in movies and TV than any real-life person. Just consider yourself lucky that I didn't go with my other favourite bad-taste Grudge Match, "Anorexics vs. Obese People.")

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


One of the things I like about the films of Ernst Lubitsch is that his movies have an unusual amount of thematic weight to them. By this I mean that a Lubitsch comedy is often built around a set of themes or recurring ideas and all the jokes flow from them; running gags aren't used just for comedy value but to remind us periodically of what the movie is about. So almost every joke in To Be Or Not To Be has something to do with the contrast of the theatre with real life (and the way the theatre merges with real life until they become indistinguishable); the equation of sex with theft runs throughout Trouble in Paradise, and sex and music are linked in joke after joke from The Smiling Lieutenant. Truffaut once said that there were no extraneous shots in a Lubitsch film, but he might have added that there are very few extraneous jokes.

This kind of strict adherence to the theme of the movie can have its disadvantages, and makes Lubitsch's lesser movies seem a little stodgy. As I've said before, Lubitsch was one of the few great comedy directors who was a genuine control freak: he never deviated from the written script; he almost never let actors improvise business, and in fact coached them in all their movements and line deliveries. Normally, great comedy directors tended to be loose, improvisational types like Leo McCarey, who would make gags up on the set and encourage the actors to do likewise; Lubitsch was a comedy director who planned and structured his comedies with extreme seriousness, and it's part of his genius that he somehow makes that work.

Anyway, here are a couple of clips from not-currently available Lubitsch films. One is his last completed film, Cluny Brown, which I wrote about a couple of years ago so I don't have to write much about it now. It's based on the popular novel by Margery Sharp about a free-spirited young woman who shocks English society with her interest in plumbing. Lubitsch, of course, fell in love with Sharp's obvious parallels between an interest in plumbing and an interest in sexual matters (the novel has a scene, which the movie cuts, where the character of Mr. Ames tries to seduce Cluny through the sex-appeal of his wonderful modern bathroom); and the joke that plumbing = sex runs through the whole movie in one form or another.

This scene is the one that introduces Cluny (Jennifer Jones) as she arrives to fix a sink for Mr. Ames (Reginald Gardiner) and meets the refugee professor Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer). Jones is very charming in this movie, though her attempt at an English accent is one of the worst ever.

And a short but famous example of Lubitsch's ability to say a lot in very little time: a sequence he wrote and directed for the anthology film If I Had a Million (1932), about what various ordinary people do when they unexpectedly get a million dollars. In Lubitsch's sequence, Charles Laughton plays a meek clerk who reacts impassively to the news but promptly carries out what we assume is his lifelong dream; the shot of the cold, vast white-collar work atmosphere was more or less borrowed by Billy Wilder for The Apartment.

And one more point I'll make: doesn't it seem odd, from today's vantage point, that many of the most respected and prestigious directors in the '20s through the '40s were directors who specialized in comedy? Chaplin, Lubitsch, Sturges, Clair, McCarey: these directors were idolized and held up as examples of the best things the cinema had to offer, and they built major reputations on the basis of their comedy work. I doubt that could happen today; making movie comedies seems to be thought of as the realm of hacks, or at least guys who aren't quite Good Enough to make dramas.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Clips Re-Clipped

I have finally -- finally -- gotten around to restoring some of my YouTube clips that were wiped out in the Great YouTube Account Purge. I've put back some of the "WKRP in Cincinnati" clips and the clips from Lubitsch's The Smiling Lieutenant and the first scene of Hellzapoppin', so the embedded links in most of those posts are working again.

To make up for the weeks of clip-disabled posts, here's a "WKRP" clip I haven't posted before: the famous subplot from the episode "Fish Story" where Johnny Fever takes a test to prove that alcohol slows down a driver's reflexes, and his reflexes become better and better with every drink he takes.

"Fish Story" is semi-famous as an episode that was written, almost literally, under protest. It was the end of the initial 13-episode order of "WKRP" (the show was placed on hiatus after it was produced, but after two months the network gave it a last-minute pickup for a full season), and CBS was dismayed that the show was too low-key and not farcical enough -- they wanted something more like "Laverne and Shirley." So Hugh Wilson, the creator, wrote "Fish Story" with every cliché of TV farce: wacky costumes, characters getting splashed with paint, drunk scenes, comical brawls, and so on. He was sufficiently embarrassed by the script that he didn't take a writing credit on it; the credit reads "Written by Raoul Plager."

Of course the episode is probably the best-loved WKRP episode after the Thanksgiving show. I wouldn't call it one of my favourites, but it's a good farce episode and Jerry Hardin is inspired casting as the slow-burning police officer who administers the drinking test.

Friday, August 11, 2006


So here are my descriptions of the cartoons on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 4:

Disc 1 - Bugs Bunny

- Roman Legion-Hare (Friz Freleng, 1955): Bugs and Yosemite Sam in ancient Rome.

- The Grey Hounded Hare (Bob McKimsons, 1949): A particularly dumb and destructive Bugs goes to a dog track and falls in love with the mechanical rabbit. You may remember this one for the crazy names of the dogs ("He steps on Bill's Bunion!")

- Rabbit Hood (Chuck Jones, 1949): Bugs vs. the Sheriff of Nottingham; one of the all-time greats. Greg Duffell's animation breakdown of this short is here.

- Operation: Rabbit (Jones, 1952): Bugs' first and best encounter with Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius.

- Knight-Mare Hare (Jones, 1955): Bugs goes back in time to the days of King Arthur. This was one of the first cartoons Jones made after the WB cartoon studio re-opened -- after Jack Warner shut it down for a few months -- and it shows some of those twee, overly-cute tendencies he would develop as the decade wore on; it's a little slow and self-conscious, and Bugs for the first time in a Jones cartoon acts like a world-weary sophisticate.

- Southern Fried Rabbit (Freleng, 1953): Bugs in the Deep South with Yosemite Sam as a guy who is still guarding the border against Yankees ("until I hears from General Lee official").

- Mississippi Hare (Jones, 1949): Bugs vs. Colonel Shuffle, a diminutive Southern colonel who Mike Maltese seems to have envisioned as Jones's answer to Yosemite Sam (he appeared in one more Jones cartoon, with a different voice, then disappeared).

- Hurdy-Gurdy Hare (McKimson, 1951): Bugs vs. an organ-grinder's monkey and his fearsome gorilla father; sort of similar to McKimson's "Gorilla My Dreams," but better, and indeed one of the last of the great McKimson Bugs cartoons (McKimson's Bugs Bunny cartoons from 1946 through 1951 are some of the best ever, with a characterization of Bugs that sort of takes what Clampett was trying to do with the character and does it much better). Famous moment: Bugs's reference to "Petrillo," the head of the musicans' union.

- Sahara Hare (Freleng, 1955): Bugs in the desert, vs. Riff Raff Sam, the Riffiest Riff that ever riffed a raff. ("Yoo-hoo! Mr. A-rab!"). The opening scene re-uses animation from Jones's "Frigid Hare." This is one of those Freleng cartoons that starts great -- with Sam's famously unresponsive camel -- and then kind of loses it in the second half, becoming a series of Road Runner-ish blackout gags where Bugs hardly does anything at all.

- Barbary Coast Bunny (Jones, 1956): Bugs gets swindled by Nasty Canasta and responds by swindling him right back. Most notable for the really terrific Carl Stalling score, which was released on a "Carl Stalling Project" CD and will be available here as an isolated music track. The latter half of the score is like a set of free variations on the Harry Warren song "We're in the Money."

- To Hare is Human (Jones, 1956): Bugs vs. Wile E. Coyote, round 2, with a typically '50s obsession with the new promises and problems of computerization (Wile E. uses a UNIVAC machine to formulate his plans to get Bugs).

- 8 Ball Bunny (Jones, 1950): The second, last and best cartoon pairing Bugs with the unbelievably cute little top-hatted penguin. (When I saw this in a theatre, someone cried out from the audience: "He's so cute!" when the penguin first appeared.) You remember this one for the famous spoof of Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

- Knighty Knight Bugs (Freleng, 1958): Bugs retrieves the Singing Sword from Yosemite Sam as The Black Knight. Nobody knows exactly why this entertaining but standard cartoon was the first and only Bugs cartoon to win an Oscar, except random chance.

- Rabbit Romeo (McKimsons, 1957): Elmer Fudd tries to pair Bugs up with a Slobovian lady rabbit voiced by June Foray.

Disc 2 - Frank Tashlin

- The Case of the Stuttering Pig (1937): A terrific, and even a little scary, horror-comedy with Porky and Petunia. Also featuring "That guy in the third row."

- Little Pancho Vanilla (1938): Little Pancho gets a chance at his dream of becoming a bullfighter.

- Little Beau Porky (1936): In the Foreign Legion, Porky battles the nefarious Middle Eastern villain Ali Mode.

- Now That Summer is Gone (1938): A squirrel develops a gambling problem. No, really, that's what it's about.

- Porky in the North Woods (1936): Porky rescues animals from a very mean French-Canadian.

- You're an Education (1938): Another things-come-to-life cartoon, this time the pamphlets in a travel agency.

- Porky's Railroad (1937): Porky as a railroad engineer racing a new, slicker train.

- Plane Daffy (1944): Daffy Duck has to get past the sexy Nazi spy Hatta Mari to deliver an important military secret: "Hitler is a Stinker." One of my top 10 favourite WB cartoons, and a guaranteed killer in a theatrical screening.

- Porky the Fireman (1938): Porky leads a volunteer fire brigade.

- Cracked Ice (1938): Alcoholic pig W.C. Squeals tries to fake falling through the ice to score a free drink from a St. Bernard dog.

- Puss n' Booty (1943): A cat tries to eat the house's new bird. A prototype for the Tweety and Sylvester series; in fact, this cartoon was remade as a Tweety/Sylvester cartoon, which you can see in the accompanying Bugs Bunny Superstar documentary ("I Taw a Putty Tat"). This was also the last WB cartoon in black and white.

- I Got Plenty of Mutton (1944): A wolf tries to get at a flock of sheep by disguising himself as a sexy female sheep, attracting the attention of a horny ram.

- Booby Hatched (1944): A duckling who hasn't fully hatched out of his egg gets into a lot of trouble, some of it involving cartoony dynamite.

- Porky's Poultry Plant (1936): Porky protects his poultry farm from a buzzard. Tashlin's first WB cartoon, and Carl Stalling's first score for the studio.

- The Stupid Cupid (1945): Elmer, as Cupid, shoots Daffy with his arrow and gets him to look for love in all the wrong places. Notable for its extremely stylized movement, with characters moving part of their bodies sideways and back again while the rest of them stays still; also notable because the ending was censored (at the time, not for TV) and appears to have been lost.

Disc 3 - Speedy Gonzales

Okay, I really don't think anything would be served by my trying to describe every one of these things. Suffice it to say that "Cat-Tails For Two" is the debut of Speedy, in a much less cute and merchandising-friendly incarnation; "Mexicali Schmoes" and "Mexican Boarders" are the two with Slowpoke Rodriguez; the last four are the ones from the DePatie-Freleng years (after the WB studio proper had shut down and WB outsourced the making of cartoons to the independent DePatie-Freleng company); and the best cartoons on this disc are "Cat-Tails," "Tabasco Road" and "Mexicali Schmoes." In general I think McKimson's Speedys hold up better than Freleng's, since McKimson gave Speedy and his environment a little more edge -- not much, but a little.

Disc 4 - Cats

- The Night Watchman (Jones, 1938): A cat takes over for his dad as the night watchman, and the mean mice take the opportunity to push him around. Jones's first cartoon as director.

- Conrad the Sailor (Jones, 1940) - Conrad Cat, a short-lived Jones creation, goes up against Daffy Duck. I mostly remember that Conrad spends about half of the cartoon singing "Over the Sea, Let's Go Men" (another Harry Warren song) - this was when Jones' cartoons were very, very slow.

- The Sour Puss (Bob Clampett, 1940) - Porky Pig's cat pursues a wacky flying fish. This was near the end of the period when Clampett was in charge of most of the black-and-white Porky Pig cartoons, and by this point he was hardly featuring Porky in most of those cartoons at all.

- The Aristo-Cat (Jones, 1943) - The debut of Hubie and Bertie the mice, as they play their first mind games on a cat; this is also an example of the stylized backgrounds Jones and layout artist John McGrew were using at this time.

- Dough Ray Me-Ow (Art Davis, 1948) - In a very dark and strange cartoon, a parrot tries to bump off the household cat because he's next in line for the cat's inheritance.

- Pizzicato Pussycat (Freleng, 1955) - A cat tries to take credit for the musical talent of a brilliant, nerdy, piano-playing mouse. This was one of the cartoons Freleng made in 1954-5 to try and imitate the style and tone and look of UPA cartoons, and this is the best of the lot.

- Kiss Me Cat (Jones, 1953): Learning that Pussyfoot the kitten will be thrown out of the house unless he learns to catch mice, Marc Anthony the bulldog tries to teach him to be a mouser.

- Cat Feud (Jones, 1958): Pussyfoot and a re-designed version of Marc Anthony on a construction site; lots of "cute little guy walks along steel beams and almost falls off" gags.

- The Unexpected Pest (McKimson, 1956): Sylvester needs to catch more mice, so he makes a deal with one mouse to keep catching him over and over. Another great Stalling score available as a music-only track.

- Go Fly a Kit (Jones, 1957): The story of a cat raised by birds, who, due to his upbringing, learned to fly by spinning his tale like a propeller. An odd combination of Jones' late-'50s cuteness and the nasty streak that writer Mike Maltese could sometimes exhibit -- the cartoon looks sweet but the gags are pretty cruel to the dog the cat beats up on.

- Kiddin' the Kitten (McKimson, 1952): the lazy cat Dodsworth (Sheldon Leonard) tries to get a gullible kitten to do his work for him.

- A Peck o' Trouble (McKimson, 1953): Dodsworth tries to get someone else to catch a woodpecker for him.

- Mouse and Garden (Freleng, 1960): in one of the best of the later Freleng cartoons -- an Oscar nominee -- Sylvester and his dopey pal Sam (Daws Butler) agree to share a mouse they've caught, and then each one spends the rest of the cartoon trying to get the whole mouse for himself.

- Porky's Poor Fish (Clampett, 1940): When Porky goes out to lunch, a cat attacks his fish store. I don't think Porky's in this one for more than a minute.

- Swallow the Leader (McKimson, 1949): A cat tries to eat swallows on their way to Capistrano.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


TV Shows on DVD has the complete list of cartoons for the "Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 4."

I'll have more about the individual cartoons when I get a chance, but for now I'll note that disc 1 consists of Bugs Bunny cartoons from 1949 through 1958 -- basically, the era that we're familiar with through endless repeats on Saturday Morning. However, the disc does contain a couple of cartoons that were pulled from the airwaves in the last decade or so because they contained blackface gags and/or references to slavery: "Mississippi Hare" (one of Chuck Jones's funniest Bugs cartoons) and "Southern Fried Rabbit." In fact, "Southern Fried Rabbit," where Bugs poses as a slave, may be the last WB cartoon to contain a blackface gag. By the '50s, these types of racial gags were considered corny, and as the negative reaction to the TV version of "Amos and Andy" proved, they were also coming under more fire for racial insensitivity. So they pretty much died out around this time.

Disc 2, the Frank Tashlin collection, includes my favourite wartime cartoon, "Plane Daffy" (featuring the curvaceous female duck Hatta Mari, who's sort of the predecessor of the way Tashlin worked with Jayne Mansfield in his live-action films). And disc 4, the "cats" disc, includes a few titles that haven't been on home video before, like the second Marc Anthony and Pussyfoot cartoon, "Kiss Me Cat," and Bob McKimson's two cartoons with Sheldon Leonard as the voice of the lazy cat Dodsworth.

Update: Jerry Beck has a list of the bonus features.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

You're Gonna Like This Picture!

Paul Henning's show "The Bob Cummings Show" (aka "Love That Bob") isn't on DVD yet -- except for one not-particularly-good episode attached as a bonus to a Petticoat Junction/Beverly Hillbillies DVD. But somebody put up a complete episode on YouTube, "Bob Goes Birdwatching." It's from the fourth season of the show so it's not the freshest episode ever, but it does give a of Henning's cheerfully silly, wholesomely smutty sitcom, presenting Bob Cummings as a swingin' bachelor surrounded by beautiful babes (like Joi Lansing) at a time when most sitcoms were about happily monogamous men.

Even though we tend to think of the '50s as more culturally conservative time than the '60s, the television shows of the '50s actually seemed to have slightly less stringent censorship; maybe it was just that the advertisers hadn't gotten as skittish (or maybe it was that there was less commercial time to sell, hence you didn't have to pitch everything to the lowest common denominator among potential advertisers), but the innuendo on "Bob" went beyond anything Henning could get away with in the more family-friendly '60s. And "Sgt. Bilko," apart from having a slightly subversive edge to it that earlier and later military comedies didn't, sometimes managed some sexual innuendos -- stripper jokes, and so on -- that weren't exactly R-rated but still were a little edgier than anything you'd find on a '60s show.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Monday, August 07, 2006

Grudge Matches I'd Like to See: Abbott and Hardy vs. Laurel and Costello

Two classic comedy teams re-group into two fighting teams. On this side, we have the two annoyed angry guys: BUD ABBOTT and OLIVER HARDY. On the other side, we have the two whiny whimpering guys: LOU COSTELLO and STAN LAUREL.

Who wins this battle of the comedy-team components?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Can You Buy a Movie Just For the Bonus Cartoon?

Warner Home Video has announced a two-disc special edition of Sergeant York, which ordinarily wouldn't make me too enthusiastic. It's a very well-made movie, but it's also one of Howard Hawks's most impersonal, anonymous movies; it has very little of Hawks' style and much more of the house style of Warner Brothers at the time -- it was one of several semi-allegorical movies the studio made to advocate entry into the Second World War (the WB house writers, like Howard Koch, obviously want us to spot the links between reluctant warrior Alvin York and the situation when the film was released, namely July 1941). And it's not as entertaining as some of the other semi-allegories from the studio, like The Sea Hawk.

However, the cartoon included as a bonus is "Porky's Preview", which may be enough reason for me to pick up the movie. "Porky's Preview" is the Tex Avery cartoon where Porky shows a cartoon he drew himself ("It wasn't hard, because I'm an artist"), and it is one of the greatest meta-films ever made. Porky's crummy stick-figure cartoon parodies all the blunders that a bad animator can make -- for example, the bit where Porky tries to make a dancer move convincingly, and finally gives up and just has his whole body float from side to side. The cartoon has never been available on DVD or commercial VHS, and I don't think it's going to be on the next Looney Tunes Golden Collection, so it may be worth at least a rental even if you're not a Sergeant York fan. It comes out November 7.

I Hate Those Kids

Hey, I found an early Trix commercial from 1964. This is from before they added all the other flavors to the mix; back then it was just "raspberry red, lemony yellow, orange orange!" (Orange orange?) But one thing never changes: those damn kids delight in tormenting the poor hungry rabbit and denying him that which he most desires:

I've always found it amusing that even though the commercials are clearly set up with the expectation that we'll identify with the kids -- they are, after all, the same age as the target audience, and the rabbit is their antagonist -- the one constant of audience reaction to those commercials is that audiences hate those kids. I mean, really hate those kids. They are cruel little monsters and greedy pigs, and real kids always identify with the rabbit instead.

It's not surprising, either: as children, we identify more with characters who can't get what they want. The kids in those commercials are actually more like parents, denying us what we most desire on the basis of arbitrary rules. So "Trix Are For Kids," which was supposed to be a slogan signifying that this cereal was a special treat for children that grown-ups couldn't share, instead comes off sounding more like the sort of incomprehensible rules that adults use to deny treats to children. It's an ad campaign that works, but for exactly the wrong reasons.

Or as Carlton said on an episode of "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air": "For a long time it gave me nightmares, it shows that the world can sometimes be cruel. I can still hear them taunting him. 'Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids.' Why couldn't they just give him some cereal?"

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Elizabeth Schwarzkopf

The soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf died today.

Schwarzkopf (or "Betty Blackhead" as some call her, based on the English translation of her name) was is also one of the most-recorded singers of all time, because her husband, Walter Legge, was the head of artists & repertoire for the classical recording giant EMI. (Though he was an Englishman, Legge was a Germanophile who built EMI up by signing a number of German artists who were being semi-boycotted by other companies after the war: Schwarzkopf, Herbert Von Karajan, and William Furtwangler among others.) From 1953 through the early '60s Legge gave Schwarzkopf the lead roles in many of EMI's big operatic recordings. As a specialist in Mozart and Richard Strauss, she of course recorded Fiordiligi, the Countess, Ariadne, and the Marschallin; but she also got to record Gretel in Hansel and Gretel (with Karajan), Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus (also with Karajan) and even roles that she wouldn't have done on stage, like Liù in Puccini's Turandot. She even did cameo appearances on recordings she wasn't technically participating in; when Legge recorded Tristan Und Isolde with Kirsten Flagstad, he had Schwarzkopf sing a few high Cs that Flagstad could no longer reach.

Her style of singing was a point of some controversy, and makes her one of those singers you either love or hate. It's hard to describe, but it sort of sounded like she was letting her interpretation of a piece be shaped by the words, instead of the notes. Depending on what the words were about, she would shade her voice differently, croon or bark certain passages for emphasis; even if a melody was being repeated, if the words were different, she would respond to that and sing the melody somewhat differently. Her style was similar to the emphasize-every-word style of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with whom she made several recordings.

Her way of singing, especially her tendency to croon instead of singing full-out -- something which may have been a way of disguising weak spots in her voice, particularly since she herself admitted that her voice was basically a small-sized one, too small for some of the roles she sang -- has been described as "mannered," and it can sometimes sound downright unmusical, as if she doesn't care much about actually making the melody sound beautiful. I'll admit that I don't care much for most of her recordings; I think a more sheerly musical, sensual way of singing is better-suited to most of these roles. But I will admit that her emphasis on words and dramatic timing has its own pleasures sometimes; in The Marriage of Figaro, when the Countess fumbles and stumbles while trying to make up an excuse to her husband ("Lo vieta... lo vieta...") Schwarzkopf really understands that the fumbling and stumbling is built into the music and works it into her interpretation of that music; other singers just treat it as a meaningless series of repeated notes, without conveying the dramatic reason for the repetition. Schwarzkopf, whatever her mannerisms, understands the why of the music.

Oldies Are Golden

While I try to get some longer posts up here again, try looking at the work of less lazy people:

- Brent McKee's "I Am a Child of Television" is doing some "Classic Comedy Lookbacks," essays on classic sitcoms like "Sgt. Bilko" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

- Ivan Shreve's "Thrilling Days of Yesteryear" has a review of The Will Rogers Collection.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Getting Back to Bugs Bunny Territory...

From "Robot Chicken," Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig in 8 Mile:


I've decided to restore Haloscan comments to the blog (it looks ugly, I know, but it's easier to post a comment with it than with the labyrinthine blogger posting rules).

This unfortunately -- and unexpectedly -- wiped out earlier comments, but I saved some of them and am restoring them where possible (I've put back the long comments thread in the long, off-topic political post, which I wouldn't advise wading through again unless you want to see what I get like when I get really angry and stuff).

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

"Mary and Ethel Who?"

YouTube has clips of one of the most famous meetings of the theatre and television media: the 1953 Ford 50th Anniversary Show where Ethel Merman and Mary Martin -- the two most famous names on Broadway -- appeared together for the first time. The most famous part of the show was a 13-minute medley of Broadway standards by Merman and Martin.

The first ten minutes are here.

And the last three minutes are here.

A caveat is that by this time, Merman was past her peak as a singer. She compensated for this in a clever way: she started "scooping" on any note she didn't feel comfortable hitting directly (attacking the note from the flat side instead of hitting it dead-on), disguising her pitch problems and expanding what had always been a quirky trademark of hers -- she'd been doing the scoop for years, but mostly as a special effect; by now she was doing it all the time.

Still, this is a great reminder of that time in the '50s when New York theatre was at the centre of popular culture: with television mostly based in New York, audiences around the world could get familiar with New York theatre personalities and New York musicals; New York stars became international stars, and Merman and Martin in particular gained an international celebrity that they'd only fitfully had before (particularly Merman, because she didn't like to tour and therefore was rarely seen outside New York). The connection to TV is part of the reason why there were so many mega-hit Broadway musicals in this period. Eventually the centre of TV production would move to Los Angeles, and Broadway would start to decline in the wake of that particular shift.

Why I Love Comments Sections

Two years ago, I did a post on the obscure musical Oh, Captain!. In it, I mentioned a rumor -- which I got from a now-defunct site for the songwriters of the show -- that Oh, Captain! closed early because one of the producers was embezzling money (signing up investors without putting them on the investors' list, then taking the money himself). I added: "Whether this story is true, I don't know."

Well, two years later, a commenter says that the story is true, and he or she has research to back it up:

I was once interested in re-mounting the show and went to the Library For the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center for some research. In the show's files, there is at least one newspaper article announcing that the show would be closing because of box-office shenanigans credited to one of the producing team. Obviously, there was no actual indictment in the paper, and it's at least ten years since I read through the files, but there are NY papers with articles to prove the allegations from the Livingston-Evans website. Incidentally, the producer in question only recently passed away (sometime in 2005, possibly early '06), his Times obit saying that he had gone on to other producing credits (I forget exactly what), but that there had been legal problems surrounding his participation in OH, CAPTAIN!

So we have a more-or-less confirmed version of my favorite kind of theatre story: the crooked Max Bialystock-style producer. And that's why I love the comments section.

It's Hard to Be a Go-Go Girl

For everything that was entertainment in the '60s -- good and bad -- you can't beat the Ann-Margret Mega Mix: