Monday, October 30, 2006

Finding This Stuff Is What Makes Life Worth Living

I know I shouldn't just post YouTube finds without having something to say about them, but I just found this and I can't think of anything to say except "wow, I'm glad somebody uploaded this": the last truly great Busby Berkeley number, from his 1943 Fox Technicolor extravaganza The Gang's All Here: "The Lady In the Tutti-Frutti Hat," a celebration of everything Berkeley loved: arranging chorus girls in geometric patterns; spectacular camera movements, and rampant sexual innuendo.

One thing I can add about The Gang's All Here is that it's one of the few Fox musicals that really takes advantage of the studio's distinctively lush, beautiful use of Technicolor. Most Fox musicals had rather drab production values, with most of the musical numbers restricted to small Vaudeville stages or nightclubs; they rarely had any visual imagination to match that spectacular color photography. Berkeley had visual imagination to spare, of course, and his sensibility combined with the Fox Technicolor makes for some of the most amazing visual experiences in the history of movie musicals.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Maurice Binder vs. Saul Bass

Which iconic creator of movie credits sequences do you like better: Saul Bass (Psycho, The Man With the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder) or Maurice Binder (Dr. No, Charade, Barbarella)?

The two are similar in many ways: they were around the same age, both from New York, both helped re-define what an opening credits sequence could be, both adopted different techniques (animation, live-action, abstract patterns) depending on what kind of movie they were working on, and both frequently came up with title sequences that were more acclaimed than the rest of the movie. But there are differences too. For one thing, Bass mostly worked in America, Binder mostly in England. Bass was more in demand for serious dramatic movies -- by Preminger, Hitchcock, and the like -- while Binder tended to be more in demand for light-hearted adventure movies like the Bond films. And I think Bass's approach to opening titles was a bit more serious than Binder's approach. Bass tended to try and find a graphic approach that would help convey the themes of the movie in a dramatic way, whether it was something as simple as the slashing lines in Psycho or something as offbeat as the black cat taking a Walk on the Wild Side (to Elmer Bernstein's music):

While Binder was also out to sum up the movie -- the shot of James Bond through that gun barrel tells you everything you need to know about what kind of movie this will be -- he tended to do it in a more tongue-in-cheek way than Bass; one of the films that brought him to prominence was Stanley Donen's The Grass is Greener where he re-imagined all the main characters as babies. And Binder's title sequences were more sexualized than Bass's; most famous are the silhouetted women in all the Bond sequences, but when Binder used non-silhouetted women, the result could be something very close to soft-core pornography, as in the titles of Barbarella or his leering title sequence from the Raquel Welch vehicle Fathom (which is certainly not among his best work, but I'm posting it here because it's just such a perfect summation of wholesomely sleazy '60s pop culture and Binder's own contribution to that atmosphere of wholesome sleaze):

All in all, I don't really have a preference between the two because I think they're sufficiently different that they each have different things to offer -- Bass's titles are more intense and mood-enhancing, Binder's are more fun.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Time After Time Slot

You know what I'd like to do but can't because nobody would be interested? I'd like to try and make a complete list of TV shows from the late '70s and early '80s that suffered from being scheduled in the 8 o'clock hour.

That sounds a bit convoluted, so let me try and explain: in 1975, the FCC created the "Family Viewing Hour," mandating that networks had to schedule family-friendly programming (without too much sex or violence or other interesting stuff) between 8 and 9. The Family Hour was struck down by the courts in 1977, but even after that, there remained a perception -- which lasted for many years -- that the 8 p.m. hour was for family programming and that anything that was primarily aimed at adults should be scheduled after 9.

You can spot the change if you pick up the Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows and look at the scheduling of All in the Family. In the early '70s, it was usually on at 8 p.m. With the coming of the Family Hour, it was moved to 9 p.m. In 1978, after the repeal of the Family Hour, the show was moved back to 8 p.m. -- but when it was, a little girl was added to the cast. It was pretty much a given that a show that aired at 8 or 8:30 had to have a kid, or at least something to appeal to kids. Gone were the days when the original, adults-only All in the Family, or M*A*S*H, could air early in the night.

Some shows, like AitF, were re-tooled to fit the new demands of the early hour. Others just had to tone themselves down to the point of blandness; an often-cited example is Susan Harris's first show (first one she created, I mean), Fay starring Lee Grant. It was scheduled at 8 p.m. in 1975, so Harris couldn't do much of her trademark sexually-frank humor, and the show was never as good as it might have been (Harris finally got to show what she could do with the 9 p.m. show Soap). There must have been other shows that were forced to tone down the jokes, or add an unnecessary kid or something, just because they were airing before 9.

Then there were shows that were scheduled at 8 despite having little or no kid appeal, and suffered for it. The example I like to bring up is my beloved WKRP in Cincinnati. Everybody knows that CBS constantly changed WKRP's time slot, but that wasn't actually the worst thing about the way the show was scheduled. The problem was that except for the few months when it was airing at 9:30 after M*A*S*H, CBS constantly scheduled it in the de facto family hour. Look at the time slots it had (not counting its many different summer-only time slots):

Sept. '78-Nov.78 Mon 8:00
Jan. 79-Dec. 79 Mon 9:30
Dec 79-Jul 80 Mon 8:00
Nov 80-May 81 Sat 8:00
Oct. 81-Jan. 82 Wed 8:30
Jan 82-Feb. 82 Wed 8:00
Mar. 82- Apr. 82 Wed 9:00

The only time WKRP was considered a hit was in 1979, when it was airing after M*A*S*H. But the problem wasn't just that CBS moved it out of the cushy time slot, but that they kept scheduling it at 8:00 when shows were expected to have kid appeal. The perception at the network was that it had kid appeal because of the rock music, but it was a mistake; there were no kids on the show, not even any teenagers, and it needed a "grown-up" time slot like the other MTM sitcoms had gotten. But CBS didn't move the show back to 9 until the very last month of itss run.

There's no question that WKRP would have become a long-running hit if it had been consistently scheduled after 9; that was when it thrived and that's where its audience was. That's the example I know best -- but there must have been other shows that got killed by being placed in the Family Hour when they didn't have Family appeal. Hence the need to go through the Directory to TV Shows and make a list of shows that might have lasted longer if they'd been on an hour later.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Brief Maltese Falcon Observation

There's not much to say about the new DVD set of The Maltese Falcon -- 1941 version great; 1931 version not as good but has Pre-Code stuff the remakes couldn't include; 1936's Satan Met a Lady very odd; making-of documentary has annoying narration. So instead of reviewing the DVD I'll make one random observation about one moment in the movie:

As you know, one of the most common movie and TV clichés is the cliché that whenever a character turns on the news, they're broadcasting the story that is directly important to that character. But another part of that cliché -- call it a sub-cliché -- is the fact that the story that personally affects the lead character will always be the number-one story in the news, even if there's no way it would actually be considered an important story. So if a character is running for City Council, he can turn on the news and somehow the City Council race will be the night's top story.

And one of my favourite examples of this comes in The Maltese Falcon, where we cut to a newspaper where the banner headline is "THURSBY, ARCHER MURDERS LINKED!" Now, I realize the murder rate was lower in 1941. But somehow I really don't think it's likely that in a major city, the number-one story in the newspaper would be the murder of a sleazy P.I. nobody cared about and a small-time hood who nobody in the city even knew. But it makes a good headline, and it sets up Joel Cairo's statement that the papers mentioned a link between the two murders, so what the heck -- it works.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Complete With Bad Commercials That Repeat All Night

Check this out: a 1978 commercial for Geritol featuring Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey and his wife at that time, Cyndy. Garvey, a handsome guy who played in Los Angeles and had impressive statistics (he never walked and couldn't throw, so he wasn't really one of the best players in the league, but he got 200 hits and 100 RBI a year, which were the statistics MVP voters cared about at the time), was one of the most-publicized players in the game, and Cyndy, who looked like the prototype California Blonde (though she was from Detroit), was one of the most-publicized player wives. Of course, they later went through a nasty divorce, Garvey got named in various palimony suits, and Cyndy wrote a book about what a selfish and cold man he was. Which makes the commercial -- filmed three years before their divorce -- either sad or funny, depending on your perspective. But more importantly, it's just a perfect example of bad late '70s and early '80s commercials: just a camera pointing at one or two people reading off cue cards, followed by a dissolve to the product being hawked. National TV commercials must have been lower-tech in this era than any before or since.

And speaking of the late '70s, here's another commercial from 1978: a promo for People, a CBS show based on People Magazine (back when celebrity-fluffing magazines and shows were new and fresh). It didn't take, despite the awesome star power of host Phyllis George.


TV on DVD roundup over at t'other blog.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Lyrics: "That Man is Doing His Worst to Make Good" By Johnny Burke

One of the most underrated and under-appreciated of the great pop lyricists was Johnny Burke, who wrote the lyrics for "Pennies From Heaven," "Swinging On a Star," "Misty" and "Here's That Rainy Day." Working mostly with composer Jimmy Van Heusen, he wrote lyrics with mostly simple vocabulary and standard subjects, but with imaginative and even poetic imagery, always coming up with charming and offbeat ways to talk about familiar subjects. After he split with Burke, Van Heusen joined up with a superficially similar but inferior lyricist, Sammy Cahn, and wound up producing a lot of slick but soulless and kind of dated songs, whereas his best collaborations with Burke are really timeless and beautiful.

And while he usually kept the rhymes as simple as the language, when he wanted to rhyme up a storm in a comedy song, he could do it, as in this comedy song that was cut from the musical Carnival in Flanders but recorded by Debbie Gravitte on one of Bruce Kimmel's albums of obscure show tunes. It's a fairly familiar type of comedy song, a list of reasons for innocent young women to beware of men who are about to get fresh -- but Burke's playful rhyming and imagery keeps the song fresh in a different way.

"That Man is Doing His Worst to Make Good"

Refrain 1

If he tells you he loves your girlish laughter,
Since he's met you, he's daft and getting dafter,
And it's only your friendship that he's after,
Jump for a rafter!
That man is doing his worst to make good.
If he tells you that people should be franker,
That it's silly to sit around and hanker,
If his next move is what they call a flanker,
Haul up your anchor!
That man is doing his worst to make good.
If he's in a sad dilemma
About his cousin Emma
And needs a comforting hand,
Later on he needs a shoulder
Or something even bolder,
You know what he's got planned.
If he tells you he leads a hard severe life,
Even harder than any mountaineer life,
And his wife won't do anything to cheer life,
Then run for dear life!
That man's not preaching on brotherhood,
That man is doing his worst to make good.

Refrain 2

If he looks like the type that never forces,
Not a mention of sex in his discourses,
Then you find out he's been through eight divorces,
Don't spare the horses!
That man is doing his worst to make good.
If he says you've become a lovely habit
And you've his heart to treasure or to stab it,
But won't say it in front of any Abbot,
Run like a rabbit!
That man is doing his worst to make good.
If you meet the little boy type,
The kid-without-a-toy type,
That looks so down at the socks,
If he's sweet and kind of crazy,
So wistful and so hazy,
He's crazy like a fox.
If he calls you a truly thoroughbred girl
And so clever and such a vastly read girl,
If he says you know how to use your head, girl,
Shake out the lead, girl!
That man is doing his worst to make --
I mean, he's really rehearsed to make --
That man is doing his worst to make good.

Further Fosse

In the comments on my Fosse post, "jim" makes a good point:

The big problem I have with Fosse is that he never seems to develop anything from the personalities of his dancers. They all tend to end up looking like a line of little Fosses.

That sort of re-enforces the comparison to Busby Berkeley, who also didn't let his dancers show much individuality. And in the '50s, when musicals had to be much more re-castable than they once were -- they were expected to run longer and go on more international tours -- it didn't suit a musical to highlight the personalities of individual dancers too much, which may be why somewhat regimented choreographer/directors, like Fosse and Gower Champion, started to emerge as major players: they created dance moves that could be re-created with any cast.

Still, I think that there are exceptions; Suzanne Charney certainly stands out in the "Rich Man's Frug" number (though as so often with Fosse, there's an undercurrent of contempt in this spectacular number: it's a deliberate satire of '60s dance and fashion styles and he's sort of spoofing the musical/dance tastes of his own audience).

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Snap, Snap, Shuffle, Shuffle, Snap

I had a longer post planned about the director/choreographer Bob Fosse, but I haven't had a chance to finish it yet. But I did want to note that Fosse is an odd case of a great choreographer whose work often didn't contain much actual dancing, or at least, what was traditionally regarded as actual dancing. A lot of his most famous numbers, like "Big Spender" from Sweet Charity, are more about movement than dance; there are a few real dance moves but a lot of it is carefully choreographed and timed hand movements and foot stomps. And of course the trademark Fosse moves are a) snapping fingers and b) shuffling along while bent over backwards -- neither of which are exactly dance moves per se.

That doesn't mean that Fosse couldn't stage a great traditional dance number, because he could and did. But in some ways he resembles Busby Berkeley, who was not a great choreographer in the technical sense (actually he wasn't even a particularly good choreographer) but who was amazingly good at choreographing non-dance movements, both of the performers and the camera. Fosse's specialty was making sure that everything -- the dance steps, the non-dance movements, the lighting, the dance arrangements -- worked together to create the same effect; he was one of those choreographers who choreographed everybody, not just the dancers. That's why, more than any other stage choreographer, the numbers he choreographed are basically unstageable without more or less following the original movements (you can't do "Steam Heat" or "Big Spender" without the Fosse moves, because he made sure those moves were built into the music).

Here are two Fosse numbers to illustrate what I'm talking about; the "Big Spender" number from my favorite of his movie musicals, Sweet Charity (I'm not a fan of his version of Cabaret, while Charity is one of the better stage-to-screen adaptations of the '60s):

And while Fosse didn't directly work on the movie version of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, it does more or re-create his stage choreography for "A Secretary is Not a Toy" (during rehearsals, Frank Loesser reportedly changed the song from a waltz -- still heard in the first refrain -- to its famous 12/8 metre to accommodate Fosse's staging ideas):

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Hot Todd-y

Can Helena Bonham Carter sing? According to Variety, she'll be doing her own singing when she plays Mrs. Lovett in Tim Burton's film version of Sweeney Todd. I suppose Broadway buffs will be upset at the news, though personally I'm just relieved that Patti LuPone wasn't cast (she's been doing that part in what seems like every recent concert performance and revival, and she still seems terribly miscast to me).

Both of the lead parts in Sweeney Todd are sort of strange in terms of vocal writing, because they're parts of near-operatic length and difficulty but were cast with decidedly non-operatic voices, Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. Part of the decline of Cariou's career after Sweeney, it was speculated, had something to do with the strain of singing a part that really needed a heftier voice; his voice couldn't handle it and he was never quite the same again. Lansbury got through it better, because while she's not a trained singer, she has the ability to switch to a soprano-ish head voice when the music gets high, and because her part wasn't quite as big or as exhausting as Sweeney. Still, the original choice for the part was an actress who also had a trained soprano voice (but could also belt) -- Patricia Routledge -- and it would be nice to hear the part cast with that kind of singer, just as it would be especially nice to hear Sweeney cast with a big baritone voice of the kind Broadway had in abundance in the '40s and '50s. That's not going to happen in Burton's version, of course, since he's made the decision to cast actors he works with regularly (Depp, Carter) even if they happen not to be singers.

We're Gonna Have Some Fun

Has anybody ever compiled a complete list of the prime-time TV shows that were made into Saturday morning cartoons? In the '80s, there was an explosion of tie-in cartoons meant to promote the network's prime-time lineup; many if not most of them had the actors from the prime-time show voicing the animated versions of their characters. None of these shows were exactly remakes of the originals -- they couldn't be, because they couldn't start doing stories that the prime-time version wanted to do. So they all came up with new places to put the characters: Laverne and Shirley joined the army, Fonzie and the gang (except Potsie) were zapped into a time machine; Punky Brewster had a magical friend with an annoying Frank Welker voice. Scott Shaw! has recalled that Hanna-Barbera was at one point commissioned by CBS to do an animated version of WKRP with all the characters as dogs. (Then the prime-time version started to slip in the ratings and plans for the animated tie-in were called off.) There must have been others that actually made it to air.

One other one -- from Hanna-Barbera, like all of the above except "Punky Brewster" (which was Ruby-Spears) -- was the animated version of The Dukes of Hazzard, where Hanna-Barbera dusted off their old "Wacky Races" plots in the story of a round-the-world race between Them Duke Boys (with Daisy) and Boss Hogg (with Rosco). The first season was made when the prime-time version had replaced Bo and Luke with the Scab Duke Boys (tm), Coy and Vance, so Hanna-Barbera obligingly used the Fake Dukes:

Then Bo and Luke came back, and so the second season of the cartoon put them in the same format with no apparent explanation as to how they joined the race:

The '80s: where every cartoon was meant to sell something, be it a toy or a prime-time show.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Greatest Thing Ever

I wrote last year about why Bill Murray in Tootsie is one of the greatest supporting performances ever. I still feel that way. After I wrote that post, he gave an interview to the Guardian where he talked a bit about his experiences on that movie:

Then came Tootsie (1982), playing Dustin Hoffman's roommate. He ad-libbed his way through the script. "They kept on saying, 'Just react.' So I would come up with lines like 'That is one nutty hospital' or 'I'm just afraid you are going to burn in hell for all this' ... Then they would write these down as scenes and say, after a few days, 'Come up with something else.' It was like that through the movie."

He also learned about power play on a film set, witnessing the constant arguments between Hoffman and director Sydney Pollack. "Dustin would throw a fit, and the crew just stood back and watched," he says. "He's a perfectionist. These things explode, but it is always about getting the right sort of film. Sydney would have a go back and they'd be like these two prize fighters, with veins bulging in their foreheads. I still felt like the junior guy in movies, so I tried to lighten the mood." That took the form of Murray pretending to have a fit himself. "Everyone knew I was kidding," he says, "but it helped defuse one or two situations."

I just think it's instructive that (to me, anyway) Murray's laid-back, semi-improvised performance holds up better than Hoffman's painstakingly rehearsed and thought-out performance.

Here's the scene where Murray improvises a series of increasingly incoherent rants about the theatre:

Handel Puts the Fun in Fundamentalism

The new René Jacobs recording of Handel's Messiah is up to his usual high standard; it may not jump right up to Best Ever status like his recordings of Mozart operas, but it's good, for reasons that Robert Levine sets out in his review for

The booklet essay talks mostly about the libretto of Messiah, and how the librettist, Charles Jennens (who also wrote Handel's Saul and Belshazzar) had the idea to tell the story of Christ using selections of text from the Old and New Testaments. Jennens' aim was to make the case for fundamentalist Christianity, and I'm not using "fundamentalist" as a slur, but just in a descriptive way: Jennens wanted to literally get back to the fundamentals of religion, the basic ideas about who Jesus was and what his significance was. Using the Old Testament, in particular the prophecies of Isaiah, for a lot of the text was part of that, since it was meant to re-inforce the idea that the whole Bible was in some way or another leading up to the story of Jesus. Jennens saw Messiah as a way of counteracting all the Enlightenment free-thinking and doubting he saw going on around him. It was an interesting thing to do, the opposite of preaching to the converted: it would be like Mel Gibson making The Passion of the Christ for people who didn't necessarily believe in the literal truth of the story.

But Jennens wasn't entirely satisfied with what Handel did with Messiah. He wrote to a friend that Handel had written at least some music that was unworthy of the great subject:

He hath made a fine Entertainment of it, tho’ not near so good as he might and ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition, but he retained his overture obstinately in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel but much more unworthy of the Messiah.

Apart from the overture, I suspect Jennens might not have been happy with Handel's injection of humour, even satire, into parts of the work, most famously when he sets the words "All we like sheep have gone astray" by having the chorus imitate the bleating of sheep. And of course Handel famously incorporated obviously secular music into the piece, like "For Unto Us a Child is Born," which re-uses a theme from an Italian aria he'd written years earlier. More than that, Handel's Messiah really doesn't emphasize the doctrinal points that Jennens wanted to emphasize. The Nativity is dispensed with in about two minutes, while the longest aria in the work -- the emotional core of the whole evening -- is "He Was Despised," which isn't about the crucifixion or even necessarily about Jesus at all; it's about the scorn and mistreatment that a prophet must suffer in his own time (the words are from Isaiah). In what words he chose to set as arias and what words he dispensed with in recitative, and in the moments he chose for the really Big Moments, Handel came up with a work that is far less didactic and more dramatic than Jennens was probably expecting; the subject of Jennens' Messiah is Jesus, but the subject of Handel's Messiah is regular human beings and their relationship to Christianity and religion in general; that's why the big soprano aria, "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth," is set to lines about personal belief, not doctrine.

Handel was a religious man in his own way, but he was basically a theatre person and Messiah is basically a dramatic work in a way that most religious oratorios are not; that, I think, helps explain why it is the most popular religious work of classical music, because it gives us religion and belief on a very personal level. The Jacobs recording does a good job of conveying that, because Jacobs is a conductor who is willing to be brash and even vulgar if it'll make a strong dramatic point, and moments like the bleating sheep or the "fire" music in "But Who May Abide" are played for all their theatrical value.

Fire Andy Kaufman.

I know there's an Andy Kaufman cult. And I also know why there's an Andy Kaufman cult; the guy managed to take the most bizarre, underground performance-art tricks and introduce them to something resembling a mass audience. And I also understand that Kaufman fans don't think of Taxi as his main job. But all that said, I have to say, if anybody else did a scene as obviously un-rehearsed and stumbling over his lines as Kaufman does here, he'd probably be fired or at least ordered to shape up:

Remember, that's not an out-take; that's from the actual episode. God only knows what was in the takes that the director (James Burrows) didn't use. However, a Kaufman fan left this stirring defense as a YouTube comment:

What do you mean, unrehearsed? This is a perfect and brilliant performance! It's Latka who doesn't know what he's talking about, not Andy!


By the way, I've always been skeptical of the idea -- promoted in books about Kaufman and in the movie Man on the Moon that Kaufman had contempt for Taxi. Certainly he didn't want it to be seen as his main job, which was why he asked for (and got) permission to be absent from several episodes each season. And like many comedians who incorporate their material into sitcoms, he probably felt that Taxi was eating up his own material, co-opting his Foreign Man character and making it harder for him to do that character as part of his own act. But Kaufman, as far as I know, didn't bash the show in public at the time (there were a number of people in the '70s and early '80s who did go public bashing the shows they were on), and when the show was about to be canceled in 1983 he helped promote it. I just think it's wishful thinking on the part of his fans to believe that he really hated his entry into Mainstream Culture, but I'm not sure if it's true. Maybe I'm wrong. But at least he, unlike Jeff Conaway, wasn't dumb enough to actually leave Taxi.

Update: Commentators dispute my interpretation of this scene:

Sorry, I don't see the slightest shred of what you're talking about here either. I don't see anything that looks remotely unrehearsed on Andy's part. It's got that naturalistic, halting, stumbling verisimilitude that made Latka/Foreign Man so effective and charming. The "building list" concept is clearly a comedic mainstay, but that doesn't mean Latka should perform it like Henny Youngman. To my eye as well, it is indeed Latka who doesn't know what he's talking about, not Andy.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Levine On Belson

Ken Levine has a memoir of the late Jerry Belson, who worked as an uncredited rewrite man on Cheers among many other shows.

Here's the other clip I found on YouTube of Marshall/Belson scripting:

Worst Cartoon Adaptation Ever?

Paul Mavis's TV-on-DVD reviews are becoming a highlight of (especially since the DVD Savant's gotten kind of grumpy lately), and today he does a number on the animated Dick Tracy, which is, as he makes clear, really doesn't have much to do with Dick Tracy at all.

It's too bad, because Dick Tracy is some of the best material imaginable for an action-adventure cartoon series; "Batman" worked extremely well as a TV cartoon and Chester Gould's strip offers many of the things that worked for "Batman," like simple, streamlined character designs and a great assortment of villains. If Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy movie had been a bigger hit, I suspect someone might have produced a real Tracy cartoon as part of the early '90s animation boom, but it wasn't and therefore nobody did.

Friday, October 13, 2006

He'll Teach Us How to Be Bad-Ass

Robert Mitchum Collection. January 23. Two movies from his RKO prime, Otto Preminger's Angel Face, which pairs him with Jean Simmons, and the entertaining Josef Von Sternberg/Nick Ray/Howard Hughes mess, Macao, which pairs him with Jane Russell (both of which I expected to be part of a film noir collection; I guess I was wrong). Two "prestige" pictures: Vincente Minnelli's Home From the Hill and Fred Zinnemann's The Sundowners. And two movies from his actor-for-hire phase, a not-very-good Western (The Good Guys and the Bad Guys) and a not-bad crime drama (The Yakuza). Overall, a pretty good cross-section of this baddest-ass of bad-asses.

Or as Joe Queenan put it when talking about why Mitchum was miscast in Ryan's Daughter (he's good, but miscast): "A man who used to make movies with Jane Russell cannot be convincingly cast as a cuckold."

Jerry Belson Has Died

Sad news. Belson was one of the best comedy writers around, both for scripts and for uncredited punch-ups, which was his main job in the last couple of decades. (For example, James L. Brooks hired him to do some uncredited work on the first flashback episode of The Simpsons.) I wrote a little bit about him last December, as did Ken Levine.

Here's a chunk of a Dick Van Dyke episode that Belson and his (then) writing partner Garry Marshall wrote together:

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Here Comes Mr. Bill's Dog, Or, Speaking of SNL

Following up on my Saturday Night Live post below, I should mention that I recently watched a DVD of perhaps the greatest late-'70s SNL character, Mr. Bill. Like a lot of people my age, I actually didn't encounter Mr. Bill until I'd already seen the "Pizza Head" commercials that the creator, Walter Williams, did for Pizza Hut -- where he took the same concept and characters but replaced Bill with a slice of pizza and Sluggo with a pizza slicer:

I think the reasons I like Mr. Bill so much -- and Pizza Head as well -- are twofold. One, it's a parody of a certain type of cheaply-made children's programming that used to be all over local stations; seeing horrific violence injected into that familiar and boring world is very satisfying. The other thing that makes it work is Williams' decision never to have Bill's nemesis, Sluggo ("He's going to be mean to me!"), say anything or do much of anything. All the horrific violence is inflicted by Bill's supposed "friend," Mr. Hands, who keeps telling us that Sluggo says this, or did that, and following up by pummelling Bill. And the original SNL shorts even has an arc of sorts, where Bill slowly comes to realize that Mr. Hands is out to get him.

Mr. Hands is the unseen creator who has absolute power over his creation. In that way, Mr. Bill is very similar to Chuck Jones's "Duck Amuck," which also plays on the idea that there's this off-stage force who's happily screwing with reality just to torment us.

Here's a Mr. Bill segment from the original SNL:


If this is actually real and not some kind of bootleg, it's pretty big TV-on-DVD news:

"Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season"


Here it is. After years of waiting and compilation videos, the incredible Season One of the groundbreaking late night sketch comedy series. Everything you could possibly want is featured in this 8-disc set including all of the episodes in their entirety and as they appeared when they first aired, all of the musical numbers and much more. And don't forget the amazing cast of young soon-to-be superstars that included Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtain [sic] and more. Guest host the inaugural season include Rob Reiner, George Carlin, Candice Bergen, Lily Tomlin, Anthony Perkins, Raquel Welch and, in a major coup, Richard Pryor. Musical guests were abound as well with a line-up that includes Paul Simon, Joe Cocker, ABBA, Anne Murray, Jimmy Cliff, Toni Basil, Patti Smith, Gordon Lightfoot and more. This was the season where anything went and the amazing cast set the standard for years to come. Whether you are watching a commercial for the Bass-O-Matic or laughing at Belushi's Samurai Deli, this set is sure to be one you watch over and over.

Okay, early SNL is a little overrated, and the first season especially (I think it improved when Bill Murray joined the cast, giving it the bona-fide comic genius it didn't quite have before). But still, it's good, it's important, and it's something nobody ever thought would be on DVD due to music licensing.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Howard Hawks Gets Hip

When Howard Hawks did an audience Q&A in the late '60s (today it would be an online chat), one audience member asked him for help in explaining to his or her friends why Red Line 7000 was a masterpiece. Hawks, clearly amazed at the capacity of movie buffs to redeem any movie, blurted out: "I don't think it's any good." I watched the movie again recently, and Hawks was right. Like almost every movie he made after Rio Bravo -- and, indeed, Rio Bravo itself -- it's a rehash of movies he made earlier. In this case it has some added interest because the movies he's rehashing aren't all that well-known; instead he's rehashing his early '30s racing films like The Crowd Roars. But the script is weak (it would have been even weaker if Hawks hadn't brought in Leigh Brackett for an uncredited rewrite), and Hawks tried a casting gambit that didn't work: basically he looked for young, little-known actors whom he could put under contract and use on a regular basis in subsequent movies. (I think he tried that with Lauren Bacall but she wound up under contract to Warner Brothers instead of him.) But most of the actors he picked, by his own admission, weren't -- as a Hawks character would say -- "good enough." James Caan was good enough to use in his subsequent rehash movie, El Dorado, and I've already explained why Marianna Hill should have been a star, but much of the other acting is just plain awful. Add in the over-use of rear projection and the drab sets, and it's got Decline Phase written all over it.

The other thing I noticed when re-watching it is that while Hawks was clearly trying to make a movie that would appeal to younger people -- that was the point of assembling his first all-young cast in a long time -- he really didn't seem to know how to go about portraying under-30 characters in a contemporary setting. Exhibit A is the music. There are scenes where the characters are supposed to dance to contemporary-sounding music, but Hawks and/or the musical director (Nelson Riddle) didn't seem to know any such music, so the "hip" dance music is, I kid you not, an electric-guitar arrangement of "The Old Grey Mare." Hill is very good in this, her first big scene in the picture, but it's really not approprate choice of music.

And then we get exactly the same arrangement for "I've Been Workin' On the Railroad" (or "Eyes of Texas" if you want to get into that). This, incidentally, is the scene where Hill and Caan meet, and is notable for a) Hill's struggle to reconcile her attempted French accent with Hawks' apparent instructions to do a Lauren Bacall voice , and b) The blatant product placement for Pepsi. Still, even in decline, Hawks was still a good director of romantic scenes, and Hill and Caan do generate some real chemistry that you didn't often see in '60s movies (where love scenes tended to be very mushy and sappy). Note also the umpteenth re-use, in a Hawks movie, of the line "I know I talk too much."

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lyrics: "The Shorty George" By Johnny Mercer

Johnny Mercer wrote many better lyrics than "The Shorty George" from the Fred Astaire/Rita Hayworth movie You Were Never Lovelier (to Jerome Kern's music), but I've always thought the lyric was a particularly good example of how to do something very difficult: write the words for a "dance sensation" song, where we are introduced to some dance that everybody is supposedly doing (the Varsity Drag, Continental, Sluefoot, etc).

The difficulty in writing a "dance sensation" song is simple: you can't actually describe the dance. The choreographer and the dancers will make up the steps, and the lyricist can't afford to hamper them by forcing them to conform to steps mentioned in the lyric; so these songs almost never mention dance steps except in the most generic way ("down on your heels, up on your toes"). "The Shorty George" is presumably supposed to be a semi-tribute to the real "Shorty" George Snowden, but Astaire and Hayworth aren't going to be doing exactly what he did and the lyric therefore can't say exactly what they're going to do. And yet a lyric that doesn't have anything specific -- that deals in generalizations as most "dance sensation" songs do -- is a bad lyric. Mercer deals with the problem in "Shorty George" by filling the lyric with a lot of specific details about the fictionalized character of "Shorty George": why he dances, how he makes his living, where he dances ("a crowded street"). It's a dance song that's the story of a dancer, and it's filled with Mercer's colloquial poetry ("a real natural man," "beats his feet till his feet is beat").

Just heard of the Shorty George,
Got word of the Shorty George,
Seems that it's a kind of jig
Named for someone about so big.
He rambles around the town,
Preambles around the town,
Then steps on a crowded street,
Beats his feet till his feet is beat.
Watch him go, and he can,
Like a real natural man.
High stepper is Shorty George,
Black pepper is Shorty George,
He dances to pay the rent
And to see that you're solid-sent.

"Mister, can you spare a penny?
Lady, can you spare a dime?"
He makes I don't know how many,
'Cause he's dancin' all the time.
Papa's dressed up mighty sporty,
Mama's snoozin' in the shade,
But while Mama's gettin' forty,
Shorty sees the rent is paid.

Get hip to the Shorty George,
Hop, skip to the Shorty George.
Directions are short and sweet:
Beat your feet till your feet is beat.
So catch on to Shorty George,
And latch on to Shorty George,
Good people, I'm tellin' you,
Shorty George is the dance to do.

Of course, the song wouldn't be particularly well remembered if it weren't for the dance Astaire and Hayworth do after he (and her voice double, Nan Wynn) finishes the song. But it's still a nice example of Mercer's skill as a lyricist.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

And Speaking of YouTube...

Terry Teachout has a good article on the subject.

Grudge Matches I'd Like to See: Little Women vs. Facts of Life

An all-out war between two factions of four teenage girls being raised by a wise mother figure: the four girls from LITTLE WOMEN (Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth) vs. the four girls from THE FACTS OF LIFE (Blair, Jo, Natalie and Tootie). Who wins this battle between the team from a widely-beloved work of literature and a widely-despised work of sitcomdom?

Explanation For All The Clips

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may have noticed a shift in emphasis, from mini-essays on pop culture to more of an emphasis on video clips (though I usually try to include comments and some kind of angle on what I'm showing). The reason for this is twofold. One, I don't have as much time for posting as I did, but I believe in updating the blog as often as I can -- and finding and posting a clip I like or find interesting is one way to keep it updated. The other is that this is a blog about popular culture, and when you're writing about popular culture I think it helps to be able to show an example of what you're writing about -- so even the posts that do have some substantive content (fewer than in the past, I admit) will wind up having a clip or two embedded in them.

So there we are. That doesn't mean that this has become a video blog and I do intend to try and get back to mini-essays -- maybe by posting less often but trying to come up with something a little more substantial each time I post. But if YouTube had existed when I started this blog, I'd probably have been posting at least some video clips from the very beginning.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Weekend Placeholders

I have a post up at l'autre blog in which I try to explain why today's sitcoms suck: it's all about relationships.

And here are a few random clips to pass the weekend:

More Beyond the Fringe: Peter Cook and Alan Bennett in "The Great Train Robbery":

One of the most tasteless and frankly bizarre scenes in the often tasteless and bizarre career of Frank Tashlin: Dean Martin basically tries to rape Pat Crowley in Hollywood or Bust. I'm still not sure what the hell Tashlin was thinking here.

And another one of those semi-improvised Leo McCarey scenes that are so dear to my heart: Ralph Bellamy (who can't sing) and Irene Dunne (who can) in "Home on the Range" in The Awful Truth.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Music Notes (One of them entertaining)

1. The greatest classical-music parody of all time has been discovered online through great good luck (which is to say, I uploaded it): Dudley Moore parodying the music of Benjamin Britten and the singing of Peter Pears in his Beyond the Fringe routine, "Little Miss Britten." Moore not only does a devastating parody of Pears' strangled tenor voice, he catches every single one of Britten's compositional quirks, like his use of melismas ("awa-a-a-a-y") and abrupt endings:

2. To my surprise, I've found myself really enjoying a recording that might sound like an insane concept: Gustav Mahler on period instruments. It's this recording of Mahler's orchestral songs to poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (which was a collection of bastardized and prettified re-written versions of German folk songs and poems). Philippe Herreweghe conducts, and the old instruments really work well with this music: Mahler wanted a rough, unsophisticated, fake-folksy sound for these fake-folksy songs, and that's the sound these instruments provide. Instead of the smooth, urbane sound of modern-instrument orchestras, Herreweghe's orchestra is full of snarling brass, piercing woodwinds, and rough gut strings; it doesn't sound bad, because the musicians play these instruments extremely well, but it sounds less glossy and glitzy than your average orchestra, and that works in this music.

The recording isn't perfect; the baritone soloist, Dietrich Henschel, does too much snarling and barking in the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau manner. The singing, just as much as the orchestral playing, requires a feeling of unsophisticated simplicity, not the sound of a prissy lieder singer guiding you the Meaning of each song. But Henschel has his good moments too, and the female soloist, Sarah Connolly, is very good. Definitely worth getting, both for the music and the performance. There are a couple of brief audio clips at the site I linked to.

Herreweghe includes all fourteen of Mahler's orchestral Wunderhorn songs, including the two that Mahler later incorporated into symphonies: "Urlicht" became part of the second symphony and "Das Himmlische Leben" is the finale of the fourth symphony. (Mahler also has the orchestra quote from "St. Anthony's Sermon to the Fishes" in the second symphony, and from "Lob Des Hohen Verstands" in the fifth symphony.)

The History of Modern Warfare

Johnny Mercer and Stubby Kaye have the real low-down on modern military matters:

I've mentioned this before, but I should point out again that great as it is, "Jubilation T. Cornpone" is essentially a knock-off: in subject-matter, tone, and basic joke (a celebration of a military commander who never did anything right), it is the same song as Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Duke of Plaza-Toro."

Also, one of the problems with the movie version of Li'l Abner is that it cut way too much musical material (not only dropping some of the best songs, but slashing out large chunks of some of the songs that remained), and this number, while remaining relatively intact, drops some of Mercer's better lines, like this couplet:

Stonewall Jackson got his name by standing firm in the fray.
Who was known to all his men as "Good Old Papier-Mâché?"
Why, it was Jubilation T. Cornpone,
Completely out-worn-pone,
Jubilation T. Cornpone,
He really saved the day.

And one more addendum: I don't usually do a coulda-woulda-shoulda about who I'd have liked to see involved with a particular movie, but I do always wish that Li'l Abner had been directed by Frank Tashlin. With the comic-strip origins, cartoony humor, satire, splashy color and gorgeous women, it basically is a Tashlin project already, but Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, adapting their own stage play, created what is nothing more or less than a filmed stage play. This material really cried out for the approach Tashlin brought to Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? or Hollywood or Bust.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Here as promised is a side-by-side (well, top-by-bottom) comparison of clips from different versions of Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page. Here's the escape of Earl Williams and its aftermath from the first film version of the play, Lewis Milestone's 1931 version with Pat O'Brien (Hildy) and Adolphe Menjou (Walter). Forgive the less-than-optimal picture quality of the clip:

Next, here's the same scene from the 1940 gender-bending remake, Howard Hawks's classic His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell (Hildy) and Cary Grant (Walter). You'll see immediately that Hawks and his editor were heavily influenced by the staging and cutting of Milestone's film, though obviously both versions were influenced by the staging of the original play, and indeed a lot of what both Hawks and Milestone get credit for inventing -- the speed, the overlapping dialogue -- is just carried over from the Broadway original.

If Hawks's movie is better than Milestone's, and I think it is a better movie overall, it's because Hawks's version is more laugh-out-loud funny than the 1931 version; maybe that has to do with the casting of Grant and Russell, who are more natural comedians than Menjou and O'Brien. But you can't underestimate Milestone's work on the 1931 version; at a time when movies were static and stagey, he took a stage play, mostly taking place on one set, and made it move and flow (with fluid camera moves that most 1931 movies wouldn't try to pull off).

Finally, here's the first part of the escape scene as it plays out in Billy Wilder's disappointing 1974 version, with Jack Lemmon as Hildy and Walter Matthau as, well, Walter. There's a lot wrong with Wilder's version -- Lemmon is miscast, and there's a nasty condescending edge to the whole thing -- but the biggest problem is just that Wilder and Izzy Diamond wrote a lot of new dialogue for the movie and most of it isn't very good (a joke about a guy wetting his pants?).

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Best Bad Acting Ever

Wow, I didn't know this one was online: Tony Bennett's big "acting" scene in The Oscar (1966). To be fair to Tony, he's really not much worse in the movie than a lot of the supposed professional actors, like Stephen Boyd, and they don't have the excuse of being good at something else.

This may be a good time to direct your attention again to Ken Begg's epic review of The Oscar, one of the all-time great bad movies.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Weekend Placeholder: Hawksian Women

Happy Yom Kippur, all (well, not all, but you know what I mean), and while we're repenting for our sins, here are some clips from Howard Hawks movies: Jean Arthur and Cary Grant in the final scene of Only Angels Have Wings and Angie Dickinson and John Wayne in the final scene of Rio Bravo.

This isn't quite a compare-and-contrast post (I'm actually going to do one later this week comparing Lewis Milestone's original The Front Page movie with the same scenes from Hawks's remake, His Girl Friday), but it's obvious, when you play the two scenes back to back, that Hawks (and writer Jules Furthman) lifted a lot from his earlier films in characterizing Dickinson in Rio Bravo, and indeed all his heroines in all his films; it's not a Hawks movie unless the heroine's crying makes both her and the man uncomfortable (the closest Hawks got to a non-comic crying scene is when he has Grant cry in Angels).

One of the reasons Hawks became such a favourite among auteurist critics is that he repeated certain motifs and even lines from movie to movie, so there could be no doubt that he was putting his own personal stamp on each film. Most obviously, Arthur's big line -- "I'm hard to get, all you have to do is ask me" -- would be repeated verbatim in To Have and Have Not and almost verbatim in Rio Bravo.

Arthur and Grant:

Dickinson and Wayne:

And just for the heck of it, a somewhat different but great scene with Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in Twentieth Century, which reminds us that Hawks's big contribution to film comedy was his insistence that handsome leading men and beautiful leading ladies should make even bigger fools of themselves than "real" comedians: