Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Favorite Rockford Phone Message?

Speaking of The Rockford Files, here is a list of most of the answering machine messages used on the series.

Does anybody have a favorite Rockford answering machine joke? I think the one below, from part one of "The Trees, The Bees And T.T. Flowers," is my pick. It's quick, it's simple, it's obvious, and it involves a character from the show itself (though not from this particular episode).

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

I'm the One Called Larry

Take it with the usual granular salt element, but I've read in a couple of places that the third volumes of Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain will be out this summer (originally it appeared that they might not come out until the winter, if then). Hopefully that's true.

Meanwhile, here is the "Pinky and the Brain... and Larry" cartoon, which I wrote about in an earlier post. This is a great example of how to make a cartoon that works on three different levels: one level for kids, one level for adults, and one for people who get what the cartoon is actually about. For kids, there's a lot of slapstick action with Pinky, Brain and a new character. For adults (or older kids) it's a Three Stooges tribute.

But what it's really about is how disastrous it is when a new character is shoehorned into an established show: Larry, who has apparently been added to Pinky and the Brain by the network -- though the reason for his presence is never explained, because the characters aren't aware that they're on TV -- screws up the timing and forces Pinky and the Brain to go out of the way to include him in their conversations ("And Larry") even though he adds nothing.

This was written as a response to the WB network's demands that Pinky and the Brain add a third regular character and change its format. This eventually did happen when the network added Elmyra. But it also probably had additional resonance for the writers of the episode, Gordon Bressack and Charlie Howell, because they'd started in Saturday morning cartoons in the '80s, when new, useless characters were constantly being forced into the shows. So you'd get a cute animal sidekick added to the animated version of Flash Gordon, or a constant parade of Scooby-Doo additives (when Scrappy wasn't enough, the network added a cute ethnic kid), or a seemingly endless series of new Smurfs. So that's what this cartoon is about; it's not exactly insider humor, but it does mean that the cartoon is more than just a Three Stooges takeoff.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Mr. Smith

I asked before if Charles Lane ever played a nice guy. Here's one film where he does: Primrose Path a 1940 RKO production directed, produced and co-written by the great Gregory La Cava.

The film -- loosely based on an old stage play, and a strange hybrid of comedy and melodrama like La Cava's Stage Door -- stars Ginger Rogers as a young woman from the Wrong Side of the Tracks whose father is a drunk and whose mother is a prostitute. Rogers marries a character played by Joel McCrea, but they have a falling-out when he discovers her family background. Rogers goes back to live with her family, and after her mother's accidental death, Rogers has to support the family by going into her mother's old business of prostitution.

But Rogers' virtue, and her marriage, are saved by an unexpected source: her first client, played by Charles Lane. Yes, Charles Lane saves the day and brings the leading players together. Good for him.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Corbett Your Life

One thing I was reminded of once again, in watching The Rockford Files season 3, is how good Gretchen Corbett was as Jim's lawyer Beth Davenport. She was, indeed, one of the few really good women characters on hour-long TV in the testosterone-laden '70s: smart, attractive, funny, a real match for James Garner in every scene they had together, and always believable. In her scenes in the episode "So Help Me God," she's not your typical TV super-lawyer who knows everything about everything; she admits (in the scene before this one) that she doesn't know a lot about the grand jury process, has to bone up on the subject before Jim testifies, and just generally seems like one of the few TV lawyers who has to look something up before she cites it.

Corbett's Wikipedia entry is quite good. She was, as the entry says, one of the last people signed by Universal in the old studio-system style. Universal was the last studio to try and maintain that type of operation; they had a big film operation and an even bigger TV production operation, and they would sign actors, directors and technicians who could be used for all their TV projects and then moved into feature films. That's how Steven Spielberg got started (first episodic TV, then TV movies, then features, all for Universal). But maintaining the system depended on having lots of shows on the air, and by the mid-'70s networks were buying fewer of the kind of L.A.-based action and mystery shows that Universal specialized in. So the Universal studio system collapsed like all the others.

I'm not sure exactly why Corbett left The Rockford Files after the fourth season; it's usually written that she left over a salary dispute, while others have written that it was simply that her contract with Universal had expired. I'm inclined to put the two explanations together and speculate that once her contract ran out, she demanded to be paid not as a studio contract player on assignment but as a semi-regular on a hit show. The difference between the two salary levels was probably pretty big.

She did do a few guest roles after that, but she was never a regular on a series again. I'm assuming that she probably mostly went back to stage work. (She now lives in her native Portland, Oregon, where she runs a non-profit theatre organization for underprivileged children.) But you would have thought Universal or NBC or somebody would have thought of her as a candidate for the lead in a series; in fact, Beth is one of the few characters who I really thought would have made a viable spin-off character.

Final note: Corbett got the part on Rockford soon after doing a major guest role on an episode of Columbo (the one with Robert Conrad as a murderous health guru). Universal may have given her the role of Beth based on that Columbo, though the thing you wonder in that scene is why she's wearing a bikini on what doesn't appear to be a particularly pleasant day. But that's the joy of '70s Universal shows -- they shot all around L.A., in good, bad and mediocre weather, and the shows may not look beautiful but they're like a guided tour of the city.

Oh, and speaking of Beth, there's an episode of Hunter written by Stephen J. Cannell (the only episode of that show he wrote himself) that features Hunter's lawyer, who is a blatant knock-off of Beth -- she has all the Beth lines, talks to Hunter's boss the way Beth talked to Dennis Becker, and she gets Hunter off by citing a bunch of precedents that she later admits she made up on the spot. The character never appeared again, but either it was an attempt to come up with a new Beth character for the '80s, or Cannell just rewrote an old Beth-Jim-Dennis scene out of time constraints. (Adding to the retro-Rockford feel, Joe Santos is in that Hunter episode basically playing Dennis Becker under a different name.)


I was watching "Quickie Nirvana," the fourth-season episode included as a bonus/preview with season 3 of The Rockford Files (the complete season 4 will be out later this year). It's a David Chase script about Rockford working for an aging New Age cultist played by Jane Curtin's cousin Valerie Curtin; as always, the job leads to a big stash of money turning up unexpectedly, and Rockford getting into more trouble than he anticipated when he took the case -- the usual.

But one thing that struck me as interesting was the ending, where Rockford meets the Curtin character again and finds that she's now given up all the sensory-deprivation-tank lifestyle and turned to handing out leaflets for a Christian preacher. The scene openly -- and, let's face it, kind of heavy-handedly -- posits that there's no real difference between Christianity (or at least some varieties thereof) and cultism.

The interesting thing was that nobody involved seemed to think this was a problem, or potentially controversial. Nowadays, you couldn't get this scene on the air without a lot of controversy (Aaron Sorkin's whole misbegotten Studio 60 made a whole arc out of the fact that you can't put a "Crazy Christians" sketch on the air). And even five years later, you couldn't have done it without controversy, because within five years TV producers would become obsessed -- I mean literally, unambigously obsessed -- with fear of the so-called Moral Majority. So the scene is, unwittingly, a sort of cultural time capsule from 1977.

Dance to the Music of the Oscarina

The Oscars always remind me of something Bill James wrote about the Baseball Hall of Fame. He wrote something to the effect that because the standards of the Hall of Fame have been so low -- with dozens of players getting in who weren't great players, let alone all-time greats -- the HoF can't truly honor a great player by letting him in; it can only insult him by leaving him out. If a really great player feels honored to be admitted, he wrote, "it can only be because he doesn't understand how many players have been there before him, players who didn't have half of his credentials."

I feel this way about the Academy Awards. You've heard the old line: someone is told not to worry about not winning an Oscar, because Oscars don't mean anything since they gave two of them to Luise Rainer. But it's not just that the Academy has often had bizarre standards; it's that, collectively, the awards over the years present a picture of Hollywood that is much worse, artistically, than Hollywood actually is.

That's what Joe Queenan misses in his article about the difference between the movies that get nominated, and the movies that people actually go to see. That wasn't always a problem. What was always a problem is that the Academy Awards usually go to worthy, middlebrow, thought-provoking dramas. And my biggest problem with that is that that's never been what Hollywood does best. For various reasons ranging from fewer censorship restrictions to fewer commercial pressures, other countries have always beat Hollywood when it comes to message dramas, serious historical drama (as opposed to swashbuckling pseudo-historical stories, which Hollywood is great at) and social problem pictures. Plenty of filmmakers around the world could make a better version of Crash than Crash was.

But there are genres that Hollywood does better, or used to do better, than anybody else, and yet those are the genres that get shafted as not being "serious." You're probably aware that comedies, films noir, Westerns, musicals (particularly musicals that aren't bloated stage adaptations), swashbucklers and much else -- in other words, the best that Hollywood has to offer -- have never gotten much respect from the Academy. Today, the nominations reflect the obvious fact that Academy members are embarrassed about what Hollywood is currently producing: the comic-book blockbusters, the frat-guy comedies. And I'll admit that this is not a great time for Hollywood movies. But it seems to me that the best stuff Hollywood does is still to be found in the genres has always been best at -- adventure stories, comedies, and so on -- and the solution to that is not to turn up one's nose at those genres, but to try and identify and honor the best Hollywood-style movies.

I'm not saying every movie nominated has to be Casino Royale -- which wasn't actually made in Hollywood, but you know what I mean -- or (to go back to a previous year) The 40 Year-Old Virgin. But it would be nice to see one movie like that in there in place of the clunkiest of the five (coughLettersfromIwoJimacough). Because, let's face it, when we look back on the award recipients from this period, we're not going to think that they represent the best American cinema had to offer at this time. It would be like looking back on A Man For All Seasons and concluding that Fred Zinnemann was one of the great directors. Which he was not.

(My apologies to Fred Zinnemann fans out there. I was just in a bad mood after suffering through A Man For All Seasons and then re-visiting the boring hash he made of Oklahoma! It just seems that this guy could always find the maximum boredom in any material he handled. He was, of course, a multiple Oscar nominee and two-time winner.)

Friday, February 23, 2007


TCM* recently showed a very strange movie called Pepe. In the wake of Around the World in 80 Days, there were a number of light-hearted films with all-star casts; the most famous of those is It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, but Pepe has to be the weirdest. It's a vehicle for the Mexican superstar Cantinflas, who was Passepartout in 80 Days and here graduates to his first starring role in a U.S. film. He plays a lovable idiot who has adopted a horse as his son, and who spends most of the movie trying to get his horse back and/or pining after Shirley Jones, who just thinks of him as a friend. (She winds up marrying the alcoholic washed-up Hollywood director played by Dan Dailey, because this is Hollywood, where white chicks marry white dudes, even if they're old and drunk white dudes.) Cantinflas is nowhere near his best here, uncomfortable with the language -- even in scenes with direct sound recording, he frequently has to re-dub his own dialogue to make it more intelligible -- and playing a character who's so dumb and childlike as to be infuriating; the characters he played in his Mexican films, while often innocent, were nowhere near this stupid.

It was produced and directed by the MGM musicals veteran George Sidney, who recruited some key MGM people like Andre Previn and Roger Edens to work on the film, and drew mostly on people he'd worked with before to create the pool of guest stars: Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis and Frank Sinatra are among those who had made films with Sidney before and turn up in cameos here. Other stars, like Jack Lemmon, Maurice Chevalier and Bobby Darin, turned up out of a combination of respect for Cantinflas and, some speculated, an attempt to improve their box-office standing in Mexico (much as European stars would try to improve their U.S. standing by appearing with U.S. superstars).

The movie looks quite good, maybe better than average for a Hollywood production from 1960; Sidney was among the few directors left who knew how to stage a musical number, and he had the services of the great cinematographer Joe MacDonald (My Darling Clementine, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter) shooting in 'Scope. But the picture doesn't even have the basic spine of plot that 80 Days or Mad Mad World had. It's basically just Cantinflas wandering around pining after his horse and/or Shirley Jones, mangling the English language (he buys a ring and confuses "carats" with "carrots," hilarity ensues) and smiling while the guest stars do their thing. And it's really, really long: the original version was 195 minutes. 195 minutes devoted to almost nothing. This was a strange period in Hollywood movies, where excess -- huge budgets, huge star casts -- was more important than an actual story.

Like many of these mega-extravaganzas, Pepe was cut down for a non-roadshow version, which runs about 150 minutes. TCM tried to get the complete version, but the distributor, Sony, sent them the short version instead; it has a bunch of awkward and abrupt fade-outs, but it's hard to know whether the cut scenes would cause the picture to make more sense than it does.

And yet, for all that, I kind of enjoy the picture. I'll go further than that: I actually enjoy it more than Mad Mad World or a lot of these other all-star films. In many of those films, the guest stars are regimented, forced into costumes or unsatisfactory roles or generally forced to conform to the demands of the plot. Here, because there is no plot, the guests mostly just play themselves (often literally), and they don't seem to have rehearsed much, so there's a certain charm in seeing them act natural and unforced. Kim Novak comes off especially well this way.

Here's one of the film's many musical numbers, where Maurice Chevalier (as himself) performs his trademark song "Mimi" (from Love Me Tonight) with Cantinflas and Dan Dailey.

*It's amazing how the availability of TCM -- it only recently came to Canada -- changes your TV viewing patterns. You keep checking the schedule until you realized that you've started planning your whole life around what's on TCM on a given day.

Thank You, Mr. Wardcraft

I (and others who were more knowledgeable about him) wrote a lot about the great comedy writer Jerry Belson after he died last year. As a postscript to that, here's a short clip I found: it's Belson making a cameo appearance on Laverne and Shirley, produced by his ex-partner Garry Marshall. Marshall himself is also in the scene, as the bored-looking drummer.

I don't know why, but before he started working regularly as an actor, Marshall would often appear as a drummer on his shows -- he also turned up as a non-speaking drummer in episodes of Happy Days and The Odd Couple.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Same Actor, Different Character

One of the movies that will be in the next Martin & Lewis collection is You're Never Too Young. Like several of the team's movies, this was a remake of an earlier Paramount hit: Billy Wilder's The Major and the Minor, with Jerry pretending to be a little boy instead of Ginger Rogers pretending to be a little girl.

But this movie is more than just an entertaining musical comedy; it's also the answer to a trivia question. Or at least one of the answers. Because it's one of the few remakes that features an actor from the original -- in a different part. The lovely Diana Lynn, who played a wisecracking schoolgirl in The Major and the Minor, here plays a teacher, and Dean Martin's love interest.

Are there any other remakes where an important part is played by an actor from the original movie -- in a different role than he or she played originally? (I say "important" part because there are a number of remakes featuring people from the original in small or cameo roles, but that's not what I'm talking about here.)

Update: I thought of another one -- George Tobias, whom most of you know as Mr. Kravitz on Bewitched, was in Ninotchka as a guy who won't give Melvyn Douglas a visa to enter Russia; in the musical remake, Silk Stockings, he played the Commissar of Arts.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Exposition Competition

You know what struck me in watching the first season of Family Ties? How incredibly clunky the exposition is. I never noticed it at the time, but now I’m aware of the fact that the characters are constantly telling each other things that they already know, or talking about things that they really should have talked about earlier, just so we can know what the episode is about. So at the beginning of one episode, Alex and Jennifer walk into the hall of an apartment building, and in thirty seconds they’re talking about what they’re doing there, why Alex brought Jennifer along, how much she’s getting paid for this. Now, why would two people discuss this stuff out loud when they already know it? And why would they wait until they’re on a potential customer’s doorstep to start having this conversation? They wouldn’t, but the writers had to get the exposition out of the way.

But in defense of Family Ties, it’s very hard to do exposition in a show about a family. Families, by their nature, spend a lot of time together. So it’s very hard to find a moment when family members can plausibly be telling each other something for the first time; no matter when you start the scene, it’s usually going to seem like they should know this stuff already. And exposition can’t be plausible unless there are satisfactory reasons for the audience to believe two things: one, that the character delivering the exposition would actually be saying this stuff, and two, that the other character would actually want to hear it. Family shows are okay on point two, but they have a lot of problems with point one. Which is how you get all those scenes of characters getting out of a car, talking about where they are and why they’re there. Or one-sided phone conversations where the character repeats everything the unheard party is supposedly saying (“Are you telling me that there’s a big party tonight?”).

Shows that have a workplace element in them usually have it easier, because co-workers don’t spend all their time together, so you can do a scene where the hero tells his co-workers what’s going on in his home life. And it sort of makes sense that they might not know about it already, though it doesn’t always make sense that they’d want to listen.

If you watch an episode of a show that shuttles back and forth between work and home, like The Dick Van Dyke Show or The Bob Newhart Show, you’ll notice that the exposition is often delivered in the place that is not directly related to the plot that week. If this week’s episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show is about Rob’s home life, then he’ll often deliver a lot of the exposition at work, telling Buddy and Sally what’s going on at home. Whereas if it’s a work plot, the home scenes allow Rob to bounce exposition off Laura.

Another way of doing exposition is to bring in a guest character who doesn’t know what’s going on, and have the hero explain it to him. (“You’re new in school? Well, the prom is tomorrow night…”) Or you can have a regular character who’s somewhat cut off from the rest of the cast, so that they have to tell him what’s new in their lives. Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was there to deliver all the exposition about the scary monsters, but he was also there to receive exposition: because he was leading a hermetic existence in the library, Buffy could come in and tell him – and us – what was up with her life.

It also helps if you have a really clueless character, particularly an absent-minded one. Henry Blake on M*A*S*H is a great exposition machine because he tends to forget things, which means that Radar can tell him (and us) what the situation is. It wouldn’t be plausible to have Radar explain these things to someone with more on the ball – which meant that the exposition got clunkier after Colonel Potter came in – but it is plausible that he would tell Blake, because we know that Blake would in fact forget this stuff.

And then, of course, there’s the narrator, the voice-over exposition machine. Having Captain Kirk say “Captain’s Log…” and explain that week’s mission saved the writers a lot of expository dialogue. And today, narrators are everywhere, partly because of the ridiculously short running times (since lots of scenes have to be cut to get a show down to 20 minutes, a narrator allows the producers to cut those scenes while still letting the audience know what we would have seen happen if there’d been more time), but partly because it cuts down on the necessity to find ways to deliver the exposition. Actually, I think those two things – short running times and narrators – are related in some ways: it’s not just that expository dialogue is clunky and hard to write, it’s that there’s just no time for it. So you have Earl or Older Ted tell us where the characters are and why they’re there, which saves a minute or two of figuring out how they’re going to tell us.

There are other solutions that are a bit like voice-over narration, but less hackneyed. One advantage of the mock-documentary format of The Office (both versions) is that instead of the characters telling each other what’s going on, they can tell us directly, by talking to the unseen documentary filmmaker. In every episode, some of the “talking head” segments are basically straightforward exposition: this week we’re doing X, or Y is coming to visit.

Finally, if all else fails in finding ways to do the exposition, you can always do what Family Ties eventually did: bring in a little kid who can draw out the exposition by asking a lot of pointless questions.

ANDY: What's a funeral?
JENNIFER: Well, a funeral is where you go to show respect for someone who died.
ANDY: Who died?
JENNIFER: Greg, Alex's friend.
ANDY: I would like to meet him.
JENNIFER: That's gonna be tough. You see, when someone dies you never see them again.
ANDY: Why?
JENNIFER: Because they're dead.
ANDY: Why?
JENNIFER: Because their life's over, that's all.
ANDY: But why?
JENNIFER: Because!
ANDY: ...Where do babies come from?

Oh, Bat Lady!

The Martin & Lewis Collection Volume 2 is coming out on June 5. I would have thought it would have included all their color films (the first volume had all their black and white films except for At War With the Army, which is public domain), but according to the listing, and the total time length given, there are only five films in the set. Why Paramount is leaving Money From Home and Three Ring Circus in limbo, I have no idea.

The good news is that the set will be the first DVD release -- and, I think, the first wide-screen home video release -- for Frank Tashlin's two films with the team, Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust (in which, Tashlin claimed, they didn't speak to each other through the entire shoot). You've heard me yammer on about how much I love these two movies, where Tashlin got to indulge his love-hate relationship with pop culture and his uncomplicated love for cartoony jokes, beautiful women and splashy colors. Nobody had ever made anything quite like these two movies before. The VHS releases didn't do justice to the VistaVision photography, so I'm hoping for the best from the DVDs, since Paramount usually does a pretty good job on transfering old movies (it's just that they hardly ever bother to release old movies).

Ann-Margret Says: "Come Fill My Glass"

What's the best way to sell Canada Dry ginger ale? If it's 1968, the answer is to have Ann-Margret do a two-and-a-half minute singing commercial about Canada Dry. After all, as she tells us herself, she's the Soft Drink Expert.

(Cross-posted to TV Guidance.)

Update: I originally heard the above line as "Come feel my glass." Thanks to Christopher Mills, in comments, for the correction.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Fox Musicals

Just another reminder that tomorrow is the DVD release date of Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here. The New York Post has a nice review.

One reason I like The Gang's All Here so much is that it's one of the few Twentieth Century-Fox musicals where the imagination of the director is really worthy of the work of Fox's cinematographers. Starting in 1940, Fox used Technicolor for nearly all its musicals, and by the middle of the decade it had stopped making black-and-white musicals altogether; it was the first studio, as far as I know, to do that. And not just any Technicolor; Fox's use of Technicolor was so distinctive that it was almost a separate brand in itself. Fox had some of the best color cinematographers in the world, including the master of cinematic color, Leon Shamroy; and Fox Technicolor movies abounded in lush, vibrant colors. Fox stars like Gene Tierney looked so beautiful in Technicolor that it could take your breath away; I've said this before, but when I saw a screening of Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait (a Fox Technicolor film), there were actual audible gasps in the theatre when Tierney first appeared.

But the photography was rarely matched up with a director who had any imagination of his own. Fox didn't have a Vincente Minnelli or a Stanley Donen (and when it had a great director of musicals under contract, Rouben Mamoulian, the studio didn't give him any musicals to direct). It assigned most of its musicals to guys like Walter Lang or Irving Cummings, whose idea of how to stage a musical number was mostly just to plant the camera down in front of the performers and let something happen. Other studios had performers like Fred Astaire, who had strong creative personalities and would give their numbers some kind of imagination and shape, but at Fox, even the biggest musical stars didn't have that kind of clout in shaping their own numbers, so you'd get Betty Grable being handed virtually the same numbers in movie after movie.

This problem was compounded by the kind of musicals Darryl Zanuck liked to make. Fox musicals rarely had people actually breaking into song or expressing their emotions through dance. Instead, most of the musical numbers are diategic: they're performed on a stage, or in a nightclub. There are many Fox musicals where there are no "plot" songs at all (and in a sense, that means they're not real musicals at all, just non-musical comedies about people who happen to be stage performers). And that created the temptation for the director to just photograph the number the way TV cameras would later cover a stage performance: from a respectful distance. Berkeley, with his relentlessly moving camera, total insanity, and refusal to create numbers that could realistically be done on a stage, was one of the few directors to break that mold, but unfortunately The Gang's All Here was his only picture for Fox.

Still, despite the lack of visual imagination, typical Fox musicals do have their own pleasures. Here's one of the best moments from That Night In Rio (also included in the Faye) collection, Carmen Miranda singing the excellent Harry Warren song "I Yi Yi Yi Yi (I Like You Very Much)." As it's a night-time scene and a fairly drab one at that, it doesn't quite do justice to Shamroy's use of Technicolor (for that you have to go to the samba sequence in the opening number, "Chica Chica Boom Chic").

I Don't Know Why I'm Posting This

I just like this bit from NewsRadio, that's all.

If I had to add a comment to it, I'll say that I think I love this joke because of the way it takes a silly idea and then takes the silliness one step further. The basic idea is that Bill (Phil Hartman) is recounting a banal TV plot as if it were a bedtime story. That's silly and funny. What makes it sillier and funnier is that it's a very specific TV plot, for a real TV show, with specific details that would only be familiar to someone who has watched that show (you'd have to watch Family Matters to know what the "Urkel-Bot" is). So it's funny not only because of the idea, but because of the character element: it's amusing that Bill is apparently so familiar with Family Matters.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Series Abandonment Syndrome

In watching the DVDs of Get Smart, I noticed that -- to me, anyway -- the series took a pronounced dip in quality in the third season. The first two seasons were about as good as they could be, but a lot of the episodes in season 3 seem to have less solid comedy writing and a less solid grasp of the characters and the style. There are a lot fewer good funny spy stories and a lot more of a reliance on parodies of other then-hot shows (The Fugitive) and movies. It's not bad, but it's definitely not as good as the first two seasons. And I think the audiences sensed that, because the show's viewership started to have some trouble around this time (which led, in season 4, to the producers marrying Max and 99 off in order to try and win back the audience).

Initially I chalked this up to the departure of series creator Buck Henry, who was head writer for the first two years (billed as "story editor," back when that title meant something). But it turns out he actually left part of the way through season 2, leaving to create Captain Nice, a superhero equivalent of Get Smart, and there was no noticeable drop-off in the writing of Get Smart.

What actually seems to have happened in season 3 of Get Smart is that the people who ran it were busy with a new project. That was the season when Leonard Stern, the executive producer of Get Smart, created He and She, starring Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin. It was, as anyone who's seen it can tell you, one of the best shows of its time, influenced by The Dick Van Dyke Show but with somewhat more sophisticated writing, presaging The Mary Tyler Moore Show (which had several key people who had worked on He and She). It was a terrible shame that it was canceled after only one season.

But the point that's relevant to this post is that Stern was busy with He and She, and he put a lot of his best Get Smart people on He and She as well. That left Get Smart with what seemed like Stern's "B" team, and the show went through a lot of different writers and producers that year (Jess Oppenheimer, of I Love Lucy, produced the show for about five episodes that season, then left). Almost nobody writing for Get Smart that season had written for the show in the previous two seasons, because the best writers from seasons 1 and 2 were on He and She. The fourth season of Get Smart -- again, in my opinion -- has better writing than the third, because the He and She people all came back to try and save Get Smart.

This is a pretty common dilemma when TV writers and creators do more than one show. From an artistic standpoint, you can't object to someone wanting to do a different kind of show, especially when the result is as good as He and She. But from a business standpoint, it sometimes hurts, because the flagship production -- the one that enabled the production people to do the new shows -- is left in inexperienced hands, and the danger is that within a couple of years they'll be left with no shows at all, as the flagship property fizzles out and the new shows don't succeed with the public.

I suspect that, as I describe this scenario, many of you are thinking of the words Marti Noxon. It's a similar thing, yes.

And why the hell isn't He and She on DVD anyway? Who owns it? Paul Brownstein or somebody needs to be given the DVD rights to this show while all the major participants are still alive.

What's Really Important

When I did all those posts on Yvonne DeCarlo and Follies, I should have checked to see if this was available online: DeCarlo on The David Frost Show, talking about how she got into the show (she originally auditioned for the part Alexis Smith got), and performing "I'm Still Here."

DeCarlo forgets the lyrics at one point (in her defence, the references to "Five Dionne babies" and "Beebe's Bathysphere" aren't easy to remember, and that's the weakest part of the song anyway), but she owns this song, and as I've said repeatedly: while she may sing behind the beat occasionally for effect, she mostly sings it straightforwardly, without talking her way through the song, shouting lines, jazzing it up, or any of the other things people think they have to do to make it work.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Peter Ellenshaw

With the death of Disney's great matte painter Peter Ellenshaw, I can only return to what I wrote about him a couple of years ago:

I think the main thing you remember about The Love Bug, though, is Peter Ellenshaw's matte work. His stylized paintings of San Francisco are so gorgeous that the scenes actually shot in San Francisco suffer by comparison; why bother with the drabness of the real thing when you can get Peter Ellenshaw to create a beautiful, imaginative new version of it?

The Complete Pogo Coming From Fantagraphics


Or in my bad approximation of Pogo-speak: I gone buy this ol' book, son. You is advised to do the same. If they's unable to bring out more, that would be horribobble.

P.S. - Has anyone ever tried to explain the differences between Pogo dialect and Li'l Abner dialect? They're awfully similar, but there are instantly-identifiable differences, like the way Capp uses "ah" instead of "I" and "yo'" instead of "you." Kelly's dialect is a little less heavy on the phonetic spelling.


So, as I said before, "Paducah" from The Gang's All Here is a really stupid song and Benny Goodman shouldn't be singing. But it's all worth it, somehow, to see the two-minute extended take that begins the number. Busby Berkeley, like many great directors of musicals, liked long takes and camera movement, but at Warner Brothers he didn't always have the budget or the resources to do really long, fluid takes. At M-G-M, he could do long takes (that was the house style when it came to musicals), but he couldn't express his own creative personality. The Gang's All Here shows Berkeley finally working with the budget he dreamed of and the creative freedom he needed, and the result is something like this: two minutes in which, without a cut, the camera swoops in, up and around, individualizing every member of Benny Goodman's band before circling back and returning to Goodman for the song.

Further Thoughts on Follies

1. I think too much is sometimes made of the idea that Follies is supposed to be exposing the lies in show tunes, or even making fun of the naivete of show tunes. Very few of the pastiche songs in Follies work that way. The only pastiche numbers that are flat-out wrong, and flat-out parodies, are the early numbers in the "Loveland" sequence (the Loveland song and the songs for the younger versions of the two couples). And even those songs don't represent deliberate lies, but rather the things we really do believe when we're younger: the show has already told us that when the characters were young, "everything was possible," so they sing songs about what a wonderful future they expect.

Remember, too, that even seemingly naive ballads and charm songs are not fantasies, not exactly. They resonate because they're saying things that are widely believed. Most love songs have messages that make perfect sense to us when we're young: possibilities are endless, love happens at first sight and lasts forever, there's an ideal mate for every person and someday he'll come along (someone to watch over you). These messages may have been somewhat cynically peddled by middle-aged chain-smoking pop songwriters who didn't believe a word of them any more, but they are not phony messages: from the perspective of youth, they make sense. What Follies is about is the contrast between youth, when everything is going to be great, and middle age, when things haven't worked out the way you expected (and the only way to be happy is to stop bitching about the fact that things didn't work out the way you expected). That applies specifically to the two main couples and more broadly to the "middle-aged" America that the show is really about. But I don't read that as a condemnation of traditional love songs, just an acknowledgement that they're songs for tbe hopeful young person in all of us, and they don't have much resonance for our depressed middle-aged side.

But most of the other pastiche numbers are basically "middle-aged" show tunes -- songs that are written in a '20s or '30s style but have resonance for the world of 1971. "Who's That Woman?" is supposed to be a number the women performed in the Weismann Follies. And when the four main characters take the stage in the finale, they face the truth about themselves and arrive at a moment of real honesty, and how do they do that? By singing a show tune in a very traditional, old-fashioned style. Sally's big solo earlier in the evening, "In Buddy's Eyes," was more modern, nervous, has a rambling structure, is very recognizably Sondheimian, and it's a song of denial, of (mostly) lying to herself and the person she's talking to. Her solo in the finale, "Losing My Mind," is an old-fashioned torch song with a simple A-A-B-A structure, and it's her first big moment of honesty (yes, Sally, it is like you're losing your mind). The only one of the four climactic numbers that's a "denial" song is Ben's, and even that is giving plausible advice that, we're meant to infer, he ought to be taking, since it's the lesson he takes away with him after the number collapses on itself: he should, in fact, stop obsessing over superficial things and "learn how to love."

So what Follies is building up to is a climax where we find that a show tune -- a traditional, simply-structured show tune, fitting into a clear genre and with all the staging bells and whistles that go with it -- is a great way to express honest emotions and face up to the truth about yourself. That's hardly what you'd expect to find if Follies were as anti-show-tune as it's often made out to be.

2. In my earlier post I said that Christine Baranski was wrong, vocally and as a matter of casting, for Carlotta (the ex-sex-symbol who doesn't do much in the show but toss off some one-liners and sing "I'm Still Here"). Carol Burnett, at the 1985 Lincoln Center concert, could sing the song better, but wasn't right for the part. Polly Bergen, in the Roundabout revival, was closer but not quite right (and she had that problem of trying to sing the song with more rhythmic freedom than it can withstand). So who is right for it?

Well, I think the part, and the song, demands someone who was once famous for her looks. That's built into the character's dialogue, and also into the song, which is full of references to the fact that the character wasn't really a trained actress but got by on her great looks and her "sincere" acting. The character's triumph, and it's a small triumph but a real one, is that instead of becoming a pathetic figure as former sex symbols sometimes do, she is still working -- not a lot, but enough (the original draft of the song says she's recently been doing commercials; this was changed to "I'm almost through my memoirs"), still confident, still attractive, in short, still here.

Obviously, Yvonne De Carlo embodied this character. And I think, in casting the role and the song, it would still help to seek out a former sex symbol who has had her career ups and downs but, like De Carlo, has kept working successfully. I thought, and still think, that Raquel Welch would be very good in this -- I saw someone else suggest this on another blog somewhere, but can't remember who. And while they probably couldn't get her for a stage performance, Ann-Margret would be an excellent Carlotta if they did a Follies movie.

3. Finally, speaking of "I'm Still Here," you might notice that it violates what is otherwise a rule of the show: only the four main characters get "character" numbers. All the other characters sing songs that are supposedly numbers they performed in the Follies. All, that is, except Carlotta, because "I'm Still Here" -- though it has pastiche elements -- isn't a song she sang in a show, it's a song about her life.

The reason for this is that the song originally written for this spot was cut out of town. It was "Can That Boy F...oxtrot," a take-off on suggestive comic songs (Cole Porter et al). The song didn't work, so during the tryout "I'm Still Here" was written and inserted into the show.

Addendum: has some brief excerpts from the concert mixed in with cast interviews.

And Michael Riedel writes about various options for what happens to Follies next. Note, though, that stuff like this is often written after Encores! concerts, and nothing usually comes of it; there's special reason for skepticism because Follies, unlike Chicago, is just too damned big and expensive to ever make back its cost. And as for movie versions, there have been plans for a Follies movie ever since the early '70s and, again, nothing's ever come of it (though it's been written in several places that M-G-M got the idea to do That's Entertainment after a failed attempt to develop Follies as a film).

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Random Thoughts on Follies

Some thoughts after seeing the Encores! concert of Follies by Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman:

- It's often noted that this show was originally anti-nostalgia (an antidote and contrast to the straightforward nostalgic pieces that were playing all around New York at the time, like a revised version of No, No, Nanette that was if anything toned down from the original) and now it's a nostalgia piece, appealing to the same age group that hated it at the time. This is not surprising, though. For one thing, the people who go to Follies now are people who more or less grew up with it. For another thing, Follies upset people because it was announcing that the conventions of the musical -- the boy-meets-girl, optimistic, feel-good musical -- had run their course. This was upsetting at the time. Now we all know that this is true, that the musical no longer occupies the central place in the culture that it did until the '60s, so instead of being an announcement of a hard-to-swallow fact, it's a nostalgic tribute to a type of musical that no longer exists.

- The ending doesn't work, never worked, never will work. James Goldman, the writer of the show, was rewriting it up to the end of his life, and the original version (which was used here) is still the best of the bunch even though it doesn't work. The problem is that the climax of Follies is sort of anti-climactic in itself. The plot, such as it is, comes to a conclusion when the two couples confront each other and their past selves, and they finally have to face up to their illusions about themselves. Then we get a long "Follies" sequence where each of the characters sings a pastiche number where they face the truth about their problem. But while this is a great theatre moment, it's anti-climactic because they're just admitting to us what we have known about them the whole evening. And so there's a sense that we spent the night waiting for something to happen, and all that happened was that these four not-terribly-appealing people finally admitted the obvious. No matter what happens after that -- and the final scene, where they stay together and go off to try and work things out, is a plausible enough ending -- there's never going to be much of an ending to a story that is exclusively about forcing people to admit what we all knew the first time we met them.

- I would say that Christine Baranski's rendition of "I'm Still Here" was disappointing, except I never expected her to be right for this song. But a lot of people are vaguely unsatisfying in this number. What it needs is not a great voice -- Yvonne De Carlo introduced it, her version is still the definitive one, and she wasn't a great singer. What it needs is a) A sense that the performer herself has some connection with what the song is about (De Carlo, obviously, did, and a lot of people felt she was really singing about herself, whether or not she was) and b) A willingness to sing it in rhythm, on the beat (a lot of people think that because it's kind of jazzy, they can sing it in free rhythm, and it never works that way).

- My favorite song in the show has always been "Could I Leave You?" and Donna Murphy's performance got a huge hand (as it apparently did at earlier performances. It's an amazing number and has even more of an impact because it comes from a character, Phyllis, who has done hardly anything up to that point except deliver bitchy one-liners. In the original, people might have been wondering why Alexis Smith was in it, or whether she was going to have a number at all, until she stopped the show with this one.

- The original co-director and choreographer, Michael Bennett, went on to do a show with a similar concept -- gathering a bunch of people in a theatre and focusing everything on them. That was A Chorus Line which was more successful though I think it sucks. On the other hand, though A Chorus Line sucks (more specifically, the score sucks, the script sucks and I hate most of the characters), it does have something that Follies doesn't: it's actually leading up to something -- it has that reality-show tension that you get from wondering who will and won't make the cut -- and therefore keeps the audience guessing, whereas as I've said, Follies tells us what's wrong with these people and then lets us wait while they figure it out. The strange thing about show like Follies, where everyone is in one place with occasional fragmented flashbacks, is that even though it's a huge lavish musical, nobody really does anything -- we don't even get complete scenes from their past.

- James Goldman, who was probably a bigger name than Sondheim at the time (because of his play The Lion in Winter and the successful movie version he wrote), got a bad rap for his script, because, well, for one thing there's not much dialogue in the piece, and for another thing, there's not much story and not much of an ending. Sondheim rightly took offence at the idea that the show was good in spite of the book; I don't have the exact quote, but he pointed out that the whole show is built around the book -- songs are written for the writer's story points and characters, staging ideas are built out of the script -- so you can't say that the book is bad and then turn around and praise the songs it inspired.

- There are two ways to cast the four main roles. One is to just cast good performers, which is the approach that was taken at Encores! The other is to cast them similarly to the roles of the old troupers: that is, find people with some kind of nostalgia connection, so the audience will react not just to the character but to their memories of the performer. The original cast went for that approach, mostly -- I say "mostly" because John McMartin, a relatively young performer at the time, was brought in to play Ben (replacing Jon Cypher, who had more nostalgia value because he was the Prince in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella). The audience sort of remembered Alexis Smith from '40s movies, Gene Nelson from the movie of Oklahoma! and Dorothy Collins from the radio. That added an extra dimension, because most of the main characters had that "are they still around?" quality to them -- and the added joy the audience experiences when they find that not only is Alexis Smith still around, but she's even better than she ever could be in the movies.

- In many ways Follies is the ideal Encores! show. The way these concerts work is that the book is cut down as far as it can go, to streamline the evening and make sure there's not too much dialogue between songs. But with Follies, though there was some trimming of the book, the show is almost written that way to begin with: a few stray lines of dialogue here and there followed by another number. It's a very long score, and almost every dialogue scene is basically a lead-in to another song. On Broadway, this was somewhat unsatisfying, but it works in a concert, where the audience is mostly there to hear the songs anyway.

- The original production of Follies had no intermission. The Encores! concert, like many revivals, inserted an intermission after "Too Many Mornings." This is always a mistake, because it's a very awkward act break. Follies really doesn't have a good place for an act break -- that's why they didn't have one originally -- and trying to fit one in just kills the show's momentum, hurting the buildup to the Loveland sequence.

- If you doubt that Broadway has lost something due to the shrinking size of the orchestra, you have only to hear the excellent Encores! orchestra, under conductor Eric Stern, playing the original orchestrations of Follies (Jonathan Tunick's finest work). In "The Right Girl," there's no substitute for the sound of a full violin section in the dance section, or for the sound of a real, rough brass interjection (which is built into the song).

- Has anybody asked Sondheim or Hal Prince or somebody why Buddy and Sally have the same first names as characters on The Dick Van Dyke Show? I have to admit, if I had been at the performance with a Q&A session, that would have been the question I'd have asked. So maybe it's just as well I wasn't there.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Jerry Lewis Age of Comics

This isn't really related to anything, but since I've been talking rather too much about Frank Tashlin lately, I might as well post a couple more Tashlin scenes. These are from Artists and Models, and the topic du film is the '50s obsession with comic books. In the first series of excerpts, Jerry Lewis dreams up a garish '50s comic called "Vincent the Vulture," which Dean Martin turns into a best-selling comic -- only to find that Lewis has somehow been putting atomic secrets into his plot descriptions.

In the second excerpt, which may be the most famous part of the film, Lewis goes on TV to explain why reading comic books has left him "A little retarded."

Not included here is my own favorite comics-related exchange in the movie, a rant by a comic book publisher (Eddie Mayehoff) about the lack of violence in Dorothy Malone's comics: "What do you call this? A Murdock book for kiddies and no blood? Not even an itsy-bitsy nosebleed? No stranglings? No decapitations? Where are they?"


The one thing that holds The Gang's All Here back from being a perfect Busby Berkeley musical is that the songs are not up to the standard of his WB movies. As at WB, he had one of America's greatest melodists, the inexhaustible Harry Warren. Warren had broken up with his WB lyricist, Al Dubin, but his partner on The Gang's All Here was one of the best lyricists in Hollywood, Leo Robin. But somehow neither man came up with his best work in this movie; there are some good songs, including one hit ("No Love, No Nothin'," a ballad about women on the homefront whose men have gone off to fight).

But the score contains a lot more duds than usual for either of these songwriters; the songs for Carmen Miranda aren't as good as the ones Warren had written for her in previous movies, the "Polka Dot Polka" is kind of dumb, and the two songs for Benny Goodman's band aren't very good, though admittedly they aren't helped any by the fact that Goodman sings them himself. In fact, "Paducah" may be Robin's worst lyric, and for that reason it's often cited as one of the worst songs in any musical (I don't agree, because Warren's tune is pretty catchy).

Paducah, Paducah,
If you wanna, you can rhyme it with bazooka,
Bu you can't pooh-pooh Paducah,
That's another name for Paradise.
Paducah, Paducah,
Kust a pretty little city in Kentucky,
But to me it rhymes with lucky,
When I'm lookin' into two blue eyes.
Tulip time,
They get excited over tulip time,
But I'm delighted over julep time,
Because I happen to love
A resident of
Paducah, Paducah,
If you wanna, you can rhyme it with bazooka,
But you can't pooh-pooh Paducah,
That's another name for Paradise.

The Plaid Rainbow Era

The WKRP DVD art is available. Very simple, but very '70s.

By the way, in watching reruns of The Bob Newhart Show (from the same production company), one thing you notice is that the clothes Bob wore on that show -- the plaid pants, the loud coats -- were very much like the ones Herb Tarlek wore. Except when Bob wore them, it wasn't supposed to be funny (though he certainly makes fun of them now). I guess that was part of what made Herb fun, that he came off as a parody of the worst '70s fashion trends.

I Love This Dirty Town

Enjoy an excerpt from one of the ultimate New York movies (made, naturally, by a Scottish director who mostly worked in England, Alexander Mackendrick).

Get Over Yourself, Andy

You know that post I wrote defending The Facts of Life? Well, part of what inspired that was reading the first essay in a book called Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, and Dismissed, where people (most of whom are now wealthy and successful) recall the first time they got fired. The opening essay is by Andy Borowitz, and it's about his one unhappy season writing for The Facts of Life.

You can read Borowitz's essay here. It's a pretty funny piece, but when I read it, I found that it came off very differently than the author presumably intended. He obviously thinks he's writing a story about how depressing it is to be a funny guy working on a show you despise, and how pathetic the showrunners were for taking this crummy show so seriously and trying to pump it full of moral lessons.

Instead, to me, Borowitz comes off as kind of a jerk (in the story, the way he tells it, I mean; I have no judgment on what he's like in actual life). The way he tells the story, he takes a job on a show and then doesn't bother to learn how to write it, how to differentiate among the characters. While the two middle-aged women running the show (their names were Linda Marsh and Margie Peters, by the way) come off as sympathetic because they clearly care about the show and have a vision for what they want to accomplish, and are dealing with this young writer who doesn't care about fitting his work to the showrunner's vision (even though that's exactly what a TV writer is expected to do).

I'm not saying The Facts of Life was great or that the morals weren't heavy-handed. But it did have a certain integrity and the people running it obviously cared about it. And so, in reading about it, I side with the heavy-handed moralists running the show rather than the snarky young wise-ass who thinks he's above it all.

Why We Love Be Somebody Or Be Somebody's Fool

You know what I think people love about Be Somebody Or Be Somebody's Fool, and more generally about Mr. T? It's the fact that everything he's saying -- everything -- is utterly reasonable and a good message for kids. He's telling us to work hard, stay in school, be proud of who you are, don't blow your allowance on clothes with designer labels, don't give in to peer pressure, recover when you make a mistake, treat your mother right. You can't argue with any of that, unlike many '80s pop-culture works that carry messages that seem dubious today.

So when we watch Mr. T, we're torn: on the one hand, we like the messages he's trying to convey, and on the other hand, we find it totally insane that this violent psychopath with a mohawk and gold chains is being held up as a role model for the children. That's what's funny: not that Mr. T isn't being a good role model, but that he is being a good role model even though he really shouldn't be. Or as Seanbaby put it: " Mr. T makes it very clear during the opening song that if you don't start feeling good about yourself, he is going to kick your ass."

Here's another classic Be Somebody moment: the opening sequence, with a montage of memorable moments to come (including the amazing dancing of Jeff!) and Mr. T's first ever rap. Plus my favorite line in the video: "Do you know me? Of course you do! That's because I'm famous." Again, you can't argue with the message: Mr. T is famous, and he goes on to tell the kids that you don't have to be famous to Be Somebody. It's a good message. But it's Mr. T, and the fact that he's saying it makes it funny.

"I Make You Read Every Article In That Magazine, Including Norman Mailer's Latest Claptrap About His Waning Libido."

Jon Zobenica's article on Playboy in the current Atlantic Monthly is getting a lot of attention. And it is a very entertaining examination of the differences between girlie magazines then (Playboy, encouraging its readers to think of themselves as urbane pipe-smokin' sophisticates) and now (Maxim, for the pathetic lonely college boy in all of us).

As to whether the original Playboy was really better than what came after, I don't know. I don't buy the idea that either kind of magazine is less sexist -- sexism is hard-wired into the concept of the girlie magazine, and we're kidding ourselves if we pretend that there's a big difference. If anything, the way women are presented in Maxim -- as vaguely threatening and possibly possessing cooties -- makes them a wee bit more powerful than the "women are there to serve" aesthetic of Playboy. The lad mags carry a message that women are scary, but maybe there's some power in being scary, who knows.

I do think it was good that Hugh Hefner actually tried to include some quality articles and reporting; obviously nobody really reads Playboy for the articles, but if you're going to spend money on a magazine, it should at least have something you can enjoy after you're finished looking at the pictures. At least Playboy fostered the image that people who liked to look at naked pictures could be cool and intellectual; Maxim openly declares that its purchasers are people who can't read and don't have the nerve to buy actual pornography.

Ultimately, though, these magazines are geared to the aspirations of the audience, and aspirations have changed. In 1953, the dream was to prove that being a single man was not a sign of a pathetic, unfulfilled life (why aren't you settling down and contributing to the baby boom, you slacker?), but a sign of sophistication and swingin' coolness. Playboy attempted to convince its readers that they were really grown-ups. Now the dream is to exist in a state of perpetual adolescence, so you've got magazines that feed the dream of being a college frat-boy forever.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

You Discover You're In New York

I have procured a copy of Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here; it'll be released on February 20, both individually and as part of an Alice Faye collection.

From a preliminary viewing, I think this DVD is pretty much what I'd hoped for; having only seen beaten-up TV versions, I'm no expert on how the film should look, but the transfer seems to be true to the gloriously garish Fox Technicolor and the work of one of Fox's best cinematographers, Edward Cronjager. (Cronjager's uncle, brother and son were also cinematographers -- his son shot the Hill Street Blues TV series. They were kind of the photographic answer to Alfred Newman's musical family, which was also Fox-affiliated.) The extras are about as good as I could have expected: a commentary; a featurette on Berkeley; radio excerpts with Faye (who gave up movie musicals after this film) and her husband Phil Harris; a deleted scene. Also somebody dug up a promotional film Alice Faye made for Pfizer, including clips from her past movies, which is billed here as her "last film."

In fact, now that Warner Brothers' treatment of its back catalogue isn't as good as it once was -- their classic-film releases have fewer and fewer special features and the transfers aren't always what they could be -- I think Fox may be ahead of them when it comes to handling classic film. The one thing holding them back is that they need to get around to the hidden gems in their catalogue (Cluny Brown, let's say, or Bachelor Flat, or many other movies they didn't release on VHS). But they're improving, which is more than I can say for most studios when it comes to old movies.

Very Meta

I don't usually write a Bleg™, but: I'm going to be in New York next week and I'm still trying to pencil in stuff to do that's related to my entertainmental obsessions. (Apart from the usual stuff like the Museum of Television and Radio, stage plays, etc.)

This sounds really silly and presumptuous, but if you have anything to recommend, please drop me an email and let me know. It's so easy to miss stuff when you're in town for a short time, and when it comes to figuring out what to do, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers (maybe that also requires a "™").

Dark Fun

Ivan Shreve has some insightful comments on the show Titus and the limits of how dark it could get within the American TV network world. He compares it to the British comedy How Do You Want Me?, which is somewhat similar -- a stand-up comedian living out his dysfunctional life in the sitcom format -- but less compromised in its ability to go nasty.

On the other hand, I do think that what Ivan calls "Christopher Titus’ philosophy of 'Sure-my-dad-was-a-rat-bastard-and-made-my-life-a-living-hell-but-it-toughened-me-up-and-made-me-a-better-person'" is something that comes from him rather than a network imposition; it was part of his act. If anything, the show's serious and earnest moments probably spooked out the network more than the straightforward dysfunctional-father jokes (this was, after all, the network that had only recently cancelled Married: With Children and was just about to give us the obnoxious parents on Malcolm in the Middle).

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Some Of You Are Overjoyed At This News. You Know Who You Are

CHiPs: The Complete First Season.

With audio commentaries by Erik Estrada.

Who will fail to answer the most important question: Could CHiPs catch the Duke Boys? Especially after The Bandit outraced them?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

These Gold Changes

All right. Somebody's uploaded another part of Be Somebody Or Be Somebody's Fool -- it's the "Roots" segment, where Mr. T tries to teach us to get in touch with our roots. The highlight, by far, is this line from a wide-eyed girl who responds to Mr. T's story about how his ancestors were brought over as slaves:

MR. T: You see? We all have different roots.

GIRL: Yeah! My dad was born in L.A.! And my dad's dad was born here too! But his dad wasn't born here -- he was born in Sacramento.

MR. T: That's what I'm saying!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Tash Crash

Fox has done a really good job with the DVD of Frank Tashlin's Doris Day vehicle Caprice -- better, perhaps, than the movie deserves. There's a commentary, several featurettes about Day and about the movie, and original promotional materials like radio interviews. All this for a flop movie that hastened Tashlin's decision to give up movie-making (he would make only one more movie, the Bob Hope flop The Private Navy of Sergeant O'Farrell).

This review at a Doris Day fansite sums up the movie's main problem: it doesn't make any sense, and it doesn't know whether it wants to be a mod spy thriller or a slapstick comedy. The inspiration was obviously Charade -- even the title gives that away -- but making that kind of movie requires the thriller parts, the non-comic stuff, to be played relatively straight, and neither Tashlin nor Day could really get into that. So Tashlin kind of dozes through a lot of the picture and then perks up when it's time for some slapstick, but even the broad comedy isn't much fun when it isn't connected to anything. The best Tashlin movies integrate the cartoony jokes into a larger satirical canvas, but the only thing for Tashlin to make fun of in Caprice is the spy thriller genre itself. Except that every time Tashlin tries to make fun of the genre, he's effectively telling the audience that the "serious" parts of the movie were worthless. And that's a recipe for a flop.

I think one problem Tashlin had by this point is that his type of comedy -- involving bright colors, slapstick, and artificiality -- was by this time almost exclusively the province of what might be called "Mom and Dad" movies. That is, movies that appealed to an older audience. (Among "A" pictures, anyway; loud, bright, artificial movies were also being made for the drive-in set.) So Tashlin wound up working a lot with stars like Danny Kaye, Doris Day and Bob Hope, whose audiences tended to be older and more conservative in their tastes. But in making movies for that audience, he couldn't get as wild or as viciously satirical as he had been in his '50s prime. So a lot of his movies from this period are basically Mom n' Dad comedies -- typical Doris Day or Bob Hope vehicles -- with a few Tashlin touches at the edges.

In Caprice, the most Tashlin-esque scene is probably this one, which features several things Tashlin held dear: beautiful women in wacky costumes, satirical shots at advertising, and an in-jokey cameo -- the distinguished-looking old gentleman Richard Harris addresses as "Shamroy" is Leon Shamroy, the great veteran cinematographer who shot this film (and who earlier had done amazing work on Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It).

More Music Issues

So here I was all set to watch season 1 of Family Ties, and then This Sitcoms Online Review kinda kills my buzz:

On the back of the case, it says in very small text: Music has been changed for this home entertainment version. That is partially correct. I saw a few scenes where the original music had been replaced with either instrumental music or another song. I did notice at least 2 scenes that were omitted entirely on the DVD....

In the "Pilot" episode, there is a 30 second scene (accounting for the 23:31 running time on the DVD vs. 24:01 on the tape) that was cut entirely. The scene has Steven and Elyse relaxing in the family room, and Alex comes in and says the ambience is all wrong and he turns off the stereo, which was playing the folk song "Days of Decision" by Phil Ochs. It seems like they could have just replaced this song instead of editing the scene entirely out.

In the third episode, "I Know Jennifer's Boyfriend," there is one scene that was entirely cut out and at least 3 songs that were replaced. A 30 second scene of Steven and Elyse singing "Eddie, My Love" by The Teen Queens was cut out entirely. If they couldn't get the music licensing rights for this song, I could understand why it had to be cut.

Three songs at the 1950s themed party were replaced. There were tiny clips of "Wake Up Little Susie" by The Everly Brothers and "Earth Angel" by Chuck Berry that were replaced. Elvis Presley's "The Twelth of Never" was originally used for the closing dance scene, but it was replaced on the DVD with some modern sounding song that really didn't fit the 1950s party theme or the scene nearly as well.

I can understand replacing some songs if they're too expensive, but it sounds like Paramount just replaced anything music-related and, if the scene didn't work without music, they just cut the scene. This does not bode well for future seasons (the "A, My Name is Alex" episode used "Light My Fire" by The Doors"), and it seems kind of shabby.

Of course, every show that turns up on DVD now makes you worry a bit as to what music made the cut and what didn't. But you kind of expect that they'll leave something in there.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Biggest Laugh at a Screening of The Girl Can't Help It

Whenever I see a great comedy on the big screen for the first time (after years of viewing it alone or with just one or two other people), I always like to see which moment will get the biggest laugh from an audience. With The Girl Can't Help It -- and this shouldn't be too surprising -- by far the biggest laugh was for:

Tom Ewell: She's just a girl.
Paperboy: If she's a girl, then I don't know what my sister is!

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Strange Love of Hal B. Wallis

After World War II, when the Hollywood studio system first showed signs of crumbling, there was a lot of shuffling of behind-the-scenes talent. For the first time in years, directors or producers associated with one studio were routinely moving to other studios, or setting up quasi-independent operations. One high-profile example was the producer Hal B. Wallis. He'd spent years as Warner Brothers' executive in charge of production, doing for WB's "A" pictures what Darryl Zanuck did at Fox, namely supervising every aspect of the picture and firing off memos about what to fix and how to fix it. In the early '40s, he cut back on his administrative duties and concentrated on producing; in this period his projects included Casablanca, which won Best Picture. There was some talk that one of the reasons behind his decision to leave WB was his resentment over the fact that Jack Warner went up to accept the award, even though it was Wallis's award.

Anyway, in 1945, Wallis departed Warner Brothers and set up shop at Paramount, where he would remain for over 20 years. His arrangement with Paramount allowed him a fair amount of autonomy: he owned a share of the pictures he made, and could put stars under contract to appear in his films and his alone. Martin and Lewis appeared in only four pictures that weren't produced by Wallis. As at WB, he was good at attracting and nurturing talent; he signed Martin and Lewis and brought them along intelligently, starting them in supporting roles (My Friend Irma) graduating them to movie-star status. He was also good at figuring out what a star could do and then finding ways for him to do it over again. Elvis Presley had made several movies before he signed with Wallis, but -- for better or for worse -- it was Wallis, in Blue Hawaii, who came up with the Elvis Formula that would turn him into a dependable moneymaker.

But the surprising thing about Wallis's post-WB career is how few good movies there are in there. It used to be said, reasonably enough, that the money Paramount made on series movies -- first with Martin & Lewis, then with Elvis -- allowed him to produce more serious pictures. But the non-Elvis, non-M&L movies are in many ways much less entertaining and even less interesting (given that some of the Martin & Lewis movies hold up quite well). And nearly all of them fall into the same category: static, stagey adaptations of stage plays. You've got Come Back, Little Sheba, The Rose Tattoo, Summer and Smoke, and the super-worthy movie Wallis apparently considered his biggest Oscar contender, Becket. Apart from those, you have some very stagey-looking Westerns like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which was dull enough that the director, John Sturges, wound up returning to the Wyatt Earp story ten years later to make a better movie, Hour of the Gun).

Paramount movies of the '50s were very drab-looking -- the studio reacted to budget cuts by using cheap sets, avoiding location shooting, and generally making it look like everything was shot in a warehouse, which it probably was. But even by this standard, most of Wallis's movies of this period are without any visual interest at all: they're slow, talky, with static camerawork and with a depressing tendency to use boring directors like Daniel Mann (or directors imported from the stage without much notion of how to shoot a movie, like Peter Glenville).

There are a few good serious movies from Wallis's Paramount period, mostly from the late '40s after he'd just joined the studio. Love Letters with Jennifer Jones and some noir-ish movies with Barbara Stanwyck (especially The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) still work. He also got a bit of a second wind in the late '60s when he started working with the veterans John Wayne and (director) Henry Hathaway, leading to some entertaining pictures like True Grit and The Sons of Katie Elder. But apart from that, what we see in Wallis's Paramount career is a guy who used to make Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy, now making A Girl Named Tamiko and Boeing Boeing.

In part this may be a case of Independence Syndrome, the tendency of some directors and producers to get more cautious once they have more of a financial stake in the success of their movies (not that I'm arguing against that). With a certain degree of independence, Wallis didn't like to take chances on casting or subject matter, so he would cast the same people over and over and rely on Broadway successes for his source material (instead of doing something nutty like adapting an unproduced play, which is what he did with Casablanca). But there's another factor here that I don't quite get. Wallis's WB memos, which are frequently read out on DVD commentaries, show someone who's very aware of the necessity to keep a scene moving, to keep it visually interesting, to keep it from getting static. He warned the crew of The Maltese Falcon that the long climactic scene in Sam Spade's apartment couldn't lapse into staginess. Did he just forget all this when he went to Paramount, and started making movies where the camera was in lockdown and the whole thing felt like a filmed stage play (and not a good one either)? Or was it just that he was better able to give advice on a production when it was less completely his own?

Update: Commenter Griff makes the good point that the above post suffers from "the essayist's curse of trying to make a rigid conclusion from random circumstances." He continues:

Wallis made oodles of bad and cheap movies at Warners in his first decade there, and even in the period when he was more carefully claiming a producer credit at the studio he was making less than masterful works like Passage to Marseilles and The Affairs of Susie.

I might agree with you that those Broadway adaptations now seem pompous and drab, but Wallis here was following the enthusiasms of the time and these plays were considered high marks of adult entertainment, strong and artful drama, and he produced them with a degree of seriousness and integrity.

You reference Blue Hawaii in regards to Wallis's Elvis series, but in fact Wallis was responsible for the early and highly credible Elvis vehicles King Creole and the "autobiographical" Loving You. Wallis had good and bad pictures in all his periods of producing. If you cherry pick his post Warner period it includes a mixed bag, including popcorn hits, carriage trade successes, and Oscar winners, and a best of list in that 25 years could include--Martha Ivers, Dark City, Sorry Wrong Number, The Furies, the two Tashlin Martin and Lewis' Artists and MOdels and Hollywood or Bust, Creole, Last Train from Gun Hill, Katie Elder, True Grit, Anne of the Thousand Days, Becket.

The Next TV Mega-Set?

Looks like Sony is working on special features for a mega-complete set of Bewitched. So you might want to hold off on buying the individual releases of the Dick Sargent years -- hard though they might be to resist.

In other old-TV news, Rockford Files releases seem to be coming along nicely.

Why Are Armenians Eating Lasagna?

WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete First Season is up for pre-order now, if you're into pre-ordering stuff.

While we're waiting for the set (and to find out what the music situation will be), here's a collection of highlights of my favorite character on the series, Les Nessman (Richard Sanders). That character had a tough challenge because he was, at least potentially, very similar to Ted Baxter; if the whole show was supposed to be MTM's successor to the recently-ended Mary Tyler Moore, Les was obviously the successor to Ted's Inept Newscaster mantle. Sanders, and the writers -- sometimes one in the same, because he wrote several scripts -- managed to sidestep comparisons by turning Les into a person who thought, at all times, that he was the world's greatest journalist and that everything he talked about was incredibly serious and important. So if Ted was a satire of journalists who don't know anything and are only hired for their voice and "distinguished" looks, Les was a satire of the unquenchable belief of journalists in their own importance, no matter how idiotic they are.

Even when he appeared on Solid Gold, a CBS show where B-list celebrities sometimes appeared to cross-promote other CBS shows, he stays 100% in character and delivers an introduction that is, believably, something Les Nessman would say if he were introducing Nicolette Larson.

(Note: All available Solid Gold clips can be found here, for those of you who can't get enough of everything that was wrong with TV and music in the early '80s.)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

An Introduction or a Mislead?

Over at Cartoon Brew, Amid Amidi and Steve Worth have differing opinions of a recent Family Guy segment that inserted Stewie (the poor man's The Brain) into the Anchors Aweigh sequence with Gene Kelly. Worth doesn't think much of what they did:

How much "thought to animation and choreography" does it take to rotoscope someone else's animation and slap your own character over the top of it? If this was a parody, it would have added some sort of comment through additional humor. If it was a tribute, they would have had the respect not to obliterate the great animation by Ken Muse and Ray Patterson by pasting their own poorly traced drawings over the top of it. To my eyes, this looks like the Family Guy crew took the hard work of these legendary artists and copped it for themselves without adding a single thing to it. They can get away with it, because the viewers probably have never heard of Gene Kelly, much less have seen the clip of him dancing with Jerry Mouse.

You can see the clip for yourself here. As Worth says, it is the original Anchors Aweigh clip, with Stewie simply placed over Jerry.

I'm of two minds about this, and neither of them have anything to do with my feelings about Family Guy (you may not realize this because I've been so reticent about saying it, but I don't like that show). In an age when fewer and fewer young people are being exposed to classic animation and classic movies -- mostly because they're no longer shown on regular broadcast TV and most kids aren't going to be watching Turner Classic Movies -- it's something of a public service for Family Guy to be introducing its predominantly under-30 audience to the classics of both animation and live-action.

On the other hand, Worth is right that by simply re-tracing the original animation, the Family Guy crew is basically ripping off the hard work of Muse and Patterson. Look at the blog posts about the sequence: several of them pay tribute to the beautiful animation, without a real understanding that the animation has nothing to do with anything the Family Guy people did.

I suspect the segment was well-intentioned. But the way they did it, it does seem awfully like taking credit for other people's work. Creating new animation and/or live-action would obviously have not looked as good, but at least it would have been their own work.