Thursday, May 31, 2007

In Which I Pre-Judge a Movie That Hasn't Been Made Yet

This does not set my heart aflame with sweet anticipation:

Universal Pictures will develop a remake of the 1939 comedy "Midnight" as a star vehicle for Reese Witherspoon scripted by Michael Arndt, who won the Oscar for "Little Miss Sunshine."

Stuber/Parent partners Mary Parent and Scott Stuber will produce with Witherspoon and her Type A Films partner Jennifer Simpson.

Arndt hatched the idea, which prompted the producers to team.

"Midnight" has "long been one of my favorite films, and it is easily one of the best comedies of the '30s," Arndt said. "Being given the chance to update the film with Reese in the lead is simply a dream come true."

In the original, Claudette Colbert starred as a destitute young woman in Paris who becomes a pawn when a wealthy man tries to get rid of the gigolo wooing his wife. John Barrymore also starred in the film that was directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.

When I think about it logically, it's not a bad idea to remake Midnight and Reese Witherspoon is not actually a bad choice for this kind of film. It's just that the thought of a perfect, gossamer-light Mitchell Leisen comedy being remade in 2008 gives me the willies.

At least it sounds better than Diane English's long-delayed, perhaps now-un-delayed remake of The Women. Maybe I'm missing something, but why would someone want to remake The Women? The interesting thing about the play, and the movie, is the central gimmick of having an all-female cast. But that gimmick could be used without paying for the rights to The Women (there's no copyright on the idea of using only women). But apart from the infamous sexism of Clare Boothe Luce's writing -- she conceives of women as a bunch of animals who exist only to fight over men -- the plot just isn't that interesting. (When the story was remade with men in the cast, as The Opposite Sex, it became obvious just how dull the plot is.) So why not do an all-female movie with a new, fresh story?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Kric in My Back

Michael Sporn's blog has become the home of the latest Kricfalusi Kontroversy. Basically what happens is this:

a) John Kricfalusi pronounces another cartoon or series of cartoons to be an affront to the art of animation.

b) Someone on a blog or message board says John K. is wrong.

c) Steve Worth pops up in comments to say that John K. is the greatest writer and thinker of all time and that the people criticizing him just aren't smart enough to understand what he wrote. ("To understand what John is saying, you need to ignore all the “opinions” that have been written in the past, and look at the films he uses as examples analytically with a fresh eye.")

d) A comments thread develops where no one goes so far as to agree with Kricfalusi completely, but where it's clear that he has, indirectly, inspired an interesting discussion.

Whether Kricfalusi believes a lot of what he says, I'm not sure. I'm inclined to think not, because if he believes what he says, how do you explain him saying This:

After Clampett left and they had to find another director for his unit, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng went to the boss and said, " Take Bob McKimson. " And the boss — this must have been Leon Schlesinger — said, "McKimson doesn't have the personality of a director. He's too mild-mannered." But that's why they wanted him. They didn't want a guy in that position who'd be any competition to them. Friz admits that. Chuck would never in a million years admit that.

And then, a couple years later, during which his opinions about cartoons haven't changed much, writing this:

By the way, McKimson is one of my favorite cartoon directors and one that is extremely important to cartoon history. After Clampett left Warner's in 1946, McKimson's cartoon unit became the backbone of the Warner Bros. team of units...

His cartoons are hilarious and brilliantly timed and animated. He carried on Warner's tradition of full animation longer than any of the other directors. By 1950 Jones and even Freleng were animating more stylized, more limited and less cartoony stuff. Against the pressures of tightening budgets and UPA's influence, McKimson kept making lively fully animated characters for a few more years.

The first of these two totally contradictory statements is also factually dubious (McKimson replaced Tashlin, not Clampett; if Freleng recommended anyone to replace Clampett, it would have been his friend and later animator Art Davis).

But Kricfalusi can stir up interesting discussions even while saying things that aren't even supposed to make sense. Both the statements above are kind of wrong, but they do contain kernels of truth: Jones and Freleng really did dominate the studio after Clampett left, with the other directors (McKimson and Davis) not being their equals the way Clampett was; and McKimson did hold out against the UPA influence a bit longer than the others. So you can get a good comment thread going based on the stuff Kricfalusi posts, as long as it's not a thread on his blog.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

This Is Your Last Chance!

In lieu of a DVD release of Rhoda (which seems unlikely given that Fox won't even finish releasing Mary Tyler Moore), a YouTube user named "Rhodaonline" has uploaded many scenes from the show, including the infamous wedding scene (infamous because it became apparent so quickly what a bad idea it was to marry her off so early in the show's run).

Rhoda's writing was quite good, in many ways better than the early seasons of Mary Tyler Moore. (One thing it incorporated was something that Mary Tyler Moore had learned to do around its third season, which was to find some big, elaborate piece of comic business for the final scene, like Chuckles the Clown's funeral or Rhoda and Joe whopping each other with styrofoam). This was a way of keeping these "sophisticated" shows from slowing down into somnolence when they resolved the issue of the week, which often happened on the early Mary Tyler Moore or Bob Newharts. It's sort of the I Love Lucy principle of construction -- find the biggest, craziest climax and then work backwards -- applied to hip '70s situation comedy.

Oh, and while I never liked the theme song of Rhoda, the season 2 arrangement, with a bunch of kids singing it out of tune, is the worst of the worst:

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Hawksian Woman

If you want an illustration of the two things Howard Hawks loved most -- 1) strong female characters and 2) repeating lines and concepts in every movie -- I've put together a little two-minute collection of clips (the music, which is probably at too low a volume level, is the theme from Rio Bravo).

Most of these clips are from four Hawks films that basically feature the same character being played by different actresses: Only Angels Have Wings (Jean Arthur), To Have and Have Not (Lauren Bacall), Red River (Joanne Dru) and Rio Bravo (Angie Dickinson). The character has a checkered past but gets upset when men doubt her integrity based on the way she looks; talks tough but has a vulnerable streak; talks too much and falls in love with a taciturn man; and she's hard to get -- all you have to do is ask her.

Friday, May 25, 2007


In a sign of how the word "classic" is indiscriminately applied to any movie more than 20 years old, Variety's report on Mike Myers' upcoming remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty refers to "The Danny Kaye Comedy Classic." Kaye's Secret Life of Walter Mitty is no kind of classic; as a movie, it's no better than okay (like most of his Goldwyn movies, it's too polite and plush to make good use of his talents), and as an adaptation of James Thurber's story, of course, it's a travesty. (Though in fairness to the adaptors, a "faithful" adaptation of the original story would last about twenty minutes; they had to come up with a new plot in order to make it a feature.)

The article doesn't say what approach the new movie will take, or whether it will be closer to the original story. A problem with adapting "Walter Mitty" today is that the techniques Thurber used, which made the story unique at the time, are over-familiar today. Fantasy sequences were nothing new when Thurber wrote "Walter Mitty," but what was new was the elaborate way he connected the fantasies to the real world (having some real-life thing transition Mitty into his fantasy, and having something in the fantasy merge back with reality) and the connections between the various fantasies (like the running gag of having a sound described as "Pocketa-pocketa-pocketa" in each fantasy, coming from a different machine each time). It made the story a flowing, effortless whole instead of a series of unrelated sequences. This stuff was immediately influential; the 1945 Broadway play Dream Girl, by Elmer Rice, uses exactly the same techniques in moving from the real world to the heroine's fantasy world. And now they've been used so often that they no longer set "Walter Mitty" apart. Meaning that all you're left with, in adapting the story, is a wimpy guy who fantasizes about being a hero -- and that's not the most original premise; it never was.

You Can Trace the Mystery of Ancient History

(Opening disclaimer: Yes, I know I've written too many posts recently about the films of Frank Tashlin. I was doing some research on his career and the stuff I'm researching tends to find its way into my blogging. I will harp less on this subject in future.)

The Martin & Lewis Collection Volume 2 has some things wrong with it: it leaves out two of their color films (one of their best, Money From Home, as well as one they both hated, Three Ring Circus), it has no special features, not even trailers, and it doesn't even present the films in the right order. (The first disc contains their two last films, Pardners and Hollywood or Bust.) But I strongly recommend the set anyway, because it presents the first-ever widescreen home video releases of their two movies with Tashlin, Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust. (And also of two other VistaVision films, the good You're Never Too Young and the not-so-good Pardners.)

I don't know whether these are the best possible transfers; DVD Beaver will probably have a review eventually and he'll know more about that than I. But after seeing Artists and Models only in beat-up VHS prints, it's a real pleasure to see it looking like an actual movie. VistaVision movies do not, in terms of actual picture information, lose a lot in pan-and-scan (which may be one of the reasons Paramount used it instead of CinemaScope), but the framing in pan-and-scan prints is very unsatisfying, because the TV prints have extra information at the top and bottom -- sometimes including boom mikes -- and less information on the sides. So when you compare a clip from Artists and Models from the VHS to Artists and Models in widescreen, there's just more space on the sides and less dead space on the top and bottom. Take a look, and then put the DVD on your shopping list:

Now, the question that I sometimes ask myself about the Martin and Lewis movies is this: are Artists and Hollywood or Bust really their best movies, or am I being mindlessly auteurist in saying that? Many Martin and Lewis fans don't place these two movies at the top of the list; in fact, some of them consider Hollywood or Bust their worst picture, pointing out that their real-life antagonism seeps into the film and kind of kills their chemistry. It's also true that other movies make better use of Martin and Lewis as a team: they spend much of the time apart in Artists, they do only one song together, and they don't do any of the typical M&L stage routines. If you want to get the essence of what Martin and Lewis were about as a team, you're much better off looking at some of their earlier movies, or at least parts of them.

But after viewing most of the films again, I stand by my judgment; Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust are the only ones that are really great as movies, as opposed to collections of comedy routines. As with Leo McCarey working with the Marx Brothers on Duck Soup, there's something magical that happens when a great comedy team gets into the hands of a great director, but the magic can come at the expense of some of the things that made the team great. Duck Soup has a lot of typical Marx Brothers routines in it, but it also does away with many of the things that had been part of their act (no harp solo, no piano solo, no love story). Similarly, Artists and Models does away with a lot of things that we expect from Martin and Lewis -- but making a really good comedy often means dropping things that are funny but not an organic part of the movie. That's what a strong director brings to a comedy: not only knowing what's funny, but knowing what funny stuff should be left out for the sake of the overall vision. Artists and Models is a satire of '50s pop culture; a typical Martin and Lewis crooner/stooge routine wouldn't fit into that, so it's not here.

Here's one other side-by-side (well, not literally side-by-side, more like up-by-down) comparison of the pan-and-scan Artists and Models with the widescreen version. The reason I highlight this scene -- which I've already mentioned as an example of Tashlin's wholesome fetishism -- is that it gives me an excuse to mention another piece of information I turned up in doing some research on Tashlin: an article written about a month before the release of Artists said that this scene had been cut from the film due to the objections of the censors, because Tashlin had a character wearing nothing but a strategically-placed towel. Either the decision was reversed, or Paramount decided that the censors' objections weren't worth bothering with (since the power of the censors was weakening by 1955). Anyway, it's a glimpse at how the censors could object to even as mild a scene as this.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

And She's The Marrying Kind, Which Somehow I Don't Seem To Be

I found this cute blog post at "Gatochy's Blog" about one of my favorite movies, Scaramouche, and one of my favorite classic actresses, Eleanor Parker. Of all the Hollywood actresses who never became big stars, Parker may be the one who was most deserving of superstardom; she got some lead roles, and an Academy Award nomination for Caged, but mostly she was The Other Woman whom the hero dumps for someone else (Scaramouche, The Sound of Music), the long-suffering wife (Detective Story), or some combination of the two (The Man With the Golden Arm). In terms of talent, looks and versatility, she was probably one of the best leading ladies in cinema, but she didn't often play true leading roles.

Two things that might possibly have held her back: one, her "big break" at Warner Brothers was in a remake of Of Human Bondage, which got her all kinds of bad publicity because she was playing a part that was associated with Bette Davis. Her career may have been sidetracked a bit by the invidious comparisons; if that was her test to see if she could step into Davis's shoes as a WB leading lady, it didn't go well. (I haven't seen the Of Human Bondage remake, though I like Erich Korngold's score and I'm no great fan of Davis or the 1934 film in general.)

And second, Warners in the late '40s had a lot of talented actresses and no real idea of how to use them. Many of my favorite might-have-beens -- actresses who could have and perhaps should have been big stars -- were Warners contract players in the mid-to-late '40s: Janis Paige, Dorothy Malone, Martha Vickers, possibly Alexis Smith. But even though Warners had a need for new female stars after losing Olivia De Havilland, and then Bette Davis, they seemed unable to take advantage of their own pool of talent. Instead they resorted to borrowing leading ladies from elsewhere, or signing second-tier stars. (I like Virginia Mayo, but I can't quite understand why Warner Brothers signed her after she left Goldwyn; they had plenty of actresses under contract who would have been better in some of the parts she got.) The one exception was Doris Day, who of course got her first leading role as a last-minute replacement when they couldn't borrow a bigger star from another studio. Another studio might have been able to make a true star out of Eleanor Parker, but that's speculation; by the time she left Warners and went to MGM, she was typecast as the gorgeous second banana.

I think I'm not the only one who audibly gasped when the Captain chose Julie Andrews over her. Julie was a lovely person who was great with the kids. That's why in the real world the Captain would have married super-interesting Eleanor and taken her on a very long trip around the world, whilst Julie stayed at home, as the nanny, taking care of his children. But it seems to have been Eleanor Parker's fate as an actress to always play the woman who in (incomprehensibly) ditched and sluttified. I like the fact she is too classy to ever be believable in that role.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

That Ain't The Way I Heer'd It!

A tribute to one of the great radio/animation voice actors, Bill Thompson (Droopy, Smee, the White Rabbit, Wallace Wimple and the Old-Timer on Fibber McGee and Molly, Adolf Wolf in Blitz Wolf -- but not, as you'll find out, Fred Flintstone). Nobody could do a mush-mouthed voice as amusingly as Thompson; there was something so loveable and innocent about his timbre that any character became adorable when he used that voice, even if it was an evil pirate's assistant or a Tex Avery character.

The one thing that isn't answered here is why Thompson was so often unavailable to do the voice of Droopy. In the mid-'40s the answer was that he was in the service, but there were a bunch of cartoons in the late '40s and '50s where Thompson was replaced by Avery himself or by Daws Butler ("Deputy Droopy"). Even more oddly, once Michael Lah took over the Droopy series in 1956, Thompson was available for every Droopy cartoon until the studio shut down.

(Via Cartoon Brew.)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Tex Avery Cartoons in Japanese

Enough with all the Japanese cartoons poorly dubbed into English; let's have some English-language cartoons fairly well dubbed into Japanese.

"TV of Tomorrow"

"Wags to Riches" (find out how "You know what? I'm happy" translates).

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Long Take

Interesting discussion of the greatest long tracking shots in cinema, starting with Touch of Evil but mostly limited to recent films.

There are really two types of long takes, and the above post is focused on the first type. That's a long tracking shot created for spectacular effect, usually taking in more than one room or location. In his description of a big shot from The Prisoner of Zenda (where the camera followed a character throughout a palace, past a ballroom full of waltzing couples, until he reached Niven and some other characters), David Niven called this a "production shot," because it shows off the lavishness and size of the production in a way that couldn't be accomplished with cutting.

There are other reasons to do this kind of shot besides just showing off, of course. Most of the examples cited in the post, as well as some of my own favorites (and my very favorite, Vincente Minnelli's "turning out the lights" scene in Meet Me in St. Louis, where the camera follows Judy Garland from room to room and adjusts in mid-shot to all the lighting changes), derive some of their emotional power from the fact that there's no cutting; the long take in Touch of Evil builds suspense because we instinctively know that when there's a cut, the bomb will explode. But it is a stunt shot, and it's designed to call attention to its difficulty. Like this take from Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here. He didn't have to do the whole second half of this number in one take, but that's part of the fun of this kind of long take: the director sets himself and his crew more difficulty than absolutely necessary.

I especially like Berkeley's gag of tracking past a bunch of women who sort of look like the film's star, Alice Faye, before finally giving us Faye herself at the end (anticipating by 25 years Jacques Tati's gag of the fake M. Hulots in Playtime).

The other kind of long take, which is much less ostentatious, is a dialogue scene shot all or nearly all in one take. This kind of scene is less expensive (because it doesn't require as much camera movement or as many sets), but requires a lot of rehearsal by the actors, who can't afford to miss a line or they'll have to start all over again. The longest take in Touch of Evil is like this: it involves Welles searching a room, and it doesn't announce itself the way the opening shot does (though he did have to use breakaway walls to move the camera between two rooms), but the actors all had to know their lines and hit their marks exactly.

This kind of shot is done less for show-offy purposes (since it's often not even noticeable that it's all in one take) than to get extra energy into the scene by having the characters truly interact with each other, instead of stitching the scene together from a bunch of different takes. It also had two side benefits: one, by doing a in one take, a director made it impossible for the producer to re-cut it. (That's one of the reasons why John Ford preferred to shoot with as little "coverage" -- additional angles -- as possible.) And two, if the actors were up to the task, this kind of shooting allowed the director to get a lot of script pages filmed relatively quickly. You may have heard the story that Orson Welles filmed that long dialogue scene in Touch of Evil on the first day of shooting, to convince the studio that he could get an entire scene finished in only one day.

This take from Sullivan's Travels is an example of the long dialogue take. Note that near the end of the take, the actor playing the studio boss almost flubs his line, but recovers ("Who's... t... talking about taking you off salary?").

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Lucy Van Pelt vs. Hannibal Lecter

"Oh, Dr. Lecter! I'll hold the ball and you come running up and kick it."

A psych-off between the two most evil psychiatrists in fiction: Lucy Van Pelt (Peanuts) and Hannibal Lecter.

Can Lucy psych Dr. Lecter into trying to kick the football, or will Lecter find a way to turn the tables on her (like kicking her hand instead, the way Charlie Brown once accidentally did)?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rita Hayworth Dances With Anthony Quinn

Here's why Rouben Mamoulian's Blood and Sand is the highlight of that Tyrone Power collection.

Mamoulian's work at Fox was very impressive, but like a lot of great directors who signed with Fox in the '40s (Lubitsch, Sturges), he started out strong and then ran into conflicts with Zanuck and a lot of canceled projects. In Mamoulian's case, he was fired from a number of Fox pictures, most famously Laura where he was replaced by the film's producer, Otto Preminger. By the late '40s, despite his enormous success as the director of the original Broadway productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel, he'd become almost unemployable in Hollywood; he completed only two more pictures, both for Arthur Freed (Summer Holiday, an underrated musical with Mickey Rooney, and Silk Stockings, which is a good movie but hardly looks like a Mamoulian picture at all). He was also fired off a number of big-budget films like Porgy and Bess and Cleopatra.

It's too bad that Mamoulian didn't get to make many film musicals after the '30s; his black-and-white musical Love Me Tonight is deservedly considered one of the classics, but as you can see from the clip above, he would have done an amazing job if he had been let loose on a Fox Technicolor musical -- imagine his instinct for combining color, music and movement, spread throughout a whole film.

The ideal thing, of course, would have been for Mamoulian to have directed the film versions of Oklahoma! or Carousel. The actual film versions are very dreary and stolid-looking; they really needed the Mamoulian touch.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ray Minshull

I only just noticed that the classical record producer Ray Minshull died earlier this year. Minshull was chosen to take over as head of Artists & Repertoire at Decca/London after John Culshaw left in 1967, and he remained in that job until his retirement in 1994 (a few years after that, Decca, which had already been bought out by PolyGram, was folded into Universal music and no longer really exists as a company with its own identity). He produced hundreds of recordings including the Karajan/Freni/Pavarotti La Boheme, which was once cited as the biggest-selling opera recording ever.

To many fans of classical recording, Decca was the ultimate classical record company -- though they probably made more money off Mantovani or the Rolling Stones -- and their opera recordings, like the Solti Ring, were unique experiences. Minshull himself may not have been the best choice to run things after Culshaw left, though Culshaw put the best face on it in his autobiography. He tended to favor very middle-of-the-road approaches both in performance and sound. But so did all big-label classical recording producers in the '70s through the '90s. That's one of the things that may have eventually killed off the big label, big star approach to classical recording: the proliferation of big-label recordings that had different names on the cover but basically sounded the same.


From the official artwork for The Odd Couple Season 2:

"Some music has been changed for this home entertainment version."

I was afraid of this -- but does anyone remember any musical sequences in the second season that Paramount may cut out rather than pay for? I can't remember much music on The Odd Couple at all, except public-domain stuff. The comments section mentions one season two episode where they use the "Little Orphan Annie" theme; I wouldn't put it past Paramount to cut that part.

Minor Moonlighting Mystery

Two years after the release of the first and second season of Moonlighting on DVD, I've found the answer to a minor mystery: why the episode "The Lady in the Iron Mask" was released with the wrong score (an inappropriately bombastic theme for the veiled woman and bland music replacing the "William Tell Overture" in the big chase scene). I haven't seen this explained elsewhere, so in case anyone wants to know the answer:

Richard Lewis Warren, who had scored a couple of early episodes (and had scored Remington Steele) wrote a score for this episode. Glenn Caron didn't like it, so he asked Alf Clausen to write a new score. (Clausen composed the music for all subsequent episodes of the series.) Clausen's score was the one with the "William Tell Overture."

However, the first score remained in the vaults, and when the show was being remastered from the original elements, the rejected score was mistakenly used instead of the final one. So what we're hearing on the DVD is the score that the showrunner threw out.

Too bad Lion's Gate didn't include the correct version one one of the subsequent sets, but anyway, there's the answer.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Cinematographer's Influence

The following clip is from A Song is Born, which I've highlighted before: as a movie, it's basically worthless, in that it offers nothing the original version, Ball of Fire, didn't do better. (Samuel Goldwyn decided to remake Ball of Fire as a vehicle for his contract stars, Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. He used the same director and cinematographer, Howard Hawks and Gregg Toland, and much of the movie is just a line-for-line remake of Ball of Fire, except without Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck to make it work.) But what makes it worth watching anyway is as a showcase for all the jazz musicians who show up in guest appearances.

In this scene, Kaye's stuffy musicologist character (originally the stuffy non-musical professor played by Gary Cooper) goes out to find out about modern popular music, and goes to various nightclubs where he hears Mel Powell, Tommy Dorsey, the Golden Gate Quartet, Charlie Barnet, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and finally the Page Cavanaugh Trio (with a very dubbed Virginia Mayo, though to be fair, Barbara Stanwyck's singing was also dubbed in Ball of Fire).

One thing I noticed (and I'm not sure if a similar shot occurs in Ball of Fire, though it certainly might) is the shot about 2:45 into the clip, where Kaye is listening to the Golden Gate Quartet: he's on the left of the screen while the Quartet is framed in an elaborate mirror next to Kaye. This is a very arty, self-conscious shot that doesn't feel like something Hawks would normally do -- but which does feel very much like the type of shot that occurs in all the movies shot by Gregg Toland. (In addition to being under contract for most of Goldwyn's movies, he was loaned out for movies like The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane and Song of the South; on Kane, Toland's credit was as big as Orson Welles' and on the same title card.) Thinking back to Ball of Fire I recalled some shots that similarly look like Toland, rather than Hawks, like the shot of Barbara Stanwyck reflected in a table, or the deep-focus shot of Cooper in the back of a crowd.

That doesn't mean that Toland was the real director of these movies (though on A Song is Born, which Hawks hated, it's possible that Hawks might have wished someone else was directing). But he had such strong ideas about composition, technology and technique that he influenced most of the directors he worked with, meaning that no matter who's directing, you see Toland's own ideas turning up.

Are there other cinematographers whose style is so distinctive that their movies all contain similar shot setups, compositions, techniques, etc., regardless of the director? RKO's noir master Nick Musuraca comes to mind, but his style has more to do with lighting than actual shot setups; similarly, Sven Nykvist was one of the most famous cinematographers in the world, but his movies for other directors don't necessarily look the same as his movies for Ingmar B.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

From San Pedro to Fresno, No Maiden There Says No

The success of Oklahoma! was probably the biggest turning point in the history of musicals, not so much for the content as for the way it redefined the parameters of success. (Before Oklahoma!, almost no musical ran longer than 400-500 performances, and so musicals were planned, cast and written to last no more than a year or so. Oklahoma! proved that a musical could be as big and durable a hit as the biggest hit non-musicals, which meant that musicals had to be timeless instead of topical, star-proof instead of built around one particular star.) But the most immediate effect of its success was that there was a flood of imitators, both on Broadway and in Hollywood, that tried to copy Oklahoma!'s good-natured Americana.

One such imitation was Universal's musical Western Can't Help Singing, starring Deanna Durbin (and beautifully photographed in Technicolor by the great Elwood "Woody" Bredell, who shot many of Durbin's pictures and then moved to Warner Brothers to do similarly fine work on Doris Day's first movie), with a score by Jerome Kern. The big number, "Californi-ay," is an obvious attempt to do for California what Oklahoma! did for you-know-where. But Kern's waltz tune is typical of his late output: it's very pretty and has some ingenious touches (like his favorite trick of using a portion of the introductory verse in the main refrain), but it doesn't have a lot of energy. But the lyricist, Yip Harburg -- who'd already done one Oklahoma! imitation, Bloomer Girl -- has some fun with the song, writing what is clearly a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the Oklahoma!-style tribute to a region or state, full of silly rhymes that get increasingly sillier ("The hills have more splendor, the girls have more gender").

Friday, May 11, 2007

Sylvester Gets His Due

This must be one of the first references to Warner Brothers cartoons in a non-WB movie: about a minute into this clip from the 1964 low-budget movie Kitten With a Whip (with Ann-Margret as a crazy teenager who torments John Forsythe) -- we get a scene with a TV where the cartoon "Canned Feud" is playing. The director even sometimes frames A-M next to Sylvester.

Not a very good movie (it's a sad indication of how badly Ann-Margret was wasted by the movie studios that Viva Las Vegas may well be her best movie in this decade), but it's good to see a movie universe where the local kiddie show selects such good cartoons.


Oh, good. Bosom Buddies season 2 (the last season) in September.

I was worried the first season didn't sell well enough to justify the release of the second, and far superior, of the two seasons, but I guess the Hanks name was enough to carry it across the finish line. The second season will probably have irritating music cuts -- on the first season, I could deal with the replacement of the Billy Joel theme song but not with the cutting of a musical/singing sequence and, with it, my favorite line in the whole season ("I was quite the Bohemian at Vassar"). But I'll take it.

The reason the second season was much better than the first was that they essentially dropped the drag element of the show. They'd use drag only for random gags and scenes, but except for the season premiere, the plots never revolved around that. Also, they made the sensible decision to let all the other recurring characters know that Kip and Henry were the same people as "Buffy" and "Hildegarde," which meant that we no longer had to wonder why these other characters were so damned stupid. The change of workplace setting (from Kip and Henry working in an advertising firm to Kip and Henry producing commercials) worked well too, allowing for more schtick and fewer static office scenes.

And in general, Chris Thompson seemed to get to indulge in more of his slightly deranged humor, like the scene where Rita Wilson (the future Mrs. Hanks) plays a perky Satan worshipper.

So while I make no apologies for liking Bosom Buddies, it's the second season that gives a better idea of why I like it so much. It's odd, because usually this kind of re-tooling (changing the premise, changing the setting) is a sign that the show is starting to suck. But in this case, it actually worked, because the original premise wasn't very interesting: the two guys were just much funnier as themselves than as women.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Oh, My God.

Speaking of Droopy, someone has posted a Droopy cartoon made for some Filmation show in the late '70s. I would try and describe how bad it is, but words can't do justice. Just watch. And see if you don't give up after the first two minutes of absolutely nothing happening.

Little Go Beep

"Little Go Beep," the Road Runner cartoon that Warner Brothers produced in 2000 and then never released, has finally been made available online by AOL's In2TV.

In2TV is only available in the United States, which means that those of us who are in the States (like yours truly), still can't watch it. But the rest of you can enjoy, among other things, one of the last musical scores by Richard Stone, and a cartoon that overall is quite good (sort of a bigger-budget Tiny Toons episode), making you wonder why Warner Brothers felt the need to bring in Larry Doyle and company to make its next batch of unreleased Looney Tunes.

Earl Kress, the writer, wrote a lot about the process of making this cartoon at his blog.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

You Know What? I'm Happy.

This review of the new Droopy collection reveals that the cartoons are uncut -- even "Droopy's Good Deed," which had a blackface gag cut from the print that was used on the laserdisc version.

Unfortunately, four of the cartoons suffer from over-use of digital video noise reduction (the review posts examples of shots where strings and other things are mistaken for scratches and erased). This is not good. But the set has to be considered recommendable anyway, and after the problems with the first two Tom & Jerry sets, it's good to see complete versions of MGM's (far funnier) Droopy cartoons.

Now we need a complete set of all Tex Avery's non-Droopy cartoons. Anyone?

P.S.: Droopy, of course, was Avery's only successful attempt to create a series character at MGM. Like most of his MGM characters, Droopy is something of a parody of studio cartoon characters; if Screwy Squirrel was a grotesque parody of Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck type characters (a "wacky" character who's basically disgusting with no redeeming qualities whatsoever), Droopy is like a spoof of cartoon heroes in general, a guy who does absolutely nothing, has no real characteristics, but always wins because "I'm the hero" and that's that. He is an appealing character in many ways, but Avery made the likable almost in spite of himself.

I think the innate likability of Bill Thompson's voice had a lot to do with making Droopy more amiable than most Avery characters; in the cartoons where Thompson wasn't available to do the voice (like "The Shooting of Dan McGoo," where Thompson does only Droopy's first line and a lesser voice actor does the rest), Droopy is fairly annoying -- which probably suited Avery just fine.

Double Bogie

After writing about how all the women in the movie version of The Big Sleep (or nearly all) are attracted to Humphrey Bogart, I decided to cut some scenes together just to make it clearer. Not until the James Bond movies would there be so many random women giving the hero lustful glances, or inviting him over to their place.

The female cab driver is a reminder that this film was made during the war. I recall someone suggesting that the subtext of the movie is that women all want Bogart because he's the only halfway-decent man available: with all the good men off at war, it's a choice between Bogart and a bunch of sleazoids, low-lifes and pornographers. But the movie wasn't released until the war was over, due to production delays and re-shoots; the final release version included some new scenes for Lauren Bacall and (with a completely different hair style than in the rest of the picture) Martha Vickers.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Power of Internet Complaints

So after all the online controversy over the cut, nearly music-free season 1 release of WKRP in Cincinnati, the public responded responded by... well, by making it the second-best-selling TV DVD for that week, according to this information from Nielsen VideoScan and The Digital Entertainment Group. The list of the best-selling DVDs for the week ending April 29 has WKRP at # 18, with only one other TV show on that list (the BBC's Planet Earth).

If that's representative of the way the set has sold, I'm not exactly unhappy about that. Still, it's a reminder that online complaints, including overwhelmingly negative reviews at, don't have that much effect (which is not to say we shouldn't complain anyway).

The question now is whether the studio will take that as a) an indication that the sales potential justifies spending actual money on music licensing for the other three seasons, or b) an indication that nobody will care if they remove the music and cut scenes. As usual, I'm suspecting b) but choose to hold out forlorn hope for a).

Here's one bit from the second season that was severely diminished in the Nick at Nite/Comedy Network version when they redubbed the music (and which Fox, for obvious reasons, could likely put back if they really wanted to).


Watched another movie from the Tyrone Power Collection, Captain From Castile. Like most of these movies, it's based on a best-selling novel. (This was one thing that seemed to be a pet obsession of Darryl Zanuck: most of his big productions were based on popular novels of the time -- think Grapes of Wrath, Gentleman's Agreement, How Green Was My Valley, Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Other studios adapted plays more often than novels, but Zanuck was always looking to the page, not the stage.) The original novel by Samuel Shellabarger was one of those huge historical door-stoppers that would have required Gone With the Wind length to tell the whole story. With the project limited to 140 minutes, Lamar Trotti, who wrote and produced, decided to end the story midway through the novel, with Power marching off with Cortez (Cesar Romero) to encounter Montezuma.

This ending, though somewhat anticlimactic, actually isn't a bad idea: it ends just at the point where we are sort of expected to know what happened. You could argue that showing the better-known historical events would be more anticlimactic than not showing them.

The movie's problems have less to do with where it ends than with how it ends -- I've rarely seen a film fall apart so completely as it goes along. The movie starts out extremely well: all the scenes in Spain, with Power vs. the Inquisition (which is never really shown, because that wouldn't have made it past the Catholic Legion of Decency; instead the slimy secular villain John Sutton seems to run the whole Inquisition single-handedly), are really well-done, suspenseful and intelligent, with two really shocking moments of violence. The first scenes in the New World are more uneven but do contain some fun scenes, like Power's lustful Sarabande with -- in her film debut -- Jean Peters, and anything with Romero as Cortez (he's the only actor in this thing who doesn't quite take it seriously, which is kind of a relief). But then in the last twenty minutes, as the filmmakers rush to wrap everything up, the movie becomes both confusing and boring: confusing because things are happening at a too-rapid pace, and boring because hardly anything is really happening: without giving too much away, let's just say that Power, the hero, hardly does anything at all in the last reels of his own movie.

Some of this may be attributable to Trotti, who may not have been so great at writing endings (his original ending for Young Mr. Lincoln, with Lincoln talking to his future self or something, was truly awful; John Ford threw it out and made up a different ending), and some of it was probably just the fact that the picture was being shot on location all over Mexico (one of the first historical dramas that tried to shoot on the actual historical locations) and the difficulties of getting the footage in the can may just have overwhelmed any attempts to make sense of the story. But it is a reminder of the biggest fault of Zanuck's productions -- not just adventure dramas, but domestic drama's like Gentleman's Agreement -- he and his team took the stories so seriously that they would feel strangely free to ignore basic rules of structure and characterization. Also, Fox movies often go on for a long time and peter out quickly, front-loading all the best stuff at the beginning.

Castile does have some beautiful shots, courtesy of the cinematographers, the locations, and the studio's star director, Henry King. He was sort of like what John Ford would have been if Ford had been more of a hack. That is, he seemed to have very little involvement in developing the projects he did, with the result that the quality of his movies varied wildly (if he was given a great script, like Margie or The Gunfighter, he would make a great movie; if not, he'd make Carousel; but whether or not the script was good had little to do with him). But his visual style was very similar to John Ford's: the use of long static takes with very little movement, the attempt to make every shot look like a painting, the preference for low-angle shots with the ceilings in view.

Grudge Matches I'd Like To See: Fat Elvis vs. Fat Marlon Brando

Inspired by seeing TCM's recent Brando-mentary:

A fight between two once-revolutionary entertainers who have become bloated parodies of themselves: Fat Elvis Presley (with the jumpsuit) vs. Fat Marlon Brando (with the bad Kryptonian accent). Will the sizeable singer meet his match in mountainous Marlon's method?

Friday, May 04, 2007

Midpoint McKimson

That last cartoon ("Daffy Doodles") was the first theatrical cartoon directed by Bob McKimson. It has one thing in common with most of McKimson's cartoons as a director: he was always a few years behind the other directors in terms of the way he used the characters.

I don't mean that as an insult; if anything, it's a compliment. By 1946, Daffy Duck had moved beyond the hoo-hooing lunatic he was when he started; he was still kind of wacky, but he was not totally insane. Even Bob Clampett featured a much more sane and normal Daffy in his last Daffy Duck cartoon ("The Great Piggy Bank Robbery"). "Daffy Doodles," as a Daffy story, could have been done in 1938: he's a wild, uncontrollable, and likes to wreak havoc for no reason at all.

McKimson was always like that with the studio's "shared" characters (the ones who weren't exclusive to one director). He never seemed to take to the greedy loser Daffy that Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng developed in the '50s; he eventually came around to the characterization, but he was still doing '40s-style Daffy stories as late as 1958 ("Don't Axe Me," where Daffy loses in the end, but is still somewhat wacky and even says "Hoo-hoo! Hoo-hoo!" at one point). His take on Bugs Bunny in the late '40s, was as an obnoxious roughneck, at a time when other directors were making Bugs more charming and heroic. He also never got as much into UPA-style backgrounds as other directors; instead he picked up Jones' former layout man, Robert Gribbroek, and did simplified but semi-realistic backgrounds well into the early '60s.

McKimson would, in the end, do what Jones and Freleng were doing, because they were the directors with more power and influence and from 1950 on, they clearly set the house style. But he always seemed to be inclined to leave the characters the way they had been a few years earlier. The cartoon posted below, "Design For Leaving," is from 1954, by which time Jones had clearly established the "new" Daffy in cartoons like "Duck Amuck" and "Duck Dodgers." But Daffy in this McKimson cartoon is a disreputable salesman trying to cheat Elmer Fudd -- the kind of characterization that could easily have fit into a cartoon from the '40s (though the '40s Daffy would obviously have been wacky, which he isn't in this cartoon).

One problem with McKimson's cartoons from this period is that his control-freak tendencies had gotten out of hand. Jones is often criticized for toning down the animators and making them copy his pose drawings, but it's really not true, at least until the late '50s; he tolerated quite a bit of variation in the way his animators drew, like Ben Washam's pointy-toothed Bugs Bunny. The complaint is much more fairly leveled at McKimson. In his 1954 cartoons, no matter who's animating, the characters will have poses and facial expressions that look very much like McKimson drew them (one of the favorite expressions is a wry look with the eyes half-closed, which all his animators were expected to copy). In the late '40s and early '50s, McKimson had some animators who would do drawings and poses that didn't look McKimsonesque -- Manny Gould, Emery Hawkins, Bill Melendez. But they didn't stay with him long (Melendez disliked McKimson's rigid ideas about what constituted good or bad animation).

By 1954, only Rod Scribner maintained a bit of individuality, and that was in part because McKimson usually gave him the scenes where a bit of wild Scribner animation wasn't out of place. The other three animators in the unit -- Phil DeLara, Chuck McKimson, and Herman Cohen -- were all fine animators, but they didn't have much to work with at this point. And this was exacerbated by the fact that McKimson's writer, Tedd Pierce, had become obsessed with writing cartoon stories that aped live-action comedy shows and sketches (this cartoon feels like a TV sitcom, and there's another McKimson/Pierce cartoon that's a rewrite of the old "Pay the Two Dollars" sketch). It's a funny cartoon with one gag -- the elevator room -- that never fails to get a gigantic laugh in theatres. But it does provide some hints as to a possible reason why McKimson lost his animators after the mid-'50s layoff: artists like DeLara might simply have decided that there was something more fulfilling than copying McKimson's drawings and lip-synching to the dialogue.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Daffy In Italiano

O, mi chiamano Daffy, io dipingo i mustacchi,
E Porky il poliziotto dice ch'io sono wacchi!

The music doesn't sound right through a lot of this cartoon, and that's because isolated music tracks don't exist for most of the WB cartoons made before 1950. Which means that for a cartoon like this, any dialogue in a foreign-dubbed version is underscored by music from other cartoons. It's kind of a mess, frankly.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

RIP Tom Poston

The Peeper, the Steve Allen Show guy, frequent game-show panelist, and much, much more.

He was also the original choice to play Max on Get Smart (which shared a number of writers with the Steve Allen show) when it was pitched to ABC, but ABC turned it down and NBC bought the property for Don Adams. But he did get a break years later when Jerry Van Dyke was unavailable to play the part of George on Newhart.

Not much Poston online (he's hardly in the few Steve Allen Show clips I could find), but here's one game-show appearance and one clip from a David Mirkin episode of Newhart.