Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Robert Goulet, Robert Goulet, My God, Robert Goulet!"

Robert Goulet died at age 73. I think he was one of those performers who went from being an easy target of mockery to being appreciated again.

As the obituary makes clear, he had the misfortune to come along just as his kind of singing was no longer making the charts; what it doesn't quite make clear is that Broadway also was moving away from his kind of singing. The big baritone voice had been a staple of Broadway musical theatre for decades; musical-theatre heroes were generally handsome guys with well-produced voices like Goulet's. Some of these people became stars, like Alfred Drake and John Raitt; others weren't big stars but worked a lot, like Bill Johnson or Ray Middleton; but strong baritone leading men were always in demand. But My Fair Lady had popularized a move toward casting non-singers in leading musical roles; amplification was coming in and changing the type of voices that were needed and wanted on Broadway. What all this means is that while Goulet did get a few other big Broadway roles, like the lead in The Happy Time (with a score by Cabaret's John Kander and Fred Ebb), someone with his particular talents would have gotten a lot more Broadway work even a decade earlier. Vegas was really the only place for him to go with any regularity, which is why I think people eventually came to understand that it was unfair to mock him, or other entertainers, for gravitating to a place where their style of singing was still popular.

A YouTube search for the phrase "Robert Goulet" brings up 165 videos, a testament to his continued popularity. Here's one of my favorite finds, Goulet in an episode of the '90s Disney Saturday morning cartoon "Recess" where he's the singing voice of the fat kid (in the inevitable "schlumpy kid has unexpectedly great singing voice" plot).

Double Duty

I also embedded this on the other blog, but I just can't help putting it here as well: how does Veronica Mars go with the theme from That Girl?

This is, by the way, the arrangement of the That Girl theme from the later, more famous title sequences, though the first season titles and arrangements were actually quite a bit better (the first season actually gave you Earle Hagen's theme sounding like a typical Earle Hagen tune, while the later title sequences sliced and diced the theme into a million fragments).

Give Up, Fox

It would normally be good news for TV fans that Fox is going to release the first season of "Newhart", except that we all know they're not going to finish it. Fox has released the first seasons, at least, of most of the best-known MTM properties and they've managed to finish exactly one (Remington Steele, pushed over the finish line by the Pierce Brosnan connection and the relatively short run).

I'm not sure why they would think Newhart will sell if they've given up on releasing more sets of the original Bob Newhart Show (granted, I think Newhart was a better show, but not that much better). So why keep releasing shows that they know won't sell well enough to finish? Why not just sign a deal with some other company?

One possibility here is that since first seasons tend to sell better than the rest of the series, a company can actually do better by releasing the first season of an as-yet unreleased show, rather than the fourth or fifth season of another show. The first release for a TV series is almost always the best-selling one, even if the first season is nowhere near its best, because some people will decide it's enough to have 22 episodes of a particular series in their collection (not everybody needs to see their favorite characters 200 times). So Fox probably can do better by hunting around the vaults for season 1 releases they haven't done yet, even if they know -- and they probably do -- that a release of later seasons is out of the question.

Honestly I'm starting to think there's a very good case for multi-disc "best-of" releases. I prefer complete season sets, like most people, but knowing that in many cases we're only going to get one or two DVD releases anyway, I'd rather get a selection of the show's best episodes from the whole run, rather than the first season, which in many cases (nearly all cases, with comedies) isn't the best.

Relocation, Relocation, Relocation

Ivan G. Shreve's "Thrilling Days of Yesteryear" has relocated to Blogger, where it remains one of the best old-TV/old-movie/old-radio blogs around.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Super Fleisch'

In case you were worried about not getting another Popeye DVD (I was, a little, since the character doesn't have any real name recognition any more), Dave Lambert is hearing that Popeye, volume 2 (1938-43) will be released next June. This will bring us all the Fleischer-produced Popeyes and a few of the Famous Studios ones with early animation by the likes of Jim Tyer, though we'll have to wait a couple of years to get all the theatrical Popeyes.

This would be a good time to point you, in case you haven't already been directed by another blog, to Bob Jaques's Popeye animator identification blog, where he's doing for the Popeye team what others have done for Disney and Warners -- helping us to see and understand the animation styles of people who weren't well-known or, in some cases, even credited.

The Universal Theory of Syrupy Theme Songs

I have formulated a theory about TV theme songs. Well, actually, other people formulated it long before me, but here it is anyway: any show, no matter what happens in the title sequence, can be made to seem heartwarming and sweet if you add a heartwarming and sweet theme song.

For example, look what happens when I take the main title of the British The Office and plug in the Full House theme song. Suddenly Slough seems like a really adorable and uplifting place to work.

And like the "Family Affair" theme, it works fine with Buffy:

Other suggestions welcome.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Never Give Up Hope

No doubt in response to my recent Danny Arnold post, Sony/Columbia is going to release the second season of Barney Miller four years after the first (not very good) season came out.

The show was still finding itself in the second season -- including its various, never-quite-successful attempts to come up with a regular female character -- but it was a lot better than the first season, and it mostly abandoned the first season's attempts to focus on Barney's home life. Also the second season saw the arrival of the three writers who, along with Danny Arnold, would do the most to set the style of the series: Reinhold Weege (later created Night Court), Tom Reeder (prolific freelancer) and Tony Sheehan (executive-produced King of Queens and... er... Mr. Belvedere).

One problem the first season had was that it used a format Arnold clearly wasn't comfortable with, the videotaped studio-audience format that All in the Family had popularized. (The unsold pilot of Barney Miller was shot single-camera on film.) To succeed in that format you traditionally need hard jokes that can make a studio audience roar, and Barney Miller probably had fewer hard jokes than any sitcom ever: half the time the punchlines were barely even jokes at all, just wry little character-based lines. (Dietrich, who makes his first appearance this season in the first of the "Fish" backdoor pilots, was the king of this kind of line: he says things deadpan, leaving whoever he's talking with to wonder if he's joking or not.) The first season sometimes didn't know if it wanted to be Barney Miller or the kind of broader, louder show that a videotaped sitcom is expected to be. By the second season the staff was more comfortable doing their own kind of humor, though you can sometimes hear that the studio audience doesn't get it (which may be another reason why they ditched the audience a couple of years later).

Now, the question is, when will Sony to put out the third season? 2025?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

An Epic By Virgil

Seattle Chef has scanned and posted a 1989 interview with Warner Brothers animator Virgil Ross, who was one of the longest-serving animators at the studio: Tex Avery brought him over when he went to work for Warners in 1935, and after Avery left the studio Ross worked for Clampett for one year (Clampett didn't like his style of animating) and then for Friz Freleng for another 20 years.

His animation style, as I've written in earlier posts, is one of the most easily-identifiable of any animator, because no matter how much things changed in terms of characters, trends and budgets, Ross kept using the same tricks -- certain hand gestures, characters leaning over to one side -- in the same way. (Examples of Ross animation include the final scene of "Show Biz Bugs," the opening scene of "High Diving Hare," and This could give his animation a feeling of sameness because you could see him using the same basic acting styles for different characters, but few animators were ever better with facial expressions or understanding what you can do with the parts of the body that aren't being fully animated. (He always paid a lot of attention to the position of Bugs Bunny's ears, which may not sound like much but actually adds to the likability and charm that Bugs projects when Ross is animating him.)

[Via Golden Age Cartoons.]

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I'm surprised that no one seems to have done this before. Someone else with more knowledge of Family Affair and more than one of the DVD sets would probably do a better job than I did of selecting appropriate clips, but here's what I got:

And the obvious companion piece, but much easier to put together:

Obscure Musicals: HIGH SPIRITS (1964)

The success of My Fair Lady in 1956 was one of those theatre events that led every other producer to look for similar material to adapt. (Similarly, Oklahoma! led to dozens of other folksy Americana musicals, both on stage and screen.) For the next eight or nine years, there were huge numbers of musicals with their roots in British stage plays or British literature, often with respected if non-singing British actors in the leads. Since this co-incided with a revival of interest in contemporary British theatre, and with producers like David Merrick who spent a lot of time mounting American productions of British hits, you could be forgiven for thinking that Broadway was a British colony.

With all the Anglophilia going around, it was inevitable that Broadway would show an interest in Noel Coward, especially once he stopped living in England (he was a tax exile). He wrote and directed a show for Broadway, Sail Away, which wasn't a hit; then he was hired by the My Fair Lady producer, Herman Levin, to write the music and lyrics for a show based on the work of yet another British playwright, Terence Rattigan. This was The Girl Who Came To Supper, a blatant My Fair Lady knockoff right down to the casting choices (non-singing serious actor Jose Ferrer paired with soprano Florence Henderson, with music-hall singer Tessie O'Shea in support), with mostly mediocre songs, it was an expensive failure.

So Coward had a poor track record with writing original work for Broadway, and his next project was an unusual choice: in 1964, he signed to direct someone else's musical adaptation of one of his plays. This was High Spirits, a musical version of Coward's hit fantasy-comedy Blithe Spirit.

The writers of the show, who had been trying to get it off the ground for some time, were the veteran songwriter/performer/arranger Hugh Martin and a younger songwriter/performer, Timothy Gray. Martin, who is still alive, ought to be a living legend; among other things he wrote the songs (with Ralph Blane) for Meet Me in St. Louis, and along with Kay Thompson he helped to revolutionize the art of vocal arrangement, writing jazzy, scatty vocal and choral arrangements that were so elaborate that he'd often add all-new music and lyrics to songs by the likes of Richard Rodgers and Jule Styne (and they were fine with that). He could write music and lyrics on his own, but he preferred to work in a sort of Lennon-McCartney arrangement where he and a collaborator would each write songs, and then they'd polish each other's work and take joint credit for the whole score. He usually worked with Ralph Blane, his former singing/arranging partner from the quartet "The Martins," but with Grey he wrote not only the score of High Spirits but also the book -- which stuck closely to Blithe Spirit, just as the book of My Fair Lady did to Pygmalion.

The style they settled on for the songs was actually pretty far removed from Coward's own style, which was probably the only way to go. Martin always had kind of a '30s-'40s pop vibe to his work, though he tried to stay abreast of new developments, his basic style was always about peppy rhythms and jazzy harmonies. He even dusted off a song that he'd written ten years earler, "Faster Than Sound," a song about jet travel, and used it to describe the life of the ghost Elvira (in which context the lyrics really don't make any sense at all). The best song in the score was probably "I Know Your Heart," for Charles Condomine (Edward "Equalizer" Woodward) and the ghost of his first wife Elvira (Tammy Grimes); Elvira is trying to get Charles drunk so she can get him killed and have him all to herself, while Charles knows she's up to something but isn't sure what, and the duet section feels like a really macabre version of "Baby It's Cold Outside."

Coward was very pleased with the songs and the adaptation and agreed to direct the show. It doesn't seem like he had a great time with it, though. He was not particularly happy, it was said, with the casting of Beatrice Lillie as the medium Madame Arcati (played in the original play and movie by Margaret Rutherford). He'd worked with Lillie before, but only in revues where she could do her own thing in sketches and songs; he felt that Lillie couldn't play a character, couldn't remember lines, and would turn her scenes into her own one-woman show. Which is pretty much what happened; she stole the show, and was largely responsible (along with Grimes) for the show running as long as it did, but she was doing An Evening With Beatrice Lillie, not playing the character. It didn't help that most of her songs were among the weaker ones in the score; her love song to her Ouija board, "Talking To You," went over well, but "Go Into Your Trance," where Madame Arcati instructs her young disciples that they don't need drugs to have a groovy trip, is kind of embarrassing. Though it does anticipate "psychedelic" songs before they even existed, and it does end with one of Martin's trademark choral arrangements.

The conflict between Coward and Lillie didn't get better during the tryouts. Coward left the show during the Philadelphia tryout. At the time, the explanation was that he had to leave due to poor health; it was also speculated, and still is, that either he or Lillie had to go, and it couldn't be Lillie because she was the hit of the show. In any case Coward was replaced by Gower Champion, who'd just had the biggest hit on Broadway with Hello, Dolly!. Coward was still credited as the sole director of the show, however.

High Spirits ran 375 performances, which was a better run then than it is now, but not enough to be considered a genuine hit. It had a London Production, with Cecily Courtneidge as Madame Arcati, which did not do well.

One problem that a lot of critics noted about High Spirits was that it was so close to the original play (though like My Fair Lady it used the revised ending of the movie version) that there wasn't much to distinguish it from the original; a lot of theatregoers either knew the play or had seen the movie, and a few songs here and there didn't give them enough that they hadn't seen from this story already. Another problem was that it's really a very small, light and fluffy play, taking place mostly in one place and with only four characters of any importance. The adaptors didn't add any new characters (the four characters plus the chorus are the only ones who sing, except for one number with Timothy Gray's voice on a gramophone record), so there wasn't enough of the variety, the sense of scale, that theatregoers had come to expect from a musical.

And finally, there's the matter of heart. The play has none. It treats the murder of an important character as an inconsequential joke, portrays women as shrewish harpies and love and marriage as fraudulent. It would be offensive if it felt real, but of course it doesn't feel real and isn't supposed to; it's a wacky fantasy which at the time of its writing (1942) gave audiences an escape by treating violence and death as unimportant and unreal (whereas it was all too real at the time). But songs give a story added weight, and when you add the requisite charm songs and love songs, the story suddenly seems real, and therefore unfunny. Charles and his current wife, Ruth, have a rather pretty duet called "If I Gave You," but if we're supposed to take their love duet seriously, then we can't help but feel horrified when Ruth is killed and nobody seems to care much. You almost have to wonder why Martin and Gray spent so much time trying to do this adaptation; this is a play that probably shouldn't have been a musical at all.

If Lillie was the hit of the show, Grimes -- who was asked by Coward to play the part -- was the best thing in the show, with her bizarre voice and line readings ideally suited to playing an otherworldly visitor. She also got nearly all the best songs in the score, including the eleven o'clock number "Home Sweet Heaven," a Cole Porter-ish list song about all the great people you meet in the afterlife.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Unoriginal Observation of the Day

Dear studio that produced Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd movie:

If you don't want to admit that this movie is a musical, then why did you put up tens of millions of dollars for Tim Burton to make a musical?

Seriously, though, I know that a lot of trailers for musicals do their damnedest to disguise the fact that they're musicals; it's not just this one. The thing is that I don't believe it works. It would be one thing if these trailers made the movies out to be incredibly interesting non-musicals, but they don't; the new Sweeney trailer (the first without any singing whatsoever) doesn't make the movie look like a particularly exciting period horror story.

It seems to me that the best way to do a trailer for a musical is to show brief excerpts from the musical numbers. That's basically what movie musical trailers did in the days when movie musicals were common; they wouldn't show a lot of any one number, but they would show just enough to make the songs, and the performances, a selling point (sort of anticipating those TV commercials where we hear one line each from all of Performer X's greatest hits). Of course this might not work as well when you're making a musical with non-musical performers, but I still think it would work better than pretending that a musical can ever look like a good non-musical.

I mean, Grease is not a great movie (though I think it was a better movie than a stage play), but the trailer made it look like a musical, and played up the songs as part of the appeal: "Everything that makes a musical unforgettable." That's how you market a musical -- don't act ashamed of it.

Update: I realize, of course, that the songs from Sweeney Todd are a tougher sell than the songs from Grease, but that's an argument for making a trailer that makes the best case for the songs. They could have done a trailer playing up the comedy songs, or plugging "Not While I'm Around" (which never became a pop hit but which Prince and Sondheim were clearly hoping would be this show's "Send in the Clowns").

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ralph "Moody" Thayer

A few years ago I wrote about a routine by Bob and Ray that demonstrated just how ahead of their time they were in their satires of TV/radio talk and news shows. This was the "Corrupt Mayor" routine where the news host (Bob) interviews a corrupt politician (Ray) and we hear what a news interview would be like if nobody used any spin or euphemisms -- they just say outright that he's corrupt and crooked, and the few times the host drops into news-speak ("an interest in financial matters"), Ray corrects him with the real-world term ("loan sharking"). Before Bob and Ray, hardly anyone was doing this kind of dissection of the news media's dependence on fakery and pretending not to notice the obvious; now The Daily Show has made everyone familiar with this kind of humor, but it was new when they were doing it.

I found my old copy of Bob and Ray's late '60s Broadway show Bob and Ray: the Two and Only (where they performed most of their best-known routines) and decided to upload this routine. So here it is, several years too late to make the original post more interesting:

And here's another routine from the same LP that does a similar number on the rituals of news interview shows: Ray, as a government official, hands Bob a list of questions in advance of the interview, including fulsome praise for his guest's knowledge and helpfulness. I saw a similar bit on The Daily Show last week with Colbert giving Stewart a script and forcing him to read off all the questions; they didn't get it from Bob and Ray, but again, it wasn't a common type of routine before Bob and Ray.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Two-Faced Woman

Ah, Torch Song will be on DVD at last as of February 12, 2008. It's really not all that campy, more just a standard-issue bad studio movie from the early '50s; what makes it fascinatingly bad is that it's a meeting of two waning forces: the old-school star system and the old studio system. It was Joan Crawford's return to MGM, an attempted "reunion" that just showed how many problems the old studio-system players were having in the '50s. It is most famous for Joan Crawford lip-synching to India Adams' vocal of "Two-Faced Woman" (cut from The Band Wagon) wearing strange makeup and an animal that doesn't appear to be quite dead yet.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Implausible But Fun

I just watched Hangover Square, part of a three-movie box of films by director John Brahm. (Unfortunately Fox can't seem to get the rights to release Brahm's Philip Marlowe movie The Brasher Doubloon -- the first Marlowe film with a lot of real L.A. location shooting.) Hangover Square is probably most famous as the part Laird Cregar killed himself to get; the legend is that Cregar lost a hundred pounds to play his first top-billed role, wrecked his health in the process, and died.

The movie itself is a good example of a film that's very entertaining as long as you do your damnedest not to think about the story. And I mean you have to try really hard not to think about the story, because there's something implausible or absurd at every turn. The idea of the film (based on a Patrick Hamilton novel but with the time period changed to the turn of the century, the better to re-use stuff from Brahm's previous film, The Lodger) is that Cregar is a promising young composer/pianist with a split personality; when he's stressed out and hears loud horrible noises, it causes him to black out and commit acts of violence without being fully aware of what he's doing. At the beginning of the film, we see him kill someone; when he comes to, he knows that a) He was in that area; b) Someone was killed in that area; c) There's blood on his coat. Police shrink George Sanders investigates and concludes that there is no evidence at the crime scene that could link Cregar to the murder (huh?) so Cregar puts the whole thing out of his mind even after finding the knife with which the murder was committed (why didn't Sanders find it?).

Then later in the film, when Cregar's pal Faye Marlowe is attacked from behind after an argument with Cregar, no one suspects him of having done it -- not even Marlowe, who knows about his problems. How did he get into her house and try to strangle her without anyone, including her, having any idea he was there? Why is it that the police think that a later murder couldn't have been done by Cregar, even though he's the only possible suspect, because "he doesn't act like a guilty man?" Why does Sanders take the whole movie to figure out what he could have figured out in the first twenty minutes?

None of that really matters much, because the movie has a) A good cast, including Cregar, Sanders and Linda Darnell playing another one of the slutty characters she mostly played at Fox (I guess she got the bad-girl parts while Gene Tierney got the good-girl parts); b) Some amazing camerawork from Brahm, not a great director but a very fine visual stylist; c) A score by Bernard Herrmann. So forget the plot and enjoy those elements.

In many ways this is really Herrmann's movie; as a film about a composer who writes in several different genres -- he's writing a concerto and he also writes trashy popular songs for Darnell -- it wouldn't work unless the music was good enough to justify the idea that Cregar is talented. With an efficient but less talented composer, like Fox's head of music Alfred Newman, the movie wouldn't have worked; Herrmann's big Concerto Macabre convinces you that Cregar is a good composer and works perfectly with the cutting and flashbacks and provides a psychological portrait of Cregar's character.

Note: A little bit has been cut out of the clip below; the movie itself is complete on the DVD (if rather beat-up looking in spots).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Biting the Hand that Will Someday Feed You

A commenter on the "Weird Science" DVD announcement notes:

I think that the Season 3 episode "Fly Boy" was arguably the best X-FILES parody any show did at the time.

That brings up one of my favorite bits of silly writer trivia: the guy who wrote that episode, Jeff Vlaming, was hired a few months later as a staff writer for The X-Files. Which means that an X-Files parody for a cable sitcom ("Molly, in 1959, three Soviet Georgian Yak Herders inexplicably burst into flame") was one of the last things he wrote before joining the actual X-Files.

There's at least one other case I can think of where something like this happened: Arnie Kogen, the veteran comedy writer and Mad magazine contributor, wrote a parody of Newhart for the magazine in 1983 and was hired as a writer for the retooled Newhart three years later.

There must be other instances where someone was hired for a TV show after having already done a parody of it, for a sketch show or something like that.

Deborah Kerr

I was not the world's biggest fan of Deborah Kerr. In the '50s and early '60s she was the most prestigious actress in Hollywood, the automatic choice for any Oscar-baiting film and herself an almost automatic Oscar nominee (though she didn't win any). But for that reason, a lot of her career consists of the airless, static "prestige" pictures that infested Hollywood in the post-television era. And there's something a little airless and static about some of her performances in these movies; sometimes she could seem too unspontaneous. When she played two parts that had previously been filmed by Irene Dunne -- in The King and I and An Affair to Remember -- she suffers by comparison with Dunne's naturalness and vitality.

That said, Kerr was always at least good and sometimes more than that. Her early work in British films, especially for Powell and Pressburger in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus, has the very liveliness and naturalness that her American work didn't have; she was by no means the first or the last English actor to do better work in her own country. (Even her best later film, The Innocents, was actually a British production with a British cast and crew.) And even in her U.S. period, she could loosen up if she had the right director; in An Affair To Remember she adapted well to Leo McCarey's trademark improv (remember her improvising "What? I don't know, I thought you said something" with Cary Grant), which a lot of serious actors -- Paul Newman, for example -- couldn't do.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ain't Got Much To Say...

But TV Shows On DVD has a few more news items of moderate interest: Universal is getting closer to finishing The Rockford Files as they've announced a release for the fifth of the six seasons (and, for you Sopranos-o-philes, David Chase's last season with the show), and Miller/Boyett retooling buffs can check out the original dead-end jobs of Larry and Balki when WB releases the first 28 episodes of Perfect Strangers (after those first two seasons the show was re-tooled, their jobs got better and the Ernie Sabella character was dropped).

Monday, October 15, 2007

Enough Is Too Much!

I got my Looney Tunes Replacement disc today. For those who don't know what I'm talking about: disc 4 of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2 had a transfer glitch that caused several cartoons to receive "interlaced" transfers, which makes them choppy and shuddery on many TVs and computer screens. They corrected it and you can get a replacement copy by calling 1-800-553-6937. Anyway, I now can watch "I Love To Singa" without it looking like crap on my TV, coincidentally just in time for a DVD set of The Jazz Singer that also includes "I Love To Singa" (since it's a cartoon takeoff on that movie).

I think this is one of those cartoons that's been elevated to historical classic status by popular opinion. The critics and animation historians rarely mentioned "I Love to Singa" as a seminal Warner Brothers cartoon, but anyone who ever watched the pre-1948 cartoons on local stations recalled "Singa" as one of the best cartoons they'd ever seen. I remember seeing it in the middle of one of those dispiriting blocks of pre-1940 Merrie Melodies, the type that gave pre-1940 cartoons a bad name (after twenty minutes of round, bouncy characters singing songs you'd never heard of, you'd long for a Daffy/Speedy cartoon). I was hooked; this was clearly an "early" cartoon yet it grabbed my attention, made me laugh and sing along, and just felt totally fresh and modern in a way that most '30s cartoons did not.

If you go through the archives of alt.animation.warner-bros you'll find that seemingly every other week there was someone writing in to ask "what's the name of that cartoon with the owl who sings 'I Love To Singa About the Moon-a...'", and of course the first episode of South Park refers to this cartoon and the song. It is, really, the first Warner Brothers cartoon that needs no historical excuses: it's not great for an early WB cartoon, or great because it broke new ground, it's just great because it never fails to be a huge hit with audiences.

As for why this cartoon grabs so many people, I think it's a cartoon that combines strong storytelling (even if the story is largely cribbed from The Jazz Singer) with a modern satirical style. It's not a gag cartoon, like most non-Disney cartoons in the '30s, and it's not a purely musical cartoon, like a lot of the Merrie Melodies; it's a story/character cartoon like "The Three Little Pigs," but with a Tex Avery edge to the humor.

Re: Carol Bruce

Following up on my previous post, someone has posted two clips of Carol Bruce in her prime as a singer:

Her sultry voice seems to have gotten raspy rather more quickly than it should have; by Do I Hear a Waltz she sounded very different, even though she was in her 40s. Her early drop to an "older"-sounding voice may have contributed to the fact that she often seemed to play characters who were older than she actually was.

I'll also note that her casting as Julie in the 1946 revival of Show Boat -- the first revival of that show -- helped change the casting of the part. It had been written for Helen Morgan, a high soprano; after 1946 it's mostly been a part for lower-voiced singers like Bruce.

"Since Rock N' Roll Went Clean"

Every so often I self-indulgently post song lyrics that I wrote and can't use anywhere else. (Not very often, though, so don't worry.) This is one I wrote for a spot in the One, Two, Three musical I wanted to write; since it took place in 1961, I thought it was worthwhile writing something about the music of 1961 -- the bland, post-'50s, pre-Beatles rock n' roll. The rhythm of this may be incomprehensible without a tune, but anyway I like some of the jokes about early '60s music, though it could use some more specific references.


Oh, tell us, Fraulein Scarlett,

What songs do you sing with your friends?
Won't you give us a list
Of the twists that you twist
And each new weave and bob
We have probably missed?
We're jealous, Fraulein Scarlett,
You know all the musical trends,
So, tell us, Fraulein Scarlett,
The rock-n'-roll music that sends.


American music, American music rocks!
American music is full of electric shocks!
We do all the dances we see on the TV box!
Hopping in socks!

We're zealous, Fraulein Scarlett,
We shake till it gives us the bends.

Rock n' roll has no shame
And it sets us aflame.

But today's rock n' roll
Is a whole different game.

Was ist das? Was ist los?


I'm explaining it badly.
Won't you gather in close
While I try again?



America two years ago
Was in the worst of binds,
'Cause rock n' roll had seized control
Of all the teenage minds.
In sixty-one, we still have fun,
But less offensive kinds.
The army came for Elvis,
Little Richard came to Jesus,
And so we looked around and found
A softer sound to please us.

Since rock n’ roll went clean,
Since rock n’ roll went clean,
Music is preachy
But bouncy and beachy,
So everything’s peachy keen.

Oh, yeah,
Everything’s peachy keen
Since rock n’ roll went clean.

Clean, clean, clean.
Keen, keen, keen.

Since rock n' roll broke through
To something bland and new,
Kids who were shameless
Are perfectly blameless,
‘Cause rhythm became less blue.
Oh, yeah,
Dancing is less obscene
Since Rock n’ Roll went clean.


Woo, woo, woo.

Doo, woo, woo.

All the hits of the week
Are so pretty and meek,
Just give your baby an
Album by Fabian,
Maybe she'll kiss your cheek.
We won’t hop to a song
If the message is wrong,
So baby, come on, come on, come on, come on, come on,
But don’t come on too strong.



Since every single teen
Is part of a machine,
Folks like Chuck Berry
Seem terribly scary,
And probably very mean.
Oh, yeah,
That new Frankie Valli
Is right up our alley,

Which means a finale
For tall girls named Sally,
Since rock n' roll
Got more heart, less soul,
And went clean.

What's become of the joys
Of your dangerous noise?

Rock that's not rock-like
With rhythm that's clock-like
Will never arouse the boys.

Did the law of your land
Cause hot bands to be banned?

What made this come on, come on, come on, come on, come on?


You just don't understand.
We're in a different key,
More fancy and less free,
Happily turning
To high-level learning
Or golfing at Burning Tree.
Oh, yeah!

You no longer back out
Of doing your duty,
You'll cast Wolfman Jack out
And squash Tutti Frutti.

Your dangerous hormones
Are starting to shrivel,
So singers, no more moans;
You want something civil.

Oh, yeah,

Everything's peachy keen,
The bopping and hopping
Is finally stopping,
And when we're not shopping,
We're mostly do-wopping,
America's future is brighter,
'Cause music is so much politer and whiter
Since rock n’ roll went clean.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Carol Bruce

The actress and singer Carol Bruce died at age 87. She was in one of my favorite cult musicals (Do I Hear a Waltz?) and one of my favorite TV shows (WKRP in Cincinnati), so naturally I think she was great. Her singing/acting career went all the way back to the '30s, and at the age of 22 she got her big break in Irving Berlin's musical Louisiana Purchase, where she played the role that all musical comedies had: the woman who doesn't have any actual role to play in the show but is there because she has a great voice and can belt out some big numbers. (Ethel Merman got her start in parts like that, and Susan Johnson was the undisputed champ when it came to that kind of role.) She had the title song and the inevitable fake-gospel number in act 2, "The Lord Done Fixed Up My Soul." When Oscar Hammerstein assembled a young cast for his 1946 revival of Show Boat, she got the part of Julie, which Helen Morgan had played on Broadway and in the film.

Later on her voice got darker and hoarser and she put it to great use, specializing in playing sophisticated, attractive middle-aged women, like the role of Fioria in Do I Hear a Waltz?

Here is her solo number from Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), "This Week Americans" (music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim). Playing Fioria, the worldly owner of a Venetian pensione, she welcomes her American visitors by attacking all the other nations; the character despises American provincialism but cynically plays up to it to make her guests happy. (Later in the production she attacks Americans for her latest round of English guests; this reprise isn't included here.)

And here she is on WKRP (the episode where she visits the station and gets drunk) singing "Someone to Watch Over Me":

Friday, October 12, 2007

Grudge Matches I'd Like To See: Friends vs. That '70s Show Kids

Who wins a fight between two groups of six: the FRIENDS (Ross, Chandler, Joey, Rachel, Monica, Phoebe), six young people from a popular '90s sitcom who sit around on a couch and ingest a drug (caffeine) or the kids from THAT '70S SHOW (Eric, Hyde, Kelso, Fez, Donna and Jackie), six young people from a popular '90s sitcom who sit around on a couch and ingest a drug (marijuana)?

This is a six-on-six fight, so the '70s kids don't get any help from the additional characters. Which is a good thing for the Friends, because Red Forman could crush them all single-handed.

Comrade DeCarlo Is Counterrevolutionary

Stupid Comics catches Archie comics scrubbing the very existence of Dan DeCarlo when they reissued one of his stories in 2003.


YouTube has some excerpts of the tenor Mario Del Monaco singing Verdi's Otello. Del Monaco was the leading Otello of his time, but his singing of this role -- probably the greatest tenor role in all of opera -- takes some getting used to.

He was an unremittingly loud singer; he had a gigantic voice and he was always trying to show it off, so he would just show up and bellow all night. The fact that he could be as loud at the end of the evening as at the beginning was part of what endeared him to audiences. But of course it makes his recorded legacy very wearying, because when you're listening at home you don't want a guy shouting at you for three hours. (Del Monaco's fans have claimed that he was better on live bootleg recordings, but he really wasn't, mostly -- it's just that the miking is more distant on those recordings and doesn't put him right in your ear all the time.) Christopher Raeburn, a producer for Del Monaco's record company Decca, said that Del Monaco always wanted to stand right next to the microphone and sing into it, and finally they had to turn off the microphone in front of him and record him with a hidden mike a few feet away. Franco Corelli, who came along and surpassed him as the most popular Italian dramatic tenor, was more willing to shade his voice or sing semi-quietly.

But while Del Monaco wouldn't be my first choice for most roles, I can see and hear why he was the great Otello of his day, and I honestly can't think of anyone since then whom I'd prefer in the part. There was one point in Otello -- the love duet at the end of act 1 -- that Del Monaco usually had trouble with (he'd often alternate between crooning and shouting). But the rest of the part calls for unremitting intensity and passion, and that's what he could bring to it. His physical acting was unsubtle (and unlike Corelli, who never sang Otello, he didn't have leading-man looks), but, again, very intense and often frightening when it needed to be.

The two singers who made the biggest impact as Otello in subsequent years were Jon Vickers and Placido Domingo. But Vickers, while certainly intense, had a tendency to over-intellectualize his performances (especially in Italian opera, where he didn't seem quite comfortable). And Domingo has never had a big enough voice for the part; he's done well with it, but out of intelligence and experience, not necessarily appropriate casting. Otello isn't really about intelligence or a reasoned approach; it's a fast-paced, ferociously intense opera and none of the characters are very smart, except Iago. (If Othello and Desdemona and Cassio weren't idiots, the whole thing would be over halfway through.) For a visceral experience, you need a native Italian singer with a huge, powerful voice and unrelenting intensity. So I appreciate Mario Del Monaco for those qualities.

One thing Del Monaco always did well was Otello's entrance arioso, which establishes Otello's heroic side in 40 seconds of very difficult music. (One thing I love about Verdi is that he can do in 30-40 seconds what would take any other composer about five minutes.) A smaller-voiced tenor can get through this music, but it takes a real dramatic tenor to really thrill the audience with it.

And, at the end of the opera, he's still loud, still intense, still unsubtle and still quite exciting:

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"My Mother Didn't Raise Me to Be a Heating Pad!"

I've always liked this Peanuts strip (from 1960), because I have a soft spot for moments when authors parody their own most famous lines. In this case, it's not exactly self-parody, just sort of the other side of the coin -- if happiness for us is a warm puppy, that doesn't mean the puppy is happy.

The D.A.

I'm glad to see that someone (not me) has finally added a Wikipedia entry for TV producer Danny Arnold. Since there's already been a biography of Nat Hiken, Arnold is the TV behind-the-scenes person whom I think would be the most interesting subject for a biography, as a comedian and jack-of-all-trades showbiz guy who became a very important and influential showrunner.

A lot of his work was ahead of its time: the early episodes of Bewitched certainly were, as I've explained before on this site; his Thurber-based sitcom My World and Welcome To It was one of the great one-season wonders; his failure The Wackiest Ship in the Army (loosely based on the movie of the same name) appears to have been a pre-M*A*S*H attempt to combine service comedy with serious war drama. And then there's Barney Miller, which in many ways was one of the oddest and most iconoclastic shows ever to become a mainstream hit (and the first successful cop show where the cops were the most interesting characters). He also seems to have had a knack for improving shows he was involved with; in the years when he was running That Girl he made it into a much better show than it originally promised to be in its first season. The title "producer" of a TV show was a position that meant, or could mean, a lot of different things at that time, but Arnold made it mean something close to the modern position of showrunner, in that any show he produced would start to show aspects of his style (so his episodes of That Girl show some of the same obsessions he'd worked through in Bewitched, and I just watched a That Girl where he introduced a huge number of the cops-in-drag jokes he'd later bring to Barney Miller).

The other biography-worthy aspect of Danny Arnold was that he appears to have been somewhat rage-filled and maybe a bit nutty. Few people who worked with him seem to have been terribly fond of him as a person. Theodore Flicker, who is credited as the co-creator of Barney Miller, despised Arnold; director John Rich, who helped Barney Miller get picked up after the networks turned down its weak pilot presentation film, got into an argument with Arnold and left after two episodes. And when Rich took his name off the second episode, Arnold took the director's credit himself (is that even allowed under union rules?). His all-day, all-night rewrites on Barney Miller drove the cast to distraction and finally made it impossible to continue shooting the show in front of a live audience, because he never had the scripts ready in time. One of the few people he seems to have actively gotten along with was Marlo Thomas, and, as I've said in an earlier post, it appears that they liked each other because they were both impossible for anyone else to get along with.

Arnold's apparent breakthrough success, Barney Miller, was actually the end of the line for him; he never had another successful show. So a biography would have a clear, if slightly depressing, trajectory to it. There may not be all that much to know about the guy apart from what is mentioned here and on Wikipedia, but then again maybe there is.

Here is Arnold making a cameo on That Girl as a harried television producer.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Jungle Book Smarts

I agree with Michael Sporn that The Jungle Book is not one of the better Disney movies. It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland in that they were adapting stories that weren't truly adaptable, and so the movie became a series of vignettes with very little coherence as a whole. But whereas in Alice the vignettes are truly brilliantly animated and designed, the Xeroxed, corner-cutting look of The Jungle Book doesn't hold my attention. (The Xerox process combined with the digital monkeying of the "restored" DVD version makes it look like somebody went over the whole film with a giant eraser.)

I don't know if I can agree with him about voice acting, though:

The singers killed it. By that I mean, the character of Baloo became more Phil Harris and less Baloo the bear. Louie Prima’s King Louie was more Louis Prima than anything you’d find in the African setting. George Sanders was more of an actor than a personality, and he offered Shere Khan a character that Milt Kahl was able to build on. Sterling Holloway as Kaa was also more an actor than a personality, and he played what was asked of him. Ollie Johston was able to develop on it.

Animated features try to continue in the same vein. Voices like Robin Williams or David Spade or Eva Gabor are not going to make the animated character better. It’d be more interesting to have unknown voices that are well cast. Peter Pan, Snow White, Bambi and Cinderella. Lady & The Tramp, Alice, Pinocchio are all brilliantly cast features.

Now, it's true that many animated features go overboard with celebrity stunt casting. But I don't think that's what happened in Jungle Book, even if it did have more big-name actors than Disney's other features. All the main actors except Louis Prima are character actors, supporting players, who happened to have really distinctive voices. The casting of Phil Harris, a popular radio personality, is no different than the popular radio personalities Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna in Alice; George Sanders may have ben better-known than Hans Conreid (Captain Hook), but Hans Conreid was stil a guy who, at the time, was better-known as an onscreen character actor than a voice actor. And when you go into later actors -- well, Robin Williams, Eva Gabor and David Spade wer all well-cast, good choices in my opinion. As are many other people who have done animation voice acting without a lot of background in voice acting.

Celebrity casting is bad when the actor becomes more important than the character, so that the animators are just animating to the actor's personality rather than finding the character. This happens: it happened when Disney re-used Phil Harris in two other movies and just recycled his Baloo character, and it happens a lot with today's non-Pixar animated movies. But there is often a good reason for casting a celebrity, because these are often people who become famous because they're good actors, or have distinctive voices. And you need good actors with distinctive voices in an animated film.

I realize and understand the objections to famous actors taking work away from full-time voice actors. But the other side of this is that many animated features require a different kind of voice acting from the kind that professional voice actors provide. A lot of cartoon voice acting is a little exaggerated and broad, because that's what's required for television and short cartoons. But to sustain that kind of acting over a whole movie can become difficult, especially when the movie has a lot of serious moments. So the ideal thing is often to find an actor with a really good voice who can use his or her own voice, or something close to it, and sound "natural" in a way that traditional cartoon voice acting is not. There's a reason why Disney usually saved the June Foray, Bill Thompson type of actors for smaller or more comic roles ("Squaw no dance! Squaw get-um firewood!") and gave the lead roles to people who might be fairly well-known but weren't necessarily animation pros (like Cliff Edwards, Walter Catlett, and other people that the audience sort of knew at the time).

Monday, October 08, 2007

Two Bunch-Related Thoughts

I did a piece on the Brady Bunch were-they-or-weren't-they-lesbians story, and it left me with two random thoughts about a show that I didn't really like that much, even as a kid, but which I respect in a weird way.

1. I'm increasingly convinced that the secret of Sherwood Schwartz's success is his ability to create shows that are, quite literally, timeless -- they don't exist in any particular time or era. Gilligan's Island is the ultimate timeless show: the jokes were considered dumb at the time and they're dumb now, but they're timeless jokes (hitting someone on the head with a coconut will always be a laugh-getter), the character types could come from any era at all. If it weren't for the occasional '60s reference you'd never be certain when it was made. The Brady Bunch is dated by the clothes and hairstyles, but otherwise it exists in a hermetic, generic world that could represent an idealized version of family life at just about any time. And all the jokes are, if fairly lame, also fairly durable.

Most show have a way of getting stuck in their own time; you watch Friends and hear a joke and immediately know, just by the way the joke is constructed and delivered, that it's from the '90s. And even shows that don't try to be timely wind up incorporating all sorts of then-current cultural trends and fears. The evil genius of Sherwood Schwartz is that he managed to create shows that are eternally irrelevant, and therefore eternally relevant.

2. I'm not the first person to notice that Eve Plumb stumbles over her line before the famous "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" line ("All I hear at school all day long is how m... great Marcia is"). I'm always kind of glad when things like that get left in. Today, even shows that pride themselves on being semi-improvisational will not use takes where somebody is on the verge of forgetting or missing a line, but I think that as long as the actor recovers and doesn't make a full-fledged mistake, those little moments of hesitation can make a scene work better.

'90s NostalgiaPalooza!

Oh, man. "Weird Science," the TV series, comes to DVD on January 1. Fortunately it's the first two seasons (13 episodes each) together -- fortunately, because the second season was better than the first.

I've written before about why I liked the "Weird Science" show. It had a better cast than the movie, and almost everybody who wrote for it now has a job on Desperate Housewives or The Office or something like that. But most importantly, this was one of my favorite guilty-pleasure shows of the '90s and I hereby make a New Year's resolution to buy this thing. I hope it sells well enough to bring out the third season, which was the best; the fourth season, which was uneven, and the final season, which was... kind of bad.

Best line from any of the 26 episodes included in this set:

(Gary and Wyatt need to think of a plan to save themselves from their evil clones made from bubble gum.)

GARY: I've got it! Let's do that thing we did to that guy that time.
WYATT: Good plan!

(They run off together and save the day.)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

BACHELOR FLAT (1962), John Williams, and So On

I recently obtained a widescreen copy of Frank Tashlin's Bachelor Flat (1962) with Terry-Thomas and Tuesday Weld. It's not on DVD and it was never on laserdisc or VHS, but apparently the Fox Movie Channel showed a widescreen print one time (I think they've reverted to showing it in fullscreen, though).

Andrew Sarris called this Tashlin's best movie, but I think it has too many flaws to live up to that billing. Tashlin complained about being forced to use Richard Beymer for an important part and about the fact that the movie was cut down too much before the release, and you can definitely see where the cuts were made (Celeste Holm's part almost disappears from the movie because her scenes all end abruptly). Tashlin turns in some weaker-than-usual gags and and borrows very heavily from other movies like his own Susan Slept Here (Tuesday Weld's juvenile-delinquent act is all borrowed from Debbie Reynolds in the earlier movie) and Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (there's an extended gag about a dog burying a dinosaur bone).

All that said, I was very glad to get a copy because a) I loved this movie when I saw it as a kid, and b) It's the last truly "Tashlinesque" Tashlin movie, the one that really feels like only he could have made it. All his other subsequent movies were either Jerry Lewis vehicles (which, since Lewis produced them, are as much his movies as Tashlin's) or work-for-hire projects for aging stars (Bob Hope, Doris Day, Danny Kaye). Bachelor Flat is a real Tashlin movie right down to the crazy fade-outs -- here and in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, Tashlin always has the screen fade to blue or green or red instead of fading to black. And he has Tuesday Weld and Terry-Thomas, both of whom make up for Richard Beymer's miscasting. You can tick off the Tashlin elements: the bad-taste risqué jokes involving a teenage girl (Weld), the cartoony chases, the sympathetic middle-aged woman (Holm), the gag about how bad old movies look when they're shown on TV (Beymer tunes in to watch a black-and-white movie, and the screen immediately distorts).

It also is the last Tashlin movie to have one main satiric theme running through it, the way all his best movies do. Here it was, in Tashlin's words, about "The difference between us and our British cousins." The Terry-Thomas character, a prudish, reserved British professor teaching in California, unexpectedly finds himself treated as a sex symbol by women because they find his British reserve and good manners and sartorial good taste (the running gag of the film is that he constantly carries an umbrella around, even though he's in California) irresistible. The Beymer character admits that no girls are interested in him; they only want Terry-Thomas -- and the joke is that you can kind of see how this would be true, because while Beymer's character is younger and more conventionally handsome, he's also kind of a clod. Terry-Thomas for his part is just put off by American aggressiveness, and finally is convinced by Beymer that the only way to turn off American women is to become an aggressive, lecherous drunk -- that is, a typical American. It's very much of its time, of course: even two years later, post-Beatles, you couldn't have made a movie about inhibited England vs. vulgar America.

The other thing I noticed about the film was the musical score, by the young John Williams (or "Johnny" Williams as he was billed at the time). The score is described in more detail at this John Williams fan website, but it's quite an impressive score, especially for a comedy. As Terry Teachout has pointed out, comedies don't usually have particularly good scores. For many years they barely had scores at all (most sound comedies in the '30s and '40s just didn't use music except in sentimental or action scenes). And big-name composers would hardly ever work on them; at Fox, Alfred Newman almost never did comedies, and neither did his friend Bernard Herrmann; Newman usually handed comedy scores to Cyril Mockridge, who cobbled together scores based on familiar public-domain tunes. John Williams in the '60s was one of the few composers who really specialized in comedy, and his scores for movies like this or Guide For the Married Man were a lot funnier and more imaginative than most; in fact, I like his early comedy music better than most of his bombastic post-Star Wars scores.

Here's a dialogue-free scene from Bachelor Flat which is carried by Williams' music, and also contains some Hitchcockian angles (a reminder that Tashlin always wanted to do a serious thriller, but he could never put such a project together).

This next scene doesn't have any music except for what Williams referred to in "chords for cuts to brassieres," but it features one of the most Tashlinesque shots ever: a woman on a vibrator/reducing machine eating a huge piece of chocolate cake, all the contradictory American obsessions (they're health nuts and junk food addicts) rolled into one. The woman, Francesca Bellini, was an ex-dancer who was also used around this time by Jerry Lewis in The Ladies Man and by Lewis and Tashlin in Who's Minding the Store? I don't know if they had bigger plans for her, but anyway she wasn't heard from again after a few TV guest shots.

And Williams also came up with some funny music for the dog burying the dinosaur bone -- which, as you can see, is a little bigger than in Bringing Up Baby. The shot of the dog pushing the bone across the beach was, Tashlin said, his parody of CinemaScope. Specifically, early CinemaScope movies had a lot of gimmicks to fill the entire wide screen, and this scene is just a slight exaggeration of some of the stuff that "serious" 'Scope movies used to do.

1954 Article on Looney Tunes Composer Milt Franklyn

Another old article I came across on Newspaperarchive.com was from the Long Beach Press-Telegram, August 15, 1954, about Warner Brothers cartoons composer/orchestrator Milt Franklyn, who was a Long Beach resident at this time. It's not much of an article -- too few direct quotes from Franklyn, and it doesn't mention that he'd only just been promoted to full-fledged composer a year before this article was written (he was Carl Stalling's orchestrator before that). But still, it's one of the few articles ever written about a WB cartoon guy when the studio was still open.


Long Beach Press-Telegram, Sunday, August 15, 1954

Daffy Duck Dances to His Music
By Vera Williams

You know Bugs Bunny, who asks, "What's up, Doc?"

You know Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Sylvester the cat, Tweety the bird, Pepe LePew the skunk that speaks with a French accent, and Elmer Fudd, who can't pronounce his "r"'s?

You know the background music for their antics -- imitative, interpretive music that now is lilting, now is mournful, and that sounds like a worm is crawling when a worm IS crawling?

Milton J. Franklyn, 5340 El Prado, Park Estates, who with his wife Charlotte moved to Long Beach last November from Lido Isle, writes that music. He not only composes it but he orchestrates it.

Franklyn, musical director of Warner Bros., now is on his 19th year with Warner Bros. and his 599th cartoon. He'll be doing his 600th cartoon, he thinks, by September.

Currently, Franklyn is working on "Past Perfumance," which as you may guess is about the little skunk. Before that was a U.S. Air Force film, "A Hitch in Time." Just before that was "Stork Naked" and "Baby Buggy Bunny" and before that was "Lighthouse Mouse." Incidentally, he recently wrote the music for the Sloan Foundation film, "By Word of Mouse," about a foreign mouse that comes to the United States and learns about big stores and automobiles owned even by the workers and freedom to vote. The background music, he says, "sounds something like Austria... or Germany... or Sweden."

Franklyn has a piano in his study and an organ in the living room of his home. Unlike many composers, he does not "finger out" his melodies on the piano and then write them. He "thinks" his melodies before he goes to sleep. The next morning, early -- 5 a.m. -- he gets up to write them down. Later he plays them to see how they sound.

In filming cartoons, he explains, 16 drawings are needed for every foot of film and the average cartoon short is 500 or 600 feet long. The drawings then are colored and the proper backgrounds made. When the picture is finished, the music is set to the picture.

Franklyn does all of his work at home, going to the studio only to see the finished picture, or to watch the 30-piece orchestra record his music.

Starting his musical career early, he was leader of the University of California band at Berkeley and played in a San Francisco supper club. For eight years he was master of ceremonies and musical director for Fox, Loew's and Paramount-Publix theaters.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Cisco Kid

Thanks to a collector for exhuming the rarest of all SCTV episodes: "The Cisco Kid." This wasn't actually made for SCTV, but was incorporated into the show in the third season when they were strapped for material and cast members (that was the year of Robin Duke and Tony Rosato, when most of the original cast was off trying to make it in Los Angeles). It was a long, elaborate exercise in re-dubbing a low-budget movie, a la What's Up Tiger Lily; three Second City members took a "Cisco Kid" Western and dubbed in new voices. It comes off a lot like MST3K.

The segment was created and voiced by Martin Short (Pancho) Steven Kampmann (Bart, Dwayne Muncey, Patty) and Peter Torokvei (Cisco). It's said that the three used this piece as their calling card when they, too, went to L.A. to get jobs; Kampmann and Torokvei went to work on "WKRP" (where they recycled a line from this short and gave it to Herb: "I make money, you make money and no one knows the difference") and Short got the lead on James L. Brooks' The Associates, though he came back to Canada to work on SCTV full-time after that show flopped.

The segment may be too long for the joke, but it's still worth posting here if only because it's never been included in any SCTV syndication package.

Part 1

Part 2

Why Didn't They Ask Bateman?

When they do DVD features for a TV show, the question is always which of the cast members will show up for the making-of talking-head featurettes? And which ones won't be interviewed? The point of this, of course, is to speculate on why those particular people refused to be interviewed. (Reasons include: they were out of the country or on location when the features were made; they're tired of being typecast and don't want to re-associate themselves with the show; they just don't like it any more.)

On Family Ties season 2, there are two regulars who aren't interviewed (Brian Bonsall isn't there either but he doesn't count because he wasn't on the show yet): Justine Bateman and Meredith Baxter.

Whether this means that Meredith Baxter really was pissed over not being the star of the show, I don't know. But it would be wrong not to speculate.

The people who were interviewed for the DVD set, by the way, are Gary David Goldberg, Michael J. Fox, Michael Gross, Tina Yothers and Marc "Don't Call Me Skippy" Price. And yes, there is music editing, but neither I nor the Sitcoms Online reviewer are quite certain where. In the episode where Alex has an older girlfriend, the music they dance to sounds fake and isn't in proper balance with the dialogue, so I would guess that's a substitution right there.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Bugs Bunny's Nonexistent 20th Anniversary

I'm always interested in finding old articles about the Warner Brothers cartoon studio -- there weren't many, at least not until after it was closed down, so finding one is a rare treat, even if it's not a particularly good article.

In researching something else, I came across this article from March 31, 1956. It's by Aline Mosby of the United Press (now known as United Press International or UPI) and it's about the 20th anniversary of Bugs Bunny. Except, of course, that it wasn't the 20th anniversary of Bugs Bunny; even if you define "Porky's Hare Hunt" as his debut, that only takes you back to 1938. 1956 was sort of the Warner studio's unofficial 20th anniversary of making really great cartoons, since 1936 was a key year in that respect, but it wasn't Bugs Bunny's birthday. Oh, well.

WB cartoon producer Eddie Selzer provides the interview quotes for the article; his reference to Anna Magnani is based on the fact that she'd won the Academy Award the week before (where the WB cartoon studio had picked up its first Oscar in several years, for "Speedy Gonzales").

The only bit of information that's semi-new is Selzer's comment that they were reluctant to do a Bugs Bunny TV show because of the fear that it might make him over-exposed and dilute his popularity. (A few years later, of course, Warners did do a Bugs Bunny Show, but theatrical cartoons were collapsing by then and it wasn't feasible to have a character do only theatricals.) The article mentions that Bugs was a licensing and marketing bonanza for Warners, but you knew that.

I think this may be the first article to mention the much-repeated story that Mel Blanc was allergic to, or at least hated, carrots. Blanc denied that he was allergic to carrots, though he did repeat the story that he had to spit them out. I wouldn't be surprised if Selzer invented the allergy part or at least threw it in to embellish the story; Selzer started out as Warners' director of publicity (where he was extremely well-liked; Louella Parsons called him "one of the most popular publicity directors in town"), and making up little soundbite stories about actors was pretty much what publicity guys did.


United Press Hollywood Writer

HOLLYWOOD (UP) -- One veteran star has buck teeth, wears no clothes, is sassy and has a whining Brooklyn accent -- but today he celebrates his 20th anniversary as the boxoffice champ of Hollywood.

Bugs Bunny has been Warner Studio's top money-maker and the head of Hollywood's boxoffice poll for 20 years. No other actor can make that statement.

Unfortunately, Bugs, like Doris Day and Susan Hayward, never has won an Oscar. But his creators sigh that many a top ticket-seller never makes the artistic grade.

On Bugs' 20th birthday and 20th anniversary in pictures I dropped in at his home, the Warner cartoon department where Bugs is spoken about as if he were a two-footed veteran such as Spencer Tracy. The busy bunny shows no sign of dropping in popularity.

"We've just licensed Bugs Bunny carrot juice, carrots and waffle and gelatin molds in the shape of the rabbit," beamed Edward Selzer, chief producer of the cartoon department who is a pixie type himself.

"Bugs gets many offers to appear on TV. But if a star is on TV all the time, people get tired of him."

The racy rabbit started his film career as an extra in a cartoon, "Harem Scarem [sic]." Two years later the studio decided to star him in "Heckling Hare." Bugs was a smash.

Marilyn Monroe has changed in appearance since her first film. So has Bugs. His legs and body are longer and he's switched from tawny fur to blue-gray fur. But his personality remains the same.

"Bugs is sassy and happy-go-lucky," explained Selzer. "When we develop a story for him we select it with as much criticism and care as if he were Anna Magnani. We won't put him out of character."

Bugs appears in cartoon books and as the insignia for countless branches of the armed forces. During World War II he actually was transferred from one Marine outfit to the other -- complete with documents in triplicate. His service record with the Marines is still on file.

Bugs has starred in 146 movies, including this year's "Napoleon Bunny-Parte," and "[Roman] Legion-Hare." He appeared twice in live movies. Always the lop-eared star has the voice of Mel Blanc.

"Blanc," insists producer Selzer, "actually is allergic to carrots. So we leave his carrot munching line of 'What's up, Doc?' to the end when we record the sound. Mel tried celery and apples but nothing sounds like a carrot. Funny, but Blanc just can't stand carrots."

Monday, October 01, 2007

A Character Named "Character"

TCM showed Anatole Litvak's Blues in the Night the other day. I love this movie, which is a strange mish-mosh of every possible genre: the backstage jazz-band musical, the gangster drama, the social-problem picture, and elements of what would later become known as film noir. The songs are by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, including the title song, which could well be the best song ever written for a movie. The handling of what was obviously a low budget (even by Warner Brothers standards) is very clever -- the budget probably explains some of the noir-ish setups and shadows, and Don Siegel creates some great, kinetic montages that manufacture big scenes out of fast cutting, close-ups and disguised stock footage.

Unfortunately a DVD is unlikely because it has no big stars; it used mid-level WB contractees like Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, Betty Field, Richard Whorf (later the director of The Beverly Hillbillies) and some actor named Elia Kazan.

The one thing I wish is that the songs had gotten more expansive treatment; the first performance of the title song deserves more than a minute and a half, though the way it's done is really interesting: it starts out sung a capella (this isn't a full-fledged musical, so people mostly sing in a realistic way) and the orchestra and chorus only enter when Don Siegel's fantasy montage come in. (This version edits out a little bit of dialogue in the middle of the song.)

And another song with a great Mercer lyric, full of '40s slang -- Mercer was one of the few great lyricists who really made an effort to keep up with developing trends in slang -- and preceded by another Siegel montage: