Monday, December 31, 2007

The Drapes of Wrath

I did not make up that joke about Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb (1955), which I watched on TCM last night and whose entire plot revolves around a set of drapes for a library at a booby hatch mental hospital. The joke comes from this review by clydefro at Film Journal, who says most of what needs to be said about this film, namely that it is a "trashy mess" with a great cast and a plot that makes no sense at all. Or as the film's producer, John Houseman, put it in his reserved way: "something contrived about the plot ... The emotional turmoil aroused by the hanging of a set of new drapes in the main living-room of the institution was never entirely credible nor dramatically viable."

The film also has a number of scenes that end abruptly, suggesting that it was probably cut down some before its release. If MGM cut it down, I can't blame them, since it runs over two hours as it is, but it might explain why the story (such as it is) is hard to follow.

In some ways I think the coming of CinemaScope wrecked Vincente Minnelli's career. Starting in 1954 all his movies were made in the 'Scope format (except for his remarkably bad last film, A Matter of Time). Minnelli was always a director who liked long takes; he said he was influenced by Max Ophuls, who believed that it was more interesting for the camera to move from one composition to another within a shot instead of cutting between compositions. Minnelli's pre-1954 movies are famous for their long takes, dazzling camera moves and heightened emotion, whether in musicals or melodramas. But when widescreen came in, camera movements became more cumbersome for a while (not so much because of the camera itself, as because it took a while for directors and cinematographers to figure out how to move between one 'Scope composition and another), and there was a pervasive idea that 'Scope movies should be filmed in long takes with minimal cutting and minimal camera movement. This wasn't just out of convenience; if you look at film-theory essays from the '50s, there was a strongly-held belief that it was aesthetically right to shoot a 'Scope film this way, that the format demanded that viewers be allowed to decide for themselves what they wanted to look at.

The result is that most of Minnelli's post-1954 movies have some great long takes and beautiful compositions, but a lot of static scenes where characters sit talking in the centre of the frame, with maybe one cumbersome camera movement at the very end of the shot. With some exceptions (like some of the big scenes from Some Came Running) his movies don't have a lot of energy or tension; they're slack and slow. This may be a partial explanation for why The Bad and the Beautiful, which he'd done with Houseman only three years before, feels so fast and brilliant and the melodrama of The Cobweb is kind of boring by comparison, despite the great cast. (The other part of the explanation is that The Bad and the Beautiful had a script that didn't suck.) His post-1954 musicals, including Gigi, are also a little low on energy.

The Cobweb is also known for having the first Hollywood score to make substantial use of Schoenberg's twelve-tone system; Leonard Rosenman, who'd studied with Schoenberg, was the hot young composer in Hollywood for 1955 only (when he did the two James Dean vehicles and this picture). Houseman hired him over the objections of MGM's music department and gave him free rein to write any kind of score he wanted, so he decided to write music that would elevate the story by portraying what was going on in the characters' minds -- which is to say, they're nuts. He unwittingly helped create the longstanding Hollywood rule where atonality is associated with madness; Jerry Goldsmith later used some twelve-tone procedures when he scored a movie about Sigmund Freud. I don't know that Rosenman's music actually helps the movie very much, not because of the Schoenbergian techniques but just because the actual material isn't very interesting and seems to call attention to itself rather than the movie. It certainly doesn't compare to David Raksin's score for The Bad and the Beautiful or Minnelli/Houseman's later over-the-top melodrama, Two Weeks in Another Town. To be honest, I've never heard a score by Rosenman that I really liked.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

WKRP Episode: "For Love Or Money"

After the debacle that was the season 1 set, it doesn't seem likely that Fox will release the other seasons of WKRP in Cincinnati any time soon. The first season sold well, but I've heard that Fox is still reluctant to spend actual money on music and doesn't want to deal with the flak they (quite rightly) received for cutting out entire scenes in the first season set. And of course in seasons 2-4, music was often heavily intertwined with dialogue; since there are no separate music and dialogue tracks, the choice would be between approving a decent music budget or cutting several minutes from many episodes. Until something changes -- like for instance Fox's current unwillingness to let an independent company have a crack at their catalogue properties -- the show is more or less lost.

And, wouldn't you know it, Fox has taken to pulling WKRP clips off YouTube and other sites (apparently they put the hacked-up season 1 DVD prints on and don't want the original versions competing with them). So any WKRP episode that goes online won't stay up for long.

With all that in mind, I want to at least dig out a few WKRP episodes from my own collection and present them more or less the way they originally aired. So once in a while -- I don't know how frequently -- I'll upload a WKRP episode complete and with the original music, and display it for as long as it's allowed to stay up.

I don't have all the episodes complete, and if anyone is reading this who has any episodes taped off CBS broadcasts (or off the CBC, which apparently showed this series uncut in the early '90s for a brief period), please contact me and maybe we can work out a trade. But I do have some episodes and in the absence of any other complete versions I might as well present them here, with some comments.


The one I'm starting with is the season 2 opener, a two-parter called "For Love Or Money." The script is credited to Mary Maguire, who was one of Hugh Wilson's two secretaries in the first season (his other secretary, Lissa Levin, became a staff writer on WKRP and a writer for Cheers and other shows). But a lot of it was apparently written by the staff at the last minute, because this episode was not actually planned as a two-parter.

According to the book America's Favorite Radio Station, it was written as a one-parter and got as far as the table read, or maybe even rehearsals, as a one-parter. But playing opposite Howard Hesseman was one of his colleagues from the comedy troupe The Committee, Julie Payne. (Committee-ites like Hesseman, Hamilton Camp, Peter Bonerz and Mel Stuart were all over TV sitcoms in the '70s; they were to '70s TV what SNL was to '80s movies.) The two started improvising a lot, and extending their scenes together longer than they'd been written. At some point it was suggested that instead of cutting down the scenes, the writers should let the scenes run long, write additional material and additional scenes, and make it a two-parter.

What that produced is an episode with an unusual feel for a two-part story. Most two-parters have bigger stories than a regular episode. This one really doesn't; it doesn't even have a B story. It's just a regular story -- Johnny forgets his date with Bailey and goes for what he thinks is a hot date with his ex-girlfriend, who announces that she wants to sue him for part of his earnings -- expanded to double length because every scene runs a little longer than it normally would. The first act of part 1 is mostly just a series of showcase scenes for the characters who are not involved in the plot (Herb, Les, Jennifer), and they're very leisurely character pieces; they have a little bit of relevance to the plot, but in a half-hour episode you'd just get the part that's relevant, whereas here you get extra stuff. It feels a bit like one of the super-sized episode of The Office in that it's a normal story but they can slow down and let the scenes have room to breathe.

It also has two memorable musical sequences. The opening features "Bad Case of Loving You" by Robert Palmer (a song that is sometimes called "Doctor, Doctor") and two scenes (really one scene divided between two parts) with "After the Love Has Gone" by Earth, Wind and Fire. Also a bit of "Rise" by Herb Alpert when Venus is on the air at the beginning of Act 2.

This is in four parts, two parts for each half-hour episode. (DailyMotion's 15 minute upper limit allows most episodes to be uploaded with clean breaks between acts, so the clip breaks are where commercial breaks would originally have been.) The copy is a composite, the version broadcast on the Comedy Network in Canada combined with the original music at the beginning.

Part 1, Cold Open and Act 1:

Part 1, Act 2:

Part 2, Recap and Act 1:

Part 2, conclusion:

Friday, December 28, 2007


Todd VanDerWerff at South Dakota Dark has finished up his epic series on the 100 best American TV series of all time (plus "sidebar" posts on shows that didn't quite make the list or overrated shows or one-season wonders). It's a big damned thing, a great overview of television and pop-culture history and the role each of these shows played in shaping TV history.

I don't want to argue with Todd about what should or shouldn't be on the list because a) It's his list, b) Most of us will agree with most of the choices. I will add to his statement that "TV is the easiest art form to overrate" that TV is also the medium where the evaluation of a show can change the fastest and the most radically. A book or a movie is a product of its time, and when you look back on it 20 years later, you can see it in the context of its time. But TV shows date almost instantly; a show from 2001 looks, feels and plays differently from a show that was made five years later. TV has to be produced so fast that it depends heavily on the basic production process that's in place -- the process of how things are made, how much money can be spent on certain things, how things get produced -- and as soon as the process changes, TV changes.

A movie, which has more money and time at its disposal, can sort of create its own unique process: Star Wars or 2001 were made differently from any other movie of their respective years, but a sci-fi television series has to use more or less the same production process as any other show. Which means that while Battlestar Galactica is a great show and will undoubtedly hold up, its methods of production will still date very quickly. Twenty years from now people will look at it and clearly see, or at least feel, that it's a product of a time when shows were produced in a certain way, shot in Vancouver instead of wherever shows are being filmed twenty years from now, and used certain kinds of shots and special effects techniques.

What all that means is that more than in any other medium, when you evaluate a TV series you're evaluating two separate things: how it played at the time, and how it plays now. Both are important, and Todd takes both into account ("how it played at the time" shapes the "influence" portion of his evaluations). But the two can be incredibly different; watching an hour-long drama now, whenever "now" is, and then watching it two decades later is like watching two shows. Not just because times change but because context changes; on the original broadcasts you have all kinds of promos and surrounding publicity and chatter that helps shape the way you look at the show. Someday soon we'll return to some of the recent greats -- the Deadwoods, the Sopranoses -- and be shocked to see how different they feel. But the fun of television is in part in the fact that it dates so suddenly and so unexpectedly. The question we ask in revisiting any show is "does it hold up?" which not only means "is it too dated to be entertaining?" but also "how has the passage of time changed the experience?" Sometimes time enhances the experience by revealing things that no one could have been aware of at the time. Sometimes it just makes you aware of the bad special effects and voice-overs that you didn't notice in 1983 or whenever. But that's what makes it interesting, that you don't know what you're going to get. With a book, you can find new things on re-reading. But with a TV show, even a short amount of time can make it different than it was; you're not just finding new things but experiencing a different show, because a 1997 show watched in its original broadcast is not the same as a 1997 show being watched in 2007.

Also, I didn't have time to go through it title-by-title, but it sure seems that a lot of the shows on the top 100 list were snubbed at the Emmys -- especially the dramas, where the "best drama" category has been famously erratic (though The Rockford Files did manage to pull off a surprise win one year).

Thursday, December 27, 2007


'Tis the season for re-posts, so here's a 2004 "obscure musicals" post about the musical version of What Makes Sammy Run? To add something the original post didn't have, I've uploaded some of the songs from the cast album, which has never been commercially available on CD, at least not in stereo. The song clips can be found by scrolling down to around the middle of the post.

In 2006, there was a revised version of the show produced and directed by Robert Armin, with some new songs by Drake and some editing of the script. There's more information about that production at the official What Makes Sammy Run? site, and the script of the revised version is available here as a PDF. I don't get the impression that it solves the problems that are inherent in the material, and most of the weaker songs are still there and still weak. But I haven't seen the production, which I gather was attempting to be more true to the book than Abe Burrows' glitzy Broadway production.


This show, which opened on Broadway in 1964 and ran over 500 performances (but lost money), already has an excellent background article available online. Read this article, part of the terrific What Makes Sammy Run? website, devoted to all the incarnations of Budd Schulberg's on-the-make, hustling anti-hero. The article tells most of what needs to be told about this show; I just want to mention a few other things.

First, What Makes Sammy Run? was one of several shows that followed in the wake of the success of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. With the smash success and Pulizer Prize victory of a musical comedy about an amoral schemer clawing his way to the top, other producers thought it was time to adapt various older stories about, well, amoral schemers clawing their way to the top. David Merrick produced I Can Get it For You Wholesale, adapted by Jerome Weidman from his own novel; this was a fine show (which I'll write about some other time) mostly remembered today for introducing Barbra Streisand. And producer Joe Cates unveiled What Makes Sammy Run? adapted by Budd Schulberg from his own novel (he co-wrote the script with his brother Stuart). The problem with these shows, as compared to How to Succeed, is that that show was a cartoon, a spoof; Wholesale and Sammy were adapted from more serious stories and dealt with characters who really hurt other people in their rise to the top. Lehman Engel, the conductor for What Makes Sammy Run, wrote about how unpleasant it was to follow Sammy's adventures for an entire evening:

Sammy Glick goes after everything with hammer and tongs, and the sight we see is neither pretty, unexpected, nor entertaining, and nothing is added to whet our interest along the way. He is an unstoppable steamroller. Then, too, What Makes Sammy Run? is thin for the stage... There was no attempt made to remedy this by creation of a real subplot, and so we were stuck for a full evening with people we didn't care about and a far too familiar situation.

I think that's about right; and I don't usually agree with Engel's evaluations of shows (but that's another story). Schulberg's novel is very effective and Sammy is a character who continues to fascinate and infuriate people -- but the story of the novel doesn't have all that much to it; it's basically Sammy knocking down one person after another to get to the top, until he finally meets one person (Laurette, the boss's daughter) who knocks him down, and he gets his comeuppance but good. There's not an evening's worth of story in there, nor in Schulberg's observations about Hollywood, which were sort of worn out by 1964. And one of the themes of the novel -- that Sammy's rise to power is a metaphor for the rise of fascism -- is inexplicably retained in the musical (Al explicitly compares Sammy to Hitler, and Sammy even-handedly replies that Hitler stole from his playbook); if it was slightly offensive in 1941 to compare a Hollywood con artist to Hitler, in 1964 it's not so much offensive as boring and silly.

There might have been more of a story if Schulberg could have turned the good guy, Al Manheim, into a sufficiently interesting character, a guy we could cheer for while recoiling from Sammy; but Al is even more of a nothing in the show than in the book; like many observer-narrators in novels (think Nick in The Great Gatsby) he seems pointless when the story is adapted to a medium that doesn't require a narrator. Speaking of which, you can see signs of the amount of hasty rewriting the show underwent in the fact that Al starts out narrating the show, as he did the book, only to drop the device partway through the first act (the show briefly returns to this device at the beginning of act 2, then drops it again).

The choice for Sammy Glick was Steve Lawrence. Yes, of Steve and Eydie infamy. But whatever you think of their wholesome lounge-lizard act, you've got to admit that both were and are extremely talented entertainers. In fact they were exactly the kind of performers for whom, in Broadway days gone by many stage and film musicals would have been written. But this was the '60s, and the age of the star vehicle was already nearly over; Lawrence would only do one more musical after Sammy -- Golden Rainbow, co-starring with Eydie Gorme. It was his effectiveness as a performer that kept Sammy running for as long as it did.

The rest of the cast was equally good: Robert Alda (the original Sky Masterson of Guys and Dolls) as Al Manheim; Sally Ann Howes as Kit, the designated love interest, and Bernice Massi as Laurette; she was generally agreed to be the best thing in the show, apart from Lawrence (in part because the bitchy Laurette gets most of the best lines in the script).

The website states that Ervin Drake's score "contained some of the best theatre music of the period," which is overstating things rather a lot. Drake was a pretty good pop songwriter, one of the last of the successful non-rock pop songwriters. His most famous credit is the Frank Sinatra song "It Was a Very Good Year." His score for Sammy definitely sounds like the work of a pop writer making his first try at theatre writing. The songs are all integrated into the action and appropriate for the characters, but the sound is not that of the period in which the show is set, nor of '60s Broadway, but of early-'60s, Vegas, TV-special pop music. "A Room Without Windows," which became a hit for Lawrence, is a generic pop song about Getting Away From It All, dressed up in an orchestral arrangement that features all the standard lounge-act sounds, including a flute obbligato to pep up the second refrain. [Note: Yes, Lawrence keeps popping from one speaker to another in the introductory section. That's not a mistake; that's a clumsy early '60s stereo-demonstration effect.]

"The Friendliest Thing," which Laurette sings while seducing Sammy and which has become the show's most enduringly popular song, is a great example of the easygoing, wholesomely sleazy ballad, ambling along to a melody built almost entirely out of a single phrase. These songs are good, but they don't sound like theatre pieces; they sound like specialty spots.

"My Home Town," Lawrence's other hit song, is a nice example of how a pop song can work in and out of context; out of context, it's just a charming song about how the singer feels at home in a city he's just moved to; in context, it features Sammy turning on the charm (to impress a character he will use and eventually destroy) while obliquely making the point that Hollywood is the true "home town" for creeps like Sammy.

This is good theatre songwriting, one of the last essays in the great Broadway tradition of fusing theatre and pop into one; so is the final song, which all the critics called attention to, "Some Days Everything Goes Wrong," where Sammy proclaims his determination to keep on running; so is the duet for Sammy and Laurette, "You're No Good," a sort of Satanic bossa nova. Alda also got a good ballad, "Maybe Some Other Time."

But mixed in with the good stuff are too many duds. Some of these may have arisen from the necessity to write for Steve Lawrence's specialties; "Lights! Camera! Platitude!" is an overlong and lame and not even very accurate sendup of Hollywood cliches, but it gave Lawrence (and Howes and Alda) a chance to do some clowning around.

But there are other songs that fit in with the plot and the proposed dark tone of the show, and are just bad. Someone once selected "You Help Me" as the worst lyric in Broadway history; it isn't, but it's definitely stupid, an attempt to write a Cole Porter list song without caring whether the list makes any sense (this is sung by Al, sarcastically responding to Sammy's statement that he was trying to "help"):

Uh... yeah. All of Kit's solos are pretty dull too, with equally clumsy lyrics ("I'm your only raison d'etre / To love and honor, et cet'ra"). With only half a good score and only half a story, it's no wonder that Abe Burrows, called in to direct (and punch up the book) felt a need to distract the audience with jokes and staging tricks -- one of the good songs, "I Feel Humble," climaxes with the entire stage being plunged into darkness, followed by a spotlight picking out Sammy, who completes the number. Without Burrows, and Lawrence, I don't think this show would have run a few months, let alone a year.

Drake wrote one other show, Her First Roman, a disastrous musical adaptation of Caesar and Cleopatra (proving yet again that adapting Shaw into a musical can work once and only once). The score was another mixture of the good and awful, but the good stuff wasn't as good as in Sammy. The cast album of Sammy was recorded by Columbia, but Lawrence owns the rights; unfortunately, he somehow lost the stereo tapes, with the result that his website offers the cast album only in mono. If you can find a used stereo LP for a decent price, it's worth a listen, for the good parts.

You're Coming Back a Star... Or Not a Star... But One Way Or Another You're Coming Back.

I couldn't make it through more than a few minutes of the Canadian broadcast of Scott Baio is 45 and Single or Scott Baio is Ripping Off Entourage and calling it a Reality Show or whatever it's called. But it did remind me that Scott Baio, while by no means the worst actor in the world (or even the worst actor on any show he's ever been on), was extremely lucky to be the object of a showrunner's failed attempt at star-making. What I'm talking about is when a TV showrunner or a movie director becomes so taken with a particular actor that he tries over and over again to make that actor a star.

That's what happened with Garry Marshall and Scott Baio. The chronology is as follows: Garry Marshall saw Scott Baio in Bugsy Malone and thought he had star quality, so he put Baio in a new show called Blansky's Beauties. (This was a 1977 midseason replacement that was sort of a clearing-house for every actor that Marshall liked: the cast included Baio, Lynda Goodfriend, Pat Morita -- playing "Arnold" again -- and Eddie Mekka, who temporarily left Laverne and Shirley to play virtually the same character on this show.) The show deservedly bombed, so Marshall immediately added Baio to the cast of Happy Days for the new season. In 1978, Marshall transferred Baio to another new show, Who's Watching the Kids? But that show didn't take either, so Marshall brought Baio right back to Happy Days. When Ron Howard left, Baio's part got built up, and then he got his own spinoff, the infamous Joanie Loves Chachi. That bombed too, and Baio was back to Happy Days for one last season. That's seven-plus years of Garry Marshall trying to make Scott Baio a star and shoving him onto Happy Days to make sure he'd be employed once these other shows kept failing.

Why Scott Baio? Who knows? You can just as easily ask Alfred Hitchcock "Why Tippi Hedren?" or Howard Hawks "Dewey Martin?" The point is that when a powerful director or producer decides that someone is going to be a superstar, he may keep using that actor over and over again even though it's pretty clear that he or she is not going to be a big star.

Garry Marshall also had a bewildering tendency to use the nondescript Lynda Goodfriend over and over; she was on Blansky's Beauties and Who's Watching the Kids too, and she followed Scott Baio's trajectory for a while, shuttling back and forth between Happy Days and new failed Garry Marshall shows.

Sometimes the producer's faith in an actor turns out to be well-founded, though. Aaron Spelling added Heather Locklear to at least three shows in mid-run -- Dynasty, T.J. Hooker and Melrose Place -- and in each case, more Locklear equalled more ratings.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Buck Rogers Meets Duck Dodgers

I am not the first person to do this, but I took the obvious step of combining the Buck Rogers TV series with "Duck Dodgers" and this is what I got:

An earlier, similar mashup (which I didn't know about before I came up with this one, I swear) can be found here.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Song I Like

I keep thinking I should write an "Obscure Musicals" post on the 1957 show Jamaica, which was a hit, and produced one of my favorite cast albums of all time, even though the show itself is basically unrevivable. But I concluded that I'd already written enough about it in this post on Harold Arlen's Broadway musicals. Short version is, Arlen and Yip Harburg wrote the show for Harry Belafonte; he wasn't available but Lena Horne was, so the show was completely re-tooled to focus on the hero's girlfriend. The final product that reached Broadway was a complete mess with a book that made no sense (due to the constant rewriting), but succeeded anyway because of Horne, Ricardo Montalban, the songs, and Jack Cole's choreography.

It was also apparently a pioneer in the practice of using microphones in theatres. The orchestra pit included several saxophones, and Horne, who never had a particularly big voice, couldn't be heard over the multiple saxes. So she was given a body mike to allow her to be heard without reducing the orchestration. (It wasn't the first body mike, though: Mary Martin used a mike in Peter Pan so she could be heard clearly when she was flying around the stage. It was, most likely, the first time amplification was used to allow the singer to be heard over the orchestra while standing still.)

Anyway, the best song in Jamaica is "I Don't Think I'll End It All Today," one of my favorite songs ever: Arlen's insanely catchy tune combined with Yip Harburg's just-plain-insane lyric -- a grotesque catalogue of violent death that nonetheless carries an upbeat and optimistic message -- makes for the most unique "charm song" ever written. And it's a reminder of the biggest reason why Harburg is my favorite lyricist: his insistent on using specific, tangible images instead of vague ones. Not only is he specific about methods of death that the singers won't use, but he's specific about the reasons why life is worth living. It's a lyric with lots and lots of nouns and verbs, few adjectives.

Here it is, from the original Broadway cast led by Horne and Montalban and conducted by Lehman Engel:

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Get the Munchies

Sony or Amazon or somebody is calling for fan voting on the cover art of Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen.

I voted, as did most users, for the third cover. Not that it looks that great, but my rule of thumb with covers is that the less you see of the actual actors, the better the cover is. (Reproductions of old posters, where they used drawings of the actors, are fine. But photoshop in a close-up of the real actor and it just looks cheesy.)

Speaking Of Stephen Sondheim...

I'm surprised that the song "Everybody Wants to Be Sondheim" by Alan Chapman hasn't become better-known; it's been recorded by Amanda McBroom, Bruce Kimmel (under his recording alias of "Guy Haines") and Chapman himself, but I don't think it's all that frequently done outside of New York cabaret. Which is a shame because it's one of the few really good parodies of Sondheim and Sondheim-firsters. Actually it's not so much a parody as a song about musical theatre that incorporates moments of parody -- mostly Sondheim's infamous quirk of repeating one chord over and over (like someone who heard part of The Rite of Spring and thought all songs should sound like that), as recognizable a trait as Richard Rodgers' tick-tock accompaniments.

This is Kimmel/Haines's version from the now out-of-print album "Broadway Bound" (devoted to songs by new or new-ish musical theatre writers). The arrangements are by Larry Moore.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sweeney Todd Flashbacks

Here's a 1979 commercial for the original Broadway version of Sweeney Todd.

I always find it interesting that the show was not really advertised with the horror/blood aspects played up, the way the movie is being marketed; starting with the jokey poster (which placed a caricature of Angela Lansbury next to an old Victorian cartoon caricature with a Sweeney Todd razor in its hand), it was pretty clearly being marketed for its camp value, even though the actors were trying to avoid camping it up in the show itself, and continue to be rightly proud that they didn't give into the temptation to play the thing for camp.

This was probably the sensible way to market the show, given that it didn't really work as a straightforward horror story or as a straight drama. The flaw of Sweeney Todd as a piece of theatre is that it comes off as vaguely pointless. The original legend of Sweeney Todd has a point, the same point as any horror tale, which is to play on our paranoia about some real-life thing: it's about our fear of going to the barber and putting ourselves in the hands of someone with sharp instruments. But the more you inflate the story the more you bump up against the question of what the hell it's supposed to be about; no matter how hard it tries to sell itself as a revenge tragedy, it just isn't. (The story would be truly unsettling if it made us feel for a moment that we could descend into revenge the way the main character does; but because his actions are so over-the-top, we know for certain that we would not, in fact, do what he does.) I used to think that Hal Prince's decision to overload the show with ersatz "social commentary" on the Industrial Revolution was taking things too far; now I think he might have just been giving the audience something to hold onto; if they started to ask why this story was being told, the show would turn around and reassure them that it was something to do with how bad the Victorian era was.

It's been suggested, plausibly, that Sweeney is a sympathetic character until he snaps and starts killing people randomly; everything he does in the first act is sort of justified and the audience might actually be on his side. (That's the way Len Cariou apparently played it.) Given that the show appeared at the height of vigilante-justice fantasies, Death Wish movies and the like, it could work by drawing us into sympathizing with a vigilante and then reacting in horror when we see what we're sympathizing with. But that's not really an option because the show telegraphs from the very first moment, and throughout the first act, that the lead character is going to go bonkers and start chopping up everyone in sight. So a Bonnie and Clyde-style approach (first half, make us like the killers, second half, make us realize that maybe we shouldn't go around liking killers) isn't an option.

Also, it points up a structural problem with the show, which is that not a whole lot happens until the end of the first act, which makes it consist of a very padded first act and a second act that tries to get too much done too quickly. The movie makes some good cuts as well as some less-acceptable cuts in the score, but at least the cuts go some way toward counteracting the biggest problem in any Sondheim musical: songs that take five minutes to say what could be said in half the time. (Or, in the case of the Judge's song that was cut from the original production but recorded for the album, take five minutes to say what we already knew from two lines of dialogue.)

The movie, I think, is playing it more as a dark horror story that moves too fast for us to notice that the story doesn't have much of a point. Tim Burton is good at that, since several of his other movies fall into that category (Mars Attacks is one of the most pointless movies ever made, and I like it). I'll have more on the movie later this week, but I think it was quite well-done and does a good job of not making you question why this story is being told, a key job for any production of this material.

By the way, three years after 1979, Little Shop of Horrors would sort of take this marketing idea -- a combination of violence and camp in a musical format -- and run with it by sustaining that tone of camped-up gruesomeness for an entire evening.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Grudge Match: Charlie's Angels vs. Three Stooges

Charlie (on the speaker): Angels, the picture on the screen in front of you is the home of Mrs. Angela Palledankhurst, wealthy widow of J. Trumper Palledankhurst.

Sabrina: There's nothing on the screen, Charlie.

Charlie: I'm sorry, I assumed it was. That's the disadvantage of not being there in person. Well, if there were a picture on the screen, it would be of Mrs. Palledankurst's palatial estate, and she needs your help getting rid of her three new servants.

Kelly: Can't she just fire them?

Bosley: She's tried that. They just keep bopping each other on the head and going... (consults notes) "Woob-woob-woob."

Jill: I don't think it takes all three of us to save a wealthy dowager from three idiots. Or three fools. Or three dopes. Or three of anything, really.

Charlie: Think again, Jill. These men are insane, violent and virtually impossible to get rid of. If you don't get them out of that house, they'll soon destroy one of the oldest and snobbiest mansions in wherever this episode takes place.

Sabrina: All right, we'll get on it. Jill, Kelly and I will go undercover as maids at the Palledankhurst estate and try to get those guys out of the house by any means necessary. Bosley, can you get us three French maids' outfits, including a high-cut, long-skirt version for me?

Bosley: Already made them myself.

Charlie: Good luck, Angels, and be careful. Larry, Curly and Moe are unlike any adversaries you've ever faced. But I have confidence in you. Just don't bother me for the next twenty-four hours, because I've got a hot date with an Olympic figure skater.


Who wins? Will the Stooges deplete the dowager's domicile, or will the television trio terrify the stumbling Stooges?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Treasure Trove

Update: Thanks to a commenter for pointing out that the clips at that YouTube account are in fact lifted from the site, the online musical theatre archive.

I hadn't known about that site before, because I am dumb. So (as I said) the material was new to me. But the point remains that it's great to have this stuff online and if you get a chance, go to and look at what they've got. And while I regret mistakenly giving some YouTube user the praise for someone else's hard work, well, that's what the internet is for -- making mistakes that you can't get sued for.

For an example of what you can find, there's more Susan Johnson in The Most Happy Fella. You can never have enough Susan Johnson.


Check this out before the copyright complaints start and the account gets shut down: a YouTube user called "soulgrrl" has, within the last week, posted dozens of clips from Broadway musicals from the Ed Sullivan Show. (The account also has other Broadway performances from variety shows, award shows, and the like.) It may be that others have seen this material before, but much of it is new to me, and it's great, even with that time-ticker thingie at the bottom of the screen.

The clips uploaded are not just the hit shows and songs that often get excerpted in best-of-Broadway or best-of-Sullivan compilations, but obscure cult flops like Ankles Aweigh and The Gay Life and moderate successes like Destry Rides Again and Golden Boy. Amazing stuff. So thanks to "soulggrl," whoever he/she is.

It's hard to choose one or two clips from this treasure trove, but here are two. From a hit, Dick Van Dyke performing the original "Put On a Happy Face" number from Bye Bye Birdie:

And from a worthy flop, Donnybrook! a musical version of The Quiet Man with songs by the great veteran pop lyricist Johnny Burke (writing his own music), two songs, starting with the show's best song, "I Wouldn't Bet One Penny" sung by Eddie Foy Jr. (playing the Barry Fitzgerald part) and Broadway's greatest singer, Susan Johnson (playing a part added for the play; Susan Johnson always played people who didn't have a lot to do with the plot).

Also, Foy's line "I'm under your spell" is a cleaned-up verion of the line from the show, "Damn it to hell." Ah, the days when you couldn't say "Damn" and "hell" in prime time. I don't miss them at all.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Maurice Binder Rips Himself Off

I remembered Blake Edwards' 1974 spy drama The Tamarind Seed as an underrated movie -- maybe the last time Edwards made a movie that actually could be called a good movie without a caveat attached. (As in, "yes, Victor/Victoria is good but many of the jokes suck, the songs aren't very good and Edwards completely cops out by having James Garner find out she's not a man." Or "yes, S.O.B. is good even though many of the scenes and performances are actually pretty bad.") What I didn't remember was that it had a Maurice Binder title sequence that completely rips off his own James Bond work. He doesn't even bother to use a different typeface from some of the Bond movies.

This was one of the last of the "alternate" Bond movies like the Harry Palmer movies, where key Bond people are recruited and asked to do something very different from what they do for Bond. John Barry comes through as he did in the Palmer films with a moody, un-Bond-ish score, but Binder's solution is just to do what he always does in Bond, but have the characters doing different things: the silhouetted woman has her clothes on -- bell bottoms, yet -- and they're brooding and writing letters instead of shooting off guns. That's not really enough to give the sequence its own non-Bond identity, but then Binder, great though he was, didn't have a whole lot of range as a title designer.

One thing here that Binder would later incorporate into the Bond titles themselves, though, is having the stars' faces actually appear. He'd do this with Roger Moore starting with The Spy Who Loved Me.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Good Tune, Bad Lyric

In a previous post I mentioned the poor lyrics written for the M*A*S*H theme song by Robert Altman's son, Mike Altman. It's not Mike Altman's fault -- he was only 14 at the time. But it must have been hard on the composer, Johnny Mandel, to come up with such a good tune and have it matched to incomprehensible lyrics and a song title that guaranteed that no one would ever sing it ("and now, our number-one feel-good hit, 'Suicide is Painless!'"). At least the TV show separated the tune from the lyric and made it a popular instrumental.

Does anybody have any other examples of really good tunes, tunes that had what it took to become hits, that were ruined by terrible lyric writing? I'll update this post when I think of a few more, but feel free to offer your own choices.

Update: Great responses. One example I thought of was a tune called "The Pussy Foot" from the musical Goldilocks, about which I wrote previously. Leroy Anderson's tune is one of the best of his long career, so irresistibly catchy that he used it to begin and end the overture. But the song could never become a hit, because the lyrics -- by Walter and Jean Kerr -- are like so:

It don't behoove a lady to lie,
There is no other pussy like I,
Strutting down the alley.
Debonair, nose in air,
I am rather a wow.
Such a dish, so delish,
You may wish to meow.

In defence of the Kerrs, this isn't so much a garden-variety bad lyric as a deliberately bad or at least goofy lyric, a parody of dance-sensation songs. Still, it killed a potential hit tune.

A Sweater, a Sarong, and a Peek-a-Boo Bang

Still trying to get some more posts up here... but meanwhile, here's a number from Star Spangled Rhythm, Paramount's entry in the "all-star revue movies for the troops with lame linking storyline" sub-genre. Paramount's lineup of stars at this point wasn't as impressive overall as WB or MGM, the other studios that did this kind of movie, but they had more singing/dancing stars than WB (which used mostly non-singing stars to sing in its entry, Thank Your Lucky Stars).

In this number, we get Paramount contractee Paulette Goddard, Dorothy Lamour and Veronica Lake -- three very attractive women who were mostly used as decoration in Paramount movies, though Goddard did eventually get a good role in 1945's Kitty -- singing a funny Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer song lamenting their sex-symbol status. Well, Goddard and Lamour sing; most of Lake's singing is dubbed.

The number also includes a bizarre interlude with three character actors in drag: Sterling Holloway, Walter Catlett, and Arthur Treacher. (Catlett and Holloway had done voices for Disney features, and Treacher would later appear in Disney's Mary Poppins.)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Ultimate Vespa Movie

Update: In my original post I forgot to mention what a movie like Jessica (which, I reiterate, is not a good movie) tells us about the American film industry in 1962: basically, America was desperate to keep up with the Italians. Italian movies were very popular around the world, Italian film studios were increasingly in-demand for American productions and often superior to the deteriorating American studio facilities. The story of American films in the '60s is that U.S. domination of the movie business -- the domination we take for granted now, for better or for worse, and which everyone took for granted in the '30s and '40s -- was no longer a sure thing; Rome, and later in the decade London, came closer than anyone ever had before to supplanting Hollywood as the movie capital. In this atmosphere, there were a number of American attempts to copy Italian movies, and that's what Jessica is: it's Jean Negulesco's attempt to make an Italian-style movie to prove he's in step with the times. The fact that the movie doesn't work, and that it comes off as a bizarre international cartoon version of what a good Italian movie is like, sort of makes it interesting.

Also, I forgot that Maurice Chevalier gets two songs with hilariously bad lyrics by someone named "Dusty" Negulesco, whom I'm assuming is the director's son. This proves that a director's son can in fact provide worse lyrics than Robert Altman's son did for M*A*S*H. And when Chevalier sings that Jessica has turned the town "upside down," Negulesco cuts to an establishing shot of the town, yes, turned upside down. Cutting-edge cinema from the man who brought you The Best of Everything and Boy On a Dolphin (another key milestone in Hollywood's ongoing attempt to leech off Italian cinema).
Update: As noted in comments, Dusty Negulesco was actually Jean's wife, a former actress named Ruth "Dusty" Anderson. Here is a brief recap of her career and some pictures.

I am a resident of cold-land and cannot think much, let alone write much other than gibberish. But I should note that one of the ultimate early '60s movies, Jessica, is on TCM tomorrow at 2:45.

When I describe it as one of the ultimate early '60s movies that's not to say it's a good movie. It isn't, as you can tell just from a brief outline of the story: it's about a Sicilian village thrown into turbulence by the presence of a hot motor-scooter-riding American midwife (Angie Dickinson), where the wives (including the young Sylva Koscina) decide to go on a sex strike so they won't have babies and therefore can force Dickinson out of work. It's just that it's a snapshot of what the movie industry was all about in the early '60s: vaguely sexual content with no actual sex, expensive location shooting combined with corner-cutting in other areas, and an international hodgepodge cast that includes Angie Dickinson (American), Maurice Chevalier (French), Gabriele Ferzetti (trendy Italian) and character actors from all over the place (Noel-Noel, Marcel Dalio, and Agnes Moorehead all turn up). Plus it was directed by that expert in bloated widescreen chick flicks, Jean Negulesco. The U.S. movie industry was in a shambles in the early '60s; this is one of the movies that reminds us of how and why.

I also have some affection for this movie -- from what I've seen of it; I won't have seen the whole thing till it's on TCM tomorrow -- because it's one of the few films that gave Angie Dickinson a starring role; after this she went back to playing the token woman in action movies (before finally landing her own television series), but like the other "lost starlets of the '60s," she definitely could have been a big movie star in an era with more and better leading roles for women.

This movie is also famous among Vespa motor scooter buffs for the fact that Dickinson rides one and also posed with a Vespa for the publicity shots (this is one of those movies where the publicity photos may be better than the actual film).

There is a clip from the movie on YouTube, slightly out of synch and with Portugese subtitles.