Friday, May 30, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Venus Rising"

Another episode from the second season: Venus is offered a higher-paying job at a rival station and I am not giving anything away by saying he doesn't wind up taking it. What's different is that instead of wasting two acts on a question we already know the answer to (will Venus leave), Venus's decision is pretty much made by the end of the first act, and the second act shifts to a different but connected story thread, about Herb trying to get the treatment that sitcom characters always get when they say they have an offer to leave... only it doesn't work exactly that way, because he's Herb. This was one of the first episodes to contrast WKRP with the "real" world of modern radio: the rival station, WREQ (run by Terry "Weekend At Bernie's" Kiser) is a corporate-owned station whose playlists are all computerized and the sales department is the only department that really matters.

The cold open includes one of my favorite uses of music on the show: Le Nessman trying to find an appropriate point to turn off "This is It" by Kenny Loggins. The timing is perfect and the lyrics of the song work both for the gag and for the theme of the episode. Other songs in the episode include "Money" by Flying Lizards, "Same Thing" by Sly and the Family Stone, and two other songs I can't identify (though this copy does have all the original music).

WKRP s02e23 Venus Rising by carpalton

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Script vs. Film

As I've said in other posts, one of my favorite scenes in movie history is the ACME bookstore scene in The Big Sleep, where Humphrey Bogart encounters Dorothy Malone's bespectacled bookseller. I noted in an earlier post that while Howard Hawks claimed that much of the scene was made up on the set, the first half of the scene is actually straight from the original novel; it's the second half of the scene that is new, turning a throwaway expository scene into yet another scene about how Marlowe is somehow irresistible to women. (Of course, there's a clue in the scene: when Malone shoots Bogart a come-hither glance, a picture of President Roosevelt is clearly visible behind her. Though The Big Sleep's release was delayed until 1946, it was shot and meant to come out during the war, and there are all kinds of allusions to the fact that Marlowe is in a world where most of the men are off at war.) But I thought I would check the script, which is available in PDF form at The Daily Script, and see what the scene was supposed to be before Hawks changed it.

The script, dated 1944, is different from the 1945 pre-release preview version in a number of ways, especially the ending, which called for Carmen to be killed. (This explains why the ending of the film is so confused that we never know for sure who killed Sean Regan: Carmen was supposed to have done it and get punished for it by getting killed, but to keep her alive at the end and not get slapped by the censors, they had to confuse the issue of who did it.) The script was written under Hawks's supervision by three of the writers he worked with most frequently over the years, William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett. But this version of the script reads like more of a straightforward mystery thriller. As shooting went on, Hawks and the writers -- I would guess that the rewrites were probably mostly Brackett's; Furthman didn't work on the script after the early drafts and Faulkner wasn't in L.A. much -- kept adding more and more comedy and sex and singing and other digressions; it's like the film noir format wasn't really that interesting to him, so he increasingly started goofing around with it.

And that's pretty clear if you compare the script of the bookstore scene with the filmed version. (In the script, the bookstore scene runs from p. 21 to p. 25.) The first half of the scene is almost exactly what Hawks shot, and, as I said, follows the book almost word for word. The only things Hawks didn't retain in this part of the scene are some bits of business: the script calls for Marlowe to light the proprietress's cigarette, while in the film she's not smoking. In general Hawks stayed away from almost anything that might make Marlowe seem to be too aggressively hitting on this woman, for reasons I'll get too later. Anyway, the first part of the scene is very similar to the original script and the book.

In the original script, the second part of the scene departs from the book by letting Marlowe share a drink and probably a lot more with the attractive bookseller. That's part of what Hawks and his writers were trying to do, give Chandler's chaste Marlowe more of a sex life and make him into a ladies' man. But the scene as originally written is very different from the way it was filmed, because in the script, Marlowe takes the lead in hitting on this woman:, complete with pickup lines. Then after a couple of hours, he leaves her to go off on his case, and she is resigned to his leaving but clearly a little sad that she meant nothing more to him than a quick fling. Here's the 1944 script of this part of the scene:

PROPRIETRESS (returning to her reading): Only if he wore smoked glasses.

MARLOWE (laughing softly, pulling a flat pint from his hip pocket ): I shouldn't think you'd have to work hard to start anything smoking.

He shakes the bottle up and down, invitingly. She looks up at him, searchingly, then smiles slowly.

PROPRIETRESS: It's going to rain, soon.

MARLOWE: I'd rather get wet in here.

She pulls open a drawer and stands two small glasses on the desk. Marlowe smiles, and starts pouring. Through the window behind him the front of Geiger's store can be seen.



It is raining hard outside. The proprietress is a little tight, quite relaxed, and slightly philosophical, leaning against Marlowe, who sits on a stack of Britannicas beside her, watching the window. The proprietress picks up the bottle, which is now empty, shakes it forlornly, and sets it down again.

PROPRIETRESS: A couple of hours, an empty bottle, and so long, pal. That's life.

MARLOWE: But it was a nice two hours.

PROPRIETRESS (sighing): Uh-huh. (Looking toward the window) That's Geiger's car driving up.

MARLOWE: Who's the other guy?

PROPRIETRESS: Damon or Pythias -- I don't know. Geiger's shadow, anyway. Name's Carol Lundgren.

Marlowe has risen, in a hurry to follow Geiger.

MARLOWE: So long, pal.

PROPRIETRESS: If you ever want to buy a book...

MARLOWE: A Ben Hur eighteen-sixty...

PROPRIETRESS (sighing): With duplications... so long.

What Hawks did, partly in the rewrites and partly on the set , was to completely change this part of the scene so that the woman is the one seducing Marlowe, rather than the other way around. In the film, Marlowe is about to go wait in his car when the proprietress gives him Malone's soon-to-be-trademark carnal glance. Only when he realizes that she is coming on to him does he mention that he has a bottle of rye in his pocket. And when he says that, confirming that he's interested, she sashays to the door, pulls down the blind, and ambles back past him, purring "Looks like we're closed for the rest of the afternoon." (Dorothy Malone said in an interview that pulling down the blind was her idea and Hawks let her go with it.) Then comes the famous, and probably semi-improvised, bit where Marlowe wonders aloud if she always has to wear her glasses; she takes off her glasses, lets down her hair and instantly becomes a pinup girl.

Then after the dissolve, instead of Marlowe abandoning her to go off on his case, the woman is the one who breaks it off and reminds Marlowe what his job is supposed to be: "I hate to have to tell you, but that's Geiger's car." As they part, neither of them has any more regrets than the other and when he says "so long, pal," it's not ironic; he means it and she likes it. What was originally written as a scene about what a cool ladies' man Marlowe is becomes a funny/sexy fantasy scene where the woman is in control.

I can't always make up my mind about exactly how great Hawks was (though he is probably one of the most purely entertaining moviemakers of all time; I have a lot of his movies on DVD because they're so re-watchable). This is an example of why I sometimes have doubts about him but usually come back to his side. Looked at logically, this scene is kind of a travesty, as are a lot of scenes in TBS. The original scene as written in the script has sort of a dramatic function. Hawks threw out the dramatic function (mostly, he admitted, because he thought Malone was hot and wanted to give her more to do in the scene; similarly, the character of Carmen changed a lot because of Martha Vickers' hotness) and replaced it with what is essentially a Letter to Penthouse before Penthouse existed: "I never thought this happened to P.I.s like me, but I walked into a used bookstore and met this girl with glasses, who..." It's kind of juvenile, and if any other moviemaker tried to pull something like this, we'd probably call it a hopeless cliché.

But when Hawks does it, it works. I don't fully know why. He was good at getting his actors to act naturally (he encouraged improvisation, and that helped), so you almost buy into what's happening no matter how silly it is, and then too, he was good at getting you involved in a movie in an unexpected way and from an unexpected angle. So we think TBS is going to be a murder mystery, only it's a complete mess as a murder mystery noir story, but it works as something entirely different: a story about an old-fashioned tough guy in the confusing world of wartime America, where the women are empowered and most men on the homefront are objects of contempt for one reason or another. It's not surprising that Hawks was another director the French New Wave was obsessed with: Godard and Truffaut and Demy and the rest were all equally interested in apparently telling genre stories while actually trying to do something different, looser and weirder.

Censor Bait

Speaking of Son of Paleface, (well, I was speaking about it a few weeks ago), blogger Ray Davis looked at the script drafts of Son of Paleface (housed in the Academy Library in L.A., which I really, really should visit) and has reprinted some lines that were cut from the script after it was submitted to the Breen Office.

As he says, it's doubtful that Tashlin ever expected most of these lines to make it into the picture; as you probably know, there was a tradition of loading up a script with obviously risqué lines in the hope that the censors would focus on those and overlook the less obviously risqué stuff that the filmmakers really wanted to keep. Lines that seem to have been included as "censor bait" (in this draft, Jane Russell's character is called "Lily"; in the film she was changed to "Mike" to make Bob Hope's character seem even more sexually ambiguous):

LILY: Darling, you look so warm. Let me loosen your tie.
JUNIOR: All right. Just don't loosen my belt. I'm liable to break a toe.

I'm plumb ornery... an' I ain't had mah ornery plumbed since I left Harvard.

Up Goes Fiorello, And Everybody Cheers

Bob Elisberg argues that Fiorello! is one of the greatest musicals of all time. (link via Mark Evanier.) While he mistakenly says that Fiorello! beat West Side Story for the Tony -- it was actually Gypsy that it beat; WSS was beaten by The Music Man -- he's right about everything else.

It has one of the best scripts ever written for a musical, combining political issues, history and fast-paced comedy. The veteran director and co-writer of the show, George Abbott, was famed for inventing all sorts of ways to keep a play moving faster; he was obsessed with never wasting time for a second, and came up with ideas like covering scene changes with a short scene in front of the curtain. (So if there's a big scene change, instead of making the audience wait for the next scene, he'll have two characters walk across the stage discussing something or singing a reprise until the next set is ready.) It's amazingly fast and funny for a what is basically a serious story about politics, and it also incorporates all the musical-comedy conventions later "serious" musicals would do without: a secondary romantic couple, dance specialty numbers (choreographed by Peter Gennaro, formerly Jerome Robbins' assistant). And the score has a unique sound that fits the story perfectly, a sort of hard-driving, punchy, tinny sound, played up by Irwin Kostal's orchestrations -- the overture begins with a police whistle. It may be the best "Serious Musical Comedy" of all time.

And, though I've posted it before, one of the best comedy songs ever (and only one of several great comedy songs in the show; how many musicals with serious subjects would have so many comedy songs and so few introspective songs?):

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Doo-Dah, Doo-Dah

I was transferring my VHS copy of the 1956 Foghorn Leghorn/Daffy Duck crossover cartoon "The High and the Flighty" to disc (hopefully, this means that there will be some Foghorn Leghorn cartoons on DVD, since any time I spend time copying VHS to DVD, a commercial DVD comes along and makes my work irrelevant), and since the score of this cartoon was included on the second "Carl Stalling Project" CD, I decided to try synching up the isolated score with the picture.

This proved to be harder than I thought, because I had to adjust for the fact that the cartoon has shorter pauses between musical sections than the CD score does, and also the CD is missing a few sections of the score (and one scene was done without music, a scene with a fake train: Stalling scored almost every scene in a cartoon, but when it came to a train scene, he often let Treg Brown's sound effects stand alone). But while the synch isn't perfect, I did at least sort of manage to combine the portions of the score with the images the music was supposed to match. This is not the complete cartoon; if you want the complete cartoon, it's here.

Stalling's style was a little different at this time, near the end of his career, than it had been for most of his career. Even though it's a lighthearted comedy cartoon, the music is a little less brash and "cartoony" than usual for Stalling, with fewer song quotations than usual (except for "Camptown Races," but even that isn't used in the opening credits). Especially in cartoons from 1956-7, he seemed to use a style that was slightly more... not exactly advanced, it just sounds a bit more like a through-composed movie score than usual. He's still following the action, but trying a little more than before to integrate the action music into something resembling full-fledged musical phrases. Even in talky cartoons, where he once would just use a few strings or bare chords or a song to accompany dialogue, he now throws in some unusual (for him) harmonies and original melodies like the theme for Daffy in "Flighty."

Also, one thing that's become clear in listening to isolated scores from the mid-to-late '50s is that by this time the Warners cartoons did not have access to the size or quality of the orchestra they once had. The string section in particular sounds like it's smaller and scrawnier than it once was.

One thing that remained consistent: when a character sings, Stalling doesn't play the tune in the orchestra, instead playing an accompaniment or a countermelody to Blanc's singing.

Monday, May 26, 2008

You Were a Tomato!!!

That's the line that popped into my head when I heard about the death of Sydney Pollack. He was primarily a director, but few successful directors have had such a distinctive acting presence. I think his acting work, though more something he did on the side for fun (he was reluctant to act in his own movie and took the part in Tootsie because Dustin Hoffman asked him to), helped his reputation as a director, because we all could identify his style as an actor, and that helped give a sense of identity to a directorial career that might otherwise have seemed a bit anonymous.

Not that he was anonymous as a director, but he was something of a throwback to an older breed of Hollywood director, who didn't necessarily have an easily-identifiable style, but was valuable for his ability to get the best possible results from his material, and particularly from his actors. His filmography has its ups and downs, mostly depending on the quality of the material (he picked his material, an old-school director like Henry King or Michael Curtiz would have material handed to him, but their batting averages are nonetheless similar), but what the good ones, like They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Three Days of the Condor and Tootsie, have in common is that the actors are, top to bottom, at their best, even the actors who couldn't automatically be expected to be at their best. Bill Murray didn't just steal Tootsie because he's Bill Murray; he's great in the movie because Pollack knew how to use him to the fullest without throwing the movie out of balance. By the way, Pollack did a very interesting commentary for the old Criterion laserdisc of Tootsie, where among other things he criticizes Murray's famous "You slut" line as being one of the few lines in the movie that doesn't work for him. Unfortunately the commentary wasn't carried over to the Sony DVD.

One digression about Pollack's filmography, if you look at the "technical specs" section on the Imdb listing for his films: he's a filmmaker who did his best work when he worked in the widescreen format. Nearly his movies from They Shoot Horses through Tootsie are in Panavision, 2.35:1. Nearly all his movies starting with Out of Africa are in the narrower 1.85:1 format, and that's when his movies became less consistently entertaining. I doubt this is of any actual significance, but I wanted to bring it up because the old-school directors he resembles, like Curtiz, King and Jean Negulesco, all declined when they started filming in 'Scope.

He was a real Hollywood professional, and a good one.

Kon Wiki

I love Wikipedia entries on popular culture, and particularly the fact that it creates an opportunity for big fans to enter information that only big fans would know. A Wikipedia entry on a television character often has access to editors who have seen all the episodes and therefore can create a really full and complete character "history."

That's why, even though my first inclination is to be a little disturbed by a list of all the scientific inventions created by Steve Urkel on Family Matters, I actually think it's good that the fans of a show, whatever the show may be, will take the time to enter that kind of info in Wikipedia. Did you remember that the formula that transformed Steve Urkel into Stefan Urquelle was called "Boss Sauce?" Because I didn't. And now I know.

There is only one Wikipedia pop-culture entry that I think goes a bit too far. That's the entry for Hanna-Barbera's "Fonz and the Happy Days Gang," which says (emphasis mine): they travel through history in a time machine, trying, as narrator Wolfman Jack put it, “ get back to 1957 Milwaukee,” placing the temporal abduction sometime in late Season 2 or early Season 3 of the live-action series.

Okay, trying to fit the events of a cartoon with dogs and time machines within the continuity of a live-action series that never could remember what year it was set in... that may be going a little too far. But only a little, I hasten to add. I honestly am not being sarcastic when I say I wouldn't make fun of anyone for adding detailed information about a show, or any other work of pop culture, to Wikipedia. That's what Wikipedia was made for.

Friday, May 23, 2008

WB Animators Who Improved After 1955?

As Warner animation fanatics know, the WB cartoon studio shut down for a few months in 1953 when Jack Warner decided that movies were going to go 3-D and it wasn't worthwhile to produce cartoons in 3-D. When he realized that 3-D wasn't going to catch on, he re-opened the cartoon department. Some animators didn't come back, but many did. The budgets, which had been getting smaller (or at least weren't keeping up with inflation), got smaller after the shutdown, the animation got more limited, and in general, while many people including Greg Duffell have called the early '50s one of the best periods for animation at Warner Brothers, hardly anyone says the same about the late '50s. See for example Gerry Chiniquy, a good animator in the '40s, but whose jerky style became a bit self-parodic when he returned in 1954.

But there's one animator at WB whose work seems to me to be a lot better after the shutdown, and it's Art Davis. His work as an animator at Warner Brothers in the '40s and early '50s (before and after his stint as a director) was terrific, but it seems to me that it's sometimes hampered by what looks like poor in-betweening. Or at least in-betweening that doesn't really connect Davis's drawings in a logical way. This isn't so much a problem in the '40s before he was directing at the studio, but it's very noticeable to me in his scenes in Friz Freleng cartoons of the early '50s, which are very choppy because the characters don't transition well between one pose and another. His scenes almost wind up looking like a series of still drawings.

For some reason, after the shutdown, from 1955 on, Davis's scenes become much more fluid and less choppy, and his animation actually seems more loose and wild and free, which you can't say about almost any other animation in the late '50s. I don't know if he had new or better in-betweeners or if something changed in his style, but he's the only WB animator I can think of whose animation actually improved in the late '50s, though I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to say it's his best animation ever, since his work in the Tashlin unit in the '40s is awfully good (it's hard to top some of his scenes in "Two Crows From Tacos," or Sylvester at the radiator in "Birds Anonymous," though).

For comparison's sake, here's a Freleng cartoon from 1950, "Mutiny on the Bunny," not on DVD yet; I think Davis does the first scene with Bugs and Sam on the boat ("Oh, yes you are!"). Another choppy-looking Davis scene is the first shot of Sam in "Ballot Box Bunny," where the drawings are great but Sam almost freezes into each one of them.

And here's one of the first cartoons after the shutdown, "Tweety's Circus"; Davis does a lot of the animation, including the opening with Sylvester singing and the scenes of Sylvester hitting the lion, and to me at least, it looks better than his earlier animation for the studio.

WKRP Episode: "Herb's Dad"

This episode from the second season was written by Steve Kampmann and Peter Torokvei and guest-stars Bert Parks, a brilliant choice to play Herb's father, Herb Sr. ]

Tonally, this episode is odd, not exactly dramatic but a little subdued, almost like the "dramedy" format Hugh Wilson would help create with Frank's Place. What I like about the way the story plays out is that even though a story like this would normally have Herb realizing what a pathetic old con artist his father is, it doesn't go that way at all, because this is Herb: he worships his father, and considers his own life a quest to match Herb Sr.'s "impossible standard of excellence."

Music: "Lucille" by Little Richard; "Jane" by Jefferson Starship.

WKRP s02e15 Herb's Dad by carpalton

Thursday, May 22, 2008

This Video Has Created More Vegetarians Than Any Other

Ever seen Wendy's "Grill Skills" training video? This is a video that new Wendy's employees had to watch in the '80s, where they were trained to become great grill specialists with the help of a rapper who sucks you into the TV, and several singing burgers with painted-on lips. The lesson is that working at Wendy's is surprisingly similar to an LSD trip.

Highlights include Dave Thomas (before he started starring in Wendy's commercials) waxing passionate about the beauty of pure ground beef, not to mention "mustard, pickle, and onion"; the line "Most of all, you've got to have your tool," Billy's expression when he gets a medal, the second half of the video with both Billy and Rapper-guy quietly repeating all the lyrics of the instructional rap song, and the closing chorus of "Grill Skills." Yes, it's a song and a title!

See also Seanbaby's recap of the video, though it loses some of its punch after you've actually seen it, because all the things you thought he was just making up turn out to be just straightforward descriptions of what happens.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Cartoons (and other films) That Re-Set to Square One?

Just thinking aloud here: obviously most series of cartoons, and series of comedy films in general, don't have much continuity. But some film series go further and have the same characters, under the same names, who not only don't remember anything that happened in the previous instalment, but don't even remember each other -- that is, they literally meet for the first time in every film.

The Warner Brothers cartoons did this a lot, especially after the war when there were more series with more than one continuing character. In the Warner Brothers universe, every cartoon is the first time Yosemite Sam meets Bugs Bunny, the first time Sylvester sees a baby kangaroo and mistakes it for a giant mouse, the first time Pepe Le Pew sees une belle femme skunk. Sometimes Sylvester knows Tweety and Speedy already, but sometimes he doesn't. Same with Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny; there are a few cartoons that kind of imply that they've been through this before (like "Easter Yeggs" where Bugs clearly recognizes Elmer the first time he sees him), but more often they're just meeting for the first time.

I don't think other studios went quite as far in wiping the slate clean, but I seem to recall some Tom and Jerrys where they don't know each other, some Woody Woodpeckers where someone from a previous cartoon is a complete stranger to him. And in general, most cartoons would not have characters talk about meeting each other in a previous instalment or act like they have any kind of "continuing" history with each other. A possible exception would be some shorts from Disney, who wanted Mickey, Donald et al to have friends and family. Hence cartoons like "Mickey's Birthday."

Television cartoons don't do this as a rule. Maybe some of the early ones did, but usually you get two or more characters who have been together before the episode started, fighting villains who are already more or less known to them (like Boris and Natasha). Even shows where the characters can appear at any point in history will still not go as far as to show them not remembering people they've already met; it just isn't done. (Unless this is something like Mr. Burns not remembering Homer, which is different.) So Animaniacs characters could have stories that took place any time since the dawn of time, but once they met Dr. Scratchansniff, they knew him and didn't keep on meeting him in subsequent cartoons. Ren and Stimpy usually knew each other. The closest thing to an old-school cartoon device on TV is killing Kenny on South Park, and they've mostly dropped that.

So: what are some other cartoon series, or other film series, that re-set to zero like that, where not only are there no carry-overs from instalment to instalment, but the characters actually meet each other again for the first time, over and over again, for eternity? Which is kind of depressing if you think about it too much.

Straight From the Hartley, Part 2

When I wrote a post the other day about Al Hartley's Spire Christian Archie Comics, and noted that he'd already done very similar material in the actual mainstream comics, I didn't realize that one of those Spire comics had a sequence that was directly based on a mainstream Archie comic. Then I found this "Stupid Comics" page reprinting a Spire story where Big Ethel at one point imagines that she's a gorgeous movie star who is unfulfilled despite her fame and money. Turns out Hartley had done something very similar in those "Sabrina's Christmas Magic" things I was writing about before. It's less specifically Christian and more generically religious, but it has a lot of the iconography of Christian comics (like the intertwining of a religious message with American historical figures who are made to seem very Christian/religious figures); he probably pushed the regular Archie titles as far as a mainstream title can go toward being a religious comic.

By the way, Hartley drew Big Ethel into many, many stories and usually made horrible fun of her for not having a small waist and huge breasts like the other women he drew. Which makes the uplifting message of the above story ring a little hollow.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Grudge Match: Eve Harrington vs. Veda Pierce

Maybe somebody's done something like this already, but: a fight between two evil young women from Oscar-winning movies who are out to destroy and supplant the middle-aged divas who love them: Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) from All About Eve vs. Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth) from Mildred Pierce. Who wins this battle of the anti-ingénues?

Advantages for Eve: She's smarter than Veda, better able to manipulate people to get what she wants, better at strategy. Advantages for Veda: She's more evil, more violent, and hotter (I don't know how that will help her in a fight, exactly, but it can't hurt).

(This is confined to the movie versions, so Veda from the original novel doesn't apply here.)

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Song that Should Be Famous, But Isn't

Every hit musical has songs that don't become hits. (Sometimes a show becomes a hit without producing any hit songs; after he did the hit musical Wonderful Town, Leonard Bernstein wrote an article where he imagined his alter-ego asking him the question everybody else was asking in real life: "That musical of yours, it's very popular and successful, and yet there's not a hit song in it. Why is that?") And every hit musical has at least one song that I always think should have been a hit, but isn't.

One such song is "(Baby) Talk To Me," from Bye Bye Birdie. This song was cut from the film version and isn't particularly well-known, yet it's probably the best number in the show -- more effective than many of the more famous numbers. The setup of the song is Albert (Dick Van Dyke) calling Rosie (Chita Rivera) on the phone from a diner, asking her to talk to him after the inevitable Act 2 lovers' quarrel. The song is a deceptively simple melody and lyric with a great arrangement by Robert Ginzler, a truly great orchestrator who had a fondness for reeds (though when I suggested to Jonathan Tunick, who considers Ginzler his mentor, that I associate Ginzler with flutes, he quite rightly lectured me that there was much more to "Red" Ginzler than that).

Charles Strouse's melody and Ginzler's arrangement make a lovely moment, both a nod to and a send-up of typical late '50s ballads. But the song really becomes magical when the other people in the diner start singing along with Albert in the second refrain, in a marvelous vocal arrangement; if the song has hints of parody, the arrangement is a flat-out full-on parody of the kind of vocal harmonies you heard in "backup" vocals at the time -- yet at the same time it works on a gut level too, so it's both touching and hilarious. "Go on, what can you lose, it ain't gonna hurt" may be my favorite moment in any number in any musical ever. I'm serious.

Why Is it "Sylvester and Tweety" and not "Tweety and Sylvester?"

Warner Brothers will release the first season of the WB network show The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries on DVD. I'm actually surprised it took them this long, given how important Tweety is to their merchandising these days.

This was one of the new shows that launched the WB's first Saturday morning lineup in 1995, aimed at younger audiences than their other animated shows. Tom Minton was the producer and head writer, but the format was not his idea. Warners had the idea that Granny (voiced by June Foray, but the original design from the Bea Benaderet years) should be an Angela Lansbury-type sleuth who travels around the world solving mysteries; Tweety, Sylvester and Hector the bulldog sometimes help her but mostly just do their usual chase routines. (I'll give the show credit for that much: despite the format, Tweety and Sylvester were usually in character.)

The show actually became pretty interesting after the first season. The first season suffered from doing all half-hour stories, way too long for a Tweety/Sylvester cartoon even with the mystery stuff. In the second season and for the rest of the series' run, Minton and his crew (including writer/storyboardist Carolyn Gair) made two big changes: one, they reformatted the show so the episodes had two separate 10-minute cartoons, and two, they revamped the design style of the show in the style of late '50s cartoons, with very stylized backgrounds and a different stylized design approach for every story. Add in the penchant for unusual cameos by WB characters of the past -- the writers had a Cool Cat obsession and would work a reference to him into just about everuy episode -- and a good knowledge of Sylvester/Tweety gags, and it was actually quite enjoyable to watch.

The first season, despite the flawed format, has one thing going for it: Tokyo Movie Shinsha animated many of the episodes (Warners decided that the "classic" characters would benefit from TMS animation, which is part of the reason why Animaniacs didn't have access to TMS that season).

WKRP Episode: "In Concert"

By request, one of the most famous episodes from the second season: "In Concert," written and aired soon after the 1979 The Who Concert in Cincinnati where several fans were trampled to death. Steven Kampmann, one of the writers, felt that as a show about rock radio in Cincinnati they couldn't avoid dealing with the event, so he came up with this story. Hugh Wilson was reluctant to do it initially, but agreed to do the episode if they could take a stand against the "festival seating" that caused the tragedy (since that would give the episode a purpose and not make it exploitative). Originally the caption at the end of the episode was supposed to chide other cities for not following Cincinnati's example in banning festival seating, but CBS refused to allow that and changed the caption to something less controversial.

Music: "The Wait" by The Pretenders; "Sympathy For the Devil" by The Rolling Stones, and in the final scene, "Remembering the Rain" by Bill Evans. Steven Kampmann does the voice of the contest winner in the opening scene.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Why Didn't the POGO Special Work?

I originally didn't see Mark Mayerson's post from last year on the Walt Kelly/Chuck Jones "Pogo Special Birthday Special" from 1969. Fortunately the special still seems to be available on YouTube. Unfortunately, it's not a whole lot better than I remembered it being.

I saw the Pogo special when I was quite young, before I had ever read a Pogo strip. It was available on VHS at the time, and my Dad, a big fan of the strip, saw it in a video store and advised me to rent it to get acquainted with Pogo. But the special was so dull that I couldn't get through it, and it probably turned me off from seeking out the strip (though I eventually did, and it was great).

Kelly blamed the failure of the special on Jones, telling his ex-Disney colleague Ward Kimball that "the son-of-a-bitch changed it after our last meeting!" I don't fully buy this. Jones certainly made some mistakes that Kelly did not approve or approve of, particularly giving Mam'zelle Hepzibah the Skunk a new, human face. (Why he would do that when he'd already spent years successfully drawing a skunk -- who probably influenced the character of Mam'zelle Hepzibah in the first place -- is beyond me.) But Kelly wrote the script and did some of the voices, and it doesn't seem to me that he's blameless for the weaknesses of the film; the lines the characters are saying are less funny than a typical week of Pogo strips, even circa 1969 when the strip was not as great as it had once been (but still funny).

Jones and Kelly undoubtedly were hoping that The Pogo Special Birthday Special would do for Pogo what another half-hour prime-time special had done for Peanuts. But A Charlie Brown Christmas preserved the tone of the strip, in part by lifting large chunks of dialogue directly from the daily strips. The Pogo special doesn't feel the same as the strip, not even the Sunday strips where Kelly deliberately toned down the political content. (Kelly saw the Sunday page as essentially a separate strip with a separate, younger audience than the weekday strips.) Some of that is Kelly's writing, and some of it is Jones' slow pacing.

There's a pacing problem built into any adaptation of Pogo, which is that the pacing of the strip doesn't match the setting. The Pogo strip moved pretty fast, even in the strips where Pogo and the gang were just lazing around the swamp. It moved fast because the panels were crammed full of dialogue and there was always some piece of background action to keep your attention. Translate that to animation and you've just got cute animal characters lazing around a swamp, and it instantly feels too slow and soft for Pogo. That's one problem Jones didn't solve. But he compounded it with the pacing issues that plague all his work from the early '60s on.

Watching it, I tried to figure out why Jones's later stuff feels so slow. There are a bunch of contributing factors, like the musical score (when it was up to him to dictate what kind of music he got, he tended to favor scores that didn't really push the action along) and the tendency to linger on his favorite poses, but what strikes me most is that these late Jones cartoons have a "show-offy" feel as regards their full animation -- that is, there's a lot of time taken on in-betweens and fluid movement, too much time taken between funny poses. (Remember what Michael Lah said about animating for Tex Avery, that the'd always find themselves taking out in-betweens because they found that the pose reels had sharper timing.) At some point he seemed to lose track of what all great comedy animation directors know, that if the animation is too full, you lose the timing. I don't know if that was related to his admirable determination to continue with full animation at a time nobody else was; but it does seem like his later stuff has a tendency to call attention to the full animation, whereas when full animation was taken for granted, he was more willing to pop characters from pose to pose in a funny, snappy way.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Music-Free Movies

The Gunfighter, the first "revisionist Western" and one of the best, comes out on DVD tomorrow. Buy it. It is awesome. (The two Westerns it's packaged with I have not seen yet, but one of them has a Bernard Herrmann isolated score, so that can't be bad.)

Henry King had an odd career. His style, as I've said often, is very similar to John Ford's; their movies look similar, have similar cutting, lighting, camera angles, both of them liked relatively static shots at low angles with the ceilings in full view, etc. He wasn't as self-consciously arty as John Ford, and he wasn't as sentimental; his best movies for Fox are as good as Ford's or better. The difference between them was that King didn't have Ford's independent streak, and starting in the mid-'30s he was happy to spend virtually his entire career as a Fox contract director, doing basically whatever project was handed to him. As a director-for-hire, he was probably better than Ford (Ford kind of shut down when he was handed a project that he hadn't had any role in developing), but directing-for-hire is just about all he did, meaning that the quality of his films depended more on the work of the producer than on him. He was the Michael Curtiz of Fox; he didn't do as many great films as Curtiz because Warner Brothers was a better studio than Fox for most of the '30s and '40s, but they were both brilliant directors-for-hire.

One thing about The Gunfighter that I noticed is that even though Alfred Newman gets a music credit, it has no music at all except in the opening and the closing. It seems like there were a number of movies in the post-war period that tried to turn the lack of music into a sort of special musical effect. (Nunnally Johnson, the producer and uncredited co-writer of Gunfighter, had tried something similar with The Grapes of Wrath, which he co-produced: that movie has a bit of music in a few sequences, but most of it is deliberately music-free even where you'd normally expect to have some soundtrack music.) I'm thinking especially of three movies from MGM: The Asphalt Jungle (1950) has opening credits music and then not a single piece of musical scoring until the final scene, when Dix gets out of the city and into the country; Intruder in the Dust (1949) has no music except in the opening credits; otherwise it's all "source" music (music played by radios and so on), and Lady In the Lake (1947) not only has that crazy POV camera gimmick but doesn't score any of the scenes.

There are others; those are the ones that come to mind. I don't know if this move toward music-free filmmaking was a reaction against the over-use of soundtrack music in the late '30s and early '40s (when some movies were wall-to-wall music) or if it was an attempt to play more with other things you could do on a soundtrack -- The Gunfighter uses distant crowd noise, kids shouting outside, etc. -- but it was almost a return to the early talkie pictures that had music stings at the beginning and end but nothing in between.

The Crystal Skull?

Turns out not only did Bob Bolling come up with the name "Doctor Doom" either before or exactly at the same time as Marvel Comics, but when the Archie title assigned him to Sabrina the Teen-age Witch for a few issues in the '80s (the idea being to see if he could liven up that title with his trademark mix of action-adventure and comedy, the way he did for Little Archie), here's one of the stories he came up with.

I don't know what the new Indiana Jones movie will be like, but I think it would be seriously enlivened by the presence of Professor Pither (say it without the lisp) in Mad Doctor Doom's Time Taxi. (The idea of this brief run of Bolling Sabrinas was that her arch-nemesis was using Mad Doctor Doom's house, Crackstone Manor, and all his gadgets, while Doom and Chester were away.)

Friday, May 09, 2008

WKRP Episode: "God Talks to Johnny"

I really like this season 2 episode, written by Hugh Wilson and directed by Will Mackenzie. The structure of it is quite odd, though: essentially, the plot stops after the cold open and doesn't start up again until Act 2. The first act is mostly a series of self-contained scenes with Johnny talking to other characters who aren't involved in the story, getting their perspectives on the situation. It works because the scenes are very strong, culminating in the famous physical-comedy routine in Carlson's office (Gordon Jump gives an object lesson in how to play off a big laugh from the audience and even extend it), but today the other characters in the office would be given a B story to give them something to do, instead of commenting on the A story. Music: "Arrow Through Me" by Paul McCartney and Wings.

Unfortunately this episode is missing a few seconds: originally at the end of the scene in the broadcast booth, after Johnny turns the Paul McCartney music back on, Herb enters the scene and says: "John?" Johnny, without looking around, stands up and says "Yes, yes, Lord, what is it?" Herb replies: "New advertising copy," hands Johnny the papers and leaves, looking confused. This bit was cut from the old syndication versions, and on the Comedy Network's complete version it was badly redubbed with voice actors (to get rid of the music). What I did was dub over the music from the beginning of the act, turning it into a silent sequence, to at least show how it played. If I ever get an original CBS version of this episode, I will re-post the episode with the missing lines. Update: The episode now has the missing scene restored.

WKRP s02e13 God Talks To Johnny by carpalton

Thursday, May 08, 2008

They Blu Themselves

You may have heard that The Criterion Collection has announced it's jumping into the Blu-Ray format and will be re-releasing a bunch of titles in Blu-Ray -- plus Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, the first product of his "Remember When We Weren't Tired of Wes Anderson?" period.

I don't have a Blu-Ray player yet, and am not enough of a videophile to go for one until the prices go down still further. (That is, I know that Blu-Ray looks better than Standard, but not so much better that I would notice at the moment.) I assume they will eventually become the standard, just as widescreen TVs are becoming the standard, but for now the question about Blu-Ray is whether it can actually revitalize the sagging DVD business.

Those of us who collect DVDs have noticed that the quantity and quality of DVD releases has gone down lately, especially older movies and shows. Part of this is that the studios were holding back until one format won in the high-def wars, but it's also that DVD sales have flattened out, and that studios now have a good idea of what old movies will and won't sell on DVD.

I think we were lucky, to an extent, because from 2002 to 2005 or so, DVDs were booming and so the studios had a lot of releases, but the format was new enough that they weren't really sure what would sell or how much money these things were expected to make. It was in those years that we got a lot of old movies in surprisingly elaborate special editions or expensively-done transfers, TV shows released with music intact, and so on. Around 2005-6, that started to change a bit, and some studios dropped out of classics almost completely (Paramount) or started chopping out all the music from TV shows (Paramount, Fox).

Will Blu-Ray help revive the market for non-new films? I kind of doubt it, though obviously Criterion getting into the act is an important thing in that respect. (Though most of the movies they're starting with for Blu-Ray are not really ones that would make me want to save up for a player and discs to go with it.) Warner Brothers already kind of tested this by putting out two of their best-selling classics -- Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood on high-def, and apparently they did not sell particularly well. On the other hand, doesn't mean a whole lot at the moment, since so few people have high-def DVD players. But there is the problem of bang for the buck: while black-and-white movie will presumably look better in high-definition, they won't look so much better.

Also, just as Super Audio CD never really took off because consumers preferred lower-quality but easier-to-access online downloads, I have a suspicion that we may be seeing the same with Blu-Ray: the companies will be pushing it, and maybe it'll work out, but this is a time when more and more of us clearly don't want the very highest quality, we just want to see stuff -- see it on TV, see it online, whatever. The age of YouTube and downloading is not a great time to be pushing audiophile/videophile formats. But we'll see; I'm not making predictions. I do think that I'll get more excited when/if I see the studios putting more old movies and TV shows online; for worse or better, we're more likely to see our favorite unreleased classics online than on Blu-Ray.


I think that of all the stupid Superfriends moments, this may be my favorite. The villain sends the ulimate weapon to defeat Green Lantern:

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Grudge Match: Magnificent Seven vs. Seven Samurai

East meets West, original meets remake: The Seven Samurai face off against The Magnificent Seven in an all-out fight without weapons. Will Brynner's Band Bring the Badassery, or will Takashi and Toshiro's Team Take them to the Top?

Why are no weapons allowed in this fight? Because the Seven Samurai have swords. The Magnificent Seven have guns. Indiana Jones can tell you how that fight turns out.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Alice Faye Is More Popular Than Betty Grable?

Fox released a Betty Grable collection on DVD, and it didn't do well enough for them to release a second set (so far), but they have announced The Alice Faye Collection, Volume 2, with "Hollywood Cavalcade," "Rose of Washington Square" (aka "Please Don't Sue Us, Fanny Brice"), "The Great American Broadcast," "Hello, Frisco, Hello," and the USO tribute "Four Jills in a Jeep" (which doesn't actually star Faye; she and Grable and other Fox stars appear as themselves).

If the Faye collection sold better than the Grable collection, as this seems to indicate (though it may be that the films in this collection, being mostly black-and-white, are cheaper to remaster than Grable's mostly Technicolor movies), it surprises me; neither is among my favorite musical stars of the period but I'd always assumed that Grable was better-known. Apparently not.

Speaking of Fox musicals with Alice Faye, the best of the lot, Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here, received a transfer with incorrect colors last time around; Fox is releasing a "remastered," and hopefully corrected, version with the same extras, either individually or as part of a Carmen Miranda Collection -- which, except for Gang, is really more of a Vivian Blaine collection, since she's in most of those movies.

Every studio in the Golden Age of Movie Musicals (tm) had its strengths and weaknesses. Fox's strengths included photography (especially in Technicolor, of course), musical direction (Alfred Newman's arrangements could be overdone at times, but they were a lot more tasteful than the garish, generically loud work of the MGM department) and comedy relief players like Phil Silvers (who also helped out some musicals at Columbia). I think their front-line talent, like Faye and Grable, was not nearly as strong as the other studios'; their top musical stars are a lot more limited than anybody else's.

Update: It occurred to me that if Faye is indeed more popular than Grable, it might be evidence that movie-musical performers with one outstanding talent hold up better than performers who are good but not great at everything. Faye wasn't very strong as an actor, wasn't really a dancer, but she did have a genuinely outstanding singing voice. Grable was a valuable performer because she could supply all four things you look for in movie musicals: singing, dancing, acting, and looks. But she wasn't great at any of those things, she was good, not great. I think you could argue that a performer who is outstanding at one or two things but weak at other things will inspire more interest years down the road than someone who is good but not outstanding at everything, even though the latter performer is probably more valuable to the studio at the time.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

"Well, That Was No Good At All."

Reading this post about Paula Prentiss's great performance in Howard Hawks' last comedy, Man's Favorite Sport?, reminded me of something I wanted to mention about this movie: I've noticed that in the past few years, this film's reputation seems to have gone up. Not so much among critics, but among average movie-goers; I keep hearing people remember it as one of the comedies they liked best when they saw it on TV growing up, or picking it as one of the great romantic comedies. I don't think it is, but I do think it's better than its critical reputation.

Man's Favorite Sport?, like every movie Howard Hawks made in the last decade of his career, is a re-hash of stuff Hawks had done before, with gags and lines lifted from Bringing Up Baby. He also lifts gags and story points from a movie he didn't make, Libeled Lady (where William Powell also tries to fish even though he doesn't know how, like Rock Hudson in MFS?). It is over-long, studio-bound and has a less-than-great cast except for Prentiss and the great veteran Roscoe Karns. All these problems together were obvious enough to critics at the time that even the most die-hard auteuriste critics, the ones who thought Hawks could do no wrong, thought he'd gone wrong with this one. (This was virtually the only Hawks movie that got a bad review from Andrew Sarris.) And, yeah, as a Hawks movie, it's a slightly sad indication of how much he'd lost in terms of pacing and story construction, and though the script was improved by Leigh Brackett's uncredited rewrites, it's still not great.

But most people coming to MFS? for the first time don't approach it as a Hawks movie; they see it instead as a Rock Hudson romantic comedy from Universal in the '60s. Because, well, it is that, too. And people who approach it that way are often pleasantly surprised to find that while it has the look and feel of a comedy from that period (the flat, studio-bound look is an inescapable part of the Rock/Doris world), it totally goes against what they're set up to expect from that kind of comedy. I remember someone explaining to me why he loved Man's Favorite Sport?: he was used to seeing Rock Hudson in comedies where he humiliates Doris Day all through the picture, and where the whole thing is slightly sexist and corny, and here's a movie that looks like those other movies, but the woman is getting the best of Rock Hudson right from the beginning, and the battle-of-the-sexes comedy feels more equal and more modern. I explained to him that a lot of what he liked in MFS? was borrowed from Bringing Up Baby, but he hadn't seen that movie (though he'd heard other people recommend that if he liked MFS? he should see Baby). A comedy about a man being constantly one-upped by a crazy, strong, dangerous woman was normal in the '30s but it was like nothing else being done in the '60s. So when Hawks re-did what he'd been doing for decades, it seemed fresh and cool by comparison with most other comedies of the period.

The fact that no one else was doing this kind of comedy is one explanation for why Paula Prentiss never became a huge star. ("She should be a big comedy star," Hawks said a few years later. "I don't know what's wrong.") With her height, her quirky line delivery and body language, Prentiss projected a strength of character -- albeit weird, off-kilter character -- that required others to play straight man to her, in a time when female leads in comedies usually played it straight. (Look at The Pink Panther, which came out around the same time and is one of the best '60s comedies: the women mostly play it straighter than the men do.) She needed movies like MFS? and shows like He & She where guys would play George Burns to her taller, curvier Gracie Allen, but there weren't many projects like that in the '60s.

Friday, May 02, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Jennifer Falls in Love"

This was the fourth episode broadcast in season 2, the second episode produced for the second season. For the first and only time in the series, Jennifer dates a man somewhere around her own age, while Les demands a raise. This episode features the famous exchange between Les and Jennifer's new boyfriend: "I like to think that a person's name tells us a lot about the type of person that he is."

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Original "I Love to Singa"

This is where it all started, folks; before (albeit not long before) there was an Owl Jolson, there was Al Jolson, singing this Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg song with Cab Calloway, one of the few people who got caricatured in more cartoons than Al Jolson.

The Singing Kid was released on April 3, 1936, while "I Love To Singa" was released on July 18, 1936, only a little more than three months later. Since the song was written for The Singing Kid, this is another reminder that the songs in early Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoons were sometimes taken from movies that hadn't even been finished, let alone released. (I'm assuming that when a Warner Brothers musical was in production, some potential hit songs would be recommended to Schlesinger's cartoon department as titles worth featuring in a cartoon.)