Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Great Adaptation

I read Goldfinger the other day, and I just wanted to note that while the James Bond movies often trashed their source material, the script of the Goldfinger movie may be one of the best novel-to-screen adaptations ever done. The writers, Bond regular Richard Maibaum and the prolific Paul Dehn, managed to keep nearly all the good stuff from the novel while eliminating all the stuff that wouldn't work on screen. The result is something that keeps the essence of the book but produces a story that actually makes more sense than the book's.

Just about the only good scene from the book that isn't in the movie in one form or another is Bond's dinner with Goldfinger (maybe they figured they'd already done the dinner-with-the-villain bit in Dr. No). They kept Goldfinger's method of cheating at cards and Bond's method of stopping him; Jill Masterson getting killed by gold paint; Goldfinger ordering Oddjob to demonstrate his hat and, later, Oddjob killing Tilly Masterson with the hat; Bond's golf game with Goldfinger; Goldfinger murdering the mob boss who won't participate in Operation Grand Slam; Goldfinger hooking Bond up to a device heading for his crotch (they just changed the device to a laser); the seemingly dead people springing to life outside Fort Knox, and much more. A lot of Bond movies have a frustrating habit of leaving out even the stuff that would work well on film. (Like the "he disagreed with something that ate him" scene from Live and Let Die, which was eventually used in License to Kill to make up for the idiocy of leaving it out of the LALD movie.) The writers of Goldfinger clearly made an effort to use most of the best set-pieces from the book, while re-writing Fleming's clunky dialogue and sometimes adding things to make the set-pieces more spectacular, like having Bond actually discover Jill's gold-painted corpse instead of just being told about it later.

And the other thing the script did was eliminate or change nearly all of the things in the novel that don't make sense. Most famously, they changed Goldfinger's plan from something that could never work in a million years (explode a nuke in Fort Knox, steal the gold, and load it onto a bunch of Russian ships that apparently nobody is supposed to notice) to something that is silly but not totally illogical (explode a nuke in Fort Knox and contaminate the gold). Another thing that makes more sense is how Bond meets Goldfinger. In the book, Bond is hired by an American millionaire to find out how Goldfinger is cheating at cards, and it only later turns out, by coincidence, that Goldfinger is also the target of Bond's latest spy mission. In the movie, Bond is assigned by M to keep an eye on Goldfinger in preparation for the mission, and while he's observing Goldfinger, he notices that he's cheating at cards. And the movie creates a more-or-less logical reason for Goldfinger not to kill Bond, whereas in the book, Goldfinger keeps Bond alive for no real reason, and doesn't even know he's a spy until near the end of the book (because it makes total sense that an international criminal mastermind would not do a background check on a guy who's been foiling his evil plans for half the story).

In the novel, Pussy Galore is a lesbian who suddenly falls for Bond near the end, and Tilly Masterson is also a lesbian whose crush on Pussy Galore helps get her killed. (Tilly's lesbianism is the excuse for Fleming/Bond's infamous rant about how lesbianism was caused by the terrible decision to give women the vote. Really.) In the movie, Tilly's death is moved to an earlier point, so she's not hanging around Bond doing nothing for a large portion of the story, and while Pussy Galore is implicitly a lesbian, her falling for Bond is also moved to an earlier part of the story. Bond basically raping Pussy Galore into heterosexuality is hilariously stupid and offensive -- but then, so is the whole Fleming universe -- but it makes more sense than what happens in the book, and it's also a better way for Bond to foil Goldfinger's plan than the message-in-a-bottle gambit from the book. Also, Pussy Galore's dialogue is no longer Fleming's unbelievably bad approximation of how "tough" Americans talk.

The movie is implausible, ridiculous, sexist fun just like the book, but the story makes sense on its own terms, which the novel didn't always. One reason Goldfinger is one of the best of the Bond movies is simply that it's the best of both worlds: it has the Fleming spirit and many of Fleming's scenes, while actually improving on Fleming.

Friday, June 27, 2008

WKRP Episode: "I Am Woman"

I'm having some trouble uploading earlier episodes (I suspect that Fox may be figuring out how to block episodes from being uploaded in any form, even under different titles), but while I try to work that out, here's one I already uploaded: from the third season, an episode where Bailey tries to save the Flimm Building, where the station is housed, from being torn down, only to find that Mr. Carlson withdraws his support when he gets permission to move the station into its own building.

I've always liked this episode, and not just for Herb's discussion of Fantasia. One thing I like about it is that it takes a very standard story (saving a building from being demolished) with a pre-determined ending (of course they're not going to have to move) and makes it interesting by, among other things, focusing more on character relationships -- Bailey and Mr. Carlson, specifically -- than on plot. The episode doesn't even end with the building being saved; it just assumes that we know it will happen.

This was an episode The Comedy Network only had in the 22-minute syndication version, so I had to get missing scenes and music (including a snippet of "What'd I Say" by Ray Charles, a perpetual Johnny Fever favorite) from a lower-quality tape. But the whole episode is here, music and all. I can't identify all the music but the song played by the piano in the bar is "Lady Be Good" by George Gershwin.

Les Soeurs Jumelles

I knew that the Jacques Demy musical Les Demoiselles De Rochefort was made into a stage show a few years ago, but I didn't realize how updated the sound was. When Americans make old movie musicals into stage musicals, they usually stick pretty closely to the retro sound, but listen to what happened with the first song from Les Demoiselles in the 2003 stage version. First, here's the the song as it appears in the original film, mimed by the Dorleac sisters and sung by I'm not sure who:

And here's the stage version, performed by Frédérica Sorel and Mélanie Cohl in the roles originally played by Deneuve and Dorleac. It looks like it was a fun show; I just can't imagine an American or British stage show updating the sound of an old musical quite that much. It would be like if the stage version of Mary Poppins added a techno beat or something.

Plus, here's what appears to be a promotional music video made to tie in with the stage show:

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Donald Duck Ruined Everything?

For some ridiculous reason (to which, however, I've no desire to be disloyal), I really love seeing negative contemporary reviews of things that are now considered classics. With that in mind, here's a piece I found while looking through the new London Times archives. The article, credited only to "our film reviewer," is from April 8, 1953, it's called "Film Cartoons: Recovery After Decline," and is based on the idea that cartoons have consistently been getting worse since Disney's very earliest color cartoons, and that Disney really sold out by creating Donald Duck, leading to terrible cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Tweety, but cartoons now have a chance to get better thanks to the new hope of UPA.

I'm not quoting the critic to make fun of him (all of us are even now writing things that will look weird even a few years later); it's just an interesting look at where the state of cartoon criticism was in the early '50s. The reviewer was really espousing conventional wisdom, that funny-animal comedy/gag cartoons were hopelessly lowbrow. It's a window into why UPA was considered the saviour of cartoons in this period.

There wete once two Disneys: the humorist who amused himself with Mickey and, incidentally, made a most brilliant use of the new invention of sound, and the lyrical versifier -- poet is putting it too high -- who created the entirely successful Flowers and Trees. They worked in close and happy harmony with the nature of the medium they used, and the lunatic distortions, the exaggerated raucousness, the frenzied fantasies, with which Donald Duck assailed the screen were as far removed from the adventures of Mickey as the dubious prettiness of Fantasia was from the flowing, graceful lines of the Silly Symphonies.

It is possible to see Donald Duck as a heroic rebel, a last-ditch individualist, or to argue that he represented the frustrated fury felt by the common man as the thirties drew to their catastrophic close, but, whatever the motive for his peculiar behaviour, it had a disastrous effect on the cartoon. From the pleasant exaggerations of an inventive humour, the cartoon descended to the depths inhabited by Such creatures as "Bugs" Bunny and " Tweetie-Pie," where all is a chaos of insensate physical disaster, and the point and essence of fantasy are lost in wild and witless extravagance.

There were always, however, isolated cartoons, such as the French Joie de Vivre, to keep the true tradition alive, and there are welcome signs to-day that the cartoon is recovering a proper pride in itself. Perhaps the cartoon will always be happiest with animals, and perhaps the human figure, at least if it is drawn as stiffly as Snow White or Cinderella, will always prove something of an intruder into the lovely, animated world of cartoon nature, but the new U.P.A. films at least make their humans expressive, funny and individual. Gerald McBoing Boing may owe his reputation to an entrancing trick with sound, but he is a boy in his own right, and many people number a Mr. Magoo, that bumbling, short-sighted old gentleman with a dash of W. C. Fields in him, among their acquaintance. The cartoon, indeed, may be starting on a new phase. A form of three-dimensional cartoons is promised, and meanwhile Peter Pan is waiting round the corner to write another chapter in the Disney story.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Two Note Song

Some talk recently about the '90s Warners cartoons and the problems they had with replicating the storyboards in overseas animation. So I thought I would point you to an example of a '90s WB storyboard, part of Rusty Mills's board for a segment called "Wakko's Two-Note Song." This was from episode # 82 (which means we won't see it on DVD unless Warners releases the elusive volume # 4), an all-musical episode.

The segment is a clever introduction to the concept that music is more than the notes, that the same two notes can sound different depending on rhythm, harmony and orchestration. The storyboard excerpt covers the part of the cartoon that runs from about 0:50 to about 1:35. Allowing for some of Wang's quirks in the way of drawing the characters, the final result conveys more or less what the storyboard does (of course, I have no way of knowing how many re-takes there were). That may explain why Wang was the studio WB used most frequently; they weren't brilliant but they didn't produce stuff that looked nothing like the original boards.

One thing I always sort of liked about the "Animaniacs" segments with Dr. Scratchansniff (the bald psychiatrist who looked like a cross between Dr. Strangelove and a dentist that director/designer Alfred Gimeno used to go to) was that Yakko, Wakko, and Dot actually did seem to like him. and he actually seemed to sort of like them. Usually. (There was one cartoon late in the run where they just seemed to give him a hard time for the hell of it; that wasn't very good at all.)

One thing that was easy to criticize about "Animaniacs" was that nearly all the characters were irredeemable bastards -- they didn't learn lessons, they hurt innocent people and/or dogs and pigeons, and they frequently acted in selfish or irresponsible ways -- but they all had good or warm qualities that you could actually believe in, because the show didn't hit you over the head with trying to make you love the characters. If you liked the show, you'd notice the characters' good qualities; if you didn't, you wouldn't watch anyway, so there was no need for the show to go out of its way to redeem the characters every episode. I don't know if that makes sense; I guess I'm saying that while I didn't like, say, the Buttons/Mindy cartoons very much, I appreciate the fact that the show actually let her be a little brat who caused other people to suffer, and just assumed that if we liked the segments, we'd realize that she really didn't mean any harm.

On a down note, I really do not like what had happened to Wakko's voice by this time. It had developed out of the original Ringo Starr impression a long time before, but it kept getting higher and hoarser until it was quite unpleasant to listen to.

While I'm here, I might as well haul out my favorite Animaniacs song segment from the WB years, which is not at all to say it's my favorite song. "There's Only One of You" is a cute Randy Rogel song, not one of his best, about how we're all unique. (The message seems wrong, since it keeps telling us that all the animals and birds and such are undifferentiated, but "you" are special." But by the logic of the song, wouldn't "you" be just another one of the many billions of people in the world?) But it was given to StarToons in Chicago to animate, with Dave Pryor directing, and it was "staged" the way a song segment needed to be: with one overriding set and theme -- in this case, a Vaudeville performance -- which could then branch out into other locations and background ideas as needed (like the spiders criss-crossing across the screen) but always coming back to the main set to keep the number grounded. A lot of the later Animaniacs songs would just cut around from one location to another, making the segments feel very static and scripted because the characters weren't moving around, only the scene was changing.

I wish I could identify some of the StarToons animators in the scene, but I'm not completely sure and I don't want to get stuff wrong.

Unfortunately this segment was not shown on its own; it was used to fill out a two-part musical episode (not used well, either; there was no setup for it whatsoever and it didn't look or feel like part of the episode). The episode it was in was not nearly as well animated, and this piece sort of got lost.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Napoleon Bunny-Part" (1956)

Found this one on; I haven't seen it online anywhere else, and it's not on DVD yet. It used to run on "The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show" a lot, and as a kid it was one of my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons. Now, not so much, but it's still enjoyable.

It's notable as one of the few Bugs cartoons Friz Freleng made in the '50s that didn't have Yosemite Sam as Bugs' adversary. Sam was a great character, but I thought Freleng limited himself too much by having Sam in almost every cartoon. From 1942 through 1949 Freleng's Bugs cartoons were arguably the best at the studio, and one reason was that more than any other director, he kept mixing up the formula, moving beyond the basic format of "A Wild Hare" and finding new situations for Bugs to be in and different types of characters for him to interact with. (Like the "Little Red Riding Rabbit" idea of putting Bugs against a "villain" he doesn't really dislike and a third, "good" character he actually hates more than the supposed villain.) Once Sam became to the Bugs cartoons what Sylvester was to all Freleng's other cartoons, Freleng's Bugs Bunnies became more formulaic, because the Bugs/Sam cartoons were pretty much the same no matter where the cartoon took place.

Actually Napoleon in "Napoleon Bunny-Part" is pretty much Yosemite Sam with a French accent (and one of those annoying designs Hawley Pratt was obsessed with in the '50s, the rectangular flat head that juts out at the back). And his henchman, of course, is Mugsy from "Bugs and Thugs."

Also, while I have my problems with Gerry Chiniquy's animation in the post-1955 cartoons, I do like his work in the scene with Bugs and Napoleon (Napoleon moving the stuff around on the map, Bugs taking snuff). It's recognizably his jerky, poppy style, but for once it feels like the characters are acting in distinct ways instead of just bobbing up and down when it's their turn to talk.

Friday, June 20, 2008

WKRP Episode: "The Doctor's Daughter"

This episode, the only appearance of Johnny's daughter, gets a bit too soapy but has a lot of good moments, especially the B story about Andy trying to get Johnny to "play the playlist." Also, the basic story, about a '60s burnout trying to adjust to being an '80s parent, was somewhat fresh at the time, though of course it would soon become a TV staple (Family Ties). It was the first episode written by Lissa Levin, formerly Hugh Wilson's secretary, and the first episode directed by Frank Bonner.

Music: "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers; "Bo Diddley" by the late great Bo Diddley; "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and his Comets, and for one of the most famous music-related jokes in the series, "The Long Run" by The Eagles.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cyd Charisse, 1921-2008

L.A. Times obituary here. And since images are far more important than words, here is her first dance number in Nicholas Ray's Party Girl.

She was a great star who perhaps should have been an even greater star. Sometimes her filmography reminds me of a baseball player who languished in the minors for a long time before being given a chance to prove himself in the big leagues. Charisse was in "major league" productions at MGM almost from the beginning, but often in somewhat minor-league roles, there to do maybe one dance number and not much more. Actually, that's exactly the role she had in Singin' in the Rain, in the picture for one dance number. But most of her other numbers had been fairly wholesome, with some exceptions like her number with Ricardo Montalban in On an Island With You (see below). In this one, she was dangerously sexy and funny at the same time, funny because of the delight she took in disturbing and teasing Gene Kelly's hapless "Gotta Dance!" guy. And she wasn't even the first choice for that part; it was supposed to go to Kelly's longtime assistant Carol Haney, who was a marvelous dancer but wouldn't have projected the same kind of overwhelming sexuality.

One reason MGM didn't cast her in many good parts, apart from luck -- she was supposed to get the Ann Miller part in Easter Parade but got hurt and couldn't do it, and that set her career back some -- was probably her height; she was half an inch taller than Gene Kelly. (Comden and Green referenced this problem in The Band Wagon when Fred Astaire's character worries that she's too tall to be his dancing partner.) But they didn't seem to realize, until Singin', that her height could be an advantage. When Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly dances with her, they actually have to work to be her equals in the dance, because she's so imposing that she could easily take control of the whole relationship as expressed in dance. When she does overwhelm her partner, as she does when Kelly first sees her in Singin', it's funny because we're watching Kelly share our reaction to the sight of her; he's as overwhelmed as we are. And when Kelly grabs her hand and establishes himself as her equal, it's a great moment because he really had a challenge in being on the same level with someone who just a moment ago was in complete control of him.

It was Singin' that instantly made her leading-lady material at MGM, and got her the part for which she's best known, the part in The Band Wagon ... though the movie never gave her a really good solo number. ("New Sun in the Sky" is too short, and the cut "Two-Faced Woman" was part of Jeffrey Cordova's horrible pretentious Faust musical.) After that, she had two problems: one, that the musical was starting to collapse just as she had finally established herself as a star, and two, that there were very few parts in musicals that allowed her to demonstrate her distinctive sexiness for any real length of time. Most musical-comedy heroines are good girls, like the heroine of Brigadoon, a part that was perfectly suited to all the things Charisse didn't do best. Since she couldn't sing and wasn't a strong actor, a good Cyd Charisse part would have to lean mostly on her two outstanding, interconnected strengths: her dancing ability and her sex appeal. But musicals in the '50s were less dance-heavy than they had been, and heroines weren't usually written sexy.

Her best part in a musical after Band Wagon was probably Silk Stockings: Ninotchka's transformation into a sensual woman of the world allowed sex and sexuality to occupy a prominent place in most of her numbers, and Fred Astaire, despite his age, was a great partner for her because his dance numbers are very much about male-female sexual relationships. (Gene Kelly had more sex appeal than Fred Astaire, but his dances didn't lean as heavily on courship rituals and relationships, and they usually emphasized him a little more than his female partner, whoever she might be.) And of course her "Baby You Knock Me Out" number in It's Always Fair Weather is outstanding, though it's over too soon and she gets hardly anything else to do in the rest of the picture.

But it would have been interesting to see what she would have done with a part in a musical written for her specific strengths. MGM was considering a musical version of Anna Christie in the '50s; I don't know if she was ever considered for that (it eventually became the Broadway musical New Girl in Town with Gewn Verdon), but that's the sort of part I could see Charisse excelling in: a strong , sexy-yet-vulnerable role with lots of opportunities for expression in dance.

But never mind the stuff she could have done; I only emphasize that because I know others will be writing eloquently about the amazing work she did give us. One of the truly great performers in the history of film musicals.

On a tangent: I've said this before, but I increasingly think that in movie musicals, the most memorable performers are not the ones who are good at everything, but the ones who are weak in some areas and outstandingly strong in others. A movie musicals is judged on four things: singing, dancing, acting, and looks/sex appeal. Remember the scout who wrote about Fred Astaire: "Can't act, can't sing, balding, can dance a little" -- he was judging him on those four criteria. Some performers can sing, dance, act and look good (and looking good on film is a skill, one that requires practice and training just like singing or acting), but they rarely become legendary. Others, like Cyd Charisse, can't sing and have limitations as actors. But her strengths were so outstanding that she is a far greater movie-musical performer than other, more versatile perfomers. Sort of the way a baseball player with 40 homers and 100 walks but a low batting average and so-so defense is preferable to a player who can do everything fairly well but not outstandingly, a Cyd Charisse is preferable to a quadruple-threat performer who doesn't really stand out in anything. There, I've ended with a baseball analogy just the way I started.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Talkier The Better

To illustrate my point, from a previous post, about Bob Clampett's cartoons being extremely talky, here are two versions of the same gag. One is from Clampett's "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery," the other from "China Jones," a McKimson short from 1959.

Of course the first version is better, but then, you don't need me to tell you that McKimson 1959 is inferior to Clampett 1946 (or McKimson 1946 for that matter). The point here is that in 1946, Clampett has Daffy Duck talking through every step of the gag, telling us what he sees, what he's doing, why he's doing it, and making a smart-ass pop culture reference after the gag is over. In 1959, Daffy does the same gag without saying anything except "oops." And this is McKimson, whose cartoons by this time were the most dialogue-heavy at the studio.

I think the dialogue in the earlier version enhances the gag, honestly. Take the dialogue away and it's a straightforward cartoon gag from Warren Foster, a good gag (as his gags usually were), but there are a limited number of things that can be done with it. The dialogue overlays Daffy's bravado and misplaced self-confidence on top of the gag, making the payoff funnier because he so clearly had himself believing in his own brilliance.

I guess what I'm saying is: 1) Don't anybody get the idea that Clampett's cartoons are "cartoony" because of their pure visual style. They are cartoony, but they're some of the talkiest cartoons ever made, and talkiness is actually not incompatible with cartooniness. 2) Avoiding dialogue and telling the story in pictures rather than words does not actually make a cartoon more "visual," and can actually make it duller.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

You hear a tropical drum, you drink some tropical rum, you're in a tropical spot and yet you really are not

Don't forget that this week is Fox's re-release of Busby Berkeley's insane Technicolor masterpiece The Gang's All Here, the last movie where he really got to do what he did best. (Except for Gang, he spent most of the '40s at MGM, a studio with absolutely no tolerance for his story-be-damned self-indulgence. But Busby Berkeley making normal musicals where the numbers are of a normal length, work plausibly within the story, and conform to the rules of good taste is not Busby Berkeley at all.) Gang has all his trademarks -- long numbers that could never possibly be performed in the stage shows they're supposedly taking place in; an obsession with large props, midgets, chorus girls performing identical actions, and the superimposition of performers in front of dark space; ahead-of-their-time experiments with camerawork and imagery; tasteless sexual innuendo. It's like his Warners movies except in Technicolor, with a bigger budget and with wartime uplift added to the mix; this more than makes up for the fact that the script and songs aren't as good as they were in the Warners days.

Fox's original release of Gang was faulted for having a transfer that rended all the colors too dull, turning the bananas in "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" into an almost greyish version of yellow. This post at Home Theater Forum has a side-by-side comparison of images from the two DVD versions, and as you can see, the new one appears to have the correct colors. The new disc has all the other special features from the older DVD, and is available either separately or as part of a Carmen Miranda collection.

Friday, June 13, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Put Up Or Shut Up"

Written by Blake Hunter, Steve Marshall and Steve Kampmann, this episode wraps up most of the Herb/Jennifer stuff from the first two seasons. (They occasionally returned to that for throwaway gags in the final season, but it was never a focal story point again as it was in the first season.) It also features Johnny's acid flashbacks and Les's "Sneaky Snooper." And it introduces several Herb tics including his habit of hyperventilating.

This episode was made fairly early in the second season, but it was delayed until late in the season so they wouldn't air it before any episodes where Herb was hitting on Jennifer.

Music consists of three songs sung by Herb: "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," "Our Day Will Come," and "Just the Way You Are."

Cold open and Act 1:

Act 2:

Tag scene and closing credits:

Grudge Match: Kevin Arnold vs. Cory Matthews

Talk about Complete Savages! Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage, The Wonder Years) battles Cory Matthews (Ben Savage, Boy Meets World). Who will teach the other a valuable life lesson about the value of getting your ass kicked?

They are of roughly the same height and weight, so this comes down to the narrator factor. Kevin is required to pause for long stretches so that his future self can talk about what's going through his head and what he's learned. This will give Cory an opportunity to kick him in the teeth, and then go to Mr. Feeny to learn something. It always helps to get your lessons after the fight, rather than during, so I give a slight edge to Cory.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Never Waste A Gag

Here we see the same gag in two Frank Tashlin films more than 10 years apart: first a wolf trying to eat a single pea as a complete meal in "I Got Plenty of Mutton," then Jerry Lewis doing the same thing with a bean in Artists and Models. Greg Ford mentions on his commentary for "Mutton" that Tashlin also wrote this gag, uncredited, into "Mickey and the Beanstalk," but I haven't seen that in a while.

By the way, is it me, or does "Mutton" have unusually little dialogue for an early '40s cartoon? (There's no dialogue at all for almost half the picture, and after that the dialogue is mostly limited to the ram's pre-Pepe Le Pew lover schtick.) Most of the Warners cartoons in the early '40s were quite talky by comparison, very different from all the dialoguless cartoons they'd do in the '50s. Bob Clampett in particular could never resist having a character talk during a gag -- remember Daffy doing the trapdoor gag in "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery" and telling us every step of the way what he's doing.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"What's the Use?"

I should find a way to segue into this, but I can't, so I'll just say: I'm posting this song because I really, really like it and it's one of my favorite songs ever. It's from the famous cult flop Candide (1956), with music by Leonard Bernstein and a script by Lillian Hellman; one of the most famous of all cult flop musicals, it's been revived many times with many different scripts (none of which are as good as Hellman's original script, uneven though it is) and with many added songs (none of which are as good as the originals).

This song, with lyrics by Richard Wilbur, is sung in a casino in Venice, and in keeping with the politically-charged tone of the show (in some scenes it's like a pastiche of the old Popular Front style), appears to have some kind of message about the futility of capitalism. But what it mainly is is a great comedy song with an irresistible waltz tune that builds to a climax that's both enthralling and hilarious, while making its point in a non-preachy way.

The lead singer in the number is the Russian opera singer Irra Petina, who plays the character of the Old Lady. Like a number of people in the original cast of Candide, she was a full-fledged opera singer who'd sung at the Metropolitan opera. Broadway in the '40s and '50s had access to quite a number of singers who were operatically trained, but weren't "crossover" singers in any sense. People like Petina, Robert Rounseville (Candide), Carol Brice, John Reardon and many others didn't change their vocal style for Broadway, but neither did they sing Broadway songs in an overly-operatic way, nor did they muffle the words; they were just the people you hired for a Broadway show when you needed operatic singing voices, and Broadway shows frequently did in those days. But actually, one of the funniest things in the number is that in the middle of all these operatic voices, the guy playing the police chief has almost no voice at all. I'm assuming that was intentional.


When I was looking through the old New York Times for stuff (like the Son of Paleface article I posted earlier, I came upon the article where Mary Tyler Moore expressed her opinion of WKRP in Cincinnati, at that time MTM's most successful current comedy. There's been some confusion as to what she actually said -- some versions are much more put-downy than what she said -- so I thought I would transcribe it; it's from February 12, 1980, Moore interviewed by Janet Maslin:


"But I'm not very pleased by what's happened to television lately. I think there's too much of one kind of comedy show. That's not to say they're not funny, but there are very few options for the viewer. The articulate, witty comedy we used to do on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show, those kind of wonderful shows are gone." What about WKRP in Cincinnati, an MTM production that is quite successful? "It's not the kind of show that I would be happy performing in."



Monday, June 09, 2008

McKimson and Davis

I was talking to someone the other day about the two directors who took over Warner Brothers cartoon units in the mid-'40s, Bob McKimson and Art Davis.

They were the first and last directors appointed after Leon Schlesinger sold the cartoon operation to Warner Brothers, which I think probably made for a tough situation: the studio was changing, becoming more beholden to the studio and its corporate needs, and there was no longer a question, as there had been under Schlesinger, of a director learning on the job. McKimson and Davis were in a big cartoon factory, expected to make cartoons for super-popular cartoon stars and come up with popular new continuing characters ASAP. And they were dealing with management that had already made it clear that it wouldn't have the same kind of tolerance for freakiness or quirkiness that Schlesinger did. Neither of them became truly great directors, in my opinion, but they didn't have the benefit, as Clampett, Jones and Freleng did, of being able to strike out a few times while working toward something more interesting. (Yes, Clampett hit some bad patches in his Warners career; most of his 1941 cartoons are pretty slow and stolid, but he was growing out of what he'd done in the late '30s, and we wouldn't have had his better, faster 1942-6 work without that slow patch in between.) By some accounts Davis used to say that his unit was shut down because he was less willing than McKimson to do what Eddie Selzer wanted; that sounds like a self-serving argument, but there's no doubt that playing the corporate game was a new challenge at the studio. Jones and Freleng could get by because they were directors who had the skills of producers, who were, in fact, de facto producers of their own cartoons; under Schlesinger's hands-off regime, they had to learn (as Clampett and Tashlin did too) to be semi-autonomous. McKimson and Davis did not have those skills -- if you read Lloyd Turner's interview with Mike Barrier, linked below, it's clear that Davis had weaknesses as a boss and decision-maker -- and they were more analogous to the directors who worked for Disney or some other studio: their cartoons were skifully made, reflected their personalities to some extent, but they were more like staff directors than full-fledged bosses, and that can be seen in the fact that the people who worked for them often didn't have a whole lot of respect for them.

The question always comes up of whether Warners made the right choice in shutting down Davis's unit when it downsized from four cartoon units to three . I've usually said that if one of them had to go, it should have been Davis, because I strongly prefer the cartoons McKimson was making in the same period. And while I still have that preference, it's obviously not as simple as that. McKimson started with a number of advantages over Davis that contributed to the success of his early cartoons, starting with the obvious one, that he got started a little earlier and therefore had seniority as a director. It seems like anyone who headed up the "fourth unit" was given short shrift at the studio, and it didn't matter if he was a veteran; when Frank Tashlin came back to the studio in the '40s, he said, he had "lost my seniority" and wound up with some of the same problems as Davis's unit. As the junior director, Davis was in the position of not being allowed to make Bugs Bunny cartoons for several years and getting most of the budget-cutting measures (like Cinecolor cartoons). Also, McKimson and Davis came in just as the studio was moving toward assigning story men exclusively to a particular unit, so McKimson got Warren Foster exclusively, while Davis went through several story men before getting Bill Scott and Lloyd Turner, who were good but inexperienced. According to Lloyd Turner's interview, Davis didn't seem to have enough confidence to judge whether their stories were good or not; whether or not McKimson had the same problems with judgment, it didn't matter much because Foster was one of the most respected story people at the studio, and as with Mike Maltese, there was a certain built-in confidence that his material was good.

My biggest problem with Davis's cartoons, and I've said this before in various ways, is that they don't feel quite like Warner Brothers cartoons to me. It's hard to put into words what makes a cartoon feel like it fits the WB "house style," but Davis's cartoons in terms of plotting, gags and animation often feel like they came from some other studio. Lantz, in particular; he had a lot of Lantz people on his staff, and the format of "The Super Snooper," "The Stupor Salesman" with the big funny-animal villain being bothered to death by an annoying bird much smaller than he is, makes it feel like a really good Woody Woodpecker cartoon rather than a Daffy Duck cartoon. The cruelty in a lot of the cartoons, physical and psychological ("Bowery Bugs" especially) reminds me of some of the Lantz or Famous cartoons, too; Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett made cruel cartoons too, of course, but somehow they did a better job of taking the edge off the cruelty (or, as with Jones and "Chow Hound," actually acknowledging that the humor is cruel).

And it's not like Davis is breaking with the WB house style to do something very new and experimental; it's just that they feel a little more like the products of other studios that weren't usually as good as Warners anyway. McKimson made a few cartoons like that, like Corn Plastered, where if you take away Blanc and Stalling and a few of Foster's gags, you'd swear it was a fairly good Columbia or Terry cartoon instead of the fairly bad Warner cartoon that it is. But Davis's cartoons, with their somewhat weightless animation (unlike Clampett, he didn't have a lot of "solid" animation, wild-but-grounded animation like Rod Scribner did, let alone McKimson-style animation; Davis had great animators, but none of them brought a lot of weight to the characters) , post-war suburban settings and interchangeable little-wiseguy characters like the squirrel in Porky Chops or the termite in The Pest That Came to Dinner, feel to me like they wandered in from some other studio and got outfitted with the trappings and production values of a Warners cartoon.

McKimson's cartoons of the same period just feel a little more Warners-y, just in the style of gags, the look of the cartoons -- even the suburban cartoons don't look quite as antiseptic as the same settings do in "Catch as Cats Can" or something like that -- the portrayal of the characters (Davis's Porky is too ineffectual even for Porky; McKimson makes him a little rougher and just a little more competent even when Daffy is beating up on him), the more solid look to the animation. And the far greater number of radio -- and later television -- references and parodies, giving his cartoons a more pop-culture savvy feel than Davis's usually had. Some of that is due to Warren Foster, but I don't think all of it is; I just think McKimson nailed the house style better than Davis did. Maybe he just had a better eye for imitating what the senior directors were doing; borrowing characters and catchphrases from radio was something he learned from Clampett, and throughout the '50s he would try to catch up to whatever Jones or Freleng had been doing a year earlier.

You could maybe argue that Davis lost the battle, in part, because he was trying new stuff (or at least new for Warner Brothers) while McKimson was content to master the house style and then never deviate much from that style. That might actually be a fair argument. But it's not surprising that when you have two "house directors," the more successful one is the guy who sticks closest to the house style. McKimson had weaknesses that would bite him in the ass as his tenure continued, most obviously his pedantic insistence that animators stick to his pose drawings, something that drove a lot of good animators out of his unit. Davis gave his animators maybe too much freedom sometimes, so this is one of those cases where a happy medium between the two approaches would have been best. But as almost anybody will attest who grew up watching these cartoons on Saturday morning, McKimson's cartoons feel very much like Warner Brothers cartoons; they fit the brand almost perfectly. I don't quite get that from Davis; I always feel like he would have done his best directing at some other studio. That's just me, though, and I wouldn't argue strenuously with anyone who feels Davis was better.

(I should note as an aside that while Chuck Jones is sometimes accused of similar pedantry, it's not true; Jones specifically said that Ken Harris ignored many, sometimes all of his drawings but that whatever Harris came up with would be the emotion that Jones had in mind; the directors' drawings were just a way of suggesting what the animator should try to convey.)

Friday, June 06, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Sparky"

I thought Sparky Anderson was a somewhat overrated manager (though admittedly I may be just bitter because his Tigers beat the Blue Jays in 1987), but he's pretty good in the inevitable "gimmicky story built around famous sports figure who in real life would never work with these people" episode. Les's "Big Fat Muffin" song is probably the best part, though I still have no idea what the point of it is.

The episode was the first script written by Steven Kampmann and Peter Torokvei, who got invited to pitch to the show based on the SCTV "Cisco Kid" video they made with Martin Short; they also do uncredited voice work as callers on Sparky's show. Music: "Don't Let Go" by Jerry Lee Lewis (probably the artists Johnny played most often); "Survival" by Bob Marley (one of the artists Venus played most often).

Pointless writer trivia: any joke about Jerry Vale indicates that a scene was either written or re-written by Hugh Wilson. He had other Jerry Vale jokes in WKRP and a Jerry Vale joke in a Bob Newhart Show episode he wrote.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Princess Trampolina!

Ye gods. This guy has collected a bunch of excerpts from what may be the weirdest film of the late '60s -- though obviously it's hard to choose just one -- Anthony Newley's Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?

It is impossible to describe this thing. The New York Times review tried, as have others. But all a description can give is the bare essentials: it was written, produced and directed by Newley, the premise is a ripoff of 8&1/2 but with more nudity and musical numbers, Newley's then-wife Joan Collins is in it, and George Jessel and Milton Berle are, respectively, Death and the Devil. But you've really got to watch parts of this for yourself to appreciate how much sense this movie does not make.

Compared to other legendarily terrible movies, I find this less painful than most, because Newley is a genuinely talented performer, writer and songwriter. He is horribly mis-using his talents, but at least you have the fascination of seeing someone talented make all the wrong decisions. The infamous "Princess and the Donkey" song isn't a bad song, really, musically or lyrically (though he shouldn't have tried rhyming "problem" with "Goblin"), it's just... you know... WTF?! Who would write a song on this subject, and who would then spend lots of money to put it on film? Anthony Newley, that's who.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Grudge Match: Philip Banks vs. Carl Winslow

Two portly '90s sitcom dads battle it out: Judge Philip "Uncle Phil" Banks (James Avery, Fresh Prince of Bel Air) vs. Sergeant Carl Winslow (Reginald VelJohnson, Family Matters).

Both men are fighting with all their heart because of the prize that has been offered: sweet, sweet relief from the greatest irritant in their lives. If Phil wins, Jazz will be thrown out of his house permanently, never to return at any time. If Carl wins, Steve Urkel will be shot into space along with the Urkel-bot and any and all alter-Urkel-egos. Which pudgy Pop will hop to the top, the judge or the cop??

The two seem evenly matched to me. Carl has police training, but that advantage is offset by Phil being in better shape. Also, both seem evenly matched when it comes to the RAGE (tm): Carl's life and property has been destroyed by Urkel, but his other kids are relatively inoffensive, whereas even if Phil gets rid of Jazz, he still has the pain of being the father of Carlton and Hilary and raising a guy who's so wimpy that his mother had to banish him from Philadelphia after one little fight. For both of these men, there has been no rest and no peace, and now their fury will be unleashed -- but who will come out of this alive?

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Ideal Bugs Bunny Cartoon...

Is "Racketeer Rabbit" (1946).

I don't know why this one isn't very famous; I guess it's because Friz Freleng covered some of the same ground later with "Bugs and Thugs" (1954), which became one of the best-known Bugs cartoons ("You might, rabbit, you might" is one of the most-quoted lines from any cartoon). "Bugs and Thugs" is good, but "Racketeer" is just about perfect. Even by the standards of 1946, almost certainly the best year for Warner Brothers cartoon releases -- Clampett (in his last cartoons for the studio) Jones and Freleng all in peak form, the first cartoons from McKimson and Davis -- I've always thought this one was special.

The gags are from Mike Maltese and Friz Freleng's top drawer: the "and me, boss?" sequence, the "making something really fast just so you can hit the villain with it" scene, the "hiding Rocky" scene, and of course the amazingly written and timed scene where Bugs actually gets into costume to impersonate a policeman (even though Rocky can't see him doing it and there's no reason for him to do it). It has several of my favorite Maltese lines of dialogue, particularly "Would I have the temerity to do this if my bosom chum was encased therein?" It's got Freleng's excellent '40s animation team and Paul Julian's backgrounds ("Hotel Friz"). And it just strikes me as the perfect mid-point between all the different stages of Warner Brothers cartoons: it has the wackiness and pop-culture references of the early '40s, combined with the sharp gags (but not just blackout gags like in some of the '50s cartoons; they're integrated into the story) and explosions and more socially-conscious Bugs of the post-war period.

Freleng and Maltese were an exceptionally good team when it came to Bugs Bunny; they were on the same wavelength when it came to the character, both believing that Bugs shouldn't go looking for trouble but needed to be ruthless once the trouble started, and that he should go up against characters who are at least reasonably threatening. (The common thread among most of Freleng's Bugs villains, culminating in Yosemite Sam, is that while they're too stupid to be much of a threat to Bugs, other people find them dangerous and you get the feeling that they were up against anyone other than Bugs, they might not be as inept.) In this cartoon, Bugs isn't smug like he'd later become, and he's not obnoxious like he is in some of the Clampett or McKimson Bugs Bunnies. He's a likeable force for good and he's a bad-ass who enjoys inflicting violence and extremely intelligent and resourceful. And more than any other cartoon character, he takes us into our confidence: what makes the "give it to me!" joke is the way he looks at us for a split second, as if to share our enjoyment of what's about to happen. He's a fully-rounded character like few other cartoon superstars.

If the cartoon has a flaw is that there's a story gap -- we never do see how Bugs gets rid of the Peter Lorre caricature, Hugo. Knowing nothing about it, I'd guess that a scene like that was probably written but that they didn't have time to animate it. (The cartoon is almost eight minutes as it is.) Still, it actually works all right because by this point, Bugs's abilities are so well-known that we just accept that he'll get out of any situation; we don't even need to see him do it.

Personal note: back when I was in college, I organized a sort of video festival of 15 Bugs Bunny cartoons. About eight people showed up, but I think they had a good time. Of the 15 I selected, "Racketeer Rabbit" is the only one that hasn't been on a Looney Tunes Golden Collection yet, but hopefully the series will last long enough for that to change. (And it will be a bonus on a Gangster movies collection later this year.) For the less-than-eight people who care, here are the 15 Bugs Bunny cartoons I picked as a representative "best-of" chronological sampling of his career. Actually except maybe for the last two I'd probably pick the same ones today.

A Wild Hare
Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid
Little Red Riding Rabbit
The Old Grey Hare
Racketeer Rabbit
Hair-Raising Hare
Bugs Bunny Rides Again
Haredevil Hare
High Diving Hare
Rabbit of Seville
Hillbilly Hare
Operation Rabbit
Duck! Rabbit, Duck!
Sahara Hare
Ali Baba Bunny