Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman = Good.

I really don't know what else to say. I never met anyone who didn't like Paul Newman.

Looking at his filmography, I get the odd impression that he was one of those stars who did his best work for directors who weren't quite in the first rank. (Robert Rossen may be an exception, though he made so few films that it's hard to say where he ranks.) His collaborations with superstar directors -- Hitchcock, Scorsese, Altman, Huston -- were rarely his or their best, even if he did win an Oscar for the Scorsese picture. But with solid middle-of-the-pack, non-superstar directors like Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke) or George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy, The Sting, Slap Shot) or Martin Ritt (who made a lot of successful movies but was never really a star director) he made his best-loved movies. I think he may have been most comfortable with a director who was his equal, not his boss, on a project that was his as much as the director's. An exception: he should have worked less often with Jack Smight, whose hackiness made the fine script and cast of Harper count for surprisingly little.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Why Do You Suppose Ricardo Montalban is Such a Good Pitchman?

When it comes to commercials, most people know Ricardo Montalban from this:

But because that was a little before my time, I actually knew him first from this '80s commercial, which aired during that Disneyland I watched as a kid. (That was the one with "For Whom the Bulls Toil," "The Brave Little Tailor," and "Ben and Me"; I had it on a VHS tape and watched it over and over.) Now I know that this was basically a ripoff of his Cordoba commercial, but it was new to me:

I'm trying to figure out what made the Cordoba commercial so effective -- as entertainment, anyway; I have no idea how many cars it sold. Obviously the commercial is meant to play up the "exotic" appeal, what with the guitar music and Montalban slightly exaggerating his own accent. But I think that's what makes it work. Most celebrities try to act like everyday people when they do commercials, so as to appeal more to the average customer. Or they play the character they play in movies or TV. Montalban is sort of playing himself, but a hammed-up version of himself.

WKRP Episode: "Daydreams"

By request, an episode from season 3 where each of the regulars has a daydream while Mr. Carlson delivers a dull speech.

For some reason, whenever WKRP does an episode without an audience (this one has a pretty obvious laugh track) it reminds me a bit of SCTV, and this episode, written by Peter Torokvei, reminds me a lot of SCTV, with its low-key, deadpan parody skits done without an audience. I think some of these skits could benefit from more "hard" jokes. Venus as a white-bread Vegas standup comic is a great idea, though, because instead of contradicting his character it fits him so perfectly (it's part of the ongoing running gag that Venus, off the air, is incredibly un-hip). Bailey's dream sequence was cut in most syndication versions; I edited it in from another source.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Grudge Match: Laverne and Shirley vs. Mary and Rhoda

The two most beloved girl-girl buddy teams of the '70s pitted in a brutal battle for ratings supremacy. Will the Minneapolis (and sometimes New York) team make it home alive after all, or will the Milwaukee (and sometimes Los Angeles) girls prove that this time, there's no stopping them?

Both teams have one clear weak link: Shirley got her ass kicked by Laverne the very first time they appeared on Happy Days, and Mary is fundamentally useless (unlike Laura Petrie, who was trained in judo). But I think I would personally be inclined to give this to L&S, because Laverne seems to be tougher than Rhoda and Shirley is somewhat less useless in a fight than Mary. But I could be wrong; after all, Laverne and Shirley usually cause more harm to themselves than others, and Mary and Rhoda might not even have to do anything for L&S to fall over and take themselves out of the fight.

Monday, September 22, 2008

That Cartoon That Traumatized You When You Were a Kid

As Thad says, there's been a lot of Irv Spector talk going on lately, and that reminded me that I've been meaning to talk about another cartoon that Spector wrote, "Chew Chew Baby." (Not to be confused with the Woody Woodpecker cartoon of the same name.) This is not a good cartoon, at least as far as I can remember; I'm almost relieved that it's not online anymore (it used to be, but I guess it was pulled before I could see it), because I saw it once, as a young child, and absolutely never wanted to see it again. Probably some of you also remember being traumatized by the sight of a little cannibal who can, and does, devour people whole. You don't see any blood or anything, but you see his teeth get really, really big and then he swallows them whole, snap! It's like Tex Avery's Billy Boy if Billy went around eating innocent people, and also with all the jokes replaced by scary unpleasantness.

When I saw this on TV -- it hasn't been shown on TV for some time, as I understand -- I was young enough that this was actually the first I'd ever heard of cannibalism; and I assumed that this cartoon's definition of the term was accurate, and that there actually were people who have the ability to swallow other people whole.

I was sort of lucky in that I was able to find out the name of the cartoon (by Googling "cannibal" and "cartoon"; there are other cartoons about cannibals, but not that many, and certainly none whose description is anything like this); other people were traumatized by cartoons whose names will forever be a mystery to them. Other people have told me that they had a similar experience, not with this cartoon, but a cartoon -- something they saw on TV in one of those "filler" time slots that used to be filled by cheaply-purchased cartoons (Famous, Terrytoons, and so on) that really creeped them out and stayed with them, not because they liked it, but because they didn't. For many people, the ending of "There's Good Boos Tonight" was the formative WTF experience, though at least that one had a familiar main character.

So did anybody else out there see an old cartoon, in their childhood years, that really freaked/creeped/grossed/[fill in something]ed you out? It's not necessary to recall the titles; the whole point is that we don't remember the titles, and probably would never know them without the internet.

Oh, and if anybody out there has a pristine copy of "Chew Chew Baby" -- I don't want to see it. Not even for curiosity's sake. I've worked long and hard to re-integrate into society after seeing that cartoon on my grandparents' TV in Montreal all those years ago (yes, I remember where I saw it; that's how much it scared me).

Update: Sigh. It is online, and in a very nice print. It was all I could do to watch a few seconds and find that it's even more disturbing than I remembered it. Brrr.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I Don't Like Rhyming Subtitles

In the "things I complain about that normal people don't and shouldn't care about" category: why is it that most English subtitle translations render song lyrics (and rhyming dialogue, like in Cyrano De Bergerac) in rhyme? Watching foreign-made musicals with the subtitles is, for me, extremely annoying because instead of just giving us a literal translation of what they're singing, the subtitles always twist the meaning around in order to make it rhyme. Les Demoiselles De Rochefort is almost unwatchable with the subtitles for that very reason. Same with the Gerard Depardieu version of Cyrano De Bergerac, with the rhyming subtitles by Anthony Burgess.

It would be one thing if the subtitles were "singing" translations that we could sing along with, but for the most part, they don't fit the music, either (or in the case of Cyrano, the scansion of the original French verse); they just rhyme because the subtitle translator decided we had to know that the song/dialogue is in rhyme. But we can hear that the thing rhymes; we're looking at the subtitles just to get a clear idea of what they're saying. It doesn't help to look at the rhyming subtitles and try to figure out the difference between what's being sung and what the subtitler came up with in order to create these lame rhymes. (Though I admit it has helped my French, because it forces me to listen more closely to the lyrics, since I can't depend on the subtitles to tell me anything.) Just give us the translations and forget about trying to make it rhyme, please.

Friday, September 19, 2008

WKRP Episodes: "Pilot" and "The Creation of Venus"

This week was the 30th anniversary of the debut of WKRP in Cincinnati (it premiered on Monday, September 18, 1978). So the appropriate thing is to post the pilot, with the original music, "Queen of the Forest" by Ted Nugent.

And after that, I'm going to post one of the last episodes of the series, "The Creation of Venus," a flashback episode that ret-cons the pilot in light of what we've learned about the characters since then. The writer of "Creation," Blake Hunter, who later created "Who's the Boss?," was a continuity obsessive, and he was bothered at the fact that Venus in the pilot had a different personality and a different backstory than later, so he wrote this episode to reconcile the two. (Though it's been pointed out that in trying to fix all the continuity gaps in the show, he may have created a continuity error by saying that Andy knew Venus's real name; in the first season, it was implied that he didn't.) All the scenes from the pilot are newly-taped -- they had to be, because they had a different Mama Carlson -- but more importantly, the pilot's story is re-interpreted so we see what was going on behind-the-scenes.

So, here's the pilot, act 1 (unfortunately I didn't have room to upload the main title).

Pilot, Act 2:

And here's "The Creation of Venus," teaser and Act 1:

The Creation of Venus, Act 2:

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Is THE OPPOSITE SEX worse than THE WOMEN (2008)?

Sorry for the lack of postings recently.

I was recently asked whether I remembered a '50s remake of The Women, before the current flop, I mean. Yes, I do remember it, unfortunately; it was The Opposite Sex (1956), a semi-musical remake of The Women, but with men in the cast (including Leslie Nielsen as the husband). I haven't seen the new version, and don't want to, but I find it hard to believe that it could be as bad as The Opposite Sex.

Not that the original version of The Women is any masterpiece, or even a very entertaining movie, in my opinion. (TCM recently showed The Women followed by Stage Door, and seeing The Women back-to-back with that masterpiece not only shows up how anti-woman The Women is, but why I don't care much for Cukor; I just don't care for his habit of encouraging his actors to be caricatures of themselves, and he doesn't only do that here, but in a whole bunch of his films.) But it's a professionally-done movie, obviously, by a studio at the top of its game. The Opposite Sex was by MGM at its nadir, produced by its most tasteless filmmaker, Joe Pasternak, with a cast consisting mostly of people who had been signed to contracts and had nothing to do now that MGM was cutting back on musicals; it's a contract-burnoff movie. June Allyson, Dolores Gray, Ann Miller and others seem to know that their options aren't going to be picked up, and look accordingly miserable. Everyone's terrible in it except Joan Collins, on loan from Fox; she's not exactly good, but Crystal is such an easy and appropriate role for her that she really couldn't miss with it altogether.

Throw in terrible dialogue ("You've been seeing my daughter!" is the most-quoted line), terrible songs, and that '50s MGM CinemaScope look -- MGM probably had the worst-looking widescreen movies, with lumpy camerawork, poor editing and unpleasant color -- and I don't see how much worse the new version could be

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

You Learn Something New Every Day, September 16 Edition

In comments on an earlier post, Cristiane asked if I'd seen the 1949 film version of Gigi. I hadn't, until I got the new DVD, where it's included as a supplement. (Unfortunately in a poor print with old subtitles that become unreadable at many points -- white subtitles on black-and-white film don't work once they've become faded.) Given the crappy print, it's hard to know how good it is, but Danièle Delorme is a wonderful Gigi. The director, Jacqueline Audry, was one of the first female directors of studio feature films in France (or, really, anywhere).

And having seen it, I now have the answer to a question I've had for a while: how did Alan Lerner manage to turn out a solid script for Gigi when so many of his other scripts had serious structure problems? The answer is that the script for the 1958 Gigi follows the 1949 version almost scene-for-scene. The character of Honoré appears to originate in this film (he's not in the Colette story), and many, many lines are taken by Lerner directly from the 1949 film script. Minnelli must have seen the 1949 movie too, because some of the camera setups and shots are pretty similar; even bits of business like Honoré's voice becoming nasal when his valet pinches his nose while shaving him.

Lerner did, in other words, what he did what he did with the 1938 Pygmalion movie: take an old movie script and lean on it for dear life. A smart move, because when he tried to write a script without that kind of support, he usually made a mess. (His script for the stage version of Brigadoon is good, but after that...)

There's nothing wrong with basing a musical on a non-musical movie script, of course; the unfortunate thing is that whereas Shaw got credit for My Fair Lady, the writer of the 1949 Gigi movie, Pierre Laroche, didn't get any credit on the musical remake. Not that this is Lerner's fault per se; it was standard policy on remakes to deny credit to everybody but the writer of the original source material, no matter how many scenes were taken from an intermediate version. So The King and I, stage and screen, is heavily based on the script of the 1946 film version, but the screenwriters got no credit (and presumably, no royalties) despite the use of some of their scenes and dialogue.

Update: Speaking of bad prints, this version of the 1958 Gigi is hardly a prize either -- it looks like some scenes are faded and washed-out. I guess it looks better than the previous DVD, but this movie obviously needs a lot of work done on it, and it hasn't been done here.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

WKRP Episode: "A Mile In My Shoes"

Sixth episode of season 3: when Herb gets Jury Duty, Andy, the competent radio professional, takes over sales and discovers why a station like WKRP needs someone like Herb, not a competent radio professional. Meanwhile, Les decides he wants to do a radio version of Black Like Me.

The old juror is played by Walter Janowitz, TV's most beloved Eastern European stereotype (you'll remember him as the Polish actor in the "Hash" episode of Barney Miller.)

Music: "Get Off Of My Cloud" by the Rolling Stones and "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen.

Teaser and Act 1:

Act 2:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fun With Writing Credits

I picked up Criterion's new DVD of one of my favorite movies, almost literally since I first got interested in old movies, Max Ophuls' Madame De....

One of the extras is an interview with one of the writers of the film, Annette Wademant, and that reminded me about a difference between writing credits in American films and writing credits in the films of many other countries. Basically, the American system is set up to give credit to as few people as possible; it takes a lot of wheeling and dealing and sometimes full-on arbitration to get a writing credit on a U.S. film.

The rules in some other countries seem to have been less strict, and in France, where Madame De... was made, movies would have separate credits for "Scenario" (working out the story) and "dialogue" (the written script). On Madame De..., Ophuls and Wademant share scenario credit with playwright Marcel Achard, but Achard is credited as the sole dialogue writer. If this had been an American film, Achard would almost certainly have gotten sole credit and there is certainly no way Ophuls would have gotten a writing credit on the film; from Wademant's description of the working methods, he led the story conferences and mainly did what every strong director does to work on the script, whether or not he gets credit.

There's no conclusion here, just that the different systems for writing credits tend to give the impression that almost no American directors worked on their own scripts, whereas most non-American directors did work on their own scripts (or in the case of Ophuls, that he was a writer-director in France but not in America), and that's probably an over-simplification.

(Also, why does every release of the film refer to it as The Earrings of Madame De... when that is not the title that appears onscreen? I understand why they added "The Earrings" on posters, to make it clearer to foreign audiences what the movie was about; but I don't know why the mis-titling is still perpetuated.)

MGM's Desperation

Next week we're getting "special edition" DVDs of the only Arthur Freed musicals to win Best Picture Oscars: An American in Paris and Gigi. (Blu-Ray versions will follow next year, just to piss off everybody who has a Blu-Ray player and bought the SD versions this year.) Apart from winning Oscars, the two movies have a lot of things in common: they're both directed by Vincente Minnelli, they both have Leslie Caron, they are both set in Paris, they're both written by Alan Jay Lerner, they're both kind of downbeat and dour in spots (Andrew Sarris called them "oddly depressing") and they've both come to be considered a little over-rated compared to the very best of the Freed/Minnelli musicals -- I think it's fair to say that Meet Me In St. Louis and The Band Wagon have higher reputations these days, and if they don't, they should.

Paris is a musical I've never had a lot of time for. I remember as a kid I was given VHS copies of both Paris and Singin' In the Rain; I watched Rain over and over, but I could barely get through Paris. It's not a bad movie, of course, but seems to have an uncanny ability to capture all the things that bug me about Freed's films: the over-orchestrated music (Conrad Salinger was the most bombastic, noisy orchestrator in Hollywood, and he nearly kills Gershwin's music), the slightly pretentious air, the casting of inexplicable Freed favorites like Oscar Levant (he's better here than in The Band Wagon, but he had a smaller role in Band Wagon and couldn't really hurt it much), the slow pacing and lack of fun. (One Freed musical that holds up better than most is Good News, because it's so fun and unpretentious that it hardly seems like a Freed production at all.) I'm making it sound worse than it is, but a movie with this much talent and prestige should have been better than it is.

Gigi, on the other hand, I liked as a kid and still do. Of course it's a film born out of desperation; MGM had cut its budgets, fired most of the people it signed up to do musicals, and this was Freed's last-ditch attempt to keep his unit alive. It didn't really work, either, since he only got to produce one more musical (Bells Are Ringing), but at least he came up with an award-winning film. But though it has a lot of flaws -- almost no dancing, uncertainty about how far to go with its sleazy story, too many characters dubbed by Paul Frees, the song "Say a Prayer" is a literal My Fair Lady reject that has no business being in this picture -- a lot of the jokes land (it's a lot funnier than Paris) and the score is great, hardly a given with Freed movies; Lerner had a lot of problems as a scriptwriter, but when he was working with Loewe, he really didn't seem capable of turning out a bad song. Also it's one of the few Minnelli CinemaScope movies where he really seems at ease with the wide screen; maybe because the film is kind of stagy-looking, the proscenium shape of the screen actually works and leads to great effects like the three-person shot that opens "Thank Heaven For Little Girls."

Monday, September 08, 2008

Big Techniques For Little Scenes

Don't have time for a long post on this subject, but I was watching Grand Illusion again yesterday, and I noticed that while Jean Renoir pulls off some great technical feats in this movie, he doesn't always save his big camera flourishes for the biggest scenes. Many of the "big" scenes -- the escape, the death of Boildieu -- are shot fairly simply; they're not technically weak, but the camera setups seem pretty traditional. But when the characters first gather for a meal in the POW camp, the camera goes wild, circling around the table, constantly in motion. Renoir called attention to the unique way he shot and edited this simple dinner scene. There are some big camera swoops in the "La Marseillaise" scene which Michael Curtiz, when he did virtually the same scene in Casablanca, staged in a more conventional way.

It's interesting because today, I think there's a default assumption that the biggest technical challenges should be saved for the biggest scenes, and that small-scale scenes, like meals or simple conversations, are shot more simply and economically. But first, doesn't it make more sense to try something technically unusual to liven up what could otherwise be a static scene, instead of saving them for the scenes that are inherently exciting? And second, since unusual techniques are expensive and time-consuming to get right, doesn't it make more sense to try them out in a scene that doesn't cost a lot to shoot in the first place, and shoot some of the more expensive scenes in a more "classical" manner?

Rita Moreno Monroe

To follow up on My post about The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, here's an excerpt from that very strange but memorable scene I mentioned, a parody of The Seven Year Itch with Rita Moreno as the most improbable Marilyn Monroe impersonator of the decade.

Well, it's actually half of an excerpt from that scene, since this is an early CinemaScope movie and the print is pan-n'-scan, but until a letterboxed version turns up, it's better than nothing.

Friday, September 05, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Bah, Humbug"

This is the season 3 Christmas episode, accurately described within the episode itself as "Another one of those Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol things." (Hugh Wilson did virtually the same episode on The Famous Teddy Z, where Alex Rocco's character said that the best part of this kind of dream is "You get to rip off the story for nothing!") This was actually the only episode that won an Emmy for anything; Andy Ackerman, who later became director of Seinfeld, won for best editing.

One thing I realized upon watching it again is that this episode is actually about three different stages in the radio business. The WKRP of Christmas past is an old-fashioned family-run radio station. The WKRP of Christmas present shows the family atmosphere being threatened by bottom-line considerations. And the WKRP of Christmas future is basically what radio stations are now and what they were already becoming in 1980 -- fully-automated and run by the sales department.

The music over the end credits is a vocal version of "Sleigh Ride"; there's another song playing in the Christmas past scene but I don't recognize it.

Cold Opening and Act 1

Act 2

Thursday, September 04, 2008

I Dunno About This One

I'm not a reflexive basher of Stuff White People Like, but I don't know about this latest entry, "Appearing to Enjoy Classical Music." Not that some of it isn't accurate, it's just that, as a commenter pointed out, appearing to enjoy jazz is probably more common among the people that SWPL is about. You find a lot more yuppies at jazz festivals than classical concerts, which skew old.

But okay, Philip Glass is the ultimate SWPL composer in any genre (beating out Stephen Sondheim because he has some reach beyond the SWPL community):

The first, of course, is Philip Glass. Not only does he have one of the best last names a white person can have, but he writes music used in smart documentaries. Thus combining multiple white passions into a single artist.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Grudge Match: The Leone-Off

As electric guitar music plays on the soundtrack, two men stand at opposite ends of a dusty field, each watching the other to figure out when to draw their guns.

An extreme close-up of one man, with a stubble of beard and a sardonic stare. It's Blondie (Clint Eastwood), aka The Man With No Name, from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

Cut to an even more extreme close-up of the other guy, with cold, expressionless eyes. Yes, it's Harmonica (Charles Bronson) from Once Upon a Time In the West.

It's the final shoot-out between two indestructible, nearly superhuman Sergio Leone leads. What will be the final outcome, after the 10 minutes of close-ups?

(Note: Since Eastwood really didn't play the same exact character in his three Leone movies -- except insofar as all Leone's characters are pretty much the same -- let's restrict this discussion to his character from TGTBATU.)