Saturday, January 31, 2009

WKRP Episode: "Who's On First?"

This is episode # 6 of season 4, and it's a sequel of sorts to the previous episode (it starts with Herb in the hospital after the events of last week). This is the "mistaken identity" episode that every comedy is required by law to do at least once in its run.

I think this is also the last episode to feature the long-standing running gag that Jennifer can always see Johnny coming without turning around.

Cold Open and Act 1

Act 2 and tag

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Out Come Pagliacci, Also Liberace"

Here's another song from Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's score for Jamaica, this one involving not the late Ricardo Montalban but the show's top-billed star, Lena Horne. This was her show-stopping number (though her attempt to record it as a single was not a success, and I don't think I've ever even heard the single version). The lyric is Harburg's usual tweaking of American commercialism -- '50s-style, rather than the '40s-style commercialism satirized in Finian's Rainbow. And Arlen, as he often did, creates a long song with a complicated structure; no two sections of the refrain are really the same, and a section of the slow, dreamy verse becomes the energetic middle section of the refrain.

Because Horne wasn't really a theatre singer and had a relatively small-sized voice (great, but not big), she reportedly used amplification for her numbers; she also got her husband, arranger Lennie Hayton, to re-do the orchestrations for her songs so they were more congenial to her voice. The result was perfectly defensible, but reinforced the feeling that the show was more a pop showcase than a play.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I'd heard, as had other people, that there were interviews done for the Tiny Toons DVDs that weren't used on the first set -- yet the back of the box doesn't list any special features. Either they're saving them for a future volume (if any), or Warners' legal department got a hold of them, or maybe the company just thinks that in tough economic times the smart thing to do is to spend money on video interviews and then not use them.

Oh, well, at least the second volume of Freakazoid! will have interviews (people interviewed for this volume included Rugg, McCann, Ruegger, announcer Joe Leahy and producer/director Rich Arons; hopefully they'll all turn up in the final edit). Never thought that F! would wind up getting the best DVD treatment, special-feature-wise, of any of the Spielberg cartoons, but I guess it's the cult flops that often get the most care taken with them in DVD releases. (I consider myself a part of that cult, of course.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

WKRP Episode: "Straight From The Heart"

In this episode (episode 5 of season 4), written by Dan Gunzelman (who also directed), Herb secretly goes to the hospital for heart tests, which leads to him and most of the rest of the cast watching a movie in a 3-D porn theatre. (This was from 1981, when 3-D was making a comeback in theatres.) The scene of the characters wearing 3-D glasses, and trying to dodge whatever's coming at them from the screen, is one of the scenes that people especially seem to remember from watching WKRP in syndication. The guy in the theatre is the late John Brent, yet another guy from The Committee.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Future Classics" That Turn Out To Be Classics

Just to do a less negative follow-up to my previous post: Because I can't predict what movies will become classics -- though it's easy enough to predict that certain kinds of movies will not (mostly inspirational historical movies or anything that has a family sitting around a dining-room table and shouting at each other a lot) -- I rarely have the experience of thinking that I've just seen a classic, and finding out that I agree with that evaluation a decade later.

Sometimes I'll think I've seen a masterpiece, and then decide, on revisiting it, that I was wrong. When I saw The Player in theatres, I thought I'd seen one of the best satires ever; now I don't think it holds up very well.

There is one movie that I thought of at the time, and still think of now, as a classic: Groundhog Day. I remember thinking the first time I saw it that this was going to be one of the all-time comedy classics. (I'm not claiming special powers of perception here, of course: it was widely considered a future classic from the moment it opened.) One other movie that I considered a classic then and there, and still consider one of the greatest light comedies, is Clueless -- but you could argue over whether that movie really has been canonized the way Groundhog Day has been.

The point is, and this is why watching old movies is no substitute for keeping up with current ones (I say this as someone who doesn't do enough to keep up with current movies, but should), is that sometimes you catch a movie that you think is great, and ten years later you see it again and find out you were right. That's a real thrill, finding out that something is as good as or better than you remembered it. And finding out that a movie is not as good as it seemed at the time -- well, that's interesting too.

What are some movies that you had pegged as "classics" when they were new, and that either did or didn't live up to that judgment over the years?

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Syndrome

Sorry for the absence of posts lately. This isn't exactly a full-fledged post either, but: after the Oscar nominations are announced, with their yearly celebration of what Hollywood insiders think of as a great movie, I always think of what might be called the Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? rule. This is named not for the Coen Brothers movie but the serious social-problem movie Joel McCrea was trying to make in Sullivan's Travels. And the rule is basically this:

If a Hollywood movie is the dream project of a successful commercial filmmaker, writer or actor who wants to do something "smart," "provocative," or "meaningful," it's not a great movie and may not even be watchable.

Yes, that's glib and reductive, but it explains so much. It explains Crash. That movie is exactly what you'd expect to get if the creator of Walker, Texas Ranger got to make his dream project. But the problem isn't Paul Haggis; as we saw from the simple fact that it won Best Picture, a majority of Hollywood people really think that aspiration = achievement, that all you really need to do to make a great movie is to tackle important issues. (The late Manny Farber built his whole career as a critic on trying to teach people that this ain't so.) It's not like Preston Sturges invented the Joel McCrea character out of thin air.

Another reason why "dream" projects turn out so boring so much of the time is that the filmmakers spend so much time trying to get them made that they over-think them. I don't have the exact quote, but Frank Capra once said that the reason for his decline after It's a Wonderful Life (a movie that actually does hold up as having something important to say, but not a "big issue" type of movie) was that he started over-thinking things, that because directing involves making so many decisions so fast, the key to directing is the ability to make snap decisions and not worry too much over each one. "Prestige," "issue" or "dream" movies all imply that the filmmaker has been thinking way too much about what he wants to say with this film, which leads to boredom or, worse, Gandhi.

A related point I've been thinking of lately is that I tend to think that we won't know what the great movies of our time really are until ten, twenty, maybe even more years have passed. Who really knew in the '40s that the enduring classics included a bunch of low-budget crime dramas with dim lighting, or that It's a Wonderful Life (nominated, but lost) would be the most culturally significant movie of 1946? I don't know what the new classics are, but I doubt that most of them are Oscar winners or even nominees. I actually like that a lot. It's great to watch a movie gain near-classic status (who knew The Big Lebowski would be the Coen Brothers' most famous movie?) and watch another, big, prestigious picture fall off the face of the earth. It's like watching cultural history develop in front of us, instead of having it get written by the critics and award-givers of the time.

Monday, January 19, 2009

"I Never Felt Better" from ATHENA (1954)

I was glad to see this song, from the 1954 Joe Pasternak production Athena, finally get uploaded to YouTube. It's sung by Debbie Reynolds with a few interjections by Jane Powell, and it was written by the team of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, and while I don't love it quite as much as their "An Occasional Man," I think it's one of the best songs they wrote for MGM. They specialized in happy, peppy songs propelled by Martin's jazzy vocal arrangements, and this song -- in the time-honored "I have no money but I'm happy anyway" genre -- is so full of charm and wit and energy that it always cheers me up when I'm in a bad mood.

The movie it's from, Athena, is not very satisfying as a whole; Esther Williams came up with the idea for the story, about a woman raised by health/fitness nuts, but the studio took the idea and gave it to Jane Powell instead. It would have made more sense with Williams, and Edmund Purdom and Vic Damone are just about the deadliest team of leading men you can imagine. But it's still more fun than a lot of better-known MGM musicals, and it deserves a DVD release.

Friday, January 16, 2009

WKRP Episode: "Till Debt Do Us Part"

Not a strong episode, but the backstory is fairly interesting. The episode has Johnny meeting his first ex-wife (Ruth Silveira) and her obnoxious husband-to-be Buddy (Hamilton Camp). Howard Hesseman co-wrote the script with writer-producer Steven Kampmann (his last script before leaving the show, eventually turning up as Kirk on Newhart, and he wrote it for Silveira, one of his colleagues from The Committee, and his friend John Matuszak, the pro football player turned actor. In the book America's Favorite Radio Station Hesseman recalls that Matuszak bombed out at the table read and and had to be replaced; he and Hugh Wilson decided that the best person to take over the part on short notice was Hamilton Camp, a familiar TV face and another Committee guy.

But you can see how the original casting idea would have made this a less depressing episode. Buddy, the guy Johnny's ex-wife is going to marry, was intended to be a big, strong, athletic, good-looking guy whose bad qualities aren't instantly clear (and Paula, the ex-wife, was to bring him around to show off his apparent superiority to Johnny). With Hamilton Camp in the part, the guy has no redeeming qualities, and Paula becomes a pathetic character. Also, Ruth Silveira demonstrates why she's not one of the better-known Committee alumni; she doesn't do that well. With the miscasting, the downbeat story and the downbeat tone of the last part of the third season, this is probably the most depressing episode of the whole series, and there's something a little "off" about a lot of it.

Les has some good lines, though; I think it was Kampmann who got the idea to write him as a total psycopath who semi-deliberately messes with Johnny's mind (here and in "Frog Story" and a few other episodes). There's also one line, "I make money, you make money and no one knows the difference," that's lifted from the SCTV Cisco Kid redub that Kampmann and Peter Torokvei made with Martin Short.

The music in the opening scene is "Book of Love" by the Monotones; I've forgotten what song is playing in the closing scene.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I'm Holding Norm Abram Above My Head!

The second and final season of Freakazoid! will finally get a DVD release on April 21, on the same day as the second half of Tiny Toons season 1. (Let's hope the rest of Tiny Toons doesn't meet the same fate as the rest of Animaniacs; as I've said many times, my favorite episodes of Tiny Toons are from the later seasons on Fox.) That means we'll finally get to have a DVD version of scenes like this:

The late Ricardo Montalban was a guest star on both seasons of Freakazoid! as the Khan-like villain Guitierrez. Paul Rugg, writer and voice of Freakazoid, shares his memories of how Montalban got cast and how much fun he was to work with. Read the whole thing, but here's an excerpt, followed by the "bloopers" scene he describes.

Perhaps my fondest memory was when he had to come and do addition dialogue for the episode HERO BOY. For reasons we couldn't figure out...the episode came up about 3 minutes short. So, John and I devised a solution in which Guitierrez would show Freakazoid his favorite bloopers. Our editor found some of the dumbest, old, live action black&white footage I've ever seen. We cut it together and I wrote some dialogue to cover the footage. When Ricardo arrived he had neither seen the footage nor his dialogue. I explained the setup to him. "Guitierrez is crazy about these bloopers and he really thinks they are funny and he really wants to show them to Freakazoid and..."

"Ahhh, yes. I see. I see. Yes. Let's do it." Ricardo and I went into the booth. We ran the footage and he made me laugh so much that I didn't do my lines. The sound guys were rolling. Andrea was in hysterics. Bruce Timm popped his head into the room and started laughing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ricardo Montalban Sings "The Monkey In the Mango Tree"

This is eerie. I sat down intending to post a song from the musical Jamaica, "The Monkey In the Mango Tree," sung by Ricardo Montalban -- and then I see that Ricardo Montalban died today at the age of 88. Of course the eeriness isn't what's important; what matters is that he was an excellent actor and personality who was always a pleasure to see, regardless of the project. He gave a lot of good performances at MGM despite the limited range of roles available to him (he got more diverse roles in television, where he was able to play parts like Khan that weren't specifically ethnic). He just kept on giving entertaining performances, year after year, decade after decade, onscreen and in voice-over almost literally right up until the end of his long life.

He got a Tony nomination for Jamaica, one of the most obscure hit musicals ever: it ran over 500 performances back when that was still a highly successful, profit-making run, but the version that came onto Broadway (after much rewriting and recasting) basically had no script left, and ran on the strength of Lena Horne, Montalban, and the sets and songs and choreography. There's been no revival of it because there's nothing left to revive, but the Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg score produced one of my very favorite cast albums. Arlen and Harburg weren't exactly at their best -- Horne expressed disappointment that none of the songs became classics -- but I can't resist the mixture of calypso-flavored tunes and satirical lyrics by two of the all-time great songwriters.

In this song, the most calypso-influenced and satirical in the whole show, Montalban is given a song and a role that was intended for Harry Belafonte. (When he didn't do the show but Lena Horne was available, the whole thing was rewritten around the character of the hero's girlfriend; that's why it was such a mess.) He manages to do well with it, as he always did with whatever he was given.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Good Old Days of Massive Cartoon Cuts

One thing about Warner Brothers cartoon packages on Teletoon Retro is that they provide kind of a historical overview of how cartoons have been cut up at different times. Warners' Canadian distributor doesn't like sending out uncut, complete cartoons if there's a "Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show" or "Road Runner Show" tape available, but at least that provides a chance to see what was considered offensive at different times.

For example: in the "Merrie Melodies" package from the '90s (being run alternately with the "Merrie Melodies Show" from the '70s), all gun gags are cut out by means of freeze-framing, so in "Hillbilly Hare" or "Duck! Rabbit, Duck!" they just freeze-frame on Bugs while the shots occur offscreen. But that same package from the '90s included "Caveman Inki," because the Inki cartoons were not yet considered taboo for TV viewing. But Warners left "Caveman Inki" out of the package of "Porky Pig Show" cartoons they prepared for Teletoon (the only package of uncut cartoons, and that only because the '60s "Porky Pig Show" tapes don't exist any more), because they substituted black-and-white cartoons for any color cartoons that they had marked as potentially offensive.

And, of course, the "Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show" is like a primer on what networks considered to be unacceptable. For comparison purposes, here's "Big House Bunny" complete:

And here's a version that (I think) used to run on network TV, where fully one-third of the cartoon is cut, eliminating all the execution gags.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


I mentioned elsewhere that Paramount's DVD release of Duckman seasons 3 and 4 contains more music cuts than the first set. Here are the ones I've been able to find so far. It's a short list, but an annoying one, especially since it affects several of my favorite episodes. If I find more examples while going through the set, I'll add them here.

- In "Aged Heat 2: Women In Heat" (Duckman goes to a women's prison, which somehow winds up as a parody of Ann-Margret movies), a scene that was originally accompanied by "Powerhouse" now just uses generic music.

- In "Ebony Baby" (a great blaxploitation parody), a song by Montell Jordan has been replaced, and Jordan's guest appearance has been cut.

- In "Role With It," the DVD cuts a scene of Fluffy and Uranus singing "Abba Dabba Honeymoon."

- In "Where No Duckman Has Gone Before," the scene of Duckman singing "Mr. Tambourine Man" is cut.

- The episode with Fluffy and Uranus turning into monsters runs short; probably one of the songs sung by guest star Jim Bailey has been edited out.

I can't regret buying the set, because there are too many good episodes I hadn't seen in years, and many of them are complete (the season 4 episodes seem to have been hit harder in terms of music cuts, or episodes that mysteriously run a few seconds short, than the season 3 ones). I appreciated the chance to see the Russian Literature episode again and find it was just as funny as I remembered. Duckman in these episodes had more silliness and less social satire, which suits me fine. Maybe by the final batch of episodes, with the increasingly cartoony plots and the network-mandated addition of a new, nicer character (Beverly, the previously-unknown but nice twin sister), it had gotten too soft; one episode, a Red River parody with catfish instead of cattle -- really -- is just too much like a Saturday morning cartoon (it was written by Jed Spingarn of Pinky and the Brain, but his P&B scripts were quite a bit edgier). But generally, the episodes on these discs are the funniest of the series. They're also more pleasant to look at, within the limits of the design style, than the early ones.

But CBS/Paramount has absolutely no method, no understandable pattern, to which songs it will pay for and which ones it won't, which bits it will leave in and which it will cut. (Sometimes, as with Happy Days, they'll cut a song in one season and pay for the very same song in the next season.) They're not actually the worst studio in terms of music replacement, since they will sometimes pay for an expensive song -- but they're the most ruthless and generally weird in terms of cutting random music-related scenes from their episodes.

Interestingly, Duckman sort of anticipated this in advance, because one of the episodes in this set (not, ironically, one of the ones that got cut) began with this caption:

The following program has been altered from its original format.

If you have any idea who altered it, please let us know.

We're really mad.

Oh, well, at least this scene from Ebony, Baby is still uncensored. So to speak.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott/Burt Kennedy Drinking Game

The other night I watched Comanche Station, the last of the Boetticher/Scott movies and one of the best even though (or perhaps because) it recycles a key scene from their first movie together, Seven Men From Now. The scene where Claude Akins tells an insinuating story about Scott and The Married Woman is nowhere near as good as the same scene with Lee Marvin in Seven Men, but somehow the very act of looking for parallels and differences between the two scenes is interesting in itself. That's part of what makes these movies a true cycle, instead of just a bunch of movies with similar plots; part of the interest is in seeing variations on the themes introduced in earlier movies. The ending of Comanche Station only attains its full impact as a surprise ending if you've seen Seven Men From Now and The Tall T and become used to the way The Married Woman's Husband was characterized in those movies.

But obviously, since these movies have so much in common, they also lend themselves to drinking games, and I'm surprised no movie buff has tried to come up with one. Most obviously, any time Randolph Scott or some other character answers someone else's statement with a two-word question, you need to take a shot. Burt Kennedy, the writer of most of these films (and later a director of some pretty good Westerns and Western comedies, though he was a better writer than director), obviously loved that kind of dialogue and peppers every one of his scripts with bits like:

CLAUDE AKINS: Killin' Indians was what we was there for, wasn't it?

RICHARD RUST: But we ain't got a long gun, Ben.

RICHARD BOONE (The Tall T): Sometimes you don't have a choice.

ROSCO P. COLTRANE (in Ride Lonesome): You're bluffin'.

GUY IN SEVEN MEN FROM NOW: Well, then, we agree.

Other drinkable moments include every time the following happens:

- The bad guy makes a disparaging remark about the courage or manliness of The Woman's husband.

- Scott has the drop on the bad guy, who stands with his back to Scott and mentions that he saved Scott's life earlier in the film.

- Bad guy says something flowery and semi-poetic about The Woman's looks.

- Someone tells the story of how Scott had a tragic past involving his dead wife.

- Scott stops at a remote outpost (station, shack, whatever) early in the film.

- The movie introduces two young bad-guy henchmen, one more worldly-wise, the other gentler or dumber.

- Scott has a conversation with the head bad guy that ends with the bad guy saying something threatening, but with a smile ("I'd hate to have you try," Lee Marvin in Seven Men; "Like me in particular," Akins, Comanche Station)

- Scott says "There are some things a man can't ride around."

There are others, but that's a start. Further suggestions welcome in comments. And yes, most of these things happen in other Westerns, including others Kennedy wrote, but because the Boetticher movies are so ritualized, the repetition stands out, like the leitmotifs in Wagner's Ring (though I'd rather watch the complete cycle of Boetticher/Scott movies than the complete Ring).

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The First Accusations of Surrealism

I was thinking about Green Acres the other day, mostly to be P.O.'d that the last three seasons seem to be stuck in DVD limbo, and I got to wondering who was the first person to advance the idea that the show was "surrealistic." It didn't seem to be very common when the show was on the air -- though I get the impression that it was considered a cut above the usual rural show, and Jay Sommers, the creator, said at the time that he considered it "a fairly sophisticated show" -- but it was only after it went into syndication that critics and fans started comparing it to surrealism and theatre of the absurd and so forth. The comparison is valid, even a lot of it is only surrealistic by comparison with other TV comedy of the time; fans of radio comedy were less surprised by it. (Most episodes of Green Acres used the old "Fibber McGee and Molly" structure where each supporting character drops by to give his point of view on the problem of the week.)

But then I found that the first person to call Green Acres "surrealistic" was probably Eddie Albert himself, in a New York Times article from near the end of the show's first season. The article, by Judy Stone, ran on April 10, 1966, and featured interviews with the two stars of the series. At one point, Albert uses the s-word to describe the show and its writing -- and then, even better, realizes that he shouldn't be over-analyzing a show that is meant only to entertain. So in one fell swoop he anticipates the show's cult following and lectures people who (and I sometimes do this) use fancy words and critical terms to justify watching the show. Eddie Albert rocked.

A great deal of revision takes place on most TV shows, Albert said, but this isn't true of "Green Acres," written and produced by Jay Sommers. The show ranked tenth in the latest Nielsen rating. "Everything Jay writes is beautifully done. A lot of people think the script is corny because it's laid in a rural community, but some of it is wonderfully surrealistic stuff. I'm in an apple orchard, wondering if the apples will keep falling and I look at one and it's an orange. I consider that very funny. Part of the show's great value is its irrelevance."

Albert suddenly looked very irritated. "This whole talk about surrealism -- in a way I'm just answering the critics about whom I don't give a damn. I'm wasting my time because I don't care what they think. I absolutely love the fact that the kids come up to me -- as thousands did at the Thanksgiving Day parade in Philadelphia -- and ask about Elinor, the cow. They love the show. If you want to say there is more to life than this, that's a philosophical question.

Speaking of Green Acres, I've also realized that this is one of those shows where the character you identify with can change over time. I used to identify more with Oliver, the one person on the whole show who tries to hang on to the rules of real-world logic. But now I think I identify more with Lisa, because in reality, she's more logical and sensible than her husband: she accepts the ways of Hooterville and just tries to enjoy herself wherever she happens to be, while Oliver simply can't let go of his idiotic fantasy about what rural life should be like. I think I'd rather be a "Lisa" person, trying to make the best of any situation, than an "Oliver" person, trying to force the world to be something it isn't. (However, I have the opposite reaction to Moonlighting, where I completely sympathize with Maddie and consider David an asshole. And I also have a certain sympathy for the early Hot Lips on M*A*S*H, but let's not even get into that.)

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Lucy Has a Point

No matter what year the strip is from (why doesn't the Peanuts website print the dates of the comics? I guess this is 1961), you can depend on Lucy Van Pelt to make a good point about the New Year.