Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It Really Is The End of a Looney Era

Blahhh. You may have seen this already, but it turns out that while the Looney Tunes Golden Collections are over, the "Spotlight Collections" -- two-disc sets consisting of selected cartoons available on the Golden Collections -- will continue. They're just going back and using cartoons from previous Golden Collections, in this case the Bugs Bunny disc from # 1, the Road Runner disc from # 2, and the "all-stars" disc from # 4.

I don't really object to this, because the Spotlight collections are for different audiences and possibly even different retailers (these cheap, thin sets are more Wal-Mart-friendly), and it makes sense to continue them. But it just felt like a tease to see a Looney Tunes DVD announcement and find out that it was all previously-released cartoons.

Honestly, if they were to use the Spotlight Collection format to release cartoons they haven't released in the Golden Collections, I'd be fine with that. (There must be a number of cartoons that have DVD-quality masters ready but weren't in the Golden Collections; we've already seen a few of those masters turn up on sets like the Academy Award Nominees box.) They have plenty of family-friendly, uncontroversial cartoons that weren't on the first six sets, and like most collectors, I don't really care about extras at this point.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why I'm Not Always a Big Robert Wilson Fan

It's hard to know how exactly to criticize a "re-imagined" production of a classic stage work. Just saying that it doesn't look like the writer intended, or even that the setting and action contradict what is said in the text, isn't enough (though I actually think more directors should consider re-writing the text a bit to fit the updated stagings). I used to think it was enough, but I now think it's the equivalent of looking at a painting and complaining that it doesn't look like whatever it's supposed to be.

So when somebody like Robert Wilson does his number on a 19th-century theatre work, I have to resist the urge to just be annoyed with what he's doing. The piece will survive, and anyone who wants to put on a more traditional production can do so, so everything's basically fine. And sometimes an unusual, non-traditional approach can illuminate things about the work that would get lost in a traditional staging, or that we would take for granted. There may be ways for the director to get at the same things without completely changing the story, but if the director finds that this is the best way to call our attention to something we've missed, then his vision of the piece may be more true and authentic than a boring traditional staging. (If an updated setting confronts us with themes that are inherent in the piece, then it's essentially true to the piece; if a traditional staging focuses our attention on nothing except the pretty sets and costumes, then it's essentially inauthentic.)

Still, when I see some of the things what Wilson did with Der Freischütz, I can't help but feel he's missing the point -- not always, but sometimes. This is a 19th-century stage work that could definitely be brought closer to us (it's the ultimate German story of pure maidens and supernatural foofaraw, has never been popular outside Germany, and probably isn't all that popular even in Germany by now), but some of the parts I've seen seem to feature Wilson working against the music, or any but the most obvious musical/rhythmic cues. Here's his staging of the most famous number, the hunters' chorus, one of the catchiest chorus tunes ever written and almost irresistible even if you don't like opera. (Period horns appear to have been used for this production, which is a good idea; the old-style horns work very well in this sort of number.)

Now, there's no reason a director needs to do exactly what the text calls for -- in this case, a bunch of jolly guys in hunting costumes celebrating the wonderfulness of hunting would simply not make any connection with a modern audience. That's not what bothers me, and what bothers me is not the stylized sets, costumes and movement. What bothers me is that I feel like the staging seems kind of pointless. So they're standing still, and then they move rhythmically during the refrain, and then they stand still again, and I feel like Wilson's use of movement is just making rhythmic points that is already made by the music. He does this in other numbers too, especially the comedy numbers: characters cross their arms and do rhythmic steps and other movements in time with the music, and it's as if he's mistaken this for a ballet. What the point of the number is, dramatically or thematically, seems like a mystery to me.

But, as I said, a modern (I guess it's no longer that modern, but you know what I mean) directorial approach can sometimes pay dividends, and I think Wilson's style does pay off at some moments. In the more dramatic numbers, and especially the famous act 2 finale (one of the first supernatural horror stories on the musical stage), he lets up a bit on the fake ballet moves and uses the modern tools of stagecraft -- lighting, color, moving scenery -- to convey the spooky atmosphere of the scene more effectively than you could do with a traditional staging. (Having the devil's dialogue -- he's a dialogue-only character, interestingly -- echo is also a sensible, if very theatrically traditional, idea.) So as I said, I'm not opposed to re-thinking an old stage work, just that I like to get the feeling that there's a reason for it.

UPDATE: Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge Both Insane

I fully agree with the contention of Mighty God King that Betty Cooper is "motherfucking psycho bugfuck crazy." I've seen too many examples of her unhingedness (probably not a word) to be unaware of this. But I wanted to add an important point: in talking about how crazy Betty Cooper is, it should not be assumed that Veronica Lodge is not also crazy. Maybe she demonstrates her insanity in more socially-acceptable ways, plus she's wealthy, and the rich always get more of a pass for their eccentricity. But she's just as devoted as Betty to the stalking and terrorizing of Archie Andrews.

And as this story from the '60s proves (art by DeCarlo, script probably by Doyle), the two have this weird and kind of sick understanding: their "rivalry" will be set aside any time it looks like Archie might even look at another woman. They will then scare the woman away, either by using violence on Archie, or using extreme violence on the woman (including women he doesn't even know, let alone date). Only when they have guaranteed that he is too scared to touch another woman -- knowing what they will do to her -- do they go back to fighting amongst themselves.

So to the 60+ year-old questions: 1) "Why are two beautiful girls fighting over an idiot with a waffle on his head?" and 2) "Why doesn't Archie find someone he's compatible with instead of two women he's not fully compatible with?" The answers are:
1) Because they're both completely insane, 2) If he tried to start a serious relationship with someone else, that person would wind up like Pepper from Josie when Archie announced his intention to marry her. (That wasn't in the comics, but I'm assuming that's why Pepper disappeared. Her broken glasses were found floating in the local river.)

By the way, the first page of this story contains a trick for spotting a Frank Doyle story that I left out of my previous post: he never could let go of quoting certain songs that were popular in the '40s and '50s, even long after those songs were completely unfamiliar to any reader of the comic. "You Always Hurt the One You Love" was the song he quoted second-most-frequently, behind "Too Young,", which he went on quoting into the '80s:

(Art: Bob Bolling) (Art: Dan DeCarlo)

In fact, my first introduction to the lyrics of many classic songs was this panel from Life With Archie in the '60s, consisting entirely of quotations from songs that were already unrecognizable to the Archie target demographic even then.

(Art: Bob White)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Difference Between Great and Merely Effective Dramatic Writing

My favorite still-living music critic, Conrad L. Osborne, wrote these words in 1968 when talking about the famously confusing plot of the opera La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli and Arrigo Boito (a good piece, source of many famous tunes including the "Dance of the Hours," but whose plot simply makes no sense at any given moment in terms of the motivations and actions of the characters). But reading the words again, I realized that they apply to any form of fiction writing, maybe any form of writing at all: the insight is applicable to all theatre, and much more. Which is what makes Osborne such a great critic: he's not simply writing about opera, he's writing about theatre, and what makes good theatre. Emphasis mine:

There is most certainly an aesthetic principle at work in the selection of characters and incidents [in La Gioconda] -- though an aesthetic principle which we have come to regard as foreign to serious art. It is, approximately, that the course of a work should be determined by whatever adds up to the most effective sequence of events, rather than by what is organic and necessary to the donnees of character and situation. There is a great deal of this in nineteenth-century Italian opera; people show up at the most improbable places and times simply because the theatrically effective thing is to have them show up...

Among the things judged essential in this sort of opera is the presence of set numbers and arias -- in this case, a major aria for each of six principal singers, plus an extended ballet and several big choral episodes. This means that the elements will again be manipulated in such a way as to provide these things in appropriate proportions and spacings. This is, it is probably needless to say, also true of works that quite seriously pretend to greatness, the difference being that in such works, the author is at great pains to disguise his "pacing" and "structure," to make it one with the logical motives and actions of the characters. In Gioconda, as in many earlier Italian operas, there is hardly any such pretense: now comes a mezzo aria (the tenor leaving the stage for no good purpose other than that of letting her sing it), now comes a Confrontation Duet, etc., etc.

The passage I have bolded still seems to me a great explanation of one of the differences between works that achieve greatness and those that don't really achieve it (or even aspire to it). Almost all commercial theatre, television, film, novels, use certain tried-and-true devices. And nearly all of them space out the use of these devices to the moments when they will be most dramatically effective. Musicals need spots for comedy songs, ballads, an "11 o'clock" number; movies and plays need certain set-pieces or types of scenes depending on the genre; TV episodes need to incorporate certain tricks to keep the audience's attention through the episode and especially during breaks.

The distinction between first-rate works and merely good or effective ones is not that the former doesn't use those proven, familiar devices. It's that the former tries to make those devices seem like an organic part of the story. It wants to convince us that a certain thing happens not because convention requires it, not because this is the moment in the evening when a certain type of response needs to be obtained from the audience, but because the characters would logically do this at this point. Of course they're also doing it because convention requires it, because the actor/singer needs a showpiece, and many other reasons. But the writer is trying to hide this and make everything seem natural. If the writer does not succeed in making the events seem like they are driven by the story, and instead makes it too obvious that the story is constructed around the set-pieces and tricks, then the result may still be something entertaining and good. But it's probably not going to work on the highest level

So what Osborne says about two operas that he considers great works of theatre, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci (two Italian operas often accused of being lowbrow, but which are superb examples of theatrical writing where the big moments seem to come naturally), goes for first-rate writing of any kind:

[They] make use of all the formal conventions... carefully breaking them at key points to give the impression that they are not controlling factors.

But an entertaining middle-of-the-pack work, whether it's La Gioconda or an episode of a fun but cheesy action TV show, we know that something will happen at a specific point because that's what always happens in this kind of piece. The seams are visible, and we can see that we're being toyed with. If it's well done, we'll enjoy it anyway, but it's likely to fall short of greatness.

And then you have outright bad works, where we are able to see the conventions driving the story and they're not even well-executed enough to make their effects.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

If I Were a Brel

These come and go on YouTube -- it's possible they originate in some other site that I haven't seen -- but there's currently a good selection of Jacques Brel performances with English subtitles.

Since the English versions of his songs don't usually do anything like justice to the original lyrics -- to be fair, a song like "La Valse a Mille Temps" is basically untranslatable, depending as it does on a series of elaborate puns -- this is the best way for an English-language audience to get to know Brel: his lyrics, his performances, and a running guide to what the lyrics mean.

Brel's almost over-the-top intensity as a performer took a bit of getting used to for me; I was used to his voice because my dad had his audio recordings in the house, but his broad acting of the songs took some getting used to. English-language performers of similar material -- songs that are vignettes about very specific characters, or dramatic musical character monologues -- tend to be more restrained, while Brel grimaces, gesticulates and sweats his way through his characters' lives. He's one of those performers who can literally change his appearance depending on what the song is about; sometimes he's good-looking, sometimes he's ugly, and it really depends on the song or even a moment within the song.

You can see this in one of his best and best-remembered songs, sung by a man whose best friend has just been dumped by the woman he loved. The singer is uncomfortable seeing his friend crying in front of other people and starts babbling about various "guy" things they can do together; it's both a celebration of friendship and a satire of men who aren't comfortable expressing emotion to each other (long before that became a cliche).

Some of the Brel videos aren't concert performances; some appear to originate from TV shows, and there are a couple that were done on color film, the French equivalent of Scopitones, like "Rosa," a fairly straightforward coming-of-age song about how boys find girls more interesting than Latin.

Not all the subtitled videos have found their way onto this YouTube channel, but some can be found on other sites; here's a subtitled version of my favorite Brel patter song, "Vesoul," sort of a French-language version of a James Thurber scenario, about a man whose domineering wife is dragging him on a cross-country trip. I prefer the audio version, which is a patter song straight through, to this video version, which starts as a parody of classical singing and then becomes a patter song after the first verse. Still, once the first verse over, it shows off Brel's amazing ability as a patter singer, spitting out more words more quickly than anybody this side of Danny Kaye.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Respected Mitteleuropean Conductor Conducts Wha'???

This may not be actually be the strangest choice of repertoire that a famous conductor has made, but it's up there. A few days ago, the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of the fathers of the early-music movement who also built a successful parallel career conducting 19th century European music (his recordings of Beethoven, Schumann and Dvořák are mostly very fine) decided to conduct his first work of 20th-century American music... Porgy and Bess. At the Styriarte Festival in Graz, he led concert performances of Gershwin's jazz opera; Canada's Measha Brueggergosman was originally supposed to be Bess, but unfortunately had to pull out due to illness.

Harnoncourt has made some strange repertoire choices before, including a legendarily bad recording of Verdi's Aida, but the sight of one of the most ultra-European musical figures (he rarely works outside Europe) trying to lead a jazz/musical-comedy opera with an all-black cast -- but with his regular chorus, the Viennese Arnold Schoenberg Choir -- was about as bizarre as it gets. Particularly since visual evidence suggests that, even in a concert without costumes, the staging managed to be kind of Euro-trashy. It's not quite the equivalent of Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras singing West Side Story, but it's close.

There will be no recording, of course, but there audio excerpt available online; it features the opening of Act 2 scene 2, with a chorus followed by "It Ain't Necessarily So," and while the song is pretty standard (it's an unkillable song), the chorus sounds like nobody has any idea what they're singing about or what these rhythms are supposed to signify, and the conducting is slow, strange and square. (Though to be fair, it's really no worse than parts of Simon Rattle's famous Porgy performances/recording.)

For all that, I like Harnoncourt a lot; he's actually one of my favourite living conductors, because while he is often bizarre, he's rarely completely uninteresting. (Even his recording of Aida has a certain perverse fascination as long as you don't expect it to be, you know, good.) He's one of those guys who approaches every work with a "concept," often based on weird readings of character motivations or what the composer was thinking, and then he interprets the music in light of whatever he happens to think it's about. When the concept makes sense, it can lead to interesting performances, and while he's not a technically brilliant conductor, he's very good at getting a distinctive, biting sound out of any orchestra he works with (and the ability to execute a concept and create his own sound are more important, for a conductor, than having the clearest time-beating skills).

(Cross-posted at TV Guidance.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Re-Stating The Premise For Comedy

My recent Archie comics kick, for which I apologize not a bit, taught me a lot more about the company's history and work in its best years. One thing about going through old comics, plus the complete '70s runs of Jughead, Archie and Betty and Veronica collected on DVD-ROM (the Jughead DVD-ROM, virtually all Samm Schwartz in his prime, is a must-get; the first half of the Archie DVD-ROM is almost all Harry Lucey, though the quality falls off sharply after he retires), is that it's a bit of a different experience from reading the digests as a child, and not just because, well, I'm not a child. The digests collected together material from different eras, characters and series, with little bits of everything; there was a house style but there was variety there. The main comics titles, on the other hand, tend to have four stories of the same length, same basic structure, and same exact character. This means that there is no variety within an issue (unless it's one of the grab-bag titles like Laugh or Pep), and any interest has to come from the variations on the rigid, limited story formulas of each character.

One of the reasons Frank Doyle was a great comics writer is that he knew more tricks than just about anybody for making the same plot a little different each time. Again I state as always: most Archie comics had no credits until the '80s and any identification of writing credits is pure guesswork, but it's not that hard to spot individual writing styles by checking them against later, credited work, and Doyle is the likeliest (not the only possible, but likeliest) guess for the scripts that follow. Particularly since they don't have cheesy rhyming titles or clumsy dialogue. But if it turns out somebody else wrote one or more of these stories, that person was a first-class comics writer -- meaning probably not George Gladir.

And one thing I find interesting is that a surprising number of Archie stories take the simple approach of re-stating the premise: telling us who the characters are and what they want, and letting that be the story. The interest and the humor comes from the slightly new angle on the totally familiar setup.

The showiest examples are the stories that Doyle and Dan DeCarlo did entirely in captions, like "The Archie Group," which re-caps the main relationships in flowery, elaborate captions and weird signs. But the main example I'm going to use here is one of my very favorite Archie six-pagers, "If You Knew Archie Like I Know Archie" from Pep # 139 in 1960. Written (probably) by Frank Doyle and drawn by Harry Lucey, it re-states most of the established character relationships; it doesn't really tell us anything new, because there is nothing new to tell (there hasn't been anything new about any of these characters since the '40s), but it does find a different visual and thematic way of re-telling what we know. And the punchline is still great because it can be interpreted in two ways. As a child reading it for the first time, I thought maybe that was the way Archie really looks and we were seeing him in a distorted way. But then I realized that the more likely explanation is that he sees himself in a distorted way. The point is that the whole story was like a little introduction to the idea, stated in the famous Robert Burns quote at the beginning, that your opinions influence what you see.

This next story, "Triple Threat" from Betty and Veronica # 190, is very likely by Doyle -- a dead giveaway is the word "EEP!" which he didn't create but kind of made his own. (Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein thought they'd made the word up when they used it on The Simpsons, only to realize they'd stolen it from Archie; what they didn't know is that they'd specifically gotten it from Doyle, whose characters say "EEP!" to mean a lot of different things.) But I don't know about the art; it sometimes looks like DeCarlo, sometimes like Stan Goldberg, and doesn't fully look like either one. Maybe they collaborated.

Because the art isn't up to the best standard, this isn't a great story, but it stuck in my mind since childhood as an example of the way the better-written stories could look at the formula in a different way. This story doesn't break the fourth wall; it still comes off as a "meta-story" because it takes a very typical plot (they're all very typical plots; that's why smart writers don't spend too much time on them) and looks at it from an outsider's perspective. The story introduces three kids who are, as little kids tend to be in Doyle's stories, wise-asses who make fun of the dumb, over-emotional teenagers. They basically analyze the story and main characters the way we do, predicting their behavior and the way their petty obsessions will drive them ("Reggie will use water, because that was the weapon that was his undoing"). Again, it's an analysis of what we already know, used to provide a fresh slant on characters who can't change.

And finally, there's this story from 1969, drawn by Harry Lucey, still great though with very different clothes to draw. (Or not draw, in the case of the girls.) This is one of those straight-up fourth-wall-breaking stories they did a couple of times a year -- the most famous is "The Line," from the previous year, but it also contains a bit of premise re-statement in that it's about the idea that any new person in Riverdale, if the characters actually got to know him, would irrevocably shake up and destroy the premise.

There may also be an extra bit of meta-humor here because Archie had a truly disastrous record, throughout the '60s, of introducing new characters into the main comic. Except for bringing in Big Ethel (designed by Samm Schwartz) as a foil for Jughead and sometimes the other main characters, they really hadn't come up with anybody who could hold the stage with the regulars. (This would change a bit in the '70s, mostly in the form of token ethnic characters.) Part of the joke of this story is that the Riverdale regulars are resistant -- often violently -- to letting any new characters into their world.

WKRP Foreshadowing

In comments to the final episode, commenter Andy Rose points out that the big revelation is "a little hard to swallow":

While the station may have been financially beneficial to Mrs. Carlson as a write-off, surely it would be much more beneficial as a burgeoning success. (Note how she and Johnny speak about this in a very roundabout way... I presume the writers could never come up with a more precise explanation that would make sense.)

While nothing could make this situation completely plausible, it was actually supposed to be set up a little more than it was. The script for an unproduced episode called "Another Merry Mix-Up" actually contained a scene where Mama Carlson's accountant arrives to look over the books, and is disturbed by the fact that the station is starting to turn a profit.

The script never got beyond a first draft because CBS vetoed it due to the subject matter: it was about Mr. Carlson finding, and smoking, what he thinks is a marijuana joint. (He smokes it to calm his nerves for the meeting with his mother's accountant; after Jennifer tells him that she tried it once -- "In international waters" -- he realizes that his teacher must have lied to him when she said one puff would ruin his life forever.) Though the joint turns out to be oregano, CBS wouldn't allow the script to be produced.

I have a photocopy of the script; I haven't said much about it yet because I'm not yet sure what to say: because it's a first-draft script by a staff writer, it's inevitably not nearly as funny as a finished script. (If it had been produced, the final version wouldn't have been that similar to the script except in terms of scenes and structure.) But I'll do a post about it eventually; meanwhile, here's the dialogue about the station's unexpected profits, which (if the episode had been produced) would have foreshadowed the finale.

The fact that Carlson is unusually prepared and on top of things in this scene is supposed to come from the burst of confidence he got from smoking the "joint."

EMMETT [the accountant]: There's just one problem.

CARLSON: What's that?

EMMETT: That can be worse than losing money in terms of the overall corporate picture at Carlson Industries.

ANDY: It can?

CARLSON: Of course. It gives us triple leverage for a write-off.

ANDY (lost): Uh-huh.

EMMETT: Showing a profit where one is unexpected could have tax repercussions all the way down in the lingerie division.

ANDY: We have a lingerie division?

CARLSON: Oh, boy, do we.

ANDY: I didn't know that.

CARLSON (to Emmett): I'm sorry about unexpected profits. I guess you'll just have to start expecting them.

So that scene, if produced, would have made it a little clearer that WKRP is more valuable to the company as a big write-off than a small profit-maker.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

See "South Pacific" As It Was Originally Seen: From a Distance

There are very few classic musicals or plays that were filmed/taped in the theatre (as opposed to excerpts on variety shows). In America, due to union issues, it was almost impossible. In the UK, though, it occasionally happened. In 1952, with the approval of writer-producers Rodgers and Hammerstein, someone went into London's Drury Lane theatre and recorded a performance of South Pacific (given specially for the cameras) on 16mm film, with one microphone hanging over the stage and sometimes visible. It was apparently made for the private use of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the R&H Organization has the footage, but some of it has found its way onto YouTube: three excerpts, providing us with an opportunity to see what co-writer/director Joshua Logan's production looked like. Logan at this time was one of the very best stage directors in the world -- he'd done Annie Get Your Gun for Rodgers and Hammerstein (as producers), and had just written and directed Mister Roberts before he did South Pacific. It's hard to believe such a smart, alert stage director is the same guy who made the bloated, boring, screwed-up film version of South Pacific, but Logan's awfulness as a movie director doesn't need to be elaborated on here.

Mary Martin repeated her New York role in London (Martin loved touring; she did the road company of Annie Get Your Gun because Ethel Merman refused to tour), and Emile was played by Wilbur Evans, a deep-voiced Broadway baritone who had been the romantic lead in Cole Porter's Mexican Hayride in 1944.

Here is the first excerpt, the first 10 minutes of the show (stopping, unfortunately, just before "Some Enchanted Evening"). The main technical device of the show is apparent immediately: transparent curtains. Jo Mielziner, Rodgers' favorite set and lighting designer, would let the next scene slowly fade into view behind the curtains, and then the curtains would part to reveal what we had already seen. In terms of scene-to-scene transitions, this meant that the next scene would start to appear before the previous scene was finished: one scene would fade out of view as the next scene faded into view. Or sometimes one scene would fade out, someone would do something in front of the darkness, and the next scene would then fade in behind them (sometimes allowing the character to step into the next scene).

I hadn't realized that Mary Martin played Nellie so ditzy in the opening scene. Also: no microphones. What a thrill to hear the voices in an actual theatre acoustic.

The transparent-curtain technique was an attempt to mimic the cinema technique of the dissolve (Rodgers, Hammerstein and Mielziner had used something similar in some parts of Allegro). The biggest problem with musicals has always been the scene transitions: because musicals tend to use more sets than non-musicals, there is always the question of what to do while the next scene is being set up. The most durable solution to the problem was perfected by writer/director George Abbott (another frequent Rodgers collaborator), who would do short scenes in front of the curtain while another scene was being prepared. Many classic musicals, whether or not they're directed by Abbott, use this technique; that's why, in Kiss Me Kate, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" is sung in front of a decorated curtain while behind that curtain, the set for the finale is being moved into place.

Eventually, musicals moved more toward the idea of having one big set for the whole show, accomplishing scene changes by moving the characters from one part of the set to another. (Like almost everything in musical theatre since the War, this was based on something Rodgers and Hammerstein had already tried, in this case with Allegro, which eliminated representational sets and therefore set changes.) This sped up the scene transitions and also gave the whole production a sense of unity and theme. In South Pacific, though, the sets themselves were pretty normal and representational, and each scene had to have its own more-or-less unique set. Here is Martin performing "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair."

And here, on the same set, is a big scene between Nellie and Emile and her next big number, "Wonderful Guy."

This number also demonstrates another thing that was unusual about South Pacific, the naturalistic dancing. R&H's last three shows had all been extremely dance-heavy shows choreographed by Agnes DeMille, and before that, Rodgers had done many musicals with George Balanchine. For South Pacific, there were no extended dance numbers, and what little dancing there was in the show was mostly handled by Logan himself. In this number, Nellie dances the way somebody actually might dance around if she could hear the music playing (note that the orchestration suggests the possibility that it might be playing on a radio somewhere). The show is therefore an important milestone in showing how to bring a sense of movement and flow to numbers without stopping the show for self-contained dance numbers or bringing on dance doubles for non-dancers the way Oklahoma! did.

Note the transition at the end: the scene fades out behind the girls, and the next scene is about to fade back in when the clip ends.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

WKRP Episode: "Up And Down The Dial"

Well, here it is. With this episode, the last of the fourth and final season, I've posted all the episodes from seasons 2 to 4, complete or near to it, plus some of season 1. I will probably do a sort of mopping-up operation to post season 1 musical sequences that were cut from the DVD/Hulu versions.

This episode doesn't need a lot of introduction. It's a half-hour that could sort of serve as a finale in case the show gets canceled (which it did) while still leaving the door open for another season. The script makes it clear that the approach of a fifth season would have been to have WKRP as a semi-successful station, and I think the idea (which they'd been building up to in increments for a while) would have had a lot of potential: they'd already done all the stories about running a failing radio station, but I wish they had been able to do some episodes about a successful radio station staffed by failures.

That is, WKRP's staff was assembled with the intention of making a money-losing radio station, but what happens when these same people are in charge of an operation that -- accidentally -- makes a profit, gets legitimate clients, and so on? They dealt with that a bit in the episode produced right before this one, "To Err Is Human," but they never had a fifth season to really get all the potential out of the idea. And one of the many mistakes The New WKRP made was turning back the clock and making WKRP a failing station again, dooming themselves to re-hash a premise that the original series had already exhausted (and abandoned) by the end of its run.

The episode was directed by veteran actor George Gaynes, the husband of MTM favorite Allyn McLerie. He had made one guest appearance on the show, and later was cast by Hugh Wilson in the first Police Academy movie.

Cold Opening and Act 1

Act 2 and Tag

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The RKO Special Effects Department

Marknyc5, the YouTube user who usually specializes in restoring the original voices of actors who were dubbed in movie musicals, recently created (link via Mark Evanier) a video about the special effects in Bringing Up Baby. (This is the same user who did the popular video about why Li'l Abner shouldn't be shown in fullscreen.)

Howard Hawks said that this was, technically, one of the hardest movies he ever made because they were "working with leopards and dogs." Except for a few scenes early in the schedule, the stars couldn't usually get too close to the leopard, so all kinds of processes were used to make it look like they were interacting with "Baby." Apart from the usual practice of using a body double, they used glass partitions, split-screen, rear-projection, and so on.

RKO, which is my favorite of the Golden Age Hollywood studios (they seemed to make more varied and unique films than any other studio), probably had the best special-effects department in all of Hollywood, led by Vernon Walker. Three years later, of course, his department did its most famous work on Citizen Kane, where special processes were needed in virtually every scene. The job on Baby is just as impressive; I didn't really become aware of the rear-projection until long after I had learned to spot rear-projection in every other Hollywood studio movie. In the scene where they're in the car with Baby, it's not hard to see that the road is rear-projected, but I didn't guess that Baby was part of the screen rather than part of the set.

Update: As noted in comments, the optical printer used to achieve some of these effects was created by Linwood Dunn; this is also mentioned in the description for the video itself:

This is patterned after a talk I saw by Linwood Dunn, who worked with Vernon Walker on the many special effects needed to keep the leopard separate from the actors.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Mountain Greenery and Bill Lava

I was watching "Woolen Under Where," the last Wolf/Sheepdog short (Chuck Jones wrote it, and his animators Phil Monroe and Richard Thompson directed it after he was fired). One thing I find surprising about the short is the main title music, which does not sound at all like the kind of thing Bill Lava usually did. It's an old-fashioned song-quotation cue: the music is an arrangement of "Mountain Greenery," the classic Rodgers and Hart song. It's surprising coming from Lava, who liked to do inappropriately ominous main-title cues and rarely quoted popular songs (Bugs does sing "It's Magic" in "Transylvania 6-500," but that cartoon was storyboarded before Lava even joined the cartoon department -- the board is visible in an episode of The Bugs Bunny Show.)

And the arrangement doesn't really sound like Lava either, especially the ending. I wonder if this is one of the cues that Milt Franklyn composed and/or recorded before he died, or if someone else besides Lava did the main title? The score of the cartoon proper certainly sounds like Lava (I think it's one of his better scores), but not those first 15 seconds.

Update: Of course, Lava was a bandleader as well as a composer, so this arrangement of "Mountain Greenery" might reflect the way he arranged classic songs; I don't know. What's even stranger here is that WB would probably have had to pay to use "Mountain Greenery"; though its music publisher, Harms, was owned by Warners, it doesn't appear to have been in the category of songs that WB composers could use for free (had a Richard Rodgers song ever been used in a WB cartoon before?). Perhaps Thompson and/or Monroe asked for the song to be used over the titles. Hard to tell.

Coooookie Crisp!

The Nostalgia Critic's "Top 11 Cereal Mascots" episode is pretty good; it even includes an overview of all the different Cookie Crisp mascots, showing how a wizard evolved in a cops n' robbers team into a Tex Avery-style wolf.

I've always thought Sugar Bear was a little overrated. He thinks he's so cool, but unlike the Trix Rabbit or even Lucky, he doesn't seem to care much about his cereal. He may say he can't get enough of that Sugar Crisp, but he's so laid-back and blase about it, like he doesn't really care about the glorious prize. He's like a member of the Cereal Rat Pack.

I actually think Barney Rubble and Fred Flintstone deserve a place on the list. They may not qualify because they're known for other things besides cereal pushing, but by the time they did the commercials, they weren't doing a whole lot else. Unlike the Lucky Charms commercials, they actually make you root for the cereal thief -- but they can't make you root for early-'90s fake rap songs that contain the phrase "I'm here to say."

My Spear and Magic Helmet

Today was the 114th anniversary of the birth of Kirsten Flagstad, one of the biggest stars of the '30s Golden Age of Wagnerian opera singing. It's hard to believe that there was a time when Wagner's popularity rivaled or even surpassed Verdi or Puccini, but in the '30s at the Met, there was a huge amount of Wagner every season. In part this was a case where supply drove demand: there were an unusual number of singers who could handle Wagner's music and had the stamina to get through these operas -- not many, but more than there were in Wagner's own lifetime. Combine that with the feeling that Wagner's operas were uplifting and noble (they do have all that redemption jazz going on) and decades of proselytizing for Wagner by eminent critics, and you had a period where Wagner's operas were true repertory pieces -- as opposed to today, when many of them require a certain amount of special pleading. (Companies want to put them on, and mounting a Ring cycle is proof that you're a major-league company, but most of his operas simply aren't big box-office like Puccini, some of Verdi, and even Mozart, whose operas were only just starting to come back into fashion in the '30s.)

This era of Wagnerism in America ended, of course, in 1941; by the time the war was over, Wagnerian singers in any case weren't as plentiful as they had been.

The way Wagner's operas were staged in the '30s at the Met and other big houses helped create the cliches that are familiar to people who have never seen a Wagner opera: though some European houses had already tried to take a more modern or symbolic approach to Wagner (like Mahler's production of Tristan at the Vienna State Opera), the Met apparently went in for spears, helmets, literal sets and broad acting. This clip of Flagstad performing in The Big Broadcast movie seems like a good representation of a time when these cliches were still taken seriously by opera fans. (This is not a knock on Flagstad, a great singer and, by many accounts, a serious and involving performer.)

I'm not, myself, a big Wagner fan, but I like several of his operas very much, especially Tannhauser and the opera that's supposed to be the most inaccessible of all, Parsifal (it's long, weird and somewhat puerile, but the music is incredibly hypnotic and the characters are quite fascinating). I think my least-favorite Wagner is actually his crowning achievement, the Ring, which I think has some serious flaws as theatre, as philosophy and as most importantly as an expression of character in music. Opera is fundamentally about bringing out character in song, but Wagner's method of "endless melody" -- meaning, basically, recitative over orchestral development of important motifs -- often seems to fall into set, even predictable patterns, so that different characters sound very much the same when they sing. Richard Strauss used the Wagnerian method but put a lot more individuality into the vocal lines; Wagner sometimes sounds like he's uninterested in the most important instrument of all (he writes very demanding music for voices, but not necessarily distinctive music). This is not the case in every scene in the Ring, but it does happen in some parts.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Samm Schwartz Addenda

Three Four addenda to my post on Samm Schwartz:

1) Schwartz's friend and MLJ co-worker Joe Edwards said in an interview with Jim Amash in Alter Ego magazine that Schwartz added the extra "M" to the end of his first name -- he had previously been known just as "Sam" -- for no reason, "just to be different." Shades of Ted(d) Pierce.

2) After writing it, I found another article about the launch of the "new" Jughead series in 1987. It doesn't mention Schwartz, but it says that the new series and the new approach -- trying to give him a love triangle a la Archie -- was a response to the "flagging sales" of the title and the perception that girls didn't want to read about the adventures of a woman hater. That suggests that the removal of Schwartz was part of the attempt to give the title a more girl-friendly feel. The love-triangle thing didn't last, of course, because nobody wants to see Jughead that way (as the company had already learned in 1978-9 -- but that's a story for another time). The reason I liked Jughead stories the best as a kid are probably the very reasons why they were the least favorite of the comic's broad readership: they are basically pure amoral comedy, almost like old-school studio cartoons (the best Archie stories are a lot like classic cartoons: variations on a theme), and while Jughead is a generally good guy when it counts, he's a terrible role model for kids. (This was actually the subject of a Schwartz-drawn story where two kids start to admire Jughead because he proves that you can eat anything you want and not get fat). The love-triangle experiment failed, but Jughead continued to succumb to the epidemic of Nice that had turned all the main characters into shadows of their '50s and '60s selves.
Update: Here's a scan of the news article I mentioned (click to enlarge):

3) Sam(m) Schwarts not only drew himself into the strip frequently, in the form of posters telling us to "vote for Sam" (or "Samm" depending on which spelling he felt like using), but when he moved to Miami, he drew a story -- I'm not sure if he wrote it or if Doyle did it -- called "Sam has moved to Miami," where Jughead is distraught because his unseen friend Sam has left town and moved to, well, I've already said it twice. The underlying joke of the story is that the never-seen Sam clearly wants to get the heck away from the freeloading Jughead. But it's got to be one of the few stories in this comic's history that's (sort of) about one of the cartoonists, and I fully expect the name "Sam" to be replaced by some other name if they ever reprint it in a digest. Note the Schwartz trademark of Jughead's feet straggling into the panels below him.

4) My earlier post about Schwartz's "El Slobador" story has been revised to include some screencaps. Turns out it was from 1974 rather than later, as I originally thought. It has to be one of the few issues of Jughead that's all one story instead of three or four separate ones.

Friday, July 10, 2009

WKRP Episode: "You Can't Go Out of Town Again"

Another episode from the fourth season that feels a bit "off" in some ways, not because anybody's out of character, but because the acting and pacing seem a bit uncertain. This is probably due to the director, Howard Hesseman (he got to direct the episode because his character only has one scene in it), who didn't seem to take to directing as naturally as some of the other actors did. In writing terms, the episode has several story threads going on but seems oddly plotless: the main story, of Mr. Carlson finding out the truth about he and his wife met, doesn't really get going until the episode is almost over. (Though it actually used to be common for a sitcom plot to start late; it's surprising how many episodes of, say, The Bob Newhart Show don't begin the actual advertised plot until the halfway mark.)

I don't know about the songs in this one, except for the final song, which needs no introduction. Interestingly, this song was removed in the late '80s but restored in the "redubbed" '90s syndication package -- making it perhaps the only song that the MTM dubbers put back in instead of taking out.

Cold Opening

Act 1

Act 2

Blame the Director?

TCM, which has been getting access to more Fox films lately (a good thing for me, since I don't get the Fox movie channel), showed A Royal Scandal a couple of times recently, though both times I missed out on recording it. (But it's on YouTube as of this writing.) This comedy is a remake of one of Ernst Lubitsch's best silent films, Forbidden Paradise, a historical travesty about Catherine the Great.

Lubitsch chose to remake it as his second project after signing with Fox, and he hired Edwin Justus Mayer, writer of To Be Or Not To Be, to work on the script. Lubitsch and Mayer finalized the script, and Lubitsch chose the cast from Fox contract players (including stage superstar Tallulah Bankhead, who had finally made her movie breakthrough in Fox's Lifeboat the year before), and he rehearsed the cast, which explains why some of the cast members use the vocal inflections familiar from all Lubitsch talkies. (He liked to coach actors in line readings and gestures.) But his already-declining health left him unable to direct the film. Though his name remained on it as producer, most of the picture was directed by Otto Preminger.

Royal Scandal is not considered a classic, and it shouldn't be, but it's really, frustratingly close. The cast is mostly excellent, and the script is pretty consistently hilarious. Mayer was the perfect choice for the script because his Broadway play, The Affairs of Cellini, took a similar approach to historical figures. (That same year he, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin turned the play into a flop musical, The Firebrand of Florence.) It's quite a "modern" comedy script in that almost everybody is a comic character. Normally, when Old Hollywood did a comedy with a historical setting, most of the characters act exactly as they would in a serious treatment of the same subject. (If Bob Hope makes a film like Monsieur Beaucaire, it's Bob Hope being silly while everybody else thinks it's a normal historical epic.) But Lubitsch and Mayer created the ancestor of a Life of Brian type of movie: the characters don't quite step out of character and wink at the audience, but they're all supposed to be funny, and every scene is a send-up of the historical movie genre.

But the movie doesn't quite work, or it doesn't quite hold the interest -- it's the sort of movie where you can find something amusing in almost every scene, but not a great urge to keep watching or the sense that each scene is building to something. My temptation is to blame Preminger, who probably wasn't a great choice for this picture and seems to have been hired mostly because he was Fox's other Germanic director. Preminger admired Lubitsch, but apparently felt that Lubitsch was too superficial and brittle -- a common complaint, and not always inaccurate, but it's absolutely deadly to approach a movie like this without absolute, whole-hearted commitment to the style. This kind of story is on the thin line between parody and sincerity, almost like Blazing Saddles (a genre parody but with a story and characters who sort of exist as people).

The finished film seems to be a little slow and careful, like Preminger was worried that we wouldn't accept the characters if he didn't play down the parody elements. The timing is sometimes off, with insufficient pauses to let the jokes sink in. As someone pointed out on Twitter, Tallulah actually underplays her character some of the time, which is a weird choice both for the actress and for the character. Lubitsch is often mistakenly seen as a sophisticated, suave director, but he was often at his best when he was at his most vulgar, and as To Be Or Not To Be proved, he was probably the most vulgar, tasteless, over-the-top comedy director in Hollywood. Royal Scandal has a script that calls for the same approach, and it mostly doesn't get it.

And yet I'm not sure that I'm right to blame Preminger; this is where you get into the question of what exactly a director does and does not do. Many of the key functions of a filmmaker had already been carried out by Lubitsch before production started. He commissioned, supervised and finalized the script, chose the cast, rehearsed the cast, supervised the building of the sets and the production schedule, etc. Coming in when he did, all Preminger did was get the scenes on film. I'm still tempted to believe that if Lubitsch had been on the set, he would have executed the script better, but I'm reluctant to say for sure that he would have. Trying to figure out what exactly a director does on the set is almost like trying to figure out what a conductor does in front of an orchestra. And because it's hard to figure out, it's easy to overstate, particularly with directors like Lubitsch or Hitchcock who believed in having the movie pretty well planned out before they started. It could be that Preminger screwed up the movie or it could be that there was a fundamental flaw in the plan Lubitsch had for it. Hard to know if you weren't there, and probably hard to know even if you were.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Bungalow In Quogue

Vadim Rizov at the AV Club has a good "Gateway to Geekery" piece on the work of P.G. Wodehouse. I agree with him that The Mating Season is perhaps the best introduction to the Jeeves novels; its plot, while complicated, requires less explanation than The Code of the Woosters (and doesn't depend on the now-incomprehensible term "cow-creamer"). It also isn't as cruel as Right Ho, Jeeves, where Jeeves is, as he often was in early stories, kind of a bastard: there are many stories that imply -- or, in the story narrated by Jeeves, outright say -- that Jeeves actively tries to maneuver Bertie into humiliating situations from which Jeeves can "save" him.

Also, it's one of the few Jeeves novels that doesn't involve Bertie's "good and deserving" Aunt Dahlia, which is a relief. Aunt Dahlia, an old lady who used to be a sportswoman (and Wodehouse is both admiring and terrified of athletic women; many of his golf stories revolve around a big, athletic golf player named Agnes Flack, who scares men away with her booming voice and robust physique), isn't a very interesting character, certainly nowhere near as funny as Bertie's fearsome Aunt Agatha -- who rarely appears in the novels -- and the plots involving her and her home, Brinkley Court, get very repetitive.

And of course, stay the hell away from Ring For Jeeves.

The one thing in the piece I don't really agree with is Rizov's praise of Laughing Gas. It's an interesting novel in theory because it's so different from Wodehouse's other books -- a supernatural fantasy, sort of like Thorne Smith without the sex -- but I don't find it very funny. It feels to me like Wodehouse wrote it in the hope of a movie sale (hence the American setting and the body-switching plot, which would be easy to execute in film), and, as usual, didn't get one. (Another book he originally conceived of as a movie was The Luck of the Bodkins, about a cruise ship voyage and an attempt to smuggle valuables into America hidden in a plush Mickey Mouse doll; it seems like he might have intended the story for RKO, which distributed Mickey Mouse cartoons at the time.) But with the exception of a few of his more surreal Mr. Mulliner stories -- my favorite Wodehouse series -- he wasn't the kind of writer who did well when he tried something different; his stories depend so heavily on the ritual of repetition, of story ideas, character types, and phrases (take a drink every time you read the phrase "like a rocketing pheasant" in a Wodehouse book) that a book doesn't feel quite right when it takes place in a different "universe" from the rest of his work.

His novels and stories mostly take place in the same world, with unusually strict continuity between them -- he frequently refers to characters and plot developments that happened in books written many years before -- meaning that none of them really stand on their own; reading one novel is amusing enough, but only by reading a whole bunch of them do you realize that much of the humor comes from references, allusions and shared situations between the different books.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

You Learn Something New Every Day, Ebay Edition

Someone is auditioning off a few sets of annotated WB cartoon dialogue sheets -- dialogue-only scripts used for the voice recording -- and from one of them, I learn that the mid-'50s cartoon "Wideo Wabbit" was originally supposed to be titled Omni-Bunny.

I know the titles of these cartoons don't really matter, but I still enjoy learning about alternate titles. Like when "Birds Anonymous" was announced on the scoring track as "Tweety-totaler."

These sheets seem to have been prepared for Mel Blanc, since they only include the dialogue spoken by his characters (Update: Sorry, my mistake: the Elmer dialogue is there, but on a separate sheet) -- though in this cartoon, the Groucho and Carney impressions were in the end done not by Blanc but by Daws Butler. The other cartoons available in this form are "Good Noose," "Pre-Hysterical Hare," "Daffy's Inn Trouble" and "Weasel While You Work," all McKimson cartoons from the late '50s or early '60s.

Additional bit of trivia: I believe "Wideo Wabbit" was the last cartoon where Carl Stalling used his Bugs Bunny theme, "What's Up Doc?" The song was in and out of WB cartoons over the years. Stalling didn't seem to be a big fan of using the same theme for a particular character repeatedly, as Disney did for Donald and Goofy. (And Warners probably wouldn't have wanted an original theme used too often, since that reduced the opportunity to plug WB-owned pop songs.) While he used "What's Up, Doc?" in a few Bugs cartoons in the mid-'40s, it wasn't until 1950 (with the eponymous cartoon where the song was sung all the way through) that he and Milt Franklyn created a new arrangement, complete with fanfare, that introduced most Stalling-scored Bugs cartoons from 1951 to about 1954. Though just as Scott Bradley would sometimes put his Tom and Jerry theme on hold if the setting or subject matter called for it, as in the Mouseketeers cartoons, Stalling would use something other than "What's Up, Doc?" if a different song seemed necessary.

Anyway, after the 1953 shutdown, Stalling used the fanfare a few times, but "Wideo Wabbit" appears to be the last use of the song itself. That was pretty much it for LT/MM characters with theme songs, except for Foghorn Leghorn, who had firmly established the public-domain "Camptown Ladies" as his theme. (Also, Stalling and Franklyn occasionally re-used Smetana's "Dance of the Comedians" in the Road Runner cartoons, but it never really became a full-fledged theme song for the series.)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Yet Another Run, Or Return To Fred Silverman's ABC

Mark Evanier tells the story of his Love Boat segment and the various approaches that ABC considered for that show before putting it on the air.

At one point, we're told, ABC under Fred Silverman planned to make it their most titillating show yet, which explains the story Evanier and Dennis Palumbo came up with (a guy trying to lose his virginity), while the version that got on the air was one where "the boy and girl had to have a real relationship that was likely to culminate in wedlock."

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The War On Celebrities Continues: Karl Malden Is Dead

Here's the obituary of Karl Malden, dead at age 97. Maybe someone will prove that there was a period in the past where more celebrities died, but until then, I'm going to assume that, as Jon Stewart put it, "there's a serial killer who only kills celebrities with pre-existing medical conditions."

Anyway, Malden was a very fine actor who did a lot of good work in his long life and career, in good films and bad. He was particularly good at bringing a bit of weakness to characters who might otherwise have been too boring: the priest in On the Waterfront is someone who, as played by Malden, is someone who doesn't seem completely sure of his own rightness, and thereby avoids being a platitude machine. And of course he was very good at playing characters who were just plain weak, portraying the weakness without making them seem like complete milquetoasts (his famously strange looks helped; a tall, weird-looking man looks like someone who isn't naturally easy to dominate). A lot of his most famous roles are weak men in doomed relationships with strong, bad women: Mitch in Streetcar Named Desire, Herbie in the movie version of Gypsy, Archie in Baby Doll and Shooter in The Cincinnati Kid.

He became the kind of guy audiences just seemed to like (which perhaps interfered with his ability to play villains; he didn't always seem very threatening). Eventually he became so beloved by audiences that we could believe him when he told us of the terrifying hell that awaits anyone who carries cash.

Speaking Of Over-Edited Movies...

The death of Michael Jackson has brought some new attention to Stanley Donen's The Little Prince, mostly because Bob Fosse's "Snake In the Grass" number was an obvious influence on Jackson. It's also brought renewed attention to just how badly Donen botched that movie, even before he (or the studio) chopped it down to 88 minutes. In "Snake In the Grass," Fosse is doing a brilliant dance routine, and Donen can't or won't let us see what he's doing: not only is he constantly cutting, but he's constantly cutting to different angles, and show-offy ones at that, for absolutely no reason. I sometimes think Fosse had too much cutting in his own movies, but his cutting usually follows some kind of rhythmic logic, whereas the cutting in this number doesn't even match the rhythms of the music or the dance a lot of the time.

The Little Prince is also a case study in how a movie can make a good score sound bad. When Alan Lerner wrote in his autobiography that Donen had ruined the Lerner-Loewe score (their last together; Loewe went back into retirement after this project), I was skeptical, considering it to be just another one of Lerner's self-serving anecdotes. But while Lerner's script was weak and bears some of the blame for the failure of the film, he was right about the score. The songs are lovely, in that lush neo-Viennese-operetta style that Loewe brought to Broadway and Hollywood, and some of them have gained a bit of popularity outside the film (like "I Never Met a Rose" and the title song). But in the movie, they stop and start in awkward places, and are sometimes cut down to nothing; "Be Happy" is a gorgeous melody but you'd never know it from the way it's done in the movie.

And even the ones that are done all the way through are sabotaged by weird arrangement choices, like the decision to do half of "I Never Met a Rose" in a fake "megaphone" sound, and give the orchestra the tinny sound of an old record (which is taking pastiche too far). The dialogue in this clip is dubbed, but the song is in English, and let's face it, the dialogue in this movie deserves to be dubbed over anyway.

Donen, it goes without saying, did wonderful work on many musicals before this; this was the decline phase of his career (Staircase, Lucky Lady, Saturn 3 -- some would consider Movie Movie a return to form; I don't care for it).