Monday, September 28, 2009

The CHINATOWN Conundrum

So Roman Polanski is in the news again. I don't feel like writing a post about that, because, yuck, but here's something I notice about Chinatown: not only is it somewhat atypical of Polanski's career, it's also somewhat atypical of Robert Towne's career.

Towne's script is often taught in screenwriting classes and books as a model of the well-made screenplay. Most of Towne's own scripts (apart from the many he doctored, like Bonnie and Clyde) are messier and less heavily plotted than Chinatown; his excellent script from the year before, The Last Detail, is more the kind of film he usually wrote.

As for Polanski, his style is all over the movie, not just in the nihilistic ending he insisted on, but the sense of creepy dread he brings to every scene. The movie would not have worked if it had been given to another director, because any other director would have treated it as an old-fashioned crime movie, and it would have become an exercise in nostalgia. (The Robert Altman Long Goodbye option, to contrast old movie ethics with modern living, wasn't available here, because of the period setting.) Polanski insisted on shooting it in color and in Panavision, to make sure that it would not be mistaken for a pastiche of old movies, and as usual he made the movie look beautiful and feel terribly unsettling, so the audience couldn't sit back and keep their distance from the story.

And yet it's not exactly a Polanski project: he didn't write it (Rosemary's Baby was another project handed to him by Robert Evans, but he wrote it himself), and it's not a type of movie he usually made; the underlying theme of the movie almost seems to be Polanski trying to figure out how to make himself interested in a genre he doesn't usually go for. The story that seems closest to Polanski's '60s films is Evelyn Mulwray's story, but the nature of the script means that that story has to be peripheral, something we only learn about in dialogue (and, in the "my sister/my daughter" scene, pretty campy dialogue at that).

In many ways it seems like the person of whom this movie is most "typical" is Robert Evans. Not only because it was his first movie as a producer (as opposed to studio executive) and so he had a lot riding on it, but because it's the kind of thing he loved to work on in his Paramount years: he showed a great fondness for period pieces (The Godfather, The Great Gatsby) and modern takes on old-school movies (Love Story). Evans was successful as head of Paramount because he knew how to steer a middle ground between Old and New Hollywood, making Old Hollywood genre movies informed by the New Hollywood style. Chinatown was his attempt to do for film noir what he'd done for tearjerkers and gangster movies. Though as with The Godfather, the director took it to places Evans might not have expected, and he was smart enough to go along with that.

I've never been able to embrace Chinatown completely because I feel like, because Polanski brings that creeped-out style to everything he does, there's a too-limited emotional range to this movie. Polanski's little cameo is my favorite scene in the movie because it's funny as well as scary, one of the few funny moments in a mostly humorless movie (and much funnier than most of The Fearless Vampire Killers, which is supposed to be funny-creepy and mostly isn't). For one minute, Polanski is venturing out of his comfort zone and doing something a little different. But the movie is so brilliantly made and haunting that I can't really fault it too much for not being something it isn't.

WKRP Episode: "Preacher"

I got a request for this one, though apart from the beginning it doesn't have much you won't see on Hulu (but if you're in Canada, you can't see it on Hulu anyway). This episode has an odd airing history because it was only the third episode produced, and it was shown in its proper place when the show went into syndication, but it was not aired on CBS until the very end of the first season. (Technically it aired after the regular season was over, as a burn-off.)

I don't know why it was held over, since it's a funny show, the first written by Wilson's friend Bill Dial (whose most famous credit on the show is the Thanksgiving episode), maybe broader and more focused on guest-star parts than what came afterward. My favorite line is a throwaway for Venus: "Andy, I think I'll... I don't know, I'll probably go buy a car or something." It's hard to write a line for a character who's about to leave the room for no particular reason; that's a really good one, and like most of the best lines on this show, not really a punchline per se.

In casting notes, John Chappell, who plays the Minister, was cast by Bill Dial as the engineer on The New WKRP, and Suzanne Kent, one of the "Merciful Sisters of Melody," had a busy time on TV that season; she also played Angela in the famous "Blind Date" episode of Taxi (returning for a follow-up episode the year after).

This is the only episode where Herb and Les don't appear. The original idea was that there would be maybe three characters who appeared in every episode, and other characters would rotate in and out like Sue Ann and Georgette on Mary Tyler Moore (characters who were not in every episode but were sort of regulars). However, by the end of the first season, Hugh Wilson decided that all eight characters should appear in every episode.

The song Johnny plays in the opening scene is, as I've noted before, "I'm Down" by The Beatles. Hugh Wilson was a big Beatles fan and would have liked to include more of their songs on the show, but even with the discounted rates the show got, they were too expensive, and their songs were only used in two other episodes. (Second most expensive, probably -- and not surprisingly -- were the Rolling Stones, whose tracks were the first to get removed from the show in syndication.) I don't know about the music at the very beginning; it might be a piece of soundtrack music, but since it was removed in the '90s, it might be a real song of some kind.

Also, there are two versions of this episode, one as originally produced with the main title before the first act, and one that uses the first scene as a cold opening before the main title. This is the original version (unfortunately without the title sequence, but you've seen it).

Act 1

Act 2 and Tag

The Many Faces of Mrs. Cooper

In my recent Bob Bolling profile, I noted that he tended to change the designs of the characters depending on what kind of story he was doing. There's another reason why cartoonists change a character's design, of course: because the character hasn't appeared often enough to have a fixed design. One character who fit into both categories for Mr. Bolling was the never-named (at least in his stories) Mrs. Cooper. The look of Bolling's Mr. Cooper, while not entirely consistent, at least portrayed him as more or less the same guy every time: a middle-aged guy with glasses. (If you try to put these stories into some kind of strict continuity you would conclude that he actually got younger by the time his youngest daughter was a teenager.) But Mrs. Cooper? I don't have an example of her early appearances in this title, but all the women in the first few years looked the same: generic suburban housewives. (Except Mrs. Andrews who was "generic hot suburban housewife.")

But then Bolling introduced an older brother, Chic Cooper, and he realized that if Mrs. Cooper had a college-age son, she couldn't be as young as the other mothers in town. So in issue # 12 she became a pudgy middle-aged woman (like what poor Mary Andrews is destined to become).

Then, three issues later, Bolling decided to do some solo stories for Little Betty, and suddenly her mom looks not only younger than Mrs. Andrews, but younger than most teenagers in this universe. The implications of her being married to Mr. Cooper are frankly disturbing.

But in the very next issue, Mrs. Cooper puts in an appearance in one of the adventure stories. Bolling's technique for the adventure/mystery stories was to draw the kids in the normal, cartoony fashion but draw everyone else, including the parents, realistically. And so Mrs. Cooper goes from what we saw above, to what we see below:

Addendum: Here's another panel from the same story that shows the cartoony kids/realistic adults style Bolling used for these adventure tales.

But don't worry, in the very next issue she's back to being a cute cartoony blonde married to a man apparently half again as old as she is (still an improvement over twice as old, which is how he looked two issues ago).

A couple of years went by and Bolling introduced Polly, featuring her in four or five stories. Because the design for Polly was basically the same as the design he'd used for Mrs. Cooper in some of the earlier stories, Mrs. Cooper once again has to look like somebody who could have an older kid... but Bolling may have overdone it:

One issue later, Mrs. Cooper is back in a more plausible and moderately age-appropriate version.

But that wasn't the end of it, because when Bolling returned to the series in the '80s, Mrs. Cooper was once again looking like someone who should not be married to a schlumpy-looking guy (one who appears to spend most of his time chasing his daughter's cat across rooftops).

The lesson of all this? I'm not sure. Unless it's that Mr. Cooper keeps divorcing and/or disposing of wives in much the way that Mrs. Andrews keeps getting new and different-looking husbands. And even if he is a sort of modern Bluebeard, it wouldn't explain why his wives vary so greatly in age. One of those eternal comics mysteries, I guess.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reciprocal Wodehouse Linkage

He linked to my old post about P.G. Wodehouse, but even if he hadn't, I'd recommend that you look at Ray Givran's post about the source of a P.G. Wodehouse short story.

What I argued a few years ago was that many of Wodehouse's works, and in particular the short stories, are basically parodies of popular fiction from the early 20th century; the subjects and stock characters that other writers might be dealing with in a serious way -- dissolute young clubmen, bluff, hearty ex-explorers -- are played for laughs. The Mr. Mulliner stories, my favorite Wodehouse series, are a send-up of a once-popular type of fiction which is "framed" by a bunch of people sitting around and listening to one person tell them the story. (It was a deliberate send-up of a type of story that Wodehouse particularly disliked.)

One of the few Mulliner stories about a woman, Mr. Mulliner's niece Charlotte, is "Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court": Charlotte, a pretentious animal-rights supporter who writes "Vignettes in Verse," and her boyfriend, an equally pretentious writer of "Pastels in Prose," go to a country house populated by stereotypical hunting addicts. The house exercises some kind of power that turns anyone into a lover of hunting; by the end of the story she and her gentleman friend are trying to shoot an old man with an air-gun, and her poems are all about the joys of shooting gnus. It also contains one of the very greatest Wodehouse lines:

The sky was blue. The sun was shining. All Nature seemed to call to her to come out and kill things.

According to Givran, a discussion on a message board has suggested that this might be a parody of a John Buchan story that had appeared the year before, called "Fullcircle: Martin Peckwether's Story." It's about a young literarily-inclined, couple that moves into a house that exerts a similar fascination on them, until they drop their freethinking ways and become just like the person who originally owned the house.

Now, Wodehouse might not have had that specific story in mind, because he'd already written a somewhat similar (and truly insane) story called "Honeysuckle Cottage," in which a writer of hard-boiled mysteries moves into a house owned by his aunt, a writer of soppy romance novels. He finds himself not only being possessed by the spirit of his aunt's writing (coy, beautiful maidens keep finding their way into his stories along with lines like "a veritable child of faerie") but also finds himself living out the plot of one of her sentimental books: a beautiful girl gets hit by a car and winds up staying in his house, he saves her dog's life, the girl's aged fiance nobly steps aside so she can be with the man of her heart, etc. (The story is a great guide to the cliches of a type of novel -- the completely sexless romance -- that no longer exists.) But the Buchan story does show that this kind of plot was used frequently in serious, or at least semi-serious fiction. Wodehouse's stories are crazier versions of plots that were actually played straight in the rest of the magazine.

As time went on and those stories started to die out, of course, Wodehouse's treatment of these ideas and characters became more stylized, because his audience was no longer aware that they were supposed to be parodies of anything.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Most Unflattering Makeup Job?

North By Northwest is on now (I wonder if the upcoming Blu-Ray release will finally correct the mis-framing that cuts off the full name on the secret spy agency's plaque? It's been cut off in every version of the film I've seen). It reminds me that one of the Pauline Kael observations I really agreed with was her denunciation of Eva Marie Saint's makeup in this film. Kael wrote that "a perverse make-up artist has turned her into an albino African mask."

When I saw the movie for the first time, it was the second thing I'd ever seen Saint in, the first being Exodus, and I thought she didn't look as good as she had in Exodus. Then I saw her in On the Waterfront and other movies where she wasn't too ostentatiously made up, and she looked great. But in North By Northwest her face looks lumpy and artificial. There's no such thing as a truly "natural" look in movies -- everybody's changed by the camera, even if they don't wear any makeup at all -- but sometimes a person looks better when the makeup and hair people are trying to make him or her look natural, and that's definitely the case here. The more they try to make her look like a beautiful blonde, the less she looks like one, even though she actually is a beautiful blonde.

This is probably due to a combination of a) Hitchcock's desire to make her look like the generic Hitchcock Blonde and b) An unfamiliar makeup department -- this was Hitchcock's only movie at MGM, and while he took most of his Paramount crew along with him, he used MGM's hair and makeup crew.

This is always the case that comes to mind when I try to think of the most unintentionally unflattering makeup job in movies. What are some other movies where someone is intended to look good, but is given makeup that makes him or her look less good than usual?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

In Honor Of Road Runner Anniversary Day

This is the 60th anniversary of "Fast and Furry-ous," and while the Chuck Jones site has the early Road Runner/Coyote model sheet posted today, I'm more interested in this November 1952 Chuck Jones letter they posted a few days ago, where he talks about working on a Road Runner cartoon -- which given the chronology is probably either "Stop, Look and Hasten!" or "Ready, Set, Zoom!" -- and the process of making these story-less, rigidly-formatted gag cartoons:

Heigh-ho or rather ho-hum. I’m a little sleepy. Been slamming through another Coyote and Roadrunner, as I may have mentioned. These are sort of money-in-the-bank type pictures. We don’t have to worry about establishing a premise or continuity or character development much or trick backgrounds. Everything’s pretty open. Just sit down and start drawing and when all the gags are roughed out, arrange them according to pace, so’s the picture will build in tempo, find myself a strong gag to end on and I’m in business. Timing is a snap because no dialogue and there’s no worry about making it too long, because I can time the gags as I go along and use just as many as I need. All in all, life could be very simple and maybe a little bit dull if all I had to do was direct coyote and r.r.s.

Even if the cartoon he was working on isn't "Stop, Look and Hasten," this is a good one to post, because I've noticed that a lot of people increasingly are picking that one as a favorite. Because it has a few things that give it kind of a story-like structure, if not an actual story -- the first of a few opening sequences where Jones and Maltese show the Coyote alone and hungry (Jones decided this wasn't necessary and soon gave up on it, but it worked well when he used it, and he brought back a variant of it in "To Beep Or Not To Beep"), and the gag that doesn't pay off the first time but pays off at the very end -- it feels like it holds together as a cartoon. Whereas some of the other cartoons, which may have better individual gags, could easily fit any of those gags into any other picture. The one big reservation I have about it is that ever since I was a child, I've been disappointed in any Road Runner cartoon that doesn't have the overhead shot of the Coyote falling into the canyon. That just is the Road Runner series to me.

One thing about the early Road Runner cartoons that slightly differentiates them from the later (post-shutdown) cartoons is that the early ones tended to have at least one genuine "chase" sequence: instead of just the Coyote trying to trap the Road Runner, there would be one scene where they were actually running, like the "clover" sequence in "Fast and Furry-Ous" or the tunnel bit in "Beep Beep." And here we get the scene on the train tracks, plus a sort of abbreviated chase scene at the end.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mono, Stereo and All Those Things In Between

I didn't buy the mono super-limited edition Beatles recordings, even though I fully agree with those who say the mono mixes are superior (or at least, more authentic). I just couldn't justify the expense, and instead bought a few of the stereo recordings cheap. Of course with some of those 35-minute albums, EMI could easily have put both the mono and stereo mixes on one CD, but that would have been generous to the consumer and therefore forbidden by the code of record-company morality.

Anyway, I'm one who grew up listening to a lot of recordings from the late '50s and '60s -- more classical and Broadway than pop, but because my father bought most of his LPs in the late '50s, '60s and early '70s, that's where my listening habits were formed. Dad bought most of his LPs in stereo, because he was mostly a classical collector, and classical had converted to stereo almost completely by the '60s: there were still mono versions being released, but most of the producers had stopped paying attention to anything but the stereo mix, and buyers of classical LPs knew that the stereo was the "real" version. So those LPs had stereo mixes that were designed to appeal to the audiophile who wanted the concert-hall illusion: the idea was to provide the feeling that you were listening to an orchestra spread across your living room, and could pick out the position of every instrumental section or singer. Here's the start of the 1959 recording, Wagner's Rheingold, that helped define the way classical collectors liked their stereo to be mixed:

Then the show-music recordings were in a mix of real stereo and fake stereo: the mix was clearly genuine stereo, in that you could hear the orchestra spread across the stereo stage, but much of the mix -- and especially the voices -- was sort of mono-style. Either the voices would be bunched together in the middle or they'd be split between the extremes of the two speakers. If you listen to a Columbia cast album, you'll notice that when there are two singers, they're always singing to each other from opposite ends of the room; on the original cast album of The Sound of Music, in "My Favorite Things," Maria is on the extreme left and the Mother Superior is on the extreme right. (No political commentary intended.) I think this was sort of a combination of the mixing in the classical and jazz departments; at Columbia, classically-oriented Goddard Lieberson produced all the recordings, but his chief assistant, in charge of the mixing and post-production, was jazz producer Teo Macero, who liked extreme right-left contrasts. So here again is the mix for "Thinking" from Do I Hear a Waltz (by Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim), sung by two characters who are supposed to be at a table together.

And then finally you have the recordings that were mixed in stereo that was really "triple mono." This is where pop acts like the Beatles come in. The stereo mixes of most of their recordings, as you probably know, are really just mono split in three, with one set of sounds on the left, another in the middle and another on the left. But even after they started mixing in real stereo, they did exactly the same thing. You can tell "Here Comes the Sun" is a true stereo recording because the sounds aren't as bisected as they were on the earlier recordings (there's more of a sense of space) and there are some "panning" effects. But it's still got the guitar on the extreme left, and the voices on the extreme right, an arrangement that makes no physical sense if you think of a recording as a representation of a performance. (Since George is playing the guitar on the left side of your living room but singing on the right.) Of course it's not supposed to be representative of a performance, so the issue doesn't come up, but that's the '60s way of stereo mixing in pop, whether for real or after the fact: put one thing on the right, and another on the left, and maybe the drums in the middle, and call it a day. It's not supposed to give the illusion of people in a place playing instruments and singing -- and it shouldn't.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Grudge Match: Nerd Batman vs. Jock Batman

This is a Grudge Match™ idea I came up with a few years ago and kind of like: as we all know, Batman's success is based on the fact that he trained himself to become both the world's greatest jock and the world's greatest nerd, building his physical prowess and becoming, as Homer Simpson pointed out, a scientist.

So let's say some kind of evil science ray hits Batman (again) and splits him into his two halves, the jock side (with all his wacky martial-arts training and muscles) and the nerd side (with all his scientific knowledge and smarts). If these two Batmen fought against each other, who would win?

Nerd Batman (sometimes referred to as "BatNerd") has only average strength and speed, but is able to make all those elaborate contingency plans and anticipations of his opponent's moves. BatJock has only average intelligence, but has the ability to beat the crap out of nerds in silly costumes.

Who wins this archetypal brains vs. brawn battle?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Non-Offensive Subtext In a Busby Berkeley Number

I don't know why I hadn't seen Roman Scandals, even though I like Eddie Cantor and Busby Berkeley, and Berkeley was at his peak when Warners loaned him back to Goldwyn to do this film (he'd been the choreographer on the stage and film version of Cantor's Whoopee!). The "Keep Young and Beautiful" number is on YouTube, and it may now be the most famous part of the movie because it's the most appalling: not only is it Cantor's obligatory blackface number, but the whole song is about how women (including a young Lucille Ball) should spend all their time trying to be impossibly thin, wrinkle-free and perfect if they "want to be loved."

It's a great Harry Warren tune, though, and Al Dubin's contributions to these musicals are underrated: in numbers like this and "Shanghai Lil," he wrote a huge number of additional lyrics covering any idea Berkeley had. Because of Dubin, these were musical numbers that really used the songs to advance their own little self-contained stories, instead of just having Berkeley illustrate a short pop song.

The strange thing about the number is that as it progresses and gets more and more surreal and bizarre -- the usual pattern of a Berkeley number -- it almost seems to be rebelling against itself. First it betrays one of the rules of a blackface number by having the dancers actually notice that Cantor is a white guy in blackface, and get quite angry at him for it. Then the two groups of dancers, black and white, who were originally separated from each other, join together and team up against their common enemy: Cantor, the white guy pretending to be black, the man telling them all how they should look. They use one of the beauty treatments they had to go through to "keep young and beautiful" as an instrument of torture against Cantor, pumping their fists in revolutionary style.

I doubt Berkeley actually intended this to be some kind of act of revolution against the traditional blackface number or girlie number. But he would follow his crazy ideas wherever they took him, and that's where this particular idea seems to take him: the chorus girls take over the number, stage a coup, and kill the star.

Speaking Of Music...

I haven't done a classical-music post here in a long time, even though (thanks to YouTube) I've been listening to more of it recently than I have in a while. One thing I've noticed about classical music on YouTube is that most of the comments show a disturbing obsession with speed. That is, every YouTube comment thread on a performance of a classical piece will consist mostly of a discussion of the tempo, usually with most commenters claiming it's too fast. (Sometimes they might say it's too slow, but this is not quite as common.)

Not that YouTube comments are a place where you expect to find deep intellectual commentary, but you're more likely to find relatively sophisticated discussion of musical performance in threads about pop music. For the classical videos, it mostly becomes an argument about tempo, divorced from other considerations like phrasing, balances (what instruments are allowed to dominate and which are muffled) and dynamics. Even the tempo discussions are weirdly divorced from reality, since you get people claiming that a slower tempo is what Beethoven or Mozart would have expected -- which, given that "Andante" and "Adagio" were faster in their day than they later became, just isn't true. Then you get the opposite, people pointing to metronome markings and historical evidence for what the "right" tempo is, and that in some ways is just as bad (what matters is whether the speed makes sense in this particular performance, not what the metronome marking says). Finally it becomes a discussion of the tempo the performer starts with, when most performances go through at least some change in speed. Some performers, the "romantic," demonstrative ones, make it clear when they're speeding up or slowing down, others try to disguise it, but they all do it to some extent. In short, the basic speed of a performance certainly is worth talking about, but not at the expense of everything else.

With that out of the way, here's a Beethoven symphony performance I found on the YouTube (aka "le YouTube," "der YouTube," and "il YouTuba"). It's by Frans Brüggen, a recorder player who also became Holland's leading period-instrument conductor, putting together a band called "The Orchestra of the 18th Century" with which he recorded a lot of (strangely enough) 19th century music by Beethoven and Schubert. His Beethoven is hard to find on disc, but it's actually probably the best of the period-instrument Beethoven. He turned in performances that were leaner and rougher than big-orchestra Beethoven, but also more flexible and personal in interpretation than the "authentic" Beethoven performances coming out of England.

This video is from a 2002 performance of Beethoven's 8th symphony, which is kind of perfect for YouTube because every movement is under 10 minutes, so each movement fits neatly into one video. In some ways it's Beethoven's weirdest symphony. He wrote it at a time when he was known for making symphonies bigger, longer and more ambitious than ever before; he wrote it at the same time as his 7th symphony. And yet it's the shortest symphony he ever wrote, deliberately re-introduces devices that were out of date (like calling the dance movement a "minuet"), and makes its impact by introducing weird, unsettling or surprising little moments into movements that are otherwise very light and conventional-sounding.

It's not at all the kind of thing you would have expected to find between his 7th and 9th symphonies, and people have spent almost 200 years trying to figure out what exactly he meant by writing it: was it a look back at the "classical" style of Haydn and Mozart? Was it a parody of old-fashioned compositional methods? Or maybe a parody of current musical fads? (There used to be a legend that the second movement was a parody of the metronome, a device that had only just been invented.) It's a fun piece, but there's something a little unsettling about the fun. That's one reason why the harsher sound of period instruments works well in this piece.

Monday, September 07, 2009

So That's What an Orchestra Sounds Like

There was never a final episode for Animaniacs, so so put together the 99th and last episode, the producers took one leftover cartoon and asked Richard Stone, the supervising composer, to fill out the episode by composing an "Animaniacs Suite" based on the various themes he had written for the characters. (All the characters had original themes except Slappy Squirrel, whose theme was Dvořák's 7th "Humoresque.") The music was illustrated with clips from the previous 98 episodes. I don't think the cartoon has been run very often -- YTV used to have a package that consisted of the first 98 episodes, but not this elusive 99th. It's too bad, because the Suite, written for an expanded orchestra, stands as a nice tribute to Stone, who died only a few years later. I don't think it would really work as a separate orchestral piece (though I doubt Warners ever even bothered trying to market it that way), but I wouldn't mind being able to get it as a separate track or download, without the sound effects. I would also like the Goodfeathers section to be longer, since I thought the combination of cartoony music with jazzy New York movie music made for some of the show's best scores.

The question of how much you do or don't like Stone's style -- and the style of his other staff composers, but they all learned to write exactly like him -- is inseparable from the question of what you think of the shows, since he was an exact match for the style of the shows he composed for: brash, loud, and with a tendency toward obvious effects; if there was ever an opportunity for a wah-wah trombone moan, he'd take it. (Some of this, though, may not have been his personal choice; in his interview with Daniel Goldmark, he mentioned that he would have preferred to hold the music back for explosions and let the sound effects do the work, the way Stalling did, but that he was asked to put big musical stings under the explosion effects.) Also, no matter who was orchestrating for him, the obsessive use of the xylophone is a feature of nearly all Stone scores.

But I don't think any of that matters much compared to his ability to find the exact right musical style for these shows. Tiny Toons, which didn't have as much of a uniform style, had some good scores, some weak scores, and just like the show itself, we didn't always quite know what kind of style it was aiming for. Stone came up with a type of music that sounded like what Tiny Toons, Animaniacs and the rest were trying to be: like the old cartoons, but not too much like them (because any time they tried to compete head-to-head with the classic stuff, they inevitably fell short). It was like Carl Stalling music in terms of the effects and the musical jokes, but if you compared a Stone score with a Stalling score you would find that the overall sound wasn't unpleasantly similar (in part because it had just enough of a '90s sound to it to avoid sounding like a complete retro throwback). It's music that nods to the past but sidesteps unflattering direct comparisons, just like the shows were trying to do.

The upload above is in mono; there's also a YouTube clip that has only the audio of this segment, without the video, but it's in stereo, and in some ways the music comes off better without the clips.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Reminder That DVD Classics Still Exist

Well, they still do. John Ford's Wagon Master is coming out on DVD next week. (Or possibly the week after; it seems like some stores might have it next week.) It's one of Ford's own favorites among his films, and there's no doubt that Wagon Master is one of his best Westerns.

Watch Wagon Master (1950, John Ford) in Drama  |  View More Free Videos Online at

It was passed over for DVD release a few times because it doesn't have any stars in it; the closest thing to a star is Ben Johnson, but really the "star" is Ford's whole stock company, including Johnson, Harry Carey Jr. (who participates in the commentary track with the ubiquitous Peter Bogdanovich), Ward Bond, Jane Darwell, and Alan Mowbray, who get to do their thing without being overshadowed by a star like Wayne or Fonda. If Fort Apache, my own favorite Ford Western, is a movie with almost nothing but stars -- as others have noted, nearly everybody in the film either was a big star (Wayne, Fonda), used to be a star (Shirley Temple, George O'Brien), or was a star in Mexico (Pedro Armendáriz, Miguel Inclán) -- then Wagon Master is the movie that does without stars altogether. I think that may be something Ford especially valued about it, since his other '50s favorite, The Sun Shines Bright, is similarly star-less.

The odd person out in Wagon Master is the female lead, Joanne Dru, since she wasn't precisely a Ford stock player, though she had been in his previous Western, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. One thing that's a bit unusual about her is that she was a Howard Hawks discovery who was then taken up by Ford. They usually had very different tastes in leading women. Hawks used Dru in Red River as part of his usual pattern of finding an unknown actress and making her play the typical Hawks woman (Lauren Bacall, Angie Dickinson). And, also part of his usual pattern, he never did another film with her. Then Ford used her, first as the sort of spunky-but-not-too-independent girl he liked to feature in his Westerns (Vera Miles, Maureen O'Hara), then in Wagon Master as someone a little closer to her Red River character.

None of these are great parts -- her Red River character, unlike the similar characters played by Bacall and Dickinson, is too peripheral to the story to make any impact -- but I've always liked her in all three movies. But they didn't help her career much, because they caused her to be typecast as a Western heroine. In the mid-'50s she tried to change her image with some decidedly non-Western photoshoots, but it didn't get her any better parts, and she didn't look any more comfortable in those photos than she did in gingham gowns

She just seemed a little angry all the time, even when playing the good girl; in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the first shot of her has her looking like she's going to kill somebody, and she acts that way through the whole movie.

It's Friendship, But Not Bob

Just a note on Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's "Classic Children's Comics": the one story credited to Bob Bolling in the volume, "It's Friendship," is probably not Bolling. It's not signed by him, and the art and writing style isn't really his; he was drawing the characters shorter and plumper at the time. Others have identified it as probably being Dexter Taylor, who had just started on the title.

The mistaken credit is a shame for Bolling, who deserved to have several stories in such a book and instead has none, but it's a far bigger shame for Taylor, who -- while his work suffers by comparison to Bolling's -- has been working on this title virtually uninterrupted since 1957, much of it without credit.

Still, I suppose it's a good thing that Taylor got a story into the anthology, in recognition -- albeit accidental -- of his long career as one of the most widely-read children's comics' creators, even though the story isn't one of his better ones. (My suspicion is that Spiegelman and Mouly chose this story because it's somewhat similar to the formula of the "big" titles; it's not really a particularly interesting story.) And perhaps the credit will be fixed in future printings.

That still leaves us waiting for "The Long Walk" ,which was considered for this anthology, and somehow lost out to many lesser stories, to make it into a book.

(I've never really figured out why Bolling was allowed to sign his stories and nobody else was, but I suspect that it's a combination of two things: one, the need to have kids associate the title with a particular name the way they associated Dennis the Menace with Hank Ketcham, and two, letting the creator of a franchise sign his name was a cheap way of stopping him from asking for more money. It's the Mel Blanc principle: give somebody credit instead of a raise.)

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Hugh Martin Claims Credit For Lots of Suff, Probably Accurately

Hugh Martin (Meet Me In St. Louis, Best Foot Forward, "An Occasional Man") is one of my favorite people in the history of American show music, a terrific songwriter and perhaps the greatest vocal arranger in Broadway history. (His arrangements for songs like "Sing For Your Supper" in The Boys From Syracuse sometimes outshine the songs themselves.) He's still alive, in his 90s; he was interviewed for Steven Suskin's book on Broadway orchestration, and recently, Martin's friend Michael Feinstein asked him for some thoughts on a new book about his songwriting/singing partner, Ralph Blane.

Martin responded -- at least I'm assuming this is legit -- with this partial list of corrections, mostly pointing out that many Martin-Blane songs were in fact Martin's alone, and that all the vocal arrangements were by Martin since Blane "couldn't do a vocal arrangement if his life depended on it."

The succession of "I wrote this" and "I wrote that" lines may become a bit wearying, but I find it interesting, because I love these songs and there has been very little documentation of who wrote what. Martin and Blane's partnership was, as I've said many times, essentially the same as Lennon and McCartney's in the last few years of the Beatles, where they would each write songs on their own (both music and lyrics), then take joint credit for all the songs, as well as making small changes to each other's work. Some books -- including, apparently, this book on Blane -- mistakenly say that Martin wrote the music and Blane the lyrics, when in fact they almost never worked this way. (Martin says that the only song they wrote like that was "Three Men On a Date," a song from Best Foot Forward.) It's hard to identify who wrote what, but Martin is often responsible for the songs that have big jazzy choral sections and a hard-driving, peppy style also typical of his friend Kay Thompson.

In Best Foot Forward, their first Broadway and movie success, Suskin's Show Tunes identifies some of the songs by author; Blane wrote the big hit "Buckle Down Winsocki" and my favorite song from the show, "Shady Lady Bird," which unfortunately was not used in the film. Benny Goodman recorded the song with Peggy Lee singing; here it is, just as a reminder that Blane was a fine songwriter himself (something that can get lost in Martin's comments, because he's responding to a book that apparently tried to give Blane credit for everything).

Incidentally, why has Encores! not done this show? Great score, the original jazz-influenced Don Walker orchestrations and Martin vocal arrangements would sound great, and the only place anybody has heard the full score is the 1963 Off-Broadway revival with the young Christopher Walken and Liza Minnelli, which used only two pianos and jettisoned Martin's choral arrangements.

Anyway, Martin's contributions to Best Foot Forward the wonderful ironic torch song "Ev'ry Time." I recall seeing somewhere that "Three B's" was mostly Martin, though since it's really a suite of songs, there might be contributions from both of them in there. And according to "Show Tunes," one song from the show, "The Guy Who Brought Me," was mostly written uncredited by Richard Rodgers, who was a producer of the show.

As the Martin/Blane collaboration continued, Martin seems to have done more of the memorable work; his solo work, compared to Blane's (they both did musicals and movies on their own or with other collaborators) suggests that he had become the superior songwriter, which would explain why their big hits after 1943 or so tend to be Martin's work.

That's maybe too much credit-assigning for one post, but I say all this just to emphasize that songwriting credits for Broadway and Hollywood musicals can be every bit as deceptive as their counterparts in modern pop music.

AAs for Martin's comments, I'm assuming that they are real if only because the information given in the post checks out with the little bits of information that have been confirmed before: I knew that Blane wrote "Buckle Down Winsocki" himself and that "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is all Martin. And he says that my favorite song from the team, "An Occasional Man" (see above) was one of his, which is what I guessed in an earlier post, so I'm naturally inclined to accept it at face value...

Martin also explains why one of the most famous Martin-Blane novelty songs is credited jointly to them and Roger Edens, Arthur Freed's brilliant right-hand man:

Roger Edens went to the library and made a list of Indian tribes that started with "Ch." He also wrote 8 bars of music that he thought might be appropriate. I went home that night and wrote "Pass That Peace Pipe," using Roger's 8 bars of melody and all of the Indian tribes that he listed. The song got an Oscar nomination in 1947.

Annoyingly, the original version of "Pass That Peace Pipe" has been pulled from YouTube. Of the versions that are on there, the version from Duckman is (somewhat surprisingly) much better than the one by the Muppets.