Thursday, March 25, 2010

4000 Words From Somewhere Else

While I should post here more often, here are a couple of longer posts from other blogs that could have been done here. (And isn't that really the same thing as doing them here?... I guess not.)

- My 3000-word 80th-birthday post about Stephen Sondheim, with clips galore.

- One more Sam Schwartz post, with the added twist of quoting (with permission) from a letter he wrote in 1980.

- This post features a transcript of a 1968 article from the Los Angeles Times written after TV networks slashed their season orders to 26 episodes, explaining how we got from the old 39-episode season to the modern season length.


I couldn't figure out how to do this as a full-length post, so this will be more of a "here's this clip, go watch it" type of post. I made a little compilation of openings to a few overtures by Broadway orchestrator/arranger Hans Spialek. Spialek was one of the busiest orchestrators in New York in the '30s and early '40s (he did all of Richard Rodgers' scores from 1936 to 1940, for example), and it seems like when he created an overture, he would work from one or more unofficial "templates" he had in his mind. So all his overtures tend to sound the same no matter what melodies he's working with:

Spialek's contemporary Robert Russell Bennett was more inclined to give each overture its own flavour, particularly when it came to the openings. (Bennett's overtures include many of the most distinctive openings, from the startling despair of Show Boat to the fanfares at the beginning of My Fair Lady. Which of the openings were his idea and which the composer's, of course, is hard to say.)

And speaking of Broadway overtures, this next one has always been one of my very favorite examples of the genre (more so, than, say, the overture to Gypsy, which I always find a little grating). The overture to Wonderful Town perfectly sums up the show's combination of heart, '30s nostalgia and parody -- ending with the "Wrong Note Rag" makes for an exciting but weird-sounding climax -- and is just generally a model of how to do a traditional musical comedy overture.

According to Steven Suskin's book on orchestrators, most of this overture is the work of the former big-band arranger Jack Mason (whose other notable uncredited arrangement was for "With a Little Bit of Luck" in My Fair Lady), with a few bars of transition music contributed by Joe Glover and the show's credited orchestrator, Don Walker. The songs used are "Wrong Note Rag" (fanfare), "Swing!," "Ohio," "My Darlin' Eileen," "It's Love," and "Wrong Note Rag" again for the finale -- in other words, a cross-section of all the different musical moods of the show.

(Just as most composers didn't have time to do their own orchestrations, they didn't usually write their own overtures. The only overture Leonard Bernstein did himself was the deservedly famous Candide overture, which takes a different approach by treating themes from the show in a quasi-symphonic way, rather than the Broadway medley style.)

This performance, by Simon Rattle trying his hand at crossover, is a little stiff in spots (especially in the version of "It's Love"), but it's the only fully professional performance of it online, so:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Waiting For a Bare-Bones DVD Is the Hardest Part

A delay of several months for the single-disc Bugs and Daffy cartoon collections. And as we've noted before, the collections -- with no extras and a list of cartoons that's not as good as the one initially posted on WB's website -- aren't such hot stuff to begin with, so the waiting is an additional, if minor, annoyance. I'll buy them, and I think anyone who wants one or more of the cartoons included should buy them. But unless the delay will make the product better (which I suppose could happen), I take this as another sign that we may not get as much of the remaining WB cartoon catalogue as we were hoping.

I should add that I'm not really against the bare-bones single-disc strategy. As the DVD market continues to decline, the only retailers left are the Wal-Mart and Best Buy behemoths, and the cheap, family-oriented cartoon DVDs are the ones they're most likely to stock. But even that market for standard-definition discs might not hold out long enough for them to release a lot of these things. And while I would probably bite the bullet and re-buy the previously-released cartoons if they came out on blu-ray (even though my ability to tell the difference is limited at the moment), that format doesn't look like it's ever going to have a lot of classics released by the major studios. So if the standard-def DVD releases dry up, I wouldn't count on blu-ray kick-starting things again, at least for now.

The real challenge in the coming years will be for WB to figure out some way to keep its cartoons in circulation. Unfortunately the company has made very little content and no cartoons available on Hulu, even though that would be just about the ideal format for the cartoons: with some legal, good-quality postings of cartoons that can be consumed in seven-minute bites, they'd stand a chance of getting some eyeballs. I would think that someday they're going to have to figure out how to make cartoons available online, or video-on-demand (which companies may consider the latest "coming thing" in terms of video distribution), or release the "restored" versions to television to recoup more of the money they spent on restoring them. But I haven't seen many signs of it happening, and that means more and more time spent without building brand awareness of these characters.

The link notes that Jerry Beck may have something to say about the DVD plans a week from now on Stu's Show, and that he's already confirmed that there are still (for now) plans to release two more discs this year.

For Students of the Laugh Track

(Cross-posted from the TV Guidance blog)

I've talked a few times about the differences between real laughter and canned laughter in television (which are often spoken of as though they're the same thing) without really illustrating what I mean. So I thought I'd put together a video to give an idea of how a multi-camera TV soundtrack is enhanced in post-production. I had a copy of an old WKRP episode in two different soundtracks: the "unsweetened" version, with no sounds added that were not recorded live on the set, and the "sweetened" version for final broadcast, with extra laughter and music added. I already showed a scene from this episode with and without music. What I've done here is put some excerpts side by side, along with some captions pointing out what's been added and whether the laughter is real or canned.

Now, the sound of a laugh track was different and more obvious 30 years ago, and there were differences in terms of sound mixing. (Today, it's more likely for ambient sounds, like crowd background noise, to be added. Back then there was basically nothing except the dialogue and laughter.) But the basic differences seem to be the same. First, in the final mix, the sound of the real audience laughter is sometimes a bit different, perhaps because of added echo. And sometimes the mixer adds in a canned laugh track, though this is not one of those episodes where the audience didn't laugh much. But you'll notice that the reason for the added laughter isn't always the same from clip to clip. Reasons for adding canned laughter include:

1) The audience didn't laugh at a joke and the producers want to keep it in. (Sometimes because it wasn't funny, as Woody Allen protests to Tony Roberts in Annie Hall, but sometimes because the joke was too much of a throwaway for the audience to laugh at it.) The extra laughter allows the joke to stay in without giving the impression that it fell flat compared to the jokes that did get big laughs.

2) The scene, or part of a scene, was done as a pickup after the audience went home, and the laugh track is inserted to make it fit, sonically, with the rest of the episode.

3) In a couple of spots in this video, very mild, almost inaudible laughs are inserted to cover a long pause and keep the sound from being "dead." It's very similar to the way one-camera shows use ambient noise or -- especially -- music.

4) Sometimes a laugh is extended a bit so it will last into the next shot. This is done to create a smoother transition between two shots that might come from different takes.

5) Finally, in the last clip from this video, the audience applauds after a joke. The producers apparently didn't want the applause, so they replaced the applause with a laugh track. So in this case the laugh track is used to tone down the audience response, which is something that is still done today.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Signor Visconti in Inghilterra

Film is permanent (hopefully); theatre is ephemeral. The inevitable result: directors who split their time between theatre and film wind up being judged for posterity only by their film work. That's just the way things have to be, since we can't actually know for ourselves what it was like to experience their theatre productions in the theatre. (We can guess, from descriptions, stills, and -- hopefully -- video evidence. But all of that just enables us to imagine what the production might have been like.) Some directors' careers look much worse than they really were when they're discussed solely as film directors. Rouben Mamoulian, for example. Film buffs often talk about him as someone who never fulfilled his early promise and got fired from a lot of movie projects, like Laura. But while he was making disappointing movies in the '30s and '40s, he was revolutionizing the theatre with productions like Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma! After he got fired from Laura, he went back to New York and did Carousel. We can't see those productions, so half his career -- maybe the more important half -- is not something we can evaluate well.

All that is a way of saying that we can't fully judge a director's theatre career, even if we have video clips or complete videotaped productions in front of us. (Watching a videotape of a production is not watching a production. I guess you could say that watching a film on TV isn't really watching the film, but at least we're not seeing it from a distance.) But, that said, it's always fun to come across more evidence of a famous film director's theatre career, or to better understand the place theatre had in his career. One superstar movie director who made theatre a huge part of his career was Luchino Visconti, who alternated movies with stage productions, and especially opera productions.

Most of Visconti's productions aren't available in video form; I don't think I've ever seen any video of his work with Maria Callas. They were the most famous director-star opera team of their era, creating (reportedly creating, I mean; I wasn't there) a new level of psychological credibility for so-called "frivolous" Italian operas. Perhaps his most famous non-Callas production was Verdi's Don Carlo at Covent Garden in 1958, one of several '50s productions that turned this opera from a rarity into one of Verdi's most-performed works.

Anyway, in 1964, Visconti re-teamed with designer Filippo Sanjust and conductor Carlo Maria Giulini for a Covent Garden Il Trovatore, and this production was taped (I think by the BBC). Clips of this production have appeared on YouTube, and I've been greatly enjoying watching them. I don't think they bring me that much closer to understanding what Visconti brought to opera production, especially since Trovatore is not a piece that calls for a very interventionist directorial approach.

The plot of Trovatore takes a lot of crap, though it's actually a good libretto with a strong, solid melodramatic story; unlike many confused, convoluted plots, it's quite easy to follow and the characters' motivations are always clear. But there's nothing very complex about most of the characters. They mostly have very simple, unadorned motivations of jealousy, love and duty, and they express these feelings in equally simple, direct ways. That means the director needs to keep things simple as well, not get in the way of the characters. That's the way Visconti seemed to see it; in Il Mio Teatro he's quoted as saying that the characters of Trovatore are all preoccupied with their own emotions, that they express themselves to the fullest when they sing, and that the things they sing rarely demand an answer from anyone else. (In other words, the characters are not trying to communicate with each other. They're just thinking out loud.)

Anyway, what that all adds up to is that Visconti is not trying to re-invent Trovatore or even make a statement about what he thinks it means; he just wants to give the characters a chance to express themselves to the fullest. So his staging of Azucena's entrance song, sung by the great Italian singer Giulietta Simionato, isn't that much different from the way it's done in A Night At the Opera. But that's because there aren't many ways to do this number without getting in its way. It's a crazy old gypsy woman remembering the time her mother was burned at the stake; the director's options are limited, and it's up to the singer to sell it -- which she does. Incidentally, Simionato is still alive as of this writing, going on 100. That's almost as awesome as she is.

This is the number in two parts: the song, followed by the recitative (with tenor Bruno Prevedi) and then in part 2, the follow-up musical narrative where she fills us in on the backstory: she kidnapped the child of the man who put her mother to death, but in her insanity and delirium she murdered her own child instead, and raised the other child (the tenor) as her own. Yes, that pretty much is the inspiration for every Gilbert and Sullivan opera ever, but these baby-switching melodramas were very common in the 19th century, and this is one of the more plausible examples, because the character is just crazy enough to have done something like this.

The famous thing about this production was that Leontyne Price, originally set to star, had to pull out at the last minute and was replaced by one of Covent Garden's resident sopranos, Gwyneth Jones. She did a fine job, probably better than Price would have. (Price sang a lot of this role beautifully, but she wasn't good at the coloratura that other parts demanded. Jones even did the trills.) It made her an international star, but unfortunately, she didn't live up to the promise she displayed here; she took on a lot of heavy parts and her voice developed a heavy wobble. She was a fine singer with a long career, but a different kind of career than this would have suggested.

Here she is in the Act IV number followed by another number featured in A Night At the Opera, the "Miserere." (The tenor, Prevedi, was one of a number of good-but-not-great Italian tenors in the '60s; it was probably the last era when there were a lot of good Italian tenors. By the '70s, Pavarotti was practically the only one.) Again, I wouldn't say there's anything striking about the staging except that it doesn't get in the singer's way with a lot of extraneous detail; there isn't even anybody on stage except her during the "Miserere" number. (The director has to decide whether the tenor and the chorus should be offstage throughout or if they should be visible, like the tenor is visible at the window in A Night At the Opera.)

Visconti felt that Jones and Prevedi didn't quite get what he was going for, the idea that the characters were emotionally isolated and not listening to each other or waiting for a response, but that the singers who did get it were Simionato and (as the villain) the British baritone Peter Glossop. Here they are in the scene where Simionato is captured, and Glossop discovers that she is (he thinks) the person who murdered his brother and the mother of his romantic rival. That's fairly clear; what Visconti and Sanjust were thinking in putting the villain in a hat like that is less clear.

And here's the finale, which ends as follows:

- Soprano has taken poison, dies.
- Tenor is hauled offstage to be put to death.
- Baritone gleefully tells mezzo that her son is dead.
- Mezzo tells baritone that, no, the tenor was only her adopted son and he was actually the baritone's brother.
Verdi, as he frequently does, wraps up all this plot stuff in about one minute near the end, so the director's job is to make it all as emotionally clear as possible; every action has to "read" in only a few seconds.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Scheimer! And the Unreal Ghostbusters

There's an interesting discussion going on in the Cartoon Brew comments regarding Amid Amidi's dismissive post about Lou Scheimer's upcoming book (co-written with Scheimer's faithful Boswell, Andy Mangels). The comments start out mostly agreeing with Amid that this is "the book nobody's been waiting for," but Mark Evanier arrives to counterattack Amid for his snide tone, and other commenters point out the usual extenuating facts about Filmation: 1) It trained a lot of people who went on to help create the improved animation of the mid-'80s onward; 2) It was the only company that resisted the pressure to outsource the animation overseas; 3) A lot of people who worked for Filmation still have fond memories of the experience; 4) A lot of the shows were and still are beloved.

As a child, I was on both sides of the Filmation fence: I was addicted to He-Man, but Filmation cartoons were also the first cartoons whose shoddiness I really began to notice. (Once I realized that Filmation cartoons all had terrible -- or, really, nonexistent -- animation, I could move on to noticing the same problems in other shows. But Filmation's level of craftsmanship was so low that even a kid could become aware of it.) I don't think it's fair to say that Scheimer made the best cartoons he could with the resources and restrictions he had; if anything, Filmation was always coming up with ways to bring the level of Saturday morning cartoons down just a little bit further. Filmation may actually look worse from the point of view of a viewer than it does from the point of view of an animator. If you're an animator, at least it was a decent training ground. If you're a viewer, and you don't have a nostalgic fondness for these shows, then it can be argued that Filmation helped the quality of animation, voice acting and (especially) scriptwriting deteriorate even faster than it otherwise would have.

On the other hand, even if you think these shows were bad, Filmation and Scheimer have their fingerprints all over modern animation history. He may have made animation better and worse, in the sense that his shows drove the art form downward while many of his trainees helped drive it upward. So I don't quite get Amid's assumption that nobody would want to read a book like this; I'd think someone who wants to know what went wrong in animation would want to read it most of all (though Scheimer will talk as though it was all great, so we'll have to read between the lines).

But as someone who used to write posts entitled "things that suck" (and stopped because I realized it was nasty, and making the posts seem worse than they really were), I don't have standing to criticize Amid for his tone. So I'll end this post with what may be the first appearance of Lou Scheimer in comic book form. When Filmation started doing the (terrible) Archie TV cartoon, the comics did a story where the characters went to Filmation studios and met Scheimer (the man in the green suit), Norm Prescott (the guy with the pipe and glasses) and Hal Sutherland (the man in the black suit), whose name is misspelled "Southerland" by the comics' somewhat typo-prone letterer, Bill Yoshida.

The great Harry Lucey drew this rather sycophantic visit to Filmation (around the same time as another story that sucked up to music producer Don Kirschner), and as he often did, he drew the "real" characters in a less-cartoony-than-usual style. He makes the Filmation studio look better than Filmation made the comic characters look.

WKRP Episode: "Pilot, Part 2"

By request, an episode I hadn't featured before, the second episode. The title is misleading, because the show's actual pilot was only a half-hour; this was the first episode made after it was picked up as a series, the main difference being that Venus now has a beard. I think the title simply implies that this episode is showing the aftermath of what happened in the actual pilot: Andy changed the format in the pilot, and in this episode we learn that the station is losing advertisers and has to deal with fan protest over the dropping of the "beautiful music" format. The second episodes of Frank's Place and The Famous Teddy Z also pick up on and continue the story threads from the pilots, so Hugh Wilson clearly liked to write this way.

Before it came back strong in the post-M*A*S*H slot at the end of the first season, WKRP was sometimes accused of not living up to its acclaimed pilot. And there is a bit of sophomore-jinx syndrome here: the pilot was very fast-paced and packed a lot of story into 24 minutes, while this episode doesn't really have enough story for the whole time slot, and resorts to a number of scenes that feel padded. The best scene in the show is the only scene in the broadcast booth, featuring one of the show's most famous lines ("...I don't know what you want here, but..."). The audience laughter, which up until that point has hovered between mild and canned, finally explodes at Hesseman's delivery of the line.

Among the characters, a couple of them are coming into better focus than they did in the pilot: Jennifer, who wasn't much of a character in the pilot, is here established as having a sort of Radar/Colonel Blake relationship with Carlson, and Les is more clearly defined as a conspiracy theorist. Most of the other characters are still a little vague here, waiting for the actors and the writers to really figure them out. (Carlson, like Jimmy James on NewsRadio, is written much more ornery in these early episodes than he later became.)

The only scene with musical content is the one in the booth. All three songs are stripped out in the DVD/Hulu version: "Lies" and "Shattered" by the Rolling Stones, and "Old Time Rock and Roll" by Bob Seger. All three songs were new at the time, and this episode helped to popularize "Old Time Rock and Roll."

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Oscars' Record Is Both Better and Worse Than It Looks

I've never had many good things to say about the Oscars, but one thing that occurred to me is that some of the winners look worse, in retrospect, because people compare them to movies that either weren't nominated or didn't have a chance to win.

An obvious case in point is Oliver!. It's often considered one of the worst Best Picture winners because it beat out 2001, or Rosemary's Baby, or The Producers. But none of those films were nominated for Best Picture. Of the five movies that actually were nominated that year -- Oliver!, Funny Girl, Paul Newman's well-meaning, well-made directorial debut Rachel Rachel (sort of his Ordinary People), Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, and The Lion In Winter -- I have no hesitation in saying that Oliver! was the best choice. If it hadn't won, the winner would probably have been Lion In Winter, a perfectly entertaining, well-acted stage adaptation that over-inflates the tongue-in-cheek play it's based on. Oliver! was one of the better stage-to-screen adaptations of the era, and I think the voters made the right decision among the five nominees; the problem was with the nominating process, which was skewed towards worthy, middle-of-the-road projects.

And sometimes a winner can look bad by comparison with other movies that were nominated, but is a better choice than the movie it was really competing with. Take Going My Way. I am a big Leo McCarey fan, and it looks better if you're inclined to like his style, but I don't consider it one of his better films; the sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's, is a better movie. People notice that Double Indemnity was one of the best picture nominees that year, and bash the selection of Going My Way. But a seedy melodrama like Double Indemnity had, realistically, no chance of winning; it was kind of a miracle (a sign of the industry's respect for Billy Wilder) that it got nominated at all. The race was really between two mega-productions with powerful producers: Daryl Zanuck's Wilson (because everybody wants to see a two and a half hour Woodrow Wilson biopic) and David Selznick's Since You Went Away. It was a bit of a surprise that Going My Way beat out both those movies, but it was a much better choice than either of them. Double Indemnity would have been a better choice still, but again, I can't see that it ever could have won.

It's not saying much, but the Best Picture winners often look better compared to the movies that stood a chance of winning, rather than compared to the very best movies of the year.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Significant Linkage

I haven't been posting enough lately, but here are links to some things I've read:

- Thad has another animator breakdown, of the Friz Freleng classic "His Bitter Half" (aka "the one that got remade with Yosemite Sam replacing Daffy")

- A four-part series on the films of Nicholas Ray from the point of someone who doesn't particularly like Nicholas Ray. I don't necessarily agree with all or even most of it. (I think, for example, that it's often a mistake to look for Ray's "expressionistic" style in the shot setups and lighting, when that's only a part -- and not the biggest part, in the old studio-system days -- of what creates the over-the-top emotionalism of Ray's work.) But I found it interesting reading anyway.

- Speaking of Nicholas Ray, Bigger Than Life gets Criterion'd on March 23. I have to wonder how it plays in movie theatres -- it really does border on camp, and I've heard that the most famous line, "God was wrong!!!", gets laughs in revival showings these days. But it's perfect for the home viewing format, especially since it has a lot in common with modern TV dramas (in its combination of social commentary and over-ripe melodrama, it would fit right in on HBO).

- A blog entirely devoted to comics stories by John Stanley. And not just "Little Lulu," though there's lots of that, but also some obscure Stanley projects like "Linda Lark, Student Nurse."

- While I'm on the subject of comics, here's one of the few complete stories I could find online from Stan Lee and Al Hartley's run on "Patsy Walker." Marvel doesn't give its non-superhero characters nearly enough respect -- remember, Patsy is the character the company actually turned into a superhero, on the assumption that she isn't worth following if she doesn't wear a stupid costume. But I can never make up my mind how I feel about their non-superhero comics. I feel, for one thing, like Stan Lee's writing was never quite funny enough; when he did action-adventure, he was a lot funnier than your average superhero writer, but Millie the Model and Patsy needed better jokes. And with Patsy, while Al Hartley's art was a lot more consistent than it later became, he still indulges in the two habits that always made his art look scary to me: the weird facial lines, and the blank stares in the characters' wide eyes. He always looks like he's drawing zombies. Pretty, shapely zombies. Among the non-superhero Marvel artists, though, I still prefer Hartley to Stan Goldberg.

- I'm kind of enjoying this week of Family Circus reprints from 1960. Not enough to make me want to go out and buy the book of reprints, but enough to make me think the strip used to be better. I don't think the jokes were that much better, but the cartoony look of the characters (particularly the dad) and the manic expressions of the kids made it better. It's always been, basically, a strip about what destructive idiots children are, but back then the art didn't try to make us believe that these kids were cute.

- One death I missed last year was that of TV director Linda Day, who died of cancer at age 71. Day started directing TV in 1979, at a time when there were very few female directors in TV or movies. She started as Jay Sandrich's assistant, and became associate director for the first two and a half seasons of WKRP in Cincinnati. During the second season, Hugh Wilson gave her her first directing assignment, on a very difficult episode: "In Concert" the famous Who concert tragedy show. After that she directed many TV episodes, mostly sitcoms but also some hour-long shows like St. Elsewhere.

- I have no idea why this should be, but I was kind of happy to find the original, pre-Toni Basil version of "Hey Mickey," when it was called "Kitty." At least that name rhymes with "pity" and "pretty."

- The most famous documentary ever made about a classical recording, Humphrey Burton's "The Golden Ring" (about conductor Georg Solti, producer John Culshaw and his team recording Gotterdammerung in Vienna), has been posted on YouTube in nine parts. It's hard to imagine a modern classical recording being taken quite so seriously as a production in its own right; most classical records are made during live concerts, and the producer's job is to get the music sounding as good as it can. But Culshaw, like Glenn Gould, saw the recording as a completely separate experience from the live concert (he hated live recordings and said there was "no excuse" for making them), and his recordings remain a more involving experience than the average record -- or the average concert.