Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Non-Canadian Thanksgiving

Generally, I like cynical or at least disatrous Thanksgiving stories better than sentimental ones, and I prefer present-day Thanksgiving stories to stories of the Pilgrims. So it's no wonder I've always liked Art Davis's "Holiday For Drumsticks." Like a number of his cartoons it gets by more on the wackiness of the animation than the actual gags or the way they're timed, but that's fine. And the casually violent old hillbilly couple (both voiced by Mel Blanc) are really funny.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rescued From the Trunk

I recently got to talk to Hugh Martin (Meet Me In St. Louis and much more) on the occasion of his autobiography, which was quite a thrill for me. In preparation, I listened or re-listened to a few of his scores, and came away impressed as always by how talented he was in every area -- though because he could do so many things, he never produced as large a body of work as he might have if he'd stuck to songwriting. And of course many of his best songs were written for projects that didn't do well, though that's a common problem. "An Occasional Man," a song I've written about several times, appeared in a movie called The Girl Rush that Martin calls the worst he was ever involved with.

Another fine Hugh Martin-Ralph Blane score (mostly Martin, it seems) was written for a not-terrible but not-exactly-good movie called Athena, a typical product of mid-'50s MGM when they were starting to ease up on the musical business and basically burning off contracts for musical performers they'd signed up. Esther Williams conceived the story, of a girl from a family of fitness fanatics, as a vehicle for herself, and was upset when the studio took the story away from her and gave it to Jane Powell instead. The rest of the cast was a mix of regular MGM contractees (Debbie Reynolds) and new signings who never really worked out for the studio (Vic Damone, Edmund Purdom). It's a mess, but the score has two of Martin's best songs, the ballad "Love Can Change the Stars" and the uptempo "I Never Felt Better."

Another song, "Faster Than Sound," was cut from the final print of the film, though it turned up as a bonus on a soundtrack CD in the '90s. It was written for Damone, and it was a song about the Jet Set and the way air travel was making the world smaller (with a wink, in the verse, to the new promise of space travel). If it had made it into the film, it would have ranked as one of the best Jet Set songs of the era; unlike "Come Fly With Me," which is about using air travel to lend some spice to monogamy, "Faster Than Sound" is about the hedonism of the Jet Set life, where you can go anywhere, do anything, and lead multiple lives with multiple sexual partners. It's a male version of "An Occasional Man" in that way. I find Damone's performance a bit somnolent, which may help explain why it was cut -- it's a long song and he makes it sound long.

Martin liked the song and didn't want to lose it, so ten years later, when he wrote the musical High Spirits, he re-worked the song so it could be sung by Tammy Grimes' character to describe the joys of being a ghost. Apart from some transpositions and adjustments to the melodic line, the lyrics are revised to eliminate references to jet travel, and to reflect the fact that it's being sung by a woman.

The original version has the better orchestration, the second version has the snappier tempo (plus a Martin choral arrangement, which helps). But I don't think it really works as a song about a ghost, because it sort of kills the point of the song, as well as being at odds with the point of the show -- when Elvira sings about doing physical things and enjoying the company of men, that conflicts with the fact that she's trying to kill off her living husband so she can be together with him. (In one of the songs actually written for the show, she sings that "I'm merely thin air/When we're sharing a kiss.") So it's an awkward fit. I asked Martin about it, briefly, and he agreed that the original version was better.

But that's how "trunk songs" -- written for one show and used in another -- often work: the lyrics can be adjusted to fit the new show, but the point often winds up being awkward or not quite relevant. Which is why trunk material, very common in the '30s, became less and less common as shows became more integrated (Leonard Bernstein re-used a lot of unused music in West Side Story, but always with new lyrics).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Staging an Animated Song

I was looking at "Gay Purr-ee" again the other day, a movie that is less than the sum of its parts but will always have a following because the parts are so interesting (Judy Garland fans, Harold Arlen fans, Chuck Jones fans, and UPA fans can all find something of value in it even though it's none of those people's best work). One thing that occurred to me this time is that staging a song for animation can be surprisingly tricky.

The temptation in a cartoon musical, and one that Abe Levitow and Chuck Jones and the rest of the team didn't really avoid here, is just to illustrate the lyrics. So in the "Money Cat" song, there's a physical image to match most of the images in the lyric, including "bottle poppers" and having your "heart set" on something. It's like a live-action musical number where the singer acts out everything he or she sings about, and much of it is redundant: if they're singing about it, we don't need to see every bit of it illustrated.

This is a particular problem with these songs, because Yip Harburg was known for packing his lyrics with images that are at once very specific and hard to translate into physical terms -- in fact, that's arguably a problem with the score, that unlike Arlen and Harburg's songs for The Wizard of Oz, these songs don't have deceptively simple images and can seem over-sophisticated for a movie about talking cats. (In that they reflect the tone of the movie, which is also trying to load on more sophistication than the story can handle.)

If you compare the staging of "When I See an Elephant Fly," a song with (by its nature) lots of specific physical images, the crows don't act out a lot of the images -- and when they do act them out, it's in a simple way, by gesticulating; they don't contort themselves into the shape of baseball bats. The staging works with the song rather than just mimicking it.

Of course, to stage a song that way you more or less have to have full animation -- if the characters can't act in an individualized way, then they can't do much that isn't in the lyrics. With Gay Purr-ee, a movie that emphasizes layout and design over animation, the option to concentrate on acting and characterization may not have been available; certainly "Roses Red, Violets Blue" (an Arlen/Harburg song so typical of their work that I'm kind of amazed it was newly written for this film) seems a little lost when it comes to patches in the lyrics that don't led themselves to illustration -- when that happens, it's just Mewsette standing there and singing, or long shots of the countryside.

Monday, November 15, 2010

An Uninformative Trailer

Thad knows (as do most people within earshot) how much I love Artists and Models, so I thank him profusely for uploading the trailer after he bought a copy off ebay; here's his own post about it.

As he notes, and as you can see below, the trailer doesn't really tell you much about the film. Most trailers try to oversell the story, but this does the exact opposite, leaving out most of the satire and all the crazy Cold War spy stuff from the last third. It even soft-pedals the film's status as a cheesecake calendar come to life, which you'd think would be the absolute first thing a trailer would want to play up -- but to do that, they would have had to include Eva Gabor in there, and she only appears once the spy plot starts up.

It makes me wonder if the missing plot points from the spy section, which I've written about before, might be a sign that they weren't even sure about including that part in the movie at all. With a few reshoots it would actually have been possible to create a different ending for the picture (maybe right after the title number at the ball). Or maybe not.

But I do get the impression the studio -- or Wallis -- thought the movie's weaknesses were concentrated in that final section, which would explain why it was allowed to go with several sequences written but not shot, and why it doesn't appear in the trailer. Many people agree that the movie falls apart once the spies come in, so they wouldn't have been far out if they had believed this, but I personally feel like the "fever dream" aspect of the film is enhanced by the fact that it gets crazier as it goes on, until by the end it resembles one of the nonsensical comic books that have destroyed Jerry Lewis's mind. That steadily increasing lunacy, after starting like a sort-of-normal Martin and Lewis movie, is one of the things that made it so influential for the French New Wave.

The trailer doesn't include any "outtakes" either - none of Shirley MacLaine's "The Bat Lady" number, which was described in some of the publicity (she was supposed to do it while "flying" on wires) but never seen, and possibly never shot at all. As I said, it's a long movie and it was over budget, despite being part of a series that was supposed to turn a big profit on relatively small investments (like Wallis's later series of Elvis movies, though those were even cheaper). It might be that they just ran out of money or time and pulled the plug on that musical number, as well as various plot points.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

What About Paul Mazursky?

Sad about the death of Jill Clayburgh, who I really liked in An Unmarried Woman. She was one of a number of unlikely female stars of the '70s; a notoriously bad time for female leads in movies, the women who got those few juicy parts were often not larger-than-life personalities or stunning beauties, but performers like Clayburgh and Diane Keaton who seemed as close as movies get to presenting average, cute, charming people.

Since Unmarried Woman was probably her best role, the news gets me to thinking: why isn't the film's writer-director, Paul Mazursky, mentioned more often as one of the great directors of the '70s? Not that he's exactly forgotten; the L.A. Critics' Association just announced that they're going to present him with a lifetime achievement award. But when people talk about the '70s generation, I don't hear Mazursky's name come up very often, even though in my opinion he's one of the most interesting directors of that era. Maybe he suffers from the fact that his debut, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, is probably his best-known film and one that's obviously dated (though no more so than the other seminal films of that year, like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy and even Wild Bunch).

But his '70s films are often quite wonderful and rarely less than interesting; unlike Woody Allen he has the gift of examining characters who aren't exactly like him, and character studies like Harry and Tonto and Unmarried Woman still work very well for me. And of course he was a fine director of actors. Art Carney won an Oscar for Harry and Tonto, yet hardly anybody talks about the movie, which I really like.

His career took a more commercial turn in the '80s and flamed out in the '90s, but neither of these things -- going Hollywood and burning out -- are unusual for directors of the '70s generation. (Some of his '80s films are pretty good; they're just slicker and more studio-ish -- more '80s, in other words.) Maybe his rather pompous public persona has obscured his moviemaking, but that hasn't stopped Peter Bogdanovich's early films from being appreciated. And the fact that he's a familiar presence as an actor might also get in the way of his reputation as a director, though I don't think this is a situation like with Sydney Pollack, who was genuinely more distinctive as an actor than director.

It may be that except for Bob & Carol he doesn't really have a "signature" film the way Allen had Annie Hall -- he could direct actors to Oscars and nominations but never got nominated for Best Director. But I think Mazursky is an uneven but important New Hollywood director whose work is waiting for a second look.

A Stan Goldberg Request

A reader asked me if I had this comic story, and I do: Reggie and Me # 28 (March 1968), an issue-length story that probably represents some of Stan Goldberg's earliest work for Archie comics. With Archie having crushed most of its humor competitors and Marvel phasing out its humor titles after the short-lived attempt to convert them to romance comics, Goldberg followed the Dan DeCarlo path and started to move from Millie the Model to Archie. Though he would continue to contribute to Millie and other Marvel titles for several hears, he asked Marvel to credit the art to Sol Brodsky so he wouldn't officially be moonlighting with them; in effect, he was part of the Archie stable from 1968 onward and has continued to be there to this day.

Around the same time that Goldberg came over from Marvel, Al Hartley also moved from Marvel to Archie, and for the same reason: the non-superhero work was drying up at Marvel and he wasn't a superhero artist. (Stan Lee tried Hartley on one Thor story, and it was clear that superpowered action was not his thing any more than teen hijinks were Steve Ditko's.) And also around this time, Archie editor Richard Goldwater decided to change the system for assigning covers: whereas each artist had usually gotten to do a certain number of covers, starting about 1967 Dan DeCarlo became the main cover artist for nearly all the company's major titles, no matter who was drawing the contents of the book. After they added some new titles, Goldberg was given a lot of covers too, presumably because his style was the closest to DeCarlo's. Other artists would only get to do a cover when DeCarlo or Goldberg simply weren't available. In fact I don't know that Samm Schwartz, who had done many covers in the '50s and '60s, ever got to do a cover for a single issue of Jughead after he came back in 1970; it was always DeCarlo or Goldberg.

So it's this period, 1967-8, that really created what is now thought of as the "Archie House Style," defined as the DeCarlo style. By giving the covers to DeCarlo and bringing over two of his Marvel colleagues, the Goldwater family was obviously trying to standardize the comics and give them an overall look. (The prolific veteran artists, Harry Lucey and Samm Schwartz, were "grandfathered," allowed to keep working in their accustomed styles; but new artists were apparently told to draw like DeCarlo.) Hartley certainly DeCarlo-ized his style a bit when he went to Archie; his Marvel style, on Patsy Walker, was more realistic and less cartoony.

Goldberg, of course, is a chameleon, someone who can always adapt to whatever style his company needs. When DeCarlo left Millie to work full-time at Archie, Stan Lee put Goldberg on the title, and he turned out work that was... not DeCarlo, not even a DeCarlo imitation exactly, but something close enough to make the reader feel like there hadn't been a change in style. When Millie went soap opera, Goldberg completely changed his style, only to change back when it went back to comedy. Like I said, a chameleon.

Back to Archie, though, the DeCarlo-ization of the style had its good and bad points. The good was that with Goldberg and Hartley on board, two men almost as fast as DeCarlo himself, Archie was able to meet the new demand created by a) the collapse of its competitors and b) the success of Filmation's cartoon series. (The Archie regulars were not generally as fast as the Marvel people. Harry Lucey was not slow, but according to Victor Gorelick, he wasn't a workaholic: he would do as many pages as he needed to get the amount of money he needed. Bob Bolling was, by his own admission, a slow and methodical worker.)

The problem from a comics fan's standpoint is that standardization is just that, standardization, and a comic isn't as much fun to look at when everybody's trying to draw like the one head guy. (This is also one of my problems with Harvey Comics, where everything -- with the exception of some of Ernie Colón's wilder stuff -- either is Warren Kremer or looks like Warren Kremer.) This is a much bigger problem for me in humor comics, where much of the fun and variety is in the drawing styles, than in superhero comics.

Another thing about the Marvel infusion was that it seemed to point up the Goldwater family's weakness at developing talent. I may be too harsh, since many comics companies had trouble adding to their talent base. It's like animation, for that matter: Warner Brothers cartoons depended almost completely on the talent base that Leon Schlesinger assembled in the '30s. And at Archie Comics, the talent base was primarily Harry Shorten's; as editor of MLJ/Archie, he brought in most of the important artists and writers. It wasn't a talent pool put together all at once; first there was Bob Montana, Harry Lucey, Samm Schwartz, Joe Edwards and Bill Vigoda -- the young men who joined in the '40s and created or developed the humor titles. Shorten hired Frank Doyle as a writer in 1951 (on the recommendation of another writer, Ray Gill) and got Dan DeCarlo on a part-time basis the same year. Finally he signed up Bob Bolling, Bob White and Dexter Taylor just before quitting, reportedly because John Goldwater refused to make him a partner.

When Richard Goldwater took over as editor, he clearly had some good ideas; in fact, the quality of the monthly titles probably improved overall under Goldwater's editorship. (Shorten treated them more as grab-bag titles, while Goldwater moved more toward giving each title its own regular artist and its own distinct look and feel: Betty and Veronica became DeCarlo's title, Archie became mostly Lucey's, and so on.) He also expanded the brand by introducing adventure titles (Life With Archie) and oddball humor (Mad House). But in terms of bringing in new talent, he doesn't seem to have had Shorten's track record, except on Mad House where he hired George Gladir to write and the young Orlando Busino to do a lot of the art. This is partly because superhero comics were taking off again and young artists were more interested in doing those. (Neal Adams was an Archie discovery, but he'd come there to work with Simon and Kirby on The Fly and only did the regular Archie pages after Simon wouldn't hire him. As soon as superhero work became available elsewhere, he took it.) But a lot of the new artists and writers who did emerge at Archie in the '60s and '70s were either mediocre (Dick Malmgren, Gus LeMoine) or DeCarlo clones (DeCarlo's son Dan Jr.). And so the Archie company was dependent on two talent pools -- Shorten's and Stan Lee's -- but didn't have new people coming in to freshen things up.

Now, the Goldberg story itself. Goldberg started out working mostly on low-selling titles, of which Reggie and Me was undoubtedly one of the lowest. (Poor Reggie; he's never really had a successful title of his own. Even Veronica now has her own reasonably popular title, and he doesn't.) They tried several things to make the title work, never really settling on a style for it; with this issue, the idea apparently was to do a book-length story, though it's really more four separate stories that happen to be linked.

The uncredited script is clearly the company workhorse Frank Doyle, though it's neither one of the best nor worst of his 10,000 Archie scripts. It's pretty standard stuff, maybe a little more campy than usual, and a few more puns than usual from a writer who wasn't usually very inclined toward puns. (A lot of Doyle's stories around this time were trying to be more over-the-top wacky, to respond to the success of campier, wackier entertainment, particularly on television.) I do like the line about "the Jolly Green Clyde," whatever that means, but otherwise the main point of interest is the Goldberg art.

That art as you'd expect based on his Millie work -- it's like DeCarlo except a bit looser and less slick. Plus the women are a little less voluptuous than in DeCarlo's art, and the men tend to hunch over a lot, like they have bad backs. Goldberg also sometimes draws the characters in circle instead of square panels, which he later stopped doing but which I like, since it's sort of a '50s throwback.

Here, for comparison, is the issue's cover, by DeCarlo:

And here's the story, by Goldberg: