Saturday, December 17, 2011

Come to the Cabret

I just got back from seeing Hugo, a charming and frustrating experience in equal measure, though I suspect that the charm will stay with me longer than the frustration -- not least because the frustrating stuff mostly is from earlier in the film, while the second half leaves you with a warm feeling.

Still, that feeling would be even warmer if I didn't feel worn out by the time we get to the end, and this brings up the question of when a movie is too long. It's a common complaint about recent movies, so common that I almost feel like I'm jumping on the bandwagon by making it. And 128 minutes isn't that long. Still it felt long in this picture. Maybe it's not so much a question of length as economy. Some movies are extremely long but economical in their storytelling, in the sense that every scene performs an important function (not necessarily a plot function) and stops before it starts repeating itself or previous scenes.

I think you could argue that Hugo is an economical movie; certainly the scenes don't drag. But in the early part of the movie especially, I felt like there was some redundancy, with certain points being hit over and over again, points (like Hugo demanding his notebook) that made scenes overlap with each other. This kind of repetition would have troubled me even if the notebook had been as important to the story as this treatment made it appear to be.

Maybe some of the occasional sense of slackness also comes from the editing. This is one of the things I can never quite get used to, even though the idea that a two-shot is a special or unusual effect has been mainstream for most of my adult life. And Scorsese has been into heavy editing and massive amounts of coverage for a long time. Maybe it's the juxtaposition with silent movies that made me so conscious of all the cutting. But while it's supposed to help tighten up a scene (by giving the director and editor more control over pacing) sometimes I feel that constant back-and-forth cutting can slacken a scene by constantly changing the focal point of the scene. Also I think this may be more of an issue in 3D because every shot has more things to adjust to in terms of how much 3D is used, how much of the background is out of focus, and so on.

(Digression # 1: Gregg Toland died before 3D became operational, but in an article he wrote, he was very enthusiastic about it, much more than color, which he more or less dismissed as a gimmick. And when you remember how Toland liked to shoot, in long front-to-back takes, you can imagine what he might have done with 3D. I feel like the format is still looking for its own Gregg Toland, or at least someone to do new things with all the different levels of a 3D shot, instead of just putting all the burden of the shot on whoever happens to be delivering the line.)

(Digression # 2: There has been some recent discussion about over-editing as it applies to action sequences, which I'm starting to think almost has it backwards. Yes, there are some action sequences in today's film where you can't tell what's going on, but that's more about planning and staging than cutting; a lot of cutting in an action sequence can help to give it an emotional or visceral charge, as long as we know where everybody is. But constant cutting is sometimes a bigger problem in dialogue sequences, because those are the sequences where all the emphasis is on the actors' performance, and cutting on every line, or using every possible angle within a scene, can chop the performances into dust.)

All of that would be a minor issue for me if I had been swept up in Hugo's adventures -- as I mostly was, once the plot started to become clear. Early on, though, I wasn't caught up, and I think part of it may simply be the boy himself. Not so much Asa Butterfield in the part; maybe he could have been more fun, but the way the part is written doesn't provide a lot of opportunities for fun, and that's the point. Like so many children's stories about young boys in a big city (or a big chocolate factory), Hugo has a lead character who is a bit of a cipher. He does things, but he doesn't have a lot of personality, something that's all the clearer because the other kid character, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, is given plenty of personality and specific character traits. Hugo is more like Oliver Twist or the young David Copperfield (mentioned by Moretz's character). He has enough moxie to keep us following him, but his main purpose is to be the everykid through whom we experience the world.

Which is a familiar way to structure a story, and not an ineffective one. The problem for me is that for the first half-hour at least, I wasn't observing much through his eyes except a notebook and a cranky old man. Moretz's character is so much more alive -- with qualities of curiosity, intellectual pretension, and charm -- that she can make these things interesting, just by being interested in them. I don't think Hugo can, any more than David Copperfield can make things interesting by his mere presence. If something incredible is not happening around him, then nothing is happening. So by the time I got to what I found to be the interesting stuff (starting roughly around the point where Hugo and Isabelle go to see Safety Last) I felt like I had already spent too much time with this kid.

That all makes my reaction sound more negative than it is. The movie (and presumably the book) has a lot of interesting things to say that go beyond a simple tribute to the magic of the movies, though it certainly is the most expensive brief ever made for the importance of film preservation. It's also about technology and machinery, and the magical qualities they bring to everyday life. The movie is sort of a fantasy, or at least has a fantasy atmosphere, but the story keeps sticking to something resembling reality. So Scorsese almost tricks us into expecting the "magical" moment, the point where the weird stuff that happens will turn out to be supernatural, and what we see instead is that machines are magic: they connect us with the past, bring messages from dead people, give new hope to damaged people and turn people's lives around. Since a key plot point in the movie is World War I, where technology proved how destructive and horrible it could be, this story is like the flip side of that, the good and enchanting power of technology.

Add to that the technical virtuosity of the film (and nobody's ever denied Scorsese's abilities as a technician) and you have a movie that's intriguing and ever timely -- but especially timely now, when we're going through a more-marked-than-usual period of technological upheaval, and when we know that technology is going to change our lives but don't exactly know how yet. It's hard not to be inspired by the optimism of Hugo about technology as a tool for preserving, rather than obliterating, the past.

But, again, all of that is wrapped up in 128 minutes focusing on a hero who seems to me more a collection of plucky-little-orphan-boy characteristics than a character. Maybe I'll feel differently when I see it again, or maybe, with a better idea of where things are going, I'll enjoy the first part of the film more without the disorienting sense of wondering why we're being told all this. (Sometimes stories work better when they've been spoiled.) For now, I think Hugo incorporates some beautiful ideas and shots, which don't exactly add up to a story or scenes.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Back To 1988, By Way of 1986

One of the few sitcoms I watched at the time and then never revisited again (that I recall) was Dear John, the 1988 adaptation of a BBC sitcom from Only Fools and Horses creator John Sullivan. I watched the pilot when it first aired, because I was watching just about any sitcom on NBC at the time, and I thought it was funny enough to watch a few more times. But like many people, I didn't follow it after it moved away from Cheers; it survived for four years, but was never really a hit, and had almost no syndication life. It turned up here in reruns briefly a couple of years ago, following Taxi reruns on a channel that was showing filler during a transition to a new format. But I didn't watch it then either.

What got me watching it again was reading this article, "Anatomy of a Sitcom," from the New York Times during the show's first season. It really paints a bleak picture of what it's like to make a television sitcom, though that's pretty typical of the way television was profiled back then: behind-the-scenes looks at the making of TV were less reverential, because there was less reverence for TV than there is now. Even mass-market TV publications like TV Guide would often capture the self-doubts of TV producers and stars, or get into the sausage-factory nature of making network TV. The truth is probably somewhere in between that dark perspective and today's happier perspective, where increased media scrutiny (not to mention DVD commentaries) have trained showrunners to talk happier: you would rarely catch a showrunner doubting himself as openly as Ed. Weinberger does here.

That was what interested me about the show, because it was a Paramount TV production smack in the middle of a great period for Paramount TV -- which unfortunately has been folded into CBS and no longer exists. The TV division was still benefiting from the MTM people who jumped ship to do Taxi: Jim Brooks had left, but Glen and Les Charles were still there doing Cheers, and some of the writers they helped train would soon do Wings and Frasier. And then in the middle of this, Ed. Weinberger, another of the Taxi people, came back to Paramount to do a show with his Taxi star -- and the result wasn't a flop, just not anything special.

"Not anything special" describes a lot of Ed. Weinberger's work after Taxi, which is a bit surprising because he was such a talented guy. When he took over as producer of Mary Tyler Moore in the third season, he instantly infused it with a new energy. The creators of the show, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, both had a background in single-camera sitcoms and (in Burns's case) advertising and animation, and they specialized in rather "soft" jokes. Weinberger was an experienced writer for stand-up comedians and variety shows, able to write hard jokes and big block comedy scenes, and he brought other writers for stand-ups and talk shows (including Bob Ellison and the great David Lloyd) onto the show. The mix of Weinberger and Brooks was what gave Mary Tyler Moore its shape from then on, and the same mix of hard and soft jokes was all over Taxi.

Weinberger's first act after Taxi was canceled was to create a talking-chimp sitcom, Mr. Smith; it was almost like a performance-art act of contempt for what sitcoms had become in the 1983-4 doldrums.

Then Weinberger seemingly bounced back in a big way by co-creating The Cosby Show. "Seemingly" because while he had co-creator credit, he wasn't with the show after the pilot. (Cosby, for whom Weinberger also created The Bill Cosby Show in the '70s, went through a lot of writers before settling on a few he could work with.) His projects after that seemed a bit scattershot, and often sounded better when you heard the cast list than when you saw the show. Mr. President, starring George C. Scott, probably should have been better than it was. And the Times article suggests that Amen was created by Weinberger almost as an attempt to thumb his nose at Cosby and prove he could do his own all-black show. Again, there was more potential in that subject (there are few American shows about the church, a subject that the British know how to mine for comedy) than Amen got out of it; it was all right in the first season because David Lloyd wrote half the episodes, but it was not a special show.

And then came Dear John. You can see what attracted Weinberger to the UK show: the story of a bunch of divorced people who hang out at a support group, it assembles a group of disparate losers headed by one guy whose pain is more raw than the others but who sees the world more clearly than they do. In other words, it's very Taxi. Here's the pilot of the original series:

And here's the U.S. remake, produced by Weinberger, Ellison and Peter Noah.

1 Pilot by carpalton

As you can see, once John gets to the meeting, the script is mostly the same as John Sullivan's version. (In fact, Sullivan's scripts were used almost verbatim for a few early episodes of the U.S. version.) The biggest difference is at the end. The original pilot just sort of ends on a big laugh -- a common way for UK sitcoms to end. The U.S. version feels a need to have some moment of resolution or hope, so it tacks on a new scene suggesting a) the possibility of sexual tension and b) a moment of redemptive connection between two supporting characters. It doesn't really work, and it may be a hint of why the U.S. version was never going to be on a level with Cheers and Taxi; the heart, the soft stuff, had to be tacked on and wasn't organic.

I may be over-thinking that, and I'd have to watch more of the episodes from later seasons to really know why this one was forgotten. I recall Jere Burns, as Kirk, being the one who made the most impact in the U.S. version; it's a showy part, and he played it more physically than the original actor. On the other hand, the leader of the group (a woman with an unhealthy interest in everyone's sex life) is less funny as a chirpy weirdo than the seemingly normal woman she was in the original. And Judd Hirsch was probably wrong for the part because he was too right for it, if that makes sense: the backstory of the character is close enough to Alex Rieger that he can't help seeming like he's playing the same guy all over again.

And that's how the show comes across in what I've seen of the original episodes: kind of like Taxi but not as sharp and fresh. Like a lot of filmed sitcoms from the late '80s -- Designing Women, Major Dad, Murphy Brown -- it also comes off as being at an uneasy transitional point between the MTM style (the foundational style at that time for any "grown-up" live-audience sitcom shot on film), and the faster-paced style that would soon come to dominate the filmed sitcom (with shorter running times, shorter scenes, and more stories per episode).

Weinberger did one other show while Dear John was running, a gruesome Look Who's Talking adaptation called "Baby Talk," where he was apparently very difficult to get along with: George Clooney fought with him and was dropped, Connie Sellecca left the show before it started, and finally Weinberger himself was let go after the first season. He made a comeback with a couple of other unsuccessful shows in the '90s. But if (like most TV producers) he wasn't able to keep producing hits indefinitely, the '80s and '90s were sitcom era that he did a lot to create -- through the shows he produced and the writers he hired, not to mention his role in keeping the sitcom alive with Cosby.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Harry and Sam

Arguably the best thing about IDW and Archie comics releasing "Best of Harry Lucey" and "Best of Samm Schwartz" hardcover collection can be seen at the Amazon page for the Lucey collection, which has customer reviews from Lucey's daughter Barbara as well as his nephew. The Schwartz book also has an afterword by his daughter, Joanne. These artists, like many comic book artists, were mostly unappreciated and uncredited in their own time, so it's pleasing to see their family members taking some pride in this new recognition. (It would be more pleasing if their estates got royalties for some of these reprints, of course, but this is the comics industry we're talking about here.)

The Lucey and especially the Schwartz books both have their flaws. Fundamentally, we're not talking about "best of" collections exactly, but more a selection of stories for which original art was available. (Some of the best comics stories from this don't seem to exist in art that can be reproduced in a high-quality fashion; some of the stories in the "Best of Archie Comics" book the publisher put out -- a good cross-section of its work, by the way -- are just scanned from comic books.) Granted, there's no scholarship on Archie the way there is for other comics, and therefore there's no panel of experts to consult on the best stories; granted too, most of these stories are pretty similar, and choosing a "best" can be difficult. But there are some stories I would like to have seen in there, like "Actions Speak Louder Than Words."

Also, with Lucey, the book suffers from being only five and six-page stories (plus a few one-page gags). A lot of the work that endeared him to readers occurred not only in covers, but -- maybe most of all -- in the in-house ads. He was Archie's primary in-house ad man until the early '70s, continuing with it even a few years after he was no longer allowed to do covers. And as an Amazon reviewer notes, maybe in too much detail, Lucey's work on the girls was particularly memorable in those ads, since he was dressing and posing them to maximize sales. I hope volume 2, if they are able to do one, has a section for ad pages and covers.

The Lucey volume is still a good deal for Lucey stories from a particular period (1959 through 1965), and has several famous ones including "Woman Scorned," the story that has contributed the most to the "Betty is crazy and murderous" meme, mostly because it portrays Betty as crazy and murderous.

The Schwartz volume covers the same period, and is therefore less essential. This is actually a period when Schwartz often wasn't doing his own inking and lettering, presumably because of the volume of work he was taking on -- he and his friend Bob White had editorial responsibilities at the company in addition to doing a huge amount of drawing work. The stories in this volume are often inked by Marty Epp (one of Lucey's regular inkers into the '70s) and Dan DeCarlo's brother Vince. The stories that Schwartz did ink and letter himself stand out by comparison and make it clear why he was always his own best inker; his Jughead just doesn't have quite the same magic in anyone else's hands. If volume 2 comes out I hope it focuses more on Schwartz's work on Jughead in the '70s and '80s, when he adopted his sparer style and mostly stopped working with other inkers.

The majority of the stories are once again by Frank Doyle, with a few George Gladir scripts thrown in (Gladir's work on Jughead was always some of his best, with monsters and witches and pop-culture spoofs in the spirit of his Mad House and Bats material). I was one of the first to write about what a work horse he was, but even I sometimes understated the case: the amazing thing to me is not just that he wrote so many, but that so few of them are out-and-out remakes of previous stories. They're working within a narrow range, of course, but there's usually some sort of angle that gives the artist something fresh to work with.

Here, for example, is a story that is not in the Lucey book, but which would have been on my "best-of" list just because it's one of those stories that sticks in one's mind as a kid and never goes away. From Pep # 134, it's called "On the Trolley," and has a premise Doyle used a number of times in a number of ways: some phrase or idea gets stuck in people's heads and drives them crazy. This allows various characters to react in different ways, and keeps the story moving as one character after another is pulled into it. And it provides Lucey with an opportunity to do the strong posing and comic emoting that he's now known for -- and should have been known for at the time.







Friday, November 11, 2011

Hollywood and Classical Uplift

One book I recently read for the first time (I don't know why I didn't before) is John Gregory Dunne's The Studio, his account of a few not-very-good months in the life of Twentieth Century Fox. Because he happened to be there while the studio was previewing Dr. Dolittle, shooting Star! and planning Hello, Dolly!, he got a look at the three big, disastrous roadshow musicals that would sink the Zanuck regime at the studio and condemn Fox to near-irrelevance until 1977.

The book is rather short, and doesn't dig very deep into what was happening in Hollywood in 1967 -- Dunne notes early on that the Zanucks were trying to operate as if the studio system was still in effect, and there are some hilarious examples of their failed attempts to revive it (like their training program for new stars, which is run as if star behavior and public taste in stars hasn't changed since Darryl's heyday), but the sense of why studios choose the projects they do, and how (or if) they respond to changing public taste, isn't always clear; the people Dunne talked to were so completely in the Studio bubble that he sometimes seems to be in there with them. This is why, although Dunne was trying to create a Picture for the '60s, he didn't quite achieve it; we now know that Fox was on the verge of crumbling the way early '50s MGM was on the verge of crumbling, but the things that would sink Fox are not fully present in the book. Except for the deservedly famous chapter on the horrible premiere of Doctor Dolittle, it pokes around the edges of a studio in trouble rather than showing it; it's more of a supplement to what we now know about the end of the Zanuck era. Maybe Dunne just came to the studio at the wrong time -- if he'd been there a little later, to see the studio thrown into panic by the collapse of the big roadshow musical, then the book would be different.

Perhaps the most memorable scene in the book is the one Dunne himself said he was "troubled" by, when Henry Koster, the veteran director, comes in to pitch a movie to Richard Zanuck. (With Koster, though not speaking as much, was Robert Buckner, a writer-producer almost as old as Koster.) Koster's pitch is literally thirty years out of date, an idea similar to the Deanna Durbin vehicles he had directed in the '30s. Self-Styled Siren quoted from this passage a few months back, and it's a really brutal scene. Koster piles one Old Hollywood cliché on another, somehow condensing his 30-plus years of sentimental family films into one pitch; Buckner speaks up only to show that his idea of popular music involves "jazz joints"; Zanuck gazes "unblinkingly" at Koster while waiting for him to finish so he can let him down easy.

Zanuck's reply is a lesson in the art of rejecting someone's idea without directly telling him how bad it is (instead he sort of puts the blame on himself and the studio: it's not right for them because they don't need another musical, because they can't sell a classical story). Of course, since he was putting all that money and promotion into Dr. Dolittle, he wouldn't really have had much of a right to tell anyone that their story was too creaky and old-fashioned. Besides, Koster had done a lot of work for Fox, including The Robe.

Dunne later wrote that the scene is an illustration of how "people are used and discarded like so many wads of Kleenex" in the movie business, but I think the book shows how much respect and power Old Hollywood people still commanded in the studio system at this point. Not just the fact that Koster got a meeting, but that Fox had brought over two veteran MGM producers who had been cut loose by MGM, and neither of whom really had much to offer. (Actually, Joe Pasternak, the veteran producer of sentimental schlock -- including Koster's Deanna Durbin vehicles -- seems reasonably with-it despite working on a bad film; he is a cynic who doesn't have much regard for the young audience he's trying to appeal to, but he knows what he's doing and he understands how public tastes have changed. Pandro Berman, a producer with a better track record of quality, comes off as clueless.)

Fox in the post-Sound of Music era had more of an Old Hollywood style to it than any other studio of the era, probably because of Darryl Zanuck's involvement and the larger-than-usual number of studio employees it had (which allowed it to get Oscar nominations for movies like Dolittle through the votes of its employees), and because it tried to cultivate a roster of stars and directors, including trying to turn Richard Fleischer into something like what Henry King had been at Zanuck's old Fox: the all-purpose director of major projects, from musicals to war pictures to true-crime. What was happening at Fox in this period was almost an attempt to rebuild the old system and put the brakes on the independent producers; this didn't last beyond the departure of Richard and Darryl Zanuck, and Richard wound up as a successful independent producer.

But back to Koster, the thing that gives the scene more weight and interest than most in the book is that it's one of the few scenes where the changes in the movie industry, and the world, really break through and become clear. (Another one is the frustrated comment of one of the people in charge of finding new young stars: he points out that Fox is still looking for beautiful people like Tyrone Power, as if nothing had changed at the studio since the '30s, even though the actual stars of the period are unconventional-looking people like Streisand and McQueen.) Koster's pitch sounds awful because it's caught in a time warp, based on a certain set of assumptions about what appeals to movie audiences. He seems genuinely enthusiastic about bringing "a story of great music" to the public, and this is an idea that went over well with movie studio executives and audiences for the first 25 or so years of sound movies. It just becomes absurd cringe comedy when it's delivered to a studio executive in 1967.

It does seem weird now -- and must have seemed weird even in 1967 -- that American entertainment executives were so enthusiastic about classical music for so long. Sometimes the classical movies bombed (Fantasia flopped, and Lawrence Tibbett didn't work out that well as a Fox star), but that didn't dim the enthusiasm of producers and directors, partly because they loved the music, partly because music appreciation was considered something of a cultural duty, and partly because classical crossover movies were often big hits. But after Mario Lanza, the classical movie faded away pretty fast, and classical had a boom-bust cycle on television -- Koster pitches Leonard Bernstein as the star of the film, seemingly unaware that Bernstein was no longer a bankable TV personality, let alone a movie personality. The assumption that most people knew and liked certain elements of classical music (if only a few pop-concert pieces and arias) was part of movies for a long time, and a lot of cartoons and comedy routines were created on the understanding that we already knew Brahms' "Hungarian Rhapsody" or various Wagner bleeding chunks. And then suddenly that was gone, and the only thing left was Henry Koster, in the Fox office pitching a collection of sure-fire ideas (sentimentality, cute children, classical uplift) that weren't sure-fire any more.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Revisicals Revisited

The controversy over the revised version of Porgy and Bess was a bit unexpected to me, since "revisals" have been par for the course for a long time (since 1962, when Guy Bolton rewrote the book of Anything Goes for a successful revival, there have been many revivals and rewrites of that show, but never a revival of the original). I used to be rather strongly against revisals. But then I sort of came to accept them as superior to what goes on in the world of opera, where revisionist productions are done with no changes whatsoever to text or music, essentially making the text irrelevant. Changing the text, in an odd way, respects the power of the words more than simply ignoring them.

But Porgy and Bess, which was routinely done with heavy revisions for about 40 years after Gershwin died, seems to have set off some sparks. Stephen Sondheim, offended by the director's comments about the original, sent off a now-famous New York Times letter to the editor. And that letter has brought the issue of revisions, respect for the past, and all the rest of it back into the spotlight, as this article in the Washington Post discusses.

As I said, I'm more tolerant of revised or shortened books than I used to be. (More tolerant than of, say, the actors playing their own instruments onstage.) I do think that revisals usually do it wrong; no matter how much rewriting they do, they rarely seem to work better than the original books, which at least have the benefit of period charm. One of the biggest problems when it comes to musicals, I think, is that the books are rewritten around the songs, which are sacrosanct -- the ones that are left in, anyway. But the way an original musical is written is different. The musical numbers are shaped in conjunction with the book. One of the "revisals" that really made an impact was the 1971 No, No, Nanette, and in that show, not only was the book rewritten (very hastily, out of town) but the whole project had a sort of overall concept: to make this '20s musical sound like an old Hollywood musical, sort of a '40s dream of what the '20s were like. That idea was applied to the staging of the numbers and the sound and look of the show. I've seen other revisals of older musicals that had no such overall concept, and so the book scenes were in a different world from the songs.

With musicals done before the 1940s, there's an even bigger issue: except for operettas, or musical comedies with operetta influence (like Show Boat), there was almost strict division between dialogue, dance and music. Look at a musical comedy from the '30s and you'll see that there is very rarely any talking once a musical number starts; the pattern of a scene was speech, leading into song, leading into a dance. The post-Oklahoma! musical changed the shape of a typical number: now you'd often have dialogue during the song, or a new refrain after the dance break, or some other way of blending the elements together. And one advantage of this idea was that it could make a number feel like it finished in a different place from where it started.

A song like "Send In the Clowns" has that shape: Desiree sings the refrain to Fredrik, there's a dialogue scene where he excuses himself and leaves, and then she sings the last part of the song alone. The words have been slightly changed for the ending, but they still make the same basic point as before -- yet the meaning of the song seems to have changed a lot because the stage situation has changed. Once you have dialogue within a number, the number doesn't feel static.

But Pal Joey, to give a random example of an important old musical, rarely does this: numbers are closed off from dialogue, and dance is closed off from song. So while many of the songs are theoretically integrated into the story, they don't play that way, because as written into the show, they're completely static numbers: a song that makes one point for four or five minutes (and 32-bar songs can rarely make more than one or two points: either they say one thing, or they add in a twist at the end) is not a theatrically-exciting song.

My point, I suppose, is that rewrites of old musicals may often need to go beyond the book; in fact, sometimes the book may not even be the problem. (A great song can sometimes hold up a show more than a corny but effective book scene.) Re-shaping of numbers, re-mixing and blending of different elements, may be required to really get a show into shape. Can this be done without destroying the songs? Would the estates even allow this? I don't know. But I think it's a mistake that revising of musicals focuses mostly on the dialogue scenes, as if they're completely separate -- they're really not, even in frivolous and loose musicals.

With rewrites of Porgy, I always find a separate but related problem: when you remove the recitatives and replace them with dialogue, you find the show doesn't have enough big musical numbers to sustain it. (Of course Porgy used the dialogue format for its successful '40s and '50s revivals and the movie,so it can work. I'm just not sure it works for me.) Because Gershwin wrote it as an opera, he didn't intend most of the songs to be stand-alone numbers, and accordingly, most of them are quite short: they come out of the musical texture, happen, and go away. The finale, "I'm On My Way," is extremely short, but the brevity gives it its power (also the fact that it's a new tune being introduced at the end, mixed with statements of songs and motifs we've heard earlier in the evening). But coming out of a dialogue scene, it would just seem short. Porgy's first solo, "They Pass by Singin," is not a song at all, just a little arioso that is set up by -- and in a way is part of -- the recitative that precedes it. "I Loves You, Porgy" is a short number that seems to start out of nowhere when (as in the movie) it starts with dialogue.

Only a few numbers, like "It Ain't Necessarily So" or "My Man's Gone Now," have the length and the structure that we associate with a stand-alone Broadway number. Making some of the other songs work as stand-alone numbers, I think, really requires some re-thinking: adding dances, interludes, dialogue, things that can give them a satisfying wholeness that they don't need to have in the original context. That's something I'll be more worried about, in the new version, than the act of rewriting or changing the setting.

The one thing I definitely agree with Sondheim on is that the Gershwin estate's insistence on billing it as "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" is ridiculous. They started this sometime in the '90s, and I thought it was stupid then -- Ira Gershwin, who was for many years the only living writer of the show, never asked for that kind of billing, and would have considered it absurd. It was always billed as "George Gershwin's" Porgy and Bess." After Ira died, the Gershwin estate started to push harder for him to be recognized as an equal contributor to the songs he wrote with his brother, and that is totally fair in the case of individual songs or scores. Not with this score, which was George's project first, DuBose Heyward's second, and where Ira never claimed to have contributed more than he did. (He actually downplayed his contributions a bit: though "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" is an Ira Gershwin lyric, he gave Heyward co-lyricist credit on it because the title, and some of the phrases, were taken from Heyward's libretto.) Sondheim is very invested in the idea that all the best lyrics in the show are by Heyward. And it's certain that Heyward, who wrote "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now" alone, should be recognized for that. But even for Ira Gershwin admirers like myself, the knee-jerk equal billing devalues the work where he and George were equal partners.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Unforgettably Ugly Songs

Speaking of flop musicals that the team of Feuer and Martin produced after their golden '50s period... Well, first, I don't want to make it sound like they never had another good show. They did have another big hit when they reunited with Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser on How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and their show Little Me (with Sid Caesar, Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh) is one of the funniest musicals of all time even though it doesn't completely work. The team specialized in a kind of brash, heavily comedic musical that was hard to find elsewhere in the '50s and '60s (unless the show was set in the distant past, like Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum). But without Burrows, they didn't have many hits.

"Skyscraper" had more ingredients for a hit than Whoop-Up: it was based on a good source for a musical, Elmer Rice's play Dream Girl (about a young, cute, female Walter Mitty), it had Julie Harris as the star -- she couldn't really sing, but at least she tried -- and Peter Stone doing the book after his success with Charade. But it substituted a rather awful new plot for the simpler plot of the play, and the score, by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, was mediocre; it was on a more professional level than the bad pop score of Whoop-Up, but Cahn and Van Heusen had been together too long and were no longer writing their best stuff. They did turn out a better score for Feuer and Martin's next show, the Hobson's Choice musical Walking Happy, but neither was a really good theatre songwriter, and they seemed to be trying too hard to re-create the success of their pop standards.

Anyway, the only song from the score of Skyscraper that ever stuck in my head was one of the worst in the show, one that I couldn't get out of my mind because it sounded so ugly. I heard it on the radio twenty years ago, only heard it again the other day, but certain bits of it were lodged in my memory. The song itself has only one joke, and not a good one: a raspy-voiced man in his mid-'40s (the ubiquitous and delightful Rex Everhart) sings about high fashion and the crazy kids these days with their clothes and hair. It's not a good song, but it's bad in a normal enough way. What made it hard to get out of my brain is how unattractive it sounds: the melody, for one thing, sounds punchy and angry, the word "Haute" almost spat out like a curse.

The orchestrations demonstrate the dangers -- which a lot of Broadway shows fell victim to at this time -- of trying to import the brassy sound of '50s mainstream pop recordings to theatre. And most nightmarishly of all, the vocal arranger or somebody decided it would be a good idea to have the men of the ensemble sing the vamp: "Da-da-da-da-DA!" An angrier male chorus I never have heard. And that's hard to forget.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Who Was Bill Vigoda?

Craig Yoe's Archie history book is a good contribution to this neglected field of fanmanship (maybe not a word, but I like it better than "scholarship"), though as a semi-official history there are things it had to leave out as well as leaving in. (Starting, obviously, with the controversy about who created Archie and when exactly John Goldwater started claiming that he did it.) There are also some artists who didn't make it into the book, likely due to space reasons, and I thought I should try to give what background I can on some of them.

The one to start with would probably be Bill Vigoda, because he worked for the company for over three decades and drew the Archie character almost from the beginning. He's best known, of course, as Abe Vigoda's brother.

I don't know much about him beyond what I read in two of Jim Amash's invaluable Alter Ego interviews with comics veterans who knew him. He was one of the young artists who joined MLJ Comics and was working there when Bob Montana started doing the Archie character. His earliest credits -- again, like the others -- are on MLJ superheroes like the Hangman.

Joe Edwards, creator of Li'l Jinx, told Amash that he brought Vigoda over to MLJ, though this may be one of Edwards' claims that isn't backed up by other sources:

He lived near me in Brooklyn, and his wife Anita was friends with me, so she begged me "can you bring Bill in?" Bill was a terrific artist. "Well, I'll try to talk to Harry [Shorten], try to get him a position." So Harry looked at his work and said, "Well, it's not what I want right now." And I said, "Gee, the guy can use the work." When you've got a foot in the door, you can be stronger. Anyway, Bill was very broks... I brought Bill up there, and they were glad to get him because the war broke out.

When Montana, Samm Schwartz, Harry Lucey and others were in the army, Vigoda seems to have taken up some of the workload on the comic books. When "Wilbur" was spun off in 1944 as the company's first Archie clone title (John Goldwater believed, according to Joe Edwards, that they needed to get some imitations out there to head off the flood of Archie-alikes that their competitors were coming out with), Vigoda was the main artist, and that same year he became the main artist on Archie's title.

Vigoda continued to be the primary artist on "Archie," often signing his work, until about 1950, when a lot of the work shifted to George Frese. But the wild, slaptsticky, often rude '40s stories that many comics fans consider their favorite Archie material (yes, even Archie, which did more than any other company to get all the other companies censored, got toned down in the '50s), were frequently drawn and signed by Vigoda.

After 1950, though credits are spotty -- and signatures started going away in the '50s - I don't think Vigoda ever had his own book except for a few periods where he was a temporary replacement for some other artist. (When Samm Schwartz left to join Tower Comics, Vigoda replaced him on "Jughead" and also did most of the superhero spinoff title, "Captain Hero." But when Schwartz came back, Vigoda was taken right back off "Jughead.") He was mainly a utility artist, doing back-up stories, stories in Annuals and other special issues, covers that the main cover artists (in the late '50s and early '60s, mostly Lucey, Schwartz and Bob White) couldn't get to. He even did one issue of "The Fly" after Simon and Kirby left and before Richard Goldwater -- who didn't like the artists Simon and Kirby had lined up for the title -- signed full-time superhero artists who were to his liking.

Here, from Amash's interview with Richard Goldwater's assistant (and successor as editor) Victor Gorelick, is some more background on Vigoda:

I think [Paul Reinman] enjoyed comics. I'll tell you the guy who didn't enjoy it, and that was Bill Vigoda. Vigoda was also a fine artist and he was a sculptor. If you ever needed an example of a hippie, he'd fit the bill. He was the younger brother of Abe Vigoda.

He had a medical condition that kept him from military service, so he was around in the 1940s when the other artists went to war. Between him and Bill Woggon, who did a lot of Katy Keene comics, they did a lot of work for Archie. Vigoda used to do sketches on the backs of his pages and they looked like Burne Hogarth's work. He drew men with big muscles and sometimes nude women. In later years, I saw some of his oil paintings and they had some very strange content. A psychiatrist would have had a field day with that work!

One time I sent some Archie pages to the Comics Code. There was this woman who worked there and said, "I don't know what's going on in your artist's mind, but the artist who did this story drew something horrible on the back of the page. It should be taken out and erased." And on the back of one of the pages, Bill Vigoda had dreawn a nude woman impaled on a bull's horn. That was quite a piece of artwork, I can tell you.

He was married and had kids and couldn't make a living as a fine artist. He told me he felt stuck doing comic books because he had to earn a living. He was a very creative person and loved opera. He smoked a pipe when he drew and was a funny man. He had a great sense of humor.

JA: He's gone now, isn't he?

GORELICK: Bill passed away many years ago. He became a diabetic and had a heart condition. He went to the hospital and they took a couple of his toes because of the diabetes. He never came out of that hospital. I was really devastated by his passing. I didn't really expect him to go. I was very close to many of the artists. He worked in the office, as did many other people. There was always a place for people to work there if they wished.

Vigoda was versatile, then, and he turned out a lot of pages for the company from the '40s until his death in 1973. I would not say he's one of my favorite humor artists, though. It sometimes seems to me (and Gorelick's interview quoted suggests this too) that he would have been happier working in a less cartoony style. His best work, in the '40s, was before Montana changed and streamlined the look of the characters, a style Vigoda and the other artists then had to follow. The Veronica in this Vigoda story, from Archie # 27 (1947), still looks like an improbably mature woman, and Vigoda gets a lot of expression out of this early Archie who still looks like a buck-toothed ugly kid. There's also some male nudity on page 7, surprisingly common for the '40s.

But by 1961, when he did this story in Archie Annual # 13, he was working with the cartoony Betty and Veronica and the more presentable-looking Archie, and he never seemed to be at ease with these versions. (Frank Doyle scripted this one; I don't know who did the '40s stories, though Bill and Abe's brother Hi was a comics writer and may have done some of them.) The girls have a rather square-jawed look, and Vigoda had a tendency to give all the characters this white-mouthed, uni-tooth look at all times.

His inker on that story, Terry Szenics, was also inking for Harry Lucey at the time, so the style can't really be blamed on her; Lucey's stuff also has the uni-tooth and other similar touches, but the devices are less over-used in his stories and the characters look more appealing.

Here's another Vigoda story (from Laugh # 164 in 1964; Doyle scripting again; I don't know who the inker was) I remember very vividly from my childhood, mostly because it was the first time I'd ever heard of the old "I walked into a door" excuse. (This was a story that Doyle re-did at least one other time, maybe more.) It's certainly not badly executed, but at the end, I remember thinking that Archie's pain looked real and, well, painful, rather than funny.

Also, I seem to have found two straight stories, from the same writer and artist several years apart, where Archie gets angry and frightens the girls off. Never mind, where's the Archiedickery site?

My suspicion that Vigoda would have been happier doing serious comics is strengthened when I see some of his occasional ventures into horror stories. There was a Captain Hero story, which I can't find, about monsters who come out of the telephone, and Vigoda drew some of the most horrifying monsters I've ever seen in comic books; it was written as a spoofy comedy, but Vigoda drew creatures who weren't supposed to be funny, just really scary. I had nightmares about them as a kid. And here's Vigoda enjoying himself on one of Sabrina's short-lived forays into EC-style horror comics (Doyle, a "Dark Shadows" fan, seemed to enjoy this sort of thing too):

So in writing about Vigoda, I'm not saying he was an undiscovered great; quite the opposite. There are undiscovered greats, in Archie-style comics and every other type of comic, and some of them are starting to be discovered. Vigoda, I think, was more of a solid contributor whose work was at its best when the "house style" was more realistic and less cartoonish. His '40s work is his best by far, so the stuff to check out is the stuff he actually got to sign.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

When It Comes to Bull Event

Fans of bad musicals have a particular soft spot for Whoop-Up, a 1958 show that seemed to demonstrate just how wrong a producing team could go when they decided to do more than produce. Specifically, Feuer and Martin, the most successful musical producing team of the '50s due to their partnership with people like Abe Burrows on Guys and Dolls, Can-Can and Silk Stockings, started moving more into the creative side of things: on Whoop-Up Feuer not only directed the show (he'd already begun moving into directing, though with assistance from Burrows on Silk Stockings) but he and Martin co-wrote the book, from a novel later adapted for Elvis Presley's film Stay Away, Joe.

And after successful shows with Frank Loesser and Cole Porter, they took a chance on young songwriting talent -- unfortunately, the young songwriters, Moose Charlap and Norman Gimbel, turned out a mostly awful score. (Charlap had written the better songs in Peter Pan, though he and lyricist Carolyn Leigh were fired during the tryout. Gimbel was a mediocre pop lyricist mentored by Loesser, but despite the mentorship he remained a mediocre pop lyricist. A successful one, mind you: "Girl From Ipanema," "Killing Me Softly With His Song" and many TV themes.) Even the titles are bad: "Love Eyes," "Till The Big Fat Moon Falls Down."

The cast album is a bit of a cult item for several reasons. One, so many of the songs are so cheesy and in some cases tasteless. Two, it's got the great Susan Johnson in one of her few true lead roles. And three, the CD of the cast album went into print and out of print in about five minutes, making it a semi-legendary collectors' item. It's been said that Larry Lash from Polydor released it on a bet.

Also, because it was a Feuer and Martin production and they had never had a failure yet, hopes were high for Whoop-Up, which meant many artists were sent into recording studios to record cover versions of the new show's songs. Lash's CD release of Whoop-Up included these as a supplement: weird '50s arcana like Rosemary Clooney duetting on "Flattery" (one of many imitation-Loesser duets written in this era) with her husband José Ferrer, or Connie Francis trying to sound sultry and suggestive on "Love Eyes."

But the greatest find of the album, and possibly the weirdest cover version of all time, was of one of the very worst songs in a musical. "Nobody Throw Those Bull" was a song for the French-accented father (Romo Vincent) of the male lead, explaining how proud he is of his son's bull-riding prowess. This is probably not a promising subject for a song under any circumstances. With Gimbel, Charlap and the very generic orchestrations by Phil Lang (Broadway's all-purpose purveyor of a certain type of basic, un-adorned arrangement) it sounds like this:

You wouldn't think this would be a song anyone would cover for a pop version, but novelty songs were still around in 1958, and somebody at the record company got the idea of giving it to Maurice Chevalier. The result is almost indescribable. Chevalier always tries to sound happy, but he also sounds raspy and bored, like he's working overtime to keep that smile in his voice. What he does isn't exactly singing; it's more of a heavily-accented, barely-notated cry for help.

To end this post on a somewhat more positive note, a better song -- though nothing special at all -- is "When the Tall Man Talks," a showcase for Susan Johnson's singing voice, perhaps the greatest Broadway belt voice. Even the worst songs she gets (the worst is "Men," a blatant ripoff of the pattern numbers in Music Man) sound better with her full, warm, beautifully controlled voice.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Name "Sloat" is Fun To Say

I recently read the book "Soon to be a major motion picture: The anatomy of an all-star, big-budget, multimillion-dollar disaster" by the late Ted Gershuny, a maker of low-budget horror movies who interned on Otto Preminger's next-to-last movie, Rosebud. It turned out to be one of Preminger's worst films, and essentially ended his career (he made one more movie, The Human Factor, but he couldn't get studio financing for it and wound up having to spend a lot of his own money). I don't think the book did much business, given that it came out five years after the making of a film that nobody remembered or liked. But it seems to be frequently referred to in biographies of the director, since it's one of the most in-depth chronicles of one of his famously turbulent shoots.

As usual with Preminger, he bought the rights to a big potboiler novel with a topical edge: a French best-seller about the attempt to free five rich girls kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists, and the attempt by all sides to use the media and public opinion to their advantage. Also as usual with Preminger, he fell out with an actor during the making of it: Robert Mitchum was the original star, but he walked off the picture and was replaced by another fading star with a drinking problem, Peter O'Toole. And like most of Preminger's later movies, it flopped, and deserved to flop.

Preminger made lots of movies that don't work; two of them, the infamous Skidoo and the somewhat less infamous (but if anything more ridiculous) Hurry Sundown just came out on widescreen DVDs for the first time. Rosebud is less entertaining than usual for a bad Preminger movie, though. Even though it's a fairly expensive movie with lots of location shooting, I recall it looking cheap and small in a way that a lot of mid-'70s movies do when they don't work. (The James Bond movies of this period, Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun, also have that look: they're not cheap movies, but they look a little tawdry in a way that The Spy Who Loved Me or Star Wars or Superman -- big-budget movies of only a few years later -- do not.) But the picture was always doomed, because Preminger essentially began making it without a script.

Like Skidoo, Preminger's Rosebud disaster is tied to his desire to bond with Erik, his son by Gypsy Rose Lee. He finally met Erik in the late '60s and adopted him, and Skidoo is often seen as his effort to connect with his newfound son and his generation. With Rosebud, he decided that this would be Erik's big break as a screenwriter. Rosebud probably wouldn't have worked even with a better script (Preminger's previous movie, Such Good Friends, has an Elaine May script, and it still doesn't work), but Rosebud never had anything close to a workable screenplay, and it headed into production without even a decision on who the villain would turn out to be.

It seems like the film went into production largely because the Patty Hearst kidnapping suddenly made the subject topical. "We were hooked," Gershuny writes. "Rosebud was contemporary, vital -- now. All they had to do was finish the script." But they never really did. For most of the book's length the Premingers are trying to figure out who the bad guy should be: in the novel the kidnappings are organized by a self-hating Jew, in an early draft it was a German, then they came up with an English bad guy whom they named "Sloat," and finally decided that he should be a crazy Arabist, a Lawrence of Arabia gone wrong. No one was happy with this, though Preminger did get Richard Attenborough to play the part at the last minute as a personal favor.

The book is not brilliantly written and is not a full-scale account of every aspect of the production; it's mostly from Gershuny's point of view, and mentions the things he observes. Whether Mitchum quit or was fired isn't really revealed, and it's not really the point. We just see a drunk, bored Mitchum arrive, do his patented I-don't-give-a-damn routines, including this bizarre moment with Lalla Ward, one of the five ingénues:

Lalla informs him over lunch that he has been acting silly, which makes him lean across the table in the hotel and fix her with his menacing gaze.
"Heeeyyy..." he drawls.
"You -- want -- me -- to -- kill -- you?"
"Well, no, actually, I'd rather you didn't."

Another famous moment during the shoot was when Peter O'Toole got a fake bomb threat, which turned out to be a joke played by Kenneth Tynan. O'Toole went to Tynan, making sure to bring backup, and beat the critic up. In the book, we get this incident from the point of view of people who have to be on the set every day; it's something that happened offstage, and from the crew's vantage point it's not so much horrifying as interesting, a sign that the calm, reserved O'Toole has more rage in him than his performance has been showing.

That's one thing I found interesting about the book, that it's very much focused on the crew, and a particular kind of crew -- the people who worked on big international productions, going from project to project and country to country. In 1974, many countries essentially had no national cinema: the British film industry was collapsing, and most countries were not what they were during the '60s. (One exception: West Germany was doing better than it was in the '60s. Preminger's assistant on the film is Wolfgang Glattes, the likable epitome of the efficient West German.) Some movies benefited from the international approach: I'm not a big fan of Cabaret, but it was a success, and the production's mix of American, British and German was perfectly suited to the subject. Other movies from the same era, though, showed the strain we might have expected from the mishmash of styles and languages among the cast and crew.

A movie like Rosebud, financed by United Artists, doesn't have the financial problems that other, similar co-productions have -- in one chapter we meet Judd Bernard, one of those producers who mostly scrounges for money to make little movies that don't get much distribution. Preminger, for the last time in his career, can raise the money he needs from a studio, but he's still making a film with no national identity: since there's no "home base" where the interiors are shot, every location brings with it its own mix of actors, crew approaches and linguistic problems. A love scene early in the picture is bad enough because of the bad writing but even worse because of the actors' problems with English.

All this makes the book a look at a type of filmmaking that gets its money within the studio system but mostly spends it outside. In the '70s the studio system was starting to re-assert itself, but the way to make a big movie was often to get the money and talent wherever it was available, go where the tax breaks were (there's a lot of talk about the correct national identity for tax purposes) and the sheer logistical issues involved in making a movie in several countries at once. Preminger is equipped to handle that, at least, having done it before. But it's a type of moviemaking that seems devoid of glamour to anyone who participates in it -- it doesn't even have a costume coordinator (Preminger's wife Hope usually did this) because most of the actors are just told to wear what they usually wear.

That everybody knows it's going to be a bomb -- or almost everybody, since there are occasional moments when something goes right and people revert to a natural state of optimism -- makes the situation grimmer. But crew members in the book talk about good productions (like Lawrence of Arabia, the gold standard for what can be achieved when a studio says "here's your money, now go to another country and make it") with somewhat similar memories. Movies have almost become big television shows, where the key thing is just to find appropriate places to shoot and people who will shoot them there. The production described in Rosebud combines the pressures of indie and studio filmmaking in an almost depressing way. It sort of makes you understand why the glitzy soundstage film came back in such a big way later in the decade. Though of course the international co-production is still a huge part of the cinema and always will be.

I first heard about the book in a Preminger biography, where Preminger's widow objects to the way Gershuny portrays him. I'm not entirely sure why. Preminger actually comes off better in this book than he does in most, including that biography (Foster Hirsch's). We do hear about Preminger's famous red-faced temper tantrums, of course, but if anything, the book downplays this side of his personality and plays up his dogged professional side, his determination to get the movie finished on time and on budget. Preminger cuts and simplifies things ruthlessly; by the time they get to the final destination, Israel, he's throwing out any attempt to make this a coherent movie (it can't be) and is just trying to stick to his schedule. He does it, too, as he usually did.

In fact, the author clearly likes Preminger even though Preminger's anger and cutting sarcasm are sometimes trained on him. Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema was a recent book that Gershuny quotes, and American cinema fans were starting to realize that Preminger had a very distinctive style, and that his preference for long takes was about style, not so much about his famous cheapness. Plus Laura had become a key film of the nostalgia boom and the rediscovery of film noir. Preminger had been an independent filmmaker since the '50s, but as an all-powerful tyrant director who occasionally mentions old movie stars (he famously told Kim Cattrall "you remind me of Marilyn Monroe and Kim Novak, not in looks, but in the number of takes"), he's like the production's only link to old-fashioned moviemaking glamour, a larger-than-life figure in a drab production.

So as a young movie fan, and someone who is trying to learn about the complications involved with making a big movie, the author seems to be rooting for Preminger. It's Preminger's fault that the movie can't work, because he chose the writer and signed off on the bad script decisions. But once the film is under way, he's going to use every trick he knows to get it finished. We can see his frustration mount as the things he did successfully in other movies go wrong in this one: bringing in a political figure to act as a publicity gimmick (New York Mayor John Lindsay) brings only minor publicity and Lindsay can't act; Preminger favourite Peter Lawford can't remember his lines and does 13 takes of a scene, with Preminger urging him to just make something up and Lawford unable to do even that. But with all that, he's going to get it done. Throw out script pages, cut out scenes that can't be shot properly, but it's getting done.

That sets it apart from most other "disaster in the making" movie reports. Most such movies go way over budget, and that's what marks them as disasters. Despite having to replace a star in the middle of production, Rosebud kept costs low. The sense of mounting desperation comes not from the budget but from the fact that so few scenes seem to work while they're being shot. There is some hope that it will come together and be better than the script looks, but that hope is destroyed take by take, bad performance by bad performance. (Gershuny does point out in an afterward that Isabelle Huppert turned out to be much better after the film than anyone had anticipated. And the American girl, Kim Cattrall, did poorly in this movie but built a successful career anyway. So the trailer's statement that the girls are "stars of the future" isn't that crazy.) The feeling that you're running all over the place, putting together this huge international production team that will break up as soon as the picture's finished -- and all to have it come to nothing when the scenes are so bad -- is painful, but as much a part of moviemaking as the Heaven's Gate type of production. "On Rosebud," Gershuny realizes, "Preminger can make right choices, wrong choices, any choices. Things simply will not work." That's got to be more painful than just having a promising story that could go either way.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Movie Knowledge: At Historical Norms

Roger Ebert linked to Bill Mesce's post "The 'Gray Ones' Fade to Black", about a subject I've touched on a lot: people who came of age in the '60s, '70s and '80s did so at a time when television was filled with old movies as cheap filler programming, and so old black-and-white movies grew up unusually familiar with movies (and TV shows and animated films) made before they were born. Today, it's much easier to get programming that suits your particular tastes at any time, so it's much less likely that someone today will grow up watching Humphrey Bogart or Abbott and Costello.

Mesce goes into a lot more specifics about how television made old movies into a part of the cultural conversation for Baby Boomers and even successive generations. (There were lots of late movies when I was a kid in the '80s, and it was as late-night filler that I first saw everything from MGM musicals to Ingmar Bergman movies.) And he explains how and why TV stations, and then cable networks, mostly gave up the black-and-whites. It's worth reading.

Now, having said that it's worth reading, I feel a little uncomfortable with the implication that today's young people have unusually little knowledge of old movies. Probably the truth is the other way around: the '60s through the '80s were the exception. And even that era had huge gaps in its cultural knowledge. Silent movies didn't turn up on TV all that often, and as one of Mesce's commenters pointed out, today there's much more interest in Pre-Code movies than there was before. (The Pre-Codes inspired a huge amount of interest in part because a lot of them didn't play on TV very often.)

But anyway, movie studios have always known that young people -- and old people too -- would prefer something new. So have TV networks, publishing companies, popular song publishers. (When old stuff eclipses the popularity of the new stuff, that's a sign that the form is dying, like opera has been mostly dead for the last 50 years or more.) And there has always been an assumption that audiences won't get references to old stuff in the same form: one of the reasons Sunset Blvd. was such an unusual film at the time was that it was filled with references to the past of movies -- movies of less than 25 years ago! -- and the theme of the film is that the public and industry alike have forgotten all about people like Swanson, Stroheim and Keaton.

Television, art-house revivals (not to mention the arrival of old American movies in bunches overseas) and the early '70s nostalgia boom helped to change that, but it wasn't a normal state of affairs. Concentrating on new stuff, in a recognizably contemporary style, is the normal way. A contemporary style can be assimilated naturally. Experiencing older styles is like work. And that work is, in a way, harder for "entertainments" than for works that are supposed to be difficult. Last Year At Marienbad is recognizably an early '60s movie in style, and the modern viewer has to adjust to that, but it was always intended to be something the viewer had to work at. But a great American commercial film was supposed to be easily accessible, and as time goes by and styles change, it's no longer easily accessible. So the point of a great American commercial picture -- that it is both a simple entertainment and something with resonance beyond that -- is lost. For a lot of viewers it no longer works on the simple entertainment level, and until it works on that level, it won't yield deeper meanings either. A John Ford Western doesn't start to seem profound unless it first works as a conventional Western.

So I can't criticize people for not growing up as old movie buffs; I don't think that's normal. I think it helps to adjust accordingly, don't assume film students know who Humphrey Bogart is, explain who he is and why they should care, just as we would explain who any old dead guy was and why he was great. Explain the grammar of old movies and other things they may not expect. For example, and to go back to John Ford for a minute, his visual style makes more sense if it's explained the way he himself explained it to Steven Spielberg -- he was a painter who tried to set up shots with a painter's eye. People can learn about older ways of doing things, they just won't grow up being used to them, that's all. That was abnormal.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Looney Tunes Continue to Appear In Physical Media

TV Shows on DVD has the complete contents for the Looney Tunes Blu-Ray set.

It seems like an uneasy combination of a best-of set and a family-oriented nostalgia release: the first disc and the first part of the second disc are mostly made up of all-time favorites (covering most of the major characters and most of the major directors except Tashlin), while the rest of the second disc consists of the complete cartoons for a number of post-1948 characters: Marvin the Martian, Tasmanian Devil, Mark Anthony and Pussyfoot. This is where most of the new-to-DVD cartoons appear, since the bulk of Marvin and Taz's cartoons were held back from previous DVD releases, and "Feline Frame-Up" was never on DVD. (If "Cat Feud" counts as a Mark Anthony/Pussyfoot cartoon, then this disc doesn't have their complete adventures. But "Cat Feud" already appeared on one of the Golden Collection DVDs.) So it's mostly a high-def sampler of the DVD contents, but there are some cartoons and featurettes that suggest what we'd have gotten if the Golden Collections had continued. There's also one cartoon on disc one, "Lovelorn Leghorn," that wasn't on the other sets.

I'll buy the set. I think cartoons, properly presented, can really gain a lot from the high-def presentation. I worry that some of Warners' Blu-Rays have been inferior to the DVD versions, with too much tinkering and over-saturation apparently applied to increase the "wow" factor. (Artificially brightening All the President's Men, which is was never intended to look spectacular, probably creates the illusion that Blu-Ray is making it look different somehow.) Except for the ones that had DVNR, I was generally happy with the restorations of the Looney Tunes -- the colors weren't always the same as in the prints we're used to, but those prints don't always tell the story of how the films were supposed to look. But if the color saturation is increased for Blu-Ray, they'll look wrong.

It would be nice if for the Blu-Ray, WB could fix some of the things that were wrong with the earlier releases: "Rabbit of Seville" (along with a few other cartoons that aren't on this set) used a soundtrack that seemed to be pitched too low. And several other cartoons used the "Blue Ribbon" openings where original openings exist ("For Scentimental Reasons," "Scarlet Pumpernickel," "Fast and Furry-ous.") I don't hold out hope that these things will be repaired for high-def, but if they were, that would be an inducement to buy these cartoons again.

Whether there will be other sets beyond this one (and the Tom and Jerry set coming out before that), or whether this is just the last gasp for physical media, I don't know. Old films don't sell well on Blu-Ray. There was a time when the same could be said about DVD, but the difference there was that DVD eventually entered most homes, and fans of old movies started to buy them in that format. Blu-Ray is not as big an advance over DVD as DVD was over VHS. People who had movies on VHS would (and did) buy the DVD to get them in better quality copies and in the original widescreen format (though that doesn't apply to Looney Tunes; I certainly hope there won't be any cropped widescreen versions in this set). Those same people still have those DVDs, and they're not worn out yet, and the Blu-Ray versions are usually taken from the same prints that were used for the DVDs. I have to say that I see these collectors waiting for more non-physical options rather than Blu-Ray.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Grudge Match: Little Lotta vs. Herbie Popnecker

This one was suggested by Sean Gaffney, the ultimate face-off of comic books' two greatest advertisements for obesity. Who would win a slow slugfest between

Little Lotta (Harvey Comics), a girl whose obesity gives her superhuman strength,


Herbie Popnecker (Forbidden Worlds), an obese boy with superhuman strength and any other power the story requires.

The smart money has to be on Herbie, simply because he has more powers and, as you can see at the link, can do literally anything. However, there is a case for Lotta, and it goes like this. As demonstrated in her comics, Lotta can beat up anyone. There is not a single superhero who would stand a chance against her; the girl has defeated entire armies.

Now, on the other hand, we're not talking about her going up against any old superhero here. Lotta would easily beat Superman, but Herbie would too, after first scaring the crap out of Superman with his icy glare. Herbie is basically the comics predecessor to (or since he appeared after the short story was published, equivalent of) that kid in "It's a Good Life" from The Twilight Zone: he has absolute God-like power and all adults are terrified of him.

But the argument for Lotta is that Lotta is simply too stupid to be scared of anybody. She once defeated lions and the Ancient Roman army without ever realizing she was doing it, because she is such a moron that she didn't know it was impossible. Up against an opponent who is too stupid to scare, Herbie may find himself at a loss.

As I said, Herbie probably wins this, but there's a chance that Lotta simply grabs a bus and crushes him with it, before he realizes what's going on. An alternate scenario is that they team up to take over the world, but then we'd be looking at a future where every important government post on earth is held by one of Little Dot's uncles.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Two Bills

a comment on my last post on this blog (a long time ago):

Over a month without new postings? Are you even pretending to give a damn about this blog anymore?

Ouch. But fair. I haven't been able to think of much to post here, and I'll admit that's partly because of over-use of Social Media™. If I want to link to something I wind up doing it on the Twitter Box, and then I feel like I can't do it here, because I've done it there.

Also I thought the tone of this blog was becoming a bit predictable, or going over past territory: I would pick a subject and then pontificate. Talking at people is part of blogging, I guess, but I grew more fond of other ways of talking, and I didn't really know how to incorporate them here.

I considered (see below) re-posting old posts expanded and with repaired links. But I wrote up a couple of reworked posts and didn't feel they quite worked. Maybe I just got self-conscious.

Anyway, one thing I sometimes still talk about here that I don't talk about much elsewhere is the Show Tune. (I actually get more call to write about classical than show tunes.) So I'll briefly illustrate something I was talking about the other day in a verbal, and therefore ephemeral, conversation.


The song "Bill" from Show Boat is one of the most famous examples of a "trunk song": Jerome Kern had written it for a musical in 1918, it was cut from that show and one other, and Kern interpolated it into Show Boat in 1927. It works, in part, because in the second act of Show Boat most of the "show-within-a-show" numbers are real songs from the period, and the slightly old-fashioned sound of "Bill" (in a gentler style that Kern had abandoned for a richer sound) sounds about right as an example of something Julie might have been singing in her stage career.

To put the song into Show Boat, though, Kern rewrote the music a little bit, which required Oscar Hammerstein to add some new lyrics to P.G. Wodehouse's original. Here are the lyrics (unearthed by John McGlinn, though not included in his huge three-disc Show Boat recording; he did it on his "Broadway Showstoppers" disc instead) originally written by Wodehouse for Oh, Lady! Lady!

And here's the Show Boat version made famous by Helen Morgan:

As you can hear, most of the lyrics are Wodehouse's. There used to be some confusion about that, and both Wodehouse and Hammerstein had to correct people who said that Hammerstein rewrote the whole thing. The verses are all Wodehouse and the endings of both refrains are Wodehouse. But Kern rewrote the melody to give each "A" section a less clunky ending: instead of both "A" sections ending the same way (just with different modulations), Kern created a longer melodic line that flowed into the "B" section. Instead of a short melodic line ("of all the men...") the more mature Kern substituted a longer one ("You'd meet him on the street and never notice him"). Hammerstein wrote the new words to go with the new melody.

The other thing Hammerstein did was to make the lyrics a little more sentimental. "Bill" is famous as a torch song, but in neither version is it actually a torch song; it's a classic example of a number whose meaning comes from its context. But the original song, as Kern and Wodehouse wrote it, is a light comedy number with a tone familiar from almost any Wodehouse novel: a sensible, cute girl loves a young man of no particular accomplishments, someone whose very name ("Bill") suggests blandness. She loves him "because he's... I don't know," and Wodehouse first has her compare him unfavorably to classical heroes:

In grace and looks,
I know that Apollo
Would beat him all hollow

And in the second refrain, she criticizes his dancing skills, with a couplet that was one of Ira Gershwin's favorite Wodehouse lyrics:

Whenever he dances,
His partner takes chances.

The school-level classical references and the joke about a clumsy but lovable hero are very Wodehousian, of course, and they wouldn't have worked in the Show Boat version. The dancing couplet, in particular, wouldn't work because it would get a laugh, and laughs are not what you want when Julie sings it in Show Boat. So Hammerstein changed them to lines that are less comical in tone:

And yet to be
Upon his knee
So comfy and roomy
Feels natural to me.

(I once heard someone criticize Wodehouse as a lyricist for the line "Are not the kind that you/Would find in a statue," because of the mis-accenting of "that." Not realizing that that was a Hammerstein contribution. But the Wodehouse original has the mis-accented "opposite." No lyricist is immune to mis-accenting, I guess.)

There has not been a lot of work, particularly since McGlinn died, on rediscovering Wodehouse's work for the theatre; the Wodehouse cult that's grown up around his books hasn't really spread to his musicals, even though he and Guy Bolton stuffed them full of the same jokes and themes he used in the novels. (He actually turned Oh, Lady! Lady! into a rather good novel, "The Small Bachelor.") I wouldn't say they're up to the standard of his best novels, since he was a more skilful prose stylist than playwright or lyricist -- and arguably his strongest work as a lyricist, for the musical "Sitting Pretty" (which McGlinn recorded) is married to a duller-than-usual Kern score (suffering, I think, from being right in between Kern's early period and the heavier Show Boat sound he was transitioning into; it doesn't have the light charm of his early work, but it doesn't have the melodic forcefulness we're used to from Kern, either). Still, Wodehouse and Kern and Bolton were a wonderful team, and it's good that "Bill" at least has managed to preserve one partial example of the Kern-Wodehouse collaboration for all time.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Charles Gerhardt Returns

I finally got around to listening to one of the remastered/reissued titles in Sony/BMG's reissues of Charles Gerhardt's Classic Film Score series. The decision to re-release these recordings was long overdue, but the reissues didn't do them the kind of justice I was hoping for. When most of them were prepared for CD release, they were remastered in fake Dolby Surround, which didn't always do justice to the orignal sound. According to this review, the new remasterings have kept the Dolby Surround encoding.

Before Gerhardt died he was working on a set of CD reissues which would have expanded the original albums. RCA released an expanded Franz Waxman CD and a Korngold CD where the suites from The Sea Hawk and Of Human Bondage were fleshed out with excerpts used on other Gerhardt albums. But after that, RCA reverted to the original LP contents, remastered in Dolby. The new reissues also use the original LP contents, so you have to buy two albums to get all the Sea Hawk music Gerhardt recorded. The expanded Korngold and Waxman CDs are out of print (I have the Korngold) but if you happen upon used copies, get them. To my ears they preserve more of the original sound than the Dolby versions, listenable though those are. (The engineer for these recordings was Kenneth Wilkinson, the top engineer for the Decca Record company, and they recorded them in Kingsway Hall, England's best location for classical recording -- the place whose acoustics were so good that EMI engineers preferred to record there than in their own Abbey Road studios.)

The Classic Film Scores series was one of the many projects that fueled the movie nostalgia boom of the early '70s. Some of the composers whose music Gerhardt recorded, like Korngold, were dead. (The project started with Korngold, whose music was starting to be rediscovered: Gerhardt, an RCA producer, teamed up with Korngold's record-producer son George, who produced most of the series.) In fact, many of the most prolific older composers died around the same time: Franz Waxman in 1967, Alfred Newman in 1970, Max Steiner in 1971. But others were alive and were having trouble getting work, like Miklós Rózsa and Bernard Herrmann. Somewhat like today, a preference for less bombastic music on the soundtrack and the newfound popularity of pop music in movies (using actual pop recordings was almost unheard-of until Blackboard Jungle, and wasn't common for a decade after) had pushed that kind of symphonic, operatic movie score to the side.

This backlash was understandable -- I guess backlashes often are. Hollywood music in the '30s through the '50s was famous for having too much of a homogenous style -- the basic string-heavy, loud, Wagner/Strauss late-romantic style was all over the place, whether from composers who were great practicioners of that style (like Korngold) or solid musicians who could write a good tune (like Max Steiner). There were other composers with a less Germanic style: Rózsa's style has obvious Hungarian elements while Herrmann and Raksin wrote in what was considered the mainstream American symphonic style of the time - a little edgier and less Romantic than the Korngold style. But even if the styles differed, they were writing on similar principles: a big, loud theme for the opening titles, lots of music throughout the film (except comedies). Even Herrmann, one of the most "modern"-sounding of these composers and the least reliant on big tunes, turned out a score for Vertigo that is openly indebted to Wagner's Tristan; there was a sense that Hollywood music was stuck in the late 19th/early 20th century, and it was inevitable that younger directors and producers would demand a different kind of music (or no music at all).

The success of Gerhardt's Korngold album, and subsequent releases in the series, fit in with an ongoing rediscovery of and nostalgia for the old type of Hollywood music. It was around this time that Herrmann started getting work in Hollywood again, from younger filmmakers who admired his work with Hitchcock (by the time Gerhardt did his Herrmann album, Herrmann had already made his big 1973 comeback working for Brian DePalma), and in the late '70s, Rózsa became in-demand again for filmmakers wanting an Old Hollywood sound. Even before Star Wars revived the Korngold style, there was a new awareness of and interest in the musical value of old film scores, and Gerhardt's series contributed to that.

Part of the idea behind some of these recordings was an idea that has been kicked around for a long time: that movie scores are worth performing as stand-alone concert pieces, and more philosophically, that the great concert music was being written not for concerts but for films. This hasn't really caught on all that much, even now: though there are still attempts to perform Waxman or Korngold or Rota's film music separately, these composers still get more performances for actual concert pieces that they created for that purpose. (Korngold is an obvious example: his Violin concerto, completely created from themes he wrote for Warner Brothers movies, is extremely popular, and it's more common to hear that on a program than a suite from his films.) Prokofiev is one of the few film composers whose work really makes a lot of formal sense divorced from the images - and even Prokofiev rearranged his scores into suites so they could be done in concert. When you take Korngold's Of Human Bondage, one of his best scores for a not-so-good movie, and listen to it as stand-alone music, you're aware of the beauty of the themes, but also that it can sound a bit repetitious -- something that isn't a problem when it's combined with images and words.

As part of the attempt to place these scores in the American musical canon, Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic (a nonexistent orchestra, which he helped create for recording purposes and which played on many classical and film recordings of the '70s) made them sound bigger and lusher than they ever did on the soundtracks -- not just because he was working with big broad stereo sound instead of scratchy mono, but because he deliberately gave them more expansive readings. The original recordings had to be fairly lean in texture, so they could be combined with dialogue and sound effects, and the tempos were often very fast, to fit the pace of the movie. Here's Herrmann's own recording of the theme for White Witch Doctor, another not-great movie with a great score. It's incredibly, almost incoherently fast, but he had to play it that way to fit the credits.

On Gerhardt's recording, the tempo is slower and the prelude sounds more like, well, music. He felt no need to do the music exactly as it had been done in the films; the point was to make the best possible case for them as "pure" music.

I don't know if you have favourite entries in the Gerhardt series. My own favourite, the one I bought (in CD form, mostly because I like the liner notes) is the Herrmann disc. By the time it was recorded, Herrmann had been rediscovered by Hollywood, so there was not as much need to make the case for him as a composer. But Hollywood mostly knew him from his work with Hitchcock, and it was as a suspense composer that he was mostly hired after he split with Hitchcock. After Hitchcock, Herrmann was probably best known for his fantasy scores for Harryhausen pictures, because Herrmann himself had done some recordings of that music. So Gerhardt and George Korngold devoted a whole disc to Herrmann's earlier music, from the '40s and '50s, when he was freelancing for RKO and Fox -- Citizen Kane, of course, but also White Witch Doctor, Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef and On Dangerous Ground.

The disc not only showed off Herrmann's range but his ability to do work in classic forms: the theme-and-variations at the breakfast table in Citizen Kane, the aria Susan Alexander sings (here given a performance by a young Kiri Te Kanawa) and the piano concerto in Hangover Square, which is the climax of the whole work. (Stephen Sondheim has cited Hangover Square and Herrmann's score as a big inspiration for Sweeney Todd.) A very well-chosen program that helped to show off a side of Herrmann that everyone, including him, had kind of forgotten about.

On the flip side, I always thought the inflated, symphonic style of these recordings didn't do great favors to composers like Max Steiner and Alfred Newman -- the ones who were first-rate musicians but not necessarily first-rate composers. Steiner at least has one thing that carries him through every single recording of his work: he was a very talented melodist, and the Now, Voyager, Big Sleep and Gone With the Wind tunes sound great in stereo. But I remember the Newman album being a bit of a chore to get through, because he always knew the right musical gesture to make for a particular moment (big wordless choruses for religious stories; bustling music for a bustling airport) but seemed to be working in terms of gestures rather than having any style of his own -- particularly compared to Herrmann and Raksin, two composers who often worked for him at Fox. (To be fair, though, Herrmann and Newman worked together on the score for The Egyptian and I can't remember offhand who did what; and there are some Herrmann scores at Fox that I might mistake for Newman scores.)

The question of style and personality seems to be the biggest one when it comes to whether a film composer's music "holds up" outside of the movie. Just as a writer doesn't (and often shouldn't) get to show much individual personality in writing a film, a composer's personality often has to be subordinate to the needs of the director. Having too strong an individual personality can make a composer hard to pair with a strong director. Korngold, who certainly had a style all his own, never found one of those great composer/director partnerships like Prokofiev/Eistenstein, Morricone/Leone, Rota/Fellini or Herrmann/Hitchcock. At Warners he mostly didn't work with strong directors, and after 1943 he didn't work on many strong films, either. Other composers with less personality could adapt more easily to different approaches. One of the things that makes Herrmann so exceptional is that he had his own unmistakable style, but one that was adaptable enough to fit the demands of directors as powerful as Welles and Hitchcock and Scorsese.