Tuesday, August 31, 2004

McKimson Addendum

A couple of things I left out of my long post about Looney Tunes director Bob McKimson:

- After 1955, in addition to using animators who were "castoffs" from other units, McKimson also had the problem of other units taking his animators. Tom Ray, a talented young animator who started with McKimson in the late '50s (and ended his career doing timing sheets for "Tiny Toons" and "Animaniacs"), moved to the Chuck Jones unit after a couple of years; Art Leonardi moved to Freleng about the same time. Going from McKimson to Freleng, Leonardi recalled, was considered a promotion: McKimson's unit was clearly considered the runt of the litter and he didn't have the power at the studio that Jones or Freleng did.

- Another couple of good McKimson cartoons I forgot to mention are "Kiddin' the Kitten" and "Easy Peckin's," both from the early '50s and both starring a big lazy cat named Dodsworth. Dodsworth was voiced by the comedian Sheldon Leonard, who went on to a highly successful behind-the-camera career as executive producer of The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Dodsworth's sheer sloth makes him an unusual cartoon protagonist, and Leonard's voice was perfect for the character -- but such a lazy and basically unsympathetic character (in "Kiddin' the Kitten" he tries to con a kitten into catching mice for him because he's too lazy to do it himself) unsurprisingly didn't catch on enough to lead to a series.

Geek Break

I was never really very deeply into "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fandom, mostly because of the romance stuff. Namely, my dislike of the romance stuff. Except for the "evil boyfriend" plot in season 2, which was funny/scary like the show was supposed to be, and the Xander/Cordelia hijinks in the aforementioned season, which was just plain funny, I thought most of the romances were a distraction from what should have been the main focus of the show (Buffy, her friends, and monsters as scary/funny metaphors for teen problems). When I realized that a great deal of talk about the show focused on who was "getting together" with who, and that the producers were starting to devote inordinate amounts of story time to non-funny, non-scary soap opera relationships, I knew that all I could do was sit and wait for the occasional romance-free episode.

Anyway, as an expression of my dislike for all things 'shippy ("'shipper," meaning someone who roots for particular characters to be together romantically, is not one of my favorite internet terms), I wrote a song during the show's final season to the tune of "Why Can't the English" from My Fair Lady. As a shameless attempt to cover for not having anything new to write today, I'm posting it here, with a few tweaks but with various geeky references intact (yes, I have the DVDs). Meanwhile, for some Buffy fandom that's more to my taste, I direct you again to "Boils and Blinding Torment," which includes this hilarious recap of one of that show's worst episodes.

Look at her! No wonder I'm complaining!
You've not been conscientious in your training!
Her Slayer training clearly must have flagged,
Or she'd know that a monster should be killed, not shagged.
This is how a show that showed invention
Sinks to platitudinous pretention.

GILES: Oh, come sir, you exaggerate the problem.

Vampires dressed in basic black
Always get her in the sack;
It's become a stunning running joke.
Sir, do you think that's a waste?

No; I'm a critic -- I've no taste.

Let's pretend this fellow never spoke.
In the episode called "Wrecked"
She necrophiliacally necked
Till the viewers felt a bit unwell.
If they're dead, girls love them so.
Wait, was Riley dead?


Oh, sorry; it was sometimes hard to tell.
A slayer should not count among her goals
Vamping broody murderers with souls.

Why can't a watcher teach a slayer how to fight,
And not become romantic with creatures of the night?
If you slept, as she does, sir, with creatures who cause you pain,
Why, you might be shagging Ethan Rayne.

GILES: I beg your pardon, sir!

A slayer should be more focused, not a self-absorbed escapist.
A slayer should not be pining for her blond attempted rapist.
She once was amusing; now she only can moan and preach --
Oh, why can't a watcher learn to teach her that a slayer is one of a long line of lifelong vampophobes?
Poor Kendra would never nibble Angel's lobes.
Yet Buffy's all over a vampire who constantly disrobes.
She must have misread your Time-Life book on anal probes.
Why can't a watcher teach a slayer how to fight,
And not to give a damn if a vampire's pants are tight?
To vomit, like me, when Spike has nary a shirt in sight --
The network doesn't care what Spike does, actually, as long as his shirt is off.
The scripts are a little silly, and the camerawork is weakish,
But what can a show expect when it becomes so Dawson's Creek-ish?
So keep her away from any murderous beast with pecs,
Oh, why can't a watcher,
Why can't a watcher

Monday, August 30, 2004

Bob McKimson

Of the directors of Warner Brothers cartoons, Robert McKimson is the forgotten man. Five of WB's directors are rated highly by most cartoon buffs: Tex Avery (though buffs agree that his best work was done after he moved from WB to MGM), Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones. Bob McKimson, who started directing in 1945 after Tashlin left and continued directing WB cartoons until the studio shut down, probably directed more WB cartoons than anyone except Freleng and Jones, but he's often forgotten in discussions of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Leonard Maltin's Of Mice and Magic, the first comprehensive history of Hollywood cartoons, calls McKimson an "uninspired director." It's certainly true that he made quite a few mediocre cartoons, and that his overall batting average is low compared to the above-mentioned directors. But I think it's also fair to say that the best of his cartoons could be as good as anybody's.

Before he was promoted to director, McKimson was an animator for WB, one of the best and most influential at the studio. He worked mostly for Bob Clampett, and he and Rod Scribner represented sort of the yin and yang of the Clampett unit and of WB animation in general: Scribner was unprecedentedly wild and crazy, distorting characters' bodies in ways never-before-contemplated in animation, both for comedy and characterization. McKimson's animation was graceful, fluid, and -- compared to Scribner, anyway -- subtle; he put so much detail into characters' movements that they almost seemed like real, breathing people. Examples of McKimson's animation in Clampett cartoons: the beginning of Daffy Duck's Danny Kaye routine in "Book Revue," all the new animation in the "clip show" cartoon "What's Cookin' Doc," and most of Bugs' masquerade as an "old-timer" in "Tortoise Wins by a Hare." (The Scribner style can be seen in "Tortoise Wins By a Hare" in Bugs' first scene: lots of flailing arms, broad poses, and daring distortion of his face and body.) McKimson was a big influence on other top WB animators, notably Chuck Jones' head animator, Ken Harris.

When Tashlin left, McKimson stopped animating for Clampett and took over Tashlin's unit; Clampett left the studio soon after, and his unit was taken over by a former Tashlin animator, Art Davis. With Tashlin and Clampett gone, story man Warren Foster, who had been splitting his time between those two directors, became McKimson's full-time writer; this was a big break for McKimson, as Foster was one of the best gag men in the business. But McKimson clearly made a contribution, at least in this way: he displayed a willingness to do offbeat stories and settings, perhaps more than any other director with the possible exception of Jones. Clampett's cartoons were completely insane in their execution, but the stories were often quite run-of-the-mill; when it came to Bugs Bunny, Clampett usually stuck with the formula of having Bugs outwit a hunter in a woodland setting. Freleng was more willing to contemplate putting his characters in unusual settings, but he was very timid about departing from formula in terms of the structure or style of cartoons; as Mike Maltese recalled in explaining why he stopped writing for Freleng and worked for Jones instead, "Freleng would kind of back off when you suggested something new to him." The Bugs Bunny cartoons McKimson did with Foster in the late '40s are very unusual in terms of setting and approach. One cartoon, "The Windblown Hare," is a truly cracked takeoff on fairy tales, where the Three Little Pigs, knowing in advance that the Wolf will blow their houses down (they have the book of fairy tales), try to con Bugs into buying their blow-downable houses, while the Wolf himself goes around reading the book of fairy tales and slavishly following it; "I gotta do like the book says." Finally Bugs blows up the Three Little Pigs' house with dynamite, and lets the wolf think he blew it down. (Many years later, Foster rewrote this as a "Yogi Bear" episode, but without the violence or cynicism.) Another cartoon, "Rebel Rabbit," is probably the weirdest Bugs Bunny cartoon ever: furious that the bounty for rabbits is very small -- rabbits are stereotyped as harmless woodland creatures -- Bugs goes on what I suppose we'd have to describe as a terrorist rampage: he swipes the locks of the Panama Canal, ties railroad tracks in knots, gives Manhattan back to the Indians ("They wouldn't take it unless I threw in a set of dishes"), and generally proves that a rabbit can be "more obnoxious than anybody." He's overjoyed when the bounty on his head is raised to one million dollars, but realizes he's gone too far when the army comes after him -- in live-action stock footage -- and he winds up in prison. The end.

McKimson and Foster also came up with some great Daffy Duck cartoons -- one of their best, "Boobs in the Woods," is on the first Looney Tunes Golden Collection -- and some new series: "Walky Talky Hawky," an Oscar nominee, introduced Foghorn Leghorn, and "Hop, Look and Listen" introduced Hippety Hopper, the baby kangaroo who is perpetually mistaken for a giant mouse. (A couple of years later, the Hippety Hopper series introduced another new character, Sylvester Junior, one of the few successful attempts at creating a pint-sized version of an older cartoon character.) McKimson also liked to do somewhat unusual one-shot and miscellaneous cartoons; he and Foster did two strange cartoons about a dog who punishes a cat with all kinds of sadistic and bizarre "penalties." The second one, "Early To Bet," is on DVD, but I prefer the first, "It's Hummer Time," which has more elaborate and funnier penalties. (Oh, no! Not The Thinker! Not that! NOT THE THINKER!!!") All in all, McKimson's cartoons from 1946 to about 1950 compare favorably with other directors' work. It's not quite on the level of the great WB guys; the one thing lacking in McKimson's cartoons was a distinctive style, something that was uniquely his the way that certain gags and approaches were uniquely Clampett's or Freleng's or Jones's. You often get the impression that McKimson was just content to stage the gags Foster came up with, rather than enhancing them with his own ideas. But he staged the gags well; a good McKimson cartoon gets just as many laughs in front of an audience as a good cartoon by any of the other WB directors.

At this point, in the late '40s, the WB cartoon studio was no longer the freewheeling, ramshackle "Termite Terrace"; producer Leon Schlesinger, who had basically run the studio independently and distributed the cartoons through WB, sold the operation to WB, which installed Edward Selzer, a company man, as producer. Selzer was not the monster that Chuck Jones and others sometimes made him out to be; he was a small, basically humorless guy, mostly focused on keeping the budget down and keeping the theatrical distributors happy, but other stuff I've read about him indicates that he wasn't a bad guy personally, just a company man through and through, sort of a Mel Cooley of the cartoon business. In any case, the cartoon operation went on more or less as before, but there was somewhat reduced demand for cartoons -- and after the Supreme Court ordered the studios to divest themselves of the movie-theatre chains they owned, studios could no longer just tell theatres to take a cartoon -- and it became apparent by the late '40s that WB no longer needed four units. Jones and Freleng were the senior guys, so it came down to McKimson vs. Davis, and Davis got the boot; he wound up becoming an animator for Freleng. Some cartoon buffs, who prize Davis's cartoons for their attempts to retain the wild, broad animation style of Clampett cartoons, consider that the wrong man got demoted; I don't. Davis had been unable to come up with a successful new series character, and as his story man Lloyd Turner recalled in an interview (posted at Mike Barrier's site), Davis didn't have much confidence in his ability to judge what was funny. McKimson may not have had a strong style, but the work he'd done in that period places him (in my opinion) far ahead of Davis in terms of variety and in terms of laughs.

But just as his job became more secure, things started to go wrong for McKimson. Friz Freleng had been using Tedd Pierce as his writer, but Pierce was a difficult guy to work with: he was an alcoholic, kind of pretentious, and better at elaborate parody stories (like "The Dover Boys," which he had written for Chuck Jones) than the kind of violent chase cartoons that were becoming the in thing in the wake of Tom and Jerry. Freleng dropped Pierce and, after briefly trying out Bill Scott (who had formerly written for Davis and would go on to write and voice Bullwinkle the Moose), he got Foster to leave McKimson's unit and join his unit. Pierce went to McKimson, and since McKimson was the junior director, it seemed very much like a demotion. Basically, it was a demotion. Although Turner described him as "the least creative" of the writers, Pierce could do excellent work under the right circumstances. Before joining McKimson full-time, he'd already written a truly great McKimson cartoon, "Hillbilly Hare," with the famous square-dance finale. But McKimson clearly didn't have the strength of creative personality to get Pierce to do what he wanted; what he needed was somebody like Foster who could pitch unusual ideas that McKimson could then use. (Freleng, on the other hand, knew what he wanted and could get a writer to do it; Foster's work for Freleng is funny but very conventional, nowhere near as offbeat as the stories and dialogue he'd done for Clampett, Tashlin and McKimson.) The cartoons McKimson did with Pierce in this era -- 1951 to 1953 or so -- are mostly kind of forgettable, with characters and gags often copied from other directors' cartoons, as though Pierce would scour other guys' storyboards for ideas and then work them into his own. However, McKimson's work took another upturn in the cartoons released in 1954; he started working more with other writers, especially Sid Marcus, a veteran writer who had worked for the Lantz studio and for Art Davis at WB. McKimson and Marcus came up with several offbeat cartoons including "Devil May Hare," which introduced the Tasmanian Devil.

This upswing in McKimson's career was interrupted, however, when the cartoon studio shut down for several months; convinced that 3-D was the wave of the future, and unimpressed by the one 3-D cartoon the studio had made, Jack Warner decided to suspend the studio's cartoon-making activities and laid everyone off. During the layoff, with no animators, McKimson took a story by Marcus -- "The Hole Idea," about a scientist who invents the Portable Hole -- and animated the whole thing himself. The result is a funny cartoon that was reportedly McKimson's own favorite, but the animation is actually, and surprisingly, the weak link in the picture -- kind of stiff and without the sense of character that informed McKimson's best work. (He did, however, do some excellent animation in a Hippety Hopper cartoon released the next year, "Too Hop to Handle.") The studio re-opened, but while most of the WB animators came back, not a single one of McKimson's animators came back, not even his own brother, Charles McKimson. (The McKimson brothers were a hugely talented family; Tom McKimson was a layout man for Bob Clampett and later drew some of the Looney Tunes comics.) Why he couldn't get his animators back, I'm not sure; the most likely explanation is that Jones and Freleng might have been able to offer their animators raises to come back to the studio, and McKimson might not have been allowed to. Also, working for McKimson wasn't always the most fulfilling thing for an animator; unlike Clampett, who allowed a lot of variety in terms of the kind of animation that appeared in his cartoons, McKimson had rather strong and somewhat unyielding ideas about what a scene should look like. Rod Scribner animated for McKimson from 1949 until the studio shut down, but McKimson usually made him tone down his wild, body-contorting style. McKimson never did seem to like animation that was too extreme or "wacky." In the only interview he gave before his death in 1977 -- not that he didn't give interviews; it's just that no one asked for them -- he commented "we tried to learn from Disney... but we would never look up to anything like Terrytoons or what Fleischer was doing. Popeye cartoons are terrible. They look like a child drew them."

Anyway, McKimson re-staffed his unit, in large part, with castoffs from other units; his top animator from 1956 to the early '60s was Ted Bonnicksen, who had started in Freleng's unit. Bonnicksen wasn't a bad animator, but he had been transferred to McKimson's unit because Freleng had three animators who were better; none of McKimson's new animators were first-raters in the way that Scribner or Manny Gould (who animated the arms-flailing opening scene in McKimson's "The Foghorn Leghorn") had been, and they often just followed McKimson's layout drawings without adding much in the way of new ideas. One castoff did work to McKimson's advantage, though: Chuck Jones was using Maurice Noble exclusively as his designer, so Robert Gribbroek, who had been the layout designer for Jones from 1945 to 1952, went to work for McKimson. Gribbroek was a talented designer and painter, and he made the backgrounds of McKimson's cartoons look attractive at a time when most other cartoon directors were struggling with then-fashionable but basically ugly stylized designs.

McKimson continued to work with Tedd Pierce, who started to specialize in TV takeoffs; they did two cartoons based on "The Honeymooners" (this was before "The Flintstones") and a whole cartoon with the cast of the Jack Benny show voicing themselves as mice ("The Mouse that Jack Built"). There were some other good McKimson cartoons in this period, but basically this is the period that's given McKimson his low reputation; it's not just that the cartoons are often a little stiff, but because of the problems with the animation -- not to mention the declining budgets at WB -- they look like less than first-rate examples of the craft. But on the other hand, nobody was doing his very best work at WB in the late '50s; Jones' cartoons became slow and cutesy, and Freleng mostly settled further into formula gag cartoons. There were some great cartoons made in this period, but the best of WB came before that mid-'50s shutdown.

An interesting point about McKimson is that he never seemed fully comfortable with the new '50s approaches to popular series characters. Daffy in particular. After Jones and Freleng re-launched Daffy as a fall guy, McKimson kept on casting Daffy as an obnoxiously crazy or devious little black duck, the way he had done in the '40s; Daffy was doing his hoo-hoo routine in a McKimson cartoon as late as 1958, and in 1957's "Ducking the Devil," while admitting that he's a "greedy little coward," Daffy actually wins against the Tasmanian Devil and gets the money he's after, something Jones would never have allowed. McKimson eventually made evil-Daffy cartoons, but they weren't very good, as if his heart wasn't in the new characterization. Another thing about McKimson is that showed a lot of variety in the choices of stories and antagonists at a time when the other directors were tending more and more toward formulaic stories. The Foghorn Leghorn series was probably the least formulaic of the cartoon series that were exclusive to a particular director; Foghorn rarely had a set kind of story he had to do every time, the way Pepe Le Pew or Tweety did. McKimson made one pure "formula" cartoon a year -- the Hippety Hoppers -- while Jones made at least three, what with the Road Runners, Pepes and Wolf/Sheepdog cartoons.

I don't have a big conclusion for this; McKimson wasn't a great director, but he was a good one, and he made a lot of very fine cartoons. He doesn't deserve to be lumped in with the hacks of other studios -- like Walter Lantz's basically incompetent Paul J. Smith -- but rather to be discussed as the animation equivalent of a "minor master."

Here are a few really terrific McKimson cartoons, in addition to the ones mentioned above; none of these are on the first or second Looney Tunes DVD sets, but I hope some of them will show up on DVD eventually:

- "Daffy Doodles": The first short McKimson directed, with Daffy painting mustaches on everyone and everything in town; a cartoon so crazy that it makes even Tashlin and Clampett's Daffy cartoons look a little subdued. A big favorite with kids, who love the mustache-painting and the punchline ("I'm doin' beards now! Woo-hoo!").

- "Hare We Go": McKimson's last Bugs Bunny cartoon with Foster, where Christopher Columbus gets his financing from Queen Isabella (who looks and sounds like Mae West) and takes Bugs Bunny along as his mascot on the voyage. "Captain's log. Mascot now cook. May have to cook mascot."

- "Of Rice and Hen": One of McKimson's best mid-'50s Foghorn Leghorns (probably because Warren Foster came back to write this one), it's best known for Foghorn's big calypso number: "Now that old hound dog is an awful pest/He barks so much I get no rest/Homely as an old mud fence/That old hound dog just got no sense."

- "Tabasco Road": McKimson came up with Speedy Gonzales in a 1953 cartoon, "Cat-Tails For Two," but it was Freleng who re-designed him and turned him into a popular (and merchandisable) series character. But McKimson made arguably the best Speedy Gonzales short; "Tabasco Road," a 1957 Oscar nominee written by Tedd Pierce, features a better plot than any other Speedy short -- Speedy trying to protect two drunken, belligerent friends who keep challenging cats to "combato" -- and has some great fractured Spanish dialogue as well as the first slow-motion replay in the history of animation.

Sing, Sing-a-ling-a

I picked up an excellent two-CD collection, The Essential Borodin, that collects fine performances of most of the major pieces of composer/chemist/procrastinator Alexander Borodin. Part of the fun of listening to Borodin, if you're a fan of the musical Kismet, is to identify the sources of the songs in that show; composer-lyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest took melodic ideas from Borodin, from pieces both famous and obscure, and re-shaped them into Broadway songs with an A-A-B-A structure. (The way most of the Kismet songs work is that the melody of the "A" section is Borodin, while the "B" section is newly-composed by Wright and Forrest to fit in with the style of the main melody.) Here's how the list of songs and sources breaks down:

- "Sands of Time": Borodin's "In the Steppes of Central Asia," basically unchanged, and with lyrics fitted to the second of the two main melodies of that piece.
- "Rhymes Have I": Wright and Forrest claimed that this was their own original music (though the liner note to the original cast album says it has some connection to a melody "Prince Igor").
- "Fate": The main theme of the first movement of Borodin's second symphony.
- "Bazaar of the Caravans": the finale of the second symphony.
- "Not Since Nineveh": the opening and closing musical phrases of the refrain are taken from the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor.
- "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads": the scherzo of Borodin's second string quartet.
- "Stranger in Paradise": another tune from the Polovtsian Dances.
- "He's in Love!": still another tune from the Polovtsian Dances.
- "Gesticulate": the long section at the beginning of the number ("Dear hand, deft hand") fits new words to the virtually-unchanged music of Konchak's aria from Prince Igor. The refrain ("When you tell a story") is taken from the finale of Borodin's first symphony.
- "Night of My Nights": this is a setting of a piano piece by Borodin, but I can't remember the name of it (it's not in the collection).
- "Was I Wazir?": I have no idea about this one; the cast album liner note says it comes from the second string quartet, but I can't hear anything in that piece that could have become that song. I think it's basically an original composition by Wright and Forrest.
- "Rahadlakum": another original, non-Borodin melody by Wright and Forrest.
- "And This is My Beloved": the slow movement of the second string quartet ("Nocturne").
- "The Olive Tree": a duet from Prince Igor (also quoted in the overture).
- "Zubbediya": Galitsky's aria from Prince Igor.

Wright and Forrest had already had a hit adapting the melodies of Grieg in Song of Norway, and a few years after Kismet they would have a mega-flop with their Rachmaninov-based score for Anya (a musical version of Anastasia).

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Obscure Musicals: 70, GIRLS, 70

I've been listening recently to the cast album of 70, Girls, 70, a 1971 musical with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb (the Cabaret and Chicago) guys. The book was outlined by Joe Masteroff, the writer of Cabaret, and written by Ebb and Norman Martin. It had a number of problems before opening; two directors pulled out, and David Burns, cast in a key role, died during the tryouts. The show opened around the same time as Follies, and included all the veteran performers that Follies didn't sign up; between these two new shows and the revival of No, No, Nanette, 1971 was the year for old troupers coming back to Broadway. 70, Girls, 70 used older performers than those other shows -- as the title implies, it was mostly for performers over 70, like Mildred Natwick, Lillian Roth, and Hans Conried (whose voice you might remember from the "Aesop and Son" segments on Rocky and Bullwinkle). The basic story is that a bunch of senior citizens, bored, neglected by their children, and needing money, turn to robbery, stealing fur coats from Bloomingdale's and other establishments.

This is a fine idea for a show, taking in all sorts of things that can work in musical-comedy terms: a caper plot, a romantic subplot (for an elderly couple that gets married during the course of the show), farce and pathos. But, apparently influenced by their own biggest hit, Cabaret, Kander and Ebb decided not to tell the story directly, but to tell it as part of a show-within-a-show concept. The story is acted out by elderly actors who haven't been on Broadway in some years -- in other words, by the actors themselves -- and they frequently break character to comment on issues related to age, death, and other stuff (one song and dance number is called "Go Visit Your Grandmother"). When it comes time for Mildred Natwick's character to die, she turns to the audience and says: "Well, I die. The script says I'm captured and I die." Each number is started with a vamp at the piano from "Lorraine," the rehearsal pianist who sits onstage (Dorothea Freitag, who also arranged the dance music for the show), and the small orchestra joins in only gradually; the orchestrations were by the dean of Broadway orchestrators, Don Walker, who created a charmingly tinny, small-band sound similar to the sound that Ralph Burns would later create for Kander and Ebb's Chicago. This whole "concept" allowed for some commentative numbers, Kander and Ebb's specialty. But from the version I read, which seems to be the original version -- I say "seems" because the show has been revised several times, never very successfully -- the conceptual, show-within-a-show staging comes off as an unnecessary distraction from what is really a pretty solid story. It doesn't come off as adding anything, the way the "concept" of Cabaret did; instead, it seems like a way of making the show seem hip, as if Kander and Ebb and Martin didn't want to be caught writing a conventional musical comedy; by 1971, a musical comedy had to have some some kind of framework to show that it wasn't just a musical, but a commentary on musicals. It's as if the people who wrote musicals no longer really believed in the form -- which, indeed, may have been the case, and certainly is the case today, with all the spoof-musicals and anti-musicals and musicals where they feel a need to explain why the characters are breaking into song.

70, Girls, 70 includes some of the best songs in Kander and Ebb's uneven career; after two efficient but kind of drab scores for rather drab shows -- The Happy Time and Zorba -- they returned to their forte, musical comedy with a cynical edge and lots of insistent vamps (the last number, "Yes," has the most repetitive vamp this side of Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York"). There are some dud numbers: "The Caper," where Conreid tries to explain his plan, is sort of a parody of expository numbers, but just comes off as a boring expository number; another song consists almost entirely of the phrase "Boom Ditty Boom" repeated over and over again, another attempted parody gone wrong (they're apparently trying to spoof repetitive Broadway production numbers, but all they do is drive us nuts with a repetitive number). Another song, "You and I, Love," is an uncomfortable combination of sentimentality and ageism -- it's about old people who, deprived of television, spend their time imagining their favorite daytime TV shows -- and it was understandably cut during the run.

But the best of the score is very fine. There's "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," a rousing number about the decline of civility and the fact that "everything is 'hurry up.'" An elderly couple gets a song where they tease us, the audience, with the question we're all asking; the song should definitely be interpolated if they ever make a musical version of The Golden Girls:

Do we? Do we?
That's what you want to know, isn't it?
Do we? Do we?
That's what disturbs you so, isn't it?...
You sit there wondering
If we really ring that bell.
Do we?
Eat your heart out, kids, 'cause
We'll never tell.

My favorite song in the show, and indeed my favorite Kander and Ebb song, period, is the last song in Act 1, "See the Light." This is the last in a long line of Broadway gospel numbers, of the sing-you-sinners, "Get Happy," "Blow, Gabriel Blow" type. (Interesting subject for a thesis: why were the predominantly Jewish songwriters of Broadway so fascinated with the music of Evangelical Protestantism?) On the cast album, it's one of those songs that's so much fun that I can't hear it without skipping back to the beginning to hear it all over again:

I used to know a lady known as Emma Finch,
Emma Finch, Emma Finch,
She had a kleptomania that made her pinch
Any article she saw.
She liked to spend the afternoon at Bloomingdale's,
Bloomingdale's, Bloomingdale's,
But Emma's way of going to the bargain sales
Was a bit beyond the law.
Emma took along a shopping bag,
Emma took along a shopping list,
Emma thought whatever Bloomie's lost
Bloomie's never missed.
She couldn't see the light,
She wouldn't see the light,
Emma never knew wrong from right,
Which left her in the dark, unable to see the light.

But even this number, which sounds like a showstopper on the cast recording -- sung by Lillian Roth backed up by four guys singing "abba dabba dabba," and building to a climax where Emma realizes that she's been "an awful sinner" -- apparently didn't go over big in performance. At least that's what I've been told by someone who saw a production of the show, and I could guess why. Roth's character sings the song to distract the Bloomingdale's security guards while, in the background, her friends rob the store. So the number is integrated into the action and the staging; it's not just a showstopping number for its own sake, like a musical comedy might have had even ten years earlier. But the problem is that the background stuff distracts attention from what ought to be the focal point in any musical comedy: the musical number. You can't lose yourself in a number when there's something else happening in the background. This, like so much else of 70, Girls, 70, is the "concept" musical run amok; it's a musical that is embarrassed even to give the audience the old reliable pleasure of a big showstopping number. (Even Follies knows enough not to distract us with plot stuff in the middle of "I'm Still Here.")

So that's 70, Girls, 70 -- good source material, good score, good cast, but weighed down by an apparent lack of faith in the chosen form; it's one of the first real examples of the anti-musical: a musical written and staged by people who seem vaguely embarrassed about the idea of characters expressing themselves in song. When Kander and Ebb returned to Broadway with Chicago, they had another "concept" show that was done as a show-within-a-show -- but they also had a strong director, Bob Fosse, and he made sure a) to use the music and dancing to tell the story, and b) not to let the story points detract from the impact of the music and dancing. That's the balancing act in a modern musical, and something that 70, Girls, 70 couldn't handle. If Fosse had done it, it might have been different.

Cannibals Munchin' A Missionary Luncheon

I see Damn Yankees is coming out on DVD this October, just in time for the playoffs. The Broadway show was from the same people as the hit show The Pajama Game, and both Pajama Game and Damn Yankees were filmed with virtually the entire Broadway casts, and with the show's director, George Abbott, co-directing with movie-musical expert Stanley Donen. Damn Yankees is arguably even better-suited to the screen than its predecessor -- in a movie, you can show more of the baseball playing -- but the movie has two problems: one, the lone movie actor in the cast, Tab Hunter, is kind of a dud, and two ballads ("A Man Doesn't Know" and "Near To You") had to be cut because he couldn't do justice to them. (Another song, "The Game," where the players describe their struggle to abstain from sex and keep their minds on baseball, was also cut, either because it couldn't get past the censors, or because the producers were trying to keep the film under two hours, or both.) And second, it has that kind of drab look that, as I've mentioned before, infects a lot of Warner Brothers' stage-to-screen adaptation of the late '50s, as if they were adjusting to the rise of TV by making their movies look like slightly-more-expensive TV shows. The Pajama Game has that drab look too, but it has somewhat more imaginative camerawork, and the sole non-Broadway actor in Pajama Game, Doris Day, is several rungs above Tab Hunter.

Still, Damn Yankees remains one of the most enjoyable baseball movies ever made, and of course it preserves a lot of great performances, notably Gwen Verdon as Lola and Ray Walston as Mr. Applegate. Best of all it preserves Bob Fosse's choreography, from the days when his choreographic portfolio consisted of "shuffle, snap, and bend over" rather than just "shuffle and snap." No extras, but the press release says that it's been fully restored for the DVD release, unlike the DVD of Pajama Game.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Putting the Record Straight

I've been rereading Putting the Record Straight, the autobiography of John Culshaw, who was the head of classical artists and repertoire for Decca records in the '50s and '60s. He's best known for producing the first complete recording of Wagner's Ring Cycle, conducted by Georg Solti, as well as most of Benjamin Britten's recordings of his own music, many recordings of Herbert Von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, and so on. Culshaw's specialty was the recording of 19th century opera; his opera recordings became famous for the "interventionist" approach he took as a producer: not only using radio-style sound effects to suggest unseen actions, but using stereo to "stage" the action (so as a character crosses from stage right to stage left, his voice crosses from one speaker to another), and giving the orchestra more prominence, and a richer sound, than it could ever have in a theatre. Culshaw, like Glenn Gould, was a proponent of the idea that recordings were not just substitutes for the live performance experience, but a separate medium with separate rules; his best opera recordings sound nothing like a live performance, but they have an atmosphere and a power that make them sound like a complete experience of the work, rather than just an everyday opera performance without the visual element. His best recording, and for that matter Georg Solti's best recording, is probably the 1961 recording of Strauss's Salome with Birgit Nilsson: the orchestra is balanced forward and the voices are farther back than they normally are in opera recordings, and the use of aural effects, stereo staging, and unusual tricks (like bringing Salome's voice closer at the very end, to create an aural suggestion of the fact that, in Culshaw's words, "she is completely alone except for the severed head she is fondling") add up to the most bloodcurdlingly nasty, emotionally draining Salome you'll ever hear. After Culshaw, no record producer would record an opera this way, which is one reason why opera recordings tended to be so boring after Culshaw.

The autobiography is a mixed bag. Culshaw died without completing it, and the material he had written was assembled into its current form under some often-misleading chapter titles; the material was not well-edited, so the book has a lot of repetition and unresolved stories that it wouldn't have had if Culshaw had lived. Also, Culshaw had already written a book, Ring Resounding, about his most famous recording, so a lot of his best stories aren't in the book. Culshaw, who published several novels and at one point considered becoming a full-time writer instead of a record producer, writes well and he has a lot of entertaining stories to tell about the record business and the artists he worked with. (There's even some plain old gossip, like Culshaw's revelation that Karajan didn't want orchestra members to stand up because "he could not stand to be in the presence of tall people unless they were sitting down.") But there's also a remarkable amount of axe-grinding in the book, much of it directed at the de facto head of Decca's classical department, Maurice (or Moritz) Rosengarten.

Rosengarten is an interesting figure about whom, unfortunately, not much seems to be known apart from what was written in this book. He was a Swiss businessman (and an Orthodox Jew) whose main business was jukeboxes and other types of equipment; he was also the Swiss distributor for Decca records, and he somehow got the idea that Decca could and should compete with other companies in the recording of international classical artists. He financed Decca's move from a purely English company to a company that recorded all over Europe and eventually in America; he personally signed dozens of famous artists (and others, like Solti, who eventually became famous), and got the Vienna Philharmonic under exclusive contract (though this wasn't as big a coup as Culshaw makes it sound; the VPO was essentially second-rate at the time Rosengarten signed them -- this being after WWII -- and they only gradually regained their former stature). Culshaw admits that Rosengarten was "adored by the recording crews" and that he had a self-deprecating sense of humor and was a good family man -- but otherwise, he spends much of the book recounting Rosengarten's shady negotiation tactics, his timidity about taking any risks, his lack of interest in "music as such." There's a whiff of genteel British anti-semitism in some of this (sometimes it seems like British writers have a tendency to portray a Jewish businessman as a Shylock type), and there's little doubt that Culshaw had some kind of personal resentment that caused him to tee off on his former boss. Others who worked for Decca at the same time had better things to say about Rosengarten; Gordon Parry, the engineer on the Solti Ring, gave Rosengarten a lot of the credit for the excellence of that project and of the casting in Decca's opera recordings in general. Certainly Decca's classical department was never the same after Rosengarten's death in the mid-'70s (the company collapsed and was taken over by PolyGram not long after).

Still, there's also no doubt that a lot of the stories Culshaw tells are accurate, and that a lot of Rosengarten's negotiation tactics were... well... not illegal, but certainly not Marquis-of-Queensbury rules. One story Culshaw didn't get around to telling in full was about the American tenor James McCracken, whom Rosengarten signed to a contract with relatively low royalties, in exchange for a promise that he would be first choice for the tenor lead in various operas. When McCracken (frustrated with being given hardly anything to record) later sued the company, and got access to a bunch of Rosengarten's memos as part of the lawsuit, he discovered that Rosengarten had promised him the lead in operas that he knew Decca wouldn't be able to record; one memo suggested promising McCracken La Forza Del Destino, on the basis that a decent cast for that opera wouldn't be avaiable to the company for years to come. Of course, that kind of thing is par for the course in pop music, which is the real fun of the book: reading about a time when classical recording wasn't just some subsidized, under-promoted corner of the record industry, but a big chunk of the recording industry, with all its attendant hardball tactics. And isn't it amazing, from our current vantage point, that a businessman would have thought that there was money to be made in classical recordings -- and that he was right? As Culshaw writes:

There was no doubt at all that classical recordings were expected to be profitable. The generally held idea that classics are subsidized by popular recordings is at the least misleading. The real difference is between long and short-term investment... a classical recording -- especially of a large-scale opera -- may cost a small fortune and may not recoup its costs for many years, but if it is any good at all its life as a money-maker is good for anything up to fifty years, when the copyright expires.

The most infamous bit of axe-grinding in the book is Culshaw's account of Solti's recording of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. Jussi Bjoerling was hired to sing the tenor part, and he was fired from the recording, which was then abandoned until the next year, when Carlo Bergonzi took over (and sang superbly; it's an excellent recording that's unfortunately out of print). Bjoerling died not long after that abortive recording, and as Culshaw tells it, he was fired for being disruptive and probably drunk. By all other accounts from people who were at the recording session, Bjoerling was not drunk, and the problem was a conflict between him and Solti. Essentially Culshaw didn't do enough to resolve the conflict, and let the situation deteriorate to the point that the recording couldn't go on any more; the story in the book can't help but seem like an attempt to cover up for this by unloading the blame onto the dead tenor. But it does show, in the words of one industry professional, that a record producer "must combine the ears of a conductor with the negotiating powers of a top diplomat." When he falls down on diplomacy, the result can be disaster.

Uncle Future Was Right

Comics.com is just finishing up the famous Li'l Abner story that I mentioned before. The last two strips, which provide an opportunity to take one last shot at the comic-strip cliches he's been satirizing throughout the story, are here and here.

Another famous bit of Capp meta-humor is in the actual wedding strip, where Mammy Yokum alludes to the incredible publicity that the story was getting: "At last our dreams, and the dreams o' billyuns of other decent people, has come true." And in this strip, Capp takes aim at one of his favorite targets, the unfairness of giving a comic-strip creator no rights in his own work:

Sure, boss! Your word is law! You own the strip, and all I've ever done was originate it and draw it all my life!

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Real and Earnest

Is there a an author whose reputation rose as high, and then fell as far, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? It wasn't that long ago that he was routinely talked about as the greatest American poet. In fact, that's a direct quote from an anthology of English and American literature that my grandfather kept in his house; this anthology was published in the '30s, and featured excerpts from everybody from Austen to... uh... somebody starting with Z. Anyway, the entry on Longfellow was one of the longest in the book, and the biographical description started "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the greatest of American poets, was born..." followed by an explanation of why he "deserves to rank among the greatest poets," an explanation which I've unfortunately forgotten. I guess his reputation started to sink a bit in the middle of the 20th century, but his poetry was still considered a major part of a good cultural education; children were routinely asked to memorize "The Village Blacksmith" or "The Wreck of the Hesperus," and Longfellow quotes were rampant in popular culture, from Daffy Duck reciting "The Village Blacksmith" in "Duck Amuck" to an episode of the "Abbott and Costellow Show" that began with this announcement:

ANNOUNCER: And now, that brave youth who bore through snow and ice, the banner with the strange device:
COSTELLO: Heyyyyy Abbott!!!

The above quote (well, except for Costello's line) is from Excelsior. James Thurber may have contributed to the downfall of Longfellow when he included it in "Great Poems Illustrated," where he took over-familiar poems that kids were forced to memorize in school, and sent them up by drawing the characters as Thurber men and Thurber women. "Excelsior" was especially ripe for this kind of treatment because it's the kind of poem that presents itself as a serious work -- about pursuing your goals against all odds, a favorite Longfellow theme -- while the sing-song style and sheer pointlessness of it all (since the youth's goal is never defined beyond that meaningless "strange device," why should we care that he keeps carrying that damned banner?) make it seem more like bad doggerel; it has all the pretentiousness of high culture with all the silliness of low culture, a dangerous mix.

While most of Longfellow's poetry isn't as bad as "Excelsior," the things that once made him so popular are the things that ensure that he'll never have a high literary reputation again. Longfellow was a "public" poet; that's not to say that he never expressed his own feelings, but he was almost always trying to universalize those feelings, to say things that could strike a chord with his readers. And as a "public" writer, he was writing to be intelligible to the general reader, which meant fairly simple language and expression (which can make a poem seem uncomfortably close to Hallmark greeting-card verse). At his best, this style can be direct and powerful, as in the Longfellow poem that probably has the highest reputation today, "The Chamber Over the Gate":

He goes forth from the door
Who shall return no more.
With him our joy departs;
The light goes out in our hearts;
In the Chamber over the Gate
We sit disconsolate.
O Absalom, my son!

That 't is a common grief
Bringeth but slight relief;
Ours is the bitterest loss,
Ours is the heaviest cross;
And forever the cry will be
"Would God I had died for thee,
O Absalom, my son!"

But apart from the problems this direct, clear style creates in Longfellow's poetry -- like the morals that he tacks on to his ballads, telling us what the theme is and what we should take away from it all -- it makes Longfellow a loser when it comes to criticism. Literary criticism, as it has developed, values two things in varying degrees: personal expression, or decoding meanings. Walt Whitman, like Longfellow, tells us exactly what's on his mind, but he's expressing his own personal idyosyncratic feelings, not trying to be one with the feelings of his readers (plus, as he was kind enough to point out, he contradicts himself), so you can write an essay about him. Robert Browning left himself out of his poems, but he was Mr. Obscure, so you can write about him (plus, let's face it, Longfellow was no Robert Browning). With Longfellow, you know exactly what he's saying, but you don't know much about him, personally. Not much to write about there. And that's probably why I went through five years of university English Lit without studying a single Longfellow poem. I'm not saying Longfellow's once-exalted reputation was deserved, but his current un-exalted reputation isn't deserved either; it's based more on a bias against his kind of poetry -- direct, not in need of decoding.

The other thing about Longfellow is that in addition to being a public poet, he was sort of an "academic" poet, the kind of poet who experiments with obscure verse-forms and metres simply because he's familiar with them and wants to try them out, and who consciously tries to imitate the great poets he's studied. The famous "Paul Revere's Ride" is part of a longer poem called "Tales of a Wayside Inn," which is basically an attempt to do Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" except a) American and b) clean. Longfellow often paid tribute to or imitated his beloved Dante. And of course Longfellow was famous for using metres that had never, or hardly ever, been used in English poetry before; "The Song Of Hiawatha" is the most famous example, using the same plodding metre ("Should you ask me, whence these stories...") for a zillion lines, and all going to prove that there's a reason why this particular metre had never been used in English. You could say that Longfellow is a strange combination of a geeky professor and a celebrity. Come to think of it, these days there are quite a few geeky professors who are celebrities, or at least would like to be, so maybe he was ahead of his time, in that respect if in nothing else.

A good examination of Longfellow's strengths and weaknesses is this essay by William Long.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Secret Agent Men

I wanted to write a "Things that Suck" post about bad James Bond knockoffs of the '60s, but I didn't have time today; meantime, here's a good two-part article on Bond ripoffs and spoofs, some pretty good, some very bad. Of course it only deals with the tip of the Bond-knockoff iceberg; there were so many Bond-inspired movies in the late '60s, not only in England and America but in France and, especially, Italy. Bond ripoffs were probably a far bigger part of the Italian movie industry in the '60s than spaghetti westerns.

My favorite Italian Bond ripoff, though I've only seen the trailer for it, is something called "Operation Kid Brother" (also called OK Connery) starring Sean Connery's brother, Neil. (I think Mystery Science Theatre used this movie in an episode.) Basically admitting its lameness up-front, the premise is that the best secret agent in the world can't be obtained, so they get his brother to foil the bad guys. The cast was filled out with people who had been in Bond movies -- Daniela Bianchi, Adolfo Celi -- plus cameos by Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell. The production values, as usual in Italian Bond ripoffs, suggest that they shot the whole thing either in the producer's apartment or on the yacht he bought by embezzling part of the budget. But it's mostly remembered for its promotional tagline: "OPERATION KID BROTHER is too much for one mother!"

Rated PG-13

Here's an Associated Press Article about the development of the PG-13 rating and how it became the "preferred" rating for movies. The article is relentlessly upbeat, so it doesn't mention the current problem with the PG-13 rating, which is that it now has a completely different purpose from its original purpose. The original idea was that the PG-13 rating was a sort of harder version of PG; it was to be given to films that were basically appropriate for kids but had scenes that might be too violent or horrific for very young kids, like Gremlins or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But in recent years, because Hollywood is so keen to reach teenagers, PG-13 has become, in effect, a modified R: it's what you get when you make an "adult" film but leave out a few things in order to make it mild enough for PG. Hence you get films whose subject-matter and style seems to demand an R, but which chop out material at the last minute in order to get a PG-13 and bring in the teens. The ultimate absurdity is Alien vs. Predator: a PG-13 movie based on two R-rated movies.

I actually like the idea of making "adult" movies for squeamish adults -- that is, movies that deal with adult subject-matter but don't have a lot of swearing, explicit violence, nudity. I suspect that "squeamish adults" are another one of the markets that Hollywood hasn't figured out how to reach: I've known people, intelligent but squeamish people, who don't want to see infantile movies but who don't have the stomach for the violence or swearing of a Scorsese film. But to make a movie for those tastes, you can't just write an "R" script and then chop out all the naughty bits; you have to approach the material in a particular way, to make sure that the approach you choose will not require the things that create an R rating. A lot of PG-13 movies essentially take an R approach and then compromise themselves for the sake of that rating. That provides nothing for the squeamish adults, who are still turned off by the R approach (with or without the explicit stuff), it infuriates those who prefer the R approach, and it doesn't really please anybody, not even the teenagers.

Note # 1: By advocting "adult movies for squeamish adults" I am not saying that I think all or even many movies should be like that, just that there are some viewers out there who enjoy a crime drama from the '40s more than a recent crime drama, precisely because the '40s crime drama tells an adult story without explicit content; and it would be interesting to see some movies made for those particular tastes (which is not to say that there's anything wrong with explicit content).

Note # 2: There's a South Park episode with a running series of fake trailers for bad Rob Schneider comedies; at the end of each one, the announcer adds "Rated PG-13," in the most scornful tone imaginable. Sort of sums up what the PG-13 rating has become: not a warning that a movie is rougher and tougher than it looks (which was the point about Gremlins) a signal that a movie doesn't have the balls to be rough and tough enough.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Son of the Return of Grudge Matches I'd Like To See

Just wanted to add a couple of "grudge matches I'd like to see" that I left out of my last post:

Vegetarians vs. Non-Smokers
Scenario: Two adjoining convention rooms are booked for huge conventions: the Militant Anti-Smokers convention and the Militant Vegetarians' convention. At the Vegetarians' Convention, most of the members light up cigarettes. The smoke wafts into the ajoining room, and the Anti-Smokers pull aside the partition:
"Would you stop smoking?" says the leader of the Anti-Smoking convention. "You're ruining our big steak dinner."
"Steak!?" says the leader of the Vegetarians' Convention. "This means war!"
"So it does!"
Who wins an all-out war between equal numbers of militant anti-smoking activists (who eat meat) and militant vegetarian activists (who smoke)? On the one hand, the nonsmokers are far better at getting their way, as (here in Toronto anyway) they've banned smoking in bars, whereas vegetarians have not yet banned eating meat in restaurants. But on the other hand, militant vegetarians tend to be tougher and meaner, whereas the anti-smoking activists I've known tended to be strong-willed suburbanites, but suburbanites nonetheless.

David Copperfield vs. Pip
Battle of the Dickens heroes who narrate in the first person and are vaguely like Dickens himself. I'll give this one to Pip as he actually can fight, at least a little, and if it comes to backup, I'd be much more afraid of Magwich and Mrs. Joe than Betsey Trotwood and Barkis. However, Mrs. Joe might be so pissed off with Pip that she decides to fight on David's side, in which case it's over, as Mrs. Joe could take out both sides by herself.

Yokums (Li'l Abner) vs. Clampetts (Beverly Hillbillies)
The Yokums: Mammy Yokum, Pappy Yokum, Li'l Abner, and Daisy Mae, vs. The Clampetts: Jed Clampett, Granny, Ellie May and Jethro. At least two of the Yokums have vaguely supernatural abilities (Mammy and Abner), but Ellie May, who wrassles bears, is probably tougher than Daisy Mae, and Jethro, while basically useless, is basically impossible to knock out. Plus Granny is all kinds of mean and Jed is a great shot. I give this, just, to the Clampetts, and they get to go on to fight the Dukes (Bo, Luke, Uncle Jesse and Daisy) for control of the moonshine business.

Mega-Bambi vs. Godzilla
As we all know from the short film Bambi Meets Godzilla, the little Disney deer has no chance against the Terror of Tokyo. But what happens if Bambi is exposed to some Marvel Comics Radiation (tm) which causes him to grow as big as Godzilla? Now the size difference no longer exists, and its a fair fight. Who would win? I guess Godzilla still has the edge, but Bambi showed some toughness later in the movie, and if someone tells him that it was Godzilla who killed his mother, Bambi will have the RAGE (tm).

Notes on a Fellow Canadian

Via Jerry Beck, I direct you to the e-mail battle between Michael Barrier and John Kricfalusi.

Fan reaction to Kricfalusi's comments seems largely based on anger about his comments on Carl Barks and Walt Disney, which doesn't bother me; nobody should be immune from criticism (not even John Kricfalusi his own self). Besides, as so often, he has some good points to make, even if he goes overboard with them: there is something very generalized about the physical acting in Disney cartoons, and there is more specific, individual physical characterization in the work of some of the best Warner animators. And Kricfalusi's I'm-the-greatest schtick is the sort of thing you forgive if you agree with him, and tolerate if you disagree with him. He's sort of earned the right to think he's an important figure in animation history, because given the influence of Ren and Stimpy, Kricfalusi is an important figure in animation history.

What interests me (to plagiarize something I wrote on a message board) is that even though Kricfalusi is often considered the leader of the return to "cartoony" cartoons, a lot of what he writes sounds like his ideal is for cartoons to be more like live-action -- that is, he wants "human" acting, physical acting whose nuances can be compared to those of a human actor. I think a lot of what he sees as generalization in Disney cartoons is really a sort of universality, of trying to convey a general, widely-understood mood or feeling in a movement, rather than trying to make the movements similar to the unique, specific movements of a particular actor. There's something a bit, well, un-cartoony about Kricfalusi's idea of good animated acting; he often comes across as wishing that he were Kirk Douglas rather than a guy with a pencil.

On the merits of the recent Ren and Stimpys... well, I didn't care for the ones I've seen, which struck me as the apotheosis of what I liked least in Ren and Stimpy to begin with: not the gross-out humor, but the slowness, the endless pauses to call attention to the "funny drawings," the sacrifice of everything -- pacing, plotting, even gags -- for the sake of calling attention to the drawing and the physical acting. (Kricfalusi's idol, Bob Clampett, sometimes had the same problem -- a lesser Clampett cartoon can die in a theatrical screening because the demands of plot, character and structure are subordinated to the wacky drawings -- but Clampett's cartoons, even the lesser ones, are fast. Kricfalusi's sort of Clampett in slo-mo.) Still, the comments by Eddie Fitzgerald (who was, incidentally, the inspiration for Pinky of Pinky and the Brain) are fairly accurate; Kricfalusi inspired a lot of artists who had more or less given up hope of having fun again, and gave some life back to the animation industry. His comments on other animated shows tend to be ill-informed, like his infamous anonymous review of Animaniacs based on a viewing of precisely zero episodes, but even those of us who liked Animaniacs better than Ren and Stimpy have to admit that it's Ren and Stimpy that redefined animation and had the far-reaching influence on the industry. Of course, that influence means that Kricfalusi is now basically a member of the "establishment," but hey -- that's proof that his ideas, some of them, anyway, took hold.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

TV on DVD Roundup

The TV-on-DVD releases just keep on coming, and here, courtesy of TV Shows on DVD, are a few of the season sets we have to look forward to -- with enthusiasm or trepidation -- before the year is out:

Columbo: the Complete First Season (September 7) - A&E have never been the same since they stopped showing all those old "ABC Mystery Movie" shows -- from the best, like "Columbo," to the worst, like "Banacek." (There's an old Polish proverb: shows with George Peppard scoring with every woman in signt should never be allowed to hit the air.) The first season of "Columbo" is only nine episodes because it was, as mentioned, part of a rotating series of shows which ran 90 minutes instead of 60. This is sort of a precusor to the networks' increasing dependence on limited-run series, whether it's the reality shows on the cable networks or the 13-episode seasons on the cable networks. I wouldn't be surprised to see some network bring back the basic concept behind the ABC mystery movie, and rotate three 8 episode series instead of ordering 24 episodes of one show.

Taxi: the Complete First Season (November 16) - This is the season when Reverend Jim only appeared once, in a guest role, and when the garage had an extra cabbie, John Burns, played by Randall Carver. When it was decided in season 2 to make Christopher Lloyd's Reverend Jim into a regular, someone had to be dropped to make room for him, and it was Carver who got the ax; as he later recalled, it was felt that he and Tony Danza were basically playing the same character (the naive guy), and Danza's character, as a failed boxer and Vietnam veteran, had more story possibilities.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the Complete Seventh Season (November 16) - After the disappointing sixth season of Buffy, this season was supposed to be a return to the show's roots: by all accounts, the original intention was to do a series of self-contained episodes, incorporating a simple but effective season-long arc, and built around the high school setting -- that is, a return to the style of the first three seasons of the show, which were and remain the best. The first seven or so episodes of the season followed this pattern, and the whole thing generally seemed very promising. And then, partly based on network orders and partly on bad writing/producing decisions, the rest of the season became a bunch of interchangeable episodes with no self-contained stories (instead they'd drop a couple of soap-opera plot points, yak a bit about the season-long villain, and then show the closing credits), and the main focus of the season became the worst character, Spike, aka Fonzie Spike. I've already ranted about the Spikeification of Buffy, but it's just sad to watch a season crash and burn like that. In some ways it was worse than the sixth season, because the sixth season had some good ideas, badly executed (the idea that people didn't like the season because it was "dark" was of course a crock; everyone liked the musical episode, which presented those "dark" themes in a professional and entertaining way. Nobody likes any themes, dark or otherwise, presented with sloppy direction and lines like "axe -- not gonna cut it"). The final season of "Buffy", which eventually made no sense at all, sort of demonstrated the problem with what might be called the Geek Drama -- drama shows created and produced not by grizzled TV drama veterans but by enthusiastic, youngish writers. A show like this, at its peak of inspiration, is fresher and more inventive than the traditional show, which sticks to the old effective-but-familiar tricks. The problem with the Geek Drama that once it runs out of inspiration, it can't rely on skilled execution to keep it at least watchable. That's why Geek Dramas get bad really fast; look what's happened to "Alias." Some of the seventh-season Buffy episodes are so slapdash in terms of execution, structure, plotting, logic, visuals, etc. that they make you long for the sterile professionalism of a Dick Wolf. Well, almost. Anyway, here's a good FAQ for people trying to make sense of the final season.

King of the Hill: the Complete Third Season (December 28) - I'm one of the few people in my age group who loves "King of the Hill" and dislikes "Family Guy" (which is why I am shunned by drunken frat-boys). Actually, though it's hard to remember now, "King of the Hill" was a huge hit and something of a phenomenon in its first two seasons: it sometimes got higher ratings than "The Simpsons," and both TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly selected it as the best show of the year for 1997. In the third season, it was moved to a highly uncongenial Tuesday time slot, and has sort of bounced around the schedule ever since; and its internet fan following seems to be close to zero. (I think there's a perception that because the show is about Texans, you have to be a Texan to get it, though for some reason nobody thinks you have to be a New Yorker to get "Seinfeld.") But the third season, probably its best, is a good reminder of why KotH is by far the best of the post-Simpsons animated sitcoms. This was the season where the writers did some rather dark and offbeat plots: Hank Hill gets sexually assaulted by a dolphin; Hank and Peggy teach their son Bobby a lesson by convincing him that he got his cousin Luanne pregnant and that he has to marry her; Hank's friend Bill goes insane from loneliness and starts to dress up as his ex-wife (this is the Christmas episode); Bobby goes to see a magician and uses some of the tricks and patter to spruce up his Sunday School report on Jesus:

BOBBY: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, I am the Amazing Jesus, son of God and master of prestidigitation! Has this ever happened to you? Your followers want a glass of wine, but all you have is water. Well, if you're the Amazing Jesus, no problem! Water into wine! It's a miracle! John 2:11. Thank you. Now you're going to need something to go with all this wine, maybe some bread. But how are you going to feed all these hungry people with just one slice? No problem, if you're the Amazing Jesus! Amen! It's a miracle, ladies and gentlemen! Mark 6:44. Thank you! Now, for my next miracle, I'll need a large wooden cross and a couple of volunteers.

No word yet on whether there will be any extras, but it's worth picking up one way or the other. Particularly since Mike Judge's next movie (which, like Office Space, will include King of the Hill regulars Stephen Root and David Herman) won't come out until next year.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Good Gnus

I am re-reading P.G. Wodehouse's Mr. Mulliner stories, which I've always thought represented some of Wodehouse's best work, maybe even his very best. Though it was written and collected as a series of short stories, it wasn't a series in the sense that the Jeeves or Ukridge stories were. The only thing linking most of these stories is the last name of the characters (Mulliner) and the fact that they are all "frame" stories narrated in a pub, the Angler's Rest, by a fisherman, Mr. Mulliner, who tells tales about things that happened to his inexhaustible supply of relatives. The "frame" story was a favorite Wodehouse device, allowing him to create a parody of a then-typical type of magazine story, and to tell various unconnected types of stories while passing it off as a series.

In his introduction to the collected Mulliner stories, Wodehouse admits that the point of creating Mr. Mulliner was to provide a suitable framework for his most offbeat story ideas, ideas that seemed "too bizarre for editorial consumption." By having them told by Mr. Mulliner, Wodehouse had a context for these weird stories: they were "tall tales" told by a fisherman. (Though in fact, Mr. Mulliner's job is pretty much forgotten after the first story.) The Mulliner stories take in some truly strange ideas, including:

- On a trip to San Francisco in 1906, a young man takes his first drink. Seeing a troupe of performing midgets, he mistakenly thinks he's having hallucinations brought on by the alcohol. So when the San Francisco Earthquake strikes, he believes that's a hallucination too, and sleeps in his hotel room through the whole quake.
- A photographer gets involved in a lawsuit where he proves, as a matter of law, that photographers should not have to be forced to take pictures of ugly people. The attendant publicity makes him the most popular photographer in London, and he becomes a specialist in photographing beautiful women for magazines. After a few months of this, he becomes so sick of photographing beautiful women in coy poses that he falls in love at first sight with an unattractive girl, since she's so different from all the other women he sees all day. Then he is kidnapped and held prisoner by the ugly Mayor of Bottleton East, who wants to force him to take his daughter's picture.
- A young man goes to Los Angeles to make his fortune. When he makes the mistake of entering a Hollywood studio, he is forced to become a screenwriter, working in a building known as "The Leper Colony," where hundreds of writers are working on the script for a picture called "Scented Sinners" (which has been in development for decades, and shows no sign of ever going into production). Since he can never leave the studio until the script is finished, he becomes strangely attracted to his assigned writing partner, the moll of a Chicago gangster who sent her to Hollywood to take care of his bootlegging interests.
- Archibald Mulliner, a complete idiot whose only talent is for imitating a hen laying an egg, becomes interested in Socialism, egged on by his butler, a member of the League of the Dawn of Freedom. Deciding he needs to do his bit for the "Martyred Proletariat," Archibald decides to go among the masses and spread largesse. His first act is to buy a loaf of bread for a poor child, who, furious at being fobbed off with bread when there was perfectly good candy available, hits Archibald with the bread. Then Archibald winds up in a ferocious argument with a man who insists that he must always eat the fat on a piece of meat.

Most of the stories follow the usual pattern of a Wodehouse short story, and the general pattern of the type of story that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post: a simple premise, leading to a series of misadventures, followed by a twist ending. The Mulliner stories are less heavily plotted than Wodehouse's novels or even some of his other short stories, and therefore offer more room for the author to indulge in digressions, or sheer nuttiness. One of the best stories (the only one featuring a female as the lead character), "Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court," about an animal-rights-advocating poetess who visits a house that transforms everyone into a huntin' and shootin' sportsman, features as its highlight a poem she writes while under the influence of the house. The poem is called "Good Gnus," and she is shocked to find that it has been turned down by the Animal Lovers' Gazette:

When cares attack and life seems black,
How sweet it is to pot a yak,
Or puncture hares and grizzly bears,
And others I could mention:
But in my Animals "Who's Who"
No name stands higher than the Gnu,
And each new gnu that comes in view
Receives my prompt attention...

A brief suspense, and then at last
The waiting's o'er, the vigil past:
A careful aim. A spurt of flame.
It's done. You've pulled the trigger,
And one more gnu, so fair and frail,
Has handed in its dinner-pail:
(The females all are rather small,
The males are somewhat bigger.)

And of course, the main fun of reading Wodehouse is for the use of language, the memorable phrases, the nutty similes. Most of these stories, because they're so strange, allowed Wodehouse to indulge in his freeest associations and nuttiest descriptions, producing sentences like:

At this moment, however, the drowsy stillness of the summer afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G.K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.

Apart from the unpleasant, acrid smell of burnt poetry, the apartment, thanks to the efforts of Freddie Boot, had been converted into a kind of inland sea. The carpet was awash, and on the bed only a duck could have made itself at home.

"A friend of mine, a rhythmical interior decorator, once rashly consented to put his aunt's parrot up at his studio while she was away visiting friends in the north of England. She was a woman of strong evangelical views, which the bird had imbibed from her. It had a way of putting its head on one side, making a noise like someone drawing a cork from a bottle, and asking if he was saved. To cut a long story short, I happened to call on him a month later and he had installed a harmonium in his studio and was singing hymns, ancient and modern, in a rich tenor, while the parrot, standing on one leg on its perch, took the bass."

"Smoking is a subject on which I hold strong views. I look upon tobacco as life's outstanding boon, and it annoys me to hear these faddists abusing it. And how foolish their arguments are, how easily refuted. They come to me and tell me that if they place two drops of nicotine on the tongue of a dog the animal instantly dies; and when I ask them if they have ever tried the childishly simple device of not placing nicotine on the dog's tongue, they have nothing to reply. They are nonplussed. they go away mumbling something about never having thought of that."

And one that publishing bloggers might enjoy:

It is these swift, unheralded changes of the public mind which make publishers stick straws in their hair and powerful young novelists rush round to the wholesale grocery firms to ask if the berth of junior clerk is still open. Up to the very moment of the Great Switch, sex had been the one safe card. Publishers' lists were congested with scarlet tales of Men Who Did and Women Who Shouldn't Have Done But Who Took a Pop At It. And now the bottom had dropped out of the market without a word of warning, and practically the only way in which readers could gratify their new-born taste for the pure and simple was by fighting for copies of Parted Ways.

The best of the Mulliner stories include "Honeysuckle Cottage" (a brilliant parody of soppy romance fiction), "The Smile that Wins" (about a dyspeptic detective whose smile always conveys the impression that he knows other people's secrets) and "Strychnine in the Soup" (about mystery-fiction addicts). A lot of the Mulliner stories were adapted for TV in the BBC series Wodehouse Playhouse.

A Melange of Musicals

A couple of pieces on musical theatre that are worth looking at:

This article (called to our attention by Mark Evanier, talks about the decline of the original cast album. I think eventually producers of musicals will have to stop thinking of cast albums as a way to finance their shows and start thinking of them as part of the budget -- that is, pay to have the album recorded, to help publicize the show to people outside New York. The days when record companies would get into bidding wars over cast-album rights are over, and the end of that era is very clearly marked. In 1964, the cast album of Fiddler On the Roof went gold for RCA (which had invested in the show to get the cast-album rights, a common practice). In 1966, a hit from many of the same people, Cabaret, produced a cast album that sold well but didn't achieve bestseller status, and the producer of the show, Hal Prince, called the record company and demanded to know why it wasn't selling as well as Fiddler. It was because Broadway had changed, popular music had changed, the record industry had changed. Except the record industry never really adapted to these changes, and neither did Broadway. One thing that I suspect we may see more of in the future: in 1971, a flop show, The Grass Harp, got a cast album by having the orchestral tracks recorded in Europe (where session fees are much lower) and then having the performers overdub the vocals in America. I would not be at all surprised, given how much it costs to record in America, to see a few more cast recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra subbing for the original pit band.

Also, Mark Steyn, deranged as a political columnist but improving as a writer on theatre (maybe some derangement is necessary for that job?) has some pieces on musicals from a few years ago, here, including an interview with Lionel Bart that also appeared in his very uneven book Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, and a good account of the significance of Oklahoma! (Incidentally, I erred in saying that Bob Merrill was the sloppiest rhymer ever to have a successful career as a theatre lyricist. Lionel Bart, whose last performed lyric rhymed "gluttony" with "utterly," was much sloppier.)

Friday, August 20, 2004

Well, I'll Be --

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear has a good post on William Dieterle's film version of Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster." (Available on DVD only through overpriced Criterion, but worth it.) In watching the more-or-less uncut version of the film (there are a few bits that seem to be lost, hence the abrupt cut after the jury pronounces its verdict in the trial scene), you can sort of see why RKO originally chopped it down to 85 minutes: it takes a short, punchy story and inflates it with all sorts of background stuff that the story dispenses with in a few lines: why Jabez Stone sells his soul, how he sells it, what he gets in return. Audiences were, in all likelihood, fidgeting and becoming impatient to get to the trial scene that is the centerpiece of the story. Some of the best stuff in the film is in the original material, like the scenes involving Satan's designated temptress Belle. But it's not hard to see why audiences might have felt cheated that a movie version of "The Devil and Daniel Webster" seemed to be taking to long to get to the point.

Plus the film was a work of '30s-style New Deal populism that came out at a time when the issues it dealt with seemed less important than they had a few years earlier. The theme of the movie is the struggle for America's soul, between the forces of greed and every-man-for-himself-ism represented by Scratch, and the forces represented by Daniel Webster, who believes in putting honesty above personal ambition. We know Jabez Stone has gone bad when he refuses to join a union (sorry, "grange") and instead becomes a big capitalist boss, exploiting the other farmers. As Mr. Scratch's famous speech ("when the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there") makes clear, he is no less representative of America than Webster is, and the question, which the ending leaves open, is whether the best American values (hard work, community) will prevail over the worst (grabbing for money and power). This is all good stuff, but a couple of months after the film opened, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and even before that, American popular culture was becoming more concerned with external threats, rather than the internal threats posed by Mr. Scratch, real as those threats were. Daniel Webster stands as a movie about the best vs. the worst of America that happened to come out at the wrong time for that kind of movie; in this, it has a lot in common with another cinematically ambitious RKO production from 1941, Citizen Kane, which was also about the best vs. the worst of America (both the best and the worst embodied by one man, Kane), and also underperformed at the box office.

The print used for the DVD is about as good as we're going to get considering that many of the formerly-lost scenes had to be taken from various different sources; the superb cinematography, and Dieterle's experments with camerawork and lighting (as interesting as Welles', in their own way) come across very well. Unfortunately the soundtrack doesn't do justice to Bernard Herrmann's score -- it sounds like Criterion used too much noise-reduction, making the soundtrack kind of strident -- but at least there's an extra that analyzes the various musical themes in the picture. A great movie, well worth seeing or buying.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Grudge Matches I'd Like To See

To follow up on the previous post... a few years ago, I actually considered doing a sort of "Indie Grudge Match" site that would do matches that were too obscure for the WWWF Grudge Match. Foolishly, I dropped the idea and wound up blogging instead. But I thought I'd post about some of the pop-culture grudge matches I'd like to see:

Fred Astaire vs. Gene Kelly
The "Freddy vs. Jason" of movie-musical arguments. Kelly acts tougher and plays marginally tougher guys, but Astaire actually had a reasonably tough upbringing, plus he's got residual bad-assedness from playing the detective in that "Girl Hunt" ballet in The Band Wagon. I pick Astaire.

McBain vs. Monsignor Martinez
McBain, the German-accented action hero The Simpsons watch on TV, vs. Monsignor Martinez, the Mexican action hero the Hills watch on TV on King of the Hill. Martinez is smarter, and has a better catchphrase ("Vaya Con Dios"). But McBain wins when he becomes governor and has Martinez deported as an illegal immigrant.

Foghorn Leghorn vs. Chicken Boo
Battle of the giant chickens: Foghorn Leghorn vs. Chicken Boo (Animaniacs). I give this one to Boo, as he has a preturnatural ability to do just about anything -- ballet dancing, gunslinging, bear-fighting. His only weakness is that his advantages somehow evaporate when he's exposed as a chicken, but that won't hurt him when he's going up against another chicken. And really, all Foghorn knows how to do is hit someone's butt with a paddle.

Arturo Toscanini vs. Wilhelm Furtwangler
A battle of the great conductors, not as musicians, but as fighters. I would have to give this one to Toscanini, as Furtwangler's first instinct will be to co-operate with Toscanini and surrender in exchange for being allowed to make beautiful music. However, what's more interesting is their fighting styles. Based on their conducting styles, I assume that Toscanini would open with a series of direct punches, timed with almost metronomic regularity, while Furtwangler would dance around, stretch out certain punches endlessly and make other punches really fast.

M vs. The Chief
M (Bernard Lee, the James Bond movies) vs. The Chief (Edward Platt, Get Smart). Which long-suffering spy superior would win in a fight? I'd guess The Chief, since he has had to put up with much more from his agents than M ever did. But if M gets access to Q's weaponry, the whole Cone of Silence thing will be seriously overmatched.

Oscar Wilde vs. Noel Coward
No contest here. Wilde came up with The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome while Noel Coward came up with "I'll See You Again" and a bunch of stories about an idyllic British colony called Samolo. Obviously Wilde had a much sicker mind, and his Hannibal Lecter-like twistedness will come to the fore as he torments Coward with various cynical epigrams.

I could go on, but fortunately for you, I won't. But if you have any other favorite Grudge Matches of your own...

X vs. Y

With the shocking, totally unexpected success of this summer's low-budget indie sleeper film Alien vs. Predator, we are seeing full-fledged confirmation that kids love "X vs. Y" stories. I haven't seen AvP, but the concept is basically the subject of a million high school and college-dorm discussions: if fictional character X fought fictional character Y, who would win?

There are two basic forms to this kind of discussion. One is the nominally serious kind, popular among comic-book fans, where you try to argue who would win based on an accurate assessment of each character's abilities and weaknesses. This is the kind of thing that leads to discussions of whether Kirk would beat Picard. (The answer, as I hope most of you know, is Kirk, 'cause Picard's a wuss who believes in that Prime Directive nonsense, while Kirk is a good old-fashioned macho imperialist who believes in imposing his values, and his libido, wherever he goes.) The other type of discussion is the silly kind, where you pick pop-culture characters you grew up with and dream up outlandish reasons why one would kick the posterior of the other.

The best example of the silly approach was WWWF Grudge Match, created in 1996 by two graduate students at Cornell University, Brian Wright and Steve Levine. They started with the burning question of who would win in a fight between Gary Coleman and Webster, and they went on from there. No serious attempts were made to argue the strengths and weaknesses, thankfully; it was just an excuse for riffing on the trivial things we remembered about these characters, like so, from Lucky the Leprechaun vs. the Trix Rabbit:

BRIAN: I can't believe I ever lose to this guy.

I don't think you've really looked at kid's cereal in quite some time, Steve. ALL kid's cereals are the same: cardboard-based delivery systems used to administer high quantities of sucrose to children. Sure, they may change the coloring or the flavoring a bit, but they're all essentially identical. So, yes, Trix are like Froot Loops (tm) and Fruity Pebbles (tm), but they are also like Cap'n Crunch (tm), Frosted Flakes (tm), Sugar Smacks (tm), and Kaboom (tm). And what does that mean? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! If I wanted, I could go on my own tangent about how Tony the Tiger (tm), Diggum (tm), Toucan Sam (tm) ad nauseum could parallel Trix and/or Lucky in order to try to show why Lucky would succeed, but I don't want to waste our readers' valuable time with irrelevant and highly subjective side arguments. Besides, the last thing you want to do is bring the Flintstones universe into this discussion. That would then leave me no choice but to mention how Lucky could call upon his cousin, The Great Gazoo, to law down some covering fire on Trix' sorry butt.

And when's the last time you really looked at the Energizer Bunny (tm)? What does the EB do? Again, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! If the scenario had Trix carrying the cereal with someone else trying to get it from him, then being related to EB could be an asset . One could imagine the Trix Rabbit carrying the cereal whilst cereal icons from all over the commercial world have their diabolical plans foiled as they look to see their failing Device of Destruction (tm) is powered by the ever unreliable SuperVolt (t m) battery. But that isn't the case here. Trix actually has to do something, namely get the cereal from Lucky. In that same situation, EB would just go around in circles and beat his little drum. Hardly an ally.

And just to clarify, yes I do think Lucky is in fact Lucky. You don't get named Lucky, The Nose, or Scarface without it being applicable. And I think you know what I'm getting at here. Two words, Steve: Mob ties.

The site has gone through several different incarnations, and now does only one match a month (the current one is "Pac-Man vs. the Tribbles"). Its best years were in the late '90s, the golden age of the net-geek discussion; it's another product of the time when the Internet had its own subculture, rather than just being a part of the broader culture. But the old matches are great fun to read; my favorites include "Captain Kangaroo vs. Mr. Rogers," "English Soccer Hooligans vs. the French Army," "John McClane vs. the Death Star," and "Scooby-Doo vs. the X-Files." The fun of the Grudge Match was that unlike a lot of pop-culture spoofs that are really just lame borrowings (you know, how a show will make a reference to some '80s show or commercial and expect us to laugh at the reference, even though nothing funny has happened), this was simultaneously a tribute to cheesy pop culture and an implied criticism of it -- as in, wouldn't a couple of terrible shows like Diff'rent Strokes and Webster have been better with some brass knuckles added. And it provided the opportunity for commentators and readers to take their useless pop-culture knowledge and apply it in creative, and often twisted, ways.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Things That Suck: The Lyrics of Leslie Bricusse

One of the first internet posts I ever made was in 1994 (I was a late arrival to the glories of staring intently at a computer screen and communicating with people I can't see or hear), on some CompuServe forum. The discussion was about musicals, and it was noted that Blake Edwards was turning Victor/Victoria into a musical, with new songs by the people who wrote the songs for the movie, Henry Mancini (who had just died) and lyricist Leslie Bricusse. I predicted that the show would suck, because "No show can be good if it has lyrics by Leslie Bricusse... Leslie Bricusse should be roasted on a spit and eaten by cannibals as a warning to all bad lyricists." Something like that, anyway. While I am pleased to say that my political views have shifted, and I am now strongly anti-cannibal and in favor of the right of bad songwriters to live happy and un-eaten, I will note that I was right about Victor/Victoria and about Leslie Bricusse. When Victor/Victoria and then Jekyll and Hyde (also with lyrics by Bricusse, and music by Frank Wildhorn, who was for about 30 seconds considered to have the potential to be a new Andrew Lloyd Webber), Bricusse became a byword in musical-theatre discussion groups for bad lyric writing.

Now, Bricusse's work has not been all bad. In the '60s, he and jack-of-all-trades Anthony Newley collaborated on a show, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, that certainly was a change of pace from other British musicals and had some good songs (though "What Kind of Fool Am I?" loses points for rhyming "man" with "am"). Bricusse and Newley wrote the lyric for "Goldfinger" and Bricusse alone wrote a very fine lyric for "You Only Live Twice." And Dr. Dolittle, for which Bricusse wrote the songs and script, is really bad but not quite as bad as its reputation. (How's that for generosity?) Nor is Bricusse the worst British lyricist; that honor probably goes to Don Black, who has given us decades upon decades of predictable rhymes, go-nowhere song concepts, and general pointlessness. But for sheer lack of imagination, technical sloppiness, and inability to phrase any idea in a non-hackneyed way, Leslie Bricusse is pretty well up there.

Sometimes he's just mediocre. His lyrics for Pickwick, a 1965 musical which wasted almost every opportunity provided by the rich source material (Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, are more dull than stupid. Still, it's depressing that a guy could read The Pickwick Papers and not come up with anything better for Mr. Pickwick to sing than a fuzzy little list of things that would happen "If I Ruled the World":

If I ruled the world,
Ev'ry day would be the first day of spring,
Ev'ry heart would have a new song to sing,
And we'd sing of the joy ev'ry morning would bring.
If I ruled the world,
Ev'ry man would be as free as a bird,
Ev'ry voice would be a voice to be heard,
Take my word,
We would treasure each day that occurred.

The song actually became a hit (remember the Monty Python episode that had Lenin singing it?), but it's an example of bad lyric writing because it starts with a good idea -- if I ruled the world, the world would be better -- and then can't find anything to say about it. There's not a single specific image in there, not a single original way of saying what the world would be like. It's just a bunch of cliches, and non-specific cliches at that ("free as a bird?" free to do what? Every voice would be heard? in what way). It's the essence of Leslie Bricusse: start with a decent song idea and then do absolutely nothing with it except spout cliches and bromides.

By the time Bricusse reached his apogee, nay, apex, verily, his acme as a bad lyricist, in the '90s, he was still dealing in cliches, and still couldn't say anything in a subtle or interesting way. But now he was technically inept and blessed with an ability to find just the wrong tone for a song. So Jekyll and Hyde was supposed to be a dark, brooding musical on the order of The Phantom of the Opera. But for the big "confrontation" between Jekyll and Hyde (yeah, an actor arguing with himself in song), Bricusse writes a lyric that is not only terrible, but inappropriately jaunty and jingle-y, as though it's a Gilbert and Sullivan parody of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical:

Can't you see
It's over now?
It's time to die!

No, not I!
Only you!

If I die,
You die, too!

You'll die in me
I'll be you!

Damn you, Hyde!
Set me free!

Can't you see
You are me?

Deep inside-!

I am you!
You are Hyde!

No - Never!

Yes, forever!

Good damn you, Hyde!
Take all your evil deeds,
And rot in hell!

I'll see you there, Jekyll!


Someone on a newsgroup considered that the worst lyric writing he'd ever heard, but then he remembered this chorus:

Murder, murder
Or our doorstep!
Murder, murder
So watch your step!
Murder, murder!
Take one more step,
You'll be murdered
In the night!

Murder, murder
Once there's one done
Murder, murder
Can't be undone!
Murder, murder
Lives in London!
Bloody murder
In the night!

But when it comes to really, really bad lyrics, the stage version of Victor/Victoria is Bricusses monstrous masterpiece. Of course, the songs taken from the film are just mediocre, and some of the new songs are just standardized bad lyrics, collecting the usual cliches:

Hiding from tomorrow,
Hiding from the day,
Only brings a sorrow
That won't go away.

But several of the new songs made Bricusse the undisputed champ of bad lyrics. With very little comment, because what is there to say, after all, I post some excerpts from a song called "Paris Makes Me Horny." For rhymes that don't rhyme, phrases that don't make sense, cliches and general idiocy, this may well be the worst lyric in a Broadway musical:

Paris makes me horny.
Rome may be hot, sexy it is not.
Paris is so sexy
Riding in a texi
Gives me apoplexy.
Been to Lisbon
And Lisbon is a has-been.
Schlepped to Stockholm
And brought a lotta schlock home.
Also Oslo
And Oslo really was slow
Paris makes me horny,
It's not like Californy.
Paris is so dizzy, jack,
It's such an aphrodisiac
Ooh...... It's true,
Paris thrills me.
When I see Eiffel Tower
I have to go and take a shower...

As for Madrid, save it for El Cid,
Dining at the Lido
Loosens my libido
Like a big torpedo...
Been to Munich
Where every guy's a eunuch
An' ta Dublin
Things ain't exactly bubblin'
Hate Helsinki,
The Finns are kinda kinky.
But Paris, Paris,
Paris makes me horny.

And yes, "Lisbon / has-been" and "Aphrodisiac / Dizzy, jack" are supposed to be rhymes.