Friday, November 26, 2004

Perhaps a Piece of Mahler's

I've been listening to a wonderful recording of Mahler's Das Lied Von Der Erde, a 1970 Bavarian Radio performance with Janet Baker and Waldemar Kmentt, conducted by Rafael Kubelik. Though it's a live recording, there are few audience noises, the sound is excellent stereo (highlighting the fact that Kubelik divides the violin sections), and thankfully the applause has not been included, so there's nothing to shatter the mood of the ending. Baker recorded Das Lied in the studio eight years later with Bernard Haitink, but she's better in this recording, and Kubelik, who never got to record this piece in the studio (though he made a fine complete set of the Mahler symphonies), gets just about everything right. For a more helpful description of this recording, read David Hurwitz's review. This has become one of my favorite recordings of the quintessential Mahler piece -- whose message I might Philistine-ly describe as "life sucks but things will go on the same after you're dead" -- along with the recordings of Klemperer and Bernstein.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Turkey Day

This should be the day when everyone is watching the WKRP in Cincinnati episode, "Turkey's Away." Unfortunately, because of music issues, that show isn't on in syndication and isn't on DVD. So I'll just have to offer some quotes from the episode (taken from a page, "Television's Other 10 Percent," that seems to be down at the moment):

Les: No parachutes yet. Can't be skydivers... I can't tell just yet what they are, but - Oh my God, they're turkeys!! Johnny, can you get this? Oh, they're crashing to the earth right in front of our eyes! One just went through the windshield of a parked car! Oh, my goodness! Oh, the humanity! The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement! Not since the Hindenberg tragedy has there been anything like this!

Johnny: Les? Are you there? Les isn't there. (composing himself) Thanks for that on-the-spot report, Les, and for those of you who just tuned in, the Pinedale Shopping Mall has just been bombed with live turkeys. Film at eleven.

Hugh Wilson, the creator of WKRP, came up with the basic story -- based on a sort of urban legend from the radio business; everybody had heard the story of a station doing a promotion by dropping live turkeys on Thanksgiving, but no one could agree on exactly who did it. The script of the episode was written by Bill Dial. An odd thing is that even though it's probably the most famous episode of WKRP, it's not really one of the best episodes. As an early episode, it's based on the original concept of the show, which was to pit the young, hip characters (led by tight-panted Andy Travis) against the out-of-touch remnants of the radio station WKRP used to be before it changed its format (led by Mr. Carlson). This was soon abandoned in favor of a pure ensemble show with more unusual and varied relationships among the characters.

As a sort of followup to the turkey incident, a later episode included a reference to a real publicity stunt done by WQXI, an Atlanta station where Wilson used to do advertising work:

SPCA Worker: Mr Tarlek had placed some ducks in the window of Hunter's Department Store as an advertising gimmick with his radio station. At noon, one, two and three PM, the ducks would do a little dance, sort of a jitterbug.
TV Hostess: Mr Tarlek had trained the ducks?
SPCA Worker: No, the ducks danced on a little stage made of aluminum foil. We discovered that under that, Mr Tarlek had placed a hot plate. He would turn it up, and the ducks would dance, and he would turn it off and the ducks would go on about their business. You know the interesting thing about this case was that this man Tarlek and another man named Carlson were cited for throwing live turkeys out of a helicopter to their deaths.

(sigh) -- music be damned, I want this show on DVD.


This semi-recent article on Budd Schulberg (the author of What Makes Sammy Run? and On the Waterfront) is pretty good as such things go, portraying him as the complicated guy he is, and giving a fair portrayal of his reasons for testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Still, I can't help but feel frustrated that such a long article says almost nothing about this guy -- who had a long career and created one of the most famous and controversial fictional characters of the era -- except that he Named Names (tm). Any article about Schulberg, as about Elia Kazan or Edward Dmytryk, makes that the central event of his life and career. It's not so much bothersome as boring; there are other things to write about.

Nobody needs me to tell that that the Hollywood blacklist and naming names and HUAC have achieved mythological status, and, as always when history turns into myth, everything gets simplified (obvious example: many, many people think that Senator Joe McCarthy was the head of HUAC). The myth-making started in the middle of the HUAC hearings themselves, when Dalton Trumbo shouted "this is the beginning of an American Concentration Camp" (to which a HUAC member replied, pompously but accurately, "This is typical Communist tactics"), a rant that was both a nostalgic trip back to '30s "anti-fascism" and a look forward to an era when a comparison to Naziism would be the default comparison for anything the speaker doesn't like. Comparisons to the Nazis have become so commonplace now that I wouldn't be surprised to see a commercial based on it: "First they came for the Jews. Then they came for the Communists. And then they came for my delicious Hostess Fruit Pies!"

In recent years, in response to this overblown mythology, there's been an attempt to create a counter-mythology, whereby Kazan and Schulberg become brave heroes who did the right thing and suffered the slings and arrows of Steven Spielberg. But this makes even less sense than the standard myth of evil opportunists selling out to the fascists. To make Schulberg a hero, you'd have to demonstrate not only that he thought he was doing the right thing, but that he actually did some good, directly or indirectly. I can't see that he did.

In essence, HUAC's investigation of Communism in show business was an investigation of a phenomenon that had already peaked; yet another example of the rule that a government committee never gets around to investigating something until it's over. I think there's a strong case to be made that the influence of the Communist Party had a bad effect on the arts in the '30s -- pressuring writers and other artists to make their work crude, simplistic, and one-dimensionally targeted to The Masses. Schulberg split with the Party when they tried to pressure him out of writing What Makes Sammy Run?; others just followed the Party line. The disproportionate influence of a political party is never a good thing for the arts; when it's a political party like the Communist party, you can make a very strong case that it would have been worth an investigation at the time. But by the late '40s, this influence had dissipated and the arts had a whole new set of problems, which weren't at all helped by fears of the government cracking down on the problems of a decade ago. I'd be more impressed with Schulberg or Kazan or others if they had Named Names in the '30s when it might actually have done some good.

The ironic thing about the way the blacklist era is remembered is that the real villains of the era, the Hollywood studios, somehow don't get as much of a pummelling as a few people who talked to a government committee. The usual excuse for the Hollywood moguls is that they were afraid of government action, or of anti-Semitism. But when you come right down to it, what they were really afraid of was losing money. And once a Larry Parks was known to the public as a Communist, he became a potential money-loser -- because the public was highly anti-Communist ("liberals" and "conservatives" alike), and movie studios don't usually want to make a movie with an actor whose very presence will piss off most of the public. I'm not trying to dismiss the damage done to Larry Parks or to the other people who lost their livelihoods. But I think it's a mistake to blame this primarily on the government, when the real story, it seems to me, is of Hollywood focusing on the bottom line, as always. Talent is pretty expendable in Hollywood -- if you cut loose one writer or actor, you can usually find another just as good, because supply always exceeds demand. When an "expendable," like a second-tier star or a second-tier screenwriter, proved to have an affiliation that might make him unpopular with the public (and thus might hurt ticket sales of a movie with his name on it), he was cut loose without a moment's thought. An interesting question is what would have happened if a big star, a non-expendable, had been exposed as a present or former Communist; the closest this came to happening was the 1953 revelation that Lucille Ball had registered to vote as a Communist in 1936, and this soon became a non-issue -- because Ball was not an expendable, and she was worth more than the economic cost of this mini-Red-Scare.

And yet, as others have pointed out, the people who actually did the blacklisting were treated more kindly by history than the people who did not directly refuse to hire anybody. I think this may have something to do with populism; if you blame the government and people who collaborated with the government, you don't have to blame private citizens, let alone "the people" as a whole. This is particularly important for people in Hollywood, who are the ones most obsessed with the blacklist era; they live to please studio executives and the general public, and they don't particularly want to think that the people who pay them were the ones who really made the blacklist happen. In that sense, all the arguing about the Kazans and Schulbergs is not just overblown but irrelevant. They weren't where the action was; they were guys working out their personal issues with a movement -- Stalinism in the arts -- that had burned out some years before. The real issue at the time was a marketing issue: can the industry afford to be thought of as Communist-influenced at a time when the public is, in the words of Irving Berlin, getting "ready for Uncle Joe?" The most relevant comparison is to baseball; Buck Weaver was kicked out of baseball, despite only minimal participation in the 1919 World Series fix, because baseball was perceived as having a corruption problem and had to kick out anybody who was seen as linked to the gamblers and game-fixers. The Hollywood blacklist can be seen in much the same way: Hollywood was improving its image by booting out people who were affiliated with something the public didn't like. Pace Trumbo, it wasn't the beginning of an American Concentration Camp; it was another chapter in the great, sordid American story of branding and marketing.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


The critic Walter Kerr had a famous line in his review of Neil Simon's The Star-Spangled Girl (1967): "Neil Simon didn't have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote it anyway." Simon approvingly quotes the line in his autobiography, agreeing with Kerr that this is one of his worst plays, a play which he wrote without having "a clear visual image of the characters."

The play occasionally gets revived in summer stock and school productions; with only three characters and a very simple set, it's easy to put on. But I think one reason it never completely goes away is that the premise is always relevant, at least in theory: a super-patriotic young Southern woman, Sophie (Connie Stevens) goes to work for two guys who put out an underground leftist magazine: the editor/publisher, Andy (Anthony Perkins) and the writer, Norman (Richard Benjamin). Norman loves Sophie, Andy hires Sophie to keep Norman happy, Sophie argues with Andy about patriotism and values, Andy and Sophie wind up together, everybody works to put out the magazine. Curtain.

Of course, many of Simon's successful plays have plots that are every bit as flimsy. And despite Kerr's wisecrack, the idea of the play is a bit more substantial than the usual Simon play. In the late '60s, everybody was scrambling to write about the "youth movement" and the new radicalism thereof. The idea of Star-Spangled Girl is to take two twentysomething radicals and put them in the same room with a twentysomething anti-radical -- someone who has completely different values and opinions from the San Francisco-living, Dartmouth-educated guys. (Andy: "My feelings about this country run just as deeply as yours, but if you'll turn down the national anthem for a few minutes, you'll be able to hear what some of the people are complaining about." Sophie: "Well, Ah am one of the people and you are one of the things Ah'm complaining about.")

Most plays, movies and stories of this period pitted young heroes against older antagonists: the values of the older generation supposedly clashing with the values of the younger generation. Star-Spangled Girl, for all its many weaknesses, is one of the few things from this era that acknowledges that the generation gap is far less important than the culture gap: there is no monolithic "youth culture," because a young person from Arkansas belongs to a different culture than a young person from California. As you know, the national media is shocked, shocked every four years to discover that a very large country might incorporate several distinct cultures (this happens in Canada too, where you'll get people tearing their hair out over the horrible fact that people in one province aren't exactly the same as the people in another). So Star-Spangled Girl becomes oddly relevant as one of the few plays that deals directly with the differences between "Red America" and "Blue America" (though Sophie would kick you for calling her a "Red"), and provides a reassuring reminder that if culture clashes haven't gotten any better in America in the last 37 years, at least they haven't gotten any worse, either.

Unfortunately, Neil Simon isn't really the man to write a play like this. He's incapable of imagining a character who is as different from himself as Sophie is, so she becomes a dull cartoon, with no plausible opinions or feelings of her own, and no real cultural characterization beyond saying "Ah" instead of "I." But the writing for the men isn't much better, because Simon can't make them sound like anything but wisecracking New Yorkers; indeed, if you miss the occasional references to San Francisco, you'd have no idea that the play doesn't take place in New York.

And, as usual with Simon, most of the jokes are clearly identifiable as jokes, with clear setup/punchline structures and a rat-a-tat Henny Youngmanesque rhythm. I've always thought that part of my problem with Simon is that his jokes always look too funny on paper. That is, they're lines that are funny in and of themselves, just as funny when you read them as when you say them. That may be good joke writing, but it's not what I'd call great comedy play writing; the best laughs in stage comedy often come from lines that are not funny on paper, that are written with the knowledge that they will become funny because of the combination of character and situation. One of the reasons the TV sitcom eclipsed the Broadway stage comedy (and took away a lot of people who might in another era have written and directed Broadway comedies) is that TV sitcoms, the good ones anyway, had the confidence in their characters to write comedy instead of jokes. What was left in New York was Neil Simon, the human joke machine. It's too bad, really, because Star-Spangled Girl could have been pretty interesting in different hands. It might be a good subject for musicalization, actually -- set in 2005, with two blue-state guys and a red-state gal, fleshed out with a stronger plot and some additional characters, it could be a way of finding humor and fun in the current culture wars. Which, again, are pretty much identical to the culture wars of a bygone generation.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

A Big Delight in Every Bite

In the process of my too-long post about Seanbaby, I forgot to say much about my favorite feature of the site: The Hostess Page. In the '70s and early '80s, Hostess decided to advertise their desserts on the back of comic books in such a way that kids would think the ads were actually part of the comics, and read them. So they enlisted various comic-book characters as pitchmen, and commissioned a series of one-page stories where the hero defeats some villain using Hostess Twinkies, Hostess Fruit Pies, or Hostess Cupcakes. The policy of the comic book companies was that it was okay for the heroes to save the day with Hostess snacks or say nice things about same, but they were never allowed actually to eat the product, because that would have crossed some line into open endorsement. Or something. But that meant that it was usually the villain who was seen eating the product, which left the reader with the odd impression that it's mostly evil people who like to eat Twinkies. Which may, in fact, be true.

Anyway, Seanbaby has most of these totally insane DC and Marvel ads, with equally insane "reviews" of many of them ("Robin, if you carry around a Special Mummy Ray Gun in your panties, it better fucking work on mummies"), plus an interview with a DC guy who wrote several of these things. Some of the all-time classics of bizarre advertising include:

Thor in "The Ding-a-Ling Family" -- the Mighty Thor battles an astral RV full of space hillbillies who are invincible due to "cousin power."

Wonder Woman in "The Maltese Cup Cake -- featuring such villains as Petula Lorry and Cindy Bluestreet.

Green Lantern in "The Fruit Pie Scene" -- The Nefarious Dr. Live learns that he really needs to change his name to Dr. Resol.

The Incredible Hulk vs. the Roller Disco Devils -- The town is terrorized by a bunch of roller-skating disco dancers who prevent kids from going out to buy Hostess Fruit Pies. Fulfilling the fondest dreams of many in the late '70s, the Hulk takes care of those marauding disco gangs.

Captain America vs. The Red Skull -- "Note: The Cosmic Cube Can Do Anything." Anything, that is, except resist the deliciousness of Twinkies.

There's another page, believe it or not, that covers a few of the ads Seanbaby didn't get to, featuring such characters as Archie and, God help us, Bugs Bunny.

When Bugs Bunny starts shilling for snack cakes you may think Madison Avenue has gone too far, and you'd be right. But this sort of thing is way more effective than the usual comic-book ad of the time -- you remember, the ones in black-and-white that told you in block capitals to send them all your money and they'd send you a rock that would give you magic powers. Those ads stunk. And I've got the rock to prove it.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Ridin' The Tall Hope

Cy Coleman died today. He was an extraordinarily versatile composer, re-inventing his style for every Broadway show he did: contemporary rhythms in Sweet Charity, operetta in On the Twentieth Century, circus-act music in Barnum, jazz in City of Angels. He was one of the few major musical-theatre composers of his generation who gravitated toward musical comedy; Little Me, with a score by Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, boasts one of the funniest scripts ever written for a musical (by Neil Simon, who also wrote Sweet Charity).

His greatest and most enduring songs may be the songs he wrote with the great lyricist Carolyn Leigh. Their partnership never quite reached legendary status; they never had a hit Broadway show, and they wrote most of their pop hits at a time when their kind of pop music was falling out of favor. They broke up because Leigh was famously tough to work with -- she liked to point out that Coleman's tune for their song "Real Live Girl" was unconsciously copied from Sigmund Romberg's "Stouthearted Men" -- and Coleman went on to do hit shows without her. But theirs was the collaboration that produced "Witchcraft," "I Walk A Little Faster," "Hey, Look Me Over," and "The Best is Yet to Come," and the whole wonderful Little Me score. Coleman's tunes, with their catchy vamps and effective use of musical repetition (like other composers of his generation, such as Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman, Coleman liked to build melodies out of little repeated two or three note phrases; take "The Best is Yet To Come" for an example) combined with Leigh's extraordinarily sophisticated lyrics to form the essence of what was coolest in late '50s and early '60s "establishment" pop music.

Here's an article from a couple of years ago that discusses Coleman in the context of a recital of his songs, and here's some rather poorly-written coverage of a tribute held for Coleman just a couple of days ago, by the Johnny Mercer Foundation.

The Best of Seanbaby

Readers of this blog may occasionally notice that I have a kind of premature nostalgia for the Internet culture of the '90s. Before blogging took off, and before online journalism went completely mainstream, people were putting up webpages -- combinations of writing, graphics, and interesting cultural perspectives that added up to something a bit more varied and substantial than a mere blog post (I include my own blog in that "mere" description, by the way). This was particularly true when it came to webpages dealing with popular culture. Some of the people who made these webpages had a knowledge of weird, little-known areas of pop culture, especially '80s pop culture, and they would use the web to riff on that culture in a very involved way. What I'm getting at is that the web culture of the '90s was sort of an "alternative" culture; like everything on the web, it basically fed off the mainstream media (and back then, Satan hadn't invented the abbreviation "MSM"), but it did so in a way that was more unique and interesting than today's online pop-culture stuff, which basically divides into geeky guys (angry people who will prove to you that every Star Trek episode ever made is a bitter disappointment) and snarky gals (the facile snarkiness of Television Without Pity). This was the era that produced such triumphs of pop-culture commentative weirdness as the early WWWF Grudge Match or The Evil Overlord List.

One of the commentators from this era is still producing a fair volume of stuff: that would be the Bay-Area madman who calls himself Seanbaby. He doesn't update his website very often, but it still offers access to some of his best stuff, like the Hostess Fruit Pies Page, his reviews of educational videos like Mr. T's Be Somebody or Be Somebody's Fool and Chad Allen's anti-drug masterpiece Straight Up, and his undisputed masterpiece, The Super Friends Page. (A shorter version of this is also available.) Seanbaby now writes a lot of articles for The Wave; a lot of these articles are hilarious -- especially his piece on The Eightiest Movies -- though the video reviews are a bit hampered by the fact that magazine articles can't include sound files or a lot of pictures.

The appeal of Seanbaby's stuff, even to someone like me who reads his stuff without having had the sense to get high first, is twofold. One, there's his ability to write at length about stuff that nobody else would write about, like crummy educational videos and comics, or internet fads, or horrible video games. His persona, simultaneously obsessed with this stuff and angry at a world where such things can become a subject for obsession, can be described as "punk geek." And that leads me to the second reason I love to read Seanbaby: his writing style, which was and is unique. And I mean "unique and good," not "unique as a euphemism for 'bad but interesting.'" Some sample Seanbaby quotes:

On Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo:
When are real estate developers going to learn that progress is no match for break dancing recreation centers?

From a piece on the acting careers of football players:
Position as Player:
Running back
Position as Film Star: Jesus meets Ultra Jesus and the two of them reconfigure the stars into the image of multi-talented savior of the human race, Bo Jackson.
Notable Co-Stars: Bo Jackson, Bo Jackson, Bo Jackson, Bo Jackson, Bo Jackson
Football Metaphor: Putting Bo Jackson's acting career into word symbols would require me to install a rocket pack to every single letter and replace all punctuation with pictures of Bo Jackson fighting a speeding locomotive. So forgive me when all I can say is that Bo Jackson's acting career is a lapdance from God on every molecule of your face.

On the Superfriends character "Apache Chief":
His name bugged me too. I don't think he was Apache or a chief. That's like taking a white guy and throwing him on a team of indians and saying, "Your name is.... Minnesota President." Excuse me, they would probably say, "Your name, like ancients before you, is symbol of great moon as flying eagle protect you. Your name be... Minnesota President."

From the "Be Somebody or Be Somebody's Fool" review:
It's a new technique of self-motivation. He doesn't teach you how to organize your planner or let the system work for you. Mr. T makes it very clear during the opening song that if you don't start feeling good about yourself, he is going to kick your ass. He's serious about it. For your own safety, you better get happy.

The "cheer up or I'll kill you" motivational technique might work better than hugs and trust falls. Here's how you can find out: Get a friend or relative with a weight problem - too big or too skinny, it doesn't matter. If they're anorexic, throw tennis balls at them as hard as you can. Work your way up to baseballs and throwing stars until they start eating right (If you reach the point where you're throwing bowling balls or larger at them, your energy would be better served just stuffing food in their mouths). Now, the chubbies are tougher than the skinnies, so you'll need more than tennis balls. You might have to smack them in the head with a two by four to make them feel good about themselves. Sucka.

That's the kind of thing that's left over from the time when the Internet was still sort of a weird little toy for nutty people who grew up in the '80s and remembered things that they never wrote about in academic journals or the mainstream media (again, I refuse to use the term "MSM" for any reason whatever). Of course the Internet still incorporates lots of original voices, a lot of unique writing styles. But they're mostly writing about things that actually matter. Not so very long ago, life online was so cut off from the Real World (tm) that people thought nothing of creating huge pages to mock the Superfriends. Ah, simpler times. Thanks, Seanbaby.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The '60s Pro-War Generation

[From my "silly stuff I wrote and am never going to get to use anywhere else" file]

As I look back on the '60s, the thing I remember most is the idealism. We were a generation that had been raised by our Harvard-educated, Norman Mailer-reading parents to believe that war was evil and conventional society evil-er still. We had been brought up on all the platitudes and forced to listen to scraggly-haired fake folk singers. Yet we dared to question the authority of Walter Cronkite. We dared to protest in favor of the Vietnam War.

Ours was a generation with a mission. It was a mission to save the world from everything. We saw what a mess our parents' generation had made of the world, and we thought: we could do better. We could kill some of the people who were messing the world up overseas. Our parents would tell us over and over again that America should get over its inordinate fear of Communism and that if we didn't agree we should pack up and move to Franco's Spain. But then we would read the New York Times editorials with a flashlight and smuggle Kingsley Amis articles in from England, and we would be strengthened in our resolve. This resolve allowed us to keep our mission intact even after the New York Times editorialists chickened out and caved into pressure from the big corporate interests of the time. Corporations, as you know, all wanted to end the Cold War so they could trade with the Russians and Chinese. They tried to stop the war because they put profits before people, and we wouldn't stand for it.

I remember the spirit that burned within us, as bright as the figures we burned in effigy. I remember going down to the White House to demonstrate in favor of the war, only to be hit on the head with clubs by the police. We discovered that they were acting on direct orders from President Johnson, who thought our support was giving him a bad image. So we came back the very next day and screamed: "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many Communists did you kill today? NOT ENOUGH!"

I remember the songs we wrote and sang outside any building that wasn't sound-proofed. The songs were raw statements of teenage rebellion, but with perfect rhymes and scansion. I still have my own contribution to the all-night sing-in outside Jason Epstein's summer cottage. It went:

Just shut your mouth
And sally forth,
Save Viet-South
From Viet-North,
'Cause if we fail
To stop those commies,
They'll kill or jail
Our dads and mommies.

I remember one night I lit up a bong and our group chairman, Dave, lit it up from the other end. And our group sub-chairman, Rolfe, looked at us both and said: "Gentlemen, if Ho Chi Minh had his way, all our pot would be going to the Russians' manufacturing of experimental hemp fabrics. Do we want this?" I replied "No!" Dave replied "Sinatra!" But he meant "no."

I don't see the same idealism animating today's pro-war protesters. Their support is halfhearted at best. They say they "support the troops." Our generation didn't support the troops. We didn't even like the troops. Their uniforms were idiotic and they listened to too many Pat Boone records. What we supported was the WAR. If there had been a way to have the war without troops, so much the better.

Young people often ask me "How can we recapture some of the ideals of the '60s?" I always tell them this: You just don't get it today. You think being pro-war means wearing an American flag hat or finding fault with the performances in Mystic River. For us, being pro-war was part of our attempt to smash the system. The establishment had been against us ever since Eisenhower dumped all over the military-industrial complex. But they couldn't stop us from making our voices heard and calling the public's attention to the plight of the disenfranchised weapons researchers.

If you want to understand the '60s pro-war generation, think of a time when, for the first and last time, young people didn't just accept everything linguistics professors told them. Think of a time when young people all over the country were challenging their parents and telling them that maybe duck-and-cover did work after all. And think of a time when, for the first time in American history, a generation came together to stop a war from ending.

But most of all, think of the music, a music of revolt against all the anti-war government propaganda coming out of the Republican Party (from 1964 to 1968) and the Democratic Party (from 1969 on). If you need to know what kept the '60s generation going, just listen to this song, written by Rolfe and his three girlfriends with harmonies by their guitar teacher Harlan:

Don't trust the businessmen
Who say war's too expensive;
Don't trust the congressmen
Who say the Tet's offensive;
The politicians lie to you,
The businessmen are lying too,
But you and me, we'll see it through,
Hooray for the Vietnam War!

Even Dave would have to agree.

Out of My Way, I'm a Harvard Man!

I just happened upon a list of the Harvard Lampoon's selections, year by year, for Worst Movies of the Year. Some may recall that Natalie Wood made some headlines one year when she showed up to receive her "worst actress" award, making her the first person actually to receive the award in person.

Anyway, the most interesting part, today, is the year-by-year lists of the ten worst movies, which gives a good indication of which movies seemed particularly stupid, bloated, pretentious or dull at the time. In general, the lists do a pretty good job of bypassing the obvious B-grade movies and going for big-studio snoozers like The Best of Everything, The Chapman Report and The Howards of Virginia. However, putting Son of Paleface on the list of the ten worst of 1952 is pretty ridiculous, and was obviously just payback for the way that movie mercilessly rags on Harvard.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

'60s Nostalgia

I've always been fascinated by the culture of the early '60s, and this article by Bruce Bawer, "The Other Sixties," gives a great overview of the period, fusing pop-culture, art, and politics into a portrait of an era whose theme was trying to balance tradition with progress. The defining symbol of the era was the Rat Pack, a group of old-school entertainers who gave America a carefully filtered look at what entertainers do for fun. What makes the era so appealing today is the sense that there was a social consensus, an agreed-upon balance between traditionalism and taboo-breaking (I'm not sure whether I really believe this, but it sure feels, in reading about the era, like there was more of a social consensus than there is now). It was a time that was still rooted in the culture of the '50s, but with increasing acceptance of fun, partying, trying new things. Still another defining cultural symbol of the era is the husband who comes home to his house in the suburbs, goes to his fully-stocked bar, and fixes himself a martini -- you can find this symbol in many movies and sitcoms of the era, and it somehow seems very cool, even though we know that it's likely to lead to the ending of Days of Wine and Roses.

Bawer notes that a lot of the cultural heroes of the early '60s didn't last into "The Sixties." The Rat Pack was pretty much doomed after 1963, but the same thing happened to a lot of people. One example I'd give is Allan Sherman. A former TV producer who responded to the failure of his TV career by cutting an album of song parodies, Sherman had three gigantic hit albums: "My Son the Folk Singer" (1962), "My Son the Celebrity," and "My Son the Nut" (both 1963). The albums represented much of what we have come to identify with the culture of the period: a friendly attitude; a sense of what Bawer calls "easy sophistication"; an emphasis on the integration of Jews and Jewishness into the mainstream of American culture; an assumption of cultural consensus in the use of popular and folk songs that the whole audience would be likely to recognize. Sherman did several albums after 1963 but none of them did anywhere near as well as his first three, and most of his later song parodies don't have the qualities that we associate with those three albums -- the easygoing attitude, the unselfconscious ethnic humor. In 1962, someone supposedly wrote an academic essay on the cultural significance of "My Son, the Folk Singer," concluding that it represented the mainstreaming of Jewishness and even "people's subconscious wish to be Jewish." By the late '60s, the defining work of Jewish humor was "Portnoy's Complaint," a novel about the un-mainstreaming of American Jews, the extent to which Jews were different from other people.

Like most post-sixties culture, it was about fragmentation,; the early '60s culture, on the other hand, is the last outpouring of genuine, sincere can't-we-all-just-get-along culture. Maybe that's why we value it so. I mean, it was hardly a great era for popular culture; television was pretty good (Bawer is too hard on The Beverly Hillbillies, which was terrific for its first two years -- and another example of "consensus" culture, where people from Red America live more or less harmoniously in Blue America), but I don't know that there was a lot of great work going on in novels or poetry or plays or musicals or serious music or popular music. American movies were mostly disappointing, over-expensive, chintzy-looking, and slow; the good news was that it was a good time for European movies, and more and more Americans were enjoying foreign movies as an alternative to the declining American cinema (there's an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where Laura chides Millie for imagining that life is like all the Italian movies she's been seeing). But all in all, I think the '50s and the late '60s/'70s produced more art and pop culture of enduring value; it's not the work of the early '60s that's so appealing to me on the whole, but just the attitude embodied in that work, the cheerful, optimistic, we're-all-in-this-together attitude. Maybe it was fake. But it's fun to revisit it, a sort of lounge-lizard golden age, a Rat Pack Eldorado.

Musical Housewives

I haven't really been following Desperate Housewives, and as a new show it isn't a subject for this blog, but I'm amused to note in the episode guide that most of the episode titles come from old Broadway musical songs, particularly songs by Stephen Sondheim. Previous episodes have included "Who's That Woman?" (Follies) "Ah, But Underneath" (pointless revisal of Follies), "Pretty Little Picture" (A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum). Upcoming episode titles include "Anything You Can Do" (Annie Get Your Gun, Irving Berlin), "Come Back To Me" (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,, Alan Lerner & Burton Lane) and "Every Day a Little Death" (A Little Night Music). Plus there are some non-Broadway song titles in there like "Come In, Stranger." Well, it beats "The One Where..." or that Seinfeld "The [blank]" thing.

Standard Operating Bullshit

Blake Edwards is one director whose movies have benefited a lot from the advent of DVD. Ever since The Pink Panther in 1963, Edwards has made nearly all his movies with the wide Panavision screen, and (as he notes in his rather sparse DVD commentary for Panther), he fills the whole screen with people, using the screen like a proscenium stage. Edwards doesn't use a great deal of camera movement -- observing a complicated 360-degree camera move in Victor/Victoria, he grumbles that he usually hates those gimmicky shots -- and he doesn't cut much; what he does is set up carefully composed shots, with movement by the actors, as opposed to the camera. All this is lost on TV or VHS with their pan n' scan format; on DVD, with widescreen format, it's possible to appreciate just how good Edwards is at composing for that rather awkward screen shape, and what an eye he has for the kind of lighting and design that makes a shot look good. In an era where more and more directors are using the wide screen but hardly any of them actually bother to compose for it (even now, most movies are composed in such a way that they won't lose much when they're Panned and Scanned), Edwards' movies are an object lesson in the art of film composition.

That said, there are a number of Blake Edwards movies that don't have much else to offer besides beautifully-composed shots, and a number of others that mix great moments with terrible ones. You have to wonder, looking at Edwards' career, whether he even knows a good joke from a bad one -- I know it's absurd to think that an experienced, successful writer/director wouldn't know the difference between a good joke and a bad one, but it's also pretty absurd that someone could write and direct Victor/Victoria and Trail of the Pink Panther in the same year. Everyone makes bad movies, but few people with Edwards' ability have chosen to produce and direct movies that were quite as bad as A Fine Mess or Blind Date. Not to mention his famous lack of discrimination where individual jokes are concerned -- any Edwards movie, even a good one, will include some really bad gags. He seems to think that the sight of someone falling down is inherently hilarious (it's not), and that ethnic stereotypes are inherently funny (you don't have to find Mickey Rooney offensive in Breakfast at Tiffany's to find him unfunny).

But what prompted me to write about Edwards was one of his good ones, S.O.B.. The story of this movie is pretty well known; after he was driven out of Hollywood in the early '70s by a series of flops, including the big-budget Darling Lili with his wife Julie Andrews, Edwards wrote the script for this bitter satire of Hollywood. He finally got to make it in 1981, after the new Inspector Clouseau movies and 10 had restored him to box-office favor. The fact that the script was written in the early '70s is evident all through the film, and made it seem a bit passe in 1981; Edwards was clearly hoping to shock people with his denunciation of Hollywood, but the stuff he was denouncing was almost gone by then, to be replaced by new problems.

S.O.B. is basically a story about Hollywood in the early '70s, when old-school professionals, like Edwards, found themselves being forced out of the business. Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) is a producer who suffers a disastrous flop with an old-fashioned musical starring his wife (Julie Andrews); this is a stand-in for the Darling Lili fiasco, though the musical as seen in the opening sequence is so stupid that one wonders if it's Edwards' own comment on Darling Lili (is he saying it deserved to flop?). Noting the then-recent success of movies like Last Tango in Paris, and the degraded, sex-crazed youth culture he sees all around him, Farmer realizes that the way to become a success is to "give 'em sex": he'll turn the film into an R-rated, nudity-filled, pretentious and obscure wallow, and get his wife to go topless as the film's selling point. The plan works, but Farmer is stabbed in the back by the amoral representatives of the New Hollywood, including a youngish studio head (Robert Vaughn) based on the ex-agent types who were sliding into studio management positions in the '70s. Farmer gets the ultimate one-two punch: having sold out to make the kind of movie that the New Hollywood wants, he now finds that the New Hollywood wants to take his movie away from him and get rid of him.

Apart from Felix, the only characters who come off well in the movie are other Old Hollywood types: a lecherous alcoholic director (William Holden), a Dr. Feelgood type (Robert Preston, who is so good in this movie that he makes it worth watching even to people who hate the rest of it), and a publicist (Robert Webber). None of these guys are admirable, but they have the one quality that Edwards identifies with the Old Hollywood: loyalty. They're the only people in the movie who give a damn about Felix when they don't have to.

This is pretty bitter stuff, but it's bitterness vintage 1973; by 1981 Hollywood was changing again, and a lot of the things that S.O.B. is about -- the jettisoning of old pros, the contempt for craftsmanship, the race to make movies sleazier -- had been replaced by new things, such as the rise of the Blockbuster. A movie where the characters talk about Last Tango in Paris when they want to talk about What's New in cinema is not a movie that's exactly in step with the times. The movie would have been stronger if Edwards had just made it a period piece, a snapshot of the way things looked to him in 1973. As it is, it's a Hollywood satire that doesn't have a particular period in Hollywood history to satirize. And made from the vantage point of someone who was by then a re-established success, it seems a little petty.

But viewed as a movie about '70s Hollywood, S.O.B. is pretty interesting as a glimpse of how this era -- now routinely referred to as a Golden Age -- looked to a lot of the old-school professionals who saw their talents rejected as old hat (Dennis Hopper famously snarled to George Cukor: "We're going to bury you!") and their movies re-cut to fit the tastes of the Easy Rider audience. And I think a movie like this goes some way toward answering the question of why Edwards' career has been so uneven: he always comes across as an old-school director who was born too late. His movies are shot through with a nostalgia for the "classical" cinema of the studio-system era, with their stylized dialogue and their carefully composed shots and lighting. Instead Edwards had to make his movies in the collapsing studio system of the '60s, the free-for-all of the '70s, and the corporate '80s; this was a time when it was hard for old-style professionals to know what the studios wanted or what audiences wanted. And that's what I sense in a lot of Edwards' bad jokes and bad movies: a certain contempt for the audience and for the people who are paying for the movie. This even carries over into his better movies; 10 is an aria of contempt for youth and people who are obsessed with youth; the inclusion of nudity comes off as, again, a contemptuous gesture toward audiences that seemed to want that sort of thing. (I don't think it's a complete coincidence that Edwards' personal favorite of his later movies, Victor/Victoria, is scrupulously PG-rated in terms of its content.) S.O.B. is a funny movie, but it does sum up a problem with Edwards' career: it's one thing for a filmmaker to dislike Hollywood, but it's quite another thing for a filmmaker to dislike the people who pay to see movies. And the overall message of S.O.B. seems to be: people want crap, might as well give it to them. It's not a formula for a completely successful movie career.

One more thing: has anyone ever noticed the similarities between S.O.B. and Network (which was written after S.O.B. but filmed five years before)? Don't read any further if you don't want the endings spoiled, but:

- Network, written by a guy who rose to prominence in the '50s, is about an old pro (Peter Finch) who has no place in the new, cutthroat business run by amoral opportunists. The old pro fails miserably and goes nuts (and the only character who can communicate with him is his wizened old-pro buddy played by William Holden). But in his dementia, he comes up with something that appeals to the public. The amoral opportunists step in to exploit him. He dies in the end.

- S.O.B., written by a guy who rose to prominence in the '50s, is about an old pro (Richard Mulligan) who has no place in the new, cutthroat business run by amoral opportunists. The old pro fails miserably and goes nuts (and the only character who can communicate with him is his wizened old-pro buddy played by William Holden). But in his dementia, he comes up with something that appeals to the public. The amoral opportunists step in to exploit him. He dies in the end.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

I'm Still Here

Sorry for the hiatus. That would have been a good time for me to turn things over to a guest blogger, but it turns out that 99% of people in the Western Hemisphere already have their own blogs. Eventually the shortage of guest-bloggers will cause bloggers to guest-blog on other people's blogs, and soon everybody will be writing for a blog that isn't technically their own.

I will be back tomorrow. Or if not, I will have a guest-blogger, possibly Stone Cold Steve Austin; the details haven't been finalized yet.

Friday, November 12, 2004

But I'm Feeling Much Better Now

The first season of Night Court was just announced for February 5. This show was, of NBC's famous '80s Thursday night lineup (Cheers, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and this one), the most underrated and probably the funniest. The creator, Reinhold Weege, had been a writer-producer on Barney Miller, and Night Court was essentially Barney in a courtroom. Except that where Barney started out loud and brash and got more and more subtle every year -- until by the end the jokes were so low-key that they were barely identifiable as jokes -- Night Court started out fairly sensible and got wackier and wackier with every episode. In its prime, just about every line was a joke and most of them were damned funny; Weege loved working in front of a live audience (an annoying laugh, heard from the audience in every episode, is either Weege or his father), and told his writers to keep adding new jokes all the time right up until the moment the audience went home. One writer, Tom Straw, recalled that when they were doing an episode where Dan (John Larroquette) is rejected as a sperm bank donor, he pitched a new joke literally the moment before the final taping of a particular scene, and it made it in: "Don't be disappointed, Mr. Fielding -- many are called, but few are frozen."

If you don't like jokes like that, you probably won't like Night Court, but the jokes do work, and the combination of broad neo-Vaudevillian humor and character comedy and the socially-conscious attitude of Barney Miller was a pretty entertaining mix. The show remained strong up until Weege left at the end of the sixth season (due to disputes with the network and WB Television), at which point the show did one disastrous season of stupid jokes and bad plots, followed by two only slightly less disastrous seasons with out-of-character jokes and would-be "sophisticated" plots.

The first season is not the show's best, and it's mostly notorious for the number of cast changes: Gail Strickland, who played the public defender in the pilot, was dumped and replaced by Paula Kelly, who left after the first season and was replaced by a rotating string of guest stars in season two (including Markie Post), until they settled on a permanent replacement in Ellen Foley, except she wasn't so permanent because she was replaced by Markie Post in season three. And Karen Austin, as the clerk/love interest in season 1, left the show midway through the season and was replaced by Charles Robinson (as the clerk, not the love interest) in season 2. And I'm not even getting into the infamous "dead female bailiffs" curse, but season 1 and 2 are the only seasons with Selma Diamond, a walking piece of comedy history; she was one of the first female comedy writers in the TV business, most famously writing for Sid Caesar, and she was the model for Sally on The Dick Van Dyke Show. She's the highlight of the first season. That and the famous exchange from the episode "Once In Love With Harry":

LANA: I hear you lost the election for city council.
DAN: That's not the depressing part.
LIZ: I heard you lost the election by ten thousand votes.
DAN: That's not the depressing part.
BULL: Hey, didn't your opponent die two weeks ago?
DAN: That's the depressing part.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Mirror, Mirror

I would hope that most people reading this blog would have gotten the new Marx Brothers DVD collection (hardly any extras and the films aren't in great condition, but Universal has done the best they can with some films that were never very well-preserved, and -- contrary to what some gossip columnist reported -- Duck Soup is uncut). Not much to say about their Paramount movies that hasn't already been said, but I will make one observation about the mirror routine in Duck Soup. It seems like every time this routine is imitated, it shows a character who literally thinks he or she is looking in a mirror, or at least is partly convinced of this. That's not what happens with Groucho and Harpo: Groucho signals all through the routine that he knows this isn't a mirror. Every gag involves him trying to trip Harpo up, to stop Harpo from doing exactly what Groucho does. They even walk around and switch places, and it doesn't matter because each guy knows what the other is up to. In most routines like this, the joke is that one character is too dumb to tell the difference between his reflection and another person in a costume. Here it's two guys playing a game with each other. So the gags are crazy, the movie is crazy -- but the behavior of the characters is logical; they're not idiots. That's one of the things that's appealing about the Marx Brothers, that unlike other "crazy" comics whose craziness seems indistinguishable from idiocy, the Brothers are crazy and smart. Okay, well, Xeppo doesn't usually come off onscreen as either crazy or smart. But why spoil such a short post with Zeppo-bashing?

Even Keel

I've been asked why I didn't write anything about Howard Keel. The answer is that I really don't know that much about him -- in fact, until I read his obituaries, I was unaware that he'd ever been on Dallas (I've only seen the first and second seasons of that show). I will say that his film career probably suffered from two misfortunes:

a) At the very moment when he was starting to become a big star, the mid-'50s, the bottom dropped out of movie musicals. Or, rather, the bottom dropped out of solid, medium-budget, quickly-made musicals, the kind that required a guy like Keel who could be a convincing singing hero. Starting in the late '50s, musicals started to become big, ultra-expensive prestige projects, and the kind of musical that Keel had been perfect for -- old-fashioned studio-bound, studio-system projects like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers -- more or less disappeared.

b) Keel's type of legit singing seemed to go out of fashion in movie musicals in the '50s (and even on Broadway, to which Keel repaired for the expensive disappointment Saratoga). Male singers rarely became big stars in movie musicals anyway -- the big male stars of movie musicals tended to be primarily dancers, whereas the big female stars tended to be singers -- but it was even harder to become a star as a singing actor when fewer and fewer musicals were being made that called for his kind of singing.

Pauline Kael has a lot of nice comments about Keel scattered through 5001 Nights at the Movies; she clearly liked him a lot. Alfred Drake the Broadway star whose parts Keel tended to play in the movies (Kiss Me Kate and Kismet were Alfred Drake shows filmed with Keel in the lead), didn't feel that way; his comment on Keel, in the course of explaining why he (Drake) didn't have a movie career, was something to the effect of "The movies had a guy who they thought could play my kind of parts. He wasn't very good." But Alfred Drake would have been pretty damned embarrasing in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, where Keel not only sings well but does a fine job of making us sort of like a character who is -- deliberately -- written to be rather unsympathetic much of the time.

Monday, November 08, 2004

His Horse, Of Course, Is a Baritone Too

Bill James once wrote about a particular baseball team that its lesson was "that you can, in fact, have too much pitching": if a team has too many promising pitchers, what happens is that the manager can't decide which ones to use and the team becomes unstable. Well, I think the lesson of Danny Kaye is that a performer can, in fact, have too much talent. The word "multitalented" -- or is that two words? -- is practically synonymous with Kaye; the guy could do just about anything, including some things that hardly anybody else was doing at the time (super-fast patter singing, for example, a style he sort of borrowed from Gilbert and Sullivan but made his own). Like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, he went to Hollywood after starring in a hit Broadway show (Let's Face It, music and lyrics by Cole Porter). But unlike Astaire and Kelly, he didn't star in a lot of enduring, great movie musicals; his portfolio consists of one all-time favorite, The Court Jester, plus a lot of other movies that now come off as very uneven.

In part this was because of who Kaye signed with: Samuel Goldwyn, the most successful and overrated independent producer in the business. At the time, Goldwyn's name was a watchword for prestige, but now a lot of his movies look very creaky (especially most of the films made by his star director, William Wyler), characterized by a slow pace and an excess of good taste. In the '30s, Goldwyn's big comedy star was Eddie Cantor. Goldwyn saw in Kaye someone who was comparable to Cantor as a singing comedian, and someone whose range of talents could carry a picture. What Goldwyn did, basically, was to turn Kaye into the new Eddie Cantor; his first movie, Up in Arms, was loosely based on the Cantor vehicle Whoopee. And after that, Kaye usually played the same character Cantor had played in the '30s: a sweet, nebbishy guy who gets menaced by big bad guys. Sometimes, for a change, Goldwyn would skip the neo-Eddie-Cantor stuff and put Kaye in a remake of something else, e.g. A Song is Born, a musical remake of Ball of Fire with Kaye very much miscast in the Gary Cooper role. The writing and direction on most of these movies was not usually of a very high standard; nor were the casts (headed by Goldwyn's leading lady of choice, Virginia Mayo -- who did her best work after she got away from Goldwyn). The movies looked good, what with the high budgets and Gregg Toland's photography, but they were, like Goldwyn's Eddie Cantor films, innocuous, creaky family-friendly projects that seemed to embalm a talented performer rather than showing him off. The ultimate Kaye/Goldwyn movie in this respect is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which takes a good idea for a movie, James Thurber's story, takes out everything that made it a good idea in the first place, and replaces it with a lot of not-so-good ideas.

But some of the trouble with Kaye's movies has to do with Kaye himself. In a sense, it was inevitable that he'd wind up playing characters originated by other actors -- Eddie Cantor, Gary Cooper, Maurice Chevalier (On the Riviera, made for Fox, is a remake of a Chevalier movie) -- because he really didn't have a character of his own. His fame came from his ability to shift from one character to another, to be everybody at once; his greatest routine, "The Lobby Number," written by his wife/associate Sylvia Fine, features him describing a movie and becoming all the characters in it, from Cowboy Dan to Carmelita Perpita, The Bolivian Bombshell. But an ability to be everybody at once, left unchecked, becomes a tendency to be nobody. And a screen comic, as opposed to someone performing in sketches or nightclubs, needs to have a well-defined personality, because, cliche though it may be, the best film comedy is character comedy, comedy that comes from the reaction of a distinctive character to a distinctive situation.

Bob Hope, by most standards less gifted than Kaye, created a character who can get laughs because of the appropriateness of the way he reacts to the problems he faces; we know he's a coward and a braggart, and when he displays these characteristics, it's both funny and appropriate to the story: character and schtick fused into one. But Kaye is always bouncing from one character to another, sometimes literally, since he frequently played two roles or one guy who takes on multiple personalities (as in The Court Jester). It's hard to know whether his schtick is appropriate to his character, because we don't fully know what his character is; when he's not playing another comedian's character (mostly Cantor), he's the hero's nightclub-entertainer brother, or he's a womanizing Frenchman. And so his routines, brilliant though some of them are, distract from the movie, because they're not an opportunity to escape into a different persona: they're yet another switch by a guy who keeps switching personalities, and whose basic persona is never quite defined. When Daffy Duck does a Danny Kaye routine in the cartoon Book Revue (available on the new DVD set), mimicking Kaye's rapid swings from Russian-accented sentimentality to wild scat routines, it's in many ways funnier than the real thing -- not only because Mel Blanc can do this kind of thing almost as well as Kaye did, but because we know who Daffy is; he is a well-defined character (or was before his mid-'50s identity crisis), and in him we see a familiar character going wild, rather than, as with Kaye, a talented performer going wild to distract us from the central unanswered question: who is this guy?

Kaye clearly had some problems with sticking to a character. This was mocked early in his career when he appeared on Jack Benny's radio show; Kaye has been selected to play the lead in The Jack Benny Story (upsetting Jack, who thought that was his part), and when asked to play the young Jack Benny, Kaye goes through a series of silly accents depending on where the scene takes place:

(Thinking it takes place in Russia)
"Papa, can I have fifty roubles for to buying a wiolin?"

(Told that it actually takes place in Illinois
"Hey, pop, can I but the bite on yer fer fifty frogskins t' buy a fiddle?"

This portrayal of Kaye -- as an incredibly talented guy who can't give up schtick long enough to play a character -- was definitively proven toward the end of his career, when he played Noah on Broadway in Richard Rodgers' Two By Two; he started out playing it more or less straight, but as time went on (and particularly after he suffered a fracture that forced him to play much of the run in a wheelchair) he started turning the whole thing into an excuse for him to ad-lib, try to throw the other actors off, and, one night, scream obscenities at the actor playing one of his sons.

Kaye's best movie is The Court Jester, though it doesn't come all that much closer to solving the problem of "Who is Danny Kaye?" What makes it work, apart from the excellent script and supporting cast, is that the film is basically a genre spoof -- the ancestor of Blazing Saddles and Airplane, though in '50s-style good taste -- and therefore there's not much need for a rounded character in the main part; all that's needed is someone like Robert Hays in Airplane!, a guy who can do jokes and be, generically, the Lead Character. It's odd that a comedy performer as distinctive as Danny Kaye should wind up as a generic comic lead, or a last-minute replacement for another performer (Kaye replaced Donald O'Connor in White Christmas, which is why most of his songs are about dancing). One wonders what kind of movies he'd have made if he'd just stood still long enough to develop a real character for himself. But then, Sam Goldwyn might not have stood for that.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Just a General Interest

Been re-reading the Pulitzer Prize winning play State of the Union, by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Like most of the plays and musicals by this prolific team (Life With Father, The Sound of Music), it's well-structured, efficient, and about as deep as a wading pool. As always, Lindsay and Crouse characterize not so much by personality type as by function: Jim Conover (Minor Watson) is The Political Hack; Grant (Ralph Bellamy) is The Hero Who Must Choose Between Integrity and Political Success; Mary (Ruth Hussey) is The Estranged Wife Outraged By Political Hackery. Every point in the play is condensed into a little fortune-cookie motto, e.g.:

CONOVER: The people have damn little to say about the nomination. You two have lived in this country all your lives. Haven't you got that through your heads yet? You're not nominated by the people -- you're nominated by the politicians! Why? Because the voters are too damned lazy to vote in the primaries! Well, politicians are not lazy!

SPIKE: These educated apes who are coming here -- Grant can't be nominated without their support, and in the election they can deliver a lot of votes.
MARY (scornfully): How can you deliver the votes of a free people?
SPIKE: Mary, lazy people and ignorant people and prejudiced people are not free.

MARY: Everybody here tonight was thinking of the next election. Well, it's time somebody began thinking of the next generation!

And so on. The politics of the play's lead character are pretty vague, deliberately so; opening right after the end of World War II, it presents its hero as the ideal politician to keep the country united in the postwar era, a guy who throws off the shackles of party affiliation (it's implied at the end that he might run as an independent or else remake the Republican Party in his own image) and special interests to Tell It Like It Is to labor and big business alike. He's given a few political positions -- he's in favor of full employment bills -- but basically he's an early representative of American pop culture's obsession with independents, mavericks, and people who claim to render the categories of "right" and "left" irrelevant. It's not a big surprise that the play was filmed by Frank Capra, whose Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is a great political film about a character with no discernible political affiliation.

But that's the fun of reading a play like this (aside from the fun of some of Lindsay and Crouse's snappy/corny lines, like Mary's explanation of why she broke off her affair with an army officer: "When he was a Major, he was a major interest, but now that he's a General, he's just a general interest"), that it shows how little has changed in stories dealing with politics: the idealistic maverick is always exalted over the guy who plays politics. Whether this makes sense is another question; I think there's a good argument that the demands of political hackery are a welcome brake on the dangers of too much political idealism (remember, the people you disagree with are often idealists too). But I don't think there's been a successful play or movie celebrating a political hack. Maybe that's something worth trying.

The other thing about State of the Union is that because it came out just before the Cold War (tm) really got started, it still has vestigal traces of the Popular Front attitude of pre-WWII plays; it has this in common with another hit of the same season, Born Yesterday, which is full of dire warnings about incipient fascism and more or less equates an uncouth businessman with Hitler. Most embarrassing moment in State of the Union, when Grant has just been meeting with some John Birch-ish group:

MARY: Oh, that crowd! Against war -- but we may have to fight the Russians!
GRANT: Exactly! I wound up making a campaign speech for Stalin.

Yeah, that'll show 'em.

No, Not Courtney

Here's a pretty good fansite for the novelist Thorne Smith, the leading writer in what might be called "fantasitcom" -- situation comedies with a strong fantasy element. A lot of his books, like Topper, wound up as movies, though without the risque note he often struck; Turnabout, the first "body-switching" novel (a man and a woman magically switch places, leading to funny complications but also, unfortunately, to 18 Again and Like Father, Like Son), features a rather casual attitude toward adultery and "free love" in general. His stuff is a bit dated, but fun to read, and I've always loved the basic setup of having fantasy and magic intrude into otherwise mundane everyday settings. So much better than the Harry Potter type of fantasy novel, which takes the infinite possibilities of magic and puts them in a straitjacket by making them all part of some dull English public-school scene -- in other words, making magic as routine and mundane as everyday life, rather than letting magic shake up our everyday world a little.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Love and... Barriage?

Just to show you how music licensing is putting a continual crimp in the TV-on-DVD business: according to TV Shows On DVD, the release of the complete third season of Married With Children has been held up because the owners of the theme song, "Love and Marriage," decided that they wanted more money for it. (That is, after licensing the song out for the first two sets, they suddenly jacked up the price.) So Columbia has finally decided to release the third season with the theme song replaced, but with a label on the box mentioning that the music has been changed.

Music licensing for TV shows on DVD is incredibly tricky because even if the songs were licensed for syndication, they have to be licensed all over again for DVD release. A music-heavy show like WKRP in Cincinnati is effectively impossible to release, but as you can see from this debacle, even a single song can screw up a season release if the owners of the song demand an exorbitant price. It's pretty sad to think of Married With Children without the Sinatra recording of "Love and Marriage," which perfectly summed up the attitude of the show (it helps that the recording itself takes kind of an ironic attitude to the song, which was written for a TV musical version of Our Town and which is semi-spoofed by Nelson Riddle's arrangement). But I don't see what choice an Al Bundy fan has, short of paying $60 for a three-disc set, which would sell so poorly that the other seasons wouldn't come out.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

We Are DVDs, If You Please

I apologize for not blogging much recently (the problem with blogging entirely about old stuff is that the impetus to blog usually comes from something new happening -- and when your blog is about "nothing new," well, bang goes your motivation). Will get some essays n' stuff up soon.

Meanwhile, here are some random points about upcoming DVDs of old stuff:

- The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection, due this Tuesday, doesn't appear to be much of a box set in comparison to the products that other studios are putting out (like WB's set of the later Marx movies, which made a great product out of an overall less good group of films). According to people who have seen the set, the only bonus features are about 15 minutes' worth of interviews from the Today show -- which, absurdly, get a whole disc to themselves -- and none of the missing footage in Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers has been rediscovered. (Animal Crackers suffered cuts when it was reissued after the implementation of the Hays Code; Horse Feathers also lost a scene to the Hays Code, and frames were lost in another scene for unknown reasons.) However, contrary to a bizarre newspaper item that said that "insensitive" material would be cut from Duck Soup, people who have seen the set report that that movie is uncut. Basically it's a set that preserves the movies as seen on VHS and TV, with the picture slightly but not spectacularly improved. Buy it for the movies and watch the special features on the WB set.

- If you're wondering why I've said that I think Boy Meets World was a good show, the second season gives some idea of what I mean: it switched the location from junior high to high school and made the kids grow up rather quickly (one of the few shows that ever made kids age faster, rather than slower), and solidified the characters, as well as its ability to build episodes around themes without coming off as preachy. I'm not saying it's an all-time classic, but it's excellent sitcom writing: well-structured stories, interesting characters, and above all laughs that don't come from obvious "jokes" but from character-specific lines and actions. If you find a place that rents TV shows, it might be worth a look. One I particularly like is "The Beard," where Cory is asked to play Cyrano for a school bully with a poetic streak; the A and B stories are intertwined and connected by the theme of men learning that women need to feel appreciated, and almost every laugh comes from something unexpected, rather than cookie-cutter sitcom lines.

- WB has announced a collection of their classic gangster movies, along with the usual commentaries, featurettes, and bonus cartoons and shorts from the year the film was made. Nothing bad can be said about this, particularly since The Public Enemy will be the original version, not the cut version issued after the Hays Code was implemented.

- Finally, coming in distant February, a disc of what might possibly be the funniest movie ever made (I'm not saying it is, just that it's a candidate), Preston Sturges' The Palm Beach Story. It's one of those "oldies" that seems to appeal very strongly to people who don't normally go in for old movies -- perhaps because it seems to fit in with postmodern, age-of-irony sensibilities in the way it simultaneously parodies the conventions of movie comedies (like the ridiculous tacked-on twists that provide a happy ending for everyone) while accepting them. Plus it's got the "Ale and Quail Club," which everybody seems to love.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Election Infection

Like everyone else, I'm depressed (not even so much to do with the results, just the deja vu element). Random thoughts that are somewhat related to this blog:

1. There's a song from the musical Fiorello!, written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, called "The Bum Won" (sung by some New York political types after a surprise victory by the title character), which is always appropriate after every election, no matter who wins. The most quotable and always-relevant line:

Who would have guessed that the people would go to the polls and elect a fanatic?
People can do what they want to, but I got a feeling it ain't democratic.

2. Asked to explain the Ohio results, all I could do was point to Family Ties, which was set in Columbus, Ohio. Therefore, the Ohio results went like this:

Stephen: Democrats
Elyse: Democrats
Alex: Republicans
Mallory: Didn't want to vote, but she decided to go to the polls to meet a cute guy, and while she was there, she voted Republican because they were promising to lift restrictions on imports of foreign makeup
Jennifer: Democrats
Andrew (who would by now be old enough to vote): Republicans

That makes it a 3-3 split. Who cast the tiebreaking vote? NICK. He went Republican at the last minute because Laura Bush said something nice about his art. When Stephen finds out, he chases Nick around the state with a baseball bat with a nail in it.

And Skippy? Skippy's vote wasn't counted. As if you had any doubt.

Monday, November 01, 2004

The Return of Herb Tarlek

Hope this is better than The New WKRP in Cincinnati.

I think that of all the great characters on WKRP, Herb Tarlek may have become the most iconic -- him or Les Nessman. I've heard Herb Tarlek invoked as the ultimate example of the sleazy salesman by lawyers, teachers, businessmen, and, of course, salesmen.

Herb was originally supposed to be younger and possessed of a certain slimy charm -- Gob on Arrested Development would probably be a good approximation of the way Herb was conceived -- but, as so often, the actor who proved the best choice was a different physical type, and the character changed to fit the actor.