Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Worst of the Best

The Onion A.V. Club has a fun article about bad scenes in great movies and great scenes in bad movies. The picks for the former are mostly spot-on, while I haven't seen enough of the latter bunch of movies to comment (except Walk on the Wild Side, the most famous example of a movie where the title sequence outshines the actual film).

I should add my own choices for worst scenes in great movies, but I need to think a bit more about it. I could pick scenes that I think are just overrated -- like the hunting scene in The Rules of the Game, an overlong bit of heavy-handed preachery that drags down an otherwise subtle movie with its five-and-ten-cent-store symbolism -- but for the most part, even the lesser scenes in good movies tend not to be bad. That's why something like the psychiatrist scene in Psycho, a scene that is not only heavy-handed but cheesy, clumsily shot, and generally badly done, is a gift from the Gods: a scene in a good movie that seems to have wandered in from a genuinely bad movie. I need to think of a few more scenes like that.

One filmmaker who does come to mind as perfect for something like this is Blake Edwards. He's never made a good movie without some really atrocious scenes, and on the other hand even his worst movies have some pretty good things in them (Curse of the Pink Panther is almost -- almost worth it for that closing gag with Roger Moore). If I liked Breakfast at Tiffany's enough to consider it a great movie, any scene with Mickey Rooney would be an easy choice for the "worst scenes in great movies" list.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

That Great, Great Polish Actor

I would assume that most people reading a blog like this would already have seen and loved Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be. That movie needs no recommendation from me, so instead I'll write about a couple of tangential points:

1. You may notice that Mr. Greenberg (Felix Bressart, a staple in Lubitsch movies of this period), the Jewish actor who gets the role of his life toward the end of the picture, is never explicitly referred to as Jewish; even Shylock's big speech from The Merchant of Venice, which Greenberg recites at several key points, is stripped of the word "Jew" every time he recites it, And the film never explicitly says that the Jews are a particular target of the Nazis, even though the climax of the film depends on just that fact.

Hollywood movies rarely included Jewish characters in this era, and anti-Nazi movies were de facto forbidden from mentioning Hitler's targeting of the Jews; the only American movie that did so was Warner Brothers' Mr. Skeffington, where the title character tells his daughter that he is not safe in Europe because he is Jewish. And as this article explains, that one line brought the movie under attack from all sides:

Even that single instance caused Jews of a certain stripe--for example, those who governed the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League--to have fits, and Roosevelt's own Office of War Information sent in an official complaint: "This portrayal on the screen of prejudice against the representative of an American minority group is extremely ill-advised."

So To Be Or Not To Be, like most anti-Nazi films of the time, emphasizes the general aspect of the Nazi terror -- the threat the Nazis pose to everyone -- rather than the threat that they pose to a specific group. Still, the movie finds ways to send out signals about the latter threat, mostly through Greenberg; after the montage of posters showing the mounting reign of terror in Poland, Lubitsch dissolves to Greenberg reciting: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?"

And one thing that may or may not have been intentional, but certainly makes the same point in its own way: after his climactic recitation of Shylock's speech, Greenberg disappears from the movie. He's not seen on the plane with the escaping actors, and he's not seen among the actors after they've escaped to England. We're never told that he didn't escape with the rest of them, and I think we are supposed to assume that they all got away, but we never actually see him again after he stands up to the Nazis. For all I know this might just mean that Felix Bressart wasn't available when they shot those scenes, but it does make a subliminal point, intentional or no, about which member of the troupe is the least likely to get away from the Nazis.

2. In Carole Lombard's biography, Screwball, it's mentioned that the part of Maria Tura was actually intended for Miriam Hopkins; she was one of Lubitsch's favorite actresses (she gave three superb -- and very different -- performances for him, in The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise and Design For Living); her career had started to falter, due in part to her own hotheadedness and unreliability, and To Be or Not to Be was to be her comeback. However, Hopkins objected to the fact that her part was clearly secondary to Jack Benny's, and lobbied Lubitsch and Edwin Justus Meyer for a rewrite to make the part bigger; meanwhile, Lubitsch was unable to get a Hollywood studio to take on the project and was having trouble raising the money to make it independently. When Lombard heard about the project and read the script, she agreed to take the smaller role (in exchange for bigger billing); Hopkins withdrew, and with Lombard's name attached, Lubitsch and Alexander Korda were able to raise the money they needed to make the film.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Calla Lilies Are In Bloom Again

Instead of complaining about the way Hollywood buys pre-existing works and then changes them beyond recognition, I will invite you to consider the case of Stage Door (1937). This is a movie that completely trashed the play it was supposedly based on. And it turns out that that was a good thing, because the movie is infinitely better than its nominal source.

First, some gushing about the film: Stage Door, the movie, is one of the best movies of the '30s. The director, Gregory La Cava, would have been one of the all-time greats if he hadn't been an alcoholic; as it was, he made several true classics, including My Man Godfrey and this one. La Cava and producer Pandro Berman assembled an extraordinary cast for the story of a New York boarding house for struggling actresses: the lead roles were for Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, both at their very best, and supporting players included Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Ann Miller, and Gail Patrick. La Cava was an improvisatory filmmaker who believed in shooting without a finished script (Leo McCarey was the same way). On Stage Door, before shooting started, he gathered the cast together for two weeks of rehearsals and encouraged them to ad-lib and improvise; he had a secretary take down the best lines that came out of these improv sessions, and incorporated them into the finished film. The whole movie has this loose, improvisational quality; it also has some real insight into the questions of what we have to do to "make it," in life or in show business, and into the cruelty of the fact that some people get the breaks while other, equally talented people, do not. It's an exceptionally rich, funny, affecting movie, and one of the fastest-moving and most concise movies ever made; there's not a wasted scene or an unnecessary line, and the movie takes only 91 minutes to tell a fairly complicated story with a number of subplots.

Now for the comparison of the film and the play. I'm going to spoil the plot of the film here, so if you haven't seen it, see it and come back to this later. Very briefly, the lead of the movie is Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn), an heiress who is determined to make it on her own. She comes to New York and stays at the Footlight Club, a theatrical boarding house. She tells her father that she wants to find out whether she has what it takes to succeed as an actress; if she fails, she'll come home. Deciding to speed up the process, her father secretly makes a deal with producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou): he'll finance Powell's production of Enchanted April on condition that Terry be cast in the lead role. Kaye (Andrea Leeds), a "brilliant" actress who hasn't worked in a year and who had her heart set on getting Enchanted April, commits suicide on Terry's opening night. Terry's guilt over Kaye's death causes her to lose her emotional reticence and give a great performance. There are a number of little sub-plots, but the most substantial one involves Terry's roommate and Kaye's friend, dancer Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers), who is wooed by Powell.

Now, the play. The play Stage Door opened on Broadway in 1936; it was written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, who had previously written Dinner at Eight together. The story of the play is as follows: Terry Randall (Margaret Sullavan) is an aspiring actress who has moved to New York from Indiana. Her father is a poor country doctor and her late mother was an actress before she got married. Terry knows that her mother always regretted giving up her acting career, and she is determined to have the kind of long, successful acting career that her mother never had.

Jean Maitland, "an opportunist; good-natured enough when things go her way; of definite charm and appeal for men," is dating David Kingsley, a producer who used to put on plays but gave it up to go to Hollywood and produce motion pictures. When Terry meets David, she tells him that his play Amaryllis was the first play she ever saw, but that she hasn't seen any of his movies: "I'm afraid I'm kind of dumb about pictures. Mother used to say the theatre had two offsprings -- the legitimate stage, and the bastard." At the end of the first act, Jean tells Terry that Kingsley has gotten both of them an opportunity to sign contracts with a Hollywood studio. But Terry refuses:

TERRY: That isn't acting; that's piecework. You're not a human being, you're a thing in a vacuum. Noise shut out, human response shut out. But in the theatre, when you hear that lovely sound out there, then you know you're right. It's as though they'd turned on an electric current that hit you here. And that's how you learn to act.

JEAN: You can learn to act in pictures. You have to do it till it's right.

TERRY: Yes, and then they put it in a tin can -- like Campell's soup. And if you die the next day it doesn't matter a bit. You don't even have to be alive to act in pictures.

Jean goes to Hollywood; Terry stays in New York, proclaiming her allegiance to the theatre: "It isn't just a career, it's a feeling. The theatre is something that's gone on for hundreds of years. It's -- I don't know -- it's part of civilization."

The second act takes place a year later. Terry is dating Keith, a young left-wing playwright who has finally sold his great play. She assumes she has a shot at the lead part, but the producer wants to cast a better-known actress, and Keith won't stand up for Terry for fear of not getting the play produced. Terry accepts it. Two months later, the play is a hit, and Keith sells out to go to Hollywood and become a screenwriter. Terry dumps him. Kingsley returns and tells Terry that she's a great actress but a lousy self-promoter; that's why she can't make it in New York. But in Hollywood, with a studio contract and the promotion machine behind her, "they'll know what to do with you out there."

In act three, Jean returns, having become a big movie star; now she's going to star in a play. Kingsley knows that Jean, having sold out, doesn't have what it takes to carry a good play, and is angry about it: "When picture people come into the theatre -- when they take a really fine play and put a girl like Jean in it -- when they use a play like this for camera fodder, that's more than I can stand. The theatre means too much to me."

Sure enough, at rehearsal, it turns out that Jean is simply not up to the part. Kingsley collars Mr. Gretzl, the producer of the play, and brings him to hear Terry do a reading. Gretzl isn't interested: "All I wanted it for was Jean Maitland, so she could make a picture of it." So Kingsley offers to buy the play from Gretzl: he's going to go back into the theatre, and produce the play with Terry as the star. And, of course, not only does Terry get the part, she gets the guy:

TERRY: David, oh, my dear, you mustn't do this just for me.

KINGSLEY: No, I'm not one of those boys who puts on a play just so that his girl can act in it... by the way, you are my girl, aren't you?

TERRY (brightly): Oh, yes, sir.

KINGSLEY: I just thought I'd ask.

(He takes her in his arms and kisses her.)

A subplot involves Kaye, a struggling actress who is running away from an abusive husband: "There's nothing else I can do and nobody I can go back to. Except somebody I'll never go back to." By the second act, Kaye hasn't worked in a year; she is broke, hungry and hopeless, and finally kills herself. The character of Kaye was retained in the movie, as was her lack of work, her suicide and that one line about "somebody I'll never go back to," but everything else about the character, including her reason for killing herself, was changed.

Was there anything else from the play that got used in the movie? Yes. One of Terry's lines in the play was given to Kay in the movie: "You're an actress if you're acting. Without a job and those lines to say, an actress is just an ordinary person, trying not to look as scared as she feels." And there may be a few lines I've missed that made it into the movie. Otherwise, the movie is a completely original work that uses the same setting, a couple of character names, and nothing else.

The play isn't bad; as always with Kaufman plays, it is well-constructed, does a good job of handling a large cast, and has some good lines. The anti-Hollywood theme of the play was probably dear to the heart of Kaufman, who detested Hollywood; he went out there to write one movie (A Night at the Opera) and direct another one (The Senator Was Indiscreet), but otherwise he was true to New York and the New York stage, and into Stage Door he poured some of his feelings about why live theatre is better. You could argue that Stage Door is more personal than most plays from Kaufman, a mostly impersonal technician whose plays are usually defined by the personalities of his collaborators. But, all that said, it's hopelessly phony and pointless. And the play proved the phoniness of its own theme from the moment the curtain went up on opening night, because the star was Margaret Sullavan -- an actress who had found equal success in film and on the stage, and whose appeal at the New York box office was undoubtedly helped by her success in Hollywood. The presence of Sullavan proved the falseness of the authors' thesis that doing pictures makes you unfit to be a stage actor; and her presence also made them look like hypocrites for arguing, through the hero, that plays shouldn't feature movie stars.

The play, in other words, is dated, creaky, and based on a premise that doesn't hold up. The movie is none of these things. (George S. Kaufman's only comment on the movie was that they changed it so much that it should have been re-named Screen Door.) Its very excellence was further proof that the play was based on a mistaken premise: the play is about the inferiority of Hollywood movies to the New York stage, yet it (nominally) inspired a Hollywood movie that was far finer than the New York stage original.

I'll close by pointing out a couple of mini-ironies about the movie. One: that this complete evisceration of a George S. Kaufman play was co-written by Morrie Ryskind, who had once been one of Kaufman's most frequent collaborators (they wrote Of Thee I Sing and several scripts for the Marx Brothers). And two: even though the play was co-written by a woman, it ends as a conventional love story where the heroine's fulfilment is largely contingent on her getting a man. While the movie, which was entirely created by men, is one of the most genuinely feminist movies ever made, in the sense that it is about women who don't define themselves by their romantic relationships with men (there is almost no romance in the film) and who are determined to be what they want to be rather than what society wants them to be. Most "women's" stories are about women who mostly think about men. Stage Door is a movie where women actually have other dreams, other priorities, other goals. Take that, Sex and the City.

Come and Listen To My Story

Paul Henning died yesterday at the age of 93. The obit above, from a newspaper in Henning's native Missouri, is much better and more detailed than the AP obit.

Henning, like a surprisingly large number of successful comedy writers, had a law degree, though he didn't practice law; instead he took a staff job at a Kansas City radio station, and broke into the big time when he got a spec script accepted by Fibber McGee and Molly. He wrote for a number of radio comedies, but his most important credit was The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show; he was one of the top writers on the radio show, and had a big role in helping to develop the show for television. He left Burns and Allen to write and produce The Bob Cummings Show, one of the funniest sitcoms of the '50s (and certainly the lewdest; in an era where nearly every sitcom was about a family, this was about the adventures of a womanizing glamour photographer). His best-known credit is, of course, The Beverly Hillbillies, arguably the biggest hit sitcom of all time -- at the height of its popularity it pulled in a staggering number of viewers, more than any series could possibly get today -- and, at its best, which is to say in the first two seasons, a very funny show that brought the Vaudevillian sensibility of radio comedy to the world of TV sitcoms.

Henning wrote or co-wrote nearly every episode of The Beverly Hillbillies during its nine-year run; he also created Petticoat Junction and served as a consultant on Green Acres (after Variety mistakenly credited him with creating Green Acres, he generously took out an ad in Variety calling attention to the name and work of the show's actual creator, Jay Sommers). He also wrote two movie scripts with Stanley Shapiro, Lover Come Back, the best of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies, and Bedtime Story, later remade as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Lover Come Back isn't all it might have been as a movie, mostly because of bad direction, but the script, which uses the romantic-comedy formula as a pretext for a very funny satire on Madison Avenue, has some of the best lines of any comedy script of the '60s.

He was a prolific and very funny comedy writer whose good-natured humor, along with his ability to tailor his material to the strengths of his performers, has made his best work hold up very well. He also has some historical significance in that he helped to bring the concept of the "arc" show into the mainstream of radio and TV (in his radio work, and on The Beverly Hillbillies, he often did story arcs stretching story threads over several weeks or even months, instead of making every episode self-contained). Plus the theme song of "The Beverly Hillbillies" is his work, too.

Friday, March 25, 2005

We Hate Each Other Very Much

This may be a weird thing to nit-pick about when watching one of the best movies ever made, but: I was watching The Band Wagon again the other day. As you know if you've seen the film -- and you should -- the last third of the movie is mostly just a series of musical numbers representing excerpts from the musical comedy that Lily and Lester (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) have written for Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire). So here's what I got to wondering: how could these numbers possibly fit into a musical?

Now, when Lily and Lester are describing the plot of their show, they say it's about a writer of children's books who writes lurid murder mysteries on the side. That description provides an excuse for the climactic ballet, the Mickey Spillane spoof "The Girl Hunt." (It's also the climax of the whole film; the question in the film is whether Tony Hunter can re-invent himself for the '50s while still providing the kind of old-fashioned entertainment he prefers; "The Girl Hunt" shows that the answer is yes.) And the fact that it's supposed to be about a writer of children's stories just about explains "Triplets"; maybe it's an excerpt from one of the character's books. But can you possibly think of a plot into which "Louisiana Hayride" could fit? Or why Astaire, if he's playing a struggling writer of popular fiction, is singing and dancing with Jack Buchanan in top hat, white tie and tails? Or what that "New Sun in the Sky" thing (the weakest number in the picture, anyway) is supposed to be about?

Let me try and make up some kind of scenario for it: Astaire's character is in love with a stage performer, played by Charisse, and goes to see her perform ("New Sun in the Sky"). He and his best friend, Buchanan, discover after the performance that they both love the same girl, that she's in love with someone else, and that they rented those darn tuxedos for nothing ("I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan"). To cheer him up, Astaire's best friend, Fabray, invites him to a party where everybody has to dress up as stereotypical Southerners ("Louisiana Hayride"), but instead Astaire throws himself back into writing a new children's book ("Triplets"). Closure is achieved when he and the girl he loves get to star in an adaptation of one of his murder mysteries ("The Girl Hunt").

Well, I gave it a shot.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


Hey, looks like I made it into McSweeney's.

The key to getting accepted, apparently, is to write something where the whole joke is in the title. But I like it.

Also, Yankee Pot Roast has my helpful how-to piece, A Style Guide For Blog Parodists.

Noir-y About That, Chief

WB Home Video has announced the contents of the next Film Noir Collection, to be released July 5: Crossfire, The Narrow Margin, Born to Kill, Clash by Night, and Dillinger.

I would have liked to see something by Nicholas Ray in there (either They Live by Night or On Dangerous Ground), and I never really thought of Clash by Night as noir (it's based on a play by faux-naturalist Clifford Odets), but overall it's a good selection: four films from the ultimate film-noir studio, RKO, plus one delirious crime drama (Dillinger) from the King Brothers, producers of that other delirious crime drama, Gun Crazy.

Unfortunately I see that one of the commentaries has Peter Bogdanovich involved. But on the plus side, John Boorman's "neo-noir" Point Blank will be released on the same day as the new noir set.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

He Never Does Anything Twice

Doesn't seem possible that Stephen Sondheim could be 75. While he didn't really start all that young, by Broadway standards -- Richard Rodgers had his first hit show and song at 23; George Gershwin had a smash hit song at 21 -- the image of him in the minds of some of us show-music buffs is of the young-looking, shaggy-haired composer-lyricist who was coming in to shake up the squares of Broadway. Even though he was 40 by the time Company premiered, he looked like an enfant terrible and sometimes played the part in interviews, as in his famous early-'70s interview where he said nasty things about the craftsmanship of Larry Hart and vaguely condescending things about his mentor Oscar Hammerstein. But now he looks and sounds like an elder statesman, and that's what he is; he's the last link to the Hammerstein tradition, and he has no apparent successors in carrying on the tradition of creating true musical theatre -- songs that are not just songs but theatre pieces, songs that carry the action forward instead of slowing it down. (Too many post-Sondheim songwriters think that the way to write a good character song is to have a character stop and sing about his or her feelings. That's not it at all. A good theatre song is one where we wind up knowing more about the character's feelings than he or she could tell us directly, whether it's Hammerstein's "If I Loved You" or Sondheim's "Could I Leave You?")

The pros and cons of Sondheim have been endlessly debated and rehashed. His strengths are well-known, and in the type of shows he's chosen to write, his major weakness -- his problem writing good love songs -- isn't all that relevant. I also don't think he's to blame for the rather odd cult of Sondheim-Firsters who like Sondheim but don't like musicals (there seem to be quite a lot of these Sondheim-Firsters in England, for some reason). It may be unfortunate that he was pronounced a genius so quickly and so persistently; by 1970 his name was already a byword among people who wanted musicals to be Art, and by 1973 he was already getting retrospective galas that seemed to appeal more to people in the musical-theatre business than people who just liked musical theatre. All this, combined with Hal Prince's desire to do Important musicals and drive away all his backers, may have helped push Sondheim further away from the disciplines of traditional songwriting -- the A-A-B-A form, concise melodies, comprehensible lyrics -- into long, rambling, diffuse songs.

The Sondheim I like is the Sondheim of the Harold Prince shows, up to Merrily We Roll Along; his best songs were tougher and darker than the average Broadway song, but still with the kind of pep and showbiz punch that is as much a part of good musical-theatre writing as subtext and characterization. After Merrily, a flop full of traditional A-A-B-A songs that didn't catch on with the public, Sondheim stopped doing overtures, dance breaks, applause-baiting crescendi, A-A-B-A refrains, and just about anything else that smacked of showbiz or song-plugging. Yet the unique appeal of the Broadway musical is based in part on its showbiz component, of the attempt of songwriter, performer, designer, director and choreographer to knock 'em dead in the aisles while still making each number dramatically relevant. Something like Sunday in the Park With George, where everything is dramatically relevant, every song sounds the same and all traces of "showbiz" have been purged, just isn't of interest to me. (And if you're going to write songs that exist only to serve the drama, it would help if the drama being served wasn't created by James Lapine, a writer whose lines sound like they were translated from the original Sanskrit and a director who coaches actors to speak as if English wasn't their first language.) Someone on a theatre newsgroup once put it succinctly: He wanted "More Sondheim shows with overtures." Sounds about right to me. And another showstopping, crowd-pleasing, applause-baiting theatre piece like "A Weekend in the Country" wouldn't hurt either.

One more thing: I still hold to the once-conventional wisdom that Sondheim is not a very good melodist. This doesn't have a great deal to do with the charge that his tunes aren't "hummable" (I don't think they are, but that doesn't mean they're bad melodies). It's more that Sondheim's songs often don't have a very strong melodic profile. Sondheim builds his melodies out of little phrases that get repeated a lot; some of his songs, like "Now You Know" from Merrily We Roll Along, basically consist of one phrase repeated over and over and over. This is, or can be, a legitimate way to build a melody, but it means that the opening bars of a Sondheim melody often don't sound like much at all -- it takes a long time for a lot of his songs to make their melodic points, establish what the style and tone of the melody is going to be. And in writing theatre melodies, that's a big minus, because the crucial point in a theatre song is the beginning of the refrain; it's the part that establishes, in the listener's mind, the melodic profile of the song. When you hear the first bars of the refrain of "Some Enchanted Evening" or "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" or any number of great theatre songs, you hear a distinctive melodic idea right away, something that clues you in on the point the melody is making, and thus the theatrical and character point that the song is making overall. Sondheim's melodies ramble, they dither, they take a long time to make their points. (His most popular melody, that of "Send in the Clowns," is also one that starts up-front with an intriguing melodic idea that sums up the mood of the whole song.) And in theatre music, you don't have that much time; everything is zooming at the listener at top speed and it has to communicate instantly. Without a melody that establishes a profile up-front, right away, a song is hobbled as a theatre piece, because its ability to give the audience a quick impression of mood or characterization is limited. And that's part of the reason why a lot of Sondheim songs seem to make a bigger impression with their lyrics than with their music.

This rambling post is less grateful than it perhaps should have been to a great theatre songwriter who has brought great pleasure to many people. So I'll just close by saying thank you, Mr. Sondheim, happy birthday, and many more, and quote a Sondheim lyric about giving thanks for what we've been given, from Do I Hear a Waltz?:

Thank you so much, sir,
Wasn't it fun?
No reason at all to cry.
Let's keep in touch, sir,
Now that it's done;
You can't say we didn't try.
Did it go by so quickly?
Really, it seems a crime.
But thank you so much
For something between
Ridiculous and sublime.
Thank you for such
A little but lovely time.

A Short Post

My knowledge of the late Bobby Short and his work is rather limited, but The Bobby Short Saloon will tell you everything you need to know.

The Short recording that sticks in my mind the most is on one of Ben Bagley's "Revisited" albums (he was a regular contributor to those, since he shared Bagley's enthusiasm for the lesser-known songs of the great American songwriters), where he did a duet with Barbara Cook on a rare Jerome Kern song, "The Blue Danube Blues," consisting of a jazzy main melody (Short) sung in counterpoint with the melody of "The Blue Danube" (Cook).

More M*A*S*H-Bashing

Not a lot of posting time today, so I'll do what I did last time I didn't have anything to post about and bash M*A*S*H and Larry Gelbart. One of the things I was thinking of when I talked about Gelbart's "one-note characterization" was the way Frank Burns actually regressed as a character. In the first season of M*A*S*H*, we were occasionally given a hint that Burns might develop into an interesting character, a three-dimensional antagonist. Nothing major (no pun intended), but an occasional glimmer of complexity. In an early episode, "Henry, Please Come Home," Colonel Blake mentions that Burns is hard to get along with "but he's a good surgeon and we need him." In another first-season episode, "Sticky Wicket," Hawkeye is tormented by his inability to diagnose what's wrong with a patient -- and Frank, pleased that Hawkeye is the loser for once, taunts him for it. But at the end of the episode, when Hawkeye finally figures out what's wrong, Frank has a moment of unexpected graciousness, saying: "Anyone could have missed that," to which Hawkeye replies, "Thanks, Frank."

That's the kind of moment that helps humanize the antagonist, remind you that not even a creep is a creep 100% of the time, just as the hero isn't always heroic. But as the series went on, Burns became less and less human and more and more of a cartoon antagonist, even more of a one-dimensional cartoon character than in the movie (which is saying something). He became such an incompetent surgeon that you wondered how he ever could have practiced back home without being thrown out of the profession; he was never allowed to be right or to be unambiguously friendly or nice. But think of what another showrunner than Gelbart could have done with a character like this; he's a hypocrite, sure, but there's also some potential sympathy for someone wants to think of himself as a conventionally good person but winds up giving in to his "sinful" desires. Just because a character is a jerk doesn't mean there can't be some sympathy for him; think of the great humanized jerks of sitcom history, like Ted Baxter, Herb Tarlek, Alan Brady, Louie DePalma, and of course, Archie Bunker. Characters who are basically horrible but very human and real. Gelbart didn't do this with Frank Burns; he made him not a person, but a function -- the designated Always Wrong guy. There were other examples of bad characterization in the Gelbart years of M*A*S*H, like the generally poor writing for Trapper John (could anyone blame Wayne Rogers for not knowing what his function on the show was supposed to be?), but that was the worst.

The question that now arises is, do I prefer the later, post-Gelbart seasons of M*A*S*H? I definitely think that some of the writing on the later M*A*S*H episodes, with the addition of writers like Ken Levine and David Isaacs and further contributions from Gelbart-era writers like Laurence Marks and Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell, was better overall than in most of Gelbart's scripts (Gelbart's writing has always struck me as a bunch of platitudes overlaid with soulless Bob Hope-style one-liners). And Major Winchester, as an antagonist, was everything Burns wasn't: a humanized, interesting, but flawed character. But those seasons had their own problems, notably the legendary insufferability of Alan Alda and the descent into unfunniness of almost every character and performer. On the whole, I just feel like I've watched more episodes of M*A*S*H than I probably should have, and I'll stick to my "Hogan's Heroes was better" mantra.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Doom and Gloom!

The new DVD of Finian's Rainbow is worth it just for the commentary track by director Francis Ford Coppola. Instead of just saying how great everything is -- which is what most directors do when commenting on their movies, good or bad -- he gives real, concrete information about the problems encountered in making the movie, evaluates the good and bad points of what he did, and criticizes his own mistakes. You can tell that with all his mixed feelings about the film, he still has a great affection for it, as well he should; with all its flaws, it's one of the better movie musicals of the '60s (and a hell of a lot better than Coppola's other attempt at a musical, One From the Heart).

Considering the way the film was made, it's amazing that it turned out as entertaining as it did. The Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow has one of the best musical theatre scores, perhaps the best; Yip Harburg's lyrics are dazzling and each of Burton Lane's tunes is extraordinarily memorable and rich in invention (there's hardly a single song in the score that follows a conventional A-A-B-A structure). The book, by Harburg and Fred Saidy, was funny but somewhat bizarre. Harburg, one of the few politically-active people among the great Broadway songwriters, wanted to do a story about a racist Senator who turns black, but he couldn't think of a way to fit this in with his preferred style of whimsical musical comedy. Finally he and Saidy came up with the idea of doing it in the context of an Irish fantasy story: an old Irishman steals a magic pot of gold from the leprechauns and comes to America with it, hoping to bury it in the ground near Fort Knox (he believes that the soil will make the gold increase in value), and an accidental wish made on the pot of gold is what sets off the Senator's transformation.

The show was a hit in 1947, running a then-excellent 725 performances. But hit or no hit, no studio was willing to do a faithful film version; at first it was considered too politically risky, and by the time it wasn't politically risky anymore, it was considered dated. The creators wouldn't sell the film rights unless the story was left intact, so twenty years went by without a film being made.

At some point, Warner Brothers bit the bullet and bought the movie rights, and a youngish writer, Joseph Landon, set up the project as his first (and last) film as a producer. By this time, 1967, Warner Brothers was in trouble: their most recent big-budget musical, Camelot, was an expensive disaster, and they were about to get bought out. By all accounts Jack Warner didn't really want to make Finian, but they had the property and someone had convinced Fred Astaire to play the old Irishman, so WB agreed to let Landon make the film on condition that he made it for a low budget ($3.5 million, compared to the $17 million that the studio had spent on Camelot) and shot the whole thing on the studio backlot and leftover Camelot sets.

As Coppola mentions on the commentary track, the studio felt that a young director might help give this aging property some youth appeal, so they narrowed it down to two promising young directors, Coppola and William Friedkin; Coppola got it on the basis of his student film You're a Big Boy Now, which had been commercially released as a feature and had done rather well. Coppola, in true film-brat fashion, came in with lots of Big Ideas about how to shoot Finian's Rainbow. He wanted to shoot the whole thing on location in the South (the studio said forget it). He had the whole cast do intensive rehearsal of the full script, as a stage play, to get them used to their parts (he admits on the commentary track that this may have been a mistake, since it got everybody acting in a broad theatrical style). Midway through the shooting he fired the choreographer, longtime Astaire associate Hermes Pan, and dithered about hiring another one, with the result that he had to stage many of the musical numbers himself (he talks on the commentary about reaching back to his "experience" staging musicals in college). The crew consisted of WB studio vets about to be thrown out of work by the total collapse of what was left of the studio system. The project was the first, but definitely not the last, example of a Film Brat in way over his head, and Coppola's commentary track is fairly up-front about the fact that at certain points he didn't exactly know what he was doing.

And yet the movie is way more entertaining than Camelot or Star! or Hello, Dolly! or any number of late '60s musicals. It also did better at the box office; according to the IMDB it cost $3.5 million and grossed $11 million, a tidy profit compared to the huge losses being posted by musicals right and left in this era. Coppola does a number of pointless things, doesn't always seem to know how to stage a dialogue scene, and his solution to shooting a musical number is to cut to various vignettes while the song plays on the soundtrack. But some of his ideas work better than they have a right to, like staging the number "This Time of the Year" with some elements of late '60s Civil Rights protests (sit-ins, shaking police cars), or imparting some real sexual heat to the staging of one of the sexiest songs ever written, "Old Devil Moon," or staging "The Begat" as a cross-country car trip. And even the bad ideas have an energy to them; the film is just way more energetic and loose than the stodgy work of Joshua Logan (Camelot, Paint Your Wagon and other cinematic horrors), or the post-MGM Gene Kelly (Hello, Dolly!), or any number of other, more experienced directors who were doing movie musicals at this time. Finian may be appalling at times, but it doesn't put you to sleep.

Also, whereas most musicals in this era had horrible, horrible casting choices -- see Ball, Lucille (Mame), Eastwood, Clint (Paint Your Wagon), and Everybody, Everywhere (Camelot) -- Finian's Rainbow is, glory be, entirely cast with performers who actually have a right to be doing a musical: Fred Astaire, Petula Clark, Tommy Steele and Canada's own Don Francks. (Steele is insufferable in this movie, as always, but he's not miscast, just annoying.) The chance to see and hear Petula Clark in a movie musical performing good songs is a special treat, since Clark was the kind of performer who should have had a big career in movie musicals but had the misfortune to rise to prominence just at the time when musicals were fading away. (The multi-lingual Clark also dubs her own dialogue and singing on the French soundtrack.) Add to that the fact that almost the entire Broadway score is intact, with only one song, "Necessity," being cut, and that the orchestrations are tasteful and not overblown, and it's clear that the score gets much more respect than Broadway scores usually got from Hollywood.

One thing that Coppola's commentary doesn't make clear, unless I missed the part where he explains it, is why the movie uses the script of the Broadway show almost verbatim. The writing credit reads "Screenplay by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy," but in fact there doesn't seem to have been a screenplay at all; nearly all the dialogue in the movie is taken directly from Harburg and Saidy's original libretto, and any "adaptation" simply consists of moving various scenes to different locations. Considering that Coppola mentions that he was distressed by the dated aspects of the show's script, and wanted to make it more relevant for the late '60s, one wonders why the hell he didn't do what all other movies do and write some new scenes. I can only think that it might have been part of Harburg's deal that his dialogue should be intact; that would certainly explain why it took so long to get it filmed.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Heigh-Ho, the Glamorous Life

Re-reading John Van Druten's 1943 play The Voice of the Turtle, a rather melancholy comedy about an affair between a young actress and a soldier on leave. I'd like to write a bit more about this one when I get a chance, but in the meantime I'll quote a bit of dialogue that caught my eye as an amusing and even insightful (in a Broadway-comedy kind of way) take on the difference between what you're taught as a child and the way you wind up living as an adult in the city. This is a dialogue between Sally, the heroine, who has just come off an unhappy affair with a producer, and her more experienced actress friend Olive:

SALLY: If I'd stayed home in Joplin, none of this would have happened.

OLIVE: Don't they... in Joplin?

SALLY: Olive, tell me something. Something I want to know.

OLIVE: What?

SALLY: Well, do ordinary girls? I was raised to think they didn't. Didn't even want to. And what I want to know is -- don't they? They don't in movies. Oh, I know that's censorship... but... the people who go and see the movies... are they like that too? Or else don't they notice that it's all false?

OLIVE: I've wondered about that, myself.

SALLY: Even in Shakespeare, his heroines don't. Ever. Juliet carries on like crazy about not. I don't know whether what Mother and Father taught me was right, or true, or anything. Were you raised like that?

OLIVE: Oh, sure. And I wasn't even legitimate. But Mama raised me just as strict as if I was.

SALLY: Did you have qualms when you started?

OLIVE: Never.

SALLY: What did you feel?

OLIVE: I just felt -- "So this is it! I like it!"

Picture Olive's lines being spoken by Blanche on The Golden Girls and you'll realize how close the style of old-fashioned Broadway comedy is to the style of the TV sitcom (which eventually co-opted most of the writers who, in another generation, would have written plays).

Friday, March 18, 2005

Addendum to My Last Post

The excellent Judy Holliday Resource Center has some background on the filming of Bells Are Ringing, which helps to explain things like the staginess of the film (Comden and Green were too busy with other projects to substantially re-think their stage script for the screen), Dean Martin's unengaged performance, and other stuff.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Hialeah, Hialeah

My copy of the Classic Musicals Collection came today, and the first title I popped in was Bells Are Ringing. It's not the best in the set (that's The Band Wagon) nor the worst (that's Brigadoon, with its long, dull nonmusical stretches and its horrible studio-created heather on a horrible studio-created hill), but it was the one I was most happy to see on DVD, just because I'd never previously been able to see it in widescreen. Vincente Minnelli was one of those directors whose idea of how to use CinemaScope was to fill the frame with as many people as he possibly could, so you'll often get people talking from opposite sides of the screen in Minnelli's trademark long takes. In pan-and-scan you have to cut back and forth between the two halves of the image, and Minnelli's careful compositions -- he was, some actors said, more interested in composing the image than in helping actors give good performances -- are lost.

Not that Minnelli is at his best in Bells Are Ringing. It was his next-to-last musical, and Arthur Freed's last, and one gets the feeling that Minnelli wasn't all that interested in the form anymore; his musicals after The Band Wagon don't have the kind of visual imagination and flair he brought to his melodramas like Some Came Running and Two Weeks in Another Town. (Even Gigi, a movie I persist in liking a lot, is a little stodgy, visually, more like painting than cinema.) In Bells Are Ringing he sets up the shots nicely and moves the camera in and out at appropriate times, but not much more. And in a movie whose script sticks rather closely to the stage play -- too closely, as Adolph Green admits in an archival interview in the DVD's making-of documentary -- the proscenium-style CinemaScope shape makes it look even more like a filmed play.

Other flaws in the film include the decision to drop one of the show's best ballads, "Long Before I Knew You," and the casting of Dean Martin. There's no real reason why Martin shouldn't have been good in the movie; he'd been very good for Minnelli two years earlier in Some Came Running, he could sing and act, and he was certainly an appropriate choice to play a character whose creative partner has broken up with him, and has to learn to succeed on his own. But at times he has that slightly bored, spaced-out look he gets when a project doesn't really engage him. You can't really see why Judy Holliday would care so much about him. He does come to life during the "Just in Time" number, a typical Comden-Green mixture of romance and clowning (a few years later, in a show called Subways are For Sleeping, they did a very similar number called "Comes Once in a Lifetime," a peppy charm song followed by a nonsense French verse and a silly dance).

The flaws don't really matter, though, because it's got Judy Holliday, and Holliday is so good that she could make this movie watchable if the director was Ed Wood and her leading man was Rin-Tin-Tin. She is so lovable and genuine, and so expressive with every line reading and gesture, that you almost forget you're watching a movie; when she sings "It's a Perfect Relationship" it's like she's there in the room with you, telling you her feelings. The show was written especially for her by her old friends and performing partners Comden and Green, and it's the essence of a star vehicle: the star gets most of the numbers, gets an opportunity to show off every single thing she can do (comedy, romance, pathos, pratfalls, impressions), every other character is focused on her and when she's not around, they're talking about how wonderful she is. And in this case, she is wonderful, so it works.

Bells are Ringing is a fairy tale, but with a twist. Most fairy tales are about overcoming external barriers, like class or financial barriers. Bells Are Ringing is about people who are held back by their lack of confidence. Ella, the Judy Holliday character, reaches out to a man who doesn't believe in himself, and gives him the confidence he needs to succeed. But she herself is held back by her own lack of self-confidence: she can see what's special in other people, and help them see it too, but she doesn't think she herself is anything special at all. Of course she is, and she comes to understand this in the (you'll hate me for giving away this spoiler) happy ending.

Trivia note: Bernie West, who played the songwriter/dentist Dr. Kitchell on Broadway and in the movie, went on to become a very successful TV writer. West, Michael Ross and Don Nicholl became the head writers of All in the Family for the first five seasons (the show's quality nosedived after they left); they also wrote and produced the first season of The Jeffersons, and developed and ran Three's Company.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Oh, Heck!

Bill Crider has a post about Henry Wilson Allen, who wrote Western novels under the name Will Henry, and wrote dozens of cartoons for Tex Avery under the name Heck Allen. Allen gave an interview about his cartoon work to Film Comment magazine in 1975. It's not really true, as Bill speculates, that he thought his work for cartoons "wasn't worthy"; he seemed quite proud of having worked on those cartoons. But he insisted that all the credit was Avery's; he said that unlike Chuck Jones, who had tremendous help from writer Michael Maltese, Avery was his own best gagman, his own best writer, and his writers (Allen and Rich Hogan) were around to help him realize his vision.

A number of the cartoons Allen wrote for Avery are Westerns, like "Wild and Woolfy" and "The Shooting of Dan McGoo." But I also notice that Allen wrote the cartoon "The Three Little Pups," which contains my single favorite gag in an Avery cartoon: in one scene, Droopy and two other dogs defeat the Wolf with a violent gag involving the destruction of their TV set. In the next scene, as the Wolf returns for another attempt, the dogs are watching TV; Droopy turns to the audience and says: "Now, don't ask us how we got the television set back."

Sherman's March

Mark Evanier reports that the complete recordings of Allan Sherman are finally due to come to CD, in a limited-edition box set entitled, of course, "My Son, the Box."

Evanier also maintains a terrific Sherman annotated discography, listing all his recordings, and providing an excellent overview of his rise and fall.

I've always thought of Sherman as one of those entertainers whose popularity couldn't survive the Kennedy assassination. I don't really have any proof of this; it's not like he was Vaughan Meader or somebody. And Sherman had some hits after 1963, like his hilarious single "Crazy Downtown" ("Every time we ask you what you're doing after dark there/You just say that you were frugging to Petula Clark there"). But Sherman's humor just seems to me to have the flavour of the early '60s, the era of the Great Consensus. His Jewish-themed humor was the humor of integration, of assimilation, of ethnic groups becoming a part of that consensus. The post-assassination era in ethnic humor would belong to those who emphasized the difference, not the similarity, of ethnic groups; the most influential Jewish comic of the era, Lenny Bruce, and most influential Jewish humor writer, Philip Roth, emphasized the degree to which Jews are not assimilated into American culture. (I've written about this before.) And apart from the ethnic-humor angle, Sherman represented the middle-aged middle-class guy who loved show tunes and was suspsicious of rock music and youth fads in general; that's what some of his funniest songs, like "Crazy Downtown," are about. Up until around 1964 you could make a living by making records for that audience; by the late '60s, that audience had either disappeared or fragmented.

Sherman didn't help himself with his attempts to "mainstream" his appeal, to abandon the ethnic humor in favor of a more generalized appeal; this approach brought him his biggest hit, "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," but it prevented him from really establishing a clear identity as a performer.

One other thing about Sherman: kids love him. I mean, love him. I was introduced to his records as a child and I thought they were the funniest things I'd ever heard; I made cassette tapes of them and played them in the car for the kids in my carpool, and they thought they were hilarious. A few years later I went to babysit the next-door-neighbor's kids, and found that they loved listening to, yes, their parents' Allan Sherman records. I'm not really sure what it is that makes his songs so appealing to kids -- not just "Hello Muddah," but all of them. It's a tribute, I think, to how simple and direct his comedy is. Sherman's lyrics may not be brillantly crafted (as he admitted in his autobiography, he wasn't writing according to rules of craftsmanship: "I was writing by feel"), but they are full of clear, well-timed jokes that sit perfectly on the music; he had an instinct for using rhyme and rhythm to sell a joke, and that's what you need for a good comedy song.

Shadows, Cigarettes and Hats

Newish article on the recent surge in popularity of film noir, as evidenced by the DVD best-seller status of movies like Out of the Past and, of course, the increased number of people you see on the street, standing in the shadows, smoking cigarettes and wearing hats.

I'd try to give a cultural explanation for the current fascination with film noir -- as in, these are dark and ambiguous times that make these dark and ambiguous movies relevant. But I can't really say with any confidence that the current era is darker or more ambiguous than previous ones. (The tendency to think that things are getting worse, when the opposite is probably true, was nicely parodied in a line from King of the Hill: "It's tough being a kid these days, Hank. All we had to worry about was Vietnam, Charles Manson, swine flu.") My own suspicion is that people just love the coolness of the film noir world, a world where a bad-ass like Robert Mitchum gets to smoke a lot, toss off snappy one-liners, and punch people out without changing his expression, and where women get to be sultry, dangerous, or just plain evil. Whatever you may say for or against current movies, blockbusters and indies alike, they tend to be seriously deficient in cool. Even the stars don't seem to be cool, given that the current ideal of a movie star is to inspire US Magazine to gush about how they're just regular folks like us. The extent to which movies have lost their cool in just a decade can be guaged by comparing Get Shorty to the inappropriately titled Be Cool. So, desperately searching for movies with cool people doing cool things and acting tough in the face of danger, viewers pick up on film noir as the emblem of movie cool.

The other thing about film noir is that now that it's a mainstream term, its actual definition is more elusive than ever. Fox has started its film noir DVD series with three movies: Laura, Panic in the Streets and Call Northside 777. You could make a very strong argument that none of these three movies are "true" noir. By this argument, Laura is a chic murder mystery, not gritty enough to be noir, Panic in the Streets is a naturalistic melodrama, and Call Northside 777 is a neorealist-influenced crime procedural. Personally I think of Laura as noir but not the other two. Others would have different opinions. Does The Big Sleep qualify as a noir? Most people would say so, but, being a Howard Hawks movie, it's pretty upbeat and chipper despite the lurid subject-matter; maybe it's just too happy a movie to be noir. And so on, and so on. A real nit-picker could probably disqualify every movie ever made from being classified as a film noir. Well, except Out of the Past.

Clearly film noir is like pornography. We know it when we see it. But I think we can agree that to be a film noir, a movie must at the minimum contain those three magic elements:
a) Shadows
b) Cigarettes
c) Hats.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

More Thoughts on Green Acres

The season 2 DVD set of Green Acres is about as good as you can expect, for the price: no extras, print quality varies from episode to episode, but everything is uncut and at least looks better than you could expect to see in syndication.

Some random thoughts on the show:

- If you want to start a Green Acres collection, it's probably advisable to start with season 2, because that's when the show really went nuts. The first season started out relatively normal -- especially the first batch of episodes, which were intertwined in a crossover story arc with episodes of Petticoat Junction -- and got wackier as it went on; the second season is wall-to-wall insanity.

- As others have pointed out, the roles of the two main characters of Green Acres did a complete 180 from what they were originally supposed to be. The concept of the show was that Oliver Wendell Douglas was the eccentric one, what with his flowery speeches about "The American Farmer" and his insistence on farming in a suit and tie, and his wife Lisa was the sensible socialite who had to put up with his eccentricities. That's the dynamic that is portrayed in the famous title song: Oliver's the nut, Lisa's the conventional one. Midway through the first season, that started to change, and by the second season, the formula was established as the opposite of the original formula: Oliver was the sane man in an insane world, while Lisa instinctively adjusted to the Hooterville way of life. The writers would occasionally make a token reference to Lisa wanting to go back to New York, but really, for most of the series, the real premise of the show was that Oliver was the one who hated it in Hooterville, not Lisa.

- Creator Jay Sommers wanted to cast Martha Hyer, Hollywood's all-purpose blonde ice queen (she even managed to land a rich husband, producer Hal Wallis), as Lisa; when Hyer turned it down, executive producer Paul Henning suggested Eva Gabor. If it hadn't been for that bit of casting, the show might have turned out very differently, as I don't think Lisa would have become as loopy with Hyer in the role.

- The second season was where Green Acres began its most famous meta-humorous running gag: having the characters comment on the opening credits. My favorite of these gags is the one in the episode "Getting Even With Haney": as Mr. Ziffel knocks on Oliver's door, the credits appear onscreen and then zoom off, and Ziffel keeps turning around, trying to catch them before they sneak off. Finally he catches the director credit: "Gotcha!"

- And speaking of the director credit, Richard Bare had an interesting career. While he was a student at the University of Southern California, he wrote and directed a short film starring George O'Hanlon (later the voice of George Jetson) as the luckless "Joe McDoakes"; it was a parody of instructional films called "So You Want to Give Up Smoking." Bare sold the film to Warner Brothers and he and O'Hanlon spent the next ten years making Joe McDoakes shorts for WB. After that, he went into television directing, and he directed every single episode of Green Acres except for the pilot; he held the record for directing the most consecutive episodes of a show until it was broken by Jerry Paris of Happy Days. Then after Green Acres ended he wrote a book, The Film Director, which became a sort of classic nuts-and-bolts manual for aspiring directors. (It also became famous because he predicted that two of his film students would go on to big things: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.) He also published his autobiography, the cover of which features him posing on the set with Arnold Ziffel.

- Ivan of "Thrilling Days of Yesteryear" has some good information about the radio backgrounds of the show's writers, Jay Sommers and Dick Chevillat. Both Sommers and Chevillat, unfortunately, passed away in the mid-'80s.

- The 1990 TV reunion movie, Return to Green Acres, was reportedly a disaster (I haven't seen it and don't want to). Eddie Albert said in an interview that he thought that his contract was contingent on his approving the script; the producers deliberately delayed sending him the script. When he finally read it, he said the script was terrible and he wouldn't do it, and the producers threatened to sue him, whatever the contract may have said. At his age he couldn't deal with a lawsuit, so he did the movie.

- One of the reasons Green Acres seems so edgy for a '60s sitcom, apart from all the self-referential and genre-bending jokes that influenced shows like The Simpsons, is its almost boundless cynicism about life and human nature. Most TV shows are about escape into a world that is in some way idealized; the lives of Rob Petrie, Andy Taylor or Mary Richards may have their problems, but they all live in a world where life more or less makes sense. Green Acres is about a guy who wants to escape from the "rat race" into a world that makes more sense, and who finds, week after week, that what he's escaped into is even worse than what he escaped from. More than that, it's a nightmarish parody of the problems we face back home in the rat race: Hooterville is awash in bureaucratic red tape, commercialism, media whoredom and mutual distrust; daily life consists of pointless rituals that people never explain and never question. If you try to apply logical principles to the way people behave, as Oliver consistently tries to do, you'll be driven crazy. The only way to be happy is to do what Lisa does: just accept that people are the way they are, that life doesn't make sense, and go along for the ride. That's why Lisa can be happy anywhere, and Oliver is miserable no matter where he is: it's not the city Oliver can't deal with, it's the fact that people just don't make sense.

What's the Deal With French Announcers?

From the "things no one else could possibly care about" file: every time I see an old French movie that includes narration -- and quite a lot of them do -- I'm surprised by the dry, clipped, fast-talking style adopted by all the narrators, whoever they are, and whatever kind of movie it is. The first time I saw Jules and Jim I wondered why the narrator sounded like he was bored with the whole thing and wanted to spit out the words as fast as possible. Then I saw Truffaut's Two English Girls, a similar but not-nearly-as-good movie (from a novel by the author of Jules and Jim), and the narrator, in this case Truffaut himself, was doing the same thing, talking a mile a minute in what sounded to my Anglophone ears like a monotone.

Since then I have noticed this in voice-over narration in French movies and in French-dubbed versions of English-language movies. I don't think that style of voice-over announcement is quite so prevalent anymore (another victim of globalization and its smoothing-out of national quirks?), but it's very noticeable in anything from the '40s, '50s or '60s. It's not like the much-parodied BBC announcer style; that's certainly clipped and reserved, but English announcers didn't talk nearly as fast and attempted to modulate their voices, albeit subtly. French announcers often sound like auctioneers. I really have no idea where this style comes from, but it's kind of endearing.

Monday, March 14, 2005


Don't have time right now to post anything of substance (insofar as this blog can have anything of substance), so here's a little bit of pointless trivia: the show M*A*S*H is usually cited as the antithesis of Hogan's Heroes. Yet M*A*S*H actually used several key people from Hogan. Gene Reynolds, the producer-director of Hogan's Heroes, was the producer-director of M*A*S*H. And Laurence Marks, one of the most prolific writers on Hogan, became one of the most prolific writers on M*A*S*H (for the first couple of seasons, he was the only writer besides Larry Gelbart who was on full-time staff).

Larry Gelbart, when asked about M*A*S*H's connections to Hogan, apparently tends to rant about how Hogan's Heroes was criminally evil and got laughter from denying the brutal reality of the Nazi atrocities and isn't it great that his show dared to show the real horror of war yada yada. But then Gelbart has always kind of struck me as a comedy writer with no sense of humor; I am not a fan of his mechanical joke writing and one-note characterization. And when I compare the way Hogan's Heroes made Colonel Klink a likable antagonist with Gelbart's boring characterization of Frank Burns (who could potentially have been an interesting character if Gelbart had bothered to make him one), and the character-based humor on Hogan to the irrelevant one-liners on M*A*S*H, I gotta say, Hogan's Heroes was a better show.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Warning: Not Suitable For Anyone

If you want to see the unbleeped version of that "Buzz Bunny" Flash cartoon that's floating around, it's here. Warning: there's approximately 92,031 profane words. But that's what makes it so EXTREME!

As for the new "Loonatics" project -- I think too much commentary on the project has focused on the morality of tinkering with the classic characters, or the insult to the memory of Termite Terrace. In all honesty, this will do considerably less harm to the classic characters than, say, those cartoons pairing Daffy with Speedy Gonzales. At least "Loonatics" doesn't pretend to be using the actual, real-McCoy characters themselves, so the integrity of the original characters is not harmed; we don't have to suffer through a badly-animated Bugs like in the linking segments from those tiresome TV specials in the '70s and early '80s, and we don't have to suffer through Daffy acting like Snidely Whiplash. Stuff like that did a lot more damage to these characters than "Loonatics" ever will.

No, the problem with "Loonatics" is that it's just a very bad idea. As I wrote on a message board, the difference between this and "Tiny Toons" (which, whatever you think of it, was a good idea from WB's point of view, since it was a hit) is that "Loonatics" has almost nothing in common with the franchise it's based on. Why would anybody who likes Looney Tunes -- gag-filled comedy cartoons -- find the same qualities in a futuristic action-adventure series? At least "Duck Dodgers" tried to appeal to people who like Daffy and Porky. But "Loonatics" and WB's previous disaster "Baby Looney Tunes" seem to assume that people will respond to the character names, or the Looney Tunes brand, without trying to give people any of the things they like in Looney Tunes. It's not only bad art, it's bad marketing.

One of WB's strengths when they got into the TV animation game back in 1990 was that they were good at branding -- at figuring out what people liked about their most valuable properties, and trying to come up with something that would have some of the same general qualities. In the early '90s, they knew that their most popular franchises included Looney Tunes and Batman, so they came up with Tiny Toons -- a gag-filled funny cartoon show meant to appeal to people who liked Looney Tunes, kids and parents alike -- and Batman: The Animated Series, a dark superhero series that combined what kids liked about Batman with what adults liked about him.

When it came to Looney Tunes, WB's big mistake -- the thing that essentially killed Looney Tunes as a franchise -- was its decision to pull all the cartoons off all networks except the Cartoon Network, which it had recently acquired. What this meant, first of all, was that the cartoons were only available on cable, rather than on "regular" TV where kids might catch some cartoons on Saturday mornings or weekday afternoons, the way they had for decades. And second, it meant that if Cartoon Network decided to drop the Looney Tunes cartoons, as they eventually did (and WB couldn't force them to play the cartoons; one branch of a mega-corporation often doesn't have to pay any attention to another), the cartoons would essentially be gone from TV or at least banished to the area of cable which The Daily Show's Stephen Colbert has referred to as "Channel Eleventy-Twelve."

So if kids today aren't familiar with Looney Tunes, it's because the owners of the cartoons didn't or couldn't realize the basic formula for the health of the franchise: the more places the cartoons are on, the more kids will get introduced to them. What WB is doing now, and has been doing for the last few years, is to try and rebuild the franchise by making it appeal to today's kids. The problem is that today's kids are, as a group, a lost cause, because they didn't get to see these cartoons very much in their formative years.

These characters are not like Disney characters; they don't look all that cute and they don't have that much inherent appeal as merchandising figures. Mickey Mouse, because of his cuteness, can appeal to kids who have never seen a Mickey Mouse cartoon, but Bugs Bunny's appeal is mostly based on the excellence of his cartoons; kids who have never seen Bugs Bunny cartoons on a regular basis are not going to like Bugs Bunny. So I'd say WB's best bet for rebuilding the franchise release a package of cartoons into syndication, try to get more TV stations to run the old cartoons, and hope that the kids get addicted that way. But then, what do I know -- I thought Looney Tunes: Back in Action was pretty entertaining.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Trude Rittmann

Trude Rittmann, Broadway's greatest arranger of dance music, has died at the age of 96. Her work actually went far beyond mere "arrangements" of the composer's tunes; the ballet music she wrote would often take a song or two and then change them so much that they essentially became her own compositions, and sometimes she would just write original themes. Richard Rodgers once admonished her: "It's Rodgers and Hammerstein, not Rittmann and Hammerstein." And yet she was an invaluable member of Rodgers and Hammerstein's team; the ballet "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" in The King and I is primarily an original composition by Rittmann. Like other "serious" musicians working behind the scenes on Broadway (orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett is another one who comes to mind), she didn't always seem to be particularly fond of the material she was working with, and sometimes she would openly mock it, as in the dance arrangement for "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" from The Sound of Music with its weird noisemaker effects. But whether it was her kind of material or not, she always gave of her best and enhanced every show she worked on.

Musical theatre has never been very open to female composers, but a number of the best dance arrangers were female: Rittmann, Genevieve Pitot, Dorothea Freitag.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Amazing Stories

Of course everybody's talking about Brad Bird now, but if you want to see him in action, as opposed to just hearing his voice coming out of some animated fashion designer, you'll have to seek out the second episode of Steven Spielberg's anthology series Amazing Stories, "The Main Attraction." Bird, who had just left Disney, co-wrote the episode with Mick Garris, from Spielberg's idea; it was about an obnoxious high school jock, overly conscious of his own attractiveness, who gets hit by a meteor and becomes literally "attractive" -- a human magnet who causes everything to stick to him. Bird not only wrote it, but appeared onscreen as one of the geeky scientists investigating the meteor shower.

The credit was important for Bird's career, not so much because of the episode itself, but because it got him the chance to write and direct the only animated episode of Amazing Stories, "Family Dog." Bird originally wanted to feature the dog -- a hapless, Chaplinesque character stuck in a family that casually mistreats and belittles him -- in a series of theatrical shorts, and in some ways it doesn't seem like there's enough story here for a full half-hour. But the episode is very funny and well-animated, and at a time when most animation was pure kids' stuff, it was a revelation: animation was being used to tell a story that wasn't just for kids, and the main character, who didn't talk, took on a distinctive personality and became sympathetic just because of the way he was animated: the way he moved, the way he reacted. The use of camera angles and "cinematic" technique was unique in TV animation at a time when most TV animation had static shots and put everything in the foreground. And "Family Dog" became an important source of talent for the animation revival of the late '80s; several of the animators went on to do "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" for Spielberg, and Bird (sensibly turning down the chance to do "Family Dog" as a series; it was done, and flopped, without him) went on to help give "The Simpsons" unusual visual sophistication for a TV cartoon. John Kricfalusi once pointed to the fact that even though Spielberg claimed to love cartoons, "you will never see a Bob Clampett rise up in his organization." He had a point, as far as Spielberg's TV cartoons went, but the rise of Brad Bird owes a lot to Spielberg and Amazing Stories.

Amazing Stories, the TVTome Guide says, will be out on DVD this fall. (Don't look for "Family Dog" in the first set, though; that was the second season.) It was an odd, frustratingly uneven show. Spielberg wanted to do an anthology series in the classic '50s and '60s style, but with a bigger budget; the show featured many different types of stories -- comedy, romance, horror -- but all with some kind of fantasy theme to them, and usually with a Serling-style twist ending. The idea was fine. But the show clearly had no kind of quality control. Good episodes alternated with episodes that were so bad you couldn't believe anyone had looked at the script before they started shooting; most of the really bad ones were in the second season, but even the first season had some real clunkers like "Remote Control Man" (a fat loser finds a magic remote control that brings TV characters to life, providing an excuse for a half-hour of lame cameos by "stars" like Dirk Benedict and Gary Coleman). The pilot, directed by Spielberg, was an example of how the show failed to live up to its potential: it was beautifully produced, beautifully photographed, beautifully scored, and well-acted, but it was twenty minutes of pointless, uninteresting writing followed by a "surprise" ending that wasn't all that surprising.

The show occasionally pulled off a really good episode, like Martin Scorsese's "Mirror Mirror," a horror story about a Stephen King-esque writer (Sam Waterston) who sees a horrible nightmare version of himself (Tim Robbins, perfect as always for playing horrible nightmare versions of people) every time he looks in the mirror, or "The Doll," a sentimental romantic fantasy written by Richard Matheson and starring John Lithgow in an Emmy-winning performance; or Paul Bartel's "Secret Cinema," about a young woman whose whole life is actually a movie (based on an earlier short film by Bartel, this was the obvious inspiration for The Truman Show). But the really good episodes were few and far between; usually you would get a mediocre one or a really bad one, and it wasn't worthwhile tuning in every week to see if this would finally be one of the good weeks. That's the problem with anthology shows, of course; they are inherently inconsistent, which is why the best of them are the ones that have some kind of consistent style and tone imposed upon them, like the style and tone Rod Serling brought to The Twilight Zone. Spielberg basically just invited over the writers and directors he liked and turned them loose; sometimes, as with Brad Bird, this proved to be a great idea, but other times it turned out very badly.

The other thing about Amazing Stories was that it attempted to be a director's show, something that most TV series aren't; TV has traditionally been a writer's medium and most of the top creative figures in TV have been writers. Amazing Stories, with its large budget, gave a lot more freedom to its directors than TV directors usually have, and Spielberg employed a lot of prominent feature film directors; episodes were directed by Spielberg, Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Robert Zemeckis, Irvin Kershner, Danny DeVito, and Joe Dante. Though many of the best episodes were the ones helmed by younger, less well-known directors like Bird, Phil Joanou and Todd Holland. Also, the music was of a higher standard than usual for TV music; most of the episodes had full-fledged original scores composed by the likes of John Williams, Danny Elfman and Georges Delerue. It was, all told, one of the biggest and most expensive examples of the fact that lots of talent and money can add up to not a whole lot if there isn't a firm guiding hand behind a series. But without it, there might never have been a "Family Dog," or a "Simpsons," or a "Roger Rabbit," or... all the way up to "The Incredibles." That's a pretty good legacy for a show that lasted only two seasons.

DVD Warning For Canadians...

...If you're planning to get the new DVD of Easter Parade (or the box set of five movie musicals: Easter Parade, The Band Wagon, Bells are Ringing, Brigadoon, Finian's Rainbow), don't get it in Canada. The American release of the movie is a two-disc set with a feature-length documentary, "Judy Garland: By Myself," on the second disc; but apparently that documentary ran into some kind of rights problems in Canada, so the Canadian release of Easter Parade is one disc only and doesn't include the documentary. If you're going to get it, order it from the U.S.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Alan Jay Lernerisms

I picked up -- for $1, and it was worth every penny -- a book called "A Hymn To Him: The Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner." The book is out of print, and I'm not surprised: the editing is terrible, the introductions (by Benny Green) are uninformative and frequently inaccurate, and most of the lyrics are already available in the scripts of Lerner's best-known shows -- Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Camelot.

The major interest of the book is in the chance to see the lyrics Lerner wrote after 1960 -- that is, after Camelot, after the retirement of Frederick Loewe (though he did come out of retirement for the stage version of Gigi and the flop film musical The Little Prince). The last 25 years of Lerner's career were a series of misfires, but they were all misfires with something to recommend them: basically, they were shows that could have been good if anybody had been able to stand up to Lerner and make him write better, the way director Moss Hart made him write better in My Fair Lady and Camelot.

So On a Clear Day You Can See Forever had a great score -- the composer, Burton Lane, was even more talented than Loewe -- but a wandering, incoherent book from Lerner. At that time, at least he had the excuse that he was heavily dependent on injections from Dr. Feelgood; such things might make anybody's writing a little incoherent. But Coco (1969, music by Andre Previn), 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976, music by Leonard Bernstein), Carmelina (1979, music by Lane) and Dance a Little Closer (1983, music by Charles Strouse), all had the same problem in various degrees: some very good things dragged down by some obvious flaws that Lerner either couldn't or wouldn't fix. Dance a Little Closer wasn't a bad idea -- a musical version of Robert Sherwood's antiwar Idiot's Delight, updated to the nuclear age -- and some of the Strouse/Lerner songs were good. But some of the things in it were just incredibly awful (an unfunny character based on Henry Kissinger; a gay-marriage plot that was bravely ahead of its time, but so badly done that it may have set the cause back by two decades), and Lerner reportedly never even acknowledged that anything was wrong with the show at all. His problem was that while he was a talented writer, he was an erratic one who needed to be kicked in the butt before he could give of his best. After Hart died, and after Loewe retired, there was no one around who could dare to kick the My Fair Lady guy in the butt; Burton Lane came the closest, and that's probably why Lerner's lyrics for Lane are his best post-Loewe work, not only in On a Clear Day but the mostly charming Carmelina.

The other thing you notice in reading these lyrics is that while Lerner could be a wonderful lyricist when he was at his best, he was unbelievably terrible when he was at his worst. After My Fair Lady he became an Anglophile and more or less lost the ability to write good lyrics in colloquial American English; this wasn't a problem in Gigi or Camelot, but as time went on, Lerner's lesser stuff started to sound like a very bad Gilbert and Sullivan imitation, and his tendency to idiotic doggerel came out at the worst times. So in Lolita, My Love, his disastrous musical version of Lolita (the show, with music by John Barry, closed out of town and never made it to Broadway), here are some excerpts from the opening number, "Dante, Petrarch and Poe":

To a nymphic-driven man like Poe or Dante Alighieri,
Ordinary love is, all in all, too ordinary.
How can you compare a woman's Chase-Manhattan charm
With dusty little toes, a sticky hand, a scrawny arm?

Dusty little toes?!

A dimpled flank, a bony shoulder
Sink into the flab and disappear when she is older.

...QUILTY (to Charlotte)
Who is that viper
Who likes them post-diaper?

Or this exchange from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Lerner and Bernstein's well-meaning but brainless meditation on race issues in American history:

Did reason or compromise help you to write
A negro shall equal three-fifths of a white?

Three-fifths or two-thirds?

Stop playing with words
Or, James, you will sleep on the sofa tonight.
You cannot deny
That little white lie.

I shan't even try.
For slavery seemed to us all at the time
A minor concession and hardly a crime;
Pre-destined to die.

Pre-destined to die!
I'd like to know why
That little white lie
Was destined to die?

That whole number (called "The Monroviad") suggests a Ken Burns documentary rewritten by Ogden Nash on a bad day.

Lerner also had a tendency toward grammatical sloppiness; even his best songs can contain lines like "Up with which below can't compare with," or Henry Higgins singing "hung" when he really means "hanged," or the most ungrammatical line ever sung by a character who's supposed to be a grammarian:

I'd be equally as willing
For a dentist to be drilling
Than to ever let a woman in my life!

Then, of course, there's Lerner's famous misogyny; in My Fair Lady this was not a problem because he could channel it all into the character of the misogynistic Higgins, but in later shows the misogyny sometimes came out "pure," and at inopportune times, in lines like:

I must have her.
I must have her.
I am still a man of honor
And to force myself upon her...!
I would rue it.
But I'll do it.
I must have her. (Carmelina)

When your lover flies away,
Sad are they who learn
There can be a darker day:
Her return. (Coco)

At the time of his death, Lerner had signed to write the book and lyrics for The Phantom of the Opera, and had in fact completed a lyric for "Masquerade" (after he died, Andrew Lloyd Webber had a different lyricist write a new lyric with the same title; Lerner's has never been released to the public). If he had written Phantom, it's pretty clear what the result would have been: a flop with some interesting and worthwhile things, side-by-side with some awful things that Lerner never fixed.

A Scientific Experiment

Some other people were talking about the silliest things they'd ever done. Their examples beat my own, but then, they'd done more things than I had, silly or no. The one really silly thing I'd done that they hadn't was -- and I swear this is true -- I once tried to see if it was possible to cook all the fat out of a hot dog.

I'm quite serious about this, though, as you can imagine, it happened on a day when I was really, really bored. I had eaten a hot dog for lunch, and I was wondering, how much fat is in these things, how long would it take to get all the fat out, and what would be left? So I took a hot dog, put it in the microwave, and started cooking it. Every so often I would open the microwave, take a paper towel, and wipe off the fat. Then I'd go back to cooking it.

The first thing I discovered was that no matter how much fat had oozed out in the last minute, when you got rid of it, there would always be just as much fat oozing out a minute later. And then another minute later. And still another minute later. In fact, it seemed that no matter how many times I repeated the process, the fat just kept on coming in hot-dog-scale waves. There seemed to be an infinite supply of fat in that little hot dog.

But I persevered. I kept cooking and wiping and cooking and wiping. Then I started soaking the hot dog to wash off any fat that might be trickling back in. This didn't change anything.

Finally, finally, after about ten to twelve minutes of cooking, there was no more fat trickling out of the hot dog, nothing left to cook out of it. And what was left?

A stick. I mean, literally, a stick. It was hard, it was solid, and I could tell that while there was nothing edible remaining, if I repeated the process with another hot dog, I could rub the two of them together and make a fire.

So the result of my silliest experiment on the most boring day of my life was that I discovered what a beef frankfurter is: it is a stick injected with fat. Nothing less, nothing more.

That was the day I gave up eating hot dogs.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Farm Livin'

Tomorrow finally brings the DVD release of the insanity that is the second season of Green Acres. Dave Foley, of Kids in the Hall and NewsRadio fame, is such a Green Acres nut that the writers of NewsRadio worked his obsession into the show; in an interview, he did a good job summarizing what set it apart from other wacky '60s comedies:

TB: I have to ask this… Do you really like Green Acres?

DF: I love Green Acres. And I don’t love it in a campy, “Ohhh, it’s soo funny,” I love it on a legitimate respect for it as a great work of comedy. I think it is one of the most tightly and imaginatively written shows ever done on television. It was messing around with structure in a really inventive way. They were setting up these incredible absurdist jokes and running jokes in every scene, weaving them in and out.

TB: Very much like Newsradio does…

DF: A lot like Newsradio does. I think it’s been a big influence on the show. And the other thing they do on Green Acres that people don’t notice is that everybody in that show plays it deadpan except for Oliver. Eddie Albert was the only guy that went over the top. Like Mr. Ziffel is really low-key and Eva Gabor was really deadpan… None of them ever pushed a joke. Eva Gabor might be commenting about the credits coming up at the end of the show, but she wouldn’t be goofy, she would sound sincerely interested in why the credits were appearing. They played everything like it was real, which is the only way you can play it in absurdist comedy.

Though Green Acres was executive-produced by Paul Henning, it wasn't really his show; while Henning was writing nearly every episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, almost every episode of Green Acres was co-written by its creator, Jay Sommers. I wish I knew more about him. Like Henning, Sommers started in radio and brought the sensibility of radio comedy to TV sitcoms; in fact, Green Acres was a re-working of a radio sitcom Sommers created, Granby's Green Acres (starring the amazing voices of Bea Benaderet and Gale Gordon). Like Henning with The Beverly Hillbillies, Sommers -- and his writing partner Dick Chevillat -- filled Green Acres with things that had been fairly common in radio comedy but not so much in TV, things like story arcs, crossovers, and kind of a surreal anything-goes sensibility in contrast to the down-to-earth, observational tone of most TV sitcoms.

But unlike Henning, who started to kind of spin his wheels after the first couple of seasons of The Beverly Hillbillies, Sommers got weirder and weirder as Green Acres went on, pumping up the surrealism and using the show to make fun of just about everything, including its Henning-created cousin; an episode in the second season features the residents of Hooterville putting on a stage production of The Beverly Hillbillies, and finding the script needs to be tweaked ("We wrote to Hollywood and asked them to send a half-dozen scripts and we'd pick a funny one"). How or why he got that way, I don't know, but I'm glad he did.

Because of my admiration for Sommers and Henning and their radio-on-TV sensibilities, I wish someone would release the first two seasons of Petticoat Junction to DVD or at least to syndication. Sommers was the head writer on those two seasons, and I'm told that they have some of the absurdism of Green Acres and the early Beverly Hillbillies. But those two seasons were not included in the syndication package, because they're in black-and-white. What we see of Petticoat Junction, then, are the color episodes, which are pretty dismal, but neither Sommers nor Henning were involved with most of those episodes. I wouldn't mind seeing the B&W ones, then; when it comes to radio-style comedy on television, you can never get enough.

Narfed But Not Forgotten

I have to admit that I think "The Boondocks" isn't very funny anymore (it can be insightful and stuff, but I'd rather it was funny), but as a Pinky and the Brain fan I'm glad to see that McGruder remembers them too.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Real Circle of Life

...And since I was talking about the musical Jamaica in a previous post, here's a quote from the show that's always stuck in my mind; it's the introduction to the song "For Every Fish," where lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg finds a new, and somewhat gruesome, way of explaining the circle of life:

Man eat the barracuda,
Barracuda eat the bass.
Bass eat the little flounder
'Cause the flounder's lower-class.
Little flounder eat the sardine,
It's nature's plan.
Little sardine eat the worm,
Little worm eat the man.

Major Bambi

I don't have much to say today, so here's a link to an article on Donald Dunagan, who was the voice of the young Bambi in the movie of the same name, and whose life has had, to say the least, some interesting twists and turns.

Weekend Words

Somehow, when the work week is done, I feel compelled to quote some lines from the song "Economics," lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner (from the musical Love Life, music by Kurt Weill):

Now, Sarah and her husband they were doin' okay,
For Sarah had an evenin' job and he worked all day.
That's good economics, that's good economics,
But awful bad for love.
Now, Joe he had a job and worked with all of his might;
He worked so doggone hard that he was tired at night.
That's good economics, that's good economics,
But awful bad for love.
Economics are bad for love!
Economics are sad for love!
Now, Flo she can't be trusted,
She'll leave you when you're busted.
Dough come back,
Flo come back.
Now, Edna used to slip her husband's pay down her chest,
And just to keep it extra safe she never undressed.
That's good economics, that's good economics,
But awful bad for love!

And yes, if you're wondering, other lines from the song are even more misogynistic than that last one. Though not particularly misogynistic by Lerner's standards. (Look for a slightly longer post on Lerner shortly.)

Friday, March 04, 2005

No Strings, No Connections

This much-linked-to Fred Kaplan article gives a good explanation of why WB has joined Criterion at the top of the classics-on-DVD game, as well as why early Technicolor looks better than any color process that came after. But the best news comes in this sidebar, which reveals that the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are finally on their way: "Five later this year, five next year."

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Harold Arlen on Broadway, Part 2

(The first post is here.)

After St. Louis Woman, Arlen didn't have a new show on Broadway for several years. He finally returned in 1954 with House of Flowers, with a most unlikely partner: Truman Capote. Loosely based on one of his short stories, Capote's script was about a Hatian brothel run by Mme. Fleur (Pearl Bailey) and what ensues when one of her girls, Ottilie (Diahann Carroll) falls in love. The story has been described as "a fairy tale with prostitutes," and includes such lines of dialogue as: ""When a man got to punish his wife, that's the first thing he do. Tie her to a tree and give her time to ruminate." The production was racked with problems. The producers hired Peter Brook to direct and George Balanchine to choreograph -- great choices, except that Brook wasn't comfortable with the amount of freedom given to performers in Broadway shows, and tried to get Bailey to tone down her trademark mannerisms; he also made the cast feel ill-at-ease by gathering them on the first day of rehearsal and telling them "I want you to know I'm not prejudiced." And Balanchine, who had done many Broadway shows, wasn't right for this one; according to an interview in the CD booklet, he painstakingly tried to show a bunch of professional Mambo dancers how to Mambo his way. By the time the show limped into New York, both Brook and Balanchine had been replaced by Herbert Ross (though Brook still got credited as the official director).

The show is pretty hopeless, but it lives on because of Arlen's score. His use of Caribbean-flavored music gave the score some unity, but what really leaps out at you is the sheer richness and atmosphere in the music. If George Gershwin usually represented the cheerful side of jazz on Broadway -- peppy, uptempo, busy-city music -- Arlen's jazz was langorous, sort of introspective; musical phrases and single notes are stretched out, phrases are revised and re-examined in mid-song. And Arlen was playing even more games with song structure; he'd always written longer songs than most popular songwriters, but some of the songs in House of Flowers have B sections that are long enough to be separate songs in themselves (the title song) or go off in new directions at the end ("Two Ladies in De Shade of De Banana Tree") or build each section out of several different blocks of melodic material ("I Never Has Seen Snow," which adds little tags to what would normally be completed melodic sections). Again, this isn't exactly theatre writing; the big production number, "Two Ladies in De Shade of De Banana Tree," devotes five minutes of fast-paced music to a song about people standing still, making for a great song (and a hit, at least at the time), but not much of a theatrical situation. And what keeps the score from being quite on a level with St. Louis Woman is the lyric writing. Arlen wasn't working with Harburg or Mercer this time, though Mercer did do an uncredited polish on a few numbers; instead the lyrics were co-written by Arlen and Capote -- Arlen provided titles and some of the lines, and Capote wrote the final versions of the lyrics -- and they are all right, but sometimes clumsy and rarely as memorable as the music. But the best songs from House of Flowers, especially Carroll's two ballads, "A Sleepin' Bee" and "I Never Has Seen Snow," are among the best things Arlen, or anyone, ever did.

Incidentally, Carroll is not at her best on the cast recording; she was sick when the recording was made, and therefore sounds kind of hoarse at times. One falsetto high note in "I Never Has Seen Snow" was actually sung by Arlen for the recording.

House of Flowers was not a hit, but three years later, Arlen had a surprise hit with a show that, by all rules of logic, should have flopped: Jamaica. This was Arlen's reunion with Harburg; they hadn't worked together much since Bloomer Girl, because Harburg was writing Broadway shows with other people and he was blacklisted in Hollywood. Harburg conceived Jamaica as one of his whimsical fables, a la Finian's Rainbow: set in a Jamaican fishing village, it concerned a fisherman and his girlfriend, who longs to get away and live the high life in New York. It would be an anti-materialism tale, and would use calypso songs to satirize the commercialism of '50s America. Arlen reportedly wasn't wild about the idea of writing a lot of calypso music, a form he didn't much care for, but he signed onto the project, which was produced by the infamous David Merrick.

The original idea was to have Harry Belafonte as the fisherman, and many of the songs were written with him in mind. But it turned out they couldn't get Belafonte; they could, however, get Lena Horne. So the fisherman's girlfriend, as played by Horne, became the lead character, many of the songs were re-assigned to her, and Harburg's little fable started to lose focus. For the role of the fisherman, Ricardo Montalban was hired; somewhat weird casting, but he was charming, sang passably well, and didn't embarrass himself in wry calypso songs like "The Monkey in the Mango Tree," with great Harburg lyrics:

Hey, man, is it true what they say?
Hey, man, is it true that today
They claim that my brothers and me
Are the predecessors of humanity?...
Hey, man, why you give us bad name?
Hey, man, it's a blight and a shame
To claim, most unbiblically
That this chump could once have been a chimpanzee.

But as the show ran into trouble out of town, largely due to the thin, unfocused, pointless plot, Merrick hit on the solution: just accept the lack of plot, de-emphasize the story as much as possible, and focus all the attention on the best things the show had going for it: Horne, the songs, and the sets. So by the time it got to New York, there was almost nothing left of Harburg's book, and the behind-the-scenes fighting had become legendary, but Horne and the Arlen/Harburg score kept the show running for 553 performances, a solidly profitable run at the time. Merrick had unwittingly revived the formula of the lesser '30s musical comedies: forget the plot, forget the theme, just concentrate on the star performer and his or her specialties. It worked in the '30s and it worked again in the '50s.

The score is indeed wonderful; the cast album is one of my favorites to just sit down and listen to (the only CD version available at present, unfortunately, doesn't include the overture). Ultimately, though, it's lesser Arlen; many of the calypso songs kind of sound the same, and while all the songs are enjoyable, not one of them became an all-time classic on the level of "Come Rain or Come Shine" or "A Sleepin' Bee" or even "Right as the Rain." Horne reportedly expressed some disappointment that none of her songs were on that level; perhaps that was one of the reasons Arlen and Harburg dusted off an old song they'd written for her to sing in the movie Cabin in the Sky, "Ain't it the Truth" (it got cut from that movie) and interpolated it into the show. The lines about "You got to get your possum" and the mock-Gospel stuff made no sense coming from the character Horne was supposed to be playing, but it was Act 2 and character had been thrown out the window long ago. It was that kind of show.

Nevertheless, the score is a delight. "I Don't Think I'll End it All Today" features one of Arlen's catchiest tunes with one of the most gruesome lyrics ever written (basically, the singer explains that because he/she is so happy, he/she won't commit suicide in the following horrible ways). "Coconut Sweet" is a gorgeous, reflective ballad that's unusually long and complexly structured even for Arlen, and Harburg matches it with a lyric where the words themselves seem to make music; my favorite line from that song is: "When you smile at me/Spring tumble out of the tree." Many of the songs are vehicles for Harburg's spoofs of '50s culture and materialism, like the addictively catchy "Push De Button," about the joys of going automated, and "Yankee Dollar," a cynical calypso about the joys of fleecing American tourists, and the eleven o'clocker, "Napoleon," where a jazzy, laid-back Arlen tune accompanies a list of great historical figures who are now known only as products, teaching Harburg's favorite lesson, that nothing ever lasts and we have to get our fun while we can:

Napoleon's a pastry,
Get this under your brow:
All these bigwig controversials
Are just commercials now.
Better get your jug of wine and loaf of love
Before that final bow.

Ultimately, then, Jamaica is not the best of Arlen, and like all Arlen's scores, it feels like a collection of pop songs rather than true theatre music. But with Arlen and Harburg at only a little less than their best, and with Lena Horne singing most of the songs (the late Ossie Davis also gets a couple of numbers), and a great brassy orchestra, it adds up to one of the most entertaining cast albums of the '50s; if you can get it, get it, because you'll never be able to stop playing "Push De Button."

Arlen's last show, Saratoga, didn't have a lot to recommend it, and I don't have a lot to say about it here. Based on Edna Ferber's Saratoga Trunk, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, directed by Morton Da Costa (The Music Man) and starring Howard Keel and Carol Lawrence (West Side Story), it's one of those things that should at least have been an interesting failure. But the show was in trouble from the moment Da Costa decided to write the script himself, and the score was hampered by the fact that Arlen fell ill during the tryouts; a couple of the songs have music not by Arlen but by Mercer (one of them was "The Men Who Run the Country," an inappropriately jaunty song about evil robber barons), and the ones Arlen wrote himself aren't that much better. There was one good song, "Goose Never Be a Peacock," sung by the great contralto Carol Brice, but even that wasn't all that good, for Arlen. It was an anticlimactic ending to Arlen's Broadway career.

So Arlen had two shows that ran over 500 performances, one show that was considered a success at the time (Hooray For What), and three flops -- a .500 batting average, not at all bad on Broadway. Arlen wasn't an unsuccessful Broadway composer, but he was never a natural one; he always wrote music that happened to be sung in a theatre, rather than theatre music, the kind that can bend to character, situation, choreography, direction. He was more at home in pop and movie songwriting, where everything could stop for his songs, rather than his songs being just part of the theatrical effect. But when I listen to the recordings of House of Flowers, St. Louis Woman and Jamaica, and some songs from Bloomer Girl, I'm glad he kept trying.