Saturday, April 30, 2005

In Enterprise of Martial Kind

I got the last copy of Li'l Abner in my local DVD store; for a relatively obscure movie with a lot of flaws (it's incredibly stagebound, cuts too much of the music and too little of the dialogue), it sure seems to be popular. The DVD looks very good, but I can't say the same for the sound; it's no fault of the DVD producers, but the mono soundtrack of the film (there was never a stereo soundtrack) is very thin and features surprisingly poor choral singing -- it sounds like there's maybe two singers backing up Stubby Kaye in the "Jubilation T. Cornpone" number. My suggestion is to supplement the DVD with the Broadway cast recording, which has all the songs the movie cut, and, despite being in mono as well, has much better sound than the movie.

One thing I wanted to point out is that "Jublilation T. Cornpone," one of the most beloved of Broadway comedy songs and a number I have been known to play ten times in a row (as part of my plot to drive all friends and co-workers into the street screaming), is very clearly based on the Duke of Plaza-Toro's song from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers. The songs have exactly the same subject, a celebration of an inept and cowardly military leader, and very similar jokes:

In enterprise of martial kind,
When there was any fighting,
He led his regiment from behind--
He found it less exciting.
But when away his regiment ran,
His place was at the fore, O--
That celebrated,
The Duke of Plaza-Toro! (G&S)

When we fought the Yankees and annihilation was near,
Who was there to lead the charge that took us safe to the rear?
Why, it was Jubilation T. Cornpone,
Old toot-your-own-horn-pone,
Jubilation T. Cornpone,
A man who knew no fear.

It doesn't make "Jubilation T. Cornpone" any less of a great song; it just shows the enormous influence that G&S had on the American musical comedy.

Friday, April 29, 2005

More Than I Can Barer

To follow up on my previous post on the lyricist Marshall Barer, here are a couple of lyrics that demonstrate his compulsive over-rhyming and retro style. One is "Beyond Compare," written in the '70s with composer David Ross, and Barer's attempt to revive the style of the romantic list song a la Cole Porter or Larry Hart. Note the internal rhymes in almost every line (e.g. Baba au rhum or summer's day):

Shall I, my love, compare thee to
Baba au rhum or summer's day?
Handel chorale or Malibu?
Rubens, Ravel or Mel Torme?
Is there a better metaphor
For how I melt
Beholding you?
Or shall the glow I so adore
Only be felt
Enfolding you?
Racking my brain for fitting praise!
Seeking in vain the perfect phrase!
Poring through piles of poems and plays!
Haunting the aisles at Doubleday's!
I might convey
The state I'm in
If I could play
The mandolin;
Since I cannot, I'll just declare
You are beyond compare
And leave it right there.

Another Barer song that's been taken up by cabaret artists is "Here Come the Dreamers," another rhyme-packed song from the unproduced musical he and Hugh Martin wrote for Jeanette MacDonald:

Please hang a moon up and tune up the cellos,
For here come the dreamers.
Tell all the fellows to varnish their trumpets,
Butter the crumpets and garnish the Jell-Os,
Let us get to it and do it up right,
Welcome the dreamers with all of our might.

Here come a few of the true punchinellos,
The beautiful dreamers.
Here comes a clown in a motley of yellows
Made from a gown of Dolores Costello's,
Giddy and gaudy and bawdy and bright,
Here come the dreamers to light up the night.

They may arrive in a sleigh
Or the ghost of a gay painted steamboat,

What does it matter who scatter confetti
And string up the streamers,
Cover the table with strawberry satin,
Put out the platinum sugar and creamers,
Tell ev'ry sorrow to slip out of sight?
Here come the dreamers to put them to flight.

Finally, an excerpt from Barer's mock Noel-Coward song "Shall We Join the Ladies," a surprisingly successful attempt to spin a rather long song out of one very old joke:

Shall we join the ladies?
Yes, do, let's join the ladies
And make one big lady!
Taken separately, the girls can be confusing,
But as a whole they might, I think, be quite amusing.
I'd rather have one enormous lady with two tremendous eyes
Than twenty with forty of ordinary size.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Greatest (Or Least Un-Great) Hits

I won't get much blogging done in the next couple of days. But since this blog is entirely devoted to stuff that's out of date, the posts have a long shelf life, so I thought I'd fill in the blogging gap by directing you to some older posts that I still like:

My posts on Animaniacs, Part 1 and Part 2, take an exhaustingly long time to explain why I consider this one of the best TV cartoons of the '90s (even though most animation insiders of my acquaintance consider it only slightly less evil than "Clutch Cargo" was).

I used to do periodic posts on "Obscure Musicals," and I hope to do some more; one that might be of interest even if you don't much care for musicals is my piece on What Makes Sammy Run, which was turned into a Broadway musical by a team that included the writer of the original novel, Budd Schulberg.

"Things that Suck: The Smoggies" - On the "enviro-toon" and perhaps the worst example, worse even than Captain Planet. For some reason a lot of the hits I get through Google are from people searching for info on "Smoggies" and/or "Suntots."

Bad Sitcoms With Good Writing - Wherein I spend more time than I probably should explaining why "Who's the Boss" was better written than "Full House."

A relic of my English majorhood, two posts on Thackeray's Vanity Fair here and here. Don't worry, these posts contain no deconstruction of any kind and are therefore relatively non-toxic.

Grudge Matches I'd Like To See and Son of the Return of Grudge Matches I'd Like to See - Just because, with the demise of the original Grudge Match site, somebody's gotta keep doing it.

Finally, after Election 2004, I was the only blogger to give an effective explanation of Voting patterns in Ohio.

Monday, April 25, 2005

TV Be Much Smart?

I honestly don't get this New York Times Magazine Piece arguing that today's TV is smarter than ever. Maybe it's because I haven't watched enough ER episodes to make my brain sufficiently brilliant, but his arguments seem to be that TV is better today because a) There are more story arcs, b) There's more medical and/or political jargon in the dialogue, and c) The plots are harder to follow.

There's some truth here, as there always is in even the most hideously over-generalized pieces (like some of mine). TV drama is, on average, better written today than it used to be, and certainly better-produced. Production companies once treated episodic TV series as if they were poverty-row movies -- don't spend too much time on lighting or camera setups, don't bother about making it look great, just get it done. That's changed over time, and now TV drama episodes are made faster and cheaper than movies, but are expected to look as good as they possibly can within those limitations. Even the worst TV dramas now have a level of production polish that even most of the good dramas didn't have in the '70s.

And I wouldn't deny that the shift from self-contained episodes to "arc" dramas and characters who grow and change (even shows with self-contained episodes now have more ongoing story threads, and real character development, than you'd normally have found on a show in the '60s) is on the whole a good thing. There are bad things that have come with the shift; because shows are now entirely staff-written, with story arcs plotted out in advance by a showrunner and individual points in the arc handed off to individual staff writers, there's much less opportunity for a quirky freelancer to come in and do an unusual, one-off episode. One of the most famous behind-the-scenes stories of '60s TV, the battle over Harlan Ellison's script for an episode of Star Trek, was about the fight to strike a balance between the freelance writer's quirky voice and the overall voice of the show, as set by the showrunner. Well, today that fight is pretty much over, and it's hard to hear much of an individual voice in today's TV scripts; the showrunner defines everything, and that gives today's shows a certain sameness in the writing. On The Rockford Files you could tell a David Chase script from the other writers' scripts; on The Sopranos, Chase's own voice understandably kind of drowns out any other writerly voice. It's a tradeoff that's become necessary to give shows a greater overall sense of sophistication and consistency, but consistency can also lead to a certain sameness.

The other stuff in the article, no, it really doesn't make sense to me. The stuff about shows being smarter because they're harder to follow -- well, that might be a sign of intelligence, or it might be a sign that shows have stopped caring whether they make sense or not. Sometimes that's a product of the shortened running times, sometimes it's a network directive (the head of HBO reportedly encouraged producers to make shows as obscure as possible, on the theory that they'd get more repeat viewings that way from viewers re-watching to figure out what the hell's going on), and sometimes it's just lazy writing. Sometimes -- sometimes -- it's a sign of greater willingness to trust the viewer. But not all that often, I think. And much as I like, say, House, I don't think it can be said that it's unwilling to spell things out for the viewers. And much of the TV jargon the writer praises is just the modern equivalent of "Treknobabble," stuff that's in there because the actors need to be saying something whether it makes sense or not.

The writer doesn't have much to say about the decline in TV comedy; the few good sitcoms left are either unpopular (Arrested Development), on the verge of cancellation (King of the Hill, which has been more or less abandoned in the wake of Family Guy hype), or holdovers from an era when good sitcoms were common (The Simpsons). Since TV comedy today suffers from all the problems that TV drama did in the '70s -- cheesy production values, characters who never grow, tendency to spell everything out -- I might speculate that what we're seeing now is not a golden age of TV but simply another downturn for comedy accompanied by an upswing in drama. I have a theory that when TV comedy is very good, TV drama tends to be very bad, and vice-versa; the '70s, one of the worst eras for quality TV drama, was also a great era for TV comedy; a sitcom like Barney Miller had all the character development and story interest that were missing from the cop dramas of the era, while All in the Family had ongoing story threads and complex character interactions that most dramas couldn't match. The '70s had many sitcoms and sketch comedies that beat most of today's product in terms of trusting the viewer's intelligence. So assuming that today's dramas are more intelligent than those of a bygone era, I don't think that really says anything about our era, or its entertainment in general -- just that most of the good TV is being done in the hourlong drama form.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Hey, Alexander Pope

Here’s another song I wrote but never used; this one was in college when I was an English Major (also known as an Untouchable among students in real disciplines), and it’s kind of a Cole Porter pastiche as applied to an English-lit subject. In fact the model for the song, and for the melody, such as it was, was a ‘40s Porter song called “Hey, Good-Lookin’.”

Also, the joke in the Interlude is in extremely bad taste, but it was hard to resist the play on the title of “The Rape of the Lock.” Apologies in advance.


Alexander Pope was a famous versifier,
Ev’rything he wrote drove his reputation higher,
Ev’rything was his that a poet could desire,
Still, he felt glum.
Alexander’s mood could be best described as grumpy,
All because his back could be best described as humpy,
Alexander thought, being short and sort of dumpy,
Love would never come.
And then one night, as he sat alone and tortured,
A bell-like voice called out from his apple orchard:

Refrain 1

Hey, Alexander,
Alexander Pope,
I’m lovely and young and here among your plants.
I’m callin’: Say, Alexander,
May I speak with candor?
Your poetry would be grander
With a touch of romance.
To improve your art,
The crazy human heart
Is something you should start
Thinking of.
So don’t delay, Alex Pope,
Broaden up your scope,
Take a trip on that slippery slope
Known as love.


I’ve never bin a fan of all your preachy stuff,
And as for slamming dunces, once is quite enough.
Your version of the Iliad was fine, no doubt,
Except you filtered all the sex and violence out.
Although you told the world “Whatever is, is right,”
Whatever is, is wrong when you’re alone at night.
I’m sure that it would give you quite a pleasant shock
To find that there are better things to rape than a little old lock.

Refrain 2

Hey, Alexander,
Alexander Pope,
How can you refuse a luscious muse like me?
Don’t run away, Alexander,
Meet this sweet demander;
You’ll find that when you philander,
Your expression’s more free.
Don’t be so sedate,
You need to gravitate
To subjects they would hate
Up above.
So come and play, Alex Pope,
Don’t be such a dope,
Have a fling and a swing on the rope
Known as love.
This night could be – I think you said it best –
What oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d,
So I hope you can cope
With a grip and a grope
And a slip on the slope
Known as love!

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Keeping Me Honest

In the comments section, "Concerned Citizen" has some more interesting comments taking down some of the over-generalizations I made in another post. I don't exactly agree with all of his conclusions any more than he agrees with mine, but he's certainly right that some of my conclusions were over-broad and spun big generalizations out of relatively minor facts.

Which is the good thing about a comments section: if it can't keep you honest, it can at least inform your readers as to when you're wrong.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Passover Requests

I'll be in a non-blogging state for the next few days due to the need to escape from Egypt and cross the sea -- I think it's the Red one.

In the meantime, if there's anything you want me to write about in the future, please let me know at One of the problems with writing a blog on non-current topics is that it's hard to decide what to write about on a given day, so any suggestions, comments, questions, more hate mail, etc. is welcome.

Between this and that pledge drive a few days ago, this blog may soon consist entirely of requesting stuff from readers, but hopefully I'll still have a new idea or two once in a while.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Barer of Good News

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1993, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, the lyricist Marshall Barer described himself as "The irrepressible, wafer-thin, rapier-keen, Anglo-sexual, psycho-Semitic, almost unbearably gifted Marshall Barer." When he died five years later, every obituary used that description somewhere in there. No one could describe Barer better than Barer could.

Barer is an interesting figure in the world of songwriting. He was, as he immodestly admitted, exceptionally gifted, one of the most talented song lyricists of his generation. His contemporaries all thought so; Stephen Sondheim was a fan and Fred Ebb said that "Marshall Barer is the lyricist I would hope to be someday." But though he was involved with one enduringly popular show -- Once Upon a Mattress, the royalties from which allowed him to live comfortably -- he never had the big career that his talent might have justified.

First I'll talk about his talent, then about his career more generally. Barer was part of a generation of songwriters who came of age when the Broadway musical was at the height of its popularity, and started breaking into musical theatre at a time when many of the "classic" composers and writers were going into semi-retirement (Berlin and Porter, to name two, didn't do much after the mid-'50s). The chief caracteristic of these new musical theatre writers is that for them, musical theatre had a history: unlike the previous generation of musical-theatre writers, who just wrote in the prevailing style of the time and then did their own twist on it, the '50s generation broke into musical theatre at a time when popular music was starting to change, and when writing in a classic musical-theatre style was already starting to seem like a conscious stylistic choice. The '50s was a time when the old works of musical theatre were being revived, when Ella Fitzgerald and others were dusting off the older songs of Rodgers, Kern, Porter and others, when Ben Bagley was starting to bring unknown and unpublished songs to the public's attention. Musical theatre was no longer a "now" kind of thing, something based purely on current trends and the demands of the current Broadway season; it had a history, and belonged to the ages. And the new writers, like Stephen Sondheim, Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh, Charles Strouse, and Jerry Herman, were all very different but they were all much more self-aware than the previous generation, very consciously influenced by the Old Masters.

Barer, who was born in 1923 and pursued a career in design before going into songwriting, was a little older than the other members of this vaguely-defined generation, but he clearly belonged to that group of songwriters who were aware of, and influenced by, the fact that musical theatre now had a history and range of styles to choose from. Barer's biggest influence was Larry Hart. Rodgers and Hart were the songwriters who benefited most from the new '50s interest in musical theatre and songwriting history; recording and cabaret artists were taking up the Rodgers and Hart catalogue, essays were being written on why Rodgers' songs with Hart were cooler than the ones he'd written with Hammerstein, and Hart was being rediscovered for his unique voice and style, for lyrics that sounded nothing like any lyrics that were being written in the '50s. Marshall Barer basically seems to have made it his mission to revive the Hart style, to be a new Larry Hart for the new generation. He even mentioned Hart by name in a song called "Beyond Compare":

Who could compose
Your valentine?
Not Billy Rose,
Nor Gertrude Stein.
Only a "Hart" like Larry might
Tell you what burns in mine tonight.

Barer's lyrics abound with the Hart trademarks. Over-rhyming, for one. Hart was famous as the man who "can rhyme anything -- and does," and Barer was just as obsessive about packing his lyrics with trick rhymes, multiple rhymes, and internal rhymes. Like all rhymeaholics, he would even place rhymes in spots where almost no one would notice them. There's a song in Once Upon a Mattress called "Normandy" that features a new rhyme approximately every two or three syllables.

Barer also came closer than any other lyricist to capturing the odd tone of Hart's work, that strange mixture of humor and melancholy, of fanciful allusions mixed with down-to-earth realism and concrete images. And because Once Upon a Mattress had music by Richard Rodgers' daughter Mary, writing in a style very much like her father's early style, much of the score sounds like Rodgers and Hart had gotten back together again. It's a tribute to Rodgers and Barer that they don't suffer (much) in the comparison. One of the first songs in Mattress, "In a Little While," is a Rodgers & Hart pastiche ballad that sums up most of the Barer style: tricky wordplay, internal rhymes, and a happy subject mixed with a sad tone (it's all about stuff that might happen, not good things that have happened).

In a little while, just a little while,
You and I will be one, two, three, for
In a little while I will see your smile
On the face of my son. To be for-
Ever hand in glove
Is the way I have it planned,
But I'll only stay in love
If the glove contains your hand.
In a velvet gown you'll be coming down the aisle,
And it's bound to seem as though the waiting's only been a little
In a little while.

Another Barer lyric, for a song called "On Such a Night as This" to the music of Hugh Martin (written for an unproduced musical called A Little Night Music -- more about this later), showcases his gift for putting funny allusions and cultural references in a love song; again, note the many internal rhymes:

On such a night as this
Did Lancelot declare
He'd gladly swim the seven seas
To please his lady fair.
On such a night did Wagner write "The Evening Star,"
'Neath such a moon stood Lorna Doone and Lochinvar.
On such a night as this
Did Robert Taylor sigh
As Garbo gave a little cough
And wandered off to die.
Lately I find I'm disinclined to reminisce,
Except, perhaps, on such a night as this.

A Little Night Music was no relation to the Sondheim musical; it was written in the early '60s, and it was one of many, many Barer projects that never made it. In this case, the problem was that it was written for Jeanette MacDonald, and her death put an end to the project. Many of the songs have become cabaret favorites, including Barer's tribute to his beloved Rodgers and Hart and to MacDonald, "Wasn't it Romantic?" -- a gloomy song about recalling lost love that is written as a countermelody to Rodgers and Hart's "Isn't It Romantic?"

Though the world has grown cold, we can banish the chill,
We can order the present to vanish at will,
We can darken the room,
We can start the machine,
And from here in the gloom
As we gaze at the screen,
We can step into yesterday still.


Oh, wasn't it romantic,
All storybook and song,
You, fragile as a snowflake,
I, resolute and strong?
How lovely the glow
That I recall,
How lovely to know
That love was all.
White willows in the moonlight,
Bright silver in the stream,
Oh, did it really happen,
Or was it just a dream?
No matter, I still await
The moment when
I will know romance again.

Barer collaborated with many composers on unproduced or failed projects. He collaborated with Duke Ellington on a show called Pousse-Caffe that went through several drafts and lasted three performances, meaning it had more drafts than performances. He wrote English lyrics for La Belle, a failed Broadway-ization of Offenbach's La Belle Helene. He wrote songs with Burton Lane, Michel Legrand, Vernon Duke and Hoagy Carmichael, most of which were never heard. As Barer said, "The hills are alive with the sound of unpublished music, mostly from unproduced musicals."

If his best-known show was Mattress, his best-known song was the theme from "Mighty Mouse," aka "Here I Come to Save the Day." Barer didn't particularly care for the lyric: "I wrote it in the back of a taxi cab. But it's great when I tell people about it, and they respond with a gasp, 'You wrote the "Mighty Mouse" theme song!?'"

After repeated Broadway failures, Barer moved to California in the early '70s, where he opened an art gallery; after cabaret artists (including the incredibly annoying-sounding but undoubtedly knowledgeable Michael Feinstein) started taking up his songs, Barer got more involved in songwriting and in peforming his own material, but he never had another show produced again.

Part of Barer's problem may have been his eccentric personality; he was described as "the world's best lyricist and the world's worst house guest," and there's a story that he once urinated in the office of a producer he didn't like. Like Oscar Hammerstein, Barer usually insisted on writing the lyrics first instead of fitting his words to a tune, but according to Mary Rodgers, he not only presented her with the lyrics, but with all kinds of rhythm and accent marks showing exactly where the musical emphasis should go on every syllable.

Ultimately, Barer may just have been too old-fashioned a lyricist for Broadway. Like Hart, he wasn't really a songwriter who wrote for character or theatrical situation; instead he wrote about things that interested him, in his own voice, not the voice of the character. That's fine for cabaret material, but not so fine for the modern Broadway musical, and that's part of the reason why a lot of Barer's show songs work better as stand-alone cabaret songs.

Ben Bagley released a recording some years ago on his own Painted Smiles label devoted to Barer's songs; I don't know if it's still available anywhere.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

I Get Letters

I've been blogging for almost a year and only now do I get my first piece of hate mail from someone whose work I criticized. This is a red-letter, nay, a gala day for me.

And no, it was not from anyone involved with Family Guy (I've never met the creator of that show but from what I can tell he's okay with criticism). It was a response to a much milder negative comment about something else. And no, it wasn't Richie Rich people out for revenge either.

Here's the letter, without attribution:

It was fascinating to read the critique from a true giant of mass media. I bow to your astute observation and wealth of accomplishments.

Blogging is akin to masturbation, so it's nice to see that you're truly devoted to being a full time jerk off.

I have really, truly arrived, man. The only reason to blog, nay, to live, is for people to hate you for saying mean things about them. And when they throw in a form of the cliche about how criticism is worth nothing if it comes from someone who doesn't boast a "wealth of accomplishments," it's even better. Life is good.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Uncle Pudge!

That was the name of Little Dot's uncle who wound up wearing the corset. "Uncle Pudge." All her uncles and aunts had descriptive names, e.g. her aunt who brought bad luck was named "Aunt Calamity."

For those who just can't get enough of the depradations of Harvey Comics, this page features four Hostess Fruit Pies ads with Casper the Friendly Ghost, including "Casper and the Boogy Woogy Man." Even Harvey's Hostess Fruit Pies ads were sub-par.

Are There Other Kinds of Sunrises?

I've been listening to the excellent Encores! recording of Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein's The New Moon. More thoughts on this later, but just one thought for now: "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise," a song for an operetta tenor, with Romberg's European operetta style and Hammerstein's high-flown, flowery, sometimes nonsensical language (the title of the song is one of the most famous redundancies in the history of songwriting), must be the unlikeliest jazz standard ever. I love the song; it's one of my favorite Broadway songs -- but the fact that so many jazz artists have taken it up seems almost as unlikely as "Die Fledermaus in jazz." Though I guess The Hot Mikado didn't do too badly.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Take It Curtiz-y

Dave Kehr has an intereesting article on the new Errol Flynn DVD set, which is mostly about the two directors with whom he usually worked: Raoul Walsh and Michael Curtiz. Like many people who have dealt with Curtiz's work, Kehr wonders "How can the man who made some of the best-loved American films... continue to be considered an anonymous studio technician?" He makes a good case for Curtiz as a director with an individual visual style, albeit not a filmmaker of the first rank.

But what I find odd about Curtiz is that the things that make his Warner Brothers work so enjoyable -- the pacing, the brilliant use of camera movement and lighting -- almost completely disappeared after he left Warners; most of his post-WB films, like White Christmas and We're No Angels are anonymous-looking, visually bland pieces of work. The obvious conclusion is that it wasn't just Curtiz creating his visual style at WB, it was also the particular team of technicians who helped him create that style. After the collapse of the studio system, many filmmakers were a bit lost without a consistent, understanding team of technicians to carry out their wishes. And it didn't just happen to directors, but producers too: look at the huge drop in the quality of the films of Curtiz's most frequent producer (and the true auteur of movies like Robin Hood and Casablanca), Hal Wallis. At WB, consistently excellent work; after WB, clunky stage adaptations and Elvis Presley vehicles.

The point is not that men like Curtiz and Wallis weren't very talented but that their talents worked best within a studio system where congenial talents were easily available to them in every department. And the point is that the style of a movie in the studio-system era was often defined to a great extent by the little-known studio technicians. This isn't often understood, or when it's understood it's not very well understood.

For instance, there's a recent book about Orson Welles, Despite the System, that makes the argument (frequently advanced by Jonathan Rosenbaum and others) that Welles was really an independent filmmaker who would have made masterpiece after masterpiece if the studio system hadn't gotten in its way. The book makes some good points here and there but it doesn't really seem to grapple with the question of how much Welles' films owe to the individual studios and producers for which they were made. There's hardly a mention of RKO's studio style or studio technicians, yet you simply can't discuss Citizen Kane's style independently of, say, the unique style of RKO's special effects man, Vernon Walker, or the downbeat, questioning tone RKO's movies were adopting around that time (the same tone that would give us The Devil and Daniel Webster, the Val Lewton films, and a ton of film noir). You can't, or shouldn't, discuss how a movie bucks the system unless you first recognize what it owes to that system.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

More Harvey Madness

To follow up on my attack on Richie Rich, here's a link to a post on another blog analyzing the mind-blowing Harvey hackery that was Little Dot and her endless parade of uncles and aunts.

The only Little Dot uncle I can remember is the incredibly fat one -- even fatter than Little Lotta -- who couldn't get his girl to marry him because he was, well, too fat. Realizing that he can't possibly be expected to exercise or stick to a diet, Dot gets her grandmother's old corset from the attic and wraps it around her uncle's frame, making him look thin at last. The end.

I also like the line in the comments section about Richie's poor friends Freckles and Peewee:

Notice how he never once thought to slip a few quid to his poor friends, the ones who would show up wearing patched overalls and shoes with holes so big that their toes showed. Meanwhile, Richie was telling them how he was installing a jewel encrusted toilet lid along with special gold leaf toilet paper with which he would wipe his ass. Come the revolution, you can bet that Freckles and Pee-Wee will line their "pal" up against the wall and administer some proletariat vengeance.

Aux armes, citoyens de Harveyland.

La Poule

I can give a hearty two thumbs up -- or, as a British classical music reviewer would put it, a three-star rating -- to Nikolaus Harnoncourt's new recording of Haydn's Paris Symphonies (symphonies # 82-87). Harnoncourt is pretty much the granddaddy of the period-instrument movement. When he was a cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in the '50s, he started to wonder why so much baroque music sounded so boring now, when it was considered so exciting in its time. So he formed the Concentus Musikus Wien, a period instrument group, for the express purpose of playing music on instruments of the period, with techniques influenced by baroque techniques. All of this was intended not to make the music sound like a museum piece, but to make it sound as fresh and interesting as it did in its own time. And Harnoncourt has always stuck to the aim of making music sound fresh and new; he comes to everything with new and unusual ideas about how it should sound. Sometimes it doesn't work and sounds ridiculous; but with this new Haydn set, it works beautifully.

Harnoncourt's performances of these great symphonies are the kind of Haydn performances I prefer: not very genial or gentle, but full of violent contrasts and an emphasis on the unusual sounds Haydn creates with his orchestration. The first movement of symphony no. 83 is a case in point: Haydn starts the movement with a violent Sturm Und Drang theme in G minor, which suddenly segues into a lighthearted, comic second subject with an oboe solo that sounds like a chicken clucking (the symphony was nicknamed "La Poule," or "The Hen"). Harnoncourt brings all that out perfectly: whereas most conductors try to play down the violence of the first subject to give the movement a more consistent tone, Harnoncourt plays up the contrasts, so that the first subject sounds truly ferocious and the "clucking" theme sounds hilarious.

The best symphony of this group is probably symphony no. 86, a half-hour crash course in everything that makes Haydn the greatest of all symphonists. The first movement features two themes built out of little three-note motifs, which are then developed, revised, re-orchestrated, and played in counterpoint, as if Haydn is trying to see how many musically interesting ideas he can create from the simplest, barest musical motifs. The slow movement is a free-form "capriccio" that takes another simple motif, develops it into a theme, and subjects that theme to all kinds of new and unusual harmonies and modulatory games. The third movement, as usual with Haydn, contrasts two different types of dance music: a stately minuet (which contains several rhythmic and developmental tricks that make it almost impossible to dance to; these are movements about dancing, not actual dances) followed by a "country" dance led by a woodwind band. And the exuberant finale features still more surprises: the hiccuping phrases and bassoon gurgles in the second subject, the sudden pauses during the development section, the continued games with harmony and dynamics. Haydn lived to surprise his audience, and I can think of no better way to praise Harnoncourt's performances by saying that they make Haydn sound continually surprising.

For newcomers to Haydn, the Paris symphonies are perhaps the best place to start; when I heard Leonard Bernstein's classic set of these symphonies, I was hooked from the boisterous beginning of symphony no. 82. Harnoncourt's set is as good as Bernstein's in its own way, and features better sound (Bernstein's engineers made everything too string-heavy, making it hard to hear the brass and drums, which are very important in symphonies 82 and 86). One thing that may take some getting used to is that he takes every single repeat, with the result that these symphonies take over a half-hour each; but such good music is worth repeating a few times.

Harnoncourt's next recording will be of Verdi's Requiem, with the Vienna Philharmonic and soloists Eva Mei, Bernarda Fink, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo and (Canadian alert!) Michael Schade. Whether this will be one of Harnoncourt's brilliant performances, or one of his weird ones, I don't know, and the lineup of singers sounds a bit lightweight, but I'll definitely be on the lookout for it. Other Harnoncourt recording projects in the next year or two reportedly include a disc of Offenbach operetta excerpts and the 7235235th recording of Handel's Messiah.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Sellout Post

In what is undoubtedly a jump-the-shark moment, I've put up one of those donations buttons (it's on the right-hand side of this blog, just above the archives). This isn't one of those "Donate or I will shut down the blog and shoot your puppy" type of things; I just thought I'd see what happens.

I originally was going to try for advertising, but you need a certain number of hits per day for that. And, frankly, if I made this blog into the kind of blog that would appeal to advertisers, it would be a different blog, for better or for worse.

As I said, I'm going to be blogging one way or the other, but I thought I would try what other bloggers are trying and put up that donations button; when you're doing a blog that's mostly about stuff you have to pay for (DVDs, CDs, etc), every little bit helps.

Now that that silliness is done with, please scroll down for a new "Things that Suck" post, my first in a while: an attack on my childhood memories of that great parasite of the moneyed class, Richie Rich.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Things That Suck: Richie Rich Comics

When I was a kid, I didn't much care for real comic books; that is, the big, thin, wobbly ones that contained only a few stories each and got kept in plastic wrappers and sold for a fortune. No, I, and many other kids I knew preferred digests. They contained more stories, fewer ads for sea monkeys and magical bodybuilding systems, and were easier to carry around in your pocket. And most of the digests being sold at the time were of two comic-book series. One, of course, was Archie, the king of the digest format. The other was Richie Rich.

I enjoyed them enough at the time. But now, looking back on it, I feel very little gratitude for the enjoyment Richie Rich provided me as a tyke. Instead, I feel revulsion. Because Richie Rich comics sucked.

Now, maybe someone who knows more about this than I do can identify a time when they did not suck, or an artist or writer who did non-sucky work in the Harvey Comics Salt Mines. But I'm sticking to my guns on this one. They were some of the worst comics ever created.

Not because of the premise, exactly. Many people correctly point out that the premise of "Richie Rich" is kind of stomach-turning, since it's all about celebration of the worst kind of conspicuous consumption. Every story was basically just about how rich Richie was: how many cool toys he had, how big his house was, how his family had their own police force for the estate, known as the "Estate Police" (though unlike Daddy Warbucks, Richie's father never actually had his private police force kill anybody -- I think), how many servants he had, etc., etc., literally ad nauseam. But that's really harmless, an extention of the childhood fantasy of how a rich person, and indeed anyone who doesn't need to beg his parents for spending money, probably lives. And most of the things Richie did with his money were just slightly more high-tech versions of pleasures that are available even to non-rich kids; Richie's TV set may have taken up an entire wall, but as a small child, our TV set seemed pretty big to me, so it didn't seem like Richie's stuff was that much better. And the really exciting things Richie did, like getting kidnapped, having adventures, and, well, getting kidnapped, were things that could happen to kids without much money. So Richie Rich comics aren't in any danger of turning kids into crass materialists, at least, not any more so than they already are.

Richie Rich comics had awful artwork -- every kid was a puffy-cheeked monster who looked like he had never quite gotten over the mumps; every facial expression and pose was exactly the same for every emotion -- but that, too, wasn't quite the problem. Richie's sister publication Casper the Friendly Ghost -- they often did crossover stories where Richie met Casper and thought it was all a dream -- had equally bad artwork and exactly the same character design (as Bart and Lisa Simpson explained, Casper is the ghost of Richie after he got tired of the pursuit of money and killed himself), and while those comics are bad, they're not quite as bad as Richie.

No, the real problem with Richie Rich comics was that the stories were just some of the worst, stupidest, most intelligence-insulting things ever to find their way into the world of kiddie entertainment. I'm not saying that kiddie comics need to be brilliant or complex, but they need to make sense. Richie Rich comics never made sense, and you get the feeling that the writers figured that there was no need to make sense when they were writing for stupid kids.

There were two basic kinds of stupid nonsensical "Richie Rich" stories. The first was the "Look how rich he is" story. This usually consists of Richie showing off his wealth for some impressed visitor, who spends the whole story cooing about how cool it is to have a privately-owned rocket ship or a dog with dollar signs on him. Sometimes this visitor will turn out to be a "crook" (rule # 1 of the Richverse: the term "crook" must be used at least five times in a story, and no synonym -- not "criminal," not "robber" -- is acceptable) who tries and "comically" fails to steal Richie's vast wealth. These stories have no plot, and indeed, no actual premise beyond the premise that Richie is really, really rich.

Occasionally, for variety, Richie will face off in some battle-of-who's-richer with his "bad" cousin Reggie Van Dough or local siren Mayda Munny, who is constantly trying to steal Richie away from his girlfriend Gloria. Reggie and Mayda were supposed to be the bad greedy rich people who would make Richie look sympathetic by comparison. Of course the opposite is true. There's nothing more annoying than a rich and powerful person who tries to pretend he's not rich and powerful and instead pretends he's One of Us. The most infuriating thing about Richie is not that he's rich but that the writers keep trying to convince us that he's just another kid (or, as the comics' sub-title used to call him, "That poor little rich boy" -- yeah, poor, poor boy).

Which brings us to the worst part of the "Richie is really rich" stories: Freckles and Peewee, Richie's poor buddies. Freckles was a red-haired kid who looked like a cross between Pippi Longstocking and Alfalfa; Pee-Wee was a little kid who hadn't learned to talk but could strike badly-drawn stock poses. When we saw their home, it was a run-down shack where they lived, poor but happy, with their mother (I don't remember if they had a father). But any time Richie offered to, you know, slip them some cash, Freckles would reply "Oh, no, we'll help you only for friendship!" while the mute Peewee made a "no, no, no" gesture.

I guess the writers thought it would prove Richie wasn't a snob to have him hanging out with poor kids. In practice, it made you wonder why the hell Richie didn't say to hell with their refusals and use some of that money to fix up their hovel or, better yet, build them a new house. I remember a friend of mine in college got very angry about this. We were discussing the Richie comics we had both grown up reading, and when I brought up Freckles and Peewee, he went red-faced and sputtered: "Goddamn Freckles and Peewee! They lived in a shack. A shack! And that bastard Richie did nothing for them!" He got still angrier and I changed the subject.

Another Richie friend who turned up a lot was "Jackie Jokers," a kid who wanted to be a comedian and dressed like he was auditioning to take Peter Lawford's place in the Rat Pack. (Jackie also starred in his own stories in the '70s, mostly incredibly lame parodies of then-popular TV shows and movies; so Carrie became "Carry," starring Jackie as a kid who's always forced to Carry other kids' books, until he discovers he has telikinetic powers.) Sample story: Jackie and Richie go to Jackie's audition for a commercial. To test the auditioners, the director has the cue card guy hold one of the cards upside down to see how they react. The first guy auditioning completely loses it: "GASP! It's UPSIDE DOWN!" He doesn't get the job. Jackie, however, comes up with the brilliant solution of turning himself upside town to read the card. He gets the job and everybody's happy. This actually has slightly more of a plot than the average Richie Rich story.

The other kind of Richie story was the "adventure" story, where Richie solves a mystery or has some kind of close shave. This kind of thing should, by rights, have made sense; how much can you screw up a kiddie adventure story? You can when Richie's most frequent nemesis is an evil scientist with a giant lightbulb where his head should be. (Apparently there was a freak lab accident that caused his head to be replaced by said lightbulb, so he calls himself "Dr. N-R-Gee" and is seeking revenge on the world.) And when the other plots include these classics:

- Richie goes to a wrestling match where the chief bad guy wrestler, "Furious Fernando," is a big hulking guy who doesn't speak a word of English, but only speaks a language no one has ever heard of. When he's being pinned down in the match, he leans over to Richie and says a few words in his native language. Consulting with one of his Dad's researchers, Richie finds out that the lanugage is from a country known only as "U" because it's "unpronounceable." With the help of a huge computer and a dream, Richie and the researcher create a box that can automatically translate anything that's said in the mysterious language into English, and vice-versa. By training this box on the people who are guarding Fernando, Richie discovers that he's not really a wrestler, he's actually a nobleman from "U" who was tricked into becoming a wrestler by evil schemers who told him that his daughter had been kidnapped and taken to America. Little does he know that the girl is actually being held captive by her uncle, who used this whole wrestling thing to get Fernando out of the country. When Richie tells Fernando about this, he goes batshit and beats the heck out of the guards (in a G-rated way, though). At the end he is reunited with his daughter, the scheming uncle from "U" is punished, and Richie re-dubs big dude "Friendly Fernando."

- Richie is trying to find out the location of the treasure left behind by his great-uncle Oppus Rich. All he has to go on is the fact that Oppus donated a Chinese junk to a museum, and the message he left in lieu of a will: "My vision -- top of treasure junk will not be." Finally Richie realizes that "My vision" means "Oppus's sight," which sounds like "Opposite," and if you take the opposite of the rest of that sentence, it's "bottom of junk treasure will be." Realizing that the treasure is in the bottom of the junk, Richie's dad congratulates him for figuring out a riddle that no one in the world had ever been able to solve.

Richie Rich's comic book career has been over for some years, but Macaulay Culkin played him in a live-action movie. Even Macaulay Culkin deserves better.

TV Writer Commentaries

I see that the DVD extras for the second season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (release date, July 26) include two commentary tracks with one of the show's most prolific writers in its first few seasons -- and one of the relatively few women in sitcom writing at that time -- Treva Silverman. It'll be interesting to hear what she has to say about the show, or, rather, it might be interesting. Commentaries with TV writers can be hit-or-miss because they worked on the episodes so fast and furiously that the structure, theme and content of an episode may not have been a conscious process. I don't mean that a good TV episode doesn't have good structure or a theme to it; I just mean that whereas movie writers and directors have time to sit and ponder about how to structure a movie, and therefore can tell you later what they were trying to do, whereas a half-hour sitcom episode doesn't get that sort of analysis, either before or after it's made.

The result is that many commentaries on TV episodes just consist of the commentators describing what's happening on the screen: they haven't seen the episode in years and they're just refreshing their memories, with the result that they don't seem to know much more about it than we do. Who would have guessed, before the Seinfeld DVDs came out, that Larry David would be so uninteresting when talking about his shows?

A surprisingly good TV-on-DVD commentary is delivered by Garry Marshall on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (season 4); he really analyzes every aspect of what it takes to make a scene or a joke funny, right down to the question of whether the actors' loud clothing detracts from the jokes. Alan Spencer, the creator of Sledge Hammer, comes off as thinking he's much more clever than he actually is (like the show itself), but gives a lot of good information and analysis, and of course Joss Whedon is a good and smart commentator. Otherwise, I can't think of a lot of really outstanding TV-on-DVD commentaries, but there are a lot I haven't heard, and a lot of the shows I collect on DVD don't have commentaries.

At this point I think it would make sense to do what is often done for older films and have critics do commentaries on TV-on-DVD sets, filling in the background of the show and analyzing it in the way that an outsider can often do better than someone who was on the inside. I'm told Three's Company has some commentaries by the guy who wrote a book on the show (yes, such a thing exists), but I haven't heard of any other examples of this.

There are also commentaries by TV directors. Since TV directors often tend to be traffic managers -- telling the actors where to stand, getting the script shot quickly -- they aren't often terribly enlightening either, but at least the director is more likely than the writer to have real, immediate memories of how the episode was made. And one hopes that if Bonanza ever comes out on DVD they'll get Robert Altman to comment on a few of his episodes.

By the way, the extras for season 2 of MTM were produced two years ago, before the first season even came out and sold disappointingly. While I suspect that season 2 will sell quite a bit better -- it's almost half the price of season 1, for starters -- and justify the release of later seasons, I wouldn't expect them to have as many extras, if indeed they have any. Too bad, because it was in season 3 that The Mary Tyler Moore Show really got good. Mostly because they started shifting the focus away from Mary Tyler Moore, but I've dealt with that before.

The Washington What Now?

A short, very short post, just a simple point to make:

I was an Expos fan. Unlike the Blue Jays, who were sort of worth rooting for when they were winning but usually seemed as sterile and bland as their stadiums, the Expos really seemed to be part of Canadian culture. Even their ludicrous attempt to put a retractable roof on Olympic Stadium, the results of which were described by a magazine as looking like a Martian spaceship had landed overhead, seemed endearing. To be an Expos fan was to be a fan of Canada itself, where being slightly second-rate is part of our uniqueness.

And therefore, I hate the Washington Nationals and hope that they suck as bad as the Washington Senators did. (Though even the Washington Senators won three pennants and a World Series. The Expos won one lousy division title in a split season when they didn't even have the best record in the division.)

May the curse of Youppi be upon them.

That is all.

Better Than Most

Another entry in my series of "Stuff I wrote but didn't use anywhere else." This song lyric was written as an exercise (again, a self-imposed exercise; I've never been much of a workshop guy, though I probably should have been). The idea here was to try and write an opening number for a musical about contemporary Hollywood, so I decided that such a number would be set at a bus station, where the main characters, on their way to Los Angeles, would meet other people who were on their way from L.A. It was a longish thing, but I kind of like it because it's an upbeat song about a downbeat subject (which I much prefer to downbeat songs about, well, anything), so I'll post it here.

Better Than Most


When I moved to L.A. I was only equipped
With a rag and a bone and a comedy script,
And my script made the rounds,
My script made the rounds.
While I worked at a Starbucks for minimal pay,
My script caught the eye of an agent a day,
And the agents would constantly write me to say:
So I stayed up at night and I wrote some more specs
With a little more punch and a little more sex,
And my scripts made the rounds,
Those scripts made the rounds.
And I pitched my ideas to a studio head,
And I pitched and I pitched till my throat was all red,
Then the head shook his head, and you know what he said?
I left L.A.
On the next available bus,
And I’m A-OK,
Not inclined to grumble or fuss –
‘Cause I’ve got so much to discuss!

OTHER EX-WRITERS: Just like us!

Refrain 1

Although I didn’t achieve what I hoped I would,
Although I wasn’t the toast of the Coast,
I got a waiter to say that my scripts were good –
So I did better than most,
Better than most.
I never dated a star with a five-inch waist
Or had a fat millionaire as my host,
But I bumped into a star and I wasn’t maced,
So I did better than most,
Better than most.
I got a look at the sign on the hill,
I got a spin in the Hollywood mill;
They never made me a Hollywood shill,
I wish they would, they never will –
But still,
I got a look at a world full of pills and pools,
So I have plenty of reasons to boast.
I may have wasted my time at those screenplay schools,
I may be heading back home to where boredom rules,
They didn’t give me the breaks,
I didn’t have what it takes,
And yet with all my mistakes,
I did better,
Better than most.

Refrain 2

I dreamed of writing a film and a tell-all tome
About how much or how little it grossed.
I wrote a film that was made in a porn star’s home,
And that was better than most,
Better than most.
I never read stupid jokes off the yellow cards
At some pathetic celebrity roast.
I got ejected from somebody’s roast by guards,
That’s really better than most,
Better than most.
I sat and wrote till I looked like a wreck,
And then I handed an agent my spec,
I also handed my landlord a check,
The spec came back, so did the check –
Oh, heck.
I never talked to a tabloid reporter guy
About how I and my friends overdosed,
So now I’ve nothing to lose, and I’m clean and dry
Except for dust on my shoes and a misty eye,
I didn’t meet with success,
I didn’t bully the press,
But I was there, so I guess
I did better,
Better than most.


I didn’t cut it, but it doesn’t rankle,
I missed the plate, but still, I took a throw.
This town hates poets, so it’s time to ankle,
But at least I’ve got my Guild card, just for show.
They paid me as a gofer, then a gaffer,
The writers called me “whatsisface” and “creep.”
But still, I know a sitcom’s called a “laffer,”
And that info makes my parents think I’m deep.
So I know what I can, and I know what I can't;
I'm the almost, the could've, the Oscar Levant.
Well, I don't want to get off on a rant:


They say the flame of your dream should stay lit,
They say defeat isn't fit to admit,
They say a lot of ridiculous shit,
Here's what I say to all of it:
I quit.
So while they gave all the Oscars to trendy hacks,
And I was gypped, getting pipped at the post,
At least my soul’s not a trademark of Mirimax,
And so I'll thank you to spare me your quips and cracks;
I've got a job that I hate,
I've got a bi-monthly date,
I've got the usual fate,
But please allow me to state
I did better,
Better than most,
Quite a bit better than most.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Man With the Moving Camera

Watching Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street the other day, I noted that Fuller was extremely fond of a type of camera movement that wasn't very common before he came along: the super-fast tracking shot, where the camera very quickly moves in and up on a character, going from long shot to close shot in seconds. This kind of fast camera movement became a specialty of Martin Scorsese, a Fuller admirer. It is, like Fuller's movies themselves, quick, punchy, unsubtle and exciting; instead of the decorous, elaborate camera moves favored by a Vincente Minnelli, Fuller just puts the camera on wheels and shoves it in his characters' faces. His camera moves the way his scripts sound, if that makes any sense.

Camera movement is often used just as just another piece of film grammar; many "classic" directors, especially those who had started in the '10s or '20s (when elaborate camera moves could be rather difficult, technically), preferred to move the camera only to call attention to something in a scene or to emphasize a character's reaction, e.g. character X sees something he doesn't like, and the camera moves in on him to show that this is a big deal for him. Ford, Hawks, Lubitsch, Renoir and DeMille are just a few of the famous directors who either don't move the camera much or move it only for fairly obvious reasons (a character moves, and the camera moves with him).

Then there are the directors who like to plan big, technically difficult camera movements that require elaborate rehearsal on the part of the technicians and the actors. Vincente Minnelli is probably the king of this type of director -- the turning-out-the-lights scene in Meet Me in St. Louis, where the camera moves around an entire house in one uninterrupted take, required an unbelievable amount of rehearsal for cameramen, lighting people, and actors alike -- though F.W. Murnau is usually credited as being the father of the camera movement movement, and Max Ophuls was the director whose use of camera movement was most influential on directors like Minnelli and Jacques Demy.

And then there are some directors who almost seem to have a patent on certain kinds of camera moves. Steven Spielberg has done a certain type of move so often -- which can roughly be described as the camera moving in on a character while also moving down, so the character somehow seems increased in stature -- that it is indelibly associated with him; in the pilot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when he needed exactly that kind of movement in a shot of Buffy, Joss Whedon asked the pilot's director to "give me the Spielberg," and the director knew exactly what he meant without another word being said.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Bob Has a Button-Down Mind...

Would you believe that as I write this, the first season of The Bob Newhart Show is # 9 on Amazon's list of top-selling DVDs? Way to go, Bob.

The quality of the set isn't anything special. The prints in the DVD set of the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show looked significantly better than I'd ever seen most of these episodes before; by contrast, the print quality of the Bob Newhart episodes vary heavily from episode to episode: some look very good, others not. It's all right, and the episodes are all uncut, but you're not likely to be blown away by it; it's a shame that better prints aren't available, because there are a few Bob Newhart episodes that still exist in first-class prints (the fourth-season episode "Death of a Fruit Man" was one of them, as I recall), and they give an idea of how good the show would look and sound with restored picture and sound. Oh, well.

The first season is a bit bland at times, I think -- it's very heavily dependent on the same kind of low-key, polite humor that characterized the first few seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The show really hit its stride around the fourth season, when the creators, David Davis and Lorenzo Music, left the show and were replaced as showrunners by the young team of Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett: they started to go for less polite humor, wackier plots, more cartoonish characterization -- Howard Borden was somewhat normal in the first season; by the end of the series he was of sub-Homer-Simpson intelligence -- and a somewhat darker tone. (The above-mentioned "Death of a Fruit Man," where one of Bob's patients dies a bizarre death, is a funnier and darker examination of death and our reactions to it than Mary Tyler Moore's "Chuckles Bites the Dust.")

The darker humor came from Tarses, one of the most iconoclastic people ever to work in the TV writing business (Lynne Farr, one of the writers on Bob Newhart, recalls working with him here), but it also brought the show closer to Newhart's strengths, as a lot of his standup is pretty dark if you examine it closely: it's full of driving instructors who literally fear for their lives, miserable accountants who spent 50 years coming to work drunk, kiddie-show hosts who encourage kids to put sponsors on a blacklist... as Newhart himself has said, he tends to do routines where he plays people he doesn't like very much.

The weakest character on the show, I think, was Jerry, played by Peter Bonerz; in the original pilot (which was supposed to be included with this DVD set, but wasn't), he was a psychiatrist, and they made him a dentist in the series proper -- obviously inspired by that other sitcom Jerry, Jerry Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show -- but they never gave him much of a characterization, and his episodes are often the weakest. Peter Bonerz had an improv comedy background, but on Bob Newhart he didn't get all that much to do that was funny, and as the show went on he started to concentrate more on directing, as his character was de-emphasized in favor of Bob's patients. There's an article that discusses the show with Bonerz, though the article is more about the current state of the sitcom than it is about the show itself.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Spring Tumble Out of the Tree

Yip Harburg, one of the greatest of American song lyricists, is getting his own postage stamp.

I've blogged about Harburg several times before; his lyrics are a unique combination of playfulness, poetry and satire. This post features quotes from a few of my favorite Harburg lyrics. Here are a few other notable ones:

From Flahooley, Harburg's bizarre satire on American postwar commercialism -- the story of a laughing doll that becomes a sensation on the market, and a magical genie who, not realizing that scarcity = value, ruins the toy industry by magically making enough dolls for everyone. This song, "The World is Your Balloon," with music by Sammy Fain, has some similarities to Harburg's famous lyric for "It's Only a Paper Moon." But it's still one of my favorite Harburg lyrics; note the fact that while it's a fanciful song, the imagery is absolutely concrete -- the fantasy is all grounded in tangible physical images, whereas most lyricists can't even create tangible images when writing about the real world:

Love, love, when you're in love,
The world is your balloon.
Rain is confetti rain,
The moon's a lantern moon.
Glow-worms are footlights in the clover,
For they know
Life's a bang-up show;
Why should it irk us?
Ain't it a circus?
Yours is the gate that swings
To clowns and tinkerbells;
Yours is the hope on wings,
The heart on carousels.
Yours is the earth to play with
On a summer afternoon,
For when girl loves boy
The world is a toy balloon.

My favorite Harburg satirical song is "Push de Button" from Jamaica (which I wrote about at greater length in my post on Harold Arlen on Broadway), a sharp but wonderfully good-natured calypso-flavored sendup of the '50s craze for automation. Some excerpts:

Push de button,
Up de elevator,
Push de button,
Out de orange juice.
Push de button,
From refrigerator
Come banana shortcake and frozen goose.
...Push de button,
Out come Pagliacci,
Push de button,
Also Liberace.
Push de button!
Wanna rock n' roll?
Push de button!
Pay de toll?
Push de button, push de button!
What an isle! What an isle!
Squeeze de tube and get Pepsodent smile!
Crack de bank, rob de mail,
Turn de knob and get Muzak in jail!
Push de button,
Don't be antiquated,
Get de baby
All pre-fabricated.
Push --
Apply de little finger
And push de button!

Another mock-calypso song from Jamaica contains a punchline that always makes me laugh, with its perfect play on words:

De man he love de woman, de woman she
Swear to love de man everlastingly,
What make de happy promise in "Oh, Promise Me"
End up in "Oh, Promiscuity?"

And for a short, simple, affecting song (with clever but subtle use of internal rhymes), you can't beat "Let's See What Happens" from Darling of the Day:

Let's give the waltz a chance, let's dance, and let's see what happens,
Let us carouse while Strauss caresses the strings.
Even the shy may fly on musical wings,
They say music can do the most unusual things.
Let's take a step, or two, or three, and let's see what happens,
Let us pretend, my friend, it's only a spree.
And if a great adventure happens to happen,
Won't we be happy it happened to you and me.

So here's to "Yipper" and his new status as an addition to stamp collections everywhere.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Gilbert & Sullivan On Iraq

Via the Washington Monthly Blog, this surprisingly good article in Harper's Magazine ("All scolding, all the time"), on the mistakes made in the reconstruction of Iraq, got me to thinking about Gilbert and Sullivan.

Let me explain. The article, by Canadian and all-around scold Naomi Klein, is about the way the reconstruction was planned and executed based on ideology, on the dream of making Iraq a national guinea-pig for conservative ideas about how to run an economy:

Governments, even neoconservative governments, rarely get the chance to prove their sacred theory right: despite their enormous ideological advances, even George Bush's Republicans are, in their own minds, perennially sabotaged by meddling Democrats, intractable unions, and alarmist environmentalists.

Iraq was going to change all that. In one place on Earth, the theory would finally be put into practice in its most perfect and uncompromised form. A country of 25 million would not be rebuilt as it was before the war; it would be erased, disappeared. In its place would spring forth a gleaming showroom for laissez-faire economics, a utopia such as the world had never seen. Every policy that liberates multinational corporations to pursue their quest for profit would be put into place: a shrunken state, a flexible workforce, open borders, minimal taxes, no tariffs, no ownership restrictions.

As the rest of the article tells, it didn't quite work out that way. But there's already been a story of what happens when a group of people from the most powerful country in the world goes to a smaller country and tries to implement a lot of utopian economic theories. And it's Gilbert and Sullivan's next-to-last operetta, Utopia Limited.

This was Gilbert and Sullivan's "reunion" work, written in 1893 after they had been semi-officially split up for several years. It was a modest success but hasn't been much revived since: it's not as tuneful as Sullivan's earlier scores, has a poorly constructed libretto with too many sub-plots that never pay off, and has very few really good roles. But the basic story may be the sharpest satire Gilbert ever created, a remarkably astute send-up of colonialism and the misguided assumptions of both the colonisers and the colonised.

The setting, as the title implies, is Utopia, an island where nothing ever happens and the natives live all day "in lazy languor." The island is ruled by the benevolent despot King Paramount, whose power is checked by two "wise men," Scaphio and Phantis, who are empowered to have the King blown up if he gets out of line (Tarara, the "Public Exploder," stands by waiting to do that job). As the play begins, Paramount and his have become obsessed with England; they have heard so much of its greatness and superiority that they all want to be like the English... or, at least, what they have heard about the English:

CALYNX: England has made herself what she is because, in that favored land, every one has to think for himself. Here we have no need to think, because our monarch anticipates all our wants, and our political opinions are formed for us by the journals to which we subscribe. Oh, think how much more brilliant this dialogue would have been, if we had been accustomed to exercise our reflective powers! They say that in England the conversation of the very meanest is a coruscation of impromptu epigram!

To make the country more English, Paramount has banned the native language, insisting that all subjects speak English; he has hired a proper English governess, Lady Sophy, to teach his youngest daughters how to be demure and shy, and his oldest daughter, Zara, is returning from England with a collection of English officers and officials who will show Utopia how to become "Anglicized." When Zara enters, accompanied by the British Captain Fitzbattleaxe, Paramount is shocked to find the Utopian maidens ogling Fitzbattleaxe's soldiers:

KING: Your Troopers appear to be receiving a troublesome amount of attention from those young ladies. I know how strict you English soldiers are, and I should be extremely distressed if anything occurred to shock their puritanical British sensitiveness.

FITZBATTLEAXE: Oh, I don't think there's any chance of that.

KING: You think not? They won't be offended?

FITZBATTLEAXE: Oh no! They are quite hardened to it. They get a good deal of that sort of thing, standing sentry at the Horse Guards.

KING: It's English, is it?

FITZBATTLEAXE: It's particularly English.

KING: Then, of course, it's all right. Pray proceed, ladies, it's particularly English.

Zara introduces the six officials she has brought with her from England to assist in the reconstruction of Utopian society:

ZARA: With a view to remodelling the political and social institutions of Utopia, I have brought with me six Representatives of the principal causes that have tended to make England the powerful, happy, and blameless country which the consensus of European civilization has declared it to be. Place yourself unreservedly in the hands of these gentlemen, and they will reorganize your country.

The six British expatriates are Fitzbattleaxe, the military man; Sir Bailey Barre, the lawyer:

A marvelous Philologist who'll undertake to show
That "yes" is but another and a neater form of "no."

Lord Dramaleigh, the former Lord Chamberlain, whose specialty is in purging all "indecency" from the stage; the County Councillor who purges indecent behaviour from the streets; the naval officer, Captain Corcoran (a cameo from H.M.S. Pinafore), and most importantly, Mr. Goldbury, the stockbroker, whose dream is to take the British principles of corporatism and limited liability and apply them to an entire society. Goldbury explains the basic theory of the limited-liability corporation:

If you come to grief, and creditors are craving
(For nothing that is planned by mortal head
Is certain in this Vale of Sorrow--saving
That one's Liability is Limited),--
Do you suppose that signifies perdition?
If so, you're but a monetary dunce--
You merely file a Winding-Up Petition,
And start another Company at once!
Though a Rothschild you may be
In your own capacity,
As a Company you've come to utter sorrow--
But the Liquidators say,
"Never mind--you needn't pay,"
So you start another company to-morrow!

Goldbury's idea is for Utopia to be governed on the corporation principle: not only will the whole country be run as a corporation, but every individual in Utopia should become a corporation. Paramount has reservations, but comes around when Goldbury tells him that this is his chance to be even more Anglicized than the English:

Well, at first sight it strikes us as dishonest,
But if its's good enough for virtuous England--
The first commercial country in the world--
It's good enough for us...
And do I understand that Great Britain
Upon this Joint Stock principle is governed?

We haven't come to that, exactly--but
We're tending rapidly in that direction.
The date's not distant.

(enthusiastically) We will be before you!
We'll go down in posterity renowned
As the First Sovereign in Christendom
Who registered his Crown and Country under
The Joint Stock Company's Act of Sixty-Two.

Act two takes place after the six Englishmen (known as the "Flowers of Progress") have acted on their plans for the Anglicization of Utopia. As Fitzbattleaxe explains, because they are free from the constraints of democracy and can enact whatever policies they want, they have been able to put into practice all the brilliant ideas they could never sell to England:

FITZBATTLEAXE: Freed from the trammels imposed upon them by idle Acts of Parliament, all have given their natural talents full play and introduced reforms which, even in England, were never dreamt of!

ZARA: But perhaps the most beneficent changes of all has been effected by Mr. Goldbury, who... has applied the Limited Liability principle to individuals, and every man, woman, and child is now a Company Limited with liability restricted to the amount of his declared Capital! There is not a christened baby in Utopia who has not already issued his little Prospectus!

FITZBATTLEAXE: Marvelous is the power of a Civilization which can transmute, by a word, a Limited Income into an Income Limited.

As the Flowers of Progress explain in a catchy number, a parody of the Christy Minstrels, they have made Utopia into the England that they always hoped England would be:

It really is surprising
What a thorough Anglicizing
We have brought about--Utopia's quite another land;
In her enterprising movements,
She is England--with improvements,
Which we dutifully offer to our mother-land!

In the number, and in several of the dialogue scenes that follow, we learn that the Flowers of Progress have sold their policies to the Utopians by assuring them that they are all the official policies of England, whether they are or not: "Are you aware that Sir Bailey Barre has introduced a law of libel by which all editors of scurrilous newspapers are publicly flogged--as in England?" All seems well for the Utopians, though, and especially for Paramount: Scaphio and Phantis no longer have any power over him, because as a corporation, he cannot be blown up: "You may wind up a limited company, but you cannot conveniently blow it up."

But in the final scene, Scaphio and Phantis strike back, leading the people in revolt against the Flowers of Progress. As Scaphio explains, the reconstruction of Utopia has made a mess of everything:

Our pride and boast--the Army and the Navy--
Have both been reconstructed and remodeled
Upon so irresistible a basis
That all the neighboring nations have disarmed--
And War's impossible! Your County Councillor
Has passed such drastic Sanitary laws
That all the doctors dwindle, starve, and die!
The laws, remodeled by Sir Bailey Barre,
Have quite extinguished crime and litigation:
The lawyers starve, and all the jails are let
As model lodgings for the working-classes!
In short--Utopia, swamped by dull Prosperity,
Demands that these detested Flowers of Progress
Be sent about their business, and affairs
Restored to their original complexion!

Paramount and Zara are baffled. They have tried to make Utopia into a perfect replica of England, but they have failed; something is clearly missing. Then Sir Bailey Barre reminds Zara of what it will take to make Utopia just as crime-ridden, diseased and poverty-infested as England: democracy.

ZARA: Of course! Now I remember! Why, I had forgotten the most essential element of all!

KING: And that is?---

ZARA: Government by Party! Introduce that great and glorious element--at once the bulwark and foundation of England's greatness--and all will be well! No political measures will endure, because one Party will assuredly undo all that the other Party has done; and while grouse is to be shot, and foxes worried to death, the legislative action of the country will be at a standstill. Then there will be sickness in plenty, endless lawsuits, crowded jails, interminable confusion in the Army and Navy, and, in short, general and unexampled prosperity!

ALL: Ulahlica! Ulahlica!

KING: ...From this moment Government by Party is adopted, with all its attendant blessings; and henceforward Utopia will no longer be a Monarchy Limited, but, what is a great deal better, a Limited Monarchy!

The work ends with a chorus in praise of the greatness of England, or, at least, the greatness of its self-made reputation:

Oh, may we copy all her maxims wise,
And imitate her virtues and her charities;
And may we, by degrees, acclimatize
Her Parliamentary peculiarities!
By doing so, we shall in course of time,
Regenerate completely our entire land--
Great Britain is the monarchy sublime,
To which some add (but others do not) Ireland.
Such, at least, is the tale
Which is born on the gale,
From the island which dwells in the sea.
Let us hope, for her sake
That she makes no mistake--
That she's all she professes to be!

Maybe you can see now why Shaw claimed that he enjoyed Utopia Limited more than any previous Gilbert and Sullivan work; in its slightly bitter tone and its portrayal of England as a seriously fouled-up country spreading its dysfunctions around the world, this is the hardest-edged satire Gilbert ever wrote.

It's also one of the more insightful portrayals of colonialism, and the problems with colonialism, that has ever hit the stage. Most attacks on colonialism (as I can attest from having sat through endless college English classes where poor Rudyard Kipling was ripped to shreds) portray it as a straightforward case of exploitation: the bad colonists come in to plunder the good natives at the point of a gun. There's something to that, of course, but there's more, and this is what Gilbert gives us in Utopia Limited: many colonialists were people who were frustrated, fed-up or bored with their home countries and wanted to go somewhere else and try the things they couldn't try at home. The Flowers of Progress all have their pet ideas about how to build the perfect society, but they can't put them into practice in England because democracy, with its inherent gridlock, keeps getting in the way. The solution: go to a non-democratic country, tell them you're bringing progress, and use that country to carry out all the plans that a democracy would never enact. The country may be called Utopia, but the Flowers of Progress are the real utopians. And they are trading on the near-mythical status of their country -- the awe with which the Utopians have heard of British power and prosperity -- to gain support for their utopian schemes.

Flash-forward to today, and it's not surprising that many of the most enthusiastic Flowers of Progress are people who are, to some extent, fed up with their own country and the obstacles it places in the way of utopian schemes. As that article makes clear, what is loosely referred to as "colonialism" is as much about ideology as anything else. And the final goal, of course, is to establish Government by Party, which will undo everything and make things run as inefficiently as they do back home.

So, college professors, throw out your colonialism textbooks and teach Utopia Limited instead. The D'Oyly Carte company recorded it sometime in the mid-'70s, though I don't remember whether the recording is still in print.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Hello, Leon

There have been a couple of interesting posts recently on Leon Schlesinger, the founder and producer of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Amid Amidi has a good post on why Schlesinger was the Best Executive Ever, and Mark Evanier has an equally good post qualifying Amid's praise (Schlesinger gave his artists lots of freedom, but not much money).

I can't add much to the discussion except that I don't think Amid is quite right to say that Schlesinger wasn't one of those executives who "insist on putting their 'personal stamp' on everything that gets produced." Or, at least, despite Schlesinger's general willingness to leave his artists alone, he did put his personal stamp on the cartoons, in the sense that the kinds of cartoons the studio made were very reflective of his own personal taste. Bob Clampett goes into this a bit in the documentary "The Boys From Termite Terrace" (included on the first Looney Tunes DVD set), where he mentions that some elements of the WB cartoon style developed because Schlesinger liked a fast pace, big punchlines followed by an iris-out -- he liked funny cartoons and he encouraged his staff to pack their cartoons with gags.

There's a famous story that after Chuck Jones had been a director for several years, mostly making slow-paced faux-Disney cartoons, Schlesinger called him in and ordered him to "make funny cartoons like Clampett's" or he'd be fired (which might explain why Jones was the only WB director to consistently badmouth Schlesinger in interviews). Assuming this or something like it happened, that's a clear-cut case of executive interference: the big Philistine executive calls the idealistic young director in and tells him to stop making his dream projects and make something more commercial. We don't think of it as executive interference because nobody ever seems to remember the times when interference makes things better. (Jean Renoir, asked whether he resented the interference of producers, replied that, no, "I like interference. It promotes discussion, and discussion often improves your work.") But Schlesinger had a house style and he wanted people to stick to it and not just do their own thing. Now, that house style was developed in part by letting people like Tex Avery and Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones experiment and do their own thing, but once that style was set, nobody had so much freedom that he could just decide to abandon it and try something entirely different.

However, I'm not saying that interference always makes cartoons better or that Schlesinger interfered as much as today's executives. The new breed of TV/movie executive often tends to be someone who believes, without any justification, that he or she is a creative force in the making of the films or shows; that's why a lot of their changes are nit-picky things that don't really make any commercial sense, but do make sense in terms of their overall "vision" for a work they believe to be their own. The Schlesinger type of executive, by contrast, doesn't pretend that the work is his (at least while it's being made; after it's finished, he hogs all the credit in public); he just wants the artists to stick to making the kind of stuff he likes. And the crassly commercial executive, who wants to make money and keep the theatre distributors happy, is generally all right too, even if he'll sometimes gut a project to suit the prevailing commercial trends. It's the sensitive, artistic executive that you've got to watch out for.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Fox Blows its Cover

I had a longer post about the show Remington Steele that got torpedoed by the accursed Blogger. When you get a "This page cannot be displayed" sign after trying to post something you didn't save, you actually get the physical sensation of seeing a half-hour of your time go down the toilet.

Anyway, shorter Remington Steele post: it was a better comedy/romance/mystery than Moonlighting, less smug and with better lead actors, and the DVD cover for the first season is probably the worst cover ever for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that it has nothing to do with what the show was about or what kind of character Pierce Brosnan played. (He was the bumbling sidekick, the Maxwell Smart to Stephanie Zimbalist's Agent 99; anybody looking for a Bond-like hero is going to sit there wondering why they didn't pick up something intelligent and meaningful like Die Another Day instead.)

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Mrs. Jones!

Someday I'd like to try and trace the influence of the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson, and in particular the film version of their stage show Hellzapoppin. I suspect that, for a comedy team most people haven't heard of and a movie that's never been on home video (due to rights problems), it's been incredibly influential. You can see their influence in Mad magazine; you can certainly see it in Mel Brooks, who named a character in Blazing Saddles after them; and bits from Hellzapoppin keep popping up here and there as tributes from people who saw it and were blown away.

Here's one example: Ten years ago, there was an episode of Animaniacs that used a variation on a gag from Hellzapoppin (Amid Amidi will no doubt consider this further proof that Animaniacs was an unoriginal piece of hackwork). I speculated online that the writers must have been paying homage to Hellzapoppin. And in response, I was told that, yes, one of the producers brought in a print of Hellzapoppin to show the writers the kind of humor he wanted them to go for, and the writers fell in love with it.

Now, Hellzapoppin is not a "great" comedy by most definitions of the term. Olsen and Johnson had very little individuality as performers, never really developed strong characterizations for themselves (that's part of the reason why they didn't last long in films), and the big laughs tend to come from their reactions to the crazy people who pop in and out. The studio insisted that the movie have a plot (the stage show was a revue), and the plot drags down the comedy, as the stars themselves point out. Most of the really inspired stuff happens in the first ten minutes; indeed, some admirers of the film would just as soon lose everything that happens after those first ten minutes, when the story kicks in and the picture gets more normal. And Olsen and Johnson were heavily reliant on old, old, old jokes; the New York critics loathed the stage version of Hellzapoppin for daring to pollute the Broadway stage with the leftovers of Vaudeville and Burlesque.

But Olsen and Johnson's films, the best moments in them anyway, can be pretty stunning. In part because they actually tried to do movie comedy, comedy that would make fun of the conventions of movies: talking to the projectionist, arguing with the director, gunning the romantic couple down with a machine gun (that's the end of Crazy House, a favorite of Quentin Tarantino). Unlike the Marx Brothers and other comedy teams who basically just brought their stage act to the screen, Olsen and Johnson are aware that they're in a new medium and they're out to demolish it. But they love it too; in fact, they -- or their writers -- are movie buffs, and their movies brim with references to other movies at a time when this sort of thing was still relatively new. Who else but O&J, in Hellzapoppin, would spoil the ending of Citizen Kane just after that movie had come out? The only other films of the era that have so many references to other movies are the Warner Brothers cartoons (and, as it happens, the only other movie of that era with a Citizen Kane reference is the WB cartoon "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves").

I think my favorite gag in Hellzapoppin, apart from the Kane joke, is the variation on the old "That's good, that's bad" staple:

OLSEN (speaking into a telephone): That's good... that's good... that's bad... that's good....that's bad....

JOHNSON: What's the matter? What are you doing?

OLSEN: I'm helping her sort a box of strawberries. That's bad... that's good...

Because of the rights problems, Hellzapoppin isn't on VHS or DVD, but if it turns up on TV, at least watch the first ten minutes or so. Your mind will be blown. Odd how comedians as gleefully lowbrow as Olsen and Johnson can sometimes come off as so sophisticated -- and hold up so well.

A longer article about Olsen and Johnson is here.

Won't You Come Home, J. Weinman?

Sorry I've been asleep at my post (or is it asleep at my postings?) for a few days. New meanderings to follow shortly.

Meanwhile, Mary Tyler Moore Show fans can take heart in the TV Shows on DVD announcement that the second season is coming to DVD on July 12. I think that's got to be the current record for longest gap between season 1 and season 2 releases (the first season came out in September 2002).

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Les Titres Étrangers

Apropos of absolutely nothing (and of what else should a blog post be apropos?), I was wondering: why is it that some titles are referred to in their original language, and others are referred to in translation? Take movies. There seems to be no way of knowing whether a movie will wind up known by its original-language title or not. Everybody refers to Renoir's La Regle Du Jeu as The Rules of the Game, yet if you say you're going to see Renoir's version of Zola's The Human Beast, no one will know what you're talking about until you say it in French: La Bête Humaine. You go to see Godard's Breathless instead of A Bout De Souffle, but in the same festival they'll have Godard's Pierrot le Fou instead of Crazy Pierrot. Kurosawa's Kagemusha might have sold a few more tickets if it had been released as Shadow Warrior, but nobody felt it was necessary to release The Seven Samurai in America as Shichinin no Samurai. We fell asleep in the middle of Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, not Hiroshima My Love and L'Année dernière à Marienbad. Is there any real reason to call a movie L'Eclisse or La Strada when The Eclipse and The Road will do just as well? And the list goes on and on.

It's not just movies, either. It happens occasionally with operas. We go to see La Clemenza Di Tito and not The Clemency of Titus, but most people sensibly refer to The Magic Flute and not Die Zauberflote. Handel's Julius Caesar is usually listed as Giulio Cesare but it's Verdi's Macbeth and not Macbetto. But for the most part, operas have pretty much been taken over by the original-language-title brigade, so that English-speaking audiences all refer to Un Ballo in Maschera and not A Masked Ball and Il Trovatore rather than The Troubadour, and even Madame Butterfly tends to be called Madama Butterfly these days.

Personally, I prefer to refer to the title in my own language unless the title is something that doesn't really translate, like Cosi Fan Tutte or even Les Miserables (I could call it "The Wretched" but it would remind people of the name of that band Vanessa Huxtable snuck out to see in that Cosby Show episode, and I don't think that's what Victor Hugo intended). However, I will try to say hard-to-pronounce titles in their original languages, just to annoy and/or impress people. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to see Tchaikovsky's Lebedinoye ozero.