Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Best of All Possible Sites

Here's a great site, Michael Hutchins' "A Guide to Leonard Bernstein's Candide. It's an exhaustive resource for fans of that frustrating, elusive, unworkable, brilliant musical, Candide: one of those shows that will never quite work, but has so many good things in it, and so much ambition and craftsmanship, that no one will ever stop trying to make it work. Hutchins guides us through all the many different versions of the show and the tangled textual history of it.

His judgments are dead on, too; he correctly notes that Lillian Hellman's original book, which is no longer used (in part because she withdrew her permission to use it), is far superior to the camped-up scripts that have been used in subsequent productions. Hellman's book takes liberties with Voltaire, and worse, it's almost entirely unfunny -- not surprising when you consider that Hellman wasn't exactly known for being a laugh riot or making her points with any subtlety. But it's an efficient and effective enough book that gets us from sequence to sequence, and song to song, without the lame gags of the Hugh Wheeler version that has been used in varying forms since 1973. (Hellman, in a letter to Bernstein: "You are too unfeeling to know that I could not have wanted a hack like Hugh Wheeler to fool around with my work.")

The original production of Candide was also sort of the apotheosis of '50s middlebrow culture, for which there has been quite a bit of nostalgia of late. The people who worked on it were either members of Broadway's mid-cult elite (Hellman, Bernstein) or high-culture types doing Broadway work without shame (director Tyrone Guthrie, lyricist Richard Wilbur). The cast included a Shakespearian actor, Guthrie favorite Max Adrian, a Broadway ingenue, Barbara Cook, and several genuine operatic voices -- this was a time when Broadway shows still didn't use microphones and weren't afraid of "legit" singers -- including tenor Robert Rounseville, the original Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. It's a reminder of a time when all the best talents in the world seemed to be converging on Broadway, determined to fuse art and showbiz into one and create something that would appeal to highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow alike. It didn't exactly work with Candide, but it certainly increases the nostalgia factor to think that there was a time when Broadway could have attracted and even welcomed such a variety of talents and styles.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

I Tell You What

You've probably seen this New York Times Magazine article by Matt Bai, "King of the Hill" Democrats?, in which he discusses the cultural significance of the show.

I have some thoughts on this which I'll post soon, but first of all, I'm amazed that Bai didn't think to include this quote, from an episode where Hank catches Bobby reading an ad in a publication that doesn't have Hank's approval:

HANK: The New York Times Magazine? Published by the New York Times Newspaper? Oh, Bobby!
BOBBY: I wasn't reading the articles!

Monday, June 27, 2005

Music Clearances and Cartoons

To briefly combine two subjects I've written on quite a lot lately, music clearance costs and classic cartoons: can you imagine what the difficulties must be in clearing the music for old Warner Brothers and MGM cartoons? Carl Stalling at Warner Brothers and Scott Bradley at MGM filled their scores with popular songs that were, at the time, owned by their studios and therefore could be used without cost. But by now, the music publishing companies that WB and MGM used to own have changed hands, so when Stalling quotes, say, Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse," WB has to clear the song for the home video releases. Now multiply that by all the dozens of still-copyrighted songs that Stalling would quote, and it's easier to see why these cartoons took so long to appear on DVD.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Great WB Animators: Part 1

Update, July 8, 2005: Part 2, dealing with two more animators, is here.

One of the reasons why Warner Brothers cartoons are so fascinating to watch is that, more than at any other studio, the individual animators had strongly individual styles that were not swallowed up in the "house style" of the studio. Of course WB had a general style, defined not only by the kind of comedy they did, but by the budget (less lavish than Disney and therefore more dependent on strong poses and key drawings to make expressive points). But within that style, the best animators preserved their own quirky, not always by-the-book ways of doing things.

Even strongly contrasting ways of drawing a character were tolerated, sometimes even within the same cartoon. For example, Ben Washam, one of Chuck Jones' best animators, always drew Bugs Bunny with teeth that come to a point at the bottom; it's off-model and contrasts with the way all the other animators drew Bugs, but that was the way he could get the most expression out of Bugs, and nobody was going to make him do it differently just for the sake of making his Bugs look more like the others'. Bob Clampett's two best animators in the '40s, Bob McKimson and Rod Scribner, had totally contrasting styles of animation -- McKimson fluid and graceful, Scribner wild and extreme (really extreme, not Loonatics extreme). But their styles co-existed within the same cartoon and sometimes even within the same scene.

Because WB animators worked on individual scenes and shots, rather than individual characters -- that is, instead of assigning a particular character to a particular animator, a director would break up cartoons into scenes and assign an animator to draw all the main characters in his assigned scenes -- they had to be extremely versatile, adapting their styles to all kinds of different characters. A potential downside of this, at times, is that the acting in a particular scene is sometimes more expressive of the animator's individual personality than the character's: though obviously Rod Scribner animated Bugs Bunny differently from Daffy Duck, the difference between his Bugs and Daffy is not always as great as the difference between any character animated by Scribner and any character animated by Bob McKimson.

With that in mind, I'd like to write an occasional piece on the styles of particular WB animators. I'm not as much of an expert on this as some, expecially Greg Duffell, who can identify just about any WB animator's style and whose posts on alt.animation.warner-bros taught me a lot of what I do know about these animators. But I can, at least, point out some scenes that these guys animated, and mention the basics of what set them apart.

When I give examples of their work, I'll mostly be referring to cartoons that are on the first two Looney Tunes DVD sets, mostly because it's an easy frame of reference. And keep in mind that this is nowhere near an exhaustive survey of the best WB animators; it's really just a survey of a few animators whose styles are easy to spot.

Also, up until about 1945, WB credited only one animator per cartoon, even though most cartoons were animated by three or four people. So I'll sometimes be identifying animators' work in cartoons they're not actually credited for working on.

With that out of the way: this first post will deal with four animators, chosen more or less at random. Hopefully I'll cover a few more animators in future posts.

Manny Gould

Gould animated for Bob Clampett in the mid-1940s, and for Bob McKimson for a couple of years after Clampett left. He wasn't at the WB studio very long, but he left his mark as one of the best of the wild and crazy animators, perhaps second only to Rod Scribner.

One of the characteristics of Gould's animation is to have the characters do extremely broad gestures with their arms and hands, waving their arms around while they talk, and often making the same broad gesture with both arms at once. He wasn't quite as free as Scribner was with distorting faces and bodies for comic effect -- the wildness of Gould's animation is more in the physical acting. He liked to have characters move wildly and stick their arms and heads into the camera, but his drawings are a bit more down-to-earth than Scribner's.

Some examples of Gould's animation for McKimson are many of the scenes with Smoky the Genie in "A-Lad-In His Lamp," who always punctuates his speeches by waving both of his ultra-long arms; the opening scene of "The Foghorn Leghorn," and the Jingle Bells scene in "Daffy Duck Hunt," with Daffy waving his arms to and fro as he conducts Porky and his dog in a premature Christmas song. For Clampett, he did the scene in "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery" where Daffy knocks himself out -- see the way he sticks his arm up in the air and throws his whole body forward into the camera as he speaks -- and the scene in "Kitty Kornered" where Sylvester makes his big speech about being skidded out, skooted out, etc., with other characters reacting broadly to Sylvester's broad movements.

Ken Harris

Harris animated for Chuck Jones almost from the beginning of Jones' time as a director and continued animating for Jones throughout his years at WB and beyond. He also animated for Richard Williams on the titles for Return of the Pink Panther and Williams' abortive dream project "The Thief and the Cobbler" (massacred by a studio and finally released as "Arabian Knight").

Harris was a brilliant animator of action, a master of the art of getting characters to express personality and emotion while doing things. One of his greatest achievements was the final scene in "A Bear For Punishment," especially the dance sequence, where, in addition to the basic gag of Mama Bear tap dancing while never changing her usual clueless facial expression, he creates all kinds of hilarious movements with the legs and feet, suggestive of someone dancing up a storm and yet conveying boredom and stiffness through her body language.

He seemed to draw characters with relatively small heads and pinched features; Bugs Bunny in the final scene of Jones' "Hare Conditioned", which looks like a Harris scene, has rather small eyes, nose and mouth. Harris conveyed expression with little looks and facial movements: he was great at raised eyebrows or shifting a character's pupils to the side of the eye for a puzzled or sarcastic look. He also seemed to love having characters look at the camera, sort of sharing their feelings with us without actually breaking the fourth wall; his animation of the Coyote's flying scene in "Gee Whiz-z-z-z" is marvelous, but the heart of the scene is the Coyote's triumphant look at the camera, just before his triumph is cut short. He was also good at animating non-speaking animals and making them act sort of like animals while keeping their cartoony qualities: he did the crying scenes of the dog in "Feed the Kitty" and animated one of my favorite Jones cartoons, "No Barking", the last cartoon featuring the Frisky Puppy who barks wildly and scares Claude Cat, all by himself.

Greg Duffell had a great analysis of the Harris touch in the scene in "Rabbit of Seville" where Bugs puts beauty clay on Elmer's face, waits for it to harden, and then chisels it off; I've quoted it before, and I'll quote it again now:

Typical of Harris, even in what might seem like a repetitive action of hammering, he subtly modifies each hit, each grimace by Bugs. Bugs seems like a living, breathing character here. What magic!

Virgil Ross

Ross was not only one of the best WB animators, but one of the longest-running contributors to Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies; he started at the Warner Brothers studio in 1935, after a stint with Walter Lantz, and he stayed at WB until the cartoon studio shut down almost thirty years later. From 1935 to 1941 he animated for Tex Avery; when Bob Clampett took over Avery's unit, Ross animated for Clampett for a couple of years, but he and Clampett apparently didn't see eye-to-eye. Ross was transferred to director Friz Freleng. He worked on nearly all Freleng's cartoons for the next twenty years. After the studio shut down, he did some more work for Freleng's company, Depatie-Freleng, some television work, and some animation on Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat.

If animation is acting, then Ross's style can be described as a preference for seemingly subtle acting. I say "seemingly" because there's no such thing as genuine subtlety within the style of the WB cartoons; these are not subtle characters or subtle gags. But Ross liked relatively restrained movements, conveying character with little gestures rather than big ones. You can see this in one of the first cartoons Ross worked on for Bob Clampett, Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid (1942). Ross's first scene in the cartoon starts when Bugs says "What's up, doc?" to Beaky Buzzard. The shot before that, animated by Rod Scribner, has the characters very loose and seemingly free in the way they move. When Ross takes over, he has Bugs and Beaky moving much less, and they express themselves through little gestures: Ross animates Bugs sticking his hands out and to the side as a way of trying to look innocent; Beaky tilting his head 90 degrees as he says "Don't tell me now, don't tell me" (trying to remember what he's trying to catch). Ross doesn't always look like he's doing a whole lot, but every gesture counts, and every movement says something about the character and what he's trying to do in the scene.

As Ross went on, he perfected the art of expressing emotion and personality with small but carefully-executed movements. My favorite Ross scene is probably the scene in "A Bird in a Guilty Cage" where Sylvester tries on a series of hats. His reaction to each hat is different and distinct: he sticks out his tongue and shifts between poses in deliberately limited movement; his face droops from a broad smile to a depressed frown; and, of course, he winds up looking devious yet stupid as he spots Tweety perched on top of a hat. The whole scene is perfectly in character for Sylvester even though he doesn't talk and is doing something seemingly uncharacteristic for him (trying on hats, and women's hats at that); Ross gets to the essence of the character -- what's likable and what's pathetic about him -- with small but perfectly-executed movements. Less can sometimes be more in animation.

Another thing you'll often see when Ross animates is character sort of leaning over to one side as they talk, or punctuating their lines by pointing with one hand or even one finger. You can see this, for example, in the scene in Freleng's "Greedy For Tweety" when Granny makes her first appearance: the animation budgets weren't much by this time, so she mostly just expresses herself by pointing her finger, almost rhythmically, while she speaks.

Other Ross scenes: the opening of "High Diving Hare," the lullaby scene in "Back Alley Oproar," most of the song and dance sequence in "The Hep Cat" (though another animator, probably Rod Scribner, did the close-ups). He was great at dance and singing sequences, and many of the shots of Bugs playing the piano in Rhapsody Rabbit are his, including the shot where Bugs's fingers get tangled up.

Rod Scribner

Scribner is best known for the work he did for Bob Clampett from about 1941 to 1946. Before 1941, Scribner animated for Tex Avery, and after Clampett left he animated for Bob McKimson.

His IMDb bio does a good job of describing his style. The ultimate Scribner scene comes near the beginning of Clampett's Tortoise Wins by a Hare. The opening scene of the cartoon is nearly all re-used footage from an earlier cartoon, "Tortoise Beats Hare." And then we cut to a Scribner-animated Bugs in his house, watching the earlier footage on a screen. He kicks over the projector, and Scribner takes off. Bugs's actual movements aren't all that broad here; Scribner doesn't make his effects by having Bugs overact. What he does is to treat the character's face and body in a very free way, using extreme and sometimes distorted drawings to convey emotion. Bugs doesn't just hunch over to display his perplexity; his whole body seems to crumple as if there's no spine holding him up. He doesn't just look angry toward the end of the scene; his face takes on almost grotesque shapes, with huge teeth drawn in for dramatic effect.

That was the Scribner touch: a willingness to break the rules -- to make drawings that were not pretty, break certain norms of anatomy and movement -- in order to enhance the impact and mood of the scene, and an ability to take characters' bodies to extremes without ever losing the feeling of solid movement. It's easy to draw bodies in free motion if you want characters to look like they have no weight to them. But what Scribner could do, as for example in McKimson's "Of Rice and Hen" in the scene where Foghorn Leghorn stops Miss Prissy's suicide attempt, was to make characters' bodies move in all directions at once, and strike the most extreme poses, while always giving the impression that the characters were characters and not just a bunch of random drawings. There's nothing wobbly or random about his animation, no matter how seemingly free it gets.

Bill Melendez's commentary track for "The Big Snooze" has some good observations about Scribner's style, as does John Kricfalusi's not-all-about-me-for-once commentary on "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery." Here is what looks like a Scribner drawing from that cartoon.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Sidebar on the Bottom and the Posts on Top!

My attempt to work out the new and unexpected template problems provided by the good people at Blogger (those magnificent bastards!) have so far been unsuccessful, so as a temporary solution I've moved the archives and blogroll to the bottom of the page. I'll continue to work on getting a sidebar that's actually, you know, on the side, but at least you can read the posts now.

A Music Clearance Nightmare

Here's a really interesting interview with an independent filmmaker who describes, in detail, the difficulty and expense of clearing the music for a documentary film she made about ballroom dancing. Read it, and then think about what it must cost to license the music for a big film or TV series, not only in terms of money, but in terms of the time spent on negotiations and clearance agreements. It's a real mess.

Which is yet another way of saying that we shouldn't expect to see WKRP in Cincinnati any time soon.

Friday, June 24, 2005

T Time

I'm still behind on finishing my semi-substantive posts, so here is another exercise in super-frivolity: the lyrics of a song I wrote a couple of years ago in an attempt to come up with the ultimate theme song for Mr. T nostalgia. Actually, it was also written for a projected situation in my attempted NewsRadio musical; the idea was that Joe would sing it at a meeting, interrupting Dave's attempts to discuss work and leading the whole staff in a hymn to '80s nostalgia. But it works better out of context.

I did have a tune for this, but I can't post it here, so here are the words, and imagine any tune you like (it would probably be an improvement on mine):

Mr. T!
Sing the praise of
Mr. T!
Sing for days of
Mr. T!
Learn the ways of
The amazing Mr. T!
He’s so cool!
No one’s tougher!
Listen, fool,
No one’s rougher!
He ain’t cruel,
But you’ll suffer
If you mess with Mr. T!
He drinks his milk, he likes the youth...centers,
That’s why he’s a star.
The villains shake and quake when Mr. T...enters,
Because they know he’s gonna throw ‘em helluva far!
He’s so bad,
Grim and gritty,
When he’s mad,
It ain’t pretty,
And I’ll add
That I pity
Any fool who steals his chain,
Or who puts him on a plane,
The prediction will be pain,
Oh, yes,
If you mess with Mr. T!

Remember how he sounded when Hannibal described his latest crazy plan?
Remember when he pounded that scoundrel Dennis Franz for messing with his van?
Remember he was shorter than Murdock on the show? Hey, what was that about?
Remember that reporter who tagged along with them, and then got booted out?
Remember how he sold us the thermoses and lunchpails we would bring to school?
Remember how he told us to be somebody or we'd be somebody's fool?
Remember when he listed the reasons why we should be proud to be a kid?
Remember he insisted we never should do drugs, although of course, we did?
But we wish we'd done as we were bid

Repeat Refrain

I Power Blogger, But Blogger Doesn't Power Me

I don't know why the page is so hard to read at the moment -- some kink with blogspot, I think. I'll try to fix it.

Thursday, June 23, 2005


My favorite meta-joke in the Moonlighting series comes at the start of the episode "Somewhere Under the Rainbow" (aka the leprechaun episode). An announcer intones: "Tonight, on Moonlighting," and then there are thirty seconds' worth of clips from the episode we're about to see. The clips are very short, chosen seemingly at random, cut together out of sequence, and just make absolutely no sense at all.

This is a parody of a kind of opening that a lot of shows had in the '70s and '80s: an "on tonight's episode" trailer consisting of thirty seconds' worth of clips to whet our appetite for the episode. The concept made sense, but the way the clips were chosen and arranged, it was almost impossible to figure out what the episode was supposed to be about. The Stephen J. Cannell shows all opened like this: thirty seconds' worth of apparently random clips of lines that made no sense out of context and footage of stuff blowing up.

I don't know when shows stopped doing this kind of thing -- probably around the time that shows became more serialized, so they needed to start with a "previously on..." prologue rather than a preview of the new episode. It's one of those things that just screams "'80s TV," though.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Curse of the Leopard Zombie Cat People

To whet your appetite for the previously-mentioned Val Lewton Collection, here's a link to an excellent site, The Val Lewton Screenplay Collection reprints the original screenplays for all the Val Lewton / RKO horror films. Don't read them, of course, unless you've seen the films or don't mind having them spoiled for you.

It also has an excellent selection of articles on Lewton and those who worked with him, including several contemporary newspaper articles. One particularly interesting article, published in the Los Angeles Times in 1943, interviews the three key people in making Lewton's first three movies: Lewton, director Jacques Tourneur, and editor Mark Robson (who, along with Robert Wise, took over as Lewton's directors after Tourneur went off on his own), though Lewton does all the actual talking. Some good quotes:

[Lewton] "We make the audience participants; we make them do the work. How? I'll tell you a secret: If you make the screen dark enough, the mind's eye will read anything into it you want! We're great ones for dark patches... Remember Simone's long walk alone at night in 'The Cat People?'... Most people will swear they saw a leopard move in the hedge above her -- but they didn't! Optical illusion; dark patch."

Lewton & co. use the short story as their model because they believe you can't sustain horror beyond a certain length. "Our formula is simple," Lewton said. "A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence. Fadeout. It's all over in less than 70 minutes."

And, after the interviewer notes that characters in Lewton movies are usually "practical, matter-of-fact folk":

"That's Jacques' fine hand," Lewton nodded toward Director Tourneur, who is hardly the talkative sort. "Jacques doesn't like people who just live in old castles waiting to be scared. He insists that they have jobs, something to work at. He also insists on having what he calls 'weather in the streets,' even when weather has nothing to do with the case!"

The article also mentions some generic titles for upcoming Lewton movies (remember, RKO usually gave him the titles and then he'd come up with a movie to go with it, even when, as in Curse of the Cat People, the story had almost nothing to do with the title). Some of them, like "The Seventh Victim," got made, and superbly, though with Robson directing rather than Tourneur; others, like "The Screaming Skull" and "The Amorous Ghost," never got made, and it's doubtful that Lewton even came up with stories to fit those titles. But another article posted on the site, from 1945, mentions two projects he had in development that didn't get made: "Die Gently, Stranger," to be set on and around the beaches of Stockholm and to use fear of water and fog as the main source of horror, and "None So Blind," which was to star Joan Bennett and probably (based on the title) would have been some kind of proto-Wait Until Dark.

Also, shockingly, the obituary of Tourneur, from 1977, doesn't even mention Out of the Past. Shows you how the reputation of that movie has skyrocketed in recent years.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Underblog is Here

I have a couple of big-ish posts I'm working on, but in the meantime this blog is distressingly thin lately. I'd write a "coming soon" post about posts I hope to put up soon, but that would be tacky and might expose me to the soon-to-be-passed "truth in blogging" laws when one or more of those posts inevitably doesn't materialize.

Meanwhile, here's a piece called "From Donald To Dean," comparing Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm novels to the movies. The surprise is that the movies did occasionally keep stuff from the books; The Silencers actually has more of Donald Hamilton in it than the near-contemporaneous Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, has of Ian Fleming.

A Song For Our Time

For some reason, even though I am not entirely up to speed on the Most Important Story of Our Time, this song from the musical Plain and Fancy keeps going through my head:

Comes a time in his life
When a man should take a wife.
If I have to take a wife,
So why not Katie?
Milk and cows Katie knows,
Katie mends and Katie sews,
And a farm with Katie goes,
So why not Katie?
It could be if I wait,
Comes along a perfect mate,
But for this a man could wait
Until he's eighty.
So in meeting when I stand
With my hand in Katie's hand,
And a wedding dinner making in the pot,
When they ask "Do you take Katie?"
I will answer like a shot:
Do I take Katie?
Why not?

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Carmen, Je T'Aime

I am not, as a rule, a big fan of historical recordings of complete operas. Emphasis on "complete"; historical recordings of excerpts of operas -- Caruso, Battistini, Ponselle, Pinza, the whole list -- are wonderful. But there were relatively few complete recordings of operas made before the mid '50s, and those that were made tended to have less than stellar casts, casts that were more representative of a good night in a repertory theatre than of something you'd want to hear over and over. Most of Gigli's complete recordings have one great singer (Gigli) and a lot of singers like Maria Caniglia or Toti Dal Monte who are representative of good, solid singing rather than Golden Age standards. I don't think the art of the complete opera recording really took off until the mid-'50s, when producers like Walter Legge and John Culshaw started trying to assemble casts with a really top-flight singer for each part, even the small parts, rather than casts that represented a typical night in Milan or Vienna or New York.

But the downside to that kind of starry casting is that it inevitably brings together singers who don't usually work together. (Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi had never performed Tosca onstage together at the time they recorded it.) And the upside of the repertory-theatre style of earlier opera recordings is that, at their best, they can give an idea of how an opera can go when performed by people who are all agreed on a particular style.

What I'm ramblingly leading up to is that my favorite recording of Bizet's Carmen, and indeed one of my favorite opera recordings of all time, is the 1950 recording by Andre Cluytens with the orchestra and chorus of the Paris Opera-Comique. This recording, currently available on the Naxos label in England and Canada (Naxos hasn't released it in the U.S. due to copyright issues), features an all-French-speaking cast, and an approach typical of the Opera-Comique and unlike any grand opera company. It was the first recording to use dialogue instead of the recitatives that Ernest Giraud wrote after Bizet's death, but the uniqueness of the approach has to do with more than just the dialogue. The whole company essentially approaches Carmen as a very serious musical comedy, or an exceptionally difficult operetta. Cluytens' tempos are fast; the orchestral textures are light and have the idiomatic sound of French orchestras of the era -- including a bizarrely wobbly way of playing the horn.

Everybody enunciates the words very clearly, and because they all know what the words mean, they can actually put some bite into their exchanges and even into the dialogue scenes. And Solange Michel, the Carmen, is nothing like the heavy-voiced, vampish Carmens in most recordings and performences; she is relatively light-voiced, takes advantage of all the opportunities to display the character's sense of humor, and doesn't start to darken her voice or her characterization until Carmen foresees her death in the card scene. The whole recording gives us Carmen as a lighthearted, fast-moving piece that turns dark in act 3 and becomes tragic at the end -- and though none of the singers are the best ever in their roles, collectively they give a better sense of teamwork, and of being one with their characters and the story, than any other recorded Carmen cast. That's the advantage of the idiomatic, home-team approach to recording opera.

The sound is, by the way, quite good for 1950, and this was one of the first opera recordings to include sound effects to indicate stage action (the producers may have overdone it, in fact, with the sound of dancing feet and castanets in the opening of act 2).

I'm Less EXTREME!!!

The creator of "A New Bunny," the infamous parody of Warner Brothers' Loonatics project, has a new Flash cartoon mocking WB's proposed redesign of the Loonatics characters:

"Another New Bunny"

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Ya Got Trouble, Right Here in Paradise

Variety mentioned the other day, in an article on screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Life and Death of Peter Sellers), that they are currently writing a remake of Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise for director Cameron Crowe. There have been a lot of rumors for the last few years that a remake was in the works, but this is the first time I've heard of a director being attached.

Since Trouble in Paradise is one of my favorite movies of all time, you might expect me to lament the news that Hollywood is remaking yet another movie that can't possibly be improved upon. But actually, I'm hoping the remake gets made, and I wish it well. Why? Because nobody is making good romantic comedies anymore, and most romantic comedies today have anything interesting emptied out of them at the script stage. At least a remake of Trouble in Paradise will be a rom-com that starts with a story that is not inherently stupid.

Of course, a remake of The Shop Around the Corner also starts with a good story, and we saw how the last remake turned out. But that's due to Nora Ephron being Satan.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Oh, Wolfie

Jerry Beck has a side-by-side comparison of some shots from two versions of Tex Avery's cartoon The Shooting of Dan McGoo: the original 1945 version, and the 1951 reissue.

It's not the only cartoon that had something changed upon reissue; Bugs Bunny Rides Again had a Mahatma Ghandi joke redubbed, and Bugs Bunny's breakthrough cartoon A Wild Hare lost a joke about Carole Lombard. But I didn't realize that MGM would actually have cartoons re-drawn to eliminate topical jokes.

Another thing that leaps out from the comparison is how much better the still from the original version looks. Alas, as Jerry mentions, the negatives to most of the MGM cartoons were destroyed in a fire, so the second still is probably representative of the way most of the Avery cartoons have to look (except for the ones that survive in nitrate prints).

One other note on "The Shooting of Dan McGoo": Droopy is actually voiced by two different actors in this cartoon. His opening line (the ultimate Droopy line, "Hello, all you happy taxpayers") is voiced by the one and only Bill Thompson. But for the rest of the cartoon, Droopy is voiced by somebody else -- possibly Daws Butler, I'm not sure. (Thompson was the original voice of Droopy, and did the voice when he was available, but he wasn't always available, so other actors, including Butler, Don Messick, and Tex Avery himself, filled in in various cartoons.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


The announcement of a Val Lewton set reminds me that of all the studios of Hollywood's studio system era, RKO may be the one whose output has held up the best over the years. That's not to say that their clunkers and potboilers hold up any better than anybody else's, just that their good movies really hold up and have a lasting impact on the public and on other filmmakers. King Kong, the Astaire and Rogers movies, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, Citizen Kane, the Lewton pictures, Notorious, The Devil and Daniel Webster are all RKO pictures with a lasting power beyoind their era or their genres. And the current interest in Film Noir has made RKO's reputation go even higher, because the overwhelming majority of the best films noir came from the postwar RKO, when it had not much money to throw around but plenty of imaginative cameramen (notably Nick Musuraca) and a willingness to tolerate incredibly bleak stories that most of the other studios wouldn't touch.

Of course, then Howard Hughes bought RKO and ruined it. But it was a heck of a studio until then, and for some reason I can't put my finger on, their best movies somehow seem to date less than the best movies of other studios. And there seem to be a lot of directors who did better work for RKO than they did for any other studio (William Dieterle and Robert Wise to name two).

Apologia Pro No-Bloggia Sua

Sorry I haven't had much to say lately. Obviously, I am not to blame; it's simply that the entire world offers nothing interesting enough to blog about. Darn you, world.

Meanwhile, in honor of the end of the Star Wars series, here's a link to Seanbaby's review of "Star Crash," the Italian answer to Star Wars. It's sort of like all those Italian James Bond knockoffs of the '60s, except on an even lower budget; think Operation Kid Brother in space and without the acting genius of Neil Connery.

Seanbaby also reviews a Brazilian Star Wars knockoff and a Turkish production.

(Seanbaby's archive also reviews the Turkish Wizard of Oz and Star Trek.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Memorable Trailer Quotes

Here's a question: what movie lines became famous and popular before the movie came out, based solely on the trailers?

The one that comes to mind immediately is "You can't handle the truth!" from A Few Good Men. Because of the endless clips of that line in the trailer and the TV spots, everybody everywhere was quoting and even parodying that line before the movie had even opened. (I guess the line was also familiar to those who had seen the play, but most people were hearing it for the first time via the trailer.)

Another was from the trailer for The Godfather, Part III: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" This was already one of the most-parodied lines in the movies before the movie came out; however, the actual movie was so disappointing that the line quickly became less quoted and less parodied -- because it was more fun hearing it in the trailer than in the actual movie.


Saturday, June 11, 2005


Next time you hear someone say that every TV show seems to have been released on DVD, point them towards this article. Some of these shows are missing in action for rights reasons -- "Batman" is in perpetual rights limbo because Fox owns the show and Warner Brothers owns the character; "WKRP in Cincinnati" is still the number-one victim of music clearance issues -- and some, like "The Rockford Files," are unreleased because the studio is behind the curve in getting out its library. But whatever the reason, the TV-on-DVD boom will never really start booming until some of these shows come out.

The article doesn't mention something else, which is that there are many, many shows that get a first season release and then nothing else. Columbia/Sony has abandoned probably a couple of dozen shows that was; "Barney Miller" is the saddest case of a show that got just the first (not particularly good) season onto DVD before the studio gave up on it.

But if you want some good news amidst the gloom of this post, here's a TV Shows on DVD post announcing the possible release of one of the top ten shows of all time, Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko "either later this year or perhaps early next year."

Now, that will nearly make up for the inexplicable failure to produce a special edition of Mr. T's "Be Somebody or Be Somebody's Fool."

Friday, June 10, 2005

Lehn Deine Wang' An Meine Wang'

Viennese operetta is an acquired taste, and I'm not entirely sure I've ever acquired it. Johann Strauss is great, of course. But every operetta by Lehar or Kalman or Suppe contains a few good, excerptable numbers and a ton of repetitive filler, and the librettos of most of these things are generally awful -- incomprehensible mistaken-identity complications, sodden sentimentality, and not a drop of the wit or satire that you get in the librettos of the best French or English operettas. (It's not a coincidence that Johann Strauss's best operetta, Die Fledermaus, is based on a story by Offenbach's librettists, Meilhac and Halevy, and a very cynical, unsentimental story at that.)

Still, there are a few Viennese operettas I never tire of listening to, and one of them, which I've been listening to a lot lately, is A Waltz Dream by Oscar Straus. Though it was a big hit at its 1907 premiere, it's not all that well-known now; there's only one available recording (and it only seems to be available in Germany), and it's not performed much outside of German-speaking countries. But it's one of the most tuneful of all post-Strauss operettas: Straus was almost as talented a melodist as his near-namesake.

But what really sets A Waltz Dream apart from most other Viennese operettas is the plot, which instead of mechanical farce or gooey sentiment, offers a clever and even modestly risque story. It's also a story that mirrors the music: just as Straus is paying homage to a bygone era of Viennese music, the story treats Vienna as a place that, even in 1907, already exists more in legend than in reality. Not a minute of the story actually takes place in Vienna; it's set in the tiny kingdom of Flausenthurm, where the Princess, Helene, has just married a Viennese man, Niki. We soon find that Niki was more or less forced into the marriage after what he thought was just an innocent flirtation with Helene, and he is homesick for Vienna, the only place where he can be truly happy. On his wedding night, he tells Helene's father, the King, that he will fulfil his ceremonial duties as a Prince consort but that he has no intention of actually consummating the marriage. The King is crushed at the idea that the dynasty may not live on, but things are worse for Helene, who truly loves Niki.

Niki sneaks out with his friend Montschi to listen to a touring Viennese orchestra -- not only because they play Viennese music, but because it's an all-girl orchestra. Niki is attracted to the leader of the orchestra, Franzi, who reciprocates. But when Helene discovers where Niki has been going, Franzi realizes that Niki's place is really with his wife, and that Niki was more in love with what she represented (memories of Vienna) than her. Franzi cuts things off with Niki and leaves for Vienna, but not before she has taught Helene to dress and act like a modern Viennese woman. And when Niki sees his wife with a Viennese makeover, he finally realizes how beautiful she is, and the curtain falls as they prepare to carry on the Flausenthurm dynasty after all.

Okay, so it's not a dramatic masterpiece, but it's a better plot than most Viennese operettas have. But of course, it's the music, not the plot, that's the really important thing here, and Straus's is some of the best of its kind. Unlike his contemporary Lehar, who tried to make operetta music sound more up-to-date with imitations of well-known serious composers -- particularly Puccini, who should have gotten royalties for some of the the stuff Lehar wrote after The Merry Widow -- Straus wrote deliberately backward-looking music that sought to recapture the charm and deceptive simplicity of Johann Strauss. The songs in A Waltz Dream are not big sappy operatic wannabes, like Lehar wrote; nor are they influenced by American musical comedy, as Kalman often was. Instead Straus writes short, strongly rhythmic, instantly-memorable tunes, one after the other. The hero's introductory song, "Ich hab' mit Freuden angehort," consists of a series of little tunes in different Viennese-operetta styles: the slow waltz, the fast waltz, the polka. It should be a structural mess, but it works wonderfully because the tunes are so good.

Other highlights from the score include the big waltz number, "Da draussen im duftigen Garten," a far better melody than the Merry Widow Waltz; Helene's almost equally exquisite waltz tune, "Ich hab' einen Mann," the opening chorus of act 2, which incorporates a section that is whistled instead of sung; Franzi's song, "G' stellte Madeln resch und fesch," another collection of little tunes in contrasting rhythms and styles; the piccolo duet, with its nutty refrain "Piccolo, piccolo, tsin-tsin-tsin" (and whose first line, "Lehn Deine Wang' Ahn Meine Wang'" -- "Lay your cheek against my cheek" -- is cheekily lifted from a Heinrich Heine poem). The third act is a little thin, as third acts tend to be in these things -- there's not much left to do but wrap up the plot, sing a couple of numbers, and throw in a lot of reprises -- but overall it's one of the best, perhaps the best, of Viennese operetta scores after the death of Strauss.

The recording seems to be somewhat abridged -- the whole thing, with dialogue, fits on one 80-minute CD -- but it will do. Made in Munich in 1970, it features Nicolai Gedda as Niki and many of Munich's best singers of the period, including Annelise Rothenberger, Edda Moser and Brigitte Fassbaender.

In 1931, Ernst Lubitsch made A Waltz Dream into a movie, The Smiling Lieutenant. The movie is magnificent, one of the funniest movies even Lubitsch ever made, and a guaranteed hit in a theatrical screening (I've been fortunate enough to see it at three different Lubitsch retrospectives, and each time, the audience burst into applause at the end). But as he did with his film of The Merry Widow, Lubitsch relegated most of the score to background music. Straus, who was in Hollywood at the time, composed some new songs that were more in the range of the film's star, Maurice Chevalier, and his non-singing costars, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins; they're okay songs, but they're not nearly in a class with the score of the operetta. No matter; if you ever get a chance to see the film -- it's never been available on VHS or DVD, only on laserdisc, so this may be problematic -- see it.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Sturges Surges

The Preston Sturges DVD situation is improving, with Unfaithfully Yours due from Criterion on July 12 and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek from Paramount on September 6. (For some weird reason, Paramount retained the rights to this film even though they sold all their other pre-1948 films to Universal.) Now, if Universal would bother to release the rest of the Paramount-era Sturges films, which are The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Great Moment and, best of all, Hail the Conquering Hero, we'd have nothing to complain about.

Also, Ernst Lubitsch finally seems to have gotten his due lately with the release of To Be or Not to Be and Design For Living, next week's Criterion release of Heaven Can Wait, and Ninotchka in September. However, Universal is still sitting on most of the '30s Paramount movies, and Fox has never made Cluny Brown available in any home video format (though it is available on a French DVD), so it's still a bit of an uphill climb there.

Incidentally, while many critics have speculated that the Rex Harrison character in Unfaithfully Yours might have been a self-portrait of Sturges, surprisingly few have pointed out that he's actually based directly on another famous person: the British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Harrison spoofs Beecham's reputation as a superstar conductor with a quick wit and a hot temper, the character's family made its money in patent medicine like Beecham's, and the character's repertoire is based on Beecham's: the Edgar Kennedy character gushes that "no one can handle Handel like you handle Handel... and your Delius? Delirious!" -- Beecham was perhaps best known for his ludicrously overblown arrangements of Handel, and for championing Delius while ignoring all the good British composers of his generation. You can find out more about Beecham -- I'm not a fan, but many are -- here.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

More Gilbert-isms

I found an interesting essay on W.S. Gilbert, by Andrew Crowther, called "Hunchbacks, Misanthropes, and Outsiders: Gilbert's Self-Image". For the most part it's about a figure that recurs constantly in Gilbert's plays: the person who, by virtue of his appearance, is forced to play the role of the put-upon outcast, even though he may be a better person than the designated "hero." Gilbert was fascinated with the idea that people are trapped in assigned roles in life the way actors are type-cast in roles in the theatre; characters like Dick Deadeye or the characters in Ruddigore act a certain way because it is expected of them, based on the way they look. (Deadeye is pretty clearly the character in H.M.S. Pinafore that Gilbert sympathizes with the most: he constantly gets the lines that cut through the nonsensical Victorian melodrama that Gilbert is satirizing and inject some cold hard reality; e.g. responding to all the love-levels-rank platitudes with the brutally truthful "When people have to obey other people's orders, equality's out of the question.") And Gilbert's inherent cruelty, combined with his dislike of melodramatic conventions, made him very interested in the idea of the sympathetic-but-ugly character who is cruelly ignored in favor of an unsympathetic-but-handsome hero; this happens in The Yeomen of the Guard, in the verse tragedy Broken Hearts, and in a poem Crowther doesn't mention, "Woman's Gratitude," about Baker, a good but misshapen and ugly man who loves a beautiful woman, and is rebuffed in favor of James, a "well-made" but stupid and cruel young man. Some excerpts:

In underbred society
Which I was nurtured in,
No species of impiety
Is reckoned such a sin,
No shocking inhumanity
So lowly to degrade
(Alas, oh, human vanity!) --
As being badly made.

...JAMES, though adored by MARIAN,
Was pitiably dense,
A commonplace vulgarian
With no poetic sense.
"Now, BAKER, go your ways, my boy,
You poor misshapen loon --
Spend, if you like, your days, my boy,
In crying for the moon."

...No man of true nobility
Could stand such taunts and names
Or suffer with tranquility
The gibes of well-made JAMES.
He used his blade unskilfully --
With blunderbuss instead,
He aimed at JAMIE, wilfully,
And shot that springald dead!

You would have fancied, tearfully,
He would not sigh in vain
Who braves the gallows cheerfully,
His only love to gain.
Don't let such wild insanity
Upon your thoughts intrude,
You little know the vanity
Of female gratitude!

Gilbert's last illustration for the poem shows haughty Marian walking away from Baker, who is pleading on his knees.

Here's To You, Mrs...

Anne Bancroft has died at age 73.

I don't have much to add about her excellent career, but here's a partial list of her stage credits. (Her production of Brecht's Mother Courage was directed by Jerome Robbins and was described by Michael Feingold as "a case of everyone involved taking the material too solemnly and too literally." This was probably largely due to Robbins; the cast, which included Gene Wilder and Barbara Harris in addition to Bancroft, could certainly have brought out the bleak humor of the piece if they'd been asked.)

Anyway, a wonderful actress, gone all too soon.

Los Simpsons

Simpsons Spanish-language voice cast replaced by strike-breakers.

Somehow this always puts me in mind of the famous Mr. Burns line from the episode "A Star is Burns":

MR. BURNS: Get me Steven Spielberg!
SMITHERS: He's unavailable.
MR. BURNS: Then get me his non-union Mexican equivalent!

Based on the Spanish-language tracks on the DVDs, the now-replaced actors do quite a good job -- better than the Spanish dubbers of King of the Hill, who mostly seem to be doing different characterizations than the originals (Hank sounds raspy, Boomhauer talks normal, and Bobby is voiced by a male). Sad to see them replaced.

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Theme-Com

As I think I said in a previous post, I have mixed feelings about Moonlighting. There are two reasons for my lack of wholehearted enthusiasm for the show. One is the vaguely self-congratulatory style of the show's creator/showrunner, Glenn Gordon Caron, which results in a lack of respect for the rules of good storytelling: it's like he's so proud of rule-breaking that he doesn't feel the need to create mystery stories with plausible conclusions (indeed, you get the feeling, borne out in his interviews, that he just despises detective stories), and if we in the audience complain about that, we're unhip. Remington Steele, which Caron wrote for, not particularly well, tried to be a good mystery show; Moonlighting couldn't have cared less, and that tone of contempt for its own genre is off-putting.

The other problem, of course, is Cybill Shepherd: she was never much of an actress, and she's constantly photographed through about 97 layers of Vaseline. (The show eventually poked fun at this, as it poked fun at all its own problems.) On the other hand, because she'd watched all those old black-and-white movies with Peter Bogdanovich, she knew enough about Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges to give Moonlighting's dialogue delivery the old-movie flavor that was part of its appeal; Caron was not initially going for that style when he wrote the pilot. And even though she's not much of an actress, she can look good -- even without the Vaseline on the camera -- and have chemistry with her co-star, which, on a TV series, is probably more important than being able to act.

And after watching some episodes of the show recently, I'm more favorably disposed to it than before. It's certainly an important show in the sense that it was the model for a particular type of show: the genre show where the genre elements of the story are secondary to the character conflicts. Not that other genre shows hadn't depended on character; The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I., to name two, were shows with strong characters whose reactions to the story developments were a central part of the episodes. But those shows usually put the detective story at the forefront of each episode: the focus was on the case and how the detective was going to solve it, and the character issues were mixed in with that. Moonlighting, because Caron didn't like detective shows and was essentially forced to create one, basically gave up the mystery elements for lost and didn't spend much time on actually working out the mechanics of how the case got solved. Instead the central conflict of each episode was some kind of emotional conflict between the characters -- David and Maddie disagree over whether God exists; Maddie challenges David to act more mature; David sympathizes with the man in a murder case while Maddie takes the woman's side -- and the resolution of the episode came when they resolved that conflict. The cases they solved existed only to bring out the emotional conflict or to parallel it; they weren't intended to be very important in and of themselves.

A show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer is hard to imagine if there hadn't been a Moonlighting, because Buffy works on the same principle: the question in any episode is not whether Buffy will defeat the monster (yes) or how she will defeat the monster (she and her friends will come up with some last-minute solution by reading some old book), but whether and how she will resolve the emotional conflict that the monster parallels. Of course, Buffy, at least at first, had more respect for the horror genre than Moonlighting had for the detective genre; it made at least a token effort to come up with satisfying monster stories, even if they weren't the really important part of the episodes.

The Greatest DVD Box Set Ever

It's finally coming.

Which is the best of the Matt Helm tetralogy? The Silencers, with its coruscating inside look at the lack of trust that pervades the lounge-lizard culture? Murderer's Row, a study of the plight of go-go dancers with exploding dresses? The Ambushers, combining a study of the space race and the feminist movement in its tale of a spacecraft that can only be flown by women because it kills any man who tries to operate it? Or The Wrecking Crew, a magnificent epic about the infusion of Eurasian culture into the world of international train robbing, punctuated by the deeply spiritual music of Hugo Montenegro: who can forget the theme song with the choral refrain "Ah, so, velly velly nice?"

When the DVD set comes out we will all have time to mull over the myriad profundities of these films.

Addendum: and, yes, these films are an insult, a slap in the face and a spit in the eye to Donald Hamilton. But in all fairness, the post-1960s Bond films have little more to do with Ian Fleming's books than the Helm movies have to do with Hamilton's.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Arrested Agenda

Comments at Jump the Shark aren't usually very interesting -- that's part of the reason the site isn't all that great, despite the popularity of its founding phrase; there's just not enough interesting discussion of when and how shows jump the shark -- but sometimes it's worth reading for a particularly insane or wrongheaded comment. Here's one that just caught my eye in the comments section for Arrested Development, where a reader complains about the show's jokes about the Iraq war:

I find it even less amusing that members of our military tortured and humiliated prisoners, which has also been given a few zippy lines. On top of which, in the 3/6 episode, a reference was made to Gob's half-assed wife having engaged in torture "on a dare". Essentially, Fox is using the show to push a political point of view - that the perpetrators were just a few bad apples not acting under official orders. That was it - I turned it off & don't intend to watch it again.

Wow. But actually, this reflects a point of view I've heard expressed a number of times in a number of places recently: that because of the well-known political agenda of the Fox News channel, everything on the Fox broadcasting network should also be assumed to be part of the same political agenda. Putting Arrested Development in that category is pretty nuts, particularly given the characters' rampant similarities to the Bush family, but I suspect we'll be hearing more and more things like this as time goes on; if a Fox show is cancelled, you'll hear rumors that it was cancelled because it didn't fit the Murdoch agenda, while other shows will be accused of being part of the Murdoch propaganda machine.

The reason this interests me is that it makes me wonder whether Murdoch's gift for branding is starting to backfire on him. The Fox network was a triumph of branding, so much so that they've managed to shrewdly retain a certain outsider, "rebel" status in the public mind even after almost twenty years on the air. Fox News, unbearable as it is, is also a supremely successful effort in branding, of figuring out how to do the same old thing but pitch it toward people who thought CNN was part of a liberal conspiracy. But now the Fox News brand is so famous that it's starting to affect the ability of the Fox network to maintain its own brand; the more Fox is seen as the company of the political establishment, the harder it will be for it to seem hip. Worse, every show they do on Fox will start to be analyzed through a political lens even though the non-news network doesn't appear to have any political agenda. Maybe I'm way off here, but I suspect that in a few years we'll start to see that Murdoch, previously the master of balancing politically-slanted news with apolitically lurid entertainment, will start to find that his entertainment is starting to be viewed politically. He's losing the ability to compartmentalize.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Movies vs. Films vs. Pictures

What do you call motion pictures? Do you call them movies, films, pictures? If you're like most people, you probably use different terms at different times -- but in what context do you use those terms?

I think "movie" is the most common term among us regular Joes in the U.S. and Canada, but in the movie business it's a little unsettled; if you listen to movie people talk, sometimes they say "movie," sometimes "film," sometimes "picture," and sometimes just "project" (as in "I'm really excited about my latest project"). And as you'll immediately notice if you hear or read an interview from the '30s, '40s or '50s, back then almost everybody in the movie business called them "pictures."

In England, it seems to be more common to say "film," and English movie people usually refer to everything as a "film." Other languages, like French and German, don't seem to have any nicknames that are as popular as "movie," so the word "film" is the all-purpose term for motion pictures. Of course, as more and more motion pictures are shot with technologies other than film, the term will start to seem anachronistic.

In North America, it's semi-common in some circles to use "movie" to refer to popular entertainment, and "film" to refer to art-house cinema. John Simon, the movie critic for people who hated cinema, liked this distinction so much that he called one of his books Movies into Film: his goal, he explained was to advocate the development of cinema from an entertainment medium (movies) into an artistic medium (film). This usage is also referred to in the musical Nine, based on Fellini's 8 1/2, wherein a critic sings:

The trouble with Contini, he's the king of mediocrities,
A second-rate director who believes that he is Socrates,
He never makes a movie or a picture or a flick,
He makes a film.
Get it? A film!

I also recall a Globe and Mail article a few years back -- I can't remember who wrote it -- where the writer explained that "movies" were run-of-the-mill entertainment and "films" were anything new or unique or different.

I dislike that movies/film distinction so much that I actually make a point of reversing it. If there's a movie I consider particularly annoying in its pretentions, I always call it a movie, never a film: Persona is just a movie, Ingmar, no matter how hard you try to pretend you're above all that.

If David Addison Fought John McClane...

Anyway, re the Moonlighting DVDs, reports from people who have seen the original ABC broadcasts suggest that the episodes are not cut. Apparently some of the episodes have short running times because they originally ran short on ABC. Which, given the fact that the second season of Moonlighting began with the characters admitting that this week's show ran short and that they have to do something to fill it out, seems plausible. Besides, given that the production of the show was so messed up that they were never able to produce a full season (the second season was the longest, at 18 episodes), it's not so hard to believe that they produced a few episodes with 40-minute running times. So complaints about Lion's Gate are withdrawn, with the caveat that if they would stop using syndication prints for other shows, we might not be so quick to believe that they'd do it for this one.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Clique-Com

One of the best commentaries on the NewsRadio DVD set is the remarkably candid commentary on the season 2 premiere, "No, This is Not Based Entirely On Julie's Life," with creator Paul Simms, writer Brad Isaacs, assistant producer Julie Bean (the Julie of the episode title) and actress Vicki Lewis. Basically they spend large portions of the episode talking about behind-the-scenes affairs on the show: apparently Lewis was having an affair with Isaacs, breaking the heart of Bean, who had a crush on Isaacs too, while Isaacs suspected that Lewis and Simms might be two-timing him. Where were the mainstream gossip columnists (or "MSGC") when all this was going on?

Anyway, it's mentioned in the commentary that NewsRadio started out with a very small writing staff; it was just Simms, his Larry Sanders colleague Isaacs (who left in the second season), and his Harvard buddies Josh Lieb and Joe Furey. Starting in season two, when they had to do 22 episodes, they hired a staff of writers, and many of them, as they admit on the commentary, didn't work out. What I find interesting is that most of the writers who didn't work out were women; Leslie Caveny held on the longest, but by the third season, NewsRadio had an all-male staff and continued that way to the end. It was very much a cliquish writing staff, like the early writing staff of The Simpsons; everybody in the room shared a similar sensibility, much of the staff was Harvard-educated, and many of the jokes had that geekish/cliquish "Harvard Lampoon" vibe. NewsRadio perhaps could have used someone to do what James L. Brooks did for The Simpsons and keep reminding the writers to give the episodes some heart, or at least some kind of point; NewsRadio was one of the best sitcoms of the '90s, but it did have a tendency to get repetitive because so many of the episodes were built exactly the same way: a series of little interlocking wacky stories, none of which built to any particular resolution; when it wasn't at its best it could feel like a bunch of Conan O'Brien routines strung together and set in an office.

The other thing about the show is that because the writing staff was kind of cliquish (and young), its writers' main frame of reference for the show was their own lives as TV writers; that's why many of the episodes have little to do with radio or regular office work and a lot to do with the stuff that went on in the NewsRadio writers' room. The episode "Bitch Session," from the second season, is based on a real-life moment when Paul Simms overheard Brad Isaacs bitching about him to the other writers (Simms, Isaacs and the rest hash this out on the commentary); I suspect that a fourth-season episode called "Jackass Junior High," where Lisa (Maura Tierney) gets to see what the guys act like when there are no women around, may have been inspired by the boys'-club atmosphere of this and a lot of other sitcom writers' rooms; and in general, as the show goes on, the character of Dave seems more and more like a sitcom showrunner: a young, talented guy told to be the boss when he's not really sure how to exert authority over a bunch of crazy people.

But back to the thing about cliquish writing staffs: ten years since NewsRadio started, the Harvard Lampoon seems to have relaxed its reign of terror over TV writing staffs, but in other ways, writing staffs have gotten even more cliquish, in the sense that almost every major TV show nowadays seems to be entirely staff-written. This was not unheard of even in previous decades; WKRP In Cincinnati went through its entire final season without a single script by a non-staffer, and some shows just had two or three people writing every episode, like Green Acres. But freelance contributions used to be much more common in TV than they are now; it used to be that some shows would have maybe a couple of staff writers in addition to the showrunner, and they would get the rest of their scripts from freelancers. (Joss Whedon's grandfather John Whedon was a typical example, providing solid though unexceptional scripts on a freelance basis to several shows.) With various changes that have taken place, including the increasing perception that the showrunner should put his or her stamp on every episode and the increasing emphasis on rewriting as opposed to writing (which makes it more important that there should be a big staff to rewrite the script, and makes the contribution of the initial script less important), the professional freelancer is pretty much a thing of the past now.

There are good things and bad things about that; all in all, as a viewer, I suspect that the good things outweigh the bad, because most shows have always gotten their best work out of staff writers -- pick any show from the '50s or '60s and you'll often find that the weakest episodes are the ones by the freelancers. On the other hand, the total dependence on staff writers may contribute to a sense of sameness that pervades some shows today, sitcoms especially. NewsRadio wasn't a show that had that problem, but we can all think of some shows that would benefit from an outsider's sensibility being brought in to shake things up; the troublemaker in Jackass Junior High.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Via Chaos Theory, an article from the Los Angeles Times about the rules for creating heroines in romantic comedies. These rules, as conveyed to the author by various unnamed screenwriters, include: make your heroine as wonderful and perfect as possible, make sure she displays "vulnerability" in at least one heartfelt shot (preferably accompanied by pop music, no doubt), never specify her age if you can help it and if you can't help it, say she's 29.