Sunday, October 30, 2005

Bugs Bunny vs. America

The new Looney Tunes Golden Collection includes a number of cartoons that weren't released on VHS tape before, including one of my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons, Bob McKimson's "Rebel Rabbit" (1949).

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McKimson's Bugs Bunny cartoons from the late '40s aren't quite like anybody else's. For one thing, his Bugs looks very different from everybody else's -- chubbier, toothier, and frankly uglier than the Bugs who features in other cartoons, which is ironic considering that all the other directors were working from a Bugs model sheet designed by McKimson. When it came to character design, McKimson never seemed to care much about making characters look good; his one-shot supporting characters, like Gruesome Gorilla in "Gorilla My Dreams" or the hillbillies in "Hillbilly Hare," are grotesque-looking, with weirdly-proportioned bodies.

This kind of design doesn't look pretty but gives lots of opportunities to any animator who wants to take advantage of the characters' long arms and chubby bodies to put lots of characterization into the upper body movements, especially arm movements. Manny Gould, a Clampett animator who worked for McKimson from 1947 to 1949, arguably did even funnier animation for McKimson than for Clampett; Gould's specialty, as I've written before, was having characters swing their arms about and thrust themselves directly toward the camera, and McKimson characters were perfect for this kind of animation. Here are some still frames from a Manny Gould scene in "Rebel Rabbit" where Bugs confronts a U.S. Senator (based, like Foghorn Leghorn, on the Senator Claghorn character from Fred Allen's show):

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McKimson and his writer, Warren Foster, took what might be called a situation-based approach to Bugs Bunny. Whereas most other directors usually stuck with the formula of Bugs vs. a hunter (most of Bob Clampett's Bugs cartoons stick to this) or Bugs vs. a big loudmouthed jerk (Chuck Jones' favorite kind of Bugs cartoon), and put a spin on those basic situations, McKimson's and Foster's way of putting a twist on the Bugs Bunny formula was to put Bugs in the weirdest situations possible.

So in the Bugs cartoons directed by McKimson and written by Foster, we get:

- Bugs is suckered by the Easter Bunny into delivering eggs for him ("Easter Yeggs")
- A lab researcher wants to remove Bugs's brain and replace it with the brain of a chicken ("Hot Cross Bunny")
- Bugs tells the story of his life, in which he is a failed entertainer who caught a lucky break ("What's Up, Doc?")
- Bugs is conned by the Three Little Pigs into buying straw and stick houses before the Wolf blows them down ("The Windblown Hare")
- Bugs helps Christopher Columbus on his voyage ("Hare We Go" -- one of the few Bugs cartoons with no villain, though Columbus does at one point try to eat Bugs when the food runs out)
- Bugs rubs a lamp and meets an annoying genie voiced by Jim Backus, who sends him to Baghdad ("A Lad-In His Lamp")

You'll also note from some of those plot descriptions that McKimson's Bugs in this period is not particularly smart, nor is he particularly sympathetic. He usually wins, but more out of sheer destructive aggressiveness than the intelligence we usually associate with him. He's not a crazy rabbit either, as he is in Clampett's cartoons; he is, really, kind of a tough-talking thug, who's sympathetic largely because his opponents are also thugs.

"Rebel Rabbit" takes that approach to the logical extreme: here Bugs is not only a thug, but almost literally a terrorist. He is so furious to discover that the U.S. government only has a two-cent bounty for hunting rabbits ("Rabbits are perfectly harmless") that he swears to prove that "a rabbit can be more obnoxious than anybody!" The rest of the cartoon is just one gag after another of Bugs doing the most destructive things he can possibly do short of actually killing people onscreen; he literally ties train tracks in knots, sells Manhattan back to the Indians, and in the most famous gag, saws off Florida and cuts it loose, yelling: "South America, take it away!"

Bugs goes as far with destruction and mayhem as a cartoon character possibly can -- by his own admission, "too far" -- to the point that the government declares him a menace and sends in the army (in stock live-action footage) to take him down.

It's a disturbing cartoon, in the sense that we're seeing a beloved cartoon character running amuck, wrecking private property and getting attacked by the army. But in a way it's the most plausible portrait of what would happen if a cartoon character were let loose in the real world, our world: the things that look cute in a cartoon universe don't seem so cute when he's doing it to us. Accordingly, the backgrounds for this cartoon (designed by McKimson's layout man, Cornett Wood, whose departure in 1951 may have been what caused McKimson's cartoons to get visually duller) are mostly very realistic portrayals of familiar real-world sights like the U.S. Senate and Times Square. It's a cartoon about cartoon energy and violence being unleashed upon a non-cartoony world, and it's both funny and kind of scary.

Another Bandwagon Hopped On

Sorry to be both predictable and sort of up-to-date in my tastes for a moment (two things that go against my mission statement), but I should report that, yes, "Veronica Mars" is as good as everyone says.

It was a relief to disover that the creator, Rob Thomas, understands how to make an audience take his characters seriously without taking the premise too seriously. There are a lot of shows with ridiculous premises -- especially the ones that involve kids or college students doing dangerous things -- and there are two "extreme" ways of dealing with a ridiculous premise. One is to go the "Batman" route and just play the whole thing for laughs. The other is to simply do a show with no humor, where everybody acts like this premise is the most important and incredibly realistic thing in the whole wide world. This produces my least favorite type of show: the ridiculous show that's too square to realize it's ridiculous. "Alias" is like that, and I can't stand the humorless pomposity of "Alias." "Knight Rider" was like that, and I like that a little better than "Alias," but not much.

Anyway, "Veronica Mars" has a basically insane premise: the lead character is a teenage master detective who can solve cases for her classmates and for her struggling P.I. (and ex-sheriff) father. The premise is a distaff "Encyclopedia Brown," but set in a town where everybody has some kind of dark secret and tough talk and double crosses run rampant. It's like a film noir in color and set in the 21st century and starring a kid who fills the role of the world-weary private eye. And every episode is filled with things that just wouldn't, and don't, happen.

Luckily, the tone is just right: there's a sense of humor about the premise, without being campy or coy about it. Any particularly nutty plot development is handled with at least some hint of humor that shows that the writers are not trying to make the premise out to be more serious than it is: the humorous touch can be as little as a wisecrack from Veronica or as obvious as her bringing along a dog named "Backup" on a detective job for her father (who told her to "take Backup" if she goes out on the job), but it's there and it's enough to deflect any suspicion that it's in "Alias"-style denial about the silliness of its concept.

It's not laugh-out-loud funny like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was, but it's based on the same underlying idea, which is to play fair with the audience. They tacitly admit that the premise is silly, and we (and by "we" I mean me) are more likely to take seriously the stuff that is not silly: the characters and their emotional conflicts. (It's a bit like the technique used in a classic film noir like Out of the Past, where the more absurd elements of the plot are handled with a slight touch of humor, but the big moments of character development are handled with the dead seriousness they deserve.) It also allows them to get away with some fairly standard mystery stories, because we understand that what's important in the episode is not how the mystery gets solved but what emotional conflicts arise while the story is in progress. Whereas with something like "Alias," I can't take the characters seriously because the show seems to expect me to take everything seriously, and makes no apparent distinction between what is silly and what isn't.

"Veronica Mars" also takes advantage of something that most "teen" shows ignore: the extent to which technology has made it possible for kids to complicate their lives as much as adults. With internet access, cell phones and other electronic miracles, the kids on the show sort of have instant independence, and can get involved in plots that previously only made sense with adults. The second episode takes a very standard story: the poor sap who lives beyond his means to please a worthless, spoiled woman, and winds up stealing to give her the life to which she has been accustomed. It's all there, but normally that story is done with adults; here it's done with kids, and you realize that with access to credit cards, cell phone communication, and other things that These Kids Today take for granted, this old plot can quite plausibly be acted out by kids.

And that fits in with a theme of the show, that the things kids have to deal with -- emotional crises, issues of class and status, financial burdens -- sort of turn them old and cynical before their time; the lead character has, as the show begins, been turned into a hard-boiled cynical adult, while her father seems like more of an innocent. The theme that kids are now forced to live and suffer like grown-ups is in equal parts funny and truthful, which is what you want a show like this to be: funny, but emotionally true.

Rob Thomas's previous show, "Cupid", was a one-season show that got great reviews, though its production was, apparently, troubled (two producers quit over what they described as "Creative differences with its pathological star"). It'll probably get a DVD release one of these days.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Something To Insult Everybody

Since my first and last all-political post was a little hard on the U.S.A., I thought I would post these lyrics from the musical Do I Hear a Waltz? (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, music by Richard Rodgers). Fioria (Carol Bruce), the proprietress of a pensione in Venice, welcomes her latest group of American tourists by telling them how much nicer they are than all other nationalities:

Last week the Germans,
You can keep the Germans,
Always cheap, the Germans,
Even on a trip.
Sweet? Not the Germans,
Sweat a lot, the Germans,
Full of smiles, the Germans,
Don't expect a tip.
But this week Americans,
Open-armed Americans,
I am charmed, Americans,
Welcome, welcome, welcome,
I love Americans,
The pleasure is mine.
Remember, no breakfast after half-past nine.

Next week the English,
You should see the English,
All the tea, the English,
Thirsty, I suppose.
Good eggs, the English,
Rotten legs, the English,
All those teeth, the English,
Rows and rows and rows.
But this week Americans,
More than kind Americans,
Much-maligned Americans,
Welcome, welcome, welcome,
I love Americans,
And my home is yours.
I can't be responsible, so lock your doors.

Then come Parisians,
Full of food Parisians,
Always rude Parisians,
Every one a sneak.
Perfumed Parisians,
Over-groomed Parisians,
Middle-class Parisians,
Far more cheek than chic.
But this week Americans,
Generous Americans,
Never fuss, Americans,
Welcome, welcome, welcome,
Thank you, Americans,
For coming to stay.
How charming, my guests are from the U.S.A.

No alcoholic Swedes,
No double-dealing Russians.
No Spaniards with their beads
And their deafening discussions.
No narcissistic Greeks,
They're worse than the Italians
With overblown physiques
And St. Christopher medallions.
No millionaire Brazilians
Who somehow never pay,
I much prefer the millions
From the U.S.A.

But in Act 2, when the Americans are leaving and the English tourists are arriving, Fioria sings a different tune, or rather, the same tune with different lyrics:

Last week Americans,
Who can bear Americans?
Wash-and-wear Americans,
Charmlessly naive.
Two-faced Americans,
Dreadful taste Americans,
Summertime Americans,
Thought they'd never leave!
But this week the Britishers,
Cultivated Britishers,
Educated Britishers,
Welcome, welcome, welcome,
Thank God for Britishers,
You aren't like them.
And welcome till Saturday at three p.m.!

Moral: you can find something nasty to say about any country. Except possibly Canada. We're great.

On an analytical note, since this song is basically a catalogue of national stereotypes, it's interesting to note which stereotypes have and have not remained current since the song was written (1965). The stereotypes about the French -- focusing on snobbery, in the traditional sense (a "snob" originally meant a bourgeois person who affects to be higher-class than he or she really is) -- have mostly lost their currency. The stereotype of the tight-fisted German has, since German re-unification, been replaced in popular culture by stereotypes of Germans as hyper-efficient on the one hand and decadent on the other. Most of the other stereotypes have remained familiar enough to be a part of any bad comedian's repertoire.

I saw at least one analysis of the song that chewed Sondheim and Rodgers out for promoting all these horrible stereotypes. The writer had apparently listened only to the cast album, not realizing that in context the song is not about the stereotypes, but Fioria's willingness to say whatever her guests want to hear.

I Take Back Anything Nice I Said About Garry Marshall

"Happy Days Musical To Spin in 2006 Los Angeles Debut"

"Kicking off 2006 will be the world premiere of Happy Days, a brand new musical which I wrote with Oscar and Grammy Award-winning composer/lyricist Paul Williams, with a book based on my successful TV series," boasted [Garry] Marshall in the company's season announcement.

"It's May, 1959 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Fonzie is still the king of cool at his favorite malt shop, Arnold’s," reads show materials. "The school year is coming to an end and the rest of the gang, including Richie, Lori Beth, Potsie and Ralph Malph, are getting ready to graduate from Jefferson High School." The musical "celebration of nostalgia" will feature appearances by Pinky Tuscadero and the Malachi Brothers as well.

This one has been in the works for some years -- I read about it three years ago, when a book had been written but a songwriter hadn't been hired. I'd make fun of the choice of Paul Williams, but actually I think he's kind of talented, so I'll stick to making fun of the above description, which sounds cobbled together from every bad episode of the "Happy Days" series, and seems predicated on the assumption that anybody even wants to see freakin' Lori Beth or Pinky Tuscadero again in any form.

Actually, "Happy Days" wouldn't be bad material for a musical if you based it on the early, good years when Richie was the star. A musical based on the Fonzie-is-God years (and I never tire of reminding people that it was Michael Eisner who suggested making Fonzie the star), which this seems to be, mostly just begs the question of whether it'll be more crass than All Shook Up.

The Joke Machine

I agree wholeheartedly with Terry Teachout in his assessment of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple":

Were Mr. Simon’s insert-flap-A-in-slot-B jokes ever funny? I remember chortling at them as a boy, but now they mostly leave me cold. In fact, the whole first act of “The Odd Couple” feels less like a comedy than a set of instructions for making an audience laugh....

This is one of the reasons why the TV version of "The Odd Couple" (with which Simon had no involvement) is so much better than the play or the movie. Simon's original "Odd Couple" is essentially a collection of jokes. Some of the jokes are good, some aren't so good, but all of them feel like carefully scripted, carefully arranged jokes with tick-tock rhythms leading to a punchline. The TV series, created by Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall, was character-driven, not joke-driven, and mined most of its humor from the characterizations of Oscar and Felix and the difference between them -- in other words, from all the stuff that Simon set up in the play but didn't really follow through on.

Simon's characters have no apparent lives beyond the confines of the one set; references to Oscar's job, or Felix's job, are offhand and minor, and they have no apparent interests or hobbies. With the TV Oscar and Felix, we know a lot about what they do for a living, what their interests are, what they think about various things, and much of the humor comes from that. Simon's Oscar Madison is a sportswriter because that's a convenient plot device: he had to do something that he wouldn't require him to dress well or act refined, and which would explain how he affords a nice apartment, why he's often home during the day. Marshall and Belson's Oscar Madison is really a sportswriter; his job is the vehicle for stories and jokes. Simon's characters are automatons; Marshall and Belson's characters are people.

Interestingly, according to Garry Marshall's commentary on an episode he and Belson wrote for "The Dick Van Dyke Show," Carl Reiner did not want to hire them for that show because he thought they were wisecracking New York jokewriters who wrote jokes instead of stories. Translated into the terms of this post, Reiner didn't want anybody who wrote Neil Simon type material. Marshall (an annoying personality, but a smart comedy writer and an interesting DVD commentator) says that Reiner taught them the importance of putting story and character first and of not writing jokes that aren't related to anything, and they carried those lessons over into their subsequent work (like "The Odd Couple"). This goes a long way, I think, toward explaining why situation comedies hold up so much better than most of the Broadway stage comedies of the same era: the people who wrote for character went West, and the East was dominated by people like Neil Simon, who mostly just wrote jokes.

More Warner Annoyances

The Sitcoms Online Blog reports that Warner Brothers appears to have more or less given up on season-by-season sets for most older shows:

They will be releasing a "TV Favorites" (basically a one disc set with six episodes) set of the sitcom [Alice] in 2006. They also promise "TV Favorites" sets of Family Matters, The Drew Carey Show, Step by Step, and Night Court.

I suppose "best-of" highlights discs make a certain amount of sense for some shows -- which is to say the shows I don't care for, like most of the shows on the above list -- but for anyone who likes these shows (or some of the other shows that have only gotten best-of discs from WB, like "F-Troop") it must be unfortunate to be given only six episodes out of hundreds.

The only personal disappointment from the list above is "Night Court," which got a first season release earlier this year, and apparently did not sell well enough to warrant complete sets of the later and better seasons. Too bad, because it's one of the more underrated shows of its time, and (for me anyway) holds up a lot better than the show that inspired it, "Barney Miller" (which also got a first season release and nothing more).


The post right below this one is outside the normal scope of this blog: a weird mix of confession and political rant. I had to get it out of my system.

Regular blogging will resume shortly.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

OT: Political Detox Program Needed

Is there a twelve-step program for politics junkies?

As you may guess from my choice of stuff to blog about, I'm not a particularly political person. I don't mean that as a veiled compliment to myself (as in "I'm above all that partisan bickering"); it's more of a sad admission: others are out there making a difference and fighting for what they believe in, and I've never been able to muster up enough political conviction to do that. Not good, but there we are.

In the last couple of years, though, and in the last few months especially, I've become addicted to U.S. political stuff, especially political blogs (I can't stomach television news). This wouldn't be a bad thing, except I hate this addiction. I hate it for several reasons:

1) I am not American. I am Canadian, I have lived in Canada all my life. Therefore I am addicted to news about a political process that is for the most part none of my damn business. If I were addicted to Canadian politics, I could get involved and work to make a difference. This is not, and should not be, an option with the politics of a foreign country. To some extent the U.S. foreign policy is my business; given that the Bush administration is basing its foreign policy on outdated pre-9/11 ideas and clinging to silly bromides about freedom and such (amazing what a bunch of touchy-feely hippies conservatives have become in the last ten years or so), I definitely feel that the world is becoming less safe for, well, everyone. But as to whether I as a foreigner should be able to influence U.S. foreign policy, the answer is obviously no. In theory, anyway.

2) I am afraid I'm one of those foreigners who is convinced that the U.S. federal government is profoundly screwed up, that the Bush administration is for various reasons much worse than any other in my lifetime, and that the political and social right is essentially horrible. I don't want to get into the whys and wherefores of why some of us "moderates" (and I considered myself, when I considered myself anything at all, a moderate) have decided on this. Short answer, the Iraq war -- when people start getting killed for stupid reasons, politicians stop being a punchline, and when pundits keep making up more stupid reasons, they cease being fun to read. (However, I thought the Iraq War was a terrible idea back in September 2001, when I first heard talk that Iraq might be "next"; yet apart from feeling very bad that this terrible and stupid idea was being put into practice, I didn't follow politics that closely until mid-2004 or so. Maybe it was the U.S. election or the rise of readable liberal blogs, or both, that created the real addiction.) But the thing is that following U.S. politics is not enjoyable or funny, it's ulcer-inducing and depressing. I used to be able to read many American conservative magazines and enjoy them to some extent (for one thing, a few years ago the liberal publications sucked; they've gotten better in opposition, and conservative publications have gotten very bad indeed); now that they generally exist to advocate killing a lot of Muslims for vaguely-defined reasons, I don't find it so enjoyable.

3. Given that I am not American and don't have any particular brief for the Democratic party (they're obviously less inclined to make up stupid reasons for killing a lot of people, but only slightly, and U.S. domestic issues are none of my business), I can't do the whole Daily Kos thing and cheer for the revival of the Democratic party, or the "Democrat party" as stupid people like to call them. Horseracing is not my thing. All I can do is watch and wait and feel my stomach turn inside out.

Sorry for what amounts to a rant, and I promise this will be a one-time-only thing; this is not a political blog. The fact that I don't want to write about politics, don't like writing about politics, is ironically what prompted me to write this post: I had to let it out because that's the first step on the road to trying to step away, realize that the U.S. is not my country and not mine to fix, and try to concentrate on works of art and popular culture that will outlast the current U.S. administration by quite some time.

Wish me luck in trying to recover, folks.

Now, That's Comedy

TV Shows on DVD reports plans for mid-2006 DVD releases of "Animaniacs" and its spinoff "Pinky and the Brain".

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Season 5 of "All in the Family" is getting a DVD release.

Because "All in the Family" was never officially cancelled -- instead it was folded into "Archie Bunker's Place" -- everybody can sort of make up their own minds as to where the show ends. For some people, it ends in "Archie Bunker's Place" when it's announced that Edith has died. (The producers of "Archie Bunker's Place" were about as crass as anybody can be when dealing with beloved characters. Not only did they kill off Edith so Archie could star in his own spinoff; they had Michael abandon Gloria and his child -- utterly out of character for Michael, and an insult to viewers who had spent years watching these characters -- so that they could set up a solo spinoff for Gloria.) For others, it ends with the last official season of "All in the Family." For still others, probably most people, the show is over once Mike and Gloria leave.

For me, "All in the Family" jumps the shark at the end of the fifth season, when Mike and Gloria move out of the house. True, they only move next door, and true, it was inevitable that Meathead would eventually get a job and be able to pay for his own house. But the premise of the show (and of the show it was based on, "Till Death Do Us Part") sort of ended when Archie and Mike no longer had to live together.

More importantly, after the fifth season, there was a big staff shake-up on "All in the Family." For the first five seasons, most of the scripts were written by Don Nicholl (a transplanted British writer, best known now as the founder of a big screenplay contest that neither you nor I will ever win), Michael Ross and Bernie West (the dentist from Bells are Ringing in his previous life as an actor). Nearly all the best episodes were either written or re-written by one of these three.

After the fifth season, Nicholl, Ross and West left "All in the Family" to run the spinoff, "The Jeffersons," and a year later they would leave Norman Lear's company to run "Three's Company." To replace them on AITF, Lear turned to a bunch of veteran writers he'd known since his days in radio and early TV; they included Jack Benny's former head writer Milt Josefberg and "Your Show of Shows" head writer Mel Tolkin (one of the models for Rob Petrie, incidentally).

The new writers were all talented, experienced comedy writers, and you sort of have to admire Lear for hiring veteran comedy writers instead of considering them over-the-hill. But the new scripts were awash in comedy formulas and the kind of setup/punchline routines these guys had been doing for years. At the same time, they tried to punch up the show by making every episode a Very Special or Relevant Issue episode: Edith almost gets raped, Archie sits down to dinner with a Vietnam draft dodger, Archie gets hooked on pills. The Ku Klux Klan episode was probably the worst of the bunch. Most of Archie's lines now consisted of elaborate malapropisms and Gracie Allen-style misunderstandings. They essentially wrote for "All in the Family" as if it were a cross between "I Love Lucy" and a soap opera.

That's the way most of Lear's shows were written -- and that's why they don't hold up very well any more. But the Nicholl/Ross/West years of "All in the Family" were different, because their scripts (and the episodes Lear wrote himself) were mostly based around character comedy, around jokes that don't, in fact, read like jokes. I've harped on this before, but the best comedy writing is often not writing that looks funny on paper, but rather lines that are funny because of who's saying them and the context in which they are said. Most of the best lines from the first five years of AITF are like that:

GLORIA: Do you know that sixty percent of all deaths in America are caused by guns?
ARCHIE: Would it make you feel any better if they was pushed out of windows?

(From the menopause episode)
ARCHIE: I know all about your woman's troubles there, Edith, but when I had the hernia that time, I didn't make you wear the truss! If you're gonna have the change of life, you gotta do it right now! I'm gonna give you just 30 seconds, come on, change!
EDITH: Can I finish my soup first?

(The closing line of the episode "The Bunkers and the Swingers")
ARCHIE (to Edith): Don't you read no more magazines!

EDITH: Oh, look, Archie, Chanel Number 5! That's their highest number!

The other thing about the Nicholl/Ross/West years of "All in the Family" is that the show did very few Very Special or Serious episodes in those five years. There were a few "issue" episodes -- like the episode where Gloria almost gets raped and ends the episode by deciding not to report it, a much more effective episode than the Edith episode of a few years later. But most of the Nicholl/Ross/West episodes deal more with everyday problems, get-rich-quick schemes that don't work, arguments between the characters, and so on. They wouldn't avoid dealing with controversial issues if that was what the characters needed to talk about, but they weren't about to build the stories around iseues instead of people. Even the "dramatic" moments were relatively low-key and more about character relationships than issues. For example, the episode (written by Ross and West) where Archie disapproves of his niece dating Lionel Jefferson; the climax of the episode is partly about a social issue, but mostly about Lionel explaining the nature of his relationship with Archie, and making it clear that there's a point at which he doesn't find Archie's behavior funny:

ARCHIE: I'm saying youse guys oughtta stick with youselves.
LIONEL: You mean guys oughtta stay with guys?
ARCHIE: You know what I'm talking about, Lionel. I'm saying that whites oughtta stay with whites and coloreds oughtta stay with coloreds.
LIONEL: Look, Mr. Bunker, it's been a year and a half now since we moved into this neighborhood. I was just nineteen, and I got a big kick out of you and me for a long time. But I'm pushing twenty-one now, and I'm not getting that big a kick out of it anymore.
ARCHIE: Put a lid on it, Lionel --
LIONEL: I'm not finished. Now, we've been friends and we can go on being friends. But when it comes to black and white and all the other wonderful thoughts you have in between, put a lid on that, Archie!

That exchange, which builds on a character relationship that was established in the first episode (Lionel as the guy who subtly makes fun of Archie's ignorance and prejudice, but sort of likes him), takes that relationship to a new place, and uses a very simple device to do so (it's the first time Lionel ever calls Archie by his first name), is also a good example of the way the best sitcoms have all the character development and growth that we expect in the best dramas. Actually, in the '70s, hourlong dramas were more like anthologies, and didn't have anywhere near the character depth or development of good sitcoms.

Anyway, with the departure of Nicholl/Ross/West, "All in the Family" lost the character comedy and the organic character development. In a weird way, Nicholl/Ross/West brought some of that to "Three's Company"; it was in no wise a great show, but it did try to mine laughs from character and situation instead of setup/punchline routines, and for that reason it holds up a lot better than most Norman Lear shows, including AITF after the fifth season.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Wherever We Went, They Loved Us

One of the great American flop musicals, The Golden Apple (the subject of an excellent introductory essay by Erik Haagensen), takes place right after the Spanish-American War. This is a war with an uncomfortable number of parallels to the current conflict, though it was more successful. And in the introductory song for Ulysses, lyricist John Latouche draws a funny and biting portrait of soldiers who are still not quite aware that the rest of the world doesn't see them the way they see themselves:

It was a glad adventure,
The Philippine scene was so sweet.
Them wee eager roots
In their birthday suits
Made life just a Sunday School treat.
Wherever we went, they loved us,
So dazzled they were with our charms.
The folks in them lands
Ate right out of our hands,
But why do they chew off the arms?
Oh, why do they chew off the arms?

The same held true in Cuba,
When gaily we bombshelled a port.
Though harsh blows were dealt
By Ted Roosevelt,
They knew it was only in sport.
Wherever we went, they loved us,
They tucked us in rose-petal beds.
They welcomed our troops
With their dances and whoops,
But why do they shrink our heads?
Oh, why do they shrink our heads?

Oh, Theodore, oh, Theodore,
The Roosevelt that we adore!

Wherever we went, they loved us,
They cheered when they saw us arrive.
They loved us so much,
Their affection was such
We're lucky to get home alive.
Oh, we're lucky to get home alive.

LaTouche was one of the great American lyricists and opera librettists, whose career was cut short by a heart attack at the age of 41; The Golden Apple, an insanely ambitious, dialogue-free musical transplanting the story of The Odyssey to turn-of-the-century America, is his masterpiece, but it's never received a major revival or even a complete recording.

What the MILF?

One of my least favorite among today's popular slang terms is "MILF" (Mother I'd Like to Fuck). Not because I'm offended by the implication that a woman can still be attractive once she's old enough for "US Magazine" to lose interest in her, but because I just think it's a lousy acronym. An acronym should be an actual word. Oddly enough this is one case where the "cleaner" versions of the acronym actually work better: "MILK" (Mother I'd Like to Kiss) or "MILD" (Mother I'd Like to Do) make way more sense than "MILF."

Anyway, I did a Google Groups search for the acronym "MILF" to find out when it was first used. I discovered that the first major usenet use of "MILF" occurred in 1990, except it stood for "Moro Islamic Liberation Front," a Muslim separatist guerilla group based in the Philippines.

For several years thereafter, most references to "MILF" involved this Muslim separatist group and its increasing number of guerillas. But just as MILF was starting to become news, American Pie came out in 1999 and introduced the new meaning of the acronym. Thus undoubtedly earning the producers the enmity of the real MILF, which was soon almost forgotten on Usenet among the flood of American Pie-style "MILF" references.

So while Wikipedia says that the usage of "MILF" in the modern sense pre-dates American Pie, I can't find anything on usenet that would suggest that anyone ever used it that way before the movie. Take that, Wikipedia.

This has been your slang lesson for today. You're welcome.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Steele Yourself

Looks like the second season of "Remington Steele" will have both stars on the cover. You'll recall that the first season had the worst cover ever, including the stupidest imaginable tagline: "Before he was Bond, he was Remington Steele." (Apart from everything else, he was not Remington Steele. That's the whole point of the show.) And as many people have pointed out, it's eerily appropriate: it was a show about a woman who has to stay in the background while a man gets all the credit, and the DVD cover had her staying on the back while the man gets all the credit.

"Remington Steele" is actually a very satisfying show to watch. I think it's underrated, in part, because "Moonlighting" came along a few years later and sort of stole its thunder. Since "Moonlighting" creator Glenn Caron had worked, not very happily, on "Remington Steele," and tended to less-than-subtly point to "Remington Steele" as the sort of show he was trying to subvert with the post-modern "Moonlighting," it was natural to think of "Remington Steele" as little more than another interchangeable part of the boy-girl detective show format that started with "Hart To Hart," and went on to spawn "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" and various other comedy/mystery/romance hybrids.

But "Remington Steele" was doing its own thing. The best thing about it -- the thing that makes it hold up so much better than most hourlong shows do twenty years after the fact -- is that it really tried to go for the look, feel and style of older movies. "Hart to Hart" tipped its hat to "The Thin Man," but was essentially an Aaron Spelling/Leonard Goldberg type show stylistically. "Moonlighting" had excellent production values, but despite all the comparisons to screwball comedy, never really went for that style to any great extent; it was in large part a satire of other television programs, and therefore its look was sort of a parodic mishmash of other shows. But "Remington Steele," especially the early episodes, really looks -- as much as an '80s TV show can -- like a Cary Grant movie.

The dialogue, the clothes, the sets and the settings come not from '80s cop shows but from the elegant world of Grant/Stanley Donen movies like Indiscreet and Charade; indeed, the influence of Charade is all over the first episode, as well as the basic conflict of having a hero with multiple identities and a heroine who doesn't know if she can trust him or even exactly who he is. The music for the episodes, by Richard Lewis Warren, is a pastiche of the '60s scores of Henry Mancini (who composed the show's two main theme tunes), especially The Pink Panther. And most of the plots openly borrow elements from old movies -- openly, because Steele always points out the similarity to whatever old movie is being referenced: "The Trouble With Harry, Paramount, 1956..."

The other thing that makes the show work so well, apart from the look of it, is the still-subversive twist on the usual conventions of a boy/girl detective story. In "The Thin Man," which was the model for "Hart to Hart" and "Steele" and all the other male-female detective teams, the man takes the lead in solving the mysteries, and the woman is there for support. "Steele" flipped this around, as co-creator Michael Gleason explained:

Stephanie would get tons of letters from women's groups because her character was a beautiful, smart, strong woman. Laura Holt was the brains. Remington Steele was the sex object.

'70s and early '80s TV, especially hourlong shows, was heavily dominated by male characters: cops, action heroes, sleuths. When you did have a show with women doing these things, they tended to be ultimately controlled by men ("Charlie's Angels"). Laura Holt is a character who can do anything a man can do, and better, and she's trying to go it alone without anyone to control her. Her creation of Remington Steele, her mysterious, unseen boss, may well be a parody of the unseen-boss concept from "Charlie's Angels," the idea that a strong woman is only acceptable to the public if she has an immediate superior who's male. The show is an implicit criticism of images and stereotypes: the stereotype that women are the sidekicks, and men the leaders, is so ingrained that people on the show assume Steele must be the leader even though Laura is clearly doing all the detective work.

The only person on the show who really appreciates Laura is, ironically, Steele: as someone who doesn't want to be controlled or pigeonholed either, and who switches identities for that very purpose, he understands that there's more to her than most people are willing to see. He also appreciates her, of course, because he knows first-hand how good she is at what she does. And he is interested in her not in spite of the fact that he can't control her, but because of that -- just as her attraction to him is largely based on what she doesn't know about him.

As the above description makes clear, it's also a show about role-playing. The two lead characters have both built their lives around playing parts and constructing fake identities. They're both con artists of a sort, and many of the best episodes strongly hint that they're not just playing these games to get work; they actually need to play roles and hide behind masks, and the big question is not only who they really are, but why they feel a need to disguise themselves so much. "Vintage Steele" (the Trouble With Harry takeoff, with the immortal line: "He was the Abbott of Costello") suggests that Laura's whole businesslike persona may be an act: Steele meets her ex-boyfriend, who remembers her as a frighteningly uninhibited person. The episode shows glimpses of the way she used to act with her boyfriend, but leaves it open as to whether she was acting with him, or if she's acting now, or just what and who she really is.

The first season offered two other characters who knew Remington Steele didn't exist: Laura's associate detective, Murphy (James Read) and her secretary, Bernice (Janet DeMay). Both these characters had very little to do in this season, and in season 2 they were dropped and replaced with Doris Roberts (as a character who didn't know about the secret, and treated Laura with semi-contempt as Steele's flunky). But Murphy, at least, was an unfortunate loss, because he not only gave the show a romantic triangle -- he was in love with Laura and anxious to keep her away from Steele -- he was the normal, genuine person whose basic normalcy made it easier to understand how weird the two leads were. Murphy, like Steele, admires Laura's skills and doesn't mind taking orders from her; he is basically the perfect man for her in every way. But he's not a role-player, not a faker; in the first episode he's saying how much he hates going along with Laura's Remington Steele imposture, and she waves him aside. He's too genuine for her, too normal; her interest is in people who share her own penchant for playing a part.

Laura has no interest in people who aren't faking to some extent; her career is based on finding out who people are, as opposed to what they pretend to be, and romance is for her an extention of the same thing. "Remington Steele" is a great hybrid of detective story and romance because it treats romance as similar to detective work: it's about finding out what the other person is hiding.

Many of the cases Laura and Steele take revolve around people who have constructed identities for themselves, and the steps they take (usually murderous ones) to preserve the identity and the illusion. One early episode called "Etched in Steele" is about ghostwriters of novels. A key plot point is that a publisher uses a glamorous-looking non-writer, sort of a female version of Steele, as a front for an unglamorous male writer whose novels would never sell if he used his own name. (In other words, a role-reversed version of the show's main premise.) The solution to the mystery hinges on Laura's realization that a writer's reputation is more important to the reception of his book than the actual quality of his writing: it's not what you are, it's the way people see you. Laura is a good detective because she can see through people's fakery and figure out who they are and what they want -- but she can't do that with Steele; he's the one case she can't crack. Steele succeeds because he has the con artist's ability to understand what people want him to be, and be whatever it will take to get into their good graces -- but he can't do that with Laura; he can't fool her because he doesn't understand her.

The weak link on "Steele" is usually the solution of the mystery. Unlike "Moonlighting," where the mysteries never really mattered and where detective-show conventions were openly mocked, the mysteries on "Steele" are semi-serious and play fair according to crime-fiction convention, but they're just too perfunctory sometimes, and sometimes it's all too easy to figure out not only who the murderer is, but why he did it. Still, since the fun of the show is in watching the leads investigate each other, as opposed to the guest characters, it's easy to live with the inevitable moment where the murderer is exposed and tries to run away. And sometimes they put a little character-based twist on that. "Etched in Steele" (not really one of the best episodes, by the way, but the one I watched most recently) has a running gag about Laura stomping on Steele's foot when she wants to stop him from talking in front of other people. At the end, when the murderer tries to flee, Steele sticks out that foot and trips him. He then says, with a glance in Laura's direction: "Good thing I've lost all feeling in that foot."

The first season was in my opinion the best, for two reasons: the elegant old-movie style was at its height in this season, and Laura was more clearly the dominant character in the partnership. In the second season, the main title was standardized to focus more equally on both leads, Steele became more competent, and it inched closer to a standard "Thin Man" takeoff. But it still had some fine episodes to go before it ran the whole sexual-tension thing into the cathode ground.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Wit and Wisdom of Mr. F's Aunt

I think Dickens's "Little Dorrit" is his best novel -- the toughest, the smartest, the most consistent, and the angriest. Also the one where he comes closest to solving the problem that plagues most of his other novels: the inconsequential hero and heroine: Arthur Clennam and the title character aren't great creations, but they're more interesting than Dickens' lead characters usually are. It does suffer from the usual curse of the Dickens novel, the second-half slump -- it's divided into two parts, the second of which is less gripping than the first -- but that's just part of reading Dickens.

It's a very dour novel by Dickens' standards, almost as grim as his preceding book, "Hard Times," and with very few larger-than-life, lovable comic characters in the mold of Micawber, or funny rogues like Fagin and Silas Wegg. Most of the comedy in "Little Dorrit" is quite downbeat and angry. Especially the most famous chapter in the novel, the one dealing with the Circumlocution Office, the government bureaucracy (staffed mostly by members of one shiftless political family) dedicated entirely to making sure that nothing ever gets done, that no information is available, and that no invention or innovation ever gets approved.

Most of what little good-natured comedy there is in the book comes from two characters: Flora Casby Finching, the hero's ex-girlfriend, still trying to act as bubbleheaded at forty as she did twenty years earlier; she speaks entirely in long unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness monologues. (Flora turns out to be one of the kindest characters in the book, and more self-aware than she seems.) The other most memorable comic character in the book is the aunt of Flora's late husband, Mr. Finching; referred to only as "Mr. F's Aunt," she is an old woman boiling over with unexplained rage, who spends her brief appearances making strange, non-sequitur comments directed mostly at the hero, Arthur Clennam, and frightening him out of his wits. Some of her best lines, all said in response to nothing and no one, but usually while looking at Arthur:

"When we lived at Henley, Barnes's gander was stole by tinkers."

"The Monument near London Bridge was put up arter the Great Fire of London; and the Great Fire of London was not the fire in which your uncle George's workshops was burned down."

"There's mile-stones on the Dover road!"

"You can't make a head and brains out of a brass knob with nothing in it. You couldn't do it when your Uncle George was living; much less when he's dead."

"He has a proud stomach, this chap. Give him a meal of chaff!"

And her last line in the book:

"Bring him for'ard, and I'll chuck him out o' winder!"

If I ever add a tag-line to this site, it will definitely be "When we lived at Henley, Barnes's gander was stole by tinkers."

Pip Pumphandle's Deep Thoughts

I have long been willing to admit that I love "Animaniacs," and I haven't posted anything about that show in a while. This is unacceptable, since posting about "Animaniacs" really annoys animation purists (especially John Kricfalusi fans), and I can't pass up a chance to do that. So....

One of the best cartoons "Animaniacs" ever did, in its first season (nearly all the best cartoons from that show were from its first 65-episode season), was one called "Chairman of the Bored." Simple premise: Yakko, Wakko and Dot meet an incredibly boring man at a party who won't stop talking to them, and follows them wherever they go. But it's a terrific cartoon that does a fine job of portraying this nonstop talker without ever becoming static or talky itself.

What really made the difference in the cartoon, though, was the monologue itself. If you actually listen to it in between the gags and the characters' desperate attempts to avoid hearing it, it's actually a somewhat coherent, if rambling, story. Here it is, as delivered by Ben Stein (the Ted Nugent of cartoon voice actors: an insane man with a cool voice) as Francis Pumphandle -- "but everybody calls me Pip."

Cheese balls are one of my all-time favorite foods. I always seem to meet the most interesting people when I'm around them, too. In fact, cheese balls bring to mind the time I met Bob Barker, star of the most popular morning game show. He's an emcee, a host, and a celebrity all rolled into one. Anyway, eight months ago -- it was Tuesday the 17th, I believe -- or it might have been the 18th ... no, no, it was definitely the 17th, because it was precisely one week after my aunt Lucretia's birthday, which is the 10th. Aunt Lucretia's quite a woman. Loves to cook. She prepares a fabulous war shu a. That's a Chinese duck dish. I love Chinese food. I once went to a party where they served Chinese food and cheese balls. Now that was a Catch-22 situation. Catch-22 was a movie, you know. It was long, very long. They say the book was better, but it was a novel and I never finish reading those things. Of course, a lot of people don't read much nowadays. They watch television. I caught a program on PBS last night. A very good show on chimpanzees in the media. They had a clip of J. Fred Muggs, the chimp from the TODAY show. But it was Fred's chimpanzee girlfriend that had me stumped. I couldn't remember her name, so I looked it up. Her name was Phoebe B. Beebe. Anyway, as I was saying, eight months ago, Tuesday the 17th, I went downtown on a nice, relaxing stroll. I love to relax. In fact, relaxing is a pastime of mine. Some people play golf. Others like tennis, horseshoes, bridge, canasta, and other such fancy hobbies. Now, another hobby enjoyed by many is knitting. My grandmother was a great knitter. Knitted this sweater I'm wearing. It's red, which is not my favorite color. I prefer mauve or mustard yellow. Now, don't get me wrong: red is okay for ties and suspenders, but with sweaters I prefer more neutral colors. But when I'm relaxing, I don't care what I wear: long pants, Bermuda shorts, T-shirts, or formal attire. You name it, anything goes. Now, on the 17th, during my relaxing stroll, I recall wearing my herringbone jacket, my Laughlin, Nevada, souvenir tie, and my charcoal gray slacks. Or was it the navy slacks? Oh, I suppose it doesn't really matter. What matters is comfort. You know, I love comfort. It goes along with that pastime of mine, relaxing. Now, for me, there is nothing more relaxing than a nice leisurely stroll, like the one I took eight months ago on the 17th. It was a bright, sunny day, which of course is the optimum condition for relaxed strolling. And as I walked along, I found myself humming a haunting melody. I kept humming and humming and humming and humming. I couldn't get the tune out of my head. I racked my brains to come up with the title, but to no avail. You see, I'm not terribly musical. And yet, I'd always wanted to play an instrument and be like my musical hero, Leo Sayer. But who can compete with Leo? I think I was just scared that I'd fail. Well, I decided right then and there to go buy a musical instrument. So on the particular Tuesday the 17th to which I was referring, I went down to the Sixth Street Music Emporium to buy a new tambourine, a terribly soothing instrument, contrary to popular opinion. And as I was strolling along, I detected a wonderful scent in the morning air. "What could it be?" I asked myself. So I went toward that marvelous scent, distracted by its aroma from my musical mission. The odor was a mix of orchid flowers and bologna, which of course is one of the world's most under-appreciated luncheon meats. That and pimento loaf. I love a good pimento loaf and mayo sandwich -- the more pimentos, the better. Why, just the mention of pimentos makes my taste buds stand up and say, "Howdy." Now there's an interesting word: "Howdy." Is it from "How are you" or maybe "How you doing"? "Howdy"'s one of those strange words that really has no origin. I like saying "How do" more than "Howdy" -- more formal, I think. Not too flowery. But the flowery aroma of that particular morning carried me on my fragrant quest. Now, the smell was actually less bologna and more orchid -- the beautiful flower found on the island state of Hawaii. Of course, I wasn't in Hawaii, so I needed to search out the location of the nearest orchid. So, I visited every florist shop in town. Well, to make a long story short, not a single flower shop in town had any orchids in stock, which seemed mighty curious to me. Now, as we all know, curiosity killed the cat, but since I'm not a feline, I wasn't too worried. Felines are funny creatures, don't you think? I had a cat once. It used its claws to tear my living room couch to shreds. It was a comfy couch, too. Had a sleep-away bed in it with a foam rubber mattress. Now, I bought the couch and the mattress at Levine's Department Store on Third Avenue, the very same afternoon of that relaxing stroll aforementioned. I also bought myself a lovely tambourine on that same shopping expedition. Anyway, I didn't want to pay extra for the delivery of the couch, so I decided to carry the couch home myself. It was quite cumbersome. And getting it through the store's revolving doors was a bit of a challenge. And just as I emerged onto the street, by accident I bumped into a well-dressed man with an orchid in his lapel. It was Bob Barker, and he was eating a bologna and cheese balls sandwich. Well, it's been nice chatting with you.

Here Am I, Your Special Three Notes

The song "The Jitterbug", cut from The Wizard of Oz, is fairly well-known for a cut song whose original footage is lost; the audio of the song is included on the DVD along with home-movie footage of the filming, and it turns up in the stage version of the movie.

The thing I like about the song is that the first three notes of the refrain are the same as the first three notes of a song that would become a big hit ten years later: "Bali Ha'i" from South Pacific. Sing the first three notes of "The Jitterbug": it's the big three-note motif that runs through not only that one song in South Pacific, but the overture as well.

But to find the real origins of that three-note motif, you have to go back even before The Wizard of Oz, to the movie The Bride of Frankenstein, where Franz Waxman's music for the creation of the female monster is based around, yes, that same three-note motif: Da-da-DA... Ba-li-HA'I...

I'm not really sure why a somewhat exotic-sounding motif seems to be almost as ubiquitous as "How Dry I Am," and to have been used by three distinguished composers (Waxman, Arlen, Rodgers). But there we are.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Tom and Jerry and Family Entertainment

Animation historian Jerry Beck has this explanation for the inclusion of the three redubbed cartoons (see below) on the Tom and Jerry DVD set. I am posting this with his permission. This is all common knowledge anyway (it's long been known that except for the Looney Tunes Golden Collection sets, WB's animation releases fall under the "family entertainment" division). This just organizes the already-publicly-available information:

George Feltenstein and I feel as badly about this all the fans. We tried our best. The problem (and excuse me if I've explained this before) is that all cartoons at Warner Bros. fall under the "family entertainment" part of the Home Video department. George Feltenstein - the Senior VP who oversees the incredible boxed sets and library product (THIN MAN, KING KONG, WIZARD OF OZ, SUPERMAN, etc.) - has virtually no control over this material. The one piece he's fought for (and won)is the LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION. The LOONEY TUNES SPOTLIGHT collections that came out in years past were the "family unit" productions. The difference between the "Spotlight" collections and the "Golden" collections is obvious.

George is fighting to release (under his guidence) a TEX AVERY complete collection - and if it ever gets cleared, a POPEYE collection. The TOM & JERRY collections are compiled, packaged and marketed by the family department. George and I are "consulted" but we have no control over what they do, or what master material they use. George fought for the re-mastered CinemaScope cartoons on the set - in particular because of the new screen ratio of HDTV, he wanted to make sure those films would read correctly.

George and I reviewed a check disc several weeks ago and were horrified by several "re-dubbed" cartoons that made their way to the set. George ordered them to make the changes - and they did, except for the three remaining problem films. Again, we have little control. There is no one who knows the product reviewing these in advance. We were lucky to catch what we did.

Have you noticed the first six cartoons on disc one look better than the prints on the rest of the set (not counting the remastered CinemaScope titles)? That's because we urged the powers-that-be to restore all the cartoons from the best available master material in the vaults. They did it only for the first six. I have no idea why they didn't do all of them - other than budgetary reasons.

The whole TOM & JERRY thing saddens us too. Personally I see the glass half full here - and am happy to have what we do. George is hoping to get control of the classic cartoons - when he does, we will probably compile a complete set with all titles, complete & uncut.

I hope you are looking forward to LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION vol. 3. A lot of effort goes into these - and #3 is as good - or better - than the first two. These (along with Disney's Treasures) are an example of what can be done with the right people in the right places.

Thanks to Mr. Beck for clarifying the situation. And yes, the difference between the few cartoons that were specially remastered for this set, and the ones that use old DVD masters, is very noticeable. Some of the early cartoons, like "Puss Gets the Boot" and "Fraidy Cat," look mind-blowingly good, which only makes it all the more sad that they didn't do this for all the cartoons.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Tom & Jerry & Quality Control

Okay, I've gotten a look at the second "Tom and Jerry" DVD collection, and I have good news and bad news.

Good news: The original voice of Mammy Two-Shoes appears to be intact in most of the cartoons. And the blackface gags in "Mouse in Manhattan" and "Safety Second," often cut on TV, are intact here.

Bad news: There are three cartoons where Mammy's voice appears to be in a different acoustic from the rest of the cartoon, and she sounds like a voice actor imitating the original. These are "The Lonesome Mouse" on disc 1, and "Saturday Evening Puss" and "Nit-Witty Kitty," both on disc 2. Apparently these "redubbed" prints are from a British Tom and Jerry DVD -- Tom and Jerry are huge in England -- where Mammy's voice was redubbed to give her a marginally less exaggerated accent.

So what have we got? We've got a set where WB has not chickened out, and has included the original Mammy Two-Shoes and the blackface gags. But we've also got a set where three incorrect versions appear to have been included, not out of cowardice, but out of poor quality control. (I'm assuming nobody in the production process noticed that the voice in those cartoons wasn't the original; that's the only explanation I have for why Mammy would be redubbed there but not anywhere else on the set.) Warner Brothers gets a lot of good press for its DVDs, and much of it is deserved -- but they have some unnerving and frustrating quality control errors sometimes. This appears to be one of them.

As to whether the set is buying in this form: your call. I would say yes, if you like Tom and Jerry, because of the chance to see those other cartoons uncut. But mistakes like this just shouldn't be made on a major release.

Also: I'll bet you anything that WB gets more complaints over those three re-dubbed cartoons than they do over Mammy's real voice in all the other cartoons.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

And Speaking of the Victorians....

After wallowing in the pure pleasure that is the new Minkowski recording of Offenbach's La Grande Duchesse De Gerolstein -- an operetta about which I have previously gushed, and which has had a substantial chunk of previously-unrecorded music restored in this recording -- I decided to do what I always do with anything I enjoy, and Google it until I know so much trivia about it that I don't enjoy it anymore. Anyway:

What I found was an English version of "La Grande Duchesse," which was performed at the Savoy theatre in 1897 (this was after Gilbert and Sullivan had broken up and they had to find non-G&S works to play there). The translation of the lyrics, written for this production by the prolific Adrian Ross, is pretty good at finding English equivalents for the French phrases; "Ah! Que J'aime Les Militaires" (Ah! How I love soldiers) becomes "Soldiers! I'm simply mad about 'em," for example. But there are a couple of big changes that pretty much sum up the difference between French and English tastes in the latter part of the 19th century.

In the original "La Grande Duchesse De Gerolstein," one of the best numbers in the the third act is a nocturne sung to a just-married couple as they prepare for their wedding night. Meilhac and Halevy's lyrics are concise but clear:

Bonne nuit, monsieur, bonne nuit!
Ce simple mot doit vous suffire.
Vous comprenez ce qu'on veut dire,
Heureux coquin, lorsqu'on vous dit:
Bonne nuit!

[Goodnight, sir, goodnight!
This simple word will have to be enough.
You know what we mean, you fortunate rascal,
When we say: goodnight!]

Bonsoir, madame, bonne nuit!
Ce compliment vous fait sourire,
Et vous savez ce qu'on veut dire,
Chère madame, quand on vous dit:
Bonne nuit!

[Good evening, madame, goodnight!
This compliment makes you smile,
And you know what we mean when we say to you:

So what happens to this scene from an 1867 French operetta in the 1897 English version? The number is moved to before the couple gets married, and instead of wishing them goodnight, it becomes a song bidding the couple to come and get married:

Come to church, noble lord, come to church!
And when the ceremony's o'er,
You will not care to rove any more,
Or leave your lady in the lurch.
Come to church!

You, my lady, we bid you to church!
And when the ceremony's o'er,
You will live happy evermore,
Two little love-birds on one perch.
Come to church!

"Bonne nuit" becomes "Come to church." I know Queen Victoria hadn't long to go at that point, but you just cannot get more Victorian than that.

Monday, October 17, 2005


I have very little to say about the whole James Bond/Daniel Craig thing. Given that the producers are going to keep making the same movies over and over, which means that Casino Royale will never be allowed to be as mean and cruel as the Fleming original, one Bond will do as well as another.

It's not like George Lazenby, who actually had to play the world's most popular movie character; Craig is being called upon to play a character who is reasonably popular but not particularly important, in movies that are reasonably popular but no more than that. The Bond movies are basically the big-budget equivalent of an endlessly-running TV adventure show, and replacing Bond doesn't mean much more than replacing Dr. Who.

The only interesting question about the new Casino Royale, apart from how much Fleming it will have in it (not much, I'm willing to bet), is what kind of an approach it will use to acclimate the audience to the new Bond.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which had the most riding on the new 007, tried several tricks to get the audience used to the new guy: starting the movie with M, Moneypenny and Q (so we know immediately that it's a real Bond movie), directly acknowledging the replacement ("This never happened to the other fella"), and including visual and audio clips from previous Bond movies. As insurance against an inexperienced Bond, they cast, for the first time, a leading lady who was more famous than the guy playing Bond (and they wanted someone even more famous than the actress they got: Diana Rigg was hired after Brigitte Bardot turned them down). And for the first time since From Russia With Love, they filmed the novel with few major changes; this was, I suppose, mostly because director Peter Hunt wanted to get back to the character's roots, but it also ensured that the new Bond would always be in-character, because most of his material would be pre-tested, authentic James Bond material. (Hunt, by the way, was probably the main reason -- apart from Connery -- for the success of the '60s Bond movies; he edited all the films prior to Secret Service, and he not only revolutionized the way action movies were edited, but he brought some life to the work of some directors who didn't do much of interest outside of Bond. He also pretty much rescued the same team's The Ipcress File.)

Live and Let Die took a different approach: Moore was a familiar figure, so he didn't need to be introduced; the problem was to keep viewers from associating him with The Saint. The solution: show him as little as possible. He doesn't appear at all in the teaser, and much of the movie is taken up by long, long chase sequences where Moore's stunt double appears more than he does. It was as though the producers didn't want to keep Bond onscreen too long for fear that we'd realize he was really Simon Templar.

I would comment on how Bond is introduced in the Dalton and Brosnan debuts, but I don't remember them well enough.

The Most Poorly Animated Man In The Universe!

In my previous post about toy-based cartoons of the '80s, I referenced the site a few times, including their dissection of "Rubik, the Amazing Cube." Their archives have some more good, snarky stuff about '80s cartoons, including The He-Man Drinking Game, an examination of the lameosity of the Masters of the Universe pilot, a review of the surprisingly dark weirdness of "My Little Pony,", and a long review of one of the most drab toy-based cartoons ever, "Teddy Ruxpin" (remember the talking teddy bear that some toy company thought was going to be in every kid's home? they made a cartoon out of him).

Cinderella Mannerisms

The DVD of Disney's "Cinderella" just came out and is apparently selling well. (One of the reasons why Disney feels free to abandon hand-drawn animation is that they know their "classic" hand-drawn films will sell just as well on DVD as, if not better than, new product.) I haven't picked it up yet, myself, and I'm not sure if I'm going to.

The thing about "Cinderella" is that it really is the ancestor of the idea that Disney prettified and cutesified the classic children's stories -- it's the beginning of the kinder, gentler Disney. His "big five" animated features, the ones made between 1937 and 1942, don't fit this stereotype at all. If you compare Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to the Grimm original, it's actually a very faithful adaptation, with most of the scary stuff left in and even some new scares added (like the elaborate, terrifying transformation scene of the Queen). There are changes, but they're all changes made primarily for dramatic effect, to make the story work better: killing off the Queen before Snow White is revived, not after, so the film can end with her coming back to life; having Snow White fall for the Queen's disguise only once instead of three times; setting up an earlier meeting between Snow White and the Prince. All good solid dramatically-relevant changes.

With "Cinderella," Disney's first full-fledged animated feature since "Bambi," Disney and his team were working from a far less dark and disturbing source than the Grimms' "Snow White." The Perrault version of "Cinderella," which is the basis for most adaptations including Disney's, is one of the more palatable versions of a children's fairy tale; whereas the Grimms loaded up their tales (including their version of "Cinderella") with death and mutilation, Perrault was more into whimsy and flights of fancy. A straight adaptation of Perrault's "Cinderella" will of necessity be nicer and cuter than an adaptation of the Grimms' "Snow White." But that wasn't enough for Disney: he added all kinds of cute sidekick characters, funny talking animals who perform side routines vaguely influenced by the then-most-acclaimed cartoon characters, Tom and Jerry, and generally a bunch of stuff designed to pad out the story and send it off in irrelevant directions, rather than (as with "Snow White") to tighten the story and make it more dramatically effective.

So "Cinderella" is the origin of all the things we associate with Disney at his worst: taking a children's classic, draining out the interesting stuff, and replacing it with cute filler. His next two animated features, "Alice in Wonderland" and "Peter Pan," did the same.

Now, to be fair, Perrault's "Cinderella" is a very short tale and not a lot happens in it; to bring it up to feature length, something had to be added. Disney probably figured that the thing to add was what worked in "Snow White": funny business with supporting characters, to distract attention from the inevitable blandness of the heroine and the equally inevitable boringness of the Prince. (Rule # 1 of animated movies: nobody wants to animate the Prince.) Still, what he wound up with was something very non-threatening in a way that his best work was not. The mean, nasty Disney of the big five ("Snow White," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Dumbo," "Bambi") was pretty much gone, though he arguably made a secret comeback in live-action with the enjoyably creepy "Darby O'Gill and the Little People."

Rocket Man

Charles Rocket committed suicide last week. He was one of the members of the "Saturday Night Live" cast of 1980-1, the season when the entire original team had left and producer Jean Doumanian wasn't up to the task of revamping the show. Rocket, who was the key member of the cast that season, is best known for having been fired for saying "fuck" on the air (this being, apparently, the time before tape delays), but he was one of the better things about the show in that dismal year.

His best-known TV guest appearance was probably as Bruce Willis's brother in the second season premiere of "Moonlighting," competing with Willis for the attentions of Cybill Shepherd. He was a failed con man who started the episode by trying to plug the ultimate miracle product, "Rich 'n Thin," by doing the first and (deliberately) worst rap number by a white guy in prime-time TV.

This article is the best I've seen on Rocket's career. RIP.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Toys 'R Them

Well, I didn't get very far through the "He-Man" DVDs -- childhood nostalgia can take one only so far through these Filmation cartoons where every character sounds the same and the identical walk cycle is re-used approximately every three miliseconds. I can definitely see why I liked it as a kid, and why kids would still like it: It's full of magic. There's a magical occurrence almost every minute, many characters have magical powers of some sort, and the episodes revolve around magical McGuffins (the pilot episode is called "The Diamond Ray of Disappearance"). Kids love magic. I don't know why networks don't remember that when they make children's programming: a story full of magic will attract more kids than some drab little story about who gets to go to the school dance.

While I didn't get nostalgic for "He-Man," I did kind of get nostalgic for the great demon of the '80s: cartoons based on toys. You may recall that from the late '60s up until the early '80s, there were FCC standards in place effectively preventing commercial products from being part of the actual content of a show; these standards were relaxed in the early '80s, allowing companies like Mattel to finance television shows based on their toys. "He-Man" was the first and crassest of the bunch; Paul Dini, a writer for "He-Man," stated bluntly: “He-Man was a half-hour toy commercial. I hate Peggy Charren but she was right. Selling the product was the sole reason for doing that show.”

Certainly that was Mattel’s sole reason for doing the show. The story goes that they had originally intended to do a Conan the Barbarian line of dolls, until they realized that it wouldn’t be appropriate for children, and introduced a more kid-friendly alternative to Conan: a blond, muscle-bound warrior on a rather retrograde planet, who wore a minimum of clothing and carried a large plastic sword on his back. The concept lent itself fairly well to television – you had a hero, a picturesque setting, lots of villains to fight, and a concept that sounded violent without actually being such. So it was a good deal for Mattel, which got advertising for a rather bizarre toy line, and Filmation, which got a show.

"He-Man" inspired other toy companies to get into the act. I think the most bizarre of the many, many Advertoons of the '80s was "Rubik, the Amazing Cube". My heart goes out to the poor writers and animators who were told to come up with a cartoon starring a cube. Solution: if you put Rubik together in the Rubically-approved, uni-colored way, he gets magical powers and talks with a funny-accented voice: "Rubik feel tired now!"

But the thing is, doing a cartoon based on a toy is not, in itself, a bad idea. Children's action figures, are designed with stories in mind: who are the characters, how would they interact, what kind of situations could you imagine them getting involved in. A good action figure line is one that kids can make up lots of stories for and with lots of good possibilities for character relationships; it's not such a stretch to say that TV writers could see these characters and also come up with stories for them. Put aside the question of whether it brainwashes kids into wanting to buy the toys -- as I recall, the "hard sell" of the commercials made me want to buy my parents for toys much more than the extremely soft sell of the toy-based cartoons -- and it doesn't seem like such a bad source of material, if the material does indeed lend itself to a series.

The best of the toy-based cartoons were two shows based on Hasbro toys aimed at girls: "My Little Pony" and "Jem." The worst was probably "The Popples", from a line of plush toys that could be folded up into a ball. The show sort of exemplified the problem that arises when you have a line of toys that doesn't lend itself to storytelling, and when the toys are so bland that the stories you can tell (without hurting the toy's image and pissing off the toy company) are limited. The Popples existed for only two possible purposes: to hug (in doll form) and to toss around (in ball form). They were, in short, the friendliest dolls on the market, a refuge from all those violent action dolls. And that meant that the show had to be equally friendly and cute.

So The Popples had one plot and one plot only: the Popples make a mess, and then they clean it up. But, the Popples being “friendly” toys, they couldn’t even make a mess in an aggressive way; they just had to accidentally spill clothes or bowling pins or something. And then, just before the adults came back, the Popples would produce a bunch of whimsical tools and clean everything up just in time – much like the Cat in the Hat, except without the elements of menace and malice that make the Cat entertaining. But what else could the writers do? The Popples weren’t allowed to face off against villains, or battle threats, or anything that might have meant doing something aggressive; they had to be the most non-threatening characters in the world, because the toys were supposed to be the most non-threatening toys in the world. So the writers were left looking for a way to produce conflict without anyone to conflict with, and without anyone behaving badly. With those limitations, it’s something of a miracle that they even came up with one plot.

But something that happened just as often, if not more, was that the toy would set a standard that the TV show couldn’t live up to. Quite a lot of imagination and creativity can go into the making of a toy, after all. And sometimes that imagination and creativity wasn’t carried over into the TV version.

And that brings us back to "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe." Because of their origin as “Conan the Barbarian” knockoffs, Mattel’s He-Man figures were based on an unusually dark concept for kids’ toys: heroes battling truly ugly, scary characters for control of a big, terrifying-looking edifice called Castle Grayskull. The commercials for the toys portrayed He-Man’s world as a scary place where kids could live out their violent and scary fantasies: battles, swordfights, mysterious castles with trapdoors, horror-movie villains with names like “Skeletor” and “Beast Man.” It was like a slightly less Teutonic Conan fighting the cast of a Universal horror movie, and it was pretty intense.

The cartoon series retained the characters and the Castle Grayskull set; it had to, because that was what Mattel was trying to plug. But there would have been no way to retain the darkness of the toys’ concept, not under the restrictions of network Standards and Practices. So while the characters still had the basic characteristics that the action figures were supposed to have – He-Man was strong, Skeletor was evil, Beast Man was brutish and dumb – there was little of the darkness or horror that boys conjured up when they played with those figures. The TV He-Man wasn’t a fighter in a barbaric world populated by scary villains; he lived in an orderly society, Eternia, with a nice King and Queen ruling over a bunch of similarly nice people. And even Castle Grayskull became a friendlier place, as it became the home of the show’s representative of “good magic,” the Sorceress. Instead of battling He-Man for control of Grayskull as they did in the toy commercials, Skeletor and his other bad guys lived in a separate society, Snake Mountain, and tried without success to get into Grayskull, just as other bad guys schemed to get into the Smurf Village.

So again, we had the reassuring message of most Saturday morning cartoons: bad people don’t walk among us; they’re completely separate from the place where the good guys live, and they can never get into the good guys’ hangouts. That’s an important and reassuring theme of a lot of kids’ entertainment – if the good guys on the show don’t need to worry about the villains invading their homes, then we don’t need to worry about some bad guy coming into our homes, maybe even at night while we’re sleeping. But that wasn’t what the toys were about; the toys were based on the theme that the bad guys are out there and you have to fight them everywhere, even at home. A cartoon series that had that theme would have been interesting. But it would have been too dark to get on the air.

Noël Coward's Annotated Guide to the Victorian Era

Noël Coward's After the Ball, a 1954 musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, was his last operetta, and not one of his more successful ones. As is described here, Coward miscalculated in writing music for Mary Ellis, playing Mrs. Erlynne, that she could no longer handle, with the result that much of the best material had to be cut during the tryouts. Much of the music that remained was irrelevant comedy material that sounded like a refuge from Coward's cabaret act.

But one irrelevant comedy number, I think, should have had a life outside of the show: the opening chorus, "Oh, What a Century It's Been." In this song, the chorus basically fills us in on the entire political and cultural history of England in the 19th Century and in particular the Victorian period. Some enterprising English teacher should track it down and use it as a class teaching tool.

Here are some excerpts from the song (yes, only excerpts -- Coward habitually over-wrote his songs), annotated with the help of Wikipedia and Google.

We've seen the birth of Queen Victoria
And the death of William Pitt,
And then we won the battle of Waterloo.
Which gave our island story a
Certain lift, you must admit --
And if you don't, we do.
We've seen the National Gallery open
And the Houses of Parliament burn,
The introduction of income tax,
Which gave us quite a turn,
We've seen the late Prince Consort
On a magic-lantern screen.
What a happy and glorious,
Most meritorious
Century it has been.

We've read The Daisy Chain and Romany Rye
And passionately clung
To Walter Scott and Emily Brontë too.
We're rather cross that so many buy
The works of Charlotte Yonge,
But nonetheless they do.
We simply worship Christina Rossetti
And we're mad about Tennyson's "Maud,"
We love to be up an apple tree
With Mrs. Humphrey Ward.
From William Blake to Kipling,
With the Brownings in between,
What an uneconomical,
Tragical, comical
Century this has been.

We've praised the works of Frederick Leighton and hurled
Abuse at Holman Hunt,
For he invites Pre-Raphaelites to tea.
And if they hung "The Light of the World"
Completely back to front,
We shouldn't even see.
We only care to go shootin' and huntin'
On chestnuts and fillies and roans,
We're sick to death of Watts-Dunton
And we'd like to burn Burne-Jones,
We much prefer the pictures
In a weekly magazine.
What a Royal Academy,
Too Alma-Tademy,
Practical, mystical,
Highly pictorial,
Albert Memorial
Century this has been.

We've made the most exhaustive scrutiny
Of the cause of England's might,
Convinced that ev'ry Britisher's born to boss.
We thought the Indian Mutiny
Was extremely impolite --
It made us feel quite cross.
We then embarked on a war in Crimea with egos a little enlarged,
And cheered the charge of the Light Brigade
No matter why they charged.
And then those swine in China
Made a most disgusting scene.
What a quite irresistible,
Oliver Twist-ible,
Woman in White-able,
Wuthering Height-able,
Mill on the Floss-ible,
Frankly impossible
Century this has been.

The "Charlie Brown Kicks off Lucy's Head" Strip Remains Uncollected Too

Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics, currently and possibly forever in the process of bringing out volumes in the "Complete Peanuts" series, offers some examples of strips that were never collected in book form, and speculates about why Schulz never collected them.

(Via Mark Evanier.)

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Selling TV DVDs Out of Season

Video Business has an article (free registration required) on the most frustrating thing about the TV-on-DVD boom: that some shows get one or two seasons and then no more:

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has yet to roll out a second set of Malcolm in the Middle after launching the first-season set in 2002. After much hoopla over the mid-2004 launch of Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy, Paramount Home Entertainment has yet to bow subsequent seasons.

High costs and low sales seem to be the culprit in most such cases, as music clearances on TV titles can get prohibitively pricey with no guarantees of big sales....

Gord Lacey, creator of, said some consumers hold off buying first-season TV DVD sets until further sets are announced.

“If season one doesn’t sell, the studio won’t release season two, but the problem with fans is that they’ll say they won’t buy something until a studio seems committed,” Lacey said.

Gord Lacey's colleague David Lambert has further comments at TV Shows on DVD.

Friday, October 14, 2005

I Have the Power!!!

Because I am a freak with a desperate need to re-live my childhood, I actually rented: "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: Volume 1."

The one thing I've learned is this: you know you've gone from innocent child to cynical adult the day this line from the opening titles stops sounding cool and starts sounding hysterically funny:

"Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword."

It's not that kids aren't dirty-minded -- I learned words from my classmates that some of their parents wouldn't have dreamed of using -- but kids don't look for dirty double meanings in everything. Adults do.

Other bit I noticed: Every episode of "He-Man" ended with a character addressing the audience with some public service announcement, so the producers of the show could prove that they were really setting a good example for kids. I skipped to one of the public service announcements, and it had He-Man lecturing kids on the importance of safety. He finished: "So whether you're riding a bike or driving a car, always put safety first."

Then he rides off on the back of a giant green cat.

That had to be an intentional joke.

The Death Card!

Writing about Val Lewton's movies, Gary Giddins has some interesting comments on Lewton's third horror movie and his last with director Jacques Tourneur, The Leopard Man:

A second look is especially warranted by Tourneur's "The Leopard Man," which has turned out to be Lewton's most influential film, though both men dismissed it at the time as cheaply violent... [It] keeps violence off-screen but cruelly focuses on the plight of its victims. In effect, it is the first slasher film, though we never see any slashing. Yet the murders are more disturbing than those in "Halloween" and its imitators, in which death is reserved for the sexually aggressive: "The Leopard Man" dispatches two virgins and one (apparent) hooker, and not when we expect. Twice we follow the wonderfully haughty dancer Clo-Clo (played by Margo), whose castanets augment Roy Webb's superb score, on menacing walks. Each time she escapes while we are sidelined to young women she passes in the street. No one who has seen the puddle beneath the door can forget it.

The Leopard Man is definitely the closest Lewton ever came to making what would later be called an exploitation movie. Most of his films deal more with the threat of violence than actual violence; one murder per movie is usually enough. The Leopard Man has four murders, and while only one character actually dies onscreen, the first three deaths -- all women -- are deliberately made as horrific as possible, with bloodcurdling screams and (in the first, most famous death) plenty of blood.

Each of these deaths is the culmination of a long vignette about the woman about to be killed, establishing who she is, what she does, and what ultimately leads her out into the night to be killed. The first character, a poor teenaged girl, is sent out by her mother to buy something for dinner; we follow her to the store and back, worrying every step of the way that something terrible is going to happen to her. Lewton and Tourneur throw in a repeat of their famous "bus shot" from Cat People (here involving a speeding train whose noise not only scares us but helps lead indirectly to the girl's death) to make us feel like there's a chance that it was only a fake-out, that she's not really going to get killed. And then she not only gets killed, but dies for the most horrible reason: because her mother wouldn't let her back in the house without the groceries. The next death involves a rich teenage girl who goes to a cemetary to meet her lover: as in most slasher movies, having a boyfriend leads to death. And the last death occurs because Clo-Clo loses money in the street and rushes out of her house to get it; she then puts on lipstick thinking she sees a lover, only to find that it's the killer.

The overall impression given by the movie is that the main preoccupations of everyday life -- sex, money, and food -- all lead to death. And the main point of the movie seems to be to show us obviously doomed characters and wait for them to die. These are all things that would be taken up by the violent shockers of the Psycho and Halloween type, the type of movie that, ironically, is considered the antithesis of the Lewton style.

I wouldn't say The Leopard Man is one of the better Lewtons; because so much time is spent on the three big murder set-pieces, the film is unbalanced, never creating a compelling reason to follow the two main characters (who are basically responsible for the first death and, until about halfway into the picture, don't seem to really care). And because it tries, not very successfully, to conceal the identity of the killer until the climax, we don't get much exploration of the killer or of the nature of evil, which are the main things that hold a good slasher movie together. Still, as Giddins says, it has probably influenced more films than any of the more famous Lewtons.

Tourneur himself thought this the weakest of his three films with Lewton: "It was too exotic, it was neither fish nor fowl: a series of vignettes, and it didn't hold together." He also expressed regret that RKO never teamed him and Lewton again after that: "We had the perfect collaboration -- Val was the dreamer, the idealist, and I was the materialist, the realist. We should have gone right on doing bigger, more ambitious pictures and not just horror movies." Certainly Lewton made some terrific movies with other directors, and Tourneur made history with Out of the Past and the Lewton-esque Night of the Demon. But what they might have done together on an "A" picture, we can only dream.

Incidentally, the cinematographer of the film, Robert De Grasse, ended his career as the director of photography for The Dick Van Dyke Show.