Saturday, December 31, 2005

Grudge Matches I'd Like To See: Abbott and Hardy vs. Laurel and Costello

Two classic comedy teams re-group into two fighting teams. On this side, we have the two annoyed angry guys: Bud Abbott and Oliver Hardy. On the other side, we have the two whiny whimpering guys: Lou Costello and Stan Laurel.

Who wins this battle of the comedy-team components?

Library Product

The New York Times's Dave Kehr writes about how various entertainment companies have handled (or mishandled) their classic titles on DVD "The Best Vault Raiders of 2005".

Friday, December 30, 2005

Lost Starlet of the '60s: Stella Stevens

In my posts a few months back on "Lost Starlets of the '60s" -- beautiful, talented actresses who should have been stars, but were unfortunate enough to work in '60s Hollywood when there were no good parts for women -- I unaccountably forgot to mention Stella Stevens. Except for the extra notoriety she gained from posing for Playboy, her story is much like the others': she was gorgeous, she was lovable, she knew what to do in front of a camera, she showed genuine talent as a comedienne and real chemistry with her co-stars (and when you can have chemistry with Jerry Lewis, you must be good), but she never got the star parts she deserved, and mostly served as decoration in guy-centric movies. As with all the other Lost Starlets, there's no reason why she couldn't have carried a movie as the central character, and in another era, I'm sure she would have; like Paula Prentiss, she was a potential comedy superstar in a decade that had no use for female comedy stars.

An in-depth interview with Stevens was conducted a couple of years ago by Bright Lights Film Journal. She also participated in the special features for the upcoming DVD of one of her best movies, with one of her best roles: Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue, being released as part of the Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Scoring Sessions

After watching some "Batman: The Animated Series" DVDs, I hunted around the internet and found this article on the music for "Batman" and the other WB animated superhero shows: "Knowing the Score."

One of the biggest factors, perhaps the biggest factor in the excellence of the '90s Warner Brothers TV cartoons was the use of a full orchestra and new, original scores for every episode. This was previously unheard-of in TV cartoons, which almost always used stock library music, or a catalogue of music cues that were recycled from episode to episode, or electronically-generated music. But when WB did "Tiny Toon Adventures" in 1990, Steven Spielberg and supervising composer Bruce Broughton wanted to get a Carl Stalling sound for the show, so the decision was made to create new scores for every episode, give a composer two weeks to write a score for a twenty-minute episode (not a lot of time to write 20 minutes of music, but more time than TV composers generally get), and record the music with an orchestra of about 27 players. Don Davis, one of the composers on the show, described the scoring process in this interview.

Fortunately, when WB followed up "Tiny Toons" by putting "Batman: The Animated Series" into production, they continued to use the same full-orchestra format, though an action-adventure show required a different kind of score: not every scene had music (whereas Stalling-style scores hit every beat of every scene), and the music wasn't supposed to sound like cartoony music. The choice for supervising composer of "Batman" was Shirley Walker, who was the orchestra conductor on the Batman movie; other regular contributors included Michael McCuiston, Harvey Cohen and Lolita Ritmanis. Just as the "Batman" cartoon series was more satisfying overall than Tim Burton's Batman, Walker's scores were arguably better than Danny Elfman's score for that movie (which is where the show's theme song came from). She came up with timeless-sounding, near-symphonic scores that fit in perfectly with the timeless look of the show, and created memorable leitmotifs for most of the characters; I particularly liked the demented Mad Hatter theme and the Harley Quinn theme, which could either be wacky and funny or sultry and romantic depending on the mood of the scene.

The most prolific composers on "Tiny Toons" included William Ross (now a successful feature composer) and Richard Stone, who became WB's first choice for all comedy cartoons; he was the supervising composer of "Animaniacs," "Pinky and the Brain" and "Freakazoid!" among others. Stone had an intimate knowledge of Carl Stalling's work and style, but he brought his own innovations and quirks to the music, as did the other composers in his stable: Steve Bernstein, Julie Bernstein (a husband-and-wife team) and Carl Johnson. Writing scores for these TV comedy cartoons was in many ways an even harder job than scoring theatrical cartoons. Whereas the classic WB cartoons were timed to a pre-determined beat, allowing Stalling to establish a consistent meter for every scene, the TV cartoons were more haphazardly put together, meaning that they could alternate one shot in one meter with another shot in a totally different meter. This made it tougher for the composers to write music that could mimic the action and still be recognizably musical -- yet they managed to do it, and do it fantastically well.

Sadly, Stone died from pancreatic cancer in 2001. this article had some more information about him and his approach to scoring cartoons.

As is mentioned in the first article I linked to, around 2000 the budget of WB's cartoons was cut, meaning that they could no longer use full orchestral scores. "Justice League" does the best it can with computer-generated scores, but there's just no substitute for a real orchestra, and the lack of acoustic music does give the newer cartoons a less classy, less timeless feel than the '90s stuff. That's why the '90s cartoon scores, and the composers led by Walker and Stone, are so special: for one decade, a TV cartoon studio was turning out cartoons that sounded as classy as great feature cartoons.

Non-Depressing Lyrics: "Not a Care in the World"

When I'm not in a good mood -- which, considering the current state of the world and the fact that I hold myself personally responsible for everything bad that happens in Canada and the U.S., seems to happen more than I'd like -- my favorite kind of song to listen to is not the happy-happy, cheer-up-everything's-fine song. Rather it's the kind of song that acknowledges that there are bad things in life, bad things in the world, and posits that it's possible to be happy in spite of them.

One of my favorite songs of this type is a song called "Not a Care in the World," music by Vernon Duke and lyrics by John LaTouche. It's from a failed Eddie Cantor musical, Banjo Eyes, that reportedly has a terrible script (haven't read it, myself). Duke, originally Vladimir Dukelsky, was one of the most gifted and unique composers in Broadway and pop history; perhaps because he adapted to the American popular style rather than being born into it, his melodies for songs like "Autumn In New York" and "April In Paris" always seemed richer and more complex than the typical popular song. LaTouche, about whom I've written before, was one of the great lyricists and opera librettists, a cultured and sophisticated writer who could also write a great pop lyric.

The song "Not a Care in the World" was recorded by Dawn Upshaw for her Vernon Duke CD, which I highly recommend. LaTouche's lyric for the song is a nice combination of traditional pop-song images with cultural references (Catherine the Great, Nick the Greek) and references to real-life problems juxtaposed with the statement that love makes everything okay. Note also the many internal rhymes that help speed the song along.


Rent's overdue, my sister has measles,
Hole in my shoe, my belt’s drawn tight.
My income is nil, my in-laws are weasels,
My present is dark, my future’s a fright.
But as long as you are there,
What in the world do I care?

Refrain 1

Though hope is low, I’m aglow when you smile at me,
Life is simple as A-B-C,
Not a thought in my head,
Not a care in the world.
Though skies are grey, I’m as gay as a Disney cow,
Not a wrinkle upon my brow,
Not a cent in the red,
Not a care in the world.
I view the scene like that queen of old Russia,
As Kate the Great used to state long ago:
So if I move in a groove with a giddy trot,
I’m a trottin’ because I’ve got
Not a bean in my pot,
Not a care in the world.

Refrain 2

Though I can’t jive, I revive when I see your face,
Not a limp in my merry pace,
Not a crimp in my style,
Not a care in the world.
Though I’m a wreck, I can peck if you take a chance,
Not a shine on my blue serge pants,
Not a crack in my smile,
Not a care in the world.
Why should I fret when I bet on a sure thing?
Like Nick the Greek used to say every day:
So if I’m struttin’ with nuttin’ ahead in store,
There’s a reason I said before,
I’ll repeat it once more:
Not a care in the world.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

There's Baloney In Our Slacks

Via Toonzone Forums, some news on the extras planned for the Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain DVDs. The special features will be hosted by Maurice LaMarche, the voice of The Brain (joined by Yakko/Pinky voicer Rob Paulsen on the Pinky and the Brain DVDs), and will include interviews with senior producer Tom Ruegger, writer-producer and Slappy Squirrel voice actor Sherri Stoner, writer-producer Peter Hastings, voice actors Rob Paulsen, Jess Harnell (Wakko) and Tress MacNeille (Dot), composers Steve and Julie Bernstein, and others.

Hopefully some of the animation artists will be involved in there too, though "Animaniacs" always seemed to have more of a split between the writers and animators than some of WB's other cartoon shows. "Tiny Toons" gave the storyboard artists quite a bit of leeway on adding things to the scripts; so did "Batman," whose most influential producer was an animator, Bruce Timm. By the time "Animaniacs" came around, the writers on that show may have become more protective of their scripts, and there were rumors of conflict between the writing and animating sides of the show. It didn't hurt "Animaniacs" because the scripts were so good, and because producer-director Rich Arons brought a lot of visual imagination to the episodes, but the disconnect between the writing and the visuals may have had a negative effect on some of WB's later comedy cartoons, like "Histeria!," which was basically an illustrated radio show and a not-very-attractively-illustrated radio show at that.

Incidentally, the staff of "Animaniacs" had a strange connection to the world of Walt Disney animated movies: Sherri Stoner had been the live-action reference model for Ariel in The Little Mermaid and Belle in Beauty and the Beast, and Peter Hastings had done similar duty for the Beast. This explains the cameo appearances of Belle and the Beast in various episodes; in "King Yakko," which will be on the first DVD set, they dance across the screen for no reason at all.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Why Do Wonder Woman Villains Suck, or Amazon.Bore

So everyone's wondering who will be cast as Wonder Woman in Joss Whedon's Wonder Woman movie. (If Hollywood studios had any marketing moxie left, they could make this into the greatest "casting search" story since Scarlett O'Hara, but they don't and therefore they won't.) I'm also wondering who will be the villain in the film, and when I turned my mind to that question, something occurred to me:

I can't think of a single good Wonder Woman villain.

I'm sure Wonder Woman must have had some long-running regular villains in the comics; I haven't read a lot of the comics (the ones I did read all seemed to have covers proclaiming that Wonder Woman was dead -- or is she?), so I don't know who they've used as her adversaries over the years. But I don't think there's a single Wonder Woman villain who has become part of pop-culture consciousness. The TV show never had any regular villains, unlike the "Batman" TV show, which used all kinds of recurring villains from the comics. And people I've talked to are like me: they know Wonder Woman, and Steve Trevor, and maybe Etta Candy, and that's really about it. No memorable villains.

What I find surprising about this is that I would have thought Wonder Woman would be the kind of character who'd lend herself to more, not fewer, good villains: unlike male superheroes, who aren't usually allowed to hit women, Wonder Woman can get into fights with men and women, theoretically doubling the potential for effective villains. And yet there's nothing; she doesn't even have a gallery of villains to compare to the relatively bland Superman rogues' gallery, let alone Batman or Spider-Man.

I suppose that a possible explanation for the lack of good Wonder Woman villains is that there's a lack of good ways to connect a villain to Wonder Woman. In general, a good comic-book villain has some kind of connection to or parallel with the hero, which can be summed up like this: That which creates the hero also creates the villain. Batman, who has the best villains, also has the most obvious parallel with all his adversaries: he's a human who adopts a bizarre costume and gimmick in order to fight crime, and his villains are humans who adopt bizarre costumes and gimmicks in order to commit crimes. The Joker is a guy who had a traumatic experience and reacted to it by dressing up in a crazy costume and inventing lots of gadgets; so is Batman. They just have different goals.

Superman is harder to connect to a villain and therefore has fewer good villains, but there is a winning formula for a Superman villain, which I recall Paul Dini mentioning when talking about the Superman animated series on a DVD extra: Superman is a guy who has immense power and uses it for good, and his villains are people who get a taste of power and want to use it for evil. Lex Luthor is the best Superman villain because he's obsessed with power, and the uses of power is what Superman is all about.

So with that formula in mind, what created Wonder Woman, and how could that create a successful villain? Well, she's a superpowered Amazon from an island of super-women, who comes to "man's world" to fight evil and redeem our corrupt and brutish society. The obvious parallel to that would be a villain who is also better and smarter than mortal men, but wants to destroy man's world instead of making it better. This leads to a lot of alterna-Wonder-Woman (remember Fausta, the Nazi Wonder Woman, from an episode of the TV show?) and a lot of man-hating Amazon women who want to wipe out mankind.

As I see it, the problem with that formula for a villain is that it means a Wonder Woman villain has to be as cut off from our world as Wonder Woman is -- more so, actually, because Wonder Woman is sort of trying to fit in to our world, whereas a smugly superior villain would feel no need. So instead of being a mad scientist or a gangster or someone who just wants to steal some baubles from a museum, a Wonder Woman villain just comes in, proclaims his/her superiority and evil plan, and Wonder Woman stops him/her. Not a lot of potential for the things that make a good villain, like being semi-sympathetic or funny or scary. In Batman terms they're a bit like Ra's Al Ghul -- someone wiser and more powerful than common humanity -- but you wouldn't want to see Ra's Al Ghul every week.

What kind of villain Whedon will use for his movie presumably depends on what kind of take he has on Wonder Woman; but I don't have to be Comic Book Guy to proclaim that the success of the movie will depend not only on who plays Wonder Woman, but how strong the villain is. And if it's another rogue Amazon out to destroy mankind, I won't get my hopes up for the finished picture.

Monday, December 26, 2005

And Rex Hamilton As Abraham Lincoln

Paramount tells TV Shows On DVD that they are finally, finally, finally planning a DVD release of "Police Squad!". Hopefully we'll get some Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker commentary to compensate for the long wait.

"Police Squad!" of course was spun off into the Naked Gun movies, but the show is better, for the simple reason that the show is done the way Airplane! was done: everybody plays everything straight and dead-serious, as if they're acting in a serious cop show. Part of the joke is that the characters seem to have no idea that this is ridiculous. The other part of the joke is the accuracy of the parody of bad cop shows: the deep-voiced announcer, the portentous episode titles, the stoic dialogue, the freeze-frames, the inept nods to continuity (every episode ends with Frank Drebin mentioning the names of all the criminals who have been arrested in previous episodes). It's like an episode of a lesser Quinn Martin show, except the creators know it's supposed to be silly.

The Naked Gun and its sequels, by contrast, are mostly straight-ahead farce: instead of a parody of the super-competent TV cop, which is what he was in the series, Frank Drebin becomes a clumsy buffoon in the style of Maxwell Smart or Inspector Clouseau. Leslie Nielsen's always funnier, as in Airplane! and "Police Squad!", when he acts just like he did in his "serious" parts; he's never that great when he tries to be funny.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

"The Synthetic Musical Comedy

I haven't seen the movie musical version of The Producers yet, but its release is as good an excuse as any for me to say a little something about the Broadway show it's (apparently very faithfully) based on.

When it opened on Broadway, The Producers got almost universally ecstatic reviews, swept the Tony awards, and was generally expected to be one of the biggest hits of all time. That hasn't really happened; the show was successful, but it's never been a big hit without the participation of its stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. As I explained earlier, this isn't an uncommon thing with musical comedies, which are often so closely tied to the personalities of their stars that they fall flat without a Bert Lahr or Ethel Merman or Gwen Verdon to headline them.

But time has also exposed some weaknesses in The Producers that the early reviews either ignored or glossed over. The tone of the early reviews of The Producers suggests that the critics were just so happy to see a brash, joke-filled, politically-incorrect musical comedy (it came along just before un-PC became the new PC; now "political incorrectness" is so common in entertainment that '90s-style sensitivity would be truly politically incorrect) that they were giving it the benefit of the doubt on all kinds of things: so the fact that Mel Brooks isn't much of a songwriter was glossed over or minimized by most reviews.

Now, there are some things to be said for the score of The Producers: the songs are short and concise like a musical-comedy song should be, not meandering or whiny as songs often are in modern musicals. But there's hardly a memorable tune in the score except the tunes that Brooks took directly from the movie. (And "Springtime For Hitler" is padded out with all kinds of unmemorable new sections that kind of kill the joke of the number.) And the whole score has a whiff of the amateurish about it, starting with the "on-the-nose" nature of the songwriting: almost every song starts with one idea, repeats it over and over again, and has no development or subtext, nothing to keep the song interesting after you know what it's about.

A great "simple" song, like most of the great songs of Irving Berlin, tends to start with an idea and then develop it right up until the end of the song. Either Berlin would start with an indirect idea and develop it into something else (e.g. in Annie Get Your Gun, "My Defenses Are Down" starts out as a complaint and ends as a joyous statement that "I must confess that I like it") or start with an on-the-nose idea but find new ways of expressing it (in "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," every section finds a great new joke about the basic idea of the song).

Brooks can't do any of that. If he has a song to write for Leo Bloom, he starts out with a song title, "I Wanna Be a Producer," that is so direct that he has nowhere to go in developing it; it's as if Berlin had written "I'm in Love Now" instead of "My Defences Are Down." Then Brooks doesn't even develop the idea at all; he just repeats the title over and over again, alternating it with a few random examples of living the good life. Finally, the song isn't even particularly in character for Leo or the show, since Leo is singing about wanting to be a successful producer, but the decision he's actually making is to become an unsuccessful producer; why does Brooks have him sing about wanting a hit, when what he actually wants is a flop?

Much of the rest of the score has the problem I described in my post on Snoopy: the Musical: they're songs that merely repeat what's already in the source material or in the dialogue that precedes it. Roger DeBris is a gay man who likes light and fluffy musicals, so he spends five minutes singing a song about being a gay man who likes light and fluffy musicals. Ulla is a sexy woman, so she has a number about being a sexy woman; but it's nothing that wasn't done better in Ulla's dance number in the original movie (and Uma Thurman and even Cady Huffman were hardly a match for Lee Meredith). A good musical based on a movie will usually create musical numbers to say what wasn't said in the movie, or develop something beyond what could be done in dialogue. My Fair Lady, based on the 1938 movie version of Pygmalion, takes one line from the movie ("The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in the Plain") and turns it into a number with a moment of release and celebration that wasn't in the original source material. The songs in A Little Night Music add depth to the characters from the Ingmar Bergman movie the show is based on, and the best number, "A Weekend In the Country," has no direct parallel in the movie. These adaptations make you understand why someone thought music and lyrics could add to the source material; the musical numbers in The Producers just succeed in padding a 90-minute source out to two-and-a-half hours.

If Brooks had hired John Morris to write the music for the Broadway version of The Producers, things might have been different. Morris, who composed music for many Brooks films (and wrote the theme song for Blazing Saddles) was a fine arranger and songwriter whose contributions to the original Producers movie probably helped Brooks's own songs sound better; Morris also wrote some great original pieces of music like the go-go music for Ulla's aforementioned dance. Imagine Morris composing the new songs to The Producers, and the whole show might have been better. But as it is: a musical comedy where most of the songs aren't particularly good or memorable is like a gangster movie where nobody gets killed: the other stuff may be good, but so what?

And it's not like the other stuff in The Producers, the musical, is that good. It's pretty good: it has a lot of good jokes and opportunities for good performers. But for a big Broadway production, the structure is surprisingly inept. The first act mostly consists of three long scenes, back-to-back, where Max and Leo meet and play Bud Abbott to a bunch of weird people: first a scene with Franz the Nazi playwright, then a scene with Ulla, then a scene with Roger. So a huge chunk of the first act consists of the two stars not doing very much at all. Then they don't do very much in the big first-act finale, the one with the chorus girls pretending to be little old ladies with walkers. And then that's the end of the first act; nothing much has happened, and all the plot development is saved for the overlong second act. (The classic musical theatre writers understood that the first act should end on a dramatic note and the second act be relatively short; Rodgers and Hammerstein rarely had more than three or four songs in their second acts.) Then the second act has to cram in so much plot that there's no time to develop the characters or their relationships; again, the original movie did this better in less time.

I've been rougher on The Producers than I thought I'd be when I started to write this; I liked the show when I saw it in 2001, and most of the audience did too. It's an enjoyable show. It's just not a great, nor even a particularly good musical comedy that happened to get rave reviews because there weren't any other musical comedies around. In 1960, when solid musical comedies were a dime a dozen, a show with such a weak score and structure would have lasted about as long as Max and Leo's hoped-for run for Springtime For Hitler.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Great Lyrics: "Someone in April"

Alan Jay Lerner was never a very consistent writer, and after the retirement of his songwriting partner, Frederick Loewe, he spent twenty-plus years writing a series of frustrating near-misses: shows that had something good in them but were sunk by crippling flaws that Lerner couldn't be prevailed upon to address.

Of those post-Loewe shows, probably the best was Carmelina, written in 1979 with composer Burton Lane. (Lane was Lerner's most congenial partner, other than Loewe; they also did the film Royal Wedding and the show On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.) This show was based on the movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, about three American soldiers who were in Italy during the wartime occupation. The return to Italy after twenty years, not realizing that the heroine, Mrs. Campbell, slept with all three of them during the occupation and had a child by one of them -- she's not sure which one.

The show only ran about a week, having been pilloried by the critics as old-fashioned and out of touch; that was what was good about it, though. The score and style of the show were remeniscent of a good solid musical comedy from the '50s or early '60s, the kind of thing Broadway could really have used in 1979 and still could use now. Lerner and Lane's work wasn't up to their very best, but it was very good; Lerner in particular turned out his best lyrics in many years.

The key song in the show, and a great example of how great songwriters can make a memorable song out of a situation that doesn't seem inherently musical, was "Someone in April." This is the part where Mrs. Campbell fills in the backstory, telling us the details necessary to understand what happened twenty years ago and how her daughter was fathered by one of three men. Instead of doing it as a dry, dull patch of dialogue, Lerner and Lane did it as a song -- and Lane provided the most beautiful melody in the score, a melody that makes something almost romantic out of a situation that could come off as unpleasant or even depressing. And Lerner's lyric, which I post below, is a model of how to do expository material within a Broadway song, with a verse/refrain structure. It's also free of the sloppiness that sometimes plagued Lerner's lyrics, and includes great touches like the references to Italian popular culture (Vittorio De Sica, La Boheme) and the fact that the singer's age gets lower each time she mentions it.

All alone. Seventeen.
The type that De Sica has in every scene.
A poor little sparrow in the human storm,
My hands with no other hands to keep them warm.
And then, in a way you couldn't plan,
I looked and saw a man,
And my life began

Someone in April,
A stranger in April,
Said, could he come in for a while?
Somehow I knew from his smile
That he would be
Gentle with me.
Little by little my heart
Began to fill.
Soon we were never apart,
Someone in April,
One morning in April,
Before he went out of the door,
Said "Thank you for April,"
And I was all alone once more.

All alone. Just sixteen.
You'd think I was Mimi in the final scene.
I wept, I don't know, till almost four o'clock,
And then, very faintly, I heard someone knock.
"Come in," I suppose I must have said.
And when I turned my head,
All my sorrow fled,

Someone in April
Was lonesome in April,
As lonesome and helpless as I.
Oh, but how bashful and shy!
Could I...? Could he...?
That is, could we...?
Holding him close for dear life,
I lived again.
Mother and sister and wife,
But then
One day in April,
My someone in April
Left roses with love at the door
That faded in April
And left me all alone once more.

All alone. Blue with cold.
My hands with no other hands for me to hold.
A child with a woman lurking in her breast,
A poor little pigeon in an empty nest,
And then out of nowhere I was blessed

Someone in April,
My life became April
The moment he kneeled at my side.
Something about him implied
He hoped he might
Stay for the night.
Soon all the room in my heart
Was filled again.
Soon we were never apart,
But then
Someone in April
One evening in April
Went out to the neighborhood store,
Leaving the soup to get colder,
Leaving the wine to grow older,
Leaving me all alone once more.

Someone in April,
It had to be April,
That one little month I was with
Braddock, Karzinski and Smith.
It had to be
One of the three.
All of them came through the door
Like cavaliers.
One of them left me with more
Than tears.
Someone in April,
It happened in April
That one of those generous men
Made certain in April
I'd never be alone again.

(copyright 1979 by Alan Jay Lerner)

Thursday, December 22, 2005


This is an old article, but what the heck: DVD Savant on Paul Frees in Some Like it Hot. The fact that Frees dubbed Tony Curtis's "Josephine" voice in that movie is now fairly widely known, but apparently it was not well known a few years ago, and I don't think I ever heard either Curtis or Billy Wilder refer to this in interviews.

As Savant notes, Frees became the go-to guy for overdubbing in the '50s and '60s, when dubbing, or "re-voicing," suddenly became more popular in American movies. Up until the late '50s, American movies usually mostly used direct sound, and therefore the voices on the soundtrack were the voices of the people onscreen, recorded simultaneously with the visuals. Dubbing was mostly used in musical numbers (which don't use direct sound) for actors who couldn't sing.

In the late '50s, however, while American movies continued mostly to use direct sound -- unlike, say, the Italians, who preferred to shoot the entire movie without sound and dub everything in later -- the use of post-recorded voices became more and more prevalent. I suspect the main factor in this was the increased use of location shooting. If you're shooting in the studio or on the backlot, you can always assemble enough actors who can speak their own dialogue. If you go on location, and in particular to foreign locations, then it's harder to record the dialogue (and you can ill-afford to stop the take and start again if someone flubs a line in an exotic location), and it's harder to find actors who can speak English to play the minor parts.

So what happens in American movies from the late '50s and '60s is that you'll usually get some interior scenes with direct sound, especially scenes between the principals, but anything shot outside will have post-dubbed dialogue, and anything shot on a foreign location will have the minor characters post-dubbed by an American actor. And that actor was usually Paul Frees. In Gigi, which was mostly shot on location in Paris, there are some scenes where Frees voices every single character except the principals; he did similar duty in Spartacus. And sometimes, as in Some Like it Hot, he would be called in to dub a well-known actor who couldn't quite get the voice the director wanted. Someone should compile a list of all the uncredited voices he did in live-action movies; there must be hundreds.

Speaking of Billy Wilder movies with post-dubbed voices, my favorite example of this is in One, Two, Three -- a movie mostly shot indoors with direct sound, but with one character entirely re-dubbed. This is the Count von Droste Schattenburg, a down-on-his-luck German count, who is played by Hubert von Meyerinck, but whose voice is entirely dubbed by the great character actor Sig Ruman. My guess would be that Wilder wrote the part for Ruman, and Ruman wasn't available, so Wilder wanted to at least use Ruman's unique voice for the role.

Incidentally, the question of direct sound vs. post-dubbed sound was quite a vexed question in film-geek circles in the late '50s and early '60s. Francois Truffaut made his first three films (The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim) with mostly post-dubbed sound, mostly for reasons of budget and convenience, and other young French filmmakers like Alain Resnais were also making movies with post-dubbed sound. Jean Renoir, the grand old man of French filmmaking, said in 1959 or so that he liked movies like 400 Blows and Hiroshima Mon Amour but chided the young filmmakers for, as Truffaut recalled it, "Not defending direct sound." Renoir felt that post-synchronization was a poor substitute for having the dialogue recorded simultaneously with the rest of the performance. French filmmaking eventually shifted back toward direct sound (Truffaut always used direct sound after Jules and Jim, and in Day For Night there's a joke about an Italian actress who isn't used to learning her lines, and has to adjust to the French preference for directly-recorded dialogue); the Italians mostly stuck with post-dubbing, as you know if you've ever watched a Sergio Leone Western.

Defending the Implausible

I never thought it could be done, but Roy Edroso has a halfway-decent defense of "Two and a Half Men":

The Sheen and Cryer characters are stuck between two amoral poles -- their awful mother and Alan's surprisingly awful son. (Credit to the creators for making a pre-pub kid so unappealing on a prime-time show.) They're also stuck with each other.

Alan is very aware that he's stuck, and complains about it all the time. Now, if he were the only lead, this show might be as bad at "The War at Home" -- all kvetching. But Charlie's main goal in life is to rise above -- or, to use Mel Brooks' phrase, rise below -- his problems. He's very comfortable ignoring and even exploiting those problems -- like using a gig as Alan's receptionist as an opportunity to turn his brother's chiropractic business (boring!) into a massage parlor. And he usually gets away with it.

What's most appealing about Charlie is that he obviously cares about his family but, also obviously, he determined long ago not to let them bring him down. Thus, the episodes rarely culminate in maudlin lesson-learning resolutions; while Alan works his way into a frenzy, Charlie works his way back to his own lazy horn-dog stasis.

Such moral purity is rare on network television. I can't think of another sitcom character that works quite the same way. It's as if Maynard G. Krebs became fully self-actualized and took over "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis."

Not bad points, and I think the presence of Charlie Sheen, Jon Cryer and Holland Taylor puts this show a cut above most sitcom casts. Ultimately, though, I think the show is done in by its glacial pacing and staging, with talking-head characters standing around and delivering punchlines. Put it this way: if you're going to do a show with such unappealing characters, you'd better make it move as fast as "Seinfeld" did so we don't have time to focus on their general unappealingness.

At least it's an improvement over creator Chuck Lorre's previous show, "Dharma and Greg." That was a show where the supposed star -- Dharma, as played by Jenna Elfman -- was a complete obnoxious horrible freak, and none of the writers seemed to be aware of this, so they kept writing the show as if we were supposed to find her cute and charming. (There's one thing worse than an unappealing lead, and that's an unappealing lead who's supposed to be appealing.) The frustrating thing about that show was that it had two great characters: Greg's rich parents, played by Mitch Ryan and Susan Sullivan. If they'd spun those characters off, they might have had something.

Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor! Damn!

TV Shows on DVD has the episode list and extras for season 3 of "NewsRadio."

This was probably the best season of "NewsRadio." The following season they would get a bit too zany and surreal, abandoning realistic workplace situations. (To be fair, the reason they did that was that NBC introduced a raft of similar workplace sitcoms -- "Just Shoot Me" and the infamous "Suddenly Susan," where Kathy Griffin played essentially the same character as Vicki Lewis on "NewsRadio" -- and "NewsRadio" had to do something different to distinguish itself from those shows.) The third season is a good mix of mundanity and silliness, and includes episodes like Jimmy James's run for President, Bill McNeal doing a commercial for "Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor," and probably the best "daydream" episode that any sitcom has ever done. And after a season when they had a different director every week, the third season brought on Tom Cherones ("Seinfeld") as permanent director, and he kept the show moving at an amazing clip while holding the touchy cast and crew together.

"NewsRadio" was actually almost cancelled near the end of the third season. It was around this time that Paul Simms, the creator of the show, gave an interview to Rolling Stone where he blasted NBC in anticipation of his show's cancellation, and blasted them in particular for never giving "NewsRadio" a spot on Thursday nights:

People are starting to realize Thursday night is like a big double-decker shit sandwich with three good pieces of bread.

This is the best I can do. Pretend you're God and you say, If you
do a show about a single father who's dating a lot and has two teenage
sons, and it doesn't have to be funny, and it'll be a huge hit. I'd say,
"Fuck you, God."

Instead of cancelling the show, NBC basically gave it a month to improve its ratings. The report at the time was that Warren Littlefield, head of NBC at the time, suggested that "NewsRadio" end its season with a bunch of gimmick episodes that could be easily promoted and therefore pull in some extra viewers. So they ended the season with an episode set in outer space, an episode where Bill gets committed to a mental institution, and an episode guest-starring Jerry Seinfeld (a fan of "NewsRadio"). It worked well enough that the show managed to get picked up, and stayed on the air long enough to get sold into syndication.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Can I Call You Al, Or Maybe Just Din?

Animated News has An interview with animator Eric Goldberg. The interview mostly focuses on his work for Disney, as the director of Pocahontas and his "signature" work, the supervising animator of the Genie in Aladdin.

Anatomy of a Re-Tool: Newhart

I was talking with someone about shows that get re-tooled -- the characters get new jobs, many supporting characters are replaced, and so on -- and how this almost always wrecks the show. But I can think of one show that was improved by re-tooling in mid-run, possibly the only successful show that actually got better when it was re-tooled: Bob Newhart's second show, "Newhart."

Most of you will remember the premise of "Newhart": Bob Newhart plays Dick Loudon, a writer of how-to books who moves to Vermont with his wife Joanna (Mary Frann). They buy an inn, the Stratford, which appeals to them for its historical value (though it turns out that the reason George Washington slept there was that it used to be a brothel). The first season found them dealing with the funny people in Vermont, funny guests at the inn, and the rest of the regular supporting cast: Leslie (Jennifer Holmes), a rich girl gaining some practical experience by working as a maid at the inn while attending Dartmouth; George (Tom Poston) the handyman; and Kirk (Steven Kampmann), a pathological liar who owns the cafe next door.

The first season was actually quite successful in the ratings, and the show was picked up for another season. But the network, the creator (Barry Kemp, who had been one of the best writers for "Taxi"), and Newhart were collectively not satisfied with the show. So over the course of the second season, various changes were made.

First, with the start of the second season, the production format of the show changed from videotape to film. (Newhart preferred working on film, which allowed for a softer kind of comedy than the hard lighting of tape: tape, he says, is more appropriate for broad sketch comedy.) Also at the start of the second season, Leslie was gone; she was too all-around nice a character to be funny. She was replaced by Julia Duffy, who had appeared in one first-season episode as Leslie's bitchy sister Stephanie. Stephanie was forced to work at the inn because her parents had cut her off from having any money. Suddenly there was a whole new source of comedy on the show: Stephanie, the spoiled rich girl, trying (not very hard) to work as a maid and live in a rural setting.

Near the end of the second season, further changes were introduced. In mid-season, the show had an episode where Dick fills in at the host of a show on a local TV station, where the producer, Michael (Peter Scolari) is an obnoxious phony. Inspired by the episode and Scolari's performance, the producers wrote an episode where Dick gets his own talk show, "Vermont Today," on that local station, with Michael as his producer. In that episode or the episode after, they introduced the idea that Michael would be Stephanie's boyfriend. These are three moves that are usually jump-the-shark moments: giving the lead character a new job, introducing a new regular, and giving another regular a steady boyfriend. But all these moves worked by expanding what the show could do.

The big problem with the show in its first season, and part of the second, was that the inn setting was very limited: there weren't a lot of people around the inn that Newhart could react to. The problem was solved by creating the TV station as a permanent location, and shuttling back and forth between Dick's home and workplace a la The Dick Van Dyke Show: now Newhart could react to the crazy guests on his TV show and to Michael, the ultimate caricature of the '80s yuppie (and a not-so-subtle parody of wonder-boy network executives like Brandon Tartikoff).

Finally, at the beginning of the third season, Kirk was dropped. The writers had spent the second season trying to find something to do with the character, even giving him a wife (Rebecca York), but the character was hard to like: his main character trait, being a pathological liar, was almost too realistic to be funny. Also, the first season had mostly shown him as Leslie's unrequited lover, and after she left, he had very little to do. Kampmann was an exceptionally talented comic -- he'd done some great work with Toronto Second City, and he'd been a writer producer on "WKRP In Cincinnati." But it was probably the right decision for "Newhart" to drop him.

With Kirk gone, his cafe was purchased by three characters, a bizarre trio of backwoodsmen whose introduction you all remember: "Hi, I'm Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl." They'd appeared in the first season as guest characters in the second episode, and had made enough of an impression that they were brought back for one more episode in the first season, and then several episodes in the second season. The third season took the logical step by making them regulars and giving them a reason to be near the inn (they now owned the place next door) so they could always drop by and annoy Newhart, thus giving him more stuff to react to. The audience applause when the characters entered could be annoying -- they were like the Fonzie of "Newhart" -- but their addition as regulars made the show funnier and stronger, and gave a sort of "Green Acres" vibe to the show, with Newhart as the sane man facing off against the insane locals.

The upshot of this was that by the beginning of the third season, "Newhart" had a largely different cast, a different production style, and a different job for the lead character than it had had in the first season. And everything worked better than it had in the first season. (Indeed, I'd actually argue that "Newhart" holds up better now than the original "Bob Newhart Show.") There must be other shows that undertook this kind of re-tooling and improved, but I can't think of any for the moment.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Woodchuck...

Hinterland Who's Who, the homepage. Featuring the original theme music, plus clips and other info.

For those who aren't familiar with Canadianarcana, "Hinterland Who's Who" was a series of one-minute films produced by the National Film Board; they ran during commercial breaks on the CBC and elsewhere. They consisted of grainily-photographed films of various woodland creatures, faux-impressionist flute music on the soundtrack, and a friendly-voiced narrator giving us a few basic facts about how the creatures live. The films were so cheap-looking that even the captions couldn't keep steady on the screen, and the point of them always eluded us, since it didn't tell us a whole lot we couldn't learn by watching Hammy the Hamster, but the music was kind of hypnotic.

SCTV did a parody of the Hinterland Who's Who, part of an episode filled with CBC and NFB parodies, a way for the Second City comics to strike back at the CBC for never hiring them. The payoff comes when the friendly-voiced announcer appears on a CBC show as a "famous Canadian actor" that none of the guests have ever heard of. The parody, along with some real Hinterland Who's Who segments included as extras, is on SCTV Volume 4.

TV Blogs On DVD

Gord Lacey and David Lambert of TV Shows On DVD, which started four years ago and has since become one of the most influential home entertainment sites on the web, have started The TV Shows On DVD Blog, for stuff that doesn't fit into the main site.

The Dumbest Thing Written This Week

This may be too close to a political post, but I appreciate really dumb writing when I see it, and must call it to your attention. The Anglo-American-Canadian writer Mark Steyn, a pretty good entertainment writer turned into a very bad op-ed columnist by Conrad "Tubby" Black, was taken to task by P.Z. Myers for having written that "this is a planet overwhelmingly dominated and shaped by one species, and our kith and kin – whether gibbons or pumpkins – basically fit in in the spaces between." Myers, a professor of biology, pointed out that, you know, we live at the mercy of the natural world. In his column in the otherwise readable Spectator, Steyn offers his devastating response:

Oh dear. All I was doing was making a simple point about the scale of man’s domination, and all Professor Myers’s demolition does is confirm it. My intestinal bacteria may indeed be doing a swell job, but living in my gut isn’t exactly a beach house at Malibu. Yes, I’ve got wooden furniture. I live in the Great North Woods and the house and practically everything in it is made from those woods. But I sit on the chair, the chair doesn’t sit on me. And as for my excreta and the hard-working nematode, who gets the better end of that deal?

In a way, Professor Myers is only taking transnationalism to its logical conclusion. After all, if one is obliged to pretend that the Americans, Belgians, Greeks and Canadians are all equal members of a military alliance, it’s not such a stretch to insist that the Americans, the flatworms, the intestinal bacteria and your Welsh dresser are all equal partners in some grand planetary alliance. Nonetheless, if we are virtually the same as a chimp, the 1.5 per cent of difference counts for more than the 98.5 per cent of similarity. The Psalmist seems to find that easier to understand than the biologist does.

Yes, a popular columnist in a well-respected publication is writing a column arguing that a) Man must be the most important creature in the universe because the columnist looked around his room and decided that he was the most important thing in it, and b) Someone who relies on science and facts is comparable to someone who wants the U.N. to take over the world.

Truly stupid columns are written all the time; the cool thing about Steyn's columns is that because he can sort of write (even if many of his paragraphs are recycled from column to column), he achieves a higher level of stupidity, stupidity with a thesaurus and a Sinatra album playing on the stereo. Long may he drool.

To tie it back in with this blog, this perhaps demonstrates that entertainment writers shouldn't become op-ed columnists. It's one thing when they give up entertainment writing; it's another thing when they continue with entertainment writing, as Steyn has (he's drama critic for the New Criterion and movie critic for the Spectator), their ideological writing infects and wrecks their entertainment writing. Steyn could be annoying as a theatre writer -- his book on musical theatre, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, alternates insightful passages with totally clueless ones, and his sneering dislike of homosexuals makes you wonder why he's writing about the theatre at all -- but he was sometimes good; his essay on Broadway director/writer George Abbott was probably the only good piece written about Abbott after his death.

But his theatre and movie reviews now are basically like his crummy ideological pieces: pitched at an ideological audience, repeating the same tired points over and over, and judging works based on how much or how little they agree with his politics (a play about Iraq is good to the extent that it shows he was right about the war all along, but bad to the extent that the author won't come right out and say he was right all along). So a writer who was good at some things winds up being a writer who does everything badly. It's probably making him a good living and getting him lots of links from people whose blogs have the words "Claremont Institute" on their blogrolls; but it's made him a lousy writer who used to be sort of good.

On the plus side, having seen good entertainment writers move over to ideological writing and lose all their ability to write anything that makes sense, I've become more convinced than ever that sticking to entertainment writing is the way to go. Which is why I can promise you that you will never see this become a political blog (even this post and my "Good Night and Good Luck" post are linked to entertainment or entertainment writing).

But if you ever see me use the term "MSM" without derisive quotation marks, or link to a site, of whatever ideological stripe, that uses the term "Developing..." then run, because that means I've left the noble cause of entertainment blogging and gone over to the Dark Side (tm).

Saturday, December 17, 2005

This Budd's For Us

Just a reminder that this coming Tuesday, December 20, brings the first DVD release of a Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Western, namely their first Western together, Seven Men From Now.

The disc comes from the John Wayne estate (Wayne's company produced the film), which deserves praise for giving the special-edition treatment to such relatively obscure movies; DVD Beaver has a review and screenshots, and it looks great; too bad all the other Boetticher/Scott films are owned by Columbia/Sony, which hasn't made any move toward bringing them out. Maybe if Seven Men sells well, it'll change their minds.

A Song's Progress: "We're Gonna Be All Right"

Do I Hear a Waltz?, a 1965 musical adapted by Arthur Laurents from his play The Time of the Cuckoo and with a score by Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim, is one of those shows that separates the mere Broadway buff from the obsessive Broadway enthusiast. This is a show that had a troubled production, didn't do all that well, was more or less disowned by its creators, and features one of the more unsympathetic heroines in the history of Broadway musicals. Still, the show has a fascination for some of us. The heroine, Leona, is difficult to like, especially since she has a sort of double role of negativity: she's both a realistically bitter and unhappy woman, and a representation of all the stuff that Laurents doesn't like about the American character (materialism, prudishness, hypocrisy, insincerity). But she brings a real and raw quality that is unusual for a musical, and is in its own way fascinating. David Lee, the co-creator of Frasier who directed a revival of Waltz a few years ago, summed it up well on a theatre newsgroup:

Leona is a complex character with a lot of "stuff" that is difficult to like. But that is what intrigues me and many others about the piece. It also, for some may be its downfall. A friend of mine put it this way: "I like Dolly Levi, but I don't have a clue who that woman is in real life. I KNOW Leona Samish. I am Leona Samish."

The score -- available on an excellent and still in-print original cast album -- fascinates and divides people as much as the character of Leona does. Rodgers and Sondheim worked together on the show for various reasons, none of which included getting along (they didn't). Rodgers was a fine lyricist who had successfully written his own words for the show No Strings, but he missed the collaborative process he had with Hart and Hammerstein, and Sondheim -- a protege of the late Hammerstein and a writer with the wit and rhyming skill of Hart -- was the obvious choice for a new project. Sondheim took the job because he was friends with Rodgers' daughter Mary, because he had worked several times before with Laurents, and because it seemed like a likely hit. The two men never liked each other and operated at cross-purposes for much of the collaboration; Sondheim came to the conclusion that musicalizing the play was a mistake in the first place, while Rodgers (who also produced the show) felt that Sondheim and Laurents were making Leona too cold and unsympathetic, and lost an argument with them over a scene where she comes off as particularly mean-spirited.

The score Rodgers and Sondheim turned out doesn't represent either man's best work, but this is a bit like saying that the Atlantic Ocean doesn't represent the world's largest ocean; it's still pretty darn large, and the score of Do I Hear a Waltz? is pretty darn good, especially in the context of the show, where the mix of romance and cynicism (sometimes in the same song, and with Rodgers's music occasionally more acerbic than Sondheim's lyrics) is all of a piece with the story and the characters.

The most famous song from the show is the title song, one of Rodgers's best waltzes and featuring one of Sondheim's best trick rhymes ("Blue-Danube-y/How can you be"). But for the obsessed Broadway fanboy, the most intriguing song in the show is one for the secondary couple, Eddie and Jennifer, called "We're Gonna Be All Right." Eddie and Jennifer are Laurents's caricature of the with-it young couple whose "perfect" marriage is falling apart, but are in denial about it. Fioria, the world-weary Italian woman who has an affair with Eddie (Fioria is Laurents's representation of how much cooler and more sophisticated Europeans are than Americans), describes them as preferring to shut their eyes and pretend that they are living the ideal.

Their big number, "We're Gonna Be All Right," occurs in Act Two, after Eddie has had the affair but before Jennifer has found out. The young couple admit just as much reality as they can stand: they admit that they have problems, but they'll work them out. What the scene needed was a song where they could express confidence that they'd get over their marital problems, while clearly remaining in denial about how deep the problems are.

For the tune, Rodgers came through with a marvelous, bouncy, catchy melody reminiscent of the kind of melodies he'd written for Hart. It's the sort of tune that can sound happy but slightly hollow -- exactly what's needed for these characters in this situation.

Sondheim came back with a lyric, and Rodgers read it and threw it out; it never made it into the show, even in rehearsal. Rodgers, never a nice guy under any circumstances, apparently rejected Sondheim's lyric, as Ethan Mordden put it, "as one smashes an unflattering mirror." The original lyrics were preserved by Sondheim and performed (while Rodgers was still alive) in the successful 1977 revue Side By Side By Sondheim. Because the lyrics are very funny, bitterly cynical, and anticipate the kind of material Sondheim would write about failed marriages for Company and Follies, the standard version of this story is that Rodgers, a fuddy-duddy, couldn't handle the truth of Sondheim's lyrics and made him tone it down. I don't think I agree with this interpretation of the story.

Sondheim's approach to the material, apparently, was to play off the fact that even though Eddie and Jennifer are a couple of naive people living in a bubble, they think they're hip and with-it -- the mid-'60s equivalent of those yuppie couples who tell you that they have solved all the problems with marriage that their parents were too stupid to fix. His original lyric for "We're Gonna Be All Right" took this into account by having Eddie and Jennifer adopt a lighthearted, fake-cynical tone. They sound like they know all about the pitfalls of marriage, but their pose of knowingness is just a pose: the more they try to sound like they know everything, the more they're in denial. Sondheim wrote three introductory verses and three refrains for the song; the first refrain goes:

If we can just hang on,
We'll have compatibility,
You musn't worry,
We're gonna be all right.
One day the ache is gone,
There's nothing like senility,
So what's your hurry?
We're gonna be all right.
Meanwhile, relax,
You'll take a lover,
I'll take a lover,
When that's played-out,
They get the ax,
We can retire,
Sit by the fire,
Fade out.
We'll build our house upon
The rock of my virility,
We'd better scurry,
We're gonna be all night.
Oh boy,
We're gonna be all right.

The song, in its original version, then segues into describing the failed marriages of other people, in a way that is highly reminiscent of the Rodgers and Hart song "He And She" from The Boys From Syracuse (about seemingly perfect marriages that have something wrong with them at the core). Sondheim's original lyric ends:

She once was quite well read,
He once was intellectual,
No one's suspicious,
They're gonna be all right.
She's nice and sweet and dead,
He's tall and ineffectual,
They look delicious,
They're gonna be all right.
Who's on the skids?
She goes to night school,
If it's the right school,
He'll permit her.
They love their kids,
They love their friends too,
Lately he tends to
Hit her.
Sometimes she drinks in bed,
Sometimes he's homosexual,
But why be vicious?
They keep it out of sight.
Good show,
They're gonna be all right.
And so
They're gonna be all right.
Heigh ho,
We're gonna be all right.

The problem with this approach to the number is, first of all, is that it's at odds with the way the characters are written elsewhere in the show; there's some hint that they consider themselves modern and worldly, but you just can't picture those lyrics coming out of those characters. The dialogue that leads into the song includes the line (from Jennifer) "You're supposed to only want me. And we're not supposed to be at each other every minute; we're supposed to be nice! Why aren't we? What's wrong? What happened?" A character who says things like that, and says them without irony, would not turn around and sing lyrics like the ones posted above.

Second, the device Sondheim was trying to use -- having characters be very articulate and apparently worldly-wise while indicating, as subtext, that they're in denial about something -- almost never works. Subtext is great in musicals, but the kind of subtext a song can handle is usually very simple subtext: the character sings about being happy when he clearly doesn't mean it. What Sondheim wanted to do was write a song where the characters sort of mean what they say, but aren't saying other things that are more important, and everything they're singing about is an attempt to dodge those more important subjects. It's the kind of thing an audience can't follow very clearly, not in the context of a three-minute musical number. Sondheim would try very much the same thing five years later in Company, where the climactic number was supposed to be "Happily Ever After," a song where the lead character would express his cynicism about marriage, with the subtext being that he just didn't want to deal with his own loneliness. The song lead-ballooned and the director made Sondheim rewrite it into a song where subtext became text (i.e. a song directly summing up the theme of the show).

So what Sondheim had come up with for "We're Gonna Be All Right" was a song that didn't fit in properly with the way Laurents was writing the characters, or the way producer/composer Rodgers saw the situation. It would never have worked in the context of the show; what it was was a great cabaret number, an example of what can happen when very talented people are collaborating without much reference to each other's ideas.

Rodgers made Sondheim write a new lyric, with a more straightforward subtext: now Eddie and Jennifer would simply proclaim that their marriage was going to be all right, while the audience would know that it wasn't. Sondheim couldn't have had much enthusiasm for the task, because the lyric he came up with, while it gets the subject right, is extremely bland and has that "written under protest" feel:

It may not all be bliss,
But every wound is treatable.
We won't go under,
We're gonna be all right.
Don't see how we can miss,
Our team is undefeatable.
I wouldn't wonder,
We're gonna be all right.
We may have had
Unhappy landings,
We're still growing.
Some years are bad,
We're hale and hearty,
We'll keep the party
Hey, babe, let's have a kiss,
Remember, we're unbeatable.
We're gonna blunder,
We're gonna hold on tight,
We're gonna be all right.

Nonetheless, the actual number works quite well. Eddie sings the refrain once (with a couple of interjections from Jennifer), and then the two of them stand posing like the man and wife in Grant Wood's "American Gothic." They repeat the refrain together, but now, according to the stage directions: "Their faces are dead; their voices are thin." The potential hollowness of Rodgers's perky tune has become part of the number, and the number as a whole becomes quite a bit darker and more involving than Sondheim's wacky fake-dark version would have been.

Revivals of Waltz alternate between using Sondheim's original and the Broadway version. There are things to be said for both versions: Sondheim's original lyrics are too good to lose, and his revised lyric isn't very good at all, but on the other hand, the Broadway version is a better number and more in-character. It is, if nothing else, an example of how a good Broadway musical will drop good material, even great material, in its quest to get a moment exactly right, and how a good number is more than just the song: it's a combination of music, lyrics, staging possibilities, and characterization. But most of all, it's another debate point for obsessive Broadway enthusiasts, and no show has provided more debate points than Do I Hear a Waltz? That's why we love it.

Friday, December 16, 2005

No Private-Eye Show Is Sacred

Pierce Brosnan wants to make a "Remington Steele" movie:

"The show is out on DVD now and so we have started negotiations on making a movie out of it," he says. "I think there's an audience there. There's a sentimental memory and fondness for it."

According to an interview with "Remington Steele" creator Michael Gleason, Brosnan doesn't want to do a reunion movie; he wants to produce a feature film based on the show, with new actors in the lead roles and Brosnan himself playing a different role.

Interestingly, the creator of "Moonlighting," Glenn Caron, was recently quoted as saying that he's thinking of doing a feature film based on the series, also with new actors. Throw in Michael Mann's troubled feature remake of his show "Miami Vice," and something is definitely in the Kool-Aid of creators and stars of successful and beloved '80s television shows.

As material for a feature film goes, these '80s hourlong shows are probably better prospects than the sitcoms that usually get made into features. A show like "Remington Steele" was so heavily influenced by feature films itself -- what with all the movie references in every episode -- that a feature version might make for a solid comedy/mystery/romance on the order of Charade. But then you get into the problem of any movie based on a TV show, which is that people love the shows because of the actors who inhabited the characters; when the show is a romance, and therefore its popularity is based in part on people wanting to see those particular actors/characters together, that really makes it hard to re-cast the parts.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


Opera critic Conrad L. Osborne is someone whose praises I have previously sung (opera, sung, get it?). Having found some of the old High Fidelity "Records in Review" volumes, I thought I'd offer a few more quotes that demonstrate his understanding of voices. Here are quotes from Osborne's reviews of recital discs by young singers -- singers who went on to achieve major stardom. Osborne's description of their debut recitals, and their strengths and weaknesses, is as good and detailed and accurate as if he'd been familiar with their work for twenty years, and his analysis of the problem spots in the singers' voices and techniques is always prescient.

(Placido Domingo)
The voice is extremely attractive and quite individual in timbre, having considerable liquidity but a good ring, too. It has some of the nasality so often found in Spanish tenors -- a product, one assumes, of linguistic influences, though perhaps of pedagogic tradition, as well. The bottom sometimes has a trace of huskiness, which he often turns to coloristic effect.
His singing is always smooth and tasteful, and from time to time strikingly beautiful. There are limitations on it: the very top seems inconsistent, with B flat the highest absolutely secure note; and it does not seem fully open-throated, with the result that the volume, though certainly satisfactory, remains on the moderate side; and there is always a certain amount of driving as the voice moves through the break.

(Luciano Pavarotti)
Pavarotti shows a meaty, wide-ranged lyric tenor, and a technique that is sufficiently complete to make him the most accomplished tenor to come out of Italy in a number of years... intonation is excellent, the top is secure at least through the C, and the tone even takes on, from time to time, the kind of spin and movement that bespeaks real freedom -- the true vocal vibrato... further, Pavarotti sings with a clean, well-knit line and with a relish for the words -- not so much as dramatic meaning but as pure sound; the beauty of the Italian language is restored.
Apart from a very occasional bleatiness when he drives the voice at the top, he shows a limitation only when it comes to grading down the dynamics; in this respect, he merely joins the group... to be sure, Pavarotti can execute decrescendos and observe markings of p or pp. But the results are apt to be strained or downright ugly.

(Montserrat Caballé)
In addition to its individual and beautiful quality, the voice clearly has size, flexibility and a wide range, with authentic chest strength -- sparingly used, I am happy to say -- at the bottom and clear, focused, steady Bs and Cs at the top (though it does not seem to be the sort of voice that opens out effulgently at the top; rather, it points, on peaks, to a very compact tone). The temperament seems genuine and large-scale; one might be reminded of the young Victoria De Los Angeles had the latter had about her something more of the diva....
Complaints? Yes, of a provisional nature, since one never knows what will turn out to be an unforgettable part of a major artist's make-up and what will harden into mannerism. Since I do not enjoy any distortion, however small, that smacks of vocal compromise, I would just as soon not hear consonants transformed for the sake of comfort -- this is not a "Casta diva," for example, but a "Gasta" diva. I aslo do not care for low phrases in which every other note is attacked with a sort of yodel, or gulp, or flip. It is certainly unnecessary and certainly disturbing to the continuity of the line; and if it has any emotional or interpretative significance (what would it be?), it is banished through indiscriminate and repeated use.

The great thing about Osborne's criticism is that you can listen to any singer after reading his reviews and hear exactly what he describes -- the good and the bad, the trade-mark devices and the mannerisms. Writing about music is difficult because you're trying the almost counter-intuitive task of describing sounds using words. I can't think of anyone who has done it better than C.L.O.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Brief Pause

I probably won't be posting much for the next few days. Hopefully I'll have some longer posts when I return to the... cathodes? Blog-powering-things? Whatever makes a blog happen.

I leave you with this quote from that greatest of all unnecessary sequels, Gremlins 2:

Because of the end of civilization, CCN now leaves the air. We hope you have enjoyed our programming. But more importantly, we hope you have enjoyed life.

Monday, December 12, 2005

It's Like Christmas In Some Other Holiday

"The Scooby Doo/Dynomutt Hour?" who can resist such a cavalcade of coolness? Not to mention the theme song:

They've got it all together, and do you know what?
Scooby-Doo is hangin' 'round with Dynomutt!
While Scooby-Doo is tangling with a spooky ghost,
Dynomutt is doin' what he does the most!
They make a super pair,
With a super show to share,
Scooby-Doo and Dynomutt!

Seriously, I know nothing about "Scooby-Doo" except that it just will not go away (mostly because it is irresistible to kids; I don't even remember why I loved it as a kid, I only know I did), and I know nothing about Dynomutt except as fodder for "Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law." Still, further dips into the bottomless well of crummy '70s Hanna-Barbera programming are always welcome. Dare we hope that "Inch High Private Eye" is next?

A Belsonism

TV writer and broadcaster Ken Levine (who, with his partner David Isaacs, has written for M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier, The Simpsons and many others) has a blog now. One of his recent posts, about "dumb" characters in TV shows, has a funny anecdote about writing for the designated dummy on Cheers, the Coach, and coming up with lines that made him seem too dumb:

In the case of the Coach on CHEERS we had a contest in a writers room to see who could pitch the dumbest Coach joke. One day we were faced with the following set-up: Sam is in his office. The Coach comes in to say he’s got a call. Jerry Belson is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He pitched this:

COACH: Sam, there’s a little black man in the bar who wants to speak to you.

SAM: No Coach, that’s the phone.


In case that wasn't clear from my description of it (read the post), that wasn't a line that was used or intended to be used on the air; Belson was pitching a line that would make the Coach even dumber than he normally was.

Incidentally, someone should compile a list of all the shows and movies contributed to by Jerry Belson as an uncredited re-writer. After he and Garry Marshall broke up, in addition to his credited work, Belson has done a lot of uncredited consulting, re-writing and polishing work. For example, he wasn't credited on Cheers but he did work on it; James L. Brooks brought him in to do some uncredited work on some Simpsons episodes, including their first flashback episode, "The Way We Was" (Belson was brought in because of his experience with The Dick Van Dyke Show and their fifty kajillion flashback shows); he did some uncredited work on the mostly-uncredited script of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and so on.

HIP Is Here To Stay

The recording company Deutsche Grammophon has a long-running series called "The Originals" where they re-package classic recordings from their catalogue. I notice that the newest batch of reissues includes Trevor Pinnock's recording of Handel's "Messiah", performed on period instruments.

Truth be told, I've never thought this was one of the very best recordings of "Messiah," though I think it may be one of the best-selling recordings of the piece, which would explain why it's been chosen for reissue in a series devoted to the label's classics. But the thing that intrigues me about this is, simply, the fact of an HIP (Historically Informed Performance) recording being included in such a series.

It wasn't so long ago that music lovers were engaged in a debate over whether HIP was here to stay or just a fad, whether it was going to take over baroque and classical performance or whether "traditional" performances would prevail. Pinchas Zuckerman, the director of the National Arts Centre orchestra in my native Ottawa (as I recall, he replaced none other than Trevor Pinnock, whose work with the orchestra wasn't particularly impressive -- not that Zuckerman's was either), used to and for all I know still does go into long tirades about how HIP musicians weren't real musicians, just people who took up the gut strings and valve horns because they couldn't get jobs in "traditional" orchestras.

And now HIP is in and of itself traditional, so much so that twenty-year-old HIP recordings are coming out in a series alongside recordings by the likes of Karajan, Fricsay and Mravinsky. Those simulated cat-gut strings and small-sized choruses are part of our musical culture now.

"Mongo Only Pawn In Game of Life."

That's a line the late Richard Pryor wrote for the movie Blazing Saddles. Best line in the picture.

Among the better blog posts I've seen about him are from Mark Evanier and Digby's Blog.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Biopic They Need To Make

I'm not a big fan of movies about real-life actors -- most of them seem painfully unaware of the fact that actors' lives are not, for a non-actor, all that interesting. But if there's one actor whose life might make a good movie, it would have to be Lawrence Tierney. This guy's life could fill several novels, and the last few years of his life alone could make for several scenes that are both funny and creepy.

What prompted me to think of this was an anecdote on a DVD commentary for a "Simpsons" episode that Tierney guest-voiced in. The way the showrunners tell it, Tierney arrived at the studio in a limo, and the limo driver immediately drove away, saying he refused to come back to pick this guy up. Tierney screamed at somebody for making a noise, intimidated the young showrunners at every turn, and scared the entire staff half to death.

And the thing is that this was a relatively mild encounter with Tierney. When he was on Seinfeld as Elaine's father, he scared the cast and crew so much (that's real fear Jerry and George are projecting) that they never had him back again. His most famous action on the set of that episode was to carry a butcher knife under his jacket. This wasn't part of the episode; he just liked carrying the butcher knife.

And in 1999, at a screening of his 1947 movie Born to Kill (where he played yet another vicious psychopathic killer), he was in prime form, according to writer Eddie Mueller:

The actor responded to our greeting with a brusque command: "Pull my fucking arm!"....

"Don't gesture at me like that," he growled, still holding out the left like a threat. "People make fast moves around me, I react. I can't help it." Tierney favored me with the slit-eyed glower that had preceded many a barroom brawl. The moment passed. He slapped my knee and cracked a conspiratorial smile: "Help me to the head," Tierney said, reaching for my arm. "I gotta take a piss before the show."

I piloted Larry to the men's room, steered him to a urinal. Assisting in this project was a delicate young gentleman named Darrell, whom Tierney verbally abused throughout the arduous journey...

Tierney broke off a guffaw. He wrapped a mitt around my neck and jerked me toward him. His bald dome banged my forehead. Despite the dull ache this headbutt inspired, I took it as a sign of affection...

I feared Bob Wise might keel over when Tierney, miffed at what he perceived as several self-serving comments during the director's post-screening interview, hollered mightily from his back row perch: "Hey Bob, who wrote the fucking script?"

Now, I've just mentioned three anecdotes from the last decade of the man's life. Put in the really interesting stuff -- the fights, the broken bones, the stints in jail, his mother's suicide, and the fact that he rose quickly to stardom and just as quickly threw it all away -- and you've got a movie. Go raise the money. But don't let Quentin Tarantino direct it, or he'll make the whole thing a plotless love letter to Tierney.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Yip Harburg Quote of the Day

Just a random quote from my favorite Broadway lyricist, Yip Harburg. From the flop musical Flahooley, a genie muses on the contradictions of the system by which scarcity creates value:

When people magically beget
All that on which their hearts are set,
Then, having got a better lot,
They cannot get what they begot.


I'm thoroughly enjoying Batman the Animated Series: Volume 4, which collects together the 24 episodes the show produced after its initial run on Fox, when it moved to the WB network. These were the "new look" Batman episodes, where longtime producer Bruce Timm re-designed all the characters to make them more angular, more streamlined, and somewhat more in line with what the same team was doing on the "Superman" animated series.

The re-designs were always controversial and I don't think they're altogether successful; the new look of the show more or less abandoned the '40s film noir look of the Fox series for a sleeker, more sci-fi look. And because a lot of the appeal of the "Batman" animated show had to do with the look and the atmosphere (even when the plot was not up to snuff, the show just felt dark and cool), the somewhat more generic look of the WB episodes brings it down a notch: it no longer has the distinction of looking and feeling unlike any other show on TV, because the look and feel is now recognizably similar to the "Superman" show. Also, some of the character designs are simplified to the point of almost seeming like different characters, and not in a good way. Poison Ivy, a character who wasn't particularly well-known before the animated show, looked like a sultry femme fatale in the Fox episodes; on the WB she looked distressingly like Kim Possible. Drawing the Joker without lips was one of those things that probably made him easier to draw on-model but generally made him less fun to watch.

The plots were, overall, more dependent on action and fighting than the Fox shows, which were (appealingly) rather leisurely for a kids' action series, and unusually dependent on character development. Also, the practice of giving Batman young sidekicks to make him more kid-friendly got a bit out of hand: here he had a new, little-kid Robin, Batgirl, and Dick Grayson as Nightwing, and most episodes included one, two or three of them.

I'm a partisan of the idea that Batman is usually better off without sidekicks; I just think he's a guy like John Wayne in Rio Bravo who wouldn't want amateurs tagging along, which means he might be okay with Dick Grayson (if we're doing Rio Bravo comparisons, Dick is clearly Colorado) but never the Commissioner's spunky daughter or some kid off the street. Actually, the best-known episode from this season, "Over the Edge," pretty much proves the point that Batman should tell Batgirl to go home and stop risking her life. There are three or four episodes in this run that have just Batman fighting villains alone, the way he usually did in the first season on Fox, and it's kind of a relief to see him without any kids hanging around.

So these episodes aren't as good as the Fox episodes, but like I said, I still enjoy them a lot. They've got plenty of great stuff carried over from the Fox seasons (the superb voice cast, Shirley Walker's music) and the slightly more modernized look of the show allows for some slightly more modern-skewing stories, like the episode with a fashion model turning evil and getting revenge on the modeling industry that has rejected her as over-the-hill. Also, the WB's Standards and Practices people were apparently more permissive than Fox's, allowing for a bit more violence than the Fox show could get away with, including a violent onscreen death. Most popular episodes in the bunch include the aforementioned "Over the Edge," the Batman-through-the-ages tribute "Legends of the Dark Knight," and "Mad Love," which Paul Dini and Bruce Timm adapted from their comic book about the origins of Harley Quinn and her masochistic obsession with the Joker.

One thing I get when watching these episodes is kind of a bittersweet, nostalgic feeling, because they're part of the end of an era. They aired on the WB in the 1997-8 season, by which time Warner Brothers had transferred most of its animated product from Fox to its own network. But the fact that WB's best animated shows generally skewed older -- appealing to teenagers, college kids and parents as much as to little kids, if not more -- had already hurt the network with the advertisers, who weren't interested in advertising toys and such on shows that didn't have a monolithically young audience. So by 1997 the WB was already in the process of phasing out the cartoons that appealed to older viewers, having cancelled "Freakazoid," halted production on "Superman," and put "Animaniacs" on semi-hiatus. But they still had "Batman" and "Pinky and the Brain" in production, and those shows aired a lot of episodes on the WB in the 1997-8 season. And with both those shows, the WB had production halted and replaced with semi-spinoffs targeted at a younger audience.

"Pinky and the Brain" became "Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain," while "Batman" was replaced with "Batman Beyond." Now, "Batman Beyond" was a very fine show and probably, overall, more satisfying than the WB run of "Batman." Still, the upshot of it was that the WB had pulled the plug on all the shows that were part of its '90s TV animation boom -- the Spielberg shows, "Batman." None of those shows would come back, and the whole idea of making daytime cartoons for the whole family, as opposed to just kids, was being steamrolled by "Pokemon" and Pokemania.

So the end of the "Batman" series, along with the end of the "Pinky and the Brain" series (which gets a shout-out in one of the WB "Batman" episodes, "Torch Song") marked the end of a particular kind of TV cartoon that no one has ever quite been able to replicate. I respect the same team's "Justice League," but the plots are of necessity so outlandish and fantastical that they're not really my thing; the special appeal of "Batman" is that it's not really sci-fi, not really fantasy, more of a psychological crime drama with funny costumes.

Because the WB pulled the plug on "Batman" and the team moved to "Batman Beyond," the WB run of "Batman" feels incomplete; there are some story ideas that seem to be set up but not followed up on with an actual episode, and a new character, the Creeper (who looks and acts like what Timm's original conception of Freakazoid might have been) was supposed to be a multi-episode character but appears only once. Would be interesting to see what the show might have done if it had run longer, but it had the longest run of any of WB's animated shows of this period, so it's hard to complain about it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Eastern Violence

The Criterion Collection newsletter reports that they'll be releasing new DVD editions of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro next year. These were three of the first movies Criterion brought out on DVD, and the transfers and features left a lot to be desired; if you're thinking of picking up these movies, wait for the new discs.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Eat Hootersville Rutabagas!

MacLean's Magazine has my new article on the surprisingly far-reaching, long-lasting influence of the show Green Acres, "Hurrah For Hooterville."

One episode from the third season that I didn't have room to mention in the article was the two-part season finale "A Star Named Arnold Is Born," where Arnold the pig makes a splash in a local play called "Who Killed Jock Robin?" (playing the part of an English police dog when Columbo the trained dog is unavailable), and winds up in Hollywood, replacing a horse in a major motion picture after the horse asks for too much money. (The producer of the film expresses regret at hiring the horse instead of his first choice, Elizabeth Taylor.) Arnold decides to give up on Hollywood stardom when he meets the horse he replaced, and has a subtitled conversation with him -- Arnold's grunts and the horse's whinnies subtitled in English -- in which he learns that the horse was counting on this picture to put his son through college:

ARNOLD: Grunt, grunt. (Subtitle: "I FEEL LIKE A HEEL.")
HORSE: Neigh! (Subtitle: "C'EST LA VIE.")
ARNOLD: Grunt, grunt. (Subtitle: "OH, YOU SPEAK FRENCH.")

In the scene that directly follows this scene, Lisa, Oliver and the producer speak English, and the subtitles continue to flash on the screen until Lisa turns to the camera and says "We don't need those words any more."

My article from last week, on contemporary sitcoms, is online too. I seem to be carving out some kind of niche as Sitcom Guy. It's a (freelance) living.

It's Crizappy!

Sitcoms Online has some very fine news about upcoming TV-On-DVD releases:

NewsRadio: The Complete Third Season will be coming to DVD on February 28! This is still unofficial of course, so keep it low key. If this is indeed the date, we can expect Sony to announce it in less than 2 weeks. And when they do, will have full information on it!


Fans of the cult hit Action have been waiting and waiting for Sony to release the show on DVD. It had been scheduled many times but was always pulled off. And we hope this time it will not be pulled again. Action: The Complete Series will come out on February 21. We can expect all 13 episodes of the 1999 FOX series starring Jay Mohr to make it on this set. Thanks to Dragonfire Films, err Sony Pictures Home Entertainment for finally scheduling the cult sitcom.

Monday, December 05, 2005

This Media Life

Terry Teachout's piece on Capote and Good Night and Good Luck is interesting, though as with any politics-related piece from Commentary magazine it's a bit heavy on certain clichés that the magazine hasn't been able to give up on since approximately 1971. For example, any piece in Commentary about the McCarthy "witch hunt" must, perhaps by law, include some variant of the following sentence, pointing out that Clooney's film does not mention:

The fact that McCarthy’s witch hunt, however irresponsible in practice, was at least nominally motivated by the existence of actual witches.

Having read this argument dozens of times, I'm never sure why it's supposed to be relevant. If anything, the fact that McCarthy siezed on "the existence of actual witches" to promote a hunt for non-witches -- e.g. Communists who weren't spies, liberals, people who looked funny -- makes it worse, not better. The fact that the "witches" existed may excuse the public for getting so scared; it has zero to do with the politicians who knew better. It is, in other words, a way of changing the subject.

Another sentence the piece could well do without is:

Here, Clooney echoes the New Left mantra endlessly regurgitated by aging baby boomers longing to assuage their liberal guilt by keeping faith with the never-to-be-questioned commandments of the 60’s.

Again, no Commentary piece is complete without an attack on the '60s and non-conservative baby boomers, but please, enough is enough. The politics of Clooney's movie are, if anything, pure '50s liberalism, or possibly '30s leftishness; the only people these days keeping faith with the never-to-be-questioned commandments of the '60s are conservatives, who are still repeating the same talking points they were repeating back in 1968. The '60s shaped conservative thinking much more than liberal thinking.

Anyway, the piece ends with some of Terry's patented blog triumphalism -- he's the friendliest blog triumphalist around, but still:

What has changed since 1958, of course, is the willingness of a fast-growing number of Americans to continue taking for granted the objectivity of the news media. With the emergence of such decentralized “new media” as blogs and talk radio, it is no longer necessary to settle for whatever news CBS and the New York Times see fit to publish.

Now, first of all, let's remember this: blogs and talk radio and the like are parasitic on "mainstream" news. When bloggers say they're talking about something the "MSM" won't report, what they really mean is that they're calling attention to "MSM" stories that they feel were not given enough prominence by said "MSM." The same goes true for all articles in opinion journals: left or right, any news stories they mentioned are stories that were at some point reported in the New York Times or on CBS. (Don't bring up the Dan Rather memo thing, okay? It just wasn't important, didn't swing the election either way, and nobody cared about it outside the blogs. The only important thing about the Rather thing was that it caused CBS to kill a far more important story on the forged Niger documents.) In other words, the decentralized "new media" does, in fact, settle 99% of the time for whatever news CBS and the New York Times see fit to publish, and always will.

Second, If you think about it, what Murrow was doing with his piece on McCarthy was very much akin to what the decentralizers are doing now: taking the news and adding the context that conventional reporting couldn't or wouldn't give. What frustrates most people today about the news media is its attempt to sidestep the question of what's true and what's false. The most persistent and valid objection to conventional reporting is that they adopt the "he said/she said" technique, which means that even if one person is telling the truth and the other is lying, they will be reported as if they are equally valid. That's the kind of reporting that was going on with McCarthy -- McCarthy says the Communist conspiracy is taking over America, Senator John Milquetoast says it isn't -- and Murrow decided that he-said-she-said couldn't give an accurate portrayal of what was going on. So he "crossed the line" into attacking McCarthy (with McCarthy's own words) and by doing so produced something more, not less, accurate than a conventionally neutral piece.

I don't think this is a particularly controversial thing to say, really; if a reporter were to write that Stalin says everything is great in Russia but John Siberiabound says it isn't, and then write the story in a way that suggests that the issue is open, anyone would call that wrong even though it's clearly not taking sides. In this case, as in many others, the objective point of view is not the neutral one: a reporter who looks at the issue objectively will have to take sides. Sometimes, of course, a liberal reporter might be blinded by his own views into confusing his opinion with objective truth. But given that conservative media critics always seem to think that an objective report would validate their own view of any situation, I can't take them seriously when they pick on the occasional moderate-Clintonite for suggesting that maybe things aren't going so smoothly in Iraq.

I would also submit that it seems a little quaint to be talking, however obliquely about liberal bias in the media at a time when so many journalists -- Bob Woodward and many others -- have been shown to be buddy-buddy with members of the Bush administration. That doesn't mean they're right-wing either; it means that journalists tend to make their living by sucking up to people in power in order to get juicy bits of gossip ("Joe Wilson's wife is..." was a piece of gossip that unexpectedly turned out to be radioactive for all sides). This is why -- and this is still not very widely understood by conservatives -- it's liberals who are most frustrated with the "MSM" now, because liberals actually believed that mainstream journalists were supposed to be truth-tellers. The fact that Bob Woodward sucks up to the Bush administration is ignored or shrugged off by conservatives; it hurts and angers liberals. And you can't discuss the media culture of today without acknowledging the fact that mainstream journalists have a decidedly non-adversarial relationship to the government.

The idea that journalists should "speak truth to power" may be a liberal cliché on a level with Commentary's store of conservative clichés, but it seems obvious that journalists should at least not be worried about pissing off people in power; once they get to worrying about that, they start repeating thinly-disguised press releases as fact, and then you get the media culture of today, which satisfies no one because it challenges no one.

If Clooney's movie has an old-fashioned "truth to power" point to make, it is at least one that, if followed, would lead to better journalism than we get today. Blogs are journalism too, and one of the reasons most conservative blogs are so bad -- and they are very bad indeed -- is the power-worship. The aptly named Power Line (which broke the Dan Rather story that no one outside of the blogs seems to care about), probably the single worst blog on the net, routinely and seriously calls President Bush a genius and the president who has articulated his worldview "more consistently and more eloquently than any President since Lincoln," while hurling accusations of treason at anyone who disagrees with them. They are political hacks who started up a blog, and whose political philosophy revolves around total devotion to the people currently in power; that's always going to happen, but it makes for terrible journalism because they dismiss (look at any of their posts, if you can stand it) any fact that doesn't confirm what they already knew to be true. They are much, much worse than any CNN or CBS journalist at ignoring facts and distorting other facts, yet they are set up as the critics of CNN and CBS.

The "decentralization" of news, in this case, has merely become the ability of people who don't want to be bothered with inconvenient facts to go and find out why they were right all along. (Happens on the left too, of course, but not as much at the moment, in part because most left-wing blogs have comments, which allow for fact-checking and challenges to the blogger, whereas most high-profile right-wing blogs don't have comments.) This is not progress, and if George Clooney wants to advocate for journalists to be a little more like Murrow and a little less like Bob Woodward, well, that may be simplistic, but it's better than what we've got now. Besides which, of course, blogger-journalists claim they're speaking truth to power too; the source of "power" they identify being that of the "MSM." The difference between speaking truth to CBS and speaking truth to a politican is that the former has only the power to report on stuff that happened; the latter has the power to make things happen. The current weird situation is one where many blogger-journalists on the right, and even a few on the left, spend most of their time railing against those with declining power (the "MSM") and the rest of the time justifying every action of those who actually have power.

Where the media goes from here, I don't know. Political blogs are mostly useful now as an echo chamber or as a political organizing tool (a way of getting together people of the same political persuasion). If anything is to revive trust in the "MSM," it'll probably be something that conservatives don't like, like more nasty reporting on Iraq or various other scandals. Why? Because muckraking, scandal-mongering and "speaking truth to power" actually increases public trust in the media, if the public thinks the scandal is important. The Murrow thing increased public trust in the media; so did the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate scandal. If the Democrats get back into power and do something really bad, and the media reports on that, that will also increase public trust in the media. (The Clinton-Lewinsky thing decreased public trust in the media, but that's because the general public, rightly or wrongly, decided that it wasn't an important issue and the media shouldn't be writing so much about it.)

Because, again, while it's hackneyed to say that the media should "speak truth to power," it's the only thing that the media can do to make more people like it. People have an instinctive distrust of politicians and people in power. The more the media is seen as being on the side of the politicians, the less they will be trusted. The conservative solution, at the moment, would push the media into being still more on the side of the politicians -- and unless you're a worshipper of politicians, that's a recipe for making most people hate the media even more than they already do. Murrow got to be loved because he embodied the adversarial relationship between journalism and politics. That's what the public likes, much more than journalists (including bloggers) who suck up to politicians, or journalists who have an adversarial relationship with other journalists. A little less media-bashing and a little more bashing from the media; that's the ticket to renewed prestige and popularity.

By the way, did I mention I hate the term "MSM?"