Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Grudge Matches I'd Like to See: Ubu vs. the MTM Kitten

The ultimate logo smackdown: The MTM Kitten vs. Ubu. Does dog eat cat, or does the kitty sit pretty?

I personally think the MTM kitten is tougher and certainly more versatile, having been a basketball player ("The White Shadow"), a detective ("Remington Steele") and even having shown an ability to imitate Bob Newhart's voice. But I once posted this match on a message board and received the reply: "Ubu's a badass MOFO who don't sit for nobody!" So it's really kind of a toss-up.

Bum Bum, Bum-Bum Bum-Bum, Bum-Bum-Bum...

"Mission: Impossible," the complete first season, September 12. This of course is the Steven Hill season; I prefer him to his replacement, Peter Graves, but that might be the result of being indoctrinated by all those Law and Order reruns.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Lyrics by Carolyn Leigh: "Corduroy Road"

Some more lyrics by one of my top three favourite lyricists, Carolyn Leigh. This song, "Corduroy Road," is from the musical Wildcat, where it was sung by a group of people working on an oil rig. It has all the stuff I love about Leigh -- lots of rhymes combined with language that is both colloquial and full of unique phrases ("the shriekin' of the spider"; "all the angels lettin' go"). And notice how, like most good lyricists, Leigh doesn't settle for generic or vague images; she deals in concrete images of things associated with the oil rig -- specific objects (winches, piping), sounds ("bangin' and clankin'), all leading up to the climactic image of what they're working up to ("the earth will explode").

Take up them hammers and lay down that plankin'
If you've a derrick you wanna get growed.
Here come the greaseballs a-bangin' and clankin',
Here come your cousins of Corduroy Road.

Tattoo and Sandy and Corky and Oney,
Cisco and me and the tools to unload.
Half of us stinkin' and all of us stoney,
Here come your cousins of Corduroy Road.

I wanna hear the moanin' and the windin' of the winches,
I wanna hear the grindin' of the gears.
The shriekin' of the spider on the pipin' where it pinches,
Buddy, that is music to my ears.
Talk about your Christmas and your choir singin' carols,
Talk of all the angels lettin' go,
Let me hear the rumble of a half a million barrels,
That's the only song I wanna know.
Corduroy Road, the highway to hell,
The wages are rotten, and so is the smell,
The whiskey runs low and the temperature high,
You can't see the sun for the mud in your eye,
Then all of a sudden the earth will explode,
And halfway to heaven is Corduroy Road.
Then all of a sudden the earth will explode,
And you're halfway up to heaven on the Corduroy Road.

Crude oil or sweet oil or oil to your order,
Oil for to light up your lady's abode.
If you've a well and you ain't yet explored 'er,
Count on your cousins from Corduroy Road,
Count on your wildcat cousins from Corduroy Road!

Sunday, May 28, 2006

You Yugoslavian Recidivist Knuckleheads!

Some enterprising contributor at the IMDb has added a really fantastic collection of quotes from the show "Night Court", that pretty much sum up why this was the funniest show on NBC in the '80s. Note I didn't say the best, or the most sophisticated, and certainly not the smartest; but at least until the departure of its creator/showrunner Reinhold Weege, "Night Court" brought teh funny more often than most shows, including even the sainted "Cheers."

As I wrote in an earlier post, "Night Court" started out with relatively dry, understated humour but soon became the broadest, most Vaudevillian comedy on TV: in its nonstop punchlines (if you didn't like one joke there'd be another joke coming in about ten seconds) and willingness to do anything for a laugh -- puns, double entendres, crazy costumes -- it was a throwback to the TV comedy of the '50s, and even somewhat of a throwback to radio comedy. That made it kind of fresh at a time when most TV comedy was getting a little too bland.

Some particularly good quotes from Weege-land:

[on trial are a group of beauty contestants who attacked their sneaky pageant coordinator]
Dan: Your Honor, according to witnesses, Miss Congeniality led the attack with a kick to the groin.

[Mac is trying to figure out the new computer system]
Harry: What's the next case, Mac?
Mac: [staring at the computer, confused] Uh, People vs. Pac Man, sir.

Lorna Huebner: Your Honor, my father's dying words were, "No matter what, don't make me go with Arlene."
Arlene Huebner: Why, you lying...!
Harry: Whoa, whoa, whoa! Dying words? Is Dad dead?
Dan: As a kipper on a cracker!
[shocked looks]
Dan: I'm sorry to say.

Dan: Harry, here it is in a nutshell. Mel Tormé is in your office right now! He wanted to leave but I couldn't let him, so I locked him up with your trick shackles!
Harry: I don't have any trick shackles. Those are real, and I don't have a key!
Dan: Oh! Then I just managed to kidnap a well-known jazz artist.

Dan: Women.
Harry: So, who was it last night? The Soviet gymnast?
Mac: The farmer's daughter?
Bull: One of those rubber-jointed ladies from the freak shows that like to be handcuffed and thrown around the room by their ponytails, screaming for mercy until they black out?
[Stares from everyone]
Bull: What?

The flaw of the show was that Weege was apparently under the impression that he was doing a show with a mix of comedy and social significance, like the show where he got his start, "Barney Miller." So every "Night Court" episode would come to a halt for several minutes while the characters explained the Message that the episode was trying to convey. But the cardboard cartoon characters of "Night Court," unlike the more realistic and three-dimensional characters of "Barney Miller," just couldn't hold up during serious moments, so the serious stuff felt forced and contrived. But when it came to pure unapologetic well-crafted low comedy, it was the best of its time -- what other show would have a major character running down the hall from a giant 8-ball?

To wrap it up, here are three clips from Weege's best episode, the two-parter "Hurricane," which Weege wrote (and Jeff Melman directed). Here is "Night Court" at its best, for better or for worse: no subtlety, not much characterization, but lots and lots of jokes, and most of them work. The first clip features the guest characters of Bob and June Wheeler (Brent Spiner and Annie O'Donnell), who would have become regulars on the show had Spiner not gotten the "Star Trek" gig. This bit could easily have come out of a '40s radio comedy, complete with Harry doing age-old straight lines like "Okay, let me get this straight...":

The second clip features two of the better scenes from the baby-delivery marathon that takes up the second half of the episode: highlights include the inevitable vagina joke ("Night Court" had more vagina jokes than many an uncensored cable series), and John Larroquette's best bit -- "my briefcase, top pocket."

And finally, in the most famous bit from this episode, Harry Anderson explains why the sky is blue:

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Could It Bat-Be?

According to this, Adam West was at a convention in Detroit and said that the "Batman" TV series will be coming out on DVD soon. Grain of salt and all that, but let's hope this means Warner Brothers and Fox have worked out the rights disputes over this series.

Best Fake Trailer Ever

This video already went viral last week, but I can't not link to my new favourite in the YouTube-powered "fake movie trailer" genre: Smacky Productions' 10 Things I Hate About Commandments. "Moses, Moses!"

Friday, May 26, 2006

Aldrich's Aims

There are two films by Robert Aldrich coming out in two-DVD special editions, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Dirty Dozen. This would be a good opportunity, then, for me to say what I think of his work... except I've never been entirely sure what to think. Aldrich was an auteur, there's no doubt about that; he picked his own projects, produced his own movies, had a team of people he worked with frequently (especially cinematographer Joe Biroc and composer Frank DeVol). He had a distinctive style, which I might describe an odd combination of the mundane and the crazy: his movies have a lot of static, TV-style shots and flat lighting, but with heightened or lowered camera angles and the over-the-top performances he gets from his actors, there's always crazy stuff happening within that sensible, budget-conscious framework of his.

And he certainly had a distinctive worldview: an Aldrich movie, in whatever genre, is cynical, nasty, and grotesque, and not terribly forgiving toward the people who have come to see the movie. The Dirty Dozen is about the way we, the audience, will root for a bunch of vicious thugs and murderers if they're doing what we like to think of as "good guy" stuff (fighting Nazis). And that's one of his more upbeat movies.

He was also a bit like that other self-promoting producer-director, Otto Preminger, in that he tried to push the boundaries of what kind of content was acceptable in American movies; but whereas Preminger basically made high-toned prestige pictures that happened to deal with touchy subjects, Aldrich was out to push the envelope when it came to how lurid or gruesome or amoral a big-star, mainstream movie could be. In many ways no one, not even the '70s film brats, ever went as far as Aldrich in re-defining what the bounds of good taste were for a mainstream film.

Some of this was probably just opportunism; Mad Magazine did a parody of Aldrich's Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte where they pointed out that movies like Charlotte and Baby Jane were just big-star versions of the kind of bad "B" movies kids were seeing in drive-ins. (At the end of the parody, the stars are hacked to pieces by the stars of the "Beach Party" movies, jealous that the aging stars are getting Oscar nominations for their schlock while the critics ignore teenage drive-in schlock.) But I think he genuinely wanted to shake audiences up and bring some of the liberating tastelessness of exploitation movies to "A" pictures. And remember that the '50s and '60s were a time when American "A" pictures were sinking into a rut of tasteful, prestigious boredom; in a time when movies like The Robe or Marty were the big successes, a film like Kiss Me Deadly -- a movie seething with angry contempt for its audience, its source material, and basically all of humanity -- was like a slap in the face to a somnolent film industry and filmgoing audience.

Aldrich could occasionally show compassion to his characters, especially supporting characters on the periphery of the story, and even occasionally to the leads (Beryl Reid in The Killing of Sister George is weirdly sympathetic at times). But when you come right down to it, I don't think he liked people very much and he wasn't afraid of showing it. How many directors, before Aldrich or after, could make a successful commercial moviemaking career out of an openly-expressed conviction that humans are vile creatures? Not many, I think. And that's what makes Aldrich's movies both fascinating and off-putting: fascinating because of what they say about people, and off-putting because he definitely thinks we're as creepy and violence-loving as some of the people he shows us on the screen.

Of course Aldrich also introduced hot girl-on-girl action to your local cinema, so if my generation knew about him, they'd probably consider him a god.

Worst Theme Songs Ever: Addendum

You know how I said that when it comes to theme songs with lyrics that explain the premise, a good theme song is one that takes a convoluted concept and explains it in as few words as possible? Well, the opposite of that is a song that takes a simple concept and tells you more than you would ever want to know about it. And so I give you: "The Brady Brides."

And in case that didn't blow your mind sufficiently, here's the theme song for Filmation's "The Brady Kids."

Weekend Nessmania

The world probably isn't clamouring for more Les Nessman clips, but hell, I uploaded 'em, I'm going to post 'em. More of the news personality whose style, professionalism and worldview has come to define modern news:

Les Nessman delivers an emergency warning, informative yet culturally-charged, about a natural disaster ("Tornado"):

Les Nessman explains the problems that a pundit can run into when his two heroes are Edward R. Murrow and George S. Patton ("Clean Up Radio Everywhere"):

And finally, Les Nessman demonstrates the first rule of news reporting: read what you're told and relay it to the public, because the official report never lies:

Les Nessman is the news media. He just is.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Meep Meep Jr.

Earl Kress is doing a series of posts on "the best Looney Tune You've Never Seen," "Little Go Beep", about the youthful Road Runner and Coyote. Kress wrote it and Spike Brandt directed it (Brandt was an animator for StarToons before joining Warner Brothers, where he specialized in handling the classic characters). The posts are very informative about the process of getting a cartoon made, and make you sorry that WB didn't go on commissioning more Looney Tunes cartoons from its in-house production people.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


I've been listening to some opera recordings by the Czech conductor Raphael Kubelik, a very underrated conductor who somehow managed to rack up a huge catalogue of recordings on a major record label (including complete Mahler and Dvořák symphony cycles) without ever becoming particularly famous. He didn't get a lot of chances to record opera -- most of the big opera recording projects were given to bigger-name conductors like Karajan -- but when he did, he always turned in excellent work, and these three recordings of three very different operas would be somewhere near my first choices for these pieces:

1. Verdi, Rigoletto - A recording with a rather strange concept behind it: take the orchestra and chorus of La Scala Milan, and an all-Italian supporting cast (Carlo Bergonzi, Renata Scotto, Fiorenza Cossotto) but cast the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role. For some weird reason, it works. Fischer-Dieskau's voice is exactly wrong for the part of Rigoletto -- it's supposed to be a big, full, Italianate baritone voice, whereas Fischer-Dieskau's voice is high and light -- but he puts so much conviction and real passion into his singing that it turns out to be one of the better versions of that part on record; Conrad L. Osborne, who didn't care for F-D's other attempts at Italian opera, was totally won over by this one. The young Scotto is a fine Gilda, Bergonzi is at his best as the Duke, and Kubelik's conducting is some of the best Verdi conducting on record. Definitely the Rigoletto to get if you're getting just one, and a very good introduction to Verdi.

2. Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande - This is a live recording from two concert performances in Munich in 1971. The stereo sound is very good and the audience isn't too intrusive (there are a few stray coughs, but applause has been edited out). You wouldn't expect a German orchestra with a Czech conductor to produce a great performance of an early 20th-century French work, but it's actually quite fantastic -- instead of making Debussy sound cute and "impressionistic" as so many conductors do, Kubelik really has his orchestra dig in and bring out all the menace and brooding threats of violence in the score. (The opera is about repressed passions and meanings that are just beneath the surface, and the orchestral accompaniment -- which is really the main melodic material, because the singers mostly communicate in recitative -- constantly sounds like it's just about to burst forth in anger, but never quite does, or at least almost never.) The cast is very good, though the French pronunciation is variable; the highlight is Helen Donath, who is simply one of the great opera singers of her generation -- the kind of "light" soprano who could actually project more powerfully than many a bigger-voiced singer.

3. Wagner, Parsifal -- I must be nuts or something, because while I'm not that big of a Wagner fan, I do love the music of Parsifal, his last opera and the one that is generally considered to be the least accessible by non-Wagnerians. The libretto is insane hokum, with Wagner's patented weird mixture of the worst aspects of Paganism and Christianity. The opera moves at a slow pace even for Wagner, with endless expository monologues and scenes of chorus people standing around doing nothing. But the music has a hypnotic quality to it; the melodies are so strange (Wagner pushed the limits of traditional tonality and rhythm in this, his last opera, and sort of paved the way for the atonalists who would follow him) that they make you want to follow them and see what Wagner is going to do with them, how he will build the scene musically; and before you know it another half-hour has gone by, and you realize that, long as the opera is, there's not a lot in it that's really boring or redundant -- it's long and slow because that's what the material demands, but it's long and slow in a fascinating and even gripping way. This Kubelik recording was another studio recording that the major labels wouldn't release (Karajan had a competing version coming out, and that probably blocked Deutsche Grammophon from releasing it). It was finally released a couple of years ago, and it becma pretty much the first choice among studio Parsifal recordings; Kubelik's work is excellent and his cast -- the American heldentenor James King, the wonderful Australian mezzo Yvonne Minton, and the best German bass of his era, Kurt Moll -- is excellent.

Best TV Theme Song Ever?

So, okay, what's the best TV theme song ever?

My answer to that question is boringly conventional, but really, no matter how many times I try to think about it, it always comes down to one show and one only: "Hawaii Five-0." That Mort Stevens theme just grabs you like no other TV theme song; it has so much action and suspense built into the music, and such a satisfying ending, that the episode always seemed like a letdown by comparison. It helps that the title sequence, by Reza Badiyi, basically revolutionized TV title sequences. (Badiyi was also the one who came up with the idea for Mary Tyler Moore to throw her hat in the air.)

My other choices are equally conventional: "The Addams Family" (Vic Mizzy), "The Rockford Files" (Mike Post and Pete Carpenter), "Mission Impossible" (Lalo Schifrin).

In the "catchy song with lyrics that explain the premise" category," my top two are "The Beverly Hillbillies" (Paul Henning) and "The Nanny" (Ann Hampton Callaway). Both of them do an amazing job of summing up rather convoluted premises, and making them sound perfectly comprehensible, in as few words as possible.

I also have a great fondness for the theme song of "Phyllis", with lyrics by series co-creator Stan Daniels: an absolutely dead-on parody of Jerry Herman with a great punchline ("It sure isn't yoooouuuu").

Your nominations in the "best" category?

Addendum: I don't know what to make of this, but I saw someone nominate "Angie" as one of the best theme songs ever -- and I was considering including the song (which was a top 40 hit at the time) on my "worst" list. Maybe I'm just not hip to the magic of Norman Gimbel, but anyway, You be the judge. ("Angie," by the way, was one of the better shows to come out of the Miller-Milkis-Boyett fiefdom in the late '70s and early '80s, but it fell victim to constant re-tooling and schedule changes and was off the air within two years.)

Update: A few more "best" nominations from the comments:

- "Gidget" (Howard Greenfield and Jack Keller)
- "Maude" (David Shire and Alan & Marilyn Bergman)
- "The Green Hornet" (Billy May)
- "The Patty Duke Show" (music by Sid Ramin, better-known as a great Broadway orchestrator for shows like West Side Story and Gypsy)

Update 2: Tor Harbin notes that John Williams's theme for "Amazing Stories" (and the accompanying title sequence with Ray Walston as the storyteller) is another example of the theme song being better than the show.

"Revenge isn't sweet, kids -- it's actually salty with a twist of lime!"

Instead of posting a classic cartoon, I'll post one from the early '90s "silver age" of TV cartoons -- the "Tiny Toon Adventures" cartoon "Ruffled Ruffee." Written by Sherri Stoner and directed by Alfred Gimeno (who directed many of the best "Animaniacs" segments and storyboarded the great Tiny Toons "Do You Love Me" video I linked to in another post), it's one of the show's more successful attempts at doing a Bugs Bunny-style cartoon, with Buster Bunny pulling a "Long-Haired Hare" on a Raffi-type singer (Rob Paulsen) whose bland songs encourage kids to be docile and dull.

It's also a good example of the distinctive animation of Tokyo Movie Shinsha; with their angular (but beautiful-looking) drawing style and their way of animating -- having characters move broadly and pop from one pose to another with a lot of "smear" drawings -- they did some of the best-looking animation ever seen on television.

Can You Tell Me How To Get...

In addition to announcing another The Electric Company box set, TV Shows on DVD informs us of the imminent threat of a "Classic Sesame Street box set" for this October. I couldn't be happier -- Electric Company may have been hipper, but Sesame Street is a part of our lives. Hell, I still remember being a kid and being actually happy -- overjoyed, even -- to receive a Sesame Street record called "Bob Sings!" Do you know how much of an impact Sesame Street must have on your life if you squeal with joy at hearing a solo record for Bob?

Criticism Noted

A commmenter writes: "I think you overrate Jay Tarses and his maverickness(?)"

Point definitely taken. Some of the Jay Tarses stories -- including those recounted in Lynne Farr's article (which appears to have disappeared from the WGA site, but the cache is still there) aren't that atypical in TV-writer terms. I once wrote up a character vaguely based on Tarses and I may be guilty of conflating him with that character.

Still, I've always been kind of fascinated by the tale of Tarses and his status as the king of the ambitious failure that eventually gives someone else the idea for a hit. "Buffalo Bill," "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and "The Slap Maxwell Story" influenced future hit shows ("Molly Dodd" especially) without ever becoming hits themselves. There are other showrunners with that kind of track record, and still other showrunners who have, um, quirky personalities, but it's the combination that makes Tarses an interesting character, at least in theory. (Plus the additional irony that his daughter became a network executive.)

Round-Headed Milestone

The official "Peanuts" site just reprinted the strip where Charlie Brown's sister Sally is born. One of the great "Peanuts" dailies, especially for Linus's closing line.

The Dave Davis Enigma

Further to my earlier post about "The Bob Newhart Show," one oddity that I noticed is that every time the writer/producer David Davis left a show, it got better. Davis (and his writing partner Lorenzo Music) was a top writer on "Mary Tyler Moore" for the first two seasons; he and Music left after season 2, and "Mary Tyler Moore" got much, much better and funnier in season 3.

Then "The Bob Newhart Show" seemed to get better the more Davis and Music stayed away from the show and left it in the hands of Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses; the best season of that show, season 4, was the first season where Davis and Music weren't involved at all.

And finally, Davis was one of four creators of "Taxi," but he was only involved with producing the show for the first season -- which was not as good as the Davis-less seasons that came after.

None of this is meant as a slur on Dave Davis, a fine writer and a brilliant producer of title sequences (the "Bob Newhart" and "Taxi" main titles are his creation); MTM didn't get better because he left, but because they brought in new writers like Ed Weinberger and David Lloyd. But I just thought it was odd that a guy should leave behind him an apparent pattern of improving shows by his departure -- kind of Ted McGinley in reverse.

Oh, and speaking of "The Bob Newhart Show," Newhart recently mentioned at a public appearance that the fourth (and, as I said, best) season of that show will have DVD commentaries with Tom "Peeper" Poston and Suzanne Pleshette -- who of course is now Mrs. Tom Poston.

I'd still love to hear what a Jay Tarses DVD commentary would be like, though. I have this feeling that most of his comments would be omitted by studio lawyers.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Worst TV Theme Song Ever?

Important, world-shaking question: what's the worst theme song in TV history?

I've been going through Retro Junk and Sitcoms Online looking for really terrible theme songs (Retro Junk has the main title sequences for many TV shows; you click on a show, scroll down and watch the intro), but I've frankly been a little disappointed. Most shows have songs that are more annoying than terrible; I mean, the "Diff'rent Strokes" theme is evil -- as you would expect from any song co-written by Alan Thicke -- but it's not exactly bad. What are some TV theme songs that are just plain terrible?

I think I might nominate "Hello, Larry" as the worst-ever theme song. It's not just that the song is dumb; lots of dumb shows have dumb songs. There are two things that make it stand out as particularly bad. One is the fact that it has backup singers repeating "Hello, Larry, Hello, Larry" all through the song. If you took a shot every time they sing "Hello Larry," you'd be smashed in less than the minute it takes to sing the song. And second, the lyrics are the most on-the-nose, dry, unsubtle lyrics ever. My favourite bad line in a TV theme song lyric may be "Portland is a long way from L.A." Yes, it certainly is.

The theme song of "Charles in Charge" isn't actually all that terrible, but the arrangement (in the infamous syndicated version, anyway) is the ultimate in '80s cheese and fully deserves a place in the pantheon of bad.

I would also put in a good/bad word for the Garry Marshall atrocity "Blansky's Beauties", though it's hard for me to say whether it's the theme song I hate or just the whole title sequence. One way or another it's one of those inappropriately uplifting theme songs for a truly crass show -- kind of like the way the "Laverne and Shirley" theme tried to convince us that the show was some kind of feminist statement.

And while it's not exactly a theme song, I think there's a case to be made that "The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang," which has been called the worst cartoon series of all time, also has the single worst title sequence of all time.

Update: Some other suggestions received are:

- "Joanie Loves Chachi" -- still another entry in the Scott Baio Hall of Shame.

- "It's About Time" (a Sherwood Schwartz production that proved that he did not, in fact, have the magic touch when it came to theme songs).

Update 2: How could I have forgotten "Small Wonder?"

Update 3: Sarah reminds me that we both hate Billy Goldenberg's theme song for "Rhoda."

And there's something deeply wrong about the theme song of "The Ropers."

Friday, May 19, 2006

More Frank Tashlin

Here are some more examples of the animation and live-action work of Frank Tashlin:

- One of my favourites among Tashlin's early black-and-white cartoons, "The Case of the Stuttering Pig," a Porky Pig cartoon (one of the few in which Petunia Pig makes an appearance; she would feature more prominently in comic books) that parodies horror/suspense movies while being pretty horrific and suspenseful in itself, with one of the first great Looney Tunes meta-gags. Billy Bletcher is the voice of Lawyer Goodwill.

- From Hollywood Or Bust, the opening sequence, involving two Tashlin trademarks: having characters talk directly to the audience about the movie they're about to see (Dean Martin welcoming movie fans everywhere while Jerry Lewis illustrates different types of movie fans around the world), and a title sequence consisting entirely of cheesecake poses, in this case featuring "guest star" Anita Ekberg. Tashlin hated credit sequences -- "who wants to read a bunch of names," he said -- so he always liked to put something under the credits that would "distract" the audience.

Incidentally, the writing credit for this film is misleading: Erna Lazarus had written a serious script about a road trip taken by two middle-aged people; Hal Wallis somehow decided to make it into a Martin-Lewis vehicle, and Tashlin wrote an entirely new script, but Lazarus still got the writing credit.

- And from Artists and Models, the "bat lady/fat lady" routine, one of the few Martin/Lewis comedy routines on film that can really stand up with the best of Abbott and Costello or other screen comedy teams. Though, Tashlin being Tashlin, he seems more interested in the young Shirley MacLaine's Bat Lady costume.

My Blog Translated

I have to say, this blog makes a lot more sense when it's properly translated.

(This translation brought to you by the good graces of Gizoogle.)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Crawling Toward the Funny

I've been making my way through Season 3 of "The Bob Newhart Show," and it once again confirms my belief that this was one show that took a long time to get really good.

I've said this in earlier posts, but "The Bob Newhart Show" seemed to improve in quality with the decreased involvement of its creators, Dave Davis and Lorenzo Music, and the increased involvement of two young writers, Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses. Music and Davis, fine writers both (the late Lorenzo Music was also of course a fine performer whose voice is familiar to us as Carlton on "Rhoda" and Garfield the cat), turned out a show that was generally in the style of the early (and less-funny) "Mary Tyler Moore Show:" friendly, warm, pleasant, and really not all that interesting a lot of the time. The exceptions were usually the episodes written by Patchett and Tarses, and in season 3, with Music and Davis off running the new "Rhoda" spinoff, Patchett and Tarses more or less took over running the show.

That doesn't mean, however, that the show got funnier instantly. It certainly kicks it up a notch in season 3, with more episodes focusing on Bob Hartley's crazy patients, but there's still a sense of creeping blandness about a lot of the comedy, with uneventful plot resolutions, a certain sameness to a lot of the staging ("How often can you get Bob over from the table to the couch?" Tarses once fumed) and a continued failure to make the Peter Bonerz character, Jerry, in any way interesting. (Patchett and Tarses had come close to finding a hook for Jerry in a season 2 episode where he confessed to being in love with Bob's wife Emily, but unfortunately this didn't last beyond that particular episode.) The show improves throughout the season, but it finally hits its stride in the Patchett-Tarses season finale, "The Ceiling Hits Bob," where the ceiling of Bob's office caves in and Bob is forced to conduct his sessions in different places (his apartment, Jerry's office, the elevator) while also getting increasingly annoyed with the other people in his life. This episode brings in all the things we hadn't really seen in the Music/Davis version of the show: a faster pace, darker humour, and a sense that Bob Hartley is really, really cheesed off at having to deal with these people every day. And that's the tone that Patchett and Tarses would carry into the best seasons of the show, seasons 4 and 5.

The sense I get from Patchett and Tarses's conception of "Bob Newhart" -- and this probably comes mostly from Tarses -- is that Bob Hartley isn't really a particularly nice or likable guy. He's repressed, cold, unforgiving of people's faults, and not always pleasant to be around. (From a season 5 episode where Bob and Emily accidentally get locked in a meat locker -- Emily: "Let's pass the time by telling riddles." Bob: "Okay, here's one -- why did the moron lock herself and her husband in the meat locker?") The most famous episode from season 4, "Over the River and Through the Woods" -- aka the Moo Goo Gai Pan episode -- features Bob and his friends spending the Thanksgiving holiday sitting around and getting drunk; it's quite pathetic if you think about it, but pathetic situations make for good comedy, and besides, Newhart does one of the best drunk acts in the business:

And a year or so before "Mary Tyler Moore" did their famous "bizarre death" episode ("Chuckles Bites the Dust"), Patchett and Tarses wrote a similar episode for "Bob Newhart," in which a member of Bob's group dies after a truckload of zucchini falls on him. Like a lot of good TV episodes, this came partly out of necessity -- the guy who played Mr. Gianelli, Noam Pitlik, had quit acting to become a director for "Barney Miller" -- but the Patchett/Tarses script is just about the darkest humour in a sitcom up to that time:

Patchett and Tarses left "Bob Newhart" after season 5 -- in fact, it was supposed to end after season 5, but Newhart decided at the last minute to come back for one more year -- and the final season (with Glen and Les Charles supervising the writing) is good but not great, so for a "classic" show, "Bob Newhart" doesn't necessarily have a lot of really first-rate seasons. The two it had, though, were quite good and gave some teeth to the MTM school of comedy.

No "Bob Newhart" post of mine is complete without some more stories about Jay Tarses, the sitcom writer who seemed to want to destroy the sitcom form from within; the man who wrote for women characters with unusual sympathy and understanding while greetiing new women writers with the salutation "Great tits," and the guy who hated laugh tracks so much that a friend described him as having a vendetta against laugh tracks. Here are two more Tarses anecdotes:

After Tarses and Patchett left "Bob Newhart," they created a new show for MTM called "We've Got Each Other," about a working mom and a house-husband; when the show was cancelled, here's what Tarses had to say about the show he had created:

It was about two plain, homely people, and you just didn't care about them. If I were a network executive, I wouldn't have bought the show in the first place. I'm not even sure I would have watched it myself if I wasn't involved with it. I have better things to do with my time.

And when Patchett and Tarses were doing "Buffalo Bill," and their partnership was falling apart (they would split up after the show ended, with Tarses going on to more experimental shows like "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and Patchett creating the more commercial "Alf"), Tarses changed the answering machine message in his office to: "Hi, this is Jay Tarses. If you're looking for Tom Patchett, he's not here, and he'll never be here."

Cy Feuer

Broadway producer Cy Feuer has died at the age of 95.

Feuer and his producing partner Ernie Martin were the kings of musical comedy -- not synthetic musical comedy like The Producers, not musical comedy about musical comedy like Spamalot, but honest-to-god, brash, fast and funny musical comedy. Their first hit was an adaptation of a classic farce (Where's Charley? based on Charley's Aunt) at a time when all the other Broadway producers were straining to be Serious and Relevant like Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their follow-up show, Guys and Dolls, started life as a serious mismatched-couple story in the vein of South Pacific; when that script wasn't working out, they brought in radio comedy writer Abe Burrows to write a new script that junked all the serious stuff and added a joke every second. Can-Can, written by Burrows and with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, had a plot that was almost entirely pointless but provided opportunities for bawdy jokes, lavish sets and costumes, and great Michael Kidd ballet sequences.

Feuer and Martin understood what musical comedy really means: it means putting the highest level of craftsmanship in the service of nothing more than giving the audience a good time. Too many producers thought, and think, that if you're doing a musical comedy the songs don't have to be that great (coughProducerscough), or the choreography can be a little weak, or you can skimp on the production values. Feuer and Martin understood that if you're going to do a wacky musical comedy about the corporate world, you need Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows and Bob Fosse and all the best talents in order to produce a really fine work of frivolity.

They may have forgotten that lesson after How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, though, as Feuer started to direct the shows himself and the songwriters they turned to were increasingly a notch below the best. That's not true of their next show, Little Me, one of the funniest musicals of all time and with top-notch people at every level: Bob Fosse (choreographing and co-directing with Feuer), Neil Simon (the script of Little Me is simply the best thing he ever wrote), the songwriting team of Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, and Sid Caesar playing seven roles. But unlike Guys and Dolls or How to Succeed, the new show didn't really offer any character the audience could care about -- every single person in Little Me is a cartoon character, and many of them die off in gruesome ways without the audience being expected to care -- and that probably accounted for its less-than-spectacular run of half a year.

After that, Feuer and Martin did two shows with the overrated team of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen (so-so pop songwriters and quite poor theatre songwriters), both of which underperformed; it's too bad, because both Skyscraper and Walking Happy were based on good source material -- Elmer Rice's Dream Girl and the old favourite Hobson's Choice, respectively -- and Skyscraper wasted a good starring performance by Julie Harris. After that they produced the film version of Cabaret, which many love (I don't), and some more stage musicals, including Richard Rodgers's last show, I Remember Mama. They were originally going to produce On the Twentieth Century, the musical version of Twentieth Century, but they pulled out of the project because they wanted it to star Alfred Drake, whereas director Harold Prince wanted someone younger to star. Prince got his way, but he was wrong and Feuer and Martin were right; no matter how old he was, that was Drake's part.

The genuine, unashamed, non-meta musical comedy may be dead or dormant, but Feuer's contributions to the genre will live on and be treasured forever.

Here are some Carolyn Leigh lyrics from Little Me to close this post:

Here's to us, my darling, my dear,
Here's to us tonight.
Not for what might happen next year,
For it might not be nearly as bright.
But here's to us, for better or worse,
And for thanks to a merciful star,
Skies of blue, and muddling through,
And for me and for you as we are.
And here's to us for nothing at all
If there's nothing at all we can praise,
Just that we're together and here
For the rest of our beautiful days.
Here's to us forever and always.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Another Thing I Don't Like About M*A*S*H, Albeit Not M*A*S*H's Fault

If you're collecting M*A*S*H seasons on DVD, stop doing that: it turns out that this fall, Fox will release A set of the complete series with "all-new extras not available anywhere else." (This isn't hard as the season sets didn't have any extras.) This looks to be the latest way of sticking it to the consumer -- re-packaging the complete series in a box with new special features, thus hopefully forcing someone who already collected the series to buy the whole thing all over again -- and I expect something similar to happen with other series.

Your Tex Avery Fix

"Screwball Squirrel" (1944), aka The First Screwy Squirrel Cartoon, aka "The one that begins and ends with a cute little Disney squirrel (animated by Avery's resident Disney man, Preston Blair) getting the crap beat out of him."

I don't have time to comment further on the cartoon, but it doesn't need much more comment; it's the essence of Tex Avery's MGM cartoon work: a lead character so obnoxious that he seems almost like a deliberate parody of the wise-guy cartoon characters Avery had helped create for Warner Brothers; gags that are as much about cartoon gags as they are cartoon gags in themselves. It's meta-cartooning at its best.

"Frank's Place"

Mark Mayerson asks in comments: I'd be curious if you have any thoughts on Hugh Wilson's next sitcom, Frank's Place, which starred Tim Reid. It only lasted a season, but I thought the show was one of the most interesting I'd ever seen in that the tone shifted radically every week. That may have been what prevented it from catching on, but I was fascinated to watch them constantly taking off in new directions.

Actually, I can't add much to Mark's thoughts on "Frank's Place"; it was a great show that was so unusual and sui generis that it couldn't fit in comfortably on a network schedule, and confused viewers and critics about whether it was supposed to be a comedy or a drama (the term "dramedy" was briefly used to describe this and other experimental one-camera half-hours of the time, like Jay Tarses's "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and "The Slap Maxwell Story"). In that sense, though certainly not in any similarity between the shows, it was the "Freaks and Geeks" of its time.

Several years ago the New Orleans Times-Picayune did a great in-depth article on "Frank's Place," how it came to be and how it came to be cancelled after only a season; fortunately that article is still on-line.

On a much sadder note, though, Austin Leslie, whose restaurant inspired the show, died last year not long after being evacuated from the city.

The DVD rights to "Frank's Place" are owned by Paramount, which has shown no sign of any interest in bringing the show out.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

OMG This Is the Greatest Thing Like EVAR LOL ROTFL

E! True Hollywood Story: "Charles In Charge."

You heard me. "Charles in Charge."

E! now reveals the Story left untold. Learn what almost left the sexy Nicole Eggert paralyzed for good, and go inside Josie Davis' struggle to grow up on TV and in real life. And what about the long list of Hollywood babes who wanted Charles to be in charge of their hearts?

What, indeed?

More C.L.O.-isms

I haven't done a music post in a while, but I can't think of much to write about, so I'll let someone else do the talking: here are a few good but randomly-selected quotes from the greatest living opera critic, Conrad L. Osborne. These all come from the 1967 edition of High Fidelity's Records in Review.

On the young Verdi (in the opera Nabucco):

He had nerve -- as much, in his way, as Wagner had in his. He was obviously persuaded that his musical vision of a scene would simply sweep away the need for radionality or consistency. His idea of an effective overture at this stage of his career is a case in point: one starts with a rather awful (but direct) melodic idea, very simply -- even crudely -- set forth; one repeats it, one alternates it with one or two contrasting ideas, not bothering with any real development; then one repeats it again, faster and louder, and works up to a conclusion. For some reason, the ideas no longer seem so awful, nor their presentation so rough; through pure determination and persistence, he makes you fight on his ground, where he always wins.

On Franco Corelli as Calaf in Puccini's Turandot:

It is a prodigious piece of vocalism. Here is a role in which command of a ringing top, the ability to sustain long, arching lines, and the art of maintaining a reasonable legato while giving or withdrawing volume add up to nearly everything; and when we add the exmplary clarity of Corelli's enunciation, the generosity of his temperament, andt he sheer virility and vitality of his tone, there is really not much left to talk about. One is fortunate if in a lifetime one encounters a tenor capable of singing through the whole thing with freshness and volume, and without embarrassment at any point. When such a one is found under the same roof with a similar Turandot [Birgit Nilsson], a sort of operatic millennium has arrived. Yes, he uses the scoop [attacking a note from below instead of hitting it directly], eleven or twelve times -- or rather a sort of gulp in attacking a high note that swallows up part of its value. A number of Italian tenors use the trick, presumably to make sure the throat is open, and it can be annoying, particularly on repeated high notes, as in "Nessun Dorma." In Signor Corelli's case, there seems no reason why he could not hit the note on the button if he made up his mind to; but of course the thing is actually of supreme unimportance. Musically, he is on excellent behavior, unless one chooses to be upset over a high A natural which he holds for several pages while striking the gong, as in the house. I like it -- provided it sounds like this.

On the traditional cuts to Donizetti's Lucia Di Lammermoor (it used to be customary to perform this opera with whole scenes chopped out and little bits of music cut here and there for no particular reason):

As in the case with so many nineteenth-century Italian operas (Trovatore is another example), there are also, traditionally, brief cuts made apparently for musical reasons, but with no basis except in pedantry of the pickiest sort -- one sees four bars out here, a line there. (I have a mental picture of an aging Kapellmeister in charge of such matters back in the Damrosch/Grau era, irascibly scratching out bars of Italian trash -- bad enough that Mme. Smbrich insists on singing the thing at all.) An instance is a two-line excision made in Enrico's first long solo in the scene with Lucia (lines two to four, p. 67 of the Schirmer vocal score), a perfectly solid bit of development with some interesting off-beat accents and a fine chance for the voice to open out on the ascent to the E natural. There is simply no reason to cut it; yet the only times I have heard the music are in the London and Victor recordings, and when one asks a conductor why it is cut, one will get "Oh, that's never done" for an answer. A poor reason.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Paul Brownstein Speaks

Here's an interview with Paul Brownstein, who is the leading producer/assembler of DVD sets for older television shows, particularly the "Dick Van Dyke Show" DVD sets. He talks about the process of finding good master material for these shows and tracking down the kind of stuff that makes for good extras: in-character commercials, award-show clips, kinescopes of live TV broadcasts (for the "Phil Silvers" best-of set, he included the cast performing an excerpt from the then-new sitcom on "The Ed Sullivan Show"), and so on. He also hints that he may be working on extras for the upcoming DVD releases of "Get Smart" and "The Odd Couple," two of the more prominent gaps in the TV-on-DVD catalogue.

"Jimmy Stewart for President, Ronald Reagan For Best Friend"

Perhaps keeping in mind Jack Warner's famous line, Warner Home Video will simultaneously release a Jimmy Stewart collection and a Ronald Reagan collection.

I don't think I'll be buying all the films, but I'll definitely be picking up Kings Row, still the best of the over-the-top Freud-besotted Hollywood soaps (unfortunately the DVD won't have a music-only track for the Erich Korngold score), and where several under-utilized WB contract players got their best chance to show what they could do, including Reagan and Ann Sheridan. And from the Stewart collection, the individual title most worth getting is Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur; there's also Billy Wilder's Lindbergh biopic The Spirit of St. Louis, but I haven't seen that yet.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Margie (1946)

Of all the great movies that aren't out on DVD yet, I think the movie that tops my wish list is 1946's Margie, directed by Henry King and starring Jeanne Crain. The description of the film doesn't sound like anything much: Crain plays a smart but shy high school girl in the '20s who loses her bloomers at inopportune times, wins one for the debate team, and has a crush on her handsome teacher (who, rather creepily, she eventually winds up marrying). Yet the description can't do it justice: as directed by the underrated King and played by the equally underrated Crain, it's one of the most beautiful movies of the '40s and very touching and even a little thought-provoking.

Like many, many, '40s movies, Margie is told in flashback (Citizen Kane made flashbacks into the device of choice for screenwriters and directors for a decade or more). King starts with a spectacular uninterrupted tracking shot from outside a house, through the open window and into the attic, where a middle-aged Margie and her teenage daughter are cleaning out some old things that remind Margie of her youth. She tells her daughter the story of what things were like for her in 1928, when she was a teenager.

It turns out that the teenaged Margie has a somewhat unusual living arrangement. Her father (Hobart Cavanaugh), an undertaker, is a widower who doesn't feel that he's capable of raising a daughter on his own, so Margie lives with her maternal grandmother (Esther Dale) and doesn't see her father very often. Margie is smart but introverted and nervous; she's also sexually frustrated and a little jealous of her trampy friend Marybelle (Barbara Lawrence) and her boyfriend Johnny (Conrad Janis, best known as Mindy's dad on "Mork and Mindy"). The film doesn't have much of a plot; it's a series of sequences in which Margie starts to come into her own as a person, with little triumphs like getting her father to come see her debate, or getting a date for the school dance. At the end, we return to middle-aged Margie with her husband and daughter, and the camera tracks back out of the attic and into the street.

King, the star director at Fox, was a veteran of the silent days with a style similar to John Ford's: he liked long takes, often with the camera placed at a low angle so you can see the ceilings; he didn't move the camera much unless the characters were moving with it; and he was very careful with his framing, making each shot look like a painting. Margie of course has the spectacular Fox Technicolor, but King doesn't over-light the film the way many directors did when working in Technicolor; instead he keeps a lot of scenes quite dark, calling attention to the things or people who really matter in the scene. Here (in not-so-great quality from my taped-from-TV copy) is one such scene in Margie, where Marybelle and Johnny dance to "A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich and You" while Margie is in her room preparing for her debate. What I love best about King's direction of this movie is that he's not afraid of slowing down: there are moments where Margie does absolutely nothing except sit there and think, and you feel, in those moments, like you're watching a real person, not a character in a movie who always needs to be keeping busy.

The "thought-provoking" part of the film is that, like a lot of post-WWII movies, it's at least in part about the question of what a woman's role should be in a postwar world. The movie takes place in 1928, and it begins in 1946, but the proverbial elephant in the room is the period we don't see in the picture, the period of 1929 to 1945. Margie is exactly the kind of woman who could have done, and perhaps did do, great things in that period; she's intelligent, industrious and idealistic, and the sense of every character in the movie is that she has something great to offer if she'd only be confident enough to show it. Her grandmother is a feminist who tells visitors about her days fighting for the right to vote, and proudly predicts that Margie will be the first female President (Margie berates her grandmother for this, telling her that it scares boys off when she talks like that). Her debate speech inspires her father to become politically active and, in 1946, to become an Ambassador.

But Margie herself winds up as a typical housewife, and we never know for sure how she feels about it: Crain plays the present-day scenes a little wistfully, as though she's not entirely sure this is all she wanted. If film noir is often about fear of independent women in a post-War world, Margie is about the lost promise of women in that same world: after Margie had so much potential for greatness in her, is it really a happy ending for her to wind up standing by while men do the "important" work? Can we ask Margie to settle for that? Should we? The movie doesn't answer these questions one way or the other, but they're there, and that creates a bittersweet, even sad feeling in a movie that could have been nothing but another nostalgic trifle.

Here's one of the key scenes in the movie, the debate where Margie argues the "yes" position on the question "Should the U.S. take the Marines out of Nicaragua?" (The is a reference to the Marines' unsuccessful efforts against the Nicaraguan guerilla leader Sandino.) The clunky debater for the "no" position argues that prosperity is here to stay, the cost of military ventures is negligible, and the U.S. presence in South America will bring prosperity to that country. Margie wins the debate -- and more importantly, wins over her father -- by arguing that liberty is more important than prosperity, and a nation that values liberty cannot go around occupying other countries. The debate intentionally foreshadows all kinds of issues that were central in the world from 1929 through 1946, but more importantly, it's a chance to see Margie at her full potential: clumsy, awkward, a little pretentious, but passionate and idealistic and moving -- the sort of person who has a hint of greatness in her, even if that hint of greatness is mixed with hints of the ridiculous.

Crain, who is wonderful throughout the movie, is especially wonderful here: she has the tough task of showing Margie winning the debate, while simultaneously showing that Margie is relying on gestures and line inflections she learned by rote. Her mechanical gestures and intentionally stiff line readings are funny, and yet she leaves no doubt of why Margie is winning the debate or why her father is so moved to see the potential of his daughter. It's a beautiful performance in a beautiful movie.

Notes: the film was written by F. Hugh Herbert (yes, he printed his name that way because of the way it sounds when you say "F. Hugh"), best known as the writer of The Moon is Blue, and based on a story by "My Sister Eileen" writer Ruth McKinney and her husband Richard Bransten.

Gettin' Frisky

In the '40s and early '50s, Chuck Jones (and writer Mike Maltese) came up with an exceptional string of new cartoon characters, all of them unique and funny: Hubie and Bertie the mice; Charlie Dog (partly based on a character from an earlier Bob Clampett cartoon); Inki and the Mynah Bird; the Three Bears; Marc Anthony and Pussyfoot. Unfortunately, Jones retired nearly all of these characters around 1952 and concentrated on the most formulaic of the characters he'd created: Pepe Le Pew and the Road Runner and Coyote. The "second-tier" Jones characters often starred in cartoons that were too quirky for the characters to catch on with audiences (Jones said he retired the Three Bears because theatre exhibitors told Warner Brothers to stop sending them these cartoons), but they represent some of his very best work.

Here are two cartoons featuring another one of Jones's short-lived characters: Frisky Puppy, the cute little dog who constantly (and unwittingly) defeats the evil Claude Cat by running up behind him and barking loudly. There were only three of these cartoons, and they all have the same joke over and over again: Claude is looking for Frisky, Frisky appears behind him, Frisky barks, and Claude jumps up to the ceiling. That the cartoons work so well is a tribute to the power of great comedy timing -- even if you know something's going to happen, it's funny because you don't know exactly when it's going to happen -- and the ability of Maltese to come up with clever variations on the same gag.

The first Frisky cartoon was "Two's a Crowd" (1950), with Mel Blanc and Bea Benaderet providing the voices of Frisky and Claude's owners:

The main title music, incidentally, is "Put 'Em in a Box, Tie 'Em with a Ribbon and Throw 'Em in the Deep Blue Sea," which Doris Day had introduced in a Warner Brothers movie a year or so earlier.

The second was "Terrier-Stricken" (1952), which is more of the same but with even more sadistic violence being visited on Claude:

The third and last cartoon, "No Barking" (which takes the characters out of the house and into an outdoor urban setting), is available on the third Looney Tunes Golden Collection. "No Barking" was animated entirely by Ken Harris, and he handles a lot of the animation in the two earlier cartoons.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Happy Blog-eversary to Me

Two years ago today I started posting;
I'm only stating facts, of course, not boasting.
An anniversary should call for roasting,
Though preferably not with Colbert hosting.
Though you may say I currently am coasting
On Youtube'd clips, your angry words have no sting.
And so, if you will join me, we'll be toasting
My blog... I think I'm out of rhymes for "posting."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

More Lubitsch

Sorry I haven't been posting much in the way of original material lately; while I'm trying to put something together, here are some more snippets from Ernst Lubitsch films:

1. "Beyond the Blue Horizon" from Monte Carlo (1930) -- this is one of the most influential musical numbers ever filmed (Frank Tashlin drew on it for that Hollywood or Bust number I posted earlier), an early example of how a film musical could go beyond a filmed record of a performer delivering a song, and actually achieve things that a stage musical could not -- in this case, the whimsical and fanciful effect of having people wave to Jeanette MacDonald from outside the train. The weakness of the number is Lubitsch's usual weakness as a director of musicals: he seemed to have very little interest in letting a song make a big impact in and of itself, so the song gets two brief refrains and then, without any real buildup or climax, it's over. Still, this is movie-musical history being made here.

2. The title song from One Hour With You -- Lubitsch didn't actually direct all of this musical remake of his film The Marriage Circle (George Cukor started the film, but Lubitsch finished it), but he produced it and supervised Samson Raphaelson's script, and it's a Lubitsch film in every way, though not quite up to the standard of Lubitsch's other Maurice Chevalier musicals (or Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight). This number is one of the best parts of the film, a fine example of how Lubitsch never liked to let the plot get lost even during a musical number: here the plot keeps moving forward, as we have a series of complications -- MacDonald thinks Chevalier is interested in another woman at the party, not realizing that her best friend (Genevieve Tobin) is the one who's actually pursuing Chevalier -- that are advanced in the middle of all the music and dancing, as well as in Leo Robin's lyrics.

3. And finally, a short clip from One Hour With You involving Adolph (Charlie Ruggles) and his valet, who delivers the line that gets the biggest laugh in the entire movie:

The Greatest Pundit of them All

I promise to stop posting WKRP clips after this (at least for a while), but I just wanted to post some reminders of why Les Nessman absolutely needs to have his own pundit show.

Les Nessman's interview technique (with actress Colleen Camp):

Les Nessman on the Middle East, in a moment that (as I mentioned earlier) anticipates another piece of punditry by 25 years:

Les Nessman's no-holds-barred personal commentary:

Is there a single news channel that Les couldn't walk into today, no questions asked?

Son Confuso E Stupefatto

The record companies haven't quite given up on audio-only opera recordings yet -- though they're getting there -- and there's a new release that looks like it might be good: Haydn's Orlando Paladino, conducted by Nicolaus Harnoncourt.

As I explained some time ago, Haydn was not a great opera composer: he never had nor developed the ability to create specific characterizations in music, which is the one thing any good opera compoer needs to be able to do. He was brilliant at conveying emotion in music, but the emotions of characters in Haydn operas are generic, unrelated to character or situation: there's the rage aria, the song of joy, or jealousy, or love; but nothing that can really convey the reaction of a specific person to a specific situation. Mozart could do that, and so could Handel, and so could composers who weren't anywhere near as proficient as Haydn -- Gluck, for example. Haydn's operas aren't dramas; they're just a collection of musical moments.

However, many of those musical moments are tuneful or clever or ingenious in some way, and Orlando Paladino has some of his best work in the field -- it's kind of a spoof of heroic operas, a mix of comedy and drama that anticipates Don Giovanni without being anywhere near as good. Harnoncourt has already done one worthwhile recording of a Haydn opera, his Armida with Cecilia Bartoli, so this new recording should be worth getting.

Monday, May 08, 2006

More WKRP Clips

Here are some more "WKRP in Cincinnati" clips, of scenes that I particularly like. Warning: if you don't like "WKRP in Cincinnati," or the cast, or Hugh Wilson, well, there will be other, non-WKRP posts. But I wanted to post about it a few times, because I think of "WKRP" as the most underrated of the great '70s sitcoms.

"WKRP" has never really had a reputation on a par with "Taxi" or "Mary Tyler Moore" or "Barney Miller" or "M*A*S*H," but I think it was actually the best sitcom of its era when it came to the most important thing a sitcom can do: create memorable, distinctive characters and create comedy from those characters, instead of a lot of extraneous jokes. The characters on "WKRP" were all so well-defined that seeing them act out of character, even slightly out of character, could be inherently funny, and the characters all had different and well-defined relationships to each other, so you could put any two characters together in a scene and get a different type of comedy out of it.

The other thing Wilson did with the show was give it more variety than most sitcoms: it's not just that they'd do an occasional "very special episode," like the one about the Who concert in Cincinnati where kids were trampled to death; they would actually change the style and tone from week to week depending on what the story was about. So one week it would be a farce, another week a dramedy, still another week a traditional sitcom story and still another week an extended comedy sketch (there is one episode, "Hotel Oceanview," that is literally an adaptation of a Toronto Second City sketch by the same writer). "Mary Tyler Moore" and other MTM and MTM-style shows valued consistency in style and tone; "WKRP" fluctuated and experimented more, which may explain why it was treated as the red-headed stepchild at MTM ("I wouldn't watch it" -- Mary Tyler Moore).

So, anyway, here are today's clips for your delectation:

One of the most famous moments of the series, the "Ferryman" jingle from the episode "A Commercial Break" (co-written by Richard Sanders, the actor who played Les Nessman; he wrote five episodes of the series, most of them very good). The premise of the episode, that the radio station's new advertising client is a funeral home that wants to advertise to young people (to get them to make their funeral arrangements early) is the kind of dark/absurd premise that, in the words of commenter "John", was "doing humor in prime-time that up until that point had been limited to the "Saturday Night Live" skits on NBC."

For a good example of the strength of the characters and how they can be funny without any one-liners or obvious "jokes," here's a clip from the episode "Frog Story," where Herb has accidentally killed Greenpeace, his daughter's pet frog. Each character has his or her own reaction to the totally absurd death ("NewsRadio" would do a similar story about the death of a rat), and the scene is funny even though there's hardly a line in it that sounds like a setup or punchline.

An excerpt from the second-season opener, "For Love Or Money," which shows the way "WKRP" sometimes incorporated influences from sketch/improv comedy; I've mentioned before that there were a number of writers from Second City, but this particular episode was more a tribute to the comedy troupe The Committee: with Howard Hesseman joined as guest star by fellow Committee member Julie Payne, they reportedly started improvising on set, to the point that showrunner Hugh Wilson decided to incorporate the improvisation and expand their scenes together -- to the point that what was planned as a single episode wound up being rewritten, on the set, into a two-parter. In this scene, Johnny takes his ex-girlfriend Buffy (Payne) to Jennifer's apartment, hoping to rekindle their old affair, only to discover what his fond memories of Buffy had blocked out: she's a nut, and she's planning on suing him. My favourite bit in the scene, which is clearly an improvised bit: "I've learned to deal with materialism by really getting into it, so really I'm free of it."

This next clip is from the episode "Changes" (season 4), another episode written by Toronto Second City's own Peter Torokvei. The episode uses two parallel plots that intersect: Venus, learning he's going to be interviewed by a militant black magazine, tries to dress and act in a way that's more in touch with what he thinks of as modern black culture; while Jennifer offers to turn Herb's career around by teaching him to dress and act tastefully. The way it all plays out goes beyond the usual "just be yourself" sitcom episode. This scene, from near the beginning of act 2, brings the two stories together for the first time and also incorporates a topical political joke.

The episode "Baby, It's Cold Inside" (the heat conks out in the station and various characters start drinking to warm themselves up) is a 25-minute character study of the station owner, Mama Carlson; it does a really exceptional job of taking a character who hadn't appeared very often up to that point and not only filling us in on her backstory, but giving her a specific way of interacting with every regular character on the show. By the end of the episode, we know all kinds of things about a character we barely knew before, and we can also infer some things about the regular characters (like Jennifer's own similarity to Mama Carlson). In this scene near the end, Mama Carlson blackmails Johnny into playing Gershwin's "Someone To Watch Over Me," giving the wonderful musical-theatre performer Carol Bruce a chance to show off her great throaty voice. Herb mouthing the lyrics as she sings is a nice humanizing touch for that character.

From the episode "Venus and the Man" (season 3), written by Hugh Wilson, a great little self-contained scene for Les Nessman where he explains the history of music and the influences that created it (warning: high volume level):

Also, this is a little very-special-episode-ish, but I'll post it because it's hard to bring up "Venus and the Man" without mentioning it, and because ten zillion physics teachers have used this clip in class -- the scene where Venus explains the structure of the atom:

And finally, a famous example of the way the show used popular music: some excerpts from scenes in "For Love Or Money" that make use of the song "After the Love is Gone" by Earth, Wind and Fire.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Smiling Lieutenant

Update: To make the post more manageable I've replaced the embedded YouTube links with links to the clips.

My favourite film director -- my idol, I might say, if it didn't sound so... idolatrous -- is Ernst Lubitsch, and one of my favourite among his films is his 1931 semi-musical The Smiling Lieutenant. Since the film isn't available on DVD or even VHS, I thought I'd write a little bit about it and post some clips to give an idea of what it's like. If you ever get a chance to see this movie in a theatre, jump at that chance: I've seen it three times with three different audiences and the whole audience always laughs through the whole thing and bursts into applause at the end. It's one of the great crowd-pleasers among vintage movies.

The Smiling Lieutenant is based on Oscar Straus's Viennese operetta "A Waltz Dream", though Lubitsch relegated all the operetta's songs to background music and had Straus write a few new songs in a more modern style. As he usually did when adapting a play or an operetta, Lubitsch kept the basic outline of the story but changed everything else. The basic idea is that Niki (Maurice Chevalier), a Viennese lieutenant, is forced into marriage with Anna (Miriam Hopkins), princess of the tiny kingdom of Flausenthurm, and -- what's worse -- forced to leave his beloved Vienna and live in musty old Flausenthurm. Niki's real love is Franzi (Claudette Colbert), leader of a Viennese all-girl orchestra, who represents everything that's hip and up-to-date about Viennese fashion and music. In the end, Franzi takes pity on Anna and shows her how to attract Niki by switching to modern music and clothes.

What Lubitsch does with this material is to make a film about the intersection of music and sex, and the various ways in which music can be a metaphor for sexual intercourse. The script, by Lubitsch's great collaborator Samson Raphaelson, is full of suggestive music/sex jokes:

NIKI: You said she plays the violin?
MAX (Charlie Ruggles): Yes.
NIKI: I play the piano.

FRANZI: Maybe someday we can have a duet.
NIKI: I love chamber music.

ANNA: Tell me, father, girls like [Franzi] -- do they all play the violin?
KING: Not necessarily, but I'll tell you one thing -- they play!

Characters in the film often make music together before having sex; after Niki and Franzi's first meeting, we dissolve to them in his room -- playing a piano/violin duet. Making music is the prelude to sexual intercourse, and the better you are at making music, in this film, the sexier you are. Franzi saves Anna and Niki's marriage in the end by passing on to Anna the fact that pleasing someone sexually means pleasing him musically, so Anna first becomes attractive to Niki when he sees her at the piano playing jazz. It's a wonderful, funny, dirty-minded film -- probably the most risqué film even Lubitsch ever made.

The first clip is the opening scene of the film. Like many scenes, it's done like a silent movie: no sound equipment was used, and there's no dialogue, just visuals, sound effects and music. It sums up the essence of the way Lubitsch liked to use short, simple visual hooks to explain what was going on without directly explaining it. We see a sex scene play out with nothing more than a door, a lamp, and a time lapse; we haven't even seen Chevalier yet and already we know, from this scene, that he's sort of a wastrel (doesn't pay his bills) and that he's a rake.

Most of the music in this scene is from the first song in "A Waltz Dream," "Ein Mädchen, das so lieb und brav."

Click here to view the clip.

And another mostly-silent scene, which sets the plot in motion: Niki, standing on guard duty, winks at Franzi just as Princess Anna drive by, and Anna mistakenly thinks that Niki is laughing at her. There's not much I can say about this scene except that it's an example of Lubitsch's ability to convey a ton of plot information in very little time and with very few shots and gestures; it would take most moviemakers ten minutes to set up all of this.

Click here to view the clip.

Niki gets out of trouble with the Princess by claiming that he was really winking at her; he is appointed to act as the Princess's guide while she is in Vienna. But the Princess is now falling in love with Niki, and, believing that he likes her, plans to get him for a husband. This next clip has Niki returning to Franzi, and he carries her up the stairs and into her room -- to dance with her; music and dancing are inseparable from sex in this film, and Lubitsch makes a lot of teasing us with the fact that we never know if characters are preparing to make love or just to make music. The scene intercuts Niki and Franzi singing their song -- full of sexual innuendos -- with Princess Anna's pure-and-demure song about how she sees Niki. And no, Colbert and Hopkins can't sing particularly well, but they manage.

Click here to view the clip.

Anna asks her father for permission to marry Niki, and before Niki knows it, he's been named as Anna's chosen husband by both the King of Flausenthurm and the Emperor of Austria. In this scene, Franzi sits in Niki's apartment, waiting for him to come back, surrounded by all kinds of congratulatory gifts and flowers that have been delivered to Niki on the announcement of his engagement. When Franzi sees Niki, she realizes that he hasn't been able to get out of the engagement; so she leaves without letting him see her, and walks off into the night. This is another silent scene, with beautiful acting by Colbert and a favourite Lubitsch/Raphaelson device: having a woman give a man her garter as a token of her esteem.

Click here to view the clip.

This scene, on Niki and Anna's wedding night, starts by showing what a musty, old-fashioned place Flausenthurm is by showing that the wedding night can't begin until it's officially pronounced to be "fitting and proper." Then we get the scene with Anna and Niki, who (as in the operetta) refuses to consummate the marriage. Lubitsch pulls off one of his funniest (yet kind of sad) door gags, involving the King emerging from behind the door with something that really can't satisfy his daughter in her current predicament.

Click here to view the clip.

When Franzi and her band show up in Flausenthurm, Niki rekindles his affair with her. In the climactic scene of the movie, Anna tricks Franzi into coming to the palace, and confronts her. But just as it looks like they're going to fight, they break down crying instead, because they're both miserable for different reasons: Anna because Niki doesn't love her, and Franzi because Niki can never really be hers. The two commisserate, and Franzi decides to help Anna attract Niki. In assessing what's wrong with Anna, she once again makes the connection between music and sex: unexciting tastes in music are an indicator of an unexciting approach to sex. And in the song "Jazz Up Your Lingerie," Franzi teaches Anna that sexy clothes are music: "Choose snappy music to wear." As Anna gets "hotter" in her musical tastes, she also gets "hotter" in her taste in clothes and everything else, and by the end of the montage (a trick Lubitsch used often: show a change in someone's life by dissolving from her wardrobe "before" to her wardrobe "after") she is a changed woman.

Click here to view the clip.

(Personal trivia time: I once wrote a screenplay based on Richard Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier (it never got any further than an honourable-mention list at Scriptapalooza, and didn't deserve to), and because Lubitsch wanted to make that opera into a non-musical movie, I tried write it in the style of Lubitsch and Raphaelson. And for a scene between the two female leads, I drew on this scene as the inspiration, including a somewhat similar slapping scene. Somebody who does it better than me really ought to do Rosenkavalier as a non-musical comedy and do it as the Lubitsch movie Lubitsch never got around to making.)

And in the closing scene, Niki (having just learned that Franzi has left Flausenthurm) sits alone drinking, when he hears hot-jazz music coming from Anna's room. Again, there's almost no dialogue here, and what makes it great, apart from the very funny gags (like Niki running all the way across the palace just to check whether there's anything wrong with what he's been drinking -- and then later on running back to drink more of it, because he likes what he's been seeing), is that it's not a sexist scene where the woman just gets the man by acting and dressing the way he likes: by becoming more free and frank in her sexuality, Anna gains power, going from Niki's demure doormat to the one who calls the shots in their relationship. And in keeping with Lubitsch's love of quick visual hooks and running gags, this scene brings back the checker board from Anna and Niki's disastrous wedding night, except now she's using it to turn the tables on her husband.

Click here to view the clip.

The only commercial release for The Smiling Lieutenant was on a briefly-available laserdisc set, The Lubitsch Touch. It may come on television occasionally, and Lubitsch retrospectives (at film societies and such) often include this film. Again, if you can see it, see it; you won't be disappointed. Except maybe with the quality of Colbert's and Hopkins's singing, but their performances are so good in this film (Hopkins would go on to give two more fantastic performances for Lubitsch, in Trouble and Paradise and Design For Living), what does it matter that they can't sing?


Here are the episodes that are going to be on the Best of the Phil Silvers Show (Sgt. Bilko) Collection, which will be released this Tuesday.

Episodes from Season 1

- "New Recruits" (pilot episode: Bilko gets cleaned out in a poker game and has to find a way to get money to get back into the game)
- The WAC (WAC Sergeant Joan Horgan beats out Bilko for a jeep)
- "The Horse" (Bilko loses money on a horse, then buys the horse hoping to turn it into a winner)
- "The Eating Contest" (Bilko backs a new recruit for an eating contest, but finds that the guy can only eat when he's unhappy)
- "Bivouac" (the Colonel tries to outwit Bilko when he once again attempts to fake sick to get out of maneuvers)
- "The Twitch" (Bilko takes bets on how many times the Colonel's wife will do a nervous twitch)
- "The Investigation" (a Congressional Committee visits the camp)
- "The Revolutionary War" (Bilko tries to get a promotion on the basis that his ancestor may have been a hero of the Revolutionary war)
- "The Court Martial" (a monkey is accidentally inducted into the Army -- as "Private Harry Speakup" -- and the only way to get him out is to court-martial him)
- "The Con Men" (Bilko tries to con the con artists who swindled Private Doberman out of his money)

Episodes From Season 2

- "A Mess Sergeant Can't Win" (Bilko tries to keep Mess Sergeant Ritzik from leaving the Army)
- "Doberman's Sister" (Bilko fixes up Zimmerman with Doberman's sister)
- "Bilko's Tax Trouble" (Bilko gets audited)
- "The Big Scandal" (Bilko accidentally hypnotizes Doberman, and in his trance, Doberman confesses to the Colonel's wife that he's in love with her)

Episodes From Season 3

- "Hillbilly Whiz" (Bilko finds a hick who turns out to be the best pitcher the platoon's baseball team has ever had; guest star Dick Van Dyke)
- "Bilko the Art Lover" (Bilko stays in New York with an old friend who wants to be an artist; guest star Alan Alda)

Episodes From Season 4

- "Bilko Joins the Navy" (Bilko... uh... joins the Navy)
- "Weekend Colonel" (the final episode of the show: Bilko finds someone to pose as Colonel Hall)

As you can see, the vast majority of the episodes in the set are from the first two seasons; after that, the creator/showrunner Nat Hiken left the show, and the quality dipped significantly.

OT: Parallels and Predictions

In an earlier post, I explained why the results of U.S. Presidential elections since 1980 closely parallel the results of the elections from 1932 through the '60s. Based on those parallels, I was wondering whether they say anything about midterm elections -- and, come to think of it, there are some parallels here too.

For example, I mentioned in my earlier post that not only are Eisenhower and Clinton similar Presidents, but their first mid-term elections had similar results (Eisenhower's party lost both houses of Congress in 1954, as did Clinton's in 1994). And there's a strong parallel between the 1962 midterms, during Kennedy's Presidency, and the 2002 midterms, during Bush II. In both cases, you had a President who had gotten into office by a very slim margin, and a Congress that seemed to be potentially in play for the opposition party. Under normal circumstances, the President's own party might have been expected to lose in the midterms.

Instead, the Democrats in 1962 picked up several Senate seats and only lost two House seats (astonishingly few at the time; in the '30s, '40s and '50s the President's party usually lost 20+ seats in a midterm), while the Republicans in 2002 gained a few seats in both Houses. There were various reasons for these results, some of them a bit unsavory (quite a few scandals of today are linked to stuff Abramoff, DeLay et al. did in 2002 to help win the midterms), but the main reason was that the President and his party had been given a boost by a crisis that had emerged the previous year -- the building of the Berlin Wall for Kennedy; 9/11 for Bush -- and had a big foreign-policy issue to take directly into the midterms: Kennedy had the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, while Bush had Iraq and the impending war. This produced, not a big win, but a disappointing result for the other party that solidified the President's party's control over the Congress.

The 1966 midterms were a different story, and not just because there was a different President: there was widespread discontent with the President's domestic agenda, with the war abroad, and with the President's party in general. This led to a big win for the Republicans in the midterms: they didn't manage to take back either house of Congress, but they won a large number of seats in both Houses, effectively crippling Johnson's ability to get anything passed. Now, the parallels are never perfect, of course. A lot of discontent with Johnson's domestic policy revolved around the best things he'd done, like his anti-segregation policies. The discontent with the current administration, on the other hand, is more akin to what happened during the Carter administration: the perception that the President can't get anything worthwhile done even though his party controls Congress. Still, the parallels are there. And while discontent with the war hadn't reached the boiling point in 1966, it was certainly there, to the extent that HUAC opened an investigation into anti-war protesters in the summer of 1966.

So if the parallel holds, and I'm not saying it definitely will, the Republicans would be expected to sustain losses in both Houses while not losing control altogether. That seems like a reasonable prediction, and close to what the professional forecasters are forecasting. The one thing to note is that the margins of control are slimmer now than they were in the '60s, so a relatively small swing of seats (by historical standards) could swing control; however, large swings of seats are relatively uncommon now.

I will add again that if the parallel holds this year, I'm going to be betting real money an Al Gore presidency for 2009.