Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Great Lyrics, Or Dubiously-Legal Postings For a Slow Day

Not much to post today, so here are some more lyrics I love: Larry Hart's lyric for my favourite song of all time, Rodgers and Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind." Calling it my favourite song isn't just a whim; whenever I make up a list of the greatest songs of the last century, this one has the number-one spot. It's a combination of several different types of song into one: it's a torch song, but it's not as despairing as a torch song, more of a love song -- but it's also a comedy song. Its tone is at once emotional and analytical, with the singer expressing her feelings and mocking them at the same time. Rodgers' melody is one of his best, romantic/sad/funny all at once and with some wonderful surprises (especially the tricks he uses to extend the melody near the end), and Hart's lyrics are as follows:


I don't care if there's powder on my nose.
I don't care if my hairdo is in place.
I've lost the very meaning of repose;
I never put a mudpack on my face.
Oh, who'd have thought that I'd walk in a daze now?
I never go to shows at night, but just to matinées now.
I see the show,
And home I go.

Refrain 1

Once I laughed when I heard you saying
That I'd be playing solitaire,
Uneasy in my easy chair.
It never entered my mind.
Once you told me I was mistaken,
That I'd awaken with the sun
And order orange juice for one.
It never entered my mind.
You have what I lack myself,
And now I even have to scratch my back myself.
Once you warned me that if you scorned me
I'd sing the maiden's prayer again
And wish that you were there again
To get into my hair again.
It never entered my mind.

Refrain 2

Once you said in your funny lingo
I'd sit at Bingo day and night
And never get the numbers right.
It never entered my mind.
Once you told me I'd stay up Sunday
To read the Monday morning dirt
And find you're merging with some skirt.
Life is not so sweet alone.
The man who came to dinner lets me eat alone.
I confess it, I didn't guess it,
That I would sit and mope again
And all the while I'd hope again
To see my darling dope again.
It never entered my mind,
It never entered my mind.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Maltese Talkin'

Arglebargle! has a fascinating find: a 1945 issue of an in-house Warner Brothers newsletter, focusing on the WB cartoon studio. It consists of a collage of pictures of WB cartoon staffers, and a full-length article on the making of animated cartoons by the studio's best writer, Mike Maltese. Go take a look.

(Via Golden Age Cartoons)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Periwinkle Pussycat

As far as meaningless milestones go, 40th anniversaries don't have the cachet of 50th or 25th anniversaries, so I doubt anyone will be making a big deal of the fact that this year marked the 40th anniversary of the movie Lord Love a Duck. Still, it's an anniversary worth noting.

It was the first film directed by writer George Axelrod, who was best known for writing the play The Seven Year Itch and as producer and writer of The Manchurian Candidate. His work tended to be satirical and cynical, up to a point; in a script like How to Murder Your Wife (which he did the year before Duck), he would go as far as he could with the cynicism about modern life and society, but stop short of actually condemning them. With Lord Love a Duck, he stopped stopping short: this is a movie that expresses corrosive, uncompromising hatred for just about everything.

The story of a bored SoCal high school blonde (Tuesday Weld) who wants to be a star, and the weird young man (Roddy McDowall) who takes it upon himself to make all her dreams come true (though it takes him until the very end of the movie to understand exactly why he's doing it), Duck is described in a promotional featurette as "a cross between Love Finds Andy Hardy and Dr. Strangelove." You could say that Duck is the ancestor of all those indie movies where the director trashes the genre to which the movie purportedly belongs: Axelrod makes Duck sort of look like a mid-'60s teen comedy -- though it would have worked better if it had been shot in colour -- and then proceeds to condemn teen comedies, teenagers, grown-ups, consumerism, religion, sex, and various other things I'm forgetting at the moment.

Axelrod screened a Godard movie for the crew before he started shooting Duck, and he proceeded to make it one of the first Hollywood movies to really show the influence of New Wave filmmaking. Some directors had picked up on the obvious gimmicks, like jump cuts, but Axelrod really made the first Godard-style Hollywood movie, with all the jarring shifts in tone, distancing effects, and crazy tricks (like having the title sequence include behind-the-scenes footage of the crew shooting the movie) you would expect if Jean-Luc were to helm a Tuesday Weld movie.

The most famous scene in Lord Love a Duck, and one of the most tasteless moments in the history of movies, is the scene where Barbara Ann (Weld) tries on cashmere sweaters for her father (Max Showalter). Barbara Ann needs cashmere sweaters to get into the in crowd in school, and on the advice of the McDowall character, she is more or less seducing her father into buying them for her. This scene cuts out the "more or less" part: Barbara Ann's modeling of sweaters is treated as a sex scene for her and her father, with the both of them shrieking orgasmically over the wonders of consumer goods.

Filmbrain has a good post on what makes this scene so very, very wrong.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


John McCann, one of the writers of Animaniacs and Freakazoid!, has a blog post called "Warners and Jean" where he talks about what made Warner Brothers Animation a good place to work in the '90s:

We were turning out 65 half-hours for the first season of "Animaniacs." At the same time, the division was making "Taz," "Batman," and wrapping up the last "Tiny Toon Adventures."

In the midst of this frenzy, there was only a single executive: Jean MacCurdy.

Jean let the producers run their shows while she ran the division. She trusted them and believed a person with passion for a series might turn out a better product than, say, a committe removed from the creative process.

Jean MacCurdy had been at Hanna-Barbera before coming to Warner Brothers in 1989 to be the "Executive in Charge of Production" for the WB TV Animation division; according to writer-producer Tom Ruegger, she was the one who convinced the WB higher-ups and Steven Spielberg that they could do "Tiny Toons" in-house instead of outsourcing it to another company. I've heard good and bad things about her stewardship of the animation division, as with every executive, but in general, what she did at WB was what executives are supposed to do: find talented people, put them to work on the right projects, and let them do their thing (within reason, budget, and network demands). Most famously, she convinced WB to let her put two youngish "Tiny Toons" artists, Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, in charge of the "Batman" series.

McCann also pinpoints when it all started to go wrong -- as I've said before, it was when Warner Brothers started its own network and moved all its animated shows there:

In time, the WB gobbled up the division. Kids WB spun away from Jean to become its own entity with executives over her. Jean finally stepped down as division president in 2001.

But for a time, there was no place like Warners.

The move to the WB wasn't all bad; there was less censorship than on Fox, so "Batman" and "Superman" occasionally got to kill people off and the comedy shows could get a bit more suggestive. But the WB network President, Jamie Kellner, didn't like cartoons that appealed to older audiences (it made them harder to sell to advertisers whose products were aimed only at very young kids), and kept cancelling older-skewing cartoons and pushing for the remaining shows' content to be youth-ified. And so we got Pinky and the Brain moving in with Elmyra; Batman and Superman stopped in favour of "Batman Beyond" (which was good, but was made specifically because the WB demanded a Batman show about a kid rather than an adult); Freakazoid! getting cancelled after only 24 episodes.

And with the animation division being folded into the WB network, the animation division ran into the problem which the Looney Tunes ran into on Cartoon Network: because the division was only able to produce cartoons for that network and that network alone, they were in big trouble once the network execs decided they'd rather show "Pokemon" instead.

Here's a skit John McCann wrote for "Freakazoid!", about the adventures of a superhero called The Huntsman -- a hero whose show has an incredibly long introduction but almost nothing after that (a spoof of those '60s shows, like "The Incredible Hulk," that would bookend a very short segment of new animation with two versions of the show's theme song):

Friday, June 23, 2006

Musical Mayhem For a Wild and Woolly Weekend

Probably not much posting this weekend, so to fill the space, here are some clipz of Stuff I Like (tm). This particular group can be categorized as the "Music is Fun" group.

The first half of the cartoon "Hillbilly Hare" with the isolated music score. Note some things about Carl Stalling's scoring of a cartoon: when there's a big sound effect -- like an explosion -- he quiets down the music or turns it off altogether; you don't need "cartoony" music when the sound effect is carrying the burden. Also, in the conversation between Bugs and the first Martin brother, notice how Stalling switches between moods and keys (major to minor) depending on who's speaking.

The final scene and closing credits of The Bad and the Beautiful, highlighting the theme music by David Raksin -- one of the all-time greatest movie themes. And just to show you I'm a monomaniac, I'll also call attention to the fact that Vincente Minnelli does the final scene in one take, no cutting.

Cesare Siepi sings Philip's aria from Verdi's Don Carlo. Siepi was a bit past his prime when this was recorded -- for German television, apparently -- but he still shows why he was the number-one Italian basso after the retirement of Ezio Pinza; Philip was probably his best role, and it's a shame he never got to record it commercially.

And finally, a clip that's "embed-worthy," the "Isn't It Romantic?" number from Love Me Tonight, where director Rouben Mamoulian and songwriting team Rodgers & Hart pulled off the most elaborately plot-related musical number in a movie up to that point: with several different characters picking up the song after Maurice Chevalier sings the first refrain, the song travels across the countryside and makes its way to Jeanette MacDonald, who sings the last refrain about the lover she hasn't met yet -- and we know who that will be.

And long as this song is, it's not the complete version Rodgers and Hart wrote; Hart wrote two additional refrains that weren't used in the film due to lack of time, including this one that was supposed to be sung by Chevalier:

Isn't it romantic?
Starting out the day
A citizen of France.
Isn't it romantic?
In the month of May
To sew a pair of pants.
My business is a honey,
Goods on ev'ry shelf.
I make so little money
I can't pay myself.
Isn't it romantic?
When each millionaire
Is broke and has the blues,
Why should I be frantic,
Pulling out my hair?
I've nothing left to lose!
I'd borrow from myself now,
But I can't afford to take a chance.
Isn't it romance?

More McCarey Madness, Or A Very, Very Short Clip

In my post about Leo McCarey I talked about his improvisational method of filmmaking and how " he would let actors do things in the finished film that would be outtakes from any other movie." I just thought I'd post a very brief example of that, a short bit from An Affair to Remember that's at least an ad-lib and possibly a mistake. Deborah Kerr claimed that it was a mistake, and McCarey left it in anyway.

The World We Live In, Summed Up in One Press Release

Via Tbogg:

"24" and America’s Image in
Fighting Terrorism:
Fact, Fiction, or Does it Matter?
Friday, June 23, 2006

Rush Limbaugh
Host, The Rush Limbaugh Show

This is a ticketed, invitation only event and is sold out.

Get Keifer Sutherland to actually show up for this thing, and add in somebody from a gossip magazine, and you have all of 21st-century culture, politics and entertainment rolled into a nice neat nasty little ball.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Good Tuesday

Fox's website lists a September 5 release date for a DVD of 1968's Pretty Poison, a movie that anticipated -- and in some ways outclassed -- the wave of darkly funny, tone-shifting movies that would come in the early '70s. (Another '60s movie that took similar chances was George Axelrod's Lord Love a Duck -- which also stars Tuesday Weld.)

Miss Cellany

Earl Kress reports on a great special feature that's being produced for volume 2 of "Animaniacs" (which should be out in November). Literally the entire original writing staff of the show -- twelve writers in all -- has been assembled for interviews, with Maurice LaMarche (the Brain) acting as moderator. (There's a similar "roundtable" interview with the producers of "Superman: The Animated Series" on the new DVD set with the final 18 episodes of that series.)

"Animaniacs" may actually have been the first show where I recognized the styles of individual writers, because I loved the show so much that I watched the credits at the beginning of each cartoon, and noticed that certain writers wrote certain types of cartoons. Paul Rugg wrote genuinely crazy stuff with lots of nods to (and occasional borrowings from) classic comedy like Hellzapoppin. Tom Minton, a true authority on cartoon history, wrote many cartoons with animation-history or generally historical themes (Pinky and the Brain take over for Beany and Cecil; the Warners do a "homefront" cartoon during WWII). Randy Rogel was the lead songwriter, coming up with songs like "Yakko's World" and the song where the Warners explain the five senses and many more ("There are scents you can smell, like Colombe or Chanel"). It was a great writing staff and they did some excellent work. It'll be good to see them in the flesh, or a digitized version thereof.

Kress also mentions that he'll be on an Animaniacs/Pinky & the Brain panel at the San Diego Comic-Con this July, to tie in with the DVD release:

Thursday, July 20

4:00-5:00 PM Pinky & The Brain/Animaniacs – Screening of a special feature from Animaniacs Volume 1 DVD and Pinky & the Brain Volume 1 DVD. Panel and Q&A featuring Maurice La Marche (voice of Brain and Squit), Rob Paulsen (voice of Pinky and Yakko), Jess Harnell (voice of Wakko), Andrea Romano (voice director/casting director for both shows), Earl Kress (writer for both shows), Peter Hastings (writer for both shows) and Gordon Bressack (writer for both shows). Room 6B

Break the Windows!

Someone has kindly put up a clip of one of the great Vincente Minnelli scenes: the waltz sequence from Madame Bovary, with Jennifer Jones as the title character, Louis Jourdan as Rodolphe and Van Heflin as Charles Bovary. The ball scene is only loosely based on the book, but it's an amazing piece of cinema, an example of how great moviemaking brings together all the visual and aural arts: Minnelli's swirling camera movements, the "neurotic waltz" composed by Miklós Rózsa, the elaborate set design, and the physical beauty of the actress. The high point of the scene, where windows are smashed while Charles's bottle falls to the floor, all in rhythm with the music, is especially memorable.

The feverishness of the scene makes it the only part of the movie where Emma Bovary's life becomes, or at least seems to become, what she wants it to be. (When she looks in the mirror before the waltz starts, she finally gets to see herself as she imagines herself.) As Minnelli put it in the interview I linked to: "that’s the one time that the dream came up to the reality. She saw herself as wanted and beautiful; the belle of the ball, so to speak. Then it ended bitterly. Illusion."

And while we're on a Minnelli kick, here's a key scene from The Bad and the Beautiful that's filmed entirely in one uninterrupted take, no cutting -- demonstrating Minnelli's fondness for long takes.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Not So Wild About Wilder

Tomorrow, June 22, is the centenary of the birth of Billy Wilder.

I've long thought that Wilder was better when he wasn't trying to be funny. The Wilder films that hold up as undisputed masterpieces tend to be the really dark, sour movies where the only jokes are bitter ones: Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole. Sometimes an otherwise good Wilder film is dragged down by bad comedy scenes: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has a lot of very memorable scenes, and a very powerful ending, but a lot of the comedy is just lame, especially the way it turns Watson into a gibbering, shouting idiot.

Wilder's comedies, on the other hand, mostly don't work for me any more. Some Like It Hot is a movie I like less every time I see it. When I was younger, I loved the picture, but now I just find it short on really good jokes, filling in the gaps with cornball stuff (plays on the meaning of "conductor" and such). The plot takes too long to get going and wraps up too quickly. The lighting and set design are undistinguished and sometimes quite ugly. The performances don't do much for me either: Lemmon is grating, Monroe has been better elsewhere -- she's not helped by the fact that her character is such an idiot; unlike Hawks's Lorelei Lee, Wilder's Sugar Kane is just a walking joke, not a person -- and while Curtis is good, the totality of his performance is hurt by the fact that his "Josephine" voice is dubbed by Paul Frees. Sure, the closing line is great, but it feels like two hours of setup leading up to that one punchline.

There's something so on-the-nose and uninteresting about a lot of the jokes in Hot and other Wilder comedies: there's no twist on the gag, no surprise. He tells you what he's going to do (Curtis will have to get out of his millionaire disguise before Monroe comes to the hotel room), he does it, and he tells you it has been done (Curtis gets out of the tub with his clothes on). He doesn't often get ahead of the audience, or give them something they haven't been set up for.

Samson Raphaelson, who wrote many of Ernst Lubitsch's movies, once sort of summed up the problem with Wilder and Izzy Diamond's gag writing, at least as it compares to truly great comedy writing. Wilder brought out the movie Love in the Afternoon, a tribute to Lubitsch (and quite a charming movie, though not particularly funny). Raphaelson went to see it and was asked what Lubitsch would have thought of it. Raphaelson singled out one gag from Love in the Afternoon as symptomatic of its problems: a couple is kissing in the streets of Paris, and they're so oblivious to everything that they stand there kissing as a street-washing truck comes by and sprays them with water. Lubitsch would never have done something that obvious, Raphaelson said: if he and Lubitsch had done that scene, the truck would have stopped spraying when it reached the oblivious couple, and then started up again once they were safely out of range. That's a small example, but it's a good one: great comedy writers (and directors) "plus" a gag, add something extra to it that the audience might not anticipate. Wilder seldom does.

Also, as a comedy director, I just don't think Wilder had much of an ability to extract great comedy performances. He didn't allow performers to be spontaneous, but unlike his idol Ernst Lubitsch, he couldn't really mold performers into being funny his specific way. Instead the comedy timing and delivery in a Wilder film often becomes a generic mush, with performers delivering their lines at the exact pace and rhythm that Wilder wants, but with no sense of character in the delivery, and not much of interest going on around them. If you compare Wilder's CinemaScope Tom Ewell-starring spectacular The Seven Year Itch to Frank Tashlin's obviously Itch-inspired comedies with Ewell the following year (The Girl Can't Help It and The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, which both pair hapless Ewell with hot blondes), you'll see the difference between a merely proficient comedy director with some good ideas, and a comedy director who actually makes something interesting and unique happen onscreen.

Now, to pull back from the Wilder-bashing a bit, there are two Wilder comedies I do love. One is his first film as a director, The Major and the Minor, a near-perfect comedy of questionable taste that has all the charm and good jokes that Some Like It Hot doesn't. It also has better comedy performances than usual for a Wilder comedy; maybe his inexperience led him to give more leeway to performers like Ginger Rogers and the marvelous Diana Lynn, to let them be themselves. The other great Wilder comedy is the nasty and amoral Cold War comedy One Two Three. Here he let two performers get away from him: James Cagney couldn't be completely controlled (though Wilder tried), and Pamela Tiffin somehow turns another one of Wilder's women-suck caricatures and turns it into a weirdly lovable character. But mostly it works because it has more and better jokes than most Wilder comedies, including one of the great jokes in movie history -- the scene where Horst Buchholtz is tortured by the East German police using the most horrible tactic the Communists can come up with:

...He even manages to "plus" the gag by adding the bit with the Russian-made record player. That one gag makes Wilder's whole comedy career worthwhile. But I still think that his real talents lay in the sour, depressed, somewhat noir-ish world of Walter Neff or Norma Desmond.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Virgil Ross Through the Ages

In an earlier post about great WB animators, I wrote that the animator Virgil Ross was great at "expressing emotion and personality with small but carefully-executed movements." One thing I didn't mention much was that Ross's style of animating was probably the most consistent -- some might say repetitive -- of any animator; he was at WB for many decades, under at least three different directors and many changes in taste and reductions in budget, yet he kept on drawing characters more or less the same way (his Daffy Duck in the '50s and early '60s looks a lot like the '40s model, who was smaller and had a thinner beak) and resorting to the same gestures: leaning over to one side, sticking arms and hands out sideways, stamping on the ground to express dismay, etc. A Ross scene from 1957 looks a lot like a Ross scene from 1937, no matter what the changes in writing and background design.

I thought I'd illustrate the consistency of Ross's style by highlighting a few scenes that show how his style remained the same in different decades, and with different directors. There's a basic Virgil Ross style of animated acting that is easy to spot once you get to know it; look at the pig director getting upset and crying in "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" (1938) and then Sylvester getting upset and crying in "Snow Business" (1953) -- different directors, different times, but very similar acting because it's the same guy animating.

A Virgil Ross scene from "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" (1938) directed by Tex Avery:

Bugs meets Beaky Buzzard in a Ross scene from Bob Clampett's "Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid" (1942):

Ross didn't last long in Clampett's unit, as Clampett didn't like Ross's subdued style of animation, and Ross went over to Freleng's unit, where he stayed until the studio shut down. Here's a Ross scene with Tweety and Sylvester in "Snow Business" (1953):

And finally, in front of UPA-influenced backgrounds and with reduced late-'50s animation budgets, Ross is still using his trademark poses and hand gestures in "Gonzales' Tamales" (1957):

While these are good scenes that, taken together, give you a good idea of the way Ross worked, I wouldn't say any of them are among his very best work; for an example of Ross at his very best, see this scene from Freleng's "A Bird in a Guilty Cage".

God Bleth Uth, Every One

Via Animated News, Steve Hulett at the Animation Guild Blog reports that there's a Looney Tunes direct-to-video movie in the works: Bah, Humduck! A Looney Tunes Christmas, with Daffy Duck stepping into the Scroogean shoes previously filled by Mr. Magoo, Scrooge McDuck, and even Yosemite Sam. Hulett says that the film is "quite nicely done," and the director, Charles Visser, has done some good work (he was a director on "Pinky and the Brain"), so hopefully it will be a better entry in the hand-drawn direct-to-video movie sweepstakes than the just-released, pitiful Superman: Brainiac Attacks."

Monday, June 19, 2006

"Consider Yourself Lucky That You Are Not At This Moment An Artichoke!"

I did a bunch of posts a couple months back about why the show "Bewitched" was so good in its first season (when Danny Arnold was in charge of the writing). I am still stubbornly fond of this post about how a bad "Bewitched" script was rewritten into a good one by Arnold and co-producer Jerry Davis. But the posts were sort of hampered by the fact that I couldn't post clips from the episodes. Now I can, so I thought I'd post a few samples of what made "Bewitched" work in its first season.

First, the post about the episode "A is For Aardvark" has been updated with two key clips from the episode: the scene where Darrin decides he wants to live off his wife's witchcraft after all, and the scene where he realizes that's not what Samantha wants or what he wants. As I said in an earlier post, this story was important enough to the show that it was sort of brought back from the dead: a script was written around this premise, it didn't work out, but Arnold saved the premise and some story points and had writer Earl Barret write a new script around the same idea. It's the essential "Bewitched" episode for the way it definitively addresses and resolves the biggest issue on the show (why does Samantha put up with this jerk who won't let her use her natural talents?). It's also a model of how to do a "bottle show," an episode that saves money by using the bare minimum of sets and cast members. The whole episode takes place in the house and there's no one in it except the four regulars (Sam, Darrin, Endora and Larry), but if it was done that way to save some money, it sure doesn't lose anything for that reason; it gains from being done without any outside characters or sets.

And here are three clips from season 1 episodes that illustrate how Arnold and his other writers were trying to keep the magic element to a minimum and find fantasy equivalents for real-life problems.

"Mother Meets What's-His-Name" (written by Arnold) -- when a couple is in a "mixed marriage," what happens when the bride's mother meets her son-in-law for the first time? And what happens if she expresses her disapproval of the way he's making her daughter assimilate into his culture: "What is normal to you, young man, is to us asinine!"

From "Eye of the Beholder" -- Darrin asks Samantha the familiar real-life question of how old she is, and goes through the familiar real-life fear that she won't love him when he gets old and decrepit. The fact that his worry stems from the fact that she might be several centuries old is almost beside the point. (This is another episode that was heavily rewritten from the scriptwriter's original version; the original draft was about Samantha deciding to grow old along with her husband, but Arnold or Jerry Davis rewrote it to be about Darrin accepting the fact that Samantha won't grow old, and declaring that it doesn't matter -- Darrin didn't become a raving selfish pig until the show went to colour.)

And from "The Witches Are Out" (written by Bernard Slade, his first sitcom script, though he'd written a lot of variety shows in Canada), the down-to-earth problem of Samantha objecting to the stereotypical way her group is portrayed in popular culture:

The point of all this, I guess, is that in a weird way the first season of "Bewitched" was one of the most realistic shows on the air: at a time when comedy and drama alike were mostly doing wacky fantasy stories, Arnold and Davis took a wacky fantasy premise and used it to tell fairly realistic stories about relationships.

Incidentally, has a little biographical information on freelance writer Earl Barret. He wrote the "A is For Aardvark" script, but more than that, he's one of those freelance writers whose scripts (in a time when the credited writer usually had more to do with the finished episodes than today) always seemed to be really good, often better than the level of the show or season he was writing for. He came back to "Bewitched" in the third season -- the first colour season -- to write an episode that was leaps and bounds ahead of any other episode in that season; and in the second season of "The Bob Newhart Show," the one episode he wrote is quite a bit better than most episodes from that season and really makes something three-dimensional and interesting out of the marriage of Bob and Emily. I wouldn't go too far in evaluating his work (he did co-create "Too Close For Comfort," after all), but if you're watching an old show and he has the writing credit, the episode is probably worth watching.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Oh, Dem Golden Slippers

I think my all-time favourite scene in a John Ford film -- sometimes, depending on my mood, my favourite scene in any film -- is the non-commissioned officers' dance sequence in Fort Apache. Consisting of two separate dances -- the Grand March followed by couples dancing to "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers" -- it occurs just before the film moves into its climactic section. After this scene, the whole movie is about the Henry Fonda character, an arrogant creep so determined to test out his pet theories about war that he ignores the advice of characters who actually know the Apaches and the territory, and gets his men slaughtered. But the dance isn't a lighthearted diversion before the serious stuff: it's an essential part of the movie, highlighting the values of community and ritual that hold the Cavalry outpost together, and highlighting the way Colonel Thursday (Fonda) can't quite adjust to the idea of being part of a community.

Thursday goes along with the ritual nature of the dance, of course; he's a by-the-book commander and he would never fail to do what's expected of him. But he doesn't crack a smile through the whole thing, unlike Sergeant O'Rourke (Ward Bond), who, though his family has been wronged by Colonel Thursday, smiles while dancing with the Colonel's daughter (Shirley Temple). When he has to dance a lively dance, he does proficient but stiff-jointed steps, never looking like he's having any fun, giving a militaristic air even to a one-on-one dance.

The way it's shot is quintessential Ford too: long shots where you can see lots of people at once; few medium shots and no close-ups; a lot of low-angle shots with the floors and ceilings visible; little character moments in the background and foreground like the guy pointing to Thursday as he dances, or Victor McLaglen's attempt to dance gracefully. Watch it (and then buy the DVD and watch the whole thing):

One thing I once saw pointed out about Fort Apache (can't remember where) is that it not only has two big stars at their peak, Fonda and John Wayne, it also has an unusual number of former stars in it, or stars who weren't known as stars to the film's audience. McLaglen had played leads in the '30s, including several in Ford movies; Shirley Temple had of course been a huge star in the '30s; George O'Brien (Sam Collingwood) was a star in silent films, including Ford's breakthrough Western The Iron Horse; Dick Foran was a star of B-movies; Pedro Armendáriz was a star in Mexican films, as was Miguel Inclán, who played Cochise. It's interesting that in making a movie about the disaster that results when one man tries to lord it over everyone else, Ford assembled a cast of people with legitimate claims to be stars in their own right.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Grudge Matches I'd Like to See: Rockford vs. Magnum

Jim Rockford (James Garner, "The Rockford Files"), a popular TV private detective who drives a cool car and has a great Mike Post/Pete Carpenter theme song, vs. Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck, "Magnum P.I."), a popular TV private detective who drives a cool car and has a great Mike Post/Pete Carpenter theme song.

Who wins: Rockford, the '70s P.I. who lives a frugal hand-to-mouth lifestyle, or Magnum, the '80s P.I. who lives a life of decadent luxury? Please post your thoughts in Ye Olde Commente Sectionne.

You could say, by the way, that the difference between '70s and '80s pop culture is pretty much summed up by the difference between these two TV detectives. Rockford lived in a trailer, struggled to get paid, and his best buddy was a fellow ex-con; Magnum lived in a tropical paradise, riding high on the largesse of Higgins Robin Masters, and had buddies who would help him do guy stuff. Magnum was the P.I. for the Robin Leach era.

Also by the way, the DVD set of the second season of "Rockford" is a big improvement over the first: single-sided discs instead of double-sided; the complete series pilot, with Not-Noah-Beery playing Rockford's dad, is included (and looks terrific), and the episodes are all uncut and look very good, once you adjust for the fact that these early '70s Universal shows don't have the most stunning production values. Whereas other studios had a certain gloss and glamour in their TV work -- Fox and Paramount liked to make things look as pretty as possible -- Universal tended to go for a grittier look, with lots of real but unspectacular-looking L.A. locations and sort of harsh sound recording. But adjusting for that, the prints used for this set are quite good, much better than I've seen in syndication.

The bonus feature is a nine-minute interview with Stephen J. Cannell about the origins of the series. I'm not sure how much of his stories are true -- he seems to downplay the fact that the show was conceived as a spinoff of "Toma," ignores the rumour that other people were offered the part of Rockford before Garner got involved, and doesn't address how much the finished product was influenced by Garner's movie Marlowe. (This was an updated version of Chandler's The Little Sister that lent a lot of its style to "Rockford"; an early episode of "Rockford" even lifted a line, "Does your mother know what you do for a living?", from Marlowe.) But he's a fun talker and has a lot of fun things to say about the show, the style of it, how hard it was to come up with answering machine messages, and other such matters.

Assuming season 3 gets released soon, that will be the start of the golden "Rockford" period, because season 3 is when David Chase joined the writing staff -- few shows have ever had three writers as good as the "Rockford" trio of Cannell, Juanita Bartlett, and Chase.

Friday, June 16, 2006

YouTube Goodies

Jussi Björling and Renata Tebaldi in the '50s singing most of the final scene of Act 1 of La Bohème:

Björling in "Che Gelida Manina":

Followed by Tebaldi in "Mi Chiamano Mimi", and the duet that concludes Act 1:

I'm not sure where exactly this clip comes from. One thing about the way they're recorded here is that, unlike more high-tech audio and video recordings, you really get a sense of the size of the voices -- Tebaldi's voice was huge and the microphone sometimes sounds like it's having trouble recording it; Björling's voice, while it never had any trouble projecting, was smaller than hers and sometimes gets drowned out when they're singing together.

Free To Be On ABC

"That Girl": The Complete Second Season (October 10) kicks off the best part of that show's run, and it's not coincidental that the show got better when Danny Arnold joined as producer. (He'd directed one episode in the first season, but hadn't been involved in the writing.) The episodes of the second season are overall smarter and faster-paced than the first season's, where the producer was Arnold's friend Jerry Davis.

Someone on a message board once suggested, in response to my point about the superiority of the first season of "Bewitched" (the only year Arnold was there), that the Arnold-produced seasons of "That Girl" give an idea of what "Bewitched" might have been like if he'd stayed with it, and that's not a bad point. The formats of the shows were entirely different, but he brought the same sense of strong character comedy, and working in more interesting real-life problems than the normal sitcom complication, to both shows. It's odd, though, that a writer/producer who often produced shows with women at the centre wound up hitting it big with a show that never came up with a strong female character ("Barney Miller").

OT: Sadly, No? Happily, Yes!

Sadly, No! has a good post on the latest Ann Coulter flap and her defenders. The upshot of the post is that those who defend Coulter immediately insist that she's making a point against the "infallibility of victims" or some such thing. But what's actually happening is something different. Coulter, and many others in the "mainstream" and online media, make a living attacking people not on the issues, but personally. And someone's status as a victim makes it harder to launch a personal attack; hence, the victim status must be stripped away so that the personal attacks can continue. There's nothing stopping her from saying "despite the tragedy that befell this person, he or she is wrong on the issues, and here's why." Nothing, except that she doesn't do issues (and is wrong on the few issues she does deal with). It's not that the background of John Kerry or Cindy Sheehan or John McCain or whoever makes it hard to attack them on the issues; it's that it makes it harder to attack them on irrelevant grounds. Or as Travis G puts it:

Look, it works like this: Disagree all you want with a victim. Sometimes their views are lacking in reason, common sense or sound judgement. (That’s why victims don’t sit on juries.) It’s okay to do that. Victims don’t have ultimate, unassailable credibility, because no one has that, but they’ve got some credibility they earned the hard way, and which they would gladly hand over if it were that easy. But you can’t bend the rules, twisting the truth itself, and imply that their unfortunate status as a victim is somehow false because it makes it harder to prove your point.

And, really, if you honestly believe that a person would want to be the victim of a tragedy so they can go on television, sell a few books and meet Jay Leno, would you please tell the rest of us, so we can be sure to stay the fuck away from you?

Also check out this follow-up post: ...As well as the contribution to the commments section by Michael Bérubé.

Sadly, No! is probably the best of the mordant humour blogs that have proliferated in the last few years; they pick kind of easy targets sometimes (obscure commentators at WorldNetDaily and such), but their in-depth analysis of bad political commentary is both hilarious and depressing.

Evil! Eeeevil!

Thad has the Larry Doyle "Looney Tunes" cartoons up at his site. Beware. Some of these are worse than you could possibly imagine; the Porky Pig thing, which spends the last minute abandoning the plot and cutting away to a fake commercial for a "stuttering pig" record, is the worst of the worst.

To get the bad taste of those cartoons out of your mouth, here's a real Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoon that hasn't been pulled from YouTube yet:

The most bizarre Foghorn Leghorn cartoon ever made, "Fox Terror" (1957), one of only three Bob McKimson cartoons written by Mike Maltese (who of course usually wrote Chuck Jones's cartoons). Though the story has a premise that is typical of the series -- the conflict between Foghorn and the Barnyard Dog is exploited by a third party -- the way it plays out is so strange and surreal that it's like a Foghorn story rewritten by Luis Bunuel. It also has better animation than most McKimson cartoons from around this time; the opening scene with the Dog and the weirdly-designed chicken is quite nice (I think, though I could be wrong, that the animator here may have been Keith Darling, who McKimson picked up from Jones's unit).

Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Want to See Another Season of "Everwood"

This Home Media Retailing article is about TV shows that get one or more seasons released on DVD, but are then abandoned due to low sales.

The most frustrating ones are the ones that get two or even three seasons out, creating an expectation that all the seasons will be released, and are only then abandoned. That's what happened with "Taxi" -- three seasons came out, and then the studio apparently gave up with only two seasons (and only one good season) left to go. The article indicates that if a season's sales drop off more than 30% from the last one, the series gets the axe. Most annoying.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Who Needs Cars?

No, I'm sure Cars is good (haven't seen it just yet), but Thad has posted the Tex Avery cartoon that may have inspired it, "One Cab's Family" (with voice work by Daws Butler and June Foray). It's the story of a taxicab whose son disgraces the family by wanting to be a hot-rod. It's unusually cute and whimsical for Avery, though he does manage to get away with showing the first bare butt in Hollywood cartoons; apparently it's OK with the censors if said butt belongs to a car.

Avery would follow it up by making virtually the same story with airplanes ("Little Johnny Jet"). Maybe that'll be Pixar's next feature.

Later on, Thad will be puting up some of the "Looney Tunes" cartoons produced by Larry Doyle. Doyle was a former "Simpsons" writer who was hired by Warner Brothers a few years back when they were looking to revitalize the Looney Tunes franchise with a movie (Doyle has the writing credit on Looney Tunes: Back in Action) and some short cartoons. Doyle staffed the short cartoons with writers and directors who had worked on "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons" ("Simpsons" stalwart Jon Vitti was one of the writers) and tried to emphasize that he was bringing a hip, contemporary feel to the characters. Unfortunately the results were generally pretty awful -- bad, out-of-character writing; design and animation that is strictly TV-level and TV-style; music (by Walter Murphy, of "Family Guy") that doesn't get the Carl Stalling style at all; and so on.

Most of the cartoons were so bad that WB didn't release them. They'd have done better to stick with the people who made "Little Go Beep" instead of assuming that they needed to bring in "Simpsons" people to give the franchise a boost; the failure of Back in Action (though Joe Dante and Eric Goldberg did what they could with the project despite studio interference) and the loss on the unreleased cartoons nearly killed off the franchise altogether.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Grudge Matches I'd Like to See: John Wayne vs. Toshiro Mifune

John Wayne, who kicked ass in numerous movies but who did his best work with one director, John Ford, vs. Toshiro Mifune, who kicked ass in numerous movies but who did his best work with one director, Akira Kurosawa. The battle is not between the actual men but between the personas they embodied onscreen: which cinematic bad-ass will emerge victorious?

To make this a fair fight, this will be a fight without weapons (since with weapons, Duke's rifle will probably beat Toshiro's sword -- though Toshiro would make it close).

And speaking of Mifune at his bad-ass-ed-est, Criterion has announced A three-disc special edition of Seven Samurai for this September. New special editions of Yojimbo and Sanjuro will probably follow soon after.

Hart & Harburg Lyrics

Sorry for the lack of postings (postage?). To fill the space, here are some lyrics by two of my three favourite lyricists, Larry Hart and Yip Harburg (Carolyn Leigh completes the trinity).

Hart's lyric for one of the great Rodgers and Hart songs, "Moon of My Delight" from Chee-Chee (1928). This was one of the strangest musicals ever -- the story of a young Chinese nobleman who has no desire to be the next Grand Eunuch of Peking. The score was so fully integrated into the script that the program didn't even print the names of individual songs, and "Moon of My Delight" was too closely tied to the style of the show -- with its mix of fake Oriental-isms and colloquial slang -- to become a hit. It's a wonderful song, though, and a truly off-kilter way of writing a love song:

Verse 1

Moon of moons, when you are mine,
Bright the night will be,
But remember, when you shine,
Concentrate on me.
Moon of moons, be mine alone,
Mine alone -- don't laugh, moon!
I would never care to own
A quarter or a half moon.


Moon of my delight,
I'm going to put a ring around you.
You'll stay home tonight,
Scintillating where I found you.
When you were a little crescent,
Your manners were as soft as wool;
Now you're getting effervescent,
But maybe that's because you're full.
Moon of my delight,
If you'd only treat me right,
We could have a satellite or two,
Moon of my delight.

Verse 2

You're my moon and I'm your earth,
Bless me with your gaze!
What are lovely evenings worth
If I lose your rays?
If you ever should depart,
I would be a mean cheese.
If you leave me, then your heart
Must be made of green cheese.

Repeat Refrain

And Harburg's lyric for "Vive La Virtue" from The Happiest Girl in the World, where the evil Pluto (Cyril Ritchard) explains to the chaste Diana (Janice Rule) why he just loves chastity -- it drives mortal men wild:

Ev'ry man, I must alert you,
When seeking a lady fair,
Always gravitates to virtue,
Still hoping it won't be there.
Man prefers a chick that is first
Instead of a hen already rehearsed.
Man, it seems has got to make sure --
Whatever he takes has got to be pure.

So vive la virtue, vive la virtue,
Makes your heart go pippety-pat.
Vive la virtue, vive la virtue,
What an aphrodisiac, that!
Let not virtue e'er desert you,
Man was made for Love à la Carte,
For he's at his best
When sharing his nest
With the pure in heart.

Vice is not averse to virtue,
Though virtue is versa vice,
And the man who would unskirt you
Won't do it unless you're nice.
This is man's ambivelent taste:
Whatever is chased has got to be chaste.
Paradox is deep in his blood:
He's after the rose, but leaps at the bud.

So vive la virtue, vive la virtue,
Up the Bacchanalian cup,
Vive la virtue, vive la virtue,
Down with things that cover it up!
Let not virtue e'er desert you,
Fie on all the cynical gents,
For the way to slay
The cunning roué
Is with innocence.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Remakes Galore

As expected, the new special edition of The Maltese Falcon (which has been announced for this fall along with some other Bogart movies) will include the two earlier versions of the novel, The Maltese Falcon (1931), and Satan Met a Lady. The 1941 version is of course the best, though the first version is worth seeing, and has the benefit of being free from Hayes Code censorship.

Packaging a well-known film with its remake, or with an earlier version, is something that's always welcome on a "classic" DVD. Sometimes the earlier or later version outclasses the better-known version, like the silent version of Ben-Hur (though I perversely like DeMille's remake of The Ten Commandments better than the silent original) or the original British version of Gaslight, which MGM suppressed when they did the Hollywood remake. And sometimes the remake isn't very good but makes for an interesting comparison: I Wake Up Screaming was remade a decade later as the less stylized but more serious Vicki, with Jeanne Crain and Jean Peters taking over for Betty Grable and Carole Landis. Fox is planning to release that movie separately, which is kind of a shame; it's not really interesting enough on its own, but it would be interesting as a way of comparing how a studio approached the same material in two different decades.

All This and Elisha Cook Jr. Too

Of all the clips I've uploaded onto YouTube, this is probably the most obviously worthwhile: the first (and best) ten minutes of the movie Hellzapoppin'. I've already said my say about Hellzapoppin' and Olsen and Johnson, so all I really need to do now is embed the clip. Enjoy:

This was, as I said, the best part of the movie -- one comedy writer, who loved the film and paid tribute to it in numberous ways, told me "once they started telling a story, the movie tanked." I wouldn't go that far; there are some good things in the rest of the picture, but the insanity of the first reel is so pure that it's a shame to see it be abandoned in favour of a conventional Hollywood structure, even if the filmmakers thumb their nose at convention a little by admitting up-front that they're selling out ("you've gotta have a story because every picture has one," the director bellows).

The best jokes and fourth-wall-breaking tricks from this section are well-known, of course, but that's because they've been lifted by so many people who came after. Not that Olsen and Johnon's jokes were original; the whole point was that they weren't original and were bringing old-school Vaudeville and Burlesque humour to shake up the stuffy world of Broadway and Hollywood. But they're unique for their near-exhausting piling of jokes on top of jokes, and any "wacky" or self-referential comedy owes a little bit to Hellzapoppin'.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

More Animation Identification

Via Thad, I see that Larry Tremblay has started a blog. Larry, who Thad calls "my absolute mentor when it comes to animator identification," has some tips on how to identify the styles of individual animators, plus an analysis of the animators' styles in the Frank Tashlin cartoon "Puss N' Booty."

Friday, June 09, 2006

For All You Miller-Boyett Nostalgia Buffs

I've discovered that YouTube contains an inordinate number of versions of the title sequence of "Perfect Strangers," as re-enacted by college students. I found at least five different ones so far. Here's the best of them:

And here, for reference, is the original:

With this and that "Simpsons" live-action sequence, re-creating TV title sequences is soon going to surpass Civil War re-enactments in popularity. And, after all, there are a lot more pleasant things to re-enact than the Civil War. I would suggest that someone turn their attention to re-enacting The Hogan Family next.

Now, why "Perfect Strangers?" I think it's just one of those shows that really hooks you when you're a little kid. I know that as a child I was kind of obsessed with it. Of course, it didn't deserve that kind of following; I saw a couple of episodes recently and found it pretty bad when it wasn't just ripping off other, better, earlier comedy (Larry and Balki move a piano like Laurel and Hardy; Balki gets hypnotized in a plot directly ripped off from "The Dick Van Dyke Show"). But kids love Larry and Balki, and they especially love the fact that they had one of the few friendships on TV that seemed real to a child: instead of being friendly all the time (one extreme of TV friendships) or insulting each other all the time (the other extreme), cousins Larry and Balki liked each other but got on each other's nerves, fought to see who would get the better stuff, got into trouble with authority figures -- they were, basically, overgrown children with a childish friendship. That made "Perfect Strangers" the perfect kiddie show, and when the kiddies grow up, they remember that show fondly.

That'll Be the Day

DVD Journal has a good review of the new The Searchers DVD along with an analysis of the movie.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The A-Team: The Legend Lives On

So a British TV network did a show called "Bring Back the A-Team". The host, Justin Lee Collins, apparently makes a specialty of doing shows where he goes around trying to find and re-unite the cast of a popular TV show -- and "The A-Team" is really, really, really popular in England; I can't stress that enough. Most of the "A-Team" fan fiction and a lot of the Mr. T webcomics come from England. So Collins' fan-worship of Mr. T and Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz is totally believable.

Anyway, the special included the above-named actors; it didn't include George Peppard, who's too busy being dead, but it did have Marla Heasley, who was the "token female" on the show for a few months in 1984. But the one surviving regular who did not appear in the reunion was Melinda Culea. And so the legend lives on.

What I mean by that is that the Melinda Culea "A-Team" story is one of my all-time favourite show-business stories, and it's fascinating to me, in part, because it's not a very well-known or widely-analyzed story, which means I can read anything I want into it.

The story is actually pretty simple, in outline: Culea was hired to play Amy Allen, a reporter who tagged along with the A-Team and was supposed to help them line up cases and publicize their exploits. She was there for the huge success of the first season, but the writers couldn't figure out what to do with the character -- or, put it another way, they realized that there was no reason for the character to be on the show at all.

By the second season, her part had been reduced to almost nothing: a couple of lines in each episode, or a chance to deliver some exposition. She started complaining about having nothing to do, and told the producers, accurately: "if you can’t write the role better you don’t need me. You can get any number of young, pretty girls as guest stars for a lot less money than you’re paying me." She reportedly also started lobbying the writers to let her character actually participate in the fight scenes, something that is common now but never happened with female characters back then (heck, even Batgirl was never allowed to actually hit anybody; she had to get on a table and kick them). The other actors, but particularly Peppard and Benedict, didn't care for her complaints and thought she should consider herself lucky to be on a show that didn't really need a female lead.

At some point during the second season, Culea discovered she was fired, in the most humiliating way possible: she received the script for that week and found that her character wasn't in it. She told TV Guide that she wasn't sure what had happened but thought it might have something to do with "Peppard, who never liked me." Peppard, Benedict and Mr. T all had some rather snippy things to say about her when asked.

Now, was this a case of horrible injustice done to a great character or a great actress? Hardly. The character of Amy was never really needed (though she is a somewhat more consequential character in the pilot), and Culea was nothing special -- a competent but uninspiring actress, and a good-looking woman who didn't look all that good on film. There was no reason not to let her go; she said so herself: if they couldn't write the part better, they didn't need a female lead (though they did try another female lead, Heasley, for a few episodes after they dumped Culea).

And yet, the story fascinates me. Partly because I've heard the occasional rumour that there's more to what happened than was reported at the time; but even based on what was reported, it's the outline of a great story. A young actress gets her big break as the female lead in a pilot; the pilot gets picked up and the show becomes a monster hit -- but nobody writes about her, nobody writes for her, and neither she nor her character are really treated as a full member of the group. She tries to lobby for a stronger part and a stronger character, to be a full member of that group in every sense, and the star of the show turns against her. She is forced off the show and into obscurity. The end. Now, how much does that outline correspond to what actually happened? I've no idea. But that's why I'm oddly glad that Culea declined to show up for the reunion: it keeps the real details of the story as murky as they ever were, and allows one's imagination to make anything of the story that one wants -- it can be the story of how badly women are treated in the man's world of TV, or it can be the story of a veteran actor who didn't like a young woman who talked back, or it can be the story of an actress who thought she was more important to the show than she really was, or all of the above, or none. It's an inkblot showbiz story: you see in it what you want to see.

I actually tried several ways to do a fictionalized version of this story (in fiction, you don't have to worry about what really happened and can make the story mean whatever you want). I did do a short story called "Token Female," about a young man obsessed with the firing and unable to enjoy the show because of it. But I really wanted to do it as a longer story about two women: the token female on an action show, and the token female on the writing staff of the same show. The problem was that there just wasn't enough story material to do a longer version -- or, more specifically, there wasn't enough story material featuring the two women together (since they wouldn't have seen each other very much). Someday I'll find the right way to do that story, though. And anyone else who wants to try and crack it is welcome.

"Meet The Press In Hell"

I'm not sure if this "World O' Crap" post, entitled "Meet the Press in Hell", is comedy or just a straightforward transcript that NBC forgot to post. But it's funny and true.

Satan: Now I’m an old-fashioned guy. I believe in mothers, and family, and I think marriage is a sacred institution between one man and one woman for the begetting and raising of Anti-Christs. But my opponent seems to have a more “casual” view of it, since he married a prostitute.

Jesus: I did NOT!

Satan: Have you read the book?

Jesus: That was a novel!

Satan: Do you deny this story was widely printed?

Jesus: It was fiction!

Satan: Oh, I see. So 50 million people who read that book are all wrong, and you’re right. Tim, you see, this is why the people in this country don’t trust the media.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

I Wake Up Screaming

Gary Giddins has a wonderful column on the DVD release of the movie I Wake Up Screaming. It's part of Fox's film noir series, and outshines a lot of the better-known titles in that series.

I Wake Up Screaming is a truly strange movie for a lot of reasons. First of all, it was made in 1941 but much of it has the look of a post-war film noir, with all the shadows, cigarettes and hats you'd expect from a noir, plus the occasional tilted camera angles and strange lighting tricks. Unlike The Maltese Falcon from the same year, which is considered an early noir but doesn't really have a lot of the noir visual style, I Wake Up Screaming looks like a movie from a later period; it's as if somebody had made Risky Business in 1978.

The other odd thing about it is that it's an early noir, full of murder, perverse obsession and a complicated flashback structure, made mostly by people who were associated with musicals: Betty Grable (though her part is overshadowed by others), director Bruce Humberstone, and writer Dwight Taylor. It's not quite as much of a mis-match as it seems at first glance, because Humberstone had directed a bunch of Charlie Chan films for Fox, and there always was a certain amount of stylistic connection between the noir and the B-movie mystery film, particularly since most noir movies were made on relatively small budgets. The film noir doesn't have the gloss of an "A" picture, though it's less simplistic and more polished than a "B" picture; it is, let's say, a "B+" picture, and that's what I Wake Up Screaming is: a really good, absorbing, inventive "B+."

Here are some screen captures which show off the beautiful noir-ish photography that Giddins talks about:

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Spinach City

According to this article (as well as an online chat tonight), Warner Brothers has acquired the home video rights to the Fleischer "Popeye" cartoons:

The distribution deal covers all of the original 231 Popeye animated shorts released theatrically by Paramount Pictures between 1933 and 1957. Warner also has licensed the exclusive rights to 220 Popeye made-for-TV animated shorts produced from 1960 to 1962, 65 episodes of "The Continuing Adventures of Popeye," produced from 1978 to 1981 (and consisting of 161 animated shorts) and 26 "Popeye & Son" shorts produced in 1987.

Warner’s first Popeye DVD release is expected to street in 2007.

The Popeye theatrical slate includes 120 black & white shorts (106 of them produced by Fleischer Studios, the other 14 by Famous Studios) and 111 Technicolor cartoons (three produced by Fleischer Studios and 108 produced by Famous Studios).

Warner Home Video said it will start work immediately on preservation and restoration activities.

In VistaVision

As this Hollywood Reporter article mentions, The Searchers was filmed in the VistaVision process, a unique alternative to CinemaScope for directors who didn't want to deal with the wide-and-narrow 'Scope frame. VistaVision was mostly used by Paramount, the only studio that rejected CinemaScope; it wasn't a widescreen process (though the frame could be cropped to a faux-widescreen ratio, the optimal projection width of a VistaVision movie is about 1.85:1), but rather made its effect through the higher quality of the image it produced. At a time when many movies looked visually dull -- in part due to the problems with early CinemaScope lenses -- VistaVision blew you away with how good it looked, as Martin Scorsese explains in the article:

"I (don't have the words to) tell you what that VistaVision looked like projected," he says of the long-gone system that yielded fine grains, endless depths of field and extra-wide images. "There's nothing today that can equal that." The cinematic poet and landscape artist Ford made the most of the format and Technicolor with endless longshots of his beloved Monument Valley.

Unfortunately, Paramount kind of squandered its advantage with VistaVision by making most of its '50s films on the cheap: with their stagy look and use of obvious studio interiors in place of real locations, most of Paramount's VistaVision movies don't take advantage of the format. But The Searchers certainly does; it was Ford's only VistaVision movie, and Warner Brothers' only movie to use the process, and Monument Valley never looked better than it does here. (The reason Ford used the process for this film and this film only was probably that one of the producers of The Searchers, C.V. Whitney, was a big stockholder in Technicolor, and Technicolor was compatible with VistaVision but not CinemaScope.) Alfred Hitchcock also liked VistaVision, which he used not only at Paramount but in the one film he made for MGM, North By Northwest.

The Widescreeen museum has great resources on the history of VistaVision, including this old press release about the advantages of the format. There's also an article about the "wide" version of VistaVision, Technirama.

Bad Theme Songs, Additional Addendum

You thought "Joanie Loves Chachi" was the crummiest title song from a "Happy Days" spinoff? No, my friends, that distinction belongs to "Out of the Blue", a Miller/Milkis/Boyett concoction about a wacky angel named Random (Jimmy Brogan) helping out a family headed by Dixie Carter. It counts as a "Happy Days" spinoff because they set up the show by having the angel make a guest appearance on "Happy Days" (Chachi sold his soul to the devil and Random helped him un-sell it). The theme song is fearsomely bland even by the usual standard of the king of bland '70s music, Charles "Killing Me Softly" Fox.

Seriously, though, aren't we all a little nostalgic for the time when shows could have title sequences lasting almost two minutes? The time they used to spend on title sequences has just been taken up by more commercials, and I think an elaborate credit sequence is a better use of that time.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Old "Not Sold In Stores" Trick

Turns out that the "Get Smart" DVD sets will be produced not by HBO but by Time-Life, which means you'll have to order them from the website. Or, when the sets come out, they'll run commercials where a happy-voiced announcer tells you to call and get your Get Smart DVDs while supplies last.

The sets themselves should be very well-produced, uncut and with extras, but for some reason I feel weird about ordering stuff from Time-Life. I think I mentally conflate them with Ginsu Knives.

So-So Shows With One Great Episode

Here's a question for all you TV-viewin' types out there: what are some shows that weren't particularly good overall, but had one episode that you thought was truly great?

The example that I always use is the show "Day By Day." This show never amounted to much; it was created by Gary David Goldberg and Andy Borowitz; it concerned a couple of high-powered yuppies who decide they want to spend more time with their kids, so they move to the suburbs and open a day-care centre out of their home. It was Goldberg's follow-up to "Family Ties"; instead of a show about '60s hippies adjusting to the '80s world, it was about '80s yuppies trying to find something more in life than career and money. But the writing wasn't anything special, the parents weren't very interesting, and there was no Michael J. Fox or Michael Gross around to elevate the material.

But the reason a lot of people still sort of remember the show was one episode they did called "A Very Brady Episode", where the son (Christopher Daniel Barnes) dreams he's part of the Brady Bunch (he's the long-lost son, Chuck Brady). Most of the "Brady Bunch" cast was recruited for this episode, and it was basically an extended spoof of every "Brady Bunch" cliché, where "Chuck" learned just how appallingly annoying it would be to live in that world. It did everything those Brady Bunch spoof movies did (the movies also featured Christopher Daniel Barnes, by the way) in one-fourth of the time, and did it better. I haven't seen that episode since it first aired and I still remember it as being hilarious; perhaps it wouldn't hold up if I saw it again, but at that time -- when most mainstream shows still didn't do parodies of other TV shows -- it was fresh and surprising and funny and totally unlike the rest of "Day By Day."

That's my pick for a not-so-great show with a great episode; what are yours?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Stop With the Cutting!

When the John Ford/John Wayne collection comes out next week, one thing worth looking for is the rather large number of shots that feature two or more characters in the same frame for an extended period of time. John Ford wasn't known for using long takes; he didn't go out of his way to stage an entire scene in one shot the way Orson Welles or Vincente Minnelli did. But Ford came from a tradition of filmmaking that emphasized getting the right look for a shot -- in terms of composition and framing -- and that meant not breaking up a good shot with a lot of coverage and cross-cutting. He'll cut between characters if that's the only way we can see both of them clearly; but his default method is to position the actors in such a way that they can occupy the same shot together, without his having to cut away or even move the camera much.

This is very different from the way most movies have looked for the past twenty years or more; the default way of doing a scene now is to cut back and forth between characters, and putting them in the same shot together for any length of time is quite rare. Remember in Heat, where Michael Mann put Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in a much-hyped scene together, but didn't show them occupying the same frame for more than a few seconds. Ford would never have done it that way -- he didn't do it, say, with John Wayne and Henry Fonda in Fort Apache. He'd have found ways to have the characters talk to each other while they're in the shot together.

The advantages of this way of shooting are twofold. One, it means that each shot is sort of a work of art in itself; instead of just picking and choosing between different bits of footage and splicing them together -- in other words, leaving a lot of the director's job to the editor (and the person who supervises the editing, who is often not the director) -- the director puts a lot of effort into making each shot look as good as possible, because each individual shot carries more weight than in a modern, fast-cutting movie. And second, the more characters are shown together in the same shot, the more you can see the way they react to each other, and how they play off each other; and because they don't need to worry as much about matching everything with the coverage, they can afford to do spontaneous things -- like John Wayne teasing his son Patrick in a shot from The Searchers.

A Book For WKultists

As a pre-emptive measure against my writing any more "WKRP in Cincinnati" posts, I will point out that there actually is a book on the series: "America's Favorite Radio Station: WKRP in Cincinnati" by Michael B. Kassel. Kassel interviewed many key people from the show -- Hugh Wilson of course; some of his staff writers; and some of the actors -- and does a pretty good job of collecting most of the key anecdotes about it, from the incomprehensible theme song to the network's bizarre treatment of the show (changing its time slot every couple of months).

The book is not perfect; it's clumsily written at times and doesn't have a lot to say about exactly why a show that sort of had second-tier status at the time (MTM didn't like it much; CBS pretty much hated it; "Taxi" beat it every single year at the Emmys) somehow wound up becoming a cult sensation, to the point that people like me can't stop talking about it. What does this show have that makes it so fondly remembered, not in a "cheesy nostalgia" way but a "that was a really great show" way? I have my own theories, some of which I've dealt with in earlier posts, plus an additional theory that it gets a boost from its quite phenomenal popularity with radio-industry people (sort of like how "The Dick Van Dyke Show" for a long time was like a shrine for aspiring TV comedy writers). Kassel doesn't really illuminate what set "WKRP" apart, but he certainly does a good job of providing the details of what it was and how it came to be.

One thing the book confirms is that it was Blake Hunter (a writer who was there for the whole run of the show) who was responsible for "WKRP"'s unusual degree of episode-to-episode continuity. Hunter says in the book that he kept notes of every character detail mentioned in a script -- what kind of car the character drives, family issues, previous jobs he or she held -- and made sure that these details were kept consistent in every subsequent episode: so that, for example, in one episode Herb mentions offhand that he's going to buy a Cordoba (with fine Corinthian leather!), and in an episode a year later he mentions that he is, in fact, driving a Cordoba. Hunter was enough of a continuity obsessive that the last script he wrote for "WKRP" was an attempt to resolve the continuity issues with the Venus Flytrap character: the whole episode is an extended retcon that might strike even a sci-fi fan as a little geeky (and I mean that in a good way; it's a great episode). WKRP's final season also had several story threads that ran through nearly the entire season, which was fairly unusual for a non-soapy television show at the time.

All that geeky continuity stuff may help to explain why WKRP fans can be as obsessive as fans of a science-fiction show: because if you watch enough episodes you start spotting the cross-references and the little biographical details that the characters drop about themselves (there are several "WKRP" characters for whom you could piece together an entire coherent back-story based solely on the "throwaway" jokes, especially Jennifer), and you sort of feel like the show is creating a world. "Barney Miller" did that too to a certain extent, and "Soap" did, but other ensemble shows didn't; M*A*S*H, for example, had real trouble keeping details straight from episode to expisode, let alone season to season. And there's my last attempt at trying to explain why I'm a "WKRP" fanboy, whereas with most shows I'm just a fan.

And that will be all I'll write about that show until such time as the damn music issues are worked out and it can be released to the public again. I still think it could be done, at a reasonable cost, if the essential songs were retained but music changes were made in spots where the audience wouldn't notice (like five-second snippets at the beginning or end of a scene, or background music that isn't clearly heard). Oh, well. Here's hoping Fox's music people eventually see it that way.

Until then, at least I managed to get the complete "Frog Story" episode onto YouTube.

Addendum: I also uploaded my single favourite "WKRP" joke, from the episode "Carlson For President."

Fey'd Away

David Hurwitz reviews a new Haydn symphony disc from conductor Thomas Fey.

Fey is a protegé of Nikolaus Harnoncourt who started, and then abruptly abandoned, a project of recording the complete Haydn symphonies; now he's re-started it, though I have yet to find out exactly who is distributing these discs in North America, if anyone, or where I can order them without having to pay exorbitant shipping rates (when you order from, the shipping can sometimes cost more than the product). In the meantime, his earlier Haydn discs are available at

To enjoy Fey's Haydn, you have to like a really brash, even vulgar approach to Haydn; there's none of that "Papa Haydn" geniality and cuteness that many conductors bring to this music -- like Sir Thomas Beecham, the conductor who was considered the master of Haydn interpretation and whose recordings make Haydn symphonies sound pretty and harmless. Fey and his orchestra (which uses mostly modern instruments but plays in "historically informed" style) go for extreme contrasts of tempo and dynamics, and, in symphonies that use brass and tympani, loud, knock-you-out-of-your-seat outbursts. Haydn wanted to entertain the audience, but he liked to do so by surprising and even disturbing the audience: leading them to expect one thing and doing another; changing moods very suddenly; letting the drums and brass make lots of noise at unexpected moments. That's the Haydn that Thomas Fey brings out, and hopefully he'll get around to recording all the symphonies as originally planned.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

This Is My Happening and it Freaks Me Out!

DVD Talk has a review of the new special edition of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Sounds like a very well-done set, though I'm not sure I really get the whole Russ Meyer phenomenon. When I posted some clips demonstrating Frank Tashlin's obsession with putting women into pin-up-girl poses, a commenter suggested that Tashlin was a bit like Russ Meyer, and I actually think there are some similarities between Tashlin and Meyer: both of them made movies with outlandish jokes and a love-hate attitude to popular culture, and both were obsessed with displaying pulchritudinous women in every scene.

The fun thing about Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is that it's a Russ Meyer movie made with the full resources of Twentieth-Century Fox, which by 1970 was one of the few studios that still had old-school production facilities and technicians. As I wrote in an earlier post, the story of Fox in the late '60s and early '70s is the story of a studio trying to be "with-it" even though most of its productions still had the glossy Old Hollywood look. That gloss and polish, applied to material like Russ Meyer's, is a lot of fun because it's so incongruous to have a Russ Meyer movie photographed by the guy who'd just finished shooting Patton, or worked on by guys like Stuart Reiss who'd been at Fox since the '40s.