Sunday, July 30, 2006

'Cause We Met on the Way

A little late in calling attention to this, but the infamous fourth season of "Moonlighting" comes out on September 12. You may recall this as the year when a combination of Cybill Shepherd's pregnancy and a writers' strike led to a string of episodes where the two lead characters hardly ever appeared together, followed by the decision to marry Shepherd off to a new character she'd only just met -- the dumbest decision since, well, since Jack Scalia was added to the disastrous fifth season of "Remington Steele" the year before. (Odd how these comedy-romance-mystery shows tend to flame out in similar ways.)

There are two things to be noted about the implosion of "Moonlighting." One, despite the legend, it didn't really have all that much to do with David and Maddie finally sleeping together. The episode where they slept together wasn't even the season 3 finale; they followed it up with another episode that deftly addressed the question of whether the show could go on without the sexual tension, and concluded that their relationship was still messed-up enough to allow for more stories. What killed the show was the double-whammy of writing around the pregnancy followed by the universally-hated marriage storyline; but that was a result of bad luck and bad decision-making, not getting the characters together.

Which sort of leads in to the other thing to be noted: nobody ever says this directly on the DVD special features, but it's kind of painfully clear that Glenn Gordon Caron, in a sense, had no business running a show. Under normal circumstances, you would expect that a guy who can't deliver episodes on time or on budget, can't keep tempers from flaring up on the set, can't keep anything organized -- can't, in other words, fulfil the basic managerial duties of a showrunner -- would be fired. The problem was, of course, that Caron was bad at running a show (one writer called it "the worst-run show in the history of the cathode ray tube"), but good at writing and re-writing the show, and what's more, without him, there really couldn't be a show. So ABC, at least for the first four seasons, appears to have grudgingly accepted the trade-off of a badly-managed but well-written show. And of course in the fifth season, when Caron was forced out, the show deteriorated even more and got canceled.

Animaniacal Visuals

The "Animaniacs" special features don't have any input from the artists, at least in the first two volumes (volume 2, to be released later this year, will have interviews with the entire writing staff). Hopefully someone will correct this in Volume 3 and invite some of the directors in to talk about the show, people like Rusty Mills, who would have a lot to say about working on the show. Mills directed the first Pinky and the Brain cartoon, and the look of it was very important to the success of those characters: the dimly-lit laboratory was so different from almost any setting for a kids' cartoon that it was almost a third character in the show.

"Animaniacs" was not, by most accounts, a show that featured a great relationship between artists and writers. On "Tiny Toons," as I understand it, the artists had more freedom to add things to the scripts, throw things out, add their own ideas to the mix. By the time "Animaniacs" came around the writers had grown more proprietary about their material and the two teams -- artists and writers -- more suspicious of each other. I don't think it showed up too strongly in the first 65 episodes of "Animaniacs"; the scripts and the visuals were sometimes kind of at odds with each other (like the way the Warners kept being written as the Marx Brothers while the artists were trying to make them into more cartoony characters), but the contributions were of a very high standard all around. By the time the show moved to the WB, though, I think the seams really started to show; a lot of those later cartoons look dull sometimes, even the ones TMS was available to animate. The show really did become "illustrated radio" at some point.

In the first season, the cartoons to look for if you're interested in the visuals are some of the ones handled by the people at StarToons in Chicago (they did many of the Slappy Squirrel shorts, including the really beautifully-animated "Bumbie's Mom"), and the cartoons done by a unit at WB that included storyboard artists Audu Paden and Carolyn Gair (later Carolyn Gair-Taylor): they boarded cartoons like "The Monkey Song," "Les Miseranimals," "Space-Probed," "Bubba Bo Bob Brain" and "Astro-Buttons," really spectacular-looking cartoons -- no matter which animation studio handled the finished animation -- with great staging of the gags and a real feel of spaciousness in the handling of large casts of characters; it's like TV animation on a grand scale.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Lyrics: "Give a Little Whistle" by Carolyn Leigh

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. That will continue for the weekend, so I'll return to what I always do when I don't have anything original to say: post some lyrics by musical-theatre songwriters I admire, in this case more Carolyn Leigh lyrics. This is "Give a Little Whistle," which she and Cy Coleman wrote for Wildcat; it's got the usual Leigh trademarks of internal rhymes ("I will glide to your side on the spare") and unusual turns of phrase ("But if in case," "I'll huddle in a cave," "crook your crooked little finger").

Verse 1

From now on
I promise to behave;
I'll pack my gear and disappear from view.
From now on
I'll huddle in a cave,
But if in case you miss the face that used to pester you,

Refrain 1

Just give a little whistle,
Ring a little bell,
Crook your little finger, honey,
Give a little yell.
I'll leap over fences,
I'll even leave my senses
And I'll take, for your sake, to the air.
Just give a little whistle,
Say you want me, and I'll be there.

Verse 2

Pardon me,
It tickles me to death
To hear you say you'll be a lady yet.
Pardon me
If I don't hold my breath,
But on the day that you can play a shrinking violet,

Refrain 2

Just give a little whistle,
Brew a little tea,
Send me out an invite, honey,
This I gotta see.
The day you're a woman,
Or even halfway human,
Though there may be some grey in your hair,
Just give a little whistle,
Notify me, and I'll be there.
On the spot,
On the dot,
Like a shot,
I'll be there.

Verse 3

Ain't that nice!
It makes a fella feel
Like if'n you would like to do the same.

Don't think twice!
You've got yourself a deal,
And if in case you like the face and can't recall the name,

Refrain 3

Just give a little whistle,
Ring a little bell,
Crook your crooked little finger, honey,
Give a little yell.
I'll streak like an arrow
Through alleys wide and narrow,
Down a drain or a main thoroughfare.
Just give a little whistle,
Say you want me, and I'll be there.
If you're short,
Or in court,
Hold the fort,
I'll be there.

Refrain 5

Give a little whistle,
Ring a little bell,
Crook your crooked little finger, honey,
Give a little yell.
I'll brave flood and fire,
Suppose I blow a tire,
I will glide to your side on the spare.
Just give a little whistle,
Say you want me, and I'll be there.


Lively as a thistle
Floating on the air,
Give a little whistle...
And I'll be there.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Cartoon Cluelessness

Amid at Cartoon Brew has been pointing out some examples of historians and film critics talking about animation who really shouldn't, because... how can I put this... they know about as much about animation "as my behind knows about putting up stovepipes."*

First, via Mark Mayerson there was historian Paul Johnson trying to write a chapter about Walt Disney, and coming up with stuff like this:

As he employed a good many intellectuals, artists, and writers who at that period leaned overwhelmingly toward the left, this produced tension at the Disney Studios and, in 1940, led to a strike aimed either at forcing Disney to make pro-Communist propaganda cartoons or at shutting the studio down. Disney defeated the strike, with some help from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and pursued his own individual way until his death.

As Mark points out: "The quote above is demonstrably false on several counts. Disney lost the strike as the company had to recognize the union. The strike was about issues like wages and had nothing to do with the content of the films. Nobody, including the strikers, wanted the studio shut down." But apart from that, Johnson's accuracy cannot be faulted. Johnson claims in a footnote that he's relying on the book Hollywood's Dark Prince as his source for that passage, but a commenter at Mark's blog says that book doesn't make any such claims. This means that Johnson just made it all up to fit a storyline (Disney vs. the Commies) and then mis-attributed it to another book. This may be something you should keep in mind if you read one of Paul Johnson's books.

Next, Amid rips into film critic Mick LaSalle for claiming that motion-capture animation (i.e. animation with minimal involvement from those pesky artist types) is a new and superior advance over anything that has come before:

[Animation] never had the ability to show the human face. There was never any point to a close-up in an animated film -- there was never really anything to see. But with the motion-capture process, real actors give their performances with computer sensors attached to their face and body, and that recorded information becomes the template for the computer animation... Imagine what Disney might have done with this in the creation of the Seven Dwarfs. Imagine all the things that will be done with this in the future. "Monster House" looks like the ground floor of something important.

Amid, Jenny Lerew, and Thad Komorowski all have something to say about LaSalle's assumption that mimicking a real actor produces more and better animated acting than the actual creative work of an artist. Thad gives us a clip of Rod Scribner animating Bugs Bunny, where the facial expressions are more imaginative and expressive than anything you could "capture" from an actor. The whole point of drawing something, as opposed to just taking a photograph, is that the imaginative evocation of life can show things that a simple facsimile of life cannot; a real person couldn't stretch and crumple his face to express emotion the way Bugs Bunny can. But instead we get James Lipton saying that rotoscoping "ought to be more effective than an animated performance", when decades of onscreen evidence has shown that rotoscoping generally produces performances that are less expressive than animated performances. It's like saying that the Mona Lisa would have been more effective if Leonardo had had a Polaroid handy.

Seeing how lazy or inaccurate critics and commentators can be when talking about animation, you have to ask yourself: do they just not take the art form seriously enough to make sure they have their facts right? Sometimes I think that's true; some critics feel a need to understand live-action cinema but not a corresponding need to understand animated cinema, which means that they don't really do a very good job of judging the physical acting in an animated movie, or even understanding that there is such a thing as animated acting. (This explains why many reviews of animated films are fixated on the backgrounds and voice work, these being easier to evaluate.) It's also why some critics use lower standards for animated movies; I've seen Roger Ebert and Richard Corliss and others give animated movies a free pass for story and structure weaknesses that they would never tolerate in a live-action film.

But we shouldn't overlook the possibility that some people are just sloppy in general, but make a pretense of knowing what they're talking about, a pretense that doesn't hold up if you check their facts on any particular subject. That seems to be the case with Paul Johnson, since he's not only making sloppy factual errors but inventing stories out of whole cloth to fit his story.

It reminds me of something Bill James said when he was pointing out all the factual errors in a baseball book by historian David Halberstam.

There are two possibilities, one frightening and one irritating. It is frightening to think that Halberstam, one of the nation's most respected journalists, is this sloppy in writing about war and politics, yet has still been able to build a reputation simply because nobody has noticed.

What seems more likely is that Halberstam, writing about baseball, just didn't take the subject seriously. He just didn't figure it mattered whether he got the facts right or not, as long as he was just writing about baseball.

And that, to me as a baseball fan, is just irritating as hell.

Replace baseball with animation, Halberstam with the name of one of the above commentators, pick one or the other possibility, and you've got a very similar situation. And animation fans are certainly irritated as hell.

*Quoting a Gordon Korman book there.

Grudge Matches I'd Like to See: Charlie Chan vs. Mr. Moto

Battle of the faux-ethnic detectives from Fox 1930s B-movies (both of whom have had DVD collections released recently): Charlie Chan, as played by Warner Oland, vs. Mr. Moto, as played by Peter Lorre. Who wins:

a) A physical fight;
b) A contest to see who can be the first to solve the mystery of the missing necklace/cursed statue/murdered society woman?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Looney Tunes, Volume 4

TV Shows On DVD has the official announcement of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 4, though not the official list of the cartoons that will be included.

Disc 1 is Bugs Bunny; disc 2 is a collection of cartoons by Frank Tashlin, disc 3 is a Speedy Gonzales collection (which may, unfortunately, include some of those post-1964 Daffy/Speedy shorts), and disc 4 is assorted cartoons about cats -- Sylvester, Pussyfoot, and other WB cat characters.

I have no great love for Speedy Gonzales -- though Bob McKimson's "Tabasco Road" is a great cartoon, and I also like Friz Freleng's "Mexicali Schmoes" and Speedy's debut cartoon, "Cat-Tails For Two" (McKimson). In general Speedy works best when the focus is on other characters (in "Tabasco Road" most of the fun comes from Speedy's two drunken pals; in "Schmoes" it's the two dumb cats). When he's a Mighty Mouse type hero, zooming in to save hungry mice from el pussygato Sylvester, things can get dull; and that, unfortunately, is the formula that most Speedy cartoons follow.

Speaking of Speedy: as you may know, while Speedy was created by McKimson, Speedy's second cartoon, "Speedy Gonzales," was directed by Freleng, who re-launched the character with a new design, a new formula, a different adversary (Sylvester). It was one of those cartoons that's clearly a "pilot" cartoon, made in the hopes of launching a series, which it did. And it won an Academy Award.

What's interesting is that the first three WB theatrical cartoons to win Academy Awards all fall into that category: cartoons made to re-launch established characters in a series. These three cartoons were "Tweety Pie" (1947, the first teaming of Tweety and Sylvester), "For Scent-imental Reasons" (1949, re-launching Pepe Le Pew) and "Speedy Gonzales." I would take a guess that whenever there was a cartoon that WB was counting on to launch a series, they would promote that cartoon extra hard for an Oscar, since the Oscars undoubtedly helped these three series get off the ground.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Monsters From the Id!

I've never been quite as big a fan of Forbidden Planet as some (except for Anne Francis's legs, which would make any movie worth watching). I actually like all the pop-Freudian stuff that some critics complain about; pop Freudianism is so much a part of '50s culture that it would almost be wrong for the movie not to do that kind of thing, and the psychoanalytic approach to sci-fi is a nice change of pace from the usual '50s sci-fi movie, which usually dealt exclusively with the question of whether or not we could trust alien invaders; Planet is about whether or not we can trust ourselves, and that's actually more interesting.

My problems with Forbidden Planet are more technical and structural. Structurally, not a lot seems to happen before we get to the pop-Freud stuff; it really needed some cutting down, because there's so little action and so much talk. And on a technical level, the movie could have used more pizazz in the design concepts -- except for the design of Robby the Robot, nothing in the production design sticks in my head as really memorable. And the direction, like a lot of early-Cinemascope movies, is a little slow and stodgy. Throw in the silly electronic beep-boop score (electronic music is fine, but this isn't good electronic music; a good orchestral score would have worked much better and given more propulsion to some of the slower sequences), and you've got a movie that is sometimes more fun to summarize than to watch -- particularly when Anne Francis isn't around.

But, that said, I'm still probably going to get the special edition DVD set this November.

Nita Talbot Watch

So I'm watching Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (short summing-up: great atmosphere, great performances, great Bernard Herrmann score with one cue that he would recycle in North By Northwest; terrible ending). And thanks to the commentary by DVD Savant Glenn Erickson, I realize that the girl who has a two-line role as a teenaged prostitute -- one of the many shady characters who drive Robert Ryan to near-psychosis about the "garbage" he has to deal with as a cop -- is one of my favourite TV character actresses, Nita Talbot. In the '60s through the '80s she had guest spots on dozens of TV shows; nobody was better at playing sexy wisecracking women who were over 30 (or "middle-aged," in the Hollywood term for "over 30"). Here's the scene from On Dangerous Ground, which also has the writer of the movie, A.I. Bezzerides, as a guy who tries to offer Ryan a bribe:

And here's Nita Talbot in her guest-starring prime, from an episode of "Soap," as Mrs. Fein, one of several women who was having an affair with Peter Campbell (Robert Urich) before he was shot, stabbed suffocated and bludgeoned:

Another Nita Talbot guest role you might remember is as the woman in the pilot of The Rockford Files who tried to marry a rich guy even though he'd died before the wedding.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Great Musical Number From a Non-Musical Film

Not much to post lately, but here's a clip of the best part of Blake Edwards' The Pink Panther: the irrelevant musical number "Meglio Stasera (It Had Better Be Tonight)." It's sung by Fran Jeffries, who is otherwise totally irrelevant to the movie (too bad, because she's actually sexier than either of the leading ladies, Capucine and Claudia Cardinale, neither of whom are at their best in this movie). The Henry Mancini tune is one of his best, and Edwards' love of jet-setter culture -- the lavish settings, the cosmopolitan mix of American and European styles -- comes through here, as does his love of long takes: the whole number is done in just two shots.

While the number is, as I said, irrelevant to the story -- even Edwards, on the DVD commentary, says he can't remember exactly why he decided to put a musical number here -- it does highlight something about the characters, namely the way Clouseau (Peter Sellers) is separate and isolated from all the other characters: the "cool" characters, the jet-setting thieves and con artists, all sit together in the centre of the room, while Clouseau is off to one side. And when he tries to join in the dance number, he's out of step. It's part of the movie's casual cruelty that Clouseau, the only good person in the movie, is routinely humiliated by the other characters, all of whom are charming but amoral; Clouseau is the guy who believes in the law, and marriage, and all those other things that the movie dismisses as out of step. There's a reason he's wearing white in this scene: he's the innocent, lost in a cruel world -- but the strange thing about the movie is that Edwards seems to be on the side of the cruel people.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Warning to Canadian Briscovites

If you're in Canada and you're thinking of buying "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.", think again: the Canadian release leaves out the booklet, with notes and episode descriptions written by star Bruce Campbell. I have no idea why this happened, but the Canadian division of Warner Home Video has a strange track record of leaving random stuff out of its DVD releases (the Canadian release of The Band Wagon was missing one special feature, an outtake from the movie).

I would suggest ordering from or another US source instead.

It's a hell of a DVD set, as Gord Lacey's review makes clear. The show itself is the kind of openly escapist, good-natured fare you don't often get in these times, when TV hour-long drama is mostly all suffering and sweaty close-ups. The special features are good, too, particularly the 40-minute "roundtable" with the writing staff (these roundtable discussion featurettes are increasingly popular on TV-on-DVD sets, and definitely beat the standard fake-documentary format of most DVD featurettes).

My one problem with the special features is that so far I haven't heard anyone make any mention of two rather important points: one, the show's rather obvious debt to "The Wild Wild West" -- co-creator Carlton Cuse keeps talking as if he invented the whole idea of combining the Western with science fiction -- and two, the apparent falling-out between Cuse and co-creator Jeffrey Boam, who is credited throughout the run of the show but actually left quite early in the run. Supposedly he thought the show was being taken too far in the fantasy/sci-fi direction, which is odd considering that many of Boam's screenplays had been straightforward fantasy or sci-fi (Innerspace, The Lost Boys)

Monday, July 17, 2006

Mickey Spillane Has Died

Frankly I never thought it could happen. By which I mean, I thought Mickey Spillane was one of those guys who would live forever on sheer... whatever it was he had. And yet while his stuff could be kind of appalling, there was no doubt about its power, or its influence. It's hard to imagine Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm, for example, without the example of Mike Hammer. The idea that a guy could commit such brutal violence, be so amoral about committing violence, and still be the hero and (sort of) on the right side of the law, is something that Spillane has given to our popular culture, and for better or for worse -- sometimes for better, I think -- it's here to stay.

I've linked to it before, but this would be an appropriate time to re-link to Jean Kerr's re-imagining of the Mike Hammer stories in a high-culture setting, "Don Brown's Body."

Update: Sarah has a link to a good obit and she'll have more links and info on her blog tomorrow.

Heaven Can Wait - addendum

Following up on my post on Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait, here's my favourite scene from the movie: the deathbed speech of Henry (Don Ameche), where he recounts a dream that sums up the ultimate goals of his life: have as much fun as possible with liquor and beautiful women. And after the speech is finished, with one of Lubitsch's trademark door gags -- every Lubitsch movie has several gags where the camera holds on a closed door while we imagine what's happening behind it -- he gets to die the way he wants, with a young woman telling him to open his mouth and say "ah."

Note that Ameche has to deliver the big speech in one uninterrupted take; no cutting or inserts to break up the speech and make it easier on the actor.

Trivia Operatica

Oh, one more thing I forgot to mention about La Gioconda: Arrigo Boito's published libretto contains a few lines that Ponchielli didn't set to music. One of those lines, for the bass, Alvise, was:

La morte è il nulla e vecchia fola è il ciel!

Which, translated, means "Death is nothingness and heaven is an old wives' tale."

The line was cut from La Gioconda, but Boito liked it so much that ten years later he used exactly the same line in his libretto for Verdi's Otello, at the end of Iago's aria. This time the line made the final cut.

And the Interviews Just Keep On Coming

Platypus Comix just posted part 2 of its Tom Ruegger interview. This mostly deals in-depth with the development of "Tiny Toons," with a bit of "Batman" near the end. Even if you're no fond of this era of TV cartoonery, the interview is worth a read to get a sense of how "Tiny Toons," and the whole WB TV cartoon operation of the '90s, was built, and to hear the invocation of familiar tooniverse names like Eddie Fitzgerald, Paul Dini and Andrea Romano.

Some interesting quotes from the interview:

We had younger versions of other classic characters...Barky Marky was our junior version of Marc Anthony, and as you mentioned, he made it into very few cartoons. Chuck Jones was not particularly enthusiastic for us to use too much of the characters he felt that he had created. So there was never a lot of Little Beeper and Calamity, or Barky. We felt more justified using Fifi, since she was a girl character, as opposed to Pepe.

I've already written that Tiny Toons had the best gag credits ever, so this was good to read:

I loved gag/joke credits ever since seeing "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." My favorite joke credits -- and certainly the most elaborate set of them -- were contained in Tiny Toons' "How I Spent My Summer Vacation." I wrote all the joke credits on that and all the other shows. The end ring sign-offs were also something I planned from the outset to make the show special and keep everyone watching through the end titles. I wrote all those sign-offs, too. As well as the ones on "Animaniacs" and "Freakazoid." (Emmitt Nervend, in "Freak," was also my idea, sort of our "Where's Waldo" character, but his design was drawn by Mitch Schauer. Mitch made sure Emmitt showed a few times in each episode, at least through the first season).

On the famously inconsistent animation of Kennedy Cartoons:

This is the episode that, for a number of reasons, sent Glen Kennedy running for the hills. Before completing the animation, I believe Glen discovered that Steven wasn't crazy about some of Glen's animation, and it caused quite a riff. We had to get Dave Marshall, James Wang and the crew at Cuckoo's Nest to take over and redo tons of unusable footage. I remember sitting in the Sherman Oaks animation office on Saturday and Sunday, 12 days before the premiere, redrawing half of the show's storyboard and the corresponding layouts with Rich Arons, Alfred Gimeno and others. Somehow, we got those new layouts to Dave Marshall and his crew and got the new footage in record time. (This was back in '89, before digital fixes could be made at the last moment.) We scored and mixed the show a few days before the premiere with rough footage, and we were still cutting in retakes on air-date.

Lisez la chose entière.

Carl Stalling and Harry Warren

(Re-posted with links fixed and some other songs added)

People write a lot about how Carl Stalling used the music of Raymond Scott, but one thing you notice if you listen to enough WB cartoon scores is that there's another composer whose work Stalling quoted even more frequently than Scott's: Harry Warren. Warren, with lyricist Al Dubin, wrote most of the songs for Warner Brothers' musicals in the '30s; nearly all the hits from the Busby Berkeley films are by Warren and Dubin. So naturally a lot of their songs found their way into the Warner Brothers cartoons of the early-to-mid '30s, because most of those cartoons were built around WB-owned songs. So for example Tex Avery's 1935 cartoon "Miss Glory" uses the Warren/Dubin song "Page Miss Glory."

When Stalling came to WB in 1936, he later recalled, the thing he liked best about working for a major studio is that he had access to their catalogue of songs. (Whereas when he worked for Disney, he could only use public-domain music, because Disney didn't have the rights to any popular songs apart from the ones his own cartoons introduced.) Over the years he built up a sort of unofficial catalogue of songs that he would quote in specific situations, like quoting Scott's "Powerhouse" for factory scenes. But the composer whose songs he quoted most often was Harry Warren -- and that continued to be true long after Warren had left WB (he went to Fox in the early '40s).

Here are some examples of Warren songs (mostly Warren-Dubin songs, actually) that Stalling used regularly -- but remember that this is only a partial list. Where possible I've linked to examples of how Stalling used the songs.

"The Lady in Red" from In Caliente - Stalling used this song whenever anyone was wearing red, so of course he used it for the opening titles of "Little Red Riding Rabbit."

"At Your Service, Madame" from Stars Over Broadway - Stalling liked to use this one for tea-party scenes. Here it is in a music-only clip from "Rabbit's Feat."

"42nd Street" and "Shuffle off to Buffalo" from 42nd Street, and "Lullaby of Broadway" from Gold Diggers of 1935. Each of these three songs became a standard "New York" theme for Stalling. You can hear each of them in succession in This clip from "Rebel Rabbit".

"Muchacha" from In Caliente - This one turns up in almost every Speedy Gonzales cartoon. Stalling quotes the verse and the refrain of the song in this music-only clip from "Gonzales' Tamales."

And Stalling liked to use the instrumental-only tango from In Caliente, as in "Bully For Bugs."

"Honeymoon Hotel" from Footlight Parade is used for Porky and Petunia's honeymoon in "Porky's Romance."

In a scene from "Slick Hare," patrons dance to Warren's song "Nagasaki" ("Back in Nagasaki where the fellers chew tobaccy and the women wicky wacky woo").

Stalling took up some Warren-Dubin songs from the movie Gold Diggers in Paris as all-purpose "Paris" themes; most frequently he used "The Latin Quarter"; you can hear it at the beginning of "For Scent-Imental Reasons" (and Daffy sings it in the cartoon "Daffy Duck Hunt"), but he also sometimes used "A Stranger in Paree" (it's playing in the Pepe Le Pew cartoon "The Cat's Bah" when Penelope the cat makes her first appearance).

Stalling's all-purpose "sailor" theme was Warren and Dubin's "Song of the Marines" ("Over the Sea, Let's Go, Men"), as you can hear when Tweety sings it in "Snow Business".

For anything dealing with rain and/or the fall, Warren and Dubin's "September in the Rain" was called on ("The leaves of brown came tumbling down, remember?"), as in the beginning of The Hypo-Chondri-Cat".

And of course, "We're in the Money" was Stalling and Milt Franklyn's all-purpose money/wealth theme, as seen here in this brief excerpt from "Baby Buggy Bunny."

And as I said, that's only a partial list. Harry Warren was one of the great songwriters of all time and his WB catalogue, great as it is, is only part of his output (it doesn't include his '40s hits like "Chatanooga Cho-Choo"). But I think it's fair to say that Carl Stalling's scores have had a lot to do with keeping Warren's songs, his WB songs anyway, enduringly popular; people hear "Lullaby of Broadway" and recognize it because they grew up hearing it in cartoons.

Friday, July 14, 2006

La Gioconda

If there is such a thing as an oddball favourite opera, my oddball favourite opera may be La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli. This opera, based on a Victor Hugo play with the libretto written by Arrigo Boito, has the most insane plot of any opera ever, a complete mess. It has no psychological depth whatsoever; every character is a flat-out stereotype: the noble-yet-whiny tenor, the mustache-twirling baritone villain, the jealous husband, the wife who loves the tenor but remains true to her psychotic husband, and so forth. There is really no point to the opera at all except the opportunity for six good singers to sing some good hummable tunes. Yet I like La Gioconda more than any opera by Puccini, and really more than any other post-Verdi Italian opera.

Many operas have a reputation for having insane plots, but don't really deserve the reputation. Verdi's Il Trovatore gets a lot of flak for its crazy coincidences and over-the-top melodrama, but its plot is actually quite well-structured and the characters' motivations are pretty clear; it's just that it uses a type of plot (heavy on coincidence) that was popular in 1853 -- not just in opera, but in all media -- and later fell out of fashion. But La Gioconda really deserves its reputation for incomprehensibility. It doesn't actually have, by 19th-century operatic standards, a lot of coincidences. What makes the plot impossible to follow is that the characters' motivations are impossible to understand; every character behaves in ways that cannot be explained rationally. Conrad L. Osborne recalled that when he tried to explain the plot to someone who wasn't familiar with it, the person kept interrupting him after every other plot detail to ask "But why?" And he couldn't come up with an answer.

A synopsis of the plot, such as it is, can be found at the first link, but here's a brief description of one scene, just to give you a sense of how these characters behave:

The jealous husband, Alvise, believes that his wife, Laura, has been unfaithful to him with Enzo. (Alvise thinks Enzo is a boat captain, not realizing that he's actually an exiled prince in disguise.) He confronts Laura and tells her that because she is in love with another man, she must die. He gives her a vial of poison and leaves the room, telling her that she must drink the poison and die before the gondolier outside finishes singing. After Alvise leaves the room, the street-singer Gioconda appears, having sneaked into the house and overheard everything. She anticipated that Alvise would try to make Laura kill herself, and since Gioconda has sworn to protect Laura in exchange for Laura having once saved Gioconda's mother's life, Gioconda has a plan to save Laura. She gives Laura a drug that will make her fall into a deep sleep so everyone will think she's dead, but not really.

This description covers about ten minutes' worth of an opera that lasts two-and-a-half hours. So multiply that by 15 and you'll know how truly baffling this opera is.

So what's good about it? Well, to start with, the tunes are mostly great. Unlike the Italian composers who came after him, like Puccini, Ponchielli didn't absorb much of the influence of Wagner; he didn't go for an inflated orchestral sound or try to mimic Wagner's leitmotif system the way Puccini sometimes did. Ponchielli's style is sort of a throwback to the "classic" Italian opera of the '40s and '50s, with the characters expressing themselves in simple, direct song, and with each number focusing on a single powerful emotion like love, hate or jealousy. The only other post-Verdi Italian composer whose style was so "pure," so direct, was Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana), a pupil of Ponchielli.

The most famous numbers include the tenor aria Cielo e Mar! L'etereo Velo, the big Gioconda/Laura catfight duet L'Amo Come il Fulgor Del Creato, Gioconda's aria Suicidio!, and of course the big ballet, the Dance of the Hours (known to everyone from Fantasia as well as Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh"). But probably the best part of the opera is the act 3 finale, a concerted ensemble for all the main characters: one of those ensemble numbers that allows each character's individual personality to come out even when they're mostly singing simultaneously -- and Boito even ingeniously arranges for some vital plot information to be advanced in the middle of the number.

Another great thing about La Gioconda is that whereas most operas have big opportunities for maybe three or four characters, Gioconda has big numbers, genuine star-turn moments, for six characters. The soprano, Gioconda, is definitely the star, but there are big showcase moments -- either alone on stage or with everyone raptly listening to him or her -- for the tenor, the mezzo, the baritone, the bass and the contralto (who gets to play a blind woman). The plot being what it is, there's not much time wasted in actually motivating these big star moments: as Osborne pointed out, the tenor leaves the stage at one point with very little explanation, just so the mezzo can be alone onstage and sing an aria. But when you collect six genuine stars, with big, juicy Italianate voices, La Gioconda is like one show-stopping moment after another.

Unfortunately, most performances and recordings can't gather six genuine stars, so you either have to make do with the opera as a star vehicle for the soprano (which unbalances the evening and makes it a chore to sit through some of the other characters' big moments) or a mixed bag of some singers who can stop the show and some who can't. Maria Callas was a great interpreter of the role of Gioconda, but her recordings of the opera are not particularly well-cast, so it becomes the Maria Callas Show instead of a six-star event. Among commercial recordings of the opera, the closest to a real six-star recording is probably the 1957 Decca recording with Anita Cerquetti (a star-quality soprano who burned out and retired very early), Mario Del Monaco, Cesare Siepi, Ettore Bastianini and Giulietta Simionato; only the smallest of the six parts, the contralto La Cieca [The Blind Woman] gets less than star-quality casting.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Recycled Thoughts on Heaven Can Wait

I recently re-watched the Ernst Lubitsch film Heaven Can Wait, the last completed film he did with his regular writer Samson Raphaelson, and his only film in colour. I wanted to write something about it, but I remembered I'd already said most of what I wanted to say about Heaven Can Wait in a message-board post a while back. So I adapted it into a blog post, heedless of all ethical rules about self-plagiarism.

The thing about Heaven Can Wait is that it can leave audiences wondering what the point of it was. And I think, based on some of the reviews, that people are still split over this. Lubitsch said he was proud of Heaven Can Wait because he had managed to make a two-hour movie with no real plot, about the life of an unexceptional man. But he didn't let on why he thought Henry Van Cleve's story was worth telling, and sometimes in watching the movie, you have to wonder if it really was worth telling: what's the point of spending two hours with a man who has a good life, relatively little conflict, and isn't even all that likable?

Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) is basically a man who lives a basically useless life and has everything handed to him; the only serious crisis in his life, when his wife Martha (Gene Tierney) leaves him, is solved without his having to change his ways or do much of anything except just be the endlessly forgivable man-child he is. Instead Martha just comes to the conclusion that Henry's philandering and lying are like the actions of a little boy, something acceptable and even cute: "When he comes to you with his little stories, and you know they're just little stories, but he wants you to believe them so badly that you wish you could." (She's supposedly talking about her son, but she's really talking about Henry.) Don Ameche, the star of the film, himself said that Henry is a selfish man who led a totally selfish life, and that the movie is about the idea that a totally selfish man could still be worthy of getting into heaven.

The movie doesn't really try to "redeem" him to get him into heaven, the way another movie on a similar subject might do. He lives his life pretty consistently for himself, stops philandering only when he's too old and chubby to attract young women, and dies thinking about women and liquor. The movie doesn't ask us to see him as a man who converts or has an epiphany; it asks us to see his life as a basically good life even though it was essentially useless. That can be difficult to swallow, because we do tend to expect selfish characters to redeem themselves somehow at some specific moment, instead of being celebrated.

Now, of course, the movie shows that even though Henry mostly thinks of himself, he brings pleasure to others: his grandfather, Martha (who has more fun with wandering Henry than she ever could have had with faithful Albert), "several young ladies," even Satan (Laird Cregar), who enjoys listening to Henry's exploits. Henry's jealousy of Martha in their last scene together is an example of this: it's outrageously hypocritical of Henry to be acting the jealous husband with Martha, but it does make her happy to know that he still finds her attractive enough to be jealous of her. Whereas the characters who are conventionally moral, like Albert and Mr. Van Cleve, never bring much pleasure to anyone, including themselves.

You could argue that Heaven Can Wait is Lubitsch's Sullivan's Travels, his self-defence for making comedies (and particularly for making comedies in a time when, as Satan says, "The whole world is coming to hell"): bringing pleasure is its own justification and ultimately helps more people than conventionally worthy goals.

"The way I see it, there's two kinds of kids in the world: kids who like Animaniacs, and kids who don't like Animaniacs."

One more "Animaniacs" cartoon I wanted to draw attention to is a Chicken Boo cartoon, "The Good, the Boo and the Ugly." Chicken Boo was the weirdest concept on "Animaniacs" and one of the funniest once you caught on to it. Every cartoon was the same: Boo, a giant chicken with no anthromorphic qualities (he looks like a chicken, acts like a chicken, can't talk), manages to fool nearly everyone into thinking he's a respected authority figure merely by putting on a fake mustache or a hat or something. Yet when he loses his disguise and is exposed as a chicken, everyone turns on him.

The cartoons were basically meta-cartoons satirizing a bunch of cartoon tropes: the fact that cartoon animals can interact with humans (Mickey Mouse is a giant mouse, after all, except he's a cartoony mouse whereas Boo is a non-cartoony chicken), the convention that no one can see through a cartoon character's disguise, and the repetitiveness of cartoon plots. "The Good, the Boo and the Ugly" is probably the best of the Boo cartoons; it's preceded by a Good Idea/Bad Idea segment.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Tyranny of the Teaser

In the "have you ever noticed..." category, have you ever noticed that for about a decade now it's been almost mandatory for television shows to start with a teaser (also known as a "cold open") -- a short segment before the opening titles?

It used to be much more common for a show to begin with the main title, then go to a commercial, and then start the episode proper when it came back from the commercial break. If you look at a typical show from the '60s or '70s or '80s, the only thing before the main title is a 30-second highlight reel of clips from the episode you're about to see. ("Moonlighting" parodied this practice in one episode by prefacing the main titles with a bunch of randomly-selected, nonsensically-arranged clips from that episode.) Or it might do what "The Flintstones" did and start the episode with one clip of a scene that would be seen later in the show. Or it might just skip the clips and go straight to the opening theme song.

There were of course plenty of shows that used teasers: "Star Trek" did, and many of the Screen Gems shows did, and "Barney Miller" did. But it wasn't considered de rigeur, and many shows preferred to do a short segment after the opening titles rather than before. ("The Dick Van Dyke Show" briefly experimented with opening "cold" and going to the main titles, but they quickly switched back to the format of having the main titles, followed by a short scene, followed by a commercial.) Even by the '80s, most shows didn't have anything before the opening credits unless there was some kind of gimmicky reason for having a teaser: "Hill Street Blues" used a teaser to incorporate the "roll call" introductions, and "Cheers" used a teaser to start the show with a little gag that didn't have anything to do with the episode proper.

At some point in the '90s, though, it became absolutely mandatory for U.S. network shows to start a show "cold," saving the opening titles until after the first scene. Just about the only shows that didn't do teasers at that point were animated shows ("The Simpsons," "King of the Hill"). For drama shows, the format is generally a recap of previous events, followed by the teaser, followed by a very short main title.

As to why this happened, I guess it's all part of the networks' increasing obsession with not letting viewers switch to one of the (many) other channels: the theory is that if the end of one show isn't immediately followed by the beginning of the next episode, viewers may let their attention wander and change the channel. I don't know that this theory always holds true, because sometimes a show may have an easier time hooking viewers with a distinctive main title than with an expository opening scene. I sometimes wonder if "Veronica Mars" wouldn't get more people interested if it hit them up-front with the title sequence (which makes it clear that this is a cool show about a teenage girl detective) instead of starting with another recap followed by another piece of Veronica's voice-over narration. The teaser for "Hill Street Blues" worked because it was something interesting and unique that could pull in viewers while establishing a framework for the episode; a lot of teasers are just confusing to new viewers, because there's been nothing to establish what the show is about. A good compromise solution might be the "Law and Order" way: tell the audience what the show's about, then do the teaser, and then do the opening title.

I will note that the supremacy of the teaser seems to be lessening a little bit these days; "Entourage" doesn't do teasers, and neither did "Arrested Development."


I'm sorry that I haven't been able to fix the broken YouTube links in my earlier posts. After my video clips were deleted in the Great YouTube purge of aught-six, I was going to start uploading some of them again elsewhere, but my computer isn't working at the moment. I should be able to fix some of those links in a week or two.

Marshall's Plan

I found this in-depth article on the lyricist Marshall Barer, a really well-done piece on his unique style as a songwriter; it also provides some excerpts from rare Barer songs, like this one:

The first thing you learn is the dream must be tall,
A dream that is small ain’t worth dreaming at all,
But reach for the stars and an apple may fall
From the sky.
If you’re lucky, an apple may fall from the star-spangled sky.

The next thing you learn is to get through each day
Without ever once letting hope slip away
For once you are hopeless you might as well lay
Down and die.
Yes, you might as well lay yourself down in the gutter and die.

The next thing you learn
Is the hardest to learn
But you’ll use it as long as you live.
It’s the oldest of rules
And the wisest of rules
And it’s simply “You get what you give.”

But the last thing you learn is the best thing, I guess,
When the dream has gone smash and you’re left with the mess
And you know in a flash you must settle for less
Than that castle in Spain or that certain caress,
What a blessing to learn you are willing to settle for less.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

This is Goyt Fermin, What Can I Do You For?

With "Animaniacs" coming out on DVD in a couple of weeks, I thought I might as well link to a particularly good "Animaniacs" cartoon. Also, saying nice things about "Animaniacs" makes John Kricfalusi very angry, and I can't pass up that chance.

The cartoon, "Ups and Downs," was written by Paul Rugg and directed by Bob Kline. It's pretty minimalist: only two characters are seen onscreen (Wakko Warner and the P-Sychiatrist Dr. Scratchansniff), plus two offscreen characters. The whole cartoon takes place in an elevator, but director Kline and the great animators at Tokyo Movie Shinsha find all kinds of ways to keep the cartoon from becoming static despite the confined space.

It's a nice example of how "Animaniacs" could sometimes strike a balance between cartoony humor and more observational (some might say sitcom-y) jokes. Wakko acts quite a bit like a real kid -- imitating people's actions, telling stories that don't go anywhere -- and to the extent that it's a cartoon rather than an animated sitcom, it's because of the great, broad animation by TMS. What also adds to the cartoon is the voice work of Rugg; in addition to being a very funny writer he was also a terrific voice performer, and no one delivers his own slightly skewed dialogue ("Big Ed's girth got it unstuck!") than Rugg does.

This cartoon appears in episode 52 of "Animaniacs," so it should appear on volume 3 of the DVD releases.

"Pricey Nostalgia"

The Denver Post has an article on "The Wonder Years" and why it isn't on DVD yet. Well, you already know why it isn't on DVD yet: music, music and more music. But the article goes into a lot more detail than usual about this stuff, talking to some very good people from Fox (which owns the show) and learning that "The Wonder Years" probably will come out on DVD once they can figure out how to reduce music costs sufficiently:

Sarda hopes to begin releasing the DVDs within two years. No matter when they come out, the original music most likely won't be on them.

"I think that's the only way really we're going to see it," says Gord Lacey, creator of the Web site "I don't have a list of the songs used in the show, but something tells me they're not going to be able to release a completely intact series."

The music-licensing hurdle is substantial. "The Wonder Years" borrowed more than 300 pieces of music for its 115 episodes. Even more daunting is the fact that the music is from what has emerged as a resurgent, nostalgic era.

"I'd love to put it out on DVD, so other people can enjoy it," Sarda said. "So we just have to work through these issues. It's not that simple, because music is an integral part of that show. So it's not like you can just go in and replace it all."

This is basically what's going to have to happen with a lot of music-heavy shows: a balance is going to have to be struck between licensing all the music (which is prohibitively expensive) and just replacing everything indiscriminately (Stephen J. Cannell did this when he released most of his self-produced shows on DVD, and it's an utter disaster, ruining shows like "Wiseguy" and "Greatest American Hero").

Sunday, July 09, 2006

So Time/Life Makes Everything Now?

Another old series is being released on DVD by Time/Life (which may or may not offer the Thighmaster as a bonus gift): "The Odd Couple": The Complete First Season. Co-creator Garry Marshall provides "audio introductions" for the episodes, and there are some bits of found material included as additional special features (award-show clips and the like).

With this show, you have to accept that the first season is just a down payment on good things to come: it was one of those shows that got not only better but a lot better after the first season. Originally the show was much more closely tied to the stage and movie versions of The Odd Couple, with more characters carried over (like the Pigeon sisters), and some of the same sets that were used in the movie. It was shot one-camera with no studio audience and a laugh track.

In the second season, on the insistence of the actors (especially Tony Randall), the show started filming in front of a live studio audience, and the set was re-designed to accommodate the audience. This was exactly the kind of re-vamp that would kill Marshall's "Happy Days" creatively (certainly not ratings-wise, though), but it had the opposite effect for "The Odd Couple," because Randall and Jack Klugman came to life when they could play off the studio audience reactions. From the second season on, the comedy was sharper and better-timed, and the actors developed their characters far beyond what they had been in the movie and stage play -- the end result was a show that was much more interesting and multi-dimensional than its source material.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


According to this thread at Home Theater Forum, WB Home Video is starting to issue replacement copies for the "Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection, Volume 2." You'll recall that some of the cartoons on that set have the terrible alternate audio tracks with Mammy Two-Shoes's voice re-dubbed; apparently there's a number to call to get a version with the original audio tracks.

Check the thread for more information; the people who post at the forum say that the operators at WB aren't aware of the replacement program yet, so it might be best to call a little later once (if) people actually start getting their replacement copies.

Horror of Horrors

According to The Digital Bits, there's a pretty interesting horror-movie DVD box coming this October:

Warner has also announced that they'll be releasing a Hollywood's Legends of Horror Collection on 10/3 (SRP $39.95), set to include Doctor X (1932), The Return of Doctor X (1939), Mad Love (1935), The Devil-Doll (1936), Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).

Most of these are in the "obscure but interesting for some reason" category -- for example, Mad Love, with its Gregg Toland photography and Germanic direction (by Karl Freund), has been cited as an influence on Citizen Kane.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Shorter Stephen Metcalf: I could tell you why I don't like The Searchers but I'd rather offer bizarre explanations for why other people like it.

When I clicked on the article, I was hoping for a good contrarian take on why The Searchers isn't a good movie; I love it, but I'm aware of its flaws and I wouldn't mind seeing an article arguing that the flaws outweigh the good points. Metcalf doesn't do that. He devotes all of one paragraph to explaining what's wrong with the movie, and he does a pretty bad job of it: apparently it is "off-putting to the contemporary sensibility" (sez who?), and Hank Worden's character is annoying (he is annoying, but the movie's fans have been saying that for years).

The rest of the article is spent offering psycho-analytic reasons for why so many people love The Searchers. And the problem with that kind of analysis is that it overlooks the most obvious explanation: because they think it's a great movie. So, to sum up: Stephen Metcalf saw an old movie, he didn't like it, and he devoted his column to explaining that everybody who likes the movie doesn't really think it's good, they're just looking for something they can interpret to death. Yeesh.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Fun Super-Links

This is shaping up to be Super-week in terms of postings here, so here's one more. I previously wrote about the "Superman" musical, but I just found a link to a file of the most famous song from the show, "You've Got Possibilities."

It's a great number for an energetic belter (and Linda Lavin, though her voice isn't the most pleasant-sounding in the world, never lacked for energy), with one of those Charles Strouse tunes that sounds simple and catchy but actually plays some interesting games with structure and rhythm. And it shows off the great orchestrations of Eddie Sauter. But it also points up the big weakness of the show, namely that the big moments didn't go to Superman or Lois Lane but to new characters who were only tangentially related to the story; Lavin's character got the big showstopping number (which she sang to Clark Kent), but really had no other clear purpose for being in the show.

And I would also direct you to the Superdickery page, which specializes in collecting comic-book covers that make Superman look like a jerk or are otherwise just completely nuts -- covers like these covers, of which my favourite is probably this one.

But I'll Rebuild

Sigh. YouTube, in a DMCA-induced frenzy, has deleted all my video clips along with Thad's animator clips and many others.

I get why YouTube feels the need to remove complete cartoons and TV episodes (though I should note that I didn't post a complete cartoon or TV episode unless it was otherwise unavailable; the annoying thing about copyright "protection" is that it effectively entitles the copyright holder to keep something out of public view permanently), but they really went overboard with the indiscriminate deletion of people's accounts.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Speaking of Cartoon Music...

Earl Kress is starting a series of posts on songs used in cartoons. His first post is on two songs used in "Little Red Riding Rabbit," including the song "They're Either Too Young or Too Old." You can see that song here.

Oh, and Speaking of Superman...

The final volume of "Superman: the Animated Series" came out last week, and I've been making my way through the 18 episodes, many of which were new to me (I didn't really keep up with the series when it was originally running). The one thing that immediately struck me is that by the end of its run, "Superman" had really become Crossover Central. Six of the episodes in this set incorporate the Darkseid character, who isn't precisely a Superman villain; even if you don't consider that a crossover, the set has two more team-up episodes with Batman, a Green Lantern crossover, a visit from those Legion of Superheroes kids, and (snicker) Aquaman. (Yeah, they tried to make him tough and badass and all, but it's Aquaman. He has fish power.)

The downside of all these crossovers is that Lois Lane and Lex Luthor were almost completely wasted by this point in the series; Lois doesn't even appear in half the episodes. And more generally it was always a weakness of the "Superman" animated series that Lois didn't get enough to do; they had a pretty good approach to Lois's characterization and a great vocal performance for the character (by Dana Delany), but I don't think they ever had a good Lois-centric episode, something that would develop her character or her relationship with Superman and/or Clark. When they kiss in the last episode of the series, it almost comes out of nowhere.

On the plus side, this was one of the last TV cartoons to use a full orchestra for the score, and what a difference it makes. The "Justice League" series has most of the same composers, but due to budgetary limitations, they're working with electronically-generated music. No matter how good that is, it can't compare to the specific, memorable sounds produced by an orchestra; and the orchestral scores make these shows feel a lot less dated than many shows being produced today (because the sound of a computer-generated score is tied to the technology of the time, whereas a real trumpet sounds like a trumpet). Several of the weaker episodes in this set are bailed out by the classy music.

Monday, July 03, 2006

More Tashlin Mania

The Chicago Tribune has a good article on Frank Tashlin, on the occasion of a Tashlin retrospective in Chicago. It'll include new prints of The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, presumably the prints used for the DVDs (which will be released in August).

If you're in the area, by all means go. And here's a clip from Tashlin's Son of Paleface that covers all the bases of what you will see in a Tashlin movie: making fun of the film's own genre (Roy Rogers is in the movie for that reason), references to silent movies (Bob Hope's character is essentially a sound version of characters Buster Keaton used to play: the foppish college-educated lad returning to his home town), scantily-clad women, and cartoony gags that would actually have been too over-the-top for Tashlin to use in an actual animated cartoon.

Top 9 Reasons Not to Worship The Original "Superman" Movie

So you've probably heard that Bryan Singer made Superman Returns in part as a tribute to the 1978 Richard Donner movie, and if you haven't heard it, you've probably seen the movie and noticed how strongy it's influenced by Donner's film. This is not a good thing, and here are nine reasons why the Donner Superman should not be the template for other movies:

1. Margot freakin' Kidder. It's depressing to watch the screen tests of other actresses who were considered for the part of Lois Lane -- Ann Archer, Stockard Channing -- because they're all better than Kidder. There are several ways to play Lois; she can be a tough, career-oriented reporter, or she can be a simpering sweetie swooning over Superman, or she can be some combination of the two. But Kidder gives us a neurotic, screechy, thoroughly unappealing Lois.

2. John Williams' theme borrows both from Erich Wolfgang Korngold's King's Row score and the old Universal Pictures logo theme.

3. Lex Luthor is portrayed as an idiot, or at least he would come off as an idiot if it weren't for the fact that...

4. ...Luthor is surrounded by sidekicks who are even more idiotic than he is.

5. It's another one of those portrayals of Clark Kent where Kent is a complete caricature of a bumbling idiot -- Superman's parody of what ordinary humans are like. This doesn't make any sense: Clark was Clark Kent long before he became Superman, and the personality of Superman is an extention of the way Clark Kent was raised. But more than that, it's boring, because it robs Clark Kent of the chance to be an interesting character: we can't care about Clark because he's clearly just an act, not a person. "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" and "Superman: the Animated Series" both did a much better job with Clark (though it was a little silly that the animated Clark looked so ridiculously muscular).

6. One of the better sequences in the film, the flying scene with Clark and Lois, is nearly wrecked by the decision to have Lois recite Leslie Bricusse lyrics in voice-over.

7. It's another one of those big '70s productions that was mostly shot in England (Star Wars is another) because studio space was cheaper there, and because English special-effects technicians were better than American ones at the time. The problem with that is that too many scenes are clearly populated by English people faking (or dubbed with) American accents.

8. Filming the exterior Metropolis scenes in New York, and generally not trying to pretend that Metropolis is anywhere other than New York, means that Metropolis has no real identity of its own as a city. The point of Metropolis or Gotham City is that they're like New York but they're not exactly the same; they have their own quirks. Not here, though.

9. It's just too damn long. Almost two-and-a-half hours, split between a) A story we all knew coming in and b) A villainous Lex Luthor plot that isn't very interesting.

And you can put Marlon Brando's accent as reason # 10, but frankly it's just too easy.

Now, none of that means that the Donner Superman is a bad movie; I think it's a very entertaining movie and a lot of the sequences are deservedly famous. But to make it the direct inspiration for a new Superman movie seems a bit misguided; you'd think Bryan Singer would want to try to improve on the older film, the way Christopher Nolan actually tried to improve on earlier Batman movies.

In case you're not all Supermanned out, Paul Dini has his thoughts on Superman Returns.


The American Film Institute's "Top 100" lists are always good for a chuckle, but their latest may be their silliest: "100 Years, 100 Cheers: The 100 Most Inspiring Films of All Time."

What's notable here is how many of these 100 films are just out-and-out depressing. Man spends half the movie trying to off himself, villain never punished for stealing money (It's a Wonderful Life). Sheriff loses faith in the people, throws down his badge and leaves (High Noon). Life sucks for absolutely everyone except rich people (The Grapes of Wrath). Life sucks for everyone except really stupid people (Forrest Gump). The government is hopelessly corrupt and the only thing that can save it is if an old corrupt Senator tries to shoot himself (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). If you're going to make a list of inspiring movies that make you feel life is worth living, maybe you should include something a little less bleak than most of the movies on this list.

OT: Media, er, Issues

Some of you may have noticed that one of my current obsessions is the news media, and specifically how the news media is continually wedded to storylines that don't have any basis in observable reality, but track very neatly with conservative talking points. (Starting with the run-up to the Iraq war, fear of being "liberal" caused the media to become, essentially, a regurgitator of conservative storylines.) Fortunately there's a new blog that deals with this subject on a regular basis: "The Horse's Mouth" by Greg Sargent. This is basically a clearing-house for media issues like the recent attacks on the New York Times (attacks which were so vicious that they led a Wall Street Journal reporter to condemn his own paper's editorial page on national television), the fact that paranoid genocidal lunatics like John Hinderaker and Michelle Malkin are invited on network television and treated with respect, and the practice of granting anonymity to sources who merely repeat government talking points. Some of it covers the same ground as Eric Boehlert's recent book "Lapdogs". but it's a useful blog, particularly at a time when networks and newspapers seem more responsive to bogus charges of liberal bias than to actual substantive media criticism.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Grudge Matches I'd Like to See: Superman vs. The Fonz

Scenario: Having already fought Mork to a draw, the Fonz takes on another alien with superpowers. Is Superman's Kryptonian power a match for Fonzie's supernatural cool?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

"Toby Danger"

Doug Wildey's "Jonny Quest" must be one of the most-parodied cartoons of all time. The Wikipedia entry includes a good list of "Quest" spoofs, including Cartoon Network's show "The Venture Brothers," which is basically a week-to-week sendup of "Quest." But by far the best parody of "Jonny Quest," and one of the best parodies ever made anywhere, is the cartoon "Toby Danger," originally aired on "Freakazoid!"

"Toby Danger" wasn't actually created for "Freakazoid!," though. Tom Minton, a writer for "Animaniacs" who specialized in parodies of other genres and styles of cartoon (he'd done a famous episode of "The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse" incorporating vicious send-ups of other cartoon series), came up with the idea to do an elaborate parody of "Jonny Quest." The names would be changed, the character designs would be different, and even some of the characters would be entirely different (instead of Hadji, we got a teenage girl named Sandra Danger), but the inspiration would be obvious. The "Toby Danger" cartoon was written and storyboarded, but it wasn't put into production because no one could figure out where to put it: the limited-animation, non-cartoony style it required wouldn't have fit in with the very cartoony style of "Animaniacs."

Then "Freakazoid!" was suddenly revamped from a straightforward adventure-comedy into an out-and-out comedy, and with very little time to produce the new series, the producers were putting in just about anything they could to get 13 episodes ready in time. So "Toby Danger," with a script and storyboard ready to go, was put into production and aired as part of the second episode of "Freakazoid!" Some people liked it better than the rest of the show; me, I liked it all.

As storyboarded by Brian Chin and Butch Lukic (who are both caricatured in the cartoon, along with Minton), it's a great-looking cartoon (though a lot of retakes apparently had to be done because the overseas studio initially didn't make the animation limited enough), perfectly capturing the style and look of "Jonny Quest," and all the infamous things like the casual racism ("Heads up, you heathen monkeys!") and the scream everybody lets out when anything bad happens ("Aieee!"). But What makes "Toby Danger" a great parody is that it goes beyond just mimicking the style and look of the show and actually attacks the themes and messages of the original show. "Jonny Quest" was relentlessly optimistic about science and technology; the great scientist, Dr. Benton Quest, constantly saves the day with his inventions. In "Toby Danger," Dr. Vernon Danger is a deluded nut whose inventions cause more damage than they fix: one of his inventions is responsible for the carnage in the first place; he practically wipes out a city trying to save it; and he casually mentions that he adopted Sandra after his experiments wiped out her home town.

Minton wrote, and Chin and Lukic storyboarded, a second "Toby Danger" cartoon, but despite the acclaim of the original, it was never produced; "Freakazoid!" switched to full-length half-hour stories for its second season, so there was nowhere to put another "Danger" cartoon. It would be interesting to speculate on whether "Danger" could have succeeded as a full-length spinoff; I think it would have been better than "Venture Brothers," all told.