Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy Goyish New Year!

I know a man, his name is Lang,
And he has a neon sign.
And Mr. Lang is very old,
So they call it Old Lang's Sign."

-- Allan Sherman

In New Year's resolutions every blogger now is wallowing --
I've got some resolutions too; among them are the following:

To follow more Canadian TV, for that's a path
That has been blazed impressively by people like McGrath.

To write more animation posts, although the ones I've had
Have been somewhat supplanted by the brilliant work of Thad.

To interview some people: writers, singers, makeup men,
So they can share some anecdotes if they won't blog like Ken.

To put a bit more humour in my posts before they're done,
And do some subject headings with a groan-inducing pun.

To see less entertainment that is canned instead of live --
I haven't seen a human face since nineteen-ninety-five!

And finally, to find an URL a little less confusing,
Since many people say they can't recall the one I'm using,
Though if you're hep to Hackenbush, it's slightly more amusing,
I want to find an URL to bring my old, old blog some new zing.

A 1996 Simpsons Clip For Our Time

You don't know how often I've thought of this one in the past year, and in how many different contexts.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Year Of David "Dead Weight" Birney

Denis McGrath watches the first season of St. Elsewhere. While it still mostly holds up for him (as it does for me), he notes some stuff that seems alien to us now, like the broader, more theatrical acting. He also notes that even though St. Elsewhere was the fastest-paced drama show of its time, thanks largely to the innovations of producer-director Mark Tinker (son of MTM founder Grant Tinker -- that's one helluva talented family), it still has a lot of slow spots compared to today's shows:

But the stories, again, sometimes drag. I found myself wondering, simultaneously, what could we do with that extra seven minutes today, and marveling on how, even in a quality show like this -- how little the audience was trusted to put two and two together.

I sometimes think that there's a connection between the longer running times and the slower pacing. By the '80s, movies had adjusted their editing styles for greater speed and economy; instead of showing a guy getting out of the car, knocking at the door, and going in, you just cut directly from him getting out of the car to him entering the house. That wasn't happening on TV, for the most part. And while part of it is that they didn't trust the audience, another part of it was that shows couldn't always afford to chop out footage: whereas shows today always ran long, it was quite common in those days for shows to run short. In the first season of The Rockford Files, according to James Garner, the writers always included a car chase so they could deal with the problems of filling 50 minutes of screen time: if the show was running very short, they'd make the car chase very long; if it was only a little short, they'd keep the car chase at a more reasonable length. Other hour-long shows dealt with the length problem by having closing credit sequences of varying lengths, so they could fill the slot by playing the theme song for two minutes.

Today's shows always have tons of "deleted scenes" that fall into the DVD extras bin because there's not enough time to put them in the show. This wasn't so much a problem when the show is 48-50 minutes; the problem is how to create enough material when you have a limited amount of shooting time. And part of the way they dealt with that, I think, was not to end scenes too early or start them too late -- because if you chop a scene down to its essentials, you may have a tighter scene but you've also got a 42-minute show. (Once Moonlighting started to get unusually fast-paced -- not only in dialogue delivery but in some of the editing, with the directors and editors doing without any exterior establishing shots -- they ran into exactly that problem, coming in with 40-43 minute shows; that's why they did those teasers with the stars breaking character, because the shows were coming in at what would nowadays be standard length for an hour-long.)

While I deplore the short running times of today, a lot of it is mostly on principle; I just don't like the sheer greed involved in cutting the entertainment down to the bare minimum so networks can show 20 minutes of commercials. But principles aside, I have to say that in many ways the current 40-42 minute lengths are better for a drama episode than the old 48-50 minute lengths; at least, it's better to have an episode that's a bit too tight than one that's too padded-out. On the other hand, part of what's killing the half-hour comedy is that 20-21 minutes is basically an awful length for an episode, at least if you're trying to tell a story with any kind of point to it. And when the lengths of drama shows are cut down again -- as I fully expect they will be -- they may also reach the point where the advantages of tight storytelling are swamped by the drawbacks of having no time to tell a story.

More Lubitschiana

Here is another short excerpt from The Love Parade, a movie that's never been on VHS, DVD, or any format except a laserdisc box set issued just before the laserdisc died out completely.

The "Lubitsch Touch" (tm) is just as hard to define as "chemistry" (see below). But here's my take on it: Lubitsch specialized in getting the most mileage out of things that are not seen. This has very little to do with getting around the censors or saving money; even when something could be shown on the screen with no trouble, he'll try and find ways to do the scene without showing it. You know the old saying "Show, don't tell?" Lubitsch's motto might have been "Tell, don't show." He believed that what we don't see is funnier than what we do see, and because he was focused on character rather than gags, he believed in focusing our attention on the way people react to occurrences, rather than the occurrences themselves.

The example here is the scene in The Love Parade where Chevalier and MacDonald first have dinner together. It's a simple scene in outline: they meet, they talk, they have a drink, and they go into her boudoir together (this is 1929, pre-Code, so it's OK to have a woman invite a man into a room with a French name). But Lubitsch doesn't want to show us the scene: it would be too long, and nothing would happen in it that is of any interest; it's just the lead-up to their big scene together. But he can't start with that big scene, because he needs to set it up first, have them get really interested in each other. So the way he and his writers do the scene is to have three groups of supporting characters eavesdrop on Chevalier and MacDonald, and talk about what they're doing. MacDonald's cabinet ministers, MacDonald's ladies-in-waiting, and the servant supporting couple (Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth) all report different things and have their own reactions to what's going on. And the result is something much more entertaining, and about half as long, as Lubitsch would have gotten if he'd just shown us the action that's being described. Tell, don't show.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Chevalier, MacDonald and Chemistry

We talk a lot about which stars have on-screen "chemistry" and which ones don't, and none of us are any closer to figuring out what, exactly, produces this chemistry -- we know it when we see it, but it's very hard to define. Watching my VHS copy of The Love Parade, the first sound movie by Ernst Lubitsch, I was reminded again that there are some stars who really have nothing in common, shouldn't go together at all, who somehow wind up having great chemistry on the screen. In this case it's Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, in their first of four teamings (the others were Lubitsch's One Hour With You and The Merry Widow and Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight).

It's a very strange pairing. You've got the heavily-accented French entertainer matched up with the "Iron Butterfly" from Philadelphia. You've got two singing styles with absolutely nothing in common: he the music-hall singer, she the shrill soprano. You've got his broad grin and her subtle smirk; his warmth and her reserve. They didn't particularly care for each other, according to legend; he thought she was a prude and she thought he was a scoundrel. And yet they just seemed to click better with each other than with anyone else. Chevalier kept trying to make movies with other leading ladies, but he couldn't click with anyone; Claudette Colbert, being French, was a good match for him in Lubitsch's The Smiling Lieutenant, but her limited singing ability meant she couldn't do musicals with him on a regular basis. And MacDonald never had another really successful leading man until she re-packaged herself with Nelson Eddy; you only need to look at how poorly she's paired with Jack Buchanan (in Lubitsch's Monte Carlo) to realize how well she worked with Chevalier.

In their first scene together in The Love Parade, and therefore their first scene together in any movie, Chevalier and MacDonald immediately show that they have what it takes to be a great team. If I had to define "chemistry," the closest I could come to doing so would be to say that chemistry occurs when two stars manage to appear interested when they look at each other; each actor has to convey the impression of really seeing something fascinating and fun in the other. Note that I said they have to look interested, not be interested; there are plenty of actual romantic couples who have no chemistry whatsoever because they regard each other with fishy stares or generic eye-batting.

Chevalier and MacDonald also work around the problem of differing singing styles, as they often did, by talking their way through large portions of the song (in this case, the double-entendre-fest "Anything to Please the Queen"). But the highlight of the scene, and a perfect example of Lubitsch's way of suggesting things wordlessly and letting us fill in the blanks, is the part near the beginning: MacDonald, as the Queen of Sylvania, reads a report on Chevalier, an envoy recalled from Paris for his scandalous behavior. She reads the report, and we don't see it, but we see her face as she reacts to Chevalier's unknown exploits: she's alternately amused, disgusted, and finally turned on. There's no way Lubitsch could have conveyed as much with any actual description of what Chevalier has been up to.

And yes, Paramount recycled the name "Sylvania" for Duck Soup a few years later.

As to The Love Parade itself, I've seen it twice with an audience and it always goes over very well; in fact, I think this may be the most entertaining of the late-'20s talking pictures, the one that best overcomes the limitations of early sound recording and the static camerawork necessitated by the microphones. Lubitsch had always used fairly static camera work, and his movies rarely ventured outside the studio, so he didn't have to adjust his methods that much (whereas some directors were clearly hurt by the new difficulties of doing location shooting or complicated camera moves). And because his movies are so stylized, with characters who are in part parodies of stock characters from other movies, the biggest problem of early talkies -- the stilted acting and line delivery -- actually works to his advantage; the characters are talking over-formally because they're sending up the way people talk in movie and stage musicals.

The other thing about Lubitsch's approach in his first musical is that he takes a standard form of the stage and screen musical -- in this case, the Ruritanian musical, set in a mythical kingdom where no one seems to have any serious problems -- and makes it dirty. The plot and characters of The Love Parade are all standard for a Ruritanian operetta, but they're all obsessed with what Preston Sturges would later call Topic A, and Lubitsch's constant joke is that everyday lowbrow concerns of the flesh have infiltrated the sexless world of '20s operetta. You might have found this story or these characters in another stage or screen musical, but you probably wouldn't have the cabinet ministers whispering to each other about the main job of a husband ("Of course, he has something to do"), or Chevalier implying that he had an affair with Marie Curie.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Hotcha Cornia!

One more reason why I love the movie Thank Your Lucky Stars: it features Spike Jones and His City Slickers being promised a radio deal by the poor man's Dick Powell, Dennis Morgan.

Monday, December 25, 2006

You Can See the Punchline Coming, But It's Still Funny

This is a scene from the Taxi episode "On the Job." Every year the show did a two-part episode consisting of little sketches for each of the cabbies; this was about the jobs the characters get when they're laid off from the cab company, and it was probably the best of those "sketchisodes." This sketch, with Jim as a door-to-door salesman, is one of those bits where it's not hard to guess what the punchline will be, but it's still incredibly funny because of the genius of Christopher Lloyd, plus the super-efficient direction of James Burrows back when he was still the best comedy director in the business.

The other thing that this scene illustrates is that even though the sitcom is generally considered a lesser form of TV comedy than sketch comedy (there's a reason Aaron Sorkin does a whole show about the power of sketch comedy to Change The World), there are actually some advantages that a good sitcom has. If this routine were done as a self-contained sketch with new characters -- and something like this routine probably had been done as a sketch not once but many times -- it would feel kind of bland. What makes it work better in Taxi is that it uses a character, Jim, who's built up a lot of audience goodwill in his two years on the show. Instead of a sketch about an idiot ruining a woman's carpet, which is what it would be on Saturday Night Live, it's a little story about a character we like; we know he's doing everything he can to succeed at something he doesn't really understand, and the scene becomes funnier and sharper because we're on his side. It's a better scenee because it's on a sitcom, not in spite of it.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

"People who like to smoke candy and listen to cigarettes will love it."

Great article by Elbert Ventura in Slate about the other, better Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie: Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner.

See also this appreciation by Jim Henley, where he notes that Shop Around the Corner is one of the few movies that really embraces and understands the commercial nature of the Christmas holiday (take that, Charlie Brown Christmas!):

The glorious thing about Shop is that its focus is so relentlessly commercial. Its Christmas is the season of shopping; its characters’ chief holiday concern is whether they’ll make plan. Once Alfred knows that Klara is his dream girl, his concern turns immediately to whether she’ll be getting him the wallet he wants, or some less suitable gift he knows, by way of the grapevine, she’s thinking of getting her mystery sweetheart. (She doesn’t quite know yet that Alfred is him.) When the store owner has his heart attack, everyone worries about his health, and also how it will affect sales.

I had fourteen of those Christmases during my days in retail management, and the way the movie gets that life right is a special thrill. There’s a special pride in watching the stack of something you had the foresight to order heavy dwindle because it is, indeed, the thing that people want, and a special delight too - you see the money piling up, and you see people happy because you successfully guessed what would make them happy. Closing up a store on Christmas Eve after a successful season feels like ringing down the curtain on a well-reviewed show.

With so many movies and TV specials that are about what Christmas should be -- less commercial, less shopping-oriented, less about gifts and money -- it's nice to see Lubitsch and Samson Raphaelson making a feel-good movie about what Christmas really is, and showing the pride and joy the characters feel in having a commercially-successful Christmas sale.

Mike Evans, RIP

Mike Evans, the original Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family and co-creator of Good Times, died of cancer this week at the age of 57.

John Rich, who directed All in the Family for the first four seasons, has a long passage in his autobiography "Warm Up the Snake" about how Evans was cast as Lionel. He was looking for someone who would be able to tell Archie off, and be subtly sarcastic to Archie, without ever seeming "threatening" or unsympathetic. None of the experienced actors seemed to be right for the part, but Rich found Evans -- who had almost no acting experience and wasn't very good at his audition -- and realized that he was exactly right for the part. Even though Evans' readings for the part were disappointing, Rich convinced Norman Lear to let him cast Evans in the role, and worked hard on improving his acting skills. It paid off: Evans was great in the very first episode, and Lionel's relationship with Archie was one of the key relationships on the show for those first four years.

Evans's Lionel Jefferson was sort of a more sympathetic alternative to Rob Reiner's Meathead. Like Mike, Lionel was liberal and disgusted by Archie's bigotry. But unlike the self-righteous Mike, Lionel understood that Archie was basically a good man who was parroting the prejudices he'd been taught from an early age. (In one episode Lionel admits that in some ways he objects more to Mike's condescending attitude to race issues; he can handle Archie, he explains, because "he [Archie] doesn't know any better.") Lionel corrected Archie, made fun of him, and showed him up, but he also treated Archie, as a person, with respect, even as he rightly showed no respect to Archie's bigotry. The first time Lionel ever got angry at Archie was in a third-season episode when Archie objected to his niece dating Lionel. In the climactic scene from that episode, Lionel tells Archie that he's gone too far, and calls him by his first name for the first time in the series:

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

Because he'd co-created Good Times, Evans wasn't available to play Lionel on The Jeffersons; he was replaced by Damon Evans (no relation). He returned to the role after Good Times was canceled. But the character of Lionel was never quite as good as he was when playing off Archie Bunker; it was that relationship, and the interplay between Carroll O'Connor and Mike Evans, that made for some of the best scenes in the first four years of All in the Family.

Razzle Dazzle 'Em

It may be a display of narcissism, but I've been looking through the posts I used to write on usenet in the late '90s. I loved usenet posting, in some ways more than blogging; a good newsgroup felt like a true community of like-minded people. A blog, even with comments, isn't communitarian, and a message board doesn't have quite the same spirit.

Anyway, part of the fun of usenet was creative stuff -- fan fiction, song parodies, and more -- and I'm surprised to find how much of that kind of thing I wrote for usenet, especially Most of it makes no sense out of the context of the show's fan base, but there was one thing, a parody of "All that Jazz" from Chicago, that I think still holds up pretty well. It was originally written to be sung in-character by Slappy Squirrel, but with one or two changes it works as a generalized song about cartoon violence and cartoon logic. So here it is, as part of my recycling drive.

Look at that, a stick of TNT.
(And all those jokes!)
It seems the villain hopes it might demolish me--
(And all those jokes!)
All I do is pick it up and throw.
And now I'm safe and sound, but where'd the villain go?
He really ought to learn: If there's one thing I know,
It's all those jokes!

Over here, oh, isn't this a shock!
(And all those jokes!)
Why, it's a phoney door that's painted on a rock!
(And all those jokes!)
I go in, and it's a real-life door,
The villain has a try, and it's a rock once more.
It's violent gag X-8, and it's been done before,
Like all those jokes!

Oh, the villain's sawing off the branch I'm on!
And all those jokes!
Oh, the branch is staying there, the tree is gone!
And all those jokes!
Now he's got a way to trick me!
Wow, he's got a dog to sic me!
He'll get lots
Of rabies shots
From all those jokes!

Here's a fact he won't be learning soon:
(And all those jokes!)
He's gonna get the knocks, I'm gonna be immune.
(And all those jokes!)
Though his wounds will all be quickly healed,
He's up against a law that never gets repealed,
'Cause it's the cartoon law, and it'll be my shield
In all those jokes.
Oh, he's trying that!
And oh, he's lying flat!
And all

Chase Scenes

I was a little worried when some months went by without further seasons of The Rockford Files, but fortunately Universal has announced the complete third season for February 2007.

This was the season when The Rockford Files went from good to really good. The first season had to tone down the humor a bit more than the creators probably wanted (the network didn't want a lot of jokes and they especially didn't want too much of Stuart Margolin as Angel); the second season was funnier but may actually have gone too far in the direction of goofiness. The third season -- you can read the list of episodes here -- got the serious/funny mix about right. It also added a new writer to the staff, the young David Chase, who immediately started writing some of the best scripts. I've mentioned this before, but the regular writing staff of Rockford in this period was one of the best ever: Stephen J. Cannell, Juanita Bartlett, and Chase. All three would return to write the Rockford TV movies that James Garner made in the '90s.

I should probably add, apropos of nothing, that when the New York Times compared Chase's The Sopranos to Cannell's Wiseguy, Chase wrote a letter to the paper saying he'd never seen a single episode of that show.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Babes of The Big Sleep

I asserted in a previous post that Howard Hawks's movie version of The Big Sleep "comes off as Hawks's excuse to feature as many beautiful women as possible." With the help of easily-embeddable video (the godsend for the lazy entertainment blogger), I don't have to limit this to a simple assertion. Here are some examples of why the real subjects of The Big Sleep is a) beautiful women and b) the surprising tendency of said beautiful women to be attracted to Humphrey Bogart.

1. The very first scene of the movie, with Martha Vickers, sums up what the movie's about. There used to be a rumor that Vickers' part was cut down because Lauren Bacall was jealous of how good she was, but I don't think that's accurate -- what actually did happen is that new scenes were shot with Bacall to give her more fun things to do in the picture. Vickers herself obviously should have had a much better career. You can't always believe what Hawks said, but he claimed, plausibly enough, that he urged her to continue playing bad-girl roles, but instead she went back to playing ingenues, in which roles she just seemed like any other pretty Hollywood actress -- she couldn't do the unique things she did in The Big Sleep.

2. In what is quite rightly considered one of the sexiest scenes in '40s movies, Humphrey Bogart goes into the ACME book shop (yes, Warner Brothers used "ACME" for everything) and meets bespectacled clerk Dorothy Malone. ("I'm a private dick on a case.") Originally Malone was just supposed to deliver some exposition and be done with it; Hawks said he expanded the scene because Malone "was so damned good-looking."

3. Bogart gets into a cab to do (as I said earlier) a very standard follow-that-car scene, except his driver is a woman, Joy Barlow, who is clearly interested in more than just tailing a car.

4. Bacall -- who's really kind of overshadowed by nearly everyone else in the film -- sings "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" while both she and Bogart take appreciative glances at a randomly-appearing (and, once again, clearly interested in Marlowe) attractive woman.

And I haven't even gotten to Mona Mars, or Agnes, or other Big Sleep women (SleepFemmes?).

So many women throw themselves at Bogart throughout the movie that you almost get the sense that Hawks is making some kind of meta-joke about Bogart's unlikely sex-symbol status; he'd only just recently established himself as a romantic leading man (in Casablanca and Hawks's own To Have and Have Not), and it's almost as if Hawks is saying: well, if we're expected to believe that Humphrey Bogart is a sex symbol, we might as well take it to an extreme.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Not So Silent

I know that Spite Marriage isn't one of Buster Keaton's better movies -- it was the last good picture he did before the M-G-M factory broke his spirit, but it still shows signs of being compromised, in a way that his independent pictures don't -- but I like it. And one thing I really like about it is that as a silent film made after the introduction of recorded sound in theatres, it has a pre-recorded and synchronized musical score, meaning that for once we can actually see a Keaton film with a score created at the time.

As I've complained before, most silent movies are currently saddled with scores that just don't sound right. They're either too peppy or too morose, or they don't match up very well with the action, and they certainly don't sound like anything that would have been heard at the time. The score for Spite Marriage may not be a great score, but at least it represents an example of the kind of thing audiences would have expected to hear with a silent comedy. Yet most composers don't try to listen to these scores and learn from them. The DVD set that includes Spite Marriage also includes The Cameraman, which didn't have a pre-recorded score, and the composer for the DVD version created a score that is, stylistically, nothing like the Spite Marriage score. Would it have hurt to ask a composer to listen to that score, or other scores from the late '20s, and model his or her work after that? Then you'd have something that fits the movie.

This scene from Spite Marriage, where Buster tries to get the heroine to lie down, is by far the most famous in the movie (Keaton performed it live for many years thereafter). But note how the music works in this scene. The composer doesn't play a long, jaunty tune to set the rhythm and pace for the scene -- which is how most silent-comedy scores seem to be written nowadays. We don't really get the kind of thing we associate with silent comedy (a peppy tune for muted brass) until the last minute or so. Instead, the score uses short musical sequences, frequently stopping and starting according to the progress of the action, and tries to catch individual actions in the music, as if this is a cartoon. And scoring a silent movie is in many ways quite similar to scoring a cartoon.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I Wallow in Negativity

Judging from my last two posts at TV Guidance, I've become a real Negative Nelly (tm).

- One's about James Burrows, a great TV director who I don't think is so great any more.

- And the other is about King of the Hill, a great TV show whose creative direction I don't quite agree with.

Somebody should really remind me that in real life, people don't actually become successful critics by hating everything.

Joe Barbera

Joe Barbera's death has inspired a lot of amazing tributes and reminiscences around the WWW. Amid Amidi at Cartoon Brew has a great round-up, as does Mark Evanier at POV Online.

Google Video has the Archive of American Television's seven-part interview with Barbera, conducted in 1997 by Leonard Maltin.

And here's the logo that -- as a child -- I associated with the shows that entertained me the most:

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Big Sleep Thoughts

I was talking about The Big Sleep, and we noted that it's one of those movies that sort of seems to make sense right up until you're finished watching it, at which point you realize that there were a million things that went unexplained.

It's not just the famous story (mentioned in the Wikipedia article above) about how neither Howard Hawks nor Raymond Chandler knew who committed one of the murders; it's that the movie builds toward a big revelation -- who killed Sean Regan -- that never really comes, at least not in a satisfying way. The way the final scene is played, the murderer could have been one of two people, and I've gotten into arguments about who the killer was supposed to be. (The obscurity of the final scene may derive partly from Production Code requirements: murderers had to be punished, so it had to be said that Eddie Mars, the villain, was the murderer, even if we were left free to believe that he wasn't. A lot of the obscurity in the film comes from the convoluted ways in which the filmmakers have to imply drug dealing, or nymphomania, or a lot of other stuff, without actually saying the words.)

But the other thing that has always struck me about The Big Sleep, and which I haven't seen a lot of other people mention, is that the whole movie comes off as Hawks's excuse to feature as many beautiful women as possible; not until the James Bond movies would an action-adventure movie lean so heavily on eye candy. The first scene is primarily focused on how good Martha Vickers looks in shorts. (The original script called for Bacall to show off her legs in her first scene, too, but either it was changed or she didn't want to do the scene that way.) Then there's the famous bookstore scene with Dorothy Malone, where Hawks turned a bit part into a long -- and mostly pointless -- scene because, by his own admission, he thought Malone was hot and he wanted to give her more to do.

I've always thought the iconic scene of The Big Sleep is the one where Marlowe gets into a cab to do the follow-that-car scene, but his driver is a good-looking woman. Obviously women are an important part of the Raymond Chandler world, but Hawks overdoes it to an extent that we wouldn't see again until Frank Tashlin came along. I'm still not sure what possessed him to do the movie that way, though of course I am grateful for Vickers and Malone.

Baer Necessities

Not much time for posting today, but here's something I stumbled on that seems like it could be interesting. Richard Baer, who has been writing for television since the '50s and worked on just about every TV comedy you can name, has written his memoirs at the age of 89. The book is called I Don't Drop Names Like Marilyn Monroe Just to Sell Books. (The semi-ironic title comes from the fact that before he started in TV writing, he was a production assistant on the Fritz Lang film Clash By Night, which had Monroe in a supporting role; the excerpt on the website is, inevitably, a Monroe anecdote.) I haven't read the book, but Baer was a good scriptwriter (he wrote weaker scripts when working under weaker producers, but that's true of any screenwriter) who had a long career; he was writing prime-time situation comedies well into his '60s. I would think there would be some good stories in the book; I'll try and get a copy and give a fuller report.

Shorter Daniel Henninger: Don't you realize "heck" is a four-letter word, you rebel?

See Roy Edroso's Alicublog for more on Henninger, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page's most unintentionally hilarious member of the prematurely-cranky-old-man club.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Happy Beethoven's Birthday!

Here's the slow movement of the seventh symphony, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado. I don't know whether I'd consider it one of the very best versions available online, but unlike the YouTube clips, this one (from DailyMotion) is in stereo, allowing you to hear stuff like Beethoven's penchant -- similar to Haydn's -- for giving very different material to the first violins and second violins. (This is emphasized because Abbado, unusually for him, uses divided violins.)

When I say "slow movement," of course, that's kind of a misnomer; Beethoven rarely wrote actual "slow" movements in his symphonies except for the funeral march in symphony # 3. This particular movement is much more propulsive and rhythm-oriented than the typical second movement of a symphony; usually this part of the symphony is a relaxing or soothing interlude between two fast and loud movements, but here it's as neurotic, unsettling, as the rest of the piece. It also became very influential for the very stripped-down version of theme-and-variations form which Beethoven used here: it's really just one theme repeated over and over and over again without a whole lot of actual variation, and somehow that becomes hypnotic instead of boring. Ravel's Bolero and the Minimalists wouldn't exist without the example of this particular movement.

And leave us not forget Schroeder and Lucy.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Low Blood Sugar

Tenor Roberto Alagna blames his La Scala walkout on "Low Blood Sugar."

The fun thing about the Italians -- especially at La Scala -- is that they still treat opera not as a source of highbrow boredom but as a sort of sporting event. Opera singers are as close as musicians get to being athletes; they have to perform amazing feats every night. So in Milan, the audiences react as they would to athletes: you cheer when the athlete/singer scores a point/hits the high note, and you boo for a bad play or a bum note.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Closing Theme Songs

I'll have more on WKRP in Cincinnati as more information trickles out about the DVD release, but for now I wanted to add just one little thing. I was surprised, looking at a comment on a message board, to discover that people are still asking about the lyrics to the closing theme song. So I will link to this interview clip with the guy who wrote and sang the closing theme, Jimmy Ellis, who explains very clearly that the whole thing is gibberish.

And speaking of closing theme songs, what are some other shows that have a different theme in the closing credits than in the opening? All in the Family is one that comes to mind. Arrested Development, Remington Steele after the first season... others?

Here, by the way, is the WKRP closing theme, complete with the MTM kitten and those MTM picture credits for cast members:

Down With Python!

Want to know what BBC network executives thought of Monty Python's Flying Circus? The Daily Telegraph has the story.

The article reviews "new documents" -- a term normally reserved for the secrets of government departments other than the BBC -- to find out what was going on behind the scenes while Python was on the air. Highlights:

The minutes state: "Aubrey Singer (the head of features group) said that he had found parts of this edition disgusting. Controller BBC1 said the programme was continually going over the edge of what was acceptable: this edition had contained two really awful sketches – the death sequence had been in appalling bad taste, while the treatment of the National Anthem had simply not been amusing.

"The Managing Director Television said it must be recognised that in the past the programme had contained dazzle and produced some very good things but this edition had been quite certainly over the edge and the producer Ian McNaughton had failed to refer the show to the BBC when he should have done.

"Stephen Hearst (the head of arts features) was critical of the fact that the values of the programme were so nihilistic and cruel… Bob Reid (the head of science features) felt the team seemed to wallow in the sadism of their humour. Controller BBC2 thought they also shied away from their responsibility. D.P. (the director of programmes) Television said the episode had been a sad end for the series. Bill Cotton (the head of light entertainment group) said it would be sad if the BBC lost the programme; the team seemed to have some sort of death wish."

Actually, most of the article isn't as much of a scoop as previously thought, because the sketch to which these comments refer -- about a cannibalistic undertaker -- was already known to have been extremely controversial at the BBC. The network was reluctant to approve the script in the first place, and finally agreed that the cast could do the sketch on condition that it ended with the studio audience expressing its disgust over the bad taste. Which, as network censorship goes, is pretty post-modern.

One thing I wasn't aware of is that John Cleese, who finally did leave after the third season (or "series," I should probably say), considered leaving after the first 13 episode run and had to be talked into returning for a second year.

Update: Thanks to a commenter for pointing out that this info is even older than I thought:

The memo you quote from was printed in Robert Hewison's "Monty Python: The Case Against" published in 1981.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Noir Gang

DVD Beaver has a list of the films that will be in Warner Home Video's Film Noir Collection, Volume 4. It looks to be an improvement over the last two volumes in two ways: a) It'll have ten films instead of five, and b) It'll include more of the grungy little "B" movies, or relatively inexpensive, under-the-radar films, that have more of the real noir spirit than some of the star-studded "A" pictures included in previous volumes.

The movies are:

- Act of Violence (MGM, 1949) - an MGM "A" picture directed by Fred Zinnemmann before he got really boring.

- Cornered (RKO, 1945) - the team that made Murder My Sweet -- director Edward Dmytryk, writer John Paxton and star Dick Powell -- followed it up with this post-war noir thriller about Nazis who are alive and well and living in Argentina.

- Crime Wave (WB, 1954) - it's got Sterling Hayden and the young Charles Bronson, it's only 73 minutes and it's a violent little crime movie about how one mistake haunts you for the rest of your life. Late noir, but noir nonetheless.

- Decoy (Monogram, 1946) - very strange, very cheap, very implausible and very entertaining "B" picture about a very bad woman.

- Illegal (WB, 1955) - Edward G. Robinson (who was making a lot of "B" movies in the mid-'50s because the political situation made it harder for him to get hired for "A" pictures) plays a D.A. who gets an innocent man executed for murder, quits out of guilt, and then gets all sorts of shady problems in private practice.

- Mystery Street (MGM, 1950) - an early film from John Sturges about the investigation into the murder of a prostitute (Jan Sterling).

- Side Street (MGM, 1950) - before Anthony Mann started mostly directing Westerns, he mostly directed crime thrillers. This, with Farley Granger as yet another guy who makes one stupid mistake and finds he can't escape the consequences, is one of them.

- Tension (MGM, 1950) - Richard Basehart works out a plan to murder the guy who ran off with his wife (Audrey Totter), but somebody else kills him first and he's the suspect for something he planned to do, but didn't actually do. Cyd Charisse is in it somewhere as well.

They Live By Night (RKO, 1949) - The pick of this particular litter, directed by Nicholas Ray. Robert Altman later remade it as Thieves Like Us.

Where Danger Lives (RKO, 1950) - Obligatory Robert Mitchum movie. Faith Domergue is the woman who, you'll be shocked to hear, leads him astray.

It says on the site that Eddie Muller has recorded commentary tracks for Crime Wave and (with comments by Farley Granger) They Live By Night.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Cultural Identity of the Late '90s

I was watching a Pinky and the Brain episode where the lab mice appear on a parody of MTV's The Real Life. The episode, written by Jed Spingarn and directed by Kirk Tingblad (whom I'll always think of as the guy who animated the scene in Animaniacs where Slappy Squirrel lipo-suctions lard out of Roger Ebert's stomach), aired in 1998, and I was enjoying all the late-'90s stereotypes in the show: the depressed female wanna-be poet, the backwards baseball caps, the grunge rock, the fashions.

And then it occurred to me: the late '90s are, by simple mathematics, less than a decade old, and yet they already seem to belong to a distant past -- and they have a cultural profile that is much stronger than many other eras.

I can barely remember what the early '90s were like, in a cultural/fashion sense, even though I was in high school then and, in theory, I should have been noticing stuff. But boy, do I remember the music, fashions and cultural obsessions from about 1996 right up to the dot-com bust.

We can all think of stuff that symbolizes that era. Internet cartoons. Alanis Morissette (and I'm not talking about the teen pop queen Alanis, either). The cable news channels caught up in Monica Lewinsky fever. Titanic. Austin Powers. Anything whatsoever to do with the term, or aimed at the people considered to be, "Generation X." Bad Friends ripoffs on every network. Mawkish tributes to the "Greatest Generation" (that would be the World War II generation, or so said Tom Brokaw). The debuts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and the general ubiquity of empowered kick-ass females in popular entertainment. The march of Starbucks.

And, above everything else, an absolute obsession with people in their '20s who don't know exactly what to do with their lives.

This particular era was killed stone dead by, first, the dot-com bust, which killed the mystique of the 20-something by making it clear that we would, in fact, never get rich and there wasn't anything cool about us. And second, September 11, 2001, which ushered in a bunch of new, different worries.

So what are some other things -- shows, clothes, things like those -- that you associate with that particular cultural moment?

And here's an excerpt from the Pinky and the Brain episode that started this whole post; see how many late '90s things you can spot that already seem like ancient history. The guest voices, by the way, include Pamela "Milhouse" Hayden, Scott "Nick on Family Ties" Valentine, and LeVar Burton.


Fox appears to have finally spilled the beans: they're going to release WKRP in Cincinnati on DVD.

I've been hearing about this for a while but I couldn't say anything until it became official (for one thing, it might have fallen through and then I'd have looked like an idiot).

I'll have more to say about the music issue when more news starts coming out. It will fall short of having all the music, but my guess for now is that it'll be a lot better than the atrociously re-dubbed versions that ran on Nick at Nite (in the U.S.) or The Comedy Network (in Canada). More later.

While I'm not making threats, I will say just this: if, when the first season comes out, you have some money to spare and choose instead to spend it on some other DVD, I will find out about it and I will be very, very annoyed with you. Not that I'm making threats.

The point is that the first season needs to sell as well as it possibly can or we won't get the other three seasons.

I think it will sell, though. For one thing, while the first season of WKRP wasn't the very best in my opinion, it did produce a huge number of fan-favorite episodes, episodes that people still think of immediately when they remember watching WKRP in Cincinnati. One of them, of course, was the Thanksgiving turkey drop (which was much-viewed on YouTube a week ago), which I'm assuming Fox will call attention to when they promote the DVD. But the first season also had:

- The concert by the "hoodlum rock" group, Scum of the Earth
- Les Nessman's news report about "Chi Chi Rodriguez"
- Mr. Carlson mistaking cocaine for foot powder
- The episode where Johnny's reflexes get better with every drink
- The episode about Venus Flytrap the army deserter
- The "Ferryman's Funeral Homes" jingle
- The tornado episode

And so on. One of the possible reasons that show did so well in syndication is that the first season was very strong; that meant that the episodes people liked were turning up as soon as it hit syndication, whereas with some shows, people have to wait through 22 or 44 episodes to get to the seasons they like best.

Finally, here's a short scene from the first season where the DVD producers really will need to do everything possible to retain the music:

Oh, Chuck!

I have nothing to say about the moving candle scene from Abbott and Costello's Hold that Ghost, except... well... it's the moving candle scene from Abbott and Costello's Hold that Ghost. Enjoy.

Friday, December 08, 2006

In Defence of Very Special Episodes

Over at Maclean's I have a post that amounts to an apologia for "Very Special Episodes" of TV comedy shows.

And a thing to understand about "Very Special Episodes" is that in the '70s and '80s, so-called TV drama was mostly not very good -- you had a lot of cop shows and medical shows and stuff, but very little serious character development. If you wanted to see characters grow and change, or see the lead character of a show go through any kind of emotional development at all, you mostly had to go to sitcoms, and that's why shows like M*A*S*H or Family Ties would do serious shows where a character grew up a little -- because hourlong dramas weren't doing this kind of thing. Now they are, so there's less need for sitcoms to do them.

I now recall that Larry Gelbart (not my favorite writer, but certainly important in the development of the VSE) said something to the effect that the reason M*A*S*H stood out was because nobody else in the '70s was doing actual drama. He had a point. Most of the episodes of '70s hourlong drama shows revolved around plot, not character: the resolution of the episode would come when the murderer was caught or the disease was cured. The comedy shows, like Barney Miller and All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore, were the shows that did stories that depended on character, where the resolution of the episode depended on a character learning something or two characters making an emotional connection.

Clown Zombies

I'm glad to have volume 2 of Animaniacs in my hot little hands... well, more accurately, on my hot little shelf. I probably should do a longer post about just how popular that show was in its first season. It was to a lot of us what the first season of Ren and Stimpy was to a lot of others: the TV cartoon that finally got it right. (I know it makes real animation fans very angry to hear people talk about Animaniacs as if it's on a level with Ren and Stimpy. And maybe they're right. But the impact it had on its fans was quite similar.) It was pulling together a lot of stuff that TV cartoons had been slowly trying to do throughout the '80s: get a little funnier, a little more pop-culture-savvy, a little less socially-responsible, a little less weighed down by network standards and practices.

You could see even bad late Hanna-Barbera cartoons at least trying to get some funny stuff through the muck, and it often turns out that those semi-funny episodes were written by people who went to Warner Brothers in the early '90s. Anyway, Tiny Toons came close to breaking through, but a lot of the scripts still had the old '80s Saturday Morning Cartoon problems, especially the need to tell socially responsible stories with uplifting messages. Animaniacs was the first cartoon to do this kind of stuff and be almost totally amoral. It was a heady mix, and for many of us, the first time we saw a good Animaniacs cartoon was a "eureka!" moment.

All that said, I won't feel satisfied that the '90s WB legacy (for better or for worse) has been properly represented until Freakazoid! comes out on DVD. There's been no announcement of that yet. Hopefully it will come sometime, and if you want to know why I want that show most of all, here are two reasons why.

Freakazoid tells the story of an after-school special he saw about what happens when friendships go bad:

And Jack Valenti, former head of the MPAA, explains their fascinating ratings system:

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Preminger Centennial (But Not Centennial Summer)

I should have highlighted this on the day, but December 5 of this year was the centenary of the birth of Otto Preminger. In his honor, the Academy of Arts and Sciences held a tribute to him last month.

Preminger's a guy who had erratic taste in scripts -- he seemed to pick projects based on how much publicity the title or subject-matter would generate, and publicizing the project sometimes seemed to matter more to him than getting the writer to come up with a good script. But for most of his career, his movies are a pleasure to look at for his preference for long, expansive takes and his use of every inch of the frame. Look at this scene from Advise and Consent, where he has Peter Lawford in the distance at the very edge of the Panavision frame while George Grizzard (as the evil Senator Fred Van Ackerman) is speaking; finally Lawford says something, but Preminger doesn't cut to him, just leaves him there at the edge and expects our eyes to go to him. That's why this is one of those movies that makes absolutely no sense on TV. And you may recognize the person making a cameo as the tart-tongued Senator from Kansas:

And then, of course, there's the bad Preminger. And there's nothing badder than his 1968 attempt to stay relevant and controversial, Skidoo. To be fair, though, the clips posted online make the movie look even worse than it is, because they're in pan-and-scan.

Oh, and this remake of Preminger's last good movie, Bunny Lake is Missing, starring Reese Witherspoon? I guess Witherspoon's a better actress than Carol Lynley, but I greatly fear the new version will force the whole thing to make sense, and there would be no point to it that way.

Update: One other thing about Preminger is that for most of his career, his movies were distinguished by unusually good musical scores. Many prominent directors either didn't seem to care who composed the music, or struck up semi-permanent partnerships with certain composers whether or not they were any good (like Robert Aldrich's incessant use of easy-listening schlockmeister Frank DeVol). But Preminger used the great David Raksin for most of his films at Fox, and when he went independent, he used a succession of different and often very distinguished composers. He also would sometimes make unusual and good choices for the composer; on Advise and Consent he gave Jerry Fielding his first assignment for a big budget movie.

More Evil Than The Shark

Just a follow-up to my post below: if you want to see how far Happy Days fell, and how fast, you need look no further than Fonzie's first confrontation with Mork From Ork. The one thing that always interests me about these Paramount shows of the late '70s is that even though the studio had given up on one-camera filming, in favor of loud, obnoxious studio audiences, they were still resistant to the prevailing '70s method of shooting comedy shows. That is, most comedies by that point were shot and staged like little plays. Paramount was still putting in the mood music and cheesy optical effects familiar from their one-camera shows like The Brady Bunch.

And, for those of you who weren't traumatized enough by the above, there's always the Saturday morning cartoon The Mork and Mindy Laverne and Shirley Fonz Hour. Thanks again, Fred Silverman.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Wow, never count out a series when it comes to DVD releases. After two years of waiting, Season 2 of Happy Days will be released in April 2007.

Those who remember my posts from way back in 2004, when the first season was released, will remember that I'm a big fan of the early Happy Days, when it was filmed with no studio audience and Richie was the lead character. The second season was the last one filmed that way. There's actually one episode where they experimented with the live-audience, three-camera format ("Fonzie's Getting Married"). It was one of the weakest episodes of that season, so naturally they switched full-time to that format starting with the third season, and Happy Days became more successful, more popular, and much, much less good.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Good Morning, Mr. Briggs

What I find ingenious about Mission: Impossible (the first season finally came out on DVD today) is that creator Bruce Geller figured out how to provide a TV equivalent for a genre that normally doesn't adapt well to TV: the caper story.

Caper movies were all the rage in the '60s, but as we've seen this past season (with the almost instantly-canceled Smith), capers don't usually work in a television series format, because audiences don't usually come back to root for the criminals week in and week out. A movie like Rififi or Topkapi or even The Lavender Hill Mob only expects us to follow the criminals until this one job is done. But you can't ask people to cheer for the crooks week after week, not until The Sopranos anyway.

So what Geller did in Mission: Impossible was to take all the familiar devices of the crime caper -- the elaborate plan, the team members with different specialties, the suspenseful twist when it looks like the plan has gone wrong -- and create a format where the devious team was, if not on the side of the law, at least on the side of goodness and decency. But there was still that element of outlaw-ishness, because these characters weren't officially sanctioned; the American government hired them secretly, promising to disavow any knowledge of their actions, and they violated international law just about every week. So although the members of the Impossible Mission Force were more sympathetic than the purely selfish characters in most caper films, they weren't squeaky-clean either; unlike, say, the guys in The Guns of Navarone, their plans had an air of rebelliousness about them because they weren't playing by normal rules or working for anyone recognizable as an authority figure (except that mysterious voice on the self-destructing messages).

Here's the opening scene from the pilot (where Wally Cox was the guest star as a safe-cracker; remember that many of the episodes, especially early ones, would have an additional member who wasn't part of the regular team). You'll notice that this was one of the few prime-time filmed shows of its time that made occasional use of a hand-held camera; in this case we see a hand-held shot when the team is introduced playing cards.

A TV Cinematographer

This is why I love the web: where else would people like me have access to an interview with George Spiro Dibie, a veteran director of photography for television? and not just any interview, but a long, long, long interview with lots of technical stuff about shooting a series. If you like to know about why Barney Miller looked different from other videotaped shows, or what kind of film was used for Buffalo Bill, then you'll enjoy this interview as much as I did.

Dibie also seems to share my shameful affection for Growing Pains:

Like you said, there isn’t a lot of recognition from the industry, so you find satisfaction in your own feelings about your work. You have a different script to shoot every week with no time to rehearse, maybe a couple of days to prepare each episode, almost always with a different director. There are also times when writer-producers seek you out, and actresses and actors insist that you shoot their shows. One of my most memorable sitcoms was the Halloween episode of Growing Pains. It was a one-hour episode, and we had four days to shoot it. We had to create moods and looks that touched on all of the emotions in that one show. The camerawork was an important part of the story-telling. We had an important interior scene mainly motivated by a fireplace with some night light coming through a window. There was a black and white sequence and one where colors were very important. We had interior and exterior scenes, and one where a Steadicam was important. If someone said to me, Dibie give me an hour that represents your best work, I’d probably pick that show.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Grudge Matches I'd Like To See: Batman vs. The A-Team

The A-Team is hiding out in Gotham City, and Colonel Decker asks Batman to track them down and capture them. Batman, with his sour view of human nature, doesn't believe that the A-Team is innocent, and assumes that they're just another group of quirky criminals that he needs to hunt down.

Can Batman capture the A-Team? Or will he fail to handle the combined power of Hannibal's planning, B.A.'s helluva-toughness, Murdock's craziness, and... uh... whatever the heck it is that Face does?

"It's Not the Coffee, It's the Bunk"

From Preston Sturges' Christmas in July, Dick Powell comes up with what is either the worst or the greatest advertising slogan of all time.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

It's Frankie (Tashlin)!

The Looney Tunes Golden Collections include a lot of Frank Tashlin (a documentary on vol. 3, and a full disc of his cartoons on vol. 4), but they aren't able to include many clips from his live-action movies, since his best live-action movies are owned by Paramount or Fox. So as a Tashlin maniac, I thought I'd randomly link to one of the great Tashlin scenes: Julie London's cameo appearance singing "Cry Me a River" in The Girl Can't Help It.

The set-up of the scene is that the talent agent played by Tom Ewell used to be in love with Ms. London; he lost her when she became successful, and now he's haunted by her every time he listens to her big hit. The odd thing about the scene is that Tashlin plays it both funny and straight: it's an over-the-top parody of a certain kind of movie melodrama (it takes a standard device -- having a character's lost love appear as a ghostly memory -- and keeps it going so long that it becomes absurd), but Ewell is being directed to play the character's pain and sadness as quite real, and you do sort of feel for him by the end of the scene.

Also, while I linked to this a few months ago, I figured I should put it up again for those who missed it the last time around: the ultimate Tashlin scene -- combining music, fetishism, parody and old-movie references (to Lubitsch's "Beyond the Blue Horizon" number in Monte Carlo) -- "A Day in the Country" from Hollywood or Bust.

A number in which, as Jenny Lerew once remarked, the women all look like "Elvgren pinups come to life."

Update: I forgot to mention, with regard to the scene from The Girl Can't Help It, that this is a perfect example of Tashlin importing animated cartoon gags into his live-action filmmaking. The overriding joke here is a very standard cartoon joke: no matter where one character goes, the other character is always there. It's like a cartoon except that the role of Daffy Duck is played by Julie London.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Shirley Walker, RIP

The composer and conductor Shirley Walker died Wednesday. She was 61.

Walker (1945-2006) was probably best known as supervising composer for Batman: The Animated Series. She'd previously been a prolific orchestrator and conductor for various movies, and came to the attention of the Batman producers because she'd orchestrated and conducted Danny Elfman's score for the 1989 Batman movie, as well as composing the music for the short-lived live-action series The Flash. For the Batman series, Walker arranged Elfman's main title theme (based on, but superior to, the version of that theme in the movie), composed the music for dozens of episodes, and supervised the work of the other composers to make them fit in with the style she'd set for the show.

She could also depart from that basic style, quite brilliantly, when needed; for the episode "The Laughing Fish" she did a spooky, Bartókian, modernistic score, and in the tribute to Dick Sprang's Batman comics in "Legends of the Dark Knight," she went to great lengths to make the score (and the recording of it) sound like a parody of canned music in early '60s TV cartoons.

Here's a website devoted to Walker's work, which includes a full list of her many credits.

I wrote a bit about Walker in an earlier post, which included a link to this article on Walker and the other Batman/Superman composers. There was also a recent two-part interview with her in Film Score Monthly.

Walker can also be heard on two audio commentary tracks on volume 3 of the Batman series.

Ah, Good

Somebody finally uploaded the (short) title sequence of Peter Gunn:

That's one show that could have used a minute-long title sequence, but shows in those days didn't spend a lot of time on the titles (what was important was to get as quickly as possible to the name of the sponsor).

Speaking of shows with iconic theme music, DVD Beaver has a review and screenshots of season 1 of Mission: Impossible.