Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I Consider You the Greatest Idiot in the Diplomatic Service

I was hoping to have a post ready about the producer Hal B. Wallis and why his work declined so badly after he left Warner Brothers (where he produced or executive-produced some of the best films ever made). But some annoying thing called "time" got in the way. Hopefully I'll have it, or some other post, ready tomorrow.

In the meantime, as placeholders, here are two great movie comedy scenes featuring the same obscure actor, Herman Bing. He was a German actor who emigrated to America and, before S.Z. Sakall, was Hollywood's go-to guy for heavily-accented bit parts. As you can see from his IMDb listing, he didn't do a lot that was memorable, maybe because his accent was so distinctly German that it made him hard to cast (unlike Sakall or Sig Rumann, whose accents were just a little bit more generic-sounding). Once the U.S. went to war with Germany, he hardly got any parts at all, because you couldn't have funny German characters any more.

But in 1934, Bing managed to get memorable scenes in two memorable movies. In Lubitsch's The Merry Widow, he gets the single funniest scene in the film, where he becomes incongruously passionate and involved while reading out the King's angry missive to Edward Everett Horton. I still quote "I consider you the greatest idiot in the diplomatic service" at odd times.

And in Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century, Bing is one of the bearded actors from the German Passion Play, who gives John Barrymore the idea of turning the Passion into a vehicle for Carole Lombard.

This is also the scene with the wonderful shot I wrote about a couple of years ago, wonderful because it feels so spontaneous:

n a single take, Walter Connolly pushes them out of the stateroom, turns back to Barrymore, pushes him into his seat, and pours out his heart: "O.J., listen, I know you won't believe this, but I'm more than an employee -- I'm the best friend you've got... I'm not gonna let you get mixed up with any phony art." What I love about the shot is that the composition is, in film-school terms, totally wrong: Connolly and Barrymore wind up bunched together in the left-hand corner of the frame, with empty space in the rest of the frame. What clearly happened, as with many of the shots in the film, is that Howard Hawks liked the spontaneous quality of the acting in that take, and left it as was, with no "coverage," no editing. No studio would let a shot like that get by today; they'd have sensible compositions, lots of cutting back and forth between characters, and they'd drain all the life out of the scene.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Martin & Lewis vs. Crosby & Hope

Yes, another homage to WWWF Grudge Match, but a very obvious one:

Paramount Pictures' two top "crooner and comic" teams face off against each other in a brutal tag-team battle. In this corner, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope from the Road movies. In the other corner, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Which playful pair will prevail, and who will partake of a pathetic pummeling?

I would lean slightly toward Dean and Jerry, with some misgivings. Especially early on, they're both extremely skinny. But as the conclusion of Artists and Models proves, Jerry has the strength of twenty men when he gets really worked up, and Dean, with his rampant gangland connections (really, he's in trouble with gangsters in every other movie) may know a few tricks. I don't think they'll fall for the "pat-a-cake" routine, which strips Bing and Bob of their greatest asset. Finally, Jerry and Dean usually seem to get along better than Bing and Bob, who always spend half the movie selling each other out. The teamwork advantage will give Jerry and Dean the edge they nead to win.

Bob Carroll Jr., RIP

Bob Carroll, one of the creators and writers of I Love Lucy, died at the age of 87. He and his writing partner Madelyn Pugh Davis were on the writing staff of I Love Lucy from beginning to end. For the first four seasons they and the third creator (Jess Oppenheimer) wrote every episode, while in the fifth season the writing staff expanded to a staggering five writers.

The TV Week obituary mentions some of their other credits. As you can see from this list, they were mostly associated with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, both together and separately (after Ball and Arnaz split up, they wrote for Ball's shows but they also worked on shows that Arnaz created, like "The Mothers-in-Law").

Something About Borat I Hadn't Heard Before

Bright Lights Film Journal makes the unusual -- but plausible -- case that the Borat movie is influenced by the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis/Frank Tashlin film Hollywood or Bust:

The fish out of water is a television journalist from Kazakhstan - impersonated by English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen - who travels across America, nominally to make a documentary educating himself and his Kazakhstan viewers concerning the ways of Americans, actually to hook up with his dream woman, Pamela Anderson. (Speaking of screenwriting tropes, this one is borrowed from Frank Tashlin’s classic 1956 comedy, Hollywood or Bust, where Jerry Lewis, accompanied by Dean Martin, travels cross-country to meet his dream gal, Anita Ekberg. Borat successfully homages both Lewis and Laurel & Hardy.)

Monday, January 29, 2007

Grudge Matches I'd Like To See: Hamburglar vs. Cookie Crook

Battle of two characters who taught us, as children, that it's okay to turn to a life of crime:

The Hamburglar (McDonald's) vs. The Cookie Crook (Cookie Crisp). Which masked bandit will prevail?

To refresh your memory, here's a vintage commercial for Cookie Crisp, which may hold some kind of record as the most unhealthy concept for a cereal. The only thing worse would be a cereal consisting entirely of sugar cubes.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Torontobloggin': The Girl Can't Help It

For people in Toronto, next week there's a chance to see the work of one of the directors I'm always babbling about.

On Saturday, February 3 at 2:00 p.m., the Toronto Cinematheque will have a screening of the Frank Tashlin film The Girl Can't Help It at Jackman Hall.

Terry Teachout recently wrote about seeing this movie for the first time:

I also watched Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It, the movie that made Jayne Mansfield a star. Not only had I never seen it, but I’d never seen any of Mansfield’s other movies—she was only a name to me—and I found her unexpectedly charming.

This inspired me to take a look at the BBC documentary on Mansfield that airs on Ovation from time to time. To my astonishment, it included a snippet of a Fifties kinescope in which Mansfield can be seen playing the first movement of Vivaldi’s A Minor Violin Concerto, Op. 3, No. 6. (You can view a poor-quality transfer of the same snippet by going here.) This concerto is often played by students—I played it in high school—and though her performance isn’t very good, it isn’t hopelessly bad, either.

How strange that so touchingly earnest a creature should have gone to Hollywood and become a big-chested blonde bombshell! Only in America…

One bit of trivia about this movie that I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere: when this project was originally announced in the trades, it was as an adaptation of Garson Kanin's novel Do Re Mi, a satire of the music industry and specifically the jukebox business. The star was to be Bing Crosby. By the time it started filming, Crosby had pulled out and Kanin's story had been completely dumped (he's not even credited in the film); the only thing they kept was the idea of gangsters getting involved in the jukebox racket. A few years later, Kanin adapted Do Re Mi as a Broadway musical, starring Phil Silvers.

Update: Speaking of Silvers, I've heard several people (including the guy on the DVD commentary) insist that he plays the milkman in this scene, but it sure doesn't look like him to me. Maybe a big-screen viewing will settle that.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

We Don't ____ Here!

The new DVD set of Get Smart may be the best set ever created for a non-current television series. And this in spite of the fact that it was done too late for Don Adams to participate in it. I hope to write a bit more about it later, but it's one of those DVD releases that actually improves my opinion of the show. I always liked Get Smart, but I thought it was a bit overrated or at least limited, because every episode was the same and it was hard to care much about the characters. But, even while acknowledging that these limitations are still there, I liked the show better when I was finished watching the extras. I got a better sense of how difficult it is to do what this show did, which is to do parody and satire in the form of a show with continuing characters. Most shows that tried to do the same thing have failed because no one could stand to watch a parody (something where we know the story can't be taken seriously) every week; the producers of Get Smart! were the only ones who managed to give a parody series enough story and character strength to sustain it for five years.

A lot of that, I think -- and creator Buck Henry implies this at several points -- comes from the show's executive producer, veteran writer Leonard Stern. The pilot, written by Buck Henry and Mel Brooks, was very funny and included most of the show's best catchphrases and gags ("Would You Belive," lifted from Adams' work on the Bill Dana Show; the Cone of Silence; "And loving it"), but the story didn't make much sense and important plot points were disposed of in a very perfunctory way. As the first season went on, Stern helped add some solidity to the stories; they didn't have to be taken seriously, but they did have to work as effective action/mystery stories no matter how ridiculous they were, meaning there had to be a good hook to the story and it had to be resolved in a plausible way.

The DVD Beaver has a review and screen shots from the set, which is currently only available from Time-Life but should be in stores sometime later this year. One thing that struck me again is that long on-camera interviews with one cast or crew member (in this case, Buck Henry, Leonard Stern and Barbara Feldon among others) are far preferable to making-of documentaries with clips from a lot of different people. Same with the Criterion Collection, which usually does the long one-on-one video interview instead of breaking it up into little clips for a so-called "documentary."

Oh, and for people who are wondering if Agent 99's real name was ever revealed (there was an episode where she used the name "Susan" but it turned out to be another alias), here's definitive proof that it never was. This is from the fifth and final season, when she and Max had been married for a year:

Friday, January 26, 2007

It's Charles Lane Day

A budding tradition in the entertainment blogosphere is celebrating the birthday of actor Charles Lane. He's 102 today.

Brent McKee has a good piece on Hollywood's "oldest living actor."

There have been some discussions on message boards dealing with the question of whether Mr. Lane ever played a nice guy. In his twenties, he was already playing crusty, testy people like Max Jacobs (originally Max Mandelbaum) in Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century.

Have you ever seen Charles Lane playing a good guy? It must have happened somewhere.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Favorite Road Runner Gag?

Thad has a clip of one of the most famous gags in any Road Runner cartoon, a Ken Harris-animated scene from Whoa, Be-Gone!, where the Coyote tries to... well, just click the link and see for yourself.

Many people consider this the best gag in any Road Runner cartoon. It follows the pattern of a lot of the best gags Mike Maltese wrote for the series, which is to have the Coyote try something really absurd, do a long build-up while he tries to get it to work, and then have it fail for the most obvious reason imaginable. It goes all the way back to a gag in the first cartoon in the series, Fast and Furry-ous. The Coyote gets an ACME Super Suit, apparently expecting that it will let him fly like Superman. He strikes a Super pose, gets a long running start, jumps off the cliff... and instantly falls (he didn't even have to look down first). It's funny because the result was so obvious. It's like Maltese's cartoon-comedy version of Occam's Razor: the simplest result of the Coyote's stupid plan is usually the funniest one.

I think my favorite Road Runner gag is another one in this category, from Zoom and Bored. You get a long, drawn-out shot of a very complicated and elaborate system the Coyote has come up with for rolling a bomb down a mountain. And then he lights the fuse and the bomb immediately blows up on him.

Other favorite Road Runner/Coyote gags?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

We Did It Before And We Can Do It Again

Ken Levine recalls a M*A*S*H episode which had the same plot as an earlier episode. The staff realized this only after the episode had already started filming. I join with many of Ken's readers in thinking that the unintentional remake was actually a better episode.

TV shows unintentionally recycle their own plots all the time. Of course they also intentionally recycle plots. And sometimes it's hard to tell which is which. I knew about the similarity between those two M*A*S*H episodes, but until I saw Ken's post I had no idea if this was intentional, unintentional, or somewhere in between, because these things fall into three categories:

a) The show does an episode with an unintentional similarity to another episode. See above. See also Pinky and the Brain, which did a half-hour episode around a story that had already been done as an Animaniacs short, but the people involved with the episode claimed they hadn't seen the original short.

b) The show intentionally recycles another episode, figuring that most people won't remember it (obviously this was much more common before everything started getting syndicated). Bewitched was the king of this tactic; as early as their third season, they were re-making episodes from the first season.

c) The show independently comes up with something similar to an earlier episode, someone on the staff recognizes this, but it's decided that the new story is sufficiently different from the old one (The Simpsons is always doing episodes that are sort of, but not quite, like the old ones).

Then there are all the shows that recycle episodes done by other shows. Again, it's hard to tell, without knowing for sure, which of the three above categories these things fall into, especially when the two shows are from the same production company. For example, I remember that Just Shoot Me, an NBC show produced by Brillstein-Grey, did an episode where Elliott (Enrico Colantoni) coaches Nina (Wendie Malick) for a radio interview by teaching her some big words she can use to make herself sound intelligent; the words are all ridiculous fake words, and when she uses them on the air, she sounds like an idiot. This was the exact plot that had already been an episode of NewsRadio, which was an NBC show produced by Brillstein-Grey. But did the writers of Just Shoot Me actually knock off NewsRadio, or was it just an idea that was floating around (it is something that two people could come up with independently, after all)? We'll never know.

And yeah, I bring that up in part as an excuse to direct your attention to the funniest NewsRadio ever.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Movies That Work Better On YouTube

Well, no movie actually works better with the picture and sound quality of YouTube, so of course I don't mean that subject line literally. But I was re-watching Jacques Demy's Les Demoiselles De Rochefort, and it occurred to me that this is one of those movies that works better in short clips than as a whole.

Every time I see an excerpt from this movie -- any excerpt -- it blows me away; I'm enthralled by the candy-store color, Michel Legrand's music (and Demy's excellent lyrics), the gorgeous locations and the gorgeous people and Demy's elaborate tributes to Vincente Minnelli and the M-G-M musical. But when I see it all the way through, I'm less impressed, because the plot has a ton of problems: apparently Demy, in his zeal to pay tribute to the Hollywood musical, didn't remember that the best musicals have simple, emotionally-involving plots (like his own The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Another flaw that becomes apparent in a full viewing is that the choreography isn't very good; this is a common problem when auteur directors do musicals, because they can't do what the director of a musical needs to do, which is step back and let the choreographer essentially plan an entire scene. (Ernst Lubitsch is another director whose musicals have either no dancing or bad dancing, because he usually couldn't bring himself to turn a scene over to the choreographer.) And finally, it becomes clear that Demy and Legrand just put too many songs in the picture: a musical needs a breather between numbers or they all start to feel like they're the same.

And so, as I said, Les Demoiselles De Rochefort is a movie made for the YouTube format: a short clip highlighting a particular scene or musical number. You get the best qualities of the movie, without the repetition and plot problems that make the whole thing wear out its welcome.

Are there other movies -- musicals or otherwise -- that you think work better in bits and pieces than as a whole?

Here are two clips from Les Demoiselles that I think sum up what's right with the film (or bits and pieces of it). The first song, "Chanson Des Jumelles" (Song of the Twins) for the very beautiful and very dubbed sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac. I like the way Demy has the girls make small talk and then suddenly burst into song. Instead of finding ways to set up or justify a song, he's just saying: this is a musical, people will sing at random, get used to it. I also like how he includes little clichés that hardcore MGM musical buffs will recognize, like having the characters laugh after the number is over.

And "De Delphine à Lancien", a scene which starts with an elaborate, very Minnelli-esque crane shot following Deneuve around a street full of dancing people. The ensuing scene shows off Demy's carefully-planned color schematics, compositions (Deneuve flanked by a black-and-white art piece on one side and a painting of her -- sort of -- on the other), and those lines of dialogue that would be clunky and pretentious in another film but are somehow charming in a Demy movie ("When you say 'my soul,' it's my body you're thinking of").

Directorial Credits

Of all the insignificant things I've ever become interested in, the most insignificant thing was something I started noticing when I was a kid: the different places the director's name appears in the credits of a movie.

What I mean is that different eras of movies seemed to put the director's name in different places. Before the mid-'30s, the director's credit usually appeared early in the credits sequence, usually the first thing after the title and acting credits. By the end of that decade, all studios had switched over to the "modern" practice of making the director's name the last one to appear. (Or, if the credits ran at the end of the film, the first.) Then in the '80s and early '90s, they started having this odd thing where the director's name would be delayed until after the credits sequence was essentially over -- that is, they'd wait until the music had stopped and the next scene had begun, and only then would they flash the director's name. I got the impression that they wanted the director's name to co-incide with the beginning of a scene that actually mattered, rather than the pointless scenes that usually accompanied the opening credits in that era.

Of course, if a film wants to call attention to the director's credit, they can always do it like the famous moment in The Wild Bunch, where William Holden's line "If they move, kill 'em!" is instantly followed by "Directed by Sam Peckinpah." It's the best credit ever and one of the few instances where a credit gets a laugh from the audience (whether it was intended this way or not, the juxtaposition of that credit with that line comes off as a little in-joke about Peckinpah's worldview).

Link to clip from The Wild Bunch removed for the heinous crime of not working

Monday, January 22, 2007

Round-Up of Recent Showbiz Deaths

1. Amid Amidi's tribute to Hanna-Barbera mainstay Iwao Takamoto, including a 1999 interview for Animation Blast.

2. The French Ambassador writes a letter to the editor about Art Buchwald. Buchwald was as much a fixture in France as in America, perhaps more; his work in France in the '40s and '50s was so well-known that in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief, he's the author of a gossip item that Cary Grant reads. And Jacques Tati's Playtime, for which Buchwald wrote the English-language dialogue, just came out in an excellent Criterion two-disc edition.

3. One more thing about Mike Evans, Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family. Here's his first appearance in the pilot (the 1971 pilot, not the two unsold pilots Norman Lear had already made of the same material). The character and his relationship with Archie were nailed right from the beginning; the only thing that's different is that Archie finally realizes -- at the end -- that Lionel is putting him on, whereas in the series he never seemed to catch on.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bond Girls Gone Wild

I recently re-watched the movie Deadlier Than the Male, one of the oddest and most entertaining of the many James Bond imitations of the late '60s. Producer Betty Box and director Ralph Thomas had mostly done comedies -- they did all the "Doctor" movies with Dirk Bogarde -- but they had the idea of taking the old-favorite hero Bulldog Drummond and retrofitting him for the James Bond era. Richard Johnson was cast in the part, which was appropriate because director Terence Young had wanted him to play Bond in Dr. No. (I don't know if he would have been all that much better than Connery, and he probably wouldn't have signed on for as many films, but he would have been very good as Bond.) They also cast Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina, two of the hottest EuroBabes of a cinema decade dominated by EuroBabes who worked in movies on every continent.

The movie isn't all that good; the plot isn't very interesting, the lead character is ill-defined (not surprisingly given that he's an amalgam of the very different characters of Bulldog Drummond and James Bond), Sommer and Koscina don't appear enough in the second half of the movie. And they didn't have enough of a budget for what they were trying to do, hence a lot of drab sets and bad back projection.

But what makes the movie enjoyable, and gives it its special kick, is that it includes something the Bond movies hardly ever did: truly bad-ass, even murderous women. The Bond movies could never really bring themselves to let women do anything really untoward, maybe because they were rooted in Ian Fleming's men-are-men and women-are-women sensibility. Even when they added a beautiful villainous woman like Fiona in Thunderball (a character who doesn't exist in the book), she really doesn't get to do all that much evil and usually lets men do the actual shooting and killing.

Deadlier Than the Male takes it upon itself to do the one thing that the Bond movies wouldn't do, by conflating the standard gorgeous-women and henchmen-assassin characters into one (or, rather, two). Sommer and Koscina spend the first half of the movie bumping off various men in gruesome, sadistic ways, doing all the killing and torturing that a guy would usually do in movies like these. They're like Domino and Oddjob combined.

Here are three examples of why this is movie represents '60s sadism at its best.

1. Sommer and Koscina rise from the sea like Ursula Andress in Dr. No -- and then fire a spear-gun into a man.

2. Sommer uses a drug to paralyze a man and then she and Koscina throw him out of the window to make it look like suicide. "Well, I have had men fall for me before, but never like this."

3. Koscina ties up and tortures Drummond's idiot nephew.

That's the one thing Bond movies needed -- more female villainy. It's fun to see Sommer and Koscina, who easily could have been Bond girls, instead having some actual fun being evil.

Grudge Matches I'd Like To See: Diff'rent Strokes vs. Facts of LIfe (+ stray FoL thoughts)

The four family members from Diff'rent Strokes, Mr. Drummond, Arnold, Willis, Kimberly, vs. the four girls from their spinoff The Facts of Life, Blair, Jo, Natalie, Tootie. Mrs. Garrett cannot participate because she was on both shows, so she'll be the referee. Who wins this battle of the non-prestigious Norman Lear productions?

I'm going to go with the Facts of Life girls. Most of the Drummonds are essentially useless in a fight, which will allow Jo and Blair -- both of whom have ample reserves of RAGE (tm) -- to unleash destruction on other people rather than each other.


I recently watched the third season of The Facts of Life, never mind why. Okay, here's why: I loved it as a child and wanted to see if I remembered any of it. I was actually kind of surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Is it heretical to say that it holds up quite a bit better than most of the better-known shows from Norman Lear's company? Less yelling and screaming, somewhat better scripts, and a director (the Rhoda and Phyllis-trained Asaad Kelada) who knows that you do not in fact have to shoot the entire show in extreme close-ups.

Not that I think The Facts of Life is a masterpiece or anything. It's cheesy and all. And judging from a fifth-season episode I saw on a local channel, it burned out pretty quickly. (We won't even get into the whole George Clooney or Mackenzie Astin thing -- the very act of adding a male cast member was kind of a betrayal anyway). Still, it's pretty solid entertainment, which in today's sitcom-starved environment is good enough. Anyway, as with all situation comedies, the test is not whether it's too preachy (it is) or whether it has some idiotic plots (Tootie meets Jermaine Jackson?). It's all about characters. Most situation comedies today struggle to come up with one distinctive character; FoL had five. (And speaking of characters, I like -- and totally forgot -- that after several regulars from the first season were dropped in the Big Implausible Re-Tool, they would still have those girls on in guest appearances.) Most situation comedies today can't come up with a really funny relationship that can provide the basis for the comedy; FoL could always go back to Blair vs. Jo when they needed a laugh. Simple, basic things, but as with any bad sitcom with good writing, the simple, basic things aren't always easy to come by.

(The preceding clip was from an episode written by Peter Noah, who later produced The West Wing for a while.)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Quelle Avanie

Apropos of nothing, except the fact that I watched the movie again recently: the best bit in the movie Shoot the Piano Player is Truffaut's gimmick of flashing the lyrics on the screen as Boby LaPointe sings his song "Framboise."

There is, or was, a story that Truffaut came up with the idea because he couldn't hear what LaPointe was singing and feared that the audience wouldn't either. The sound recording is indeed a little odd and sometimes indistinct in this song, and strangely enough it appears to be one of the few parts of the movie that uses direct sound, since almost all the dialogue was post-synchronized. If so, it's an exact reversal of the way things are usually done: usually musical numbers are post-synched and dialogue recorded directly.

I also like the joke -- even if it wasn't intentionally done as a joke -- of having a famous singer, Charles Aznavour, and keeping him in the background at the piano while a long song is sung by someone most of the audience hasn't heard of. It's sort of the more exalted predecessor of the movie Tony Rome where Frank Sinatra is the star, but the only person singing in the movie is his daughter Nancy.

(Note: I am not comparing Shoot the Piano Player, a terrific movie, to Tony Rome, a movie shot so Frank Sinatra could get a trip to Florida. I'm just saying that they, and other movies, play a basic joke on the audience by casting a singer and then giving the singing to somebody else.)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Good Tex Avery News, Maybe?

From The Digital Bits:

Tex Avery's Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection (May 15)

Given Warner's track record with previous releases of MGM cartoons, this raises more questions than it answers, like:

1. Will they be presenting the cut-for-content TV prints of cartoons like "Droopy's Good Deed?"

2. Have they remastered these cartoons from good prints or are they using the same faded versions we see on TV?

3. What's going to happen with Avery's non-Droopy cartoons?

Tentatively, this sounds like good news, but I've been burned once too often on these cartoon releases to be very enthusiastic -- at least until I actually see what condition these cartoons are in.

Stealth Spinoffs

What was the last show to do a "stealth pilot" episode? You know what I'm talking about: an episode that, while disguised as a regular-run episode of a successful series, is actually a pilot for a potential new series. They used to be very common from the '60s through the early '90s, but they don't seem to happen any more.

There was always a very practical reason for trying to launch a spinoff this way: by producing the pilot as part of a show that was already running, you guaranteed that the pilot would air and thereby defrayed the costs of making it, even if it didn't get picked up. But there's also a very practical reason why this is hardly ever done now: there's no good time to create or air a stealth spinoff.

Most of these types of episodes used to be produced towards the end of a season, often as the very last episode to air. The last episode of All in the Family's second season is the pilot for Maude. The last episode of the first season of Diff'rent Strokes is the pilot of The Facts of Life. That made sense in a time when there was no hype around the last episode of the season, and the last few episodes of the season aired outside of the sweeps period. Now there's a lot of hype around the "season finale" and even the few episodes leading up to it (networks will put out press releases about the fantastically amazing last four episodes of a season), so it's obviously not possible to use these episodes as the springboard for a possible new show.

While it's interesting to watch an episode a popular series and realize you're seeing the pilot for a show that got picked up (e.g. the episodes mentioned above, or the Andy Griffith Show episode that spun off Gomer Pyle), the fun thing is to realize you're watching a pilot that didn't get picked up, meaning that the episode revolves entirely around characters no one will ever see again. Unsold pilots aren't easy to find, so watching these unsold stealth pilots are the only opportunity we've got, most of the time, to get an idea of why a pilot doesn't sell.

The unsold stealth pilot most people sort of remember is the one from Star Trek, with Robert Lansing and Teri Garr as time-travellers. I remember The Facts of Life used to do a stealth pilot every year, sometimes two: Richard Dean Anderson as one half of an interracial couple; Megan Follows and Soap's Donnelly Rhodes in a projected spinoff about a blue-collar family vaguely related to Jo; Jimmy Baio (also from Soap -- boy, they were really trying to help out those Soap veterans) in a stealth pilot about a military academy. In the final season they did two stealth spinoffs with existing characters from the show, trying to figure out a way to keep at least one of the characters going after the series ended. I don't think they ever did a pilot that got picked up. Then there was that Matlock episode that was a spinoff for George Peppard (looking in very poor health; he died not long after). Or that awful episode from the first season of The Cosby Show that appeared to be an attempted launching pad for the wacky heartwarming adventures of a multi-lingual community center.

The only other question about a stealth pilot, besides "did it get picked up or not?" Is "how do they pretend it's an episode of the show we're watching?" There are two basic ways of doing this. Either you have a little prologue with the lead characters, after which they mostly disappear and leave the whole episode to the spinoff characters. Or you take one regular character and have him or her involved in the plot, at the margins. So the stealth pilot of Gomer Pyle is pretty much all Gomer and Sergeant Carter, but Andy does get to solve Gomer's problem as we'd expect him to.

But I ask again, in conclusion: what was the last show to do a stealth pilot? Have there been any recent shows at all that tried to do something like this?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Challenge For Jazz Experts...

...Identify all the musicians in this clip from the movie A Song is Born. I'm ashamed to say that I'm having trouble identifying a lot of them other than the obvious ones, like Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong. And a commentor at YouTube says that the drummer is the young Louie Bellson.

A Song is Born is probably one of the most pointless movies ever made. Only seven years after his successful production Ball of Fire, Samuel Goldwyn brought back the same director (Howard Hawks) and cinematographer (Gregg Toland, in one of his last films before his untimely death) to film almost the exact same script. The only differences were the cast, the use of Technicolor, and the fact that the subject of linguistics was changed to that of musicology -- allowing for a lot of cameos by jazz musicians. (Benny Goodman even got to play one of the professors.)

Hawks did the movie strictly for the money and objected to being forced to use Goldwyn's then-favorite leading lady, Virginia Mayo (it's too bad they didn't get along, because Mayo later proved herself to be good at playing slightly trampy characters; she seems kind of lost here, probably because Hawks isn't giving her much help). Danny Kaye was very badly miscast in the part originally played by Gary Cooper, and there was no opportunity for him to do any musical numbers. The movie mostly has value for having so many jazz musicians in it in glorious Technicolor, which obviously doesn't come through very strongly in this faded-looking clip.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Only Ten Zillion More Episodes To Go

The good news: Sony will release volume 1 of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, containing the first 25 episodes.

The bad news: since this serialized daytime show had 307 episodes, and since Sony often waits a long time between volumes of the shows it releases, we may not see that series completed until 2032.


Even if you don't like Mozart symphonies, there's a new recording that I think will change your mind, or at least somebody's mind: Mozart's symphonies # 38 ("Prague") and # 41 ("Jupiter") with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra conducted by René Jacobs.

I hope to write more about this later, but Jacobs, the countertenor-turned-conductor, has somewhat unexpectedly become today's classical recording superstar. In a time when most record companies won't record big operas and choral works, he makes at least two recordings every year, and they're always great. Last year it was Mozart's La Clemenza Di Tito and Handel's Messiah. Later this year he's doing Mozart's Don Giovanni, and an article in a Philadelphia newspaper indicated that his next recording will be Rossini's Tancredi. (Don't laugh: Rossini is one of the few 19th-century composers whose music sounds really terrific on period instruments.) Because he started as a singer, he mostly conducts and records opera, but two years ago he started getting into symphonic works; he recorded a disc of Haydn symphonies, and now there's this recording of Mozart's best symphony, 38, and his last symphony, 41.

"Extroverted" is the word for Jacobs' conducting: he's not out for subtlety, or for gracefulness. As befits an opera conductor, he treats a symphony like a mini-opera, and is always trying to bring out the dramatic contrasts and sudden surprises. The opening of # 41 has a brusque, loud three-note motif followed by a quieter, less gruff phrase for the strings. This music is all about contrasts -- the contrast between the first phrase and the second -- but many conductors, trying to make Mozart sound as charming and pretty as possible, try to smooth over the contrasts, play them down. Jacobs plays them up, making the opening phrase so big that it almost knocks you out of your seat, and then slowing down as much as he reasonably can for the answering phrase. Mozart writes a symphony as if it's an opera with different sections of the orchestra; that's what Jacobs brings out. Warning: if you don't like conductors who over-emphasize the drums, prepare to be really irritated by this disc, because Jacobs lets the timpani player blast away whenever he enters. I love that, though; Mozart didn't always write a timpani part in symphonies, so when he did, I assume he wanted it to make enough noise so the audience would notice it.

The other thing I like about Jacobs' work as a symphonic conductor is his approach to repeats. Like many conductors today, he takes all the repeats (Mozart asked for the conductor to repeat the exposition and also the second half of the movement; traditionally conductors took only the first repeat, or even none at all). But while he and the orchestra mostly have no choice but to play and phrase the repeats the same as the first time around, they occasionally take the opportunity to add in little touches we didn't hear before -- so in the finale of 38, the fiddles add little unobtrusive ornaments when they play the exposition repeat, to make the music funnier the second time around. You can't embellish a symphonic repeat the way you embellish a repeat in opera, but I like that the conductor and orchestra are doing what they can to make sure a repeat isn't boring.

The sound is good, and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is probably the best period-instrument group in Germany (and most of the best period-instrument orchestras have, for some reason, been German or Austrian). Their first-chair soloists actually formed a string quartet back in the early '90s and made one of the best-ever recordings of Haydn Quartets; I wish Harmonia Mundi, which records this orchestra almost exclusively, would make some recordings with the quartet.

Addendum: If you want a Mozart symphony recording with a similar spirit but on modern instruments, I see that there's been a reissue of a 1959 recording of # 38, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Maag. Maag was a young Swiss conductor -- who probably got to record for Decca because the guy who financed its classical recordings, Maurice Rosengarten, was Swiss -- and while he never hit it big, he deserved to. His 1950s Mozart recordings were very unusual in a time when most conductors handled Mozart symphonies like the veteran Bruno Walter: Walter made the symphonies sound pretty, charming, warm and insignificant, and his recordings were considered the alpha and omega of Mozart style. Maag's version of # 38 is fast, nervous and exciting, with loud brass and drums and a general feeling that this music is violent and brilliant rather than charming. That's the way I feel about Mozart, and Haydn for that matter, so that's the kind of performance I prefer.

Ugly But Organic

Mark Mayerson links to that King of the Hill pitch reel, and he and his readers correctly point out that the artwork on that show is not very pleasant to look at. Or, for that matter, to draw.

The thing is, though, that I don't think King of the Hill would be better if it were better-drawn. The look of the show is kind of ugly because that's the way Mike Judge draws. But I don't think there is any way the show would have been as good or as successful as it is if Judge had hired somebody else to design the show for him.

One of the reasons a TV show depends on a strong showrunner is that television episodes, which depend on a large committee of people to write, direct and produce them, need to have a guiding hand, a set style that makes every episode feel like it is part of the same overall "voice." (Even if episode 1 and episode 2 have different writers, the characters need to be written similarly in each episode.) In an animated show, the need to keep everyone on the same page is even greater because you've got complete separation between several different components: On The Simpsons or King of the Hill, you've got the writers at Fox, the U.S. artists at Film Roman, and the actual finished animation is done in Korea. If the writing and the animation seem to clash with each other -- if the show doesn't look the way it's written -- then there's no way that an animated show can achieve the organic feel, the one voice, that it needs.

You see how this applies to King of the Hill: Mike Judge doesn't draw pretty, but he draws the way he writes. The concept of the show started not with a script but with a sketch, of the four guys in the alley saying "Yep." That's organic: the writing and the drawing work together to create the joke. And while Hank Hill isn't the best-drawn of characters, his design fits with Mike Judge's voice and Mike Judge's writing ideas.

If you look at the prime-time animated shows that have succeeded, they all involve a writing and drawing style that meshes well, even if the drawings aren't pleasant to look at. Lord knows I don't like Family Guy, but Seth MacFarlane is another guy who draws the way he writes: the show looks like it sounds, and everything fits together to produce an organic piece of crap (what could be more organic than that, come to think of it?).

The prime-time animated shows that fail, on the other hand, are often those where the design style is not created by the person or people who came up with the show. That's not the only reason they fail, of course, but it doesn't help. Look at The Critic. Al Jean and Mike Reiss, the very funny and talented Simpsons producers, created the show and the characters; not being cartoonists, they left it to the very funny and talented Simpsons director Rich Moore to design the show. But though the creators unquestionably had input into how the show would look, there was always a certain non-specificity to the design style (you didn't really know why the characters should look this way) and maybe even a certain tension between the lush, colorful backgrounds and the rapid-fire cutaways and movie parodies the writers were coming up with. The show was, by most standards, better-drawn than King of the Hill but the drawing just wasn't inseparable from the writing. On King of the Hill, it is, and rightly or wrongly, that's more important than the drawing actually being good.

One more thing to add is that the characters on King of the Hill are less ugly now than they were when the show started; sometime in the second season, Wes Archer, the supervising director (whose short "Jac Mac and Rad Boy Go!" was a big influence on Beavis and Butt-Head) re-designed all the characters to simplify them and make them easier to draw and look at. Season 2 Hank looks better than season 1 Hank, who in turn looks better than his inspiration, Mr. Anderson on Beavis and Butt-Head.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


A reader points out that today (January 13) is the tenth anniversary of the series premiere of King of the Hill. In honor of this occasion, here's the original series pitch for the show. An animated series can't afford to do a full-length pilot, so (unless it's spun off from an existing cartoon, like The Simpsons), there's usually a short presentation reel created for the network. King of the Hill, instead of doing a scene from the pilot, did a pencil-test reel where Hank Hill pitches the show directly to Fox executives.

Note that most of the other characters, except for Mike Judge's two characters, have different voices (is that Tress MacNeille as Bobby?), since they hadn't been cast yet.

Friday, January 12, 2007


When Casino Royale was announced, I wrote on this blog that I'd be interested to see if the filmmakers went to any particular trouble to introduce him. Overall, I think the answer was yes and no: the opening sequence didn't spend a lot of time trying to convince us that Daniel Craig was a credible James Bond (he was, but the movie didn't use any special tricks to convince us of that), but it did spend a lot of time and effort on showing us that this was a different approach to James Bond. The way the sequence was shot, and everything that happened in the sequence, was calculated to announce to us what the film's approach was.

This made me think back to On Her Majesty's Secret Service. In that movie, even though it also was a different kind of James Bond movie, the opening sequence works in the opposite way to that of Casino Royale. The whole point of almost everything in that sequence is to convince us that this is the same James Bond, to reassure us that even though there's a new actor playing Bond, it's still the series we know and love. The most famous examples of that in the film are the use of clips from the five previous movies in the title sequence, and, in the scene where Bond clears out his desk, the trinkets and soundtrack clips from the Connery movies. But look at the first four minutes of the movie, and consider how many tactics the filmmakers are using to get us used to the new Bond:

In that short time frame, we've got:

- The producers' credits at the very beginning (instead of the beginning of the titles, as in all the other movies) so we know it's an official Bond movie.

- The movie starts with M, Q and Moneypenny, to start us off with familiar faces from the earlier movies. Note also the self-parody in Q's line about "radioactive lint," a joke about how outlandish and stupid the gadgets had become in the last couple of movies (and an indication that this movie will have less of that).

- Moneypenny has a line about all the exotic locations she's contacted in looking for 007, reminding us that Bond is still a globe-trotter.

- When we cut to Bond's car, we immediately hear the James Bond theme.

- As in the first movie, Dr. No, we don't see Bond's face until he says "Bond, James Bond," which increases the impact of that line and makes it easier to accept that this is in fact James Bond.

- Also as in Dr. No, before we see Bond's face, we get close-ups of his hands, his fancy cigarette case, his smoking -- indicating that this is still the same guy from Dr. No even if the actor has changed.

- The first bad guy to appear in the movie says "Don't move, Mr. Bond" -- now that we know he's James Bond, we need to know that the bad guys have the same attitude to him as they had to the last Bond.

Really, everything in that pre-credits sequence is calculated to tell us that the formula hasn't changed, right up to the one thing that does change: the girl Bond has saved drives away without thanking him. That, along with the famous line "This never happened to the other fellow," is the first clue that the formula won't be quite the same; but the producers and the director, Peter Hunt (who appears in a cameo in the first shot of the film), obviously didn't want to get around to that until they'd established all the ways in which this movie was going to follow the rules.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Susan Johnson: Greatest Broadway Voice Ever

I finally uploaded (after a fashion) the first number Susan Johnson got to sing in the Broadway musical Oh, Captain! I think Johnson had the greatest voice in the history of Broadway musicals, a unique combination of belt and contralto, like a belt voice on an operatic scale. There was never anything like her before, and there certainly won't be anything like her again now that everybody's idea of a "belt" is some high-voiced person wobbling into a microphone.

This song is one of those numbers that really couldn't have been sung by anyone else; when she sings her first long, loud sustained note (on the word "want" in the line "If you want something") it's truly thrilling even in a recording; it must have been a knockout in the theatre.

Writing For Fantasy-Comedies

Okay, one more follow-up on my post on all the writers for Weird Science who went on to become successful. I don't think it's a surprising thing. Nor is it surprising that even a crummy show like Out of This World spawned a number of writers who went on to success (even if one of them was Mike Scully). I have a suspicion that a fantasy-comedy or "fantasitcom" -- a half-hour comedy with a supernatural/magical element -- can be a really good training ground for writers.

Because, really, a fantasy-comedy half-hour is hard to write. It's a meshing together of two genres -- situation comedy and fantasy -- that both depend heavily on having a set of rules. And that means the writer is dealing with two different sets of rules: you've got all the rules of situation-comedy plotting and structure (somebody tries something, hijinks ensue, diastrous results, happy ending) and on top of that you've got to follow all the rules of fantasy by explaining what this week's magical gimmick is, how it works, what it can and can't do, how it gets resolved. It's like writing two shows, one on top of another.

And so writing a good fanta-sitcom episode requires that the writer keep two questions in mind. One, is this a good and funny sitcom story, grounded in something real that the audience can relate to? And secondly, is this a fantasy story that makes sense, where the use of magic is for a logical reason and works in a logical way, where we're not just using magic as a deus ex machina to resolve the plot? These are goals that could, if you're not careful, conflict with each other. You have to plausibly show the audience that this is a magical world where the rules of fantasy, not reality, apply. Yet this is a sitcom, so you also need to have the everyday reality underlying the story.

Of course, there are few things cheesier and dumber than a bad fanta-sitcom. But even the bad ones, I think, are harder to write than your average domestic sitcom or sci-fi drama, because, again, the writer has to learn, follow and apply those two sets of rules. A good episode of Sabrina: the Teenage Witch or Weird Science or, yes, even Out of This World (they may have had some good episodes sometimes; even Charles in Charge did) must make the audience say two things: "Yes, I've been in that situation" (that's the sitcom element) and "Yes, that's the situation I'd get into if I had magical powers" (the fantasy element).

A good episode of Weird Science, for example, was the one where Gary (John Asher) joins the school newspaper to get closer to a girl he likes. He can't come up with any stories that impress her, so Lisa the Magic Genie (tm) gives him a pen that makes stories real: whatever he writes about using that pen becomes real. He starts making up crazy stories, which then come to life so he can write about them. This eventually backfires, of course, and he loses the pen and can't fix it; but while he and the girl reporter are hiding from the inevitable consequences of his mistakes, they stumble on a real story -- some kind of scandal with the school cafeteria (it's been a while since I saw the episode), which allows him to write a real story and gain the respect of the girl. The episode works as both a fantasy with rules -- the magic pen is the only magical object introduced; the acts of magic in the episode revolve around what the pen does -- and as a sitcom episode about a kid joining the high school paper. You take away either element and it still works as a story. But what makes it entertaining, of course, is the combination of the two elements; if it's done right, a standard sitcom story can be enlivened by fantasy, and a cheesy fantasy story can be given some definition by the sitcom structure.

This might also be an occasion to link to an older post that I still like: This comparison of a first draft of a Bewitched script with the final, heavily rewritten version. The first season of Bewitched, which I've said many times is one of the best seasons a TV show ever had, doesn't fit neatly into the fantasy-comedy category, because Danny Arnold was trying to keep magic to a minimum, which means the fantasy element was subordinate to the domestic comedy. But the episode covered in that post, "Ling Ling," is one of the more normal fanta-sitcom episodes they did that year (Samantha Turns a Siamese cat into a woman), and a comparison of the two versions helps show the difference between a fanta-sitcom episode that doesn't work on either the sitcom or the fantasy levels, and one that works well within the rules of both genres.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Yvonne DeCarlo

To add to my post below: here, from the original Broadway cast album of Follies, is the late, great Yvonne DeCarlo with "I'm Still Here." This number survived the famously butchered cast album (almost every number had stuff hacked out of it, because it had to fit onto one LP) better than others, though even here, they made one brief cut.

Good Times And Bum Times...

Yvonne DeCarlo did it all.

I know "I'm Still Here" from Follies is not specifically about her; the references mark the character as being older than she was. And while she said Stephen Sondheim did get some input from her when he was writing it, she added that he was asking her questions about the character she was playing, not her specifically. And yet she put so much passion into it that it's hard not to quote the lyrics when writing about her.

But first, a De Carlo clip, with Burt Lancaster in Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross.

And here are the lyrics of the end of "I'm Still Here," the song I'll always associate with her (a brief audio clip is here).

I've been through Reno.
I've been through Beverly Hills,
And I'm here.
Reefers and vino,
Rest cures, religion and pills,
And I'm here
Been called a pinko
Commie tool,
Got through it stinko
By my pool.
I should have gone to an acting school.
That seems clear,
Still, someone said, "She's sincere,"
So I'm here.

Black sable one day.
Next day it goes into hock,
But I'm here.
Top billing Monday,
Tuesday you're touring in stock,
But I'm here.
First you're another
Sloe-eyed vamp,
Then someone's mother,
Then you're camp.
Then you career from career
To career.
I'm almost through my memoirs.
And I'm here.

I've gotten through "Hey, lady, aren't you whoozis?
Wow! What a looker you were."
Or, better yet, "Sorry, I thought you were whoozis.
Whatever happened to her?"

Good times and bum times,
I've seen 'em all and, my dear,
I'm still here.
Flush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I'm here.
I've run the gamut.
A to Z.
Three cheers and dammit,
C'est la vie.
I got through all of last year
And I'm here.
Lord knows, at least I was there,
And I'm here!
Look who's here!
I'm still here!

Speaking of Fantasy Comedies...

Over a year ago, in explaining why I liked the TV series based on the movie Weird Science, I pointed out that a bunch of the writers for that show seemed to have gone on to bigger things. For the heck of it, I thought I'd look again at the recent credits of Weird Science writers, and it turns out they're not just on Desperate Housewives, they're everywhere:

- Jeff Vlaming writes episodes of Battlestar Galactica and has written a movie script that Mike Nichols is set to direct.

- Kari Lizer created the Emmy-winning The New Adventures of Old Christine. She says in an interview that "Weird Science turned out to be the best job... It turned me into a real writer."

- Paul Lieberstein went on to write and produce for King of the Hill and more recently The Office, where he also plays the part of Toby.

- Adam Barr got hired by Kari Lizer to write for Old Christine, because he and Lizer both were prominent writer-producers on Will and Grace.

- Peter Ocko created a show starring Stanley Tucci, though it didn't last more than a few episodes.

The rest of the writing staff either is or used to be involved with Desperate Housewives. Oh, and the show's chief director, David Grossman, is still directing every show under the sun. And we haven't even mentioned the Lee Tergesen factor.

What does this prove? Two things:

a) This is possible evidence that I was not in fact entirely crazy to think Weird Science was a good show, and

b) If you are watching a show, any show, chances are that one of its contributors was also involved with Weird Science. Heck, even Entourage had a Vanessa Angel guest appearance. Can a "Six Degrees of Weird Science" game be far behind?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Things That Suck: OUT OF THIS WORLD

Update: Since writing this post I have concluded that I was wrong: Small Wonder is much worse than Out of This World. Oh, well.

There are many bad things that can be said about popular culture the '80s -- like these ten things -- but one thing is for certain: the '80s were the golden age of Bad Sitcoms. It seemed like there were many more sitcoms being made than ever before, because you had the networks rushing to cash in on the success of The Cosby Show on the one hand, and on the other hand you had the new market for made-for-syndication sitcoms. And nearly all of these new sitcoms were shot on videotape, cheap to produce, and "family-friendly."

And so you got a flood of poorly-produced sitcoms with rickety sets, has-been casts, cheesy writing and insane premises. The most insane premise of the decade was probably My Two Dads, a very family-friendly show. It was about a girl who's the daughter of one of two men; her mother didn't know which one of them was the father. When the mother dies young, leaving her daughter alone, a judge awards joint custody of the girl to the two men, who have to move in with her and raise her together. Oh, and the judge is their landlord. A feel-good show about illegitimacy, premature death and abuse of the legal system. But the show was produced by Michael Jacobs (Boy Meets World), and the writing was decent; it certainly can't qualify as one of the worst of a decade that gave us Small Wonder.

No, the race for worst of the worst '80s sitcoms comes down to three made-for-syndication shows. One was the aforementioned Small Wonder, but that was at least in the recognizable tradition of stupid fantasy shows. The second is the syndicated version of Charles in Charge, but it is dragged down by the fact that the first season or so (Michael Jacobs again) is actually pretty good. That leaves the winner of the crappy '80s sitcom sweepstakes, one I hadn't really thought about when I wrote my posts about those other two shows. The real winner is Out of This World, or as it's known to every single person who ever happened upon it as a kid, "That show where she stopped time by touching her fingers together."

The premise of Out of This World, which premiered in syndication in 1987, was this: Evie Garland is a typical girl with a typical single mom in a typical town. But on her thirteenth birthday, Evie discovers that she has a strange power: when she touches her index fingers together, she can literally stop time. Her mother, Donna, must now tell her the truth. Donna married Troy, an alien from the planet Antareus. But Troy had to go back to his home planet to fight a war or something like that, leaving Donna alone to raise their daughter. (As a cover story, Donna told everyone, including Evie, that Troy was a CIA agent who had to leave on a mission.) Because she's half-Antarean, Evie has the power to "Gleep," defined as... well, actually, as on any FantaSitcom, her powers are never precisely defined, and what she can or can't Gleep up depends entirely on the situation. But to help Evie deal with her developing alien powers, Donna gives her a box, a sort of intergalactic remote control that allows her to communicate with her father. Every week, Evie tries to solve some problem using her powers, only to make things worse. Her father gives her some kind of useless but lesson-y advice, as does her mother. In the end, she learns her lesson about caring and sharing and not getting stressed out, and solves the problem.

The theme song, which you can hear if you click on this link to view the opening titles, was the Oscar-winning "Swingin' On a Star", with new lyrics:

Would you like to swing on a star
Carry moonbeams home in a jar
And be better off than you are
Or would you rather go to earth

An earthling's a creature who is plain as can be
He's not as unique as you or me
His body comes in lots of different shapes
They say his relatives were chimps and apes
But if you take my advice for what it's worth
You could be happy there on earth

Oh, and Troy the alien from Antareus is voiced by Burt Reynolds, who was one of the show's producers.

The cast actually wasn't bad, probably because of the Burt Imprimatur. Unlike Small Wonder and Charles In Charge, this show had some tolerable people on it: Donna Pescow, formerly star of the prime-time sitcom Angie; Joe Alaskey, whom we now know best as the voice of Plucky Duck; the comedian who called himself Buzz Belmondo and, as Evie, a charming teenaged actress named Maureen Flannigan, who later grew up to put most other former teen sitcom stars to shame.

What made Out of This World so bad was the writing. You know I talk about "Bad sitcoms with good writing" -- shows with weak premises that are saved by solid writing. Out of This World is just a bad sitcom with really bad writing: the premise is stupid, and every week the writers, who included future Simpsons showrunner Mike Scully (whose work on OotW was even worse than the low quality of his Simpsons seasons would lead you to expect), would fully live down to the low standards set by that premise. Every character except Evie spent every waking moment of every episode acting like a moron, including her mother. Every plot revolved around some problem that could have been solved instantly -- without Gleeping -- if the characters hadn't been idiots, or around some premise that seemed to have been thought up in a Benzedrine haze. Take this one, if you can: Evie is so annoyed by a commercial jingle that she starts accidentally "gleeping" the singers into existence every time someone says the word "Mouth." The lyrics are, and I wish to god I was making this up, "Buffalo Breath, is that what they call you?"

Take a look, and note how every joke is unspeakably lame and how every punchline can be predicted about a minute before it arrives. Oh, and the obviously canned laugh track. And the fact that they thought a Hello, Larry reference was warranted. Oh, it's a mess.

Out of This World was popular enough to last four full seasons in syndication. The last episode ended on a cliffhanger, with Donna getting transported to Antaeus and Troy, still unseen, gets transported to earth. The cliffhanger was never resolved because the show was canceled. A fitting ending, somehow.

Oh, and Evie performing "Leave the Light On by Belinda Carlisle? - And you thought Robin Sparkles was something the producers of How I Met Your Mother made up. But sometimes Evie would sing with Burt Reynolds. That was even better.

A.I. Bezzerides

Via Sarah, here's an obituary for the crime-fiction writer and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, who died recently.

Bezzerides made a cameo appearance in one of the movies he wrote, On Dangerous Ground (directed by Nicholas Ray). He's the bald guy with glasses who appears at the very beginning of this clip and has a dialogue exchange with Robert Ryan toward the end of the clip; he's playing a pimp who offers Ryan a bribe.

In Defense of Not Blogging

Michael Bérubé is retiring his blog, and in his farewell post, he talks about why blogging is so time-consuming: much of the time when you're not blogging is spent thinking about potential blog posts.

Blog maintenance on this scale is a daily, sometimes hourly thing, regardless of whether there’s a new post up.  And even if I didn’t try to maintain the blog on this scale (a good idea in itself), there’s still the problem of the invisible blogging.  I don’t write these posts out in advance, you know.  I sit down for an hour or two (more for the really long posts), write them in one take in WordPerfect, look ‘em over, transfer ‘em to the blog, preview, edit, submit, and then proofread one last time once they’re up.  (Because sometimes you can’t catch a typo until it’s really up there on the blog, and even then, I’ve missed a bunch so far.) Which means, among other things, that I do a great deal of the planning-before-the-writing while I’m not blogging.  And that’s what’s been so mentally exhausting.  It’s like ABC from Glengarry Glen Ross: Always Be Composing.  And while it’s been great mental exercise, and it’s compelled me to think out (and commit myself in public to) any number of things that otherwise would have laid around the mental toolshed for years, it’s not the kind of thing I can keep up forever, and it wouldn’t be seriously affected if I went to a lighter posting schedule.  I’d still spend way too much time thinking about the Next Post and the Post After That.

Anything But Tranquilizing

Sony has announced the complete first season of "Maude."

I'll admit that I am not sufficiently hep to Maude. I hated the male characters so much -- pathetic slob Walter, and the "man of means" from Diff'rent Strokes -- that I couldn't watch for long stretches of time. But I do know that this is the season that included the two-part "Maude's Dilemma," aka "Maude Has An Abortion," aka "Still the Only Episode of a Successful Series Where the Main Character Has an Abortion." (As you probably know, on most shows where there's an unplanned pregnancy, they discuss abortion as a possible option but it's never the option they go with.) Susan Harris, who would go on to create Soap and The Golden Girls, made her name by writing this episode.

In other news, the final season of NewsRadio, aka "The One Without Phil Hartman, comes out on DVD on March 20. The murder of Hartman, the increasing hatefulness and mean-spiritedness of nearly all the characters who remained, and the promotion of writer Josh Lieb to showrunner (creator Paul Simms was off doing the first of his many unsold pilots), all added up to a season that was more crazy than funny a lot of the time. But it'll be good to have the whole series, and the season does include some great moments here and there, like Mr. James's plan to build towers that will cast a shadow over the entire city, or Matthew becoming the world's squarest Punk.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Coffee and Puccini

I have been having a lot of trouble putting up audio files, so as an interim measure I'm trying to put up audio-only files at (a video site, but it allows files to be posted with stereo sound). If I can keep this up it will make for much better "great lyrics" posts in the future. In the meantime, here is a song I've written about before, from that oddball favourite musical, Do I Hear a Waltz? (music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim):

"Thinking," the song I wrote about last year; I just think of it as a model of good theatre songwriting, with character development and plot movement incorporated into a three-minute song, and with music that doesn't just churn out a tune but makes dramatic points (especially with the device of inserting long pauses). In concept it's sort of like Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Twin Soliloquies" from South Pacific, except that the characters are confessing their thoughts out loud to each other, rather than soliloquizing.

The stars of the show, tenor Sergio Franchi and belter Elizabeth Allen, aren't quite in their best voice for this number -- it sounds like it was recorded rather late in the marathon session (cast albums were traditionally recorded in one long session the Sunday after the opening), but you can hear that they're both singing in the style Rodgers always insisted upon: very straightforward, very observant of musical values, no talk-singing. Sondheim has cultivated a similar singing style in his own shows.

Death? No Big Deal

Casino Royale is really the first James Bond movie in over 35 years to be based on an Ian Fleming novel; after On Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1969, all the movies either had nothing to do with the novels they were supposedly based on, or were originals (though series producer/writer Michael Wilson would sometimes work in bits from Fleming material, like in License To Kill, which incorporates some stuff from the original novel of Live and Let Die). But because Casino Royale is a real Fleming adaptation, even with all the changes they had to make to update it, it harks back to the Bond movies of the series '60s prime: all of the '60s movies except one are based on Fleming's novels. And the one that isn't, You Only Live Twice, is the one that sucks.

I'm not quite as sold on Casino Royale as some; I think that by changing some elements of the Bond formula, they're almost breaking a pact with their audience. Bond movies, as opposed to the books, are like ancient drama: they rigidly follow certain rules and include certain elements at expected points, and part of the fun of it is seeing how they can keep us entertained even though we not only know what they're going to do, but more or less when they're going to do it. By mixing everything up, e.g. putting the gun barrel before the credits instead of at the beginning, Casino Royale almost feels like it's not playing fair with the audience. But I have to admit that creatively it's the best Bond in a long, long time, an affirmation of the fact that Bond movies work better when they learn from Bond's creator.

But re-reading Fleming, and re-viewing the movies from the height of the franchise's popularity, reminds me of what I think is his most distinctive contribution to popular culture: the absolutely unconcerned, blasé attitude towards death.

This is over-simplifying things, and I'm sure you can think of exceptions, but as a general rule: before Fleming, if a character died in a story, it was kind of a big deal. If it was a murder mystery, the detective would try to find out who killed this person. If the character who died was a friend or lover of the hero, the author or filmmaker would try to make that death a major moment in the story: the character usually gets a big death scene, a memorable line before they die, the hero weeping for them, or something.

There's very little of that in Fleming. The body count of a Bond novel is large, and it always takes in "good guys" as well as bad guys. In a Bond book or movie you can always spot the moment when Bond's sidekick or lover will be killed, like Quarrel in Dr. No or Kerim in From Russia With Love or the Masterson sisters in Goldfinger, or horribly maimed like Felix Leiter in Live and Let Die. And none of this is supposed to strike us as particularly horrible. The characters don't get big death scenes; Quarrel is incinerated, Jill Masterson is killed offstage (Tilly describes it to Bond in the novel; he finds her dead body in the movie). Kerim is dead when Bond finds him and doesn't get the chance to go out with a great death line.

And Bond, whose whole job is based on an indifference to death and killing -- in You Only Live Twice (book) the fact that he's become upset about someone's death renders him almost useless as an agent -- doesn't react much to the carnage. When Quarrel is killed, he says "I'm sorry, Quarrel" (in the book) or just looks glum for a second (in the movie). And the cumulative effect of any Bond book or movie is to desensitize us to death; by the end, we can see another bunch of corpses hit the floor and it doesn't matter much. Deaths in popular culture, traditionally, had some kind of resonance to them. In Fleming, they're mostly there to show us how invincible James Bond is by comparison. One of the reasons the ending of On Her Majesty's Secret Service (book and movie) packs such a wallop is that it's one of the few deaths that actually seems to matter, that Bond cares about and that we're expected to care about. Even the hard-boiled writers whom Fleming was influenced by, like Spillane, were a little less callous about death, if only because they were writing mysteries, and in a mystery, a person's death is at the very least significant.

Though it's not the death of a sympathetic character, a key scene from both the books and the movies is the one in Thunderball where Blofeld punishes a traitor to SPECTRE by electrocuting him in his chair. It's pure Fleming because no one cares that someone just died, and we, the audience, aren't expected to care either. We're expected to find it funny, or a chilling illustration of how cold-hearted Blofeld is (I'm still not sure if Fleming had a sense of humor, so I have a sneaking suspicion that he wanted us to take this scene seriously), but the last thing we're supposed to think is that death is any kind of significant event.

The version of this scene in the movie incorporates some of the best lines from the book, like the one about SPECTRE being a dedicated fraternity that depends on integrity, or the line about the blackmail victim who unfortunately could only give SPECTRE all he possessed.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

John, Alias Johnny, Alias Jack, Alias Jackie

Thad presents a scene from Chuck Jones's "Daffy Dilly" (1948), animated by Ken Harris and written by Mike Maltese. There are few funnier scenes in all of cartoonery.

As Thad said, "Daffy Dilly" was not a cartoon that Jones was particularly willing to talk about. Because he became so wedded to his post-1953 interpretation of Daffy as a pathetic figure (Daffy, he would say over and over again, is what we are, while Bugs is what we'd like to be), he didn't like to bring up the fact that Daffy had a long history as a more multi-faceted character, and that he himself had made some of the best cartoons with that version of Daffy.

By 1948 Daffy was no longer the Woody Woodpecker-ish, crazy figure that he had been very early on, and his avaricious tendencies (something that usually set him apart from Bugs) had been a major feature of his character for many years. In this cartoon, he's doing everything out of greed, and the butler character usually gets the best of him; those are things that set him apart from Bugs and would be carried over into the Daffy that Jones came to prefer. But while the Daffy in "Daffy Dilly" is not exactly "Daffy," he has a lot of resourcefulness, has more moods than just the non-stop anger he'd be displaying by the late '50s, and he actually enjoys being a cartoon character. And because Jones doesn't want Daffy to become completely off the wall of annoying like he sometimes went in Clampett or McKimson cartoons, he actually comes up with one of the best versions of Daffy: very different from Bugs Bunny, not exactly a winner, but someone who can have fun and mess with people's minds when the situation calls for it.

But Jones of course abandoned that version of Daffy pretty quickly and became absolutely committed to the idea that Daffy had to act the same way in every situation -- part of the problem with his later cartoons, where all the characters are boiled down to one character trait which they have to display over and over. The Daffy from "Daffy Dilly" appears in a few other Jones cartoons, like "A Pest In the House" and "The Ducksters" and possibly even the first hunting cartoon with Bugs and Elmer, "Rabbit Fire" (Daffy is angry for large swathes of that cartoon, but he also teams up with Bugs at the end to mess with Elmer). These cartoons represent Jones's best work with the character of Daffy, and some of the best work anyone did with the character; it's too bad Jones didn't see it that way.

You can also see some of this "intermediate" Chuck Jones Daffy in this clip from The Ducksters -- Daffy is no longer crazy (even Clampett had sort of given up on that by the time he made "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery"), but he's not the angry asshole he would later become; he's really having fun tormenting Porky, as we all would. And while we see all of Jones's instantly-recognizable poses and expressions -- it's not in this clip, but this was one of the first cartoons where he would show a character's consternation by removing any separation between his eyes, turning his two eyes into one for a moment -- the animation isn't as rigid as it would become in his later cartoons, where the animators were basically filling in the blanks between Jones's pose drawings.

By the way, the person who posted the above clip from "The Ducksters" identifies it as Ken Harris's animation, but it looks more like Ben Washam to me, at the beginning anyway. Anybody know?

You Will Buy This Video

I promise to shut the hell up about the DVD release of WKRP in Cincinnati until we're closer to the April 3, 2007 release date, when sales will decide whether we get the rest of the series. But I had to link to this, having made it some time ago (for a presentation that didn't go anywhere) and not knowing what else to do with it: randomly-selected clips from the first season. It now can be used as kind of an amateurish promo for the season 1 DVD, but at least it gives an idea of some of the episodes that will be included.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Back When Saturday Night At the Movies Was Good

TV Ontario's Saturday Night At the Movies is one of those shows whose archives really should be made publicly available. Elwy Yost built up a huge collection of interviews, on film and in the studio; whenever he and the producers acquired a movie to show, they would find people involved with the film who were still alive, interview them, and show long uninterrupted chunks of those interviews. Yost's sycophancy was kind of a joke at the time, sort of like James Lipton's is now, but he asked good questions and let people talk. And he got everybody, whether it was stars like Jimmy Stewart and Joel McRea or creative people most of the audience had never heard of.

For example, the first episode I watched, and the only one I still have on tape, featured two Marx Brothers movies; the interviews section featured (apart from a studio interview with a critic) interviews with some of the Marx Brothers' writers, like Irving Brecher (At The Circus and Go West) and Nat Perrin (Duck Soup). For a Preston Sturges episode, Yost had Eddie Bracken in the studio and interviewed him at length; Bracken claimed to have directed one scene in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. The prints of the movies weren't always the best -- this was before it became acceptable to show widescreen movies letterboxed, so you got all the CinemaScope movies chopped in half -- but it was always worth it for the interviews.

After Yost left, and after the Ontario government cut the budget, the interview segments were reconfigured as part of a partnership with the film department at York University. Now the interviews would be less about the movies being shown and more about a particular theme (musicals, film noir, the role of a producer), and they would use much shorter interview clips from Yost's interviews as well as some newer interviews. These can still be good, but they're pretty standard combinations of movie clips and talking-head clips. The days when you would get old actors, writers and producers talking uninterrupted for several minutes -- those are gone, and I don't think we'll ever see them again. But TVO, or the Motion Picture Academy (Yost donated copies of the interviews to them) should really find some way of releasing some of these interviews; they're mostly going to waste now.

Here's an example from that Marx Brothers show: a segment with Nat Perrin, one of the writers on Duck Soup (he and his partner wrote "additional dialogue," and some other routines in the film were taken from a radio show they wrote for Groucho and Chico). Perrin, who later became writer-producer of The Addams Family, talks about the Duck Soup, and gives his contrarian opinions on the film -- he doesn't like it, thinks it was too disorganized and zany -- and on Leo McCarey -- he's not impressed, but he admits that the Marx Brothers respected him more than other directors they worked with. You may, as I do, think he's totally wrong about Duck Soup, McCarey and Marx Brothers humor. But the point is, he's a guy who wrote for that movie and he's earned the right to talk about it, and Yost lets him talk.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

"Gordon Didn't Abandon You. You Abandoned Him."

And I thought I'd written the longest post on the decline of Gordon Korman. Turns out I wasn't even close. This post, written last year, must be the definitive statement of Korman fans' disappointment in just about everything he's done for the last decade and a half:

"An Open Letter To Gordon Korman"

Sample excerpt, full of references that will only be recognized if you're a fellow Kormanite:

Gordon, if I were Bruno, I would long ago have been expelled by Mr. Wizzle for ranting about the sanctity of your books being threatened. If I were Bugs, my insappably blind optimism would be gone. If I were The Fish, you'd be dead of my steely glare. If I were Querada, more than just the curtains would have burned down. Of all your characters, I think only Jordy's agent would be on speaking terms with you.

We miss you. We mourn the death of a writer of great potential and his replacement by a robot, as Gramps would say. It's as if the poetry, not Gavin G. Gunhold, got runover by the trolley.

Speaking of Korman, and because I never get tired of using this blog to burn off stuff I wrote and will never get to use anywhere else, I once wrote a bunch of songs in an attempt to make a musical out of Korman's last great book, A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag. It never went anywhere -- I never even got to the point where it would have been worth my while to find out who owned the rights -- but here is one of the better lyrics I came up with. It's based on the scene in the book that's quoted at the link above. Raymond Jardine (the "Bruno" character) and Sean (the "Boots" character), both miserable because the girl they're both attracted to is on a date with the school's most useless jock (a guy who's just good enough to be a bench player on every school team), wallow in misery by drinking tomato juice -- which Raymond hates -- and watching a Croatian-dubbed version of Gunsmoke. Raymond's philosophy is that it's fun to be miserable, and Sean starts to come around to his way of thinking. So that's what I tried to put into the song.

Good TV and decent food
Wouldn't mesh with our mood.
Happiness must not intrude --
Let's be miserable.
(It's the only way to be.)
Silver linings, skies of blue,
Sicken me, sicken you.
We're not meant to muddle through --
Let's be miserable.
You know who,
Went out and got
You know who,
Someone's who's not
Me or you.
Now that we've missed our shot,
What can we do
But watch Croatian cable shows,
Sipping juice, counting toes,
Spilling chip-crumbs on our clothes,
Let's not lie to ourselves,
Let's just cry to ourselves,
We've got this big pig sty to ourselves,
So on with the regrets,
And let's be miserable.
(It's the only way to be.)

SEAN: You know what's scaring me, Raymond?
RAYMOND: That you agree with me.
SEAN: That, and I understand what Marshal Dillon's saying in Serbo-Croatian.
RAYMOND: The guy who dubbed Festus did a pretty good job too.

When you've failed at every plan,
Throw a fit if you can.
Take it like a girly-man --
Let's be miserable.
(It's the only way to go.)
No one needs to call the fuzz;
I'm no threat, never was.
All I want to kill is buzz --
Let's be miserable.
You know what
Caused her to fall
You know how.
And so it's all
Over now.
Now that we've dropped the ball,
Let's take a vow
To sit and watch the laundry spin,
Darkness calls, let's give in.
I can't bear it if we grin.
She won't gaze in my eyes,
I've got a mournful glaze in my eyes,
I'll sob until it stays in my eyes.
So play the shrill cassettes
And let's be miserable.
(It's the only way to --
It's the only way to --
It's the...)

Hey, is this one of the color Gunsmoke episodes?