Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Square Of The Hypotenuse of a Right Triangle Is Equal To the Sum of the Squares of the Two Adjacent Sides

Let lyricist Johnny Mercer show you how to make a song about geometry. From the movie Merry Andrew (which was on TCM last week), starring Danny Kaye and directed by Michael Kidd.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Yogi Bear Is Made of Metal!

A most welcome comment from Tom Minton explaining one of the most obscure in-jokes in that Freakazoid! cartoon:

Mystery Freakazoid moment origin explained: that "Yogi Bear is made of metal" sign is a reference to a question asked by Jean MacCurdy in a Warners writers' meeting in 1996. She asked me if I'd like to develop a show about Yogi and I said "Only if he were made of metal." (a reference to the DC comics slant then taking over much of WB animation - you had to be there.) At any rate, this quick response got a big laugh because everyone knew I meant 'no.' A few weeks later, for reasons known only to them, John McCann and/or Paul Rugg re-interpreted the moment as me writing and holding up that sign in this Freakazoid episode, with absolutely no set-up.

Freakazoid is brimming with such arcane stuff. As the late composer Richard Stone once lovingly described the series, "the inmates took over the asylum." Now this statement will live on the Internet for seventy-five years.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Also Found on the "Popeye" DVD...

Was this trailer for an upcoming release that I don't think has been officially announced yet: "The Smurfs, The Complete First Season."

I know, I know. But I watched it as a kid, and many, many others watched it as kids. Including the creator of the movie Donnie Darko. And I have a feeling this is going to sell better than other shows that were actually good.

Interesting question is why kids love "The Smurfs." I attribute it to that whole "village" concept, the idea that the Smurfs lived in a secret village whose location was a secret to most non-Smurfs. That taps into kids' longing to have a secret place where adults can't find them and where adult rules don't apply; even though Papa Smurf is sort of an authority figure, it really feels like they're all kids and Gargamel is from the adult world. This concept was so successful that other cheesy '80s kids shows tried to do something similar; remember how on the Pac-Man cartoon, Pac-Man had a secret "power forest" that the villains were always trying to find.

What Killed the AABA Form?

I was reading something about songwriting forms, and thinking again about the rise and fall of the A-A-B-A form (A section, repeat of A section, B section in a contrasting key, and a closing version of the A section). In pop songwriting, this form appeared suddenly and disappeared just as suddenly.

Before the '20s, AABA was seldom used; popular songs were mostly either verse/chorus or A-B-A-C (or the A-B-A-C-A form heard in songs like "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Make Believe"). By the end of the '20s, AABA was the default form for popular songwriting, though ABAC was still used sometimes. "Ol' Man River," "Makin' Whoopee" and "The Best Things In Life Are Free" are examples of late '20s AABA standards written by composers who weren't using that form just a few years earlier. I've never been quite sure why AABA took over popular music so suddenly.

And then AABA more or less vanished from mainstream pop music by the early '70s, replaced by verse/chorus and other, earlier forms. I haven't seen a full explanation of the downfall of AABA; I used to think it was because of rock n' roll, but in fact the form was quite common in rock music for quite a while. But people who had used the AABA format a lot, like the ex-Beatles, sort of gave up on it. (There are a lot of Beatles songs that we don't even think of as being AABA that do, in fact, use that form -- like "Here Comes the Sun": the "A" section is the "Little Darlin'" section, and the "B" section is "Sun, Sun, here it comes".)

I'd be interested to see some popular-song expert -- which I am not, especially on more recent pop music -- explain the peaks and valleys of AABA as a songwriting form. One explanation that comes to mind, without knowing much about whether this is true, is that AABA was the perfect songwriting form for the single record release. With the rise of electric recording in the '20s (which allowed for better sound reproduction and made more people start to buy recordings, rather than sheet music, of popular songs), songs needed to be shaped so that they would work well on three-minute records. The AABA form has the perfect shape for a short record: the singer sings the song, the orchestra plays the first 16 bars, and the singer ends with a repeat of the last half of the song. It's a very satisfying format that provided the basis for the hit single for many, many years. With the decline of the single and the rise in the importance of albums -- where songs didn't need to be any particular length or shape -- the point of AABA was less clear and singer/songwriters reverted back to earlier forms.

Fetishism, Book 2

TCM ran Frank Tashlin's The Man From the Diners' Club (1963) the other day. It's not very good. It's a film made by people whose careers were starting to peter out: star Danny Kaye hadn't had a hit in a while, and Tashlin's only hits since 1956 had been Jerry Lewis vehicles (which, because Lewis produced them, weren't entirely Tashlin's movies). The low budget is painfully obvious, and while you can see why William Peter Blatty's script was considered appropriate for Tashlin -- it's got the requisite Tashlin elements of satire of modern conveniences and a gangster sub-plot -- it all feels quite tired. There are some good supporting performances from Telly Savalas and the ever-reliable Ann Morgan Guilbert, but overall it's emblematic of a lot that was wrong with movie comedy in the early '60s.

As always, Tashlin finds moments to indulge the leg fetishism I've written about many times before, like a scene that starts with him panning up Martha Hyer's legs for no particular reason. One thing I haven't addressed, though, is whether Tashlin's attitude to women is a weakness in his work. It's not that he's a sexist; he mocks women, but no more than he mocks men. But the women in his movies are usually -- I guess the only word for it is "objectified." And when a director is always calling attention to how female characters look, it's difficult for those characters to really come alive. The exceptions are the sympathetic middle-aged women who appear in several of his films (Glenda Farrell in Susan Slept Here and The Disorderly Orderly, Joan Blondell in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?), and maybe Shirley MacLaine in Artists and Models, because she's one of the few young women in a Tashlin film who's allowed to get as silly as the men. (The insight that comedy is best when the leads can make fools of themselves is something that most of the great comedy directors -- Lubitsch, McCarey, Hawks -- understood, but Tashlin usually seems to throw the lion's share of the silliness to the male lead and let the female lead play it straight.) Tashlin's attitude to young, attractive female characters -- a combination of mockery and worshipful distance -- reminds me a bit of Al Capp, which is yet another reason why it's too bad that Tashlin didn't direct Li'l Abner.

Anyway, here's another illustration of Tashlin's famous leg obsession (with clips from seven or eight movies set to the title song of The Girl Can't Help It), but apart from whether or not there's anything creepy about this -- I tend to think it's a lot less creepy than, say, Alfred Hitchcock's famous sadism toward his leading ladies -- it may be an explanation for why a lot of these female characters are less than completely successful.

(The reason for putting this together, by the way, is just that I've been trying to research something else about Tashlin recently, in the process re-watching a lot of his movies, and while doing so I just put together little compilations that highlight patterns in the movies I watch. I may try to do one next on Tashlin's repeated use of sentimental lost-love sob stories, which occur in movie after movie and are always half-ironic, half-genuine.)

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Superman vs. Popeye

In honor of the excellent new Popeye the Sailor DVD set, I propose a grudge match, a Fleischer-off if you will, between the two great superheroes that the studio adapted for the screen.

Who wins a fight between the Fleischer version of Popeye the Sailor Man (hopped up on spinach) and Superman? Will Superman turn out to be just a blue-suited Bluto? Or is the power of Popeye's spinach no match for someone whose voice drops an octave lower when he says "Superman?"

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Dulcet Tones of Walter Denton

Ivan Shreve has a great post about Our Miss Brooks and some crummy public-domain DVDs of the TV series.

Ivan hasn't seen many episodes of the TV version, but I'll go him one better: I haven't seen any episodes of the TV series. It wasn't shown when I was growing up, and for some reason I could never find a copy of any episodes (except for the movie version, which kind of ruined everything by getting Miss Brooks together with Mr. Boynton). I have heard several episodes of the radio show, and agree with Ivan that it was one of the best radio sitcoms.

Marx Mystery Solved

This is great. You know the scene in the Marx Brothers' A Night At the Opera where Groucho pretends to speak a foreign language to his brothers (and Allan Jones, in the Zeppo role)? It's often been explained that the sound people took English dialogue and played it backwards to make it sound like an obscure foreign language. But Mark Evanier asked his readers to reverse the reversed dialogue so we could hear what was actually being said. And they did it. There are no hidden messages or obscenities of any kind, alas, but still it's fun to hear.

So here is the original scene as it plays in the movie.

And here's the version that gives us the actual English dialogue:

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Freakazoid At Comic-Con International

In honor of the start of this year's San Diego Comic-Con International, here's a four-minute Freakazoid cartoon called "Freak-a-Panel." It was made after the producers were on a Kids' WB panel at the 1996 Comic-Con.

At this point -- near the end of the series -- the show had gotten even more inside than usual, so here's a brief explanation of some of the references:

- The guy holding up the cryptic "Yogi Bear" message is writer Tom Minton ("Toby Danger"). The caricature makes him look like Tweety because he was producing "The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries" at the time.
- The guy representing "Superman" is Paul Dini. "Superman" was just about to premiere on the WB in 1996, so the audience was mostly asking questions about that show.
- "Hilary Bader," the writer of the Klingon book, was a writer for "Superman" and other Kids' WB series (she passed away in 2002).
- The line about Freakazoid! being popular in "state institutions" was something the writers put in when they learned that their show was particularly popular in prisons.
- The characters who show up at the end are all supporting characters from the first season who weren't used regularly in the second and final season.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Influence of Cartoons Can Be Found Everywhere

Case in point: listen to what the Yankees' famously obnoxious Bleacher Creatures are chanting:

I'm not sure what's the point of this "Wackiki Wabbit" wefewence, and I don't think I'm going to find out, because I have a limited appetite for research into the motivations of drunk Yankee fans.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Broad Way

Will Finn, forgetting that I am always right about everything, takes issue with my post about the Li'l Abner movie:

Boy oh boy do i have to disagree... i love/hate this old movie for all its intense corniness and it is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. i have seen it more times than i could count... i have a fascination with Al Capp that is filled with simultaneous revulsion. i can't exactly explain it but the cheap, flat-footedness of the movie captures it for me. I almost wouldn't want to see it look better, (which I'm sure it could have).

As for the soundtracks, i can't vouch for the orchestration, (i don't have a great ear for that sort of thing) but i have to prefer the vocalizations of Imogene Lynne (overdubbing the gorgeous Leslie Parrish) as "Daisy Mae" way way WAY over the horrible hoarse croaking of Edie Adams in the Broadway one. Given that the rest of the main characters (with the execption of "Mammy Yokum") are right off the stage version, i don't see what much difference it makes. i wish like crazy there was a CD of the movie--"I'm Past My Prime" is wonderful. Compare those two tracks back to back and get back to me.

Will is right that Edie Adams was disappointing on the original Broadway album. She was actually a terrific singer, better than she usually got to show in her Broadway and TV appearances -- Leonard Bernstein wrote a coloratura part for her in Wonderful Town that she tossed off effortlessly, but which everyone else who has played the part of Eileen has pretty much crashed and burned on. But by her own admission she didn't like the part of Daisy Mae as written in the show (it's not much of a part, she was right about that) and she isn't in good voice on the cast album.

Which brings up a sticky point about Broadway cast recordings in general: a lot of them have the singers in poor or tired voice. This is because of the way they were recorded. Because of a combination of two factors, union rates and the need to get the album out as quickly as possible, most Broadway cast albums are recorded in one marathon session on the first Sunday after the opening. The producer can and does try his best to schedule the recording in such a way as to make sure that each performer gets some rest between numbers (and the overture is usually recorded last, after the singers have gone home). But you've got performers who've been rehearsing for a long time, have just gotten through the difficulty of opening the show, and will soon go back and do more stage performances. And you're asking them to record, for posterity (tm), all their musical numbers from the show in one day. It's a wonder that these albums don't sound worse than they do.

Now, here's the thing: I like the way Broadway albums sound. And I think a lot of Broadway buffs do too. Yes, the performers sometimes sound hoarse. Yes, there are mistakes that the producer doesn't have time to correct. (On the Li'l Abner album, in "Put 'Em Back," you can hear one of the girls start to sing at the wrong time; it was left in because there wasn't time for a re-take.) Yes, the style of these albums is relentlessly loud, brash and driving. But all that kind of describes a Broadway show as well. And there's something exhilarating in the intensity that performers bring to a cast recording, when they don't really know for sure if the show will last and they've spent an immense amount of time and energy getting it to this point. That's why the original cast recording of My Fair Lady, recorded a week after the premiere when it was only just starting to sink in that they were a smash hit, has a vitality that was never replicated on any other recording.

Broadway cast recordings are raw and kind of desperate; they contradict the stereotype of Broadway musicals as over-polished, over-careful. And by comparison, movie soundtrack albums just seem too slick. This is also why I prefer the rougher orchestrations of Broadway shows to the lush big-orchestra sound that most of these movies (not Li'l Abner) were treated to in the movies. Rodgers and Hammerstein just sound less syrupy with canny use of a relatively small orchestra, than with Alfred Newman's over-use of a huge orchestra.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Hoppy Hoppy Grasshopper!

Does anyone know who did the voices of the two crows in Friz Freleng's "Two Crows From Tacos" (1956)? Manuel, the dumber crow, is the same guy who does a lot of voices in Speedy Gonzales cartoons (he's the guy who says "I think I kill myself, hold my sombrero, amigo" in "Here Today, Gone Tamale"), and José sounds a bit like he could be Mel Blanc but apparently isn't.

Online Videos by Veoh.com

This is an odd cartoon, because it feels exactly like a Speedy Gonzales cartoon (the crows even have the same names as the cats in "Mexicali Schmoes" three years later), but isn't, even though Freleng had already launched the Speedy series. It's also the only time Freleng worked with writer Tedd Pierce after dumping Pierce from his unit in 1950 (replacing him with Warren Foster). There are some really nice sequences, though, like the screaming, whooping interlude in the middle of the lazy opening segment, or Art Davis's animation of the two crows trying to whack the grasshopper.

Twentieth Century Fox News

Fox has set up a website for its classic film DVD releases, "Fox Studio Classics" at foxclassics.com.

Warners and Fox are the only big studios releasing old movies with any consistency. Fox has by far the better special features -- commentaries on most films, and featurettes that often manage to avoid the boredom of the standard making-ofs. (The featurettes on the Tyrone Power Collection are mostly about aspects of Power and his career, rather than just straightforward accounts of how each film was made.) Warner Brothers has gotten into the habit of using found material like cartoons and shorts as a substitute for newly-produced special features. On the other hand, Fox's transfers are variable -- often very disappointing with three-strip Technicolor films, somewhat better with black-and-white CinemaScope films. Both studios could do better but they're both doing a lot better than the other companies.

The list of upcoming releases this year confirms the plans for the John Ford box and a fourth Charlie Chan collection, and features some interesting never-on-video titles like the June Haver musical The Girl Next Door and Nunnally Johnson's early-CinemaScope melodrama Black Widow.

Hopefully they'll continue releasing old movies long enough to remember Cluny Brown, Margie or Bachelor Flat.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Mi Chiamo Mork

Did you know that a) The Italian broadcasts of Mork and Mindy had a different theme song from the original, and b) The Italian theme song was a lot better than the original one?

Judge for yourself:

And this site has some of the lyrics:

Na-no na-no
Ora che mi sei amico
non stupirti se ti dico
che io parlo con le piante,
millepiedi e l'elefante
Perché vengo da lontano

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How Toyetic Can You Get?

In the middle of summer blockbuster season, we should always keep in mind the real purpose of any movie with a cool car or robot in it, as summed up by the first show to use the term on national TV:

Not included here is the ending of the episode, where Freakazoid is seen collecting kickbacks from the marketing department for helping to launch the "Freakmobile Toy Line." (Ironically, Freakazoid!, which was originally pitched as a more "toyetic" property than the other Warner/Spielberg shows -- the idea being that there would be cars, gadgets and other things that the funny-animal cartoons didn't have -- never spun off a single piece of actual merchandise, and spent large amounts of time bashing merchandising and product placement.)

Still Censored

I haven't seen this mentioned outside of message boards, but while the list of cartoons for Looney Tunes Collection Vol. 5 hasn't been released yet, it appears that "Coal Black" and other Censored 11 cartoons will not be included on this set.

Will "Coal Black" ever be released? I wish I could be confident of that. Remember, Turner wouldn't release it (or "Tin Pan Alley Cats" or the rest) when they were doing the Looney Tunes laserdisc sets, back before the Turner-WB merger. And Turner, which didn't own the characters, had less incentive to be protective of them than WB, which has transformed not only the characters but the whole "Looney Tunes" brand into a corporate symbol. The much-derided presence of Whoopi Goldberg on Vol. 3 -- which had hardly any cartoons with racial gags anyway -- was part of the fear that one little mis-step with the DVD sets could hurt an already fragile franchise.

I'm not sure how to get around that, because in all honesty, if "Coal Black" were released and a controversy erupted, that probably would be bad for the marketing/franchising of WB cartoons. I don't think the controversy over "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips" did Turner any favors back in the '90s (Turner released it on a laserdisc but then, foolishly, released it on a mass-market VHS as well, and people who bought this thing for their kids were understandably outraged). To get a release, someone would probably have to convince WB executives that there won't be any controversy, and I'm not sure that anyone can guarantee that. "Coal Black" is a great cartoon, but I've seen the reactions to it of people who are not cartoon buffs, and it does make many people very uncomfortable and, yes, even angry.

I'm not defending WB"s corporate policy here. (And as for the WB home video department, they do some great work and release some great films, but they also spend too parsimoniously on special features for classic films, and they've got some quality control issues they still haven't completely resolved.) There's a right decision, and a wrong decision, and the right decision would be to release the cartoon. But the wrong decision -- not to release it -- is based on some legitimate concerns. Still wrong, though.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Best Animation Team Ever

Here's a pointless parlour game for animation fans: what's your choice as the best team of animators ever assembled for a short cartoon?

This is distinct from the question of what cartoon had the best animation (though it overlaps, of course; you wouldn't pick a cartoon with four once-great animators past their best). The question is more akin to those baseball questions about what was the greates infield of all time; what cartoon assembled the best group of "players" at the peak of their skills?

Mine is a very conventional choice, but I think it's hard to beat the team assembled for Bob Clampett's Looney Tunes short "Book Revue." The credited animators were Robert McKimson, Rod Scribner, Manny Gould and Bill Melendez. That's four truly great and unique animators, each one in his prime. Also if you want to take into account the overall career achievements of the animators (sort of like taking into account the "career value" of infielders), two of the four went on to important careers as directors, McKimson and Melendez.

Oddly enough, though all four of those guys were associated with the Clampett unit, this is one of the few cartoons (perhaps the only one?) where all four of them worked together, because McKimson was promoted to director almost immediately after Melendez re-joined Warner Brothers, and when Melendez was working for WB earlier, Gould wasn't there yet.

Other choices?

Brain 2008

Going through some old tapes, I found this promo that aired on Kids' WB (sorry: Kids' WB!!!!) in 1996. But I think it's time to haul this one out of storage and re-use it in 2008. I think that's Jeff Bennett doing the voice-over.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Miss Vicki Gaye

I watched Nicholas Ray's Party Girl the other day, a 1958 MGM production that in its own bizarre way sums up the state of the Hollywood studio system in 1958. It was made, the legend goes, to burn off contracts: Robert Taylor was no longer a bankable star and Cyd Charisse wasn't needed at the studio now that it was scaling back on musicals. The producer, Joe Pasternak, had made a lot of money producing family-friendly musicals, and with the collapse of that type of film, he was looking for a way to stay viable. And Ray was probably doing this film for the money, as he frequently did: he was (writer Philip Yordan once said) "always broke" and accepted some strange projects when he needed work.

The result is a truly weird mish-mosh of a movie: it's a glossy CinemaScope color movie, but it has a noir-ish plot about gangsters, but it also has glamorous musical numbers for Charisse, but it also has a lot of brutal violence, but it's also a soapy romance complete with an operation that miraculously cures the hero. Yes, it's a noir musical comedy drama gangster romance. Oh, and it's set in the early '30s but the musical numbers and many of the costumes make no attempt to even suggest the period.

The dialogue by Oscar-winning MGM veteran George Wells is often quite good, and the movie looks pretty good because it has all the MGM studio machinery behind it. But the plot doesn't make much sense, the characters' motivations are... uh... erratic. It's really basically a B-movie run through the A-picture machinery by a studio that no longer knew what to do for an A-picture.

Auteurist critics loved this film, or used to, because Ray was one of their heroes and they saw this as one of his ultimate triumphs of his incredible sense of style over the substance of a bad script. But that's unfair to the script (which, as I said, is not bad considering the inherent flaws in the story) and too nice to Ray, who doesn't seem to have been very concerned with making the picture make any kind of sense. He doesn't give the actors a lot of help, either: Robert Taylor is really good -- he was often underrated, I think, but as the embittered mob lawyer he almost makes you forget he was ever a matinee idol -- but Cyd Charisse is left to fend for herself, and her line readings are even more wooden than they usually were.

However, Charisse did get one thing out of the film: a chance to cut loose in her musical numbers in a way that she rarely could in actual musicals. By 1958, censorship restrictions were becoming looser, and unlike musicals, this was not a film aimed at a family audience; that allowed her and Ray to make the two dance numbers unusually suggestive. Or more specifically, Charisse and the choreographer get suggestive while Ray goes wild with color, light, and tricks with the CinemaScope screen (like filling the entire frame with Charisse's billowing dress).

Thursday, July 12, 2007

We're Staying Home Tonight

I wrote about this song before, but here's Eddie Cantor from Thank Your Lucky Stars singing a really brilliant pastiche song by Arthur Schwartz (music) and Frank Loesser (lyrics). Brilliant because it sounds very much like the kind of song Cantor sang in his '20s and '30s prime, both in the melody and its cutely suggestive lyrics, and yet it's updated to the '40s both melodically (Schwartz's melody is trickier than, say, "If You Knew Susie" or "Makin' Whoopee") and lyrically (Loesser's references are all to the '40s homefront situation). And of course it's a great example of Cantor's willingness to portray himself as a complete asshole, something that's now common but was unusual then.

Jubilation, She Loves Me Again

I've always considered the movie version of Li'l Abner -- read Mark Evanier's great piece on it, part of a series on the Li'l Abner musical -- to be a disappointment, in spite of the great cast (which was almost identical to the stage show). The decision to treat it as a filmed stage play, with the same basic sets and stage business as the play, just makes the material feel less interesting than it could be; I don't think a stage play needs to be "opened up" for its own sake, but even when shooting on an interior set, there are ways of making the result feel cinematic. I'm pretty sure that if Michael Kidd had been available to direct the film (he pulled out of the project and his Broadway staging was re-created by others), he would have re-thought his staging and not have had everyone standing around statically.

My other problem with the movie is the musical arrangement; Paramount had a good music department, but in this case it sounds like the music was done on the cheap. To see what I mean, compare the "Jubilation T. Cornpone" number from the movie with the same song from the Broadway recording (dubbed over footage from the movie). Broadway shows usually have smallish orchestras and choruses, even when augmented for the cast recordings, but the chorus and orchestra on the Broadway recording still sound much larger and fuller than in the movie version.

Movie version:

Broadway cast recording:

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Lane 2

Here are two more random Charles Lane scenes.

1. Lane, in his 30s and (as always) looking much older, appears at the end of The Big Store with the Marx Brothers, doing what Charles Lane does best: foreclosing and frowning.

2. Lane, now in his '70s, makes his first of several appearances on Soap as the judge in Jessica Tate's murder trial.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


I knew it had to happen someday, theoretically, but the death of Charles Lane at age 102 still surprised me.

Mark Evanier, a big Lane fan, collects links to his previous Charles Lane posts.

And here again is one of my favorite Charles Lane moments, one of the few times he ever got to play a good guy: in Gregory La Cava's 1940 film Primrose Path, when Ginger Rogers is forced into prostitution, Lane is her first client -- and he helps reunite her with her estranged husband Joel McCrea.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Huxtable Family vs. Banks Family

A Grudge Match (tm) between two superstar sitcom families:

The Huxtables (The Cosby Show) vs. The Banks Family (Fresh Prince of Bel Air).

Will and Geoffrey, of course, count as members of the Banks family, so that's two teams of seven: for the Huxtables, Cliff, Clair and the five kids; for the Bankses, Uncle Phil, Vivian, Will, Geoffrey, Carlton, Hilary and that youngest girl whose name nobody remembers.

Will Cliff perform some malpractice on the Bel Air clan? Or will Carlton find that it's not unusual to dance on the Huxtables' graves?

My comments: This is a tough one to call, because both teams have different combinations of strengths and weaknesses. The Bankses have Uncle Phil, who could probably sit on several Huxtables, and Geoffrey, a former Olympic athlete. But the kids are huge weak links, not just Carlton and Hilary, but Will, the wimpiest guy in West Philadelphia (he got in one little fight and had to be bailed out by his mommy). The Huxtables have fewer obvious super-fighters except Clair, who is so evil that she could destroy an opponent merely by saying "Let the Record Show...", but they don't have any obvious weaknesses either. So I give it to the Huxtables, but with heavy casualties.

Now That's What I Call Improv

It's way too late to be responding to the Onion A.V. Club's article "Is Improvisation Ruining Film Comedy?", but what the heck. The discussion, which ran last month, makes some good points about the inclusion of improvised or semi-improvised moments in movie comedy today. But one thing I find interesting about today's improv movie moments is that a lot of them seem to serve the opposite purpose from "traditional" movie improvisation.

As I've emphasized before, improv was very common in movies in the silent era and even into the sound era; there were directors like Leo McCarey and Greg La Cava who simply never got used to the idea that a movie should have a tight, finalized script, and who instead would write up a bunch of scenes and create other scenes from scratch on the set. What they were trying to do, in encouraging actors to improvise, was to create a sense of naturalness that you normally didn't get in the artificial, heightened world of studio movies. The theory -- to the extent that they consciously had a theory -- was that if you create a loose atmosphere and encourage the actors to improvise, you'll wind up with characters who act like actual human beings, rather than actors. (That's probably one of the things Jean Renoir was referring to when he said that McCarey "understands people" better than any other director: because the acting in his movies is so natural and unforced, the people onscreen really do seem like people.)

The improv in your typical Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller movie usually has a different purpose. These are artificial characters in deliberately artificial comedies, and instead of making the acting more natural, the improv serves the purpose of making everything less natural: the actors are riffing on the material to make it crazier, to come up with bits of business that are larger than life.

Of course, part of that may just be the change in acting styles over the years. In Leo McCarey's time, acting was very artificial and non-naturalistic; improv was a useful tool for achieving more naturalism. Today, most actors are trained to have a certain amount of naturalism. Directors may have to encourage the actors to riff and improvise in order to get them to be less naturalistic. (The improv in a movie like Knocked Up does help to increase the naturalism of the scene, but even without it, the actors still wouldn't be talking as fast or gesturing as formally as actors did seventy years ago.)

And, of course, there's plenty of improvisation that doesn't quite fall into clear categories. Like this scene from McCarey's The Bells of St. Mary's, where he gathered together a bunch of kids, told them to do a Nativity play, and filmed the results. The result is a classic example of improvisation in film, but it doesn't fall neatly into my "larger than life" vs. "naturalistic" improvisation categories; it's sort of both at the same time.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

A Different Kind of Flying Altogether

More comparisons of scenes from Zero Hour and Airplane!

It's amazing how many of the jokes in Airplane! are so dependent on the original Zero Hour material. With some of the jokes, it almost seems like we'd need to see Zero Hour in order to get why they're funny -- and yet most of us, and millions more, saw and laughed at Airplane! without knowing what movie it was referring to.

Friday, July 06, 2007

DvDetective Work

Over at Golden Age Cartoons, there's a thread about the upcoming Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 5. While the contents won't be officially announced, a poster watched a trailer for the set, and the staggeringly knowledgeable contributors to that site, managed to identify about two dozen of the cartoons we can expect to see on the set (remembering that those promotional trailers are always taken from the cartoons that will be included).

That list is here and suggests that the set will be heavy on fairy-tale cartoons (including the last cartoon produced by the real Warner Brothers cartoon studio, "Senorella and the Glass Huarache") Daffy Duck ("Srap Happy Daffy," "Hollywood Daffy," and some more Bugs-vs.-Daffy cartoons), black-and-white cartoons ("Porky's Preview," which I will be glad to see because it was edited for content when it was included as an extra with a movie) and possibly Bob Clampett ("The Old Grey Hare," "Bacall To Arms").

We will have to wait until later for a full list of cartoons and, with it, the definite knowledge that they left off the one cartoon they absolutely should have included.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

You Better Get the Best For Me

A 1960s Scopitone with Julie London singing "Daddy," a 1941 song by her husband Bobby Troup, and a song that might sound familiar to cartoon fans.

And this is where you probably heard the song originally:

Monday, July 02, 2007

Beverly Sills

Beverly Sills has died of cancer at age 78.

Sills became probably the most famous American opera singer since Maria Callas. She was the American answer to the British Empire's Joan Sutherland (who sang most of the same repertoire). Her career followed a similar trajectory to Sutherland's too. Sutherland was singing leading roles at Covent Garden for years without actually becoming a star; she was the sort of person who got to be Aida or Violetta on nights when the company couldn't sign someone more famous, before she became an international star overnight in a Covent Garden production of Lucia Di Lammermoor. Sills was a bit better known for her work at the New York City Opera -- she got to record the title role in Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe -- but she didn't become a big star until the 1966 production of Handel's Giulio Cesare.

RCA made a recording based on that production, which is worth hearing for Sills and the fun of hearing all the singers perform Handel as just another opera, without the preciousness and carefulness that sometimes infects today's Historically Informed Performances. (The recording is too heavily-cut and unevenly cast to be a first choice for the opera, though.) Conrad L. Osborne's review of the recording is available online, and I can do no better than to quote from his review of Sills's work:

For most of us who attended the production Beverly Sills’s Cleopatra meant a “discovery” almost as startling as that of Joan Sutherland’s Lucia nearly nine years ago. Through the past decade, this singer had shown herself an excellent artist in a variety of roles, and in such diverse assignments as Philine and Baby Doe had hinted at the qualities finally displayed in her Cleopatra. Still. I don’t think any of us quite expected the classic exhibition of vocal control, agility, freedom, and command she gave us that evening (and on other occasions since). The singing was reinforced with splendid stylistic instinct, grace of movement, and communicative feminine warmth which would almost have been enough by itself-the effect was one of sheer magic. Cleopatra has five major arias, and five times in the course of the evening everything in the theatre was suspended on a fragile (but strong) thread of floating, silvery tone, on the proverbial string of pearls that every singer wants to make of a run, and the most gorgeous of all trills. It was a feast for sore ears, and brought with it the recognition that if the prevailing standard in Handel’s day was something like this, the willingness of audiences to sit and listen to entire evenings of arias festooned with inventions is entirely understandable-a sensuous indulgence of an almost shameful order.

The recording. happily, has found Miss Sills in excellent form, and has captured a healthy portion of the purely vocal side of the magic. It is the last three arias that really take the breath away; the first two are very fine, but there are traces of unsettlement when she sustains tones around the top of the staff. and there are other “Piangeròs” on records that offer healthy competition. But “V’adoro, pupille” is a really melting piece of vocal seduction; “Se pieta,” with its beautiful flights of trills, high suspensions, and beautifully floated harmonic turns is heartachingly lovely; and the “Da tempeste” simply takes off into the ionosphere. A measure of this singing is that Miss Sills trills a hundred times if she trills once, and one never tires of the lovely, truly birdlike sound.

Writing Credits

Speaking of Susan Slept Here, I think this scene does a nice job of summing up the world of screenwriting, even 50+ years later:

And I Can't Think Why

For some ridiculous reason (to which, however, I've no desire to be disloyal), this is one of those times when I'm somehow reminded of a 1879 poem by W.S. Gilbert, "The Policeman's Story". (This was supposed to be part of a new series of "Bab Ballads," which was called off because Gilbert was too busy with his other projects and because his new poems were more bitter than funny.)

Some time ago I met a Duke as tipsy as could be;
And when I urged him home to go, he rounded onto me;
He hit me in the eye, which caused considerable pain;
He knocked me down, and picked me up, and knocked me down again.
  So I took him into custody, and knew no fear;
  For there's but one law for the peasant and the peer.

The magistrate he says, "To such assaults I do assign
A month's imprisonment, without the option of a fine.
A man of education too! What is his name, I pray?"
And I says, "So please your worship, it's the noble DUKE OF A."
  And I didn't care a rap; for it seems quite clear
  That there's but one law for the peasant and the peer.

The worthy beak he hummed and hawed, and looked extremely blank,
And said, "I didn't know you were a gentleman of rank.
To see you standing in the dock gives me a moral wrench;
Pray take your seat with me upon the magisterial bench.
  You'll see more plainly, if you'll step up here,
  That there's but one law for the peasant and the peer."

My evidence I gave in my uneducated way.
The beak remarks, "Your grace has heard this poor policeman's say;
I needn't say how kind 'twould be, if you should think it right,
On his Boeotian words to throw a little ducal light.
  You'll pardon me, I'm sure; when I sit up here,
  I've but one law for the peasant and the peer."

The Duke he up and says, says he, "I haven't any doubt
I most unmercifully banged that officer about.
I had been dining very free on port and sherry-wine,
And richly I deserve to suffer in a heavy fine;
  And I beg to say I rejoice to hear
  That there's but one law for the peasant and the peer."

The beak replies, "I'll measure even justice to your grace.
I hold the magistrate who would deal hardly with a case
Because the prisoner's a Duke would not be worth his salt.
That you're the DUKE OF A. is your misfortune-not your fault.
  And I don't see why I should be severe
  Because you're not a peasant, but a first-class peer.

"Your grace's noble conduct in consenting to a fine
Reflects the brightest lustre on your proud ancestral line.
The two assaults at less than half-a-crown I cannot fix;
The summons is two shillings; and the total's one and six.
  And I trust your grace won't think it dear;
  There's but one law for the peasant and the peer."

And the Duke did wed the daughter of that beak; a girl of charms.
And, on the strength of it, the beak did buy a coat-of-arms;
And as he had to choose a crest, the whole affair to clench,
It was a Flunkey Rampant on a Magisterial Bench,
  With the pregnant motto, on a scroll, "Up here
  There is but one law for the peasant and the peer."