Friday, November 30, 2007

Animated Musicals

One thing that impressed me about Enchanted was the near-effortless way the filmmakers managed to carry off the live-action musical numbers. Back in the '90s when nearly every animated film was a musical, you sometimes heard people say that a cartoon was the only place where you could "get away with" doing musicals. Unfortunately this often became a justification for doing projects in animation when they'd probably have worked better as live-action musicals. But Amy Adams' two big numbers in Enchanted are live-action set pieces that work perfectly well even though the film is more of a comedy with songs than a full-fledged musical (Adams ceases to be a singing character once she becomes a fuller part of the non-animated world). If a live-action director creates an atmosphere and a setting where people will buy into a song and dance number -- in this case, of course, the atmosphere is that of a Disney cartoon musical in live action -- people will accept it.

It is true, though, that audiences tend to accept singing in a cartoon more readily than they do in live-action. That is, a live-action musical has to do a lot of work to be sufficiently stylized and heightened before the audience will sit still for a musical number, whereas the same audiences just accept it in a cartoon because it's a cartoon. There are a number of possible reasons for that, but I suppose the most obvious reason is a cartoon world is inherently stylized and heightened, so it somehow seems instantly plausible that moving drawings would sing. Remember that while early animated features were mostly musicals, 3-D animated films never had that kind of expectation: there's just something about the more "real" world of computerized animation that doesn't lend itself to the expectation that characters will sing.

Also, animation is rhythmical -- frequently drawn and timed to music or at least a beat -- so the beat of a song can sort of naturally rise out of an animated scene.

I think that in the last few years, 2-D animated features have probably gone too far in avoiding musical numbers. This was an understandable backlash to the '90s, when animated features went too far in the other direction. Songs in an animated movie tend to work best when no one thinks of them as an intrusion; the songs in Snow White are so short and perfectly integrated that you can watch the film without being fully aware that it's a musical. And while the Menken-Ashman songs were more elaborate and Broadway-ish, they still came off as natural outgrowths of the scenes. But a lot of the '90s animated features, at Disney and elsewhere, were movies where you were in fact conscious that they were stopping for a musical number. Whether the song is good or bad, if a movie ever stops, it's in trouble; animated movies need to have momentum, because if the audience ever gets bored then they stop thinking of these drawings as actual living characters.

But songs do add a lot to the classic animated features, and I think that audiences really do like the songs and have an expectation that animated characters will sing. Not all animated characters, but certainly fairy-tale characters, magical characters and the like; a movie that takes animation and adds fantasy to it somehow seems so heightened that it almost cries out for singing. (Whereas with a more realistic subject, like Bambi, I don't think singing is expected or needed; that's why Disney wisely decided not to have the Bambi characters sing.) One reason for the success of Enchanted is just that animated fairy-tale musicals are so enduringly popular. Since there hasn't been an animated fairy-tale musical in god knows how long, they'll take a live-action homage to animated fairy-tale musicals.

DVD Items in Brief

- A rare piece of good news about music in TV DVDs: after the butchered second season of Happy Days, Paramount has inexplicably but happily gotten its act together on the third season. Nearly all the music has been paid for and is on the DVD: the music on jukeboxes (a mixture of original artists and cover versions; and geez, how many times did they used "Splish Splash" on this show?) and all the songs sung by Anson Williams as Potsie. Having to listen to Anson Williams as Potsie may not be an unalloyed good, but at least they didn't cut the scenes. (There are two episodes that are missing their "tag" scenes at the end, but they're not music-related cuts as far as I know; it's another case of the studio only having syndication prints, I suppose.) I don't know if this signals a change in Paramount's policy on music; probably not, since the third season of Laverne And Shirley apparently has a bunch of music cuts. But if you like the Fonzie-mania years of the show, you can buy this season knowing that you will get to hear Richie and his friends sing "Rock Around the Clock" in a nonsense language.

- The DVD Beaver will be posting reviews of the Ford at Fox collection over the weekend; he's got a review of one of the most important releases in the package, The Iron Horse. I got a screener of the "International" version and can vouch for the fact that it looks good. I'm not so sure if I like the new score by Christopher Caliendo. It has the problem most recent silent film scores have, of ignoring obvious cues in the film. If you've seen any Ford movie you know that he liked to have composers incorporate traditional tunes throughout their scores, and I think that anyone scoring a Ford silent should try to at least nod to Ford's tastes in musical scoring -- which means that you should hear "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" once in a while in association with Lincoln, that any song referred to in the intertitles should be played on the soundtrack, and so forth.

- I was very surprised, but in a good way, to find that A&E's DVD release of the "Weird Science" TV show will actually have audio commentaries by the three lead actors. Hearing from the writers would have been fun, but I'll take what I can get, especially since I looked at a couple of episodes again recently and, yes, I still think it's funny. (One of the episodes being commented on includes the following line: "Sure. You whine about gun control, but as soon as there's a 7-foot-tall interdimensional space monster in your bedroom, then suddenly owning a gun makes sense.")

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Na-No, Na-No

Just one more "Italian theme song" post: I found a better-quality version of the Italian Mork and Mindy (also, this one is from the first season, rather than the second). The song by Bruno D'Andrea was the biggest hit of any alternate Italian theme song and is by far the best; I'd say it's one of my all-time favorite theme songs, period. The original Mork orchestral theme song is too bland and generic for my taste -- supposedly Garry Marshall insisted on a theme that would distinguish this from his other productions, but the music doesn't really tell us what the show is about -- whereas the Italian song tells us exactly what the show is about and always makes me smile.

This version fades out a bit earlier than the other one, in order to incorporate the season one opening scene before the song starts.

And to show how popular the song remains, here's a recent cover of "Na-No, Na-No" (or "Nano Nano") by the veteran pop musician Claudio Baglioni and the younger pop singer Jovanotti.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Grudge Match: The Fonz vs. Captain Kirk

Captain James T. Kirk and Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli are both transported to a planet populated entirely by beautiful women. (Since that describes half the planets Kirk visited, it isn't really necessary to describe it further.) They are ordered to fight to the death, to the accompaniment of Star Trek fight music. They can hide from each other, use any weapons and, of course, prevail upon their girlfriends of the week to save them.

Who will win the fight between Kirk, the iconic TV hero and inexplicable babe-magnet of the '60s, and Fonzie, the iconic TV hero and inexplicable babe-magnet of the '70s?

I'm going for Fonzie as he simply has the kind of powers that Kirk cannot overcome. His confrontation with Mork (back when Mork was much more powerful than he was on his own series) showed him to be one of the most all-powerful beings in the universe. When Kirk goes up against someone like that, he usually is on the brink of losing until the creature's father shows up and gets him. But Fonzie has no father. So Kirk's screwed.

Besides, Fonzie's nemesis was named Officer Kirk. And Fonzie always beat him. Coincidence?

On the other hand, it's been pointed out that if Kirk's shirt gets ripped, he becomes essentially invincible. And it could be argued that Kirk's track record with women is superior to Fonzie's, since Fonzie usually gets non-speaking extras while Kirk scores with full-fledged guest stars like Angelique Pettyjohn or Marianna Hill.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Office Around the Corner

I re-watched Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner recently, and while I love it even more than I used to, I find that I now love it for new and different reasons. I used to think of it as the ultimate romantic comedy, but now I think the romance is almost a secondary thing in this film (I said almost), a smaller part of a larger subject. What this movie is about is work, and everyday life in the workplace; it's one of the few truly great workplace comedies.

Right from the opening scene, where the shop employees arrive for work one after another, the movie is about work: the first conversation, between Pirovich (Felix Bressart) and Pepi (William Tracy) is an argument about whether it makes any sense to arrive for work early ("Who sees you? Me. And who sees me? You. Can we give each other a raise? No."), and the first twenty minutes of the movie are mostly about workplace politics, getting in good with the boss or getting in trouble with him, the dangers of office gossip, and so on. Except for the one scene with Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) mentioning his anonymous love-letter writing, The Shop Around the Corner presents itself as a movie about the workplace experience. Not a fantasy version of it, or a sentimental "working people" version, or the workplace nightmare from Billy Wilder's The Apartment (or for that matter the Lubitsch If I Had a Million sketch that was the basis for the look of the office in The Apartment), but just the everyday reality of people who need to work and can't afford to lose their jobs. It's not a depressing reality; Matuschek (Frank Morgan) isn't a bad boss and the job isn't bad, but it's just a reality that underlies everything the characters do: they have to work, they spend much of their time at work, and their choices are constrained by basic economic realities.

And the romantic comedy has extra depth because it takes place in this real atmosphere of the workplace, between two people who have real-world work problems on their minds and often argue over work issues. Stewart even says that he started the anonymous correspondence because he couldn't afford to buy a set of encyclopedias and he needed a cheaper way to learn about "cultural subjects." Stewart and Margaret Sullavan's first argument in the movie are over mundane everyday work issue: questions of what clothes are appropriate to wear to work, questions of who has authority over whom.

Lubitsch and his favorite writer Samson Raphaelson filled Shop with all kinds of moments that really ring true, such as the uncomfortable situation of having your boss ask you for your opinion, or trying to get permission to get off from work early so you can go on a date, or dealing with bosses and co-workers in a bad mood, or the rituals and routines that retail workers have to go through when a potential customer comes in. The characters are even defined, in some scenes, by their differing reactions to typical workplace situations. When Frank Morgan has a bad idea, each character deals with it in his own way: Jimmy Stewart tells him straight out that it's a bad idea, Margaret Sullavan, desperate to please Morgan so he'll give her a job, tries to find something nice to say even though she can't think of anything specific she likes about it; office scumbag Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) sucks up and tells Morgan exactly what he wants to hear, and Felix Bressart's character, a man who will do anything to avoid losing his job, just runs away and hides any time he hears Morgan asking for an "honest opinion."

Most romantic comedies, including Lubitsch's, are about people who either don't have to work or for whom work is a secondary concern. Here it's at the heart of everything. S many key moments in the film have extra resonance because of that real atmosphere of workplace politics, like when Felix Bressart, a character who is deathly afraid of losing his job and constantly worries about making ends meet for his family (including paying for doctors when family members are sick; the high cost of medical care is just something he matter-of-factly deals with as an everday problem) admonishes Frank Morgan for firing Jimmy Stewart: the moment could be small, but instead it's a big moment because we know how fearful this man is of saying anything that might cost him his job.

I'd compare The Shop Around the Corner, in a weird way, to the U.S. version of The Office. There are few other comedies that are comparable in the way they portray the workplace: not an abusive nightmare you have to escape from, not a sweet and idealized place, just a place with normal frustrations and problems and politics and worries -- our workplace, in other words, no matter who we are or where we happen to work. Whether that means that John Krasinski is the new Jimmy Stewart is another question entirely.

The only other version of this material that really tried to do the same thing in terms of being about the working life -- and not coincidentally, the best subsequent version of this story -- was the Broadway musical version, She Loves Me.

(Note: Much of this post is recycled from something I wrote on a message board. So those of you who search to find out what I've been writing on message boards will no doubt be rolling your eyes and wanting something new.)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Alternate Italian Theme Songs

A while back I introduced you to the alternate Italian theme song for Mork and Mindy. Now I find that The Facts of Life also had its theme song replaced by a new song for its Italian-dubbed version, at least in the first season. Is this really what Italian pop music sounded like in the late '70s and early '80s?

But here's something even more shocking -- they replaced the theme song for The Dukes of Hazzard with a new Italian song called "Bo e Luke":

They didn't only record new theme songs for American shows, either -- here's the Italian theme of the British show "George and Mildred" (remade in the U.S. as "The Ropers"):

The Italian version of The Bionic Woman (the original) also appears to have had a different theme, not to mention a translated version of all the "classified information":

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

There's Always A Little One: Video Evidence

I threw together a few examples of my favorite classic cartoon gag.

Most of these are from cartoons written by Mike Maltese, so while he didn't invent the gag (it was used in many cartoons and in live-action films as well, like a Three Stooges short), it seems like he was the one who used it the most.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Get Your Foghorn Fix

Perhaps to make up for the lack of Foghorn Leghorn on DVD and home video, a YouTube user has uploaded twenty Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. Watch 'em while they're still there.

Foghorn is one of those cartoon characters who has remained a lot more popular than he was probably expected to be. What I mean by that is that I never got the feeling that Warner Brothers pushed him as hard, in licensing/marketing terms, as they did other characters. (In the late '40s the studio probably pushed Henery Hawk harder than they did Foghorn.) But people really love him and quote him all the time, and a Foghorn cartoon is almost always a big hit in theatrical screenings.

The thing I appreciate about the series is that it was less dependent on formula than most late '40s and '50s cartoon series. Instead of one basic chase plot, the series had a whole bunch of different "standard" plots that it could draw on: some were Foghorn vs. Henery Hawk, others were Foghorn vs. the dog, others had an outside character playing the barnyard animals off against each other, and still others had Foghorn and that uber-powerful nerd kid. You can actually go into a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon and not be completely sure what you'll get, which is not true of Tweety/Sylvester or the Road Runner. I also like the fact that at a time when cartoon violence had gotten more self-inflicted, with the villains usually bringing destruction on themselves, the Foghorn Leghorn shorts still had characters beating the hell out of each other.

Like all McKimson cartoons, the quality of the series is uneven, terrifically good at its best (in cartoons like "Fractured Leghorn" and even some of the later ones like the very weird "Fox Terror"), sort of too much like an animated sitcom episode when it's not on form. The series probably suffered more than any other McKimson series from the departure of his A-list animators in 1953. Without a first-rate broad animator like Manny Gould or Rod Scribner, Foghorn's movements became very mild and controlled, and the character became a lot less funny. (Foghorn was already starting to get milder throughout the early '50s -- he was at his best in the early cartoons when he's "just a loudmothed schnook" -- but Scribner's scenes help him preserve some of his original energy, like the scene in "Of Rice and Hen" where he practically flies apart while seeing Miss Prissy jump off the roof.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

How I Would Love One Hour With You

Finally Criterion/Eclipse's Lubisch Musicals Box Set has a release date (February 2008). No extras, but four early sound musicals from Paramount (Lubitsch's last musical, The Merry Widow, was made for MGM and will have to wait for a release from Warner Brothers), all starring Maurice Chevalier and/or Jeanette MacDonald.

Lubitsch was a very important figure in the history of movie musicals -- The Love Parade, in particular, was the most sophisticated and cohesive musical made in the early days of talkies (it came out in 1929 and was Lubitsch's first sound film) -- though he was not necessarily a director who had a lot of sympathy with musicals. As I've written before, since Lubitsch was a very controlled and controlling director who coached all his actors in their exact movements and line readings, he could never bring himself to delegate power to the songwriters or choreographers, which is what you often need to do in a musical. So his musicals have very little dancing and they often downplay the singing, instead using visuals or dialogue for the most important moments. There are few musical numbers in Lubitsch that have the same kind of impact as the "Isn't It Romantic" number in Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight (the only Chevalier/MacDonald musical not directed by Lubitsch), because Lubitsch could never let a song assume that much importance in his films.

That said, three of these four movies are just plain wonderful -- The Love Parade, One Hour With You (which was partly directed by George Cukor, though it's very hard to tell which scenes he did) and especially The Smiling Lieutenant (one of the funniest films of the '30s), and while Monte Carlo isn't in that class, it does have the young, charming and sexy Jeanette MacDonald and the famous "Beyond the Blue Horizon" number, one of the first movie musical numbers to incorporate exterior shots and realistic sounds.

What Lubitsch's Chevalier/MacDonald musicals did most of all was elevate the quality of comedy writing in movie musicals. A lot of musicals, then and later, were premised on the idea that you could use any old story of any kind as filler in between the musical numbers, whereas Lubitsch (who, again, was probably more interested in the dialogue scenes than the musical ones) insisted on scripts that were sharp, satirical and whimsical, just like his silent comedies had been. And these movies are very tightly structured, full of jokes and character moments that pay off long after they first appear.

The Smiling Lieutenant was also Lubitsch's first comedy with Samson Raphaelson, the writer of The Jazz Singer and other plays; Lubitsch had brought him to Paramount to write a serious anti-war film The Man I Killed (which, come to think of it, it's too bad Criterion isn't including in this box; it's not a musical, but it'll probably never get a DVD release now), but also put him to work on his comedies. Lubitsch and Raphaelson discovered that they worked so well together, and came up with such imaginative and weird jokes together, that Raphaelson went on to write seven more comedies for Lubitsch.

Some scenes from movies that will be in this set:

Most of the opening scene from One Hour With You, with Chevalier talking to the audience and him and MacDonald singing "(What a Little Thing Like) A Wedding Ring (Can Do"):

A scene from The Smiling Lieutenant with Chevalier and Miriam Hopkins (in her first of three brilliant performances for Lubitsch), which kind of spoils the ending, which I suppose requires a spoiler alert. It's done virtually as a silent film, with Oscar Straus's music used as background music, and with a payoff of a gag from earlier in the movie (you'll have to watch the whole movie to see what the checkerboard gag is about). I also like the cartoony low-comedy gag of Chevalier running back to his room and checking to see if there's anything wrong with the liquor, and then deciding that if there's anything wrong with it, he wants more of it. Lubitsch is often thought of as a continental sophisticate but he actually had one of the goofiest senses of humor in Hollywood (or Germany for that matter).

And Jeanette MacDonald's big hit from The Love Parade, "Dream Lover," prefaced by two very Lubitschian gags ("See Sylvania first!" is a parody of an advertising slogan, "See America First!" which encouraged Americans to do their vacationing in the U.S. rather than Europe).

In other good news for February, Criterion also has announced a two-disc set of Pierrot Le Fou (one of the few movies that always seems to get referred to by its original-language title; why don't we call it "Crazy Pierrot" or "Crazy Pete"?).

Quando Dico "Whoa..."

I don't have much to say at the moment, so I'll toss out this question: have you ever come across a foreign-language dubbing of a cartoon (either something dubbed into English, or English dubbed into another language) where you thought one or more voice actors really did a good job of capturing the spirit of the characters?

What brought this on was seeing this clip from "Sahara Hare" in Italian and thinking that whoever did Yosemite Sam really got the character right:

What I like about that dub is that the actor is uninhibitedly screaming at the top of his lungs, which is the only way to properly voice Sam. One flaw I notice in a lot of cartoon dubbing is a certain amount of inhibition, as if the actors can't quite bring themselves to be as loud or over-the-top as the originals.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

She's Roses, She's Snowflakes, She's Rosemary's Baby

Bob, I can tell
That my ticker's ticked as far as it can tock.
Bob, listen well:
Good advice is all I leave you, but it's better than a thousand shares of stock.
- Ira Levin, Drat! the Cat!

Ira Levin has died. He was a genuinely multi-talented guy who did everything well: thrillers (A Kiss Before Dying), comedies (his stage adaptation of No Time For Sergeants, which helped make Andy Griffith a star), at least two classic men-are-pigs horror stories, and even a musical, Drat! the Cat!

My post about Drat! was one of my earliest posts on this blog, and I'll post two lyrics of his from that show (including one I posted before), just because I like them.

Holmes and Watson


Have you read the latest number of Harper's Magazine?
There's a story there by Conan Doyle.
It's about a new detective, he's marvelously keen,
And he has a chap, a doctor who's his foil.
Together they're second to none,
But together means two, sir, not one.


Sherlock Holmes has Doctor Watson,
Watson trots in back of Holmes.
All the plots that Holmes finds knots in,
Watson jots in tomes.
'Cause it takes one to do
The heavy brainwork,
One to do
The more mundane work,
One to say "it's element'ry,"
One to say "amazing!"
You be Holmes and I'll be Watson,
In high spots, in catacombs.
Any place the Cat gavottes in,
Watson trots with Holmes.
It's just as right as rain,
We fit the format,
You the brain
And I the doormat.
You will search and I'll be sentry,
We'll be just amazing!
Lucky Holmes to have a Watson,
Thanks a lot, sincerely, Holmes.
Poor old Cat will soon feel small as hottentots n'
When he runs into Sherlock Holmes.

She's Roses

She's roses, she's snowflakes, she's barrels of apples,
And ice cream and velvet and bells when they ring.
She's birthdays and New Year's, the night before Christmas,
The last day of school and the first day of spring.
Other girls, other girls borrow and buy
Cosmetics and feathers and fur.
Other girls, other girls hopelessly try
To change from themselves into her.
She's bluebirds and baseball and hitting a long one,
And laughing and dreaming and Central Park Lake.
She's marbles (the clear ones) and milk when you're thirsty,
She's five kinds of candy and six kinds of cake.
Other girls, other girls, ain't it a shame,
They're seaweed and splinters and glue.
Other girls, other girls, no one's to blame,
Pray God the poor creatures pull through.
She's all of the stars and the moon when it's rising,
And music and peace and the automobile.
And how can I live till the next time I see her?
She touched me right here, and she's really real.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Welcome, Joe and Bill

Another Fox musical being released on DVD tomorrow is The Girl Next Door (1953), starring two mid-level Fox contractees near the end of their contracts, Dan Dailey and June Haver. It's actually quite enjoyable, and unusual for a Fox musical in that it is a real musical, with songs and dances that are actually part of the story. (Most Fox musicals, in keeping with a preference that Darryl Zanuck had displayed all the way back to his days at Warner Brothers, confined most of the musical numbers to stage and nightclub performances -- in other words, they weren't really musicals, more like comedies about people who happen to be musical performers.)

The director, Richard Sale, commissioned UPA -- the hottest animation studio at the time the film was made -- to create a couple of animated sequences. This one, with Dailey's son imagining Haver as a troublemaking witch (she and Dailey want to get together but Dailey's son won't accept her), was the longest. It also forced UPA to do talking-animal animation, which they eschewed in their own cartoons.

Does anyone know for certain who did the voices of the dog and the raccoon? The dog sounds like Bill Scott, who was with UPA at the time; I'm not sure about the raccoon.

Update: Jerry Beck writes: "Voice expert Keith Scott (no relation) has confirmed to me that both the animal characters are voiced by Bill Scott."

Also, I don't know if calling the characters "Joe and Bill" was intended as a cartoon reference. I suspect it's a coincidence, though; Hanna and Barbera's work was well-known in 1953, but they themselves were not.

Susan Hayward's Wardrobe Malfunction

With a Song in My Heart, which comes out on DVD tomorrow, is one of Fox's better musical biopics, but it may be best-remembered for the most memorable pre-Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction." In the title number, about 48 minutes into the film, Susan Hayward discovered the hazards of dancing in a strapless gown, and the result was:

The question is, did this stay in the movie (and it is there; this screen capture is directly from the DVD) because nobody caught it, or did the producers just decide to leave it in and hope nobody else would notice it? (I suppose most people didn't notice it at the time, as there was no Janet-style backlash.)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Recording Studio Generation Gap

Someone has re-uploaded clips from the D.A. Pennebaker documentary on the recording of Company, still the best documentary on how an original cast recording is made. (Most of these things are very pre-packaged and phony -- basically, promos for the recording and the show -- but Pennebaker actually got to convey how it feels for tired performers to do a long, exhausting recording session where they have to create "definitive" performances of the songs.)

One thing I always like in this documentary, a sign of the times, is seeing the huge contrasts in fashion: everybody's wearing different styles of clothing because this is 1970 and nobody knew how they were supposed to dress. You've got everything from miniskirts and high collars to jackets and ties. The first person we see is Fred Plaut, CBS/Columbia's chief recording engineer, a German who fled the Nazis in 1940; he was 62 years old at this point and had worked on almost every Columbia Broadway or classical recording made in New York. He's wearing a tie and has a blank expression on his face, the epitome of the engineer who is concentrating on technical problems and is not there to pass judgment on the music or the young whippersnappers in his studio:

Plaut is also seen smoking a pipe in the studio in the "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" sequence (maybe my favorite sequence in the documentary, though Elaine Stritch's struggles with "The Ladies Who Lunch" are the most spectacular). Couldn't get away with that in a recording studio today.

One thing to add about Company is that it gives a disproportionate number of the big musical numbers to three very minor characters: Robert's three girlfriends, played by Susan Browning (April), Pamela Myers (Marta) and Donna McKechnie (Kathy). Even though they function in the show mostly as illustrations of Robert's inability to commit, they carry a lot of the songs and dances: not only do they get "Crazy," but Browning got the funniest duet ("Barcelona"), Myers got the best solo song ("Another Hundred People") and McKechnie got a huge solo dance number ("Tick Tock," with music by David Shire based on themes from the show, which is often cut in revivals).

The reason for this was partly that Robert's friends were mostly cast with actors who could sort of sing and dance, as opposed to professional singers and dancers; that meant that the three young women were around for anything that required a bigger voice or first-rate dance skills. But it was also because Company was the first show in a long time to revive the idea of giving big numbers to minor characters, and generally assigning numbers in ways you wouldn't expect.

Rodgers and Hammerstein had already tried this in Allegro (1947), where the main character doesn't sing all that much, the biggest ballad ("So Far") goes to a character who never appears in the show again after the song finishes, another big ballad ("A Fellow Needs a Girl") is not for the hero but for his parents, and many of the numbers provide commentaries on the action or the themes of the show rather than directly moving the plot along. But in general, most "integrated," artistically ambitious musicals gave the bulk of the musical numbers to the main characters and placed numbers at big emotional moments in the story. Company went back to the idea that Rodgers and Hammerstein had abandoned after Allegro, that a show could actually be more surprising and interesting if the songs occur at unanticipated moments, from unexpected characters. It still doesn't happen very often, though (even Prince and Sondheim didn't stick with this idea all that much).

Saturday, November 10, 2007


In 1983, Norman Mailer, in one of his many anti-technology statements, explained why I shouldn't be sitting here staring at the computer screen right now:

I think that the working conditions of the computer are atrocious. It's bad enough to sit before a television set, but to sit for hour after hour before a computer screen is not conducive to much human happiness.

Moving from the age of wood to the age of iron was a great shock to the human nervous system, and I don't know that we have recovered from that. Now we are moving to the age of electronics, and that is much worse.

But we didn't listen, so here we are now.

I like The Naked and the Dead, yes; I like some of Mailer's essays; but I have to admit I find his personality -- as a writer and as a public figure -- to be off-putting. Especially the whole misogyny thing, for which there really is no excuse. (I remember Mad Magazine once had a song parody that imagined the worst husband a woman could possibly have: "A husband like a jailer/Who will quote from Norman Mailer.")

Yes, the worst of Mailer -- as a person and as a writer -- is balanced out, at least as far as his reputation goes, by the good stuff he wrote and the influence he had, perhaps even by some of the good causes he championed along with the bad ones. But that brings up the question: were his personality problems a help or a hindrance to his work? There are two ways of thinking about an artist with an off-putting personality. One is that his failures as a person or a husband are connected to things that are part of his artistic personality, that if he were a better-adjusted person he might not be as interesting an artists. The other is the exact opposite, that his personality flaws are connected to his artistic flaws, that the things that kept Mailer from fulfiling his full potential as a novelist are the same things that kept him from having a successful relationship.

I suppose there's probably some truth to both views. But Mailer was not only one of the last superstar authors, he was one of the last authors who managed to turn his less-appealing personality traits into a public asset. Because bad behavior was seen as a necessary part of being an official artistic genius, you could, if you were talented enough and a canny enough self-publicist, make your bad behavior almost a positive trait, something to mark you as a genius and gain the respect of the public.

James Thurber parodied this kind of view in a story about a writer, Elliot Vereker, who is a drunk and a complete raging asshole, but is loved, supported and respected by the whole literary community because they've decided he's a genius (even though he never actually finishes anything). Mailer was not Elliot Vereker; he was a genuine talent, even a great talent, and his personality had appealing aspects as well as unappealing ones. But he did take advantage of how much easier it was for a "genius" to get away with things that a mere writer can't.

It's harder to get away with this now, even for authors who might otherwise be inclined to act badly or just weirdly, because it's so hard to make a living as a writer of books (well, it's always been hard, but it gets harder). A writer has to learn to be a schmoozer and a diplomat if he or she wants to get published, which means that you don't often see authors on talk shows displaying outsized personalities or saying bizarre things. It does make talk show interviews duller. Whether it means literature has gotten worse, I'm not sure.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Same Idea, Different Lines

The most interesting thing about this list of "top 10 movie lines we use the most" (via Bill Crider) is that "Do you feel lucky, punk?" from Dirty Harry made the list.

The reason it's interesting is that when I was growing up, by far the most famous Dirty Harry line -- and, in fact, probably the most-quoted movie line of any kind -- was "Go ahead, make my day" from Sudden Impact. Of course these are just two different versions of the same idea; every Dirty Harry movie has to include a moment where he tells a punk that he, Harry, will be happy to blow said punk away if he's stupid enough to go for his gun. I guess the "punk" line has overshadowed "go ahead, make my day" because the first movie has held up better than Sudden Impact and has probably been seen by more people, meaning that the people polled by are more likely to have seen than than any of the Dirty Harry sequels.

I do think as far as Dirty Harry violence-celebrating lines go, "do you feel lucky, punk" (which isn't exactly what he says in the movie) is better than "go ahead." I'm just interested to find that the most popular movie line of my childhood is no longer as iconic as it was.

Of course this type of line goes back much further than Dirty Harry. For example, John Wayne had more or less the same line in Rio Bravo when a bad guy is about to go for his gun, and Wayne says: "You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would."

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Richard Lester: Still Alive

Lots of artists go from being overrated to being underrated, but Richard Lester, who was interviewed this week by the Onion A.V. Club, must be the movie director with the all-time weirdest reputation trajectory.

In the '60s, he was somewhat overrated -- routinely acclaimed as one of the world's great cinema masters, prematurely written up in movie studies textbooks -- even though his work was uneven and somewhat limited in range. Oddly enough for a guy who made his reputation directing the Beatles in two musical comedies, his weakest work tended to be in musicals and comedy: a lot of his subsequent comedies really aren't that funny, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum kind of wrecks the musical numbers with all the fragmentation. But his best films deserved the acclaim they got, his techniques were very influential (not only the cutting and flashbacks/flash-forwards but the gimmick of making period settings look somewhat drab and dirty and "real"), and his best movie, Petulia, is one of his least goofy. He was a good director, not a great one, who -- like Irvin Kershner and others -- lost his way when he took on too many anonymous big-budget projects.

But now he's insanely underrated, because all most people seem to know about him is that he was the guy who finished directing Superman II. Look at his Imdb comments board; it seems to consist mostly of Superman threads, with many posters denouncing him for ruining the vision of Richard Donner. There are various levels of weirdness here, including the idea that Richard Donner is a genius and Richard Lester is a hack, when for most of their careers the truth has been more or less exactly the opposite. But Donner's version of Superman means a lot to many people, and there's not much doubt that the sequel would have been a better film had he been allowed to finish it (I don't think the "re-cut" version really helps much, though). But the idea that finishing up one project, plus soloing on another bad Superman film, makes Richard Lester the Worst Director Ever is kind of a commentary on how franchise-ism -- obsession with particular movie franchises or characters -- is starting to play too much of a role in the way we evaluate filmmakers.

Though of course, back when Superman II was released, auteurism was king, and that caused some critics to say some rather silly things; you would get critics who assumed that the sequel had to be better because the Great Richard Lester directed it, though a) they couldn't provide any evidence that Lester's personality was reflected in most of the film, and b) they had a tendency to pick out Richard Donner's scenes and declare them to be brilliant Richard Lester touches.

So maybe someday Lester will go back to being overrated again. I think he kind of deserves it after the unfair beating he's taken on the internet.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Important Question About Advertising History

Question: Of these two '90s Barbie commercials for a Ken doll who had facial hair that you could shave off, which is the more disturbing?

This mid-'90s commercial for "Shaving Fun Ken" (with two girls swooning "Oh, Ken" in inappropriate excitement)?

Or this late-'90s commercial, which I've highlighted elsewhere, for the very different (and totally not just a lame name change to sell a product that already failed) "Cool Shaving Ken?"

Now you see why, in the '90s, parents were wrong to think that violent programming was the biggest threat to their kids.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Tommy's Tune

Warning: this one is not for actual viewing or listening pleasure, more for curious Broadway geeks who, like me, did not see the original 1982 production of Nine (songs by Maury Yeston, written by Arthur Kopit, directed by Tommy Tune and starring Raul Julia). Someone has posted clips of a pirated video recording of a Nine performance; it looks like the description implies, and you won't really understand a word of the songs (to hear how good the songs are -- and this may well have been the last truly great Broadway score -- you'll need to get the cast album), but it's a chance to see what the production looked like.

Tommy Tune's staging was the apotheosis of the "concept" musical, where the director's ideas are the basis for the whole show. Though adapting the movie 8&1/2 into a musical was Maury Yeston's idea, when Tune signed on to direct he made the whole thing very much his own by coming up with a bunch of gimmicks: having Guido, the protagonist, as the only adult male character in the show (everyone else was a woman or a young boy); having a huge non-specific set with lots of staircases and platforms; putting everybody in all-black costumes against the bright set. In some ways it probably made the show less emotionally engaging than it could have been; but on the other hand, Tune's approach turned what could have been a weird idea for a musical into a solid hit.

The other bit of Nine-related content on YouTube is a 30-second TV commercial for the show, with the late Anita Morris. (Her first number, "A Call From the Vatican," apparently really was not allowed on TV, though it's really no worse than what you could see most nights on ABC.)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Squash and Stretch and Sing Off-Key

The news that Tiny Toon Adventures is coming to DVD has produced some great comments from Jenny Lerew and writer Tom Minton.

Tom Minton's comment tells how the Japanese animation studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha came to work on the show. TMS's work helped both this show and Animaniacs immensely, because their shows looked so much better than most overseas studios' work and also because their animation style -- which involved a lot of "popping" from one pose to the next with smear drawings to effect the transition -- came off as sort of a TV-budget approximation of old-school cartoony animation, and made their shows look funnier and sharper than you'd expect from a TV cartoon. (TMS, which mostly handled action-adventure, also did fine work on action shows like Batman and Superman, but the advantages were less obvious; other studios could do a Batman episode that looked somewhat similar to a TMS show, but no one could even come close to a TMS Tiny Toons.)

Minton also notes that Steven Spielberg's involvement "allowed tons of money to be spent to virtually build a major TV animation studio from the ground up." Which is an interesting story that I don't think has ever really been told in full. Before Tiny Toons, Warners didn't have much of a TV animation operation. Only a few years later they had one of the biggest and most productive in TV. And only a few years after that, it kind of collapsed. It's a rise-and-fall story that involves a lot of talented people, and if anyone ever writes a book about the post-1988 boom and bust of animation (the boom that started with Roger Rabbit in 1988 and The Little Mermaid in 1989), that in its own way is as fascinating a story as the much more famous rise and fall of Disney's animation department.

Jenny's comment is partly about one of the problems that eventually helped sink this kind of show: the final product often wasn't nearly as good as the storyboards and layout drawings. Warners, like a lot of big studios, never really developed an efficient way to make sure that the overseas-animated cartoons matched the in-house artists' work, or of coming up with a good system for conveying what they wanted; this led to a lot of retakes, a lot of money spent inefficiently. (See John Kricfalusi's "My Notes to Korean Animation Studios" for more on this subject.)

One exception was the superhero unit headed by Bruce Timm; starting with very simple, pared-down character designs, they pared them down more and more with every project, the better to make sure that the characters could be animated the way Timm wanted them. But with something like Tiny Toons or Animaniacs -- where difficult-to-animate tufts of hair were added to Yakko and Wakko's faces at the last minute, so they wouldn't look like Mickey Mouse -- you could never be sure how they would look.

A Merrie Mash-Up

The new Looney Tunes DVD set includes some 1962 audio outtakes of proposed new arrangements of "Merrily We Roll Along" for the studio's new Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies titles. (Milt Franklyn, the studio's longtime orchestrator/composer, died not long after recording these new arrangements and they weren't used for the titles that were finally created.) I thought I'd have a go at combining one of these arrangements with the new LT/MM titles that were adopted in 1964. Note, however, that this is not how they would have actually gone together; for one thing, the title they finally used is a lot shorter, so I had to extend it to make the music and titles fit together.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Kennedy Cartoons Lives!

Ron "Keeper" O'Dell says that Tiny Toons will be coming to DVD next year, and this Earl Kress post would seem to back him up, obliquely.

Oddly enough, O'Dell's source says that Animaniacs volume 4 isn't currently in production; whether that means it's been stopped, or just that it won't come out until the first volume of Tiny Toons, I don't know. (The last 24 episodes of Animaniacs are mostly disappointing but they do contain some good cartoons -- like "Back in Style," a Tom Minton script similar to and just as good as his famous New Adventures of Mighty Mouse cartoon "Don't Touch That Dial.")

The Tiny Toons episodes were aired in a weird order and I have no idea which order they'll be in on the DVD; we're likely to get 24-25 episodes, but which ones is another question. They will include at least a few of the earliest-produced episodes, with contributions from Bob Camp, Jim Reardon, Eddie Fitzgerald (who actually stuck around for much of the series) and even John Kricfalusi (he designed a character, uncredited, for the episode "Who Bopped Bugs Bunny?"). There was a struggle between the non-drawing writers and the artists or artist/writers who had been drafted from The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse; for better or worse, the scriptwriters won pretty decisively as the series went on.

Hopefully the first volume of Tiny Toons will sell well, as future volumes will have some substantial music costs and Warners will have to be willing to spend more money on them. (I'm referring to the two music-video episodes, which used They Might Be Giants, Aretha Franklin and the Coasters among others.)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Music to Blink By

Mike Barrier has reprinted his, Bill Spicer's and Milt Gray's classic 1969 Funnyworld interview with Carl Stalling, the only published interview with the most influential cartoon music composer.

Stalling didn't have much of a background in composition and unlike Scott Bradley, he didn't aspire to write music that would stand on its own as music. A lot of his scores, when you hear them on their own, have their share of passages where nothing much is happening musically except a few chords or a chorus of a popular song; that's not a rap against them, just that this is not film music that can be separated from the film.

He was mostly concerned with technical challenges, which is what he mostly talks about in the interview: how to synchronize music to action, how to balance music with sound effects, how to find appropriate musical phrases to suggest physical actions. Synchronization was the essence of what he'd done as a silent-movie organist and what he did as a cartoon composer: he was always coming up with new and better ways to make the music fit the rhythm and actions of the picture, and while other cartoon composers wrote prettier or more complex music, no one ever wrote music that was as perfectly responsive to what was happening on the screen. And this helped to establish that music for a cartoon could truly enhance the humor, because the more the music mimicked the action, the funnier it was.

Also the choices of songs can make people laugh if they recognize how the reference matches the action ("The Lady in Red" for Little Red Riding Hood and so on). In a way all those musical references are the ancestors of today's common practice of reinforcing the action with appropriate popular songs. (And when I think of how many songs are on those soundtracks that Warners no longer owns, I sometimes wonder exactly how much it costs to clear all the music for a Looney Tunes DVD set.)

My favorite Stalling synchronization trick, which I don't think any other cartoon composer used on a regular basis (Bradley did it occasionally but only occasionally) is the "blink" effect, where he actually writes chords for a character's eyes blinking. Stalling -- and later Milt Franklyn, who used the same effect -- often did this after a big laugh line, where the director is holding for laughs and nothing is happening onscreen; needing some action to hit with the music, he goes for the blinking, because that's the only thing on the timing sheet. But it's a hilarious effect, even if it wasn't really meant to be heard (in theatres, these "blink" effects are usually drowned by audience laughter).

Old Broadway

In honor of Robert Goulet, someone has posted an excerpt of the musical The Happy Time, which won him a Tony for best actor in a musical. The Samuel Taylor play it was based on -- which had been filmed in 1952 with Louis Jourdan and Charles Boyer -- was a good choice for musicalization, being adapted from charming bittersweet stories about a family in small-town Quebec. It may have been too small a subject for 1968 Broadway, though (even Fiddler On the Roof, the obvious impetus for doing this material as a musical, has bigger themes and events in it; maybe audiences wanted this show to have a pogrom or two in it). And since it was done by the Hello, Dolly! team of producer David Merrick and director Gower Champion, both of whom specialized in big, loud and gimmicky shows, it was perhaps short on the charm that this subject matter needed.

But with some good songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and a cast that included David Wayne as the crotchety grandfather, it must have been an enjoyable evening. Despite Goulet's not-too-convincing French-Canadian accent.

THE SOPRANOS meets Mike Post

Yeah, I know I need to stop with the TV-intro remixes, but I was wondering, what would happen if The Sopranos had a Mike Post theme song?

That was the theme from Riptide; the theme from The A-Team works almost too well with the Sopranos intro -- if you dubbed in some voice-over at the beginning, and inserted clips here and there to match the explosion and crash sound effects, it would actually sort of work.