Monday, March 31, 2008

Jules Dassin Dies, But Never On Sunday

Jules Dassin died Monday at the age of 96.

Like Richard Widmark, whom he directed in Night and the City, Dassin is someone whose reputation was hugely enhanced by the renewed popularity of film noir. He made some great American postwar noirs and noir-ish films, and when work dried up in the U.S. due to the blacklist, he took the American noir style to France and made Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes, which completely revolutionized crime movies all over the world.

Rififi wasn't the first heist movie -- The Asphalt Jungle and The Lavender Hill Mob among other films had done something similar -- but its success made the "caper" movie, where the main focus is on an elaborate plan and how it plays out (and specifically how things don't go quite as planned), hugely popular for the next 15 or 20 years. Movies like The Pink Panther or shows like Mission: Impossible wouldn't exist without Dassin's film.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Obscure Musicals: KEAN

There are very few Broadway musicals that flopped even though they were completely satisfying. In fact, I'd say there haven't been any: if a show flops, it almost always had at least one really serious flaw. But the flawed musicals are often more interesting than many of the hits, which is why I often find myself listening to the flops and thinking about them more often than many of the hit shows.

One flop that was probably more interesting and ambitious than any hit musical of its season was Kean, a 1961 star vehicle for perhaps the greatest male star of the musical theatre, Alfred Drake. Most of the great stars of the musical stage have been women: Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Gwen Verdon. Drake didn't do as many shows as they did, but he was one of the few men, perhaps the only one, who was such a strong, larger-than-life personality that he could completely dominate an evening. He also had a larger-than-life persona to match any female superstar's: though he first became famous as the original lead in Oklahoma!, it was in Kiss Me, Kate and Kismet that he really came into his own by developing an unusual, tongue-in-cheek style. He had a good baritone voice, maybe not as good as some of his contemporaries, but he used it as a slightly over-the-top parody of old-fashioned musical theatre singing and performance. It was a tricky act because if he'd taken it even a little too far, he'd have wound up being campy and taking the audience out of the story; he didn't go too far, and the result that he came off as hipper and more self-aware, and more genuinely funny, than any romantic leading man in the history of musicals.

His greatest achievement was Kismet, a show that was tailor-made for his style: it was a tongue-in-cheek, deliberately over-the-top takeoff on operetta where the whole show was just like Alfred Drake himself. It's been said that Drake's performance in Kismet was the musical-comedy equivalent of Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, a one-of-a-kind performance that can't be described and can't be forgotten. After starring and directing in a flop non-musical play, Love Me Little (Drake didn't have as much luck with non-musicals as he did with musicals), he was ready to do another musical. Kean was essentially a self-produced vehicle; the credited producer was Robert Lantz, but Lantz was Drake's agent. Drake brought back many of the people who did Kismet, including songwriters Robert Wright and Chet Forrest; they had mostly specialized in adapting the music of other composers (Borodin in Kismet, most famously) but this time they were given the go-ahead to do a completely original score. And for the book, the production team hired a young and very talented writer, Peter Stone, who would go on to write Charade and 1776.

The source material for Kean was a play by Jean-Paul Sartre based loosely on the life of the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean. As set out in the musical, Kean's problem is, well, existential: he is only "real" when he's acting and he has no idea who he is offstage, no idea whether anything he feels or says is real or fake. He deals with two potential love interests (a woman who dumps him for the Prince Regent and a young aspiring actress who winds up playing Desdemona to his Othello); the climactic scene comes when Kean, forced to make a public apology, "lets Shakespeare apologize for him" by building his apology entirely out of Shakespeare quotes. By doing this he comes to terms with the fact that his identity is inseparable from his acting; "you make me real," he tells his audience.

This is pretty ambitious stuff for a musical, and it was, of course, perfect for Drake, who got to do absolutely everything: comedy, drama, romance, violence, Shakespearian acting and wearing awesome period costumes. It also had a fine production: Jack Cole, the great choreographer who had been a big part of the success of Kismet, directed and choreographed the whole show, bringing big splashy theatrical gestures to every scene, like the opening number, "Penny Plain, Tuppence Colored", where a street vendor walks down the theatre aisle and up onto the stage selling commemorative cards of Kean in his greatest roles.

The biggest flaw of the show, the crippling flaw, is that there was really no one and nothing for the audience to root for. Kean's identity crisis is very ambitious and raises a lot of questions about art and life, but it's not a very theatrical problem: because his problems are mostly internal and philosophical, they can't be clearly stated in song or script. And the problems that can be clearly stated -- romantic problems and so forth -- are not very interesting because they are subordinate to the philosophical problem. And so you had a great star performance in a great-looking show that didn't go much of anywhere.

A subordinate flaw was that Wright and Forrest, as songwriters, were better at writing for Drake than they were at writing genuinely memorable songs. (On their own, I mean; their Kismet songs are great, but most of them owe a big debt to Borodin.) I like the score, but it's not a great one. You can see why Drake wanted them for the show: they write to his strengths, all his strengths, and they are good at expressing some of the more obscure issues of the play in music and lyrics, but their melodies are more functional than memorable. "Sweet Danger," the big love ballad (and the closest the show came to having a hit), is typical: the music is essentially imitation Tchaikovsky, complete with that vaguely Slavic extention of the melody in its fourth phrase, but it does move the plot along and the lyrics are cleverly written to work either as a standard love song or a song of pretend Kean-style love: "We'll be in love, and we won't care."

Another song even more skilfully tailored to Drake's strengths, and almost certainly the best song in the score, is "To Look Upon My Love," where the first refrain is a love song and the second refrain is played for laughs.

But then there are other songs in the score that work theatrically but don't work so well as songs. Like "The Fog and the Grog," a song for Kean and his drinking buddies (including Chris "Mr. Belvedere" Hewett). Some people really like this number and I understand it went over well in the theatre. I find it hard to like, and the wordplay in the lyrics is the stupidest until (and similar to) Sondheim's "the puddle where the poodle did the piddle."

With mixed reviews and no hit songs, the show was always in trouble; it might have run longer on Drake's star power, but his health was not the best at the time, which caused him to start missing a lot of performances. This hurt the show in that it made it harder to make changes and fix it during the tryouts (a lot of changes were made after the Broadway opening, presumbably because by then Drake was in the show more consistently and they could judge how it was working). Anyway, the show closed after a little over 100 performances.

Kean, unfortunately, would be Drake's last original musical, though he did play the Maurice Chevalier part in the Broadway version of Gigi.

Friday, March 28, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Carlson For President"

The sixth episode of season 2, the plot every comedy is required by law to do at some point: a character runs for local office. The freelance script doesn't always get the characters quite right (well, Herb is totally in-character as the sleazy campaign manager), but the episode does have some excellent bits like the Star Wars commercial, the altered campaign poster, Les's Armenians line, and one of my favorite dialogue exchanges from the show, the "muy dinero" bit. Also, the episode contains a bunch of Nixon references.

WKRP s02e06 Carlson For President by carpalton

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tex Avery Speaks in 1933

I paid for a one-day pass to the archives of the Dallas Morning News and in the process of looking for something else, I found an interview with hometown boy Fred "Tex" Avery -- from 1933, when he was working on Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts. Some of the article is unreadable, but I'll attach it as an image file (click on it to see it enlarged) and transcribe some Tex quotes of interest:

"Sometimes when we are rushed or are behind on a picture we resort to cheating which means making a character do some one thing over and over. For instance, we'll make Oswald chase the dog for a longer stretch than usual. In this way we can use the same drawings over several times and save ourselves hundreds of drawings."

"Pooch the Pup is only six months old. He has lots of possibilities. But Oswald is about eight years old. Just now we are working for a bigger and better Oswald.'

"Every friday afternoon we have a gag meeting for the entire office force. We suggest a week beforehand in what locale the next picture is to be shot. The following Firday when each man comes to the gag meeting he has on hand all the gags he can think of to suggest as laughs for the next picture. Everybody in the office force passes on the gags to be used and we're a pretty hard bunch to please, because we always have more than we need. For each picture we have two such meetings.
"An example of thse gags was a bullet scene. It was a western and as usual the hero was shooting it out with the villain. The hero shot his gun and the villain shot his. There was a cut and the next scene showed a little bullet and a very large one running towards each other in mid-air. The little bullet saw the big one, squealed weakly and ran back into the barrel of the hero's gun. All of which was supposed to be good for a laugh."

"If a character is going to say 'hey,'" continued Mr. Avery, "We take a mirror and say 'hey' ourselves and see how our mouth looks and then draw him accordingly. Sometimes you'll see a fellow" (he calls them all kids or fellows for they're all between the ages of 24 and 30) "get up and start skipping down the aisle between the desks. We don't bother to even look surprised because he's just trying to see how to draw a character trying to skip."
"Do you have to be a finished cartoonist to be an animator?" we ventured timidly.
"Quite on the contrary. The secret in animating is first to have an everlasting sense of humour, next to be able to see the commonplace in a funny way and most important of all, to be able to sketch your idea so that the other person will think it's funny."

"Recently we've had the majority of our laughs as puns on the film stars. Of course, they're going to get enough of it soon and put a stop to it, but it's always good for a laugh while it lasts. I like drawing an animal with a mouth like Joe E. Brown or a nose like Schnozzle Durante."
"Do you ever see or work with any of the film stars?" (We had to ask the inevitable.)
"Oh, they come to visit all the time. They have as much curiosity as anyone and very few people know how animateds are really made. Nancy Carroll and Gary Cooper were in just a few days before I left [on vacation]. She's a cute trick and rather smart. Yes, Garbo has been in," and he laughed the I-knew-that-was-coming laugh. "They always create a little turmoil but it quickly subsides and everybody goes back to work."

"We had a heck of a time trying to get the sounds for a lone tree falling in one of the Pooch shorts. But finally we found that a bamboo pole slowly split would give the sound of the squeak that precedes a fall and then one of the boys stood on a chair and dropped another chair to the floor to give the crash as the tree hit the ground. It wasn't bad either. I do all the talking for Oswald in a little high squeaky voice and it ruins my throat for days. Another boy in the office who can throw his voice even higher talks for Kitty, Oswald's girl friend."

And the article also mentions his nickname:

Avery had on a [?] silver ring with "Tex" engraved on it, which brought forth a multitude of questions. It seems that as usual the Californians have dubbed him "Tex" so he was just wearing his hospital tag.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

RIP Richard Widmark

An unusual star whose reputation has increased in recent years with the renewed popularity of noir. A lot of his Fox movies are really more semi-noir than pure noir, but Widmark always felt like a noir icon, and along with Kirk Douglas he set the tone for a lot of lead actors to come by taking the brutality of his villains:

...And applying it to his "heroes":

Grudge Match: Carla Tortelli vs. Sophia Petrillo

Battle of the small, foul-tempered Italian ladies played by Jewish actresses in popular '80s NBC comedies: Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman) from Cheers vs. Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) from The Golden Girls.

Will Carla's unmatched RAGE™ and comparative youth give her the advantage, or will Sophia use her mafia experience and dirty-tricks ability to destroy Carla?

One thing is for sure: nobody is going to dare to try and break up this fight.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Phlegmation, or "We've Suffered Enough On Saturday Mornings"

I came across a taped-from-TV copy of one of the last good "Animaniacs" cartoons, "Back in Style" written by Tom Minton and directed by Liz Holzman. This cartoon was sort of a tour through animation of the early TV era; the Warners are loaned out by the struggling Warner Brothers to various cartoon companies (a take-off on Warners' loan-out of Porky and Daffy to Filmation's "Groovie Goolies").

Unfortunately the cartoon was animated by Akom, which had to do a lot of re-takes just to get the so-so level of animation in the finished cartoon, and the timing is not as sharp as the best earlier episodes of Animaniacs or Tiny Toons. (I don't know the exact reason for it, but even in cartoons animated by good studios like TMS, most the later "Animaniacs" cartoons seem to suffer from timing that's just slightly off and pacing that's just a little too slow.) But the slam on Filmation -- the endlessly recycled shots and walk cycles, the pointless voice-overs covering over-long establishing shots -- is a lot of fun and must have been very cathartic for ex-Filmation people.

Minton wrote a bit about this cartoon in comments at John K's blog last year.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

LOVE AFFAIR, Unluckiest Movie Of All Time

TCM ran Leo McCarey's Love Affair the other day, which reminded me that I'm not sure which of the many public-domain versions of this film to buy. Can anyone recommend a DVD of Love Affair that has decent picture/sound quality?

When I say Love Affair is the unluckiest movie of all time, I'm talking about what happened to it many years after it was released. This film really should have become one of the great classics of all time, since it has everything: one memorable scene after another, two great lead performances (Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer) and one equally memorable supporting performance (Maria Ouspenskaya). But the same director remade it as An Affair To Remember, and he remade it almost line-for-line and scene-for-scene. And since Love Affair fell into the public domain, it couldn't get the kind of exposure that it might have gotten had it been part of a studio library. (I know that It's a Wonderful Life became more popular because of its public-domain status but that doesn't usually happen. Most of the time a movie that falls into the public domain gets a bit devalued because it circulates in such terrible prints.) Which means that all the great scenes from Love Affair are best-known to the public in their Affair To Remember incarnations, and Love Affair, which should be known as a masterpiece, is instead mostly known as the trial run for AATR.

I think AATR is a good movie, but Love Affair is much better. The casting, for one thing, is better. Grant and Kerr are fine in AATR (Grant in particular is way better than he usually was in the '50s, an example of how much more he gave when he had a director he respected) but they are both a little bit miscast. These are parts that were tailored to Boyer and Dunne, the charming Continental playboy and the spunky American singer. Cathleen Nesbitt can't compete with Maria Ouspenskaya in the original, either. And while McCarey's technique is very much the same in both films -- he has the basic dialogue and blocking but he lets the actors improvise bits of business and delivery, and tries to make the scenes come out as natural as possible -- everything in the remake is just a little more formal and souped-up than the original. The ending is a sure-fire tear-jerker both times, but in the original, Boyer and Dunne are so natural together that you almost feel, as in all of McCarey's best movies, that they're not really "acting." And there's a bit more comedy cutting through the sentiment even here: look at the reaction shot of Boyer when Dunne tells him "if you can paint, I can walk."

Because it was remade, Love Affair's uniqueness has been de-valued a bit, but it really is an extraordinary combination: a romantic comedy combined with tearjerker soap opera combined with religious drama combined with elements of the musical. I can't think of an American director other than McCarey who could have brought off this mish-mash and made it all feel organic and somehow real. The remake is good, but the seams show: the elements don't cohere.

This brings us to the fact, as a commenter once pointed out here, that Irene Dunne was a very unlucky movie star in that many of her best films were remade starring other people. When studios remade an older film, they tended to withdraw it from circulation for a while so as not to create comparisons. (And when MGM remade Show Boat they bought Dunne's version from Universal just so they could prevent it from being reissued.) She was one of the greatest stars of her time, certainly the most versatile, but the fact that so many of her movies were un-promoted for so long made her more obscure than she ought to be.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Studio System Was Better In My Day

Reading this AV Club interview with Amy Heckerling, one thing caught my eye:

When I did Clueless, there was a big studio system that had marketing and distribution people who knew what they were doing, and had an idea of what TV shows movies should be advertised on, and did research into who liked which movie, and what they watch and what they read, and how much it costs to reach them. These people who knew how to make posters and advertisements. You know, I liked that machine. It worked.

Now, nothing she's saying there is incorrect. The Paramount/Scott Rudin axis of 1995 certainly did a very good job of promoting Clueless. But... here it is 2008 and you have a filmmaker talking about how much better and stronger the studio system was in the '90s. But in the '90s, you had directors talking about how much better things were in the '80s (when there were more small and mid-sized studios like Orion). And in the '80s, everybody was nostalgic for the '70s system, except that if you actually had to live through the chaotic process of getting a movie financed in the '70s, when the studios were all being taken over by corporate wheeler-dealers, you longed for the '60s when the old-guard studio bosses were still around. And, well, you see where this is going.

Apart from the tendency of filmmakers to be nostalgic for the time when they were still making hit movies, I think that ever since the studio system started to fall apart in the late '40s, the system has never fully gone away, it's just gotten a little bit weaker every decade. Studios today have less of an individual identity than they did in the '90s, but studios in the next decade will make the '00s seem like the last great gasp of the studio system by comparison. And, yes, you will hear Michael Bay or whoever's career implodes in the next few years expressing nostalgia for the strong studio system and enlightened executives of 10 years ago.

Addendum: Just to clarify, I think there's no huge co-relation between the strength of the studio system in a particular decade and the quality of the movies being made in that decade. (The '70s was a better movie decade than the '60s, after all.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Baseball"

By requests, the first episode produced for the second season (third in broadcast order), the softball game between WKRP and WPIG. Written and directed by Hugh Wilson. This is one of the few episodes to use an original musical score, by Tom Wells, who composed the main title theme (and also did the theme music for Buffalo Bill).

The episode features the second and last appearance (on the original series anyway) of writer Bill Dial as the station engineer, Bucky. Also, Ross Bickell, who plays the manager of WPIG, was married to Loni Anderson at the time. Since she was having an affair with her co-star Gary Sandy, it must have made for an awkward shoot.

Update: It's come to my attention in comments that the version I edited together may be missing one gag that was cut in syndication. I can't fix it now, but I'll check my copies of the episode and try to re-upload the corrected version, but I'll leave the episode up anyway until then. Like I've said often, creating "complete" versions of WKRP episodes can be hard to do. Turns out the gag is not in the original CBS version; I don't know if it ever existed or if CBS cut it at some point. Anyway the version below is, as far as I know, complete.

Update: I found the missing shot and put it back in. Apparently CBS cut it from some repeats because of the drug reference.

Cold Opening and Act 1:

Act 2:

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wildcat Jones, What's Happened to You?

I don't want to do too many negative posts, but after I found this I had to mention it: one of the worst songs ever written for a movie, and one of the worst scenes from a movie from a great director, is "Wildcat Jones" from Howard Hawks' Red Line 7000 (1965).

The really sad thing about Red Line 7000 is that you can see Hawks trying to do all the things he'd been doing in action/adventure movies for decades (by the '60s, all his movies were largely re-hashes of his earlier work, or Hawks "greatest hits" compilations where people in the know could pick out where each bit came from). But it just doesn't work with the less-than-adequate cast, script, music, set design and photography. Most other Hawks movies had a singing scene, and most of them were good, but for this scene he used a really atrocious song, poorly delivered by his latest attempt to create a new Lauren Bacall, Gail Hire, and with a weirdly-gyrating group of backup dancers (including the young Terri Garr).

The only thing that makes the scene palatable is the occasional shot of Marianna Hill. Who probably should have been up there instead of Gail Hire, since Hill actually could sing and dance.

Not long after this movie was released, Hawks participated in a Q&A discussion with film students and fans, and one question was: "I have trouble convincing my friends that Red Line 7000 is a masterpiece. What should I tell them?" To his credit, Hawks' response was what it always was when he made a bad movie: "I don't think that picture is any good."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The question is, like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is: none.

Generally speaking I assume any question even vaguely relating to The Beatles has been definitively answered somewhere, but I couldn't find an answer to this one: was the famous cover of the "White Album" influenced by the cover of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem?"

Just to recap the story behind that cover: Britten recorded his pacifist "War Requiem" (sort of a "make love, not war" piece before that became fashionable) for Decca/London in 1963, a year after its premiere. After the recording was made, Britten's producer, John Culshaw, wasn't satisfied with any of the potential covers that the art department came up with. Finally it was decided to use a very simple cover based on the cover of the published score: just the composer's name and the title of the work in white letters against a black background. Culshaw argued that the stark black cover would actually stand out more among the other records in store windows. (The original cover did not have the record company logo as prominently displayed as this CD reissue, which kind of spoils the effect.)

The "War Requiem" recording was a gigantic best-seller, probably the biggest-selling recording ever made of a new work of "classical" music. The Beatles had probably heard the album as had the people they worked with. And the idea behind the White Album always seemed a bit similar to me -- it uses a white background instead of black, but the principle is the same: no cover art to speak of, just the background and the name (not even a title in this case). And again, back when covers were more important than they became in the CD age, to say nothing of the download era, the idea may have actually worked better than another elaborate cover would have: everybody was doing elaborate cover art by that point, so a plain white cover in the middle of a display actually stood out.

Hey, It's That '60s Chick!

There's a YouTube user called "donfardon" who has a rather large collection of clips from Italian movies from the '60s. And I'm not talking your Fellinis, Antonionis, and Leones here, but the bread-and-butter of the Italian film industry in the '60s (which may have been the busiest in the world): super-cheap movies with beautiful '60s starlets. The Americans made movies like these too in the same period, often with the same actresses, but except for the Dean Martin Matt Helm movies, which look and feel a lot like these Italian cheapies, the U.S. films tried harder to be respectable and offer good production values, or good songs, or something. A movie like The Pleasure Seekers is essentially an exploitation movie, but it tries very hard not to be one. Also, whereas American movies almost always tried to feature young and handsome men as well, the Italian movies never really seemed to care much about that; they were more into comedies that would pair a starlet with an aging star like Vittorio Gassman.

Many of these actresses were working simultaneously in several countries as all-purpose decorations. In the '60s, there were a ton of movies and TV shows that called for beautiful actresses to be there not so much as characters but as promotional materials: they might not have much to do with the stories (which were usually mostly about men) but they would adorn the movie/episode well and they could be used in promo pictures and posters. That's what people mean when they talk about "'60s chicks," these beautiful actresses who traveled from country to country, from movie to TV show, from Elvis to Mastroianni to Star Trek, purely as window dressing. Sometimes an actress would start out that way and then manage to move up to better things, like Jacqueline Bisset. Others would just stay stuck in the role of intercontinental movie babe, like Sylva Koscina.

Then there were the many Americans who went to Italy. Some, like Barbara Bouchet, moved there because they couldn't get decent parts in America and while the Italian movies they were in weren't necessarily great, they were at least getting lead parts instead of being the Star Trek or Man From U.N.C.L.E. girl of the week. Here she is in a scene with Lando Buzzanca, whom you'll remember from Divorce Italian Style as well as some of Italy's James Bond knockoffs (he played "James Tont"). Note the cocktail-organ music.

And then there were the lost starlets (tm) for whom Italian movies were a form of exile: Ann-Margret did some Italian quickies in the late '60s when she was considered washed-up in America.

You can also see clips from some of the more obscure projects of bona fide Italian stars, like Monica Vitti. (Remember, we usually see only the "A" projects for non-U.S. stars; the big picture is that most working actors, including lead actors, make a bunch of run-of-the-mill commercial films too.)

I doubt there are any hidden masterpieces in this collection, but that's not the point; the point is that it gives a fuller idea of what Italian filmmaking was like in this period. By which I mean, a lot less L'Avventura and a lot more of this:

One More SWARM-ecdote

After I posted on The Swarm I looked around and couldn't find this anecdote posted anywhere else, so here's a story Richard Chamberlain (who had also been in Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno) told on TVOntario's Saturday Night at the Movies about Irwin Allen's directorial, um, style:

Allen is about to do a scene involving some of the real (de-stung) bees who had been brought in for the film. Suddenly Allen looks dissastisfied. "Wait," says Irwin Allen. "There's a humming noise in here. Who's making that humming noise?"

Michael Caine stares at the director/producer. "Irwin," he says, "that's the bees."

Allen: "Well, why are they humming?"

There is a pause as Caine struggles to resist the obvious punchline, and then, finally, he can't stop himself: "I don't know, Irwin. Maybe they don't know the words."

Irwin didn't get it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

When Bad '80s Sitcoms Happen To Good British Comics

In the last couple of days I've re-discovered not one, but two short-lived U.S. sitcoms starring great British comedians who were hoping to pull a Dudley Moore. (That is, become a big success by doing their British thing in an American setting.) The first is "The Two of Us" (1981), a remake of the British show "Two's Company." The original starred Elaine Stritch as an American living in England who clashes with her snobby British butler; the U.S. version had the same situation except the show took place in America, the woman was played by Mimi Kennedy and the butler was played by Peter Cook. This was just after Dudley Moore had become a big star in America and it seemed logical for Cook to try his luck there, especially in a pre-tested property, but based on what I've seen of it, the show just wasn't very funny. Not terrible, just not very well written and without taking full advantage of Cook's amazing talent.

The other one is "Nearly Departed" (1989), starring Eric Idle, which I actually watched at the time on NBC. I strongly suspect that I was its only viewer, since it only lasted four episodes. (Some additional unaired episodes were shown in England.) It was like Topper but probably directly inspired by the success of Beetlejuice with Idle and all-purpose floating sitcom player Caroline McWilliams as a couple of ghosts who live in a house with an annoying sitcom family that includes the always entertainingly daffy Wendy Schaal (whose father, Richard, appears in the "Two of Us" clip above). The only person in the family who can see the ghosts is the grandpa, once again re-enforcing the message all Hollywood executives believe: old people might as well be dead anyway so why shouldn't they be able to communicate with ghosts? The director of the show was the great John Rich.

As I recall, the show was a bit funnier than "The Two of Us," mostly because Idle was sometimes allowed to break out of the format and do his thing. I remember in one episode, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, he did a monologue for a full minute in the voice of his ex-employer David Frost. (You'll remember that Idle did his Frost impression a number of times on Monty Python including the classic Frost-bashing sketch "The Timmy Williams Show.") There was no excuse given for this; he just said: "Hi, everyone, I'm David Frost," and started doing the voice. Very dopey show, but at least you got the feeling that it was just a dopey show rather than the sinking feeling I got with "The Two of Us" that this part could have been played by anybody. (Of course, unlike Peter Cook, Idle then went on to do a whole bunch of other stuff in America, including some things that were even worse than "Nearly Departed," like the final season of "Suddenly Susan.")

And one more thing, if you've gotten this far: a promo for "The Two of Us" actually uses the term "With hilarious consequences." And here I always kind of thought it was a made-up cliche that no TV announcer had actually used.

Friday, March 14, 2008

WKRP Episode: "A Family Affair"

Going back to the second season, here's an episode written by Tim Reid (though as usual Hugh Wilson's "voice" seems pretty strong in parts of the script). Andy's sister visits, Venus blows off work to show her around town, Andy gets upset and then over-compensates out of guilt for getting upset. Solid episode and not a "very special" episode despite the subject matter; it helps that it has a lot of little story threads for other characters that all come together in the closing scene.

The subplot about Herb being injured was written in because Frank Bonner had had an accident (I think it may actually be a skydiving accident) not long before this episode was taped. That's why the audience applauds for him (usually against MTM house policy) when he makes his entrance. Also, this was one of two episodes from the second season that had the guys from the station hanging out at a local redneck bar; the idea seems to have been to give the characters a place to hang out after work, but it was dropped. NewsRadio had a similar thing: they did two episodes with the characters hanging out at a bar after work, and then dropped it and just had everybody stay at the office all the time.

Music includes: "Lie to Me" by the Durocs; "Foxy Lady" by Jimi Hendrix; "I Am Woman" by Helen Reddy; "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by Joan Baez; "Coward of the County" by Kenny Rogers; "Viva Las Vegas" briefly sung by Johnny. Also there's one other song in the bar scene that I'm not sure of.

WKRP s02e14 A Family Affair by carpalton

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Fun For Americans Only

This is irrelevant to anyone who's not in the U.S., since still blocks access to un-American computers, but they seem to have added some additional episodes recently. Most shows still don't have their full runs available and many are still stuck at one season (like WKRP which only has the one season as chopped up and wrecked for DVD release), but there are some season 3 and 4 episodes of Barney Miller, and those awful episodes of Archie Bunker's Place where they announced that Mike had abandoned Gloria just so they could spin her off, in addition to the stuff that was already on there, like the first season of Lou Grant. In the guilty-pleasure category they have the third season of Weird Science (which has most of the best episodes but will probably not be on DVD) and some even more obscure '90s USA network shows like Campus Cops.

There are ways to disguise your ISP and get into Hulu even if you're not in the U.S., but I haven't figured out how to do it yet. So for the moment, Hulu is for you-lu if you're in Maine or Honolulu, but you're out of luck if you're a Canuck or a Zulu.

Theatre in Music

I know that Amadeus has nothing to do with the actual Mozart, but one thing I did think the movie version got right -- maybe in spite of itself -- is the fact that Mozart was, perhaps above all, a composer with a real feel for theatre. I'm thinking of the scene where he gets excited in talking about the long second-act finale of The Marriage of Figaro and explaining how he managed to carry off a 20-minute comedy sequence in music. Other composers knew how do do drama or character in music, but Mozart may have been the first opera composer to really understand how music works with stage action and makes it better and funnier. And one reason why his best operas work so well in performance, and are so hard for directors to kill, is that the timing and pacing of the scenes is inherent in the music and can't be wrecked even by bad staging.

I was thinking about this when I came upon this clip from the 2006 Covent Garden production of Figaro (with Canadian Gerald Finley as the Count), with one of the first big "plot" numbers in the opera, the trio for the Count, Susanna and Basilio. The number doesn't start until 3:55 in this video -- what comes before is recitative with harpsichord, which in Italian comic operas is the equivalent of spoken dialogue in German and French comic opera. (Figaro has quite a lot of recitative because it has so much plot that has to be explained quickly before it can move on to a number.) Anyway, this four-minute number is a milestone in the history of theatre because it was one of the first musical numbers where the stage action didn't stop: usually the plot exposition ends with the recitative and the number reflects on what happened, but instead the number just keeps going with the plot and builds to the big surefire laugh of the opera (and the original play).

But what's really impressive is the way Mozart manages to get so much into only four minutes, and use music to make the scene even funnier than it was in the play. First off he has different themes and emotional states for each character (and the Count and Basilio reprise their themes at different points, which rounds the whole number off and gives it a formal shape). Then he throws in musical cues that are so specific that they drive the stage action: the bit where Susanna pretends to faint, and the Count and Basilio use it as an excuse to feel her up (I'm sorry: listen to her heartbeat) is the same in almost every staging, even "revisionist" stagings, because the music is so sleazy at that point that the director really has only one way to play it. The joke of having Basilio repeat "Ah, what I said about the page was only my suspicion," the same music and words with two different meanings at two different parts of the number, is a joke that Mozart added (it was not in the original libretto). The Count also briefly starts singing Basilio's theme when he's telling his story of the last time he was sneaking around, which, I recall a critic pointing out, establishes in a few seconds that he uses the same underhanded methods as his shifty henchman. And for the big reveal, Mozart may have been the first composer to figure out how to time for laughs: the music almost fades away to nothing, just enough to keep the scene going but timed just right to get the laugh, milk the laugh, and segue into the end of the number.

A lot of good composers didn't really have this feel for theatre. Wagner believed that his operas were the greatest achievements in theatre ever, and he did try to time his music to stage action, but a lot of his music is not all that well timed, often too long or short or fast or slow for the action he's calling for.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

That Dude Was the Hero?

I recently read The Caine Mutiny -- have you ever read a novel after seeing its stage/screen adaptations, and been surprised to realize that an apparently minor character was actually the hero of the book? It hadn't occurred to me that Willie Keith, played by the fifth-billed Robert Francis in the movie and not much of a presence in the play, is the main character of the book. It's not the only time when an important character from the novel, or even the hero, is less important when the story is adapted to a different medium; for some reason it seems more striking than usual because the most important part of any adaptation is the court-martial -- that's the part that is the basis for the play, after all -- and the book's "hero" isn't a very important figure in the court-martial scenes.

Actually I found that the biggest weakness of the novel was the fact that it was about Willie, who is an asshole. And while it would be one thing if Wouk had actually set out to write about an asshole, he appears to think he's writing the story of a callow youth who becomes a man due to the experience of war. (Wouk signals throughout the book that he's trying to write an alternative to the war novels written by the likes of Tom Keefer, about how bad war is and how rotten the military is; the point of Caine is that while war is awful and you have to put up with horrible commanders, the experience can also make people better and stronger.) But that's not what Willie is. He starts the novel as a snobbish mama's boy who gets everything wrong, and he continues to be that way through most of the book. It doesn't help that Wouk's sexism sort of wrecks the romance plot of the book. Specifically, when Willie feels contempt for May because she slept with him (the slut!), Wouk seems to treat this as if it might possibly have some validity when in fact it just establishes Willie as a despicable schmuck.

Still, a novel with a weak hero can still be worth reading -- if an uninteresting or unsympathetic hero destroyed a novel, many of Dickens' novels would be worthless -- and the good parts of Caine deserve their iconic status. The steel bearings bit in particular, I don't think any adaptation has really added much to it; it works better when you can imagine it, and the famous Barney Greenwald speech, preachy though it always is, is one of those things that works better on the page when an actor is not making a meal of it.

Also, while Wouk's conservative viewpoint sinks him when it comes to female characters (in this book at least) it does help a lot in giving an entertaining slap in the face to the pop-Freudianism that had infested American novels, plays and movies since the '40s. Actually in some ways it's more interesting for its viewpoint on literature than its viewpoint on war or the military. Tom Keefer is a typical American literary intellectual and, like most literary intellectuals of his period, he analyzes everything in terms of pseudo-Freudian nonsense. His fake-Freud "reading" of Captain Queeg takes in Steve Maryk -- who figures that if Keefer is a brilliant intellectual he's got to be on to something. The theme of the novel is, to hell with Freudianism, stop complicating everything: sometimes people are just mean and nasty and stupid and there doesn't have to be a deep psychological motivation for it.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Just Because

(Tune: "Love Potion # 9")

I took my troubles to the Emperor's Club,
For understanding and a special rub.
They gave me a form and a questionnaire to sign,
And told me that my title was "Love Client # 9."

I said to Kristen: "I'm a fool for love,
And incidentally, I am not the gov.
I don't like corruption, except, of course, for mine,
And honey, please address me as 'Love Client # 9.'"

I bent down, and turned around, and felt in the pink,
I thought my store of worries would continue to shrink,
But then those stupid wiretaps uncovered the link.
The papers and the late-night hosts all made a stink.

I'm kind of angry at the New York Times.
They ought to cover more important crimes.
But if things get bad and they force me to resign,
I'll run again with my new name: "Love Client # 9."

No Fade-Outs

This is not something I would expect anyone else to ever notice, but... has anyone else ever noticed that a lot of TV shows from the '70s and '80s don't have any fades or any other transitions to commercial breaks? Especially action shows. If you watch The A-Team (or virtually any other Cannell production) or The Fall Guy and a whole bunch of other action shows that are even more obscure and have even more car chases and explosions, they never fade out or fade in; when it's time for a commercial, they just cut to black, and when the commercial break is over, they cut back to the next scene. It's clear that the negatives don't have any fade-outs or fade-ins and instead they just insert breaks where the commercials are supposed to occur, but there's nothing else to get us in and out of commercial breaks.

I never really noticed this before and I probably shouldn't have noticed it now, but I find it odd, since I'm so used to network television shows making a big deal out of act breaks. Even when they don't fade out, they find some way to tell us that the act is over. Like the "whoosh" music sting that Buffy the Vampire Slayer had before every act break and which other shows have copied since then. These shows have nothing like that. A lot of times the act breaks don't even occur on anything exciting; they'll go out and go back in again almost at random.

I think the first show to do away with fade-outs and fade-ins might have been Mission: Impossible, which also did away with dissolves and most other optical effects. The point there was to keep the tension going at all times; the time it took to fade out or in would dissipate the tension just a little bit because when you fade, you have to "hold" on the action just a little bit. That's probably one reason for these sudden transitions. Another reason may be that a lot of these action-adventure TV writers were influenced by Roy Huggins, who believed in writing without act breaks because "a good story can break anywhere." That would explain the seemingly random breaks.

And it might just be that the idea was to make it easier to sell these episodes to overseas markets; overseas networks might want to put commercial breaks in different places (or have fewer commercial breaks) so the negatives of TV episodes were prepared without breaks.

In fact it's kind of a shame, if a minor one, that the DVDs of these '80s shows don't take the obvious step and join the acts together without the one or two seconds of black screen -- take those out and you'd have episodes with no visible commercial break points at all, which would make the DVD experience more fun. I feel the same way about the DVDs of the U.S. version of The Office (another show with no fade-outs or fade-ins) -- it would be so easy to take out the commercial break spots and I think it's basically laziness on Universal's part that they don't do it.

This has been the most nit-picky post ever, but hey, at least it's not negative.

Grudge Match: Potsie Weber vs. Ralph Malph

The Fonz and Richie Cunningham have decided that from now on they can only carry one useless sidekick instead of two. And so Potsie Weber (Anson Williams) and Ralph Malph (Donny Most) decide to fight for the right to be the stars' friends. Winner of the fight gets to continue hanging out with Richie and Fonzie. Loser is condemned to hang out with Chachi for all eternity.

Who wins this battle of the sitcom sidekicks?

Friday, March 07, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Real Families"

Again, I should really be doing this more in order, but before I get back to the second season episodes I thought I'd upload one of the most famous third-season episodes: "Real Families," where Herb and his family are profiled on a reality show hosted by Peter Marshall (Hollywood Squares) and Daphne Maxwell (who met her future husband, Tim Reid, on this show and later co-starred with him on Hugh Wilson's Frank's Place).

Apart from taking potshots at three current shows -- Real People, That's Incredible and 60 Minutes, with some nasty comments about what people will put themselves through to get on TV -- it's influenced by the gimmick episodes of M*A*S*H and Albert Brooks's Real Life, but it works on its own terms as a funny/painful look at Herb -- who pretty much dominated the third season -- and his relationships with his family and co-workers from an "outsider" perspective. And because it's shot in mock-documentary style, with no laugh track and many awkward pauses, portions of it seem to present Herb as a predecessor of David Brent/Michael Scott on The Office. It was also the last time we got to see Edie McClurg as Herb's wife (she reappeared on The New WKRP but that just doesn't count).

This version restores the original guest voice, Johnny Olson as the announcer (his voice was replaced in some reruns). Music includes "Peg" by Steely Dan, "She's So Cold" by the Rolling Stones, "Once In a Lifetime" by Talking Heads, and a bunch of other songs playing in the background at the station.

Cold opening (where the WKRP characters don't appear at all except in a picture; the decision to go two minutes pretending to be some other show apparently caused this episode to get poor ratings, as viewers thought WKRP had been moved again and changed the channel):

Act 1:

Act 2:

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Beginning of the End For WBA

Another anniversary that is occurring this year -- this fall, to be exact -- which will not be celebrated by anyone is the 10th anniversary of the 1998-99 TV season on the WB network, and the beginning of the end for the WB TV animation unit that had started less than a decade earlier.

I've gone into this before, but in brief: in 1995, the WB network co-opted most of the WB TV cartoons for itself, taking them off the Fox network where they were more at home. By 1996, there was frustration at the overly-wide demographic appeal of shows like Animaniacs, Freakazoid! and Superman; by appealing to all ages, they made it harder for advertisers to target the very young kids they wanted to sell toys to, and the WB actually had to return some of the advertisers' money because of the failure to pull in the tiny tots. So Jamie Kellner, head of the WB, eventually laid down a rule that shows for kids should be about kids.

And around the same time, 1996, the FCC announced that networks were required to carry several hours of "educational" programming -- not just kids' programming but shows that were meant to teach something. This ruling was an underrated factor in helping to kill off the new sophistication and intelligence that some (I said, some) animated programs had displayed in the '90s, and should be a warning to all about what happens when the government sets incredibly vague and confusing rules about what we should watch. So the WB had to find a spot on its Saturday morning lineup for an educational show -- they tried Mark Evanier's "Channel Umptee-3" first, but quickly canceled it -- and Tom Ruegger pitched the idea of filling the spot an Animaniacs-style comedy series that would teach children about history.

And finally, the failure of Batman and Robin meant that there was much less interest at Warner Brothers, and among children, in the big superhero franchises; the network brought the Batman cartoon to the network in 1997 but lost interest once it was clear that there wouldn't be any more Batman live-action movies for a while.

With the long lead time for animation, the changes were not fully implemented until fall of 1998, but the results were unmistakable: the most high-profile new shows were Batman Beyond, a younger-skewing version of Batman; Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain, a younger-skewing network-mandated re-tool, and Histeria!, which was essentially Animaniacs for younger children and with an FCC-approved educational bent.

Of these new shows, Batman Beyond was obviously the best and the worst was not Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain (which had its funny moments and was actually quite well-liked by some of the artists who worked on it) but Histeria! The show was well-intentioned, I think; the WB didn't want Animaniacs or Tiny Toons type shows any more and the producers saw a way to sneak that kind of humor back onto the network using the FCC guidelines as an excuse. The producers even followed the Animaniacs pattern by hiring a bunch of talented Groundlings comics to join the writing staff, among them Brian Palermo and Alex Borstein. But the show just wasn't funny. By comparison with the historical sketches on Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain the similar stuff on Histeria! didn't work at all, even when the jokes were all right. And this was due to a fundamentally flawed decision, to give the show a sketch-comedy feel by having a cast of characters who would play different roles in every skit. Since the characters had no real personalities of their own (well, there was the "Loud Kiddington" kid whose only feature was that he yelled a lot), there was no fun in seeing them get involved in historical situations. And the need to be historically accurate probably limited the extent to which the show could be funny, although the Canadian show History Bites took the same concept around the same time and made it work.

The other problem with the show is that it looked ugly, and I mean really, really ugly. This was a time when Warners was apparently experimenting with using less complicated designs than they'd been using on their previous comedy shows; there were so many details on The Brain or Wakko Warner that the animators could never draw them the same way twice, and the idea, I think, was to do simplified designs that would allow the storyboards and layouts to be more accurately reproduced overseas. But the Histeria! characters all had hideous bug eyes, weird bumps on their faces and scary-looking chins; I think it was a little based on Bruce Timm's angular style but it mostly looked bad. And the "Big Fat Baby" character, a design apparently based on a child's drawing, was really a pain to look at. Ruegger gave the producer-director spot on the show to Bob Doucette, who had also produced his last flop show, Road Rovers, and Jon McClenahan, who directed a few episodes, recalled that "Bob was a very talented layout artist but not much of an animation director."

The upshot was that Histeria! consisted almost entirely of the following: ugly characters trying to explain a historical event or person by analogizing it to something from pop-culture. I mean that was every sketch in every episode. If Animaniacs and Tiny Toons were unjustly accused of relying entirely on pop-culture references instead of humor, the accusation was right when it came to Histeria! Case in point (and this just happened to be the first clip I could find):

The things the show had going for it were few: some of the voice actors (though too many roles were played by Tom Ruegger's sons), some of the music (it was the last show Richard Stone worked on before his untimely death), a few song contributions by Randy Rogel and a few bits guest-written by Paul Rugg (who'd left WB by that time). Other than that, the show just didn't work, and it had no clear audience: the pop-culture refs made it unappealing to little kids, the educational stuff (and the general unfunniness) made it unappealing to older viewers, and looking at the show was no fun for almost anyone. It didn't have the popularity or prestige of the Spielberg productions and didn't pull in the WB's desired demographic, so the show was cut short before it had completed its original order of 65 episodes, and that was pretty much the end of the comedy unit of WB animation.

I should note that there are Histeria! fans -- the comments on YouTube seem pretty favorable -- but I don't agree with them. (Others will ask how I could like Animaniacs and dislike Histeria!, and all I can say is I find the former funny and the latter not so much.)

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

More Adventures in Acting

Thanks to an anonymous commenter for pointing out another classic bit of bad dialogue reading, from the cult film -- no, really, it does have a genuine cult following and a documentary has been made about its astounding awfulness -- Troll 2.

I know that "Oh, my goooooooooooooooood" is the iconic line from this clip but I actually crack up more at "They're eating her! And then they're going to eat me!"

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Giuseppe Di Stefano

The tenor Giuseppe "Pippo" Di Stefano died yesterday at the age of 86.

He's best known for many performances and recordings alongside Maria Callas; they were both under contract to EMI in the '50s and he was the tenor lead on most of her complete opera recordings. (They also had a brief, unhappy reunion tour in the '70s; the recital recording they made at that time was so bad that it was never released.)

He was a bit similar to Luciano Pavarotti (whom he outlived) and Jose Carreras in that he had what was basically an exceptionally beautiful lyric tenor voice but pushed it too hard in big, heavy roles. But while Pavarotti continued to sing well for many years, Di Stefano combined his over-heavy roles with a lack of discipline -- record producer John Culshaw recalled that his party-hard lifestyle seemed to mean more to him than singing -- and so he'd all but ruined his beautiful voice by the early '60s. You can hear this very clearly if you compare two excellent recordings of Puccini's Tosca. Di Stefano sounds great on the famous 1953 recording with Callas; in 1962 he recorded the opera again in Vienna with Leontyne Price and Herbert Von Karajan conducting, and he sounds very strained.

Here is what Culshaw wrote about his first encounter with Di Stefano in his (not always reliable) autobiography, "Putting the Record Straight":

At the mere mention of his name, stage and recording producers had been known to turn white and run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. He had little respect for most of his fellow artists and hardly any at all for conductors. Rehearsals bored him. Above all, he liked the elegant pastimes of life (such as fine food and fast cars), and he was a compulsive gambler with a very unreliable track-record. Yet I took to him at once. Although he was still a relatively young man, his voice was already beginning to show signs of the wear and tear imposed by the life he lived; but he was in all other respects intelligent, and as a musician he was a natural. The eventual, almost total breakdown of his voice some ten years later was attributable to a life-style he could not abandon because it meant more to him than singing. Even at his worst, almost everyone forgave him everything, partly because of his intelligence, partly because of his Sicilian good looks, but mostly because of his charm. It is apt to use the cliche that he could charm the birds out of the trees, except one would have to add that Pippo -- as just about everyone called him -- would then doubtless proceed to eat them alive.

Here he is sometime in the '50s (not sure what year) in Rigoletto:

Here's an audio clip of him in 1950 (in his prime, in other words) singing Madame Butterfly with Renata Tebaldi in a broadcast recording from San Francisco.

Producers Turned Directors

With all the Irwin Allen mockery, there's a semi-serious question that arises when you look at his filmography: why do producers make such bad directors? Allen started as a producer, moved into directing, found success when he stopped directing and stuck to producing, and finally humiliated himself completely when he returned to directing for The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.

There's a long-established history of producers, including many better producers than Irwin Allen, proving to be bad directors. Irwin Winkler may be the best-known example of a good producer who made a bad director. Stanley Kramer had more success as a director, but even his supporters and friends admitted that he wasn't a particularly talented director.

Gabriel Pascal is another one of the classic examples: after Pygmalion was a success he took over directing for the follow-up Shaw adaptation, Major Barbara, and came up with a movie that was not as good or as successful as its predecessor. And even on Broadway, producers have a bad track record when they try to direct: the producing team of Feuer and Martin (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed) was the most successful in the business until Cy Feuer started directing their shows himself, at which point they started flopping.

Now obviously there have been some producers who made good directors. Alan Pakula did all right, at least for a while. And Joseph L. Mankiewicz was mostly a producer before he started, as was Albert Lewin. But both Mankiewicz and Lewin were screenwriters long before they started producing, so they might be more correctly pegged as writers-turned-directors.

So why is it that there are many successful writers-turned-directors, but very few successful producers-turned-directors? I guess that the easiest answer is that producing and directing require different skills, but then why is it that there are so many directors who successfully become their own producers? The reason directors start producing is that they want to have more control over their films (in studio-system Hollywood, where producers held the power, any director who was any kind of auteur would want to produce his own movies eventually). But theoretically, the same thing could apply to producers; the reason Stanley Kramer started directing his own movies is that he wanted fuller control over the way his movies came out. And a producer has to have experience with many of the elements of filmmaking, probably more than the average screenwriter does; yet it seems like a screenwriter who mostly knows writing is more likely to be a good director than a producer who understands editing, dealing with actors, dealing with technicians, etc. So what is it that makes most producers unable to transition into directing?

Of course the movie The Bad and the Beautiful deals directly with this issue by showing what happens when Selznick-esque producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) starts directing for himself. The movie portrays him as a genius producer whose movies are far more his own than the director's, yet when he acts as both producer and director, even though he's well-liked as a director ("thoughtful and considerate" to the crew) the result has "no pace, no tension, nothing." But the movie never gives a clear explanation for why a producer can't direct, except for the cryptic line from the director who quits Shields's film: "To direct a picture, a man needs humility. Do you have humility, Mr. Shields?"

Monday, March 03, 2008

I'm Losing Power!

Just a couple of addenda to my post on The Swarm:

I found this page that offers a comparison of The Swarm and the novel it's ostensibly based on, by Arthur Herzog. Short version: the movie has very little to do with the novel, which is a "slightly above average pop novel." The one scene in the movie that sort of works, the scene where an immunologist tests his vaccine on himself, is from the novel.

But I should also note that Herzog's bio actually boasts about the fact that he wrote the source material for the movie versions of not only The Swarm but also Orca. I would think that'd be something he'd want hushed up.

And (from, here's the moment when The Swarm truly established itself as a masterpiece of badness. It's amazing how much bad dialogue, bad special effects, bad line delivery, bad acting from good actors (Caine and Widmark) and total outer-space logic can be packed into 30 seconds of film.