Thursday, July 31, 2008

In Other Action-Movie News...

Stephen Rowley explains why Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is his favorite of the series.

I've already said my piece about why I love this movie (and, yeah, I think it's the one in the series that I return to most often) several years ago. The only thing that's changed since then is that it's no longer possible to consider Doom the weakest link in the Indiana Jones series. (It's a bit like Return of the Jedi breathed a silent prayer of thanks in 1999 when a new movie came along to prove it wasn't so bad after all.)

I also think that Doom and Gremlins stand together not only in that they jointly helped create the PG-13 rating, but in that they both show Spielberg reacting against the success of E.T. Spielberg produced Gremlins and encouraged Joe Dante in making it dark, and what Gremlins basically is, is an open parody of E.T., where cute merchandisable creatures are going to multiply and destroy us all. Doom is the nasty flip side of the sweet E.T., a movie where kids don't have wonderful blissful adventures, but instead are beaten, enslaved, rejected by their father figures. Spielberg always had a mean streak, but here he combines that mean streak with kid-friendly elements (including the gross-out dinner scene, which is definitely aimed at kids). After this movie he retreated from this kind of nastiness, but I find it more interesting than most of what he's done since then. The niceness and goodness of Last Crusade, where bad things only seem to happen to bad people, is very bland by comparison.

Which Bond Movie ISN'T the Best Worst Bond Movie?

Those who provided such great comments on my James Bond posts might enjoy checking out (if you haven't been there already) I Expect You To Die!, a blog entirely devoted to the James Bond movie series; the author is reviewing each of the films in order. (Via Jason Bennion.)

He's up to Live and Let Die now, toward which he is rightly merciless. (I liked it as a kid, but even as a kid I thought there was something a little discomfiting about the film's racial politics. Though at that age I probably wouldn't have called it "racial politics.") But that brings me to my last Bond-related point: it's not just Live and Let Die that doesn't hold together as a movie, and it's not just Diamonds Are Forever and it's not just Moonraker, it's almost every Bond film ever made.

The Bond series followed the normal pattern of any series of movies. The first four movies were very strong, with maybe some falling-off in the fourth movie when the series was trying to cope with its own popularity. (Thunderball has its weaknesses, but it has a good story, Connery's last fully-involved performance, and some of the best female characters in the series. It's not as satisfying as the two before it, but it's a good strong movie.) The fifth movie, You Only Live Twice, saved a weak story with great production values; the series tried something a little different in the sixth film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. That's a very good run, but OHMSS showed an awareness that they'd done most of what they could do and the only thing left was to explore Bond a bit more as a character. Then they decided, for the most part, that exploring Bond as a character was something they wouldn't do again. You'd think that that would have meant a series of stumbling attempts to recapture the early '60s magic, and that's pretty much what happened.

By the '70s, the Bond series was where you'd expect a series to be after turning out many films, several of them very good: it had used up most of Fleming's material, most of its ideas, and its cultural moment had passed. And that was reflected in the quality of the films. Except maybe The Spy Who Loved Me, which works great on its own terms, I think of every post-'60s Bond film (up to the Casino Royale reboot, anyway) as a "yes, but..." movie. Yes, it's entertaining, but the story goes off the rails (The Man With the Golden Gun) or Bond is way too old and the secondary characters aren't very good (Octopussy) or the comedy is really lame (For Your Eyes Only) or it's just a little drab (The Living Daylights) or it just flat-out sucks (Die Another Day). It's kind of amazing that this series survived so long, despite hardly ever turning out a movie that was a fully satisfying whole. (That's my opinion, obviously, not fact.)

I don't actually lament the decision not to do something else like On Her Majesty's Secret Service because I'm not as sold on that movie as everyone else. (And not because of Lazenby. It's because it's too long, a little slow in parts and seems to rely on editing tricks to compensate for some less-than-great action setpieces.) But it is one of the last Bond movies that is an actual movie, telling an actual story. For decades after that, Bond movies were like revues, a series of acts with a story sketched in between them. And the thing is, it worked. It kept people coming back, and kept the series profitable for a long time. I can't actually object to that, I just find it kind of astonishing that in movies, a storytelling medium, the Bond series managed to keep itself alive by more or less rendering storytelling and character irrelevant for years.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Further Looneyness

Jerry Beck has the list of special features and "bonus" cartoons for the next Looney Tunes DVD set. As you can see, there are fewer special features this time around, but more cartoons, which is a fine trade-off as far as I'm concerned.)

The bonus cartoons aren't rare or censored -- alas, we're going to have to wait and see if the Censored More-than-11 (because there are a lot more than 11 cartoons now that don't get shown anywhere) ever get released -- just additional cartoons that fit in with the theme of the disc. It's good to see Sniffles and Hippety Hopper finally make an appearance on these sets; no, they're not the greatest series, but they were reasonably successful series (especially if you count Sniffles' success in the comics) that deserve some token representation in this series.

And "Punch Trunk" is always nice to see; dating from one of Chuck Jones and Mike Maltese's great years, 1953, it's a one-shot that is in some ways even weirder than their greatest one shot from that year, "Much Ado About Nutting" (which is also on this set). Essentially it's a traditional spot-gag cartoon, except that the subject is totally insane: a realistic-looking but tiny elephant runs around a city. (The elephant and the squirrel in "Nutting" seem to demonstrate an interest on Jones' part in integrating semi-realistic animal behavior into a WB-style gag cartoon.) Someone has suggested that it's a take-off on UFO sightings, which were becoming increasingly common; the scenario is, what if instead of spotting a UFO or a little green man, people spotted a tiny elephant?

Monday, July 28, 2008


Jenny notes in comments that it doesn't seem to make a great deal of sense when I wrote the following: "the lawyers have apparently not banned the commentators from talking about the question I've always wondered about: which elements of [Freakazoid!] and which characters, were holdovers from the original Bruce Timm concept."

To clarify, I don't actually know if there would have been any legal problems with talking about the original concept of Freakazoid!, but sometimes companies have been known to cut stuff out of DVD features that talks about where things came from, or what kind of re-tooling something went through. In the former category, WB cut out all mention of the fact that Pinky and the Brain are caricatures of Eddie Fitzgerald and Tom Minton (several people tried to mention it in the DVD special features, and none of it was allowed in); in the latter category, Disney didn't allow a whole lot of talk about the original version of The Emperor's New Groove (which underwent a similar re-tool to Freakazoid! from serious to silly).

The latter thing isn't really a law thing. It's just that when something got extensively re-tooled, companies sometimes don't want to allow discussion of what it was originally supposed to be. But that's silly; if we like something, we won't like it any less from knowing where it came from. So I'm glad that the F! features do mention the Timm concept and why it was retooled. It doesn't make me like F! any less to say that the Timm idea sounds interesting. Especially since he's never really done anything similar except that one Batman episode.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Sky's The Limit

Warner Brothers is releasing some wartime movies with Joan Leslie later this year, including Thank Your Lucky Stars and This is the Army, the latter with a commentary by star Joan Leslie (along with the ever-annoying Drew Casper, who is further proof that companies should really look outside California for their classic-movie commentators).

That got me to thinking about a Joan Leslie wartime movie that Warners also owns but inexplicably hasn't released, even though it stars Fred Astaire and introduced at least one song that has become an all-time standard. She was loaned out to RKO to do The Sky's the Limit, with a score by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer; it's not one of Astaire's best movies, but the songs are great and Leslie continues her streak of doing surprisingly well opposite much more experienced leading men who by rights ought to obliterate her (Gary Cooper, James Cagney, and now Astaire).

"A Lot In Common" has a marvelous lyric by Johnny Mercer, even incorporating an in-joke about Leslie and Astaire's most recent co-stars (Cagney and Hayworth).

But the most memorable scene in the movie, and by far the most famous song, is Astaire's solo to "One For My Baby." As most people are aware, the number of all-time hit songs introduced by Astaire is staggering; other people may have had better voices (though many songwriters talked about how much they loved writing for Astaire, with his great sense of phrasing), but when it comes to the number of great songs he sang for the first time anywhere, on stage or screen, he's hard to match.

Further TTA/F! DVD Notes

If you're only getting one of the two '90s cartoon sets coming out on Tuesday, I think Freakazoid! set is my first recommendation, and not just because I'm such a blinkered fan of that show: the special features are better. The three commentary tracks have the usual quota of laughing at their own jokes plus lawyer-mandated silence (there are a couple of spots where somebody sounds like he's about to say something that the WB legal department might strike out, and then... nothing), but there are a lot of funny remarks and good information given, and credit is given where due: it's too bad Tom Minton wasn't there to comment on "Toby Danger," but all the participants make sure to note that it's his baby all the way.

The seventeen-minute featurette is very good, and addresses the re-tooling of the show head-on by having interviews with Bruce Timm about his original concept and how that eventually developed into the "Beware the Creeper" episode of Batman, and we also get a look at some of Timm's original designs for characters that were used as well as others that weren't. (Worth the price of admission alone is Timm's expression of surprise at the fact that the show is still remembered.) Also interviewed for the piece are the three writer-producers, Ruegger, Rugg and McCann, and director Scott Jeralds. The only notable absence is producer Mitch Schauer, who was largely responsible for making the show look as good as it did on such a ridiculously short production schedule, but Ruegger praises him a lot in the commentaries. Finally they have the promos that were done for F!'s debut on the WB, which worked around the fact that they didn't actually have any clips to show because they'd started so late.

(The controversy over F!'s resemblance to Mike Allred's "Madman" is not mentioned -- that may be another casualty of the lawyers -- but to be honest, I never really saw the resemblance anyway; "Madman" may have been one of the things Timm had in mind when coming up with the character, but it's just not the same character or design.)

The episodes still make me laugh, and if you have even a slightly fond recollection of F!, this is worth picking up at the lowish price. I'll note as an aside that while I knew F! was originally going to be from the Batman team, I'd forgotten just how many Batman people contributed to it; Paul Dini wrote a bunch of segments, Alan Burnett wrote an episode, Dan Riba, Eric Radomski and Ronnie Del Carmen were directors (Riba is caricatured as the prison warden in the season finale), and names like Curt Geda and Joe Denton turn up in the storyboarding credits.

I haven't finished watching the Tiny Toons set yet, so I can't comment in full, but so far it's as I remembered it: very uneven. Endearingly uneven, because it was the first product of a studio that had just been built from the ground up and because everybody in every department was trying new things and seeing if they would work, but uneven all the same; some episodes are good, some are just standard Saturday morning cartoon dreck with higher budgets ("Sawdust and Toonsil"). The voice acting is uneven as well, as some of the actors hadn't figured out that even "funny" cartoon voice acting needs to be dialed down a bit. (Don Messick, of course, is not one of those actors; he always knew how to exercise some restraint.) The best-looking episodes are the ones directed by Art Vitello with his powerhouse crew; most of his episodes were boarded by Bruce Timm and Doug McCarthy.

The special feature, produced by a different company from the one that did the F! feature, is a bit disappointing. It tries to put "Tiny Toons" in the context of Looney Tunes by showing old Looney Tunes clips, and, well, even the best of "Tiny Toons" (or the best of almost any TV cartoon) doesn't come off well in that context. Also, as I understand it, interviews with the directors were shot but are being saved for another volume (if they ever clear the music for the next volumes of TTA and F!); but the result is that nearly everybody interviewed on this first featurette is a writer or an executive. The most interesting stuff about TTA is not how it updated the Looney Tunes franchise but how it essentially created a new studio culture that would go on to give us even bigger hits -- without Tiny Toons, there would be no Batman series, and not only because the Batman people came from TTA -- and that really isn't addressed here very much. Maybe next time.

WKRP Episode: "The Painting"

This season 3 episode, written by Steve Kampmann, doesn't need a lot of comment because it's a solid, simple episode, no guest stars, no outside sets, just a story of Herb buying a painting at an auction and looking for someone to take it off his hands. Herb is acting a lot like Kampmann in this episode (if you've seen Kampmann on Newhart or in movies like Club Paradise).

Most of the episode plays on the antagonism between Herb and Bailey, which had been a running thing on the show since the first season; it always helps, on an ensemble comedy, for every character to have a different and specific relationship with every other character, and WKRP had that, just as NewsRadio did: you can put any two characters together and there's a different dynamic.

The music in the scene in Andy's office is "Breezin" by George Benson.

Cold open and Act 1:

Act 2:

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In the Looney Beginning

Haven't really had a chance to look at the Tiny Toons and Freakazoid! DVDs in any depth -- I wasn't able to get a review copy and just managed to rent them from a store that rents stuff before the release date (though if I'm asked about it officially, that store doesn't exist) -- but I think I can confirm that the first aired Tiny Toons episode, "The Looney Beginning," is complete. This episode originally aired as a special on CBS, and had an extra minute of material that wasn't included in the reruns; the version on the DVD runs 23 minutes, at least a minute longer than the other episodes.

The Same Rabbit

Vincent Alexander, commenting at Michael Barrier's site, disputes the idea that Bugs Bunny is fundamentally two different characters in the hands of Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett. Though I've always been a bit of a Clampett-skeptic when it comes to his handling of Bugs, I think he makes some very good points.

I'll add that this may be one area where children are wiser than adults. Children (and I include myself as a child) never have any doubt that Bugs Bunny is the same Bugs Bunny in all the cartoons, whether he's fighting back after provocation or having a good time heckling Red Hot Ryder. It's all the same guy, doing different things. Whereas kids do understand, instinctively, that the Daffy Duck of "Show Biz Bugs" is a different character from the Daffy of "Yankee Doodle Daffy," even though they're both obnoxious guys who want to get ahead in show business. I remember as a child seeing Clampett's "Draftee Daffy" and thinking that that was a bit more like the Daffy I was used to. I was confused, at the time, by the early Daffy -- but I was never confused by any incarnation of Bugs.

Speaking of "the same," Thad posts a Fox and Crow comic book story that has the same story as Chuck Jones' the Daffy Duck cartoon "A Pest in the House." The comparison is interesting because "A Pest In the House" is just better, even though it's a similar story by (presumably) the same writer. It's not just that Daffy's behavior is less hateful than the crow's, and it's not just the animation and music and voice acting; even just as a story, the cartoon has a better structure, a better use of the running gag, better ending, better everything, really. It's a reminder of how a good director can get better work out of even great screenwriters.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Best Worst Bond Movie, Round 2

In the comments on my Diamonds Are Forever post, there was some controversy over my statement that Moonraker is the dumbest James Bond movie ever. A couple of people pointed out that that title should go to Die Another Day, and they have a point, but here's my rationale: I cannot watch Die Another Day enough to really know how dumb it is. I know it's dumb. But it's also unwatchable, so the full extent of its stupidity is not accessible to me, because I can't get through the whole thing. Whereas Moonraker is entertaining, so I can watch it and drink in its beginning-to-end dopiness, from the bird doing a double-take to Jaws finding romance (as Mad magazine pointed out, we're apparently expected to forget that he viciously murdered several people in the last movie) to the disco version of the theme song. So let's say that Moonraker is the dumbest Bond movie that you can actually stay awake through.

As you can tell, I have a real fondness for Moonraker even though I know it's bad. Unlike Diamonds Are Forever, Moonraker doesn't have a plot that makes no sense; the plot is simple, not hard to follow, and exactly the same as the last Bond movie. The success of The Spy Who Loved Me was important for the franchise: not only was it the best and most successful Bond in several years, it kept the series viable in the new era of blockbusters, it finally restored the series to the cutting edge in at least some areas (stunts and set design), it showed Roger Moore finally coming into his own as Bond, and it proved that Cubby Broccoli could continue the series without his ex-partner Harry Saltzman. So, wanting to repeat the success of TSWLM, Broccoli and the TSWLM team -- headed by director Lewis Gilbert, the only Bond director of the Broccoli era who had made a major hit movie before Bond -- made the same film, beat for beat, while eliminating even the slight bits of substance or toughness that TSWLM had. Of course, even TSWLM was essentially a remake of Gilbert's You Only Live Twice -- villain captures American and Russian spaceships/submarines and brings them to gigantic lair with jaw-dropping Ken Adam design, plans to launch all-out nuclear war between America and Russia -- but most of what it takes from Twice, it does better, which is reason enough for doing it again. But really, all three of Lewis Gilbert's Bond movies have exactly the same plot and the same opening, and if you don't believe me, look at this little video I made:

But back to Moonraker. It doesn't even pretend to be an actual movie, insofar as an actual movie has characters and conflicts and tries to integrate its set-pieces into the plot. Instead it has the bare threads of TSWLM's plot, and uses that as a pretext for set-pieces that just sort of come out of nowhere and end without much rhyme or reason.

It doesn't even have some of the fringe benefits of other bad Bond movies. Except for the opening skydiving sequence, the stunts are not up to the best of the series. Nor does it have the kind of T&A compensation that other Bond movies do; this is one of those Bond movies where the women in the posters are more seductively dressed than in the film itself. (Poor Lois Chiles, already struggling with the problem of disguising her Texas accent -- if you've seen the DVD special features, have you ever noticed how much better and less stilted she sounds when she's using her own accent? -- is also saddled with some really unflattering jumpsuit-y outfits.) The special effects are okay, but space battles have the same problems as the underwater battles in Thunderball, except worse: slow battles by floating people aren't inherently exciting. And the final video-game zap-the-barrels sequence may be the most unsuspenseful climax ever, and, of course, it's yet another ripoff of TSWLM, which also had a scene like that (but had the sense not to make it the very last bit in the film). Except for the bit early on where you're wondering if the stuntman is going to be able to strap his parachute on, there is not a single moment in this movie that's even remotely suspenseful or gripping; it's just a two-hour parade of Ken Adam sets, like a fashion show with bad costumes where you're focusing on the excellence of the runway instead.

But, like I said, it's still watchable, unlike Die Another Day. Partly because it's the last Bond movie designed by Ken Adam, and there just isn't any substitute for Ken Adam at his most extravagant. (I think even movies as good as From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty's Secret Service suffer a bit from Adam's unavailability.) It's also in my opinion John Barry's last really good Bond score, including his last use of his wonderful "007" theme, and that helps pull me through it. And it's just so very good-natured and unpretentious in its desire to do anything to entertain; it wants you to like it so badly and will do anything to be liked, whether it's repeating the plot of a movie made two years earlier or turning a psychotic killer into a kid-friendly romantic comedy lead. I can't help but be a little charmed by a movie that's so anxious to be loved; today, when a blockbuster movie is bad, it's just loud and obnoxious, demanding our attention rather than giving us beautiful things to look at. Moonraker is like Lewis Gilbert's home movies reel of cool stuff Ken Adam built; that's enough to keep it out of Die Another Day purgatory.

What Cartoon Is This?

So, like I said, TCM showed Frank Tashlin's first live-action film as a director, The First Time. (It was part of a day of obscure movies from the Columbia library, including one I wanted to see but missed: The Petty Girl, with Bob Cummings and Joan Caulfield.) It was intriguing to see all the Tashlin live-action trademarks in embryonic form: there's a sentimental monologue by a sympathetic middle-aged woman; there's satire of the '50s rat race and a "modern-technology goes haywire" slapstick scene with a washing machine; there are refrences to then-recent movies. There's even a Hitler joke, Tashlin being the only writer in Hollywood who thought Hitler jokes were funny even after WWII ended. (Remember in Artists and Models when Dean Martin tells the comic book publisher that his tie-in merchandise will "make them forget Hitler?") It's a romantic comedy, and a charming one at times, but it's clearly introducing a sensibility that Hollywood comedies had not seen before. There are also some show-offy directorial gimmicks like a really extreme close-up of Bob Cummings, or an abrupt transition from the headlights on a car to the light in an emergency room; this is typical of first-time feature directors, who often do stuff like that to show they've arrived.

At one point in the film, Bob Cummings and Barbara Hale go to a drive-in with their baby, having been unable to find an acceptable babysitter; they laugh at the cartoon but try to muzzle their laughter for fear of waking the baby. And that brings me to my question: what cartoon is it? I assume it's a Columbia cartoon (and I know way too little about Columbia cartoons), but is it one of Tashlin's Columbia cartoons, or just a randomly-selected Fox/Crow production? (It's certainly not by UPA, whose cartoons Columbia was distributing at this time.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

"His Brain Seems To Be Thoroughly Damaged!"

Oh, yes! Remember Starcrash, the greatest Italian Star Wars ripoff ever made, if by "greatest" you mean "featuring Marjoe Gortner and the young David Hasselhoff, Hamilton Camp in a robot suit, Caroline Munro in a space bikini, and a score by John Barry." But after all, that's pretty much the definition of greatness.

Well, this guy has posted the entire movie in 10 parts.

Here's part 1, and then go here to see the rest of the film, because that's the only way you'll learn about Count Zarth Arn and his unstoppable weapon that doesn't actually hurt anybody.


I said some unflattering things about Hal Wallis's post-Warner-Brothers producing career in an earlier post, so for an alternative (and probably fairer) assessment, check out this article by Ed Sikov about Wallis and his business partner, Joe Hazen. He makes good points, even if he is writing at a site that was financed by Joe Hazen's foundation.

I still have my problems with most of Wallis's Paramount filmss, most of which -- even the good ones -- seem kind of stodgy compared to what he was doing at Warners. (He always liked making films out of stage plays, but his Paramount adaptations actually do feel like filmed stage plays, even to the point of hiring stage directors who were deadly dull on film, like Peter Glenville.) But it's true that he did produce a lot of entertaining movies, and, as Sikov notes, his arrangement at Paramount -- as a quasi-independent producer working at a major studio -- showed his grasp of how movie production would work in the post-studio-system era.

Also, in the DVD booklet for The Furies, an early Wallis production at Paramount, Anthony Mann is quoted as saying very good things about Wallis as a producer.

WKRP Episode: "Venus and the Man" (aka "Venus Flytrap Explains the Atom")

I'm posting this one earlier than usual because I got a request for it: here is one of the most famous episodes of WKRP in Cincinnati, the episode where Venus (Tim Reid) tries to convince a gang leader not to drop out of high school, resulting in the much-quoted scene where Venus explains the structure of the atom by comparing it to a gang war. Creator/showrunner Hugh Wilson wrote the episode, which won him a Humanitas prize. The script looks forward to some of what Wilson would do on Frank's Place, in its mixture of comedy and drama in the same episode and sometimes the same scene. It's also a great vehicle for Tim Reid, who has virtually the whole episode to himself, though Les Nessman comes close to stealing the episode with his speech about the black influence on music (somehow it's actually funnier to hear Les speaking knowledgeably than it is to hear him get things wrong). The guy who plays the kid, Keny Long, had played a similar part on MTM's The White Shadow; he seems way too old for the part, but it's not easy to cast a high school kid who's supposed to be strong enough to intimidate an adult.

This version I'm using is the version that originally aired in 1981, which started with a brief message welcoming back the Iranian hostages. (For pure 1981 nostalgia, you can't beat that.) In repeats, this was removed and the scene with Venus in the booth became the first scene of the show. Note that Howard Hesseman is holding his flag in his teeth and looks like he kinda doesn't want to be there.

Music: "Lookin' For Love" by Candi Staton and, in the final scene, a cover of "Bein' Green" by Della Reese (which sounds like an awesome version).

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Tchaikovsky Problem

Mark Evanier saw the new restored version of Sleeping Beauty and expresses some reservations about the story, while Thad K recently expressed some reservations about the visuals.

I share many of those same reservations about SB, but another thing that bugs me about the film is something that ought to be one of the highlights: the Tchaikovsky music. Disney insisted on using Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty ballet score as the musical material for the picture, and understandably so, because it's some of the best music Tchaikovsky ever wrote. And classical music works wonderfully well in cartoons, so what's the problem?

The problem is that the music is very obtrusive. I constantly feel aware of the music; even re-arranged, Tchaikovsky's music is too weighty and heavy for this movie. It's one thing when classical music is used as the focus of the cartoon, but here it's in the background, and much of the music is just not meant to work as underscoring for dialogue or accompaniment for a scene where something other than dancing is going on. What's worse, it rarely seems to quite fit the action on the screen. This is ballet music, so all of it is strongly rhythmical, and the rhythms sometimes seem to be fighting the onscreen action.

George Bruns did a good job rearranging the music and picking the right score excerpts for the right scenes, but he can't really overcome the problem that the music is telling us different things from the images. And Sleeping Beauty has fewer "big tunes" than Tchaikovsky's other pieces (maybe Disney should have allowed him to use more excerpts from other Tchaikovsky works, instead of sticking with Beauty), and apart from the famous waltz, a lot of the music is not very easy to adapt. So it was pretty clever of him to take the grotesque "Puss in Boots" dance from the ballet...

...And use it for the scene where Aurora gets hypnotized...

...But it still feels like a piece of music overlaid on a scene where it doesn't quite fit. And I felt that way even before I knew what the music was supposed to be about.

His Real Name Is Royce...

Warner Brothers has posted a couple of clips from the commentary tracks for the Freakazoid! season 1 DVD. I haven't seen the DVD yet, but the commentaries sound promising since the lawyers have apparently not banned the commentators from talking about the question I've always wondered about: which elements of the show, and which characters, were holdovers from the original Bruce Timm concept.

The other commentary excerpt is here.

And yes, I'm talking about this DVD repeatedly because I want people to buy it so Warners will release the other half of the series.

Friday, July 18, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Most Improved Station"

With this, the last episode of season 2, it looks like I have posted every episode from WKRP in Cincinnati's second season (complete and with nearly all the music). This episode was written by Richard Sanders (Les) and his writing partner, actor Michael Fairman. They wrote five episodes for the series, including two of the best-loved episodes from the first season ("A Date With Jennifer" and the Ferryman Funeral Home episode).

In this episode, morale is low at the station after they lose a "Most Improved Station" award, and Mr. Carlson calls a meeting where the employees (well, eight of them -- why is it that Johnny and Venus are the only disc jockeys who ever show up at these meetings?) try to work things out. Frank Bonner once hinted that the episode was tweaking the real-life fights and resentment that sometimes went on, but like any good workplace comedy, it applies to any place where people get on each other's nerves from working together every day.

There's only one bit of music in this episode and I don't know what song it is.

I'll keep this up for as long as I can, though there are a few episodes I still don't have complete, and the first season episodes can't be posted as Fox blocks them from being uploaded. (Fox has the butchered DVD versions of the first season at, and they've blocked all uploads of anything from the first season, even the scenes that they cut out like the Pink Floyd scene.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tish on TCM

Thanks to a reader for reminding me that on Monday, July 21 at 2:30 pm, TCM will be showing Frank Tashlin's first live-action film as a director, The First Time with Bob Cummings and Barbara Hale. (The male lead in this picture was supposed to be played by Larry Parks.) I've never seen this movie but I have heard good things about it, from people who aren't Tashlin buffs and just enjoy it as a charming romantic comedy about a young, attractive married couple, with maybe a bit of an extra edge to it.

Tashlin's early movies as a director were mostly rom-coms, a genre he didn't really work in very much after Susan Slept Here, but in some ways I wish he had done a little more in that line instead of going all-out for the brash satirical films that became his trademark. Susan Slept Here in particular is an interesting Road Not Taken for Tashlin, because it is the movie that really put him on the map -- by turning a low-budget RKO comedy with one washed-up star (Dick Powell) and one star who hadn't really been able to carry a film yet (Debbie Reynolds) into a big hit, he became one of the most in-demand directors in Hollywood for about two years. (It may have helped that Susan Slept Here was produced by Harriet Parsons, daughter of Louella, whose mother plugged Tashlin in her column a few times; Tashlin paid her back by mentioning her favorably in several movies.)

TCM is also showing The Fuller Brush Man, which Tashlin wrote for Red Skelton, on Friday, and the Tashlin-scripted The Good Humor Man (with Jack Carson) at 6:00 am on Monday. But where's the second film in the "The [name of company with pushy salesmen]" trilogy, The Fuller Brush Girl with Lucille Ball?

Grudge Match: Batman and Robin vs. Yogi and Boo Boo

This is one of my favorite ideas for a WWWF Grudge Match that never happened: Ranger Smith needs help to enforce the law in Jellystone Park, so he gets his old friend Commissioner Gordon to send Batman and Robin to the park to stop Yogi Bear and Boo Boo from stealing pic-a-nic baskets. So we have two teams consisting of a tall obsessive guy and his short, less obsessive sidekick. One team is devoted to crime (stealing pic-a-nic baskets from innocent people). The other team is devoted to fighting crime. Both Batman and Yogi are considered smarter than the average bear and/or superhero. Will the Dynamic Duo make Jellystone safe for picnics again, or will the bears treat Batman as just another useless authority figure like the Ranger?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Best Worst Bond Movie

The weakest moment in the Goldfinger movie comes when Goldfinger, for no logical reason, gasses to death an entire room full of mob bosses. This was the only change from the book that didn't make any sense. In the book, Goldfinger kills off his accomplices too, but quite a bit later in the story. The movie begs the question of why Goldfinger would explain his plan to these people if he's just going to kill them a minute later, or why he wasted all that time on the elaborate death for Mr. Solo. Obviously the producers were hoping that we'd be too entertained to ask those questions, and they were right.

Well, Diamonds Are Forever, which I watched again this past weekend, is like an entire movie made up of scenes like that: scenes that either look cool, or sounded cool when they were pitched, but make absolutely no logical sense. Most of the first third of the film has Blofeld's gay killer henchmen, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, bumping off various diamond smugglers in gruesome ways. Some of the killings are pretty funny, some aren't, but most of them don't even try to make sense. The spectacular illogic reaches a climax when the bad guys give Bond "one last chance" to tell them where the diamonds are after they've nearly cremated him alive in a coffin (if you've just shown that you're going to kill him no matter what, what exactly are you going to threaten him with?). Other famous "huh?" moments include Bruce Cabot showing up to kill the Howard Hughes surrogate even though he was never actually told to do so, and, of course, the oil rig "climax" where the producers didn't have time or money to shoot an actual ending, so they just randomly blew shit up. Saltzman and Broccoli cared so little about plot logic that they cut the scene that would have explained why the Lana Wood character ends up dead in Jill St. John's pool, even though they'd already filmed it and it was only like a minute long.

Diamonds Are Forever may not be the worst Bond movie ever, but it's probably the second-dumbest (nothing can compete with Moonraker, which I also find weirdly entertaining). You probably are familiar with the story behind it, how after George Lazenby quit, the producers lined up John Gavin to play James Bond, but United Artists decided that they'd pay Sean Connery literally anything he wanted to be Bond one more time. There was a palpable desperation surrounding this film, because the spy craze was over -- all the Bond ripoffs and clones were gone by 1971 -- the movie business and the audience had changed a lot in the last two years, and the franchise had been showing diminishing returns (You Only Live Twice and even On Her Majesty's Secret Service did well, but each of them did worse than the Bond movie before it) . So the movie that they put together was campy, incoherent, disjointed and sleazy, the product of a team that isn't really sure whether the public will buy what it's selling.

It's also the product of a team determined to re-hash Goldfinger. As the Wikipedia entry recounts, the original idea for Diamonds was to be a literal sequel to Goldfinger with Goldfinger's twin brother as the villain, and with diamonds standing in for gold as the gleamy thing of choice. Even with Blofeld, or rather "Blofeld" (Charlie Gray's campy villain would be far better-liked if they hadn't tried to pretend he was Blofeld; why didn't they just take away the cat and give him a new name?) as the villain, the Goldfinger elements are all over the place: the exposition scene with Bond, M and an old British coot; the Shirley Bassey theme song; the largely American setting; the creatively gruesome methods of killing. And Saltzman and Broccoli brought back Guy Hamilton, the director of Goldfinger. Wanting to keep the series going, they tried their best to learn from their biggest hit. Part of the campy fascination of Diamonds is that it's half Goldfinger pastiche and half elements that the producers kinda sorta thought were popular but didn't really understand; in trying to make Bond more appealing to the American market, they wound up giving the picture a Rat Pack-ish lounge-lizard feel that hadn't been hip in America for years. It's a 1971 movie made by people who have only just managed to update their style to 1965. A movie that casts Jill St. John as the lead in 1971 is several years behind the cinema curve. (Don't get me wrong: I like Jill St. John, and she looks great here as she usually does. But even in the '60s, she was somebody who usually played decorative sidekicks and only got cast in leads when somebody else was unavailable -- as, in fact, happened here; she was supposed to play the smaller bimbo part of Plenty O'Toole, but was promoted, presumably because the producers needed to balance out Connery's salary with somebody who'd work cheap. Saltzman and Broccoli had so little knowledge of how to cast female roles in the '70s that they seriously considered bringing back Ursula Andress for Live and Let Die.)

But that's what I find fun about Diamonds Are Forever; there are few movies that better embody the problems of the old-school movie in the post-Easy Rider era. Only a few years earlier, Bond had been the cutting-edge movie series that everybody in the world tried to copy; now suddenly it's a '60s relic trying to get along in a new world. The fact that the movie never acknowledges that there's anything dated about Bond's act, or that Connery is too old to be doing the same stuff he was doing in the early '60s, is oddly entertaining. Ken Adam's sets look surprisingly tacky; the sexual innuendo is clumsy; the plot makes no sense; it has all the familiar elements of the Bond formula but not a single one of them is executed with any confidence or competence. If the series had just died there or died soon after, it would be a sad movie to watch; since we know that the series was unstoppable, I find it one of the most entertaining bad movies out there, an unintentional fish-out-of-water comedy about an early '60s series stuck in a new world where movies are different, moviegoers are different, and movie studios are different. In many ways, the story of a balding, pudgy James Bond trying to do Goldfinger in 1971 Vegas achieves, unintentionally, what Robert Altman was intentionally trying to do with Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye two years later. A clash of old values with the early '70s world. Oh, and we get to hear Jimmy Dean say "Baja."

Finally, on a Bond tangent: Have you noticed that Saltzman and Broccoli always, almost always, offered the next Bond movie to the last person who had directed it? Terence Young was the Bond house director up until Thunderball; didn't direct Goldfinger because he wasn't available, not because they didn't want him. Peter Hunt, the editor for the first five films (whose presence was sorely missed in the early '70s movies; editor John Glen, who had a similar style, brought back snappy editing for Spy Who Loved Me), directed On Her Majesty's Secret Service and was asked to come back for Diamonds, but didn't. So Guy Hamilton came back to do Diamonds and not only did the two after that, but was initially hired to direct Spy Who Loved Me despite his underwhelming work on the last three films. Then Lewis Gilbert did two in a row, and finally John Glen became the first Bond director who never turned down an offer to direct a Bond movie -- probably because he didn't really have a lot of offers from anyone other than Cubby Broccoli. It was as if nothing a director could do, not even The Man With the Golden Gun or A View to a Kill, could induce Cubby to fire him; it was the same way with writers, since Tom Mankiewicz worked on every Bond movie in the '70s and Richard Maibaum, of course, was almost as much a fixture as Broccoli himself. The series isn't like that quite as much now, but in Broccoli's time, it was like a movie series made by a very small, insular clique. That has its problems, and it's understandable that outsiders -- including would-be Bond directors like Tarantino and Spielberg -- have gotten frustrated at the Broccoli family's refusal to allow newcomers into their treehouse.

Friday, July 11, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Les's Groupie"

Another episode from the second season -- only one more to go and then I'll have posted every episode from season two. In this episode, Les goes on a date with a fan, and within a week, she's taken over his entire life. But there is one thing, and only one, that can get Les angry enough to break up with her. I don't know anything about the person who plays the groupie, Kristina Callahan; she's plausible enough as someone who would be attracted to Les, but she sort of feels like the sort of person who winds up in a guest part when the producers can't get somebody else.

Music: "Keep the Music Simple" by Dr. John; "Chances Are" by Johnny Mathis (apparently the only record Les owns).

P.S.: You'll notice that some scenes in this version have the E! network logo on them. That's because in the mid-'90s, the E! network used versions of WKRP that had cuts in different places from the syndicated version (and thus if you put the E! version together with the syndication version that the Comedy Network was sent for this episode, you get the complete episode).

If anybody out there taped WKRP episodes off E!, please write to me at and let me know what you have, because you may have some scenes I'm still looking to trade for.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Two Songs I've Been Listening To A Lot Lately

No real link between the two, just two musical-comedy songs that I've fond myself listening to repeatedly. I might as well give others the opportunity to get these songs stuck in their heads.

1. "Wait Till We're Sixty-Five," by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane, from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. I listen to this song a lot, both because it's funny, it has a great tune, it's sung by two of my favorite actors of all Barbara Harris and William Daniels. Plus I can, if I choose, ignore the irony and just use it to look forward to senior citizenship.

2. "Promise Me a Rose" from Take Me Along, music and lyrics by Bob Merrill My "Bob Merrill on Broadway" post still gets me a lot of nice feedback to this day, and every time someone mentions the post, I find myself listening to Merrill's greatest song, one of the greatest "torch" songs ever written and one of the few songs that really makes me cry. Eileen Herlie, like everyone else in the cast of Take Me Along, was not a singer, but a distinguished actor cast by the director, Peter Glenville, who didn't really seem to care about singing per se. Herlie really couldn't sing much, but she gets through this song all right and acts it beautifully.

F! News

Warner Brothers was just about to produce special features for the second and last season of Freakazoid! when they called it off due to music-clearance problems. (I'm still not sure if the problems are with F! or with Tiny Toons, whose second volume would come out at the same time and would have to include the first music video episode.) This might be worked out by early next year, and if the sets sell well enough, they'll have to bring out the second volumes... but it'll be very discouraging if as short a series as F! winds up only half-released.

But for those of you who are at San Diego Comic-Con, there is joint Freakazoid! and Tiny Toons panel at 10:30 on Thursday, July 24. Bruce Timm will be one of the panelists, and if someone asks him about his original plans for Freakazoid!, I'm sure he'll be very, very diplomatic. Rich Arons, who directed for both series, will also be on the panel.

My experience may be an anomaly, but it's been my experience that among the '90s Warner/Spielberg cartoons both Tiny Toons and Freakazoid! provoke less angry reactions than Animaniacs. That show, if you don't like it, represents everything that was wrong with cartoons in the '90s. Tiny Toons is still fairly fondly remembered even by people who thought it was a highly flawed show, because it was more of a fun experience for artists, because it's so clearly the product of a new animation department trying to get off the ground and has the charm of newness and inexperience, and because the characters are generally very likeable. Even the bad episodes, the ones that resemble typical '80s Saturday Morning cartoons in plotting and dialogue, are hard to get mad at.

Freakazoid! could not have been experience for some of the people who were originally hired to work on the Bruce Timm version of the concept, but it wasn't well-known enough to be really widely disliked, and the Timm designs give it a certain link to the more respected and "respectable" superhero shows. Also, one advantage this show still has for me over a lot of the other animated shows of the period is that it sounds different. By the mid-'90s, animated comedies were over-using certain voices, and I'm not just talking about Saturday morning animated comedies, either. (It was around this time that The Simpsons decided that all women should sound like Tress MacNeille.) Some of the regular comedy cartoon voice actors, like Tress MacNeille and Maurice LaMarche and Jeff Bennett, were heard on F!, but there were also a bunch of people whose voices were less familiar, either because they were basically writers (Paul Rugg, John McCann) or because they usually were heard on action-adventure cartoons (Ed Asner, David Kauman, David Warner).

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that people who get very, very angry at Animaniacs might still find themselves pleasantly surprised by one or both of these shows. Or they might not. But you never know, do you?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

He's a Rock n' Roll Monster!

Just an addendum to my post about the WKRP package being shown on WGN America: if WGN gets to the later seasons, you'll notice that while there are still some horrendous music changes ("Hold My Order, Terrible Dresser"), there is actually a lot of real music left in, including some pretty expensive stuff like the Beatles, the Who, and various groups with Stone and/or Stones in the title. By the final season, most of the music is intact.

The fact that a lot of music was left in probably wasn't due to any sudden attack of integrity on the part of MTM; it's that as the show went on, more and more scenes were done with music underscoring them all the way. In the first season, the DJ would usually turn off the music just after it started playing, unless it was a scene specifically built around the music like the Pink Floyd scene. But in the later episodes, they just used the songs as kind of a built-in underscore. Here's an example of what I'm talking about: Johnny puts on "Come Together" by the Beatles, announces it, and then lets the song play under the ensuing scene. Most episodes do not have separate music/dialogue tracks, so there are only two choices: pay for the music, or cut a minute and a half from the episode.

This may be another reason why Fox dropped the idea of further DVD releases; they just about got by with the first season because enough buyers were willing to overlook the cut music for the sake of the comedy, but in subsequent seasons, a lot of long scenes have music that can't be removed.

The End of the Cartoon Mega-Set

You may have heard that the Looney Tunes Golden Collection volume 6 will be the last four-disc "Golden Collection," though Warners hastened to reassure us that we'll still be seeing WB cartoon releases next year. I don't know what's being planned, but given that this set consists mostly of obscure cartoons, I'd guess that future releases will be smaller, cheaper to buy and focusing more on the famous characters who are being given short shrift on this collection. The last LTGC looks like a way to do some of the cartoons that won't make it onto later, more character-based releases. This is blessing in the case of the wartime and one-shot cartoons, a curse in the case of all those Boskos and Buddys, though I won't argue with anyone who's happy to see these cartoons; especially since this is probably the last chance to get them on DVD.

I'll have more comments on the individual cartoons when we learn more about the 15 "bonus" cartoons planned for the set, but I do want to say this: the end of the four-disc Golden Collection sets isn't at all surprising and, while I don't like defending Warners a whole lot (there's a lot that annoys me about their DVD department), I think they're probably right to put more emphasis on smaller-sized, less expensive collections. The state of the economy combined with the flattening of DVD sales makes the big, high-cost DVD set a trickier proposition than it was in 2003. I have no doubt that Warners will continue releasing the old cartoons, if only because they've still got a lot of money invested in Looney Tunes merchandise, and with no Looney Tunes TV shows on the air, they have to do something to keep the characters in the public eye. But a $30 set of Foghorn Leghorn cartoons -- and they'd sure as hell better be planning something like that, with only two Foghorn cartoons on this set -- will prompt more "impulse buys" than a $60 four-disc set, and in today's market it's probably very important to release DVDs that people can and will buy on a whim, rather than saving up for them.

If -- and this is a huge if -- Warners keeps properly remastering the cartoons instead of putting out the battered prints we get on some of the "family-friendly" cartoon sets (like the Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collections), I'll be happy to buy whatever they put out. Still, I would have liked to see them do "Racketeer Rabbit" before the Golden Collections stopped. Oh, well.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Finally, Touch of Evil As Albert Zugsmith Intended It

We probably won't see a lot of Universal catalogue product in the next while, after the fire, but here's some good news: on October 7, Universal is finally releasing all three versions of Touch of Evil. The original 1958 release (96 minutes) the longer pre-release preview version (108 minutes) and the revised version based on Orson Welles' famous memo to the studio. Each version comes with audio commentary; the late Charlton Heston recorded a commentary for the revised version (with Janet Leigh).

I much prefer the earlier versions of Touch of Evil, either the theatrical version or the preview version, to the "restoration," for reasons I've gone into before. Short version is, I think of Touch of Evil as an Albert Zugsmith film as well as a Welles film, and I think it was short-sighted to assume that the movie should follow all the suggestions Welles made in his memo; just because something was done over Welles' objections doesn't mean it doesn't belong in the film. I prefer the credits over the opening shot, and many other touches -- including some of Zugsmith's trademark exploitation touches like lingering on the bug-eyed corpse of Joe Grandi -- that were lost in the restored version. But the best thing, as with Blade Runner, is to have all the versions available. Which will now be the case.

October 7 also brings two-disc releases of Psycho, Vertigo and Rear Window, finally justifying my reluctance to shell out for the Universal Alfred Hitchcock collection because I figured there would be further releases of these movies.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Freleng and Foster

Continuing what appears to have become a series on the minutiae of Termite Terrace staff turnovers:

One of the last big WB cartoon staff shifts before the 1953 shutdown was the swap of story men between the Freleng and McKimson units, around 1950. Freleng no longer wanted Tedd Pierce as his story man, and he got Warren Foster, McKimson's story man, to come over to his unit, with Pierce going to McKimson. (McKimson would work with Foster on a few more cartoons after that, and Freleng bought one more story from Pierce, 1956's excellent "Two Crows From Tacos.") Foster undoubtedly wanted to switch; for one thing, if the studio had gotten downsized again, McKimson's unit would have been the next one to go.

It's often noted that the switch hurt McKimson's unit; though Pierce was the story man on one of his best cartoons, "Hillbilly Hare," he was described by Lloyd Turner as "the least creative" of the studio's three main writers, and while he was good at story structure and pop-culture parodies, he was fairly weak as a gagman and had "personal problems" (i.e. he drank a lot). McKimson, like Art Davis and unlike the veteran directors, wasn't particularly good at coming up with gags on his own and wasn't a great motivator; he needed Foster, a brilliant gag writer and a hard worker. Pierce brought out McKimson's worst qualities, McKimson couldn't motivate Pierce the way Chuck Jones could, and it led to a lot of cartoons with stale gags.

But I've always thought that Warren Foster was not a great fit for the Freleng unit either, because they also seemed to bring out each other's weakest qualities. Foster was, as I said, a superb gag writer; he always knew exactly how to write a gag for maximum impact, including his great ear for what a character should say after the gag. (I just watched the Freleng/Foster cartoon "Catty Cornered," and after Sylvester slipped on a banana peel, I felt somehow that the gag would not be complete unless Sylvester said something. And sure enough, he turned to the audience and said: "I s-s-slipped." Perfect.) But his stories seemed to lean a bit more toward... I wouldn't say kids' stuff, because his stories aren't kids' stuff, but his writing is a little more simple and less "post-modern" than Tedd Pierce's or Mike Maltese's. Maltese always tried to put some weird angle on everything, whether it was a gag or a line of dialogue. Pierce also had a writing style that was a little offbeat, at least for cartoons. Foster's writing tends to be more on-the-nose and direct. (I say "tends to be," I know there are plenty of exceptions.) When he took up the greedy angry Daffy that Maltese had created for Jones, he didn't give Daffy off-the-wall self-justifying lines the way Maltese did; he just had him say directly that he's evil, greedy and hates Bugs ("If a long-eared rabbit can be a star, so can a duck!"). And many of his stories, with oddball exceptions like "Rebel Rabbit," tended toward the traditional cartoon subjects: storks, fairy tales, gangster-movie parodies, and a strange obsession with putting Daffy in various suburban houses. He was a great writer, just a little more of a straightforward cartoon gag writer whereas Pierce and Maltese and Bill Scott were a little weirder.

Foster's best work was done with directors whose cartoons were a little anarchic: Clampett, Tashlin, and the early McKimson. He brought his great grasp of gag writing to their cartoons, and they kept his stories from becoming just a succession of traditional gags. But Freleng was the most traditionalist of all the WB cartoon directors and the one whose cartoons had the most tendency to become a succession of mechanical gags. (Yes, even after Chuck Jones was making two Road Runner cartoons a year, Freleng was making more spot-gag cartoons than Jones would.) He teamed for the first time with Foster, a writer whose main strength was the old-school cartoon gag, and at first, it worked fine: most of their first cartoons together, released in 1951, are very good, and some, like "Putty Tat Trouble," are terrific. But as their collaboration went on, more and more of their cartoons together became a sequence of undifferentiated gags, distinguished only by the setting and maybe some relevance to the subject. By the mid-'50s, most of the Bugs/Sam cartoons are just Sam trying and failing to catch Bugs, and most of the Tweety/Sylvester cartoons are the same exact gag with Sylvester.

Pierce was probably not anybody's first choice as a story man: presumably Freleng got him because after Pierce and Maltese stopped working as a team, Maltese decided to go with Jones full-time. But some of his cartoons with Freleng in 1949-50 are a little more interesting than what Freleng would do with Foster with the same characters. The Bugs-Sam cartoons, in particular, are a lot better with Pierce writing them, because they have more of a story/structure spine under the gags (even if it's only a little structural thing like the ship sinking over and over in "Mutiny On the Bunny") and Bugs and Sam's relationship has more of an edge to it -- Sam's the antagonist, but we sort of feel bad for him for the way Bugs abuses him --- unlike in the Freleng/Foster cartoons where Sam would be more of a traditional cartoon villain. "High Diving Hare" is the perfect meeting of Freleng and Pierce's talents. It's clearly a Pierce story because, as Freleng often pointed out, it has only one gag, and that's often the way Pierce wrote. ("Rabbit's Kin," for McKimson, is really just a series of variations on the "lumps" gag.) But the variations on a single gag are more interesting than a series of vaguely different gags would be, and Freleng's talents for gags and timing keep us laughing harder at every variation. Freleng did his best work with Maltese, or with the Pierce/Maltese team, but I think Pierce was his second-best writer; with Foster, his cartoons got awfully bland and childlike -- and that's not a slam on Foster or on Freleng, just that they both seemed to work best with someone else who could push them in more offbeat directions.

Friday, July 04, 2008

More Musical Musings

I don't have access to WGN America, but since they've started showing WKRP in Cincinnati at 7 p.m. Sundays, some viewers have asked me about which versions of the episodes they're showing and whether they have the original music.

From what people have told me about the contents of the first few episodes, it seems like WGN is using the same package Fox sent out to the Comedy Network and other stations that have broadcast WKRP in the last decade: the late '90s package, after the show's music and voice-overs had been substantially changed. In other words, the music changes are probably the same as in this list of late '90s music changes. The original versions of WKRP are essentially no longer available to broadcasters; there were a few broadcasters in the late '90s and early '00s who burned off the old syndication versions, with most of the music, but those tapes aren't being distributed any more.

The relatively good news is that this package does include some music that was eliminated on the commercial DVD and in the first-season episodes available on Hulu (which are just the butchered DVD versions). Here is a partial list of music that has been heard, or likely will be heard, on WGN that isn't on the DVD.

"Bailey's Show": "Jailhouse Rock" by Elvis Presley and two short scenes accompanied by licensed music

"Turkeys Away": "Dogs" by Pink Floyd

"Johnny Comes Back": "Layla" by Derek and the Dominoes

"Love Returns": "Beast of Burden" by the Rolling Stones

"I Want to Keep My Baby": "Baby" by Carla Thomas

"The Contest Nobody Could Win": All the songs/band names in the contest; "For the Love of Money" by the O'Jays

"Mama's Review": The scene with Venus in the booth, which the DVD cut so they wouldn't have to pay for the music

"Tornado": "Goon Squad" by Elvis Costello

"Young Master Carlson": "Soul Man" by Sam and Dave

"Never Leave Me, Lucille": "Everybody Rock n' Roll the Place" by Eddie Money; "Heartbreak Hotel" sung by Les

"I Do...I Do... For Now": Jennifer's "Fly Me to the Moon" doorbell

This also gives a better idea of why so many of us were furious with the DVD: the late '90s syndicated version had already slashed the musical content to the bone, taking out every piece of music that could be taken out without cutting entire scenes. The DVD went farther than that, cutting out what little music was left and taking large chunks of episode with them.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Why All the Scope Movies?

Movie trends usually come and go within a year or two, but one trend that seems to have remained consistent is the tendency for more and more films to be shot in widescreen "Scope" format -- the 2.35:1 aspect ratio rather than narrower screen formats.

We've most recently seen this with animated movies. For many years, a huge majority of animated films were shot in non-wide formats. Disney experimented with 'Scope in the '50s, but gave up on it pretty quickly. (Which was a very good decision, since TV broadcasts were so important to his movies, and by not using widescreen, he made the films much more TV-friendly.) All the '90s Disney movies and Pixar movies were in non-wide aspect ratios. When Brad Bird made The Iron Giant in Panavision, he was, as with much else about that film, going against the grain. But now, widescreen is common for animated features, and not just Brad Bird features: John Lasseter switched to 2.35:1 for Cars, Andrew Stanton used 'Scope for Wall-E, and over at DreamWorks, Kung Fu Panda is their first 2.35:1 movie.

I keep seeing this all over the place, where movies that a few years ago would definitely not have been widescreen are being done in widescreen. And more filmmakers seem to be switching to the format for their recent pictures; the Coen Brothers almost never used 'Scope unless it was for an epic subject like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but when they made No Country For Old Men, a crime drama that they would normally have shot in 1.85:1, they shot it in widescreen. Martin Scorsese did most of his movies in 1.85:1 in the '70s and '80s; now almost every movie he makes is in 'Scope. And so on.

In the '70s and '80s there was a trend for moviemakers to switch the other way, from wide to non-wide, as a backlash against the overuse of 'Scope in the '50s and '60s. (Like at Fox where they mandated that every film they made had to be 'Scope, no matter what the subject.) The late Sydney Pollack, as I said in an earlier post, made every movie in 'Scope up to the mid-'80s and then switched. By the '90s, the general rule was that a movie would not be in 'Scope unless it was a big subject -- action movie, epic -- or unless the director preferred 'Scope for some specific reason. (I.e. a director like Blake Edwards who just preferred to compose shots that way.) Now it seems like unless a director specfically prefers 1.85:1, like Sofia Coppola, Judd Apatow, a few others -- the "default" format for a movie is 'Scope.

I can't quite figure out why this has happened. Maybe it has something to do with the increased availability of widescreen TVs; directors want the theatre experience to be different from watching at home, and that's harder to come by if the movie screen is the same shape as a modern TV screen. Another possibility is that modern cinematographers tend to prefer widescreen and unless the director has a strong preference one way or the other, a director will tend to go along with what the cinematographer wants. Bill Clothier, the great photographer of Westerns said in a (surprisingly acerbic) interview that he preferred 2.35:1 because it allowed for more interesting compositions than 1.85:1; he hated that aspect ratio because it was a weak middle ground between the old 1.33:1 shape and the wide screen, and didn't have the advantages of either format. (1.33:1 is a great format for medium close-ups, two-character dances, and stuff like that; 'Scope is good for tighter close-ups and panoramic shots. 1.85:1 is kind of just there.) Other cinematographers like Gordon Willis have said that 2.35:1 is their favorite and that they would have liked to use it more often than they did. Maybe a new generation of cinematographers is just getting its way. That doesn't explain the rise of 2.35:1 in animation, though.

Update: As noted in comments, Pixar did make one widescreen movie in the '90s, A Bug's Life.

WKRP Episode: "Filthy Pictures"

I usually don't post these till Friday, but I may not be able to post then (and I've never quite gotten the hang of delayed-timing posting), so I'll do it early. This was a special one-hour episode made near the end of the second season, when WKRP had already been moved out of the Monday 9:30 slot and back to 8:00 on Mondays, where it never really fit in. (The biggest problem WKRP had was not that it was moved, but that CBS saw it as an "8:00 show" while Hugh Wilson saw it as a "9:00 show," back when that distinction really meant something.) The premise of this episode -- a photographer gets nude pictures of Jennifer -- is a bit wackier than usual and seems almost designed to make for attention-getting network promos.

The first 60% of the episode always strikes me as a lot stronger than the last part, where the plotting seems to get kind of lazy. However, I have to admit that ever since I saw this at a young age, I have found it hard not to imitate Johnny and Bailey's "Philippe and Ginger" dialogue any time I imagine a scene between a sophisticated bickering couple.

One thing I would call attention to is that producer-director Rod Daniel makes the burglary scene more effective by being shot in actual darkness -- as opposed to "stage" darkness where we can see everybody and the actors have to pretend it's dark. It's funny and unusual to see the actors mulling around in the darkness with only an occasional glimpse of their silhouettes or faces. Also, MTM studio audience alert: the audience is forbidden from whooping or hollering when Loni Anderson appears in a bathing suit. MTM had, as a matter of policy, the most restrictions on what kind of reactions they would accept from a studio audience (no clapping for regular characters, no whistling, no cheering, no "aww"-ing).

If you want to know why the first part of this episode is logo-free and the second half has a bunch of logos and such, the reason is that while this episode was released on a commercial videotape, only the first half was complete; the second half was from a cut syndication version. To reconstruct the original one-hour version I had to edit together several other syndicated versions till all the scenes were complete. Reconstructing WKRP is like a very debased version of archaeology.

Music: "Runaway" by Bonnie Raitt.

WKRP s02e21-22 Filthy Pictures by carpalton