Friday, October 31, 2008

"An Occasional Man" In Its Original Form

I wrote a post a couple of months back about my love for the song "An Occasional Man." Since then, I've found the movie it comes from (The Girl Rush) and the original performance of the song, as sung by Gloria DeHaven. While DeHaven had an excellent voice and could have made a knockout version of this song under better circumstances, the orchestrations aren't too good, and before you get to the song proper, you have to sit through some rather lame dancing plus a scene of Marion Lorne (always good) getting stuck in a giant bottle (wha'?). But I always like seeing the original version of a favorite song, even if it's been done better elsewhere.

The song begins at about the 1:15 mark in the video..

WKRP Episode: "Turkeys Away" (complete with Pink Floyd)

As Variety's Cynthia Littleton noted yesterday in her great piece on WKRP, yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the show's most famous episode, the seventh episode of its first season (the eighth in production order) and the one that probably saved the show from early cancellation. Yes, "Turkeys Away." So this is the right time to unearth the original version, complete with "Dogs" by Pink Floyd as well as the two songs Johnny plays in the climactic scene: "Fun Time" by Joe Cocker and (as an in-joke) "It Came Out of the Sky" by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

I'm not saying the show falls apart completely without the Pink Floyd scene, but it works so much better with it. Partly because the first act shows us all the things that make Mr. Carlson feel uncomfortable and unwanted at his own station, and one of those things needs to be the way-out music being played. Without that, his reasons for wanting to take over and do something without consulting anyone are not as clear. And partly because without that scene intact, the first act seems kind of slow and the episode becomes a long slog toward the great ending; the Pink Floyd scene is so strong that it helps the first act hold its own.

And as I'm sure most of you are aware, everyone agrees that this episode is based on something that really happened at a radio station, but nobody agrees on which station it was or what exactly they tried to give away. I think it's best described as a radio urban legend.

Turkeys 2 - kewego
Thanksgiving turkey episode
Mots-clés : thanksgiving turkeys

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Grudge Match: Pinky vs. the Brain

This was one I was always hoping the original Grudge Match site would do, but no (though they did do Pinky and the Brain vs. Dogbert). So I put it to you: If Pinky and The Brain from the cartoon of the same name were to fight each other, who would win?

Brain has the advantage of greater intelligence, and he's successfully landed punches on Pinky on numerous occasions. But he's totally unable to see the flaws in his plans; every episode has Pinky pointing out some kind of problem with Brain's plan ("Oh, wait, no, no..."). Pinky, on the other hand, usually succeeds at what he tries because he doesn't over-think and over-plan. So I'd have to give this to Pinky, who will simply drop something heavy on Brain after Brain's electro-magnetic Pinky-destroying gizmo backfires.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why Steve Kampmann Left "Newhart"

Based on an earlier post about the re-tooling of Newhart into a better show than it promised to be in its first season (in my opinion, anyway), I've been asked a couple of times why Steven Kampmann, who played Kirk, was dropped from the show after the second season. I've never been completely sure, and still am not, but there are two pieces of information I did turn up. One was an article about Kampmann from Jul 28, 1988 in the Los Angeles Daily News; it was about something else, but he mentioned in it that he was let go from Newhart because "Newhart decided he didn't like the focus being put on my character." (The second season of Newhart included a surprising number of episodes built around Kirk: he got married off, apparently in an attempt to make him more likable, and there were episodes about his dating life, proposal, and wedding among others.)

The other is a September 29, 1985 Associated Press article about Peter Scolari, who after being a guest star in season 2 was brought on as a regular in season 3 to replace Kampmann.

The producers decided to make the switch when it became apparent that Kampmann's character had nowhere to go. The character was supposed to antagonize Newhart, but he had become too strong.
"When you have an obnoxious character you can go one way, as Danny DeVito did on 'Taxi,' and become a character you love to hate," said Scolari. "Or you can have a character who's obnoxious and doesn't realize it, as I do with Michael. This year Michael will be a lot more human. It's to avoid the same trap that Steven fell into, and to keep in step with the rest of the show."

Taking those things together it seems like the writers thought Kirk was too depressing and unlikable of a character (getting him married was supposed to make him more relatable, but it actually made him worse) and Newhart didn't think he made a good comic foil.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Show Her Drinking Coca-Cola, In the Kitchen With a Can of Mazzola

The Petty Girl (1950) is a musical I was interested in seeing, partly because I'm a Harold Arlen buff and he and Johnny Mercer wrote four original songs for this film, and partly because the concept of a musical about George Petty and his famous pin-up art is intriguing.

But what sounds intriguing doesn't always turn out that way; having seen the film, it's kind of bland, and doesn't really capture the fun of the subject. Bob Cummings plays a fictionalized version of Petty, who works as a conventional painter but longs to revolutionize the world of leg art. He finds his model in Joan Caulfield, a college professor who needs to learn to let loose and be uninhibited. It tries at certain points to address the appeal of cheesecake art -- the weird combination of titillation and wholesomeness in this kind of artwork and photography -- but mostly it's just another standard musical about the longhairs vs. the lowbrows, and there's not enough comedy (even with Elsa Lanchester around) or music to make it a memorable musical.

Caulfield, an actress with a small fan cult that includes Joss Whedon,, received a big publicity buildup for her role in this picture, because it was her first picture for Columbia after several semi-successful years at Paramount, and because she was being chosen as the living version of the Petty Girl, whose anatomy couldn't actually exist in real life. (It's like casting an actress as a live-action version of Tex Avery's Red.) Caulfield was certainly pretty, and on that basis as good a choice as any, but I've never liked her that much in anything; she always seems to be a little too pleased with herself, a little low-energy without the mystery or glamour that other "cool" blondes bring to their roles.

The Arlen/Mercer songs aren't good enough to compensate; it's one of Arlen's weaker batches of songs, all in all. Though "Ah Loves Ya" is a good bluesy love song of the kind that Arlen and Mercer could both write with ease, and with better performances, it might have been a moderate success (both Cummings and Caulfield are dubbed).

The finale, one of those girl-parade numbers that every other movie musical had, may be one of the dopiest songs Arlen ever wrote -- but it does have a young and unknown Tippi Hedren somewhere in there (IMDb says she's the one "by the new electric icebox").

Saturday, October 25, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Love, Exciting And New"

This is one of my favorite episodes from the fourth season. Andy goes out with Mama Carlson to try and get her to pay for a new transmitter -- it was destroyed by the terrorist bomber in "An Explosive Affair" -- and starts to fear that he's being sexually harassed. This episode gives Carol Bruce her second-best part as Mama Carlson (next to "Baby, It's Cold Inside"), brings back Ian Wolfe as Hirsch, and begins with a guest appearance by TV/film actress Colleen Camp, promoting her appearance in Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed.

Teaser and Act 1:

Act 2 and tag:

Friday, October 24, 2008


In comments, John Panozzi asks if I have anything to say about the early '90s cartoon Taz-Mania. I've been meaning to get around to that, and probably should have mentioned it earlier, since I seem to have become an unofficial historian of '90s WB TV animation (I'm not claiming that's a good thing). I actually watched quite a few episodes when it was on Fox in the early '90s.

This was the first comedy cartoon Warners launched after Tiny Toons, and their first new show with a "classic" character. It was created by Art Vitello, who had been probably the top director on Tiny Toons. Vitello directed some of the early episodes and took a co-writing credit on virtually every episode. (Vitello was described to me once as "The man who wanted ALL the credit on Taz-Mania.") His directing crew was mostly made up of his best people from his Tiny Toons unit, like Doug McCarthy and Keith Baxter (but not Bruce Timm, who already had a little project of his own called Batman).

The idea behind the show seemed to be that since the Tasmanian Devil was a hugely popular and merchandisible character who didn't actually appear in that many cartoons, it would make sense to produce more cartoons with him as the star. He was the only classic character who appeared regularly; everybody else was new. Some episodes would have him as a predator in the original style, others would have him as the obnoxious big brother or the harried son, another episode cast him in the role of Sylvester from the Sylvester/Porky cartoons -- basically, it used him as an all-purpose straight man for all the new characters. You could call it a violation of the original character, but it was probably a better approach than, say, The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries, which kept the original characters but placed them in an uncongenial format. This Taz clearly no longer was part of the old LT/MM universe, so you could at least accept the show on its own terms. Of the new characters, the best was probably Taz's dad (Maurice LaMarche), an insanely laid-back type who sounded kind of like Bing Crosby and was obsessed with orange juice.

This was also WB's attempt to do the Tiny Toons type of show on a lower budget. This meant keeping the same style of animation (mostly by Wang, sometimes by StarToons, which animated the main title and a few episodes) but cutting back on everything else, particularly music and backgrounds. Jon McClenahan, director of StarToons, explained in this interview:

The series used flat BG's, which meant they could be drawn, xeroxed, and painted just like an ordinary cel level. This shaved some numbers off the budget, which was important - these shows had to look good, but cost less than Tiny Toons. Another way they cut corners was in the musical score, using something like a 5-piece band, instead of a full orchestra like they did with Tiny Toons (and Animaniacs).

The flat backgrounds looked quite good a lot of the time, and gave the show its own style that set it apart from the more old-fashioned, sometimes a little drab backgrounds on Tiny Toons (to say nothing of the elaborate Art Deco backgrounds of Batman).

There were people who couldn't stand Tiny Toons, let alone Animaniacs, who were quite pleased with Taz-Mania. With Vitello supervising both the writing and the visuals, it had a more unified feel than those other shows. Vitello was so much in control of the show that -- unless I'm remembering wrong -- he even directed the voice recording sessions himself, rather than leaving it to Andrea Romano as all the other WB shows did. And with a lead character who didn't talk much (unlike the original Taz, who could actually talk in complete sentences when he needed to, the Taz on this show -- voiced by Jim Cummings -- mostly talked in grunts and slurps, with the occasional "Taz like this!" or "Taz like that!"), it could sometimes be more visual and less obviously writer-driven than the other shows.

I said "sometimes," because much of the time, this was a very writer-driven, dialogue-heavy show, and that was one of its weaknesses. While Taz didn't talk much, all the other characters talked. Constantly. It may actually have been the talkiest cartoon of its era, and the most self-referential; long stretches of dialogue would literally be devoted to analyzing the events of the episode, and the non-Taz characters couldn't do anything without commenting on what they were doing. Also, this show may have recycled more old cartoon plots than even Tiny Toons did.

And yet it was an entertaining show at its best. It wasn't the kind of show I would go out of my way to watch, but when I did watch it, I usually enjoyed it. It didn't have a lot of great episodes but it didn't have a lot of terrible ones either -- it was a good middle-of-the-road show, the kind of thing networks took for granted in the early '90s when decently-made cartoons were more plentiful than they are now.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

David Weisbart, Bad '60s Movie Auteur

This blog points out something I hadn't noticed before about Valley of the Dolls -- the camp-classic scene between Helen (Susan Hayward) and her younger rival Neely (Patty Duke) is quite similar to an earlier scene between an aging Fox star and a young starlet in the movie The Pleasure Seekers, which I wrote about years ago. And both movies were produced by the same man, David Weisbart. So he certainly had his own style as a Fox producer. (He also dropped dead soon after making Dolls.)

Weisbart had produced Rebel Without a Cause and Them! at Warners, but when he moved to Fox he mostly made glossy, slightly camped-up movies. He was one of a number of Warners people who lost all their edge when they moved to Fox, others being Jerry Wald and Jean Negulesco. An odd thing is that although Warners lost a lot of directors and producers to richer studios, particularly Fox, in the late '40s and '50s, almost all of them lost their edge rather quickly and wound up making movies that were nowhere near as interesting as their Warners stuff. (Negulesco, to be fair, made some good noir pictures after moving to Fox; he didn't become the king of turgid soap operas until CinemaScope came in.) It's Hal Wallis syndrome -- some producers and directors just seemed to be better off making pictures at Warners, where they might turn out a lot of cheap or rushed pictures, but had a better chance of striking through to something interesting than at Fox or MGM.

Anyway, the scene between Gene Tierney and Carol Lynley in Pleasure Seekers isn't quite as crazy as Dolls -- nothing is -- but it's certainly a prime example of mid-'60s studio cinema in all its desperation. That includes the '60s tradition of humiliating middle-aged actresses who had been stars only a decade ago.

Tierney vs. Lynley in The Pleasure Seekers, directed by Negulesco:

Hayward vs. Duke in Valley of the Dolls, directed by Mark Robson (a director whose work took a turn for the worse after he left another penny-pinching but interesting studio, RKO):

I admit that since I wrote that post in 2004, I've developed a certain weird fondness for Pleasure Seekers. One, I like most of the cast even though they're nearly all too good for this thing. But mostly it's one of my favorite bad movies of the '60s because it so perfectly epitomizes the studio system in 1964, trying to make literally the same kind of movies that were being made ten years earlier (since this is the same story as Three Coins in the Fountain), but with everything just a little bit "off." In that sense I find it a more interesting bad '60s movie than Dolls, because Pleasure Seekers is pretty typical of studio product in 1964 -- that's what's so terrifying about it.

For example, here's poor Ann-Margret doing her best with a terrible Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen song: the interesting thing is that the song is the kind of thing that would have been considered cool a few years earlier, about a Jet-Set/Rat Pack lifestyle that was the coolest thing in the world in 1962. But by 1964 the culture has already changed so much that this song sounds ridiculous, apart from not being a very good song to begin with. But that's the fun of it: A-M trying to apply her usual schtick to a bad Rat Pack song creates an early '60s pop culture collision that's unintentionally hilarious.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Praise For "Boyhood Daze"

I devoted a recent post to a '50s Chuck Jones cartoon I didn't like, so here's one I do like -- in fact, one of my favorites among his post-shutdown cartoons. "Boyhood Daze" is the second and last Ralph Phillips cartoon, following the Oscar-nominated classic "From A To Z-Z-Z." It's the same premise: Ralph (Dick Beals), a child version of Walter Mitty and sort of a nicer, sweeter forerunner to Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, keeps focusing on everyday objects and using them as a jumping-off point for wild fantasies. (This is directly inspired by "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," where every fantasy starts with some ordinary thing Walter sees or hears.) The approach is a little different this time, though. "From A To Z-Z-Z-Z" has a lot of short sequences where Ralph turns every boring school situation into an excuse for a heroic fantasy. "Boyhood Daze" consists mostly of two longer fantasy set-pieces. It's sillier and more of an out-and-out comedy than "Z-Z-Z-Z," with Mike Maltese contributing some of my favorite cartoon lines:

"I hated to kill them all, but they had to be taught a lesson."

"You are being pursued by a multitude of unfriendly Martians who all got 'A' in arithmetic."

"I've just got to engage these fiercible creatures in mortal combat, because otherwise, what'll happen to the Earth if I don't?"

And my favorite of all:


By 1957, Maurice Noble's increasingly elaborate style could overwhelm some of the bread-and-butter cartoons, but for this type of cartoon, it's perfect; the first shot of Ralph in his bedroom, with Ralph dwarfed by the huge bed and the huge reflection from the window, instantly conveys how it feels to be a kid sent to your room. And even though it's a big fancy fantasy cartoon, this (like "From A To Z-Z-Z-Z") does not feel pretentious, because ultimately it's just a very relatable, funny version of something small and real -- a kid with an overactive imagination.

This is also one of the few WB cartoons where Daws Butler's voice really seems to fit in for me, but who's that doing the mother? It could be June Foray, but it doesn't sound like it to me. (But just because it doesn't sound like June Foray doesn't mean it isn't.)

As a sequel to "Z-Z-Z-Z" with a less elaborate structure, this feels like a pilot for a series; it certainly wouldn't have been hard to make other cartoons with this format. I don't know why they never brought Ralph back (except in that Road Runner TV pilot), and Noble once said he wondered why there hadn't been other Ralph cartoons. He sure seems like an exploitable character, but he might not have had a lot of merchandising possibilities -- and anyway, by 1957, with the end of the studio being threatened literally every year, there weren't a lot of new series being launched.

Though this is a "bonus cartoon" on the new Looney Tunes Golden Collection, it appears to be a properly restored print, complete with music-only track. (Most of the other bonus cartoons are basically TV-quality prints, complete with those "dubbed version" closings created for Cartoon Network in the late '90s.) This YouTube copy is, obviously, not the DVD version, which looks much better. "From A To Z-Z-Z-Z" is available on the Academy Award winners/nominees collection.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Apparently the special features have been recorded for season 2 of Freakazoid!, so we should get it next year, probably along with the rest of the first season of Tiny Toons. (Some of the artists did interviews for Tiny Toons special features that weren't used in the first box, so I'm assuming -- hoping -- they're being saved for the second.)

There are still no plans for Volume 4 of Animaniacs, which is disappointing even though most of the episodes from that season don't have a great deal of re-watch value for me. But to be honest my main worry about the '90s WB series was that we would get half the Freakazoid! episodes and not the rest; if the second and final season comes out as planned, I'll be pretty satisfied with the haul we got. Though it would be nice if they'd finish Tiny Toons, since in my opinion -- unlike with Animaniacs -- the very best episodes of that series came after the first 65 episode run. (The difference is that Tiny Toons had characters who were capable of development, especially after they'd become distinct enough from the old WB characters; Animaniacs mostly had characters who didn't have a lot of facets to their personalities or relationships -- except Pinky and the Brain, which is why they got their own show -- so there weren't really any new stories to develop for them. Hence the eventual over-reliance on parodies of movies and other TV shows.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Three Days of the Condo"

Season 4; Johnny comes into money -- continuity alert, the money is a settlement from the station that fired him for saying "Booger" on the air -- and, after spending $1,000 of it on drugs and hookers (or as close as they can get to saying that on CBS at 8 p.m.), Venus convinces him to invest it in a condo at Gone With the Wind Estates, because "real estate has never failed."

Music: "Rockin' My Life Away" by Jerry Lee Lewis and the theme from Gone With the Wind. (Also, Mr. Carlson has a very good point about the Reds being robbed by the 1981 split-season schedule, but I have to admit that I'm grateful to that schedule, because it helped the Expos get their only division title.)

Three Days of the Condo by carpalton

Grudge Match: Vera Peterson vs. Maris Crane

Battle of the invisible TV wives: Vera Peterson (Cheers) vs. Maris Crane (Frasier). The referee of the fight, of course, is Lars Lindstrom. Who wins the fight? Since we'll never see it anyway, will we even know who wins?

Vera presumably has the weight advantage, while Maris has the advantage of being more evil and ruthless, as well as actually having killed somebody.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Damn It, Edie Adams Is Dead

I really liked her. In everything. She never quite made it big in anything, but she did everything very well: funny, sexy, a fine singer and actress. As a singer, she had a trained soprano voice that was one of Broadway's best (though she was not at her best as Daisy Mae in Li'l Abner, a part she didn't much care for). Leonard Bernstein was impressed enough with her vocal skill that in Wonderful Town, he wrote a rather difficult coloratura part for her in the "Conversation Piece" number; on the cast album, she does it effortlessly, but every other person who has played Eileen has had trouble getting the notes out -- and one production just gave up and assigned the coloratura to a male character singing falsetto. Bernstein wanted her for the even more difficult part of Cunegonde in Candide, but she did Li'l Abner instead. (Barbara Cook, who played the part, was great, but even she struggles with the coloratura effects that Bernstein wrote with Adams in mind.)

She had a good career as a supporting player in movies in the early '60s, getting an Oscar nomination as Fred MacMurray's jilted mistress/secretary in The Apartment, providing some of the best moments in Love With the Proper Stranger, and stealing Lover Come Back as the bubbleheaded, buxom Southern belle, making the most of Paul Henning's great lines (as well as having all the equipment necessary to sell Henning's many boob jokes). It's too bad she disappears from the movie after the first half. Her movie career dried up after a few very busy years in the early '60s, but she made many guest appearances on television well into the early '90s.

The young Edie Adams on the Dumont network:

In Love With the Proper Stranger, but without her best moment in the film: "You want me to find you a doctor?!":

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Best Worst Scooby-Doo Series

Teletoon Retro is rerunning The Thirteen Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, one of the worst Scooby-Doo series ever (and that's saying something) but one of the few I actually bother to watch when it's rerun. Part of it is nostalgia: I was a Scooby-loving child when this show was new. I loved all Scooby shows, even the ones with Scrappy (I liked Scrappy, was used to him, and didn't really know why I was supposed to hate him), even the ones that had them fighting real ghosts. Hell, I even liked Deputy Dusty. So nine year-old me sat down to watch Thirteen Ghosts with great anticipation -- and for the first time in my life, I was puzzled watching a Scooby-Doo show. I didn't dislike it, it just seemed different somehow. And other kids must have felt similar bafflement, because the show only lasted for the titular 13 episodes. It would take three years for the franchise to produce a better show -- and really, the only genuinely good Scooby-Doo show -- A Pup Named Scooby-Doo. But since Pup was made by many of the same people, and many of those people would then go on to do other shows I liked, I still look at 13 Ghosts trying to figure out what was going on there.

The biggest part of what was going on, of course, was that Ghostbusters had just come out and Hanna-Barbera decided to re-tool its most re-tooled franchise yet again. So there were not only real ghosts and monsters (they'd been doing that for several years anyway), there was a "Vacu-spook" to suck in the spooky ghosts, and there were two comic-relief ghosts both of whom were actually more annoying than the cartoon version of Slimer. All this might have been just an extension of what H-B had done already. But the show also added a ton of new characters. Freddy and Velma had already been dropped in earlier incarnations, and they didn't appear here either, but in addition to Scrappy there was a wise-ass human kid, "Flim-Flam," who was like a human version of Scrappy, and Vincent Price voicing the ghost expert and wizard "Vincent Van Ghoul," and then there were the two very poorly-drawn ghosts voiced by the old-school comedy pros Howard Morris and Arte Johnson, and... well, I'll let Tom Ruegger, the associate producer and story editor, tell it:

Now, who I really couldn't stand was Flim Flam (from "The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo.") Definitely the product of network focus groups: "We need to get a kid in there." Flim Flam never worked out. Total drain. We carried a lot of character baggage on that show. Vincent Van Ghoul. Bogle and Weerd. 13 ghosts. Live and learn. After that version of the series, the only thing to do was start over. Which is what we did with "A Pup Named Scooby Doo."

The producer was Mitch Schauer, a fine director and producer who later went on to do Freakazoid! and create Angry Beavers. He would later joke that he was "The Man Who Killed Scooby-Doo." He came up with some decent design ideas in what appeared to be the first attempt to make a genuinely scary Scooby-Doo show, and occasionally it looked better than H-B average, but the animation was of course bad (Virgil Ross is credited as one of the animators on the series, and I bet I could identify his scenes if I looked hard enough, but I don't want to look that hard), and the look of the whole thing was like the apotheosis of the ugly, flesh-colored-eyes look that H-B and Ruby-Spears had been foisting upon us for a decade. Not a pleasant show to behold.

The scripts weren't much, either, as you can imagine, though they did -- and here's the part that still intrigues me a little -- keep sneaking in the occasional joke or scene that wasn't in the traditional H-B house style. I guess that's what confused me as a kid, along with all the bad new characters. None of these jokes were enough to make the episodes good, mind you; they were just little things that the writers were throwing in for their own amusement. In the weirdest moment, which I still remember after all these years, the episode breaks for a "Special Report" where Scrappy interviews a parents' advocacy type who's concerned about the violent use of fire in the episode, which involves a dragon. Scrappy accuses her of being prejudiced against dragons, Scooby and Scrappy reduce her to tears at her insensitivity toward dragons, and we cut back to the episode as if nothing had happened. That, for better or worse, is the ancestor of the whole self-referential style that was all over TV cartoons in the '90s, and sort of shows what I meant when I used to say that Tiny Toons was the culimnation of something many of these writers had been trying to do at H-B for years.

None of this is meant as a defense of 13 Ghosts, the show that even Deputy Dusty fans couldn't quite swallow. But for students of TV animation history, it's kind of interesting to see the seeds of what would happen on better shows. A similar case is another H-B retool from the same period, The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, where writers and producers including Alan Burnett overhauled the Super Friends into something that pointed toward the '90s Batman cartoon. (Though Galactic Guardians, unlike 13 Ghosts, was a pretty good series on its own terms.)

The "Special Editorial" occurs toward the end of this YouTube clip, at about 8:30.

Best Penguin Ever

A lot of '60s Batman talk going around today, what with Batman's debate with Penguin going viral and, sadly, the death of Neal Hefti. One thing I wanted to note after watching that Penguin clip: it reminds me why Burgess Meredith's Penguin is my favorite villain from the '60s series and, in my opinion, the best version of the Penguin ever done in any TV series or movie adaptation.

Gorshin's Riddler and Newmar's Catwoman are also great, of course. (Cesar Romero's Joker, not so much. Weirdly enough, even though the Joker is probably the easiest Batman villain to play effectively, he was one of the least interesting regular villains on the show.) But what Meredith and the writers did with the Penguin was a real feat: they took a villain who has almost nothing going for him to make him a threat -- a short, foppishly dressed guy whose most deadly weapon is his umbrella -- and made him a credible threat. Usually when people try to make the Penguin threatening, they do what Tim Burton did in Batman Returns, make him a hideous freak. Meredith did the opposite: he played the Penguin as a guy who is threatening to Batman because, unlike most villains, he actually fits in with normal society. In fact, as the debate clip shows, he understands the public better than not-too-bright Batman ever does. Unlike most of the other villains, who really are complete freaks, Penguin isn't that much more grotesque than some of the people we actually tolerate in everyday life, and that allowed for more directly satirical stories than the writers could do with Riddler or Joker.

I doubt the Penguin will ever make it into one of the Christopher Nolan movies, but if you think about it, a more serious version of Meredith's characterization would fit right into the whole "Batman in the real world" approach.

A Revolution In Movie Writing Credits

Update: In comments, Marty McKee writes: "This has been the case for more than a decade now. It's the result of negotiations between the Writers Guild and Hollywood studios." I could have sworn I was still seeing writing credits before the producer credits in movies made in the first part of this decade, but I could be wrong, and anyway that's pretty much gone now, for the reason he mentions.


This is not something anybody ought to be noticing, but it seems like in the last few years, we've seen the first major shift in almost half a century in a truly vital issue: where to put the writing credits in a movie?

Seriously. Up until the '50s or even early '60s, the writing credit always came in the middle of the credits, usually just before the director of photography -- implying, I guess, that the credited writer was more like a technician than a key creative component of the movie. (I think, when it comes to most movies, that's not inaccurate.) Then there was a change, and the writer started getting the third-last credit in most movies, followed by the producer and finally the director.

And now a lot of movies have the writing credit as the next-to-last credit, after the producing credits. Look at the fourth Indiana Jones movie (if you can stand it after that damn CGI gopher pops up): the writing and story credits are before Spielberg's credit and after the credit for Spielberg's longime producer Frank Marshall.

I don't know why this has happened exactly, though it might be that the term "producer" is sort of meaningless now -- every movie has a ton of producers, executive producers, double-super-secret producers -- and it makes more sense to put all the different producing credits one after the other, followed by the easier-to-allocate writing credit. So congratulations, Hollywood screenwriters; according to the credits, you're # 2.

I could talk about the tectonic shift in the '30s from putting the director's credit in the middle to putting it at the end, but that may be too important and deep a subject to deal with in such a short post.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Essential Garry Marshall Bomb

Over at mon autre blog I have an episode of Blansky's Beauties, the bomb Garry Marshall created for ABC in 1977 to get in on the "jiggle" craze, and one of the worst shows ever created by someone who had two top-ten hits on the air (granted, there aren't many people who have had two top-ten hits at once).

One reason I'm kind of fascinated by Marshall's shows is, as I said before, that no TV producer has ever been more open and unabashed about doing whatever it took to cash in on current trends and appeal to whatever he thinks the audience will go for at a particular moment in time. Every TV producer does it, of course, but they usually try to disguise it a bit. With Garry there's no disguise, and after 1975 or so, no attempt to give any show a consistent style or tone; any joke, story, stunt or actor who will boost the show's demographic profile is in. Combine that with his tendency to create multiple roles on multiple shows for actors he liked for one reason or another -- Eddie Mekka, Scott Baio, Lynda Goodfriend -- and his staffing of every show with his siblings and other relatives, and you've got one of the strangest TV mini-empires of the '70s, but one that in its way sums up pop culture in that era. Plus it shows Marshall's penchant for never wasting an idea, however bad, because after this was rightly cancelled, he re-tooled the same idea -- Las Vegas showgirls living in a house with Scott Baio -- into Who's Watching the Kids? a family-friendly show for NBC, starring Baio, Goodfriend and Caren Kaye as the same characters under different names.

But the kitchen-sink approach didn't work for Blansky's Beauties. For one thing, the pandering was just too obvious even by his standards. For another thing, the re-tooled Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley were both run by the writing team of Mark Rothman and Lowell Ganz; they were probably the best writers on Marshall's team, and they ensured that the first multi-camera season of Happy Days was really funny and Laverne worked right out of the gate. They were not involved with Blansky's Beauties. (Ganz later came back to run Happy Days and brought it back to a certain level of respectability after the low point of the post-shark-jump seasons; he's the main reason why the show wasn't that bad after Ron Howard left, and Howard was impressed enough that he made Ganz and his new writing partner, "Babaloo" Mandel, his regular writing team.) The level of the writing is like a bad '60s sitcom crossed with a bad '70s sitcom.

Here as an extra is the opening of the Blansky's Beauties pilot episode, which Marshall directed himself. Shades of Happy Days, the pilot was one-camera, the series switched to multi-camera with an audience.

You'll notice that every episode of this thing began with a different pre-credits joke. Here's one where, as on L&S, Marshall and ABC inexplicably try to convince us that Eddie Mekka is a sex symbol.

WKRP Episode: "The Contest Nobody Could Win"

Another request, for a season 1 episode that is so heavily cut on Hulu as to be almost unwatchable in spots: the episode where Johnny mistakenly announces a prize as $5,000, and the station tries to come up with an unwinnable name-that-song contest. The Hulu/DVD version changes the song snippets and redubs the dialogue of the callers with new, fake group names; it is also missing both the opening (with "Suction Prints" by Captain Beefheart) and the closing (with "Lotta Love" by Nicolette Larson) plus some bits of music in between.

(To be honest, I can see how licensing six songs for one chord each would be a bit of a problem, and if Fox had made an effort to keep other music, I could have forgiven them for changing this sequence. But...)

This was the first episode produced after the show came back from hiatus, though it was probably written earlier. It is clearly an "early" episode because it's the last episode that uses the original premise of the show, which Hugh Wilson pitched to the network as "The suits vs. the dungarees" (a phrase that he actually wrote into this episode in a memorable scene). The idea that the station consisted of two factions, Mr. Carlson/Herb/Les vs Andy/Johnny/Venus, was a theme of some of the early episodes like "Turkeys Away," but was abandoned soon after this episode was produced. The credited writer is Casey Piotrowski, a real-life disc jockey.

Cold Open and Act One:

Act Two:

Friday, October 10, 2008


In a previous post, I noted that the opening of Touch of Evil in its original version -- before the 1998 version removed the credits and the musical scoring -- has some similarities to the opening of Douglas Sirk's Written On the Wind, another Universal film produced by exploitation-meister Albert Zugsmith. I thought I would illustrate that by posting both openings.

Now, of course these openings are clearly the work of two very different directors making two very different films (and both are brilliantly and differently photographed by Russell Metty). What's similar is the way the openings are structured:

- Before the credits begin, we see someone who appears to be up to no good -- a drunk driver, a bomber. We also get to see some visual motifs that will recur throughout the film: the phallic oil machinery in Written, the moving shadows in Touch.

- Once the guy does what he was trying to do in the opening shot -- the drunk driver arrives at his destination, the bomber plants the bomb in the car -- the credits begin and the theme music kicks in.

- During the credits, we meet the lead characters; we know something bad is about to happen, but we don't yet know exactly what's going on or who these people are.

- Soon after the credits are over, the bad thing happens: in Written someone gets shot; in Touch of Evil the bomb explodes.

So while Touch of Evil is very much an Orson Welles film, it's also very clearly a Universal picture of the late '50s, and Zugsmith very clearly applied the same ideas to the opening of Touch that he'd already used in the opening of Written On the Wind. It's one of the reasons I object to the idea behind the 1998 version; by taking Welles's memo as gospel, it robs the picture of its identity as a late '50s Universal production. (I know that the producers of that version have said that they didn't intend it to supplant other versions, but the fact is, it did for many years; that became the only version available on DVD until now, and many viewers mistakenly think that the 1998 version is a "director's cut," when it's nothing of the kind.)

So, Written On the Wind opening:

Touch of Evil opening:

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Favorite NIGHT COURT Cast Members?

It's welcome news that the second season of Night Court will finally arrive on DVD (please, let them at least get as far as bringing out the third season with the Hurricane episodes). But that's the season where there's the most fan controversy over this show's many, many casting issues.

There was no real controversy about the first season, because everybody knew that two characters just didn't work: Lana (Karen Austin) and Liz (Paula Kelly, a great performer who had nothing to do here). Austin was actually dropped before the first season was even over, and they tried out a number of people in her place, including D.D. Howard, a tall blonde who appeared on almost every NBC show of the era -- I guess Brandon Tartikoff was looking for a place to put her.

So, needing to fill two slots for season 2, the producers found one by drawing from NBC's reject pile: Charles Robinson had been a regular on Buffalo Bill, and moved very successfully to Night Court. But they needed a female lead, and their choice was Shelley Hack, aka "the only Charlie's Angel worse than Tanya Roberts." But Hack did not work out -- who'd have thought adding Shelley Hack wouldn't work out for a show? -- and showrunner/writer Reinhold Weege borrowed Markie Post from The Fall Guy for the episode. But he couldn't use Post on a regular basis, because she was still a regular on The Fall Guy. So in the next episode, the show introduced its new full-time leading lady, singer/actress Ellen Foley. Foley was on the show for the rest of the season, but when the next season began, she was dropped and replaced by Markie Post, who had gotten out of her contract with Fall Guy. Scuttlebutt at the time was that when Post became available, the producers simply fired Foley, who didn't object because she thought she could do better with a singing career; a newspaper report from the time said that Foley "is departing partly because she wants to pursue a singing career and partly because the producers didn't think she was sexy enough."

As a kid watching the reruns, I actually liked Foley better than Post, because Foley's character seemed pleasantly spunky by comparison. (Post was hotter, but I wasn't really watching the show for that.) But now when I watch the second season episodes, it seems like the writers never came up with a funny persona for her; that was the same season where Dan developed into a pervert and Bull developed into an idiot savant, but Foley's character never really got funny. When they added Markie Post they were able to make a joke out of her character's innocence and prudishness, so she was funny, while Foley really wasn't. I don't know if that can be blamed on the actor, really, but it does seem like they couldn't write for her. (And while mostly the Token Hot Chick on action shows, Post had already done well in an episode of Cheers as Diane's trampy friend.)

Then you have the dead bailiff curse. My preference among Night Court bailiffs would be: 1) Selma Diamond; 2) Marsha Warfield; 3) Florence Halop. Diamond was by far the best; Halop's character was too clearly a carbon copy of Selma, though the resemblance finally turned tragic rather than funny.

Which means my ideal Night Court cast would be: Harry, Dan, Christine, Mac, Bull, Selma. There's only one episode that actually has this "ideal" cast and it's that one episode Post guest-starred in in the second season.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Cartoon Censorship in 1937

I found (maybe someone else has found it before) this Associated Press article from May 18, 1937 where Leon Schlesinger talks about censorship of his cartoons, both Hays Office censorship and self-censorship brought on by viewer complaints.

One odd thing is that the article says that Schlesinger stopped using scary characters "because, in one picture, he had a monster that was the heavy. The monster frightened the children -- as well as Porky the Pig -- and the letter of protest looked like a star's fan mail." I assumed he was referring to "The Case of the Stuttering Pig", with its memorably scary transformation of Lawyer Goodwill into a toothy monster, but that cartoon hadn't been released to theatres yet at the time the article was written. So either the writer of the article misunderstood, or there's another cartoon that was already in theatres and getting complaints, though I'm not sure which cartoon that would be. (If only because, before "Scaredy Cat" in 1948, there's no WB cartoon that's as scary as "Stuttering Pig.")

Friday, October 03, 2008

Brisk, Lively, Merry and Bright

I didn't see this when it was originally announced, but the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization has made a complete recording of the score of Allegro, Rodgers and Hammerstein's third musical and by far their most ambitious. The recording will be released by Sony/BMG sometime later this year.

A synopsis of the show can be found here, but a synopsis can't do justice to how fascinating, if flawed, Allegro is. They'd completely revolutionized the musical theatre with Oklahoma! and Carousel, changing the definition of a musical from a loosely-constructed show based around performers to a carefully-assembled work of theatre where the writing and production were more important than any single performer. (And they proved that this was a sound business decision as well as an artistic decision: the reason Oklahoma! ran so long is that it could survive multiple cast changes, whereas most musicals were over as soon as the stars left.) With Allegro, their first original story, they tried to take this one step further and make a musical that was a 100% integrated theatrical experience: not just integrating the songs into the story, but having staging, sets, writing, acting and lighting all working toward the same overarching concept.

Oklahoma! and Carousel had been brilliantly directed by Rouben Mamoulian (film fans sometimes wonder what happened to his talent after the '30s; the answer is, he took it back to Broadway), but they still had relatively conventional sets and followed a conventional division into scenes. Allegro mostly did away with representational sets. In this it was influenced by Our Town and other set-less plays, but Allegro was actually more expensive to design and operate than other musicals, because in place of regular sets, there was an elaborate system of machines, sliding props, projections, and complicated lighting, all intended to make each scene flow into the next without breaks. The chorus sometimes sang, but more often talked to the audience and the characters like a Greek chorus.

And just as the scenes flowed one into the other, the score had fewer stand-alone songs than any musical in years; bits and pieces of song popped up here and there like leitmotifs (especially the opening number, "Joseph Taylor, Junior," repeated over and over at key points). Even when there were full-fledged numbers, they were assigned in unusual ways. The most beautiful ballad in the score, "(We Have Nothing to Remember) So Far," is given to a character who never appears in the show again after that one scene. (Stephen Sondheim, who was a production assistant on Allegro and has been trying to re-make it in one form or another for most of his career -- there's a party scene in Merrily We Roll Along that is almost a carbon copy of a similar scene in Allegro -- is the only other songwriter who really tried to revive this idea, and even he gave up on it eventually; since the late '70s he's gone back to giving all the big numbers to the big characters.) The choreography, too, mostly did without the big ballet set-pieces of the last two shows; there was lots of dancing, but in bits and pieces, with minor characters dancing to suggest what the major characters might be thinking. Agnes DeMille, who choreographed R&H's first two shows, became the first choreographer to be put in charge of directing an entire show; the task was too big for DeMille, who wasn't really cut out to be a director (she couldn't get away with treating everyone in the cast the way she treated some of her dancers), and Hammerstein wound up directing a lot of the scenes, but it was still the ancestor of the approach taken by Jerome Robbins or Bob Fosse, the idea that the direction and choreography needed to reflect the same approach.

Hammerstein's script has a reputation for being preachy and lecture-y. And it is that. But it is an interesting script for all that. The theme that "success" often means giving up something essential in ourselves was a timely one for the post-war era, and the second act is basically a long attack on for-profit medicine and the way it screws up what should be a doctor's priorities. The show is also, as Hammerstein himself said, autobiographical; I can't help thinking that the story of Joe, the man with noble ambitions, and Jenny, his bitchy wife who talks him into selling out, shows Hammerstein's worry about the partnership he'd formed with Rodgers. Hammerstein was Joe, the dreamy, impractical type who's always ambitious but not always successful (before he teamed with Rodgers, he'd had nothing but flops for ten years). Rodgers was practical, hard-headed and a little cold, like Jenny. Was Hammerstein worried about where Rodgers was taking him?

If so, maybe he was right to be worried. The relative failure of Allegro meant that they never did anything remotely that ambitious again. South Pacific and The King and I were big hits, but less experimental in writing or staging. All their shows after The King and I were essentially play-it-safe musical comedies. Some of those shows were better than Allegro; I don't think it's anywhere near as satisfying as South Pacific or King and I, let alone Oklahoma! and Carousel, and the public had a point in not wanting to be preached at for two and a half hours -- particularly when it ends with a blatant, dishonest cop-out. But Allegro has within it the essence of the "concept" musical, the musical that aims to be a complete and overwhelming theatrical experience. The last 60 years of musical theatre can be seen as a series of attempts to do what Allegro tried to do.

WKRP Episode: "The Consultant"

By request, an episode from the fourth season, written by Hugh Wilson, where a radio consultant (David "Thirtysomething" Clennon) comes to the station intending to give it a bad report. Like some of the scripts Hugh Wilson would do for Frank's Place, this has a rather odd structure and some abrupt shifts in tone (the very subdued, almost downbeat scene with Andy and the consultant).

This episode is also the one that really makes it clear that WKRP is an anachronism in 1981; the consultant correctly points out that no one was letting the DJs program their own music or working with only one salesman. But the parts of this episode people remember most are a) the scenes with Ian Wolfe as Hirsch, who gets his biggest role among the four episodes he appeared in, and b) The performances of characters when they pretend to be the opposite of what they usually are. Apparently part of the inspiration for that scene was that Loni Anderson had used a squeaky bubblehead voice in the mid-'70s when she appeared as dumb blondes on some shows (I think I recall her using it on The Love Boat, though it might have been somebody else talking like that), and Wilson apparently thought it would be funny to let her use that voice on the show.

Teaser and Act 1:

Act 2:

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Why did MY LITTLE DUCKAROO Turn Out So Bad?

I haven't done a cartoon-by-cartoon analysis of the contents of the next Looney Tunes DVD set yet, but I recently re-watched one of the cartoons that will be on the set, My Little Duckaroo (Chuck Jones, 1954), and found myself wondering once again why this cartoon turned out so poorly. It's one of those cartoons that just doesn't seem to work -- not for kids, not for adults. The problem is not that it borrows gags from "Drip-Along Daffy"; Jones and others did lots of great cartoons that were sequels to previous cartoons. But whereas the earlier cartoon is unstoppably hilarious, "Duckaroo" feels slow, static (most of the action takes place in one cabin) too weakly-written compared to Maltese's usual standard. The animation is a little stiff, with Daffy very slowly moving from pose to pose, and the ending is cruel and kind of depressing. Throw in Maurice Noble's over-stylized, distracting designs, like the magazine pages on Canasta's walls, and the whole cartoon is like a parody of a Chuck Jones cartoon, and not an affectionate parody.

There are a couple of other Jones cartoons from 1954-5 that are a bit like this; "Rabbit Rampage" is the obvious example -- another cartoon that's too slow, too talky, and has weak writing compared to the brilliant cartoon it's following up on. I guess you can see these cartoons as transitional works, Jones and his team moving toward the slower, less brash style they would use in the late '50s. But even with his new style, Jones would not sink as low as "Duckaroo" until the early '60s at least; "Deduce You Say" (1956) is another Daffy-Porky cartoon that's set mostly in one place and features Daffy unsuccessfully trying to capture a huge brute, but it's much, much funnier and better-written than "Duckaroo." Maybe "Duckaroo" just has the characteristics of a film made by people who knew they might be out of a job soon; that probably never produces anyone's best work.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Oh, Dear, MY PET MONSTER Is Back

The news that a Canadian company is putting out the My Pet Monster cartoon series on DVD doesn't mean much to most people -- another bad '80s cartoon based on a forgotten toy -- but it dredges up somewhat painful memories for me, because this was one of those cartoons I saw all the time even though a) I didn't like it much and b) There were hardly any episodes.

Global seemed to show it all the time in Canada on the weekends, and in time slots where there were no other cartoons for kids to watch, long after ABC had canceled it. I guess because it was produced by Nelvana, it counted as CanCon. So I became familiar with Monster's garbage-eating, and the scary evil giant monster, Beastur, who was constantly trying to capture Monster and bring him back to his own dimension. Also there was this Dr. Bellows-type guy who always suspected that something was going on with the three kids who knew about the Monster, but could never... oh, to hell with it, I can't even talk about it without a certain level of pain. And when you hear the theme song, you'll know why.