Saturday, November 29, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Nothing To Fear But..."

In the 20th episode of season 3 (written by Dan Guntzelman from an outline by Tim Reid), an unsolved robbery at the station sets off the usual reactions: paranoia, fear, gun ownership and bad parties.

The use of music in this episode is really exceptional, some of the best in the series. There are two sequences that are entirely timed to the music: the robbery in the first scene takes place to "Love Man" by Otis Redding, and when Venus and Johnny are alone in the station, the music is "Just the Two of Us" by Bill Withers and Grover Washington Jr. Using "Just the Two of Us" has become something of a cliché, but the song was brand-new at the time, and it really creates a strange, almost eerie feeling when combined with the dim lights and the characters' nervousness.

The first song in the episode is "Rock Me Baby," also by Otis Redding, and the music during the party scene is by Bob James -- I can't remember the title. Also, this is another episode that shows Les's fondness for singing hit songs from the '50s.

Cold Open and Act 1

Act 2

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Swinger Was the One Invented Yay, Yay, Yay

Someone has put the complete movie The Swinger up on YouTube. It is one of the strangest movies of the '60s, not Skidoo strange but close, and it's never been available on home video. This youtube posting will tide us over until TCM shows it on January 23.

This was the third and last movie that Ann-Margret made with veteran director George Sidney. The other two were Bye Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas, the movies that made her a star. But only two years later, Ann-Margret's career was in trouble; she'd been working too much in too many terrible movies. (The exception was The Cincinnati Kid, but she didn't really get noticed for that movie, even though she was one of the best things in it -- doing far more with her generic character than most of the other actors did with theirs.) The Swinger was really her last shot at proving she could carry a movie, and so it made perfect sense for her to re-team with Sidney, who adored her and was accused of unbalancing both Birdie and Vegas by giving A-M extra screen time.

But movies had changed a lot in only a couple of years -- that's part of why A-M had gone from star to potential has-been so quickly -- and the kind of mildly-naughty sex comedy suggested by the subject (a goody-two-shoes girl tries to prove she can be a "swinger" to impress a smut publisher) was looking very creaky. The credited writer of the script, Lawrence Roman, had had a success a few years ago with Under the Yum Yum Tree, a sex comedy with no sex whatsoever. Sidney appears to have decided to shoot the film not as a glossy sex comedy but a parody of glossy sex comedies and mid-'60s culture. (He also said that as with Viva Las Vegas, he junked the original script and had most of it rewritten days before shooting started.)

Sidney was always brash and vulgar; that's why he's my favorite of the MGM musical directors, because he's the least tasteful and the most fun. But here he's consciously being vulgar, and making fun of vulgarity. The famous scene where A-M rolls around in paint isn't just a typical George Sidney riot of color, choreography and over-the-top fun; it's a slam on what Sidney and other old pros clearly saw as the smutty, anything-goes culture. (I've always found the scene more disgusting than entertaining.) Like Skiddoo, it's a film where an old-guard director looks at the changing trends in movies and pop culture and tells the audience: that's what you want, you crazy kids? Well, I'll give it to you and then some! A movie made by a director who obviously is disenchanted with the public (Sidney made only one more movie after this and then retired from directing) does not stand much of a chance of succeeding, and indeed The Swinger was a flop.

What keeps it out of Skidoo territory is that it's much more good-natured than Skidoo. Sidney was, as I said, naturally vulgar and silly, so a lot of the scenes in the movie are only slightly more over-the-top versions of the way he would normally do them. And because the movie is in large part a parody of middle-of-the-road sex comedies (the kind Sidney and A-M had both made), it avoids being a grumpy reactionary movie like Skidoo; it parodies "hip" movies but it's also equally merciless toward the "unhip" movies of the era. And I've always wondered if Wayne's World borrowed from the ending, or rather endings, of this movie.

And for Ann-Margret fans, the movie is obviously worthwhile even though it doesn't for a moment ask her to stretch herself or compete with anybody (Tony Franciosa specialized in getting eaten alive by sexy '60s stars; he'd do the same thing with Raquel Welch in Fathom). Sidney used the same cinematographer from Birdie and Vegas, Joe Biroc, and together they were to A-M as Jean-Luc Godard and Raoul Coutard were to Anna Karina.

And I mean that; I was thinking of a comparison to Sidney's use of Ann-Margret, and the comparison that kept coming to mind was Karina in Pierrot Le Fou or Vivre Sa Vie -- the director's fascination with her is so obvious in every shot. Just as Godard's Karina movies wind up being mostly about Karina's changing moods and Godard's feelings about her, Birdie, Vegas and The Swinger are all mostly about A-M and George Sidney's fascination with her, and her beauty, and her strange combination of the adult and the infantile. I wonder, come to think of it, what kind of movie A-M and Godard might have made together. (Another Karina comparison: A-M and Karina are both really creatures of the '60s. After the '60s they were still attractive, still good actors, but not the fascinating cult figures they once were.)

I'll embed the first two parts, and here's a link to the complete movie, in 10 parts on YouTube.

Part 1, the title song followed by a surprisingly long period of A-M free footage:

Part 2, in which A-M meets Tony Franciosa, rides a motorcycle, dances in a leotard while reading a book, and educates herself about smut.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Movie Musicals, Orchestrations, And Ray Heindorf

The three Warner Brothers wartime musicals released in the new Homefront Collection boxed set are all uneven. (Thank Your Lucky Stars is the best of them because even the weaker segments are at least fun, and the Arthur Schwartz/Frank Loesser score is one of the best ever written for a film musical, but it's not available separately.) But one thing that's consistent in all three of them is the excellence of the orchestral arrangements, and that's due to Warner Brothers' Ray Heindorf, by far the best orchestrator/arranger in Hollywood musicals.

But first let me confess my prejudice about Hollywood musicals: I think most of them are over-orchestrated. That's just my own personal prejudice, not a universal belief; many people are disappointed with the original small-band Broadway orchestrations of South Pacific or The Sound of Music after experiencing the Fox movie versions. But I find that most of the movie-studio orchestrators, equipped with bands much larger than any Broadway pit orchestra, tended to soup everything up too much. The worst was MGM's orchestrator, Conrad Salinger, whose arrangements could drain the life out of a song: he let the strings and brass ride over everything, and cultivated an all-purpose glitzy sound that had no relationship to any trend in popular music at any time in history.

But even better musicians, like Alfred Newman and his orchestrators at Fox or Joseph Lilley's team at Paramount, seemed to let the size of the orchestra overwhelm the songs, rarely providing the kind of wit or distinctive sounds that you got from the best Broadway orchestrators. (Compare, for example, Robert Ginzler's superb orchestrations for Bye Bye Birdie, with their memorable flute-heavy sound and their references to all kinds of different trends in late '50s/early '60s pop, to the bigger, blander arrangements in the movie version. The movie had a bigger orchestra to work with, but the orchestra makes hardly any interesting sounds, while the Broadway orchestra has something new and interesting in almost every bar.)

The exception to this rule is Heindorf, who started at Warners soon after sound came in and stayed there for 40 years, eventually succeeding Leo Forbstein as head of the music department. He orchestrated many non-musical films, including several scores by Erich Korngold, but his specialty was the musical; he orchestrated all three of the musicals in this new DVD box. And of all the big studios, it was Warner Brothers whose musicals had the smartest and snappiest orchestrations, as well as the most awareness of what was going on in pop music at a particular time. Some of that was just inherent in the studio's way of working; they had a more pop-friendly orchestra than Fox's basically classical-oriented group, and they also had the best music mixing department in the business (David Selznick wrote a memo to his music people asking them how Warners was so much better than anyone else at recording music and combining it with dialogue), but some of it is Heindorf.

He had a strong jazz influence in his scoring -- he was a friend and sometime collaborator of Art Tatum -- but he also used the orchestra the way Broadway orchestrators did, making his points with specific instrumental details. He'd let the trumpets or woodwinds comment at the end of a phrase, while thinning out the orchestration while the singer was singing (and if it was someone who couldn't really sing, like Bette Davis, doubling the melody in the orchestra). And when he wanted a "big" sound, he'd get it through a really contemporary, hip sound, rather than a wash of strings or some kind of fake swing arrangement like Alfred Newman would usually give us. And under Heindorf, Warners was one of the few studios to re-orchestrate Broadway scores without trashing them; Yip Harburg wrote a complimentary letter to Heindorf after hearing the orchestrations for his last Warners project, Finian's Rainbow.

Heindorf was also responsible for many of the orchestrations/arrangements in the Busby Berkeley musicals, where he did an amazing job with an impossible task. Instead of having dance arrangements specially written, Berkeley would plan most of his numbers to the refrain of the song, repeated over and over -- meaning that the arranger had to figure out how to play the same song without variation for ten minutes, without getting the audience aggravated. It's a tribute to Heindorf that he was able to make all that repetition tolerable through changes in orchestral color (also, of course, a tribute to Harry Warren that he wrote tunes that can be repeated endlessly). But I think his best work may be on Thank Your Lucky Stars, since he had to work in so many different styles and provide appropriate orchestral support for many performers who weren't singers. And besides, ending this post with Thank Your Lucky Stars allows me to post "Ice Cold Katie" again.

Friday, November 21, 2008

WKRP Episode - "A Simple Little Wedding"

Finally, an episode that's upbeat -- this was episode 19 of season 3, and has Mr. Carlson and his wife deciding to renew their marriage vows, only to find that Mama Carlson tries to take over the wedding just the way she did 25 years ago.

This episode introduced Ian Wolfe as Mama Carlson's butler Hirsch. A wisecracking butler is not exactly an original type of character, but Wolfe, an American character actor who'd been around since the '30s, made something special of the character despite having very few lines of dialogue in this episode, and was brought back several times the following season. Wolfe was like Charles Lane, a character actor who just never seemed to stop working and never seemed to look any different; Loni Anderson had this to say about Wolfe in an interview last year:

He had been in every old movie that I ever loved, including a Sherlock Holmes movie. He never looked any older, I thought. He looked just as old in our show as he had like 30, 40, 50 years ago. So, with that, I will never forget that we got to work with him.

This version has all the original music, but I don't recognize the songs, although the last song in the bachelor-party scene is by Otis Redding. Also, two bits of continuity: Herb refers to his drinking problem (and promptly falls off the wagon) and one of the strippers Herb hires is the stripper who he tried to hire for the Ask Arlene job in "Ask Jennifer."

Teaser and Act 1

Act 2 and Tag

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Irving Brecher

Irv Brecher, writer of many Golden Age film musicals and radio comedies, has died at the age of 94. Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, a huge fan of Brecher's The Life Of Riley radio series, has a great tribute.

His autobiography, in the works for many years, was completed before he died and will be pubished posthumously in January 2009.

Brecher was one of the great Old Hollywood talking heads, a guy who loved to talk in that perfect comedy-writer's accent of his, and kept you spellbound with wonderful, vividly told stories about every star he'd ever worked with. I first saw him on Saturday Night At the Movies talking about his two films with the Marx Brothers. (When, oh, when is TVO going to make their archive of interviews available to the public?) His scripts for the Marx Brothers were not really among the best they worked with -- but his stories about them were always great. Last year, during the writer's strike, the 93-going-on-94 Brecher appeared in a YouTube video for the WGA, still energetic and intelligent and proud of being a writer.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

You're Either a Goldfinger Guy Or a From Russia With Love Guy

Oh, one other thing, a James Bond-related thought (which I probably should have posted last Friday, but what the heck): one thing I've noticed about my attitude to James Bond movies is that while I acknowledge that most of the best Bond movies are more or less in the From Russia With Love vein -- fewer gadgets, a more serious tone, more emphasis on characterization -- my favorite kind of Bond movie is the Goldfinger type of wild fantasy adventure, even though there are fewer good movies of this type.

While I acknowledge the superiority of From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Casino Royale and maybe even For Your Eyes Only to most of the "wacky" Bond movies, I don't return to them all that often as a group. Okay, that's not fair to FRWL; I do return to that one, because it's one of the two best of the Connerys (and like Goldfinger, it's a superb adaptation of the Fleming novel, though there were fewer changes that had to be made because the source material is stronger).

But with OHMSS, all the stuff that's supposed to make it better as a movie just makes it less entertaining to me as a Bond movie: no Ken Adam sets, few gadgets, lots of character moments and wistful speeches and romantic walking montages. I would much rather see You Only Live Twice, which has a terrible script but never stops trying to show us wonderful things, than On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which pretends that this ridiculous story is supposed to be taken seriously (and thereby falls into one of the traps Fleming himself kept falling into) and takes longer than almost any other Bond film even though it has fewer spectacular sequences to justify its length.

It's true that the big, wacky, silly Bonds are more likely to be bad, whether bad in a fun way (Diamonds Are Forever) or just bad in a bad way (A View To a Kill). The semi-serious ones are more likely to work as movies. But that's the thing: the semi-serious Bond movies are comparatively easy to make. They're not that different from non-Bond spy movies. It's the cartoony Bond movies that are the hardest to pull off, because the sets have to be truly eye-popping, the set pieces truly spectacular and the women truly memorable, and the director has to do all this while preserving the feel of a Bond movie rather than a campy Bond imitation. Goldfinger pulled this off, The Spy Who Loved Me pulled it off, and few others really have succeeded at this all the way through, because it's so difficult.

But while I appreciate what they've done with the reboot, I would like to see the Bond team try a similarly well-thought-out approach to a Goldfinger type of adventure. That's the kind of James Bond movie I'm waiting for.

Filching Lunchboxes

I don't have much time for posting at the moment, so here's something to fill the time, the not-on-DVD Animaniacs cartoon "Back In Style," written by Tom Minton and a sort of follow-up to the famous New Adventures of Mighty Mouse "Don't Touch That Dial!"

This was the best cartoon from the last couple of years of the show (when the episode orders were slashed and it was mostly working from leftover scripts and boards), though it's not all it could have been. As Minton explained in a comment on John K's blog, he was told to put in the Scooby-Doo parody even though it was redundant (since it had already been done in "Don't Touch That Dial"). And more importantly, the animation studio, Akom, was going through a bad patch -- "It's not TMS," one director said about a Pinky and the Brain cartoon, "but at least it's not AKOM!" -- and even after a year's worth of retakes, the animation still doesn't look that good. Just something to keep in mind about animation budgets: it's not only about how much money is available but how efficiently it's spent. During the '90s boom there was a lot of inefficient spending going on.

The best part of the cartoon is the Filmation parody and seeing it again it seems like the Warners had become the weak link in their own cartoons by this point in the series. (I may just feel this way because Wakko and Dot's voices have both gone from cute to loud and obnoxious by this time, making them seem kind of like nasty adults rather than rambunctious kids.) So it's not as good as the best "historical" cartoons from the Fox run, but I still enjoy it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"Man Is In the Forest. Let's Dig Out."

For me, the highlight of The Chronological Donald Vol. 4 is the opportunity to see Jack Hannah's "No Hunting" in widescreen. (I don't know why they put it in the "From the Vault" section, though. I can't see what's supposed to be offensive about it.) What made Hannah's Donald Ducks so good, at their best, was their combination of crazy, wild, aggressive humor -- very un-Disney humor -- with observational humor. They're traditional Disney cartoons in that they're grounded in small real-life things (hunting, tourism, suburban living) but they sneak in some subversive Tex Avery influence that shakes everything up.

"No Hunting" is my favorite of this bunch because it's very wild and very weird, and yet, as Hannah pointed out in an interview (excerpted on Jeff Pepper's blog) the comedy is rooted in the sad reality of what happens when suburban males go out and try to play at being sportsmen:

I used to go hunting with my dad when I was a kid and this short was a great takeoff on these hunters and fishermen. They really are this way. They are as dangerous to themselves as to the game they’re hunting. I’ve heard there are more hunters shot on opening day than deer.

Hannah also said that at the time he didn't think it was one of his better shorts (because Donald was out of character, and they threw in the idea of him being possessed by the spirit of his grandfather to explain why he was out of character) but that "after seeing it recently, I've changed my opinion." Rightly so. It's a wonderful blend of Tex Avery insanity (and self-referentiality) and Disney realism. There are a lot of hunting cartoons, but most of them are just excuses to set up a typical cartoon predator/prey scenario; this one is actually a satire of the whole pastime of hunting.

Friday, November 14, 2008

WKRP Episode - "Out To Lunch"

Another episode from that strange run of dour, downbeat episodes toward the end of the third season. The idea that Herb's use of alcohol as a sales tool (to get potential clients in the mood and to improve his sales technique) amounted to a drinking problem was foreshadowed in several earlier episodes, including one just a couple of weeks before this one, and would be referred to in several episodes after this one (so we can see that Herb didn't actually solve his problem). And culturally it's an interesting bridge between the Mad Men era of constant business-related drinking and the modern era. But while not a "very special" episode, it really is a downer, and I go back and forth on whether I like it or not. The credited writer of the episode, Peter Torokvei, said in the book America's Favorite Radio Station that he liked how it turned out: "Rather than really heavily preaching, rather than using a hammer-over-the-head type message, we kind of let it play as comedy. Even in that sort of obligatory, serious wrapping-up scene, we still tried to avoid any direct-line preaching." (I think he may be have been referring to the fact that even though Mr. Carlson is delivering the moral, he's getting steadily more drunk throughout the scene.)

There's a lot of music in this episode, but all of it is under dialogue at a low volume level. The song playing at the beginning of Act 2 is the hugely expensive "Here Comes the Sun" (one of only three Beatles songs used in the entire series), but the first time I saw the episode I didn't even notice it was there.

Cold Open and Act 1

Act 2 and Tag

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hippety Hopper - Not Necessarily The Worst Cartoon Series Ever

I couldn't find the whole cartoon online, but someone has uploaded my favorite scene from the Hippety Hopper cartoon "Too Hop To Handle" (1956), animated by Bob McKimson. McKimson animated on three cartoons during the 3-D shutdown when he had no animators: "The Hole Idea" (on which he received sole animation credit), "Too Hop To Handle" and "Dime To Retire" (on both of which he shares credit with Keith Darling, who moved from Jones's unit to McKimson's).

"The Hole Idea" is a wonderful cartoon, but anyone could have animated it; because of its stylized nature and lack of "character" moments, it doesn't really tell you how good an animator McKimson used to be. This brief scene from "Too Hop To Handle" does recall McKimson's glory days as a master of subtle character animation and perspective. (A YouTube commenter says that the first shot might be Keith Darling because of the Chuck Jones-ish look Sylvester has, and he might be right.) What's great about this scene is not only seeing a little of the '40s McKimson style again, but realizing that in McKimson's own hands, his directorial choices actually make sense -- the lowered eyelids and pointing are tolerable when he's doing them himself.

Warners somehow managed to get through six Looney Tunes DVD collections and almost more than 300 restored cartoons without including a single cartoon from this series (an "unrestored" print of "Hippety Hopper" is included as a bonus on volume 6), making it the least-appreciated of WB's successful cartoon series. I wouldn't make any great claims for it, but I do like it better than the Speedy Gonzales series, and maybe the Pepe Le Pew series from the mid-'50s on.

It is, of course, one of the most limiting concepts ever to become a successful series -- it and Pepe Le Pew both suffer not so much from being formulaic as from requiring so much setup before the cartoon can really start. (The Road Runner cartoons are formulaic, but they don't require us to wait around for two minutes until someone gets a white stripe down her back or a baby kangaroo gets mistaken for a mouse.) And the ones that stick to the rote formula of Sylvester and Sylvester Jr. encountering Hippety Hopper can be pretty hard to get through, especially the post-shutdown ones, with the exception of "Too Hop To Handle," which benefited from Warren Foster coming back to write it. (And the ones that have Sylvester and Jr. without Hippety Hopper, like "Cat's Paw" and "Fish and Slips," are downright dismal.) But unlike Pepe Le Pew, which never did a single change-of-pace cartoon except "Really Scent," the Hippety Hopper series mixed it up sometimes with some cartoons that had unusual new characters or premises, like for instance:

- "Hop, Look and Listen," pairing Sylvester with "Benny" ("But I can't say Sylvester, George"), allowing Tedd Pierce to write one of his beloved "Of Mice and Men" parodies and Stan Freberg to do his classic goon voice.

- "Bell Hoppy" (1954) - Like most of McKimson's surprisingly strong 1954 output, this one is really quite interesting and different, not only because it actually puts a new twist on the premise (cats trying to put a bell on a giant mouse) but because it offers a different characterization of Sylvester, who spends the whole cartoon imitating (I think) Bert Lahr.

- "Lighthouse Mouse" (1955) - I still haven't figured out whether I like this cartoon, what with its cruelty (even for Sylvester, he's treated badly in this one), crazy Scottish lighthouse keeper and parrot, but like all cartoons written by Sid Marcus, it's certainly different.

- "Hoppy Days" (1960) - The Jimmy Durante boxing promoter cat cracked me up as a kid, even before I knew who Durante was.

The Hippety cartoons are easier to appreciate when you're a child, because the fact that he has no personality doesn't matter so much to a kid (kids just like his happy attitude), and because this is one of the few WB cartoon series with kids as characters: Hippety is a baby mouse and Sylvester Jr., unlike Bugs' nephew Clyde, is a genuinely effective and funny kid sidekick character, one of the few such characters in classic cartoons.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

ARABESQUE, Stanley Donen's WTF Movie

That's an image from the first scene of Stanley Donen's Arabesque, which just came out on DVD as part of a Gregory Peck boxed set. I remember seeing this on TV years ago (in pan and scan); I was expecting good thing because I loved Donen's earlier comedy-thriller, Charade, and this was clearly his attempt to do it again. (He even brought in the writer of Charade, Peter Stone, to do a rewrite on this film, under the pseudonym "Pierre Marton.") And then Maurice Binder's title sequence ended, and the movie began -- and the first thing we get is a zoom shot. Then a tilted angle. Then another tilted angle. Then an evil optometrist gives his hapless victim an eye examination, and as seen above, the eye chart is psychedelically reflected on his face. Then the evil optometrist makes with the poison eye drops, and the camera tilts some more, and... well, and then we cut to a scene with Gregory Peck, and I realized that not only does this movie make no sense, but Gregory Peck is even more boring than usual. And my heart sank. (Donen wanted Cary Grant for the lead, of course; Grant, who had decided he was too old to play romantic leads, turned it down. But Peck once again proves that while he has his virtues as an actor, he's the absolute worst choice for any part that requires charm or lightness of touch.)

The thing about Arabesque is that the plot isn't actually that hard to follow, but the way it's shot makes it seem hard to follow. The opening scene, for example, is the very standard, predictable opening of dozens of espionage stories -- guy goes to some seemingly safe place, like a doctor's office, and gets offed in a gruesome manner -- but it's shot and lit in a way that obscures exactly where we are or what's going on. I later found out that this was intentional; Universal wanted Donen to deliver a follow-up to Charade, he commissioned a terrible script from two young British writers (that's why Stone was called in, but he couldn't help much), and because the script was so bad, he decided that the only way to save it was to razzle-dazzle the audience into ignoring the crappy story.

The cinematographer was Christopher Challis, one of the greatest cinematographers in England and a frequent Donen collaborator, who explained the situation in his book Are They Really So Awful?

The script had proved a problem, several re-writes failing to overcome its inherent weaknesses. Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck were contracted to do it, so the show had to go on. "Our only hope is to make it so visually exciting that the audience will never have time to work out what the hell is going on," was Stanley's opening gambit. "Go away and read it. See what you can come up with. I want every shot to be different." The time coincided with the perfection of Panavision zoom lenses, reflex cameras, and various advances in lighting equipment which opened up a whole new range of photographic possibilities.

Stanley was in his element, his quick and creative mind full of ideas about reflections. It seemed at times that the whole picture was to be seen in the backs of teaspoons, car mirrors or through tanks of fish. More often than not, the camera was pointing away from the actors, apparently dwelling in close-up on the polished back of a car license holder in which the scene was mirrored.

So when the hero and heroine run down the stairs and out of a house, Donen and Challis can't just show them running down the stairs and out of the house, otherwise it would be all too clear to the audience that there is no reason to care about what these people are doing. So it has to look like this:

Others have noted the likely influence of Sidney Furie's The Ipcress File, another spy movie that livened up a weak script with insane angles, wild cutting tricks and wacky widescreen compositions.

My reading of Donen's post-MGM career is that even though he became his own producer, he doesn't seem to have been very good at one of the most important functions of a producer of an auteur director -- developing a script. If he had a strong script by a writer with a strong personality and vision for the film, he'd execute it well: Peter Stone's script for Charade, Frederic Raphael's for Two For the Road, Peter Cook's for Bedazzled. The art of getting several screenwriters to work on a project until you get the script you want -- which is the only way to get a decent script out of this material -- seems to have eluded him; he was better at executing the writer's vision than getting writers to execute his (assuming he had one for this picture).

Compensating factors in Arabesque: the shots make no sense, but thanks to Challis, they really are quite beautiful; as storytelling, they are pointless, but as displays of color and light and Panavision framing, they're among the best-looking incarnations of the "mod" moviemaking style (way better than what Joseph Losey came up with in Modesty Blaise, for instance). Also, Sophia Loren never looked better, though her Christian Dior wardrobe is surprisingly unflattering -- demonstrating that it's silly to spend a lot of money to hire a superstar designer for a film when you could have just borrowed Edith Head from Paramount; she'd have given Loren much nicer-looking clothes. And the Henry Mancini score, while not one of his best, is at least fun.

The title sequence may also be the start of Maurice Binder's habit of creating generic titles that copied his earlier successes; there's not much to this one except a different set of moving patterns than he used in Charade.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hanna and Barbera, Step By Step

Mark Mayerson has a 1961 black-and-white clip from the CBC that takes us inside the Hanna-Barbera studios. Bill and Joe explain the whole animation process, piece by piece, to the reporter, including a clearer-than-usual explanation of what exactlya layout man does.

It's important to remember that in 1961, Hanna-Barbera was probably the most respected animation company in America, not in spite of the limited animation process, but because of it. Hedda Hopper did a column on Hanna-Barbera in 1960 where she said that they had saved cartoons with their "streamlined" process:

It looked as if the cartoon industry was washed up and Hanna and Barbera with it. But as things turned out, that kick in the pants [getting kicked out of MGM] was a major piece of luck; they got up from a prone position and developed a new streamlined method of animation...

People who'd operated by the old slow method for 20 years switched to the quick way like a bunch of kids. "Our story men, Warren Foster and Mike Maltese, are all of 50 and they're fabulous. No one ages in our business and these men have been in cartooning since they were kids. Mike came to us from Warners, has a delicious sense of humor. He used to do eight theatrical cartoons a year, but wrote 78 stories for us in nine months -- the entire McGraw series.

Everybody knew that for animation to survive, it would have to shift its center of operations from movie theatres to TV, and H-B had figured out how to do that. Furthermore, they'd done it while maintaining a standard of voice acting, design and writing that was at least comparable to theatrical animation. The fact that they'd compromised the quality of animation was not all that important, partly because it was inevitable (animation had to adapt to TV budgets/schedules, or die), and partly because the importance of animation had been downplayed for years before H-B started their operation. The acclaim of H-B in the early '60s was the natural successor to the acclaim that UPA got in the '50s; UPA was trying to make art and H-B was trying to get sponsors, but both companies were emphasizing other things besides animation.

Of course, just as UPA's peak didn't last very long, Hanna-Barbera didn't maintain this level of respect for more than a few years. By the mid-'60s, it was becoming more apparent that their cartoons were getting worse, not better, and then with the boom in superhero and mystery cartoons, the old cartoon pros (like Maltese and Foster) were thrown overboard and the feeling of gratitude to H-B -- for keeping them employed -- turned to a sense of bitterness.

Archie Rewrites History Again

I happened to leaf through an Archie digest in the supermarket checkout line yesterday (what? the other stuff in the checkout line isn't better, and I might as well look to see if I can find some old Samm Schwartz or Harry Lucey art) and the first thing I saw was a story I remembered reading as a kid, some kind of meta-story where the editor tells Archie about a story written for him by the actual writer of the story, Rich Margopoulos. (Don't ask me how I remembered the name; it just stuck with me for some reason.) Simple enough. Except that writer is no longer with Archie comics, so in this digest reprint, the writer's name has been changed to Dan Parent, one of the current staff writer/artists at Archie comics.

I never thought the Archie people could top their Soviet-style disappearing of Dan DeCarlo, but this one is even better; not only have they removed the name of a defector, but they've transferred the credit for the story to someone who didn't write it. Is that even legal?

And as an added bit of craziness, while the speech balloons are altered to remove Mr. Margopoulos's name, the brilliant rewrite people at Archie forgot to change the name on the script being held up in the first panel -- which still reads "R. Margopoulos."

Anybody want to take bets on the next bit of history that the Archie digest s will scrub from their pages? Maybe they'll take one of those Christian Sabrina stories and change "God" to "Wiccan God or Goddess." It's about time somebody stood up for Sabrina's actual religion.

Friday, November 07, 2008

If You Need Me, Kahl Me

This article on Disney superstar animator Milt Kahl is from the Dallas Morning News in the early '70s (when Robin Hood) was coming out. There's little new information, but it 's a nice snapshot of the new interest in Hollywood animation that emerged in the early '70s, when terms like "Nine Old Men" found their way into mainstream publications, animators like Kahl emerged from anonymity and were invited to talk about their artistry, and animation cels became the cartoon equivalent of rare baseball cards.

WKRP Episode: "Ask Jennifer"

The fifteenth episode of season 3 kicked off the weirdest cycle of episodes in WKRP's run: almost every episode from this one through the end of the season was kind of downbeat and even depressing in spots. This episode, where Jennifer takes over as the host of a radio call-in show after the person Herb hires turns out (as always) to be a disaster, is particularly strange because it's light comedy for most of its length, then suddenly becomes really dark and depressing near the end, only to turn back into light comedy in the very last scene. I've never really been comfortable with the shift, though Loni Anderson does well with everything she's given to do in this episode.

Hugh Wilson has said that part of the reason for the downbeat mood of the show in this run of episodes was that it reflected his own mood:

I was so in control of that show, wrote every word regardless of the credits, that around that time, the third year, I began to get sort of blue and also pretentious, I think... I was a control freak, but one that wanted to run away. This is why those SNL people kill themselves, you know, they fear that they cannot top themselves. In TV, you create an expectation and then the expectation becomes a horror. And so you begin to lose confidence in comedy -- which is extremely difficult -- and go to drama, which is easier.

Though there's no music in this episode, the currently-circulated version still has changes: "Joan," Jennifer's pathetic caller, has the wrong voice in some versions. I've uploaded it with the correct voice.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Best Hitchcock Impression By Someone Who Knew Hitchcock?

Here's a weird question, but one that should make sense if you've seen a lot of DVDs of Alfred Hitchcock movies: which person who worked with or knew Hitchcock does the best impression of him?

Because Hitchcock had such a distinctive (not to mention famous) voice and manner of speaking, it's almost impossible to quote Hitchcock without slipping into the Hitchcock voice and inflections. And so actors, when they quote something Hitchcock told them, almost inevitably do their best approximation of the Hitchcock voice. Even Tippi Hedren does it sometimes. But who does it best?

My nomination is Martin Landau, who worked for Hitchcock in North By Northwest, playing the evil henchman. Elwy Yost interviewed him on TV Ontario's Saturday Night at the Movies some years ago,and when he told the story of how he got the part, he slipped into a really fine Hitchcock: he had the Cockney accent, the mush-mouthed delivery, the rising inflections ("Mah-tiin"). Elwy complimented him on the impression, though admittedly Elwy always complimented all his guests on everything.

And for the worst Hitchcock... well, I want to say Peter Bogdanovich, but his Hitchcock isn't really that bad, it's just that he has an annoying habit of imitating everyone he ever worked with or knew. And the only thing worse than Bogdanovich's name-dropping is name-dropping with funny voices.