Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Irving Berlin, Genius and Mediocrity

It's not exactly a new statement, but every season reminds me that White Christmas is one of the weakest movies ever to gain the "Christmas Classic" label. It's the sort of movie that, simply based on the talent involved ought to be good, and of course there's a nostalgic haze around any old movie with well-known stars (that's why we use the term "classic" interchangeably with "old"). But every one of these great talents is below his or her best form, and in Danny Kaye's case, is overcompensating for the fact that the part is wrong for him. (Crosby was supposed to be partnered by a dancer, the way he was in the Astaire movies, and Donald O'Connor was supposed to play the part. Paramount was lucky to get their new hire, Kaye, to fill in for him when he pulled out, but this is not Kaye's kind of part and the dance-related songs are clearly meant for an Astaire or O'Connor.) Michael Curtiz once again demonstrates how flaccid his direction became after leaving Warners, and the songs, apart from the recycled title song, are really nothing special.

What always surprises me about Irving Berlin is how few great "unsung" songs he really wrote. Most songwriters of that generation who were on Berlin's level -- and there were very few who were -- turned out many songs that didn't become hits for one reason or another, but were every bit as good as their hits. You can go through the catalogue of the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, and Kern (these are the four people or teams who, along with Berlin, made up the top tier of New York-based theatre songwriting in the '30s), and find lots of hidden gems. With Berlin, I don't think you can. Not that he never wrote a good song that didn't become a hit, but I've rarely been blown away by one of his unknown works, the way I'm frequently blown away by Rodgers and Hart rarities. I can name a few songs by Berlin that aren't famous but should be, like "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun." I can name dozens of great Rodgers and Hart or Kern songs that deserve to be famous.

Maybe this has something to do with Berlin's style of prizing simplicity above all: simple lyrical hooks, simple musical ideas. They weren't as simple as they sounded, of course, and he worked like crazy to make his songs seem simple (the point of a song like "White Christmas" is that it needs to sound like a thought you yourself might spontaneously express, and that's a tremendously difficult thing for a professional songwriter to accomplish).

But most of his songs, from the 1910s through the 1960s, have certain stock ideas and formulas built in. If the song is inspired, then it can turn those formulaic phrases into something that resembles folk art; it feels like this song has existed forever.

If the song is not inspired, then there's nothing left in it except the formulaic bits -- which is how you get a dismal song like "What Can You Do With a General." It's a completely generic melody married to a completely generic lyric, and there are a lot of songs like this in Berlin's catalogue, where you can almost sense what the next line or musical phrase is going to be.

Even Berlin's greatest score, Annie Get Your Gun, has a few bits like that, some lazy-sounding introductory verses and one song, "I'll Share It All With You" (which is usually cut) that doesn't seem to be about much of anything. Overall, though, it's obvious that with Annie Get Your Gun, challenged by the presence of Rodgers and Hammerstein as producers and by the fact that he was replacing Kern on the project, Berlin made an unusual effort on nearly every song. (Or maybe it was more that with Rodgers and Hammerstein, he couldn't get away with less than top-quality work; most producers who worked with Berlin were understandably deferential to him.) The result was a score where the majority of songs are hits, or at least popular with audiences. But most of his scores are a mix of inspired songs and rather mediocre ones; that's how "A Fella With an Umbrella" turns up in Easter Parade.

Because of the harmonic and structural surprises Rodgers, Gershwin, Kern and Porter liked to pull, they could astonish you even in songs that didn't have what it took to become hits. Berlin, I think, wasn't naturally surprising; he wanted songs to sound inevitable, not calculated. But, being a great craftsman, he could incorporate unusual or surprising elements into his work; he did it in "Annie Get Your Gun," and he did it in a song like "Cheek To Cheek," with its extra-long refrain.

And even a conventionally-structured Berlin hit like "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" is masterful; again, it never sounds cliche'd, it just sounds like we've been singing it all our lives. (And it can't be emphasized enough: good lyricists use concrete images over abstract ones wherever possible. This song is about a metaphor -- love does not, in fact, keep you warm -- but the lyric is mostly concrete: snow, wind, icicles, overcoats, gloves.)

So I don't want to make Berlin sound like some kind of naif or unsophisticated composer; it's easy to portray him that way because he couldn't read music (there were other songwriters who couldn't; I think he deliberately played it up because the image of the untutored child of nature was good for his brand name). He was brilliant at adapting his basic style and formulas to whatever type of rhythms and harmonies were popular at a particular time; from ragtime onward, his hit songs are timeless but have the sound of their era. The difference between a Berlin hit and a Berlin non-hit is that the hits have some kind of spark in them, something that keeps them from being just a collection of stock gestures. One of the things that often provided the spark was Berlin's ability to keep up with and learn from what his contemporaries were doing: "Let's Face the Music and Dance" is informed by the major/minor shifts and structural games that Berlin's friend Cole Porter loved so much.

Berlin's problem by the early '50s, which I think helps explain why his songs in White Christmas are mostly lackluster, is that he couldn't go to other influences or styles to inform his songs and keep them from sounding cliche'd. The pop music of the era was already starting to fragment, and didn't really provide clues as to how his music should sound. (Porter, who had also in his own way tried to keep up with the times, also started to seem a little lost around this time.) Then the arrival of rock n' roll completely wrecked Berlin's working method: the most popular songs of the period weren't compatible with his "base" style, and so all he could really do was produce the bare outlines of a Berlin song, with nothing to ignite it. That's why his last score, Mr. President, is generic-sounding and bland almost from beginning to end (except for his attempt at rock on "The Washington Twist," which isn't as bad a song as it's made out to be). He could always write a Berlin tune and a Berlin lyric, but he couldn't always make it something special.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

WKRP Episode: "Who Is Gordon Sims?"

This is not in any way Christmas-related, but I got a request for the original version of this episode. (Considering how prematurely WKRP was canceled and how few episodes there really are, it's amazing I haven't completely run out of episodes yet. But there are like three or four more that I haven't gotten to.)

This was the last episode produced in the season 1 production cycle, but the idea for it must have been hatched pretty early, because before the show even started, Hugh Wilson told an interviewer that Venus would turn out to be a deserter from the Army. What seems to have happened is that when CBS put the show in the 8:00 time slot, they were reluctant to approve that story idea, so it wasn't made as part of the initial order of 13. When they came back from hiatus in the post-M*A*S*H slot, Wilson was able (still with some struggles) to get CBS to approve it. He told Newsday that he "wouldn't have touched it in the earlier time period."

It's a pretty important episode in the series' development, mostly because of the way it established the Venus Flytrap character as someone whose whole jive-talking, over-dressing persona is basically fake, the creation of someone who literally wants to hide his identity. This would be incorporated into the character from that point on, making him the opposite of the stereotype he originally appeared to be.

The DVD/Hulu version is less butchered than most, largely because there is no licensed music in the long second act. But this version restores one song that was cut, plus the original voice-over for Les's news sign-off.

Act 1 and Tag

Act 2 and Tag

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Meat On the Table!

Someone (not me) has YouTub'd the original CinemaScope version of "No Hunting," Jack Hannah's six-minute broadside against suburban idiots who want to pretend that they're hunters (comparing themselves to figures from the past who actually needed to hunt in order to survive), and wind up destroying everything in sight. Here is the most subversive and satirical of all Disney short cartoons:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

RIP, Phyllis Isley Walker Selznick, aka Jennifer Jones

There aren't many Golden Age Hollywood stars left, and the death of Jennifer Jones means that there are even fewer.

This is not a new sentiment at all, but I never felt that she was completely suited to the type of movies that Selznick preferred her to do. Not that he handled her career badly, since most of her films are pretty good, but he usually seemed to want actresses to take the heaviest, soapiest roles they could find. This wasn't the most desirable situation even for Ingrid Bergman, who was great at that kind of thing (but whom I would have liked to see more often in comedy). Jones could be good in a soapy film if the director and script were right, as in Madame Bovary (Minnelli) or Love Letters and Portrait of Jennie (Dieterle). But she was more relaxed and fun and appealing in comedy. Even her particular type of good looks seemed more suited to girl-next-door parts than exotic-type women. Not that she looked like the girl next door, just that she was great as a girl next door with a hint of exoticism or passion (or in Cluny Brown, "dirty" urges) in her wholesome style.

She's very funny in Beat the Devil and in Lubitsch's Cluny Brown, despite an off-again, on again British accent that rivals Kevin Costner's Robin Hood. Even Madame Bovary, while obviously not a comic part, is not a saintly Bernadette-type character either. I wish she had done a few other films like that.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Charlie Dog Problem

Glenn Kenny has a post over at Some Came Running on "A Hound For Trouble," the last Charlie Dog cartoon, and Charlie's weird combination of eagerness to please and self-destructiveness (he will do what he can to get a master, but he can't seem to resist making himself even more obnoxious than he already is).

1951 was a great year for Chuck Jones, in terms of the quality of his output; it's also a little poignant in retrospect because it marked the end of so much. The last Hubie and Bertie. The last Charlie Dog. The last solo Porky cartoon, "Wearing of the Grin" (that and McKimson's "Dog Collared," from the same year, were the last cartoons that starred Porky without some other established character to give him cover). The last Three Bears cartoon, "A Bear For Punishment." Even "Rabbit Fire" in a way is as much the end of something as it is the beginning. (Up to that point, though he'd been getting to be more and more of a loser, Daffy was still a star character. "Rabbit Fire" re-established Daffy as a foil for Bugs, the way Porky had become a foil for Daffy. It's like the cartoon is admitting that Daffy is no longer all that popular.) He still had more great cartoons to come, and even one more abortive series, Mark Anthony and Pussyfoot. But 1951 is the end of something.

Actually, a few things seemed to change in WB cartoons after 1951; for instance, that appears to be the last year when Tedd Pierce and Mike Maltese did incidental voices, as they had frequently done in the past. (Pierce is one of the chefs in "French Rarebit," and Maltese is the poor customer in "A Hound For Trouble.") At some point in the early '50s there must have been some kind of move toward purely professional voice actors to supplement Blanc, because you just don't hear the writers' voices in the cartoons after that. Also, for some reason there was a huge drop in the number of topical references in cartoons around 1952 -- there were already fewer, but for the next few years, topical jokes like the Petrillo joke (in 1951's "Hurdy Gurdy Hare") were almost gone. However, unlike writers doing voices, topical gags would make a comeback after the 3D shutdown, with Liberace and Honeymooners references becoming the norm. Anyway, the point is not that everything changed irrevocably, but that there appear to have been some subtle changes -- along with the not-so-subtle cut in timing/budgets that occurred in the middle of the 1952 cartoon lineup.

But back to the characters Jones abandoned: I guess the question remains whether any of them really could have been sustained for much longer. The Three Bears definitely could not have been; Jones specifically said that theatre exhibitors asked them not to send over any more Three Bears cartoons. All the dumped characters -- the Bears, Hubie/Bertie, and Charlie -- have certain things in common, apart from (as Michael Barrier points out) having a as much Mike Maltese in them as Jones. They're all aggressively obnoxious and, unlike Tweety, they don't try to pretend they aren't.

But more than that, all three of these series have character motivations or quirks that are unusually complicated for a cartoon series. Charlie wants someone to make him a pet. Hubie and Bertie are closer to the usual predator/prey situation, except that their motivation has less to do with survival or even heckling, and more to do with a love of playing complicated mind games. And the Bears don't really have any goals except to survive the horror of being a family. Jones and Maltese seemed to be doing this deliberately, trying to come up with character motivations that were more unusual than just "eat or be eaten." But except for Pepe Le Pew, which is really just a chase series (except he doesn't want to eat her, he wants to...), these didn't really work out. It might be that it's just hard to establish a series of short cartoons without simple, easily-processed character motivations.

Even Daffy Duck may have suffered in the early '50s precisely because his motivations -- and his characterization -- could be so different from film to film. Like Donald Duck in the comic books (as opposed to the cartoons), he was recognizable up until the early '50s as being the same guy, in broad outline, in every story, but within that framework, what he acted like and what he wanted could vary wildly. That didn't seem to get a good reception in the '50s. A character like Charlie, on the other hand, has very consistent motivations, but they're a bit convoluted by the standards of series cartoons. It's not a coincidence that he has his origin in a cartoon ("Porky's Pooch") that never produced a sequel.

(Foghorn Leghorn, I think, is the closest the studio came to a durable, successful series that doesn't have much to do with the chase format; once Henery Hawk was mostly dropped, the characters' motivations could be very different from one film to another.)

Friday, December 11, 2009

When National Lampoon Was Funny

Via Mark Evanier's blog, I see that John Glenn Taylor has posted the famous National Lampoon parody of Mad magazine, "What, Me Funny?"

Much of it was written by John Boni, who went on to a long and uneven career in television writing (Highlight, head writer for Fernwood 2Night and its follow-ups; most famous lowlight, co-creator of Out of This World) and the artists included ex-Mad artist Joe Orlando.

It's uneven, as the Lampoon always was even in its good years, but some of it hits the mark, particularly the Dave Berg spoof, which gets at the underlying theme that makes Berg's cartoons so hard to take -- they're not just corny observational jokes, they're dedicated to the idea that the culture/generation gap can be bridged through corny observational jokes. Overall, though, it seems a little bland to me compared with the better parodies the Lampoon did in its brief period of greatness.

Maybe that's because it really has only one observation to make: Mad used to do sharp satire when Kurtzman was around, and now they won't offend anybody. Never mind whether this is even true; the real problem is that they don't have a lot to say about the magazine's art style or the fact that the style of comedy writing was indistinguishable from that of TV variety shows (because they were written by the same people). So a regular Mad reader would know, or at least sense, that there are a lot of targets they aren't really hitting, making the parody itself seem a little toothless at times.

There's also plenty of irony-in-hindsight here, of course. A publication is being mocked for becoming a shadow of what it was in its early, funny years before its key people left... by a publication whose key people would soon leave, reducing it to a shadow of what it was in its early, funny years. Mad has done a lot better stuff since that era than the National Lampoon did. But in a strange way, that just makes the parody more accurate, since we know it applies to any humor magazine.

Also, I'd forgotten that Ernie Colón drew the "Citizen Gaines" segment. As a Harveyphobe, I really don't like most of the titles he worked on, but I've come to understand why he's so widely respected. (Warren Kremer, on the other hand, I still don't get.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Io Non Lo So Se Ci Ritorno Su Ork

Another bit of filler, but a good one; this is the complete single version of Bruno D'Andrea's "Na-No, Na-No," the Italian theme song of Mork and Mindy. I don't know why I like this song so much. Obviously I think it's better than the U.S. theme (which was so uninspired that it made you long for Gimbel and Fox; I think it was a holdover from Garry Marshall's original, abandoned idea that Mork should be more sophisticated than his other shows, with "classical-style" music). But I also just think it's a terrific theme song on its own terms: specifically related to the plot and tone of the show, but also a fun, silly song you can sing on its own. TV themes in the States were getting a little sappy around this time, with upbeat exceptions like One Day at a Time; it was left to the Italians, I guess, to come up with peppy songs that put a smile on your face.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A "I Got Nothin' To Post" Post

I don't really know why I haven't been able to post much lately. Part of it is time, but when I do have time, I seem to have trouble thinking of stuff to say.

I suspect that part of the problem is that a lot of my posts were linked to my DVD collecting habit -- announcements of imminent releases, or stuff that I had bought or watched, would give me ideas for posts -- and the collapse of the classics-on-DVD market has made it harder to come up with such things.

There's always TCM, of course, but for whatever reason, I don't usually feel inclined to write about upcoming broadcasts of old movies or even old TV shows. Maybe it's because it's so easy to miss these things (for me, and for others) whereas with a disc or a book, I know that a reader can check them out if and when they want to.

I do have a few ideas for upcoming posts, so I'm certainly not taking a sabbatical or anything; I just find it a little tough to come up with posts lately, and thought I might as well be up-front about it.

Anyway, since there's never a shortage of YouTube filler clips (not at all the same thing as a full-fledged post, obviously), here's the French commercial for Chanel's Egoiste perfume. All that screaming and artsy filming style became a memorable part of anybody's viewing experience in the early '90s, an object lesson in how a commercial could stand out simply by being more insane than all the others.

And here's the music that was used in the commercial. Because of the commercial, this music has always seemed rather scary to me, even though, in the context of the original ballet, it's probably not.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Out Come Pagliacci, Also Liberace

Sorry I haven't posted here recently. While I'm trying to put something together, here's a song I always enjoy hearing: Lena Horne singing "Push de Button" from Jamaica by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. (One of the songs in the show that was originally intended for Harry Belafonte, and changed over when Belafonte was not available but Horne was.) When I first heard it, I couldn't get enough of it, and played it over and over for days. Someone else in my dorm heard it and said, puzzled, "isn't this song just 'Push the Button' repeated over and over?" I had to admit that it repeated "Push the button" quite a lot, yes.

Semi-historical note: This show helped push Broadway toward increased acceptance of amplification in the theatre. Horne had her songs re-scored by her brilliant husband/arranger, Lennie Hayton, who used multiple saxophones; she couldn't be heard over the saxophones in the theatre (no one could be heard, un-amplified, over that many saxophones), so she had to be miked.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Request For a GeoCities Casualty (Update: Found)

It's always a bit embarrassing to admit, but I just realized I had a GeoCities page that I forgot to rescue. It was my transcript of "Diary of a CavPag Madman," Conrad L. Osborne's epic article from High Fidelity -- the biggest, longest, rant-iest piece ever written about Luciano Pavarotti, musicians as celebrities, and the strange phenomenon whereby a recording can get all the notes right and add up to no experience of the music. (It was probably the only classical music article that ever incorporated a throwaway Andy Kaufman reference.)

I'd forgotten that I posted the transcript on GeoCities, and now I can't seem to find my own copy of the transcript. If anyone saved that page, or knows where I might find it, I'd appreciate the salvage operation.

Update: I found the transcript, thankfully. So until I can figure out where to put it, I'll post it here. It's extremely long, but extremely worthwhile reading. I've said it before and I'll say it again: there needs to be a book-length collection of Osborne's High Fidelity pieces. No music critics since -- and few before -- have written as well or as insightfully about vocal music, the way the human voice works, and opera as a dramatic/emotional experience.

Diary of a Cavpag Madman

By Conrad L. Osborne

High Fidelity, June 1979


Mirella Freni (s) Nedda; Luciano Pavarotti (t) Canio; Vincenzo Bello (t) Beppe; Ingvar Wixell (b) Tonio; Lorenzo Saccomani (b) Silvio; Pacho Panocia (bs) and Fernando Pavarotti (t), Villagers. Finchley Children's Music Group, London Voices, National Philharmonic Orchestra, Giuseppe Patanè, cond.

MASCAGNI: Cavalleria Rusticana

Julia Varady (s) Santuzza; Carmen Gonzales (ms) Lola; Ida Bormida (ms) Mama Lucia; Luciano Pavarotti (t) Turiddu; Piero Cappuccilli (b) Alfio. London Voices, National Philharmonic Orchestra, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, cond.

  - Introduction and Thumbnail Review

  - Explanatory Note On Desperation

Introduction and thumbnail review. This review will be a departure from the accepted format. It's a forced departure that may hit some readers as an act of critical desperation; if so, the basic message is coming through. A crazy response for some crazy realities -- R.D. Laing would understand.

But some of you, I'm sure, will only be indignant at all this craziness and desperation. What call is there, who needs it, isn't there enough? (No! Here are things getting crazier and more desperate by the day, and here are lots of people not noticing. They include people who are paid to notice, and should be the craziest and most desperate of all, like me. Perhaps they must be paid more to keep on noticing: At the going rates, how important can it possibly be? A point, but no excuse; if the rich pusher and the poor cop are in cahoots, I say shoot the cop first.)

Still, you want a sensible review after all, some facts and come now reasonable evaluation. So we open with morceaux of each, the more so since it gets crazy farther on. This pairing of cavpag was recorded in London two years back, and is a vehicle for the charming and currently popular lyric tenor Luciano Pavarotti. It's a cavpag package, you have to buy them both, which is sort of too bad, because the Cavalleria is passably sung and quite interestingly conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, therefore conceivably desirable to those who place high value on conductorial nuance, whereas the Pagliacci is a no-account bore. (End of facts. Further reasonable evaluation, and somewhat more detailed review, can be found rather far below, for those who wish to skip the craziness and desperation.)

What!? Oh, you don't think it can possibly be a no-account bore? I exaggerate, I have given in to the rhetorical?

Thumbnail review of Pag as it would read if honesty were the only consideration. This really stinks. Ees so bad, ees terrible. I suspect Robert Wilson's influence, in that the case passes beyond questions of competence or incompetence to those of the very nature of performance, of whether or not the performance can be said to exist and if so why. I say it doesn't, and this is getting to be a hateful and sophistical inquiry of a philosophical nature; there is obviously nothing evaluative to be said about something that is, literally, a nonentity. End of review.

Explanatory note on desperation. There is a degree of desperation, or at the least anxiety, that is always present in the makeup of a critic worth anything at all. It relates to his evaluative function. Admit it: The strongest single motivating factor is the stubbornly held conviction that something's wrong, that the critic sees what it is when others don't, and feels he must say so. He believes it is constructive to say something's wrong; saying that something's wrong is the act he most fervently believes in and regards as his contribution. Naturally he also says that something's right when he believes it to be. But frankly, that is less important, because whatever's right is already okay, right?, and besides it doesn't happen as often. Because of his astonishment and delight and finding something right, he is apt to discourse disproportionately over it, especially when he considers it important that a particular right be recognized and accepted. But he really shouldn't. No one ever became a critic on order to sa that all's well, nor has anyone ever given a damn for such a critic except for selected beneficiaries (foolish ones) of such criticism.

If one accepts this, then whence anxiety? Why first, one belongs by definition to an embattled minority. If many others shared the perception that something's wrong, then either it wouldn't be wrong or there would be nothing noteworthy about the perception. Of course the critic finds allies, he is not universally disliked or resented. But since he frequently feels more in common with the dislikers and resenters than with the allies, there is a mild anxiety about the whole business, just on the human level.

That is nothing. The real problem defines itself when the critic arrives at the view that the somethings wrong are so basic, so pervasive, and so crippling that they render the usual evaluative norms quite useless. This type of perception is, of course, the source of all true innovation and reform in art. No creator would accomplish anything of importance without it, as one of the very few valuable critics (and creators), Shaw, observed in his wonderful commentary on the relationship between progress and "the unreasonable man."

But to offer criticism from this perspective is very difficult. How helpful (and how credible?) can it be to repeatedly point at a crumbling cornerstone when all concerned insist that the building is structurally sound and is to be judged on the taste of some new decorative elements, a dormer or some new lintels? And indeed there may be some splendid new dormers and lintels, and some not so hot, and a number of companies in the business of the manufactore thereof, and here is the Monthly Dormer and Lintel Review, and can you really keep on saying, "The dormers and lintels do not matter, because when I passed the building yesterday morning it had fallen down," when here is the morning paper with a photo of the building as it once was and a perfectly intelligent-sounding article on the new dormers and lintels, and you look out the window and by God there is a truck delivering more dormers and lintels to the site, and your neighbors in earnest discussion of the new details of the building, as if it were still standing?

Note on the standing building mirage. Here is the rubble of the building, already cold and settled in a deep hole, and here are man estimable people with a stake in the illusion of its existence. They range from the manufacturers and deliverers to media persons assigned to report on gingerbread to far-off subscribers of the Review who have in fact never seen the building but look forward to reading about the new dormers and lintels and like to buy similar ones for their own homes. My God, they will all be bloody angry if I say, "Either this building has not yet been reconstructed or it has fallen down again. In any case it still isn't standing up. I believe some residents are trapped in the rubble. As I said last month, there doesn't seem much point in commenting on the many new dormers and lintels under these circumstances."

The editor of the Review will say, "Cut that out! Our readers could care less about cornerstones, they're into D&L! And here are eight other articles, not one of which says anything about the building being down!" Guess I'll really have to look one more time –

Evidence for alleged existence of pag. No doubt at all about the package. Here is a humiliating photo of Luciano (see below for surname usage), with enough whitewash out around the beard for that whole Calabrian village. Inside is a booklet containing cavpag articles by William Weaver, who is definitely alive. They are good articles, as his invariably are. Also the librettos, with translations colloquially British in tone ("Whip-crack-away!" says Alfio), and some illustrative matter, and the records themselves, cav on the first three sides, pag on the last three. The labels claim the collaboration of a number of prominent operatic artists; the laws on such matters are pretty stringent.

Brief recap of conceivable artistic justifications for new recording of an opera. 1) The absence of any acceptable recording of the same work. 2) The presence of a complement of artists whose work is of such unusual quality and appropriateness to the work that it merits the widest possible circulation, even if only in recorded form. 3) The presence of a striking perception of the work, or belief about it, that can be conveyed by the chosen artists and production team, if all goes well.

Powerful suspicion as to real reasons behind new cavpag recording. 1) Luciano. 2) Estimated market opening.

Observation in the interest of fair-mindedness. So what? The motive hardly concerns us if the outcome is legitimate. Calculations similar to those powerfully suspected have produced some fine recordings.

Musings on Luciano's Recent Progress. I think he'd want us to call him Luciano, don't you? "Charming and currently popular" he decidedly is. Not too long ago, in one of those worshipful Sunday New York Times Mag articles, Terry McEwen (not exactly a disinterested onlooker, but a knowledgeable one) was quoted as saying that L.P. had captured the public imagination like no other male singer since Caruso. I guess in a sense he's right, though other and greater singers have correctly claimed their share. "Captured" seems to me altogether correct (with Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, and Live from Lincoln Center, a complete assault force is mobilized), but not "imagination": Showing everyone you are a regular guy who cooks pasta, harmlessly ogles women, and tells jokes is, in fact, the process of dismantling imagination.

I'm by no means against all this. Opera singers are actual people. Luciano is charming. My critical concerns would be, first, the possibility that a subtle (or unsubtle) confusion arise between the identities of Luciano, media personality, and a good tenor with fine artistic potential; second, the possibility of his being led away from what he does well to satisfy the new demand; third, the possibility of his media rating being taken for his artistic standing.

A backward glance at Luciano. It wasn't a sight to make the heart leap, the first time I saw Luciano live; you knew there were muscles trying to move bones under there, but finding it all too much even for such undemanding exercises as a moderate bend from what should have been the waist for the purpose of depositing Edgardo's cloak and hat on the rim of ah, quel fonte, alongside the nearly- as-unmotile Renata.

Now you're getting personal. But certainly. It is artistically relevant. I don't say Edgardo must look precisely this or that way, but I insist that a person of his temperament and life-style is not credibly represented by obesity. A performer in such conditions always arouses two feelings in me: concern for the human being so afflicted, and a certain immediate artistic disrespect. Not a good start. However, the uneasiness grew less over the evening, as it became clear that it was possible to enjoy the man's singing. Indeed it was the one time I have enjoyed it without reservation - the voice was beautiful, steady, well balanced, and the role exactly the right caliber and tessitura for it. Though not much of an actor, he was comparatively relaxed and seemed to take it all seriously. He and Renata really did a job.

Moving along now. You keep hoping that all will go well, that such a gifted person will continue singing that way, perhaps lose some weight and learn a bit more about acting. On his records, the top sometimes sounded a bit pinched and thinned out, but it hadn't been that way that night, and you know, records --

But here's my friend, my companion of the Lucia, a day or two after seeing Luciano do Daughter of the Regiment. "Yeah, he sings all the Cs," he tells me, but who cares? - they're the size of a pea." My friend also didn't care for the campy spectacle Luciano made of himself. But you know, friends --

Now here's Luciano singing the Duke in a big splash of a Rigoletto with Joanie and Sherrill (Scene 1, sick) and Matteo (rest of show). Still pretty good, at points brilliant, but the tops of some phrases . . . do have a disappointingly constricted sound. He moves with an oddly dainty gait. In the last act he makes a point of feeling up Maddalena while leering cutely at the audience. Luciano has learned to keep on being Luciano while an opera is trying to take place. The audience would rather see Luciano than an opera, so it's a total success. After you shoot the cop, fire a few rounds into the auditorium, just over their heads this time.

Later yet, at a Bohème, I really can't hear Luciano's top at all, except when the accompaniment is vide or he happens to catch hold of a phrase riding nicely from below, as at the opening of "O Mimi, tu più." To put it bluntly, it's a bust, but the audience reaction is wild - this is a personal appearance event. I begin to form a rather unappetizing image of a huge, mincing galoot with a pretty, medium-sized voice that can't make climaxes, kneading his handkerchief and appealing to the audience for sympathy for all his hard work and sweet personality. The image of what Jerzy Grotowski calls "the courtesan artist." (Now, there's a passing strange fellow. Being Polish, he makes a mean stuffed cabbage, I bet -- but would he even do it for Dinah? Would he tell a Polish joke on a talk show, just one? Or would he possibly tell you to go stuff your own cabbage, and maybe not even want to be called Jerzy except by a personal acquaintance? How do you promote a guy like that?)

Since then, I have heard Luciano sing high and small, low and large, though once (in Favorita last year), the lie of a part pulled things together in a way that at least suggested the Edgardo voice. On all the TV shows, it's of course much harder to tell about the balance of the voice. But you can tell that singing, good or bad, is tough labor (indeed, Luciano shows off the labor just a bit) and that Luciano is a genuinely likeable and amusing man with a sharp sense of his own appeal. Also he has lost weight. Artistic failures and successes cease to have any relative values, since the audience and colleagues are part of the act and behave as if each effort produced a triumph of absolutely equal and predictable proportions. The thought does occur that "live" audiences are learning the lesson.

Final query before listening to alleged Pag. How does it happen that a charming and popular lyric tenor, marvelously suited to parts like Edgardo, Alfredo, Faust, and Werther when in peak condition, decides that such roles as Calaf, Canio, Cavaradossi, Manrico, Radamès, and Enzo are his Fach at the very time, almost to the hour, that his upper range is losing its juice and open-throatedness? The timing is devilish. One recalls that certain lyric tenors, notably Bjoerling, sang several of these roles effectively enough, though only some of them in the theater. But one recalls also that Bjoerling's voice was in almost ideal balance at the time, and that the undertaking did not represent any general change in repertory or in his way of singing. And one remembers a larger number of other lyric tenors, some with voices as lovely and full as Luciano's, who would up hoist by their own petard in an all-too-literal sense.

Preliminary investigation of Pag rumors (more like a review). I begin playing the three sides labeled I Pagliacci. I have already listened a couple of times to the sides called Cavalleria Rusticana and have concluded (though not without some travail, see below) that it exists and even has a shaky but palpable raison d'être. Well here we go. Side 1, Side 2, Side 3, there it went. I have a poignant sense of elapsed time as the stylus wallows in the takeup groove. Damn it, I set the alarm and everything. Otherwise, nothing. Io? Nulla. Allora... It's like driving through a countourless but familiar landscape in a quiet, air-conditioned car, but arriving back where you started instead of at your destination. It is later, but did I do it? Did anything transpire? It's a nonexperience.

So what's the experience? Yes, it's true that one has certain expectations. Me, I love Pagliacci, and will try to tell you why. It is not because of the extremely high level of craft present in the libretto and score. As a critic, I can enjoy listening for that, analyzing and detailing it for readers, mostly for the sake of making a case for it in terms that a certain valued segment of the readership will accept as verification. Some performances tend to underline those considerations, and I would want to write about them under those conditions. But it's of no importance right now, these whys and hows of the experience that lie in the text.

What's important here is that there is an experience. I am moved, excited, frightened by any performance of this opera, it can't miss. It gets straight at some very important emotional issues that I recognize as parts of myself (that's where the fright comes in) and as important to the life that exists inside me and everyone else I have ever been close enough to have emotional knowledge of. By some funny process that no one has explained awfully well, though we do keep trying, it is a part of my relationship to those issues, my definition of them, my effort to cope with them. I believe in that as a function of art, I'm inclined to think it the most important one. I have never not had some of this experience at any live performance of the piece, however dreadful, and do not remember ever missing it on records before.

Utterly subjective, therefore entirely valid report of further investigations. Despite this accumulated experience of the interaction between Pagliacci and C.L.O., which we could well take as sufficient grounds for judging a new encounter, it has to be conceded, as always, that some factor bearing more on my own state than that of the recording may account for the nonexperience. Have I changed, is some connection out of its socket, did I perhaps prejudge out of anticipations formed about the performers, as for instance my pre-existing attitudes re Luciano? Given my trust in my way of dealing with this always present problem, and my primed condition for hearing a new Pagliacci, it doesn't seem likely, but you have to keep the door open: could be.

So I decide to re-familiarize myself with some of the other recordings, which is of course a good idea anyway, before going back into the void in hopes of bumping up against something. To minimize the subjective factors, I rule against listening to any of the oldest recordings. That will ensure that the Gigli recording, which was a major adolescent sublimation, won't just be running its old track, or that the Bjoerling/Warren/De los Angeles one, rendered by artists who meant much to me at a still impressionable stage, will not come up with a nostalgia number. I even stay away from the Callas/Gobbi/Serafin version, which was a lesser part of my life but might still call up some romantic distance, capture my imagination, you might say.

I instead go to the three earliest stereo versions, all of which I had reviewed upon original issue and none of which I had even sampled in quite some time. Well for Pete's sake, there it all is! Pagliacci and C.L.O. are still in business, it's a happy day! I wind up listening to practically all of all three versions, sort of pinching myself aurally and luxuriating in the differences of three performances I had not recalled as great, but which are performances, and which I can tell you sound mighty healthy from this perch. I now figure I must have underrated these recordings unforgivably when they were new, so I look up the old reviews. Now I'm relieved, and a little astounded, to find that the opnions there seem very much the same as the current ones, give or take an emphasis here and there and allowing a slight advantage on the perspective. Some comforting verification is building up; just possibly the enthusiasm will carry over when I check again for vital signs on the new album.

But hold it a sec. Before I do that, I ought to give a listen to what we'd call the current competition, which it happens I've never heard. That would be the RCA Victor (CLSC 7090) recording with Placido and Montserrat and Sherrill. Zounds if I'm not getting that creepy feeling again. These people are in a trance, bemused and preoccupied with matters left over from some other opera or, more probably, their private affairs. Sort of a stoned meditation, verismo viewed from the hazy yon. We could blame it all on Nello, but that wouldn't be fair: Singers can still sing, however slowly. The voices float in limbo, they are caught inside someone's toy.

Final bedcheck (you guys have exactly one minute or I gig the whole barracks). No further room for doubt. Pag ain't here, he's prolly out to lunch wit Victah.

Can't you be more specific? Oh sure. It's just that I don't want you thinking that the specifics, grisly as they are, can possibly account for so whelming a reality as nonbeing. If you go at this aspect by aspect, as you might in an in-depth review of something extant, you will total it up to a poor performance, like some others on records. Truly, that isn't what's at issue. Still, if you like, we can run it down a bit, beginning with the nonsuitability of the cast.

But what about Mirella? Touché, Mirella's the one principal here you might think of if you were casting a real pag. A good, warm, full-bodied lyric soprano, and a nice easy style in operas like Bohème and L'Amico Fritz that aren't far from the mark. But this wasn't the time for her Nedda. There's still a pleasing sail to sustained sounds in the upper-middle part of her voice, but the whole middle octave is unsteady and not always clearly intoned. She never did have any anchoring at the bottom and so (as I had occasion to observe about the work of certain other female vocalists while inspecting some of the dormers and lintels along Broadway back in Jan/Feb, '79), now that she's trying to lean on it a bit, she gets a very thin variety of chest jabbing in at odd assorted spots, some of them too high. Because of the way weights are sliding and heaving about in her voice, she can't sing a really smooth line these days and tends to pump into the downbeats just to keep it all cranking along. The Ballatella is not good at all; she settles in a bit better in the Silvio scene, but then goes in and out in the last act. Why?, I hear you ask.

Sex. Not a trick subhead at all, just the shortest tag for Theory No. 1 concerning Mirella's mucked-up middle. Back to the Times and Mr. McEwen, who is full of caution about singers having any fun. Claims he can always tell when a singer's had sex before singing (how long before? this could be important) – "the middle goes" (does it ever!). Tell the truth, this bothered me, because here I've been working with voices for years, and can't tell you when a singer's had sex unless I've been 1) the party of the second part, or 2) told. Also because singers have enough to be uptight about without reading baloney like that in the Sunday paper. Still, the symptom does fit in this case, doesn't it, and here's a photo of Luciano giving Mirella a cozy hug, right around the middle, which you may acquire by purchasing this album.

Theory No. 2 would have to do with Mirella having a bit of unbalance in her voice to begin with and then singing an overheavy repertoire. That one's already been run through in a Boccanegra review, q.v. Theory No. 3: Mirella was ill or otherwise indisposed at time of recording. Theory No. 4: She just had an off week and sang lousy.

Theories about Mirella's Middle ranked according to our fondest wishes. 1, 4, 3, 2.

M's M theories ranked according to real-world probabilities. 2, 3, 4, 1.

Who else? Let's leave Luciano for cav. Ingvar sings Tonio with a tone that is sometimes pleasing, sometimes rattley, never Italianate, and with a top so open it's starting to sound like a Bway shout (funny how Bway keeps coming back here). He uses almost no portamento, even where the score indicates it, and is unconvincing dramatically. Lorenzo, a singer whose name I've seen but whom I'm hearing for the first time, has decent equipment but little technique and no real phrasing sense. He needs more training. The usually omitted duet section of this scene is restored, but the advantage squandered. Vincenzo sounds as if he has more voice than most Beppes, particularly when he goes into the top in the Serenade, but he doesn't sing phrases either, and in the important interruption at the end of Act I seems to be giving a reading.

Not one of these persons gives the impression of having so much as shaken hands with pag prior to recording date. Neither do the orchestra and chorus, who play and sing nicely enough (a lot nicer than those found on several actual performances), but without the faintest suggestion of why or in what direction. No, it is not all Giuseppe's fault; if you're playing an opera gig you're supposed to do the homework, otherwise you're robbing us blind. While we're at it, though, Giuseppe is in some kind of time warp here, the temps droop like Spanish moss.

The engineering might as well have been put together in a rock studio. It has no acoustic whatever save for the reverb that puts the solo voices into an electronic box canyon.

Listen to any of the versions mentioned above. On Angel's (SBL 3618), hear the Scala orchestra under Von Matačić seethe and crack with a magnificent unanimity of goal, with the sense of theatrical ensemble, operatic musicianship at the highest level. Hear the color and bite of Gobbi's Tonio, the lovely nap of Mario Zanasi's baritone before he blew it out on big Verdi parts. And remind yourself that the minute Franco Corelli opens his mouth in this type of role, it's forget it Luciano. But observe, in fact, that all elements (even the Nedda of Lucine Amara and the Beppe of Mario Spina, though not all that distinctive) are at another level of professional qualification entirely from those of the new version.

Same's true on DG's pag (2709 020). But listen in particular for the loving shaping of every phrase (Scala again, very different under Karajan, but just as fine), the unfailing firmness of decision about the shapes of musical gestures as dramatic statements. All soloists and every ensemble element reflect this. Special prizes: the aching tenderness (not just sexuality) of the Nedda/Silvio scene (Joan Carlyle and Rolando Panerai, the latter in a class by himself in binding note and word into evocative phrase, at – dast I say it – capturing our imaginations), and the Beppe of Ugo Benelli, especially with the above-noted interruption, which becomes a true scene.

On the earlier London OSA 1212 (and the new one is a replacement, so buy the old one quick, it's available separately), Molinari-Pradelli and the Santa Cecilia forces aren't in the same league, but they are still opera professionals giving a performance, Del Monaco's is another genuine Canio voice, not quite as free and supple as Corelli's, but lent to a performance of even greater intensity and dignity. Cornell MacNeil was young, quite American, and on the bland side, but vocally just stupendous – no other Tonio on the complete recordings, not even Warren or Granforte, soars through the music like this. And another splendid Beppe, Piero de Palma. These are the special things, but once again, all along the line it's nolo contendere.

Reflections on cagey Carlo and a couple more. Carlo's the Turiddo and Canio of the Karajan cavpag. A tenore di forza he's not, barely a tenore di ballo. I vividly recall his cries for help in the Nile Scene of Aida and at sundry other athletic events. A Sicilian standee I knew in the '50s insisted Carlo had to be a really great tenor. "How do I know?" he would ask. "Because, anyone who can sing Canio with that voice –– "

But he did, and actually did most of his work in the heavy roles you would have assumed he had no more business singing than does, for instance, Luciano. This isn't to say one didn't prefer him in more lyrical parts, but he survived, kept his dignity, and brought a suavity of phrase and control of dynamics that held rewards for even the heaviest roles.

As it happens, Carlo's a levitated baritone. Story goes that he threw up his hands with teachers (no doubt with excellent cause) and made the transition himself within a few months – you must know something of singing to appreciate how much that says about his vocal instincts. Nonetheless this does not mean that the operation was perfect. It's interesting to listen to his earlier recording of pag, which like his Boccanegra Adorno was made very close to the beginning of his tenor career. If you know his later vocalism, you'll be shocked. Carlo! This is downright vulgar! You still hear the baritone, the roughness of the transition into an uncertain top, which rather like Luciano's is narrower than the rest of the voice.

Carlo had a choice to make. Possibly it was not the ideal one – you can't help feeling that a true technical master might have helped him balance out the voice with a fuller-throated entry to the upper range. That did not happen. But Carlo was cagey and did the next-best thing: He worked to align the lower two-thirds of his range with the ever-more-carefully husbanded top, to smooth the transition within that alignment and to avoid violating its limits. His singing grew continually smoother and more graceful. It lacked the final excitement (his defiance of Philip in the Don Carlos auto-da- fé will not make your blood race) and lost some of the vitality that early pag shows in flashes. Finally the voice became too much of a wisp. But a safe wisp that is still wisping, artistically guided as it is.

If you follow through the records of Franco and Mario, you will hear them making increasing efforts to lighten the break and sing more suavely, too, but with guns of heavier caliber than Carlo's. Franco is given increasingly to diminuendos and to attempts at the lyric roles, while Mario treads less heavily in the low range and opens the vowels more at the break. These are authentic dramatic voices striving to gain more complete control. The choices are not always aesthetically persuasive and may have been counterproductive when it comes to vocal wear. But among them all there are some lessons about which voices succeed with what roles, and how they endure.

Cav review. As already suggested, it is Gavazzeni's reading that is the noteworthy element, and though orchestra and chorus still don't have it in the blood, they do respond professionally to expert guidance. In discussing leadership of cav, one must first set aside the Karajan, which is in a class of its own. I don't say one has to agree with it, but it is a special view, spectacularly carried through (the only comparable performance of the music I've heard was Bernstein's at the Met, so gorgeously played you were happy to go along with a reading that verged on the preposterous). Hearing Karajan's cav is like viewing a primitive rural scene painted by a sensitive, sophisticated urban artist who sees it from his time and place and therefore discovers in it much that the inhabitants would be slow to recognize.

Next to Karajan's, Gavazzeni's reading is the most distinctive on records. This is most noticeable in the prelude and opening choral sections, where he has a unique plasticity of rubato, an individual feel for the shapes and motivations of all the many tempo fluctuations, that keep us glimpsing the life of the musical scene. But throughout, the reading is intelligently judged and nicely detailed, and its playing is lacking only by the Scala standard.

Julia Varady, the Santuzza, has a round and solid mezzo voice and a firm way with the phrases. It is a very predictable performance, though, with not much individuality of expression to it. If you're picking and choosing, there's Giulietta and Fiorenza and Maria and Zinka and Renata, and for my money Caterina, so you'll want to think that one over.

Perspectives on Piero. Since performance criticism is a much lesser part of my life than it used to be, I do not attend as many performances as I once did, nor listen to the vast majority of vocal records upon release, as was formerly my custom. That's how I'm thankfully certain I'm not wracked by Jaded Reviewer's Syndrome. While I've heard a number of Piero's recent recordings, I haven't precisely followed them.

I have friends who have, and from such sources I hear word that this is one of his best; since I regularly see in print considerations that do not blush to rank Piero with Tito, and Tito with the great baritones of yesteryear, I could figure it's dumb luck that such an one might condescend to the role of Alfio.

Now sure enough it's not bad, we've had many worse in and out of town in my time. He is bright and thrustful enough in the song, rather dry in the scene with Santuzza. But my perspective is not all that au courant, and my standard tends to be not Piero's last few recordings, but the many other baritones who have inscribed the part, and I find myself doing a bit of checking to determine not whether Piero might be the best of them, but whether he's not the worst. He's not, but I tell you it was a search. Aldo Protti, back on the first Del Monaco recording, is perfectly atrocious (but he later did it very competently with some Naples folk), and Carlo Tagliabue, though a major singer, was long in the tooth when he got his down.

There are some others you wouldn't call Great Shakes – Sereni and Garrera and Guelfi – but it's moot whether Piero is above their class. Then you've got the real voices in prime shape – Bechi, Panerai, MacNeil, Merrill, Bastianini (Ettore hasn't heard about note values, though, and that may put you off a little) – and you have to realize that Piero's closer to the bottom of the list than the top. It's a shift in perspective, all right, and if Piero's lagniappe, something's sure happened.

Piero, the actor. For some reason, Piero sneers the line "Ite voi altri in chiesa." (No mere bel canto showoff he, but a singing actor.) Is Alfio an atheist? Or does he make fun of the womenfolk? Or is he just The Villain? You got me.

Luciano!? All right, all right. Naturally the timbre of the instrument is still in evidence a good deal of the time. But this is crude, pushy singing, fake-dramatic. He falls into every trap of the role. His phrasing choices are the obvious clichés. He resorts to irrelevant bursts of energy to try to fill out the music. He gets off meaty top notes here and there, constricted ones at other points. The vibrato turns tremulous in the middle (this is even more the case in pag).

All in all, it would have to be said that Luciano offers neither the authentic vocal caliber of singers more naturally suited to such roles (like Del Monaco and Corelli), nor the combination of technical expertise and extraordinary musical sensibility that others with no more sheer voice than he (like Bergonzi, or especially Bjoerling) have brought by way of compensation.

If you care to sample the parts of the role you'd figure him to do well, try the end of the Siciliana -- it's no pleasure to hear him ram his voice up onto the Fs at full forte, without a hint of curve on the portando. Leaving aside Bjoerling, who is the only tenor since Caruso to play with these phrases with a true mastery, you'll find him a good deal less suave than Bergonzi or Corelli, and no more so than Del Monaco on his first two recordings of the role. As with Piero, Luciano of course compares well with some of the competition – could we assume otherwise, with the Turiddus of Achille Braschi, Gianni Poggi and the Del Monaco of the Souliotis set as parts of the legacy?

Why pick on this set? Simply because the whistle must be blown somewhere; the technical fouls have been piling up like mad. I've called the shots like this before – in a 1967 review of the Leinsdorf Ballo, for example, I noted that something eerie was creeping into a good proportion of major operatic recordings. The something need not have to do with the level of musical and technical talent involved, nor with the "correctitude" of the interpretation. Some recordings (though this is not among them) have every appearance of excellence and of care in preparation, yet fail to engage any aspect of the experience inherent in the work except that of correctitude, of an intellectualized, operalogical point-scoring. Quite a trap for any critic who has lost faith in his own reactions and sensitivities, or who for any reason is not using them fully in his listening. In coming back to the problem repeatedly over the past dozen years, I have done enough relistening, comparing and second-opinioning to be fairly obstinate about it: We aren't talking about something that has happened to me or to other veteran listeners, but about something that has happened to recorded performance, and is alas invading the live operatic theater as well. We are getting not opera, but a pasteurized, processed opera food, or potted opera product.

What London should do with this CavPag package. First, try to figure if there is some way you can chop this up so the pag labels don't have to be on the backs of the cav labels, or else subtract the pag price from the cav price. If that doesn't work, consult Jerzy. He can be reached in Wroclaw. He may be reluctant at first, but maybe you can break the ice with a Polish joke.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Favorite MARY TYLER MOORE Season?

The death of Mary Tyler Moore master writer David Lloyd, and the announcement that the sixth season (with "Chuckles Bites The Dust") will be released on DVD, got me to wondering which season of the show is the best.

This isn't an easy question to answer. Some shows have one season where everything comes together, that combine the best qualities of the early and later seasons, and where a large number of the famous episodes and moments occur. For MTM's sister show The Bob Newhart Show, for example, things really clicked in the fourth season and most of the best episodes are from that season. But Mary Tyler Moore, as I've said before, had kind of an unusual creative trajectory for a long-running TV show: instead of starting strong and then improving steadily, it had a lot of ups and downs. It started with a great first episode, then a lot of the first season was much weaker (but not all; the episode "The Snow Must Go On" is terrific). And the show's second season, instead of being a clear improvement, was sort of a transitional thing: the characters got more interesting, but there are probably fewer memorable episodes in season 2 than any other season of the show.

Then the show made a huge leap forward in season 3, with the arrival of Ed. Weinberger as producer (and, perhaps, with Jim Brooks getting more involved again; he didn't have any writing credits in season 2, while he returned to co-write the season 3 premiere -- which established the new, sharper writing style). Whereas season 2 hadn't produced many memorable episodes, season 3 produced a bunch.

Then season 4 brought in David Lloyd as a staff writer and Sue Ann as a character. Season 5 was the first season without Rhoda, marked another advance in the incisiveness of the writing (because Lloyd and/or Weinberger and Stan Daniels were writing nearly every episode), but perhaps didn't have quite as many big episodes as the following season, season 6. And season 7 showed some signs of tiredness (a clip show, a fantasy show), but, again, produced a large number of standout episodes, though maybe not one episode as big as "Chuckles."

So every season except the first two really has its own distinctive claim to be the best season; depending on which dynamic is your favorite (the home/work combination of the early seasons vs. the pure workplace comedy of the later seasons), or which season has the most episodes you love.

I think, even though David Lloyd and Sue Ann hadn't come on the scene yet, I lean toward season 3 as my favorite. I don't know I'd call it the best, but the writing is such a big improvement on the previous season that it's almost like watching a different show, and yet it still has enough elements of the first two seasons; it's almost like the second season done right. Clothing-wise, the characters have shed the terrible fashions of the first season without quite succumbing to all the terrible fashions of the later seasons. (It's a sign of the weirdness of the mid-'70s that Mary Tyler Moore, a performer famous for her legs, would find it fashionable to wear hideous bell-bottomed pants.) And it's got maybe my favorite episode, "Lou's Place." Again, I don't say this is the best episode, and my love for it is sort of nostalgic -- it was the first episode that, in reruns, really made me laugh uncontrollably. But it is kind of a perfect episode with a very typical ending: for a feel-good show, it's amazing how many episodes end in total disaster. (Something that Taxi and Cheers and Frasier and many other members of the Mary Tyler Moore "family" of shows would pick up.) So I'll go for that as my favorite, though purely in terms of strong writing, season 6 is probably the best.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Some Good DVD News For a Change

Criterion's February announcements include, at long last, a DVD of Leo McCarey's masterpiece Make Way For Tomorrow, as well as a DVD and Blu-Ray of Max Ophuls' Lola Montes.

The McCarey disc doesn't have as many special features as it deserves, though in this case I'm OK with Peter Bogdanovich being interviewed, since he was one of the few people who ever interviewed McCarey. And any McCarey-centric special features are welcome, since his movies have fared poorly on DVD (except An Affair To Remember, but most of the special features have nothing to say about him). I still feel that in 1937, with the incredible one-two punch of The Awful Truth and Make Way For Tomorrow, with Ruggles of Red Gap and Duck Soup and the early Laurel and Hardy team-ups under his belt, with Love Affair to come, McCarey was the greatest movie director in America if not the world. He was certainly the greatest director when it came to incorporating improvisation into movies -- dramatic as well as comic. No one has ever approached what he did, no matter how much more fashionable improvisation has become.

I'm not as fond of Lola Montes as some; it's certainly a beautiful-looking movie, but while Ophuls handled CinemaScope better than most directors, I still think it cramped his style a bit. Directors who specialized in elaborate camera moves often lost a lot of their juice in 'Scope. For one thing, they couldn't move the camera as freely because the new lenses were hard to keep in focus, and in general they couldn't use all the tricks they had learned over the years for moving the camera fluidly; everything had to be re-learned for the new format. Also, there was an aesthetic concept, common among directors and film scholars alike in the '50s, that widescreen movies should de-emphasize cutting and camera movement in favor of static shots, allowing the viewer to see all the action at once.

Vincente Minnelli (the director who was most influenced by Ophuls) really suffered in the 'Scope format, his trademark camera moves becoming clunky and clumsy. But for me, another director whose work was hurt by 'Scope was Samuel Fuller. His visual style was built around camera moves: incredibly fast, barely-controlled movements that mirrored the fast pace and violence of the movies. (Scorsese would be the first to admit how much his own camera movements owe to Fuller's.) When Fox decreed that all its movies had to be in 'Scope, Fuller lost a lot of his visual juice, because many of his favorite moves were hard or even impossible to do. One thing he did a lot was moving the camera in very fast to go from a long shot to a close shot in a few seconds. But early 'Scope movies discouraged close-ups, and there would be tons of unused space on either side of the actor anyway. So compared to Pickup On South Street or The Steel Helmet, most of Fuller's 'Scope movies have rather timid camerawork.

As I said, Ophuls used CinemaScope much better than either of those directors, and he didn't let it stop him from moving the camera up and down and round about as usual. I think Lola Montes may even be part of the reason why French 'Scope movies had more fluid camerawork and looked better than their U.S. counterparts: young French directors like Truffaut and Demy, who worshipped Ophuls, learned how a 'Scope camera could do more than just staring at a bunch of people lined up in front of it. Still, Lola Montes -- to me -- seems a little stodgier than Ophuls' other costume pictures (in France, America and Germany).

Also, Criterion is releasing a bare-bones boxed set of all the Gabriel Pascal/Bernard Shaw films after Pygmalion. Since Criterion's own Pygmalion DVD is also bare-bones, I'd have much preferred it if they'd included all four films in one box, but it's still worth getting. None of them are as good as Pygmalion, because Pascal insisted on directing Major Barbara and Caesar and Cleopatra himself, leading to movies that were slow and stagy (which Pygmalion isn't). But Major Barbara has an excellent cast and does a pretty good job of conveying the subversive message of the play, an attack on the complacency of charitable organizations and the way they accept (and even encourage) poverty instead of attacking the problem at its root.

"The Christmas Ducks"

One thing I got wrong in my recent Bob Bolling post was the chronology. I thought his return to Little Archie happened in the mid-'80s, when the title was canceled and became a twice-yearly feature in the "Archie Giant Series" (which was no longer giant-sized, and was just a way for them to publish defunct titles that they didn't want to give up on entirely). Bolling did most of the Little Archie stories from about 1985 through the early '90s. But in fact, he was back on the regular Little Archie title as early as 1979. Though Dexter Taylor continued to do all the covers and most of the stories, Bolling started contributing an occasional story - maybe one every couple of months. He told Gary Brown that "I don't know why they asked me to start doing it again." My own guess would be that the launch of the Archie digests, which included a Little Archie digest in the late '70s, brought the Bolling stories back into view, and the company wanted some new stories that would be in that style.

These late '70s and early '80s stories are a little different from both the classic-era stories and the later ones (he later brought back characters like Mad Doctor Doom and Ambrose, who are absent here), but all told they were probably his best work since the mid-'60s. (You can tell he was involved and interested because he didn't overload them with puns; there are a few puns in each story, but when he wasn't interested in a script, half of it would be puns.) Certainly this story, which appeared in Little Archie # 163 sandwiched between two unexciting Dexter Taylor stories, is one of my favorites. Strangely, Little Archie doesn't have a speaking role in it, although he could easily have played the lead in this story. But teaming Bolling's version of Ronnie (who is a little spoiled but nicer than the older version) with Sue Stringly, his favorite post-'60s character, makes for some unusual dynamics. (Okay, it's maybe uncomfortably close to my least favorite relationship in history, Richie Rich and Freckles, but to be fair, Ronnie actually helped Sue's dad get a job in an earlier story, so it's not quite as bad.) And Bolling's fascination with animals, weather and times of day -- as someone pointed out, he's careful to distinguish not only between morning and evening, but all kinds of different times during a typical day -- have never been more apparent.

Sue Stringly had appeared only once in the classic '50s-'60s run, in the story "Sled With a Mission" (with her brother Bobby, who never appeared again, though he was mentioned once or twice). Bolling brought her back in his very first Little Archie "comeback" story. Her new design was sort of half Big Ethel and half his old character Evelyn Evernever. She became the poor girl who is in touch with nature and the animal world, and opens up the other characters to seeing the world her way (which includes her belief in elves and her belief that the stars are giant pearls). She's probably based on the poor-but-noble kids in Dickens, like Tiny Tim or Little Nell. But she's a much more tolerable character than that description makes her sound; she has some humor and (in some stories, not this one) even a bit of misguided pride.

Bolling didn't usually letter his own stories at this point, but he did this one, which is good, because his distinctively big, heavy-looking letters are part ofwhat gives his stories a distinctive atmosphere. Also, of course, that he uses periods at the end of sentences.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Unremastered Future

It's looking like Warner Brothers will release some single-disc collections of new-to-DVD cartoons next year, but they will not be restored or remastered. If this is so -- and the post I linked is from a very reliable source -- they'll look like the cartoons that are used as filler on classic-movie releases, and the pre-1948 cartoons will presumably have that stupid "dubbed version" logo that Turner added in the '90s.

We know why remastered, Golden Collection-style releases aren't going to happen in the foreseeable future: it costs a lot of money to restore an old film from the original negative, and studios are no longer willing to spend that kind of money. I'm not sure if I see this changing any time soon. One of the things we hear a lot is that the collapse of the classics-on-DVD market is due to the bad economy, but the DVD market was slowing down even before the recession arrived. (I suppose that's usually the case: the businesses most affected by a recession are the ones that were in trouble anyway. What the recession does is take away any wiggle room they might have had.) When/if the economy improves, the home video market will have the same problems it does now, chain stores will still be unwilling to stock classics, and Blu-Ray will still be mostly for recent releases.

The way things are heading is very much in the same direction as the VHS era: classics will be released, but without much money spent on restoring or remastering them (though at least most of them won't be panned and scanned), while cartoons will be released on single-disc compilations rather than in big full-season or multi-disc boxes. If the studios move more strongly toward online streaming, as they've been promising/threatening to do, they'll have to make some classics available -- because they'll have to have a lot of content in order to brag about how much content they have. But again, the economics won't support the kind of expensive, original-elements restoration we took for granted in the first part of the decade. That was a unique, lucky convergence of factors. I'm just glad we got so much stuff in better-than-expected picture quality before the boom ended.

One of the cartoons released on the Bugs disc will be a childhood favorite of mine, "Hare We Go," which looks good even in its "unrestored" version. (There are huge variations in the prints used for post-1948 cartoons; some look very good, some clearly need to have work done on them.) One of the last cartoons made before Warren Foster moved from the McKimson unit to the Freleng unit, it has kind of a late '30s feel to it, complete with a gag lifted from a 1939 Columbus cartoon. Though Bugs already has a sleeker, less ugly look than in the post-'40s McKimsons.

Embedding disabled, but you can watch it here. I recall Greg Duffell saying on alt.animation.warner-bros that this was one of his two favorite McKimsons (along with "Hillbilly Hare," made around the same time as this one).

Friday, November 06, 2009

WKRP Episode: "Hold-Up"

Most of the usual cuts in this season 1 episode occurred in act 2 (there is one bit of music in act 1). There's the sequence with "Mercedes Benz" and "Like a Rolling Stone," and there's also a scene just after the beginning of act 2 that -- for reasons I don't understand -- is always cut; it wasn't even on the commercial VHS tape MTM released in the early '90s. The version of the scene here is taken from a copy of the original CBS broadcast.

This episode, the seventh produced and the fifth aired, is atypical in a few ways. It has the fewest regular characters in it, missing Venus, Bailey, and Jennifer (the only episode she's not in). Much of the episode is really a showcase for members of the Committee comedy troupe: Hesseman, Hamilton Camp, and Garry Goodrow. Hugh Wilson was a fan of improv comedy and once said that his dream was to do an unscripted show with a cast of actors who could do improv -- anticipating Curb Your Enthusiasm by many years. It seems like this episode was the closest he came to that feel. Camp, a ubiquitous presence on sitcoms, gets one of his best parts in this episode.

A couple of minor controversies came from the episode. The entire writing staff at the time made cameos: Wilson (as the cop), Bill Dial (as Bucky Dornster the engineer) and Blake Hunter and the writer of the episode, Tom Chehak (as the two non-speaking cops). Apparently it caused some trouble with SAG that so much of the episode's cast consisted of non-SAG people.

Also, MTM and CBS were sued by writers who had submitted a spec script the year before (not for WKRP, obviously; it didn't exist then) with a similar theme -- a remote radio broadcast gets hijacked. The case made it to court, where the judge ruled that even if someone at MTM had read that script, there was no "substantial similarity" between the two scripts except for that one idea.

Act 1

Act 2

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Oddly Enough, The First Niekro I Ever Heard Of Was Joe

I was talking about Phil Niekro, and was reminded of this piece that Bill James wrote in the 1986 Baseball Abstract about all the people Phil Niekro was older than (or is it "all the people than whom Phil Niekro was older?"). Anyway, I always liked the piece, just because it was so astonishing to be reminded of the fact that many people who were managers, or hadn't played since the '50s, were younger than Niekro. Niekro was still active at the time, and was pitching well; he'd gone 16-12 the previous year and had had four straight winning seasons. That year (1986) he was 11-11, and he didn't retire until he'd finally posted a losing record (in 1987).

Anyway, here's the James piece, cut n' pasted from a message board post:

Did you know that Phil Niekro is five years older than Denny McLain? Phil Niekro is older than Ron Santo. Phil Niekro is older than Joe Torre. Phil Niekro is older than Lou Brock or Carl Yastrzemski. Phil Niekro is older than Joe Pepitone. Phil Niekro is older than Richie Allen.

Jeff Torborg was dismissed in his third season as manager of Cleveland; that was seven years ago. Phil Niekro is older than Jeff Torborg, two and a half years older. Phil Niekro is older than Bobby Cox or Pat Corrales.

Do you remember Zoilo Versalles, who was the American League's MVP 21 years ago? Phil Niekro is older than Zoilo Versalles. Do you remember Jose Azcue, the great Azcue? Phil Niekro is older than Jose Azcue. Phil Niekro is older than Bernie Allen, Gene Alley, Mike Shannon, Dave Nicholson or Roger Repoz. Phil Niekro is older than Tony La Russa, Doug Rader or Ken Harrelson of the White Sox.

We can do this by teams . . . let's do the Cardinals. You probably know all the current Cardinals: Steve Braun is the oldest of them. Mike Torrez, who started with the Cardinals and then pitched for everybody else before dropping out of the game, was older than Steve Braun. Rick Wise, another peripatetic pitcher of similar talent, was older and earlier than Torrez; Steve Carlton is older than Wise, for whom he was once traded. Jose Cardenal, who patrolled the Cardinal outfield behind Carlton, was older than Steve. Tim McCarver, who caught for that team, is older than Jose Cardenal. Ray Sadecki, a teammate of McCarver's in his early days, a twenty-game winner of the 1964 Worlds Champions, was older than McCarver. You may remember Dick Nen, who hit the gigantic home run which buried the Cardinals the year before that, 1963. Nen was older than Sadecki. If you think hard enough, you may remember Julio Gotay, the Cardinal's [sic] shortstop before they traded for Dick Groat. Gotay, who was most famous as the man who dropped his mail in a green-painted trash bin for several weeks before Curt Flood discovered it, was older than Dick Nen. Von McDaniel, the Cardinals' pitching sensation of 1957, was older than Julio Gotay. But Phil Niekro is older than Von McDaniel.

Phil Niekro is older than Claude Osteen, the veteran pitching coach, or Milt Pappas. Phil Niekro is older than Sammy Ellis, one of the Yankee pitching coaches, or Dick Ellsworth. Phil Niekro is older than Tommie Aaron, except that Aaron is dead and you can't get any older than dead. I remember a few years ago at spring training, when Tommie was a coach with the Braves, he was hitting fungoes one day, his claim to alphabetical supremacy stretched across his back. Susie and I were sitting and watching him. A little woman about fifty yelled out from behind us, sounding for all the world like a character in the background of an old movie, "Haank. Oh, Haannk." She had a camera. At length, Tommie turned around, and gave a dutiful, patient half-smile. She took a picture and yelled, "Oh, thank you, Hank." Then he died a year or so later.

You remember Don Kessinger? Phil Niekro is older than Don Kessinger or Beckert. Glenn Beckert got the job as Cubs' second baseman after Ken Hubbs was killed in a plane crash in the spring of 1964. Phil Niekro is three years older than Ken Hubbs would be. Phil Niekro is older than Felix Millan or Sonny Jackson or Rico Carty. Phil Niekro is older than Martin Luther King or either of the Kennedys were at the time of their assassinations. Phil Niekro is older than Boog Powell. Phil Niekro is more than ten years older than I am.

Funny thing, though. He don't look a day over 60.