Sunday, May 31, 2009

Archie Already Married Veronica

One more thing about this whole Archie marries Veronica in a flash-forward future story business: it's sort of been done already. This story, "Dream Boy," is from the '60s (I assume; I read it in a digest, but it has the early '60s look). The art is by Dan DeCarlo and while the writer is, as usual, uncredited, it seems like it could possibly the young George Gladir (or maybe a freelancer). And it takes them only six pages, rather than six issues, to explain how an Archie/Veronica marriage would go and how Betty would be involved. I doubt if the much-hyped new story will be as plausible.

I also love the stylized, single-color backgrounds for the fantasy sequences, and DeCarlo's portrayal of Betty's evolution from Small-Town Teen to unrecognizable glamour girl. (Click on images to see the full-sized versions.)

It's not a new observation, but: part of the secret of Archie's success is that the characters are not goody-two-shoes. They all live in a clean, wholesome fantasy world, but within the context of that world, the main characters alternate between being friends and being mean to each other, both consciously and unconsciously. I mean, it doesn't seem at all implausible to either Betty or Veronica that Betty might try to steal Veronica's husband. It's just the way they naturally see themselves.

They've all been toned way down over the years, and were even starting to be toned down within Frank Doyle's lifetime (he and DeCarlo may have created Cheryl Blossom to do some of the nasty stuff that Veronica could no longer get away with) but even now they have something resembling actual flaws, which most kids' comics characters do not.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Happy 100th, Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman was born 100 years ago today. I'm pretty sure this is not the way he would want to be remembered.

But man, that Busby Berkeley camerawork is something else. Anyway, at least I didn't post "Minnie's In the Money."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Usual Comical Strip Trick

I have a web piece up about seminal Archie/Betty/Veronica moments (as seminal as you can get when you have a relationship that never changes), tying in with the famous news about the Archie "proposal."

And while I understand what Michael Barrier means when he says that "When I read Li'l Abner in bulk, the harsh mechanical qualities of Al Capp's strip force themselves on me," I find Li'l Abner holds up better than it's given credit for (better, in my opinion, than Pogo), and the current the current hullabaloo over Archie's proposal is an example of why Li'l Abner remains relevant: they're using all the tricks that Al Capp parodied in the "Fearless Fosdick gets married" storyline, and we're still falling for them.

Also, while I don't want to turn this into a Peanuts discussion blog, I don't agree with the idea that Peanuts "softened" in the '60s; on the contrary, it was a much "softer" strip through most of the '50s, more focused on day-to-day gags about the things kids say to each other. It was in the late '50s and early '60s that Schulz started to move into longer storylines, more direct addressing of contemporary events and issues. Not that there was anything wrong with the strip in the '50s, but the comedy became much sharper and more biting around 1959, staying that way through the mid-'70s.

And while the increased emphasis on Snoopy might have had some negative results, it also helped the strip expand into subjects it couldn't tackle before: because Snoopy was the only character in the strip who was not a child (and in his fantasy life he always imagined himself as an adult, not a child), it allowed the strip to take on things like the space race, college life (Joe Cool) and, of course, war.


I will say, though, that the Snoopy emphasis of the early '70s is an example of how something can be more of a problem when you read strips one at a time, rather than in bulk. When I read the 1971-2 strips in the new "Complete Peanuts" volume, the huge number of Snoopy and Woodstock strips doesn't bother me, since most of them are funny. But when the Peanuts website was running 1971 and 1972 strips one a day a few years ago, the Snoopy/Woodstock stuff irritated me because it seemed there were too few days that went by without those two. In a book, you can just turn the page to find a strip with the other characters. So that's an argument against my idea that strips come off better in day-to-day reading.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

We Had a Little Doggie, We Used To Call Him Fred, But Now We Call Him Nothing, The Reason Is He's Dead

After another Animaniacs discussion on a message board, I thought I would come back here and create another chapter in the story of my ongoing refusal to apologize for liking it. Anyway, one of the differences between the show on Fox and on the WB is that most of the WB episodes presented the characters as less mean, or at least less aggressive. This seemed to be an attempt by the writers to get away from the formula they had created in the year on Fox, where the three main characters would get revenge on some kind of authority figure. The first season on the WB had several cartoons that basically admitted that the writers were tired of this formula or at least felt that it was played out; if the final volume of episodes ever comes out on DVD -- which seems increasingly unlikely -- it'll start with this cartoon:

Breaking away from formula and getting more self-referential had actually helped the quality of Tiny Toons, where the final 35 episodes are generally of higher quality than the first 65. Though "Animaniacs" had a number of good cartoons on the WB, the change in formula seems to have hurt more than it helped, especially when it came to the cartoons with Yakko/Wakko/Dot. Although their cartoons were not "classic" cartoons, they worked better in something resembling a classic cartoon format: simple, strong premise which can give rise to a series of gags that are related to the premise, and a satisfying ending. When they're put in other types of stories -- either long-form stories like the two-part "Hooray For North Hollywood" (originally thought of as a story for an Animaniacs movie) or full-length movie parodies, they wind up standing around and not doing very much. Looking back on it, there are a lot of WB-era "Animaniacs" cartoons where nothing much happens until the cartoon is half over.

But on an up note, here is one of the WB-era cartoons I like the best (and the one which would induce me to buy a vol. 4 DVD if it ever came out). It could have been another static movie-parody cartoon, but as written by Paul Rugg (who really seemed to like these three characters, or at least write them as likable; it isn't easy to avoid making them three smug little assholes, but he usually did it), it abandons the movie premise pretty quickly and becomes a story about cartoon logic: if a cartoon character can only attack when provoked, then what happens when their antagonist never actually provokes them by being mean or rude? The Simpsons did a somewhat similar episode a year later when a Mary Poppins-type nanny came to live with the Simpsons; Animaniacs did it better.

German Lobby Cards Are Better

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I don't actually have much to say at the moment, but after looking at the German movie database, I have concluded that the lobby cards and promo shots for American movies were often a lot more entertaining in Germany than in America. It just seems like the American lobby cards tended to feature scenes that weren't particularly intriguing, while the German cards were more willing to take an attention-grabbing kind of approach. So here's an American lobby card from Artists and Models, whose promo campaign seemed to over-literally focus on the scene at the artists and models ball (as well as making it seem like Anita Ekberg had more to do in the film than she did):

Not bad, but here are two German lobby cards from Maler Und Mädchen :

You know -- lobby cards that tell you nothing about what the movie's about, but promise more than the movie will probably deliver. The German lobby cards even managed to make such promises for an almost completely sexless movie like The Searchers or, rather, Der Schwarze Falke ("The Black Falcon").

In a way, it's just a lobby-card version of that old joke poster "SEX! And now that we've got your attention..." But what else are lobby cards for?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"You Make Me Feel So Young"

Josef Myrow has long been my candidate for the dullest successful pop composer of the "Great American Songbook" era; he composed many songs for many Hollywood musicals, but most of them are quite bland. (Every time I would watch a '40s or '50s musical and hear a song where the melody had no distinction and didn't go anywhere, I would find it was by Myrow.) But he did manage at least one song that has stood the test of time: "You Make Me Feel So Young" from Three Little Girls In Blue. Even this song doesn't have a particularly great tune (in my opinion), but it's pleasant, and the way it keeps extending and building in excitement toward the end (taking the A section and almost turning it into a whole new song) is very good. And the lyric by Mack Gordon (an uneven but sometimes good pop lyricist of the '30s and '40s) is excellent.

Three Little Girls In Blue is a Fox musical that's rarely-seen because it doesn't have any big stars; another Fox story about three girls searching for love, it starred two of their Grable substitutes, June Haver and Vivian Blaine. But it's one of the best of the Fox musicals, because, for one thing, it's a real musical: unlike most of their other musical films, it doesn't relegate all the singing and dancing to show-within-a-show numbers. It's also one of the few musicals that Fox contractee Celeste Holm got to do for the studio, and most importantly, the first of only three films that Vera-Ellen did for the studio.

Fox's musical talent was generally inferior to that of other studios -- they rarely made musicals with anyone who was in the class of an Astaire or a Kelly or a Garland as an all-around performer -- so having a dancer of the calibre of Vera-Ellen kicks the film up a notch above most Fox product; though she doesn't do her own singing in "You Make Me Feel So Young," her dancing in the subsequent "dream ballet" (this was after Oklahoma! made dream ballets the in thing for about a decade) is at a higher level, in terms of performance, than the kind of number you usually get in one of these films.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Being on a musicals kick lately, I went searching on YouTube and found a taste of what must have been one of the finest theatrical productions of the '60s: the original Cabaret as directed by Hal Prince -- his first real hit as a director -- and choreographed by Ron Field. This is from the London production, which unexpectedly and successfully cast Judi Dench as Sally Bowles (she also did Frau Schneider's songs on John Yap's studio recording a decade back); she isn't really a singer, but Sally doesn't have to have a particularly good singing voice, since there's a lot of leeway as to how good or bad a cabaret performer she's supposed to be.

While this number doesn't really convey the impact of the production, it does convey a sense of the approach, which was halfway between a realistic, representational approach and the "concept" musical that would soon become the norm; the cabaret was a set, but it also existed in a separate world from the rest of the story and commented on what was happening. Several of the cabaret numbers are direct comments on songs that the characters have already sung in the book scenes: "Perfectly Marvelous," where Sally moves in with Cliff, is followed by "Two Ladies," where the MC delivers his own spin on unconventional living arrangements, and the MC's song "If You Could See Her" is a satirical response to "Meeskite," Herr Schultz's optimistic song about how looks don't matter. (This is why the changed line "She isn't a meeskite at all" works much better than "She wouldn't look Jewish at all.") Then there are Sally's cabaret numbers, "Don't Tell Mama" and the title song, which are halfway between the two worlds.

The interplay between story songs and commentary songs was completely lost in the movie because of the absurd decision to drop all the non-diegetic songs. There are other reasons I don't like the movie version, which I went into a few years back, but it's not just the movie's fault that Cabaret keeps getting rewritten, even though the original version was just about perfect as it was. It's also that Prince felt the original didn't go far enough, and kept trying to push the musical form even farther with his subsequent musicals with Stephen Sondheim (none of which are as effective as theatre, or as writing, as Cabaret). So it's often assumed that certain of the less-daring elements of Cabaret need to be changed to be more in line with the riskier, more experimental shows that followed it, except that it never works.

For example, it's true that making the hero, Cliff, a heterosexual character represented a failure of nerve. But that's the way they wrote him, and Joe Masteroff's excellent libretto is built around the idea that he's hetereosexual and infatuated with Sally. Rewriting the character causes the plot to fall apart (the movie, as much as I don't like it, at least had the sense to create a new plot and new characters). And such dramatically essential songs as Cliff's "Why Should I Wake Up," Schultz's "Meeskite" (a key theatrical moment at the end of the first act, and a song without which the MC's "If You Could See Her" has no reason to exist) and the show-stopping "Telephone" dance (considered the best number in the original show by those who saw it) are often dropped or minimized because stagers are viewing it through the prism of the movie or subsequent musicals.

Finally, the important thing about the original Cabaret is that with Field's glamorous choreography very much defining the evening, and with the showgirls presented as beautiful and appealing, the original version presented the cabaret as very similar to the world of a typical Broadway musical: not a seedy, dingy place like most subsequent versions have tried to make it, but a place where people really would be lured into forgetting their troubles. That was the whole point of the show, which attempted to give the story contemporary significance by turning it into a sort of meta-commentary on entertainment in general and musicals in particular. The MC and the cabaret girls take real issues (that we've seen played out in the regular book scenes) and trivialize them, or turn them into glitzy diversions, using music and glitz and beauty to numb us into forgetting what's really going on out there in the world. There have been other musicals that tried to make a similar point: Prince's own Follies and Bob Fosse's Chicago, but neither of those shows have as good a book as Cabaret, and neither one was as big a hit. Someone really needs to dust off the original 1966 version of Cabaret (including the wonderful Don Walker orchestrations that strike a perfect balance between tinny cabaret style and the big Broadway sound) and bring back the powerful, meaningful piece of theatre that has been compromised by all the subsequent, inferior versions.

Friday, May 15, 2009

WKRP Episode: "I'll Take Romance"

(Click here for updated list of original-music, uncut WKRP episodes online so far.)

This episode from the fourth season demonstrates once again that on television, all computer dating services are fronts for prostitution (either that or they match you up with someone hilariously unsuitable). Not a whole lot else to say about it, but it does contain one of Les's best lines (in act 2, in response to the phrase "oldest profession"). Here's a bio of this episode's guest actress, Livia Genise, who MTM also used on an episode of Hill Street Blues that season.

Music: "I Know the Price" by B.B. King.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


One more thing: I couldn't find any clips from 110 In the Shade (Bluegobo would have had some, but it's no longer functioning since the Ed Sullivan clips were forcibly removed from it), but I just found the remarkably versatile Inga Swenson, whose Lizzie was generally considered the highlight of the original production, performing two of her songs in a workshop setting on a local New York television show.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Movie Sex Symbols Who Are Always Out-sexed By Others

I was watching a film with Claudia Cardinale, and I was reminded that she has always struck me as the epitome of a sex symbol (or someone who was sold as a sex symbol) who is usually outclassed in sex appeal by someone else in the movie. I've said before that in The Pink Panther, Fran Jeffries in her one big (and irrelevant) scene manages to be sexier than either of the two leading ladies, Cardinale and Capucine. But Cardinale is also outshone by Anouk Aimée in 8&1/2 even though Cardinale is supposed to be the sex symbol and Aimée has that bespectacled Big Sleep bookstore clerk look going on.

In Alexander Mackendrick's weird, bitter, depressing Tony Curtis comedy Don't Make Waves, Cardinale is so completely outclassed by Sharon Tate that Andrew Sarris remarked that it was "the biggest Hollywood cheesecake robbery since Betty Grable displaced Alice Faye in Tin Pan Alley."

If she's the only woman in the movie, as she is in Westerns like Once Upon a Time In the West and The Professionals (Update: I forgot that there is another woman in The Professionals; see comments), she doesn't have the problem of being outdone by another woman, but she still never comes off as a highlight of the movie, at least for me.

It's not that she isn't attractive, just that I don't find she lives up to the sex-symbol buildup she gets in most of her movies. I have my issues with Marilyn Monroe, but it's impossible for anyone to steal a scene or a movie from her. Ditto Sophia Loren, Bardot, and to some extent even Lollobrigida (who made mostly mediocre movies, but managed to dominate them). But some attractive actresses, no matter how aggressively they were sold as sex symbols, come off as no more intriguing than other pretty women in the same film, and sometimes less.

Sometimes I think Anita Ekberg is in a similar category for me -- though that's much more controversial, because unlike Cardinale, she did achieve legitimate sex-symbol status for a while. But again, I find that unlike a Monroe or a Loren, it's very easy for her to be outshone in the movie by the woman who is not supposed to be the sexpot, whether it's Aimée again in La Dolce Vita, or Pat Crowley in Hollywood Or Bust (who somehow manages to be sexier than Ekberg even though most of the film and promotion was about how sexy Anita Ekberg is), or Edie Adams in Call Me Bwana.

I don't know if anyone else has their own examples of an actor who got the sex-symbol buildup but is rarely the sexiest person in the movie. And obviously, this applies to male actors just as much as female.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Little Red Hat

I've been listening to the 1999 studio recording of the complete score of 110 in the Shade, probably the best recording in producer John Yap's now-defunct series of studio cast albums. Yap, the head of the British label That's Entertainment, made (with the British musical/operetta conductor John Owen Edwards) two-disc recordings of a bunch of post-1944 musicals, using the original orchestrations and all the incidental music, reprises, etc. He called off the series when the CD market collapsed, and there are a few recordings he made but never released, most notably a recording of Kurt Weill's One Touch Of Venus.

Many of the recordings are more interesting for teaching value than listening value -- that is, they're great learning tools for anyone who is putting on one of these shows and wants to hear all the dance music et al, but many of them sound under-rehearsed and untheatrical. But there are some very valuable recordings in the series, either for individual performances (Alec McCowen in the two-disc My Fair Lady may be the only Higgins who actually sings his songs instead of speaking through them all, and it works amazingly well) or an alternative to the original (his Most Happy Fella is not as well-sung as the original, but it's a good performance and the only place to hear Don Walker's orchestrations in stereo sound).

The 110 In the Shade was the only recording since the original (which is better sung overall, but out of print), and since it includes two principals from the '90s New York City Opera production, it has a more theatrical feel than most of the other recordings in the series, and is far preferable to the re-orchestrated, miscast Audra McDonald revival.

The show itself, an adaptation of N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker (Nash adapted the script himself) stands somewhere between classic and cult classic. It was the first Broadway score by the team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, of the Off-Broadway hit The Fantasticks. They were both big fans of the original play, especially, Jones, who first saw it in its original incarnation, as a TV play. (It then became a stage play, a film, and a Broadway musical.) Perhaps because they loved the play so much, most of the songs in 110 In the Shade come directly from Nash's script about a con man who claims he can bring rain to a drought-ridden town -- sort of a meaner Harold Hill -- and a single woman who doubts her own womanliness. Almost every song originates in a line of dialogue or a whole speech from the play. The con man's big speech in The Rainmaker about queen Melisande, whose husband went forth to win a "golden fleece" for her, becomes a song about the exact same thing. Here's the speech from the original:

STARBUCK with a sudden inspiration): Just a minute, Lizzie -- just one little half of a minute! I got the greatest name for you -- the greatest name -- just listen! (Then, like a love lyric) Melisande.

LIZZIE (flatly): I don't like it.

STARBUCK: That's because you don't know anything about her! But when I tell you who she was -- lady, when I tell you who she was!


STARBUCK: She was the most beautiful --! She was the beautiful wife of King Hamlet! -- Ever hear of him?

LIZZIE (giving him rope): Go on! -- go on!

STARBUCK: He was the fella who sailed across the ocean and brought back the Golden Fleece! And you know why he did that? Because Queen Melisande begged him for it! I tell you, that Melisande -- she was so beautiful and her hair was so long and curly -- every time he looked at her he just fell right down and died! And this King Hamlet, he'd do anything for her -- anything she wanted! So when she said: "Hamlet, I got a terrible hankerin' for a soft Golden Fleece," he just naturally sailed right off to find it! And when he came back -- all bleedin' and torn -- he went and laid that Fleece of Gold right down at her pretty white feet! And she took that fur piece and she wrapped it around her pink naked shoulders and she said: "I got the Golden Fleece -- and I'll never be cold no more!" -- Melisande! What a woman! What a name!!

And here's the song from the musical, which is basically the same speech with one addition (a description of how King Hamlet got the Fleece):

Uploaded by carpalton

Sure, the music gives an extra dimension to the scene, but in dramatic terms, it doesn't do much that the nonmusical play didn't. That's a problem with the show that keeps it from completely working, even though the songs themselves are nearly all very good. Some stage adaptations simply musicalize moments that worked perfectly well in dialogue, and this is one of them. And when that happens, the songs often have the feeling of being over-long versions of something that could just as easily be said in dialogue; even if the audience doesn't know the original, they'll sense it. My Fair Lady is a stage adaptation where most of the dialogue is from the play (or the 1938 movie), but most of the songs don't correspond to speeches from the play. It uses song to say things that the play didn't say, because if the play said it effectively, why put it in song at all? But a lot of the songs from 110 In the Shade, as good as they are, have the feel of stage dialogue given a few rhymes and set to music -- because that's what they are. And the problem would have been even worse except that, on the road, the songwriters added two new songs that were not merely transcriptions of a scene from the original play and instead offered something new. The ballad "A Man and a Woman" (giving a key scene a new depth of feeling that it didn't have in the play). And while the comic quartet "Poker Polka" is based on a scene from the play, it gives a much funnier spin on that scene and a different take on the character of Sheriff File.

(In The Rainmaker, part of the scene)
H.C.: How's your poker, File?

FILE: My what?

H.C.: Poker.

FILE: Oh, I don't like poker much.

JIM: You don't?! Don't you like Spit in the Ocean?!

FILE: Not much.

H.C.: We figured to ask you to play some cards.

FILE: I gave up cards a long time ago,

H.C. (stymied): You did, huh?

FILE: M-hm.

Here's one song that is basically a dialogue transcription but does expand a little on the dialogue that it's based on, "Little Red Hat," the eleven o'clock number for the secondary young couple, Jimmy and Snookie (who was played in the original 1963 production by a very young Lesley Ann Warren). Nash's play lends itself so well to musicalization that it even had the then-obligatory secondary comic couple in it. The song is based on Jimmy's story of how he got engaged to Snookie and asserted his independence from his brother Noah:

JIM: We went ridin' -- yep, that's right! We opened that Essex up and we went forty million miles an hour! And then we stopped that car and we got out and we sat down under a great big tree! And we got out and we sat down under a great big tree! And we could look through the branches and see the sky all full of stars -- damn, it was full of stars. And I turned around and I kissed her. I kissed her once, I kissed her a hundred times! And while I was doin' that, I knew I could carry her any where -- right straight to the moon! But all the time, I kept thinkin': ''Noah's gonna come along and he's gonna say 'whoa!' He's gonna say: 'Jim, you're dumb! You're so dumb you ain't got sense enough to say whoa to yourself— so I'm sayin' it for you— Whoa!'" But Noah didn't show up— and I kept right on kissin'. And then somethin' happened. She was cryin' and I was cryin' and I thought any minute now we'll be right up there on the moon. And then— then!— without Noah bein' there— all by my smart little self— I said whoa!

HC: Yippeeeeee!

JIM: Thank you, Pop -- your yippee is accepted.

NOAH: I don't believe a word of it. Why'd she give you the hat?

JIM: For the same reason I give her my elk's tooth! We're engaged!

The song adds a little to this, partly by having Snookie tell the story along with Jimmy, but partly because it very strongly suggests that he was about to rape her until he told himself "whoa!" I suppose the suggestion is unintentional, but by cutting the line where he suggests that it was consensual ("I knew I could carry her anywhere"), and adding the line about "pinnin' her flat," it sounds like an assault scene that is interrupted when the assaulter has second thoughts. Howard Taubman, the theatre critic for the New York Times (and the only critic who didn't like the show), really hated this song and what he thought to be its implications, writing: "This duet is meant to be exuberant and racy; it emerges as a kind of distasteful theme song for vulgar theater suited to a world of debased values."

Not that I think this is actually a song about rape. (Nor, for that matter, is the same authors' song in The Fantasticks that keeps getting into trouble because it uses the word "rape" -- the word is used in the old-fashioned sense, to mean "abduction.") Just that it has some phrases in it whose implications maybe weren't quite thought through. It's still a great number.

Friday, May 08, 2009

When I'm Kahl-ing You

There's a really interesting discussion about the work of Milt Kahl going on at Michael Barrier's site, and also spilling over into Jenny Lerew's site.

In some ways it's less an argument about Kahl than about his usefulness as an example for other animators. Barrier and some of the commenters feel that it's not helpful to hold Kahl up as the perfect animator (Michael Sporn suggests in comments that some of this comes from Richard Williams, who saw Kahl and Milt Babbitt as the ideal animators). His pursuit of perfect drawings -- and his drawing ability was astounding -- may have come at the expense of some of the emotion that could be conveyed by the work of less accomplished draughtsmen.

From this point of view -- and I'm not saying I agree with it; I'm not really familiar enough with Kahl's style to judge him one way or the other -- he's neither the "animation Michelangelo" or the "animation Raphael," but the animation Andrea Del Sarto, from Browning's poem about the technically flawless painter whose work didn't have the depth of Michelangelo's or Raphael's:

And indeed the arm is wrong.
I hardly dare . . . yet, only you to see,
Give the chalk here--quick, thus, the line should go!
Ay, but the soul! he's Rafael! rub it out!
Still, all I care for, if he spoke the truth,
(What he? why, who but Michel Agnolo?
Do you forget already words like those?)

On the other hand, Thad K points out in the same comment section that some of Kahl's best work was in slapstick comedy, something he didn't get a chance to do very often in the later films.

One thing I definitely don't agree with is Barrier's opinion that Kahl's re-design and re-thinking of Pinocchio was one of Disney's "most unfortunate decisions." That decision pretty much saved the movie as far as I'm concerned. The only way to avoid making this story a mean-spirited piece of 19th-century moralizing -- it's one of the many 19th-century children's stories where we're supposed to enjoy seeing "naughty boys" put through gruesome torture -- was to make Pinocchio a good boy, who experiences these punishments for doing the things that even good kids do in moments of weakness (fibbing, playing hooky). It changed the tone of the story from "look what happens to naughty children" to "look what happens to all of us." Kahl's redesign was the way to make this story relevant and relatable for a 20th century audience, instead of a Victorian lecture.

WKRP Episode: "I Want To Keep My Baby"

This was the episode made the week before "Fish Story," also written by Hugh Wilson and directed by Asaad Kelada. Like I said, it is a bit short on big laughs (though a lot better than the episode produced the week before, "Love Returns") , though in terms of chronology it was a big step forward toward pushing the show toward pure ensemble comedy, instead of focusing on Andy and Mr. Carlson as originally envisioned in the pilot.

The main reason I wanted to post this is that it's one of the most musically-compromised episodes on Hulu/DVD. Restoring the music was a time-consuming job because there's a lot of it, and almost all of it was stripped out over the years. In these early episodes, Hugh Wilson picked most of the songs himself (later that season Howard Hesseman and Tim Reid would start choosing their own songs, which would continue to the end of the series), and most of the song choices have titles that reflect in some way on the theme of the scene, sort of like a cartoon score. They include but are not limited to "Rock n' Roll Fantasy" by the Kinks, "B-A-B-Y" by Carla Thomas, "Lively Up Yourself" by Bob Marley (the only song preserved on the Hulu version), "Teach Your Children" by CSN&Y, "Return To Sender" by Elvis Presley, "Your Prayers Are Answered" by Randy Newman, "Your Smiling Face" by James Taylor.

Part 1

Part 2

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Comic-Strip Tease


With all due respect to Terry Teachout, I think he's sort of missing the point about comic strips:

The problem I had with "Peanuts" is the same problem I have with virtually all serial art: it isn't meant to be consumed in bulk. A daily comic strip whose installments are free-standing rather than connected by strands of plot is an endless series of moments. To read it once a day is a fleeting pleasure. To read dozens of installments in a single sitting is to realize just how ephemeral that pleasure was.

It's true that comic strips were not meant to be seen more than one at a time (though some artists, like Walt Kelly, did turn longer comic-strip stories into comic books), and it's true that seeing a bunch of comic strips all at once dilutes their impact.

But that doesn't mean that the pleasures derived from a comic strip are inherently superficial or ephemeral. It just means that they don't translate into the "wrong" format (book form, online bulk viewing). The same way that a great play doesn't seem so great when you read it instead of seeing it.

The impact of any good serial is cumulative. If you read one a day, you get a chuckle or a rueful nod out of it, but as you keep reading it, the running themes and recurring ideas. It's like a ritual, and all the great comic strips from Krazy Kat on have been very ritualistic. As you read the instalments, one at a time, it adds up in your mind to something more than a bunch of drawings doing something silly.

That's the difference between a comic-strip artist and an "aphorist." Aphorisms and proverbs are meant to stand on their own. (They are also never as clever as their creators think they are, precisely because they stand on their own and there's nothing to build on them.) Comic strips are not, no matter how pithy and cute the daily strip might be. In the great comic strips like Peanuts, Pogo, Li'l Abner, Krazy Kat, the daily entries aren't just a point in the story, they're a little piece of a world and a worldview. The characters become familiar to you almost by osmosis; you know a tremendous amount about them, and the running jokes of the strip (football, kite-eating tree, Sadie Hawkins day, political figures caricatured as animals, jumping between Calvin's dream world and the real world), without being introduced to them through the traditional rules of well-made storytelling. You can't really do that anywhere besides a comic strip. In everything else, even weekly series television, things needs to be established up-front instead of just seeping into our brains over a period of years. The closest comparison is the work of a writer like Teachout's beloved H.L. Mencken; one column or another is not as important in itself as the personality and worldview that is conveyed when you take all his work together.

But all this doesn't happen if you've only read one, and if you read a bunch at a time, the repetition becomes tiresome. With a strip like Li'l Abner, reading the strips in book form can be very unsatisfying because Al Capp constantly has characters summarize the story for the benefit of new readers. But if you're reading one of those a day, the repetition isn't a problem. And any problem that a strip encounters in an uncongenial format is not really the strip's problem. It's a bit like being disappointed when a theatre production doesn't work when broadcast on television. Of course it didn't work in that format. Theatre is theatre, and daily strips are daily strips.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Grudge Match: Hunter & McCall vs. Mulder & Scully

It's the '80s meets the '90s, and when they meet each other, they have to beat each other: Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, The X-Files) vs. Rick Hunter and Dee Dee McCall (Fred Dryer and Stepfanie Kramer, Hunter). Both are male-female TV cop teams with a ton of sexual tension that is only occasionally addressed. Will the '90s team pound the '80s back into the '70s, or will Football Fred and his Favorite Femme Flatten the Feds?

I am going to lean toward Hunter and McCall for the violence factor. McCall is the less violent of the two because she only kills a suspect every other week. Mulder and Scully are adequate at dealing with aliens and monsters, but they're not so well equipped to deal with violent gun-toting '80s sociopaths, not to mention big hair. (Not that Scully's hair is exactly timeless.) As Mulder is trying to explain the alien conspiracy behind the current conflict, Hunter shoots him. Works for me.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Beach Boy Huddle!

After watching The Beach Boys' theme song for Karen (the song was written by Jack Lawrence and prolific creator/producer Bob Mosher), I had to go back to YouTube and see if they had my fondest Beach Boy memory, their work as backup band for Annette Funicello over the opening credits of Disney's The Monkey's Uncle. This is the only part of the movie (the last film that Annette and Tommy Kirk made for Disney) that anybody remembers.

It's there, the most 1965 clip you can possibly imagine, and another illustration of the Sherman Brothers' remarkable ability to write songs that scream "Disney" no matter what style they're writing in. I'm not even sure if the Shermans are even particularly good songwriters. When I hear the smart, intricately-rhymed, Kiplingian songs that Terry Gilkyson ("Marianne") originally wrote for The Jungle Book, and remember that he's the writer of "The Bare Necessities" and the "O'Malley the Alley Cat" song, I find it disappointing that Disney favored the Shermans over him for most projects. But they could put the Disney brand on any kind of song, whether it was a mid-'60s pop pastiche like this one or the My Fair Lady pastiche (a pastiche of a pastiche) in Mary Poppins.

But back to the clip: Beach Boy fans who hate Mike Love (I don't) apparently find this clip to be a particular source of satisfaction, because he looks like such an idiot: he doesn't have an instrument until Annette hands him the tambourine, and he occupies his hands by doing "dance" moves that make him look like he's trying to mime climbing up a rope ladder.

Friday, May 01, 2009

WKRP Episode: "Fish Story"

This is one of the most famous WKRP in Cincinnati episodes, and one whose backstory is pretty well known. It was the last episode of the initial 13-episode order, and CBS executives were telling Hugh Wilson that the show wasn't funny enough. In fairness, the previous two episodes in production order had been "Love Returns," the unfunniest (and worst) episode of the entire series, and "I Want To Keep My Baby," not a bad episode but a little short on laughs. So CBS wasn't wrong to think that the show needed to concentrate harder on the comedy. Network notes aren't always entirely wrong.

So when Hugh Wilson wrote this episode, perhaps figuring that this would be the last (since the show wasn't doing well), he wrote it -- or parts of it -- as a sort of parody of the kind of show he felt CBS was asking for, a broad farce with silly costumes, pratfalls, and contrived explanations. He disliked the finished product enough to take his name off it and use the pseudonym "Raoul Plager" instead.

The show was placed on hiatus before the episode could air; when it came back, with a run of episodes that struck the right balance between what CBS wanted and what Wilson wanted, "Fish Story" was not shown. It was finally burned off at the end of May, when the regular season was already over. But it got excellent ratings in the show's new post-M*A*S*H slot, and has always been one of the most popular episodes, because it's just funny. Though the best part of the episode is not the main story but the B story, which is a little less broad because it's based on a real radio thing (DJs really do these drunk-driving tests on the air; this just asks what would happen if someone's reflexes got better rather than worse).

The Hulu/DVD version strips out all the music; this version puts it all back in: "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" by Jerry Lee Lewis, "I'm Torn Down" by Freddie King, "Blue Collar Man" by Styx, "Alabama Song" (aka "Whiskey Bar") and "Light My Fire" by the Doors.

Cold Opening and Act 1

Act 2 and Tag