Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More Fun From The Golden Age of Cartoon Censorship

One of my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons as a kid was "Hare-Less Wolf," featuring the return of the absent-minded, borderline brain-damaged wolf Friz Freleng had introduced in "Red Riding Hoodwinked." I still like it, and wish it was available in some format (I've never been able to see a version with the opening credits); the wolf is a funny character, and his design makes the best possible case for Hawley Pratt's bizarre, ultra-angular post-1955 design style. It's kind of like one of those early '40s Bugs cartoons where he goes up against a complete, overmatched idiot like Red Hot Ryder; even the frequent quotations of "He's a horses ass" on the soundtrack give it kind of an early '40s feel, though Bugs is obviously a much tamer character here than he was in those early cartoons.

What I didn't know as a kid was that the version I watched on ABC had already been cut by two minutes. Or at least, this version -- from an earlier incarnation of ABC's Bugs Bunny Saturday morning show -- contains two minutes of stuff that wasn't in the print I remember seeing.

And here's the version I grew up with. They cut three entire scenes for sinful violence: the one with Virgil Ross animating the old reliable "shooting at a tin can and 'accidentally' shooting the other guy" gag, the scene with the grenade gag, and the dynamite scene. And they also eliminated the wolf saying that he hates his wife. Because this would teach kids that it's all right to say bad things about an abusive spouse, and we can't have that.

As you can see from the logo, this is the version of this cartoon that was sent to the Teletoon Retro channel, so this is still the mutilated version that is being shown after all these years.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Comedy Routines: Both Sides Should Be In On the Joke

This is an extension of something I wrote elsewhere, but: I've always thought that one of the reasons the mirror routine in Duck Soup is such a great version of that routine (which had been done many times before, and would be done many times after, but -- at least on film -- never as well) is that both Groucho and Harpo know exactly what is going on.

The usual way to do that routine is to have the person in disguise try, with some success, to fool the other person. That makes it a clear straight man/comic routine: one character is in on the joke, and the other isn't. But in Duck Soup, Groucho never acts like he's fooled by Harpo. He knows he's not looking in a mirror. He knows this is a guy made up to look like him. He could just reach out and grab Harpo (the way he finally grabs Chico at the end of the routine). But he's intrigued by how successful Harpo is in imitating his movements, and he's determined to make Harpo slip up.

So the routine as it plays out is partly an exercise in timing and simultaneous movement, but only partly. A lot of it is just a battle of wits between two characters who each know what is going on. Sometimes Groucho seems to have the upper hand, but Harpo turns the tables on him. Sometimes Harpo pulls off a feat that is physically impossible (producing the right object out of nowhere when he clearly had a different object behind his back), and sometimes he wins in a very realistic way (standing still while Groucho spins around).

And as the routine goes on, Groucho becomes so obsessed with the game that he loses sight of the objective: Harpo drops his hat and Groucho hands it back to him, then Harpo goes totally out of synch with Groucho, but Groucho then starts to think of some other way to make Harpo drop the act, not realizing (or not caring) that it's already happened. Groucho has forgotten why he's doing all this; he started the scene with a goal, and now he just has a ritual that he's going to keep repeating obsessively. If Chico didn't wander into the scene, making it impossible for Groucho and Harpo to keep up the pretense, they'd conceivably keep on doing it forever.

I have no doubt that this is the way this routine was sometimes done in the better Vaudeville and stage versions. It may even have been done this way on film before. But this is not the way it's usually done; it's usually just done to show us that two performers can move in exact synchronization. And that's just one joke, really. It may be a well-executed joke if the performers are good enough, but it's not as funny as Duck Soup, because it doesn't go through all those different stages and have as much back-and-forth between the characters.

That's why the version of this routine from I Love Lucy never did it for me. It's well-done in the technical sense, but the way it's written, Harpo is basically acting like a moron for a large portion of the scene. He acts like maybe that is his reflection, and he's just testing to see whether this is so. Groucho doesn't have to play dumb, because in their version of the scene, he's not taken in. (And this even though Harpo-as-Groucho looks a lot more like his brother than Lucille Ball looks like Harpo.) In Duck Soup it's a scene about two smart people trying to score points off each other, instead of a scene about an idiot being fooled by what is obviously someone in a costume.

Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First?," as I also said in that other post, has an element of this as well. It's pretty clear as the routine goes on that Costello has figured it out. That's the point of him saying "third base!" along with Abbott: Costello knows that I Don't Know is the third baseman. But he can't just cut it short and phrase his question in a different way. You can interpret it as Costello being trapped by the rules of this comedy routine, or Costello being stubborn (like Groucho in the mirror routine) and refusing to give up until he gets Abbott to give him the answer he wants in the exact way he wants. But there is no sense, the way they do it, that Costello is an idiot who can't figure out that "Who" is the name of the first baseman. The dynamic is that of two guys who will not give up phrasing things in exactly the way they want: the other one will have to change his wording first.

Update In comments, Griff argues that I'm being too hard on the Harpo/Lucy version:

I don't believe that Harpo is fooled for a minute, though he may mime some amazement to the audience; he's determined to play this through so long as Lucy is. It's a sketch compared to the full-blown sequence of the McCarey picture, but both Harpo and Lucy do play it seriously. No small amount of the scene's comedy comes from Lucy's desperate hopes to fool Harpo, and his obliging, energetic, even generous following along with her.

That well may be the case. The way I always interpreted the scene, based on Harpo's amazement and confusion, is that he is fooled or at least that he doesn't fully know what's going on. But when I looked at the scene again, I realized I'd forgotten an important detail (not having seen the episode in a long while): he does see her duck out of sight at the beginning of the scene. And that's presumably meant to establish that he knows at least part of what's going on (someone is impersonating him). So it may be more accurate to say that he is humoring this mysterious Harpo imitator for as long as she can keep it up. I still think the way the scene plays out, and many of Harpo's gestures, indicate that he doesn't really know what's going on -- like his shrug and the way he feels his face as if to check whether he really looks like that younger person in the mirror. But it's not as simple as him just being clueless all the way through.

Here is the scene, anyway:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Old, Bad Gilbert and Sullivan Is New and Good Again?

I've said in the past on this blog that, much as I love Gilbert and Sullivan, I usually can't bring myself to go to see their works performed any more. Part of this is just something that can't be helped by anyone who puts on a G&S operetta: there aren't that many of these works, and by design (Gilbert's design) the characters have no depth, so there really is very little you can do to make them fresh. If you know the music and lyrics and script, almost nothing a G&S production does can surprise you. But most productions try to solve this problem with gimmicks, rewritten lyrics and dialogue, non-singers in singing roles. None of this gives the plot or characters any more depth than they had before, and they make the production harder to sit through.

So maybe it's just my reaction against modern G&S performance, or just pure nostalgia, but I find that I'm more favorably disposed to the old G&S performance tradition -- that of the D'Oyly Carte company, which held the copyright on G&S in England until 1961 and was notorious for trying to do productions that aped the originals in sets, design, and stage business. (Lots of unwritten bits of business became absolute D'Oyly Carte requirements that no performer would change, including some bits that were introduced after Gilbert's death, like the Mikado laughing and screaming in the middle of his song. What was important to the D'Oyly Carte wasn't Gilbert's intentions, it was "tradition," no matter how those traditions got started.) But when I found two online excerpts from the 1966 D'Oyly Carte film of The Mikado, I watched them and thought: this isn't perfect, but I'd be happy to see The Mikado done this way today.

This film is just a regular performance done in front of a movie camera (and without an audience). And I might just order a copy. No, the performance isn't very lively, probably because of the absence of the audience and the apparent decision to use pre-recorded tracks. And the flaws of "tradition" are very clear in the delivery of the dialogue: that stylized, slowly-delivered parody of a type of acting that no longer was in favor by that time. (In Gilbert's time, of course, most plays were like that, and he probably did order his actors to to play the dialogue this way: emphatic, melodramatic, not obviously aware of the absurdity of the words they're saying.) But still, the stylized Victorian-melodrama delivery works better, and is certainly more appropriate to the material, than attempts to pep it up and make the actors obviously, consciously, play the dialogue for laughs. And while the D'Oyly Carte wasn't known for high musical standards, they did have some people with legitimate operatic voices that could do at least partial justice to Sullivan's music.

So click here to see Yum-Yum's song ("The sun whose rays are all ablaze") sung by Valerie Masterson, one of the D'Oyly Carte's best signings in the '60s.

The old-fashioned approach works best in the song, because there's no attempt to camp it up or make it "lively": it's a moment that depends entirely on the song and the performer. A lot of G&S productions seem to forget that. It doesn't work so great in the dialogue, but it's no worse than today's usual methods.

(The song itself is one of the most famous examples of the weirdness of the relationship between Sullivan's music and Gilbert's lyrics. The lyric, which Gilbert wrote first, is a hymn to conceit and vanity, a song about someone who sees all of nature as just barely matching up to her wonderfulness. Sullivan set it with a gorgeous, passionate melody. The music and lyrics are working at cross-purposes, yet they somehow seem to go together just right.)

And here's D'Oyly Carte's comic lead at the time (the guy who played the parts that George Grossmith originated), John Reed, singing the "Tit-Willow" song. Not of the highest standard either in singing or conducting (by the D'Oyly Carte's reliable but unexciting veteran conductor, Isidore Godfrey), but it trusts the material much more than a modern production would, and that now seems kind of charming. And even the work of Gilbert, the angriest Victorian of them all, needs to be played some charm.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lyrics from "Dr. Faustus," Part 2

This is another lyric I wrote to see what a musical version of Mann's Dr. Faustus might be like. This song was for Rudi Schwerdtfeger, the violinist whose role in the novel would take too much time to explain here (almost everything in the novel is a little hard to explain in words). But what I tried to focus on in the song was something that's implied in the novel but not really dealt with at length, which is the artistic relationship between Schwerdtfeger, the handsome, popular performer, and Adrian Leverkuhn, the experimental composer.

Schwerdfeger talks Leverkuhn into writing a concerto for him to perform, a concerto which (as described by the narrator) is recognizably Leverkuhn's own but more accessible than some of his other work, and Schwerdtfeger is just the kind of performer who can sell this new music to the public. So I tried to write a lyric that was influenced by the plot of Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron (since Leverkuhn is partly based on Schoenberg), where Moses is the bold innovator who can't make his work loved by the public, and Aaron is the smooth-talking populist who delivers the innovations to the public in a form they can understand. Since Schoenberg saw that as a Faustian bargain of a sort -- sacrificing truth for accessibility -- I thought that idea would fit in with the Dr. Faustus subject.

This lyric has its problems, including: a) It's too long, and b) Trying to deal with a subject like this in a song always winds up sounding like a Sunday in the Park With George knockoff (particularly the "Louis" song). But I'm printing it here because, again, I don't know what else to do with it, except to be glad I got the experience of writing it.

What's a prophet to do?
(I'm not talking of you.)

Moses, he's a prophet,
Prophets love to preach.
But like many wise
Prophetic guys,
He's dull and slow of speech.
Preaching to the people,
Moses isn't clear.
Every time he tries
To prosletyze,
He's not much fun to hear.
What a poor, pathetic
Shaggy-bearded Jew.
Wants to be prophetic,
Babbles till he's blue.

Aaron is his brother,
Smart and smooth of tongue,
He's congenial, and
By Bible stand-
Ards, reasonably young.
Aaron takes the message,
Aaron makes it sell,
He supplies demand
With gestures grand
And sounds that cast a spell.
Makes each innovation
Simplified and small.
That's what thrills a nation,
That's what fills a hall.

The man with a stammer
Wields truth like a hammer,
He's filled with intelligence,
Killed with indifference.
The public will clamour
For someone with glamour
Who knows what is popular,
Shows what is possible.

Moses, who composes
Lots of thoughts of God,
Is such little fun
That everyone
Considers him a clod.
Aaron, the performer,
Makes those thoughts a hit,
And when he is done,
The Jews will run
To see the sea get split.
Moses warns of bad things,
Moses' name is mud.
Aaron helps him add things,
Snakes and plagues and blood.

Now what Moses once knew
Isn't just for a a few.
(I'm not talking of you.)

Didn't Aaron distort?
Only tell people half?
And then lend his support
To the infamous calf?
You turn truth into lies
And turn thoughts into tears
When you popularize
For the popular ears.

But no ear ever hears
Till an Aaron appears.
He'll persuade them to wander the desert for years.
Moses stammers and hides.
Needs what Aaron provides.
Needs to prove that his truths are true.
I'm not --

I know.

I'm not --

Just so.

I'm not talking of who?

Of me.

Of you.

I see.

Just Moses and Aaron.

Moses and Aaron.

Moses and...

Moses and...

This was not about you.

You're through?

I'm through.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Me Elsewheres

Thanks to Mighty God King for hosting my longest-ever post on why I love the work of Bob Bolling.

The post quotes from a 1985 Miami Herald article on Bolling by Marianne Constantinou (actually it was less of an article and more of a short profile of a local artist); since it doesn't appear to be available elsewhere online, here's a transcript of the parts of the article that I didn't quote. The piece, while short, gave a pretty good outline of his style, personality, and interests (his stories were frequently inspired by his love of stamps, fishing, and of course, cats).

Born: June 9, in a year he won't reveal, in Brockton, Mass., 20 miles south of Boston. "As a kid, I slept in a huge Victorian bed with enormous, grotesque carvings. I used to cut out comic book covers and paste them all over my bed. It was the only way I could get to sleep."

Education: Attended Vesper George School of Art in Boston.

Home: A "crackerbox" in North Miami Beach, on a quiet street off Miami Gardens Drive. Moved to Miami 19 years ago.

Favorite possessions: His beard, his '67 Mustang fastback and a dent-riddled '71 Volkswagen Beetle.

Family: Wife, Marianne, and five Burmese cats.

Time-passers: Collecting stamps, fishing, reading anything but comics. Just waded through the three volumes of Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative. "The only pleasure I get is reading about death and destruction." Also reads books on reincarnation.

Past and future lives: In his next life, he hopes to come back as anything but a cartoonist. "I don't think I can go through all this again. . . . I don't want to know about an earlier lifetime. I still worry about stuff I did in second grade. I think it's a blessing we don't remember."

Words to live by: "It's best not to take anything too seriously or you'll be a fanatic. Fanatics have no sense of humor. They couldn't write comics."

Monday, August 17, 2009

WKRP Episode: "Tornado"

By request, here's an uncut version of a season 1 episode. The Hulu/DVD version cuts the sequence with Elvis Costello's "Goon Squad" (and by doing so, cuts one great throwaway gag: when Mr. Carlson brings the visitors into the booth, he waves his hand to clear away any smoke that might be surrounding Johnny). And all versions since the '90s have inexplicably dubbed over Les playing "The Star Spangled Banner" and replaced it with a synth version of "America the Beautiful." Since both songs are in the public domain, I assume that the recording he played of "Star Spangled Banner" was from some music library that MTM no longer had a deal with. The copy is from a CBS broadcast, so you can hear the announcer hyping up Lou Grant over the closing credits.

The key moments in the episode are well-known enough: Johnny's speech about mobile homes, René Enríquez (whom MTM would use on Hill Street Blues a few years later) looking like he's on the verge of cracking up while playing an interpreter mis-assigned to a group of Japanese executives, and Les's "godless tornadoes" speech. Mr. Carlson's phone call to the little girl is based on one of those radio urban legends that WKRP used from time to time.

Jan Smithers and Tim Reid don't appear in the episode. The original idea was that some of the characters would not appear in every episode, that they'd be recurring semi-regulars like Mr. Carlin on Bob Newhart. Eventually Hugh Wilson decided that everybody should be in every episode, so this is the last episode without Reid, and there was only one more episode ("Bad Risk") without Smithers.

Cold Open and Act 1

Act 2 and Tag

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Hit n' Run Pogo Post

Just a quick comparison of two strips that appeared in one of the few Pogo collections I own (at least until they get that Fantagraphics collection off the ground, but that just never seems to happen). One is from 1949 and the other from 1958. They both use the same gag, which isn't unusual, but it provides a chance to look at how the character designs and other aspects of the artwork evolved over the first decade of the strip. Obviously it is more the same than it is different, but the characters have all gotten a little cuter.

Oddly enough I think the most noticeable change is the lettering. Originally it was pretty simple, and over the years Kelly (or whoever was lettering for him by then) started EMPHASIZING certain WORDS in order to CATCH THE READER'S ATTENTION.

Porkypine smiles in 1949:

Porkypine smiles in 1958:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Being a Dog... That's a Paddlin'.

This is why the YouTube compilation video was invented: someone put together a collection of scenes where Foghorn Leghorn paddles the Barnyard Dawg's ass. This gag was in the first Foghorn cartoon ("Walky Talky Hawky") and became a staple of the series.

I've always found the Foghorn/Dog conflict funny because it's different from most cartoon conflicts. Usually it's predator vs. prey, or some variation on the idea. (Foghorn Leghorn, of course, was conceived as a twist on the predator/prey formula, a huge prey stalked and eventually beaten by a tiny predator, Henery Hawk.) But these guys don't want to eat each other, or even kill each other; they just want to cause each other as much humiliation as possible. That's why the paddling gag works so well: there is absolutely no point to it except for Foghorn to amuse himself by beating up the dog. It's part of what made Foghorn Leghorn a pleasingly amoral series at a time when most big cartoon series were coming down on the side of good and right (antagonist loses, protagonist wins).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I Sort of Got Semi-Linked By Roger Ebert

Not actually a direct link, but Roger Ebert in his piece on Rio Bravo links to a video compilation I created called "The Howard Hawks Woman." I wrote about that video back in 2007 when I put it together; it feels great to have it used as an illustration of Hawks's penchant for self-borrowing.

I should add that -- I believe Pauline Kael was the first to point this out -- some of the tropes we associate with the Hawks woman also come from Jules Furthman, who was writer or one of the writers on To Have and Have Not, Only Angels Have Wings, The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo. He loved tough-but-vulnerable women with a past as much as Hawks did, and he's a big part of the reason why Angels, To Have and Rio Bravo all have the same heroine under different names.

But it's still fair to say that this is primarily a Hawks character, because Furthman's versions of this character for other directors (he wrote several movies for Von Sternberg) are a little different, because Red River has that same type of character even though Furthman didn't write it, and because so much of it comes from the way Hawks directed his actresses, ordering them to look, act, gesture and cry a certain way. (Almost every Hawks heroine does what I might call the "angry cry," weeping and being angry and frustrated at the same time like Dru at the end of Red River.) Jean Arthur didn't like being molded into Hawks's ideal woman when he directed Only Angels Have Wings, which may be part of the reason why he mostly stopped working with established female stars after that (except in comedy), preferring to find young actresses with potential who would do what he told them to.

He also, of course, would lose interest in them as soon as they no longer could be counted upon to do exactly what he told them; when he cast Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo it was expected that he would make more movies with her -- as you can see from this article, where the author takes it as a given that she'll be "in any film he directs" -- but to Dickinson's disappointment, he never offered her another role. His method of working with actresses is a strange mix, then, because while he allowed actresses to bring out more of their individual personalities than they did under other directors (Dickinson, Paula Prentiss, Marianna Hill and many others get to use more distinctive body language and facial expressions than most directors allowed them to), yet he also wanted them to be just a certain way, to fit that ideal female character he kept trying to create, and would dump them if they seemed likely to rebel.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Bob Clampett In 1975: "I Don't Intend To Be Left Out of It"

Google News Archive has added a bunch of stuff, and while it's still basically impossible to find anything with it, I've occasionally come across an article I hadn't seen before. Like this article on Bob Clampett from the Dec. 20, 1975 issue of the Eugene Register-Guard.

Clampett, shown at the top of the article in his trademark glasses, Moe Howard haircut and cartoon-character patches, was promoting Bugs Bunny Superstar at the time, but what he was mostly promoting was himself and his place in cartoon history. The article is sort of a greatest-hits collection of Clampett anecdotes where he claims to have created every cartoon character you ever heard of, and was constantly called in to save the work of his inept colleagues. Here's the key passage, with that very Clampettian combination of modesty and credit-hogging:

He uses Porky Pig as an example of how popular cartoon characters came to be created.

Briefly, the cartoonists were to create a family of animals for a cartoon series based on the popular "Our Gang" movies.

Clampett's contribution was a pig and cat named Porky and Beans. Audience response to the pig turned out to be terrific, and cartoons were ordered up based just on the pig.

Bugs' creation was somewhat more complex, and stretched over a period of several years.

It began when a studio executive took up rabbit hunting, and told funny stories of rabbits outsmarting him. Clampett drew a few caricatures of the scenes and, he says, "to make them a little more derisive, I changed the word from 'rabbit' to 'wabbit.'"

Then, as they say, years passed. In 1936, Clampett and another man named Tex Avery came up with Daffy Duck which, Clampett says modestly, "made quite a hit." A couple of years later, another couple of men were doing a similar cartoon which wasn't jelling, and which was to be based on hunting sequences.

Clampett was put on it, and although it was supposed to be a duck hunt, that didn't work for him. He tried other kinds of hunts "and then I remembered the old rabbit hunt pictures I'd drawn."

He dug them out, and spent a weekend working out gags involving them. That became "Porky's Hare Hunt," released in February, 1938. It still essentially belonged to the first two men who had worked on it, though.

They also put out a second one, but Clampett says, "They really only understood Daffy Duck -- not this rabbit."

Eventually, Clampett and Avery were put back on the project, where, together, they came up with the "wabbit" voice used by Elmer Fudd, and the phrase that was to enter the language as a unit unto itself -- "What's Up, Doc?"

The result of that collaboration was the actual birth of Bugs Bunny in a 1940 film called "A Wild Hare."

What it comes down to, Clampett says, is that "I certainly can't take sole credit, but on the other hand, I don't intend to be left out of it, either."

As I've said in the past, I think Clampett's inflated claims, as well as the angry response of Chuck Jones and others, needs to be understood in the context of the time, and the context was that these men, beginning to realize that their best work was behind them, felt a need to establish and solidify their reputations. You'll notice that in the article Clampett has "little but scorn" for limited TV animation, which is a 180 from where he was at the time of the Beany and Cecil cartoon, when he was openly enthusiastic about television and talked of his WB days as more of a learning experience, a training ground. By 1975, Clampett and many other old-timers knew they weren't going to get rich in TV the way Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera had, and that their TV work didn't measure up artistically to what they had done in the old theatrical shorts. (You'll notice that in the '75 article he, or the interviewer, or both, elide the fact that Beany was a TV cartoon as well as a puppet show.)

Clampett's words are those of a man who now knows what he's going to be remembered for, if anything, and wants to make sure that he is, in his own words, not "left out of it." Just as Jones, Avery and others weren't happy at the possibility that their artistic legacies might wind up being as That Guy Who Helped the Great Bob Clampett.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


Speaking of classic songs and craftsmanship: to prepare for the transfer of the Encores! Finian's Rainbow to Broadway, the producers have posted a couple of numbers from the Encores! concert. One of them is my favorite song from the show, "Necessity." It's the least relevant to the plot, sung by a character who has nothing to do in the show except sing this song (a type of character who was common in musicals well into the '50s), and though it was recorded for the movie, it was the only song that got cut. But it's a brilliant song, and an example of the sheer craftsmanship that goes into crafting a seemingly simple song.

The thing that I've always admired about Burton Lane's music for Finian's Rainbow is the games he plays (probably with some encouragement from lyricist Yip Harburg) with structure. Lane was not Harburg's first choice for the project; they'd worked together on a few songs for movies, but he had done very little stage work -- and would do very little stage work thereafter -- and Harburg would have done the show with Harold Arlen had he been available. But while Lane's music for movie and pop songs had always been inventive and rich-sounding, his Finian songs play all kinds of structural games that go beyond even Arlen; almost none of the songs has a conventional pop-song structure, which at the time was either A-A-B-A or A-B-A-C. The most normally-structured song is "Look To the Rainbow" with its verse/chorus form, but most of the other songs keep piling on new melodies and new sections just where you would expect the opening section to come back in any other song.

So the refrain of "Necessity" essentially doesn't repeat anything except the opening phrase ("Necessity, necessity"). Otherwise it just keeps creating new melodic material, one contrasting section after another; the structure of the refrain is something like A-B-C-D-A-E-F.

And then there's the lyric, which has that special Harburg quality of concreteness, using real, tangible images wherever possible, along with the social commentary that never becomes preachy. (Harburg's attitude in his songs always alternates between arguing a point and ironically re-examining the point he's making; he's like the Shaw of Broadway lyricists.) I especially love this quatrain:

My feet want to dance in the sun,
My head wants to rest in the shade.
The Lord says "go out and have fun,"
But the landlord says "your rent ain't paid."

That's a perfect four-line comedy section, building up to a punchline; it also has specific images of specific actions, contrasting images (dancing, resting; religion, day-to-day reality) and a play on words (Lord, landlord). And it all rhymes, and all sounds like the singer is making it up off the top of her head, when the lyricist probably worked on this for days.

The video doesn't have the verse ("What is the hoax/That just provokes/The folks/They call God's children") but it does have the complete number from the first refrain onward.

The same YouTube channel has also posted the show's biggest hit, "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?" sung by Kate Baldwin (who will be repeating the role on Broadway). Again, the structure is unusual; at the point where a conventionally-structured song might wrap up quickly, it introduces a completely new section ("So I ask each weeping willow") which is almost like a new song-within-a-song.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Leo Robin's Comments On Rock/Pop

The book "They're Playing Our Song" by Max Wilk is an interesting combination of popular-music history and nostalgic bitterness. During the early '70s nostalgia craze, which began with the surprise success of a revival of No, No, Nanette and culminated in the success of the movie That's Entertainment, Wilk interviewed many songwriters from the golden age of Broadway and Hollywood songs (plus a couple of new guys like Stephen Sondheim, and chapters with veterans' observations on dead greats like Gershwin and Kern), many of whom, like Harry Warren, had rarely been interviewed anywhere. The book is extremely valuable for that.

But the perspective of the book, and the interviews, was a little bitter, because almost all the interviewees were basically out of work by then, displaced by the change in popular taste. Johnny Mercer, for example, was just at the point where movie studios didn't want him to write songs for them any more (for the first time in his entire career). And Wilk was interested in figuring out whether the new nostalgia kick meant that traditional pop music was going to make a comeback. Because of that, almost all the interviews have a certain amount of anger in them, to be expected from brilliant people whose services were no longer required.

Most of the interviewees were also contemptuous of then-current pop music, and I have to admit I share some of their concerns. For example, Yip Harburg was appalled at reading how quickly rock lyricists worked; he'd been raised in a tradition that held that every word, every sound in a lyric had to be carefully worked out. (And I have to say I still feel -- personally -- that a false rhyme or bad scansion is a sign of poor craftsmanship.)

But one of the few interviewees who had something unusual and deeper to say about the subject was the most interview-shy of the bunch (though maybe it's simply that few people tried to interview him), prolific lyricist Leo Robin ("Thanks For the Memory," "Louise," "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," many more). I've written about Robin before.

Robin's comments on the development of pop music, and his reservations about it, are insightful and basically accurate. He notes the fragmentation of popular culture, where songs are now (early '70s) written to appeal to one segment of the market rather than written to have the broadest appeal possible (which was the way pop music operated in his day). He points out that there's nothing wrong, or even new, in writing songs about drugs.

And most surprisingly, he sees the personal, idiosyncratic songwriting of the Bob Dylan generation as a welcome contrast to the generic phoniness of bad mass-market pop songs. Surprising because he's just about the only person interviewed in the book who shows any generosity toward modern pop or admits that there were legitimate reasons why the non-personal aesthetic of his time -- where every song had to sound like anyone could express its sentiments -- died out. It's one of several bits that makes his interview one of the best in the book.

Here's the excerpt:


"The language is the sort of language that only the young can understand. I don't think the kids are writing for anyone except themselves. They don't really want to reach anyone else. It's as if they're saying: 'This is a music for us. This is our music.' I don't know whether they even reason it out that way. They just -- well, these young writers express themselves and react only to what's going on.

"But listen, that is not a criticism of rock-and-roll songs. I don't want to pan these kids who are writing today. The things they're writing are at least honest expressions of how they feel, in relation to the conditions of their world, and how they react to their own lives and futures.

"I'm sure you cannot fault these kids for their attitudes. Not the way you could fault some hack Tin Pan Alley songwriter back in 1925 who was writing second-rate mechanical songs about how sweet it would be to be back in dear old Dixie with his dear old mammy or his lovely little tootsie-wootsie baby. Maybe he was doing a professional job, but he was peddling a totally false picture. Today these kids are, at the very least, honest.

"We've had songs about marijuana and dope, remember? They were Harlem songs — ' The Reefer Man,' 'Kicking the Gong Around.' These subjects aren't new. Maybe it's just that the conditions are more prevalent today.

"And the big difference in the songs, as I see it -- and I can be wrong -- is that the song of yesterday appealed to the general public. Almost everybody could identify with it. The song of today appeals mostly to just one section of the public. It's aimed at the young, it expresses feelings of the young, and the young can identify. But the over-thirty people can't. There's the big difference."