Wednesday, October 28, 2009

WKRP Episode: "Bailey's Show"

The musical portions of this episode suffered pretty heavily on DVD/Hulu (though "Boogie Oogie Oogie" is one of only three or four real recordings that weren't eliminated in those versions), so here is the original.

This was the sixth episode of WKRP in Cincinnati in production and airing order. The writers, Joyce Armor and Judie Neer, were writers' assistants at MTM who sold their first script to The Tony Randall Show (produced by Hugh Wilson) and became staff writers that season on a short-lived CBS show called "Flying High."

The episode was the first and only episode in the first season to focus on Bailey. It picks up some themes that were set up in this character's scenes in the pilot: that she was supposed to be a bright but very shy person, without the confidence to assert herself with the "suits" (Mr. Carlson, who doesn't know who she is, and Herb and Les, who resent her getting any more duties). Hugh Wilson was said to have based the character of Bailey partly on his wife, and he saw Bailey as standing for women in the workplace who have the talent and intelligence, but don't have the extreme aggressiveness of the stereotypical working woman, and can't always stand up for themselves with the people who are trying to keep them down.

Those themes are all there in this episode, and they're interestingly dealt with, but the reason why Bailey had almost nothing to do in the rest of the season becomes pretty clear: the episode seems to be more than Jan Smithers -- who had never acted in front of a live audience before she got this role, and was really more of a model-turned-actor anyway -- can fully handle. She got better by the second season. Still, because she seems so obviously nervous and struggling with a difficult job, it sort of parallels the plot of the episode, which may explain why the audience (at home and in the studio) is so clearly on her side.

The comedy strength of the episode comes mostly from guest stars: Kathryn Ish as the crazy woman in act 1, and Woodrow Parfrey as Dr. Hyman ("Hi, Hy!") in act 2.

Act 1

Act 2

Monday, October 26, 2009

It's Only a Model!

Some good comments in my previous post, both in terms of correcting me (it was wrong to talk as if Hitchcock was more leery of location shooting than most directors) and in terms of raising an important issue: should an obviously fake special effect or process shot in an old movie always be considered a flaw?

One commenter pointed me to this article by Chris Fujiwara, where he criticizes Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the whole culture of mocking old movies for "flaws" like lack of realism or naturalism. I'm not an MST3K fan so I'm sympathetic to most of his argument, though I will point out that he kind of misses the point by dismissing the "plot" of the show: fans of MST3K will tell you that they watched to get involved with the characters, and the fun was not just hearing the snarky comments but watching three familiar characters interact. (I personally don't find that aspect of the show interesting enough to make up for all the cheap shots, but I'm not arguing with those who do.)

But his point is a good one: there's a tendency to think that a movie is "bad" if it doesn't conform to a very narrow, fake-realistic definition of good acting, good effects, or good set design. And the problem has gotten worse in the years since he wrote the article. An easy way to get noticed on the internet is to point out some logic hole or minor continuity error in a movie, and I see more and more people not just pointing these out (which is fine) but discussing them as if they actually matter. An example would be Back to the Future writer-producer Bob Gale's list of "plot holes" in No Country For Old Men. Most of these "holes" sound like notes that no sensible director should take, yet it's clear that movies today do in fact spend way too much time finding answers to stupid questions or finding "logical" reasons for plot-fueling coincidences. Why do you think most movies today are too long? Because they waste inordinate time on answering questions that won't even be brought up by anyone who actually enjoys the movie.

And so it goes with special effects: just because a model shot or a piece of rear-projection does not look realistic does not make it bad, and we shouldn't fall into the trap of making fun of an effect the way some viewers now make fun of a stylized bit of acting.

That said, there's a danger of going the other way and assuming that there is no such thing as a bad special effect in a good movie, that it's all part of the plan. (We all have a tendency to assume that everything went right in a good movie and everything went wrong in a bad one; critics will sometimes find a jusification for the worst bit of John Ford comedy relief if it happens to occur in one of his great films.) But while the terrible special effect at the beginning of The Seventh Seal doesn't hurt the movie, and may help us understand what kind of a movie it's going to be, that doesn't mean it's a good effect. And it certainly doesn't mean it's what Bergman would have had in the movie if he'd had more money to work with.

And by not criticizing bad special effects in old movies, we lose the ability to praise good ones. There are some outstanding special effects in '30s and '40s movies, as shown in Bringing Up Baby and Citizen Kane and The Devil and Daniel Webster and other movies where the effects are so good that I haven't even noticed them (and therefore can't praise them). A tendency, weirdly shared by an equal number of classic movie fans and classic movie haters, is to assume that no special effects in old movies were of a high technical standard. That's not true at all.

Finally, I think it's important to distinguish between special effects that are bad and those that are recognizably fake. Sometimes an effect may be obviously artificial, and yet it clearly works because the whole movie is going for an artificial look, and a realistic, un-noticeable effect would be wrong. A lot of the effects in, say, Powell and Pressburger movies are like that. I don't think the model village in Lady Vanishes fits into this category because the movie is otherwise trying to be fairly naturalistic in its setting (it's set in a world of very recognizable 1938 English types in an ordinary setting). A lot of the bad effects in Hitchcock movies stick out precisely because he's trying to create suspense by putting fantastic/horrifying things into realistic settings -- and sometimes real locations -- and so the moments of obvious fakery just seem like they break the mood he's trying to create.

But I appreciate that if you see the movie a different way, it might look different; if you see The Lady Vanishes as moving from an indeterminate, fantasy village to a semi-realistic train setting (or to put it another way, from Ruritanian fantasy to the reality of a Europe on the verge of war), then the opening shot would work. I don't see the film that way, so it doesn't work for me. But it all comes back to the point that whether an effect "works" or not depends on its place in the film as a whole.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Worst SFX Shot In a Hitchcock Movie?

Comments on a previous post bring up a good point about special effects: it seems like every Hitchcock movie has a special effect or process shot that's just plain terrible. It often involves rear projection, which Hitchcock embraced enthusiastically but never used convncingly; Notorious, where rear-projection shots were used for every outdoor scene in Brazil, makes the characters look like they're standing in front of those flimsy stage backdrops from A Night At The Opera. I don't know, though, if I can think of a rear-projection shot in a Hitchcock film that's particularly bad; it's just that he did so many of them. Same with the use of studio sets in the middle of scenes otherwise shot on location: everybody did that (every John Ford movie has some studio bits picked up after the crew got back from Monument Valley), but Hitchcock did it so often and so unconvincingly that it's sort of become associated with him.

It's not like Hitchcock movies never had decent special effects. The Birds has its share of effects that don't come off, but it has plenty of effects that work (if it didn't, it wouldn't be watchable). But Hitchcock's preference for control, which meant staying in the studio as much as possible, and not turning too much of the movie over to editors and effects departments, meant that there were always going to be some bits that looked very studio-bound. Ernst Lubitsch was another control-freak director whose movies often had poor special effects. You'd think that the more controlling a director is, the more care he would take over the effects, and that's sometimes true, especially if he helps make the effects (Kubrick on 2001). Otherwise, it seems that a SFX shot almost requires the director to sit back and let someone else help direct it. Hitchcock wasn't the kind to do that.

But for me, as I said earlier, the model village at the beginning of The Lady Vanishes has always been the standout when it comes to unconvincing effects. It's so fake-looking that when the little toy car goes by -- the only sign of life in the whole village -- you wonder why they even bothered.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

For Those Who Thought "One Froggy Evening" Was Too Upbeat

Among the late '50s Famous cartoons written by Irv Spector, "Finnegan's Flea" isn't the most disturbing -- not while "Chew Chew Baby" exists. But it's still very disturbing, like "One Froggy Evening" except with Paramount-owned songs, a protagonist whose life is shattered through no fault of his own, and a truly unpleasant image to start and end the film. See also Rachel Newstead's long analysis of this cartoon, from 2007.

The thing is, though, that the big twist in this cartoon is an old one. I'm pretty sure I saw it in sketches/stories that pre-date this one, though usually it was the talent agent or producer who did the deed. ("Ugh! A bug!" WHAM! "Now, what was this great new act you were going to tell me about?") Leave it to the Famous people to take an old joke and play it for tragedy and living death.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Underrated Peanuts Specials

Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown is not in the Peanuts '70s collection being released tomorrow (though it will be in a volume 2 if they release one, which is why I haven't bought the stand-alone DVD of it). But since I'm usually not that enthusiastic about the post-Peter Robbins Peanuts specials, I wanted to put in a word for this one as my favorite of the post-'60s specials. This is because it always seemed like the hardest-edged, "purest" of all the Peanuts cartoons.

Because it's associated with a holiday that really has no redeeming aspects in the Schulz universe -- it's portrayed purely as a way of humiliating Charlie Brown and turning love into a commodity -- and because love is never requited in the Peanuts world, this is a special that has no real uplift to it, except Charlie Brown's moment of self-delusion at the end. Most of the key moments are moments of pain, like Linus throwing away the chocolates he had intended to give Miss Othmar, full of hatred for every commercial or pop-cultural symbol of love. The climax is based on a 1963 strip where Charlie Brown accepts a Valentine given to him out of pity and guilt feelings, happily debasing himself for the sake of a stupid card. And that's the "happy" bit. Even the Guaraldi score is kind of abrasive.

The only adaptation that is quite this dark is A Boy Named Charlie Brown, but the misery in that one is so concentrated that even hard-core Schulzians can find it hard to take. This one is more in line with the strip. It's dark, but not depressing, because the underlying message is that Charlie Brown's problems are within his own power to fix: if he stopped caring so much about pointless symbols, he might be happier, but he doesn't want to stop caring about them.

Also, this scene, which is taken word for word and action for action from a Sunday strip that ran just a year or so before the special was done, is one of my favorite adaptations of a Peanuts strip into animation. It seems like the animators, and the voice actress (Melanie Kohn) perfectly captured the destructive insanity of Lucy. And while Phil Roman's "let's do everything in front of a blank background that changes color" thing eventually got out of hand, it works here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Special Effects That Hold Up and Those That Don't

The great video on the special effects of Bringing Up Baby was deleted along with the user's account, but fortunately he uploaded it again at a different account. Which is an excuse for me to bring up a question I've been wanting to pose for a while: what are some types of special effects that tend to hold up well over time, and others that don't?

The essence of a good special effect is that it's not recognizable as a special effect. Some effects are always going to be noticed because they portray things that can't happen in real life, like teleporting or boat travel. But most special effects are used to fake stuff that, theoretically, could be done for real. Like in Bringing Up Baby: it would be possible for people to be in the same shot as a leopard, and in fact Hawks originally intended to do a lot more shots that way, but in the end, special effects were used to make it look like Cary Grant was standing next to a leopard. And in Citizen Kane, special effects are used in virtually every scene to fake sets that Welles didn't have the money to build, or crowds of extras that Welles didn't have the money to pay.

It's fun to have these things pointed out to us after the fact, but these effects are successful because most people aren't aware of them. When I saw Bringing Up Baby for the first time, I knew Grant and Hepburn were in front of a rear-projection screen in the car, but I didn't realize that Baby was part of the screen rather than the car. (Presumably because Baby was filmed in the car, in front of the rear-projection screen, and then combined into one plate; I'm assuming they didn't actually take him into a car and do the road filming with him in the car.) I didn't notice that Kane was making his big political speech in front of a fake crowd. And so on. Most of these effects hold up over time; audiences don't watch the movies and point out how fake the effects look. At least not when they watch the movies for the first time.

But do some special effects have a special ability to hold up over time? Probably not, at least not exactly; it depends on how they're used and what they're used for. Rear projection can be fairly convincing for some things, though it's almost always totally unconvincing when it's used to make it look like the characters are somewhere other than in the studio (a car, a park -- though it works fairly well for trains). I think that CGI has a way of dating really fast, to the point that characters look like horribly fake cartoons almost as soon as the movie comes out, but of course there are plenty of uses of CGI that are more convincing than that damn CGI rodent at the beginning of Indiana Jones IV.

I do have a feeling, and it's only a feeling, that models often date very badly. There are good model shots, obviously, but a lot of the special effects that date the worst are models, like the awful model village at the beginning of The Lady Vanishes or the model train in The Smiling Lieutenant, which got the only unintentional laugh in the screenings I've seen over the years. Models are kind of like CGI (they're both three-dimensional constructions, after all); if they're not perfectly executed, they look like silly toys.

On the other hand, I think matte paintings have a habit of holding up well. Again, there are lots of bad matte shots, but when I'm surprised to find out that a shot in an old movie was faked, it's usually done with a matte. There's something about the way mattes blend in with their 2-D filmed surroundings, or maybe it's just that the painter has more of a chance to match his work to the style/look of the film than the model designer does. Whatever the cause, I (as a young viewer) was more easily fooled by the likes of Peter Ellenshaw than I was by almost anyone else.

Finally, I think the worst special effects shot in a great movie may be that stupid fake bird at the beginning of The Seventh Seal. It doesn't hurt the movie, though. If anything it helps by announcing that this is not a big lavish historical epic, but a low-budget, small-scale movie that happens to have a historical setting.

Which leads me to the final point: of course, the key to making any special effect work is for the movie to be good to begin with. We're much more likely to notice fakery when we're not caught up in the story.

The Elusive Period (Punctuation-Wise)

This is sort of a combination of a "request" post and a "my random thoughts" post. First, the random thought: ever since I was a kid, I've wondered what made some cartoon letterers unwilling to end a sentence with a period.

I know why the "all exclamation points, all the time" rule got started. When cartoons were reproduced in newspapers or comic books, periods would sometimes disappear due to the limitations of reproduction technology. So it was better to use either exclamation points (which had a better chance of being reproduced clearly) or dashes, or no punctuation at all. But years after these limitations had been more or less corrected, and when many letterers were able to use periods all the time without any problem, some people just refused to write "." unless they absolutely couldn't avoid it.

Charles Schulz is the ultimate example. Punctuation in Peanuts consists of the following:

- Exclamation points (for emphatic statements)
- Two or three dots, .. or ... (for statements that continue into the next panel)
- No punctuation (for statements that are complete but not particularly emphatic)

It seems like he'd eliminate punctuation where another cartoonist -- Walt Kelly, say -- would have used a period. (Some of Kelly's early stuff uses the no-punctuation device, like an early strip where Pogo says "It hard to figure out the angles on a worm tad" - no period, no exclamation, no nothing. But he very soon started using periods, and when he turned over the lettering to others, they continued to use periods.)

But to the end of his life, Schulz would use periods in Charlie Brown's letters or Snoopy's novels, but never in the dialogue balloons. Maybe it worked for him, or maybe he'd just been trained not to use periods and never got out of that habit.

Many letterers proved that periods could work beautifully, even in comedy cartoon balloons; Al Wiseman's outstanding lettering for the great Dennis the Menace comic books abounded in periods, and it made the dialogue feel more subtle than if they seemed to be SHOUTING! EVERY! STATEMENT!

And at the same time it was more satisfying than if the sentences just trailed off with no clear ending. Punctuation can have a surprising amount of psychological impact in a cartoon, and a willingness to use a period once in a while can make the characters seem more like they're holding real conversations.

Next, the request, which is connected to the random thought. In comments on a previous post, a commenter asked for an example of Bob Bolling's drawing of the regular versions of the Archie characters. One of the earliest examples is a story from 1963 where the teenage characters flash back to themselves as children. (Both Bolling and Dexter Taylor did "combination" stories like this around this time.) The most striking thing about the story is how much more comfortable Bolling was with writing for these characters as children (as teenagers, they have no clear personalities; as soon as they become little kids, he's on his home turf). But it also serves as a reminder that you could always tell when Bolling did his own lettering on a story: he was literally the only non-superhero person at the whole company who would end a sentence with a period. And the use of periods is one of the many things that gives many of his stories a "softer," sweeter feel than the rest of the company's output.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Depressing Comedy of the '50s

I didn't mean to do another post in my unofficial "the obscure live-action films of Frank Tashlin" series so soon, but I finally managed to get a letterboxed copy of The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, Tashlin's first film for Fox and (therefore) his first in CinemaScope. Watching the movie, instead of half of it -- this is early 'Scope, so it's almost literally cut in half in the pan-n-scan version -- I like it better than I used to, although it's still not nearly as good as The Girl Can't Help It or Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and though it's from his '50s prime, you can see the elements that would become out of control in his work, leading to his '60s artistic burnout.

I've posted the Rita Moreno scene before, with Moreno parodying Marilyn Monroe from Seven Year Itch (the fact that she's the wrong physical type probably makes her impression funnier: it's a parody of the fact that in the '50s, everyone is under pressure to act like Monroe). It's obviously much more effective in 'Scope:

A lot of '50s comedy movies have a cruel, even depressing edge to them, as if the slower pacing of the era (and 'Scope had a very bad effect on comedy pacing, creating a whole generation of clunky, lumbering comedies) revealed all the nastiness that was hidden by the speed and style of '40s comedies. Skirts is a direct response to, and in some scenes a parody of, The Seven Year Itch, one of the most depressing light comedies ever made. And it's not so much a movie as a series of escalatingly cruel moments, culminating in a sequence where Tom Ewell tries to Gaslight his wife into thinking she's insane, so that she'll be kicked out of the Air Force on a Section 8.

What makes it a better movie than Seven Year Itch, and certainly a more interesting movie, is first of all that it sometimes acknowledges its own cruelty and is willing to make us feel really uncomfortable; there are moments that are intentionally not a lot of fun to sit through, where we feel how painful it would be to go through these situations in real life. There's a surprising amount of real pain in this goofy comedy.

The best moment in the movie, though it's not at all funny, comes early in the film when Ewell is telling his stories of World War II heroism. He's interrupted by a young flier who recently became a hero and is about to have a book written about his exploits: the young man treats Ewell, and by extension all WWII veterans, with complete contempt, as a relic of an old war and old fighting techniques. The scene takes the big joke of this movie and Seven Year Itch -- a middle-aged man like Ewell as a leading man -- and actually makes us feel rotten for him when someone calls attention to his age.

The scene is also a commentary on the U.S.'s attitude to war in the '50s, the treatment of it as just another celebrity industry: people flock to the newest star with the newest killing technology, and WWII vets like Ewell's character are treated as washed-up celebrities.

The whole movie is most interesting for the points it makes about the place of the military in peacetime: both lead characters see their military service as the most fulfiling moments in their lives, and see the peacetime military as a sort of easy way to recapture the sense of being needed. And of course it has plenty of jokes about postwar male anxiety, with Ewell spending most of the movie desperately trying to force his wife back into a role he's comfortable with. This being a comedy, the characters get the fulfilment they're looking for and re-enforce the traditional gender roles in the traditional way: with a baby. But it's pretty mean and nasty about these issues in the course of the movie, and unlike most '50s and '60s comedies, it doesn't try very hard to disguise the nastiness.

That's why it's hard not to be a Tashlin buff if you're at all interested in the issues that people were preoccupied with in the '50s: in most '50s comedies, these issues are just encoded, presented almost unconsciously. Tashlin is always aware of them and insists we be aware of them, even at the expense of some laughs. Again, it's no wonder he was such a big influence on Godard, another filmmaker who is always trying to make us look at things from the outside instead of just letting us sit back and get involved in the story.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A Great Director For One Thing Only

I was talking to someone about a subject I've brought up earlier, how unfortunate it is that Richard Lester is now widely considered a hack solely on the basis of the Superman movies. (Though it may not matter much: anyone who would consider Lester a hack must be someone who knows him only from Superman, and the opinion of someone who hasn't seen anything except the Superman movies isn't hugely valuable.) The thing is, though, that while it's absurd to talk as if Richard Donner is a better director than Richard Lester, Donner was a better director for this particular franchise.

Donner is not a great director, and from the '90s on he wasn't even an effective one, but with Superman and his sections of Superman II, he figured out a style and approach that would make this character work on the big screen. No one else who made a Superman movie seems to have been able to do that as well, including people like Lester who are usually better directors than Richard Donner.

I think it sometimes happens that a director who isn't usually all that interesting will just prove to have the right touch when it comes to one particular franchise. The James Bond franchise provides two memorable examples. Terence Young directed three of the first four Bond films, taught Sean Connery how to be James Bond, and created the movies' combination of brutality and comedy. He was the greatest James Bond director. But outside of that franchise, he wasn't even a very good director, He made a couple of other hit films, but he was a hack, and not even a particularly successful hack.

Martin Campbell has a better non-Bond track record, but still, from his other films, you'd hardly guess that this is the guy who seems to have a special talent for Bond movies: he's re-booted the series with new Bonds not once but twice, and both times, the directors who followed him weren't able to do as well with the templates he helped create.

As movies become more and more franchise-dependent, I think we may see (or maybe we're already seeing) still more examples of this: directors who do extremely good jobs launching a franchise, and then prove to be uninteresting directors in their non-franchise work. And that's because adapting a franchise character to the screen takes a somewhat different set of skills than making a completely self-contained movie. Dick Lester had the skill to make a good self-contained movie (even The Three Musketeers, which the Salkinds probably thought might be a franchise, was really just one interesting movie split into two). But the very things that made him good at bringing a personal touch to movies made him less than good at working on the Superman franchise. Franchise moviemaking is a strange thing; there's some artistry involved -- because obviously good franchise movies are better artistically than bad ones -- but a lot of it is different from what we normally think of as art. Maybe "art" is even the wrong word for it.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Stereo Separation Addendum

One thing I wanted to add to my post on the different attitudes to stereo mixing in different types of music in the '60s: one thing that's interesting is that the more power producers had to actually make the music, the less interested they seemed to be in stereo.

That's a big generalization, of course, but the biggest advances in stereo, and the most wholehearted embrace of stereo by producers, were in classical, where the producer cannot change the music at all. He can influence the interpretation of the music, and the way the music is recorded, but all the notes are written out already. So one of the ways for a classical producer to put his own stamp on the sound of the record was to exploit the possibilities of stereo and try and create the illusion of width and depth on the recording. (In a recording-session conversation with Benjamin Britten, his producer, John Culshaw, can be heard asking him to arrange the instruments for a good stereo layout; Britten doesn't accept that particular suggestion, but it was something that was on both of their minds.) And in an opera, the producer could literally "produce" the recording by having the voices move across the stereo stage.

In pop, and especially the album-centric pop music that developed in the '60s, the producer can and often does have a big influence not just on how the music sounds, but what the music is. A lot of, say, George Martin's job was composing or arranging, not just "producing." And as producers make music, layer in new sounds and instruments, and try to literally create a new composition in the studio, stereo could be seen as a nuisance, or at least a secondary thing. (The most famous example of a pop producer who didn't like stereo was, of course, Phil Spector, who felt that stereo separation ruined the multi-layered effects he was trying to create.)

The documentary The Golden Ring, about the recording of Wagner's Ring cycle, gives a fairly good illustration of what a classical producer (Culshaw) does. When the Funeral March has been recorded, at the end of this clip, the producer sits down with the conductor to look at the score, discuss tempo/balance, and figure out how the music will work best on the record. The documentary caused a minor scandal in the classical music world by showing that the conductor, Georg Solti, actually took advice from his producer on what tempo to use. As the documentary explains, Solti wants to take it slower; Culshaw wants it faster, and it's the fast version that goes on the record.

In fact, most studio classical recordings appear to be like that in some ways -- because the artist doesn't necessarily know how a sound that works in the concert hall will translate on a record, they often do take the producer's advice about which version will work the best. But still, the producer is only influencing the way the music sounds; he's not actually creating the music the way pop producers were doing at this time (1964). That's even more the case now that most classical recordings are made using live concerts for some of the takes (because it's too expensive to take a whole recording into the studio, and recording techniques have developed enough that engineers can make live recordings that don't sound too distant). The producer can record the concerts and rehearsals, and call a special session to fix things that went wrong during the concert, but he has fewer opportunities to influence the performance; he's basically there to record a bunch of takes and then figure out how to make a coherent recording out of them.

The documentary is in mono, which makes it inappropriate for a post about stereo recording, but I'll post a clip from it anyway, as the most famous example of a classical producer in action.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Okay, Anita, Take Five

I could get a better-quality version of this picture if I bought it off Ebay, but I'm not a very good memorabilia-buyer. Still, this promotional still from Artists and Models appears to be the only one from the film that features the director, Frank Tashlin. He's talking to Anita Ekberg, in one of only three scenes she has in the movie. And the other two times she appears, I originally wasn't aware it was her. But there's no mistaking her in this scene.

Ekberg was apparently thrown into the movie at the last minute when Hal Wallis, feeling that she was going to be the next big sex symbol, decided he wanted her in the film even though there wasn't really a role for her. Luckily, Artists and Models is a movie that doesn't really have to make sense (as I've said before, it starts out semi-normal and gets more surreal as it goes on, and that progression was a big influence on the French directors who loved it, like Rivette and Godard). So the fact that Ekberg is billed fairly prominently, but doesn't actually have a character to play (she literally plays "Anita"), is not a problem.

It becomes a bit more of a problem for me in Hollywood Or Bust the year after, where the whole plot is built around Ekberg (though she still doesn't have much screen time). Unlike Jayne Mansfield, she didn't really lend herself to Tashlin's mockery -- he didn't seem to find the foreign-goddess stereotype as funny as the Marilyn Monroe stereotype -- and despite the constant promotion, she was not a truly major cinema sex symbol, not by Monroe/Loren standards. (She achieved international sex-symbol status for about a year, thanks to Fellini. But as I've said before, most of her film career consists of being somehow less sexy than some other woman in the picture.) Which is one of the reasons I prefer Artists and Models to Hollywood Or Bust; because of the subject matter and the slowly-increasing surrealism, it takes all the things that sometimes drag down Hal Wallis's Paramount movies -- in this case, Wallis's tendency to try and find a part for any starlet who caught his eye -- and turns them into advantages.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Chuck, The Duck, and Luck

I've become really interested in the ongoing series of Chuck Jones' letters to his daughter Linda, being posted one at a time at his official site. As I said earlier, it's a chance to see that Jones in private was pretty much the same as his public persona, but less reserved, and with a better sense of his opinions and feelings on other things besides animation.

The last two letters, from January 28, 1953 and from February 16 of the same year, also give us a look at his satisfaction and disappointment over "Duck Amuck." On January 28, he writes proudly that the film is "still wowing them with Hans Christian Andersen" (so WB cartoons were shown with non-WB pictures) and that he's "had more comments on this cartoon than any since “For Scent-imental Reasons” and maybe more than even that." But then he writes about the cartoon's chances of getting an Academy Award ("hell, I can't believe that it will go any place"), and in the next letter, he's gotten his answer:

We didn’t get into the finals for the Academy. Very, very disappointing. I had high hopes for that picture. Like Stevenson, I can only say that I’m too old to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh. I know it is a fine audience picture; perhaps it just isn’t as unusual as I thought it was. Two UPAs and two MGMs and, of all things, a Canadian cartoon got in the finals. The Canadian picture is a beautiful job and should win. It’s called The Romance of Transportation in Canada and is a lively and beautifully designed parody on the documentary short subject. It is very funny, too. It should win and I hope it does. If I sound disgruntled it is only because I am. I did love Duck Amuck and I think you will, too. Oh, well, better luck, or better picture, next time.

"Duck Amuck" was submitted for the 1952 Oscars, though it is listed as having been released in 1953; since Jones says it played with "Hans Christian Andersen" (a 1952 release) it must have been eligible. The nominees for that award were:

Johann Mouse (MGM, Tom and Jerry, winner)
Little Johnny Jet (MGM, Avery)
Madeline (UPA)
Pink and Blue Blues (UPA)
The Romance of Transportation in Canada (National Film Board of Canada)

Not a great batch of nominees, and one of the weaker T&J winners (and it's still puzzling that no Avery cartoon had been nominated in years, yet the good-but-not-great "Little Johnny Jet" somehow made it into the finals). Jones hopefully came to realize that he was right and that the Academy was wrong. Meanwhile, here's the NFB film he felt should have won -- but didn't -- "The Romance of Transportation."

Back to Jones' letters, the Feb. 16 letter also has some tidbits on the development of the Pepe Le Pew cartoon that would eventually be released as "Past Perfumance." And Jones brings up something that I think is hard to argue with: the best parts of most Pepe Le Pew cartoons after "For Scent-imental Reasons" are the parts that focus on the fractured French and the local color, not the Pepe formula itself.

I sometimes feel that I could make an excellent Pepé picture if I didn’t have to have Pepé in it, just the French customs, language and literature. I may do it sometime.

The closest the series ever came to that was Mike Maltese's formula-breaking script for "Really Scent," which Jones did not direct (Abe Levitow did it while Jones was away). But even that is primarily a Pepe story.

"Past Perfumance" is an interesting case because it takes so long for Pepe to arrive, and so much of it is devoted to gags involving the French movie studio, that, yes, I kind of do feel like it might have been better if they had just cut Pepe and done a cartoon about a French movie studio. Though I don't actually know how they could have sustained that for six minutes.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The '20s in the '50s

File this in the "Posts about a not-so-great movie from a not-so-great era" category: I've written before about Sheree North, who in some ways was the most interesting of the Marilyn Monroe substitutes developed (no pun intended) by Fox and other studios in the '50s. Not only because she wound up as an excellent, respected character actress, but because she was primarily a dancer, something that isn't normally associated with Monroe types. (In many ways she was more of a logical successor to Betty Grable than to Monroe -- she co-starred with Grable in How To Be Very, Very Popular after Monroe pulled out of the film.) But the market for musicals collapsed at almost the precise moment of her arrival at Fox, so she was out of luck. Her singing was dubbed -- even though she could sing a little bit, and did on stage -- but she certainly was good at dancing energetically.

I bring this up because I found a clip of one of the few musicals North made at Fox in her brief Monroe-substitute period; this was The Best Things In Life Are Free, a biopic of the songwriting team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson. (I'd say that studios were running out of composers to make movies about, except that this team wrote some of the biggest hits of the '20s, and were a more plausible choice for a movie than many of the songwriters who had already gotten the biopic treatment.) This isn't the best number from the film -- that would be "Birth of the Blues" with North and Jacques D'Amboise -- but it gives North a chance to do the kind of wild limbs-flailing dance that brought her to Fox's attention in the first place (her jitterbug in Hazel Flagg, which she repeated on the screen with Jerry Lewis in Living It Up). Pan and scan, unfortunately.

While the movie is pleasant enough, it's probably more interesting to speculate on why it was made, since Fox was doing almost no musicals at the time except big-budget Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptations. (The producer of the movie was Henry Ephron, who had just produced and written -- with his partner and wife, Phoebe Ephron -- Carousel. The director was Michael Curtiz, already incurably bland only a few years after leaving Warners.) It looks like a "contract burn-off" picture of the type that MGM was making in droves at the same time: Dan Dailey was probably owed another film on his contract, and Gordon MacRae might have been owed another film after stepping in to replace Frank Sinatra in Carousel. So the cast basically consists of three musical performers with almost no musicals to star in -- Dailey, North and MacRae -- plus Ernest Borgnine. A strange lineup, but fun as long as you don't expect a great movie. In a way it's like a big clunky mid-'50s version of the little period-piece musicals that Fox used to crank out in the '40s almost without a second thought.