Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Irving Berlin, Genius and Mediocrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 24, 2009

WKRP Episode: "Who Is Gordon Sims?"

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

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

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

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

Act 1 and Tag

Act 2 and Tag

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Meat On the Table!

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

RIP, Phyllis Isley Walker Selznick, aka Jennifer Jones

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Charlie Dog Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

When National Lampoon Was Funny

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Io Non Lo So Se Ci Ritorno Su Ork

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

Friday, December 04, 2009

A "I Got Nothin' To Post" Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Out Come Pagliacci, Also Liberace

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

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