Sunday, December 26, 2010

Department of Things I Should Remember But Don't

Does anybody recall which Warner Brothers cartoons used the song "A Gal in Calico" on the soundtrack? I know at least one of them did -- I even remember the arrangement -- but the name of the cartoon I heard it in escapes me for the moment.

The song, by Arthur Schwartz (music) and Leo Robin (lyrics) was the biggest hit from Warners' 1946 musical The Time, the Place and the Girl (another successful song, "A Rainy Night In Rio," was famously sung by Bugs Bunny in "Long-Haired Hare"). Warner Brothers tended to have rather good original songs in its musicals -- think of Schwartz and Frank Loesser's terrific score for Thank Your Lucky Stars, or the batch of fine Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn songs in Doris Day's star-making Romance on the High Seas -- though they were weaker than most of the other studios when it came to staging musical numbers; after Busby Berkeley left, they rarely had directors and choreographers who could do more than just make the number look like a replica of a middling stage play that never existed.

The movie is also a reminder that Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan were the studio's big musical stars until Day came along. Which is another sign of a studio that doesn't quite have the roster it needs to put together top-flight musicals: Morgan and Carson were pleasant personalities, but not really above-the-title stars on the level of the people the other studios could offer. It seems that until they started investing heavily in stage musical adaptations (see below) Warners didn't really put a high premium on the production of musicals after Berkeley left (and with occasional exceptions like Yankee Doodle Dandy and the Gershwin and Porter biopics); stars who were good musical performers, like Ann Sheridan, Jane Wyman and James Cagney, were (mostly) kept away from musicals. (Carson and Morgan were in non-musicals too, but in non-musicals it was made clear that they were not major stars.) Things were different at Fox, which would star an actor in both musicals and non-musicals if he could sing (Don Ameche) and even if he couldn't (Tyrone Power).

Update: I guess posting this was what I needed to jog my memory, because now I remember the cartoon that used this song: "Slick Hare," which came out less than a year after the movie did. It might have been one of those cases where Stalling was tipped off about a potential hit song from a movie that hadn't actually been released (or maybe even finished) yet.

I'm sorry about the idiotic captions the uploader has inserted into the cartoon (just as "A Gal In Calico" starts to play, yet) but it was the only upload I could find on YouTube.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Jack Warner and Stage Adaptations

The Man Who Came to Dinner is on as I write, an adaptation of a stage play that sticks as close to the original as a movie can get away with: though it "opens up" the play by adding some outdoor scenes or moving some scenes to different rooms in the house, it carries over large chunks of the play unchanged, and doesn't try that hard to disguise the fact that the whole play (like most stage comedies of the era) took place on a single set.

I'm not saying this to criticize the movie, just to make an observation about stage adaptations from this studio, Warner Brothers: it seems to me like when Jack Warner bought a play, he preferred to adapt it for the screen with as few changes as possible. At WB in the '40s, '50s and '60s, Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptations often included a relative minimum of changes to the structure or story of the original play, and frequently used people from the original production.

The same year as Dinner, WB also adapted James Thurber and Elliott Nugent's play The Male Animal. While this adaptation was tinkered with more than most (the ending was changed to something more upbeat), a lot of it is very faithful, and Warner hired the play's original writer and star, Elliott Nugent, to direct the film. The Voice of the Turtle, also based on a play that starred Nugent, has to do some rewrites because of censorship, but is still pretty recognizably a filmed play.

Then you have the '50s Warner productions that are almost like co-productions with the original Broadway production. It started with A Streetcar Named Desire: same director as the original, much of the same cast, with one principal role (Blanche) re-cast with a movie star. This pattern was used in the two George Abbott adaptations, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees: everybody from the Broadway show except one star. (I hate to say it, but Pajama Game might be better off if more of the Broadway cast had been replaced. John Raitt and Carol Haney don't come off well on the screen.) When director Mervyn LeRoy came back to Warner Brothers, most of his work was on extremely stagey stage adaptations like Gypsy and Mary, Mary.

There are some WB stage adaptations that take bigger liberties. Arsenic and Old Lace makes some real changes to the play, probably because the director, Frank Capra, had more say over the script. But on the other hand, when Alfred Hitchcock made Rope and Dial M For Murder for Warners he didn't even bother including the obligatory outdoor scenes.

Other studios had a range of attitudes about how to adapt a play. MGM tended to be pretty faithful to stage plays (especially if George Cukor was directing) and less faithful to musicals. While over at Fox, wholesale rewriting was often the rule -- look at Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which has almost nothing to do with the play. Compare Warner's My Fair Lady to Fox's The Sound of Music the following year. The former uses almost the same exact script as the original play, all of the same songs, and even similar sets and costumes. The Sound of Music, even before the director came onto the project, had been rewritten and re-shaped quite a bit.

That this was a Warner preference seems to be confirmed by his biggest project after he left his studio: He may have decided to re-cut 1776, but it was also his decision to do most of it on one set with most of the original Broadway cast.

I don't know if this preference for more-or-less faithful adaptations is addressed in any Warner biographies. It might just be part of his economy-mindedness: don't waste time adding things to a script that's already been successful, and don't build a lot of new sets or go outdoors more than necessary. When his lieutenant Hal Wallis went out on his own, he had an approach to stage adaptations that was a lot like Warner's (in Boeing Boeing and other such claustrophobic films based on successful plays), so it might be part of the whole studio's aesthetic.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Jon D'Agostino

As the local Archie buff I should say something about the death of artist, inker and letterer Jon D'Agostino. His best-known credit is probably lettering the first Spider-Man story. He also did a lot of work as a penciller, including Charlton's Archie rip-off "Freddy." But his most distinctive and interesting work came after he joined the exodus to Archie -- following Dan DeCarlo but preceding his Marvel trainee Stan Goldberg -- where he mostly worked as an inker.

D'Agostino's inking style is similar to, though just distinguishable from, that of his friend Joe Sinnott; in fact, Sinnott spent several years moonlighting at Archie, picking up some of D'Agostino's workload and inking some of D'Agostino's own pencils. I have trouble describing it technically, but it's distinguished by a very solid and slick look, a less cartoony approach than most humor-comics inkers took.

The artist D'Agostino inked most frequently was Goldberg, whose pencils can sometimes be unsteady or "swimmy" because he works so fast. (Al Hartley was the same way. Dan DeCarlo was the only one of the ex-Marvel guys who could produce consistently good-looking work while turning out that much material, and he's the only one of them whose work looked more or less the same no matter who was inking.) With D'Agostino, Goldberg's art never looked that way, because he polished it up and gave it a sense of weight.

D'Agostino was Goldberg's main inker on most of the crazy adventure stories in Life With Archie and Archie at Riverdale High did in the '70s and '80s. He also inked for Gene Colan on the equally bizarre Jughead's Time Police, and for Bob Bolling on a number of stories (making Bolling's pencils look astonishingly like Goldberg's).

Here is an excerpt from one of the stories from perhaps the weirdest of the many weird experiments at Archie in the '70s: the attempt to transform Betty and Me into a soap-opera parody in the style of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Frank Doyle did the writing as usual (having characters repeat stuff we already read in the captions was a joke he got mileage out of for 45 years), Goldberg did all the pencils, and D'Agostino did all the inks.