Monday, July 17, 2017
Sunday, July 16, 2017
Created by Paul Mendelson
Starring Ardal O’Hanlon, Emily Joyce, Geraldine McNulty, Hugh Dennis, Lill Roughley, Philip Whitchurch, Lou Hirsch
Superhero TV shows usually concentrated on the acts of heroism and derring-do. But My Hero did a different take, using another common sitcom trope: the fish-out-of-water comedy.
It features the life of Themoman (Ardal O’Hanlon), a superhero from the planet Ultron, but mostly his civilian life as George Sunday. George runs a health food shop and develops a crush on Janet Dawkins (Emily Joyce) after rescuing her from falling in the Grand Canyon. Janet is a nurse, working with Dr. Piers Crispin (Hugh Dennis), a raging egomaniac, and Mrs. Raven (Geraldine McNulty), who has the disposition of Attila the Hun. Arnie (Lou Hirsch) is a friend of George from Ultron who tries to guide him about human ways and Tyler (Philip Whitchurch) is an aging hippy who knows George’s identity, but is constantly spouting nonsense, so no one believes him.
George is still confused about Earth habits and expressions. It’s an old gag about the foreigner who takes everything literally,* but the show was endlessly inventive in keeping it fresh, mostly because George is smart enough to realize it pretty quickly when it happens. O’Hanlon is just perfect in the role – confused, but also very charming. Emily Joyce is impressive as the calm center of the action, the straight woman to the madness around her.** Geraldine McNulty is terrific as the woman who has a nasty word for everyone.
The show makes the most of the talents of the actors involved, and the writing is top-notch. In many ways, this was My Favorite Martian in England, but the main difference is that the show dealt with more human issues instead of just gimmicks.
My Hero ran 51 episodes over six years. The final year, they tried to pull a Doctor Who and replace O’Hanlon with another actor, but the show died off after that.
*I can think of examples of it from The Three Stooges.
**One nice thing is that they don’t drag out the revelation that George is Thermoman – Janet finds out 2/3rds of the way into the first episode.
Sunday, June 25, 2017
I was turning twelve when the 1964 New York World’s Fair came to Flushing. It was a couple of hours away from where I lived and its combination of spectacle and education. I loved it.
The fair was an attempt to repeat the success of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but it ran into a snag. The Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) had rules as to what could be termed a “World’s Fair,” and the New York one broke several of them, so the fair was not officially sanctioned, and its members were told not to take part. But New York went ahead anyway, and used exhibits from corporations and from countries that were not BIE members.
Back then, I didn’t pay much attention to the politics (though I did know it wasn’t official). It was a World’s Fair as far as I was concerned, and I loved it.
Twelve wasn’t considered too young to be on your own, so several times I wandered the grounds on my own.
Some of the things that still stay in my mind.
- The Vatican Pavilion. One of the must-see items of the fair, since they brought Michelangelo's Pieta to the US for the first time. In order to accommodate the crowds, you stood on a conveyor belt that rushed you past the statue in about 30 seconds. The statue was behind a glass wall with a blue background. I remember being vaguely disappointed by it.
- General Electric. A favorite, partially because my father sold GE appliances and TVs. “The Carousel of Progress” was the big draw, showing how electricity had changed everyday life. A similar exhibit was set up in Disney World,* with one essential difference: in the World’s Fair, the audience moved on a carousel around the exhibits in the center. Nowadays, the audience remains in one place while the center turns. That was a big disappointment when I saw the exhibit in Disney World.
- The Ford Motor Company. It had a “Magic Skyway” ride, where you got into an actual Ford convertible and saw models of history from prehistoric times to the future of 2000. I remember the cars more than I do the rides.
- General Motors. Their answer was “Futurama.” Their moving chairs were no match for Ford’s cars, but their vision of the future in the 21st century was just what my science-fiction loving heart desired.
- Pepsi Pavilion. Loosed “It’s a Small World After All” on the world. I found it cloying even back then.
- Equitable Life.(above) Not much there except for a giant readout showing the current population of the US. For some reason, I found that fascinating.
- New York State Pavilion. I liked the fact that they showed my (rather small) home town on a giant map of the city. It had three observation towers, who are best known today as a plot element of Men in Black.
- Belgian Pavilion I didn’t spend much time here, but it was famous for introducing American to Belgian Waffles and for the fact that it was so delayed that it wasn’t completed until the final day of the first season of the fair.
- Tad’s Steak House. One of the restaurants at the fair. Hardly the best, but quite a bargain – a steak dinner for $1.29! You got what now I’d call an indifferent grilled steak, baked potatoes, and garlic bread. All during my youth, a trip to NYC included at stop at Tad’s.
I probably went five or six times; toward the end, the novelty had worn off. My mother, who had been to the New York World’s Fair in 1939 said that this was nowhere near as good, but I thought it was great.
Of course, it came to and end. Most of the pavilions were taken down (I had thought that was a waste, though it seems none were built to last more than a few years, anyway). The two that remained were New York and the Unisphere, the symbol of the Fair.
Still, it gave me many happy memories.
*Disney had created many of the rides at the fair.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
Created by Michael Schur
Starring Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, D'Arcy Carden, Jamella Jamil, Manny Jacinto
It's rare that I talk about a TV show currently in production; I've only done it once. But I'm going to add another with what is both the funniest and cleverest TV currently on major network TV: The Good Place.
The premise of the show is a little different: the main character dies in the very beginning. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself in the Good Place, where you go where you live is particularly exemplary. She is briefed by Michael (Ted Danson), who is the architect of the place, designed for eternal bliss and is given a house and a soul mate Chidi (William Jackson Harper). There's only one problem: She's there by mistake.
Eleanor's life was far from exemplary, and she knows it. She confesses this to Chidi and learns that there's also a Bad Place, which is just plain awful. So she enlists him to help her pass.
They are next door to Tahani (Jamella Jamil), a woman who raised billions of dollars for charity and her soul mate Jianyu, a Buddhist monk who's kept a vow of silence since he was a child. Eleanor takes a dislike to Tahani for her goody-goody unctuousness, but doesn't want to risk being found out. She also gets information from Janet (D'Arcy Carden), an information assistant who is there to answer questions.
Things are bad enough for Eleanor, but she discovers that, because she doesn't belong there, bad things start to happen.
One great thing is that the show is really an ongoing story. And creator Michael Schur is not afraid to tighten the screws on Eleanor and make changes in the situation. It quickly goes beyond the original setup, and Schur is a master of dropping a bombshell at the end of each episode.
And it's funny. Tahani's constant namedropping, Chidi's frustration with Eleanor's self-centeredness, Michael's frustration with things going wrong -- all are a constant source of funny lines. One of the cleverest running gags is the fact that you can't swear in the Good Place, which allows Eleanor to be foulmouthed without making the FCC mad.
Another very funny gag is the list of the point system that gets you into the Good Place.**
It's hard to talk about the show without giving away too much, but I will say that it's even funnier if you watch it all a second time.
NBC has the entire first season (13 episodes) on line. Watch it, and then go back and watch it again. You won't be disappointed.
*For example, "Holy motherforking shirtballs!"
**There's also a serious discussion of philosophy and what makes someone "good" hidden among the jokes and plot.
Note: Any comment containing spoilers will be deleted.
Saturday, June 17, 2017
Sunday, May 28, 2017
Starring Joey Bishop, Abby Dalton, Corbett Monica, Joe Besser, Mary Treen
The Rat Pack is back in style and people know all about Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., who have become Las Vegas icons. But in their original incarnation, there were two others: Peter Lawford, who is best known these days (if at all) for marrying into the Kennedy clan, and Joey Bishop.
Bishop was a comedian who actually wrote most of the jokes for the rest of the pack. After he turned to acting, he caught the attention of Danny Thomas, who put him into an episode of Make Room for Daddy, as Joey Mason, a bumbling Hollywood PR agent. The next year, this setup (with the character renamed Joey Barnes) formed the basis for The Joey Bishop Show.
It wasn’t a success. It stumbled along with mediocre ratings the first year. NBC gave it another chance, with the request it be revamped. So, in 1962, everything had changed.* Bishop was the only cast member retained and the concept was that he was a talk show host who lived in New York. He was married to Ellie (Abby Dalton) and was friends with his head writer Larry Corbett (Corbett Monica). The cast was rounded out by Mr. Jilson (Joe Besser), and Hilda (Mary Treen), their maid.
The show was filled with gentle comedy. The jokes may have worn a little thin, but the stories hold up surprisingly well. Barnes is a decent guy with a sense of humor and Bishop’s relaxed and subtle style – he never appeared to work to be funny – was charming to watch.
The cast was a delight. I think I had a little crush on Abby Dalton; her Ellie was well rounded and very grounded. Corbett Monica – a successful standup comedian, too,** and had some of the sharper line.
Joe Besser, of course, is a familiar name. He was the fifth of the Three Stooges, a replacement after Shemp died. He is not well regarded by Stooges fans, but he was usually the best thing in the mostly recycled films of their later career. I remember liking Mr. Jillson mostly because he was one of the Stooges, and he was better here than with the other two.
The show moved to CBS for its final season. In 1967, Bishop tried to compete with Johnny Carson with a late night show that ran for two seasons. After that, he worked occasionally, but never headlined.
It’s too bad. Once it found its stride, the show is one of the best of its era.
*I’m featuring this version of the show, since it’s the one I watched as a teen.
**I was delighted to see him as one of the comedians talking in the deli in Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose.
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Directed by Niki Caro
Written by Niki Caro, from a book by Witi Ihmaera
Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene
Like many small countries, New Zealand’s film industry is small* and few of their films make it to the US. Despite being English-speaking, they have the curse of being considered “foreign films,” so few people go see them. But one of the most successful was the powerful coming-of-age film, Whale Rider.
It’s the story of Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), the granddaughter of a village leader, who is the descendant of Paikea, a legendary figure who came to the village by riding a whale. Tradition says that the position is passed on to the eldest grandson of the previous leader, but Pai not only has the misfortune of being a girl and thus ineligible, but her mother and her fraternal twin died in childbirth and there are no more siblings. Her grandfather (Rawiri Paratene) blames her for the deaths, and, when she shows some interest in becoming the next leader, refuses to let her try it because of her gender.
The movie hinges on Keisha Castle-Hughes. She was 13 when the film was shot, but produced a bravura performance. She was nominated for a best actress Oscar, the youngest person at the time to get that honor, and it was certainly well deserved.
Overall, it’s a story about triumph over hide-bound thinking, and a joyous film to watch.
*Lord of the Rings was shot there, but it was not a New Zealand film any more than Star Wars was a Moroccan film.
Sunday, May 14, 2017
Created by Bill Persky and Sam Denoff
Starring: Joby Baer, Ronnie Schell, Julie Parrish, Billy De Wolfe, Goldie Hawn
Goldie Hawn rocketed to stardom after appearing on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In. The story of her getting the role is well known: she was a struggling actress who blew a line at her audition, and giggled at her own mistake. The producers loved it, and gave her a part and her stardom began from her very first regular TV gig . . . except that it’s wrong. Hawn had already moved up the ladder of success with a regular part in the CBS comedy, Good Morning, World.
The show had a great pedigree. It was created by Dick Van Dyke Show writers Bill Persky and Sam Denoff and had as executive producers TV greats Sheldon Leonard (Make Room for Daddy, Andy Griffith, I Spy) and Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show). It was designed as a vehicle for Ronnie Schell, who seemed on the verge of stardom after a stint on Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.).
The show was about two morning DJs – David Lewis (Joby Baker) and Larry Clarke (Schell). Lewis was married to Linda (Julie Parrish), while Clarke was a bachelor. Lewis and Clarke often run afoul of their by-the-book boss, Roland B. Hutton (Billy De Wolfe). David and Linda’s next door neighbor, Sandy Kramer (Hawn), acted as a sounding board for Linda and a sometime date for Larry.
The stories showed how the two men balanced their work life (where they were “crazy” DJs of the time) with their home life. Not entirely innovative, but Persky and Denoff were among the top writers of sitcoms in their day, writing many classic episodes of Dick van Dyke and That Girl, so the show was consistently funny.
During the show’s run, Laugh-In was cast and Goldie left. It’s unclear if any of her episodes were run while she was appearing on Laugh-In; if they had, she would have joined the list of people who appeared in series on two different networks at the same time (she certainly qualifies if it’s in the same season).*
Despite a good time slot, the ratings were never particularly good for the show, and it was canceled after one season. Schell returned to Gomer Pyle and the sitcom went to an obscure corner of sitcom heaven.
*The champion of this was Jim Backus, who was on two series on two networks at the same time – and in the same time slot.
Sunday, May 7, 2017
Created by Merrill Heatter & Bob Quigley
Hosted by Dennis James, Carl Reiner
From back the the radio days, there was a specific style of game show, where the game really wasn’t the point. The best-known early example of that was Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, where the game took a back seat to the action. More modern examples include things like The Match Game. In the middle, one nice example of the form was People Will Talk.
The show, hosted by Dennis James, involved asking a group of nine celebrities simple yes-and-no opinion question. Then the contestants would pick a star and say what they thought the answer would be. If they were right, they won money.* It was not intended to be a serious discussion of the question, but the fun was having the celebrity talk about their answers.
Typical questions were “Should there be a different speed limit for women drivers?” or “Are performers really more self-centered and temperamental than other people?”
The show only lasted six months in its original run in 1963. But the next year, it was back again under the name The Celebrity Game. Carl Reiner had taken over as host, but otherwise it was the same as before.
The most memorable part of the show for me was on episode where the question was “Should a man wear a toupee?” It was the second question of the show, and during the commercial break Reiner, who had always worn a toupee, appeared without it.**
The second run wasn’t much more successful than the first, and was cancelled after five months.
But things weren’t done yet. It was revived once more a (with Reiner again) in the spring of 1965, probably because it was a relatively cheap filler for a terrible timeslot.*** And it also showed up in reruns in the daytime of late 1967-68.
It clear that creators Heatter and Quigley loved the concept, and finally were able to make it work, when, the next year, they hit the jackpot with nine-celebrity model in The Hollywood Squares.
*A $100-dollar top prize!
**This was before the classic Dick Van Dyke Show episode where, as Alan Brady, he appeared sans rug.
***Opposite Hazel and Peyton Place.
Sunday, April 30, 2017
Created by Leonard Stern
Starring John Astin, Marty Ingels, Emmaline Henry, Dave Ketchum, Frank De Vol, Noam Pitlik
One of the joys of watching old sitcoms is seeing familiar people early in their career. I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster is a prime example, a short-lived series that was a stepping stone for several actors who had long careers – though often not as actors.
The show is about two friends who worked as carpenters. Harry Dickens (John Astin) is married to Kate (Emmaline Henry), while Arch Fenster (Marty Ingels) is single and who isn’t interested in settling down.
This was basically a workplace comedy. Most of the scenes happened when they were on the job as builders, which gave ample opportunity for slapstick comedy, which was the strength of the show. The plots were the usual melange of 60s humor and plot contrivances, but managed to be funnier than the usual run of the mill.
John Astin is fine at Harry, the straight(er) man of the two, though it’s usually Ingels who gets the best lines. Of course, the show didn’t give Astin the type of off-beat strangeness that he used as Gomez Addams.
The show was created by Leonard Stern. Stern had written for some of the classic shows of the 50s – The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show. This was his first chances as a producer, and the start of a long career that included He & She, Get Smart, The Good Guys, The Governor and J.J. and McMillan & Wife. He also was a publisher of Price Stern Sloan books – best known for Mad Libs.
No one has to be told how John Astin’s career went after that,* but other regulars continued in show business. Emmaline Henry had a recurring role in I Dream of Jeannie as Dr. Bellows wife.
Others in the cast made their marks on TV, though not as actors. Frank de Vol was a composer for TV shows; his best known work was the theme song for The Brady Bunch. Noam Pitlik moved to the director’s chair, most notably for Barney Miller, Taxi, and Wings.
Marty Ingles ended up doing a lot of voice work and leaving acting to be a Hollywood agent, primarily finding ad gigs for his clients. He married Shirley Jones.
*I was lucky enough to see him onstage at Ford’s Theater (yes, that Ford’s Theater) in a production of Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies. It was the final performance of the run, and Astin was wonderful.
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Written by Meredith Willson
Performed by Robert Preston
In the late 50s and early 60s, the US was in the middle of the Cold War panic, afraid that the Soviets would bury us. And when JFK became president, one of the big concerns was that American youth were not getting enough exercise. To combat this, “Chicken Fat” was created.
The song was written by Meredith Willson, then riding high with the success of The Music Man. It seems to be his idea to write a song that could be used in gym classes to promote exercising. He wrote the song, and, in the same sessions where they recorded the soundtrack for the movie of The Music Man, they took time to get Robert Preston, star of the show, to record the song.
The result was a catchy tune that was fun to exercise to and included exercises to be done while the music played.*
I remember our gym teacher playing it, and it was a lot of fun to have a song to do our exercises to. Part of the appeal was that the concept was so unusual: you didn’t do exercises in school to music.
The song was released as a public service. No one took any money or royalties, and the record company paid for the session and recording and distributed million of copies to gym classes around the country.
It’s a most a forgotten novelty these days, but there are many people my age who can remember doing sit-ups at Professor Harold Hill cheered you on.
*The exercises were devised by Bud Wilkerson, who, at the time, was arguable the best regarded college football coach in the US.
Sunday, April 16, 2017
Starring Robert Klein, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, MacIntrye Dixon, Judy Graubart, Marty Barris. Robert Merrill, Jerry Lacy
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In changed TV comedy, creating a frenetic style filled with oddball (and frankly dumb) jokes. In a year, this was the way to go.* And, at the time, instead of reruns for variety shows, the networks ran summer replacement series. Comedy Tonight was one of the best.
The show was hosted by Robert Klein and was a series of skits** using a cast of very talented comic actors. The show’s theme, of course, was Stephen Sondheim’s song of the same name and the show would start with the case singing it, then breaking off in the middle for short skits or blackout gags before returning to it.
The show attempted to be topical. Not in politics, but in various things in society that were open to satire: soap operas, commercials, talk shows, and the like. A subject was chosen, and there would be a series of gags – some quick, some a little more developed – on the theme.
Not much is available about the show, but a couple of things remain vivid to me, even now.
- For a segment on advertising: This was the time when cigarette commercials were going off the air, and Winston was going out with a campaign “What do you want? Good grammar or good taste?”*** Klein replied, “With Madison Avenue, you’re lucky to get either.”
- For a segment on talk shows: Big star (obviously modeled on Judy Garland) is on a talk show. The host asks her to sing “The Trolley Song.” She declines, saying she’s not ready, she hasn’t rehearsed it, she hadn’t expected it, etc. The host finally gets her to give in so she goes to the stage, puts on a tailcoat and hat, and the band starts playing the music, which she sings while doing an elaborate dance routine.
Not much of the show remains; as you can see the IMDB entry is sparse. There were only about a half dozen shows, all in the summer when the audience is low. But Madeline Kahn and Peter Boyle became major names in movies and TV, and Robert Klein is considered one of the deans of standup comedy. Several of the lesser-known names still had long careers, both on stage and in TV.
Still, it was a fine show that seems to have been completely lost. Too bad.
*Even when it was a mistake. Dean Martin’s Comedy World, a summer replacement series of 1974, had the wonderful idea of showing comedians around the world. They tried to ape Laugh-In with short bits of a joke or two. The problem is that a comedian on stage had a routine that built up in the telling and taking two or three jokes out of context didn’t work at all. The show was the US debut of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with a couple of very short bits. Oddly, one of the sketches shown used the phrase “naughty bits.” The censors bleeped out the words (maybe the first example of what Jimmy Fallon uses as his “Unnecesary Censorship” videos). Why the show just didn’t pick another Monty Python sketch is inexplicable.
**Similar in some ways to Monty Python, though shorter and less silly.
***For the younger folk, Winston’s slogan for years was “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” When it was first used “like” was considered grammatically incorrect (it was supposed to be “as”), but the usage is now unobjectionable. However, that didn’t keep people from the time from kvetching about how bad the error was.
Sunday, February 26, 2017
Directed by Alexander Hall
Written by Sidney Buchman & Seton I. Miller, from a stage play by Harry Segall
Starring Robert Montgomery, Evelyn Keyes, Claude Raines, Rita Johnson, James Gleason, John Emery, Edward Everett Horton
It’s always fascinating to see the origins of a well-used movie trope, and especially one that’s been remade many a time. Here Comes Mr. Jordan has been the basis of several films.
It’s the story of Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery), boxer, sax player, and private pilot. When his plane crashes, he dies and finds himself being taken by Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton) to a cloudy place in the sky. The person in charge is Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains), who discovers a mistake has been made: Joe was not scheduled to die for 50 years.
This is a problem. His body has been cremated, so he can’t go back to that. So Mr. Jordan has to find a new body for Joe. After several tries, he’s given the body of Bruce Farnsworth, a millionaire who has just been murdered by his wife (Rita Johnson) and secretary (John Emery). Joe is reluctant, but he hears Betty Logan (Evelyn Keyes) begging for help. Betty’s father was convicted of a stock scam due to Farnsworth’s machinations, and wants his help. Sympathizing with Betty, Joe takes over Farnsworth’s body and life (to the surprise of his wife and secretary).
The setup leads to the usual and unusual complications and Joe tries to fix things for Betty* and avoid the murderous plans of the others.
Nowadays, the concept is well-worn, but back in 1941, they were new and I think the writers felt the need to make everything clear. Joe seems incredibly slow on the uptake, having to be told things many times before he catches on. But since this all was probably new for the audience, it was necessary to countersink the concept so people understood.
The movie was a major success in its time, winning a couple of Oscars for writing, and getting several other nominations. It was also the blueprint for Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait.** Several other films also remade the story, and the concept was used in many more.
The film is a little creaky these days, but still is a lot of fun.
*Who, of course, he falls in love with.
**The name of the play it was based on.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
Starring Anne Jeffreys, Robert Sterling, Leo G. Carroll, Lee Patrick, Buck
Thorne Smith is forgotten today, but he was in some ways the forerunner of Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, and anyone writing humorous fantasy, using fantasy ideas in contemporary settings. Topper was his biggest seller, and was soon made into a movie starring Cary Grant. By the time TV came around, it was a prime prospect for a TV series.
George and Marion Kerby (Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys*) were a couple of rich bon vivants who were killed skiing in the Alps.** Returning to the US with the alcoholic Saint Bernard, Neil (Buck), they found their old house had been sold to uptight banker Cosmo Topper (Leo G. Carroll), who is the only person who can see or hear them.*** The two play tricks on Topper, harmless pranks that he has to try to explain, and which his wife Henrietta (Lee Patrick) can’t understand.
Neil was a problem all his own, since his favorite drink was a martini, and people would always see a glass on the floor being lapped up by nothing.
The show ran for two seasons as the Kerbys kept complicating Topper’s life, as he got caught reacting to them and had to explain what was going on. Or making references to them that made no sense to anyone else. The fact that he was a banker – at a time when they were considered the epitome of respectability -- made it even more complicated.
Leo G. Carroll did a great job as the befuddled banker, who tended to be overwhelmed by events. Of course, he managed to come up with a quick explanation of everything, especially when people overheard him talking to George and Marion.
Of special note is one of the writers for the show. Stephen Sondheim wrote eleven episodes. The show was sponsored by Camel Cigarettes, and there was usually a segment where Topper and the Kerby’s hawked the smokes.
Carroll was a UK actor and appeared in several Alfred Hitchcock films, both before and after Topper. He’s best known today as Mr. Waverly from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Sterling and Jeffreys also continued on TV, with Jeffreys having a long run in General Hospital.
The special effects were pretty good for the time. Most of them involved objects moving, though there were a few optical effect showing the ghosts in the classic translucent style.
After the run, the show continued in syndicate for several years. I remember watching it as a kid (so it couldn’t have been the original run) and loving the fantasy element of it. Even today, I’m a fan of humorous fantasy, and I think Topper was the start of it all.
*Married to each other in real life.
**The movie version had them dying in a car crash.
***This is probably the origin of that cliché.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
Directed by Barry Shear
Written by Robert Thom
Starring Christopher Jones, Shelley Winters, Diane Varsi, Hal Holbrook, Richard Pryor.
American International Pictures was the home of the exploitation films of the 50s and 60s – low budget films following particular movie and social trends. In the 50s, it was monsters; in the 60s, they started doing youth-oriented films like the Beach Party movies. And as the youth movement of the 1960s became political, the jumped on that bandwagon with Wild in the Streets.
It’s the story of Max Frost (Christopher Jones), a rock and roll star who lives the counterculture lifestyle in a Beverly Hills mansion. The group is asked to perform at live televised rally for Senate candidate Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook). Holbrook wants to get the youth vote on his side, and campaigned to lower the voting age to 18. Frost upsets the applecart by singing that the voting age be lowered to 14. Of course, the power of your can’t be denied, so states start lowering the voting age. Eventually, the youth take over, and Max become president, where he institutes his “horrifying” agenda.
I was 15 when it was released, and the entire concept seemed silly. The main strength of the film is its soundtrack.* Written by veteran rock and roll songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, it was one of the few times a movie used real rock for music to represent rock music.**
The movie was a big success; given its low budget, it wasn’t difficult for it to make money. It even got one Oscar nomination.
It certainly isn’t a classic, but, for all its flaws, it’s an energetic bit of alternate history that tells more about the time it was created in than anything else.
*Usually the sign of a bad movie.
**Too many films of the 50s or 60s used modified big bands to play what they thought was rock music.
Sunday, February 5, 2017
Written by M. K. Brown
Starring (voice): Julie Payne
In 1987, Fox started its foray into network television. It was a bold move: there hadn’t been a fourth broadcast network since Dumont died in 1956. So they had to pick carefully because they couldn’t afford to lose.
One idea was to give a comedy show to a British comedian, Tracey Ullman. Ullman had some different ideas for the show, most notably to create short animated cartoons for the transition into commercials. They hired two off-beat cartoonists and animated a series of short adventures based on their ideas. Of course, everyone now knows how one of them worked out: The Simpsons. This is about the other one: Dr. N!Godatu.
The episodes were the creation of M. K. Brown*. Brown was a fixture in the National Lampoon of the 70s, doing “Aunt Mary’s Kitechen” and various one-off strips. She had a very distinct style and sensibility. Her comic strips were more surreal than funny, but they always worked.
In the cartoon, Dr. Janice N!Godatu** was a cheery doctor who would talk to the audience about her daily life.
The actual episodes ran a minute or two, cut into even smaller segments. Janice would go about some mundane activity and things seemed to come out of the blue. Julie Payne voiced the character with a plenty of friendly warmth, especially as strange things happened.
I watched the Tracy Ullman Show from the start, and I recognized Brown’s style at once.
There were a half dozen episodes. By the second season, Dr. N!Godatu was dropped in favor of the Simpsons. It’s not surprising: The bits were just too strange to become a cultural phenomenon. People were were left scratching their heads instead of laughing.
Still, if you liked the weirdness, it was great TV.
*Married to fellow cartoonist B. Kliban.
**The ! was pronounced as a click. It’s a sound used by some languages in Namibia and South Africa.
Sunday, January 29, 2017
Created by Clarence Green, Russell Rouse
Starring Mike Connors
In memory of Mike Connors.
It’s funny what impresses you about a TV show when you’re a kid. I remembered Tightrope for one reason: the place where the hero kept his gun.
The premise was that Nick (Mike Connors) was an undercover cop, going on one job after another to try to stop various criminal schemes.* He was in deep undercover, and sometimes the local police didn’t even know his identity. That was the tightrope: he had to walk the line between the law and the criminals. The criminals would kill him if they discovered he was a cop, while the cops often didn’t know he was on their side.
The series was done in hard boiled style. Nick would narrate the adventure as he infiltrated criminal gangs by showing his toughness and sardonic one liners.
The half-hour stories had Nick getting in close with the criminal gang, and then managing to stop their efforts. He was smart and tough. Much of the tension was the cat and mouse game Nick was forced to play to stop the criminals without being discovered.
This was Connor’s first starring role. He had come up in films in the fifties** and was doing various guest stints up until this time.
The show ran for a year and was cancelled despite good ratings. It came along in the last years of advertisers sponsoring a show. CBS wanted to move it; one of the advertisers balked and the show was cancelled.
Oh, and the gun? Nick kept it in a special holster on the back of his belt. When he was frisked, people would find a shoulder holster (or nothing) and figure that was it. Nick would then draw his gun when needed. That was very impressive to a ten-year-old me.
Connors continued doing the guest star route until cast as the lead in the 60s series Mannix,*** where he became a TV icon.****
*The type of things that are considered small time today – jewelry robberies, racetrack heists, and so fort.
**Starting out billed as “Touch Connors.” He had the same agent as Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter. Conners was born Krekor Ohanan, and picked up “Touch” as a nickname in college. By the time he made Tightrope, he had ditched “Touch” and was billed as “Michael Connors.”
***Now billed as the familiar “Mike Connors.”
****People don’t remember how the show changed between the first and second season. The first year, he was part of a big, high-tech (for the time) detective firm, but that was all dropped the second year when the show was revamped and he became a classic private eye.
Sunday, January 22, 2017
Directed by Dick Clement, Sam Fell
Written by Sam Fell and Peter Lord & Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais (story) Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais (screenplay) & Chris Lloyd & Joe Keenan & Will Davies
Starring (voice): Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellan, Jean Reno, Billy Nighy, Andy Serkis, Shane Richie.
I have written before of my admiration for Aardman Animations. And Flushed Away is their least impressive film. But that all relative: Aardman sets its bar so high that Flushed Away is still better than 90% of the animated films out there.
It’s the story of Roddy St. James (Hugh Jackman), a pet rat who lives in luxury in a fancy apartment*. When the family goes away, he enjoys his freedom until Sid (Shank Richie), a sewer rat, joins them. Roddy tries to trick Sid into the toilet in order to get rid of him, telling Sid it’s a Jacuzzi. But Sid knows a toilet when he sees it, and Roddy finds himself flushed into the sewers, where rats and other creatures have an entire city. In order to try to regain his place, he joins up with Rita Malone (Kate Winslet), who has a boat and is being chased by the Toad (Ian McKellan), who has sinister plans in mind for the rats living in the there.
The broke new ground for the company. They had always done stop motion animation for their films, but the problem of using water required them to switch to CGI.**
The film had generally good reviews, but not the usual glowing ones you Aaraman usually gets.*** The movie made a profit, but the numbers were lower than for Aardman’s previous two films. Dreamworks Animation, which distributed, was doing far better with Shrek and other films.**** At the same time, Aardman didn’t like the corporate interference. The two companies agreed to part ways. Aardnan went to Columbia/Sony for its next two films, the classics Arthur Christmas and The Pirates! Band of Misfits.
*Being a cartoon rat, Roddy has a closet full of clothes, one of which is a direct match for the suit worn by Wallace from Aarman’s Wallace and Gromit.
**It’s difficult to get water looking good in stop motion, plus the clay figures of the characters would get quickly ruined.
***Its Rotten Tomatoes score is 72% – good, but Aardman scores are usually in the 90s.
****Flushed Away had Dreamworks’s third-lowest box office numbers – it made money, but not hatfuls of it -- and other Aardman films did not come close to the box office of even minor Dreamworks films like the awful Bee Movie.
Saturday, December 31, 2016
(1949 – )
My wife and I share very few musical tastes in popular music. She prefers folk and singer-songwriters; I go for blues and hard rock.* However, there was one musician we agreed about at the start: Leon Redbone.
Redbone didn’t write his material, but instead revived music from the 20s, 30s, and 40s, singing it slowly and carefully, and sounding much like the way the songs sounded in their earliest recordings. On the Track included music from greats like Jimmie Rodgers, Fats Waller, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercier, and the underappreciated Harry Warren.
He had a deep, rich, world-weary voice that was completely in service to the music, and a nice touch of irony when needed (though he was perfectly able to sing things straight.
Redbone never had a big hit, but continued to release albums through the 70s and 80s. Someone at Saturday Night Live took a liking to him and he appeared there twice, most notably with his sly rendition of “Seduced.”
Redbone was often called upon to lend his talent and voice to other media. He sung a duet with Zooey Deschanel of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” at the end of Elf, and showed up as Leon the Snowman in the film.
Like many artists of my youth, I lost track of him over the years, but he continued to perform and record until 2015, when he announced his retirement.
He’s certainly not for everyone, but if you like the old-timey feel and great songs that were a hit before your mother was born, Redbone is a delight.
*We both love musicals, though.
**With art by cartoon great Chuck Jones. Yes, that’s Michigan J. Frog. Redbone paid tribute to the cover by covering “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” on his third album
Sunday, December 25, 2016
The Berenstain Bears are a beloved series of children’s books, and there seems to be a minor controversy about the spelling of the authors’ names. Many people think it’s Berenstein, even though it’s been spelled Berenstain on all the books they’ve written.
I never thought it was spelled that way. Also, I have never read any of the books about their bears.* What did introduce me to them was their paperback, Marital Blitz.
This is not a children’s book. It’s a humorous look at the foibles of married life (note the cover, which is a little risqué for children). It concentrated on the early years of a marriage.
I read through my parents’ copy many times. It was one of the things that gave me my idea of what a marriage should be, along with my parents and Jean Kerr.
The Berenstains did quite a few books of this kind in the 50s and 60s, with titles like Lover Boy, The Facts of Life for Grownups, and How to Teach Your Children about Sex without Making a Complete Fool of Yourself. Of course, as the bears became a phenomenon, they concentrated on that. Their last book of this nature was published in 1972.
Most, if not all, of these books are long out of print. But they were a charming sidelight to the careers of a successful husband-and-wife team. And I noticed from the start the way they spelled their name.
*I was too old for them when they first came out in 1962, and they never came up when my daughter was the right age.
Sunday, December 4, 2016
Directed by H.C. Potter
Written by Nat Perrin & Warren Wilson, based on a story by Nat Perrin.
Starring Ole Olson, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert, Jane Frazee, Robert Paige, Mischa Auer, Clarence Kolb, Shemp Howard, Elisha Cook, Jr., Richard Lane
A friend of mine mentioned Hellzapoppin’ on Facebook in the highest terms, so I decided to move it from my list of “Movies I’d like to see” to my list of “Movies I’ve seen.”
It was worth it.
It’s an adaptation of a hit Broadway play that became the longest running show during its original run. The play was evidently nothing but craziness – non sequiturs, dumb jokes, weird running gags, musical numbers, and an “anything can happen” attitude. The cast not only interacted with each other, but with audience members, both real and planted.* It was a smash, the Hamilton of the 1930s.
Of course, it was made into a movie. The film starts in the projection booth, where Louie (Shemp Howard, the once and future stooge) is setting up the film, which shows a group of chorus girls descending a staircase. But the stairs collapse like a funhouse, and deposits them in hell for the first musical number.
We eventually meet Ole Olson and Chic Johnson, who start out with one surreal gag after another (including asking Louie to rewind the film), until the director (Richard Lane) stops things to say they need a plot, pointing out the writer they hired, Harold Selby (Elisha Cook, Jr.**). The script is a standard 30s “let’s put on a show” plot. When Olson and Johnson complain is far too clichéd, the director shows them the film – with them in it.
The issue isn’t the plot, which is only an excuse to hang gags. Indeed, the story takes a back seat to Olson and Johnson’s jokes and antics, along with sight gags and surreal humor. The conventions of film are played with and destroyed, with the characters not only breaking the fourth wall, but just about anything you like. The film becomes mis-centered, with the top half below the bottom half (and the actors know it). During one of the romantic scenes, a slide keeps showing up asking about “Stinky Miller” and telling him to go home. The main running gag involves a man walking around with a tree – the grows each time you see it – calling for “Mr. Jones.”
The cast is filled with first class comics. Hugh Herbert*** plays a “master of disguises” detective. Mischa “The Mad Russian” Auer is Pepe, a deposed prince who is out to marry the heiress. Martha Raye is the comic female lead.**** A favorite of mine, Clarence Kolb (of My Little Margie) is a straight man caught up in the madness.
The plot is inconsequential, and the movie comes to life mostly when Olson and Johnson are on stage and move it from standard gags to complete madness.
It was highly influential. Laugh-In owes everything to it, and I noted a scene that showed up in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Every movie where actors knew they were in a movie owes it a debt.
Despite their brilliance, Olson and Johnson were far to anarchic for films. They tried to recapture the success of Hellzapoppin’, but never succeeded, either on Broadway, movies, or TV.
The movie may not have been up to the legend of the show, but it’s amazing how fresh and funny it still is today.
*I read that the theater management was not happy that the show required actors to sit in the audience for various gags because they couldn’t sell the seats for a sold-out show.
** Cook – best known for his roles in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep is strange to see as a naïve young kid instead of a gunsel.
***Herbert was satirized in a lot of Looney Tunes, with his trademark “hoo-hoo-hoo” sign of nervousness.
****When I first knew of Raye, she seemed to be one of Bob Hope’s road show has-beens. But her role here and especially in Monsieur Verdoux shows a clever comic talent.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
I’m a major Marx Brothers fan, but there’s been one thing of theirs I never expected to see. It was the last time they actually were on screen together, in a 30-minute silent comedy that’s primarily a vehicle for Harpo (of course) and Chico.
The plot is simple. Nick (Harpo) and Harry (Chico) are shown stealing a bunch of odd items from various stores. They then go to a secluded spot and repaint their car to look like a police car. It turns out to be a plot to steal jewels from the jeweler.
But forget the part. The show* is an excuse for sight gags, some new, some old. Harpo makes a gookie**, and there are sight gags throughout, some amusing, others not so. It’s great seeing the two of them on the screen, and Groucho appears in the final scene and utters the only line of dialog in the half hour.
The film was directed by Mitchell Leisen, a top film director in the 1930s who had worked with W. C. Fields, Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, and other top stars.
Like most TV of the 50s, the show was ephemeral and, despite the Marx Brothers name, didn’t seem to be aired again. It came back in the DVD era, and can currently be seen online at ShoutTV.com.
It’s certainly not classic Marx Brothers, but completists and fans may want to give it a look.
*Introduced by Ronald Reagn.
**A face he made in just about every Marx Brother’s movie. It’s named after a cigar roller of their youth who made the face unconsciously while working.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
Kurt Vonnegut was a favorite author of mine, but, other than Mother Night, movies of his books were few and far between. In 1972, George Roy Hill took a swing at his most acclaimed novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.*
As in the book, Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sachs) become unstuck in time, traveling backward and forward to events in his rather eventful life. Billy is captured by aliens (where he meets Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine)), but most of the movie (like in the novel) covers the bombing of Dresden in World War II.**
What sticks in my mind was the performance of Eugene Roche ad Edgar Darby, one of Pilgrim’s fellow prisoners. He is absolutely amazing as Roche, a decent and very likeable guy that got caught up in the madness of war. It was the second time I noticed him; he had made a series of commercials for Ajax Dishwashing Liquid as a “dishwashing expert.” But the qualities that served him well as a pitchman – most importantly, his likeability – made him just perfect in the role.
There were other newcomers in the cast. Valerie Perrine made an impressive entrance, and started out on a career of playing sex symbols, but with an intelligence (even when the character wasn’t) of a serious actor, and was also memorable in Steambath. It was Michael Sach’s first film and an early role for Ron Liebman.
Vonnegut praised the adaptation, and the film did OK business, but wasn’t a major hit.
*Cat’s Cradle was probably his best known overall.
**Vonnegut was a witness, being a POW there when the city was firebombed.
Sunday, November 6, 2016
Every few years, some legal case is dubbed “The Trial of the Century”: The Lindbergh Kidnapping, the O.J. Simpson Case, the trials of murderers Beulah Annan and Belva Gaerner,* for instance. As time goes by, these trials become forgotten, and new ones come along. But for me, the Hall-Mills Murder Case is up there among the most sensational of the 20th century.
It started with the discovery of two bodies in a field in New Jersey, a man and a woman, both shot in the head; the woman had had her throat cut first. The bodies had been posed after they died, along with some torn up love letters. They were found to be Edward Wheeler Hall, an Episcopal minister, and Eleanor Reinhardt Mills, a singer in the church choir. Both Hall and Miss were married. But not to each other.
The investigation was botched from the start. Crowds trampled the site (known as a local lover’s lane) before the police could figure out who would be in charge, and evidence was destroyed.
Of course, this was the heyday of sensational journalism and the combination of sex, adultery, and murder was striking sensationalist gold. All the New York papers were on top of the case and the trial
Ultimately, the prosecution charged Frances Hall (Hall’s widow) and her two brothers, Henry Stevens and William “Willie” Carpenter, saying Frances got Henry, an expert marksman, to do the crime.
The trial was a circus, with the press sensationalizing every moment. Forty-seven newspapers from all over the US were there to report on the trial, and there were requests for over 100 seats for the press.
The key witness for the prosecution was Jane Gibson, though she quickly got the sobriquet “The Pig Woman” because she raised hogs. She supposedly saw the murder going down. Her testimony was more sensation, especially since she was in the hospital with cancer and couldn’t walk. Her hospital bed was moved into the courtroom and she testified lying down.
Love letters between the two victims were entered into evidence
When it came time for the defendants to take the stand, they were ready. Henry Stevens, who was an expert marksman, had witnesses putting him miles away at the time of the crime, which didn’t help the prosecution.
But Willie was the star. He had a reputation as something of a character: he loved to follow firetrucks and was considered a bit “slow.” But he turned out to be a good witness – polite and straightforward.
Ultimate, the verdict was “not guilty.”
The ballyhoo slowly died down, as other sensations took its place, and, like most “trials of the century,” it was soon forgotten.
The murders are still unsolved.
*You might know them by the names of the fictionalized version: Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.
Sunday, October 30, 2016
Directed by Bill Condon
Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, from a novel by Mitch Culling, based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle
Starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan
If you were asked to list the top actors working today, Ian McKellen would be high on the list. He’s not only a brilliant actor, but he’s been a star in movies, TV, and on the stage.* And though he’s best known for his blockbuster and franchise films, he’s just as willing to take a role in a small movie. Mr. Holmes deals with a franchise character on a human scale, and McKellen is superb.
The film is set in 1947. Sherlock Holmes is 93 and retired, raising bees.** He lives in a farmhouse with his housekeeper, Mrs. Monroe (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes has been moved to write about his final case, but has a problem – his memory is failing. He has just returned from Japan for a natural remedy that he thinks might help, but it’s not doing him much good. However, talking with Roger, who Holmes grows fond of, he begins to remember the details of the case, where a woman (Hattie Morahan) seems to be planning to murder her husband.
The two stories unfold gently, in small doses, as we see the relationship between Roger and Sherlock grow while flashing back to thirty years earlier as the case takes shape. There is also a subplot about a Japanese admirer, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose father had moved to the UK to meet Holmes. The three stories complement each other and connect in many ways.
It’s a given that McKellen is brilliant. His Holmes is far deeper than most characterizations, and the frustration he feels at his failing memory is so very real. Milo Parker does an excellent job, too, able to keep up with McKellen’s decades of skill.
Director Bill Condon probably liked to go back to a more serious minded film after doing two films of The Twilight Saga. He and McKellen has worked together on Gods and Monsters, another small film that showcased top notch acting and an unusual story.
The movie got good reviews, and was a useful anodyne to the summer blockbusters that year (it came out in July). But it was buried by later released at Oscar time and McKellen was not nominated.
If you like Holmes or McKellen, or a story with real emotional depth, this is a movie to seek out.
*I was lucky enough to see him live on Broadway with Patrick Stewart in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land (run in repertory with Waiting for Godot). It’s a play that requires top notch actors to succeed. Luckily . . .