Sunday, January 21, 2018

David Bromberg (music)

(1945-)
Wikipedia Entry
David Bromberg Website

Sometimes you come across a musician from your youth who you knew about vaguely, but never followed closely. And now you discover he made just the type of music you loved then (and still do today). That happened recently when I was reintroduced to David Bromberg.

Bromberg grew up in the suburbs of New York city, learning to play guitar and just about any type of stringed instrument.  He started doing studio work and appeared on albums by Jerry Jeff Walker, Tom Paxton, Richie Havens, Bob Dylan, and Carly Simon, among others before finally putting out a solo album in 1972.

The album helped define Bromberg’s style, which was so eclectic as to be indefinable. He mixed blues, country, jazz, folk, bluegrass, and anything else that came his way.  It starts out with what was probably his best-known tune: “The Holdup” (co-written with George Harrison). Here’s the song with Harrison on guitar*.

The follow up album, Demon in Disguise, was another triumph,** with the equally delightful “Sharon,” about a man’s infatuation with a hoochie coochie dancer.

But Bromberg wasn’t just a funnyman. The album also contained a version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr.Bojangles,” where Bromberg talking about the origins of the song*** that made a poignant song even more so.

In addition to his musicianship, Bromberg had a distinctive voice.  Not rough, but not smooth, either, with a tone that’s partway between a growl and a moan.

Bromberg continued to record albums regularly throughout the 70s, then sporadically after that. It’s a sign of his regard among musicians that so many established names shows up on them. And he was also doing studio work and toured with other names like Ringo Starr, the Eagles, and others.

He’s still active, though performing less these days. But he’s really a musician who deserves more credit with the general public.

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*Bromberg recorded several different variations on the song over the years.

**He was backed by most of the Grateful Dead.

***He had played on the original version.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

All of Me

All of Me(1984)
Directed by
Cark Reiner
Written by Phil Alden Robinson, from an adaptation by Henry Olek of a novel by Edwin Davis
Starring Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Victoria Tennant, Richard Libertini
IMDB Entry
I've mentioned elsewhere that it took my a long time to warm to Steve Martin. I felt he was more an actor playing a comedian than an actual funnyman. And his early movies did nothing to improve my opinion. It took All of Me to show me he was something much more than a tiresome clown.
Marin plays Roger Cobb, and up-and-coming lawyer who is summons to work out the will of the old and crotchety Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin). But the will has some strange clauses. Using the services of a swami (Richard Libertini), she has arranged to have her soul transferred into the body of Terry Hoskins (Victoria Tennant), so she can continue to life as young and beautiful woman. Roger is more than skeptical, of course, but the swami does transfer Edwina’s soul into a bowl – which pours it out into Roger. Now he’s half-Roger and half-Edwina.*  Naturally, neither is happy with this, so the need to find the swami – and Terry – to set things right.
While Martin does take great strides in creating a realistic character, for once his comic overstriding serves him well. He makes you believe that he has two people controlling his movements. The slapstick ways he walks are completely in service to the story. But he still manages to act out his feelings toward the situation – and Edwina – in a striking way.
Lily Tomlin has what is mostly a voiceover part.** I thought she was a brilliant comedian, but find her acting too one-note. Still, it works very well here, since it’s the perfect note for the character.
Richard Libertini plays one of his patented crazies, and is as great as always in every scene he’s in.
The screenplay was written by Phil Alden Robinson. He parlayed this into a directing gig for his classic Field of Dreams.***
There’s no need to introduce Carl Reiner, one of the giants of comedy.  This was the fourth time he directed Martin, but the first time where the story was more than just either parody or a string of jokes.
The movie got raves when it came out, and still holds up well. Martin clearly took a step up in his career and turned from someone I avoided to an actor who I looked forward to seeing.
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*Literally – they each control one side of the body.
**She appears in the beginning and in mirrors when Roger looks in them.
***I went to college with him. I actually worked with him at the college radio station.  He was a senior when I was a freshman, and he already was showing success, having gotten a gig at a local radio station. All of us agreed that he had a great voice for radio.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Chickenman (comedy)

Dick Orkin as Chickenman1966-197?
Written by
Dick Orkin
Starring Dick Orkin, Jane Roberts, Jim Runyon
Wikipedia Entry

By the 1960s, radio had fully evolved away from dramas and comedies to DJs playing music. But the urge to put a story on the air continued in small pockets, often on individual stations as a part of their programming. Probably the most successful of these was Chickenman.

The show as created as part of the success of Batman. Chicago radio station WCFL thought it might be funny to create a superhero spoof to run in among the top-40 hits. Dick Orkin, the production director at the station came up with the concept.

Chickenman was actually Benton Harbor (Orkin), who fought crime on weekends by donning a chicken suit and going after criminals.  He was assisted by the befuddled Police Commissioner Norton (Orkin) and his highly competent secretary Miss Helfinger (Jane Roberts). When unable to fight crime due to his job as a shoe salesman, Benton’s mother Mildred (Roberts) would help out.

The segments ran under three minutes, but had a wonderful deadpan sensibility. Even the most absurd developments were played perfectly straight.  Here’s a selection:


The show was just planned for a two-week run on WCFL, but it quickly took on a life of its own and continued.  After a few months, it was syndicated and was played across the country and for the Armed Forces radio.

Orkin created his own production company to syndicate it and eventually took full control from the radio station.  The episodes ran through the mid-70s, at which point Orkin – with his partner Bert Berdis – created a second show for radio: The Tooth Fairy, with Orkin as the title character.

The team went into advertising and produced a series of successful ads, following closely in the footsteps of the great Stan Freberg.  They won several Clio awards for the best in the industry.*

Orkin died on December 24, 2017, well remembered in advertising and radio (he was in the Radio Hall of Fame). His Chickenman is still available on CD, and is still a delight.

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*As an aside, in 1991, the Clio award ceremony was probably the greatest fiasco in award show history. The MC was a no-show and the event’s caterer was pressed into service, but there was no script or winners list. He walked off. The next presenter was drunk and, after giving out a few awards, staggered offstage.  Then people started mobbing the stage, grabbing the statuettes, and making off with them. Their sponsor soon went bankrupt.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Ponette

image(1996)
Directed by
Jacques Doillon
Written by Jacquest Doillon (with first draft collaboration of Brune Compagnon
Starring Victoire Thivisol
IMDB Entry

Child actors in American films are often problematic. There is a tendency to make them precocious or stagy, removing any sign of the natural. Non-Hollywood films, though, often find ways to get strong and natural performances from children, and one of the best examples of this is Ponette.

Ponette (Victoire Thivisol) is a four-year-old girl whose mother dies in a car accident. She goes to live with her aunt, who later sends her off to boarding school. Ponette is too young to understand the concept of death and keeps looking for her mother to return. Other children are helpful and cruel in addressing her hopes.

The movie succeeds on the performance of Thivisol. She was only four when the film was shot and is just wonderful. Her search for her mother is filled with pathos and is mesmerizing.

Thivisol was nominated and won several acting awards for the film. There was some complaints – can we really call what she did on the screen “acting”? – but that doesn’t matter.  The result is a sad a beautiful film about moving on.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse (TV)

(1962)
Created  by
Bob Kane
Starring Dallas McKinnon
IMDB Entry

Bob Kane was an important name in comic books. Known as the creator of Batman,* he tried his hand in other forms, and one of the more successful examples was the animated Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse.

Courageous Cat was a crime fighter, working with his assistant Minute Mouse. He drove a Cat Car, which he kept in the Cat Cave, and sometimes flew in his Cat Plane.**  They would discover criminals and take them to justice.

Their main adversary was Frog, an Edward G. Robinson imitation.  Minute Mouse existed solely to point out what was happening,***  so Courageous Cat could take out his gun and save the day.

Or, rather, his many guns. When faced by a threat, he’d have one on hand specifically designed to counteract it.****

The cartoons were short.  I get the impression that it syndicated to morning kids shows across the country as filler.  None were particularly outstanding adventures, but they were entertaining enough for kids.

The most memorable thing was the show’s theme song.  It was a variation on Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn Theme and was often the best thing of any adventure.

I’m not really sure how involved Kane was; he may have just leant his name as a selling point. 

The show ran two years, not a bad run for something like this. But eventually, even Bob Kane’s name couldn’t keep it going.

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*Reports indicate that Kane’s influence was primarily in coming up with the concept and choosing the name “Batman.” Bill Finger did most of the writing on the strip in the beginning, including creating nearly everything we think of when we think of the character. Kane did the art in the early days, but soon left that to assistants . Although Kane often talked about Finger as a collaborator, Kane was the only byline on the strip (and DC was contractually obligated to give him the single credit).

**Fairly obvious where Kane got the idea.

***Probably because it was cheaper than animating action.

****Deus ex Machina gun would be a good description.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Brides of Dracula

Brides of Dracula(1960)
Directed by
Terence Fisher
Written by Jimmy Sangster & Peter Bryan & Edward Percy
Starring Peter Cushing, Yvonne Moniaur, David Peel, Martita Hunt
IMDB Entry

I love vampire stories. I’ve written a few and tend to like variations on the basic mythology. One small but entertaining example of the genre is The Brides of Dracula.

It’s the story of Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Moniaur), who we first see in a carriage speeding to get to a village by nightfall. Of course, the villagers act very strangely toward her, leaving the inn. And then the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), arrives and, since there’s no room at the inn, invited her to stay at her castle – much to the consternation of the innkeeper and his wife.

The Baroness is welcoming but Marianne notices a second setting at the table. And when she is preparing, she sees a man on a terrace just outside her balcony. When she asks the Baroness, she explains he’s just her insane son (David Peel).

Marianne and the BaronBut Marianne has to see for herself.* She finds her way to the son’s room.  He is sweet and charming and quickly wins her over.  The only problem is that his mother keeps him chained in his room.  He asks her to get the key.

You can probably guess what happens next.  The Baron is a vampire and turns his mother, then escapes to terrorize the countryside. Dr.Van Helsing (Cushing) has been called and he works to find the Baron and kill him.

The movie’s strong point, of course, is Peter Cushing’s performance. His Van Helsing is ruthless toward vampires and kindly toward everyone else.

David Peel also makes an excellent vampire. I’m not sure if this is the first time, but it’s clearly a landmark in the portrayal of a seductive vampire. Peel is charming when he needs to be and you can understand Marianne’s attraction.

Martita Hunt is also notable. She had a strong Miss Haversham air to her – not surprising since the played the role years before.

The movie certainly isn’t perfect. The bat version of the Baron is as bad an example of the effect as you’d ever seen.** And the opening sequence of the ride is the woods is good, but has nothing to do with the story, other than to give us a chance to see Peter Cushing lurking menacingly.

But the final sequence – set in a old mill*** is nicely designed and staged, with a clever way of killing the vampire.

This was David Peel’s last credited film. Primarily a TV actor, he retired from acting soon after.

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*In many ways, Marianne is not particularly smart.

**Reports are that they put a lot of effort into a realistic looking bat, but it somehow got lost before shooting, so they had to improvise.

***Frankenstein’s monster doesn’t show up, alas.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Stop the World, I Want to Get Off (musical)

Stop the world(1962)
Music, Book, and Lyrics by
Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley
Starrting Anthony Newley and Anna Quayle
Wikipedia Page

I’m a big fan of Broadway musicals and one of the best things about them is that they’re constantly reimagined and restaged, both in New York and on the road, so new audiences can find them. At the same time, small theater company and school dramatic groups will put on the classics. It’s rare that a major musical seems to disappear, but that’s what happed to one musical with one of the best scores of all time, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!

The play is the brainchild of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, who wore most of the hats when creating it. It’s the story of Littlechap (Newley), who, as his name suggests, is an everyman character.  He marries Evie (Anna Quayle) after she becomes pregnant and is soon disillusioned, having affairs with a Russian woman Anya (Quayle), Ilse (Quayle) from Germany, and the All American Ginnie (Quayle). It wasn’t until the end that he begins to realize just how much he wasted his life.

The strength of the play is the music, with one of the best scores of all time. “Once in a Lifetime,” “Gonna Build a Mountain,” and especially “What Kind of Fool Am I?” are standards, but the rest of the score is excellent.  One song – “Typically English/Glorious Russian/Typische Deuche/All American” – is sung, with different lyrics by all four of the women.  “Family Fugue/Nag! Nag! Nag!” is a hilarious narrative of a deteriorating marriage.  “Mumbo Jumbo” makes fun of politicians, while “Lumbered” shows Littlechap’s second thoughts about his marriage.

The  play was a hit in the UK, and moved to the US, partly because its small cast – four main characters and a chorus, all performed on a single set – made it cheap to produce.  It was nominated for four Tonys, and won one, for Anna Quayle.

But the play seems to have faded away. Much of the plot to too topical about the Cold War and politics of the time. But certainly it has nothing to do with the score. There were two revivals, one with Sammy Davis, Jr. (who love the score) in 1978, and another starring Newley in London in 1989, which did poorly.

Newley and Bricusse continued to work together. Their next attempt, The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd, did adequately and produced a couple of standards, but their best known work was writing the songs for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. 

Newley died in 1999.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Shame

Shame(1968)
Written and Directed by
Ingmar Bergman
Starring Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Gunner Bjornstrand
IMDB Entry

Ingmar Bergman is considered the master of gloom. While he did do some comedies, most of his work was not even close to being cheerful.

I had a major immersion on Bergman in college, taking a film course that concentrated on his works – 19 films in ten weeks.* It fascinating to see him develop over the years.  Shame was one film that really stuck with me.

Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva (Liv Ullman) are living on the remote farmhouse when it becomes caught up in a war. Troops “liberate” them, though they don’t feel very liberated and Col. Jacobi (Gunner Bjornstrand), the former mayor, comes by, seeming to help, but he has plans for Eva, offering to help them out – for a terrible price.

Liv UllmanLiv Ullman was one of the 20th century’s greatest film actresses and Max von Sydow is nearly as well regarded, though better known in the US. They make Jan and Eva real and we share their pain.

Gunner Bjornstrand is lesser known, but he was a consistent member of Bergman’s stock company, making nearly 20 films with him. He never gained international acclaim, but I began to look forward to his presence as I watched the Bergman film.

An interesting aside is that the movie was set in the near future, making it science fiction.  It’s one of the best evocations of how war can brutalize bystanders.

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*Union College had (and still has) a trimester system: three ten-week terms where you take three courses.  It makes transferring credits challenging.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

I Was a Male War Bride

image(1949)
Directed by
Howard Hawks
Written by Charles Lederer & Leonard Spigelgass and Hagar Wilde, from a story by Henri Rochard.
Starring Cary Grant, Ann Sheridan
IMDB Entry

Cary Grant is generally thought of today as a suave and romantic leading man. But Grant was also a fine comedian, and seemed very much to like playing comic roles.  One of the best of these was in I Was a Male War Bride.

It’s set in Germany after WWII has ended.  Cathy Gates (Ann Sheridan) is a American assigned to drive French Army Captain Henri Rochard (Cary Grant) in a mission to recruit a German to join the American side.  Cathy and Henri rub each other the wrong way from the start,* but slowly warm to each other and fall in love. They marry, but Cathy is immediately ordered back to the states. Henri wants to go with her, but the only way to do it is to get permission under the War Brides Act.**  The problem is that, even though the law does allow this, it happens so rarely that no one believes it.

The movie has the typical Hawks fast pace, and works very nicely in making the romance seem believable. Red tape can be very funny onscreen, and the movie makes the most of that.

Grant is Grant and is willing to take a pratfall in order to sell a gag.

One of my favorite running gags is Grant having to repeatedly recite “I am an alien spouse of female military personnel en route to the United States under public law 271 of the Congress” whenever he has to explain what’s going on.  The payoff is when they finally get things settle and someone explains to him – in the exact same words he’s been using all along.  I’ve had similar things happen to me and they always remind me of the movie.

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*A typical event in romantic comedies of the era.

**An actual law, that allowed GIs to bring their wives back to the US without being screened out at immigration.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Oscar Levant (actor, musician, wit)

image(1906-1972)
Wikipedia Page

Some people are famous for being famous. That was how I first noticed Oscar Levant in the 60s, most notably from the title of his autobiography, Memoirs of an Amnesiac. All I knew was that he seemed to show up on talk shows and people regarded him well. It wasn’t until much later that I learned about his genius.

Levant was born in Pittsburg, but moved to New York City in his teens, where he studied piano. He became quite good at it, and moved to Hollywood, where he befriended George Gershwin and worked as a composer, writing both film music and hit songs, as well as working on classical pieces.

In the early 30s, he came to public attention as one of the panelists on the radio show Information Please.  Levant became known for his encyclopedic knowledge and his quick wit. He was a master of ad libbing hilarious one-liners.

This became his step toward stardom. He started appearing in movies, usually playing a wisecracking pianist. His most extensive role was probably in The Band Wagon, where he’s songwriting parter with Nanette Fabray.*  He even briefly had a TV show.

His piano playing, though, took him into the classical world. He became known as one of the best interpreters of George Gershwin and his recording of Rhapsody in Blue was for many years considered one of the best.

Through everything, Levant had a rather complicated personal life. He was a massive hypochondriac, and had numerous neuroses, which he was very open about.

He also tended to do his own thing.  Harpo Marx told of how he just showed up on his doorstep one day, announcing he was going to be Harpo’s houseguest and stayed there for months. Levant did that to other of this friends and then, suddenly, announce he was leaving and go somewhere else.

Harpo also praised his piano playing. In one story, he interrupted the performance of a trio, replaced the pianist and finished the piece with them – one he had never played before – so that the others in the group felt like he’d been practicing with them for years.

Levant was a heavy smoker and died of a heart attack in 1972. Much of his radio work has been lost, and the talk show appearances are even harder to find. But I still was able to find one of of his greatest one-liners, the one that showed me he was a comic genius.

There’s not a lot about him on the Internet, and his book is out of print, but he was a man who was always a delight wherever he appeared – neurotic tics and all.

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*Supposedly, based on Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

O Lucky Man!

O Lucky Man(1973)
Directed by
Lindsay Anderson
Written by David Sherman, based on an original idea by Malcolm McDowell
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts, Arthur Lowe, Helen Mirren
IMDB Page

In 1968, British director Lindsay Anderson had a success with the movie, If…, starring Malcolm McDowell in his first major film role as a British schoolboy who ends up leading a bloody revolution against his school.  McDowell want to work with Anderson again, and the director suggested he write a screenplay based upon his life so far. A few years later, McDowell, now a big name after his lead role in A Clockwork Orange, handed a treatment to screen writer David Sherman.* The result was O Lucky Man!

In the meantime, Anderson had struck up a friendship with songwriter Alan Price, planning a documentary about the band touring England. That fell through, but Anderson decided to ask Price to write the songs for the movie.  These were quickly included and an album released.

The movie is hard to describe.  It shows Mick Travis** trying to find his way in life, starting out as a coffee salesman*** and moving on, trying to keep his principles in a world where success requires he ignore him.  It’s a very picaresque movie, where Mick goes from one thing to another, some real, some surreal. Actors play multiple characters throughout the film and there’s an allegorical subtext about the entire enterprise.

The final scene is memorable:  Travis ends up at a casting call, where a director (Lindsay Anderson) is clearly casting If… 

Throughout, the Alan Price songs comment on the action.

The movie was a critical success and eventually Anderson and McDowell were reunited for a third Mick Travis film,Britannia Hospital.  The three films a a long allegory about life in the UK in the 60s, and are fun to watch on many levels.

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*Screenwriter of If…

**The same name of McDowell’s character in If…

***A job McDowell had before he became an actor.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Ventures (Music)

The Ventures(1958 – )
Members: 
Don Wilson (rhythm guitar), Bob Bogle (lead guitar, bass), Nokie Edwards (bass, lead guitar), Howie Johnson (drums), Mel Taylor (drums).
Wikipedia Page
Band Webpage 

One of my jobs at my college radio station was to listen to new albums as they came in, pick the top tracks, and decide if we wanted to keep them. One day a new album came in from a group I had thought was washed up years ago. But playing it, I discovered that, even though they seemed to be relics of the past, they were still able to put out some excellent stuff, and I immediately gained a new respect for them.  That group, of course, was the Ventures.

The group was formed by Don Wilson and Bob Bogle in 1958.  Wilson and Bogle were both guitarists; they added Nokie Edwards as bass, and Howie Johnson as their drummer.  Edwards later switched to lead guitar, with Bogle picking up the bass.

Their first single, “Walk Don’t Run” was a major hit.  Like most of the Ventures’ work, it was an instrumental and a cover, but it put the group on the map. The Ventures helped to develop the “surf music” sound that the Beach Boys made their own.

After getting hurt in a car accident, Howie Johnson stepped out, and Mel Taylor replaced him to form the longest lived lineup of the group.

The Ventures were nothing if not prolific. They did dozens of studio albums in the 60s, 3-5 a year.  It probably helped that they were a cover band, which allowed them to keep up that sort of pace.  But they didn’t remain in the public consciousness.  Their albums* did OK, but they had very little success on the singles charts. They fell out of consciousness until 1969, when they were tapped to play the theme song for a new TV show.  “The Hawaii 5-0 Theme” was their biggest hit and what they’re best known for today.

The group is known for pioneering new musical ideas. They created concept albums, with The Colorful Ventures in 1961** and were one of the first to use a fuzzbox.

Though the group stopped making the charts with “Hawaii 5-0,” the continued to perform and record and were especially popular in Japan.***

The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.  They continue to tour today (mostly in Japan), with Don Wilson still taking part.

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*They were primarily an album band, unusual for the early 60s.

**Each song had a color in the title.

*** Since they mainly did instrumentals, the language barrier isn’t an issue.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Crazyhead (TV)

(Crazyhead: Susan Wakoma (l), Clara Theobald (r)2016)
Created and Written by
Howard Overman
Starring Clara Theobald, Susan Wakoma, Arinze Kene, Lewis Reeves, Riann Steele, Tony Curran, Lu Corfield
IMDB Entry

There’s so much good TV around these days that some excellent shows get lost in the shuffle. I didn’t hear about Crazyhead until recently, and when I discovered it was written by Howard Overman of Misfits  (the best superhero show ever broadcast), I knew I had to watch it.

The story starts out with Amy (Clara Theobald), who works at a bowling alley and has been having some strange visions. She thinks she’s cracking up until she runs into Raquel (Susan Wakoma), who sets her straight:  the two of them have the ability to see demons, who possess humans, killing them. Amy’s best friend Suzanne (Riann Steele) is one of them, and they have to perform an exorcism, which goes horribly wrong. But they discover that Raquel is an essential element of a plot by Callum (Tony Curran) to set loose the gates of hell and release demons into the world.  Callum also is Raquel’s psychologist, and uses this to keep one step ahead of them.  The enlist Jake (Lewis Reeves), a guy from work who has a crush on Amy as their ally, while keeping everything secret from Raquel’s brother Tyler – who Amy is attracted to.

The parallels to Buffy the Vampire Slayer are clear, and the show is much like it, with a sense of humor about everything, like the demon Mercy (Lu Corfield) who has taken over a single mother and laments having to get a babysitter when she goes out to destroy the world. 

Susan Wakoma is just plain terrific as Raquel – blunt, foul mouthed, and strongly opinionated.  She won an award for best performance and certainly deserves it.

Clara Theobald is very good as Amy, a voice of reason against Raquel’s wilder side.  Tony Curran makes a great villain – devious but capable of getting off some very good lines.

The show ran for six episodes, finishing the first story arc. Unfortunately, it was not picked up for a second season. But it’s available on Netflix and is extremely good. Not quite Misfits (but that’s  hard to top), but an excellent supernatural comedy horror show.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

To Be Alive!

Johnson's Wax Pavilion(1964)
Directed by
Francis Thompson and Alexander Hammid
Written by Francis Tompson, Alexander Hammid, Edward Field
Narrated by Edward Field
Wikipedia Entry
Most of the exhibits of the New York World’s Fair were real: models and buildings that portrayed the future and the past. But one of the most acclaimed exhibit of the fair was the Johnson’s Wax pavilion – a short movie called to be alive!
Part of it was a gimmick. This was a few years after Cinerama brought the (mixed) wonders of a super wide screen to theaters, but the fad had not quiet died yet.  To be alive! tried something similar, but instead of having three cameras projecting across one extra wide screen, it use three regular-sized screens separated by a foot of black. This was easier to deal with technically, and audiences learned to ignore the black space immediately.
The movie is the musings of a narrator, who, tired of the rat race,* starts to wax poetic about how things were when he was a child.  The movie starts with the life of a child, and then follows a life span as it celebrates human existence. 
The strength of the film is in its images, which show people from all over the world, doing what the love and enjoying the world around them. The three-screen format was a feast for the eyes.
The film was a sensation.  The New York Critics Film Circle gave it a special award, unprecedented for a nontheatrical film. It was considered ineligible for an Oscar because of its format, so they cut it down into on single-screen version that played in LA and won the award for documentary short.  While still inspiring, the movie loses much of its impact when you cut out 2/3rds of the images.  Here’s a look:

The movie, like most of the World’s Fair, was ephemeral, more so because it required special equipment to project it. But it was a minor masterpiece that deserves to be remembered.
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*The images were very similar to those used years later in Koyaanisqatsi

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Missionary

image(1982)
Directed by
Richard Loncraine
Written by Michael Palin
Starring Michael Palin, Maggie Smith, Trevor Howard, Denholm Elliott, Phoebe Nicholls
IMDB Entry

HandMade Films was a UK-based film company that had a long list of good films to its credit in the 1980s. It’s founding was due to a favor. The Monty Python group had discovered that the financing for Life of Brian fell through at the last minute, George Harrison stepped in to produce it.* The studio continued successfully for about twenty years, producing dramas like The Long Good Friday and comedies (often involving the Monty Python actors) like The Missionary.

In 1906, the Rev. Charles Fortescue (Michael Palin) is returning to England after ten years as a missionary in Africa, where his fiancée, Deborah Fairbanks (Phoebe Nicholls). Fortescue is soon given an assignment by the Bishop (Denholm Elliott) to help fallen women redeem themselves. To help set things up, Fortescue writes for money from Lord Ames (Trevor Howard) and is invited to their home, where he meets his wife Lady Isobel (Maggie Smith), who is especially interested in the project (and in Fortescue). But Fortescue goes into the work and begins to develop a . . . different way to bring the women to his church.

Michael Palin is perhaps the most underrated comedian in Monty Python, and shows off his acting in portraying Fortescue as an innocent who slowly begins to figure out what is going on. Maggie Smith is excellent (of course) as Lady Isobel, who is far from the prim and proper English lady.  Phoebe Nicholls is a wonderful surprise as the aggressively naïve fiancée** and the rest of the cast is filled with veteran UK actors who know how to make the most of their roles.

The movie is more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, but is an entertaining and somewhat bawdy delight.

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* Eric Idle called it “the most expensive movie ticket every bought.”

** When asked what she thinks a fallen woman is, she says, “Women who have hurt their knees?”

Sunday, July 16, 2017

My Hero (TV)

My Hero(2000-2006)
Created by
Paul Mendelson
Starring Ardal O’Hanlon, Emily Joyce, Geraldine McNulty, Hugh Dennis, Lill Roughley, Philip Whitchurch, Lou Hirsch
IMDB Entry
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 Thermoman (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.
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*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

New York World’s Fair

New York World's Fair(1964-65)
Wikipedia Entry

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

  • 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.

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*Disney had created many of the rides at the fair.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Good Place

(2016- )
Created by
Michael Schur
Starring Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, D'Arcy Carden, Jamella Jamil, Manny Jacinto
IMDB Entry

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.**

Good things

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.

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*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

In Memory of John Avildsen

Known best for Rocky and The Karate Kid, John Avildsen has a long list of good movies and great performances, guiding several actors to Oscar nominations and giving several household names at start.

Cry Uncle

Neighbors


Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Joey Bishop Show (TV)

Joey Bishop Show(1961-69)
Starring
Joey Bishop, Abby Dalton, Corbett Monica, Joe Besser, Mary Treen
IMDB Entry

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.

Show castThe 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.

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*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

Whale Rider

(2002)
imageDirected by
Niki Caro
Written by Niki Caro, from a book by Witi Ihmaera
Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene
IMDB Entry

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.

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*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

Good Morning, World (TV)

Opening title(1967-68)
Created by
Bill Persky and Sam Denoff
Starring: Joby Baer, Ronnie Schell, Julie Parrish, Billy De Wolfe, Goldie Hawn
IMDB Entry

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.

Good Morning World

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.

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*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

People Will Talk/The Celebrity Game (TV)

(1963,1964, 1965)

Celebrity GameCreated by Merrill Heatter & Bob Quigley
Hosted by Dennis James, Carl Reiner
IMDB Entry

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.

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*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

I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster (TV)

(1962-63)
Created by
Leonard Stern
Starring John Astin, Marty Ingels, Emmaline Henry, Dave Ketchum, Frank De Vol, Noam Pitlik
IMDB Entry

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.

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*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.