Sunday, April 23, 2017

Chicken Fat (song)

Written by
Meredith Willson
Performed by Robert Preston
Wikipedia Entry

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

Comedy Tonight (TV)

Robert Klein, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, MacIntrye Dixon, Judy Graubart, Marty Barris. Robert Merrill, Jerry Lacy
IMDB Entry

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

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

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
IMDB Entry

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

Topper (TV)

Anne Jeffreys, Robert Sterling, Leo G. Carroll, Lee Patrick, Buck
IMDB Entry

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.

Cast of TopperGeorge 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

Wild in the Streets

Wild in the Street(1968)
Directed by
  Barry Shear
Written by Robert Thom
Starring Christopher Jones, Shelley Winters, Diane Varsi, Hal Holbrook, Richard Pryor.
IMDB Entry

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

Dr. N!Godatu (TV)

Dr. N!Godatu(1987)
Written by
M. K. Brown
Starring (voice): Julie Payne
Tribute Page

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

Tightrope (TV)

Created by
Clarence Green, Russell Rouse
Starring  Mike Connors
IMDB Entry

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

Flushed Away

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.
IMDB Entry

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

Leon Redbone (music)

(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.

imageRedbone’s origins are unclear. He started performing in the early 70s in Toronto. After an endorsement by Bob Dylan, he got a record contract and released his first album, On the Track, in 1975.**

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

Marital Blitz (book)

By Stan and Jan Berenstain

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
IMDB Entry

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.

any similarity between Hellzpoppin' and a motion picture is purely coincidentalWe 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).  Stinky MillerDuring 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

The Incredible Jewel Robbery (TV)

Directed by
Mitchell Leisen
Written by Dallas Gaultois, James Edmiston
Starring Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Groucho Marx
IMDB Entry
Full Movie on ShoutTV

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.

Harpo as GookieBut 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 

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


Slaughterhouse Five(1972)
Directed by
George Roy Hill
Written by Stephen Geller, from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut
Starring Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche, Valerie Perrine
IMDB Entry

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 SteambathIt 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

The Hall-Mills Murder Case (history)

Wikipedia Page

Hall & MillsEvery 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 Pig WomanThe 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

Mr. Holmes

Mr. Holmes(2015)
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
IMDB Entry

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.

Roger and HolmesIt’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 . . .

**Of course.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross (music)

Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross
Wikipedia Entry

I’ve been doing this blog for over ten years, with 570 posts so far.  That’s a lot of entries, and these days it’s sometimes hard to figure out new entries that might fit.  And it was only this week that I realized I had overlooked one of the greatest vocal acts ever: Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

Jon Hendricks (b. 1921) was a jazz singer, performing at a very young age. After WWII, at the encouragement of Charlie Parker, he moved to New York and established himself. 

Hendricks was attracted to the idea of “vocalese,” where a singer would take a jazz standard – usually an instrumental solo -- and add lyrics to make it singable.  He would add some scat singing to fill out the sound.

Dave Lambert (1917-1966) also was a jazz singer who started out even earlier than Hendricks.  He also was was a fan of vocalese and began to work with Hendricks.  They realized they needed a woman to fill out the sound, and Annie Ross (b. 1930) joined the group.

Their first album, Sing a Song of Basie, put them on the jazz map.  They took songs made famous by the Count Basie orchestra and used their voices like instruments, singing what was performed by saxophones and trumpets.  It was – like all their albums – a tour de force. They originally wanted another female voice to help out, but Ross didn’t like the idea.* So they invented double tracking so she could sing two parts at once.

The followed this up with Sing Along with Basie, which was more of the brilliant same, with Count Basie taking part in the sessions.  After an album, The Swingers!, which is hard to find information about, they recorded their masterpiece.

It was released as The Hottest New Group in Jazz!, but is now just referred to by the name of the group.  It is absolutely amazing from start to finish, highlighted by Ross’s witty “Twisted.” 

To really see what is going on here (though you don’t need to to love the song), here is the original instrumental:

In a sense, though, this example is misleading.  Their sound involved teaming and harmonies and all three of the people singing at once.

The album is one of the milestones of jazz.**

The group recorded two more albums” Lambert, Hendricks & Ross Sing Ellington (doing for him what they did for Count Basie) and High Flying with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

Annie Ross left the group in 1962.  Lambert and Hendricks recruited Yolande Bavan to replace her.  As Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan, they put out three live albums, but the group ended, sadly, in 1966, when Dave Lambert died after being accidentally hit by a tractor-trailer while trying to fix a flat tire.

Both Hendricks and Ross continued to perform to much acclaim, but it just wasn’t the same.  In 1985, Hendricks worked with the Manhattan Transfer*** to put out the album “Vocalese,” which is the closest thing to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross since then.

It’s actually hard to find most of their work.  Only The Hottest New Group in Jazz! is available on its own (though it has been expanded).  There is a compilation of all their albums out, but it’s seems to have only appeared in Europe.

Still, it’s all worth the effort.  These are (as I was told when I bought the album) “three cool cats.”

*She has said she wanted to be the only girl in the group.

**I purchased a copy of it (in vinyl) from a small record store, Apex Music Korner in Schenectady.  The storeowner was definitely impressed, that one of those college kids had an appreciation of jazz.

***I saw the group when I was in college.  They were terrible.  The problem seems to be is that they had had an almost complete turnover of personnel and direction from when the concert was booked, and they hadn’t had time to rehearse the new act.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Joan Armatrading (music)

image(1950- )
Wikipedia Entry
Joan Armatrading Web Page

Some musical artists, despite their great talent, never seem to break through to fame. They produce superior music for years, but never become stars.  This was certainly a case for Joan Armatrading, who was successful enough in her base in the UK, but never became the name she richly deserved to be in the US.

She was born in the Caribbean, on the island of St. Kitts and moved to Birmingham in the UK when she was seven.  When she was 14, she started writing her own songs and lyrics, picking them out on the family’s piano.  Eventually, she got a guitar and began to write more material, starting to appear in local clubs.  Eventually, she joined up with lyricist Pam Nestor to release her first album, Whatever’s For Us in 1972.

The album didn’t make much of a splash. She soon split from Nestor and wrote all her own lyrics.  Back to the Night was released as a solo and didn’t create many ripples, either, but her third was the charm.  Joan Armatrading went gold, and her single “Love and Affection” made the UK charts.

Her songs were a eclectic mix of folk, blues, Caribbean styles, and rock. He voice had a good range, but she generally sung in the mezzo-soprano range, her lower voice making her singing more intimate.  She wrote about love and relationships is ways you often didn’t see.

She followed up with Show Some Emotion, whose title tune is just one more wonderful moment.  It started making inroads into the US market, but the next, a live album Steppin’ Out did not chart.*

Her next effort, Me Myself I, was her most successful effort, with the title song a minor UK hit.  She continued to record, going gold and silve in the UK, but never making a mark on the US except in underground station.

But it’s not her albums that make her great.  It’s her songs – some not even released as singles.

Love and Affection

I just love the opening lines.

I’m Lucky

 Drop the Pilot

And the delightfully perverse rocker Call Me Names**

Armatrading’s career peaked in the 1980s and she stopped appearing on the charts.  She had a revival in 2007 with the blues album Into the Blues, which hit #1 on the blues charts, and she continues to perform and record today.

She is certainly appreciated in the UK, where she’s been named an MBE, but only a relatively small number of people in the US know of her and appreciate what a fine talent she is.

*In the UK, all these albums made the top 20.

**Listening to it carefully for this entry, I realized that the first person sections of the song are from the point of view of the man.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Other People’s Money

Other People's Money(1991)
Directed by
Norman Jewison
Written by Alan Sargent, from a play by Jerry Sterner
Starring:  Danny DeVito, Gregory Peck, Penelope Ann Miller, Piper Laurie, Dean Jones
IMDB Entry

Corporate takeover artists are usually the villains of a film, but sometimes there is a more nuanced view of the issues.  Other People’s Money deals with as nasty a corporate raider as you’ve ever seen, but doesn’t paint him entirely as the villain.

His name is Lawrence Garfield (Danny DeVito) – known in the business as “Larry the Liquidator” for his penchant for finding overvalued companies, buying them up, and then selling off their assets.  His next target is a small company, New England Wire & Cable, which is a major employer in the small town it is situated in.  Its president, Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson (Gregory Peck) is the type of enlightened company head we like to see in films (think George Bailey).  He resists Larry, hiring his stepdaughter Kate (Penelope Ann Miller) to convince him to back off.  Of course, that doesn’t go well, and there is a ton of quiet and nasty behind-the-scenes maneuvering and double crosses, leading to the climactic shareholders meeting where both Jorgy and Larry make their cases.

The movie is impressive because it’s not all black and white.  Both Jorgy and Larry have some strong points to be made, and the film tries to get away from the cliches.

DeVito is perfectly cast as the crude and overbearing Larry, a man who is completely ruthless when money is concerned..  Gregory Peck brings his usual quiet dignity to Jorgy.

Director Norman Jewison had a long history in Hollywood when the film was made, directing films like In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, Moonstruck and many others.  This wasn’t a big hit, but I do like the way they avoided the easy cliches of the situation.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Whit Bissell (actor)

Whit Bissell(1909-1996)
IMDB Entry

Character actors may never be the star, but they are essential to the success of a movie. They have to make an impression that they’re more than just someone walking on and speaking a line, but not be overwhelming.  Sometimes they just fade into the background afterwards.  And Whit Bissell was one of the best.

Bissell took to the theater early, appearing on Broadway in 1933, when he was 24.*  He worked very consistently on the stage for over ten years, then tried his hand a films.  Many of his early roles were uncredited; his first credit was in Brute Force as one of the prison guards.  From then on, there was no stopping him, and he’d appear in 6-10 movies a year.  In the mid-50s, he started to find the niche in which he’s best remembered:  science fiction films.  Starting with Target Earth, he fell into the characterization that became his trademark:  a scientist or other authority figure who was there to help the hero.** 

He had a small but pivotal role in the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one of the two actors in the frame tale.***

His biggest film roles were as a scientist (of course) in the drive-in classics I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein.

As the studio system died, he switched to TV as an all purpose actor.  Despite being in the medium almost from the beginning, he didn’t have any recurring roles until 1965 (a seven-episode stint in Peyton Place).  His first regular role wasn’t until the next year, where he played General Kirk**** in The Time Tunnel.  He also appeared in Star Trek’s “The Trouble with Tribbles” as the manager of the space station where the trouble began.

Bissell continued to work regularly in TV until the early 80s, when he seemed to retire.  Overall, he appeared in over 300 shows and movies, making his face one of the most familiar of all actors.

*His debut, appropriately enough, was small -- one of the cards in Eva LaGallienne’s version of Alice in Wonderland.

**I note that in The Atomic Kid, he was billed as “Dr. Edgar Pangborn.”  Pangbourn had a couple of novels out at this time, though not his masterpiece Davy.

***The two scenes – at the beginning and at the end of the movie – were added to the film because the studio wanted a more hopeful ending.  Director Don Siegel hated the change.

****A general was almost the same as a scientist in 50s SF.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Nichols Damp-Proof Salt Shaker


There are some ideas that are simple and elegant and solve a common problem, but which never catch on.  Maybe it’s poor management, maybe it’s the economy, but the better mousetrap just doesn’t draw people to its doors.  The Nichols Damp-Proof Salt Shaker solved the problem of salt getting moist and clumping, and was a major part of my growing up.


The shaker was designed so that moisture could not get inside without any lids or covers.  The design was clever:  a cylinder of metal with holes at the top attached to something like a screw on lid (left above). There was a glass shell (right).*  You turned the glass upside down and poured in salt (not too much, or you couldn’t close it).  Then you screwed the bottom onto the glass and turned it so that the metal was down.

And there you were.  The bottom was flush with the table, and moisture couldn’t get inside. 

To use it, you picked it up and shook it up and down. Salt would go to the top of the cover and then fall through the holes onto your food.  Then you’d put it down and it would be sealed again.  Each shaker came with a rolled up bit of paper with instructions.

A nice bonus was that you could control how much salt came out.  Each shake would add the same amount, so it was easy to control.  Plus you couldn’t accidentally pour out too much salt if your hand was jostled.

Alas, the Nichols company had hard sledding bringing out the product during the Depression.  They finally went out of business, probably around 1940 or so.  My grandfather, however, ran a small general store on Eastern Long Island, an area where humidity was high.  When they failed, he bought the entire stock from his wholesaler. and continued to sell them.

They were in the store in the 60s, when I was in high school, with several boxes in the back in storage.  They were the only salt shakers on our table and I was surprised to find people used other ones.

By the 1970s, though, our supply was gone.  The patents lapsed and a memorable part of my childhood was gone forever.

*This shows my favorite design. I liked the egg shape.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Dish

The DishDirected by
Rob Sitch
Written by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, Rob Sitch
Starring Sam Neill, Patrick Warburton, Tom Long, Eliza Szonart, Tayler Kane
IMDB Entry

Great events are usually the subject of epic movies.  That’s all fine, but sometimes we have to remember that ordinary people are sometimes caught up in them.  And that’s the premise of The Dish.

It’s 1969 and the radiotelescope in Parkes, Australia has a big job:  to be the backup antenna for TV signals from the first moon landing.  Parkes is a pretty laid back place, where Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill) presides over a motley crew of scientists and whose biggest problem is to keep the local sheep away.  But a change in schedule makes Parkes the primary receiver, with the responsibility of broadcasting the signal to the world.

There are some snags and problems along the way, but the movie concentrates on the quirky characters of the town, and how they react to being thrust on the world stage.  It’s more a character study than an drama, and is consistently amusing.

Sam Neill was fine in the lead.  This was one of his Australian films; he had a streak of good movies made down under including A Cry in the Dark, The Piano, and Sirens.

Director Rob Sitch made his name with his earlier film The Castle – also a quirky comedy – but moved on to TV, where he produced various talk and sports shows.  It kept him busy, but he only directed one feature after this.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

You Are There (TV)

You are there(1953-57)
Created by
Goodman Ace
Presented by Walter Cronkite
IMDB Entry

In the early days of TV, the networks took their obligation to inform very seriously.  It wasn’t just news – it also included an obligation to teach history in an entertaining form.  You Are There was how CBS managed to meld history and entertainment, using a conceit that was brilliant.

The show covered historical events in what was (at that time) a modern manner.  It was set up as a news report from the event.  Walter Cronkite – not yet the CBS anchorman – would start the report by setting the scene.  Then, he’d go to reporters “at the scene.”

The entire thing was done as a straight news report without a hint of irony.  The reporters would give their report as if they actually were on the scene, speculating on what might happen and being surprised by events. 

The shows were a mixture of actors playing the roles, as well as stock footage.  The various reporters might show up on the scene – in modern clothes – and introduce it.  It would show the action, then return to Cronkite in the studio for a wrap-up.

Topics covered included the Hindenberg disaster, the Boston Tea Party, The Hamilton-Burr duel, the death of Socrates, they Dreyfuss Case, Benedict Arnold’s treason, and Napoleon’s abdication.  As the titles indicate, the show ranged throughout history to bring a sense of being an eyewitness to history.

Like many shows of the time, some of the actors and directors went on to have long careers.  Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer did a handful of shows, and actors who appeared included E. G. Marshall, DeForest Kelley, Whit Bissell,* Claude Akins, Dabbs Greet, Richard Kiley, Lorne Greene, Ray Walston, Jerry Paris, Tor Johnson, Fred Gwynne, Beatrice Straight, James Gregory, Charles Durning, David Jannsen, John Banner, John Cassavetes, Robert Culp, Peter Cushing, James Dean, Eartha Kitt, Burt Mustin,** Patrick McGoohan, Mildred Natwick, Rod Steiger, Joanne Woodward, Barbara Billingsly, Ray Collins, Simon Oakland, Frank Cady, Russell “The Professor” Johnson, William Schallert, Robert Vaughn, and Richard Dreyfuss***

I remember watching it at some point – either in the final season or in reruns.  I became interested in American history when my parents took me to Gettysburg, so this was right up my alley.

The show was created by radio legend Goodman Ace for the radio, though he had little to do with it on the air.

In 1971, it was decided to do a new version, in color.  Once again, Cronkite was the host, but it only lasted one year.

It was one of the joys of early TV and especially memorable is Walter Cronkite intoning “You are there” each episode.

*A very familiar face in 50s monster movies.

**Playing, unsurprisingly, “An Old Man.”

***I wasn’t going to list so many, but damn, that’s a lot of familiar names.  The show was the Law and Order of its time in giving actors employment.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait(1943)
Directed by
Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Samson Raphaelson, from a play by Lazlo Bus-Fekete
Starring Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Laird Cregar, Spring Byington, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, Allyn Joslin, Louis Calhern
IMDB Entry

The 1940s were a time when a particular type of fantasy showed up in films:  movies about ghosts and the afterlife.  Presumably, this was a reaction to a time when friends and family were dying in the war, and they often showed people moving on to a happier place.  Heaven Can Wait is one example of the genre, and one with the famous light touch of Ernst Lubitsch.

It starts out with Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) showing in the office of His Excellency (Laird Cregar) after his death.  His Excellency is the urbane master of Hell, and asks Van Cleve – who is fully expecting his fate – to explain why he expects to go to eternal suffering.  And so we see Van Cleve’s life.

From the beginning, he was a flirt, chasing and kissing girls as he got older in a way that was scandalous in the 1880s, where the film is taking place.*  As he came of age, he created consternation with his staid family (except for his grandfather Hugo (Charles Coburn)).  That’s when he found the love of his life, Martha (Gene Tierney), attracted to her immediately when he heard her lying to her mother.  But he never was able to tame his wandering eye.**

The movie is a delight, filled with gentle humor based on its characters. Charles Coburn, as usual, is delightfully funny, and the cast of Hollywood actors include such dependable delights as Eugene Pallette, Spring Byington, and Majorie Main.

Laird CregarLaird Cregar  is especially good as His Excellency, the type of urbane devil figure you see often but rarely surpassed.  Cregar was one of the great losses of 40s film, an actor who always impressed (usually as a villain). Alas, he died at age 31.  Cregar was self-conscious about his weight (he was well over 300 pounds) and his attempt to diet (including amphetamines) led to complications and death by heart attack at age 31.

The movie was a success when it first came out, but, like most films of the era, it was slowly forgotten.  It didn’t help that Warren Beatty used the title for a different film.***  But the film remains as delightful today as it was when it was released.

*Another small trend of the era was a slightly more openness toward nonmarital sex. While the Hayes code prohibited it, directors found ways to hint at it or find ways to rationalize it (see Miracle of Morgan’s Creek)

**Of course, even with the looser morals of the 40s, they look quaintly innocent today.

***A remake of a film from the 40s, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was based on a play called  . . . yup, Heaven Can Wait.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Goodnight My Love (TV)

Boone and Dunn(1972)
Written and Directed by
Peter Hyams
Starring Richard Boone, Michael Dunn, Barbara Bain, Victor Buono
IMDB Entry

I’ve written before on my feelings for made-for-TV movies of the 70s:  most were pretty dismal affairs.  Well, since this blog is called “Great but Forgotten,” it’s also my pleasure to point out the ones that prove me wrong. Goodnight, My Love shows that the form could come up with some gems.

The film is set in the film noir world of the 1940s, and starts out with a man being murdered.  Then we discover private eye Francis Hogan (Richard Boone) and and his partner Arthur Boyle (Michael Dunn) broke and desperate for clients.  A beautiful dame, Susan Lakely (Barbara Bain) comes in and hires them to find her boyfriend.  They take on the job, and it leads to the gang leader Julius Limeway (Victor Buono), who tells them the scram.  But it turns out that Lakely has not been entirely honest with them.

Peter Hyams wrote and directed.  At the time, Barry Diller of ABC gave many directors their first breaks, and he greenlit this Raymond Chandler pastiche about a world weary private eye and dwarf partner.  The dialog has just the right amount of cynicism and the same worldview as Chandler.*

The cast is perfect.  Richard Boone is perfect in this sort of role:  gruff and hangdog.  I’ve always been a fan of Michael Dunn, and, as usual, he was great.  Barbara Bain makes an excellent femme fatale, and, of course, Buono’s trademark was the sinister Sydney Greenstreetesque fat man.**

My favorite moment is something that I’ve remembered vividly since it came out.  Boyle drives the car, set up with a booster seat and blocks on the pedals. He leaves it with valet parking, and the valet has to figure how to squeeze himself into the seat.  It’s understated and hilarious.

One of the most interesting things is a lack of a backing track.  Except for scenes in Limeway’s club, there is no music.  It’s an interesting idea, and makes the action more subdued.

The movie got some very good reviews, but like all made-for-TV movies, it’s been forgotten.  It did start Peter Hyams’s career; he went on the direct Capricorn One, Outland, Narrow Margin, and Timecop. 

*Though, of course, the prose isn’t up to his level. But very little writing is.

**Don’t judge him by Batman.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Bob Roberts

Bob Roberts(1992)
Written and Directed by
Tim Robbins
Starring Tim Robbins, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, Ray Wise, Brian Murray, Gore Vidal
IMDB Entry

Political movies in the US are relatively tame. Usually, they are wrapped in the flag, or move away from the reality into a safe alternate situation. Bob Roberts is nothing of that, and ends up being provocative, frightening, and (hopefully not) prophetic.

Roberts (Tim Robbins) is a right-wing would-be politician, who was both a successful businessman and a singer-songwriter, a conservative Bob Dylan.*  He enters the Pennsylvania senate race against liberal Brickley Paste (Gore Vidal) and the movie is a mockumentary following the campaign.  Roberts puts forth a clean image, but Bugs Raplin (Giancardo Esposito) starts to sense something is wrong.

Robbins wrote, directed, starred, and wrote the songs for the movie.  He comes across as bland, but something about him is too slick, and the character never seems as good as he looks.  He also deals with subtle moments; the most chilling portion of the film is a single shot of him tapping his foot.

The movie was well regarded at the time, but has slowly been forgotten.

*The parallel is deliberate.  His album titles mimic the titles of Dylan’s early albums.