Sunday, July 8, 2018

Claudine

Claudine(1974)
Directed by
John Berry
Written by Lester Pine & Tina Pine
Starring Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs, Tamu Blackwell, David Kruger, Yvette Curtis, Eric Jones, Socorro Stephens
IMDB Entry

American movies tended toward big themes, with plenty of drama and action. The smaller films – character stories where the plot is less important than the people – is primarily a European thing.*  But every once in a while, an American film does cover this sort of ground.  Claudine is an example of this, what Virginia Woolf called a “Mrs. Brown” story that concentrates on the lives of ordinary people.

Claudine Price (Diahann Carroll) lives in Harlem, the single mother of six. She works under the table, since Welfare doesn’t pay enough, but runs the big risk of losing her benefits. She meets Rupert “Roop” Marshall (James Earl Jones), a garbageman, who asks her out on a date. Roop is bemused by the chaos of six kids, but still proceeds with the romance, even coping with the mistrust of Claudine’s oldest son, Charles (Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs),** who has seen his mother’s other husbands leave her.

Roop meets the family

Jones is wonderful.  He’s one of the country’s best actors and this is a smaller-scale role than many of his, and he manages to keep his larger-than-life persona tuned to just the right levels, with plenty of charm as a romantic leading man. Diahann Carroll is is also great – she got an Oscar nomination for it – showing humor and strength.

In addition to the romance, the film has a lot to say about the difficulties and contradictions of the U.S. Welfare system. Claudine is caught in a trap; as she says, “If I don’t feed my kids, it’s child neglect. If I go out and get a job, and make a little money on the side, then that’s cheating. I stay at home and I’m lazy. I can’t win.” The movie humanizes people on public assistance and shows just how difficult it can be.

Director John Berry had a spotty career, most due to the fact that he was a victim of the Blacklist. He was starting to work regularly in Hollywood when he was one of the names named in the witch hunt and had to move to France in the early 50s. He returned to the US in the early 60s and moved his way up to features again.This was probably his best-regarded film.

The movie was a critical success, and probably made money, though it’s small budget helped, as did a soundtrack album.by Gladys Knight and the Pips. But because it was relatively quiet in tone, it faded from consciousness.

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*Certainly Hollywood has little interest in that today.

**Pre-Kotter

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Colossus of New York

Colossus of NY(1958)
Directed by
Eugène Lourié
Written by Thelma Schnee from a story by Willis Goldbeck
Starrring Ross Martin, Otto Kruger, John Baragrey, Mala Powers, Charles Herbert, Ed Wolff)
IMDB Entry

Some directors specialize. Alfred Hitchcock was synonymous with thrillers. Ingmar Bergman was best known for angsty dramas. John Ford, the western.  And Eugène Lourié was known for giant monsters* with films like Gorgo, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and the redundantly names The Giant Behemoth.

Genius scientist Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin) is on the verge of winning the “International Peace Prize” when he is hit by a truck.**  His father (Otto Kruger), a noted brain surgeon, transplants the brain into a robotic body.

This sort of thing does not work out well.

A year later, the colossus (Ed Wolff) is suffering, losing its humanity and developing strange power, which naturally lead to a rampage.

Scientist and monster

The movie is entertaining and workmanlike. The tropes, of course, were old even back in 1958, but Lourié makes the most of them and provided an movie that’s run to watch.

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*As was Ishiro Honda, of course.

**A truck beginning, for once.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Pogo (comic strip)

(1948-1972)
Written and drawn by
Walt Kelly
Wikipedia Page

imageThere are many contenders for the best newspaper comic strip of all time. Krazy Kat was amazingly good, but most people didn’t get it. Peanuts was great, and massively popular. Calvin and Hobbes was great in all respects. There are also cases to me made for Doonesbury, Barnaby, Mickey Mouse, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Dick Tracy.You can add others to the list, but any list worth it’s salt has to include Pogo.

Pogo was created by Walt Kelly. Kelly had started out as an animator for Disney, working on Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo, among other things. But he left after the animator’s strike to work for Dell Comics, where he did the first versions of the strip. Pogo was originally a minor character, but he eventually became the center of the comic.

In 1948, he was hired as an editorial cartoonist for the short-lived New York Star, where he convinced them to run Pogo as a regular strip. The Star folded in January of 1949, but Kelly managed to find a syndicate to take over the strip.  It debuted in May.

Pogo was a funny animal strip, dealing with the foibles of the denizens of Okefenokee Swamp.* The title character is a possum, gentle and kindly, who observes and often is the victim of the madness around him. His best friend in Albert the Alligator, who’s loud, bombastic, and egotistical, but a good friend to Pogo. There’s also Howland Owl, the master of misunderstanding and creating hairbrained schemes, and his friend, Churchy LaFamme, poet, who’s close friends of Owl and falls gullibly to aid him in his schemes.**  There’s also Porky Pine, Pogo’s friend, the confirmed cynic who never smiles, and Miz Mademoiselle Hepzibah, a skunk who is Porky’s love interest.

A list of characters would go on for pages and pages. Kelly created them constantly, and somehow managed to juggle them all; even given its long run, it still has many more named and identifiable ongoing characters than just about any strip.  They could disappear for weeks and years at a time and still be instantly recognizable.

The strip also wasn’t afraid to get involved in politics, and was probably the first non-editorial newspaper comic that had a specific political slant. Most famous was its use of the character of Simple J. Malarkey, an obvious character of Joseph McCarthy, created at the height of McCarthyism. Kelly also created the Cowbirds, who represented American communists, a pig that looked like Nikita Khrushchev, and many others. Any newspaper comic that comments on politics owes a debt to Pogo,

Probably Pogo's most famous panel

But the political satire was only a small part of comic strip.Most of it involved Owl’s hairbrained schemes, misunderstandings and delightful madness.  There was some amazing wordplay, all done in a special “swampspeak” dialect that was probably the most successful way of portraying one ever written. Kelly also loved to write poems for his characters (usually Churchy), most notably his contribution to Christmas:

image

In addition to being a fine writer, Kelly was a great comic artist. The characters were simple, but full of life, and the backgrounds were incredibly detailed. Kelly often used rough lines to separate panels instead or straight ones.

He was also an innovator in lettering. P.T. Bridgeport, a circus barker, spoke in lettering like a circus poster. Deacon Mushrat spoke in a gothic font. Sarcophagus MacArbre, a buzzard who was an undertaker, has square, black-bordered speech balloon with his words in script.

Pogo’s influence on comics is immense. Anyone who did a political comic owes a debt, of course, but it’s clear that some of the great talents in the field were fans. Alan Moore wrote an episode of Swamp Thing called “Pog,” where the characters were aliens who clearly looked like Pogo and Albert. In Jeff Smith’s Bone, Smiley Bone is clearly based on Albert. 

Oddly, the comic never broke into other media. There was a half-hour animated show, directed by the great Chuck Jones, but despite the talent involved, it wasn’t very good.***  Merchandising wasn’t all the big, either, though Dell did produce a Pogo comic book.

The strip ended with Kelly’s death in 1972. An effort was made to keep it going by his widow Selby, but no one could replace him, and the smaller size of the panels made it difficult for anyone to fit it the wordplay and meticulous art that Kelly excelled in.  The strip ended in 1975.

It was revived briefly in 1989. The new version couldn’t hope to compete with the original, but it evolved into a decent strip once you stopped comparing it. Alas, it only lasted until 1993.

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*A real place in Georgia, though probably without talking animals.

**He’s always superstitious:  He showed up on the 13th of each month to saying “Friday the thirteenth is on a Tuesday (or whatever) this month!”

***Jones and Kelly did some of the character voices, too, with June Foray as Pogo

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Beat the Devil

(1953)
Beat the DevilDirected by
John Huston
Written by Claud Cockburn, Truman Capote and John Huston, based on a book by Cockburn
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Marco Tulli, Bernard Lee, Edward Underdown, Ivor Bernard
IMDB Entry

Deadpan comedy is difficult and it’s easy for the audience to miss the point.  When you see Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre is a synopsis with hints of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, you might think of a thriller, but instead you have Beat the Devil.

The movie showed Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart), a down-on-his-luck American and his wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida), who are mixed up with four ne’er-do-wells: Peterson (Robert Moreley), “O’Hara” (Peter Lorre), Ravello (Marco Tulli), and Major Ross (Ivor Barnard). Billy befriends Gwendolen Chelm (Jennifer Jones) who is traveling with her husband Harry (Edward Underdown). The group is waiting in Italy for their ship to finally set sail so they can travel to British East Africa as part of a scheme to buy land rich in uranium.

The plottersThe plot doesn’t matter as much as the characters. They are all vivid personalities, with Billy – played like a less romantic version of Rick from Casablanca – (almost) always on top of the situation.  Peterson is the brains of the organization, while “O’Hara” (who is obviously using an alias) is scheming. Major Ross is a psychopath.

The other characters also stand out. Gwendolen is an inveterate liar, her husband a silly-ass Englishman.

The movie is carried by the dialog. This was originally a straight filming of Claud Cockburn’s novel, but during shooting, director Huston hired Truman Capote to punch up the dialog. Writing a day or two ahead of filming each scene, Capote added wit and more character quirks than you could shake a stick at.

The movie failed at the box office, and Bogart hated it, probably because he lost a lot of money on it. But it’s an odd bit of film history that’s fun to watch.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

GE College Bowl (TV)

(1959-1970 (Original TV Run))
Created by
Don Reid
Hosts Alan Ludden (1959-1962), Robert Earle (1962-1970
IMDB Entry

College Bowl setGame shows can be pretty dumb. I usually prefer the “hard quiz” variety where people are asked difficult questions and have to come up with the answer.* And one of the hardest of the hard quizzes was the GE College Bowl.

The show originated in radio, where two teams of college students answered questions. When it moved to TV in 1959, the format was set.  In the first round, there would be a “toss-up” question.  If you got that question right, you would be asked a multipart bonus question on the subject that was the basis of the toss-up. You got ten points for the toss-up and different points for the bonus questions. The teams could collaborate on the bonus question. If you were wrong on the toss-up, the other team got a chance to answer. If you buzzed in before the host finished the question, that was fine if you got it right, but a five point penalty if you got it wrong.

After two halves, the team with the most points was declared the winner and the school would get money for scholarships.** If you win five weeks in a row, you were declared an undefeated champion and got extra scholarship money.

The interest in the show was the due to the quality of the questions. They were all fairly difficult and the audience had to see the teams come up with the answers.

Alan Ludden was the original host, but left to become host of Password.***  He was replaced by Robert Earle, who remained with it, staying after a switch from CBS to NBC in 1963 until it went off the air in 1970. It was a Sunday afternoon fixture until sports squeezed it out.

When I was a kid, I was able to be part of the studio audience.****  I don’t recall much of the show except the end. Earle was giving a wrap-up to the camera, but, just out of camera range, he kept clenching and unclenching his hands. It was enlightening to see someone who had done this many times before could still be nervous.

After it left the air, it was revived in various form, on radio with Jeopardy’s Art Fleming and in syndication.Eventually, though costs put an end to one of the most challenging of all game shows.

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*Or come up with a question, as the most successful of the genre, Jeopardy, does.

**$1500, which sounds pretty chintzy when you look at college tuitions today

***He’s probably best known these days as the husband of Betty White.

****My father sold GE appliances, so he had an in.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Oklahoma Kid

image(1939)
Directed by
Lloyd Bacon
Written by Warren Duff and Robert Bucker and Edward E. Paramore from an original story by Edward E. Paramore and Wally Klein
Starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Donald Crisp
IMDB Entry

In the days of the studio systems, actors had very little say in what they did. Until they became major stars – and often after --- they were treated like interchangeable parts, given roles at the behest of studio executives, who decided how to typecast them. Sometimes, thought, the executives came up with something completely incongruous, and one example of this is The Oklahoma Kid.

The movie is set in 1889, at the start of the Oklahoma land rush. Whit McCord (Humphrey Bogart) has just robbed a stage filled with newly minted money, but is confronted by Jim Kincade, the Oklahoma Kid (James Cagney). Kincade goes into town, flush with cash and immediately sets his eye on Jane Hardwick (Rosemary Lane), who is there with her father, Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp). McCord is suspicious of the new man in town with the new money, but has bigger plans:  he sneaks into the territory early and stakes a claim, which he uses to get concessions, including running the town.  Of course, he and Kinkade end up clashing.

The most obvious thing about the movie is that Bogart and Cagney are not really believable as cowboys.  The movie could easily have been set in a city. But it must have been in their contracts.

Cagney is his usual self as Kincade – brash, charming, funny – and Bogart’s McCord* is the type of gangster role he usually played against Cagney. Both give star turns in a slightly silly setting for them.

What I remember most from the film is a line spoken to Cagney. Kincade doesn’t want to take place in the land rush (which is, after all, taking land that had been promised to native Americans) and a man is mystified by it, and speaks the immortal lines. “You mean to say you got no feeling for the country? No pride in seeing a civilization carved out of the wilderness?   What kind of American are you?”  Cagney then talks about how wrong it is to take the land like that. All a surprising sentiment given the time.

The movie, like most studio films, did well and has been forgotten.  But it’s worth seeking out to see two of the most urbanized actors of the 30s were made to play out west.

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*Dressed in black, of course.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sugar and Spike (comic book)

Sugar and Spike(1956-71)
Created by
Sheldon Mayer
Wikipedia Entry

Believe it or not, at one time comic books actually were comic. Nowadays you’re hard pressed to find something other than superhero or adventure comics, but in the early days, comic book publishers covered all bases.  Romance was big for the (perceived) female audience.  And there were several humor titles.  Sugar and Spike was one of the longest running and one of the best.

The book was a creation of Sheldon Mayer, whose career coincided with the invention of the modern comic book. Indeed, it was due to his persistence that DC reluctantly published Superman. He became an editor at DC’s sister compsny, All-American Comics, and was involved in the creation of icons like the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice Society of America. But Mayer preferred to be a creator, not an editor, so he left the editor’s chair to write and draw full time in 1948, where he concentrated on humor.  And in 1956, he created Sugar and Spike.

The book is about two babies, Sugar Plumm and Spike Wilson. It was told from their point of view, with the individual conceit that they two could talk to each other in baby talk, while they could barely comprehend what adults would say*. They could also talk to baby animals.

The stories often revolved around their misadventures, with the two of them getting into trouble and dealing with the consequences. Mayer kept things inventive and fun with these twin Dennis the Menaces. Many of the jokes involved their not understanding how the real world worked.

But the adventure bug was everywhere, so by the mid-60s, Mayer started sending them on various comic adventures, usually involving their friend, the baby genius Bernie the Brain.

Paper dollsAnother popular feature of the book was the Sugar and Spike paper dolls. Each issue would show a new set of costumes you could cut out and dress the two babies in. The designs were sent it by readers, who could see their name and age immortalized in the pages.

The book ran until 1971, when Mayer was unable to draw it any more due to eye problems. Since Mayer’s contract prohibited DC from using another creative team, there was no way for it to go on even if they wanted it to.

When cataract surgery gave him his eyesight back a few years later, however, Mayer went back to drawing the characters, but by that time DC was not interested in running a humor book. Mayer continued to draw new stories, though. They were published internationally and were rarely reprinted in the US.

The strip ended everywhere when Mayer retired, though it’s fondly remembered by people who read comics of that era. Some attempts have been made to revive it,** but no one has figured out how to replace Mayer’s art and sense of humor.

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*One exception was one of their grandfathers, who was in his “second childhood” and thus understood them perfectly.

**Including one where the two have grown up to be detectives.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Phantom Boy

image(2015)
Directed by
Jean-Loup Felicioli, Alain Gagnol
Written by Alain Gagnol
Starring (Original/English) Edouard Baer/Jared Padalecki, Gaspard Gagnol/Marcus D’Angelo, Jean-Pierre Marielle/Vincent D’Onofrio, Jackie Berroyer/Vincent D’Onofrio, Audrey Tautou/Melissa Disney
IMDB  Entry

I’m a big fan of animated films, and this is definitely a golden age for the art. I also like to seek out films that are outside the beaten path. While the US and Japan are the places where most of the best animation is made, there are pockets in other countries. France, for instance.  They produced The Painting, and, more recently, Phantom Boy.

It introduces two characters. Alex (Jared Padalecki*) is a detective who is always getting in trouble when things fall apart around him.  In trouble with his boss, he runs into a couple of criminals and their mastermind/leader The Face (Vincent D’Onofrio) on the verge of committing a major crime.  Alex has his leg broken, and his boss doesn’t believe him, so he ends up in the hospital, unable to do anything. There he meets Leo (Marcus D’Angelo), a boy who is sick with a serious disease and who has a strange power:  he can leave his body and his phantom version can travel around town.  Meanwhile, Mary (Melissa Disney**), a reporter, is interested in Alex’s story.  When the Face threatens New York City, Leo and Alex team up with Mary to thwart his plans.

This is a traditionally animated film that avoids being flashy. The images, while well done, really exist to carry the story along. But the strength of the movie is in its characters. The Face makes a great supervillain*** and the relationship between the three main characters is strong and natural. Leo follows Mary and relays what he sees to Alex, who then tells Mary about them on his cell phone. Mary never understands how that happens until the end..

The movie has a charming sensibility and a sense of humor that makes it all the more watchable.  It manages to balance the crime story (with a hint of superherodom) with strong characterization and a love story.

It’s available on Netflix as of this writing.

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*In the dubbed version. I’ll be listing the US voice actors from now on.

**Yes, a relation (a distant one).

***His name come from the fact that he looks like a cubist painting. One of the nicer things of the movie is that he’s always interrupted when he’s about to explain why he looks that way.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Blob

The Blob(1958)
Directed by
Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.
Written by Theodore Simonson, Kay Linaker, from an idea from Irvine H. Millgate
Starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Olin Howland
IMDB Entry

It started with a pantheon. When I was growing up, there was one of great movie monsters.  Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Mummy were the big ones, but there was also the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Some would also add Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan. And, of course, the Blob. But while most of these (except for the Creature) was easy to find, the Blob didn’t show itself on TV in those days.*

The story starts out with Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut), two teenagers** driving out to see the stars*** when the see a meteor land nearby. While they drive to investigate, an old man (Olin Howland) who lives alone in a cabin, do so on his own. He finds a meteorite**** that cracks open like an egg, revealing a gelatinous substance.  The old man picks it up on a stick, but it jumps and then lands on his hand, causing him intense pain.  He runs to the road and is picked up by Steve and Jane, who take him to Dr. Hallen. The substance is growing and eventually absorbs the old man, and later Dr. Hallen. Meanwhile, Steve and Jane have to try to convince the police that there’s an alien threat, but, skeptical to begin with, they refuse to believe it, especially since the monster absorbs its victims, leaving no trace.

The Blob attacks!

To be honest, the movie is a bit dull.  The pacing is slow, and there are too many scenes of Steve trying to convince the police there’s a problem, made worse by one cop who thinks it’s just a prank.  The low budget also doesn’t help. While the monster is credible and not badly done at first, the climax clearly didn’t have the money for a final battle scene, so you just see the people fighting it with no shots of the blob reacting. Later, Steve and the chief cop comment on how the monster is no longer a threat without us seeing it.

But the concept of the blob is a powerful one – an original idea for a space vampire – and is what made the movie a success. 

McQueen is impressive. He has all the earmarks of a star turn, and this got him the job in the TV show Wanted Dead or Alive that started his career. His cool screen persona is already full fledge.  He was billed as “Steven McQueen”; possibly the name of his character was one reason he started calling himself “Steve.”

Most of the rest of the cast remained unknown, though Aneta Corsaut was a regular on The Andy Griffith Show and did a lot of guest starring work.

The movie is one of the better examples of the drive-in teen horror films of the 50s, and was extremely successful.*****

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* Probably because it took until I was well past my teenage years for it to have a sequel. Most of the big-name monsters had sequels galore, but it took 14 years for a Blob sequel, and that was pretty bad. The same problem affected the Creature from the Black Lagoon, with only three movies available.

**McQueen was 28 at the time, so thinking of him as a teen requires some suspension of disbelief.

***So they say. Of course, this was the 50s, so nothing dirty was going on.

****My wife pointed out that it looks like the Satellite of Love from MST3K.  Hmmm.

*****McQueen was given a choice of being paid $2500 or 10% of the gross. He took the $2500, but since the film made millions, he lost out badly.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother

image(1975)
Written by
Gene Wilder
Directed by Gene Wilder
Starring Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise, Leo McKern, Roy Kinnear
IMDB Entry
It’s the cliché that the dream of every actor to be a director. Oddly, the cliché doesn’t include becoming a writer, probably because writers are not valued in Hollywood.  Gene Wilder managed to make the trifecta of actor, writer, and direction in one film, the pastiche The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.*
After an important document is stolen, Holmes and Watson have to leave the country for awhile, so he’s giving the case to his younger (intensely envious) brother Sigerson (Wilder). Holmes sends information on the case using Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman), a man with photographic memory. Meanwhile Moriarty (Leo McKern) is out to get the document, with the help of his assistant Finney (Roy Kinnear). Just after Sacker arrives, Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn), a music hall singer and inveterate liar.
Wilder always was a great comic actor, a master of the slow reaction.**  His Siggy is impulsive and often wrong, sure of himself until Sacker points out, almost as an aside, where he was wrong.  His is motivated by his jealousy of Sherlock, who he thinks is overrated.
Feldman was also in fine form, and Madeline Kahn is, as usual, a delight. There’s a nod to her Broadway roots as she’s given a chance to sing.And Leo “Rumpole” McKern is a master of chewing scenery.
Ultimately, the movie is mildly funny, more in concept than in execution.  A more experienced director might have gotten more out of the script.***   Still, there’s enough here to make it entertaining, if not classic.
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*He had already cowrote one film with Mel Brooks:  the classic Young Frankenstein
**One of his best bits was in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), where he had to show he was falling in love with a sheep. He made it both believable and very funny.
***Wilder had originally asked Brooks to direct, but Mel didn’t want to direct any script that wasn’t his own.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

East-West (music)

(1966)
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
: Paul Butterfield (vocals, harmonica), Mike Bloomfield (electric guitar), Elvin Bishop (electric guitar & vocals), Mark Naftalin (piano, organ), Jerome Arnold (bass), Billy Davenport (drums)
Wikipedia Entry

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band were pioneers in the melding of blues, jazz, and rock in the early 60s. Led by three extremely talented musicians, the band started marking new territory in blues and rock with their first, self-titled album,* a combination of traditional blues and new material.  Their second effort, East-West, is a classic.

Butterfield, of course, led the band and did most of the vocals, but he knew how to pick talent.  His primary lead guitarist, Mike Bloomfield was an early guitar god, developing his reputation with the band. And Elvin Bishop also made his mark on the rock pantheon.

East-West uses many musical styles.  “Walkin’ Blues” is from the great Robert Johnson, while “Get Out of My Life Woman” features the New Orleans based sound of Allen Toussaint. And jazz great Nat Adderley was covered with the instrumental “Work Song.”

But it is the title song that gets all the praise. Developed by Bloomfield, it’s a 13-minute opus that’s based upon Indian classical music mixed with modal jazz, and with a memorable tune to boot.  The song was a fascinating exploration of new ways where music can go.  It became an influence for the budding jam band scene.

It was unusual for an rock albums of the time to have two long instrumental tracks. Also notable is the inclusion of the song “Mary, Mary,” written by Michael Nasmith of the Monkees.

The album was a critical success. But Bloomfield moved on soon after it was released.  He formed The Electric Flag, which put out a single album, played with Bob Dylan, and then with Al Kooper for the album Super Session. But he seemed to have develop a problem with drugs.**  he recorded various solo albums and projects in the 70s, but, while well-received, nothing really gelled for him.  He died in 1981 of a drug overdose.

Bishop took over as guitarist for the group when Bloomfield left; their next album, The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw*** featured him taking over the guitar parts. Eventually, he moved on to a solo career, with the hit single “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” which wasn’t really typical of his blues-based music.

Butterfield kept going, breaking up the Blues Band and recording as Paul Butterfield’s Better Days before going solo. His harmonica playing was highly influential in the field.

The album is one of the great landmarks of the era.

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*Reportedly, the first album to have the liner instructions, “This record should be played loud.”  The exhortation later became a punchline and a sign of a no-talent group, but in this case it was sincere.

**The Super Session was released with one side of Bloomfield material and another with Steve Stills. Bloomfield had been scheduled to appear on both sides, but didn’t show up for the second recording session.

***The name referred to Bishop.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Profiles in Courage (TV)

image(1964-65)
Executive Producer
Roger Saudek
Inspired by the book by John F. Kennedy
Starring Various
IMDB Entry

Not many presidents have gotten credit for a TV show. And likely John F. Kennedy is the only one.

Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize for his Profiles in Courage, a volume of short biographies of eight U.S. Senators who took a stand for doing what was right even though it ruined them politically.* After Kennedy’s death, Roger Saudek, producer of the NBC prestige project, Omnibus, convinced NBC that the book was the perfect basis for a weekly anthology series.

Seven of the eight senators from the book were profiled, as were others who were not senators, but who suffered consequences for their principled stands on important issues.

The actors involved were pretty impressive: Walter Matthau, Rosemary Harris, David McCallum, Wendy Hiller, Peter Lawford, Robert Hooks, Carroll O’Connor, George Grizzard, and many others. The two shows that still stick in my mind was the story of Edmund G. Ross, who prevented Andrew Johnson’s impeachment,** and Woodrow Wilson and his fight to put Louis Brandeis on the Supreme Court as its first Jewish justice.

The show wasn’t just dry history, but didn’t really catch on with audiences. It got an Emmy nomination, but was cancelled after one season.

It’s hard to find examples of the show online, though there are a couple at archive.org. Given its age and the fact that its in black and white, it probably doesn’t have much of a market, but I think the principles of political courage are still important today.

Thanks to Joseph Harder for the suggestion.

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*These days, there is some question as whether Kennedy deserves sole credit. It was acknowledge from the start that he worked with Theodore Sorensen. It’s clear that Kennedy chose the subjects and oversaw it, though Sorensen claimed he did most of the actual writing.

**Alas, further historical research indicates that Ross was less interested in the principle as he was the money he was bribed for his vote.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

TV Time/Jiffy Pop Popcorn (food)

(1950s-60s)

TV TimeThe 1950s were a time for food experiments, not so much in new flavors, like today, but in new and more convenient ways to prepare it. And in the time when a TV Dinner was the rage, it was unsurprising that TV Time popcorn was made.

Popcorn before this required that you pour oil into a pot (or popper if you had one and wanted to do it over a fire), heat it up, add the corn, and then shake it until it stopped popping.  Not a complicated process, but too much for the time

TV Time made the process simple.  It was a plastic container with a two-pocket pouch. The right pouch held nut oil (in solid form); the left held popcorn grains and salt.*

You’d squeeze the oil into the pan, heat it, and then add the popcorn.  You’d shake it until it stopped popcorn and ended up with a bowl of it.

Not much different from the traditional method, but it saved the step of measuring out the oil. Plus the nut oil was more flavorful than vegetable oil, so the end result was very satisfying.. 

This was our go-to for many years, up until Jiffy Pop came in 1959.  It was an aluminum pan that you just put on the heat. As a bonus, the foil covering the popcorn expanded as it popped, turning a flat pan into a big ball of aluminum-covered snack.

Jiffy Pop Before and After

TV Time couldn’t compete in the convenience game, and and Jiffy Pop popped it out of the water for spectacular presentation.  And later popcorn makers and microwaves made stovetop cooking of popcorn as obsolete as home churning butter. 

Like most products, there’s little information on what happened to it. It went through various owners.  The last seems to have been Great Western Foods, which still seems to sell similar products called “Portion Packs,” but which use canola oil, so it’s not the same.**

Jiffy Pop is still around, since it’s owned by agricultural giant ConAgra. 

But for many years, TV Time was what we mean when we wanted popcorn at home.

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*Later iterations had a place to cut off one corner to pour out the excess salt. For some reason, that always impressed me.

**It also looks like the sell primarily in bulk.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Buster Crabbe (actor)

image(1908-1983)
IMDB Entry

Buster Crabbe was the king of Saturday morning.  He started out in serials, and when TV came along, he was a success in that, too. If you wanted live-action adventure on Saturday mornings, odds were you saw Buster Crabbe.

Crabbe grew up in Hawaii, where he became a swimming champion, winning a bronze medal in 1928 and a gold in 1932. The latter was held in Los Angeles, so it was natural that he follow in the footsteps of and earlier swimming medalist, Johnny Weissmuller.*  After a few bit parts, he followed in Weissmuller’s footsteps in another way: he played Tarzan in the serial Tarzan the Fearless.

The role didn’t lead to much for several years, until in 1936, when he was cast in the part that he became fully identified with:  Flash Gordon.

Crabbe’s serial became the definitive version of the character, as he faced off against the peril of Charles Middleton’s Ming the Merciless. The special effect were crude, even by the standards of the time.**

The serial was a sensation. A sequel, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars was released in 1938, and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe came on in 1940.In between, he portrayed the other big name of pulp SF, Buck Rogers.

The serials are dated, but you can still see why they were popular and still relatively entertaining.***

Crabbe continued in serials, mostly westerns (including some programmers where he portrayed Billy the Kid as a hero). And when TV came along, he created the role of Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion.

imageAs the title indicated, Captain Gallant was a commander of a foreign legion fort in Morocco. His son, Cullen Crabbe costarred as the legion’s mascot. The first season was actually shot on location in Morocco with some real legionnaires in bit parts. Gallant would deal with various local villains and uprisings. I remember watching reruns of it on Saturday mornings, long before I had seen the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers serials.

After Captain Gallant, Crabbe was semiretired, appearing in various guest shots, including playing “Brigadier Gordon” in the TV version of Buck Rogers.

Crabbe died in 1983, leaving behind memories of adventures in young people’s minds.

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*Weissmuller’s Tarzan career overshadows the fact that he was a dominant freestyle swimmer, with five gold medals and a bronze.

**Though I must admit I was fascinated by the spaceships – hanging in the air giving off sparks and a strange buzzing sound.  Many of the sets were recycled from earlier productions, as was the music.

***Buck Rogers isn’t quite as good, partly because it had an inferior villain, Killer Kane.  I found it hard to take him seriously, since we used to sell a dandelion killer by that name – a cane filled with weed killer.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Addams Family (book)

(1965)
by Jack Sharkey

TAddams Familyhe Addams Family are, next to The Simpsons, arguably the greatest comic family franchise, and still going strong today, appearing in live TV, animated TV, movies, cartoons, and even more.*  And when the TV show went on the air, the idea came to do a tie-in novel.  The result was The Addams Family by Jack Sharkey.

Sharkey was a hack in the very best meaning of the word:  he cranked out dozens of books in all genres over the years,** and is clearly at home with the macabre comedy of Addams.

The book is often described as a novel, but it’s really just a collection of short stories. And they’re all hilarious.  Sharkey captures the weirdness of the New Yorker cartoons with a macabre sense of humor that matches Addams's own. The basic stories included an introduction to the family, the story of how they got Thing, and several others.

My favorite was “From Here to Perplexity,” when Fester was accidentally drafted into the army and had to undergo a physical. Among other things, they discover he has no fingerprints and weighs 0 pounds.  And what he looks like under his cloak . . .

There’s also “Dear Old Mold and Ghoul Days,” where Wednesday and Pugsley have to go to school, where their teacher is enamored beyond sense by a certain obscure poet.  Who Grandma Addams knew …

And “That Was the Weakness that Was,” where Gomez sets himself up to find ways to make monsters less vulnerable to sunlight or silver bullets or the like.

The book suffered the fate of all tie-ins: it was published to cash in and then vanished. It seems to have sold well enough, since there are reports online of many people who found it, picked it up, and fell in love with it.*** It should definitely appeal to readers nowadays, who can appreciate macabre humor.

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*Despite their being his most famous creation, Charles Addams actually produced very few Addams family cartoons.  I can think of only a dozen or so offhand, and only some of those featured more than one character.  Pugsley (ironically one of the least used characters of the TV show) had several panels to himself (notably when he was blowing up his train set) and Fester showed up occasionally, but I’ve come across very few that showed them as a family.  (I don’t think they were conceived in that way: Addams just used a few existing characters when he did his family panels.)

**This one appears to be a work for hire: the copyright is not in his name.  I remember his name from an SF short story “Multim in Parvo,” which is really a series of short jokes.

***A second tie-in novel was written during the run of the show: The Addams Family Strikes Back! by W.F. Miksch.  It was an actual novel about the family taking on a school board, but is no more than mildly amusing and not particually Addams=like.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

image(1966)
Directed by
Norman Jewison
Written by William Rose, from a novel by Nathaniel Benchley
Starring Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Alan Arkin, Brian Keith, Jonathan Winters, Paul Ford, Theodore Bikel
IMDB Entry 

The Benchley family has a long history of having their books turned into film.. Robert Benchley is still considered one of the greatest of American humorists and both acted and made a series of short films that are still very funny today. His grandson, Peter Benchley, is known for a little book he wrote named Jaws, which was turned into a movie. And in between is Nathaniel Benchley, who wrote a cold war satire, The Off-Islanders, which was turned into the comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.

The story begins when a Soviet sub runs aground near a New England island. Not wanting an international incident on his hand, the captain (Theodore Bikel) sends his political officer Rozanov (Alan Arkin) to try to quietly find a boat to tow them into deep water. He gathers a small crew and lands on the island, running into Walt Whitaker (Carl Reiner), and being forced to reveal their identity due to a misunderstanding. Then things get crazy and the people of the town react to the threat, and the police chief (Brian Keith) tries to get a handle on it.

The movie mixes slapstick* and some nice human moments with what was a strong message that was somewhat surprising given it’s era.

This was Arkin’s first screen role, which got him an Oscar nomination. He’s excellent as a man trying to get a simple job done and is thwarted at every turn. Reiner has one of his better film parts, and Brian Keith shows the calm imperturbability that was his trademark.**

The most memorable piece of the film for me, was when the Russians meet up with a young boy. None spoke English and were given a phrase to use in case anyone was suspicious:

My brothers and I used to run around with that catchphrase whenever something went wrong.

In addition to Arkin, the film was also nominated for a best picture and two other Oscars, and won three Golden Globes. Director Norman Jewison has a long and successful film career, helming Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night and many other films.

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*The screenplay was written by William Rose, who also wrote It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad,Mad, World.  In this case, though the slapstick works. (I’m not a fan of IAMMMMW.)

**Jonathan Winters is wasted. This isn’t surprising: Jonathan Winters was always wasted.  His larger-than-life talent and improvisational genius made it hard to fit him into a scripted film.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Gregory’s Girl

image(1980)
Directed by
Bill Forsyth
Written by Bill Forsyth
Starring Gordon John Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Allison Forster, Caroline Guthrie, Clare Grogan, Robert Buchanan, Graham Thompson
IMDB Entry

Bill Forsyth made his name as a director of low-key and charming comedies like Comfort and Joy and Local Hero.  He concentrated on character, not situation and his stories always had a quirky sensibility. This first became apparent with his very first feature, Gregory’s Girl.

Gregory (Gordon John Sinclair) plays on his school’s football* team in Glasgow, Scotland.  The team isn’t doing well, so the coach decides to take on Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), who turns out to be an excellent player.  She replaces Gregory on the team, but he doesn’t care – he has a tremendous crush on her.  His sister Madeleine (Allison Foster) asks him to go on a date. She agrees, but it doesn’t go the way that Gregory envisioned.

Now, in most teenage comedy of this nature, you’d expect some slapstick hijinks and sexual innuendo. But this isn’t that sort of movie. The result of the date is so filled with charm about the clumsiness of young love that you end up smiling gently as it unfolds.

Much of the cast came from the Glasgow Youth Theater and few had any acting credits before, and the come across as supremely natural. Sinclair captures the confusion and innocence of high school love** and the embarrassment of trying to figure out the rules.***

The actors never became big names and only Clare Grogan is known in the US to fans of Red Dwarf, where she played Christine Kochanski.  There was a sequel in 1999, Gregory’s Two Girls, that did poorly and was never released in the US.

But the movie is still a landmark in portraying teenagers trying to navigate the intricacies of blooming relationships.

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*Soccer to Americans.

**Probably a bit dated these days with people being exposed to the Internet.

***I will say in among it all, one of my favorite moments is the subplot of two of Gregory’s friends, Andy (Robert Buchanan) and Charlie (Graham Thompson). Unable to deal with the lack of love lives, they learn that Caracas, Venezuela had a shortage of me and figure it would improve the odds.  So they decide to hitchhike there. After several hours and no rides, They realize they have mispelled “Caracas,” and one blames the other for the mistake on the sign which kept them from achieving their goal.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Big Eyes

Big Eyes(2014)
Directed by
Tim Burton
Written by Scott Alexander, Larry Karazewski
Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, John Polito
IMDb Entry

Tim Burton made his reputation as a director making films about weird and larger-than-life characters, with characters who were not particularly outre. Big Eyes was something of departure for him: a fairly straight biopic based on real events. Instead of strange characters, it has a bizarre story that makes it a fascinating film.

In the late 1950s, Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) packs up her daughter and leaves her husband. Margaret is an artist, which only makes it harder for a woman trying to make her way. But she meets and marries Walter Keane (Chrisoph Waltz), an artist and real estate salesman, who recognizes that her paintings of children with oversized eyes might be successful.

They are, beyond their wildest dreams. But as time goes by, Walter begins to claim that he was the artist behind the paintings. Margaret is caught between wanting recognition for her work and fearing that if the truth came out, she would be party to fraud (since Walter told her she would).

Walter and Margaret

Margaret is psychologically under the thumb of her manipulative husband, and Adams is wonderful at portraying her timidity and frustration. You understand that all she wants to do is paint and be recognized, but that Walter managed to manipulate all her fears to his own advantage.

Christoph Waltz has never put in a bad performance* and he wonderful here: oily, smarmy, doing everything to suck up and sell, and then becoming petulant and nasty when things don’t go his way. He’s charming at first, and clearly falls into his impersonation by accident until the image overtakes his common sense.

While this is different in tone from much of Burton’s work**, you can see the appeal: like many of his characters dating back to Edward Scissorhands, she is a creative type who is frustrated by the world around her.

The movie was a modest success, which is a kiss of death in this age of blockbusters.  Amy Adams won a Golden Globe, but it was ignored by the Oscars and faded away.

But it’s a wonderful story about a woman finding the strength to get away from the toxic elements of her life.

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*I was going to say he never had a bad movie, but he did do the execrable Horrible Bosses 2. He is the best thing about the movie by far. One thing I found illuminating: they showed bloopers during the credits. Most of the other actors blew lines, but Waltz’s was when there was a mechanical malfunction – and they immediately said it would go in the blooper reel. Which means he never actually blew a line.

**Burton actually collected Margaret’s big-eyed children before he joined the project.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Raggedy Man

image(1981)
Directed by
Jack Fisk
Written by William D. Wittliff
Starring Sissy Spacek, Eric Roberts, Sam Shepard, William Sanderson, Tracey Walter, Henry Thomas, Carey Hollis Jr.
IMDB Entry

Raggedy Man is a low-key film with some great performances and memorable moments, dealing with the human side of

Nita (Sissy Spacek) is a divorced mother of two, living in a small town in Texas during World War II. She works as the town’s only telephone operator*, unable to leave the job because her boss tells her it’s frozen due to the war. Teddy (Eric Roberts), a young sailor comes to town, looking for a phone. He’s calling his girlfriend, who breaks it off.  With nothing better to do, Teddy remains, bonding with Nita’s two sons Harry (Henry Thomas**) and Henry (Carey Hollis, Jr.). But gossip arises as Teddy become friendly with Nita.  At the same time, a couple of the village tough me (Tracey Walter and William Sanderson) have ideas about what a divorced woman might want in a time when divorce was disgraceful. And then there’s the mysterious Raggedy Man (Sam Shepard), who lurks around the town.

Spacek is at the top of her form: vulnerable, shy, and frustrated by the difficulties of her position.  She and Roberts make a charming couple and the movie works as a slice of life of the time.  Sanderson and Walter are great character actors, brining plenty of menace to their roles.

First-time director Jack Fisk was (and still is) married to Spacek.  It wasn’t blockbuster, which isn’t surprising: Americans don’t flock to the type of character centered film this was.*** Fisk only directed a few more times before turning to some success as a production designer.

But this is a movie with a lot of good things, and a few surprises.

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*The old-fashioned kind, who has to connect every phone call.

**Despite the telephone switchboard, he doesn’t phone home.

***The ending may have been added to help counteract this. It has action and drama, but does contrast from the gentle observation of the rest of the film.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Short Cuts

(1993)
Short CutsDirected by
Robert Altman
Written by Robert Altman & Frank Barhydt, from the writings of Raymond Carver
Starring Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Mathew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey, Jr., Madeline Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis
IMDB Entry

Robert Altman is one of the most underappreciated of all great American directors. He never won an Oscar, and few of his movies were hit, but he had a distinct style and always tried to do something more than just the usual. Short Cuts is one of his best efforts, and one that seems to be fading from memory.

It’s not easy to describe the plot. Altman took several stories from Raymond Carver and put them together. Carver was well-known in literary circles, who considered him a master of the short story.* Altman took these stories and used them to create a mosaic of life in Southern California in the 80s.

The characters are introduced, skillfully drawn and then go about their lives, often intersecting with one another in mundane and tragic ways. There are affairs, and death, and plenty of surprises.  It’s a rather bleak landscape overall, but the film is emotionally affecting.

The multiple storylines was a trademark of Altman, who did it better than anyone. The fact that he was well respected is shown by the names in the cast, most of whom worked at far less than their usual rate for the chance to direct. He was known to encourage improvisation, and, of course, was the greatest director of overlapping dialog since Howard Hawks.

The movie gained ecstatic reviews from critics, but was overlooked when it came to the Oscars.  Altman got a nomination (but lost, of course), but nothing else. Part of that was the ensemble cast: great performances, but as a group. The Golden Globes recognized that and gave an award for best cast.

The film, like most of Altman’s did poorly at the box office.** The movie had an R rating, which didn’t help, and was over three hours long. And it was probably hard to market to people who were looking for a more traditional film.

But it’s an example of a genius at the top of his form taking the works of a genius and making a masterpiece.

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*There’s been some backlash about his minimalistic style, but I found his stories fascinating.

**Altman’s one big hit was M*A*S*H. He later said that it was its success that got him financing for other projects because people would think he might repeat it. Altman himself did not make anything other than his original directing fee; he said years later that his son made more money than he did from the movie: his son had written lyrics for the theme song, so got residuals whenever it was played on the TV show.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Rhinoceros (music)

Rhinoceros(1968-69)
Members:
John Finley (vocals), Michael Fonfara (keyboards), Danny Weis (guitar), Doug Hastings (guitar), Alan Gerber (keyboards, vocals), Jerry "The Bear" Penrod (bass), Billy Mundi (drums)
Wikipedia Entry
In the mid-60s, the phenomenon of the supergroup came to pass. The basic definition was a group made up of musicians who had been successful with other groups. The first was probably Cream, where Clapton, Bruce, and Baker had already established themselves with John Mayall and Graham Bond. Later, of course, Clapton and Baker joined forces with Steve Winwood and Ric Grech to form the superest of supergroups, Blind Faith (along with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young).
Rhinoceros was an attempt to manufacture a supergroup.
Elektra Records producer Paul Rothschild decided to create a group of semiestablished rock musicians and promote them heavily. After a series of auditions, the nucleus of the group was formed,
The problem was that people with successful groups didn’t usually want to leave them, so the original members were not exactly household names.  Danny Weis and Jerry Penrod had been with Iron Butterfly, but had left before they hit it big. Billy Mundi was the original drummer for Frank Zappa’s Mothers.  The rest were talented musicians who had never quite hit it big.
Rothschild got the group together and they recorded their self-titled album. The album is decent, though without any of the standout songs that turn unknowns into stars.  A second album. Satin Chickens, was released, but did even worse and the group disbanded. 
About the only recognition the group got was for the funky instrumental, “Apricot Brandy,” which was used as a theme song for the BBC.

It’s tough enough to keep a group together when you worked together for years to make it to the top, and when you’re basically thrown into a room and told you were bandmates, it’s not surprising they didn’t last long.
But it’s a bit unfair. If they hadn’t had the “supergroup” label*, people might have taken them more seriously. The pretentiousness of it made people skeptical, and they wanted something spectacular. The quality of the band was secondary to its hype, and they’ve been forgotten.
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*Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia talked about how they should have been called “Supergroup.”

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.