Sunday, February 7, 2016

Rabbit-Proof Fence

image(2002)
Directed by
Philip Noyce
Written by Christine Olsen from a book by Doris Pilkingon
Starring Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh, David Gulpilil
IMDB Entry

Western treatment of native cultures was never a high point of humanity. Sometimes, it was naked cruelty and genocide, but at other times, purely good intentions were disasterous.  Rabbit Proof Fence is the story of the latter.

It’s set in Australia in 1931.  The Australian government has embarked on a policy of “helping” children born to one aboriginal and one white parent.  This policy is carried out by the Protector of Aborigines, A. O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh).  He learns of three girls, Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie Fields (Laura Monaghan) who are “half-caste,” and signs an order removing them from their home and put into a school.

They don’t go easily, but end up 1500 miles away at the Moore River Native Settlement.  The three girls hate it and decide to run away.  When they find the rabbit-proof fence, they realize that this can be their way home.*

The film follows their journey as the girls walk across the outback, scavenging and avoiding the tracker Moodoo (David Gulpilil), an agent of Neville, who quickly realizes their plan and tries to recapture them – for their own good, of course.

Branagh was wonderful, portraying a man who was certain he was doing good, but who only did evil.  It was a clever and nuanced performance.  The actresses playing the three girls were also impressive, carrying the movie.

It’s a movie that’s not quite a triumph, but not quite a tragedy, and it shines a light on a shameful part of human history.

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*A little background.  Rabbits were imported to Australia as food animals when the colony was established.  They weren’t a problem until someone released them into the wild for hunting arond 1859.  They bred like . .. rabbits and ten years later were a massive pest.  When shooting barely dented the population, various rabbit-proof fences were set up, though they only slowed the flood a bit. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Krazy Ikes (toy)

Krazy Ikes(1964 – ??)

Toymakers in the 50s and 60s loved plastic.  And why not?  It’s a cheap material, colorful, and can be used in many ways.  Building toys, especially.  When I was growing up, the main ones were Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs (both made of wood) and Erector Sets (made of steel).  But both were limited.  Lincoln Logs just allowed you to build log cabins, Tinkertoys were totally freeform, and Erector Sets were held together by nuts and bolts that were a pain to set up and take down.  When my parents took a trip to Copenhagen, they brought back a Danish toy that I had never seen in the US:  Legos.  The other toys were lost in their wake.

Not that people tried.  Whitman, Inc. had been making a toy since the 30s, and changed it to plastic.  Instead of making houses, you made people and animals.  They called it “Krazy Ikes.”

imageIt was a clever design.  There were several bodies, with little round stubs – a sphere on a short connector – for the legs, arms, and heads.  There were also heads, but the key were the arm/legs.  These snapped onto the stubs and could be moved in any position (think ball-and-socket joint).  This made the results fully artculatable and posable in any postion.  You could mix and match to make anything you wanted.

It was a brilliant idea.  Not only could you make whatever you wanted, but you could also play with them, interchange parts, and generally have fun.

Alas, the toy had a very short life.  By the 70s, it was gone.  Too bad.  I enjoyed it almost as much as Lego – and mostly because you could use your imagination.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Mott the Hoople (music)

(1969-1973)
Ian Hunter (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Mick Ralphs (guitar, vocals), Overend Watts (bass), Verden Allen (organ), Dale “Buffin” Griffin (drums)
Wikipedia entry

In memory of David Bowie and Buffin.

It’s rare that rock acts get second chances.  Their success can usually be plotted on a bell curve, and once you start to drop, it’s over except for the oldies circuit.  One notable exception was Mott the Hoople. 

imageThey first came to attention in 169 for two reasons:  A high energy album, which featured the hard rocking “Rock and Roll Queen.”  And a cover featuring artwork by M. C. Escher.*

The album put them on the map.  Made up mostly of covers, it did include works by band members Ian Hunter and Mick Ralphs.  It was not a major hit, but it put the group on the map, and people expected them to be stars.

But it wasn’t to happen.  Their follow-up, Mad Shadows, was considered a step back and their next, Wildlife, garnered little interest.**  Brain Capers did even worse*** and they lost their contract to Atlantic/Island records.  It looked like they were going to have to go back to their day jobs.

Then, David Bowie stepped in.  A fan of the group, he offered to produce their next album, and gave them one of his songs:  “All the Young Dudes.”****

The song was a hit, reaching #3 in the UK and #27 in the US.  The album of that title also charted.  The group was back in business.

But could they keep up the success without Bowie, who had other projects.  The answer was their album Mott, which was a rousing success.

The album had a theme about life of a rock and roll band.  “All the Way from Memphis” – the opening song, and a classic of rock – told of a time that Hunter once lost his guitar. 

Other songs talked about their life and their fans, but seemed to have a sense of humor about it all. The album doesn’t have a bad track on it.

But success started to take its toll.    Mick Ralphs left to form Bad Company, so the next album, The Hoople was recorded without him.  He was replaced by “Ariel Bender,” a pseudonym for Luther Gosvenor of Spooky Tooth.*****  Ian Hunter had written most of the music, so started thinking about a solo career.

The album was a step backwards, but then, that was pretty much inevitable.  Ian Hunter left for a solo career.  Watts and Buffin, tried to keep things going, but the group was just a shadow of itself, and, other than live and compilations, the group was done.

It turned out to be a short run, but with one classic album and another two that nearly reached classic status, Mott the Hoople were an important part of the 70s rock scene.

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*Escher had not quite made it in the popular culture at this point; the album cover was many people’s first experience of him.

**”Whiskey Woman” was a pretty good rocker like “Rock and Roll Queen,” but it paled to the original.

***It wasn’t helped by a amateurish cover. 

****After they had turned down “Suffragette City.”

*****Verdan Allen had quit during the Mott sessions when they wouldn’t include his songs.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

I Married a Witch

image(1942)
Directed by
Rene Claire
Written by Robert Pirosh and Marc Connelly, based on an uncompleted novel by Thorne Smith (completed by Norman Matson)
Starring  Fredric March, Veronica Lake, Robert Benchley, Susan Hayward, Cecil Kellaway
IMDB Entry

In the 1940s, there was a small boomlet of fantasy films and at some point someone thought to try to use Thorne Smith again.  Smith was a popular fantasist of the 1930s, best known today for Topper. So in 1942, French director Rene Clair got hold of an unfinished novel by Smith, The Passionate Witch and managed to convince Preston Sturges and Paramount to make it into a move.  The result was I Married a Witch.

It starts in colonial Salem, Massachusetts, where Johnathan Wooley (Fredric March) convicts Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) of witchcraft, where they are burned at the stake and the ashes buried beneath a tree, but not before Jennifer curses Wooley and all his descedants to marry the wrong woman.

In 1942, the curse continues, but a bolt of lightning frees Jennifer and Daniel.  They go seeking the descendant of Wooley – Wallace (March) who’s about to marry Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward).  Jennifer appears in a human body to torment Wooley – but ends up falling in love.

The story is slight, of course, and March and Lake make the most of their roles.*  March was the better actors, as his two Oscars show; Lake really was just a hairdo.  Still, she is fine as Jennifer, and Cecil Kellaway does a good job as her father.

The concept, of course, was used the next year in Fritz Lieber’s novel Conjure Wife and, of course, years later in Bewtitched.**

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*Evidently, they hated each other on the set

**Though the TV show just used the idea; the characters were far different

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (music)

image(1973)
Written by
Rick Wakeman
Performed by Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford, Mike Egan, Seve Howe, Alan White, Dave Winter, Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk, and others.
Wikipedia Page

I was, and still am, a fan of progressive rock of the 70s.  It’s fashionble to scoff at it, calling it bombastic (which was part of what made it great) and self-indulgent (a code sneer for mucians who produce songs that last longer than four minutes), but the concept of melding rock with classical and jazz is exciting; rock can be more than three chords (though three-chord songs can be great, too).  One of the landmarks of the genre was Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Wakeman was a keyboardist and first came to prominence as a studio musician* and was first credited as a member of the folk-rock group, The Strawbs.  He backed David Bowie and joined Yes for the Fragile album, where he became known to the public.

During his years with Yes, he decided to do a solo album, which became Six Wives.  Wakeman had read a biography of Henry VIII and he realized something he had been working on would fit in with what he was reading about Anne Boleyn.  Wakeman gathered musicians he worked with with Yes and The Strawbs and put together the album.

Each of the six songs are named after one of the six wives.  They are musical impressions – there are no lyrics, though some songs have vocals.  The order is a bit odd:  it’s not chronological.

My favorite is “Catherine Howard,” which starts out with a beautiful melody before going off into other directions.  The songs all switch from rock, to classical, to waltzes and is always interesting.

A&M Records, which distributed, thought it would be a flop:  an instrumental album of a melding of classical and rock.  But they were wrong.  It got a big boost in the UK when he performed it on The Old Grey Whistle Test.**  Wakeman got lucky:  the show competing with his performance – a biography of Andy Warhol – was cancelled at the last minute and the audience turned to – and loved – Six Wives.  The album caught on in America and went gold.

Wakeman continued success with other themed albums:  Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but he made his mark with Six Wives.

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*That’s his piano on Cat Stevens’s “Morning has Broken.”

**A UK music show that concentrated on more serious rock music.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

I Married a Monster from Outer Space

image(1958)
Directed by
Gene Fowler, Jr.
Written by Louis Vittes
Starrring Tom Tryon, Gloria Talbott, Peter Baldwin
IMDB Entry
Full Movie at the Paramount Vault.

It certainly has one of the most sensational titles from the 1950s, but I Married a Monster from Outer Space plays down the sensationalism in a story that is remiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatcher. It also has similarities to another great SF film of the era, It Came From Outer Space.

It starts out at a bachelor party.  Bill Varrell (Tom Tryon) is returning home when he hits a body in the road.  But when he checks, it’s disappeared.  Perplexed, Bill is accosted by a monster, who takes him over.

The marriage goes on, and his bride Marge (Gloria Talbott) notices strange things about him – he can see in the dark and he appears to not know things he should.  After a year, she begins to realize that her husband isn’t her husband.  But by that time the town is infested with these doppegaengers, who keep her from calling for help.

The monsters – aliens – are basically men dressed in rubber suits, but that’s normal for movies before CGI.  What makes it interesting is the subtext; it’s quite clear that Marge and her “husband” are having sex, even though she hasn’t gotten pregnant. 

The movie portrays 50s paranoia, though the monsters end up being fairly benign.

The cast and director and even the writer were working in televion and probably hoped to make the leap into features.  All worked for years afterwards, though stardom eluded them. 

The biggest star, and most successful career belongs to leading man Tom Tryon.  He grew tired of acting about ten years later and started writing horror novels.  The Other was a best seller and a movie, and he had most of his books made into films or TV miniseries.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Root Boy Slim (music)

(1944-1993)
Wikipedia Entry


I’ve always been attracted to weird music.  And as this Christmas season is upon us, I started thinking about Root Boy Slim.

Root Boy was born Foster MacKenzie III.  As his real name might indicate, he was raised in a wealth family, in private schools and eventually at Yale.*  But Root Boy was too wild to stick with his WASP upbringing; he loved being outrageous and shoking and soon was fronting a blues band.

After school, he moved home to the Washington, DC area** and formed “Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band” which developed a reputation for bizarrely theatrical shows and songs about politics an culture.

A self-published record was noticed by Warner Brothers Records, and Root Boy was signed to a contract.  The single was the delightful “Christmas at Kmart.”


The album was filled with songs scornfully commenting on the current scene.  The most successful song was “Boogie ‘Til You Puke,” a scathing takedown of the college disco scene.  Other songs included “I Used to be a Radical,’' “Dare to be Fat,” and “You Broke My Mood Ring.”  Toot Boy had a growly blues voice*** and looked far from a rock star.  His songs were fairly witty, but though the album had some airplay, it was not a success.

After that, Root Boy went from record company to record company, with various band changes,****  but little success.  Their last original album came out in 1990; Root Boy died in 1993.
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*Where he was a fraternity brother of George W. Bush, a year younger than him.  Bush banned him from the fraternity house when he returned after graduation.

**Once, high on LSD, he jumped the White House fence and actually made it to the door. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

***Similar to Captain Beefheart, though the Captain was a far more original songwriter.

****He once appeared in the Albany area as “Root Boy Slim and the Black Silk Stockings.”

Sunday, December 13, 2015

White Heat

(1949) Directed by Raoul Walsh
Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, suggested by a story by Virginia Kellogg
Starring  James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly
IMDB Entry

The gangster film was an relic of the 30s.  Usually produced by Warner Brothers, and often starring some combination of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson or George Raft, the genre gave such great films as The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Scarface, and The Roaring Twenties.  One of the last of the genre – which focused on the rise and fall of a bad guy – was White Heat.

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is a sociopath, long before the word was common.  The movie starts out with the robbery of a mail train, where Jarrett cold-bloodedly murders the crew – and one of his gang.   He holes up with his wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) and his mother (Margaret Wycherly), but when the police find them out, he confesses to a lesser crime that he says he committed at the time of the robbery and is given a short sentence.  Unconvinced he really is innocent, the police put an informant (Edmone O’Brien) in prison to gain Cody’s confidence to put him away, as well as capture some of his associates.

Cagney is electric as Cody.  He’s a character with no morals at all, and also one who is completely unpredictable.  What’s even more interesting – and quite creepy – is his fixation on his mother.  She supports him in all his endeavors, treating him as her little boy.  And Cagney’s scene when he discovers his mother is dead is one of the most emotionally raw in film of the time.

Wycherly’s mom is also memorable, a woman nearly as psychotic as her son. The movie is also known for its finale, when Cody finally gets to the top of the world.

After White Heat, things had moved toward noir.  In the late 50s there was a short revival of the gangster film, and, of course, The Godfather made great use of the genre.  But White Heat marked the end of the era of Warner Brothers gangster films in the pure form.
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*
Trivia alert:  The third guy down from Cagney when his question is passed along is Olympic Decathlon Champion Jim Thorpe.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House(1932)
Directed by
James Whale
Written by Benn W. Levy from the novel from J. B. Priestly
Starrring Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond., Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Elpeth Dudgeon,Brember Wills
IMDB Entry
Full Movie on Youtube

The original Frankenstein was a sensation, making Boris Karloff a star and putting director James Whale on the top of the Hollywood heap.  His next venture into horror was also something of a classic and defined the genre of “Strangers caught in a creepy house during a story” subgenre of horror:  The Old Dark House.

The movie starts by showing Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) driving with their friend Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) in a vicious Welsh storm.  The roads wash out, and they are forced into stopping at an old, dark house for shelter.

He house is home to the Femms:  Horace (Ernest Thesiger), wanted by the police and trapped in their house and Rebecca (Eva Moore), slightly deaf and somewhat of a religious fanatic.  Their mute butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff) skulks around the premises.

They are soon joined by two other travelers:  Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his chorus girl “friend” Gladys (Lilian Bond).  And there are other people in the house:  Horace’s centenarian father (Elspeth Dodgeon*) and his brother Saul (Brember Wills), both locked away from the others.

There is conversation and romance, creepy matters and attacks.  Nothing too terrible by modern standards, but the dialog and characters drive the plot.

Karloff is an fine menace,** but it’s really an ensemble piece.  Each actor gets a moment to show his stuff.  Laughton is great as the rich ne’er-do-well, while Thesiger is just enough off to make him worth watching.  And the entire production is shot in a dark and moody with the deep shadows characteristic of German Expressionism.

Boris Karloff & Gloria Stuart

To modern eyes, there’s a fascinating gay subtext.  Whale open about being gay – far more than most in his era -- and Laughton was considered by many to be at least bisexual.  There’s a scene at the end with some homoerotic overtones and a comment that arguably was the first use of the word “gay” to mean homosexual in a mainstream source.

In any case, the film was successful, and spawned many imitators, so much so that the situation became a cliché.  Though the acting is crude by current standards, the film stands out for its humor and its concentration on character.

Whale continued his winning streak of horror with The Invisible Man and his masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein (which also included Karloff and Thesinger), and with the musical Show Boat. 

The others in the cast were also very successful.  Laughton and Douglas won Oscars and Massey was nominated for one.***  Gloria Stuart is best known to modern audiences today as Old Rose in Titanic, and nearly all the rest worked regularly in films into the 1950s or later.

The film became forgotten partly due to rights issues and partly because it was sandwiched between Whale and Karloff’s two Frankenstein films.  But it still had plenty to offer viewers today.

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*She was billed as John Dudgeon and is clearly intended to be an old man.  It’s an interesting piece of casting, possibly chosen because a woman’s voice was thought to be more like that of an old man.

**There’s an amusing title card that assures the audience that Karloff really is the same actor from Frankenstein.

***A side note is that Massey played Jonathan Brewster in the movie version of Arsenic and Old Lace, a character who was supposed to look like Boris Karloff.  Karloff played the role on Broadway, but was not released to play the role on film.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

My Favorite Year

image(1982)
Directed by
Richard Benjamin
Written by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo
Starring Peter O’Toole, Mark Lin-Baker, Jessica Harper, Joseph Bologna, Lainie Kazan
IMDB Entry

Live television was a new and exciting form of entertainment in the 50s, and the pressure and fun of putting on a show every week has rarely been shown on film.  My Favorite Year is a loving portrait of early television.

It shows Benjy Stone (Mark Lin-Baker), an intern on The King Kaiser Show.*  When the show books swashbuckling movie star Allan Swann (Peter O’Toole), they are faced with a problem:  Swann is a heavy drinker** and Benjy promises to Kaiser (Joseph Bologna) that he’ll keep him sober.  Naturally, the two men bond and, of course, disaster ensues. 

O’Toole is magnificent as the larger-than-life Swann.  His declaration “I am not an actor!  I’m a movie star!” should be on anyone’s list of great movie quotes.*** He got an Oscar nomination for this, but, of course, didn’t win. Mark Lin-Baker is also fine as the starry-eyed but serious Benjy.

The film also captured the feel of doing a live show every week.  Mel Brooks, who helped produced, was a writer for Your Show of Shows, and Swann is based on Errol Flynn, who was a guest.  Several others involved with the show were also in the cast of the movie, notably Selma Diamond.

Director Richard Benjamin was best known for his acting roles and this was his first theatrical film.  Alas, his career never took off, and most of his credits were flops and critical disappointments.

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*A pastiche of the great Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar.

**As was O’Toole, who managed to function and Sid Caesar, who, sadly could not.

***As his reply to the ladies room attendant when he stumbles in and is told, “This is for ladies only”:  “So is this ma’am, but every now and again I have to run a little water thought it.”

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Confession (L’aveu)

The Confession(1970)
Directed by
Costa-Gavra
Written by Jorge Semprun from a book by Lise & Artur London
Starring Yves Montand, Simone Signoret
IMDB Entry

Costa-Gavras was one of the most political of all film directors, often basing him movies on real-life political events.  His movie Z was a condemnation of the Greek junta of the 1960s.  But Costa-Garvras hated repression in all forms.  Where Z was an attack on the right wing, The Confession did the same for a communist regime.

It’s the story of Artur Ludvik (Yves Montand), aka Gerard, who is a vice-minister of Foreign Affairs in communist Czechoslovakia.  He is suddenly arrest – for no reason he can think of – and thrown into jail.  Government agents harass and torture him to confess various crimes that probably were never committed.  Even his wife Lisa (Simone Signoret) begins to think he might be guilty.

The movie is taken from Artur and Lisa London’s account of Artur’s actual trial, where he was sentenced to life in prison.  It’s a harrowing movie, where one can see just how torture can break down a man into confessing anything.

The most memorable scene for me was toward the end.  Gerard had confessed and was being marched to his show trial, along with several others.  They are given back the clothes they were arrested in, but everyone has been so starved that they fit far too loosely.  One of the defendants has his pants fall down, starting a wave of laughter among the prisoners.  It’s a wonderful and fully human moment.

The movie is memorable (if for nothing more than the poster) and still has a lot of relevance today.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mandarin Chocolate Sherbet (food)

By Baskin-Robbins
????-????

I’ve written before about foods that were no longer made, such as Regal Crown Sours and Screaming Yellow Zonkers.*  Usually, it was because the manufacturer was out of business and the recipe lost.  Mandarin Chocolate Sherbet was made by Baskin-Robbins, which is still in business and presumably knows the recipe.  Yet as far as I can see, it hasn’t been made in years.

It’s a shame.  The flavor has never been seen elsewhere.  It’s a dark chocolate sherbet with just a hint of orange, that you don’t notice until you swallow.  Despite the fact it’s somewhat light – sherbet instead of ice cream – there was a rich, dark chocolate taste that melts on the tongue.

There were many fans.  It was named the best Baskin-Robbins ice cream by Paul Passell and Leonard Ross and it deserves to be.  Yet even though it was discontinued years ago, there was no sign of them being willing to bring it back.

Which is a shame.  There was no other ice cream like it.

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*Both have come back, if only for a short time.  I’d like to think this blog had something to do with it.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Hardware Wars

image(1978)
Written and directed by
Ernie Fosselius
Starring Frank Robertson, Scott Mathews, Jeff Hale, Cindy Furgatch, Bob Knickerbocker, Paul Frees
IMDB Entry

Nowadays, anyone with a cell phone can make a movie.  But back in the 70s, it took a lot more than that:  cameras, film, sound equipment, etc. There also was nothing like Youtube to get your film to the public.  You had to find movie theaters who were interested (at a time when the short subject was dead) or film festivals. And, to have any chance, it had to be good.  Hardware Wars overcame those hurdles, and is the best Star Wars parody ever.

The movie is in the form of a trailer, and which parodies every aspect of Star Wars.*   It shows Fluke Starbucker (Scott Matthews) finding the droids 4-Q-2 (Frank Roberson)** and Artie Deco (Canister Vacuum Cleaner).  Fluke goes to Augie "Ben" Doggie (Jeff Hale)*** and they sign up Ham Salad (Bob Knickerbocker) and his Wookie Monster (brown Cookie Monster puppet) to rescue Princess Anne-Droid (Cindy Furgatch) and the evil Darph Nader.

In addition to the Mad Magazine style names, the movie plays off Star Wars, giving each important scene a twist.  The "Hardware" in the title is descriptive:  many of the items are in film are animated household appliances.  The Millennium Falcon is an iron; the Deathstar, a waffle iron; other spaceships, toasters.  The special effects are some of the worst ever committed to film.

Once nice touch was the narration, which was done by veteran voiceman Paul Frees, who had also done the narration of the original Star Wars trailer.  And all the dialog was recorded after shooting, so the words only occasionally match the lip movement.

The movie was an immediate hit on the film festival circuit, winning a bunch of awards, and became a mainstay of science fiction convention film programs for years.  It grossed over $1 million, pretty nice return on the $8000 it cost to make.

Ernie Fosselius continued to work in films, usually in the background.  He parodied Apocalypse Now with Porklips Now, which didn't make much of a splash, and a few writing and directing gigs fell apart.

But making the film that George Lucas has called the best parody of Star Wars counts for a lot.

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*I'm not calling it "Episode IV: A New Hope" because that wasn't in the name when Hardware Wars came out.

**Designed to look like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

***The reference is to an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon, Augie Doggie and his Doggie Daddy.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Clyde Bruckman

image(1894-1955)
IMDB Entry
Wikipedia Entry

I never got into The X-Files.* But when I was looking at an episode list, I noticed one titled “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” which some people consider one of its best.  But the name of Clyde Bruckman rang a bell, as someone who worked with most of the great names of early film comedy.

Bruckman was born in San Bernadino, California and began his writing life as a sportswriter for the San Bernadino Sun.  He made a name for himself as a sportswriter who eventually tried a hand at fiction.  In 1919, he was hired to write intertitles at Universal.** He came to the attention of Buster Keaton, who hired him to be a gagwriter*** for his first feature film, Three Ages

But, as the cliché goes, he wanted to direct.  After one short subject, Cowboys Cry for It, he was given the chance to share directing credit with Keaton on one of the greatest of all silent comedies:  The General.

There is some question as to how much directing he had done, an issue that often came up during his directing career.  Keaton had directed several of his own features, though often with a co-director.  It’s likely that Keaton worked as the director of actors, while his co-director dealt with the things he couldn’t do while performing.  But, in any case, it was the start of Bruckman’s career behind the lens.

He continued directing comedy short subjects.  Two years later, he added Putting Pants on Philip to his resume, a landmark film that first had Laurel and Hardy together as a team.****  He did several other Laurel and Hardy films, as well as films starring Harold Lloyd, starting with Welcome Danger, Lloyd’s first talkie. 

Bruckman’s career faltered with the coming of sound.  But it didn’t stop him from a few more notable films as he hooked up with W.C. Fields.  The Fatal Glass of Beer with Fields is one of the funniest short subjects ever made.***** His last directing job was on Fields’ classic The Man on the Flying Trapeze.

His problems getting work was due to his alcoholism.  That wasn’t necessarily a deal killer in Hollywood, but Bruckman went beyond their patience when he vanished during the production of The Man on the Flying Trapeze, with Fields (uncredited) going behind the camera to stay on budget.

Bruckman went back to writing.  He wrote the story for several Three Stooges shorts (including You Nazty Spy!, one of their best) as well as working on films for Andy Clyde an other lesser-known comedians of the era.

But trouble struck in the 40s.  His old employer Harold Lloyd sued the studio for plagiarism after Bruckman reused some gags he had written for Lloyd films.  It was ultimately a ridiculous lawsuit – some of the gags in question predated Lloyd’s use, and Bruckman had written them in the first place – but Lloyd won the suit. 

Bruckman was broken. The studio fired him and he ceased to make an effort.  Buster Keaton, who never let an old friend down, hired him to write an episode of his TV show, and he got a job writing for Abbott and Costello’s show.  But once again he started recycling gags and Harold Lloyd sued again, putting an end to his career.

And, ultimately, his life.  Borrowing a gun from Buster Keaton, Bruckman committed suicide on January 4, 1955.

It was a sad ending to a funny man.  Bruckman certainly had talent before the bottle took it away, and considering he worked with most of the names we still recognize as comic icons, he couldn’t be all that bad.  Most likely, his best work was codirected (or entirely directed) by the comic geniuses he worked with,****** but there had to be a reason why they were willing to work with him.  Maybe he was a nice guy; maybe they took pity on his drinking problem, but, one way or another, he had a career most people would envy.

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*I have nothing against it, but it’s just isn’t my cup of tea.

**The title cards shown during the movie.

***Bruckman’s sportswriter background probably helped:  Keaton was a baseball fanatic.

****They had been in movies together, but didn’t work as a team before this.  Laurel knew Bruckman from Cowboys Go For It, in which he appeared.

*****Though it was far more Fields’s film.  Fields had shot a version, but the studio hired Bruckman to add shots that Fields didn’t want to do.

******Several of his films had a second, uncredited director, too.  I would assume that they took over when Bruckman was too drunk to function.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Homicide: Second Shift (Web)

image(1997)
Created by
the producers of Homicide: Life on the Street
Starring Joe Grifasi, Allison Janney, Ray Anthony Thomas, Michael Ornstein, Josh Pais, Murphy Guyer
Wikipedia Entry

TV is still figuring out how to deal with the Internet, and it was far worse in the early days of the web. One of the most interesting examples was by the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street.  Already one of the best shows of its era, the producers decided that the way to go was to integrate it into the web.  The result was Homicide:  Second Shift.

A web page was set up, covering the solution of a mystery by the “second shift” of the Baltimore cops featured in the show.  Now this was before home broadband was financially feasible, so the result was a web page outlining a crime, where you would click to see evidence and clues, as well as the cops involved.  “Scenes” were created by graphics surrounded by dialog.

image

The website design was excellent, very advanced for the time.  Even today, it doesn’t look dated.

The crime on the net was connected to the TV show. In one episode of the show, for instance, a cop we’ve never seen before calls one of the regulars aside to discuss the case.  In another case, the online version showed events that happened both before and after what was on the air. 

Actors, most notably Allison Janney, were cast to play the roles, usually to be photographed for the web page.  A few of the TV cast also were used.

The experiment was a critical success, but not very popular.  The pages were really only just text and graphics (though excellent design) and there was no interactivity.  For most fans of the show, it was a curiosity. As I suppose it is today.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Critic (TV)

image(1994-95)
Created by
Al Jean & Mike Reiss
Starring Jon Lovitz, Judith Ivey, Nancy Cartwright, Gerrit Graham. Maurice LaMarche, Charles Napier, Doris Grau
IMDB Entry

The Critic was an odd duck in network animation.  Usually, the shows were family comedies, where the group – no matter how bizarre – would come together at the end to resolve their issues.  But this show was going for something a little different, which may have been one reason it had so short a run.

The show is about Jay Sherman (Jon Lovitz), a movie critic with his own TV show, Coming Attractions.  Jay was a short, dumpy, and besieged by life.  His mother Eleanor (Judith Ivey, doing a Katherine Hepburn imitation) was a harpy, his father Franklin (Gerrit Graham) a man with the attention span of a flea.  He took guff from his hairdresser (Doris Grau*) and his egotistical boss (Charles Napier).  The only bright spots were his sister Margo (Nancy Cartwright) and his son, plus his friend Jeremy Hawke (Maurice LaMarche, channeling “Crocodile” Dundee).

Jay was conceived as the anti-Homer-Simpson, educated and something of an elitist**, who’s committed to choosing what he thinks is best.  His attempts at braggadocio often backfire, but he retains enough common sense and humanity to survive.  Lovitz is absolutely perfect in the role.

The show had many pop cultural references, mostly in the movies Jay would review (ending most reviews with  his catchphrase, “It stinks”).  Creators Al Jean and Mike Reiss were writers on The Simpsons*** and deliberately tried to be the anti-Simpsons.  Jay was the opposite of Homer, and they did some wonderful things with it.**** Some real film critics also had cameos.

But the ratings were there.  ABC canceled the show halfway through the first season.  But Jean and Reiss called in a few favors and got the remaining episodes to air on Fox.  There was even a crossover, where Jay shows up at the Simpsons.*****

The show had improved ratings on Fox, but evidently not enough to keep it from being cancelled.  Attempts were made to find another network, but failed.  However, in 2000, Atom Films revived it as a stripped down web series, mostly with the movie parodies.

The Critic has been hugely influential.  Some have even said that Family Guy stole entire scenes from it.  In any case, it was a comedy before its time and poor network decisions kept it from achieving it’s greatness.

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*Lunchlady Doris from The Simpsons. RIP.

**Though perfectly normal compared to his mother.

***The got the show on the air because Simpsons producer James L. Brooks was offered a commitment for a new animated show.

****I loved that the theme song was an hommage to Rhapsody in Blue.

*****Bart shakes his hand, praising him, then says, “I feel so dirty,” since everyone knew that this was a way to promote The Critic.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Critic

image(1963)
Directed by
Ernest Pintoff
Written by Mel Brooks
Voices by Mel Brooks
IMDB Entry
Full movie

I really don’t have to say that Mel Brooks is a comic genius.  His films are classics, including the first film he ever appeared in, the Academy Award winning The Critic.*

The movie – an animated short subject -- starts with a bunch of abstract designs and a chirpy harpsichord playing the the background.  About 30 seconds in, you hear Brook’s voice** chiming in with “What the hell is this?”

Brooks continues to comment on what is shown on the screen, mystified and disdainful as he tries to puzzle out the meaning of the abstract designs in front of him.  A couple of people tell him to be quiet, but he defends his right to talk about what is happening.

The entire thing was ad libbed.  Brooks, inspired by seeing an old man doing the same thing in a theater, told director Ernest Pintoff to make a film, but not show it to him until he was in the studio.  Brooks manages to be incredibly funny, partly because what he describes really matches what we’re seeing in a unexpected way.  His way of speaking also adds to the humor.

Director/producer Ernest Pintoff had already gotten an Oscar nomination for an animated short subject,*** which may be one reason Brooks chose him.  The film won this time, though Brooks would have to wait a couple of years until getting his own statuette for The Producers.

The film is short and sweet and incredibly funny.  Click on the link and prepare to laugh.

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*Not to be confused with the animated TV show of the same name.

**Far more familiar now than when the movie was shot, of course.

***Narrated by Brooks’s collaborator Carl Reiner.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Flickers (TV)

image(1980)
Directed by
Cyril Coke
Written by Roy Clarke
Starring Bob Hoskins, Frances de la Tour
IMDB Entry 

As you can guess from seeing the topics on this blog, I’ve always loved movies, and also movies and TV shows about making movies.  And, even though I rarely watched Masterpiece Theater at the time, I was glad to catch Flickers.

The six-part series featured the story of Arnie Cole (Bob Hoskins), a small-time nickelodeon operator in 1910 who wanted to produce films in his own hteater.  He’s a lower class guy without much money, and when he’s introduced to Maud (Frances de la Tour), who’s rich and too snobbish for his taste, he realizes that she could help fund him.  But Maud, who is no beauty, gets pregnant and needs a father for the child, so the two reluctantly marry.

The series covers a lot of the clichés of filmmaking of the era, but the true joy is watching the two leads.  Hoskins has always been an amazing actor and in this role, his blustery persona is the perfect foil for Maud.  Frances de la Tour* is an accomplished farceur and gives as good as she gets, but also shows a vulnerability that brings a lot of charm to the entire enterprise.

The series was written by Roy Clarke, who later became major success in Britcons, creating and writing Keeping Up Appearances and The Last of the Summer Wine.

The show was enough of a success to spawn a thematic sequel, Pictures, though with none of the same cast.  It was set about ten years later, as the characters tried to make it in the movies.  Though far less successful, the most amusing moments were provided by an actor playing the representative of a Hollywood studio.  The character was supposed to be Jewish, but the way he said “Oy Vey” – in a way no one has ever said the phrase – was a joy to behold.

Flickers had a release on VCR, but nothing on DVD.

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*Currently chewing the scenery with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi in Viscious.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Ensign O’Toole (TV)

(1962)
Based on novels by
Bill Lederer
Starring Dean Jones, Jack Albertson, Jay C. Flippen, Jack Mullaney, Harvey Lembeck, Beau Bridges.
IMDB Entry

In Memory of Dean Jones.

TV in 60s, for all the reputation of the era, had a surprisingly large number of service comedies.  Gomer Pyle, USMC is the best known today, but there was also Broadside, The Wackiest Ship in the Navy, McHale’s Navy, No Time of Sergeants, and Operation Petticoat. It was partly a hangover from the Cold War; many US men were drafted and spent two years on military bases, pretty much bored the whole time.  One of the lesser-known shows in the genre was Ensign O’Toole.

The show was aboard the USS Appleby, a typical ship of the pre-Vietnam era, and the antics of its crew, most notably O’Toole (Dean Jones).  In a way, O’Toole ran the ship, using his charm and wit to get what he needed or to fix situations for others.*  Others in the crew were CPO Homer Nelson (Jay C. Flippen), a long time veteran; Lt. Cdr. Virgil Stoner (Jack Albertson), who ran the ship** and who knew something might be going on, but was willing to overlook things to the good of morale; Lt. Rex St. John (Jack Mullaney), who was a by-the-book and ambitious sailor who was something of a foil for O’Toole; and Seaman Gabby Di Julion (Harvey Lembeck), a troublemaker.***

The stories were usually slight, with misadventures and mistaken identity.  They were held together by Dean Jones’s charm and charisma, as well as his understated performance. 

Two other things impressed me as a kid:  The name of the show was spelled out in Morse code by a signal lamp, and each episode title was named “Operation:  something.”

The show only lasted a season and was canceled due to low ratings.  But Disney evidently saw something in Jones and started casting him in films soon afterward.  But I always remembered him as the cool and collected O’Toole.

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*In a few episodes, others would come to him once things messed up for help

**The captain was never shown.

***Lembeck was a strong comedy presence in the 50s and 60s, playing one of the prisoners in Stalag 17, a role he originated on Broadway.  He did time on the Phil Silvers Show and also appeared in many of the Beach party movies as biker Eric Von Zipper.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Long Good Friday

The Long Good Friday(1980)
Directed by
John Mackenzie
Written by Barry Keeffe
Starring Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren
IMDB Entry

Bob Hoskins was a remarkable actor.  He was usually seen as something of an everyman, a teddy bear who would show a temper born of frustration.  The Long Good Friday was a much different role, and Hoskins was brilliant in it.

Harold Shand (Hoskins) was a small-time London gangster whose brutality and ruthlessness brought him to the top of the underworld. He is trying to start making money legitimately, when some of his organization are murdered, often by bombs going off.  Not only is the bad for his people, it’s bad for business, and Harold decides to put an end to it – using the ruthless methods that brought him to the top.  This is a big mistake.

Hoskins’s biggest strength is his blustery persona, usually used to comic effect.  In this case, though, he plays it seriously.  He is a dangerous man (or at least he thinks it is) who is used to getting what he wants by bullying and cruelty.  It’s one of his best roles.

The movie made him an important actor.  Though he had done some successful British TV,* his movie roles were either small or in unimpressive films.  After seeing him here, producers started

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*Notably as Arnie Cole in the miniseries Flickers.  He also played the lead in the miniseries Pennies from Heaven, thought Steve Martin had the role in the movie version.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Strictly Ballroom

image(1992)
Directed by
Baz Luhrmann
Written by Baz Luhrmann, Andrew Bovell, Craig Pierce
Starring Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, Bill Hunter, Pat Thomson, Gia Carides
IMDB Entry

Some film careers take off like a rocket, only to fizzle out.  For a while, Baz Luhrmann looked to be a great new film talent, and this was clear from his first feature, Strictly Ballroom.

It’s about Scott Hastings (Peul Mercurio), a ballroom dancer trying to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix.*  Scott has his own idea about how things should be danced, which angers the traditionalist judges, who look disdainfully on “crown-pleasing steps.”  Fed up, his partner Liz Holt (Gia Carides) leaves him for another partner several weeks before the competition.  He tries to find a new partner, and is drawn toward Fran (Tara Morice), who had no experience in ballroom.

She does have experience in dancing, however, and introduces some new – and unconventional -- steps to Scott.  But the steps are not strictly ballroom, and Scott wonders if he’s made the right choice.

While the arc of the story is hardly new, but the movie is fascinating from start to finish.  Luhrmann’s style is distinct even in his first time:  quick cuts, visually striking people, and a general operatic style.  The movie originated from a stage play written by him when he was a student, and went through several incarnations before becoming a film’'; Luhrmann insisted he direct.

From this, he went on the direct Romeo+Juliet, a brassy and wonderful Shakespeare adaptation.**  Next was Moulin Rouge, a bravura tragedy.  All three films share the same operatic sensibility.

Luhrmann made movies more sporadically, concentrating on theater and opera.  His Australia is a overlong epic*** and Great Gatsby was a modest success.

But this is where he began, and it clearly showed a strong visual sensibility coupled with some high drama.

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*Despite its grandiose name, the even seems to be pretty small time.

**One of the few that figured out to improve on the original.  In Shakespeare, Romeo discovers Juliet is dead and drinks poison in his grief.  Juliet wakes up a few minutes later.  Luhrmann changed the play so that Juliet wakes just as Romeo is dying; he sees her face before the poison fully takes hold.  Far more dramatic.

***Almost a double feature: one movie takes two hours, and the second one takes another hour.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (radio)

1949-1954,1955-1962
Produced by
Jack Johnstone
Starring Charles Russell, Edmund O’Brian, John Lund, Bob Bailey, Bob Readick, Mandel Kramer
Wikipedia Page
Tribute Page

One thing I like about SiriusXM in my car is being able to listen to the old time radio channel.  Most of the comedies don’t hold up that well (especially sitcoms), but there are dramas that still work well, notably Gunsmoke and Dragnet. But perhaps the best of them all was a show I had never heard of before, even though it lasted longer than just about anything else:  Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

The show premiered in 1949, with Charles Russell in the title role.*  Johnny Dollar was an insurance investigator, “the man with the action-packed expense account.”  An early quirk was that he tipped everyone a dollar, a big tip back in those days when a cup of coffee was a dime.**  Each week, he’d be sent out from the home office to investigate a case.  The conceit was that he was dictating his expense account and describing each expense as a well of telling the story of the case.  Episodes would begin with Dollar picking up the phone and laying out the situation.

The show was a half hour long, and was pretty routine, and barely different from other detective shows of the time.  It went off the air in 1954.

It got a second life the next year in a slight different format.  Instead of a half-hour, the time was cut to 15 minutes – five days a week.  This allowed for longer and more complicated storyline.

But the best thing about the show as Bob Bailey, who took over as Johnny.  Bailey was just perfect – cynical and self-aware, ready with a wisecrack or a gun.  The dialog is crisp and clever, and the adventures draw you in.***

By the end of 1956, the show went back to a weekly half hour.  Radio drama was dying by then, but Johnny Dollar continued.  Bob Bailey left the show in 1960 because CBS wanted to move production to the east coast and he didn’t want to move.  Bob Readick took over, and eventually gave way to Mandel Kramer, who stayed to the end.  The show was one of the last regular radio dramas on the air.

If you don’t get SiriusXM, many episodes are available at archive.org.  Give them a listen.

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*Dick Powell did the radio equivalent of a pilot episode, but left.

**This was quickly dropped.  His expense account may have been action-packed, but the company auditors didn’t like that sort of action.

***I’ll often listen to episodes even though I know I won’t catch the ending, just to hear the dialog.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Ian Dury and the Blockheads (music)

imageActive 1977-1980
Members (original group):
  Ian Dury (vocals), Chaz Jankel (Guitars, keyboards), Norman Watt-Roy (bass), Charley Charles (drums), Davey Payne (saxophones)
Wikipedia entry
Official Website

Rock and roll stardom is fickle and sometimes the most surprising people taste it.  Ian Dury was one of those.  He was a major name in late 70s UK (and in US New Wave circles), and his path was different to say the least.

Dury was born in the UK in 1942 and moved around during most of his childhood.  When he was seven, he contracted polio and spent a year and a half recovering.  In 1971, he formed his first rock group, Kilburn and the High Roads, a part of the Canterbury progressive music scene.*  They toured with the Who and put out a couple of albums to critical success and public apathy.

Looking for work, Dury joined up with a group of friends to form the Blockheads, whose first notable single was “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” in 1977.  The song was controversial, but it made the group’s reputation.  Their album, New Boots and Panties was a major UK hit.  Their next single “What a Waste” made the charts, and Dury’s insanely catchy “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” made #1.

Dury and the Blockheads toured Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and other names of the New Wave scene.  His album was released in the US to disappointing sales.

Dury was a master lyricist, even when his lyrics were goofy.  Most of the music was written by Chaz Jankel and borrowed from jazz, music hall, rock, and rap.  He also had a minor acting career, with

He was never afraid to let people know about his bout with polio.  In fact, his record company was appalled at the video for “Rhythm Stick,” since you can clearly see how the disease affected his musculature.  At the time, though, not many noticed and Dury was glad that they did.  He later got in trouble with the BBC with a song about being disabled, but he was fearless in promoting it.

Dury’s time at the top was short.  When the New Wave became passe, he broke up with the Blockhead and tried new things, to only minor success.  He would occasionally get the Blockheads together.  He died in 2000 of cancer.

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*Canterbury was a hotbed of progressive rock in the late 60s and early 70s; most of the hardcore groups of the era originated there:  Soft Machine, Caravan, Gong, Hatfield and the North, and National Health (the five groups in the center of the scene), plus the Wilde Flowers (originator of the scene), Camel, Egg, Henry Cow, Matching Mole, and others.  None had any notable hits in the US, but considering their mix of jazz, rock, fusion, and avant-garde music, hits were unlikely.