Sunday, March 29, 2020

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

(2019)
Directed by
Will Becher, Richard Phelan
Written by John Brown, story by Mark Burton and Nick Park
IMDB Entry
Given the current situation, I’m always looking for light, funny fare to fill the days. I’ve also written several times about various films from Aardman Animations. So I was delighted to find an Aardman film that I had overlooked:  A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon.

This is the third time Shaun has appeared in films, starting out with the Wallace and Gromit classic, A Close Shave.* There also was the Shaun the Sheep Movie plus a series of TV cartoons. Shaun is a smart sheep,** who leads both the flock and also – in the background – everything on the farm. All of his appearances have no dialog. Characters speak in very expressive sounds, but no words. All is told by action, much like a silent film.

In the movie, a UFO lands near the village of Mossingham with a little rabbit-like alien in it. Shaun discovers him and helps him out, learning the alien has levitation powers with his long ears. After the alien, dubbed Lu-La, inadvertently creates crop circles, the Farmer decides to cash in by creating a theme park, Farmageddon, to raise money for a new harvester. Meanwhile, Shaun discovers Lu-La is only a child and wants to go back to his parents, while the Ministry of Alien Detection (M.A.D.) is hunting her down.

The movie is a delight a slapstick and visual humor, especially the final sequence where events at Farmageddon become far more alien than even the Farmer imagines.

Part of the fun are references to SF movies and TV shows.  Doctor Who is there in many ways (of course, including a Dalek), and the alert viewer can see references to Close Encounters, the X-Files, Hitchhiker's Guide, 2001, Star Trek, and many others. But these are just icing on the cake: the film itself is wonderfully funny and the expressions of the sheep, the dog Bitzer, and the fantastically oblivious farmer would make it a great film even without those.

For animation fans, it’s a pleasant way to find something to laugh about.
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**His name is a delightful pun. After the unnamed sheep has all his wool cut off, Wallace decides to call him Shaun.
**The most dangerous of all animals.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

I Am Not Okay with This (TV)

I Am Not OK with This(2020 – ??)
Created by Jonathan Entwistle, Christie Hall
Starring Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Oleff, Sofia Bryant, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Richard Ellis, Aidan Wojtak-Hissong
IMDB Entry

In my old age, I find myself watching more teen dramas and comedies.* Maybe it’s because my teenage years were not particularly dramatic. When someone recommended I Am Not OK with This, I decided to give it a shot.

The main character is Sydney Novak (Sophia Lillis), teen who is dealing with a complicated life. Her father has committed suicide without leaving a note, and her mother (Kathleen Rose Perkins) is trying to support Sydney and her brother Liam (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong), making her absent most of the day. Sydney’s only close friend is Dina (Sofia Bryant), who does make her life bearable, but Dina is moving away from her in order to date Brad Lewis (Richard Ellis), not noticing what a major jerk he is.

In among all this drama, there’s another twist:  Sydney is developing a superpower.

When she loses her temper due to frustration – a common occurrence – she shows telekinesis, destroying things around her.  Her nerdy neighbor Stanley Barber discovers her secret and works with her to try to control things. But – as the very first shot of the show indicates – things don’t go well.

Sophia Lillis is terrific as Sydney, who’s confused and conflicted and unsure about everything around her. She had a very subdued and cynical personality that’s perfect to portray her troubles. Wyatt Oleff’s Stanley tries hard to be helpful, but really doesn’t understand, while Sofia Bryant** portrays Dina as the one sunny thing in Sydney’s life. And Richard Ellis is terrific as the sleazy Brad, who is able to switch from charming to psychotic at the drop of a hat.

The show only ran seven episodes on Netflix and ended on a major cliffhanger. Hopefully, it will continue so we we can see more of Sydney and what is really going on with her.  But any show that uses a song from Captain Beefheart on the soundtrack is something worth paying attention to.
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*For instance, Sex Education
**I wonder if there’s confusion on the set with two main leads with the same name. There was also a recurring role for Sophia Tatum.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Holy Matrimony

(1943)
Directed by
John M. Stahl
Written by Nunnally Johnson from a novel by Arnold Bennett
Starring Monty Woolley, Gracie Fields, Laird Cregar, Una O’Connor, Eric Blore
IMDB Entry
Fame is fickle.  Many major stars of the 30s and 40s are virtually unknown today/ This is especially true if they were stars outside the US and only had moderate success over here. Others had US success, but the memory of them is faded away because their films are fading away. Holy Matrimony is a perfect example.

Priam Farll (Monty Woolley) is considered England’s greatest artist, but he has no use for the fame and fortune, so he moves to a small house on the other side of the world to be left alone, accompanied only by his butler Henry Leek (Eric Blore). Farll is summoned to the UK to be knighted, but when they get there, Leek dies of pneumonia, and Farll decides to pose as Leek to avoid the bother.

He quickly realizes this is a mistake, but it unable to convince anyone of his real identity. He’s about to be arrested for disrupting his own funeral, when Alice Chalice (Gracie Fields) spots him. She had been corresponding with Leek with an eye to matrimony, and confirms his identity as Leek, who she has only seen in a photograph of Leek and Farll that didn’t specify who was who. Farll is attracted to Alice’s personality and marries her.

All is well until Leek’s real wife show up. And Farll decides he needs to support Alice better and returns to painting. His art is purchased by the unscrupulous art dealer Clive Oxford (Laird Cregar), who sells them as undiscovered works of Farll. Then things get complicated.

Monty Woolley was a close friend of Cole Porter* and a Broadway director.  He became a major Broadway star playing Sheridan Whiteside in the classic “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and reprised his role for the film version. Here, he plays a similar character, a curmudgeonly man who refuses to compromise.

Gracie Fields, though, was a major star in the UK, primarily as a singer of music hall tunes.  She became a movie star in 1931 with a series of hit films, all of which didn’t make much impression on this side of the pond. Holy Matrimony was her first US film, and was impressive enough for her to make several more. Her Alice is delightfully warm and understanding.

The film is populated by several of the great character actors of the time. Eric Blore made a career of playing butlers and was almost certainly the first people they thought of when the film came up. Una O’Connor, who plays Leek’s wife, was Hollywood’s favorite old biddy, and is most notable as the maid in Bride of Frankenstein. Franklin Pangborn (best known as the bank examiner in The Bank Dick) has a small role as Farll’s cousin and future science fiction icon Whit Bissell plays Leek’s son.
Then there’s Laird Cregar. This movie doesn’t quite let him display the urbane wit he showed in Heaven Can Wait, but he’s an interesting presence.

The movie was successful and the studio gave Fields a contract. Alas, she was unable to duplicate her success and eventually returned to England, where she was a beloved figure. Woolley never duplicated the success of Whiteside, though he continued to act.
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*He appeared as himself in the Porter biopic Night and Day

Sunday, February 16, 2020

It Happens Every Thursday

It Happens Every Thursday(1953)
Directed by
Joseph Pevney
Written by Dane Lussier from a novel by Jane S. McIlvaine
Starring Loretta Young, John Forsythe, Frank McHugh, Edgar Buchanan, Jimmy Conlin, Jane Darwell, Willard Waterman, Gladys George, Regis Toomey
IMDB Entry

Even the most obscure film can have some wonderful delights. It Happens Every Thursday is a small, unassuming movie that makes them most of what it had, and which has things that might surprise you.

Jane and Bob MacAvoy (Loretta Young and John Forsythe) are a couple with a young son and a baby on the way. Bob is a newspaper reporter who has dreams of publishing a small-town newspaper. When Jane spots a newspaper up for sale in California, she sees it as a dream come true, and convinced Bob to uproot themselves to buy it.

When they get to California, they realize that the advertisement . . . exaggerated. The circulation figure was inflated by real estate agent Fred Hawley (Frank McHugh), and the photo hides the actual appearance of the rundown building. The paper is operating, with Jake (Edgar Buchanan) and Matthew (Jimmy Conlin) getting it out each week on a press that breaks down regularly.
Jane and Bob decide to stick it out, with various promotions to increase circulation and make money.

The movie is low key* but surprisingly modern in many respects. One fascinating scene is when Jane goes to businessman Myron Trout to sell ad space, where he starts hitting on her. Jane deflects him in a way that is probably familiar even today.

The way Jane’s pregnancy is handled is also different. She is shown clearly pregnant in the opening scenes, but it is not referred to until several minutes of film time later. And while there is a scene where she gives birth,** it is early one and not a centerpiece of the film.

What’s also interesting is that Jane is clearly shown as the one taking charge. She comes up with the ideas, the money, sells the ads, comes up with promotion, and much else. She is the go-getter in the family, which is unusual for the time. And she is by no means perfect, making mistakes but managing to help Bob recover from them.

There is also a subplot about what is clearly supposed to be a bordello, also surprising given the time frame.

The cast is just fine. Loretta Young is charming and lively throughout, while Forsythe is quietly practical. Of course, it’s great to see Edgar Buchanan, playing the same sort of character as he played in Petticoat Junction.  Frank McHugh, a film veteran at the point is fun to see, even if the role doesn’t give him much to do.

The film was Loretta Young’s last. She moved on to television, including hosting her own anthology show. And several of the actors also moved on to television.  John Forsythe starred in Bachelor Father and did both his own show and, eventually Dynasty.  He also was the voice of Charlie in Charlie’s Angels. Jane Darwell, who plays one of the townspeople also switched to TV, but did have one final memorable movie role: the lady feeding the birds in Mary Poppins.

Director Joseph Pevney also moved to TV and directed several of the best Star Trek episodes, including “The Trouble with Tribbles,” “City on the Edge of Forever,” “Amok Time,” “The Devil in the Dark,” and “Wolf in the Fold.”

While the movie is clearly not a classic, there’s plenty to enjoy.

And, as a personal note, the movie title reminds me of my hometown weekly, which also was published on Thursday.
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*It was based on an autobiographical novel, which might explain some of the elements.
*Discretely.  There were the 50s.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands (music)

The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands.
(1968)Howard Kayland (lead vocals), Mark Volman (vocals), Al Nichol (guitars, organ, Jim Pons (bass, vocals, Johnny Barbarta (drums)
Wikipedia Entry

I’m a big fan of concept albums. There’s something very exciting about seeing a group trying to write an entire album of songs with a thematic link. But most concept albums are serious (if not bombastic). One of the few that manages to be funny is The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands.

The Turtles were a California-based group that started out performing surf rock. They signed a contract with the small label White Whale records and began to record. Sensing that surf rock was losing popularity, their first album leaned toward protest rock, with three Bob Dylan songs, plus “Eve of Destruction.” Most of the album was made up of covers.

Then the Lovin’ Spoonful came along.  The group was intrigued and wanted to get away from the protests and into lighter, feel-good fare. And, on their third album they hit the jackpot: “Happy Together” was a number one hit.* They then had a number 3 hit with “She’s Rather Be With Me.”

They had hit the big time, but, of course, there were storm clouds. White Whale had no other successful acts. So the pressured the group to put out another hit.

Meanwhile, Howard Kaylan, the group’s front man, was becoming more ambitious. He wanted to write more of the songs** and to get the rest of the band involved in the songwriting. The result was The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands.

The concept was a clever one. The album was ostensibly about various different groups all performing in a battle of the bands.*** So you had the fake groups The Atomic Enchilada, Quad City Ramblers, The Fabulous Dawgs, The Cross Fires.**** The inner gatefold showed these groups – all the Turtles – in different costumes. They ran a gamut of musical styles, from surf music, to R&B, to Bluegrass, to psychedelic rock.
Inner gatefold
Column 1: The U.S. Teens featuring Raoul, The Atomic Enchilada, Howie, Mark, Johnny, Jim & Al
Column 2: Quad City Ramblers, The L.A. Bust '66, The Fabulous Dawgs,
Column 3: The Cross Fires, King Kamanwanalea and the Royal Macadamia Nuts, Nature's Chidren,
Column 4: The Bigg Brothers, Fats Mallard and the Bluegrass Firebal, All


In response to White Whale’s pressure to produce a hit, the group wrote a song with the dumbest lyrics they could, a satirical looks at the pop love songs of the day. Of course, as luck would have it, the song, “Elenore,”  was a major hit, making everyone happy.

The record also included “You Showed Me,” a song by the early Byrds that had not been previously recorded. It also made the charts.

One of the slyest jokes was the song “I’m King Kamanawanlea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts),” the title of which came from a risque schoolyard joke of the era.

Despite the two hits, the album only did middling sales. Perhaps the mix of styles was an issue: people who didn’t get the joke were not interested in songs that weren’t in the genre they preferred.

The group did one more album, Turtle Soup, produced by Ray Davies, but that got good press but failed to crack the charts. At that point, the group broke up, though White Whale put out an album of B-sides and whatever could be found in the studio.

Volman and Kaylan (along with drummer Jim Pons*****) joined the Mothers of Invention.****** White Whale, refused to let them use the Turtles name, or even their own, so they were billed as “The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie.” They were featured and given a large part in Zappa’s 200 Motels. As “Flo and Eddie,” they did several moderately successful humorous albums. Eventually, they got the rights to their own names back, but by then Flo and Eddie was too well-established to change.
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*Knocking the Beatles out of the #1 spot.
**Their two hits were written by outside songwriters, as were most of their songs on the albums.  Of note was that they recorded at least one song written by Warren Zevon.
***This was a common concept in the 60s, where several local groups would perform one evening, with a prize given to those who the audience liked best (judged by applause at the end). It’s a common plot element of any TV show or movie featuring a rock band, from Josie and the Pussycats to School of Rock.
****An early name of the group.
*****Who later quit music to work for PR with the New York Jets, and designed the logo the team used in the 1980s.
*****One nice irony: on the Mothers’ first album, the liner notes disdainfully quoted a record executive who wanted to make the Mothers as big as the Turtles.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sex Education (TV)

Sex Education
2019-
Created by
Laurie Nunn
Starrring Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa, Connor Swindells, Alistair Petrie, Tanya Reynolds, Patricia Allison
IMDB Entry

Netflix has such a vast array of show that some excellent ones get lost in the shuffle. One that I’ve heard very little buzz about is Sex Education, even though it’s absolutely delightful.

Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) is a teenager in the UK equivalent of a high school. His mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), is a sex therapist, and Otis has overheard a lot of her sessions through an air vent by his bed.  A classmate, Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) sees him answering questions from other classmates and offers a business arrangement:  She will book appointments and Otis will counsel the other students. It, of course, leads to complications.

The show manages to mix uproarious comedy with powerful drama. It’s extremely frank and very realistic in the way it shows teens dealing with sex and emotions.*

The strength is in the characters. Otis is well-versed in the theories of sex, but has no actual experience, complicating matters. And his mother is portrayed as very open and sex positive – but with no respect for Otis’s boundaries, bringing up subjects that no teen boy wants to talk about with his mother. Some of the funniest scenes are her trying to be so completely understanding of things that Otis does not want brought up.

Maeve is smart, but categorized as a bad girl because she doesn’t go along with the rules of the school. Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa) is gay and open about it, leading to bullying and other issues. Lily Inglehart (Tanya Reynolds) writes fan fiction porn, and is the one most willing to cut through other people’s bullshit.

You can’t really single out any one person in the cast. All are excellent, but it’s especially gratifying to see Gillian Anderson do deadpan comedy.

The second season just dropped and seems to move in a more dramatic direction,** but it’s still showing the difficulties of sexual and romantic relationships.
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*The frankness may be offputting to some, but it can be extremely funny.
**Though I laughed hardest at a scene in the first episode of the second season when Jean is trying to advise Otis.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Man Who Could Work Miracles

The Man Who Could Work Miracles
(1936)
Directed by
Lothar Mendes, Alexander Korda (uncredited)
Written by H.G. Wells
Starring Roland Young, Ralph Richardson, Ernest Thesiger,
IMDB Entry
I’ve been poking around the Internet Archive, looking for movies to write about and came upon The Man Who Could Work Miracles. I’d seen parts of it over the years, but this was my chance to see the entire thing.

It starts out with a group of Celestial Beings who wonder if the human race would be better off if they could perform their own miracles. The pick George McWhirter Fotheringay (Roland Young), a clerk in a department store, as their first experiment. George discovers he can merely request something and have it come true. It starts out small, with candles and rabbits. George thinks it might be the basis for a magic act. But, as he learns more, he begins to think bigger.  The Vicar, Mr. Madig (Ernest Thesiger), thinks he should use it to help humanity, while Colonel Winstanley (Ralph Richardson) feels it will be a disaster.

It is based on a story by H.G. Wells, who is the only writer credited. The movie is filled with discussions of miracles and their pros and cons, reflecting Wells’s politics.

Young portrays George as a slightly thick character, with a blinkers on about the possibilities of his gift.He can’t seem to work out the implications of possibilities of his gift without others pointing them out to him.* Thesiger** plays the role of the Vicar with earnest idealism, while Richardson hams things up at bit as Winstanley.

One scene that I remember well from when I first saw it was when George gets mad at a cop and tells him to “Go to Blazes!” The policeman finds himself in a very hot place, and starts to take notes.***

The movie’s special effects were top notch for their time, and somewhat innovative. There’s a lot of things appearing out of nowhere, of course, a trick that dates back to George Melies, but other scenes were state of the art for the time. There’s one where George tidies up the store that is particularly impressive.

The movie got mixed reviews when it opened, and I can see that – it gets bogged down in philosophy while the humor is generally mild. But overall it’s a fairly entertaining concept.
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*Young is best known for portraying Cosmo Topper, the same sort of befuddled character.
**Best known as Dr. Pretorius from Bride of Frankenstein.
***The original story has “Go to Hades,” but the censors wouldn’t allow that.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Pay Off

The Pay Off
(1942)
Directed by
Arthur Dreifuss
Written by Edward Dein (screenplay), Arthru Hoerl (story)
Starring Lee Tracy, Tom Brown, Tina Thayer, Evelyn Brent
IMDB Entry
Full Movie at the Internet Archive
Many people don’t understand what a B movie was in the days of the studio system. Since the studios owned the theaters, they were in constant need of product and a B movie was one with a lesser-known cast, cut to run in a shorter time to make for a double feature, often in small, neighborhood theaters whose audiences were all within walking distance.That didn’t mean they were necessarily bad, and there are always some nice little films in that classification.  The Pay Off fits into this category.

It starts out with the murder of a special prosecutor and one of the suspects has an airtight alibi: he was playing poker at the home of wisecracking reporter Brad McKay (Lee Tracy). McKay goes on the case and discovers Tina Thayer (Phyllis Walker) may have an important clue. Aided by Guy Norris (Tom Brown) and distracted by femme fatale Alma Dorn (Evelyn Brent), McKay slowly ferrets out the mystery.

The role fits Lee Tracy like a glove. He made a career of playing wisecracking reporters, both on screen and on Broadway.* He definitely takes center stage and it’s surprising that his career didn’t make more of a splash, other than perhaps because the stereotype grew old after WWII.

Like most movies of this type, the plot moves along briskly with a few twists here and there.

Director Arthur Dreifuss made a few dozen B movies, but never moved on to anything more. Most of the cast didn’t break through, but the result is a nice little bit of entertainment.
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*He played HIldy Johnson in the original production of The Front Page.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

How Murray Saved Christmas (TV)

(2014)
Directed by
Peter Avanzino
Written by Mike Reiss
Starring: Dennis Haysbert, Jerry Stiller, Sean Hayes, Jason Alexander, Kevin Michael Richardson
IMDB Entry
How Murray Saved ChristmasThe Christmas season is inundated with specials. Which are good from the point of view of the network that commissioned them.  You can trot them out every year and get an audience big enough to make them worthwhile. It’s unusual for a special to have only one or two broadcasts, and especially strange when the show is as good as How Murry Saved Christmas.*

The story – set entirely in verse and narrated by Dennis Haysbert – is set in the town of Stinky Cigars, where all the symbols of holidays live. Characters like the Easter Bunny, Cupid, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln go about their lives, with the name of the town keeping outsiders away.  And, of course, Santa Claus (voice of Kevin Michael Richardson). Murry Weiner (Jerry Stiller) is the cranky old man who runs the town diner, but when Santa suffers a concussion due an invention of Edison Elf (Sean Hayes), Murray become the only one who can deliver the presents.
 
It’s a witty version of the story, aimed at adults. Mike Reiss was a writer for The Simpsons and wanted to have the same sort of irreverent attitude. He certainly succeeded and the verses are terrific.

The show was run on NBC in 2014 and got poor ratings, with a lot of people complaining that it wasn’t for kids.** They ran it again the next year, but cut it from an hour to a half hour. Now it is possible to fit a long story into a half hour slot,*** but you can’t do it by indiscriminately slashing it in half. In any case, I haven’t seen it on the air since, though it can be found online.

But the show managed to mix a great deal of humor with the Christmas spirit, and even has some clever songs.****  If you’re looking for a grownup Christmas cartoon, this is well worth watching.
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*Saving Christmas is probably the top plot of any Christmas special, if you don’t count remakes of A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life.
**Too many people don’t understand that animated films are not necessarily children’s fare – to their loss, alas.
***There’s an excellent radio version of The Maltese Falcon using the main cast from the Bogart movie that is a marvel of condensation.
****Especially the song of the exploited elves.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Nothing Sacred

Nothing Sacred

(1937)
Directed by
William Wellman
Written by Ben Hecht from a story by James Street
Starring Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Walter Connolly, Charles Winninger
IMDB Entry

The screwball comedy was a glorious subgenre of the 1930s, a series of romantic comedies based up an off-beat situation that get their laughs by wild plotting and characters. One of the more overlooked films in the genre is Nothing Sacred.

Wally Cook (Fredric March) is a reporter for The Morning Star in New York, on the outs with his editor, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) after his big scoop turned out to be a hoax he fell for. In order to repair the paper’s reputation, he spots an article about Hazel Stone (Carole Lombard), who is dying of radium poisoning and goes up to her home in Warsaw, Vermont, to cash in on the sob story. But just as he arrives, Hazel learns from her doctor Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger) that the tests were wrong, and she’s perfectly healthy. As she leaves, Wally spots her an offers her a trip to New York.  Hazel, who always wanted to visit the city, goes along. She is wined and dined and celebrated for her bravery as Wally begins to fall in love with her.

The movie – written by former newspaperman Ben Hecht, who I’ve discussed before – is designed to be a cynical look at the newspaper game. Hazel becomes caught up in all the honors, until she is riding a tiger she can’t easily get off.

Lombard is, as always, wonderful, and March puts in another fine performance. He’s not usually noted for his comedy chops, but manages to pull it off.

Modern audiences can spot Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz as one of the residents of Warsaw.

The movie did poorly at the box office. I think a main flaw is that it takes too long for the hoax to be revealed to the world. There was a lot of comedy to be milked out of the situation of trying to deal with the issue, but it’s pretty much missed and ends with a results that’s a bit too glib.*  Still, it’s worth seeing for Lombard’s performance
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*To modern eyes, there are also a few things that don’t sit well.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Behave Yourself

Behave Yourself(1951)
Directed by
George Beck
Written by George Beck from a story by Beck and Frank Tarloff
Starring Farley Granger, Shelley Winters, William Demarest, Francis L. Sullivan, Margalo Gillmore, Lon Chaney Jr., Hans Conreid, Elisha Cook, Jr., Sheldon Leonard, Alan Jenkins, Marvin Kaplan
IMDB Entry

Character actors are the bread-and-butter of old time Hollywood, coming on for small roles and making them memorable. When I spotted the cast list for Behave Yourself, I knew I had to see it for the actors alone.

In the film, Bill Denny (Farley Granger) is desperate for an anniversary gift for his wife Kate (Shelley Winters) to prove to his mother in law (Margolo Gillmore) that he hasn’t forgotten.* A stray dog follows him home. Due to a mixup (this movie’s stock in trade), Kate thinks the dog is the gift. The problem is that the dog Archie is specially trained to deliver some sort of contraband to a couple of buyers, Shortwave Bert (Sheldon Leonard) and Max the Umbrella (Marvin Kaplan). Other criminals also want the package, including Gillie the Blade (Hans Conreid), and Pinky (Lon Cheney Jr.) and Albert Jonas (Elisha Cook Jr). Denny tries to return the dog, but after Jonas is murdered, the police, led by office O’Ryan (William Demarest) get involved.

The cast here is filled with great character actors. If the mere mention of their name doesn’t ring a bell, here’s a rundown.
  • Farley Granger starred in two Hitchcock classics, Rope and Strangers on a Train. it’s odd to see him doing comedy.
  • Shelly Winters won two Oscars after this and is best known today for her role in The Poseidon Adventure. In this early part of her career, she was cast as a blonde bombshell,** but she got away from it in order for people to recognize she was more than just a sex symbol.
  • William Demarest was memorable in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and other Preston Sturges films, but he’s better known as Uncle Charlie in My Three Sons.
  • Margolo Gillmore had a solid Hollywood career but was a major Broadway star in the 20s and 30s.
  • Sheldon Leonard is best known for his small role in It’s a Wonderful Life (“Look at me.  I’m making angels.”) but was even more successful as a TV producer, with shows like I Spy, Andy Griffith, Dick van Dyke, and Gomer Pyle.
  • Lon Cheney, Jr.  The Wolf Man,et. al.
  • Elisha J. Cook, Jr. Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon, et al.
  • Hans Conreid.  Voice of Snidley Whiplash and many others. In this, he puts on an English accent!
  • Marvin Kaplan. Longtime TV character actor and voice of Choo Choo in Top Cat.
You can also spot King Donovan (50s horror movie icon) and Herb Vigran (a busy TV character actor).

The movie is fun, if sitcom-like. Plenty is made of the fact that Bill always shows up when someone is murdered.

This was director George Beck’s only film, though he did continue on as writer for TV and movies. The movie seems to have been successful at the box office, thought not a smash, and seems to be overlooked in lists of films of the year. It’s in the public domain now, and is available at archive.org.
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*Of course, he has.
**Indeed, there are many indications in the film that Bill is frustrated by Archie because the dog prevent him from getting time alone with his wife.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Ariel (music)

(1977)
Written and performed by
Dean Friedman
Wikipedia Page

Being a one-hit wonder is no disgrace. It takes a lot of talent to get a recording contract and both talent and luck to have a hit. Dean Friedman only had one song that made it on the US charts,* but it was a delight.

“Ariel” is a song about meeting a girl and becoming lovers, but it’s filled with charm and clever lyrics.

Part of its charm was that it was set in Paramus, NJ, where Friedman grew up, and there are many references to it and to the NYC area. Indeed, there are several lines in the song that only someone from the area would understand.** Plus there is some clever wordplay, like in the line “I said ‘Hi,’ she said, ‘Yeah, I guess I am.’" Or “I was messing around with the vertical hold.”***

The song got a lot of FM airplay, and reached 26 on the charts. One issue was that the record company was new and hadn’t pressed enough copies to meet the demand.****

Freidman was not able to duplicate that success, but continued to record and perform and also wrote some music for TV.

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*Though he continued to record and is still performing today.

**For instance, there’s a line about the “Friends of BAI,” a reference to WBAI, a listener supported station in the area.

***A control on TVs of the era, unneeded now. But in the context of the song, it also meant he was holding her.

****See what I said about luck.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing

(1987)Written and Directed by Patricia Rozema
Starring Sheila McCarthy, Paule Baillargeon, Ann-Marie MacDonald
IMDB Entry
Image result for i've heard the mermaids singingOne of the nice things in the days of video stores was the ability to find oddball movies that you never heard of. You could glance at the boxes on the walls and find things that were obscure, or old, or too independent for the big studios. That’s where I stumbled upon I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing.

Poly Vandersma (Sheila McCarthy) is a klutzy young woman who ekes out a living doing temporary secretarial work, her job choices hindered by the fact she’s a lousy typist.  But she is hired for a permanent position by Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), the owner of a private art gallery.  When Gabrielle ex-lover Mary (Ann-Marie MacDonald), things start to get complicated.

This is not a plot-driven movie. Most of its joys are from McCarthy’s performance, which is utterly charming. As the movie progresses, she learns to be just a bit more competent.

The film was Canadian, and has often been listed among the greatest Canadian films of all time.

McCarthy went on to have a long career in TV and film. Most recently, she appeared in The Umbrella Academy as Agnes, the owner of a diner.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Car 54, Where Are You? (TV)

(1961-1963)
Created by
Nat Hiken
Starring, Fred Gwynn, Joe E. Ross, Beatrice Pons, Paul Reed
IMDB Entry

A 60s sitcom can go pretty far with a catchy theme song. Gilligan’s Island has become a cultural touchstone because of its song. And one of my favorites is from an early 60s comedy that was pretty good on its own: Car 54, Where Are You?*


The show was conceived by Nat Hiken. Fresh from his success with The Phil Silvers Show (aka Sgt. Bilko), he went to another group of men in uniform: the New York city police force.

The show follows the life – you couldn’t really call them adventures – of Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross) and Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynn), two partners who are also best friends. Gunther was married to Lucille (Beatrice Pons) while Francis was a bachelor. Their boss was Captain Paul Block (Paul Reed). Toody and Muldoon didn’t often deal with any actual crimes, with the show focusing on their relationship, life as a cop, and their home life.

The show was a success from the start, getting good ratings** and winning three Emmys. In the second season, the cast added Al Lewis as Leo Schnauser, but the show ended after that year.

Fred Gwynn, of course, moved on to be Herman Munster (with Al Lewis) and a TV icon. But that part really didn’t fit the man. A graduate of Harvard – where he was editor of the Harvard Lampoon, he also was an accomplished artist, writing and illustrating The King Who Rained and its sequel A Chocolate Mousse for Dinner. He was able to show a more subtle comic gift as the judge in My Cousin Vinnie.

As for Joe E. Ross . . . well, his life was a mess. He had started out as a burlesque standup comic, and his act was as blue as it could be. Hiken, however, liked the way he looked and hired him for Phil Silvers and Car 54. The success of the show went to his head. He became arrogant and didn’t bother to learn his lines. Hiken even planned to drop him and replace him with Al Lewis, but Ross begged to stay in the role. Even so, he alienated everyone on the set and went back to comedy when it was over. He later returned to TV with It’s About Time, mostly because its producer didn’t talk to anyone who worked with him.

However, Ross was excellent as Toody, his catchphrase “Ooh, Ooh”*** making him a hit. He wasn’t really a strong actor, but he made the show work.

One thing I noted is the willingness to cast Black actors as police officers. It didn’t raise a lot of attention at the time, but the fact that the police force was integrated was something you hadn’t seen on TV back then.  Nipsy Russell and Ossie Davis were not more than background actors with a handful of lines each show, but seeing Black people in the background as though it were no big deal was a big step forward.

The show was shot in New York City. Police cars of that era were painted green and white and, in order to keep people from thinking Car 54 was a real police car, it was painted red and white, which looks the same on black and white film. It helped avoid confusion.

The show pioneered using a different opening sequence. Toody and Muldoon would be doing different things while driving. It wasn’t changed every show (like The Simpsons) but it did change every few episodes.

The show only ran two seasons. The stress of running all aspects of the show, coupled with having to deal with Ross, affected Hiken’s health and he died in 1968. But the short run meant it was rarely shown in syndication.

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*The final line “Khrushchev's due at Idlewild” may see inexplicable today, but at the time of the show, Nikita Khrushchev was head of the Soviet Union. “Idlewild” was the airport that is now known as JFK.

**Helped by its timeslot after Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and before Bonanza.

***It seems to be a phrase he often used in real life, too.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Ripcord (TV)

(1961-1963)
Created by
Harry Redmond, Jr., James Carl Hall
Starring Larry Pennell, Ken Curtis
IMDB Entry
In the 50s and early 60s, local station had to look to find programming in the early evening. Network prime time began at 7:30 weekdays, and there was often only a half-hour news broadcast at 6:00. So various producers jumped in to provide programming for the missing hour, half-half hour dramatic shows that were cheap for them to produce. Ripcord was one of these.

Much like Whirlybirds, the show highlighted a new bit of aviation technology – the parachute. Used in the military before that, parachuting became more mainstream, and producer Ivan Tors jumped onto the trend.

The show featured the adventures of Ted McKeever (Larry Pennell) and Jim Buckley (Ken Curtis), who ran a skydiving business. Most of their assignments was to use skydiving as a way to get to places where other forms of transportation could not.

One striking thing about the show today is that it used real stunts: people were actually skydiving.* It had an element of danger. Indeed, one stunt – a transfer from one plane to another, went wrong and the two planes hit each other and crashed to the ground. Luckily everyone was safe, skydiving to the ground, and the footage was used in a couple of later episodes.

By 1963, fewer of this type of show was being produced. Syndicated game shows – which could be made more cheaply – replaced the dramas, and the slots for them started drying up. The show was cancelled after two seasons.

Actor Ken Curtis, however, landed on his feet. Cast as Festus in Gunsmoke, he appeared in over 300 episodes of the show.  Larry Pennell was less successful, but continued to work fairly regularly, with recurring parts in The Beverly Hillbillies and Lassie.
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*Usually stuntmen, of course.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Bed

The Bed
(1968)
Written and Directed by
James Broughton
IMDB Entry

When I first got to college, there was a student-run film series. The person running it that year had a pattern:  Wednesday films were art films or obscure classics, while the weekend films were relatively recent films that had been in theaters only a few months previously. I liked that arrangement, since it let me find films I never would have heard of otherwise.

One of their Wednesday programs was a series of short films. I don’t remember any of them except for The Bed, which stayed with me for years.

The movie starts out with a shot of an old brass bed rolling down a hill and coming to rest in a meadow.  And then . . . things happen.

The movie has no story. It’s a series of vignettes, without dialog, where the viewer can read into it whatever they want. There are hints of celebration, love, death, birth, joy, and the just plain surreal.

And – the source of the movie’s fame – nudity. Lots of it, male and female. Sometimes it leaned toward the erotic, but it mostly showed an open and innocent attitude toward the human body. The visual elements (aside from the obvious) made it especially fascinating.

Given the fact I had very little experience with nudity other than classical art and Playboy, this element was something new. But director/writer James Broughton used it in as non-titillating manner as possible, making it seem innocent and matter of fact.

Broughton came to prominence as a poet after WWII, and made occasional short films.  He appears in this one as a saxophonist playing in a tree. The Bed brought him notice* and won several awards at film festivals.  He springboarded its success to make several other movies in the ensuing years. But nothing had the same success.
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*It was his first film in 15 years.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Detective

(1968)
Directed by
Gordon Douglas
Written by Abby Mann, from a novel by Roderick Thorp
Starring Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick, Ralph Meeker, Jack Klugman, Tony Musante
IMDB Entry

The hard-boiled detective has to move with the times. By the time the 1960s came along, the changed cultural scene gave new possibilities, and one of the results was The Detective.

Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) is an incorruptible New York city cop who is called in to investigate a murder. The naked corpse has been mutilated, hands and other body parts cut off. When his housemate Felix Tesla (Tony Musante) is found it all falls into place and Tesla is sent to the chair.

But Leland has his doubts. And when he investigates a second, seemingly irrelevant case, a suicide that seems a bit fishy, he begins to unravel a more complex set of facts that connect the two.

The movie reveled in its grittiness, touching on subjects that couldn’t have been tackled before, like drug abuse and corruption. Most notably, it was willing to talk about homosexuality. Now, it was hardly a balanced portrayal, even if some of the characters were sympathetic. I doubt it holds up very well, but the fact that it was portrayed directly was new in 1968 and some of that might be because they didn’t think the public was ready for a nuanced look.

This was one of Sinatra’s better roles. He seemed to really throw himself into a character instead of just playing himself and his Joe Leland is tough and no-nonsense, with some hints of vulnerability. 

The movie was a success, but has slowly faded away. It might be too cringeworthy to get through today.

One side note:  author Roderick Thorp wrote a sequel about the further adventures of Leland.  It was forgotten for twenty years, until someone took the bare bones of the second novel and planned to make a movie about that. The problem was that Sinatra was given first shot at the role in any sequel. Sinatra looked at the script and knew he was too old to play the lead, who had been turned into an action hero. Bruce Willis took it instead, and Die Hard became a classic.

In memory of Jimmy Nelson

http://greatbutforgotten.blogspot.com/2015/05/jimmy-nelson.html

Sunday, September 22, 2019

William Conrad (actor)

(1920-1994)
Wikipedia Page

One of the joys of having SiriusXM in my car is listening to Old Time Radio. There are some great old radio shows on there, and I began to notice a name popping up all the time in the credits, an actor who made a belated move into TV toward the end of the career, hampered by his appearance. But in the radio days, just about every drama seemed to have an appearance by William Conrad.

Conrad was born in Louisville, KY and, after the war, became a fixture on radio. He estimated he played more than 7500 roles, and I doubt that’s much of an exaggeration.  His deep voice made him a natural for authoritative roles.

His best known role was that of Matt Dillon in the radio version of Gunsmoke. He was perfect in the part, creating a vivid character who fought for law and order, and allowing no nonsense from anyone. Conrad was almost turned down for the part, the producers thinking his voice had been too familiar after all his radio performances, but they changed their mind after the audition.

But when Gunsmoke was adapted for television, Conrad wasn’t considered for the role.

In Hollywood, physical appearance is key, and Conrad was too heavy set. He didn’t fit into the image of a leading man, so was passed over* in favor of the more conventional leading man in James Arness. The radio show continued in parallel, but as radio drama started fading out, Conrad found it harder to get work. His talent got him jobs in movies, usually as a henchman.

But voiceover work became his meal ticket. He was in demand as a narrator for various shows. The most memorable of these were in the various incarnations of Rocky and Bullwinkle, where he narrated their adventures.** Conrad was perfect in the role, and it was one of the times the funny side of him shows.

Finally, in 1971, Conrad made it to TV stardom in the Quinn Martin detective show Cannon, which set up a backstory to explain his physical bulk.  The show was a hit, running five seasons, showing many people the man behind the voice – even if they didn’t know the voice.***

Conrad later starred in a failed Nero Wolfe series, and then had another five-year run with Jake and the Fatman, while still keeping his hand in narration work. He died a couple of years after the show ended, leaving a body of work that anyone would be proud of.
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*As was the rest of the radio cast. In his early days, Conrad was just a little bit blocky, but he gained weight as time went on. Photos of him during the Gunsmoke days indicate he was already a bit heavy, plus he was not conventionally handsome at any point.
**Also the adventures of Dudley Do-Right
***Cannon was on a couple of years before I learned that the “Bill Conrad” in the Rocky and Bullwinkle credits was the same guy.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Record Club of America (music)

c1960-c1975

When I was growing up, records were hard to find. I lived an hour from the nearest record shop* and it was hard to find a selection. The Columbia Record Club was out there, but their records were far more expensive than what they cost in a store. They gave a come-on rate – a bunch of records for a ridiculously low price** – and then you had to pay their full price (IIRC $6.98 when a record was about $3
.98).

Worse, it was on a negative refusal plan. They’d send you a card every month. If you didn’t return it, their choice for the month was automatically shipped and billed to you. You had to buy a certain amount of records to end the service. and if you forgot to return the card, you’d get a record you didn’t want. The overall cost of the records was far more than buying them in a store.

That was when I discovered the Record Club of America.

Their ads were simple.  You paid a membership fee (under $1) and bought a couple of albums at very low prices. Then, every month, you’d get a catalog. But you could just ignore it: you would only be sent an album if you requested one.

It seemed a great deal and I signed up.

Of course, there were reasons why things were so cheap.  The Record Club (out of York, PA), pressed their own albums under the license of the record company.*** The results were not as good as the authentic album, but back then no one really paid attention to the slightly worse recording quality. One album I got skipped badly. But the customer service was good:  they would send you a new one if you let them know the problem.

They also sold regular copies of the albums, usually the ones that weren’t popular enough to license. But the did feature albums that they pressed themselves.

There was a downside to this: when they pressed an album, they couldn’t return it to the record company for credit, so if they misjudged the popularity, they were stuck.

Things, though, started to go bad. The company was sued by the NYS Attorney General, calling the membership fee a scam. I thought that was ridiculous: it was a one-time fee that still made the record cheaper than anything else.

Then the company cut corners that were less laughable:  they started pressing records without getting permission. It may have been that they were licensed to press a certain number but pressed more than that to keep up with demand.  The record companies (rightfully) didn’t like that, and suddenly, they couldn’t press their own records.

The company switched to 8-tracks when they were big, but it wasn’t enough.  It went under in the mid-70s. From a couple of reports, it seems that the old warehouse existed at least until 2011, the records still visible in the windows.
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*My father sold records in his store, though I doubt he made much money with them, and my brothers and I were his biggest customers (at wholesale). But since the records were all returnable, they lost nothing but the space for them.
**I see 13 records for $2.85 online.
***A small sticker would announce that it was manufactured with permission.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Whirlybirds (TV)

Image result for whirlybirds tv show(1957-60)

Created by Art and Jo Napoleon
Starring Kenneth Tobey, Craig Hill
IMDB Entry

TV spinoffs happen for many reasons, some planned, some because a one-time character catches on with the public.*  Whirlybirds was spun off because the producers became enamored of a helicopter.

It started with I Love Lucy, where one episode featured a Bell helicopter. The producers liked using it so much that they created a series to feature it.

The show was about a small helicopter company run by Chuck Martin (Kenneth Tobey) and Pete More (Craig Hill). They were chartered for various duties, from rescuing people in danger, to carrying cargo, to whatever might be needed.

It was supposed to be part of the regular CBS schedule, but the network turned it down and it went directly to syndication, where it had a respectable run of 111 episodes.

After the show, Tobey had a long career guest starring in TV, while Hill moved to Spain and occasionally appeared in Spanish films.

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*Most obvious example was Mork and Mindy, after Robin Williams impressed everyone on Happy Days.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Rescue 8

Image result for rescue 8 tv(1958-60)
Created by
Robert G. Walker and Herbert B. Leonard
Starring: Jim Davis, Lang Jeffries
IMDB Entry
When I was growing up, my TV options were limited to two channels:  Channel 3 (WTIC, CBS) and Channel 8 (WNHC*, ABC). And one of the shows I remember watching back then always intrigued me because it contained the same number as one of them:  Rescue 8.
The syndicated show was one of several the station ran at 7:00 pm, just before prime time. As its title implies, it was about rescue unit #8 of the Los Angeles Fire Department. Much like the later show Emergency, it showed people accidentally getting into dangerous situations, where Wes Cameron (Jim Davis) and Skip Johnson (Lang Jeffries) would come in to extricate them from near disaster.
The show went into the backstory, showing the events leading to calling the Rescue squad.  The issues would be big and sometimes small and Wes and Skip** would come on the scene to save the day. The problems included complications that made simple rescues more difficult.
Two seasons were made, and it remained in syndication for several more years.  Jim Davis later went on to play Jock Ewing on Dallas.
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*Both channels have changed their call letters.
**Often without backup

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Toast of London (TV)

Toast of London
(2012-)
Created by
Arthur Matthews, Matt Berry
Starring Matt Berry, Robert Bathurst, Doon Mackichan, Harry Peacock, Tim Downie, Shazad Latif, Tracy-Ann Oberman
IMDB Entry
I’ve discussed Matt Berry before with is bizarre comedy Snuff Box. That was in 2006, and Berry has been keeping busy in British TV. He joined The IT Crowd as a regular, and the show took off. He was also busy with voice work. But among it all was his tour de force series, Toast of London.

Berry plays Steven Toast, an actor who has reached the age where he has trouble getting good roles.  He’s helped/hindered by his agent Jane Plough* (Doon Mackichan) who really doesn’t care. There’s also his arch-enemy, Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock), who stands in the way of anything he tries because he resents the fact that Toast is sleeping with his wife (Tracy Ann Oberman).**

Toast gets into strange situations and treats everyone with bombast and cluelessness. A favorite moment of mine was when he was doing voiceover work. He was hired to say one word:  “Yes.”  The director asks if he needs the script. Toast says of course not and tosses it aside. But when the start rolling the tape, he grabs the script to check it.

The show ran for three seasons and it was announced there’s be a fourth (though it hasn’t appeared). Netflix has it, and, if you like weird comedy, it’s a great place to fine it.
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*(pronounced “Pluff”)
**Mrs. Purchase claims to be a prostitute, but Ray is the only she ever charges.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Last Action Hero

Last Action Hero
(1993)
Directed by
John McTiernan
Written by Shane Black & David Arnott (screenplay), Zak Penn & Adam Leff (story)
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, F. Murray Abraham, Art Carney, Charles Dance, Tom Noonan, Austin O’Brien, Antony Quinn, Mercedes Ruehl, Ian McKellan, Joan Plowright.
IMDB Entry
OK, I’ll admit it:  I love metafiction – stories that break the fourth wall and where the characters know that they’re in a movie. So I was predisposed to like The Last Action Hero and I wasn’t disappointed, even if the movie did terribly at the box office.

Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) loves movies, especially those with action star Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The friendly projectionist at the theater he spends his days at (Art Carney) gives Danny a magic ticket that transports him into one of Slater’s movies. He hangs round Slater, while trying to tell him about how this is all a movie world:  All the women are beautiful, there’s a cartoon cat as a cop, phone numbers begin with 555, Sylvester Stallone starred in Terminator, and Slater’s partner John Practice (F. Murray Abraham) killed Mozart. Of course, Slater doesn’t believe any of this and keeps spouting Hollywood-style one-liners as he goes about his business.

But Slater’s arch enemy, Benedict (Charles Dance) starts to believe and transfers to the real world, where he realizes that he can actually get away with murder. Slater and Danny have to find him.
Schwarzenegger has always had a good comic presence, and he plays Jack completely over the top, a parody of every action hero ever created. He’s clearly loving the role.

As the cast list indicates, there is a long list of big name cameos in the movie.

So why did it flop?

First of all, the production was rushed to be released on a certain date. Scenes shot after the test screening were rushed into the film, so didn’t look good. Also, the marketing* was confusing. The trailer showed Slater/Schwarzenegger as Hamlet (as an action hero).  It’s funny, but doesn’t really get across the message. Then the trailer concentrated on the action, not the humor, and, sadly many people did not get that the scenes were deliberately over the top for comic effect.

It also didn’t help that Jurassic Park opened the week before.

The movie seems to be getting a cult following, and probably it would have been better if it didn’t pretend to the a summer blockbuster. But I found it a lot of fun – very funny and with some interesting philosophical ideas.
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*Bad marketing can kill even the greatest of films.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Our Gang

(1922-44)
Wikipedia Page

It was one of the most successful short subject series in the history of film. Yet few people these days are familiar with the correct name, even though some of the characters are still a part of popular culture even today.

You probably know it as The Little Rascals, and think of the adventures of Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and Darla. But, other than Spanky, they came on at the tail end of the series, when it was not at its best.

The concept was invented by comedy producer Hal Roach in the silent days. He conceived of a series of films showing kids acting like kids. Direct Robert F. McGowan insisted that the children not look like actors and that they not use makeup* or anything that made them seem like cute Hollywood children.  Gags were written, and the kids were allowed to ad lib and act as naturally as possible.

Another innovation (at least in the beginning) was to change the cast as the kids got older. People would be introduced slowly for an episode or two. If there was a positive response from audiences, they continued.  If they grew too old for the role, they were gone, often replaced as part of a nationwide talent competition. Thus there was a different cast at any given time.

The scripts were written by some of the best comedy writers of the day, including Leo McCary, Frank Capra, Walter Lantz, and Frank Tashlin. The kids – many of whom were too young to read – were coached on what to say and do, especially in the silent days when you could do it without ruining a take.

The stories were simple, telling about the minor adventures of the kids in the gang. They rambled, and the humor was gentle. the jokes slow paced.  But they had a ton of charm, mostly because the kids were so natural.

Despite the turnover, several of the early actors became stars. in their own right.  The most successful of these was Jackie Cooper, who left after a couple of years to star in features, and eventually was successful in TV. My favorite Cooper short was when he heard they get a new teacher – Mrs. Crabtree – and decided she was going to be old and mean and decided to play hooky. Of course, Mrs. Crabtree was  young and kindly and treated the class to ice cream, which Jackie was going to miss.** A couple of other episodes showed him with a schoolboy crush on her.

In 1932, they added a three-year-old kid who became the face of the franchise: George “Spanky” McFarland.  Spanky charmed the crew from his very first audition. Younger than the rest, he was teamed up with Scotty Beckett to be the best and funniest of the Gang.

A favorite moment of that era was in “Birthday Blues,” where Spanky’s parents were always fighting. It’s his mother’s birthday, and he goes out with his brother (Dickie Moore) for a present. Seeing a gun in the window, he says they should get that.  His brother asks, “What would she do with a gun?” Spanky replies, “Shoot Papa.”

One aspect of the series was that it always had a Black child as one of the gang: Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison and Alan “Farina” Hoskins in the silent days and Matthew “Stymie” Beard*** and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas when sound came in. Farina was extremely well liked and may have been the most popular Black actor of the silent days (he made the transition to sound and did a few of the early sound films). Of course, any portrayal of Blacks in Hollywood of the era is bound to show cringeworthy moments, but they were usually minor and not mean spirited, and, more importantly, the Black members of Our Gang were always accepted as equals by the rest, one of the few times during the 20s or 30s where you could portray it that way.

But by the mid-30s, things were changing.  With Spanky a star, they got away from the concept of recasting when the characters got too old. Luckily, since he started young it was ok for awhile, but there was an incentive to keep him in the role as he got older. Characters were introduced that were basically single jokes. 1935 was a turning point:  Gone were Scotty Beckett and Stymie,  to be replaced by Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, Darla Hood, Eugene “Porky” Lee, and Buckwheat****. In addition, a new director was brought in:  Robert McGowan, who had directed most of the shorts from the beginning, was replaced by Gus Miens.

And something was lost.  The stories were shorter and tighter (ten minutes instead of 20) and far more polished. The kids had evolved from Our Gang into child stars.

In 1938, seeing the market for short subjects was contracting, Roach sold Our Gang to MGM, who had been distributing the shorts. It stuck with Spanky and the crew as long as they could, and the characters they added – Froggy, who had a frog-like voice; and Mickey Gubitosi+ – were, at best, one-joke characters. In 1942, Spanky – now thirteen – left the series. It petered out the next year.

It might have been completely forgotten, except that Roach, who kept ownership of the early shorts, saw money in selling them to television. The only problem was that MGM had the rights to the name “Our Gang.”  So Roach renamed the series “The Little Rascals” and they became a mainstay for kid’s TV into the 60s.++

220 “Our Gang” Shorts were made, over 125 once sound came in, making it the most prolific of the short subjects of the era.

After their stint as part of Our Gang, some of the kids went on to other roles. In addition to Cooper and Blake, Scotty Beckett, Dickie Moore, and Matthew Beard. Tommy “Butch” Bond was the first actor to portray Jimmy Olson on screen. Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman from the silent days ended up starring in another Roach short subject, The Boy Friends in the 30s.  Spanky, alas, was too typecast and could not find much acting work.

But there was also a lot of dark stories from the actors’ later lives – alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide. There is talk of a curse, and though some is coincidence, there was what seemed to be an inordinate number of sad stories and sad ends to the various actors.

Still, from the beginning, Our Gang was a treasure and popular bit of entertainment for over 40 years.
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* The only sign of makeup was a circle drawn around Pete the Pup (the neighborhood dog), giving him the appearance that Target appropriated
**Edna Krabappel from The Simpsons was named in homage.
***He was always a favorite of mine, with his shaven head and bowler hat (given to him by Roach star Stan Laurel). He also was shown as the clever guy of the gang, though sometimes too clever for his own good. He often got the best lines.
****Buckwheat was added a year earlier as Stymie’s younger sister.  No, that’s not a typo.
+Who changed his name to Robert Blake and found stardom and, eventually, infamy. 
++The series was always billed as “Our Gang,” but some titles would say “with Hal Roach’s Rascals,” hence the name.