Sunday, May 24, 2015

Paul Winchell (TV)

Wikipedia Entry
IMDB Entry

Mahoney, Winchell, and SmiffPaul Winchell was, for a time, was the most successful ventriloquist on TV. But he went on to a long career that went a long way from just pretending to throw his voice.

Winchell got his start in the way that millions of kids dreamed of:  he answered an ad for a ventriloquism kit from the back of a magazine. He did much more than most kids his age.  He asked his art teacher to create a dummy, and Jerry Mahoney was born.  Winchell and Mahoney practiced and managed to win first prize in the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, and turned professions when he was 14.

When TV came along, Winchell took Mahoney and a second dummy, Knucklehead Smiff, and became a TV hit.  The two were similar to Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, though not as edgy. Mahoney was a wisecracker, and Knucklehead lived up to his name.

Winchell did add one innovation to the art:  Both Mahoney and Smiff had working hands – run by an assistant behind him screen.  This allowed them to pick up things and gesture, something that ventriloquists normally didn’t do.*  Winchell was also ambidextrous, operating Jerry with his left hand and Knucklehead with his right, allowing him to have both on stage at once.

Jerry Mahoney and OzwaldA third character was Ozwald.  Strictly speaking, Ozwald was not a ventriloquist act.  Winchell would draw eyes and a nose on his chin, wear a mask/headdress that covered his head from the mouth on down, and have the camera turned upside down.**  The result was definitely weird.

Winchell was a major success, but by the 60s, ventriloquists were on the way out.  Luckily, Winchell was able to adapt his career as a voiceover artists.  Hanna-Barbara hired him first and he created characters like Dick Dastardly, Fleegle from The Banana Splits, and Gargamel from The Smurfs.  His best known voice role, however was Tigger in Disney’s Winnie the Pooh films.

And, as a sideline, Winchell helped develop an artificial heart.  In among everything else, he had gone to Columbia as a premed and worked with Henry Heimlich*** in the 70s in its development, being granted a patent for it.  It was never actually used and there’s some debate as to how much Robert Jarvik was influenced by Winchell’s work.  Winchell also patented some other inventions, though I’m not sure if any were manufactured.

He also developed a method of cultivating tilapia as part of a humanitarian push to help find new crops in developing worlds.

Winchell died in 2005.  His ventriloquism had been overshadowed by his other accomplishments, but he was a major talent in everything he tried.


* I suspect the technique was a big influence on the Muppets like the Swedish Chef.

**He used this technique for a second character, “Mr. Goody-Good.”  He often would show the audience how he created the character, putting on the makeup and hat and then telling the camera to turn upside down.  Even knowing how it was done didn’t ruin the illusion.

***Yes, that Heimlich.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Señor Wences (comedy)

Wikipedia Entry

Ventriloquism is a difficult way to become a star.  Not only do you have to master the techniques of throwing your voice, but you have to be a first-rate comedian or else it’s just a gimmick.  One of the biggest stars of the art in the 50s and 60s was a Spaniard who did things differently from any other similar act:  Señor Wences.

He was born in Spain as Wenceslao Moreno and developed his act over there before moving to the US in the mid-30s.  He started out in nightclubs and by the late 50s, he was a regular guest on TV variety shows, most notably The Ed Sullivan Show, which is where he got his greatest fame.

Wences was not the usual ventriloquist.  Usually, there’s a dummy or puppet. Señor Wences didn’t need that sort of prop.  His main character, Johnny, was merely the side of his hand:  the thumb as the jaw.  Lipstick was used to draw the lips, two googly eyes were added, and a small wig was put on the top.  He rested his hand atop a model of a body and Johnny came to life.

But his most famous “dummy” was Pedro.  Pedro was a head in a box.  Wences would open and shut the lid and have Pedro speak.  The voices were slightly different, too:  when the lid was shut, the voice was muffled. Pedro soon created a catchphrase:  “S’allright,” spoken in his deep, gruff voice.

Often, Wences didn’t use a dummy at all.  Once he established Johnny and Pedro, he would leave them on the table and have them comment and talk back to him.  He could take out a telephone handset and pretend to take a call or would start spinning plates on a stick as Johnny and Pedro reacted.

His technical skill was first-rate.  Wences was able to have three and even four conversations, switching from Johnny, to his own voice, to Pedro, to someone on the phone, to Cecillia Chicken (a puppet) in rapid succession.  It was the rapid-fire switches that made the performance.  Indeed, Wences told very few jokes, but got his humor from the reaction of the characters.

After Sullivan went off the air, Wences continued to perform as a TV guest star and at clubs.  In the 80s, he convinced producers to give him a part in the touring company of the musical “Sugar Babies,” by telling the producers he was 15 years younger than he really was. He retired in 1996 at age 100 and died in 1999.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue Dress(1995)
Directed by
Carl Franklin
Written by Carl Franklin from a novel by Walter Mosley
Starring Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle
IMDB Entry

Film noir was a genre of the 40s and 50s:  black and white films, very often set in southern California, with private detectives travel through a corrupt world and are set up by treacherous dames.  The genre died out with color, as though it couldn’t stand the brightness, but every once in awhile someone tries to made a more modern version.  Devil in a Blue Dress was one of those attempts, which adds a racial element to the mix.

Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is an unemployed factory worker who is given money by a stranger named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) to find a missing woman.  Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) is missing, as a white woman who liked to visit black jazz clubs, Rawlins is hired to search for her without being conspicuous.  As Rawlins gets drawn into a web of intrigue, bodies start to show up  and he enlists the help of his friend, the psychopathic Mouse Alexander (Don Cheadle) in order to get to the bottom of everything.

The movie is based on the mysteries of Walter Mosley, who wrote in a world where racial issues informed the world, an extra layer to the standard Noir.

Cheadle and WashingtonDenzel Washington has already established himself as a major acting talent, but the person who steals the show is Don Cheadle.  I had known him in the delightful Picket Fences.  His Mouse is one of the most memorable characters in film – charming, dangerous, funny, and capable of anything (“If you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?”).

The movie pretty much broke even.  Director Don Franklin was a TV actor who moved to the directors chair and seems to have made a success of it.  It’s a different look at the type of noir that, though usually black and white, is very rarely black.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Jeno’s Pizza Rolls (Ad)

In memory of Stan Freberg.

Stan Freberg was a comic genius.  He got his very first job on his first day in LA, as voice actor for Warner Brothers in 1944* and went on to radio and TV success.  In the 50s, he wrote and performed in a series of classic comedy albums.  His work in those areas are justly celebrated.

But his greatest influence was in the area of advertising.  He started making ads in the early 1960s, with his ad agency Thyme Incorporated.**  And Freberg did something that had never been done for advertising:  he made his ads laugh out loud funny. 

There were many ads, including Sunsweet Pitted Prunes (“Today the Pits, tomorrow the Wrinkles!  Sunsweet Marches On.”), including one starring Ray Bradbury (“I never mentioned prunes in any of my stories.”)

But the best of them was his ad for Jeno’s Pizza Rolls.

First, a little background.  At the time of the ad, Lark Cigarettes*** was running a campaign, where they’d drive through the streets with a sign reading “Show Us Your Lark Pack!”  People would hold up their cigarette packs.  Here’s an example:

And this is what Freberg did (the first person who interrupts the announcer looks much like the Lark Cigarette’s spokesman; the second – well, you should know who they are):

Johnny Carson has said that when the commercial was shown on The Tonight Show, the audience broke into applause, the only time he’d heard that about a commercial.

Freberg kept making the world laugh until his death a few days ago. And his work will still live on.

*In Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears.

**Time, Incorporated were good sports about it, referring the matter to their lawyers Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary.

***Yes, cigarettes were still advertised on TV at the time.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Topsy Turvy

Topsy Turvey(1999)
Written and Directed by
Mike Leigh
Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall
IMDB Entry

Mike Leigh is an extremely well regarded British film director, known for serious dramatic films where his actors collaborate by improvising their lines in rehearsals until things click.  However, sometimes he lets things go and have fun, and the result was Topsy Turvey.

The story is simple.  After their play Princess Ida is a flop, composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) and playwright W. S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) try to create a new operetta.  But there are issues.  Gilbert wants to use a magic potion as a plot point, but Sullivan, exasperated, points out he has used various magic plot points before and refuses to write music unless the story avoided pure fantasy.  While deadlocked, Gilbert attends an exhibition of Japanese arts and buys a katana.  When the sword falls off the wall of his study, Gilbert is inspired to write The Mikado.*

The rest of the movie shows their work on putting together the play.  It follows rehearsals, backstage maneuvering, and adding and cutting songs. One scene has the group protest the cut of a song that Gilbert didn’t think was worth keeping.  It was “A more humane Mikado” (“My object all sublime/I shall achieve in time/To let the punishment fit the crime/The punishment fit the crime”), one of the highlights of the show even today.**

This may be the best representation of how a play is created, and it’s full of memorable characters, including the always good Broadbent and many others.  It’s a sumptuous looking film, with great scenes of Victorian dress and design, and is also filled with vignettes of life at the time.

The film is a delight from start to finish, not the least because it becomes a “Greatest Hits” version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s score, a perfect place to get a feel for their genius.

*This story was told by Gilbert himself as the source of inspiration, though he did write about fiction (and magic potions), so the facts should be taken with a grain of salt.

**I saw Itzhak Perlman perform it once at his summer camp; it was delightful.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


Written and Directed by
Quentin Dupieux
Starring Stephen Spinella, Roxane Mesquida, Wings Hauser, Robert
IMDB Entry

I’m not a fan of modern film horror.* I find it more annoying than frightening, more formulaic than clever.  I think it was the strangeness of the premise that attracted me to Rubber, a horror film that turns out to be a metafiction about horror.

It starts with a group of people out in the deserted, being told by a policeman, Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella) that they are about to watch a movie, one whose events have no reason.  The group take binoculars and starts watching.

And see a tire (Robert) comes to life.  We see it stand upright and start rolling through the desert, but it soon begins to crush things in its path. When it can’t crush something, it starts to vibrate and the object or person explodes.

The tire find Sheila (Roxane Mesquida) and is thwarted when it tries to blow her up and then stalks her into a run-down motel.  Meanwhile, the audience discovers that they are not just observers of the events…

It was the goofiness of the concept that drew me in. The idea of a sentient killer tire is too delightful to pass up, and the scenes featuring Robert are all nice combinations of funny and scary.  It also has a lot to say about horror films and their audiences.

Director Quentin Dupieux continued with further low-budget films that weren’t just horror.  Sadly,  Robert’s acting career never took off,**

*I do like  monster movies, which is usually classified as horror, but which is usually more interested in dealing with the monster than running up a body count.

*Though he reportedly has a cameo in one of the Fast and Furious films.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rock Dreams (book, music)

By Guy Peelaert (art) and Nik Cohn (text)

Guy Peelaert was a Belgian artist who began selling his work in the 60s, and who was very attuned to the rock and roll scene of the time.  Based in Paris, he had a couple of successful comic strips, and in 1974, he produced Rock Dreams, a fascinating set of images of the rock and roll world.

The book was a series of painting, representing rock music from its roots to the time of publication. It showed the important artists of the genre – but rarely doing anything that related to their career or even to reality.  The images were all visually striking and portrayed the myths of rock more than its reality. 

And it was fascinating.  Stars were shown in situations that they probably had never been in, and yet they fit perfectly into their images, no matter how weird.  So you had the Rolling Stones dressed in black leather drag; the Beatles having tea with the Queen; Brian Wilson looking chubby and lonely in a cluttered room, picking out a tune on a piano; Otis Redding sitting on a dock; the Mothers of Invention as a motorcycle gang. 

Here are some examples:





The photos were accompanied by text by rock critic Nik Cohn, which was also evocative, but it was the art the caught everyone’s attention.  The book was a major best seller  and put Peellaert on the map.

As should be obvious, he started doing album covers, most notably It’s Only Rock and Roll by the Rolling Stones and David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs.  He also worked in movie posters and many other things until his death in 2008.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mary and Max

Written and Directed by
Adam Elliot
With the voices of Toni Colette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries, Bethany Whitmore, Renee Geyer
IMDB Entry

In the US, animated films are for kids.  Though there are often elements to entertain adults, that’s not their main audience, and the assumption is that it’s best to stick with children’s stories.  In other countries, though animation for adults is accepted and even celebrated. And there are few films more worthy of celebration than Mary and Max.

MaryThe film starts in a small dreary brown town in Australia, where Mary Daisy Dunkle (Bethany Whitmore) lives a dreary brown life.  She is an outcast, of course, teased because of a birthmark on her forehead “the color of poo.”  Her father is in a dull job at a tea bag factory and disappears each night to do his taxidermy; his mother is a shoplifter who takes a little too much sherry (well, a lot too much). One day, Mary finds a New York City phone book, and wondering about Americans, picks a name at random and sends a letter.

MaxIt reaches Max Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a fat 44-year-old Jewish atheist, who lives alone and can’t deal with other people.  The letter frightens him, but he eventually writes back when he sees that they both love chocolate and The Noblets, a cartoon show.  Letter follows letter and the two create a long distance friendship over the years.  But all is not well. One of Mary’s letter, asking if he’s “done sexy,” gives Max an acute anxiety attack, and he’s hospitalized for eight months and diagnosed with a newly categorized disease:  Arnsparger’s syndrome.

Mary grows up (Toni Colette) and marries the boy next door (Eric Bana), but all is not well both between them and especially between her and Max.

The ending is extremely poignant, but I won’t spoil it here.

The movie is certainly dealing with dark themes:  depression, Arnsparger’s, loneliness, death, and even suicide.  But it’s also extremely funny.  Max’s letters have a wonderful deadpan black humor.  Mary’s are filled with the misunderstanding that a young child trying to figure out the world. 

The story is narrated by Barry Humphries, best known in the states as Dame Edna Everege.  It’s also dry and funny and anchors the story.  Hoffman, unrecognizable in a New York accent, shows why he was so highly regarded as an actor.

The design is also wonderful.  First of all, it’s all made with the most painstaking of animation techniques, stop action.  All the scenes in Australia are done in sepia tones, while New York is black and white.*  Other than a few dashes of red, there are no other colors in the film which gives it a unique look.

The film opened the Sundance Film Festival – the first animated film to do so – but never got a US distributor.  I would think that was because of some of the dark elements and the fact that the story is really one for adults, not children.

It’s available on Netflix.  Watch it and get a real treat.

*Probably influenced by Woody Allen in Manhattan

Sunday, March 8, 2015


Directed by
George Cukor
Written by David Ogden Stewart & Sidney Buchman (screenplay) from a play by Philip Barry
Starring  Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton, Jean Dixon
IMDB Entry

Sometimes a movie is a victim of bad timing.  Holiday was certain in that category:  it flopped, even though it was a successful Broadway play and had been a success in the theaters.  But a lot had changed by the time this remake came out, and the result was a vastly underappreciated film.

It’s the story of Johnny Case (Cary Grant) who is about to marry Julia Seaton (Doris Nolan). Meeting her parents for the first time, he discovers she is part of a rich banking family, a surprise for Johnny, who is successful, but not rich.  He father Ned (Lew Ayres) is surprised, but accepts Johnny and wants him to join him in the bank.  The family is conventional and conservative* to a fault.

Except for Julia’s a sister Linda (Katherine Hepburn), who is  lively and a free spirit, an embarrassment to her stodgy family.  Johnny takes a liking to her and confides that his plan was to stop working and try to see the world and figure out how to make his life meaningful. This doesn’t sit well with the family when the word gets out.

Katherine Hepburn fits the character perfectly – exactly the type of woman that understands Johnny and would love to go with him.**  She’s so full of life and so natural that she is a delight in all her scenes.

Cary Grant is Cary Grant, of course, with his famous charm on full display.  Also memorable are Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as a couple of Johnny’s friends who are far more interesting than anyone in the Seaton family.

Despite the direction of George Cukor and good critical notices, the film flopped.  Most people thought that the theme of giving up a job didn’t resonate in the depths of the Depression, when jobs were so hard to come by.***

At the time, though, the reason was clear:  it starred Katherine Hepburn. She had had a couple of flops that year, and she was labeled “box office poison.”****  She was dropped by RKO and was on her own.*****

Even though it was a flop, the movie seemed to have a lasting effect.  Before the play came out, “Linda” was a rare name.  It got a jump in popularity when the first film came out, and an even bigger one after Holiday.

Now the movie is considered one of many gems in the filmography of Grant and Hepburn and of director George Cukor.

*In the 1930s understanding of the term.

**It’s not a spoiler to know that they end up together at the end; everything in the movie  points in that direction.

***The play was produced ten years earlier, before the Crash, and the movie came out in 1930, in the early days of the Depression when there were still people who believed that prosperity is just around the corner.

****The two films that seemed to bring on the epithet was this one and Bringing Up Baby, (now considered one of the best comedies of all time).  It’s interesting that Cary Grant, her costar in both those movies, never was named poison himself.

*****Of course, Hepburn was not one to take this lying down.  She went back to Broadway to perform a play by Phillip Barry, which was such a big success that Hollywood wanted to make a movie of it.  But Hepburn was smart enough to buy the movie rights, and insisted she star as a condition.  The Philadelphia Story was a hit and Hepburn never looked back.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Monolith Monsters

Directed by
John Sherwood
Written by Norman Jolly and Robert M. Fresco (screenplay); Jack Arnold and Fresco (story)
Starring Grant Williams, Lola Albright, Les Tremayne, Trevor Bardette, Phil Harvey, Linda Scheley
IMDB Entry

I always liked 50s monster movies, and even today the best hold up pretty well.  Oh, the science is often silly, but once granted the premise, it sticks it with logical solutions and results.  The monster are very similar though:  usually some sort of giant creature that runs amok.  Certainly the most imaginative threat in these shows up in The Monolith Monsters.*

It starts with a meteorite crashing into the desert near a small California town.  Geologist Ben Gilbert (Phil Harvey) finds one of hundreds of black rocks and takes it back for study.  When water falls onto one of the rocks, it starts to bubble.

The next day, Dave Miller (Grant Williams) returns from a business trip to find Ben, his body turned into rock.  Meanwhile, the schoolteacher Cathy Barrett (Lola Albright) takes her class on a field trip, where her kids find more of the rocks, and Ginny Simpson (Linda Scheley) take it home. Cathy recognizes the rock in the lab as the same one that Ginny took with her, and they rush to her house, only to find it destroyed and Ginny slowly turning to stone.

The black rock turns out to be a crystal that grows when exposed to water.  After a rainstorm, the monoliths begin to move:  they grow to immense height, then topple over, breaking into thousands of  pieces that grow when exposed to water, and repeating the cycle.  And they cannot be stopped.

The movie isn't perfect.  The biggest flaw is that to increase suspense the characters are slow on the uptake:  trying to find what causes the monoliths to move, they take forever to realize its water. 

The Monoliths attack!But the monoliths are the stars of the film.  They are a different type of threat:  mindless, moving only the way gravity takes them, and totally dangerous.  The shots of them growing and crashing, destroying anything in their path are impressive.

The story was credited to 50s movie great Jack Arnold, who I've discussed before.  You can see similarities to other of his films, most notably the desert locale and the attempt to make the pseudoscience believable.

The film didn't make much of a splash when it came out, released as part of a double feature and disappearing.  It's fallen into public domain and can be found in the Internet Archive.

Despite the fact that a sequel would be natural, the monolith monsters never showed up again.**  It's still one of the top examples of the subgenre.

*I had always loved the premise, but didn’t get a chance to see it until recently.

**Other than a cameo appearance in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Sunday, February 22, 2015


Directed by
Mike Nichols
Written by Jim Harrison, Wesley Strick
Starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader,
Christopher Plummer, Kate Nelligan
IMDB Entry

Of the classic movie monsters, the werewolf is probably the worst served. The problem is the setup:  the man/animal dichotomy is great, but it only happens in a full moon, unlike, say Cat PeopleWolf succeeds nicely because it moves away from the literal man/wolf but also uses it as a metaphor.

Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is an editor of a publishing house* who is bitten by a wolf after hitting it in his car.  But that’s the least of his worries.  The business has been bought out by Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer), who ruthlessly starts making changes to make it more profitable,** including demoting Will and replacing him with Stewart Swinton (James Spader).  Angry, Will is further enraged when he picks up Stewart’s scent on his wife’s (Kate Nelligan) clothing, knowing she is having an affair with him.  He goes to confront Stewart, and ends up biting him.  Will becomes more and more wolflike, being helped out by Adler’s daughter,  Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer).

But the change also helps out Will, who starts being more cutthroat and aggressive, winning his job back and getting Stewart fired.***  But being a wolf also has its drawbacks, especially when there’s another one around.

This is the type of role in which Nicholson excels:  over-the-top but not entirely crazy, and he plays it well.  He had been wanting to make a movie of the script for years, since Jim Harrison was a friend of his. Nicholson’s background in horror also serves him well.

Spader, of course, makes a creepy bad guy, and Pfeiffer was good as usual.

The movie got mixed reviews, mostly because it’s a mixed movie.  It tries to be arty, which turned off the horror movie crowd, and a horror film, which didn’t appeal to the arty crowd.  It also plays with the tropes of the werewolves in unexpected way. 

Despite its flaws, the movie overall is something to check out.

*Since Columbia didn’t own a publishing business at the time, the went to science fiction/fantasy publisher Tor Books to supply the books needed to dress the set.  Sharp-eyed viewers can spot several volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, as well as other SF/fantasy authors.

**Since I have some knowledge of the publishing business, I can say that this is harder to believe than believing in werewolves.  Book publishing even in 1994 was not that lucrative.

***Leading to this memorable scene:

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cabin in the Sky

Cabin in the skyDirected by
Vincente Minnelli
Written by Joseph Schrank, based on the musical by Lynn Root, music by Vernon Duke
Starring Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Kenneth Spencer, Rex Ingram, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington.
IMDB Entry.

Cabin in the Sky was a daring movie when it was released in 1943:  a film in 1943 with an all-Black cast.  While it wasn’t the first time this happened,* but the studios ran the risk that theaters in the South would not show it, and, though the movie may have some things that seem stereotyped today, it was a major step forward in its time – and an entertaining movie to boot.

It’s the story of Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) and inveterate gambler who is married to the long-suffering Petunia (Ethel Waters).  Joe is shot over his gambling debts but, when he gets to heaven, the General (Kenneth Spencer) gives him another chance:  six months to straighten up his act.**  However, Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram) has other plans, and sends Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) to tempt him.

The film employed just about every Black actor in Hollywood.  Though the characters were comic, they were not caricatures, and the casual racism of the time was toned down.  The script overall is witty with an studied attempt to avoid condescension and all of the human characters are portrayed a real human beings. 

Eddie “Rochester” Anderson was probably the most successful black actor of his era, primarily because of his role on the Jack Benny Show.***  He is good as Joe, and manages to be tempted without being a buffoon.

Ethel Waters gets one of her best roles here.  Her Petunia is a wonderfully sympathetic character and, of course, a great singer. 

And Lena Horne was terrific.  This was her first important acting role**** and she lights up the screen.  Her Georgia is playful, sexy, and the perfect seductress, something that probably bothered a lot of the white supremacists of the time.

This was director Vincente Minnelli’s first film.  Minnelli (Liza’s dad) made a specialty of musicals, and in this case he wanted to be respectful of the people involved.  Much of the original Vernon Duke score was removed in favor of songs by The Wizard of Oz’s Arlen and Harburg. 

The movie manages to retain its entertainment value, and is one of the few films of the era with African-Americans can be seen without wanting to cringe for them.

*The Green Pastures – not a musical, with some of the same themes (its screenwriter helped with the screenplay)  – came out in 1936 (with some of the same cast) and it’s always risky to call any movie a “first.”

**This was a common fantasy theme of the time:  people being killed but getting a second chance.  It probably had a lot to do with the fact that so many Americans were dying in the war.

***One thing about the character is that Rochester often got the better of Benny and spent much of the time ridiculing Benny’s ego.  In a time when that sort of behavior could get you lynched, it was an important milestone.

****She had appeared as a singer in two earlier films.  Ethel Waters took a dislike to her, feeling her character was not behaving like a lady.  Waters also was miffed when publicity for the movie featured Horne very prominently, even though Waters was billed above her.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Wild Thing (music, comedy)

by “Senator Bobby”/”Senator Everett McKinley” (Bill Minkin)
Wikipedia Entry

In the 60s, music still had a novelty side.  You could have a hit with a song that was purely humorous, and even if it wasn’t a song (more on that later).  And “Senator Bobby” had one with his version of “Wild Thing.”

First, a little background.  The song “Wild Thing” was a number one hit by the UK group the Troggs in 1966.  It has a catchy but heavy guitar riff behind it with a growling vocals filled with sex and menace. 

And, in 1967, Senator Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen had a surprise hit single (#16) with “Gallant Men,” a spoken word recording praising the military, a hawk’s ideal in the Vietnam era.*  That album including it won Dirksen a Grammy Award for best spoken word album.

That’s where comedian Bill Minkin came in.  He had the brilliant idea of using Dirksen’s dramatic voice to use the “let’s get sexy” lyrics of “Wild Thing,” with the nom de comedy of Senator Everett McKinley.

Of course, records needed to have two sides, so Minkin did the same thing with a more liberal senator:  Robert F. Kennedy.  Internal evidence indicates that this was supposed to be the B-Side of the record, but it was released as the A-side.  Recorded as by “Senator Bobby and the Hardly-Worthit Players,” the song reach #20.**

The Dirksen parody was not neglected, though.

(Sounds a little like Elvis, doesn’t he?)

Both songs are a bit dated, if only because of the references to political figures of the time, and the Kennedy family. 

I would also guess that the assassination of RFK put a damper on it being played, though by then the song was old news, so it didn’t affect Minkin the way Vaught Meader was affected by JFK’s death.  Minkin became friends with Martin Scorsese, with bit parts in Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  He also hosted The King Biscuit Flower Hour for 20 years.

*It made Dirksen the oldest person to have a top 40 hit until he was surpassed by Moms Mabley two and a half years later

**Though the Senator Bobby version was released as the A-side of the single, it’s clear that it was meant to be the B-side, which included the parody of Dirksen.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Canada Lee (actor)

Canada Lee(1907-1952)
Wikipedia Page
Boxing record
IMDB Entry
Internet Broadway Database Entry

Canada Lee led a remarkable life. In his heyday, he was second only the Paul Robson* as the best Black actor on Broadway.  But the blacklist and health problems cut Lee’s career short, and his insistence on only accepting roles where he was treated with dignity made it difficult for him to get movie roels.

Lee was born Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata in New York City.  He knew he wanted to make a lot of himself, and ran away at 14 to be a jockey.  While there were many Black jockeys in the 19th century, they were being squeezed out of the business by the time Lee got involved.  Still, by dint of hard work, he managed to get some mounts and win a handful of races in the New York circuit before he grew too big to get mounts.

That’s when Lee took up boxing.  He had a talent for that, too, and one day a ring announcer, cold reading the name “Canagata, Lee” from a card, billed him ad Canada Lee.  Lee used that name from then on.

Boxing in the early 30s was just as segregated as the rest of society.  After Jack Johnson won the heavyweight crown, white promoters shied away from matching Black boxers with white ones.**  Lee faced the same issues, having success against other Black opponents, but finding it hard to get matches against white ones. Still, he was able to make enough money in the ring to live a prosperous lifestyle – though he never learned how to manage money, and was also very generous with it.

But the boxing came to an end when in 1929 an opponent’s blow led to Lee going blind in one eye.  He kept the injury secret in order to keep fighting, but eventually he had to give up the ring. 

Lee had played the violin as a child with some proficiency, so decided that was his next career.  With the help of columnist Ed Sullivan, he opened a night club, but never was able to make any money at it.

By 1934, Lee was broke.  He realized that he would have to give up his dreams and take a job as a laborer.  He reluctantly headed to the employment office at the Harlem YMCA and stumbled upon his true calling.

A theater group was auditioning .  Lee, to postpone the inevitable, sat in just to watch  Someone asked him to come up and read for a part.  Surprised, Lee got up on stage and got the role.

Lee took to the stage easily.  After one performance, he noticed a young man in the back of the theater being threatened by a couple of men.  He came down and chased them away, to the lasting gratitude of the other, a young man from Kansas named Orson Welles.  Welles later cast Lee as Banquo in his groundbreaking all-Black version of the Scottish Play, which instilled in Lee a love for Shakespeare and classical theater.

Slowly Lee worked his way up, and he finally achieved Broadway stardom as Bigger Thomas in the stage adaptation of Native Son in 1941.*** The play reflected Lee’s penchant for social justice and better treatment for Blacks.  And he also did a lot of radio, his voice making him an ideal announcer and even a DJ.

Lee wanted to do a movie, but he was picky:  he had no interest in playing the sort of menial roles that Blacks were stereotyped in.  Finally, in 1944, he found a role he felt was a good one:  Joe in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.  He had to fight to avoid stereotyping even then (the script was changed after he signed on), and racism on the set, but it’s probably his most visible role today.  Even that was an issue: some publicity photos had Lee cropped out.

Lee in LifeboatHe returned to Broadway and continued his success, playing Caliban in The Tempest, and Daniel de Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi.  The latter was a milestone:  the first time a Black actor played a role that had previously only been cast for whites.  Even so, he had to wear special makeup to give him Caucasian skin tones.

Around this time, Lee started getting into trouble.  Always an activist, he often found himself at events where the Communist Party was involved.  The postwar Red Scare was coming into to play, and with it, the blacklist, and Lee was friendly with too many so-called “subversives” to miss notice.  His name appeared on a list of suspected Communists, and from then on, he had trouble finding work.****

Lee traveled to Europe and South Africa to appear in a film version of Cry the Beloved Country.  He continued to speak out against racism, and was particularly outspoken about what he saw under Apartheid.*****  

His health was failing.  He had high blood pressure, probably exacerbated by his worries over the Blacklist.  He recovered a bit in Europe, but returned to the US to promote the film.  There he found he couldn’t get work, and he was not allowed to leave the country.  Desperate and nearly broke, he died in 1952.******

Lee led a fascinating life, and I’m sure there is ample material for a movie about him.  There is a biography, Becoming Something:  The Story of Canada Lee by Mona Z. Smith.  I definitely recommend it to see a pioneer of Broadway who has been lost to time.

*Their careers had certain parallels:  both started out as athletes (Robeson was an all-American football player and considered among the best of his era), both went into acting, both had a strong social conscience, and both had their careers cut short by the Blacklist.

**Harry Wills was the #1 challenger for the heavyweight crown in the 20s, but was never given a title shot.  Jack Dempsey seemed willing, but the bout never came off.

***Also directed by Welles.

****His former friend Ed Sullivan was particularly vehement, ignoring a letter from Lee asking for help clearing his name and constantly reporting rumors of his subversion.

*****Lee himself was treated well, but he saw plenty of examples about how South African Blacks were treated, which was worse than anything Lee had seen in the US.

******He is occasionally cited as being killed by the Blacklist.  While it certainly exacerbated his problem, the high blood pressure did seem to run in his family.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Wagner and Sons Tea (food)


imageBack in the 60s, if you wanted tea, your had only one choice:  orange pekoe,* and in most cases, that meant Lipton.**  Chinese restaurants had their own blends, but they were never sold unbrewed.  Celestial seasonings could be found in hippie stores, but nowhere else. It was Wagner and Sons Tea that showed me there was more to life than flo-thru tea bags.

Wagner’s was loose tea, and sold in a distinctive square tin.  Most were 3/4 oz., with a tin about 2 in. high.**  The tins were colorful, with each tea having a different color, with its name emblazoned on the front.

imageAnd the types of tea were things you never saw in supermarkets.  Orange pekoe, of course (orange tin), but Keemun (black), Jasmine (yellow), English breakfast (red), Formosa Oolong (light green), Imperial gunpowder (medium green), Irish (kelly green), Earl Gray (purple) Rare Mandarin (lavender), Pan fired green (blue), and Ch’a Ching Chinese restaurant (white).

The flavors let you experience a world of tea – and fairly cheaply.  The variety was appealing and soon you would get tea infusers to try out all the flavors.

The company was founded in 1847.  The teas were usually sold in gift stores and specialty food stores.  I knew of one not far from us where I’d go every few weeks to pick out old favorites and try things that sounded interesting.

Then, at some point, Wagner teas vanished. The company, around for almost a century and a half, sold out to a company named “Rose Spice” in 1996.  The company seems to have vanished, and with it, Wagner: the trademark lapsed in 2000.

At this point, all that is left are the tins, which are collectors items.  I can see why:  it must be fun to try to collect all the colors.  But the tea inside probably introduced many Americans to the idea that there was a world of tea to explore.

*Which is not named for a growing region or drying method or variety:  it’s part of a grading system for black tea with leaves of a certain size and the tea can come from anywhere.

**Red Rose, Tetley, and other teas were available, but if you ordered tea in a restaurant, Lipton was what you got.

**There were also full-size tins of 4.5 oz.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

Directed by
Val Guest
Written by Wolf Mankowitz, Val Guest
Starring Janet Monro, Leo McKern, Edward Judd, Arthur Christiansen
IMDB Entry

The British always did downbeat science fiction well, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a minor classic in the genre.

It starts out with an abandoned London, where reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) staggers sweaty in the heat.  He goes to his office, so hot the typewriter platen* is melting.  He then starts to dictate the story.

It’s three months earlier.  The newspaper is humming and Bill McGuire (Leo McKern**) is covering for Peter’s absence due to his personal problems.  But things are going wrong.  There are sunspot and seismic activity that seem to be connected with a nuclear test a few days before. And that’s just the beginning:  a solar eclipse happens ten days early and a massive heat wave envelops Britain. And more and more weather anomalies occur.  Eventually the news gets out:  The explosions have changed the tilt of the Earth – for a start.

The movie is reminiscent of films of the 30s:  rapid and witty dialog (especially from McKern).  Another nice touch is that the newspaper scenes were shot at an actual newspaper, and the editor of the real Express newspaper (Arthur Christiansen) plays the editor in the film.

The results of the changes are well thought out, and the movie does not have a conventional happy ending, leaving the result ambiguous.

Director/Writer Val Guest got his start in science fiction by writing and directing the movie version of  the seminal British SF TV show The Quatermass Experiment.

*For those of you who have never seen a typewriter, the platen was the cylinder, usually made of rubber, where the keys strike the paper.

**Yes, Rumpole.  It’s odd seeing him so young.  He is one actor who is always a pleasure to watch, and I remember him as the villain in the Beatles’s Help and as Number 2 in The Prisoner.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Book of Life

The Book of LIfe(2014)
Directed by
Jorge R.  Gutierrez
Written by Jorge R. Gutierrez, Douglas Lansdale
Voices by Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube
IMDB Entry

This is the golden age of film animation.  Studios have found that animated films are relatively cheap to make, and can make a hatful of money. Of course, the assumption is that animation is for children, and films are usually aimed at that audience, with some hints to keep their parents amused.  But sometimes a film comes along that aims at a slightly older audience, and last year, this brought the delight that is The Book of Life.

The film leans heavily on Mexican mythology. A museum tour guide takes a group of unruly children to see the Mexican town of San Angel, whose story is in the book of life.

It starts out with a wager.  La Muerte (voice of Kate del Castill0), who rules the Land of the Remembered (basically, heaven) joins in a bet with Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten (the opposite).  In the town, there are three children:  Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria. The bet is as to who will marry Maria when they grow up.  La Muerte picks Manolo; Xibalba, picks Joaquin and, of course, cheats by giving him a medal that will make him invulnerable.

Joachim, Manolo, & MariaYears later, Manolo (Diego Luna) becomes a musician, against the wishes of his father, who wants him to join in the family tradition and become a bullfighter.  Joaquin (Channing Tatum), aided by his magic medal, has become a war hero.  When Maria (Zoe Saldana) returns from several years in Spain, they both woo her, and when it looks like Manolo is going to win, Xibalba kills him.  But that’s only the beginning…

The plot is filled with nice twists and surprises and never goes exactly where you expect it to.  The visual style of the film is striking.  Director Jorge R. Gutierrez uses bright colors and Mexican motifs through out.  One subtle conceit is that many of the characters are made to look like wooden dolls, like the dolls in the museum.  The design is awash with color and the characters are like nothing else in film.*  Guillermo del Toro produced the film and you can see how he would have liked the style.

The movie did OK, but was not a massive success.**  Certainly it wasn’t something that aimed directly at kids (though certainly kids could enjoy it), and, unfortunately, adults are reluctant to go to animated films alone. At this writing, I don’t know if it’ll be an Oscar contender (but, in any case, it won’t win), but you’d be hard pressed to find a better movie this year – animated or not.

*I had caught a few ads for it, then forgot it. When I saw the title in a theater (second run), I didn’t place it, but one look at the movie poster and I knew exactly what it was.

**Possibly the title hurt; for most Americans, it doesn’t evoke anything.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Captain Marvel (comics)

Created by
Bill Parker and C. C. Beck
Written by Otto Binder
Wikipedia Page

His name and catchphrase are an important part of comic book history, but the original Captain Marvel has been overlooked by even those who love comics.  The Big Red Cheese was something that was far different from the other comics of the time, and something that has been completely lost today.

Everyone knows his origin story:  Billy Batson, a lame newspaper boy, is taken into a mysterious cave by a wizard and taught a magic word:  Shazam.  This changes him into the superhero, who then goes to fight crime and evil villains.  Saying “Shazam” again would turn him back to Billy.  He first appeared in Fawcett’s Whiz Comics* in 1939.

But the Captain was different from any other superhero of the time (or since).  It was more cartoony, and the captain really acted like a 12-year-old boy.

imageMost of the stories were written by Otto Binder.  Binder had been a veteran of science fiction pulps** and he worked to create a mythology that was both fun and entertaining.  As time went on, he added an entire mythology of characters, becoming the Marvel Family.  These included:

  • Mary Marvel -- Billy’s sister, who turned out to have the same magic word.
  • Captain Marvel, Jr. – Freddy Freeman, whose magic words were “Captain Marvel”*** and who wore a blue uniform.
  • Uncle Marvel – Dudley H. Dudley, a chubby old man who discovered Mary Marvel’s secret.  He claimed to be her uncle, and helped them fight crime, mostly as comic relief.  When he tried to use superpowers, it turned out his shazambago was acting up and nothing worked.  The rest saw through the fraud, but humored him.
  • Hoppy the Marvel Bunny – the funny animal version of the family, who showed up in Fawcett’s animal comics.
  • Tawky Tawny – a tiger (and natty dresser) who had been given a potion that gave him the power of speech.

imageOf course, you can’t be a superhero without an arch enemy, and the Captain’s was world’s maddest mad scientist, Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, a bald evil genius out to rule the world.****  Sivana was sometimes assisted by his son and daughter, Sivana, Jr. and Georgia; there were two other children, Beautia and Magnificus who worked on the side of good.

Other villains included Captain Nazi, Black Adam, and Ibac (the evil version of the Marvel superpowers).  A favorite of mine was Mister Mind, and evil worm from another planet.

The stories were usually more cartoony than the more serious superhero strips.  Beck’s art was deceptively simple, with bright colors and large swaths of color.  It worked well:  in the 1940s, Captain Marvel was the most popular comic book out there, and was the first to be made into a movie serial.

But all was not well.  In 1941, National Periodicals sued Fawcett, claiming that Captain Marvel infringed on Superman.  The court ruled in 1948 that it did not infringe, but National (later DC) appealed and the court found in 1952 that some elements of the stories did infringe.  And sent it back to make a final determination.

By this time, though, Superhero comics – and comics in general – were losing popularity.  Captain Marvel was selling at only half its peak, and, in 1953, Fawcett settled out of court and let the character die.  The agreement forbid Fawcett from publishing comics, so they licensed it to DC.  Unfortunately, in the meantime, Marvel Comics had created their own Captain Marvel character.  DC had to name the revived version “Shazam,” though the character was referred to in the book as Captain Marvel, and they were able to reprint many of the old Beck and Binder stories.  Eventually, the character moved away from the original concept.

Of course, comics and their characters constantly evolve, so one wouldn’t expect the Captain to remain as he was.  But the original version is one of the greats of the comic book world.

*Founded by Bill Fawcett.  Fawcett made a name for himself for a magazine that everyone who has ever seen The Music Man has heard of:  Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang.  “Whiz Comics” refers to that.

**Originally co-written with his brother Earl, and billed as Eando Binder.  Their “I, Robot” (no connection to Asimov) was considered a landmark in the field.

***Making him incapable of saying his superhero name, or that of the Captain without changing.  “Shazam” wasn’t used because the publisher felt he should be promoting the Big Red Cheese.

****He appeared before Lex Luthor, and Luthor wasn’t bald in the beginning.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Last King of Scotland

Directed by
Kevin Macdonald
Written by Peter Morgan, Jeremy Brock, from a novel by Giles Foden
Starring Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson
IMDB Entry

Bad guys in film are all very similar:  people who are evil for evil’s sake, and who will spend the movie being consistently evil from start to finish. But evil isn’t always consistent, and that’s what makes it dangerous.  And one one of the best examples of this is The Last King of Scotland.

Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James MacAvoy) is young and idealistic and instead of setting out his shingle, decides to see the world, ending up in Uganda. While there, General Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) seized power and, after a minor car accident, Garrigan treats his injury.  Amin is impressed by Garrigan, especially by the fact he is from Scotland, a country that Amin has a particular admiration for. 

Garrigan becomes his physician and political confidant, believing that Amin repression is just a way to bring a lasting peace.  In the meantime, Garrigan starts helping Kay (Kerry Washington), one of Amin’s wives, helping to treat their son.  The two start an affair, as Amin becomes more and more repressive and dictatorial, and Garrigan discovers he is riding a tiger.

Forest Whitaker won a well-deserved Oscar for his role.  Amin is truly charming when he wants to be, and utterly ruthless and sadistic when he wants that.  He is capable of anything at any point, a truly frightening figures.

McAvoy is great as the naïve and idealistic doctor, who finds out how wrong he has been.  Kerry Washington is also good as Kay, who knows she is playing with a blowtorch but still needs the comfort that Garrigan can offer.

Whitaker’s Oscar was the high point of the film and did little to bring it to further consciousness.  And I suspect the subject makes it sound like a dull historical drama.  But his Amin is well worthy of the honor, and the movie is a fascinating look at the madness of power.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Important Note

Before I started here on Blogspot, Great But Forgotten was on my own personal web pages (where they are now).  But now is the time to move them from there to here.  There are about 70 of them, and in the next few weeks, I’ll be updating and uploading them here.

Sorry for the flood of posts, but I do need to get them up here.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Idolmaker

Directed by
Taylor Hackford
Written by Edward Di Lorenzo
Starring Ray Sharkey, Peter Gallagher, Paul Land, Tovah Feldshuh
IMDB Entry

The Idolmaker is a story about obsession in the music business.

Vincent Vacari (Ray Sharkey) is a songwriter in the late 50s.  He had a great deal of talent, but this is at a time when talent was less important that having a good image.  Vicari’s looks weren’t good enough to cut it, so he went to find someone who could.

He found Tomaso DeLorusso (Paul Land), a saxophone player who had the right look.  Vacari played Pygmalion, turning DeLorusso to “Tommy Dee” and making him into a rock star.  But Tommy had a mind of his own, and Vacari goes to prove he could do it again, by finding Caesare (Peter Gallagher), a busboy, and controlling his every move.  Of course, Caesare also has issues.

This is Sharkey’s film; he dominates the screen as the talented but obsessed Vacari.  It was a strong performance and won him a Golden Globe.  And while Sharkey worked regularly, he rarely had starring roles.

This was the feature film debut of director Taylor Hackford, who did And Officer and and Gentleman two years later.  It was also the first feature for Peter Gallagher.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

William S. Hart (actor)

William S. Hart(1864-1946)
Wikipedia Entry

One of the earliest narrative films genres was the Western, and William S. Hart was one of its biggest early stars by doing something that was unusual in Hollywood Westerns not only in his time, by many years afterwards:  by insisting on making as realistic story as possible.

Hart was born in 1864 and began acting in his 20s, joining various companies and traveling around the US and finally becoming a moderate success on Broadway.*  But Hart was always fascinated by the West.  He knew Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, and somehow managed to acquire Billy the Kid’s guns.  He performed in a couple of stage westerns on Broadway, but moved West in 1914, where he quickly became a star, first in short subject, and then in features.

Hart was a stickler for realism; he wasn’t a white knight on a horse, but rather a real man, who would wear old clothes and deal with historical events.  And it caught on:  by 1915 he was Hollywood’s biggest star.  Audiences appreciated his gritty look at the west, with the strong moral sense and relatively sophisticated stories.  He looked the part of a hard-nosed man scrambling to make it in a difficult place.

But by the 1920s, he was falling out of favor.  Audiences began to prefer the cleancut good guy of Tom Mix and others to Hart’s more down-to-Earth version.  After the disappointing box office for Tumbleweeds in 1925, Hart retired from film.

*Including a substantial part in a stage version of Ben-Hur.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Written and Directed by
John Duigan
Starring Hugh Grant, Tara Fitzgerald, Sam Neill, Elle Macpherson, Portia de Rossi, Kate Fischer, Pamela Rabe
IMDB Entry

Sexual themes have been common in movies since the beginning, but sensuous ones far less so.  Sirens is one example of the latter, and one of the best.

It’s set in Australia between the World Wars, where a young minister Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant) and his wife Estalla (Tara Fitzgerald) travel to the estage of the artist Norman Lindsay (Sam Neill), an acclaimed artist, known for his flouting of authority.  Campion has been sent to determine if a work the church has commissioned is going to be appropriate.

Lindsay* has them stay, where they meet his wife Rose (Pamela Rabe) and his two models Sheela (Elle Macpherson) and Giddy (Portia de Rossi, in her first film role), and their maid Pru (Kate Fisher). The group is something like a stereotypical hippie commune, especially in the talk of sexuality and a lot of casual nudity.

Campion and his wife are shocked, but also intrigued.  Estella slowly becomes enmeshed in the group’s sensuality and has it open new possibilities to her.

The movie is best known now for the nudity, of course.  Elle Macpherson was a supermodel, appearing on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover three times at the time the movie was produced.**  Screencaps quickly appeared all over the fledgling Internet. 

But the movie is far more erotic than the photos.  The name of the film is a clue:  the women at the estate draw Estella into a whole new world that she has never know.

The movie was one reason for Hugh Grant’s stardom, being released about the same time as Four Wedding and a Funeral.  He plays what has been his usual act of charming awkwardness, but it still seems fresh and unmannered.  Tara Fitzgerald has always been a favorite of mine in films like Brassed Off, Hear My Song, and The Englishmanand is wonderful as she slowly succumbs to the sirens’ charms.

Director John Duigan has been successful in Australia, but few of his films made a big splash in the US.  Sirens is a treat for those who love to revel in the feelings of sensuality.


*Based upon a real artist by the name, though the story is made up.  A  movie based on Lindsay’s autobiographical novel, Age of Consent, was made into a film in 1969.

**And twice more afterwards.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Last Detail

Directed by
Hal Ashby
Screenplay by Robert Towne, from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan
Starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Otis Young, Carol Kane
IMDB Entry

In the early 70s, after years of small roles in some very forgettable pictures, Jack Nicholson broke through to stardom with his turn in Easy Rider.  He soon was cast in Five Easy Pieces* and Carnal Knowledge.  Nicholson like doing odd, small films, and one of his most acclaimed role of the era was in The Last Detail.

Nicholson plays Billy “Badass” Budduski, a petty officer in the navy.  He and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are assigned to take 18-year-old Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Virginia to the brig in Portsmouth, NH. Meadows had been court martialed and convicted of stealing $40 from a collection box.  It might have been a minor offense, only the box was from the favorite charity of the commander’s wife and the book was thrown at him:  eight years.

The movie is the story of their trip.  They have a few days and Budduski decides to give Meadows the time of his life:  drinking in Washington, seeing his mother in Philadelphia, skating in Rockefeller Center.  Few things work out well, though, even when they take Meadows to a hooker (Carol Kane**), there are problems:  fights and disappointments, but Meadows keeps charming Budduski to keep helping him do his best.

The role helped cement Nicholson’s persona.  Budduski is profane, hard nosed, and utterly fascinating.  Quaid is excellent as the innocent Meadows.***

The movie gained Nicholson his third Oscar nomination, and Quaid got a best supporting nomination.  Robert Towne’s screenplay was also nominated, but none won.  It was a critical success, but not a box office smash, partly due to the fact there was just so much profanity in it.

Director Hal Ashby had made two successful but not smash movies before this**** and he later went on to win an Oscar for Coming Home.  and Robert Towne had a successful career, teaming up with Nicholson again for Chinatown.  And Gilda Radner had a bit part, a few years before SNL premiered.

Overall, a fine movie that was at the start of the careers of several big name talents.

*A film of limited success.  Most moviegoers know one particular scene that cemented Nicholson’s reputation, but have no idea of anything else in the film.

**Very memorable in a small role.

***It’s sad that his life has become a train wreck.

**8*Harold and Maude gained promenance over the years, but was only a moderate success at first.

Monday, November 3, 2014

L’il Abner (comic)

Abner and familyBy Al Capp
L’il Abner website.

Though L’il Abner is still remembered, its been dropping in critical and public acclaim over the years.  If you listed the greatest comic strips of all time in 1960 it would be among the titles, but now it gets overlooked.  Partly, that’s just a numbers game:  something has to drop out so you can include Calvin and Hobbes or other great modern strips.  But partly it’s because the comic strip is slowly being forgotten.

L’il Abner was the creation of Al Capp.  Capp (born Caplin) grew up in Bridgeport, CT* and drifted into cartooning, soon getting jobs freelancing in New York.  His break came when he started working for Ham Fisher, the creator of Joe Palooka.  At one point, Capp created the character of Big Leviticus, a hillbilly fighter who Joe would eventually face.  Using similar characters and ideas, Capp created L’il Abner and set out on his own.**

L’il Abner was set in Dogpatch, a hillbilly village with few modern amenities.  Abner Yokum was a dumb ox type – big, strong, handsome and not very bright.  Daisy Mae was his love interest – only slightly smarter, but gorgeous.  She was deeply in love with Abner, wanting to marry him, and Abner avoided it in every way possible (until 1952, when they married).  There were dozens of vivid characters in Dogpatch, including people like Marryin’ Sam, Evil-Eye Fleagle, Moonbeam McSwine, Earthquake McGoon, Stupefyin’ Jones,Hairless Joe, Lonesome Polecat, Senator Jack S. Phogbound, and General Bullmoose, to name just a few. 

Fearless FosdickHe also was known for his strip-within-a-strip Fearless Fosdick, a broad parody of Dick Tracy that was Abner’s favorite comic book.

L’il Abner’s longest lasting contribution to popular culture was Sadie Hawkins Day.  This was a holiday invented by Capp where the single women would chase after the single men; if they caught them, they would be married.  While it never appeared in that particular form outside the strip, Sadie Hawkins Day dances became popular, a time when the women could ask the men to dance.  Of course, that’s no longer necessary, but the dances lasted far longer than the the last appearance in Dogpatch.

Capp also created the shmoo, a creature who reproduced like tribbles and which could be used for food, clothing, and anything its owner wanted.

The strip was massively popular, the hillbilly characters catching on immediately.  By 1940, a movie was made, though it was not a success.***  It did try to be faithful to the look of the strip, with the actors made up, and sometimes wearing masks, to make sure they looked right.

A Broadway musical followed in 1956, to much greater success, running for 693 performances.  That, in turn, was made into a movie in 1959.

But L’il Abner lost its luster in the 1960s.  Partly it was due to politics.  Capp’s politics became conservative and it showed up in his comics.  The problem was it just wasn’t funny, consisting of humorless snide representations of hippies and the youth culture at the time.  Another issue was that Capp – who had a tendency to beat jokes to death even in the best of times – let that get the better of him.  He would take a slightly amusing idea and repeat it six days in a row so the reader would want to shout, “I get the point.” 

Also, even in the best days, Capp could be a sloppy plotter of stories.  L’il Abner was a pioneer of continuity in a pure humor strip, with long form stories that ran for months.****  But he clearly did not always plot things out from the beginning.  One classic story (“Hammus Alabamus”) hinged on a deus ex machina that isn’t mentioned until the final few strips.  In another, Lester Gooch (Fearless Fosdick’s creator) is shown to be an arrogant egotist in one strip, and a timid little man (he’s even shorter) the very next day.  Capp’s storytelling abilities deserted him in the end, possibly because of his declining health.  He ended the strip in 1977.

Though the last decades of the strip were weak imitations of the original, for the first 30 or so years of its run, L’il Abner was one of the classics of American comic strips.

*The same place where the great Walt Kelly grew up.

**He hated working for Fisher and let his feelings be known in an article for The Atlantic called “I Remember Monster,” where he portrayed Fisher (without mentioning his name) as being cruel and exploitative of his assistants.  Fisher, who resented the fact that L’il Abner was far more successful that Joe Palooka, fought back.  He added pornographic images to the backgrounds of some L’il Abner strips and tried to not only get him fired, but to also get a judge to rule that Abner was porn.  It was a bizarre incident – all Capp’s lawyers had to do was show the originals – but Fisher didn’t give up, trying the same trick when Capp was trying to buy a TV station.  Fisher was expelled from the National Cartoonists Society and died in obscurity soon after.  Capp, though, remembered how Fisher had treated him and treated his assistants well, and, though they didn’t get a byline, Capp would praise them by name in interviews.

***Buster Keaton had a role as Lonesome Polecat.

****The Mickey Mouse comic by Floyd Gottfredson did it a few years early, but Gottfredson turned it into an adventure strip with some humor as opposed to a funny strip with continuity.