Sunday, April 13, 2014

Andy Clyde (actor)

andy clyde(1892-1967)
IMDB Entry

Moviegoing was a different experience in the 1930s.  No multiplexes, of course, and instead of there being a single movie on each screen, the show went on all evening, with cartoons, newsreels, previews of coming attractions,* and, of course, short subjects.  Nowadays, people are generally only aware of two of the major short subject series:  The Three Stooges and Our Gang (The Little Rascals), but there were many more, and one of the longest lived series were those starring Andy Clyde.

Clyde was born in Scotland, the son of music hall performers.  He moved to the US in 1912 and broke into silent movies with Mack Sennett in 1922, where he established his character – an old man with walrus moustache and wire-rimmed glasses.  He soon began to star in a series of silent short subjects and moved easily into talkies.

When Columbia started doing short subjects, Clyde, who had a contract dispute with Sennett, was the first person they hired.  The Andy Clyde comedies were a mainstay of their program.  He appeared in 77 films until the unit was shut down in 1956, in addition to 68 before joining Columbia.

Clyde always played a father or uncle.  He was mostly a physical comedian; his big strength was his ability to do a double take. 

In addition to his series, Clyde appeared in features, often as a comedy sidekick in 40s westerns, since his persona fit the “grizzled old prospector” images to a T. 

The end of the short subject didn’t mean the end of his career, and Clyde moved easily to television, appearing as a guest star, usually in westerns.  He had recurring roles in The Real McCoys and Lassie, and popped up on shows as diverse at Gunsmoke, Dr. Kildare, The Bob Cummings Show, the People’s Choice, and many others.  He continued to work regularly almost up until his death in 1967.

*Now they call them “trailers.”

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The People’s Choice (TV)

Sock, Mandy & Cleo(1955-58)
Created by
Irving Brecher
Starring  Jackie Cooper, Patricia Breslin, Bernadette, Mary Jane Croft, Paul Maxey

More often than not, child actors’ careers are over at puberty.  The transition to adult actor is difficult, even when they want to continue in the business.  Jackie Cooper was a major child star in the early 30s, starting out in Our Gang* comedies and getting an Academy Award nomination for Skippy.  He worked regularly until the war, but struggled afterwards** to reestablish himself.  Luckily, TV came along and he started with guest roles and as part of the repertory company for Robert Montgomery Presents.  But he tasted success on the small screen with The People’s Choice.

Cooper played Sock Miller, a young politician in the town of New City, California.  He was dating Mandy Peoples (Patricia Breslin), daughter of the town’s mayor (Paul Maxey).  The show centered on the romance – witch took an unusual turn at the end of the second season:  Sock and Mandy got married.  Unfortunately, fate required that they keep the marriage secret until Sock made enough money to support her in the style Mayor People’s wanted.

CleoThe big star of the show, however, was Cleo (Bernadette), a basset hound.  Voiced by Mary Jane Croft, Cleo would comment on the actions with sardonic asides.  This was still a relatively new concept,*** but it was more than just a cute idea.  Cleo was genuinely funny and whenever the camera cut to her (often wearing some weird getup like glasses), audiences knew a zinger was coming.

The show was created by Irving Brecher.  He had was a very successful Hollywood screenwriter, best known for having the sole writing credit for The Marx Brothers’ At the Circus and Go West.****  He also had an uncredited role in the screenplay of The Wizard of Oz. 

The show was also interesting in that it showed progression in the characters over its run.  Sock had different jobs, his marriage to Mandy was revealed, and other things changed as time went by.

The series ended after three seasons.  Cooper, now firmly established as an adult TV star, went right on to another long-running TV series, Hennessey about a navy doctor.  He continued in guest roles and is probably best known to modern audiences as Perry White in the first three Christopher Reeve Superman movies.

The People’s Choice is an overlooked gem of the 50s.

*The actual name of the series.  It was produced by Hal Roach, who sold the series to MGM in 1938 (when it was past its prime).  When he tried to sell the original shorts to TV, MGM owned the name, so he used The Little Rascals.  I prefer Our Gang because it’s original and describes the group far better.

**One of his films, Kilroy Was Here, paired him with the big child star of the teens, Jackie Coogan.

***Charles M. Schultz had only created Snoopy a year or two before.

****Other writers were probably involved, and the Marx were known to ad lib a lot – and no one could write for Harpo.  But Brecher is the only writer to get a sole credit for any of their films.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Free Enterprise

Free Enterprise(1998)
Directed by
Robert Meyer Burnett
Written by Mark A. Altman, Robert Meyer Burnett
Starring Eric McCormack, Rafer Weigel, Audie England, William Shatner.
IMDB Entry

TV stars have always had it rough.  Once they become associated with a role, it often follows them forever.  Al Hodge was recognized as Captain Video for years after the show ended, making it hard for him to get work.  George Reeves had a love/hate relationship with Superman.  Clayton Moore stopped trying to fight it and became the Lone Ranger for years after the show was off the air.  And William Shatner was willing to acknowledge his being identified as Captain Kirk, while also working to act in other roles.  Free Enterprise allowed him to poke fun at his image, while showing he could do something more.

The movie is semiautobiographical, actually based upon how it was made. Mark (Eric McCormack) and Robert Burnett (Refer Weigel)* were die hard geeks and whose greatest hero was William Shatner (William Shatner).  They happen to run into him and manage to convince him to appear in their movie. 

The movie is a loving tribute to geekdom, and Shatner has a field day.  His character is just short of crazy, a combination of the Shatner cliches of grandiose ego.  He insists, for instance, that he do a rap version of Marc Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.**

Shatner at the time was at a lull in his career and his role here – and his penchant for comedy – revitalized it.  Actor Eric McCormick also was a TV star by the end of the year with Will and Grace.

*Who, not coincidentally, share their names with the film’s screenwriters.

**The movie depends on him being able to pull this off,

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Mighty Joe Young

Mighty Joe Young(1949)
Directed by
Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by Ruth Rose, from an original story by Merian C. Cooper
Starring Terry Moore, Ben Johnson, Robert Armstrong, Mr. Joseph Young of Africa, Frank McHugh, Lora Lee Lichel, Primo Carnera, Charles Lane.
Technical Creator Willis H. O’Brien
First Technician Ray Harryhausen

King Kong was a milestone in film and in stop-motion animation, due to the animation of Willis H. O’Brien.  It was followed by a sequel, Son of Kong, the same year, but O’Brien became disenchanted with director Ernest B. Schoedsack and even asked to have his name removed from the credits.  It wasn’t until 16 years later that they worked together on a third giant ape film, Mighty Joe Young.

The movie beings in Africa, where eight year old Jill Young (Lora Lee Michel), the daughter of a rancher, trades for a baby gorilla, which she names Joe.  Twelve years later, showman Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong) goes to capture animals for a new African-themed night club, with Gregg (Ben Johnson), a cowboy from a wild west show, along to help gather specimens.  Things are looking successful when the camp is disrupted by a giant ape:  Joe Young (Mr. Joseph Young).  They try to capture him but when it looks like he’s about to kill one of the crew, Jill (grown up to be Terry Moore) comes on the scene and scolds Joe until he lets the man go unharmed.  Joe will do whatever she asks.

Max thinks this will be a sensation, so he persuades Jill to bring Joe to Hollywood.  Things go well, at first . . .

Joe vs Lion

The star of the film is Joe Young and the animation that makes him completely believable.  He’s nowhere near as big as Kong – 10-20 feet tall,* but he has plenty of personality and even a humorous side.  There are several set pieces – Joe’s attack on the camp, for a start – that are masterpieces of the format.  O’Brian, and his young protégé, Ray Harryhausen** not only animated Joe, but fit him in superbly with live action.  You have to watch very closely to see the places where live actors switch to be their stop motion counterparts. 

The casting of Armstrong – who was Carl Denham, leader of the expedition, in King King – is a nice touch, and Terry Moore and Ben Johnson are appealing leads.  Moore is especially nice in her reluctance as a performer and how much she hates stardom, and this was Johnson’s first noticeable role.  There’s a bit of stunt casting with former heavyweight champ Primo Carnera*** plays himself going up against Joe.  And character actors Frank McHugh and Charles Lane**** also showed up.

The film did not to well when originally release.  It did win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, but that doesn’t impress audiences, and the movie did poorly so much so that a planned sequel was never started.  Schoedsack never directed another feature.  O’Brien worked from time to time, but not regularly;  Ray Harryhausen had eclipsed him.

The movie is a charming use of one of the most demanding techniques in film, and is worth watching for the set pieces alone.*****

*He changes size in different scenes, an effect that Schoedsack insisted on for dramatic effect.

**The two great geniuses of stop motion; Nick Park is the third.  Harryhausen later claimed that he did most of the actual animation work, since O’Brien was bogged down with technical challenges.

***Carnera was billed as the tallest heavyweight champ of all time (he wasn’t) and was known for being one of the strongest champs around.  He was supposedly managed by mobsters and was something of a curiosity, which continued after he lost the championship to Max Baer in 1934.  Interestingly, he was heavyweight champion when King Kong was released.

****A typical Charles Lane performance of the era:  three lines of dialog and not credited.

*****Disney did an undistinguished remake in 1998.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Arresting Behavior/Bakersfield PD (TV)

(1992, 1993)
Created by
Larry Levin
Arresting Behavior starred Leo Burmester, Ron Eldard, Chris Mulkey, Lee Garlington, Amy Hathaway, Eric Balfour, Joey Simmrin
Bakersfield PD starred Ron Eldard, Giancarlo Esposito, Chris Mulkey, Tonyy Plana, Brian Doyle-Murray, Jack Hallett
Arresting Behavior IMDB Entry
Bakersfield PD IMDB Entry

Cops came on the air in 1989, and was a sensation.  I suppose it was inevitable that it spawned parodies.  I was going back and forth which of these two shows I’d write about; they always struck me as quite similar, even considering their origin, but when I realized that the same person created both, my decision was made.

Arresting BehaviorArresting Behavior was the first.  At the time, the networks were experimenting with short-run series that ran in August as a tryout.  Seinfeld was the most successful of these, and Arresting Behavior was another experiment with the idea.

It was a direct parody of Cops.  Bill Ruskin (Leo Buhrmaster) and Pete Walsh (Ron Eldard) were two policemen in Vista Valley, CA, who were the subjects of a Cops-like show as a TV crew followed them around.*  Everything was played straight and without a laugh track, as they ran into comic situations in the stationhouse and on the job.  Pete’s brother Donny (Chris Mulkey) was also on the job, and was dealing with his messy divorce, and a restraining order that kept him 500 feet away from his kids at all times. 

One of the most memorable scenes was when Donny had the restraining order amended so he could get within 100 feet of his kids, so he meets them on a baseball diamond and hits fungoes.  By the end of the scene, he browbeats the kids so badly that it’s back to 500 feet by the time the show ends.

The humor is the type I love:  subtle jokes that sneak up on you.  And the point of view allowed for some other memorable moments:  you could see, for instance, that Ruskin’s wife was sleeping with the cameraman, though Bill never caught on.

The series got some critical notice and ran for the seven weeks it was planned for, but ABC declined to pick it up.

Bakersfield PDThe next year, creator Larry Levin managed to pitch essentially the same concept to Fox with Bakersfield PD.  It was the same situation:  a comedy about the life in a mundane police department.  Detective Paul Gigante (Giancarlo Esposito), who was half Italian and half Black,** had been transferred from the FBI to the more rural Bakersfield, and was teamed up with Wade Preston (Ron Eldard again).  Chris Mulkey was there, too, as a less psychotic officer, and Brian Doyle-Murray*** played the grizzled old desk sergeant.

The show played up Gigante’s professionalism and sophistication against the more laid back approach of the Bakersfield PD.****

The show ran a full season, but once again the humor didn’t catch on and the show was cancelled.  Levin produced some other shows, but nothing of note.  Mulkey, who had come to prominence in Twin Peaks, has had a very successful career in TV, usually in drama, while Eldard has been a dependable, if less prominent, TV and movie face.

And, of course, a few years later, Reno 911 took the concept and made it a hit, but used far broader humor for its success.

*This is a very common conceit these days, but it still was new back in 1992. 

**Shades of Al Giadello of Homicide:  Life on the Street, which premiered earlier that year.  As a further connection, Esposito joined Homicide toward the end of its run.

***Brother of Bill.  He added “Doyle-” to avoid confusion with another Brian Murray.

****Much like the tension in Hot Fuzz (though not as good).

Sunday, February 23, 2014

All that Glitters (TV)

All that Glitters(1977)
Created by
Ann Marcus and Norman Lear
Starring Barbara Baxley, Eileen Brennan, Vanessa Brown, Anita Gillette, Linda Evans, David Haskell, Chuck McCann, Lois Nettleton, Wes Parker, Gary Sandy, Louise Shaffer, Tim Thomerson, Jessica Walter.
IMDB Entry

In the 1970s, Norman Lear ruled sitcom TV, creating socially prograssive comedy that pushed what was acceptable on TV.  Many of his shows were classics, but even his flops had their strengths.  All That Glitters was one of his biggest flops (I can’t seem to find any clips of it on Youtube), but it also was one of his most audacious ideas.

It was developed after the success of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. That show had become a phenomenon despite being a syndicated late night soap opera parody, and Lear decided to try it again.  This time, though he wanted to make a soap opera with a different premise and the idea suddenly came to him:  create a show set in a world where gender roles were reversed.

Lear got Ann Marcus (who had worked on Mary Hartman) to write the book and first script, attaching it to that concept.**  In it, women held the positions of power:  company presidents*** and political leaders.  Men ran the households for their wives, and could only get low paying jobs like secretaries or waiters.  And the women were the ones who had affairs and dalliances while their husbands were supposed to be demure and happy to keep their husband’s dinner warm.  It was like a reverse Mad Men.

The show focused on Globatron, a big multinational corporation run, like everything else in this world, by women.  The company president was L. W. Carruthers (Barbara Baxley), who would sexually harass her female workers (usually secretaries).  The other executives has the same type of  privilege men had in the 50s.  Meanwhile the men were househusbands with the worries of a stereotypical 50s woman.  For instance, Bert Stockwood (Chuck McCann) worried about his weight and whether he was still attractive to his executive wife, Christina Stockwood (Lois Nettleton).  Dan Kinkaid (Gary Sandy) was complemented on having the best looking ass in the company.  One major subplot involved finding a new woman to show the right image for the company’s new cigarette line – rugged and strong.  The choice was Linda Murkland (Linda Gray), who turned out to be a transsexual.

Note that this avoided the usual joke about gender reversals:  the women are perfectly competent in their jobs and the jokes come from them acting like men, not being unable to act like men. 

It was a solid cast of people who ended up with long careers after the show.  The most amusing bit of casting was Wes Parker as Glenn Langston; Parker had played in two world series as the starting first baseman of the Los Angeles Dodgers and got the part out of the blue. I also loved seeing Chuck McCann; in the early 60s, he was one of the great triumvirate of TV kiddy show hosts in New York City, along with Sandy Becker and Sonny Fox.  Some have said that McCann was the best part of the show; his issues were more real than those of the people in charge.

The show was controversial (not surprising for anything for Lear).  The opening theme mentioned that God was female and created Eve first; some religious groups objected.  Another problem was that the concept was probably not suitable for a five-day-a-week soap opera format; the idea has limited variations and came off as a bit heavy-handed.  It was also a difficult sell to individual stations.  It only ran about three months before the plug was pulled.

And it was pulled hard.  The show has never been on DVD,**** was never syndicated, and doesn’t even have clips on Youtube.  Even photos of the show are hard to track down.  It’s truly been forgotten.

I wouldn’t expect the show to hold up particularly well over the years, but it might be interesting to see again.

*Like The Hot L Baltimore.”

**Marcus, who worked with him writing Mary Hartman, really didn’t want to work on the new show, but did the script and bible and soon returned to MH.  She does not like the fact that Lear took sole credit for the show’s creation.

***The show appeared before the redundant term “CEO” was coined.

****Possibly for the same reason it took so long to get Mary Hartman onto disk – too many episodes.  Five times a week adds up quickly.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

Private Life of Sherlock Holmes(1970)
Directed by
Billy Wilder
Written by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Starring Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Genevieve Page, Christopher Lee, Clive Revill, Irene Handl, Tamara Toumanova
IMDB Entry

Long-time readers of this blog* might note I have a liking for Sherlock Holmes.  If someone does a version of the story, it’s likely I’ll be there.** But it did take me awhile to get to Billy Wilder’s 1970 version.  I had heard bad things about it, and just never got around to it until recently.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes stars Robert Stephens as the character and Colin Blakely as Watson.  The setup is the same as always:  Holmes and Watson sharing an apartment with their landlady, Mrs. Hudson (Irene Handl).

The movie consists of two stories.  The first has Holmes called by a Russian Ballerina, Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova) with a proposition that she father a child with her to get the best of brains and beauty.  What is interesting, and quite surprising given the time, is that Holmes gets out of her proposition by claiming to have a gay relationship with Watson, possibly not the first time this was suggested, but the first time it was portrayed on screen.  The idea was far more daring for its time then it would be today.

That over with, the movie moves on immediately to the case of a mysterious woman (Genevieve Page) who is found in the Thames and brought to Holmes to find her identity.  Her mystery, and the disappearance of her husband, for the bulk of the film.  It’s really more of a spy film than a mystery, as everything turns out to be part of a secret project that enemy agents are trying to quash.

The movie is an odd duck.  It was evidently meant to have two more stories, one of which was actually shot but dropped from the final version. It’s also strange that the first story is completely dropped, even though elements introduced as a sideline to it turn out to be important to the main story.  It’s certainly not the type of script that Billy Wilder and his long time writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond were capable of. It marked the beginning of Wilder’s decline; the movie got so-so reviews, as did three of his last four film.***

Watson, Holmes and Mrs. HudsonBut the movie has its moments:  Watson’s discomfort at being thought gay, and Genevieve Page as a woman who manages to outdo Irene Adler as a love interest.  The dialog is also Wilder and Diamond’s high level, enough so that it makes up for the un-Holmesian plot. And Stephens and Blakely make a fine Holmes and Watson.

It’s a worthwhile addition to the many Sherlock Holmes films. 

*If such creatures exist.

**I hadn’t heard the the BBC was doing a version of the story.  My wife just  happened to catch the opening credits and called me in; I fell in love with it.

***Only The Front Page had critical success, because it was the first accurate adaptation of the play (with the final line intact) and because Walter Matthau was born to play Walter Burns.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

State and Main

David Mamet
Writer David Mamet
Starring Alec Baldwin, Charles Durning, William H. Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Patti Lupone, David Paymer, Julia Stiles, Rebecca Pidgeon
IMDB Entry

In memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

David Mamet is best known for for his serious films and plays, especially the brilliant Glengarry Glen Ross.  But in 2000, he tried his hand at comedy.  The result, State and Main is uneven, but entertaining overall.

The movie is about a favorite subject of filmmakers – the madness of making a movie.  The production of the new film, The Old Mill, has to suddenly relocated into Vermont and State and Main shows the havoc it causes.  The film’s director, Will Price (William H. Macy), tries to keep things going, though he has a slight setback when he discovers the town doesn’t have an old mill.  He leaves it up to screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who gets stricken with massive writer’s block.  In the meantime, Clare Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker) suddenly decides not to do the nude scene she had agreed to do and leading man Bob Berringer (Alec Baldwin), whose eye for underage women got the kicked out of their last location, is smitten with local teen Carla (Julia Stile), who knows exactly what she wants.

The cast is certainly a good one.  Most of the actors probably jumped at the chance to work with Mamet.  And while the result may not have been typical Mamet,*  it also has plenty of laughs with a lot of farcical notes.

imagePhilip Seymour Hoffman shows his incredible range by playing White, a man filled with self-doubts, but also very funny and charming as he builds a relationship with Ann (Rebecca Pidgeon), the town bookstore owner. People are rightly praising Hoffman after his tragic death this week, but little of the praise mentions his ability to do things like light romantic comedy.

The movie did only so-so in the box office and probably didn’t make back its budget.  Mamet returned to what he was best at – dramas filled with brilliant dialog about men and double crosses.  The rest of the cast continued with their successes. 

*It didn’t have as much swearing.

Monday, January 27, 2014

John B. Sebastian (music/album)

John B. Sebastian (MGM version)(1970)
  John Sebastian (vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano, percussion), Stephen Stills (guitar, harmony vocals). David Crosby(guitar, harmony vocals ), Graham Nash (harmony Reprise editionvocals), Dallas Taylor (drums), Buddy Emmons (pedal steel guitar, Moog synthesizer), Paul Harris (keyboards), Ray Neopolitan (bass),
Danny Weis (guitar), The Ikettes (background vocal), Buzzy Linhart (vibraphone)
Wikpedia Entry

John Sebastian was the guiding force and primary songwriter for the Lovin’ Spoonful*.  Of course, few groups can remain together over the long run, and Sebastian quit the group in 1968 to go solo.  His first solo album, John B. Sebastian is a classic effort, whose success was deliberately hampered by, not his record company, but a record company he had nothing to do with.

The story is complex.  The Lovin’ Spoonful recorded for Kama Sutra Records, which was distributed by MGM.  Sebastian recorded the album for Kama Sutra, too, but before it was released Kama Sutra ended their agreement with MGM by the simple expedient of disbanding and forming Buddah Records.  MGM was not happy.

Sebastian didn’t pay much attention to this as he  gathered a bunch of his old music friends for his first solo record.  After the album was recorded, a single, “She’s a Lady” was released, but did poorly.  Then MGM made a decision that, since Kama Sutra was no more, they’d be releasing the album on their label.  No big deal – except that the insisted it be released as a Lovin’ Spoonful album and insisted that this was to fulfill their contract with the group.

Sebastian balked.  He wasn’t a member of the Lovin’ Spoonful (which had gone on unsuccessfully without him), so didn’t feel obligated to stick to their contract.  Also, the contract was with Kama Sutra, not MGM, so Sebastian felt there was no obligation in any case.  So he went to Reprise Records, who were more than happy to sign him, especially since he was a big hit at Woodstock.

MGM still insisted they owned the album, but in early 1970 – a year late – Reprise was able to get the master tapes and the rights to release it.  Shortly afterwards, MGM released it, too, claiming again that the Lovin’ Spoonful owed them an album, and that, since they had released the single, they could release the album, so there.

Reprise sued and the MGM version was taken off the shelves.**  But not before they also released John Sebastian Live, which they were forced to withdraw.

But with all this, what about the actual album?  It’s some of Sebastian’s best work.  “Red-Eye Express” is a fun opener, and “She’s a Lady” is a fine ballad.  There are also such gems as “You’re a Big Boy Now,”*** “Rainbows All Over Your Blues,” and several others.

The musicians involved were budding stars, most notably Crosby, Stills, and Nash before they became Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

The album a moderate success, reaching #20 on the charts, but not a major hit.  Sebastian continued to record, but never became a major solo star; his biggest hit was the number one hit “Welcome Back” in 1976. And he stuck it to MGM when he named his live album “Cheapo Cheapo Productions Present Real Live John Sebastian.” (The phrase “Cheapo Cheapo Productions” was one of Sebastian’s comments on the MGM live album).

In any case, once you cut through the legal nonsense, John B. Sebastian is an excellent album, an advance on what he was doing with the Spoonful, but still maintaining a similar joyous feel.

*I’ve realized I’ve been writing a lot about the Lovin’ Spoonful and its members lately. 

**Not until after my brother bought it, and eventually gave it to me.

***Also recorded with the Spoonful.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Paper Lion

Paper Lion (book)(Book: 1966, Film 1968)
Book written by
George Plimpton
Movie directed by Alex March
Screenplay by Lawrence Roman, based on the novel
Starring Alan Alda, Lauren Hutton, Joe Schmidt, Alex Karras, John Gordy, Mike Lucci, Pat Studstill. Vince Lombardi
IMDB Entry.

George Plimpton would seem an unlikely person to have a best seller about sports.  He was a Harvard and Cambridge educated intellectual, and editor in chief of The Paris Review, a well-regarded literary journal.  But he did love sports, and in 1958 came up with the idea that made his fame: showing how a regular person (Plimpton himself) would fare against professional athletes.

He started in 1958, facing a series of National League batters in an exhibition game.  He fared poorly (he tired badly and had to be relieved) but wrote a successful book about the experience called Out of My League.  His next role was to box against Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson.  But his biggest success was when he managed to make his way onto the exhibition season* roster of the Detroit Lions in 1963.

Plimpton’s background was supposed to be kept secret; he was the team’s new third-string quarterback, a rookie from Harvard who was trying to make the team.  The players, however, began to be suspicious as training camp progressed. 

The book not only covers Plimpton’s trials as a regular person trying to play with the pros, but lists anecdotes about the training camp and the other players.  Many stories involve defensive tackle Alex Karras, who wasn’t even in camp at the time.**

Plimpton got his chance to play in a team scrimmage,*** where he lost yardage on every play.  There was a plan to play him in an exhibition game, but Commissioner Peter Rozelle refused to let him.

Plimpton wrote up his experiences in articles in Sports Illustrated in 1964, and in 1966, they were expanded into a book.  It was a best seller.

And, like most best sellers, Hollywood decided to make it into the movie. To star, they picked an obscure actor best known for being the son of a big Broadway star.****  This was Alan Alda’s first major movie role and he certainly looked enough like Plimpton.  The film also had Lauren Hutton as his girlfriend (her first movie role).  And director Alex March had the idea of using actual football players as the members of the Lions, led by Alex Karras.

Plimpton is warnedThe movie took liberties on the book (and gleefully admitted to it).  Karras, of course, was in the camp, and Alda’s Plimpton actually played in an exhibition game.  It was otherwise a nice movie version of the book.

Alda’s career stalled for several years after the film (though he won a Golden Globe as Best Newcomer), but he eventually became a TV icon.  Hutton carved out a long career.  But probably the most surprising success at the time was Alex Karras, who, when he retired, became a successful actor in TV and movies like Blazing Saddles and Victor/Victoria. 

Director Alex March was a TV veteran, and continued to work on the small screen, with only one other movie to his credit.

Plimpton continued trying out other sports, most notably in
The Bogey Man, where he went on the PGA tour.  He also had a minor acting career, claimed the title of “Fireworks Commissioner of New York City,” and tended to pop up as one of the few intellectuals that the general public liked to see.  He died in 2003.

*As they called it at the time.

**He had been suspended for betting on games.

***Wearing the number “0.”

****Robert Alda, who created the role of Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Special Notice: Staroamer's Fate -- win a free copy! is excerpting my novel, Staroamer's Fate this week. Read the excerpt and then comment.  Two commenters -- one from the US and one from outside the US -- will win a copy of the book.

If you like science fiction space opera, give it a look.

Contest ends Saturday, January 26, so hurry!  (You must register for the site to comment.  It's free!)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Charles Lane (actor)

Charles Lane(1905-2007)
IMDB Entry

Charles Lane was the king of the bit players.  It wasn’t until late in life that he had a role he could be identified with, but from the 30s to the 60s he was one of the busiest names in Hollywood:  he appeared in 10 films in 1939 alone.

Lane was born in San Francisco and started out as an insurance salesman.  But the stage beckoned.  Lane made an impression and started appearing in films in 1931.  He became a reliable actor for bit parts; many of his early work only required one or two lines. 

Lane’s appearance stood him in good stead.  Even when young, he had a hawklike profile and a scowl and facial shape that made him stand out. His voice was distinctive – an unforgettable gravelly snarl.  You can often pick out his early appearances by his voice alone. 

He worked hard.  He has talked about how he would sometimes show up in the morning on the set for one movie, say his one line, then go to another studio in the afternoon to do the same thing. 

Some of the classic films he appeared in include 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Twentieth Century, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Nothing Sacred, You Can’t Take it With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ball of Fire, and It’s a Wonderful Life.*

Lane usually played crotchety characters, and when TV came into play, he moved over seamlessly. Whenever someone needed a crusty authority figure to be exasperated by the show’s star, Lane would get the part.  He appeared in most comedies of the 60s, the first person producers called when they needed a curmudgeon.

It wasn’t until 1963 that he got an identifiable role as Homer Bedloe in Petticoat Junction.  Bedloe was always trying to shut down the Cannonball and made a wonderful foil – gruff and sarcastic and always thwarted.  In real life, though, Lane was known to be just the opposite as his sourpuss screen presence – which makes sense; you don’t get that many roles if people don’t like you. 

Off-screen, he was one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild.

Lane stopped getting roles when he reached his 90s (though even at age 100, he announced he was still available, and his last screen credit -- narrating a short film – was in 2006).  He died at age 102, leaving behind over three times that number of performances to savor.

*As one of Potter’s yes men.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Blue Water, White Death

Directed by
Peter Gimbel, James Lipscomb
Writer Peter Gimbel
Starring Tom Chapin, Phil Clarkson, Stuart Cody, Peter Lake, Peter Gimbel, James Lipscomb
IMDB Entry

Sharks! People are fascinated by them these days, so much so that the Discovery Channel can get high ratings by running a yearly “shark week” of shows about them.  People trace this back to Jaws, which certainly made sharks into a terror even to people who were a long way from any ocean.  But before Jaws, the movie that brought the shark to the theater was Blue Water, White Death.

The film was a documentary, showing the attempts by a crew of marine biologists trying to get footage of the great white shark in action for the first time.  They travel to South Africa and work to get the shots.

The technique probably gives current-day conservationists the chills:  they follow whaling ships and, when a whale is killed, they go into the bloody water to shoot the feeding frenzy.

The pace of the movie is slow – deliberately so.  It’s not supposed to be nonstop shark action; the process of finding the sharks is shown in detail, and the journey takes eight months before the great white is found. We spend a lot of time with the shark hunters as they talk about what it is like facing a shark.

Some of the ideas seemed extremely foolhardy at the time, when the habits of the great white were not well known.  For instance, they decide at one point to get out of the shark cage and shoot unprotected in the middle of a feeding frenzy.

The footage was sensational for its time and still holds the power to fascinate.  Steven Spielberg must have liked it:  he hired some of the crew to set up the shark effects on Jaws.*

The most successful entertainer in the film was Tom Chapin, who was a part of the surface crew.  Tom was the brother of Harry Chapin and has had a Grammy-winning career as a performer of children’s music. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Strange Case of the End of Civilization As We Know It (TV)

Strange Case(1977)
Directed by
Joseph McGrath
Written by  John Cleese, Jack Hobbs, Joseph McGrath; Original idea by Hobbs and McGrath
Starring John Cleese, Arthur Lowe, Ron Moody, Connie Booth, Denholm Elliott, Stratford Johns
IMDB Entry
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is sensational with its reimagining of Holmes in the modern day.  This isn’t the first, of course – Basil Rathbone had modern day adventures in the 40s, but had little critical favor.  And, in 1977, an obscure BBC film also showed a present-day Holmes – to comic effect.
The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It, was a short TV film with John Cleese as Holmes’s grandson, brought in for a case where the great detectives of the world are being killed off, as a plot by Moriarty to end Civilization as We Know It.

The film had a lot of things going for it.  There’s Cleese as Holmes, of course, as well as Arthur Lowe’s Watson.  Watson is often portrayed as being a little bit slow on the uptake (though not recently), and Lowe is by far the slowest.  Every one of Holmes’s comments – no matter how mundane -- were greeted by comments about  how clever Holmes was.
Despite some great moments, though, the film is uneven and wears badly.  There was a ton of topical humor, and many of the references are pretty obscure today.  Even worse, the direction is deadly slow.  The jokes are funny (if a bit broad), but there’s too much waiting between things.
Still, there’s plenty of funny moments.  My favorite is when Watson reads off crossword puzzle clues to Holmes (read them aloud if you don’t get the joke):
Watson: 1 Across. A simple source of citrus fruit, 1, 5, 4.
Holmes: A lemon tree, my dear Watson.
Watson: 2 Down. Conservative pays ex-wife maintenance. 7, 5.
Holmes: Alimony...alimony Tory, my dear Watson.
Watson: 2 Down. Southern California style. 1, 2, 8.
Holmes: A la Monterrey, my dear Watson.
Watson: 4 Down. Burglar's entrance
Holmes: Alarm entry, my dear Watson
Watson: That's rather poor, isn't it, Holmes? Right. One to go. A cowardly fish with a sting in its tail.
Holmes: Yellow manta ray, my dear Watson
Watson: Brilliant, Holmes
The show appeared once or twice in the US and UK, and then was quickly forgotten.  It’s certainly not genius on the level of Monty Python or Fawlty Towers, but it’s a very funny sidelight to the careers of the Pythons.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Music Bingo (TV)

Johnny Gilbert

Like most kids growing up in the 50s and 60s, I was addicted to television.  But in the early days, we only had two stations --  CBS and ABC – so our options were limited.  For many years, that meant the only thing on when we got home from school were game shows.  And one that was my favorite was Music Bingo*.

The show’s board was a Bingo card, with the letters “M-U-S-I-C” at the top.  Two contestants would listen as the band would play a song.  The first to answer correctly, got to place their symbol – a sharp or a flat – on the board.  Five in a row, and you won the game.  Here is the opening:

The host was the first network gig for game show legend Johnny Gilbert, best known today for “This  . . . is Jeopardy,” which he has been doing since the show was revived with Alex Trebek.**

Something about the show fascinated me.  I rarely knew the songs (at eight, my music knowledge was limited), but I enjoyed the challenge.

What really stuck in my mind was one of the champions.  I don’t recall his name, but he was always introduced as the father of quadruplets, a term I had never heard before.  What I also remember was that remained as champion forever.  I actually stopped watching for several months and the same guy was still champion the next time I watched.  I often wonder if that had anything to do with the rules that limited the number of times you could win.

I moved on, and the next time I checked, it was gone.  There’s very little information on it online, but it was a favorite of mine.

*The show started on NBC, but was later moved to ABC, where I saw it.

**Replacing an ever bigger game show legend, Don Pardo.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Joe McDoakes series

Directed by
Richard L. Bare
Written by Richard L. Bare and George O’Hanlon (uncredited)Starring George O’Hanlon, Art Gilmore
Wikipedia Entry

Moviegoing in the 1930s was far different than it was today.  Most theaters had only a single show of a single movie.*  There would be more than just the film though – a cartoon, a newsreel, previews of coming attractions** and, of course, live action short subjects.  Joe McDoakes was one of the last and the best of these.

The series was a creation of Richard L. Bare, who wrote and directed the entire series.  Bare was a graduate of the USC film school and taught film courses there when he came up with the idea of working with his students on a class project.  Finding out-of-work actor George O’Hanlon, he produced a ten-minute short subject entitled So You Want to Give up Smoking.  After the project was done, he took the completed film – as Richard L. Bare Productions – to Warner Brothers, who purchased it and asked for more.***

And thus the series was born.  It followed Joe McDoakes (O’Hanlon), and average guy who would try one thing or another, only to run into strange complications.  Each episode began with So You Want to…., as Joe tried such things as going on vacation, being a salesman, throwing a party, getting rich quick, or play the piano.  Of course, things would go wrong is bizarre and wacky ways.

O’Hanlon made a nice McDoakes, perpetually forced into odd situations and meeting absurdist characters.  Art Gilmore narrated the shorts, setting up the scene and helping with the wrap-up.  Several actresses played Joe’s wife; the best known was Phyllis (“Lois Lane”) Coates. The series’s opening – with Joe coming out from behind a giant eight ball – was memorable.

The films only ran about ten minutes, but were filled with laughs. 
Bare wrote and directed, with O’Hanlon helped with the writing, too. They were cheap to produce, and were the only live action comedies of that length, which allowed theater owners to throw in something short and cheap.

Because as the 1950s rolled around, the market for short subjects evaporated.  Theater owners realized they could make more money with two shows a night instead of one, and started dropping all the extra material, and the studio system – which fueled the market for short subjects – died.  The series ended in 1956.

Richard L. Bare moved over to TV when McDoakes ended, working on shows like Broken Arrow, 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, Cheyenne, The Twilight Zone and others, but his best-known gig was with Green Acres, where he directed every episode.  You can see the similarities between that and Joe McDoakes – the same wild characters and anything for a laugh sensibility.

O’Hanlon also became a TV icon, even if his face was unfamiliar:  he was the voice of George Jetson.  Even Art Gilmore had a long career in TV as the narrator of quite a few shows, including Red Skelton, The Waltons, and Highway Patrol, as well as being an all-purpose actor in a couple of Jack Webb series.

*Double features existed, but usually at the cheaper houses or for Saturday children’s matinees.

**What are called “trailers” today.  “Previews” makes more sense.

***He first checked with the college administration, who okayed the contract.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Youngbloods (music)

:  Jesse Colin Young (vocals, guitar, bass), Banana (guitar and electric piano), Joe Bauer (drums),  Jerry Corbitt (guitar)

”One hit wonder” is a cruel term, covering novelty acts (Napoleon XIV), groups outside the top 40 mainstream (The Grateful Dead), bands who put out an excellent single but couldn’t follow up (John Fred and His Playboy Band), and terrible groups who got one lucky break (Steam). The Youngbloods are technical a one-hit wonder, but the hit didn’t really define their sound, and who produced excellent music without hitting the single charts.

The group was led by Jesse Colin Young (birth name: Perry Miller). He grew up in New York and began playing folk music in Greenwich Village coffeehouses.  Young was noticed, and released two solo albums.  After the second, he started working with guitarist Jerry Corbitt, billed as Jesse Colin Young and the Youngbloods.  The two settled in southern California and took up two new members, Banana (real name: Lowell Levinger) and Joe Bauer.  The group followed in the footsteps of The Lovin’ Spoonful, and released their most famous song off The Youngbloods, their first album:  “Get Together,”* a paean to peace and love.

It flopped.

The album did have some critical acclaim, however, and a second album, Earth Music, was released.  It didn’t even chart, though, again, it was a critical success.

At this point, Corbitt left.  The group looked like any one of a thousand critically acclaimed acts that just couldn’t find success.

But the Youngbloods kept going. The group carried on as a trio, with Banana’s electric piano becoming more of a lead instrument.  Then, in 1969, they got a break.

The great New York City DJ, Dan Ingram, was putting together a public service announcement promoting brotherhood and chose “Get Together” as the background music.  WABC was the top-rated station in New York at the time, and people noticed the song, including the National Council of Christians and Jews, which used it as the theme for their TV ads.  The two-year-old song reached #5 and is still a mainstay on classic rock station.

At the same time, they released the masterpiece Elephant Mountain.

The album starts out with a bang:  the apocalyptical “Darkness, Darkness.”

After this beginning the album switches gears many times, to the pop breakup song (“Smug”), to jazzy improvisations (“On Sir Francis Drake”), to love songs (“Sunlight”), folk/music hall hybrids (“Rain Song”), and much else.  The group, which had previously did a lot of cover versions,  wrote all the music themselves.** It was a truly wonderful album.

It sold poorly, coming up just short of the top 100.  Of course, their big hit wasn’t on the album, and it may have been too eclectic to be massively popular. 

The group also did something unheard of:  they walked off the Tonight Show.  They had been asked to perform “Get Together,” but were reluctant to perform something they had recorded two years before.  They agreed to do it if they could also perform “Darkness, Darkness.”  Johnny Carson agreed, but when the show ran long and they were told to only perform their hit, they left.

Instead of coming out with a strong followup, the group’s next release was Rock Festival, a live album of all original material that was a big disappointment, though it was the only one of their albums to crack the hot 100.

Realizing their mistake, their next album*** was also live – but Ride the Wind took some of their better studio songs on stage, and gave casual fans a live version of “Get Together.”

Good and Dusty had them doing more cover songs, mostly blues covers, but it really didn’t please anyone.

High on a Ridge Top was also all cover songs, but to better effect.  It was an eclectic mix – Dylan, the Beatles (“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” is a real delight), Taj Mahal, plus several 50s hits.  Not a great album, but an enjoyable one.

At that point, Young decided to go solo.****  While he never had a hit, he recorded and performed regularly into the 21st century.  He reformed the Youngbloods in the 80s for a tour or two, but has been content to keep performing solo.*****  Corbitt also had a solo career.

The Youngbloods were never a major act, but at their best – especially in Elephant Mountain – they made a claim that they deserved to be.

*Written by Dino Valenti of Quicksilver Messenger Service. 

**Except “Rain Song,” which had been cowritten by Jerry Corbitt.

***After a “Best of” album

****Perhaps the reason the group was doing so many covers in their last two albums was that Young was saving his own songs for his solo career.

*****And sell his own brand of coffee.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Secret of NIMH

Directed by
Don Bluth
Story Adaptation by Don Bluth & John Pomeroy & Gary Goldman &  Will Finn from a novel by Robert C. O’Brien.
Starring (voices) Derek Jacobi, Elizabeth Hartman, Arthur Malet, Dom DeLuise, Hermoine Baddley, Shannon Doherty, Wil Wheaton, John Carradine, Ian Fried
IMDB Entry

Back in the 80s, Disney had almost a monopoly on animated films, and the genre was in dire condition.  Disney was in a creative slump, the animation department releasing only three feature length films in the 1970s,* of indifferent quality.  Their first 80s film, The Fox and the Hound also unimpressive and Disney seemed content to rerelease their classics every seven years to a new audience of kids.  It was in this atmosphere that Don Bluth put together The Secret of NIMH.

Bluth had worked with Disney starting with Sleeping Beauty,  but set off on his own, getting the rights to Robert C. O’Brien’s Newberry Award winning novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.**

Mrs. Brisby (voice of Elizabeth Hartman) is a widowed field mouse whose son Timothy (Ian Fried) is deathly ill and must stay in bed or die.  But the spring plowing will destroy their home.  Desperate, Mrs. Brisby consults with the rats of NIMH – highly intelligent ones who were bred at the National Institute of Mental Health – and their leader Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi).  But the rats have traitors in their midst….

The story is not plain vanilla Disney.  There is a darkness, and characters even die.  Mrs. Brisby is a strong, brave heroine.  It came out to strong critical acclaim, though did not make a great deal of money.

It was, however, a wake-up call to Disney, which began producing quality animated fare that is now considered the second golden age.  I remember seeing it and thinking, “finally the Mouse is getting some serious competition.”  And looking forward to more great films by Bluth.

Alas, it was not to be.  While Bluth did have some solid hits like An American Tail and The Land Before Time,*** the films were never as good as his first, and his All Dogs Go to Heaven and Rock-a-Doodle are just embarrassing to watch.

But The Secret of NIMH is not just the high point of Bluth’s career, it’s a classic of animation.

*Plus the fix-up, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which was made up of three shorter films and linking material. 

**They were worried the Wham-O might not like the name “Frisby” and I suspect putting “rats” in the title was considered bad marketing.

***The Land Before Time was a brilliant concept, but a dull story, with extremely muddy animation, but it did succeed. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Honey West (TV)

Honey West(1965-66)
Created by
Skip and Gloria Fickling (novel)
Adapted for TV by Gwen Bagni and Paul Dubov
Starring Anne Francis, John Ericson
IMDB Entry

In the 50s and 60s, the private eye show was nearly as successful a genre as westerns.  You could set up a quirky character and then throw a mystery and voila – a concept that could run for years.  Honey West’s gimmick was one that seemed pretty novel in 1965:  it featured a female private eye (with an ocelot).

The show was based upon a series of novels from a few years before.  Honey West (Anne Francis) would take on cases and with the help of her assistant Sam Bolt (John Ericson) would solve them all.  The character was introduced originally in an episode of Burke’s Law, and was successful enough to spin off to a weekly 30-minute series.

West was clearly in charge.  She ran the agency.  Sam did the legwork and sometimes be the muscle, though Honey could more than take care of herself with judo moves similar to Mrs. Peel in the Avengers.*  Sam was the one who gathered information for Honey to use.

Honey and BruceAnne Francis** had a sultry yet playful air and often dressed in animal print clothes.  She had a pet ocelot named Bruce, who didn’t really figure much in the stories, but  gave her an exotic air.  She also had a “beauty mark”*** in the corner of her mouth that made her look more interesting.  This doesn’t mean she wasn’t a fine actress in the part, which portrayed her as smart as well as sexy.  She won a Golden Globe for the role.****

The show had trouble in the ratings, going up against Gomer Pyle, USMC, and was cancelled after one season.

Anne Francis was active in TV for many years, and reprised her role as Honey West in the forgotten 90s revival of Burke’s Law, but never got the chance to star again. 

*This was probably deliberate.  Spelling knew about the British series and even asked Honor Blackman – Diana Rigg’s predecessor on the show – to play the lead.

**Probably best known today as Altaira in the classic SF movie Forbidden Planet.

*** What elsewhere would be called a mole.  Nowadays, it would have been removed or photoshopped away.  Too bad.

****Of course, the Golden Globes didn’t count for much back then.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Directed by
Deepa Mehta
Written by Anurag Kashyap (dialog), Deepa Mehta.
Starring Sarala Kariawasam, Manorama, Raghuvir Yadav, Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas, John Abraham
IMDB Entry

I love watching films made by different cultures, especially those that show new aspects of the human condition. Water deals with life in India in 1938, portraying a part of that culture that is ripe for tragic stories.

Chuyia (Sarala Kariawasam) is a seven-year-old child bride, who learns that her husband has died, leaving her a widow.  Culture requires she leave the community and live with other widows, similarly dumped by their families.  Madhumati (Manorama) runs the widows’ ashram, smoking ganga and making money by prostituting the next youngest widow Kalyani (Lisa Ray).  Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) has trouble dealing with her hatred of being a widow and her need to obey social strictures.  Meanwhile, Narayan (John Abraham), a follower of Gandhi, starts a romance with Kalyani, who used Chuvia to help them keep it secret.

The sadness of Chuvia’s life is at center stage, and Kariawasm does an excellent job as a child forced into a life she can’t quite understand.*  The rest of the story is powerful and tragic – though with a touch of hope at the end.

The film’s production was troubled.  Mehta had already created controversy with the right wing in India, and the shooting of the film led to violent protests, including the destruction of the film’s sets.  Mehta dropped the production for several years, finally moving to Sri Lanka and giving it a false name. 

The film was a success, garnering it an Oscar nomination.**  It’s a fascinating look into a dark side of the history of India.

*She didn’t speak either English or Hindi, but managed to learn the language on the fly.

**Representing Canada, which took advantage in a change of Oscar rules, since Mehta lives in Toronta.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ever After

Directed by
Andy Tennant
Screenplay by Susannah Grant and Andy Tennant & Rick Parks
Starring Drew Barrymore, Anjelica Huston, Dougray Scott, Patrick Godfrey, Megan Dodds, Mealnie Lynskey
IMDB Entry

Fairytales are big right now.  You have shows like Once Upon a Time, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and Grimm on TV.  There were a couple of Snow White films in 2012:  Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror.  But an early version of the trend, Ever After seems to have come and gone, despite being a clever romantic film.

The fairy tale in question is Cinderella.  Danielle (Drew Barrymore) is cruelly treated by her stepmother Rodmilla (Anjelica Huston).  As a teen, Danielle runs into Henry (Dougray Scott), who turned out to be the Crown Prince of France.  Henry is being forced to marry a Spanish princess, but, after some argument, his parents agree to let him choose a bride from the attendees of a special ball to be held to honor Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey).  Of course, her stepmother and her sisters want to do everything to keep Danielle from going to the ball, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that true love wins out in the end. 

What is especially nice is the way they move away from the fairy tale to make everything even better.

The movie’s casting is inspired.  Drew Barrymore makes a wonderful Danielle – charming, smart, and more than willing to speak her mind.  And Anjelica Huston is even better, making a perfect evil stepmother – glamorous and casually cruel.

The movie did adequately in the box office and it appears that a musical may be in the works.  It’s a lovely version of the familiar tale.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Fatal Glass of Beer

Fatal Glass of Beer(1933)
Directed by Clyde Bruckman
Written by W. C. Fields
Starring W.C. Fields, Rosemary Theby, George Chandler, Richard Cramer
IMDB Entry
Full movie at

I happen to like subtle humor – jokes that require you to think a moment to figure out.  Usually, that also overlaps with deadpan humor – jokes that are treated seriously by the characters involved.  I may be a minority in that view, but I think that even if you’re not, it’s worth watching the genius of The Fatal Glass of Beer, one of the funniest 20 minutes ever put on film.

W. C. Fields made five short subjects.  We all know him as a cultural icon, and Fields was one of the best and most wide ranging of the great comedians.  While he usually came from the same comic place, his characters were on a continuum, from those who were the curmudgeon we expect him to be, to others who accept life’s insults with little more than a quiet comment. 

The Fatal Glass of Beer is not what people typically think of Fields, and may not seem like much the first time around,* but the more you see it, the funnier it is.

The film opens in the Great White North, where Mr. Snavely (Fields) is in an isolated cabin while the wind blows wildly.  Constable Posthlewhistle of the Mounties drops in, and asks Fields about his son, Chester (George Chandler), who is about to be released from prison.  After singing a tuneless song outlining Chester’s fall – due to drink -- Fields returns to his wife (Rosemary Theby) to be there when Chester  returns.

The movie is a deadpan parody of adventures set in the Yukon. The acting is deliberately broad; Fields and everyone else declaim their lines like in an old time temperance melodrama.  The outdoor scenes are shot against a process screen and make no attempt to make it look like anything other than a process screen.  The plot is melodramatic in the extreme and the blowing snow is clearly cornflakes.

And that’s the whole point.  The movie is filled with subtly funny moments that you may not notice the first time, but the more you see them, the more delightful they become.  It’s made to be deliberately bad, which is part of the reason why it’s so great.

The snavelys at dinner.There are also some wonderful sight gags, great and memorable lines** that get added humor from the delivery.  The humor is often as subtle as the acting is broad and it’s one of the few comedies that gets funnier the more you see it.

An example:

Mrs. Snavely:  Captain Tippett of the Canadian Mounties has smuggled a police dog across the border for you.
Mr. Snavely:  Smuggled a police dog across the border for me?
Mrs. Snavely: Yes, and he says for you to keep it under your hat.
Mr. Snavely:  How big is it?
Mrs. Snavely:  (indicating about three feet off the floor) About so high.
Mr. Snavely:  He’s crazy!

A lesser comedian would have said “How can I fit that under my hat?”  “Or that’ll hurt my head.”  Fields has the genius to assume that the audience would know what the joke would be, and went beyond the obvious.

Fields made four other short films:  The Gold Specialist***, The Barber Shop, the Pharmacist, and The Dentist.  All are good, but The Fatal Glass of Beer is the finest.

*Theater owners reported that it wasn’t funny at all.

**And it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast.” or “I think I’ll go out and milk the elk.”

***And adaptation of his vaudeville act.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Alive and Well in Argentina (music)

Zal Yanovsky
All Music Entry

Pop music success is like hitting the lottery:  the odds are against you, and once you hit the jackpot, it’s not likely to happen again.  Zal Yanovsky was a member of one of the great music acts of the 60s, but when that ended, he was forced to set out on his own. The result was Alive and Well in Argentina.

Yanovsky was born in Canada and started to be part of the folk scene in New York in the early 60s.  His first brush with fame was when he joined with other folkies of the time – Cass Eliott, Denny Doherty, John Sebastian, and James Hendricks* – to form the Mugwumps, a group that was legendary even without recording anything.  When they broke up, Denny and Cass became half of the Mamas and the Papas, where Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful.**

The Lovin’ Spoonful was one of the great acts of the mid-60s, putting out pop hit after pop hit, most written by Sebastian.  Not only were the successful, but they were critically praised.  I remember several interviews with top musicians of the time who said they never listed to top 40 radio – except for the Lovin’ Spoonful.

John Sebastian wrote nearly all their hit songs, but Zal was the most telegenic.  He was tall, wore cowboy hats and fringed jackets, and stood out whenever they were on TV.***  His ebullient personality made him a fan favorite.

Then it fell apart:  Zal was arrested for marijuana possession in 1967.

Now by that time, the charge didn’t hurt a rock musician’s career.  But Zal did the unthinkable:  under pressure from the police, and afraid he’d be deported back to Canada (or, at least, not allowed to return to the US if he ever went home), he named his supplier.

That was a betrayal. Fans were outraged, and it created tension in the group.  Zal left soon after.

In 1968, he released his solo album Alive and Well in Argentina. Even though he didn’t write much with the Lovin’ Spoonful, it had a similar sound – just goofier.

The songs were mostly cover versions of older songs, with a few originals.  Zal worked hard to make them fun to listen to.  “Little Bitty Prettey One” was a remake of a hit in from 1957, with a falsetto chorus and some nice harmonies.  “You Talk Too Much” was the same thing, and performed so that it was a humorous as possible.

The title tune was one of the few songs Yanovsky wrote by himself, a silly song about him ending up in South America, playing with the belief that Nazis moved down there after the war.  It has the sound of a wild party, and is, perhaps, commenting on Yanovsky exile from the rock scene.

The album didn’t crack the top 100, since it was probably too strange for mass appeal.  Zal also released a single, “As Long as You’re Here,” which was not on the original album, but was included on later versions.  It didn’t do wall.

After that, Zal disappeared from music.  He would occasionally show up unannounced at a John Sebastian concert, playing with his old friend, and had small gigs here and there, but spent his time running the Chez Piggy restaurant in Kingston, Ontario. He died in 2002.

*No, not that James Hendrix. 

**As the song went.

***Sebastian often played the autoharp on TV, which just looked strange for a rock ban.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Directed by
Tod Browning
Written by Tod Robbins
Starring Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Ogla Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Harris Ford, Daisy & Violet Hilton, Johnny Eck, Prince Randian, Josephine Joseph
IMDB Entry
Full Movie at

It’s always fun to see how attitudes have changed over the years.  When it came out, Freaks was considered so horrifying that they cut almost a half hour out of it.  Nowadays, I doubt anyone would be particularly frightened, but it has a strong message of accepting people as human beings.

Director Tod Browning had been making silent films for years, and was riding high at the time after his Dracula was a sensation.  In this case he adapted a short story and, drawing on his experience in a circus, filmed a movie about the sideshow performers – the “Freaks” of the title.

The story is set in the circus, where the midget Hans (Henry Victor) has a crush on the trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova).  It’s clear from the start that Cleopatra only pays attention to Hans because he has money, and when she discovers he is heir to a large inheritance, plots with her lover Hercules (Henry Victor) to marry Hans.  But it all fallse apart at the wedding dinner, leading to retaliation.

Most of the film, however, is not so much plot driven, as it is a slice of life in the circus.  Browning cast real circus performers, and they are certainly strange in appearance, but they are portrayed as no different from anyone else.  The sideshow performers are a family and the film is very much from their point of view.  We see the cruelty to them at every turn, but, at the same time, get a glimpse into their lives.  Much of it is mundane in a slightly skewed way:  the bearded lady has a baby; her husband, the human skeleton, hands out cigars.  The performers work in their specialties, but in a matter-of-fact ways that make things like the armless woman drinking a glass of beer seem like everyday events of no particular note.  The two leads, Phroso (Wallace Ford) and Venus (Leila Hyams) treat the others as equals, indicating that the audience should, too.

Bearded Lady with her baby

The wedding feast sequence is duly famous, as the group celebrates the marriage and begin to discover what a horrible human being Cleopatra is.  It all a joke to her, until the others begin to chant “Gooble Gobble, We accept her. One of Us, One of Us” and her repulsion comes to the fore.

The horror sequence comes at the end, as the performers take on a sinister air as they target Cleopatra and Hercules in a thunderstorm, lurking under circus wagons and in the shadows.  It’s moody piece that still holds up well, but, unfortunately, the final revelation of horror looks pretty damn silly to modern eyes.  The original cut may have been more scary.**

When the film came out, though, it was a sensation – in a bad way.  People were repulsed by the characters, and the film did terrible business.  It was banned in the UK for 30 years, and the reception pretty much put an end to Tod Browning’s career. 

It wasn’t until years later that the movie was rescued from obscurity and took its place in the pantheon of horror films.  It may not be scary nowadays, but it’s a terrific movie.

*They take revenge on Hercules – a thoroughly nasty sort – by castrating him.  Even those the film was pre-code, this didn’t fly.  As a result, you don’t see what happens to him.