Sunday, November 3, 2019
Starring Sheila McCarthy, Paule Baillargeon, Ann-Marie MacDonald
One of the nice things in the days of video stores was the ability to find oddball movies that you never heard of. You could glance at the boxes on the walls and find things that were obscure, or old, or too independent for the big studios. That’s where I stumbled upon I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing.
Poly Vandersma (Sheila McCarthy) is a klutzy young woman who ekes out a living doing temporary secretarial work, her job choices hindered by the fact she’s a lousy typist. But she is hired for a permanent position by Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), the owner of a private art gallery. When Gabrielle ex-lover Mary (Ann-Marie MacDonald), things start to get complicated.
This is not a plot-driven movie. Most of its joys are from McCarthy’s performance, which is utterly charming. As the movie progresses, she learns to be just a bit more competent.
The film was Canadian, and has often been listed among the greatest Canadian films of all time.
McCarthy went on to have a long career in TV and film. Most recently, she appeared in The Umbrella Academy as Agnes, the owner of a diner.
Sunday, October 27, 2019
Created by Nat Hiken
Starring, Fred Gwynn, Joe E. Ross, Beatrice Pons, Paul Reed
A 60s sitcom can go pretty far with a catchy theme song. Gilligan’s Island has become a cultural touchstone because of its song. And one of my favorites is from an early 60s comedy that was pretty good on its own: Car 54, Where Are You?*
The show was conceived by Nat Hiken. Fresh from his success with The Phil Silvers Show (aka Sgt. Bilko), he went to another group of men in uniform: the New York city police force.
The show follows the life – you couldn’t really call them adventures – of Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross) and Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynn), two partners who are also best friends. Gunther was married to Lucille (Beatrice Pons) while Francis was a bachelor. Their boss was Captain Paul Block (Paul Reed). Toody and Muldoon didn’t often deal with any actual crimes, with the show focusing on their relationship, life as a cop, and their home life.
The show was a success from the start, getting good ratings** and winning three Emmys. In the second season, the cast added Al Lewis as Leo Schnauser, but the show ended after that year.
Fred Gwynn, of course, moved on to be Herman Munster (with Al Lewis) and a TV icon. But that part really didn’t fit the man. A graduate of Harvard – where he was editor of the Harvard Lampoon, he also was an accomplished artist, writing and illustrating The King Who Rained and its sequel A Chocolate Mousse for Dinner. He was able to show a more subtle comic gift as the judge in My Cousin Vinnie.
As for Joe E. Ross . . . well, his life was a mess. He had started out as a burlesque standup comic, and his act was as blue as it could be. Hiken, however, liked the way he looked and hired him for Phil Silvers and Car 54. The success of the show went to his head. He became arrogant and didn’t bother to learn his lines. Hiken even planned to drop him and replace him with Al Lewis, but Ross begged to stay in the role. Even so, he alienated everyone on the set and went back to comedy when it was over. He later returned to TV with It’s About Time, mostly because its producer didn’t talk to anyone who worked with him.
However, Ross was excellent as Toody, his catchphrase “Ooh, Ooh”*** making him a hit. He wasn’t really a strong actor, but he made the show work.
One thing I noted is the willingness to cast Black actors as police officers. It didn’t raise a lot of attention at the time, but the fact that the police force was integrated was something you hadn’t seen on TV back then. Nipsy Russell and Ossie Davis were not more than background actors with a handful of lines each show, but seeing Black people in the background as though it were no big deal was a big step forward.
The show was shot in New York City. Police cars of that era were painted green and white and, in order to keep people from thinking Car 54 was a real police car, it was painted red and white, which looks the same on black and white film. It helped avoid confusion.
The show pioneered using a different opening sequence. Toody and Muldoon would be doing different things while driving. It wasn’t changed every show (like The Simpsons) but it did change every few episodes.
The show only ran two seasons. The stress of running all aspects of the show, coupled with having to deal with Ross, affected Hiken’s health and he died in 1968. But the short run meant it was rarely shown in syndication.
*The final line “Khrushchev's due at Idlewild” may see inexplicable today, but at the time of the show, Nikita Khrushchev was head of the Soviet Union. “Idlewild” was the airport that is now known as JFK.
**Helped by its timeslot after Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and before Bonanza.
***It seems to be a phrase he often used in real life, too.
Sunday, October 20, 2019
Created by Harry Redmond, Jr., James Carl Hall
Starring Larry Pennell, Ken Curtis
In the 50s and early 60s, local station had to look to find programming in the early evening. Network prime time began at 7:30 weekdays, and there was often only a half-hour news broadcast at 6:00. So various producers jumped in to provide programming for the missing hour, half-half hour dramatic shows that were cheap for them to produce. Ripcord was one of these.
Much like Whirlybirds, the show highlighted a new bit of aviation technology – the parachute. Used in the military before that, parachuting became more mainstream, and producer Ivan Tors jumped onto the trend.
The show featured the adventures of Ted McKeever (Larry Pennell) and Jim Buckley (Ken Curtis), who ran a skydiving business. Most of their assignments was to use skydiving as a way to get to places where other forms of transportation could not.
One striking thing about the show today is that it used real stunts: people were actually skydiving.* It had an element of danger. Indeed, one stunt – a transfer from one plane to another, went wrong and the two planes hit each other and crashed to the ground. Luckily everyone was safe, skydiving to the ground, and the footage was used in a couple of later episodes.
By 1963, fewer of this type of show was being produced. Syndicated game shows – which could be made more cheaply – replaced the dramas, and the slots for them started drying up. The show was cancelled after two seasons.
Actor Ken Curtis, however, landed on his feet. Cast as Festus in Gunsmoke, he appeared in over 300 episodes of the show. Larry Pennell was less successful, but continued to work fairly regularly, with recurring parts in The Beverly Hillbillies and Lassie.
*Usually stuntmen, of course.
Sunday, October 6, 2019
Written and Directed by James Broughton
When I first got to college, there was a student-run film series. The person running it that year had a pattern: Wednesday films were art films or obscure classics, while the weekend films were relatively recent films that had been in theaters only a few months previously. I liked that arrangement, since it let me find films I never would have heard of otherwise.
One of their Wednesday programs was a series of short films. I don’t remember any of them except for The Bed, which stayed with me for years.
The movie starts out with a shot of an old brass bed rolling down a hill and coming to rest in a meadow. And then . . . things happen.
The movie has no story. It’s a series of vignettes, without dialog, where the viewer can read into it whatever they want. There are hints of celebration, love, death, birth, joy, and the just plain surreal.
And – the source of the movie’s fame – nudity. Lots of it, male and female. Sometimes it leaned toward the erotic, but it mostly showed an open and innocent attitude toward the human body. The visual elements (aside from the obvious) made it especially fascinating.
Given the fact I had very little experience with nudity other than classical art and Playboy, this element was something new. But director/writer James Broughton used it in as non-titillating manner as possible, making it seem innocent and matter of fact.
Broughton came to prominence as a poet after WWII, and made occasional short films. He appears in this one as a saxophonist playing in a tree. The Bed brought him notice* and won several awards at film festivals. He springboarded its success to make several other movies in the ensuing years. But nothing had the same success.
*It was his first film in 15 years.
Sunday, September 29, 2019
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Written by Abby Mann, from a novel by Roderick Thorp
Starring Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick, Ralph Meeker, Jack Klugman, Tony Musante
The hard-boiled detective has to move with the times. By the time the 1960s came along, the changed cultural scene gave new possibilities, and one of the results was The Detective.
Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) is an incorruptible New York city cop who is called in to investigate a murder. The naked corpse has been mutilated, hands and other body parts cut off. When his housemate Felix Tesla (Tony Musante) is found it all falls into place and Tesla is sent to the chair.
But Leland has his doubts. And when he investigates a second, seemingly irrelevant case, a suicide that seems a bit fishy, he begins to unravel a more complex set of facts that connect the two.
The movie reveled in its grittiness, touching on subjects that couldn’t have been tackled before, like drug abuse and corruption. Most notably, it was willing to talk about homosexuality. Now, it was hardly a balanced portrayal, even if some of the characters were sympathetic. I doubt it holds up very well, but the fact that it was portrayed directly was new in 1968 and some of that might be because they didn’t think the public was ready for a nuanced look.
This was one of Sinatra’s better roles. He seemed to really throw himself into a character instead of just playing himself and his Joe Leland is tough and no-nonsense, with some hints of vulnerability.
The movie was a success, but has slowly faded away. It might be too cringeworthy to get through today.
One side note: author Roderick Thorp wrote a sequel about the further adventures of Leland. It was forgotten for twenty years, until someone took the bare bones of the second novel and planned to make a movie about that. The problem was that Sinatra was given first shot at the role in any sequel. Sinatra looked at the script and knew he was too old to play the lead, who had been turned into an action hero. Bruce Willis took it instead, and Die Hard became a classic.
Sunday, September 22, 2019
One of the joys of having SiriusXM in my car is listening to Old Time Radio. There are some great old radio shows on there, and I began to notice a name popping up all the time in the credits, an actor who made a belated move into TV toward the end of the career, hampered by his appearance. But in the radio days, just about every drama seemed to have an appearance by William Conrad.
Conrad was born in Louisville, KY and, after the war, became a fixture on radio. He estimated he played more than 7500 roles, and I doubt that’s much of an exaggeration. His deep voice made him a natural for authoritative roles.
His best known role was that of Matt Dillon in the radio version of Gunsmoke. He was perfect in the part, creating a vivid character who fought for law and order, and allowing no nonsense from anyone. Conrad was almost turned down for the part, the producers thinking his voice had been too familiar after all his radio performances, but they changed their mind after the audition.
But when Gunsmoke was adapted for television, Conrad wasn’t considered for the role.
In Hollywood, physical appearance is key, and Conrad was too heavy set. He didn’t fit into the image of a leading man, so was passed over* in favor of the more conventional leading man in James Arness. The radio show continued in parallel, but as radio drama started fading out, Conrad found it harder to get work. His talent got him jobs in movies, usually as a henchman.
But voiceover work became his meal ticket. He was in demand as a narrator for various shows. The most memorable of these were in the various incarnations of Rocky and Bullwinkle, where he narrated their adventures.** Conrad was perfect in the role, and it was one of the times the funny side of him shows.
Finally, in 1971, Conrad made it to TV stardom in the Quinn Martin detective show Cannon, which set up a backstory to explain his physical bulk. The show was a hit, running five seasons, showing many people the man behind the voice – even if they didn’t know the voice.***
Conrad later starred in a failed Nero Wolfe series, and then had another five-year run with Jake and the Fatman, while still keeping his hand in narration work. He died a couple of years after the show ended, leaving a body of work that anyone would be proud of.
*As was the rest of the radio cast. In his early days, Conrad was just a little bit blocky, but he gained weight as time went on. Photos of him during the Gunsmoke days indicate he was already a bit heavy, plus he was not conventionally handsome at any point.
**Also the adventures of Dudley Do-Right
***Cannon was on a couple of years before I learned that the “Bill Conrad” in the Rocky and Bullwinkle credits was the same guy.
Sunday, August 4, 2019
Worse, it was on a negative refusal plan. They’d send you a card every month. If you didn’t return it, their choice for the month was automatically shipped and billed to you. You had to buy a certain amount of records to end the service. and if you forgot to return the card, you’d get a record you didn’t want. The overall cost of the records was far more than buying them in a store.
That was when I discovered the Record Club of America.
Their ads were simple. You paid a membership fee (under $1) and bought a couple of albums at very low prices. Then, every month, you’d get a catalog. But you could just ignore it: you would only be sent an album if you requested one.
It seemed a great deal and I signed up.
Of course, there were reasons why things were so cheap. The Record Club (out of York, PA), pressed their own albums under the license of the record company.*** The results were not as good as the authentic album, but, then, no one really paid attention to the slightly worse recording quality. One album I got skipped badly. But the customer service was good: they would send you a new one if you let them know the problem.
They also sold regular copies of the albums, usually the ones that weren’t popular enough to license. But the did feature albums that they pressed themselves.
There was a downside to this: when they pressed an album, they couldn’t return it to the record company for credit, so if they misjudged the popularity, they were stuck.
Things, though, started to go bad. The company was sued by the NYS Attorney General, calling the membership fee a scam. I thought that was ridiculous: it was a one-time fee that still made the record cheaper than anything else.
Then the company cut corners that were less laughable: they started pressing records without getting permission. It may have been that they were licensed to press a certain number but pressed more than that to keep up with demand. The record companies (rightfully) didn’t like that, and suddenly, they couldn’t press their own records.
The company switched to 8-tracks when they were big, but it wasn’t enough. It went under in the mid-70s. From a couple of reports, it seems that the old warehouse existed at least until 2011, the records still visible in the windows.
*My father sold records in his store, though I doubt he made much money with them, and my brothers and I were his biggest customers (at wholesale). But since the records were all returnable, they lost nothing but the space for them.
**I see 13 records for $2.85 online.
***A small sticker would announce that it was manufactured with permission.
Sunday, July 28, 2019
Created by Art and Jo Napoleon
Starring Kenneth Tobey, Craig Hill
TV spinoffs happen for many reasons, some planned, some because a one-time character catches on with the public.* Whirlybirds was spun off because the producers became enamored of a helicopter.
It started with I Love Lucy, where one episode featured a Bell helicopter. The producers liked using it so much that they created a series to feature it.
The show was about a small helicopter company run by Chuck Martin (Kenneth Tobey) and Pete More (Craig Hill). They were chartered for various duties, from rescuing people in danger, to carrying cargo, to whatever might be needed.
It was supposed to be part of the regular CBS schedule, but the network turned it down and it went directly to syndication, where it had a respectable run of 111 episodes.
After the show, Tobey had a long career guest starring in TV, while Hill moved to Spain and occasionally appeared in Spanish films.
*Most obvious example was Mork and Mindy, after Robin Williams impressed everyone on Happy Days.
Sunday, July 21, 2019
Created by Robert G. Walker and Herbert B. Leonard
Starring: Jim Davis, Lang Jeffries
When I was growing up, my TV options were limited to two channels: Channel 3 (WTIC, CBS) and Channel 8 (WNHC*, ABC). And one of the shows I remember watching back then always intrigued me because it contained the same number as one of them: Rescue 8.
The syndicated show was one of several the station ran at 7:00 pm, just before prime time. As its title implies, it was about rescue unit #8 of the Los Angeles Fire Department. Much like the later show Emergency, it showed people accidentally getting into dangerous situations, where Wes Cameron (Jim Davis) and Skip Johnson (Lang Jeffries) would come in to extricate them from near disaster.
The show went into the backstory, showing the events leading to calling the Rescue squad. The issues would be big and sometimes small and Wes and Skip** would come on the scene to save the day. The problems included complications that made simple rescues more difficult.
Two seasons were made, and it remained in syndication for several more years. Jim Davis later went on to play Jock Ewing on Dallas.
*Both channels have changed their call letters.
**Often without backup
Sunday, July 14, 2019
|Toast of London|
Created by Arthur Matthews, Matt Berry
Starring Matt Berry, Robert Bathurst, Doon Mackichan, Harry Peacock, Tim Downie, Shazad Latif, Tracy-Ann Oberman
I’ve discussed Matt Berry before with is bizarre comedy Snuff Box. That was in 2006, and Berry has been keeping busy in British TV. He joined The IT Crowd as a regular, and the show took off. He was also busy with voice work. But among it all was his tour de force series, Toast of London.
Berry plays Steven Toast, an actor who has reached the age where he has trouble getting good roles. He’s helped/hindered by his agent Jane Plough* (Doon Mackichan) who really doesn’t care. There’s also his arch-enemy, Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock), who stands in the way of anything he tries because he resents the fact that Toast is sleeping with his wife (Tracy Ann Oberman).**
Toast gets into strange situations and treats everyone with bombast and cluelessness. A favorite moment of mine was when he was doing voiceover work. He was hired to say one word: “Yes.” The director asks if he needs the script. Toast says of course not and tosses it aside. But when the start rolling the tape, he grabs the script to check it.
The show ran for three seasons and it was announced there’s be a fourth (though it hasn’t appeared). Netflix has it, and, if you like weird comedy, it’s a great place to fine it.
**Mrs. Purchase claims to be a prostitute, but Ray is the only she ever charges.
Sunday, June 23, 2019
|Last Action Hero|
Directed by John McTiernan
Written by Shane Black & David Arnott (screenplay), Zak Penn & Adam Leff (story)
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, F. Murray Abraham, Art Carney, Charles Dance, Tom Noonan, Austin O’Brien, Antony Quinn, Mercedes Ruehl, Ian McKellan, Joan Plowright.
OK, I’ll admit it: I love metafiction – stories that break the fourth wall and where the characters know that they’re in a movie. So I was predisposed to like The Last Action Hero and I wasn’t disappointed, even if the movie did terribly at the box office.
Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) loves movies, especially those with action star Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The friendly projectionist at the theater he spends his days at (Art Carney) gives Danny a magic ticket that transports him into one of Slater’s movies. He hangs round Slater, while trying to tell him about how this is all a movie world: All the women are beautiful, there’s a cartoon cat as a cop, phone numbers begin with 555, Sylvester Stallone starred in Terminator, and Slater’s partner John Practice (F. Murray Abraham) killed Mozart. Of course, Slater doesn’t believe any of this and keeps spouting Hollywood-style one-liners as he goes about his business.
But Slater’s arch enemy, Benedict (Charles Dance) starts to believe and transfers to the real world, where he realizes that he can actually get away with murder. Slater and Danny have to find him.
Schwarzenegger has always had a good comic presence, and he plays Jack completely over the top, a parody of every action hero ever created. He’s clearly loving the role.
As the cast list indicates, there is a long list of big name cameos in the movie.
So why did it flop?
First of all, the production was rushed to be released on a certain date. Scenes shot after the test screening were rushed into the film, so didn’t look good. Also, the marketing* was confusing. The trailer showed Slater/Schwarzenegger as Hamlet (as an action hero). It’s funny, but doesn’t really get across the message. Then the trailer concentrated on the action, not the humor, and, sadly many people did not get that the scenes were deliberately over the top for comic effect.
It also didn’t help that Jurassic Park opened the week before.
The movie seems to be getting a cult following, and probably it would have been better if it didn’t pretend to the a summer blockbuster. But I found it a lot of fun – very funny and with some interesting philosophical ideas.
*Bad marketing can kill even the greatest of films.
Sunday, June 9, 2019
It was one of the most successful short subject series in the history of film. Yet few people these days are familiar with the correct name, even though some of the characters are still a part of popular culture even today.
You probably know it as The Little Rascals, and think of the adventures of Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and Darla. But, other than Spanky, they came on at the tail end of the series, when it was not at its best.
The concept was invented by comedy producer Hal Roach in the silent days. He conceived of a series of films showing kids acting like kids. Direct Robert F. McGowan insisted that the children not look like actors and that they not use makeup* or anything that made them seem like cute Hollywood children. Gags were written, and the kids were allowed to ad lib and act as naturally as possible.
Another innovation (at least in the beginning) was to change the cast as the kids got older. People would be introduced slowly for an episode or two. If there was a positive response from audiences, they continued. If they grew too old for the role, they were gone, often replaced as part of a nationwide talent competition. Thus there was a different cast at any given time.
The scripts were written by some of the best comedy writers of the day, including Leo McCary, Frank Capra, Walter Lantz, and Frank Tashlin. The kids – many of whom were too young to read – were coached on what to say and do, especially in the silent days when you could do it without ruining a take.
The stories were simple, telling about the minor adventures of the kids in the gang. They rambled, and the humor was gentle. the jokes slow paced. But they had a ton of charm, mostly because the kids were so natural.
Despite the turnover, several of the early actors became stars. in their own right. The most successful of these was Jackie Cooper, who left after a couple of years to star in features, and eventually was successful in TV. My favorite Cooper short was when he heard they get a new teacher – Mrs. Crabtree – and decided she was going to be old and mean and decided to play hooky. Of course, Mrs. Crabtree was young and kindly and treated the class to ice cream, which Jackie was going to miss.** A couple of other episodes showed him with a schoolboy crush on her.
In 1932, they added a three-year-old kid who became the face of the franchise: George “Spanky” McFarland. Spanky charmed the crew from his very first audition. Younger than the rest, he was teamed up with Scotty Beckett to be the best and funniest of the Gang.
A favorite moment of that era was in “Birthday Blues,” where Spanky’s parents were always fighting. It’s his mother’s birthday, and he goes out with his brother (Dickie Moore) for a present. Seeing a gun in the window, he says they should get that. His brother asks, “What would she do with a gun?” Spanky replies, “Shoot Papa.”
One aspect of the series was that it always had a Black child as one of the gang: Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison and Alan “Farina” Hoskins in the silent days and Matthew “Stymie” Beard*** and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas when sound came in. Farina was extremely well liked and may have been the most popular Black actor of the silent days (he made the transition to sound and did a few of the early sound films). Of course, any portrayal of Blacks in Hollywood of the era is bound to show cringeworthy moments, but they were usually minor and not mean spirited, and, more importantly, the Black members of Our Gang were always accepted as equals by the rest, one of the few times during the 20s or 30s where you could portray it that way.
But by the mid-30s, things were changing. With Spanky a star, they got away from the concept of recasting when the characters got too old. Luckily, since he started young it was ok for awhile, but there was an incentive to keep him in the role as he got older. Characters were introduced that were basically single jokes. 1935 was a turning point: Gone were Scotty Beckett and Stymie, to be replaced by Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, Darla Hood, Eugene “Porky” Lee, and Buckwheat****. In addition, a new director was brought in: Robert McGowan, who had directed most of the shorts from the beginning, was replaced by Gus Miens.
And something was lost. The stories were shorter and tighter (ten minutes instead of 20) and far more polished. The kids had evolved from Our Gang into child stars.
In 1938, seeing the market for short subjects was contracting, Roach sold Our Gang to MGM, who had been distributing the shorts. It stuck with Spanky and the crew as long as they could, and the characters they added – Froggy, who had a frog-like voice; and Mickey Gubitosi+ – were, at best, one-joke characters. In 1942, Spanky – now thirteen – left the series. It petered out the next year.
It might have been completely forgotten, except that Roach, who kept ownership of the early shorts, saw money in selling them to television. The only problem was that MGM had the rights to the name “Our Gang.” So Roach renamed the series “The Little Rascals” and they became a mainstay for kid’s TV into the 60s.++
220 “Our Gang” Shorts were made, over 125 once sound came in, making it the most prolific of the short subjects of the era.
After their stint as part of Our Gang, some of the kids went on to other roles. In addition to Cooper and Blake, Scotty Beckett, Dickie Moore, and Matthew Beard. Tommy “Butch” Bond was the first actor to portray Jimmy Olson on screen. Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman from the silent days ended up starring in another Roach short subject, The Boy Friends in the 30s. Spanky, alas, was too typecast and could not find much acting work.
But there was also a lot of dark stories from the actors’ later lives – alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide. There is talk of a curse, and though some is coincidence, there was what seemed to be an inordinate number of sad stories and sad ends to the various actors.
Still, from the beginning, Our Gang was a treasure and popular bit of entertainment for over 40 years.
* The only sign of makeup was a circle drawn around Pete the Pup (the neighborhood dog), giving him the appearance that Target appropriated
**Edna Krabappel from The Simpsons was named in homage.
***He was always a favorite of mine, with his shaven head and bowler hat (given to him by Roach star Stan Laurel). He also was shown as the clever guy of the gang, though sometimes too clever for his own good. He often got the best lines.
****Buckwheat was added a year earlier as Stymie’s younger sister. No, that’s not a typo.
+Who changed his name to Robert Blake and found stardom and, eventually, infamy.
++The series was always billed as “Our Gang,” but some titles would say “with Hal Roach’s Rascals,” hence the name.
Sunday, June 2, 2019
In the 60s and 70s, I loved visiting New York City. I’d wander through the streets, going to museums and generally just enjoying the atmosphere. Once, I remember spotting a strange figure: a man wearing a horned helmet and long cloak and carrying a spear. Since I was working at my radio station, where we got plenty of LPs and music news, I immediate realized who it was: Moondog.
He was born as Louis Thomas Hardin and developed an early interest in music. When he lost his sight at age 16, he still continued his studies and moved to New York in 1943, befriending some legendary classical and jazz performers, and becoming a street musician. He had an apartment, but he spent his days on a corner on Sixth Avenue, supporting himself by busking and selling pamphlets of poetry and his philosophy of music.
His songs gained the attention of his musician friends and he started to record in 1953. The albums were on small labels and did not make a big splash, but in 1969, superstar producer James William Guercio* decided to record him the way he deserved to be heard. The album, Moondog, brought him to the attention of as (somewhat) wider audience.
Moondog’s music was not a bunch of simple tunes. He ranged widely from classical to jazz, inspired by the sounds of the city. The melodies build and intertwine in sophisticated ways. The first album was completely instrumental, but definitely fine music.
The album garnered critical success, though was only a modest success. Still, a second album was put out featuring vocal tracks by his daughter, June Hardin.
Moondog was primarily a composer, but he did play music, usually on several instruments he invented himself.
Though never a star, Moondog was well regarded by other musicians, who occasionally would record his work or make mention of him in their own. His biggest connect to rock music was a successful lawsuit against Alan Freed, who called his early rock and roll radio show “Moondog Matinee” and played one of Moondog’s early compositions as his theme song. Freed lost and had to stop using the name.
He moved to Germany in 1974 and continued to compose until his death in 1999.
*Best known as the producer for Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears
Sunday, May 12, 2019
Directed by Gregory La Cava
Written by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller, from a play by George M. Kaufman and Edna Ferber
Starring Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou, Gail Patrick, Andrea Leeds, Lucille Ball, Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton, Jack Carson, Ann Miller
Though she is rightfully regarded as one of the great of the classic film era, Katherine Hepburn’s career was not a simple path. In the late 30s, she made a series of flops and disappointments, which led Hollywood to label her as box office poison.* But these are not all bad movies, and Stage Door shows her at her best.
The movie shows the lives of a group of aspiring actresses living in a theatrical boarding house in New York and hoping for their big break. The residents include Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers), a wisecracking and cynical dancer: Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick), who is working because of her relationship with the theatrical producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou): and Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds), who has tasted success, but now is struggling.
Into this group, comes Terry Randall (Katherine Hepburn), who clearly comes from wealth, and who is strong and unflappable. Rooming with Jean, she wisecracks right back, but the people in the house don’t warm to her.
The plot involves auditions, wisecracks and melodrama, all portrayed by some very talented actors. This is one of the few times that Lucille Ball was actually given something comic to do during the 30s, and she’s wonderful. Eve Arden also has a nice presence as Eve, who wanders around the living room of the boarding house with a cat hanging around her neck. There’s also Ann Miller** and character actors Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton, and Jack Carson.
The film is based upon a play by George S. Kaufman, and the script had major alterations. Part of it was probably because Terry on stage did not fit with the image of Hepburn. In addition, the script included ad libs and business taken from the interactions of the actresses when they were not being filmed.
The film was a moderate success, but some even said it would have been a bigger one if Hepburn wasn’t in it.
verall, an entertaining and, though melodramatic in part, a reasonable portrayal of the life of actresses starting out.
*Ironically, she was labeled this after making Bringing Up Babe, now considered one of the best screwball comedies ever. Hepburn’s independent attitude also didn’t help in the era of the studio system.
**One of the delights of the film is realizing that there is a dance number featuring two of Fred Astaire’s dancing together. Alas, La Cava shoots the scene without showing their feet!
Sunday, April 28, 2019
Written and Directed by Orson Welles
Starring Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Don Dillaway
Orson Welles’s entry into filmmaking was spectacular: Citizen Kane still is at the top of lists of the best film of all time, and, despite the efforts of William Randolph Hurst to quash it*, the film did make a small profit. Welles had signed a two-picture deal, and he went to work on his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons.
It starts in the late 19th century, where a young Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton) is courting Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello). The Ambersons are atop the town’s social pyramid, and when Eugene does something that embarrasses Isabel, she impulsively accepts the proposal from the bland Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway). Eugene, heartbroken, leaves town. Wilbur and Isabel have a son, George (Tim Holt) who grows up spoiled and used to getting his own way, since he is, after all, an Amberson. But when George returns from college, he finds that Eugene, now a widower with a daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), is back in town. George takes an instant liking to Lucy, and an instant dislike to Eugene, which is exacerbated when it becomes clear that sparks are flying between him and Isabel. When George’s father dies, the long-ago romance is rekindled, and George won’t stand for it.
The movie is a classic tragedy, where George’s hubris leads to his downfall (or comeuppance, and the movie calls it). Holt manages the transition from a spoiled brat to a man to be pitied effortlessly. Cotton is the soothing presence that was his hallmark.
The revelation of the film, though, is Agnes Moorehead** as George’s Aunt Fanny. She is great in every scene she is in: intense, sad, and with eyes full of emotion. Moorhead was one of the best actresses in Hollywood, but he was rarely given roles to showcase her talent because she was not “Hollywood beautiful.” This was clearly a role that gave her a chance to show how good she could be.
Welles finished the film and then made a fatal error: he went down to South America to film another movie, letting the studio to do the final edits.
The studio hated the film. The original ending was downbeat and tested badly with audiences.*** The studio took the film, cut 40 minutes, and added a happier ending. Welles had given up his right of a final cut, and was not consulted at all; indeed, it seems they actively ignored any attempts by Welles to even make suggestions. The footage has been lost.
I can see how it hurt the film: the ending now seems pretty tacked on. Though, to be fair, as a business decision, it’s hard to fault it: a tragedy was not going to be a success given the mood of the time. Ultimately, it flopped anyway.
Even with the tampering, much of Welles’s vision remains, and the movie shows a master filmmaker in action.
*Hearst wasn’t bothered by the connection between and him and Kane as much as he was upset by the portrayal of Susan Alexander Kane. There were enough parallels to that story to make people believe that Susan was based on Hearst’s Mistress Marion Davies. Davies was a talented actress (if anything, her connection with Hearst hurt her career) while Susan was untalented. Hearst feared – quite rightly as it turned out – that the portrayal would make people think Davies had no talent, too.
**At the time I saw the film, I only knew her as Samantha’s mother Endora in Bewitched. The credits for the sitcom indicated that she was some sort of star (her credit line not only named her character, but filled up the entire screen), but I didn’t know why.
***It tested just after Pearl Harbor to an audience of a teen comedy, so no one liked the downbeat ending.
Sunday, April 21, 2019
Written by and Starring Matt Berry, Rich Fulcher
One nice thing about streaming video is that you can find some obscure shows that would never make it to the US. Snuff Box was one of these, a short-run sitcom with a dark and very weird sense of humor.
The show follows creators Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher. Matt is a hangman and Rich is his assistant. Yes, they carry out executions and afterwards retire to the Hangman’s Club, where they socialize together and with others. Matt thinks himself a ladies man, while Rich is a bit more naïve.
But that really doesn’t describe the show. It’s more like a series of skits (sometimes tied together with a slight story line) than a sitcom.The jokes are dark (the phone where the governor would call to get a reprieve rings, only it’s Rich’s sister wishing him a happy birthday), obscene, violent, surreal, and filled with non sequitur humor and embarrassing moments. It is a bit hit-or-miss, and certainly not for everyone, but at it’s best it’s bizarrely funny.
Berry and Fulcher started working together on The Mighty Boosh, which I haven’t seen, but seems to have been a proving ground for 21st century UK comic actors. They both manage to make the broad acting required for the show appealing.
The show was not a big success. Its raunchy language had it programmed late in the evening to indifferent ratings. Only six episodes were aired and a second season was never ordered. Eventually, though, word of mouth brought forth a DVD release, and it is available on a couple of streaming services now.
Sunday, April 14, 2019
Written by Charlotte Bingham & Terence Brady
Starring John Alderton, Pauline Collins
Back in the early 70s, PBS* would fill their Saturday evenings with UK Sitcoms. Some, like Fawlty Towers, were classic. Others, like Are You Being Served were extremely popular (for some reason). But others were forgotten. No, Honestly is one of the good ones, and is definitely forgotten.
It’s basically the history of the romance and marriage of Charles “C.D.” Danby (John Alderton) and his wife Clara (Pauline Collins). Each show would begin with the two of them addressing the audience, introducing themselves and various incidents in their relationship in their earlier years.** Then, we’d be shown the incident in a long flashback, before returning to the older version of themselves to wrap up the show.
C.D. was an aspiring actor with a quick wit and a clear affection for Clara almost at their first meeting.*** Clara was a little bit ditzy, with a tendency to say things that seemed like nonsense until she explained it.
The pair was very reminiscent of Burns and Allen, though without the Vaudeville trappings. Alderton did have some of Burns’s dry humor and Collins was a more grounded version of Gracie. The show acknowledged the debt by having Alderson end the show by saying “Say goodnight, Clara.”
The stories involved issues of the usual bumps in a relationship. A favorite of mine was when he went to meet Clara’s parents after discovering he was a Lord. He was terribly intimidated by the imposing figure but did manage to bond a bit with the Lordship’s gardener. Of course, the imposing figure was the family butler, and the gardener was his Lordship himself, but the mistaken identity was handled with charm and a lack of embarrassment for embarrassment's sake.
The writing team of Charlotte Bingham & Terence Brady were married, too, which helped with the rapport between the characters. And the show’s theme song became a big hit in the UK for Lydsey De Paul.
Collin was especially charming in the role. She had previously gained notice in Upstairs Downstairs and has continued acting, most notably in the movie version of the play Shirley Valentine, which got her an Oscar nomination.
Alderton also was on Upstairs, Downstairs and continued working in British TV afterwards. The show was a lovely portrayal of what a marriage should look like.
*At least in my area
**C.J. and Clara were portrayed as being married ten years when they started talking about the early days.
***Alderton and Collins were married – they still are – so a lot of the affection was real.
Sunday, March 31, 2019
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Robert Altman and Brian McKay, from a novel by Edmund Naughton
Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane, John Schuck, Shelly Duvall, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Antony Holland, Hugh Millais
I’ve talked before about my admiration for director Robert Altman, one of the greatest film directors of the 20th century. Altman had a specific style, most notably by his use of overlapping dialogue where you felt your were overhearing random conversations. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is one more of his masterpieces, and bleak and uncompromising western.
It set in the town of Presbyterian Church in 1902, a mini
ng town in the Pacific Northwest, where McCabe (Warren Beatty) shows up. McCabe is a gambler and a hustler, with the reputation of being a quick gun, and decides that he’s going to set himself up running a bordello. But it’s clearly not something he knows what to do, so Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) – an experienced prostitute – cuts herself in and becomes his partner.
With her help, the whorehouse becomes a success, so much so that the mining company takes notice and tries to buy him out. But McCabe makes the mistake of trying to squeeze them too much and the company decides to go to strongarm tactics.
This is not a cheery movie in any respect. It’s tragedy, in that McCabe falls victim to his own hubris, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. Even the scenes all seem to take place in the rain and darkness.
Beatty is excellent in the role as a man who’s not as smart as he thinks he is, even when it’s obvious he’s in over his head. Julie Christie got an Oscar nomination for her no-nonsense madam, who is certainly attracted to McCabe, but who want to keep their love life as strictly business. Altman’s first two successes did not have big name stars (though many became big names because of him), but he wanted Beatty and Christie in the movie because he wanted the audience to understand that the characters they played were larger than life.
Altman was already developing his stock company of actors, and several showed up from his previous film Brewster McCloud, notably Rene Auberjonois, as the slimy saloonkeeper Sheehan.
But the revelation was Hugh Millais, playing a man who came to Presbyterian Church “to hunt bear.” This was his first role, and he makes a memorable impression, a figure of hulking danger who reduces McCabe to a whining child with a few short words.
Like most Altman movies, this did poorly in the box office, and the downbeat message and ugly view of the American west was too far from what people had expected, but is very influential today.*
*The soundtrack was mostly ambient sounds, but with songs by Leonard Cohen
Saturday, March 23, 2019
Created by Ralph Smart
Starring Patrick McGoohan
The idea of a TV show about a secret agent was still new in 1960 when Ralph Smart decided to base a series on it. The result, Danger Man, had a long reach in popular culture.
It was the story of John Drake (Patrick McGoohan), an American secret agent who was affiliated with an organization that was strongly hinted at as being NATO. Drake was sent to crisis points, going from one mission to another with an ironic sense of humor and using his wits to get out of trouble.
The show made McGoohan a star. Drake was resourceful, witty, and smart enough to come up with ways to thwart even the cleverest of villains. He in some ways defined the secret agent in the 60s* – but also was quite different. He didn’t use a gun, and was had no time for seducing women.
The show was often shot on location, adding verisimilitude to the proceedings.
McGoohan became a star playing the role, but not in the US. Though US networks were still open to running UK shows, and CBS did broadcast it as a summer replacement, it was barely a blip on US TV. The show stopped production after two years.
It would have been the end of it, but James Bond happened and suddenly spies were big. Ralph Smart retooled the show, stretching it from a half-hour to an hour, Drake became English, and the title was changed to Secret Agent. It was soon picked up by CBS, and, helped by a memorable theme song, because a success in the US, running three seasons before McGoohan tied of the role.**
McGoohan then created his own piece of TV history – The Prisoner, about a secret agent who resigned his job. Though McGoohan denied any connection, people tended to think of the show as an extension of Secret Agent. There are many connections and coincidences that make it a viable theory, however.***
Due to the fact that it’s a half hour show shot in black and white, Danger Man has had only spotty reruns. The first season is currently on Shoutfactorytv.com, so you can give it a look there.
*He was considered for the role of James Bond in Doctor No, though it was doubtful he would have taken it.
**It was replaced by Mission: Impossible.
***Most interesting is the fact that Danger Man shot an episode in the Hotel Portmeirion in Wales, the location for The Prisoner. Also, one episode of Danger Man was titled “The Prisoner,” though that referred to someone else.
Sunday, March 10, 2019
One artifact of the music business is the contractual obligation album, where an artist has to produce music for a record company after leaving it. If the breakup was ugly, the musician doesn’t want to have the record company making money from him, so they have to deal with it. The most infamous case was Van Morrison, who improvised 31 ridiculously short (and deliberately awful) songs in one day at the studio.*
The Four Seasons were caught in the same bind when their original label, Vee-Jay stopped paying royalties. After a lawsuit, they moved on, but Vee-Jay wanted a final album. The result was The Four Seasons Live on Stage.
Despite its name, it is not a live album. It’s recorded entirely in a studio with live audience reactions added – applause, cheering, and everything. There even was banter between songs, to appreciative reactions. It’s actually pretty well done in that respect.
The rest, however, is not what fans would have expected. It contained none of their hits, and was not in their signature sound. Most of it are reworkings of classic 50s lounge songs, probably the type of songs they performed when they were starting out. The titles show this: “Blues in the Night,” “Just in Time,” “Mack the Knife,” and “Brotherhood of Man” from How to Succeed in Business are the best known these days.
If you’re expecting the Four Seasons, you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you listen not expecting them, the album is quite good. The Jersey Boys don’t give the songs short shrift and give enthusiastic performances and actually sell not only the songs but the pretend concert. It’s very Sinatra influenced and has a jazzy vibe that is unusual for the group.
The album done, the group was free to move to Phillips Records.** Vee-Jay released and almost immediately folded, so it got very poor distribution and was quickly forgotten.
Still, it’s an interesting curiosity.
Note: If you listen to it on Spotify, beware. The tracks are mislabeled. The three-song medley on Track Six is spread across tracks 6-8 and the titles of track 9-11 are really two songs behind their titles – and the final two songs are omitted.
*I’ve written about John Sebastian’s issue with his record company before
**Vee-Jan introduced the Beatles in the US, but couldn’t handle the demand and started shorting all their artists. And if you can’t make money selling records by the Beatles and the Four Seasons, you’re probably not going to survive.
Sunday, March 3, 2019
(A version of this originally appeared in Tangentonline.com)
Science fiction started out as a male abode; the names of early SF writers shows this clearly. While there were women writing in the genre from early on, the numbers were swamped by male names. Over time, this changed.
Mildred Clingerman started publishing in 1952 with “Minister Without Portfolio,” in Fantasy and Science Fiction and appeared there three times that year alone. She quickly became a regular contributor to F&SF and was often chosen to appear in their years Best of … anthology. She was clearly one of the top women writing SF in the era.
Quite a few of her works were anthologized. Not counting single-author anthologies, it looks like 14 of her 19 stories were collected in books. That’s an amazing percentage.
So how do the stories hold up? Actually fairly well. Some of the social conventions are dated -- the women generally don't work outside the home -- and the stories stick to the assumptions of their time. But the characters are richly drawn, even in the lightest of tales, and the stories run the gamut from science fiction to fantasy to horror. It's a different, quieter voice of science fiction, subtly played and strong on character instead of plot. In many ways they’re a precursor to modern SF.
Particularly memorable stories were the subtle but horrifying "The Gay Deceiver," the ironic "Letters from Laura," and the combination of the two in "Stickney and the Critic."
It's easy to see why the stories were so well received at the time. And how she was an important voice in SF short fiction.
Sunday, February 17, 2019
By Frank L. Packard
Superheroes didn’t come into being in a vacuum. The tropes of the genre slowly evolved long before comics were invented. I’ve talked about the Scarlet Pimpernel, who was probably the first time a hero took on on a secret identity and much else. But I recently discovered another source, one that further refined the tropes that showed up in the early superhero comics: The Adventures of Jimmie Dale.
Jimmie Dale is a wealthy man-about-New-York, heir to his father’s fortune made from the development of office safes. But, Jimmie (as you’ve guessed) isn’t just a rich playboy. He also masquerades at the Grey Seal, the slickest thief in New York, known for emptying safes (usually from his father’s company) and leaving a gray sticker to mark his passage. The Grey Seal takes his orders from a mysterious woman, who sends him information on what to steal, and the crime hides that fact that he is actually helping others out: his real objective isn’t the flashy item he stole, but often something small and innocuous that saves someone from ruin.
Packard invented or expanded on may tropes of the superhero. Dale is probably the first superhero character to wear a mask.* He also had a special sanctum, in this case a cheap room on the Bowery that he rents in a second alter ego: the dope fiend Larry the Bat.
The first novel is a series of adventures where the Grey Seal returns after a hiatus as his mysterious mentor tells him what he need to do. One story invents the common trope of a superhero protecting his identity, as one of the woman’s letters is stolen along with Jimmie’s purse. The stories are cleverly plotted, though sometimes they don’t play fair according to how stories are supposed to to now.
The series first appeared in magazines and then was collected into books between their introduction and 1935. A silent serial was made in 1917, now lost.
Author Frank L. Packard had written several successful mysteries before Jimmy Dale, and continued to put out books throughout the 20s and 30s.
It’s certainly likely that Bob Kane and Bill Finger knew about Jimmie Dale when they created Batman in 1939 and with a major character named “Larry the Bat,” you kind of wonder how much of an influence it is. I’d never come across Jimmie Dale in reading about the history of comics. Bob Kane never seemed to mention it, though Kane was well-known for downplaying influences. One point is that the Grey Seal had a small domino mask which he could keep in his pocket and Kane’s original concept of Batman used the same mask. Probably a coincidence, but It would seem likely he knew about Jimmie Dale, since he was still appearing in adventures in Kane’s teen years.
In any case, the books faded from the popular culture mindset in the 30s. The comic books preferred to create new characters and as time went by, Jimmie Dale and the Grey Seal were forgotten. The stories are still first-class adventures, though, and work seeking out.
* Zorro showed up five years later.
Sunday, February 10, 2019
(c1960 – c1974)
One trend in the rock era of the 60s was the creation of vanity record labels. These were record companies* created primarily for a single artist, allowing them to keep more creative control of their work. The trend took off when the Beatles founded Apple records, and other major groups of the 70s had their own label. Generally, they also included other artists, most of whom never caught on.
The labels handled the recording side, but distribution was usually still held by an established record company. This post will talk about some of the better-known groups who had time.
Reprise Records – probably the first. It was founded by Frank Sinatra in 1960. Frank was big enough then to set it up, and he signed many of his friends. Eventually, Warner Brothers bought them and Reprise was a major label into the mid-70s.
A&M Records – something of an exception. The company was founded by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss in order to release Alpert’s single, “The Lonely Bull.” The song was a major hit, and Alpert’s Tijuana Brass – a group of studio musicians backing him – was one of the best selling acts of the early 60s. The company branched out and eventually became a major label itself.
Apple Records – The one that really started the trend. The Beatles wanted control of their records and used their clout to get Capitol/EMI to give them their own company. The group also signed other acts, most notably Mary Hopkin, Badfinger, Billy Preston, and James Taylor.**
Once the Beatles broke through, others began to follow.
- Rolling Stones Records
- Threshold Records (Moody Blues)
- Bizarre Records/Straight Records (both by Frank Zappa). Zappa originally wanted to use Bizarre for his less mainstream acts, and Straight for more popular groups. For various reasons, the avant garde (notably Captain Beefheart) acts ended up being released on Straight Records, with Bizarre leaning toward releases from Zappa and the Mothers.
- DiskReet (also Zappa)
- Brother Records (The Beach Boys)
- Grunt Records (Jefferson Airplane)
- Swan Song Records (Led Zeppelin)
- Ode Records/Ode 70 Records – these were two labels run by producer Lou Adler. Ode was distributed by Columbia/Epic. Adler switched distributors to A&M in 1970 and the name was changed to Ode 70, which released Carole King’s multiplatinum Tapestry as well as albums by Cheech and Chong. While he was still at Columbia/Epic, he signed Spirit
- Grateful Dead Records – One of the few to try to handle distribution themselves (at least at first). They had problems because, unlike all other record companies, their albums weren’t fully returnable by record stores.***
The trend faded out in the mid-70s. The issue was that the artists were not really treated like equals: it was a title change, and they could record what they wanted instead of having the record company direct them. But full control was rare and the original wave of vanity record companies faded out by 1974.****
*Usually a subsidiary of an established company.
**Taylor, of course, was their greatest long-term success, but that was after he moved on. He recorded one album for them, but ended up recording for Warner Brothers, which released Sweet Baby James, the foundation of his career.
***All records and (later) CDs in stores were fully returnable for credit, a practice also common for bookstores. This allowed the stores to try new artists risk-free. There were a few exceptions: The Concert for Bangladesh was only 90% returnable: if you got ten copies, you could only return 9 for credit. Since it was a one-time thing, and the album sold well (and won a Grammy), it wasn’t a deal killer, but the Dead originally wanted 0% returnable, though they quickly ended that policy.
****They started cropping up again in the 90s.
Sunday, January 27, 2019
Written and Directed by Neil Jordan
Starring Liam Neeson, Aiden Quinn, Julia Roberts, Alan Rickman
Liam Neeson is nowadays most strongly identified with his hard-ass character from Taken, but earlier in his career, the took a lot of prestige roles, and one of his better ones was in the biography, Michael Collins.
Neeson plays the title character, an Irish revolutionary who was instrumental in establishing the Irish Free State. It’s a flashback, starting with the news of his death coming to his fiancée, Kitty (Julia Roberts) Working with his colleagues Harry Boland (Aiden Quinn) and Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman), Collins masterminds a campaign to force the British to give Ireland its independence. But he get almost as much trouble from his allies in the IRA, who disagree with his ideas of how to go about it and with what he accomplished.
Though there are some historical glosses for dramatic purposes, the film is one of the better portrayals of the fight for independence. It was a major hit at the time, but this sort of biopic has lost some of its luster and seems to have been overlooked.