Friday, May 29, 2009

Hank (TV)

Executive Producer
William T. Orr
Starring Dick Kallman, Linda Foster, Howard St. John, Lloyd Corrigan, Katie Sweet.

With a new show of this name set to premiere in the fall, it's time to remember the original, a funny and short-lived comedy starring the talented Dick Kallman.

Hank and a prop from Dobie GillisThe basic setup was far from ordinary.  Hank Dearborn (Kallman) was a young man with a dream to attend college.  But after the death of his parents, he could not afford it.  In the days where student loans were not the norm, he hit upon a plan:  he would "attend" the classes without enrolling and go through college that way.* 

Hank's attempts to get a free degree did not go unnoticed by the registrar, Dr. Lewis Royal (Howard St. John), who knew someone was attending classes without paying, but never could catch or even find him (Hank impersonated legitimate students who were out of class when roll calls were required).

Which was lucky for Hank, since his girlfriend Doris Royal (Linda Foster) was the registrar's daughter. So Hank had to juggle his job, his classes, his love life, and the care of his younger sister Doris (Katie Sweet).

The show was a genial comedy that saw Hank trying to avoid the snags that would take all his plans down.  Hank would often get into trouble by showing his athletic prowess, causing coach Ossie Weiss (Dabs Greer) to want to put him on the team.

It was all held together by the talent of Kallman, who had worked on Broadway and even recorded an album or two.

Unfortunately, it did poorly in the ratings and was canceled after one season.  Kallman never got a major role afterwards (his biggest TV role was as one of Catwoman's henchmen on Batman), and eventually left acting in 1975 to sell antiques. Sadly, he was murdered in 1980 during a robbery.

The show was certainly not a comedy classic, but it was a better than average show from the time with an appealing cast.


*Don't point out the flaws.  I work at a college and know he couldn't get an actual degree this way.  But go with it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers (1973)
Directed by
Richard Lester
Written by George Macdonald Fraser from the novel by Alexander Dumas, père.
Starring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Frank Finlay, Raquel Welch, Faye Dunaway, Charton Heston, Christopher Lee, Geraldine Chaplin, Spike Mulligan
IMDB Entry

When you think great directors, Richard Lester rarely comes to mind. Yet his influence on modern film is probably greater than any other (for better or for worse).

Lester was born in Philadelphia, but moved to the UK, where he started directing and producing TV shows in the 1950s. He broke into films with a short, The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film, starring Peter Sellers and other from The Goon Show, which ended up with an Oscar nomination.  He then moved to features and was entrusted with The Mouse on the Moon.  But his career really took off when he was hired to do a quickie film to cash in on the popularity of a group of musicians before they were forgotten.  A Hard Day's Night was a smash, and Lester was on the top of the heap.* Critics noted one idiosyncrasy to his style:  he favored quick cuts within a scene instead of following the actors.  Nowadays, of course, you can't find a popular film that doesn't use this technique, but back in the early 60s, it was groundbreaking.**

Lester continued with kinetic comedies like Help and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. But he tried creating films that didn't fit into commercial expectation. How I Won the War had mixed success, while Petulia was a critical hit. But Lester's next film, The Bed-Sitting Room -- a post-apocalypse absurdist comedy -- was a critical and commercial flop and Lester went several years looking for work until he finally hooked up with Alexander Salkind to to an all-star remake of a beloved classic, The Three Musketeers.

You know the basic story:  D'Artagnan (Michael York) meets up with three of the King's musketeers -- Athos (Oliver Reed), Porthos (Frank Finlay) and Aramis (Richard Chamberlain). They get involved in thwarting a plot by Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston), aided by Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway) to discredit the queen (Geraldine Page).

Of course, Lester's background was in comedy, not adventure. But he manages to combine the two. George Macdonald Fraser (author of the Flashman novels) knew a thing about putting together humor and derring-do, and the result is consistently entertaining.  Fraser was smart enough to stick closely to Dumas's story and just fill it in with humor.

The Musketeers prepare Special credit is due to William Hobbs, who staged the swordfights. They were  a major departure from older fight scenes, with their genteel and closely choreographed fighting of two people trying to hit the other guy's sword and not his opponent.  Hobbs made these into fights.  There were no rules, and you got the impression that the people involved were really working to defeat the other guy. One fight was set in a courtyard full of drying laundry and the hanging clothes were as much a part of the fight as the characters.

The sets and costumes were also wonderful.  One little touch I remember fondly is that it showed the Musketeers with muskets, something that makes you say "of course," but never seems to come up in other films of the story.

All the actors were fine in their roles, but an especial note goes to Raquel Welch as Constance, D'Artagnan's lover. Raquel was (and still is) pretty much a joke as an actress, but the role is one of her best and she is quite good.  Spike Mulligan also has a small role as her husband.***

Lester realized that the film of the entire book would run too long, so he cut it into two pieces and released The Four Musketeers the next year.  The actors weren't happy to have made two movies and only getting paid for one, so they sued.  Luckily, they were able to settle.  The Four Musketeers kept the style, but was less successful, probably because it picked up in the middle -- and the big setpieces of the story were in the first half.

But it revitalized Lester's career.  He went on to direct films like Robin and Marian and The Ritz, along with blockbusters like Superman II and Superman III.  After a few flops, though, he managed to get together most of the cast of his Musketeers film for The Return of the Musketeers. After this, he retired (though he did direct a concert film for Paul McCartney).

Lester's career was long, but with a relatively low number of films, and he has been suffering from critical neglect. Few people give him credit for A Hard Day's Night (and it's clear that the Beatles were the ones running the movie), and many of his films are fairly obscure. I was actually surprised to have three of his films on my list.  But I think he was a first-class talent who just never gets his due.


*The popular music act did pretty well, too.

**It had been done previously, of course; I've come to believe that nearly all breakthroughs in film have antecedents that just didn't catch on.  Years later, MTV honored Lester as the founder of the music video (for A Hard Day's Night) and the entire music video style. Lester, ironically, didn't really like to be remembered for that particular style.

***This was France, after all, where at one point the king's mistress had to marry a nobleman so the king could present her at court.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Americans (TV)

Darryl Hickman and Richard Davalos
IMDB Entry

Darryl Hickman and Richard Davalos While the TV western was a staple of the 1950s and 1960s, the time period immediately preceding the west* -- the Civil War -- got little attention.  But, when the 100th anniversary of the war rolled around in 1961, NBC** decided the time was ripe for a TV series set in that time period.  So they picked up a show based on a series of stories in The Saturday Evening Post and The Americans was born.

The concept was a good one:  the Canfield brothers, Ben (Darryl Hickman) and Jeff (Richard Davalos) live in Harper's Ferry, Virginia when the war starts.  Older brother Ben runs off to join the Union forces, while Jeff thinks loyalty to Virginia is more important and joins the Confederates. The show alternated between the two, one showing Ben's adventures with the North, the next showing what was going on with Jeff and the South. Occasionally, they both appeared (as in the episode "The War Between the States," a lighter show*** where characters from individual states argue with each other for reasons not related to the war).

The show concentrated on their individual lives in the army, with battles occurring from time to time.  One of them seems to be the Battle of Ball's Bluff -- well known to Civil War buffs, but not one of the major battles of the war.

The show did suffer from the timidity of TV executives of the day. They wanted the character of Jeff so viewers in the South would watch (though the obvious conflict with the brother vs. brother theme made for good drama). And, of course, the issue of slavery was kept in the background. I don't believe the Canfields owned slaves, which would have made things a bit difficult to defend.

Darryl Hickman has been a very successful child actor who made the transition to an adult actor.  If the name is vaguely familiar, it's likely because you're probably thinking of his brother, Dwayne, who became a major early TV star on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.  Dichard Davalos had had minor parts in TV and a few movies.

The show wasn't a big hit.  It was criticized for being too violent, and quite possibly southern viewers looked elsewhere. And, of course, the racial issues of the war were not discussed for fear of alienating viewers.

The show only ran from January until May and then canceled. Davalos and Hickman continued with TV work, though they were never stars, and Hickman was even more overshadowed by his brother.

But as a kid whose interest in history was ignited by visiting Gettysburg, the show was required viewing -- and pretty good overall.


* The Hollywood West, of course, which could be any time from about 1865 (F Troop) to as late as 1912 (Nichols).

**In researching, I was surprised to discover I could even watch NBC at this point; the nearest NBC station was UHF and I hadn't realized we got a UHF tuner so early. It also precluded being able to talk with friends about the show, because they couldn't get it (my father sold TVs, so got the tuner).

***Many dramatic shows in the 60s had comic episodes (think "The Trouble With Tribbles" on Star Trek) in among the more serious ones. Now comedy is used to lighten the drama, and an entire lighthearted show is rare on a drama series.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

First Rush (comedy)

First Rush (1972)
by Chris Rush

Back in the early 60s, comedy albums were big. People would go to parties not expecting to hear music, but, instead, the host would put on a comedy record for everyone.  And comedians loved to cash in, since it was a great way to reach a larger audience for an extended act.  Most TV shows only gave you five minutes or so; a record could be 40 minutes, allowing you to build into a full routine.  For a time, comedy albums actually topped the album charts.

The popularity faded away, but up through the 70s, record companies continued to put out new talent to try to hit the jackpot. And the funniest record I ever heard was First Rush by Chris Rush.

Rush was a former National Lampoon writer* who went into stand up. His act was dirty mouthed, though not with much preoccupation with sex. But he had a unique comedy style.  Nearly all comedians use the form of setup-punchline-setup-punchline, alternating between setting up the joke and then telling going with the punchline.  Some use a double punchline -- a topper to the joke following immediately afterwards.

Chris Rush told his jokes in the format setup-punchline-punchline-punchline-PUNCHLINE, with each punchline funnier than the next. You'd barely have time to laugh at the first before he hits you with another.  You end up developing "laugh face,"** where your cheeks and jaws end up hurting from all the laughs.

The subjects were kind of a mixture of George Carlin and Lennie Bruce***  He observes things about life at the time, with hilarious results.  My favorite was "Abie's Magic Hat," more a single joke than a routine, but one that nails the absurdity of some religious practices.  "Jesus in a Dope Bust" was also fairly well known, based on the concept that Jesus hung out with the type of people who would be considered hippies in the 60s.

The album is long unavailable and doesn't seem to have made the transition to CD.  Rush continued as a comedian, even putting out a few CDs, but never became a major star. First Rush's drug references date it a bit, but it's still as funny as anything you'll hear.


*Well, he was billed as such.  It looks like he only wrote seven articles (several of which ended in "Best of Lampoon" collections, though) in the first year of the magazine, and was not among their major names like Doug Kenny, Henry Beard, Michael O'Donoghue, etc.

**Rush used the term himself on the LP.

***Some critics of the time thought he paled next to Bruce.  I've seen very little of Lenny, but I think they were focusing on Rush's language and not seeing a whole different style of comedy.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (TV)

Produced by
Norman Lear
Starring Louise Lasser, Greg Mullavey, Dody Goodman, Mary Kay Place, Graham Jarvis, Debralee Scott, Dabney Coleman, Philip Bruns, Bruce Solomon, Victor Killian, Martin Mull
Wikipedia Entry

Norman Lear ruled mid-70s TV comedy. His All in the Family and spinoffs were such major hits that he was able to do what he wanted. A few were ratings misfires (like The Hot L Baltimore) but that didn't stop the networks from putting his shows on the air.  And All in the Family seemed to executives to be such a weird concept to be a hit, they were willing to accept weird concepts.

So, in 1976, Lear decided on another direction:  a satirical soap opera, running five days a week, that would parody the genre, as well as anything else that came to mind.  The result was Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

Cast of Mary Hartman The show was set in the fictional Fernwood, Ohio, where Mary (Louise Lasser) lived and loved. Her best friend Loretta Haggers (Mary Kay Place) thought she was going to be the next country music superstar, despite having no noticeable talent.  Mary had issues with her husband (Greg Mullavey), her dippy mother (Dody Goodman) and even her grandfather (Victor Killian*) -- the Fernwood Flasher.

The show had very plot-driven humor.  It thrived on incidents and twists, along with characters that were all bizarre amalgamations of all sorts of soap opera cliches. At five nights a week, it didn't try for big laughs every scene, but handled plenty of small laughs that were referred to in such a way as to make them funnier and funnier as time went on.  Even today, I can't think of International House of Pancakes  or a station wagon full of nuns without smiling.

One favorite scene of mine was when Loretta, who was close to her dream, appeared on the Dinah Shore show, where she commented on how nice a Jewish production assistant was, especially since he "was one of the people who killed Our Lord."  The screen then went to an immediate apology the the part of Dinah Shore that opinions expressed were not those of the show or anyone within six degrees of separation from it.

But that joke indicated some of the show's problems.  First of all, no network was willing to give Lear a half hour a day for one particular show.  Lear produced it and sold it on a station-by-station basis.  At the same time, the controversial nature of the show made it inappropriate for prime time hours, so it was usually shown after the news.**  I was lucky to catch most of the first season because I was working nights at the time, and was alone with the TV after 11:30.

The show was helped by good casting.  Louise Lasser was the best-known member of the case (mostly because she was known as Woody Allen's ex-wife), but quite a few people went on to long successes, including  Mary Kay Place and Dabney Coleman.

Eventually, Louise Lasser tired of the role and moved on, and the show morphed from a soap opera parody, Fernwood 2Nite.

Despite the controversy, the show is not well remembered. First, because of the late time slots and controversial subject matter*** few saw it (though many heard of it).  Also the five-nights-a-week format doesn't lend itself well to DVD repackaging. There are some "Best of" DVDs, but Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was not a show about individual episodes, but rather due to cumulative effect.  It would be very difficult to cut it into manageable chunks without losing what made the show so good.

It would be great if someone could repackage the show correctly, but until then, we can all go down to the International House of Pancakes and have a good meal.


*As a side note, Killian may be the only actor in history who starred in the movie, but whose name was removed from the credits.  It was in something called Unknown World -- something like The Core, but with even worse science.  Killian probably would have been listed atop the credits, but while the film was in post-production, he turned up on the McCarthy blacklist, so the producers decided not to mention the fact he was in the movie.

**At the time, the options for late-night TV were pretty much The Tonight Show or nothing.  Most stations ran their own programming after the news and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman filled this niche.

***Actually, not all that different from the daytime soaps.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Pygmalion (1938)
Directed by
Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard
Screenplay by George Bernard Shaw, from his play
Starring Wendy Hiller, Leslie Howard, Wilfred Lawson, Marie Lohr, Scott Sunderland, David Tree.
IMDB Entry

Sometimes a perfectly good movie is overshadowed by its remake. And when the remake is both a classic of musical theater and film -- a glossy color film that was really at the peak of Hollywood's adaptations of Broadway musicals -- well, your small black and white film with an actress who is no longer well known has little chance.

But Pygmalion deserves better. At the very least, it owns one bit of trivia: it won an Oscar for its screenwriter, George Bernard Shaw.  Yes, that Shaw.

When the film was being conceived, Shaw's reputation was secure as  England's greatest living playwright, with a Nobel Prize to prove it. Naturally, film producers wanted to make movies of his plays, but Shaw was reluctant. Eventually, producer Gabriel Pascal convinced him to give a try, promising Shaw creative control.

Shaw took over, writing the screenplay and insisting that his favorite actress, Wendy Hiller, play the part of Eliza.  Hiller was primarily a stage actress, but one of her roles had been Eliza, and she was a perfect choice.

I don't have to summarize the plot; I'm sure you all know it. Leslie Howard was cast as Henry Higgins, with Wilfred Lawson as Eliza's father.

Henry Higgins puts marbles in Eliiza's mouth.  The movie sticks with Shaw's play (of course)*.  And Hiller is just wonderful as Eliza. What really sticks out is a terrific scene when Eliza is first introduced -- not at the Ascot races, as in My Fair Lady -- but to a small gathering including Freddy Einsford-Hill (David Tree).  Eliza has the diction down perfectly, but has a bit of a problem making small talk.

LIZA [darkly] My aunt died of influenza: so they said.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL [clicks her tongue sympathetically]!!!
LIZA [in the same tragic tone] But it's my belief they done the old woman in.
MRS. HIGGINS [puzzled] Done her in?
LIZA. Y-e-e-e-es, Lord love you! Why should she die of influenza? She come through diphtheria right enough the year before. I saw her with my own eyes. Fairly blue with it, she was. They all thought she was dead; but my father he kept ladling gin down her throat til she came to so sudden that she bit the bowl off the spoon.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL [startled] Dear me!
LIZA [piling up the indictment] What call would a woman with that strength in her have to die of influenza? What become of her new straw hat that should have come to me? Somebody pinched it; and what I say is, them as pinched it done her in.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL. What does doing her in mean?
HIGGINS [hastily] Oh, that's the new small talk. To do a person in means to kill them.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL [to Eliza, horrified] You surely don't believe that your aunt was killed?
LIZA. Do I not! Them she lived with would have killed her for a hat-pin, let alone a hat.

This exchange** is made even funnier by Hiller's delivery as she talks about the dark deeds in the upper class accent that Henry Higgins has worked so hard to develop.  She is absolutely a joy to watch.  And, as a footnote, her line "Not bloody likely!" was the first time that particular epithet was spoken in a film.

The movie was a success, of course.  Hiller was nominated for an Oscar but lost*** and Shaw won.  He spoke disparagingly about the award, but evidently kept it in a place of honor in his home.

Of course, the success of My Fair Lady put Pygmalion in the shadows.****  A full-scale version, in color, with big names obliterated the memory of the original play.

One point was the ending.  Shaw -- an early feminist -- didn't like the idea of Liza ending up with Henry Higgins in the end.  He wrote an ending where walks out on Higgins (with an implication that she might marry Freddy), and what that disappointed audiences looking for a more conventional -- and romantic -- ending, wrote an essay explaining that she married Freddy and was miserable. Even though he had control, the director tacked on a short scene where Eliza came back at the end.  I actually think that today Shaw's ending makes a lot more sense.

In any case, the movie was overshadowed by the glossier Hollywood musical.  That's a shame, since


*As did the musical, for that matter; there is much dialog in Pygmalion that shows up again in My Fair Lady.

**In the play, but not in My Fair Lady.

***She did win a Best Supporting Actress award in 1958 for Separate Tables.

****The musical was originally considered seemed unlikely to be a hit. The idea of turning Shaw -- a playwright of ideas if ever there was one -- into a Broadway show was taking a big chance.  So much so that the producers, looking for money, turned to CBS and asked them to back the show in exchange for the rights to the original cast album for their Columbia Records division. It worked out pretty well, as the album sold for decades and the musical set records.

Monday, May 4, 2009

R. A. Lafferty (author)

Wikipedia Entry

image Even without reading the byline, you could always identify a R.A. Lafferty story. He had one of the most individualistic voices in the genre, and one of the most amazing imaginations. Since his best work was in short stories,* he is slowly fading from consciousness.

Lafferty came to science fiction relatively late (especially for the 1960s, when people were breaking in to print in their early 20s).  His first story was published when he was 40, and he didn't begin to establish himself as a writer until his 50s.  He worked for many years as an electrical engineer and still managed to crank out hundreds of stories, and was a regular in Damon Knight's Orbit anthologies and in the magazines of the time.

His stories were generally tall tales. There was a larger-than-life feel to them, and they were filled with surprises.  Some of my favorites included:

  • Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne.  A fable on the dangers of messing with time.
  • Slow Tuesday Night. A society where everything happens very quickly -- and 15 minutes of fame is a very long time.
  • What Was the Name of That Town?  A search to find something not known to exist by a close study of the absence of evidence.  With a brilliant solution.
  • Continued on Next Rock. A prehistoric romance of a sort.
  • Incased in Ancient Rind. A sad and beautiful tale about pollution and what it brings back.
  • Rainbird. The story of an inventor, and the dangers of going too far.
  • Euremia's Dam.  The real mother of invention.**

Lafferty merged both Irish and Native American storytelling methods and the result was always a delight.

But Lafferty was never a fan favorite.  He did win a Hugo Award for Euremia's Dam," but he got few award nominations and no other wins.  And the changes in science fiction in the 80s and 90s left Lafferty behind.  He still hadn't lost his skill, but readers didn't appreciate his style any more.  His work tended to be published in smaller SF presses to excellent reviews but little exposure.  I remember one year when the Nebula committee begged someone to publish a Lafferty story so that they could recommend it.

Lafferty died in 2002, pretty much unknown to the Star Wars generation.  His work remains in print, but only in limited editions.  You owe it to yourself to pick some of them up.


*He wrote quite a few novels, but most did not live up to his short fiction; the only one I found that came close was his Past Master.

**And nothing to do with Frank Zappa, thank you very much.