Monday, November 30, 2009

Anyone for Tennyson (TV)

Produced by
Nebraska Public Television
Starring Cynthia Herman, Jill Tanner, George Backman and Paul Hecht.
Wikipedia Entry

Back in the mid-70s on our local public TV station, Sunday night was Monty Python night.  The show was broadcast every week at 10:30.  That mean, of course, that you couldn't watch the typical one-hour show broadcast in that slot.  So, without cable, you were pretty much committed to watching PBS.

That's how I discovered Anyone for Tennyson.

The show was based on an idea that only PBS would come up with:  live poetry readings. Each show had a theme, and a group of actors would give a dramatic reading of various poems that fit the theme, often in locations with a connection to it (e.g., Mystic Seaport for poems of the Sea; Gettysburg for Civil War poems, Stratfor-on-Avon for Shakespeare's verse).

I was hooked.  The actor/readers did more than just recite the words; they brought the poetry to life, not only expressing the words, but acting out the emotions of the poems.

Various guest stars would appear to join in, people like Vincent Price, Ruby Dee, Will Geer, Darren McGavin, and LeVar Burton.  They had as much fun with their poems as the regular cast.

The show ran for three seasons and 50 shows.  Some are available on DVD, but I'd love to see the entire run.  It was a delight for anyone who loves poetry and language.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

To Be or Not to Be

To be or not to be (1983)
Directed by
Alan Johnson
Written by Ronnie Graham and Thomas Meehan, based upon the 1942 screenplay by Edwin Justus Meyer, with story by Ernst Lubitsch and Melchior Lengyel,
Starring Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, Christopher Lloyd, Jose Ferrer, Ronnie Graham, Jack Riley
IMDB Entry

The original To Be or Not to Be is something of a minor film classic now, but when it came out in 1942, it didn't do too well. It was Carole Lombarde's last film before her death in a plane crash and its star, Jack Benny, did not catch on in the films and, as a comedian, he joked about how bad his films were. In addition, director Ernst Lubitsch's idea for having a comedy of manners about Hitler in the middle of a war was considered in bad taste, and in worse taste once people discovered what Hitler was like.  But, over the years, the film's reputation grew.  It is a certainly a fine movie, with the touch of a director who believed that, if Hitler had bad manners, it meant he was capable of all sorts of monstrosities.

So when there was news that Alan Johnson, best known as an Emmy-winning choreographer, was directing a remake in 1982, it probably was considered by many to be the worst possible idea.  Why remake a minor classic?  And it's one thing to treat Hitler in a comedy of manners during the war, when we didn't know exactly what was going on in Germany, and quite another to do a light comedy like this now that we did know.

Enter Mel Brooks.

Brooks, of course, is known as a funnyman*. But Brooks had a serious side, even if it didn't show up in his films.  Back in the early 80s, he set up Brooksfilms to do not only comedies, but some serious efforts such as The Elephant Man, Frances, and the remake of The Fly. So Brooks, who clearly had no problems poking fun at Hitler,** agreed to finance and star in the film.  Even better, his wife, Anne Bancroft -- known for serious roles -- agreed to costar.

The film's opening sequence sets the scene nicely, with Frederick and Anna Bronski (Brooks and Bancroft) doing a duet on stage of "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Bronski is a legend in his own mind, a two-bit actor and producer who thinks he's the world's greatest actor. Anna, meanwhile, is busy having an affair with a handsome pilot Andre Sobinski (Tim Matheson) at the same time Bronski is onstage as Hitler, doing a satire on the dictator.

It all changes the next day, as Hitler invade Poland. Bronski works to smuggle out a Polish scientist as well as some local Jews and gays.***

The movie is funny as Bronski uses his Hitler impression to fool the Nazis**** and make the plan work. But there's also a serious subtext; this is more than just jokes.  Lives are at stake and the horror of what the Nazis want to do is a constant thought in the back of our heads.

Brooks is at his best as Bronsky. Johnson manages to keep him from mugging and overacting more than necessary, making it one of his best comic performances.  Bancroft is obviously having fun in his role, and the cast is filled with highly skilled comic actors who bring the whole thing off.*****

Alas, director Alan Johnson's career did not continue to direct.  He work with Brooks and still continued choreography, winning another two Emmies, but despite this promising beginning, he only directed one more film, Solarbabies. Worse, when people do remember this film, they think that Brooks directed.

I think in many ways To Be or Not to Be is Brooks's best role, and shows that maybe he might have been a much funnier screen personality if he let other people direct him.


*I find that Brooks never was as good or important to comedy as his contemporary Woody Allen, and he ultimately fell behind the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker combine, which took Brook's method and turbocharged it.  The only fully satisfying comedy of his was Young Frankenstein (though Blazing Saddles and Silent Movie come close).

**Especially in springtime.

***This is one of Hollywood's first portrayals of homosexuals being part of those sent to the camps.

****It seems clear that Brooks's philosophy on Nazism is simple:  they were fools and if we treat them like fools, people will laugh them away. It may be a better way to discredit them than to constantly say how bad they are; in fiction and elsewhere, one great way to create sympathy is to have people badmouth someone.

***** Of special note is Ronnie Graham, who helped write the screenplay, and also appears in the cast as  the theater manager.  Graham had a long list of writing and guest starring roles (especially in the TV version of M*A*S*H), but is best known to those of a certain age as Mr. Dirt in a commercial for Mobil gasoline.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


image (1973)
Directed by
Howard Zieff
Written by W.D. Richter
Starring  James Caan, Peter Boyle, Sally Kellerman, Louse Lasser, Alan Garfield, Richard B. Shull
IMDB Entry

I've mentioned elsewhere that I'm a fan of director Howard Zieff. Nearly forgotten today, and with a movie career that was much too short, Zieff came on the scene with a love for quirky characters and situations. He first made his mark doing commercials -- both TV and print -- and started a trend to use unusual-looking people instead of the perfect hair and teeth models advertising has used previously.*

Slither was his first film. It's the story of ex-con David Kanipsia, who is having trouble adjusting to life on the outside.  He meets with his ex-cellmate Harry Moss (Richard B. Shull), who is shot while David watches.  Dying, he tells David of $300,000 that he had embezzled with his partner Barry Fenaka* (Peter Boyle) that's David's for the taking.  David then runs into Kitty Kopetzke (Sally Kellerman), who offers him a lift, with a short stop to rob a diner. They find Fenaka and his wife Mary (Louise Lasser), and then head off in Fenaka's RV to find Vincent J. Palmer (Alan Garfield), who has the money for safekeeping.  But soon they are followed by three sinister black RVs, whose intentions are unclear.

The plot is convoluted, but ultimately unimportant.  What makes the film work are series of oddball setpieces -- in a bingo hall, at a vegetable stand, a sales pitch for RVs -- all of which are funny in a low-key way.

The cast is made up of some charming actors.  Caan, fresh from his breakthrough role in The Godfather, gives a fine performance as an absurdist version of Hitchcock's "running man" heroes.  Kellerman puts in her best performance next to M*A*S*H, and, of course Boyle, Lasser, Garfield, and Shull are always delightful to see on the screen.  There's also a fine cast of supporting actors.  Like in his commercials, Zieff loved to film an interesting face, and he fills the movie with them.

The film did well enough to give Zieff a solid start to his career. *** He followed it with the delightful Hearts of the West as well as movies like House Calls, The Main Event, Private Benjaman, and My Girl.  Sadly, he had to retire from filmmaking after doing My Girl 2 in 1994 after developing Parkinson's Disease.  He died in January of 2009.


*His best-known commercial of the time was the brilliant "Spicy meatball" Alka Seltzer commercial as well as their "No Matter What Shape You're Stomach's In," which spawned a hit single.

**The IMDB has "Barry Fenaka," but the original New York Times revies lists it as "Henry Fenaka."  You make the call.

***There was even a short-lived TV show.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

He Walked by Night

Directed by
Alfred Werker, Anthony Mann (uncredited)
Written by Crane Wilber (story), Crane Wilbur and John C. Higgins (screenplay), and Harry Essex (additional dialog)
Starring Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Whit Bissell, James Cardwell, Jack Webb
IMDB Entry

The question every science fiction writer gets from time to time is "Where do you get your ideas?" It's sometimes nice to see something that makes it clear where a creator got his ideas, and that is one of the great things about He Walked by Night.

Jack Webb shows off his lab equipmentThe film was part of the group of postwar semidocumentary police procedurals* -- a short-lived trend in films that tried to portray a realistic view of police work. It's the story of a sociopath (Richard Basehart) who kills a Los Angeles cop and the attempt to track him down.  The killer is clever and careful, leaving no evidence.  Sgt. Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) was a friend of the murdered policeman, and vows to find his killer.  The investigation is run by Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) with help with forensics expert Lee (Jack Webb).  After many dead ends, plus some scenes showing the basic police work, the police slowly find small clues that lead to them finding the killer.

The acting is underplayed, letting the story carry the movie.  Indeed, the characters (other than Brennan mentioning he knew the murdered cop) are give no backstory; it's all unimportant to the main work of finding the killer.  Basehart, though, great as the killer -- cool, collected, and ready for anything.  Whit Bissell is also good as Paul Reeves, the one person who has met the suspect.

The direction keeps the plot moving.  Alfred Werker was credited, but some -- and maybe most -- of the film was directed by Antho0ny Mann, who had earlier directed T-Men, another film in the semidocumentary genre.

But what is especially interesting is the beginning of the film.  It sets the scene in Los Angeles by showing sights of the city, and indicates that the story is true -- and the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

If that phrase doesn't ring a bell, you're probably too young to remember Dragnet.

Dragnet was in the same vein, taking actual cases from the Los Angeles police department, changing the names, and showing the ins and out of police work.  And, of course, the producer and star of Dragnet was Jack Webb -- who had a role in this film.

It's clear that this is what Webb used as his template.  Supposedly, someone on the set suggested he do a radio show (and later a TV show) based on LAPD cases.  Dragnet began in the same way as the movie, saying the story is true, the names have been changed, and then talking about life in Los Angeles.**  In addition, the word "Dragnet" appears several times in the film, describing the LA police rounding up the usual suspects after the cop is killed.  I suspect Webb (whose performance is more Gil Grissom than Joe Friday) used the film as a template.

The cast, of course, is filled with names who were busy actors once TV came along.  Not only Webb, but Basehart (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) starred in TV series, while Roy Roberts, Scott Brady, and Whit Bissell were very busy TV guest stars.

The film has lapsed into the public domain, so it's easy to find.  It's worth a look, not just because it's a pretty good thriller, but because of it's long-term influence on the genre.  It's in the public domain, so you can find it at


*The film is often classed as film noir, but, other than lighting, it has no real noir elements.  Noir tends to focus on a man trapped into murder (usually due to a two-timing woman).  We identify with the person who is either framed or tricked into it.  He Walks by Night does not identify with the killer, and there are no female characters.  Anthony Mann's earlier T-Men -- also a semidocumentary -- is a better model.

**A basic Dragnet opening would go something like this:  "This is the city.  Los Angeles, California.  I work here.  I carry a badge."  Of, though, Friday would go on about some of the great things about LA, segueing into that introduction.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Papa John Creach (music)

All Music Guide

image Papa John Creach was an very unlikely rock star and his path to success was unusual, to say the least.

Creach was born in 1917, making him a bit old when rock came into being. And he really wasn't a blues musician, though he did play blues, too.  He played on an instrument -- violin -- that one hardly associates with either genre* and, indeed, one gets the impression he played in bars and ballrooms in the 40s and 50s.  He probably would have stayed that way if drummer Joey Covington hadn't stumbled upon him working.  Covington was a friend (and soon to be drummer) of the Jefferson Airplane, and he soon introduced them to the band.  Creach started playing with Hot Tuna** and soon with the Airplane themselves.  He was an immediate crowd favorite.

Back in 1971, the Airplane, like many big name groups of the time, had their own record label (Grunt)*** and decided to feature Creach on an album.

The record featured a lot of San Francisco's top musicians, members of the Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Santana, and the ubiquitous Tower of Power horn section.****  Clearly, people just enjoyed playing with Creach, and it's clear he enjoyed the music more than anyone.

The songs are a mix of the old ("St. Louis Blues" and lovely versions of "Over the Rainbow" and "Danny Boy"), songs composed by his friends (Joey Covington wrote "The Janitor Drove a Cadillac"), and some of Papa John's own compositions.  It's charming, filled with blues, jazz, standards, rock, and all sorts of musical styles.

The album was the peak of his solo career, but he kept working with all the various incarnations of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship**** and Hot Tuna.

Papa John died in 1994, after a long life of spreading joy through music.


*Though violins in rock don't get the respect they deserve, especially with musicians like Richard Greene (Seatrain), Don "Sugarcane" Harris (The Mothers, after making a name for himself as a guitarist and singer in the 50s) and David LaFlamme (It's a Beautiful Day)

**A side project by Airplane guitarist and bassist Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassady.

***It started with Frank Sinatra with Reprise, but others who had labels at the time were the Beatles (Apple, of course), The Rolling Stones (Rolling Stones), The Moody Blues (Threshold), Rare Earth (Rare Earth), Frank Zappa (two labels -- Bizarre Records and Straight Records; later he ran Barking Pumpkin Records), Led Zeppelin (Swan Song) and the Grateful Dead (Grateful Dead).  Producers like Lou Adler (Ode and Ode 70) and Neil Bogart (Casablanca) also had boutique labels, though they were more involved in developing talent for them.  Except for the Grateful Dead, all were distributed by established record companies.

****Whenever you wanted horns on your record, you hired Tower of Power.

*****Though he had left by the time they recorded "We Built This City."