Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Comic

The Comic(1969)
Directed by
Carl Reiner
Written by Carl Reiner and Aaron Reuben
Starring Dick van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Michele Lee
IMDB Entry

The Comic starts out with a funeral.  Sparsely attended, the organ plays a sad tune that speeds up to reveal it's a version of "Yes, We Have No Bananas."* And, at during the service, the minister gets a pie in the face.  And that intriguing beginning is one of the many great mometns of Carl Reiner's and Dick van Dyke's loving comedy drama about silent film comedy.

Reiner was a giant in early TV with Your Show of Shows, and van Dyke was the star of his own very successful TV who (which Reiner created and produced).  Van Dyck said he discussed the idea for The Comic with Reiner when he wanted to do a Stan Laurel imitation and discovered that Laurel no longer owned the rights to his own image.  It got Reiner thinking about the silent comedy days, and The Comic was the result.

The film is the fictional biography of Billy Bright (van Dyck), who became a silent film superstar, only to throw everything away.  With the help of his friend and agent Cockeye (Mickey Rooney), he builds a career, and, due to his drinking and womanizing, throws everything away.

Van Dyke is terrific in the role.  It was a smart move to make Billy a very flawed man.** Of course, every comic wants to do pathos, and there is a lot of that.***  But Billy is deeply flawed.  He throws away the love of his life (Michele Lee) with his need to womanize, turns arrogant with his fame, and ends up a lost and lonely man who only wanted to make people laugh.  Rooney provides expert support as the one person who understand him and isn't driven away.

The film made no splash at the box office.  Van Dyke's movie career was stalling before then, with a hit in Mary Poppins**** while he was still on TV, but several flops after that started hurting.  His next film after this was Cold Turkey, which was well regarded but little seen, and Van Dyke gave up on movie stardom to go back to TV.

Reiner directed some TV and helped Steve Martin's film career get started.  But he didn't seem to want to try anything as ambitious as this again.

*Also used at a funeral in Ingmar Bergman's comedy, Let's Not Talk About All These Women.

**His story has elements of the lives of Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton, but the character is not much like either overall.

***<spoiler>The final scene, where Billy wakes up in the middle of the night to catch one of his old films, is especially touching -- not Chaplin level, but one of the most affecting of all those attempts.

****Everyone sneers at his bad cockney accent, but I think his role as Bert is the most delightful part of the movie; he was a much more interesting character to me than Mary.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Little Big Man

Directed by
Arthur Penn
Screenplay by Calder Willingham from a novel by Thomas Berger
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan.
IMDB Entry

The mood of the 60s was to question authority. While the western is pretty much dead as a genre, up through the 70s, it was a mainstay of Hollywood films.  But by the 60s, filmmakers were moving away from the conventions of the genre and began filming versions movies that demythologize the west.  And one of the best was Little Big Man.

Jack CrabbBased on a novel by the underrated author Thomas Berger, Little Big Man is the story of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), who we first meet in a nursing home, claiming to be the 120-year-old only white survivor of Custer's Last Stand.  And with that claim, we flash back to see the story of Crabb's life.

Crabb's family is killed, but he's raised by the Cheyenne tribe (who call themselves "The Human Beings").  He's guided by the medicine man Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), but makes friends and enemies and returns to living as a white man when soldiers find him.  He's place with the Rev. Pendrake and his wife Louise (Faye Dunaway), who takes a special interest in young Jack.

Jack drifts along, being a con man, a gunslinger, and finally joins up with George Custer (Richard Mulligan), a vain, egotistical glory hound, who Jack leads to the Little Big Horn.  Jack encounters with gay Indians, famous western heroes, marries four women (simultaneously), and drifts back and forth between Native and White cultures, running into different people at different stages of his western adventures.  The plot become a musing on the west, as well as having some parallels to the US mission in Vietnam. 

Hoffman, of course, is excellent, but the real delight is Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins.  George was indeed the chief of an Indian tribe* who went into acting in his 60s.  The movie casts him as the wise old shaman stereotype, but he does a lot with it, and has all of the memorable lines.  His death scene is especially touching.

He got an Oscar nomination for the role, but lost to John Mills.

Mulligan's Custer is also remarkable.  He plays up the man's vanity and the result is truly memorable.**  And director Arthur Penn was at the top of his form; this marks the third of the three best films of his career, following Bonnie and Clyde and Alice's Restaurant.

The movie was successful enough, but no blockbuster and by the time the VCR revolution came along, it had been forgotten.  It shows up from time to time on TV, but should rank up with one of the best westerns of all time.

*The Tsleil-Waututh Nation of British Columbia.  The position was elected, not hereditary.

**Mulligan came to prominence in the TV show Soap in 1977, and, until I started this article, I hadn't realized he was the one I like so much as Custer.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ripping Yarns (TV)

Ripping Yarns (1976-1979)
Written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones
Starring Michael Palin
IMDB Entry

Monty Python's Flying Circus was the greatest run of sustained comic brilliance in television history.  But all good things had to come to an end* and the six main performers ended up going their separate ways. John Cleese struck pay dirt immediately with Fawlty Towers, another comic landmark.  Michael Palin and Terry Jones did nearly as well with Ripping Yarns,** a show that's clearly overlooked.
It may have been the concept.  Ripping Yarns was a send up of the British boys' adventure novels (and other genres) of the 1920s and 30s, with derring do and British upper class locales (generally).  Palin and Jones used these stories -- which certainly looked very silly when they were writing it -- and turned them into wild humor.
Palin played the lead actor in all of them; Jones appeared once or twice, but pretty much stuck to writing. The episodes were filmed, not videotaped, and the stories took their genre and added many pythonesque absurdities.  There were six in the first season:
  • Tomkinson Arrives Tomkinson's Schooldays.  The British schoolboy novel (think Harry Potter without the magic), where Tomkinson is tortured by upper classmen as he tries to prove himself in the school's great event, the Thirty Mile Hop.***
  • The Testing of Eric Olthwaithe. Called "a northern yarn," this evidently parodied books about the people in the north of England.  Olthwaithe is the most boring person in his Depression-era town, until he accidentally gets mixed up with bank robbers.****
  • Escape from Stalag Luft 112B.  About Major Phipp's maniacal plans to escape from a POW camp -- where the others don't want to escape.
  • Murder at Moorstone's Manor.  An Agatha-Chrystie type murder mystery where nothing is as it seems.  Or everything is.  It has my favorite exchange:
    • Charles (after his brother is murdered):  But why?  Why do we have to have a funeral?
    • Mother:  People like funerals, dear.
    • Charles:  We didn't have a funeral for Aunt Mabel.
    • Mother: Well, we know why that was dear, now please.
    • Charles:  Why?  Why did we never have a funeral for Aunt Mabel?
    • Mother:  Because we couldn't find her, dear.
    • Charles:  We found most of her.
  • Across the Andes by Frog.  Captain Walter Snetterton out to prove his theory of amphibian migration.
  • The Curse of the Claw.  The evil "monkey's paw" whose horrific influence haunts a man's life.
The episodes did well enough that three more were commissioned the next year:
  • Whinfrey's Last Case.  England's greatest hero foils a plot by the Germans to start World War I a year early.
  • Golden Gordon.  A soccer mad man goes to extreme measures to revive the local team to its glory days.  Actually, rather sweet overall.
  • Roger of the Raj. The story of the heir to a peerage who gets caught up in an rebellion in India.
Palin was, to my mind, the funniest of the Pythons, mostly because he was able to play the silliest of roles with an earnest manner.  He was assisted by top-notch BBC talent.
The show was expensive to produce, so after nine episodes, the BBC canceled it.  But while Fawlty Towers became a favorite in reruns, Ripping Yarns got very little play in the US.  I'm not sure why.  It had only nine episodes, but Fawlty Towers only had 12.  It's possible that the references of the parodies just didn't go over well in the US.
Michael Palin moved on, appearing in the underrated The Missionary and eventually finding his niche doing travel series.  Terry Jones started writing children's stories.  And, of course, Monty Python continues to be the gold standard for comedy.
But Ripping Yarns also deserves its place among the greats.
*And, to be honest, the final season of the show -- without John Cleese -- was very uneven and often very unfunny.  Yes, I'm looking at you, Mr. Neutron.
**Eric Idle took a long time to find his niche, but eventually developed Spamalot for the stage and has been successful as a standup comedian.
***This actually was supposed to be a one-time special, but the BBC liked it so much they ordered more episodes.
****The ending is a neat dig at our passion for celebrities;  one of the jokes is that the same dull monologues that drove Eric's acquaintances to run away to avoid mind-numbing boredom are not interested once he becomes famous.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Groff Conklin (science fiction)

A checklist of the works of Groff ConklinWikipedia
Bud Webster's Index to Groff Conklin anthologies (click on the image to purchase)

At first, science fiction stories were ephemeral.  They appeared for a month in a pulp magazine, then were never seen again.  Until the 50s,  novels were few and far between, and were often "fix-ups" -- a group of previously published short stories set in the same universe (e.g., The Foundation Trilogy, The Martian Chronicles).  It's quite possible these works and authors would have just been forgotten if it weren't for Groff Conklin.

Conklin was not an author nor was he a magazine editor.  He was an anthologist.  From 1949 until his death in 1968, he gathered together the best of the magazine SF stories into over 40 anthologies that helped define the genre.

This was essential. I started reading SF in the early 60s, and didn't know about the pulps.  By that time, only a few were being published* and I didn't know what to look for at the newstands, especially since the era of pulp fiction had ended.  But I did haunt the bookstores and my school library, and the name Groff Conklin was everywhere.  You really couldn't look at a bookshelf without seeing a collection with his name on it.

Conklin knew the great stories.  He was fond of authors like Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Damon Knight, William Tenn, Arthur C. Clarke, Cordwainer Smith, and all the greats of the genre.  His books were the way to get a grounding in science fiction.

Science Fiction Oddities My favorite of his anthologies was something called Science Fiction Oddities, which includes such gems as Alan Arkin's "People Soup,"** Isaac Asmov's "What is This Thing Called Love?,"*** R.A. Lafferty's amazing "What Was the Name of That Town?," Charles Harness's "The Chessplayers," Fritz Lieber's Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee," and several others.  All were off-beat stories that went into areas that few dared go and brought more smiles of pleasure than any other collection I have read.

Conklin continued to collect and publish anthologies until his death.  He was purely a labor of love:  the economics of such a book are pretty dismal even in the best of times.  He paid the authors low rates (not a big problem, since they had already been paid for the original publication), and didn't have a lot left over for him.  I doubt the books were his main source of income.

Of course, not only is Conklin forgotten, but the reprint SF anthology has gone the way of the passenger pigeon.  People far prefer novels these days, and if they want a reprint anthology, it'll be from a single author they've discovered through books.  That's too bad.  The real advantage of a reprint anthology was that it had great stories by authors you never saw before.  If someone impressed you, you could look for more of his work.  Now, with the exception of some anthologies edited by Martin H. Greenberg, it's much harder to have that sort of smorgasbord of authors to sample.****  But, alas, it's far too late to change that trend. 

Conklin's anthologies are long out of print, and are unlikely to be reprinted due to issues of getting the rights.*****  It's a loss to the field, especially since the stories may be forgotten.

* Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog, Amazing, Fantastic and one or two others.

**Made into a short film that was Adam Arkin's film debut.

***Asimov's preferred title, though I like the original one:  "Playboy and the Slime God."

****Martin H. Greenberg has stepped into Conklin's footsteps, with original and reprint anthologies.  He often works with other authors -- a big name to make the selection of stories, and, for reprints, someone to find stories for the anthologies (Charles G. Waugh had a self-made index of SF stories by theme and did a lot of the digging up of obscure works.  Greenberg actually just handled the business end in all these, getting the rights and selling the concept.

****It would take a Herculean effort to track down the authors and their estates.  The only one that seems to be available is one he co-edited with Isaac Asimov, which is around because of Asimov's name. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Naked Kiss

Written and directed by
Samuel Fuller
Starring Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante, Virginia Grey, Patsy Kelly
IMDB Entry

The Naked KissThe woman is furious.  She's attacking a well-dressed man, screaming at him and pummeling him with her purse and a shoe.  In the battle, the man grabs for her hair; it comes off in his hand, revealing she's completely bald.  That doesn't slow her, as she attacks the man until he's lying on the floor, helpless.  Then she goes for his wallet, taking $75 and telling him she's only taking what he owes her, then tosses the rest back to him, kicking him in the side for good measure.  The woman goes to a mirror and starts to put her wig back on.

That's when the credits for The Naked Kiss begin.

As is obvious, this isn't a sedate and subtle movie.  Director Sam Fuller is praised as a great "primitive" director, meaning he dealt with pulp fiction plots and characters with energy and a brutal style. And there's more than enough of that in The Naked Kiss.

Kelly's in town -- watch out The scene switches to three years later the small town of Grantville, where the woman (Constance Towers), now a  blonde and with her own hair, shows up on the bus. Her name is Kelly, and she's a hooker.  There's no beating around the bush about this:  it's said right out, and one of the first things she does is take the sheriff (Anthony Eisley) as a john.  He tells her that she should go to join Candy (Virginia Grey) and her "bon bons" -- a bordello -- across the river in the next state. 

But Kelly stays, something happens and she decides to straighten out her life.  She gets a job at a local hospital, helping handicapped children and tries to leave her old life behind, attracting the attention of the J.L. Grant (Michael Dante), the son of one of town's richest citizens.

Of course, it doesn't work out as a fairy tale.

The film surprises with its blunt treatment of things like prostitution, bordellos, abortion, and even pedophilia.  This was in the early 60s, when film censorship was on its way out, but was still a force.  It's amazing to see these subjects being treated forthrightly*. 

Constance Towers plays Kelly as a tough girl who, of course, has a softer side.  She made quite a few movies, but was more successful in theater, where she played Anna opposite Yul Brynner in a 1977 revival of The King and I and she seems to still be acting in soaps today.

Eisley is a bit hard to follow as the sheriff, since the part requires change his feelings about Kelly every few minutes.  Dante is good as the rich man who truly loves Kelly -- but has a secret himself.

Fuller continued with his career through the 90s, working both in film and TV.  His stock has risen over the years, so much so that Criterion has added this film to its collection of notable films on DVD. 

*And, yes, the opening scene is explained.