Sunday, April 29, 2012

Quantum Leap (TV)

Dean Stockwell and Scott Bakula(1989-1993)
Created by
Donald P. Bellisario
Starring Scott Bakula, Dean Stockwell
IMDB Entry

Quantum Leap was like no other science fiction show.

The concept behind it is complicated.  Scientist Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) is accidentally sent back in time, trading places with someone from the past.  And that was meant literally:  he would look to everyone but the audience just like the person he replaced as he would try to fix something that had gone wrong.  If he failed to make the change, he’d be stuck as the other person forever.  He was assisted by Al (Dean Stockwell), a holographic image of a man from his own time who only Sam could see.  Things were complicated by the fact that the leaps “Swiss-cheesed” his brain, so that there were gaps in his knowledge.

Creator Donald P. Bellisario had had a big hit with Magnum PI, and wanted originally to do an anthology show. But he knew the business well enough to to understand no network would ever agree to one.  That’s where he came up with the idea, allowing there to be the same lead character in every episode, while being able to tell stories of all different times and places.

The show started out with some strict ground rules.*  Sam could only travel within his own lifetime.  No one but Sam could see or hear Al.  And the story would not have him leaping into famous people or anyone near them (though he did have encounters with them, something Bellisario called a “Kiss with History”).

What made the show live up to the concept was the writing. Bellisario wrote many of the scripts, including most of the best.  His wife, Deborah Platt, also contributed quite a bit, and it’s a toss up to figure out who was better.  Tommy Thompson also contributed many good ones.

As for the acting, the two leads were terrific.  Bakula played Beckett with a basic decency and wonder about what was going on around him.** Dean Stockwell’s Al was a comic relief and a big ladies man whose personality completely obliterated the fact that his main role was to dump information about what was going on to both Sam and the audience.***

Some of the most memorable episodes were:

  • The Color of Truth. A take on Driving Miss Daisy with Sam as a Black chauffeur in the segregated South.
  • What Price Gloria?  Sam leaps into a woman had has to save her roommate while learning to live as a woman.
  • Jimmy.  Sam leaps into a Down Syndrome man who needs to show he can work in the real world.
  • Another Mother.  Sam learns the problems of motherhood from the female point of view.
  • M.I.A. Sam has to prevent a woman from declaring her military husband dead and marrying another person.  At first.  But it turns out much more is going on than Al is willing to tell him.
  • The  Leap Home (Part 1).  Sam leaps into himself as a teenager and, as a side mission, tries to keep his family from making bad decisions.  They won’t listen to him and Sam nearly ruins the leap as he tries.****
  • The Leap Home, Part 2The Leap Home (Part 2), which is not the second part of the previous episode, but a sequel to it, where Sam is in Vietnam with his brother, trying to save him while accomplishing its mission.  This had a great multiple-twist ending, each of which is an emotionally charged surprise.
  • 8 1/2 Months.  Sam as a pregnant woman.
  • Future Boy. About a kid’s show host who has a theory about traveling in time.
  • A Leap for Lisa, where Sam leaps into a younger version of Al, and accidentally messes things up, so that Al is replaced in midsentence.
  • Lee Harvey Oswald.  Bellisario jettisoned the “no historical figures” rule in response to Oliver Stone’s JFK.  Bellisario didn’t believe in a JFK conspiracy – and actually knew Oswald (a character playing him appears in the episode).  It also shows how to handle time paradoxes the right way.
  • Deliver Us from Evil.  Introduces Alia, the “evil leaper,” who showed up as a nemesis in other episodes as someone leaping to undo what Sam had done.  The title “evil leaper” was misleading:  she was less actively evil than she was misguided.
  • Trilogy.  Three episodes, all set in a small Louisiana town  at three different times, and centering on Abigail Fuller.  All three stories stand on their own, but the arc is designed so that the final episode builds on things we learned in the first two.
  • Mirror Image.  The series finale, where Sam leaps into a small-town bar where things are revealed.  It’s a bit mystical, and not the best episode, but it’s essential, and still gives plenty to think about.

The show was never a ratings smash, but did well enough to continue for five seasons.*****  It had a rabid cult following (who probably are upset I’m calling it “forgotten”), but the general public never warmed to it, and there’s been no revival of it. DVDs are out, and the entire series is available on Hulu (the first two seasons for free), but since it’s so hard to explain the concept, it’s also hard to get people to watch.

If you’ve seen it, you’ll agree it was a great show.  If you haven’t, you’re in for a real treat.

*Most of which were broken or modified during the show’s run.

**His “Oh, Boy,” which he often said when he showed up in a new situation (and it always was an awkward one), was the show’s catchphrase, so much so that when Superman of the time traveled in a story during the show’s run, he used it, too.

***This sort of info dump is the bane of bad science fiction, but it works here because Al is such an interesting character and because Sam doesn’t know the information.

****Which leads to one of the most powerful exchanges in the show:  Sam is bemoaning the fact that they won’t listen.

Sam: It's not fair, Al. I mean, come on, it's not fair.
Al: Well, I think, uh, I think it's damned fair.
Sam: What?
Al: I'd give anything to see my father and sister for a few days. To be able to talk with them again, laugh with them, tell them how much I love them. I'd give anything to have what you have, Sam, anything.

*****It helped that the director of programming liked it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

John Bunny and Flora Finch (actors)

John Bunny(Bunny: 1863-1915
Finch: 1867-1940)
IMDB Entry

Nearly everything that was great in the silent film era has been forgotten. There are a few exceptions, but a combination of neglect once sound came in and a lack of interest today in silent and even black and white movies, means that the biggest stars of the time are known only to film scholars.  Silent comedians fare much better than any other, as long as they’re named Chaplin or Keaton.*  But before Charlie Chaplin revolutionized film comedy, the biggest names in comedy in US films** were John Bunny and Flora Finch.

Bunny was born in New York city and gravitated to the theater.  By 1900, he was appearing on Broadway, and when the new medium of film came along, Bunny jumped in.  His first film, Cohen’s Dream, was released in 1909 and he continued to star in comedy short subjects until his death.

Bunny was fat, and used his physique to great advantage.  He usually played a lower class guy who is only interested in getting away from his wife and drinking, gambling and having fun.

Flora FinchHis wife was usually played by Flora Finch.  Finch was a thin, sour faced women with a prominent nose that made her resemble the bird she was named for.  She was from a British theatrical family and her career paralleled Bunny – reaching Broadway a few years later. Around 1910, she was cast as Bunny’s wife, and the first successful film comedy team was born.

Their films usually followed a pattern.  Bunny would go out to enjoy himself, but would have to deal with the suspicions of his wife.  Finch was a convincing battleaxe, and the perfect foil for Bunny.  Their

By 1915, they were the most popular film comedians, neck and neck with Charlie Chaplin.  But the films ended with Bunny’s death.***  Finch continued to act into the talky days, but by the end of her career was mostly appearing in walk-on roles.

By that time, they had been forgotten.  Chaplin has revolutionized comedy, moving it from a handful of laughs a reel to a handful of laughs a minute.  Films like A Cure for Pokeritis seem too slow paced, and the jokes are not as funny as what we now expect.  Like all silents that didn’t have defenders, most of the Bunny/Finch movies had become lost.****

It’s hard to say how things would have worked out if Bunny had lived.  I doubt he would have been among the great names of the era; I don’t think from what I’ve seen of Bunny his comedy was strong enough to make him a top name.  But perhaps working on a few features would have enhanced his reputation.  Certainly any male and female comedy team owes a debt to these two.
*Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon quickly losing ground.

**Max Linder was the biggest in Europe.

***For some reason, fat film comedians tend to die early.  Think of Fatty Arbuckle, Curly Howard, John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley.

****They also gave a start to a comedian who is far better known today, though was never as successful as Bunny during his lifetime.  Moe Howard wheedled his way into the films in various small roles.  It’s hard to determine which ones, since cast lists were never very complete in those days, and most of Bunny’s films have been lost.  But unlike Milton Berle’s claim that he was in Tillie’s Punctured Romance with Chaplin, Howard’s claim is not disputed, since he did work at the studio where Bunny and Finch were making their films.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Dan Duryea (actor)

Dan Duryea(1907-1968)
Wikipedia Entry

Hollywood was always about typecasting. This was especially true under the studio system, where an actor could develop a type and keep working for years.  Dan Duryea knew his part, and became one of the more entertaining heavies in film.

Duryea grew up in White Plains, NY and tried his hand on Broadway. He got his first break in in 1934 with a small role in Dead End, which got larger as the play continued to run. That led him to several more plays, until he was cast as Leo in the original run of The Little Foxes.  When the play became a film, he reprised the role, and moved to Hollywood to try his luck.

Duryea realized quite early on that he was not leading man material.  There always was a superior smirk in his smile, and sarcasm in his words. So he made the decision to make good use of these and become a bad buy.  He usually played a bully and a coward, someone who would threaten you just for the fun of it, and vicious enough to carry through.  But if he was defeated, he’d be whimpering at the unfairness of how he was being treated.

After The Little Foxes, he appeared in Ball of Fire, cementing his reputation and a sleezy character as a comic villain. He cracked jokes but also made a sinister presence as he did so.  Later, he went into full-fledged villain, the type of guy who would threaten the hero or heroine while smirking all the time as their discomfort.

Other appearances during this time in the Scarlet Street, which he convinces his ex-girlfriend to swindle the mild-mannered Edward G. Robinson.*

Even when he doesn’t play and out-and-out villain, he’s a deliciously unlikeable character.  In The Great Flamarion, he’s the husband of Mary Beth Hughes, and, while not actively bad, he’s unpleasant enough so that you understand her desire to get rid of him

Duryea’s career devolved into B pictures by the 1950s, but TV came around to keep his career going.  He even starred in a syndicated show, China Smith, though I can’t imagine him as a hero.  His final major role was in the first prime time network soap opera, Peyton Place.

Duryea died in 1968. 

*Robinson, of course, is best known as a gangster, but he was also adept in playing a Milquetoast.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The American

The American(2010)
Directed by
Anton Corbijn
Written by Rowan Joffe, from a novel by Martin Booth
Starring George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Johan Leysen, Paolo  Bonacelli
IMDB Entry

George Clooney is the perfect combination of film star looks and acting chops, and is not afraid to do serious movies without regard to his image.  He’s been making a series of moderate budget films that allow him to stretch himself.  The results have included such films as Syriana,
Good Night and Good Luck, The Good German, The Men Who Stared at Goats,
and The American.

In The American, Clooney plays Jack.  In the opening scene, he’s with his girlfriend in Sweden, when all hell breaks loose.  After the shocking events there, he flees to Italy, where he contacts Pavel (Johan Leysen), asking for a place to lie low.  Pavel sends him to a small town in Abbuzzo, but Jack, paranoid to a fault (and, we discover, for good reason), goes to a second small town and vanishes even from Jack.  He agrees to help in if Jack – whose talents include manufacturing custom-made weapons – does one final job, designing a gun for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten).  He also develops a wary friendship with a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido) and the town’s priest (Paolo Bonacelli).

This is not an action film, despite its spies and double crosses.  It concentrates on Jack’s (quite justified) paranoia.  People are out to get him, and he’s not sure he can trust anyone.  The town he hides out in is a maze of crooked streets and tight alleyways, where anyone can hide, and the film makes the most of the location.

Pursued by priests (not really)

Clooney, of course is excellent.  He’s good at portraying his fear even without dialog.  He makes even the most innocuous thing potentially sinister.

The film actually did adequately at the box office, making back its costs and getting some good reviews.  But it was overlooked at awards time and seems to be overshadowed by other movies. Perhaps the title was the problem:  it seems to promise something quite different from what it is, though it is perfectly reasonable, since everyone in the small town refers to Clooney as “The American.”

This was director Anton Corbijn’s first dramatic feature after a background as a still photographer and the director of some short documentaries. He is a filmmaker to watch.