Sunday, December 22, 2013

Music Bingo (TV)

Johnny Gilbert

Like most kids growing up in the 50s and 60s, I was addicted to television.  But in the early days, we only had two stations --  CBS and ABC – so our options were limited.  For many years, that meant the only thing on when we got home from school were game shows.  And one that was my favorite was Music Bingo*.

The show’s board was a Bingo card, with the letters “M-U-S-I-C” at the top.  Two contestants would listen as the band would play a song.  The first to answer correctly, got to place their symbol – a sharp or a flat – on the board.  Five in a row, and you won the game.  Here is the opening:

The host was the first network gig for game show legend Johnny Gilbert, best known today for “This  . . . is Jeopardy,” which he has been doing since the show was revived with Alex Trebek.**

Something about the show fascinated me.  I rarely knew the songs (at eight, my music knowledge was limited), but I enjoyed the challenge.

What really stuck in my mind was one of the champions.  I don’t recall his name, but he was always introduced as the father of quadruplets, a term I had never heard before.  What I also remember was that remained as champion forever.  I actually stopped watching for several months and the same guy was still champion the next time I watched.  I often wonder if that had anything to do with the rules that limited the number of times you could win.

I moved on, and the next time I checked, it was gone.  There’s very little information on it online, but it was a favorite of mine.

*The show started on NBC, but was later moved to ABC, where I saw it.

**Replacing an ever bigger game show legend, Don Pardo.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Joe McDoakes series

Directed by
Richard L. Bare
Written by Richard L. Bare and George O’Hanlon (uncredited)Starring George O’Hanlon, Art Gilmore
Wikipedia Entry

Moviegoing in the 1930s was far different than it was today.  Most theaters had only a single show of a single movie.*  There would be more than just the film though – a cartoon, a newsreel, previews of coming attractions** and, of course, live action short subjects.  Joe McDoakes was one of the last and the best of these.

The series was a creation of Richard L. Bare, who wrote and directed the entire series.  Bare was a graduate of the USC film school and taught film courses there when he came up with the idea of working with his students on a class project.  Finding out-of-work actor George O’Hanlon, he produced a ten-minute short subject entitled So You Want to Give up Smoking.  After the project was done, he took the completed film – as Richard L. Bare Productions – to Warner Brothers, who purchased it and asked for more.***

And thus the series was born.  It followed Joe McDoakes (O’Hanlon), and average guy who would try one thing or another, only to run into strange complications.  Each episode began with So You Want to…., as Joe tried such things as going on vacation, being a salesman, throwing a party, getting rich quick, or play the piano.  Of course, things would go wrong is bizarre and wacky ways.

O’Hanlon made a nice McDoakes, perpetually forced into odd situations and meeting absurdist characters.  Art Gilmore narrated the shorts, setting up the scene and helping with the wrap-up.  Several actresses played Joe’s wife; the best known was Phyllis (“Lois Lane”) Coates. The series’s opening – with Joe coming out from behind a giant eight ball – was memorable.

The films only ran about ten minutes, but were filled with laughs. 
Bare wrote and directed, with O’Hanlon helped with the writing, too. They were cheap to produce, and were the only live action comedies of that length, which allowed theater owners to throw in something short and cheap.

Because as the 1950s rolled around, the market for short subjects evaporated.  Theater owners realized they could make more money with two shows a night instead of one, and started dropping all the extra material, and the studio system – which fueled the market for short subjects – died.  The series ended in 1956.

Richard L. Bare moved over to TV when McDoakes ended, working on shows like Broken Arrow, 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, Cheyenne, The Twilight Zone and others, but his best-known gig was with Green Acres, where he directed every episode.  You can see the similarities between that and Joe McDoakes – the same wild characters and anything for a laugh sensibility.

O’Hanlon also became a TV icon, even if his face was unfamiliar:  he was the voice of George Jetson.  Even Art Gilmore had a long career in TV as the narrator of quite a few shows, including Red Skelton, The Waltons, and Highway Patrol, as well as being an all-purpose actor in a couple of Jack Webb series.

*Double features existed, but usually at the cheaper houses or for Saturday children’s matinees.

**What are called “trailers” today.  “Previews” makes more sense.

***He first checked with the college administration, who okayed the contract.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Youngbloods (music)

:  Jesse Colin Young (vocals, guitar, bass), Banana (guitar and electric piano), Joe Bauer (drums),  Jerry Corbitt (guitar)

”One hit wonder” is a cruel term, covering novelty acts (Napoleon XIV), groups outside the top 40 mainstream (The Grateful Dead), bands who put out an excellent single but couldn’t follow up (John Fred and His Playboy Band), and terrible groups who got one lucky break (Steam). The Youngbloods are technical a one-hit wonder, but the hit didn’t really define their sound, and who produced excellent music without hitting the single charts.

The group was led by Jesse Colin Young (birth name: Perry Miller). He grew up in New York and began playing folk music in Greenwich Village coffeehouses.  Young was noticed, and released two solo albums.  After the second, he started working with guitarist Jerry Corbitt, billed as Jesse Colin Young and the Youngbloods.  The two settled in southern California and took up two new members, Banana (real name: Lowell Levinger) and Joe Bauer.  The group followed in the footsteps of The Lovin’ Spoonful, and released their most famous song off The Youngbloods, their first album:  “Get Together,”* a paean to peace and love.

It flopped.

The album did have some critical acclaim, however, and a second album, Earth Music, was released.  It didn’t even chart, though, again, it was a critical success.

At this point, Corbitt left.  The group looked like any one of a thousand critically acclaimed acts that just couldn’t find success.

But the Youngbloods kept going. The group carried on as a trio, with Banana’s electric piano becoming more of a lead instrument.  Then, in 1969, they got a break.

The great New York City DJ, Dan Ingram, was putting together a public service announcement promoting brotherhood and chose “Get Together” as the background music.  WABC was the top-rated station in New York at the time, and people noticed the song, including the National Council of Christians and Jews, which used it as the theme for their TV ads.  The two-year-old song reached #5 and is still a mainstay on classic rock station.

At the same time, they released the masterpiece Elephant Mountain.

The album starts out with a bang:  the apocalyptical “Darkness, Darkness.”

After this beginning the album switches gears many times, to the pop breakup song (“Smug”), to jazzy improvisations (“On Sir Francis Drake”), to love songs (“Sunlight”), folk/music hall hybrids (“Rain Song”), and much else.  The group, which had previously did a lot of cover versions,  wrote all the music themselves.** It was a truly wonderful album.

It sold poorly, coming up just short of the top 100.  Of course, their big hit wasn’t on the album, and it may have been too eclectic to be massively popular. 

The group also did something unheard of:  they walked off the Tonight Show.  They had been asked to perform “Get Together,” but were reluctant to perform something they had recorded two years before.  They agreed to do it if they could also perform “Darkness, Darkness.”  Johnny Carson agreed, but when the show ran long and they were told to only perform their hit, they left.

Instead of coming out with a strong followup, the group’s next release was Rock Festival, a live album of all original material that was a big disappointment, though it was the only one of their albums to crack the hot 100.

Realizing their mistake, their next album*** was also live – but Ride the Wind took some of their better studio songs on stage, and gave casual fans a live version of “Get Together.”

Good and Dusty had them doing more cover songs, mostly blues covers, but it really didn’t please anyone.

High on a Ridge Top was also all cover songs, but to better effect.  It was an eclectic mix – Dylan, the Beatles (“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” is a real delight), Taj Mahal, plus several 50s hits.  Not a great album, but an enjoyable one.

At that point, Young decided to go solo.****  While he never had a hit, he recorded and performed regularly into the 21st century.  He reformed the Youngbloods in the 80s for a tour or two, but has been content to keep performing solo.*****  Corbitt also had a solo career.

The Youngbloods were never a major act, but at their best – especially in Elephant Mountain – they made a claim that they deserved to be.

*Written by Dino Valenti of Quicksilver Messenger Service. 

**Except “Rain Song,” which had been cowritten by Jerry Corbitt.

***After a “Best of” album

****Perhaps the reason the group was doing so many covers in their last two albums was that Young was saving his own songs for his solo career.

*****And sell his own brand of coffee.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Secret of NIMH

Directed by
Don Bluth
Story Adaptation by Don Bluth & John Pomeroy & Gary Goldman &  Will Finn from a novel by Robert C. O’Brien.
Starring (voices) Derek Jacobi, Elizabeth Hartman, Arthur Malet, Dom DeLuise, Hermoine Baddley, Shannon Doherty, Wil Wheaton, John Carradine, Ian Fried
IMDB Entry

Back in the 80s, Disney had almost a monopoly on animated films, and the genre was in dire condition.  Disney was in a creative slump, the animation department releasing only three feature length films in the 1970s,* of indifferent quality.  Their first 80s film, The Fox and the Hound also unimpressive and Disney seemed content to rerelease their classics every seven years to a new audience of kids.  It was in this atmosphere that Don Bluth put together The Secret of NIMH.

Bluth had worked with Disney starting with Sleeping Beauty,  but set off on his own, getting the rights to Robert C. O’Brien’s Newberry Award winning novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.**

Mrs. Brisby (voice of Elizabeth Hartman) is a widowed field mouse whose son Timothy (Ian Fried) is deathly ill and must stay in bed or die.  But the spring plowing will destroy their home.  Desperate, Mrs. Brisby consults with the rats of NIMH – highly intelligent ones who were bred at the National Institute of Mental Health – and their leader Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi).  But the rats have traitors in their midst….

The story is not plain vanilla Disney.  There is a darkness, and characters even die.  Mrs. Brisby is a strong, brave heroine.  It came out to strong critical acclaim, though did not make a great deal of money.

It was, however, a wake-up call to Disney, which began producing quality animated fare that is now considered the second golden age.  I remember seeing it and thinking, “finally the Mouse is getting some serious competition.”  And looking forward to more great films by Bluth.

Alas, it was not to be.  While Bluth did have some solid hits like An American Tail and The Land Before Time,*** the films were never as good as his first, and his All Dogs Go to Heaven and Rock-a-Doodle are just embarrassing to watch.

But The Secret of NIMH is not just the high point of Bluth’s career, it’s a classic of animation.

*Plus the fix-up, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which was made up of three shorter films and linking material. 

**They were worried the Wham-O might not like the name “Frisby” and I suspect putting “rats” in the title was considered bad marketing.

***The Land Before Time was a brilliant concept, but a dull story, with extremely muddy animation, but it did succeed. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Honey West (TV)

Honey West(1965-66)
Created by
Skip and Gloria Fickling (novel)
Adapted for TV by Gwen Bagni and Paul Dubov
Starring Anne Francis, John Ericson
IMDB Entry

In the 50s and 60s, the private eye show was nearly as successful a genre as westerns.  You could set up a quirky character and then throw a mystery and voila – a concept that could run for years.  Honey West’s gimmick was one that seemed pretty novel in 1965:  it featured a female private eye (with an ocelot).

The show was based upon a series of novels from a few years before.  Honey West (Anne Francis) would take on cases and with the help of her assistant Sam Bolt (John Ericson) would solve them all.  The character was introduced originally in an episode of Burke’s Law, and was successful enough to spin off to a weekly 30-minute series.

West was clearly in charge.  She ran the agency.  Sam did the legwork and sometimes be the muscle, though Honey could more than take care of herself with judo moves similar to Mrs. Peel in the Avengers.*  Sam was the one who gathered information for Honey to use.

Honey and BruceAnne Francis** had a sultry yet playful air and often dressed in animal print clothes.  She had a pet ocelot named Bruce, who didn’t really figure much in the stories, but  gave her an exotic air.  She also had a “beauty mark”*** in the corner of her mouth that made her look more interesting.  This doesn’t mean she wasn’t a fine actress in the part, which portrayed her as smart as well as sexy.  She won a Golden Globe for the role.****

The show had trouble in the ratings, going up against Gomer Pyle, USMC, and was cancelled after one season.

Anne Francis was active in TV for many years, and reprised her role as Honey West in the forgotten 90s revival of Burke’s Law, but never got the chance to star again. 

*This was probably deliberate.  Spelling knew about the British series and even asked Honor Blackman – Diana Rigg’s predecessor on the show – to play the lead.

**Probably best known today as Altaira in the classic SF movie Forbidden Planet.

*** What elsewhere would be called a mole.  Nowadays, it would have been removed or photoshopped away.  Too bad.

****Of course, the Golden Globes didn’t count for much back then.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Directed by
Deepa Mehta
Written by Anurag Kashyap (dialog), Deepa Mehta.
Starring Sarala Kariawasam, Manorama, Raghuvir Yadav, Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas, John Abraham
IMDB Entry

I love watching films made by different cultures, especially those that show new aspects of the human condition. Water deals with life in India in 1938, portraying a part of that culture that is ripe for tragic stories.

Chuyia (Sarala Kariawasam) is a seven-year-old child bride, who learns that her husband has died, leaving her a widow.  Culture requires she leave the community and live with other widows, similarly dumped by their families.  Madhumati (Manorama) runs the widows’ ashram, smoking ganga and making money by prostituting the next youngest widow Kalyani (Lisa Ray).  Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) has trouble dealing with her hatred of being a widow and her need to obey social strictures.  Meanwhile, Narayan (John Abraham), a follower of Gandhi, starts a romance with Kalyani, who used Chuvia to help them keep it secret.

The sadness of Chuvia’s life is at center stage, and Kariawasm does an excellent job as a child forced into a life she can’t quite understand.*  The rest of the story is powerful and tragic – though with a touch of hope at the end.

The film’s production was troubled.  Mehta had already created controversy with the right wing in India, and the shooting of the film led to violent protests, including the destruction of the film’s sets.  Mehta dropped the production for several years, finally moving to Sri Lanka and giving it a false name. 

The film was a success, garnering it an Oscar nomination.**  It’s a fascinating look into a dark side of the history of India.

*She didn’t speak either English or Hindi, but managed to learn the language on the fly.

**Representing Canada, which took advantage in a change of Oscar rules, since Mehta lives in Toronta.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ever After

Directed by
Andy Tennant
Screenplay by Susannah Grant and Andy Tennant & Rick Parks
Starring Drew Barrymore, Anjelica Huston, Dougray Scott, Patrick Godfrey, Megan Dodds, Mealnie Lynskey
IMDB Entry

Fairytales are big right now.  You have shows like Once Upon a Time, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and Grimm on TV.  There were a couple of Snow White films in 2012:  Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror.  But an early version of the trend, Ever After seems to have come and gone, despite being a clever romantic film.

The fairy tale in question is Cinderella.  Danielle (Drew Barrymore) is cruelly treated by her stepmother Rodmilla (Anjelica Huston).  As a teen, Danielle runs into Henry (Dougray Scott), who turned out to be the Crown Prince of France.  Henry is being forced to marry a Spanish princess, but, after some argument, his parents agree to let him choose a bride from the attendees of a special ball to be held to honor Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey).  Of course, her stepmother and her sisters want to do everything to keep Danielle from going to the ball, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that true love wins out in the end. 

What is especially nice is the way they move away from the fairy tale to make everything even better.

The movie’s casting is inspired.  Drew Barrymore makes a wonderful Danielle – charming, smart, and more than willing to speak her mind.  And Anjelica Huston is even better, making a perfect evil stepmother – glamorous and casually cruel.

The movie did adequately in the box office and it appears that a musical may be in the works.  It’s a lovely version of the familiar tale.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Fatal Glass of Beer

Fatal Glass of Beer(1933)
Directed by Clyde Bruckman
Written by W. C. Fields
Starring W.C. Fields, Rosemary Theby, George Chandler, Richard Cramer
IMDB Entry
Full movie at

I happen to like subtle humor – jokes that require you to think a moment to figure out.  Usually, that also overlaps with deadpan humor – jokes that are treated seriously by the characters involved.  I may be a minority in that view, but I think that even if you’re not, it’s worth watching the genius of The Fatal Glass of Beer, one of the funniest 20 minutes ever put on film.

W. C. Fields made five short subjects.  We all know him as a cultural icon, and Fields was one of the best and most wide ranging of the great comedians.  While he usually came from the same comic place, his characters were on a continuum, from those who were the curmudgeon we expect him to be, to others who accept life’s insults with little more than a quiet comment. 

The Fatal Glass of Beer is not what people typically think of Fields, and may not seem like much the first time around,* but the more you see it, the funnier it is.

The film opens in the Great White North, where Mr. Snavely (Fields) is in an isolated cabin while the wind blows wildly.  Constable Posthlewhistle of the Mounties drops in, and asks Fields about his son, Chester (George Chandler), who is about to be released from prison.  After singing a tuneless song outlining Chester’s fall – due to drink -- Fields returns to his wife (Rosemary Theby) to be there when Chester  returns.

The movie is a deadpan parody of adventures set in the Yukon. The acting is deliberately broad; Fields and everyone else declaim their lines like in an old time temperance melodrama.  The outdoor scenes are shot against a process screen and make no attempt to make it look like anything other than a process screen.  The plot is melodramatic in the extreme and the blowing snow is clearly cornflakes.

And that’s the whole point.  The movie is filled with subtly funny moments that you may not notice the first time, but the more you see them, the more delightful they become.  It’s made to be deliberately bad, which is part of the reason why it’s so great.

The snavelys at dinner.There are also some wonderful sight gags, great and memorable lines** that get added humor from the delivery.  The humor is often as subtle as the acting is broad and it’s one of the few comedies that gets funnier the more you see it.

An example:

Mrs. Snavely:  Captain Tippett of the Canadian Mounties has smuggled a police dog across the border for you.
Mr. Snavely:  Smuggled a police dog across the border for me?
Mrs. Snavely: Yes, and he says for you to keep it under your hat.
Mr. Snavely:  How big is it?
Mrs. Snavely:  (indicating about three feet off the floor) About so high.
Mr. Snavely:  He’s crazy!

A lesser comedian would have said “How can I fit that under my hat?”  “Or that’ll hurt my head.”  Fields has the genius to assume that the audience would know what the joke would be, and went beyond the obvious.

Fields made four other short films:  The Gold Specialist***, The Barber Shop, the Pharmacist, and The Dentist.  All are good, but The Fatal Glass of Beer is the finest.

*Theater owners reported that it wasn’t funny at all.

**And it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast.” or “I think I’ll go out and milk the elk.”

***And adaptation of his vaudeville act.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Alive and Well in Argentina (music)

Zal Yanovsky
All Music Entry

Pop music success is like hitting the lottery:  the odds are against you, and once you hit the jackpot, it’s not likely to happen again.  Zal Yanovsky was a member of one of the great music acts of the 60s, but when that ended, he was forced to set out on his own. The result was Alive and Well in Argentina.

Yanovsky was born in Canada and started to be part of the folk scene in New York in the early 60s.  His first brush with fame was when he joined with other folkies of the time – Cass Eliott, Denny Doherty, John Sebastian, and James Hendricks* – to form the Mugwumps, a group that was legendary even without recording anything.  When they broke up, Denny and Cass became half of the Mamas and the Papas, where Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful.**

The Lovin’ Spoonful was one of the great acts of the mid-60s, putting out pop hit after pop hit, most written by Sebastian.  Not only were the successful, but they were critically praised.  I remember several interviews with top musicians of the time who said they never listed to top 40 radio – except for the Lovin’ Spoonful.

John Sebastian wrote nearly all their hit songs, but Zal was the most telegenic.  He was tall, wore cowboy hats and fringed jackets, and stood out whenever they were on TV.***  His ebullient personality made him a fan favorite.

Then it fell apart:  Zal was arrested for marijuana possession in 1967.

Now by that time, the charge didn’t hurt a rock musician’s career.  But Zal did the unthinkable:  under pressure from the police, and afraid he’d be deported back to Canada (or, at least, not allowed to return to the US if he ever went home), he named his supplier.

That was a betrayal. Fans were outraged, and it created tension in the group.  Zal left soon after.

In 1968, he released his solo album Alive and Well in Argentina. Even though he didn’t write much with the Lovin’ Spoonful, it had a similar sound – just goofier.

The songs were mostly cover versions of older songs, with a few originals.  Zal worked hard to make them fun to listen to.  “Little Bitty Prettey One” was a remake of a hit in from 1957, with a falsetto chorus and some nice harmonies.  “You Talk Too Much” was the same thing, and performed so that it was a humorous as possible.

The title tune was one of the few songs Yanovsky wrote by himself, a silly song about him ending up in South America, playing with the belief that Nazis moved down there after the war.  It has the sound of a wild party, and is, perhaps, commenting on Yanovsky exile from the rock scene.

The album didn’t crack the top 100, since it was probably too strange for mass appeal.  Zal also released a single, “As Long as You’re Here,” which was not on the original album, but was included on later versions.  It didn’t do wall.

After that, Zal disappeared from music.  He would occasionally show up unannounced at a John Sebastian concert, playing with his old friend, and had small gigs here and there, but spent his time running the Chez Piggy restaurant in Kingston, Ontario. He died in 2002.

*No, not that James Hendrix. 

**As the song went.

***Sebastian often played the autoharp on TV, which just looked strange for a rock ban.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Directed by
Tod Browning
Written by Tod Robbins
Starring Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Ogla Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Harris Ford, Daisy & Violet Hilton, Johnny Eck, Prince Randian, Josephine Joseph
IMDB Entry
Full Movie at

It’s always fun to see how attitudes have changed over the years.  When it came out, Freaks was considered so horrifying that they cut almost a half hour out of it.  Nowadays, I doubt anyone would be particularly frightened, but it has a strong message of accepting people as human beings.

Director Tod Browning had been making silent films for years, and was riding high at the time after his Dracula was a sensation.  In this case he adapted a short story and, drawing on his experience in a circus, filmed a movie about the sideshow performers – the “Freaks” of the title.

The story is set in the circus, where the midget Hans (Henry Victor) has a crush on the trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova).  It’s clear from the start that Cleopatra only pays attention to Hans because he has money, and when she discovers he is heir to a large inheritance, plots with her lover Hercules (Henry Victor) to marry Hans.  But it all fallse apart at the wedding dinner, leading to retaliation.

Most of the film, however, is not so much plot driven, as it is a slice of life in the circus.  Browning cast real circus performers, and they are certainly strange in appearance, but they are portrayed as no different from anyone else.  The sideshow performers are a family and the film is very much from their point of view.  We see the cruelty to them at every turn, but, at the same time, get a glimpse into their lives.  Much of it is mundane in a slightly skewed way:  the bearded lady has a baby; her husband, the human skeleton, hands out cigars.  The performers work in their specialties, but in a matter-of-fact ways that make things like the armless woman drinking a glass of beer seem like everyday events of no particular note.  The two leads, Phroso (Wallace Ford) and Venus (Leila Hyams) treat the others as equals, indicating that the audience should, too.

Bearded Lady with her baby

The wedding feast sequence is duly famous, as the group celebrates the marriage and begin to discover what a horrible human being Cleopatra is.  It all a joke to her, until the others begin to chant “Gooble Gobble, We accept her. One of Us, One of Us” and her repulsion comes to the fore.

The horror sequence comes at the end, as the performers take on a sinister air as they target Cleopatra and Hercules in a thunderstorm, lurking under circus wagons and in the shadows.  It’s moody piece that still holds up well, but, unfortunately, the final revelation of horror looks pretty damn silly to modern eyes.  The original cut may have been more scary.**

When the film came out, though, it was a sensation – in a bad way.  People were repulsed by the characters, and the film did terrible business.  It was banned in the UK for 30 years, and the reception pretty much put an end to Tod Browning’s career. 

It wasn’t until years later that the movie was rescued from obscurity and took its place in the pantheon of horror films.  It may not be scary nowadays, but it’s a terrific movie.

*They take revenge on Hercules – a thoroughly nasty sort – by castrating him.  Even those the film was pre-code, this didn’t fly.  As a result, you don’t see what happens to him.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Best (book)

the best(1974)
by Paul Passell and Leonard Ross

Before The Book of Lists and before Internet listicles, people argued what was the best in just about any category.  And that was the concept behind The Best, a book that entertainingly lays out what the authors think is the best in dozens of categories – and the reason for it.

I don’t know where the idea or the authors came from, but it was an inspired idea.  Covering topics like “The Best Science Fiction Novel” (Arthur Bester’s The Stars My Destination). the best Pepperidge Farm Cookie (Geneva), the Best Television Show (The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show), the Best Vice President (which shows that snark existed even back then:  William Wheeler, who only lasted a month in office) and many other categories. 

It’s really the sort of thing that places like Cracked is doing now, though they didn’t always go for the laughs.  But the book was a big enough success to spawn a sequel in 1977, The Best, Encore,* with topics like The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie (Mrs. A’s Choco-Crunch),** the Best Roller Coaster (Thunderbolt in Pittsburgh), and the Best Way to Skin a Cat (dermestid beetles).

The series ended there.  The books are extremely dated by now – not only have prices for items gone up, but many of the names are obscure nowadays.  Still, it was an nice entertainment that was ahead of its time.

*by Passell only.

**This was one of their few actual tests comparing what they were talking about.  It’s a bogus taste taste, though, since it didn’t include Freihofer’s Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Monday, September 30, 2013


Directed by
John Carpenter
Written by Bruce A. Evans & Raynold Gideon
Starring Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel
IMDB Entry

John Carpenter is known almost exclusively for his horror and science fiction horror films.  Though he did venture into humor with Dark Star, he generally stayed away from movies that didn’t scare anyone.  The one exception – and one of his most accomplished directorial efforts -- was Starman.

The movie starts when aliens discover the Voyager 2 space probe, with the gold disk that was set up to greet them.  They decide to head to Earth, where they are promptly shot down by the military.  One of the aliens makes his way to the home of the recently widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen).  Taking a few cells from the roots of a lock of hair, it takes the form of her late husband (Jeff Bridges).  The starman convinces Jenny to go with him to a rendezvous point so he can go back home.  Meanwhile, the chief of the NSA* George Fox (Richard Jaeckel)wants to save Earth from the “invasion’; while scientist Mark Sherman (Charles Martin Smith) wants to try to understand the aliens.

Though the movie is essentially a chase, it works because of the relationship that develops between Jenny and the Starman. She, quite rightly, freaks out seeing her husband again, and has to deal with seeing someone she loves who isn’t really what he looks like.  Karen Allen is excellent in showing the strong emotions inherent in the situation.

Jeff Bridges handles the clichéd “alien discovering humans” situation with a sense of wonder and aplomb.  It’s not played for laughs** and we learn to care for his situation.

It’s not a typical Carpenter film, probably because he was hired just to direct and had nothing to do with the screenplay.  Though he managed to make everything in it into one of the best adult SF films of the time,*** it’s not often considered part of his oeuvre**** and certainly the emotionality of the film and its ending are too far from his regular work for his fans to like.  The movie was critical success and Bridges was nominated for an Oscar.  financially, it broke even, but was not a smash hit.  Blockbusters continued to rule the genre, where science fiction like this, that deals with real people and real problems, is hard to find.  But if you want something more that the usual alien battles, Starman won’t disappoint. The film goes for and succeeds in creating the magic that is at the  heart of the SF genre.

*Yes, it’s been around that long  -- and longer.

**Well, maybe  a few chuckles.

***Most SF films, starting with Star Wars, were aimed for adolescents, not adults.

****to be pretentious.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Planet Patrol (Space Patrol) (TV)

Created by
  Roberta Leigh
Voices of  Dick Vosburg, Libby Morris, Ysanne Churchman, Ronnie Stevens, Murray Kash
IMDB Entry

GalasphereBack in the early 60s, Gerry Anderson’s “Supermarionation” puppet shows were about the only science fiction in TV.  Today, people fondly remember shows like Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5, and Supercar. But there was one of this type that I liked best and which no one ever seemed to mention.  I had forgotten the title, but clips of the Gerry Anderson shows never showed what I remembered most:  a space ship that looked like a top, that generated a sphere as it flew.  It took me years to track it down, and I discovered it wasn’t Gerry Anderson at all.  The show was Planet Patrol.*

The show was set in the year 2100, where the members of the Space Patrol** traveled through the solar system, investigating mysterious events.  The Patrol was let by Colonel Raeburn (Murray Kash), with his top pilot Captain Larry Dart (Dick Vosburgh) who commanded the Galasphere 347 with its crew, the Martian Husky (Ronnie Stevens) and the Venusian Slim (Libby Morris).  The crew were aided by Raeburn’s aide Marla (Libby Morris/Ysanne Churchman) and professor Haggerty (Stevens) and his daughter Cassie (Morris).

Space Patrol

The show tried to be as scientifically reasonable as possible.  The Galasphere stayed in the solar system, and would take months to reach its destination, using suspended animation if necessary.  The marionettes looked somewhat less goofy than the Gerry Anderson models.

Roberta Leigh, who created and wrote the show, was a successful children’s book and romance author when she joined up with Gerry Anderson in the 50s.  But with Planet Patrol, she was on her own, working on the show whose budget is miniscule. 

Still, the show did a lot with what it had.  One notable thing was that is used an all-electronic music score, the first on TV.***

Planet Patrol only ran 39 episodes.  Its production company didn’t have the deep pockets behind Gerry Anderson, and the crew moved on to other things.  Leigh tried another couple of TV series, Paul Starr and The Solarnauts, neither of which seemed to have made it to the US.  She then returned to her novels and is still writing today.

Voice actor Dick Vosburg appeared in several early Monty Python shows, and went on to write the Broadway hit A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.

Planet Patrol has faded from memory.  Indeed, it might have been completely lost if Roberta Leigh hasn’t discovered films of the shows in a storage locker.  It was a fine attempt at early SF that just didn’t catch on.

*Space Patrol in its original UK version.  The title was changed in the US due to an earlier live-action show that was very popular about ten years earlier.

**The title did not change for the US version.

***Doctor Who, whose theme song is often considered the first electronic one, premiered several months afterward.  Of course, Forbidden Planet had already done this a few years before in the movies.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

House of Cards (TV)

House of Cards(1990)
Directed by
Paul Seed
Written by Andrew Davies, Michael Dobbs
Starring Ian Richardson, Susannah Harker, David Lyon, Diane Fletcher
IMDB Entry.

The Netflix series House of Cards has been a major critical and popular success, so much so that its origin has been given short shrift.  But the original British series is at least as good and is, in may ways, better.

Note:  Here be spoilers for both series.  Proceed at your own risk.

Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is the Conservative Party whip in the UK.  After missing out on a cabinet appointment, Urquhart decides to oust the Prime Minister and take his place.  Encouraged by his wife Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher), he starts an affair with a political reporter Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) and quietly undermines the prime minister and discredits all potential rivals.

If you’re watching the Netflix version, this sounds familiar.  But Urquhart is different from Netflix’s Frank Underwood.   The differences between the US and UK political system make a big difference in the story, since Urquhart is able to directly work his way up to prime minister without an election, while Underwood has to be more indirect.  The relationship between Urquhart and Mattie is more perverse and Elizabeth takes a smaller but more significant role in the affair (she suggests it to him).

Francis UrquhartThe delight of the series is Ian Richardson.  He takes his cue from Shakespeare’s Richard III* and plays it more menacingly, while, at the same time, more charming.  He takes the audience into his confidence in a way that makes him seem appealing. While Spacey is a favorite actor of mine, Richardson plays the character with a little more depth and is far more unpredictable.

There’s also the matter of his catchphrase.  Urquhart often uses the line “You might very well think that.  I couldn’t possibly comment” as a way to lead the press the way he wants.  He gives the words different emphasis to make different points.

The series was successful enough to spawn two sequels:  To Play the King, where Prime Minister Urquhart goes up against the new king of England, and The Final Cut, where his administration finally falls.  It is exhilarating television.

*A role he had played on stage.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Thirteen Days

Directed by
Roger Donaldson
Written by David Self, from a book by Ernest May and Phillip Zelikov
Starring Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp, Dylan Baker, Bill Smitrovich, Ed Lauter, Kevin Conway
IMDB Entry

Sometimes history makes the best drama.  The Cuban Missile Crisis is a case in point, the closest we came to having the Cold War turn extra crispy.  Thirteen Days manages to distill the tension down into a single movie.

The move is history as John F. Kenney (Bruce Greenwood) tries to walk the tightrope of having the Soviets remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba without making the wrong move and starting a war.  The story is told through the eyes of JFK advisor Kenny O’Donnell* (Kevin Costner) as the administration tries to figure out the best way to deal with the situation, with advice coming from all directions.  Especially chilling is General Curtis Lemay (Kevin Conway) who would love to start dropping nukes on Moscow.

Despite everyone knowing the results, the movie ramps up the tension as Kennedy tries to figure out Soviet intentions, while avoiding an excuse for war.  The film used some documents that had been recently unclassified to shed light on what was involved.

Despite good reviews, the film flopped, not even coming close to earning its budget.  It was released late in the year, probably to get some Oscar buzz, but the buzz never materialized.  It’s still an gripping look into a frightening few days.

*In real life, there is controversy as whether O’Donnell was involved in events. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013


Directed by
Herbert L. Strock
Written by Tom Taggert (screenplay), Richard G. Taylor (additional dialog), and Ivan Tors (story)
Starring Richard Egan, Constance Dowling, Herbert Marshall, John Wengraf, William Schallert
IMDB Entry

Let’s face it:  modern science fiction films are stupid.  I don’t mean that they’re bad, or even poorly written, but there’s no attempt to portray intelligent scientists at work; it’s usually just action and monsters, devolving into alien invasion films that just are an excuse to spread alien and human blood all over the screen.* But in the 50s, even monster movies were given at least some scientific rationale behind matters.  Gog, while dumb in many ways, at least tries to avoid being stupid.

Producer Ivan Tors considered this part of his “Office of Scientific Investigation” trilogy, where the fictional agency looked into monsters and aliens threatening US security.  Tors went all out with this one, filming in color and in 3D.

Gog is set in a super-secret underground lab, where Dr. David Sheppard is summoned by director Dr. Van Ness (Herbert Marshall) in order to investigate some mysterious murders.  Sheppard is given a tour of the facility by his (top secret) girlfriend, Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling) and begins to focus on the abrasive Dr. Zeitman, who is responsible for the facility’s computer, NOVAC, and who has developed two robots, Gog and Magog to perform work.

I wouldn’t say anything about the plot is a surprise, and much of it is silly,** but the movie is entertaining and there’s an attempt to show scientists at work and to make a scientific rationale for all that goes on.

The film was cheaply made despite the color and 3D, shot entirely in a studio and probably was successful due to its low budget. 

Tors moved from movie to TV, producing Science Fiction Theater, Sea Hunt, Ripcord, Flipper, and Daktari.

*Critic Darrel B. Schweitzer remarked after seeing 12 Monkeys that it would be the last bit of intelligent science fiction Hollywood would make. The prediction is depressingly close to be accurate.

** Gog and Magog may have been sinister in 1954, but the look goofy today.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


Directed by
Don Roos
Written by Don Roos
Starring Ben Affleck, Gwyneth Paltrow, Natasha Henstridge, Tony Goldwyn
IMDB Entry
Bounce is based on an intriguing premise.  Buddy Amaral (Ben Affleck) is an adman, celebrating signing a big contract with an airline when the flight is delayed.  He runs into Greg Janello (Tony Goldwyn), a family man who is disappointed that he won’t get home in time to spend time with  his son.  Buddy decides to do a good deed:  he pull strings and switches tickets with Janello.
But the plane crashes.  Janello’s wife Abby (Gwyneth Paltrow) is devastated by the news.  Buddy feels guilty, especially after an ad campaign he designs glosses over the accident.  At the Clio Award ceremony, Buddy, drunk and guilty, acts out* and starts a fall into deep guilt.  He arranges to meet with Abby.  And slowly, they fall in love.
This is one of Ben Affleck’s best performances.  His Buddy is a flawed man, but one who wants to do the right thing, and has to tear his life apart before he’s finally able to do it.
Gwyneth Paltrow was at the top of her game here.  Her Abby also is filled with guilt, since she had wanted Greg to come home early, and her emotions when she’s waiting and hoping that Greg somehow survived are heartbreaking.
Director Don Roos had already scored with The Opposite of Sex. Bounce moved away from the comedy in that film into one of pure drama.  The film was a minor success, but not what it deserved to be.  Despite its heavy background, it’s really a romantic comedy without the comedy part, but which delves deeply into how a relationship can develop.
* As bizarre as his actions are, they are nothing like the debacle of the 1991 Clio Awards, where the entire ceremony – starting late and with none of the organizers showing up – ended up as a drunken fiasco where people started just grabbing awards and taking them home.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Great Science Fiction Stories (book)

Selected and Edited by Cordelia Titcomb Smith

Great SF storiesIn 1964, I went off to Camp Wawokiye on Nassau Point on Long Island.* We were only allowed to bring one book with us for the entire summer.  For someone who had turned into a voracious reader, that was an agonizing lack of material.  My choice was a new anthology of stories of the favorite type of reading, Great Science Fiction Stories.
The editor, Cordelia Titcomb Smith is something of a mystery.  Her biographical blurb indicates that she was a librarian at the Lucas County Library  in Maumee, Ohio, in a role that nowadays would be called a specialist in YA fiction.   She had never been connected with any other SF book.** 
The publisher, Dell Books, was a major paperback house in its day, but which rarely published science fiction.  This was part of their Laurel Leaf Library, which fits in the the YA feel.
But whatever the origins, the book took some of the best stories and authors from early SF and put them into paperback.  The table of contents reads:
  • Introduction -- Cordelia Titcomb Smith
  • Vital Factor -- Nelson S. Bond
  • Pottage -- Zenna Henderson
  • The Roads Must Roll -- Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Stolen Bacillus -- H. G. Wells
  • The Star -- H. G. Wells
  • Nightfall -- Isaac Asimov
  • History Lesson -- Arthur C. Clarke
  • In Hiding -- Wilmar H. Shiras
  • The Martian Crown Jewels -- Poul Anderson
  • The Sands of Time -- P. Schuyler Miller
  • Into Space (Excerpt from Round the Moon, the sequel to From the Earth to the Moon) -- Jules Verne
If you know anything about science fiction at all, you know half these writers:  Asimov, Heinlein, Wells, Clarke, Verne.  Poul Anderson is also a great one, though less know to the public at large.  Zenna Henderson made a reputation for her “People” stories (of which this is one) about aliens stranded on Earth.  Nelson Bond is successful but underrated.***  P. Schuyler Miller was book reviewer for Analog for years; this is the only example of his fiction I’ve come across.
And the stories!
  • “Vital Factor” shows exactly what you need to actually go to the stars, with a clever twist ending.
  • “The Roads Must Roll” is one of Heinlein’s best stories, about the use of immense conveyor belts for commuting traffic.  The engineering is fascinating, but it a slam-bang adventure, too.
  • “History Lesson” is one of the great works of the genre, with a Twilight Zone ending years before The Twilight Zone.
  • “The Star” by H.G. Wells is also a cynical look at disaster, completely different in tone from the famous Arthur C. Clarke story of the same name. 
And then there’s “Nightfall,” certainly one of the top ten stories of the Golden Age, and one that packs a punch even now.
I read these stories over and over that summer, in among the swimming and Nok Hockey games.  I was a fan of SF already, but the book made me a fan for life.
*Located in the hamlet of Peconic.  Its most famous resident was Albert Einstein, who spend the summer of 1939 there.
**Other than the UK version of this one, entitled The Best Science Fiction Stories 3.  It also looks like she co-wrote something in 1947 called Paul Bunyan in Geauga County, which seemed to be self-published.
***As I write this, I’m reading Bud Webster’s Past Masters and other Bookish Natterings about forgotten SF writers (highly recommended).  He covers Bond and I couldn’t recall ever having read him until I started on this entry.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Jean Kerr (writer)

Wikipedia Entry

Jean KerrErma Bombeck was America’s most popular newspaper humorist in the 60s and beyond, with a column of life as a suburban mom.  I grew up on Long Island and thus was familiar with her work from the beginning, since it appeared in Newsday in the mid-60s.  But I was never impressed by her because, you see, I had read Jean Kerr.*

Kerr was born Bridget Jean Collins in Scranton, PA and went on to get a master’s degree in Catholic University in Washington, DC, where she met and married a professor, Walter Kerr.  They moved to New Rochelle, NY, where Jean raised six children – and began to write about her experiences as Walter established himself as a drama critic.**

Kerr started out by writing plays, with a couple of DaisiesBroadway flops in the 40s.  Her marriage to Kerr meant she would make the rounds of Broadway parties, where she gained a reputation for being one of the theater crowd’s funniest people. After contributing sketches to a couple of successful revues, her first full-length success came in 1954 with King of Hearts.  By this time, and she had begun writing humorous essays on life in the suburbs for various magazines.  In 1957, these were gathered together into a single book:  Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. 

The book made her a success outside of New York. It was an immediate best seller and spawned both a hit movie (with Doris Day and David Niven) and a successful TV series.

Kerr continued to write for Broadway.  Her musical, Goldilocks, was a small success, and she ventured into essay territory with The Snake Has All the Lines.***  While not as big a success as Daisies, it still showed she was an incredibly funny writer.

Kerr, though was more interested in Broadway and, in 1961, her play Mary, Mary opened to great success, running over three years and closing as the forth longest-running non-musical play on Broadway.

She had two more collections of essays, Penny Candy and How I Got to Be Perfect, and three more plays: Poor Richard, Finishing Touches, and Lunch Hour.  The last was about a couple whose spouses were having an affair, and who started one of their own to get back.  It starred Gilda Radner post-SNL.****

At that point, Kerr retired.  I don’t know why she choose not to write, but it was a loss to comedy and Broadway.  She died in 2003.

*This is, of course, massively unfair to Bombeck, but I was in my teens.  The two women were doing different things, and, most notably, Bombeck was writing a column three times a week, while Kerr was content to publish occasional essays, allowing her more time to polish them.  I do sometimes wonder how much influence Kerr had on Bombeck.

**Later to become the most powerful drama critic in New York as chief critic for the New York Times.

***The title comes from a story she told about her son, who was cast as Adam in the church play.  She was complimenting him on getting the part:  “That’s the lead.”  Her son looked glum.  “Yes, but the snake has all the lines.”

****Along with future TV stars Sam (Law and Order) Waterston, David (Sledge Hammer) Rasche, and Max (wasting his talent in ALF) Wright

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Better Off Ted (TV)

Better Off Ted(2009-10)
Created by
Victor Fresco
Starring Jay Harrington, Portia de Rossi, Andrea Anders, Jonathan Slavin, Malcolm Barrett, Isabella Acres
IMDB Entry

There are some 21st century comedies that are smart and subtly hilarious.  Arrested Development.  Community. Both had trouble finding an audience, but were still renewed in the hope that they’d succeed (on video, if nothing else).  There’s a third show that should be added to that list:  Better Off Ted.

The show portrays the work life of Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington), an middle level executive in research and development of Viridian Dynamics, a corporation for whom the adjective “soulless” was coined. Ted knows the ropes and the disappointments of the company, and comes up against Linda Zwordling (Andrea Anders), who is a bit naïve about the cutthroat corporate politics.  The devil on his shoulder is his boss Veronica Palmer (Portia Di Rossi), who is as slick as she is self-centered, willing to do anything to get her way and look good for upper management.  Drs. Phil Myman (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem Hewitt (Malcolm Barrett) are lab scientists who work under Ted, finding new products and -- sometime inadvertently, sometimes by corporate design -- act a guinea pigs.  Finally, Rose Crisp (Isabel Acres) is Ted’s preteen daughter, which causes him to have to juggle his personal and professional life.

Ted acted as the narrator of each show, turning to the audience to set the scene, which usually involved some satire of corporate bureaucracy.   Some favorite episodes were:

  • Racial Sensitivity, where a new state-of-the-art sensor system had a minor flaw:  it didn’t detect black people.  Lem finds the lights going out when he was alone in a room, the elevators and automatic drinking fountains don’t work, and doors would not slide open.  The company managed to fix the water fountain – by supplying a separate but equal fountain for Blacks.
  • Jabberwocky.  Ted makes up a fake project for Linda, which soon takes on a life of its own, as others want to get in on the whole thing.  The episode ends with Ted and Veronica doing a presentation on the project, filled with flashy graphics that say absolutely nothing.
  • The Impertence of Communicationizing. A mistyped email tells the employees they “must now use offensive or insulting language in the workplace.”  Though Ted says they obviously meant “must not use…,” people don’t want to ignore the company directive and end up spewing some very funny insults at each other.*

Lem and Phil were a wonderful couple,** two smart but terrified guys who ended up getting dumped on by the company.  Portia di Rossi was typically good; Veronica was a corporate shark, but she made the character work. 

One of the delights were the fake ads for Viridian Dynamics.***  They had pleasant music and a female voiceover that was calm as soothing, as they talked about the wonderful things the company was doing, while the actual words and images indicated otherwise.

Despite weak ratings, ABC renewed the show for a second season.  But it didn’t help.  It always seems to be a struggle to keep smart comedy on the air.   But Better Off Ted should take its place as one of the best comedies of the 21st century.

*Outtakes indicate that they used some hilariously nasty stuff that wasn’t in the script.

**Len was married, though his wife was never seen.  Make what you will of that.

***I just realized the initials of the company were VD.  That can’t be by accident.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


Directed by
Michael Mann
Written by Michael Mann, from a novel by Frank Hohimer
Starring James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson, Jim Belushi, Robert Prosky, Dennis Farina
IMDB Entry

James Caan is an underrated actor. For the casual moviegoer, he’s only remembered for playing Sonny Coreleone in The Godfather, the role that brought him to prominence.  But he has a long history of excellent performances, and Thief is a case in point.

Caan plays Frank, a professional jewel thief who is looking to settle down a bit with a romance with Jessie (Tuesday Weld).  But when Frank’s fence is murdered, he goes to Leo (Robert Prosky) who wants Frank to work with him.  Frank is reluctant, but his relationship with Jessie gets serious, so he decided to take it up so they can have a good start.

Of course, things don’t work out that way.

Caan is excellent throughout, playing a man who has long kept his emotions bottled up and is tentatively opening up when things go wrong. It’s really his movie, and he hits all the notes perfectly. 

The rest of the cast also was perfect.  Robert Prosky was a great villain and Dennis Farina (in his first film role) was menacing as one of his thugs.  Even Jim Belushi* puts in a strong performance.

The other star of the movie is the score.  Tangerine Dream, a German electronic music group, was chosen to do the score.  It was controversial at the time, but the music is integral for setting the mood and creating excitement.  Here’s the opening sequence:

The success led to the group being used in quite a few successful films of the 80s.  Note, too, how well Caan plays a professional, tossing away jewels that don’t meet his standards.

The film was the first from director Michael Mann.  It’s a surprising achievement and it’s clear from the start he would be a major talent.  He’s primarily worked as a producer since then, but he certainly has been a major film success.**

 In memory of Dennis Farina.

*Who was detestable in According to Jim.

**The film’s producer, Jerry Bruchheimer was also fairly successful, and quite a few of the others in the cast became well known to viewers.

Friday, July 19, 2013


Directed by
Michael Hoffman
Written by Robert Harling (story & screenplay) and Andrew Bergman (screenplay)
Starring Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Robert Downey, Jr., Cathy Moriarty, Elisabeth Shue, Whoopi Goldberg, Carrie Fisher, Garry Marshall, Teri Hatcher, Kathy Najimy
IMDB Entry

There’s a thin line between soap opera and farce.  The daytime drama is an easy target for humor and satire, with its reputation for overwrought emotions and weird plot twists.  Soapdish was an attempt to play it all for laughs, and the result was one of the better comedies of the 90s.

The movie takes place on the set of the long running soap opera, The Sun Also Sets, whose star, Celeste Talbert (Sally Field) has a reputation as being “America’s Sweetheart.”  But co-star Montana Moorehead (Cathy Moriarty) wants to take her place, even seducing the producer David Barnes (Robert Downey, Jr.) to make it happen.  Barnes gets head writer Rose Schwartz (Whoopi Goldberg) to rewrite the script to bring back actor Jeffrey Anderson (Kevin Kline), who was kicked off the show by Celeste many years ago.  Part of that involves the introduction of a new character, played by Lori Craven (Elisabeth Shue), who adds more tension to the set.

The movie is a soap opera played for laughs; the off-stage antics of the actors parallels the outrageous plotting of the show within a show.  Secrets and relationships are revealed, all with a great amount of delicious overacting.  Much like in 20th Century, the actors soap opera play the roles they think they’re cast in.

Everyone is having a delicious time.  Kevin Kline was always great in farce, and this rivals his role in A Fish Called Wanda.  Sally Field shows that she can handle broad comedy, and Cathy Moriarty is always fun to watch.

The movie did adequately on the box office, but was not a breakout hit. Still, if you appreciate a silly farce on the tropes of soap opera, Soapdish is a treat.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Tonette (Music)

Wikipedia Entry

Music may be the food of love, and most kids love music from very early on.  And one of the big thrills is being able to make your own.  If you were growing up in the 50s, if you learned music in elementary school, you probably learned by playing the tonette.*

The tonette was invented in 1938 by Zienger Swanson of the Chicago Musical Instrument Company** in 1938 and quickly caught on in schools and in other places where a simple musical instrument was in demand.

The tonette was a plastic flute.  You blew in one end, which had a mouthpiece like a whistle. There were seven holes on the top (for your fingers***) and one on the bottom (for your thumb), so you could play a bit more than an octave.  Fingering was simple: the scale was played by lifting one finger at a time to get to the next note.  Thus Middle C require you cover all the holes, D would be all but the lowest, E would have the two lowest holes open, and so forth. 

The music was simple, but most kids loved being able to play “Three Blind Mice.” It has occasionally shown up in professional contexts; it can be heard in the background in Cream’s “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” played by Felix Pappalardi.

The instrument faded in popularity in the 60s.  Supposedly, it’s still being used now, but I can’t find any indication online that anyone is selling them, other than an occasional one on eBay.

*Or the Flutophone.  Our school switched at some point: I used the Tonette, but my brothers used the Flutophone.  Tonettes were black; Flutophones white with red trim, and tonettes didn’t have a bell (though they eventually added one; in both cases, the bell was for show and had nothing to do with the sound).

**Manufacturer of Gibson guitars for many years.

***The left pinky was placed in a ridged circle to hole the instrument.  The right thumb had the same sort of arrangement.

Sunday, June 23, 2013


Directed by
Michael Ritchie
Written by Jerry Belson
Starring Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon, Michael Kidd, Annette O’Toole
IMDB Entry

Satire was never an easy thing to pull off in film, but even when your target is as easy to hit as it is in Smile, it takes a lot to hit the mark.

The movie is a look into the maneuvering behind the scenes of a beauty pageant.  Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon) is the director of California’s “Young American Miss” pageant, which is coming to Santa Rosa. 

The movies is a series of vignettes, where Brenda has to keep the whole thing going, while dealing with the sexist* and crass Big Bill Freelander (Bruce Dern).  Brenda, being a former Young American Miss, is gung ho on the entire project, while most others are far more cynical.  Especially good is Annette O’Toole as one of the contestants** who’s been around pageants for years and knows the ropes.

The script is by Jerry Belson, who started out writing for TV, including The Dick Van Dyke Show and Hey, Landlord

At the time of the film, director Michael Ritchie was considered hot for his direction of Downhill Racer and The Candidate.  His next film, The Bad News Bears was probably his biggest success,  but his career after that was spotty.

This is a funny but forgotten film that deserved to be better know.

*Even by 1975 standards.

**Melanie Griffith is another.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Comedian Harmonists (music)

Comedian HarmonistsHarry Frommermann (tenor buffo), Ari Leschnikoff (first tenor), Erich Collins (second tenor), Roman Cycowski (baritone), Robert Biberti (bass), Erwin Bootz (piano) Entry

I’ve slowly been going through Spotify, listening to every artist listed in 1001 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. Some of the albums, of course, I’ve heard.  Others, I’ve heard about.  But there are many who I’ve never heard before.  All are pretty good, and occasionally, there’s one that blows me away.  That was my reaction to the Comedian Harmonists.

The group was formed in 1927, by Harry Frommermann, a German who wanted to create a jazz/pop vocal group like those he had heard from American bands.  Frommermann held auditions and soon got together five others to start performing.

The group quickly became a success.  It has an unusual and pleasing sound, as the melody switched off among the men, as they sang with terrific close harmonies.  Here’s an exampe:  Wochenend Und Sonnenschein (“Weekend and Sunshine,” though the tune might be familiar to you).


“Happy Days are Here Again”

But as the 1930s rolled on, the Comedian Harmonists ran into a problem:  The Nazis came to power.  Three of the members were Jewish, and the pianist was married to a Jewish wife.  Something had to give, and it was the Comedian Harmonists.  They were forbidden to perform in public.  Fromerman, Cycowski, and Collin fled Germany and tried to establish themselves as a new group, but the politics of the time made it impossible.  Those that remained behind also took on new members and continued to perform for a time, but when the war broke up, the group was forgotten.

Luckily, though, some remembered.  A documentary on German TV in 1977 by Eberhard Fletcher revived interest and CD have gathered together their songs.  They still have the power to delight after all these years.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


Directed by
Charles Jarrott
Written by Marc Stirdivat, from a novel by Robert Sheckley
Starring Michael Crawford, Oliver Reed, Barbara Carrera, James Hampton
IMDB Entry

Back in the mid-80s, I was at a science fiction convention where Roger Elwood* was a guest.  He was working for Disney at the time, and was promoting things with a trivia contest.  I gave him a question about Condorman.

He had never heard of it.  Nor had most of the audience.

Condorman was  based (very roughly) on a novel by science fiction author Robert Sheckley.  Though primarily thought of a a writer of humorous SF, Sheckley wrote in various genres.**  The Game of X was his entry in the spy spoof genre.  It tells the story of a man who gets involved in a minor spy operation but who is mistaken for X, the world’s greatest spy and is forced to become what he is mistaken to be.***

Disney made some major changes.  In the film, Woody Wilkins (Michael Crawford) is a comic book creator who even designs a suit for his hero, Condorman.  His friend Harry (James Hampton) asks him to bring some papers when Woody is traveling to Istanbul.  He meets up with Natalia (Barbara Carrera), a KGB agent who wants the papers, Woody telling her he’s a spy with the code name “Condorman.”  Later, Natalia decides to defect – but will only do it if Condorman helps her.

The movie is definitely light entertainment, and ultimately very silly.  It was barely released into theaters; I saw it as a sneak preview with The Fox and the Hound, but I never noticed it being advertised after that.

This was the last movie in which Michael Crawford appeared.  Usually when I write that, it means it’s a sad comment.  However, those who follow the stage know that Crawford became a theater legend, playing the Phantom of the Opera in London and on Broadway.  Barbara Carrera continued her spy career in Never Say Never Again.

The movie isn’t a great one, but is an interesting curiosity.

*Known primarily as a packager of anthologies; he did dozens of them, of varying quality and is often cited for killing the interest for paperback short story anthologies by flooding the market with time.

**At the time Condorman was released, he was near the top of 20th century sf authors who had their works adapted for film.  This was partly because adaptations of sf novels were rarely made (a situation that continues today).

***The situation is similar to North by Northwest and by The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, though less serious than the first and less funny than the latter.

****Other than one animated film.

Friday, May 31, 2013

A Thousand Clowns

A Thousand Clowns(1965)
Directed by
Fred Coe
Written by Herb Gardner
Starring Jason Robards, Barry Gordon, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam, William Daniels
IMDB Entry

Jason Robards has always been regarded as one of our best actors, both on stage* and in film and A Thousand Clowns is one of his most memorable film roles.

The movie follows the life of Murray Burns (Robards) who one day quits his job writing for a children's TV show to do what  he pleases.  Murray is the guardian of his nephew Nick** (Barry Gordon) as he gets away from the rat race and lives life fully.

But there are complications, in the form of two investigators from the Child Welfare Board, Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris) and Albert Amundson (William Daniels), who threaten to remove Nick from the Murray if he can't show he is capable of being a guardian.

Murray and NickThe movie was a Broadway hit brought to film, with much of the original cast reprising their roles.  Thus the acting is smart an assured.  Robards is funny, very charming, mercurial, and a character you can't keep your eyes off, while Barry Gordon managed to be portray a smart kid in a way that's not too cute and not too artificial. It's something to watch him work with Robards; the two have a special rapport gained from doing the show on stage.

Barbara Harris, in her first film, is a charming love interest, while William Daniels portrays the strait-laced character that he's always known for.  Both are great, but Martin Balsam, as Murray's brother Arnold, who tries to talk sense into him, won a supporting Oscar for the role.  It could easily have gone to anyone else in the cast and, indeed, the film was nominated for Best Picture that year.

The movie did OK in the box office, and most of the cast made a real mark in films and Broadway.  Even Gene Saks, who played Murray's former boss, was a big success, though as a director.  And Herb Gardner, who wrote the play and screenplay, had several other Broadway successes, most notable, I'm Not Rappaport.**** Barry Gordon, while never a star, is still working pretty steadily, a major accomplishment for a child actor.  Oddly, Fred Coe only directed one more file, though he did work in TV.

The play is revived from time to time, but the movie seems to become obscure.  That's too bad, since it's an entertaining and funny film.

*Where he's considered one of the greatest interpreters of Eugene O'Neill.

**His name during the movie.  Nick is allowed to choose his own name and has in the past used Wilbur Malcome Burns, Theodore Burns,  Raphael Sabatini, Dr. Morris Fishbein, Woodrow Burns, Chevrolet Burns, Big Sam Burns , and Lefty Burns

***It was first a Broadway hit, with many of the original cast making it to the movie.

****Gardner's name appeared regularly in the New York Magazine competition, where readers were asked to submit small, funny bits on a particular theme.  Gardner's entries seemed to show up just about every week, and someone once even used his name as one of the jokes.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia (book)

by Lillian Roxon

Rock music was always slightly disreputable, which is a major part of its popularity and charm.  And because of this, few critics took it seriously. One of the first was Lillian Roxon, and her Rock Encyclopedia was a critical landmark:  the first attempt to list the groups that made the genre.

Roxon was born Lillian Ropschitz in Italy.  He family, fleeing fascism in Europe,* migrated to Australia in 1937 and changed their name to Roxon.  Lillian became a journalist and moved to New York city in 1939 as an overseas correspondent.  By the mid-60s, she turned her attention to rock music.  She became part of the rock scene by being willing to take it seriously and she had a good eye for what groups might make it big.

By 1968, she had developed enough of a reputation to put together the major project:  the world’s first encyclopedia of rock.   The book covered all the major acts, of course, but also many minor ones, and included what she saw as interesting new groups.** 

But what made the book special was Roxon’s writing.  This wasn’t a dry listing of groups and their history, but an entertaining and lively personal journey through the music.  Some of the entries were unforgettable, as this description of how B.B. King was introduced to rock fans at a concert where he was billed beneath Elvin Bishop and Eric Clapton:

“Well, for a start, old B. doesn’t even stand up. He doesn’t have to. He just sits back in his chair, still relaxin’, smilin’ a little and smokin’ his Tiparillo, and suddenly he lets go a little pure and ever-so-simple soul.  Like he’s been doin’ this for a long time.  No fancy playing now, just a couple of strokes, and – well, the whole room is wiped out.”

She could have a wonderfully dry sense of humor as in this entry about the Royal Guardsmen:

“Their song depicting Snoopy (the Peanuts dog) fighting the Red Baron became a million seller in three weeks. One month later, they did a sequel to it.  And one year later, `Snoopy’s Christmas.’  Some people question the Royal Guardsmen’s imagination.”

After the book, Roxon continued to write on rock and on feminist issues, but her health started failing as she developed asthma.  She died in 1973.

The Rock Encyclopedia is her legacy.  There was an attempt to revise in in 1978 with Ed Naha brought in to update the book, but Naha*** was not in Roxon’s league as a stylist, and the book was rewritten to eliminate some of the more obscure entries and adding new groups from the previous decade.  It was considered inferior to the original.

The book is a bit dated, and some of the groups have been forgotten.**** But the book was and still is the perfect snapshot of where rock was in 1969.

*She was Jewish.

**The Rock Encyclopedia, for instance, had an article on Soft White Underbelly, a group from Stony Brook, Long Island that had not even put out an album yet.  You’ve probably never heard of them, but you have heard of the name they finally settled on:  Blue Oyster Cult.

***Whose most famous work was his screenplay for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

**** Acts such as the Brotherhood, the Candymen, Even Dozen Jug Band, Penny Whistlers, and Stone Country, and Jeremy Steig and the Satyrs, who had two entries in the Encyclopedia, under “Jeremy” and “Steig”.