Sunday, September 17, 2017

Oscar Levant (actor, musician, wit)

image(1906-1972)
Wikipedia Page

Some people are famous for being famous. That was how I first noticed Oscar Levant in the 60s, most notably from the title of his autobiography, Memoirs of an Amnesiac. All I knew was that he seemed to show up on talk shows and people regarded him well. It wasn’t until much later that I learned about his genius.

Levant was born in Pittsburg, but moved to New York City in his teens, where he studied piano. He became quite good at it, and moved to Hollywood, where he befriended George Gershwin and worked as a composer, writing both film music and hit songs, as well as working on classical pieces.

In the early 30s, he came to public attention as one of the panelists on the radio show Information Please.  Levant became known for his encyclopedic knowledge and his quick wit. He was a master of ad libbing hilarious one-liners.

This became his step toward stardom. He started appearing in movies, usually playing a wisecracking pianist. His most extensive role was probably in The Band Wagon, where he’s songwriting parter with Nanette Fabray.*  He even briefly had a TV show.

His piano playing, though, took him into the classical world. He became known as one of the best interpreters of George Gershwin and his recording of Rhapsody in Blue was for many years considered one of the best.

Through everything, Levant had a rather complicated personal life. He was a massive hypochondriac, and had numerous neuroses, which he was very open about.

He also tended to do his own thing.  Harpo Marx told of how he just showed up on his doorstep one day, announcing he was going to be Harpo’s houseguest and stayed there for months. Levant did that to other of this friends and then, suddenly, announce he was leaving and go somewhere else.

Harpo also praised his piano playing. In one story, he interrupted the performance of a trio, replaced the pianist and finished the piece with them – one he had never played before – so that the others in the group felt like he’d been practicing with them for years.

Levant was a heavy smoker and died of a heart attack in 1972. Much of his radio work has been lost, and the talk show appearances are even harder to find. But I still was able to find one of of his greatest one-liners, the one that showed me he was a comic genius.

There’s not a lot about him on the Internet, and his book is out of print, but he was a man who was always a delight wherever he appeared – neurotic tics and all.

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*Supposedly, based on Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

O Lucky Man!

O Lucky Man(1973)
Directed by
Lindsay Anderson
Written by David Sherman, based on an original idea by Malcolm McDowell
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts, Arthur Lowe, Helen Mirren
IMDB Page

In 1968, British director Lindsay Anderson had a success with the movie, If…, starring Malcolm McDowell in his first major film role as a British schoolboy who ends up leading a bloody revolution against his school.  McDowell want to work with Anderson again, and the director suggested he write a screenplay based upon his life so far. A few years later, McDowell, now a big name after his lead role in A Clockwork Orange, handed a treatment to screen writer David Sherman.* The result was O Lucky Man!

In the meantime, Anderson had struck up a friendship with songwriter Alan Price, planning a documentary about the band touring England. That fell through, but Anderson decided to ask Price to write the songs for the movie.  These were quickly included and an album released.

The movie is hard to describe.  It shows Mick Travis** trying to find his way in life, starting out as a coffee salesman*** and moving on, trying to keep his principles in a world where success requires he ignore him.  It’s a very picaresque movie, where Mick goes from one thing to another, some real, some surreal. Actors play multiple characters throughout the film and there’s an allegorical subtext about the entire enterprise.

The final scene is memorable:  Travis ends up at a casting call, where a director (Lindsay Anderson) is clearly casting If… 

Throughout, the Alan Price songs comment on the action.

The movie was a critical success and eventually Anderson and McDowell were reunited for a third Mick Travis film,Britannia Hospital.  The three films a a long allegory about life in the UK in the 60s, and are fun to watch on many levels.

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*Screenwriter of If…

**The same name of McDowell’s character in If…

***A job McDowell had before he became an actor.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Ventures (Music)

The Ventures(1958 – )
Members: 
Don Wilson (rhythm guitar), Bob Bogle (lead guitar, bass), Nokie Edwards (bass, lead guitar), Howie Johnson (drums), Mel Taylor (drums).
Wikipedia Page
Band Webpage 

One of my jobs at my college radio station was to listen to new albums as they came in, pick the top tracks, and decide if we wanted to keep them. One day a new album came in from a group I had thought was washed up years ago. But playing it, I discovered that, even though they seemed to be relics of the past, they were still able to put out some excellent stuff, and I immediately gained a new respect for them.  That group, of course, was the Ventures.

The group was formed by Don Wilson and Bob Bogle in 1958.  Wilson and Bogle were both guitarists; they added Nokie Edwards as bass, and Howie Johnson as their drummer.  Edwards later switched to lead guitar, with Bogle picking up the bass.

Their first single, “Walk Don’t Run” was a major hit.  Like most of the Ventures’ work, it was an instrumental and a cover, but it put the group on the map. The Ventures helped to develop the “surf music” sound that the Beach Boys made their own.

After getting hurt in a car accident, Howie Johnson stepped out, and Mel Taylor replaced him to form the longest lived lineup of the group.

The Ventures were nothing if not prolific. They did dozens of studio albums in the 60s, 3-5 a year.  It probably helped that they were a cover band, which allowed them to keep up that sort of pace.  But they didn’t remain in the public consciousness.  Their albums* did OK, but they had very little success on the singles charts. They fell out of consciousness until 1969, when they were tapped to play the theme song for a new TV show.  “The Hawaii 5-0 Theme” was their biggest hit and what they’re best known for today.

The group is known for pioneering new musical ideas. They created concept albums, with The Colorful Ventures in 1961** and were one of the first to use a fuzzbox.

Though the group stopped making the charts with “Hawaii 5-0,” the continued to perform and record and were especially popular in Japan.***

The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.  They continue to tour today (mostly in Japan), with Don Wilson still taking part.

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*They were primarily an album band, unusual for the early 60s.

**Each song had a color in the title.

*** Since they mainly did instrumentals, the language barrier isn’t an issue.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Crazyhead (TV)

(Crazyhead: Susan Wakoma (l), Clara Theobald (r)2016)
Created and Written by
Howard Overman
Starring Clara Theobald, Susan Wakoma, Arinze Kene, Lewis Reeves, Riann Steele, Tony Curran, Lu Corfield
IMDB Entry

There’s so much good TV around these days that some excellent shows get lost in the shuffle. I didn’t hear about Crazyhead until recently, and when I discovered it was written by Howard Overman of Misfits  (the best superhero show ever broadcast), I knew I had to watch it.

The story starts out with Amy (Clara Theobald), who works at a bowling alley and has been having some strange visions. She thinks she’s cracking up until she runs into Raquel (Susan Wakoma), who sets her straight:  the two of them have the ability to see demons, who possess humans, killing them. Amy’s best friend Suzanne (Riann Steele) is one of them, and they have to perform an exorcism, which goes horribly wrong. But they discover that Raquel is an essential element of a plot by Callum (Tony Curran) to set loose the gates of hell and release demons into the world.  Callum also is Raquel’s psychologist, and uses this to keep one step ahead of them.  The enlist Jake (Lewis Reeves), a guy from work who has a crush on Amy as their ally, while keeping everything secret from Raquel’s brother Tyler – who Amy is attracted to.

The parallels to Buffy the Vampire Slayer are clear, and the show is much like it, with a sense of humor about everything, like the demon Mercy (Lu Corfield) who has taken over a single mother and laments having to get a babysitter when she goes out to destroy the world. 

Susan Wakoma is just plain terrific as Raquel – blunt, foul mouthed, and strongly opinionated.  She won an award for best performance and certainly deserves it.

Clara Theobald is very good as Amy, a voice of reason against Raquel’s wilder side.  Tony Curran makes a great villain – devious but capable of getting off some very good lines.

The show ran for six episodes, finishing the first story arc. Unfortunately, it was not picked up for a second season. But it’s available on Netflix and is extremely good. Not quite Misfits (but that’s  hard to top), but an excellent supernatural comedy horror show.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

To Be Alive!

Johnson's Wax Pavilion(1964)
Directed by
Francis Thompson and Alexander Hammid
Written by Francis Tompson, Alexander Hammid, Edward Field
Narrated by Edward Field
Wikipedia Entry
Most of the exhibits of the New York World’s Fair were real: models and buildings that portrayed the future and the past. But one of the most acclaimed exhibit of the fair was the Johnson’s Wax pavilion – a short movie called to be alive!
Part of it was a gimmick. This was a few years after Cinerama brought the (mixed) wonders of a super wide screen to theaters, but the fad had not quiet died yet.  To be alive! tried something similar, but instead of having three cameras projecting across one extra wide screen, it use three regular-sized screens separated by a foot of black. This was easier to deal with technically, and audiences learned to ignore the black space immediately.
The movie is the musings of a narrator, who, tired of the rat race,* starts to wax poetic about how things were when he was a child.  The movie starts with the life of a child, and then follows a life span as it celebrates human existence. 
The strength of the film is in its images, which show people from all over the world, doing what the love and enjoying the world around them. The three-screen format was a feast for the eyes.
The film was a sensation.  The New York Critics Film Circle gave it a special award, unprecedented for a nontheatrical film. It was considered ineligible for an Oscar because of its format, so they cut it down into on single-screen version that played in LA and won the award for documentary short.  While still inspiring, the movie loses much of its impact when you cut out 2/3rds of the images.  Here’s a look:

The movie, like most of the World’s Fair, was ephemeral, more so because it required special equipment to project it. But it was a minor masterpiece that deserves to be remembered.
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*The images were very similar to those used years later in Koyaanisqatsi

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Missionary

image(1982)
Directed by
Richard Loncraine
Written by Michael Palin
Starring Michael Palin, Maggie Smith, Trevor Howard, Denholm Elliott, Phoebe Nicholls
IMDB Entry

HandMade Films was a UK-based film company that had a long list of good films to its credit in the 1980s. It’s founding was due to a favor. The Monty Python group had discovered that the financing for Life of Brian fell through at the last minute, George Harrison stepped in to produce it.* The studio continued successfully for about twenty years, producing dramas like The Long Good Friday and comedies (often involving the Monty Python actors) like The Missionary.

In 1906, the Rev. Charles Fortescue (Michael Palin) is returning to England after ten years as a missionary in Africa, where his fiancée, Deborah Fairbanks (Phoebe Nicholls). Fortescue is soon given an assignment by the Bishop (Denholm Elliott) to help fallen women redeem themselves. To help set things up, Fortescue writes for money from Lord Ames (Trevor Howard) and is invited to their home, where he meets his wife Lady Isobel (Maggie Smith), who is especially interested in the project (and in Fortescue). But Fortescue goes into the work and begins to develop a . . . different way to bring the women to his church.

Michael Palin is perhaps the most underrated comedian in Monty Python, and shows off his acting in portraying Fortescue as an innocent who slowly begins to figure out what is going on. Maggie Smith is excellent (of course) as Lady Isobel, who is far from the prim and proper English lady.  Phoebe Nicholls is a wonderful surprise as the aggressively naïve fiancée** and the rest of the cast is filled with veteran UK actors who know how to make the most of their roles.

The movie is more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, but is an entertaining and somewhat bawdy delight.

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* Eric Idle called it “the most expensive movie ticket every bought.”

** When asked what she thinks a fallen woman is, she says, “Women who have hurt their knees?”

Sunday, July 16, 2017

My Hero (TV)

My Hero(2000-2006)
Created by
Paul Mendelson
Starring Ardal O’Hanlon, Emily Joyce, Geraldine McNulty, Hugh Dennis, Lill Roughley, Philip Whitchurch, Lou Hirsch
IMDB Entry
Superhero TV shows usually concentrated on the acts of heroism and derring-do. But My Hero did a different take, using another common sitcom trope: the fish-out-of-water comedy.
It features the life of Thermoman (Ardal O’Hanlon), a superhero from the planet Ultron, but mostly his civilian life as George Sunday.  George runs a health food shop and develops a crush on Janet Dawkins (Emily Joyce)  after rescuing her from falling in the Grand Canyon. Janet is a nurse, working with Dr. Piers Crispin (Hugh Dennis), a raging egomaniac, and Mrs. Raven (Geraldine McNulty), who has the disposition of Attila the Hun. Arnie (Lou Hirsch) is a friend of George from Ultron who tries to guide him about human ways and Tyler (Philip Whitchurch) is an aging hippy who knows George’s identity, but is constantly spouting nonsense, so no one believes him.
George is still confused about Earth habits and expressions. It’s an old gag about the foreigner who takes everything literally,* but the show was endlessly inventive in keeping it fresh, mostly because George is smart enough to realize it pretty quickly when it happens. O’Hanlon is just perfect in the role – confused, but also very charming.  Emily Joyce is impressive as the calm center of the action, the straight woman to the madness around her.**  Geraldine McNulty is terrific as the woman who has a nasty word for everyone.
The show makes the most of the talents of the actors involved, and the writing is top-notch. In many ways, this was My Favorite Martian in England, but the main difference is that the show dealt with more human issues instead of just gimmicks.
My Hero ran 51 episodes over six years. The final year, they tried to pull a Doctor Who and replace O’Hanlon with another actor, but the show died off after that.
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*I can think of examples of it from The Three Stooges.
**One nice thing is that they don’t drag out the revelation that George is Thermoman – Janet finds out 2/3rds of the way into the first episode.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

New York World’s Fair

New York World's Fair(1964-65)
Wikipedia Entry

I was turning twelve when the 1964 New York World’s Fair came to Flushing. It was a couple of hours away from where I lived and its combination of spectacle and education. I loved it.

The fair was an attempt to repeat the success of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but it ran into a snag. The Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) had rules as to what could be termed a “World’s Fair,” and the New York one broke several of them, so the fair was not officially sanctioned, and its members were told not to take part. But New York went ahead anyway, and used exhibits from corporations and from countries that were not BIE members.

Back then, I didn’t pay much attention to the politics (though I did know it wasn’t official).  It was a World’s Fair as far as I was concerned, and I loved it. 

Twelve wasn’t considered too young to be on your own, so several times I wandered the grounds on my own. 

Some of the things that still stay in my mind.

  • The Vatican Pavilion. One of the must-see items of the fair, since they brought Michelangelo's Pieta to the US for the first time. In order to accommodate the crowds, you stood on a conveyor belt that rushed you past the statue in about 30 seconds.  The statue was behind a glass wall with a blue background.  I remember being vaguely disappointed by it.
  • General Electric.  A favorite, partially because my father sold GE appliances and TVs.  “The Carousel of Progress” was the big draw, showing how electricity had changed everyday life. A similar exhibit was set up in Disney World,* with one essential difference:  in the World’s Fair, the audience moved on a carousel around the exhibits in the center.  Nowadays, the audience remains in one place while the center turns.  That was a big disappointment when I saw the exhibit in Disney World.
  • The Ford Motor Company. It had a “Magic Skyway” ride, where you got into an actual Ford convertible and saw models of history from prehistoric times to the future of 2000. I remember the cars more than I do the rides.
  • General Motors. Their answer was “Futurama.” Their moving chairs were no match for Ford’s cars, but their vision of the future in the 21st century was just what my science-fiction loving heart desired.
  • Pepsi Pavilion. Loosed “It’s a Small World After All” on the world. I found it cloying even back then.

Equitable Life

  • Equitable Life.(above) Not much there except for a giant readout showing the current population of the US.  For some reason, I found that fascinating.
  • New York State Pavilion. I liked the fact that they showed my (rather small) home town on a giant map of the city. It had three observation towers, who are best known today as a plot element of Men in Black.
  • Belgian Pavilion I didn’t spend much time here, but it was famous for introducing American to Belgian Waffles and for the fact that it was so delayed that it wasn’t completed until the final day of the first season of the fair.
  • Tad’s Steak House. One of the restaurants at the fair. Hardly the best, but quite a bargain – a steak dinner for $1.29! You got what now I’d call an indifferent grilled steak, baked potatoes, and garlic bread. All during my youth, a trip to NYC included at stop at Tad’s.

I probably went five or six times; toward the end, the novelty had worn off. My mother, who had been to the New York World’s Fair in 1939 said that this was nowhere near as good, but I thought it was great.

Of course, it came to and end.  Most of the pavilions were taken down (I had thought that was a waste, though it seems none were built to last more than a few years, anyway). The two that remained were New York and the Unisphere, the symbol of the Fair.

Still, it gave me many happy memories.

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*Disney had created many of the rides at the fair.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Good Place

(2016- )
Created by
Michael Schur
Starring Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, D'Arcy Carden, Jamella Jamil, Manny Jacinto
IMDB Entry

It's rare that I talk about a TV show currently in production; I've only done it once. But I'm going to add another with what is both the funniest and cleverest TV currently on major network TV:  The Good Place.

The premise of the show is a little different: the main character dies in the very beginning.  Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself in the Good Place, where you go where you live is particularly exemplary. She is briefed by Michael (Ted Danson), who is the architect of the place, designed for eternal bliss and is given a house and a soul mate Chidi (William Jackson Harper).  There's only one problem:  She's there by mistake.

Eleanor's life was far from exemplary, and she knows it. She confesses this to Chidi and learns that there's also a Bad Place, which is just plain awful. So she enlists him to help her pass.

They are next door to Tahani (Jamella Jamil), a woman who raised billions of dollars for charity and her soul mate Jianyu, a Buddhist monk who's kept a vow of silence since he was a child.  Eleanor takes a dislike to Tahani for her goody-goody unctuousness, but doesn't want to risk being found out. She also gets information from Janet (D'Arcy Carden), an information assistant who is there to answer questions.

Things are bad enough for Eleanor, but she discovers that, because she doesn't belong there, bad things start to happen.

One great thing is that the show is really an ongoing story. And creator Michael Schur is not afraid to tighten the screws on Eleanor and make changes in the situation. It quickly goes beyond the original setup, and Schur is a master of dropping a bombshell at the end of each episode.

And it's funny.  Tahani's constant namedropping, Chidi's frustration with Eleanor's self-centeredness, Michael's frustration with things going wrong -- all are a constant source of funny lines.  One of the cleverest running gags is the fact that you can't swear in the Good Place, which allows Eleanor to be foulmouthed without making the FCC mad. 

Another very funny gag is the list of the point system that gets you into the Good Place.**

Good things

It's hard to talk about the show without giving away too much, but I will say that it's even funnier if you watch it all a second time.

NBC has the entire first season (13 episodes) on line. Watch it, and then go back and watch it again.  You won't be disappointed.

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*For example, "Holy motherforking shirtballs!"

**There's also a serious discussion of philosophy and what makes someone "good" hidden among the jokes and plot.

Note: Any comment containing spoilers will be deleted.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

In Memory of John Avildsen

Known best for Rocky and The Karate Kid, John Avildsen has a long list of good movies and great performances, guiding several actors to Oscar nominations and giving several household names at start.

Cry Uncle

Neighbors


Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Joey Bishop Show (TV)

Joey Bishop Show(1961-69)
Starring
Joey Bishop, Abby Dalton, Corbett Monica, Joe Besser, Mary Treen
IMDB Entry

The Rat Pack is back in style and people know all about Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., who have become Las Vegas icons. But in their original incarnation, there were two others:  Peter Lawford, who is best known these days (if at all) for marrying into the Kennedy clan, and Joey Bishop.

Bishop was a comedian who actually wrote most of the jokes for the rest of the pack.  After he turned to acting, he caught the attention of Danny Thomas, who put him into an episode of Make Room for Daddy, as Joey Mason, a bumbling Hollywood PR agent.  The next year, this setup (with the character renamed Joey Barnes) formed the basis for The Joey Bishop Show. 

It wasn’t a success. It stumbled along with mediocre ratings the first year. NBC gave it another chance, with the request it be revamped. So, in 1962, everything had changed.*  Bishop was the only cast member retained and the concept was that he was a talk show host who lived in New York. He was married to Ellie (Abby Dalton) and was friends with his head writer Larry Corbett (Corbett Monica).  The cast was rounded out by Mr. Jilson (Joe Besser), and Hilda (Mary Treen), their maid.

Show castThe show was filled with gentle comedy. The jokes may have worn a little thin, but the stories hold up surprisingly well.  Barnes is a decent guy with a sense of humor and Bishop’s relaxed and subtle style – he never appeared to work to be funny – was charming to watch.

The cast was a delight.  I think I had a little crush on Abby Dalton; her Ellie was well rounded and very grounded.  Corbett Monica – a successful standup comedian, too,** and had some of the sharper line.

Joe Besser, of course, is a familiar name.  He was the fifth of the Three Stooges, a replacement after Shemp died. He is not well regarded by Stooges fans, but he was usually the best thing in the mostly recycled films of their later career.  I remember liking Mr. Jillson mostly because he was one of the Stooges, and he was better here than with the other two.

The show moved to CBS for its final season.  In 1967, Bishop tried to compete with Johnny Carson with a late night show that ran for two seasons.  After that, he worked occasionally, but never headlined. 

It’s too bad.  Once it found its stride, the show is one of the best of its era.

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*I’m featuring this version of the show, since it’s the one I watched as a teen.

**I was delighted to see him as one of the comedians talking in the deli in Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Whale Rider

(2002)
imageDirected by
Niki Caro
Written by Niki Caro, from a book by Witi Ihmaera
Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene
IMDB Entry

Like many small countries, New Zealand’s film industry is small* and few of their films make it to the US.  Despite being English-speaking, they have the curse of being considered “foreign films,” so few people go see them. But one of the most successful was the powerful coming-of-age film, Whale Rider.

It’s the story of Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), the granddaughter of a village leader, who is the descendant of Paikea, a legendary figure who came to the village by riding a whale. Tradition says that the position is passed on to the eldest grandson of the previous leader, but Pai not only has the misfortune of being a girl and thus ineligible, but her mother and her fraternal twin died in childbirth and there are no more siblings.  Her grandfather (Rawiri Paratene) blames her for the deaths, and,  when she shows some interest in becoming the next leader, refuses to let her try it because of her gender.

The movie hinges on Keisha Castle-Hughes.  She was 13 when the film was shot, but produced a bravura performance.  She was nominated for a best actress Oscar, the youngest person at the time to get that honor, and it was certainly well deserved.

Overall, it’s a story about triumph over hide-bound thinking, and a joyous film to watch.

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*Lord of the Rings was shot there, but it was not a New Zealand film any more than Star Wars was a Moroccan film.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Good Morning, World (TV)

Opening title(1967-68)
Created by
Bill Persky and Sam Denoff
Starring: Joby Baer, Ronnie Schell, Julie Parrish, Billy De Wolfe, Goldie Hawn
IMDB Entry

Goldie Hawn rocketed to stardom after appearing on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In. The story of her getting the role is well known: she was a struggling actress who blew a line at her audition, and giggled at her own mistake. The producers loved it, and gave her a part and her stardom began from her very first regular TV gig . . . except that it’s wrong.  Hawn had already moved up the ladder of success with a regular part in the CBS comedy, Good Morning, World.

The show had a great pedigree.  It was created by Dick Van Dyke Show writers Bill Persky and Sam Denoff and had as executive producers TV greats Sheldon Leonard (Make Room for Daddy, Andy Griffith, I Spy) and Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show). It was designed as a vehicle for Ronnie Schell, who seemed on the verge of stardom after a stint on Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.). 

The show was about two morning DJs – David Lewis (Joby Baker) and Larry Clarke (Schell).  Lewis was married to Linda (Julie Parrish), while Clarke was a bachelor.  Lewis and Clarke often run afoul of their by-the-book boss, Roland B. Hutton (Billy De Wolfe). David and Linda’s next door neighbor, Sandy Kramer (Hawn), acted as a sounding board for Linda and a sometime date for Larry.

Good Morning World

The stories showed how the two men balanced their work life (where they were “crazy” DJs of the time) with their home life. Not entirely innovative, but Persky and Denoff were among the top writers of sitcoms in their day, writing many classic episodes of Dick van Dyke and That Girl, so the show was consistently funny.

During the show’s run, Laugh-In  was cast and Goldie left. It’s unclear if any of her episodes were run while she was appearing on Laugh-In; if they had, she would have joined the list of people who appeared in series on two different networks at the same time (she certainly qualifies if it’s in the same season).*

Despite a good time slot, the ratings were never particularly good for the show, and it was canceled after one season.  Schell returned to Gomer Pyle and the sitcom went to an obscure corner of sitcom heaven.

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*The champion of this was Jim Backus, who was on two series on two networks at the same time – and in the same time slot.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

People Will Talk/The Celebrity Game (TV)

(1963,1964, 1965)

Celebrity GameCreated by Merrill Heatter & Bob Quigley
Hosted by Dennis James, Carl Reiner
IMDB Entry

From back the the radio days, there was a specific style of game show, where the game really wasn’t the point. The best-known early example of that was Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, where the game took a back seat to the action. More modern examples include things like The Match Game. In the middle, one nice example of the form was People Will Talk.

The show, hosted by Dennis James, involved asking a group of nine celebrities simple yes-and-no opinion question. Then the contestants would pick a star and say what they thought the answer would be. If they were right, they won money.* It was not intended to be a serious discussion of the question, but the fun was having the celebrity talk about their answers.

Typical questions were “Should there be a different speed limit for women drivers?” or “Are performers really more self-centered and temperamental than other people?”

The show only lasted six months in its original run in 1963. But the next year, it was back again under the name The Celebrity Game. Carl Reiner had taken over as host, but otherwise it was the same as before.

The most memorable part of the show for me was on episode where the question was “Should a man wear a toupee?”  It was the second question of the show, and during the commercial break Reiner, who had always worn a toupee, appeared without it.**

The second run wasn’t much more successful than the first, and was cancelled after five months.

But things weren’t done yet.  It was revived once more a (with Reiner again) in the spring of 1965, probably because it was a relatively cheap filler for a terrible timeslot.***  And it also showed up in reruns in the daytime of late 1967-68.

It clear that creators Heatter and Quigley loved the concept, and finally were able to make it work, when, the next year, they hit the jackpot with nine-celebrity model in The Hollywood Squares.

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*A $100-dollar top prize!

**This was before the classic Dick Van Dyke Show episode where, as Alan Brady, he appeared sans rug.

***Opposite Hazel and Peyton Place.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster (TV)

(1962-63)
Created by
Leonard Stern
Starring John Astin, Marty Ingels, Emmaline Henry, Dave Ketchum, Frank De Vol, Noam Pitlik
IMDB Entry

One of the joys of watching old sitcoms is seeing familiar people early in their career.  I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster is a prime example, a short-lived series that was a stepping stone for several actors who had long careers – though often not as actors.

The show is about two friends who worked as carpenters. Harry Dickens (John Astin) is married to Kate (Emmaline Henry), while Arch Fenster (Marty Ingels) is single and who isn’t interested in settling down.

This was basically a workplace comedy. Most of the scenes happened when they were on the job as builders, which gave ample opportunity for slapstick comedy, which was the strength of the show.  The plots were the usual melange of 60s humor and plot contrivances, but managed to be funnier than the usual run of the mill.

John Astin is fine at Harry, the straight(er) man of the two, though it’s usually Ingels who gets the best lines. Of course, the show didn’t give Astin the type of off-beat strangeness that he used as Gomez Addams.

The show was created by Leonard Stern.  Stern had written for some of the classic shows of the 50s – The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show.  This was his first chances as a producer, and the start of a long career that included He & She, Get Smart, The Good Guys, The Governor and J.J. and McMillan & Wife. He also was a publisher of Price Stern Sloan books – best known for Mad Libs.

No one has to be told how John Astin’s career went after that,* but other regulars continued in show business.  Emmaline Henry had a recurring role in I Dream of Jeannie as Dr. Bellows wife.

Others in the cast made their marks on TV, though not as actors.  Frank de Vol was a composer for TV shows; his best known work was the theme song for The Brady Bunch. Noam Pitlik moved to the director’s chair, most notably for Barney Miller, Taxi, and Wings.

Marty Ingles ended up doing a lot of voice work and leaving acting to be a Hollywood agent, primarily finding ad gigs for his clients.  He married Shirley Jones.

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*I was lucky enough to see him onstage at Ford’s Theater (yes, that Ford’s Theater) in a production of Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies. It was the final performance of the run, and Astin was wonderful.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Chicken Fat (song)

(1962)
Written by
Meredith Willson
Performed by Robert Preston
Wikipedia Entry

In the late 50s and early 60s, the US was in the middle of the Cold War panic, afraid that the Soviets would bury us. And when JFK became president, one of the big concerns was that American youth were not getting enough exercise.  To combat this, “Chicken Fat” was created.

The song was written by Meredith Willson, then riding high with the success of The Music Man.  It seems to be his idea to write a song that could be used in gym classes to promote exercising. He wrote the song, and, in the same sessions where they recorded the soundtrack for the movie of The Music Man, they took time to get Robert Preston, star of the show, to record the song.

The result was a catchy tune that was fun to exercise to and included exercises to be done while the music played.*

I remember our gym teacher playing it, and it was a lot of fun to have a song to do our exercises to. Part of the appeal was that the concept was so unusual:  you didn’t do exercises in school to music.

The song was released as a public service.  No one took any money or royalties, and the record company paid for the session and recording and distributed million of copies to gym classes around the country.

It’s a most a forgotten novelty these days, but there are many people my age who can remember doing sit-ups at Professor Harold Hill cheered you on.

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*The exercises were devised by Bud Wilkerson, who, at the time, was arguable the best regarded college football coach in the US.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Comedy Tonight (TV)

(1970)
Starring
Robert Klein, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, MacIntrye Dixon, Judy Graubart, Marty Barris. Robert Merrill, Jerry Lacy
IMDB Entry

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In changed TV comedy, creating a frenetic style filled with oddball (and frankly dumb) jokes.  In a year, this was the way to go.* And, at the time, instead of reruns for variety shows, the networks ran summer replacement series.  Comedy Tonight was one of the best.

The show was hosted by Robert Klein and was a series of skits** using a cast of very talented comic actors.  The show’s theme, of course, was Stephen Sondheim’s song of the same name and the show would start with the case singing it, then breaking off in the middle for short skits or blackout gags before returning to it.

The show attempted to be topical.  Not in politics, but in various things in society that were open to satire:  soap operas, commercials,  talk shows, and the like. A subject was chosen, and there would be a series of gags – some quick, some a little more developed – on the theme. 

Not much is available about the show, but a couple of things remain vivid to me, even now.

  • For a segment on advertising:  This was the time when cigarette commercials were going off the air, and Winston was going out with a campaign “What do you want?  Good grammar or good taste?”***  Klein replied, “With Madison Avenue, you’re lucky to get either.”
  • For a segment on talk shows:  Big star (obviously modeled on Judy Garland) is on a talk show.  The host asks her to sing “The Trolley Song.”  She declines, saying she’s not ready, she hasn’t rehearsed it, she hadn’t expected it, etc. The host finally gets her to give in so she goes to the stage, puts on a tailcoat and hat, and the band starts playing the music, which she sings while doing an elaborate dance routine.

Not much of the show remains; as you can see the IMDB entry is sparse.  There were only about a half dozen shows, all in the summer when the audience is low.  But Madeline Kahn and Peter Boyle became major names in movies and TV, and Robert Klein is considered one of the deans of standup comedy.  Several of the lesser-known names still had long careers, both on stage and in TV.

Still, it was a fine show that seems to have been completely lost.  Too bad.

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*Even when it was a mistake. Dean Martin’s Comedy World, a summer replacement series of 1974, had the wonderful idea of showing comedians around the world.  They tried to ape Laugh-In with short bits of a joke or two.  The problem is that a comedian on stage had a routine that built up in the telling and taking two or three jokes out of context didn’t work at all. The show was the US debut of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with a couple of very short bits. Oddly, one of the sketches shown used the phrase “naughty bits.” The censors bleeped out the words (maybe the first example of what Jimmy Fallon uses as his “Unnecesary Censorship” videos).  Why the show just didn’t pick another Monty Python sketch is inexplicable.

**Similar in some ways to Monty Python, though shorter and less silly.

***For the younger folk, Winston’s slogan for  years was “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” When it was first used “like” was considered grammatically incorrect (it was supposed to be “as”), but the usage is now unobjectionable.  However, that didn’t keep people from the time from kvetching about how bad the error was.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

image(1941)
Directed by
Alexander Hall
Written by Sidney Buchman & Seton I. Miller, from a stage play by Harry Segall
Starring Robert Montgomery, Evelyn Keyes, Claude Raines, Rita Johnson, James Gleason, John Emery, Edward Everett Horton
IMDB Entry

It’s always fascinating to see the origins of a well-used movie trope, and especially one that’s been remade many a time. Here Comes Mr. Jordan has been the basis of several films.

It’s the story of Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery), boxer, sax player, and private pilot. When his plane crashes, he dies and finds himself being taken by Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton) to a cloudy place in the sky.  The person in charge is Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains), who discovers a mistake has been made:  Joe was not scheduled to die for 50 years.

This is a problem.  His body has been cremated, so he can’t go back to that.  So Mr. Jordan has to find a new body for Joe. After several tries, he’s given the body of Bruce Farnsworth, a millionaire who has just been murdered by his wife (Rita Johnson) and secretary (John Emery). Joe is reluctant, but he hears Betty Logan (Evelyn Keyes) begging for help. Betty’s father was convicted of a stock scam due to Farnsworth’s machinations, and wants his help. Sympathizing with Betty, Joe takes over Farnsworth’s body and life (to the surprise of his wife and secretary).

The setup leads to the usual and unusual complications and Joe tries to fix things for Betty* and avoid the murderous plans of the others.

Nowadays, the concept is well-worn, but back in 1941, they were new and I think the writers felt the need to make everything clear.  Joe seems incredibly slow on the uptake, having to be told things many times before he catches on.  But since this all was probably new for the audience, it was necessary to countersink the concept so people understood.

The movie was a major success in its time, winning a couple of Oscars for writing, and getting several other nominations. It was also the blueprint for Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait.** Several other films also remade the story, and the concept was used in many more.

The film is a little creaky these days, but still is a lot of fun.

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*Who, of course, he falls in love with.

**The name of the play it was based on.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Topper (TV)

(1953-1955)
Starring
Anne Jeffreys, Robert Sterling, Leo G. Carroll, Lee Patrick, Buck
IMDB Entry

Thorne Smith is forgotten today, but he was in some ways the forerunner of Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, and anyone writing humorous fantasy, using fantasy ideas in contemporary settings.  Topper was his biggest seller, and was soon made into a movie starring Cary Grant. By the time TV came around, it was a prime prospect for a TV series.

Cast of TopperGeorge and Marion Kerby (Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys*) were a couple of rich bon vivants who were killed skiing in the Alps.**  Returning to the US with the alcoholic Saint Bernard, Neil (Buck), they found their old house had been sold to uptight banker Cosmo Topper (Leo G. Carroll), who is the only person who can see or hear them.***  The two play tricks on Topper, harmless pranks that he has to try to explain, and which his wife Henrietta (Lee Patrick) can’t understand.

Neil was a problem all his own, since his favorite drink was a martini, and people would always see a glass on the floor being lapped up by nothing.

The show ran for two seasons as the Kerbys kept complicating Topper’s life, as he got caught reacting to them and had to explain what was going on.  Or making references to them that made no sense to anyone else.  The fact that he was a banker – at a time when they were considered the epitome of respectability -- made it even more complicated. 

Leo G. Carroll did a great job as the befuddled banker, who tended to be overwhelmed by events.  Of course, he managed to come up with a quick explanation of everything, especially when people overheard him talking to George and Marion.

Of special note is one of the writers for the show.  Stephen Sondheim wrote eleven episodes.  The show was sponsored by Camel Cigarettes, and there was usually a segment where Topper and the Kerby’s hawked the smokes. 

Carroll was a UK actor and appeared in several Alfred Hitchcock films, both before and after Topper. He’s best known today as Mr. Waverly from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Sterling and Jeffreys also continued on TV, with Jeffreys having a long run in General Hospital.

The special effects were pretty good for the time. Most of them involved objects moving, though there were a few optical effect showing the ghosts in the classic translucent style.

After the run, the show continued in syndicate for several years. I remember watching it as a kid (so it couldn’t have been the original run) and loving the fantasy element of it.  Even today, I’m a fan of humorous fantasy, and I think Topper was the start of it all.

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*Married to each other in real life.

**The movie version had them dying in a car crash.

***This is probably the origin of that cliché.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Wild in the Streets

Wild in the Street(1968)
Directed by
  Barry Shear
Written by Robert Thom
Starring Christopher Jones, Shelley Winters, Diane Varsi, Hal Holbrook, Richard Pryor.
IMDB Entry

American International Pictures was the home of the exploitation films of the 50s and 60s – low budget films following particular movie and social trends.  In the 50s, it was monsters; in the 60s, they started doing youth-oriented films like the Beach Party movies.  And as the youth movement of the 1960s became political, the jumped on that bandwagon with Wild in the Streets.

It’s the story of Max Frost (Christopher Jones), a rock and roll star who lives the counterculture lifestyle in a Beverly Hills mansion.  The group is asked to perform at live televised rally for Senate candidate Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook).  Holbrook wants to get the youth vote on his side, and campaigned to lower the voting age to 18. Frost upsets the applecart by singing that the voting age be lowered to 14.  Of course, the power of your can’t be denied, so states start lowering the voting age. Eventually, the youth take over, and Max become president, where he institutes his “horrifying” agenda.

I was 15 when it was released, and the entire concept seemed silly. The main strength of the film is its soundtrack.*  Written by veteran rock and roll songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, it was one of the few times a movie used real rock for music to represent rock music.**

The movie was a big success; given its low budget, it wasn’t difficult for it to make money.  It even got one Oscar nomination.

It certainly isn’t a classic, but, for all its flaws, it’s an energetic bit of alternate history that tells more about the time it was created in than anything else.

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*Usually the sign of a bad movie.

**Too many films of the 50s or 60s used modified big bands to play what they thought was rock music.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Dr. N!Godatu (TV)

Dr. N!Godatu(1987)
Written by
M. K. Brown
Starring (voice): Julie Payne
Tribute Page

In 1987, Fox started its foray into network television.  It was a bold move:  there hadn’t been a fourth broadcast network since Dumont died in 1956. So they had to pick carefully because they couldn’t afford to lose.

One idea was to give a comedy show to a British comedian, Tracey Ullman. Ullman had some different ideas for the show, most notably to create short animated cartoons for the transition into commercials.  They hired two off-beat cartoonists and animated a series of short adventures based on their ideas.  Of course, everyone now knows how one of them worked out:  The Simpsons. This is about the other one:  Dr. N!Godatu.

The episodes were the creation of M. K. Brown*. Brown was a fixture in the National Lampoon of the 70s, doing “Aunt Mary’s Kitechen” and various one-off strips. She had a very distinct style and sensibility. Her comic strips were more surreal than funny, but they always worked.

In the cartoon, Dr. Janice N!Godatu** was a cheery doctor who would talk to the audience about her daily life.

The actual episodes ran a minute or two, cut into even smaller segments.  Janice would go about some mundane activity and things seemed to come out of the blue.  Julie Payne voiced the character with a plenty of friendly warmth, especially as strange things happened.

I watched the Tracy Ullman Show from the start, and I recognized Brown’s style at once. 

There were a half dozen episodes. By the second season, Dr. N!Godatu was dropped in favor of the Simpsons.  It’s not surprising:  The bits were just too strange to become a cultural phenomenon.  People were were left scratching their heads instead of laughing.

Still, if you liked the weirdness, it was great TV.

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*Married to fellow cartoonist B. Kliban.

**The ! was pronounced as a click.  It’s a sound used by some languages in Namibia and South Africa.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Tightrope (TV)

Tightrope(1959-1960)
Created by
Clarence Green, Russell Rouse
Starring  Mike Connors
IMDB Entry

In memory of Mike Connors.

It’s funny what impresses you about a TV show when you’re a kid. I remembered Tightrope for one reason:  the place where the hero kept his gun.

The premise was that Nick (Mike Connors) was an undercover cop, going on one job after another to try to stop various criminal schemes.* He was in deep undercover, and sometimes the local police didn’t even know his identity. That was the tightrope:  he had to walk the line between the law and the criminals.  The criminals would kill him if they discovered he was a cop, while the cops often didn’t know he was on their side.

The series was done in hard boiled style. Nick would narrate the adventure as he infiltrated criminal gangs by showing his toughness and sardonic one liners.

The half-hour stories had Nick getting in close with the criminal gang, and then managing to stop their efforts. He was smart and tough.  Much of the tension was the cat and mouse game Nick was forced to play to stop the criminals without being discovered.

This was Connor’s first starring role. He had come up in films in the fifties** and was doing various guest stints up until this time.

The show ran for a year and was cancelled despite good ratings.  It came along in the last years of advertisers sponsoring a show.  CBS wanted to move it; one of the advertisers balked and the show was cancelled.

Oh, and the gun?  Nick kept it in a special holster on the back of his belt. When he was frisked, people would find a shoulder holster (or nothing) and figure that was it.  Nick would then draw his gun when needed. That was very impressive to a ten-year-old me.

Connors continued doing the guest star route until cast as the lead in the 60s series Mannix,*** where he became a TV icon.****

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*The type of things that are considered small time today – jewelry robberies, racetrack heists, and so fort.

**Starting out billed as “Touch Connors.”  He had the same agent as Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter.  Conners was born Krekor Ohanan, and picked up “Touch” as a nickname in college.  By the time he made Tightrope, he had ditched “Touch” and was billed as “Michael Connors.”

***Now billed as the familiar “Mike Connors.”

****People don’t remember how the show changed between the first and second season. The first year, he was part of a big, high-tech (for the time) detective firm, but that was all dropped the second year when the show was revamped and he became a classic private eye.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Flushed Away

image(2006)
Directed by
Dick Clement, Sam Fell
Written by Sam Fell and Peter Lord & Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais (story) Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais (screenplay) & Chris Lloyd & Joe Keenan & Will Davies
Starring (voice): Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellan, Jean Reno, Billy Nighy, Andy Serkis, Shane Richie.
IMDB Entry

I have written before of my admiration for Aardman Animations. And Flushed Away is their least impressive film.  But that all relative:  Aardman sets its bar so high that Flushed Away is still better than 90% of the animated films out there.

It’s the story of Roddy St. James (Hugh Jackman), a pet rat who lives in luxury in a fancy apartment*. When the family goes away, he enjoys his freedom until Sid (Shank Richie), a sewer rat, joins them.  Roddy tries to trick Sid into the toilet in order to get rid of him, telling Sid it’s a Jacuzzi.  But Sid knows a toilet when he sees it, and Roddy finds himself flushed into the sewers, where rats and other creatures have an entire city.  In order to try to regain his place, he joins up with Rita Malone (Kate Winslet), who has a boat and is being chased by the Toad (Ian McKellan), who has sinister plans in mind for the rats living in the there.

The broke new ground for the company. They had always done stop motion animation for their films, but the problem of using water required them to switch to CGI.**

The film had generally good reviews, but not the usual glowing ones you Aaraman usually gets.***  The movie made a profit, but the numbers were lower than for Aardman’s previous two films. Dreamworks Animation, which distributed, was doing far better with Shrek and other films.****  At the same time, Aardman didn’t like the corporate interference.  The two companies agreed to part ways.  Aardnan went to Columbia/Sony for its next two films, the classics Arthur Christmas and The Pirates! Band of Misfits.

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*Being a cartoon rat, Roddy has a closet full of clothes, one of which is a direct match for the suit worn by Wallace from Aarman’s Wallace and Gromit.

**It’s difficult to get water looking good in stop motion, plus the clay figures of the characters would get quickly ruined.

***Its Rotten Tomatoes score is 72% – good, but Aardman scores are usually in the 90s.

****Flushed Away had Dreamworks’s third-lowest box office numbers – it made money, but not hatfuls of it -- and other Aardman films did not come close to the box office of even minor Dreamworks films like the awful Bee Movie.