Sunday, April 23, 2017

Chicken Fat (song)

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.

*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)

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.

*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

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.

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

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

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Topper (TV)

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.


*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.

*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.

*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)

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.****

*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

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.

*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.