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.