Sunday, April 21, 2019
Written by and Starring Matt Berry, Rich Fulcher
One nice thing about streaming video is that you can find some obscure shows that would never make it to the US. Snuff Box was one of these, a short-run sitcom with a dark and very weird sense of humor.
The show follows creators Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher. Matt is a hangman and Rich is his assistant. Yes, they carry out executions and afterwards retire to the Hangman’s Club, where they socialize together and with others. Matt thinks himself a ladies man, while Rich is a bit more naïve.
But that really doesn’t describe the show. It’s more like a series of skits (sometimes tied together with a slight story line) than a sitcom.The jokes are dark (the phone where the governor would call to get a reprieve rings, only it’s Rich’s sister wishing him a happy birthday), obscene, violent, surreal, and filled with non sequitur humor and embarrassing moments. It is a bit hit-or-miss, and certainly not for everyone, but at it’s best it’s bizarrely funny.
Berry and Fulcher started working together on The Mighty Boosh, which I haven’t seen, but seems to have been a proving ground for 21st century UK comic actors. They both manage to make the broad acting required for the show appealing.
The show was not a big success. Its raunchy language had it programmed late in the evening to indifferent ratings. Only six episodes were aired and a second season was never ordered. Eventually, though, word of mouth brought forth a DVD release, and it is available on a couple of streaming services now.
Sunday, April 14, 2019
Written by Charlotte Bingham & Terence Brady
Starring John Alderton, Pauline Collins
Back in the early 70s, PBS* would fill their Saturday evenings with UK Sitcoms. Some, like Fawlty Towers, were classic. Others, like Are You Being Served were extremely popular (for some reason). But others were forgotten. No, Honestly is one of the good ones, and is definitely forgotten.
It’s basically the history of the romance and marriage of Charles “C.D.” Danby (John Alderton) and his wife Clara (Pauline Collins). Each show would begin with the two of them addressing the audience, introducing themselves and various incidents in their relationship in their earlier years.** Then, we’d be shown the incident in a long flashback, before returning to the older version of themselves to wrap up the show.
C.D. was an aspiring actor with a quick wit and a clear affection for Clara almost at their first meeting.*** Clara was a little bit ditzy, with a tendency to say things that seemed like nonsense until she explained it.
The pair was very reminiscent of Burns and Allen, though without the Vaudeville trappings. Alderton did have some of Burns’s dry humor and Collins was a more grounded version of Gracie. The show acknowledged the debt by having Alderson end the show by saying “Say goodnight, Clara.”
The stories involved issues of the usual bumps in a relationship. A favorite of mine was when he went to meet Clara’s parents after discovering he was a Lord. He was terribly intimidated by the imposing figure but did manage to bond a bit with the Lordship’s gardener. Of course, the imposing figure was the family butler, and the gardener was his Lordship himself, but the mistaken identity was handled with charm and a lack of embarrassment for embarrassment's sake.
The writing team of Charlotte Bingham & Terence Brady were married, too, which helped with the rapport between the characters. And the show’s theme song became a big hit in the UK for Lydsey De Paul.
Collin was especially charming in the role. She had previously gained notice in Upstairs Downstairs and has continued acting, most notably in the movie version of the play Shirley Valentine, which got her an Oscar nomination.
Alderton also was on Upstairs, Downstairs and continued working in British TV afterwards. The show was a lovely portrayal of what a marriage should look like.
*At least in my area
**C.J. and Clara were portrayed as being married ten years when they started talking about the early days.
***Alderton and Collins were married – they still are – so a lot of the affection was real.
Sunday, March 31, 2019
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Robert Altman and Brian McKay, from a novel by Edmund Naughton
Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane, John Schuck, Shelly Duvall, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Antony Holland, Hugh Millais
I’ve talked before about my admiration for director Robert Altman, one of the greatest film directors of the 20th century. Altman had a specific style, most notably by his use of overlapping dialogue where you felt your were overhearing random conversations. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is one more of his masterpieces, and bleak and uncompromising western.
It set in the town of Presbyterian Church in 1902, a mini
ng town in the Pacific Northwest, where McCabe (Warren Beatty) shows up. McCabe is a gambler and a hustler, with the reputation of being a quick gun, and decides that he’s going to set himself up running a bordello. But it’s clearly not something he knows what to do, so Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) – an experienced prostitute – cuts herself in and becomes his partner.
With her help, the whorehouse becomes a success, so much so that the mining company takes notice and tries to buy him out. But McCabe makes the mistake of trying to squeeze them too much and the company decides to go to strongarm tactics.
This is not a cheery movie in any respect. It’s tragedy, in that McCabe falls victim to his own hubris, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. Even the scenes all seem to take place in the rain and darkness.
Beatty is excellent in the role as a man who’s not as smart as he thinks he is, even when it’s obvious he’s in over his head. Julie Christie got an Oscar nomination for her no-nonsense madam, who is certainly attracted to McCabe, but who want to keep their love life as strictly business. Altman’s first two successes did not have big name stars (though many became big names because of him), but he wanted Beatty and Christie in the movie because he wanted the audience to understand that the characters they played were larger than life.
Altman was already developing his stock company of actors, and several showed up from his previous film Brewster McCloud, notably Rene Auberjonois, as the slimy saloonkeeper Sheehan.
But the revelation was Hugh Millais, playing a man who came to Presbyterian Church “to hunt bear.” This was his first role, and he makes a memorable impression, a figure of hulking danger who reduces McCabe to a whining child with a few short words.
Like most Altman movies, this did poorly in the box office, and the downbeat message and ugly view of the American west was too far from what people had expected, but is very influential today.*
*The soundtrack was mostly ambient sounds, but with songs by Leonard Cohen
Saturday, March 23, 2019
Created by Ralph Smart
Starring Patrick McGoohan
The idea of a TV show about a secret agent was still new in 1960 when Ralph Smart decided to base a series on it. The result, Danger Man, had a long reach in popular culture.
It was the story of John Drake (Patrick McGoohan), an American secret agent who was affiliated with an organization that was strongly hinted at as being NATO. Drake was sent to crisis points, going from one mission to another with an ironic sense of humor and using his wits to get out of trouble.
The show made McGoohan a star. Drake was resourceful, witty, and smart enough to come up with ways to thwart even the cleverest of villains. He in some ways defined the secret agent in the 60s* – but also was quite different. He didn’t use a gun, and was had no time for seducing women.
The show was often shot on location, adding verisimilitude to the proceedings.
McGoohan became a star playing the role, but not in the US. Though US networks were still open to running UK shows, and CBS did broadcast it as a summer replacement, it was barely a blip on US TV. The show stopped production after two years.
It would have been the end of it, but James Bond happened and suddenly spies were big. Ralph Smart retooled the show, stretching it from a half-hour to an hour, Drake became English, and the title was changed to Secret Agent. It was soon picked up by CBS, and, helped by a memorable theme song, because a success in the US, running three seasons before McGoohan tied of the role.**
McGoohan then created his own piece of TV history – The Prisoner, about a secret agent who resigned his job. Though McGoohan denied any connection, people tended to think of the show as an extension of Secret Agent. There are many connections and coincidences that make it a viable theory, however.***
Due to the fact that it’s a half hour show shot in black and white, Danger Man has had only spotty reruns. The first season is currently on Shoutfactorytv.com, so you can give it a look there.
*He was considered for the role of James Bond in Doctor No, though it was doubtful he would have taken it.
**It was replaced by Mission: Impossible.
***Most interesting is the fact that Danger Man shot an episode in the Hotel Portmeirion in Wales, the location for The Prisoner. Also, one episode of Danger Man was titled “The Prisoner,” though that referred to someone else.
Sunday, March 10, 2019
One artifact of the music business is the contractual obligation album, where an artist has to produce music for a record company after leaving it. If the breakup was ugly, the musician doesn’t want to have the record company making money from him, so they have to deal with it. The most infamous case was Van Morrison, who improvised 31 ridiculously short (and deliberately awful) songs in one day at the studio.*
The Four Seasons were caught in the same bind when their original label, Vee-Jay stopped paying royalties. After a lawsuit, they moved on, but Vee-Jay wanted a final album. The result was The Four Seasons Live on Stage.
Despite its name, it is not a live album. It’s recorded entirely in a studio with live audience reactions added – applause, cheering, and everything. There even was banter between songs, to appreciative reactions. It’s actually pretty well done in that respect.
The rest, however, is not what fans would have expected. It contained none of their hits, and was not in their signature sound. Most of it are reworkings of classic 50s lounge songs, probably the type of songs they performed when they were starting out. The titles show this: “Blues in the Night,” “Just in Time,” “Mack the Knife,” and “Brotherhood of Man” from How to Succeed in Business are the best known these days.
If you’re expecting the Four Seasons, you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you listen not expecting them, the album is quite good. The Jersey Boys don’t give the songs short shrift and give enthusiastic performances and actually sell not only the songs but the pretend concert. It’s very Sinatra influenced and has a jazzy vibe that is unusual for the group.
The album done, the group was free to move to Phillips Records.** Vee-Jay released and almost immediately folded, so it got very poor distribution and was quickly forgotten.
Still, it’s an interesting curiosity.
Note: If you listen to it on Spotify, beware. The tracks are mislabeled. The three-song medley on Track Six is spread across tracks 6-8 and the titles of track 9-11 are really two songs behind their titles – and the final two songs are omitted.
*I’ve written about John Sebastian’s issue with his record company before
**Vee-Jan introduced the Beatles in the US, but couldn’t handle the demand and started shorting all their artists. And if you can’t make money selling records by the Beatles and the Four Seasons, you’re probably not going to survive.
Sunday, March 3, 2019
(A version of this originally appeared in Tangentonline.com)
Science fiction started out as a male abode; the names of early SF writers shows this clearly. While there were women writing in the genre from early on, the numbers were swamped by male names. Over time, this changed.
Mildred Clingerman started publishing in 1952 with “Minister Without Portfolio,” in Fantasy and Science Fiction and appeared there three times that year alone. She quickly became a regular contributor to F&SF and was often chosen to appear in their years Best of … anthology. She was clearly one of the top women writing SF in the era.
Quite a few of her works were anthologized. Not counting single-author anthologies, it looks like 14 of her 19 stories were collected in books. That’s an amazing percentage.
So how do the stories hold up? Actually fairly well. Some of the social conventions are dated -- the women generally don't work outside the home -- and the stories stick to the assumptions of their time. But the characters are richly drawn, even in the lightest of tales, and the stories run the gamut from science fiction to fantasy to horror. It's a different, quieter voice of science fiction, subtly played and strong on character instead of plot. In many ways they’re a precursor to modern SF.
Particularly memorable stories were the subtle but horrifying "The Gay Deceiver," the ironic "Letters from Laura," and the combination of the two in "Stickney and the Critic."
It's easy to see why the stories were so well received at the time. And how she was an important voice in SF short fiction.
Sunday, February 17, 2019
By Frank L. Packard
Superheroes didn’t come into being in a vacuum. The tropes of the genre slowly evolved long before comics were invented. I’ve talked about the Scarlet Pimpernel, who was probably the first time a hero took on on a secret identity and much else. But I recently discovered another source, one that further refined the tropes that showed up in the early superhero comics: The Adventures of Jimmie Dale.
Jimmie Dale is a wealthy man-about-New-York, heir to his father’s fortune made from the development of office safes. But, Jimmie (as you’ve guessed) isn’t just a rich playboy. He also masquerades at the Grey Seal, the slickest thief in New York, known for emptying safes (usually from his father’s company) and leaving a gray sticker to mark his passage. The Grey Seal takes his orders from a mysterious woman, who sends him information on what to steal, and the crime hides that fact that he is actually helping others out: his real objective isn’t the flashy item he stole, but often something small and innocuous that saves someone from ruin.
Packard invented or expanded on may tropes of the superhero. Dale is probably the first superhero character to wear a mask.* He also had a special sanctum, in this case a cheap room on the Bowery that he rents in a second alter ego: the dope fiend Larry the Bat.
The first novel is a series of adventures where the Grey Seal returns after a hiatus as his mysterious mentor tells him what he need to do. One story invents the common trope of a superhero protecting his identity, as one of the woman’s letters is stolen along with Jimmie’s purse. The stories are cleverly plotted, though sometimes they don’t play fair according to how stories are supposed to to now.
The series first appeared in magazines and then was collected into books between their introduction and 1935. A silent serial was made in 1917, now lost.
Author Frank L. Packard had written several successful mysteries before Jimmy Dale, and continued to put out books throughout the 20s and 30s.
It’s certainly likely that Bob Kane and Bill Finger knew about Jimmie Dale when they created Batman in 1939 and with a major character named “Larry the Bat,” you kind of wonder how much of an influence it is. I’d never come across Jimmie Dale in reading about the history of comics. Bob Kane never seemed to mention it, though Kane was well-known for downplaying influences. One point is that the Grey Seal had a small domino mask which he could keep in his pocket and Kane’s original concept of Batman used the same mask. Probably a coincidence, but It would seem likely he knew about Jimmie Dale, since he was still appearing in adventures in Kane’s teen years.
In any case, the books faded from the popular culture mindset in the 30s. The comic books preferred to create new characters and as time went by, Jimmie Dale and the Grey Seal were forgotten. The stories are still first-class adventures, though, and work seeking out.
* Zorro showed up five years later.
Sunday, February 10, 2019
(c1960 – c1974)
One trend in the rock era of the 60s was the creation of vanity record labels. These were record companies* created primarily for a single artist, allowing them to keep more creative control of their work. The trend took off when the Beatles founded Apple records, and other major groups of the 70s had their own label. Generally, they also included other artists, most of whom never caught on.
The labels handled the recording side, but distribution was usually still held by an established record company. This post will talk about some of the better-known groups who had time.
Reprise Records – probably the first. It was founded by Frank Sinatra in 1960. Frank was big enough then to set it up, and he signed many of his friends. Eventually, Warner Brothers bought them and Reprise was a major label into the mid-70s.
A&M Records – something of an exception. The company was founded by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss in order to release Alpert’s single, “The Lonely Bull.” The song was a major hit, and Alpert’s Tijuana Brass – a group of studio musicians backing him – was one of the best selling acts of the early 60s. The company branched out and eventually became a major label itself.
Apple Records – The one that really started the trend. The Beatles wanted control of their records and used their clout to get Capitol/EMI to give them their own company. The group also signed other acts, most notably Mary Hopkin, Badfinger, Billy Preston, and James Taylor.**
Once the Beatles broke through, others began to follow.
- Rolling Stones Records
- Threshold Records (Moody Blues)
- Bizarre Records/Straight Records (both by Frank Zappa). Zappa originally wanted to use Bizarre for his less mainstream acts, and Straight for more popular groups. For various reasons, the avant garde (notably Captain Beefheart) acts ended up being released on Straight Records, with Bizarre leaning toward releases from Zappa and the Mothers.
- DiskReet (also Zappa)
- Brother Records (The Beach Boys)
- Grunt Records (Jefferson Airplane)
- Swan Song Records (Led Zeppelin)
- Ode Records/Ode 70 Records – these were two labels run by producer Lou Adler. Ode was distributed by Columbia/Epic. Adler switched distributors to A&M in 1970 and the name was changed to Ode 70, which released Carole King’s multiplatinum Tapestry as well as albums by Cheech and Chong. While he was still at Columbia/Epic, he signed Spirit
- Grateful Dead Records – One of the few to try to handle distribution themselves (at least at first). They had problems because, unlike all other record companies, their albums weren’t fully returnable by record stores.***
The trend faded out in the mid-70s. The issue was that the artists were not really treated like equals: it was a title change, and they could record what they wanted instead of having the record company direct them. But full control was rare and the original wave of vanity record companies faded out by 1974.****
*Usually a subsidiary of an established company.
**Taylor, of course, was their greatest long-term success, but that was after he moved on. He recorded one album for them, but ended up recording for Warner Brothers, which released Sweet Baby James, the foundation of his career.
***All records and (later) CDs in stores were fully returnable for credit, a practice also common for bookstores. This allowed the stores to try new artists risk-free. There were a few exceptions: The Concert for Bangladesh was only 90% returnable: if you got ten copies, you could only return 9 for credit. Since it was a one-time thing, and the album sold well (and won a Grammy), it wasn’t a deal killer, but the Dead originally wanted 0% returnable, though they quickly ended that policy.
****They started cropping up again in the 90s.
Sunday, January 27, 2019
Written and Directed by Neil Jordan
Starring Liam Neeson, Aiden Quinn, Julia Roberts, Alan Rickman
Liam Neeson is nowadays most strongly identified with his hard-ass character from Taken, but earlier in his career, the took a lot of prestige roles, and one of his better ones was in the biography, Michael Collins.
Neeson plays the title character, an Irish revolutionary who was instrumental in establishing the Irish Free State. It’s a flashback, starting with the news of his death coming to his fiancée, Kitty (Julia Roberts) Working with his colleagues Harry Boland (Aiden Quinn) and Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman), Collins masterminds a campaign to force the British to give Ireland its independence. But he get almost as much trouble from his allies in the IRA, who disagree with his ideas of how to go about it and with what he accomplished.
Though there are some historical glosses for dramatic purposes, the film is one of the better portrayals of the fight for independence. It was a major hit at the time, but this sort of biopic has lost some of its luster and seems to have been overlooked.
Sunday, January 20, 2019
Personnnel: Nicky Hopkins (piano), Ry Cooder (guitar), Mick Jagger (vocals, harmonica), Bill Wyman (bass), Charlie Watts (drums)
Some albums are meticulously planned out, with multiple takes and overdubs to get just the right sound. Jamming with Edward was just the opposite: it just happened and was released almost as an afterthought.
It grew out of the Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed sessions. The Stones had brought in Nicky Hopkins, the premier sessions pianist of his time,* and guitarist Ry Cooder.** But when Keith Richards left the studio, they sat around with the rest of the Stones and just started to jam.
The result was Jamming with Edward.*** It was just the group playing, with Hopkins and Cooder improvising on the drums and bass line, and Jagger joining in. The blues classic “It Hurts Me Too” was part of the mix. When the session was over, it was forgotten.
But a couple of years later, Jagger stumbled upon the tape, cleaned it up a bit and released it as an album on their newly formed Rolling Stone records. But it was clear that he didn’t think it was great work. The album was sold at a discount**** with very little promotion.
Some thought at the time that this was a form of revenge. Cooder had charged that Jagger had stolen the riff of “Honky Tonk Woman” from him and was extremely disdainful. This was thought to be Jagger’s way of getting back. Jagger has always damned the album with faint praise, calling it “just a laugh. . . It didn’t really warrant releasing, really, but it was okay, a bit of fun, and there’s some good playing on it.”
It suffers from the drawbacks of any impromptu jam session: lack of focus, and the musicians deferring to each other a bit too much. Still, when you have five high-quality musicians playing together, the results are fine to listen to.
*Hopkins, who had health issues that often prevented him from touring, was a session man used by the Kinks, the Pretty Things, the Move, the Who, Jefferson Airplane (at Woodstock), the Beatles (“Revolution”), and was a member of the original Jeff Beck Group and Quicksilver Messenger Service. He also worked extensively with the Rolling Stones.
**Cooder is known today for his interest in roots music, but in the 60s and 70s, also was a busy session man with Captain Beefheart, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Randy Newman, and many other groups and is considered a guitar great by those in the industry.
***Hopkins was nicknamed “Edward” by Brian Jones. The name was used in one of his best compositions, “Edward, the Mad Shirt Grinder.”
****In small record stores, albums were priced by the wholesaler, using a letter system. Stores could decide how much to charge for each letter. At the time Jamming With Edward came out, records usually had a “B” classification. “C” was used occasionally, and double albums were “AA,” which meant they cost twice the “A” price. Jamming with Edward was released as an “A,” something only used for bargain records.
Sunday, January 13, 2019
Members: Dave Clark (drums), Mike Smith (keyboards, vocals), Rick Huxley (bass), Lenny Davidson (lead guitar), Denny Payton (sax, harmonica, guitar)
Back in the days of the British Invasion, the main debate as to who was the best of the many groups that were part of it. Nowadays, the two main contenders are the Beatles and the Rolling Stones,* but at the time, there was a third contender who gets little notice today: the Dave Clark Five.
Clark started the group in the late 50s as the Dave Clark Quintet. After the usual changes of personnel, the group was renamed in 1962 and started gaining success.
Part of this was due to the search for the next big thing after the Beatles. “The Liverpool Sound” stormed the charts and record companies tried hard to find something similar.** The Five were from North London – Tottenham – so they were promoted as the “Tottenham Sound.”
No matter what the promotion, the Dave Clark Five was a hit. Their first single, “Glad All Over” knocked the Beatles out of number 1 in the UK and became the first non-Beatles British Invasion song to hit the US hot 100. It led to an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, again, the second British Invasion group to appear there.
The group continued with hits like “Bits and Pieces,” “Can’t You See That She’s Mine.” “I LIke It Like That,” “Catch Us If You Can,” “Over and Over,” and “You Got What It Takes.” Ed Sullivan liked them so much that the appeared on his show 18 times – more than any other UK music at at the time. Their songs had a heavy beat and catchy hooks.
The group also followed the Beatles with a movie of their own: Catch Us If You Can/Having a Wild Weekend. I haven’t seen it, but it looks like it was an ambitious attempt to tell a story other than just being an excuse for the group to perform its hits, but it didn’t make much of an impression.
By 1970, after a string of non-hits, the group broke up. Unfortunately the story didn’t go on. Dave Clark managed the band himself and made the smart move of keeping control of their tapes. Unfortunately, he kept a very close control of them, rarely allowing people to rerelease their material. Clark was a multi-millionaire from other sources, so he didn’t need the money and it was hard to persuade him to release the songs.
It also didn’t help that the band never really projected a personality. Only a die-hard fan could name anyone other than Clark during their heyday, and many people believed it was the name of the singer, not the drummer. So when Clark took the songs off the market after they broke up, they were forgotten, and their influence on the music scene faded to nothing.
Still, they leave a legacy of a string of hits that helped define the musical era.
*With some support for the Kinks, the Who, and the Animals, though none of these were as successful..
**The only real successful one was the “San Francisco Sound,” which developed organically. Indeed, when they tried to create a “sound” of their own in the “Bosstown Sound,” it failed miserably.
Sunday, January 6, 2019
Directed by Mike Nichols
Written by Carole Eastman
Starring Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Stockard Channing
Comedy always boils down to personal taste, since everyone thinks different things are funny and one of the most dated forms is screwball comedy. While it worked wonderfully in the 30s, at time went on the elements of it lost their luster. From time to time, though, a filmmaker decides to bring it back, and one prime example was The Fortune.
Nicky (Warren Beatty) and Oscar (Jack Nicholson) are two small-time conman who think they have hit it big: Heiress Freddie Bigard (Stockard Channing) is enamored of Nicky, who sees it as a way to make a big score. But there’s a problem: Nicky is married and taking her across country to Los Angeles would run afoul of the Mann Act. And that’s where the unmarried Oscar comes it: Nicky plans to marry him to Freddie. But when Freddie resists their attempts to get her to give them the money, they move to the next step: murder.
The movie is a little too laid back and slow for screwball comedy, but it’s still funny. Especially nice is see the actors in the top of their form. This was Channing’s first major movie role, and she’s just fine as the clueless Freddie. Nicholson and Beatty are at the top of their form.
Before filming, the movie was considered by the studio to be a sure thing. Beatty did it in order to interest the studio in making Hairspray and Nichols was brought in after a couple of major flops. There was tension on the set between Nichols and writer Carole Eastman, and Jack Nicholson was hit some some difficult personal events that may have affected his performance. Possibly as a result the movie flopped badly.
Still, even with all this, the movie has its charms. Just watching the actors is worth it.
Sunday, December 30, 2018
Directed by Stanley Donen
Written by Julien Mitchell & Stanley Price & Peter Stone, from a novel by Gordon Cotler.
Starring Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, Alan Badel
After the success of Charade, Stanley Donen decided to do something that is all-too-familiar these days: film a sequel. But it wasn’t that easy back in the 60s and after a script was written for him, he declined. Donen was going to give up on the project when he learned that both Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren had gotten a script and wanted to film it. The result was Arabesque.
Professor David Pollock (Gregory Peck), an expert in hieroglyphics, is asked to translate a message that has been rendered into that ancient script as a cypher. Pollock reluctantly takes the job at the behest of shipping magnate Nejim Beshraavi (Alan Badel) and soon discovers that quite a few people are interested in the contents of that message. He also runs into Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren), who, of course, he is attracted to. But they start to get into trouble as Pollock deciphers the message and finds himself caught in a web of intrigue.
Peck is no Cary Grant,* but handles himself well enough, and .Loren is a fine femme fatale.
Donen didn’t really care for the script, so he tried to shoot it in interesting ways. The result is visually inventive, though perhaps a little too much so. And I think that’s the big flaw of the film: everyone was trying to hard to be Charade (and Alfred Hitchcock).
Still the result is an entertaining spy spoof with plenty to recommend it.
*Something he admitted to many a time while filming. If you imagine Cary Grant saying his lines, you’ll find they are much better.
Sunday, December 16, 2018
Written and Directed by John Sayles
Starring Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Miriam Colon
John Sayles is one of America’s top independent filmmakers, especially in the 80s and 90s, when the wrote and directed a series of small films that focused on strong characters and unspectacular (though fascinating) situations. Lone Star was one of the best.
Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) is the county sheriff in a small town in Texas, following in the footsteps of his father Buddy (Mathew McConaughey). Sam had serious conflicts with his father and isn’t happy that the town is planning to name the courthouse for him. Buddy was universally regarded as a great man in town, who replaced the corrupt sheriff Charley Wade (Chris Kristofferson) after he disappeared with departmental funds. Sam also reconnects with Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), who he had been in love with, a union vehemently opposed by Buddy and Pilar’s mother Mercedes (Miriam Colon).
Things get complicated when a skeleton is found, leading to a long-ago murder that still affects the town today. As Sam investigates, he begins to uncover the seedier side of life in the town.
The acting is excellent. Cooper, of course, won an Oscar several years later and stands out as the cop with baggage who is trying to get to the truth in a town where people don’t want it discovered. Kristofferson is a spectacular presence as the swaggering and dangerous Wade and McConaughey is also memorable*. Elizabeth Pena also makes a strong character and it’s kind of refreshing to see a love plot featuring who aren’t in their twenties.
Sayles is a tremendous screenwriter, and it shows here. All the characters are well-drawn and the story keeps surprising. I especially liked the ending, which flies in the face of anything you might have expected.
*Despite their prominence in the advertising, they are both relatively small roles. No doubt they took it to work with Sayles.
Sunday, December 9, 2018
A Christmas Carol has shown up on the screen more than practically any other film. I count 43 entries with that name alone, and there are plenty of movies that used the plot under a different name, not to mention countless TV versions. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when the great Chuck Jones was willing to produce* another version in 1971.
Two things make this stand out. Director Richard Williams used Ken Harris, a top animator for Warner Brothers, and who animated Jones’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and gave him carte blanche. The result was a fantastically rich visual style that avoided completely any cartoony elements. The people looked like people, the backgrounds like real places.
The second bit of genius was to cast Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Sim was the greatest of all Scrooges from his performance in the 1951 version of the story.**
I don’t have to tell you the story; it sticks pretty closely to Dickens’s original tale (and the 1951 version). But it has rarely been visualized so sumptuously. Michael Redgrave’s narration manages to keep the story going, though it has to be cut down quite a bit.
The version of the story was originally made for television, but was so well regarded that Williams decided to show it in theaters to make it eligible for the Oscar, which it won in 1973.***
Despite everything, though, the special did not make it into the Christmas Special canon. It is a fascinating adaptation with great visuals.
*Jones didn’t direct, though.
**Michael Hordern also reprised his role as Marley.
***The Academy didn’t like the idea of something made for TV winning the award and changed the rules to prevent it from happening again.
Monday, November 26, 2018
Directed by Alexander Mackendric
Written by Roger Macdougall, John Dighton, & Alexander Mackendrick
Starring Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Ernest Thesiger
After World War II, a small English film studio started making a name for itself with small, quirky comedies, with offbeat characters and whimsical concept. Ealing Studios produced only a handful of films, but a whole bunch of gems, many of which starred Alec Guinness, their biggest star.* And one of the most interesting of them was the science fiction comedy, The Man in the White Suit.
Sidney Stratton (Guinness) is a brilliant research chemist who is obsessed with finding a miracle fiber that never wears out or gets dirty. After years of failure (and explosions), he succeeds: his creates a fabric that’s even better than he hoped and makes a white suit about it.** He thinks he’s on the way to strike it rich.
But, though lauded at first, people begin to see the ramifications of the suit. If fabric doesn’t wear out, no one will buy new suits. If it doesn’t need cleaning, laundries would be a thing of the past. Both plant management and trade unions realized it could be the end of their business, so both try to keep the fabric from being made. Stratton, of course, is a scientific idealist, who refuses to see the drawbacks of his invention.
Guinness, of course, is great. That’s a given. People tend to forget just how much a gift for comedy he had, given that his best known roles were serious ones, but in the early 50s, he was England’s greatest comic actor, using his versatility to take on roles that were all different from each other.
Joan Greenwood is not well known today. She primarily appeared in English actress, often with Ealing, known for her low voice and great dignity. Primarily a stage actress, she had a long career.
When I first saw it, I was delighted to see Ernest Thesiger, who’s best known as Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein.
The movie was a big success, being one of the most popular films of the year in the UK and got an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.
The Ealing Studios continued on until 1958. And The Man in the White Suit is one of their many highlights.
*Guinness didn’t really care much for his role in Star Wars and probably would be preferred to be remembered for his stage work and his films from Ealing.
**Since the fabric repels dirt, it can only be white, though Stratton says you could dye it early in the process and it would stick. It also glows in the dark.
Sunday, November 18, 2018
Back in the day, there was a small subgenre of books where people reminisced about their childhood, replete with humorous stories. Cheaper by the Dozen is probably the best known and there were others that were often seen as fodder for what would now be called YA books. I read several, but the one that sticks in my mind was Roger W. Eddy’s The Worldly Adventures of a Teenage Tycoon.
The book was abridged from a longer work, The Bulls and the Bees. Evidently, the adult version had some passages about how Roger learned about sex from the animals in the farm where he lived. This was obviously unsuited for teens in the 1950s, but the rest made some good reading.
It was filled with anecdotes. Roger’s father was a stockbroker in the 1920s in addition to living on the farm. The one that sticks in my mind was the one that gave the book its name.
Roger developed a liking for stocks. Not as investments, but for the stock certificates themselves.*
And, indeed, there is much to like. Certificates were intricately engraved, much like currency, and featured elaborate artwork representing Progress and the company’s mission. Roger would pore over them, admiring the mottos and art. So he began buying them.
He had $1 a month to spend, so would pick out stocks that fit in that budget for his father to buy.** Over the years, he had papered his bedroom with them.
Then came the stock market crash. Roger describes the scene that night as his father came into his room and started ripping his beautiful certificates off the walls and into shreds, bemoaning the fact that they were worthless. Roger knew better than to stop him, but couldn’t understand what was going on. Didn’t they look as good as they ever did?***
The book was a nice, ironic look at growing up in the 1920s, that doesn’t sentimentalize the era.
*Today the hobby is called scripophily.
**Probably commission free.
***As an aside, if you find an old stock certificate, don’t throw it out. It may be worth something to collectors. And it may actually still be worth cash: the company may have been swallowed up in a merger (or several) and it descendant company could still be around. The certificates don’t expire, so long as any portion of the original company exists, you can cash it it. When I worked at a brokerage, we had one person whose job it was to track these down and figure out what they were worth. It gets complex to calculate the value with all the various splits and mergers over the years.
Sunday, November 11, 2018
Directed by Rudolph Maté
Written by Russell Rouse and Clarence Green
Starring Edmond O’Brien. Pamela Britton, Luthor Adler, Bevery Garland
From the start, D.O.A.hooks the audience with one of the most memorable opening sequences in film. We see a man striding purposely into a police station as the credits roll. He asks directions and walks down a long hallway and into the office. It’s homicide and the man (who we’ve only seen from the back) says he wants to report a murder. The chief detective asks the obvious question: “Who was murdered?” The camera then shows Frank Bigelow’s (Edmond O’Brien) face for the first time. His answer: “I was.”
The rest of the movie lives up to that hook. Bigelow is an accountant and notary public, with a simple life in a small town until he goes on vacation in San Francisco. When in a nightclub, someone switches his drink and the next morning feeling ill, he calls a doctor. He’s been poisoned and there is no antidote, so Bigelow had to sold the mystery of who poisoned him before he dies. It takes him to the dark underside of the city.
The setup is irresistible, a hook that keeps you going as Bigelow slowly stumble onto the truth. It’s all O’Brien’s show, and the actor manages to mix despair with determination.
Director Rudolph Maté was already a well-respected cinematographer when he made the switch to directing and D.O.A. was his third attempt. It is assured and suspenseful and is probably his best-known film, especially because it lost copyright and can be found online.
Sunday, November 4, 2018
By 1964, anthology series were slowly dying out, but that didn’t keep people from trying. And given the popularity of John F. Kennedy after his death, it seemed a natural to dramatize his Pulitzer Prize winning history, Profiles in Courage.*
The show dramatized the events in the book, but since there were only eight originally, other politicians were added. Various well-known actors (both at the time and subsequently) were cast, including Brian Keith, Walter Matthau, David McCallum, Wendy Hiller, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, Bradford Dillman, Caroll O’Connor, Whit Bissell, and many more.
Each episode dramatized a politician who made an unpopular decision because it was the right thing to do, even though it risked their career.
I ate it up. I was already interested in politics and had read the book and the idea of seeing it on the small screen got me hooked. The stories were well written and well chosen and the show ended up winning a Peabody Award.
Alas, not everyone was as much into history as I was as a kid and the ratings weren’t there. The show only ran one season before being canceled.
However, these days, things like this aren’t lost. A few episodes can be found on Youtube and Archive.org. Give it a look.
Thanks to Joseph Harder for the suggestion (a very long time ago).
*I’m not going to go into the authorship controversy.
Monday, October 29, 2018
(1948? – 1990?)
Technology marches on and new technologies supplant the old. Often, the new version is clearly superior, but that doesn’t mean you can’t remember the old technology fondly. And for me, that is the filmstrip.
In the 50s and 60s, they were ubiquitous in public schools, the only way to easily use multimedia in the classroom. A couple of times a month, the teacher would bring out the filmstrip projector and a phonograph (optional) and we’d be treated to a show.
The filmstrip was a single strip of film that came in a little canister. You’d pull the film out of the canister and put it in a holder on the projector, then thread it through.
Once set, you were treated to a presentation. Each image was advanced manually, sort of a precursor to PowerPoint.
The design was clever. After being shown, the film was put into a little holder, threaded so that the first slide stayed the first slide when you were done. No rewinding! Some units even allowed you to fit the canister into the holder, so everything was ready for the next show.
Some of the strips had audio accompaniment. It started out on records, that would give the narration to the slide, and then beep. That was the signal for the operator to advance the image.
Of course, it was a high honor for the teacher to ask you to advance the film after each beep.*
As time passed, the technology advanced. By the 70s, audio cassettes replaced the records.** Eventually, auto-advance was added, probably disappointing the folks in the AV Club.
Of course, once videocassettes came along, they rapidly supplanted filmstrips. Now you could easily see moving images. Filmstrips and their projectors became antiques by the 1990s.
And that was certainly an improvement.*** But they remain a fond memory for anyone who went to school in that era.
*The other great bit of AV equipment when I was in high school were the 16mm film projectors. It was an even greater honor than to be asked to set those up and avoiding the dreaded problem of “loosing the loop.” The other option – the slide projector – was too awkward to use until Kodak invented the Carousel projector in 1964.
**Or did if the school had the budget for it.
***Though, since filmstrips were done by professionals, they didn’t fall into the same pitfalls as PowerPoint.
Sunday, October 21, 2018
Executive Produder David Melnick*
Hosted by Dennis Wholey, Jack Barry
In 1969, there was much talk about the generation gap, so I suppose it isn’t surprising that it was the bases for a game show.
The concept was simple. You had two teams of three adults and three under-30s. The host would ask one team questions that would be well known to the people of the other team and see if they could answer. The other team would guess if the answering team would guest correctly.
So the younger generation would be asked questions about such things as big band music, while the older generation would be asked about such things as current fashion. It wasn’t just asking questions: most of the them were demonstrated on stage, often, in the case of musical acts and personalities, by the people involved.*
I watched it regularly when it first came out. It turned out I was better at answering the question about the older generation than my own, but I always was a student of history.
One of the more memorable moments was when one of the younger people were given an old-fashioned “knife” can opener and asked to open a can. In the time allowed, she could only figure out which end she was supposed to use.
The show was unusual in that it switched hosts in the middle of the run. Dennis Wholey was replaced with no explanation by Jack Barry. At the time, Barry had been off the air for a decade due to the quiz show scandals; his shows were in the middle of it all. Barry worked hard at cleaning up his reputation, and his stint in Generation Gap was his first work as a host since the scandal. He then moved on to host several other shows.
Generation Gap ran for 16 episodes before being killed by terrible ratings. I wish it could have gone on longer.
*I remember Pinky Lee was on it. He should have been way before my time, a big children’s entertainer whose career ended 1955 after he collapsed on stage. But a local TV station syndicated a new show of his in the 60s, so I was familiar with him.
Sunday, October 7, 2018
I may have mentioned this before, but I’m a fan of the blues. And of course, that mean I was a fan of B.B. King. So one day, when I saw a CD in a bookstore titled Let the Good Times Roll: The Music of Louis Jordan, I picked it up, and immediately added Jordan to my favorites.*
Jordan was born in Arkansas in 1908 and grew up to be a musician, performing in various local bands until he got his big break in 1936, when he was hired primarily as a saxophone player for the Savoy Ballroom Orchestra. He quickly showed off his talent for singing and showmanship, overshadowing the band’s nominal leader.** In 1938, he started out on his own.
He started recording songs in 1939, a combination of new songs and covers.In 1942, he had his first R&B chart hit, “I’m Gonna Leave You on the Outskirts of Town.” It was a breakthrough. The next year was a big one. His cover of “Ration Blues” was #1 on the R&B chart and crossed over to the pop chart (and C&W). The hits continued the next year with “G.I. Jive” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” and by 1946 he was a regular on the R&B and pop charts, with songs like “Caldonia,” “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” and “Jack, You’re Dead.”
In 1949, he recorded “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” which is often cited as one of the first rock ‘n roll records, partly because the chorus include the lines “And it was rockin’”
Over his career, Jordan had 18 Number one R&B hits, a record beaten only by Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.
Jordan’s style is usually described as “jump blues,” and consisted of catchy tunes and tons of energy. At a time when music was segregated, he managed to cross over and sell to white audiences. He was often called “King of the Jukebox” during his time; you want wanted something to dance to, Jordan was the man you’d choose. Jordan also made short films of him performing as a way to boost his image.
By the mid-50s, Jordan suffered a loss in popularity, though he still continued to record, often reworking early songs to fit better into the modern styles. He stopped getting a chance to record in the 60s and died in 1974.
Jordan was recognized as a pioneer by musicians and was even honored with a Broadway Show. Five Guys Named Moe ran over a year and has spawned revivals over the years. And he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
*I had heard other songs by him, but hadn’t made the connection. I also was a bit confused at first, thinking they meant French actor Louis Jourdain.
**He often sang with Ella Fitzgerald.
Sunday, September 30, 2018
“‘the question is whether the stuff is
literature or not.’’ – Archy
Last week, I wrote about the great George Herriman and Krazy Kat and as I looked over his career, I was reminded of one of his side projects, something that equaled his inventiveness and love of words: Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel.
Marquis was a newspaperman and columnist for the New York Sun. Back then, columnists weren’t strictly political; their job was to fill the column with entertaining observations and comments One day, in a fit of whimsy, he wrote a bit of a poem
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into a body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook on life.
According Marquis, he had left a sheet of paper in his typewriter before leaving for the day and Archy* the cockroach, who climbed on the typewriter and banged his head onto the keys to painstakingly write out the letter.
And thus a bard was born. Archy wrote (in all lower case and without punctuation) on whatever seized his fancy. Some where philosophical; others humorous, and others charmingly absurd. He would sometimes talk about Mehitabel the cat, who thought herself the reincarnation of Queen Cleopatra** and whose motto was “toujours gai.” Marquis would let his imagination run wild.
Archy was a hit. And why not, with verses like these:
captures the crowd
shakespeare and i are
and the spirit of
in the midnight gloom
can be so very
as it wanders
round the room
Of course, most of the poems are free verse and all of them are a delightful mix of philosophy and entertainment. Marquis wrote in a very direct style that isn’t dated at all.
The poems were popular from the start. Marquis ran them every few days in his column and in 1927, selected ones were put into a collection, Archy and Mehitabel. Herriman added illustrations to some of the poems.*** There have been various editions of the collections through the years, and even attempts at plays and musicals. None of these achieved any sort of success.
The musical is an interesting case in point. It started as a concept album, with music by George Kleinsinger and lyrics by Joe Darion.**** It was expanded to a stage version with Darion wrote the book with newcomer Mel Brooks and named Shinbone Alley. Eartha Kitt played Mehitabel and Eddie Bracken was Archy, and it featured an integrated cast, possibly the first on Broadway. Alas, all the talent and good intentions was for nothing; the play only ran 49 performances. There was an animated version made in 1970 with the voices of Bracken and Carol Channing that didn’t fare any better.
This is not surprising. Archy has no overarching story, and the attempt to add one diminished the charm of the original.
But the books are still around. And the answer to Archy’s question is clear: they are definitely literature. And still delightful.
*Archy insisted his name be capitalized outside of his own writing.
**Despite getting equal billing, Mehitabel only appears occasionally.
***Mehitabel was clearly Krazy Kat, and some drawings showed Freddy the rat who was clearly Ignatz
****Later to write lyrics for Man of La Mancha.
Sunday, September 23, 2018
Written and Drawn by George Herriman
If you know the strip, you’ll either agree with that assessment, or you’ll wonder why on Earth anyone thought it was any good at all. Krazy Kat is not for everyone, but if you get it, you’ll appreciate its greatness.
The strip was the project of George Herriman, who was born in New Orleans in 1880 and quickly developed a talent for drawing. In 1902, he started working as a cartoonist for various newspapers. In 1910, he introduced his strip The Dingbat Family. Back then, comic pages were enormous, so it was not unusual for a strip to have a second one to fill the space and, in 1911, he added a small strip about a cat and mouse. The mouse would hit the cat with a brick. And thus Krazy Kat was born.
The strip took over the space allotted for The Dingbat Family and quickly became set. Ignatz Mouse hated Krazy Kat and would throw bricks at him,*** but Krazy loved Ignatz and saw the bricks as a sign of his affection. Meanwhile, Offisa B. Pupp was enamored of Krazy and would try to thwart Ignatz – or at least put him in jail at the end of the strip.
It was often a one-joke strip: Ignatz would find a way out outwit Offisa Pupp in order to hit Krazy. Yet Herriman managed to make the joke fresh every time, finding thousands of inventive variations on the same basic joke.
It wasn’t all that, of course. Kokonino Kounty was filled with odd occurrences and creatures. Krazy had a way of looking at things that bordered on the surreal.
It helped that Herriman was a master artist. Each panel had a lot going for it, using the desert landscapes to give the entire thing a strange background. One trick of his was to change the background in each panel, even if the characters were carrying on a conversation. For the Sunday strips – a full page – he would experiment with designs.
He was also a master of language. Most of Krazy’s dialog (and Herriman’s narration of the Sunday strips) was pure poetry. One piece I remember well is some words from Krazy:
Out is my light
Dokk is my room
None but demp sheddows beset me.
Krazy Kat was a critical success from the start, but never was particularly successful. It owed its long run to the fact that William Randolph Hearst, who ran the syndicate, was a major fan, and gave Herriman a lifetime contract.
I learned to appreciate it in the early 1970s. My local paper, Newsday, ran vintage strips daily, so I got to experience it the same way it was when it was originally running. I had heard good things about it and slowly began to learn to love it. The key was that you needed to read each strip twice; on second reading, the brilliance of the joke was clear.****
Krazy’s importance to the field was immense. He has been cited as an influence by such great cartoonists as Bill Watterson, Charles M. Schultz, Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, Patrick McDonnell, Art Spiegelman, and strongly influenced the setting of Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoons. You can see hints of him in people like Walt Kelly, Robert Crumb, and Dr. Seuss. During its run, it attracted the interest of art critics and other observing the popular culture scene. Poet e. e. cummings was enough of a fan to write an introduction of the first collection of strips, and critics proudly pointed to it to anyone who said that comic strips weren’t art.
There were various spinoffs. Cartoons were produced in the silent days and at various times after that, often going far afield from the basic conception of the strip, and none capturing its spirit. There even was a successful ballet made from it.
Herriman died in 1944 and the strip ended with him.***** It was not popular enough to warrant continuation with another artist, and it would have been impossible to replace him anyway. Since then, it has lived in reprint collections.
Those who study comics are well aware of the strip, but most people nowadays probably haven’t heard of it. It’s worth seeking out and taking the time to appreciate a master.
* After 633 posts, it grown hard to find something new.
**I’ll accept Pogo as a rival, but few others.
***Krazy’s gender was indeterminate. Most people saw the character as female, yet he was usually referred to as “he.” Herriman at one point said Krazy was willing to be either.
****Newsday ran it for a couple of years. When they cancelled it, someone complained and they gave the excuse that the strip had been discontinued years before, ignoring the fact that there thirty years of material if they had wanted to rerun it.
*****In 1971, it was discovered that Herriman was of mixed race, making him one of the few successful non-white cartoonists. However, Herriman did not talk of his race and it was assumed by everyone who knew him that he was white.
Sunday, August 12, 2018
Written by and starring Graham Garden, Bill Oddie, Tim Brook-Taylor
Monty Python introduced British comedy to US audiences. It was a big success for PBS stations and they started looking for other shows from the UK to fill empty time on weekends. And one of these shows was The Goodies.
The show was a meld of sitcom and sketch comedy. The Goodies (Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and Graham Garden) did odd jobs. Some very odd. Each episode would have a general plot, but they didn’t stick to it, filling the time with any joke they could fit it.
It was primarily slapstick and broad comedy, with sight gags all over the place. Graham and Tim tended to lead the group, will Bill usually was the one who was the brunt of the slapstick. Silent bits and undercranking were the norm.
Of course, the most famous episode was in 1975, where the show “Kung Fu Capers” led to a man dying laughing. Literally. Alex Mitchell died of heart failure while watching the show, after laughing continuously throughout. His widow didn’t blame the group (he seems to have had an undiagnosed heart condition), and thanked them for making his last minutes so happy.
The show ran for nine series of between 6 and 14 episodes. One of my favorites – “Kitten Kong,” where a giant kitten terrorizes London – has been lost, though it sounds like it may have been recreated.
But despite the success in the UK, only a couple of seasons made it across the pond. It’s worthy of rediscovery.