Monday, December 31, 2007

La Belle et la bete

(Beauty and the Beast) (1946)
Directed by Jean Cocteau
Written by Cocteau and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Starring Jean Marais, Josette Day
IMDB Entry

Myths are often retold. And Beauty and the Beast is no exception. The problem with retellings and remakes is that if there is a perfect version, they get forgotten by OK but inferior versions. That's why Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la bête deserves memorialization.

I don't have to tell you the story. You've probably seen the Disney version -- which is a pretty good movie in its own right. Gaston is one of my favorite Disney villains, because he doesn't see himself as a villain. He's going to save Belle, and do good. The movie also has some fine Howard Ashman/Alan Menken songs.

But it doesn't hold a candle to Cocteau's.

Jean Cocteau was a poet. This isn't hyperbole: Cocteau actually made his reputation as a poet (and playwright) before turning to films. He certainly had a poet's eye for beauty. La Belle et la bête is filled with beautiful, poetic imagery. For instance, when Beauty arrives at the Beast's castle, her way is lit by candelabra along the wall held by human hands. She glides down the hallway in a dreamlike movement, and the candles magically light as she passes.

The Beast's Hallway

Jean Marais is also memorable as the Beast. He appears like a lion, and his nobility makes him a perfect romantic hero. Legend has it that when the Beast was changed into a prince, Greta Garbo shouted out, "Give me back my beast!" Certainly the Beast is more romantic than any prince could be.

La Belle et la Bete

The film was made under difficult circumstances. World War II had just ended, and France was suffering from shortages of film and food. Cocteau made do with whatever film stock he could scrounge up, and the sumptuous banquets in the film were devoured by the crew and extras as soon as the scene was complete. Marais had to spend five hours a day for his make up, and Cocteau had to be hospitalized due to illness during shooting.

But none of the problems show up on the screen. The results are one of the most beautiful and romantic movies ever made.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The New Twilight Zone

(TV) (1985-1989)
Executive Producer: Philip De Guere
Episode Guide

In 1985, for no logical reason, the networks decided that anthology series were ready to make a comeback. At the time (and today) conventional wisdom was that people weren't interested in anthologies: they much preferred a series with recurring characters instead of being introduced to a new cast every week. An anthology was also dependent on good writing: if you like the characters, you might come back after a weak episode, but if the characters are new, then there's a good chance you won't. The last successful network anthology series was Love, American Style (it still is), and that had gone off the year a decade before.

There was a reason, of course, if not a logical one: Steven Spielberg. He had signed a contract to do Amazing Stories on NBC, and given an unprecedented order of two full seasons worth of shows. And network executives are nothing but bandwagon followers: if Steve is getting an anthology series, we should do our own. NBC added a revamped Alfred Hitchcock Presents, taking stories from the original series and coming up with new versions of them, with Alfred's original (colorized) introductions. CBS added George Burns Comedy World, which had George introducing short comedy episodes. And CBS also went to the well to bring up an old name: The New Twilight Zone.

Amazing Stories was really "Amazing story ideas." Too many of the stories were just an introduction of a concept, with flashy special effects (it had a great opening credit sequence, though). Alfred Hitchcock was probably a bad idea to begin with, since those who liked the originals weren't interested in updated versions, and those who didn't know the originals didn't care who Hitchcock was. Comedy World was funny, but completely ignored.

The New Twilight Zone, however, was a classic.

First of all, they did it right. Instead of commissioning all original stories (like Amazing Stories or George Burns) or doing remakes of classics (like Hitchcock), they had a mix: some new, some adaptations of originals, and some adaptations of science fiction short stories by major authors. These included Harlan Ellision, Robert Silverberg, Rockne S. O'Bannon, Joe Haldeman, George R. R. Martin, Greg Bear, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, and Arthur C. Clarke, among others. Wes Craven, Peter Medak, Martha Coolidge, and Robert Downey (Sr.) directed episodes. Actors appearing included Bruce Willis, Richard Mulligan, Elliot Gould, Danny Kaye, Robert Klein, Annie Potts, James Whitmore, Jr., Robert Morse, Fritz Weaver, Shelly Duval, Richard Libertini, George Wendt -- in other words, a long list of well known names.

And the show allowed for free-form episodes: it ran an hour, but the stories could run from five minutes to 45. This helped avoided padding out episodes to fill the time needed, or cutting parts from the story in order to make it fit. They even hired the Grateful Dead to do the theme music.

Some of the more memorable episodes included:

  • Nightcrawlers. Directed by William (The French Connection) Friedkin, this was a tense tale about a Vietnam veteran with more then the usual type of nightmares. The format of the series served this well: it was originally shown without a commercial break within it, so the suspense kept building from start to finish.
  • To See the Invisible Man. From Robert Silverberg, this is about a society where people are punished by being made "invisible": no one will acknowledge their presence. The ending is one of the most emotionally rich scenes ever to be on TV.
  • Wordplay. The first script by Rockne S. O'Bannon (Farscape), this stars Robert Klein as a man who discovers that the people around him start using different meanings for words. "What do you want to eat for dinosaur?" for instance.
  • I of Newton. Fun "deal with the devil story" written by Joe Haldeman.
  • Gramma. Story by Stephen King, teleplay by Harlan Ellison
  • Shatterday. A Harlan Ellison story about a man (Bruce Willis) who finds a double is taking over his life.
  • Night of the Meek. A nice remake of the original TZ episode, with Richard Mulligan in the Art Carney role.
  • Monsters. A nice twist on the vampire legend, where a vampire moves next door to a young boy, who learns what the real monsters are.
  • A Matter of Minutes. An adaptation of Theodore Sturgeon's "Yesterday was Monday" with a script by O'Bannon, and starring Alan Arkin as a man who finds a bunch of mysterious blue workmen tearing down things in his neighborhood.

And that's just the first season alone. I could go on and list much more (it's hard not to); just check out the episode guide to see everything.

The show ran into a bit of controversy over a Harlan Ellison episode that the censors wouldn't allow (Ellison and controversy? How is that possible?). But the ratings were weak. The show was renewed, though they got away from the multiple story concept and began to fit them into TV-specific rates. The ratings continued to drop, but, for contractual reasons, CBS has promise a third season, there was one -- with a new writing team lead by J. Michael Straczynski. The show was on a lower budget, but still managed to put out some excellent episodes, including a dramatization of Tom Godwin's classic SF story, "The Cold Equations" and the delightful "Cat and Mouse" (there I go listing again).

Of course, once off the air, the show was quickly forgotten. The original overshadowed the remake (though I would argue the 1985 version was as good if not better), and the recent 2002 version is probably what people remember if the title "New Twilight Zone" is mentioned. But DVDs of the 1985 series do exist, and are a real treat for TV fans.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Larry Gore's Thing (comic strip)

(c 1968-1970) Larry Gore's Thing
Web Page

Who is Larry Gore? Well, he's described by Frank Jacobs as "two parts Groucho Marx, one part Machiavelli." William M. Gaines -- long time publisher of Mad Magazine, said Gore was "even madder than we are."

He made his living as a publicist and he did have some famous clients: Red Skelton, Mad Magazine, the Miss NYC Pageant, John Wayne. And his most famous publicity stunt became legend: Tiny Tim's marriage to Miss Vicky on The Tonight Show.

So what was Larry Gore's Thing? In theory, a newspaper comic strip, though it didn't look like one. There were no characters (other than Larry Gore). There often wasn't any art (other than maybe a stock photo). Often, it was printed sideways. It was filled with dumb jokes and pointless stories, fake ads, topical humor, celebrity quotes, and fake opinion columns that had no opinions. If anything, it was probably pitched as a comic strip version of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in. Some items included:

  • Enter the "I'll Do Anything for Publicity Contest." The lucky girl who wins will be sorry.
  • Lifetime Guarantee on all of our pure mahogany coffins.
  • Factory to you! We eliminate the middleman's profit! The factory is mailed directly to you.
  • Boheck's* gives real food stamps. Yes . . . at last. Stamps that taste like food.
  • Today's Horoscope: avoid any astrology readings.
  • LESS Cigarettes: After countless laboratory tests, 99 out of 100 medical doctors suggest you smoke LESS.
  • Today's Horoscope: Stay cool. Don't go to Pisces.
Gore's only collaborator in this was artist Bob Clarke (best known for his work with Mad), who would add his own work to the clip art and photos.

The strip only ran a few years and in only a few newspapers (Newsday on Long Island being one of the few). Avon Books published a collection in 1970, but I don't think the comic lasted much beyond that. If you can find the book somewhere, pick it up.

*A play on "Bohack's," a Long Island supermarket chain that went out of business in the 70s.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Human Nature (2001)

Directed by Michel Gondry
Written by Charlie Kauffman
Starring Patricia Arquette, Tim Robbins, Rhys Ifans, Miranda Otto, Mary Kay Place, Robert Forster
IMDB Entry

The obscurity of this film is quite surprising. It's recent, and it's another film by the gloriously strange mind of Charlie Kauffman.

Kaufmann (sometimes with his twin Donald) wrote some of the strangest comedies of the past few years, starting with Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. Those films are talked about all the time in one aspect or another, but Human Nature is forgotten.

That's odd. Human Nature was filmed right after Being John Malkovich (though the script was written earlier), and you would have thought it would have caught people's eye. It certainly has a lot of Kauffman's weird mixture of slapstick and deep philosophy. But the film seemed to vanish.

The plot is typical Kauffman (if anything about him can be said to be typical). Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette) is a young woman who suffers from hyperpilosity -- hair all over her body. She runs off in the woods to be with nature, but, eventually sick of it, returns and starts an affair with Dr. Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), a scientist who's trying to teach table manners to mice. Meanwhile, Puff (Rhys Ifans) is raised as an ape by a father who left humanity to live like an Apeman. Puff is captured and becomes Bronfman's experiment, a way of seeing if he can be taught to be civilized. Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) is Dr. Bronfman's lab assistant who has an agenda of her own.

The movie is very funny. It starts with the murder of Dr. Bronfman by Lila, with Puff -- now seemingly cultured and refined -- testifying before Congress about the importance of the human and animal sides of life.

Kaufmann is fond of twists, and this is no different. I won't go into the details, but one of the major themes of the film is that humans are by nature duplicitous. All the characters lie to one another in different ways and betrayal is a fact of life. The surprises are fun to follow -- all the way to the end.

Tim Robbins seems incapable of giving a bad performance, and Patricia Arquette brings a lot of interest to Lila. I discovered that I had seen Rhys Ifans before -- in the Australian comedy Danny Deckchair -- and he stands out as he is taught to be refined, but with his animal nature taking over all too often. It's also fun to see Mary Kay Place and Robert Forster as Bronfman's parents.

If you like Kaufmann, give this a try.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

It Could Happen to You (1994)

Directed by Andrew Bergman
Written by Jane Anderson
Starring Nicholas Cage, Bridget Fonda, Rosie Perez, Isaac Hayes. IMDB Entry.

I've several times mentioned films with forgettable names. In these cases, the name could have been justified by saying there wasn't anything better. Not so for It Could Happen to You. The name is certainly forgettable, especially since it had been used at least four times before. The original title, though, would have been just perfect in a Snakes on a Plane way (though less silly): Cop Gives Waitress $2 Million Tip. A bit long, but which film would you more likely see?

Director Andrew Bergman made his mark as a writer, starting with Blazing Saddles and the original The In-Laws. He had also made a directing splash with The Freshman (in which Marlon Brando showed he had a sense of humor) and Honeymoon in Vegas (with the Flying Elvises).

It Could Happen to You was roughly based on a true story. Nicholas Cage plays Charlie Lang, a real nice guy cop. One day, when eating he realize he doesn't have the money to tip his waitress Yvonne Biasi (Bridget Fonda). So he makes a promise. Charlie has just bout a lottery ticket, and he promises to share his winnings with Yvonne.

As you can guess, the ticket wins.

Charlie is a man of his word, and wants to split the money. This doesn't sit well with his wife Muriel (Rosie Perez), who starts spending the cash as fast as she gets it. Yvonne, on the other hand, is shocked that Charlie shows up and realizes that men like him don’t com along all that often. The are complications due to marriages and ex-husbands, and a sweet ending.

Cage and Fonda make a nice couple. Cage is in his full-blown romantic mode, but it works fine. He makes Charlie so likeable that you want to relationship to succeed.

On the flip side, Rosie Perez is amazing as the venial Muriel. It's Von Stroheim's Greed played for laughs, and Perez plays the role to perfectly. She is another actress who never got the fame she deserved.

Isaac Hayes is also a delight as Angel, who might just be one. He narrates the story and may intervene (though it isn't really a fantasy).

Bergman's career hit a pothole after this. The film didn't do particularly well and for his next project, he did Striptease. While not as horrendous as Showgirls (which came out at about the same time), it was savaged (one of these days, someone will figure out how to translate Carl Hiaassen to the screen) and he didn't direct for a long time.

But if you're in the mood for some romance and comedy, this is a good place to start. Even with the horrible name change.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Hot L Baltimore (TV) (1975)

The Hot L Baltimore

Produced by Norman Lear
Starring: James Cromwell, Richard Masur, Conchata Ferrel, Al Freeman, Jr., Jeannie Linero, Gloria Le Roy, Robin Wilson, Stan Gottleib, Lee Bergere, Henry Calvert, and Charlotte Rae.

In 1975, Norman Lear was king of TV. He had several smash hit shows: All in the Family, Maude, Sandford and Son, The Jeffersons, and Good Times, all gaining notoriety by Lear's way of pushing the envelope of what was acceptable on TV. All shows dealt with subjects that had been deliberately ignored by TV: bigotry, racial issues, abortion, etc. So, in January 1975, Lear went for broke and pushed the envelope as far as it could go. The show was The Hot L Baltimore.

It had a pretty good pedigree -- the title came from an off-Broadway play by Lanford Wilson (whose cast included Judd Hirsch) that ran for over 1500 performances and won a Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play. Lear, of course, made massive changes, since the play was a slice-of-life drama and he needed to fix it up so it worked as a TV series.

The show was set in the rundown Hotel Baltimore (the title came because the "e" on the neon sign was blown out). Clifford Ainsley (Richard Masur) managed the hotel and tried to keep rein on its inhabitants, which included Bill the desk clerk (James Cromwell), in love with the prostitute April Green (Conchata Ferrell). Suzy Marta Rocket (Jeannie Linero) was another hooker, George and Gordon (Lee Bergere and Henry Calvert) were an older gay couple, and Mrs. Belotti (Charlotte Rae) would come to visit her weird son, Moose, whose exploits were described but never seen.

The subject matter raised fits. Hookers? Homosexuals? The protests were loud. ABC stood by the show and continued to let it run.

Conchata Ferrell The show was somewhat different from other of Lear's comedies in tone, far less strident and more based on characters. I especially liked Conchata Ferrell as April, the center of the show. It was not only usual to have a hooker as a main character in a show, but Ferrell was (and still is) a large woman. Hookers on TV and most movies (especially back in the 70s) were usually attractive women, more fantasy than reality. And Ferrell is a terrific actress. She's currently on TV as Bertha the housekeeper in Two and a Half Men, a role that seems to expand to give her more screen time for her amazing comic timing, and was great in a dramatic role in the pioneer western Heartland.

Masur was also good as the put-upon Ainsley and later developed a career as a character actor in TV. The most successful person in the cast was Charlotte Rae, who became a TV icon in The Facts of Life (I saw her on stage a few years ago at Ford's Theater -- yes, that Ford's theater).

But the protests did hurt ratings, and the show was eventually canceled due to low ratings. Sometimes when you push the envelope, the envelope pushes back.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Changes coming

I plan to start putting my comments here instead of on my web page starting soon. For now, see Great but Forgotten at

Thursday, December 6, 2007


Directed by
Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by: Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker
Starring Robert Cummings, Priscilla Lane, Otto Kruger, Norman Lloyd, Alma Kruger
IMDB Entry

SaboteurAlfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite film directors. It's hard to say that any of his films are actuallyforgotten (other than Bon Voyage and Adventure Malgache, two short films that only recently became available), or even overlooked, but one particular gem that seems to take the back seat inSaboteur.

On reason for this is Hitchcock himself. He considered the final scene to be a mistake, which he rectified in North by Northwest. And, indeed, North by Northwest is very much the same movie.  Both have a similar plot:  a man on the run, involved with spies, who tries to clear his name.  Of course, Hitchcock like that sort of situation, so Saboteur gets lost in the shuffle, since North by Northwest is more accomplished.

But that doesn't mean the older film isn't a good one.  Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is a worker in an aircraft factory.  When a fire breaks out, someone hands him an extinguisher full of accelerant. Kane is blamed, escapes the police and goes to find the man who can clear his name (Norman Lloyd).  On the way, he meets up with Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane), who he takes along, first to keep her from going to the police, and later because she believes him (and, of course, falls in love).  The trail leads Kane to Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), who, as is typical of Hitchcock, is a respectable man in society who has a dark side.

Robert Cummings & Norman Lloyd take in the sightsThe film has some great setpieces.  I especially liked the way Kane freed himself from handcuffs -- and the logical result of how he did it.  There was also a nice suspenseful scene at a party when Kane tries to tell the guests that Tobin is a spy.  There's Kane and Pat being picked up by a circus train. The saboteur's look when he passes the wreck of the Normanidie. And, of course, the final sequence at the Statue of Liberty (a dress rehearsal for the Mt. Rushmore scene in North by Northwest).

Robert Cummings is better known as a light comedian and early TV star.  He is pretty good in this more serious role.  And Otto Kruger is especially good as the suave villain. What's nice is that he gives some justification for his actions that isn't easy to refute.  And Norman Lloyd -- later to gain some fame as Daniel Auschlander in St. Elsewhere -- is very good as the title character.

If you like Hitchcock, or even if you don't, it's a small gem that's worth seeking out.