Monday, October 27, 2008

Arnie (TV)

by David Swift
Starring Herschel Bernardi, Sue Ann Langdon, Roger Bowen, Tom Pedi, Del Russel, Stephanie Steele
IMDB Entry

America thinks of itself of a classless society, but that's not entirely true.  Certainly there is more mobility from one class to another, but there are enough differences to be the fodder for this show.

Arnie was the story of Arnie Nuvo (Herschel Bernardi).  He had been perfectly happy to work at the loading dock at Continental Flange, until one day, his path crossed with the company's owner, Hamilton Majors (Roger Bowen).  He helped Majors out with his clear-thinking basic advice and, as a reward, Arnie was promoted to Vice President of Product Improvement.

But Arnie didn't like it.  The change in situation didn't sit well with him, especially since it lost him some of his friends.  And he was always being asked to solve problems that were based on Major's blithe assumption that Arnie was used to the world he had been thrust into. Arnie depended on help and advice from his wife Lillian (Sue Ann Langdon) and his old buddy from the loading docks, Julius (Tom Pedi).

The Nuvo Family The show was helped by the casting.  Bernardi grew up in the Yiddish theater and had replaced Zero Mostel in the lead of Fiddler on the Roof. Arnie was a warm character, a man who tried his best, and Bernardi made him a sympathetic hero.

But the real comic delight was Roger Bowen.  Bowen is know -- if at all -- for playing Henry Blake on M*A*S*H. No, not the TV show, the movie*. In Arnie, he was clueless, making assumption about Arnie and seeing the world through his private school background.  Unable to understand that Arnie didn't share his assumption, he caused problems for his new vice president -- and was always funny on screen.

Joyce Van Patten was an early entrant in the hot-wife-of-dumpy-sitcom-hero sweepstakes and was very loving and supportive of all that Arnie would do.

Arnie did well enough the first season, when it was shown on Saturday night.**  When it was renewed, though, CBS blundered.  It moved to Monday.  At 10:30.  This was a horrible time for a half-hour show; at that point, the last show with a 10:30 start was six years previously.  But it got worse.  It was up against Monday Night Football and an NBC movie.  Not surprisingly ratings dropped and it was canceled.

Bernardi continued on Broadway and as a guest star and voice actor for commercials (best known role:  Charlie Tuna and the Jolly Green Giant).  Bowen never seemed to catch on anywhere other than as a guest star, and Van Patten kept busy in minor roles.

It was a small gem of the show and begs for rediscovery.

*In a strange coincidence, Bowen died one day after Maclean Stevenson.

**Yes, in the 70s networks still did original programming on Saturday.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Legend of the U.S.S. Titanic (music)

image( 1969)
Jaime Brockett
Brockett's Web Page
Music and Lyrics

There are one-hit wonders.  And there are even no-hit wonders.  One of my favorite of the latter is Jaime Brockett's delightfully goofy "Legend of the U.S.S. Titanic."

Brockett was a folksinger from the Boston area who in 1969 recorded an album on the small Oracle label.  It probably would have been lost among all the other albums released at that time if it weren't for his take on the Titanic.

Brockett took an old Ledbelly song and expanded it to a 13-minutes talking blues masterpiece.  Well, not really talking -- Brockett speaks frenetically as he recites a unique take on the disaster.  He manages to work in heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, and 497 1/2 feet of rope.  Hemp rope.

Yes, it's marijuana, and the song tells how Captain Smith gets stoned on the 497 1/2 feet of rope and ends up hitting the iceberg.

The song was immense fun and became a hit on college and progressive rock radio stations.  It's impossible to listen to it and not smile a little bit.

The album did well enough for Brockett to get a contract with Capitol records.  Alas, it did poorly, and his career, like the ship in the song, sank down to small venues and coffeehouses.

But anyone of the right age most certainly remembers Jack Johnson, the Titanic, and 497 1/2 feet of rope.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


There's no need to fear. Underdog is here.(2007)
Directed by
Frederick du Chau
Written by Adam Rifkin and Joe Piscatella  & Craig A. Williams
Starring Jason Lee, Peter Dinklage, James Belushi, Patrick Warburton, Alex Neuberger

When I heard about this movie, I had the same reaction as a vampire does to garlic -- it made me want to stay far, far away.  What was the point of a live-action version of a crappy Saturday morning TV show?  I watched the original cartoon as a kid, but mostly for three reasons:  It was on; it was something to watch on Saturday mornings; and we only got two channels.  I hadn't much desire to revisit the show, and I figured the nostalgia value was worth nothing at the box office.  Plus I have a low tolerance for the dog-do jokes I expect to be the movie's stock in trade.

But a few months ago, the movie came up on a discussion board I frequent, and was spoken highly of people I respected.  So I rented it. And while it's certainly not a great film, it's fun and better than it has any right to be.*

The story is standard.  A dog (voice of Jason Lee) gets caught up in the schemes of mad scientist ("I prefer visionary") Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage) and gets super powers.  He escapes to the home of an ex-cop turned security guard Dan Unger (Jim Belushi) and his son Jack (Alex Neuberger).  The dog -- named "Shoeshine" because of his habit of likcing Dan's shoes -- slowly discovers super powers and the ability to talk.  Barsinister and his assistant Cad (Patrick Warburton) search for Shoeshine (who takes on the superhero identity of Underdog) to try to use him to take over the world.

Nothing new here, but it's all in the execution. The choice of Jason Lee as the voice was inspired.  He shows the same goofy charm that makes him so good in My Name is Earl. Indeed, it sometimes sounds like the movie could be named My Name is Dog. 

Peter Dinklage is -- as is usually the case -- excellent at Barsinister.  He manages to take the part and hit the right level of hamminess without overdoing it.  And Patrick Warburton brought his usual Tick-inspired goofiness as a big, dumb lunk. 

If you know the show, it's nice to see how they kept true to the spirit of the original.  In the cartoon, Underdog's identity was "Shoeshine Boy," his main enemy was Simon Bar Sinister, and he spoke in rhyming couplets.  All this was written into the script in such a way as to be a nod to the original even when things were changed (Shoeshine Boy to Shoeshine, for instance).  There was also an appearance of the second string nemesis in the cartoon, Riff Raff.

It's not that the script is great all around.  The backstory between Dan and Jack is cliched and perfunctory.  But Underdog works despite this, by creating the world and playing it straight, and by being willing to take its source material seriously.

It's primarily a kid's film, of course, but there's no reason not to sneak a look at it when the kids aren't around.


*I discussed this phenomenon with The Doberman Gang. (Another film about dogs -- maybe there's a pattern).

Monday, October 20, 2008

Son of Dracula

Son of Dracula (1974)
Directed by
Freddie Francis
Written by Jennifer Jayne
Starring Harry Nilsson, Ringo Star, Suzanna Leigh, Dennis Price, Freddie Jones, Peter Frampton, Keith Moon, John Bonham
IMDB Entry

This is certainly an oddity, originally conceived as a rock version of the Dracula story. It fared poorly with the critics and audiences, but really wasn't all that bad, and in some ways was years ahead of its time.

The story tells about Count Down (Harry Nilsson), the title character, who is about to be crowned King of the Underworld by Merlin (Ringo Starr). But he falls in love with the human woman Amber (Suzanna Leigh), and decides to become mortal himself, leaving the honor to Dr. Frankenstein (Freddie Jones). 

The story is used for a bunch of Nilsson's songs; the single "Daybreak," was written for the film and is the only original.

But what makes the film interesting is Nilsson's performance.  He plays the vampire as a moody longer longing for love. Now, that's a pretty common trope these days, but back in 1974, it was unusual.  The film is less a horror film than a romance and Nilsson's moody performance is quite good.

Ringo Starr is also good as Merlin.  Starr's strength as an actor is the absolute sincerity he brings to every line; when he says anything, it's with a seriousness that makes even the silly believable, and he is especially good here. 

The film flopped badly.  People looking for a horror film were disappointed and people looking for a romance never got the word.  The marketing also made it look like a comedy, which is really wasn't.

I have especially fond memories of it, since I saw it at the State Theater in Schenectady, one of two old movie palaces still standing. But whereas the other, Proctor's Theater, is a lively arts venue, the State hasn't held an event for thirty years.  It was a beautiful vast performance space (well, probably still it, though no doubt everything is falling apart by now) and the environment was impressive enough to make the film even more enjoyable.

But I'm one of the few.  Audiences stayed away, and even those involved have harsh words for the project.  Director Freddie Francis returned to his main trade, cinematography, and won a couple of Oscars in the process. Freddie Jones had has a long career in UK films, as has Dennis Price (best known as the lead in Kind Hearts and Coronets). 

Ringo (who produced) has basically disowned the film, so there is no DVD or video, and it's had very few TV showings over the years.  But I think it would be worth seeing again.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Long Goodbye

Directed by
Robert Altman
Written by Leigh Brackett from the novel by Raymond Chandler
Starring Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, and Jim Bouton.

I've been a fan of Robert Altman since M*A*S*H first came out.  His films were always a unique take on whatever subject he was filming. The Long Goodbye was his venture into film noir, a movie that didn't make money,* but which has plenty of small rewards.

The film is based on a Raymond Chandler novel. Chandler is one of the great names of mystery fiction, but is hard to translate to movies, since his work was more dependent on language** and mood than plot. Altman came onto the project after a couple of other directors turned it down, and made it into his own vision. 

He insisted on the quirky casting.  Elliott Gould was considered too unreliable in Hollywood, and Jim Bouton was known only as a baseball player (and for his book Ball Four).  Nina van Pallandt was even less likely a choice, since all she was known for at the time was being involved in the Clifford Irving's Howard Hughes autobiography hoax.

He also threw Chandler out the window.  This bothered some of his fans, but the only better film made from his work -- The Big Sleep -- also tended to remake things in order to clean up the sloppy plotting.  And he also turned it into more than just a detective story. It was partly a comment on the old fashioned 40s detective caught in a 1970s situation.

The story follows Philip Marlowe (Gould). His friend, Terry Lennox (Bouton), asks him for a ride to Mexicon.  When Marlowe returns, he discovers that Lennox is wanted for killing his wife. And when Lennox is reported as being killed, Marlowe thinks there's more to it than that.

The movie plays to Altman's strength in creating characters.  Gould's Marlowe is a beaten down man, who tries to keep up with the code of the 40s that you had to work on a mystery until you solved it.  He's perfect in the role, as his understated presence makes Marlowe all that more memorable.

Sterling Hayden, Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt and Henry Gibson Sterling Hayden is also fine as an alcoholic writer who Marlowe is hired to find, and whose story seems to have something to do with Lennox.

But the most memorable role for me is Mark Rydell as Marty Augustine.  Rydell is primarily a director who occasionally acts and his portrayal of Augustine -- a crime boss -- is among the greatest villains in the history of film. What makes him so dangerous is the fact that he both violent and unpredictable.  Augustine makes it clear that he is even willing to wreck the things he loves most for absolutely no reason at all other than the prove a point. His line to Marlowe after he demonstrates -- "You, I don't even like" -- is chilling, and he's much more interesting than any villain because you don't know what he'll decide to do.

Bouton does a good job as Lennox, but van Pallandt is just OK in her role.  It's also somewhat surprising to see Laugh-In's Henry Gibson as a sinister doctor.

I should also give kudos to screenwriter Leigh Brackett.  Brackett was writing pulp science fiction before going into films, and she worked on the script to The Long Goodbye. Maybe it's not just a coincidence that the two best Chandler films had her as a writer.

The film did poorly in the box office.  Most Altman films did.*** The bleak and funny look at Hollywood confused people; the changes in the film bothers Chandler's fans; and the lack of star power didn't help.  The studio first tried to market it as a detective thriller, then as a comedy.  Neither worked.

The movie did revitalize Gould's career, showing the Hollywood suits that he was capable of making a movie.  Most of the other actors didn't do to well.  It was clear that Bouton and Van Pallandt's careers were self-limiting -- despite everything, they were just stunt casting -- and Sterling Hayden (best remembered as General Ripper in Doctor Strangelove and for his role in The Asphalt Jungle) was at the end of his career.  Altman continued to make fascinating movies that failed at the box office.

One actor, however, did pretty well afterwards.  In several scenes you could see Marlowe's next door neighbor, a bodybuilder back when that sort of thing was exotic. The nonspeaking part was played by an Austrian bodybuilder by the name of Arnold Schwartzeneggar.  Of course with a name like that, he never had a chance to be a star and eventually he left acting to go into politics.  I hear he's been somewhat successful.

*Of  course.  Few Altman films did.

**He pretty much invented the hard-boiled detective lingo, but was so good with words that, despite the fact there are thousands of imitators, his still remains fresh and exciting.

*** Altman once said that the only reason he kept getting directing assignments was because of M*A*S*H.  Producers would see his track record and would be reluctant to hire him, until they thought, "well, M*A*S*H was a hit.  Maybe he can do it again."