Saturday, January 30, 2010

Burke's Law (TV)

Burke's LawExecutive Producer:
Aaron Spelling
Created by Frank D. Gilroy, Ivan Goff, and Ernest Kinoy
Starring Gene Barry, Gary Conway, Regis Toomey, Leon Lontoc, Eileen O'Neill
IMDB Entry
Television has had a long list of detective and cop shows.  Oddly enough, though, up until recently it has had very few successful mysteries.*  Audiences preferred action to puzzles.  One of the most successful -- and which should have had much more success if they hadn't made a disastrous change to follow the "trend of the month" -- was Burke's Law.
Like a lot of 60s shows, it had a gimmick.  But instead of a genie or a talking car, this was a gimmick of character.  Amos Burke was the chief of detectives for the Los Angeles Police Department.  He also was a millionaire and saw no reason to change his life style.  So he would show up at the crime scene in his chauffeured Rolls Royce and begin to find the key to the murder (it was always a murder).  But it was never grim:  it was played for laughs, with the suspects being outrageous characters whose over-the-top antics contrasted nicely with Burke's cool demeanor.
The character of Burke was  created by Frank D. Gilroy.  Gilroy wrote in all sorts of media, from novels to TV, to plays.** Burke first showed up as a character in The Dick Powell Show.  When Gene Barry decided to return to TV after his successful run with Bat Masterson, producer Aaron Spelling remembered the character of Amos Burke, which  fit in like a glove.
The episodes fit neatly into a formula:  someone was murdered*** and Burke would interview all the many suspects. Burke was smart, ironic, and witty and would often spout out some sort of wry aphorism about the situation, calling it "Burke's Law."   And, at the end, he would find the clue that solved the mystery Barry was just perfect for the role.
The show benefited by clever casting. The suspects were usually pretty recognizable stars, from both TV and older films, who probably enjoyed playing a small role.  They definitely seemed to enjoy what they were doing, overacting just a bit while Burke looked on calmly.  It was as much a comedy as a mystery.
The show also had some top-notch writers involved, including Richard Levinson and Williams Link (creators of Columbo), Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (Batman), John Meredyth Lucas (Star Trek and Mannix), Harlan Ellison (science fiction legend), and many other successful TV series writers. 
One particular line from the show has, in altered form, become something of a catchphrase.  It's usually quoted as an inventor saying "It doesn't do anything.  That's the beauty of it" and it seems to derive from an episode of Burke's Law where Burgess Meredith, when asked what his invention is for, says, "Why nothing, nothing.  That's the beauty of it."
The show was a solid hit for ABC for two years -- until stupidity struck. Not satisfied with a mystery show, someone decided to jump on the bandwagon of a trend, and promptly got run over.  In a case of revamping almost as bad as Bob, the show turned itself into Amos Burke, Secret Agent and had Burke trade in his badge for a spy's cloak and dagger.  The entire cast supporting was jettisoned**** and Burke became a James Bond wannabe.  The change was poorly thought out -- I remember those involved complaining that they had no idea where things were going -- and ratings dropped through the floor.  The show didn't last the season.
Barry went on to star in The Name of the Game and a revised version of Burke's Law that failed to recapture the magic. 
The original show was a first-class entertainment and deserves to be seen.  In a way, it was the Castle of its time -- a witty mystery based upon a cute gimmick that was as much comedy as drama.  It should not be forgotten.
*The CSI franchise showed at least one type of mystery -- the police procedural -- could make it in prime time. 
**He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Subject Was Roses  during Burke's run.  He also wrote for shows like Have Gun -- Will Travel and Wanted:Dead or Alive.
***They were titled "Who Killed _____________?"
****Not that they were all that important to the show in the first place.  They usually were just there to get Burke and the audience up to speed on details, to feed straight lines for another of Burke's Laws, to make wrong deductions about the crime that Burke only shot down, and to add muscle when gunplay was required.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Oh! What a Lovely War!

oh what a lovely warDirected by
Richard Attenborough
Written by Len Deighton from a play by Charles Chillton and Joan Littlewood
Starring Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Ian Holm, and Susannah York.

World War I was an ugly war, with thousands dying in pointless attacks -- men against machine guns, with the men always losing.  During the silent days, there were movies about the war, but by the 30s, there was a general dislike of it, along with the idea that it was all caused by munition makers trying to increase their profits*.  Once World War II came along, World War I movies were rare.  Fighting Hitler was unambiguous and the deaths in combat were more than justified; fighting for muddy ground in France was less so.  There were surprisingly few movies made about the period, and far less about the western front in France.

Of course, by the mid-60s, war in general got a bad name due to Vietnam.  That's when British stage director Joan Littlewood got an idea that should have been obvious:** World War I was the perfect backdrop for an antiwar play.  And the proper setting for an antiwar play -- especially one laced with satire and vitriol -- was a musical.

Thus, Oh! What a Lovely War! was created.

Littlewood decided to use songs from the era -- cheerful and inspirational ditties about going off to war.  In addition, she set the play on an amusement park wharf, contrasting the cheeriness of the crowd with the realities of mass death.  The play was based upon official records, newspaper stories, opinion pieces, and other writings at the time of the war.

The result was a vicious satire of war, contrasting the optimism with the reality in a way that was both horrifying and funny.  When the play moved to New York, it won a Tony and was nominated for three more (including Best Musical).  And, in 1969, Richard Attenborough made a film version.

Attenborough had been an actor, and this was his first chance at filmmaking.  Len Deighton (at the time a best-selling author of spy thrillers) wrote the script. *** An all-star cast was assembled and the film was made.

It was superb. The amusement pier was a perfect metaphor, with the rides representing the battles.  The cheerfulness was constantly upstaged by the insanity, making the entire film one of the most biting satires ever made.  You would switch from smiling to being appalled as you saw the incompetent leadership, the pointless bravery, and the many ways the war hurt a particular family.

I don't have much information, but I doubt the film did all that well. Since most of the actors were just putting in short appearance, though, I suspect they were paid relatively little, so it wasn't a total flop.

Attenborough went on to make some film classics, with films like A Bridge Too Far, Gandhi, and Chaplin.  But his first film seems to have faded from memory.


*One Superman comic from 1939 made this point explicitly, a sign of how pervasive the idea had permeated the culture.

**One of the signs of a great artist is to find ideas that no one has thought of, but seem obvious afterwards.

***Deighton, who had bought the rights, took his name off the film, though he later regretted it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Stanley G. Weinbaum (author)


Stanley G. Weinbaum When I was growing up and reading science fiction magazines and anthologies in the late 1960s, I was delighted to realize that most of the authors I enjoyed were still alive and writing, so I could look forward to reading more of their work.  There were only four whose stories I loved, but who had died -- Henry Kuttner, Cyril Kornbluth, Cordwainer Smith* -- and Stanley G. Weinbaum.

Like Smith, Weinbaum burst on the scene with a single story.  Bur whereas Smith's "Scanners Live In Vain" appeared in an obscure and soon-to-fail magazine, seen only by a small audience, Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" appeared in Wonder Stories, at the time one of the major magazines in the field.  And it was one of the most influential stories in the field.

You see, Stanley G. Weinbaum invented the alien.

Oh, there were aliens in science fiction previously:  Martians, Venerians,** etc.  The problem was that they were just human beings in funny suits***.   This was even true in the case of top writers like H.G. Wells, whose Martians were just British colonial soldiers with better weapons.

"A Martian Odyssey" is the story of Dick Jarvis, a member of the first Earth expedition to Mars, who crashes his exploration rocket 800 miles from the base camp.  He decides to walk back, and meets up with a creature he names Tweel.

Tweel is a memorable, a birdlike creature who Dick rescues from being eaten by a Martian predator.  He leaps long distances, landing on his beak, and is clearly intelligent, even if he only can pick up about a dozen human words and is amused by the idea that two different objects could both be called "rock."  Yet he manages to communicate some very sophisticated concepts. 

But Tweel isn't the only novel alien in the story.  There were the pyramid makers, a very odd form of silicon-based life.  There were predators, and the barrel creatures, who are building tunnels underground.

All these aliens have their own motives and habits, often very different from human ones.  Jarvis's journey is one of the most remarkable ones in science fiction, even today.

Weinbaum was far from a one-story author; he wrote a series of stories set in the same universe as "A Martian Odyssey," and fairly scientifically accurate for their time.  There was also "The Adaptive Ultimate," a story about a woman who after undergoing a medical experiment, is able to adapt herself into becoming whatever she needs to be, and nearly takes over the world.****

But though Weinbaum leapt to the head of the science fiction writers of his day, it didn't last for long.  Eighteen months after the publication of "A Martian Odyssey," he was dead of lung cancer.

Weinbaum's legacy remains throughout printed science fiction.***** The goal throughout the genre is to create memorable aliens who aren't motivated in the same way humans are.  Nearly all writers in the field have read "A Martian Odyssey" (in 1970, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted it the second greatest short story in the field), but many SF fans have never encountered it.  Luckily, it seems to have fallen in the public domain, so it can be found at The Gutenberg Project.

Read it.  It's as amazing today as it was in 1936.


*Actually, Smith died in 1966, about when I started reading, but had stories in the pipeline for a few more years, so I did get to read new stories by him.

**A much more elegant construction than "Venusians."

***This reached the height of absurdity when you had squid creatures lusting after human women.  While human perversity has no bounds, it's a bit absurd to think they'd think they were the slightest bit attractive.

****I'm sure feminists would have a field day analyzing this one.

*****TV and movies are another thing.  Aliens in media are either evil, godlike, or metaphors. The idea that they might be different and unknowable just doesn't exist.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dennis Wolfberg (comedy)

Wikipedia Entry

Dennis Wolfberg If this were a just world, Dennis Wolfberg would have become renowned as one of the greatest standup comedians ever.  Unfortunately, this isn't a just world.

Wolfberg grew up on Long Island* and started out as a teacher in the south Bronx.  That gave him plenty of material, and he soon moved into standup, eventually doing it full time in 1979, with hilarious results.

He achieved great success, appearing on The Tonight Show, Late Night with David Letterman and having his standup act on TV and HBO specials.

Wolfberg had a unique style.  He would speak rapidly, setting up the joke, and then punch it home. The jokes were funny, no doubt, but his delivery of them is what made them really work.  He always knew exactly what word to stress in order to get the most of a line. He also looked funny, with bulging eyes** and a way of holding his mic in two hands as though he were praying.

Here is an example (Wolfberg appears 30 seconds in).


But these sort of appearances are just too ephemeral to develop a lasting reputation.  Wolfberg didn't do a comedy album, since no one did comedy albums in the 80s.  He didn't have his own sitcom (though he tried).  The only non-standup TV role of note was the character of Gushie in Quantum Leap, a role that really gave him nothing to do.

Wolfberg kept trying.  He came close with a pilot about a teacher, but nothing came of it. Then, sadly, he was diagnosed with cancer in the early 90s.  Though he continued to work, both on stage and developing TV pilots, he died in 1994.

Wolfberg is highly regarded in the world of comedians, and it's sad that there is so little of his work available.  But all of it is first class.


*As a native Long Islander myself, two things always irritate me when Long Island is mentioned.  First is the "Lon Guyland" accent, which was not at all how anyone spoke where I grew up. Second is related:  Long Island is a big place -- 80 miles long.  Yet no one differentiates between Nassau County and Suffolk, between Huntington and Valley Stream and Southampton and Southold, all quite different. Saying someone came from Long Island is like saying he came from Connecticut.  Where?

**Not up to Marty Feldman level, but still impressive, partly because he would often shut his eyes, letting them bulge out at the punch line.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Washington Square" -- The Village Stompers (music)

Dick Brady (trombone), Ralph Casale (banjo), Frank Hubbell (trumpet), Joe Muranyi (clarinet), Al McManus (drums), Lenny Pogan (guitar), Don Coates (piano), and Mitchell May (reeds, winds).
Allmusic Guide

Around 1963, the people who thought rock music was just a fad were probably feeling that their prediction was vindicated.  The early rock and roll of the 50s was being diluted.  Elvis had gone into the army and came out a balladeer.  Chuck Berry was in jail.  Jerry Lee Lewis was under a cloud of scandal.  The Everly Brothers were has-beens.  The Four Seasons were rock and roll's biggest act.* 

The hip kids were moving away from rock and toward folk music, with people like Bob Dylan and Peter Paul and Mary looking like the next big thing in music.

Into this atmosphere came the Village Stompers.

At the same time that folk music was becoming popular on college campuses, there were some other genres that were also filling coffeehouses.  And one of these was Dixieland jazz.

Yes, the Village Stompers were a Dixieland jazz band,** though they're often categorized as folk.  They had played in various venues until coming together in New York in 1963. They recorded an album and released the title tune as a single***.

"Washington Square" was a sensation.  The song is an instrumental with a tune that you just can't get out of your head -- simple, yet catchy and played out on a banjo.

The song reached #2 on the top 40 charts.  On the strength of that, the album reached #5, but the rest of the album wasn't just fill.  It included "Midnight in Moscow" (now a Dixieland standard and a favorite of mine), "Blowin' in the Wind", "If I Had a Hammer," and even "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport."  In other words, nothing but fun, catchy music.

But the Village Stompers ran into trouble.  A few months after their success, Beatlemania and the British Invasion hit the US, and the fortunes of a Dixieland jazz band that everyone thought was folk was not bright.  Their second album, More Sounds of Washington Square, barely charted and though there were some well-regarded singles, the group never had another hit and broke up in 1966 (though they re-formed recently and are available for concerts).

Maybe Dixieland was never going to catch on, but "Washington Square" and the Village Stompers made a valiant effort.


*Though Motown was just getting started, and the Beach Boys were on the scene.

**Nowadays, I'd expect a group by that name to be heavy metal.

***The name of the group (which connected them with Greenwich Village, the center of folk) and the song (Washington Square is in Greenwich Village) were instrumental in their being considered a folk group.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Night of the Comet

Written and Directed by
Thom Eberhardt
Starring Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney, Robert Beltran, Mary Woronov, Geoffrey Lewis.
IMDB Entry

Back in the 80s, the Valley Girl stereotype burst on the popular culture scene.* A variation on the "dumb blonde" stereotype, replete with it's own over-the-top "Valspeak" slang, it provided a quick laugh throughout the 80s, and the stereotype is still lively today.  In the middle of the fad, director/writer had an inspired idea:  combine Valley Girls with zombies**.  The result was Night of the Comet.

Regina Belmont (Catherine Mary Stewart) works in a movie theater the night the Earth passes through the tail of a comet, and large crowds*** gathers to watch.  Catherine, though, can't see it and spends the night with her boyfriend in the steel-lined projection booth at the theater.

In the morning, everyone is dead, turned to red powder.****  Her boyfriend is then killed by a pack of zombies, people who only felt the partial effect of the comet. Catherine's sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) also survived, hiding in a steel garden shed, and, like all Valley Girls, they do what they have to do -- go shopping.

The movie is a mix of zombie horror and comedy.  They meet up with Hector (Robert Beltran), a truck driver who managed to avoid exposure and go to find some scientists who set up an underground bunker to survive.  But the scientists aren't to be trusted.

There are some very funny moments and lines, as well as touching ones, and, of course, plenty of action.  The girls, who were taught self-defense by their army officer father, start to outgrow their Valley Girl-dom, and find others who haven't been affected by the dust.

It interesting how the movie was a forerunner of some better know series.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer took on the idea of kick-ass teenage girls taking on supernatural threats, with wisecracks and some personal issue on the side, and Shaun of the Dead also has many parallels (e.g., Shaun goes where he's most comfortable -- the pub -- as doe the girl, who go to the mall).

The movie was a modest success (helped by its small budget), but was quickly forgotten.  Director Thom Eberhardt did nothing that stood out all that much (his best-known film after this was the Sherlock Holmes film Without a Clue, though it appears he directed some episode of Space Rangers).  Robert Beltran did become a familiar face as Chakotay in Star Trek: Voyager, but the rest of the cast never really broke out (not counting Mary Woronow, who was already an indie-film goddess starting with Eating Raoul).

But I can't think of the movie without a smile, especially one line:  "Daddy would have gotten us Uzis."  It was a film ahead of its time, and is still a lot of fun.


*Coming from one of the unlikeliest of sources to form a major fad -- Frank Zappa's song Valley Girl, his only top-40 hit.

**A juxtaposition that's still being played out on the best-seller list today.

***Who obviously never read or saw The Day of the Triffids.

**** Foreshadowing the fate of the crew of the Red Dwarf.  One nice touch in Comet is that the victims' clothes are untouched -- they lie in a pile atop their remains.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Vaughn Meader (comedy)

Some people reach stardom and stay there for the rest of their lives.  Others find their stardom slowly fading away. It's rare, though, that you can find the exact moment when a star became a has-been. Sadly, Vaughn Meader's career -- one that made him the most famous comic in the US, and led to a number 1 album* -- ended in a single day, and it was impossible for him to recover.

Meader was born in 1936 and gravitated toward show business as he reached adulthood.  After having little success as a singer, he switched to standup comedy and discovered around 1960 that he had a talent for mimicking one person in particular:  John F. Kennedy.

This was unusual.  People didn't do impressions of the president up to that point; the office was considered too important to make fun of.  But in 1962, Meader collaborated with writers Bob Booker and Earl Doud (and a large cast) to record the album The First Family.

The First Family

The album was a hit.  A massive hit.  It sold a million and a half copies in its first seven weeks -- still a record -- and chalked up sales of over 7.5 million copies overall.  I remember walking by record stores who attracted customers by playing it.  People quoted its dialog all the time** and it went on to win a Grammy for album of the year. It was a phenomenon.  Even JFK was reported as having loved it.  Meader recorded a second volume, The First Family, Volume II. 

Then came Dallas.

The moment Meader heard the news,*** he knew is career was over.  He had been typecast as a Kennedy impersonator, and his name brought up unpleasant memories.  Both albums were pulled from record store shelves immediately after the assassination, and a Christmas single -- released just before the assassination -- was also removed.

Meader vowed never to imitated JFK again, and kept to his vow his entire life.

But his career was over.  He tried recording other comedy albums, but his name typecast him as the guy who imitated JFK.  He even tried to use different names, but nothing worked.  He turned to drugs to combat depression and eventually found a niche doing folk music along with an occasional comedy gig, sometimes given to him by people who felt sorry for his situation.

Though forgotten, the album still is a milestone.  It did give comics the ability to mimic the president and joke about him directly**** and thus opened a new path for comedy.  Much of this recognition came a bit late for Meader, however, who died in 2004, reduced to being a trivia question that no one wanted to talk about.


*Comedy albums often were number one in the early 60s; others to gain this distinction are Bob Newhart, and Allan Sherman.

**The album was funny, and works fine today, except for the various topical references that may confuse audiences nowadays.

**Various anecdotes indicates that he first thought the news was some sort of joke.

***The First Family was never vicious toward JFK, but rather joked about his foibles and accent.  It was quite apolitical for a record about a political figure.