Sunday, December 27, 2015

I Married a Monster from Outer Space

Directed by
Gene Fowler, Jr.
Written by Louis Vittes
Starrring Tom Tryon, Gloria Talbott, Peter Baldwin
IMDB Entry
Full Movie at the Paramount Vault.

It certainly has one of the most sensational titles from the 1950s, but I Married a Monster from Outer Space plays down the sensationalism in a story that is remiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatcher. It also has similarities to another great SF film of the era, It Came From Outer Space.

It starts out at a bachelor party.  Bill Varrell (Tom Tryon) is returning home when he hits a body in the road.  But when he checks, it’s disappeared.  Perplexed, Bill is accosted by a monster, who takes him over.

The marriage goes on, and his bride Marge (Gloria Talbott) notices strange things about him – he can see in the dark and he appears to not know things he should.  After a year, she begins to realize that her husband isn’t her husband.  But by that time the town is infested with these doppegaengers, who keep her from calling for help.

The monsters – aliens – are basically men dressed in rubber suits, but that’s normal for movies before CGI.  What makes it interesting is the subtext; it’s quite clear that Marge and her “husband” are having sex, even though she hasn’t gotten pregnant. 

The movie portrays 50s paranoia, though the monsters end up being fairly benign.

The cast and director and even the writer were working in televion and probably hoped to make the leap into features.  All worked for years afterwards, though stardom eluded them. 

The biggest star, and most successful career belongs to leading man Tom Tryon.  He grew tired of acting about ten years later and started writing horror novels.  The Other was a best seller and a movie, and he had most of his books made into films or TV miniseries.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Root Boy Slim (music)

Wikipedia Entry

I’ve always been attracted to weird music.  And as this Christmas season is upon us, I started thinking about Root Boy Slim.

Root Boy was born Foster MacKenzie III.  As his real name might indicate, he was raised in a wealth family, in private schools and eventually at Yale.*  But Root Boy was too wild to stick with his WASP upbringing; he loved being outrageous and shoking and soon was fronting a blues band.

After school, he moved home to the Washington, DC area** and formed “Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band” which developed a reputation for bizarrely theatrical shows and songs about politics an culture.

A self-published record was noticed by Warner Brothers Records, and Root Boy was signed to a contract.  The single was the delightful “Christmas at Kmart.”

The album was filled with songs scornfully commenting on the current scene.  The most successful song was “Boogie ‘Til You Puke,” a scathing takedown of the college disco scene.  Other songs included “I Used to be a Radical,’' “Dare to be Fat,” and “You Broke My Mood Ring.”  Toot Boy had a growly blues voice*** and looked far from a rock star.  His songs were fairly witty, but though the album had some airplay, it was not a success.

After that, Root Boy went from record company to record company, with various band changes,****  but little success.  Their last original album came out in 1990; Root Boy died in 1993.
*Where he was a fraternity brother of George W. Bush, a year younger than him.  Bush banned him from the fraternity house when he returned after graduation.

**Once, high on LSD, he jumped the White House fence and actually made it to the door. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

***Similar to Captain Beefheart, though the Captain was a far more original songwriter.

****He once appeared in the Albany area as “Root Boy Slim and the Black Silk Stockings.”

Sunday, December 13, 2015

White Heat

(1949) Directed by Raoul Walsh
Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, suggested by a story by Virginia Kellogg
Starring  James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly
IMDB Entry

The gangster film was an relic of the 30s.  Usually produced by Warner Brothers, and often starring some combination of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson or George Raft, the genre gave such great films as The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Scarface, and The Roaring Twenties.  One of the last of the genre – which focused on the rise and fall of a bad guy – was White Heat.

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is a sociopath, long before the word was common.  The movie starts out with the robbery of a mail train, where Jarrett cold-bloodedly murders the crew – and one of his gang.   He holes up with his wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) and his mother (Margaret Wycherly), but when the police find them out, he confesses to a lesser crime that he says he committed at the time of the robbery and is given a short sentence.  Unconvinced he really is innocent, the police put an informant (Edmone O’Brien) in prison to gain Cody’s confidence to put him away, as well as capture some of his associates.

Cagney is electric as Cody.  He’s a character with no morals at all, and also one who is completely unpredictable.  What’s even more interesting – and quite creepy – is his fixation on his mother.  She supports him in all his endeavors, treating him as her little boy.  And Cagney’s scene when he discovers his mother is dead is one of the most emotionally raw in film of the time.

Wycherly’s mom is also memorable, a woman nearly as psychotic as her son. The movie is also known for its finale, when Cody finally gets to the top of the world.

After White Heat, things had moved toward noir.  In the late 50s there was a short revival of the gangster film, and, of course, The Godfather made great use of the genre.  But White Heat marked the end of the era of Warner Brothers gangster films in the pure form.
Trivia alert:  The third guy down from Cagney when his question is passed along is Olympic Decathlon Champion Jim Thorpe.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House(1932)
Directed by
James Whale
Written by Benn W. Levy from the novel from J. B. Priestly
Starrring Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond., Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Elpeth Dudgeon,Brember Wills
IMDB Entry
Full Movie on Youtube

The original Frankenstein was a sensation, making Boris Karloff a star and putting director James Whale on the top of the Hollywood heap.  His next venture into horror was also something of a classic and defined the genre of “Strangers caught in a creepy house during a story” subgenre of horror:  The Old Dark House.

The movie starts by showing Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) driving with their friend Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) in a vicious Welsh storm.  The roads wash out, and they are forced into stopping at an old, dark house for shelter.

He house is home to the Femms:  Horace (Ernest Thesiger), wanted by the police and trapped in their house and Rebecca (Eva Moore), slightly deaf and somewhat of a religious fanatic.  Their mute butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff) skulks around the premises.

They are soon joined by two other travelers:  Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his chorus girl “friend” Gladys (Lilian Bond).  And there are other people in the house:  Horace’s centenarian father (Elspeth Dodgeon*) and his brother Saul (Brember Wills), both locked away from the others.

There is conversation and romance, creepy matters and attacks.  Nothing too terrible by modern standards, but the dialog and characters drive the plot.

Karloff is an fine menace,** but it’s really an ensemble piece.  Each actor gets a moment to show his stuff.  Laughton is great as the rich ne’er-do-well, while Thesiger is just enough off to make him worth watching.  And the entire production is shot in a dark and moody with the deep shadows characteristic of German Expressionism.

Boris Karloff & Gloria Stuart

To modern eyes, there’s a fascinating gay subtext.  Whale open about being gay – far more than most in his era -- and Laughton was considered by many to be at least bisexual.  There’s a scene at the end with some homoerotic overtones and a comment that arguably was the first use of the word “gay” to mean homosexual in a mainstream source.

In any case, the film was successful, and spawned many imitators, so much so that the situation became a cliché.  Though the acting is crude by current standards, the film stands out for its humor and its concentration on character.

Whale continued his winning streak of horror with The Invisible Man and his masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein (which also included Karloff and Thesinger), and with the musical Show Boat. 

The others in the cast were also very successful.  Laughton and Douglas won Oscars and Massey was nominated for one.***  Gloria Stuart is best known to modern audiences today as Old Rose in Titanic, and nearly all the rest worked regularly in films into the 1950s or later.

The film became forgotten partly due to rights issues and partly because it was sandwiched between Whale and Karloff’s two Frankenstein films.  But it still had plenty to offer viewers today.

*She was billed as John Dudgeon and is clearly intended to be an old man.  It’s an interesting piece of casting, possibly chosen because a woman’s voice was thought to be more like that of an old man.

**There’s an amusing title card that assures the audience that Karloff really is the same actor from Frankenstein.

***A side note is that Massey played Jonathan Brewster in the movie version of Arsenic and Old Lace, a character who was supposed to look like Boris Karloff.  Karloff played the role on Broadway, but was not released to play the role on film.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

My Favorite Year

Directed by
Richard Benjamin
Written by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo
Starring Peter O’Toole, Mark Lin-Baker, Jessica Harper, Joseph Bologna, Lainie Kazan
IMDB Entry

Live television was a new and exciting form of entertainment in the 50s, and the pressure and fun of putting on a show every week has rarely been shown on film.  My Favorite Year is a loving portrait of early television.

It shows Benjy Stone (Mark Lin-Baker), an intern on The King Kaiser Show.*  When the show books swashbuckling movie star Allan Swann (Peter O’Toole), they are faced with a problem:  Swann is a heavy drinker** and Benjy promises to Kaiser (Joseph Bologna) that he’ll keep him sober.  Naturally, the two men bond and, of course, disaster ensues. 

O’Toole is magnificent as the larger-than-life Swann.  His declaration “I am not an actor!  I’m a movie star!” should be on anyone’s list of great movie quotes.*** He got an Oscar nomination for this, but, of course, didn’t win. Mark Lin-Baker is also fine as the starry-eyed but serious Benjy.

The film also captured the feel of doing a live show every week.  Mel Brooks, who helped produced, was a writer for Your Show of Shows, and Swann is based on Errol Flynn, who was a guest.  Several others involved with the show were also in the cast of the movie, notably Selma Diamond.

Director Richard Benjamin was best known for his acting roles and this was his first theatrical film.  Alas, his career never took off, and most of his credits were flops and critical disappointments.

*A pastiche of the great Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar.

**As was O’Toole, who managed to function and Sid Caesar, who, sadly could not.

***As his reply to the ladies room attendant when he stumbles in and is told, “This is for ladies only”:  “So is this ma’am, but every now and again I have to run a little water thought it.”

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Confession (L’aveu)

The Confession(1970)
Directed by
Written by Jorge Semprun from a book by Lise & Artur London
Starring Yves Montand, Simone Signoret
IMDB Entry

Costa-Gavras was one of the most political of all film directors, often basing him movies on real-life political events.  His movie Z was a condemnation of the Greek junta of the 1960s.  But Costa-Garvras hated repression in all forms.  Where Z was an attack on the right wing, The Confession did the same for a communist regime.

It’s the story of Artur Ludvik (Yves Montand), aka Gerard, who is a vice-minister of Foreign Affairs in communist Czechoslovakia.  He is suddenly arrest – for no reason he can think of – and thrown into jail.  Government agents harass and torture him to confess various crimes that probably were never committed.  Even his wife Lisa (Simone Signoret) begins to think he might be guilty.

The movie is taken from Artur and Lisa London’s account of Artur’s actual trial, where he was sentenced to life in prison.  It’s a harrowing movie, where one can see just how torture can break down a man into confessing anything.

The most memorable scene for me was toward the end.  Gerard had confessed and was being marched to his show trial, along with several others.  They are given back the clothes they were arrested in, but everyone has been so starved that they fit far too loosely.  One of the defendants has his pants fall down, starting a wave of laughter among the prisoners.  It’s a wonderful and fully human moment.

The movie is memorable (if for nothing more than the poster) and still has a lot of relevance today.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mandarin Chocolate Sherbet (food)

By Baskin-Robbins

I’ve written before about foods that were no longer made, such as Regal Crown Sours and Screaming Yellow Zonkers.*  Usually, it was because the manufacturer was out of business and the recipe lost.  Mandarin Chocolate Sherbet was made by Baskin-Robbins, which is still in business and presumably knows the recipe.  Yet as far as I can see, it hasn’t been made in years.

It’s a shame.  The flavor has never been seen elsewhere.  It’s a dark chocolate sherbet with just a hint of orange, that you don’t notice until you swallow.  Despite the fact it’s somewhat light – sherbet instead of ice cream – there was a rich, dark chocolate taste that melts on the tongue.

There were many fans.  It was named the best Baskin-Robbins ice cream by Paul Passell and Leonard Ross and it deserves to be.  Yet even though it was discontinued years ago, there was no sign of them being willing to bring it back.

Which is a shame.  There was no other ice cream like it.

*Both have come back, if only for a short time.  I’d like to think this blog had something to do with it.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Hardware Wars

Written and directed by
Ernie Fosselius
Starring Frank Robertson, Scott Mathews, Jeff Hale, Cindy Furgatch, Bob Knickerbocker, Paul Frees
IMDB Entry

Nowadays, anyone with a cell phone can make a movie.  But back in the 70s, it took a lot more than that:  cameras, film, sound equipment, etc. There also was nothing like Youtube to get your film to the public.  You had to find movie theaters who were interested (at a time when the short subject was dead) or film festivals. And, to have any chance, it had to be good.  Hardware Wars overcame those hurdles, and is the best Star Wars parody ever.

The movie is in the form of a trailer, and which parodies every aspect of Star Wars.*   It shows Fluke Starbucker (Scott Matthews) finding the droids 4-Q-2 (Frank Roberson)** and Artie Deco (Canister Vacuum Cleaner).  Fluke goes to Augie "Ben" Doggie (Jeff Hale)*** and they sign up Ham Salad (Bob Knickerbocker) and his Wookie Monster (brown Cookie Monster puppet) to rescue Princess Anne-Droid (Cindy Furgatch) and the evil Darph Nader.

In addition to the Mad Magazine style names, the movie plays off Star Wars, giving each important scene a twist.  The "Hardware" in the title is descriptive:  many of the items are in film are animated household appliances.  The Millennium Falcon is an iron; the Deathstar, a waffle iron; other spaceships, toasters.  The special effects are some of the worst ever committed to film.

Once nice touch was the narration, which was done by veteran voiceman Paul Frees, who had also done the narration of the original Star Wars trailer.  And all the dialog was recorded after shooting, so the words only occasionally match the lip movement.

The movie was an immediate hit on the film festival circuit, winning a bunch of awards, and became a mainstay of science fiction convention film programs for years.  It grossed over $1 million, pretty nice return on the $8000 it cost to make.

Ernie Fosselius continued to work in films, usually in the background.  He parodied Apocalypse Now with Porklips Now, which didn't make much of a splash, and a few writing and directing gigs fell apart.

But making the film that George Lucas has called the best parody of Star Wars counts for a lot.

*I'm not calling it "Episode IV: A New Hope" because that wasn't in the name when Hardware Wars came out.

**Designed to look like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

***The reference is to an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon, Augie Doggie and his Doggie Daddy.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Clyde Bruckman

IMDB Entry
Wikipedia Entry

I never got into The X-Files.* But when I was looking at an episode list, I noticed one titled “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” which some people consider one of its best.  But the name of Clyde Bruckman rang a bell, as someone who worked with most of the great names of early film comedy.

Bruckman was born in San Bernadino, California and began his writing life as a sportswriter for the San Bernadino Sun.  He made a name for himself as a sportswriter who eventually tried a hand at fiction.  In 1919, he was hired to write intertitles at Universal.** He came to the attention of Buster Keaton, who hired him to be a gagwriter*** for his first feature film, Three Ages

But, as the cliché goes, he wanted to direct.  After one short subject, Cowboys Cry for It, he was given the chance to share directing credit with Keaton on one of the greatest of all silent comedies:  The General.

There is some question as to how much directing he had done, an issue that often came up during his directing career.  Keaton had directed several of his own features, though often with a co-director.  It’s likely that Keaton worked as the director of actors, while his co-director dealt with the things he couldn’t do while performing.  But, in any case, it was the start of Bruckman’s career behind the lens.

He continued directing comedy short subjects.  Two years later, he added Putting Pants on Philip to his resume, a landmark film that first had Laurel and Hardy together as a team.****  He did several other Laurel and Hardy films, as well as films starring Harold Lloyd, starting with Welcome Danger, Lloyd’s first talkie. 

Bruckman’s career faltered with the coming of sound.  But it didn’t stop him from a few more notable films as he hooked up with W.C. Fields.  The Fatal Glass of Beer with Fields is one of the funniest short subjects ever made.***** His last directing job was on Fields’ classic The Man on the Flying Trapeze.

His problems getting work was due to his alcoholism.  That wasn’t necessarily a deal killer in Hollywood, but Bruckman went beyond their patience when he vanished during the production of The Man on the Flying Trapeze, with Fields (uncredited) going behind the camera to stay on budget.

Bruckman went back to writing.  He wrote the story for several Three Stooges shorts (including You Nazty Spy!, one of their best) as well as working on films for Andy Clyde an other lesser-known comedians of the era.

But trouble struck in the 40s.  His old employer Harold Lloyd sued the studio for plagiarism after Bruckman reused some gags he had written for Lloyd films.  It was ultimately a ridiculous lawsuit – some of the gags in question predated Lloyd’s use, and Bruckman had written them in the first place – but Lloyd won the suit. 

Bruckman was broken. The studio fired him and he ceased to make an effort.  Buster Keaton, who never let an old friend down, hired him to write an episode of his TV show, and he got a job writing for Abbott and Costello’s show.  But once again he started recycling gags and Harold Lloyd sued again, putting an end to his career.

And, ultimately, his life.  Borrowing a gun from Buster Keaton, Bruckman committed suicide on January 4, 1955.

It was a sad ending to a funny man.  Bruckman certainly had talent before the bottle took it away, and considering he worked with most of the names we still recognize as comic icons, he couldn’t be all that bad.  Most likely, his best work was codirected (or entirely directed) by the comic geniuses he worked with,****** but there had to be a reason why they were willing to work with him.  Maybe he was a nice guy; maybe they took pity on his drinking problem, but, one way or another, he had a career most people would envy.

*I have nothing against it, but it’s just isn’t my cup of tea.

**The title cards shown during the movie.

***Bruckman’s sportswriter background probably helped:  Keaton was a baseball fanatic.

****They had been in movies together, but didn’t work as a team before this.  Laurel knew Bruckman from Cowboys Go For It, in which he appeared.

*****Though it was far more Fields’s film.  Fields had shot a version, but the studio hired Bruckman to add shots that Fields didn’t want to do.

******Several of his films had a second, uncredited director, too.  I would assume that they took over when Bruckman was too drunk to function.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Homicide: Second Shift (Web)

Created by
the producers of Homicide: Life on the Street
Starring Joe Grifasi, Allison Janney, Ray Anthony Thomas, Michael Ornstein, Josh Pais, Murphy Guyer
Wikipedia Entry

TV is still figuring out how to deal with the Internet, and it was far worse in the early days of the web. One of the most interesting examples was by the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street.  Already one of the best shows of its era, the producers decided that the way to go was to integrate it into the web.  The result was Homicide:  Second Shift.

A web page was set up, covering the solution of a mystery by the “second shift” of the Baltimore cops featured in the show.  Now this was before home broadband was financially feasible, so the result was a web page outlining a crime, where you would click to see evidence and clues, as well as the cops involved.  “Scenes” were created by graphics surrounded by dialog.


The website design was excellent, very advanced for the time.  Even today, it doesn’t look dated.

The crime on the net was connected to the TV show. In one episode of the show, for instance, a cop we’ve never seen before calls one of the regulars aside to discuss the case.  In another case, the online version showed events that happened both before and after what was on the air. 

Actors, most notably Allison Janney, were cast to play the roles, usually to be photographed for the web page.  A few of the TV cast also were used.

The experiment was a critical success, but not very popular.  The pages were really only just text and graphics (though excellent design) and there was no interactivity.  For most fans of the show, it was a curiosity. As I suppose it is today.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Critic (TV)

Created by
Al Jean & Mike Reiss
Starring Jon Lovitz, Judith Ivey, Nancy Cartwright, Gerrit Graham. Maurice LaMarche, Charles Napier, Doris Grau
IMDB Entry

The Critic was an odd duck in network animation.  Usually, the shows were family comedies, where the group – no matter how bizarre – would come together at the end to resolve their issues.  But this show was going for something a little different, which may have been one reason it had so short a run.

The show is about Jay Sherman (Jon Lovitz), a movie critic with his own TV show, Coming Attractions.  Jay was a short, dumpy, and besieged by life.  His mother Eleanor (Judith Ivey, doing a Katherine Hepburn imitation) was a harpy, his father Franklin (Gerrit Graham) a man with the attention span of a flea.  He took guff from his hairdresser (Doris Grau*) and his egotistical boss (Charles Napier).  The only bright spots were his sister Margo (Nancy Cartwright) and his son, plus his friend Jeremy Hawke (Maurice LaMarche, channeling “Crocodile” Dundee).

Jay was conceived as the anti-Homer-Simpson, educated and something of an elitist**, who’s committed to choosing what he thinks is best.  His attempts at braggadocio often backfire, but he retains enough common sense and humanity to survive.  Lovitz is absolutely perfect in the role.

The show had many pop cultural references, mostly in the movies Jay would review (ending most reviews with  his catchphrase, “It stinks”).  Creators Al Jean and Mike Reiss were writers on The Simpsons*** and deliberately tried to be the anti-Simpsons.  Jay was the opposite of Homer, and they did some wonderful things with it.**** Some real film critics also had cameos.

But the ratings were there.  ABC canceled the show halfway through the first season.  But Jean and Reiss called in a few favors and got the remaining episodes to air on Fox.  There was even a crossover, where Jay shows up at the Simpsons.*****

The show had improved ratings on Fox, but evidently not enough to keep it from being cancelled.  Attempts were made to find another network, but failed.  However, in 2000, Atom Films revived it as a stripped down web series, mostly with the movie parodies.

The Critic has been hugely influential.  Some have even said that Family Guy stole entire scenes from it.  In any case, it was a comedy before its time and poor network decisions kept it from achieving it’s greatness.

*Lunchlady Doris from The Simpsons. RIP.

**Though perfectly normal compared to his mother.

***The got the show on the air because Simpsons producer James L. Brooks was offered a commitment for a new animated show.

****I loved that the theme song was an hommage to Rhapsody in Blue.

*****Bart shakes his hand, praising him, then says, “I feel so dirty,” since everyone knew that this was a way to promote The Critic.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Critic

Directed by
Ernest Pintoff
Written by Mel Brooks
Voices by Mel Brooks
IMDB Entry
Full movie

I really don’t have to say that Mel Brooks is a comic genius.  His films are classics, including the first film he ever appeared in, the Academy Award winning The Critic.*

The movie – an animated short subject -- starts with a bunch of abstract designs and a chirpy harpsichord playing the the background.  About 30 seconds in, you hear Brook’s voice** chiming in with “What the hell is this?”

Brooks continues to comment on what is shown on the screen, mystified and disdainful as he tries to puzzle out the meaning of the abstract designs in front of him.  A couple of people tell him to be quiet, but he defends his right to talk about what is happening.

The entire thing was ad libbed.  Brooks, inspired by seeing an old man doing the same thing in a theater, told director Ernest Pintoff to make a film, but not show it to him until he was in the studio.  Brooks manages to be incredibly funny, partly because what he describes really matches what we’re seeing in a unexpected way.  His way of speaking also adds to the humor.

Director/producer Ernest Pintoff had already gotten an Oscar nomination for an animated short subject,*** which may be one reason Brooks chose him.  The film won this time, though Brooks would have to wait a couple of years until getting his own statuette for The Producers.

The film is short and sweet and incredibly funny.  Click on the link and prepare to laugh.

*Not to be confused with the animated TV show of the same name.

**Far more familiar now than when the movie was shot, of course.

***Narrated by Brooks’s collaborator Carl Reiner.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Flickers (TV)

Directed by
Cyril Coke
Written by Roy Clarke
Starring Bob Hoskins, Frances de la Tour
IMDB Entry
As you can guess from seeing the topics on this blog, I’ve always loved movies, and also movies and TV shows about making movies.  And, even though I rarely watched Masterpiece Theater at the time, I was glad to catch Flickers.
The six-part series featured the story of Arnie Cole (Bob Hoskins), a small-time nickelodeon operator in 1910 who wanted to produce films in his own hteater.  He’s a lower class guy without much money, and when he’s introduced to Maud (Frances de la Tour), who’s rich and too snobbish for his taste, he realizes that she could help fund him.  But Maud, who is no beauty, gets pregnant and needs a father for the child, so the two reluctantly marry.
The series covers a lot of the clichés of filmmaking of the era, but the true joy is watching the two leads.  Hoskins has always been an amazing actor and in this role, his blustery persona is the perfect foil for Maud.  Frances de la Tour* is an accomplished farceur and gives as good as she gets, but also shows a vulnerability that brings a lot of charm to the entire enterprise.
The series was written by Roy Clarke, who later became major success in Britcons, creating and writing Keeping Up Appearances and The Last of the Summer Wine.
The show was enough of a success to spawn a thematic sequel, Pictures, though with none of the same cast.  It was set about ten years later, as the characters tried to make it in the movies.  Though far less successful, the most amusing moments were provided by an actor playing the representative of a Hollywood studio.  The character was supposed to be Jewish, but the way he said “Oy Vey” – in a way no one has ever said the phrase – was a joy to behold.
Flickers had a release on VCR, but nothing on DVD.
*Currently chewing the scenery with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi in Vicious.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Ensign O’Toole (TV)

Based on novels by
Bill Lederer
Starring Dean Jones, Jack Albertson, Jay C. Flippen, Jack Mullaney, Harvey Lembeck, Beau Bridges.
IMDB Entry

In Memory of Dean Jones.

TV in 60s, for all the reputation of the era, had a surprisingly large number of service comedies.  Gomer Pyle, USMC is the best known today, but there was also Broadside, The Wackiest Ship in the Navy, McHale’s Navy, No Time of Sergeants, and Operation Petticoat. It was partly a hangover from the Cold War; many US men were drafted and spent two years on military bases, pretty much bored the whole time.  One of the lesser-known shows in the genre was Ensign O’Toole.

The show was aboard the USS Appleby, a typical ship of the pre-Vietnam era, and the antics of its crew, most notably O’Toole (Dean Jones).  In a way, O’Toole ran the ship, using his charm and wit to get what he needed or to fix situations for others.*  Others in the crew were CPO Homer Nelson (Jay C. Flippen), a long time veteran; Lt. Cdr. Virgil Stoner (Jack Albertson), who ran the ship** and who knew something might be going on, but was willing to overlook things to the good of morale; Lt. Rex St. John (Jack Mullaney), who was a by-the-book and ambitious sailor who was something of a foil for O’Toole; and Seaman Gabby Di Julion (Harvey Lembeck), a troublemaker.***

The stories were usually slight, with misadventures and mistaken identity.  They were held together by Dean Jones’s charm and charisma, as well as his understated performance. 

Two other things impressed me as a kid:  The name of the show was spelled out in Morse code by a signal lamp, and each episode title was named “Operation:  something.”

The show only lasted a season and was canceled due to low ratings.  But Disney evidently saw something in Jones and started casting him in films soon afterward.  But I always remembered him as the cool and collected O’Toole.

*In a few episodes, others would come to him once things messed up for help

**The captain was never shown.

***Lembeck was a strong comedy presence in the 50s and 60s, playing one of the prisoners in Stalag 17, a role he originated on Broadway.  He did time on the Phil Silvers Show and also appeared in many of the Beach party movies as biker Eric Von Zipper.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Long Good Friday

The Long Good Friday(1980)
Directed by
John Mackenzie
Written by Barry Keeffe
Starring Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren
IMDB Entry

Bob Hoskins was a remarkable actor.  He was usually seen as something of an everyman, a teddy bear who would show a temper born of frustration.  The Long Good Friday was a much different role, and Hoskins was brilliant in it.

Harold Shand (Hoskins) was a small-time London gangster whose brutality and ruthlessness brought him to the top of the underworld. He is trying to start making money legitimately, when some of his organization are murdered, often by bombs going off.  Not only is the bad for his people, it’s bad for business, and Harold decides to put an end to it – using the ruthless methods that brought him to the top.  This is a big mistake.

Hoskins’s biggest strength is his blustery persona, usually used to comic effect.  In this case, though, he plays it seriously.  He is a dangerous man (or at least he thinks it is) who is used to getting what he wants by bullying and cruelty.  It’s one of his best roles.

The movie made him an important actor.  Though he had done some successful British TV,* his movie roles were either small or in unimpressive films.  After seeing him here, producers started

*Notably as Arnie Cole in the miniseries Flickers.  He also played the lead in the miniseries Pennies from Heaven, thought Steve Martin had the role in the movie version.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Strictly Ballroom

Directed by
Baz Luhrmann
Written by Baz Luhrmann, Andrew Bovell, Craig Pierce
Starring Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, Bill Hunter, Pat Thomson, Gia Carides
IMDB Entry

Some film careers take off like a rocket, only to fizzle out.  For a while, Baz Luhrmann looked to be a great new film talent, and this was clear from his first feature, Strictly Ballroom.

It’s about Scott Hastings (Peul Mercurio), a ballroom dancer trying to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix.*  Scott has his own idea about how things should be danced, which angers the traditionalist judges, who look disdainfully on “crown-pleasing steps.”  Fed up, his partner Liz Holt (Gia Carides) leaves him for another partner several weeks before the competition.  He tries to find a new partner, and is drawn toward Fran (Tara Morice), who had no experience in ballroom.

She does have experience in dancing, however, and introduces some new – and unconventional -- steps to Scott.  But the steps are not strictly ballroom, and Scott wonders if he’s made the right choice.

While the arc of the story is hardly new, but the movie is fascinating from start to finish.  Luhrmann’s style is distinct even in his first time:  quick cuts, visually striking people, and a general operatic style.  The movie originated from a stage play written by him when he was a student, and went through several incarnations before becoming a film’'; Luhrmann insisted he direct.

From this, he went on the direct Romeo+Juliet, a brassy and wonderful Shakespeare adaptation.**  Next was Moulin Rouge, a bravura tragedy.  All three films share the same operatic sensibility.

Luhrmann made movies more sporadically, concentrating on theater and opera.  His Australia is a overlong epic*** and Great Gatsby was a modest success.

But this is where he began, and it clearly showed a strong visual sensibility coupled with some high drama.

*Despite its grandiose name, the even seems to be pretty small time.

**One of the few that figured out to improve on the original.  In Shakespeare, Romeo discovers Juliet is dead and drinks poison in his grief.  Juliet wakes up a few minutes later.  Luhrmann changed the play so that Juliet wakes just as Romeo is dying; he sees her face before the poison fully takes hold.  Far more dramatic.

***Almost a double feature: one movie takes two hours, and the second one takes another hour.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (radio)

Produced by
Jack Johnstone
Starring Charles Russell, Edmund O’Brian, John Lund, Bob Bailey, Bob Readick, Mandel Kramer
Wikipedia Page
Tribute Page

One thing I like about SiriusXM in my car is being able to listen to the old time radio channel.  Most of the comedies don’t hold up that well (especially sitcoms), but there are dramas that still work well, notably Gunsmoke and Dragnet. But perhaps the best of them all was a show I had never heard of before, even though it lasted longer than just about anything else:  Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

The show premiered in 1949, with Charles Russell in the title role.*  Johnny Dollar was an insurance investigator, “the man with the action-packed expense account.”  An early quirk was that he tipped everyone a dollar, a big tip back in those days when a cup of coffee was a dime.**  Each week, he’d be sent out from the home office to investigate a case.  The conceit was that he was dictating his expense account and describing each expense as a well of telling the story of the case.  Episodes would begin with Dollar picking up the phone and laying out the situation.

The show was a half hour long, and was pretty routine, and barely different from other detective shows of the time.  It went off the air in 1954.

It got a second life the next year in a slight different format.  Instead of a half-hour, the time was cut to 15 minutes – five days a week.  This allowed for longer and more complicated storyline.

But the best thing about the show as Bob Bailey, who took over as Johnny.  Bailey was just perfect – cynical and self-aware, ready with a wisecrack or a gun.  The dialog is crisp and clever, and the adventures draw you in.***

By the end of 1956, the show went back to a weekly half hour.  Radio drama was dying by then, but Johnny Dollar continued.  Bob Bailey left the show in 1960 because CBS wanted to move production to the east coast and he didn’t want to move.  Bob Readick took over, and eventually gave way to Mandel Kramer, who stayed to the end.  The show was one of the last regular radio dramas on the air.

If you don’t get SiriusXM, many episodes are available at  Give them a listen.

*Dick Powell did the radio equivalent of a pilot episode, but left.

**This was quickly dropped.  His expense account may have been action-packed, but the company auditors didn’t like that sort of action.

***I’ll often listen to episodes even though I know I won’t catch the ending, just to hear the dialog.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Ian Dury and the Blockheads (music)

imageActive 1977-1980
Members (original group):
  Ian Dury (vocals), Chaz Jankel (Guitars, keyboards), Norman Watt-Roy (bass), Charley Charles (drums), Davey Payne (saxophones)
Wikipedia entry
Official Website

Rock and roll stardom is fickle and sometimes the most surprising people taste it.  Ian Dury was one of those.  He was a major name in late 70s UK (and in US New Wave circles), and his path was different to say the least.

Dury was born in the UK in 1942 and moved around during most of his childhood.  When he was seven, he contracted polio and spent a year and a half recovering.  In 1971, he formed his first rock group, Kilburn and the High Roads, a part of the Canterbury progressive music scene.*  They toured with the Who and put out a couple of albums to critical success and public apathy.

Looking for work, Dury joined up with a group of friends to form the Blockheads, whose first notable single was “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” in 1977.  The song was controversial, but it made the group’s reputation.  Their album, New Boots and Panties was a major UK hit.  Their next single “What a Waste” made the charts, and Dury’s insanely catchy “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” made #1.

Dury and the Blockheads toured Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and other names of the New Wave scene.  His album was released in the US to disappointing sales.

Dury was a master lyricist, even when his lyrics were goofy.  Most of the music was written by Chaz Jankel and borrowed from jazz, music hall, rock, and rap.  He also had a minor acting career, with

He was never afraid to let people know about his bout with polio.  In fact, his record company was appalled at the video for “Rhythm Stick,” since you can clearly see how the disease affected his musculature.  At the time, though, not many noticed and Dury was glad that they did.  He later got in trouble with the BBC with a song about being disabled, but he was fearless in promoting it.

Dury’s time at the top was short.  When the New Wave became passe, he broke up with the Blockhead and tried new things, to only minor success.  He would occasionally get the Blockheads together.  He died in 2000 of cancer.


*Canterbury was a hotbed of progressive rock in the late 60s and early 70s; most of the hardcore groups of the era originated there:  Soft Machine, Caravan, Gong, Hatfield and the North, and National Health (the five groups in the center of the scene), plus the Wilde Flowers (originator of the scene), Camel, Egg, Henry Cow, Matching Mole, and others.  None had any notable hits in the US, but considering their mix of jazz, rock, fusion, and avant-garde music, hits were unlikely.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Wait Until Dark

Directed by
Terrence Young
Written by Robert Carrington and Jane-Howard Carrington from a play by Frederick Knott
Starring Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Samantha Jones, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.
IMDB Entry

Audrey Hepburn became a star by portraying a woman of cool charm and elegance, usually in romantic films.  But she could do more than that, and shows a different side of her in Wait Until Dark.

The film starts with Lisa (Samantha Jones) smuggling heroin into the US inside a cloth doll.  She befriends Sam Hendrix (Efram Zimbalist, Jr.) and, when she sees trouble at the airport, asks Sam to keep the doll.  Sam is married to Susy, who was blinded several years previously in an accident, but who doesn’t let that slow her up, as she tries to be “the world champion blind lady.”  But a group of crooks, lead by Roat (Alan Arkin) track down the doll and Susy, looking to take it back by any means possible.

Susy is the the type of woman heroine I admire:  smart, resourceful, and able to fight back as best she can.*  Hepburn is excellent in every scene and got a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

But the most bravura performance is Alan Arkin’s.  This was one of his first roles, and he’s brilliant.  Roat is one of the best types of villains – very smart, and always ahead of everyone, but with a casual violence that’s absolutely chilling.

The film is often cited as having one of the scariest moments in film.  It’s really more startling than scary**, but it is memorable.

Hepburn took a leave from films after this one to raise her family, not appearing until nine years later in Robin and MarianArkin made some bad choices, but in the 21st century came back into his own as a character actor, with an Oscar win.***

*I thought of the movie when watching the second episode of Daredevil on Netflix.  There’s a climactic fight scene at the end, and I wondered why Daredevil didn’t think to do what Susy had done, especially since the way to do it (a breaker box) was prominently displayed before the fight began.

**Startling an audience is ridiculously easy; any third-rate filmmaker can manage it:  you set up a character, keep any background to the minimum, and pretend that the big bad is dead.  Then you have the bad guy jump out at you while the soundtrack loudly plays music, preferably a discord.  The audience will jump every time.  If you want to see horror, watch Osama or The Tenant.

***He wasn’t nominated for Wait Until Dark, though he certainly deserved it.  When asked about it, he said, "You don't get nominated for being mean to Audrey Hepburn."

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann)

Directed by
F. W. Murnau
Written by Carl Mayer
Starring Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft Max Hiller
IMDB Entry
Entire Film from the Internet Archive

Director F. W. Murnau has been in the news lately (for bizarre reasons) and the articles always mention that he was director of Nosferatu, the first vampire film.  And while Nosferatu* is an important film historically, during his career most people considered The Last Laugh as Murnau’s major achievement.

The story is simple.  It follows a hotel doorman (Emil Jannings).  Proud of his job (and the uniform he wears), the doorman goes about his business with pride and flair. But he is growing old.  One day, a younger man shows up at the door, wearing the doorman’s uniform.  The doorman has been demoted to washroom attendant, a “reward” for his years of service.  The drop in prestige causes his life to unravel.

On a technical side, the movie (nearly, but more on that) attains an ideal that silent directors had always wanted to achieve:  to tell the story with only visuals, and without any title cards.  Murnau achieves this.  There is no dialog, no intertitles to show what the characters are saying.  Dialog is never spelled out, leaving the acting and the context to make it clear what the people are saying.  The scenes – shot by cameraman Karl Freund – also push the technical envelope of the time, but using a moving camera extensively, something that had rarely been attempted at all at the time.

The Doorman realizes he's been replaced.The story is also very affecting.  The loss of prestige breaks the doorman, and the intense sense of loss and depression.  Emil Jannings was one of the best actors of the late sound period** and he imbues the part with such sadness that you believe he is a man utterly crushed.

The movie’s ending was the reason for the single title card.  The studio insisted on adding a happy ending, so Murnau and writer Carl Dreyer added a obviously tacked-on and improbable*** happy ending (hence the card, and the film’s English title).

The film was praised as a classic from the start.  As a silent film, of course, the acting is not what we are used to today, since you couldn’t express emotion with your voice.  But taken on its own terms, it’s a landmark of cinema.


*An uncredited retelling of Dracula.

**He won the first Best Actor Oscar.

***In the film’s own words.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Frances Ha

Directed by
Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner
IMDB Entry

I like quirky movies, and also movies that are character and incident driven.  It can be difficult to pull off, but Frances Ha manages the task with aplomb.

The movie features Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig) and a 27-year old dancer still trying to hold on to her dreams – which weren’t really coming true in the first place.  Her best friend Sophie (Mickey Summer) moves out, forcing Frances to hustle just for a place to stay.

Greta Gerwig is excellent, but then, she has to be for the film to work at all.  Frances is sweet, frantic, naïve, and more than a little disorganized, with a habit of awkwardness.  The movie meanders along with Frances’s life as she tries to make sense of it all.

The film got critical raves, and did as well as a small quirky, black and white film can in the age of blockbusters.

*I like Quirky, too, but that’s another story.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Theodore Sturgeon (author)

Wikipedia Page
Science Fiction Encyclopedia
Internet SF Database

Theodore SturgeonI’ve been watching Sense8 on Netflix and have been following the commentary on it.  Some have compared it to Philip K. Dick, but the clearest precedent is one of the great writers of the genre:  Theodore Sturgeon.

Sturgeon was born as Edward Hamilton Waldo but changed his name at age 11 when his mother remarried.,  He started publishing in 1937 – mainstream stuff, it seems – but switched to science fiction,  where his first genre story, “Ether Breather,” appeared in Astounding in 1939.

Sturgeon was a prolific short story writer, and he quickly became noted as one of the top names in the genre.  His first truly original story – and most influential -- was “It,” in 1941.  “It” established the concept of a vegetation-based monster like Swamp Thing, The Heap, and Man-Thing.  It’s also a masterpiece of horror, with a scare in it that has rarely been duplicated.  Sturgeon’s monster is scary because it’s not evil, which means its actions cannot be predicted.

“Shottle Bop” from the next year is one of the first in the mysterious shop subgenre of fiction and “Microcosmic God” – about a man who creates a whole civilization of people – is still considered one of the greatest sf short stories of all time.  Some of my other favorites include

  • “Two Percent Inspiration,” a slight story, but one Sturgeon loved for pulling off three plot twists at the end.
  • “Killdozer!” about a sentient killer machine; it’s been dramatized a couple of time.
  • Baby is Three,”  the introduction of the concept used in Sense8.
  • “Mr. Costello, Hero,” a devastating attack on Joseph McCarthy and the modern culture of surveillance.*
  • “The World Well Lost” – Aliens have (for the time) a terrible secret.  Maybe the first sympathetic treatment of homosexuality in the genre.
  • “The Man Who Lost the Sea
  • “When You Care, When You Love” – mostly the story of a loving relationship, with a twist at the end.
  • “If All Men Are Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?”  Not only a great title, but probably the most dangerous of the Dangerous Visions.
  • “It Was Nothing, Really” – a lighter piece about force fields and toilet paper.
  • “Slow Sculpture” where a woman and a scientist heal each other by their presence.
  • “Not an Affair” about a seduction and a disease that has surprising consequences for the human race.

There are many more.

Sturgeon’s best known influence is from two TV scripts her wrote for the original Star Trek: “Shore Leave” and “Amok Time.”  In the latter, he created the concept of pon farr, wrote the line “Live Long and Prosper,” and suggested the Vulcan salute.**  And, of course, he’s known most widely for Sturgeon’s Law:  “90% of everything is crap.”***  He’s also known in science fiction for his credo, “Ask the next question.”

He only had a handful of novels published.  Sturgeon both preferred the short story and also seemed to go through periods of writers block, which may have caused him to stay away from longer work.  One of his best novels overall wasn’t even under his own name:  The Player on the Other Side was an Ellery Queen novel that Sturgeon wrote with advice from Queen.

It was a cliché of the time that Sturgeon wrote about love.  It’s basically true, but his stories were not just simple romances.  They explored the possibilities of relationships of all types.

Sturgeon was anthologized all over the place during his lifetime; anyone who read SF anthologies would come across his name.  He also had several collections published.****  And, like most short story writers of his era, he’s slowly fading away.  His complete short works are available for completists, and anything republishing stories from his time frame will include something of his.  But reprint anthologies are more for the long-time fan than anyone new.

But he deserves to be listed as one of the true greats of the field.

*It was made into a radio play and I was surprised to learn the name of the characters was pronounced COS-tuh-lo.

**Though Nimoy determined what exactly it would be.

***This was in reply to someone saying that 90% of science fiction was crap.  Note that there are various other words used instead of “crap.”

****One was probably the cleverest title ever given to an anthology:  Caviar.  Think about it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


Directed by
Sidney Lumet
Written by Jay Presson Allen, from a play by Ira Levin
Starring Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, Dyan Cannon, Irene Worth
IMDB Entry

Plot twists are a mainstay of classic mystery fiction.  And occasionally, there’s a work that’s nothing but plot twists.  One of the best examples of this is Deathtrap.

Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) is a playwright fighting off a string of Broadway flops.  Desperate for success, he gets a manuscript titled Deathtrap, from a former student, Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve).  It’s brilliant and Sidney thinks on stealing the manuscript and taking credit for it* and invited Clifford to their house.  Sidney’s wife Myra (Dyan Cannon) is uncomfortable with the idea, stressing her already weak constitution.  And a mysterious psychic, Helga ten Dorp (Irene Worth) shows up at the house, and complicates matters.

I can’t really discuss much of the plot; the fun is watching it unfold.  It has more twists than a mountain road, and most of the fun of the film is to follow them.

The movie was based on a play by Ira Levin** and directed by Sidney Lumet, who is best know for more serious work.  It’s often compared to Sleuth,*** though it’s different in many ways, lacking the cat and mouse games that made Sleuth successful. 

Caine gives his usual excellent performance, while Reeve, trying to shed his association with the Man of Steel, shows that he’s more than just a superhero actor.

The movie was a moderate success.  One thing that hurt it was something that occurred that was very notable in film history, but which gave away one of the twists, and also kept audiences away.****

Still, if you’re looking for a light thriller with plenty of surprises, Deathtrap is a good choice.

*A very annoying cliché about writers.  It’s acceptable here because of what happens afterwards, but there are so many times when that is the basis of a mystery that I’m tired of seeing it.

**Author of Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and many other successful thrillers. 

***Caine starred in the movie version of that (twice).

****Highlight text below to display
A passionate kiss between Sidney and Clifford.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Aaron Williams (comedy)

Wikipedia Page

The cliché of a ventriloquist is that his dummy starts taking on a life of its own.  Though that sort of split personality doesn’t happen in real life, there is one ventriloquist who worked that sort of vibe into his act:  Aaron Williams.

I saw Aaron and Freddie on a family vacation to Miami Beach one Christmas in the early 70s.  He was the opening act for Wilson Pickett* and I immediately loved the act.

Most ventriloquists project a bond with their dummies.  They might be mischievous, but the ventriloquist would gently chide the dummy or treat their comments as joke.  Aaron was different.  He stood on the stage and seemed embarrassed to be sharing it with Freddie.  He sometimes got so tired of it that he’s stuff Freddie into a suitcase.

Of course, by the time Williams came to the stage, ventriloquism was passe.  There were no TV shows, just guest appearances and one shots. But he worked regularly as an opening act for people like Pickett and Ray Charles.  He also did work for the Los Angeles Police Department by doing anticrime demonstrations.

Williams time in the national spotlight was short, and his act was hurt by ventriloquism no longer an interesting novelty.  But he was a fine and effective comedian who broke new ground.

*Pickett appealed to a younger audience than one would find at a Miami Beach hotel.  Most people didn’t understand the music and thought it was too loud.  I loved it.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Shari Lewis (TV)

Wikipedia Entry

As my past few posts have shown, the 1950s was a great time for ventriloquism.*  Shari Lewis was another of the greats of the time and the art, and ultimately continued her act into the 1990s, becoming an honored name in children’s programming.

Lewis was born Sonya Hurwitz in New York city, daughter of a former professional magician who encouraged her career in show business.  She also picked up ventriloquism, and won a first prize on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, launching her career.  In 1960, she was given her own children’s show by NBC.

Lewis was different in that she used puppets instead of dummies.**  The most famous one was Lamb Chop, a sock puppet lamb who was utterly charming.  Others of her characters included the shy Hush Puppy, the slow-on-the-uptake Charlie Horse, and Wing Ding, a crow.***

The show ran until 1963, and Lewis moved on to other projects.  The 60s was not a good time for ventriloquists.

But Lamb Chop made a comeback in 1992 with Lamb Chop’s Play-Along on PBS in 1992.  It introduced here (and Shari) to a whole new generation of children, and won several daytime Emmys.  And you can now start singing the song that doesn’t end…..
*And puppets in general.
**I notice now that one advantage of hand puppets is that they can be held in front of you to block the view of your mouth, so it was harder to see your lips.  Lewis didn’t need this particular trick – her technique was fine – but it was interesting to notice.
***She later dropped Wing Ding from the act; the idea of a black crow probably was at least borderline offensive, though Wing Ding was never used for racial laughs.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Jimmy Nelson (TV)

(1928 – )
Wikipedia Entry

Sometimes the key to a long career boils down one word.  Jimmy Nelson is the next in our parade of ventriloquists, one who was known for many years even without starring in his own show.  And that word was “chocolate.”

Nelson was born in Chicago and started on his path to success at the age of 10, when his aunt won a ventriloquist’s dummy in a Bingo game.  She gave it to the young boy, giving him a reason to learn how to throw his voice and, after turning professional at the age of 17, he quickly became a success, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1950 and became a regular on The Milton Berle Show.

Nelson’s main dummy was Danny O’Day, a fairly standard personality for a ventriloquist’s dummy – a wisecracking boy.  His second was Humphrey Higsbye, who was a departure from the usual second banana in a ventriloquist act:  instead of being somewhat dim, he was supposed to be a cultured intellectual.  Here’s a look of them on The Milton Berle Show:*

But his most famous character was a hand puppet:  Farfel the dog.  Farfel was a hand puppet instead of a dummy.  Farfel probably would have been just another ventriloquist’s trick if it wasn’t for one thing.

Nestle’s Quik was looking for a spokesman, and Nelson auditioned with Danny and Farfel.  The ad ended with the jingle sung by Danny: “N-E-S-T-L-E-S.  Nestles makes the very best . . . “  And Farfel joined in, adding “Chaaaaw-klit.”  At the audition, Nelson’s fingers slipped as Farfel finished the word, and the puppet’s mouth snapped shut audibly.  That was a beginner’s mistake, and Nelson thought he blew the audition.  But the company loved the snap, and he got the job.

Farfel remained the spokesdog for Quick for most of the 5os and 60s, giving Nelson a steady job even when his TV appearances were few.** At this point, he’s retired, but occasionally shows up a local events.
*For some reason, the video lists his name as Ed Nelson.
**I saw Nelson at a county fair in the late 70s.  He did his comedy act, but it wasn’t complete until Farfel said, “Chaaaw-klit” <snap>

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Paul Winchell (TV)

Wikipedia Entry
IMDB Entry

Mahoney, Winchell, and SmiffPaul Winchell was, for a time, was the most successful ventriloquist on TV. But he went on to a long career that went a long way from just pretending to throw his voice.

Winchell got his start in the way that millions of kids dreamed of:  he answered an ad for a ventriloquism kit from the back of a magazine. He did much more than most kids his age.  He asked his art teacher to create a dummy, and Jerry Mahoney was born.  Winchell and Mahoney practiced and managed to win first prize in the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, and turned professions when he was 14.

When TV came along, Winchell took Mahoney and a second dummy, Knucklehead Smiff, and became a TV hit.  The two were similar to Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, though not as edgy. Mahoney was a wisecracker, and Knucklehead lived up to his name.

Winchell did add one innovation to the art:  Both Mahoney and Smiff had working hands – run by an assistant behind him screen.  This allowed them to pick up things and gesture, something that ventriloquists normally didn’t do.*  Winchell was also ambidextrous, operating Jerry with his left hand and Knucklehead with his right, allowing him to have both on stage at once.

Jerry Mahoney and OzwaldA third character was Ozwald.  Strictly speaking, Ozwald was not a ventriloquist act.  Winchell would draw eyes and a nose on his chin, wear a mask/headdress that covered his head from the mouth on down, and have the camera turned upside down.**  The result was definitely weird.

Winchell was a major success, but by the 60s, ventriloquists were on the way out.  Luckily, Winchell was able to adapt his career as a voiceover artists.  Hanna-Barbara hired him first and he created characters like Dick Dastardly, Fleegle from The Banana Splits, and Gargamel from The Smurfs.  His best known voice role, however was Tigger in Disney’s Winnie the Pooh films.

And, as a sideline, Winchell helped develop an artificial heart.  In among everything else, he had gone to Columbia as a premed and worked with Henry Heimlich*** in the 70s in its development, being granted a patent for it.  It was never actually used and there’s some debate as to how much Robert Jarvik was influenced by Winchell’s work.  Winchell also patented some other inventions, though I’m not sure if any were manufactured.

He also developed a method of cultivating tilapia as part of a humanitarian push to help find new crops in developing worlds.

Winchell died in 2005.  His ventriloquism had been overshadowed by his other accomplishments, but he was a major talent in everything he tried.


* I suspect the technique was a big influence on the Muppets like the Swedish Chef.

**He used this technique for a second character, “Mr. Goody-Good.”  He often would show the audience how he created the character, putting on the makeup and hat and then telling the camera to turn upside down.  Even knowing how it was done didn’t ruin the illusion.

***Yes, that Heimlich.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Señor Wences (comedy)

Wikipedia Entry

Ventriloquism is a difficult way to become a star.  Not only do you have to master the techniques of throwing your voice, but you have to be a first-rate comedian or else it’s just a gimmick.  One of the biggest stars of the art in the 50s and 60s was a Spaniard who did things differently from any other similar act:  Señor Wences.

He was born in Spain as Wenceslao Moreno and developed his act over there before moving to the US in the mid-30s.  He started out in nightclubs and by the late 50s, he was a regular guest on TV variety shows, most notably The Ed Sullivan Show, which is where he got his greatest fame.

Wences was not the usual ventriloquist.  Usually, there’s a dummy or puppet. Señor Wences didn’t need that sort of prop.  His main character, Johnny, was merely the side of his hand:  the thumb as the jaw.  Lipstick was used to draw the lips, two googly eyes were added, and a small wig was put on the top.  He rested his hand atop a model of a body and Johnny came to life.

But his most famous “dummy” was Pedro.  Pedro was a head in a box.  Wences would open and shut the lid and have Pedro speak.  The voices were slightly different, too:  when the lid was shut, the voice was muffled. Pedro soon created a catchphrase:  “S’allright,” spoken in his deep, gruff voice.

Often, Wences didn’t use a dummy at all.  Once he established Johnny and Pedro, he would leave them on the table and have them comment and talk back to him.  He could take out a telephone handset and pretend to take a call or would start spinning plates on a stick as Johnny and Pedro reacted.

His technical skill was first-rate.  Wences was able to have three and even four conversations, switching from Johnny, to his own voice, to Pedro, to someone on the phone, to Cecillia Chicken (a puppet) in rapid succession.  It was the rapid-fire switches that made the performance.  Indeed, Wences told very few jokes, but got his humor from the reaction of the characters.

After Sullivan went off the air, Wences continued to perform as a TV guest star and at clubs.  In the 80s, he convinced producers to give him a part in the touring company of the musical “Sugar Babies,” by telling the producers he was 15 years younger than he really was. He retired in 1996 at age 100 and died in 1999.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue Dress(1995)
Directed by
Carl Franklin
Written by Carl Franklin from a novel by Walter Mosley
Starring Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle
IMDB Entry

Film noir was a genre of the 40s and 50s:  black and white films, very often set in southern California, with private detectives travel through a corrupt world and are set up by treacherous dames.  The genre died out with color, as though it couldn’t stand the brightness, but every once in awhile someone tries to made a more modern version.  Devil in a Blue Dress was one of those attempts, which adds a racial element to the mix.

Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is an unemployed factory worker who is given money by a stranger named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) to find a missing woman.  Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) is missing, as a white woman who liked to visit black jazz clubs, Rawlins is hired to search for her without being conspicuous.  As Rawlins gets drawn into a web of intrigue, bodies start to show up  and he enlists the help of his friend, the psychopathic Mouse Alexander (Don Cheadle) in order to get to the bottom of everything.

The movie is based on the mysteries of Walter Mosley, who wrote in a world where racial issues informed the world, an extra layer to the standard Noir.

Cheadle and WashingtonDenzel Washington has already established himself as a major acting talent, but the person who steals the show is Don Cheadle.  I had known him in the delightful Picket Fences.  His Mouse is one of the most memorable characters in film – charming, dangerous, funny, and capable of anything (“If you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?”).

The movie pretty much broke even.  Director Don Franklin was a TV actor who moved to the directors chair and seems to have made a success of it.  It’s a different look at the type of noir that, though usually black and white, is very rarely black.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Jeno’s Pizza Rolls (Ad)

In memory of Stan Freberg.

Stan Freberg was a comic genius.  He got his very first job on his first day in LA, as voice actor for Warner Brothers in 1944* and went on to radio and TV success.  In the 50s, he wrote and performed in a series of classic comedy albums.  His work in those areas are justly celebrated.

But his greatest influence was in the area of advertising.  He started making ads in the early 1960s, with his ad agency Thyme Incorporated.**  And Freberg did something that had never been done for advertising:  he made his ads laugh out loud funny. 

There were many ads, including Sunsweet Pitted Prunes (“Today the Pits, tomorrow the Wrinkles!  Sunsweet Marches On.”), including one starring Ray Bradbury (“I never mentioned prunes in any of my stories.”)

But the best of them was his ad for Jeno’s Pizza Rolls.

First, a little background.  At the time of the ad, Lark Cigarettes*** was running a campaign, where they’d drive through the streets with a sign reading “Show Us Your Lark Pack!”  People would hold up their cigarette packs.  Here’s an example:

And this is what Freberg did (the first person who interrupts the announcer looks much like the Lark Cigarette’s spokesman; the second – well, you should know who they are):

Johnny Carson has said that when the commercial was shown on The Tonight Show, the audience broke into applause, the only time he’d heard that about a commercial.

Freberg kept making the world laugh until his death a few days ago. And his work will still live on.

*In Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears.

**Time, Incorporated were good sports about it, referring the matter to their lawyers Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary.

***Yes, cigarettes were still advertised on TV at the time.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Topsy Turvy

Topsy Turvey(1999)
Written and Directed by
Mike Leigh
Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall
IMDB Entry

Mike Leigh is an extremely well regarded British film director, known for serious dramatic films where his actors collaborate by improvising their lines in rehearsals until things click.  However, sometimes he lets things go and have fun, and the result was Topsy Turvey.

The story is simple.  After their play Princess Ida is a flop, composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) and playwright W. S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) try to create a new operetta.  But there are issues.  Gilbert wants to use a magic potion as a plot point, but Sullivan, exasperated, points out he has used various magic plot points before and refuses to write music unless the story avoided pure fantasy.  While deadlocked, Gilbert attends an exhibition of Japanese arts and buys a katana.  When the sword falls off the wall of his study, Gilbert is inspired to write The Mikado.*

The rest of the movie shows their work on putting together the play.  It follows rehearsals, backstage maneuvering, and adding and cutting songs. One scene has the group protest the cut of a song that Gilbert didn’t think was worth keeping.  It was “A more humane Mikado” (“My object all sublime/I shall achieve in time/To let the punishment fit the crime/The punishment fit the crime”), one of the highlights of the show even today.**

This may be the best representation of how a play is created, and it’s full of memorable characters, including the always good Broadbent and many others.  It’s a sumptuous looking film, with great scenes of Victorian dress and design, and is also filled with vignettes of life at the time.

The film is a delight from start to finish, not the least because it becomes a “Greatest Hits” version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s score, a perfect place to get a feel for their genius.

*This story was told by Gilbert himself as the source of inspiration, though he did write about fiction (and magic potions), so the facts should be taken with a grain of salt.

**I saw Itzhak Perlman perform it once at his summer camp; it was delightful.