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.