Saturday, December 31, 2016

Leon Redbone (music)

(1949 – )

My wife and I share very few musical tastes in popular music.  She prefers folk and singer-songwriters; I go for blues and hard rock.* However, there was one musician we agreed about at the start:  Leon Redbone.

imageRedbone’s origins are unclear. He started performing in the early 70s in Toronto. After an endorsement by Bob Dylan, he got a record contract and released his first album, On the Track, in 1975.**

Redbone didn’t write his material, but instead revived music from the 20s, 30s, and 40s, singing it slowly and carefully, and sounding much like the way the songs sounded in their earliest recordings. On the Track included music from greats like Jimmie Rodgers, Fats Waller, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercier, and the underappreciated Harry Warren.

He had a deep, rich, world-weary voice that was completely in service to the music, and a nice touch of irony when needed (though he was perfectly able to sing things straight.

Redbone never had a big hit, but continued to release albums through the 70s and 80s.  Someone at Saturday Night Live took a liking to him and he appeared there twice, most notably with his sly rendition of “Seduced.”

Redbone was often called upon to lend his talent and voice to other media. He sung a duet with Zooey Deschanel of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” at the end of Elf, and showed up as Leon the Snowman in the film. 

Like many artists of my youth, I lost track of him over the years, but he continued to perform and record until 2015, when he announced his retirement.

He’s certainly not for everyone, but if you  like the old-timey feel and great songs that were a hit before your mother was born, Redbone is a delight.

*We both love musicals, though.

**With art by cartoon great Chuck Jones. Yes, that’s Michigan J. Frog. Redbone paid tribute to the cover by covering “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” on his third album

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Marital Blitz (book)

By Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Berenstain Bears are a beloved series of children’s books, and there seems to be a minor controversy about the spelling of the authors’ names.  Many people think it’s Berenstein, even though it’s been spelled Berenstain on all the books they’ve written.

I never thought it was spelled that way. Also, I have never read any of the books about their bears.* What did introduce me to them was their paperback, Marital Blitz.

This is not a children’s book. It’s a humorous look at the foibles of married life (note the cover, which is a little risqué for children).  It concentrated on the early years of a marriage.

I read through my parents’ copy many times.  It was one of the things that gave me my idea of what a marriage should be, along with my parents and Jean Kerr.

The Berenstains did quite a few books of this kind in the 50s and 60s, with titles like Lover Boy, The Facts of Life for Grownups, and How to Teach Your Children about Sex without Making a Complete Fool of Yourself.  Of course, as the bears became a phenomenon, they concentrated on that.  Their last book of this nature was published in 1972.

Most, if not all, of these books are long out of print.  But they were a charming sidelight to the careers of a successful husband-and-wife team.  And I noticed from the start the way they spelled their name.

*I was too old for them when they first came out in 1962, and they never came up when my daughter was the right age.

Sunday, December 4, 2016


Directed by
H.C. Potter
Written by Nat Perrin & Warren Wilson, based on a story by Nat Perrin.
Starring Ole Olson, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert, Jane Frazee, Robert Paige, Mischa Auer, Clarence Kolb, Shemp Howard, Elisha Cook, Jr., Richard Lane
IMDB Entry

A friend of mine mentioned Hellzapoppin’ on Facebook in the highest terms, so I decided to move it from my list of “Movies I’d like to see” to my list of “Movies I’ve seen.”

It was worth it.

It’s an adaptation of a hit Broadway play that became the longest running show during its original run. The play was evidently nothing but craziness – non sequiturs, dumb jokes, weird running gags, musical numbers, and an “anything can happen” attitude.  The cast not only interacted with each other, but with audience members, both real and planted.*  It was a smash, the Hamilton of the 1930s.

Of course, it was made into a movie.  The film starts in the projection booth, where Louie (Shemp Howard, the once and future stooge) is setting up the film, which shows a group of chorus girls descending a staircase.  But the stairs collapse like a funhouse, and deposits them in hell for the first musical number.

any similarity between Hellzpoppin' and a motion picture is purely coincidentalWe eventually meet Ole Olson and Chic Johnson, who start out with one surreal gag after another (including asking Louie to rewind the film), until the director (Richard Lane) stops things to say they need a plot, pointing out the writer they hired, Harold Selby (Elisha Cook, Jr.**).  The script is a standard 30s “let’s put on a show” plot.  When Olson and Johnson complain is far too clichéd, the director shows them the film – with them in it.

The issue isn’t the plot, which is only an excuse to hang gags. Indeed, the story takes a back seat to Olson and Johnson’s jokes and antics, along with sight gags and surreal humor. The conventions of film are played with and destroyed, with the characters not only breaking the fourth wall, but just about anything you like.  The film becomes mis-centered, with the top half below the bottom half (and the actors know it).  Stinky MillerDuring one of the romantic scenes, a slide keeps showing up asking about “Stinky Miller” and telling him to go home.  The main running gag involves a man walking around with a tree – the grows each time you see it – calling for “Mr. Jones.”

The cast is filled with first class comics.  Hugh Herbert*** plays a “master of disguises” detective. Mischa “The Mad Russian” Auer is Pepe, a deposed prince who is out to marry the heiress.  Martha Raye is the comic female lead.****  A favorite of mine, Clarence Kolb (of My Little Margie) is a straight man caught up in the madness.

The plot is inconsequential, and the movie comes to life mostly when Olson and Johnson are on stage and move it from standard gags to complete madness.

It was highly influential.  Laugh-In owes everything to it, and I noted a scene that showed up in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Every movie where actors knew they were in a movie owes it a debt.

Despite their brilliance, Olson and Johnson were far too anarchic for films.  They tried to recapture the success of Hellzapoppin’, but never succeeded, either on Broadway, movies, or TV.

The movie may not have been up to the legend of the show, but it’s amazing how fresh and funny it still is today.

*I read that the theater management was not happy that the show required actors to sit in the audience for various gags because they couldn’t sell the seats for a sold-out show.

** Cook – best known for his roles in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep is strange to see as a naïve young kid instead of a gunsel.

***Herbert was satirized in a lot of Looney Tunes, with his trademark “hoo-hoo-hoo” sign of nervousness.

****When I first knew of Raye, she seemed to be one of Bob Hope’s road show has-beens.  But her role here and especially in Monsieur Verdoux shows a clever comic talent.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Incredible Jewel Robbery (TV)

Directed by
Mitchell Leisen
Written by Dallas Gaultois, James Edmiston
Starring Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Groucho Marx
IMDB Entry
Full Movie on ShoutTV

I’m a major Marx Brothers fan, but there’s been one thing of theirs I never expected to see.  It was the last time they actually were on screen together, in a 30-minute silent comedy that’s primarily a vehicle for Harpo (of course) and Chico.

The plot is simple. Nick (Harpo) and Harry (Chico) are shown stealing a bunch of odd items from various stores.  They then go to a secluded spot and repaint their car to look like a police car.  It turns out to be a plot to steal jewels from the jeweler.

Harpo as GookieBut forget the part.  The show* is an excuse for sight gags, some new, some old.  Harpo makes a gookie**, and there are sight gags throughout, some amusing, others not so. It’s great seeing the two of them on the screen, and Groucho appears in the final scene and utters the only line of dialog in the half hour.

The film was directed by Mitchell Leisen, a top film director in the 1930s who had worked with W. C. Fields, Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, and other top stars. 

Like most TV of the 50s, the show was ephemeral and, despite the Marx Brothers name, didn’t seem to be aired again.  It came back in the DVD era, and can currently be seen online at 

It’s certainly not classic Marx Brothers, but completists and fans may want to give it a look.

*Introduced by Ronald Reagn.

**A face he made in just about every Marx Brother’s movie.  It’s named after a cigar roller of their youth who made the face unconsciously while working.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Slaughterhouse Five(1972)
Directed by
George Roy Hill
Written by Stephen Geller, from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut
Starring Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche, Valerie Perrine
IMDB Entry

Kurt Vonnegut was a favorite author of mine, but, other than Mother Night, movies of his books were few and far between.   In 1972, George Roy Hill took a swing at his most acclaimed novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.*

As in the book, Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sachs) become unstuck in time, traveling backward and forward to events in his rather eventful life. Billy is captured by aliens (where he meets Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine)), but most of the movie (like in the novel) covers the bombing of Dresden in World War II.**

What sticks in my mind was the performance of Eugene Roche ad Edgar Darby, one of Pilgrim’s fellow prisoners. He is absolutely amazing as Roche, a decent and very likeable guy that got caught up in the madness of war.  It was the second time I noticed him; he had made a series of commercials for Ajax Dishwashing Liquid as a “dishwashing expert.”  But the qualities that served him well as a pitchman – most importantly, his likeability – made him just perfect in the role.

There were other newcomers in the cast.  Valerie Perrine made an impressive entrance, and started out on a career of playing sex symbols, but with an intelligence (even when the character wasn’t) of a serious actor, and was also memorable in SteambathIt was Michael Sach’s first film and an early role for Ron Liebman.

Vonnegut praised the adaptation, and the film did OK business, but wasn’t a major hit.

*Cat’s Cradle was probably his best known overall.

**Vonnegut was a witness, being a POW there when the city was firebombed.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Hall-Mills Murder Case (history)

Wikipedia Page

Hall & MillsEvery few years, some legal case is dubbed “The Trial of the Century”:  The Lindbergh Kidnapping, the O.J. Simpson Case, the trials of murderers Beulah Annan and Belva Gaerner,* for instance.  As time goes by, these trials become forgotten, and new ones come along.  But for me, the Hall-Mills Murder Case is up there among the most sensational of the 20th century.

It started with the discovery of two bodies in a field in New Jersey, a man and a woman, both shot in the head; the woman had had her throat cut first.  The bodies had been posed after they died, along with some torn up love letters. They were found to be Edward Wheeler Hall, an Episcopal minister, and Eleanor Reinhardt Mills, a singer in the church choir.  Both Hall  and Miss were married.  But not to each other.

The investigation was botched from the start.  Crowds trampled the site (known as a local lover’s lane) before the police could figure out who would be in charge, and evidence was destroyed.

Of course, this was the heyday of sensational journalism and the combination of sex, adultery, and murder was striking sensationalist gold.  All the New York papers were on top of the case and the trial

Ultimately, the prosecution charged Frances Hall (Hall’s widow) and her two brothers, Henry Stevens and William “Willie” Carpenter, saying Frances got Henry, an expert marksman, to do the crime.

The trial was a circus, with the press sensationalizing every moment.  Forty-seven newspapers from all over the US were there to report on the trial, and there were requests for over 100 seats for the press.

The Pig WomanThe key witness for the prosecution was Jane Gibson, though she quickly got the sobriquet “The Pig Woman” because she raised hogs.  She supposedly saw the murder going down.  Her testimony was more sensation, especially since she was in the hospital with cancer and couldn’t walk.  Her hospital bed was moved into the courtroom and she testified lying down.

Love letters between the two victims were entered into evidence

When it came time for the defendants to take the stand, they were ready.  Henry Stevens, who was an expert marksman, had witnesses putting him miles away at the time of the crime, which didn’t help the prosecution.

But Willie was the star.  He had a reputation as something of a character:  he loved to follow firetrucks and was considered a bit “slow.”  But he turned out to be a good witness – polite and straightforward. 

Ultimate, the verdict was “not guilty.”

The ballyhoo slowly died down, as other sensations took its place, and, like most “trials of the century,” it was soon forgotten.

The murders are still unsolved.

*You might know them by the names of the fictionalized version: Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Mr. Holmes

Mr. Holmes(2015)
Directed by
Bill Condon
Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, from a novel by Mitch Culling, based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle
Starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan
IMDB Entry

If you were asked to list the top actors working today, Ian McKellen would be high on the list.  He’s not only a brilliant actor, but he’s been a star in movies, TV, and on the stage.*  And though he’s best known for his blockbuster and franchise films, he’s just as willing to take a role in a small movie.  Mr. Holmes deals with a franchise character on a human scale, and McKellen is superb.

The film is set in 1947.  Sherlock Holmes is 93 and retired, raising bees.** He lives in a farmhouse with his housekeeper, Mrs. Monroe (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).  Holmes has been moved to write about his final case, but has a problem – his memory is failing. He has just returned from Japan for a natural remedy that he thinks might help, but it’s not doing him much good.  However, talking with Roger, who Holmes grows fond of, he begins to remember the details of the case, where a woman (Hattie Morahan) seems to be planning to murder her husband.

The two stories unfold gently, in small doses, as we see the relationship between Roger and Sherlock grow while flashing back to thirty years earlier as the case takes shape.  There is also a subplot about a Japanese admirer, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose father had moved to the UK to meet Holmes.  The three stories complement each other and connect in many ways.

Roger and HolmesIt’s a given that McKellen is brilliant.  His Holmes is far deeper than most characterizations, and the frustration he feels at his failing memory is so very real.  Milo Parker does an excellent job, too, able to keep up with McKellen’s decades of skill. 

Director Bill Condon probably liked to go back to a more serious minded film after doing two films of The Twilight Saga.  He and McKellen has worked together on Gods and Monsters, another small film that showcased top notch acting and an unusual story.

The  movie got good reviews, and was a useful anodyne to the summer blockbusters that year (it came out in July).  But it was buried by later released at Oscar time and McKellen was not nominated.

If you like Holmes or McKellen, or a story with real emotional depth, this is a movie to seek out.

*I was lucky enough to see him live on Broadway with Patrick Stewart in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land (run in repertory with Waiting for Godot).  It’s a play that requires top notch actors to succeed.  Luckily . . .

**Of course.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross (music)

Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross
Wikipedia Entry

I’ve been doing this blog for over ten years, with 570 posts so far.  That’s a lot of entries, and these days it’s sometimes hard to figure out new entries that might fit.  And it was only this week that I realized I had overlooked one of the greatest vocal acts ever: Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

Jon Hendricks (b. 1921) was a jazz singer, performing at a very young age. After WWII, at the encouragement of Charlie Parker, he moved to New York and established himself. 

Hendricks was attracted to the idea of “vocalese,” where a singer would take a jazz standard – usually an instrumental solo -- and add lyrics to make it singable.  He would add some scat singing to fill out the sound.

Dave Lambert (1917-1966) also was a jazz singer who started out even earlier than Hendricks.  He also was was a fan of vocalese and began to work with Hendricks.  They realized they needed a woman to fill out the sound, and Annie Ross (b. 1930) joined the group.

Their first album, Sing a Song of Basie, put them on the jazz map.  They took songs made famous by the Count Basie orchestra and used their voices like instruments, singing what was performed by saxophones and trumpets.  It was – like all their albums – a tour de force. They originally wanted another female voice to help out, but Ross didn’t like the idea.* So they invented double tracking so she could sing two parts at once.

The followed this up with Sing Along with Basie, which was more of the brilliant same, with Count Basie taking part in the sessions.  After an album, The Swingers!, which is hard to find information about, they recorded their masterpiece.

It was released as The Hottest New Group in Jazz!, but is now just referred to by the name of the group.  It is absolutely amazing from start to finish, highlighted by Ross’s witty “Twisted.” 

To really see what is going on here (though you don’t need to to love the song), here is the original instrumental:

In a sense, though, this example is misleading.  Their sound involved teaming and harmonies and all three of the people singing at once.

The album is one of the milestones of jazz.**

The group recorded two more albums” Lambert, Hendricks & Ross Sing Ellington (doing for him what they did for Count Basie) and High Flying with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

Annie Ross left the group in 1962.  Lambert and Hendricks recruited Yolande Bavan to replace her.  As Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan, they put out three live albums, but the group ended, sadly, in 1966, when Dave Lambert died after being accidentally hit by a tractor-trailer while trying to fix a flat tire.

Both Hendricks and Ross continued to perform to much acclaim, but it just wasn’t the same.  In 1985, Hendricks worked with the Manhattan Transfer*** to put out the album “Vocalese,” which is the closest thing to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross since then.

It’s actually hard to find most of their work.  Only The Hottest New Group in Jazz! is available on its own (though it has been expanded).  There is a compilation of all their albums out, but it’s seems to have only appeared in Europe.

Still, it’s all worth the effort.  These are (as I was told when I bought the album) “three cool cats.”

*She has said she wanted to be the only girl in the group.

**I purchased a copy of it (in vinyl) from a small record store, Apex Music Korner in Schenectady.  The storeowner was definitely impressed, that one of those college kids had an appreciation of jazz.

***I saw the group when I was in college.  They were terrible.  The problem seems to be is that they had had an almost complete turnover of personnel and direction from when the concert was booked, and they hadn’t had time to rehearse the new act.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Joan Armatrading (music)

image(1950- )
Wikipedia Entry
Joan Armatrading Web Page

Some musical artists, despite their great talent, never seem to break through to fame. They produce superior music for years, but never become stars.  This was certainly a case for Joan Armatrading, who was successful enough in her base in the UK, but never became the name she richly deserved to be in the US.

She was born in the Caribbean, on the island of St. Kitts and moved to Birmingham in the UK when she was seven.  When she was 14, she started writing her own songs and lyrics, picking them out on the family’s piano.  Eventually, she got a guitar and began to write more material, starting to appear in local clubs.  Eventually, she joined up with lyricist Pam Nestor to release her first album, Whatever’s For Us in 1972.

The album didn’t make much of a splash. She soon split from Nestor and wrote all her own lyrics.  Back to the Night was released as a solo and didn’t create many ripples, either, but her third was the charm.  Joan Armatrading went gold, and her single “Love and Affection” made the UK charts.

Her songs were a eclectic mix of folk, blues, Caribbean styles, and rock. He voice had a good range, but she generally sung in the mezzo-soprano range, her lower voice making her singing more intimate.  She wrote about love and relationships is ways you often didn’t see.

She followed up with Show Some Emotion, whose title tune is just one more wonderful moment.  It started making inroads into the US market, but the next, a live album Steppin’ Out did not chart.*

Her next effort, Me Myself I, was her most successful effort, with the title song a minor UK hit.  She continued to record, going gold and silve in the UK, but never making a mark on the US except in underground station.

But it’s not her albums that make her great.  It’s her songs – some not even released as singles.

Love and Affection

I just love the opening lines.

I’m Lucky

 Drop the Pilot

And the delightfully perverse rocker Call Me Names**

Armatrading’s career peaked in the 1980s and she stopped appearing on the charts.  She had a revival in 2007 with the blues album Into the Blues, which hit #1 on the blues charts, and she continues to perform and record today.

She is certainly appreciated in the UK, where she’s been named an MBE, but only a relatively small number of people in the US know of her and appreciate what a fine talent she is.

*In the UK, all these albums made the top 20.

**Listening to it carefully for this entry, I realized that the first person sections of the song are from the point of view of the man.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Other People’s Money

Other People's Money(1991)
Directed by
Norman Jewison
Written by Alan Sargent, from a play by Jerry Sterner
Starring:  Danny DeVito, Gregory Peck, Penelope Ann Miller, Piper Laurie, Dean Jones
IMDB Entry

Corporate takeover artists are usually the villains of a film, but sometimes there is a more nuanced view of the issues.  Other People’s Money deals with as nasty a corporate raider as you’ve ever seen, but doesn’t paint him entirely as the villain.

His name is Lawrence Garfield (Danny DeVito) – known in the business as “Larry the Liquidator” for his penchant for finding overvalued companies, buying them up, and then selling off their assets.  His next target is a small company, New England Wire & Cable, which is a major employer in the small town it is situated in.  Its president, Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson (Gregory Peck) is the type of enlightened company head we like to see in films (think George Bailey).  He resists Larry, hiring his stepdaughter Kate (Penelope Ann Miller) to convince him to back off.  Of course, that doesn’t go well, and there is a ton of quiet and nasty behind-the-scenes maneuvering and double crosses, leading to the climactic shareholders meeting where both Jorgy and Larry make their cases.

The movie is impressive because it’s not all black and white.  Both Jorgy and Larry have some strong points to be made, and the film tries to get away from the cliches.

DeVito is perfectly cast as the crude and overbearing Larry, a man who is completely ruthless when money is concerned..  Gregory Peck brings his usual quiet dignity to Jorgy.

Director Norman Jewison had a long history in Hollywood when the film was made, directing films like In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, Moonstruck and many others.  This wasn’t a big hit, but I do like the way they avoided the easy cliches of the situation.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Whit Bissell (actor)

Whit Bissell(1909-1996)
IMDB Entry

Character actors may never be the star, but they are essential to the success of a movie. They have to make an impression that they’re more than just someone walking on and speaking a line, but not be overwhelming.  Sometimes they just fade into the background afterwards.  And Whit Bissell was one of the best.

Bissell took to the theater early, appearing on Broadway in 1933, when he was 24.*  He worked very consistently on the stage for over ten years, then tried his hand a films.  Many of his early roles were uncredited; his first credit was in Brute Force as one of the prison guards.  From then on, there was no stopping him, and he’d appear in 6-10 movies a year.  In the mid-50s, he started to find the niche in which he’s best remembered:  science fiction films.  Starting with Target Earth, he fell into the characterization that became his trademark:  a scientist or other authority figure who was there to help the hero.** 

He had a small but pivotal role in the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one of the two actors in the frame tale.***

His biggest film roles were as a scientist (of course) in the drive-in classics I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein.

As the studio system died, he switched to TV as an all purpose actor.  Despite being in the medium almost from the beginning, he didn’t have any recurring roles until 1965 (a seven-episode stint in Peyton Place).  His first regular role wasn’t until the next year, where he played General Kirk**** in The Time Tunnel.  He also appeared in Star Trek’s “The Trouble with Tribbles” as the manager of the space station where the trouble began.

Bissell continued to work regularly in TV until the early 80s, when he seemed to retire.  Overall, he appeared in over 300 shows and movies, making his face one of the most familiar of all actors.

*His debut, appropriately enough, was small -- one of the cards in Eva LaGallienne’s version of Alice in Wonderland.

**I note that in The Atomic Kid, he was billed as “Dr. Edgar Pangborn.”  Pangbourn had a couple of novels out at this time, though not his masterpiece Davy.

***The two scenes – at the beginning and at the end of the movie – were added to the film because the studio wanted a more hopeful ending.  Director Don Siegel hated the change.

****A general was almost the same as a scientist in 50s SF.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Nichols Damp-Proof Salt Shaker


There are some ideas that are simple and elegant and solve a common problem, but which never catch on.  Maybe it’s poor management, maybe it’s the economy, but the better mousetrap just doesn’t draw people to its doors.  The Nichols Damp-Proof Salt Shaker solved the problem of salt getting moist and clumping, and was a major part of my growing up.


The shaker was designed so that moisture could not get inside without any lids or covers.  The design was clever:  a cylinder of metal with holes at the top attached to something like a screw on lid (left above). There was a glass shell (right).*  You turned the glass upside down and poured in salt (not too much, or you couldn’t close it).  Then you screwed the bottom onto the glass and turned it so that the metal was down.

And there you were.  The bottom was flush with the table, and moisture couldn’t get inside. 

To use it, you picked it up and shook it up and down. Salt would go to the top of the cover and then fall through the holes onto your food.  Then you’d put it down and it would be sealed again.  Each shaker came with a rolled up bit of paper with instructions.

A nice bonus was that you could control how much salt came out.  Each shake would add the same amount, so it was easy to control.  Plus you couldn’t accidentally pour out too much salt if your hand was jostled.

Alas, the Nichols company had hard sledding bringing out the product during the Depression.  They finally went out of business, probably around 1940 or so.  My grandfather, however, ran a small general store on Eastern Long Island, an area where humidity was high.  When they failed, he bought the entire stock from his wholesaler. and continued to sell them.

They were in the store in the 60s, when I was in high school, with several boxes in the back in storage.  They were the only salt shakers on our table and I was surprised to find people used other ones.

By the 1970s, though, our supply was gone.  The patents lapsed and a memorable part of my childhood was gone forever.

*This shows my favorite design. I liked the egg shape.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Dish

The DishDirected by
Rob Sitch
Written by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, Rob Sitch
Starring Sam Neill, Patrick Warburton, Tom Long, Eliza Szonart, Tayler Kane
IMDB Entry

Great events are usually the subject of epic movies.  That’s all fine, but sometimes we have to remember that ordinary people are sometimes caught up in them.  And that’s the premise of The Dish.

It’s 1969 and the radiotelescope in Parkes, Australia has a big job:  to be the backup antenna for TV signals from the first moon landing.  Parkes is a pretty laid back place, where Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill) presides over a motley crew of scientists and whose biggest problem is to keep the local sheep away.  But a change in schedule makes Parkes the primary receiver, with the responsibility of broadcasting the signal to the world.

There are some snags and problems along the way, but the movie concentrates on the quirky characters of the town, and how they react to being thrust on the world stage.  It’s more a character study than an drama, and is consistently amusing.

Sam Neill was fine in the lead.  This was one of his Australian films; he had a streak of good movies made down under including A Cry in the Dark, The Piano, and Sirens.

Director Rob Sitch made his name with his earlier film The Castle – also a quirky comedy – but moved on to TV, where he produced various talk and sports shows.  It kept him busy, but he only directed one feature after this.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

You Are There (TV)

You are there(1953-57)
Created by
Goodman Ace
Presented by Walter Cronkite
IMDB Entry

In the early days of TV, the networks took their obligation to inform very seriously.  It wasn’t just news – it also included an obligation to teach history in an entertaining form.  You Are There was how CBS managed to meld history and entertainment, using a conceit that was brilliant.

The show covered historical events in what was (at that time) a modern manner.  It was set up as a news report from the event.  Walter Cronkite – not yet the CBS anchorman – would start the report by setting the scene.  Then, he’d go to reporters “at the scene.”

The entire thing was done as a straight news report without a hint of irony.  The reporters would give their report as if they actually were on the scene, speculating on what might happen and being surprised by events. 

The shows were a mixture of actors playing the roles, as well as stock footage.  The various reporters might show up on the scene – in modern clothes – and introduce it.  It would show the action, then return to Cronkite in the studio for a wrap-up.

Topics covered included the Hindenberg disaster, the Boston Tea Party, The Hamilton-Burr duel, the death of Socrates, they Dreyfuss Case, Benedict Arnold’s treason, and Napoleon’s abdication.  As the titles indicate, the show ranged throughout history to bring a sense of being an eyewitness to history.

Like many shows of the time, some of the actors and directors went on to have long careers.  Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer did a handful of shows, and actors who appeared included E. G. Marshall, DeForest Kelley, Whit Bissell,* Claude Akins, Dabbs Greet, Richard Kiley, Lorne Greene, Ray Walston, Jerry Paris, Tor Johnson, Fred Gwynne, Beatrice Straight, James Gregory, Charles Durning, David Jannsen, John Banner, John Cassavetes, Robert Culp, Peter Cushing, James Dean, Eartha Kitt, Burt Mustin,** Patrick McGoohan, Mildred Natwick, Rod Steiger, Joanne Woodward, Barbara Billingsly, Ray Collins, Simon Oakland, Frank Cady, Russell “The Professor” Johnson, William Schallert, Robert Vaughn, and Richard Dreyfuss***

I remember watching it at some point – either in the final season or in reruns.  I became interested in American history when my parents took me to Gettysburg, so this was right up my alley.

The show was created by radio legend Goodman Ace for the radio, though he had little to do with it on the air.

In 1971, it was decided to do a new version, in color.  Once again, Cronkite was the host, but it only lasted one year.

It was one of the joys of early TV and especially memorable is Walter Cronkite intoning “You are there” each episode.

*A very familiar face in 50s monster movies.

**Playing, unsurprisingly, “An Old Man.”

***I wasn’t going to list so many, but damn, that’s a lot of familiar names.  The show was the Law and Order of its time in giving actors employment.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait(1943)
Directed by
Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Samson Raphaelson, from a play by Lazlo Bus-Fekete
Starring Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Laird Cregar, Spring Byington, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, Allyn Joslin, Louis Calhern
IMDB Entry

The 1940s were a time when a particular type of fantasy showed up in films:  movies about ghosts and the afterlife.  Presumably, this was a reaction to a time when friends and family were dying in the war, and they often showed people moving on to a happier place.  Heaven Can Wait is one example of the genre, and one with the famous light touch of Ernst Lubitsch.

It starts out with Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) showing in the office of His Excellency (Laird Cregar) after his death.  His Excellency is the urbane master of Hell, and asks Van Cleve – who is fully expecting his fate – to explain why he expects to go to eternal suffering.  And so we see Van Cleve’s life.

From the beginning, he was a flirt, chasing and kissing girls as he got older in a way that was scandalous in the 1880s, where the film is taking place.*  As he came of age, he created consternation with his staid family (except for his grandfather Hugo (Charles Coburn)).  That’s when he found the love of his life, Martha (Gene Tierney), attracted to her immediately when he heard her lying to her mother.  But he never was able to tame his wandering eye.**

The movie is a delight, filled with gentle humor based on its characters. Charles Coburn, as usual, is delightfully funny, and the cast of Hollywood actors include such dependable delights as Eugene Pallette, Spring Byington, and Majorie Main.

Laird CregarLaird Cregar  is especially good as His Excellency, the type of urbane devil figure you see often but rarely surpassed.  Cregar was one of the great losses of 40s film, an actor who always impressed (usually as a villain). Alas, he died at age 31.  Cregar was self-conscious about his weight (he was well over 300 pounds) and his attempt to diet (including amphetamines) led to complications and death by heart attack at age 31.

The movie was a success when it first came out, but, like most films of the era, it was slowly forgotten.  It didn’t help that Warren Beatty used the title for a different film.***  But the film remains as delightful today as it was when it was released.

*Another small trend of the era was a slightly more openness toward nonmarital sex. While the Hayes code prohibited it, directors found ways to hint at it or find ways to rationalize it (see Miracle of Morgan’s Creek)

**Of course, even with the looser morals of the 40s, they look quaintly innocent today.

***A remake of a film from the 40s, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was based on a play called  . . . yup, Heaven Can Wait.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Goodnight My Love (TV)

Boone and Dunn(1972)
Written and Directed by
Peter Hyams
Starring Richard Boone, Michael Dunn, Barbara Bain, Victor Buono
IMDB Entry

I’ve written before on my feelings for made-for-TV movies of the 70s:  most were pretty dismal affairs.  Well, since this blog is called “Great but Forgotten,” it’s also my pleasure to point out the ones that prove me wrong. Goodnight, My Love shows that the form could come up with some gems.

The film is set in the film noir world of the 1940s, and starts out with a man being murdered.  Then we discover private eye Francis Hogan (Richard Boone) and and his partner Arthur Boyle (Michael Dunn) broke and desperate for clients.  A beautiful dame, Susan Lakely (Barbara Bain) comes in and hires them to find her boyfriend.  They take on the job, and it leads to the gang leader Julius Limeway (Victor Buono), who tells them the scram.  But it turns out that Lakely has not been entirely honest with them.

Peter Hyams wrote and directed.  At the time, Barry Diller of ABC gave many directors their first breaks, and he greenlit this Raymond Chandler pastiche about a world weary private eye and dwarf partner.  The dialog has just the right amount of cynicism and the same worldview as Chandler.*

The cast is perfect.  Richard Boone is perfect in this sort of role:  gruff and hangdog.  I’ve always been a fan of Michael Dunn, and, as usual, he was great.  Barbara Bain makes an excellent femme fatale, and, of course, Buono’s trademark was the sinister Sydney Greenstreetesque fat man.**

My favorite moment is something that I’ve remembered vividly since it came out.  Boyle drives the car, set up with a booster seat and blocks on the pedals. He leaves it with valet parking, and the valet has to figure how to squeeze himself into the seat.  It’s understated and hilarious.

One of the most interesting things is a lack of a backing track.  Except for scenes in Limeway’s club, there is no music.  It’s an interesting idea, and makes the action more subdued.

The movie got some very good reviews, but like all made-for-TV movies, it’s been forgotten.  It did start Peter Hyams’s career; he went on the direct Capricorn One, Outland, Narrow Margin, and Timecop. 

*Though, of course, the prose isn’t up to his level. But very little writing is.

**Don’t judge him by Batman.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Bob Roberts

Bob Roberts(1992)
Written and Directed by
Tim Robbins
Starring Tim Robbins, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, Ray Wise, Brian Murray, Gore Vidal
IMDB Entry

Political movies in the US are relatively tame. Usually, they are wrapped in the flag, or move away from the reality into a safe alternate situation. Bob Roberts is nothing of that, and ends up being provocative, frightening, and (hopefully not) prophetic.

Roberts (Tim Robbins) is a right-wing would-be politician, who was both a successful businessman and a singer-songwriter, a conservative Bob Dylan.*  He enters the Pennsylvania senate race against liberal Brickley Paste (Gore Vidal) and the movie is a mockumentary following the campaign.  Roberts puts forth a clean image, but Bugs Raplin (Giancardo Esposito) starts to sense something is wrong.

Robbins wrote, directed, starred, and wrote the songs for the movie.  He comes across as bland, but something about him is too slick, and the character never seems as good as he looks.  He also deals with subtle moments; the most chilling portion of the film is a single shot of him tapping his foot.

The movie was well regarded at the time, but has slowly been forgotten.

*The parallel is deliberate.  His album titles mimic the titles of Dylan’s early albums.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Fegoot (book)

By Grendel Briarton

FeghootAh, Ferdinand Feghoot.  Traveler through space and time*and always ready to show up in any situation and crack the world’s worst puns.  He even gave his name to the literary form: the feghoot.

It began in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Grendel Briarton’s** first effort immediately set the stage when, when Feghoot was captured by a shaggy alien with a hand on its head and holding a hypodermic needle.  But Feghoot wasn’t fazed:  he recognized the creature for what it was:  a furry with a syringe on top.

And it continued for years and over 120 variations, all capable of eliciting appreciative groans from any audience.  There were only two rules:  You couldn’t use made up names, and you had to keep it as short as possible.

The first time I encountered one was in an issue of Venture Science Fiction, *** who’s Feghoot told of a Paris landlord who jumped in the river and refused to come out because he didn’t have enough rents to come in out of the Seine.

The concept took off.  George Scithers, editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, helped keep it going with other authors. Asimov himself wrote several, including the brilliant “Death of a Foy.”****

Currently, Steve Pastis uses feghoots in his comic strip, Pearls Before Swine.”

But, if Briarton hadn’t actually invented the genre, he certainly popularized it. The originals are still brilliant puns, if some of the references are a bit dated.

And remember:  a gritty pearl is Michael, L.Ld.

* Preceded Doctor Who by several years.

**An anagrammatic pseudonym for author Reginald Bretnor.

***A short-lived sister publication of F&SF.  It published a full-length novel in every issue, but only lasted a short time in each of its two separate runs.  For many years afterwards, though, the masthead of F&SF had a line “including Venture Science Fiction.”

****Scithers turned it down for Asimov’s, probably because it broke rule number 1.  But if you’re Isaac Asimov, you can break rules.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sally Bananas (comic strip)

Created by
Charles Barsotti

Writing comic panels is a different art than writing comic strips, and few people are successful at both.  Charles Barsotti was a long-time New Yorker cartoonist who tried several times to launch a strip, but never had much success.  But one of his failures was a delightful strip named Sally Bananas.

There wasn’t much to the strip.  Sally was pretty much the only character, a hippyish young woman who lived in the park.  The story was told in Barsotti’s trademark art – simple lines and curves.  Sally would talk about the world around her.

I remember the strip very fondly for one particular strip that still brings a chuckle.

Panel 1
Sally (upon meeting a strange looking creature):  “What are you?”
Creature:  “I’m a Roovil”

Panel 2
Sally:  “What a Roovil?”
Roovil:  “I don’t know, but I eat money.”

Panel 3
Sally:  “You eat money?”
Roovil: “Sure.  Haven’t you heard that money is the eat of all Roovils?”

Panel 4
Sally (walking away):  “Imagine renting a roovil suit to make that stupid joke.”

I love puns, but what sells the strip is the final panel.

The strip only ran three years.  Issues with the comic syndicate didn’t help, and it was probably too whimsical for a mass audience.  Barsotti returned to the New Yorker and continued his successful career until his death in 2014.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dead Again

Dead Again(1991)
Directed by
Kenneth Branagh
Written by Scott Frank
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi, Robin Williams, Wayne Knight
IMDB Entry

When Kenneth Branagh burst on the scene, he was a wonder.  Writer, director, actor, and a sensation for taking Henry V – a Shakespeare play that had already been filmed to production – and getting nominated for two Oscars.  People wondered what he’d do next, and the result was Dead Again.

Mike Church (Branagh), a private eye, is guilted into investigating the origins of a mysterious woman (Emma Thompson), who showed up, unable to speak and suffering from amnesia.  After some investigation, he is led to Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi), a hypnotist who thinks he can help.  Mike is skeptical, but it leads them to a long-ago murder Roman and Margaret in better dayswhere composer Roman Strauss (Branagh) is executed for the murder of his wife Margaret (Thompson).  With the help of disgraced psychiatrist Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams*), he begins to unravel the mystery, which seems to have continued to the present day.

The movie is often described as “film noir,” but it’s better called a Hitchcockian pastiche.  It feels like a Hitchcock film, with the suspense thick and the visuals dramatic.  Branagh’s roles are also well played, with Mike being a disheveled PI type, and Roman as a European artiste.  Emma Thompson was establishing herself as one of the top actresses of the time, and Derek Jacobi was as good as he always is.

The movie was a critical and commercial success.  Branagh’s directing career continued strongly with his Shakespeare adaptations, but dropped off at time went on.  His work outside of Shakespeare has not been successful, and he’s now better known as an actor, especially in Wallender.

But Dead Again is filmmaking at its best – bravura, cleverly plotted, and a pleasure to watch.  It hooks you in and keeps you guessing and never lets up.

*Williams was uncredited at his own request, so moviegoers wouldn’t be misled in to believing the film was a comedy.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Alice in Wonderland (TV)

Alice in WonderlandDirected by
Kirk Browning
Written by Lewis Carroll; based on a production by Eva La Gallienne
Starring Kate Burton, Eve Arden, Kaye Ballard, Richard Burton, James Coco, Tony Cummings, Andre De Shields, Colleen Dewhurst, Andre Gregory, Geoffrey Holder, Zeljko Ivanek, Nathan Lane, Donald O’Connor, Austin Pendleton, Maureen Stapleton, Sven Svenson, Fritz Waver, Alan Weeks, Richard Woods
IMDB Entry
Full Movie online

Alice in Wonderland is very hard to dramatize. There are many problems:  a picaresque plot* that has no dramatic arc, a main character who is smart but otherwise ill-defined, the need to interpolate materials from two books into one, etc.  But probably the most successful Alice was a PBS version in the early 80s that managed to add all the elements and have all the joy and whimsy of the book.

This version is based upon a version by Eva La Gallienne and Florida Friebus from 1932.**  The PBS version hewed closely to the two books and solved the problem of including elements of both by first showing scenes from Alice in Wonderland and then segueing directly into Through the Looking Glass.  Thus, the integration worked far more smoothly than most version.

But it’s the frame tale that makes this version.  We are introduced by a group of actors who are complaining that “she” – the actress playing Alice –is going to be terrible on stage.  We cut to her in the dressing room and she smokes and is trying to memorize “Jabberwocky” – and not doing a good job of it.  She looks in the mirror and turns into Alice, her short black hair becoming long and blonde.

The play follows the book pretty closely.  Scenes are cut, of course, but it’s done very well.  And the switchover to the second book works perfectly:  instead of waking from a dream, Alice goes into the looking glass world.  And it keeps many of Carroll’s poems by turning them into songs.

The set and costume design follow John Tenniel’s original illustrations.

The strength is the final scene where Alice recited “Jabberwocky,” turning a story with an “it’s all a dream!” ending into a triumph for her.

Kate Burton*** played Alice.  She was 26 at the time, and that was a smart move.  Too often, Alice is a child or teen, an actress who can’t work Carroll’s lines in a natural manner.  Burton may not be a child, but she understands the work better, and thus the dialog gets don’t correctly.

Alice and the White KnightIt’s hard to pick the best of any of the cast, but most notable are Nathan Lane (early in his career) as the mouse, Donald O’Connor as the Mock Turtle, Andre Gregory as the Mad Hatter, Maureen Stapleton as the White Queen, Colleen Dewhurst as the Red Queen, and Richard Burton as the White Knight (probably the most sympathetic character in Carroll’s works).

The special was taken from a Broadway production of the play, with all of the cast – except for Alice – changed.  It was videotaped in a TV studio, but didn’t try to change the “stagy” aspect of things.

But, like most things Alice, the special was ephemeral.  It was only aired a couple of times and forgotten.  But if you love Lewis Carroll, this is how it should be done.

*No, not picturesque.  A picaresque is a story where the main character goes from adventure to adventure, or place to place, but with no general arc.  Don Quixote is probably the best known in literature.

**Both were successful actresses with long careers.  La Gallienne was a legend of the theater, and got an Oscar nomination for Resurrection.  Friebus had a long career in films and TV, and played one of Bob Hartley’s patients in The Bob Newhart Show. The opening night cast of the play included Burgess “Penguin” Meredith, Howard da Silva, and Whit Bissell (a familiar face in many 50s SF films).  The next year, it was the basis for an all-star movie version made by Paramount.

***Daughter of Richard Burton.  I see in her IMDB entry that she is a “highly respected and talented audio book reader,” so her skill at reading lines has kept with her.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Love (music)

  Arthur Lee (songwriter, vocals, guitar), Bryan MacLean(songwriter, rhythm guitar, vocals), John Echols (lead guitar), Ken Forssi (bass), Michael Stuart (drums), Alan “Snoopy” Pfisterer (drums).
Wikipedia Entry

It’s difficult to break into music, and some extremely talented groups never had the success they deserved.  That’s especially true when your songs are an eclectic mix that’s not easily categorized.  Add to that internal strife and you have a recipe for failure.  Love was never a big success in sales, but they produced one classic album.

The group starts with Arthur Lee.  He was a black kid growing up in Los Angeles and an aspiring songwriter and musician.  He started composing songs in his teens – surf music and the like – and several of them were recorded.  When the Byrds came along, Lee was inspired, as he felt they were using the same sort of sound he was working for.  He formed a small folk-rock group which he eventually named Love.  In 1966, after being signed to Elektra Records, the group put out their first self-titled album.

It was certainly eclectic, with folk rock and what later to be called “garage rock” being featured.  It received good reviews, but with only modest sales.

Once nice thing about the 60s was that record companies were willing to stick with an artist who didn’t become an immediate hit, so the group followed up with Da Capo.  Like the first album, it was nearly all Arthur Lee compositions.  Most notably, it was one of the first albums to have a track fill an entire side (and the first single album to do it) with the jam “Revelation.”  Lee’s music was still evolving to add psychedelic and punk themes.

But there were tensions.  When they came to record their next album, Lee and Bryan MacLean started out being backed by studio musicians.  This caused the rest of the band to realize they were missing out, so they rejoined Lee and MacLean and started to be serious about their music.  The result was their masterpiece Forever Changes. Here’s an example:

But Lee’s eclectic approach and complex melodies** wowed the critics, but didn’t help with sales, and the album was their worst seller yet. 

Lee decided that they needed a new approach and fired the rest of the band.  Their next album, Four Sail was a bit of a disappointment, and the various follow-ups never allowed for a turnaround.  Lee moved to more of a hard rock sound, which probably alienated his older fans without attracting new ones.

Lee finally went solo*** but had no success.  There were various attempts to get the old gang together, but they never came to much.  Lee also went to jail for several years,**** during which Brian MacLean and Ken Forssi both died.

Love’s influence is vast, with many people listing Forever Changes as favorites, including Robert Plant and Jim Morrison.  Many UK acts have also cited them.

Lee died in 2006.  The remnants of the group, with a couple of the original members, is still touring as more and more people come to discover and appreciate them.

*Love was so much in flux that the number of musicians is hard to pin down. They went through almost as many drummers as Spinal Tap, for instance.  These are the names listed in Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia – which also mentions two former members

**Just to get this out of the way:  one of their songs on the album, “Red Telephone” has the line “We are normal and we want our freedom.” This line is also used in “We are Normal” by my favorite band, the Bonzo Dog Band.  The two songs got the line from the same source:  the play Marat/Sade.

***Which he was doing starting with Four Sail, anyway.

****The prosecutor on the case was later found guilty of misconduct.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Local Hero

Local Hero(1983)
Written and Directed by
Bill Forsyth
Starring Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegert, Peter Capaldi, Jenny Seagrove, Dennis Lawson, Jennifer Black, Fulton Mackay
IMDB Entry

Bill Forsyth was a Scottish writer/director who loves his characters.  He had a knack for creating quirky but real people to populate his films, and his scripts often meandered in ways you’d never expect.  Local Hero is his best work.

“Mac” McIntyre (Peter Riegert) is an executive for a Texas oil company run by Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster).  He’s sent to Ferness, a small town on the Scottish coast, with plans to buy up land for an oil refinery. Mac meets with the oil company’s agent, Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi) and takes rooms at the hotel/pub run by Gordon Urquhart* (Dennis Lawson).  Gordon also runs everything else in town and, unbeknownst to Mac, knows all about the plans.  The townspeople are perfectly happy to take their money from the refinery, except for Marina (Jenny Seagrove), a marine biologist who wants to protect the local environment.

The movie allows you to enjoy the characters.  Marina seems to have some miraculous secrets, and Gordon is a charming conniver.  There’s also a Russian sea captain who docks in order to watch over his stock portfolio, and Ben Knox, a beachcomber who owns the beach.

Burt Lancaster is wonderful.  At this time in his career, he had learned to be a little less intense and the result is – like everything else in the film – is charming.  All of the character vie to be funny and very, very human.

This was Forsyth’s most successful film.  His next, Comfort and Joy, was also a charmer, but his career petered out after that.  Maybe it was his leaving Scotland. 

*Thankfully, no relation of Francis Urquhart.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Allen and Rossi (comedy)

Allen and Rossi1957-1968
Marty Allen
(Morton David Alpern) (1922- )
Steve Rossi (Joseph Charles Michael Tafarella) (1932-2014)
Wikipedia Entry

Comedy teams are a thing of the past.  Even though standup is going strong, the idea of a comedian and straight man combo – a setup dating back to vaudeville – has died out.  The form seems too stagy for today’s tastes.  Allen and Rossi were one of the last big stars in the genre.*

Steve Rossi was actually discovered by Mae West.  He was a singer, and West loved having handsome men surrounding her in her shows.  He went on to be a singer with Nat “King” Cole.  When Cole heard he was thinking of doing comedy, he hooked him up with Marty Allen, a standup comedian. 

The two worked out an act, but it was a flub on the part of Allen that gave them their catchphrase.  In one show, Allen blanked on his line and blurted out “Hello, dere.”  It helped to make them a star.

Their act was simple, with Rossi asking questions of Allen, who would come up with the punchline.  Unlike other straight men, Rossi rarely joked, leaving the laughs to his partner, but singing a song to either open or close the act.

Allen’s appearance worked for him.  Like many comedy duos, they were mismatched in size:  Rossi was tall and slim, Allen was short and chubby. He had a round face and large eyes that helped him sell the joke, but the goofiest part of his was his hair – a wild, curly mop that gave the impression of a dandelion.  The jokes are far too “jokey” for audiences today, but Allen still manages to get laughs out of it.  He also did “impressions,” which consisted of Rossi announcing him as a celebrity and Allen not making the slightest attempt to mimic the person, and even starting out with “Hello, dere.”

The act was a smashing success, doing the club and the talk show circuit, and eventually The Ed Sullivan Show, where they became favored comedians.** Which leads them to the main reason they’re cited today:  they were on the show for the Beatles’ first appearance.  That’s a hard act to follow, but Allen and Rossi managed to charm the audience of teenage girls who were not their usual demographic;

The two of them appeared in three of the four Ed Sullivan Shows that featured the Beatles, and seemed to have a mutual liking for the fab four.

The two continued to perform in nightclubs and TV, and in 1966 appeard in the film The Last of the Secret Agents?, which flopped badly.***  Finally, in 1968, the two split (amicably).

Rossi kept trying with other partners, but drifted away from show business.  Allen kept busy as a game show celebrity on The Hollywood Squares and occasional actor.

The two occasionally re-formed the act for Las Vegas, drawing their old fans.  It all ended with Rossi died in 2014.

*Not the very last – Rowan and Martin were probably the last to be major mainstream stars, while Cheech and Chong were big among youth.  Key and Peele are one of the few currently successful, but they’re sketch comedians, not stand up.

**They appeared there 44 times.

***The clip I found appears to be pretty awful, though it could be scene as a certain inspiration for Austin Powers.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Governor and J.J. (TV)

Governor and JJ(1969-70)
Created by
Leonard Stern and Arne Sultan
Starring Dan Dailey, Julie Sommars, Neva Patterson, James T. Callihan
IMDB Entry

Leonard Stern was a major name of 1960s comedy, if for nothing else than his creation (with Roger Price) of Mad Libs.  But he also produced and wrote TV shows with his partner Arne Sultan, shows like  Get Smart, He & She, The Good Guys, and Macmillan and Wife. The Governor and J.J. was just another example, and deserved more than the single season it was on.

The show was about William Drinkwater (Dan Dailey), governor of an unnamed state (probably in the midwest). He was a widower, so the role of First Lady fell to his 20-something daughter, J.J. (Julie Sommars).  J.J. was a mildly rebellious child of the 60s, who much preferred her work as a curator at the local zoo and who often disagreed politically with her father (mildly). 

The show was only political in the general sense, usually dealing with personalities more than real issues.  Often, J.J. would say something that was potentially embarrassing, and the governor would have to work with her to put out the fire.  Or other other way around:  J.J. had to find evidence to quash a potential scandal (which turned out to be an innocent error, of course).

Dan Dailey was a Hollywood and Broadway hoofer, appearing in many musicals of the 40s.  Julie Sommars had been a frequent guest star on TV.

The show won three Golden Globes, for Best Comedy Series, and for Best Comedy Actor and Actress.  But the Golden Globes didn’t mean much back then, and poor ratings doomed the show to a single season.

After then, Dailey’s appearances were less frequent.  Sommars worked steadily in TV, and eventually got a regular role in Matlock.

I’d love to be able to see it again.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


Directed by
Stanley Donen
Written by Peter Stone (screenplay and story), and Mark Behm (story)
Starring Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass
IMDB Entry

Stanley Donen is an extremely underrated director.  Partly this is because his best work is with musicals, which are passe as a film form.  He directed several classics – On the Town, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, and, of course, one of the greatest films of all time, Singin’ in the Rain.*  By the 1960s, he seemed to grow tired of musicals and he switched to one of the best of all Hitchcock pastiches – Charade.

Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is an American living in Europe, having a final lone vacation before she divorces her husband.  She runs into the suave stranger Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), but when the returns to her home in Paris, her husband is dead, leaving her only a few trivial items.  But three sinister men – Tex Panthollow (James Coburn), Herman Scobie (George Kennedy), and Leopold Gideon (Ned Glass) show up at the funeral.  The CIA gets into the act:  the administrator Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) reveals what’s going on.  The three men and her husband were part of a group who stole gold from the French resistance.  And there is a fourth man, Carson Dyle, and Peter Joshua (who keeps popping up to help out Regina) might just be Dyle.

The movie is full of double crosses and plot twists.  It’s clear the Cary Grant** is having a lot of fun playing the mysterious Mr. Joshua.  Hepburn also seems to like the light romance.

Coburn, Kennedy, and Glass are familiar film heavies of the time, and also make the most of their roles.  Walter Matthau is also especially effective.

The movie was a big hit at the time, and was well regarded for the way it managed to be both Hitchcockian and original.  Donen continued to direct, with quite a few successes, including the brilliant Movie Movie

*Co-directed with Gene Kelly

**If you’re doing a Hitchcock pastiche, why not use one of his favorite actors.

Sunday, April 17, 2016


Directed by
Ronald Neame
Written by Jack Davis (screenplay) and Alvin Sargent (screenplay); story by Sidney Carroll
Starring:  Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Herbert Lom
IMDB Entry

Caper films are always entertaining, but the key – like with anything else – is to keep them fresh.  Gambit is an attempt to try a little big different with the genre with a tricky plot and lost of double crossing.

Harry Dean (Michael Caine) discovered Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine), who is a Hong Kong showgirl.  She also bears a striking resemblance to the late wife of a wealthy man, Shahbandar (Herbert Lom), which leads to Dean’s plan:  Nicole will meet with Shahbandar as a way to get into his apartment, and Harry will use the distraction to steal a valuable statuette of Shahbander’s wife.  It seems rather simple at first, but begins to get more and more complex at time goes on.

The movie has several gimmicks.  First of all MacLaine does not speak during the first half hour of the film, as the plot is revealed.  It seems to go off perfectly, but it turns out that it didn’t work at all, and the real plot involves multiple twists so that you can’t really know what’s going on until the end.

At the time it came out, Maclaine was a top star and she’s wonderful, first as the mysterious dancer, and later as a real person.  Michael Caine was still a rising star when cast, but his success in The Ipcress File had started his career.*  He gives his usual fine performance.

The movie has pretty much been forgotten.  Director Ronald Neame had an up-and-down career, with successes like The Poseidon Adventure and The Prime of Miss Jean Brody, but nothing that really put him on the map. 

The movie does have some wonderful ideas, well executed, but time seems to have left it alone.

*Alfie, which gave him wider stardom, was released just before Gambit.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


I Q(1994)
Directed by
Fred Schepisi
Written by Andy Breckman (story and screenplay) and Michael Leeson (screenplay)
Starring  Tim Robbins, Meg Ryan, Walter Matthau, Lou Jacobi, Gene Sacks, Joseph Maher, Stephen Fry, Tony Shalhoub, Charles Durning,
IMDB Entry

Fred Schepesi directed a nice little list of interesting films in the 80s and 90s, ranging from serious drama, to spy thrillers, to adaptations of plays, to comedy.  But he was especially good at romance, and I.Q. was a weird and charming film about love and advanced physics.

Ed Walters (Tim Robbins) is a garage mechanic who ends up doing a repair for Princeton doctoral student Catherine Boyd (Meg Ryan).  Sparks fly, though Ed is the only one to recognize it, since Catherine is already engaged to James Moreland (Stephen Fry).  Still, Ed won’t give up.  He finds something of hers and decides to return it, where he meets her uncle, Albert Einstein (Walter Matthau).  Einstein and his scientists friends Liebknecht (Josephy Maher), Godel (Jacobi), and Podolsky (Gene Saks) team up to turn Ed into an intellectual so Catherine will fall for him.

Now, forget about historical accuracy.  Like Inglourous Basterds, the film just doesn’t care.  What makes it work is a sense of sweetness, where Einstein is a doting uncle and the other physicists are committed to the idea that love is more important that intellect.

Matthau has a lot of fun with the role, and the romance is in some ways secondary to the matchmaking scenes.  But overall, it’s a charming little comedy.*

*I’m sure I liked it because of my interest in all things Einstein, due to my grandfather’s friendship with him.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

You, Me, and the Apocalypse

Created by
Ian Hollands
Starring Matthew Baynton, Jenna Fischer, Joel Fry, Gaia Scodellaro, Rob Lowe, Megan Mullally, Pauline Quirke, Karla Crome, Patterson Joseph, Kyle Soller, Fabian McCallum
IMDB Entry

There are clearly some anglophiles at NBC.  Years ago, they attempted to bring British shows like Dame Edna and Spitting Image to American TV.  They were critical success, but flops in the ratings.  This year, NBC decided to do it again with the end-of-the-world comedy/drama You, Me, and the Apocalypse.

There series follows many stories in a world where a comet is about to strike Earth and end all life there.  Jamie Winton (Matthew Baynton) is a bank manager is Slough* who is suddenly arrested as a terrorist.  Jamie is still getting over his abandonment by his wife Layla, and starts to discover he had a twin brother Ariel, who is with her and who is head of a group of hackers.  Meanwhile, Rhonda McNeill (Jenna Fischer), who is going to jail for hacking the NSA.  She’s innocent but wants to protect the real culprit, her son Spike (Fabian McCallum)as a hacker to protect her son Spike.  In jail, she befriends the white supremacist Leanne (Meagan Mullally).

At the same time, Sister Celine Leonti (Gaia Scodellaro) is asked to work at the office of the Devil’s Advocate at the Vatican, led by the rather unpriestly Father Jude (Rob Lowe).

And then the word gets out:  a comet is about to hit Earth.  So things get a bit complicated.

The story starts out as a black comedy with some serious elements, but as it goes on, it becomes a serious film, with overtones of religious faith and straight-on adventure.  It constantly surprises as characters do things you never thought they’d do

The cast is, of course, excellent.  Mathew Baynton is especially excellent as both Jamie and Ariel, switching from lost and decent, to pure evil.  Meagan Mullally’s Leanne is so different from her role in Will and Grace that you wonder if it’s the same actress.

The show just finished its first season on NBC with a cliffhanger.  Unfortunately, the ratings were not great, so there’s doubt there will be a second season.  At the moment, it can be watched on the NBC site and also on Hulu; give it a look.

*A town about 20 miles from London

Sunday, March 27, 2016


Directed by
Fred Schepisi
Written by Steve Martin, based upon Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Starring Steve Martin, Daryl Hannah, Rick Rossovich
IMDB Entry

When I first started seeing Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live, I didn’t much care for him.  He would come on stage, looking and sounding like he was about to be funny, but I would realize afterward, it was all presentation:  he wasn’t all that funny.  In the “wild and crazy guy” skits, he was always overshadowed by Dan Ackroyd.*  And his early films seemed to confirm my feelings.

But a funny thing happened. For some reason, even though I didn’t like him as an actor, I started watching his movies.  All of Me showed that he could be a good actor when he wasn’t playing a comic.  And Roxanne made me change my entire opinion of him.**

Now, let me make one thing clear.  I’m a big fan of Cyrano de Bergerac, starting when we read it – in French – in high school.  I also love the movie with Jose Ferrer** and Roxanne is a great adaptation, modified for modern times.

You know the story.  Cyrano is named C. D. Bales (Martin), in love with Roxanne (Daryl Hannah).  But Roxanne loves the handsome Chris (Rick Rossovich).  Chris is inarticulate, but Bales – with an large, ugly nose – helps him with Roxanne by supplying romantic words and letters.

Martin was a surprise as a romantic lead and his performance is just perfect.  His Bales is a little less stiff than Jose Ferrer’s, and his romance seems even more heartfelt.  Hannah makes a charming modern-day Roxanne.

The rewrite gives the movie a happy ending.**** but that can be forgiven.  It’s overall a wonderful reworking of a great play.


*I didn’t like “King Tut” because it paled in comparison with the Bonzo Dog Band far nuttier “Ali Baba’s Camel.”

**I discovered later that Martin wasn’t so much as being a comedian, as playing a comedian.  He was acting a role.

***It used the translation by Brian Hooker, considered the best and most faithful to the original.  Comparing it to the French version, it clearly uses the best choices that keep with the original.  One moment, for instance, is when Cyrano insults a man by saying he is not a man of letters, except for three.  In French, it’s “F-O-U” (crazy).  Hooker directly translates the speech, but uses “A-S-S.”

****Spoiler:  Cyrano de Bergerac is a tragedy.