Sunday, December 30, 2018


Directed by
Stanley Donen
Written by Julien Mitchell & Stanley Price & Peter Stone, from a novel by Gordon Cotler.
Starring Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, Alan Badel
IMDB Entry

After the success of Charade, Stanley Donen decided to do something that is all-too-familiar these days: film a sequel. But it wasn’t that easy back in the 60s and after a script was written for him, he declined. Donen was going to give up on the project when he learned that both Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren had gotten a  script and wanted to film it.  The result was Arabesque.

Professor David Pollock (Gregory Peck), an expert in hieroglyphics, is asked to translate a message that has been rendered into that ancient script as a cypher.  Pollock reluctantly takes the job at the behest of shipping magnate Nejim Beshraavi (Alan Badel) and soon discovers that quite a few people are interested in the contents of that message. He also runs into Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren), who, of course, he is attracted to. But they start to get into trouble as Pollock deciphers the message and finds himself caught in a web of intrigue.

Peck is no Cary Grant,* but handles himself well enough, and .Loren is a fine femme fatale. 

Donen didn’t really care for the script, so he tried to shoot it in interesting ways.  The result is visually inventive, though perhaps a little too much so. And I think that’s the big flaw of the film: everyone was trying to hard to be Charade (and Alfred Hitchcock).

Still the result is an entertaining spy spoof with plenty to recommend it.

*Something he admitted to many a time while filming.  If you imagine Cary Grant saying his lines, you’ll find they are much better.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Lone Star

Lone Star(1996)
Written and Directed by
John Sayles
Starring Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Miriam Colon
IMDB Entry

John Sayles is one of America’s top independent filmmakers, especially in the 80s and 90s, when the wrote and directed a series of small films that focused on strong characters and unspectacular (though fascinating) situations. Lone Star was one of the best.

Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper)  is the county sheriff in a small town in Texas, following in the footsteps of his father Buddy (Mathew McConaughey). Sam had serious conflicts with his father and isn’t happy that the town is planning to name the courthouse for him. Buddy was universally regarded as a great man in town, who replaced the corrupt sheriff Charley Wade (Chris Kristofferson) after he disappeared with departmental funds.  Sam also reconnects with Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), who he had been in love with, a union vehemently opposed by Buddy and Pilar’s mother Mercedes (Miriam Colon).

Things get complicated when a skeleton is found, leading to a long-ago murder that still affects the town today.  As Sam investigates, he begins to uncover the seedier side of life in the town.

The acting is excellent.  Cooper, of course, won an Oscar several years later and stands out as the cop with baggage who is trying to get to the truth in a town where people don’t want it discovered. Kristofferson is a spectacular presence as the swaggering and dangerous Wade and McConaughey is also memorable*.   Elizabeth Pena also makes a strong character and it’s kind of refreshing to see a love plot featuring who aren’t in their twenties.

Pilar and Sam

Sayles is a tremendous screenwriter, and it shows here. All the characters are well-drawn and the story keeps surprising.  I especially liked the ending, which flies in the face of anything you might have expected.

*Despite their prominence in the advertising, they are both relatively small roles. No doubt they took it to work with Sayles.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

A Christmas Carol (TV)

Fred and Scrooge(1971)
Directed by
Richard Williams
Written by Charles Dickens
Starring Alastair Sim, Michael Redgrave, Michael Hordern
IMDB Entry
Full Movie on Youtube

A Christmas Carol has shown up on the screen more than practically any other film. I count 43 entries with that name alone, and there are plenty of movies that used the plot under a different name, not to mention countless TV versions. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when the great Chuck Jones was willing to produce* another version in 1971.

Two things make this stand out. Director Richard Williams used Ken Harris, a top animator for Warner Brothers, and who animated Jones’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and gave him carte blanche. The result was a fantastically rich visual style that avoided completely any cartoony elements.  The people looked like people, the backgrounds like real places.

The second bit of genius was to cast Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Sim was the greatest of all Scrooges from his performance in the 1951 version of the story.**

I don’t have to tell you the story; it sticks pretty closely to Dickens’s original tale (and the 1951 version). But it has rarely been visualized so sumptuously. Michael Redgrave’s narration manages to keep the story going, though it has to be cut down quite a bit.

The version of the story was originally made for television, but was so well regarded that Williams decided to show it in theaters to make it eligible for the Oscar, which it won in 1973.***

Despite everything, though, the special did not make it into the Christmas Special canon. It is a fascinating adaptation with great visuals.

*Jones didn’t direct, though.

**Michael Hordern also reprised his role as Marley.  

***The Academy didn’t like the idea of something made for TV winning the award and changed the rules to prevent it from happening again.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Man in the White Suit

Man in the White Suit(1951)
Directed by
Alexander Mackendric
Written by Roger Macdougall, John Dighton, & Alexander Mackendrick
Starring Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Ernest Thesiger
IMDB Entry

After World War II, a small English film studio started making a name for itself with small, quirky comedies, with offbeat characters and whimsical concept.  Ealing Studios produced only a handful of films, but a whole bunch of gems, many of which starred Alec Guinness, their biggest star.* And one of the most interesting of them was the science fiction comedy, The Man in the White Suit.

Sidney Stratton (Guinness) is a brilliant research chemist who is obsessed with finding a miracle fiber that never wears out or gets dirty. After years of failure (and explosions), he succeeds:  his creates a fabric that’s even better than he hoped and makes a white suit about it.**  He thinks he’s on the way to strike it rich.

But, though lauded at first, people begin to see the ramifications of the suit. If fabric doesn’t wear out, no one will buy new suits.  If it doesn’t need cleaning, laundries would be a thing of the past. Both plant management and trade unions realized it could be the end of their business, so both try to keep the fabric from being made.  Stratton, of course, is a scientific idealist, who refuses to see the drawbacks of his invention.


Guinness, of course, is great.  That’s a given.  People tend to forget just how much a gift for comedy he had, given that his best known roles were serious ones, but in the early 50s, he was England’s greatest comic actor, using his versatility to take on roles that were all different from each other.

Joan Greenwood is not well known today. She primarily appeared in English actress, often with Ealing, known for her low voice and great dignity. Primarily a stage actress, she had a long career.

When I first saw it, I was delighted to see Ernest Thesiger, who’s best known as Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein.

The movie was a big success, being one of the most popular films of the year in the UK and got an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.

The Ealing Studios continued on until 1958.  And The Man in the White Suit is one of their many highlights.

*Guinness didn’t really care much for his role in Star Wars and probably would be preferred to be remembered for his stage work and his films from Ealing.

**Since the fabric repels dirt, it can only be white, though Stratton says you could dye it early in the process and it would stick.  It also glows in the dark.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Worldly Adventures of a Teenage Tycoon (Book)

By Roger W. Eddy

Back in the day, there was a small subgenre of books where people reminisced about their childhood, replete with humorous stories. Cheaper by the Dozen is probably the best known and there were others that were often seen as fodder for what would now be called YA books. I read several, but the one that sticks in my mind was Roger W. Eddy’s The Worldly Adventures of a Teenage Tycoon.

The book was abridged from a longer work, The Bulls and the Bees. Evidently, the adult version had some passages about how Roger learned about sex from the animals in the farm where he lived.  This was obviously unsuited for teens in the 1950s, but the rest made some good reading.

It was filled with anecdotes. Roger’s father was a stockbroker in the 1920s in addition to living on the farm.  The one that sticks in my mind was the one that gave the book its name.

Roger developed a liking for stocks.  Not as investments, but for the stock certificates themselves.*

And, indeed, there is much to like. Certificates were intricately engraved, much like currency, and featured elaborate artwork representing Progress and the company’s mission. Roger would pore over them, admiring the mottos and art. So he began buying them.

He had $1 a month to spend, so would pick out stocks that fit in that budget for his father to buy.**  Over the years, he had papered his bedroom with them.

Then came the stock market crash.  Roger describes the scene that night as his father came into his room and started ripping his beautiful certificates off the walls and into shreds, bemoaning the fact that they were worthless.  Roger knew better than to stop him, but couldn’t understand what was going on.  Didn’t they look as good as they ever did?***

The book was a nice, ironic look at growing up in the 1920s, that doesn’t sentimentalize the era.

*Today the hobby is called scripophily.

**Probably commission free.

***As an aside, if you find an old stock certificate, don’t throw it out.  It may be worth something to collectors. And it may actually still be worth cash: the company may have been swallowed up in a merger (or several) and it descendant company could still be around. The certificates don’t expire, so long as any portion of the original company exists, you can cash it it. When I worked at a brokerage, we had one person whose job it was to track these down and figure out what they were worth. It gets complex to calculate the value with all the various splits and mergers over the years.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


Directed by
Rudolph Maté
Written by Russell Rouse and Clarence Green
Starring Edmond O’Brien. Pamela Britton, Luthor Adler, Bevery Garland
IMDB Entry 

From the start, D.O.A.hooks the audience with one of the most memorable opening sequences in film. We see a man striding purposely into a police station as the credits roll. He asks directions and walks down a long hallway and into the office.  It’s homicide and the man (who we’ve only seen from the back) says he wants to report a murder.  The chief detective asks the obvious question:  “Who was murdered?”  The camera then shows Frank Bigelow’s (Edmond O’Brien) face for the first time.  His answer:  “I was.”

The rest of the movie lives up to that hook. Bigelow is an accountant and notary public, with a simple life in a small town until he goes on vacation in San Francisco.  When in a nightclub, someone switches his drink and the next morning feeling ill, he calls a doctor.  He’s been poisoned and there is no antidote, so Bigelow had to sold the mystery of who poisoned him before he dies. It takes him to the dark underside of the city.

The setup is irresistible, a hook that keeps you going as Bigelow slowly stumble onto the truth.  It’s all O’Brien’s show, and the actor manages to mix despair with determination. 

Director Rudolph Maté was already a well-respected cinematographer when he made the switch to directing and D.O.A.  was his third attempt.  It is assured and suspenseful and is probably his best-known film, especially because it lost copyright and can be found online.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Profiles in Courage (TV)

Profiles in Courage(1964-65)
Based on the book by
John F. Kennedy
Produced by Gordon Oliver

By 1964, anthology series were slowly dying out, but that didn’t keep people from trying. And given the popularity of John F. Kennedy after his death, it seemed a natural to dramatize his Pulitzer Prize winning history, Profiles in Courage.*

The show dramatized the events in the book, but since there were only eight originally, other politicians were added. Various well-known actors (both at the time and subsequently) were cast, including Brian Keith, Walter Matthau, David McCallum, Wendy Hiller, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, Bradford Dillman, Caroll O’Connor, Whit Bissell, and many more.

Each episode dramatized a politician who made an unpopular decision because it was the right thing to do, even though it risked their career.

I ate it up.  I was already interested in politics and had read the book and the idea of seeing it on the small screen got me hooked.  The stories were well written and well chosen and the show ended up winning a Peabody Award. 

Alas, not everyone was as much into history as I was as a kid and the ratings weren’t there.  The show only ran one season before being canceled.

However, these days, things like this aren’t lost. A few episodes can be found on Youtube and  Give it a look.

Thanks to Joseph Harder for the suggestion (a very long time ago).


*I’m not going to go into the authorship controversy.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Filmstrips (miscellaneous)

image(1948? – 1990?)
Wikipedia Entry

Technology marches on and new technologies supplant the old. Often, the new version is clearly superior, but that doesn’t mean you can’t remember the old technology fondly.  And for me, that is the filmstrip.

In the 50s and 60s, they were ubiquitous in public schools, the only way to easily use multimedia in the classroom. A couple of times a month, the teacher would bring out the filmstrip projector and a phonograph (optional) and we’d be treated to a show.

imageThe filmstrip was a single strip of film that came in a little canister. You’d pull the film out of the canister and put it in a holder on the projector, then thread it through. 

Once set, you were treated to a presentation. Each image was advanced manually, sort of a precursor to PowerPoint.

The design was clever. After being shown, the film was put into a little holder, threaded so that the first slide stayed the first slide when you were done.  No rewinding!  Some units even allowed you to fit the canister into the holder, so everything was ready for the next show.

Some of the strips had audio accompaniment.  It started out on records, that would give the narration to the slide, and then beep.  That was the signal for the operator to advance the image.

Of course, it was a high honor for the teacher to ask you to advance the film after each beep.*

As time passed, the technology advanced.  By the 70s, audio cassettes replaced the records.** Eventually, auto-advance  was added, probably disappointing the folks in the AV Club.

Of course, once videocassettes came along, they rapidly supplanted filmstrips. Now you could easily see moving images.  Filmstrips and their projectors became antiques by the 1990s.

And that was certainly an improvement.*** But they remain a fond memory for anyone who went to school in that era.

*The other great bit of AV equipment when I was in high school were the 16mm film projectors. It was an even greater honor than to be asked to set those up and avoiding the dreaded problem of “loosing the loop.”  The other option – the slide projector – was too awkward to use until Kodak invented the Carousel projector in 1964.

**Or did if the school had the budget for it.

***Though, since filmstrips were done by professionals, they didn’t fall into the same pitfalls as PowerPoint.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Generation Gap (TV)

The Generation Gap(1969)
Executive Produder
David Melnick*
Hosted by Dennis Wholey, Jack Barry
Wikipedia Entry
In 1969, there was much talk about the generation gap, so I suppose it isn’t surprising that it was the bases for a game show.
The concept was simple. You had two teams of three adults and three under-30s. The host would ask one team questions that would be well known to the people of the other team and see if they could answer. The other team would guess if the answering team would guest correctly.
So the younger generation would be asked questions about such things as big band music, while the older generation would be asked about such things as current fashion.  It wasn’t just asking questions: most of the them were demonstrated on stage, often, in the case of musical acts and personalities, by the people involved.*
I watched it regularly when it first came out. It turned out I was better at answering the question about the older generation than my own, but I always was a student of history.
One of the more memorable moments was when one of the younger people were given an old-fashioned “knife” can opener and asked to open a can.  In the time allowed, she could only figure out which end she was supposed to use.
The show was unusual in that it switched hosts in the middle of the run. Dennis Wholey was replaced with no explanation by Jack Barry. At the time, Barry had been off the air for a decade due to the quiz show scandals; his shows were in the middle of it all.  Barry worked hard at cleaning up his reputation, and his stint in Generation Gap was his first work as a host since the scandal.  He then moved on to host several other shows.
Generation Gap ran for 16 episodes before being killed by terrible ratings. I wish it could have gone on longer.
*I remember Pinky Lee was on it. He should have been way before my time, a big children’s entertainer whose career ended 1955 after he collapsed on stage.  But a local TV station syndicated a new show of his in the 60s, so I was familiar with him.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Louis Jordan (music)

Wikipedia Entry

I may have mentioned this before, but I’m a fan of the blues. And of course, that mean I was a fan of B.B. King. So one day, when I saw a CD in a bookstore titled Let the Good Times Roll: The Music of Louis Jordan, I picked it up, and immediately added Jordan to my favorites.*

Jordan was born in Arkansas in 1908 and grew up to be a musician, performing in various local bands until he got his big break in 1936, when he was hired primarily as a saxophone player for the Savoy Ballroom Orchestra. He quickly showed off his talent for singing and showmanship, overshadowing the band’s nominal leader.**  In 1938, he started out on his own.

He started recording songs in 1939, a combination of new songs and covers.In 1942, he had his first R&B chart hit, “I’m Gonna Leave You on the Outskirts of Town.” It was a breakthrough. The next year was a big one.  His cover of “Ration Blues” was #1 on the R&B chart and crossed over to the pop chart (and C&W). The hits continued the next year with “G.I. Jive” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” and by 1946 he was a regular on the R&B and pop charts, with songs like “Caldonia,” “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” and “Jack, You’re Dead.” 

In 1949, he recorded “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” which is often cited as one of the first rock ‘n roll records, partly because the chorus include the lines “And it was rockin’”

Over his career, Jordan had 18 Number one R&B hits, a record beaten only by Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.

Jordan’s style is usually described as “jump blues,” and consisted of catchy tunes and tons of energy. At a time when music was segregated, he managed to cross over and sell to white audiences. He was often called “King of the Jukebox” during his time; you want wanted something to dance to, Jordan was the man you’d choose. Jordan also made short films of him performing as a way to boost his image.

By the mid-50s, Jordan suffered a loss in popularity, though he still continued to record, often reworking early songs to fit better into the modern styles. He stopped getting a chance to record in the 60s and died in 1974.

Jordan was recognized as a pioneer by musicians and was even honored with a Broadway Show. Five Guys Named Moe ran over a year and has spawned revivals over the years. And he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

*I had heard other songs by him, but hadn’t made the connection.  I also was a bit confused at first, thinking they meant French actor Louis Jourdain.

**He often sang with Ella Fitzgerald.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Archy and Mehitabel (literature)

Archy and Mehitabel(1916-1922+)
By Don Marquis

“‘the question is whether the stuff is
literature or not.’’ – Archy

Last week, I wrote about the great George Herriman and Krazy Kat and as I looked over his career, I was reminded of one of his side projects, something that equaled his inventiveness and love of words:  Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel.

Marquis was a newspaperman and columnist for the New York Sun. Back then, columnists weren’t strictly political; their job was to fill the column with entertaining observations and comments One day, in a fit of whimsy, he wrote a bit of a poem

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into a body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook on life.

According Marquis, he had left a sheet of paper in his typewriter before leaving for the day and Archy* the cockroach, who climbed on the typewriter and banged his head onto the keys to painstakingly write out the letter.

And thus a bard was born. Archy wrote (in all lower case and without punctuation) on whatever seized his fancy. Some where philosophical; others humorous, and others charmingly absurd. He would sometimes talk about Mehitabel the cat, who thought herself the reincarnation of Queen Cleopatra** and whose motto was “toujours gai.”  Marquis would let his imagination run wild.

Archy was a hit.  And why not, with verses like these:

coarse jocosity
captures the crowd
shakespeare and i are
often low-browed


and the spirit of
a camel
in the midnight gloom
can be so very
as it wanders
round the room

Of course, most of the poems are free verse and all of them are a delightful mix of philosophy and entertainment. Marquis wrote in a very direct style that isn’t dated at all.

The poems were popular from the start. Marquis ran them every few days in his column and in 1927, selected ones were put into a collection, Archy and Mehitabel. Herriman added illustrations to some of the poems.*** There have been various editions of the collections through the years, and even attempts at plays and musicals.  None of these achieved any sort of success.

The musical is an interesting case in point. It started as a concept album, with music by George Kleinsinger and lyrics by Joe Darion.**** It was expanded to a stage version with Darion wrote the book with newcomer Mel Brooks and named Shinbone Alley.  Eartha Kitt played Mehitabel and Eddie Bracken was Archy, and it featured an integrated cast, possibly the first on Broadway. Alas, all the talent and good intentions was for nothing; the play only ran 49 performances. There was an animated version made in 1970 with the voices of Bracken and Carol Channing that didn’t fare any better.

This is not surprising. Archy has no overarching story, and the attempt to add one diminished the charm of the original.

But the books are still around. And the answer to Archy’s question is clear:  they are definitely literature.  And still delightful.

*Archy insisted his name be capitalized outside of his own writing.

**Despite getting equal billing, Mehitabel only appears occasionally.

***Mehitabel was clearly Krazy Kat, and some drawings showed Freddy the rat who was clearly Ignatz

****Later to write lyrics for Man of La Mancha.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Krazy Kat (comics)

Written and Drawn by
George Herriman
Wikipedia Page

imageI’ve been busy the past month and haven’t been able to keep up the blog,* so I decided to come back with a bang to talk about the greatest newspaper comic strip ever, Krazy Kat.**

If you know the strip, you’ll either agree with that assessment, or you’ll wonder why on Earth anyone thought it was any good at all.  Krazy Kat is not for everyone, but if you get it, you’ll appreciate its greatness.

The strip was the project of George Herriman, who was born in New Orleans in 1880 and quickly developed a talent for drawing.  In 1902, he started working as a cartoonist for various newspapers. In 1910, he introduced his strip The Dingbat Family. Back then, comic pages were enormous, so it was not unusual for a strip to have a second one to fill the space and, in 1911, he added a small strip about a cat and mouse. The mouse would hit the cat with a brick.  And thus Krazy Kat was born.

The strip took over the space allotted for The Dingbat Family and quickly became set.  Ignatz Mouse hated Krazy Kat and would throw bricks at him,*** but Krazy loved Ignatz and saw the bricks as a sign of his affection.  Meanwhile, Offisa B. Pupp was enamored of Krazy and would try to thwart Ignatz – or at least put him in jail at the end of the strip.

It was often a one-joke strip: Ignatz would find a way out outwit Offisa Pupp in order to hit Krazy.  Yet Herriman managed to make the joke fresh every time, finding thousands of inventive variations on the same basic joke.

It wasn’t all that, of course. Kokonino Kounty was filled with odd occurrences and creatures. Krazy had a way of looking at things that bordered on the surreal.


It helped that Herriman was a master artist. Each panel had a lot going for it, using the desert landscapes to give the entire thing a strange background. One trick of his was to change the background in each panel, even if the characters were carrying on a conversation. For the Sunday strips – a full page – he would experiment with designs.

He was also a master of language.  Most of Krazy’s dialog (and Herriman’s narration of the Sunday strips) was pure poetry.  One piece I remember well is some words from Krazy:

Out is my light
Dokk is my room
None but demp sheddows beset me.

Krazy Kat was a critical success from the start, but never was particularly successful. It owed its long run to the fact that William Randolph Hearst, who ran the syndicate, was a major fan, and gave Herriman a lifetime contract.

I learned to appreciate it in the early 1970s.  My local paper, Newsday, ran vintage strips daily, so I got to experience it the same way it was when it was originally running.  I had heard good things about it and slowly began to learn to love it. The key was that you needed to read each strip twice; on second reading, the brilliance of the joke was clear.****

Krazy’s importance to the field was immense. He has been cited as an influence by such great cartoonists as Bill Watterson, Charles M. Schultz, Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, Patrick McDonnell, Art Spiegelman, and strongly influenced the setting of Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoons. You can see hints of him in people like Walt Kelly, Robert Crumb, and Dr. Seuss.  During its run, it attracted the interest of art critics and other observing the popular culture scene.  Poet e. e. cummings was enough of a fan to write an introduction of the first collection of strips, and critics proudly pointed to it to anyone who said that comic strips weren’t art.

There were various spinoffs.  Cartoons were produced in the silent days and at various times after that, often going far afield from the basic conception of the strip, and none capturing its spirit. There even was a successful ballet made from it.

Herriman died in 1944 and the strip ended with him.***** It was not popular enough to warrant continuation with another artist, and it would have been impossible to replace him anyway. Since then, it has lived in reprint collections.

Those who study comics are well aware of the strip, but most people nowadays probably haven’t heard of it. It’s worth seeking out and taking the time to appreciate a master.

* After 633 posts, it grown hard to find something new.

**I’ll accept Pogo as a rival, but few others.

***Krazy’s gender was indeterminate. Most people saw the character as female, yet he was usually referred to as “he.” Herriman at one point said Krazy was willing to be either.

****Newsday ran it for a couple of years. When they cancelled it, someone complained and they gave the excuse that the strip had been discontinued years before, ignoring the fact that there thirty years of material if they had wanted to rerun it.

*****In 1971, it was discovered that Herriman was of mixed race, making him one of the few successful non-white cartoonists. However, Herriman did not talk of his race and it was assumed by everyone who knew him that he was white.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Goodies (TV)

The Goodies(1970-82)
Written by and starring
Graham Garden, Bill Oddie, Tim Brook-Taylor
IMDB Entry

Monty Python introduced British comedy to US audiences. It was a big success for PBS stations and they started looking for other shows from the UK to fill empty time on weekends. And one of these shows was The Goodies.

The show was a meld of sitcom and sketch comedy. The Goodies (Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and Graham Garden) did odd jobs.  Some very odd. Each episode would have a general plot, but they didn’t stick to it, filling the time with any joke they could fit it.

It was primarily slapstick and broad comedy, with sight gags all over the place.  Graham and Tim tended to lead the group, will Bill usually was the one who was the brunt of the slapstick. Silent bits and undercranking were the norm.

Of course, the most famous episode was in 1975, where the show “Kung Fu Capers” led to a man dying laughing.  Literally. Alex Mitchell died of heart failure while watching the show, after laughing continuously throughout. His widow didn’t blame the group (he seems to have had an undiagnosed heart condition), and thanked them for making his last minutes so happy.

The show ran for nine series of between 6 and 14 episodes. One of my favorites – “Kitten Kong,” where a giant kitten terrorizes London – has been lost, though it sounds like it may have been recreated.

But despite the success in the UK, only a couple of seasons made it across the pond. It’s worthy of rediscovery.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Adventures in Babysitting

Directed by
Chris Columbus
Written by David Simpkins
Starring Elizabeth Shue, Maia Brewton, Keith Coogan, Anthony
Rapp, Calvin Levels, Vincent D’Onofrio, Penelope Ann Miller, Bradley Whitford, Ron  Canada, Albert Collings
IMDB Entry

Chris Columbus has established himself with a long list of blockbusters like Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, and the first two Harry Potter films. But every director has to start somewhere, and Columbus got his directing start with a clever little film about an evening gone wrong, Adventures in Babysitting.

Chris Parker (Elizabeth Shue) is planning for a big date with her boyfriend Mike (Bradley Whitford), when Mike cancels. Disappointed, she takes a job babysitting Sara Anderson (Maia Brewton)** and her brother Brad (Keith Coogan***). who has a crush on her. After Brad’s friend Daryl (Anthony Rapp) comes over, Chris gets an urgent phone call from her friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller), who is stuck at the bus station.  Chris goes to rescue them with the kids in tow.

They get a flat tire, Chris has no money, and they get in the middle of a fight between a husband and wife, with a shotgun blowing out the windshield.

Then things get complicated.

There are many great moments in the film, as things go from bad to worse and killers end up on their trail. What sticks out the most for me is when the wander into a blues club. Crossing the stage, they are stopped by blues legend Albert Collins, who says “Nobody leave this place without singing the blues.”  The result is Babysitting Blues, a pure delight.

All of the performances are charming. It’s a comedy, so the dangers are all over the top, but you can’t help but like Chris and the kids. The script keeps loading on surprises and twists, making it it a joy to watch.


*Over ten years ago, I did a blog entry on Only the Lonely.

**Who is a big fan of the Mighty Thor, wearing a replica of his helmet. Evidently, the producers wanted to use a Marvel character, and Marvel didn’t want them to use anyone important, so they offered up Thor.

***Grandson of Jackie Coogan

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Tailor of Panama

Directed by
John Boorman
Written by Andrew Davies and John le Carre and John Boorman, from a novel by le Carre
Starring Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis, Daniel Radcliffe
IMDB Entry

Pierce Brosnan’s stint as James Bond, along with his good looks, has obscured the fact that he really is a terrific actor.And this is clearly on display in The Tailor of Panama.

Brosnan plays Andy Osnard, a British secret agent who has been reassigned to Panama as punishment.* It’s a dead-end assignment, and Osnard wants more than that.  He befriends Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), a tailor and discovers that Pendel has been lying about his background:  Pendel was a scam artist who served time. He’s also a terrible businessman, deeply in debt despite making suits for the wealthiest members of Panama’s elite. Osnard offers him a chance: earn money by passing on what he hears.

But Pendel doesn’t hear much of interest. Osnard wants something for his cash, so Pendel begins to invent “secrets” to earn his keep.  Meanwhile, Osnard has his eye on Pendel’s wife (Jamie Lee Curtis). It’s a movie about cheats and double crosses, as the stakes escalate.

Brosnan plays to all his strengths:  his charm, but also portraying a character who’s only out for himself. Rush is, as usual, quite good, too.

There’s some interesting other names in the cast.  Daniel Radcliffe, pre-Harry Potter, has a small role as Pendel’s son, and playwright Harold Pinter appears as Pendel’s former partner.

Director John Boorman has a long list of notable films, including Deliverance, Excalabur, Zarzoz, and Hope and Glory while screenwriter John La Carre was the master of the spy novel.

The movie didn’t set any box office records, but if was ultimately a strong and twisty entry in the spy genre.

*It implies he had an affair with an ambassador’s wife, so there is some of Bond in him.

Sunday, July 8, 2018


Directed by
John Berry
Written by Lester Pine & Tina Pine
Starring Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs, Tamu Blackwell, David Kruger, Yvette Curtis, Eric Jones, Socorro Stephens
IMDB Entry

American movies tended toward big themes, with plenty of drama and action. The smaller films – character stories where the plot is less important than the people – is primarily a European thing.*  But every once in a while, an American film does cover this sort of ground.  Claudine is an example of this, what Virginia Woolf called a “Mrs. Brown” story that concentrates on the lives of ordinary people.

Claudine Price (Diahann Carroll) lives in Harlem, the single mother of six. She works under the table, since Welfare doesn’t pay enough, but runs the big risk of losing her benefits. She meets Rupert “Roop” Marshall (James Earl Jones), a garbageman, who asks her out on a date. Roop is bemused by the chaos of six kids, but still proceeds with the romance, even coping with the mistrust of Claudine’s oldest son, Charles (Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs),** who has seen his mother’s other husbands leave her.

Roop meets the family

Jones is wonderful.  He’s one of the country’s best actors and this is a smaller-scale role than many of his, and he manages to keep his larger-than-life persona tuned to just the right levels, with plenty of charm as a romantic leading man. Diahann Carroll is is also great – she got an Oscar nomination for it – showing humor and strength.

In addition to the romance, the film has a lot to say about the difficulties and contradictions of the U.S. Welfare system. Claudine is caught in a trap; as she says, “If I don’t feed my kids, it’s child neglect. If I go out and get a job, and make a little money on the side, then that’s cheating. I stay at home and I’m lazy. I can’t win.” The movie humanizes people on public assistance and shows just how difficult it can be.

Director John Berry had a spotty career, most due to the fact that he was a victim of the Blacklist. He was starting to work regularly in Hollywood when he was one of the names named in the witch hunt and had to move to France in the early 50s. He returned to the US in the early 60s and moved his way up to features again.This was probably his best-regarded film.

The movie was a critical success, and probably made money, though it’s small budget helped, as did a soundtrack Gladys Knight and the Pips. But because it was relatively quiet in tone, it faded from consciousness.

*Certainly Hollywood has little interest in that today.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Colossus of New York

Colossus of NY(1958)
Directed by
Eugène Lourié
Written by Thelma Schnee from a story by Willis Goldbeck
Starrring Ross Martin, Otto Kruger, John Baragrey, Mala Powers, Charles Herbert, Ed Wolff)
IMDB Entry

Some directors specialize. Alfred Hitchcock was synonymous with thrillers. Ingmar Bergman was best known for angsty dramas. John Ford, the western.  And Eugène Lourié was known for giant monsters* with films like Gorgo, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and the redundantly names The Giant Behemoth.

Genius scientist Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin) is on the verge of winning the “International Peace Prize” when he is hit by a truck.**  His father (Otto Kruger), a noted brain surgeon, transplants the brain into a robotic body.

This sort of thing does not work out well.

A year later, the colossus (Ed Wolff) is suffering, losing its humanity and developing strange power, which naturally lead to a rampage.

Scientist and monster

The movie is entertaining and workmanlike. The tropes, of course, were old even back in 1958, but Lourié makes the most of them and provided an movie that’s run to watch.


*As was Ishiro Honda, of course.

**A truck beginning, for once.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Pogo (comic strip)

Written and drawn by
Walt Kelly
Wikipedia Page

imageThere are many contenders for the best newspaper comic strip of all time. Krazy Kat was amazingly good, but most people didn’t get it. Peanuts was great, and massively popular. Calvin and Hobbes was great in all respects. There are also cases to me made for Doonesbury, Barnaby, Mickey Mouse, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Dick Tracy.You can add others to the list, but any list worth its salt has to include Pogo.

Pogo was created by Walt Kelly. Kelly had started out as an animator for Disney, working on Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo, among other things. But he left after the animator’s strike to work for Dell Comics, where he did the first versions of the strip. Pogo was originally a minor character, but he eventually became the center of the comic.

In 1948, he was hired as an editorial cartoonist for the short-lived New York Star, where he convinced them to run Pogo as a regular strip. The Star folded in January of 1949, but Kelly managed to find a syndicate to take over the strip.  It debuted in May.

Pogo was a funny animal strip, dealing with the foibles of the denizens of Okefenokee Swamp.* The title character is a possum, gentle and kindly, who observes and often is the victim of the madness around him. His best friend in Albert the Alligator, who’s loud, bombastic, and egotistical, but a good friend to Pogo. There’s also Howland Owl, the master of misunderstanding and creating hairbrained schemes, and his friend, Churchy LaFamme, poet, who’s close friends of Owl and falls gullibly to aid him in his schemes.**  There’s also Porky Pine, Pogo’s friend, the confirmed cynic who never smiles, and Miz Mademoiselle Hepzibah, a skunk who is Porky’s love interest.

A list of characters would go on for pages and pages. Kelly created them constantly, and somehow managed to juggle them all; even given its long run, it still has many more named and identifiable ongoing characters than just about any strip.  They could disappear for weeks and years at a time and still be instantly recognizable.

The strip also wasn’t afraid to get involved in politics, and was probably the first non-editorial newspaper comic that had a specific political slant. Most famous was its use of the character of Simple J. Malarkey, an obvious character of Joseph McCarthy, created at the height of McCarthyism. Kelly also created the Cowbirds, who represented American communists, a pig that looked like Nikita Khrushchev, and many others. Any newspaper comic that comments on politics owes a debt to Pogo,

Probably Pogo's most famous panel

But the political satire was only a small part of comic strip.Most of it involved Owl’s hairbrained schemes, misunderstandings and delightful madness.  There was some amazing wordplay, all done in a special “swampspeak” dialect that was probably the most successful way of portraying one ever written. Kelly also loved to write poems for his characters (usually Churchy), most notably his contribution to Christmas:


In addition to being a fine writer, Kelly was a great comic artist. The characters were simple, but full of life, and the backgrounds were incredibly detailed. Kelly often used rough lines to separate panels instead or straight ones.

He was also an innovator in lettering. P.T. Bridgeport, a circus barker, spoke in lettering like a circus poster. Deacon Mushrat spoke in a gothic font. Sarcophagus MacArbre, a buzzard who was an undertaker, has square, black-bordered speech balloon with his words in script.

Pogo’s influence on comics is immense. Anyone who did a political comic owes a debt, of course, but it’s clear that some of the great talents in the field were fans. Alan Moore wrote an episode of Swamp Thing called “Pog,” where the characters were aliens who clearly looked like Pogo and Albert. In Jeff Smith’s Bone, Smiley Bone is clearly based on Albert. 

Oddly, the comic never broke into other media. There was a half-hour animated show, directed by the great Chuck Jones, but despite the talent involved, it wasn’t very good.***  Merchandising wasn’t all the big, either, though Dell did produce a Pogo comic book.

The strip ended with Kelly’s death in 1972. An effort was made to keep it going by his widow Selby, but no one could replace him, and the smaller size of the panels made it difficult for anyone to fit it the wordplay and meticulous art that Kelly excelled in.  The strip ended in 1975.

It was revived briefly in 1989. The new version couldn’t hope to compete with the original, but it evolved into a decent strip once you stopped comparing it. Alas, it only lasted until 1993.

*A real place in Georgia, though probably without talking animals.

**He’s always superstitious:  He showed up on the 13th of each month to saying “Friday the thirteenth is on a Tuesday (or whatever) this month!”

***Jones and Kelly did some of the character voices, too, with June Foray as Pogo

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Beat the Devil

Beat the DevilDirected by
John Huston
Written by Claud Cockburn, Truman Capote and John Huston, based on a book by Cockburn
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Marco Tulli, Bernard Lee, Edward Underdown, Ivor Bernard
IMDB Entry

Deadpan comedy is difficult and it’s easy for the audience to miss the point.  When you see Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre is a synopsis with hints of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, you might think of a thriller, but instead you have Beat the Devil.

The movie showed Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart), a down-on-his-luck American and his wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida), who are mixed up with four ne’er-do-wells: Peterson (Robert Moreley), “O’Hara” (Peter Lorre), Ravello (Marco Tulli), and Major Ross (Ivor Barnard). Billy befriends Gwendolen Chelm (Jennifer Jones) who is traveling with her husband Harry (Edward Underdown). The group is waiting in Italy for their ship to finally set sail so they can travel to British East Africa as part of a scheme to buy land rich in uranium.

The plottersThe plot doesn’t matter as much as the characters. They are all vivid personalities, with Billy – played like a less romantic version of Rick from Casablanca – (almost) always on top of the situation.  Peterson is the brains of the organization, while “O’Hara” (who is obviously using an alias) is scheming. Major Ross is a psychopath.

The other characters also stand out. Gwendolen is an inveterate liar, her husband a silly-ass Englishman.

The movie is carried by the dialog. This was originally a straight filming of Claud Cockburn’s novel, but during shooting, director Huston hired Truman Capote to punch up the dialog. Writing a day or two ahead of filming each scene, Capote added wit and more character quirks than you could shake a stick at.

The movie failed at the box office, and Bogart hated it, probably because he lost a lot of money on it. But it’s an odd bit of film history that’s fun to watch.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

GE College Bowl (TV)

(1959-1970 (Original TV Run))
Created by
Don Reid
Hosts Alan Ludden (1959-1962), Robert Earle (1962-1970
IMDB Entry

College Bowl setGame shows can be pretty dumb. I usually prefer the “hard quiz” variety where people are asked difficult questions and have to come up with the answer.* And one of the hardest of the hard quizzes was the GE College Bowl.

The show originated in radio, where two teams of college students answered questions. When it moved to TV in 1959, the format was set.  In the first round, there would be a “toss-up” question.  If you got that question right, you would be asked a multipart bonus question on the subject that was the basis of the toss-up. You got ten points for the toss-up and different points for the bonus questions. The teams could collaborate on the bonus question. If you were wrong on the toss-up, the other team got a chance to answer. If you buzzed in before the host finished the question, that was fine if you got it right, but a five point penalty if you got it wrong.

After two halves, the team with the most points was declared the winner and the school would get money for scholarships.** If you win five weeks in a row, you were declared an undefeated champion and got extra scholarship money.

The interest in the show was the due to the quality of the questions. They were all fairly difficult and the audience had to see the teams come up with the answers.

Alan Ludden was the original host, but left to become host of Password.***  He was replaced by Robert Earle, who remained with it, staying after a switch from CBS to NBC in 1963 until it went off the air in 1970. It was a Sunday afternoon fixture until sports squeezed it out.

When I was a kid, I was able to be part of the studio audience.****  I don’t recall much of the show except the end. Earle was giving a wrap-up to the camera, but, just out of camera range, he kept clenching and unclenching his hands. It was enlightening to see someone who had done this many times before could still be nervous.

After it left the air, it was revived in various form, on radio with Jeopardy’s Art Fleming and in syndication.Eventually, though costs put an end to one of the most challenging of all game shows.

*Or come up with a question, as the most successful of the genre, Jeopardy, does.

**$1500, which sounds pretty chintzy when you look at college tuitions today

***He’s probably best known these days as the husband of Betty White.

****My father sold GE appliances, so he had an in.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Oklahoma Kid

Directed by
Lloyd Bacon
Written by Warren Duff and Robert Bucker and Edward E. Paramore from an original story by Edward E. Paramore and Wally Klein
Starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Donald Crisp
IMDB Entry

In the days of the studio systems, actors had very little say in what they did. Until they became major stars – and often after --- they were treated like interchangeable parts, given roles at the behest of studio executives, who decided how to typecast them. Sometimes, thought, the executives came up with something completely incongruous, and one example of this is The Oklahoma Kid.

The movie is set in 1889, at the start of the Oklahoma land rush. Whit McCord (Humphrey Bogart) has just robbed a stage filled with newly minted money, but is confronted by Jim Kincade, the Oklahoma Kid (James Cagney). Kincade goes into town, flush with cash and immediately sets his eye on Jane Hardwick (Rosemary Lane), who is there with her father, Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp). McCord is suspicious of the new man in town with the new money, but has bigger plans:  he sneaks into the territory early and stakes a claim, which he uses to get concessions, including running the town.  Of course, he and Kinkade end up clashing.

The most obvious thing about the movie is that Bogart and Cagney are not really believable as cowboys.  The movie could easily have been set in a city. But it must have been in their contracts.

Cagney is his usual self as Kincade – brash, charming, funny – and Bogart’s McCord* is the type of gangster role he usually played against Cagney. Both give star turns in a slightly silly setting for them.

What I remember most from the film is a line spoken to Cagney. Kincade doesn’t want to take place in the land rush (which is, after all, taking land that had been promised to native Americans) and a man is mystified by it, and speaks the immortal lines. “You mean to say you got no feeling for the country? No pride in seeing a civilization carved out of the wilderness?   What kind of American are you?”  Cagney then talks about how wrong it is to take the land like that. All a surprising sentiment given the time.

The movie, like most studio films, did well and has been forgotten.  But it’s worth seeking out to see two of the most urbanized actors of the 30s were made to play out west.

*Dressed in black, of course.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sugar and Spike (comic book)

Sugar and Spike(1956-71)
Created by
Sheldon Mayer
Wikipedia Entry

Believe it or not, at one time comic books actually were comic. Nowadays you’re hard pressed to find something other than superhero or adventure comics, but in the early days, comic book publishers covered all bases.  Romance was big for the (perceived) female audience.  And there were several humor titles.  Sugar and Spike was one of the longest running and one of the best.

The book was a creation of Sheldon Mayer, whose career coincided with the invention of the modern comic book. Indeed, it was due to his persistence that DC reluctantly published Superman. He became an editor at DC’s sister compsny, All-American Comics, and was involved in the creation of icons like the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice Society of America. But Mayer preferred to be a creator, not an editor, so he left the editor’s chair to write and draw full time in 1948, where he concentrated on humor.  And in 1956, he created Sugar and Spike.

The book is about two babies, Sugar Plumm and Spike Wilson. It was told from their point of view, with the individual conceit that they two could talk to each other in baby talk, while they could barely comprehend what adults would say*. They could also talk to baby animals.

The stories often revolved around their misadventures, with the two of them getting into trouble and dealing with the consequences. Mayer kept things inventive and fun with these twin Dennis the Menaces. Many of the jokes involved their not understanding how the real world worked.

But the adventure bug was everywhere, so by the mid-60s, Mayer started sending them on various comic adventures, usually involving their friend, the baby genius Bernie the Brain.

Paper dollsAnother popular feature of the book was the Sugar and Spike paper dolls. Each issue would show a new set of costumes you could cut out and dress the two babies in. The designs were sent it by readers, who could see their name and age immortalized in the pages.

The book ran until 1971, when Mayer was unable to draw it any more due to eye problems. Since Mayer’s contract prohibited DC from using another creative team, there was no way for it to go on even if they wanted it to.

When cataract surgery gave him his eyesight back a few years later, however, Mayer went back to drawing the characters, but by that time DC was not interested in running a humor book. Mayer continued to draw new stories, though. They were published internationally and were rarely reprinted in the US.

The strip ended everywhere when Mayer retired, though it’s fondly remembered by people who read comics of that era. Some attempts have been made to revive it,** but no one has figured out how to replace Mayer’s art and sense of humor.


*One exception was one of their grandfathers, who was in his “second childhood” and thus understood them perfectly.

**Including one where the two have grown up to be detectives.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Phantom Boy

Directed by
Jean-Loup Felicioli, Alain Gagnol
Written by Alain Gagnol
Starring (Original/English) Edouard Baer/Jared Padalecki, Gaspard Gagnol/Marcus D’Angelo, Jean-Pierre Marielle/Vincent D’Onofrio, Jackie Berroyer/Vincent D’Onofrio, Audrey Tautou/Melissa Disney
IMDB  Entry

I’m a big fan of animated films, and this is definitely a golden age for the art. I also like to seek out films that are outside the beaten path. While the US and Japan are the places where most of the best animation is made, there are pockets in other countries. France, for instance.  They produced The Painting, and, more recently, Phantom Boy.

It introduces two characters. Alex (Jared Padalecki*) is a detective who is always getting in trouble when things fall apart around him.  In trouble with his boss, he runs into a couple of criminals and their mastermind/leader The Face (Vincent D’Onofrio) on the verge of committing a major crime.  Alex has his leg broken, and his boss doesn’t believe him, so he ends up in the hospital, unable to do anything. There he meets Leo (Marcus D’Angelo), a boy who is sick with a serious disease and who has a strange power:  he can leave his body and his phantom version can travel around town.  Meanwhile, Mary (Melissa Disney**), a reporter, is interested in Alex’s story.  When the Face threatens New York City, Leo and Alex team up with Mary to thwart his plans.

This is a traditionally animated film that avoids being flashy. The images, while well done, really exist to carry the story along. But the strength of the movie is in its characters. The Face makes a great supervillain*** and the relationship between the three main characters is strong and natural. Leo follows Mary and relays what he sees to Alex, who then tells Mary about them on his cell phone. Mary never understands how that happens until the end..

The movie has a charming sensibility and a sense of humor that makes it all the more watchable.  It manages to balance the crime story (with a hint of superherodom) with strong characterization and a love story.

It’s available on Netflix as of this writing.

*In the dubbed version. I’ll be listing the US voice actors from now on.

**Yes, a relation (a distant one).

***His name come from the fact that he looks like a cubist painting. One of the nicer things of the movie is that he’s always interrupted when he’s about to explain why he looks that way.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Blob

The Blob(1958)
Directed by
Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.
Written by Theodore Simonson, Kay Linaker, from an idea from Irvine H. Millgate
Starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Olin Howland
IMDB Entry

It started with a pantheon. When I was growing up, there was one of great movie monsters.  Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Mummy were the big ones, but there was also the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Some would also add Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan. And, of course, the Blob. But while most of these (except for the Creature) was easy to find, the Blob didn’t show itself on TV in those days.*

The story starts out with Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut), two teenagers** driving out to see the stars*** when the see a meteor land nearby. While they drive to investigate, an old man (Olin Howland) who lives alone in a cabin, do so on his own. He finds a meteorite**** that cracks open like an egg, revealing a gelatinous substance.  The old man picks it up on a stick, but it jumps and then lands on his hand, causing him intense pain.  He runs to the road and is picked up by Steve and Jane, who take him to Dr. Hallen. The substance is growing and eventually absorbs the old man, and later Dr. Hallen. Meanwhile, Steve and Jane have to try to convince the police that there’s an alien threat, but, skeptical to begin with, they refuse to believe it, especially since the monster absorbs its victims, leaving no trace.

The Blob attacks!

To be honest, the movie is a bit dull.  The pacing is slow, and there are too many scenes of Steve trying to convince the police there’s a problem, made worse by one cop who thinks it’s just a prank.  The low budget also doesn’t help. While the monster is credible and not badly done at first, the climax clearly didn’t have the money for a final battle scene, so you just see the people fighting it with no shots of the blob reacting. Later, Steve and the chief cop comment on how the monster is no longer a threat without us seeing it.

But the concept of the blob is a powerful one – an original idea for a space vampire – and is what made the movie a success. 

McQueen is impressive. He has all the earmarks of a star turn, and this got him the job in the TV show Wanted Dead or Alive that started his career. His cool screen persona is already full fledge.  He was billed as “Steven McQueen”; possibly the name of his character was one reason he started calling himself “Steve.”

Most of the rest of the cast remained unknown, though Aneta Corsaut was a regular on The Andy Griffith Show and did a lot of guest starring work.

The movie is one of the better examples of the drive-in teen horror films of the 50s, and was extremely successful.*****


* Probably because it took until I was well past my teenage years for it to have a sequel. Most of the big-name monsters had sequels galore, but it took 14 years for a Blob sequel, and that was pretty bad. The same problem affected the Creature from the Black Lagoon, with only three movies available.

**McQueen was 28 at the time, so thinking of him as a teen requires some suspension of disbelief.

***So they say. Of course, this was the 50s, so nothing dirty was going on.

****My wife pointed out that it looks like the Satellite of Love from MST3K.  Hmmm.

*****McQueen was given a choice of being paid $2500 or 10% of the gross. He took the $2500, but since the film made millions, he lost out badly.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother

Written by
Gene Wilder
Directed by Gene Wilder
Starring Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise, Leo McKern, Roy Kinnear
IMDB Entry
It’s the cliché that the dream of every actor to be a director. Oddly, the cliché doesn’t include becoming a writer, probably because writers are not valued in Hollywood.  Gene Wilder managed to make the trifecta of actor, writer, and direction in one film, the pastiche The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.*
After an important document is stolen, Holmes and Watson have to leave the country for awhile, so he’s giving the case to his younger (intensely envious) brother Sigerson (Wilder). Holmes sends information on the case using Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman), a man with photographic memory. Meanwhile Moriarty (Leo McKern) is out to get the document, with the help of his assistant Finney (Roy Kinnear). Just after Sacker arrives, Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn), a music hall singer and inveterate liar.
Wilder always was a great comic actor, a master of the slow reaction.**  His Siggy is impulsive and often wrong, sure of himself until Sacker points out, almost as an aside, where he was wrong.  His is motivated by his jealousy of Sherlock, who he thinks is overrated.
Feldman was also in fine form, and Madeline Kahn is, as usual, a delight. There’s a nod to her Broadway roots as she’s given a chance to sing.And Leo “Rumpole” McKern is a master of chewing scenery.
Ultimately, the movie is mildly funny, more in concept than in execution.  A more experienced director might have gotten more out of the script.***   Still, there’s enough here to make it entertaining, if not classic.
*He had already cowrote one film with Mel Brooks:  the classic Young Frankenstein
**One of his best bits was in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), where he had to show he was falling in love with a sheep. He made it both believable and very funny.
***Wilder had originally asked Brooks to direct, but Mel didn’t want to direct any script that wasn’t his own.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

East-West (music)

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
: Paul Butterfield (vocals, harmonica), Mike Bloomfield (electric guitar), Elvin Bishop (electric guitar & vocals), Mark Naftalin (piano, organ), Jerome Arnold (bass), Billy Davenport (drums)
Wikipedia Entry

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band were pioneers in the melding of blues, jazz, and rock in the early 60s. Led by three extremely talented musicians, the band started marking new territory in blues and rock with their first, self-titled album,* a combination of traditional blues and new material.  Their second effort, East-West, is a classic.

Butterfield, of course, led the band and did most of the vocals, but he knew how to pick talent.  His primary lead guitarist, Mike Bloomfield was an early guitar god, developing his reputation with the band. And Elvin Bishop also made his mark on the rock pantheon.

East-West uses many musical styles.  “Walkin’ Blues” is from the great Robert Johnson, while “Get Out of My Life Woman” features the New Orleans based sound of Allen Toussaint. And jazz great Nat Adderley was covered with the instrumental “Work Song.”

But it is the title song that gets all the praise. Developed by Bloomfield, it’s a 13-minute opus that’s based upon Indian classical music mixed with modal jazz, and with a memorable tune to boot.  The song was a fascinating exploration of new ways where music can go.  It became an influence for the budding jam band scene.

It was unusual for an rock albums of the time to have two long instrumental tracks. Also notable is the inclusion of the song “Mary, Mary,” written by Michael Nasmith of the Monkees.

The album was a critical success. But Bloomfield moved on soon after it was released.  He formed The Electric Flag, which put out a single album, played with Bob Dylan, and then with Al Kooper for the album Super Session. But he seemed to have develop a problem with drugs.**  he recorded various solo albums and projects in the 70s, but, while well-received, nothing really gelled for him.  He died in 1981 of a drug overdose.

Bishop took over as guitarist for the group when Bloomfield left; their next album, The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw*** featured him taking over the guitar parts. Eventually, he moved on to a solo career, with the hit single “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” which wasn’t really typical of his blues-based music.

Butterfield kept going, breaking up the Blues Band and recording as Paul Butterfield’s Better Days before going solo. His harmonica playing was highly influential in the field.

The album is one of the great landmarks of the era.

*Reportedly, the first album to have the liner instructions, “This record should be played loud.”  The exhortation later became a punchline and a sign of a no-talent group, but in this case it was sincere.

**The Super Session was released with one side of Bloomfield material and another with Steve Stills. Bloomfield had been scheduled to appear on both sides, but didn’t show up for the second recording session.

***The name referred to Bishop.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Profiles in Courage (TV)

Executive Producer
Roger Saudek
Inspired by the book by John F. Kennedy
Starring Various
IMDB Entry

Not many presidents have gotten credit for a TV show. And likely John F. Kennedy is the only one.

Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize for his Profiles in Courage, a volume of short biographies of eight U.S. Senators who took a stand for doing what was right even though it ruined them politically.* After Kennedy’s death, Roger Saudek, producer of the NBC prestige project, Omnibus, convinced NBC that the book was the perfect basis for a weekly anthology series.

Seven of the eight senators from the book were profiled, as were others who were not senators, but who suffered consequences for their principled stands on important issues.

The actors involved were pretty impressive: Walter Matthau, Rosemary Harris, David McCallum, Wendy Hiller, Peter Lawford, Robert Hooks, Carroll O’Connor, George Grizzard, and many others. The two shows that still stick in my mind was the story of Edmund G. Ross, who prevented Andrew Johnson’s impeachment,** and Woodrow Wilson and his fight to put Louis Brandeis on the Supreme Court as its first Jewish justice.

The show wasn’t just dry history, but didn’t really catch on with audiences. It got an Emmy nomination, but was cancelled after one season.

It’s hard to find examples of the show online, though there are a couple at Given its age and the fact that its in black and white, it probably doesn’t have much of a market, but I think the principles of political courage are still important today.

Thanks to Joseph Harder for the suggestion.

*These days, there is some question as whether Kennedy deserves sole credit. It was acknowledge from the start that he worked with Theodore Sorensen. It’s clear that Kennedy chose the subjects and oversaw it, though Sorensen claimed he did most of the actual writing.

**Alas, further historical research indicates that Ross was less interested in the principle as he was the money he was bribed for his vote.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

TV Time/Jiffy Pop Popcorn (food)


TV TimeThe 1950s were a time for food experiments, not so much in new flavors, like today, but in new and more convenient ways to prepare it. And in the time when a TV Dinner was the rage, it was unsurprising that TV Time popcorn was made.

Popcorn before this required that you pour oil into a pot (or popper if you had one and wanted to do it over a fire), heat it up, add the corn, and then shake it until it stopped popping.  Not a complicated process, but too much for the time

TV Time made the process simple.  It was a plastic container with a two-pocket pouch. The right pouch held nut oil (in solid form); the left held popcorn grains and salt.*

You’d squeeze the oil into the pan, heat it, and then add the popcorn.  You’d shake it until it stopped popcorn and ended up with a bowl of it.

Not much different from the traditional method, but it saved the step of measuring out the oil. Plus the nut oil was more flavorful than vegetable oil, so the end result was very satisfying.. 

This was our go-to for many years, up until Jiffy Pop came in 1959.  It was an aluminum pan that you just put on the heat. As a bonus, the foil covering the popcorn expanded as it popped, turning a flat pan into a big ball of aluminum-covered snack.

Jiffy Pop Before and After

TV Time couldn’t compete in the convenience game, and and Jiffy Pop popped it out of the water for spectacular presentation.  And later popcorn makers and microwaves made stovetop cooking of popcorn as obsolete as home churning butter. 

Like most products, there’s little information on what happened to it. It went through various owners.  The last seems to have been Great Western Foods, which still seems to sell similar products called “Portion Packs,” but which use canola oil, so it’s not the same.**

Jiffy Pop is still around, since it’s owned by agricultural giant ConAgra. 

But for many years, TV Time was what we mean when we wanted popcorn at home.


*Later iterations had a place to cut off one corner to pour out the excess salt. For some reason, that always impressed me.

**It also looks like the sell primarily in bulk.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Buster Crabbe (actor)

IMDB Entry

Buster Crabbe was the king of Saturday morning.  He started out in serials, and when TV came along, he was a success in that, too. If you wanted live-action adventure on Saturday mornings, odds were you saw Buster Crabbe.

Crabbe grew up in Hawaii, where he became a swimming champion, winning a bronze medal in 1928 and a gold in 1932. The latter was held in Los Angeles, so it was natural that he follow in the footsteps of and earlier swimming medalist, Johnny Weissmuller.*  After a few bit parts, he followed in Weissmuller’s footsteps in another way: he played Tarzan in the serial Tarzan the Fearless.

The role didn’t lead to much for several years, until in 1936, when he was cast in the part that he became fully identified with:  Flash Gordon.

Crabbe’s serial became the definitive version of the character, as he faced off against the peril of Charles Middleton’s Ming the Merciless. The special effect were crude, even by the standards of the time.**

The serial was a sensation. A sequel, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars was released in 1938, and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe came on in 1940.In between, he portrayed the other big name of pulp SF, Buck Rogers.

The serials are dated, but you can still see why they were popular and still relatively entertaining.***

Crabbe continued in serials, mostly westerns (including some programmers where he portrayed Billy the Kid as a hero). And when TV came along, he created the role of Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion.

imageAs the title indicated, Captain Gallant was a commander of a foreign legion fort in Morocco. His son, Cullen Crabbe costarred as the legion’s mascot. The first season was actually shot on location in Morocco with some real legionnaires in bit parts. Gallant would deal with various local villains and uprisings. I remember watching reruns of it on Saturday mornings, long before I had seen the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers serials.

After Captain Gallant, Crabbe was semiretired, appearing in various guest shots, including playing “Brigadier Gordon” in the TV version of Buck Rogers.

Crabbe died in 1983, leaving behind memories of adventures in young people’s minds.

*Weissmuller’s Tarzan career overshadows the fact that he was a dominant freestyle swimmer, with five gold medals and a bronze.

**Though I must admit I was fascinated by the spaceships – hanging in the air giving off sparks and a strange buzzing sound.  Many of the sets were recycled from earlier productions, as was the music.

***Buck Rogers isn’t quite as good, partly because it had an inferior villain, Killer Kane.  I found it hard to take him seriously, since we used to sell a dandelion killer by that name – a cane filled with weed killer.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Addams Family (book)

by Jack Sharkey

TAddams Familyhe Addams Family are, next to The Simpsons, arguably the greatest comic family franchise, and still going strong today, appearing in live TV, animated TV, movies, cartoons, and even more.*  And when the TV show went on the air, the idea came to do a tie-in novel.  The result was The Addams Family by Jack Sharkey.

Sharkey was a hack in the very best meaning of the word:  he cranked out dozens of books in all genres over the years,** and is clearly at home with the macabre comedy of Addams.

The book is often described as a novel, but it’s really just a collection of short stories. And they’re all hilarious.  Sharkey captures the weirdness of the New Yorker cartoons with a macabre sense of humor that matches Addams's own. The basic stories included an introduction to the family, the story of how they got Thing, and several others.

My favorite was “From Here to Perplexity,” when Fester was accidentally drafted into the army and had to undergo a physical. Among other things, they discover he has no fingerprints and weighs 0 pounds.  And what he looks like under his cloak . . .

There’s also “Dear Old Mold and Ghoul Days,” where Wednesday and Pugsley have to go to school, where their teacher is enamored beyond sense by a certain obscure poet.  Who Grandma Addams knew …

And “That Was the Weakness that Was,” where Gomez sets himself up to find ways to make monsters less vulnerable to sunlight or silver bullets or the like.

The book suffered the fate of all tie-ins: it was published to cash in and then vanished. It seems to have sold well enough, since there are reports online of many people who found it, picked it up, and fell in love with it.*** It should definitely appeal to readers nowadays, who can appreciate macabre humor.

*Despite their being his most famous creation, Charles Addams actually produced very few Addams family cartoons.  I can think of only a dozen or so offhand, and only some of those featured more than one character.  Pugsley (ironically one of the least used characters of the TV show) had several panels to himself (notably when he was blowing up his train set) and Fester showed up occasionally, but I’ve come across very few that showed them as a family.  (I don’t think they were conceived in that way: Addams just used a few existing characters when he did his family panels.)

**This one appears to be a work for hire: the copyright is not in his name.  I remember his name from an SF short story “Multim in Parvo,” which is really a series of short jokes.

***A second tie-in novel was written during the run of the show: The Addams Family Strikes Back! by W.F. Miksch.  It was an actual novel about the family taking on a school board, but is no more than mildly amusing and not particually Addams=like.