Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Last Action Hero

Last Action Hero
Directed by
John McTiernan
Written by Shane Black & David Arnott (screenplay), Zak Penn & Adam Leff (story)
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, F. Murray Abraham, Art Carney, Charles Dance, Tom Noonan, Austin O’Brien, Antony Quinn, Mercedes Ruehl, Ian McKellan, Joan Plowright.
IMDB Entry
OK, I’ll admit it:  I love metafiction – stories that break the fourth wall and where the characters know that they’re in a movie. So I was predisposed to like The Last Action Hero and I wasn’t disappointed, even if the movie did terribly at the box office.

Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) loves movies, especially those with action star Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The friendly projectionist at the theater he spends his days at (Art Carney) gives Danny a magic ticket that transports him into one of Slater’s movies. He hangs round Slater, while trying to tell him about how this is all a movie world:  All the women are beautiful, there’s a cartoon cat as a cop, phone numbers begin with 555, Sylvester Stallone starred in Terminator, and Slater’s partner John Practice (F. Murray Abraham) killed Mozart. Of course, Slater doesn’t believe any of this and keeps spouting Hollywood-style one-liners as he goes about his business.

But Slater’s arch enemy, Benedict (Charles Dance) starts to believe and transfers to the real world, where he realizes that he can actually get away with murder. Slater and Danny have to find him.
Schwarzenegger has always had a good comic presence, and he plays Jack completely over the top, a parody of every action hero ever created. He’s clearly loving the role.

As the cast list indicates, there is a long list of big name cameos in the movie.

So why did it flop?

First of all, the production was rushed to be released on a certain date. Scenes shot after the test screening were rushed into the film, so didn’t look good. Also, the marketing* was confusing. The trailer showed Slater/Schwarzenegger as Hamlet (as an action hero).  It’s funny, but doesn’t really get across the message. Then the trailer concentrated on the action, not the humor, and, sadly many people did not get that the scenes were deliberately over the top for comic effect.

It also didn’t help that Jurassic Park opened the week before.

The movie seems to be getting a cult following, and probably it would have been better if it didn’t pretend to the a summer blockbuster. But I found it a lot of fun – very funny and with some interesting philosophical ideas.
*Bad marketing can kill even the greatest of films.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Our Gang

Wikipedia Page

It was one of the most successful short subject series in the history of film. Yet few people these days are familiar with the correct name, even though some of the characters are still a part of popular culture even today.

You probably know it as The Little Rascals, and think of the adventures of Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and Darla. But, other than Spanky, they came on at the tail end of the series, when it was not at its best.

The concept was invented by comedy producer Hal Roach in the silent days. He conceived of a series of films showing kids acting like kids. Direct Robert F. McGowan insisted that the children not look like actors and that they not use makeup* or anything that made them seem like cute Hollywood children.  Gags were written, and the kids were allowed to ad lib and act as naturally as possible.

Another innovation (at least in the beginning) was to change the cast as the kids got older. People would be introduced slowly for an episode or two. If there was a positive response from audiences, they continued.  If they grew too old for the role, they were gone, often replaced as part of a nationwide talent competition. Thus there was a different cast at any given time.

The scripts were written by some of the best comedy writers of the day, including Leo McCary, Frank Capra, Walter Lantz, and Frank Tashlin. The kids – many of whom were too young to read – were coached on what to say and do, especially in the silent days when you could do it without ruining a take.

The stories were simple, telling about the minor adventures of the kids in the gang. They rambled, and the humor was gentle. the jokes slow paced.  But they had a ton of charm, mostly because the kids were so natural.

Despite the turnover, several of the early actors became stars. in their own right.  The most successful of these was Jackie Cooper, who left after a couple of years to star in features, and eventually was successful in TV. My favorite Cooper short was when he heard they get a new teacher – Mrs. Crabtree – and decided she was going to be old and mean and decided to play hooky. Of course, Mrs. Crabtree was  young and kindly and treated the class to ice cream, which Jackie was going to miss.** A couple of other episodes showed him with a schoolboy crush on her.

In 1932, they added a three-year-old kid who became the face of the franchise: George “Spanky” McFarland.  Spanky charmed the crew from his very first audition. Younger than the rest, he was teamed up with Scotty Beckett to be the best and funniest of the Gang.

A favorite moment of that era was in “Birthday Blues,” where Spanky’s parents were always fighting. It’s his mother’s birthday, and he goes out with his brother (Dickie Moore) for a present. Seeing a gun in the window, he says they should get that.  His brother asks, “What would she do with a gun?” Spanky replies, “Shoot Papa.”

One aspect of the series was that it always had a Black child as one of the gang: Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison and Alan “Farina” Hoskins in the silent days and Matthew “Stymie” Beard*** and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas when sound came in. Farina was extremely well liked and may have been the most popular Black actor of the silent days (he made the transition to sound and did a few of the early sound films). Of course, any portrayal of Blacks in Hollywood of the era is bound to show cringeworthy moments, but they were usually minor and not mean spirited, and, more importantly, the Black members of Our Gang were always accepted as equals by the rest, one of the few times during the 20s or 30s where you could portray it that way.

But by the mid-30s, things were changing.  With Spanky a star, they got away from the concept of recasting when the characters got too old. Luckily, since he started young it was ok for awhile, but there was an incentive to keep him in the role as he got older. Characters were introduced that were basically single jokes. 1935 was a turning point:  Gone were Scotty Beckett and Stymie,  to be replaced by Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, Darla Hood, Eugene “Porky” Lee, and Buckwheat****. In addition, a new director was brought in:  Robert McGowan, who had directed most of the shorts from the beginning, was replaced by Gus Miens.

And something was lost.  The stories were shorter and tighter (ten minutes instead of 20) and far more polished. The kids had evolved from Our Gang into child stars.

In 1938, seeing the market for short subjects was contracting, Roach sold Our Gang to MGM, who had been distributing the shorts. It stuck with Spanky and the crew as long as they could, and the characters they added – Froggy, who had a frog-like voice; and Mickey Gubitosi+ – were, at best, one-joke characters. In 1942, Spanky – now thirteen – left the series. It petered out the next year.

It might have been completely forgotten, except that Roach, who kept ownership of the early shorts, saw money in selling them to television. The only problem was that MGM had the rights to the name “Our Gang.”  So Roach renamed the series “The Little Rascals” and they became a mainstay for kid’s TV into the 60s.++

220 “Our Gang” Shorts were made, over 125 once sound came in, making it the most prolific of the short subjects of the era.

After their stint as part of Our Gang, some of the kids went on to other roles. In addition to Cooper and Blake, Scotty Beckett, Dickie Moore, and Matthew Beard. Tommy “Butch” Bond was the first actor to portray Jimmy Olson on screen. Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman from the silent days ended up starring in another Roach short subject, The Boy Friends in the 30s.  Spanky, alas, was too typecast and could not find much acting work.

But there was also a lot of dark stories from the actors’ later lives – alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide. There is talk of a curse, and though some is coincidence, there was what seemed to be an inordinate number of sad stories and sad ends to the various actors.

Still, from the beginning, Our Gang was a treasure and popular bit of entertainment for over 40 years.
* The only sign of makeup was a circle drawn around Pete the Pup (the neighborhood dog), giving him the appearance that Target appropriated
**Edna Krabappel from The Simpsons was named in homage.
***He was always a favorite of mine, with his shaven head and bowler hat (given to him by Roach star Stan Laurel). He also was shown as the clever guy of the gang, though sometimes too clever for his own good. He often got the best lines.
****Buckwheat was added a year earlier as Stymie’s younger sister.  No, that’s not a typo.
+Who changed his name to Robert Blake and found stardom and, eventually, infamy. 
++The series was always billed as “Our Gang,” but some titles would say “with Hal Roach’s Rascals,” hence the name.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Moondog (music)

Allmusic Page

In the 60s and 70s, I loved visiting New York City. I’d wander through the streets, going to museums and generally just enjoying the atmosphere. Once, I remember spotting a strange figure:  a man wearing a horned helmet and long cloak and carrying a spear. Since I was working at my radio station, where we got plenty of LPs and music news, I immediate realized who it was:  Moondog.

He was born as Louis Thomas Hardin and developed an early interest in music. When he lost his sight at age 16, he still continued his studies and moved to New York in 1943, befriending some legendary classical and jazz performers, and becoming a street musician. He had an apartment, but he spent his days on a corner on Sixth Avenue, supporting himself by busking and selling pamphlets of poetry and his philosophy of music.

His songs gained the attention of his musician friends and he started to record in 1953. The albums were on small labels and did not make a big splash, but in 1969, superstar producer James William Guercio* decided to record him the way he deserved to be heard.  The album, Moondog, brought him to the attention of as (somewhat) wider audience.

Moondog’s music was not a bunch of simple tunes. He ranged widely from classical to jazz, inspired by the sounds of the city. The melodies build and intertwine in sophisticated ways.  The first album was completely instrumental, but definitely fine music.

The album garnered critical success, though was only a modest success. Still, a second album was put out featuring vocal tracks by his daughter, June Hardin.

Moondog was primarily a composer, but he did play music, usually on several instruments he invented himself.

Though never a star, Moondog was well regarded by other musicians, who occasionally would record his work or make mention of him in their own. His biggest connect to rock music was a successful lawsuit against Alan Freed, who called his early rock and roll radio show “Moondog Matinee” and played one of Moondog’s early compositions as his theme song. Freed lost and had to stop using the name.

He moved to Germany in 1974 and continued to compose until his death in 1999.
*Best known as the producer for Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears