Monday, June 30, 2008

I'm your pusherman

They sure know how to hurt a guy...

I’ll start off this rant with a defense of the filmmakers responsible for the new Get Smart movie: to their credit, they wisely chose not to completely “ape” the original TV series. That having been said, I’m curious as to what their intentions were when conceiving this film in the first place.

I went to see Get Smart this past Saturday with sister Kat and a few of our friends. The movie wasn’t as bad as I expected…but it isn’t particularly good, either. Kat thinks Steve Carell is one of the funniest men walking the planet today (strolling along with Will Farrell, I hasten to add) and while I’ll admit to snickering a time or two when Carell was a Daily Show correspondent, I have to be honest: I don’t find him all that funny in films. While watching Smart, I couldn’t quite get a bead on his take on Maxwell Smart: in some situations, he’s a bungling nincompoop—in others, he’s a man who's been severely "misunderestimated" by his foes. This kind of schizophrenic back-and-forth kept me from sympathizing with his character.

Most of what turned me off to Get Smart is what keeps me from enjoying a great many modern-day movies: the writers toss out anything resembling scripted wit and replace it with stunts, fistfights and explosions. Naturally, I’m pleased that stuntmen and stuntwomen are working in Hollywood, but it seems like every movie of this type resorts to the same paint-by-numbers strategy of “blowing things up real good!” Yes, I know I sound like an old fogey—particularly since movies nowadays are geared to audiences far younger than myself—but after seeing some of the trailers before the main presentation (and ear-shatteringly loud ones at that) I turned to Kat’s friend Bob, who was sitting next to me, and asked: “Don’t they make movies for grownups anymore?”

One particular thing about the Get Smart movie that might have made it a bit more entertaining is if the writers had thought to adopt the original TV series’ seamless blend of lampoon and slapstick. Despite its silliness, the TV version presented some of the sharpest satire on the tube at that particular time; in essence, its creators (Mel Brooks and Buck Henry) told us: “You know how you’re banking on your government and its affiliated agencies to protect you and provide security in this country? Well, brother—have you backed the wrong horse!” That’s one of the reasons why Get Smart—though admittedly somewhat dated due to its time period and goofy catchphrases—still resonates with fans today: its central message is that bureaucracies are powerless to supply anything resembling peace of mind…and questioning authority is never really a bad thing.

Did I like anything about the Get Smart movie? Well, I’ll take my chances crossing a busy intersection to watch Alan Arkin in anything and the two “Would you believe?” jokes made me laugh-out-loud (along with some of the in-jokes in Smart’s apartment during the opening credits); Anne Hathaway’s cute, and James Caan is always welcome (though it’s a shame somebody didn’t think of casting him as the son of “Rupert of Rathskeller” instead of letting him do a lame George W. Bush impression). (Plus there’s a cameo from a Get Smart regular that’s a real gut-buster.) If you’ve never seen the series (and this isn’t entirely beyond the realm of possibility: Bob’s wife confessed to him that she’d never seen a single episode), you’ll enjoy it a lot more than I did. But if you’re a fan…you might be looking at your watch, thinking about breaking out the Get Smart DVD box set when you get home. And…loving it!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sam-a-rama (I’m still not crazy about that name)

It’s Sunday, June 29, 2008…and today we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the launching of my esteemed colleague Sam “Blaxstone” Johnson’s weblog with a sort-of-a-light-but-delicious sour cream pound cake and lemonade-iced tea slushes courtesy of Sonic. In the time that I’ve known Sam—and you can read about this in a famous TDOY post from May 17, 2005—he has proven himself to be a loyal friend, a witty and urbane conversationalist, and Jack Benny to my Fred Allen. I don’t have a problem with him being Benny because, due to his popularity as a DJ in Savannah radio, he has a much bigger following than I do. (Allen would probably retort—come to think of it, he did just that—“That large following is all Benny…” but I’m too much of a gentleman to follow his example.) Besides, Allen is much funnier…and as is so often the case, life imitates art(ists).

Even though I have relocated to the wilds of Athens, Georgia, I still maintain contact with His Samness—I phoned him two Fridays ago to learn that his computer has given up the ghost and not even Pat Robertson could faith-heal that puppy. So he’s been forced to continue blogging and communicating with his fans using the radio station’s computer until such a time as a savvy Hollywood agent catches a few of segments of Underground Savannah and signs him up as the next Dave Chappelle. In the meantime, Sam does have a “cookie jar” at his blog for charitable donations and all that I ask is that you give till it hurts, brother…and then give some more. (Can I get a witness?)

A blog is born

“Things get complicated/When you get past eighteen…”

I caught this story on my CharredHer homepage last night, about the induction of the Statler Brothers to the Country Music Hall of Fame today, and I have to say it couldn’t happen to a better group of individuals. In fact, I don’t think it would be stretching it much if I were to say that my interest in nostalgia and relics of yesteryear was stoked by Harold, Phil, Lew (later Jimmy) and Don…particularly their 1972 hit Do You Remember These?

Saturday morning serials chapters 1 through 15
Fly paper, penny loafers, Lucky Strike Green
Flat tops, sock hops, Studebaker, Pepsi please
Ah, do you remember these?

Cigar bands on your hand, your daddy's socks rolled down
Sticks, snow floats and aviator caps with flaps that button down
Movie stars on Dixie Cup tops, and knickers to your knees
Ah, do you remember these?

The Hit Parade, grape Tru-Aid, The Sadie Hawkins Dance
Pedal pushers, duck tail hair and peggin' your pants
Howdy Doody, Tutti frutti, the seam up the back of her hose
Ah, do you remember those?

James Dean, he was keen, Sunday movies were taboo
The Senior Prom, Judy's mom, Rock ‘n’ Roll was new
Cracker Jack prize, stars in your eyes, ask Daddy for the keys
Ah, do you remember these?

The boogey man, lemonade stands, and takin' your tonsils out
Hindenburg, and wait your turn! and 4 foul balls you're out.
Cigarette loads and secret codes and savin' lucky stars,
Can you remember back that far?

The boat neck shirts and fender skirts and crinoline petticoats
Mum's the word and a dirty bird and those double root beer floats
Moon hub caps and loud heel taps and he's a real gone cat
Ah, do you remember that?

Dancin' close, little moron jokes, and cooties in her hair,
Captain Midnight, Ovaltine, and the Whip at the county fair.
Charles Atlas course, Roy Rogers' horse, and "only The Shadow knows"
Ah, do you remember those?

Gable's charm, frog in your arm, loud mufflers, pitchin' woo,
Going steady, Veronica and Betty, white bucks, and "Blue Suede Shoes"
Knock-knock jokes, and "Who's there?" Dewey! Dewey who?
Do we remember these? Yes, we do! Ah, do we—do we remember these?

The Statler Brothers (who were originally called The Kingsmen until another group with the same name—yes, the ones that recorded Louie, Louie—forced them to change their billing…inspired by a now defunct-brand of facial tissue) became country music’s go-to guys for wistful glances at years past. Among other hits in this vein were Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?—an elegy to the B-western movie heroes of the past, and The Movies: a tribute in general to the motion picture medium. In fact, you could probably tally up their entire musical output as endless variations on a theme of remembering rosier, better times, with hits like Pictures, You Can’t Go Home, Carry Me Back, Susan When She Tried, Silver Medals and Sweet Memories and their Grammy-winning 1972 smash, The Class of ’57.

My mom was a huge fan of the Statler Brothers, ever since they released Bed of Rose’s in 1970 (a song that caused quite a stir on conservative country radio and is still pretty potent today), and when they came to Savannah in 1985 I was able to score a couple of free tickets (I was working for a country radio station then) to take her to see them. She thought the concert was okay, though she sort of lost interest in the group once member Lew DeWitt left in 1982 (he was suffering from Crohn’s disease and had to abdicate due to the group’s heavy touring schedule) and was replaced by Jimmy Fortune. I admit that it took me a while to warm up to Fortune, too, but I think he fit in rather nicely—and on the plus side, he was a first-rate songwriter (like DeWitt) who wrote or co-wrote many of the Statlers’ later chart-toppers, including Elizabeth and My Only Love. The Statlers’ opening act at that concert was Helen Cornelius, a female vocalist who was attempting to find success as a soloist after a slew of hits in the 1970s with country music veteran Jim Ed Brown (I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You, Saying Hello, Saying I Love You, Saying Goodbye).

Also in this article, it notes that singer-songwriter Tom T. Hall is being inducted—which I’m sure will be good news to mi padre, since that’s his favorite performer. I could eat up a megaton of bandwidth listing all the great country songs Hall wrote for other country artists (Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn, Harper Valley P.T.A., The Pool Shark, Hello Vietnam) before he finally decided to strike out on his own and became known as country music’s “The Storyteller” with hits like The Year That Clayton Delaney Died and Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine. As it so happens, I also got the opportunity to see Tom T. perform live as well back in 1981; he did two sets at a country-themed nightclub called The Stables…and as I recall, he was pretty much three sheets to the wind by the time of the second show. Nevertheless, I just want to offer my heartiest of congrats to both Hall and the Statlers for being awarded what is truly a prestigious honor.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Two peas in a pod-dah

TCM has been showing Laurel & Hardy feature films every Saturday morning this entire month, and will conclude tomorrow with The Flying Deuces (1939) and Saps at Sea (1940), beginning at 10am. I’ve never seen Saps, and I’m anxious to do so despite the less-than-glowing critical reception from many Stan & Ollie fans—it can’t be any worse than A Chump at Oxford (1940), which TCM ran last Saturday.

TCM also showed Way Out West (1937), which more than made up for Oxford’s shortcomings; I have stated many times on the blog that West is my favorite of the feature films (yes, I like it even more than Sons of the Desert [1933]) only because it is so charming and, of course, contains two of my favorite musical movie moments: the soft-shoe dance to “At the Ball” and the duo’s sweetly sublime duet of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.”

I haven’t seen a good portion of these films in many years now—my guess is that the last time I caught them was during their runs on AMC (if you can remember back that far). I’ve always lamented the fact that the greatest comedy team of all time gets absolutely no respect in this country…and yet is revered everywhere else. The prints shown by TCM range from okay to not-so-okay, but perhaps I’m too hasty to nitpick: at least they’re getting a showcase somewhere. TCM has gratefully made the boys part of their August schedule: on August 23, the home for classic movies will show twenty shorts and twelve feature films spotlighting the work of these wonderful comedians.

I’ve been fortunate to catch a few of some of my other comedy favorites this month:

Alias Jesse James (1959) – Bob Hope is an insurance salesman who issues a $100,000 policy to the titular outlaw (Wendell Corey) and then goes to hilarious lengths to keep his client from being killed. It’s probably Hope’s last really good solo vehicle; the luscious Rhonda Fleming (Hope’s co-star in 1949’s The Great Lover) is Bob’s leading lady and while James can’t quite measure up to the comedian’s best Western spoof (Son of Paleface) it does have some laugh-out-loud moments—particularly at the movie’s climax, in which our hero gets some help from a few movie and television Western legends.

Movie Crazy (1932) – Comedy great Harold Lloyd never was able to make a “talkie” that could measure up to his silent masterpieces…still, I think Crazy comes fairly close (particularly since the magician’s coat sequence is reminiscent of the falling-apart-suit in 1925’s The Freshman and Crazy’s climax is similar to the one used in 1927’s The Kid Brother). Harold is a small-town hick who desperately wants to make it big in pictures, and gets an invite to Hollywood to do so. Constance Cummings plays his would-be girlfriend(s) who dubs her paramour “Trouble.” It seems like every time I watch Crazy I call it Lloyd’s best sound comedy (and then I’ll watch The Milky Way (1936) and change my mind) but I now think I’ve reached the point where I don’t have to constantly second-guess myself.

The Kid From Spain (1932) – Eddie Cantor masquerades as a toreador in Mexico while trying to help a young Robert Young (Young Robert Young?) romance Ruth Hall—particularly since her father (Noah Beery, Sr.) disapproves of their coupling. Cantor has become an acquired taste with each passing year, but I think Spain is one of his best vehicles (despite the obligatory and uncomfortable blackface number and the stereotyping of Latinos—you know, the ones who shout “I weel keel heem!” at every turn), directed by Leo McCarey and co-written by songwriters Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar (who also did the “words and music”). Let’s be honest—it’s difficult to dislike a movie with dance numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley and cinematography by Gregg Toland. (You can also spot Betty Grable, Jane Wyman, Paulette Goddard and Toby Wing among the “Goldwyn Girls” if you look sharp enough.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Once upon a time in the West

Several participants on the Home Theater Forum have reported receiving some “inside dope” from Timeless Media Group that the company is planning to release twelve half-hour episodes of The Deputy, a Western series that ran on NBC from 1959 to 1961 starring Allen Case as the titular lawman, Clay McCord. The street date for the release is set for October 14th. BobH points out that this collection will not contain the two public domain episodes from the series ("Hard Decision" and "The Return of Widow Brown"), something I think Timeless might have jumped kudos to them.

I had a passing familiarity with The Deputy from the oh-so-rare occasions when TVLand would run an installment or two, and I purchased some episodes of this series from…well, let’s not get into that right now. To be honest, it’s pretty run-of-the-mill stuff (though certainly worth a flutter if you’re a fan of oaters). The series does have two things to recommend it; first, it was co-created by Norman Lear, a hard-working scribe (Lear once wrote for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis with partner Ed Simmons, and that had to be hard work) who would later be crowned the king of sitcoms in the 1970s (All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, One Day at a Time, etc.) The other unique quality about The Deputy was that the show also featured Henry Fonda…who played the town’s marshal, Simon Fry. Granted, Fonda wasn’t on the show all that much (and he filmed all of his scenes in one get-go at the beginning of each season in order to free up his schedule for other pursuits) but at a time when movie stars still treated appearing on the cathode ray tube as akin to smallpox it seemed like a big deal. (The Deputy, it has been said, was inspired by an Anthony Mann film Fonda starred in, The Tin Star [1957], with Anthony Perkins as a sheriff still wet behind the ears.) Fonda’s only other regular series role was that of Det. Sgt. Chad Smith on the 1971-72 ABC comedy-drama The Smith Family, a promising show that failed to catch fire on the network’s schedule.

In closing, I’d like to issue a big hip-hip-hooray to Timeless for the releases of some of these real rarities. They’ll be putting out another edition (Season 2, Part 1) of Laredo in September and a few other oaters mentioned as being in the works include Laramie, The Texan and The Restless Gun (of which some shows have already been released). Take a victory lap, Timeless!

IMDb, you’re pissing me off…

Last Friday night, after I finished watching The Best Man on TCM, I looked the movie up on the Internet Movie Database for some additional information…and spotted something that has since become my current bête noir regarding the go-to website for movie information.

It’s up in the right-hand corner…a little widget that links to…that lets the individual doing the research know whether or not their film is available on VHS or DVD. (There’s also a designation for “CD,” which I guess gives you a heads up as to whether or not the film’s soundtrack is available for purchase.) So, as I’m looking at the info for Man—I see that the “DVD” indicator is showing that the movie is available for purchase on disc. Cool! I exclaim to myself. I really enjoyed this film, and if it’s not too outrageously priced, maybe I’ll get a copy.

But here’s the thing: you click on this booger, and you’re whisked away to Amazon…which then throws a nice ice-cold glass of reality H2O in your puss by saying that technically it’s not available…but if you sign up you can be notified when it is. That’s just wrong, people. It sounds like the IMDb is not doing its homework…and if this is so, then it’s going to be spending a good deal of time in summer school if it expects to graduate.

This past Saturday evening, I watched Lonely Are the Brave (1962) on TCM—a movie that, as was the case with The Best Man, I remembered watching on WTGS-TV in Savannah many years back…and you can just imagine what they did with this one: they scheduled a film that runs 107 minutes in a two-hour time slot…with the usual amount of commercial breaks, yet. This is a very good film—its star, Kirk Douglas, called it his favorite in his autobiography—although my enthusiasm for it was somewhat tempered due to the fact that its theme (the rugged individualist crushed by societal forces) has been done over and over again in many movies that came after it. Still, I would heartily recommend this one—it’s got a top-notch screenplay by Dalton Trumbo (based on Edward Abbey’s Brave Cowboy) and an unbeatable cast in Walter Matthau (as the sheriff who, though duty bound, is pulling for Douglas to escape the long arm of the law), Gene Rowlands, Michael Kane, Carroll O’Connor, William Schallert, George Kennedy, Bill Bixby and Karl Swenson. In one memorable scene, Douglas—who plays a cowpoke arranging to get thrown into jail to rescue Kane from incarceration—does so by picking a barroom fight with a one-armed man…played by Bill Raisch. (Insert your own Fugitive joke here.)

Again, if you hie thee to the IMDb…you’ll see the “DVD” designation highlighted in blue…and you’ll traipse over at to learn that “shucks, we was jes’ foolin’” and that you have to be “on the list” to be notified of its release. Now…technically the IMDb is correct on this one: Brave is available on DVD, but only on a Region 2 (from Spain) disc that you can either purchase from España…or you can get it from this gentleman, who carries other goodities and rarities…for a price.

I watched Colorado Territory (1949) yesterday afternoon, and was pleased to see that this one managed to elude the IMDb’s radar regarding “availability.” That doesn’t mean, however, that it shouldn’t be on DVD: often dismissed as a remake of High Sierra (1941), it’s actually a much underrated Western starring TDOY fave Joel McCrea as an outlaw attempting to go straight but unable to resist one more big bank job. Virginia Mayo has the Ida Lupino role as McCrea’s loyal girlfriend (and I emphasize “loyal”—she goes out with guns a-blazin’, which is more than Ida ever did) while Henry Hull and Dorothy Malone play a father-and-daughter duo that befriend McCrea (unaware that he’s wanted by the law); Hull nobly offers safe haven for Joel but Dotty is ready to turn him over for the $20,000 reward. I wish Warner Home Video would release this on disc ASAP…and perhaps Stars in My Crown (1950), while they’re at it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Bub-bles in the wine

Back in February of this year, announced that CBS/Paramount was planning to release the first of what (well, we were hoping anyway) would probably be a lengthy set of split-season releases of the classic television comedy My Three Sons. No sooner had individuals at the Home Theater Forum gathered together to discuss (read: bitch) what would appear to be an above-average SRP when CBS/Paramount yanked the release off the schedule.

Good news, everyone! My Three Sons is back on the schedule in this announcement, scheduled for a September 30th street date. Growing up as a kidlet, the only episodes of Sons that were syndicated were the Robbie-Chip-Ernie years, so I never learned (until Nick at Nite reran the 1960-65 installments) that Steve Douglas (MacMurray) had another son, Mike (Tim Considine, although he did appear in the first episode of the 1965-66 season, which focused on his wedding)…much less a housekeeper in the mold of William Frawley (as “Bub”). The HTF folks still continue their furious Sons debate, but I’ll state for the record that the hefty price tag for what still amounts to a split season won’t scare me off: I like My Three Sons and am anxious to add it to my collection (I also own the entire series’ run thanks to my friendly neighborhood “root-pegger” though.)

In other news, the fifth season of Mission: Impossible has been green lighted for an October 7th release; this is very encouraging news (certainly for Jay the Bug Man) that the studio might actually finish this series out (it ran for seven seasons between 1966-73). But the big herald of trumpets is being reserved for the news that The Beverly Hillbillies is finally on track for a DVD release (also October 7), to continue the already-released MPI sets (Ultimate Collections Volume 1 and 2) that were given the thumbs-up from the late Paul Henning’s estate. (The estate ponied up the necessary cash to license the Beverly Hillbillies theme and original commercials, which made for two—three, if you count the Christmas release—very engaging DVD box sets.) The CBS/Paramount release will be entitled The Beverly Hillbillies: The Second Season, and there will be a slight bit of overlap in that it will contain the 19 episodes previously issued by MPI for a total of 36 episodes. (And no split seasons either! Weeeelllll doggies!)

Those were the days...

Monday, June 23, 2008

"Gee, he was just here a moment ago."

Legendary stand-up comedian George Carlin once remarked in an interview that he’d like to have the title of this post appear as his epitaph on his tombstone. Sadly, this revelation came one step closer to reality with the news of his passing on Sunday, dead of heart failure at the age of 71.

Like many teens of my generation, I owned a worn-out LP of Class Clown—the infamous comedy album that contained perhaps his most famous routine, “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.” Sure, it was often considered risky playing it in the house (I never knew when one of the ‘rents would burst in, ready to condemn me for playing “such filthy language”) but I think what a lot of people lose sight of is that most of the LP contained autobiographical material about his childhood experiences in a progressive Catholic school in New York. Having spent the first four years of my life in such a prison, I identified with many of the individuals and situations he talked about—particularly one guy who could turn his eyelids inside out. (I had a friend who could do that, too—Robbie Bussian—“…you look like the Devil, man…”) As Carlin noted: “’Class clown’ makes it sound as if there was only one of them…if the first guy was home sick, the second banana would fill in…”

I’ve always believed that Carlin’s métier was the comedy album; he would eventually win four Grammy awards, beginning with his 1972 album, FM & AM. He was a constant fixture on HBO almost from the time the pay cable network went on the air but I’d be hard-pressed to remember anything special from the fourteen specials he produced. His movie career wasn’t a spectacular one, though he’ll no doubt be remembered for his role as Rufus in the “Bill & Ted” series (I’m personally fond of his turn as a comical Indian in 1987’s Outrageous Fortune). One medium he had difficulty cracking was television; while he made many guest appearances his own sitcom, The George Carlin Show, lased only twelve episodes on Fox in 1994—a darn shame, since I thought the series had a lot of potential.

R.I.P., George. You will be missed.

“[He] has all the characteristics of a dog...except loyalty.”

The last time I watched The Best Man (1964) was…well, it’s been a long while: I caught it on WTGS-TV in Savannah years back…and of course, it was edited beyond all comprehension. So it was nice to be able to take a second look at it this past Friday night; based on the 1961 play by Gore Vidal (who also wrote the screenplay), it’s a really underrated film about a pair of Presidential candidates (Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson) pitted against one another as they seek to become their party’s presumptive nominee. Vidal loosely based the proceedings on the famous 1960 rumble between Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy; Fonda plays Stevensonish egghead William Hughes (he pretty much recycles his Robert A. Leffingwell character from Advise and Consent) who agonizes as to whether he should use a juicy bit of dirt against his opponent, the Kennedyesque Joseph Cantwell (Robertson—who played JFK the year before in P.T. 109) a virulent anti-Communist who’s certainly not going to bat an eyelash about using what he’s got on Hughes.

Although nowadays political parties show up for their conventions with all the wrinkles ironed out, Man is still compelling viewing as it takes a fairly realistic look at the “smoke-filled room” politics of yesteryear. What I liked best about the picture was its offbeat casting: Edie Adams, Margaret Leighton, Shelley Berman, Ann Sothern, Kevin McCarthy, John Henry Faulk, Mahalia Jackson and Howard K. Smith—in fact, I believe at one time there was Congressional legislation stating that you couldn’t make any kind of political film without him. (Then again, I could be wrong.) The standout performer here in this film is actor Lee Tracy, who capped off his lengthy movie career with a peerless performance as a wily ex-President who enters the fray. Tracy came over into the film from the original stage production (where he was nominated for a Tony), and garnered an Oscar nom for his splendid work. If you were unfortunate to catch this really first-rate drama, TCM has an encore performance scheduled for June 28 at 6pm EDT.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Does the “M” stand for Marvin?

I’ll be away from the blog for the next day or so because I have to finish/polish up some liner notes for the good people at First Generation Radio Archives, but I did want to direct your attention to some news over at Timeless Media Group’s website concerning a big honkin’ release of the 1957-60 cult crime drama M Squad, which will debut September 23, 2008. This info was passed along to me by the “Master of His (Public) Domain” his ownself, BobH—who reminds all of you out there in VintageTVLand that TMG does have a tendency to trumpet release dates…and then miss the deadline. (VCI Entertainment is like that, too.)

The set will consist of fourteen DVDs and a soundtrack CD…with 100 episodes of the series available in the set. This might be a bit disappointing to some, particularly since M Squad ran for a total of 117 episodes—but since I’m jaw-droppingly surprised to see any kind of release for this series I’m certainly willing to cut Timeless some slack. (Unless they decide to re-record the underscore…that would sort of suck.) Another HTF member noticed that both Bob Newhart (“The 26 Girl”) and Don Rickles’ (“Pete Loves Mary”) first IMDb credits are from Squad…and of course, the two comedians later became lifelong chums. Eerie coincidence or just a way to provide a neat-and-tidy (if lame) end to this post? You make the call.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

“That’s bloody marvellous, innit!”

Back in June of 2005, I finished up an essay/review on a now-discontinued Region 2 DVD of the fifth series (from 1974) of one of Britain’s classic sitcoms, Till Death Us Do Part, with these words:

…I’d certainly like an opportunity to check out In Sickness and In Health if only to get the opportunity to marvel at the staying power of one of British television’s cherished institutions…Alf Garnett.

Three years after that post, I’ve learned that all good things do come to those that wait. BBC/2 Entertain Video released the first season of Health on Region 2 DVD on June 9…so naturally it fell upon me to purchase a copy in order to experience what this long-running sitcom had to offer.

First, a little background history is in order. Writer Johnny Speight was the creator of Till Death Us Do Part, a groundbreaking situation comedy starring Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett, a working-class stiff at war with the world and frequently given to bigoted tirades. Each week, he would subject his family—long-suffering wife Elsie (Dandy Nichols), daughter Rita (Una Stubbs) and son-in-law Michael (Anthony Booth)—to his warped pronouncements on every subject imaginable: economic conditions in London, politics, minorities, etc. The show made its first appearance as a pilot on the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse on July 22, 1965…and generated such a positive audience response that a regular series was commissioned beginning June 6, 1966. Death, though extremely popular with the viewing public, lasted only three series before it was pulled due to protests about its uncompromising language and controversial scripts.

A 1969 article in Variety about the show’s cancellation caught the eye of future television wunderkind Norman Lear, who decided to take an enormous gamble and buy the American rights to the sitcom…despite the fact that Lear had never actually seen an episode of Death. In turn, he pitched an Americanized version of the comedy (soon to be immortalized as All in the Family) to all three networks before CBS agreed to roll the dice and premiered Family on January 12, 1971. All in the Family would change the face of American television comedy (after a slow start, the program took off and was the #1 series among Nielsen viewers from 1971 to 1976), and its popularity inspired both the BBC and Speight to bring Death back to UK television screens beginning in 1972, where it would run an additional four series before calling it quits December 17, 1975.

The character of Alf Garnett—an absolute monster who, as played by Mitchell, would sometimes reveal brief glimpses of humanity—became a cherished institution in UK TV, and like his American counterpart, Archie Bunker, proved to have tremendous staying power on the tube. (All in the Family ran from 1971-79, and its spin-off, Archie Bunker’s Place, lasted four more seasons before ringing down the curtain in 1983.) Alf and Elsie Garnett came back to TV in 1981 with a short-lived ITV comedy abbreviated to Till Death… that failed to capture much of an audience. Four years later, Speight had another go and created In Sickness and In Health—which ran for 47 episodes over six series between 1985 and 1992.

In Health, the Garnetts have relocated to a lower-class first floor apartment in London’s East End; Alf, who’s retired, must take care of “Else,” (as he always called her) who’s now confined to a wheelchair due to rheumatoid arthritis. The Garnett character—a bit mellowed with age but still able to kick up a fuss when the need arises—continues to vent his spleen about the welfare system (of which he is now part of), unions, the National Health, minorities, homosexuals, etc. and still gets no support or sympathy from his “silly old moo” of a wife. His chief irritants on the new series are Winston (Eamonn Walker), a gay black man who is Elsie’s caregiver, and Fred Johnson (Ken Campbell), whose frustration with Alf frequently manifests itself in his banging his head against a wall. Alf also has a drinking buddy named Arthur who is seen frequently on the show; Arthur is played by Arthur English, a veteran “variety comedian” best remembered for his long-running stint on Are You Being Served? as Mr. Harman, Grace Brothers’ cheeky janitor.

Fans of Till Death Us Do Part are often split in their opinion of In Sickness and In Health, with many asserting that the series just couldn’t measure up to the original. I’ve not seen every episode of Death (only the premiere episode and series four and five) but based on what I have seen I think Health can more than measure up to its parent series, even though I'll concede it was a tough act to follow. Mitchell, as I’ve stated previously, is amazing in the way he can make a character like Garnett—a man who in real life you’d go out of your way to avoid (and in fact, in one of the episodes on this DVD you see that very thing happening as he strolls down a street while his neighbors duck and run for cover)—vulnerable despite his awfulness. Nichols, despite her frailty (she was very ill during the show’s first series…and her death in 1986 necessitated her character being written out of the show), is still marvelous—underplaying her part and reacting to Mitchell’s diatribes with hysterical deadpan reactions. And as Winston, Eamonn Walker deftly plays a role that under normal circumstances would be considered uncomfortable stereotyping (that of the swishy, flamboyant homosexual)—but you get the feeling that most of Winston’s shtick is just a mocking reaction to Garnett’s constant taunts (he’s nicknamed the caregiver “Marigold”); masking his contempt for Alf with thinly disguised sarcasm (in turn, he refers to Alf as “Bwana”).

The episodes of Health are untitled, but the best outings on this DVD are Episode Five, in which daughter Rita (actress Stubbs would make sporadic guest appearances on the show) stops by for a visit; Winston and his lover have planned a farewell dinner on the night before she’s scheduled to return to Liverpool and although Alf wants no part of it (“I’m going to the pub!”) he changes his mind when the couple bring two large bottles of Jamaican rum to the party. (Alf ends up passed out on the sofa, wearing a pith helmet that Winston bought as a present for his “bwana.”) The sixth episode is also filled with laughs: Alf is doing everything he can to “lighten” Elsie’s wheelchair because of the physical toll it’s taking on him wheeling her around everywhere. (He even tries to get a motorized vehicle from the DHSS but is informed that his wife’s condition isn’t serious enough to allow him to have one; ironically, Elsie could acquire a “Rascal” if Alf were dead...or divorced.) Alf finally gets a friend to put a motor on the wheelchair but in testing it out he ends up in the hospital. Since he also foiled a bank robbery during his "test drive," he’s proclaimed a hero in the media and press—but Winston offers a few words of warning:

WINSTON: Listen, bwana…
ALF: What?
WINSTON: I don’t want to frighten you, right? But when our lame villains see you on the television…and realize that you is the one who caused them all that agro…spoiled up their little earner…put three of their mates away inside a prison…well, them is gonna want to fix you, innit? I mean, them is hard men, you know…they don’t like people give them agro…and them use shooters, too! Them will want to blow you away! Them will want to waste you! So, listen…before you go on the television…you just make sure you make some nice little provisions for Mummy here (indicating Elsie)…take out some insurance or something, ‘cause she’s going to be all on her own…she is going to be…a widow
ELSIE (quietly): I’ll be all right…I’ll get my powered wheelchair once he’s gone

Episode Three is also a nicely-done piece; what starts out as a raucous night at the local pub turns melancholy as Alf, Elsie and their friends muse about funerals, death and the hereafter. It also introduces actress Carmel McSharry to the program; her character goes unnamed here but she would become a regular by the second series as Mrs. Hollingbery, Alf’s new landlady and recipient of much of his abuse after Elsie’s passing. (Health’s sophomore season is scheduled to be released September 22, 2008.) The first season DVD is missing a Boxing Day special of the program from 1985; I do not know if this will be made available in the second series disc or, if past BBC comedy collections are any indication, will be saved for a Yuletide-themed DVD (Health had a total of five Christmas specials during its run).

It’s sad when one realizes that very few episodes of the 1960s incarnation of Till Death Us Do Part have survived today, thanks to the Beeb’s practice of “wiping” their old videotapes for reuse (sometimes recycling isn’t necessarily a good thing) and sadder still that the great Dandy Nichols was only available for the first series of In Sickness and In Health. As I mentioned previously, both the 1972 and 1974 series of Death were released to DVD by Network but they are now out-of-print and the only option available to anyone interested in seeing All in the Family’s British cousin would be to track down the Region 1 release of the 1972 series (which is mostly intact except for the 1972 Christmas special), released by BFS Entertainment. I’ve added the second series of Health to my wish list at and when I purchase it I’ll have more to say about this timeless sitcom classic.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Shake hands and come out griping

I promise that this will be my final word regarding The Great Fugitive Controversy of 2008. As BobH (“Master of his [Public] Domain”) notes in the comments section of the first TDOY Fugitive music substitution post, has the press release issued forth from CBS/Paramount. I thought about copying and pasting it here…but they’ve got a block on that sort of practice, and I’m too lazy to type it over again word-for-word. (I suppose I could release the PR notice with an entirely new score in order to avoid any legal entanglements, but again…I’m lazy.)

In a nutshell, CBS/Paramount defends their gutting of the underscoring in the first fifteen episodes of The Fugitive’s second season by noting that there were a larger number of music cues in the show’s sophomore year and that because it was unclear who owned the copyright they decided to replace the music and not disappoint fans with a delay of the second season release. (They’re so good to us! Getting those split-season sets out ever so much quickly by leaving no stone unturned…) As the Fugitive thread over at HTF rages on, approximately 98% of its participants are still pissed off—a development that really shouldn’t come as any real surprise. I myself wasn’t expecting CBS/Paramount to be anything else but lame in their response and you’ll note that nowhere in the “explanation” is the phrase “We’re sorry” used. Still, Gord Lacey deserves a few props for his deft handling of the situation (his original editorial is here); I particularly liked the CBS/Paramount ad he strategically placed at the end, which crows: “We don’t just put TV on DVD…we put it on a pedestal.” (Which reminds me of an old Steve Martin joke where the punch line was “…high enough to look up her dress.”)

I received my copy of The Fugitive: Season 2, Volume 1 Monday and though my original plan was to send it back unopened, Deep packaged all three of my orders in the same bundle, which sort of put the kibosh on that. I haven’t bothered to open it yet; I’m still sort of debating as to whether I’ll send it back or not. (I’m sort of following BobH’s sound reasoning on this.) This website devoted to The Fugitive has a comparison of both the old and new music for the episode “Escape Into Black” and while you can definitely tell the score was monkeyed around with it’s not quite as terrible as I was led to believe. (It sure as hell beats the opening theme substitutions on public domain releases like Bonanza and Petticoat Junction.) Besides, keeping the DVDs and displaying them in plain sight will serve as a painful reminder to me to be a little more skeptical when it comes to TV-on-DVD releases; I did a similar thing with my third season box set of My Favorite Martian, which I purchased from Umbrella Entertainment, the Australian distributor, for roughly an arm and a leg American. You may remember back in January when I discovered that the third season of Martian was being offered over here at a greatly reduced price and how miffed I was at being talked into buying the set in the first place by a wanker named Peter Greenwood from Chertok Productions (the company that produced Martian from 1963-66). Greenwood sent me an e-mail through HTF and offered to compensate me (he swore he wasn’t aware the set would be made available here) by sending me a free copy of Martian’s music soundtrack on CD. (I’m still waiting for that, by the way.)


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

R.I.P., Lily Norwood

JazzGuy over at In the Balcony reports that movie icon Cyd Charisse has passed away at age the of 86. (Here's the obit from the website, since is asleep at the switch.) There aren't enough words to describe how unhappy I am at this time; while I've never been what you'd call a musicals maven, I had a thing for Ms. Charisse--she was sexy as all get-out and possessed a pair of gams that went on for days.

She appeared in a ton of first-rate musicals and non-musicals: The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954), It's Always Fair Weather (1955), Silk Stockings (1957), Party Girl (1958) and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), just off the top of my head. But my favorite Cyd showcase is still the incredible "Broadway Rhythm Ballet" from Singin' in the Rain (1952)--you could stick that on an endless video loop and I'd never get tired of watching it.

In once of those cinematic coinky-dinks that life frequently lays out on a blanket, TCM is showing Brigadoon tomorrow morning beginning at 11:30 am. Let's just say I don't want to be disturbed.

R.I.P, Cyd--you will most definitely be missed.

“I’m H-A-P-P-Y…”

Back in September 2003, BFS Entertainment released two volumes of a 1970s Britcom broadcast on ITV as Only When I Laugh. The series—which starred James Bolam (The Likely Lads, Second Thoughts), Peter Bowles (To the Manor Born, The Bounder) and Christopher Strauli (Raffles) as a trio of layabout hospital patients—was created by writer Eric Chappell and from 1979-82 was one of Britain’s most popular sitcoms. The BFS sets contained six episodes each from the first two series of Laugh…and alas, are now out-of-print. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since BFS left off two episodes (the first two series had a total of fourteen episodes, seven per series) on the sets—but Network DVD has also released the first and second series to disc, rectifying the error. (Be forewarned, of course, that these are Region 2 releases and will require a region-free DVD player to view them.)

I sat down and watched both of these DVDs a while back and thoroughly enjoyed what was then and continues to be an engaging little comedy series; it has no lofty ambitions other than to make its audience laugh. I’m not so certain that you could duplicate this kind of sitcom here in the States today (though there have been college tries, like Temperatures Rising, House Calls and the 1984-85 E/R…the one with Elliott Gould)…mainly because there’s no way in H-E-double toothpicks three malingering patients could afford a lengthy stay under our current healthcare system. The patients in Laugh, however, are there under the auspices of the National Health Service…demonstrating that if we had a single-payer healthcare system in this country, our sitcoms just might be funnier.

Although Only When I Laugh is an ensemble comedy, actor James Bolam is the real standout here as Roy “X-Ray” Figgis, a working-class stiff who is usually the instigator of the trouble and mayhem that occurs in each episode. (I’ve become a big fan of his from watching both The Likely Lads and Whatever Became of the Likely Lads?, perhaps his best-known sitcom showcases.) Figgis’ lengthy stay “in hospital” stems from the ill-effects resulting from a delicate operation to…well, to put it in Pythonesque terms, his “naughty bits.” But Bolam is capably supported by Peter Bowles in a change-of-pace role as hypochondriac Archie Glover, an aging Lothario whose upbringing of wealth and privilege (read: Tory) frequently conflicts with Figgis’ socialist-tinged background (read: Labour). Strauli, as Norman Binns, usually ends up playing Larry Fine to his two co-stars, but he occasionally gets a chance to shine in outings like “Last Tango,” in which an after-hours party finds Norman “drunk” on vodka (which is actually plain, ordinary tap water).

The other main characters in Laugh are male nurse Gupte (Derrick Branche), whose Indian ethnicity is (as you might expect) played for politically incorrect laughs, and Dr. Gordon Thorpe, the no-nonsense administrator assigned to keep Figgis, Glover and Binns in line (with very little success). Thorpe is played by Richard Wilson, who would later achieve Britcom immortality as the much-put-upon Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave, one of the funniest sitcoms to ever cross the Atlantic. (I got a tremendous kick out of seeing Wilson play an authority figure…with hair, yet!)

The first episode, “A Bed With a View,” sets the stage for the episodes to follow in the series: young Norman is being hospitalized for an appendectomy and he’s assigned to a bed near the window. Both Roy and Archie have designs on the same bed, and each continue to con Norman into letting them have it…but because of the constant bed hopping, it’s Archie who’s wheeled into the OR for the appendix removal, not Norman. Other standout episodes include “Let Them Eat Cake” (our heroic trio decides to boycott the hospital food, which snowballs into a workers’ strike), “Is There a Doctor in the House?” (Figgis disguises himself as a doctor to get away from the ward for a while and hilarity ensues), “The Visitors” (Norman’s overbearing mother drops by, and does not improve of her son’s new girlfriend) and “The Lost Sheep”—which finds atheist Figgis “seeing the light.”

Writer Chappell started out in his career as a playwright with very little experience in television—and yet by 1974, found himself the toast of British television comedy with two sitcom hits: The Squirrels (a sitcom about a wacky “accounts staff”) and Rising Damp (which was adapted from his play The Banana Box), a cult comedy starring actor Leonard Rossiter as the manager of a seedy boarding house (this engaging sitcom appeared on the A&E cable channel during the 1980s). His other triumphs include The Bounder (also seen on public television in America), Duty Free, Home to Roost, Singles, Haggard and Fiddlers Three (a reworking of The Squirrels starring TDOY fave Paula Wilcox). Both The Bounder and Duty Free are available on Region 2 DVD from Network, as well as Home to Roost—a series that might be familiar to viewers across the pond in its American television incarnation, You Again? (1986-87), starring Jack Klugman and John Stamos.

Monday, June 16, 2008

“I always wanted a room of my own.”

As a person who, it can be said, purchases an inordinately large number of DVDs I generally make it a point to keep up with the latest disc releases—particularly those of the classic film and television variety. But last week, I made a discovery about a movie that was made available on DVD nearly five years ago…and yet some managed to pass me by.

The film is Lianna (1983), an independent feature written and directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, John Sayles, and it tells the story of a young wife and mother (Linda Griffiths) who, after entering into an affair (and falling head over heels in love) with her child psychology professor (Jane Hallaren), finds herself leaving her film professor husband (Jon DeVries)—a man whose first name, appropriately enough, is “Dick”—to begin a new life of her own. It’s difficult at first; besides the usual obstacles of being a single woman (finding a job and an apartment, paying rent, being hit on by her husbands’ friends, etc.) Lianna faces being ostracized by her friends (her best bud cuts off all contact with her)…and at film’s end, is dumped by her lover for an old flame. Through it all, Lianna remains a sympathetic figure…but never the object of pity.

I managed to catch this movie on the Flix channel last week while dog sitting and was pleased that although it has dated in some respects, it’s still a first-rate film despite its flaws. (Its major blemish is having Lianna’s husband be a real tool—because viewers might get the impression that her newly-discovered lesbianism has resulted from her unfortunate marriage; fortunately, director Sayles resisted the temptation to have his character do something totally lame like see a shrink in order to be “cured”.) Two sequences stand out in my mind in Lianna: a conversation between Lianna and Sandy’s husband (Stephen Mandillo), a football jock who reveals a startling “live-and-live” philosophy regarding homosexuality (in fact, he illustrates this with a story about a gay player on his football team—which he never said anything about since it didn’t seem to affect his ability to play any). This can be contrasted with the thinking of the colleague (played by Sayles himself) who tried to hit on Lianna: he asserts that because he comes from California “that kind of shit doesn’t faze me a bit”—but while he's apologizing for his earlier indiscretion he admits he is a little uncomfortable. The second occurs at the end of the film: Sandy (Jo Henderson) is still hesitant about how she feels about the changes in her best friend’s life…but nevertheless offers a shoulder to cry on and a warm, tender embrace for her friend when Lianna tells her that her lover has left her.

I think Lianna is a sensational film; the dialogue is witty yet realistic and Griffiths is sensational as the title character, who excels in playing scenes opposite other females and her kids (who are a bit baffled and confuses by the turn of events involving their parents). Sayles originally shopped the film’s screenplay around to several of the major Hollywood studios, but many of them were frightened off by the subject matter…forcing him to go the independent route (and setting the stage for the way many of his films would be produced afterward). I consider it among Sayles’s top five, along with Matewan (my personal favorite), Eight Men Out, Passion Fish and Lone Star…but I often wonder what sort of path Lianna would have wandered down if Sayles had pitched the idea to the studios after his breakthrough film, Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), became a success. Naturally, when I learned that Lianna was available on DVD I immediately snapped up a copy for purchase…here’s hoping you’ll do the same.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Can’t stop the music…then again, maybe they can…

Stephen Bowie, a frequent participant over at the Home Theater Forum, has an interesting post on his Classic TV History Blog about the recent controversy surrounding the new The Fugitive: Season 2, Volume 1 release. (I should, however, set aside special kudos to Rick Brooks of Cultureshark, where I first learned of this, since he painstakingly took the time to read the HTF thread about S2V1…something I can’t always bring myself to do. Note how the first person to post in this thread states that he’s “not going to rant and rave,” foolishly thinking he could actually maintain control of the vehicle.)

For the uninformed, CBS/Paramount has released the first fifteen shows from The Fugitive’s second season…and in doing so, completely wiped clean the original music from the show’s soundtrack and replaced it with a generic synthesizer score composed by a gentleman named Mark Heyes. The company, clearly immersed in what appears to be a homework assignment from Villainy 101, attempted to cover its tracks by “altering” the closing credits (as you can see here). (For the record, these are the original credits…both of which were posted at Bowie’s weblog.) The reason for this switcheroo remains shrouded in mystery—but speculation in the grapevine has it that CBS/Paramount was either unable or unmotivated to track down the current owner of the music rights and, on the advice of their obscenely-paid attorneys, decided just to replace the score in the hopes that no one would notice.

Hah! said the Little Red Blogger. Talk about misunderestimation! The fans of the seminal 1960s drama rose up en masse and did everything short of storming Castle CBS DVD with pitchforks and torches. Unfortunately, several e-mails and letters were sent to a contact person at the company (who, it later turns out, had nothing to do with either the Fuge project or the decision to pull a fast one on the customers); missives of such an offensive nature (apparently the word “chicken-shit” was as nice as it got in one such e-mail) that the HTF moderators came close to kicking some of their members out of the secret clubhouse while taking their football and finding some other vacant lot in which to play.

The reason why CBS/Paramount resorted to this chicanery isn’t really the question I’d like an answer to; I’m much more interested in a response as to why CBS/Paramount honestly believed no one would notice this among the hardcore fanship. I suppose it’s all rather moot, though; everyone at the company there has clammed up...and used the abuse they received from the rogue HTF folks as a reason to maintain absolute silence. (This does not, however, explain why nothing was said in the first place…or how they were able to use the Fugitive music for the first two releases, even.) I ordered S2V1 without any prior knowledge of what these wankers did to the show (sorry, folks…those generic “Some scenes may be edited from their original network version” disclaimers don’t quite cut it anymore) and if I had been given a timely heads-up I would definitely said “Pasadena.” (The Fugitive set hasn’t arrived yet, so if I can dope out which package it’s in—I ordered two other TV-on-DVD box sets from the same place and they should arrive at the same time—I’ll be scribbling “package refused” on the box faster than you can say “one-armed man.”) In the past, I used to be a lot more lenient about TV-on-DVD releases: after all, I bought the cut-to-ribbons-in-syndication releases of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Make Room for Daddy, The Joey Bishop Show and The Real McCoys. But it’s getting harder to ignore the gradual “we really don’t give a flying frog’s ass” attitude of these companies…particularly CBS/Paramount, generally considered the best of the major studios when it comes to vintage-TV releases.

So…now that I’ve got that little rant out of the way, allow me to present a more positive article also written by Stephen (and thanks to BobH for pointing this one out); a nice write-up on Arrest and Trial (1963-64), the groundbreaking crime drama that predated today's better-known Law and Order by about twenty-five years. I found it fascinating…and a sure-fire way to bring down my blood pressure after this whole Fugitive mess.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

NBC’s Tim Russert dies at 58 of heart attack

I’ve been skimming a few blogs this morning, reading all the positive things people have gone out of their way to say about the former host of Meet the Press, who went on to his rich reward yesterday. While I offer my condolences to the Russert family on their tragic loss, if I hear one more NBC reporter or scumbag politician praise Russert’s “integrity” and “tough-but-fairness” I’m going to puke. (Particularly Keith Olbermann, who, while Russert still walked the earth, seemed to be constantly auditioning for the position of Tim’s toady.)

In 1992, shortly after being named moderator of Meet The Press, Tim Russert was having lunch with a broadcast executive. The mealtime conversation was about the pros and cons of working for General Electric’s NBC subsidiary. Russert expounded on how being employed by GE had brought him to the realization that things functioned better when Republicans were in charge.

“You know, Tim, you used to be such a rabid Democrat when you worked for Pat Moynihan,” said the executive. “But now that you’ve gotten a glimpse of who’s handing out the money in this business, you’ve become quite the Jaycee. Were you wrong about everything you used to believe so strongly?”

“I still believe,” Russert said, leaning across the table. “I believe in everything I ever did. But I also know that I never would have become moderator on Meet the Press if my employers were uncomfortable with me. And, given the amount of money at stake, millions of dollars, I don’t blame them. This is business.”

The executive agreed. “But are you concerned about losing yourself? You know, selling out?”

Russert pounded the table. “Integrity is for paupers!”


The ambitious Russert soon learned that, in order to climb the ladder at NBC News, he had to please two sets of managers: the news executives who were ostensibly his bosses, and the employers of the news executives. In the years that followed, he refined the strategy to ingratiating himself to General Electric Chairman Jack Welch.

For much of the eighties, Russert coordinated specials on summits and foreign policy related topics. His breakthrough performance occurred in 1990, when he oversaw the production of the prime time special, “A Day In The Life Of President Bush”. The show was so worshipful and fawning that one embarrassed production assistant referred to it as “Deep Throat: The Missing Footage”. By this time, however, Russert had figured out that only one opinion counted. Jack Welch loved the program, telling an associate that it “hit just the right note."

“Chocolates and Nylons, Sir?” – David Podvin (01/09/02)

I guess one man’s “tough and hardworking newsman” is another man’s prostitute.

Friday, June 13, 2008

After the Fox

So I spent the past two days over at sister Kat’s again to keep an eye on her menagerie while she was out of town…and that means, of course, that I get to catch up with whatever movies I DVR’d from the Fox Music Channel. I’m not always successful with this; in the past she has been known to erase movies I have painstakingly taken the time to program. Charred-her offers FMC on their cable system, but you have to pay extra for the privilege…and my Dad and I are still trying to figure out what they’re charging me now.

I kicked off the mini-FMC festival with 1931’s Ambassador Bill, a Will Rogers vehicle that I hadn’t seen (it is available on the Will Rogers Collection: Volume 2 box set) and while I can’t rate the movie anything above average it does earn a couple of points for placing the story and characters in a background nominally different from the usual small-town milieu of Rogers’ films. Still, Bill ends up hewing to the familiar homespun-wisdom-and-common-sense formula; Rogers plays a U.S. Ambassador assigned to the war-torn nation of Sylvania (whether this is the same country that later warred with Freedonia I don’t know, since I didn’t see Louis Calhern anywhere in sight) who teaches its boy-king (Tad Alexander) how to play baseball and be a regular red-blooded "American" lad, while at the same time helping the real monarch (Ray Milland) regain his throne and reunite with his Queen (played by Marguerite Churchill).

The movie gives Rogers ample opportunity to crack wise on politics and other social mores, but it only really comes to life in a hilarious sequence that finds “Ambassador Bill” holding up a reception for a U.S. Senator (Ferdinand Munier) by participating in a spirited poker game with members of Sylvania’s royal court. A funny cameo from Ben Turpin and an engaging scene where Will teaches young Alexander some rope tricks round out a pleasant if unremarkable little film.

The Raid, a 1954 film based on true-life events that occurred during the Civil War, was next on the list and it’s a dandy little sleeper that deserves to be better known. A group of Confederate officers (led by Major Van Heflin) escapes from a Union stockade and makes their way to St. Albans, Vermont where the plan is to pillage and loot the jernt and then beat a hasty retreat to do the same to other small villages in General Sherman-style. Complicating this plan are two faux pas committed by Heflin: he foolishly allows Rebel hothead Lee Marvin to participate (Marvin comes close to botching the entire operation) and he falls for a young Union widow (Anne Bancroft), who unknowingly becomes an impediment to his loyalty for the Confederate cause. Directed by Hugo Fregonese (Black Tuesday) with story and screenplay by Francis M. Cockrell and Sydney Boehm, this movie doesn’t skimp on the suspense and is choc-a-block with familiar character actors and TV faces: Tommy Rettig (who plays Bancroft’s son), Richard Boone, Peter Graves, Douglas Spencer, Paul Cavanagh, Will Wright, James Best and Claude Akins, to name but a few. Try and catch this one the next time it’s scheduled.

Finally, I wound things up with Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941)—a movie that I had previously seen but was curious to revisit; it was originally supposed to be on the first Fox Horror Classics box set (I know, I know…it’s not really a horror film) but got bumped for The Undying Monster (1942). (Fox’s classic movies website reveals that plans to release it on DVD are still in the pipeline, but details are sketchy as of this posting.)

Anyway, Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) is captured by the Gestapo while vacationing in Bavaria, accused of plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Nazi officer George Sanders puts the screws to Pidgeon, trying to elicit a confession, but the resourceful Walter manages to escape his clutches and high-tail it back to England (with the cooperation of ship’s cabin boy Roddy McDowall)…and finds he’s no safer there than he was in Deutschland. Pidgeon is able to get help from Joan Bennett—demonstrating that Audrey Hepburn isn’t the only actress unconvincing as a Cockney—and elude his pursuers, culminating in a nail-biting climax in which he confronts Sanders in a final showdown. Man Hunt is a first-rate if very farfetched suspenser (no true assassin will get a bead on his target without having a bullet in the chamber), with outstanding support from John Carradine (who dies a memorable death in the London underground), Ludwig Stossel, Heather Thatcher, Frederick Worlock and Roger Imhof.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The streets of San Francisco, circa 1960-62

Back in March 2007, when I wrote this essay on the critically-acclaimed television mystery series Checkmate (1960-62), I couldn’t even begin to conceive that slightly more than a year later, two box sets of the program—titled Best of Season One and Best of Season Two—would be made available to the vintage TV-buying public on DVD. Let’s be honest: it’s an old series…in black and white…rarely rerun today, despite the fact that it would be perfect for either TV Land or RTN…plus it’s saddled with an additional handicap in that it’s both witty and intelligent—anathema to a DVD-buying, television-watching public that considers crap like One Tree Hill to be on the cutting edge of TV today.

The Best of Season Two collection came out in March of this year, and I’ll admit I was a little slow in buying this one…and even slower in getting around to actually watching it. (This might be explained by the immutable fact that I’ve amassed a backlog of DVDs so large they’ve started to realize they could take over my apartment with precious little resistance.) I did, however, spend this past weekend watching the twelve episodes from Best of Season One—and I’d like to think that counts for something.

Checkmate—a crime-drama where the premise of the series focused not so much on crime solving but crime prevention—was created by celebrated mystery author Eric Ambler…whose original concept of the series focused on the exploits of a detective, his girlfriend and her professor father. As the story goes, Revue/MCA tinkered with Ambler’s co-ed idea supposedly because actor Doug McClure was under contract to the studio and they wanted to utilize his services since he was already collecting a salary. I have no doubt that this is the case, but in watching some of Checkmate’s episodes I can’t help but notice a slight resemblance to many of the Warner Brothers-produced private-eye shows (Hawaiian Eye, Surfside Six) that were on at the same time; indeed, it’s not much of a stretch to see Checkmate as a more cerebral 77 Sunset Strip. (The only characters missing are a comical sidekick and the luscious girl singer/gal Friday.)

I’ve also pondered just what kind of salary stars McClure, Anthony George and Sebastian Cabot were pulling down each week—because judging from the high-wattage lineup of celebrity guests I’m going to guess that it was the same food commonly associated with elephants. Among the performers who guested on Checkmate’s first season (and included in this DVD set) were Anne Baxter (Death Runs Wild), Jane Wyman (Lady on the Brink), Dick Shawn (Laugh ‘Til I Die) and Charles Laughton (Terror From the East)—who not only made one of his all-too-rare appearances on the cathode ray tube but made it practically his acting swan song (just before finally ringing down the curtain with Advise and Consent). The episode Laughton guests on isn’t particularly outstanding (the dénouement to this one can be seen coming a mile away) but it’s always a treat to watch Charlie strut his stuff.

As for the title of the box set—Best of Season One—I’m not entirely sure that this is an accurate assessment. I haven’t seen all thirty-six episodes of the first season (though I did acquire the entire run of the series through…oh, let’s just say “unauthorized channels” and let it go at that) but I suspect that the offerings in this set represent only the ones that were in the best shape (and even they aren’t exactly what you’d call “pristine”) from the prints obtained by Timeless Media Group. (TMG only leased the rights to Checkmate from NBC/Universal; the source material was entirely Timeless’ responsibility.) Nevertheless, there are some excellent hour-long episodes in this set (though they run about an average of 48-49 minutes, sans commercials):

The Cyanide Touch (10/01/60) – Dean Stockwell is a wealthy college student whose fraternity brother was killed by a pair of goons boosting Stockwell’s car, so Dean sets out to punish the man he feels is responsible, small-time kingpin Larry Forbes (Henry Jones). The scene where Stockwell sweats out a confession from Jones is particularly nail-biting; this nifty little suspenser was written by future Academy Award-winning writer Stirling Silliphant.

Face in the Window (10/22/60) – Directed by acclaimed B-picture helmer Robert Florey, this stars Joseph Cotten as an archaeologist whose spotting of a man (John Hoyt) outside an antique store turns into a fugitive Nazi hunt. Julie “Creature From the Black Lagoon” Adams is in this one, too, as Cotten’s fiancée…who’s terrified that he might kill Hoyt.

A Matter of Conscience (02/18/61) – It starts out slowly as a humdrum tale of an ex-con (Gary Merrill) whose recent parole sets off the son of the man he shot…and then takes an interesting turn into a “dark secrets” mystery that also features Josephine Hutchinson and Bruce “Frank Nitti” Gordon. I’m not usually a fan of Merrill's, but he turns in a dandy performance here.

The Paper Killer (03/25/61) – Mickey Rooney treats himself to a generous helping of scenery du jour in this entry about a comic strip artist who’s convinced his creation is trying to kill him. (I don’t know many comic strip artists, but I’m pretty sure they’re nothing like Rooney—who acts more like a sleazy Hollywood agent.) This episode showcases some of the humor to be found in the series, particularly with a priceless scene in which OTR veteran Betty Lou Gerson (a frequent utility player) plays a talent agent checking out the attributes of Doug McClure’s Jed Sills. Dianne Foster, Dennis Patrick and the always reliable William Schallert round out a top-notch cast.

Hot Wind in a Cold Town (06/10/61) – I have to be honest: after so many years of watching Fantasy Island and Chrysler Cordoba commercials, it’s often difficult for me to take Ricardo Montalban seriously. But he’s positively aces as a Hollywood stuntman who can’t get arrested in town, particularly since a vindictive movie director (Jerome Thor) is leaning on him for allegedly making time with his wife. Montalban’s only chance to keep a job depends on his success in convincing the Deliverance-like townsfolk of a backwater burg to let his film company shoot on location…and with Martin Landau as a homicidal half-wit in love with his pet knife, it’s easier said than done. Betty Garde and Norman Fell—the man who would be Stanley Roper—round out a splendid cast.

Other worthwhile episodes in this set include “The Deadly Shadow” (12/11/60), starring Margaret O’Brien as a widowed hairdresser being stalked by a stranger, and “Voyage Into Fear” (05/06/61), which features Joan Fontaine as a woman hiding out on a cruise ship with star Anthony George, convinced her husband is trying to have her killed. Plot wise, this really isn’t much to write home about…but La Fontaine is hysterical when she’s liquored up and flirting with anything in pants; Scott “Shotgun Slade” Brady is also on hand as a rival shamus and Robert Webber (who doesn’t even receive screen credit) as a would-be assassin.

For those of you who like to spot OTR actors/actresses on the small screen, Checkmate is definitely your meat: in addition to the previously mentioned Gerson, you’ll also see Olan Soule, Vinton Hayworth, Forrest Lewis, Tyler McVey and Barney Phillips. In fact, Ken Lynch even had a recurring role on the series as Lt. Brand, Checkmate, Inc.’s liaison on the police force. But my favorite performer remains Sebastian Cabot…as Dr. Carl Hyatt, the tweeds-clad, walking-stick-carrying British criminologist who’s cultured enough to enjoy both Chinese opera and baseball games (and whose irresistibly cute daschund “Bismarck” shows up in a few installments). Cabot’s television legacy—for better or worse—remains that of Giles French, the fastidious “gentleman’s gentleman” he portrayed on Family Affair (1966-71)…so it’s a refreshing change of pace to see him in a decidedly different role (and it’s tragic that no one ever considered casting him in a series as a sleuth in the Nero Wolfe mold). Unfortunately, in “Tight as a Drum” (05/13/61), Cabot is already running up against the kind of precocious brats that would plague him on Affair; only strong turns by TDOY fave Dan Duryea and Dabbs Greer manage to save this entry of murder at a military academy from becoming a mass of treacle.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

My life as a comic strip

"We're in trouble..."

Because I’m such a huge fan of the public domain television collections released by Mill Creek Entertainment, I decided to splurge a bit and purchase their latest offering of Essential Westerns (I know, I know…that may be a bit of a misnomer)—which contains 150 episodes of western-themed TV favorites. Granted, a great deal of this material (26 Men, Annie Oakley, Bonanza, The Range Rider, Sheriff of Cochise/U.S. Marshal) has been previously released by other P.D. DVD companies—but since a good many of these programs that were in my collection were sold off in The Great DVD Purge of 2007-08, it’s kind of nice to welcome them back into the Rancho Yesteryear fold at a nominal price. (And they’re inexpensive, too.)

There are some real obscurities on this Mill Creek set, though: nine episodes of a 1960 summer Western series on NBC called Tate, which starred David McLean as a Civil War soldier returning to his former life to take up gun slinging…since his right arm itself is in a sling, having been injured in the conflict. (Timeless Media Group has, however, released the full series in a DVD collection of its own.) There are a pair of episodes from a 1960-62 series entitled The Outlaws, which starred Barton MacLane, Don Collier and Jock Gaynor as lawmen preserving law and order in the Oklahoma Territory during the 1890s. The novelty of Outlaws was that each of the stories were told from the bad guys’ point of view, though this changed in the second season when the program dropped MacLane and Gaynor to focus on Collier’s Will Forman as the main character (Forman, a deputy marshal in Season 1, was promoted to marshal in Outlaws’ last season).

But the series that attracted my attention the most was Rango, a short-lived 1967 sitcom starring Tim Conway as Rango Starr—a bumbling Texas Ranger whose father (the head of the Texas Rangers) has had assigned to Deep Wells Rangers Station in the late 19th century. Conway’s co-stars were Guy Marks (The Joey Bishop Show) as his cowardly Indian sidekick Pink Cloud (and let’s be honest—Marks is as convincing an Indian as his former boss Bishop was in Texas Along the River) and character great Norman Alden (Electro Woman and Dyna Girl) as his long-suffering superior, Captain Horton. Rango—probably the worst lawman since Barney Fife started keeping his solitary bullet in his shirt pocket—would constantly screw-up the simplest of assignments…but with the same amount of luck that befalls angels, fools and drunks would manage to capture the bad guys in miraculous fashion.

Rango is represented by four episodes on Essential Westerns, and I suppose “In a Little Mexican Town” (04/14/67) is probably the best of the quartet (Rango wants to capture notorious bandit El Diablo in the worst way—and winds up doing so); your enjoyment of Rango will depend a good deal on your tolerance for Conway (who I loved on McHale’s Navy…and that’s about it). I will say this: the plots may be pedestrian but it’s difficult not to crack a smile at Conway’s antics since the man is extremely adept at physical comedy. The series—an early offering from both Aaron Spelling and Danny Thomas, who also did The Guns of Will Sonnett and The Mod Squad—falls somewhere between F Troop (of which I am an unabashed fan) and Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats (which has a small cult following on the Net…and I’ll be damned if I can figure out why).

Speaking of Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats, the episode “The Golden Fleecing” (02/11/67)—which I mentioned in this Salon write-up as having not seen—is on Essential Westerns, and while I continue to scratch my head at the number of people who’d like to see this series complete on DVD it is the funniest of the Petticoats outings I’ve watched so far. Green Acres’ Pat Buttram plays a Mr. Haney-like character in “Fleecing”; an ex-con who wants to go straight with a legitimate business though the siren song of his former criminal ways keeps a-calling. There’s an amusing scene where Buttram is left alone in the town’s bank due to a fire alarm and everywhere he looks he sees money lying around, tempting him…and causing his eyeballs to pop out of their sockets in the process. What makes this episode doubly enjoyable is the added bonus of having radio’s favorite hillbilly, Judy Canova, play Pat’s devoted wife.

Mill Creek has a pair of new public-domain-on-TV collections due out this July 22: the first, Spies & Lies, contains fifty installments of espionage and adventure from the likes of Biff Baker USA (starring Alan “Skipper” Hale, Jr.), Dangerous Assignment (with Brian Donlevy and Herb Butterfield reprising their radio roles), Foreign Intrigue (with Gerald Mohr!), Passport to Danger (Cesar Romero) and Wire Service…among many others. BobH—“the Master of His Public Domain”—has discussed this release over at the Home Theater Forum, but I’ll probably take a pass on it.

I’m much more interested in Essential Family Television, which contains a cornucopia of goodies like Ozzie & Harriet, Love That Bob, Burns & Allen, Make Room for Daddy and many, many more. I realize that most of the shows featured in this set have been made available (I’ve got a lot of them collected already) but there are some real obscurities like The Adventures of Hiram Holiday, The Dennis Day Show, The Jim Backus Show (better known as Hot Off the Wire) and The Slowest Gun in the West that are definitely worth a flutter. Slowest Gun is a 1960 comedy special written by Nat Hiken that stars two of my comedy idols, Phil Silvers and Jack Benny (as Chicken Finsterwald)—as well as an amazing supporting cast in Bruce Cabot, Ted de Corsia, Jack Elam, Jean Willes, Parley Baer, Lee Van Cleef, Marion Ross and Jack Albertson…just to name a few.

Friday, June 6, 2008

All systems go...

Well, I’m back online—no thanks to those weasels allegedly “servicing” my computer...and who shall now be known on this blog as (a reference to my dear, departed cable modem for which I paid $49.95 to these wankers). Instead, let’s have a huge round of applause for Best Buy’s Geek Squad—who not only located and fixed the problem but gave me a discount, charging me one hundred and twenty-nine clams. (It could have been worse—the Geek who fixed my computer originally thought my Ethernet card might have to be replaced. But Providence smiled on me in the knowledge that the Gateway people had good sense to install a spare. Major kudos to them as well.)

If you been keeping up with the reading, I did manage to get in a few posts while dog sitting for sister Kat…and it was at her domicile that I finally got to see a movie that has eluded me for nearly twenty-five years: Blood Money (1933), a top-notch pre-Code gangster melodrama starring Dame Judith Anderson (in a most un-Mrs. Danvers-in-Rebecca-like role), George Bancroft and Frances Dee. The film most certainly lives up to its reputation; ex-cop-turned-bail-bondsman Bancroft falls in love with both Dame Judy (as a moll responsible for getting George set up in business) and Frances, a thrill-seeking socialite who crosses paths with Bancroft after being arrested for utilizing the “five-finger-discount” in a department store. This way-ahead-of-its-time movie is a short-and-sweet sixty-five minutes, and also features the legendary Blossom Seeley singing two numbers and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from the not-yet-legendary Lucille Ball as a race-track floozy. Ever since I read about this film in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies 2 I’ve been dying to see it, and I sure wasn’t disappointed (particularly the great scene featuring Dee near the ending). (I will, however, admit that I laughed unintentionally when Dee’s father—played by Frederick Burton—remarks to Bancroft that his daughter “likes underworld pictures”—Bancroft having starred in the famous 1927 film directed by Josef von Sternberg.) If you keep missing this one on the Fox Movie Channel (or don’t get the channel on your cable system at all), Vintage Film offers it in tandem with another interesting pre-Code entry, Pleasure Cruise (1933).

I also caught a little flick entitled The Mob (1951) the same day as Money, and while I have problems with the casting of star Broderick Crawford as an undercover cop masquerading as a stevedore to infiltrate the titled group (Crawford seems more like the individual who’d be running the syndicate) it’s still worth a look-see; TDOY fave Neville Brand is in this one…and looks (he’s even wearing the same suit) as if he just stepped off the set of D.O.A. (1950) (“Soft in the belly…he can’t take it.”)…along with Richard Kiley, Betty Buehler, Ernest Borgnine, Jean Alexander, John Marley, Charles Bronson and OTR faves like Matt Crowley, Lawrence Dobkin, Frank DeKova and Jess Kirkpatrick. Mob’s biggest strength is its punchy, hard-boiled dialogue which was no doubt recycled from some old Pat Novak for Hire scripts tossed into a wastebasket.

While at sister Kat’s this past weekend (the ‘rents paid a visit with a van of more crap to store at my new digs) I did manage to tweak the blogroll a bit, beginning with the addition of Spanish Popeye—a blog written by longtime TDOY friend/reader/supporter Andrew Leal, and containing the same flavor of nostalgia you’ll run up against on this blog. There are also a few nods to some of the denizens who hang out In the Balcony, beginning with Rodney Bowcock’s Comics & Stories; I’ve mentioned Rodney here a time or two and can attest that he’s not only a stand-up pal he’s the go-to guy for all your serial and rare DVD needs at In addition, you’ll find animation expert Thad Komorowski’s thadblog (Thad not only shares my immeasurable contempt for “the man” but has also done extensive freelance work for Gemstone Publishing) on the blogroll, as well as the always fascinating Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide—a comprehensive look at films that feature individuals getting spiffed written by an individual who goes by both “garv” and “Ignatz Ratzkywatzky” (sounds like that guy who knocked up the Kockenlocker girl, if I remember correctly).

Finally, in the “tooting-my-own-horn” department, the June Premier Collection at the First Generation Radio Archives is a superior-sounding treasure trove of ten broadcasts from The Lux Radio Theatre, radio’s most prestigious and popular dramatic hour. (Remind me to tell you the tale of how this project got in “under the wire” sometime.) And from Radio Spirits, a collection that was oodles of fun for me to both listen to and write for: The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, containing two never-before-circulated broadcasts from the program’s third season in October of 1950. Buy ‘em all and trade ‘em with your friends!