Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sundry morning comin’ down

Here are some brief items that I decided to gather up into one big honkin’ post as opposed to sprinkling them across the blog like trail mix:

I’ve been getting some pretty unusual requests in the ol’ TDOY e-mail box as of late. The latest was from an individual who requested that I review his blog and, in return, he would award me with either a pearl necklace or some other sort of monetary compensation. I don’t quite know why he asked me to do this, but I would feel sort of whorish in doing so, which is why I deleted his e-mail. If he’s reading this, I should point out that I’m not an appraiser of jewelry (though I did play one briefly on a justly forgotten UPN sitcom, Loupe de Loupe) so he’d probably be better off in choosing another blog that doesn’t spend a copious amount of free time talking about classic movies, vintage television, old-time radio, etc. I wish the individual who e-mailed me back in July about reviewing the Time-Life release of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Best of Season 3 would get back to me…that’s a bit more in my bailiwick, as it were.

Most of the DVDs that get reviewed by me are paid for out of my own pocket—which is not to say that I look down upon those who get free copies, I most certainly do not…it’s nice work when you can get it. It’s just that I’ve read reviews in the past where someone has been downright effusive in their praise for a disc, only to purchase it and find out that it didn’t live up to its reputation, leading me to wonder if the reviewer’s review wasn’t colored by that fact that they lucked out in getting a promo DVD. I’ve been fortunate in that Restored Serials, a fine independent company that restores public domain serials and feature films on disc, has seen its way clear to sending me a freebie now and then; their revised version of the 1922 Harry Houdini silent The Man From Beyond (which I first reviewed here) is a positive gem—even better than the Kino Video release. Their restoration of the 1934 serial Young Eagles, however, is gorgeous to look at but is sort of like putting lipstick on a pit bull…though it’s not Restored’s fault that the chapter-play is bad—it was like that before it was restored. (It’s affectionately—if that is the appropriate word—known as “Young Turkeys” among serial aficionados.)

I’ve added two new blogs to the blogroll—yes, brave souls who have risked their valued reputations to be associated with Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (once described by a famous person who nevertheless chose to remain anonymous fearing repercussions from powerful forces as “You’re joking, right? There’s actually a real person who writes this nonsense?”). Blacksheep’s bit of the Web is a very interesting site maintained by Edgar in San Francisco; while the primary emphasis is on cross-stitching he frequently offers commentary on movies he’s viewed recently: Casablanca (1942), Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and Shanghai Express (1932), just to name a few. The other “newbie” is Patriots and People, a blog that offers interesting historical perspectives (in fact, TDOY is listed under “Other Perspectives on Truth”—which may be the first and last time “TDOY” and “truth” are used in the same sentence) scribbled down by one James Stripes. I was kind of taken aback to find my blog listed (particularly with that “truth” designation) because even though I’m flattered to be listed among such notables as Bats Left Throws Right and The Nation, I can’t help but think about the opening passage to former country artist Larry Gatlin’s song Midnight Choir (Mogen David) in which he comments that the Bible states “the truth shall make you free” and then remarks: “I’ve written what I consider to be the truth and it’s just made people madder than Hell.” (I was a huge fan of Gatlin's at one time, and though I still like to listen to his older stuff he unfortunately acquired a large coke monkey on his back, prompting him to go into rehab and then gospel music. He once compared former Florida Secretary of State/U.S. Congresswoman Katherine Harris to Rosa Parks, which made me curious if he was back on the cocaine train.)

Here is my blogroll policy, in a nutshell (and I’m adding this only because I’ve received an e-mail or two about it): if you list TDOY on your blogroll (and it may take me a while to discover it; I don’t check Technorati or my Stat Counter as often as I should) for whatever reason, I will gladly reciprocate in kind as long as it doesn’t contain any sort of material that would make my mother blush. (True story: I actually received an e-mail from someone who proposed a link exchange, saying that both our blogs dealt with movies…only to find out that the types of movies he reviewed were ones that would have given the Hays office a stroke. Let’s just say the people in these productions were in bed and did not have one foot on the floor…and let it go at that.) If I haven’t made this clear, allow me to adopt the policy of my fellow blogger Jon Swift: “I will add anyone to my blogroll who adds me to theirs, whether conservative, liberal, moderate, libertarian or Albigensian, with the exception of spam or porn blogs or anything else your mother would be embarrassed to read.”

TVShowsOnDVD.com announced the other day that even though My Three Sons: Series 1, Volume 1 is being released today the Season 1, Volume 2 set will soon follow, scheduled for January 20th. I had, of course, planned to purchase the first volume (available at Amazon for $26.99) but if I wait until January I can get both sets at DeepDiscount.com (aka “The House That Ivan Built”) for $52.55…which is a substantial savings in my book. Messrs. Lacey and Lambert are also trumpeting the good news that the Father Knows Best: Season 2 collection set for a November 11 release will contain the unedited episodes (according to Shout! Factory, “Due to overwhelming fan request, Sony agreed to dig deeper for Season Two, and came up with the longer versions for every episode”—not acknowledging, of course, that these same fans were clamoring for the non-syndication versions before Season 1 was released) which I am pleased as punch to hear. That’s all the news that is the news…good night…and good luck.

Close all the honky tonks

I guess it goes without saying that there was very little chance of my not hearing of Paul Newman’s passing—but as I was leafing through a Newsweek that came in the mail (or it may have been Time—I get them both confused sometimes) I came across an obit that mentioned country singer Charlie Walker’s passing this past September 12th. He was 81.

I’ll come clean here and admit that I often had a tendency to confuse Charlie Walker with Billy Walker—and the fact that Billy had a #1 hit in 1962 with a song called Charlie’s Shoes didn’t help matters much, either. Charlie may not have had the tremendous chart success Billy enjoyed, but he did crack the Top Ten on occasion with records like Only You, Only You, Wild as a Wildcat and Don’t Squeeze My Sharmon—which, ever since I posted the lyrics in this obit for Dick “Mr. Whipple” Wilson—has generated more hits to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear than I could have dreamed imaginable. Charlie’s big million-selling smash came in 1958 with Pick Me Up on Your Way Down, a classic written by songwriting great Harlan Howard which peaked at #2. The success of this record—and subsequent forays into the Top 40—guaranteed him a spot with the Grand Ole Opry in 1967.



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

The Deer Stalker


Monday, September 29, 2008

The Harold Dispatch

TCM ran a quartet of Harold Lloyd comedy shorts last night in the time slot they reserve for silent films, and since I was wide awake at the time they came on I decided to sit down and view them. I’d already seen two of the four, including the best of the bunch—a 1920 outing called Get Out and Get Under, in which our hero, already late for a little theater performance at his girlfriend’s (Mildred Davis, later Mrs. Harold Lloyd in real-life) house, journeys over in his prized jitney (“Only two more payments and it’s all mine”), experiencing automobile trouble along the way. I first saw this winner during a American Movie Classics’ Film Preservation Festival (ah, those were the days) and it’s a lot of fun—the highlight is when he has an encounter with Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, who is bursting with curiosity to watch Harold work on his car. There are a lot of great gags in this one, including a sequence where Harold hides from the cops by driving with a tent over his car; Lloyd later recycled this in Professor Beware (1938)—which. in turn. was “liberated” by the Three Stooges for their 1942 two-reeler Sock-a-Bye Baby.

I’d also seen Among Those Present (1921), which although entertaining isn’t really one of Lloyd’s best outings—not only is it unnecessarily padded by a reel but drops most of its interesting plot points in favor of gags that those familiar with Hal Roach comedies will recognize as staples in the studio’s product (I’m referring to the mistaking-the-skunk-for-a-kitty and I’ve-lost-my-pants examples). Harold’s a coatroom-checker who agrees to pass himself off as the aristocratic Lord Algernon Abbott Aberdeen Abernathy at a shindig given by a nouveau riche Irish couple (whose daughter, Mildred Davis, naturally develops a crush on Harold) because the wife’s social secretary (Vera White) and her partner-in-evilness are in cahoots to relieve the couple of their million-dollar fortune. It’s not a bad short—just a mundane one—but there’s a funny sight gag in which Harold crawls into a hollow log after a fox, followed by a bear…and when the dust clears, he emerges from the log carrying the fox like a stole and leading the bandaged bear on a leash behind him. (I also liked actress Aggie Herring, the actress who plays the mother, because her facial expressions are priceless and her eyes pop out so far you’d swear she had a thyroid condition.)

Robert Osborne announced during this mini-festival that this was the first time TCM had shown From Hand to Mouth (1919), an entertaining little short that also features Harold and Mildred: he’s a down-and-out type always concerned about his next meal and she’s an heiress whose skeevy lawyer (his last name is “Leech,” which will give you an idea of how subtle he is) and immoral foster brother are scheming to grab her fortune by having her kidnapped by ‘Snub’ Pollard (billed as Harry) and Noah Young. (Let’s just say that anytime you come across Young in a Hal Roach film…he’s not there to collect for the United Way.) Pollard and Young enlist the unsuspecting Harold in their diabolical scheme (they ask Lloyd if he knows how to “jimmy” a window; Harold responds by taking the crowbar and breaking the glass) but Harold soon catches on and in Keatonesque fashion, manages to cordon off enough gendarmes to roust the bad guys. I liked Mouth, even if it is awfully reminiscent of both Buster and Chaplin (particularly in the opening scenes and at the end, when Lloyd befriends waif Peggy Cartwright and her dog and the three of them are on the hunt for sustenance).

The last short in this group was Bumping Into Broadway (1919), the first two-reeler Lloyd made as “the glasses” character—and the second-to-last short he made with long-time leading lady Bebe Daniels. Bebe is a chorus girl who’s behind in her rent at the boarding house she’s staying in—Harold, an aspiring playwright, is her neighbor and gives her the money to pay what she owes…even though he needs it just as badly to settle his account. Broadway is breezy if uninspired fun; there is, however, a funny gag in which Harold, having sneaked into the theater where Bebe is employed in a grandfather clock, emerges from his hiding place to see her wearing her skimpy outfit…so he ducks back into the clock and then knocks on the outside door to obtain permission to “visit” with her. He also resorts to the old gag where he dons a large overcoat and “hangs” on a hook to elude a gang of cops (who raid the casino-speakeasy where he’s unwittingly broken the bank); a choice bit of business he would use many times throughout his film career (particularly in Safety Last! [1923]).

Here's one for Bill Crider...


Sunday, September 28, 2008

When jokes go green

“Now see here, Scarlett... I'm crazy about you and always have been. I gave you kisses for breakfast, kisses for lunch, and kisses for supper... and now I find that you're eating out.”

If you’ve ever seen Stalag 17 (1953), you’ll no doubt recognize the preceding bit of dialogue as a Clark Gable impression performed by one of the new arrivals to the P.O.W. camp, played by Jay Lawrence. (The P.O.W. known as “Animal”—played by Robert Strauss—had asked him to do a Grable impression.) So, the other night as I was listening to a Mel Blanc Show broadcast (March 25, 1947), I was amused to hear this exchange between Mel and Professor Potchnik (Alan Reed), the Russian piano teacher and member of the Loyal Order of Benevolent Zebras (Blanc’s fraternal lodge):

POTCHNIK: Hello, Mel…
MEL: Professor Potchnik! My favorite piano teacher—what can I fix for you today?
POTCHNIK: Mel, I want you should fix my tuning fork...
MEL: Well, what’s the matter with your fork? Is it out of tune?
POTCHNIK: No, but when I am eating peas with it, they roll off
MEL: Oh…by the way, Professor—where have you been?
POTCHNIK: As a matter of fact, Mel, I have been hiding out…you know, every day for the last three months I’ve been coming to a beautiful blonde’s house to give her piano lessons…now her husband found out about it and is he sore
MEL: Why should he be sore?
POTCHNIK: They haven’t got a piano!
MEL: Say, Professor—are you going to be at the beauty contest tonight?
POTCHNIK: Of course!
MEL: Isn’t it awful, the bathing suits they’re going to wear?
POTCHNIK: Yeah… (laughing hysterically, he then catches himself) Terrible!
MEL: Uh…listen, Professor…when you get to the lodge meeting tonight, will you vote for my girlfriend, Betty Colby?
POTCHNIK: Mel…I don’t like to interfere, but you are a friend so I am telling you…I am just seeing your girl Betty going into Hill’s jewelry store with that sheik, Hartley Benson…
MEL: Betty going out with Hartley? Oh, I can’t believe it! I just left her and she gave me a dozen kisses…
POTCHNIK: Well, that’s life, Mel…when I first married my Sonia it was the same way…we were having kisses for breakfast, kisses for lunch, kisses for dinner…then I had to get a divorce…
MEL: Why?
POTCHNIK: I caught her eating out!

There’s nothing I enjoy more in this world than listening to a recycled joke. Part of the reason for this is because I like to speculate just how the gag got reused in the first place. I don’t know how it turns up in Stalag 17 (unless it’s such an old standby it worked its way into the screenplay on its own) but I’d like to speculate that the “kisses” joke made its way via Benoff to Howard to Wilder. That is to say, Mac Benoff—the head writer of The Mel Blanc Show—probably introduced it to Cy Howard, creator of Life With Luigi (for which Benoff not only wrote but directed), who lateralled it to Billy Wilder. (Howard was a good friend of Wilder’s, who originally cast him in the Harry Shapiro role in the film because Billy thought Cy was one of the funniest people he knew. As it turns out, Howard wasn’t particularly all that damn funny on film, so Wilder ended up giving the part to Harvey Lembeck instead.)

One of the interesting things that I picked up in my reading (and re-reading, since it’s one of my favorite old-time radio books) Jordan R. Young’s The Laugh Crafters is that while the practice of swiping other people’s material was often frowned upon in comedy writing, it wasn’t necessarily considered a heinous enough crime to bestow the offender with a scarlet letter the rest of their born days (otherwise Milton Berle’s career would have never gotten off the ground). Savannah native Hal Kanter, in one of the interviews in the book, was at first miffed because someone “liberated” a joke he had written:

I remember, I had done a joke for Joe Penner—and three weeks later I heard it on The Judy Canova Show. And I was outraged that somebody had stolen my joke. I’ll never forget the joke—I’ve forgotten in what context it was, but this guy says he takes a milk shower every morning. The other guy says, “You mean a milk bath?” He says, “No, a milk shower.” “How do you take a milk shower?” He says, “I have a very tall cow.” That’s a pretty good joke—it popped up on The Judy Canova Show three weeks later and I was furious about it. And Eddie Davis said, “Don’t be. Just be flattered that somebody’s taken your joke.” He said, “If it’s the last joke you can think of—then worry.”

While I question the time frame Kanter talks about here—Penner passed away in 1941, two years before Canova’s show premiered on CBS (unless Hal is talking about The Chase & Sanborn Hour, a program on which Canova made many appearances with her brother and sister as The Three Canovas)—I find no fault with his philosophy; even Young observes: “They don’t steal if it’s not good.” In fact, many comedy writers often borrowed from themselves, as I’m about to demonstrate here.

One of the interviewees in Jordan’s Laugh Crafters is Charley Isaacs, a veteran comedy scribe who worked with a slew of radio’s “Jesters of the Republic,” to borrow a description from Tom Sutpen. Isaacs—who joked “I worked so damn many shows—it’s the old joke, ‘He couldn’t hold a job’”—started in 1937 with Jack Haley’s The Log Cabin Jamboree and would contribute material to Edgar Bergen, Rudy Vallee, Milton Berle, Spike Jones, Al Jolson and Oscar Levant, Martin & Lewis and many others. In fact, back in April 2004 when I did a write-up on Dean & Jer, I transcribed a routine they did on a November 14, 1949 broadcast that was written by Isaacs and partner Manny Mannheim:

SOAPY: Listen, fellas…I’ve really got your interests at heart and I have one more bona-fide proposition…how would you like to buy a professional football team?
DEAN: Well, that’s not too bad…a pro team…
SOAPY: Yeah… (to Jerry) you like athletes?
JERRY: Oh, sure…I admire athletes…especially girl swimmers…I used to watch ‘em swim every evening when I lived at the YWCA…
DEAN: Jerry…how did you get into the YWCA?
JERRY: I lied about my age…
SOAPY: You know, a lot of the stars have got teams…now, Hope, for instance, he owns part of the Cleveland Indians…and this Crosby, he’s got the Pittsburgh Pirates…and Don Ameche, he invested in the Los Angeles Dons…
JERRY: Gee…I don’t know, Soapy…is the team you wanna sell us any good?
SOAPY: Good, he says…(laughs) good, why we got guys like this “Killer” Thomas…we got “Strangler” Lutz…we got “Butcher” Maronie…I got the whole team, except just two guys…
DEAN: Well, where are they?
SOAPY: They ain’t been paroled yet…
JERRY: Soapy, we wouldn’t want guys on our football team who steal and go around pickin’ pockets…
SOAPY: Well, you don’t have to pay ‘em much salary…between halves, you just turn ‘em loose in the stands…
DEAN: Well, how much money would we have to put into it, Soap?
SOAPY: I’ll tell ya what I’ll do…just for you, I will cut the price to…uh…five thousand dollars…
DEAN; Well, you know what they always say…a fool and his money are soon parted…
SOAPY: Yeah, but this is takin’ longer than usual…
JERRY: Well…what do you say, Dean? Shall we buy the team?
DEAN: But we don’t have $5,000…
JERRY: Don’t worry, I’ll get it…I’ll ask my mother for it…
DEAN: She got it?
JERRY: No.
DEAN: Then what’s the good of asking her?
JERRY: Well…she’d ask Uncle Louie…and Uncle Louie’ll ask Cousin Sarah…and Cousin Sarah’ll ask Aunt Minnie…and Aunt Minnie’ll ask Uncle Herbie…and Uncle Herbie’ll ask my brother-in-law Sam…
DEAN: Oh…Sam got it?
JERRY: No, but haven’t I got a big family…???

As it turns out, Isaacs and Mannheim had used this material previously on an October 30, 1947 broadcast of The Kraft Music Hall starring Al Jolson and Oscar Levant. In this version, guest William Bendix is the one trying to sell Jolie on the idea of a football team investment. I’ve transcribed a bit of the KMH version, and I personally think the material works slightly better for Jolson (even though Al wasn’t much of a “comedian”), particularly the “I lied about my age” gag, which was used on subsequent shows as sort of a Jolie catchphrase:

BENDIX: Hey, uh…Asa?
JOLSON: Asa?
BENDIX: Asa, I…I got a proposition for ya…but first I gotta ask ya…do you like athletes?
JOLSON: Of course I do, Bill…I admire athletes…especially girl swimmers…I…I used to watch them swim every evening when I lived at the YWCA…
BENDIX: Jolson…
JOLSON: What?
BENDIX: How did you get in the YWCA?
JOLSON (coyly): I lied about my age…
BENDIX: Look, Al…
JOLSON: Yeah?
BENDIX: You know, we’re both big radio stars…we’re supposed to be in the public eye…but you don’t hear much about us…
JOLSON: Well, that’s right…you see, you never read in the gossip columns about Al Jolson or Bill Bendix—I don’t understand that…
BENDIX: Well, maybe that’s because we ain’t goin’ together…but the thing I’m gettin’ at, Asa, is…is that most of the big stars own some kind of athletic team…you know, Crosby and Hope, they got baseball teams…Don Ameche’s got a football team…that’s what we gotta have, Jolson—a football team!
JOLSON: Oh, Bill…I don’t play much anymore…really I don’t...
BENDIX: But you don’t have to play…I got guys like “Killer” Jones…“Strangler” Utolde…“Butcher” Renelli…I got the whole team, except two guys…

JOLSON: Where are they?
BENDIX: They haven’t been paroled yet…
JOLSON: Now listen, Wilbur…
BENDIX: Mm hmm?
JOLSON: I…I don’t wanna hire any gangsters to play on my football team…
BENDIX: But you don’t have to pay ‘em much salary…between halves, you just turn ‘em loose in the stands…
JOLSON: Wait a minute…now Bill, wait a minute…now just a moment…just how much money do you expect me to put into this project?
BENDIX: Eight million bucks…
JOLSON: Eight million dollars for a football team?
BENDIX: Oh, sure…we gotta build a stadium
JOLSON: But it doesn’t cost eight million dollars to build a stadium…
BENDIX: Well, we gotta buy a university!
JOLSON: With these boys, we don’t need to buy a university—some dark night we go out to Westwood and swipe UCLA!
BENDIX: But look at the publicity we’d get when we’d play teams like the Los Angeles Dons…the Chicago Bears…the Washington Redskins…
JOLSON: Washington Redskins?
BENDIX: Yeah!
JOLSON: I know the coach there! J. Parnell Thomas!
BENDIX: Al, you’ll have the greatest thrill of your life when you see our team run out on the field…wearing their blue jerseys with the yellow streak down the back…
JOLSON: Wait a minute…wait a minute…a yellow streak down the back? What’s the idea?
BENDIX: That makes the other team overconfident…
JOLSON: Oh, I see…
BENDIX: Al—will you invest, huh?
JOLSON: Now, Bill, wait a minute…you know the old saying…”A fool and his money are soon parted…”
BENDIX: Yeah, but this is takin’ longer than usual…

As the routine continues, Jolson pumps Bendix for information on his experience with athletics and Bendix declares that he was “with the White Sox for years.” “What did you do?” asks Jolie. Bendix sheepishly replies: “Washed socks.”

Jolson: “That makes you the original Bendix washer.” He gets a big laugh with this line, even though he ad-libs to himself: “Hey, Corny Jolson…”

Lucy...you got some 'splainin' to do...


Saturday, September 27, 2008

I woke up this morning to find…

…that Paul Newman has passed away at age 83. My God, this sucks.

Sometimes when my father is at the wheel and I’m riding shotgun, we’ll pass a county mountie writing out a ticket to some speeding scofflaw, and that will prompt me to remark (in my best Jackie Gleason impression): “What we're dealing with here is a complete lack of respect for the law.” This is my father’s cue to resurrect the famous line spoken by warden Strother Martin in Cool Hand Like (1967): “What we have here is…failure…to communicate.” I’ve lost count how many times he and I have sat down and watched that movie—but it seems like every time he went channel surfing and discovered it on, say, AMC…well, it wouldn’t budge until the movie was over.

In the NY Times obituary, they reprint one of Newman’s most memorable observations: ''I was always a character actor. I just looked like Little Red Riding Hood.'' While I love Newman’s earlier vehicles—The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Hombre (1967), Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Sting (1973)—I think the performances that came later in his career (Fat Man and Little Boy [1989], Nobody’s Fool [1994]) had a great deal more nuance and depth. My all-time favorite Newman performance (and the one that should have nabbed him the Oscar, Ben Kingsley be damned) is in The Verdict (1982); his portrayal of drunk and disgraced attorney Frank Galvin, who reclaims his soul in a controversial trial involving the death of a woman at the hands of a negligent hospital staff, leaves me emotionally drained every time I see it. (Newman eventually won a “legitimate” Oscar for The Color of Money [1986], after collecting first an honorary statuette and later the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his charitable work.)

There’s another great Newman quote in the Times obit; a comment on his long-term marriage to wife Joanne Woodward, with whom Newman appeared in several films and who also starred in several vehicles directed by her husband (including the Oscar-winning Rachel, Rachel [1968]). “I have steak at home—why go out for hamburger?” (I’ll bet if a lot of couples sat down and really meditated on that phrase the divorce rate would precipitously plunge in a good way.)

Faithful TDOY readers might be aware that I’m the only member of my family who really has an affinity for classic movies (well, my Mom sometimes does—as long as it’s one of the Universal horror films or Casablanca). My father refuses to watch anything in black-and-white (unless there are cowboys and injuns involved) and sister Kat says “classic movies” in the same tone of voice one would use if the words “Nazi Germany” came tripping off one’s tongue. But one night, my other sister (Debbie) called me up when I was still living in Morgantown, WV and she asked me what I was doing; I replied that I was watching Paul Newman in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956).

“Hmm,” was her response. “I haven’t seen that one…I’ll have to check it out sometime.” I thought this might be her way of making idle chit-chat, but she told me she really liked Newman a lot.

For that…and for so many other reasons…R.I.P, Mr. Newman. You will be sorely missed.

Hey...that's MY mantra!


Friday, September 26, 2008

This one's for Rodney...


Tanned, rested and ready

First of all, I want to apologize for being away from the blog for so long. That old trouble of mine has been kicking up again—that’s right, pure ol’ bone-natural laziness. I ceased blogging about ten days ago because I honestly couldn’t think of anything to say and by the time I did have something to say, I was busy finishing up liner notes for the October Premier Collection from First Generation Radio Archives. (I won’t spoil the surprise for anyone, but I can tell you that the release is going to be a real pip.) So I’d also like to thank devoted TDOY followers like Jeff, Ron and the ubiquitous Pam (who scolded me properly, saying that the least I could do was post a brief message saying all was well and I’d get back to normal posting once the brouhaha died down) for being concerned enough to e-mail me or leave a comment asking if everything was all right.

With the completion of projects for both FGRA and Radio Spirits, I’m pleased to report that the old-time radio bug has bitten me again. Most of the vast TDOY OTR holdings were offered up for sale during Operation Clutter, a situation that I knew I would come to regret later but still had to be done (since I had precious little room for the stuff to begin with). I did manage to keep some old-time radio CDs, and every now and then I’ll find some of them stashed away in some boxes that are in a semi-unpacked status in the closets here at Rancho Yesteryear—but the majority of the collection is currently making itself at home at my father’s newly-rented storage area here in Athens (my Britcom collection, sad to say, lives right next to it).

So, when you get a hankering to listen to OTR, there are several avenues available. There’s the WRVO Playhouse, which is carried online but currently broadcasts around 10pm (a time when I’m usually finishing up watching my news shows of choice) and there are several Shoutcast stations who dip into Radio’s Golden Age as well. But seeing as how I prefer to program my own preferences, I decided to download some mp3’s from various and sundry sites (thanks to Jeff Kallman for the suggestions), particularly http://www.archive.org/, which maintains that their OTR material is in the public domain even though I know that some of it is not.

Among the goodies I found were the complete radio run (1974-76) of Dad’s Army, the venerable Britcom about the misadventures of members of Britain’s Home Guard during World War II. Those of you who have read the blog over the years probably know that I’m a bit of an Anglophile when it comes to comedy, and I’d honestly have to say that Army is my favorite Britcom of all time. The radio series is every bit as good as the TV version, and when the first and second series was released on Region 2 DVD (as Dad’s Army: The Complete First Series Plus the “Lost” Episodes of Series Two) the radio versions of “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Walker,” “A Stripe for Frazer” and “Under Fire” were released on the disc to replace the missing (presumed wiped) TV episodes. (Archive.org also has the complete radio run of All Gas and Gaiters—based on the 1966-71 ecclesiastical comedy which, sad to report, only exists in eleven televised installments—and some selected episodes of Steptoe and Son.)

On the American side of radio, I downloaded some interesting shows including the full run of The Mel Blanc Show—a 1946-47 sitcom featuring the famed second banana (Jack Benny, Abbott & Costello, Burns & Allen, etc.) as the proprietor of a fix-it shop who usually created more chaos than repairs. I’ve written about Blanc’s program in the past and while I’ve warmed up to it a little more than previously stated; I still have to agree with Harlan “The Voice” Zinck, who opined that “with the cast that show had, it should have been much better.” I’ve been enjoying listening to the antics of Jim Backus on the series—he played a Beau Brummel-type named “Hartley Benson” whose purpose on the program was to beat Mel’s time with Mel’s fiancée Betty Colby (Mary Jane Croft). Backus’s take on the character is sort of a Ronald Colman-type, and I have to admit laughing out loud at it even though his material isn’t particularly strong. (I also like the shows in which Mel’s future Flintstones compadre, Alan Reed, played the Russian piano teacher, Mr. Potchnik.)

The biggest surprise in all these downloads is a series that I was aware of but had honestly never given a listen to—The Magnificent Montague, a wet-your-pants-funny sitcom starring character great Monty Woolley as a ham Shakespearean actor (Edwin “The Magnificent” Montague) who’s been out of work for so long that he’s forced to take a job on an afternoon radio program playing a distaff Ma Perkins dubbed “Uncle Goodheart.” This series is positively hysterical; it was created and written (with an assist from Billy Friedburg) by Nat Hiken, who of course went on to greater glories in television with The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where are You? I don’t see Montague mentioned much in articles that deal with Hiken, and it’s a damn shame—Woolley is dead solid perfect as Montague (channeling Sheridan Whiteside from The Man Who Came to Dinner) and is aided and abetted by a fabulous supporting cast in Anne Seymour (who plays his wife), Pert Kelton (as their maid Agnes—who appears to be the twin sister of Thelma Ritter), John “Ethelbert” Gibson (“Don’t hit me!”), John Griggs, Gavin Gordon, Art Carney, Bob Hastings and many more. Kelton, Gibson and Griggs had previously worked with Hiken on The Milton Berle Show and Texaco Star Theater (the 1948-49 incarnation with Berle), and one episode (December 22, 1950) features an appearance from Berle Show alumnus Arnold Stang as a bratty little monster Montague takes home on Christmas by mistake. (I also thought a January 19, 1951 episode featuring Montague in Hollywood was riotous—particularly the performance of Alan Reed, who plays an unctuous studio head: “Whatever you want—you’re my boy!”) Plus, if you ever wondered what Don Pardo did before Saturday Night Live—well, you can add Montague to his resume.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Salesmanship


Long tall Texan

It never fails…whenever I’m experiencing a critical cash flow, that’s the time they start rolling out the vintage television goodies on DVD.

Case in point: TVShowsOnDVD.com has the skinny on Timeless Media Group’s upcoming box set (due out November 18th) The Texan: The Best of, which I mentioned briefly here on the blog in July. The 1958-60 CBS western series, which starred Rory Calhoun as fast gun Bill Longley, ran for a total of seventy-eight episodes over two seasons, and Timeless Media Group had put out feelers among the TV collectors’ community to see if they could track down five missing episodes. Not only did they fail to locate the prodigal segments—they discovered that three additional installments were incomplete…which means they’ll only be releasing seventy episodes on a 10-DVD set. Still, it will be nice to see a rare program like this get some exposure—Minow knows you won’t be running across it on TVLand anytime soon, particularly since that channel is going to hell in a hand basket.

Timeless Media Group is also releasing a pair of DVD sets dedicated to one of television’s long-running westerns: a three-disc collection with twelve episodes of Wagon Train (the hour-long, black-and-white version—which will be called Wagon Train: Going West and will hit the trail near you on October 7th) and a much more ambitious release of the entire color season (1963-64) of the series—which also expanded its format to ninety minutes in an effort to ape its competition at the time, The Virginian. This sixteen-disc set, containing all thirty-two color episodes, will also contain an additional sixteen black-and-white shows promoted by Timeless as “best-loved” shows. The press release doesn’t specify whether or not any of the early episodes featuring Ward Bond will be included (he’s definitely not on the 3-DVD set, and he passed away before the show switched to color) but I certainly hope so; our RTN affiliate WSB runs a two-hour block of Wagon Train from 11:00am to 1:00pm on Saturdays and Sundays and I have really gotten a kick out of seeing those shows. The street date for this set is November 4th.

TVShowsOnDVD.com also has the box art for the second season of Mannix up, and some clips from the Adam-12: Season 2 set due out in two weeks (September 30th). (The second season of Adam-12 is being released by Shout! Factory—and I’m looking on this optimistically as a sign that the Factory might take on further releases of Dragnet as well.)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Me and my Shadow

I apologize for the recent drought here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, but I had to curtail posting activity in order to finish a liner notes project for the good people at Radio Spirits. If you look to the right (under “Now Available at Radio Spirits”), you’ll notice that I’ve added a pair of new RS collections that contain notes scribbled down by your humble blogmeister: a four-CD set of Rogue’s Gallery broadcasts starring tough-guy crooner Dick Powell, and an eight-CD collection spotlighting the Clown Master himself, Red Skelton. Naturally, I wouldn’t be much of a salesman if I didn’t recommend you buy both sets but if you have to choose one over the other, you can’t go wrong with the Skelton set…particularly since many of the broadcasts are in circulation for the first time in years (obtained, natch, from the Skelton estate).

In working on this weekend’s project, I was suddenly transported back to an earlier, simpler time—though I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I wasn’t fortunate enough to experience Radio’s Golden Age at the peak of its powers. I was, however, lucky to have experienced the “nostalgia boom” during the 1970s when many of the classic broadcasts were repeated for the enjoyment of both new audiences and old-timers who never forgot. My first experience with old-time radio, as I’ve noted before, was listening to Lum & Abner as a tadpole on WCAW-AM in Charleston, WV…and as I got older, I continued to seek out these old shows wherever I could find them.

I used to listen to Ohio University’s station WOUB (Athens, OH) as a high school student in Ravenswood, WV…and it was a big influence on my life, even to the point of inspiring me to seek out a career in broadcasting. (I had wanted to attend Ohio U. upon graduation…but the cost of out-of-state tuition put the kibosh on that, and I hadn’t applied myself enough to earn a scholarship.) In 1977, WOUB used to present a program on Monday nights called Monday Night at the Radio, and it was on this show that I was first introduced…to The Shadow.

Unfortunately at that time, the “Shad” didn’t come on until 10:30pm; the first half-hour was devoted to a BBC quiz show called My Word, and to this very day, I still have a deep-seated animosity toward that program. I’ve listened to repeats via the Internets on many occasions, and while it’s a charming show (the kind the Brits do so well), back in 1977 it would cause me to break out in hives because my bedtime was 9:30am and I was in complete agony, waiting for it to end. I was flaunting serious violations of bedtime protocol because any minute The Old Man could walk by and hear me chuckling at Frank Muir or Denis Norden. Actually, my father rarely walked by, he would just burst in suddenly like Parental Police (“Up against the wall, you little !@#$%!”) and I would then be allowed to request an attorney (and a complete change of underwear), a part usually played (and rather ineffectually, I should add) by my mother. (“Christ, I don’t know why he’s still up at twenty-past-ten…I’ve been telling you for years the kid’s not right!”)

The first Shadow broadcast I remember listening to was “The Man Who Lived Twice,” which I recently hunted down online and played just to see if the show held up…and I’m sorry to report it does not. The plot, what little there is of it, regales listeners with the saga of “Slasher” Evans, an escaped convict who’s meaner than a junkyard dog and has an unpleasant habit of “slashing” the faces of his robbery victims if they give him too much static during holdups. (Hey…what are you going to do—those prisons are overrun with criminals!) A man named John Carlton, who’s Evans’ brother, gives Lamont Cranston, wealthy young man-about-town, and his “friend and companion” Margo Lane a tip that Evans might be hiding out somewhere in the Bayou…and quicker than you can say filet gumbo, our heroes track Evans down and witness his last-minute attempt to escape punishment for his nefarious deeds. The two of them return to inform Carlton of his brother’s demise, only Lamont is running a tad late—but the reason for this is he’s gone into Shadow-mode and reveals to Commissioner Weston that Carlton is the man he wants…the clever fiend was posing as his own brother! (Choice line from Ms. Lane: “Yes…yes, that could have been his plan.”) I will admit, though—no other program could pull off such a far-fetched story; it was good ole fashioned blood-and-thunder melodrama done to a turn.

As a tad, I thought the whole concept of The Shadow was cool beyond measure. Imagine being able to cloak yourself in invisibility through hypnosis and doing heroic things like fighting crime and sneaking into the girls’ locker room. As I would listen to subsequent broadcasts, I literally listened with my head on top of my clock radio—one ear on the program, the other serving as sentry for the eventual arrival of Dad Cop—and be fascinated by “the theater of the mind.” (Eventually I went and purchased some headphones so that my father couldn’t hear it…but it just wasn’t the same after that.)

WOUB even had a “Shadow Club” you could join, whereupon you would receive a membership card with a code printed on it so you could decipher secret messages announced after each broadcast. As you might expect, the content of these secret missives consisted of the same lame pronouncements found in that memorable scene in A Christmas Story (“A crummy commercial! Son of a bitch!”) but since this was public radio it was more like “Don’t forget to tune into the Boston Pops next week” or something like that. The station even gave away Shadow T-shirts, and I was the button-busting proud owner of one even though I could only wear it one time (when it emerged from the dryer the only one who could wear it afterward was the family cat). Sadly, neither the shirt nor membership card exist in the dusty TDOY archives…a casualty of the moves to Huntington, then Savannah, then Morgantown, then back to Savannah again.

Friday, September 12, 2008

TV-on-DVD updates

TVShowsOnDVD.com has put up a pair of announcements for two new DVD releases of some classic boomer shows; the first being the long-awaited sixth and final season of Daniel Boone. This release has been a long time coming; the fifth season of the popular 1964-70 adventure series was trotted out a year ago (August 2007) and apparently the hold-up on the sixth season had something to do with a shake-up in the company that owned the broadcast/DVD rights. Apparently, Amazon.com has Dan’l listed for a November 11, 2008 release…but this could be a trap.

From CBS DVD-Paramount, the second season of detective fave Mannix is headed for DVDdom in January (January 6th, to be precise). This is good news for Mike Connors fans (I guess the first set must have sold well) because CBS/Paramount will be releasing the second season in non-split-season form. I’m not yet certain as to whether or not I’ll take a flutter on this one; I bought the first season only because of its rarity and because I had seen a handful of first-season episodes on some public domain releases and thought they were very well done. A dissenting opinion on the inaugural season, however, can be found at Stephen Bowie’s Classic TV History Blog—I don’t agree with everything Stephen says (Mannix’s format in the second season changed to your typical gumshoe show, whereas the first season offered a little more panache) in this piece, but as always it’s well-written and researched. (Incidentally, Season 2 of Mannix is when the lovely Gail Fisher was added to the cast as Joe’s gal Friday, Peggy Fair.)

TVShowsOnDVD.com also has press releases up for M Squad: The Complete Series (I gotta have this one) and The Donna Reed Show: The Complete First Season; I’m curious as to how far they’re going to go with the Reed box sets insomuch as the series ran for eight seasons (274 episodes) but many of the episodes weren’t included in the syndication package. According to the press release, the deal for this box set was arranged through Reed’s family so maybe they’re sitting on some shows we don’t know about. I will confess, though: I was never a huge fan of The Donna Reed Show but if I can help bring about additional releases I certainly wouldn’t object to buying this 4-DVD set when it comes out on October 28th (which, incidentally, marks the 50th anniversary of the sitcom's debut).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

“Either I’m dead right, or I’m crazy!”

Even though I own a copy of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) on DVD—and even though Turner Classic Movies showcases the film on a regular basis (if memory serves me correct, it popped up in August during a day-long salute to Claude Rains)—I’m sort of surprised that it’s been so long since I revisited this landmark American film. I caught it last night as part of TCM’s salute to political movies on Wednesday nights this September.

I’m sure everybody’s familiar with the plot, but for the uninformed: a young idealist named Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is appointed to fill out the unfinished term of a recently departed Senator beholden to a big honkin’ political machine run by Jim Taylor (played by the poster boy for fat-cat capitalists, Edward Arnold). Taylor isn’t convinced that Smith will “follow orders” but senior Senator Joseph Paine (Rains) assures Taylor he can keep Smith in line. Smith’s first day in Washington finds him sight-seeing around D.C., checking out all the monuments—much to the amazement of his assistant Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), whose jaded, seen-it-all outlook on life contrasts sharply with her new boss’ starry-eyed idealism. A mob of reporters—led by tipsy, cynical Thomas Mitchell—“interview” Smith and paint a picture of the new meat as an outright buffoon in their newspapers. An outraged Smith looks to Paine for advice, and Paine suggests he find a project to work on his own; Smith has such a project—a “boys’ camp” to be built and run in their home state—but it will conflict with a proposed dam to be built on the same site…a project that will line the pockets of “Big” Jim Taylor and all his other political pals. When Smith refuses to back down from his bill, Paine sets him up as the fall guy in Taylor’s graft scheme…and the novice senator resorts to a Senate floor filibuster to prove his innocence.

In introducing this movie last night, TCM icon Robert Osborne referred to Smith as “the greatest film about Congress”—an appellation that I think is a little unfair, considering there’s not a whole of lot of competition in that category. I do, however, think that Smith is the one movie that we wish best represented our idealization of how democracy should function; it’s a marvelous movie, even though we all know doggone well it isn’t the way the system really works. (In fact, were if it not for the overwrought “confession” by Raines’ senior senator that Stewart’s Smith is innocent, Mr. Smith would end up having to resign, a patsy to the end.)

Jimmy Stewart knew instinctively that the part of Jefferson Smith was the acting opportunity of a lifetime, and even classic movie buffs not normally sold on Stewart have to grudgingly admit he was aces as the gosh-all-fishhooks country boy who gets a lesson on the (un)niceties of the democratic process. In a sane world, Stewart would have nabbed an Best Actor Oscar for Smith (or at the very least, George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life) instead of taking his pal Henry Fonda’s Oscar (for 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath) with what I consider to be one of Stewart’s lesser showcases, the fast-talking (see what I mean?) reporter in The Philadelphia Story (1940).

Naturally, I’ve always been a fan of this movie because of the mere presence of Jean Arthur (interestingly, she gets top billing here), who was equally wonderful alongside Stewart in the previous example of Capra-corn, You Can’t Take It With You (1938). Why she never won an Oscar during her lengthy career (she was nominated only once, for 1943’s The More the Merrier) is a mystery left to the ages but she does her usual outstanding work in Smith as a cynic transformed by Stewart’s wide-eyed innocence. Frank Capra’s spot-on direction and Sidney Buchman’s Oscar-nominated script (the story, written by Lewis R. Foster, did nab a bit of Oscar gold) are just two of the assets in a film whose real strength, I think, is its stellar supporting cast: Guy Kibbee, Eugene Pallette (memorably described by Arthur as “a gorilla in a suit”), Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Astrid Allwyn, Ruth Donnelly, Grant Mitchell, Porter Hall, Jack Carson, Charles Lane and William Demarest. (The presence of Hall, Demarest and Al Bridge convinced me briefly that I had stumbled into a Preston Sturges film by accident.)

As the story goes, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington had a gala premiere at the National Press Club in Washington, DC and stirred up some controversy when several reporters and senators walked out on the film in protest. Apparently the members of the Fourth Estate were ticked because the newshounds in the film were depicted as heavy drinkers (but honestly: reporters in movies of that era were always portrayed as lushes—you mean to tell me that’s the first time real newshounds noticed?), and the senators were a bit nonplussed that the movie suggested that there might be corruption (shocking!) lurking about in the halls of Congress. (Personally, I think they were cheesed off at the depiction of an honest senator among that august body…but then people have always remarked that I’m a bit of a cynic.)

What year is this...2004?


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

“It’s not the heat, it’s the humanity.”

Well, I ended up putting the two Disney flicks that Thad sent me on the back burner yesterday because as I was innocently flipping channels to see what else was on I saw that TCM was running Brigadoon (1954) that afternoon…followed by Cabin in the Sky (1943). While I’m not quite as “musicals mad” as my friend and frequent TDOY commenter Pam, Brigadoon is one of the rare movie musicals welcome here at Rancho Yesteryear.

Tommy Albright (Gene Kelly) and Jeff Douglas (Van Johnson) are American tourists in Scotland, determined to shoot a brace of defenseless woodland grouse, when they come across a strange village whose name serves as the movie’s title. Tommy falls head-over-heels for a girl named Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse), whose sister Jean (Virginia Bosler) is scheduled to marry a local lad named Charles Dalrymple (Jimmy Thompson)—so as luck would have it, the entire hamlet is ready to party like its 1999, and invite Tommy and Jeff as guests to the proceedings. The two men soon learn that there’s something not quite right about Brigadoon—it’s an enchanted village that appears for one day every one hundred years. Since Tommy has it bad for Fiona, he has an opportunity to join Brigadoon’s inhabitants…but he’s yet to convince himself he believes in its magic.

Brigadoon is a favorite for many reasons. First, it stars Kelly and Charisse, whose sensual dancing together neatly skirts around Topic A (Charisse once remarked before her passing that the film was her favorite among the movies she made alongside Kelly). It’s a much subtler movie than many of the Kelly musicals; not as much “in-your-face” as, say, On the Town (1949) or An American in Paris (1951). Plus the story (by Alan Jay Lerner) is so doggone captivating, and even though it breaks a few rules to give the movie a happy ending it never mattered that much to me (especially when both Kelly and Charisse have won me over).

Brigadoon is a beautiful film, masterly directed by the great Vincente Minnelli—and though I often remark that the proof is in the pudding, one of the things that makes this film so wonderful is that even though Minnelli and Kelly were refused permission to shoot on location in Scotland, the fact that it ended up being filmed on studio sets doesn’t hurt the film at all (in fact, I’m not certain it would have worked with “realistic” sets, seeing as the village is hardly “real” in itself). I love Minnelli’s trademark languid camera shots, how they lovingly caress the breathtaking beauty of the village and satisfy the longing of anyone who’s fed up with “the rat race” and would like nothing more than to spend tranquil quality time in a place where time really doesn’t matter.

I’m also a Brigadoon fan because it’s one of the few films I’m able to tolerate Van Johnson in. My blogging compadre Stacia at She Blogged by Night is currently soliciting responses to a post she’s written on which “great actors” annoy you the most. I originally thought about naming Clark Gable—who I haven’t ever liked in anything—but since that would mean my giving him points for acting I went with Van instead. I have no idea why Johnson fills me with such enmity, but apart from Brigadoon and State of the Union (1948) I’d rather chew off my own foot than watch him in a film.

One of my favorite musical numbers of all time is in Brigadoon—that wonderful soft-shoe bit by Kelly and Johnson in I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean—and the movie itself contains so many memorable songs: Almost Like Being in Love, The Heather on the Hill, etc. Unfortunately, they cut quite a few tunes from the stage version, particularly The Love of My Life and My Mother’s Wedding Day, whose lyrics were a bit too racy for the likes of the Breen office (and explains the shortened screen time of character Meg Brockie, played here by Dodie Heath). (Others excised include Come to Me, Bend to Me, From This Day On and The Sword Dance—all three of these can be seen as “extras” on the Brigadoon DVD, with the fourth [There But For You Go I] available only in its audio version.)

Funny...I thought James Garner and Jack Kelly were the "Original Mavericks"...


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

It’s not TV. It’s H…come to think of it; I don’t know WHAT it is…

Well, the free HBO/Cinemax weekend has come and gone and I can count on one hand the number of movies that I can honestly say was worth the time and effort. To Sunday’s list, I would add The Devil Wears Prada (2006), a smart, bitchy comedy set in the world of fashion that stars Anne Hathaway as an aspiring journalist who secures a one-of-a-kind job opportunity as second assistant to Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep), the autocratic doyenne of a fashion magazine (dubbed Runway). I’ve yet to be impressed by Hathaway (with the exception of Get Smart [2008]—in which I thought she was miscast—she seems to play the same character in everything she’s in) but Streep makes the most of her meaty part (I love how her character rarely raises her voice above a dull roar) and one of my favorite character actors, Stanley Tucci, is top-notch in his role as one of the magazine’s flunkies as well. If there’s a teensy flaw in Prada, it’s that the ending is a bit unsatisfying; the plot of the film features Hathaway’s Andy Sachs slowly selling her soul as she becomes more and more successful at her job—I would have liked to have seen a small bit of retribution happen to her at the close, but everything works out hunky-dunky. (Stupid happy endings…)

Knocked Up (2007), a comedy with a plot situation similar to Waitress (2007), sort of represents to me what I dislike about movie comedies today. It’s not that it’s devoid of laughs (some of the one-liners are first-rate, particularly the one from Paul Rudd who, after being scolded by his wife [Leslie Mann] for allowing the kids to get hyper, cracks: “I knew I shouldnt’ve given them all that meth”), it’s just that most the situations in the film really aren’t all that funny and could have easily been excised (particularly since the film itself is a little over two hours long—and it doesn’t need to be).

Here’s the story in a nutshell: pot-smoking slacker Ben Stone (Seth Rogen—who’s kind of a larger and cruder Albert Brooks) has a one-night stand with TV reporter Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), which results in Alison’s pregnancy eight weeks later. She’s decided on keeping the baby; he decides to become a more responsible individual in order to win her over—but to be honest, I never thought their characters clicked at anytime during the movie and I can’t help but think that writer-director Judd Apatow was trying to manipulate me into being on their side…which I refused to do (Rogen’s a loser, and Heigl’s character is a bit immature). Apatow, with the success of The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), has sort of become Hollywood’s flavor of the month. (I fell asleep watching Virgin, so my opinion probably counts for bupkiss.)

As an example of a gag that’s in the movie but could just as easily been removed in the editing room, Rogen and Rudd (he’s Heigl’s brother) decide to have a “guys’ night out” in Vegas and they stop by Rogen’s so he can get his gear. Rogen learns that his roommates have all contracted conjunctivitis (pink eye), which resulted from one of his roomies farting on someone’s pillow, etc, etc, etc. Another roomie happens by whose eyes are really red—but he explains he doesn’t have pink eye…he’s just really baked. Now—the described situation isn’t really all that hilarious (unless you’re a sucker for scatological humor) and it doesn’t advance the plot any—so why bother including it in the film? (Save it for the director’s cut!)

I made a valiant try at watching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) but this one moves at such a glacial pace that I was fast asleep within the first hour (I’ve seen the 1939 film with Tyrone Power, so I think I know how it turns out). The 2007 James is one of those revisionist western homages undertaken by Hollywood from time to time; one of those movies where everybody talksslowanddeliberate…in order to make the dialogue sound more profound. So with that said and done, I hope to make my way back to Classic Film Land tomorrow with a pair of Walt Disney classics recently sent to me by my good chum and fellow blogger Thad Komorowski.

The next thing we’re gonna hear is that she DIDN’T shoot the moose…

The blogosphere just can’t seem to show enough love for Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who’s being touted the length and longth of the Internets as the greatest thing since soft-serve ice cream. Fortunately, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and The Nation’s Washington editor Chris Hayes are able to slap on a little Skin Bracer:



Thanks…I needed that.

The Possession of John McCain


Monday, September 8, 2008

“Heeeeyyyyyyo!”

Admittedly, I was looking for info about another Mill Creek Entertainment release when I stumbled across an item scheduled for a street date of September 16th: a 4-DVD set entitled The Best of Johnny Carson and Friends. This collection is stuffed with many of the primetime Johnny Carson Show (1955-56) episodes previously thought to be lost but “rediscovered” by Carson’s widow Joanne and released earlier by Shout! Factory last year (which I discussed here). In addition, there are a pair of Who Do You Trust? episodes (a game show Johnny inherited from Edgar Bergen and moved to the daytime hours, where his announcer was a young buck named Ed McMahon), plus installments of Carson’s Cellar and The Johnny Carson Morning Show.

Disc 4 of this collection is devoted to a cornucopia of Milton Berle Show kinescopes (most of them public domain, and previously released in other collections) and there’s a smattering of offerings ranging from Shower of Stars to The Colgate Comedy Hour to Bobby Darin & Friends. The shows that have definitely piqued my interest are a pair of Caesar’s Hour telecasts; Hour being Sid’s follow-up series to the legendary Your Show of Shows. This entire set has a MSRP price tag of $14.95 but if I can find it somewhere else for less I might entertain thoughts of snagging a copy.

Over at TVShowsOnDVD.com, Messrs. Lacey and Lambert inform us that the release date of Popeye the Sailor: Volume 3: 1941-43 has been moved up to November 4th. They don’t offer up an explanation for the update, but Thad Komorowski (after joking that the spinach-eating strong man is taking “shore leave”) says it’s has to do with some logos on the shorts that are being fixed by Warner’s. There’s also package art up at TVShows for the Lone Ranger DVD collection due to be released a week later (November 11th); I’m not particularly blown away by it but it will have to be a must-buy for Mom, who’s always been ga-ga over the Masked Man.

Finally, TVShowsOnDVD.com has an announcement on some scheduled “extras” included in the upcoming Father Knows Best: Season 2 release (also due out on Nov.11): they will include “The Teacher,” an episode of Window on Main Street (the series FKB star Robert Young appeared on after Best called it quits) and two FKB episodes: “Stagecoach to Yuma” (12/07/55; a show that aired during the second season that served as a pilot for a Western series) and “First Disillusionment” (11/16/59), an episode that aired during Season Six and was essentially a re-cut version of a Season Two entry. Great news for FKB fans—though I’d be a lot more impressed if they concentrated on releasing the non-bonus stuff in their complete versions as opposed to the syndication prints.

Taken to the woodshed

MSNBC says Olbermann, Matthews won't anchor

During her acceptance speech last week, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin talked about the "Washington elite" not accepting her qualifications for the job. Some delegates on the convention floor began chanting, "N-B-C, N-B-C."

Olbermann began to have difficulty keeping his opinions in check, or simply stopped trying.

He sarcastically dismissed GOP pundit Pat Buchanan on the air after Buchanan said the GOP had been enlivened by the entrance of a conservative Republican.

"Those reading US Weekly with the picture of her and her youngest daughter with the word `scandal' written across it won't be so happy," Olbermann said.

He expressed little sympathy at another point when GOP anger at rumors over the Internet about Palin were being discussed.

"We'll see if people feel sorry for unfounded rumors on the Internet," he said. "If that's the case, Sen. Obama's probably standing up and cheering and waiting for people to feel sorry for him."

I don't buy the bit in this report about how the network sent Olbermann back to New York during the GOP convention "to anchor coverage of Hurricane Gustav." but then I really don't care. Olbermann's the only journalist to turn to when a voice of reason and sanity is needed, and it tickles me to no end when he gets the right's knickers in a twist.

Give 'em Hell, Keith...

Update: As always, the endlessly readable Glenn Greenwald has the real scoop behind MSNBC's decision to have Keith "anchor coverage of Hurricane Gustav," and if you've guessed that it involves the White House, the McCain campaign (golly--how will a President McCain ride herd on terrorists if he doesn't have the stones to stand up to Olbermann?) and the forever whining lunatic right-wing, have a cigar...

Bad reporter! No latte!


Sunday, September 7, 2008

R.I.P., Our Dancing Daughter

Silent screen siren Anita Page dies at 98

“Oh, I love living vicariously through the pain and suffering of others…”

Two days into the free HBO/Cinemax on Demand weekend (being provided by my cable company, CharredHer) and I’d say I’m batting about .233 with regards to the movies I’ve chosen. I started out on Friday watching a trio of HBO documentaries; the best of the bunch being The Recruiter (2008), an interesting look at the occupation of Sgt. First Class Clay C. Usie, whose job is to maintain a quota of recruiting young men and women into the U.S. Army. Usie’s job is made especially difficult during the time period in which this doc was shot because of the U.S.’ recent clusterf**ks in both Iran and Afghanistan; still, he continues to be one of the military’s successful “salesmen” and the film examines the careers of four high-school graduates who make the decision to join up. I thought it was interesting that Usie is based out of Houma, LA—the site of the touchdown of recent Hurricane Gustav.

Resolved (2007) is devoted to high-school debaters, as the stories of four students from two separate high schools illustrate their determination to achieve debate immortality at the prestigious Tournament of Champions, held yearly in Lexington, KY. What put me off about this film is the very nature of debating itself; many of those who participate use a method called “The Spread,” in which debaters “speed read” as many facts as they can in the time allotted to their arguments. It might work for debates, but to a layman like myself the kids come across as tobacco auctioneers (“Sold American!”). The final documentary—Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House (2008)—was the weakest of the bunch; based on the veteran UPI reporter’s memoirs, it attempts to illustrate her journey from dean of the White House press corps to journalistic gadfly (an occupation all-too-rare in these times where genuflecting by journalists has become the norm). Sadly, Thomas’ life isn't all that exciting and it’s a good thing this documentary only runs thirty-seven minutes, otherwise it would be a real chore to sit through. (There is a funny comment about this piece over at the IMDb in which the individual claims not to be "a right-wing wacko"—“I’m fairly middle of the road”—but then claims President is an advertisement for “the Democratic Party’s socialistic agenda.” I guess they must be building wider roads these days.)

On the subject of feature films, I tuned into Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) on the basis of the positive buzz it received from critics and moviegoers alike. I’m not sure why this film got the praise it did; it would appear that the aforementioned throng got hold of some really good weed and thus was able to talk themselves into thinking this was a comedy masterpiece. Rest assured it is not: it’s an hour-and-twenty-three minutes of the same shtick whereupon Khazakstani reporter Borat Sagdiyev (a character created by British actor-comedian Sacha Baron Cohen on his successful series Da Ali G Show) sets out to make unsuspecting people uncomfortable by creating “comedy” out of his unfamiliarity with American customs and mores. The film’s comedy rarely rises above the frat boy/toilet humor prevalent in so many films today. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit I laughed out loud when Borat, introducing his Khazakstan family, becomes particularly amorous with a woman who he identifies as his sister and the “number-four prostitute in whole of Kazakhstan.” (She then whips out a small loving cup to back up his claim.)

I also made time for a viewing of Superman Returns (2006), a movie I had extremely high hopes for but in the end, the results were disappointing. It’s a beautifully crafted film, to be sure (the CGI effects provided some of my favorite moments, like when images on television screens show the sort of stuff you’d expect the Man of Steel to do, like rescuing folks 24-7-365) but the plot can’t quite measure up to its grandiose intentions (and besides—Superman couldn’t have a kid because he’s “faster than a speeding bullet”) and so it’s reduced to a two-and-a-half-hour spectacle of watching things “blow up real good.”

Brandon Routh is okay as Superman (actually, practically anyone can play Supe if they can look serious and fit into his red, yellow and blue jammies); but he falls woefully short as Clark Kent—he’s unable to copy the late Christopher Reeve’s deft comic touch in the part and release his inner nebbish. Kate Bosworth also experiences trouble in that in making Lois Lane a lot more mature she sacrifices the lovable offbeat quality that was Margo Kidder’s. Most of the better performances come from veteran performers: Eva Marie Saint (not in the film nearly long enough as Martha Kent) and two actors from the Superman TV series: Noel Neill (as an elderly dowager who foolishly signs over her fortune to Lex Luthor, thus setting the movie’s plot in motion) and Jack Larson (as a bartender). Frank Langella, who replaces Jackie Cooper from the 1978 original, manages to do a slap-up job as Daily Planet editor Perry White; his vocal reaction to Superman’s saving him from being flattened by the newspaper’s symbolic globe is one of the best things in the film.

The two individuals who manage to walk away with the film are Kevin Spacey (as Lex Luthor) and Parker Posey (as his female sidekick, Kitty); now, granted, I’m a bit biased when it comes to Posey since I’ve been a fan of hers for as long as I can remember but I really enjoy Spacey’s take on the role—particularly since he infests it with a bit more whimsy and playfulness than Gene Hackman. Spacey and Posey’s characters’ situation leaves one hanging at the film’s end…but I’m sure that has something to do with the fact that the inevitable sequel is in the works.

Of the movies I’ve seen so far this weekend, only two have impressed me as particularly outstanding filmmaking. The first is Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Clint Eastwood’s exquisite dramatization of how the famed planting of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima became shrouded in controversy once the government decided to recruit the surviving soldiers (and Navy corpsman) into selling war bonds to the American public in an effort to end the war. The blend of the horrors of combat and the distasteful (but necessary) shilling required by John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) to serve the greater good is handled superbly by Eastwood; the younger performers are all top-notch but it’s veterans like Judith Ivey, Harve Presnell and the late George Grizzard (in his final film) who are the real standouts in this first-rate gem.

But my favorite remains Waitress (2007), a breath-of-fresh-air comedy written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly (who also plays a small role as Dawn, an adorably ditzy hash-slinger). Shelly, who was a favorite of director Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust), demonstrates that she was definitely keeping her eyes open on his sets since Waitress is a delightful film in the mold of Hartley’s best work: a movie that looks at love through a jaundiced lens but nevertheless manages to work everything out in the end. Keri Russell plays Jenna Hunterson, a talented pie-baker whose plans to leave her dickhead husband (Jeremy Sisto) go awry when she discovers she’s pregnant with his baby. An appointment with her OB-GYN (who has retired from her practice) introduces her to Jim Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), a goofy, likable doctor who finds himself falling for Jenna—and she for him—despite the fact that both individuals are married to other partners.

One of the hallmarks of a Hal Hartley film are characters who, with just a few keystrokes, are fully formed and true-to-life despite their somewhat bewildering quirkiness. Russell, who probably remains better known as TV’s Felicity, is outstanding as a woman who determinedly presses on with her life despite the fact that she’s living in a stacked deck and the odds of her leaving her abusive hubby shrink with each passing day. Her affair with Pomatter remains the only thing she has to cling to…even though she’s wracked with guilt every minute they’re together (and especially after she meets his wife). Most of the performers in the film are recognizable for their TV work: Fillion, who has a cult following as a result of Firefly and the movie Serenity (even though he honed his comedic chops on the sadly forgotten Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place); Cheryl Hines from Curb Your Enthusiasm (she plays Russell’s best friend…also a waitress); Sisto from Six Feet Under and Law & Order.

But the big surprise in Waitress is a one-of-a-kind turn by sitcom icon Andy Griffith as Old Joe—the owner of the diner where Russell, Hines and Shelly work and its most cantankerous customer. Joe, a wealthy curmudgeon who insists on everything being just right on his daily visits, is also a homespun philosopher (in the mold of Sheriff Andy Taylor) with a refreshing take on love and the other mysteries of life. It is Joe who provides the method for Russell’s escape, and Griffith simply shines in every scene he’s in; at the time of the film’s release there was quite a bit of buzz about the role possibly garnering him an Oscar nomination…but, alas, it was not to be. (Of course, the fact that Griffith never got any recognition for his finest moment onscreen—“Lonesome” Rhodes in 1957’s A Face in the Crowd—should probably have been a harbinger of bad news.)

Change I can't believe in

Friday, September 5, 2008

On demand

Last week, I got another message via my cable box that this weekend (Sept. 5-8), I was going to be rewarded with a bounty of cinematic riches due to the fact that I’ll be getting HBO and Cinemax on Demand for free, courtesy of CharredHer Communications. I glanced through the offerings last night and discovered, of course, that most of the movies I wanted to see were ending (drum roll, please) the same day the free stuff was being offered. (Camera 2, I want a tight close-up shot of me really being surprised.)

So I looked through the HBO and Cinemax menus this morning and while there really wasn’t anything to get all excited about I jotted down some candidates to take a look at this weekend. I’ve been trying to break up my TCM addiction with movies from Flix on Demand (which I get free all the time); I managed to catch Joan Micklin Silver’s debut feature Hester Street (1975). A fascinating tale of Jewish immigrants in NYC during the turn of the century, Hester assisted a then-unknown Carol Kane (who’s truly magnificent) in getting an Oscar nomination as Best Actress…and also broke the mold for independent films by focusing on real characters and stories instead of the usual artsy-fartsy content. Silver’s feature films include Between the Lines (1977), Head Over Heels (1979; aka Chilly Scenes of Winter) and Crossing Delancey (1988)—and it’s a crying shame that of these three, only Delancey is available on DVD (though Hester is, too).

I also watched Hal Ashby’s feature film debut, The Landlord (1970), and while I’ve never been a huge fan of his work (The Last Detail [1973] is about the only movie of his that I find myself wanting to return to again and again) I have to say Landlord is certainly in competition with Detail as my favorite of his films. Beau Bridges plays a wealthy and clueless WASP (his name is Elgar Winthrop Julius Enders) who purchases a tenement building with the intention of building his dream house…but starts to have second thoughts when he meets the hostile tenants and begins to sympathize to the point where he addresses their complaints and make repairs inside their apartments…just like the titled occupation. Bridges’ character is a likable sort despite the fact that he just doesn’t “get it” most of the time, and most of the race relations satire in the film is still pretty razor-sharp. Marvelous cast in this one: Lee Grant (as Bridges’ waaaay-too-uptight mother), Diana Sands, Pearl Bailey (she has a hysterically funny scene with Grant where the two of them get piss-drunk while eating ham hocks) Walter Brooke, Lou Gossett, Jr. (with hair), Marki Bey, Mel Stewart, Susan Anspach and Robert Klein. I don’t expect my free HBO/Cinemax weekend to produce any viewings to match these two films—but maybe there’ll be a nugget or two among the dross.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

“Like hell I would…”

Turner Classic Movies wrapped up its August Summer of Stars Festival Sunday night with a tribute to Spencer Tracy…and the only real gripe that I have with these things is that for some odd reason they schedule the really good and obscure offerings either early in the morning a.m. hours or late at night. For example, the prime-time Tracy films (beginning at 8pm) were Father of the Bride (1950) and its sequel, Father’s Little Dividend (1951)—and it’s not that these movies aren’t entertaining; it’s just that they possess the cinematic nutritional value of caramel corn.

Fortunately, TCM programmed Man’s Castle (1933) after Dividend, a rare Tracy film that’s been on my must-see list for a while now. Leonard Maltin gives the film three-and-a-half stars, but I would personally knock off half-a-star because while it’s an essential Spence outing (as well as a must-see for Frank Borzage cultists), Len over-hypes it just a tad. (Curiously, while watching Castle’s opening credits, I couldn’t help but wonder as to whether or not this print was a re-release: it features a slightly updated version of Columbia’s “lady with the torch” as opposed to the one that would normally kick off a film from 1933.)

Tracy plays Bill, a hobo (though the character played by Marjorie Rambeau calls him the far-more elegant “bindlestiff”) who gets by in Depression-era times by working odd jobs and living in a cabin amongst other Depression camp shanties. He meets up one night with a beautiful young girl named Trina (Loretta Young), and after “treating” her to a meal allows her to tag along with him back home—they soon become lovers (despite Bill’s later dalliance with a showgirl played by Glenda Farrell), though Bill is careful to explain to his new girlfriend that he’s liable to leave town at the sound of the next train whistle. Trina’s pregnancy soon puts those notions to rest and the two get married; but Bill—in attempt to make sure Trina is well provided for—goes in on a robbery with a real wanker named Bragg (Arthur Hohl) and gets shot in the process. (Actually, I think it was his arm.) Bill then faces the decision of whether to stick around and take his punishment or whether to get the heck out of Dodge.

Man’s Castle is a pretty spicy Pre-Code melodrama; several soon-to-be no-no’s are spotlighted, like a moonlight skinny dip between Tracy and Young, and of course the unmarried Young’s bun-in-the-oven flirts openly with a taboo subject (the plot point in which they get married is probably what keeps Young’s Trina around till Castle’s closing credits roll). I’ve never really been a big fan of Loretta’s but this is clearly one of her best showcases; Tracy is great as well, though his macho shtick gets old quickly. Walter Connolly nicely underplays his part as Ira, a former minister-turned-night-watchman, and Arthur Hohl is appropriately slimy as the sinister Bragg—who not only talks Tracy into the robbery but looks rather lasciviously at Young throughout the film. (Rambeau is also good; she’s like the Susan Tyrrell of her day.)

After Castle, I stuck around for what must be my umpteenth viewing of Fury (1936), a film noted primarily as German émigré Fritz Lang’s American directing debut. There are a few Lang fans who have opined in the past that Lang never managed to top Fury—something I certainly disagree with (Scarlet Street [1945] and The Big Heat [1953] pretty much table that motion—even The Woman in the Window [1944], controversial ending and all)—but for those unfamiliar with Lang’s American films you certainly can’t do worse. Tracy and Sylvia Sidney are a pair of star-crossed lovers whose financial situation dictates that they separate for a while until they are able to eke out an existence as man-and-wife; on the day this happens Spence rambles into a small town and, on circumstantial evidence alone, is arrested as one of the members of a gang that kidnapped a local girl and collected a hefty ransom. The town citizenry whips itself up into the title condition and plans to lynch Tracy, but the events soon spiral out of control and the town’s jail ends up on fire, killing the innocent Tracy…or does it? Based on a true-life event, Fury is one of Spence’s best movies—and was later remade as one of the most underrated and rarely-seen film noirs, The Sound of Fury (1950; aka Try and Get Me!)

Since I couldn’t keep my eyes open after Fury’s conclusion, I ended up hitting the hay, bummed because I was going to miss The Seventh Cross (1944)—a Tracy film that I saw many moons ago but would like to catch up with again. Last night, however, as part of TCM’s tribute to politics in films, I did manage to tune into The Last Hurrah (1958), the film adaptation of Edwin O’Connor’s novel (a thinly-disguised biography of famed Massachusetts governor/Boston mayor James Curley).

Hizzoner Frank Skeffington (Tracy) has been mayor of “a New England city” (honest to my grandma, that’s what it says in the opening credits) for four terms, and is in the middle of campaigning for term number five. He’s optimistic about victory but acknowledges that his methods of politicking are slowly going the way of the dinosaurs—his most impressive foe, a callow novice named Kevin McClusky (Charles B. Fitzsimmons), not only has the backing of the editor (John Carradine) of the city’s largest newspaper but the CEO (Basil Rathbone) of the largest bank as well. Skeffington’s nephew Adam (Jeffrey Hunter) is invited by his uncle to take a “warts-and-all” look at how campaigns are run and though he’s not completely comfortable with the mayor’s “ends-justify-the-means” approach he comes to respect Skeffington for truly having the citizenry’s interests at heart.

John Ford directed Hurrah, and oddly enough though it doesn’t get discussed much I think it’s one of my favorites in his long list of film credits. Hurrah’s strength is its formidable cast of veteran players (many of them dues-paying members of Ford’s stock company): Pat O’Brien, Donald Crisp, James Gleason, Edward Brophy, Willis Bouchey, Ricardo Cortez, Wallace Ford, Matt McHugh, Carlton Young, Frank Albertson, Anna Lee, Ken Curtis and Jane Darwell. Last week, I decided to purchase a DVD copy of this film because I was concerned that it might suddenly disappear from Columbia’s inventory (a similar thing happened to Experiment in Terror [1962], something I was not aware of until later) and I think I bought mine for eighteen bucks and something from DVD Pacific. (Only to turn around and see that Best Buy was offering it a few days later for $11.99. D’oh!)