Friday, January 30, 2009

A lulu of a Boo-Boo

Since posting about the Saturday Morning Cartoon DVD releases being planned by Warner Home Video this past Sunday, TVShowsOnDVD.com—from which I procured the information—has since put forth a major correction…and believe you me, I’m not treading lightly around that “major” part. Apparently there were a few rampant “something’s-not-quite-kosher” rumors that burst through the TV-on-DVD dam shortly after the announcement, with many individuals noticing slight discrepancies (I, for one, thought it was curious that the 1960s set was featuring the Tom & Jerry cartoon show from the 1970s) in the cartoons listed in both volumes (1960s and 1970s). David Lambert has been kind enough to give us the skinny on what’s really on the two box sets…and so in cold-cereal-and-footy-pajamas solidarity, I pass them along to you:

Saturday Morning Cartoons -1960s Volume 1

Disc 1

1)Top Cat – “The Tycoon”

2)The Atom Ant Show – “Up & Atom” (Atom Ant), “Precious Jewels” (Precious Pupp), “Woodpecked” (Hillbilly Bears)

3)The Peter Potamus Show – “Fe Fi Fo Fun” (Peter Potamus), “All Riot on the Northern Front” (Breezly & Sneezly), “The Volunteers” (Yippie, Yappie & Yahooey)

4)The Secret Squirrel Show – “Sub Swiper” (Secret Squirrel), “Way Out Squiddly” (Squiddly Diddly), “Prince of a Pup” (Winsome Witch)

5)The Flintstones – “The Happy Household”

6)The Porky Pig Show - “Often an Orphan”/”Mice Follies”/”The Super Snooper”

7)The Quick Draw McGraw Show – “Dynamite Fright” (Quick Draw McGraw), “Outer Space Case” (Snooper & Blabber), “Growing Growing Gone” (Augie Doggie)

Disc 2

8)The Jetsons – “Rosey the Robot”

9)Marine Boy – “Battle to Save the World”

10)Space Ghost & Dino Boy - “The Heat Thing” (Ghost), ”The Worm People” (Dino Boy), ”Zorak” (Ghost)

11)The Herculoids – “The Beaked People”/”The Raider Apes”

12)Frankenstein, Jr. and the Impossibles – “The Shocking Electric Monster” (Frankenstein, Jr.), “The Bubbler” (Impossibles), “The Spinner” (Impossibles)

13)The Magilla Gorilla Show – “Gridiron Gorilla” (Magilla Gorilla), “Small Change” (Mushmouse & Punkin’ Puss), “Atchinson, Topeka and San Jose” (Ricochet Rabbit)

14) Bonus Episode: The Quick Draw McGraw Show – “Dough Nutty” (Augie Doggie), “El Kabong” (Quick Draw McGraw), “Gem Jam” (Snooper & Blabber)

Sure, I’m sorry to see Wally Gator off the schedule (but then Wally should never perform as a single—he needs Touché Turtle and Lippy the Lion and Hardy Har-Har for backup) but the addition of the Peter Potamus, Atom Ant and Secret Squirrel shows (as well as Frankenstein, Jr. and the Impossibles…Kliph will be pleased about that) is going to make this a must-purchase when it hits the streets May 19th. (This set will also contain featurettes on Quick Draw, Magilla, and Frankie, Jr and Impossibles.)

Oh, I hear you snickering there in the back…something about there being something seriously wrong with a middle-aged man obsessed with cartoons from the sixties. Hey, I’ve got the cojones not only to admit that I own one of these…

…but one of these as well…

Deal with it. And now, on to the 1970s!

Saturday Morning Cartoons -1970s Volume 1

Disc 1

1)The Jetsons – “The Space Car”

2)The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour – “The Pest”/”Tarzan and the City of Gold

3)Hong Kong Phooey – “Car Thieves”/”Zoo Story”

4)Goober and the Ghost Chasers – “Assignment Ahab Apparition”

5)Speed Buggy – “Speed Buggy Went That-a-Way”

6)Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch – “Double Cross Country”/”The Infiltrator”/”The Stunt Show”

Disc 2

7)Yogi’s Gang – “Greedy Genie”

8)The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan – “Scotland Yard”

9)Roman Holidays – “Double Date”

10) Josie & the Pussycats in Outer Space – “The Nemo’s a No-No Affair”

11) The New Scooby-Doo Movies – “The Ghostly Creep From the Deep”

12) Funky Phantom – “I’ll Haunt You Later”

I noticed the 1970s set has a lot more variety—particularly the additions of Goober (the homeless man’s Scooby-Doo), Speed Buggy, Wheelie and the ever-preachy Yogi’s Gang. (The featurettes will focus on Phantom, Josie and the Chan Clan.)

Many thanks to Monsieur Lambert and the rest of the hard-working TVShowsOnDVD.com crew for correcting this info—it was most appreciated!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

DVR-TiVo-Or whatever recording device strikes your fancy-Alert!

Because I’m determined to never…ever…let TCM out of my clutches after suffering from withdrawal for nearly seven years, I make it a point to check the programming schedule from time to time only because they're often a tad tardy in announcing what shorts will be shown after the scheduled main features (in order to keep that train Brad Pitt is riding on running on time). Here’s a couple that I thought TDOY readers might want a heads-up on:

How to Watch Football (1938) – You can’t go wrong with a Robert Benchley short, and TCM will show this little gem tomorrow before Saturday’s Heroes (1937)—a short-but-sweet college football B-pic that features Van Heflin in one of his earliest roles and Richard “Whooooaaa Nellie!” Lane, one half of Columbia’s comedy duo Schilling and Lane. (If you’ve never experienced the sublime pleasures of a Robert Benchley one-reeler, this is a good place as any to start. If you refuse to have anything to do with one of America’s premier funnymen, I may have to get a restraining order to keep you away from the blog.)

So You Want to Play the Horses (1946) – Joe McDoakes (the incomparable George O’Hanlon) is addicted to laying money down on the gee-gees, and drives this point home with a funny parody of The Lost Weekend (1945). This short gets a workout between two chapters of Zorro Rides Again (1937) Saturday morning, sometime around 8:43am.

Torture Money (1937)/’Don’t Talk’ (1942) – The Crime Does Not Pay series is always a welcome treat at Rancho Yesteryear; in Money, police go after a fraud operation that stages automobile accidents to swindle insurance companies—this one will be shown after It Should Happen to You (1954) on Sunday, February 1st. ‘Talk’ is familiar WW2-propaganda (the whole “loose lips sink ships” deal) but is still entertaining—besides, it features Barry Nelson in an early role as a Fed and will be a refreshing tonic after finishing Take a Letter, Darling (1942). (Money nabbed an Oscar for Best Short and 'Talk' was nominated, to bring this all around to the “31 Days of Oscar” theme; I believe ‘Talk’ is also available on the Random Harvest [1942] DVD.)

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #18

The Hoodlum Priest (1961) – Actor Don Murray, who was so committed to this project that he also produced and co-wrote the script (under the nom de plume Don Deer), is the titled man-of-the-cloth; as Father Charles Dismas Clark he’s a passionate advocate for ex-cons, believing that recidivism can be curtailed if the dignity of the individual is restored (a job, a place to live, etc.) upon their release from prison. His dream is to build a halfway-house (which became a reality in 1959 with the opening of Dismas House) that will help transition “hoods” back into society; civil rights attorney Louis Rosen (Larry Gates) is his staunchest supporter, particularly when Clark talks him into defending young Billy Lee Jackson (Keir Dullea), who’s been railroaded on a disturbing the peace/assault charge. The roadblock in Clark’s attempts to make Dismas House a reality is a greasy newspaper reporter named George MacHale (Logan Ramsey), who earns a steady paycheck turning in unflattering stories about the padre—though our young con Jackson doesn’t help Clark’s cause either: he’s accused of stealing at the warehouse where Clark got him a job and summarily dismissed, then decides to deal with the situation by robbing the warehouse’s safe. (See, Billy…this is what happens when you stop attending the MENSA meetings.) He kills the brother of the warehouse's owner in this melee, and then croaks a cop while lamming it out of there—Clark attempts to get leniency for the kid but no governor is going to commute a death sentence for a cop-killer, and I’m surprised Clark didn’t dope this out beforehand.

Priest is certainly worth a look-see, though a lot of its material will be familiar to anyone who’s watched their share of Warner Bros. 1930s crime films (there are also heavy overtones of I Want to Live!); Murray is a stand-out as the earnest and committed Clark, though he sort of overdoes it with the Father Flannigan act at times (I also think Gates is first-rate, too). There is one particular scene in the movie that stuck with me after I watched it; a lone protester carrying a sign (that trumpets “We Are All Billy Jackson’s Murderers” on one side and “Capital Punishment is Legalized Murder” on the other) is walking back and forth outside the steps of a capitol building when he stops and pulls out a cigarette—but he doesn’t have a light. A cop who’s kept watch all this time obliges him, remarking: “You’re not going to change the world by carrying around that sign, Buddy…”

The protester looks at him and returns: “I’m not trying to change the world, I’m…just trying to keep the world from changing me.”

Shadow on the Wall (1950) – Here’s a genuine curio: a movie in which Zachary Scott plays a likable guy. Scott’s a devoted husband who returns from a business trip with presents for his young daughter (Gigi Perreau) and wife (Kristine Miller)…only to learn that Wifey’s been having an affair with her sister’s fiancé (Tom Helmore). (I hope Zach kept the receipt.) Scott spills the beans about Miller and Helmore’s rendezvous to Miller’s sister (played by Ann Sothern) and later that night, when Scott threatens to shoot Miller over the affair, she conks him colder that last night’s flounder—and then confronts Sothern, who settles the score by shooting her sis. Because Scott has no memory of what transpired, he’s convicted of Miller’s murder and is sentenced to be executed; his only hope rests on child psychiatrist/future First Lady Nancy Davis (Reagan)—who’s convinced that Scott’s daughter witnessed what went down and tries to help restore the child's memory.

In a film that comes across as more like a Maisie film gone wacko (Homicidal Maisie?). Sothern’s character is a teensy bit inconsistent at times (she’s supposed to be a mousy young thing, but she certainly went after her sister with relish) but I think she’s more effective that way; her best moment is when she’s at the beauty parlor (she’s about to beat it out of town and has even written a confession for the cops revealing that it was her, and not Scott, who popped a cap into her sister) and is about to be put under the dryer when she fantasizes that she’s actually being strapped into the electric chair. Sothern is clearly uncomfortable with the concept of offing the kid in order to protect her guilt, but she certainly gives it the old college try—first by slipping a mickey into the little girl’s chocolate milk and then attempting to drown her in the hospital. In the end, Sothern’s pretty much the only engaging presence in Shadow; the rest of the cast is white-bread bland (even TDOY fave John McIntire, as Scott’s lawyer/best friend is subdued). But at least I now know another movie Helmore was in besides Vertigo…and classic TV fans will spot the pearl-bedecked Barbara “June Cleaver” Billingsley as a maid.

The Company She Keeps (1951) – A movie with Lizabeth Scott as a parole officer and Jane Greer as her parolee? Now you’re talking! Mildred Lynch (Greer) manages to soft-soap the prison board into thinking she’s on the straight-and-narrow so they grant her parole with the exception of the lone male member (James Bell), who doesn’t bother to vote because he’s outnumbered. (He doesn’t trust Greer…apparently he’s the only one in the group who saw Out of the Past [1947].) Mildred changes her name to Diane Stewart and gets a job as a night nurse in a hospital, but begins to chafe under the rules (she may be out, but she’s still doing time) and decides to repay parole officer Joan Wilburn (Scott) for her support and kindness by stealing her boyfriend. (To demonstrate how desperate Greer’s character is, the boyfriend is played by Dennis O’Keefe.) Things begin to get serious between Diane and her new beau, and Larry Collins (the beau) is so infatuated that he proposes to her. Will Joan maintain a professionalism and recommend to the board that Diane is perfectly capable of handling marriage—or will she stab that conniving little tramp in the back and send her back to The Big House?

As a rule, I try to keep endings murky in order not to spoil the experience for someone who hasn’t seen the movie—let me just say that I wasn’t wild about the direction Company takes because it requires a leap of faith that I wasn’t capable of making. Performance-wise, Greer is the reason to see this film; I like Lizabeth as a rule but she sometimes runs hot and cold with me; TCM showed The Racket (1951) and Dead Reckoning (1947) before Company and while I thought she was very convincing as a nightclub chanteuse in the former she’s simply not all that credible in the Bogart pic. (I was amused, however, by some of Scott and Greer’s scenes together in Company; Liz appears to be flirting with Janie at times.) Sharp-eyed OTR fans and character actor connoisseurs will spot Kenneth Tobey, Erskine Sanford, Snub Pollard, Theresa Harris, Paul Frees (as the judge’s clerk), Kathleen Freeman and Parley Baer (as the guy who offers to buy O’Keefe a drink) in brief bits; Beau Bridges is the obnoxious kid in the train station at Company’s end…and making his film debut is his brother Jeff as the infant Greer baby-sits briefly.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ask Bobby Osbo

I got this in the e-mail box about ten minutes ago:


After I took a breather from all the sarcastic possibilities ricocheting through my head like bumpers on a pinball machine, I began to entertain serious thoughts about what question I would ask. I have it narrowed down to: “If Robert Osborne is all powerful, could he create a classic film so big that even he couldn’t lift it?” or “Why did you tell viewers sometime back that Odds Against Tomorrow features Harry Belafonte ‘with nary a song in sight’ when his character sings and plays the marimba/xylophone in a nightclub?”

If you can come up with a question on your own, have at it in the comments section. Or if you’re really serious, here’s the dropping-off point for all Osborne queries.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #17

Kind of a spotty weekend, movie-wise…outside projects ate up some of my viewing time and most of the movies I watched were ones I’d already seen: The Bad News Bears (1976), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), Silverado (1985—I remember taking my Dad to see this when it came out, and it’s still as enjoyable as the first time I saw it). I would have watched The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), except I programmed the fershlugginer DVD recorder wrong (and I’m still seething over that). (Oh, and I also took advantage of TCM on Demand and watched the immortal Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) for what is probably the umpteenth time. As Maxwell Smart would say: “And…loving it!”)

The Man Between (1953) – Caught this Carol Reed-directed thriller Saturday night, with Claire Bloom as a British lass who travels to Berlin to spend some time with her brother (Geoffrey Toone) and his wife (Hildegard Knef, who for some reason reminded me of Eve Arden as I watched this). Hildy begins behaving rather strangely upon Claire’s arrival, and it is soon revealed that Knef’s first husband (James Mason) is still hale and hearty and walking amongst us (he was reported as having been killed), making sis-in-law a bigamist. Claire falls for James (I loved Mason in this part, by the way; he’s his usual suave self but adopts the lightest of German accents to make the character believable), who’s being blackmailed by a gangster (Aribert Waescher) to stop undercover agent Ernst Schroeder; Claire ends up kidnapped by Waescher and Mason must get her safely out of East Berlin. There’s a lot of suspense in this one (the last few minutes of Between will have you on the edge of your seat) and it resembles Reed’s classic The Third Man in many ways…I wish I had thought to record this while I was watching it because it’s really a dandy little feature film.

The Garden of Eden (1928) This week’s TCM Silent Sunday Nights offering was a frothy little concoction (directed by Lewis Milestone) that stars “Orchid Lady” Corinne Griffith (who authored Papa’s Delicate Condition, a book adapted as a film in 1963 starring The Great One himself and TDOY fave Glynis Johns) as aspiring Viennese opera singer Toni LeBrun, who is lured to Budapest on the pretext of getting a job singing at a “prestigious” opera house that is in reality nothing more than a cabaret run by Madame Bauer (Maude George). Bauer takes responsibility for introducing naïve young women to the lecherous Henri D’Avril (Lowell Sherman), and when his planned assignation with Toni goes south, she’s invited by the cabaret’s seamstress (Louise Dresser) to take a trip to Monte Carlo. Rosa the seamstress is in actuality the Baroness Rosa de Garcer—she has a two-week blowout in Monte Carlo every year with the pension money she gets due to her husband’s death, and she “adopts” Toni as her daughter…which comes in handy when young Richard Dupont (Charles Ray) comes a-courtin’, intending on asking for her hand in holy matrimony.

Eden isn’t particularly a great silent (it’s got the nutritional value of cotton candy) but I enjoyed it tremendously, particularly Griffith…who relies on her charms and facial expressions (her reaction to eating her first oyster is particularly risible) to put her character across. I was a little less impressed with her co-star, Ray, only because I couldn’t quite reconcile him as a leading man-type (though when the film was released he was quite the silent film star, usually playing a bucolic rube who learns a good deal about life from his misadventures in the big city); he seemed more of a Grady Sutton-character actor to me. There are some really nice moments in Eden; my favorite is when D’Avril attempts to ravish the unsuspecting Toni by turning out the lights in the room they’re in and the only illumination comes from the headlights of cars speeding by…the lights are then turned on, and D’Avril finds himself in Rosa’s embrace. A pleasant diversion, to say the least—and a movie that, I believe, was available on DVD (it’s now out-of-print, but Netflix may have a copy) from the good people at Flicker Alley.

What they didn’t teach me at Walt Whitman High

Rick “Don’t Call Me Sparky” Brooks over at Cultureshark (a very entertaining blog that should seriously be considered a part of any pop culture blogroll) tells an interesting story about Amazon.com, which apparently was offering the upcoming DVD box set of Room 222: Season 1 for the low, low price of $10.99.

Yes. I couldn’t believe it, either, when I came across it. I went ahead and pre-ordered it, just on the off-chance that it might be legitimate. Rick explains that he, too, was lured by the low-price siren song but that because he was loathe to pay the extra s&h, in the time he deliberated on picking something to go with it (to reach the $25 threshold and, as such, pay no shipping) he missed the opportunity to pick up 222 dirt cheap.

I tried to console Rick in his comments section about a similar situation I had with Madame Amazon, though looking back at the actual post I got a few of the details wrong. I had ordered in 2005 a collection of Cheers episodes (Seasons 1-4) that was listed at the e-tailing behemoth for $63.55—one hell of a deal, particularly since the MSRP was twice that. (In addition, they had a five-pack of Frasier box sets for $85.56; again, the MSRP being twice that.) I pre-ordered both collections, dancing a little jig at the bargain I was getting.

My glee, unfortunately, did not last for long. Let’s get in the WABAC machine and see what transpired:

In the wee a.m. hours of this morning, I get an e-mail from Amazon.com telling me, in a matter of words, we f**ked up royally and we’ve cancelled your order. Then they add a lot of other bullpuckey about “in accordance with our posted policies on pricing, we are unable to offer these items for the incorrectly posted prices, blah, blah, blah.” In other words: bite us, yesteryear boy.

Needless to say, I was a bit torqued off by this turn of events...in the professional business world, if a store has mispriced something and you've purchased it at that price, it's your good fortune and their tough luck. I boycotted the company for several years until I was forced to use their services one Christmas to rush some swag to my sister Debbie and her family…and though I don’t buy from Amazon as much as I used to, I still find myself mainlining every now and then.

I told Rick about this earlier experience, and made it clear that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop (i.e., getting another e-mail from Amazon soon, saying in their delightful fashion: “We’re Amazon.com, bitches!”). But as I was trolling DVDPriceSearch.com this morning, I found the 222 set available from Buy.com at $11.13. Which started me wondering…could there actually be something legitimate about this?

Well, yes and no. In reading the info on the Buy.com priced Room 222, I noticed after “Number of Discs” it reads “1.” Uno. What this would seem to suggest is that this particular 222 set is one of those “Season 1, Volume 1” deals frequently released by Shout! Factory—a single-disc release in which you can sample the program before committing to the full enchilada. (I offer up Ironside: Season 1, Volume 1 and Ironside: Season 2, Volume 1 as exhibits A and B.)

So here’s the dilemma: do I go ahead and cancel this order upon learning why it’s been priced this way? Because when I bring up the pre-order at Amazon, it links to the 4-disc full Monty edition. I’ve decided I’m going to ride this out and see where it takes me—surely I can use their “low price pre-order” policy against them…and if push comes to shove, they’ll just stuff a $10 coupon down my shirt like I’m some cheap cooch dancer.

The lesson to be learned in all of this, students…is that if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably Amazon.com’s fault. Caveat emptor and class dismissed!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The days of cold cereal and footy pajamas

TVShowsOnDVD.com has an interesting blurb up that I think will appeal to people like the real Sam Johnson hissownself, touting two DVD sets forthcoming from Warner Home Video May 19th. The collections are Saturday Morning Cartoons – 1960’s Volume 1 and Saturday Morning Cartoons – 1970’s Volume 1; both sets will contain a potpourri of favorites from those halcyon days of “Ferchrissake, it’s 6 in the a.m.! Don’t tell me that kid is up already…”

Of the two sets, the first is probably of the most interest (to myself anyway, your mileage may vary) even though much of the material has been previously released. Let’s take a gander at some of the content:

Top Cat – “Hawaii, Here We Come”
Atom Ant – “Up & Atom”
Quick Draw McGraw – “Scarie Prairie”
Wally Gator – “Droopy Dragon”
Secret Squirrel – “Sub Swiper”
The Porky Pig Show – “Often an Orphan”/”Mice Follies”/”The Super Snooper”
The Bugs Bunny Show – “Rabbit Every Monday”/”A Mouse Divided”/”Tree for Two”
The Jetsons – “Rosey the Robot”
Marine Boy – “The Green Monsters”
Space Ghost and Dino Boy – “The Heat Thing”/”The Worm People”/”Zorak”
Top Cat – “The Majarajah of Pookerjee”
Tom & Jerry Show – “No Way, Stowaways”/”The Ski Bunny”/”Stay Awake or Else…”
Quick Draw McGraw – “Bad Guys Disguise”
The Bugs Bunny Show – “Puddy Tat Trouble”/”Wise Quackers”/”Speedy Gonzales”
Magilla Gorilla – “Big Game”

Okay, the Top Cat episodes are already on DVD, as well as Magilla Gorilla, The Jetsons and Space Ghost/Dino Boy material. There was talk sometime back about releasing the Quick Draw McGraw and Wally Gator cartoons to disc but those projects were scotched because of copyright issues (there were also reports that the material they had to work with was not up to snuff). I’d consider a purchase of this set if I knew for certain they were going to include the opening title sequences (something they did not do for Magilla, which is why it’s the crappy box set it is); those people inside my inner circle of friends know that I’ll sing the Quick Draw McGraw theme song at the drop of a hat.

The Atom Ant and Secret Squirrel cartoons are new to DVD, and I have to be honest with you—I’ve never even heard of Marine Boy. But I’d really like to have the Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny shows—again, on the proviso that they give us the full Monty with regards to opening/closing credits (“Who’s our favorite TV star/Who comes on with a wham…”). Incidentally, the Tom & Jerry show that’s listed here is not the 1960s version but an episode of the 1970s revival series produced by Hanna-Barbera (a dismal affair, though it did give us the Great Grape Ape)…and to be honest, if they’re going to mislabel this as a 1960s program that doesn’t bode well for the previous “wish” items I’ve mentioned.

On to the 1970s set—which has the fact that a lot of its material is new-to-DVD going for it:

The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour – “Bewitched Bunny”/”Robin Hood Daffy”/”Tweety and the Beanstalk”
Scooby’s All Star Laff-a-Lympics Hour – “Quebec & Baghdad”
The Jetsons – “The Space Car”/”The Coming of Astro”
The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour – “The Pest”/”Tarzan and the City of Gold”
The Jetsons – “The Good Little Scouts”
The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan – “Scotland Yard”
The Flintstones – “Hot Lips Hannigan”
Roman Holidays – “Double Date”
Josie & the Pussycats in Outer Space – “The Nemo’s a No-No Affair”
The Flintstones Comedy Hour – “The Suitor Computer”/”Yabba Dabba Doosie”/”It Should Always Be a Saturday”
Funky Phantom – “Don’t Fool With a Phantom”

The first two shows are listed as hours even though they’re only thirty minutes each (I’m old enough to remember when the Bugs/Road Runner program really was an hour) and the Jetsons/Flintstones material has been, as mentioned, previously released on other sets (with the exception of The Flintstones Comedy Hour segments). I’m not certain if they ever released the Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle cartoon series to DVD but I know the Batman episode of The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour has been; I never cared much for the Batman animated series but I thought Tarzan was surprisingly good…and unusually mature for its target audience.

I’d love for Warner Home Video to release all the Laff-a-Lympics shows on a DVD set (naturally, a person my age always rooted for the Yogi Yahooeys)—but as for the others here I don’t think there’s any pressing need (though we welcome all dissenters). The Chan series wasn’t bad (an awful lot like Scooby-Doo, though…and Jodie Foster voiced one of the characters) but Phantom was pretty dumb (Micky Dolenz participated, and Daws Butler got the opportunity to revise his Bert Lahr/Snagglepuss voice) and as far as Roman Holidays goes even the talented cast (Butler, Dave Willock, Stanley Livingston, Janet Waldo, Shirley Mitchell, Hal Smith and Pamelyn Ferdin) can’t make anything of that turkey.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

“I didn’t get where I am today by not recognizing a bad idea when I see one…”

I got an e-mail a couple of hours ago that alerted me to news from TVShowsOnDVD.com that Shout! Factory will finish out the 1966-71 Marlo Thomas sitcom That Girl on May 5th. (It should be said, however, that no official announcement from the Factory has been released—only that some sharp-eyed TV-on-DVD fan spotted a pre-order listing on Amazon.com.) Always encouraging to hear the word that a series will be completed on disc (Factory did the same thing last November with McHale’s Navy)—though they’re not entirely pure as the driven snow when it comes to these things (there’s a second season of The Bill Cosby Show that has yet to surface).

I went over to the website to see if there were any more announcements I should know about, and was excited to learn that Infinity will release the third and final collection in their Suspense: The Lost Episodes series March 17th. I have the previous two sets in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives, and they really are must-haves for any fan of the long-running radio series even though they are episodes from t--------n, as my pal Joe Mackey is wont to refer to the glass furnace. Also of interest to classic TV fans: a collection of “lost” Davey and Goliath episodes, due to be re-released April 7th. (You remember Davey and Goliath—it was that series you had to sit through before the real cartoons came on Saturday mornings.) According to the TVShows announcement, this set was actually released back in September of 2007 but quickly went out-of-print (and some reports state the collection never got released at all); fortunately for all of its fans, the series has been restored to its full fortunes.

But the news that really caught my eye is that Koch Vision will be bringing the classic Britcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin to DVD, a most welcome bit of news to those fans who remember watching the series on public television stations during the late 70s/early 80s and discovering what a superb comic concoction it was—with character great Leonard Rossiter as Reginald Iolanthe Perrin, a middle-aged ice cream executive comically experiencing a mid-life crisis. (Perrin also featured several actors who would later go on to bigger and better things, notably Geoffrey Palmer, who co-starred with Dame Judi Dench in the sitcom chestnut As Time Goes By.) The details are still a little sketchy on this one, but as of this posting the set will be due out May 5th (and a week later in our neighbor to the North).

Now, if you have a region-free DVD player this probably won’t seem like a big thing—Second Sight/BBC Worldwide Ltd. released the entire series in a Region 2 set back in October 2003, so it has been available for quite some time. The blurb at TVShows says there were 22 episodes over three series (the 22nd is apparently a “Christmas cracker” [Yuletide special]) but I think that special is a figment of someone’s imagination because all the sources I checked state there were only twenty-one. It’s been some time since I looked at the episodes on the set, but I remember the first and second series as being hysterically funny, while the third series (it has its moments) can’t quite measure up to the previous ones. Perrin was brought over to these shores and adapted in an American version (Reggie) that starred Richard Mulligan in the Rossiter role and lasted about seventeen minutes. (Honest to my grandma, it was that bad.)

No, what intrigued me about the news of this DVD release was a link to this article that announces that the Beeb is doing a new version of the sitcom (to be titled Perrin), starring Martin Clunes as the harried executive…and I’m not certain this is a good idea.

Here are the pluses: the series will be a joint project between David Nobbs (the show’s creator, who based the program on a series of novels he wrote) and Simon Nye, the man responsible for one of the best Britcoms from the 90s, Men Behaving Badly. (This explains the presence of Clunes, who starred in that series.) Clunes is an engaging actor; though I have to admit I’ve only seen his comedic turns in Badly and an earlier BBC series No Place Like Home (Brent McKee has seen Clunes do drama, and if Brent likes him his say-so is good enough for me). The revival series will also feature Fay Ripley (whom I’ve seen in Cold Feet and How Do You Want Me?) and one of the grande dames of situation comedy, Wendy Craig (Not in Front of the Children, And Mother Makes Three/Five, Butterflies). There’s been a real positive buzz generated about the revival; according to BBC-1’s controller Jay Hunt: “It feels as fresh and sharp now as it did all those years ago.”

Now for the minus—and it’s a big one. Leonard Rossiter, the sitcom’s original Reggie, is still dead. Rossiter, who took the role and singularly made it his own (even surpassing his other classic creation, the weaselly Rupert Rigsby from Rising Damp) has provided Clunes with some tremendously big shoes to fill. This idea is nothing new, though; in 1996, the Beeb tried a revival series entitled The Legacy of Reginald Perrin, which reunited most of the original cast in a short-lived comedy that found the titled character deceased and the “heirs” in his will performing acts of absurdity in order to benefit. (I’ve not had the privilege of seeing Legacy but from the accounts that I’ve read, it was a pretty dismal affair.) Author Nobbs, who wrote this series as well, wisely chose to kill off the Perrin character because he knew no one would be able to replace Rossiter; somebody must have opened up a big honkin’ checkbook to insure his participation in this new venture.

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was a one-of-a-kind sitcom; a series that broke a lot of the conventional BBC light entertainment rules in that it was one of the first “serializations” of a popular novel that caught on with the public as comedy rather than drama. The BBC article doesn’t state why the decision was made to remake the series, but since I’m hard-pressed to think of any show that became a success by being an update of a former series, I have to assume that there are going to be a great many fans disappointed.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #16

Three Strangers (1946) – A young woman (Geraldine Fitzgerald) asks two men (Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre) to her apartment to participate in a Chinese New Year’s ritual whereupon the “three strangers” will ask an idol representing Kwan Yin (the goddess of fortune and destiny) to bestow upon them great wealth from a shared sweepstakes ticket. The movie then goes off in three divergent paths to examine the circumstances of the participants: the woman, Crystal Shackleford, wants desperately to reconcile with her husband (Alan Napier); Greenstreet, who plays a solicitor named Jerome K. Arbutny, finds himself trying to cover up a matter of embezzlement; and Lorre’s a petty crook who’s needed to provide an alibi for another malfeasant (Robert Shayne) on trial for murder. This bizarre, offbeat concoction (scripted by John Huston and Howard Koch and directed by Jean Negulesco) is the best of the Greenstreet-Lorre teamings (though you certainly can make a strong case for The Mask of Dimitrios [1944]) and why it’s not available on DVD is a mystery I’ve never been able to solve (though the print I watched on TCM was beat-up in a few places), Lorre is really great in this movie, eschewing his usual histrionics for a more laid-back, world-weary demeanor and though Fitzgerald (who passed away in 2005) is probably best remembered today as Bette Davis’ supportive gal pal in Dark Victory (1939) I always thought she was better in scheming, villainous roles such as in this film and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945).

The Unholy Three (1930) – This was Lon Chaney’s only talkie—a remake of the 1925 film of the same name—and it’s for the most part a scene-for-scene copy (with the exception of the ending, which they changed to take advantage of that newfangled invention of sound). Lon’s a criminal mastermind who heads up a group of jewel thieves (midget Harry Earles of Freaks fame and Ivan Linow as a strong man); his base of operations is a pet shop in which he (in drag) plays the part of kindly Grandma O’Grady, selling parrots to wealthy customers (which allows the gang to case the houses before pulling off the heists). Three is interesting only for Chaney’s solo sound performance (he passed away shortly after from throat cancer); most of the other actors in the cast end up eating his acting dust…though I will admit co-star Lila Lee (as Chaney’s “moll”) has a certain charm about her. The major debit in the talkie Three is that it was directed by Jack Conway—who can’t quite measure up to the silent version’s man-with-the-directorial-reins, frequent Chaney collaborator Tod Browning. Before unspooling Unholy Three, TCM showed a rare Hal Roach comedy two-reeler, Three Chumps Ahead (1934), which features the “female Laurel & Hardy” team of Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly in a pleasant if unremarkable short in which Thelma lands a new boyfriend who’s all hat and no cattle…and Patsy is unable to convince her roomie of this fact. Even though I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of women engaging in L&H slapstick, the charms of Miss Todd and Miss Kelly usually outweigh my concerns.

Sergeants 3 (1962) – I can now state with pride that I’ve seen all of the “Rat Pack” films…though I’m not at all convinced about that “pride” part. Frankie, Dino and the rest of the gang remake Gunga Din (1939) out West; the two men—plus Peter Lawford—are cavalry sergeants who must deal with a fanatical group of Indians (led by Henry Silva) and are assisted by freed slave Sammy Davis, Jr. (in the Sam Jaffe “water boy” part) and Buddy Lester (as an Indian?). Apart from a pretty exciting runaway buckboard sequence (in which Francis Albert gets to do Indiana Jones before Harrison Ford), you will honestly not believe how bad this movie is—I was particularly embarrassed for Davis, who—when he’s not shuckin’ and jivin’—ends up becoming an ersatz Jerry Lewis in some of his scenes with Martin. Joey Bishop is in also in this one (and believing he’s a sergeant-major in the U.S. Cavalry somehow requires a larger leap of faith than swallowing his Indian role in Texas Across the River [1966]) as is Ruta Lee and the Crosby kids—Phillip, Dennis and Lindsay (their old man would appear in the last Rat Pack film, Robin and the 7 Hoods [1964]). If Sergeants 3 is supposed to be a comedy…well, I didn’t find anything funny in it (4 For Texas [1963] is far, far funnier). A major disappointment from director John Sturges and screenwriter W.R. Burnett (High Sierra, The Racket); one that I’m sure didn’t give John Ford too many sleepless nights.

Bye Bye Birdie (1963) – I tuned this in last night even though I’d already seen it only because I was curious to revisit it in light of the Irving Brecher book review I posted Saturday afternoon. I’ve stated in the past that when it comes to musicals I’m no expert but I’ve always found it impossible to dislike this one due to its relentless spirit of frivolity and fun. Here’s the plot for the unfamiliar: down-and-out songwriter Dick Van Dyke is given the opportunity of a lifetime when fiancée Janet Leigh pitches the idea of featuring Elvis Presley-like rock star Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) on The Ed Sullivan Show to bestow a final kiss on a lucky fan (Ann-Margret) before being inducted into the U.S. Army (Van Dyke will write the song Birdie performs, guaranteeing a huge payoff from what’s sure to be a million-selling record).

Irving Brecher wrote the screenplay for Birdie and was originally slated to direct the film (which I’m not entirely convinced would have been a good idea) until Columbia put George Sidney in charge (Sidney had received a princely sum of money up front for a movie that never got made and the suits decided to give him Birdie to even things out), and though Irv was a bit ticked off by this he still remained good friends with Sidney (particularly since Sidney’s father, Louis K., helped guide Brecher’s fortunes at MGM). In The Wicked Wit of the West, Brecher says he wasn’t crazy about the casting of Leigh (“She was over the hill, physically.”), preferring Chita Rivera (who had played the part in the stage musical)—but Leigh’s one of the main reasons why I enjoy this film so much…not to mention Paul Lynde’s uproarious turn as Ann-Margret’s irascible father (“The next time I have a daughter, I hope it’s a boy!”). Birdie’s crammed with so many musical numbers (Put on a Happy Face, Kids, A Lot of Livin’ to Do) and contains a fun supporting cast in Maureen Stapleton, Bobby Rydell, Mary LaRoche, Milton Frome...and of course, Ed Sullivan himself. (What's My Line's John Daly even has a brief cameo!)

Warning! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!

'Lost in Space' actor Bob May dies at 69 in Calif.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Bob May, who donned The Robot's suit in the hit 1960s television show "Lost in Space," has died. He was 69.

May died Sunday of congestive heart failure at a hospital in Lancaster, said his daughter, Deborah May.

He was a veteran actor and stuntman who had appeared in movies, TV shows and on the vaudeville stage when he was tapped by "Lost in Space" creator Irwin Allen to play the Robinson family's loyal metal sidekick in the series that debuted in 1965.

"He always said he got the job because he fit in the robot suit," said June Lockhart, who played family matriarch Maureen Robinson. "It was one of those wonderful Hollywood stories. He just happened to be on the studio lot when someone saw him and sent him to see Irwin Allen about the part. Allen said, 'If you can fit in the suit, you've got the job.'"

Although May didn't provide the robot's distinctive voice (that was done by announcer Dick Tufeld), he developed a following of fans who sought him out at memorabilia shows.

"Lost in Space" was a space-age retelling of "The Swiss Family Robinson" story in which professor John Robinson, his wife and their children were on a space mission when their craft was knocked hopelessly off course by the evil Dr. Zachary Smith, who became trapped in space with them.

May's robot was the Robinson family's loyal sidekick, warning them of approaching disaster at every turn. His line to one of the children, "Danger, Will Robinson," became a national catch phrase.

The grandson of famed vaudeville comedian Chic Johnson, May was introduced to show business at age 2 when he began appearing in the "Hellzapoppin" comedy revue with Johnson and his partner, Ole Olsen.

He went on to appear in numerous films with Jerry Lewis and in such TV shows as "The Time Tunnel," "McHale's Navy and "The Red Skelton Show." He was also a stuntman in such 1950s and '60s TV shows as "Cheyenne," "Surfside 6," "Hawaiian Eye," "The Roaring 20s" and "Stagecoach."


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

Sunday, January 18, 2009

“Oh yeah?!!!”

There’s a little bit of backstory involved with this post, and since it’s going to be a lengthy one I’ll try to keep it brief. Last July, I received an e-mail from an individual who offered to send me a gratis copy of the Time-Life DVD box set release The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3 for review…but sad to say, I never received it in time to write it up before it officially hit the streets in September.

Still, I don’t want to leave an impression that this is the end of the story. I finally received it a few days before Christmas, and rather than browbeat this individual for an explanation I’m just going to assume that my old nemesis at the Savannah Post Office (Smock Lady!) is responsible. It is I who must apologize for not getting around to reviewing this sooner, and I do once again want to thank Erik for taking the time to send it.

When I first read the announcement that The Best of Season 3 would be released to DVD, my immediate response was “Did I sleep through the best of Seasons 1 and 2?” Not long after, of course, I learned that the decision was made to release the final season first because it was in this season that the team of Tom and Dick Smothers were fired by the CBS network, bringing their popular Sunday night comedy-variety series to a premature end—and as such, would be of more interest to fans and the mildly curious. (Both brothers continually stress even today that their series was not cancelled in the traditional sense, but was a casualty of their network firing. To paraphrase Dick, cancellation is like death from natural causes; television shows don’t stay around forever [though it seems like some of them do]. Being fired from a series is like death by gunshot. In the end, you get the same result.) Tom Smothers has gone on record as being somewhat reluctant to release the shows to DVD (and reiterates this in an audio commentary included in the box set’s generous extras) because of fears that those unfamiliar with the show will, upon watching a few episodes, wonder what the fuss was all about. His preference is to edit the shows further (the programs on the box set have already been edited; they’re the same versions that were featured on the E! Network back in 1993 and snips were made for various legal and copyright reasons) so that the deadwood is completely eliminated and only the political and controversial elements remain.

I’ll go on record to say that Tom’s idea is a bad one—and I’m glad he demurred to the outcry of the fans. To me, editing the shows more would undercut his argument that potential consumers are only interested in those segments that got him and Dick in trouble with CBS. If you're a fan of the Smothers' comedy, you'll be able to sit through (at least I was) sketches that will seem rather silly because you'll watch it through a 1960s sensibility instead of a 21st century prism. I’ve always believed to a certain extent that a goodly portion of the material on Comedy Hour wasn’t so much controversial (granted, a lot of it is fairly tame and innocuous when viewed today) as it was irreverent; that the Smothers and their young writers were audacious to the point of placing whoopee cushions in the chairs of the stuffy old guard at the Tiffany network in order to get them to lighten up. (An argument has been made, however, that CBS was influenced by the displeasure of the individuals targeted by the duo into giving them their walking papers...the powers-that-be still call the shots in matters involving the FCC.) In a reunion of Tom, Dick and writers Steve Martin, Mason Williams and Bob Einstein at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in 2000 (another extra included on the set; it’s a shame they didn’t set this up for telecast because the audio isn’t up to snuff and you miss a lot of what they’re saying), all five of them agreed that the only material on the show that guaranteed an avalanche of hate mail were those sketches that dealt with religion…which is a subject that has pretty much been taboo since the beginning of time.

The Best of Season 3 spotlights eleven shows that were, as previously noted, cherry-picked by the brothers to be featured on E!—and even though they’ve been edited, there is much goodness to be found among what remains. The first show on Disc 1 is their third season opener (September 29, 1968), which features guest stars Pat Paulsen, Mama Cass Elliot and Harry Belafonte. Already the Smothers and the censors have taken up opposing sides; when originally broadcast, “Standards and Practices” eliminated Belafonte’s incredible calypso medley of Don’t Stop the Carnival (because it was set against a backdrop of footage from the tumultuous Democratic Party Convention in 1968) and substituted an inane Q&A session in which a clearly pissed-off Tom has difficulty concealing his contempt (he eventually challenges this nonsense with an improvised editorial on censorship). For the DVD, the Belafonte number has been restored—with the Q&A material presented as an extra. Also in this show, Tom and Dick stick out their tongues at the powers-that-be with a ditty entitled We’re Still Here, and Mama Cass sings a couple of tunes including her big hit, Dream a Little Dream of Me. The final sketch is a funny Bonanza parody (Bonanzarosa) which casts Belafonte and Mama Cass as “Little Jerk” and “Hass,” respectively, and Tom and Dick are outlaws who have kidnapped the Nielsen families—agreeing to release them only if their terms are met. (Towards the end of this sketch, family patriarch Ben Cartwrong [Paulsen] reveals that the matriarch of the family is still alive—and out of a boarded-up closet comes former L.A. Rams player Rosey Grier [in drag]. As Grier gives Elliot a familial kiss, Tom cracks: “Now they’ll never get the Nielsens back.”)

Other shows in the collection include wet-your-pants funny routines from George Carlin (the one with the Indian drill sergeant: “…you with the beads—out of line!”), Bob Newhart (the air traffic controller bit), Jackie Mason, Jonathan Winters and David Frye (who participates in a sketch in which he impersonates LBJ, Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace). The improv group The Committee makes several appearances in these shows (you’ll glimpse members Peter Bonerz and Howard Hesseman) and there are also a couple of telecasts in which the Smothers imitated Steve Allen’s “Man on the Street” sketches (which, in turn, were lifted from another famous Allen and his “Allen’s Alley” creation) with “Minority Report.” Among the famous participants in the “Report” segments are Michael Constantine (later on Room 222), Mel Stewart (Henry Jefferson on All in the Family), and Kenneth Mars—who’s hysterical as a cheerful WASP bigot:

DICK: Tell me, what about the spending here at home?
KENNETH: Spending here at home…ow! Now that’s a real sore point with me…we’re dumping too much money into these so-called “ghetto areas”…there shouldn’t be any ghettos! Why, let them move into my neighborhood! Last week…a Jewish fellow moved in right across the way…and they say a Negro family bought the house right next door, and they’re welcome
DICK: Very good attitude, sir…excuse me, I have to move along now…
KENNETH (Muttering): And I’ll be moving right with you


In addition to being able to enjoy top-notch comedians at the cusp of their careers, the Comedy Hour shows also present amazing musical acts: the First Edition (with a young Kenny Rogers), the Doors, Ray Charles, Judy Collins, Joan Baez (whose intro to Green, Green Grass of Home—in which she dedicates the song to her then-husband David Harris, who was about to do a stretch in the Grey Bar Hotel for draft resistance—was snipped by CBS, and who does an amazing rendition of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released with tight harmonies from Tom and Dick) and the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. (Ike and Tina were always welcome on the Smothers show, since other variety programs generally kept their distance [they thought the act was “too sexy”]; they do a nice River Deep, Mountain High and the oddly prophetic I’m Gonna Do All I Can [To Do Right by My Man].) Two of the shows on this disc were telecast in an interesting “theater-in-the-round” format: the aforementioned Baez appearance and a program that featured both Donovan and Dion (who sings Abraham, Martin and John). The Donovan-Dion telecast had to do without the usual presence of Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra (a musicians’ strike was in effect that week) but the two performers get to sing together on the old Mary Hopkin hit Those Were the Days in the finale, performed among a series of blackouts from Tom, Dick and The Committee. (A young Jennifer Warnes—billed at that time as Jennifer Warren—sings an incredible Santa Monica Pier acapella, in addition to harmonizing with Donovan on Days; she can also be seen/heard on another show which features the West Coast cast of the stage musical Hair.) I also like the Donovan-Dion show because Tom and Dick do Cabbage, one of my favorites of their many routines (and, as this post from the past will attest, the bit that made me a Smothers fan for life).



The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3 also includes the telecast (which was never shown on CBS) that the network used to fire the team, claiming that the videotape of the program was delivered too late (a ploy that backfired when Tom and Dick successfully sued CBS for breach of contract in a famous court case); it’s interesting to note that Dick wasn’t on the show that week (he got the time off for a auto racing engagement) and was replaced by Laugh-In’s Dan Rowan. David Steinberg was also among the guests (as was Nancy Wilson and Teddy Neeley—whose musical performance has been snipped but his participation in the final comedy skit has not), performing another one of his comedy sermonettes about Jonah and the whale (“And the gentiles, as is their wont from time to time, threw the Jew overboard.”). But one of the funniest bonuses is reserved for Disc 4: the October 20, 1968 telecast of Pat Paulsen for President; a rib-tickling “mockumentary” that covers the comedian’s quixotic quest (“If nominated I will not run…if elected I will not serve”) for the highest office in the land…narrated by Henry Fonda. (Most of the material in this special hasn’t dated in the slightest; you could run it today and still get big guffaws.) The absence of Paulsen from a lot of these telecasts (CBS took his “campaign” seriously and kept him off the show, fearing the real candidates would demand equal time) is another small disappointment, but Disc 4 contains some bodacious extras devoted to the man who achieved fame as the deadpan comedian who did editorials on Tom and Dick’s shows. There’s even a videotaped stand-up performance from 1992 in a club in Anchorage, Alaska that is most enjoyable; Paulsen works in a one-liner that I once suggested to my old boss at La Quinta he use for the marquee sign: “We’ve upped our standards, now up yours.” (After he got up off the floor, he told me that if there was even the slightest chance he could get away with a stunt like that he would use it in a heartbeat.)

As a Smothers Brothers fan, I was naturally predisposed to enjoy this collection—and despite the few disappointments, it’s simply a must-have for any comedy/classic television enthusiast. The extras alone are simply staggering: interviews with writers and guest stars about their experiences, interdepartmental memos and threats from the network, material that never aired (I particularly enjoyed the segment where Tom and Dick interview noted draft resistor Dr. Benjamin Spock), network promos and other assorted goodies. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that The Best of Season 2 is not too far around the corner.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The wicked wit of the west

Screenwriter Irving Brecher passed away last year in November, but had he been fortunate to stave off the Grim Reaper until today he would be celebrating his ninety-fifth birthday. He would also been around to see the release of his autobiography (written in tandem with journalist/radio broadcaster Hank Rosenfeld), The Wicked Wit of the West, the publication date of which was timed in accordance with his natal anniversary. The title of this wonderful book, comes from the sobriquet bestowed upon Irving by his longtime chum and frequent benefactor of his writing talent—the one, the only…GROUCHO! (Marx, that is.)

Jordan R. Young, author of The Laugh Crafters (which, interestingly enough, features Mr. Brecher as one of the “Crafters”), once opined that writers made the best raconteurs and most articulate interview subjects—and Irving’s lengthy conversations with Rosenfeld in Wicked Wit would certainly seem to bear this out. Brecher’s career is covered in-depth from his early days of writing for Milton Berle (before he was “Uncle Miltie”) to his final years as an elder statesman for comedy and screenwriting, often in demand by young researchers for his insights on The Golden Ages of Hollywood, Radio and Television. Irving’s profession covered many facets of show business: he was under contract to director-producer Mervyn LeRoy (LeRoy signed him on the strength of his Berle material), and found himself employed by the Tiffany’s of motion picture studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—where he scripted films as varied as Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). (Brecher started his rise at MGM by writing the screenplays for the Marx Brothers vehicles At the Circus [1939] and Go West [1940]—and would be the only writer to receive sole credit on two films during the Marxes’ lengthy cinematic career.)

While at MGM in the 1940s, Brecher also created a long-running radio sitcom entitled The Life of Riley, which had originally been crafted as a vehicle for his pal Groucho—but when it became obvious that the cigar-smoking jokester was wrong for the part, comic actor William Bendix got the nod and made the character of a blue-collar working stiff who bungled everything he touched his own from 1944 to 1951. Brecher also brought the series to television in the fall of 1949—with The Great One himself, Jackie Gleason, as Riley because Bendix’s contract with Hal Roach kept him off the cathode ray tube—and became the first sitcom to win an Emmy as Best Comedy Series. (Brecher leased the rights to Riley to NBC three years later for a version that featured Bendix and was a bit more successful—but Irving didn’t completely abandon television, creating and producing—in partnership with George Burns—a sitcom entitled The Peoples’ Choice, which ran for three years on NBC and starred former Our Ganger Jackie Cooper.)

Irving Brecher even dabbled in film directing, bringing his radio Riley to the big screen in 1949 with a film that remains one of the best radio-to-film adaptations; he also held the reins on features like Somebody Loves Me (1952), with Betty Hutton and Ralph Meeker as the real-life vaudeville team of Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields, and Sail a Crooked Ship (1961), where he became fast friends with the immortal Ernie Kovacs. (As revealed in Wicked Wit, Brecher was also slated to direct the 1963 musical Bye Bye Birdie—he did contribute the screenplay—but he stepped aside for his friend George Sidney…whose career was revitalized as a result.)

What makes Wicked Wit such a wonderful and accessible book is that because Irving’s writing skills took place in so many different mediums the fabulous anecdotes and stories he relates will appeal to many individuals with different interests. Classic movie buffs will devour with relish his misadventures in working for MGM (Brecher unleashes his suffer-no-fools wit on lunkhead studio execs and other relatives…and yet is most complimentary about people he admired, like Judy Garland, William Powell [the star of The Thin Man movies, who drank more martinis onscreen than any other actor with the exception of W.C. Fields, was the individual responsible for introducing Brecher to that very libation] and Carole Lombard) and Paramount, and his experiences as both scribe and director. Old-time radio enthusiasts will revel in his respect for luminaries like Milton Berle, Jack Benny and Fred Allen, and vintage TV fans will not be able to stifle their laughter over Irving’s headaches involved producing Riley and Choice (in the case of this latter sitcom, I learned that the man responsible for putting the Groucho-like Cleo the Basset Hound through her paces was Frank Inn, who would later train animals for The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.)

Wicked Wit is a testament to the rapier-like humor of Irving Brecher…but it’s interesting to note that like his longtime associate Groucho Marx, Brecher frequently unleashes stinging retorts for the main purpose of getting a laugh, and seems unconcerned as to whether his observations draw blood or not. Marx, by all accounts, was one of the wittiest of comedians—but even Groucho’s confidantes and associates admit that he could be a real miserable essobee, particularly in his declining years. This is why I thought it was interesting that in one chapter, Brecher cavalierly dismisses the circumstances of actor John Garfield’s death as being “on top of a hooker” and then several chapters later laments that his show business career nearly ground to a halt because of HUAC and the influence wielded in Hollywood at that time by John Wayne. Garfield, who was hounded by HUAC to “name names” and refused to do so, stuck to his principles though it cost him his life. Brecher took the easy way out by writing a mea culpa letter to the Duke. (An associate of Irving’s, Life of Riley scribe Reuben Ship, was apparently deported to Canada because of his past political affiliations.) An armchair psychologist like me can’t help but speculate that by reducing Garfield’s untimely end to a wisecrack, Brecher was trying to rationalize taking the road that he did to protect his career. Brecher acknowledges:

Okay, so maybe I don’t look at the world through rose-colored implants. In fact I really like the world. It’s the putzes in it! And I don’t resolve to change. If I’ve said anything snide, I’m sorry. Unless it gets a laugh.

But this, of course, is just tiny nitpicking. Wicked Wit is crammed with fascinating stories: how Brecher was used as a pawn by the William Morris agency in attempting to bring George Burns back into their management fold; how Irv paid for Jackie Gleason’s teeth; and a hysterical account of a fishing trip with Brecher and Groucho (plus an equally amusing anecdote about a stay at the famed Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, WV in 1939). Nostalgia fans will eat up Brecher’s memoir with a spoon, so The Wicked Wit of the West is available for purchase from Ben Yehuda Press in case you have that kitchen utensil at the ready.

Friday, January 16, 2009

DVR-TiVo-Or whatever recording device strikes your fancy-Alert!

TCM is going to show the 1934 Thelma Todd-Patsy Kelly two-reeler Three Chumps Ahead at 3:11am EST (between The Terror of Tiny Town [1938] and The Unholy Three [1930]) early Saturday morning. I haven’t seen it, but the IMDb lists Benny Baker, Eddie Phillips, Frank Moran, Ernie Adams, Ernie Alexander, Harry Bernard, Billy Bletcher and Baldwin Cooke in the supporting cast; TCM describes the plot as “Thelma falls for a gentleman but Patsy has her doubts.” Hey…it’s a Todd-Kelly short—what else needs to be said?

Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys

2 actors inducted into Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Better known for portraying on-screen cowboys, Tommy Lee Jones and Barry Corbin were among six people inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame on Thursday night.

"By God, y'all are cowboys too," Gov. Rick Perry told the actors as the crowd of about 600 laughed.

Jones, an eighth-generation Texan who raises cattle and polo ponies on his 3,000-acre ranch, said he had won many awards but had never felt they were about him.

"This might be the first time that I've taken an award personally," Jones said. "This is the first time in all my long years of award-winning that I wish my granddad could be here."

Jones, 62, won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for best supporting actor in 1993's "The Fugitive." His other awards include an Emmy for the 1982 made-for-TV movie "The Executioner's Song." His films include "Coal Miner's Daughter," "JFK," "Batman Forever" and "Men in Black."

Corbin, a Lamesa native who now lives and ranches in Fort Worth, was getting the 2009 Rick Smith Spirit of Texas Award.

Corbin, 68, was nominated for an Emmy twice for his work on the early 1990s TV series "Northern Exposure" role and has appeared in numerous TV series, including "Dallas," "Reba," "The Closer" and "One Tree Hill." Corbin's films include "Urban Cowboy" and "WarGames."

"An award like this is a once-in-a lifetime deal because it is recognition from my people," Corbin said. "A lot of these awards are for saying lines good."

Both Jones and Corbin were in the 2007 best-picture Oscar winner "No Country for Old Men" and "In the Valley of Elah," as well as the TV miniseries "Lonesome Dove."

The other 2009 Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame inductees: Tyler Magnus, a nine-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier and former winner in team roping who stars in his own TV show; Rope Myers, a former Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world champion steer wrestler; Ken Welch, a former champion saddle bronc rider; and the late Jim Bob Altizer, a former Rodeo Cowboy Association calf-roping champion and Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and National Cowboy Hall of Fame member.

Sorry, Bill…better luck next time.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Somebody up there doesn’t like me

So I’m recording the 1956 biopic of boxer Rocky Graziano—Somebody Up There Likes Me—off TCM yesterday…for some odd reason, I’m not a boxing fan but I do like movies that deal with the sweet science. (As I stated earlier in a review of Right Cross (1950), boxing films that show the corruption prevalent in the fight game—Body and Soul, Champion, The Set-Up, The Harder They Fall, etc.—usually receive top preference.) But I really dig Paul Newman’s performance in this film…and it has a special resonance for me because it was the movie that revealed my sister Debbie’s lukewarm fondness for classic movies (she called me one night to ask what I was doing and when I told her I was watching Somebody she said she, as a Newman fan, would have to check it out), proving that someone in our family besides me has good taste.

I was sitting on the couch watching the opening credits (with a theme song sung by Perry Como) when suddenly—for reasons I still can’t explain or comprehend—the cable box switches channels to a soap opera on ABC. Before I can complete the “What the fu…” rolling off my tongue, it then switches back to the Newman film. By itself. Honest to my grandma, I never even touched the remote.

This just goes to prove the depths of CharredHer’s wickedness. But someday…someday they will pay for their perfidy.

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #15

No Greater Glory (1934) – Here’s an entertaining little oddity, courtesy of director Frank Borzage and adapted from the Ferenc Molnar novel The Boys of Paul Street (previously filmed in 1929 and 1934 and later remade in 1969, 2003 and 2005) by Jo Swerling. Two street gangs made up of Polish juvenile delinquents engage in a “war” over possession of a vacant lot; one of the kids, Nemescek (George P. Breakston), is smaller than his fellow gang members and is picked on regularly…but he demonstrates that courage isn’t always found in the biggest and/or boldest, gaining respect not only from his comrades but the individuals in the other gang as well. This anti-war allegory is a bit uneven (it sometimes skids dangerously into the territory of an Our Gang short) but ultimately gets its point across; Glory is also headed up by an impressive group of child actors that include Frankie Darro, Jackie Searl and Donald Haines (a former Our Gang member hisownself). (Breakston, who can be a bit annoying at times as the unlikely hero, had a long career at MGM playing Mickey Rooney’s sidekick F. Baker “Beezy” Anderson in the Andy Hardy series.) The adults are played by character faves like Ralph Morgan (Frank’s bro), Egon Brecher, Samuel S. Hinds, Lois Wilson and Frank Reicher. Certainly a movie to keep an eye out for, particularly in light of the recently released Murnau, Borzage and Fox DVD box set.

The Red Badge of Courage (1951) – Sure, it was required reading in high school…but would you believe that this is the first time I’ve actually sat down and watched the film adaptation of Stephen Crane’s classic war novel? A young Union Army recruit (Audie Murphy, in a first-rate performance) turns tail and runs during his first experience in battle but later redeems himself…and learns that there’s a thin line between courage and cowardice. This John Huston picture was the tackling dummy in the notorious struggle for power between old guard Louis B. Mayer and new blood Dore Schary at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (an account that was told in Lillian Ross’ book Picture); the studio cut out some twenty minutes to end up with a film that almost seems over as soon as you blink. Huston ignored the donnybrook because he was too preoccupied with the pre-production on The African Queen, but when he later tried to assemble a “director’s cut” he learned that the missing footage was missing, believed destroyed. (Star Murphy also tried to make a deal to buy the film from MGM, with little success.) Unlike the mutilated The Magnificent Ambersons, the abrupt version of Courage really doesn’t hurt one’s enjoyment of the film (though it is sad when you learn that Royal Dano’s role was shrunken considerably); it’s a timeless classic (Huston once said it was one of his favorites of his entire oeuvre) with some truly offbeat casting—cartoonist Bill Mauldin, Douglas Dick, John Dierkes, Arthur Hunnicutt, Andy Devine and Robert “I was kicked in the head by a mule” Easton are among the credited performers. (You can also spot Whit Bissell, Dick Curtis, I. Stanford Jolley, Emmett Lynn, William Schallert and Glenn Strange among the soldiers—proving that a Union win was in the bag from the beginning.)

Right Cross (1950) – I taped and watched this yesterday ostensibly because I’m a Dick Powell fan…but the viewing took on a slight melancholy tone since the late Ricardo Montalban is in the picture as well. Montalban is a champion Latino boxer who starts to ponder his future when his right hand is injured sparring and his doctor (Frank Ferguson) tells him it will only be a matter of time before it’ll be of no use to him. His lawyer (Tom Powers) suggests he sign a contract with promoter Allan Goff (Barry Kelley) because Goff will look after him even when he’s unable to fight anymore—but Ricardo’s under contract to Sean O’Malley (Lionel Barrymore…with wheelchair), whose daughter Pat (June Allyson) is carrying a torch for him. I was disappointed with this movie for several reasons: the romance between Allyson and Montalban isn’t convincing (Allyson spends most of the film making goo-goo eyes at her real-life husband, Powell, who plays a wisecracking sports reporter and Ricardo’s “gringo” buddy) and any film that starts out pretending the fight racket is legitimate loses a hell of a lot of credibility from the get-go. Still, Montalban and Powell’s characters have a good rapport, and the supporting cast is pretty good…with Wally Maher, Larry Keating and Kenneth Tobey as Powell’s fellow news hounds (or should that be sports hounds?) and an uncredited Marilyn Monroe in one of her early films as a young lovely (named “Dusky Ledoux”) Powell attempts to make a move on in a restaurant he frequents. Oh, Dick sings in this one, too, for those of you who prefer Musical Powell to Tough Guy Powell.

Mystery Street (1950) – Okay, technically I’m cheating here because I didn’t see this one on TCM but rather dug into the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives for my DVD copy…but there have been so many of my fellow bloggers singing the praises of this dandy police procedural (with Ricardo Montalban as a doggedly determined cop and egghead Hah-vahd criminologist Bruce Bennett assisting) that I couldn’t pass up a chance to give it the once-over. (I gambled on TCM showing this one during the inevitable Ricardo Montalban salute—which will take place on January 23. No Mystery Street, but there will be showings of Neptune’s Daughter, Border Incident, Battleground and Across the Wide Missouri.) “B” gal and TDOY fave Jan Sterling takes advantage of tipsy Marshall “Daktari” Thompson and “liberates” his car to journey to a rendezvous with a paramour who rewards Sterling for making the trip by shooting, strangling…and then dumping her body on a beach. Montalban is brought in on the case (the crime took place in Barnstable) and despite his initial reluctance, comes to depend on Bennett’s forensics skills to put the pieces back in the puzzle. A neglected little treat that in many ways is a precursor to the TV series CSI and its abundant progeny, Montalban is excellent as the cop and Street also contains a fine turn by Elsa Lanchester as a conniving blackmailer (she steals every scene she’s in.) (It’s also interesting to note that Wally Maher—who plays Montalban’s partner—relies on his extensive radio background to be the only member of the cast to attempt to sound like somebody from Boston.) Street also features such notables as Ralph Dumke, Walter Burke (as a bird watcher who finds Sterling’s skeleton), Great Gildersleeve replacement Willard Waterman (as a mortician), Ned Glass and King Donovan…who not only plays a reporter in this film but in the previously mentioned Right Cross. Good early effort from John Sturges, who later went on to bigger and better things in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and The Magnificent Seven (1960).

(Note: As Laura from Laura's Miscellaneous Musings has so correctly pointed out, I apparently cannot delineate the difference between Sally Forrest and Betsy Blair--so I went ahead and deleted my earlier snarky comment. Thanks for the help, Laura...and for those classic movie fans who just can't get enough of film reviews, check out Laura's blog for some great stuff!)