Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Babes in Arms (1939) * * *

In 1921 Joe Moran (Charles Winninger) and Florrie Moran (Grace Hayes) are old vaudevillians who begin a touring show featuring many of their senior colleagues. Their children Mickey (Mickey Rooney) and Molly (Betty Jaynes) want to tag along, but the parents refuse. They live in Seaport, Long Island, NY just before the Great Depression and the "talkies" replace silent movies. Vaudeville is dying. Mickey writes songs, and Patsy Barton (Judy Garland) sings "Good Morning." Mickey sells the song for $100, gives Patsy his pin and kisses her. He writes a show he will star in as well as direct, and puts on the show to avoid being sent with other vaudevillians' children to a work farm. He'll improvise his show in the country, despite the awful weather conditions. Patsy is in love with Mickey, and he loves her too, but for him the show must go on, and his big dream maybe will come true: formally stage his play in a big scenario, with a huge production. The determined youngsters must also prove that, contrary to the demands of Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton), they don't belong in a state-administered trade school. Don Brice (Douglas McPhail) sings "Babes in Arms" as they march and make a bonfire. Joe says good-bye to Mickey.

Mickey Moran: No, no, no, judge! You don't understand; she don't understand, either. Oh, she don't mean no harm to us, but... we're not her kind of people--or yours, either. We belong in show business. We gotta start young so we can get some steel in our backbone. Well, gee, we're developing. You couldn't teach us a trade: we've GOT one. And you couldn't do without it... Oh, we're only kids now, but someday we're gonna be the guys that make ya laugh and cry and think that there's a little stardust left on life's dirty old pan. Oh, she don't understand: she'd put butterflies to work makin' rubber tires!

Nasty old Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton) and her son Jeff Steele (Rand Brooks) from military school want the kids on a work farm. They complain to Judge John Black (Guy Kibbee) about the Vaudeville kids, but he won't take them from their homes. Mickey tells Judge Black that his parents' show flopped. The judge gives Mickey 30 days to put on the show and prove they don't belong in the jail-like school. The rest of the action involves the talented kids successful efforts to not only stage the show, but to bring the whole troupe to Broadway. Don and Molly sing "Where or When" with an orchestra of children. In a drugstore Mickey and Patsy meet movie star Baby Rosalie Essex (June Preisser), but Mickey gets in a fight with Jeff. Mickey has a date with Baby and dines in her house. Mickey wants Baby in the show, which needs $287. She offers to pay it, so Mickey bumps Garland from the lead, smokes a cigar and leaves.

Mickey tells Patsy that Baby has to play the lead because of the money, and Baby shows how good she is. Mickey directs a rehearsal with Baby and Don, imitating Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore. Patsy sees Mickey kiss Baby, then Mickey tries to stop Patsy from leaving. She tells him, "Did you have to kiss Baby Rosalie today? In the future if we should meet again at the opera or at a ball, and I'm dazzling in my diamonds and pearls and ermine wraps and surrounded by lords and dukes and princes, you'll probably be sorry!" On the train Patsy sings "I Cried for You." She goes to a theater to see her mother (Ann Shoemaker) and says that Mickey is putting on a show to keep the kids out of an institution. Patsy's mother tells her not to quit her show. She inevitably retakes the lead in the show and everything ends happily when out of nowhere a hot-shot producer likes what he sees in the barn show scene.

Baby's father takes her out of the show, and Mickey asks Patsy to go on. In the show Patsy sings "Daddy Was a Minstrel Man". Mickey and Patsy put on black face and sing a medley with Don. The barn show scene includes a minstrel show typical of the era that is not only dated but potentially ofensive to some viewers. Patsy sings "I'm Just Wild About Harry," but a storm drives the audience away. Mickey says, "Please folks, don't go! It's just a little shower!" He learns that his father quit theater and got an elevator job. Mrs. Steele says the children must report and gives Joe the paper. Mickey gets a letter from producer Maddox (Henry Hull), who liked the show and produces it. As hidden Mickey listens, Maddox asks bitter Joe to teach the youngsters in the show. Mickey introduces the show by singing "God's Country," which the company contrasts to fascism. Mickey and Patsy satirize FDR and Eleanor and dance.

As fascism is terrorizing Europe, young Americans have the freedom to organize a show and even satirize their government leaders. Mickey wonders if America can loan money for war, why can't they get some for entertainment? The marching and bonfire scene offers a parallel to fascists but a significant difference in purpose as they are struggling for artistic freedom not against it.

BABES IN ARMS was originally a 1937 Rogers and Hart Broadway musical that proved a smash on the New York stage--a slightly satirical script with one of the most powerful scores of the 1930s. MGM specifically purchased the property for Rooney and Garland and then promptly threw out the script, most of the score, and transformed the thing into a tale of young teenagers who decide to put on a show in a barn. It was the first Rooney/Garland vehicle directed by Busby Berkeley, and its success set the tone for their 9 films together. Busby Berkeley's big production numbers are a sight to behold, from a march through town for the title number to an embarrassing minstrel show routine. The movie was made the same year as THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) and features the same villain: Margaret Hamilton. At the time Rooney was the number one box-office attraction.

The Broadway script was revamped to accommodate Hollywood standards. Most of the Rodgers and Hart songs were cut, except for the title tune, "The Lady Is a Tramp", used as background music during a dinner scene, and "Where or When". Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown wrote a new song for the film, "Good Morning". This was the first of the Rooney/Garland "let's put on a show" extravaganzas and it's saved by Rooney's brash nerve and the charm of Garland. The storyline has been reduced to vaudeville corn, but Garland transcends the cliche, transforming a formula into critical and box-office gold. Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg (composer and lyricist for THE WIZARD OF OZ) wrote a new grand finale, called "God's Country", a strange mixture of Hollywood ballyhoo, patriotism, and fear of the European war that would soon engulf the world.

Although well performed, the songs that replaced the original score simply are inferior to the play's original score, and viewers are likely to be startled by a minstrel show number that find Mickey and Judy romping in blackface, a now dead theatrical tradition. The movie also has a number of distinct flaws. Busby Berkley was best with big-budget musicals that had scope for the elaborate dance numbers he favored, and his approach here feels heavy handed. Although immensely popular at the time Mickey Rooney's performance is manic by modern standards, and Garland's more natural performance is often overshadowed by his excesses. The script is as weak as the score, few of the supporting performers are memorable, with the exception of Margaret Hamilton, and the whole movie has an awkward quality to it. However, the film does capture the famous Rooney/Garland chemistry--a chemistry that would fuel three more "let's put on a show!" musicals, each one more more effective than the last. Casual viewers would do better to select BABES ON BROADWAY or GIRL CRAZY, but in spite of all its flaws, Rooney and Garland fans will likely find BABES IN ARMS a delight.

The original release of the film included a segment during the finale in which Rooney and Garland lampoon Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. This was edited from the film during a later reissue and not restored until the 1990s. MGM worried it might be construed as disrespectful during wartime. Filming of BABES IN ARMS began on May 12, 1939, soon after Garland had finished filming THE WIZARD OF OZ, and was completed on July 18, 1939. The film premiered on October 13, 1939. It was released not long after OZ and was an immediate and major hit, becoming one of the most admired musicals of the year. But time has a way of changing our perspective. Today, BABES IN ARMS feels a little strange, a little strained, and somewhat dated.

The cast also includes: June Preisser (Rosalie Essex), Leni Lynn (Dody Martin), Johnny Sheffielfd (Bobs), Barnett Parker (William Bartlett), Ann Shoemaker (Mrs. Barton), Joseph Crehan (Mr. Essex), George McKay (Brice), Henry Roquemore (Shaw), Lelah Tyler (Mrs. Brice), Charles D. Brown (Larry Randall), Joe Caits (Vaudevillian Veteran), Frank Darien Mr. Parks, Druggist), James Donlan (Fred), Inna Gest (Extra), Robert Emmett Keane Booking Agent), Lon McCallister (Boy), Sidney Miller (Sid), Cyril Ring (Vaudevilian Celebrant), Charles Smith (Shy Youth), Leonard Sues, Libby Taylor (Millicent, Rosalie's Maid), Mary Treen (Receptionist), Pat West (Vaudevillian Veteran), and Robert Winkler. Nacio Herb Brown composed the incidental music. Jack McGowan, Kay Van Riper, and Annalee Whitmore wrote the screenplay adapted from the play by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Busby Berkeley directed.

Babes in Arms was released on DVD for the first time as part of Warner Bros. 5-disc DVD set "The Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection" on September 25, 2007. The set contains BABES IN ARMS, BABES ON BROADWAY, GIRL CRAZY, and STRIKE UP THE BAND, as well as a fifth disc containing bonus features on Rooney and Garland.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Saint (1962 - 1969) * * *

Simon Templar (Roger Moore) is The Saint in one of the best cult TV series of all time. The Saint is a modern day Robin Hood. He steals from rich criminals and keeps the money for himself and the little guy or beautiful woman. Usually he manages to get the crooks put behind bars after he's stolen their goods. He's handsome, charming, suave and sophisticated, cool in a crisis and hot between the sheets--an impressive character, a great series, with an explosive blend of thrilling action and exciting adventure.

The daredevil gentleman adventurer who outswindles the swindlers was created by writer Leslie Charteris in 1928. Nineteen actors have portrayed Simon Templar. George Sanders is memorable in a film series from the 1930s, and Vincent Price voiced the character on radio in the 1940s. But the definitive Simon Templar is Roger Moore, who starred in this classic 1960s British TV series. Except for the gadgets, THE SAINT has all the trappings of the James Bond films: a real international man of mystery, exotic locations, cold war intrigue, sparkling bon mots, and beautiful women. He's one of the most popular of all fictional heroes, basically a self-hired and self-paid law enforcement officer constantly chased by a real lawman who doesn't see the difference between him and other criminals.

THE SAINT was adapted for television in 1962, with Roger Moore portraying the Saint in 71 black and white, and 47 color episodes with a runtime of 51 minutes each. In late 1961, Leslie Charteris sold the TV rights to THE SAINT to producer Robert S. Baker, who teamed up with Lew Grade of ITC to film 71 b & w shows. These episodes were based on the over 100 books and short stories written by Charteris, with additional material added by screenwriters including Harry Junkin, Gerald Kelsey, Terry Nation, and others. Few episodes were actually adapted from the novels, though many were based on the short stories. The show was well-received by British audiences, but ITC could not find a network in the US to carry the show. ITC syndicated "The Saint" in the US, and it became a huge hit, making it one of the most successful first-run syndicated shows in history.

With most of the original Charteris stories translated to the small screen, and the contract running down, ATV-ITC penned a new contract to continue the series in color. The producers had to submit the stories to Charteris, but unfortunately they were not legally obligated to take any of his advice. Along with the new contract came a deal with NBC in America to show THE SAINT in network prime time. The color series lasted 41 episodes, with many of the best being penned by John Kruse. It also proved popular beyond America and Britain, eventually broadcast in over 60 countries. With 118 episodes, the programme is exceeded only by "The Avengers" as the most productive show of its genre produced in Britain. "The Saint" came to an end in 1969.

Roger Moore drove a white Volvo P1800 during the series. His portrayal of Templar was a training ground for his later work as James Bond. Moore was reportedly offered the role of 007 at least twice during the run of the series, but had to turn it down due to his TV commitments. In one early episode of the series, a character actually mistakes Templar for James Bond. Chief Inspector Claude Eustace Teal (Ivor Dean ) regards him as a common thief, regardless of whom he steals from, so the Saint must always stay one step ahead of the doggedly persistent Inspector. Fortunately, his wit, charm, and savoir faire make this a fairly easy task, and the series chronicles his various exploits.

The Saint lives in London, though the exact address is never revealed, and is seen traveling to locations across London, the UK and around the world. In reality, the whole series was shot at Associated British Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, with very few scenes shot on locations outside of the studio. This was achieved by using the sets at Elstree Studios, blue screen technology to simulate different locations in the background, painted or projected backdrops, as well as revolving painted backdrops for moving scenes. There are a few exceptions, such as the extensive location shoot on the island of Malta in Italy for "Vendetta for the Saint". Lookalikes were used for location shoots where The Saint is seen in the distance entering a well known building or quickly driving past the camera.

The series began as a straightforward mystery series, but over the years adopted more secret agent and fantasy-style plots. The early b & w episodes are distinguished by having Moore break the fourth wall and speak to the audience at the start of every episode. With the switch to color, this gimmick was replaced by simple narration. Invariably, the pre-credits sequence ends with someone referring to the Saint as "the famous Simon Templar", at which point an animated halo appears above Templar's head as the actor usually looks at the camera or directly at the halo. Some episodes such as "Iris" break away from this formula and have Templar address the audience for the entire pre-credits sequence, setting up the story that follows. The first color series with a production run of 32 episodes, includes the two parter/feature film "The Fiction Makers". The second color production run consists of 15 episodes including the feature film/two parter "Vendetta for the Saint". This second color run has a revamped theme tune marking it out from the first batch of color episodes.

Roger Moore: "It was Bob's idea that we should address the camera to take the audience into our little secret and share it with everybody. Certainly, in portraying the Leslie Chateris creation, Simon Templar, otherwise known as "The Saint", I haven't drawn in any way on the impressions of him given by other actors, including George Sanders and Hugh Sinclair, who have played him in the past. Self-identification is something readers of books very often experience, and I have always felt this way about The Saint. I've been reading him since I was so high. I've always had a mental image of myself in his shoes. In latter years, he has become more and more the type of character I've felt I would rather play than anyone else--so much so, in fact, that I made efforts to obtain the television rights in the stories for myself. I failed (I'm not a millionaire!). So you can imagine my elation when producers Bob Baker and Monty Berman, being much richer than I am, obtained the rights and asked me if I would like to take the part."

"If my portrayal is of Roger Moore in some people's eyes it's because I happen to be Roger Moore and because, in my own arrogant way, I've got this feeling that the Saint and I have a devil a lot in common. For the record, let it be admitted that when Leslie Charteris himself heard that I had been cast for the part, he is reported to have made a beeline for the nearest bar, ordered the most exotic-sounding drink that came to mind, and tried hard to forget that such a diabolical thing should have happened to him. But it must be also recorded, in fairness to Leslie Charteris and to myself, that, after he had seen a few of the TV productions, he admitted that things could have been much worse, and that I was very much less unlike Simon Templar than he had anticipated. In fact, he admitted, he rather enjoyed the productions."

"Saint followers, of course, know Simon Templar's background. Those who meet hm for the first time on television may wonder how he earns a living. The answer is that he no longer has to do so. While he may have been regarded as a crook earlier in his career--but always as Robin Hood, charitable type of crook--it is no longer necessary for him to take his "cut" from the proceeds of his fabulous robberies. Though he takes the law into his own hands, he is certainly not against the law as such. Leslie Charteris has, in story after story, made it clear just what the Saint's outlook on life is. Let me quote: "I'm a sort of benevolent brigand. I raise hell for crooks and racketeers of all kinds, and make life miserable for policemen, and rescue damsels in distress, and all that sort of things". What more delightful character could any actor ask to portray?"

Nine episodes of the program were directed by Roger Moore (36, 40, 53, 68, 71, 85, 100, 107 and 112). When he signed his first contract to star in the show, he thought he was agreeing to do 26 one-half hour shows. Then he found out he actually agreed to appear in 26 one-hour shows and had signed for too little money. Moore had earlier tried to buy the production rights to THE SAINT books himself and eventually became co-owner of the show with Robert S. Baker when the show moved to color and the production credit became Bamore Productions. Most of the wardrobe Moore wore in the series was actually his own.

In 1979 ITC decided to renew the Saint and continue the series. Robert Baker proposed "The Return of The Saint" (aka "The Son of The Saint") solution to the age problem, with Roger Moore appearing in various episodes as the new Saint's father. This was scrapped, and Ian Ogilvy took over the halo for 24 episodes as Simon Templar. The show featured very high-quality production values, and was shot on location all over the world. People still saw the Saint as Roger Moore, and while some were beginning to accept Ian Ogilvy in the role, the show was cut short before he had a chance to turn the majority to his rendition.

Robert Baker still believed in the Saint, and in 1987 decided to give it another go with Australian Andrew Clarke in the lead role. He teamed with D.L. Taffner Ltd., to produce a one-hour pilot episode that aired on CBS. The show did not make the fall schedule. In 1989 the Saint was once again welcomed back to television in six 2-hour movies featuring Simon Dutton as Simon Templar, alias the Saint. D.L. Taffner Ltd., produced the episodes as part of "The Mystery Wheel of Adventure", a series of ten new made-for-TV movies. Bob Baker was involved as a consultant to the series. Moore never played the role again after 1969, though he can be heard speaking on a car radio during the 1997 film THE SAINT, starring Val Kilmer as Templar. Although the film bore little similarity to the TV series", the executive producer of the film was Robert S. Baker.

All of the color episodes in this series are available in DVD sets from A&E Home Entertainment. A&E initially was not planning to release the black and white seasons, but changed its mind due to public demand. A pair of two-part episodes from later seasons, "Vendetta for the Saint" and "The Fiction Makers", were compiled into feature films which were distributed to theaters in Europe and often show up on late-night television in America. They are also available on DVD.

In Region 2, Network DVD has released two multi-disc sets, with all the monochrome episodes available in an 18-disc set, and all the color ones separately in a 14-disc set. The color set includes both the theatrical versions of the two double-length stories, as well as the original 50-minute two-part versions. Also included are a 40-minute documentary and isolated music tracks. Prior to this, Carlton Video had released four separate discs, the first one with the first two episodes, and the rest with four episodes each. There is also a 10-disc set that repackages the previous four discs alongside six more, containing the first 39 monochrome episodes.

Umbrella Entertainment in Australia has released the entire series in five boxed sets with six discs each. These are in PAL format, but with no region code (typically, Australian DVDs are a Region 4 code). The box sets feature numerous extras including a series of audio commentaries recorded in 2004 with surviving members of the cast and crew, ranging from guest stars through to Roger Moore. The series is also available on DVD in France and Spain.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Harry and the Hendersons (1987) * * ¾

George Henderson (John Lithgow) takes his average American family on a hunting trip in the Pacific Northwest. On their way home to Seattle in a station wagon with wife Nancy (Melinda Dillon), bratty daughter Sarah (Margaret Langrick) and hyperactive son Ernie (Joshua Rudroy), they accidently run over a strange animal, and when they get out to see what it is, they find the seemingly dead body of a hairy Bigfoot-type monster (Kevin Peter Hall).

George Henderson: Nancy, I'm not a doctor, but it's got no pulse, it's not breathing and it's cold as a popsicle. Believe me, honey, whatever he is, he's definitely dead!

Excited by his rare find, George straps the monster to the roof of the car and takes it back to the Seattle suburbs. Believing that the creature is a grizzly bear, he plans to stuff the beast and put it on display in their living room. But the beast turns out to be alive and within minutes the revived creature goes wild, rampaging throughout the house. It transforms their dream home into a pile of drywall and splinters. Eventually, the family realizes that the creature is the legendary Bigfoot, and is actually very gentle. Given the name Harry, the creature's curiosity leads it to escape, running through the city as sightings of it strike fear into the populace, and greed into the heart of French Canadian hunter Jacques LaFleur (David Suchet), who has followed its trail for 25 years.

Jacques LaFleur: (to Nancy, about Harry) It could be out there suffering. And I know you'd want to help me find it so I could ki-... care for it.
(LaFleur is released from the watch house)
Jacques LaFleur: Where the hell have you been?
Jerome: There was nothing I could do!
Jacques LaFleur: Oh, bullshit!
Jerome: They weren't letting anybody out until they processed those guns, and there were a lot of guns! You need a bath.
Jacques LaFleur: And what, blow my cover?
(bangs on counter)
Jacques LaFleur: Come on, come on! Give me my piece!
Police Clerk: Hey, when I'm ready, pal.
Jacques LaFleur: When he's ready...! Jerome, do something, hey!

The Hendersons nurse Harry back to health and attempt to keep his existence a secret. Trying to hide him from the Seattle authorities and the hunter who wants its hide, the Hendersons come to realize that the best thing for Harry is to return him to his home in the wilderness.

George Henderson: He walked into our kitchen and was eating out of our refrigerator. I thought we was gonna eat me but he ate our daughter's corsage and then ate our goldfish!
Sergeant Mancini: And where is he now, Mr. Henderson?
George Henderson: In the bathroom.
Sergeant Mancini: Oh, of course, how stupid of me.
George Henderson: (on the phone) No, no, no Bigfoot here, Sergeant. I was just joking. It's just a prank, uh, I'm not even George Henderson. You must have reached the wrong number. (hangs up)

Hiding their furry friend as they race to get him back to his natural environment isn't so easy. They soon discover that the creature has a heart of gold as well as a brain. Far from being the ferocious monster they fear Harry to be, he's a friendly giant. They grow quite fond of the family's new addition, and it is adopted as a pet. This makes things all the worse when local hunters start setting their sights on the Henderson's beloved Bigfoot Harry.

This is a cute movie about a family man who befriends a Sasquatch (Bigfoot) and brings the friendly creature into his Seattle home. Mayhem and comedy ensue, and most of the film's jokes are about Harry's smell and size. He desperately needs a bath and a deodorant, and he's so big and heavy that he breaks chairs, floors and ceilings. Everything hinges on the relationship between George and Harry, and it is quite effective and touching. Dr. Wallace Wrightwood (Don Ameche) is a hoot as an old guy whose life has been ruined by his dedication towards the study of the Sasquatch. He has dreamed of meeting a Bigfoot all his life and finally gets his chance.

Dr. Wrightwood: And I know it's closing time, so if you wanna talk shop, then shop!
Nancy Henderson: George, if I could have a word with you before The Carson Show calls?
Sarah Henderson: Where's the roast?
George Henderson: I'll go get it.
Nancy Henderson: The roast is resting in a shallow unmarked grave in the backyard.
George Henderson: Oh. Well, there's plenty of other stuff.
Dr. Wrightwood: Are you vegetarians?
George Henderson: Sometimes. It depends on the guest.

Harry is played by a 7-foot-2-inch actor Kevin Peter Hall in what looks like a slightly altered Chewbacca suit. However, it's not his looks or smell that offend--it's his unctuous manner, which permeates the film itself. Harry is so sentimental he'd weep over a television commercial. Tears of gratitude well up in his eyes when someone doesn't swat him. Unlike E. T., who regards the world with a sophisticated yet kindly doubt, Harry, who's meant to be lovable, is simply dumb. His adoration of the boorish Hendersons and their suburban lifestyle is not satiric. In the way of sit-coms, HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS sanctifies the values of a stereotypical American family that's never looked quite as empty-headed as in this film. But it has a a sharp, comic edge and includes some vulgar language. Interestingly, the main character who curses in the film is the boy. Except for hearing the word "sh*t" a few times, the rest of the movie is clean enough for the whole family to enjoy. However, it is rated PG. There are several messages : some humans are more beastly than animals, forgiveness is a powerful healer, and protect the wilderness, for it contains many wonderful things that are not always apparent to us.

Originally conceived as a TV series by comedian Brad Garrett, HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS won an Academy Award for Makeup by Rick Baker. Ultimately it did make it to the small screen as a weekly syndicated sitcom in 1990, with Kevin Peter Hall repeating the title role during the series' first 24 episodes. HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS fits perfectly in the niche of Spielberg-produced family fantasy comedies that were made throughout the mid 1980s. In the spirit of "E.T.", but not quite as heavy, movies like THE GOONIES, INNERSPACE, and HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS successfully delivered escapism and fun to viewers of all ages without asking too much in return. That's exactly what one can expect from HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS.

John Lithgow is perfectly cast as the long-suffering patriarch. He brings a depth to his character that certainly wasn't required, but makes the bond between his George and Kevin Peter Hall's monstrous Harry endearing and believable. Likewise, Don Ameche and David Suchet deliver top-notch performances as the conflicting sides of the scientific community. And, as always, Melinda Dillon fills her motherly role with skill and ease. Altogether, HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS brings together a talented cast and a charming script, resulting in an unabashedly cute film. It's a funny and moving classic for all the family, and most people will love it no matter what their age. The film was released as BIGFOOT AND THE HENDERSONS in the UK, though the TV series retained the American title.

The cast also includes: Lainie Kazan (Irene Moffat), M. Emmet Walsh (George Henderson Sr.), Bill Ontiverous (Sgt. Mancini), David Richardt (Dirty Harry Officer), Jacqueline Moscou (DMV Clerk), Laura Kenny ("Mouse" Woman), Richard Arnold ("Mouse" Spouse), Sean Morgan (Jerry Seville), Nick Flynn (Stuart), David MacIntyre (Billers), Peggy Platt (Librarian), Orene Anderson (Woman in Kitchen), William Dear (Sighting Man), Laurie O'Brien (Screaming Woman), Michael J. Loggins (Big Gun Man), James King (Bicycle Man), (Nathaniel Ellis (Sgt. Bader), Juleen Murray (Press Woman #1), (Mark Mitchell), (Press Man #1), Connie Craig (Press Woman #2), Dana Middleton (News Anchor #1), Richard Foley (News Anchor #2), Larry Wansley (News Anchor #3), Steve Sheppard-Brodie (News Anchor #4), Mickey Gilbert (Police Officer), Tom Hammond (Police Officer), Stuart Schwarz (SWAT Officer), Justin Mastro (Vigilante), Michael Goodell (Pool Man), Chuck McCollum (Guard), Vern Taylor (Jerome), Stan Sturing (Police Clerk), Robert Isaac Lee (Kim Lee), Debbie Lee Carrington (Little Bigfoot), John Bloom (Feet), Fred Newman (Vocal Effects), William Frankfather (Schwarz), Robert Hanley (Eddy Rose), and Vicki Petite (Baby Bigfoot). Bruce Broughton composed the music throughout the entire film, and Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes perform "Love Lives On" during the end credits. William Dear, Bill Martin, and Ezra D. Rappaport wrote the screenplay. William Dear directed.

Dr. Wrightwood: I'm gonna say this once. 'Gonna say it simple. And I hope to God for your sakes you all listen. There are no Abominable Snowmen. There are so Sasquatches. There are no Big Feet!
(the family begins to giggle. Unknown to Wrightwood, Harry is standing right behind him)
Dr. Wrightwood: Am I missing something? So what you're saying is you would be willing, excuse me, Jack would be willing to take in this creature and care for it and love it like a pet?
George Henderson: No, like a member of the family.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Burns and Allen Show (1950 - 1958) * * *

George Burns and Gracie Allen had one of the most enduring acts in the history of show business. They were headliners in vaudeville in the 1920s, on radio in the 1930s and 1940s, and on TV in the 1950s. They noticed that whenever Gracie would act "scatter-brained" in response to George's straight lines, they got their biggest laughs, and that's how they developed their act. When THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW, aka THE BURNS AND ALLEN SHOW, began on CBS television October 12, 1950, it was an immediate success. The show was originally live before a studio audience for the first two years. Burns realized it would be more efficient to do the series on film and the half-hour episodes could then be syndicated. With 291 episodes, the show had a long network run until September 22, 1958, and continued in syndicated reruns for years.

George Burns: You see, to be a straight man you have to have a talent, you have to develop this talent, then you gotta marry her like I did.

The format of their TV show is simple enough. It is set in the Burn's home, and George plays the dual role of on-screen narrator and straight man for Gracie's crazy but delightful involvements with various people and situations. Each episode begins with Burns standing, trademark cigar in hand, before the proscenium arch surrounding their living room set. There he presents a brief monologue, then offers the audience a few comments regarding the situation they are about to see. Gracie's cohort in many of her predicaments is neighbor Blanche Morton, whose accountant husband Harry is as infuriated by the girls' escapades as George is tolerant. George is unflappable and simply turns to the camera, cigar in hand, and philosophizes to the audience. He watches all the action standing outside the proscenium in early live episodes, and watching the show on TV in his study at the end of the series. Burns breaks the fourth wall by commenting upon it to the viewers. A running gag is George's weekly firing of announcer Harry Von Zell after he turns up aiding, abetting or otherwise not stopping the mayhem caused by Gracie's illogical logic. Another gag is a closet full of guests' hats that they left rather than have another run-in with Gracie.

George Burns: A book salesman. Hmm. Going up to our house? Is he silly enough to try to sell Gracie a book? Yes he is--if he was smart he'd turn around and run. You heard of that play "Death of a Salesman"? Trying to sell something to Gracie is what killed him.

Typically Gracie would goof up and try to hide her mistake from her husband. Her way of hiding it is easy to see through but she'd be sure that he wouldn't find out. Also, she would misunderstand things others told her and then assume they didn't understand. Then she'd proceed to explain things to them. For example, someone would say that their doctor had to close his practice due to a lack of patients. Gracie would say that they should learn to control their anger. Then the person replies, "No, I mean they don't have enough people coming to see them for medical attention". Gracie would then say, "Well, of course, if you always get mad at them, they'll go to another doctor." It would go on and on like that until the person would give up and Gracie would be satisfied that she had explained it to them adequately

The first six episodes were broadcast from New York, but the show soon moved to Hollywood. On Burns' insistence, the show was broadcast on alternate weeks in order to provide sufficient time for rehearsals and alleviate some of the pressures of live broadcasts. After two seasons of live performances, the series switched to a weekly filmed broadcast. Although not filmed before a studio audience, the final filmed product was previewed to an audience and their reactions recorded. At a time when many series relied on canned laughter, Burns claimed that his series only "'sweetened' the laughter when a joke went flat and there was no way of eliminating it from the film. "Even then we never added more than a gentle chuckle," he said.

Gracie: My the paper is full of news this morning. I hardly know which item to explain to the readers of my column.
George: You explain the news to them?
Gracie: Oh, yes. Everyone doesn't have my uncanny grasp of world affairs. I'm not the average person, George.
George: That I've known for years.
Gracie: Some people have the minds of children and it's my duty to guide them.
George: I see.
Gracie: What would you like to know dear?
George: Not a thing. Nothing at all.
Gracie: Now you take the elections last Tuesday. Do you realize how confused those poor Republicans must be who got elected? I'll bet some of them wind up in Seattle and Tacoma.
George: Seattle and Tacoma?
Gracie: Yes. They've been out so long they won't know which Washington to go to.

Gracie never saw herself as a comedienne, but rather as an actress. The supporting cast continued in roles established in the original Burns and Allen radio program. Bea Benaderet and Hal March play the Burns' neighbors, Blanche and Harry Morton. Bill Goodwin, as himself, plays the show's announcer and friend of the family, and Rolfe Sedan plays mailman Mr. Beasley, with whom Gracie gossips. During the run of the series, the role of Harry Morton was subsequently played by John Brown, Fred Clark, and Larry Keating. In the second season, announcer Goodwin left to host his own variety series and was replaced by Harry Von Zell. Musical entertainment is provided by The Singing Skylarks. The Burns' real life adopted son Ronnie later joined the cast as himself, and is cast as a drama student who tends to look askance at his parents' comedy style. Their adopted daughter Sandy was somewhat shy and not too fond of show business, though she appears in a few episodes as a classmate of Ronnie. In one episode, Ronnie's drama class puts on a vaudeville show to raise funds for the school. Gracie hosts the show while Ronnie and Sandy deliver an impersonation of their famous parents along with one of their classic routines. Since Ronnie plays himself, Gracie closes the segment with a wisecrack: "The boy was produced by Burns and Allen."

Gracie: Oh! Here's an interesting item. Frank Sinatra is going to sing at the Waldorf Hotel in New York.
George: The kid really gets plenty of work.
Gracie: Yeah, and I can't understand it. Why you're twice the singer he is.
George: Ah, Gracie.
Gracie: Oh, I realize it's not his fault. He gets tones that are thin and hollow because his chest is thin and hollow. But you get tones that are low and round because your chest...
George: Don't finish it. Don't finish it.
Gracie: That hotel should have hired you to sing.
George: (singing) "Though April Showers may come your way...They bring flowers that bloom in may."
Gracie: OOOhhh! You're murder, Jack. Mur-der! Oh, those golden notes come pouring out of you like Democrats out of Congress. (buzz) Oh, excuse me, dear. I'll see who is at the door.

To keep dialogue and situations consistent with the characters' personalities and ages, the writers stuck to policies and practices established during their radio show. The stories stayed away from topical humor, fantastic characters, and absurd situations and focused instead on more universal aspects of daily life. Plots were simple and, like their vaudeville routines, the comedy emanated from Allen's uniquely skewed interpretation of the world and the resulting confusion. Burns played the quintessential straight man to the scatterbrained Allen. Her enormous popularity came from her ability to underplay her character with convincing sincerity and illogical premises, such as sewing buttons on her husband's shirttails so no one would notice if he lost one.

Gracie Allen: Well, you see one Christmas my father caught a wild turkey and he fed him corn and chestnuts. But then we didn't have the heart to kill him so we let him get away.
George Burns: Oh, I see.
Gracie Allen: But the turkey liked the food so well that he came back each year. And that way we always had...
George Burns: A turkey for Christmas dinner?
Gracie Allen: Yes.

The program's sponsor was "Carnation Evaporated Milk" and their commercial theme stated that their product comes from "Contented Cows". The commercials were worked right into this show. For instance, Gracie would tell Blanche that she just made some delicious homemade pie with Carnation Evaporated Milk. Then Blanche would taste it and they'd talk about why Carnation Milk makes everything taste so much better. Then they'd go on with the show. At the end of the show, Burns would always say, "Say goodnight, Gracie" to which Allen always replied, "Goodnight". Despite the popular misconception, she never said, "Goodnight, Gracie" in reply. Burns was once asked why she didn't do it and replied, "Incredibly enough, no one ever thought of it."

Although Burns and Allen was never among the top-rated series, it maintained consistently high ratings throughout its eight seasons. Their show received 12 Emmy nominations: four for best comedy series, six for Allen as best actress and comedienne, and two for Bea Benaderet as best supporting actress. The show ended in 1958 when Gracie Allen's health deteriorated and she retired from show business. She suffered a heart attack in 1961 and died three years later at the age of 69. Burns continued to work as a singing comedian and enjoyed an Oscar-winning movie resurgence at the age of 80 with "The Sunshine Boys", and died in 1996 at the age of 100.

The kinescope recordings of the live telecasts from the 1950-1952 seasons of THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW have fallen into the public domain. They are available on "dollar DVD" collections, but better quality DVDs of the show are also available.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Brazil (1985) * * *

Set in a dystopian retro futuristic world which relies on machines, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a young man often daydreaming of saving a beautiful maiden while he is working as a low-level government employee and living in a small apartment. One day he is assigned the task of rectifying an error created by a government mishap, causing the incarceration of Mr Archebald Buttle (Brian Miller), shoe repairman, instead of the suspected terrorist, Archebald "Harry" Tuttle (Robert De Niro), a Heating Engineer. When Sam visits Buttle's wife, he discovers Jill Layton (Kim Greist), the upstairs neighbor of the Buttles, is the same woman as in his dreams. Jill is trying to help Mrs. Buttle find out what happened to her husband, but has tired of dealing with the bureaucracy. Unknown to her, she is now considered a terrorist friend of Tuttle for trying to report the mistake of Buttle's arrest in Tuttle's place to bureaucrats who would not admit such a mistake. When Sam tries to approach her, she is very cautious and avoids giving him full details, worried the government will track her down. During this time, Sam comes in contact with the real Harry Tuttle, a renegade air conditioning specialist who once worked for the government but left due to the amount of paperwork. Tuttle helps Sam deal with two government workers who are taking their time fixing the broken air conditioning in Sam's apartment.

Harry Tuttle: Bloody paperwork. Huh!
Sam Lowry: I suppose one has to expect a certain amount.
Harry Tuttle: Why? I came into this game for the action, the excitement. Go anywhere, travel light, get in, get out, wherever there's trouble, a man alone. Now they got the whole country sectioned off, you can't make a move without a form.

Sam determines the only way to learn about Jill is to transfer to "Information Retrieval" where he would have access to her classified records. He requests the help of his mother Ida Lowry (Katherine Helmond), who is vainly addicted to rejuvenating plastic surgery under the care of cosmetic surgeon Dr. Jaffe (Jim Broadbent). She has connections and helps her son get the position.

Sam: My name's Lowry. Sam Lowry. I've been told to report to Mr. Warrenn.
Porter: Thirtieth floor, sir. You're expected.
Sam: Um... don't you want to search me?
Porter: No sir.
Sam: Do you want to see my ID?
Porter: No need, sir.
Sam: But I could be anybody.
Porter: No you couldn't sir. This is Information Retrieval.

Sam eventually obtains Jill's records and tracks her down before she is arrested, then falsifies her records to make her appear deceased, allowing her to escape the bureaucracy. They share a romantic night together before Sam is apprehended by the government at gun-point for misusing his position. The bureaucracy considers him responsible for a rash of terrorist bombings. Sam is taken to be tortured by his old friend, Jack Lint (Michael Palin), and he is now considered part of a terrorist plot including Jill and Tuttle.

Before Jack can start, Tuttle and other members of the resistance shoot Jack and save Sam, blowing up the Ministry building as they flee. As they try to disappear into the crowds, Tuttle's disappearance is surreal and mysterious. He is covered by the scraps of paper from the destroyed Ministry building, and once Sam comes to his aid and tears through the paper, Tuttle has disappeared. The scene becomes dream-like as Sam runs to his mother at a funeral. The funeral is for Mrs. Alma Terrain (Barbara Hicks), who recently died from cosmetic surgery gone wrong. Sam's mother, thanks to Dr. Jaffe's repeated surgery, now seems like in her 20's again, looking exactly like Sam's love interest Jill, and is surrounded by a flock of juvenile admirers younger than Sam himself. She refuses to help, and falling into Mrs. Terrain's seemingly bottomless coffin, he then continues to run from the police in streets that resemble the concrete and brick walls of his nightmare daydreams. When he finds himself surrounded on three sides by the police and the imaginary monsters of his nightmares, he turns to the only escape left and climbs up a pile of old flex-ducts, finds safety in a trailer driven by Jill, and the two leave the city together.

However, it is quickly revealed this happy ending is all happening inside Sam's head. Two faces come into view staring at the camera, that of Jack and Mr. Helpmann (Peter Vaughan), who as Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Information is the system's highest official we see in the film. What they are looking at is Sam having become insane at Jack's hands. Jack stops torturing Sam, who is left with a smile on his face, humming "Brazil" as Jack moves Mr. Helpmann in his wheelchair away from the scene.

(last lines)
Mr. Helpmann: He's got away from us, Jack.
Jack Lint: 'Fraid you're right, Mr. Helpmann. He's gone.

BRAZIL is a witty vision of an extremely bleak future, a great example of the power of comedy to underscore serious ideas. Generally called "sci-fi noir", it is a view of what the 1980s might look like from the perspective of a 1940's filmmaker, an eclectic yet coherent mixture of styles and production designs depicting technology in a highly structured and bureaucratic state. It's an Orwellian vision of the future, with the citizens completely controlled by the state, while technology remains almost as it was in the 1970's. The totalitarian government is reminiscent of the one depicted in George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four", except that it has a clownish, slap-stick quality, is capitalist rather than communist, and lacks a Big Brother figure.

This movie takes a darkly humorous look at consumerism and totalitarian inhumanity. In outdoor scenes, faceless people are often seen moving full shopping carts in the streets. In one scene a person leading a brass band is holding a sign that reads "Consumers for Christ". A young girl is asked what she wants for Christmas and she quickly replies, "My own credit card!" While Sam is strapped to a chair about to be tortured, a police officer tells him, "Don't fight it son! Confess quickly, or you'll jeopardize your credit rating."

Director Terry Gilliam sometimes refers to this film as the second in his "Trilogy of Imagination" movies, starting with TIME BANDIT (1981) and ending with THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1989). All are about the "craziness of our awkwardly ordered society and the desire to escape it through whatever means possible." All three movies focus on these struggles and attempts to escape them through imagination: TIME BANDITS through the eyes of a child, BRAZIL through the eyes of a thirty-something year old, and "Munchausen" through the eyes of an elderly man. Gilliam said that BRAZIL was inspired by George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four", but written from today's perspective. In Gilliam's words, his film is "the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984."

Film critic Michael Atkinson of The Village Voice wrote, "Gilliam understood that all futuristic films end up quaintly evoking the naive past in which they were made, and turned the principle into a coherent comic aesthetic." However, Roger Ebert disliked it, writing it "is awash in elaborate special effects, sensational sets, apocalyptic scenes of destruction and a general lack of discipline," as well as, "The movie is very hard to follow. I have seen it twice, and am still not sure exactly who all the characters are, or how they fit." The plot itself is rather thin, existing mainly as an excuse to lead the viewer into various corners of an unexpectedly humorous Orwellian world. Though a success in Europe, the film flopped upon initial release in North America, but it has since become an important cult film. There are scenes missing in the UK release of the film that Americans saw in US theaters. The reasons for excluding these scenes from the UK version and adding them to the US version are unknown.

The cast also includes: Ian Holm (Mr. M. Kurtzmann), Bob Hoskins (Spoor), Ian Richardson (Mr. Warrenn), Charles McKeown (Harvey Lime), Derrick O'Connor (Dowser), Kathryn Pogson (Shirley), Bryan Pringle (Spiro), Sheila Reid (Mrs. Buttle), John Flanagan (T.V. Interviewer / Salesman), Ray Cooper (Technician), Simon Nash (Boy Buttle), Prudence Oliver (Girl Buttle), Simon Jones (Arrest Official), Derek Deadman (Bill--Dept. of Works), Nigel Planer (Charlie--Dept. of Works), Terence Bayler (T.V Commercial Presenter), Gorden Kaye (M.O.I. Lobby Porter), Tony Portacio (Neighbour in Clark's Pool), Bill Wallis (Bespectacled lurker), Winston Dennis (Samurai Warrior), Jack Purvis (Dr. Chapman), Elizabeth Spender (Alison / "Barbara" Lint), Anthony Brown (Porter - Information Retrieval), Myrtle Devenish (Typist in Jack's Office), Holly Gilliam (Holly), John Pierce Jones (Basement Guard), Ann Way (Old Lady with Dog), Don Henderson (First Black Maria Guard), Howard Lew Lewis (Second Black Maria Guard), Oscar Quitak (Interview Official), Harold Innocent (Interview Official), John Grillo (Interview Official), Ralph Nossek (Interview Official), David Gant (Interview Official), James Coyle (Interview Official), Patrick Connor (Cell Guard), Roger Ashton-Griffiths (Priest), Russell Keith Grant (Young Gallant at Funeral), Sue Hodge, Dominic Ffytche (Office boy), Terry Forestal (Running Trooper), Terry Gilliam (Smoking man at Shang-ri La Towers), John Hasler (Naughty little boy), and Peter Sands (Ida's boyfriend). Michael Kamen composed the original music. Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown wrote the screenplay. Terry Gilliam directed.

The 3-DVD box set of BRAZIL starts off with the "final final" director's cut of the film, with a runtime of 142 minutes. There are eight minutes of footage added to this release. It is presented in its original 1.85:1 dimensions. The box set presents the feature film in its correct aspect ratio for the first time, but the version on the original DVD release is not enhanced for newer widescreen TVs. New 16:9-enhanced editions of the film in both a complete set and separate film-only disc were re-issued on DVD by Criterion on September 5, 2006. Despite all Criterion's bullshit, the print is flawed. The notes mention a few digital scratch removers, but there is dirt and empty spots in many of the frames. Ary Barroso's 1939 song "Aquarela do Brasil" ("Watercolor of Brazil") is the theme of the film, although other background music is also heard. Michael Kamen, who scored the music, originally recorded "Brazil" with vocals by Kate Bush. This recording was not included in the movie or the original soundtrack release. However, it has been subsequently released on re-pressings of the soundtrack.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Jack Benny Program (1950 - 1965) * * *

Comedian Jack Benny (February 14, 1894 – December 26, 1974) had his own radio program beginning May 2, 1932 and ending on May 22, 1955. He brought the program to TV along with his radio regulars almost intact. The TV version of THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM ran from October 28, 1950 to 1965. Jack's stinginess, vanity about his eternal age of 39, basement vault where he kept all his money, ancient Maxwell automobile, and excruciating ineptness at playing the violin were all part of the act. Added to Jack's famous pregnant pause and exasperated "Well!" were a rather mincing walk, an affected hand to the cheek, and a look of disbelief when confronted by problems.

America's funniest cheapskate plays himself on the shows, and his verbal talent is matched by his controlled repertory of dead-pan facial expressions and gestures. Benny did his opening and closing monologues before a live audience, which he regarded as essential to timing of the material. As in other TV comedy shows, canned laughter was sometimes added to sweeten the soundtrack. The cast includes his girlfriend (real life wife) Mary Livingstone, his announcer Don Wilson, his bandleader Phil Harris, and the most important and best liked character, his black butler Rochester played by Eddie Anderson. Rochester may have been Benny's servant, but he was brassy and assertive, not a typical negro stereotype. Jack Benny's funniest shows involve him reacting to guests' insults, playing his violin badly, and doing long monologues which reflect on his familiar persona of a cheap and vain celebrity. Stories often revolve around Benny's attempts to lure famous stars to appear on his show as guests. Some of them rarely, if ever, appeared on TV.

Humphrey Bogart: I'm entitled to one phone call, ain't I? Gimme a dime I'll go down to the drugstore.
Jack: Oh, no you don't. You'll make your call here where I can keep an eye on you.
Bob: And save a dime.

Liberace: What do we have for dinner?
Cook: We have some breast of flamingo and gazelle steaks.
Jack: Breast of flamingo and gazelle steaks?
Liberace: Would you like to stay for dinner, Jack?
Jack: Well, only if you have enough. I'd hate for you to run out to the zoo just for me.

Bob Hope: (on being on a CBS show) I feel like Zsa Zsa at a P.T.A. meeting.
Bob Hope: By the way, this is where Bing did his last show and I think they've done very nicely. They've gotten most of it out of the curtains.
Bob Hope: (finding some coins tied with string in Jack's trousers) When you ask this kid for a loan, and he says his money is tied up, he isn't kidding. This is an obstacle course for pickpockets.
Jack: (poking his head through the stage curtains) Bob, will you please give me my pants back?
Bob Hope: Put your head back through there, or I'll start handing out baseballs to the audience.

Marilyn Monroe: What about the difference in our ages?
Jack: Oh, it's not that big a difference. You're twenty-five and I'm thirty-nine.
Marilyn Monroe: I know, Jack. But what about twenty-five years from now when I'm fifty and you're thirty-nine?
Jack: Gee, I never thought of that.

Other famous guests include: George Burns, James Stewart, Bea Benaderet, Lucille Ball, Vincent Price, Jayne Mansfield, Dinah Shore, Isaac Stern, Danny Thomas, David Niven, Johnny Carson, Red Skelton, George Jessel, Ed Sullivan, Fred Allen, Bing Crosby, Carol Burnett, Jack Paar, Milton Berle, Joey Bishop, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner, Raymond Burr, Phil Silvers, Connie Francis, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Audrey Meadows, Ernie Kovacs, The Beach Boys, Walt Disney, Carole Lombard, Art Linkletter, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Charles Bronson, Ronald Reagan, Irene Dunne, and many others.

Widely recognized as one of the leading American entertainers of the 20th century, his radio and TV programs have had a monumental influence on situation comedy. The show appeared every six weeks for the 1951-1952 season, every four weeks for the 1952-1953 season and every three weeks in 1953-1954. For the 1953-1954 season, half the episodes were live and half were filmed during the summer, to allow Benny to continue doing his radio show. From the fall of 1954 to 1960 it appeared every other week, and from 1960 to 1965 it was broadcast weekly.

His show won 8 Emmy awards, but eventually the ratings finally got to Benny. CBS dropped the show in 1964, citing Benny's lack of appeal to the younger demographic the network began courting. He returned to his original network NBC in the fall, only to be out-rated by CBS's GOMER PYLE. Although NBC televised his shows in color (after 14 years of black and white shows on CBS), the network dropped Benny at the end of the season. Benny went on to do specials for CBS for another nine years, and was awarded the very first Trustees Award ever presented by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. His last TV appearance was in 1974, on a Dean Martin Roast for Lucille Ball.

"Love in Bloom" was the theme song of both his radio and TV shows. On the Johnny Carson Tonight Show he explained the joke of its inappropriateness by reciting the lyrics: "Can it be the trees. That fill the breeze. With rare and magic perfume." (pause) "Now what the hell has that got to do with me?"

The explanation usually given for the "stuck on 39" running joke is that he had celebrated his birthday on-air when he turned 39, and decided to do the same the following year, because "there's nothing funny about 40." Upon his death, having celebrated his 39th birthday 41 times, some newspapers continued the joke with headlines such as "Jack Benny Dies--At 39?"

Various DVDs of THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM are available, with a wide range of video quality. Some shows are in the public domain and are released in poor quality by fast-buck operators who undermine both the market for his shows and the technological advantages of the DVD format. Caveat Emptor: some of these budget DVDs falsely claim they are "digitally restored". Shop around and remember that you usually get what you pay for.

Thug: Look, bud, I said "Your money or your life."
Jack Benny: I'm thinking it over.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Cats & Dogs (2001) * * *

Eccentric Professor Brody (Jeff Goldblum) is working on a serum to cure dog hair allergies in humans. Unknown to him, cats and dogs have been engaged in a secret war to take over the world for centuries. This struggle has been held in check by an uneasy truce. But that period of peace is about to come to an end. A power-hungry ruthless Persian cat, Mr. Tinkles (voiced by Sean Hayes), is leading a massive feline movement against man's best friend. He will make every person on Earth allergic to dogs so that he can take over the world with his army of evil cats. The human race doesn't have a clue about the war between cats and dogs. Cats are James Bond type villains and dogs are secret agents that have been protecting the human race. One of their top field dogs, a Bloodhound agent named Buddy, has been put out of commission and they have been forced to use rookie Beagle puppy Lou (voiced by Tobey Maguire), who is the new pet of Brody's son Scotty (Alexander Pollock). Lou's inexperience as an agent makes him a prime target for assault, though his comrades, led by the stern Anatolian Shepherd Butch (voiced by Alec Baldwin), offer him help and guidance in the ways of becoming an agent.

Lou: You should've fought for me, for my family.
Butch: Why? What good would it do?
Lou: What about man's best friend? History 101, remember?
Butch: Okay, well, here's lesson number two: we help them. We work for them. We tolerate that stupid poochy-poochy baby talk crap. And for what? So that when they go off to college, they can dump you off with some old lady who can't throw a ball without so much as breaking her hip!
Lou: Is that it, then? You're gonna blame my family for what some boy did to you?
Butch: Look, kid, I'm sorry it played out like this, but it's over. We're shut down.

As the unsuspecting humans go through their busy lives, the cats make several attempts to obtain the formula, as their canine foes try tirelessly to stop them. Mr. Tinkles strives to get to the substance, analyze it and then have it turned into a means of rendering all humans in the world allergic to any kind of dog. Cats would rule, and dogs would then be exterminated. As his army of well-trained soldier cats begin a mass mobilization, the fate of humankind rests on the paws of Lou. Together with Butch and a few other dog agents from the neighborhood, Lou desperately tries to stop Mr. Tinkles and his sinister plans. Other dogs include a wise older dog who watches out for him, a large friendly dog, and a small dog who serves as an electronics expert.

Mr. Tinkles: The ninjas failed, and failure is unacceptable! If they ever show their faces again, you know what to do.
Calico: Yes. Tell them to wash with a loofah sponge. Kidding! Hello? Joke!
Mr. Tinkles: This can't be happening. I want them eliminated!
Calico: But they did manage to bug the phone. I think we should just concentrate on the glasses half full.
(Mr. Tinkles growls and throws the roll at Calico)
Calico: Ow! That's what I want to do.
Mr. Tinkles: Oh, putting a happy face on. What an interesting philosophy. At what point did you forget we're trying to take over the world?

The movie features ninja Siamese cats wreaking havoc with their kung fu prowess. Some cats wear night-vision goggles, a cat coughs up bombs disguised as fur balls, and Mr. Tinkles falls prey to the maid of his owner, who dresses him up in lacy outfits. He says, "Evil does not wear a bonnet! Did Genghis Khan ever wear a bonnet?" This effects-laden family movie can annoy cat fanciers by casting dogs as the undisputed heroes in all-out warfare with nefarious felines. Hidden headquarters and high-tech gadgets are featured on both sides of this age-old battle. On the feline side, Mr. Tinkles plots to sabotage the efforts of Professor Brody. On the canine side, Butch trains Lou to foil Mr. Tinkles's scheme--a mission that begins when Mrs. Brody (Elizabeth Perkins) adopts Lou for her son Scott.

Mr. Tinkles: Like a powerful, dark storm, I will make my presence known to the world. Like a seeping mist, I will creep into the dogs' center of power, and make them quake in fear at the very mention of my name!

Using a combination of live animals, animatronic puppets, and digital wizardry, CATS & DOGS has enough imagination to match its effects, climaxing with a feline global-domination scheme involving mice sprayed with chemicals that will make all humans allergic to dogs. The computer generated realistic lips are completely convincing when the pets speak. Goldblum and Perkins play second fiddles to this menagerie, and as madcap realism gives way to cartoonish fantasy, the movie escalates into utter chaos. Dogs include a Saluki hound (voiced by Susan Sarandon), a shaggy sheepdog (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan), and a Chinese hairless techno-geek named Peek (voiced by Joe Pantoliano). Similar to the "Babe movies", "Cats & Dogs" is harmless fun--especially for dog lovers.

Lou: I think that if I'm going to be a secret agent, I should have a better name. I was thinking, "Toto Annihilation".
Peek: Nah, he's a pro wrestler. Sorry, that name's taken.
Lou: Alright then, "Doom Machine" it is!
Butch: Hey! You can call yourself Squicky the Spacedog for all I care, but that doesn't make you behind a rocket pack.

This is a very funny comedic action-adventure flick that mixes live action with cutting-edge CGI and animatronic effects. It is rated PG, apparently for the violence between the cats and dogs, which is carried on in a cartoonish manner that no one will find disturbing. It's a a successful family film that is charming and pleasing in every way, with funny dialogue appealing more to understanding adults, while the non-stop camera movements, cheesy effects, and characters will carry children along on its wild ride. The lighthearted comedy, laughs, and humorous jokes are purr-fect fun.

Though actors Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins, and Alexander Pollock do impressive work as the human family, they cannot hold a candle to our furry friends. Each character is voiced magnificently by their actor, none as brilliantly as Sean Hayes, who is a real hoot as Mr. Tinkles. His devilish wit and impressive voice talent are amusing, a Dr. Evil for the younger set. To call CATS & DOGS anything but good clean fun only proves the cynicism of adulthood. The movie is one of the most enthusiastic and energetic films of the genre to be produced in a long time, a cross between the animal physicalities of "Homeward Bound" and the technical spy intelligence of the James Bond films. This is the ultimate definition of "cute," and is total, complete fun.

The cast also includes: Miriam Margolyes (Sophie the Castle Maid), Myron Natwick (Mr. Mason), Doris Chillcott (Mrs. Calvert), Kirsten Robek (Pie Mom), Frank C. Turner The Farmer), Mar Andersons (Guard at Factory Gate), Gillian Barber (Factory Receptionist), Carol Ann Susi (Sophie's Sister), Randi Kaplan (Sophie's Sister), Mary Bogue (Sophie's Sister), Alvin Sanders (Mason Employee), Mark Schooley (Mason Employee), Lou Bollo (Worker), Scott Nicholson (Worker), Trish Schill (Worker), Babe Dolan (Wife passenger), Reg Glass (Truck driver), Charles Andre (Truck driver), Peggy Logan (Nurse), Alicia Michelle (Jogger on Sidewalk), and Pamela Perry (Yorkie Dog Owner). John Debney composed the original music. John Requa and Glenn Ficarra wrote the screenplay. Lawrence Guterman directed.

The DVD features include a Dog Commentary, Cat Commentary, Deleted Scenes, and "Teaching A New Dog New Tricks". Production of a sequel, tentatively named "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore", began on September 2, 2008 under the direction of Brad Peyton. Some of the scenes will be filmed in Playland, Vancouver, and the film is scheduled to be released on November 20, 2009.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

South of Pago Pago (1940) * * ¾

Bucko Larson (Victor McLaglen) leads an expedition to the South Seas to the uncharted island of Manoa to steal pearls from the innocent unsuspecting Polynesians. With his cut-throat gang, he brings along beautiful and seductive Ruby Taylor (Frances Farmer), a blonde barroom hostess. Her opening line is "Hello Sailor", spoken in a deep baritone. When they arrive, the son of an island chieftan, young Kehane (Jon Hall), defiantly opposes the efforts of Larson to invade his domain. Larson uses Ruby as a ploy to attract Kehane. She pretends to love him, he forsakes his betrothed childhood sweetheart Malia (Olympe Bradna), and they marry. Malia dresses up in high heels and make-up in an attempt to win back his affections. But all this romance is a sub-plot to cold hearted Larson's wicked scheme to exploit the natives for the pearls that are on their sea-beds--all done in pantomime villain style with very little humour. However, Ruby turns honest at the last moment and saves Kehane's life at the expense of her own. The pearl hunt is thwarted.

It is not the good guys who dominate this film, but the bad ones. Victor McLaglen in a rare role as a villain, is a combative brute with no redeeming qualities, killing without qualm. However his leadership ability, his determination to acquire wealth, and his fearlessness along with his crewmen in the face of the overwhelming number of natives against them, is quite admirable. The final moments, where their corpses are tied to their ship before it is set adrift in retribution, is a memorable scene. Chiseled adonis Jon Hall and gorgeous Frances Farmer outlined in profiles against the steaming background volcano take the romantic closeup to a level that defies comparison.

This exotic melodrama was an attempt to cash in on the success of THE HURRICANE (1937), and again stars Jon Hall as a native islander. He does an adequate job in the role and certainly has the body of a Greek god. Farmer was only 27 when she made the movie, and she does not look quite as breathtaking as when she made COME AND GET IT four years earlier. Nevertheless, it is one of the few movies one can see Frances in.

The film is typical of the tropical escapist movies of the early 1940s, and is a notch up from most similar adventure outings, with great violent action and excellent cinematography. It's basically a better-than-average action film which co-stars two attractive actors in the leads. It includes background shots of the Kona coast and the Kalapana black sand beach, Hawaiian and Tahitian dancing, as well as Hawaiian musicians Sam Koki and Lani McIntire. The song, "South of Pago Pago", a pleasant Hawaiian-type song, is played and sung during the opening credits and then only a few bars on occasion throughout the film. It should have been used more frequently, as "Moon of Manakura" was in THE HURRICANE. "Manakura" was a smash hit in the 1940s and is still heard on occasion today.

This film marked Frances Farmer's return to Hollywood after the disappointments of her post-"Golden Boy" plays for New York's Group Theater, and the end of her romance with Clifford Odets. Her role is an obvious repeat of the saloon tramp Lotta from COME AND GET IT (1936), except this time Frances doesn't have director of photography Rudolph Mate or director Howard Hawks for support. Her Ruby even wears the same period hairstyle and has a similar wardrobe. Although still a beautiful woman, Farmer's increased weight is most noticeable in the sarongs she wears on the Polynesian island and she is coupled with Jon Hall, who is photographed more flatteringly. Beefcake star Hall shows off his sleek physique at every opportunity.

Perhaps because Farmer tries a characterization rather than give a star performance, her Ruby ironically reveals her own acting limitations. The triumph she had in COME AND GET IT included a delicacy she gave to the conventional roles of whore and ingenue. Here her world weary cynicism can be funny, but the director has her cover her weeping face with a blind, and keeps the camera at medium range for a death scene. Lines like "Do I look like a dose of poison?" and "The heart of a woman can be a typhoon" have a prophetic quality, which is more coincidence than intention, and the black and white photography makes Farmer look brunette in a waist-length wig, in spite of Ruby being a blonde, in contrast to the dark haired native women.

Producer Edward Small took director Alfred E. Green's cast and crew to the south seas to film the majority of this under-rated movie on location. Far less stylized and dated than Goldwyn's THE HURRICANE, it is admittedly filled with cliches and formula, but packaged in such visual and technical excellence it doesn't really matter. Originally released by United Artists, this production later made the revival-house rounds through the distribution channels of PRC Pictures.

The cast also includes: Gene Lockhart (Lindsay), Douglass Dumbrille (Williams), Francis Ford (Foster), Ben Welden (Grimes), Abner Biberman (Manuel Ferro), Pedro de Cordoba (Chief), Rudy Robles (Luna), Bobby Stone (Hono), Nellie Duran (Laulau), James Flavin (Cafe Customer), Nina Campana (Hono's Mother), James B. Leong (Waiter), Harry Woods (Black Mike Rafferty), and many others. The original music was composed by Chet Forrest, Lew Pollack, Bob Wright, and Edward Ward. George Bruce and Kenneth Gamet wrote the screenplay. Alfred E. Green directed.

Frances Farmer was beautiful and talented, supposedly self-destructive but actually a victim. She was an alcoholic like countless others, and it impeded her career and was a major cause of her early retirement in 1942 at the age of 28. However, her main "problem" was she was ahead of her time, basically a feminist who refused to be bossed around by Hollywood moguls. Farmer was eventually committed to mental institutions by her studio bosses--with her mother's approval. They pushed a young, sensitive artist over the edge. She spent the remainder of the decade in and out of barbaric institutions run by crazy "shrinks", suffering several nervous breakdowns and losing her battle with alcoholism. For seven years, she was subjected to 90 insulin shocks and electroshocks, and was sold by psychiatric workers to drunken sailors who repeatedly raped her. She told of being, "raped by orderlies, gnawed on by rats, poisoned by tainted food, chained in padded cells, strapped in strait jackets and half drowned in ice baths." Her last "treatment" was a lobotomy by Walter Freeman--although there are no medical records of this operation, only her own testimony. Farmer never regained her abilities. In 1949 she was finally released from the asylum. She never believed she was mentally ill, and said, "If a person is treated like a patient, they are apt to act like one... I blame nobody for my fall... I think I have won the fight to control myself."

In 1957, Farmer was found working as a hotel receptionist in San Francisco and was coaxed out of retirement. She soon made her first comeback appearance on television's Ed Sullivan Show, where she sang and discussed her hopes of revitalizing her movie career. However, she made only one more film, the 1958 teen drama THE PARTY CRASHERS. Farmer did appear in a handful of theatrical productions, and beginning in 1960 she hosted an Indianapolis-based television program about movies titled "Frances Farmer Presents". She died of cancer on August 1, 1970 aged 56. Her autobiography "Will There Really Be a Morning?" was published posthumously. In the years following her death, Farmer's cult following grew immensely, and in 1982 Jessica Lange starred in FRANCES, a film biography of her troubled life and times.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Night Gallery (1970 - 1973) * * *

When CBS cancelled Rod Serling's series THE TWILIGHT ZONE in 1964, Serling created a similar concept in NIGHT GALLERY as a new forum for his brand of storytelling, a diverse collection of horror, fantasy and sci-fi tales. From 1970 to 1973 he hosted the series from an art gallery on NBC. Serling and others wrote some of the stories, but also adapted classics from H. P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Fritz Leiber, and A. E. van Vogt. NIGHT GALLERY was originally titled "Wax Museum", but the name was changed before the first episode was broadcast.

Rod Serling: "Good evening, and welcome to a private showing of three paintings, displayed here for the first time. Each is a collectors' item in its own way--not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas, and suspends in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare."

The NIGHT GALLERY two-hour pilot film was first telecast on November 8, 1969 as a TV movie. Rod Serling hosts three macabre short stories, introducing each with a framed portrait in a dark art gallery. It features the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg and one of the last acting performances by Joan Crawford. The first story stars Roddy McDowall as a covetous nephew who murders his uncle, suffering the consequence of being possessed by a family painting. The second story stars Joan Crawford as a blind millionairess who purchases the eyes of down-and-out Tom Bosley in order to enjoy 12 precious hours of sight. The final tale involves a Nazi war criminal (Richard Kiley), who attempts to evade his pursuers by escaping into a painting in a museum.

On December 16, 1970, the first episode "The Dead Man" was broadcast on NBC. Serling in an art gallery introduces the mostly macabre tales that make up each episode by unveiling paintings by artist Tom Wright depicting the stories. Equally horrific sculptures in the gallery were done by Logan Elston and Phil Vanderlei. 43 color episodes were produced: 98 story segments, including 3 in the pilot episode and 2 that were added for the syndication run. Many famous actors appear in the episodes. As the series progressed, Serling suffered from too much network and studio interference. He had less input, control of content and tone than he did on THE TWILIGHT ZONE. There was a communication problem with production, and Serling often didn't know what was going on. By the final season, stung by criticism and ignored by the show’s executives, Serling all but disowned the series.

NIGHT GALLERY was criticized for its use of comedic blackout sketches between the longer story segments in some episodes, and for its splintered, multiple-story format, which contributed to its uneven tone. Despite these distractions, Serling produced many distinguished teleplays. It was nominated for an Emmy Award for its first-season episode "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" as the Outstanding Single Program on U.S. television in 1971. In 1972, the series received another nomination (Outstanding Achievement in Makeup) for the second season episode "Pickman’s Model". To increase the number of episodes available for syndication, the 60-minute episodes were re-edited into a 30-minute format, with many segments either severely cut or extended using newly shot scenes and stock footage. Also, episodes of the short-lived 1972 supernatural series "The Sixth Sense" were incorporated into the syndicated version of the series with Serling providing newly filmed introductions. There were two episodes that were produced but were not broadcast: "Die Now, Pay Later" and "Room for One Less". The final episode "How To Cure The Common Vampire" was broadcast May 27, 1973.

Whereas the tales in THE TWILIGHT ZONE are primarily science fiction, NIGHT GALLERY stories have a dark, sinister, morbid, supernatural, and horrific edge. However, both shows are intelligent, and many episodes in each series would fit comfortably in either series. For example, "The Different Ones" from the "Night Gallery" is about a hideously disfigured young man who is sent to a distant planet, where he discovers the inhabitants look just like him. The main thing that is the same for both series is the moralistic sense of justice. Call it Karma or Nemesis, but the characters always reap what they sow.

The first two seasons of NIGHT GALLERY are now available on DVD. The remastering quality is excellent. It is so clear that you can even see the uppper lip hair on Patty Duke in the second season entry "The Diary". There are no DVD extras. In 2004, Universal released the Region 1 DVD collection, including the pilot film and the six episodes of the first season, plus bonus episodes from seasons two and three as extras. On October 16, 2006, the first season, including the pilot film and 2 bonus episodes, one from season 2 and one from season 3, was released on Region 2 DVD. In November of 2008 Universal released the complete season two DVD collection. They announced that one story segment from season two, "Witches' Feast", would not be included due to the fact that Universal was unable to locate portions of the 40 year-old episode. When and if Universal releases the third season of NIGHT GALLERY on DVD the studio expects to release "Witches Feast" as part of that set.

Scott Skelton wrote, "We've been tracking this release pretty closely and are privy to as much information as we can squeeze out of Universal Studios. We're grateful the series has been tapped for a DVD release, and the set has been struck from original, uncut prints--the same ones Columbia House used for its mail-order volumes--and not the butchered half-hour syndication version that played on the SciFi Channel for years. We also fail to see why a series which featured the involvement of both Rod Serling and Steven Spielberg did not rate a budget that allowed special features. If Warner Brothers can load extras into DVD releases of such non-classics as "Wonder Woman" and "The Dukes of Hazzard", then Universal is out of touch with current standards in the DVD business when they fail to properly document their own classic TV shows." Scott Skelton and Jim Benson wrote "Rod Serling's Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour". It's a great book with rave reviews, possibly superior to Marc Scott Zicree's excellent "The Twilight Zone Companion".

Which series is better? They are both great. NIGHT GALLERY appeals to horror fans, is under-rated and was not as successful as THE TWILIGHT ZONE, which is basically science fiction. Sci-fi is more popular and respectable than horror, much of which is a sub-genre of sci-fi. NIGHT GALLERY is in color, but otherwise both series are equal, featuring excellent writing, acting, direction, and intelligence.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Space Truckers (1996)

The movie begins in the year 2196 on the farside outpost of one of Neptune's moons, Triton. E.G. Saggs (Shane Rimmer), the capitalist boss of a large multi-planetary corporation, and evil scientist Dr. Nabel (Charles Dance) have created a cyborg warrior that is virtually unstoppable. But Saggs betrays Nabel and orders one of his warriors to kill him. Dr. Nabel rebuilds himself later and becomes Captain Macanudo.

John Canyon (Dennis Hopper) is one of the last independent space transport entrepreneurs and his outdated Pachiderm 2000 space ship looks like a big truck. He is competing against huge mega-corporations, and is hassled by high-tech interference from corrupt bosses. After Canyon delivers a cargo of pigs, genetically engineered to be square and stackable for more efficient shipping, he finds his profits siphoned off by crooked labor boss Keller (George Wendt). He initially refuses to join "The Company", an outfit controlling intergalactic trucking, but is unable to resist when the pay is five times the going rate. Times are tough and if Canyon wants to keep his space vessel, he mustn't be too choosy when it comes to clients or too inquisitive about the nature of cargo.

He visits a space station populated by space truck drivers who listen to country & western music. After an argument turns into a bar brawl, Canyon agrees to take a suspicious cargo and deliver it to Earth without questions being asked. Supposedly he is transporting sex toys. He also takes two new crew members: young rookie pilot Mike Pucci (Stephen Dorff) and waitress Cindy (Debi Mazar), who will accept his marriage proposal if he takes her to Earth to visit her sick mother. Canyon and his new-found partners narrowly escape the station, and along the way Mike and Cindy fall for each other. Soon all three of them realize that the cargo happens to be a small army of deadly killer robots.

The trio goes through an asteroid belt, their ship gets hot and they land in big trouble when swallowed by a pirate ship led by Captain Macanudo, the grotesquely disfigured former scientist Dr. Nabel who wants to have a good time and use robots for world conquest. Canyon's cargo of army androids were stolen from Macanudo by E.J. Saggs--who's plotting an android takeover of Earth. Macanudo's funniest scene, and one of the best in the film, comes when he attempts to activate his power-driven private parts to have sex with the unwilling Cindy. He has to get it started like a gas mower, only he has trouble with the pull cord.

Macanudo: I rebuilt my mind!
Cindy: So, you have a homemade brain.

Former National Lampoon editor Ted Mann, who scripted this $27 million science-fiction comedy, calls it "the first outer-space road movie." According to Mann, the film has "no scientists, no techies, none of the usual polished, sanitary environments we're used to in our space films. Space is like anywhere else -- the people who are there are underpaid and poorly regarded." Filmed at Ardmore Studios, County Wicklow in Ireland, this funny sci-fi adventure film is a wild and colorful ride. Bright and brash, it has interesting cheesy special effects and is a highly entertaining dystopian spoof.

SPACE TRUCKERS borrows from every major sci-fi epic of the past two decades, but it does so with style. It was originally made for cable television and is basically an action packed high seas adventure set in outer space that moves along nicely without ever becoming too challenging. However, many viewers and critics do not like it. One commented, "If you like awful films this will have you shaking your head in disbelief with your mouth wide open in complete amazement that a film this bad could ever have been made. This really is rubbish, no don't even be tempted to rent it for cringe factor, it's just very, very sad." Lone Wolf disagrees. I enoy it very much, and have watched it many times.

The cast also includes: Seamus Flavin (Chopper 4), Jason O'Mara (Chopper 3), Vernon Wells (Mr. Cutt), Sandra Dickinson (Bitchin' Betty), Tim Loane (Trooper Officer), Ian Beattie (Trooper), Olwen Fouéré (Building Commander), Roger Gregg (Tank Patrol), Dennis Akayama (Tech Leader), Graeme Wilkinson (Jackie), and Sean Lawlor (Mel). Colin Towns composed the original music score. Ted Mann wrote the screenplay from a story he wrote with Stuart Gordon, who also directed.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark (1969) * * *

CIVILISATION: A PERSONAL VIEW BY KENNETH CLARK is a 13 episode TV series that chronicles human progress through the centuries. Regarded as one of the finest TV productions ever made, this pretentious highbrow documentary is presented by Kenneth Clark (1903 - 1983), who also wrote an accompanying book. Clark traveled around the world to illustrate the series with breathtakingly beautiful art treasures. The series was produced by the BBC and aired in 1969 on BBC Two. Both the television material and the accompanying book were written by art historian Clark who narrates CIVILISATION.

The series took three years to produce, with filming in over 100 locations across 13 countries. Hailed as a masterpiece when it was first transmitted in 1969, Clark earned a peerage on the strength of the series and became Lord Clark. More pompous, pretentious bullshit. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the Industrial Revolution and beyond, Clark's compelling narrative is accompanied by colour photography of Europe's greatest landmarks. This "history of ideas as illustrated by art and music" remains the benchmark for the numerous programs it inspired. For Clark art is pure, untouched by the corruption of politics and materialism. CIVILISATION is not really a TV show, but a lecture series that presents statements about civilization itself.

Lone Wolf worked as a projectionist at the University of Toronto and showed the entire series countless times for 4 consecutive years. Probably nobody has seen it more times on the big screen than me, and my memory of the series is the art work, Clark's annoying patrician rhetoric, and his astonishing snaggle-toothed mouth. Surely more than anyone he has has given England its reputation as "the land of bad teeth". Yes, it is a great show, but frankly it appeals primarily to snobs who imagine they have infinitely superior taste compared to the "great unwashed". In glorious color, each episode is 50 minutes long, with a total runtime of 670 minutes.

The episodes are as follows:

1) "The Skin of our Teeth" In the first episode Clark admits that he can't define "civilization". He begins with a quote from Ruskin that validates the view that civilization can only be truly understood by studying art. Clark implies civilization is about to be overrun by barbarians, so he offers to start the journey with a look at the last total collapse of reason and culture: when the barbarians destroyed the glory of Rome, then swept through Europe to threaten all the great accomplishments of good Christians. Fortunately, Charlemagne, "the first great man to emerge from the darkness," saved us all. Clark travels from Byzantine Ravenna to the Celtic Hebrides, from the Norway of the Vikings to Charlemagne's chapel at Aachen, telling his story of the Dark Ages--the six centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

2) "The Great Thaw" In the second episode Clark tells about the struggle to overcome the "Dark Age" during which nothing happened in the world (meaning Europe). Watch our "leap forward" from ignorance to artistic enlightenment, embodied by cathedrals--big, heavily decorated cathedrals. The sudden reawakening of European civilization in the twelfth century is traced from its first manifestations in the Abbey of Cluny to its high point, the building of the Chartres cathedral.

3) "Romance and Reality" Beginning at a castle in the Loire, then travelling through the hills of Tuscany and Umbria to the cathedral baptistry at Pisa, he examines both the aspirations and achievements of the later Middle Ages in France and Italy. The parade of heroic figures keeps coming. Religion is represented by St. Francis of Assisi and the arts are advanced by Giotto and Dante. Clark follows the development of "the gothic imagination." Now that the courtly love tradition begins to enter art, Clark also finally starts talking about women, at least as embodiments of abstract ideas like Chastity and Nature. He seems to find placing women at the center of things somewhat absurd and courtly love poetry "unreadable". Even Dante, who paid so much honor to his Beatrice, is a little suspect in Clark's eyes.

4) "Man--the Measure of all Things" After devoting some time to females, he is back talking about men. Even better, artistic men. Clark takes a look at the Renaissance, where, in his effort to say something new about a picked-over subject, his sense of humor really comes to the fore. Visiting Florence, Clark claims European thought gained a new impetus from its rediscovery of its classical past. He also visits the palaces at Urbino and Mantua, other centers of Renaissance civilization.

5) "The Hero as Artist" Listing great Renaissance figures, Clark takes us back to 16th century Papal Rome noting the convergence of Christianity and antiquity. He discusses the heavyweight contenders in his survey of art history: Michelangelo, Raphael, and da Vinci--as well as the courtyards of the Vatican, the rooms decorated for the Pope by Raphael, and the Sistine Chapel.

6) "Protest and Communication" Clark takes us back to the Reformation. That is to the Germany of Albrecht Duerer and Martin Luther, the world of the humanitarians Erasmus, Montaigne, and Shakespeare. Clark finally focuses on a group of thinkers known more for their words who reshaped written language and reflected the radical intellectual shift of their age. Still, we spend more time looking at pictures of them than learning the details of their ideas or listening to their words. We do get to see some Shakespeare performed by Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart.

7) "Grandeur and Obedience" In the Rome of Michelangelo and Bernini, Clark tells of the Catholic Church's fight against the Protestant north, the Counter-Reformation and the Church's new splendor symbolized by the glory of St. Peter’s. The Counter-Reformation provided the Catholic Church an opportunity to produce more opulent art. Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Bernini rose to the task, and their work led to the Baroque.

8) "The Light of Experience" Here Clark tells of new worlds in space and in a drop of water that the telescope and microscope revealed, and the new realism in the Dutch paintings which took the observation of human character to a higher stage of development. The power of the Church gives way to the power of Reason, epitomized by thinkers like Descartes and realistic painters of the rising middle class like Rembrandt and Vermeer. Plus the rise of trading empires like Holland.

9) "The Pursuit of Happiness" Clark talks of the harmonious flow and complex symmetries of the works of Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart--and the reflection of these in the Rococo churches and palaces of Bavaria. Although every episode is backed by period music, this is also the first time that Clark calls attention to the connection between architectural harmony and the structure of music, particular as this is the age of Bach and Mozart.

10) "The Smile of Reason" Clark discusses the Age of Enlightenment tracing it from the polite conversations in the elegant Parisian salons of eighteenth-century, through the subsequent revolutionary politics to the great European palaces of Blenheim and Versailles, then finally to Jefferson’s Monticello. Seen through the windows of Versailles and Monticello and the words of Voltaire and Jefferson, science, wit, and intellect were prized above all. Once again we see more about the places where people like Voltaire wrote than actually hear any of the words of Voltaire that changed thought in Europe.

11) "The Worship of Nature" Belief in the divinity of nature, Clark argues, usurped Christianity’s position as the chief creative force in Western civilization and ushered in the Romantic movement. Here Clark visits Tintern Abbey, the Alps, and there discusses the landscapes of Turner and Constable. Romanticism reigns. From Rousseau's view of "natural man" to the paintings of Constable and Turner, with a detour to quote the Marquis de Sade, we see how nature inspired a generation.

12) "The Fallacies of Hope" Clark argues that the French Revolution led to the dictatorship of Napoleon and the dreary bureaucracies of the nineteenth century, and traces the disillusionment of the Romantic artists from Beethoven's music, Byron's poetry, Delacroix's paintings to Rodin's sculpture. The reason of the Enlightenment reaches its apotheosis in the impulsive utopian visions of Napoleon, Beethoven, and Byron. As Wordsworth said, "to be young was very heaven." But soon the revolutions would give way to disillusion and cynicism.

13) "Heroic Materialism" Clark concludes the series with his discussion of materialism and humanitarianism of the past century. This takes us from the industrial landscape of nineteenth century England to the skyscrapers of twentieth century New York. The achievements of the engineers and scientists--such as Brunel and Rutherford--having been matched by the great reformers like Wilberforce and Shaftsbury. There is nothing about Twentieth Century art in this series. Clark does not even pretend to understand or respect anything after 1900, but he has plenty to say about the end of the Nineteenth Century which led to the grim modern era that seems to mark the end of civilization for him. However, he does see hope in a history of humanitarianism, "the great achievement of the Nineteenth Century."

Lord Kenneth Clark's CIVILISATION is a revolutionary series despite the conservatism of its message. As a presenter he is dignified, patronizing, pompous, pretentious, and extremely opinionated about western art and culture. He is quite proud to admit that he is "a stick in the mud" who believes in old fashioned values. And don't forget his snaggled teeth. They really are enough to make you not watch his magnificent contribution to western culture. The four DVD set includes a specially written 36-page illustrated booklet of viewing notes. DVD extras include Sir David Attenborough remembering the making of CIVILISATION and a photo gallery of behind-the-scenes stills. But you really must watch it on the big screen to appreciate the great art work. On a small TV screen you'll only see vague muddy art and your eyes will inevitably focus on Clark's bad teeth. It's ironic that CIVILISATION was made for TV, yet the art it depicts can only be appreciated on the big screen. Edwin Astley composed much of the incidental music. Michael Gill directed 7 episodes, Peter Montagnon directed 5, and Ann Turner directed 3.

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