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

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Metropolis (1927) * * *

Set in 2000, this futuristic tale shows society separated into two distinct segments: the planners or thinkers, who make plans but don't know how anything works, and the workers who achieve goals but don't have the vision. Completely separate, neither group is complete, but together they make a whole. The upper class thinkers live in the high towers of Metropolis and reap the benefits of modern technology. Lower class workers reside in the underground regions working to make the machinery operate. The main thrust of the film centers on a man from the upper class falling in love with a woman from the lower class and his revelation as to what the world is like outside of his towers.

Metropolis is a corporate city-state with extraordinary Art Deco skyscrapers where machines rule over Man and inequality is entrenched in society. The city is run by Johann "Joh" Fredersen (Alfred Abel), leader of a powerful elite living on the surface, who control and subjugate the subterranean masses. The sole purpose of these slaves is to tend enormous power stations and endless conveyor belts, providing a life of luxury for men such as Freder (Gustav Fröhlich). As the son of Joh he is free to frolic in the beautiful gardens. The sanctuary of these parks is invaded one day when young woman Maria (Brigitte Helm) brings a group of waifs into the open air. Blinking and gasping in awe at the magnificence, they are soon hurried away. Freder becomes infatuated with the beautiful worker and attempts to follow her into the darkness below.

Descending to the machine rooms in pursuit of her, he is shocked to see the workers' constant toil and exhaustion. Freder is fascinated by the robotic movements of the workers, but one of the workers collapses from exhaustion, leading to an industrial accident. An explosion at the enormous "M-Machine" shows him the callous treatment of the workers by the above-ground elite. Before the dead and wounded can be taken away, fresh men must be brought in to replace them. He visualizes the M-Machine as Moloch, who consumes a never-ending sacrifice of bodies and lives. This senseless waste of life appalls sensitive Freder and he rushes upstairs to confront his busy father. Unfortunately, not only is Joh engrossed in running the city, he has become too callous to worry about the death of a few workers. Freder should simply ignore the suffering of the teeming hordes, especially as they seem to be plotting against their masters.

Freder: It was their hands that built this city of ours, Father. But where do the hands belong in your scheme?
Joh Frederson: In their proper place, the depths.

Freder is greatly disappointed by this attitude, leaving him with no option but to join with the downtrodden workers on their backbreaking shifts. Venturing into the steam and smoke, he takes over on some demonic electricity routing device, forced to work for the first time in his life. He takes pity on a worker and trades places with him, then finds a map to an underground meeting room in the man's clothes. Here he finds Maria (Brigitte Helm), the woman he saw earlier above ground. Maria urges the gathered workers not to revolt, but to wait for the arrival of a "Mediator" who can bridge the gap between the thinkers and workers. Freder is persuaded to join the cause, and Maria begins to believe that he may be the Mediator.

Maria: There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.

Scrawled plans of a worker concern Joh deeply, leading him to consult with mad scientist C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an old colleague and romantic rival. Rotwang has built a Maschinenmensch, or Machine-Man--a robot on which he plans to bestow the appearance of Hel, a lover who left him for Fredersen and died giving birth to Freder. Joh sees that this is the way forward, a tireless replacement for the unsettled masses. If only he realized that his son is one of the despised and feared hordes. Fredersen shows Rotwang some more maps taken from the workers killed in the explosion. Rotwang leads him underground and the two eavesdrop on the workers' meeting. Seeing Maria, Fredersen persuades Rotwang to give the robot her face instead so that it can be used to sow discord among the men. Rotwang captures her and does as Fredersen asks, but with an ulterior motive: he will use the robot to deprive Fredersen of his son.

Maria: We shall build a tower that will reach to the stars! Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it themselves, they had thousands to build it for them. But those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it. The hymns of praise of the few became the curses of the many--Babel! Babel! Babel! Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.

Seeing the robot-Maria with Fredersen, Freder collapses in a sudden delirium and must be taken home. As he lies in bed and the real Maria remains imprisoned in Rotwang's house, the robot performs as an exotic dancer in the decadent Yoshiwara nightclub, sparking widespread fights among the young men in attendance. Freder snaps out of his fever and realizes that the entire city is in danger, while the robot goads the workers into a full-scale rebellion and Maria breaks loose. Still intent on allowing the workers to destroy themselves, Fredersen calls Grot (Heinrich George), the foreman of the "Heart Machine", which is the main power station of Metropolis. After Grot opens its gates on Fredersen's orders, the workers and their wives destroy the Heart Machine, causing the reservoirs to burst and flood the workers' city farther below. After Freder and Grot are unable to stop them, Freder and Maria race down to the city and rescue all the children who have been left behind there.

Man at Nightclub: For her, all seven deadly sins.

Realizing the damage they have done and believing their children to be dead, the mob turns against Maria and chases her through the surface city streets. In the confusion, the real Maria slips away to the cathedral, while the mob captures the robot and burns her at the stake. Freder is horrified by this, but he and the workers soon learn that the burned woman was actually the duplicate. Rotwang chases Maria to the roof of the cathedral, with Freder in pursuit and Fredersen watching from the ground as the two men struggle. Eventually Rotwang falls to his death and Freder and Maria return to the street. Freder then fulfills his role as Mediator, bringing Fredersen and Grot together at last.

Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS belongs to legend as much as to cinema. It is a milestone of science fiction and German expressionism. From its opening montage of meshing gears and pounding machinery it is a visual masterpiece, a riot of expressionistic imagery, with geometric patterns formed by buildings and workers showing how the two are meshed together in this future hell. Yet the story makes minimal sense, and the "theme" belongs in a fortune cookie. To experience the film's power, you have to see the movie. But for decades we couldn't with so many versions, all incomplete, often in public-domain prints like smudged and faded photocopies.

Most silent films no longer exist. For example, Theda Bara's CLEOPATRA (1917) is gone forever, with only a few fragments remaining of this famous classic. That's because the "talkies" destroyed the market for silent films, which almost nobody wants to see. Probably Charlie Chaplin is the most famous image from the silent film era, but METROPOLIS is a close second. We all have the unforgettable futuristic images indelibly imprinted in our minds.

METROPOLIS was produced in the Babelsberg Studios by Universum Film A.G. (UFA) and was the most expensive film of its time. Fritz Lang directed and co-ordinated the masterpiece, involving thousands of extras, astounding futuristic sets, and an enormous budget that nearly bankrupted the studio. Technically groundbreaking at the time, with its mixing of models and live-action, it is still impressive today. It's a world of arching expressways, fantastic skyscrapers and many airplanes. But because the architecture is designed on such a towering scale and this is a silent film, the acting is often melodramatic and extreme--the only way to project sufficient emotion. This doesn't mean that the performances are bad, only that the film is a mixture of vision, lewdness and unintended humor. It's an epic poem of urban dystopia and class warfare by a misanthropic director who had a taste for spectacular imagery that has not been aesthetically surpassed after decades of technical cinematic progress.

The cast also includes: Fritz Rasp (The Thin Man), Theodor Loos (Josaphat), Erwin Biswanger (11811), Fritz Alberti (Creative human), Grete Berger (Working woman), Olly Boeheim (Working woman), Max Dietze (Working man), Ellen Frey (Working woman), Beatrice Garga (Woman of Eternal Gardens), Heinrich Gotho (Master of Ceremonies), Dolly Grey (Working woman), Anny Hintze (Woman of Eternal Gardens), Georg John (Working man who causes explosion of M-Machine), Walter Kuehle (Working man), Margarete Lanner (Lady in car / Woman of Eternal Gardens), Rose Lichtenstein (Working woman), Hanns Leo Reich (Marinus), Arthur Reinhardt (Working man), Curt Siodmak (Working Man), Henrietta Siodmak (Working Woman), Olaf Storm (Jan), Erwin Vater (Working man), Rolf von Goth (Son in Eternal Gardens), Helen von Münchofen (Woman of Eternal Gardens), Helene Weigel (Working woman), and Hilde Woitscheff (Woman of Eternal Gardens). Gottfried Huppertz and Abel Korzeniowski composed the original music score. Giorgio Moroder composed the 1984 score. Peter Osborned composed the 1998 score. Wetfish composed the 1999 score. Bernd Schultheis composed the 2001 score. Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang wrote the screenplay from von Harbou's novel. Fritz Lang directed.

There are multiple versions of METROPOLIS, all of which comprise various portions of the original 153 minute 1927 cut. On January 10, 1927, the 153 minute version of the film premiered in Berlin with moderate success. The film was cut and re-edited to change many key elements before screening. American and foreign theatre managers were generally unwilling to allow more than 90 minutes to a feature in their program, during a period when film attendance figures were high. METROPOLIS suffered as the original version was thought to be too long. Few people outside of Berlin saw Metropolis as Fritz Lang originally intended. In the United States, the movie was shown in a considerably shortened edited version that almost completely obscured the original plot, considered too controversial by the American distributors.

As a result of the edited versions, the original premiere cut eventually disappeared and a quarter of the original film was long believed to be lost forever. In 2001, a new 75th anniversary restoration was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival. This version, with a running time of 124 minutes, restored the original story line using stills and intertitles to bridge missing footage. It also added a soundtrack using the orchestral score originally composed by Gottfried Huppertz to go with the film. The restoration received the National Society of Film Critics Heritage Award for Restoration 2002. In June 2008, twenty to twenty-five minutes of lost footage was discovered in an archive of the Museum of Cinema in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was believed this was a copy made of a print owned by a private collector, who brought the original cut to the country in 1928.

The American copyright lapsed in 1953, which eventually led to a proliferation of versions being released on video. Even though the versions of METROPOLIS currently available are cut down from the original release, there are several stand-out moments left intact. One of these involves Freder, when he starts hallucinating after the shocking explosion. Before his very eyes, the machine dissolves into a divine, malignant shrine, gobbling up human sacrifices and demanding more. The workers are initially seen to march in unison, but after their revolt they move like ants in a haphazard, chaotic fashion. Apart from providing memorable visuals, this achieves closure by the end when the masses are again moving in step, but this time with greater awareness.

Despite the film's reputation, some contemporary critics panned it. The New York Times called it a "technical marvel with feet of clay". The Times went on the next month to publish a lengthy review by H. G. Wells who accused it of "foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general." He faulted Metropolis for its premise that automation created drudgery rather than relieving it, wondered who was buying the machines' output if not the workers, and found parts of the story derivative of Shelley's "Frankenstein", Karel Čapek's robot stories, and his own "The Sleeper Awakes".

In 1984, a new restoration and edit of the film was compiled by music producer Giorgio Moroder. The images are crisp, vibrant, and three-dimensional instead of murky and flattened. Moroder's version of the film introduced a new modern rock soundtrack for the film. Although it restored a number of previously missing scenes and plot details from the original release, his version of the film runs to only 80 minutes in length, although this is mainly due to the original intertitles being replaced with subtitles, and being run at 24 frames per second instead of the standard silent film speed of 16 frames per second. The Moroder version of METROPOLIS sparked a debate among film buffs and fans, with critics and supporters of the film falling into equal camps. There have even been petitions to get the Moroder cut alongside the uncut version for future releases on DVD and Bluray.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Things to Come (1936) * * *

THINGS TO COME tells the future history of the 20th century after 1936. It is set in the fictional English city of Everytown, based on London with a facsimile of St Paul's Cathedral in the background. Successful businessman John Cabal (Raymond Massey) cannot get into the festive spirit of Christmas Day 1940 because of news of a possible war. His guest Dr. Edward Harding (Maurice Braddell) shares his worries, but his optimistic friend Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman) believes it will not happen, or even if it does, it will do good by accelerating technological progress. An unexpected bombing raid on Everytown that night results in global war.

Dr. Harding: What is all this fuss in the papers to-night, Mr. Cabal?
John Cabal : Wars and rumors of wars again.
Dr. Harding: Crying wolf?
John Cabal : Some day the wolf will come. These fools are capable of anything.
Dr. Harding: What becomes of medical research in that case?
John Cabal : It will have to stop.
Dr. Harding: That will mess me up. It's pretty nearly all I care for. That and Majorie Home, of course.
John Cabal: Mess you up! Of course it will mess you up. Mess up your work. Mess up your marriage. Mess everything up. My God, if war gets loose again....

Some time later, Cabal is piloting a biplane fighter, and shoots down a small, one-man enemy bomber. He then lands and pulls the badly injured enemy (John Clements) from the wreckage. As they dwell on the madness of war, they hurry to put on their gas masks, as the poison gas the pilot dropped drifts in their direction. When a little girl runs towards them, the wounded man insists she take his mask, saying he is done for anyway. Cabal takes the girl to his airplane, pausing to leave the doomed man a gun. The man dwells on the irony that he may have gassed the child's family and yet he has saved her. He then commits suicide.

John Cabal: Is that better? My God--but you are smashed up, my boy. Why should we two be murdering each other? How did we come to this? Go, my friend! This is my gas, and it is a bad gas.
Enemy Airman: Funny if I'm choked by my own poison.
John Cabal: That's all right. Here--put it on her. (gas mask)
Enemy Airman: I've given it to others--why shouldn't I have a whiff myself?"
John Cabal: Come on, kiddy, this is no place for you. You make tracks that way. I'll show you. You may want this. (gives him his gun)
Enemy Airman: Good fellow--but I'll take my dose.

The war continues for decades, so long that the survivors have forgotten the reasons for it in the first place. Humanity falls into a new Dark Age. Everytown is in ruins and there is little technology left, other than the arms used to wage war. Nothing is being manufactured any more and society has broken down into primitive localized communities. In 1966, a great plague called the "wandering sickness" is spread by the unnamed enemy using its last few remaining aircraft. Most people are wiped out, but small numbers survive. Dr. Harding and his daughter Mary struggle to find a cure, but with little equipment the situation is hopeless. By 1970, a local warlord called the "Boss" or the "Chief" (Ralph Richardson) has eradicated the sickness by having those infected shot. He dreams of conquering the "hill people" by getting his mechanic Richard Gordon (Derrick De Marney) to make the few remaining biplanes flyable again.

Dr. Harding: Mary! Iodine, please.
Mary: There is no more, father. There is just one drop.
Dr. Harding: No more iodine?" My God! What is the good of trying to save a mad world from its punishment?
Mary: Oh father, if you could only sleep for a time.
Dr. Harding: How can I sleep? See how they wander out to die. And to think that I brought you into this world.
Mary: Even now I am glad to be alive, father.

On May Day 1970, a futuristic airplane lands outside Anytown. The pilot and sole occupant, John Cabal, emerges and proclaims that the last surviving band of "engineers and mechanics" have formed an organization known as "Wings Over the World". They are rebuilding a civilization, based in Basra, Iraq, that has renounced war and outlawed independent countries. The organization is slowly moving across the world re-civilizing groups of survivors. The Chief takes the pilot prisoner, ignoring the shrewd advice of his mistress Roxana (Margaretta Scott), and forces him to work for Gordon. Together, they manage to fix a biplane. When Gordon takes it up for a test flight, he flees and alerts Cabal's friends.

Roxana: I don't suppose any man has ever understood any woman since the beginning of things. You don't understand our imaginations.
John Cabal: If we don't end war, war will end us.

Wings Over the World attacks Everytown, filling the skies with airplanes and bombing the town with a sleeping gas. The Chief orders his biplanes to repel them, but they are shot down. When the people of Everytown awaken shortly thereafter, they find it occupied by the Airmen, and the Chief is dead, a victim of the gas.

Great reconstruction takes place over the next few decades and society is once again great and strong. A montage sequence shows the decades of technological progress and human achievement, beginning with Cabal explaining his plans for global consolidation by Wings Over the World. By 2036 the world's population is living in pristine, modern underground cities, of which the new Everytown is one. However, all is not well. The sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) incites the populace to demand a "rest" from the headlong rush of progress, symbolized by the impending first manned flight around the Moon. A popular uprising against progress, which some claim caused the wars of the past, gains support and becomes violent. The modern-day Luddites are opposed by Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey), the head of the governing council and great grandson of John Cabal. Cabal's daughter Catherine (Pearl Argyle) and her boyfriend Horrie Passworthy (Pickles Livingston) insist on flying the spaceship, despite the misgivings of Horrie's father Raymond Passworthy (Edward Chapman). When maddened crowds rush to destroy the space gun that is to propel the spacecraft, Cabal launches the ship ahead of schedule.

Raymond Passworthy: Oh, God, is there ever to be any age of happiness? Is there never to be any rest?
Oswald Cabal: Rest enough for the individual man--too much, and too soon--and we call it death. But for Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.
Raymond Passworthy: But... we're such little creatures. Poor humanity's so fragile, so weak. Little... little animals.

Cabal then delivers a speech about progress and humanity's quest for knowledge, asking, "And if we’re no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness, and live, and suffer, and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. It is this, or that. All the universe or nothing. Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?"

One of the most important science fiction films of all time, H.G. Wells' THINGS TO COME is a speculative meditation on the price of progress. This English science fiction epic starts prior to World War II and takes the viewer on a hundred year time trip to 2036 A.D. when a man and a woman are rocketed to the moon. It predicts television, jet planes and evil dictators. Featuring fabulous sets, a rich musical score and sweeping visual grandeur, THINGS TO COME is a truly spectacular film, an ambitious production from Korda's London Films that cemented its reputation for producing intelligent drama on an epic scale.

The movie features enormous sets, particularly in the sequences set in 2036, thousands of extras, and imaginative design and editing. Several of the performances are equally impressive, notably Raymond Massey as the messianic Cabal and Ralph Richardson as the thuggish "Boss", a role he modeled on Mussolini who banned the film outright in Italian cinemas. However, the human story sometimes is overshadowed by the design, with the ending lacking impact. The film's overwhelming seriousness is a problem, although understandable given the immediate fear of war. But it still has moments of real power, including a subtle and moving scene in which an airman offers his gas mask to a young girl whose town he has just attacked, as well as the dazzling montage of the re-building of Everytown.

H. G. Wells wrote the screenplay, a loose adaptation of his own 1933 novel "The Shape of Things to Come" and his 1931 non-fiction work "The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind". THINGS TO COME offers a very different vision of the future to Fritz Lang's classic METROPOLIS (1926), to which it is usually compared. Wells was very critical of Lang's film, which offered a portrait of a world enslaved by science. By contrast, Wells saw science as a promise of mankind's salvation. The attack on capitalism that is central to the book is omitted in the movie. The film concentrates more on attacking the horrors of war, which in the book Wells made clear was a product of that system. Wells' screenplay was further streamlined and pruned by Korda and his script editor Lajos Biro to eliminate a diatribe against religion and a debate about the role of woman as love object or workmate. Otherwise the scenario was faithfully translated to the screen by Korda's production team. He imported Hollywood designer William Cameron Menzies to direct and commissioned Arthur Bliss to provide the music score. The art director was Alexander Korda's brother Vincent, who was inspired in creating the city of the future.

The cast also includes: Sophie Stewart (Mrs. Cabal), Ann Todd (Mary Gordon), Pearl Argyle (Catherine Cabal), Kenneth Villiers (Maurice Passworthy), Ivan Brandt (Morden Mitani), Anne McLaren (The Child), Patricia Hilliard (Janet Gordon), Charles Carson (Great Grandfather), Patrick Barr (World Transport Official), Noel Brophy (Irishman), John Clements (The Airman), Anthony Holles (Simon Burton), Allan Jeayes (Mr. Cabal), George Sanders (Celestial Body), Abraham Sofaer (The Jew), Terry-Thomas (Man of the Future), and Torin Thatcher (Celestial Body). Arthur Bliss composed the original music. H.G. Wells wrote the screenplay based on his novel "The Shape of Things to Come". William Cameron Menzies directed.

The rough-cut of the film was 130 minutes in length, while the version submitted for classification by the British Board of Film Censors was 117 minutes. By the time of the 21 February 1936 UK premiere and initial release, this had been reduced to 108 minutes, while the American print premiered on 18 April 1936 was further cut to 96 minutes. By late 1936, a 98 minute print was in circulation in the UK, and a 72 minute print was resubmitted for classification by the BBFC and was passed after further cuts for reissue in 1943. A 92 minute print was subsequently reissued in America in 1947 and the UK in 1948. A continuity script exists for a 104 minute version of the film, which contains all the material in the 96 minute and 92 minute versions, plus a number of other sequences. It is not known if this version was actually in circulation at any time.

Although the film lapsed into the public domain in the United States in 1964, copyright remained in force in the United Kingdom, the European Union, and elsewhere. In the UK its copyright does not expire until 2045. The film came back into copyright in 1996 in the USA under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act. In early 2007, Legend Films in the United States released a colorized version, supervised by Ray Harryhausen, of a cut copy of the 92 minute print on DVD. This would count as a newly copyrighted work in America, if it were not for the fact that the underlying film is not in the public domain.

The DVD supposedly "features a pristine new film-to-video transfer from original source materials", but viewers comments complain of the poor video quality. One wrote, "Having seen THINGS TO COME on VHS, I looked forward to buying it on DVD. When I received it, however, the reproduction was so poor as to render it essentially unviewable. In the initial scenes the images are so murky that I was often unable to make out the faces of the principal characters." Another viewer wrote of the Harryhausen version, "This DVD still looks to me like a bad 16mm print. I'm not a purist, but the film grain is coarse and obvious. The framing is not steady. The exposure varies, giving an irregular flickery effect. It's not exactly blurry, but it's not as crisp and sharp as any ordinary DVD of any ordinary 1950 black-and-white movie. Comparing it to the earlier DVD, I'm not sure what "restoration" was done except for colorization."

Friday, May 29, 2009

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) * * *

Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is a local doctor in the fictional town of Santa Mira, California. Upon returning home from a trip, he finds the townspeople to be acting a bit unusual. He discovers that many of his patients are suffering from the paranoid delusion that their friends and relatives are impostors. One patient is a former sweetheart of his, recent divorcée Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), who tells him that her cousin Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine) has this same strange fear about Uncle Ira Lentz (Tom Fadden). At first Dr. Bennell is unconcerned when the townsfolk accuse their loved ones of acting like emotionless imposters, but soon the evidence is overwhelming.

Stanley Driscoll: Is the baby asleep yet, Sally?
Nurse Withers: No, but she will be soon. And the'll be no more tears.
Stanley Driscoll: Shall I put this in her room?
(referring to the alien seed pod he is carrying)
Nurse Withers: Yes, in her playpen.

Assured by the town psychiatrist Dr. Dan Kaufman (Larry Gates) that the cases are nothing but "epidemic mass hysteria", Bennell soon learns, with the help of his friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan), that the townspeople are being replaced by simulations grown from plantlike pods, perfect duplicates who kill and dispose of their human victims. Huge seeds are "planted" in basements and garages that evolve into duplicates of people. Victims who fall asleep are "transformed". The tension grows as time passes and the characters need to sleep. His friends Jack and Theodora "Teddy" Belicec (Carolyn Jones) show him a partly formed body they have uncovered in their home, and he realizes that there may be some truth to the wild stories he has been hearing.

Dr. Kauffman: Sure you have. A real one! Whose body was it, and where is it now? A completely normal mystery. Whatever it is, it's well within the bounds of human experience, and I don't think you ought to make any more of it.
Dr. Bennell: Look, I wouldn't if I hadn't looked in Becky's cellar! How do you explain away the body I saw there?
Dr. Kauffman: I don't think you saw one there.
Dr. Bennell: You don't think I saw one here, either?
Dr. Kauffman: I know you did because three others saw it too.
Dr. Bennell: But I dreamed up the second one?
Dr. Kauffman: Doctors can have hallucinations too.

The Pod People transform themselves into the citizens of Santa Mira, and are indistinguishable from normal people, except for their utter lack of emotion. They work together to secretly spread more pods--which grew from "seeds drifting through space for years"--in order to replace the entire human race. Bennell and Driscoll hide in his office, then look outside onto the main square and see a congregation of Pod People walking in a trance like zombies.

Becky: I can't do it, I can't, can't, can't go on.
Dr. Bennell: Yes you can.
Becky: I don't want to live in a world without love or grief or beauty, I'd rather die.

Bennell and Driscoll drive, and then literally run for their lives through the California hills. If they can make it to the highway and then to the neighboring town, perhaps they and the world can be saved. The film climaxes with Driscoll falling asleep and turned into a Pod Person. With the Pod People close behind, a crazed Bennell runs onto the highway frantically screaming of the alien invasion which has overrun Santa Mira to the passing motorists. The actor breaks the 4th wall, looks into the camera and yells, "They're here already! You're next!"

The movie was originally intended to end with Dr. Bennell screaming hysterically as truckloads of pods pass him by. Allied Artists studio, wary of such a pessimistic conclusion, insisted on adding a prologue and epilogue to the movie that suggested a more optimistic outcome to the story which is told mainly in flashback. In this version the movie begins with Bennell in a hospital emergency room where he might be sent to an insane asylum. Held by the police as a raving lunatic, Dr. Bennell recounts to psychiatrist Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) the events that have turned his life upside down. He returned to his small town the previous Thursday, having been called back from a medical conference by his nurse Sally Withers (Jean Willes) who was being flooded with patients. In the closing scene, pods are discovered at a highway accident, thus confirming his warning. The FBI is notified, though it is left ambiguous whether they intervene in time to save the Earth.

Ambulance Driver: We had to dig him out from under the most peculiar things I ever saw.
Dr. Hill: What things?
Ambulance Driver: Well, I don't know what they are. I never saw them before. They looked like great big seed pods.
Dr. Hill: Where was the truck coming from?
Ambulance Driver: Santa Mira.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is a science fiction film based on the novel "The Body Snatchers" by Jack Finney, originally serialized in Colliers Magazine in 1954. The film has been interpretted as both an allegory for the loss of personal autonomy in the Soviet Union and as an indictment of McCarthyist paranoia about Communism during the early stages of the Cold War. In recent years, critics have hailed the film as a "genuine SF classic", one of the "most resonant", and "one of the simplest" of the genre. The BBC wrote, "The sense of post-war, anti-communist paranoia is acute, as is the temptation to view the film as a metaphor for the tyranny of the McCarthy era." However, lead actor Kevin McCarthy said in an interview included on the 1998 DVD release that he felt no political allegory was intended. The interviewer stated that he had spoken with the author of the original novel, Jack Finney, who also said he had intended no specific political allegory in the work.

In his autobiography, "I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History", the film's producer Walter Mirisch wrote: "People began to read meanings into pictures that were never intended. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is an example of that. I remember reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America. From personal knowledge, neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor the original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple."

The film was shot in 23 days between March 23, 1955 and April 18, 1955 in Sierra Madre. Then the prologue and epilogue were shot on September 16, 1955 at Allied Artists. Cast and crew worked a six-day week with only Sundays off. Production went over schedule by three days because of night-for-night shooting that Siegel wanted. The final budget was $382,190. When released in 1956, the movie made over one million dollars in its first month. In 1956 alone, the movie made over two and a half million dollars in the USA. When the British issue took place in late 1956, the film made over a half million dollars in ticket sales.

Considered one of the best science fiction films of the 1950s and '60s, this classic paranoid thriller remains a milestone movie in its genre. Everything about this film is fine. The direction is first rate, the script is sharp and intriguing, and the film has an ordinary look to it that is gradually subverted by increasing darkness and unexpected camera angles. And the cast is very good. Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, and Carolyn Jones all give great performances in the leads, and the overall ensemble is every bit their equal. The movie has been made in 3 versions, but while the Donald Sutherland (1978) and the Meg Tilley (1993) versions are quite good in their own ways, the original remains the most powerful.

The cast also includes: Ralph Dumke (Police Chief Nick Grivett), Kenneth Patterson (Stanley Driscoll), Guy Way (Officer Sam Janzek), Eileen Stevens (Anne Grimaldi), Beatrice Maude (Grandma Driscoll), Jean Andren (Eleda Lentz), Bobby Clark (Jimmy Grimaldi), Everett Glass (Dr. Ed Pursey), Dabbs Greer (Mac Lomax), Pat O'Malley (Baggage man), Guy Rennie (Restaurant owner), Marie Selland (Martha Lomax), Sam Peckinpah (Charlie), Harry J. Vejar (Pod carrier in Miles' office), Richard Deacon (Dr. Harvey Bassett), Frank Hagney (Bit part), and Robert Osterloh (Ambulance driver). Carmen Dragon composed the original music. Daniel Mainwaring wrote the screenplay with help from Richard Collins based on Jack Finney's novel. Don Siegel directed.

The DVD offers the choice of widescreen and standard ratio. Apparently it was filmed in standard ratio but later converted to widescreen when that format became the norm. It works well in either version. Extras are slight, including a brief interview with McCarthy that is quite interesting. The transfer to DVD is quite good. In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "Ten top Ten" after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was acknowledged as the ninth best film in the science fiction genre. In 1993, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Duck Soup (1933) * * *

DUCK SOUP opens with the flag of Freedonia flying over a small village. The government of a "mythical kingdom", the Balkan state of Freedonia has gone bankrupt through mismanagement and is on the verge of revolution. Fortunately, the country's richest millionairess, the widowed dowager Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) offers $20 million to bail out the government, but only if it is placed under new leadership.

Mrs. Teasdale: The government has been mismanaged. I will lend the money, but only on condition that His Excellency withdraw and place the government in new hands.

She agrees to donate 20 million dollars if Rufus T. Firefly is appointed its new president. Firefly is a cynical, sarcastic dictator who refuses to play politics by the book. For instance, he reduces workers' hours--by shortening their lunch breaks. Firefly's secretary Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx) arrives and assures Mrs. Teasdale, in song, that the absent statesman will appear "When the Clock on the Wall Strikes Ten". When the clock on the wall does strike ten, pretty dancing girls scatter rose petals and kneel in homage between an impressive lineup of helmeted, sword-bearing guards along the entrance way with swords uplifted. The assembled audience sings the national anthem "Hail, Hail Freedonia", but Firefly isn't anywhere in sight. After a long pause and a trumpeters' fanfare, the anthem is sung a second time and all the guests look toward the entrance, but Firefly still fails to enter.

In an upstairs bedroom, the ringing of an alarm clock is heard, and Firefly appears in bed with a nightshirt, nightcap, and cigar. He quickly removes his nightshirt to reveal a suit, and slides down a fireman's pole into the spacious ballroom hall. He takes his place in the line-up with his own honor guard at the end of the ceremonial line, joining them to wait for his own arrival and holding out his cigar with their swords. He asks one of the guards: "You expecting somebody?"

Mrs. Teasdale notices him and welcomes him, then attempts to impose some degree of dignity upon the proceedings, but he assaults her with insults by skipping from one non-sequitur association to another:

Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, your Excellency. We've been expecting you. As chairwoman of the reception committee, I extend the wishes of every man, woman, and child of Freedonia.
Firefly: Never mind that stuff. Take a card.
Mrs. Teasdale: Card? What will I do with the card?
Firefly: You can keep it. I've got fifty-one left. Now what were you saying?
Mrs. Teasdale: As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.
Firefly: Is that so? How late do you stay open?
Mrs. Teasdale: I've sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.
Firefly: Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say! You cover a lot of ground yourself. You'd better beat it. I hear they're gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can't get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know, you haven't stopped talking since I came here. You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.

She asks him to lead Freedonia to the same heights it achieved when her late husband Chester V. Teasdale was President: "The future of Freedonia rests on you. Promise me you will follow in the footsteps of my husband." Firefly looks straight into the camera, and in his first major line rudely insults his most ardent supporter: "How do you like that? I haven't been on the job five minutes and already she's making advances to me."

Then he engages the widowed Mrs. Teasdale in an insult-ridden conversation, but quickly covers up his insults and shamelessly flirts with her when he realizes she is a widow with money:

Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he's dead.
Firefly: I'll bet he's just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Firefly: Hmmph. No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Firefly: Oh, I see. Then, it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.
Mrs. Teasdale: He left me his entire fortune.
Firefly: Is that so? Can't you see what I'm trying to tell you? I love you.
Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, your Excellency!
Firefly: You're not so bad yourself.

Firefly is next introduced to the sleek, impeccably tailored Trentino (Louis Calhern), Ambassador from Sylvania, and he immediately insults him a few times, calling him an "old skinflint":

Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, I want to present to you Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania. Having him with us today is indeed a great pleasure.
Trentino: Thank you, but I can't stay very long.
Firefly: That's even a greater pleasure. Now, how about lending this country $20,000,000 dollars, you old skinflint.
Trentino: $20,000,000 dollars is a lot of money. I'd have to take that up with my Minister of Finance.
Firefly: Well, in the meantime, could you let me have $12 dollars until payday?
Trentino: $12 dollars?
Firefly: Don't be scared. You'll get it back. I'll give you my personal note for 90 days. If it isn't paid by then, you can keep the note.
Trentino: Your Excellency? Haven't we seen each other somewhere before?
Firefly: I don't think so. I'm not sure I'm seeing you now. It must be something I ate.
Trentino (insulted): Look here Sir, are you trying to...?
Firefly: Don't look now, but there's one man too many in this room, and I think it's you.

Then the new Freedonian President meets a "very charming lady", the seductive "famous dancer" Vera Varcal (Raquel Torres), still wearing a slinky evening gown displaying her bosom. Overwhelmed by her appearance, he shows off a number of his own ridiculous dance steps, saying, "I danced before Napoleon. No, Napoleon danced before me. In fact, he danced two hundred years before me." When she seductively suggests dancing with him some time later, he tells her, "I could dance with you till the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows when you came home."

Trentino woos Mrs. Teasdale, tries to foment a revolution, and attempts to dig up dirt on Firefly by sending in inept spies Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx).

Trentino: I've given up the idea of a revolution. I have a better plan...I can gain control of Freedonia much easier by marrying Mrs. Teasdale.
Vera: Ha, ha, ha. Maybe that's not going to be so easy...From what I hear, you see, Mrs. Teasdale is rather sweet on this Rufus T. Firefly.
Trentino: Oh, well that's where you come in. I'm going to place him in your hands. And I don't have to tell you what to do or how to...

Chico and Harpo harass a lemonade vendor (Edgar Kennedy) egged on by his aggravation that they have stolen his pitch. After an earlier scene involving the knocking off, dropping, picking up and exchanging and burning of hats, Kennedy steals bags of Harpo's peanuts, and Harpo responds by burning Kennedy's new straw boater hat. Kennedy in return pushes over their peanut wagon. Harpo gets revenge for this by sloshing his legs in Kennedy's lemonade tank, driving off his customers.

After failing to collect worthwhile information about Firefly, Chicolini and Pinky infiltrate the government when Chicolini is appointed Secretary of War after Firefly sees him on the street selling peanuts. Meanwhile, Firefly's personal assistant Bob Roland questions Trentino's motives, and advises Firefly to "get rid of that man at once" by saying "something to make him mad, and he'll strike you, and we'll force him to leave the country." Firefly agrees to the plan, but after a series of personal insults exchanged between Firefly and Trentino, the plan backfires and Firefly slaps Trentino instead. As a result, the two countries reach the brink of war. Adding to the international friction is the fact that Firefly is also wooing Mrs. Teasdale, and likewise hoping to get his hands on her fortune inherited from her late husband.

In a "mirror scene", Pinky, dressed as Firefly, pretends to be Firefly's reflection in a missing mirror, matching his every move--including ones that begin out of sight--to near perfection until the end of the scene. Eventually, and to their misfortune, Chicolini, also disguised as Firefly, collides with both of them.

Trentino learns that Freedonia's war plans are in Mrs. Teasdale's possession and orders Chicolini and Pinky to steal them. Chicolini is caught by Firefly and put on trial, during which war is officially declared, and everyone is overcome by war frenzy, breaking into song and dance. The trial put aside, Chicolini and Pinky join Firefly and Bob Roland in anarchic battle, resulting in general mayhem.

During the final battle scenes, called the "funniest of all of cinema", Firefly can be seen wearing a different costume in almost every sequence until the end of the film, including American Civil War outfits (Union and Confederacy), a British palace guard uniform, a Boy Scout Scoutmaster's uniform, and even a coon-skin Davy Crockett cap. Meanwhile, the exterior view of the building they are occupying changes appearance from a bunker to an old fort, and so on. Firefly assures his generals that he has "a man out combing the countryside for volunteers." Sure enough, Pinky is wandering out on the front lines wearing a sandwich board sign reading, "Join the Army and see the Navy." Later, Chicolini volunteers Pinky to carry a message through enemy lines. Firefly tells him, "Remember, while you're out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are."

The end of the film finds Trentino caught in a makeshift stocks, with the Brothers pelting him with fruit. Trentino surrenders, but Groucho refuses to stop throwing until they run out of fruit. Mrs. Teasdale begins singing the Freedonia national anthem in her operatic voice and the Brothers begin hurling fruit at her instead. The climactic production number ridicules war by comparing nationalism to a minstrel show. One line is a variant on the old Negro spiritual "All God's Chillun Got Wings":

They got guns,
We got guns,
All God's chillun got guns!
I'm gonna walk all over the battlefield,
'Cause all God's chillun got guns!

DUCK SOUP is an absurd, nonsensical and hilarious film that still makes sense. A satire of dictatorships, war and politics, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo are at their outlandish best here. Running 68 minutes, the movie is fairly short, but chock-full of laughs and lampoons. Released in 1933, during the crisis period of the Depression, the movie was to provide comic relief for the weary American public. But it was a box-office disappointment, both a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release. Audiences were taken aback by such political disrespect, buffoonery and cynicism at a time of political and economic crisis, with Roosevelt's struggle against Depression in the US amidst the rising power of Hitler in Germany. Fortunately, the film was rediscovered by a generation of 1960s college students, and by revival film festivals and museum showings. As a result, the film has attained the status of a classic and masterpiece. This was the last of the Marx Brothers films to feature all four of the brothers, and their fifth film in a five-picture contract with Paramount Studios. Their next film, for Hollywood's prestigious MGM studio, was their landmark A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935), with a more developed and polished plot.

The "Freedonia National Anthem" is used frequently throughout the film, both as vocal and instrumental. It seems to consist entirely of "Hail, Hail, Freedonia, land of the brave and free", contrasting with the final line of The Star-Spangled Banner. The "Sylvania theme", which sounds vaguely like "Rule Britannia", is also used several times. "When The Clock On The Wall Strikes 10", the first musical number in the film, is part of the same scene as "Just Wait 'Til I Get Through With It", Groucho's song over the laws of his administration. "This Country's Going To War" is the final musical ensemble in the film, and is also the only musical number in the Marx Brothers' films to feature all four of the Brothers.

The cast also includes: Edmund Breese (Zander), Leonid Kinskey (Sylvanian Agitator), Charles Middleton (Prosecutor), Edgar Kennedy (Lemonade Vendor), Edward Arnold (Politician), Wade Boteler (Officer at Battle Headquarters), Sidney Bracey (Mrs. Teasdale's Butler), E.H. Calvert (Officer in battle sequence), Davison Clark (Minister of Finance #2), Louise Closser Hale (Reception Guest), Carrie Daumery (Reception Guest), Maude Turner Gordon (Reception Guest), Verna Hillie (Trentino's Secretary), Edward LeSaint (Secretary of Labor), George MacQuarrie (First Judge), Edwin Maxwell (Freedonia's Secretary of War), Eric Mayne (Third Judge), Dennis O'Keefe (Bridegroom at Firefly's Reception), Frederick Sullivan (Second Judge), and Dale Van Sickel (Palace Guard). John Leipold composed the original music. The screenplay was written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby with additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin. Leo McCarey directed.

What does "Duck Soup" mean? It was a familiar American phrase in the 1930s meaning something simple or easy, or a gullible sucker or pushover. The introductory scene, showing 4 ducks swimming and cooking in a kettle and quacking merrily over a fire, is the only scene in the film that has anything remotely to do with ducks or soup. Groucho provided the following recipe to explain the title: "Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck soup for the rest of your life." In 1990 the United States Library of Congress deemed DUCK SOUP "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Night at the Opera (1935) * * *

Wealthy dowager Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) is dining by herself at a classy restaurant in Milan, Italy. She complains to the waiter that her date hasn't arrived and it is too late to dine. When she has Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) paged, thinking she has been stood up, Driftwood turns around from the table behind her and complains to the boy for calling out his name so loudly throughout the restaurant: "Do I go around yelling your name?"

The entrepreneur and swindler has just finished a meal with a beautiful blonde, with his back facing toward his dignified benefactress. She protests being stood up: "I've been sitting right here since 7 o'clock." The shifty con-man turns the tables on her, berating her for sitting with her back to him all evening: "Yes, with your back to me. When I invite a woman to dinner, I expect her to look at my face. That's the price she has to pay."

Turning back to his own table, he gets the expensive dinner bill and exclaims: "$9.40? This is an outrage!" and hands the bill to the blonde: "If I were you I wouldn't pay it!" After totally alienating Mrs. Claypool, he joins her at her table. It is now too late for dinner, so he asks the waiter for a breakfast meal.

Driftwood: Waiter. Have you got any milk-fed chicken?
Waiter: Yes.
Driftwood: Well, squeeze the milk out of one and bring me a glass.

Driftwood has been hired to bring Mrs. Claypool into high society, but she complains that he has done nothing to help her. Driftwood attempts to flatter her and get out of his predicament, explaining that he was dining with the blonde at the next table because of her likeness to Mrs. Claypool:

Mrs. Claypool: Mr. Driftwood, three months ago you promised to put me into society. In all that time, you've done nothing but draw a very handsome salary.
Driftwood: You think that's nothing, huh? How many men do you suppose are drawing a handsome salary nowadays? Why, you can count them on the fingers of one hand, my good woman.
Mrs. Claypool: I'm not your good woman!
Driftwood: Don't say that, Mrs. Claypool. I don't care what your past has been. To me, you'll always be my good woman. Because I love you. There. I didn't mean to tell you, but you...you dragged it out of me. I love you.
Mrs. Claypool: It's rather difficult to believe that when I find you dining with another woman.
Driftwood: That woman? Do you know why I sat with her?
Mrs. Claypool: No.
Driftwood: Because she reminded me of you.
Mrs. Claypool: Really?
Driftwood: Of course, that's why I'm sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that? If she figures that one out, she's good.
Mrs. Claypool: Mr. Driftwood. I think we'd better keep everything on a business basis.
Driftwood: How do you like that? Every time I get romantic with you, you want to talk business. I don't know, there's something about me that brings out the business in every woman.

Driftwood promises to promote Mrs. Claypool's entry into high society if she invests $200,000 of her money in the New York Opera Company. He both woos and insults her in his promotion, saying, "Don't you see, you'll be a patron of the opera. You'll get into society. Then, you can marry me and they'll kick you out of society, and all you've lost is $200,000."

He introduces her to the head of the New York Opera Company, Herman Gottlieb (Siegfried Rumann). They bow repeatedly to each other in an extended introduction. When Gottlieb kisses her hand, Driftwood suspects that Gottlieb has stolen her rings, and he checks her fingers. Gottlieb flatters her by calling her charming and beautiful. Driftwood flares up and objects to Gottlieb's behavior: "Now listen here, Gottlieb, making love to Mrs. Claypool is my racket. What you're after is $200,000. And you'd better make it sound plausible, because, as incredible as it may seem, Mrs. Claypool isn't as big a sap as she looks. How's that for lovemaking?" Then Driftwood allows Gottlieb to romance Mrs. Claypool European-style: "All right, Gottlieb, it's your turn. You take a whack at it, but keep it clean."

Gottlieb is pleased to accept Mrs. Claypool's financing so that he can hire the famous but self-centered Italian tenor Rodolpho Lassparri (Walter Wolf King)--"the greatest tenor since Caruso." Gottlieb promises that she will receive all the credit for being a patron of the arts and sponsoring Lassparri to sing with the New York Opera Company.

Gottlieb: He will be a sensation. All New York will be at your feet.
Driftwood: Well! There's plenty of room.

When Driftwood declines to accompany them, Gottlieb leads Mrs. Claypool to his opera box to hear the Italian tenor in a performance. As they leave, Driftwood reminds Gottlieb that he saw her first: "Nix on the love-making because I saw Mrs. Claypool first. Of course, her mother really saw her first but there's no point in bringing the Civil War into this."

In his dressing room at the Milan Opera House, the egotistical and mean Lassparri berates his valet and dresser Tomasso (Harpo Marx), whom he has found trying on one of his clown costumes. Tomasso rips off the clown costume and is wearing another costume underneath, a naval outfit. Beneath that is a third costume, a dress with a close-fitting bodice, full skirt and short full sleeves. His fourth and final outfit is his natural clothing underneath everything else. Lassparri orders Tomasso out of the dressing room and fires him, beating and whipping him out the door. But then Lassparri acts nicely toward Tomasso when he sees young soprano singer Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) comforting the banished dresser on the floor.

The famous opera tenor has a romantic interest in Rosa, but she is in love with another lesser-known tenor, Riccardo "Ricky" Baroni (Allan Jones), a singer consigned to the chorus. Backstage, old friends Riccardo and Fiorello (Chico Marx) renew acquaintances, and Fiorello proposes to be the agent/manager of the struggling singer Ricky.

During the performance in the Milan, Driftwood rides around the park in an open carriage, yelling at the driver, "Hey you. I told you to slow that nag down. On account of you, I nearly heard the opera." When Driftwood arrives at the opera box to join Gottlieb and Mrs. Claypool for the performance, he cheers "Bravo, bravo..." but it is too late. The curtain has just come down. Gottlieb has connived to have Mrs. Claypool sponsor his New York Opera Company so that Lassparri can be signed to a $1,000/night contract. Driftwood complains to Gottlieb, "You're willing to pay him a thousand dollars a night just for singing? Why, you can get a phonograph record of "Minnie the Moocher" for 75 cents. And for a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie."

Because he represents Mrs. Claypool, Driftwood wants to take a cut in the deal. He thinks to himself, "There must be some way I can get a piece of this." But he must get to the singer before Gottlieb does. Backstage after the performance, Lassparri tries to be Rosa's lover through blackmail, but she departs, leaving him empty-handed. Driftwood runs into Lassparri dressed as a clown from the opera just concluded, and he is beating and threatening Tomasso once again.

Driftwood: Hey, you big bully. What's the idea of hitting that little bully?
Lassparri: Will you kindly let me handle my own affairs? (He slaps and pushes Tomasso away.) Get out! Now, what do you got to say to me?
Driftwood: Just this. Can you sleep on your stomach with such big buttons on your pajamas?

Suddenly, Tomasso whacks Lassparri on the head with a large gavel. Smelling salts are applied to Lassparri's nose. Driftwood asks for and receives an apology. Then Tomasso hits Lassparri again just as he begins to sit up and regain consciousness. This time, Driftwood takes credit for the knockout, putting his foot on the victim's chest, adding, "Get fresh with me--eh?" He says to Fiorello, Riccardo's new manager, "We had an argument and he pulled a knife on me, so I shot him." Fiorello joins him by putting his foot up on the victim's chest too.

Driftwood cannot remember Lassparri's name, but he knows that he is looking for "the greatest tenor in the world." That phrase matches the description of Fiorello's little-known client---"the fellow that sings in the opera here." So Driftwood negotiates a contract with Fiorello, but for the wrong singer (Riccardo not Lassparri). Without questioning who he is actually signing up to sing for the New York Opera Company, Driftwood agrees to a lucrative contractual deal for himself:

Driftwood: Could he sail tomorrow?
Fiorello: You pay him enough money, he could sail yesterday. How much you pay him?
Driftwood: Well, I don't know...(muttering to himself) let's see, a thousand dollars a night...I'm entitled to a small profit...how about ten dollars a night?
Fiorello: Ten? Ten dolla- ha ha ha ha ha! I'll take it...
Driftwood: All right, but remember, I get 10% for negotiating the deal.
Fiorello: Yes, and I get 10% for being the manager. How much does that leave him?
Driftwood: That leaves him - uh, $8.00.
Fiorello: Eight dollars, huh? Well, he sends a five dollars home to his mother...
Driftwood: Well, that leaves him $3.00.
Fiorello: Can he live in New York on $3.00?
Driftwood: Like a prince. Of course he won't be able to eat, but he can live like a prince. However, out of that $3.00, you know, he'll have to pay an income tax...

The terms are agreed upon. The singer will be paid $10 a night, but as managers each of them plan to deduct 10% of the fee. That leaves the singer only $8. However, he will have to send $5 home to his mother, leaving him with only $3. Out of the remaining $3, allowances must also be made for additional income taxes:

Fiorello: Ah, there's income tax...
Driftwood: ...there's a federal tax, and a state tax, and a city tax, and a street tax, and a sewer tax.
Fiorello: How much does this come to?
Driftwood: Well, I figure if he doesn't sing too often, he can break even.
Fiorello: All right, we take it.

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is a musical comedy, the sixth of thirteen Marx Brothers feature films. It is universally considered to be the Marx Brothers' best and most popular film, and it received critical acclaim when released. By bringing their comedy sequences, musical numbers, and love story plot up to higher standards, the film also proved to be a tremendous financial success. True to its title, the film actually includes some real opera scenes, especially from "Il Trovatore", with a duet sung by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. The opera setting also allowed MGM to add big production song numbers which were one of this studio's specialties, such as the song "Alone" with the departure of the steamship, and the song "Cosi Cosa" with the Italian buffet and dancing.

One of the most hilarious movies ever made, this classic farce featuring the outrageous genius of the Marx Brothers is a chance to see some of their best skits woven together seamlessly in a story of high society, matchmaking, and chaos. In order to bring two young lovers together, brothers Groucho, Chico, and Harpo must sabotage an opera performance even as they try to pass themselves off as stuffed shirts. Featuring the classic sequence where Groucho piles as many people as possible into a ship's stateroom, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is a wonderful zany film worth watching over and over again.

It's a grab bag of a movie that includes physical gags, verbal gags, a romantic subplot, backstage intrigue, an operatic aria, an elaborate dance number, stunts, absurdity, and sentimentality. Of course the main attraction is the patented zaniness of The Marx Brothers -- the acerbic Groucho, the mute Harpo, and the dim-witted Chico -- whose unique brand of comedy is often edgy, subversive, and even surreal. Groucho's usual anti-establishment stance also seems softened in order to give way to crowd-pleasing sentimentality. A NIGHT AT THE OPERA has some of most memorable gags in the Brothers' history. A verbal confusion with Santa Claus, a tiny room cramped with 15 people, mixing opera with baseball, and Harpo's stunts with the ropes are some of the highlights.

The cast also includes: Edward Keane (Captain), Robert Emmett O'Connor (Henderson), Harry Allen (Doorman), King Baggot (Dignitary), Edna Bennett (Maid), Stanley Blystone (Ship's Officer), Al Bridge (Immigration Inspector), Loie Bridge, Lorraine Bridges, Gino Corrado, Gennaro Curci, Olga Dane, Bill Days, Bess Flowers, Otto Fries, Bud Geary, Billy Gilbert, William Gould, and many others. Herbert Stothart composed the incidental music. George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind wrote the screenplay with dialogue by Al Boasberg from a story by James Kevin McGuinness. Buster Keaton, Robert Pirosh, and George Seaton also contributed to the writing. Sam Wood directed with some help from Edmund Goulding.

The new Warner Brothers DVD of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is encoded for Region 1 and 4, and has a clean video transfer considering the age of the film. Obviously, a video restoration has been done, as were the cases for many of recent Warner DVDs of old movies. The original mono audio is fine, save for some age-related hisses in the background. There are some momentary losses of frames in a few places, such as in the scene of Groucho riding a carriage early in the movie. However, these "jumps" exist in older video versions as well. Both English subtitles and closed captioning are present for the film's dialogues. The lyrics to the songs "Alone" and "Cosi-Cosa" are also captioned, but not subtitled. During the Verdi opera sequence, the caption simply says "(Singing in Italian)". French and Spanish subtitles are also provided, but many of the word plays are lost in translation. None of the supplements on the disc are subtitled or captioned.

Leonard Maltin provides an informative audio commentary for the film. He points out that the film was cut for its 1948 re-release in order to remove all references to Italy, which fought against America in WWII. The original opening was supposed to be a musical number showing people in Milan singing, thereby establishing the setting of the film. Although wishing to avoid analyzing the film, Maltin does try to elucidate some of the ingenious touches in the comical gags. In the famous stateroom scene, he points out the way Groucho talks at just the right moments and all the people seem oblivious to the situation are what make the scene funny. He also recounts a few anecdotes, such as the Brothers' showing up naked in producer Irving Thalberg's office at one time.

The disc includes a typical half-hour making-of featurette "Remarks on Marx, which is interesting mainly for the few minutes of appearance by Kitty Carlisle, who recalls how she was originally not allowed to sing with her own voice. A 20 minute musical short from 1937, "Sunday Night at the Trocadero," is included, and it features performances by Connee Boswell, The Brian Sisters, George Hamilton and his "Music Box Music" Orchestra, and a cameo by Groucho. The audio quality is very poor on this piece. An amusing ten-minute short "How to Sleep" from 1935, starring Robert Benchley, is also included, as well as the theatrical trailer for A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. There's also a 5-minute TV appearance by Groucho in which he recalls the naked Marx Brothers incident in Thalberg's office. In 1993, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Day at the Races (1937) * * *

Judy Standish (Maureen O'Sullivan) is running her late father's Standish Sanitarium with the help of Tony (Chico Marx) and jockey Stuffy (Harpo Marx). But the sanitarium is losing money and the creditor, J.D. Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille) owner of the local race track, is threatening to foreclose if the debt isn't paid off by the end of the month. Morgan wants to take over Judy's sanitarium and turn it into a casino. To add to Judy's troubles, rich patient Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont) plans to leave because the doctors have the nerve to tell her that she is healthy. The wealthy hypochondriac orders her luggage taken to the train station so her previous physician, Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx) can treat her.

Tony: Getta your Tootsie Frootsie ice cream!

Thinking quickly, Tony sends a telegraph off to Hackenbush asking him to come to the sanitarium. Dr. Hackenbush arrives, but it turns out he's a veterinarian, not a licensed physician, but that doesn't stop him from treating patients. Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley), Judy's business manager, tries to discredit the veterinarian as a horse doctor illegally employed as the sanitarium director. He encourages Judy to sell the sanitarium to Morgan for $5000, but she declines because she believes Dr. Hackenbush will save the sanitarium.

Gil: Are you a man or a mouse?
Dr. Hackenbush: You put a piece of cheese down there and you'll find out.

Dr. Hackenbush, Tony, and Stuffy try to save Judy's sanitarium by winning a big race with horse "Hi Hat" owned by Judy's boyfriend Gil (Allan Jones). Gil discovers the horse is a jumper and not a racer, so the boys try to win a major steeplechase race, while villain Morgan and his men try to prevent the horse from getting onto the race track. To try to expose Dr. Hackenbush as a fraud, the bad guys call in Dr. Leopold X. Steinberg (Siegfried Rumann). He investigates Dr. Hackenbush’s qualifications with an interrogation and medical exam.

Mrs. Upjohn: Dr. Hackenbush tells me I'm the only case in history. I have high blood pressure on my right side and low blood pressure on my left side.
Dr. Steinberg: There is no such thing. She looks as healthy as any woman I ever met.
Dr. Hackenbush: You don't look as though you've ever met a healthy woman.
Dr. Steinberg: Where did you study?
Dr. Hackenbush: Oh, well, uh, to begin with I took four years at Vassar.
Mrs. Upjohn: Vassar? But that's a girls' college.
Dr. Hackenbush: I found that out the third year. I'd've been there yet, but I went out for the swimming team.
Whitmore: Just a minute, Mrs Upjohn. That looks like a horse pill to me.
Dr. Hackenbush: Oh, you've taken them before.
Mrs. Upjohn: Are you sure, Doctor, you haven't made a mistake?
Dr. Hackenbush: You have nothing to worry about. The last patient I gave one of those to won the Kentucky Derby.
Whitmore: May I examine this, please? Do you actually give those to your patients? Isn't it awfully large for a pill?
Dr. Hackenbush: Well, it was too small for a basketball, and I didn't know what to do with it. Say, you're awfully large for a pill yourself.
(Stuffy blows a balloon during a medical exam)
Dr. Hackenbush: If that's his adam's apple, he's got yellow fever.
Whitmore: The doctor seems reluctant to discuss his medical experiences.
Dr. Hackenbush: Well, medically, my experiences have been most unexciting. Except during the flu epidemic.
Whitmore: Ah, and what happened?
Dr. Hackenbush: I got the flu. And I've got a question for you: Steinberg, what do you do with your old razor blades?

Dr. Hackenbush keeps busy wooing wealthy matron Emily Upjohn to help Judy. There are many hilarious complications, and in the end the sanitarium is saved. The extended race finale is both funny and moderately tense.

The film uses its plot as the framework for a series of skits. Among them is the "Tootsie Fruitsie ice cream" skit, considered one of the funniest scenes in the movie, in which Chico gives Groucho a tip on a horse, but all in code, so that Groucho has to buy book after book from Chico to decipher the code. Another skit involves Chico and Harpo trying to interrupt a frame job involving Groucho's seduction by a femme fatale Flo Marlowe (Esther Muir). When they fail to dissuade Groucho from his interest in the woman, they end up disrupting the frame-up by concealing themselves under layers of wallpaper, using a bucket perched on Harpo's head to hold the paste.

Dr. Hackenbush: If I hold you any closer, I'll be in back of you.
Tony: Have you got a woman in here?
Dr. Hackenbush: If I haven't, I've wasted 30 minutes of valuable time. You've got it all wrong. This is my aunt. She's come to talk over some old family matters.
Tony: I wish I had an aunt look like that.
Dr. Hackenbush: Well, take it up with your uncle.

Songs in the movie are "Tomorrow Is Another Day" and "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm". Two more songs were filmed but cut. One, "Dr. Hackenbush" was sung by Groucho about what a great doctor he is: "No matter what I treat them for they die from something else". The other, "A Message From The Man In The Moon", is missing from the main part of the film but shows up in the titles and is reprised by Dr. Hackenbush for the happy ending. The real fun from a Marx Brothers film comes from the one-liners and comedic set pieces, and the gags here rival their best material.

Dr. Hackenbush: Either he's dead or my watch has stopped.

A DAY AT THE THE RACES was the Marx Brothers' seventh film and their second for MGM. It was the follow-up to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935) and basically recycles its lunatic formula. RACES has longer and more lavish production numbers, and a more solid plot. And though this outing isn't quite as funny as OPERA, the boys are in fine form here, performing difficult classic routines with such skill that they come across as effortless. It's easy to imagine the "Tootsie Frootsie" sequence dragging and dying if the lines hadn't been performed perfectly. Apart from the routines, the strength of the script lies in its coherence, a quality often lacking in other Marx efforts. What's surprising is how animated perennial foil Margaret Dumont is in this film. She is also oddly out of character as a neurotic whiner rather than a marble pillar of society there to be toppled by Groucho. Although the score's big ballad is not impressive, its two production numbers--one of which features an art deco set using lily pad tables, fountains and a Vivian Fay dance routine--are memorable. The other is simpler, but packs a greater wallop: Ivie Anderson and the Crinoline Choir perform "All God's Children Got Rhythm". It's one of the most influential lindy hop dance sequences ever filmed, danced by the Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, including Frankie Manning, Al Minns and Norma Miller. The scene has no clear association with the plot, in order to simplify editing the scene from the film for release in the southern American states under censorship laws.

Dr. Hackenbush: I haven't seen anything like this in years. The last time I saw a head like that was in a bottle of formaldehyde.
Tony: Told you he was sick.
Dr. Hackenbush: (pointing to Stuffy's neck) That's all pure desecration along there. He's got about a 15% metabolism, with an overactive thyroid and a glandular affectation of about 3%.
Tony: That's bad.
Dr. Hackenbush: With a 1% mentality. He's what we designate as the crummy moronic type. All in all, this is the most gruesome looking piece of blubber I've ever peered at.
Tony: Hey doc. Hey doc!
Dr. Hackenbush: Huh?
Tony: You gotta the looking glass turned around, you're looking at yourself.

This is the last of the Marx Brothers' classic films. While follow-ups like ROOM SERVICE (1938) have some wonderful moments, they lack the sparkle found in the Marx Brothers' best work. In RACES the pretension-busting Brothers are once again rebels on the side of the status quo. It could have been another OPERA, but instead it's the beginning of the end for the boys, the last "good" Marx Brothers movie, with enough great moments to make it an essential item for fans.

The cast also includes: Robert Middlemass (Sheriff), Vivien Fay (Speciality Dancer), Ivie Anderson (Specialty Singer), The Crinoline Choir (Musical Ensemble), Hooper Atchley (Race judge), King Baggot (Race Track Official Starter), Kenny Baker (Dance Extra), Vivian Barry (Telephone girl), Barbara Bedford (Secretary), Edna Bennett (Nurse), Troy Brown Jr. (Black singer), Ben Carter (Black singer), Jacqueline Clancy (child), Gino Corrado (Man Boarding Bus), DeForest Covan, George Cowl, Jack Daley, Dorothy Dandridge, Dudley Dickerson, Billy Dooley, Edward Earle, and many others. Walter Jurmann, Bronislau Kaper, and Franz Waxman composed the music. Robert Pirosh, George Seaton, and George Oppenheimer wrote the screenplay from a story by Pirosh and Seaton. Sam Wood directed.

Warner Brothers' DVD is from a sterling print that gives us a black and white image that's clean, clear, sharp, and well balanced. While the dynamic range of its DD 1.0 monaural audio is thin, the sound is as clear and clean as we could hope for, but with a slight hiss to it. The DVD comes with several extras, so you really get your money's worth, even if you aren't quite thrilled with all of the offerings. In a retrospective, "On Your Marx, Get Set, Go!" (27 minutes), Maureen O'Sullivan, Dom DeLuise, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Robert Osborne, and others talk about the Marxes and the film. The documentary is based on the same structure as on the DVD of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, which means there's valuable trivia and knowledge from comedians, co-stars, and writers, and also Dom DeLuise talking about food. The commentary track is relatively good when author and Marx Brothers scholar Glenn Mitchell is actually speaking, but there's an unfortunate amount of dead air. Some of the trivia he mentions is interesting, but he has a habit of pointing out continuity errors and things that most viewers don't care about. Also included are three vintage MGM cartoons, which are quite clearly from a different age, and other extras such as Robert Benchley's 1937 short "A Night at the Movies" (10 minutes). An Audio Vault has a recently rediscovered recording session of Allan Jones singing "A Message from the Man in the Moon," which was cut from the film, and the "Leo is on the Air" Radio Promo that previewed A DAY AT THE THE RACES for radio audiences. The film's theatrical trailer is also included. This movie is available separately or as part of the "Marx Brothers Collection" DVD box set. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Mr. Show (1995-1998) * * *

MR. SHOW, also known as MR. SHOW WITH BOB AND DAVID, was a sketch comedy series that aired on HBO cable network from November 3, 1995 to December 28, 1998. It was created, produced, written and starred Bob Odenkirk (SNL writer/actor) and stand up comedian/actor David Cross. Each episode of MR. SHOW consists of a series of sketches, each one transitioning to the next by way of a segue, called a link. For instance, a minor character in one sketch might return as the major character in the next. Often, common themes or storylines are returned to at different times throughout an episode. The show's cast and writers attribute the show's critical success and audience devotion to the fact that HBO left them alone and let them do whatever they wanted. It is regarded by sketch comedy fans as probably the best of the 1990s, although as a cable show its audience was limited. DVD editions, however, have sold well, opening the show to a larger new audience.

Bob: Every time a cast member swears, they have to put a nickel in the swearing jar.
David: (drops a nickel into an already full jar) The money goes to Swears For Cares, a non-profit organization committed to raising money through swearing.
Bob: So hopefully, we'll make a little difference.
David: (holds up a nickel) A little f**king difference.

The format of Mr. Show is heavily influenced by MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS, especially in linking one sketch to the next. It's a strong point for both shows because it negates the tendency to expect each sketch to end on a punch line or high note, a feature of more traditional sketch comedy shows such as SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. The interweaving of taped bits and stage-performed sketch found in MONTY PYTHON is prevalent in MR. SHOW, and both shows depend on absurd and silly humor. However, MR. SHOW also includes much shocking and funny profanity.

Kennard Chamberlin: Do you really believe that court cases are decided by juries making decisions based on evidence and lawyers' arguments?
John Hamlinson: Oh Danny, how could you be so naïve?
Kennard Chamberlin: Dan, court cases are decided by a series of blow jobs. In fact, our entire civilization is built on blow jobs.

In later seasons, the show satirizes celebrities in an indirect fashion, by changing the name and some of the idiosyncrasies of the celebrity, while maintaining an obvious parody. For example, "Willips Brighton" is a character spoofing Brian Wilson, Marilyn Manson becomes "Norma Jean Monster" and later "Marilyn Monster", Carrot Top becomes "Blueberry Head", and Dr. Demento is named "Dr. Retarded".

F.F. Woodycooks: Have you seen this man's ass? It's wanted for smuggling 20 million pounds of narcotics into the United States. Also: Have you seen this man? He's wanted--by crooks everywhere, for trying to...

MR. SHOW has a strong, confident contrarian viewpoint that sometimes mocks or satirizes organized religion or global capitalism. Additionally, many of the show's sketches were constructed with a strong critique of modern TV, whether it be infomercials or sitcoms. Cynicism plays a heavy role in the show and there is little respect for traditionalism.

Bob: I'll tell you what it is! It's a box of big black dildos. You and your sister were supposed to put these out last night.
David: I'll do it later.
Bob: You'll do it now! (hits Jimmy with a dildo)
David: Ow!
Bob: And next time you'll get more than a dildo in the head!
David: Stupid dildos.
Bob: Don't blame the dildos!

Every episode begins with an individual introducing the hosts, Bob and David. This role was filled by Mary Lynn Rajskub in the first two seasons, while in the latter two seasons Bob and David would be introduced by a character from a sketch in that given episode. In the opening dialogue, Bob is often dressed in a suit, while David is dressed more casually.

Reverand Winton Dupree: Now I have a question and I know you all have it, too. What is up Satan's ass? All he wants to do is f**k us up, the dicklicker! The lord said, "I am the light of the world." Now he could of easily have said, "I am King Shit of F**k Mountain... Why would you f**k with me?" I'm the only preacher with the f**king balls, and you know this, to say, "Satan I damn thee, you shit-eating, c**k-sucking, mother-f**king son of a b!" Can I get a f**kin' a?

Each episode's title is taken from a line of dialogue heard during the episode, with three exceptions. The title of the first episode in season one, "The Cry of a Hungry Baby", does not appear anywhere in the episode but in fact came from a sketch that was eventually cut from the debut episode. The title of the seventh episode in season three, "Bush is a Pussy", comes from a t-shirt worn by one of the characters. The title of the seventh episode in season four, "Eat Rotten Fruit from a Shitty Tree", is a lyric from a song that only appears in instrumental form. Some lines of dialogue are often repeated by different characters during the course of a single show, such as "I was on the eighteenth hole!" in "The Biggest Failure in Broadway History", and "Who let you in?" in the episode of the same name. At the end of each episode's credits there is a random niche celebrity in the "Special Thanks" section placed there for fans to hunt out and not for the purpose of thanking. For example, the first episode's random special niche thanks credit celebrity was Rick Dees, and the third episode's was Greg Maddux. This is referred to as a "Fake Special Thanks".

The main cast are:

David Cross (all seasons)
Bob Odenkirk (all seasons)
John Ennis (all seasons)
Tom Kenny (seasons 1 through 3, plus episode #402)
Jill Talley (all seasons, except for episodes #306, #307, #309, #310)
Jay Johnston (episode #410)

Featured cast and frequent collaborators are:

Scott Aukerman (season 4)
Jack Black (seasons 1-2)
John Ennis (seasons 1-4)
Jay Johnston (seasons 1-4)
Karen Kilgariff (seasons 3-4)
Jerry Minor (episode #205, season 4)
Theresa Mulligan (episode #204, season 3)
Bill Odenkirk (seasons 1-4)
Brett Paesel (episode #203, seasons 3-4)
BJ Porter (episodes #205 and #307, season 4)
Brian Posehn (seasons 1-4)
Mary Lynn Rajskub (seasons 1-2)
Sarah Silverman (episode #103, season 3)
Becky Thyre (season 4)
Paul F. Tompkins (seasons 1-4)

Some of the characters portrayed are:

Ronnie Dobbs (David Cross) is a habitual criminal regularly caught in the act on "Fuzz", a COPS-like program.

Terry Twillstein (Bob Odenkirk) is a foppish, manipulative, British TV producer who discovers Ronnie Dobbs, and is always looking to use Ronnie for his success.

Senator Howel Tankerbell (Bob Odenkirk) is an ultra-conservative Southern Dixiecrat Senator.

Three Times One Minus One (T.T.O.M.O) is an R & B duo made up of Pootie T. and Wolfgang Amadeus Thelonius Van Funkenmeister The 19th and 3 Quarters (Played by David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, respectively). They are the performers of the song, "Ewww, Girl, Ewww", which is designed to promote literacy, as well as the song "Goodbye 2 Every 1 Ever," written in memory of "everyone that's ever died."

Droopy (Bob Odenkirk) is a dirty and chronically congested take on the "lazy twenty-something slacker" stereotype. He loves to messily eat chocolate and, for an unknown reason, wants to work at the front desk of his local museum, although he has few qualifications.

Dylan (David Cross) is an extremely pretentious man in glasses wearing a long scarf, even in hot weather. He shuns popular American culture and modern technology, but surprisingly he is friends with Droopy. In audio commentary castmates describe Cross's first impression on them being reminiscent of Dylan.

Fancy Pants (Bill Odenkirk) is a dandy who makes occasional silent, yet noted walk-ons. First seen clad in Elizabethan garb he makes his second appearance in a more Edwardian style.

MR. SHOW also spawned a spin-off movie, RUN RONNIE RUN (2002), based on popular character Ronnie Dobbs that went straight to DVD. Bob and David both had numerous disagreements with the film's director, Troy Miller. In the end, Cross and Odenkirk disowned the final version.

Ronnie Dobbs: I'm gonna go out in this world and get everything I can get. I mean, I'm gonna be rich, super rich. I mean, I'm gonna be spending money like a chimp in a beat-off contest.
Birthday Woman: Oh, Ronnie Dobbs. You are brilliant. You have to do me a favor.
Ronnie Dobbs: At your service.
Birthday Woman: Tell me to f**k off.
Ronnie Dobbs: Huh?
Birthday Woman's Friend: Come on, it's her birthday.
Ronnie Dobbs: Alright. F**k you, bitch.

In September 2002, original cast members Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, John Ennis, Brian Posehn and Stephanie Courtney took "Mr. Show: Hooray for America!!!" on the road. The two month stint featured some of MR. SHOW's best sketches, such as "The Burgundy Loaf", and also added new material. In the stage show, the large fictitious mega-corporation Globo-Chem ("We own everything, so you don't have to!") sponsors David's stage persona to run for the presidency of the USA. The performance venues varied from the elegant Warner Theatre in Washington, DC to the converted warehouse of the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, PA. Some parts of the live show were ad libbed, and changed from night to night. David Cross sometimes broke scene, to directly address loud or drunk crowd members.

MR. SHOW is available on DVD as 4 separate seasons and also as "MR. SHOW: The Complete Collection", with 15 hours of sketch comedy. The Complete Collection does not contain any new material, nor improve the production quality of the original discs. It's just a convenience, and also saves money because it costs around $80, whereas individual sets cost about $35 each. You get commentary tracks for every episode, rare live appearances, promo spots, and other extras. Bob and David have talked about a MR. SHOW reunion, and possibly another movie.

David: I'll tell you where they are. They're out there laughing. Laughing at you. They're laughing at the big, fat asshole.
Bob: You've taught me that not all things are stupid. Some things are gay.
David: What are you saying, sir?
Bob: I'm saying, pack your bags, 'cause we're headed up my mom's ass!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Hilarious House of Frightenstein (1971) * * ½

THE HILARIOUS HOUSE OF FRIGHTENSTIEIN was a 1971 Canadian TV series produced by independent station CHCH in 1971, located in Hamilton, Ontario. It was syndicated to television stations across Canada and the US and sometimes appears in some TV markets today. This 48 minute show was a fixture on Saturday morning television for decades. Through its combination of variety, humor, and educational segments, all flavored with the spice of mock horror, the show had a lasting impact on the youth of the day. Each episode opened and closed with an appearance by horror star Vincent Price as he recited poetry with toy skulls and shrunken heads in the background. Price also did introductions for segments within the show.

A quirky sketch comedy series, the show's cast included Billy Van, Fishka Rais, Guy Big, Mitch Markowitz, Vincent Price and Julius Sumner Miller. Billy Van played most of the characters. All 130 episodes of the series were made in a single 9 month period starting in 1971, and the scenes with Vincent Price and Julius Miller were all filmed during one summer.

The titular character, Count Frightenstein, was the thirteenth son of Count Dracula and was exiled to Castle Frightenstein in Frankenstone, Canada for failing to revive Brucie J. Monster, a Frankenstein-like monster. Assisted by Igor (Fishka Rais), an overweight incompetent, and a three-foot-tall mini-Count (Guy Big), each episode followed the Count’s efforts to revive Brucie and featured comedy skits. His favorite line is, "Yes, I am the Count. You can count on it." Billy Van played Count Frightenstein.

Vincent Price reads morbid poetry on the show. About 400 bits were shot with him over a 4 day session. He accepted the gig because he loved kids and saw the innovation in this vehicle. He allegedly worked for around $13,000 in total when that was commonly his daily appearance rate. He would read the script to himself, put his head down for a few seconds and do a single take read on-camera. "Next!" At one point the crew was exhausted by his pace and he suddenly disappeared. Everyone thought he must have gone to collapse somewhere. But he had hailed a cab, gone to the local beer store and brought a couple of two-fours into the station. Everybody sat cross-legged in the studio and listened to his stories of Hollywood and Cecil B. DeMille. The next break they took, he had his picture taken with each crew member in the make-up room. One of the guys blew them up to 8x10’s that night and he wrote a personal note to each person on the show.

(opening Poem)
"Another lovely day begins, for ghosts and ghouls with greenish skin. So close your eyes, and you will find that you've arrived in Frightenstein. Perhaps the Count will find a way to make his monster work today. For if he solves this monster-mania, he can return to Transylvania. So welcome where the sun won't shine, to the castle of Count Frightenstein!"

"Some of Bwana’s animals decided they would go
Into the town and have some lunch, and maybe see a show
They went into the restaurant, the lion took a look
He saw the waiter, ate him raw, and kindly thanked the cook
And when they got the bill they did not know what they should do
So the lion called the cashier in, and then he ate him too!"

(closing Poem)
"The castle lights are growing dim. There's no one left but me...and him. When next we meet in Frankenstone--don't come alone."

Igor is Count Frightestein's overweight incompetent slave. Fishka Rais, who played the character was an accomplished jazz singer from South Africa. Rais died in 1974, shortly after an unsuccessful surgical operation to help his obesity problem.

The Wolfman is a werewolf DJ at radio station EECH who plays rock and roll records while doing a Wolfman Jack impression. His theme song is Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher". The segment featured then-current hit singles by the Rolling Stones or Sly and the Family Stone, which were referred to as "golden oldies" in order to avoid dating the program. Igor and the Wolfman dance in silhouette against a psychedelic background. Due to licensing issues, the musical numbers are no longer shown on reruns. Billy Van played the Wolfman.

The Professor was played by U.S. physicist Professor Julius Sumner Miller, a veteran of the Mickey Mouse Club, where he was known as Professor Wonderful. He provides science lessons on such things as thermal expansion and the cartesian diver.

The Grammar Slammer is the disembodied voice who challenged Igor to correct grammatical errors. He was accompanied by an 8 foot purple puppet monster the Grammar Slammer Bammer who threatened to beat up Igor if he failed. The character was played by Joe Torbay.

Bwana Clyde Batty is a British explorer who teaches about wild animals on Zany Zoo and whose name is a spoof of animal trainer Clyde Beatty. His catchphrase is "Ooga Booga!" Billy Van played Batty.

Grizelda, the Ghastly Gourmet is a witch who cooks suitably ghastly recipes in her cauldron. It's a spoof of TV cooking hosts, basically a parody of THE GALLOPING GOURMET, which was very popular at the time. In every one of her segments, she bangs her head on the pot above her cauldron, and invariably declares the recipe a failure after it causes a small explosion. The iron cauldron was a real one borrowed from a tiny farm museum north of Toronto. It was set up with dry ice for the boiling effect. Grizelda was very vain, often comparing her "beauty" to famous women, including Goldie Hawn. Billy Van played Griselda, and her make-up took hours to put on, and Van would work long hours to make the most of the make-up every shooting day. As the day wore on into night Van became increasingly punchy providing hours of out-take laughs for the crew at the CHCH studio.

The Librarian is an elderly curmudgeon who unsuccessfully tries to scare the viewers by reading children's stories, such as "Humpty Dumpty" and "Henny Penny", which he thinks are horror stories. He also sometimes reads fables with unpleasant endings. He eventually admits to not being any more frightened than the viewers, but considers reading important nonetheless. He would occasionally hit on a stuffed golden eagle perched near his chair. Billy Van played the Librarian.

The Maharishi is a Hindu guru who shares bits of mystically inscrutable wisdom. A large bag of flowers would then fall atop his head afterward. Billy Van played the Maharishi.

The Oracle is a mystic who reads out horoscopes in a Peter Lorre voice, invariably knocking over and breaking his crystal ball in the process. He then answers questions supposedly sent in from viewers. Billy Van played the Oracle.

Dr. Pet Vet is a veterinarian who teaches about domestic animals, whereas the Zany Zoo was about wild fauna. He always offers the day's animal to Igor as a pet, but the Sloth in the basement invariably refuses to allow Igor to keep the animal. Billy Van played Dr. Pet Vet.

The Midget Count was played by Guy Big as a Mini-Me type 3 foot tall clone of the Count. Guy was originally slated to play the main role as the Count but his speaking voice would not hold out for more than a few hours. Billy Van was playing his part in Party Game, another of Markowitz's shows, and he was called in to audition for the role of the Count and was hired for the lead role where his various talents were more fully revealed.

Super Hippy was played by Mitchell Markowitz, Rafeal Markowitz's younger brother. This hippie in a superhero costume appears leading in and out of commercials, sitting or flying in varying locations as he delivers some variation on "Don't change the channel, we'll be right back after these commercials."

The Singing Soldier is a palace guard who gets a cream pie thrown in his face whenever he sings. Billy Van played the Singing Soldier.

The Mosquito always tells a bad joke about insects before biting a human foot. The character was played by Mitchell Markowitz, the producer's younger brother

The Gorilla is a person in a gorilla costume who walks out of a jungle set and invariably tries to scare whomever he is looking at. In every segment however he is thwarted by a golf ball that hits him in the head, causing him to keel over. He often tries to avoid the golf balls, in one case by holding up a parasol. The Gorilla was played by Paul Shultz who also worked in the prop department. Sometimes Billy Van played the Gorilla.

Puppets (by Joe Torbay) included: Harvey Wallbanger the postmaster of Castle Frightenstein's "dead letter office". This puppet appears in sketches with The Count or Grizelda in which they answer letters. Gronk is a purple sea serpent who interacts with the Count or the Wolfman.

Both the opening and closing credits were accompanied by a musical composition played entirely on a Moog synthesizer and written by Harry Breuer, Gary Carol and Pat Prilly. Its title is "March of the Martians". The recording can be found on an out-of-print Pickwick vinyl album called "The Happy Moog".

Production of the show lasted approximately 9 to 12 months, depending on who you ask. It was shot completely out of sequence, and all segments were shot together. So, Billy Van spent a few weeks as Grizelda, a few weeks as the Librarian, even a few days as the ape getting hit in the head with baseballs. This explains why there are no running themes throughout any of the episodes. The shows were then assembled from the bits and pieces and all follow the same basic pattern of sketches. Vincent Price’s involvement was the same as everybody else--a few intense days recording mountains of material.

THE HILARIOUS HOUSE OF FRIGHTENSTIEIN last aired on a Canadian cable station called "Showcase" in 1997. When its run was over, the broadcast masters used by Showcase were allegedly destroyed at the request of the producer. Frightenstein suffered its biggest blow in 2003 with the death of Billy Van. In the words of cameraman Dave Cremasco: "Billy was the show". In 2005, Stacey Case organized a Frightenstein Fest which offered a reunion of cast and crew, merchandise, episode screenings, and the premiere of the documentary RETURN TO TRANSYLVANIA.

Billy Van Evera was born in Toronto in 1934. By age 12, "Billy Van" and his four brothers were touring North America as a singing act, and by the 1960s he was on his way to becoming one of Canada’s best-loved comedians. Van first gained national attention as a fixture on the 1960s CBC TV series NIGHTCAP, a late-night show known for its irreverent satire, low budget and risque humour. A chameleon who flipped effortlessly from character to character, Van’s parodies were wild and brash. He set the prototype for Canadian sketch comedy in the 1970s--broad, over-the-top and painfully accurate. Billy Van beefed up such Yankee Doodle series as The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show, and starred with Jack Duffy and Dinah Christie on the CHCH series Party Game, but never achieved the fame of Canadian comedians such as John Candy and Dan Aykroyd. In part, this was a result of timing--his comedy was ahead of its time. Van's work on Frightenstein lampooning pop culture (hippies, horror movies and music) foreshadowed the parodies that made SCTV a hit. When Mike Myers was inducted into that other Canadian Walk of Fame, he credited Van, among others, for helping shape his comedy. Billy Van died in 2003 of lung cancer. He was 68. Van’s last screen performance was as "Les" the trainer in the 1995 hockey movie NET WORTH (1995). It was a fitting final role for an actor who performed comedy with heart, passion and a tremendous amount of talent.

On October 18, 2005, Empire Pictures released a single DVD featuring a handful of half-hour US-syndicated episodes. The most significant change for these episodes as broadcast, apart from the length, was the addition of a laugh track. On October 17th, 2006, Alliance Atlantis Home Video in Canada released a 3-disc box set of 13 full-length episodes, with restored Wolfman segments. The shows are not in chronological order, as only episodes that had thus far obtained music clearances for the Wolfman dance segments were included. The Wolfman theme, Sly & the Family Stone's "I Want To Take You Higher", had not yet been cleared--and it is doubtful that it ever will be cleared, since Michael Jackson owns the rights--so the opening was altered with new music by The Tijuana Bibles from Toronto, and Billy Van's voice was re-dubbed by another Toronto voice actor. As per recent airings in Canada on the cable networks Drive-In Classics and Space, the main Frightenstein theme is also a re-recording, due to licencing restrictions by Morning Music, Ltd. "RETURN TO TRANSYLVANIA: A Short Documentary about Billy Van" is a 7 minute biography of Billy Van and the show and included as an extra on some DVDs.

The newer version released in 2006 has the original sparkle and appeal for kids of all ages. It's wonderful to revisit those far-off happy days when children's television was unbounded by political correctness and didn't underestimate the audience. There's no laugh-track and it's as fresh and funny as ever. A second set of 9 episodes will be released by Critical Mass in late 2008. The DVD Lone Wolf owns is very obviously created from old VHS tapes of the show, and therefore the video quality is not the best.

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