Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Tabitha 01x00: Tabitha

Recently, we watched a kind of follow up to I Dream of Jeannie where Barbara Eden disguised herself as a Middle Eastern princess to trick her neighbours into not reading her mail. (Find it here.) It reminded me of Jeannie’s unofficial sister show Bewitched, and it’s depressingly lackluster sequel, Tabitha.

So that’s what we’re doing today! Put on your witch hats and forget everything you know about the Stephens clan!

And I mean everything

Despite being made in 1977, Tabitha has the daughter of Samantha and Darrin Stephens all grown up and owning a car and wearing bikinis in the title sequence. But wait, you might be thinking, didn’t Bewitched end in 1972 and wasn’t Tabitha like eight years old or something? How is this possible?

It’s not. You can’t even use the excuse of magic, because we all know that Darrin was big on doing stuff the most difficult ways possible, and I’m pretty sure that would include growing up. Besides, they’re witches, not Klingons. They live a long time, but – if anything – it takes them longer to age than normal people.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Lucy Before Lucy: My Favorite Husband

CBS Radio was trying to ignore the fact that it was dying. Television was a crazy fad that nobody cared about because it was too expensive to buy one, and all the programs were hyper-intellectual “New York plays” broadcast live. Radio, on the other hand, was a cultural institution. In 1948, there wasn’t a person in America who didn’t have fond memories of one radio program or another. Jack Benny was probably the most famous entertainer in the country, and Jack Benny was 100% radio – until he got a TV show.

Radio needed something. Anything.

Back in 1942, Ray Milland and Betty Field had starred in Are Husbands Necessary? a light comedy based on a series of novels by Isabel Scott Rorick. It concerned George and Mary Elizabeth Cugat, a happily married couple whose ship was generally steered by the “zany” Mary Elizabeth. Then, in 1943, the film was adapted for radio as an episode of Lux Radio Theater starring George Burns and Gracie Allen.

By 1948, it was decided that CBS would try the concept as a weekly series, with Ozzie and Harriet writers Frank Fox and Bill Davenport creating stories about affluent banker George’s daily struggles with his eccentric socialite wife, Liz. The audition episode (they didn’t call them pilots until TV) starred George Bowman – who would later run media training for the Nixon administration – and a B-movie redhead who’d been showing a surprising knack for comedy.

Lucille Ball.

Lucy was just about the only thing destined to stick with the radio version of the show. Bowman dropped out after that first episode, and was replaced by Richard Denning. Ten episodes in, it was obvious that the wealth of the central couple was making it difficult for the audience to relate to them, and (frankly) the jokes weren’t funny enough. CBS shuffled some things around and moved a young writing duo by the names of Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr. onto My Favorite Husband to make some changes.

The Cugats became the Coopers, to avoid confusion with popular bandleader Xavier Cugat. They were now middle class suburbanites, whose best friends were a blustering couple called Rudolph and Iris Atterbury, and who lived next door to the Wood family. The Woods had eleven children, and the patriarch of the wild clan was a scene-stealing Hans Conried. Also thrown into the mix was Eleanor Audley as George’s aristocratic and impossible-to-please mother.

Under Pugh and Carroll, it became obvious that making the audience react to Liz was driving the show much more powerfully than having the audience sit through George’s reactions to Liz. So Lucy stepped forward, and Richard Denning didn’t have a problem with it. Denning was a nuts-and-bolts actor, he has a surprisingly large filmography of characters that hold up fictional worlds so that the stars can play in them. That was his strength, and Lucy’s strength was being the hurricane of a story. By the time she became a TV legend, that was obvious, but back in her radio days, everyone was discovering just how funny she could be.

The changes were brilliant. The reviews were glowing. And, most importantly, people were tuning in to listen.

In the ghost town days of radio, when there were no more hits, CBS had a major show on its hands.
Not too long before all of this, CBS had negotiated contracts with NBC’s top radio stars to bring them over to CBS television. The big one was the aforementioned Jack Benny, and there is no way to overstate what a huge deal Jack Benny was at this time. Courting him had cost literally all the Christmas bonuses at CBS. Nobody got Christmas bonuses, and nobody was mad because they knew that if they worked at the network with a star as big as that, it would be a hell of a lot cushier than working at the network that had to put something in the competing time slot. CBS was betting their future on television, and it was going extremely well.

So, no big surprise, they wanted to move My Favourite Husband to TV. By now, it was obvious that you couldn’t do that without Lucille Ball, and Lucille Ball wanted a change made. Instead of Richard Denning, she wanted her husband to be played by her real-life husband Desi Arnaz. It wasn’t because she had anything against Denning, she just saw the opportunity for Desi. (According to Denning, Lucy told him later that she thought giving Desi the part “would help her marriage.”)

Of course, CBS couldn’t really see Desi Arnaz and his Cuban accent as a manager in a mid-west bank, living in typical suburbia. But Lucy would not budge, and Denning had already altered his schedule. The Coopers were recast with Joan Caulfield and Barry Nelson, and they went back to the “rich people doing zany things in high society” format… which you might remember as “the format that didn’t really work.”

Unsurprisingly, the show didn’t last long, and that was the end of the Cooper-nee-Cugats.

But! Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. hadn’t been attached to the TV transfer, and they’d been mulling over how to get Lucy on TV, and how to make the audience “believe” Desi Arnaz. What if they were a couple who worked in entertainment? And Desi was a band leader? And they lived in a place with so many immigrants, you’d never have to tell a story about the husband being an immigrant?

They pitched the new concept as I Love Lucy.

It went pretty well.

Want to listen to My Favorite Husband? Check it out here.

Monday, 22 February 2016

"Success Means Nothing..."

Quick! Choose between a career as an international fashion designer, or the love of Billy Dee Williams! It’s the 1970’s, so the clothes are hideous and Billy Dee is gorgeous! Choose! Choose now!

And that dilemma is the heart of today’s movie, the complicated time capsule that is Mahogany.
In 1975, Diana Ross had become more than the former lead singer of the Supremes. Her acting debut in Lady Sings the Blues, also co-starring Billy Dee Williams, had proven an unexpected triumph, and she was cementing her status as a cultural icon. (Did you know she was the first person in the history of Japan to be summoned to a private audience with the Empress Nagako? I just learned that while I was double checking production information and I think it’s neat.)

With a slew of international hits to her name, and an Academy Award nomination under her belt, it was time to pick her next film project. Mahogany appealed to her. It was, basically, a really really cynical retelling of 1957’s Funny Face. It was also about a black woman breaking into the upper echelon of the fashion industry as a designer, which is something they don’t even make movies about today, and it’s been forty years. Unfortunately, the film is… not what it could have been.

It’s still very enjoyable in that “I’m going to have bourbon with my popcorn tonight because YOLO” kind of way.

Ross plays Tracy Chambers, an aspiring designer who works at a department store to pay for her night courses. Her teacher tells her to quit dreaming and aspire to make plain bathing suits. He boss at the department store seriously tells her that window dressing should fulfill any of her creative urges and that she’s acting ungrateful. She’s not standing behind a counter for twelve hours, she’s not moping the floors after closing, why can’t she just be happy?

Then, one night, on her way home, a man yells at her through a megaphone about gentrification.

It would have been really obnoxious for him to have done that if he hadn’t been so smooth and charming. And also so, so handsome. He turns out to be Brian; complicated love interest and Billy Dee Williams. The 70’s was a weird time to be a black romantic hero, largely because it was a role that had never really existed before. Brian is a politically minded character who can be viewed a lot of different ways, and I’ve heard every single kind of opinion of him. It’s a prismatic performance. He’s kind of a Rorschach Test – is he romantic or selfish? Honest or cynical? Demanding or realistic?

Tracy, unfortunately, is a little more straightforward. She has big dreams and the unassuming beauty of someone who is naturally the model type. Through the department store’s winter advertising campaign, she meets Norman Bates. Well, it’s Anthony Perkins in a not-actually-very-Normany-at-all role, although the character does have some weird psychosexual issues. He is Sean: a fashion photographer who takes Tracy under his blighted, drug-fuelled wing, and invites her to come work for him in Rome. He knows lots of people who’d like to see her sketches.

“Has he invited you to his dark room yet?” Brian asks, watching Sean with disdain.

Sean is an uncomfortable character, not least because of how directly it parallels the Fred Astaire performance in Funny Face. Take the scene where Sean christens Tracy with her artistic stage name; his last muse had been called Crystal.

“I give all my creations the names of inanimate objects,” he explains. “There’s only one word that describes rich, dark, beautiful and rare. I’m going to call you Mahogany.”

So, Tracy relocates to Rome and becomes a fashion designer, and it’s pretty complicated with Brian after that. There are successes and failures, and wild parties, and montages – god, so many montages – and 70’s clothes and cosmetics like you would not believe.

Fake eyelashes, real eyelashes covered in mascara, purple eyeshadow, Cleopatra eyeliner, orange nail polish, ostrich feathers on hats, kaftans, polyester everything, rainbow chiffon, fur dyed magenta, donut sleeves and earnest discussion of the donut sleeves, statement earrings, everything. It’s ridiculous. I recommend it highly to fashion students, and anyone who wants to discuss that “kabuki collection” that Diana Ross actually helped design.

And in the end, the story boils down to Tracy choosing between living with the flaws of the man she loves, or the dark side of her lifelong ambition. Along the way, we learn more uncomfortable stuff about Sean and see the seedy underbelly of fashion in an era where seedy underbellies were particularly seedy.

The pacing is off, most of the characterizations are weird, and Diana Ross’s central performance is crippled by Tracy’s reliance on the men of the story. But it’s a worthwhile watch, if only to see what was going on for the trendsetters of the mid-70’s. 

Friday, 19 February 2016

Bonanza 01x02: Death on Sun Mountain (The Sun Mountain Herd)

In the Old West, cows were walking money, and stealing cattle was a pretty serious crime. Especially to the Cartwrights during season one, when they’re disturbingly gritty and confrontational. Episode two opens with Adam bringing Ben, Hoss and Little Joe to hide in the bushes to watch as a mysterious rustler steals three of their steer.

“So that’s what’s been happening to our cattle!” Ben grumbles instead of stopping the thief. His sons all nod angrily, also instead of stopping the thief.

We discover that the thieves are the neighbouring Paiute, after the mysterious rustler returns to a small camp to rendezvous with Chief Winnemucca. Once the mastermind is revealed, the Cartwrights emerge from a nearby hiding place brandishing fire arms. Ben demands the return of their cattle, and the mysterious rustler angrily tempts fate by shouting: “Shoot, Ben Cartwright! Shoot!” And we go to the title sequence.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

1978 Was Just Yesterday

“They’re really out of ideas these days. Everything has to be a franchise or a sequel, anything with a plotline gets optioned, and the new Superman film looks like it’s going to be terrible.” 
– Curmudgeons in 1978

In preparation for yesterday’s totally necessary Harper Valley PTA recap, I looked up the general state of movies in 1978. I’m going to be upfront, it was for a joke about how everyone gets all up in arms about the modern industry doing things like adapting board games into blockbusters (although I would like to remind everyone that 1985’s Clue was almost thirty years before Battleship, and it’s hilarious) when in back in the halcyon days of polyester, the film landscape was pretty much identical to what we have now.

Like, identical.

People were even worried that zombies had been played out when George A. Romero released his Dawn of the Dead in April. Even though it was only Romero’s second zombie film, zombies had been chomping away on the international horror scene for a good while. And there were all these entertainment journalists being all: “Why are zombies so appealing to our culture? Is it because of rampant consumerism and fear of overpopulation?”

Also, the blockbuster was destroying cinema! And, as anyone can tell you, those fears were accurate because there hasn’t been a single good movie since All the President’s Men – thanks for nothing Star Wars! Which reminds me, Star Wars had just happened and everyone was blown away by how much money it made and the whole world was obsessed with Harrison Ford.

Musicals were experiencing a pseudo-revival thanks to the massive success of Grease, but they weren’t really coming back, they were just kind of happening sometimes. Nobody was sure if people were legitimately enjoying them, or seeing them ironically, or what was going on.

Superman was happening, too, and all the Superman fans were like: “NO! This casting is all wrong! It’s not going to work!” And all the film critics were like: “Didn’t we already adapt Superman in the 50’s? How many films about Superman do we need?”

Everybody went to see it, because if you were going to pay for a movie ticket in an economic crisis, you wanted to see something spectacular. It was really good, to the chagrin of the fancy pants crowd.

Jaws 2 was a massive hit, and that was also because art was dying. Other evidence included Damien: Omen II, Revenge of the Pink Panther, The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, Return to Witch Mountain, Warriors 2 – what was with all the sequels?! It was totally a new fad in 1978, and not something that had obviously been happening since the 1930’s.

Audiences also really liked Every Which Way But Loose, even though critics tried to tell them it was terrible. But Clint Eastwood, who was a major and serious action star at the time, was co-starring with an orangutan. Only crazy people don’t want to see that movie at least once.

Speaking of broad appeal, the subtle comedy of… some subtle comedy films that I’m sure actually existed was pushed aside for Animal House. Films were probably doomed to never been sophisticated again.

And, even though everybody went to see it and it rounded out the top ten earners in a significant year, more people should have gone to The Deer Hunter, according to the experts on cultural decay. It also pretty much swept the Oscars.

It’s like if you had a machine that could play you the wailings about the state of the film industry from any decade in history, once you get to talkies, you’re just going to hear the same complaints from different voices.

So whenever you see people who get mad about the current problems with Hollywood, try to get them to calm down about it. Hollywood’s natural posture is a state of decline. Good stuff is still made, bad stuff is still made, and it’s really not different from how it used to be. Technologies come and change how we interact with stories – television, streaming services, VCRs. Writers have more bad ideas than good ones. Moguls fund baffling vanity projects. That’s the way it goes.

It’s always been tough to find the gems, but that’s why they’re valuable.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Harper Valley P.T.A. 01x03: Mail and Female

Harper Valley PTA started out as a 1968 radio hit for Jeannie C. Riley, about a widowed single mother who isn’t bothering to conform to small town standards because she wears miniskirts and laughs at jokes. According to the local PTA, this makes her a floozy and her degenerate ways must be stopped, so they send her a cease and desist order in the mail. She goes to their next meeting, airs the town’s dirty laundry and, metaphorically, flips everyone off before she goes back to living her life as she damn well pleases. Great song, very catchy.

In 1978, it was made into a drive-in movie starring Barbara Eden. If it had starred literally anyone else, it probably would have been lost to the sands of time. But the same piece of casting that saves it from obscurity dooms it to not making any sense. Barbara Eden, even in the most mini of skirts, doesn’t seem as a scandalous figure, or the kind of woman that other women would be venomously jealous of. Like, if she ever played a serial killer, the general response would be: “Aw, leave her alone, FBI! She’s fun!”

And when you’re turning a three minute song into an eighty minute movie, you have to pad the story. So there’s car chases and kidnappers are hired, and then people have to get disguised as nuns, and there’s a subplot about a real estate mogul who threatens to foreclose on women’s houses if they don’t make out with him, and it’s a lot. Which means when, in 1981, they decided to turn the film into a television show, they had to take a lot of stuff back out, and the end result is that the general premise gets a little lost in the shuffle.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The Twilight Zone 05x23: Queen of the Nile

Today’s the anniversary of the opening of King Tut’s burial chamber by Howard Carter and George Herbert in 1923, and there’s no better way to celebrate random historical events than with thematically appropriate episodes of The Twilight Zone!

This time, we’re checking out a Season Five number called “Queen of the Nile,” with a script attributed to Charles Beaumont. Beaumont was a tragic, fascinating figure who helped shape the elements that are often best remembered about the series. Though Rod Serling tends to take up most of the conversations about TZ, many of the strongest episodes were penned by Beaumont.

But this is an episode from 1964, and by then the illness that would kill him at age 38 had begun to manifest. It’s widely known that while Beaumont was still pitching ideas for The Twilight Zone, as well as other anthology shows, he was beginning to rely on his writer friends to ghost the scripts and get them done in time for production. The general consensus is that the heavy lifting for this one was done by Jerry Sohl.

“He was, and remains in his work today, a writer of ideas, notions, fancies. You can tell his ideas to your friends in a few crisp lines,” Ray Bradbury said of Beaumont. “He is a storyteller who weaves his stories out of those ideas, some large, or, you may claim, predominantly small.”

Monday, 15 February 2016

Alfred Hitchcock Presents 01x27: Help Wanted

Lorne Greene is a national treasure. We literally learn about him in school here in Canada; it’s not optional. He’s up there with Walter Pidgeon, Christopher Plummer, and Leslie Nielson, all of whom we also learn about in school during a unit called “Northern Lights” – we watch documentaries about their lives narrated by Lorne Greene. (Yes, Lorne Greene narrates his own. Yes, it’s in third person.)

Anyway, LG’s b-day was on February 12, but I was doing Mardi Gras and I’d already stopped in the middle of that for Inventors’ Day and Valentine’s. And yes, we do need a Lorne Green day even though we’re recapping Bonanza in chronological order, because Lorne Greene is important.

And all that is why we’re watching an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that features TV’s best loved dad in a very different kind of role.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Valentine's Day For The Rest of Us

If you’re anything like me, you crave the comforts of classic film and television when things aren’t going your way. If you’re exactly like me, this turns Valentine’s Day into a conundrum. What can you watch that doesn’t plunge the knife of your perpetual singleness into your heart?Everything has a romance in it! Cary Grant is like this horrible traitor whose mission as an artist was to remind you of how alone you’ll die. And Humphrey Bogart is worse, because he pretends like he isn’t going to be in a love story and then he almost always is.

The most mentioned Anti-Valentines Movie is, of course, Rosemary’s Baby. But here’s a list to give you a few more options, in case you’re boycotting Polanski or you don’t feel like Satanists in February.

12 Angry Men (1957)

Sparse. Intense. Full of people shouting about social issues. 12 Angry Men is a true classic, and clocking in at a lean 96 minutes, it doesn’t have time for anything that isn’t high-stakes courtroom drama. It begins at the end of a murder trial, when the jury is deliberating their verdict. We get to know only those twelve jurors – a cast that’s led by Henry Fonda and includes Jack Klugman, Ed Begley, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, Robert Webber – and their psyches, as they change their verdicts, bicker with each other, complain about the heat, and shine slivers of stark light on the prejudices of 1950’s America. For extra fun, try to picture the most dramatic lines on candy hearts.

Jaws (1975)

I devote an entire weekend of my summer to a Jaws-related holiday/ritual, so I don’t watch it on Valentine’s. But there’s no reason why a not-insane person couldn’t. There’s exactly one romantic couple in the film, and that’s Sheriff Brody and his wife. And they’re too busy freaking out about shark attacks and parenting styles to smooch up the screen. Other than that, it’s an exploration of small town political corruption, and three crazy sons of guns hunting a great white shark in New England. It’s a timeless story, and if there’s anything less romantic than buckets of chum, I can’t think of it right now.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Warm, nostalgic, and full of sinister twists and a dark sense of humour that wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of Hannibal, the original adaptation of Roald Dhal’s classic is perfect for a certain kind of Valentine’s. The kind where you want all the fun of the girlie colours and chocolates, but still want to feel a kernel of hyper-cynical bitterness. There’s a loveliness to the world of the factory, and also a bunch of spoiled children being punished in a colourfully sadistic manner. Although, after seeing what happens to Augustus Gloop, you might want a few less chocolates…

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

It’s easy to forget that nowhere in the three and a half hours of Lawrence of Arabia is there a rom-com subplot or waiting fiancé. Beautiful cinematography, compelling performances, a truly dazzling score, but no hearts and flowers. It can take up your entire evening, and it’s perfect for getting your mind off of anything other than the history of guerrilla tactics in the Middle East. There’s also Omar Sharif looking all kinds of gorgeous, so if you’re into the gentleman, it’s got bonuses. Oh! And it’s a beloved cinematic masterpiece! Great for Valentine’s Day!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

I shouldn’t have said those mean things about Humphrey Bogart before, since this is a great film with no love in it. Just secret gold, and bandits, and betrayal, and the very depths of human greed. I recommend it for a post-break-up V-Day, since it confirms your worst suspicions about human nature. Three Americans in 1925 Mexico set out to find their fortune, which they do. Humphrey Bogart is the highly suspicious leader of the group, and he manages these terrific swings between wild paranoia and cold practicality that show off the nuances of his tough guy personas. Nothing in this movie goes well.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Is there anything less romantic that a psychotic Robert Mitchum hunting two children across Depression Era West Virginia? Buckets of chum. Check the Jaws entry. But in the race for second place, Night of the Hunter’s premise alone makes it a good choice for anti-Valentine’s viewing. Shelly Winters might hit a little too close to home for those of us who’ve made some poor decisions on the rebound, as she easily falls into the predatory Michum’s arms, but it’s *ahem* a temporary situation. The rest of the movie is eerie and moving, and a good fit for a sophisticated Halloween or a rebellious February 14.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Lots of classic prison movies are void of romantic entanglements, but lots of classic prison movies are terrible. Then there’s Cool Hand Luke, which is the greatest prison movie of all time. (Just accept it, Shawshank fans.) There’s some lustful ogling of a buxom, car-washing blonde, and other than that, nothing to make you think about things other than how gross it would be to eat forty hard boiled eggs, and all the different ways you can escape a chain gang. Plus, Paul Newman at the height of his beauty! You could do a double feature with this andLawrence of Arabia, get rid of the whole day, and see some sights!

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

War movies on Valentine’s Day. If it appeals to you, and you don’t want to mush it up in the slightest, The Dirty Dozen is a pretty good choice. Lee Marvin leads a group of criminals on a suicide mission during World War II, and those criminals include Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Donald Sutherland, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, George Kennedy and other compelling actors that I’m not going to list. It’s great.



Zardoz (1974) – This is my sister’s favourite choice for a single’s V-Day. It didn’t make the proper list because there’s a prominent romantic plotline, but if it actually inspires any kind of yearning in you, you might want to talk to somebody about counselling.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) – It’s irresponsible of everyone to recommend this film for every major American holiday. It’s totally romance-free, so it does qualify here, but to everyone who watches it on Easter and Christmas and Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July and Halloween and Lincoln’s Birthday, maybe take a break?

To Kill a Mockingbird (1963) – Do you want to feel wistful and achingly nostalgic instead of lonely? Then go ahead. But if your plan is to not make a Faustian bargain of emotions, steer clear until summer.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) – Same idea as Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a triangle of betrayal distract everybody from anything but monetary gain. Not on the proper list because it seemed repetitive, but other than that, a fine choice.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

I Left My Heart in New Orleans

When Orson Welles was at RKO, he started work on a Louis Armstrong biopic that would star Armstorng as himself. The brainstorm for this was an episode of The Orson Welles Almanac that had presented Kid Ory, Mutt Carey, Bud Scott and Zutty Singleton; as well as a scrapped segment for It's All True that was supposed to highlight jazz history. 

As is the trend in every Orson Welles related story ever, everything fell down the stairs and caught fire. But the idea lingered on long after Welles himself moved on, and went through a few incarnations – including 1942’s Syncopation, where the Armstrong story was mostly retained; but instead of Satchmo playing himself, Todd Duncan played him.

Then, a few years later in 1947, there was New Orleans.

Nobody in their right mind can say that New Orleans is a good film. It basically knocks off everything from 1936’s San Francisco, makes it worse, and fails to see how a deadly earthquake and a red light district closure are different.

San Francisco is a period piece about a jaunty nightclub owner played by Clark Gable whose life becomes entwined with that of a classically trained singer, played by Jeanette MacDonald, when she learns to sing in a more popular and controversial style.

New Orleans is a period piece about a jaunty nightclub owner played by Arturo de Córdova whose life becomes entwined with that of a classically trained singer, played by Dorothy Patrick, when she learns to sing jazz – a more popular and controversial style.

“Okay, so they remade it with a different city. What’s the big deal?” You ask. First of all, don’t interrupt. Second of all, this film is not supposed to be a remake, we’re not supposed to notice the glaringly obvious similarities. In fact, the original concept – as hinted above with all the Orson Welles stuff – had nothing to do with a ten year old MGM film at all.

It was, in the beginning, the story of two jazz artists who leave the South in order to take over the New York nightclub scene with their revolutionary music. They would be played by Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, in her first major film role. (Holiday had appeared in a short film back in 1935 called Symphony in Black.)

Armstrong was popular, and he was bankable. This would be his tenth film, and he was considered a reliable and relatively inoffensive screen presence. Holiday was beloved in many circles, but her mainstream appeal hadn’t been tested. Plus, you know, they were black and it was the 1940’s. Worried that they wouldn’t be able to get distribution in Southern theaters, changes to the script were made by what I like to think of as “cowardly executives.”

The Armstrong and Holiday parts were reduced and reduced until the whole thing was about boring white people in love. (In my opinion, there are far too many films about boring white people in love. Promise me you’ll never write one, dear readers. Promise me that if a magic genie appears and offers to make any story you want into a beautiful motion picture, you do not pick a story about boring white people in love.) Armstrong became Sam from Casablanca, dutiful club musician helping the Córdova character navigate his moral quandaries and love life. And Billie Holiday’s character was turned into Dorothy Patrick’s maid.


Interesting to note that Billie Holiday herself had defiantly refused to ever take a job in service or hospitality in her life. But the exposure, pay and opportunity of a Hollywood film is not easy to turn down. “I’ll be playing a maid,” Holiday said of the role, “but she’s really a cute maid.”

Her disdain for her dialogue shows in a kind of delightful way, as everything she says to Patrick’s character is dripping with flat sarcasm. It’s not a very agile performance, but she’s undeniably charming. A little like Marilyn Monroe in All About Eve. Where Holiday truly shines, unsurprisingly, is in the musical numbers. Unfortunately, everything she sings is appropriated by Patrick as part of the plot and leaves a modern audience with some serious discomfort.

New Orleans is interesting in terms of what it should have been, and apart from the music offers little worth watching. That being said, it’s a must-see for any Billie Holiday fans, and a good example of how pandering to an imaginary audience can ruin a story.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Yancy Derringer 01x11: Marble Fingers

The good times roll on with another show set in New Orleans!

Today it’s an episode of 1958’s one season wonder, Yancy Derringer. I’m happy to report that yes, the name of the main character is totally Yancy Derringer, everybody calls him Yancy all the time, and it never stops being funny. He, disappointingly, does not have a stolen lucky shamrock that helps him break dance.

What he does have is a derringer in his hat, another derringer up his sleeve, a knife in his belt, and a sword cane. He’s also amazing at hand-to-hand combat.

It’s a little much.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Twilight Zone 01x26: Execution

Hey, you! Yes you!

Did you know that February 11 is National Inventors’ Day in honour of Thomas Edison’s birthday? Oh, you did? Well, did you know that I don’t like Thomas Edison because I’m Canadian, and we always take Alexander Graham Bell’s side? It’s true!

In fact, if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that the admiring of inventors can get to be a pretty contentious business, right fans of Lewis H. Latimer? Right Da Vinci Society? Right Team Tesla? It’s pretty ugly in the science wars. I considered doing a thing about Spencer Tracy in Edison, The Man, but then I realized I didn’t want to watch that.

So in honour of this proud day, we’re recapping an episode of The Twilight Zone all about how inventions are actually terrible. It’s called “Execution,” and from the title, I think we can all be confident that things go well.

We begin with the shadows of cowboys on horseback riding across a bleak black and white landscape. Surprisingly, lots of Twilight Zone’s take place in the Old West. This one, however, only partly takes place there. Rod Serling helps set the scene:

“A common place, if somewhat grim. An unsocial event known as a necktie party. The guest of dishonour? A cowboy named Joe Caswell. Just a moment away from a rope, a short dance several feet off the ground. And then the dark eternity of all evil men. Mr. Joe Caswell, who when the good lord passed out a conscience, a heart of feeling for fellow men, must have been out for a beer and missed out. Mr. Joe Caswell, in the last quiet moment of a violent life.”

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Bourbon Street Beat 01x06: The Tiger Moth

If you’re ever channel surfing and you see NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans, and repeats of CSI: Miami and CSI: New York, and think to yourself that modern people are so uncreative, just taking the same old stuff and setting it in a new location and calling that entertainment, you should know that it’s not a new habit. This has been happening since forever.

In 1958, Warner Brothers and ABC decided to make a bunch of “location” detective shows. The first, and most successful, was 77 Sunset Strip. Its dazzling location was Los Angeles, and yes, that’s a pretty lame cheat for production purposes, but it wasn’t New York and that made a difference back then. It was also steeped in Los Angeles culture, easily accessed and understood by a creative team who lived and worked in the city, and ripped off Raymond Chandler all the time. The next most successful was Hawaiian Eye, my favourite of these turkeys because it features a very young Robert Conrad as a proto Thomas Magnum. It, too, rips off Raymond Chandler, but also throws in some James A. Michener. Surfside 6 was the final instalment, taking place in Miami, having a truly obnoxious theme song – like if the judge asks you why you murdered someone, say they kept singing Surfside 6 and you’ll go free – and mixing the required ripping off of Raymond Chandler with teen beach movies. It does not work, but it was popular because of Troy Donahue and Van Williams, which is a legit reason to watch a show.

Bourbon Street Beat happened at the beginning of all of this and failed the hardest, despite having arguably the best cast. This cast nudges it just past Surfside 6 in terms of actual quality, but that’s not hard. Your kid’s school play is better than Surfside 6. It stars Andrew Duggan – who would later become Murdock Lancer and was also in every show ever – as Cal Calhoun, part owner of a detective agency he shares with Rex Randolph (should have been named Rex Rexford, imo) played by Richard Long. Depending on your tastes, he’s either Jarrod Barkley to you, Professor Harold Everett, or the guy from Cult of the Cobra.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Longstreet 01x05: Elegy in Brass

Have you ever looked at a recipe and lifestyle magazine for February? Everything is about making the most of your Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day explosion of fun month. And with all the snow and general misery that February actually has to offer, these cheerful distractions are good enough for me! So this week, we’re celebrating Mardi Gras with classic shows that take place in the Big Easy.

Yesterday, we traded Cabot Cove for New Orleans with Jessica Fletcher. Today we're looking at one of the city's resident detectives in Longstreet.

It’s a show that’s often overlooked when people talk about classic detectives, despite being genuinely ground-breaking. James Franciscus plays Mike Lonsgstreet, a blind insurance investigator who’s part Johnny Dollar and part Matt Murdock. Along with his adorable Seeing Eye dog, a white German Shepherd called Pax, Mike ends up solving a lot of murders. That’s right! Prime 1970’s era James Franciscus and a dog! Best show ever!

Monday, 8 February 2016

Murder, She Wrote 12x04: Big Easy Murder

Machetes! Voodoo! Angela Lansbury!

Today we’re recapping an episode of Murder, She Wrote that takes place in New Orleans. It’s the kick-off to the Mardi Gras Week mini-event, as well as an excuse to watch one of the greatest mystery shows of all time. Not that you need an excuse. And also not that this is one of the best episodes, in fact there’s a good chance that this is the worst episode…

I’m really not sure how a modern person can get through life without a cursory knowledge of Murder, She Wrote, but in case you have, I’ll help you out:

Jessica Fletcher, played by aspirational figure Angela Lansbury, was a high school English teacher for many years, until her husband Frank passed away and she retired. Between widowhood and her abundant spare time, she decided she needed a distraction, so she wrote a novel called “The Corpse Danced at Midnight.” Her idiot nephew Grady sent it to a publisher without asking her permission, and it sold, and was published, and kept selling, and now Jessica – or J.B. Fletcher – is an international literary sensation. Agatha Christie 2.0.

In between writing books and tending her little garden in Cabot Cove, Jessica solves 263 murders (actual statistic). Murder surrounds her, for some reason. It was as if when she wrote that first book, she awoke the slumbering Phonoi, Greek spirits of violent death, and drew their wrathful gaze upon people she met at book signings.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Trouble Along the Way

Ah, the Super Bowl.

It’s my favourite holiday, mostly because of the food. 

I’m not big on roast dinners of any variety, and I don’t like getting religious, but I like football and I love chicken wings. And potato skins. And dips of endless variety. And mini-sandwiches. Oh, Super Bowl, you are so wonderful.

In fact, this is an automated posting, because I’m spending all day watching the football and eating the snacks.
But what do you do when the game is finished, and you feel like it’s really too early to fall into a total food coma, but now you’re tired and you don’t want to go out?

Football movies.

Just watch football movies.

Don’t watch Brian’s Song – it is very good, but super maudlin, and who feels like crying that much? I mean, yes, Billy Dee Williams is amazing and the speech he gives is amazing, but it’s just a super sad true story that makes you feel powerless against death. Kind of a downer post-game. Everyone should see it once, if only to give them a better idea of what TV movies were like before VCRs, and also to know why old men cry when you talk about the Chicago Bears. But not on Super Bowl Sunday.

I hear that some people watch Rudy. That’s nice. They must not want to punch Rudy in the face as badly as I do.

What I usually watch is John Wayne, former USC Trojan, in 1953’s Trouble Along the Way.

I’m picky about John Wayne movies because – she says as she hides behind bulletproof glass and puts on a helmet – some of them are really, really awful. For every The Quiet Man there is a McQ. I mean, I understand that he is one of the most beloved cinematic icons of all time, and that is why you are throwing tomatoes at me and arguing that McQ has its good points, but no. Not every John Wayne movie is magically awesome because John Wayne is there.

This film, however, has one of my favourite performances of his. It plays to quite a few of his unsung strengths, like his sly comic timing, his naturalness when working with children, and those inherently footballish qualities that seem to fit him just right. Plus, he’s an ordinary person here, which is really nice. Lots of people are like: “No! Give him a horse and dress him like an admiral! Boo!” But I like him as an average, contemporary character.

As for the leading lady, she’s flawed and dynamic and impossibly likeable because she’s played by Donna Reed.

Half of you are now gone, streaming this right away, because oh my god Donna Reed is the actual best.

The director was Michael Curtiz, most famous for Casablanca, which is an amazing thing to be most famous for. This film has that pitch-perfect dialogue that Curtiz seemed to be able to get out of anybody; as well as the same balance of realism and optimism that worked for him in White Christmas, but without the hokey coincidences.

Wayne plays Steve Williams, a former big time football coach, current bookie, and single father to Carole, played excellently by Sherry Jackson. Carole and Steve’s wry, cynical exchanges are the heart of the film. They’re surprisingly timeless. My favourite moment is always when Steve is holding his bible upside down, and Carole gently flips it around for him.

It’s the question of Carole’s legal custody that drives the plot, when Steve’s ex-wife brings the court into things. 

Enter social worker Donna Reed, to assess Carole’s needs and try really hard not to fall in love with Steve. She does a pretty good job of the first part, eventually.

Steve, meantime, is approached by Father Burke, played by Charles Coburn. Father Burke wants most of all to not be forced into an early retirement, and second of all to keep the small Catholic college where he works open, since that would help with the no retirement thing. The plan is to create a solid football program, and for that, he wants Steve’s help.

It’s not a job that Steve would ordinarily take, but “Head Coach at church school with maple trees” looks a lot better to the judge at Family Court than “washed up has-been making book and playing pool for spare cash.” Steve agrees to work at St. Anthony’s.

What follows is a surprisingly fresh and honest look at the politics of divorce, the stress on social workers, the difficulty of fathers raising daughters, the corruption of the college football system, and how if we all give up just a sliver of our selfishness, we can start to make things work. It’s not what you’d expect from a 50’s family comedy.

It’s also one of the few films to really deal with the dark side of coaching, which seems weird, I know. But when you sit back and think of stories that choose to focus on a coach instead of on a player, it’s always like: “A morally bankrupt professional is forced to coach an inner city team on a losing streak, and while he teaches the kids to win at hockey, they teach him to win at life.” (I didn’t mean to just summarizeThe Mighty Ducks, it was an accident, but it’s the epitome of a coaching movie, so I’m sticking with it.) Trouble Along the Way is more like: “A disgraced coach with bad habits can’t get rid of his bad habits. The team starts to win, but it’s a quagmire of ethics.”

Fair warning: The ending is one of those non-endings that promises an improved future instead of an instant solution. I tend to like those, and I like this one. A lot of people really don’t, but I feel like anything more pat or too polished would undo the nuances of the story. For me, the whole point of the film is that it’s the little steps that lead to big changes. But it might be one of those things that makes you throw up your arms and demand to know why you couldn't get everything wrapped up like a present because that is what movies do, you stupid movie.

Either way, the performances are worth watching and I like the idea that stories don’t always have to be about the teams that win Big Games; sometimes, they can be about the kinds of people who are brave enough to play.

Other suggestions for your Super Bowl Sunday:

Paper Lion (1968) – Alan Alda plays George Plimpton, reporting for Sports Illustrated and training with the Detroit Lions. He kind of sucks at football. It’s funny.

Knute Rockne, All American (1940) – A little like Brian’s Song, but not as sad because, honestly, the performances are worse. It’s hilarious when The Gipper bites it. A biopic about Notre Dame’s beloved coach, and useful for understanding one of the jokes in Airplane.

Father Was a Fullback (1949) – Frequent John Wayne co-star Maureen O’Hara here plays the wife of Fred MacMurray, State College football coach, and mother of her Miracle on 34th Street daughter Natalie Wood. But it’s the older daughter that’s giving everybody trouble, and it would be nice if MacMurray’s team could, you know, win.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Columbo 02x03: The Most Crucial Game

The Super Bowl is tomorrow (go Broncos!) and I thought it was a perfect time to celebrate with one of my favourite episodes of one of my favourite shows. So we’re watching a Columbo that’s all about football, murder, and Robert Culp’s crazy moustache.

It’s almost too much fun.

Alright, really quick in case you aren’t familiar with the show: Columbo was a series of TV movies that ran from 1969 to 2003. Columbo was described by Peter Falk, the actor who played him, as such: “What if there was a guy who was just like everybody else in all ways except one – he happened to be the world’s greatest detective?”

The only other thing to know is that you solve these bad boys backwards. It’s not about who the murderer is, it’s about the clue that catches him. Your job is to figure out the mistake that’s going to send him to jail, and you have to pay attention to everything. Champagne corks, pencil types, light switches, scuff marks, the fingerprints of non-murderers, any detail could be the one that sinks the killer.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Looking For Audrey

Darcey Bussell was only twenty years old when she was made a principal dancer for The Royal Ballet in 1989. Watching her early performances, with their gossamer lyricism and mischievous humour, it’s easy to see the influence of her personal hero Audrey Hepburn.

Bussell never had the chance to meet Audrey Hepburn, but in a documentary for BBC One, she was given the chance to take a close look at the places and events that shaped the legendary actress and fellow ballet dancer. “She has inspired and intrigued me since I was about ten,” Bussell told The Telegraph in 2014. “She was dark and elfin, so different from the blonde bombshell actresses of the fifties and sixties.”

If you’re a long time Audrey Hepburn fan, this isn’t the kind of documentary that electrifies with shocking revelations. It offers little in the way of new insight, even though it has some fun tidbits. Did you know Vanessa Redgrave was a few years behind her as a student at Ballet Rambert in London? Bussell’s interview with Redgrave is a highlight, giving a sense of what it was like to be around Audrey at the very start of her success and towards the end of her life.

There’s also a session with a makeup artist who worked on Hepburn, and explains how her unique doe-eyed features were specially tailored to as she came to exemplify the changing tides of beauty standards. And an interview with the granddaughter of Oliver Goldsmith, shedding light on the earliest examples of what we think of now as celebrity endorsements. That bit’s a little dull, but if the costuming in Two for the Road catches your eye, you might enjoy it.

Throughout, Bussell sits down with Hepburn’s sons, and both of them offer pretty well-worn stories that don’t do much to illuminate her private life. Hepburn was a private person, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t be too keen on gossiping. What does make it strange is that there’s very little discussion of the film roles taken after Breakfast at Tiffany’s, tipping the interest of the documentary towards the home life and then not really investigating it.

What makes it worth watching – instead of any other well-crafted documentary about Audrey Hepburn – is the road trip aspect. Bussell visits Holland, Switzerland and Rome; sees the hotels Audrey stayed at, visits the places where she lived and filmed. It’s a fascinating glimpse at how much and how little has changed, and the photography is beautiful. Darcey Bussell makes a charming tour guide, tooling around in her little blue car with her own version of Audrey’s sunglasses.

All in all, it’s pleasant look at an often discussed icon, and should satisfy anybody who likes more atmosphere than dirty laundry. I think it would be great to mix in with a marathon of Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady.

If you’re an Audrey Hepburn fan and you’ve never seen it, give it a try!

Darcey Bussell's Looking for Audrey is currently available on YouTube and BBC iPlayer.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

My Living Doll

Have you ever let Amazon talk you into buying something? Like it keeps coming up in your recommendations, probably because you bought My Favourite Martian and Bewitched? And it seems so weird and also kind of like it might be terrible, but terrible in a way you want to discover? This is going to come as a surprise, but I’m asking these questions because of a recent personal experience where I bought a weird old show. It was all because of recommendation list trickery and the fact that Julie Newmar is in it, and who doesn’t like Julie Newmar?

It’s called My Living Doll and it’s really… not good.

And I now own every available episode on DVD! And I will tell you all about it so that you never have to watch it!

In 1964, CBS was very big on half-hour comedies, and they were looking for a new project for Jack Chertok, who had produced My Favourite Martian. Desilu, Lucille Ball’s company (she was always big on genre shows), got involved, and they wound up with the idea of a feminine robot learning how to be human. Julie Newmar, fresh off a Broadway success and impossibly good looking, would be the fembot. (This was the same season Bewitched debuted, and a year ahead of I Dream of Jeannie. They called the genre “novelty sitcoms” because science fiction and fantasy were for nerds. Same problem as today.) The show would be called The Living Doll, and it would have lots of zany mix-ups and Atomic Age humour. So far, we’re doing okay. This could be a lot worse, right?

Well, the fembot needed a supporting cast. There were a lot of names being kicked around, but they settled on Bob Cummings. Cummings had been the star of his own show (called The Bob Cummings Show – this is foreshadowing for a problem) back in the 1950’s. When that was over, he got a second show (called The New Bob Cummings Show) that flopped. Hard. And it flopped because it was just The Bob Cummings Show all over again and everyone had already seen that.

But, on his second show, he’d had a zany flying car, and he was hugely into aeronautics in his real life, and CBS liked him, and they thought he’d be a good fit and not oppose the sci-fi elements.
Problem Number One: The show was called THE Living Doll, like it wasn’t about Bob Cummings, and it had to be about Bob Cummings if Bob Cummings was in it. So, shouldn’t it be HIS Living Doll, or BOB’S Living Doll, so that people would know who the main character really was?

Hence the small but not-so-small change to My Living Doll.

Next up, all the press was about Julie Newmar having a TV show and not about Bob Cummings – noted and tested TV star – returning to America’s living rooms. Besides which, he really needs more screen time, don’t you think? I mean, who is this show really about? Who’s going to bring the audience, you know?

The story becomes about a Space Center psychiatrist who gets saddled with a secretly built android when the android's creator is unexpectedly transferred to Pakistan. Because the robot is patterned after a woman, the psychiatrist takes it upon himself to make certain that her emerging personality is docile, obedient and servile. Thankfully, the android doesn't really care about gender politics, and does whatever she wants, even though the 60's anti-feminism undertones remain disturbingly present throughout. (According to Julie Newmar, the Galatea and Pygmalion themes were much more obvious in the original concept. You can't build a perfect woman, because there's no real definition of perfection in human beings.)

Once the reviews started coming in, they all said that Bob and Julie had zero chemistry, and that he seemed too old for her, and his character was creepy, and the show should be more about the robot lady because everyone likes her. So Bob Cummings decided to write his own episode. Back on The Bob Cummings Show, the audience had always reacted really well to the episodes where he played his own grandfather – in the script he wrote, his ninety-three year old grandfather from Missouri, who was a veterinarian back home, would fly himself in with his 37 horsepower Taylor Cub. The robot would be at the beginning of the episode to meet “Grandpa,” and at the end of the episode to wave goodbye to him. The rest of the story would be, basically, Bob Cummings playing two characters talking to each other.

Jack Chertok said that this wasn’t going to happen. (Rightly so, because that idea was terrible.)

Bob Cummings quit and announced his intentions to sue CBS.

It was a step in the right direction for the show, but by then timeslot issues had struggled to find it viewers – at first it was on at the same time as Bonanza, and you can’t fight season five of Bonanza, that was like the best season. Then they moved it to Wednesdays to lead in to The Beverly Hillbillies, but it followed Mr. Ed, so the lineup went: talking horse with weirdly amazing chemistry with its co-stars, lady robot show being wrecked by male lead, surprisingly beloved redneck ensemble. See where the flow is breaking?

It wasn’t renewed for a second season.

The 35mm negatives of the series were destroyed in a 1994 earthquake, and the DVD collection available has only eleven episodes recovered from 16mm copies recovered from private collectors. (Always keep old tapes of weird things, history might call on you one day.) The Chertok Estate is searching for any other available episodes, so if by some freak chance you know of any, give them a call!

Oh! And Star Trek: Voyager fans might be interested in knowing that Julie Newmar’s character begins the series without a name, only a number. And that number is 709.