Sunday, July 26, 2015

Wooden Acting? What Do You Mean - Wooden Acting?

Not unlike "Canadian Corner" hosers Bob & Doug McKenzie, we seem stuck for a topic today.

Since a recent post closed with a spoof of Gerry Anderson's "Supermarionation" by the stalwart comedy team of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, let's talk marionettes, starting with gonzo glam-rockers Mott The Hoople. . . of course, performing "Marionette".

But seriously folks, today's topic de jour is the Supermarionation of Gerry & Sylvia Anderson, as well as a host of their puppetry predecessors and descendants.

The studio led by Gerry & Sylvia Anderson brought puppet animation into the swingin' 60's with flair. The high flying high-tech hardware, the color (beginning with Stingray), not to mention the pacing, action hero protagonists Troy Tempest, Mike Mercury, etc. and hairdos, along with the great soundtracks by Barry Gray. This blogger finds the shows immensely entertaining and even better when seen with an enthusiastic audience.

Thunderbirds could be considered the studio's greatest hit and eventually spawned two popular feature films.

Unfortunately, it does say something about Your Correspondent that he yearned, just once, to see one of the intrepid pilots in the series drinking Thunderbird, unquestionably a First Ballot selection for the Bargain Basement Alchoholic Beverage Hall Of Shame.

One fascinating thing of many about Gerry Anderson's TV shows and movies is how the later live-action series, especially UFO, look SO MUCH like the Supermarionation shows.

Never mind that Space 1999 show - or was it the movie - in which Barbara Bain was chased around a spaceship by something resembling a giant dessert, reminiscent of the tennis-playing blancmange from Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Of course, puppet films go back to the very beginnings of cinema and such innovative artists as Emile Cohl, Ladislaw Starewicz, Willis O' Brien and (later) Charley Bowers. Some of the more amazing examples of early puppet animation are on the Stop-Motion Marvels DVD. O'Brien and Starewicz were by no means alone in the field.

Today's post begins to, thankfully, wind down by stepping ahead 7+ decades, outside this blog's stated 20th Century Pop Culture theme and into 21st century "take no prisoners" humor. This example of more recent Psychotronic Cinema comes from the guys responsible for both the Broadway show The Book Of Mormon, the long running TV series South Park and a host of lesser-known "bad taste" or "that's not funny, that's sick" projects (Cannibal The Musical) - nose-thumbing animators Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

With their film Team America: World Police, the duo paid a perverse homage to Supermarionation 35 years after the last animated Gerry Anderson show went off the air.

It's a vicious and hilarious take on many elements of 20th century pop culture (and in this writer's opinion, ESPECIALLY various movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone). The sendup has the Gerry Anderson shows - which I'd wager Parker and Stone are fans of - in the crosshairs but also delivers one brutal skewering of Hollywood movies: bad action flicks, any and all genre movie cliches, plus such "low hanging fruit" as movie fan dictator Kim Jung Il.

The production values allow Stone and Parker's ultra-macho actioner to be both funny and grotesque - the puppets actually have brains, blood, bones and bodily fluids. In that respect, it recalls the "Grand Guignol meets Moe, Larry, Curly AND Shemp" dynamic of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead horror flicks. That said, Team America: World Police also could be described as Thunderbirds Are Go meets Celebrity Death Match.

With that, we doff our Troy Tempest hats to Supermarionators Gerry & Sylvia Anderson, as well as Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean Animation, and ALL those who created "Stop-Motion Marvels" - and finish this post at long last with the 1966 hit song by James and Bobby Purify. . . I'm Your Puppet.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Rewarding Careers In Ventriloquism!

Pondering vintage movies, television and pop culture (instead of music) yet again, this blogger found that last weekend's The Joy Of Dubbing Part 2 post sparked more musings. . . this time on the topic of ventriloquism and malevolent inanimate objects in general.

Sometime in the year 43,000 B.C., some wiseguy caveman came up the idea of carving a piece of rock, stone or wood into something resembling a Cro-Magnon man's head as a joke. "Hey let's play one on Grok! Watch this, Thak - this will be hysterical!"

Leave it not to Beaver, but to the remarkably and thoroughly twisted Tod Browning and "the man of way more than a thousand faces", Lon Chaney, Sr. to make a whole movie about a criminal ventriloquist.

Tod n' Lon made two versions of this excellent thriller, The Unholy Three - one silent, one with sound. They are both amazing and underscore the extent to which Chaney's death of bronchial cancer at 47 was a devastating loss to motion pictures, 20th century art and culture. Here's a clip from the 1930 version.

Director Erich von Stroheim ended up going back to acting as his tumultuous career as a director was coming to an end. One of these films, The Great Gabbo, stars the acclaimed silent film director as a ventriloquist. It's a musical and his dummy yodels and sings.

Also starring Betty Compson, former silent movie headliner and star of Josef von Sternberg's classic The Docks Of New York), who sings quite well in the musical segments of the 1929 film, this is one of those exceptionally bizarre and weirdly entertaining early talkies that must be seen to be believed.

After his experiences battling MGM brass tooth-and-nail producing Greed and The Wedding March, one imagines that von Stroheim's heart's desire very likely would have been to make The Great Gabbo with the ventriloquist dummy played by Louis B. Mayer - and one would wager that silver screen icons John Gilbert, Buster Keaton and latter-day film buffs also would have enjoyed such a spectacle.

As if the two versions of The Unholy Three weren't enough, Tod Browning, as one of his parting shots to the world of filmmaking, made The Devil Doll. Note that the title is NOT "the not-very-nice doll." One urban legend claims that Erich von Stroheim worked on the screenplay. Lionel Barrymore is on hand to chew up scenery in multiple roles.

The same year, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen was appearing in comedy short subjects for Vitaphone. The fact that a ventriloquist became wildly popular on radio and got into a feud with W.C. Fields never cease to amaze.

Not surprisingly at all, Your Correspondent began writing this post only to find that not one but two writers, Patrick Cooper and the prolific Katharine Trendacosta covered the topic of out-of-control ventriloquist dummies in detail. Their accounts, worth reading and including the "ventriloquism gone wrong - VERY wrong" segment from the classic anthology feature Dead Of Night:

The 10 Creepiest Ventriloquist Tales Of All Time

The 10 Creepiest Ventriloquist Dummies Of All Time

Also not surprisingly at all, the two episodes of The Twilight Zone involving warped ventriloquist dummies, The Dummy and Cesar And Me, are mentioned among Ms. Trendacosta's Creepiest Ventriloquist Tales list. Yes, indeedy - "The Dummy" is quite a bastard and would have reduced Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd AND Edgar Bergen to kindling in short order.

Another scary tale straight from the bowels of The Twilight Zone featured one seriously demented 1950's style doll, the murderous Talking Tina and a pre-Kojak, not exactly "cool" version of Telly Savalas. Indeed, no "who loves ya, baby" lines ensued when Telly's desperate, sweaty character was terrorized relentlessly by a psycho-killer doll.

Last up: the inimitable Tex Avery, King Of Cartoons. Tex' specialty was "gags and variations" and he made an entire cartoon entirely on the topic of throwing one's voice. A brain that could think up a cartoon about ventriloquism involving DOGS AND CATS (heretofore only seen talking in cheesy Jerry Fairbanks Speaking Of Animals 1-reelers - one of which Avery wrote), in all honesty, needed to be donated to the Smithsonian Institute! Just when you think Tex can't POSSIBLY dream up one more joke, there's another five. And the ending is a beaut. Now WHEN will we see these great Tex Avery MGM cartoons on Blu-ray, anyway?

Unless one counts the relationship between sleazy lobbyists/"dark money" organizations/gazillionaires and members of the United States Congress, there aren't many ventriloquists and dummies around these days, other than Jeff Dunham, whose Comedy Central special was on a veritable loop on that channel for quite awhile.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Clip Of The Day: Elvis Costello - Live Aid, 1985

Careening between the topics of classic movies, animated cartoons, television, comedy and music yet again, but staying resolutely within this blog's "20th Century Pop Culture" theme, submitted for your approval is the Clip Of The Day. This writer considers it hands-down the Best Beatles Cover Ever.

Would we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog be very happy to see Elvis and his top-notch band (The Imposters-Attractions), as well as virtuoso pianist-vocalist wife Diana play music again someday? In the words of San Francisco Giants right fielder Hunter "The Preacher" Pence - YES! YES! YES!

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Joy Of Dubbing, Part 2

With the passing of the great Phil "Nick Danger" Austin from The Firesign Theatre last month, the art form of taking footage and dubbing new - and frequently both scandalous and hilarious - dialogue over everything and re-inventing it COMPLETELY in the process has arisen in this blogmeister's consciousness.

This is not Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog's first go-round with this topic. Two years ago, in a "sorry, can't think of a damn thing to write about" post titled The Joy Of Dubbing, the subject was films and TV shows that took an existing movie, recorded a new soundtrack over it and both razzed the original property mercilessly and emerged from the process with something else: a new work of art, pure schlock or, more accurately, both. Presented as Dubbing Exhibits A and B: The Cisco Kid, both Part 1 and Part 2, skewered by members of the Second City Television cast, and Woody Allen's egg salad espionage opus, What's Up Tiger Lily.

How, oh how, DID this idea of dubbing over found footage start? Ernie Kovacs, trying everything in his search for the perfect gag, certainly tried a bit of "dubbing" in hos dozens of inventive comedy sketches. While unsure what the first instance of The Joy Of Dubbing was, certainly among the earliest examples would be MGM's Goofy Movies series (1933-1934). In these 1-reelers, the inimitable Pete Smith added his wisecrack-filled narration to clips from early silent movies, mostly made before World War I.

Smith's narration was and is clever and funny, and by the time these short subjects were produced, the clips looked like as if they had been made in a Victorian Era a century earlier - rather than just a couple of decades previously. Makes sense, as it remains tough to come up with examples, besides Alice Guy Blache's Solax films and the numerous films of The Thanhauser Studio, of early cinema featuring the more low-key, naturalistic approach to acting.

While What's Up Tiger Lily is considered the granddaddy of this genre, as the song goes, it ain't necessarily so. The ace writers of Jay Ward Productions (Bullwinkle, George Of The Jungle) in experimenting with the notion of dubbing a film with screwy dialogue, beat Woody Allen to the punch by several years with the TV show Fractured Flickers, created by Chris Hayward.

The series was a creative and irreverent use of public domain "found footage". No - let's make that HIGHLY irreverent. It is entirely understandable why Lon Chaney Jr. did not see any humor whatsoever in seeing clips of his father's bravura, epic, unbeatable performance in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame entirely recast, featuring the tortured Quasimodo as "Dinky Dunston, Boy Cheerleader.

What Mr. Chaney could never have known was that, in a most curious way, the series, along with The Funny Manns, Silents Please and Robert Youngson's comedy compilation features, introduced many "boomers" to silent movies. Some of those youngsters would become fans of silent movies - and EVERY MOVIE starring the incredible Lon Chaney Sr. - for life.

As is customary for a Jay Ward Production, there's inspired voice acting throughout by the stock company of Bill Scott, June Foray and Paul Frees throughout. That said, provided one doesn't regard the essential concept as throwing a few cans of Lucite paint on an original Rembrandt - the shows can be very, very funny. They are available on DVD, and this correspondent does find the series and ESPECIALLY Hans Conried, frequently hilarious.

Hans Conried had wonderful bits demonstrating snide flair as Fractured Flickers' very reluctant host.

The guest stars - all buying into the premise that they were hornswoggled or tricked to be on the show in the first place, dig in with panache, clearly having a lot of fun spoofing their images.

Along with fellow Jay Ward Productions writers Allan Burns and Lloyd Turner, Fractured Flickers creator Hayward would go on to write jokes and stories for the 1968-1969 episodes of Get Smart.

Also before SCTV, Cinematic Titanic and MST3K (and concurrent with What's Up Tiger Lily and several subsequent wacky feature films by Woody Allen), the intrepid troupe The Firesign Theatre made a specialty of crawling inside a piece of found footage, an old time radio show or cheesy movie serial and fashioning their own distinctive comedy universe.

Undoubtedly, The Firesign Theatre, creators of "movies for your mind", were the inspirations for Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and easily the still unsurpassed jedi masters at "the joy of dubbing".

J-Men Forever turns a hard-boiled Republic serial inside out! B-movie genres, radio theatre and the psychedelic era itself are directly in the satiric cross-hairs throughout.

Other examples of The Joy Of Dubbing, in which a new comedy is created by taking someone else's movie and both dubbing the whole thing with new dialogue and ridiculing the hell out of it, include Mad Movies and this wonderfully brutal (and very NSFW) sendup of Dragnet 1967, specifically the "dated as the cameras were rolling" Blue Boy episode. The only thing funnier is seeing Henry Morgan as a "mug" in various noir B-pictures - but that does not involve dubbing!

Another 21st century film that gets into the 20th century "goofy movies" spirit, merging martial arts extravaganza with supreme ultra-silliness on an epic level, would be Steve Oedekirk's gag-laden Kung Pow - Enter The Fist.

Today's post finishes with a most creative variant on "dubbing" by the superb comedy team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The following sketch from their Not Only. . . But Also series presents a sendup of Gerry Anderson's extremely popular Supermarionation shows (Stingray, Supercar, Fireball XL 5, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90) titled SUPERTHUNDERSTINGCAR. Instead of just providing the voices for the square-jawed (albeit wooden) action heroes - Troy Tempest, Mike Mercury, etc. - Cook and Moore appear as the intrepid puppet protagonist and the villain.

Pete n' Dud of Beyond The Fringe weren't patron saints of British Comedy for nothing!

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Happy 4th Of July 2015 From Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog

Is there any way this blogger, a whiz with words and clumsier than Deputy Barney Fife with anything remotely resembling a firearm, can provoke flag-waving patriotic fervor? Yes, by enjoying DVDs of all-American "blue" standup comics and watching such ribald animated cartoons made for G.I. consumption in World War II as the following Private Snafu misadventure. Those who did the United States of America an enormous favor by NOT joining the Armed Forces can positively revel in the sheer ineptitude of Private Snafu.

The Mayles Brothers made a rather amazing documentary - just one of many - titled Grey Gardens. It's tough to describe, but follows the isolated and insulated lives of two cousins of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale. The former socialites allowed the Maysles to shoot footage at will in their ramshackle East Hampton mansion, well past the point at which most of us would be, like Roberto Duran facing Sugar Ray Leonard, yelling no mas, no mas, no mas and pleading with the cameramen to GO AWAY.

One of the film's high points is "Little Edie's Flag Dance." This segment, in which "Little Edie" proves herself a WAY better dancer than this writer could ever be, at least somewhat mitigates scene after scene of Edie The Younger getting browbeaten by her cranky mum. Little Edie was a tad odd but also likable and funny.

Songs from the outstanding roots rock band X, followed by The Beach Boys (Carl Wilson's vocals - YOW!) and Fender Stratocaster master Jimi Hendrix, shall close today's post. The first, from the See How They Are album, is a sad and poignant song which, unfortunately, hits way too close to home.

Now HERE are some stars and stripes Mr. Blogmeister can go for in a big way!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Christmas In Connecticut a.k.a. The Christmas Movie According To Babs by Paul F. Etcheverry

"Cook your own kidneys." S.Z. Sakall

"Cold chicken is my weakness." Sydney Greensteet

"It's always important to keep promises, especially the ones you make to yourself." Barbara Stanwyck

"Honesty is the best politics." Stan Laurel, Sons Of The Desert

Our contribution to the 2015 Classic Movie History Project Blogathon reviews this much-shown WW2 era holiday stocking stuffer from Warner Brothers. Within the guise of fluffy Yuletide entertainment, Christmas In Connecticut presents a jaunty look at outrageous ruses, the social order, creation of fantasy worlds, the fear of being unmasked and embarrassed publicly about one's own life, mass media, shameless big business, sham marriages, moral responsibility, the nature of truth, the inability to listen to others, New York City, New England in winter and, most importantly, food and chefs.

No, Christmas In Connecticut does not star Lon Chaney Sr. and include a scene in which he is dramatically unmasked to be revealed both as a hideous monster and a lousy musician who plays the organ in a tragically unhip and most unrhythmic style, but it does, in the velvet glove of a light romantic comedy, take on a few of our greatest fears (will anybody love me and if so, why? can I do anything right? am I, professional success notwithstanding, a failure as a person?).

The matinee idol headliners in this Christmas classic are one of the greatest and most versatile Hollywood stars, Barbara Stanwyck and, as the handsome American soldier, back from World War II and yearning for a delicious home-cooked meal, Dennis Morgan (as opposed to Dennis O'Keefe or Dennis Day - we're spared a hard-boiled Anthony Mann "Christmas noir" as well as a truly odd holiday episode of The Jack Benny Program).

The Christmas season offering offers quite the vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck's formidable talents as a light comedienne. Ms. Stanwyck was on quite the roll at the time this film was made, having starred in the remarkably funny The Lady Eve (written and directed by Preston Sturges) and Ball Of Fire (directed by Howard Hawks, screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett). In both, as well as the earlier 1940 Mitchell Leisen film Remember The Night, she portrays a scheming con artist, shamelessly fleecing a bumbling scion played by Henry Fonda in the former (Fonda: "Snakes are my life." Stanwyck: "What a life") and, as the salacious singer/moll "Sugarpuss O'Shea", attempting to take a band of college professors, led by an uncharacteristically - and not that convincingly - nerdy Gary Cooper, for saps in the latter.

In Christmas In Connecticut, she nails the role of Smart Housekeeping magazine's star columnist, Elizabeth Lane, a very good writer possessing active imagination - and just a touch of the con artist.

As always, Ms. Stanwyck gives a performance with honesty and conviction - and, in an art entirely lost in the present "Too Much Information - no, make that WAY Too Much Information" era, manages to be genuinely sexy every step of the way.

Providing expert support of the two headliners throughout: the usually menacing Sydney Greenstreet, Reginald Gardiner (The Great Dictator) and a first ballot selection for the Comic Character Actors' Hall Of Fame, the inimitable and roly-poly S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall.

Also among the stalwart supporting players are Una O' Connor, Frank Jenks and ace comedienne/comic actress Joyce Compton, notable for her hilarious my dreams are gone with the wind number in Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth, as well as leading lady turns in short subjects starring McCarey's frequent silent era collaborator and prolific director-writer-comedian for the Hal Roach Studio, Charley Chase.

It's quite a kick to see Greenstreet, bad guy we know and love from The Maltese Falcon and other intrigue-filled tales, in a comedy.

Greenstreet plays a very wealthy, blustery and stubborn publisher-magnate who can be clueless at times - and is quite funny.

The essential premise of Christmas In Connecticut: a quarter century before Betty White played randy Sue Ann, "The Happy Homemaker" on TV's Mary Tyler Moore Show, Barbara Stanwyck's food writer columnist presents a picture of New England domestic bliss that makes the fantasy world hawked by the Martha Stewart Inc. juggernaut of 40+ years later look like the less bucolic milieus of humorist Erma "The Grass Is Always Greener Over The Septic Tank" Bombeck and wisecracking standup comedienne Phyllis Diller. Elizabeth Lane presents herself as "America's Best Cook", the ULTIMATE homemaker, whose picturesque columns come straight from her ultra-idyllic Connecticut farm, where she cooks 5 star meals 365 days a year for her fawning husband and cutesy cute baby.

Alas, the column is fiction, ALL fiction. The author lives alone in a NYC apartment and drinks double martinis. There's no adoring hubby, no farm, no gorgeous country home, no vegetable garden, no state of the art kitchen - and no bouncing baby boy or girl. Worse yet, Ms. Lane can't even cook - all of the column's recipes and menus come from friend and nearby restauranteur Chef Felix Bassenak (played with extra paprika by Sakall).

The plot thickens when the publisher of this magazine (young readers: this is a reference to the then enormously popular Good Housekeeping, an institution, especially in the 1940's and 1950's), completely and entirely unaware that Lane's column is 100% fabrication, arranges for a returning war hero to have his first home cooked meal, an unbelievably scrumptious repast courtesy of Happy Homemaker Liz.

The plan does go a tad awry at the last minute, causing all kinds of comic complications. Reginald Gardiner's character, a process-obsessed and detail-oriented architect who simply does not comprehend that when a gal says no to multiple proposals annually several years in a row, that means "give up, you dope", in return for the wholly uninterested Ms. Lane to finally agree to marry him, offers his state-of-the-country home Connecticut farm and even manages to rustle up a baby - then TWO babies - for the ruse. However, when the columnist and war hero Jefferson Jones (who tacitly agreed to marry southern belle Nurse Lee in the opening of the film) become passionately smitten with each other on first meeting. . . hoo-boy!

The key phrase is "let the games begin" and the entire cast, plus Mackooshka The Cow and the local gendarmes, become active participants in putting the kibosh on Lane's marriage to the professionally skilled but utterly deluded architect. For everybody but Gardiner's character, it's a happy ending - and even Greenstreet's "time is money" magnate has a good time of it.

Characterizations are seldom strictly by the book (thanks, screenwriters Lionel Houser, Adele Comandini and Aileen Hamilton). Dennis Morgan's war hero is a cool guy, an artist, singer, pianist, overall sensitive soul and most of all A FOODIE, whose his very first sentence in the movie includes the word "bordelaise". While Elizabeth Lane loves a mink coat and a stiff drink, she is also a generous and good-hearted gal who loaned the money for her pal Felix to launch his successful restaurant. Indeed, the practice of writing characters that an audience can actually sympathize with is yet another lost art.

Of course, everything ends swimmingly and Happy Homemaker Liz and the war hero no doubt (post fade-out) live happily ever after, teaching each other to cook all the while - BABY, and how!

Such tidy scenarios would definitely not be the road Ms. Stanwyck's career or American cinema would take as the 1940's progressed. Through the 1940's and 1950's, she would go on to star in many more classic film noirs, none of which have happy endings or qualify as "foodie flicks", as well as such gritty modern westerns as Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns, before a successful career in television.

Her subsequent films with the director of Christmas In Connecticut, Peter Godfrey, are the substantially darker The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Cry Wolf.

Here's the trailer - and readers note, this holiday classic is finally out on Blu-ray. It's a good double bill with Remember The Night, or, if you're as twisted as this author, Double Indemnity!


Christmas In Connecticut: Directed by Peter Godfrey. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, Reginald Gardiner, S. Z. Sakall, Robert Shayne, Una O'Connor.

Again, we extend big time thanks, with a CHEERS and ceremonial clink of Nick & Nora Charles' Glenlivet-filled tumblers, to Fritzi, Aurora and Ruth from Movies Silently, Once Upon A Screen and Silver Screenings for hosting this blogathon, which has posted many fine pieces by top-notch writers - and to Flicker Alley for sponsoring it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Opening Tonight: Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival At Niles

The 18th Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival starts tonight. The event includes a walking tour of Niles, as well as the customary lineup of vintage films shot in and around the area for the Essanay company.

The Essanay productions shall include Broncho Billy westerns and comedies from the Snakeville series starring Harry Todd, Margaret Joslin, Victor Potel and Ben Turpin (who boxes future director Lloyd Bacon in Snakeville’s Champion).

Author and film historian David Kiehn has been the curator and prime mover behind the festival, now in its 18th year.

David arrived in Niles in 1995 to conduct research for a screenplay on the western division of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company and ended up writing the book on filmmaking at Niles, Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, as well as discovering the historic "walk down Market Street" footage shot just before the 1906 earthquake.

The three-day event starts with a reception at 5:30 p.m. For more info, see Mary Mallory's article on the festival, posted earlier this week as the June entry of her Hollywood Heights column in the LA Daily Mirror.

Festival passes and tickets are available on the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum website. The festival schedule is here for download.