Tuesday, March 31, 2015
"If Fred Allen bit the hand that fed him, Henry Morgan tried to bite off the whole arm." Gerald Nachman, from Raised On Radio
"Henry's 1/2 hour radio shows with sketches, an orchestra, supporting cast and studio audience were good, but they were nowhere near as funny as the early Here's Morgan shows where Henry sat by himself in front of a microphone and just basically bitched for 15 minutes." Gerry Orlando
"He was ahead of his time, but he was also hurt by his own disposition. He was very difficult. He was so brilliant that he'd get exasperated and he'd sulk. He was a great mind who never achieved the success he should have." Ed Herlihy
"Whenever it is quiet in Washington, you can count on the Un-American committee to issue a report. Maybe sometime later, when it has a chance, it will start gathering the facts." Henry Morgan (1915-1994)
Today is the centenary of the birth of humorist Henry Morgan. A supreme irony remains that, although his primary claim to fame was as panelist for the popular TV game show I've Got a Secret, Morgan's enduring legacy is as a biting social critic. His sensibility followed the gentle but prescient comedian-actor-commentator Will Rogers by two decades and preceded the take-no-prisoners (and even more prescient) political satirist and "standup philosopher" Bill Hicks by four decades.
There were amazing, innovative, brilliant and creative artists working in radio, from dramatist Norman Corwin to (the topic of yesterday's post) Bob & Ray to, a bit later, Stan Freberg and even, on WABC-New York, the great Ernie Kovacs.
First and foremost, let's hear a little of Henry's work as a radio writer-performer. In an era of disposable, transitory entertainment, Morgan's essential edge, intelligence and love of language still hold.
Author and pop culture historian Kliph Nesteroff wrote a dead-on article (including the following graphic), Henry Morgan: Fuck The Sponsor, posted in July 2007 on WFMU's Beware Of The Blog. In something akin to the W.C. Fields tradition, Morgan was bilious, curmudgeonly, cranky, had no use for American culture in general, really did not respect authority and, even more than Sam Kinison decades later, teed off on women (unfortunately and alarmingly, both on and off the radio). Not surprisingly, Mr. Morgan regarded the brass ring of media stardom with contempt.
The piece by Nesteroff of the Classic Television Showbiz blog succinctly zeroes in on Morgan's career as a wit, intellect, iconoclast and shit disturber from a time - The McCarthy Era - generally not known for such things (at least outside The Four M's of Modern Jazz at the time - Miles, Mingus, Monk and Max Roach).
Morgan explored the terrain broken by the previous generation of radio comics - ESPECIALLY Fred Allen - and could also be considered a dyspeptic, rather Oscar Levant-like take on such "guy, a studio and a microphone" broadcasting staples as Arthur Godfrey. Radio and animation expert Don M. Wowp wrote about Morgan on his Tralfaz blog in an August 2012 post, Good Evening Anybody.
One trait we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog love the most about Henry Morgan was his willingness to razz and humiliate the sponsor - always with rapier-like wit - at all times.
His swan song, after several showbiz comebacks, each ending with him walking off a program in disgust and usually insulting someone in the process, would be the 1994 memoir Here's Morgan! The Original Bad Boy of Broadcasting, which presents Henry's numerous stories and escapades, of course, with delightful trademark vitriol.
One imagines Morgan and Corwin collaborating on just such a radio series: The Life And Times Of Henry Morgan, Bad Boy Of Broadcasting, a careening travelog filled with one-liners worthy of S.J. Perelman.
Several sarcasm-packed Henry Morgan radio shows are available for download on archive.org. These would include three episodes of Here's Morgan, as well as The Henry Morgan Show. More examples of The Henry Morgan Show from the 1947 season can be found on the Old Time Radio Downloads website. The CD seen at the top of this post can be ordered through Radio Spirits or from the Hamilton Book website.
Indeed, it is a fitting epitaph that - and, yes, this is a stretch - one could also draw parallels between Morgan, in his wonderfully caustic 1940's and early 1950's heydey, and the defiantly cantankerous Mark Twain.
Monday, March 30, 2015
Yes, comedy is our beat at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog and we consider these two guys easily among the funniest human beings to ever have walked the earth - the great Bob & Ray!
And if the dyed-in-the-wool comedy geek who writes this blog ever forgets that salient truth for a moment, he immediately watches "the cranberry bit". . .
Then, it's time to listen to all of the audio clips posted on the Bob & Ray website.
And then consider, just as another example, their "Komodo Dragon" routine:
RAY: Tonight we’re talking to Darrel Dexter, the Komodo-dragon expert, from Upper Montclair, New Jersey. Say, doctor, would you tell us a little bit about the Komodo dragon?
BOB: Happy to! The Komodo dragon is the world’s largest living lizard. It’s a ferocious carnivore found on the steep-sloped island of Komodo, in the lesser Sunda chain of the Indonesian archipelago, and the nearby islands of Rintja, Padar, and Flores.
RAY: Where do they come from?
BOB: [Mystified pause.] The Komodo dragon, world’s largest living lizard, is found on the island of Komodo, in the lesser Sunda chain of the Indonesian Archipelago, and the nearby islands of Rinja, Padar, and Flores. We have two in this country that were given to us some years ago by the late former Premier of Indonesia, Sukarno, and they reside in the National Zoo, in Washington.
RAY: I, ah, believe I read somewhere, where a foreign potentate gave America some Komodo dragons. Is that true?
BOB: [Pause.] Yes. The former Premier of Indonesia, Sukarno, gifted our country with two Komodo dragons—the world’s largest living lizards—and they reside at the National Zoo, in Washington.
RAY: Well, now, if we wanted to take the youngsters to see a Komodo dragon—where would we take them?
The team had a TV show in 1951-1953 which is quite funny and consistent with their work through a four decade career.
Note, among the supporting talent, the presence of ace comedienne Audrew Meadows!
Bob & Ray, as did Stan Freberg, contributed their voices and creativity to some of the funniest TV commercials.
For more. . . check out this New Yorker article, Looking Back At Bob And Ray by Joshua Rothman and Don M. Yowp's piece Were Bob & Ray A Success? earlier this month from Tralfaz.
And of course, last but not least, all the good stuff from Bob And Ray.com.
Always liked their radio show signoff: "I'm Ray, saying write if you get work - and I'm Bob reminding you to hang by your thumbs!"
Thursday, March 26, 2015
March 2015 is a time for retro big screen fun on an epic scale. Yours truly just provided hard work, lots of rewinding, a keen eye for the ridiculous plus the essential "and now for something completely different" sensibility - not to mention plenty of 16mm tape splices - to last weekend's KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival at Foothill College.
Sadly, this month saw the last of the annual Syracuse Cinefest marathons, run for 35 years with great love of movies by Gerry Orlando, plus numerous stalwart historians and silent film accompanists.
Today, the TCM Classic Film Festival, by far the most lavishly funded among this roster of events, kicks off its 2015 incarnation. The theme is History According to Hollywood, so a number of epic motion pictures along these lines - Inherit The Wind, Judgement At Nuremberg, Lawrence Of Arabia, Madame Curie, Malcolm X, A Man For All Seasons, Patton, Reign Of Terror, They Were Expendable and Young Mr. Lincoln - are among the offerings.
Fortunately for those who cannot attend, the Film Noir Foundation's 2014 Nancy Mysel Legacy Project Recipient and writer of the Sinematic Salve-ation blog, Los Angeles archivist Ariel Schudsen, will be covering the festival in detail - no doubt with her customary enthusiasm and insight. Am especially awaiting her review of the French Revolution "guillotine noir" directed by the incendiary and mindbogglingly creative Anthony Mann.
While having my difficulties reconciling the phrase "reign of terror" with star Robert Cummings - incongruous pop culture associations to light comedies, the 1950's TV sitcom Love That Bob (a.k.a. The Bob Cummings Show) and that not-too-great Twilight Zone episode he starred in are plentiful - this opus, after all was helmed by one of the greatest and most versatile directors who ever rocked a 35mm movie camera.
The authors of The Dawn Of Technicolor will be there to give a presentation not to be missed by those who love movies and film preservation.
The Dawn Of Technicolor by James Layton and David Pierce is a stunning piece of scholarship and a must-read. It includes an annotated filmography of all two-color Technicolor titles produced between 1915 and 1935.
Since the impressive lineup includes quite a few titles which have somehow escaped this correspondent through decades of crazed moviegoing, today's posting shall note just a scant few highlights, including a number of Blogmeister Favorites.
Many moons ago, this movie buff was completely and entirely blown away at a college screening of Orson Welles' Chimes At Midnight a.k.a Falstaff - a 16mm print. Your Correspondent has not seen it since but recalls being absolutely stunned and sitting quietly for at least 10 minutes before arising and exiting the college theatre.
Yes, the gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog would love to catch a 35mm print of this Orson Welles masterpiece, Falstaff a.k.a. Chimes At Midnight on the big screen sometime.
Many more moons ago - a LOT longer ago - this writer took a Castle Films 8mm reel of a certain comedian juggling cigar boxes and watched it over and over and over. Said comic is represented in the festival by one of the funniest and most outrageous pieces from his long career in show business, the 1940 Universal feature, The Bank Dick.
And speaking of comedians, there's also The Loved One, a wonderful black comedy directed by Tony Richardson and written by the formidable Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood.
The Loved One features the John Coltrane of extemporaneous comedy, Jonathan Winters, the incomparable King Of Improv (with his friend, the late Robin Williams, seated by his side as The Dark Prince), along with an all-star ensemble including Anjanette Comer, Robert Morse, Rod Steiger, Liberace, "Uncle Miltie" Berle and many more!
It's preaching to the classic movie converted to gush about one of the funniest screwball comedies ever made, My Man Godfrey, viewed as many times by this writer as fanboys have seen Star Wars AND The Empire Strikes Back combined, but it will receive a return to big screen glory as part of this festival.
There is Gregory LaCava's direction, the hilarious Carole Lombard, a wonderfully snotty performance by Gail Patrick (future producer of TV's Perry Mason), comic character actors galore and a simple but solid storyline tracing how a scion of the Boston well-to-do, beaten badly by the bottle, makes his way back to the world of the living as a (strictly incognito) butler.
And, speaking of a director known for screwball comedies, Preston Sturges is represented by one of his quieter and more evocative Paramount films, and a personal favorite - Christmas In July.
The devastating noir thriller Nightmare Alley, a tale of sleazy sideshow skullduggery starring heartthrob Tyrone Power as a scumbag, will do what it normally does - surprise the living daylights out of an audience.
On a lighter note, there's The Smiling Lieutenant, a signature "Lubitsch Touch" sophisticated comedy starring ever-randy Maurice Chevalier. Of course, this movie being seriously Pre-code, we KNOW why the lieutenant is smiling. . . he's making whoopee with Claudette Colbert AND Miriam Hopkins, although, as far as we know, not at the same time.
Also notable: one of the few silver screen appearances of internationally famous magician and ingenious escape artist Harry Houdini, in his first feature film, The Grim Game.
A highlight of the festival will be an epic film starring Buster Keaton, who knew the legendary Houdini as a key friend and cohort going all the way back to days as the acrobatic child performer in The Three Keatons, billed as "the human mop". In Steamboat Bill Jr., the Great Stone Face will thrill a theatrical audience yet again with his filmmaking genius, indefatigable derring-do and impossible stunts, accompanied by the world premiere of an original score composed and conducted by Maestro Carl Davis.
So, dear readers, if you happen to be in Hollywood, run, don't walk to this fest. Further details are available here.
Sunday, March 15, 2015
Poster by Scott Moon. Lobby card by Sci Fi Bob Ekman.
Well, it's darn near springtime, so that means it's time for the customary March-April KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival, of course.
The customary March-April WHAT? Psychotronix WHAT??
That would be, rinse and repeat, the KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival, a hallucinatory "three hour tour" through the far, unsung and very, very odd frontiers of popular culture.
That means Scopitones, Soundies and other even more obscure musical shorts.
Also means trailers from drive-in movies starring non-union actors in cheap robot, gorilla and "thunder lizard" suits, theatre snack bar ads, well-meaning but inept 1950's educational films, vintage TV commercials, silent comedy clips and cartoon rarities.
The festival is to some degree a reaction against all standard rules of film programming/curating.
Instead of devoting a screening to one director, genre or one series, we throw a wide variety of films from different places, genres, techniques and time periods together in the pop culture Osterizer - and hit that "frappe" button.
Your tour guides, archivist-producers Bob Ekman, Scott Moon and yours truly, create the program on the fly, responding to audience reaction and choosing films accordingly.
One can hear the perpetrators of the festival, Paul F. Etcheverry (a.k.a. Monsieur Blogmeister), Sci Fi Bob Ekman and Scott Moon of Planet X Magazine, plug the all-16mm celluloid extravaganza tomorrow evening, March 16, from 6:00 - 7:00 p.m. PST with host Robert Emmett on the KFJC 89.7 FM Thoughtline show.
As fate would have it, the next KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival will occur this Saturday - think it's the #54th or 55th one (we started doing this in December 1992).
Poster by Judy Zillen.
The KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival
When: Saturday, March 21, 2015, 7:00 to 11:30 PM
Where: Room 5015, Foothill College campus
12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills (El Monte exit off 280)
Why: We like cheesy movies.
$5 Donation Benefits KFJC. Bring $3 for Parking.
Parking: Lot #5.
Public Transit: Cal Train and VTA
Info: Foothill College Transportation & Parking. Arrive early, as the shows often sell out. Doors open at 6:00 p.m. Be there or be oblong!
Sunday, March 08, 2015
A good friend of this blog coined the phrase "you are not your family" - and truer words were never spoken.
As fate would have it, the favorite cable TV channel of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, oddly, both during the 31 Days Of Oscar retrospective and also since it ended, has been running an inordinate number of films spotlighting unusual and not-so-unusual dysfunctional family dynamics.
Turner Classic Movies has recently run Sir Alfred Hitchcock's mega-diabolical Strangers On A Train and Psycho, John Frankenheimer's 1957 father-son drama The Young Stranger, the documentary Grey Gardens (possibly due to the recent passing of Albert Maysles), as well as Quentin Tarantino favorite Jack Hill's very grim fairy tale Spider Baby, all within a few days.
The Young Stranger, the filmmaking debut of talented director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds) is a bit of a sleeper. The versatile character actor James MacArthur (1937-2010), subsequently the co-star of the long-running TV series Hawaii Five-O, brought acting chops and big time showbiz pedigree as the son of Charles McArthur and stage legend Helen Hayes, to the mix.
It deals with the complete breakdown in communication between a son and father in a wealthy family. In a process that occurs only with work, difficulty, intelligence, persistence and keen awareness in real life but can happen within two hours of reel life, The Young Stranger resolves the polarization in a way that actually is credible.
As expected, there is no resolution and no hope for the dysfunctional family in the Hitchcock films. In addition, the characters are much more cartoonish in the two thrillers than those in The Young Stranger. The mother of the psycho-killer in Strangers is utterly clueless and played by Marion Lorne, later to portray batty Aunt Clara on TV's Bewitched.
The film by Albert and David Maysles, on the one hand, is an extremely skillfully crafted and brilliant documentary but, on the other hand, at least for this viewer, at times lands squarely in the TMI (Too Much Information) department and can be considered a forerunner of godawful "reality television" which - along with reverse mortgages, cable TV "news" and credit default swaps - tops the "Scourges Of Western Civilization" lists.
Grey Gardens, about the frighteningly isolated existence of Jackie Kennedy Onassis cousins "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale in a dilapidated East Hampton mansion is, however, increasingly timely, as untold thousands of individuals struggle to care for elderly parents. The Maysles' savvy, unsparing cameras record many painful and sad moments, especially those in which Big Edie is really, really nasty to Little Edie; no doubt, most of us would, in a heartbeat, send the filmmakers on a Slow Boat To China (which, incidentally, is NOT one of the songs the Bouvier Beales sing with spirit and complete tone deafness during the film).
Little Edie had her problems in life, but was not without charm. We also have a hunch that the writers of The Simpsons opted to have the maiden name of intrepid, long suffering matriarch Marge (and, yes, her chain-smoking sisters) be Bouvier because of Grey Gardens.
And then there's not Maude, but Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, Cannibal Orgy or The Liver Eaters, a tale of "family values" gone spectacularly, unthinkably awry, directed and written by grindhouse auteur Jack Hill (Coffy, Foxy Brown, The Big Bird Cage, Switchblade Sisters). It's based on H. P. Lovecraft's terrifying story The Lurking Fear and cinematically somewhat along the lines of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane meets Psycho, with just a dash of Tennessee Williams style Southern fried decadence. Premise: three orphans, the products of many generations of in-breeding, are afflicted with a horrific disease that rapidly transforms one into a pre-human, primitive and insanely violent life form.
Hill's vivid and gallows humor-drenched piece of American Gothic stars prolific television actress Jill Banner, Carol Ohmart from William Castle's House On Haunted Hill and ultra-menacing movie heavy (and accomplished drummer) Sid Haig.
Is Spider Baby exploitative and cheap? Yes! Are there totally gratuitous sequences of women in lingerie? Uh huh. Could there be egregious mistakes (booms in the shot, etc.) throughout? Indeed. Implications of things too horrific and disgusting to contemplate? Yes. Packed with political incorrectness (appalling even for a Z-movie made more than 50 years ago)? All of the above.
We know what we're in for when the horror flick opens with an unfortunate postman played by veteran character actor and legendary "blue" standup comic Mantan Moreland getting treated like a Swift's Butterball holiday turkey (ouch - that's gotta hurt). Given the circumstances, we can forgive Mr. Chaney's character's difficulties with his deranged and psychotic charges, especially in imparting such lessons as "don't yell kill kill kill" and "don't eat the visitors".
Why does any ghastly movie appeal to a blogger who considers current ultra-violent films totally unwatchable and associates the phrase "horror movie" with 1930's Universal Pictures directed by James Whale? Because, due to Hill's imaginative cinematography and demented vision, Spider Baby succeeds as a piece of genuine gothic horror. The twisted tale is very skillfully shot, lit, framed and edited. Disagree strongly with those who consider this (and, for that matter, Martin Scorsese's unrelentingly gruesome mafia flick Good Fellas) a "comedy", but there is dark humor, especially the soundtrack that uses "The Itsy Bitsy Spider", throughout.
What also elevates this from the usual B-horror movie schlock fare is a performance by Lon Chaney, Jr. that is surprisingly poignant, heartfelt and affecting. His character loves those three kids, in spite of the fact that they are, due to no fault of their own, criminally insane. Jack Hill's direction successfully brings out the warmth and empathy Chaney hinted at in his Universal films (Man Made Monster in particular) and also demonstrated in such 1960's B-horror chestnuts as Witchcraft. Mr. Chaney, who couldn't have had an easy go in life as the son of arguably the silent cinema's single greatest actor, also sings the title song - and no, it's not (please forgive the author) "people. . . people who eat people. . . are the LUCKIEST people" - with conviction.
Mostly thanks to Hill's creative use of black-and-white cinematography, editing, pacing and music, Spider Baby is as frightening and horribly humorous as an EC The Haunt Of Fear, Tales Of The Crypt or The Vault Of Horror comic. Unquestionably, if the unspeakable actions of the Merrye family had been presented in graphic detail, Your Correspondent would be the first who could not watch the film. . . at all. . . not one second, not one frame.
Shot in 1964 and shelved for several years after the film's real estate agent backers went belly up, Spider Baby is also to some degree a prototype for the "sick sick sick" black comedy The Undertaker & His Pals and such later grisly (but popular) horror flicks as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. Most of us would rather try our luck with Stormin' Norman Bates AND "That Crazy Bruno" Anthony rather than the merry and mucho murderous Merrye clan.
Also a feather in the Jack Hill film's demented cap: the invoking of Moe Howard Theory - Moe behaves like an obnoxious jerk, then IMMEDIATELY gets brained by a Jules White trademark very large metal object - in the part of the storyline when greedy slimebag relatives and their sleazy lawyer arrive to brazenly steal the Merrye estate. The miscreants, of course, get theirs - and how. Funny, whenever Moe Howard Theory was used, even in the absolute worst 1950's Three Stooges short, it meant an automatic laugh.
What prompted this blog post - casting about movie genres from 1950's Hollywood drama to Hitchcock thriller to mid-1970's documentary to B-horror - in the first place? The realization that Chaney's character, the chauffeur/caretaker responsible for three stark raving mad, homicidally violent children in Spider Baby, and the evil psycho-killer played by Robert Walker in Strangers On A Train were both named Bruno.