hail, hail freedonia

“Duck Soup” (1933) airs tonight at 7 p.m. Central on Turner Classic Movies, as this week’s installment of the family-friendly summer series “TCM Movie Camp.”

Marx Brothers fans – and I’m definitely one – know their work can be divided into two distinct eras. From 1929 through 1933, Paramount released films featuring four Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo. “Duck Soup” was the last of the movies the boys made for Paramount. Now, many people – and I’m definitely one – consider it their best, but at the time it was a flop, and Paramount dropped the Marx Brothers like a hot potato.

On stage, though never in the movies, there had been a fifth Marx Brother, Gummo (real name Milton). In the interim after the boys were fired by Paramount, Zeppo (real name Herbert) left the act and joined Gummo in starting a successful talent agency. Zeppo didn’t really have much of a comic persona anyway; he primarily played straight man to the others.

MGM, where boy wonder Irving Thalberg was still in a leading role, hired the three remaining Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, and Harpo – and their first MGM movie was 1935’s “A Night At The Opera.”

Zeppo isn’t the only difference between the Paramount Marx Brothers and the MGM Marx Brothers. At Paramount, the boys were more anarchic. But Thalberg – and those who followed him – put more of a story to the brothers’ comedy, and usually had them helping someone out. They were trying to help out young lovers in “A Night At The Opera,” trying to raise money to keep a hospital open in “A Day At The Races,” and so on. In some ways, this undermines the anarchy – part of the fun of the Paramount Marx Brothers is that lunacy is their first priority, and the plot is an afterthought.

Granted, “A Night At The Opera,” their first MGM movie, is one of their funniest – probably because of Thalberg’s craft as a producer. But Thalberg died during the making of “A Day At The Races,” and fans are in general agreement that the MGM Marx Brothers movies go downhill fast from there.

The trouble, of course, is that TCM’s parent company owns the MGM library, so TCM can show the MGM Marx Brothers movies as often as it likes. It has to pay for the rights to the Paramount Marx Brothers movies (strangely enough, it has to pay Universal, which at some point bought the rights to much of Paramount’s classic-era library). TCM shows “Duck Soup” fairly regularly, as well as “Horse Feathers,” and occasionally “Monkey Business,” but hardly ever shows “Cocoanuts” or “Animal Crackers.”

Enough of my quibbling. “Duck Soup” is on tonight, and as I said earlier I think it’s the all-time best Marx Brothers movie. The movie takes place in the fictitious country of Freedonia. The country is badly in debt, and its wealthiest citizen, Mrs. Teasdale, won’t loan it any more money unless Rufus T. Firelfly (Groucho) is appointed leader. Meanwhile, the ambassador for neighboring Sylvania is up to no good and hires Chico and Harpo as spies.

DISCUSSION QUESTION: Whose faith is more misplaced – Mrs. Teasdale, who for some unexplained reason thinks Groucho can run a country, or the ambassador, who thinks Chico and Harpo can overcome their ADD long enough to collect any useful information?

Anyway, this is a Paramount Marx Brothers movie, so as I indicated earlier the plot isn’t really that important. The movie is loaded with all sorts of humor – from verbal jousting to the famous (and completely silent) mirror scene between Groucho and Harpo. It’s just funny, at so many levels.

The Spoils Before Dying

If you missed “Eric Jonrosh’s ‘The Spoils of Babylon'” last summer, I feel sorry for you. But the good news is, “The Spoils Before Dying” starts next month on IFC.

“The Spoils of Babylon” was, supposedly, the magnum opus of novelist-turned-producer Eric Jonrosh, filmed at the height of the miniseries craze in the late 70s or early 80s (think “Rich Man, Poor Man,” or “The Thorn Birds,” or “The Winds of War”). Jonrosh adapted his biggest novel for the screen. But the network wouldn’t air it, and so it sat in a vault for years until last summer, when it was broadcast for the very first time, with each episode personally introduced by the bloated, bearded Jonrosh, along with his personal remembrances of the cast and the challenges faced during production.

Only that’s not it at all. There is no “Eric Jonrosh”; the fellow who introduced the miniseries last year was actually Will Ferrell wearing a fat suit and a fake beard and doing his best impression of latter-day, past-his-prime Orson Welles. “The Spoils of Babylon” actually starred Tobey Maguire, Kristin Wiig, Tim Robbins and Haley Joel Osment, although they were given fake actor names in the opening credits of the first episode, to tie in with the pretense that this whole thing was shot in the 1970s. It was a hilarious parody of the potboiler miniseries genre, with brilliant performances by the four leads and various guest stars including Val Kilmer, David Spade, Jessica Alba, Michael Sheen and Molly Shannon.

Well, “The Spoils Before Dying” will be the same thing — not a sequel to “Babylon” but supposedly a “fully restored” adaptation of a different (and just as non-existent) Eric Jonrosh novel, this one with more of a film noir feel:

I cannot wait.

people say they monkey around

My sister got me a DVD of Head (1968) for my birthday. I’d seen bits and pieces of it once, but I’d never watched the whole thing until tonight.

“Head,” of course, stars The Monkees — Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz and Michael Nesmith. It came out right after the cancellation of their TV series. It was directed by Bob Rafaelson and co-written by Rafaelson and Jack Nicholson – yes, that Jack Nicholson – right before the two of them went on to make “Easy Rider.” (Rafaelson, in fact, had been an executive producer of the Monkees’ TV show, and directed some of its episodes.)

The Monkees were, of course, not the type of organic band that comes together in high school or college. They were cast, by TV and music executives, as characters on a TV show, to be TV’s answer to the Beatles. But the Monkees weren’t satisfied with just being TV characters. They were discouraged at first that they had no control over their music, but they pushed for and eventually got that kind of control. You can’t blame the Monkees for having been cast; they at least had musical talent, and the ambition of being something more than an assembly line product. Even John Lennon defended them in an interview:

“They’ve got their own scene, and I won’t send them down for it. You try a weekly television show and see if you can manage one half as good!”

The TV show “The Monkees” is family-friendly – so much so that reruns of it ran several times on Saturday morning TV back when the networks put children’s programming on Saturday mornings. (Kids, ask your parents.) The TV show owes a lot to the Beatles’ movie “A Hard Day’s Night,” with a little bit of the rebellion toned down and a little bit of slapstick thrown in. The musical numbers from both “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Monkees” set a template that would be followed by music videos a dozen years later, and Michael Nesmith, working as a director in the period around 1980, is considered one of the innovators of the music video format. It was a proof-of-concept show he produced for Time-Warner Cable which led to the creation of MTV.

“Head,” which came out about the time that the Monkees’ TV show had been cancelled, and at a time when conventional wisdom cast doubt on the band’s future, is more psychedelic than “The Monkees.” There’s no real story – just a series of bits and pieces, jumping here and there, to and fro, with musical numbers mixed in.

It was a failure at the time, but I found it to be a lot of fun – and there’s some fun meta-commentary about the Monkees’ own struggles to break out of the box in which they’d been put. Toward the end of the movie, they’re literally trapped in a box. They’re also battling a Jolly Green Giant-sized version of actor Victor Mature, and at least one critic has pointed out that this is probably a not-so-subtle jab at RCA Victor, the Monkees’ record label. (RCA had also been their TV employer, since it was the parent company of NBC.)

If anything, “Head” reminds me less of a Beatles movie than it does of two other bits of psychedelia I’ve seen from that same time frame: Skidoo (1968) and Good Times (1967). “Skidoo” is Otto Preminger’s attempt to make a drug culture movie, and it has a bizarre cast including Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero. Skidoo attempts a plot, but just barely.

“Good Times,” not to be confused with the 1970s sitcom starring Jimmie Walker, John Amos and Esther Rolle, stars Sonny and Cher. It’s not very good as a movie but it’s a lot of fun if you think of it as a variety show – or maybe just a series of music videos. The plot, which is really just a framing device, is that Sonny has signed himself and Cher, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, to a movie contract with a powerful and vaguely-sinister studio executive (George Sanders). Cher is skeptical about the idea, but Sonny tries to convince her by brainstorming possible ideas for a movie, which turn into fantasy sequences built around musical numbers. There’s a western, a Tarzan movie, and so on.

“Skidoo” is one of those things you have to see once just for the novelty of it, but it’s not really a very good movie per se. “Good Times” isn’t a very good movie either, but I’ve watched it more than once just because the musical numbers are so great, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“Head” seems like it’s in the same vein as “Skidoo” and “Good Times,” but it ends up being quite a bit better than either of them – maybe because it was trying, not just to pander to what producers imagined the youth demographic wanted, but to make a statement. The Monkees may or may not have hoped that it would be taken seriously as a work of art, but in any case it was a statement of defiance, an attempt to show that they were something more than sitcom characters.

for a few daleks more

A week from tonight, on Thursday the 28th, Turner Classic Movies will broadcast “Dr. Who and the Daleks.”

As you know, I’m a big fan of the TV show “Doctor Who.” I was first introduced to the classic version of the show in the early 1980s, when I was in college and Oklahoma Public Television ran Tom Baker or Peter Davison episodes every night.

I’m a big enough fan to know a couple of things:

  • “Doctor” is always spelled out in the title of the TV show
  • The primary character of the TV show “Doctor Who” is not called “Doctor Who.” That’s a rookie mistake. The character is “The Doctor”; the show is “Doctor Who.”

I have gone on at length in other blog posts explaining what “Doctor Who” is for those unfamiliar. I will, however, explain that the original version of the show (which ran from 1963 to 1989), a mid-90s TV movie, and the current version of the show (which started in 2005) are all part of the same continuity – one long storyline, if you will. The new version isn’t a remake or reboot of the original; it’s a continuation.

Anyway, “Dr. Who and the Daleks” is not an episode of the TV show. It’s one of two movies from the 1960s which attempted to launch a theatrical movie franchise. Both movies were adapted from stories that had already been done on the British TV show, but they made changes to the show’s basic premise and so the two movies are NOT considered part of that continuity I just spoke of. In the movies, “Dr. Who” is not an alien, he’s a human who just happens to be a brilliant inventor, the creator of a time machine (the TARDIS).

The Daleks, by the way, are the Doctor’s most-famous adversaries. They are like evil versions of R2D2 – not robots, actually, but cyborgs: living brains, bent on galactic dominance, in robotic, salt-shaker-shaped bodies.

The movies don’t hold up to the TV show, but fans may want to see them just out of curiosity. Peter Cushing stars as “Dr. Who.” The second movie, “Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.”, features a very young Bernard Cribbins, who would turn up decades later as one of the most-beloved guest characters on the new version of “Doctor Who,” Donna Noble’s grandfather Wilf. I have seen “Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.,” but I have never seen “Dr. Who and the Daleks,” so I have set to tape it next week on TCM. I don’t expect it to be very good, based on what I’ve read, but it could be fun just as a novelty.

goodbye, goodbye

I flipped over to IFC to watch “Comedy Bang! Bang!”, one of my favorites, and the movie “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” was ending. There’s a song, played at the end of the movie and during the credits, called “Goodbye, Goodbye,” by Oingo Boingo.

The catchy chorus made be flash back to 1993. On what would be the very last night of “Late Night with David Letterman,” NBC aired a promo for the show which featured that chorus – “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye” – over slow-motion footage of Dave standing up from behind his talk show desk and walking away. I don’t think it was anything staged; I think they just got a clip from some previous episode, slowed it down, and added the music. It was minimalist – but strangely appropriate. I was surprised the network was doing promos at all, because of the awkward and highly-publicized situation that led to Letterman’s exit, and the fact that he was already preparing to set up shop elsewhere.

CBS, of course, is still on good terms with Letterman, and they know that his last shows – which have been great – are a ratings windfall. So they’ve been promoting them heavily. I saw one promo last night, referencing the very last show this coming Wednesday, which included just a little snippet of “Viva La Vida” – the Coldplay song with the lyrics about “when I ruled the world.” They didn’t actually have the lyrics in the promo – just the catchy string intro. But it still evoked a sort of nostalgia. One of those SNL decade-by-decade documentaries ended with that same song, used to that same effect.

Dave is scheduled to have Tom Hanks on Monday, and Bill Murray (who was the first guest on both “Late Night” and “Late Show”) on Tuesday. Like Johnny Carson, he has no announced guests for his final night, so we’ll see what happens then. The rumor is that there’s going to be some sort of all-star Top Ten list, with ten huge stars delivering the entries, but I don’t know which night that might happen. Surely Regis will show up at some point. Dave has pooh-poohed the idea of Leno making an appearance. Dave, in at least one interview, said Leno invited Dave to appear on one of his last shows, but Letterman declined, saying the focus should be on Leno. Dave then said Leno had been invited, but may feel the same way about stealing focus from Letterman. Still, I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. They were able to keep that Super Bowl promo a total secret a few years back, so perhaps they have some similar surprise here. (Maybe Wednesday’s show will end with them waking up in bed together, “Newhart” style.)

Oprah is on tonight, by the way.

Other Space

I didn’t binge-watch “Other Space” all in one sitting, but it only took me a few days to get through the eight-episode season of this quirky science-fiction comedy. I thought it was terrific, and I’m hoping against hope for another season. I don’t know if that’s likely, since creator Paul Feig (who originally pitched this show to NBC, years ago) is now better known for movies like “Bridesmaids.”

This isn’t for everyone. It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of “Red Dwarf” or even “Futurama” — a playful comedy which has some fun with science fiction tropes.

The thing that caught my eye in advance was the participation of not one but two veterans of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Joel Hodgson plays a live-action role, while Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Clayton Forrester and one of the voices of Crow T. Robot) is the voice of another robot, named ART. The show also, strangely enough, has actors from two different AT&T advertising campaigns. Karan Soni plays the closest thing the show has to a central character, and he played one of those two technicians who appeared in several different ads about AT&T upgrading its network. (“Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?”)

Milana Vayntrub, meanwhile, is nearly ubiquitous (unless you watch everything by DVR and skip through the commercials) as Lily, the perky AT&T wireless salesperson.

Anyway, the show is set in an future where space travel has become sort of routine. There’s a space agency called the Universal Mapping Project, or UMP, but most of Earth has lost interest. There are still those with the itch to explore, however, including the cheery, eternally optimistic Stewart Lipinksi (Soni) and his hard-driven, ultra-competitive sister Karen (Bess Rous). Stewart, somewhat improbably, gets command of his own ship, with his furious sister as one of his crew members. But Stewart, Karen and their largely-incompetent, misfit crew have just begun their journey when they get bumped into an unknown alternate universe. They must find a way to stay alive — and keep from killing one another — until they can figure out how to get back home.

The whole ensemble cast is excellent, including the names already mentioned plus Neil Casey, Eugene Cordero and Conor Leslie. Hodgson seems to be having a ball as the ship’s somewhat-addled engineer.

It really is fun, if you’re any sort of science fiction geek, and I really do hope they get to make another season.

Here’s the first episode. You can watch others at the Yahoo! Screen web site or by installing the Yahoo! Screen channel on Roku and similar devices. (“Community” is also available there.)

uncle walt’s archives

When the Disney Channel first went on the air, it was a premium channel, not ad-supported, although not every cable system charged for it. It was aimed at the whole family. Some offered it for free, as a way of boosting subscriptions. And it was originally conceived, in part, as a way of leveraging the huge vault of content the Disney company had acquired over the years, some of which hadn’t been seen in years.

As time went on, of course, the channel’s emphasis shifted, and now the Disney Channel is mostly about new content, some animated, some live action. There are several different channels, all aimed at kids — The Disney Channel is aimed slightly more at girls, while Disney XD is slightly more for boys, and there’s a separate channel for younger kids. But it’s kind of a shame that there’s no full-time showcase for some of that older material.

So it’s nice that Disney now has a deal with Turner Classic Movies to occasionally showcase older Disney content, in a Sunday-night package hosted by Leonard Maltin. It’s been running tonight, with a mix of movies, cartoon shorts and Disney TV episodes. I just wish there was some way to see some of that content more often. I also wonder what Walt would think about the fact that, with all of the channels owned by ABC and Disney, this material has to find a home on someone else’s channel.

things snl ought to bring back

NOTE: I will be liveblogging the “Saturday Night Live” 40th anniversary prime time special at this website Sunday night.

I have really enjoyed VH1 Classic’s “SNL Rewind,” a rerun of the vast majority of “Saturday Night Live” in reverse chronological order (except for a few themed programming blocks) over the past week or two, in preparation for the show’s 40th anniversary special on Sunday night.

One thing I’ve noticed (and I didn’t necessarily see all of these episodes during “SNL Rewind” – in some cases, I was just reminded of them) is that at certain points in the show’s history, they’ve been willing to monkey around with the format a little bit. Some of these variations were things I wish they’d revive – at least every now and then:

Onscreen graphics: I loved the little bumpers they ran during the original years of the show when going to commercial (“COMING UP: Is Roy Rogers Trigger-Happy?”), especially the ones where they’d zoom in on some unsuspecting audience member and put something on screen like “Won’t put out until the third date.”

Show-long running gags: As much as people malign the Dick Ebersol years, when Lorne Michaels wasn’t running the show, one thing they did well during that time was have fun with the format of the show itself. This included things like the extended coverage of Buckwheat being shot or the telephone poll over whether or not to boil and eat Larry The Lobster. They had an episode with multiple hosts. There was even a little of this during the show’s original run – such as the “anyone can host” contest.

The ill-fated first season of Lorne’s return – the one with Randy Quaid, Robert Downey Jr. and Joan Cusack – included an episode like this, based around the conceit that SNL had brought in Francis Ford Coppola to direct.

Standup or specialty performers: Some older SNL episodes had not only a musical guest but a comedy guest. Andy Kaufman, Joel Hodgson and even Harry Anderson appeared on SNL this way. I don’t suggest that they get a different run-of-the-mill standup comedian every week, but the occasional unique comedy talent would be better than another iteration of “What’s Up With That?” or whatever running sketch they’re running into the ground this week.

Trying new things in general: The Ebersol years had – and I had forgotten this – occasional segments similar to Jay Leno’s or Jimmy Kimmel’s man-on-the-street segments. I’m actually not advising that they do this specifically, but an occasional piece of unscripted comedy, taking advantage of SNL’s New York City location, might not be a bad thing.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing in some quarters that says the show as it is currently composed is doomed – it’s no longer appointment television because everyone knows that if something really funny happens, you can simply go online and watch the clip of that individual sketch the next day. There’s been some talk that whenever Lorne decides to retire, the show will go with him. But I think they should at least see if new hands could bring a fresh approach, and a willingness to play around with the format. If that happens, people might feel the need to watch the show live again.

and so it goes

Julia Louis-Dreyfus was playing Linda Ellerbee just now on early-80s SNL. I had not thought of Linda Ellerbee in ages.

I remember in the 70s when SNL ran three Saturdays a month and the irreverent and ahead-of-its-time NBC News show “Weekend” ran the fourth Saturday, which actually helped alleviate SNL rerun burnout. Ellerbee, with her wry, very un-anchor-like humor, anchored it, and then later anchored the critically-acclaimed “NBC News Overnight.”

But what I remember her best on was “Our World” on ABC, a fascinating show produced by the news department which was sort of a weekly mini-documentary focusing on one year, or occasionally a shorter period, from earlier in the century. Ellerbee co-hosted it with Ray Gandolf. Nobody watched it, because it ran against “The Cosby Show” on Thursday nights. It was relatively cheap to produce, and thus was basically ABC throwing up a white flag in that time slot, which they knew they weren’t going to win as long as Cosby was on the air. But the affiliates don’t like it when the network surrenders like that (see “The Jay Leno Show”) and the show was cancelled.

Gandolf usually opened the show (although Ellerbee opens it in the clip below) by saying “For the next hour, think of your TV as a time machine.” Then, Ellerbee got the last word, so that she could use her famous signoff from “Weekend” and “Overnight,” “…and so it goes.”

 

It was well done, while it lasted.

Ellerbee later went on to host a news show for children on Nickelodeon, which I’ve never seen. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it’s still on the air.