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.

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.

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.

the sting

“The Sting” will be on Turner Classic Movies tonight. I love, love, love that movie. To me, it seems like such a part of popular culture that it might be beyond blogging about, but it occurs to me that some of my younger readers may not have gotten around to it yet.

Get around to it. Watch or DVR it tonight, or get it from Netflix or wherever. Just see it.

It’s a great showcase for its two stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, of course, but it’s just as good from an ensemble standpoint – Robert Shaw, Eileen Brennan, Ray Walston, Harold Gould, Charles Durning, Dana Elcar and on and on.

It’s a period piece, set in the Great Depression, although Marvin Hamlisch’s score (“The Entertainer” was a top-40 hit at the time of the movie’s release) is actually based on music from the 1920s. Johnny Hooker (Redford) is a small-time con artist. He and his partner/mentor Luther (Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones!) are being pursued by a surly and mean-spirited police officer (Durning).

Hooker and Luther pull a con on a victim who later turns out to be a money-runner for a powerful Chicago New York crime lord, Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw). At first, they think they’ve hit the jackpot – but Lonnegan doesn’t like having his profits stolen, and sends enforcers after them, with tragic results.

Hooker wants revenge. He seeks out Luther’s old partner, a legendary but retired con artist named Henry Gondorff (Newman). The two of them put together an all-star team of con artists to bilk Lonnegan. But Durning’s cop character is still in hot pursuit of Hooker, and could ruin everything.

To say much more would be to spoil the plot. There are twists and turns galore, but the movie is so brilliantly-conceived that when you go back and watch it again, it all holds up. In fact, this movie almost demands that you watch it a second time, just to try to figure it all out.

It’s everything a movie should be – funny and exciting and happy and sad. If by some slim chance you’ve missed seeing it until now, please watch or tape it tonight.

remedial freed unit

Nashville Public Television is currently running a bizarre little special called “Classic Hollywood Musicals.” You might think that a special with that title would be about the breadth and scope of Hollywood musicals, but this is basically about five of them: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singin’ In The Rain,” “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and (so help me) “Viva Las Vegas.” The special jumps around, presenting a clip and a few little details about one of the musicals, and then another, and then another. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, no attempt to connect any of the movies to each other, and it’s written at a really simplistic and elementary level — many of the little details presented as fascinating revelations are actually old news to any classic movie fan. Is there anyone left who doesn’t know that the studio bosses tried to cut “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz”?

What makes matters even worse is that it’s pledge drive season, and the woman co-hosting the pledge breaks keeps gushing about how she hasn’t seen, for example, “Singin’ In The Rain” in decades. She literally said that – decades!

Now, I realize the pledge break is intended to plug public TV stations and their programming. I wouldn’t expect them to mention or acknowledge Turner Classic Movies, a cable channel. But it sounds just bizarre to imply that these movies have been hidden away in a vault somewhere. “Singin’ In The Rain” probably gets shown an average of once a month on TCM. A good three-quarters of the people interested enough in classic movies to sit through this pablum-based documentary in hopes it will eventually become interesting is either a TCM viewer, or has a shelf full of classic movie DVDs, or both.

Yes, I guess there are probably a few elderly technophobes, receiving their public TV station by antenna, without DVD players, for whom catching a glimpse of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a rare and special treat. But that seems like a niche, not an audience.

peace pipe

Many of the previews and reviews of last night’s “Peter Pan Live!” noted that the lyrics to one of the songs were changed, with the participation of a Native American consultant, to eliminate negative stereotypes. (Some commentators applauded this, but others still found the scenes with Princess Tiger Lily to be dated and offensive.)

I do try to be sensitive to cultural stereotypes, and in fact I have a relative by marriage who has Native American heritage; connections like that sort of personalize the issue.

Then I noticed that TCM is showing “Good News” tonight. “Good News” is an MGM musical from the late 1940s, starring June Allyson and Peter Lawford, based on a much-older (and supposedly less-sanitized) stage musical. It’s full of all sort of hoary old clichés about college life. I don’t find the story particularly compelling. And yet, I’m going to sit here and watch it for one reason – Joan McCracken, a fascinating musical comedy talent who died tragically young and whom I know mostly from her work in “Good News.”

In fact – and, for reasons mentioned above, I’m ashamed to admit this – I mainly know her from, and am fascinated by, one particular musical number: “Pass That Peace Pipe.” The actual number doesn’t involve any Native Americans – it’s set in a malt shop – but it uses the imagery of the peace pipe and a sort of rhythmic recitation of the names of Indian tribes as if they were nonsense syllables. I know I should find it offensive.

But I can’t look away from McCracken’s performance. She sells that song in a way I’ve seen few musical performers do, staring straight ahead dead into the camera for several long stretches as if she owns the studio and Louis B. Mayer answers to her:

According to Wikipedia, McCracken helped promote Shirley MacLaine, encouraged her then-husband Bob Fosse to take up choreography, and was one of Truman Capote’s inspirations for Holly Golightly. But she had health problems related to diabetes and died when only 42.

I guess I’ll have to take the advice that my friends Brenden and Michael often put out on their podcast and try to be “a filter, not a sponge.”

sullivan’s travels

This is one of those cases where I’ve blogged about a movie multiple times in the past, and should probably just look up the old post and link to it on Facebook rather than reinvent the wheel.

But I think it’s been a while since I’ve actually devoted a whole blog post to “Sullivan’s Travels,” airing at 8:45 p.m. Central tonight on Turner Classic Movies, and so I figured, what the hey, I’d blog about it again.

This is a movie that is funny, first and foremost, by one of the best comedy directors of the golden age, the wonderful Preston Sturges. I love Sturges’ other work, especially “The Lady Eve” and “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.”

But “Sullivan’s Travels” also has a little hidden message – sort of an irony, since the message has to do with the fact that not every movie has to have a message.

Anyway, the central character is John L. Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea. He’s a movie director, perhaps a standin for Sturges himself, who has spent the 1930s making silly little movies with titles like “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants In Your Pants of 1939.” But he’s decided that these musical comedies aren’t significant enough. He has been duly impressed by a “Grapes of Wrath”-style novel which he wants to adapt for the screen. (If you look closely at the cover, the author is Sinclair Beckstein, a wonderful melange of John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis).

Remember, this novel, and “Sinclair Beckstein,” didn’t exist – they were made up by Sturges to be a plot point for the movie. I tell you that because the the title of the novel is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a title which was appropriated a half-century later by the Coen Brothers and made into an actual movie, although the Coen Brothers movie is a lot more fun to watch than John L. Sullivan’s social-problem drama would have been.

The title, of course, was an obvious play on words back in 1940, when “Oh, brother!” was a much more common expression of annoyance.

Anyway, Sullivan tells the head of the studio he’s tired of comedy and wants to make a film of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How ’bout a nice musical? (From IMDb)

The studio mogul, who’s been making good money off Sullivan’s comedies, tries to discourage him without offending him. He tells Sullivan, at one point, that he’s not the right person to make a movie about poverty because he, Sullivan, grew up in an upper-class family and has never known hardship himself.

Sullivan takes that criticism to heart – but not in the way the studio head was hoping. Sullivan decides to take a leave of absence from the studio and wander the countryside dressed as a hobo. It’s a fallacy that you can truly understand poverty from this kind of gimmicky stunt, of course, and eventually Sullivan will realize that – but not before some twists and turns. Along the way, he encounters a frustrated actress (the mesmerizing Veronica Lake) who is preparing to give up her dream and move back to the midwest. He tries to encourage her aspirations without revealing his real identity.

It’s a lot of fun, and yet there’s a great moment of realization at the end of it. Please, if you haven’t seen this one yet, set the DVR or enjoy it with the family tonight.

that is the question

One of my all-time favorite comedies will be on Turner Classic Movies: TCM? at 7 p.m. Central tonight. I have blogged about “To Be or Not To Be” before, but just in case you’ve never seen it, please watch it or DVR it.

The movie, directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch, stars Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as the leads in a troupe of Polish actors during World War II. Carole has a little bit of a backstage dalliance with a Polish pilot – played by an impossibly-young Robert Stack – that ends up getting her, and thus the acting company, mixed up in some spy chicanery and requires Benny to impersonate a traitorous Polish professor.

The movie was a huge flop on its original release – it was at a time in the war when people weren’t in the mood to laugh at the Nazis, and it was released just after Lombard’s death in an airplane crash. But in the years since, it’s been recognized as a classic. It was remade in the 1980s by Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, and that’s not bad either, but the original is still the best. Be sure and see or record it tonight if you haven’t yet seen it.

‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore’

“Network” is on TCM right now.

I did not see, and would not have been old enough to appreciate, “Network” when it was still in the theaters. But I saw it on TV when it was still shocking. My younger friends have no way of appreciating this movie; if they watch it, it will come off completely different in their eyes.

When “Network” came out in 1976, there were three broadcast TV networks. Cable TV was a very minor business which primarily provided distant broadcast signals to rural areas too far away to receive them, as well as a few added bonuses like Ted Turner’s superstation (then still known as WTCG, later WTBS, now just TBS). Big cities didn’t even have cable TV.

The three broadcast networks were, make no doubt about it, profit-making businesses. But they at least wanted to maintain the illusion of public service, and the Federal Communications Commission required local TV stations to do that as well. The networks’ news operations weren’t necessarily loss leaders, but they were about prestige and respectability as well as profits.

So Paddy Chayefsky’s script in 1976 about a network dropping all pretense of public service, putting a ranting and raving lunatic on the air and surrounding him with astrologers and found-footage terrorists seemed like outlandish black comedy when it came out, and even a few years later when I first saw it. Paddy Chayefsky, a leading light of the “golden age” of live television in the 1950s, was accused of biting the hand that had fed him with this ridiculously over-the-top satire.

Now, of course, we have Kardashians and raving pundits (at both ends of the political spectrum). Howard Beale seems pretty tame compared to the reality of television, and popular culture, in 2014.