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The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 3)

Poe Folks (Karloff & Lugosi)

As soon as Boris Karloff and his Frankenstein’s Monster appeared on the scene, Bela Lugosi’s stock dropped with studio executives, if not necessarily audiences. Film historians have been unable to pin down exactly why. There was certainly room for more than one horror star. Lugosi could be stand-offish but was not difficult to work with — quite the opposite, in fact. Some blame his inability to adapt his old-fashioned, theatrical acting style to more modern cinema standards, but one viewing of Son of Frankenstein should be enough to scotch that theory. Maybe it was his proud refusal to tone down the accent. Could it be interwar xenophobia against someone from eastern Europe? Impossible to say for sure. All that can be definitively said is that Universal (and other studios, but Universal especially) seemed to go out of their way to treat Lugosi shabbily. 

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Bela and Boris toast each other in a publicity photo from their first flush of fame, 1932. 

In 1934, Lugosi’s name could still draw horror fans, and it was known he worked cheap. And Universal had just renewed Karloff’s contract. The inevitable result was the teaming of the two. Karloff and Lugosi appeared together in five Universal films from 1934 to 1940, one of which was part of the Frankenstein series, two of which were more science fiction than horror, and two of which were very, very loose adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories. No matter the part, Karloff always received top billing and lots more money.

The first of these, The Black Cat (May 1934), is probably the most interesting. Lugosi is a traumatized war veteran just released from a Siberian prison and bent on avenging himself against the man (Karloff) who betrayed his wartime companions to the enemy, and stole away Lugosi’s wife and young daughter. Karloff is now an Aleister Crowley-like leader of a Satanic cult and is married to Lugosi’s daughter (the wife having been dispatched as a cult sacrifice long ago). After Karloff callously offs the daughter as well, Lugosi has his revenge, skinning Karloff alive, and then sacrificing himself so the Handsome Young Couple™ who had gotten themselves tangled up in this mess can escape. What does this have to do with the Poe short story “The Black Cat”? Nothing whatsoever, except that Lugosi’s character has a cat phobia, and this comes into play at one crucial point in the story.

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Who has the more piercing stare? The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat may be one of the darkest, most twisted films of the 1930s, and merits a mention here even if it has nothing to do with the classic Universal monsters. (And it has one of the most classic lines from any Universal horror move. When the goings-on are dismissed by the young hero as “superstitious baloney,” Lugosi remarks ominously “Superstitious…perhaps. Baloney…perhaps not.”)

The follow-up, The Raven (July 1935), also has nothing to do with the first shared universe, but has a little more to do with Poe than its predecessor. Lugosi has the madman part here, playing a deeply disturbed plastic surgeon with a Poe fixation, to the point that he has a stuffed raven on his desk. Oh, and he’s also replicated the pit and its bladed pendulum in an extensive torture chamber in his basement. When a Handsome Young Couple™ (and her father) enter his web, terror ensues. Karloff is the B-story — a murderer on the run who asks Lugosi to alter his appearance. Lugosi does — horribly disfiguring the criminal, promising to change it back only after he does his bidding.

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Lugosi disfigures Karloff, The Raven (1935)

Was there a long-running Karloff/Lugosi feud or rivalry as has long been speculated? Certainly not on Boris’ part, but because he came out on top, financially and in the public perception, he could afford to be magnanimous. Lugosi’s last two wives insisted that Lugosi really did not much like Karloff, and did give voice to jealousy and resentment in regard to his “rival” on occasion. As portrayed by Martin Landau in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), the elderly Lugosi would go into a profanity-laced rage at the mere mention of Karloff’s name. Bela’s son was gracious enough to praise Landau’s Oscar-winning performance, but stated that it was a work of fiction. The real Lugosi never used bad language, and never spoke ill of Karloff to anyone beyond private moments with his spouses. During the course of the five films they made together for Universal (plus two for RKO, and several self-parodying radio spots and publicity appearances), no one remembered a cross word between the two. Their relationship was always cordial and professional, although they did not socialize or build a friendship once they clocked out from the day’s work.

A Bride and a Daughter

Yes, Karloff got top billing and a truckload of money for a pretty small part in The Raven. Universal felt justified because Karloff was hot off Bride of Frankenstein — triumphantly revising the role that made him a star in a film that many, then and now, say surpasses the original. 

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Updated make-up for the Monster — singed hair and scarred cheek after surviving a fire at the end of the original film.

As promised, James Whale got free rein to make the film however he wanted. He abandoned the somber tone of the original, and replaced it with a more personal style — dark comedy, with lots of symbolism, and moments of high camp. Henry Frankenstein has learned his lesson and wants nothing more to do with reanimating dead bodies. The problem is, his creation is still running amok. Knowing this, an old associate of Henry’s, the quite insane Dr. Pretorius, forces Henry to continue his experiments and make his Monster a mate. 

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“A new world of gods and monsters” — Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) admire their handiwork.

Karloff once again plays the Monster with a pure simplicity that can switch to fearsome menace. He has even learned to speak a few words (a development the actor fiercely opposed.) Colin Clive as Frankenstein is tense and edgy as before. But the movie-stealer is Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius. The flamboyantly gay Thesiger was an old theatrical crony of Whale’s, and had appeared as one of the very odd inhabitants of Whale’s Old Dark House, which struck a similar tone of suspenseful dread combined with gallows humor. (Thesiger was also a master needlepointer, and referred to himself as the “Stitchin’ Bitch.”) Dwight Frye makes a welcome return as Pretorius’ grave-robbing lackey, Karl.

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The title plays on the fact that many people were already incorrectly applying the name of the doctor to his creation. (The title can be taken at face value — Henry Frankenstein does get married in the film. Or it can indicate possession, that he’s the creator of the Monster’s mate, as in the “plays of Shakespeare.”) The Monster’s Bride herself is played by bohemian free spirit and former dancer and cabaret performer Elsa Lanchester, who appears as the iconic character only for a few moments at the end, and also plays a dual role as Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue. The Bride’s make-up is another Jack Pierce creation that has lived on in popular culture, and Lanchester said she based the Bride’s jerky movements and hostile hissing on the swans in Regent’s Park. Continue reading

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The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 2)

Happy Halloween season everyone…this series on the Universal movie monsters was originally intended as a one-part Halloween posting…but as usual, I overwrote, and it became a four-part monster itself, creeping its way across all of the year-end holidays…

Frankenstein

Mary-Shelley-171194034x-56aa23a43df78cf772ac879dMary Shelley (1797-1851) was the unconventional offspring of an unconventional couple: early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and radical anarchist William Godwin. At 16, young Mary ran off with married Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Over the next several years, the Shelleys (who married after the fortuitous suicide of Shelley’s abandoned first wife in 1816), along with Mary Shelley’s step-sister Claire Claremont, and Percy Shelley’s friend and fellow poet Lord Byron made up an odd quartet, rambling around Europe, blowing through their ample inheritances, reading, writing, and philosophizing. Speculation about their free-love romantic couplings in various combinations can (and does) fill a book.

The idea for Frankenstein came to Shelley when they were staying at Byron’s rented villa in Geneva, Switzerland in the summer of 1816. The well-known tale goes that Byron challenged all of his overly-intellectual guests to step down from the lofty heights of poetry and philosophy and write a good old-fashioned ghost story. From the germ of an idea about an obsessed young man who discovers the secret of bringing life to the dead, Shelley worked through that autumn and into the next year, creating a work of heavy philosophy cut through with a few streaks of very effective Gothic horror. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published in 1818 to a mixed critical reception. 

Modern readers may be turned off by the interminable philosophical musings about the nature and purpose of existence, and by the fact that the Monster speaks…eloquently and at great length, sounding like John Milton. The Monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein, is not a “doctor” but a young chemistry student at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. The Monster is brought to life not in a massive, electrified laboratory, but in Victor’s student apartment (and Shelley is pretty damn vague on the details of the process). But lots of stuff that found its way into the movies over a century later is right there in the pages. Frankenstein’s obsession bordering on madness, hunting through the “damps of the grave…the dissecting room and the slaughter-house” to gather the parts needed for his experiment is one of the best sequences of the book. And when the Monster finally comes to life, Shelley’s description of his form is eerily familiar: “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing…his watery eyes, his shriveled complexion, his straight black lips.” There’s even a sequence late in the book where Victor creates a “bride” for the Monster, but he never brings her to life.

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Frontispiece to the 1831 edition of the novel

A stage adaptation of Frankenstein hit the boards as early as 1823, and Shelley’s tale continued to be part of popular lore through the 19th century. A silent film version was produced by Thomas Edison in 1910. Hamilton Deane, who mounted the first stage version of Dracula in 1924, commissioned playwright Peggy Webling to adapt Frankenstein as a follow-up in 1927. Though not as successful as Dracula (Webling’s play never made it to Broadway), Universal was inspired to follow the same pattern, and announced Frankenstein as its next horror property to hopefully capitalize on the success of Dracula. 

Writer-director Robert Florey had signed for a one-picture deal with Universal, and jumped on the Frankenstein project. (Florey had recently directed the Marx Brothers’ film debut, The Cocoanuts, for Paramount, and as he watched the Brothers’ performances he kept asking his assistant “This is supposed to be funny?” Florey was just not a comedy guy.) Working with writer Garrett Fort, Florey stripped Shelley’s overstuffed tale down to its bare essence, made multiple changes, and gave the story a solid and fast-moving structure. His work pleased Universal enough that he was assigned to be the film’s director. Bela Lugosi was set to be the Monster, much to his displeasure (see previous entry). Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye were invited back, cast in roles similar to their Dracula parts. Waterloo Bridge’s Mae Clark was assigned the role of Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth. And Universal hoped rising star Leslie Howard would be the doctor (an official offer had yet to be made).

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Spring 1931 — A one-off illustration from Universal’s exhibitor’s catalog, hyping films in currently in pre-production. Some were never made at all, some changed drastically.

In June 1931, Florey shot a 20-minute test reel of Lugosi, Van Sloan, Frye, and a few stand-ins on the still-standing Castle Dracula set. Part of the purpose was to see how the heavy Monster make-up would appear on film.

And it appeared totally ridiculous.

The first make-up design for Frankenstein’s Monster was supposedly (the footage has disappeared) based on the German silent film The Golem, another tale about bringing life to dead material. Edward Van Sloan said Lugosi “looked like something out of Babes in Toyland.” Lugosi himself compared his look to a “scarecrow.” The most misguided element was described as a ridiculously wide, shaggy wig, as broad as Lugosi’s shoulders (think Roseanne Roseannadanna). Junior Laemmle reportedly burst out laughing when he screened the footage.

Not long after, James Whale decided he wanted Frankenstein. Universal wanted a happy James Whale. Florey was unceremoniously dumped. Nor did Whale want Leslie Howard as Dr. Frankenstein. He insisted upon having his intense leading man from Journey’s End, Colin Clive. The studio acquiesced, and Clive was flown in from London. (Studio gossip maintained that the bisexual Clive was Whale’s lover. And Leslie Howard did indeed go on to stardom, most notably as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.) Nor was Whale happy with Bela Lugosi. For the Monster, he wanted one of Universal’s most notable character actors, Boris Karloff.

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Colin Clive

Keep in mind, Lugosi never wanted the part in the first place, and it’s hard to blame him. Florey’s first-draft script gave the Monster no nuance or pathos, he was presented as merely a mindless killing machine (a persona he would return to later in the series.) And the unintentionally funny test reel didn’t help. But despite his insistence over the years that he turned down the role, in all likelihood Lugosi was replaced with Karloff at Whale’s insistence. (In Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, film historian Gregory Mank credibly maintains that the super-professional Lugosi would have done the part in spite of his misgivings had the decision not been taken out of his hands.)

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Whale and crew began filming Frankenstein on August 24, 1931, while southern California was in the grip of a sizzling heat wave. Boris Karloff labored mightily under the weight of his costume and (brilliantly re-designed) make-up as the sun pounded down on the “Little Europe” portion of the Universal backlot. Interior shooting offered no relief, as the bright lights illuminating the sealed-off sound stages often pushed temperatures toward 115°. Universal’s largest stage, Stage 12, was used for the towering laboratory set. Kenneth Strickfaden designed the lab’s iconic electrical equipment, sparking and buzzing their way into film history. Whale drove his sweaty cast mercilessly. A bucket was provided in the corner of the set for urinary relief. One grueling 25-hour shooting day (September 28-29) as Whale struggled to stay on schedule may have planted a seed in the exhausted Karloff’s head which resulted in him becoming a founding member of the Screen Actors’ Guild a few years later. 

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But Jimmy was getting results. Despite his horrific visage, Karloff’s Monster was ultimately a figure to be pitied. In a tremendous job of physical acting, Karloff conveys the Monster’s confused suffering quite convincingly. In his words, he played the Monster “as though Man had been deserted by his God.” Colin Clive, a neurotic, blackout alcoholic prone to fits of nervous hysteria in real life, is riveting as Henry (no longer “Victor”) Frankenstein. Clive raves with insanity gleaming in his eyes during the moment of creation, and later evinces a broken shell of a man as he comes to his senses and realizes what he has wrought. Edward Van Sloan is authoritative as Henry’s mentor, Dr. Waldman, and Dwight Frye adds another unhinged eccentric to his resume. Much like Lugosi did with Dracula, here Frye creates the very template of the crazed, hunchbacked lab assistant with his portrayal of “Fritz” (no, not “Igor” just yet) that would be imitated for decades to come.

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The Monster is tormented by Fritz (Dwight Frye)

Filming wrapped on October 3, and Frankenstein was released in December 1931. It boasted a full-length score by Berhnaud Kaun, one of the first Universal releases to have that distinction. Despite a prologue featuring Van Sloan warning the audience of the terror to come, Frankenstein was considered even more shockingly horrific than Dracula. Sequences that were considered too shocking were snipped out after the film’s initial run — the Monster throwing a little girl into a lake and (accidentally) drowning her, and Clive’s shouted, blasphemous comparison of himself to God would be missing from the film until its video release far in the future.  Continue reading

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The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 1)

The Dark Universe

The massive success of Disney’s “Marvel Cinematic Universe” over the last decade has sent at least two other studios scrambling to emulate what seems to be a license to print money. They thought it would be easy. Simply utilize pre-established characters — to which they already owned the rights — in a series of interconnected, crowd-pleasing action movies with A-list stars. Well, Warner Brothers soon discovered it’s a lot trickier than it seems. Warner Brothers owns Marvel’s big comic book rival, DC, but their attempt to spin Batman, Superman, Aquaman and the like into their own cash cow has had its stumbles. Poor scripts, lack of a consistent point-of-view, and just plain clunky filmmaking have kept Warners’ “DCEU” series firmly in the shadow of the MCU. Oh, they make money, but they just don’t delight people the way the Marvel movies do. Determined to keep trying until they get it right, Warners is seven films deep as of this writing, with five more in the pipeline. 

They fared better than Universal.

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Universal logo, 1927-36

It occurred to Universal that they were sitting on a bunch of characters whose fame, or at least recognizability, was equal to the comic book heroes and villains of Marvel and DC: their classic stable of monsters from the 1930s, when Universal invented the American horror movie, and Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster ruled the cinema screens.

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It seemed like a stroke of genius. No one really watches those movies anymore, except pop-culture bloggers and elderly cinephile cranks (the sort of people who complain about modern movies, often with enthusiastic use of the caps lock, in their five-star Amazon review of something like The Invisible Man’s Revenge — “so much better than the DRECK they put out these days!!!!”) But the names and visages of their monster characters are deeply imprinted in the popular consciousness. If you ask someone to draw a picture of Frankenstein’s Monster, they will inevitably render a likeness of the square-headed creature with bolts in its neck, as designed for the 1931 film. Ask that same person if they’ve actually seen the film, and they will likely say no. So with most people remembering the monsters, but few remembering the films themselves, the writers and directors of the potential new movies had a pretty big sandbox to play in, with pre-tested characters to sweeten the deal. 

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The Dark Universe was born.

It would kick off with The Mummy in the summer of 2017, starring Tom Cruise as the Rugged Hero combating a female mummy (Sofia Butella), occasionally aided by Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll, portrayed here as a member of the top-secret monster-killing organization “Prodigium,” and only occasionally turning into Mr. Hyde. Following The Mummy would be The Bride of Frankenstein (bypassing the introduction of the Monster — everyone knows his origin story anyway), and after that would be Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man. And that was just the beginning. Dr. Jekyll and Prodigium would be the linking device between all the films, a la Marvel’s Nick Fury. 

Then The Mummy came out — and was howlingly bad. The action was incoherent, themummy_ver3 smaller horror elements were laughable, and the characters were cardboard cut-outs existing mostly to spout paragraphs of expository dialogue. It was the cinematic equivalent of a dumpster fire, and barely broke even at the domestic box office. It skulks around at a 16% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

This is not what franchises are built upon.

Project co-runners Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan dropped everything and backed away, hands up. The Bride of Frankenstein has been placed on indefinite hiatus. The now Depp-less Invisible Man was quickly rewritten to focus on the female victim (Elisabeth Moss) and is on track for a March 2020 release, but has severed all ties to the Dark Universe. (Dark Universe? What Dark Universe?) The office on the Universal lot dedicated to the project was abandoned last year, its potted plants re-distributed, and framed posters of the old films taken off the walls where they had just been placed the year before.

The Dark Universe died.

To be fair, Universal didn’t do it particularly well the first time around, either, but at least they got more than one film into their world-building. Decades before the concept of a “shared cinematic universe” was even in the cultural vocabulary, one 1943 film — Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man — established the two towering icons of horror as existing together, and the first shared universe was born. Two more sequels (House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) ran with the concept, but by then Universal was not interested in giving their horror films the time, money, and talent they had lavished on the classier 1930s films. The two Houses were B-grade sausage-factory product.

We will examine the dwindling quality of the original series in good time. For now, let’s begin at the beginning. It’ll be the usual Holy Bee mash-up of things you know (“Frankenstein” is the name of the doctor, not the monster), things you maybe don’t know (early sound pictures did not have scores because filmmakers feared the audience would be confused about where all the music was coming from if no orchestra was visible on screen.) And parenthetical asides. So many parenthetical asides. 

The Birth of Universal Horror

Carl-Laemmle_mainIn 1905, German-Jewish immigrant Carl Laemmle was a bored clothing store manager in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. On a trip to Chicago, he noticed lines around the block to experience the “nickelodeon” — a primitive movie theater showing a variety of short films, or offering single-viewer Kinetoscope machines. Inspired, Laemmle decided this would be the new direction of his life, and in less than five years he and several partners had founded Independent Moving Picture Company (IMP) of New York. In 1912, he moved operations to California, and turned IMP into Universal Pictures.

Setting up shop on 230 acres of former ranch property in the San Fernando Valley he dubbed “Universal City,” Laemmle created the first entirely self-contained film production facility. By the early 1920s, Laemmle had bought out all of his partners and had sole control of the studio. But “Uncle Carl” may have overreached himself. As his nickname indicated, shameless nepotism was rampant at the studio. (“Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very large faemmle” ran one bit of Ogden Nash doggerel.) Countless cousins, nieces, nephews, and in-laws were on the payroll, many doing nothing but occupying studio bungalows. The other issue causing problems for Universal was the fact they did not own their own chain of theaters like most other major studios did. Universal was forced to rely on independent exhibitors, which ate into profits. By the beginning of the Great Depression, the studio was in deep financial trouble. 

Then a few things happened to stave off disaster. Uncle Carl had retired and turned overimage-w240 control of the studio to his son, Carl Jr., in 1928. Junior Laemmle demonstrated more enthusiasm than administration skill, but he had a good instinct for stories that would work well on film. One of the first productions he oversaw was the anti-war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which was a huge success both financially and artistically, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone). The cinematographer, Karl Freund, was a veteran of post-war German Expressionism and first genius of the field. Junior also had the inkling of an idea that had been rattling around his head for a couple of years — can a film be made that combined a literary pedigree with the ability to sustain a mood of tension and terror all the way through? It wasn’t necessarily an original idea. Universal itself had already (mostly) achieved that alchemy with 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera. 

Straitlaced America struggled to get its own take on the horror genre off the ground. Cosmopolitan European filmmakers had been more daring, thrilling audiences with creepy fare such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and the vampire tale Nosferatu (1922). It was assumed by conservative American studio heads and theater owners that those sorts of horrific tales would be at the mercy of local film censor boards, be bad for public morals, and cause more controversy than they were worth. But they ignored evidence right before their eyes. A  1920 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore definitely had some horror elements, and it made truckloads of money. People flocked to see Universal’s own The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) not for the melodramatic Gothic romance that it was, but for the hideously grotesque make-up that actor Lon Chaney devised for his version of the hunchback.

By 1925, American audiences seemed ready for a true horror movie. Universal, at that time still under the guidance of Uncle Carl, gave it to them.

The Phantom and Lon

Uncle Carl bought the rights to the 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux directly from the author on a trip to Paris in 1922, with a plan to turn it into a vehicle for Universal’s favorite specialist in the grotesque, Lon Chaney. Laemmle spared no expense, building a massive recreation of the Paris Opera House interior inside Universal’s Stage 28, along with the Phantom’s lair among the labyrinthine tunnels and sewers underneath. Early Technicolor was used in a few key sequences, such as when the Phantom appears as “Red Death” at the masquerade ball.

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It was a troubled production, with extensive re-shoots and re-edits, but the final product that went into general release in November 1925 left an indelible impression on audiences, almost entirely due to Lon Chaney’s horrific appearance. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #21: “On Golden Pond”

 

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The New Yorker’s former film critic Pauline Kael may be one of the most polarizing film critics of, well…since the art form began. On one side, she’s so beloved that she had/has a coterie of dedicated acolytes known as “Paulettes,” who believed her every pronouncement was pure genius (many of whom went on to be film critics themselves), and there’s the other side who felt her high-handed pomposity reflected the worst excesses of the “New Hollywood” era. Catty and vindictive, Kael slavishly championed her favorites (even the laziest, sloppiest Marlon Brando performance would win gushing raves) and sneered icily at those she took a notion to viscerally dislike on an almost personal level (Clint Eastwood never got off her shit list for four decades.) 

Well, she’s dead now, and possibly doing a stint in purgatory for her cynical and oh-so-above it all skewering of On Golden Pond, a movie I took to my heart when I was eight years old. (Kael’s review can be found in her collection Taking It All In.)

Why would a sentimental dramedy about aging, fear of death, and family dysfunction with a pair of elderly leads become a favorite movie of an 8-year-old boy? Three letters: H…B…O. It drilled it into me

So this is the third or possibly the fourth time in this blog that I’ve thrown a warm, nostalgic shout-out to the Home Box Office cable channel, the place it occupied in my household of the early 1980s, and its profound influence on my burgeoning cultural tastes. HBO dabbled in original programming from the get-go (decades before totally revolutionizing television with The Sopranos), but back in the day its primary specialty was bringing major motion pictures to your TV screen, uninterrupted and uncut, within about twelve months or so of their theatrical release.

Jane Fonda had purchased the film rights to the source material, a 1979 play by Ernest showImageThompson, specifically to work with her father, Henry, on it. The story reflected their own difficult relationship. Location filming on Squam Lake in New Hampshire occurred through summer/fall of 1980, and On Golden Pond received its “award contender” limited release in December of 1981. It went wide the following February, and showed up as HBO’s main feature for December of 1982, gracing the cover of the channel’s monthly viewing guide. (So primitive was the era, the guide wasn’t even mailed to you. You had to pick it up at the local office of your cable provider.) According to the Guide Archive website, HBO showed On Golden Pond on December 12, 16, 20, 22, 25, 29, and 31, before putting it out to pasture to make room for January 1983’s viewing choices. Despite its summer setting, it felt like a Christmas movie due to the month in which I first saw it, and I’ll bet I caught each airing that December.

What kept me coming back? I fell in love with the constant stream of hilarious remarks from its main character. As a child, I saw it as more of a comedy (with a few heavy moments), and didn’t pick up on the deeper implications of the story or how the character used humor as a barrier. And I wasn’t entirely wrong about the material’s comedic bones. The film’s director, Mark Rydell, has stated that the original play did have a lighter comedic touch, and he made the artistic choice to play up the material’s more dramatic and sentimental aspects.

So On Golden Pond and I parted ways, and it had been well over thirty years since I’d watched it when it popped up as a streaming option on Netflix a couple of years ago (don’t bother to look, it’s gone now.) Fittingly, I re-watched it around the holidays (as I was taking down our Christmas tree), and every line was instantly familiar to me. The images I was glancing at on my laptop as I disentangled strands of tree lights had last passed before my eyes on our big cabinet TV in my childhood family room, in the glow of another, long-gone Christmas tree. Besides the nostalgia pangs, as an adult I felt the tension and melancholy in the story much more forcefully.

And yes, I now noticed some of the same flaws that Pauline Kael noticed, but they didn’t piss me off nearly as much as they did her.

The film begins with an elderly retired couple arriving for a season at their summer home on the titular lake somewhere in New England. The arrival/opening credits sequence is played out to the strains of Dave Grusin’s memorable score. On Golden Pond is as unthinkable without its score as Caddyshack is without its gopher. The music — led by a tinkling piano, countered with some gentle woodwinds and strings — can be cloying and even a little obtrusive, but it is indelibly part of the film’s fabric. We see various twilight shots of the gorgeous lake, the surrounding woods, and its population of loons (the aquatic birds, not crazy neighbors.) It does look a little like the beginning of a Hallmark Channel TV movie, but luckily, the direction becomes more grounded once the opening credits end.

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The couple exits their old-person brown sedan (it probably has curb-feelers), enter their roomy cabin, and we begin to get to know them through their dialogue and decades’ worth of mementos packing each room. The production design and set decoration are impeccable.

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The husband is Norman Thayer, Jr. (Henry Fonda), a former college professor on the verge of his 80th birthday. It is revealed early on that Norman’s health is growing fragile. He is going somewhat deaf, suffers from increasing memory loss, and has heart problems. He is ill-tempered and snappish, but as indicated above, has a way with a funny remark and a clear affection for his wife. He is also obsessed with his own mortality, and masks his fear of approaching death with morbid jokes.

Norman’s wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) is a typical Hepburn character — flighty, easily distracted, kind, and free-spirited. The type who dances alone in the woods while gathering wildflowers and singing her old summer camp song. The pair are definitely a contrasting couple, both in temperament and physically. Ethel is a decade or so younger than Norman, and still robust as he grows frail. Continue reading

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The Last of the Antenna TV Generation

TVIt can be mildly frustrating being on the dividing line between generations. I am on the younger end of “Generation X,” and a few years too old to be a “Millennial.” I’m that between-the-cracks age that is young enough to spend a lot of money on games from Steam, but old enough to remember Betamax tapes. Can’t remember John Belushi as an SNL cast member, but can remember Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an SNL cast member. Young enough to have grown up mostly with cable TV and the plethora of options it offers, but old enough to (barely) remember when the family TV in its polished wooden cabinet was still wired to an antenna on the roof, and the smaller TV in the den had rabbit ears. Too young to remember TV sitcoms of the 1960s and early 70s during their original run, but old enough to have seen them when they were still widely syndicated on local channels through the beginning of the 1990s.

So I have a comfortable familiarity with The Beverly Hillbillies, I Dream of Jeannie, My Three Sons, The Addams Family, The Brady Bunch, and so many more, even though I wasn’t around to watch them on a network in prime time when they first aired. People approximately my age are probably the last of those who do know these shows, unless they were “outdoors” in the late afternoons, engaging in “organized sports” or some other pointless shit instead of sprawled in front of the TV where the good stuff was. (Mid-mornings were also a primo time for these shows, perfect for summer vacations and sick days.)

Knowledge of these shows drops off precipitously for people even just a few years younger than me. The mid-1990s would be right when those slightly younger folks graduated from cartoons and kids’ programming to regular TV, and is also right when syndicators began dumping re-runs of long-gone shows in favor of re-runs of shows still being made, which seemed wrong somehow. Not to mention the fact that hot garbage like Home Improvement and Family Matters can’t hold a candle to timeless works of art like Gilligan’s Island and Mr. Ed. Basic cable’s “Nick At Nite” programming kept the flame alive for awhile, but even they began to prefer Fresh Prince of Bel Air to Welcome Back, Kotter by the early 2000s.

(Another influx of truly old-school entertainment came when I slept over at my grandparents, which happened at least one weekend a month from 1977 to 1985. They had only one TV in their house, so I watched what Grandma and Grandpa watched…and they were born in 1909. So it was a parade of Bob Hope specials, The Love Boat with its gallery of washed-up mid-century celebrities, The Lawrence Welk Show, Hee Haw, and the last of gasps the network variety shows, which were almost extinct by the early 1980s. Even at age seven, I remember thinking Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters was kind of a horrid trainwreck. Luckily, the grandparents were tucked into their Bert-and-Ernie twin beds at 9:00, so I was free to watch the Duke boys tear ass through Hazzard County, then turn the TV off as Dallas started, and watching the picture shrink to a tiny glowing dot in the middle of the screen that lingered for several minutes.)

The mildly frustrating part comes in when I’m dealing with someone even just a little bit younger (I’m on the cusp, remember?), and realize our frames of reference don’t match up, and then feel incredibly old. (“Remember when Pat Sajak had that famously bad late night talk show? ‘No?’! What do you mean, ‘Who’s Pat Sajak?’! He’s still on TV, for chrissakes! Oh, you only watch streaming shows…”)

A one-sided version of this scenario came up most recently for me when I started listening to the podcast Seincast, which, as you would expect, is a discussion and analysis of individual episodes of Seinfeld (a show I fully supported going into early syndication, because I got to watch even more of it.) The podcast hosts, Vinny and Matt, are for the most part enjoyable and certainly know their Seinfeld…as long as it’s confined to the Seinfeld universe. They are grown men with respectable day jobs (Vinny is actually a pharmacist.) But every so imageoften, I (internally) cry out is dismay as the hosts reveal their status as ignorant pups bumbling across my audio lawn by completely misunderstanding — or missing entirely — an older cultural reference that Seinfeld will make from time to time. I can almost hear the whizzing sound as the name or phrase sails over their heads. How can a someone as grown-up as a pharmacist not recognize a reference to A Streetcar Named Desire? And they seem to not realize Elaine and Jerry’s frequent inside-joke refrain of “all-right-sir” is quoting Tom Snyder. They have admitted to never having seen a second of The Dick Van Dyke Show. They had never heard the old expresson “nothing to sneeze at,” and assumed it was a creation of the show’s writers. This sort of thing will happen at least once per episode, and it makes me start every podcast with the thought, “I wonder what these kids aren’t going to get this time?”

I’m sure poor Vinny and Matt are inundated on the Seincast Facebook and Twitter accounts with corrections or clarifications from crotchety older listeners. But they rarely acknowledge it on the next episode. I admire their “keep moving forward” philosophy, but c’mon, give the old folks some closure. Even stoner comic Doug Benson has a “Corrections Departmentduring the next episode whenever he or a guest flubs a film fact on the Doug Loves Movies podcast.

For those in the know, a lot of those old TV shows can still be found if you look hard enough. Deep down the cable channel list, between Laotian soap operas and equestrian coverage, you’ll find Antenna TV and MeTV, both of which feature the type of stuff I was raised on. I hadn’t seen Hogan’s Heroes in decades. I’d forgotten how adorably zany Nazis could be. 

I first discovered Antenna TV when I heard they were showing old Tonight Show episodes from the Johnny Carson’s Burbank era (1972-1992). As a kid during summer vacations, I would stay up to watch Carson and Late Night with David Letterman. During the school year when I went to bed earlier, I set the timer on the VCR and watched them on tape after school the next day. Carson was a big part of my formative years, and I was excited he would be on regularly once more, from beyond the grave. So I set my TiVo accordingly, and it’s hardened into a daily habit again. I get home from work, handle whatever minor domestic chores need to be done, put on my loungewear, climb into my massage recliner with a cold drink, and the well-known (to some of us) brassy intro to Paul Anka’s Tonight Show theme is blaring out of my TV’s sound bar by 5:30 or a little after.

250px-Tonightshowtitlecard1980sThere is no rhyme or reason to the order that Antenna TV airs the episodes. A Tonight Show from 1991 can be followed the next night by one from 1973. If it’s from 1986 or after, I might actually remember watching it when it originally ran. Antenna TV puts the date of the original broadcast on the opening credits, but I try to avoid looking at it, and attempt to guess the year from the contents of the monologue, which is always topical. The challenge is that current events names almost never stay current. On one episode, Johnny made about six references to a “Tamara Rand.” I gave in and looked her up. Turns out she was a psychic who claimed to have predicted the assassination attempt on Reagan, was exposed as a fraud, and never heard from again after a few weeks in early 1981. But, boy, was she the comedic highlight of that single episode of The Tonight Show. I’m sure they have a reason, but Antenna TV does not air episodes from Johnny’s first ten years (1962-1972) when the show was based in New York, which is a shame because I think that would be pretty fascinating. [EDIT: I just learned that NBC wiped and re-used the tapes from the New York era, and only selected highlights remain.]

The guest panel is often a parade of the semi-recently deceased. I look down the couch, thinking “dead…dead…ooh, still alive…dead…” And I can do that because the guests actually stuck around after their segment, they just moved down to make room for the next guest. If they had to leave early, it was remarked upon as out of the ordinary, and they were ceremoniously ushered off. Conan O’Brien tried to keep this tradition alive until relatively recently, but it hasn’t stuck. No celebrity wants to sit outside of the spotlight and just listen politely. Or, more likely, no celebrity’s publicist wants them to do that.

Then as now, guests were on the show to plug a movie or TV show, and I like to use Wikipedia as a time machine to see the fate of that project in a weird form of internet schadenfreude. “Hmmm…looks like Dead Heat didn’t work out for you, Joe Piscopo. In fact, nothing ever will again. Suzanne Pleschette, you seem really excited about that new TV series. Oh, cancelled after seven episodes? Sorry, dear.” Sometimes I don’t need Wikipedia. “Hey, O.J., guess what you’re going to do in about ten years?”

Even though Johnny Carson supposedly pefected the late night talk show format (based on a template sketched out by Steve Allen — current events monologue followed by a comedy bit at the desk, celebrity guests, maybe an interesting or odd civilian guest, closing with a stand-up comedian or musical guest), what strikes me is how late in Johnny’s run that format hardened into tradition, and how much late night talk shows have changed even from that point. Modern late night shows are first and foremost comedy shows, are very high-energy, and move at a pretty fast clip. Unless it’s a mega-star like George Clooney, a guest gets one segment between commercials. And if the guest or host doesn’t get a laugh every thirty seconds (at least), the show feels dead.

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Johnny’s version of the show, at least until its last few seasons, was a genuine talk show, or “chat show” as the Brits accurately call it. Guests just…talked. They weren’t coached by the writing staff, or spoon-fed laugh lines. They would ramble through a lengthy anecdote with minimal payoff. It was often so quiet you could hear an occasional cough from a studio audience member. The post-monlogue desk bit flopped as often as it scored. (You can sometimes see Johnny completely lose interest partway through as the audience sits in what sounds to modern ears like very awkward silence.) Believe it or not, it was actually kind of great — real and relaxed. It was assumed most viewers were winding down and preparing to go to sleep, and none of the content was designed to be viewed in frenetic three-minute clips on the internet the next day. Smoke from Johnny’s under-the-desk cigarette would often drift lazily into the picture as the camera focused on McLean Stevenson talking about his socks for eight minutes. (If it was a 70s episode, both Johnny and the guests would openly puff away. An ashtray was always on the table in front of the guest couch.) Carson bent over backward to make his guest funny or interesting if they weren’t pulling it off for themselves. Amy Irving was a fairly frequent guest. She was (and is) a brilliant actress, and I’m sure she’s a gracious human being, but it was like interviewing a dead carp — you can see Johnny working. (Charles Nelson Reilly, on the other hand, I’ll sometimes rewind and watch twice.) Continue reading

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15 Flaws in the Star Wars Saga or, The Holy Bee Finally Feels Like Part of the Internet

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Since it’s Star Wars Day (May the 4th be with you!), and The Last Jedi has recently become available for home viewing, and Solo: A Star Wars Story will be hitting screens in a few weeks, I figured the time is right to go through a long-delayed rite of interweb passage. I’m finally making some time to take pot-shots at good ol’ Star Wars! Even if it’s way too late, why not take a dip in the almost-empty pool already clouded up by a million nerds’ sebaceous discharge and medicated eczema cream?

I have touched on the events from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away a few times on this website, but in case I haven’t made it absolutely clear, I am a hardcore, lifelong Star Wars fan. The first one I saw was The Empire Strikes Back at age five in the summer of 1980. In those pre-home video days, hugely popular movies were often re-released back into theaters. So even though, at two, I was too young to remember seeing the original Star Wars in 1977, I got to see it on the big screen, twice, during its 1982 re-release. Then I watched the original trilogy conclude with a crushing defeat for the evil Empire in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Yub nub!

…then we all grew up and moved on for awhile. Star Wars went into a lengthy hibernation, except for the development of a Star Wars role-playing game by West End Games (giving names and backstories to several minor on-screen characters) in the mid-1980s, which was the seed that grew into the “Expanded Universe.”

…then the EU really took off with a trilogy of novels by Timothy Zahn starting in 1991, continuing the story beyond Return of the Jedi. They were…pretty ok. Further novels in the EU were not-so-much ok. 

…then came the prequel films from 1999 to 2005. They have their latter-day defenders, but the general consensus is that the prequels were underwhelming. Like most of us, I found Revenge of the Sith a worthy entry in the overall series. The Phantom Menace had a plethora of problems, but retained an earnest likeability at its core. Much of Attack of the Clones, though, was downright dire, full of cringey sequences (see below) and dialogue that was bad even by prequel standards.

…then Disney bought the entire Star Wars franchise outright in 2012, wiped most of the EU from the canon (the correct move), and began the post-ROTJ stroyline anew. I was totally on board. Despite its obvious “fan service” (which I don’t think is automatically a bad thing — yes, I’m a fan and, shucks, I don’t mind being “serviced” now and then) and repeating some story beats from A New Hope, I thought J.J. Abrams did a fine job crafting the opening salvo of a new trilogy for a new generation with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And I was already an admirer of the next installment’s writer-director, Rian Johnson. I talked up his 2005 indie debut, Brick, to anyone who would listen, and his time-travelling crime drama Looper was one of the best films of 2012.

So when I put on my 3D glasses settled into my seat at the IMAX theater to see Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi on the pre-opening night of Thursday, December 14, 2017, I was vibrating with anticipation…and I was duly blown away. I found tears running down my cheeks two or three times. It was a dark, complex, very grown-up episode of the saga, full of angst, desperation, and characters making snap judgements and hasty mistakes. I was moved in a way that few films moved me. A little overlong? Yes, the editor’s scissors could have made an extra snip here and there, especially in Canto Bight. That was my main quibble (there was a secondary one, see #14 below…)

I had avoided all spoilers in the weeks before I saw the film, so the next morning I was excited to go online and plunge into the fan reviews and discussions. To my shock, when I made my first stop on the good ol’ Star Wars subreddit, I saw a tidal wave of…negativity. Howls of outrage, even. Other websites with active discussion forums were in a similar state. It seemed that everyone in internet-land hated it.

Whaa…? Did I (and every professional film critic, who all praised it to the skies) see a different movie? “Bombs can’t fall in zero gravity” and other whiny horseshit was being hollered by pedantic dweebs as they flung themselves on their racecar beds in despair. (Sound doesn’t travel in space either, but everyone wants to hear those engines, lasers, and explosions, don’t they? Yes, you too, Neckbeard. Remember, it’s a fantasy.)

Many of the complaints seemed to be along the lines of it didn’t “feel like” a Star Wars movie. “It’s too different” these guys pouted, and I’ll bet you a frosty mug of blue milk a lot of them were the same chinless wonders who bitched that The Force Awakens was “too much of the same.” Also, everyone seemed want Snoke to have some kind of awesome backstory, and everyone wanted Rey’s parents to be some kind of noteworthy figures. Well, guess what? Fuck ‘em, says The Last Jedi. None of that turns out to be important to the story as it barrells forward. Despite the (admittedly handy) existence of Wookieepdia, not every character needs an elaborate backstory, and not every character has to have family ties with other characters. (I suppose Kylo could be lying about Rey’s kin, but I hope not.) The Star Wars galaxy is a little too small as it is. And they hated Rose, mostly for stopping Finn’s self-sacrifice. I sort of see their point, but a Star Wars “good guy/girl” can’t be selfish, short-sighted and a little dense? They all have to be noble heroes? How. Fucking. Boring. (A portion of the other Rose hatred came from blatant racist and misogynist incels who are a stain on Star Wars fandom.)

The other major source of pissing and moaning was the characterization of Luke Skywalker, which I thoughtLuke Skywalker Last Jedi via Lucasfilm Header was the film’s masterstroke. In The Last Jedi, Luke has become a Yoda figure — a wild-eyed, disillusioned hermit, who believes to the core of his being that he is a catastrophic failure (echoing Yoda’s Revenge of the Sith line “into exile, I must go” after failing to stop the Emperor). This was a nice piece of work by Johnson, and performed beautifully by Mark Hamill (who was snubbed by the Oscars in the Supporting Actor category, if you ask me.) But evidently, Luke wasn’t enough like the old “Expanded Universe Luke” for some naysayers, clutching their pearls in high dudgeon. Based on the decent-sized amount I’ve read myself back in the day, a good chunk of the original EU was uninspired, juvenile, color-by-numbers garbage. Seriously, I’ve never read anything as badly written as some of that shit. I don’t care what the upcoming stand-alone Han Solo movie does, it will never be as clunky and stilted as Ann C. Crispin’s version of the Solo origin story. I loved the fact that The Force Awakens had Han return to his roots as a shady, second-rate smuggler and made Leia a boots-on-the-ground Resistance general. The EU’s choice? Make them a boring old married couple dealing with the bureaucracy of the “New Republic.” And the EU’s Luke Skywalker was a noble but dull plaster saint. That’s what people wanted? Again, How. Fucking. Boring. 

After a half-hour of wading through these complaints, I actually unsubscribed from the Star Wars subreddit in a fit of disgust, and thought dark thoughts about perpetually butt-hurt fanboys who were disappointed that The Last Jedi wasn’t the movie they had “written for themselves in their heads” (to quote my very perceptive wife, who also loved the film, along with all of my friends and anyone whose opinion I respect.) Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #19: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

“It took God six days to create the Heavens and the Earth, and Monty Python ninety minutes to screw it up.” — Original film poster tagline.

SPOILER ALERT: The meaning of life, according to Monty Python, will be revealed in this blog entry.

monty-python-the-meaning-of-life-posterHere at Holy Bee World Headquarters (i.e., the second-hand desk in my converted garage), I generally try to use my “Recommends” feature to champion something that may be existing in relative obscurity, but just as often I will use it to highlight something in popular culture that is definitely on the radar, but doesn’t get the respect it may deserve.

Britain’s Monty Python comedy team (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, the late Graham Chapman, and American animator Terry Gilliam) certainly isn’t obscure. But while every nerd over 35 in America can quote 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail at length, and the Brits have taken 1979’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian to their collective bosom, The Meaning of Life, a collection of sketches (sort of) exploring the purpose of existence, is treated as something of an also-ran…even though a mention of any of its scenes will elicit a chuckle and a quote from any Python fan (“wah-fer thin mint” is a common favorite), just like all the other of the team’s productions. 

A few of the Pythons themselves are somewhat dismissive of the 1983 film that would prove the swan-song for the full six-member group. “We started work on it before any of us deep-down wanted to,” said John Cleese, who ended up the most frustrated with the project. “It wasn’t all bad, just aimless.” Even Terry Jones, the film’s champion, admitted the writing process was labored. “It was getting increasingly hard to get [the six of us] together, and it showed.”

So, what prompted the Holy Bee to take up the cause of everyone’s least favorite Python monty-python-dvdfilm?

While cleaning and organizing a musty bookcase in the aforementioned World Headquarters, I came across a forgotten DVD still in the shrink-wrap — Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five To Go, which documented their July 2014 reunion stage show at London’s O2 arena. (The title is a reference to Graham Chapman’s 1989 death.) Reunion rumors had swirled around the group for three decades, but the reason that finally forced the five remaining members on to the stage one final time was pretty prosaic — they needed the money. (Holy Grail producer Mark Forstater successfully sued the group for almost a million pounds in royalties on Spamalot, Idle’s Broadway musical based on the film.) I cracked open the DVD and found myself enjoying the reunion show quite a bit — several “greatest hits” sketches that everyone knows, and a few deep cuts for hardcore fanatics, performed with all the energy a group of men in their seventies could muster (at least one of them with an artificial hip). The whole thing was presented as a gala stage extrvaganza, with massive production numbers backed by a full team of dancers and an orchestra. The team swapped some roles around and divided up Chapman’s parts among themselves (all six very rarely appeared in sketches at the same time anyway), and pulled off an overlong and slightly overbaked semi-reunion that was still a lot of fun.

Then…it struck me that it was now, for all intents and purposes, two down, four to go. The O2 shows were Terry Jones’ final performances. All throughout the rehearsals and the series of ten performances, Jones struggled with remembering his lines, even in material he had performed hundreds of times. (The others, with their usual sensitivity, referred to anyone forgetting their lines as “pulling a Terry.”) The following year, he was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a form of dementia. Unlike Alzheimer’s, PPA does not affect orientation or cognition, but it has a devastating effect on the ability to communicate. As of this writing, Jones, 76, is still living comfortably, but cannot write and cannot speak beyond a few garbled words.

Watching their reunion show, and thinking sadly of Terry Jones’ illness and retirement, I decided to binge watch the three original Python films — all of them directed by Jones. (Holy Grail was co-directed with Gilliam.) 

(Their “official” filmography consists of five movies but their first, 1971’s And Now For Something Completely Different, consists of re-filmed sketches from their late 60s – early 70s BBC-TV series and shouldn’t really count. And Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, a videotaped record of their 1980 live show, was intended to be shown on HBO or Showtime. It was instead transferred to film and placed in very limited theatrical release — against the team’s wishes — in 1982.)

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Grail and Brian came off as the unimpeachable classics they are, but I was struck this time by how well-done The Meaning of Life was. It looks great. Jones’ directorial eye has a good sense of color, the overall production design really pops, and he stages the musical sequences as well as any traditional musical director. The humor of Life has a reputation for being patchy, but here’s the claim on which I’m basing this entire blog entry — I’d put the first half (45 minutes or so) of The Meaning of Life up against anything they ever produced and it would come out equal — in terms of wicked satire, plain belly laughs, and the aforementioned visual sophistication, which Python realized was important for a feature film, even if it was just a collection of rather silly sketches. 

In the group’s eyes, the film’s nagging flaw was that it never found an organizing theme until the very end of the scripting process, denying it the opportunity for a final polish. They had just been writing random sketches, hoping to eventually concoct a framework on which to hang them. Grail and Brian had been narrative films, with a story that consistently followed the main character(s) from beginning to end. After those experiences, Jones in particular wanted to try a sketch film, mostly for the challenge. “[Cleese] had this theory that you can’t make a sketch film over fifty minutes,” Jones stated. “I always said ‘I’m sure we can do a sketch film and make it work,’ just to show we can.” By the time they came up with the “meaning of life” concept, they were up against deadlines. “I think it would have been perfect if had we given it one extra draft,” said Eric Idle. “We just sort of stuck in references to the meaning of life wherever we could.”  Continue reading

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