Category Archives: Film & TV

Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 1)

The Marx Brothers, at the peak of their powers and over the course of their best Broadway shows and Hollywood films (to most fans, that’s roughly a single decade, 1925 to 1935) were an unstoppable juggernaut that essentially invented modern comedy, or maybe post-modern comedy. (Buster Keaton might share that honor, but he existed in his own peculiar silent bubble — the Marx Brothers loudly ran amok in society.)

Some have called their style anarchic. Some have said they are surreal (Salvador Dali was a big fan). Revolutionary. Ahead of their time. Anti-establishment antiheroes. They ended up as all of these things when viewed backwards through the lens of pop culture history, but they wouldn’t have called themselves any of those things at the time. They always said they were only trying to entertain. It just came out that way. And as Marx scholar Noah Diamond says, “They were never angry. They broke the rules just for the sheer joy of breaking the rules. I don’t know that they really had an agenda.”

As I put it in my one-shot Zeppo essay several years back, “the Marx Brothers were three Great Comedians — Groucho, with his cigar, painted-on mustache, and endless flow of wisecracks, insults and non-sequiturs, Harpo, the gifted silent clown who communicated through exaggerated facial expressions and horn-honking, Chico, the piano-playing sharpie with the inexplicable Italian accent — and one leftover.” (Poor Zeppo.)  

Groucho (Julius)

For being one of the most famous and successful comedy teams in history, they were certainly the strangest. Those bizarre costumes. The fact that they worked best not as a full team, but in ones and twos (Groucho and Chico, Chico and Harpo, Groucho playing off a clueless victim of his rapier wit). The fact that one Brother was entirely unnecessary, and left the team part way through their film career with no effect whatsoever. 

You can be strange, you can break the rules, you can tear down the walls of what’s accepted, but you don’t become a comedy legend unless you bring the goods. You have to be funny, and the Marx Brothers were certainly that. As proof, I submit my several years’ experience as an instructor of cinema studies…at the middle-school level. Talk about a tough crowd. I often did a semester on comedy, and always included a few of the best Marx Brothers movies. After a brief bit of skeptical silence as they adjusted to the creaky old black-and-white antiquity of what they were seeing, they would start to laugh. Yes, even the most jaded, TikTok-sated middle schooler will succumb to the charms of the Marx Brothers, if that middle schooler has at least a modicum of a sense of humor (most of them do).

Harpo (Adolph/Arthur)

In this series of essays, my plan is to explore the Marx Brothers’ entire career, but with particular emphasis on their early years and later years (hence the subtitle of “rise and fall.”) Of course, I will be touching on the classic movies that made them legends, but so many others have done that so many times (and so much better), that I feel like adding too much to that particular pile would be superfluous. The Brothers’ career peak may well be the shortest portion here. And I’ll try to avoid the most well-worn stories. Still, this will be the longest sustained piece of writing on a single topic that I’ve ever done, except for “This Used To Be My Playground” Parts 1-24, which were written piecemeal over eight years. (This still might beat that series on actual word count.) So if you’re not into the Marx Brothers, or don’t want to learn about the Marx Brothers, then I’m sorry for what’s going to be happening here for the next several months.

Chico (Leonard)

The problem with pursuing a straightforward examination of the Brothers’ lives and careers is that mundane facts are almost totally obscured by myth and apocrypha — mostly spun by the Brothers themselves. They were showmen, born and bred, and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. In their old age, both Groucho and Harpo wrote autobiographies that were chock full of exaggerations, mistaken memories, and outright fabrications, many of which were taken as gospel by fans and journalists of the time. It took a later generation of scholars to peel away the patina of legend and piece together as much of the real story as they could. But misinformation still proliferates, especially on the internet. As much as I can, I will use the most up-to-date, reliably researched sources. (The Holy Bee as amateur armchair researcher is greatly indebted to the legwork of these professional authors, and a full source list will be provided after the final entry of this series.) I will do my level best to get the history right, without relying on Marxian Tall Tales, and if that means there will be fewer funny stories that are only half-true (or less), then so be it. It’ll make for a slightly less entertaining read, but I’ll be able to sleep at night. (And so will you, after reading one of these essays!) 

Zeppo (Herbert)

The title of this series comes from the working title of author Joe Adamson’s seminal work on the Marxes, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo. (Evidently, Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda hated cutesy, esoteric, or wordplay-based titles. Makes it fair game for the Holy Bee to swipe.)

So this will be, in a description I’ve used in the past, your typical Holy Bee mishmash. Part biography, part cultural history, part critical analysis, part rambling and musing.

Here we go…

The region known as Alsace has always been a victim of geographical tug-of-war. Hugging the western bank of the Rhine River, the area has been regarded at various times as the easternmost territory of France or the westernmost territory of Germany. Culturally, it is very French, but linguistically many of its inhabitants speak plattdeutsch“low German.” In October of 1859, Alsace was firmly under the control of France, and in a Jewish commune known as Mertzwiller, Simon Marx was born to another Simon Marx (possibly spelled “Marrix”), an illiterate peddler and suspected bigamist who may have been married illegally to two women at the same time. Before the boy was twelve, the events of the Franco-Prussian War annexed Alsace on behalf of the new Imperial State of Germany — the Second Reich — and young Simon went from being French to being German overnight. 

In a similar vein, before the Franco-Prussian War, the little seashore town of Dornum, just east of the Dutch border, was considered to be in the independent Kingdom of Prussia. After the Franco-Prussian War, it was considered to be in the newly consolidated German Empire. It was there, in the waning days of the old kingdom, that Miene Schoenberg was born in November of 1864 to distinctly un-orthodox Jewish parents. 

Miene’s parents were Lafe and Fanny Schoenberg, who traveled through northern Germany and the Low Countries performing as a ventriloquist/magician and a singing harpist, respectively. Lafe had a reputation as a wily, philandering charmer, always on the lookout for a pretty girl or easy money, traits he would pass on to at least a few of his grandsons. The 1851 marriage of the rascally Lafe and the more proper Fanny was objected to by her parents — and had been scandalously preceded by the 1850 birth of their eldest daughter, Schontje. Schontje was turned over to Lafe’s parents to raise, and for whatever reason the Lafe/Fanny union was not blessed with any more children until 1858 — then they came very close together. In addition to Schontje, there was daughter Sara, who emigrated to New York well ahead of the rest of the family in 1872, daughters Celine (about whom nothing is known) and Jette (died at age three), and at least a few others who didn’t survive infancy. All we need to note for the future are daughter Hanchen (b. 1862), daughter Miene, son Abraham (b. 1868) and son Heinemann (b. 1873). 

Fanny and Lafe, 1876, just before immigrating. Hanchen is between them, Abraham is in front of Fanny, and Heinemann is on Lafe’s lap. The fair-haired Meine is on the right.

Looking for greater opportunities, the Schoenbergs came to the melting pot of New York City between 1877 and 1879, and began the process of assimilation among the crowds of fellow immigrants in the Lower East Side. Lafe became “Louis” (although he never mastered English), Hanchen became “Hannah,” Meine became “Minnie,” and the boys, Abraham and Heinemann, became “Al Shean” and “Henry (‘Harry’) Shean.” (Fanny stayed Fanny.) Fifteen-year-old Minnie took a job in a sweatshop, assembling fur coats. 

We don’t know if Schontje or Celine made the trip. If they did, it is likely they are partly responsible for the flood of “Schoenberg cousins” the Brothers remember going in and out of their household at all hours. We know that Sara married a Gustave Heymann, and had a bunch of little Heymanns roughly the same age as the Brothers.

Fanny and Lafe, 1880s

Simon Marx made his way to New York in 1880, and was taken in and apprenticed by an older cousin who worked as a tailor. He shed the name “Simon” and became “Sam,” but — although he spoke plattdeutsch and considered himself German — he happily went by the nickname of “Frenchie” for the rest of his days. He never mentioned nor gave much thought to his parents and a multitude of siblings and half-siblings he had left behind in the Old Country. (“Frenchie” or “Frenchy”? Looking through all the sources, it seems to be a 50-50 split. I’ll go with Harpo’s spelling from his autobiography.)

Minnie, at around sixteen years old

By late 1884 Frenchie was barely scraping by as a tailor. But there were other opportunities for a handsome, dapper, and gentlemanly young Alsatian — especially one who was a decent dancer. He picked up extra money moonlighting as an instructor at a dance hall, and that’s where he met the bright, vivacious Minnie, who had moved on from the sweatshop and was now selling straw hats. Romance blossomed, and Sam “Frenchie” Marx, 25, married Minnie Schoenberg, 20, on January 18, 1885. They bounced from apartment to apartment (always moving further uptown — away from the teeming, roughshod Lower East Side), and began to produce their remarkable offspring.

The first Marx brother never got to be a “Marx Brother” at all. Manfred Marx, born in January 1886, was dead by July, a victim of acute “enterocolitis” (inflammation of the digestive tract) and “asthenia” (overall weakness), brought on by either influenza or tuberculosis. Whatever bacteria or virus was at fault, Manfred became another statistic in the annals of urban 19th-century infant mortality. His parents were devastated, but in true immigrant spirit, they persevered — and all their subsequent children lived to see old age.

After poor lost “Mannie” came Leonard, born on March 22, 1887. Then came Adolph on November 23, 1888. The middle child, Julius Henry, was born on October 2, 1890. Little brother Milton arrived on October 21, 1892. (He was another sickly one — Minnie watched him like a hawk.) The “surprise baby,” Herbert, was born on February 25, 1901. 

We know them as Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo.

Although the family always had its eyes on the future, Manfred’s death was not without reverberations that would echo for years. Minnie became incredibly protective. “Sam can cough all night, and I never hear him,” she once said. “But if one of my boys coughs just once, I’m wide awake.” And the first child born after Manfred — Leonard — was undoubtedly his mother’s favorite, spoiled and cosseted unabashedly. All the boys were born with fine blonde hair (and Minnie was known to have mixed peroxide with their shampoo) — except Julius, who sported woolly black locks from the get-go. That, and the slight cast to his left eye, always made him feel like a little bit of an outsider. Minnie referred to him as der Eifersuchtihe, “the jealous one.” His brothers’ hair eventually darkened in adolescence, but for Julius, the damage was already done.

The dominant Yorkville landmark was the massive Hell Gate Brewery. The Brothers’ grandfather taught them to tell time by looking out of their window towards the brewery’s clock tower

Every Marx Brother has a story about what a terrible tailor their father was (he supposedly refused to use a tape measure, preferring to guess his customers’ measurements), and also liked to spin tales about their poverty and life in the tenements. The reality was a little different. Yes, Frenchie preferred cooking and playing pinochle to cutting cloth, but he must have been earning something. By 1895, the family had settled into the top floor of a comfortable four-story brownstone at 179 East 93rd Street in the respectable German neighborhood of Yorkville — hardly a tenement. They stayed there for almost fifteen years, a far cry from the days of fleeing angry landlords in the Lower East Side when rent came due. The Marx family was solidly lower-middle class. 

Which isn’t to say the apartment wasn’t very, very crowded.

Let’s take a look at the occupants of this address, circa 1900…

The stoop of the Marx family’s building as it appears today

The occupants of three rooms on one floor of 179 East 93rd Street included Frenchie, who was more likely to be found frying short ribs and cabbage or playing cards than plying his trade. (He didn’t have a shop. His big cutting table and scraps of fabric dominated the dining area during work hours, and were put away when it was time for dinner and/or a round of cards, which came earlier and earlier in the day as he got older.) There was Louis and Fanny (now “Opie” and “Omie” to the grandsons). There was thirteen-year-old Leo and eleven-year-old “Ahdie” — towheaded troublemakers who at the time could pass as twins, and were already showing a proclivity for prowling the neighborhood looking for action. There was nine-year-old “Julie,” somewhat sour and serious, usually to be found with a book in whatever private corner he could claim, or keeping an eye on seven-year-old Milton, who was frail and small for his age. Presiding over all of this was Minnie Marx, pregnant (or very soon to be) with Herbert, and beginning to concoct the dream of putting her precocious boys on the stage. (None of the Brothers bothered with school beyond their bar mitzvah, and their attendance was pretty spotty before that.)

And according to the Brothers’ collective memories, another constant presence was a Marx Sister — Pauline (“Polly”), aged sixteen. Actually, Polly was the daughter of Minnie’s sister Hannah, born in 1884 when Hannah was between husbands, and unofficially adopted by Frenchie and Minnie to keep things respectable. (For what it’s worth, Polly was listed in the 1900 census as residing with her mother and stepfather, but who knows what the actual situation was.)

The Marxes occupied the top floor

A total of eight people — and that’s just the baseline. It seems that Polly was a semi-permanent fixture, and Aunt Hannah and her second husband Uncle Julius were there so often they might as well have been residents. Plus there was an endless stream of Schoenberg cousins, family friends, Frenchie’s customers, and pinochle players trooping up and down the three flights of stairs at number 179. And somewhere among the clutter, human and otherwise, they managed to find room for Omie’s old harp and a second hand upright piano. (One of Julius’ favorite reading spots was draped over the back of the piano.)

The story goes that Minnie was for some reason convinced Uncle Julius was sitting on secret riches, and named her middle child after him in hopes of a future inheritance. The question mark in the story is that Hannah and Julius Schickler did not marry until two years after Julius Marx was born. But who knows, maybe the couple had been “courting” for a couple of years.

Julius and Adolph in front of 179 East 93rd Street, around 1900

The loss of Omie Fanny in 1901 was balanced by the arrival of baby Herbert, but gradually the fourth floor got some breathing room. Polly married young, to the nearest non-related male (one of Frenchie’s card-playing cronies, actually) and got the hell out of there as soon as she could. Teenaged Leo and Ahdie were spending less and less time under the family roof, out until all hours doing who-knows. 

Julius was a touring vaudeville singer by the end of 1905. And Julius most assuredly did not get an inheritance from his eponymous uncle when he finally shuffled off sometime in the 1920s. Uncle Julius’ entire estate, grouched his nephew in his colorful autobiography, consisted of “a nine-ball he stole from a pool hall, his liver pills, and a celluloid dickey.” Plus, he died owing Frenchie eighty-four dollars. 

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Shots in the Dark: Blake Edwards’ Problematic Pink Panther Series (Part 2)

By the end of 1963, Peter Sellers was a physical and mental time bomb. He and Blake Edwards had vowed never to work together again after the second Clouseau movie,  A Shot In The Dark.

Sellers was never properly diagnosed or treated, but in examining the behavioral symptoms he began manifesting from late 1963 onward, his biographers seem to think he had schizoaffective disorder — perhaps the worst case suffered by anyone of any level of fame.

Somehow, his career continued successfully, at least for a time. Riding a wave of public sympathy after a near-fatal series of heart attacks in April 1964, and refusing to acknowledge any mental issues publicly or privately, he spent the remainder of the 1960s starring in various international productions of erratic quality but with big budgets, beautiful women, and unmistakable glamour. 

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Post-heart attack, Swinging Sellers in the Sixties, with his Swedish model wife

Behind the scenes, he was crumbling. His hasty 1964 marriage to Britt Ekland collapsed under his paranoia and abuse. His kids grew terrified of his volcanic rages on the occasions he demanded obedient visits from them. He lashed out unpredictably and threw infantile tantrums. He became totally reliant on the guidance of a bogus “psychic advisor,” Maurice Woodruff. He heard voices. He subjected colleagues to dozens of his bizarre whims. He was terrified of the color purple — it was not allowed to be worn in his presence, and his assistants would check his hotel rooms in advance and remove any trace of violet. 

In the meantime, Blake Edwards married Julie Andrews, and made one decent film (1965’s The Great Race) to his usual ratio of stinkers.

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Newlyweds Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews

Sellers and Edwards buried the hatchet to work on 1968’s The Party — an arguably funnier, or at least warmer, film than any of the Pink Panthers, but difficult to watch these days because Sellers is slathered in brown make-up and thick eyeliner. His character, the well-meaning but Clouseau-clumsy Hrundi V. Bakshi, is a thickly-accented collection of South Asian stereotypes. 

Once again, Edwards and Sellers hated each other by the end of it. 

Around the same time, the Panther series’ original production company, the Mirisch Corporation, decided that a third film in the series would be worth doing. When both Sellers and Edwards declined to participate, the project went forth anyway. The production company believed that the character of Inspector Clouseau was the true star, bigger than any actor who happened to portray him. They went into production on a new Clouseau movie without Edwards or Sellers (or Mancini). Bud Yorkin would direct.

Stepping into Sellers’ shoes as Clouseau was the rising newcomer Alan Arkin, who had received an Oscar nomination for his very first film, the Mirisch Corporation’s The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966). 

Arkin is a great actor, but in 1968’s Inspector Clouseau he was badly miscast, failing to acquit himself convincingly as the title character. He is alternately sleepy (in an attempt to replicate Sellers’ deadpan), or shouting hysterically. His round baby face (he looks a decade younger than his 34 years) just appears wrong under the inspector’s trademark hat. Arkin aside, the film itself is not any worse than any of the other Panthers before and after, and shares several traits — overlong “slapstick” setpieces that go nowhere, clunky direction (if anything, Yorkin has a touch of subtlety Edwards lacks), and a solid supporting cast working very hard.

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Had Sellers played the part, it is likely that Inspector Clouseau would be considered a worthy entry in the series. But it was a flop with the critics, and though box office numbers are unavailable, they clearly weren’t strong. The series was dropped… for the moment.

Edwards had burned most of his Hollywood bridges with the Darling Lili fiasco, and was hunkered down in London trying to figure out how to resurrect his shattered career. Sellers hit the skids around the same time, appearing in a run of films of such appallingly low quality that one of them, Ghost in the Noonday Sun, was considered unreleasable and shelved. 

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Enter Sir Lew Grade, the British mega-mogul of ITC Entertainment, a colossus of both film and television. He wanted Julie Andrews to star in one of his TV specials, and if that meant giving her down-and-out husband a two-movie deal, it was a price he was willing to pay. The first film was another underwhelming dud (the overwrought romantic drama The Tamarind Seed). Sir Lew then tactfully suggested a return of Inspector Clouseau as the second film in the deal. At this point, neither Edwards nor Sellers was in a position to decline.

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Written by Blake Edwards & Frank Waldman

Produced by Blake Edwards for ITC Entertainment

Released through United Artists

Over the years, Return is the film in the series I’ve seen the most often. For decades, ITC held its copyright separately from every other Panther film, and as a result, it played on TV far more often than the others (which is to say, it was on a lot — the other films were certainly no strangers to TV airings). It was always my favorite. Sellers — older and a little more hangdog than in the ‘60s films — still plays the role with total commitment. He has a new schtick (briefly depicted in Shot) in these ‘70s revival films: Master of Disguise, and his elaborate get-ups can be pretty amusing. His bizarre version of a French accent hasn’t yet worn out its welcome, and he is always adding little grace notes to what is sometimes a sledgehammer style of physical comedy.

The film opens strong. The Pink Panther diamond is swiped from a heavily-guarded Lugash museum in a well-staged robbery sequence that clearly influenced later films like Entrapment and the Ocean’s series.

We then are re-introduced to Clouseau in Paris, busted down to a foot patrol officer, and he has a funny encounter with a street musician and a chimpanzee “minkey,” all while a bank is robbed behind his oblivious back.

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He is about to be suspended for six months by the still-twitching Chief Inspector Dreyfus (evidently reinstated after going off the deep end in Shot) when the call comes from the Lugashi government: they want their diamond recovered by the detective who helped find it the first time. Clouseau is bumped back up to the rank of Inspector and put on the case, all the while dodging (usually accidentally) a mysterious assassin. (And Dreyfus has a good bit of comic business with a cigarette lighter all too realistically shaped like a handgun.)

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The solid opening is marred only by another instance of Clouseau getting ambush-attacked (on his orders) by his loyal Chinese valet Cato, as usual wrecking his apartment in the process. The sequence has lots of unnecessary slow motion, is awkwardly timed and staged (an Edwards trait), and relies on nothing more than pain and destruction for humor (another Edwards trait).

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Also racism, as Cato here and in most other Panther movies is beaten, denigrated, and referred to by Clouseau as his “little yellow friend.” I don’t usually agree, artistically speaking, with judging the standards of a bygone era by the standards of a more enlightened era, but this sort of thing does make the original Panther series a tad uncomfortable to share with your kids.

The chief suspect in the robbery is the jewel thief who stole the diamond twelve years ago — Sir Charles Litton (“the notorious Phantom”), now retired and living in Nice. David Niven as Litton is replaced here by the younger, spryer Christopher Plummer, who does a great job in the role (ED NOTE: and died right as I was writing this — RIP), and the twist is — he didn’t do it. He flies off to Lugash to personally investigate and clear his name, and sends his beautiful wife, Lady Claudine Litton (Catherine Schell), to Switzerland to distract the dogged Clouseau, who falls for the bait without question. The film begins intercutting between the two sets of characters, and loses momentum.

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Christopher Plummer and Catherine Schell as Sir Charles and Lady Claudine Litton

The sequences of Litton infiltrating the seedy underworld of Lugashi organized crime and their government’s secret police were shot on location in Morocco, and are generally pretty dull. They have no real comedic elements at all — unless you count Pepi. Graham Stark’s role here is the sweaty, sniveling, deeply unpleasant henchman Pepi, who over the course of the film, gets every finger on one hand broken in different painful ways. Again, this is Edwards’ idea of “comedy.”

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Graham Stark (“Pepi”) and Christopher Plummer

Things are livelier in the Gstaad, Switzerland location, with Clouseau infiltrating the luxury hotel where Lady Litton is staying. He first tries to inspect her room while she’s out, disguised as a housekeeper. As usual, the sequence — based around his slapstick struggle with an elaborate vacuum cleaner — goes on way too long with very little payoff.

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Much more successful, humor-wise, is Clouseau’s attempt to directly question his quarry in the hotel’s bar, disguised as a nightclub swinger (“Guy Gadoire”) in oversized shades and a blinding red sport coat, with a drooping handlebar mustache. He loses one handlebar early on (after getting punched in the face by an over-enthused go-go dancer), and continues with his usual obliviousness, much to Lady Litton’s amusement. Rumor has it that Catherine Schell as Lady Litton was genuinely laughing at Sellers’ improvised antics throughout the film, and those takes were used because it would have been the character’s realistic response to Clouseau’s fumbling.

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All these situations are eventually resolved — Clouseau is credited with the diamond’s recovery, nobody seems to bother to try and prosecute the actual thief (yes, the identity is revealed and no one seems to care), and Clouseau’s mysterious would-be assassin is revealed as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, who is committed to a padded room in an insane asylum as the credits roll.

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The funny moments of The Return of the Pink Panther are outnumbered by the unfunny moments by about three-to-one, and are usually the small throwaway jokes rather than the elaborately staged setpieces. (An example: Clouseau gets in a cab and instructs the driver “follow that car!” The driver hops out and sprints after the car on foot.) Compared to what was coming after it, Return was a masterpiece.

Upon its release in May 1975, The Return of the Pink Panther was a smash, restoring both Edwards and Sellers to bankability. They decided to go all in, and began shooting the next movie in the series almost immediately. Continue reading

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Shots in the Dark: Blake Edwards’ Problematic Pink Panther Series (Part 1)

Blake Edwards (1922-2010) was a film director. Heck, probably even a “major” film director. He may not be a household name, but most people who know a little about movies know who he is. He won a Special Academy Award in 2004 “in recognition of his writing, directing and producing an extraordinary body of work for the screen.” That’s as may be. But if I were to ask someone familiar with that body of work to name a great — great — Blake Edwards movie, there may very well be a long pause as they struggle to think of one. 

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They will likely come up with Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Sorry, no. That’s perhaps the most overrated “classic” film in cinema history. If you want to experience the effervescent magic that was Audrey Hepbrun, watch Sabrina. Or Roman Holiday. Or even Charade. All exponentially better films than the limp, vapid Tiffany’s — and all containing 100% less Mickey Rooney in yellowface as Hepburn’s buck-toothed “Japanese” landlord — a walking, talking ethnic slur that was vulgar even by early 1960s standards (which weren’t high.)

Some people old enough to remember it might dredge up Edwards’ box-office smash 10. But “sex comedies” have a hard time standing the test of time. Sex comedies rely on actions and reactions based around attitudes, mores, and societal standards, all of which change, sometimes rapidly. 10 is a total relic of the late 1970s — just as fossilized (and fun to watch) as your standard pile of dinosaur shit. (And be honest — it wasn’t even all that good at the time. People just lined up in their flares and Hush Puppies to see Bo Derek in beaded cornrows frolicking on the beach.)

Fewer people will come up with his true masterpiece — Days of Wine and Roses, not a comedy at all, which may be the secret to its success. Edwards was a restless, melancholy soul who fought a lifelong battle with depression, pill addiction, and deep-seated anger issues, and this harrowing look at alcoholism tapped into whatever brilliance Edwards contained as a filmmaker. And make no mistake, Edwards did display flashes of brilliance. He made some good movies in spite of his own tendencies (A Shot in the Dark is a good example.) But mostly, he was the poor man’s Billy Wilder. Top of the second tier, sure. Best of the bench players. But the inescapable whisper of “hack” hangs around his legacy like an anchor chain. Blake-Edwards-Peter-Sellers-The-Pink-Panther

But far ahead of all the Tiffanys and 10s and even Victor/Victorias in many people’s memories is The Pink Panther and its endless train of sequels…all helmed by Blake Edwards. If, like me, you’re a child of the 80s and not old enough to have seen the bulk of them in their original theatrical runs, you remember them as endlessly airing on weekend afternoon TV, and as cable movie channel staples. 

The series’ central figure — the hopelessly inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Sûreté, as portrayed by British actor Peter Sellers — has become an iconic comedic character. Austin Powers, Derek Zoolander, and Ron Burgundy are all his spiritual children. The Pink Panther movies inspired a cartoon show, and enough nostalgic affection to support a hideous 2006 remake starring Steve Martin (who should really know better), and an even more hideous 2009 sequel to the remake.

Revisiting the original films today, how do they hold up? 

Not all that great.

And it comes down to the fact that Edwards’ idiosyncratic take on comedy is completely joyless.Edwards 3“Comedy is pain” has always been Blake Edwards’ motto. I just wish he wasn’t always so literal about it. Maybe that’s why his comedies are generally so painful to watch — he includes the audience a little too much in his characters’ suffering.

In Edwards’ films, acts of physical comedy play out in long takes and wide shots. “I see things like a proscenium,” he has said. His characters are always in motion, but moving clumsily. Awkwardly. There is no comedic grace. The characters shuffle around almost sadly, and the only sounds are thuds and rustlings, and the characters’ audible exhalations and grunts as they bump into each other, inanimate objects, and the ground. Edwards might say that’s a kind of purity. But it’s labored and comes off as rather amateurish. Yes, some of the audience may laugh. But a lot of them just shift uncomfortably in their seat and ask themselves Is this supposed to be funny? There’s a reason why for every box-office success, Edwards’ filmography has roughly three catastrophic…and I mean catastrophic…bombs. Who knew a comedy could practically bankrupt a studio? (See Darling Lili. Better yet, don’t.)71CzD4L6ugL._SY445_I decided to take some of my COVID-19 quarantine downtime last summer to re-watch the whole Pink Panther series. One of the things that makes quarantine bearable is that you can still count on essential workers to bring you ridiculous shit, such as the Pink Panther series Blu-Ray set. You might have to wait an extra couple of days. (It actually got here quicker than I expected, placed with care on my porch by a masked and gloved van driver. “Essential workers” should have been Time Magazine’s Person [People] of the Year.)

MV5BNzg5NTYzNDI4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTQxMTMyNA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_The Pink Panther (1963/64)

Written by Blake Edwards & Martin Richlin

Produced by the Martin Jurow for the Mirisch Company 

Released through United Artists

First off, was The Pink Panther a 1963 film or 1964 film? IMDB and Wikipedia firmly list it as 1963, which it was — in a handful of European countries, where The Pink Panther made its bow in late December of that year. It had a single showing in Boston on New Year’s Eve. But its wide British release was in January of ‘64, and its wide U.S. release wasn’t until March. The AFI and several other film websites call it a 1964 film. 

The basic outline of the story is that a French police inspector, Jacques Clouseau, is hot on the trail of an international jewel thief known as the Phantom, the alter ego of English playboy Sir Charles Litton. Litton (sometimes rendered as “Lytton”) has his eye on a massive diamond called the Pink Panther, property of the deposed Princess Dala of Lugash. Clouseau is trying to stop the Phantom before he strikes again, not knowing that his own wife, Simone, is the Phantom’s accomplice…and mistress. When everyone comes together (along with Litton’s louche and irresponsible American nephew, George) during a skiing holiday, complications ensue. Hilarity, sadly, does not. 

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David Niven

David Niven was deservedly top-billed in The Pink Panther, and his dashing character, Sir Charles Litton (“the notorious Phantom”), was envisioned by Edwards and the Mirisch Company to be the lead in a potential series of comedic heist films. A series indeed came about, but not as originally envisioned…and not with the Phantom as the main character.  

By 1963, the name “David Niven” was synonymous with class, wit, and charm, but at 53, he was getting visibly long in the tooth. Litton was supposed to be irresistible to women, but after a lifetime spent in smoky cocktail parties, Niven’s physical appearance was growing somewhat wizened. His deeply-lined face, snaggled nicotine teeth, and slight cast to his left eye make him more than a little…hobgoblin-ish. I guess his money might be irresistible. 

Apart from being something of a vehicle for Niven, the film was designed to be very much an ensemble piece, and it originally had a totally different cast. Peter Ustinov was to play the dogged-but-oblivious Inspector Clouseau (the original script indicated this was a mostly non-comedic straight role — presumably Ustinov’s portly and dignified bearing would give the character a more Hercule Poirot-style persona). Ava Gardner was to be the devious and deceptive Simone Clouseau, and Edwards hoped to get his recent collaborator Audrey Hepburn on board as Princess Dala.

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Peter Sellers as Clouseau

Hepburn, already with an eye on semi-retirement, declined the part outright. Ava Gardner accepted, then left the project when the Mirisch Company would not meet her diva-like demands for an army-sized personal staff. Ustinov bailed for unknown reasons right before cameras rolled (and triggered a nasty lawsuit). Two European “model-actresses” (Claudia Cardinale and the mononym’d Capucine) were fitted into the female roles, and at the last possible minute, Edwards offered the role of Inspector Clouseau to Peter Sellers.

As the film opens, gilded lettering spelling out “Once Upon A Time…” fills our field of vision in glorious, vibrant Technirama. Edwards can certainly set up a mise en scene, he clearly has a flair for sumptuous colors, and a good eye for widescreen framing (which can be challenging.) The rich photography in The Pink Panther as envisioned by Edwards and carried out by cinematographer Phillip Lathrop is beyond reproach. (What plays out in front of the camera is the issue.)

We begin with a prologue set twenty years in the story’s past in the fictional Middle Eastern country of “Lugash” — the king is presenting his daughter with a large diamond. It is pointed out that, like many massive diamonds, this one has a flaw. If one looks into the center of the jewel, there is a pinkish discoloration which is shaped like a leaping panther. 

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At this point, the film reveals one of its other major assets — the jazzy opening theme by composer Henry Mancini. Dominated by the tenor saxophone of Plas Johnson, it is instantly recognizable to multiple generations, and is film music at its finest. The “Pink Panther” theme plays over the very amusing title animation, supervised by Warner Bros. legend Friz Freleng, featuring a mischievous embryonic version of the Pink Panther cartoon character (at this point still very cat-like, frequently sitting on all four paws, and suavely knocking ash off his long cigarette holder). It’s easy to see how this character got spun off into his own series of theatrical shorts beginning later in ‘64, then his own long-running animated TV series by 1969. Continue reading

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The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 4)

The Budget Sequels

MV5BZGMxODA2NGEtOTI1MS00Y2QwLThhODYtOWUwZjU3NWI1OGEyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjc1NTYyMjg@._V1_The Ghost of Frankenstein (March 1942) and Chaney’s performance marked the transition of Frankenstein’s Monster from Karloff’s confused, hurt, and occasionally dangerous creature seeking some kind of human connection to the slow, clumsy, blank-faced killing machine he would remain in many people’s imaginations from then on. (People who see Karloff in the first two Frankenstein films are often surprised by how lithe and expressive the Monster was initially.)

Now that Universal had Chaney, Tom Tyler was given his walking papers (shuffling papers?) after a single performance as the Mummy. Lon was duly wrapped up into his least-favorite character and staggered through increasingly bored performances in The Mummy’s Tomb (October 1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (July 1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (December 1944). On-set sources say he had a flask of gin wrapped into his mummy bandages by the costume department, with the tip of a drinking tube near his collarbone. If nothing else, he was a creative engineer of ways to get his daily intake. He did create the Mummy’s well-known gait, based on the damage the monster sustained by Tyler’s incarnation in Hand…left arm cradled against his chest, left leg dragging.

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Chaney’s face says it all. He hated doing his Mummies.

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And who better to play Count Dracula than the lumpy, pot-bellied, double-chinned Lon Chaney? Universal’s commitment to putting Chaney into all of its monster roles reached its ludicrous limit when the hilariously miscast Chaney donned the cape and fangs in Son of Dracula (November 1943). The title is a head-scratcher — most of the time, the movie seems to think that the leading character is the Count himself. (Anyone suggesting the 61-year-old Lugosi should reprise his role would have been laughed out the room, but Chaney is even more risible.)

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Really?

What’s frustrating is that this had the potential to be a pretty good B-level horror flick. It’s based on an original story by Wolf Man scribe Curt Siodmak, and its setting among the old plantation houses of Tennessee gave it an eerie, swampy, Southern Gothic atmosphere. It boasted the first on-screen bat-to-man transformation. Long-suffering Evelyn Ankers gamely returned for a third go-round as Chaney’s on- and off-screen victim. 

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Well over a year before Son of Dracula splattered onto the screen, Curt Siodmak off-handedly mentioned a funny idea for a title to producer/director George Waggner …Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man. Waggner took him seriously…

“Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man”

Lon Chaney was Universal’s in-house horror star, and had already played both Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man. Was it possible he could play both at the same time? He insisted he was up to the challenge. Director Roy William Neill, a veteran of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone, considered the possibility. With a liberal use of doubles and a little trick photography, he decided it could be done. But it would inflate the budget, and Chaney’s reliability was questionable. Universal nixed the idea.

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If nothing else, it made for a great poster

The next option was someone who was a big name in horror, and whose salary would not break the bank. To Universal, that could only mean one thing — get Bela. This would actually neatly tie in with the end of Ghost of Frankenstein, where the Monster received Ygor’s brain. It was a logical development that he should speak with Ygor’s voice. (Not that Universal ever cared a fig for continuity, it would just be a happy coincidence.) Would Lugosi take on the role of the Monster, that he had so famously turned down over a decade before? Lugosi was in no position to turn down high-profile work. He would soon turn 60 and had recently begun self-administering morphine to ease the pain caused by sciatica. So Bela subjected himself to the rigors of Jack Pierce’s Monster make-up at long last. (“For the money,” confirmed his wife later.)

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Lugosi’s Monster side-eyes a nervous-looking Chaney

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was released in March 1943. The first half is all Lon Chaney as Larry Talbot, resurrected by grave-robbers working under a full moon, and desperate to find a final cure for his lycanthropy, or at least the sweet relief of a permanent death. He believes the secret is to be found in the journals of Dr. Frankenstein (?!), and sets off to find the doctor, or his notes. For some reason, after perishing in a laboratory fire in his previous appearance, the Monster is found by Talbot frozen in a block of ice under the ruins of Castle Frankenstein. The Monster (mostly blind and speaking in Ygor’s voice in the original script) is run-down and of little help.

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Ilona Massey takes over the role of Elsa Frankenstein from Evelyn Ankers, so for anyone still desperately clinging to the notion that the name “Frankenstein” should never be applied to his Monster, I guess this is the Frankenstein Larry Talbot meets. (Lionel Atwill appears as the local mayor.) In due course, Talbot runs across a scientist who decides to — you guessed it — restore the Monster to full strength. And he decides to do it on the night of a full moon. Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster do indeed duke it out, before being swept away by floodwaters released by vengeful, torch-bearing villagers.

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For anyone watching closely, the Monster is played by stuntmen Eddie Parker and Gil Perkins almost as much as by Lugosi, who simply wasn’t up to the rigors of the more physical aspects of the role. Also, someone made the executive decision — once the movie had been entirely shot — that the Monster speaking in Ygor’s gruff, thickly-accented voice just didn’t work, and had all of his dialogue cut out (very clumsily in places.) Along with it went any reference to the Monster’s semi-blindness, and his explanation for how he ended up in ice. As the film now plays, there’s no reason for Lugosi to always have his arms held stiffly straight out in front of him, which became essential to all bad Monster imitations forever into the future.  Continue reading

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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)

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.

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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 comic touch, and he made the artistic choice to play up the material’s more dramatic and sentimental aspects for the cinematic adaptation.

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.) [2019 Ed. Note — He totally was.] 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. [2019 Ed. Note — I was right. I like Solo more each time I watch it.] 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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