Friday, January 26, 2007

“When it comes to parenting I prefer to put it down to the bird watching technique where you've got to keep your distance, keep very still and try not to frighten them.” – Ben Harper (Robert Lindsay), My Family (BBC-1)

My Family, a popular BBC-1 sitcom that some of you may have seen on the cable channel BBC America, had its first two series released on Region 1 DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video last October.  I reluctantly admit I didn’t pay much attention to this announcement—I’ve been purchasing the Region 2 discs—but I thought about this the other day because I was scrounging around the living room the other day looking for something to watch and I found Series 2 lying on the coffee table (Mom and I have been going through the show a few episodes at a time).

My Family is a very popular comedy series across the pond (not so much critically acclaimed but well-received by the viewing public) and as a fan, I give it a pretty substantial endorsement as well.  It’s a nice blend of American-style humor (the show’s creator is Fred Barron, who also hatched Dave’s World and Caroline in the City) and traditional British farce, and stars longtime Britcom fave Robert Lindsay (Citizen Smith, Nightingales) as a harried husband/dentist driven to distraction (or should that be extraction?) by his family: wife Susan (cute-as-a-button Zoë Wanamaker—Madame Hooch in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), daughter Janey (Daniela Denby-Ashe) and sons Nick (Kris Marshall) and Michael (Gabriel Thomson).  I like the Harpers because even though they’re a loving and supportive bunch there’s still an edginess to the entire clan.

I watched a pair of episodes yesterday that literally had me laughing out loud; the first, “Trust Never Sleeps,” finds Ben and Susan giving permission to Janey to throw a party at the Harpers’ while they’re out of town visiting friends.  A conversation overheard in a liquor store about a wild party being thrown “by a girl whose parents are gone for the weekend” gives Ben second thoughts (when Susan asks him how he can be so sure the conversation was about Janey’s shindig Ben responds: “They said the parents were idiots!”) and he races back home, with Susan fretting about how this lack of trust will affect her and her daughter’s relationship.  The two of them arrive to find nothing going on—but then the kids start piling in and Ben and Susan are forced to hightail it upstairs and hide in their bedroom.  The complications multiply after that, particularly when Ben cannot ignore the call of nature after drinking several bottles of wine…and their own bathroom toilet is out of commission.

In “Death and Ben Take a Holiday,” Ben has to go to Leeds for an aunt’s funeral and because a flu-ridden Susan is too sick to go, he ends up dragging his layabout son Nick along.  Through a series of mishaps (inspired, no doubt, by shenanigans witnessed by your humble narrator at La Quinta), the two men are forced to room and share a bed together (a priceless sequence) and then more wackiness occurs at the funeral with Susan having arrived…and looped on medication.

Though the news about My Family on Region 1 is a bit late, I will give you a heads-up on another Britcom previously available only on Region 2 DVD.  Warner Home Video will release the first two series of One Foot in the Grave on March 27, so if you’re a fan be sure to keep an eye peeled for them.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Every day’s a Holliday

Ah, Judy, Judy, Judy—how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.  Better still, let me count the movie performances…sadly, there weren’t that many in a career tragically cut short by Holliday’s passing from breast cancer in 1965.  There is, of course, her Oscar-winning performance as “dumb blonde” Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (1950); her “comeback” role (after being smeared by those HUAC weasels) as underdog Laura Partridge in The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956); her final silver screen turn in the 1960 Bells are Ringing (a part she had played on stage in 1957, winning a Tony).  I guesstimate that there are only a few Holliday movies I’ve yet to see; the major one being Full of Life (1956) but also the brief appearances in vehicles like Greenwich Village (1944), Something for the Boys (1944) and Winged Victory (1944).

Back in May of last year, Deep Discount DVD had a sale on some of their Columbia titles—which allowed me to score copies of Cadillac, It Should Happen to You (1954) and The Marrying Kind (1952) for $5.98 a pop.  This past weekend, I programmed Happen as part of my Midnight Movie Marathon and while the movie may not captivate me as it once did, it’s still fun, breezy entertainment.  In this one, Judy plays Gladys Glover, a model who’s just lost her job, whose chance meeting with aspiring documentary filmmaker (Jack Lemmon, in his first credited screen appearance) gives her an idea to rent a billboard with her name on it in New York City’s Columbus Circle..  A soap company is stymied by Gladys’ advertising coup (they had wanted the billboard to hawk their own product), and the son (Peter Lawford) of the company’s president tries to romance Gladys into giving up her space.  Gladys soon becomes a cause célèbre in the Big Apple; her moniker plastered on various billboards and her “career” handled by agent Brod Clinton (Michael O’Shea).

I like Happen because the subject matter still rings true today—how a person with absolutely no talent can still be a celebrity and public figure (the prime example being…well, their first name is a city in France and last a hotel chain) and how society feeds off the exploitation.  Holiday is great—the scene where she confronts the board members of the soap company (who clearly have their own agenda in mind) is sort of a blueprint for Solid Gold Cadillac—and her chemistry with Lemmon is first-rate (the two were paired again for another film released the same year, Phfft).  The film benefits from the input of Born Yesterday director George Cukor and scribe Garson Kanin, and there are lots of fun character actor cameos in this one as well: Jack Kruschen, Mort Mills, Cora Witherspoon and Frank Nelson (playing—what else?—a department store floorwalker).

Personally, I enjoyed the second Judy romp, The Marrying Kind, more: once again, it re-teamed Holliday, Cukor and Kanin (and wife Ruth Gordon) in a seriocomic tale about a married couple (Judy and newcomer Aldo Ray) seeking a divorce who, upon reflection, realize that their life together has had a lot of bumps along the old matrimonial road…but a lot of bright spots as well.  Kind is a real rarity in that it presents a warts-and-all view of marriage (it’s very similar to the later Two for the Road) and while there’s a lot of broad comedy in the film there are some real heartbreaking dramatic moments as well.  I’ve mentioned this before, but author-historian Danny Peary has argued in his book Alternate Oscars that Holliday’s performance in Kind is even better than that in Born Yesterday…and I have to say I agree with him; Judy’s role of Florence “Florrie” Keefer rises above the farcical aspects of Yesterday’s Billie Dawn and becomes a three-dimensional human being who you can’t help but root for.  Ray is able to keep up with Holliday despite the difficulties of his character (a man filled with too much stubborn pride to realize that money and financial standing shouldn’t dictate whether or not a marriage is working) and there are also nice turns from the supporting actors, including longtime TDOY fave Mickey Shaughnessy as Ray’s butcher brother-in-law (he has a great scene in his shop in which he lectures Ray on the realities of marriage).  Lots of familiar character and soon-to-be star faces populate this one, too:  Charles Bronson, Peggy Cass, Frank Ferguson, Nancy Kulp and an unmistakable voice cameo from Harry Von Zell.

Friday, January 19, 2007

“The place—a city…the time—now…the story of The Felony Squad.”

Back in the 1970s, when I watched television shows like Charlie’s Angels and The Love Boat because I simply didn’t know any better, I remember seeing actor Dennis Cole in a number of guest-star roles and marveling at how he got the gig only because he was Mr. Jaclyn Smith…that is, I should say, because he was married to the Charlie’s Angels star from 1978 to 1981.  Suffice it to say, I was a bit cynical in my youth (I’m much better now) and I did not realize that he actually appeared in other series before he and Ms. Smith were betrothed, like Bearcats! and Bracken’s World.

Cole’s biggest TV hit was a 1966-69 crime drama called The Felony Squad, in which he played rookie detective Jim Briggs opposite partner Detective Sam Stone—who was essayed by none other than “the greatest private detective of them all,” Howard Duff (well, on radio, anyway).  The two men, mentor and protégé, worked the mean streets of an unnamed Western city (though filmed in Los Angeles) under the supervision of Captain Frank Nye (Frank Maxwell), and later Captain Ed Franks (Barney Phillips).  The other main character on Squad was Jim’s father Dan, a desk sergeant played by Dragnet veteran Ben Alexander.  (In fact, when Jack Webb revived the classic radio-television series in January 1967, he had wanted his old friend to rejoin him as Frank Smith—but since Alexander had already committed to Squad Webb was forced to call upon the services of Harry Morgan as Bill Gannon.)

Richard Murphy, a screenwriter who contributed to classic film noirs like Boomerang! (1947), Cry of the City (1948) and Panic in the Streets (1950), was the creator of Felony Squad and also wrote and directed The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960), the TV adaptation of which was mentioned in a post by Jaime Weinman sometime back.  In its planning stages, Squad was originally titled Men Against Evil—which I have to admit, is a much dandier title.  The concept of the program was a sort of soap opera-ish look at the day-to-day routine of a police captain.  However, this idea was soon scrapped and the show was reworked into your standard police drama with the three main characters—and the title also went out the window when one of the show’s sponsors objected to the “Evil” part.  Squad premiered on ABC-TV September 12, 1966 and for two seasons was a Monday night viewing staple that, while not ruling the ratings roost, was a modest hit and had built a respectable following.  However, at the beginning of its third season in 1968, it was moved to Friday nights where it found itself pummeled senseless by CBS’ still-popular Gomer Pyle, USMC.  ABC then put the show out of its misery in mid-season on January 31, 1969.

Up until today, I had never seen an episode of Felony Squad—my curiosity in the series was, of course, sparked by the presence of OTR veterans Duff and Alexander—so I purchased an eight-disc set from one of those websites that advertise complete seasons of shows (I won’t sully the blog by mentioning the word…but it rhymes with “root peg”), thinking a series like Squad is going to be pretty far down the totem pole in seeing a proper DVD release anytime soon.  I didn’t pay very much for it but I will caveat emptor you right now: the source of these shows would appear to be old VHS tapes and while the video is watchable, the audio has an annoying hum that often makes it hard to hear the dialogue.  (I placed an order for this set back in November, and when I called five weeks later to inquire on its status, I couldn’t hear the person on the phone because it sounded as if she were working in a laundry at the time.  I guess that’s what they call in the writing bidness “foreshadowing.”)  Also, every site I’ve seen this set advertised trumpets it as “The Complete Series”; Squad aired seventy-three episodes during its three-season run but there are only fifty-two on the set.  Unless they’ve repealed some of the laws of mathematics that does not constitute “complete.”  (This is a shame, too, because the set doesn’t have the final episode of Squad, “The Law & Order Blues”—which guest-stars Carl Betz as attorney Clinton Judd in a “crossover” episode continued on Betz’s series Judd For the Defense.)

As for the show itself, it’s darned good television—it’s a shame you don’t see this one rerun much (I don’t know if FX ever showed it in its early days of operation but one of the shows features a portion of a commercial with Married with Children’s David Faustino touting Fox t-shirts…so I suppose it’s possible).  At the risk of sounding facetious, it’s sort of a Reader’s Digest version of Naked City, telescoping everything that was grand about that equally-neglected series (were it not for the DVD sets released by Image Entertainment, I would have never even caught that one) into an economical half-hour.  Squad’s other connection to Naked City lies in the fact that Walter Grauman served as the show’s executive producer; Grauman also directed one of City’s classic episodes, “Prime of Life.”  Many of Felony Squad’s episodes were directed by up-and-comers like Michael Ritchie and Richard Donner, but also featured turns behind the camera from series star Duff, future Cheers player Nicholas Colasanto and OTR veteran Lawrence Dobkin!

Duff, Cole and Alexander turn in exceptionally fine work, and of course there are plenty future stars in guest parts (Ed Asner, Charles Grodin, Ricardo Montalban, Beau Bridges, Carol Kane, Joan Van Ark, etc.).  I’ve only watched the first disc but have already viewed a couple of very good episodes: the series’ premiere, “The Streets are Paved with Quicksand,” guest-stars Darren McGavin as a sleazy attorney who accuses Jim Briggs (Cole) of brutality, forcing Stone to defend his partner in a nice little plot-twist.  “Flame Out” co-stars James Best as a slightly nutso punk (and believe me, when it comes to playing flakes, Best was…well, the best) who senselessly murders a manager in an all-night diner and then plots an extortion scheme against a married woman (Pippa Scott).  And of course, what dramatic series from the 1960s would be complete without an appearance from Robert Duvall?  Bob’s a police snitch (a real geek with Coke-bottle glasses) in “The Death of a Dream,” which finds Stone and Briggs on the hunt for a pair of muggers who commit crimes while in drag.  The lottery is at $25 million this week, so if I get lucky you may soon be able to see Felony Squad on an independent television station near you.

Friday, January 5, 2007

The man who still won’t lie down

A few days ago, I wrote up a little review about the five-DVD release “Ham”: The Lost Magic of Lloyd Hamilton by Looser Than Loose (“Made with pride in New Hampshire, USA”), a company specializing in silent comedy shorts, old-time radio, etc.  When purchasing this set, it was kind of an afterthought because what I really had my eye on was their latest six-DVD collection, Buster Keaton: Educational Two-Reelers.  Now, by “educational” I don’t mean the shorts like the ones found on the Mackinac release Industrial Strength Keaton, but rather the sixteen two-reelers Buster churned for Educational Pictures between 1934 and 1937.

As Leonard Maltin writes in The Great Movie Shorts: “Hollywood has never been a particularly logical place, so it seemed perfectly natural to most people that one of the leading producers of comedy shorts was named Educational Pictures.”  In fact, the studio—founded by Earle W. Hammons in 1919—was originally commissioned to produce shorts for schools, but somehow got sidetracked along the way…so Hammons turned to comedy instead.  In the 1920s, Educational was one of the top mirth makers in the picture business, with product featuring stars like Lloyd Hamilton and Lupino Lane.  By the 1930s, however, the studio lost a bit of its former luster, as Maltin explains:

If one searched for a key word to describe the Educational comedies of the 1930s, the best one might be “cheap.”  Educational films almost always looked cheap, even though they were made in most cases by seasoned veterans.  One problem was the claustrophobia of shooting at the company’s eastern studio in Astoria, Long Island.  In addition, one suspects that the largest chunk of the small budgets went to pay the stars’ salaries, leaving very little for sets, costumes, and technical frills.  Nevertheless, the comedies (which were distributed by 20th Century Fox) always made money, despite the fact that the quality of the material was often downright poor.

“The best of the old comedy favorites…the brightest of the new stars” shouted the ad copy for Educational, and in 1934 new Educational hire Buster Keaton certainly qualified for the former part of that statement.  Keaton’s fortunes had taken a precipitous plunge since his glory days in the silents, and in 1933 was fired by MGM (the studio that seemed heckbent on ruining his career) because of his inability to toe the company line and report for work in the manner dictated by his studio bosses (his pull on the bottle was in full swing by that time, as anyone who’s seen What? No Beer? will testify).  His personal demons made him practically unemployable, but perpetually spiffed or not, Educational proved to be the only studio willing to throw him a lifeline.

“Legend has it that Buster Keaton’s career started sliding downhill in 1930 and never stopped—that his talkie films are unspeakable horrors,” writes Maltin in Movie Shorts.  “To be sure, they are not in the same league as Keaton’s silents, but they show a comic talent very much alive, and, in some cases, they compare favorably to other comedies being made at the same time.”  I’m sure I’ve mentioned in this space that my first exposure to The Great Stone Face was watching his Columbia shorts on television as a little shaver, and though I’m partial to the Columbias I must confess viewing the shorts in this Looser Than Loose collection has made me reconsider my position.  The Educational shorts (many co-directed by Keaton and Charles Lamont) aren’t the slapdash, mechanical efforts supervised by the likes of comedy directors such as Jules White, but are presented at a more leisurely pace that allows Keaton to crib ideas from his past silent shorts.  Having watched all of the Educationals over the past several days, I’m convinced that Buster’s batting average is better than previously noted…though as a devoted fan I’m certainly hip to the fact that I might be a tad prejudiced in this arena.

In the documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, Keaton’s widow Eleanor divulged that the only Educational two-reeler he had any particular fondness for was Grand Slam Opera (1936), and it’s still my personal favorite—a brisk and funny outing that has Buster competing for a girl’s affections at the same time he’s seeking fame and fortune on a radio show patterned after Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour.  By that same token, Leonard Maltin singles out amusing efforts like The Gold Ghost (1934), Allez Oop (1934), and One Run Elmer (1935) for special attention in Movie Shorts.  I particularly enjoyed a pair of shorts that don’t get the equal amount of attention as those I’ve previously mentioned: Tars and Stripes (1935) provides some excellent opportunities for mirth (including a hilarious running gag in which Buster schemes to be the first in line for chow outside the mess hall) playing a would-be sailor who keeps running afoul of petty officer Vernon Dent (longtime nemesis to the Three Stooges) by getting a little too cozy with Dent’s girlfriend (Dorothea Kent).  Mixed Magic (1936) is another neglected gem; in this one Buster becomes assistant to a jealous magician (Eddie Lambert) and proceeds to make a complete shambles out of the man’s act.

That having been said, there are a goodly amount of clinkers in Buster’s Educational output, including Palooka from Paducah (1935), Jail Bait (1937) and Ditto (1937).  A 1935 two-reeler, The Timid Young Man, is of some historical interest because it marks the only time that the “King of Comedy” (Mack Sennett) worked alongside the Great Stone Face…if only the short hadn’t turned out so “aggressively average,” as my friend Nick would say.  Keaton also kept the spirit of nepotism alive by hiring members of his family (father Joe, mother Myra, sister Louise and brother Harry) to populate the supporting casts: Joe, Myra and Louise appear in Paducah while mom, sis and Harry headline Love Nest on Wheels (1937), an amusing short (Buster’s last—and I realize I’m the minority regarding the laugh quotient on this one) that recycles gags from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s The Bell Boy (1918) and even reunites him with Arbuckle nephew Al St. John.  Myra and Louise also appeared in the manic Way Up Thar (1935), the two-reeler that served as Mack Sennett’s directorial swan song but introduced Joan Davis to the silver screen (the Sons of the Pioneers are also in this one, including a young Leonard Slye…better known as Roy Rogers).  This delightful short is featured among the ample bonus extras included in this six-DVD collection.

Other extras in the Keaton Educational collection include a 1957 appearance on Circus Time (I’m pretty sure it’s 1957, since Paul Winchell introduces Buster and notes that The Buster Keaton Story will be appearing in theatres soon) and a 1960’s TV sketch with Buster, Lucille Ball (who met Keaton while she was at MGM and became his devoted protégé) and Harvey Korman (as a cop).  There’s also a 1926 one-reeler (a Kodascope cut down) with Educational Pictures star Johnny Arthur—the poor man’s Charley Chase—and if sounds like I’m being a bit snarky about this, the short, Home Cured, is a blueprint for a later effort Chase made for Columbia in 1937, Calling All Doctors.  (Cured is included here because it was directed by William Goodrich—who was none other than Keaton’s mentor, Roscoe Arbuckle.)

When writing about Looser Than Loose’s Lloyd Hamilton set I neglected to mention that there are a few “Easter eggs” present on the discs; most of these are promotional shorts released by the Jam Handy Company in the 1930s and 1940s, and can easily be located on the Internets.  The Keaton set has an amusing one I hadn’t seen previously, a 1938 one-reeler for Chevrolet called Back of the Mike, in which a young boy listens intently to a radio Western serial, with the action switching back-and-forth from a dramatization of the proceedings (what’s taking place in the boy’s mind) to the same play being performed in a broadcast studio.  It’s fun to watch—and highly recommended to old-time radio fans—though I seriously doubt that a western serial program would require the big honkin’ studio used in this short (not to mention the hefty cast and crew to do voices and sound effects).  If that’s not enough to inspire you to invest in this collection, there’s always a public domain copy of Hollywood Steps Out (1941), a Warner Brothers outing that features a cartoon version of the Three Stooges doing their eye-poking and slapping to a conga beat…and an animated Clark Gable reminding us: “Don’t go away, folks—this oughta be good.”  (I just wanted to see if there were any Night Flight fans in the audience.)