Friday, 14 November 2008

The Jed Clampett Character in American Sitcoms

It seems to me that there are three basic formats for American situation comedies. Not every single sitcom ever made can be fit into these formats, although I am guessing most of them can. The first format is one in which an off the wall character is surrounded by a cast of relatively sane characters. The perfect example of this is I Love Lucy, which centred on the rather zany Lucy Ricardo (Ethel almost always went along with her schemes, although it was usually against her better judgement--one has to think she needed Lucy to keep her life interesting). The second format is in which every single character is off the wall. The perfect example of this is The Addams Family, on which every one of the major characters is not exactly normal. The third format is the exact opposite of the I Love Lucy format--one in which a relatively normal, rational character (the voice of reason) is surrounded by a cast of zany characters. The perfect example of this is The Beverly Hillbillies.

On The Beverly Hillbillies every character except one was not precisely sane. Granny was convinced the South had worn the War Between the States, brewed moonshine (well, she called it "rheumatism medicine"), and had a temper that was out of the world (not to mention she was at times delusional...). Jethro was a total dimwit, but was convinced he was a genius because he'd graduated from sixth grade. Elly Mae was a but overly attached to her animals and a total tomboy. Mr. Drysdale was wholly motivated by greed. And Miss Hathaway was an erudite, but man crazy spinster. Of all the characters, only Jed was sane and rational. Okay, he insisted on remaining true to his customs of the hills, down to still dressing as he did back into the hills, but he was not only the most intelligent character nad the only one who acted as a voice of reason. It is for that reason that I refer to the voice of reason on sitcoms with only one rational character as "the Jed Clampett character" or "the Jed Clampett figure."

Here I must point out that I have sometimes heard that "the Jed Clampett character" referred to as "the Mary Richards character" at times, after Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I believe this is erroneous myself, as Mary Richards had more than her fair share of neuroses and insecurities. I think, then, there is no "Jed Clampett character" on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the series in fact fits into The Addams Family format.

At any rate, there is no shortage of series which fit into The Beverly Hillbillies format. Indeed, one example was another show, like The Beverly Hillbillies, produced by Paul Henning (although not created by him--it was created by Jay Sommers)--Green Acres. Most of the residents of Hooterville were rather off the wall. Eb was glib and not particularly bright. Mr. Haney was a total criminal, always on the look out for an easy mark. County agent Hank Kimball was utterly scatterbrained. Even Lisa, Mrs. Douglas, who was not born in Hooterville, was off the wall; she insisted on naming every single animal on the farm and insists on dressing as if she was on Park Avenue rather than on a farm. Only Oliver Wendell Douglas is sane and rational--the voice of reason in an otherwise unreasonable world.

Another example of a show with a Beverly Hillbillies format is Night Court. Judge Harry Stone presided over a courtroom filled with off the wall characters. Prosecutor Dan Fielding was not only lecherous, but wholly amoral. Defence attorney Christine Sullivan was a bit too honest and a bit too naive, not to mention overly sweet. Bull was a bit dim witted and child like. Roz tended to be bitter and a bit brusque. The people who were tried before the court could be downright insane. Only Judge Stone provided a voice of reason on the show.

As a final example of a show with a Beverly Hillbillies format I offer up The Simpsons. With the exception of one, the Simpsons as a whole tend to be a bit zany. Homer takes the "stupid dad" archetype to new highs (or lows, as the case may be), and tends to be very much the clown. Marge is overly trusting, easily fooled, and a bit of a Pollyanna, although intelligent otherwise. Bart is a total delinquent. Not only are most of the Simpsons off the wall, but so is the average inhabitant of Springfield. Barney is a total alcoholic. Ned Flanders is overly religious. Mr. Burns is not only the epitome of greed, but perhaps the single most evil character on the show. Only Lisa Simpson acts as a voice of reason on the show. True, she is a bit precious and a bit of an activist, but she seems to be the only character who behaves somewhat reasonably for the most part and who acts not only as the voice of reason, but the show's conscience as well. As I see it, part of what makes The Simpsons extraordinary is that its "Jed Clampett character" is a child.

Since the Eighties it seems as if most shows do not fall into The Beverly Hillbillies format. In fact, most seem to fall into The Addams Family format, with not one rational character on the show. An exception may be 30 Rock, on which Liz Lemon would seem to be the "Jed Clampett figure." Of course, even Liz has her share of neuroses (she has never had a relationship which worked), so even that might not be an exception. Regardless, it is a format which has had a long history and one that can boast several shows which fit into it.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Horror Movie Quiz Answers

Here are the answers to the horror movie quiz from last Thursday, October 6.

1, What two actors were offered the role of the Monster in the 1931 Universal classic Frankenstein before Boris Karloff?

Bela Lugosi and John Carradine.

2, What 1933 movie was based on H. G. Wells'
novel The Island of Dr. Moreau?

The Island of Lost Souls

3. In what 1934 film did Boris Karloff played a devil worshiping villain opposite Bela Lugosi's hero?

The Black Cat

4. What was the first horror film produced by Val Lewton?

Cat People, released in 1942.

5. In what film, produced by Val Lewton, did Boris Karloff play the evil apothecary general of an asylum?

Bedlam, released in 1946.

6. In what year was Hammer's version of Dracula first released?

1958

7. In what 1968 Hammer film did Christopher Lee play an individual fighting off Satanists?

The Devil Rides Out.

8. What 1968 movies was originally named Night of Anubis and Night of the Flesh Eaters?

Night of the Living Dead

9. In what 1977 movie did Robert Vaughn provide the voice of an egomanical computer?

Demon Seed

10. Upon what novella was Clive Barker's 1987 movie Hellraiser based?

The Hellbound Heart

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Columnist and Author Joe Hymans Passes On

Joe Hyams, who covered Hollywood first for The New York Herald Tribune and later for Ladies' Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, and Redbook, among other magazines, passed Saturday at the age of 85. The cause was coronary artery disease.

Joe Hyams was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was a student at Harvard when he volunteered for the United States Army during World War II. He served in the South Pacific, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, before becoming a field correspondent for Stars and Stripes. Following the war he received both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from New York University. Hyams then went to work for the The New York Herald Tribune, for whom he was later their West Coast bureau chief. While at the Herald Tribune, Hyams became one of the best known columnists to cover Hollywood, very much an insider who often had the scoop on others. Hyams continued to cover Hollywood after leaving the Herald Tribune, writing for several different magazines.

Hyams' first book My Life with Cleopatra, co-written with Walter Wanger, was published in 1963. He would go onto write the definitive biographies of Humphrey Bogart (Bogie The Biography of Humprey Bogart) and James Dean (James Dean: Little Boy Lost), as well as books on Western movies (The Life and Times of the Western Movie) and tennis (Secrets of Winning Tennis, co-written with Billie Jean King). Having studied martial arts for over fifty years, under such masters as Bruce Lee and Ed Parker, Hyams also wrote Zen in the Martial Arts andPlayboy's Book of Practical Self-Defence, and co-wrote Chuck Norris's biography, ,The Secret of Inner Strength: My Story, with Norris. He wrote two novels, The Pool and Murder at the Academy Awards, both centred on Hollywood.

A Hollywood insider, Hyams appeared in the films Teacher's Pet, The Lost Missile, The Wild and the Innocent, Pepe, and Love in a Goldfish Bowl.

Joe Hyams was not simply a noted Hollywood columnist, but a very fine writer. His biographies on both Bogart and Dean are remarkable. What set Hyams apart from other biographers was his insistence not only on detail, but on presenting the person as he really was--he never romanticised the individual, nor did he try to smear them either. The same sort of detail could be found in his other works, including his novels. Hyams was a superior writer not simply when it came to Hollywood, but any subject he covered.

Monday, 10 November 2008

The Captain America Film Now Has a Director

It was just announced today that the movie First Avenger: Captain America now has a director. That director is Joe Johnston, a veteran special effects artist who has worked on such films as Star Wars IV: A New Hope and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a veteran director who has directed such films as The Rocketeer, Jumanji, and Hidalgo. As to the story, the last I heard half of it would be set during World War II, while the other half would be set today.

For those who don't know the back story behind Captain America, he was created by the great Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. He debuted in his own magazine, cover dated March 1941--the first superhero to do so. Captain America was one of the most successful heroes of the Golden Age and definitely the most popular character published by Marvel Comics during the Golden Age. The original run of his title ended in 1949. The character would be revived briefly in 1954, but was not a success. He would be revived again in the pages of The Avengers in 1964. In issue #4 of that comic book it was revealed that Captain America had been in suspended animation since 1945 (conveniently overlooking the 1954 revival). This revival would prove very successful. In fact, so that Captain America would survive until being killed off in March 2007. Here I must point out that Captain America was not the first patriotic superhero as often assumed. That honour goes to The Shield, published by MLJ (now Archie Comics).

Personally, I find this to be very good news Joe Johnston is a capable director. I enjoyed Hidalgo and I absolutely loved The Rocketeer. In fact, I have to wonder if The Rocketeer was not why he was chosen for the project. For those who have never heard of it, The Rocketeer was based on the late, great Dave Stevens' classic comic book series of the same name and centred on a young pilot in the Thirties who stumbles upon a prototype rocket pack and then becomes a masked superhero. The movie not only captured the flavour of Stevens' work, but that of the heroic pulps, movie serials, and Golden age comic books as well. Given that Captain America is a Golden Age hero (he debuted in his own magazine all the way back in 1941, Johnston has then already proven that he can handle such material well. My primary concern is that the movie is to be set partially in World War II and partially today. I worry that this might make the movie a bit uneven. In fact, I have to wonder that the World War II half won't be better than the modern half!

Ultimately, I suppose that we can only wait and see. First Avenger: Captain America is set for release on May 6, 2011.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

While "Chim Chim Cher-ee" may have won the Oscar for Best Song for Walt Disney's movie Mary Poppins, the best known song may well be "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." The song was written by the Sherman Brothers (who also wrote for Disney's The Jungle Book). Given Mary Poppins is set in the pre-war Edwardian Era (1910, to be exact), the song was made to sound like music hall songs from that time period.

Much of the reason for the song's fame may well be its exceptionally long title, an unusual word that, according to the movie means, "what you say when you don't know what to say." The word never appears in any of P. L. Travers books about Mary Poppins, which begs the question of where it came from. According to one story told by Richard M. Sherman, he and his brother wrote the song in two weeks, depending largely on double talk for the coinage of the word. At the same time, however, the Sherman Brothers have also said that it was coined in 1918 as supercadjaflawjalisticespealedojus,and they picked it up at summer camp in the Adirondack Mountains in the Thirties. That having been said, it seems possible that supercalifragilisticexpialidocious does indeed have a meaning and that it could be derived from its various components.

The Sherman Brothers having learned it in summer camp seems possible. A possible relative of the word appears in the 1942 horror movie The Undying Monster. There a male character says of a female character, "She has an over active supercalifragilis." He defines the words "supercalifragilis" as "female intuition." Another clue that the word may have been coined long before the movie Mary Poppins was in the works is a lawsuit that was brought by Life Music, Inc. against Disney's music publisher, Wonderland Music, in 1965, alleging that the song "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" was plagiarised from a 1951 song by Gloria Parker and Barney Young entitled "Supercalafajaistickespeealadojus." The song was recorded by Alan Holmes for Columbia Records. Parker and Young even claimed to have shown the song to Disney as early as 1951. While Life Music would seem to have had a good case, they ultimately lost the suit. Disney had affidavits from Stanley Eichenbaum and Clara Colclaster of New York, who testified that "...variants of the word were known to and used by them many years prior to 1949." Despite all of this, there appears to be no documentation that any form of the word existed prior to Parker and Young's song. This puts theorising the origins of the word prior to 1951 seriously in doubt.

While the Sherman Brothers have said that they coined it out of double talk or learned it at summer camp (and Parker and Young claimed they stole it from them), it seems possible that the various components of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious are based on actual words. And if they are, then supercalifragilisticexpialidocious could mean more than "...what you say when you don't know what to say." Indeed, the very first component of the word, super-, is a common prefix in English. It is derived from Latin super, "over, above," and is applied to things that are superior in amount, degree, or size, and things that exceed some norm. The next component, cali-, is a bit more difficult. It could be related to the words calorie and caudle, which are derived from Latin calor, "heat," and related words. That having been said, it could also be related to calli-, the prefix from the word calligraphy which derives from Greek kallos, "beauty."

The next component of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, fragilistic, could possibly be related to the word fragile. The word fragile derives ultimately from Latin "to break," hence it could mean "fragile," "breakable," or "delicate." The next few components of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious are a bit more difficult, although it would seem that they are multiple words. Expiali- could ultimately derive from Latin expiatio "atonement" and related to such Latin words as piabilis, "able to be atoned for." Docius could be derived from Latin doceo, "to learn, to instruct." In modern English our words doctor and dogma are related to this Latin word.

Combining these components, we may be able to come up with a meaning for supercalifragilisticexpialidocious other than "what you say when you don't know what to say" or even "wonderful, excellent." If we take cali- to mean "heat" or "warmth," supercalifragilisticexpialidocious could mean "atoning for instruction by fragile warmth" It must be pointed out that in some ways this describes Mary Poppins herself. In the song "The Perfect Nanny," in which the children read the advertisement for a nanny they have written, they say they want someone with "...a cheery disposition/Rosy cheeks..." People with cheery dispositions are generally described as "warm" in English, while rosy cheeks are often seen a sign of warmth. Even if we take calli- to mean "beauty," it does not change the definition terribly much. It would then mean "atoning for instruction by fragile beauty." "The Perfect Nanny" also asks for someone who is "...fairly pretty." Given she was played by Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins can be viewed as "fairly pretty," even beautiful. Again, the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious would describe Mary herself.

"Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is certainly the longest song title of any song with a one word title. It is questionable whether it is actually the longest word in the English language. There are certainly both chemical and medical terms longer than its 34 letters, as well as place names. It could well be the longest word in common usage. While most dictionaries neglect to include the word and when they do it is only as a title of a song, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is used by everyday people, albeit not often. But then the same can be said of antidisestablishmentarianism, which only has 29 letters as compared to the 34 letters of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Regardless, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" will remain remembered as a song, regardless of whether the word is simply a nonsense word or isn't the longest word in common usage in the English language. The song has remained consistently popular over the years. The Chipmunks, Harry Connick, Jr, The Vandals, and Mindless Self Indulgence have covered it. Les Poppys recorded a French version of the song. And the song remains a perennial in collections of the greatest hits from Disney's movies over the years. It points to one of the reasons that the movie Mary Poppins has remained a classic over the years. Of the many movies the studio has released over the years, Mary Poppins has one of the best scores, and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" remains one of the best songs.