Saturday, 28 March 2009

Mister Peepers

Members of my generation most likely remember Wally Cox as the voice of Underdog and his many appearances on television and in movies. Members of younger generations might not remember him at all. But Baby Boomers and older folks might well remember Wally Cox as high school science teacher Robinson J. Peepers.

Mister Peepers debuted on July 3, 1952 on NBC as a summer replacement only meant to last eight weeks. As often happens, however, the best laid plans of networks and men go awry. Doc Corkle, the regularly scheduled sitcom which debuted in Mister Peepers' place that fall, proved an abysmal failure, lasting only three episodes. Mister Peepers had proven incredibly popular to the point that it had caused dismay among viewers when it left the air. NBC then replaced Doc Corkle with Wally Cox's popular sitcom. The show would run three years in total.

The reason for the success of Mister Peepers may well have rested primarily with its cast. In fact, those who have not seen the show may be shocked to know how many well know television actors appeared for the first time on the show. Of course, Mister Peepers was Wally Cox's first regular series. Cox played Robinson J. Peepers, a painfully shy teacher whose childlike wonderment at science made him a favourite of his students. Not only was Mr. Peepers a bit naive, but he could also be incredibly clumsy--much of the humour on the series emerged from his struggles with inanimate objects or other similarly embarrassing situations.

Although undoubtedly the star of the show, Cox was supported by one of the greatest casts in the history of sitcoms. Indeed, Mr. Peepers' best friend, history teacher Harvey Weskit, was played by none other than Tony Randall. Weskit was similar in some ways to the sort of characters Randall would later play in Sixties sex comedies, a handsome and confident ladies man who was a sharp contrast to his shy best friend. Marion Lorne, perhaps best known as Aunt Clara on Bewitched, played the principal's wife and English teacher Mrs. Gurney . Mrs. Gurney was very similar to Aunt Clara--soft hearted, sweet, and incredibly absent minded. Jack Warden, later known for his roles in movies and the TV shows N.Y.P.D. and Crazy Like a Fox, appeared as athletic coach Frank Whip. Reta Shaw, who would go onto play Aunt Hagatha on Bewitched, played Mr. Peepers' Aunt Lil.

Mister Peepers was also gifted with some of the best writing of the time. David Swift, who would go onto write the screenplay for the classic How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, wrote the majority of episodes. James Fritzell, who would go onto write for The Andy Griffith Show and M*A*S*H, wrote nearly as many episodes. In the end the series would be nominated for eight Emmy Awards, including Best Situation Comedy, Best Supporting Actress in a Regular Series (for Marion Lorne), Best Written Material for a Comedy Series, Best Male Star of Regular Series (for Wally Cox), and Best Series Supporting Actor (for Tony Randall).

While Mister Peepers is often described as a gentle comedy, this is not quite the case. While it did not rely on the slapstick of I Love Lucy or My Little Margie, it did feature its share of physical comedy. It might be more accurate to describe the comedy of Mister Peepers as more subtle, more whimsical, than many of its contemporaries. Indeed, in one episode Superintendent of Schools Mr. Bascomb comes to inspect the school the very day that Mr. Peepers asked his students to bring their pets to school, leaving him to figure out a way to hide the biggest pet--a full grown cow. In another episode the machine which marked lines on the volleyball court went haywire, running all throughout the school. Given its cast, much of the humour also emerged from the characters, particularly the painfully shy, extremely kind hearted Mr. Peepers. While other comedies of the time relied largely on slapstick, Mister Peepers was very much an intellectual comedy, relying on comedy that was slightly left of centre.

Sadly, Mister Peepers would not last. In 1954 the show would receive its highest ratings ever when Mr. Peepers finally married his romantic interest, school nurse Nancy Remington (Patricia Benoit). Unfortunately, this episode precipitated a decline in the ratings which resulted in its cancellation. The show would leave the air in 1955.

Mister Peepers was broadcast live and filmed on kinescope for later broadcast. This would be unfortunate for future generations, as would mean that Mister Peepers would be largely unseen for many years. The quality of kinescopes are inferior to that of film, on which more and more series were being shot as the Fifties progressed. Although as great a classic as I Love Lucy, if not greater, then Mister Peepers would not be rerun the way I Love Lucy has been, simply because it was not filmed.

Indeed, I must warn anyone out there who would like to see the show that its production values are not going to be comparable even to concurrent, filmed series such as I Love Lucy. Being filmed live, the actors do occasionally make mistakes. The lighting is not always the best and there is sometimes some awkward bits of direction. Regardless, the very quality of the writing and the performances make such things easy to overlook.

Curiously, Wally Cox despised the character of Robinson Peepers, referring to him as "Mister Goodboy." Although typecast as the character for at time, Cox maintained he was nothing like Mr. Peepers. Indeed, on Hollywood Squares Cox was soft spoken, but at the same time possessed of biting wit and sarcasm that would have shocked Robinson Peepers. Sadly, Mister Peepers would be the last success Wally Cox would see playing the lead in a regularly scheduled, live action TV show (the animated Underdog was arguably his most successful show). During the 1956-1957 season Cox starred in the inventive, but short lived The Adventures of Hiram Holliday. It ran only twenty episodes. Cox never again played the lead in a live action series, instead making guest appearances on numerous TV shows, appearances in movies, appearing as a regular on Hollywood Squares, and providing the voice for Underdog.

For those who are interested in seeing Mister Peepers, the first two seasons are available on DVD. I rather suspect the third season of the show will come out eventually. I would seriously recommend it to anyone interested in classic television, classic comedy, Wally Cox, or Tony Randall. Mister Peepers is a true classic that deserves to be seen much more often.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Warner Archive

For those of you who follow the classic film blogs, this might well be old news. Warner Brothers is releasing 150 back catalogue movies on DVD for $19.95 (plus shipping and handling) by special order or by download for $14.95. Many of the films have never before been released on DVD or digital download. Furthermore, they will only be available though the Warner Archive. One will not be able to find them at the local WalMart. All within a week, the DVDs will be manufactured. packaged, and shipped to customers.

The movies being released are of a wide variety, ranging from the Silent Era to the Eighties, from classics to schlock. Among the movies, by decade are:

The Twenties: The 1929 silent film The Smart Set, starting William Haines and directed by Jack Conway.

The Thirties: Love on the Run, the 1936 film starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford as rival newspaper reporters.

The Forties: Mr. Lucky, perhaps the gem of the Warner archive so far. This is the 1943 movie staring Cary Grant as a gambler and a grifter.

The Fifties: The Mating Game, the classic sex comedy featuring Tony Randall in one of his few starring roles, as a tax collector and Debbie Reynolds as the daughter of a farmer delinquent on his taxes. A must have.

The Sixties: Kaleidoscope, a caper film featuring Warren Beatty in an outrageous plot to break the bank of every casino in Europe.

The Seventies: Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze, the campy film adaptation of the classic pulp hero, produced by George Pal. Although often anathematised by fans, it is a fun film when one overlooks how disloyal it is in its flavour to the pulp novels.

The Eighties: Wisdom, was rightfully drubbed by the critics, but it is historic as one of the few films to acknowledge the recession of the era.

Warner Brothers is currently planning to add about twenty movies a month to the Archive. In fact, when going to the site the user is greeting by a pop up survey asking which of a few movies should be the next to be released to the Archive. If Warner Brothers does meet its goal of adding 20 movies a month to the Archive, they will have 300 movies available on the site. This is a drop in the bucket, given Warner Brothers owns over 6,800 movies, of which only 1,200 have ever been released on DVD.

At any rate, the Warner Archive would appear to be reason for fans of classic and not so classic films to rejoice. For the first time many movies will be available on DVD that were never available before. Of course, it also seems to be the newest way for movie buffs to go broke...

Among the films are a few silents, such as the 1929 movie The Smart Set, starring William Haines and directed by Jack Conway. From the Eighties is the critically drubbed Wisdom (one of the few films to acknowledge the recession of the time). The Seventies is represented by George Pal's camp interpretation of the classic pulp hero, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. From the Sixties is the Warren Beatty caper movie Kaleidoscope.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Rich People and Theorists: Will Recession Affect Movies?

Before this evening's entry, I have to mention that as guest blogger I wrote today's post at Kate Gabrielle's Silents and Talkies as a birthday to tribute to Steve McQueen. Silents and Talkies is only a few months old, but it is already one of the best movie blogs around. Kate Gabrielle does a really good job with its posts, with every one accompanied by one of her paintings, pen and ink drawings, or pencil sketches. I recommend it highly!
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The current recession and even the Great Depression have apparently been on the minds of many bloggers of late. A while back Serena Whitney did a post on "How to Save Money on Movies during the Recession" at her column at KillerFilm. Katie Richardson at Obscure Film Classics wrote a similarly, if more humorous post entitled "Tips from the Classics in These Tough Economic Times", drawing upon classic films from the Great Depression for tips on how to survive this depression. In Out of the Past Raquelle examined the effect of the Great Depression on movies of that era in a post titled "Food from the Great Depression," even cooking a recipe she obtained from the series of videos entitled Great Depression Cooking with Clara. Movie bloggers have certainly taken notice of the current economic woes.

It was in replying to Raquelle's post that I pondered whether or not the current recession would have an impact on movies being made now. As both Katie at Obscure Film Classics and Raquelle at Out of the Past both ably demonstrated, the Great Depression had an impact on the movies of that era. Raquelle cited the rather insubstantial meals which characters had in both Our Blushing Brides and Gold Diggers of 1933. In her article Katie cited a number of different films ranging from Bed of Roses to Public Enemy to Man's Castle. In the Thirties and even into the early Forties the movie industry certainly took notice of the hard times and incorporated into their films.

Indeed, the Great Depression is pivotal to some of the most famous films of all time. Fans of classic horror films will recall that in King Kong unemployed actress Anne Darrow (the great Fay Wray) was so desperate for food that she was actually going to steal an apple from a street side grocer. Producer Carl Denham, seeking a star for his latest film, actually gets a meeting with her simply by paying for the almost stolen apple and buying her a meal, which she eats as if she has been starving (which she probably has). In the classic screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, socialite Cornelia Bullock (Carole Lombard) hired a homeless man, Godfrey (William Powell), as the family butler. Of course, Godfrey wasn't always a derelict...

Other films would go even further in incorporating the Great Depression into their plots. The plot of Harry Beaumont's Dance, Fools, Dance is set in motion by the Stock Market crash of 1929. In Our Daily Bread down on their luck workers from the city seek to make a living by setting up a farming community based on the economic philosophies of Edward Gallafent. Almost every movie in the gangster cycle of the Thirties, particularly Angels in Dirty Faces, took into account the poverty of the era as a cause of crime. Of course, perhaps no other film delved as deep into the economic woes of the time as The Grapes of Wrath, directed by John Ford and based on the novel of the same name by John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath followed an Oklahoma family who lost their farm through a combination of the ongoing Depression and the concurrent Dust Bowl. While the United States economy had somewhat recovered by 1939 (when The Grapes of Wrath) and 1940, there were still enough people struggling to get by that in Sullivan's Travels director John Sullivan wanted to chronicle the plight of the downtrodden so much that he would even make himself one of them (here I must note, the title for this post comes from Sullivan's Travels).

Here it must be pointed out that the Great Depression was not the only period of economic unrest in the United States. Those of us over the age of thirty five probably remember the recession of the Eighties. Although nowhere as severe as the Great Depression, the recession of the Eighties was one of the worst economic periods in the history of the Untied States. Unemployment was wide spread, farm foreclosures were at a record high, and homelessness was even on the rise. Curiously, however, very little notice was taken of the economic woes of the time in the films of the day. The Farm Crisis was recognised in a few films of the era. Country, released in 1984, followed a family in danger of losing their farm to FHA loans and the effect that has on the family. The River, also released in 1984, mined much of the same territory, although natural disasters played a much larger role in that film.

The movie Wisdom was not only based in the Farm Crisis, but in the crisis faced b y other Americans unable to pay back loans and mortgages. In the movie unemployed John Wisdom makes himself a Robin Hood figure, going from bank to bank and destroying loan and mortgage records. Raising Arizona also faced the economic crisis of the Eighties head on. In the film Hi (Nicholas Cage) falls victim to the economic hardships of the era, all the while his wife Edwina (Holly Hunter) wants to have a baby. Raising Arizona makes no bones about laying the fault of the recession of the Eighties at the feet of the presidential administration of the time--at one point in the movie Hi says, "I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn't easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House. I dunno. They say he's a decent man, so maybe his advisors are confused." The science fiction movie They Live also dealt with the recession of the time, only homeless construction worker John Nada (Roddy Piper) learns its true cause (as well as that of pollution, greed, and a number of other modern woes) have produced by aliens in an effort to control our world! The cult classic Repo Man also takes into account the economic hardships of the time.

During the Great Depression it is actually hard to find a movie that was not somehow affected by the economic woes of the era, even if it was only in minor ways. This can be contrasted by the films made during the recession of the Eighties, which for the most part refused to acknowledge that any economic hardship was taking place at all. It is then difficult to say how this the movie industry will deal with the current recession. Will they portray it realistically in films as the movies of the Great Depression did? Or will they entirely ignore it as most films of the recession of the Eighties. It is difficult to say which path the movie industry will take. My own hope is that they will acknowledge the economic hardships of the time. In fact, I would think that if they do not, then audiences will find it hard to believe in any movie set in the present day. After all, how can the average movie viewer accept a film where everything is fine when he or she might go home to only a meagre meal and worrying about the mortgage? As to whether the movie industry will tackle the current recession, I suppose we will have to just wait and see.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Fail-Safe


Those of you under the age of 35 may not remember the time when people lived in constant fear of nuclear annihilation. As hard as it may be to believe now, "nuclear safety" drills were practised in schools as late as the Seventies, even though by that time most of us understood that if the bombs started dropping, we were doomed (well, actually we would've used another four letter word, but you know what I mean...). For younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers like myself, then, a movie like Fail-Safe could be as frightening as any horror movie.

Those of you under the age of 35 may also not remember the time when local television stations showed movies on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. It was on one such Sunday afternoon that my brother and I caught Fail-Safe on one of the local channels. We both thoroughly enjoyed the movie, but we agreed it was very frightening. I have seen it many times since then, usually on Turner Classic Movies, and it is as frightening to me now as it was then.

What made Fail-Safe so scary for the children of the Atomic Age was that its premise seemed extremely realistic. When an unidentified aircraft approached the United States from Europe, American bombers were deployed to areas outside the USSR as a fail-safe defence. The bombers had strict orders not to proceed past a specific fail-safe point without a specific code commanding them to do so. As it turns out, the unidentified aircraft proves to be harmless. Unfortunately, a technical error occurs where the code to attack is sent to one bomber group. Worse yet, radio jamming from the Soviet Union prevents the United States from contacting the group. As a result, the bomber group assumes nuclear war is imminent and proceeds towards Moscow...

Fail-Safe was directed by Sidney Lumet and based on the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. It was shot in black and white, in a minimalist style reminiscent of documentaries of the time. The movie also had an extreme feeling of claustrophobia, set as it was for the most part in conference rooms, a bunker, and the cockpit of a bomber. Making the movie's tension even greater was the fact that the Soviets are never seen or heard except through the words of an American interpreter (played by Larry Hagman, later of I Dream of Jeannie). Much of the film lacks a soundtrack and there are even long spaces of silence between characters. As if the subject wasn't terrifying enough, the way the movie was shot made it even more so.

Fail-Safe was made all the more convincing by its cast. Henry Fonda played the President, faced with the hardest choice a president of the time could make. Walter Matthau gave one of the best performances of his career, as the fanatical Professor Groeteschele, a scientist who actually encourages the President to start World War III. Fritz Weaver played Colonel Cascio, the commander of the bomber group who believed the worst was about to happen. The performances of the superb cast only heightened the film's tension.

Fail-Safe would not have an easy journey to theatres. The film was based on the novel Fail-Safe, written by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler and published in 1962. Unfortunately, the novel was very similar to another novel about nuclear war entitled Red Alert, written by Peter George and published in 1958. George sued Burdick and Wheeler for plagiarism and the suit was eventually settled out of court. The plagiarism suit would ultimately hurt the movie adaptation as well.

Indeed, at the time Columbia Pictures was producing Fail-Safe, they were also producing an adaptation of Red Alert. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, the serious novel Red Alert would provide fodder for the black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. When Stanley Kubrick learned that a novel based on Fail-Safe was in production, he grew concerned that if released first Fail-Safe could jeopardise both the critical and financial success of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Kubrick filed a lawsuit to halt production on Fail-Safe, alleging that the novel Fail-Safe was plagiarised from the novel Red Alert, the source material for Dr. Strangelove. In the end Kubrick successfully delayed the release of Fail-Safe, so that it came out a full eight months after Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was released.

For Fail-Safe this would mean disaster. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was both a success at the box office and with critics. It would ultimately be nominated for four Oscars. Worse yet, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was a satire which treated nuclear warfare as fodder for comedy. The effect that Fail-Safe might have had on audiences was then great reduced in the wake of the success of Dr. Strangelove. Although it generally received good reviews, Fail-Safe bombed at the box office.

Fortunately, Fail-Safe would be redeemed in the years since its release. Aired on television, audiences were able to discover and appreciate the taut Cold War thriller without making comparisons to Dr. Strangelove. By 2000 its reputation had grown to the point that the novel Fail-Safe was adapted as play on television. Directed by Stephen Frears and produced by George Clooney, the teleplay Fail-Safe was broadcast live. It is safe to say that the 2000 teleplay would never have been aired had it not been for the 1964 movie. Although it bombed at the box office, in the end Fail-Safe would prove to be an artistic success.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

The TCM Archives Photo and Video Widget

Those of you who are fans of classic movies and have blogs, MySpace accounts, Facebook accounts, and so on might be interested in the TCM Archives Photo and Video Widget. The widget draws photos and videos from Turner Classic Movies' archives. It is updated daily, so there will always be fresh material every day. It can be added to Blogger blogs, MySpace profiles, Facebook posts, LiveJournal, IGoogle, Hi5 posts, Friendster posts, and so on.

Now the widget has some disadvantages. While it can be placed in Facebook posts, it cannot be placed on one's profile or in one's boxes. I am guessing that this disadvantage might apply to other web sites as well. There is also the problem of size. The emeddable archive viewer only comes in a few sizes: 380 by 467, 380 by 400, 380 by 347, and 380 by 250. Unfortunately, if one has a Blogger blog with two sidebars, then one cannot place the widget in a sidebar without one's blog winding up extremely wide. Until TCM comes out with a slightly thinner version of the widget, I will just have to make do with this post. Still, it is pretty cool!