Saturday, August 6, 2005

Down With Love

I have always loved the sex comedies of the late Fifties and early Sixties. In fact, I have probably seen every comedy that Doris Day and Rock Hudson ever made together several times over. It was for that reason I have been looking forward to seeing Down With Love, a movie which seeks to emulate those classic comedies.

Down With Love has been compared to those old Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies with good reason. It does draw heavily upon them. In the plot of the movie, both Barbara Novak (played by Renee Zellweger) and Catcher Block (played by Ewan McGregor) assume different roles in a game of love between the two. The relationship between the two characters unfolds in much the same way that it did for Doris Day and Rock Hudson's characters in their classic films together. That having been said, Down With Love is not simply a clone of the various Doris Day and Rock Hudson vehicles. Indeed, the comedy seems to me to be a bit more broad. In many ways it reminds me more of other sex comedies from the era, namely two Jack Lemmon movies (Under the Yum Yum Tree and How to Murder Your Wife and the James Garner film Boys Night Out. I have to wonder if this was not intentional on the part of the filmmakers, who perhaps intended to make a movie which drew upon all of the Sixties sex comedies and not just those featuring Doris Day and Rock Hudson.

Regardless, Down With Love succeeds in evoking the sex comedies of the Sixties so perfectly that at times one could swear he or she is watching a movie from that era. It utilises nearly all of the film techniques of those films, from split screen to stock footage to montages. The production design even evokes the Sixties sex comedies, the sets and costumes duplicating the bright, kitschy New York City of those films.

Of course, Down With Love would not have succeeded had it not been for its actors' brilliant performances. Renee Zellweger duplitates the wholesome sexuality of Doris Day quite well--a woman who is independent and self reliant,, yet at the same time vulnerable. In Catcher Block, Ewan McGregor creates a character who is very much in the mold of Cary Grant or even James Bond. Like Barbara Novak, Catcher Block is independent and self reliant. He is also dashing, sophisticated, and ultimately selfish, yet, like Barbara Novak, he is also capable of being vulnerable at the same time. The supporting cast, with David Hyde-Pierce and Sarah Paulson playing Block and Novak's best friends respectively, are excellent as well. Between the two of them they play the sort of roles Tony Randall or Audrey Meadows once would have. And speaking of the late, great Tony Randall, he is hilarious as the head of Banner House Publishing. I thought it was a nice touch for him to appear in the movie, given that he did appear in all of the movies Doris Day and Rock Hudson made together.

At any rate, I should point out that it is ultimately the screenplay for Down With Love that lies at the heart of its success. It does draw heavily from the sex comedies of the Sixties, so much so that often one forgets that he or she is watching a movie released in 2003. At the same time, however, the plot unfolds a bit differently from the Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies. Indeed, its ending is wholly unexpected and original. To its credit, Down With Love shares one of the virtues of the Sixties sex comedies--it never descends into cloying sentimentality or overwrought melodramatics.

If Down With Love has one flaw it is that at times it does seem a bit anachronistic. A few of the innuendos in the film, while funny, seem a bit too pointed for 1962, fitting in with the Seventies sensibilities of Are You Being Served or Three's Company than the Sixties sex comedies. And a reference to Tang with regards to the space programme is totally out of place--while Tang had been around since the Fifties, it would not be used in space missions until a few years later! In the movie's defence, it must be pointed out that these are very minor flaws and are very easily overlooked. The virtues of Down with Love far outweigh any of its shortcomings.

Ultimately, Down with Love is a fun romp which evokes the sex comdies of the late Fifties and early Sixties nearly perfectly. I would definitely recommend it to any fan of those movies, as well as anyone who simply enjoys a well done comedy.

Friday, August 5, 2005

American Gothic

Most of you probably recognise the painting above, even if you might not know its name. It is American Gothic by Grant Wood. This year it celebrates its 75th anniversary. The inspiration for the painting came from a house in Eldon, Iowa, built in a Gothic Revival style. The house had been built in 1881 and is still standing today.

As to the people in the painting, they are supposed to be a farmer and his daughter, not a farmer and his wife as so commonly thought. Just as the house is a real house, so too were the farmer and the dauthter of the painting real people. The man was Wood's dentist, Byron H. McKeeby, who took a bit of persuading before he would pose for the painting. The woman is Wood's own sister, Nan Wood Graham.

Grant Wood entered American Gothic in a competition held by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930. Curiously, the competition's judges initially rejected what would become the most famous American painting of all time. It was only when one of the museum's trustees saw the painting and intervened that it was finally allowed in the competition and exhibited at the Art Institute. In October 1930 Grant Wood was awarded third place in the competition, winning $300. The painting then appeared in newspapers across the United States, which carried stories on the competition. While American Gothic only took third place in the competition, it was the painting that caught the public's fancy.

That is not to say that everyone initially adored the painting. At first Wood's Iowa neighbours thought that he was poking fun at them with the painting. It was only after he explained that the models for the painting were his dentist and his own sister that they realised he had not intended to parody Iowa natives. Of course, the misguided assumptions of Wood's Iowa neighbours have been shared by art critics as well, some of who have thought that American Gothic was satirsing the puritanical values of the Midwest. Wood always denied this, and it seems more likely that instead his intention was the exact opposite--Wood meant to glorify the sort of moral fortitude found in the Midwest.

Regardless, American Gothic would go on to become possibly the most famous painting ever created by an American. It has been parodied endless times, with Wood's dentist and sister being replaced by Jed and Granny of The Beverly Hillbillies, Kermit and Miss Piggy of the Muppets, the Frankenstein Monster and his Bride, so on and so forth. With the possible exception of the Mona Lisa, it is probably the painting used more in advertisements and commercials than any other. American Gothic became a part of American pop culture almost immediately upon its unveiling. I suspect it will remain part of American pop culture as long as there is an America.

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

The Fleischer Superman Cartoons

Last night I watched ten of the classic Superman cartoon produced by Fleischer Studios in the early Forties. For those of you who have never seen these cartoons, they are among the greatest animated shorts ever produced. They are also an interesting look at the Man of Steel during the Golden Age of comics.

Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1, June 1938. The character was an immediate success. In fact, by 1939 Superman had become an outright fad, the equivalent of what The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers or Pokemon were a few years ago (except that the Man of Steel proved to have a bit more staying power...). It should then come as no surprise, then, that Superman would move from comic books into other media. By February 12, 1940, the Man of Steel already had his own radio show--The Adventures of Superman. And, quite naturally, Hollywood took an interest in Superman as well. Paramount Studios decided that a series of cartoons featuring the Man of Steel could be quite profitable. They then approached Max and Dave Fleischer, whose cartoons they distributed, about a series of Superman cartoons. Neither of the Fleischer brothers was thrilled with the idea of producing Superman cartoons, so they told Paramount that the series would be too costly. They projected a budget of $100,000 for the series. They were shocked when Paramount agreed to the rather high price.

The first Superman cartoon, titled "Superman (although also known as "The Mad Scientist")" cost an astounding $50,000 (four times the amount of the average animated short of the time). It debuted on Septemeber 26, 1941 to both critical acclaim and popular success. Indeed, "Superman" or "The Mad Scientist" would be nominated for the Academy award for Best Animated Short. No expense was spared on further cartoons in the series, each being budgeted at $35,000 (far above the cost of most animated cartoons at the time).

Despite the success of the series, Superman would not be enough to save Fleischer Studios. Fleischer Studios had always received a good deal of critical acclaim. They had also received Oscar nominations for several of their animated shorts. Unfortunately, they never made a good deal of money. In 1937 Paramount Studio loaned Max and Dave Fleischer the money to build a bigger studio, the goal being to produce animated features with which to compete with Disney. Neither Gulliver's Travels (1939) nor Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941) proved to be overwhelming successes at the box office. Short of money, the Fleischers continually looked to Paramount for more loans. Finally, on May 24, 1941, Paramount took over Fleischer Studios, renaming the company Famous Studios. The Fleischers themselves remained in control of production until the end of 1941.

In total, the Fleischers produced 9 Superman cartoons. Their last cartoon in the series, "Terror on the Midway," was released on August 28, 1942. Famous Studios would released 8 more Superman cartoons, the last being "Secret Agent," released on July 30, 1943. Although very popular and still quite successful, the Superman series of animated shorts proved a bit too costly for Paramount Studios. They cancelled the series, replacing with the much more cost effective Little Lulu series.

The plots of many of the Fleischer/Famous Superman animated shorts are somewhat formulaic. In the typical Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoon, Lois Lane gets herself in trouble while covering a story and Superman must rescue her and stop the bad guys. Of course, it must be pointed out that to a degree a formula for the shorts was somewhat necessary; one cannot do too much with only about 8 minutes to tell a story! Besides which, the Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoons more than made up for their formula of many of their plots with some of the most imaginative villains and plot devices in animation at the time. "The Bulleteers" featured the novel idea of a criminal gang which used a flying "bullet car" with which to rob banks. "Arctic Giant" featured a dinosaur on the loose in Metropolis--about eleven years before The Beast From 20000 Fathoms and twelve years before Godzilla. "Mechanical Monsters" could well have been one of the sources of inspiration for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow--a villain uses remote controlled flying robots to rob banks and jewellery displays!

Not only do the Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoons feature interesting plots, but they also have some of the most impressive animation ever seen in cartoons. In fact, they resemble feature films of the time more than they do the average animated short. The cartoons reproduced realistic looking illumination, with a great use of light sources and shadows. A variety of camera angles and shots are used, including tracking shots, close ups, and so on. The editing is superb. Indeed, I doubt even Disney's feature films of the time quite match the quality of animation in the Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoons.

Of course, in watching the Fleischer/Famous Superman animated shorts, it must be kept in mind that they are products of their time. Produced during World War II, people watching both "Japoteurs" and "Jungle Drums" will find both to be very racially offensive. "Japoteurs" centres on a plot by the Japanese to steal the largest bomber ever made. Its villain is an extreme stereotype of Japanese people, both bucktoothed and near sighted. "Jungle Drums" centres on a Nazi plot in the African jungle and features stereotypes of African natives, complete with bones through their noses. While both cartoons feature the top notch animation typical of the Fleischer/Famous Superman shorts, their treatment of race makes them very difficult to watch.

Anyone today watching the Fleischer/Famous Superman shorts will notice that the Man of Steel was very different in the early Forties from what he is today. Originally, Superman could not fly--he could simply jump 1/8 of a mile. It is for that reason in the majority of the cartoons Superman is shown leaping to travel from place to place instead of simply taking flight. Similarly, Superman was not invulnerable in the early Forties either. As originally conceived, an artillery shell could pierce Superman's skin. In the cartoons, he is sometimes knocked out (although not for long) by debris from fallling buildings, explosions, and so on. Personally, I find the Superman of the Fleischer/Famous cartoons, who could be knocked out by falling rubble, a bit more interesting than the Superman of later years, who could withstand a nuclear blast!

The Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoons are a landmark in animation history. They are perhaps the finest series of animated shorts ever made, fairly consistent in quality and very well executed. They certainly earned their place in history. With the warning that some of the cartoons do contain material we would consider objectionable today, I would recommend them to anyone interested in animation or the character of Superman.