Saturday, August 26, 2006

Two Shows from 1964

In 1964 I was only a year old, so I don't have any memory of that year. One thing I do know from my study of television history, however, is that the 1964-1965 season was a good one for TV series. That season saw the debut of such classics as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Bewitched, The Addams Family, and Gilligan's Island. Very, very recently I had the opportunity to watch two shows that debuted that season. One of those lasted several years and I remember fondly from my childhood. The other lasted only one season and I had never seen before.

When I was in kindergarten and first grade, the two most popular shows among us boys were the recently cancelled Batman and the then ongoing Daniel Boone. Looking back, I suppose that Daniel Boone was Twentieth Century Fox's attempt (and a successful one at that) to capitalise on the popularity of Disney's phenomenal Davy Crockett episodes of Disneyland. The show featured Fess Parker (who had also played Crocektt) as the legendary woodsman, who had settled in Boonesborough in the wilds of Ken-tuck-E about the time of the American War for Independence. The series featured Boone's family--his wife Rebecca (Patricia Blair), his daugher Jemima (Veronica Cartwright), and his son Israel (Darby Hinton). For the first four years of the series, Boone was often accompanied by his Cherokee friend Mingo (Ed Ames). During its initial run Daniel Boone was very successful. For two years it ranked in the top twenty five shows according to the Nielsen ratings. Ultimately, it ran six years on NBC. And for several years in the Seventies it seemed to have had a fairly successful syndication run. It ran on several local TV stations. I remember myself that KOMU in Columbia, MO showed it on weekdays at 4:00 PM CST (perfect for kids who had just gotten out of school). Since that time it all but disappeared from American airwaves. It would pop up sporadically on TV schedules from time to time. I know that Pax showed it for a short time. And a few episodes were released on video some years go. But for the most part Daniel Boone has remained unseen for much of the Eighties, Nineties, and Naughts.

Fornutately, TV Land is showing a Daniel Boone marathon this weekend and will show it weekdays at 2:00 PM CDT starting this coming Monday. This has given me an opportunity to see a show from my childhood which I probably have not seen for nearly 34 years. To some degree Daniel Boone is what I expected it to be. The show is hardly historically accurate. For instance, although it is set during the years of the American War for Independence, I know of one episode that features an appearance by President George Washington! Too, it must be pointed out that Daniel Boone most assuredly did not wear a coonskin cap, as testified by his son Nathan in an interview. And it is not always accurate with regards to the portrayal of Native American cultures either. Mingo dresses like no Cherokee I have ever seen. And in a first season episode the Shawnee are actually portrayed as living in tipis! It must also be pointed out that during the first season it is clear in some episodes that some scenes were shot on a soundstage.

All of this having been said, I am not sure any of it matters. The Westerns which aired during the same era as Daniel Boone were well known for altering history (Bonanza was particularly guilty of this). And while I suppose that as someone who is part Cherokee I should be offended by the inaccuracies in the portrayal of Native cultures, I cannot say I am. This is primarily because Daniel Boone always portrayed Native Americans with respect, despite whatever inaccuracies in clothing or lodgings might occur on the series. Indeed, Mingo (who was easily the most popular character on the show) is portrayed as a reasonable, intelligent human being who speaks the English language (and several others as well) better than many of the settlers. He is not a stereotype by any stretch of the imagination! As to the shooting on soundstages that sometimes occurred in early episodes, I must point out that this was common practice on shows in the Sixties (just watch several episodes of Bonanza some time and you'll see what I mean).

The fact is that in seeing Daniel Boone for the first time in three decades I was pleasantly surprised. Daniel Boone was a very well done series. Much of this is due to the performances. Fess Parker does quite well as Boone, who, despite some similarities, is a totally different character from Davy Crockett (Boone is less the adventurer and more the family man). Ed Ames gives perhaps most consistent performances of the cast, endowing Mingo with a good sense of humour and remarkable wit. And Dal McKennon is perhaps the funniest character on the show as tavern keeper Cincinnatus. The scripts are well written, with well developed characters and little in the way of cliches. What is more, Daniel Boone was a very flexible TV show with regards to the different sorts of episodes that were written for it. The series was capable of serious drama, such as the first season episiode "The Returning," in which an old friend of Daniel's is accused of murdering a group of Cherokee. At the same time, however, it could be a purely action adventure show, such as the episode "The Returning," in which Daniel's wife is kidnapped. And the show was further capable of the occasional comedy episode (and what's more, do it well), such as the episode "The Tortoise and Hare," which centred on Boonesborough's annual foot race.

There are those times when one watches a show he or she loved from childhood, only to discover that it was truly dreadful. Fortunately, Daniel Boone is not one of these shows. While it has its occasional flaws, it is a truly well done and entertaining show. And I can easily see why five and six year old boys would have absolutely loved the series--there is plenty of action and adventure to be had for all.

The other show from 1964 which I had the opportunity to see was My Living Doll. For those of you who have never heard of the series, My Living Doll was a sitcom featuring Bob Cummings as psychiatrist Dr. Robert MacDonald. MacDonald finds himself in the predicament of having to care for a robot, designated AF 709, developed by his friend Dr. Carl Miller (Henry Beckman) when Miller must go to Pakistan on government business. Unfortunately for MacDonald, AF 709 looks exactly like Julie Newmar (who played her, of course). Furthermore, AF 709 is top secret, so MacDonald must take pains to keep anyone from learning that AF 709 is indeed a very advanced robot. MacDonald named AF 709 "Rhoda" and passed her off as Dr. Miller's niece, who was staying with him. He also "hired" her as his secretary at work (a job for which she is perfectly suited--she can type hundreds of words a minute and her memory banks hold thousands of bits of information). MacDonald also decided to teach Rhoda how to be the "perfect" woman--one who does what she is told to. In this final task MacDonald appears to have never quite succeeded, as Rhoda seems to have somewhat a mind of her own...

Produced by Jack Chertok (who also produced the classic My Favorite Martian), My Living Doll debuted on CBS on Sunday night, September 24, 1964. It had the misfortune of airing opposite Bonanza (then the number one show on American television) on NBC, and as a result it performed poorly in the ratings. CBS moved the series to Wednesday night in December. Unfortunately, this placed this series against The Virginian on NBC and The Patty Duke Show on ABC. Its ratings did not improve. To make matters worse, there was also strife on the set. Julie Newmar and Bob Cummings did not get along, with Cummings eventually walking off the set with five episodes left to air. Ultimately, My Living Doll would be cancelled after one season. This having been said, it seems possible that its ratings did not truly reflect its popularity. My Living Doll was popular enough that TV Guide did an article on the series and even featured Julie Newmar on its cover. As further proof of the show's popularity, The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang traces the origins of the phrase "does not compute (one of the show's catchphrases)," back to My Living Doll. As further proof, even though it only lasted a season, My Living Doll is still remembered by many to this day--a rarity for a show that not only ran but one season, but was never reran in syndication!

Anyhow, like most of my generation I had never seen an episode of My Living Doll. For a long time the entire run of the series was feared lost. Since that time a few episodes had surfaced. Now it appears that even more episodes of the series have been found, so that the show is now poised for an official release on DVD. At any rate, I had the opportunity to finally see six episodes of My Living Doll. And I must say that I was pleasantly surprised.

Okay, the premise of the series would certainly be considered sexist by today's standards, but then I presume most people would realise that the show was made in 1964 when feminism was just getting off the ground. Keeping that in mind, My Living Doll is actually a fairly entertaining series. In all I would say that in its quality it is on par with Chertok's more famous series, My Favourite Martian. In fact, the episodes which I saw often included some very sophisticated and very funny bits of comedy. In "The Uninvited Guest" Rhoda develops the equivalent of a modern day computer virus after reading Alice in Wonderland (it seems that Lewis Carroll's mathematically precise rhymes interefered with her programming). In "Beauty Contest," Dr. MacDonald uses a televison remote control to interfere with Rhoda during the talent portion of a beauty contest in which his sister (who did not know Rhoda was a robot) entered her (MacDonald didn't want Rhoda to win for fear of her secret being discovered). The entire premise of "Something Borrowed" is hilarious--naive Rhoda accepts a marriage proposal from a many times married (and many times divorced) millionaire! Of course, it should be no surprise that the writing on the series would be sterling--it was written by individuals who also worked on such series as Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, and, of course, My Favourite Martian.

I must also point out that My Living Doll also benefited from a solid cast. Although he didn't get along with Julie Newmar (or anyone else, for that matter), Bob Cummings did well as Dr. MacDonald. His easy going charm suited the character quite well. Doris Dowling did very well as MacDonald's sister Irene, who was absolutely clueless about Rhoda's true nature. By far the most impressive performance is given by Julie Nemar as Rhoda. Never mind that Newmar just oozes sex appeal even when she is standing still, she can play a robot very convincingly. Much of this is no doubt due to Newmar's background as a dancer. Being much more aware of her movements than an actor without a background in dance, she could easily move like something not quite human (she put this skill to good use as The Catwoman on Batman as well, where she moved like, well, a cat...). Newmar also has a much better vocal and emotional range than many actresses of her time or any other. In the episode "Something Borrowed" she went from a New England lockjaw to a Southern "hillbilly" accent without breaking a sweat! I have to say that it is a shame CBS cancelled My Living Doll even though it was clear Cummings would no longer be a part of the series--it could have easily continued without him as long as Newmar played Rhoda!

To sum things up, My Living Doll compares favourably to other series of its sort that aired during the same era. When it is officially released on DVD, I would fully recommend anyone buying it, particularly those who love the imaginative comedies of the Sixties.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Gene Kelly as Director

Today would have been Gene Kelly's 94th bithday. Most people are familiar with Kelly as a dancer, choreographer, actor, and singer, and the star of such classic films as On the Town, An American in Paris, and Singin' in the Rain. But Kelly also had a career directing movies, some of which were the very classics in which he starred.

In some ways it can be said that Kelly more or less eased himself into the director's chair. As early as Cover Girl in 1944, he was choreographing dance sequences in his movies (with regards to Cover Girl, Kelly choreographed the famous Alter Ego sequence with Stanley Donen). Starting with Anchors Aweigh, Kelly choreographed nearly every dance sequence in every movie he made. With On the Town, Kelly would not only receive credit as actor and choreographer, but would share the director's credit with Stanley Donen. Kelly and Donen had met when the former was the star of the 1940 musical comedy play Pal Joey and the latter was a member of the musical's chorus. Together they had worked on Cover Girl, Living in a Big Way, and Take Me Out to the Ballgame (for which Donen had also written the story).

For their directorial debut, On the Town, Kelly and Donen would make cienmatic history. On the Town is the first feature length musical to be shot on location (what's more, that location was New York City). This was largely due to Kelly's insistence that they do so. On the Town then looked different from any musical before it. Audiences certainly took to the film--for a time it was MGM's top grossing film besides Meet Me in St. Louis.

With the success of On the Town Kelly and Donen became an important part of MGM's "Freed Unit," a team of directors, composers, writers, and actors headed by Arthur Freed. It was the Freed Unit that provided MGM with some of the greatest musicals of all time. Kelly and Donen more than did their part. Their next film together would be the legendary Singin' in the Rain. Quite simply, Singin' in the Rain is considered by many to be the greatest musical of all time. Although it won no Oscars (worse yet, it was only nominated for two--Best Music and Best Supporting Actress for Jean Hagen), Singin' in the Rain has received much acclaim since then. In both 1982 and 2002 Singin' in the Rain appeared in Sight and Sound's top ten best films of all time. In AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list, it was counted as the 10th greatest movie of all time. The United States Library of Congress has named the movie "culturally significant" and it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. It probably would not be an understatement to say it was the highlight of both Kelly and Donen's careers.

Sadly, the first project which Gene Kelly directed by himself would not be nearly as successful. Invitation to the Dance was Kelly's dream project. Essentially the movie is three stories told entirely through dance (the first, "Circus," centred on a lovelorn clown, the second "Ring around the Rosy," told of a bracelet passed from owner to owner, while the third story, Sinbad the Sailor combined animation and live action in a story featuring the hero of Arabic legend). If this wasn't revolutionary enough, there was no dialogue in the entirety of the film. Sadly, MGM executives thought the film would not make money and released it four years after it was made. This is sad, as it is one of Kelly's most interesting movies. Indeed, "Sinbad the Sailor" in particular features some of his best work.

Kelly's next stint as director would also be the last time he would work with Stanley Donen. The two once more shared the director's credit on It's Always Fair Weather. The film not only reunited Kelly with Donen, but with screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who had written the classics On the Town and Singin' in the Rain. In fact, Comdem and Green had originally conceived of It's Always Fair Weather as a sequel of sorts to On the Town. That having been said, It's Always Fair Weather is a very different film from On the Town. While On the Town was happy and upbeat, It's Always Fair Weather is quite a bit more cynical . This perhaps explains why It's Always Fair Weather has never been nearly as popular as On the Town, much less Singin' in the Rain. In my humble opinion, however, it is a classic nonetheless. Indeed, it features some of the best sequences in any of Kelly's films, including a dance with trashcan lids, Cyd Charisse's dance to “Baby You Knock Me Out," and, lastly, Kelly's dance on rollerskates. It's Always Fair Weather failed at the box office and was one of the last great Hollywood musicals ever made.

By the time of It's Always Fair Weather Kelly and Donen's relationship had become strained. Not only would they never work together again, but they would not be friends either. From that point on when Kelly directed a film, it would be on his own. The Happy Road was the film Kelly directed following It's Always Fair Weather. It was a comedy in which an American boy and a French girl run away from boarding school. Kelly played the American boy's father. The film did not do spectacularly well at the box office and I rather suspect that it has been forgotten by all but the most ardent Gene Kelly fans.

Kelly's next film would be a bit better remembered. The Tunnel of Love was a romantic comedy starring Doris Day and Richard Widmark as a couple desperate to adopt a child. The film is full of the sort of miscommunication and misunderstandings that would fill Doris Day's latter work. Although I am not sure I would consider it a classic, it is a very funny film and a credit to Kelly as a director. The Tunnel of Love is historic as the first film which directed in which he himself did not star. In fact, he doesn't even have a cameo!

Kelly's next turn in the director's seat would come in 1962. Gigot was a comedy set in France during the turn of the twentieth century. The central character is Gigot, a mute janitor played by Jackie Gleason (Gleason had also conceived the story), who has the misfortune of befriending a prostitute and her daughter. Gigot is touching and funny by turns, often both at the same time. The film also features one of Gleason's best performances of his career, in a role in which he had no lines. Like The Tunnel of Love, it is also a credit to Kelly as a director.

It would be another five years before a film directed by Gene Kelly would be released. That movie was A Guide to the Married Man. a comedy in which a man (Robert Morse) gives a co-worker (Walter Matthau) lessons on how to cheat on his wife without getting caught. Arguably, A Guide to the Married Man is Kelly's best non-musical comedy. Indeed, Kelly proves once and for all that the timing he learned as a dancer and choreographer can be easily adapted to comedy. The film features plenty of one liners and some of the most outlandish humour ever seen in a movie made in the Sixties. Best of all are the performers of Matthau and Morse, who are perfect in their roles. For movie and TV buffs, the film also features tons of cameos, from Jack Benny to Sam Jaffe. Although I haven't often seen it cited as such, I would say it is indeed a classic.

Sadly, Kelly's next film would be quite a comedown from A Guide to the Married Man. In the Sixties Twentieth Century Fox attempted to follow the success of The Sound of Music with other huge musicals. They then hit upon the idea of doing a film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, Hello, Dolly. Kelly, well known for his work in musicals, was signed to direct. Sadly, the end result would be a disappointment. Even Kelly's direction seems rather ordinary. But then, in his defence, the film was perhaps doomed from the start. Barbara Steisand was cast as Dolly Levi, a role for which she was not suited. What's worse, there is absolutely no screen chemistry between her and her co-stars (of course, it must be pointed out that Walter Matthau absolutely hated Streisand...). To make things even worse, even the script was poor--the plot moved at a snail's pace. Beyond being saddled with a project which gave him little to work with, I also seem to recall (although I may be mistaken) that Helllo, Dolly was made about the time when Kelly's wife (Jeanne Coyne) fell ill (she would die of leukaemia in 1973). It could then well be that his mind was not on his work.

Fortunately, Kelly's next film would be a good deal better. The Cheyenne Social Club stands as the only Western he ever directed, as well as a classic teaming of two acting greats--Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. It is also one of Kelly's better comedies. The plot revolves around a cowhand (played by Stewart) who just happens to inherit a brothel from his long lost brother. The interplay between Stewart and Fonda (who were very old friends by that time) is priceless. And the comic timing in Kelly's direction is as good as ever. I first saw this movie as a child (for all I know it may have been the first film directed by Kelly that I ever saw) and I have never tired of it since.

Sadly, The Cheyenne Social Club would be the last entire film Kelly would direct. He did direct the new sequences of That's Entertainment II, but for all extents and purposes The Cheyenne Social Club would be the last film he directed. I do find this sad to a large degree. The conventional wisdom has always been that in the team of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, it was Donen who had the bulk of the directorial talent. And, given Donen's career (without Kelly he directed Royal Wedding, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Charade, among other films) it is hard to argue that line of thought. But it can not be said that Kelly was not a talented director in his own right. While The Happy Road and Hello, Dolly may have misfired, Kelly directed several other movies on his own that hold up quite well. Indeed, I would say that Invitation to the Dance, A Guide to the Married Man, and The Cheyenne Social Club could be counted as classics. Although he is best known as a dancer, choreographer, singer, and actor, Kelly then deserves his fair share of credit as a director as well.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Samuel L. Jackson in Snakes on a Plane

The Seventies was perhaps the Golden Age of disaster movies. There was Earthquake. There was The Towering Inferno. There was The Poseidon Adventure. There was the seemingly never ending series of Airport movies. Nearly all of these movies featured ensemble casts of hasbeens or, if you wish to be more polite, retrocelebrities. Nearly all of them had plots so goofy that they veered well into camp. And nearly all of them had fairly high death tolls for their characters. The Seventies was also a decade with B horror movies full of, well, snakes. There were movies about people who turned into snakes (Ssss and Night of the Cobra Woman). Movies about people who controlled snakes (Snakes and Jennifer). And, inevitably, movies about snakes on the rampage (Rattlers). While the casts of these B movies were often filled with unknowns, they also featured their fair share of, um, retrocelebrities (Les Tremayne was the star of Snakes). And the plots were also so goofy that they veered into camp. And like the disaster movies, they could have some pretty big death tolls.

As a movie in which hundreds of deadly snakes are released on a plane, Snakes on a Plane is both a disaster movie and a horror movie full of snakes at the same time. Given this, it is perhaps the perfect Seventies movies, despite the fact that it was made in the Naughts. Indeed, it even features its share of retrocelebrities (Julianna Margulies of ER, Rachel Blanchard of the TV show Clueless, Todd Louiso, who may be best known from High Fidelity, and Lin Shaye, perhaps best known as the mom from Detroit Rock City). It also has one of the goofier plots to come down the pike in a while. The one thing that separates Snakes on a Plane from the disaster movies and B movies of the Seventies is that it is actually good.

Snakes on a Plane succeeds where the disaster movies failed in that it does not take itself too seriously. Director David Ellis and his writers apparently realised that they had a concept on their hands that was best played for fun. This is a film that is largely played tongue in cheek, with its fair share of over the top moments. What makes the movie even more fun is, that like any good place of camp (whether intentional, as in the Sixties Batman series, or unintentional as, well, some of those old disaster movies), the cast plays it straight. While the audience might see some humour in the situaton, it can be guaranteed that the characters don't.

Indeed, perhaps the best description of Snakes on a Plane is the way flight attendant Claire Miller (Margulies' character) describes turbulence on a plane--it is like a rollercoaster ride. Snakes on a Plane moves at a fast pace. There are plenty of frights in the film, even if one is not an ophidophobe (there is one scene in one of the plane's restrooms that I can guarantee will have the men in the audience squirming in their seats...). There is also plenty of action and suspense, as FBI agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson playing one of his baddest heroes) must not only battle hundreds of snakes, but keep the plane in the air as well. Even the climax, which stretches the bounds of believability pretty far, is exciting. The film even has a good deal of sex appeal (I must admit that I find the blonde flight attendant Tiffany, played by Sunny Mabrey, to be a total babe).

Regardless of what others might say, I personally believe Snakes on a Plane is a great film. Indeed, it is perhaps the most fun I have had at the movies all year (even counting Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest). This is a film that delivers what it promises--a good, solid, popcorn movie full of frights and thrills. There simply aren't enough of those these days.

Of course, I am guessing some of you may be asking, "If it is so good, then why wasn't its weekend box office better (for those of you who haven't heard, it only made 15.3 million dollars)?" As you might expect, I think it simply fell victim to its own hype. For literally months now there has been a good deal of buzz on the World Wide Web about this movie. And I think that buzz may well have resulted in a backlash against the movie. Indeed, I can't really blame people if they decided not to see the film after all the hype. After all, the last time I can remember that there was this much hype about a small film was The Blair Witch Project, which was a total dud in the minds of many (including myself). Regardless, I am encouraging everyone to ignore the hype, ignore those reviews that claim this is not even a good movie, and go see this film. Believe me, you'll be thanking me on your way out of the theatre.