Friday, April 22, 2011

TV Writer Madelyn Pugh Passes On

Madelyn Pugh, who wrote on some of the best episodes of I Love Lucy and other sitcoms, passed on 20 April 2011 at the age of 90.

Madelyn Pugh was born on 15 March 1921 in Indianapolis, Indiana. She attended high school with Kurt Vonnegut and wrote for the school newspaper. In 1942 she graduated from the University of Indiana with a degree in Journalism. She began her professional writing career with the radio station WIRE in Indianapolis in 1943. She moved onto the CBS network, where she met her writing partner Bob Carroll Jr. Together they wrote for the radio sitcom My Favourite Husband starring Lucille Ball. When Lucille Ball moved to television with I Love Lucy with husband Desi Arnaz, she took Miss Pugh and Mr. Carroll with her. Together they conceived some of the best remembered moments in the history of  episodic television. It was Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. who conceived the episode in which Lucy does a commercial for  Vitametavegmin, proceeding to get more and more drunk on the alcohol laden elixir with each take. In another memorable episode by Miss Pugh and Mr. Carroll and others ont the I Love Lucy  writing staff, Lucy tries to get Superman (played by George Reeves himself) to appear at Little Ricky's birthday party, masquerading as the Man of Steel himself when she fears he won't show. In all Miss Pugh worked on 174 episodes of I Love Lucy.

Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. would go onto work on the series of specials known as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, and later on Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, The Tom Ewell Show, Vacation Playhouse, and The Carol Channing Show. It was natural that the writing team should work on The Lucy Show when it began in 1962 and later on Here's Lucy. They also worked extensively on the Desilu Sixties sitcom The -Mothers-in-Law, an attempt to revive the madcap comedy of I Love Lucy. They wrote the story for the 1968 movie Yours, Mine, and Ours. They would go onto write for Love American Style, The Paul Lynde Show, Sanford and Son. Alice, and Life with Lucy.

There can be no doubt that Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. masters of writing physical comedy.  In the course of writing I Love Lucy they wrote some of the most extreme bits of physical comedy in the history of television, from being overwhelmed by the fast pace of a conveyor belt at a chocolate factory to titanic loaves of bread emerging from the oven. Mr. Carroll and Miss Pugh often tested the stunts for the show, with Miss Pugh most often being the guinea pig. They were comedy writers who were rarely matched since and never has anyone done better than they have. They were undisputed masters when it came to physical comedy.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Every Movie is NOT Like Funny Girl

Those of you who subscribe to Netflix are no doubt familiar with the feature whereby when you search for a specific title, Netflix also provides you with similar titles also available on the service. It was last summer I decided to watch To Sir With Love (1967). When I conducted my search I noticed that Netflix recommended Funny Girl (1968) as one of the titles similar to To Sir With Love. How Funny Girl is similar to To Sir With Love I  do not know. To Sir With Love is a drama about a teacher in an urban school in London. Funny Girl is a musical comedy starring Barbara Streisand as Fanny Brice (about as great a bit of miscasting as there has ever been, in my humble opinion). At the time I dismissed it as an error and proceeded to watch To Sir With Love.

It was only a few days later that I was searching for Sixties movies featuring British bands of the era. Quite naturally, I typed in A Hard Day's Night (1964), counting on NetFlix to recommend similar movies to me and so lead me to such films as Ferry Cross the Mersey (1964) and The Ghost Goes Gear (1966). It recommended neither. It did not even recommend Catch Us If You Can (1965), the Dave Clark 5 movie and the only one to match The Beatles' films in quality. Instead Netflix claims that A Hard Day's Night is similar to (yes, that's right) Funny Girl. How A Hard Day's Night is similar to Funny Girl I do not know. A Hard Day's Night is a nearly plotless rock musical starring The Beatles while Funny Girl is a much more traditional musical starring a miscast Barbara Streisand as Fanny Brice. A search for Help! (1965) also yielded Funny Girl as a result. Needless to say Help! is about as similar to Funny Girl as A Hard Day's Night is.

It was then that I realised that this could be a recurring flaw in Netflix's similar movie feature. I then searched for such films as The Knack...and How to Get It (1965), The President's Analyst (1967), Pillow Talk (1959), My Fair Lady (1964), and various other films of the era. In nearly every case Funny Girl appeared among the "similar" films. I must confess I was very much relieved when I searched for Blowup (1967) and did not find Funny Girl listed as being similar to it!

I had not thought much of this anomaly, whereby Netflix apparently thinks a diverse array of movies are all similar to Funny Girl of late, until a few days ago when I searched for Jesus Christ Superstar (1974). What was the first movie Netflix listed as similar? That's right. Funny Girl. Now if anything Jesus Christ Superstar is even less similar to Funny Girl than A Hard Day's Night.After all, Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera based on the life of Jesus, ending with his crucifixion. Funny Girl is, well, about Fanny Brice (or, more accurately, Barbara Streisand masquerading as Fanny Brice).

Now I am not sure why Netflix insists that Funny Girl is similar to such varied films as A Hard Day's Night, The President's Analyst, My Fair Lady, and Jesus Christ Superstar. In fact, it is dissimilar to all of the films I have listed, except possibly My Fair Lady, which it at lest resembles insofar as both are traditional musicals. At any rate it makes no sense to me that someone looking for A Hard Day's Night and especially someone looking for dramas such as To Sir With Love would  be interested in Funny Girl. Hell, I love To Sir With Love, The Beatles' movies, The Presiden'ts Analyst, Pillow Talk, The Knack...and How to Get It, and Jesus Christ Superstar, but I do not particularly care for Funny Girl. In fact, the kindest thing I think that can be said about it is that it is not Hello Dolly (1968).

At any rate, I do hope that Netflix fixes this flaw in their system so that Funny Girl only appears in the similar movies list when searches are conducted for movies to which it is truly similar. That means it should not show up when one is searching for Planet of the Apes (1967) , Our Man Flint (1965), Send Me No Flowers (1964), or Peeping Tom (1960). If a movie is not a traditional musical, a period piece, and a comedy, chances are it is not similar to Funny Girl.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Late Great Elisabeth Sladen

Elisabeth Sladen, best known for playing the most famous and best loved companion The Doctor on Doctor Who ever had, Sarah Jane Smith, passed yesterday, 20 April 2011 at the age of 63. The cause was cancer.

Elisabeth Sladen was born on 1 February 1948 in Liverpool. She attended Sunday School in Penny Lane. She attended dramas school, then joined the Liverpool Playhouse, working her way up from stagehand to playing roles on stage. She travelled a good deal for repertory, playing everywhere from Scarborough to London.

Miss Sladen made her film debut in an uncredited role in Ferry Across the Mersey (1965). She made her television debut in an episode of ITV Playhouse in 1968. The next few years she guest starred on such shows as Coronation Street, Doomwatch, and Z-Cars. It was in 1974 that she was cast as Sarah Jane Smith on Doctor Who opposite the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee. Prior to Sarah Jane, The Doctor's female companions would simply scream in abject horror at Daleks, Cybermen, or whatever other extraterrestrial threat they encountered.  This was not the case with Sarah Jane Smith, a strong willed reporter who was nearly every bit The Doctor's equal. In the end Elisabeth Sladen would remain on Doctor Who for three and a half years, serving with the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, as well.

Following her time on Dr. Who, Miss Sladen would guest star on Send in the Girls, the Doctor Who episode "The Five Doctors (in 1980)," In Loving Memory, Play For Today, Dempsey and MakepieceThe Bill, and Men of the World. She appeared in the failed Dr. Who pilot K-9 and Company: A Girl's Best Friend in 1981. She was a regular on the series Take My Wife and Peak Practice.

It was in 2006 that Elisabeth Sladen returned to Doctor Who as Sarah Jane Smith, guest starring opposite David Tenant as The Doctor. She would return as Sarah Jane to the series four more times, the last being in 2010. Her popularity was great enough that she became the first of any of The Doctor's companions to receive her own series, The Sarah Jane Adventures which ran from 2007 to 2010.

Short of Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, I rather suspect that more little British boys had crushes on Elisaeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith than any other female British television character. There was good reason for this. Unlike The Doctor's previous companions, Sarah Jane was an independent, strong willed woman who could think for herself. She was not content to follow The Doctor's orders and she was quite capable on her own. This was greatly helped by Elisabeth Sladen's talent, who brought to the role a depth never before seen in The Doctor's previous companions. In the end it would make Sarah Jane Smith the best loved of The Doctor's companions. She appeared with more incarnations of The Doctor than any other companion (six in total) and was the only companion to received her own series. In The Sarah Jane Adventures she was the central hero, and fans loved her even more for it. There can be no doubt that The Doctor will have more companions, but none will ever be as loved as Sarah Jane. And no actress will play a companion so capably as Elisabeth Sladen did.