The wow finish: “Casablanca” (1942)

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By Scott Ross

Probably the moviest of all movies, Casablanca was created in both control and chaos; its screenplay was a mishegoss, yet the picture is considered by many the prime exemplar of Hollywood studio system product.

What’s made is still product, of course — indeed, has never been more obviously so — but there are enough gullible cineastes out there who swallow the “only directors matter” argument, and enough annual spectacles of millionaires handing each other awards, that many when assessing an obvious slick franchise picture still invoke the word “art,” if only for the (usually shoddy) special effects. Casablanca was no less a sausage than 99 per cent of the movies made in Hollywood in 1942, and definitely no more individualized than any factory film of the period. (The Magnificent Ambersons may be the only genuinely idiosyncratic, personal movie made that year, and it’s very much to the point that it was mutilated by its studio for “accessibility” before release.) Professional auteurists can never admit to the simple fact that, however gifted or influential a movie director of the studio era was, the system was streamlined; it depended on enforced collaborative effort, even among the few writer-directors of the time, just as it still does. Anyone who, as Steven Spielberg does on the 2012 Casablanca Blu-ray, goes into rhapsodies over Michael Curtiz is nakedly, and rather desperately, trying to justify his own position because the fact is, direction is less vital than screenwriting, acting and producing, and most directors know it. A competent assistant or second-unit director has enough talent to put together an entertaining movie, and it’s no coincidence that one of the best and most perceptive books ever written on movies is Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, which (surprise!) named producers as the presiding geniuses of the factory.

In the case of Casablanca, the man most responsible for the picture was its producer, Hal B. Wallis. Yet even he, with all the accomplishment and organization he brought to the movie, was not, ultimately, what made the picture an exceptional event. Nor can even Wallis’ exceptional oversight fully account for what the movie became — what it means, and has meant, to succeeding generations of its admirers. Casablanca transcends everything: Its filmmakers, its studio, its moment in history and its original status as a superior popular entertainment. (Not to mention some of its more risible romantic dialogue.) It’s tempting for the neophyte who has read a little (usually not the best) movie history to assume that the picture’s specialness began in the early 1960s when the Brattle Theatre in Boston ran the first of its now-annual Humphrey Bogart festivals during exam week and students in the city discovered, and embraced, the actor generally and this movie in particular, leading to the Bogie cult of the late ‘60s. But Warners, which made the movie, knew the picture was special long before that. Why else make a pilot for a television series in the ‘50s? Umberto Eco said of Casablanca that it “is not one movie; it is ‘movies,’” and I can think of no other picture of World War II, or about that war, that enjoys the kind of resonance Casablanca has; it’s a movie very much of its time, yet somehow oddly timeless.

Casablanca - Bogart, Raines, Henried and Bergman resized

Perfection: Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman

A great deal more credit than is traditionally given for this belongs to Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, the authors of the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s upon which Casablanca was based and which James Agee in his contemporary review in The Nation nastily and without foundation referred to, without having perused it, as “one of the world’s worst plays.” (It was unproduced when Warner Bros. purchased it, for a record price, so Agee couldn’t have seen or read it. But then, personal ignorance of a work of popular art didn’t stop him from sneering at, for example, Oklahoma! as phony folk-art without having seen it, which, living in New York in the ‘40s, he could easily have done.) Much of the structure of the eventual movie was in the play, and the characters, and even a lot of the memorable dialogue, were also in place. Casablanca’s screenwriters refined these elements, expanded on and deepened them; certainly the twins Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein were responsible for much of the movie’s verbal wit, it is well known that Howard Koch punched up the politics, and the intrigue and the uncredited Casey Robinson beefed up the romance — sometimes to its, and the movie’s, detriment.

        The genius of the system: Howard Koch, Casey Robinson, Julius J. Epstein
                                                        and Philip G. Epstein

It’s in the speeches, and the occasional monologues, that Casablanca reveals itself as one of the most adult Hollywood movies of the Production Code era. There are moments, such as when the desperate young Hungarian (Joy Page) who is about to sleep with Claude Rains’ Vichy official Captain Renault to obtain an exit visa for herself and her immature young husband (Helmut Dantine) comes to the saloon-keeper Rick Blaine (Bogart) to determine whether the Captain is trustworthy, that are almost disconcertingly risqué by the standards of their time:

Bogart: How did you get in here? You’re under age.
Page: I came with Captain Renault.
Bogart: I should have known.
Page: My husband is with me, too.
Bogart: He is? Well. Captain Renault’s getting broadminded.

It must be obvious to anyone in the audience above the age of 10 what the pair is discussing, and that Rick’s jest is a nod to a ménage à trois. How Wallis managed to get this stuff past the Breen Office, I can’t imagine. Rick’s saving the girl from prostituting herself presumably redeemed the scene, yet studio pictures routinely ran afoul of the censors for far less, and in fact Casablanca did as well. Take Rick’s searing, drunken rebuff of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) when she comes back to the club after unexpectedly meeting him earlier and he, shattered by that confrontation, has drunk himself into a state of bitter insobriety… and after we in the audience have seen in flashback what happened in Paris:

Rick: How long was it we had, honey?
Ilsa: I didn’t count the days.
Rick: Well, I did. Every one of ’em. Mostly I remember the last one. The wow finish. A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look in his face because his insides had been kicked out.
Ilsa Can I tell you a story, Rick?
Rick: Has it got a wow finish?

Ilsa: I don’t know the finish yet.
Rick: Go on and tell it. Maybe one will come to you as you go along.
Ilsa: It’s about a girl who had just come to Paris from her home in Oslo. At the house of some friends, she met a man about whom she’d heard her whole life, a very great and courageous man. He opened up for her a whole beautiful world full of knowledge and thoughts and ideals. Everything she knew or ever became was because of him. And she looked up to him, worshipped him, with a feeling she supposed was love.
Rick: Yes, that’s very pretty. I heard a story once. As a matter of fact, I’ve heard a lot of stories in my time. They went along with the sound of a tinny piano playing in the parlor downstairs. ‘Mister, I met a man once when I was a kid,’ they’d always begin. Well, I guess neither one of our stories is very funny. Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren’t you the kind that tells?

Casablanca 6 resized

Again, there’s no question what Rick is referring to (a tinny piano playing in the parlor downstairs) and his bitterness towards Ilsa (“Or aren’t you the kind that tells?”) is exactly as explicit as it needs to be. She certainly knows what he means; it’s the line that drives her from the café. I don’t know whose work this is, the Epsteins’ or Koch’s or Robinson’s, but it’s just about perfect. It expresses better than tears the nearly unbearable pain both Ilsa and Rick are experiencing, and his hostility, while cruel, has the ring of intoxicated verisimilitude. And that “wow finish”! Vaudeville slang applied ironically to the moment of Rick’s most acute agony. Ridi, pagliacci, ridi.

Robinson was highly esteemed but, perhaps owing to his Mormonism, a man of deep conservative prejudice — he referred in a memo to the black Sam (Dooley Wilson) urging Rick to get away from a potential entanglement with Ilsa as “Darky superstition” when Sam’s concern is quite obviously for a friend and employer seemingly poised to drown in the dangerous emotional currents that once nearly destroyed him. He also cobbled the movie’s worst lines, dialogue that makes audiences groan now and doubtless caused derisive laughter in 1942. It’s Robinson’s writing that dates Casablanca most, and (if only briefly) removes viewers from their otherwise pleasurable identification, making them derisively aware of its cornball elements. The Paris flashback is largely his, and so are cringe-inducing lines like Ilsa’s “A franc for your thoughts” and the picture’s biggest howler, “Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?” No wonder the actors were laughing at the script on the set.

Fortunately, there are few such clinkers in Casablanca, which otherwise boasts one of the strongest, smartest (and wittiest, not always the same thing) screenplays of its time. Whatever the conflicts that existed then, or later arose, between Koch and the Epsteins, and bearing in mind what in it came directly from the play, their patchwork script is a minor miracle of observation and satisfying narrative. And it takes nothing away from them that what is arguably the best sequence in the picture, the defiant singing of the “Marseillaise,” was Murray Burnett’s. The collaborative nature of the movie is a large part of what makes it so remarkable. Auteurists would have us believe that anything good in a movie springs from the director, anything bad from others, usually the scenarists. Casablanca is the perfect refutation of that; almost everything in it is good, and once Wallis had a script he felt he could proceed with, Michael Curtiz was assigned to it.

Bogart, Bergman and Michael Curtiz

I don’t wish to seem to be attacking Curtiz. He was a good journeyman filmmaker, and made some enjoyable pictures: The Errol Flynn vehicles Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) as well as The Sea Wolf (1941) starring Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield. But he was a competent studio craftsman, no more, and to ascribe some sort of stylistic genius to the man who directed such crowd-pleasing Hollywood pap, however agreeable, as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mission to Moscow (1943), Mildred Pierce (1945), Night and Day (1946), Life with Father (1947), the Danny Thomas Jazz Singer (1952), White Christmas (1954), The Egyptian (1954), We’re No Angels (1955), King Creole (1958) and The Comancheros (1961, completed by John Wayne) is taking auteurism to a preposterous extreme. Curtiz’ direction of Casablanca is very fine — fast and exciting. It’s a good, workmanlike job of direction, with some nice dolly work and thick slabs of tasty atmosphere, and I doubt Curtiz can be blamed for such lapses as that terrible little model plane in the opening sequence. He and his remarkable director of photography Arthur Edeson, a master of shadow who also lit The Maltese Falcon (1941) evoke a fantasy vision of North Africa, filmed on soundstages and the Warner back lot, filled with the wonderful faces of immigrant actors. Appropriate enough, given that Casablanca is a movie very much about migration, and it’s moving now to see so many European émigré actors for whom not only was reestablishing lost European stardom impossible, just getting a walk-on could be a challenge: S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, Madeleine Lebeau, Marcel Dalio, Helmut Dantine, Corinna Mura. They more than enrich the picture — they give it its almost palpable texture. Who can forget Lebeau singing “La Marseillaise” with tears in her eyes? Who would want to?

Casablanca - Madeliene LeBeau resized

 


An aside: Apart from the immense pleasure it always bestows, what prompted me to watch the picture again was my recent reading of Noah Isenberg’s oddly titled We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, [sic] and Afterlife of Hollywood’s [sic] Most Beloved Movie (Norton, 2017). The author didn’t need that third comma, and his subtitle likewise inadvertently suggests that the picture is beloved in or by Hollywood and nowhere else. But this stylistic confusion, as one discovers while reading, is de rigeur for Isenberg, who — rather frighteningly — is a professor and so, one presumes, has influence over the thinking and writing of young people. He frequently peppers his overview with smug little identity-politics eruptions of an especially numbing, knee-jerk variety: Of Wilson’s career, post-Casablanca, for example, he writes, “he returned to the New York stage, playing — with tragic irony — an escaped slave in Bloomer Girl,” an important Broadway musical he mis-identifies in his index as a “musical film.” What is either tragic or ironic about that? Bloomer Girl, set in antebellum (and bellum, and postbellum) America, is concerned with such typical musical comedy concerns as feminism, undergarments and enforced captivity, and the love plot hinges on the abolitionist heroine’s refusal to marry her Southern beau unless he frees his slave (played by Wilson.) Moreover, the actor got a rich score’s best number in the Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg “The Eagle and Me,” a glorious ode to freedom. One can only assume Professor Isenberg is entirely ignorant of all of this; his citing of Wilson’s Bloomer Girl role is merely a convenient peg upon which to hang a reactive, faux-scandalized (and, moreover, ill-defined, badly expressed and ultimately meaningless) observation about an actor’s race.

Casablanca - Dooley Wilson

Alas, the entire book bubbles with such little bons mot. Of Rick’s observation to the desperate young Hungarian who asks him what sort of man Captain Renault is, Isenberg ascribes to Bogart’s response (“Oh, he’s just like any other man, only more so”) “a wink and nudge,” as if the line was being uttered by Eric Idle, when of course it carries no such macho implication. But that spurious “wink and a nudge” permits the author to impute to the line a smirking, smarmy attitude by a man (boo!) towards a woman (yay!) I’m only surprised the paragraph doesn’t also carry a strategically-placed hashtag trailed by the words “Me Too.” What I chiefly object to here, aside from his poor writing, is Isenberg’s shamelessness. I picture him at his desk, constantly looking over his shoulder as he writes in hopes that someone will notice just how “woke” he is.

Isenberg is ever keen to spot an opportunity for societal trendiness: He writes the old newspaper phrase “burying the lead” anachronistically, as “burying the lede,” for example, and of the movie’s occasional whiffs of possible homoeroticism, the author murmurs that this is “of course” a 21st century issue, when most of the commentary — much of it specious — that drew attention to it was written in the 1980s and ‘90s, if not before. When Robinson remarks in a memo on the memorable sequence in Casablanca in which Ilsa comes to Rick’s apartment over the café in hopes of obtaining the letters of transit everyone knows (but cannot prove) he possesses, “This is a great scene for a woman,” Isenberg loses no time in hitting the fainting couch, rushing forward to condemn this observation by a screenwriter about an acting scene as “his shameful views concerning the perceived nature of women”(!)* Well, goddamnit, it is a great scene for a woman… which is what an actress is. And Ingrid Bergman, it will shock no one to learn, was both.

We’ll Always Have Casablanca does not pretend to be a “making of” tome, for all that it draws extensively on Aljean Harmetz’s indispensable 1992 Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca — Bogart, Bergman, and World War II. I doubt any such volume on this movie will ever replace Harmetz’s, just as no subsequent book on The Wizard of Oz has surpassed her 1977 study of it. But the professor draws so extensively on Harmetz, and his own observations about what Casablanca has come to mean to the world are so trivial (when, that is, they aren’t wrapped self-consciously up in current, jingoistic identity equations) one wonders what a major publisher saw in the book. Still, it’s sobering to read such ineffable tripe about an enduring American picture, and to know that this is the best we can expect now in the realm of popular movie scholarship, particularly when it receives a cover blurb from Sam Wasson saying of it that its idiot author writes “with equanimity, grace and delectable insight.” Where Wasson saw any of that in Isenberg’s manuscript I can’t imagine, but whatever its flaws (and, as opposed to Isenberg’s book, they are minimal) a movie as fulsome, as delicious, as emotionally plangent, as satisfying — as much fun — as Casablanca deserves better than this sort of reactive drivel.


Conrad Veidt and The Joker resized
The faces in Casablanca, and the pleasure they provide, are no small part of the picture’s appeal, and not just the leads. (Or were they “ledes”?) Conrad Veidt, who died in the spring of 1943 and was before that perennially typecast, due to the War, as a Nazi in Hollywood, had more long-term impact on American culture than is commonly supposed, and not merely for his appearance here. He was the wicked Vizier in the 1940 Thief of Bagdad for Alexander Korda, and his likeness was copied pretty assiduously for the Disney Aladdin in 1992. But his most important, and lasting, influence as far as pop culture is concerned, was as Gwynplaine in the 1928 The Man Who Laughs, which directly inspired The Joker of the Batman comics in 1940. Although at least one of the men who participated in the character’s design disputes that, Veidt’s look — the swept-back hair, the heavily marked eyes, the long tapering nose, the almost artificial looking grin and the dark, painted lips, and even the long ears — is too close to the Joker’s for the resemblance to be mere coincidence. As Major Strasser, the Third Reich representative, his sibilance (which he also used as the Vizier) indicates the character’s sinister, Übermensch nature as readily as his thin, pursed lips and pencil-thin mustache.

Casablanca - Bogart, Lorre

Sydney Greenstreet has a much smaller and less decisive role here, as the black marketer Signor Ferrari, than he did as Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, just as Peter Lorre’s appearance as Ugarte is far briefer than his Joel Cairo in the Hammett, but both give value for money — especially Lorre, whose short scene with Bogart in the casino constitutes a tiny master-class in making the most of the little you’re given, notably in the diminutive actor’s use of his large, expressive eyes. I also don’t think Lorre ever looked better than he does in Casablanca, trim and almost beautiful.

I remember being shocked in my youth to realize that the actor who plays Henreid’s underground contact Berger is the same man who appeared as Muley in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and whose choked-out monologue so memorably illustrated the emotional toll the Dust Bowl took on its farmers even before the banks took their land. (“That’s what makes it our’n — bein’ born on it… an’, an’… workin’ on it… an’ dyin’ — dyin’ on it!”) The shock, I think, comes from Berger being so soft-spoken and obviously educated when we’re used to seeing and hearing John Qualen as a pleasant but scarcely intellectually formidable Swede, or as an untutored peasant like Muley. Watching him this way, in a non-stereotypical role, you wonder why someone at one of the studios didn’t see his range while he was exhibiting it.

Casablanca - Henried and Qualen

If Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo comes off as a bit of a pill, it’s really not his fault. Laszlo is one of those characters over whom a halo is forever suspended and with which no actor can do much, even Brando. (Talk about no good at being noble…) The writers let him down, which may have been as much the fault of the times as anything else; for a world in flames, cinematic heroes had to be stalwart, and without a flaw much more damning than a certain stodginess — or at least so the Hollywood studio bosses believed. Henreid was given a nice scene with Bergman, before she goes to Rick to plead for the letters of transit, in which he apologizes for not being what a young woman deserves and which at least indicates that he’s not entirely a heroic automaton. But if Lazlo’s thoroughgoing decency at the end is a bit too good to be true, Henreid occasionally cuts an inspiring figure, as when he commands the band at Rick’s to “Play the ‘Marseille’ — play it!” that helps mitigates such groaners as Bergman having to implore, “Victor, please don’t go to the political meeting tonight!”

Casablanca 6 - Rains and Bogart resized

Claude Rains had enjoyed excellent movie roles before Casablanca and would have a few good ones after, but I don’t think he was ever as relaxed and genial — and funny — as he is here. As the cheerfully corrupt Renault, Rains seems well aware he’s got, if not all the wittiest lines, the lion’s share, and relishes them appropriately. Yet nothing about his performance is studied; he lobs his epigrams lightly, almost carelessly, as if for Renault one witticism is no more important than any other, and where it came from there are plenty more. Rains expresses Renault’s affection for Bogart’s Rick without ostentation, or any even particular favoritism; he’d arrest him if he had to, and regret it, just as he knows at the climax Rick will shoot him if he must. Renault’s conversion at the end (in the play Rick is arrested) would strain credulity but for three related items: He’ll never be able to satisfactorily explain Strasser’s killing, he’s already admitted to Rick his loyalties “blow with the prevailing wind,” and he’s made enough barbed remarks about the Germans to indicate that, for all his alleged neutrality, he’s not quite the complete Quisling he pretends to be. You get all that and more from Rains’ performance without his ever pushing any of it.

Casablanca-Ingrid-Orry-Kelly

Although she is every bit as beautiful now, encased in the time-stopping amber of film, as she was in 1942, it’s probably impossible for younger viewers of Casablanca to appreciate just how breathtaking Ingrid Bergman was, and why she had the enormous impact she did at the time. She claimed to work naturally, without make-up, but of course she did wear it; you have to, to be photographed properly under those arc-lights. Bergman just used a lot less of it. There was a freshness about her the camera loved, and unlike those famous Nordic and Teutonic femmes fatale who preceded her — Garbo, Dietrich — she wasn’t vague, or cool, or above it all. She was direct, and passionate. She wasn’t seductive, but neither was she the girl-next-door. She was a lovely, somewhat earnest young woman, and her quiet intelligence was obvious. Bergman was emotional instead of commanding, and while she wasn’t exactly soignée, she looked good in almost anything. Orry-Kelly’s costumes for her as Ilsa, along with her thick, lustrous hair, soften her slightly hard facial features appealingly, and when she wears one of those cleverly designed, strategically tilted picture hats Bergman is a dream of romance. She has a pair of bookended moments during the “La Marseilles” sequence that illustrate just how wonderfully expressive she could be while doing very little. In the first we see her at her and Victor’s table: Her eyes are averted from the scene, wide and staring into the middle-distance, and in her terror she’s breathing hard, trying to steal herself for her husband’s arrest or assassination. In the second, she’s looking up, at Victor, and allowing a smile — of pleasure at the scene, then of deep pride in him — to spread slowly across her face. It’s then we understand just what he means to her; Rick may have Ilsa’s erotic passion, but it’s a safe bet she’d never feel about him as she does, at that moment, about Laszlo.

Casablanca - Bogart drunk

Casablanca is a collection of such little moments, and small gestures, that convey deeper emotions and greater meanings for its characters. They may be in the service of melodrama but they have a cumulative power, and most of them are either Bergman’s, or Bogart’s. After ordering Sam to play “As Time Goes By” and listening to it for a few bars. Bogart turns to him, starts to say something, and stops himself. “That’s enough,” is what we assume he’s about to say, but in his advanced state of drunken anguish the effort is too great, or he’ll have to say more than he wants to… and anyway, why waste all that masochistic pain? The scene is almost the sequel to Bogart’s misery as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon as he contemplates throwing Brigid O’Shaughnessy over for his partner’s murder. The actor is so right in this sequence that Rick’s pain transcends his gender even as it also comes to stand for the anguish of every man who ever loved, and lost, and found he couldn’t weep over it when he needed to. When you watch him helplessly drowning in Rick’s bitterness, you know how good Bogart could be.

The scene would lose its impact, however, if we hadn’t seen Rick from the beginning of the picture as unflappable and unemotional — a witty embodiment of sang-froid — at which Bogie was especially adept. Rick isn’t a man of action, he’s a man of self-imposed inaction, and you can feel the tension in Bogart between what Rick is, and the image he’s cultivated over his scars. It’s there in his carriage, which seems languid but isn’t, quite; in the white tuxedo that sets him apart from his patrons (except, interestingly, Ugarte); in the clipped speech he affects with some (although not all) of the people around him; and even in the ready wit he displays, itself a form of self-protection. It’s the sort of characterization Bogart was master of, and even when he lets us in he’s seldom emotionally naked, the way Brando could be: There’s always a patina of reserve there, which is why the “Of all the gin-joints” scene is so visceral and shocking. It doesn’t only shatter Rick’s stoicism, or Bogart’s — it obliterates the traditional masculine preserve.


There are a million other little things to notice, and to comment on, in the picture: The way each of the other major characters refers to Rick differently, for example (Ilsa: “Richard”; Renault: “Ricky”; Sam: “Mr. Rick”; Laszlo: “Monsieur Rick”); that Code-defying dissolve from Ilsa and Rick in his apartment to Rick smoking a post-coital cigarette in the window; how overbearing most of Max Steiner’s score is; the rightness of so much of the dialogue and the wrongness of a little (Wallis’ dopey “Beautiful friendship” line at the end, for instance, which now excites idiots to make claims on Renault’s sexuality, and Rick’s.) But you don’t have to justify everything you love as “art,” or even as popular art. Your love is enough. Casablanca isn’t a work of art or even especially important — not in the way Orson Welles’ movies are important, or some of Ford’s, or Renoir’s, or Coppola’s, or Kurosawa’s, or even Oliver Stone’s. We don’t have to tie ourselves into knots trying to make the picture relevant, or blow air into it to inflate its value the way Norman Mailer tried to justify his unrequited lust for the dead Marilyn Monroe by making absurd artistic claims for what was essentially an overly voluptuous body, a certain dazed vulnerability and a nice aptitude for comedy.

I suppose some people might argue that criticism itself is a form of justification, but I think of it more as an explanation than a defense: This is a good performance or a bad picture, and here’s why. In any case, it isn’t necessary for us make extravagant claims for Casablanca in order to cherish it. Bright people who saw it in 1942 or ’43 knew a lot of it was hokum and didn’t take it seriously but probably also recognized at the same time that it was markedly better than the average, written with wit, acted with panache and made with a decent amount of flair. There are all sorts of reasons to love the picture now, but if it resonated especially then, it likely did so most with those who’d endured goodbye scenes of their own, or would soon, with a young man who might not come back. For those couples (and fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and friends) there were no artfully written speeches, and the ache of parting was not mitigated by thoughts of higher purpose.

Maybe, when you get right down to it, Casablanca gave its original audience some laughs, a couple of thrills and a good cry — any one of which might be the best payoff for a wow finish.

Casablanca - Bergman


* This sort of nonsense is now so close to Victorianism I’m surprised Isenberg doesn’t call Robinson an unspeakable cad and offer to horsewhip him for besmirching a woman’s honor.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Worth reposting indeed!

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By Scott Ross

Several years ago on his blog the writer and publisher Eliot M. Camarena, a man I am more than pleased to call my friend, elaborated on a now-obscure — possibly obscure then? — set of records from the John Birch Society, narrated by lovable old Walter Brennan. (With his teeth in, one presumes.)  Eliot has just updated that post to, as he so aptly puts it, “reflect current ‘liberal’ lunacy.”

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Also several years ago, another friend shared his recently deceased uncle’s copies of these recorded gems with me. I have never recovered. But at least I haven’t embraced Brennan’s absurd and intolerant views as so many of the “liberal” grandchildren of the Birchers have.

Should we all live long enough, it will be interesting to see what historians a decade or so hence make of the New McCarthyism of Clintonite liberals. Perhaps they will even be able to explain it, which is more than I can do now.


Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Gay Johnny presents… Son of Wildly (if unintentionally?) inappropriate advertising — The Sequel!

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By Scott Ross

Gay Johnny

See Wildly (if unintentionally?) inappropriate advertising

Now including books, magazine covers and news headlines! Gosh!

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“Come here often?” “You mean my own home? Yes, every evening, you twit. Now shut up and get undressed.”

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Yeah, that’s what they’re talking about, all right. Now, pull the other one.

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And here I thought I hung them up the spare room!

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Fred and Larry were too busy flirting to notice they’d burned the burgers. But Janice would have a few choice words for Fred later that night. Nancy, on the other hand, was all too familiar with Larry’s ways.

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Sgt. Salome performing his sultry Dance of the Seven Palms, the number that made him famous throughout the Pacific Theatre.

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I couldn’t possibly comment.

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Marge wouldn’t have such a contented smile on her puss if she knew Harry was having that dream about sausages again… and that they’re now 25% longer. And the nice marriage counselor assured her it was a phase!

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So naturally we’re parading around in our underwear at the crossing, just as we do every September.

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That’s a rather personal question, don’t you think?

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I daresay. Just who were the Iowa Sate Fair officials hoping would respond to this advertising campaign?

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Cum Clean

For when you’re all finished sucking your Wiz, trying cock, rimming with chocolate, drinking your Nutt Milk, introducing apples into your big anus and doing whatever it is you do with your Young Asian coc. meat juice.

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And that would just be your favorite place, wouldn’t it?

Target Dunraven swim shorts

So, why does the Danny Kaye wannabe have that weird grin, and what’s with the camera?

American Apparel bottoms and tops ad

Those two on the right are versatile – they’re in the other picture, pretending they’re bottoms. So there really are no tops. Except the tops the bottoms are wearing. I don’t know who they think they’re fooling with this. Just wait’ll I find that number for the FTC!

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If you’re lying like those creeps at American Apparel, I’m not interested. And anyway, I don’t want a top.

Navy poster via Mike

Paging Colonel Kong… Colonel Kong, please… Paging Doctor Strangelove… Doctor Strangelove, please…

The Literary Digest

Subtle as a brick, Funk & Wagnalls.

Physical Culture

Move along. Nothing to see here.

Of horse and man

I think this is supposed to illustrate comparative anatomy… but surely no one is stupid enough to draw it that way unless they mean something else. I mean, surely!

Gumby with Rootie

“Well, hello, sailor!” (Is it just me, or has Gumby gone gay for Moody Rudy?)

Mowgli and baby elephant s-l1600

Maybe the fundamentalist wackos were right about Disney all along?

Manual resusitation

Well, that would certainly resuscitate me.

Dick Dick What Did You Lick

I wouldn’t touch that one with your wiener.

For Men Only

Adventure

I’m not making this up, you know!

Man Bait

But Preston knew that Big Eddie wanted to grab for it himself. Because Preston was… Man Bait!

Hobo postcard - Fellow feeling

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Precocious, aren’t they?

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Naturally.

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Well, d’uh.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Between terror and delight: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937)

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By Scott Ross

The first time I saw David Hand’s Snow White

(Wait a minute! What? Exactly. The above is a deliberate representation of the lunatic extremes to which the perpetual abuse of the auteur theory in America is so often, and so hilariously, misapplied. I would be willing to bet that, in the pages of the whatever publication Andrew Sarris was writing for, Walt Disney’s early masterpiece, whose every frame and incident bears the mark of his overseeing hand, would have been listed, absolutely without irony and because he was credited as the picture’s Supervising Director, as “David Hand’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”)

As I was saying… The first time I saw Snow White, on its 1967 reissue, I was six years old and it was 30. (It’s over 80 now, and I am far from six.) It’s one of those events for which I recall, not just the movie, or even the live-action featurette, The Legend of the Boy and the Eagle, that accompanied it, but the circumstances: My mother took me to a matinee screening, uncharacteristically without my sister (she may have been at summer camp) and, being a cartoon-mad child and this my first animated feature, it was a red-letter day for me. I see from my research that my long-held memory of the date has played me false: I was convinced that it was a school-day, and a cold one, suggesting winter, and 1965, before I entered kindergarten. But it seems the movie was re-released in June, making me wonder if my additional memory — of my having to take a hot bath before we left, and of Mom’s taking me to a drug store lunch counter for a hot cocoa with whipped cream (another first) afterward and buying me a tiny soft rubber “Admiral Pelican” toy — are images from another occasion, although I’m still convinced I got the pelican that day.* Well, memory as we all know is far from entirely reliable, but whatever the circumstances surrounding my seeing Snow White, the vividness of my first exposure to that movie has never faded.

Snow White - bedroom

A simple, funny gag by Ward Kimball — the Dwarfs revealing their faces as their noses pop into view — has been interpreted by Freudians as a series of erection caricatures. Who do they think made the thing? Tex Avery? Some adults should never be allowed to see a movie without a child along to explain it to them.

Unsurprisingly, the images that hit hardest, and have stuck longest, were the more horrific ones: Of Snow White’s race through the forest, and how, in her panicked, fevered imagination the trees reach out for her and logs turn into crocodiles; of the wicked Queen’s terrifying transformation into the poison apple-vending hag; of her dispatching of Snow White, the heroine’s arm falling into the frame, a bitten apple rolling away from her open hand; and of the Queen’s subsequent, poetically justified, demise, the vultures circling down into the mist to feast on her freshly dead flesh. Those are nightmare sequences, of which Disney was a true master: They’re in all of his studio’s genuinely great animated features (aside perhaps from Cinderella, although the stepsisters’ tearing the heroine’s gown to shreds and the cat Lucifer’s falling from the high window at the climax may qualify) and they remain fixed in the memories of millions — even billions — of former children.

Snow White - Crocodile logs resized

Extremes of terror…

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… and delight

But I can also recall, as I imagine was and is true of others, my delight in the wonderfully delineated Dwarfs (particularly Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy and Doc; I had never heard Spoonerisms before, and Doc became my favorite as a result of his), their comic actions, and the infectious joy with which they sing and dance their “Silly Song” with Snow White. These too are areas in which Walt would prove masterly, although I take issue with the people on the Disney Blu-ray documentary who claim Oklahoma! as the “first fully integrated musical,” and that Disney beat it by eight years. Not only was the 1927 Show Boat the real precursor of all of this, but Walt seems not to have known that Sigmund Romberg’s day had passed: The first 25 minutes or so of Snow White, until the Dwarfs reach home and discover something amiss at their cottage, is virtually a turn-of-the-century operetta, employing almost no dialogue — except the Queen’s — and arriving complete with twittering coloratura and sexless tenor, in love from the moment they see each other; they’d doubtless have been considered real humdingers at the Hippodrome in 1907. (Until she meets the Dwarfs, all of Snow White’s dialogue rhymes as well, something almost no one, including Walt Disney, could ever carry off.)† Snow White herself, as voiced by Adriana Caselotti, dates the movie more than anything else in it; she obviously fit Walt’s conception of the fairy tale adolescent heroine, and while small children may not mind her, and may even find her comforting, she has a way of making adults’ back teeth ache. Which is a shame, because your grown-up irritation can cause you to miss all sorts of wonders, such as how remarkably done Snow White’s reflection in her wishing-well is in the opening sequence, an effect people now take for granted but which in 1937 was revelatory, the product of the new Multiplane camera without which much of the visual impact of Snow White on its contemporary audience would have been infinitely less.

As a child of the ’60s, and while I instinctively gravitated to “funny animal” comic books (mostly Gold Key reprints) I had until that afternoon very little exposure to full animation. Where would I have seen it? By the time I was cognizant of such things, roughly the age of 4 or 5, most animation on television, unless it was comprised of old theatrical shorts, had succumbed to the cost-saving, and art-shaving, Hanna-Barbera “limited animation” model which ultimately poisoned the animation well for decades. The only exceptions, at least in the Canton, Ohio area where I was born, were the old Terrytoons and Paramount (alas, not Fleischer) Popeye shorts on local morning and afternoon kiddie-shows, Bugs Bunny on Saturday mornings and the all-too occasional vintage short on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on Sunday nights. Not even the Peanuts specials, charming though they were, exhibited much in the way of visual artistry, and although my parents had a Zenith television/radio/turntable console, they elected for the black-and-white model, presumably at the time the less expensive choice; as a result, I never saw color television on a regular basis until I moved away from home at 19. (I still remember the wonder with which, at age 7, I first beheld a color television broadcast, on the set of a family friend. It was a Kukla, Fran and Ollie special, Burr Tillstrom’s 1968 television adaptation of The Reluctant Dragon, and I can still picture in my mind the sight of Ollie’s glittering, bejeweled chest: sparkling imitation jewels on a field of deep, vivid blue.) So something like Snow White, especially projected on a big movie theater screen — something I also hadn’t experienced often — was absolutely entrancing. And I was exactly the right age for the picture: Young enough to enjoy it on a purely childish level yet old enough not to be traumatized by its darker sequences. (You want emotional trauma? Try Bambi. Thank God I was in my 20s before I saw that one.)

Snow White - Dopey with diamond eyes

Dopey in the “Heigh-Ho” sequence, living up to his name.

And what a aggregation of animators worked on the thing! Along with such relative veterans of the Disney studio as Hand, Art Babbitt, Shamus Culhane, Grim Natwick (who, while at Fleischer, had worked on a jazzy, satirical Snow White short for the character he created, Betty Boop), Fred Moore, Dick Lundy, Wilfred Jackson, Ben Sharpsteen, Norm Ferguson, Hamilton Luske and Vladmir “Bill” Tytla, every single member of the group that would come to be called “Walt’s Nine Old Men” (Les Clark, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larsen, Woolie Reitherman, Frank Thomas, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston and John Lounsberry) was involved, along with Larry Morey (who also wrote the song lyrics), Pete Alvardo, Michael Lah (who, after Tex Avery left MGM, later directed Droopy shorts there) and David Swift, who would, like Frank Tashlin, later become a live-action director. Not to mention (why do we say that, and then mention?) Ferdinand Hovarth and Gustaf Tenggren — who, like Hovarth helped design the Dwarfs, provided magnificent conceptual art of the backgrounds and buildings, and painted the gorgeous release poster seen above — and Albert Hurter, whose splendid character designs were also integral to the visual luster of the movie. A stable of creative artists like that is impossible to imagine today, and they, as much as Walt himself, turned what in Hollywood was snickered at as a disaster-in-the-making into a work of genuine popular art, an international financial juggernaut that, more than any other project in the studio’s history, made possible everything that flowed from it. Walt liked to say that his fortune was built on a mouse but if Mickey was the foundation his studio really stood on the shoulders of a beribboned teenager in a peasant blouse.

My previous observations about the songs in Snow White are not meant as a criticism of the numbers themselves, merely the structure built to house them. While not as rich, or as intriguingly dark, as their counterparts in the later, and more ambitious, Pinocchio (1940) the musical numbers here perform their duties efficiently, and with a great deal of charm. Moreover, whatever my complaints about the dated operetta style, each number flows into the next, and there is a particularly nice juxtaposition of “Whistle While You Work” and the Dwarfs’ “Heigh-Ho” (just as Disney achieves real suspense with his cutting between Snow White being menaced by the Witch and the little men and forest animals racing to save her.) Larry Morey’s lyrics are seldom of a kind that would have lost Cole Porter any sleep, but they weren’t intended to be clever or sophisticated. They were expected to convey generalized emotions, and they do. The music by Frank Churchill, however, is exceptional, and not only did nearly all of his and Morey’s songs (“Heigh-Ho”, “Whistle While You Work,” “With a Smile and a Song”) enter the American Popular Songbook, some of them, like “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” became jazz standards as well. Carl Stalling, an old Kansas City hand, worked at Disney on the early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonys, but after he decamped in 1930 the Disney shorts were accompanied by instantly forgettable music. These continued to be uninspired musically, but after Snow White, the features at least had superb scores: Paul Smith worked on Snow White and while when I see the movie I can’t really distinguish his compositions I can immediately determine which cues were composed by Leigh Harline; his quirky little motif for Dopey, for example, is instantly recognizable as Harline’s, a brief precursor to his theme for Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio three years later.

Snow White - Heigh Ho

The “Heigh-Ho” sequence: A perfect synthesis of song, story and breathtaking visuals.

Music was, of course, integral to Disney’s success; he saw the potential of sound immediately, developed Steamboat Willie (1928) to exploit it, and continued to experiment with it throughout the 1930s. The Three Little Pigs (1933) in particular depends on music, and song, and the Depression-era public embraced Churchill’s “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” as an emblem. Walt’s embrace of a bigger sound for his Silly Symphony shorts — the name, if not the concept, was immediately imitated by Leon Schlesinger; Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies could not have existed without Disney’s model — must have thoroughly confused the money-men at other studios. Symphonic accompaniment for cartoons? What next? An animated feature? (Yes.) Whatever criticisms may be lobbed at Disney himself, or at the ravening corporation he spawned, his (and its) musical instincts have been more than effectual. Snow White set the prototype.

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If Caselotti is a sticky embodiment of virtue, the redoubtable stage actress Lucille La Verne is a marvelously fulsome personification of vice. Her Wicked Queen is silkily vicious, a walking, preening avatar of vanity (the Queen’s throne is in the form of a peacock) who seems to live only to be desirable. And La Verne’s Witch is thrillingly loathsome, the sort of figure to send delicious chills up a child’s spine. She’s not merely a perfect disguise; she is the Queen’s very essence. If her movements, like those of the Queen, are a series of melodramatic, silent-movie posturings, she is no less effective for them. The Disney artists were not yet ready for subtlety in characterizing evil; it would take years of experiment, and a much richer vocal artist (Eleanor Audley) to arrive at the more shaded, and more correspondingly frightening, Stepmother for Cinderella and wicked fairy Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty.

Snow White - Grumpy at organ

Grumpy’s independently-working buttocks keep time in the “Silly Song” sequence.

Disney’s distillation of the Dwarfs’ personalities is even more successful, their endearing idiosyncrasies suggested by their names and brought to fruition by the way they are animated as much as by the men who gave them voice.  Disney, no less than his rivals at the Schlesinger or Fleischer studios, was, as so many were at the time, tuned in to vaudeville and radio (if perhaps less directly imitative) and most of the Dwarfs reflect that interest: Roy Atwell’s trademark stammering and malapropisms informed Doc’s pomposity, while Billy Gilbert, a master of explosive sternutation, was a natural for Sneezy and Otis Harlin (Happy) had a voice that radiated joviality. Eddie Collins, the model for Dopey (and purveyor of his occasional hiccups and excited twitterings) was studied for his distinctive movement while Scotty Mattraw, known for his bucolic characters, was a natural for Bashful. Pinto Colvig was likely a no-brainer as well for Grumpy and Sleepy; a Disney gag writer and sound effects man, Colvig was also for many years the great voice of Goofy, my favorite of Disney’s characters.

Up to to this point in animation history, the standard practice for dealing with a collection of like figures in cartoons, at Disney and elsewhere, was to make them more or less interchangeable: They look indistinguishable and move together uniformly (The Skeleton Dance, 1929) or in identical patterns (the imps and flowers in The Goddess of Spring, 1934). With The Three Little Pigs Walt grasped the power, and the appeal, of character delineation. For his first feature, his Dwarfs couldn’t just be a mass, a septet of identical-looking (and acting) stick figures. They had to have individual personalities, and inter-familial conflicts. We sense within minutes that Doc is the most self-important of the seven and believes himself their natural leader while Grumpy is his polar opposite, adversarial in every situation, the voice of the pessimist where Doc radiates optimism, and that Dopey is the Dwarfs’ communal backwards child, petted and tolerated as much because of his eagerness to oblige despite obvious mental limitations as for his essential sweetness of personality. This sort of thing, de rigueur now in animation, had its basis in the Three Pigs but had never before been seen on the scale of Snow White. The Dwarfs’ personae are easily graspable by the children in the audience for their eponymous characteristics yet beloved of adults for their humor and their recognizability. And when, at the climax, they were seen weeping at Snow white’s coffin, members of the audience joined them, moved as much, I suspect, by Disney’s sheer audacity in depicting such a thing as by the Dwarfs’ collective sorrow. Hey! These little guys are real!

Snow White - coffin

As an adolescent Disney had seen the 1916 Snow White starring Marguerite Clark at a special showing for newsboys, which had made a marked impression on him, so it is unsurprising that he would choose it as the subject of his first feature. Development had begun as early as 1934Walt’s memorable first story conference, in which, characteristically, he acted out his ideas for the staff, including the youngest dwarf using a single feather for a pillow, later a charming moment for Dopey in the completed picture, occurred that autumn. As he demanded sequences be redone, and scrapped two in the pencil-test stage, before they could be completed and painted, the budget kept climbing (it eventually reached a then-unheard-of $1.49 million) but the proof was in the pudding. The movie grossed $3.5 million in North America, $6.5 million by 1939 and, by the end of its original release run, had earned a whopping $7.85 million internationally. Including its various re-issues over the decades (every seven years from 1937, grabbing roughly a new generation of impressionable young viewers each time, your humble scribe included) its box-office reached $418 million, with Christ only knows how much money generated in the sales of related books, records and toys and, later, home videos and DVDs/Blu-rays of the picture itself. (That crucial process of accretion cited by Walt and, later, as “synergy,” so beloved of his successor, Michael Eisner.) So much for what those in the know had once smugly called “Disney’s Folly.”

And the movie holds up, in a way few 80-year old pictures do. It helps, of course, that it’s set in an indeterminate period, and kingdom, and with no anachronisms and none of the cringe-inducing democratizion (really, Americanization) Disney later went in for, the nadir of which is probably Bing Crosby referring to Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949) as “Ol’ Icky.” And given a pleasing restoration on its 50th anniversary in 1987, Snow White looks spectacular on Blu-ray, its palette a beautifully balanced mixture of muted tones for its natural and architectural backgrounds and bold Technicolor splashes for the characters’ costumes and such important elements as that terrifyingly enticing, bright red apple. The Prince is almost entirely characterlessness — all he does is sing a little, and deliver that revivifying kiss at the end, and next to the vividly-defined Dwarfs he barely exists but the design and execution of the normal-sized human characters is such a vast improvement on figures like the stilted Persephone of The Goddess of Spring as to constitute a quantum leap in animation possibility, and there are almost no missteps in the picture. Pretty much the only error I picked up on as I watched it again the other night was one of continuity: A quick depiction of Dopey’s drumming hands emerging from his distinctive yellow sweater during the “Silly Song” at the same time he and Sneezy are dancing with Snow White. I’m surprised Walt didn’t have that re-painted, but, as with the Prince shimmying slightly at the climax it may have been too late, and too expensive, to fix.

Snow White - Magic Mirror LP resizedI’ll end on the return to a personal note: After seeing the movie with me our mother bought us the Snow White “Magic Mirror” LP, which I played and re-played obsessively, and the reprint of the comic book (re-purposed from the original 1937-1938 newspaper strip adaptation drawn by Hank Porter and Bob Grant) accompanied me on our car-trip to the 1967 Expo in Montreal that summer. I re-read that one until it was pretty much in tatters. (I also had the coloring book, which puzzled me because it depicted the cut sequence of the Dwarfs making a bed for Snow White, and a plush doll of Doc I wish now I’d held onto.)

Snow White - comic 1967

As I was already hooked on cartoons, and on Disney, before seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it can’t be said that Walt claimed another child-victim with his ’67 reissue. But I won’t deny that seeing it deepened the addiction as I also realize there’s something insidious about Disney’s hand-rubbing calculation; he liked to crow about the figures showing that every child in America had seen a Disney movie, read a Disney comic, played a Disney record or owned a Disney toy. And it’s worse, of course, now his company has become a corporate octopus, busily grabbing up any-and-everything that might attract a child’s attention, from Muppets to Marvel to Star Wars. (And let’s not forget the company’s current, gorge-rising, emphasis on enticing vulnerable little girls with its “Disney Princesses,” from Snow to, one presumes, Leia.) But when a movie is a genuine astonishment, as Snow White was and continues to be eight decades after its original release, even a Grumpy might be forced to admit there are worse things out there vying for a child’s attention than this bright, tuneful, funny and ultimately cathartic fantasy.


Admiral Pelican*Admiral Pelican, re-discovered on EBay a few years back. My original was orange, but you can’t have everything.

†The Dwarfs rhyme with her as well, before she sings “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and all of the Magic Mirror’s dialogue is in verse.  (Sample: “Over the seven jeweled hills / Beyond the seventh wall / In the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs / Dwells Snow White, fairest one of all.”)

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Liked more than a bissel: “Gilbert” (2017)

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By Scott Ross

Neil Berkeley’s 2017 documentary is a surprisingly sweet, even moving, portrait of the blazingly idiosyncratic and often excruciatingly funny comedian Gilbert Gottfried — although long-time listeners of Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Pocast will be more prepared than others for the softer side of the famously abrasive comic. It isn’t a particularly deep etching (we never discover why the actual man, as opposed to his brash stage persona, is so pathologically shy, for example, although a few observations by Gottfried about his emotionally abusive father are likely a clue) but Gilbert offers a far more fully-rounded depiction of the man than we’re used to from the prattle of the surface-oriented corporate media types who’ve interviewed him in the past. (Kathie Lee Gifford and Elisabeth Hasselbeck make particular asses of themselves in the footage included here.) It helps too that we get to know his beloved sister Arlene, a photographer of an under-explored New York who was undergoing cancer treatment at the time of filming and to whom the movie is dedicated, and, especially, his wife. Dara Kravitz seems to be the anchor he needed, and that she (along with their young son and daughter) well and truly completes his life… although he, characteristically, sees his home-life as a Twilight Zone fantasy. The only time you feel the filmmaker behaves in an intrusive manner in Gilbert is when he films an intimate goodbye between them and you sense all genuine expression of feeling is being killed off by Gottfried’s knowing that he and Dara are being filmed. Considering how well, and touchingly, the family’s own home-movies document Gilbert’s camera-shyness, you’d think Berkeley might have shut his down for a few minutes.

I admit to having found Gottfried, in his early 1980s movie roles, unbearably obnoxious and to being slow to warm to him. (As with many, it was his participation in the Disney Aladdin, and his voicing of the Aflac duck that first earned my affection.) Looking back now at his early video output, especially his 1986 Cinemax special Greetings from Gilbert Gottfried I realize that, had I seen his act first, and then his movie performances, I might have responded very differently. Certainly he was unique, and I can’t imagine any other stand-up comedian of his generation doing a bit in which Tony Curtis and Gavin McLeod share coffee and a doughnut, or another in which he famously juggled the names of Ted Bessell and Georgie Jessel, along with those of Jacqueline Bisset, Whit Bissell and Joe Besser, and carrying it off with such alliterative aplomb (Punchline: “The Jewish Press says, ‘We like Bessell as Jessel, but only a bissel.'”) It’s why the podcast he hosts with Frank Santopadre is such a pleasure; Gottfried loves the old show business, is steeped in it, and treats his guests with a respect sometimes verging on reverence. People who know him only from his second, “dirty,” phase of stand-up are invariably shocked when I suggest they listen. (I was skeptical too, until I heard the show.)

Gilbert and Dara Gottfried

Dara: “I love you.”                Gilbert: “That’s your problem.”

Gottfried has spoken more than once about the ludicrous over-sensitivity with which two of his more infamous jokes were received: The first was his response to 9-11, and which led, ultimately, to the production of Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza’s 2005 comic documentary The Aristocrats; the second, after the tsunami hit Fukushima, resulted in Gilbert’s losing his Aflac sinecure and being branded a pariah for somehow, according to corporate media pundits, “making it worse”… with a joke. Berkeley includes, but wisely does not dwell on, these incidents, preferring to focus on the comedian’s travels (he goes to his gigs by bus) and his sustaining familial relationships. The occasional talking-heads in Gilbert (Jillette, Provenza, Richard Belzer, Lewis Black, Bill Burr, Judy Gold, Artie Lange, Jay Leno, Howie Mandel, Jeffrey Ross, Bob Saget) are variable, and not especially insightful, although Richard Kind in his inimitable and endearingly over-excited fashion probably makes the best case in Gottfried’s favor. Far more effecting, and pertinent, are the lovely home-movies of his aged mother Lily and his wonderful old grandmother.

There are moments in Gilbert when Gottfried seems like the saddest, most lost little boy in the world, and others, such as those of him joking or playing with his son Max, when you think the ease with which he does so has to do with his retaining that child, damaged though he may be, at the forefront of his personality, and with having figured out, by accident or circumstance, how to both protect and to make that boy work for him. If you’re the child of a father lamentable in his interactions with his offspring as Max Gottfried was with his, you may be especially predisposed to salute this movie, and its subject — although all you really need are a relatively open mind and an unfettered appreciation of the ridiculous.

Gottfried - Ol' Squint Eyes is Back by Kyle Burles

Copyright 2015 by Kyle Burles

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Necrology, 2019: Writers, Artists, Musicians, Singers and Composers

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By Scott Ross

Although I am still in something of a state of disbelief over the deaths, in 2018, of Harlan Ellison and William Goldman who, although neither had published much of anything new in decades, remain among the American writers highest in my personal Pantheon, this past year —  as is increasingly the case as one ages — saw the passing of several touchstones: Two of my favorite writers, who could not have been further apart except in general excellence (Toni Morrison, John Simon); a novelist (Patricia Nell Warrren) whose popular work from my nascent gay adolescence meant more to me at that time than almost any other’s; an actor (Albert Finney) and a comedian (Tim Conway) I cherished; a cartoonist of genius (Howard Cruse) whose unabashedly gay milieu helped limn the contours of my young manhood; four musical figures whose recordings — two known to me from childhood (André Previn, Doris Day), one from puberty (Michel Legrand) and the last from my hot youth (Leon Redbone) — remain unimpeachable favorites of my adulthood; and a giant of the theatre  (Harold Prince) whose approach to staging musical plays was vastly influential in the culture at large, and to the way I wrote my own plays. These are the ones that hurt the most, but there was, as there always is, plenty of only slightly lesser tristesse to go around in 2019.


I. Writers

Perry Deane Young, 77.
A journalist and playwright, Young was mainstream and “out” when the latter was pretty much a career-killer unless one lived in San Francisco. (Young worked and lived largely in North Carolina.) His most well-known books were Two of the Missing, about the disappearances of his fellow Vietnam war correspondents Sean Flynn (Errol’s son) and Dana Stone, and, with David Kopay, The David Kopay Story, detailing the former National League running back’s life, career, and coming out… in 1975. It sold well, but few then were ready to deal with the reality of gay athletes, out or not. Most sports fans and athletes still aren’t.


Patricia Nell Warren
, 82.
Patricia Nell Warren - The Front Runner

Warren’s truly groundbreaking novel The Front Runner was for me, at 17 and coming to terms with my own sexuality, a kind of lifeline. In 1978 there were very few prominent, un-closeted personalities, in any field. (Had I only known about Harvey Milk!) Warren’s book, with its unapologetic young athletic protagonist Billy Sive, helped anchor, and remind me — as we needed reminding in those immediate post-Stonewall years — that my being gay need neither define the totality of who I was, nor cause me shame: Not all faggots lisped, or wore dresses, or screamed like queens. It would take me a while longer to not be embarrassed by those who did. But The Front Runner, the first bestselling, mainstream gay novel, gave me, and millions of young gay boys like me, permission to be themselves.

I haven’t been on Facebook in years, but I am grateful now that I became friendly with Patricia Nell Warren there, and had the chance to tell her how much her novel meant, and continues to mean, to me.

Toni Morrson resized

Toni Morrison, 88.
Although I suspect her finest work was behind her by the time of her death (I haven’t yet read Home and God Help the Child, so I’m open to being proven wrong) if you live to 88 and your oeuvre includes such astonishments as The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Sula, Jazz, Paradise, Love and that modern miracle of expressive outrage, Beloved, the Nobels and Pulitzers you accrue mean far less than the totality of your imaginative output, which is so rich and unparalleled it secures you a place in the canon beside Twain, Melville, Welty and the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby. Like Ray Bradbury at his most lyrical, Morrison was a prose poet, and her genius was of surpassing brilliance. When you read her, you lose track of the number of times her descriptive compositions stop your breath — and your heart. With Morrison’s death, America has lost the last of its greatest, and most vital, post-war poet-novelists.

Alvin Sargent (née Alvin Supowitz), 92.
The writer of such notable American movies as The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972), Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973), Straight Time (1978, with Jeffrey Boam), Dominick and Eugene (1988) and Ordinary People (1980), the latter of which won him an Oscar®, Sargent is also remembered, fondly, for his screenplays for Paper Moon (1973) and Julia (1977), for which he won his first Academy Award. That a writer of Sargent’s varied gifts ended his career scripting four Spider-Man movies is a perfect paradigm; it says everything about the state of 21st century popular culture and the descending arc of the American screenwriter’s life.

Herman Wouk, 103.
The author of The Caine Mutiny (book and play) published his last novel, The Lawgiver, at 97, and his final book at 100. That says nothing about the quality of his work (or wouk) but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Roger O. Hirson, 93.
Remembered chiefly for his book for the hit Bob Fosse musical Pippin, Hirson had the unhappy distinction of being one of the few librettists in modern times barred from rehearsals of a Broadway musical by his show’s director.

Martin Charnin, 84.
Originally a performer (he was Big Deal, one of the Jets, in West Side Story, later known as a lyricist, later a director, Charnin specialized in flops: Hot Spot (1963, one month and change), Mata Hari (1967; closed in D.C.), La Strada (1969; 1 performance), Two by Two (1971, less than a year on Danny Kaye’s name), Nash at Nine (1973, 2 weeks), Bar Mitzvah Boy (1979, who knows?), I Remember Mama (1979, 3 months), The First (1981, 3 months) – lyricist, director; co-book writer with Joel Siegel, A Little Family Business (1982, 12 performances), Cafe Crown (1 month and change). He was cursed to have a single hit, Annie (1977, 2,377 performances) which he conceived and directed and for which he supplied a set of mostly lukewarm lyrics. Charnin was so embarrassed by the 1982 movie he attempted to re-tool the show in response, and to coast on those attempts, periodically for the rest of his life: Annie Warbucks (1993), something called Annie and the Hoods for which I can find no information), The Annie Christmas Show (1977). Blessed is the man who never has a hit, for he will keep trying other things.

Larry Siegel, 93.
Known for his scripts for MAD Magazine movie satires, Siegel was also a writer on Laugh-In and, for four non-consecutive seasons, The Carol Burnett Show.

Terrance Dicks, 84.
As the Script Editor for Doctor Who from 1969–74 (the John Pertwee years) Dicks was responsible for the series “Day of the Daleks,” “The Sea Devils,” “The Three Doctors,” “Carnival of Monsters,” and “Planet of the Spiders,” as well as many of the Who paperback novelizations of the time.

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg resized

Alan Bates and Janet Suzman in the movie of Peter Nichols’ play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972).

Peter Nichols, 92.
Nichols famously turned his experience as the father of a spastic child into the the giddily theatrical, often hilarious and, ultimately, heartbreaking, play (and subsequent movie) A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Among his other notable works are the plays The National Health, Privates on Parade (also a movie) and Passion Play.

Mardik Martin, 84.
This Iranian-born Armenian-American screenwriter’s credits include Mean Streets (written with Martin Scorsese), Valentino (with Ken Russell), New York, New York (with Earl Mac Rauch) and, with Paul Schrader, Raging Bull. The first title represents Scorsese’s rise, the second Russell’s nadir… and the last two Scorsese’s decline.

Rudy Behlmer, 92.
Behlmer’s forte as a film historian was to edit studio memoranda into compelling narratives (Memo from David O. Selznick, Inside Warner Bros., 1935 – 1951, Memo from Daryl F. Zanuck) illuminating factory practices during the first American movie “golden age.” His Behind the Scenes: The Making of… limns the process by which such milestones as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Maltese Falcon and Singin’ in the Rain were created.

Tribute - Lemmon by Hirschfeld resized

The essence of Jack Lemmon: Al Hirschfeld’s brilliant caricature for Bernard Slade’s play Tribute.

Bernard Slade, 89.
This Canadian teleplay author, latterly a playwright and screenwriter, had on his c.v. such immortal entries as The Flying Nun, The Partridge Family, Same Time Next Year, Romantic Comedy and Tribute. That last title was so poor even Jack Lemmon couldn’t keep it running, and the subsequent movie ranks (appropriate word) as perhaps Lemmon’s worst. Not him in it, but the picture itself.

Ernest J. Gaines, 86.
The venerated author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying — as with so many titles, books I have in my library but have not (yet) read.

William Luce. 88.
A playwright whose specialty was one-woman (and, occasionally, one-man) shows: The Belle of Amherst, Zelda, Lillian, Lucifer’s Child, Barrymore) often with Charles Nelson Reilly directing and, occasionally, with some very good verbiage indeed.

John Simon resized

John Simon, 94.
One of the few great theatre critics, living or dead, in America, Simon suffered the stroke that ultimately killed him while at a theatre, doing the thing he loved most: Seeing a play and preparing to write about it. That it was a dinner theatre might have made even Simon chuckle.

Michael Feingold, in a spurious obituary for American Theatre, wrote, “Though I knew John for nearly half a century, I never fully understood why he continued to go to the theatre and write about it. In his old age, as his public status and the platform for his writing diminished in stature, I began to suspect that his devotion to his art was partly an addiction and partly a Don Quixote-like quest for an unattainable grail. These are basic elements of the drive that keeps all theatre critics at their work, but John embraced the two in a most unusual way. He did not confine himself to theatre, but regularly reviewed films, books, and music as well. A cultural omnivore whose erudition was as tremendous as his constant need for new works to evaluate, he searched through every creation he confronted to determine its flaws.” (And that’s just the opening paragraph!) In the Feingoldian view of the universe, Heaven forbid a man write about more than one subject, or continue to be enthusiastic about the arts, and about writing, in his final years. And, apparently, if you can no longer write for major publications, and regardless of whether that suggests a deficiency in those organs themselves, you are a pathetic old loser if you write only for your own blog… or your own pleasure.

I should like to see with what wonders Feingold (who also used to write for a major paper, and no longer does) will fill his dotage.


II. Artists/Cartoonists

Gahan Wilson - Insane Eye Doctor resizedGahan Wilson, 89.
Wilson was Charles Addams pushed to an extreme, at once more horrific, and often funnier, than that great, macabre artist. Naturally, Wilson’s métier was not Addams’ New Yorker but National Lampoon.

Howard Cruse, 75.Howard Cruse 750x_0

In 1983, readers of the once-great gay weekly The Advocate were introduced to Wendel, Cruse’s instantly appealing comic strip, which grew from a satire on cruising to a marvelous showplace for his incisive wit and fluid, expansive drawing style. (The artist acknowledged later that, in the age of AIDS, that concept was too fraught with anxiety.) Wendel was soon paired with the semi-closeted actor and single father Ollie, their private world opening to include friends, neighbors, employers and various passers-by whose richness was unparalleled in the world of gay cartoons to that point. What this Advocate reader didn’t know then was that Cruse was a noted underground comics artist whose strip Barefootz, accused of cutesiness by some, contained a gay hippie character (Headrack). Cruse was the founding editor, in 1979, of the truly revolutionary Denis Kitchen publication Gay Comix, a peripatetic anthology of stories, some humorous, some more dramatic, by gay and Lesbian artists.* Wendel ended its run in 1989, and Cruse spent the next six years working on his astonishing, somewhat autobiographical graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, which was published to great acclaim in 1995. As the son of an Alabama preacher Cruse in his art, and his life (he married his partner Eddie Sedarbaum in 2004 after the two moved to Massachusetts) gave a gentle middle finger to his repressive upbringing, which is of course the best revenge any gay man or Lesbian in America.


III. Music

Daryl Dragon
, 76.
One-half, with Toni Tennille, of The Captain & Tennille, Dragon was keyboardist for The Beach Boys from 1967 — 1972, during which time Mike Love gave him the nickname (“Captain Keyboard”) that, along with the pair’s doggedly middle-of-the-road hits, defined him in the pop world of the 1970s.

Michel Legrand resized

Michel Legrand, 86.
The protean French composer, arranger, conductor and jazz pianist first came to my attention with his witty score (reportedly composed in a week) for the Richard Lester/George MacDonald Fraser The Three Musketeers in 1973. Only later did I become aware of the range of his work, from the — as they now say “through-sung” — Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) to his scores for The Thomas Crown Affair (and which included the song “The Windmills of Your Mind” which, with a lyric by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, won the trio an Academy Award®), Richard Brooks’ The Happy Ending (“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” came from that), Picasso Summer, Summer of ’42 (second Oscar®), Orson Welles’ F for Fake, Atlantic City for Louis Malle and (again with the Bergmans) Barbra Streisand’s Yentl (third Oscar®). His finest movie work, however, is his superb score for the Joseph Losey/Harold Pinter masterpiece The Go-Between (1971), a set of variations on a theme that perfectly limns the movie’s rising (and ironic) action. Legrand may not have been among the “heavyweight” film composers, but his charm is entirely abundant. His final project, fittingly enough, was honoring his promise to score Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind when it was, finally, edited. Neither man, I suspect, could imagine it would take 38 years.

Peter Tork, 77.
Although The Monkees was a pre-fabricated group, American television’s response to the Beatles, Tork was an accomplished musician in the early ‘60s Greenwich Village “folk scene.” (Interestingly, his friend Stephen Stills, rejected for The Monkees, recommended Tork as a possible replacement.) Not permitted to play on the group’s first two albums, Tork eventually played keyboards, bass guitar, banjo, harpsichord, and other instruments on subsequent recordings. For a pre-fab quartet, The Monkees (like the later Partridge Family) had some surprisingly good songs, and song writers. Their theme was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and the pair also composed “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Valleri.” Neil Diamond wrote “I’m a Believer” for the group, Jeff Barry “She Hangs Out,” Harry Nilsson “Daddy’s Song” and “Cuddly Toy” (although Nilsson’s own vocals for both are superior to Davey Jones’), Gerry Goffin and Carole King “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and the Kingston Trio’s John Stewart “Daydream Believer.”

André Previn at the piano resized

André Previn, 89.
Everything I might say about Previn, whom I venerate, I said previously on this blog. Please click the link.

Doris Day - Be Kind to Animals or I'll Kill You

Doris Day (née Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff), 97.
When I was a child, the smirking jokes about Day’s perennial virginity were still abroad in the land, as were (alas) her many bad comedies and the television series that seemed to change her character every season. Fortunately, she outlived the sniping, and the re-evaluation of her singing and her acting brought her some belated praise. (If you ever wish to become homicidally enraged at the otherwise only mildly annoying phrases “Big time” and “knocks it out of the park,” I recommend Tom Santopietro’s Considering Doris Day.) With the passage of time it is now possible to see the good in pictures like The Pajama Game, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Thrill of it All and even The Glass Bottom Boat and Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, or at least how good Day is in them. Her singing, warm and surprisingly sexy and completed by an entrancing vibrato, never required defending, and her work for animal welfare mitigates her lifelong Republicanism.

The Leon Redbone Movie - 5) Editorial Opinion resized

A sketch for an animated Leon short I wanted to create in the early 1980s. The $3.50 admission price dates it as much as that roll of tickets in the box office. And I should have put a mustache or sunglasses on that fish-head.

Leon Redbone (née Dickran Gobalian), 69.
I was introduced to Redbone via my best friend in the early 1980s, when he played me the Double Time LP. I was uncertain exactly what we were hearing — was this an old black blues shouter? — and when Redbone sang “The Sheik of Araby” I was literally on my hands and knees, weeping and helpless with laughter. Once I recovered I began to appreciate what a splendid musician Leon (he was always “Leon” to us) really was, and how expressive his sometimes extremely odd vocalizations could be. I was also, being an aficionado of “old music,” impressed by his wide-ranging taste and knowledge of American popular song. Seeing him in a small club called The Pier in Raleigh, N.C. a few months later was a revelation; among other things, I was (my reaction to “Sheik” notwithstanding) unprepared for just how deadpan funny he could be, what with stick like taking Polaroids of his audience or murmuring, “Aw, you shouldn’t have” and “Oh, behave yourselves” after an ovation. And seeing him up close revealed what a remarkable guitarist he was. The next time we saw Leon live was at the large Memorial Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and the last at the much smaller ArtsCenter in Carrboro. That rise and declension seems almost a paradigm for fame in America: If we’d seen him a fourth time, it would likely have been in some dive-bar, with a blender drowning out his voice.

Redbone was born in Cyprus and raised in Canada, shocking many of us who assumed that, with that voice, and his pith helmets, shades, mutton-chops, bushy mustache, trim goatee and Malacca canes he simply had to be a native of New Orleans. Although he suffered from dementia, when he died earlier this year Leon left a typically impish self-obituary: “It is with heavy hearts we announce that early this morning, May 30th, 2019, Leon Redbone crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127.”



IV. Nonesuch


Word Jazz 564848 resizedKen Nordine
, 98.
Utilizing his deep, resonant voice and such aggregations as the Fred Katz Group, Nordine created a unique form he called “Word Jazz,” which he successfully exploited on LP (Word Jazz, Son of Word Jazz, Love Words) and on his long-running public radio show. It was a weird hybrid. Not the jazz-poetry-and-music mix, but the tone that resulted; there were times when Nordine’s words wafted over you like a scented breeze and others at which he seemed the most pretentious, arty phony you ever heard. When, at the end of one of his tracks on the Disney Stay Awake album, he intones, both portentously and with a depressive’s sigh, “Damn… the circus,” you may at first not know whether to nod in recognition or burst out in derisive laughter at the clichéd obviousness of the line. I think the latter response is the more honest, but I suppose it’s all a matter of taste.

Damn… the choices.



*
Weirdly, Alison Bechdel now seems to get all or most of the credit for early “out and proud” cartooning but with, as they say, due respect to Bechdel’s impressive artistic and narrative gifts, one chalks this “Howard Who?” attitude up to the current arbiters of “Woke” culture who have proclaimed, loudly, and in their various manners, that the proper human equation is an automatic “#Girl = Good / Boy = Bad.” Especially when it comes to presidential nominees. (Always excepting you are Tulsi Gabbard, of course.)

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Necrology, 2019: Actors and Theatre Personnel

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By Scott Ross

Although I am still in something of a state of disbelief over the deaths, in 2018, of Harlan Ellison and William Goldman who, although neither had published much of anything new in decades, remain among the American writers highest in my personal Pantheon, this past year —  as is increasingly the case as one ages — saw the passing of several touchstones: Two of my favorite writers, who could not have been further apart except in general excellence (Toni Morrison, John Simon); a novelist (Patricia Nell Warrren) whose popular work from my nascent gay adolescence meant more to me at that time than almost any other’s; an actor (Albert Finney) and a comedian (Tim Conway) I cherished; a cartoonist of genius (Howard Cruse) whose unabashedly gay milieu helped limn the contours of my young manhood; four musical figures whose recordings — two known to me from childhood (André Previn, Doris Day), one from puberty (Michel Legrand) and the last from my hot youth (Leon Redbone) — remain unimpeachable favorites of my adulthood; and a giant of the theatre  (Harold Prince) whose approach to staging musical plays was vastly influential in the culture at large, and to the way I wrote my own plays. These are the ones that hurt the most, but there was, as there always is, plenty of only slightly lesser tristesse to go around in 2019.


I. Actors

Carol Channing - Hello, Dolly

Carol Channing, 97.
It was common when I was young to hear people lamenting that Channing didn’t get to play Dolly Gallagher Levi in in the movie of her most famous stage musical. Had those people seen Thoroughly Modern Millie? (Had the Academy, which gave her a Best Supporting Actress nomination for it?) With her popping eyes, elaborate wigs, wide mouth, facial tics, grand gestures, deliberate baritone (sometimes bass) singing voice, and teasing, outsized persona, Channing’s affect was less feminine than that of a drag queen with a uterus. On stage, as Dolly, she probably seemed ingenious; in her few screen roles and with the camera capturing each grimace and moue and the mike picking up every nuance of her kewpie-doll gushing Channing was, like Ethel Merman (another absurdly outré performer these same ignoramuses used perpetually to cite as “wasted by the movies”) a freak, lacking only the appurtenances of the side-show. With her character in it limited to dialogue only (or better still, re-cast) and with no elaborate musical numbers to show her off her freak attributes, Millie might have emerged as a minor comedy classic rather than the pleasant but overblown (and, because overlong, tiring) exercise it became.*

Kaye Ballard - The Golden Apple resized

Kaye Ballard, 93.
Ballard (née Catherine Gloria Balotta) was another Broadway freak, with a huge voice, a good range, and, in comedy, an arch performing style perhaps best suited to TV farce like The Doris Day Show and The Mothers-in-Law, where she played her excited volubility against Eve Arden’s dry acerbity (although the plots were strictly from I Love Lucy.) Yet her appeal was considerable — she was more human than Channing — and when she got her teeth into a great, sultry ballad like the Jerome Moross / John La Touche “Lazy Afternoon” in The Golden Apple, she could be incandescent, even hair-raising. Her tandem act with the treasurable Alice Ghostly in the original, Julie Andrews-starred 1957 Cinderella, in which the pair sang the knowing “Stepsisters’ Lament” duet, remains indelible. Another splendid Ballard recording: “There’s Always a Woman”, a bitch-fest cut from Anyone Can Whistle which Ballard performed with the great Sally Mayes on the Unsung Sondheim album. The way she rolls the word “delicious” off her spiteful tongue is a vest-pocket tutorial in how to get the absolute, zesty most out of a tiny line reading.

Was Ballard a Lesbian? To quote Robert Preston in S.O.B., “Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows?”

Julie Adams, 92.
Adams was fine in a very good 1953 James Stewart Western, Bend of the River, but, cultural memory being what it is, will likely be remembered longest for being menaced, in a white one-piece, by the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Albert Finney, 82.Albert Finney - Tom Jones

Although he walked away from Lawrence of Arabia before it began, Finney triumphed as Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones in the hilariously earthy 1963 adaptation by John Osborne and directed by Tony Richardson; the famous “eating scene” between Finney and Joyce Redman is still among the most paralyzingly funny sequences in post-war movies. As adept at comedy as he was at drama, Finney was also as devoted to the stage as to film, ever returning to Shakespeare, Chekhov and Feydeau, his true métier. He could be subtle or hammy, as required, and his conviction was total; even in the veriest trash he is never less than watchable. Among his best movie performances: Opposite Audrey Hepburn in the time-shattering Stanley Donen/Frederic Raphael dramatic comedy Two for the Road (1967); a delicious Ebenezer in Scrooge (1970); unrecognizable as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974); the conflicted, and increasingly frightened, police detective of Wolfen (1981); the agonizingly obsessive husband in Shoot the Moon (1982); the Donald Wolfit-inspired “Sir” in The Dresser (1983); the doomed, alcoholic British consul in Under the Volcano (1984); the unsinkable Irish mobster in Miller’s Crossing (1990); as Crocker-Harris in Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version (1994); the paterfamilias of Sidney Lumet’s astonishing final feature, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007); and, movingly, the unbowed ancient caretaker of Skyfall (2012). In 1975, he performed an amusing cameo in Gene Wilder’s spoof The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. It’s difficult for me, who grew up watching him, and who cherished his presence, to imagine to a world without an Albert Finney in it.

Jan-Michael Vincent. 73. Jan-Michael Vincent resized
Once both disarmingly attractive, and charmingly amiable (
“Danger Island” on The Banana Splits Show, The World’s Greatest Athlete, Bite the Bullet, Big Wednesday), later a victim of alcoholism and diabetes, Vincent ended up a bitter, angry and staggeringly homophobic single amputee. A sad ending to a once-promising career.

Beverley Owen, 81.
The original Marilyn on The Munsters, for them as cares. Which I don’t. Why did I post this? Because I care about you

Katherine Helmond, 89.Brazil - Katherine Helmond

When she played the perpetually confused Jessica Tate on Soap, one puzzled stare into the camera by this woman, perfectly timed, was enough to put me on the floor. She had her best movie role as Jonathan Pryce’s cosmetically-obsessed mother in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). Gilliam’s depiction was prescient; we’ve since witnessed 35 years’ worth of women, and men, whose every gaze into a mirror must include a profoundly disorienting lack of immediate recognition.

Denise Nickerson, 62. Remembered by moviegoers of my generation as the obnoxious Violet in the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Seymour Cassel, 84.
Active largely in American independent movies, especially for John Cassavetes (Too Late Blues, Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night and Love Streams) he also had roles in more mainstream pictures such as Coogan’s Bluff (1968), The Last Tycoon (1976), Valentino (1977), Convoy (1978), Dick Tracy (1990), Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) and Indecent Proposal (1993).

Georgia Engel
, 70.
With her slightly breathless, baby-doll voice, zany logic and sweetly expressed forthrightness Engel, a late addition to the cast, was an endearing  Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and, later, Ray Romano’s mother-in-law on Everybody Loves Raymond.)

Peter Mayhew
, 74.
Mayhew was the man beneath the mask and the shaggy, bandoliered body as Chewbacca in five Star Wars pictures and, like so many giants (he had Marfan syndrome), a gentle soul.

Barbara Perry, 97.
A reliable character actor known for her series performances (The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, Bewitched) Perry earned her immortality in the Ross household as the first Pickles Sorrell on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Peggy Lipton
, 72.
I’ve never been happy my friend Michael Dorfman committed suicide, but I’m slightly relieved he’ll never have to hear of the death of his first big TV crush.

Harvey Korman, Tim Conway

Harvey Korman and Tim Conway in a segment of the recurring Kenny Solms and Gail Parent soap-opera spoof “As the Stomach Turns.” Korman is the hilariously Yiddish-inflected Marcus, Conway The Oldest Man. (AP Photo/CBS)

Tim Conway, 85.
The Carol Burnett Show didn’t really need Tim Conway; it was funny enough already, and a much more devastating blow than Conway’s never being on it would have been the loss of Harvey Korman (as time eventually proved) or even Vicki Lawrence. But Conway, in his recurring guest appearances, gave the series some of its funniest, and most memorable moments… particularly when the rest of the cast was reacting to him on-camera. What most civilians didn’t know (a friend and fellow young actor complained to me when we were both 12 that the people on the Burnett show were “unprofessional”!) was that Conway, like Nancy Walker, merely walked through rehearsals; what we were seeing on the air the cast was also seeing for the first time. And while his actions were certainly devious, and perhaps a little sadistic, the break-ups became part of the shtick of the show. My father used to relish the way Conway broke Korman up, and he wasn’t alone; their double-act became one the classic running-gags of 1970s American television. In addition to his Oldest Man character, which he’d performed in his nightclub act with Ernie Anderson Conway also contributed to the show his phlegmatic Swedish businessman Mr. Tudball (a character he created), forever battling Burnett as his inept secretary Mrs. “A-Wiggins” and once, in the soap spoof “As the Stomach Turns,” had a memorable slow-motion fall down a staircase. (Conway always knew exactly how, and where, to put the button on any physical gag.) He also, infamously, got broken up himself by Lawrence during one of his elongated, un-scripted interpolations, an agonizingly pointless anecdote about a “Siamese elephant.” As with Jonathan Winters, whom in his improvisational genius Conway in some ways resembled, his gifts were never fully employed, or appreciated, in his movie work, although he developed a third double-act on-screen, this time with Don Knotts. Those pictures are variable, but Conway’s work on the Burnett show is evergreen and, quite literally, peerless. There was no one like him.

Sylvia Miles, 94.
Brash personality more than actor, Miles was a hard-edged Sally Rogers in the Carl Reiner pilot Head of the Family which eventually became (with, blessedly, Rose Marie in the role) The Dick Van Dyke Show. She won the first of her two Oscar® nominations as a kept woman who ends up taking not sex but money from Jon Voight’s Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and her second for her boozy, blowsy loser in Farewell, My Lovely (1975). Miles famously dropped a salad into the lap of the critic John Simon, a comestible that grew to become all manner of hefty dishes in her retelling. Miles also starred, with Joe Dallesandro, in Andy Warhol’s 1972 Sunset Boulevard spoof Heat. Didn’t Warhol get that Sunset Boulveard was a black comedy to begin with?

Max Wright, 75.
An idiosyncratic and often very funny character actor (Reds, Simon, All That Jazz) Wright found his greatest fame in the aggressively stupid alien-puppet situation comedy ALF, and is now associated solely with tabloid sleaze-stories about his addictions and sexual encounters with homeless men. Sigh.

Arte Johnson, 90.

Arte Johnson and Ruth Buzzi

Tyrone F. Horneigh (Arte Johnson) and Gladys Ormphby (Ruth Buzzi) in their accustomed spot on Laugh-In.

Remembered almost solely for his run on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where he introduced such indelible characters as a German soldier who seems not to have noticed that the War had ended years earlier (“Very interesting…”) and Tyrone F. Horneigh (pronounced, in a sop to the era’s network standards and practices, as “Horn-eye”), the degenerate old man who plunked himself down on the park bench occupied by his unwilling inamorata Gladys Ormphby (Ruth Buzzi), rasped indecent nothings to her, and was rewarded by a smack with her handbag, eventually toppling off the bench while intoning some dopey “punch”-line. It was a predictable, one-joke running-gag… and, especially if you were an 8-or 9-year old as I was, a very funny one; the only Laugh-In character I imitated as often as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine was Johnson’s Tyrone.

Freddie Jones, 91.
Onstage Jones was the originator of “Sir” in Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser, and while he appeared in movies as divergent as Marat/Sade and Far from the Madding Crowd (both 1967), The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom (1968), Harry Nilsson’s Son of Dracula (1973), Juggernaut (1974), the delightful John Cleese/Chekhov short film Romance with a Double Bass (1975), Ladies in Lavender (2004) and seemingly countless British films and television series, he stays most vivid in the theatre of my mind as the abusive, terrifying ringmaster of the 1980 The Elephant Man.

Maude - Arthur and Macy

Bill Macy, 97.
God finally got you for that, Walter.

Rip Torn, 88.
Famously widowed by Geraldine Page (the bell on their New York apartment read “Torn Page”) and older cousin to Sissy Spacek, Torn once attacked Norman Mailer with a hammer (well, which of us at one time or another wouldn’t have liked to?), allegedly pulled a knife on Dennis Hopper (again, who didn’t want to?) and was a notable drunk. And while he appeared in prominent or supporting roles in movies such as Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), Tropic of Cancer (1969, as Henry Miller), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Nasty Habits (1977), Coma (1978), The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1969), Cross Creek (1983, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award®), Men in Black (1997) and Wonder Boys (2000) he was infinitely less interesting an actor than his wife and cousin. Machismo is a fucking bore.

David Hedison, 92.

Live and Let Die - Hedison and Moore resized

Live and Let Die: When David Hedison’s voice emerges from an automobile accessory, Roger Moore’s James Bond observes, “A Felix lighter.”

Immortal in some circles as The Fly (1958), Hedison was the most congenial of Felix Leiters, twice: Live and Let Die in 1973 and License to Kill (1989) in which he first married, then suffered the fate Ian Fleming devised for the character in the novel Live and Let Die. (“He disagreed with something that ate him.”)

Russi Taylor, 75.
The curse of having the longest-running animated series in television history is that over time your voice actors tend to die. Taylor was a Simpsons stalwart from the beginning, providing the voices for the twins Sherri and Terri, the German exchange student Üter and the conniving nerd Martin Prince.

Fonda family

The Fondas: One of the creepiest family snapshots in post-war Americana. Everyone (except Jane) is pointedly not looking at anyone else, and she will spend the rest of her life trying to please Daddy by repeatedly marrying him.

Peter Fonda, 79.
The less-talented of Henry’s children, Peter enjoyed his greatest success with the appallingly overrated Easy Rider in 1969, in which, as co-scenarist and co-star of this annoying, pretentious, self-indulgent mess, he bore much responsibility for the subsequent inundation of numbingly bad “youthquake” movies that washed up on shore in its wake. Considering the profoundly dysfunctional family from which he sprang, I am unsurprised to have discovered that Fonda, enraged at President Trump’s immigration policies (very little different from Obama’s) Tweeted that, “We should rip Barron Trump from the arms of First Lady Melania Trump and put him in a cage with pedophiles.” (He also “suggested that Americans should seek out names of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in order to protest outside of their homes and the schools of their children.” – Lisa Gutierrez, The Kansas City Star) Thus was Fonda a typical liberal, trumpeting his concern for others while wishing harassment and rape on minors. Imagine his outrage had anyone suggested such things about the Obama daughters, or the children of Obama’s officials. But then, I guess the children of prominent figures are only off-limits if their parents are perceived as liberals. On the subject of Millennials voting, to parents concerned their children might cast a vote for Trump, Fonda’s advice was to “take their early ballots, fill them out [emphasis mine] and mail them in, or take the ballot to the voting place and give it to the officials… no more worrying!” I think we can easily imagine his reaction had his father suggested such a thing in, say, 1968. But as I’ve often said (and tire of having to say): Scratch a liberal, find a fascist. (Thanks to Eliot M. Camarena for Fonda’s Tweet advocating paternal voter-fraud.)

Anna Quayle, 86.
Warmly recalled by musical aficionados for her Tony® award-winning performance in the Newley/Bricusse Stop the World — I Want to Get Off, Quayle was also the women with whom John Lennon has a funny dalliance on the stairs in A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the child-hating Baroness in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and as the maid of Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).

Valerie Harper, 80.

Rhoda - Kavner, Harper and Walker

The Morgensterns of Rhoda: Find the Gentile. (Hint: There are two of them.) Nice Hanukkah decorations, by the way. Love that menorah.

Adults of (ahem!) a certain age will vividly recall their first glimpse of Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern, washing the windows of the Minneapolis apartment she thought was going to be hers on the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970 and memorably sparring for the next seven years with Cloris Leachman’s Phyllis Lindstrom. Her subsequent spin-off, Rhoda made her, arguably, the most famous Jew on television, but Harper was a Gentile. (So — and please brace yourself—was Nancy Walker.) Although Rhoda was never as good, or as respected, as the show that spawned it, it was sometimes gut-bustingly funny (it helped if you relished Jewish humor, which I did, and do) and Rhoda’s wedding was the highest-rated television episode of the ‘70s before Roots.

Carol Lynley, 77.
Lynley, who was strikingly pretty, had a tendency to extreme emotionality (Bunny Lake Is Missing, The Poseidon Adventure) but in the right role (as Darren McGavin’s grounded girlfriend in the 1972 television movie The Night Stalker for example) she could be quite engaging.

Phyllis Newman and Adolph Green

Phyllis Newman, 86.
Newman won a Tony® for her comedic role in the Jule Styne/ Betty Comden and Adolph Green musical Subways Are for Sleeping, a spread in LIFE magazine, and Green’s undying love. (They married soon after and were together until his death.) Newman’s character appeared in a nothing but a towel the entire evening, and her 4-minute solo “I Was a Shoo-Inwas a comic goldmine. I also cherish the way she introduced “Who’s That Woman?” in the 1986 concert version of Follies; when Newman says, “If I do this number… we all do this number!” there can be no argument.

Dihann Carrol - Julia resized

Julia: Dihann Carroll with Marc Copage as her son.

Diahann Carroll, 84.
The first black performer to win a Tony® for Best Actress (Richard Rodgers’ No Strings, 1962) Carroll was also in the movies of Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959) and had the lead in the Broadway musical House of Flowers whose rich Harold Arlen/Truman Capote score included the exquisite ballad “A Sleepin’ Bee.” From 1968-1973 she was the young widowed mother Julia for NBC, often cited as the first non-stereotyped black woman on television. (Although Carroll herself said Julia was “the white Negro.”) But it was a sweet series, often poignant and sometimes very funny, as in this exchange between Julia and her new employer (Lloyd Nolan as what Harlan Ellison would have called “a crusty-but-lovable doctor”), with whom she has been placed by an agency:

Julia: Did they tell you I’m colored?
Dr. Chegley: What color are you?
Julia: Why, I’m Negro.
Dr. Chegley: Have you always been a Negro, or are you just trying to be fashionable?

Rip Taylor

Rip Taylor, 88.
Two Rips loosed in one year! Taylor’s shtick — the toupee, the flamboyant (read, “screaming queen”) persona, the confetti — was so over the top you either roared, or rolled your eyes and switched channels. I often roared.

Michael J. Pollard, 80.
From Bye Bye Birdie on stage to Bonnie and Clyde on screen is quite a leap, and while Pollard lacked the physical attributes ever to become a star, he was always engaging, even when, as in Bonnie, he was practically a moron. (While Beatty infamously vetoed the manage David Newman and Robert Benton wrote into their Bonnie script, which would have involved Pollard, had his objection been aesthetic rather than cowardly I wouldn’t have blamed him.) Pollard later had a charming role in Steve Martin’s 1987 Roxanne and an unexpectedly moving one in Scrooged (1988).

Joan Staley, 79.
A model and an actor, Staley will always occupy a warm chamber of my heart for her delightful performance opposite Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

Philip McKeon. 55.
McKeon replaced Alfred Lutter after the pilot as the son in television’s Alice, weirdly spun from the far superior movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I include him largely because he was never spoken of as being involved with a woman and also never declared himself one way or another, for which some smug fool on Pinterest praised him for “keeping [his private life] where it belongs.” Hey, buddy — would you still say that had McKeon posed for photos with a wife and children?

Ron Leibman, 82.

Ron Leibman and Sally Field - Norma Rae

The fish he wanted to hook: Ron Leibman and Sally Field in Norma Rae.

Leibman was the very definition of a working actor in America. He divided his time between stage, movies and television, racking up an array of marvelous, buoyant performances in each: The Hot Rock (1972), superb as the union organizer Reuben in Norma Rae (1979), breaking his wrist while making a typically vehement point as the D.A. in Night Falls on Manhattan (1996); racking up an Emmy® in the title role of the short-lived Kaz (1978-79); playing Kilroy in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real in 1959 and appearing in productions of A View from the Bridge, Dead End, The Deputy, Uncle Vanya (as Astrov), Beckett’s End Game (as Clov), Volpone, The Three Sisters, We Bombed in New Haven, Richard III (as Richard), I Ought to Be in Pictures, Tartuffe (in the title role, naturally), Neil Simon’s Rumors, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (as Roy Cohn, a performance that yielded him a Tony®), Angels in America: Perestroika, The Merchant of Venice (as Shylock) and Kushner’s version of A Dybbuk. His zest for acting was obvious, and infectious, and only once (in the 1974 The Super Cops) have I seen him give a bad performance. But since the picture itself was conceived and executed as a cartoon, Leibman’s overacting was of a piece with the rest.

René Auberjonois MASH resized

René Auberjonois, 79.
A year before his sweetly ineffectual Father Francis “Dago Red” Mulcahy in MASH, Auberjonois was camping up a storm on Broadway as Katharine Hepburn’s gay rival Sebastian in the Alan Jay Lerner/Andre Previn Coco, singing the vicious satirical tango “Fiasco” and winning a Tony® in the process. He went on to perform in three additional pictures for Robert Altman: 1970’s Brewster McCloud, in which he played a lecturer who slowly evolves into a giant bird, the glorious McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Images (1972). He did more television than movies (Benson, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and I also remember him as a robust swashbuckler in a 1976 TV movie called Panache, which, being an inveterate fan of Cryano de Bergerac and Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers movies, I had to watch. On Broadway he was Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1972), The Good Doctor, Neil Simon’s 1973 adaptation of several short Chekhov plays; the Duke in Roger Miller’s Huckleberry Finn musical Big River (1984), the 2004 revival of Larry Gelbart’s Sly Fox and, in the Cy Coleman musical City of Angels (1989) had a veritable field day with Gelbart’s trademark mixed metaphors and David Zippel’s too-clever-by-half lyrics. In 1987 Auberjonois gave perfect voice to the rapacious, Inspector Clouseau-like French chef in The Little Mermaid (1987), gleefully singing, in the best Folies Bergère style, Howard Ashman’s delicious lyric “Les Poissons.”

Carrol Spinney cropped

Carol Spinney. 85.
The once and future Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Danny Aiello, 86.

Do the Right Thing - Lee, Aiello
Aiello’s stardom, such as it was and for as long as it lasted, came late: He was for years a union rep for bus workers, and a bouncer at The Improv, before being cast in Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) and as Tony Rosato in The Godfather Part II (1974), in which he ad-libbed the line, “Michael Corleone says hello!” during the failed hit on Michael V. Gazzo’s Frank Pentangeli. He was a frightening racist cop in the excellent Fort Apache — The Bronx (1981), Mia Farrow’s abusive husband in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1085) and Cher’s hapless, mother-ridden fiancée in Moonstruck (1987). His best work on film, and his most prominent role, was as the pizzeria owner Sal in Spike Lee’s literally incendiary Do the Right Thing (1989). An essentially decent man, Sal is too hidebound to budge even slightly. It’s his pizza shop; why should he accommodate his black patrons… even though they’re pretty much the only ones he has? Sal’s tragedy is that he could have easily prevented the conflagration that explodes in the movie’s gripping last act, but didn’t know how to integrate his Italian pride with a responsibility to the neighborhood in which he makes his living.

Sue (née Suellyn) Lyon, 73.
Lolita - 1962
Lyons became an overnight pop icon in 1962 as Lolita in the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of Nabokov’s book, itself wildly controversial when it was published in 1955. Lyon’s casting was, one presumes, a compromise: Too advanced in age and too developed physically at 14 to really represent the 12-year old “Lo” of the novel (she looked at least 16, and yes, those two year jumps matter) Lyons took some of the heat off the filkmmakers — but she also turned in an exceptional performance opposite James Mason’s peerless Humbert Humbert. Two years later she was the lubricious teenager in love with Richard Burton’s defrocked minister in the superb John Huston movie of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana in which among other things she had a strange, wonderful scene, suggested by Williams, in which the pair walk on broken glass in their bare feet. She was very good as a missionary in China in John Ford’s final picture, the underrated 7 Women (1966) and had leading roles in The Flim-Flam Man and Tony Rome in 1967. Aside from her beauty, which was obvious, she brought a sharp intelligence to everything she did. Whenever I see Carol Lynley in a movie I mentally re-cast her role with Lyons; it improves whatever I’m watching by at least 25 per cent. Lyons’ final acting role was in 1980. Her loss was the audience’s as well.


II. Theatre

Harold Prince, 91. The last of the great, visionary super-dirctors of the American musical theatre, the man who put together such shows as Cabaret, Company and Follies the way a great playwright does.

Betty Corwin, 98.
Corwin’s was not a name known outside New York, or theatre and library circles (or New York theatre and library circles) but anyone who cares about plays and musicals should give her a tip of the hat. It was her idea to create archival video records of the offerings on and Off-Broadway, and to house them in a special collection (Theatre Film and Tape Archive) at the New York Library for the Performing Arts. And while these are obviously not the flashier, and more professional, two-and-three camera affairs later developed for PBS programs such as Theatre in America (remember when PBS actually cared about theatre? Remember when PBS cared about anything other than money?) they are a treasure-house nonetheless. How else would you be able to see a video tape of the original Follies, or A Chorus Line? Bless you, Betty.

Beyond the Fringe - So That's the Way You Like it

Beyond the Fringe: The Shakespeare parody “So That’s the Way You Like it.” Miller with Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore.

Sir Jonathan Miller, 85.
Hearing that anyone has dementia or has died of Alzheimer’s is depressing, but especially so when the person in question has lived a life of the mind. Miller was such a polymath his theatrical career is almost the least of his interests, and achievements. Miller began as a member of Beyond the Fringe, all of whom became important figures in theatre and movies and British comedy, particularly the actor/playwright Alan Bennett. He was also a physician, a theatrical director (the agonizing Merchant of Venice with Olivier was his) and an author. For 40 years I have treasured his Fringe monologue “The Heat Death of the Universe” with its immortal last line: Turn your face to the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen… trot by.



*
Channing could also be a beast. I strongly suspect what she put Mary Martin and James Kirkwood through during rehearsals and road-tour for the latter’s comedy Legends! hastened his death by heart attack two years later. (And that’s not to mention Martin’s increasing deafness or her justifiable fury at her character’s monologue about breast cancer being cut by the producer, which caused her to back out of an eventual Broadway production, killing the show’s chances. See Kirkwood’s Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road with Mary Martin and Carol Channing.)

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Quarterly Report: October – December 2019

Standard

By Scott Ross

Note: For fuller reviews of some of the movies below, click on the highlighted titles.

Hound of the Baskervilles - Richardson, Churchill

The Sign of Four / The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983) A pair of Sherlock Holmes adaptations by Charles Edward Pogue for British television starring the irreplaceable Ian Richardson which, while not precisely faithful to Conan Doyle, are rich in atmosphere and, in Richardson, boast perhaps the finest Holmes before Jeremy Brett sealed the franchise.


Underworld U.S.A. - Dolores Dorn, Robertson

Underworld U.S.A. (1961) Mediocre Samuel Fuller is still worth watching, although we might have expected better of a former ace crime reporter than this half-baked yarn concerning revenge served at freezing temperature. But then, the picture dates from an uncertain period for Fuller, the years wherein he meandered between the sting of House of Bamboo (1955) and Forty Guns (1957) and the astonishment of Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). Most of the Fuller pictures from that time are curios, quasi-successful but tamer affairs than those that came before. This one, suggested by some Saturday Evening Post pieces by Joseph F. Dinneen, has its moments but the plot isn’t feasible in the slightest, the romance seems shoe-horned in, and I don’t buy Cliff Robertson as a hardened criminal for a moment. (But then, I don’t buy Robertson as pretty much anything.) Much better are Beatrice Kay as his surrogate mother, David Kent as his adolescent self, Dolores Dorn as his would-be paramour, Larry Gates as the cop-turned-D.A. who’d like to nail the mobsters and set Robertson straight, and Richard Rust as a smiling, sweet-faced sadist who seems to literally seduce Robertson into the mob; their initial meetings feel like an extended courtship dance.

Despite some beautiful set-ups (the cinematographer was Hal Mohr) and a few effective scenes, Underworld USA ultimately has too many sequences like Rust’s running-down of a little girl on her bicycle: Fuller doesn’t show the killing, only the child’s mother calling to her from an upstairs window and the girl (Joni Beth Morris) looking back just before impact. Instead of enhancing the horror, these rather studied choices diminish it; they’re like the worst of Hitchcock — which is bad enough only a fool would emulate it. Like Verboten!, Run of the Arrow, The Crimson Kimono, Hell and High Water and Merrill’s Marauders, Underworld USA is less a good movie than a collection of some good scenes in search of a better place to go.


Scorpio - Scofield

Scorpio (1973) An avis of increasing rarity, the intelligent thriller, anchored by the performances of Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and the magnificent Paul Scofield.


The Maltese Falcon - The stuff that dreams are made of

The Maltese Falcon (1941) John Huston’s extraordinary debut as a writer/director, a masterpiece of detective fiction featuring Humphrey Bogart’s breakthrough performance as Sam Spade.


The Man Who Would Be King - Caine, Plummer, Connery

The Man Who Would Be King (1975) Another of John Huston’s group quests toward ultimate failure, a tangy adaptation of Kipling with a superb trio of leading players in Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer.


A Study in Terror - John Neville and Donald Huston

A Study in Terror (1965) A clever, if implausible, mating of Sherlock Holmes with the Jack the Ripper mythos, which isn’t a patch on the later Murder by Decree (1978) but which boasts an excellent Holmes in the person of the classical actor John Neville, later immortalized as Baron Munchausen by Terry Gilliam. Donald Houston is a good Watson, the splendid Anthony Quayle an excellent Doctor Murray, Frank Finlay in a part he reprised in Murder by Decree is an intelligent(!) Lestrade, and it’s fascinating to see a very young Judi Dench in a pivotal role. The boxer Terry Downes has a sexy, and surprisingly well acted, cameo role, and John Scott composed an effective score which, even when it brings in bongo drums(!!) does so in a way that feels wholly appropriate.

The cinematography by Desmond Dickinson is a bit on the bland side, period television color where chiaroscuro was called for, and James Hill’s direction, while brisk and effective, lacks the sick-making horror the subject demands. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the movie is Georgia Brown, the original Nancy of the musical Oliver!, whose warm whiskey-contralto has long been a favored sound in my home. She shows up twice, as a pub singer in Whitechapel (presumably on the basis of her performance of the Lionel Bart song “Oom-Pah-Pah” in Oliver!) and if you only listen, she’s perfect. Her face, alas, explains why others got to play her stage roles in movies. She grew into her looks eventually and became a handsome older woman, but in 1966 hers was not the type of physiognomy guaranteed to queue up the paying customers.


The Life of Emile Zola - Paul Muni and Vladimir Sokoloff

The Life of Émile Zola (1937) I first encountered this all-too-typical Warner Bros. biopic on television in my early adolescence, and all I really remembered was the material dealing with Captain Dreyfus. Seeing it again, now, I understand why: It’s one of the few inherently dramatic portions of the narrative. While the picture’s Dreyfuss (Joseph Schildkraut) was whitewashed — it was his arrogance of personality as much as the fact of his Jewishness that precipitated his false arrest and cynical imprisonment — and the anti-Semitism downplayed, at least the subsequent trial of Zola for J’Accuse has spark, courtesy in part of Donald Crisp as the outraged attorney Labori. Those who have complained that the scapegoating of Dreyfus in the picture is depicted as entirely devoid of religious bigotry have apparently never noticed (and I admit it is fast) the juxtaposition of the insert-shot of the Captain’s file reading, “Religion: Jewish” with Harry Davenport’s line damning him as, of two suspects, the man to charge with treason. The implication is entirely obvious. But what can be expected of people who for decades have sung hosannas to Paul Muni’s unconscionably hammy performance as Zola? His constant shameless mugging for the camera indicates a self-regard so thorough an audience has little need to bother; he clearly thinks he’s adorable enough, why should we make it redundant?

L’affaire Dreyfus eats up so much screen time — and at that omits the role of Alfred’s older brother, promoting the idea that it was his wife who most successfully pressed the case for his innocence — that it would have made more sense to focus on it entirely rather than to attempt squeezing in the rest of Zola’s biography, and with such brevity; his early decades here are a whirl-wind of narrative cliché and the people (his wife, Alexandrine, played by Gloria Holden; Morris Carnovsky’s Anatole France; Grant Mitchell’s Clemenceau; and Vladimir Sokoloff’s Cézanne) are little more than names and attitudes. That it took no fewer than three scenarists (Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg and Norman Reilly Raine) to bake the thin crust upon which the insufficient filling of this movie rests says something… although just what, I couldn’t say. Gale Sondergaard struggles valiantly with the underwritten role of Lucie Dreyfus and at least retains her dignity, but Schildkraut (who, rather unbelievably, won an Oscar® for this) is reduced to little more than periodically screaming, “I’m innocent! I’m innocent!” He does get one nice scene, however, when, freed at last after a decade on Devil’s Island he repeatedly hits the open doorway inviting him back to the outside world, turns, and retreats to his hated cell; in that moment you know everything you need to about the learned behavior of prisoners. The picture’s director, William Dieterle, does what he can with the material, and it is at least a very brisk movie, with very few longueurs despite its 116-minute running-time. Tony Gaudio’s black-and-white cinematography is rich, and beautifully lit; on the big screen in 1937 it must have seemed luminous.


Unforgiven - Clint Eastwood, Jaimz Woolvett

Unforgiven (1992) Clint Eastwood’s award-winning Western, a beautiful, even poetic, rumination on the cost of killing.


MBDLAPI EC004

The Last Picture Show (1971) The damn near perfect adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s suberb coming-of-age novel by McMurtry and the director Peter Bogdanovich.


Big Jake - Boone

Big Jake (1971) Enjoyable late-period John Wayne, with an intelligent script and a savory performance by Richard Boone as the story’s mercenary central miscreant.


somethingwicked_coverimage

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) A badly muddled misfire purportedly adapted from Ray Bradbury’s magical literary fantasy.


California Split - Altman

California Split (1974) Robert Altman’s first feature utilizing the 8-track recording system that made Nashville possible, a genial character study of two degenerate gamblers played charmingly by George Segal and Elliott Gould.


Scarecrow-of-romney-marsh-feat-10

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh  (1963) An atmospheric and intelligent rendition, from Walt Disney, of Russell Thorndyke’s 18th century rogue Dr. Syn starring a splendid Patrick McGoohan.


targets-7

Targets (1967/1968) Peter Bogdanovich’s extraordinary, disturbing first feature as a writer-director anatomizing both the sick state of Hollywood and the weird anomie of a serial killer is all too relevant to 21st century America.


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - Mason, Lorre, Douglas and Henried resized

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Walt Disney’s first movie to be filmed in CinemaScope — it was also in 4-track stereo —  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was at the time one of the most expensive Hollywood productions ever attempted (between $5 and $9 million, imagine) and had it flopped would have been disastrous to the studio. The picture turned out so well it was one of the two top-grossers of its year, earning $28 million in 1954. And if it is less than absolutely ideal, especially in its confusingly British-Christian characterization of Jules Verne’s Sikh Captain Nemo, the movie is technically almost without a flaw, beautifully designed and shot, lengthy but involving, with literally marvelous art and set decoration (Peter Ellenshaw contributed some typically beautiful matte paintings)* and a splendid quartet of above-the-title actors. It’s the perfect Boy’s Adventure movie: Rich color photography by Franz Planer (his underwater and day-for-night effects are especially pleasing), an exciting score by Paul J. Smith, assured direction by Richard Fleischer, and an intelligent, often witty, adapted screenplay by Earl Felton that combine to form an exceptionally enjoyable night’s entertainment and in which human conflict, interior as well as exterior, are not elided.

Aside from the presence of the seal Sophie (that she needed water we never see her enter or exit from is evident from her shiny and obviously moistened skin) and the now-questionable “humor” of black cannibals getting zapped by Nemo’s protective electricity (why was it considered funny then?) the humor is refreshingly adult and mostly supplied by Kirk Douglas as the harpoonist Ned Land and Peter Lorre as Paul Henried’s assistant. Douglas also gets to sing a nifty ditty by Al Hoffman and Norman Gimbel called “A Whale of a Tale” which becomes one of the movie’s leitmotifs and makes a nice, belated compensation for his having left, in 1944, the original cast of On the Town, where he had the lead. James Mason is so good as Nemo you forgive Disney for messing with the original. That superb light baritone of Mason’s, combined with his elliptical speech patterns and highly idiosyncratic line readings, make him commanding, tragic and ironic at once.

The special effects, all of course in those days done by hand, are deeply impressive even now, with only one or two indifferent rear-screen bits muffing the whole. Walt produced this one himself, and his acumen shows: When the fight with the giant squid, originally shot against a red sunset on a static sea, both proved lifeless and revealed too many of the technicians’ wires, Disney suggested they re-shoot it at night, and during a storm at sea. It made all the difference; overnight, as it were, a poor sequence became a classic.

* The picture won Oscars® for Best Art Direction – Color (John Meehan, Emile Kuri) and Best Special Effects (John Hench, Joshua Meador), although according to Wikipedia, “the movie’s primary art designer, Harper Goff, who designed the Nautilus, was not a member of the Art Directors Union in 1954 and therefore, under a bylaw within the Academy of Motion Pictures… was unable to receive his Academy Award for Art Direction.”


The Adventures of S Holmes - Rathbone and Zucco

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) 20th Century Fox’s immediate follow-up to its The Hound of the Baskervilles, released earlier in 1939, proves what a fluke the studio’s first Holmes picture was. Allegedly based on the William Gillette play, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes bears no resemblance to it, nor to the 1916 movie in which Gillette himself starred. Although the movie has a fine, foggy atmosphere — Leon Shamroy was the cinematographer — the narrative is asinine, and even insulting; two of Holmes’ typical lines are, “Whatever Watson has found out, you’ll know inevitably. I have unbounded confidence in his lack of discretion” and (to Nigel Bruce as the Doctor) “I’m afraid you’re an incorrigible bungler.” It concerns the machinations of a bearded(!) Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) to humiliate Holmes, by whom he is eventually thrown off the Tower of London(!!) and Zucco has a high old time of it, all but baring his fangs and gnashing his teeth. In the supporting cast, Terry Kilburn is a good Billy, Mary Forbes charming as a matron, Anthony Kemble-Cooper has a nice turn as a gentle upper-class twit avant la lettre, and Basil Rathbone has an enjoyable bit in disguise as a music hall entertainer. But Ida Lupino is wasted as the damsel in distress and the picture is both lumpy and formless. The director of this flavorless mélange was someone named Alfred L. Werker; this was probably his only well-remembered movie. Nowhere in the credits of the picture will you see the name of Arthur Conan Doyle… for which omission I presume his heirs were duly grateful.


HealtH lobby card resized

HealtH (1979/1982) An often very amusing political satire directed by Robert Altman involving the race for president of a health convention. It’s an allegory about Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, with Lauren Bacall as a narcoleptic 83-year old virgin (Ike) and Glenda Jackson as a prating intellectual (Stevenson) who talks, dryly and utterly without emotion, through everything and everyone. Paul Dooley is an obnoxious hypocrite of a third-party candidate who is a mass of prejudices and whose shtick is holding his breath under water, Carol Burnett is very funny as a representative of the President — since the picture was filmed in 1979, presumably Jimmy Carter — and James Garner is only slightly less so as her estranged husband, working for Bacall. Donald Moffat shows up in a sinister performance as Bacall’s frightening brother; Henry Gibson is a political operative whose first sequence in drag as an old woman is so convincing you almost wonder who that interesting actress is; Diane Stilwell is Jackson’s secretary who can’t type and who has supplied Jackson with a portable tape recorder, with which she is pretty obviously in love; MacIntyre Dixon is marvelous as the convention manager; Alfre Woodard is the hotel’s determinedly sunny convention representative vexed by this unmanageable collection of loons; Ann Ryerson is Bacall’s physician who lacks the ability to enjoy sex; the singing group The Steinettes appear throughout the movie, singing brightly and inanely at every conceivable opportunity; and Dick Cavett plays himself, vainly attempting to interview Bacall and Jackson and perennially frustrated by Bacall’s unexpected sleeping fits (if that isn’t an oxymoron.) Altman and Dooley wrote the sharp screenplay with Frank Barhydt, and it’s a relaxed, cheery, sometimes hilarious ensemble comedy. Why any of the people involved thought that a satire on Eisenhower and Stevenson was relevant to anything, or anyone, in 1979 remains a mystery, but everyone in the picture is terrific with the notable exception of Bacall. We watch her thinking we know she was famous for something once, but from her performance we can’t recall just what; after 1966 she always seemed to be playing the paralyzed rich-bitch from Harper — she’d become all surface, the grande dame in her element. What the hell happened to that woman? She was better at 19, when she knew almost nothing about acting.


Matewan - Chris Cooper

Matewan (1988) John Sayles’ magnificent evocation of a violent, largely forgotten incident of the 1920s involving West Virginia miners arrayed against vicious coal industry gun-thugs.


Casualties of War - Fox, Thuy Thu Le and Penn

Casualties of War (1989) A deeply unsettling examination of an American atrocity in Vietnam directed by Brian De Palma which is best when it sticks to the facts but is never less than compelling even when it’s embracing war movie clichés that would have embarrassed John Wayne.


Little Drummer Girl - Kinski, Keaton

The Little Drummer Girl (1984) This surprisingly good attempt by the screenwriter Loring Mandel and the stylish journeyman director George Roy Hill at condensing one of John Le Carré’s large, complex thrillers is compromised but, curiously, not undone, by its central miscasting. With her signature red hair and championing of Palestinian rights, the actress Charlie in the novel was obviously meant to remind readers of Vanessa Redgrave. Unlike Redgrave (or Diane Keaton, the Charlie of the movie) it was central to the Le Carré novel that Charlie was young, in her early 20s, passionate but unformed, and not nearly as worldly, or as informed, as she thinks she is. Likewise, casting Yorgo Voyagis, Keaton’s junior by a year, as the Israeli agent who seduces Charlie into falling in love with him while seeming to put her off (and who becomes her guide and instructor in the elaborate “theatre of the real” the actress is enticed into against a Palestinian bomb-maker) rather than a distinguished, reticent, aging actor of the time — Paul Scofield might have been ideal, or even Dirk Bogarde or Alan Bates — eliminates Charlie’s obvious father-fixation. These rather essential cavils aside, Keaton is excellent as Charlie, locating both her anger and her pain, although I don’t believe for a minute an American would be headlining a small British theatre troupe. Unlike Keaton, Klaus Kinski is an almost perfect casting choice for Kurtz, whose complicated scheme keeps Charlie, and the audience, in the dark until the climax; Kinski absolutely gets the Israeli agent’s bonhomie, his middle-aged charm and his deadly seriousness. Like the book, the movie is highly ambivalent about Zionism even as it largely accepts the more than dubious notion that violence is the proper response to terror. The strong supporting cast includes Sami Frey, Michael Cristofer, Eli Danker, Philipp Moog, Anna Massey, Thorley Walters and David Suchet. My only complaint about the production design is the truly terrible coat Keaton is forced to wear through much of the picture. She can’t carry it off, but I can’t imagine the woman who could. Such is Le Carré’s brilliance that Charlie’s last line, slightly altered from the novel, has stayed with me since I saw this one 35 years ago.


Thieves Like Us resized

Thieves Like Us (1974) As Pauline Kael once suggested of him, Robert Altman made two bad movies for every good one, and in-between another that was essentially lousy but with enough good, or even great, moments in it to sustain your interest. Examples of this last include The Long Goodbye, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Short Cuts, Gosford Park… and Thieves Like Us; it has some splendid things in it, and is beautifully cast, and shot. But it’s both elliptical and repetitive in weird and off-putting ways, and you sit there wondering what you’ve missed when you haven’t missed a thing. In the sequence in which the movie’s young central characters Bowie (Keith Carradine) and Keechie (Shelley Duvall) make love for the first time while listening to a radio broadcast of Romeo and Juliet, for example, and we hear the same between-act announcement from the narrator at three separate intervals, we don’t know what it means. Is the sequence a fantasy of Keechie’s or Bowie’s? Is one scene real and the other two fantastic? But because they don’t seem to be anything other than what they appear to be — sequential moments broken up in the cutting — nothing about these scenes really supports that hypothesis. So why did Altman choose to disorient us at this important juncture? Why, for that matter, is there a discussion between Carradine, Bert Remsen and Ann Latham in which it seems Bowie and Keechie have become notorious Bonnie and Clyde figures, their doings reported in the newspapers, when we have seen no such thing? It feels as though there’s a reel missing, or at least a few scenes. Speaking of which, why is Remsen’s violent death only spoken about, in a radio news story, and not seen? The omission feels like narrative cheapness. Kael said of Thieves Like Us that it was, “the closest to flawless of Altman’s films — a masterpiece.” What movie did she see?

The picture was shot on location in Mississippi, which Altman was told was “the asshole of America” but which he and his French cinematographer Jean Boffety found beautiful, and their fondness for the place and the people shows; the look of the movie is almost like a living Impressionist painting. The excellent cast includes John Shuck, Louise Fletcher, Al Scott, Tom Skerritt and Joan Tewkesbury, who also collaborated with Altman on the script and would write Nashville for him (she’s the woman at the train station Duvall talks to at the end). Calder Willingham also worked on the screenplay, based on the 1937 Edward Anderson novel which originally provided the basis for the 1950 They Live by Night, directed by Nicholas Ray.


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Three Days of the Condor (1975) Although Three Days of the Condor rather needlessly complicates the novelist James Grady’s original plot, there are some real compensations, not least of which is intelligence.


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The Thief and the Cobbler (1993/2013) Richard Williams’ astonishing animated Arabian Nights feature, still incomplete but reconstructed by Garrett Gilchrist in his Recobbled Cut Mark 4.


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The Great Train Robbery (1978) Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery (known in Britain as The First Great Train Robbery, to distinguish its action in the minds of potential ticket-buyers from the much more contemporaneous, and well-remembered, “Great Train Robbery” of 1963) is one of those richly appointed, beautifully shot and wonderfully cast entertainments that make for a wry, exciting evening’s amusement as long as you know that, while depicting on an actual incident, the picture is largely fictional and should be taken as such. Based on the 1855 theft of gold from a moving train, and on the writer/director’s own novel, the picture is a cheery, funny escapade with some sharp digs at the British upper class, and glorious production design that puts you absolutely in Victorian era London (although it was shot largely in Ireland.) Sean Connery is the ersatz nobleman of dubious means, suave but dangerous, who plans and executes the theft; Lesley-Anne Down is his actress lover who proves useful in a number of necessary diversions; Donald Sutherland, often hilarious, is the safe-cracker; and Wayne Sleep is the ill-fated criminal acrobat who runs afoul of Connery.

Crichton’s direction is elegant and wonderfully paced; he seems always to know exactly where to place the camera. Jerry Goldsmith composed one of his most distinctive scores for the picture, anchored to a charming waltz he then transforms into variants: Slowed down it evokes the atmosphere of London’s mean streets, simplified it becomes a romantic guitar accompaniment for Connery and Down’s bedroom scenes and sped up it’s rousing background music for the robbery. One of the movie’s great pleasures is the lush widescreen color cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth, to whom Crichton dedicated it. A painter with light, Unsworth shot some of the most sumptuous looking movies of the 1960s and ‘70s: Becket (1964), the Olivier Othello (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Olivier’s Three Sisters (1970), Cabaret (1972), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Royal Flash (1975), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Superman (1978) and Tess (1979). The fine supporting cast includes Alan Webb, Pamela Salem, Gabrielle Lloyd and Malcolm Terris as a smug, hypocritical bank official. The final joke has no basis in historical reality, but takes the movie out on a high, and very funny, note.


Heat - Pacino

Heat (1995) Michael Mann’s complex, character-driven heist movie has the texture of a sun-lit nightmare: L.A. as a warm place to die a chilly death.

Heat - De Niro


The Thrill of it All - Day, Reiner, Garner

The Thrill of it All (1963) A shrill, occasionally funny farce, meant to satirize television advertising but so dishonest about that it merely gums the subject rather aggressively. Doris Day is an obstetrician’s wife who gets corralled into performing impromptu cleanser commercials for a cheesy live drama omnibus show (in 1963?) and finds her marriage on rocky (or, if you prefer, soapy) ground. It’s too ephemeral to take seriously for a moment — The Glass Bottom Boat had more gravitas — but it’s a pretty thin gruel to have come from the combined talents of Carl Reiner (screenplay) and Larry Gelbart (story, with Reiner). Some of the scenes have that terrible look so representative of the era’s color television episodes, but the cinematographer, Russell Metty, occasionally gets in some pleasant lighting. It would have been almost impossible at that time to imagine the director, Norman Jewison, ever making movies as rich as In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof, but at least his pacing is brisk.

James Garner brings his usual charm and comic outrage to the husband, and the supporting cast includes Reiner (in several bits), Arlene Francis, Edward Andrews, Reginald Owen (playing Andrews’ father, the sort of role Andrews himself would corner in the coming years), Zasu Pitts as a rape-obsessed housekeeper, Elliott Reid as an advertising man, Alice Pearce, Herbie Faye, Hayden Rorke, Burt Mustin, Robert Strauss, Lennie Weinrib, Lillian Culver, King Donovan, Bernie Kopell and, in a voice-over, Paul Frees. I could also swear I heard Madge Blake’s voice, but can find no proof of her participation. Brian Nash and Kym Karath play Day and Garner’s small children; Karath is best remembered as Gretl, the tiniest of the Trapp Family Singers of The Sound of Music two years later. The picture is inoffensive, even with its dated attitudes toward women in the workplace; the one absolutely unforgivable element is the appalling, mickeymouse musical score by (Frank) De Vol.


Alias Nick Beale

Alias Nick Beal (1949) A dark political fantasy that, on balance, seemed designed to satisfy everyone who ever thought a politician had sold his soul, which is pretty much all of us. (Today people like Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton don’t even bother to hide their corruption; they display it openly, and their worshipers call us names if we say anything about it.) Beautifully directed by John Farrow and with a brisk, intelligent screenplay by Jonathan Latimer from a story by Mindret Lord, the movie is so sharply observed it puts to shame all the cringe-making, faux-populist projects of Frank Capra, a man with a deep distrust of “the people” even as he desperately kept trying to woo them. Thomas Mitchell plays the crusading District Attorney who in his frustration at being unable to nail a mobster makes a casual wish he never expected to have granted, and Ray Milland is “Nick Beal,” the Satanic figure with the means to deliver. Mitchell gives his usual fine performance, and Audrey Totter is excellent as a good/bad girl, but Milland really delivers. There was always something a little unpleasant about him as an actor that lingered below his surface charm. Billy Wilder tapped it in The Lost Weekend, and Farrow really mines it here. Lionel Lindon’s cinematography, even in a bad print, is rich and atmospheric, and about the only miscalculation in this 82-minute gem is the uncharacteristic, almost shockingly emphatic, score by the otherwise subtle Franz Waxman. With Fred Clark as a machine boss, Geraldine Wall as Mitchell’s saintly wife, a very young Darryl Hickman as a reform-school candidate and George Macready as, of all things, a minister. (Thanks for this one, Eliot M. Camarena!)


Citizen Kane - Moorehead

Citizen Kane (1941) I ended one year, and began another, with the same film. It isn’t among my very favorite pictures, nor even my favorite among those of its co-author, director and star. But Orson Welles’ debut is still among the most enjoyable movies ever made, and it yields new pleasures and unexpected contours with every viewing. This time I noticed, for the first time, the way Welles keeps the lighted window at Xanadu in the same spot throughout the prologue, even when it’s a reflection in water. That may not be strictly logical, but it certainly is impressive.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Necrology, 2019: Filmmakers and Movie-Related

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By Scott Ross

Although I am still in something of a state of disbelief over the deaths, in 2018, of Harlan Ellison and William Goldman who, although neither had published much of anything new in decades, remain among the American writers highest in my personal Pantheon, this past year —  as is increasingly the case as one ages — saw the passing of several touchstones: Two of my favorite writers, who could not have been further apart except in general excellence (Toni Morrison, John Simon); a novelist (Patricia Nell Warrren) whose popular work from my nascent gay adolescence meant more to me at that time than almost any other’s; an actor (Albert Finney) and a comedian (Tim Conway) I cherished; a cartoonist of genius (Howard Cruse) whose unabashedly gay milieu helped limn the contours of my young manhood; four musical figures whose recordings — two known to me from childhood (André Previn, Doris Day), one from puberty (Michel Legrand) and the last from my hot youth (Leon Redbone) — remain unimpeachable favorites of my adulthood; and a giant of the theatre  (Harold Prince) whose approach to staging musical plays was vastly influential in the culture at large, and to the way I wrote my own plays. These are the ones that hurt the most, but there was, as there always is, plenty of only slightly lesser tristesse to go around in 2019.


I. Movie Industry
Ron W. Miller, 85.
Speaking of Disney. Miller, husband to Walt’s daughter Diane, was President and CEO of the Walt Disney Company from 1978–1984, a crucial period in which under his leadership, and owing to a slate of mediocre animated and live-action pictures, the studio seemed headed for, to quote from Booth Tarkington, a state of bustitude. When a greeting card company in Ohio attempted a hostile takeover that backfired (Disney ended up owning them), Michael Eisner was in and Miller was out. Some of us, who rooted for the company in ‘84, have since grown to wish it had died.

David V. Picker
, 87.
Picker was, in his modest way, part of a golden age. Working at United Artists he brought Tom Jones (1963) to the studio, as well as A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) and, as CEO, Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Last Tango in Paris (1972). He later produced Juggernaut, Lenny (both 1974), Royal Flash and Smile (both 1975). Still later, as president of Paramount, he approved and helped to develop Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Ordinary People (1980). He then produced three Steve Martin/Carl Reiner collaborations (The Jerk in 1979, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid in 1982 and The Man with Two Brains in 1983). As president at Lorimar he supervised Being There (1979) and Blake Edwards’ Hollywood satire S.O.B. (1981). Then, at Columbia, he brought in John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987) and Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988). He later produced Leap of Faith (1992) and, in 1996, The Crucible. Along the way, Picker also greenlit Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood.

Wayne Fitzgerald, 89.
If you were a keen moviegoer (or, via television, movie-watcher) in the 1970s and ‘80s, chances are you saw some of Fitzgerald’s best and most distinctive work as a main title designer: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Little Big Man and The Owl and the Pussycat (1970); Chinatown, The Conversation, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The Godfather — Part II (1974); Funny Lady and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); The Missouri Breaks (1976); Slap Shot, The Turning Point and The Goodbye Girl (1977); Heaven Can Wait and The Deer Hunter (1978); Apocalypse Now (end titles) and The Muppet Movie (1979); Private Benjamin and Nine to Five (1980); Reds, Pennies from Heaven and Body Heat (1981); Tootsie (1982); The Outsiders, The Big Chill and Terms of Endearment (1983); Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986); The Milagro Beanfield War (1988); Dick Tracy (1990); Groundhog Day and Grumpy Old Men (1993); Wyatt Earp and Maverick (1994).

Robert Evans, 89.

Marathon Man - Hoffman and Evans resized

Who is able to out-point whom is a signifier of power. Which man enjoyed the prerogative more in 1976? Robert Evans had it, but Dustin Hoffman obviously believed he did. (Well, he would, wouldn’t he?)

The famously combative producer and studio executive, satirized by several filmmakers and actors over the years, not without cause. As head of production at Paramount he shepherded a spate of terrific movies into the theaters: The President’s Analyst (1967), The Odd Couple (1968), The Detective (1968), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), True Grit (1969), A New Leaf (1971, although the studio fiddled with Elaine May’s cut and forced her to re-shoot the ending), Plaza Suite (1971), Harold and Maude (1971), The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), “Save the Tiger” (1973) and The Conversation (1974). As an independent producer, Evans was involved in two classic thrillers (1974’s Chinatown and the 1976 Marathon Man), another very good one (Black Sunday, 1977) and several movies of varying quality: Urban Cowboy (1980), Popeye (1980), the 1984 The Cotton Club (which involved him, peripherally, in a highly-publicized murder), the 1990 Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes. His later productions showed both him, and his industry, in serious decline: Sliver (1990), The Phantom (1996), The Saint (1997) and the unncessary remake of The Out-of-Towners (1999). He was also married seven (!) times and, with his brother Charles, an admitted trafficker in cocaine; being rich, famous and, although not a Gentile, at least nominally Caucasian, Evans naturally received a plea bargain. He was spoofed by David Mamet and Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog (“I gave a magnificent performance,” Evans said of it), Blake Edwards in S.O.B., Orson Welles in The Other Side of the Wind and, I gather, the series Entourage, which I have never seen. The screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, almost equally notorious, proclaimed in his memoir that “all lies ever told anywhere about Robert Evans are true.”

It should be noted as well that Evans was responsible for both Love Story (1970) and The Great Gatsby (1974).



II. Peripherally Related to the Movies

Claus von Bülow and Alan Dershowitz
Claus von Bülow
, 92.
Accused murderers (why does our legal phraseology suggest one is a murderer if  merely accused?) seldom get more notable than von Bülow, the Danish-British socialite initially convicted of putting his wife Sunny into a persistent vegetative state after twice having attempted to kill her. His conviction was, quite properly, reversed on appeal when the celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz took on the case. But as the screenwriter Nicholas Zazan and the director Barbet Schroeder suggest in their fascinating 1990 movie account, there is guilt, and guilt. Claus (Jeremy Irons) may not have given Sunny (Glenn Close) the insulin injection that put her in a coma, but he may not have helped her either. Reversal of Fortune, adapted from Derhowitz’s book, presents an ambiguous narrative in which, like Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., Sunny narrates from beyond our ken.

Dershowitz, in a later book, described a party given by Claus at which Norman Mailer, hearing the lawyer explain why von Bülow was innocent, took offense that he wasn’t having dinner with a killer, and left.

James Le Mesurier, 48.
The co-founder of the White Helmets, who proved that the Big Lie succeeds far more often than the little one. With the complicity of our world-wide corporate media, Le Mesurier managed to convince a great deal of humanity that his organization, the White Helmets, was an humanitarian aid service and didn’t behead civilians in Syria. His efforts were so effective the spurious 2016 propaganda “documentary” won an Academy Award and the cheers of idiot the Hollywood ignorati. His alleged suicide, which has all the hallmarks of a CIA hit — any time you hear a shady character associated with America’s Permanent Government has taken a dive out a window it’s time to employ a certain basic skepticism — has inspired at least two theories that should comfort the spooks at Langley that, once again, their manipulation of public sentiment has been largely successful.


III. Filmmakers

James Frawley with Kermit

James Frawley, 82. A one-time actor (i.e., The Monkees, or as Joe Galardi, the union rep in the 1965 Dick Van Dyke Show episode “Fifty-Two, Forty-Five or Work”) who moved into television direction (The Monkees and That Girl) and occasional films. His 1976 all-star disaster-movie spoof The Big Bus predated Airplane! but was not nearly as successful, but the 1979 The Muppet Movie was the perfect big-screen introduction for Jim Henson’s eponymous troupe. Among his other television directing credits: Magnum, P.I., Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Cagney & Lacey, Law & Order, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, Smallville, Judging Amy, Grey’s Anatomy. I will remember Frawley with fondness for the beautiful “Rainbow Connection” sequence in The Muppet Movie, so entrancing it could have closed the picture rather than opening it.

Stanley Donen, 94.Singin in the Rain - O'Conner, Donen and Kelly

A stylist whose technique was occasionally too busy, and sometimes not enough to cover up for thin and undeveloped material (Lucky Lady, anyone?) Donen was also responsible for some of the most elegant and witty musicals and comedies of the post-War era. A few years ago, a book appeared on the making of Singin’ in the Rain, which Donen co-directed with Gene Kelly. Since this is my favorite movie musical, it’s a book I’d waited nearly 40 years to read. I was staggered that the authors, one of whom, a PhD, was a Civil War historian, were both complete dilettantes when it came to film. That this tome, filled with factual errors, was a university press publication was dispiriting enough. What was worse was the manner in which its authors went out of their way (as Gene Kelly himself did throughout his life) to diminish Donen’s contributions to that picture, and to the others he co-directed with Kelly, painting him as a non-creative zhlub who sat in a director’s chair while Kelly did it all. If Donen contributed nothing to their movies, why did Kelly work with him so often? Why did MGM keep giving him projects?

Well, the proof is in the pudding. Among the movies Donen directed: On the Town (1949, with Kelly), Royal Wedding (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952, with Kelly), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955, also with Kelly), Funny Face and The Pajama Game (with George Abbott, both 1957), Indiscreet and Damn Yankees! (again with Abbott, both 1958), The Grass is Greener (1960), Charade (1963), Arabesque (1966), Two for the Road and Bedazzled (1967), Movie Movie (1978).

Gene Kelly’s filmography without Donen? Invitation to the Dance, The Happy Road, The Tunnel of Love, Gigot, A Guide for the Married Man, The Cheyenne Social Club, That’s Entertainment Part II… and Hello Dolly!

Tell me another, Doctor.


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Franco Zeffirelli, 96.
A designer and director of plays and opera, Zeffirelli’s first movie was the 1967 Burton/Taylor The Taming of the Shrew, a picture as beautiful as it is maddening; for much of the film, Kate’s dialogue is removed, in favor of a series of enraged, shrewish yowlings. Why film Shakespeare and then remove his lines? Zeffirelli fared much better with his 1968 Romeo and Juliet. Casting the lovers, for the first time on film, not with venerated older actors but with beautiful young people (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey) and giving them a sexy, nude morning-after scene made the picture a huge hit with teenagers. Deeply supportive of the Catholic Church, a two-term Senator from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and accused at least twice of the harassment and sexual assault of young male actors, he is a problematic figure, but for the many who fell in love with Whiting and Hussey, in ’68 or after, Romeo and Juliet is his ultimate legacy.

D. A. Pennebaker, 94.

D.A. Pennebaker Original Cast Album - Company

Stephen Sondheim coaching Beth Howland on her performance of  the dizzying patter in “Getting Married Today” during D.A. Pennebaker’s essential 1971 documentary Original Cast Album: Company. Steve Elmore, center.

One of the few truly important documentary filmmakers of the post-war era, whose work includes the 1967 Dylan feature Don’t Look Back; the 1968 music festival documentary Monterey Pop; the 1973 David Bowie feature Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; Moon Over Broadway (1997); with his partner Chris Hehedus The War Room, the revealing 1993 look at Bill Clinton and the neoliberals who helped elect him; and the 2004 record of the one-woman stage memoir Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. For musical theatre mavens, Pennebaker will forever be immortal for his 1971 Original Cast Album: Company, which captured the hectic, marathon recording of the cast recording that helped define Stephen Sondheim’s 1970s sound, and, in the saga of Stritch’s inability to nail “The Ladies Who Lunch” after singing for hours, exposed a bit of the dark underbelly of Broadway.

Richard Williams, 86.
Richard Williams, Roger and Oscar resized
This one is a heartbreaker. Responsible for what is arguably the finest of all renderings of A Christmas Carol in his 25-minute animated version first shown on ABC in 1971, released theatrically the following year and subsequently given the Academy Award® for Best Animated Short Film, creative animator for the brilliant title sequences for the two Pink Panthers that resurrected the franchise (Return of… and Strikes Again) and revolutionary animating director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Williams’ own perfectionism may have cost him completion of his 30-year dream project The Thief and the Cobbler. (Itself a kind of compensation after the demise of his hoped-for adaptation of Indries Shah’s The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Masrudin, an edition of which he had illustrated.) Since a test-reel for Cobbler was Williams’ entrée to Disney, and the 1992 Aladdin seemed almost inescapably so gleeful a public screwing of the very man whose genius had made Roger Rabbit possible, I have always blamed The Mouse for the way things turned out. The Eisner regime was certainly the villain here, but Williams’ own intransigence — his insistence on longer and longer sequences, and re-doing existing ones — caused him to run out of time; Warners’, which was financing the picture, pulled out rather than compete with Aladdin in the motion picture bazaar, with only 15 minutes of footage left to wrap up the project. The Completion Bond Company then fired everyone involved, including Williams, farmed out animation to South Korea, re-animating existing sequences and adding superfluous musical numbers that, if anything, made Cobbler seem more like an Aladdin rip-off rather than, as we know, the other way round. That Miramax, which snarfed up this new version (called, naturally, The Princess and the Cobbler, although it was eventually released as Arabian Knight) was then owned by Disney puts the final, un-funnily ironic nail in the picture’s coffin.

Williams was prodigiously gifted, an artist whose chosen medium was the most painstaking and time-consuming of them all. That this genuine visionary — to see his Cobbler, or merely parts of it, and even reduced to the size of a computer screen, is to experience a genuine sense of awe and of wonder and to be truly dazzled by its execution entirely by hand — was reduced to hosting animation masterclasses to earn his keep is an almost perfect paradigm for the artist in an age of rampant, and many-tentacled, commercialism. One is reminded, irresistibly, of another 20th century master incapable of completing his final project before it was taken from him, and whose indecisiveness at crucial moments exacerbated the process. And if Richard Williams was not quite in Orson Welles’ league, I strongly suspect that Welles would have recognized in him a fellow magician, his table folded, forced to sing for his supper.

Richard Williams and Vincent Price develop their villain Zig-Zag the Grand Vizier resized

The Thief and the Cobbler: Richard Williams and Vincent Price developing the character of Zigzag, the Vizier (to whom Aladdin‘s Jafar bears more than a passing resemblance) and his odious avian pet Phido, whom the Vizier somewhat resembles.


Lee Mendelson, 86.

A Charlie Brown Christmas resized

Mendelson was the producer of every Peanuts television special and movie from 1965 to 2015, making his work with Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez beloved of at least two generations and likely more. It started with an un-aired (until 1969) documentary called Charlie Brown & Charles Schulz, which led to the 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). I was slightly too young to have watched it on its premiere — or if I did, to remember it — but I vividly recall seeing the next two, both in 1966: Charlie Brown’s All Stars! and, especially, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which began my lifelong love for, and identification with, Linus Van Pelt. Several good Peanuts specials followed: You’re in Love, Charlie Brown, 1967; He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown, 1968; It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown, 1969; and You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown, 1972. I stopped watching them after that, although I was wild about Mendelson’s hour-long 1973 television edition of the 1967 Off-Broadway musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown by Clark Gesner and which starred the now-forgotten Wendell Burton as Charlie Brown, Bill Hinnant (the only hold-over from the show) as Snoopy, Mark Montgomery as Schroeder and Barry Livingston (Ernie of My Three Sons) as Linus. Mendelson also produced The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant (1968), the charming movies A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) and Snoopy Come Home (1972), the latter of which boasts a song score by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, and 18 episodes of the delightful Saturday morning series The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show (1983 – 1985).

One could argue that with their use of limited animation the Schulz specials and films contributed to the cheapening of hand-drawn cartoons, but what Mendeslon, Melendez and “Sparky” achieved was the perfect symbiosis: Although generally not directly adapted from specific Peanuts panels, the Schulz projects distilled and embodied what made the strip, itself somewhat limited visually, so very special: Its charming humor, plangent emotionalism and philosophical bent. In an increasingly crass, vulgar and noisy society, the gentleness and essential humanism of the Peanuts cartoons, their action and dialogue as accessible to children as to their parents and grandparents, provide an alternative and a necessary corrective. I too grew up in a world filled with junk, and noise: G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls, Rankin-Bass specials, terrible cartoon series, dopey music, inane commercials (and kiddie shows that existed to endorse them) and endless hours of Saturday morning pap. But it was also a world that offered the gentle, friendly presences of Captain Kangaroo, Kukla, Fran & Ollie and Charles Schulz.

Thanks, Mr. Mendelson, for adding a small measure of grace to a largely graceless medium and an increasingly boorish world.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Nothing but work: “The Thief and the Cobbler” (1993/2013)

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By Scott Ross

“I’ve never understood why some people in animation are so desperate to save work. If you want to save work, what on earth are you doing in animation? It’s nothing but work!” — Richard Williams

The animator Richard Williams died earlier this year, and this past week I finally sat down with the re-constructed edition of his despoiled life’s work, The Thief and the Cobbler, cleverly subtitled “The Recobbled Cut” and made available online by the filmmaker Garrett Gilchrist. Gilchrist completed the picture, to the pre-recorded soundtrack, occasionally using pencil-tests or otherwise incomplete animation to fill in the 15 minutes that remained unfinished when the picture was taken out of Williams’ hands in 1992.

To call the movie astounding is to do it scant justice. It’s one of the most technologically dazzling, glorious-looking animated movies I’ve ever seen.

I’ve written elsewhere about the picture’s troubled history and how, after a reel of footage from it won Williams the job of preparing the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit Disney suddenly decided an Arabian Nights tale would be its next animated feature following Beauty and the Beast. That the 20-plus year pet project of a three-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker was first undermined and forcibly wrested from him is a tragedy. But, as “Stevem” in his excellent video analysis of The Thief and the Cobbler observes, Williams didn’t know when to stop, or when too much was too much. The movie’s climax serves an example. It’s gorgeously designed, superbly executed, and absolutely astounding, especially for entirely hand-drawn animation. But it goes on for 15 minutes. That’s three times longer at least than it needed to be, and a good producer would have insisted it be trimmed down considerably. (Williams, alas, was his own.) Yet even while we’re wearying of this over-extended sequence involving a monstrous War Machine we can’t help appreciating how ingeniously it’s being done. It’s brilliantly conceived and animated — violent death as a Rube Goldberg construct.

The Thief and the Cobbler - War Machine

The Thief and the Cobbler isn’t remotely like a Disney cartoon; it’s its own genre. It doesn’t have the heart or well-defined characters of a Disney cartoon, and it doesn’t try to. (The King’s daughter Yum-Yum is especially poorly defined.) If it had gotten completed, and released as Williams planned it, it probably wouldn’t have pleased many people other than animation mavens. One thing you have to concede about the Disney animators and story men (and they were almost always men) is that they were masters at developing character in a two-dimensional medium, and Williams’ characters — perhaps because he did so many short films and animated movie titles? — are, with the magnificent exception of his Grand Vizier, thin; he introduces them, and once you’ve grasped their essential qualities you realize they aren’t going to change much, or deepen beyond your first glimpse of them. But who says every animated feature has to be like a Disney? The Thief and the Cobbler creates its own, unique world, based on the rich, colorful tradition of Muslim design and while it is odd that neither titular character speaks (at least until the very end) the picture is wonderful to watch, and has its own weird rhythms, which the Disney artists would certainly have deemed confounding… although you can see exactly where they stole from it.

The Thief and the Cobbler - Zigzag with cards

The most obvious “borrowing” is from Williams’ most well-defined character: Zigzag, the Grand Vizier voiced by Vincent Price. Although the figure is itself a borrowing — he was clearly inspired by Conrad Veidt in The Thief of Bagdad (1940) as is some of the movie’s action — he’s entirely fresh, whereas the corresponding character in Aladdin is really just an animated Veidt. Zigzag is wonderfully designed, and animated: He has five fingers and a thumb on each hand, when he walks his feet cross, and his huge, bulky shoulders are hunched like those of a bird of prey (he has a vulture called Phido for a pet).* And Price caresses the character’s dialogue, all of it in rhyme, as only he could; he has such a high time of it he’s still rhyming even as he’s about to be devoured by crocodiles.†

The Thief and the Cobbler - Tack

The Cobbler, called “Tack,” is a large-eyed, pale-faced figure who lives to cobble; he knits shoes in his sleep, and nothing seems to faze him. What’s most distinctive about him is the way the tacks he holds in his unseen lips indicate his moods. We seldom see his mouth, but he don’t need to. “Stevem” calls Tack “Chaplinesque,” and I suppose he is, but he lacks dimensions. He’s charming, and fearless, but there’s no real reason for Yum-Yum to fall in love with him except that he isn’t the Vizier.

The Thief and the Cobbler - Thief and Cobbler

The Thief is equally one-dimensional, but he’s a great deal funnier. Tack is a believable human figure; the Thief is entirely a cartoon, with a small swarm of flies perpetually hovering over his malodorous head; when the Thief falls into a moat they fly above the water and calmly wait for him to resurface. The character has his best sequence while attempting to steal the three golden balls atop the city’s highest minaret, as he tries to vault his way to the top, each time with a longer pole, eventually flying entirely over it. He sees everything in life in terms of whether or not it’s worth stealing. When it is, he forgets everything else but the object he’s in pursuit of — he represents the Id in extremis. He’s the Wile E. Coyote of elaborately planned larceny yet his luck nearly always holds; he’s almost never hurt, as Wile E. is, and when he loses one object he instantly becomes enamored of another. He’s one of the few genuinely happy characters in the movie aside from Tack. Diametric opposites, they complement each other. The only other comic character of note is the Holy Old Witch, who is marvelously designed and animated but, as voiced by Joan Sims (who also provided the voice for Yum-Yum’s Nurse) is annoying rather than amusing.

The Thief and the Cobbler - The Holy Old Witch

The Thief and the Cobbler is so beautifully done one’s mouth waters to see it projected in a theatre. And since it was made in widescreen, seeing it that way would have been a truly spectacular experience. But even though the movie, and Williams’ struggle with it, has been made the subject of a documentary (Kevin Schreck’s 2012 Persistence of Vision) it seems doubtful anyone will provide the funding necessary for the picture’s proper completion and distribution.

What happened to Richard Williams with The Thief and the Cobbler makes my stomach lurch, the same way I get physically ill whenever I think of how The Magnificent Ambersons was taken from Orson Welles and destroyed by RKO. And when I consider Williams’ story, I cannot help comparing him to Welles, and to the true iconoclasts in all fields of art: Those whose vision is unlike other men’s, and women’s, and who are punished for that persistence. As the writer and publisher Eliot M. Camarena recently said on the subject, “The biggest sin is leaving the herd.”

Here’s to the clever sheep who slip away.

The Thief and the Cobbler - Thief


*The great Ken Harris, whose work graced hundreds of Looney Tunes and Merry Meolodies as well as the main title sequences Williams designed for two Pink Panther movies, is given prominent billing in the credits as “Master Animator,” and Zigzag’s movements bear his hallmark elegance.

†Several other noted actors performed voice-overs for the picture including Felix Aylmer (opening narration), Anthony Quayle (King Nod), Donald Pleasence (Phido) and Joss Ackland (the chief Brigand) as well as Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross