Janus or Pluto?: (Some) theatre on video and film

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By Scott Ross

Justin Kirk

The astonishing (and astonishingly beautiful) Justin Kirk in Angels in America.

Much of my home-video viewing of late has been either of plays transmitted for television or of movies adapted from the stage. Accepting as a given that what is designed for the live theatre can never be experienced in quite the same way through any other medium, the differences in approach and the limitations of form present some interesting contours for contemplation. Take, for example, two filmed stage plays of recent vintage, seen back-to-back, more through random choice than by design. (Or were they? The mind makes its patterns where, seemingly, only chance and whim prevail…)

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Matthew Ferguson and Thomas Gibson as an unlikely potential couple in Love and Human Remains.

First, Love and Human Remains, the 1993 movie of the Canadian dramatist Brad Fraser’s superb — and, given its unabashed gay perspective, astonishingly popular — 1989 play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. Fraser’s is one of the very few plays I have ever made a point of seeing more than once during its local run (at Raleigh Ensemble Players, in 1999.) And what with its author’s sharp, intelligent dialogue and compelling narrative, and the splendid Thomas Gibson in the lead, I had high expectations for the movie… though not, I should add, of its director, Denys Arcand, the onlie begettor of The Decline of the American Empire, arguably the most specious, pretentious, verbose, dishonest and generally stultifying “serious” movie of 1986. Arcand, as it turned out, acquitted himself well enough here. What didn’t work in the picture, however, was what did, so spectacularly, in the theatre: The playwright’s highly idiosyncratic dialogue. Somehow, between stage and screen, something got flattened. It did not seem the fault of the excellent cast, nor necessarily, of the filmmakers. So what, then?

It was only when I moved on to the next item that a possibility, however vague, began to suggest itself. If any play of the past 25 years can be said to be theatrical, surely it would be Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America. In a reverse of my experience with Love and Human Remains, I approached Angels with more than a little trepidation: Even if HBO and Mike Nichols were scrupulously true to Kushner’s proudly un-closeted dialogue and characters, his searing intelligence and his soaring stagecraft, how could this stunningly expansive “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” possibly work in the unforgiving medium of film, whose very realism must necessarily militate against so defiantly un-realistic a project? Yet, as mysteriously as the failure of Fraser’s dialogue to fully correspond with the medium, in Angels, Kushner’s lines, so alternately poetic and rhetorical on the stage, virtually sing on film.

Again, why? The only sliver of an answer that presents itself to me after lengthy consideration is that Angels is effective precisely because of its fantastic nature, not in spite of it. Although Nichols and Stephen Goldblatt, his brilliant director of photography, are at pains to present a New York as visceral and de-glamorized as possible, the fantasy elements do not sit uneasily in their frame, rendering the movie neither the fish of theatre nor the fowl of the moving picture; rather, as the Angel America herself, they burst the skin of reality. As the pieces fall, a hybrid is born: theatrically-charged, bordered on one side by the fantastic and the other by the actual, yet through some curious alchemy not schizoid but whole. Intact. The elements, shattered, re-form. Which seems somehow perfectly in keeping with Kushner’s keenly bifurcated yet intensely unified pair of plays.

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Al Pacino (as Roy Cohn) and Meryl Streep (as the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg): Can the conscience-less ever really be haunted?

It hardly hurts that Angels is cast, from top to bottom, with magnificent actors, some of them (Patrick Wilson, Ben Shenkman, the phenomenal Justin Kirk) new to me, others (Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell) more established, and two whose presence alone, I suppose, would justify the phrase “event casting”: Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. Pacino, who so often revels in outsized characters, has a field-day blasting all and sundry with the sociopathic arrogance of Roy Cohn’s self-aggrandizement, undone only in this case (the inhuman original being hardly more timorous) by his close-cropped hair for the famously bald Cohn. Was make-up tried, and discarded? Did Pacino balk at shaving his head? The question becomes almost more compelling than Cohn’s race to die before disbarment.

Streep has been a conundrum since I first saw her in 1977, in a small role in Julia. One cannot help admiring the seriousness of purpose, the manifold wigs and accents,* each applied with rigorous determination, and the sheer technique — not to mention that sharp-nosed, ovoid face and those eyes that bespeak an intelligence that itself renders her impossible to accept as a bubble-head (and how that must have limited her Hollywood chances!) But often, the technique itself has carried the day, at least for me. The sense of Streep’s characters as lived-in, even grubby, was rare: Her radiant, troubled Karen Silkwood; her cool, unyielding and ultimately heartbreaking Lindy Chamberlin in A Cry in the Dark, which Jodie Foster once correctly described as “beyond acting”; her extraordinarily plangent Lee in Marvin’s Room; and her magnificent Clarissa Vaughan in the film of The Hours. Who can forget her, collapsed on the kitchen floor, her back to the oven, devastated by grief and trying desperately not to let her capacious heart overflow with it? In Angels, Streep gets to show off her versatility (and her facility for accents) as a sly nonagenarian Rabbi, a wry Ethel Rosenberg and a complacent, angry Salt Lake City haufrau. It is that last role, interestingly, in which Streep really shines: Seemingly humorless, Hannah Pitt jousts with the best of them; stereotypically Mormon, yet she both bears her son’s sexual confusion and becomes surrogate mother to the suffering, frightened, maddened and defiant Prior. Everything Streep does as Hannah feels right, spontaneous. This, too, is beyond acting. “Being” might be a better term for it. That definition extends as well to Justin Kirk, whose Prior Walter seems to me (who admittedly missed Stephen Spinella’s original) just about definitive. Hurt, angry, buoyant, defiantly nellie, incalculably brave, Kirk personifies every young gay man in America who woke one day in the 1980s to find himself condemned, betrayed, marginalized, but, through his wit and fervor for life, never wholly defeated.

Without recourse to keeping the plays open on my lap as I watched, and bearing in mind their sheer volubility and expanse, I cannot be sure precisely how close the HBO-produced movie is to the original plays. But it seems to me a textbook case of getting the transition correctly. Nichols is a variable movie talent, as apt to go crushingly wrong as he is to go triumphantly right. But Angels in America makes a fitting bookend to a film career that began with another adaptation of an epoch-shattering, transitional stage work — also by a young gay playwright — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Uncle Vanya - Michael Redgrave resized

Michael Redgrave as Uncle Vanya. (Chichester Festival, UK, 1962; Photo by Angus McBean / Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection)

The last item on the video menu, if I may be permitted the oxymoron, was likewise deeply satisfying, although on a different level: A 1963 British television transmission of Uncle Vanya in Laurence Olivier’s acclaimed Chichester Festival production. I’m not sure just when, or why, Vanya became (along with Lanford Wilson’s The 5th of July, with which it shares a number of features) one of my two favorite plays. My teenaged affection likely began with the farcical appearance of a gun in Act Three but the fullness of my response to this most plangent of Chekhov’s chamber pieces can be accounted elsewhere, and with age. As that is too private for this public space, I’ll note only how beautifully both the playwright, and this stunning cast (with one rather glaring exception) convey ennui, and its natural handmaiden, desperation, most notably in Michael Redgrave’s magisterial performance in the eponymous role… although “magisterial” in this context too seems oxymoronic, since what Redgrave anatomizes is hopelessness itself, unrelieved by the occasional revelry which, we assume, must be the only thing that holds the man together. Interestingly, while both Sonia and Dr. Astrov confess (the latter frequently) to having no hope, Vanya never does. He lives, in fact, on it… at least until its last shreds are stripped from him, first by the hated brother-in-law, later by that insufferable academic’s young wife, in whose wholly unresponsive person Vanya siphons all his non-material yearnings.

While the Kultur DVD itself is less than optimal — the original video tape has not aged well in its reproduction of light, which sometimes swallows up the actors, especially Rosemary Harris’ Helena — it is Harris herself who is the graver problem. Usually excellent, here she either settles for, as was directed by Olivier to embrace, melodramatic poses and airy line-readings, her eyes perpetually raised to some middle-distance beyond mere human ken, all of which make her both more ethereal than necessary and less condignly corporeal than required. I have no quarrel with any of the others, and indeed it is a positive benison to have in your living room so rich a set of voices, and faces, from the peerlessly flutey Max Adrian and the prototypically Nanny-esque Sybil Thorndyke to Joan Plowright’s quietly heart-rendering Sonia and the superlative Astrov of Olivier himself, all too clearly enjoying his own purported misery, yet agonizingly oblivious to Sonia’s infatuation.

But crowning the whole affair is Redgrave’s Vanya. Although his film career stretched from the late 1930s to the mid-’70s, Redgrave was almost criminally underutilized in that medium. Was he possibly, and in common with his protean contemporary Ralph Richardson, not conventionally handsome enough? Could his rich tenor/baritone have been a shade too tremulous, or imitable? Did he perhaps read too “queer”? Whatever the reasons, you have only to watch him at work as Vanya for two minutes to lament how little known he was (and is) to audiences outside of Britain and to appreciate with what fullness he dove into this quintessential Chekhovian “loser.” It’s a performance whose sound, thanks to the superb 1962 Philips LP set, I have long cherished; I’m delighted at last to see the action so beautifully suited to the word.

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*I cannot see Meryl Streep, especially under a new wig, without being reminded of something the late André Ernotte once said. When asked by a Middlebury College student his opinion of Streep as an actor he began his response with, “She’s a bundle of emotions in an English accent, she’s a bundle of emotions in a Polish accent…”


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982)

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By Scott Ross

Very probably, the last thing one should do if one is a slave, as I am, to chronic depression is to either read a Dickens novel, or view the adaptation of one.

Why I chose this moment finally to sit down with the eight and 1/2-hour Royal Shakespeare Company Nicholas Nickleby I really can’t say, except that I’ve had the boxed set of DVDs for years, the depression longer, and I’m not getting any younger. Still… If one has any sensitivity at all, then meandering through Dickens is an act virtually guaranteed to exercise it; when your emotions are raw, close to the surface, and crying jags come easy, it’s going to be a trial. And assaying this particular Dickens novel is just asking for it.

TIME - Nicholas Nickleby cover

Knowing the text likely makes it even worse, and Nicholas Nickleby has been a part of my cultural life for over three decades now. I did not see the original London or Broadway productions, but I certainly remember the Time magazine cover story and the attendant controversy over its then-exorbitant $100 ticket price, which now seems the veriest pittance. When it was taped for British broadcast and no American network would touch it, Mobil, to its eternal credit, picked it up and ran it in syndication, over, if memory serves, four consecutive nights. I can still vividly recall the excitement with which I waited to partake of each successive evening’s installment, and the nearly complete satisfaction the program gave me. In the interim came the surprisingly accomplished 2002 movie version, a veritable Secretariat of the cinema by way of contrast, one that somehow managed to encompass the narrative in a mere two hours and 12 minutes. About a decade ago, I finally cracked the novel itself, whose length had always intimidated me. It was a splendid experience, although I did long, finally, for it to end; ennui sets in around the 900th page of almost anything.

Last week it all came full-circle, as I revisited the television edition. I knew the tears would flow and, in my present state, all too copiously. How could they not, what with Dickens’ mastery of emotional manipulation, exacerbated by the magnificence of Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s resolutely powerful and magnificently theatrical staging, and pushed through the histrionic stratosphere by David Threlfall’s astonishingly moving Smike and the pluperfect Newman Noggs of Edward Petherbridge?

I recognize in Smike the author’s perennial favorite, the child or youth (usually, but not always, a boy) smashed, or nearly so, by the endemic Victorian system of, on the one hand, callous indifference and, on the other, active collusion in his destruction. We see him in Oliver Twist, in David Copperfield, in Pip, in Jo the crossing-sweeper and, on the distaff side, in the Littles, Nell and Dorrit: Sometimes triumphant, sometimes doomed, yet always striving against insuperable (when not downright malignant) odds. Smike is, in his way the ne plus ultra of the type: Not only shockingly poor, ill clothed and ill fed nor even merely physically crippled but mentally and emotionally damaged, seemingly beyond repair… and utterly beyond resistance to the emotionally susceptible. And, in my heart of hearts I know that Newman Noggs is, like the impossibly decent Cheeryble brothers, too good to be true. But I can’t imagine not being moved by the performances of Threlfall and Petherbridge.

Nicholas Nickleby - David Threlfall and Roger Rees resized

Roger Rees (Nicholas) and the astonishing David Threlfall (Smike).

Threlfall does miracle work with Smike, somehow (and even granting that the actor augments the character’s mannerisms well beyond Dickens’ less extreme description) never asking for pity no matter how piteous the character’s physical tribulations and emotional woes, or how pitiless the vicissitudes that attack him. It is, I think, that very resolution and restraint which make him so unutterably heartbreaking.

Nicholas Nickleby - Edward Petherbridge

The great Edward Petherbridge as the incomparably endearing Newman Noggs.

As Noggs, Petherbridge’s every gesture and remark is perfection itself. If ever a character was perched on the precipice of manipulative self-pity, it’s Newman Noggs. Petherbridge has a way of seeming almost casually ironic, as if Noggs’ bibulousness has so simultaneously slowed and sped up his normal reactions that his sarcastic asides and small, bitter observations are barely perceived by his listeners, seemingly uttered without rancor and, indeed, with a kind of self-effacing apology. Timid yet sardonic, incalculably decent but neither overly nor even overtly sweet, he embodies the infinite hope of the essentially hopeless.

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The superb John Woodvine as Ralph Nickleby, with Alun Amrstrong, unforgettable as Whackford Squeers.

In this production, even the impenetrably cold Ralph Nickleby is moving, especially in John Woodvine’s stunning performance. So too, against all odds, is Emily Richards’ Kate Nickleby. The novel’s Kate is less a full-bodied character than a set of Victorian poses; she’s Virtuous Young Womanhood hideously importuned and victimized, and she reads as the literary equivalent of all those damsels in distress that render much silent movie acting of the early years so absurdly fustian. (And which Debbie Reynolds memorably poked fun at in Singin’ in the Rain.) Edgar, Nunn and Caird come in for some of the credit here, I suppose, but the achievement is, ultimately, Richards’. Her Kate is intelligent, stalwart, brave, despairing… but never bathetic.

Nicholas Nickleby - Bob Peck and Emily Richards

Emily Richards as Kate Nickleby, menaced by Bob Peck’s thoroughly rotten Sir Mulberry Hawk.

Ben Kinglsey originated the pivotal role of Whackford Squeers, the appalling Yorkshire schoolmaster of Dotheboys Hall, at the RSC. By the time of the taping, Kinglsey was, due to his performance as Gandhi, a major movie presence; in his place was the alternately hilarious and terrifying Alun Armstrong. The protean Bob Peck is, astonishingly, equally effective as the uncouth yet decent John Browdie and the genteel and infinitely damnable Mulberry Hawk. Not only is he virtually unrecognizable as the same actor, his very vocal timbre alters: First deep, warm, resonant and full of bonhomie (Browdie) then high, cold, sneering and filled with malice (Hawk). It is Hawk who is perhaps the most puzzlingly Iago-like character in Nicholas Nickleby; his every impulse is to the destruction of others, for its own sake, far above the lure of the pecuniary. Even Ralph is more explicable. But as thoughtfully ironic double casting, Peck’s contrasts could not be sharper.

Nicholas Nickleby - Suzanne Bertish and Alun Armstrong

A face only a father could love: Suzanne Bertish as Fanny, with Alaun Armstrong.

The same holds true for Suzanne Bertish, who makes a splendidly spiteful Fanny Squeers and a charming Miss Snevellici, both ardent and, ultimately futile, suitors of young Nicholas. Lila Kaye is adorably hammy as Mrs. Crummles and a scarifying termagant as Mrs. Squeers. Of the nominal villains, Janet Dale’s mercurial Miss Nagg is nicely complimented by her hysteria as the absurd Mrs. Wititterly, while Nicholas Gecks’ Lord Frederick Verisopht is the most beautifully delineated of Kate’s tormentors. His features soft, sensual and Byronesque, his manner languid and foppish, he is seemingly indifferent yet becomes the single character who most effectively stymies the machinations of Hawk, at the cost of his own life, which he relinquishes with sad, manful irony. And, being me, I must also note the presence, in several small roles, of Stephen Rashbrook, the most boyishly beautiful of the male actors in the ensemble. He quite literally took my breath away every time the camera caught his almost ethereally lovely face.

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Stephen Rashbrook, who does not play a vicar in Nicholas Nickleby.

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Roger Rees (Nicholas) and David Threlfall (Smike) on the journey to Portsmith.

As Nicholas, Roger Rees seems less efficacious to me now than he did in the early 1980s. Too much of his performance is pitched on sheer nerves, his limpid eyes always threatening to overflow, his infrequent outbursts of rage muted rather than enhanced by the emotionalism he displays throughout. It must be a difficult role to get right, and I do not mean to imply that Rees is by any means bad in it. He limns Nicholas’ overmastering decency, and his impulse to compassion, exactly, especially in his interactions with Smike. But at nearly 40, he was a bit long in the tooth to be wholly capable of expressing the young man’s essential naïveté. Charlie Hunnam’s much more youthful Nicholas in the 2002 movie was rather closer to the mark in that respect, and he had the built-in advantage of being young.

Far more problematic is the video direction by Jim Goddard. First, there is the disturbingly occasional glimpse, or sound, of the live Old Vic audience, in a series otherwise obviously taped without one. As Nunn and Caird utilized the theatre itself in their staging, a complete record of the production virtually demanded the spectators’ inclusion. And while I can understand the impulse to capture the bulk of thing without the constant, and intrusive, sounds of laughter and applause from the audience, and the chance to do a scene, or a moment, over, the result is a curious hybrid that does not solve the problem satisfactorily.

Worse, Goddard often places his visual emphases in an almost arbitrary fashion, spoiling Nunn and Caird’s stage tableaux either by focusing in too close on a grouping or, weirdly, cutting away from a moment, or an actor’s performance, to its utter detriment. A perfect example of this striking ineptitude is the moment when the marvelous Rose Hill as Mrs. Gruden ends her hilarious coloratura trillings, begins the verse of her “Farewell” song and only then grabs a lungful of air. Rather than hold on the performer for maximum comic impact, Goddard cuts, incongruously, to Nicholas and Miss Snevellici. His direction is filled with such inexplicable lapses, often numbing when not outright killing the effect of Nunn’s and Caird’s stunningly expressive theatricality. The A&E presentation is likewise annoying: The video set climaxes each hour of the thing with end-credits, superimposed over the Old Vic audience going mad for what was, quite obviously, the final curtain call.

Still, as a record of an unforgettable event, this Nicholas Nickleby will do. Aside from the variety and assurance of the RSC company and its directors, and the starkly utilitarian splendor of the settings by John Napier and Dermot Haye, the home video set also captures the late Stephen Oliver’s* superb underscore and songs and David Edgar’s subtle genius at distilling a massive novel, retaining as much of Dickens’ more pointed observational prose as a stage can reasonably contain, presenting the narrative and the characters with fealty, and doing so in a way that is both epic and intimate — and, always, appropriately theatrical. No small thing, that, and for a frustrated actor like Dickens himself, a fitting tribute.

If one has to cry, there are certainly worse things to weep over.

David Edgar playwright

David Edgar


*Oliver, a formidable composer of opera, succumbed, as did far too many of his male contemporaries, to AIDS, in 1992.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

TV Pals: Icons of an Ohio Boyhood

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By Scott Ross

I was born in Canton, Ohio in 1961. The hosts of the morning and afternoon children’s shows we watched broadcast from Cleveland. First and foremost was the genial Captain Penny.

Ron Penfound was the Captain, whose designation always caused me a bit of confusion, since his costume was that of a railroad engineer. No matter. Among the treats we got from the Captain were Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons, AstroBoy (who made me unaccountably uneasy in a way I still can’t quite put my finger on), The Little Rascals (aka, Our Gang) shorts and, my personal favorite, The Three Stooges. The Captain always admonished us that we could laugh at their antics but never, ever to behave the way they did.

I had a copy of this photo, “signed” by a photocopier, on my bedroom wall:

Captain Penny

Captain Penny’s closing words were a variation on Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people all of the time… and all of the people some of the time… but you can’t fool Mom!” which came to be known, I discovered later, as “Captain Penny’s Law.”

Captain Penny and Jungle Larry

One of Captain Penny’s frequent guests was Jungle Larry (Lawrence Tetzlaff) who was a big attraction at the Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky. A sort of low-rent Jack Hanna, he often appeared with his wife, “Safari Jane.”

Scott and Vicki with Jungle Larry, Cedar Point - Summer 1969

Photo of self and my older sister meeting Jungle Larry at Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky. Summer 1969. Look at that guy on the left. This he wears to an amusement park? What a fun date he must have been!

Barnaby

Right: “Barnaby” (Linn Sheldon), an oddity in that he seemed to be an elf or some such, and lived in an Enchanted Forest. He was the afternoon host, and the Popeye shorts were his métier. He had an invisible parrot called “Long John.” I leave it to Bruno Bettleheim to sort that one out. He also sang “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” at the top of every show. I remember being shocked one Thanksgiving, years later, when CBS ran the movie of Oklahoma! and there was Gordon MacRae, singing Barnaby’s song!

He looks a bit like Larry Semon, doesn’t he? Or maybe Harry Langdon.

Woodrow

Woodrow (J. Clayton “Clay” Conroy) was a neighbor of Barnaby’s in the Enchanted Forest. I recall very little about his shtick, or what shorts he ran. Possibly Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear cartoons? Someone did, I know.

Franz and Raggedy Anne

Franz the Toymaker (Ray Stawiarski.) He showed up after Captain Kangaroo, and also ran cartoons, the names of which escape me now, but which I think might have included TerryToons like Deputy Dawg. His sidekick was Raggedy Ann. When the movie of Mame came out and I fell in love with Jane Connell’s Agnes Gooch, my mother swore Ann was played by Connell. (She wasn’t.)

Franz’s sign-off was, “Be good, and schmile at everybody!” Well, Ohio always did have a lot of Germans in it.

Franz, Woodrow, Barnaby and Captain Penny

I also owned the McDonald’s keepsake above, which I displayed proudly on my bedroom wall next to the portrait of Captain Penny. Left to right: Franz, Woodrow, Barnaby, the Captain.

Leif Ancker as Mister Mac JPEG

I don’t remember Aloysius T. MacGillicuddy (“Mister Mac,” played by Leif Ancker) but I certainly recall Popeye Theatre, which he hosted.


In 1969, when I was eight, we moved from Canton to Mt. Vernon, Ohio. No more Cleveland stations for us; now we were subject to the whims of Columbus. There were fewer choices, but that may have had as much to do with local programming cut-backs as anything else.

The Flippo Show

Flippo the Clown (Bob Marvin, nee Marvin W. Fishman) ran Looney Tunes in the morning — my first exposure to the pre-1948 titles that didn’t run on the Saturday morning network shows.

Flippo was a genuine curiosity, in that he hosted not only the morning children’s show and the Million Dollar Movie for housewives — which of course included a daily lottery drawing — and the afternoon movie… all while decked out in full clown costume. Since he presumably wore it, and the make-up, in the studio all day, I wonder if he “lived” the role off-camera…?

I liked Flippo. He wasn’t manic, like Clarabell, whom someone once memorably called “that psychotic clown.” In those days, a television clown, safely distanced by glass, cathode tube and physical miles, didn’t unnerve me. (Only when they got too close, in real life, at a circus or carnival, did I tend to squirm.)

Flippo

Flippo in palmier days, before the waistline went.

Fippo the Clown cropped

This is the Flippo of my memory, hosting the afternoon movie, from either 3 to 5 or 4 to 6. I forget which. We watched him, as we did everything else in my household throughout my childhood and adolescence, in black and white.

Thanks to Flippo I was exposed to a lot of old movies after school, although the only one I remember with any special clarity was the original 1942 Michael Korda Jungle Book starring Sabu. That one fascinated me because it was so very different from the 1967 Disney animated version, with which I had been absolutely besotted when I was 6 or 7, and much more like the Kipling stories. (When I saw the Korda again years later, I wondered how on earth, even at age 9, I could not have noticed how gorgeous Sabu was. I mean, I had a crush on Jonny Quest, for god’s sake!)

Flippo - TipTop Bandwagon

I have only the vaguest memory of Flippo’s morning children’s show, possibly because from the ages of eight to ten, while we were in Mt. Vernon, I was in school and saw it only if I was home sick, or on vacation.

Luci’s Toyhouse is a more vivid memory, possibly because I was always drawn to hand-puppets, and Luci (Lucille Gasaway) had a whole plethora of them, including Pierre, Lion, and Stanley Mouse. She also had a dragon —  who, let it be said, looked nothing like Burr Tillstrom’s Ollie. I owned a small replica puppet of that dragon for years, purchased at a personal Luci appearance in Mt. Vernon. I wish I had it still. I had a copy of this photo too:

Luci and friends

Stanly Mouse (Luci)

Right: Stanley Mouse from Luci’s Toyshop. It’s likely I remember his name so well because our babysitter’s name was Cindy Stanley. She once told us her little brother had been one of the children in the audience interviewed on the show. When Luci found out his last name and suggested he might be related to Stanley Mouse, her brother matter-of-factly replied, “Yes, and I have a sister named Cindy Stanley too.”

I have no special sense of nostalgia regarding these things. Or, if I do, it’s not for any specific personality or series but for the excited sensations of childhood, when just being alive and curious and engaged in the moment was itself a pleasure… before adolescent doubts and anxieties took so much of the sheer fun out of being young. That, and perhaps a kind of wistfulness for the days when local television stations actually gave half a damn what they fed to kids, and employed such creatures as Captain Penny and Luci to entertain young viewers as a matter of course. I do, however, find it diverting, on occasion, to remember.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

The bloom is off the rose: The Saturday morning cartoons of my youth in decline, 1969 – 1972

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By Scott Ross

Partly as a result of getting older, I suspect, the allure of Saturday morning cartoons began to abate somewhat as I turned eight. But only partly. I was still wild about animation (even the “limited” sort Chuck Jones once astutely termed “illustrated radio”), still spent my allowance on comic books, still went to every Disney movie that opened, and still listened largely to cartoon-related records. But the Great Moment was ending, and I think I sensed it. From the highs of Jonny Quest and The Banana Splits and The Mighty Heroes, there were more and more items like Hot Wheels, which — quite rightly — brought the ire of the FCC down on the network. And there was worse yet to come.



1969.
Old Business: The previous season Bugs Bunny moved from ABC to CBS, and was coupled with the Road Runner series under the omnibus heading The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, alleviating my 12-noon, which-should-I-watch? conundrum. Whew!

the_bugs_bunny_road_runner_Show

New Business: The networks took their Saturday morning fare very seriously in those days. Each typically ran a 30-minute promo on the Friday evening before unveiling their new shows. On one memorable Friday night in 1969, CBS aired not only their promo piece but a full half-hour pilot for what it was obviously expecting to be its breakout hit that year. More on that anon.

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1969 comics insert
I was more interested in a few other items on the slate. First, one of two Hanna-Barbera Wacky Races spin-offs, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. The voice of the villain was provided by my favorite Bewitched warlock and Hollywood Squares regular, Paul Lynde. The fact that my family had just moved from Canton, Ohio to Mt. Vernon, birthplace of the then-ubiquitous Mr. Lynde, was serendipity.

The Perils of Penelope Pitstop

Penelope seems dubious. Perhaps she knows something about Paul Lynde? (Who, if they had eyes and ears and a little imagination, didn’t?)

The other was Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines, a strange series revolving around Dick Dastardly attempts to shoot down a carrier pigeon during World War I (“Stop that pigeon! Stop that pigeon! Stop that pigeon now!”) “abetted” by, to paraphrase MAD magazine, a gang of the usual idiots. Since D.D. was voiced by Paul Winchell, using the same voice he’d employed in Wacky Races, his “side” didn’t seem to have been the Germans. But he could hardly have represented the Allies, especially as he’s clearly the villain of the piece, and is always foiled. See what I mean when I say it was strange? Still, I loved it. One of my most vivid memories of that time is walking back home from the YMCA on a bitterly cold Ohio January Saturday and finding my DDandMITFM Fan Club package in the day’s mail.

Dastardly and Muttey in Their Flying Machines
The other new show that tickled my fancy was a rare live-action series, The Monkees. Of course at the time I had no notion of just how ersatz and pre-fabricated the band was, or how determinedly the people behind the group (among them Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider) aped The Beatles in their feature films. But I suspect that, even if I had, it wouldn’t have mattered. I found them, and their show, cheerful, charming, and fun, from their famous “Monkees Walk” to their under-cranked antics. And it certainly didn’t hurt that their British component was the adorable former chorus-boy Davy Jones.

The Monkees

The show that CBS had pinned its hopes on turned out to be its big winner that year, but I found Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! a let-down. I liked the big, dumb Great Dane (memorably voiced by H-B stalwart Don Messick in the manner of Daws Butler’s Snuffles character from the old Quick Draw McGraw series — and his derivative, Astro of The Jetsons — especially in Scooby’s adoration of “Scooby-Snacks”) and the first image of the main title gave me a pleasant chill: Bats screaming from a prototypical haunted-house. Oh, boy! But in the pilot, as in every single episode after, the plot’s seeming phantasmagoria turned out to hold (yawn) a logical, and all too human, explanation. Like most children, I loved the eerie, the creepy, the ghastly, the ghostly. I wanted to be scared. I wanted ghouls. I wanted blood-thirsty monsters. Not some old guy running around in a rubber spook suit. (Nearly a decade earlier, Jonny Quest got it right. Were the networks now bowing to parental pressure?) For this 8-year old viewer, Scooby-Doo violated my expectations in the most prosaic fashion. I continued watching the show, but for the characters — such as they were — and for the cute blond Freddy, not for the series itself, its lame mysteries, or its anti-spectral solutions.

Scooby Doo

The Mystery, Inc. gang has been the collective victims of countless Internet porn spoofs… especially, in the gay arena, Shaggy and Fred.

The NBC line-up continued to be great fun. I remember tearing this promo spread from a Heckle and Jekyll comic; although I thought the artwork was strange, even a little crude, something about it appealed to and intrigued me.

1969 NBC insert

Along with the returning Banana Splits and Underdog, the most enjoyment was to be had with two new NBC series. The Pink Panther Show provided a forum for airing the Friz Freleng/David DePatie-produced theatrical Panther shorts, along with new ones, including a curious series called The Aardvark and the Ant in which a Dean Martin sound-alike emmet is menaced, Wile E. Coyote style, by a Jackie Masonesque anteater. (The Inspector shorts followed later.) But the cream of the crop was the genuinely bizarre Sid and Marty Krofft offering, H.R. Pufnstuf.

H R Pufnstuf

Pufnstuf was a comic fairy-tale in which a cute adolescent (the adorable Jack Wild, the Artful Dodger of Oliver!) washes up on an island populated by costumed characters, led by a Southern-accented dragon. Jimmy is perennially pursued by the ineffectual camp villain Witchipoo (Billie Hayes) because she wants her talons on the magical talking flute the boy carries in his pocket(!) There was also a big frog in leotards and a derby who looked like she wandered in from a Bob Fosse musical (she was called “Judy,” so perhaps the Kroffts were invoking Garland), evil trees, talking alarm-clocks and a sneezing house. It was crazy, atrocious, and enchanting.


1970.

1970 comics insert CBS

Hanna-Barbera continued exercising its pop music bent with two new shows, Josie and the Pussycats and The Harlem Globetrotters. Filmation likewise mutated The Archies (Archie’s Funhouse Featuring the Giant Juke Box) and the Kroffts followed up the quasi-musical H.R. Pufnstuf with The Bugaloos, a bunch of adolescent insect musicians menaced by yet another wacky wiccan, this time played by Martha Raye, on NBC. The Archie Andrews universe also gave birth to Sabrina and the Groovie Ghoulies, fright-show refugees who (naturally) have their own rock band.

Josie and the Pussycats

Josie, which looked like an animated Hefner fantasy, at least had the distinction of having an integrated trio. The Bugaloos was also integrated. I wonder why I don’t remember how cute John Philpott was.

the-bugaloos-1970

I’d loved watching the real Harlem Globetrotters on television, and I enjoyed seeing them on Saturday mornings, even in lousy Hanna-Barbera animation and saddled with dumb plots and a little old (white) lady bus driver. They also sang, quite well (especially Meadowlark Lemon) and the eventual Harlem Globetrotters television soundtrack LP is still a cheery, funky delight.

The-Harlem-Globetrotters

Meanwhile, over at ABC…1970 ABC comics insert

While I was looking forward to Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please… Sit Down! (and which I now scarcely recall…)

Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please… Sit Down
Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp

… the winner of the bizarro sweepstakes that year was, hands down, Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. Almost indescribable, LLSC starred a cast of costumed primates playing out a Cold War satire (although the chief villain had a monocle and a vaudeville Cherman accent… don’t think about that too long) and riding around on chopped motorcycles complete with training wheels, with the lead’s voice performed à la Humphrey Bogart.

A part of me finds this sort of thing cruel now, but at the time it amused me no end.


1971.

I continued to spend now-wasted hours in front of the tube on Saturdays at 10, but with an increasing loss of enthusiasm. Even comic books, my mainstay since the age of four, had begun to pall on me, what with paltry narratives, indifferent artwork and increasing cover prices. (The obvious exceptions being those featuring reprints, such as the Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge.) The magic was waning.

The new Pebbles and Bam-Bam Show was mildly intriguing. Even more interesting than the teenage versions of the Flintstones’ and the Rubbles’ somewhat bland offspring — their sidekicks were quirkier, and more fun — was the fact that they were voiced by Sally Struthers and Jay North. Poor Jay North.

Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show

Archie’s TV Funnies

Archie Andrews’ world was re-jiggered yet again, with the utterly weird Archie’s TV Funnies. I was a comic strip maven, so I enjoyed it, but it’s hard to fathom that the Filmation team imagined 1970s kids would be turned on by animated versions of Nancy and Sluggo, Moon Mullins, The Katzenjammer Kids (or The Captain and the Kids, as it was known) and Smokey Stover. Broom Hilda was at least current, but Russell Meyers’ strip was far funnier, savvier, more clever, and better drawn, than what showed up on this curious piece of mishegoss.

The finest new show was not a cartoon but a revival of a 1950s series. You Are There dramatized historical events, and was hosted by Walter Cronkite. I still recall many of its episodes, notably the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the incapacitation of Woodrow Wilson, and the confirmation of the Zimmerman telegraph. Instructive, never condescending, always intelligent, they brought history to life in a most immediate and engaging manner.

You-Are-There-The-Alamo-1971-16mm-Film

One of Hanna-Barbera’s endless sausage-factory entries this season was Help! It’s the Hair-Bear Bunch! which the author of the venerable TVParty.com site succinctly regards as “stupid beyond belief.”

Help! It’s the Hair-Bear Bunch!


Lidsville Charles Nelson Reilly and Butch Patrick

1972.

The Kroffts returned again, this time with Lidsville. Starring another of my early crushes, the erstwhile Eddie Munster, Butch Patrick, the show also featured former Witchipoo Billie Hayes as Weenie the Genie. (Weenie the Genie”?) But the greatest pull was the villain: The great Charles Nelson Reilly, described by TVParty.com as “the biggest queen ever to parade across the Saturday morning screens.”


The most pleasing of the new cartoons this season — the only good one, really, especially for a Filmation show — was without doubt Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Hosted by Bill Cosby and based in part on his childhood memories, and the use of them in his stand-up comedy LPs of the 1960s, the show gave voice (and presence) to urban black youth for the very first time on Saturday morning. The characters were quirky, funny and engaging, and while there were what I now think of as Dread Moral Lessons packed into in each episode like a pill you try to hide in your pet’s puppy-treat, the series, which ran for an astonishing 13 years, was (at least in the beginning) often very fine. Far above the Filmation norm… although if, like me, you saw what might be regarded as the pilot, the 1969 special Hey, Hey, Hey! It’s Fat Albert, when it first aired and it might have seemed to you that the characters, in their slicker Filmation incarnations, lost more than a little style and a great deal of soul, in the process.

Hey Hey Hey It's Fat Albert

fat albert and the cosby kids

This was the last year I really cared to sit around watching the Saturday morning shows, at least without something else to do… a pad to draw in, something to write, maybe a comic book. My interests were changing (novels, as opposed to comics, for example.)

I was certainly changing. But the seemingly endless Saturday morning party was coming to a close. The shows were becoming cuter (The Smurfs, The Care Bears) and more opportunistic (The Jackson 5ive first, then The OsmondsThe Brady Kids and finally, the nadir, The Partridge Family 2200 A.D.) It wasn’t enough to engage a halfway intelligent adolescent mind (if that isn’t an oxymoron) and certainly a plunge into the abyss after the highs of my childhood.

The CBS Children’s Film Festival ad

One pleasant after-note: In 1971, The CBS Children’s Film Festival “officially” joined the Saturday line-up. Although, curiously, it was not on the ballyhooed schedule until then, I had been enjoying the show (presumably in syndication) since the mid-to-late ’60s, drawn initially by its hosts, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, but held by the many splendid movies that followed the opening segment. The films themselves had charm and appeal, and while they were often about troubled youths in difficult circumstances in foreign climes, they never felt didactic or moralistic to me. And they had, in KF&O, the perfect, gentle hosts. Naturally, the Kuklapolitans were eventually axed by CBS, like Captain Kangaroo on weekday mornings.

The party was definitely at an end. And there are few things more dispiriting than a sugar-cereal hangover.

The CBS Children’s Film Festival

Judging from the CBS mike in Kukla’s hand, and the cunning winter duds, I assume K, F & O are reporting from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Thanks once again to TV Party.com for much of the information gleaned for this essay.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

A consummate groove: The Saturday morning cartoons of my youth, 1966 – 1968

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By Scott Ross

In the 28 December 1968 installment of his “The Glass Teat” column for the Los Angeles Free Press, Harlan Ellison copped to being “a devout Saturday morning cartoon watcher,” noting in the nomenclature of the time, parsed as only he would, that the then-current network offerings were “a consummate groove.” I know what he meant.

Ellison - The Glass Teat

Although my conscious memory stretches back, improbable as it might seem, to the age of one or two, I date my memory of that cherished ritual of the TeeVee Generation — rising before Mom and Dad bestirred themselves, bolting down a bowl of Coco-Puffs (or Rice Crispies or Cap’n Crunch or whatever the sugar delivery-system du jour might have been) in the kitchen (we were not allowed to eat in the living room except on TV trays, and then only on special occasion) and plunking ourselves down in front of the tube for the next several hours — to 1966. I was five then, and already cartoon-mad. For roughly the next six years, as my tastes evolved and the glories of the form began first to magnify and expand and then to cheapen and recede inexorably, on Saturdays the cathode box was my companion, my babysitter, my best friend.

Thanks to TVParty.com I have lately been able to reconstruct the full panoply of those (mostly animated) delights that held me rapt, and kept me out of my mother’s hair, for roughly four or five hours every Saturday morning during those years.


The Mighty Heroes

1966. Some lunatic called Ralph Bakshi, of whom I would learn more later, came up with a crazed entry for CBS called The Mighty Heroes, taking off from the costumed crime-fighter comic book craze and consisting of Diaper Man, Tornado Man, Strong Man, Rope Man and (my favorite) Cuckoo Man. My memory of the show is a bit vague, but those wild character designs remain vivid.

Underdog

The TTV-Leonardo folks, meanwhile, who had previously given us King Leonardo and His Short Subjects, came up with their own wonky superhero, Underdog. Voiced by Wally Cox, of all people, his transformation from shy, retiring Shoeshine Boy to intrepid do-gooder was accompanied by the immortal cry, “There’s no need to fear: Underdog is here!” I can still recall his sweetheart, Polly Purebread, performing a song called “Let’s Bongo Congo.” Why? Beats me.

Porky Pig and Friends

Over on ABC, vintage Warner Bros. cartoons were re-packaged under the rubric Porky Pig and Friends, featuring a main title sequence which even then I knew was remarkably and truly ugly.

Atom Ant lunchbox

“Up and at ’em, Atom Ant!”

As Porky ran opposite the Hanna-Barbera Atom Ant, I rarely saw him until the network moved him to Sunday morning. My first school lunchbox featured this formican wonder-worker. Hanna-Barbera had a second offering on ABC, Secret Squirrel; he and his co-hort, Morocco Mole, were on the flip-side of the Atom Ant lunchbox, along with a character I barely remember, the somewhat unsettling Squiddly Diddly. I recall with far greater alacrity Atom Ant‘s Precious Pup for his wheezing snicker, which H-B, never a pair to be shy about beating any gag into the ground and on to China, used for several other canine characters over the ensuing years.

The Beatles

Cashing in on the phenomenal popularity of a certain mop-topped quartet of Liverpudlians, ABC gave us The Beatles in Filmation form. The songs were theirs, but their voices were provided by Paul Frees (John, George) and Lance Percival (Paul, Ringo.) Like, too mod!

The Goober Pyle-esque Milton the Monster is, sadly, forgotten now. But I recall him fondly; I was especially taken with Count Kook’s weekly main title request, “When the stirring’s done, may I lick the spoon?” I used that line on my mother whenever she mixed batter.

Milton the Monster 1965_L01

“I’m Milton, your brand-new son!”

The Jetsons was one of many attempts by Hanna-Barbera to replicate their success in prime-time with The Flintstones. It ran a single season, but found life in perpetuity on Saturday mornings. As an adult, I was amused to discover the Joe McDoakes series of comedy shorts starring George O’Hanlon, the voice of George Jetson.

The Jetsons - End title

“Help! Jane! Stop this crazy thing! Help! Jane!”

Noon was a time of deep frustration. On CBS, there was The Road Runner Show with its catchy (albeit all too ’60s) theme song and Chuck Jones-designed main titles. Over at ABC, The Bugs Bunny Show, featuring the immortal “On with the show, this is it” opening and “Starring that Oscar-winning rabbit, Bugs Bunny.” And on NBC, Bob Kane’s Cool McCool with its own hip theme song (“Danger is his business.”) I must have driven myself slightly nuts deciding between this trio of mouth-watering entities.

Virgil Ross - Wile E. Coyoye model sheet

A Virgil Ross model sheet for Wile E. Coyote.

show_bugs-bunny_logo

 

 

 

 

Cool McCool

Cool McCool

I suspect I switched from the Cool McCool opening to Bugs and then back and forth between the bunny and the Road Runner. The choices! They could drive a poor child mad!
The Bugs Bunny Show end logo

The original nighttime Bugs Bunny Show ran prior the networks moving to color. Since my parents never owned a color set, this is how I saw everything while I was growing up.

Magilla Gorilla ran after that, briefly, followed by Tom and Jerry, which also eventually ended up as a Sunday morning offering. As I’ve grown older I have less and less admiration for those early Hanna-Barbera shorts, as beautifully animated as most of them are; they seem largely exercises in grotesque cruelty. But I still love it when Tom gasps.
The Tom and Jerry Show


1967. One of the occasional pleasures for a comic book aficionado in the mid-’60s was the seasonal appearance, usually in two-page centerfold spread, of ads touting a network’s new fall Saturday morning offerings. I used to pull these from my comics and keep them in a growing cache of newspaper and other clippings.

1967 comics insert

ABC 1967 comic book insert

Very few of the new ’67 shows appealed to me especially. My comics of choice were of the “funny animal” variety: Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck, Looney Tunes characters, Hanna-Barbera, the Harvey comics and John Stanley titles like Little Lulu and Melvin Monster. Superheroes bored me then, as indeed they largely do now. I remember Spiderman mostly for its theme-song, but I suppose I must have watched a few of the others, simply because they made up the bulk of the offerings on all three networks, broken up only by The Flintstones, Atom Ant and another failed Hanna-Barbera attempt at prime-time, the Bilkoesque Top Cat. (Voiced by Arnold Stang, no less!) Another catchy theme song in that, one that was cannibalized years later by the makers of the exuberantly, hilariously offensive Queer Duck.

Top Cat

Top Cat! / The most effectual / Top Cat! / Who’s intellectual…

The two standouts that season were polar opposites. One was completely new, the other yet one more Hanna-Barbera prime-time cast-off that ran a single season. One was the product of two of the most inventive, even subversive, minds ever to work in the field of television cartoons, forever pushing the boundaries between adult sensibility and childish humor; the other the natural outgrowth of comic book adventure tropes geared to pre-adolescent boys.

George of the Jungle

George of the Jungle issued from Jay Ward and Bill Scott, the inspired loons behind Rocky and Bullwinkle. In it, an inept ersatz Tarzan (“Watch out for that… treeeee!”) disported himself with a gorilla who sounded suspiciously like Ronald Coleman, and a jungle maiden named Ursula (shades of Miss Andress), whom George called “Fella.” In between their escapades were the adventures of Henry Cabot Henhouse III, aka Super Chicken, and the stalwart racer Tom Slick. It was wild, unpredictable, full of outrageous puns and inexplicable sight-gags. And, as with Rocky and Bullwinkle, one enjoys it even more as an adult than one did as a child.

Super Chicken
George’s polar opposite, Jonny Quest, was straight-up action-adventure, usually in “exotic” climes and often with supernatural, or seemingly supernatural, forces at work: Mummies, werewolves, terrifying globs of invisible energy, gargoyles, Komodo dragons, spider-like one-eyed robots and, in one especially memorable episode, a pterodactyl. It was a curiously homoerotic enterprise, what with the family group consisting of Jonny, his widowed father Dr. Quest, the Doctor’s humpy factotum Race Bannon, the Doctor’s Indian ward Hadji and, aside from the mysterious Jade, no women or girls to speak of. The character designs were by the comics artist Doug Wildey, the astonishing, Big Band driven theme was by Hoyt Curtin, and Jonny himself constituted my very first crush.* Typical of me, I suppose, that the first boy I fell in love with was a cartoon character.

jonnymodel

Doug Wildey’s model sheet for Jonny Quest


1968.
1968 cbsart

Go-Go Gophers insert

TTV came up with Go-Go Gophers, an animated Indian Wars satire more or less on the level of F-Troop. The Natives may have been visually offensive, but the White Man was represented by bumbling foxes led by the incomparably inane Colonel Kit Coyote, so I
suppose there was something here to offend everyone.

Wacky Races
Hanna-Barbera weighed in with the truly bizarre Wacky Races, in which a platoon of improbable vehicles and their alternately weird and/or creepy drivers, vied each week to out-smart, and outvillainize, each other. The lead stinker was the superbly malevolent Dick Dastardly (voice by Paul Winchell) who seems to have been designed after Jack Lemmon’s Professor Fate in The Great Race. His side-kick, Muttley, inherited Precious Pup’s wheezy chortle.

The Archies

Also making their debut were The Archies, Filmation’s adaption of the Archie Andrews comics, in which the teens had, naturally, their own band. They even got a Top 40 hit (“Sugar, Sugar”) out of it. Debate topic: Was there ever a good Filmation series?

The Banana Splits

Best of the… er… bunch… though, was the Hanna-Barbera produced, Sid and Marty Krofft-designed The Banana Splits. Four costumed nut-cases (the character designs were by Sid and Marty Krofft, and Fleagle was voiced by Paul Winchell) danced, cavorted, engaged in slapstick, played pop songs, and hosted animated shorts (The Three Musketeers, The Hillbilly Bears, Arabian Nights, Micro Venture) and a live-action cliff-hanger called Danger Island! whose catch-phrase (“Uh-oh… Chongo!”) became ubiquitous. The Banana Splits theme (“The Tra-La-La Song”) was pretty nifty too.

I was wild about this show. I had Banana Splits hand-puppets, Banana Splits comics, and was a Banana Splits Fan Club member. Somehow, I missed the two 45 rpm EPs. Well, one can only eat so much sugared cereal.

Curiously, I didn’t recall that Danger Island! featured a much later crush, the impossibly pulchritudinous blond beach-bum Jan-Michael Vincent. Perhaps I was too distracted by Jonny Quest to notice. But with that boy running around half-naked and being a part of such jaw-dropping homoerotic images as the above, I’m shocked it all went past me so easily.

Danger Island

Stay tuned, boys and girls! Part Two comes your way next!


*Somewhat ironically, I discovered to my disappointment years later that Jonny’s voice, Tim Matheson, was in adulthood an especially rank homophobe. Even now, in the supposedly more enlightened 21st century, so is Vincent. One cannot help thinking the gentlemen protest too much.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Some kind of crazy genius: Ludwig von Drake and his creators

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By Scott Ross

Making his first appearance in the world the same year as your humble scribe was one of my very favorite cartoon characters. Professor Ludwig von Drake, acknowledged expert on everything (and if you don’t believe that, just ask him) debuted on Walt Disney’s Sunday evening showcase The Wonderful World of Color, as it then was, in September 1961. He is unique among what I think of as the great Disney characters in that he is the only one who was created, not for the movies, but for television.

Ludwig, Walt and Peacock resized

Ludwig von Drake, annoying both Walt Disney and the NBC Peacock.

Designed by the magnificent Milt Kahl, Von Drake benefited from the use of the then-new Xerox technology so beloved of the Disney animators because, unlike more traditional ink-and-paint coloring and finishing, it preserved their original drawings in a rougher (and, they believed) truer form, preserving the spirit of their renderings. The Professor, with his fringe of hair and feathery hands, was a natural for the Xerox treatment.

Milt Kahl model sheet resized

Ward Kimball

For many years, I mistakenly attributed Von Drake to Ward Kimball’s dry, comic brain. Kimball did animate the Professor, although Von Drake’s initial appearance, in which he sang “The Spectrum Song” by the Sherman Brothers, was directed by Hamilton Luske and animated by Woolie Reitherman and Les Clark.

If you look at Von Drake’s physiognomy, though, there is an uncanny resemblance to Kimball in his later years. However, since Ludwig’s emergence took place during the animator’s middle age, this is surely, however attractive a thought, merely retroactive suggestion.

Milt Kahl key animation resized

Key animation by Milt Kahl.

The Disney organization seemed to be pushing Von Drake for stardom pretty hard at the time of his debut. He showed up on magazine covers…

TV Week

… in Al Taliaferro’s Donald Duck comic strip…

Donald comic

… in children’s books…

… in his own comic book (short-lived as it was with only four issues)…†

… on jigsaw puzzles (I had this one, four or five years later)…

Jigsaw puzzle

Ludwig screaming

Yes, Professor, I agree. Vait just a second!

Still, there was something about Von Drake, beyond the Disney hard-sell. First, Kahl’s brilliant character design. Second, his vocalization by the great Paul Frees. Of all Frees’ myriad comic voices (Boris Badenov, Inspector Fenwick, Super Chicken’s sidekick Fred, the Burgomeister Meisterberger) Ludwig is his masterpiece: The only slightly exaggerated accent* (all those marvelous, rolling r’s), the explosive temper (which, in spite of the lack of official genealogy, does rather link him both with Donald and with Scrooge McDuck), the muttered asides, the outrageous braggadocio.Frees and von Drake resized

Although Von Drake appeared in some very fine short subjects both for television (An Adventure in Color, Kids is Kids, The Truth About Mother Goose) and theatrical release (A Symposium on Popular Songs) nowhere is his (and Frees’) absolute brilliance demonstrated more completely than in the superb Disneyland LP Professor Ludwig von Drake.LP

I discovered this record in a music shop in downtown Mt. Vernon, Ohio in 1970; the proprietor, who stocked sheet music and instruments as well as a few LPs, had a wire-rack display of Disneyland and Buena Vista albums. I must have taxed his patience pulling out these treasures over several months, weighing which one I wanted most (the That Darn Cat soundtrack? The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?) but always coming back to Ludwig. Since I only received a half-dollar weekly allowance, of which half went into my savings account, that other half had to go for my comic books (15 cents then, and I’d never forgiven the publishers for raising the cover price from 12) and whatever else I wanted. I must have gotten a few extra dollars for Christmas or my 10th birthday, because one day that winter I nervously approached the music shop with the whole six dollars necessary in my hand, earnestly praying Ludwig was still there.

He was.

I damn near wore that record to the constituency of a hockey-puck.

The album’s delicious songs are by Disney’s house composers, the then pre-Mary Poppins Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. And while there is no writer credited on the LP jacket, I now assume (and await correction for this presumption) that they wrote the material on it, in collaboration with Frees.

Shermans

Richard B. and Robert M. Sherman, at work on the songs for The Jungle Book in 1967.

Aside from the songs, and a few gags, however, nothing on the album feels written. Frees’ exuberant, egocentric chat — hilarious muttered asides and all — sounds wholly ex tempore, as if it was all pouring out of his (or Von Drake’s) brain and off his tongue at the moment the reels of tape began rolling. Early on, Von Drake begins nattering about The Wonderful World of Color as though he was solely responsible for it, his muttering becoming more and more indistinct as he prattles on about some imaginary creative genius called Disney (“…some kind of a duck or something…”) Walt must have loved that.‡

I don’t know exactly what to call what the Messrs. Sherman, Sherman and Frees wrought on this album, but each time I hear it I find it perilously close to some kind of crazy genius.

Wonder Bread sticker

A Wonder Bread premium sticker from the 1970s. I remember this one with a great deal more pleasure than the memory of chewing that sawdust-and-mucilage solid gruel they called a loaf of bread.


*The conception of Ludwig — an educated blowhard who’s nearly always wrong — owes much to Sid Caesar’s recurrent “Professor” character from Your Show of Shows, although Caesar’s accent is much broader than the one Frees opted for.

†The fine, underrated duck cartoonist Tony Strobl provided the artwork for the Von Drake comics.

‡The LP was re-released on CD, slightly and rather curiously truncated (a snippet of introductory music and dialogue at the beginning of “I’m Professor Ludwig von Drake,” a word or two here and there later) at one of the Disneyland shops in a sale-on-demand format. I’m grateful and relieved I managed to snag a copy online, as it seems no longer to be made.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

I Think I Love You: My early crush on David Cassidy

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Note: This was written in 2013, while its subject was still very much with us. I didn’t write about him when he died, so consider this a kind of belated tribute.

By Scott Ross

He was not my first celebrity crush. That honor fell to Jonny Quest. Yeah, yeah — he was a cartoon. So, sue me; I was seven.

(Hadji was pretty cute, too.)

quest-johnny-hadji-read-blue-boy-mags-from-race

Jonny and Hadji discover Race Bannon’s books of illustrated gay Kama Sutra. “Look, Jonny: Here’s a position we haven’t tried…”

Bobby Sherman caused a ping on my nascent, pre-pubescent radar when I saw him in the late ’60s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers teevee rip-off Here Come the Brides. But Bobby was a minor tremor. In 1970 The Partridge Family detonated an atomic bomb under my unconscious homoerotic imagination, in the lithe, compact form of a 20 year-old mop-top with the most beautiful face I’d ever laid my young eyes on.

DCSongBook3

Is it wrong that I kinda want to kiss David’s gall-bladder scar?

At nine, I couldn’t have begun to articulate David’s appeal. But by 10 I was vying with my older sister in amassing the larger pile of 16 and Tiger Beat magazines featuring the beautiful young man who rang my chimes so decisively, if enigmatically. It would take me some time to understand why my heart raced a little faster whenever I watched David Cassidy move, or heard his sexy, understated baritone in the more “serious” moments of the sit-com in which he starred with his step-mother.

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The iconic 1972 Annie Leibovitz Rolling Stone magazine photo. I imagine it was a prized (if hidden) keepsake for many, many teenage gay boys of that time.

His singing impressed me as well. At 15, lonely, on the verge of discovering my sexuality and (although I didn’t realize it at the time) chronically depressed, I found a cache of Partridge Family LPs in the cut-out bin at Sam Goody’s for, I think, 50 cents apiece. I bought them all, listening through headphones as David sang to me:

“Brown Eyes, you’re beautiful…”
(Well, my eyes are hazel…)

“I can’t sleep at night / I ain’t been eatin’ right / Just seeing you and me / Together…”
(Me too, David. Me too.)

“We go on / Sneaking around / Meeting in shadows / Hidin’ away…”
(Why did I want to meet in shadows with David Cassidy?)

“This is you / This pillow that I’m huggin’ and I’m kissin’…”
(Swoon…)

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DC by AL, again.

In my early 20s I read that David once gave an interview, at the height of his then-massive fame, to a German magazine in which he admitted to a gay past. A few years later I read that, during those early years, his personal manager was also his lover. Yet even now, Cassidy asserts that he’s never been anything but 100% heterosexual (like his father?) Well, he’s had a lot problems…

I’ve also been hearing for years that all the Cassidy boys share an over-sized endowment. Not being a size-queen, ever, I really don’t care how big David’s shvantz might be. Or Sean’s, or Patrick’s. Although one also hears that Sean hasn’t been above sharing it with other guys. (Like half-brother like half-brother?) Well, a boy can dream, can’t he?

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David Cassidy wanted to be a hard-core rock-n-roller, but he just didn’t have the chops for it. He had a great range, but his vocal quality was too gentle for the heavy stuff. After hearing him croon his way through all that bubble-gum pop, who could take a hard-rockin’ David Cassidy seriously? That’s not to disparage those songs. I liked them then, and I still do. There were a lot of very gifted songwriters churning them out for the series: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, Tony Romeo, Wes Ferrell — even Paul Anka and the young Rupert Holmes.

David in shower

Aside: David had a cute tush too. There was an episode of The Partridge Family in which Danny (the eternally obnoxious Mr. Bonaduce) gave a fictitious interview to a gossip rag, in which “Keith Partridge” allegedly sported a rose tattoo on his… well, no one said the word, but the spot in question was clearly implied as his ass. In a later scene, Keith is taking a post-gym class shower when all the other boys in his class try to sneak a look at his butt, to see if the story is true. (What, they never saw it before this?) The camera discloses David, wearing a towel around his waist, smirking at the prurience of his classmates. How many of us wanted that damn towel to fall off?

What matters far more to me about David Cassidy than the elusive answer to the Did-He-or-Didn’t-He? question is just how preternaturally beautiful he was — “androgynous” is the term most often used for him, although I don’t think he looked all that feminine.

He was simply, and to me, perfectly, gorgeous.
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Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Reckless: “Point of Order!” (1964) and “Citizen Cohn” (1992)

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By Scott Ross

If Roy Cohn had not existed, I can’t imagine why anyone would have wanted to invent him. The best one can do with such a composite figure of venality, avarice, hypocrisy, corruption and ethical rot is what Tony Kushner accomplished: To re-invent him, for dramatic purposes — as a symbol, yes, but as an appallingly human one. The great irony of Cohn’s life is that he should be best remembered as a character in an intellectual playwright’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” How the cosmic perfection of that would have rankled him!

Kushner’s Cohn is the prefect embodiment of self-loathing squeezed into bespoke Armani, a man who, even as he is stricken with “the gay plague” is able to justify himself to his physician with a monologue that sums up a sense of personal identity breathtaking in its blindness to reality:

“Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels […] To someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can’t get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows. Now, Henry, does that sound like me? […] I have sex with men, but unlike nearly every other man of which this is true, I bring the guy I’m screwing to Washington, and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand, because what I am is defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.”

Paradoxically, the image of Cohn as something approximating a human being is encased, like a tsetse fly in mass-produced amber, in the kinescopes of the 1954 Army-McCarthy Hearings from which Emil de Antonio and Daniel Talbot concocted their mesmerizing 1964 Point of Order! I won’t call the picture a documentary, although it is certainly that, in the demotic sense of a living history. Rather the movie is a chronicle — a modern morality play if you like, one which carried with it the ultimate in unintended consequences. Cohn and Senator Joseph McCarthy, for whom he worked, expected these hearings to vindicate them, and to further their fruitless inquisition into alleged Communist infiltration of the government. That they were wholly unsuccessful in doing so, leaving only suicide and despair in their wake, was of no concern to them; they anticipated the televised hearings as a spectacular in which they would star. The maxim “Be careful what you wish for” ought to have been hung over both men’s desks, but their preening arrogance was such that neither foresaw the ultimate outcome: Humiliation for both, and senate censure for “Tail Gunner Joe.”

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You can actually see, in the act of hubris that brings about their downfall, the moment when Cohn realized the jig was up: The instantly famous “Have you no decency, sir?” scene — for scene it most assuredly was — played in monologue by the Army’s counsel Joseph Welch. As McCarthy flails in the wake of the spontaneous burst of applause that erupts in the hearing room, desperately attempting to extricate himself from his own, neatly tailored straitjacket, a look of squirming panic crosses Cohn’s features. Whether, as some maintain, he warned McCarthy in advance not to attempt a smear of Welch’s colleague Fred Fisher, the squall of anguish that briefly grips Cohn at least conveys that McCarthy’s young counsel was smarter than his boss. McCarthy blunders on, and on, digging himself in deeper, unable to recognize (or perhaps realize) that he’s lost the entire war in that one moment of “recklessness and cruelty.”

That Welch was fully prepared for his seemingly spontaneous chiding of the Senator seems self-evident. That he was playing, far more expertly than the more seasoned McCarthy, directly to the television audience as well as to the spectators in that crowded hearing room (just as he defined himself, disingenuously, as a “simple lawyer” when he was quite obviously anything but) does not dilute the impact that moment had on its viewers, or indeed the way we respond to it now. If Ed Morrow’s “See it Now” exposé of McCarthy was the first nail in the junior Senator from Wisconsin’s political coffin, Welch’s indictment of him was the last.

Welch at Army-McCarthy hearings

The apotheosis of that “simple lawyer” routine was very likely a bit earlier, when, asked by McCarthy to define what a pixie is, Welch responds, with apparent good humor, “I would say that a pixie is a close relative of a fairy.” It got a good laugh, but there is something unsettling about it, as there was earlier, when, during discussion of an Army investigation into “homosexual behavior” on a Southern base, Senator after Senator fell over himself to be assured the encampment was not in his state. A pixie is more closely related to an elf (a characterization that rather fits Joseph Welch, twinkling merrily and making gentle witticisms) but the Army’s counsel surely knew that, in 1954, the word “fairy” would mean something entirely different to his audience. That he made that statement while cross-examining Cohn is telling. Welch may have been subtler than his adversary, but I don’t think he was any less devious or even — to use his own word — cruel.*

Curiously, close attention to Point of Order! causes the alert viewer to realize that, in purely legal terms, McCarthy and Cohn were often correct. More damningly, we are able to grasp, knowing the sort of man Roy Cohn was, that Secretary of Defense Robert Stevens almost certainly perjured himself when he denied Cohn had threatened him. Stevens dismisses as ridiculous the idea that Cohn could have promised to destroy both the President and the Army itself if he didn’t get his way on the treatment of draftee G. David Schine. But doesn’t what Cohn is alleged to have said sound like him?

McCarthy with Schine photo

The matter of Schine, which brought about the hearings themselves, is practically a Cohn special in itself. Whether or not he and Schine were intimate, as some have alleged, McCarthy’s counsel certainly took a strangely personal interest in the young hotel chain heir, attempting repeatedly to garner for his protégé cushy Army sinecures and intimating, in the stupidly and easily exposed cropped photo of Schine and Stevens, that the Secretary was obliging.

There was, in some quarters in 1964, criticism of deAntonio and Talbot for making less a documentary than something else. This is of course perfectly true, but not in the way their detractors meant. These commentators wanted their documentary straight, with point of view, narration, and camera manipulation telling them what to think. What the makers of Point of Order! had in mind was something entirely different: A document that makes its own statement, through the use of un-narrated, un-accented, found footage. It is, for example, surely no accident that, in sifting through what must, over the six-week period of those hearings, have been at least dozens of hours of footage, the future Attorney General is glimpsed in the background multiple times, his patrician looks and perfect coiffure in notable attendance. The Kennedy acolytes don’t like to admit it, but Bobby worked for McCarthy. In this way, his presence reflects the very sort of (also hotly denied) neoliberal McCarthyism that currently has in its manic grip all manner and condition of supposed liberal Democrats.


That the footage excerpted by the makers of Point of Order! is so readily available makes the failures of Citizen Cohn (1992) all the more curious. Adapted by David Franzoni from Nicholas von Hoffman’s cleverly titled 1988 biography, the HBO movie is so cartoonish and gets things so spectacularly, terribly wrong, that one can be distracted from what’s good in it. But the worst of its excesses is its blatant ripping-off of Kushner’s epic, two-part masterwork. One of the playwright’s most deliciously theatrical conceits lies in the presence, in Cohn’s private hospital room, of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Not content with duplicating this device, Franzoni ups the ante, bringing in the shades of McCarthy, Welch, the elder Cohns, and even a black juror from Roy’s 1968 trial on a wide variety of charges. Although Citizen Cohn predates the Broadway premiere of Angels, the first play (Millennium Approaches) was printed in American Theatre magazine in 1990, so Franzoni’s appropriation of the device can hardly be a coincidence. Why Kushner didn’t sue over that one, I can’t imagine.†

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Some of the actors (notably Joseph Bologna as Walter Winchell, Lee Grant as Cohn’s mother, Joe Petruzzi as Cohn’s boyfriend Peter and David Marshall Grant as a Robert F. Kennedy sporting a ludicrous, wildly unkempt hairdo) succumb to the cartoon-like quality of the piece, and are lost. Others (Ed Flanders as Welch, Jeffrey Nordling as Schine, Pat Hingle as J. Edgar Hoover, Karen Ludwig as Ethel Rosenberg, Daniel Benzali as that old closet-queen Cardinal Spellman, Frances Foster and Novella Nelson as two women named Annie Lee Moss, and Allen Garfield as Abe Feller) underplay and thus fare considerably better. But it is up to Frederic Forrest (as Dashiell Hammett), John McMartin as a doctor, Josef Sommer as Cohn’s father, Tovah Feldshuh as one of his wronged clients, the wonderful Fritz Weaver as Senator Everett Dirksen and Daniel Hugh Kelly as the Congressman Neil Gallagher (who gives back to Hoover in spades what that hypocritical old fascist deals to him) to provide that special thespic something that, to be unutterably prosaic, qualifies as veritable gales of fresh air.

James Woods, as Cohn, gives one of his patented scenery-chewing performances. Ron Leibman and Al Pacino were also… I believe the polite phrase is “larger than life”… in the 1993 premiere and the 2003 telefilm (also produced for HBO) of Angels respectively. And while Pacino looks nothing like Cohn, even eschewing the man’s increasingly bald pate, his performance is so riveting and so true you forgive him everything. There is a smugness about Woods that breaks through his characterizations, and it’s really on parade here, even during the Army-McCarthy Hearings. The Cohn Americans saw on their television screens was, if voluble, quiet and almost gentle, aware of the cameras but never (unlike his boss) playing to them. Woods smirks and mugs to the veriest galleries.

Worse, the director, Frank Pierson, stages the now-infamous Welch cross-examination with utter disregard for how it played out in Washington. He has Cohn, during the “Have you no decency?” exchange, seated, not across from Welch but beside him. All to give Woods a big, showy moment of standing up and stalking out of the hearing room, to the sound of a standing ovation from the spectators for Welch that goes on and on and on; what was in history a brief, shocking explosion is reinvented as the cheers of a first-night audience screaming “Author!”

That isn’t merely bad filmmaking, it’s bad history.

It has Roy Cohn written all over it.


*That Cohn also engaged in fag-baiting during the pernicious “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s, helping to persecute other homosexual men, does not mitigate Welch’s snideness.

†Others did: Franzoni was the source, via a plagiarism suit against Spielberg and company over his screenplay, of the legal trouble that faced Amistad on its 1997 opening. He is also a screenwriter with a long and well-documented penchant of getting historical events absolutely wrong.

Text (other than Tony Kushner’s) copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

Victory at Sea (1952 – 1953)

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By Scott Ross

For an industry in its infancy the 26 episodes of Victory at Sea, broadcast on American television every Sunday afternoon from October 1952 to May 1953, were an unparalleled achievement. And for a nation (indeed, a planet) for which the Second World War was still a very fresh memory, the series must surely have been as compelling as anything the new medium had ever attempted. 60 years later and despite its occasionally strident tone, it is still a remarkable, often stunning, example of the documentarian’s art.*

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What is almost instantly apparent about Victory at Sea is how extraordinarily well its producer, Harry Salomon and his chief editor, Isaac Kleinerman, handled the phenomenal task of collecting, collating and editing an estimated 60 million feet of footage to 61 thousand for broadcast, a staggering 100-to-1 ratio. Remarkable too is the series’ comprehensive overview, from Japan’s incursions into China to the return of America’s veterans. The footage, strikingly visceral and often deeply moving, is exceptional as well when one reflects on the immediate peril its many, unnamed, photographers shared with the soldiers, sailors and Marines in the frame.

Few things date as fast, however, as another era’s dramatic conventions, and it is here that Victory at Sea occasionally founders. Fist, its narration: Leonard Graves tries for simple dramatic gravitas but all too often shows himself an incorrigible ham. Second, its scripts: Salomon and Richard Hansen aim for a kind of simplicity laced with poetics that fall, all too predictably often, into sanctimony, empty jingoism and even downright Judeo-Christianist chauvinism. What Victory at Sea sorely needed was an Ed Murrow or a Norman Corwin; what it settled for was two William McGonagalls of prose.

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Richard Rodgers, who received a credit as the series’ sole composer, in effect created some 15 or 20 minutes’ worth of themes — many of them superb — leaving his estimable arranger, Robert Russell Bennett, to perform the bulk of the actual scoring. Bennett, for all his gifts (and it is rumored he secretly composed much of Rogers’ orchestral output as well as that of Kern and Porter) was not nearly the dramatic composer Rodgers was, and his work here tends, all too often, to the overly emphatic, matching, rather than overcoming, the series’ dramatic flaws.

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Salomon would have done better to trust his own footage, which has a raw power that requires no adornment. The immediacy of those battle films, and the terrible sense of loss they engender, is something no fiction, at whatever multi-million-dollar budget, can begin to approximate. Not that Salomon and company push the carnage. Indeed, it is only around the halfway mark that human cadavers begin to show up with regularity, as if the producer was easing us into a reality far grimmer than the mortal statistics Graves intones. For the viewer endowed with a sense of humane imagination, of course, the loss of life is always present; every ship bombed and sunk, every building brought down, presumes a terrible death-toll. Despite the Allies’ ultimate defeat of the hideous efficacy of the fascist powers, that is the innate sadness, built in to Victory at Sea, that nearly overwhelms everything else.


*The edition I watched, released in an inexpensive 2-disc set by Mill Creek, has been criticized as truncated, but is also reputedly far better in picture quality and sound reproduction than the much pricier History Channel set. One wonders why NBC would allow one of its most honored and profitable series to lapse from copyright protection.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross