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

Quarterly Report: October – December 2019

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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 picture 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 movie 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.


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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.


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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

Armchair Theatre 2017

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By Scott Ross

Note: In order to amend some older posts, and thanks to the new “improvements” WordPress has recently instituted, I am having to republish some of my previous essays. My apologies for the seeming redundancy.

The movies and other video items I watched (or, in rare cases, went out to see) during the year just passed.
BOLD: Denotes very good… or at least, better-than-average.
BOLD+Underscore: A personal favorite.



Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen

Spectre 
(2015) I don’t quite know why there’s been so little love for the 24th Bond. True, it’s no Skyfall — what is? Some people I know disliked the central premise. Others think the Daniel Craig titles have turned 007 from a dashing, erudite figure into a thug: M’s “blunt instrument.” And while I have a particular fondness for Roger Moore as Bond (his was the first Bond I saw in a theatre) I admire the Craigs more than any others in the series apart from the early Connerys and the Timothy Daltons. Craig also comes closest to resembling the Hoagy Carmichael Fleming prototype. On its own terms, the picture seemed to me exciting, thematically dark in a way that appeals to me, and stylishly (and occasionally, beautifully) made.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) One of my five favorite pictures, and which I haven’t seen on a big screen since 1978. (I don’t count the 1980 Special Edition.)

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The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) A favorite comedy, given a rare screening by the Carolina Theatre in Durham.


Some Like it Hot. (1959) Also viewed at a Carolina screening. My favorite movie, and I always see something new in it; this time I focused on Billy Wilder’s astonishing technical achievement in matching Tony Curtis’ lips to Paul Frees’ looping of “Josephine”‘s dialogue.

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New (non-documentary) movies viewed on a big theatre screen:
None. From which you may draw your own conclusions.


Revisited with pleasure
F for Fake (1973) Orson Wellesnon pariel personal essay. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”
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Absence of Malice
(1981) When this Sydney Pollack-directed newspaper drama opened in 1981, it received middling reviews and seemed somehow inconsequential. What a difference 35 years of media consolidation (and deepening personal taste) can make! Those of us who cared about such things knew too many papers, magazines and broadcast stations were in the hands of too few (usually conservative) people. But we had no idea then that, 15 years later, a Democrat would, with his 1996 Telecommunications Act, usher out the flawed but vitally important American free press and replace it, eventually, with a completely corporate, wholly right-wing, one.  For this reason alone, the picture has interest. Seeing it again, however, I was struck by the intelligence of Kurt Luedtke’s dialogue, how skillfully he lays out his narrative, and how deeply satisfying his denouement — which seemed at the time merely clever — really is. That Newman, Field, Bob Balaban, Josef Sommer and Wilford Brimley all give splendid performances is practically a given, and Melinda Dillon is shattering as Newman’s doomed sister; the sequence in which she runs desperately from house to house trying to gather up every copy of a paper carrying a story that will devastate her own life and her brother’s illustrates all too clearly not merely what a staggeringly humane and expressive actor she is, but how badly she has been served by Hollywood in the years since. Which is to say, barely at all.


Black Sunday (1977) An immensely entertaining adaptation of Thomas Harris’ topical thriller about a Black September plot, directed in high style by John Frankenheimer. A vivid relic from the decades before The PATRIOT Act was a gleam in the Deep State’s eye.


Munich (2005) Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s devastating look at the violent reaction of the Israeli Mossad to the killings at the 1972 Olympiad.


Wag the Dog. (1997) It’s almost impossible to reconcile this genuinely funny political satire with the sour conservatism of its screenwriter, David Mamet, the most overrated American playwright of the past 40 years… although the fact it was made during the Clinton era may be a clue.


The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) An effective murder mystery from John Huston and Anthony Veillier out of Phillip MacDonald, burdened by an unnecessary gimmick (guest-stars in heavy makeup) and lumbered as well by its director’s tacit approval of upper-class snobbery and his love of that barbarous tradition, the fox-hunt.


The Third Man. (1949) Graham Greene wrote it. Carol Reed directed it. Anton Karras performed the soon-to-be ubiquitous music. And Orson Welles had what was arguably his best role in a movie not also written by him. The only drawback in one’s thorough enjoyment of this deservedly beloved post-war thriller is knowing the producers wanted James Stewart for the lead. Good as Joseph Cotton is, once you hear that bit of casting-that-might-have-been, it’s almost impossible to refrain from imagining Stewart’s unique delivery every time “Holly Martins” speaks a line.


Hot Millions (1968) A sleeper hit of its year, impossibly dated now in its then-striking use of computer technology, this Peter Ustinov-written comedy starring him and Maggie Smith is a movie that, for me, is a test of potential friendship. If I show it to someone and he or she doesn’t love it too, all bets are off.


Cinderella (Disney, 1950) Remarkably fresh after nearly 70 years, this beguiling rendition of the Perrault fairy tale was a make-or-break project for Disney animation, still struggling to regain its pre-war foothold. And unlike recent Mouse House product, schizophrenically made with one eye on each new heroine’s spunky feminist bona fides and the other on crafting an ageless new “Princess” to add to the lineage, there was no art-by-committee finagling here; generations of girls and boys loved Cinderella for her natural ebullience, her love of animals, and her complete lack of self-pity. (Parenthetical: Several years ago, the “Classical” music critic Lloyd Schwartz quoted a friend who cited “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” as the most frightening song title he’d ever heard. I always think about that when I see the picture.)


Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) Not as rich as the Chester Himes novel, whose last line made me chuckle for a week, but an awful lot of fun, with a perfectly cast Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones in Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge and a marvelous score by Galt McDermott.


Mary Poppins (1964) This may have been the first movie I ever almost saw, during the summer following its record-breaking release, which would have put me at around four and a half. I know this because the movie was released in late August, and my sister and I were taken to it at a drive-in. Hence the “ever almost”: I remember only the beginning, and waking up in the back seat when Jane and Michael Banks were being menaced by a snarling dog in an alley. I finally got to see it again when it was reissued in 1973. I liked it then, but love it now in a way few 12 year-olds, even movie-mad pubescents as I was becoming then, ever could.


The Great Race - Lemmon as Fate

The Great Race (1965) Another favorite of long-standing. Seeing this on television, even on a black-and-white set, in pan-and-scan format, interrupted by commercials and spread out over two consecutive Sunday evenings, delighted me and made me an instant Jack Lemmon freak. The new BluRay edition is stunningly executed.


French Connection II (1975) The rare sequel that succeeds on its own terms; although it was made during the period of John Frankenheimer’s acutest alcoholism it bears his trademark intelligence, verisimilitude and equal care with both action and actors.


Juggernaut (1974) A taut, entertaining thriller directed by Richard Lester concerning a bomb set to destroy a pleasure-liner at sea.


The Front Page (1931) A new Criterion edition, beautifully rendered, of the Lewis Milestone adaptation that shows how cinematic even the earliest talkies could be when handled by a master craftsman.


Robin Hood (Disney, 1973) I loved this when it opened. But then, at 12 I was much less critical.


Death on the Nile (1978) Nowhere near as accomplished, or as stylish, as the Sidney Lumet-directed Murder on the Orient Express which preceded it by four years, yet it holds many pleasures, not least its stellar cast. For a 17-year old nascent gay-boy, seeing both Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury on the big screen was close to Nirvana.


The Seven-Ups (1973) A sort of unofficial sequel to The French Connection, directed by that picture’s producer, this tense New York police procedural boasts a splendid central performance by Roy Scheider, a very fine supporting turn by Tony Lo Bianco, and a car chase sequence that, in its grittiness and excitement rivals those in Connection and Bullitt.


Two Mules for Sister Sarah (1970) A solid comic Western directed by Don Siegel and with a sharp, leftist screenplay by Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood 10. Shirley MacLaine and Clinton Eastwood would seem to be as mis-matched in life as their characters are here, but they make an awfully good team. Features superb photography by the redoubtable Gabriel Figueroa and an otherwise pleasing Morricone score almost undone by an annoying recurrent “hee-haw” motif.


The Jungle Book (Disney, 1967) I was the perfect age when this one was released to embrace a new Disney animated feature — I had previously seen both Snow White and Cinderella in re-issue — and I went duly gaga over it. I had the Jungle Book comic (I wore the over off that one through obsessive re-reading), Jungle Book Disneykins figurines from Royal Pudding, Jungle Book temporary tattoos, Jungle Book books, and, of course, the Jungle Book soundtrack album, which I wore to a veritable hockey-puck. My poor parents. Seeing it again in 1990 I was considerably less enthusiastic, but it’s remarkable what a quarter of a century can do for a picture. I still think it’s too self-consciously hip for its own good, especially in Phil Harris’ anachronistic vocal performance, but the character animation seems to me wonderfully expressive, especially that by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who did half the picture by themselves.

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The Jungle Book: George Sanders lends both his voice and his physiognomy to Sher Kahn, seen obliquely threatening Sterling Holloway’s Kaa.

The Aristocats (1970) Another I was less critical about when it was new, which seemed a bit bland on video but which now looks awfully good, and that in spite of its borrowings from the infinitely superior 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp, transposed to felinity. Not to be confused with The Aristocrats


The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) The pleasures inherent in seeing a relic from the time when even a trifling Western comedy was imbued with deliciously quirky characterizations and witty, fondly observed dialogue (in this case by James Lee Barrett.) It isn’t much, but for the much it isn’t, it’s rather charming.


Rosemary’s Baby (1968) I somehow managed to miss this one until about 15 years ago, when I caught it at an art-house screening. Roman Polanksi’s screenplay (almost reverently faithful to the Ira Levin novel) and direction, the gorgeous cinematography by William A. Fraker and the effective score by Krzysztof Komeda (dead, sadly, within months of its release, this depriving us of a distinctive new compositional voice in movies), combined with the performances by its largely elderly cast and a notably plangent one by the often-insufferable Mia Farrow, make this exercise in stylish, low-key horror among the finest in the genre. What I was unprepared for then was how funny it could be, especially in Ruth Gordon’s knowing performance. “Chalky undertaste” become a running joke between me and my then-boyfriend for months afterward.

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Rosemary’s Baby: Polanski’s witty framing of Ruth Gordon,


Theatrical Documentary

I Am Not Your Negro. (2016) What was effective about this meandering and ultimately unsuccessful study of James Baldwin was the many clips of him speaking. But its makers set up a premise — why was Baldwin unable to finish his tripartite memoir of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers? — and then almost immediately abandoned it. A wasted opportunity.


Kedi. (2016) Lovely, affecting movie about the street cats of Istanbul.


Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed. (2004) A timely reminder of a true progressive groundbreaker… who was ultimately screwed by the Democratic Party. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


Point of Order! (1964) Emil de Antonio and Daniel Talbot’s superb compilation of kinescopes from the Army-McCarthy hearings. Especially relevant in these through-the-looking-glass times, in which liberal Democrats are, inexplicably, behaving in a way that would make Tail-Gunner Joe proud.



Selected Short Subject

Return to Glennascaul (aka, Orson Welles’ Ghost Story, 1953) Despite that second title, it’s not really his; Welles appended cinematic bookends to an atmospheric short picture made by Hilton Edwards.



Made for television

The Epic That Never Was (1965) On the aborted I, Claudius starring Charles Laughton. A British television documentary I first read about around 1974 and which contains all the extant footage shot for the ill-fated 1934 adaptation of the Graves novel. Josef von Sternberg appears, imperiously (and predictably) blaming everyone but himself for the debacle.


W.C. Fields: Straight Up (1986) Robert B. Weide and Ronald J. Fields’ marvelous celebration of the unlikeliest movie star of the 1930s.


The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell (1982) Robert B. Weide again. When this delicious toast to the brothers first appeared in 1982, PBS committed the unpardonable sin of mentioning Woody Allen’s name in its promotional material, causing Allen to pitch a predictable fit and demand that Weide remove his footage. It was put back in for the DVD release, and reveals definitively that nothing was lost by its excision three decades ago. Allen says nothing of importance, makes no profound observations, and adds precisely zero to the critical canon on the team the documentary’s writer Joe Adamson once described as Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo.


Citizen Cohn (1992) History as cartoon, supplemented by blatant rip-offs of Tony Kushner.



Television series

I, Claudius (1976) Still powerful, if hampered by being shot on video rather than film, and with a beautifully modulated central performance by Derek Jacobi, who transformed stuttering into an art-form.


Kukla, Fran and Ollie: The Lost Episodes (Volumes I, II and III) One of the loveliest video events of the last few years has been the release of these utterly charming kinescopes by the Burr Tillstrom Trust, which is currently working to restore 700 additional episodes. I don’t know whether today’s children, weaned on CGI and iPhones before they’re out of preschool, have the capacity to respond to the show’s gentle humors, but I would be willing to bet that if you sat a relatively unspoiled five-year-old down in front of these 30-minute charmers, he or she might be hooked for life. It would be pretty to think so.

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The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends 12 full episodes from the late ’60s and early ’70s of that wittiest and most intelligent of American chat-shows. Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Carol Burnett , Mel Brooks, George Burns, Bill Cosby and Jerry Lewis fascinate and delight; Groucho Marx banters deliciously with his young goyishe friend; Dick fawns all too fannishly over a smug, queer-baiting Bob Hope; the Smothers Brothers behave strangely (it seems to be a put-on, but of what?) and Woody Allen flaunts his repulsive look and persona. Ruth Gordon and Joe Frazier also show up, as does Rex Reed, bitching rather perceptively about the Academy Awards. Also included is the single most painful interview I’ve ever seen — and surely one of the most awkward Cavett ever conducted — with Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, the beautiful but weirdly inarticulate stars of Zabriskie Point.



Seen a second time… and will never see again

The Anderson Tapes. (1971) Still interesting and entertaining but… what was it with Sidney Lumet and stereotyped “fag” characters?


One Day in September (1999) An Oscar winner in the documentary category, this impassioned examination of the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics muffs too many facts and, ultimately, sickens the viewer; not in the way the filmmakers hoped, but by exhibiting horrid color photos of the bloodied victims, which, whatever the intention, feels like an act of heartless exploitation.


New to me: Worth the trip
Dominion (2005) This first version of the “prequel” (odious neologism) to The Exorcist, directed by Paul Schrader, was completely re-filmed, by Rennie Harlin, whose name is, as it should be, a hiss and a byword.


Moulin Rouge (1952) Visually glorious but dramatically inert. And you can really see what in it inspired Bob Fosse when he made Cabaret. But… was there a less appealing leading actor of the Hollywood Era than Jose Ferrer?


New to Me: More than worth the trip

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
 (2015)I avoided the theatrical release of this one in a manner not unlike my aversion to the first Star Wars picture when I was 16, largely due to my loathing of the Disney Company. But after stumbling across a second-hand Blu-ray copy for an absurdly low price I thought I’d at least give it a spin. To my astonishment, this over-hyped space opera turned out more than well; it nearly obliterated the bad taste left by The Phantom Menace. J.J. Abrams’ direction, focused less on CGI effects than on human beings in conflict with each other and themselves (the latter the only thing Faulkner believed was worth writing about) was both riveting and surprisingly beautiful, and the Abrams/Lawrence Kasdan/Michael Arndt screenplay had pleasing weight and even levity. The only cavil about it is the niggling sense that the new series may be unable to shake replicating the same sort of father/son (or, in this case, grandfather/grandson) adulations and conflicts that powered the Lucas originals. Isn’t there any other plot available in that galaxy?


Across 110th Street (1972) A tough slice of New York life, circa 1971. Adapted by Luther Davis from the equally visceral novel by Wally Ferris, with Anthony Quinn and the great Yaphet Kotto.


Take a Hard Ride (1975)A cheerful, entertaining mix of Western and Blaxploitation, with very likable performances by Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, a fine villainous turn by Lee Van Cleef, an effectively silent Jim Kelly, a reasonably clever script (by Eric Bercovici and Jerrold L. Ludwig), good action set-pieces by the director Antonio Margheriti, and a one-of-kind score by Jerry Goldsmith.


Firecreek (1968) A downbeat Western starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda that is, in Calvin Clements’ incisive screenplay, about as despairing of human nature as it’s possible to get without the viewer wanting to slash his or her wrists. A double-feature of this and Welcome to Hard Times could put you in a funk for weeks.


Wrong is Right (1982) While we’re on the topic of press irresponsibility, this Richard Brooks satire of the year following Absence of Malice gleefully exposes, Chayefsky style, the appalling consequences of the electronic media’s love of ratings — a state of affairs being disastrously played out now, from Les Moonves’ giggling admission that the All-Trump-All-the-Time campaign coverage of 2016 was raking in the bucks for CBS to the current, slathering mania of so-called liberals for Russia-Russia-Russia McCarthyism.


The Kremlin Letter (1970) A flop in its day, and roundly panned by Pauline Kael, this John Huston thriller from 1970, imaginatively adapted from the Noel Behn novel by the director and his longtime collaborator Gladys Hill and featuring an absolutely marvelous score by Robert Drasnin is infinitely finer than its detractors would have you believe. The only complaint — and it’s a failure shared by Sidney Lumet in his 1971 version of the rather ingenious Laurence Sanders novel The Anderson Tapes, in his use of Martin Balsam — lies in Huston’s miscasting of the 63-year old George Sanders as a gay spy. The character, as Behn wrote him, is an attractive young man, which makes his position within a group of spectacularly selfish mercenaries eminently explicable. As with Balsam in Anderson, the change is mind-boggling, although the notoriously homophobic Huston is far less offensive in his handling of Sanders than Lumet was with his star. But it is, finally, Richard Boone’s movie, and he makes a meal of it.

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The Kremlin Letter: Richard Boone and Patrick O’Neal

The Night of the Following Day (1969) One of many late-1960s Brando pictures that helped make him box-office poison, this adaptation of a Lionel White thriller boasts an impeccably arranged kidnapping, a very fine performance by Brando, a good one by Pamela Franklin as the victim, and an unequivocally great one by Richard Boone as the most terrifying of the felons. The only sour note is the ending the director (Hubert Cornfield) imposed on it, over his star’s quite reasonable objections.


Rio Conchos (1964) Thanks to these last three pictures I was finally able to comprehend why aficionados love Richard Boone, an actor I had somehow managed to go 56 years without having seen.


Act of Violence (1949)A nicely-observed thriller starring Van Heflin, the young Janet Leigh and a typically stellar Robert Ryan that gets at some dark aspects of World War II mythology and contains one sequence, in which a stalking, menacing Ryan is heard but never seen, that is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.


Westward the Women (1951) An interesting Western variation, about a trail-boss transporting 138 “good women” to California. Expertly directed by William Wellman from a fine Charles Schnee original. Typically strong photography by William C. Mellor, a good central performance from Robert Taylor and an exceptionally vivid one by Hope Emerson make this, if not wholly successful, diverting and markedly original.

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William Hopper and Robert Mitchum on the Track of the Cat.

Track of the Cat (1954) One of the strongest, strangest Westerns of the 1950s, beautifully adapted from the psychologically harrowing Walter Van Tillberg Clark novel and spectacularly filmed by William A. Clothier. I think this one ranks as the most pleasing surprise of my cinema year.


Cuba (1979) A fast flop from Richard Lester that is in fact a well-observed look at the events leading up to Castro’s coup, and is infinitely finer than Havana, the terrible 1990 romance from Sydney Pollack. Sean Connery adds his rough charm, Brooke Adams is almost impossibly beautiful, there is also delicious support from Jack Weston, Hector Elizondo, Denholm Elliott, Martin Balsam, Chris Sarandon, Alejandro Rey and Lonette McKee, splendid photography by David Watkin, and a memorable score by Patrick Williams.


Rio Lobo (1970) An old-pro’s swan-song. Howard Hawks directed it, John Wayne is the star, Leigh Brackett wrote it (with Burton Wahl), Jack Elam gives juicy support, William A. Clothier shot it, and Jerry Goldsmith scored it. The only complaints I have concern some remarkably bad pulled punches by Wayne. But with a set-up this entertaining, and the stunningly pulchritudinous Jorge Rivero along for the ride, that’s a minor matter indeed.


Cutter’s Way (1981) Critically lauded, half-heartedly marketed and ignored by audiences, this fatalistic drama is one of the last hurrahs of ‘70s era personal filmmaking.


Butch and Sundance: The Early Years (1979) Entirely unnecessary, and hampered by both anachronism and a lack of internal logic — people, names and incidents Paul Newman either didn’t know or was vaguely aware of in the previous picture are revealed or dwelt on at length here — this Richard Lester-directed diversion goes down surprisingly well, abetted by László Kovács’ glorious cinematography, the charming central performances of Tom Berenger and William Katt, and yet another marvelous score by Patrick Williams, one that may stick in your head and which you could find yourself humming passages from for days or even weeks afterward.


The Social Network (2010) Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s take on the birth of Facebook. It’s exceptionally articulate and well-made, with gorgeously muted lighting by Jeff Cronenweth and impeccable performances by Jesse Eisenberg (as Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer. But you will be forgiven for wondering, at the end, what it all meant. At the end, one of the attorneys (Rashida Jones) representing Zuckerberg against the Winklevoss twins says, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You just want to be.” Who the hell did Sorkin think he was kidding with that one?


Up Tight (1968) Jules Dassin’s return to American moviemaking is a spirited “fuck you” to everything the studios, and the audience, held dear.


Paranormal Activity (2007) I generally avoid hand-held camera exercises, but the best and most terrifying sequences in this cleverly conceived and executed horror hit, ingeniously executed by its writer-director Oren Peli for $15,000, are nicely nailed-down. The absolute reality Peli sets up for the picture, and which is perfectly anchored by the performances of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (for whom the movie should have opened doors but, oddly, did not) makes the periodic scares that much more effective, leading to a genuinely shocking finale.


Super 8 (2011) J. J. Abrams’ paean to his adolescence, and to certain entertainments in the ‘80s quiver of his co-producer Steven Spielberg is a kind of E.T. for the post-Nixonian Aliens generation. The world Abrams’ middle-school protagonists inhabit is similar to that of my own high-school years, and that specificity (explicable only when you discover that in 1979 the writer-director was 13) grounds the blissfully scary goings-on, and one is struck from the first frames by how keen an eye its filmmaker has for the wide-screen image. There’s a nice Twilight Zone in-joke in the Air Force operation code-named “Operation Walking Distance,” and the kids are just about perfect, especially the endearingly sweet Joel Courtney and the almost preternaturally poised Elle Fanning. Michael Giacchino’s score is a rousing example of the John Williams School of action movie composition, Kyle Chandler gives a fine account of Courtney’s newly-widowed father (the tensions between the two will be especially resonant to those whose relationships with their own fathers were less than ideal), Larry Fong’s cinematography could scarcely be improved upon, and the special effects are apt and canny, the CGI work for once rarely noticeable as CGI work. Funny, frightening and with a finale that is pleasingly emotional — plangent but in no way bathetic. The movie has a genuine sense of wonder.

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Super 8: Joel Courtney as the Abrams stand-in.


New to Me: Meh…
Not With My Wife You Don’t! (1966) Even the great Larry Gelbart couldn’t make a silk purse out of this somewhat frenetic sex-farce, although it’s by no means a total loss.


Journey into Fear. (1943) What’s good of Orson Welles’ direction is overwhelmed by what’s bad of Norman Foster’s.


Carlton-Brown of the F.O. (1959) Middling political satire from Ealing.


The Crimson Kimono. (1959) Surprisingly unsubstantial to have come from Samuel Fuller.


Where Were You Went the Lights Were Out? (1968) Fitfully amusing blackout comedy starring Doris Day and Robert Morse that betrayed its French farce stage origins in the less ingenious second half.


Shalako (1968) The short Louis L’Amour novel was better, and more successful.



The Summing-Up
So. Some mediocrities, but no real dogs this year, which was nice. As Pauline Kael once observed: Life’s too short to waste time on some stinky movie.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross


Grateful thanks to my good friend Eliot M. Camarena for enlightening my movie year, and special thanks to him for Act of Violence, The List of Adrian Messenger, Moulin Rouge, Point of Order, Up Tight, Westward the Women, and especially The Kremlin Letter and Track of the Cat. Eliot is one of the sanest, most politically astute people I know, and his recommendations are not to be taken lightly.

Plussing It: Isadore “Friz” Freleng (Part Two)

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By Scott Ross

Friz Freleng employed two of Looney Tunes’ finest animators in his unit: Gerry Chiniquy and Virgil Ross. Much of the elegance of Freleng’s best vintage shorts stems from these two masters.

Virgil Ross, left, going over a Tweety and Sylvester storyboard with Freleng.

Bugs explains his origins to “Lolly” Parsons in A Hare Grows in Manhattan (1947)

A Hare Grows in Manhattan. Bugs is singing his inimitable version of “The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady,” complete with tap-clicks. When there was dance in a Freleng short, it was usually Gerry Chiniquy’s work.

 

Freleng created the lisping cat Sylvester and Bob Clampett an embryonic, squab version of Tweety, but it was only when Clampett left the studio that Freleng had the inspired notion of pairing them. The result was a series of visual gag cartoons that are among the funniest, and most inspired, in the Warner canon. This is the first of them, 1947’s Tweetie Pie.

Tex Avery and Bob Clampett each tried his hand at a Bugs Bunny “Tortoise and the Hare” short. This is Freleng’s attempt, the 1947 Rabbit Transit.

Coals to New Castle? Perhaps. Bugs in the only human persona he could reasonably inhabit, as Groucho Marx in Freleng’s superb Slick Hare from 1947.

Slick Hare: Bugs’ guitar solo and samba, another piece of brilliance by Gerry Chiniquy, ranks among the greatest bits of elegant character animation in all of American cartoons.

Freleng with his layout man Hawley Pratt. Freleng liked to say of Pratt’s best work that “He took what I gave him, and plussed it.”

As we shall see, 1948 was an awfully good year for Freleng. Buccaneer Bunny is one of his most inventive, and hilarious, Bugs vs. Yosemite Sam shorts. Here, Bugs as-Laughton-as-Bligh, dresses down “Mr. Christian.”

At the climax of Buccaneer Bunny, that “crazy doggone idjit” of a rabbit tosses a lit match into a ship’s hold stuffed with gunpowder. (“Whatcha trying to do, blow us to smithereenies?”) Sam blows it out. Bugs throws a second. Sam retrieves it, then rebels: “If’n ya does that jest once more, I ain’t a-goin’ after it!”

Sam, desperately trying for nonchalance as the third match burns…

The inevitable result…

Kit for Kat (1948) Sylvester attempts to lure his rival for Elmer’s affections into committing mayhem. Need I add that this backfires spectacularly?

Bugs Bunny Rides Again (1948.) Virgil Ross at work: Bugs dances. Sam “takes it” from Bugs… and gets shafted.

Back Alley Oproar, another concert music-inspired 1948 masterpiece. Sylvester “serenades” Elmer Fudd, with cataclysmic results.

 

Above and below: A pair of beautifully prototypical Freleng “Tweety” gags.

Bad Ol’ Putty Tat (1949). The opening is a variation on Clampett’s aggressive gags in the first unofficial “Tweety” cartoon, A Tale of Two Kitties (1942.) The climax is pure Freleng: Tweety, inside a smug Sylvester’s head, runs him like an out-of-control locomotive. The gag builds and builds, in the patented Freleng style, turning what had been just a clever, funny short into a minor masterpiece.

Tweety’s immortal, baby-talk phrase was a cleaned-up version of something Clampett wrote on his first sketch of the birdie: “I tawt I taw a titty-tat!”

Freleng designed and directed the charming “Get Ready, Freddy” number for the Doris Day-Jack Carson musical My Dream is Yours in 1949. Harry Warren wrote the melody. Ralph Blaine and Mel Blanc penned the lyrics. Tweety makes a cameo appearance.

Dough for the Do-Do. A 1949 color re-make of Bob Clampett’s stunning black-and-white opus, Porky in Wackyland. Clampett began the job, but left Warners before he’d finished; Freleng completed it.

Here, a comparison of cels from the two shorts. I prefer Clampett’s unbridled black-and-white surrealism, myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

High-Diving Hare (1949.) Friz Freleng and his writer, Tedd Pierce, wring change after hilarious change on a single, one-joke set-up: Bugs, forced by Sam to to do a high-dive. As brilliant and gut-busting in its own way as anything Chaplin or Keaton ever did. Of Sam’s numerous (and increasingly funny) falls, depicted in a single, static shot half-way up the diving board ladder, Freleng later said he didn’t know how he had the nerve to do it.

Curtain Razor (1949) posits Porky as a theatrical agent auditioning prospective clients, including a wolf with a sure-fire routine that presages the climax of Freleng’s own, later, Show Biz Bugs.

Big House Bunny (1950): Prison guard Sam hasn’t got a chance.

The finale of Freleng’s Bunker Hill Bunny (1950): The funniest joke in the entire cartoon may just be the very notion of all-American Yosemite Sam as a Hessian mercenary.

Golden Yeggs (1950) Daffy tangles with a new Freleng character: Rocky, the hilariously diminutive gangster. Freleng clearly relished satirizing his own small stature.

1950’s Canary Row, one of the funniest of the Tweety and Sylvester shorts. Granny (voiced by the great Bea Benaderet) one-ups our determined putty tat.

A superb piece of gag motion-animation from Canned Feud (1951) Left behind on the family’s vacation, Sylvester battles a vindictive mouse for control of a desperately-needed can opener.

Ballot Box Bunny (1951): Sam and an especially well-drawn Bugs woo the voters.

Ballot Box Bunny. Sam falls for his own I’ll-play-one-sour-note-so-you’ll-be-forced-to-hit-the-key-the-TNT-is-wired to, “Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms”-routine.

Ballot Box Bunny: After the “dark horse” candidate is elected “mare,” there’s only one things left to do. Sam hits an empty chamber and passes the gun to Bugs…

 

 

 

… who does exactly what you’d expect.

Putty Tat Trouble, a 1951 Freleng masterpiece chock-full of hilarious visual gags. Here, Tweety meets a strangely silent friend. Their tandem dipping, beautifully animated (and perfectly scored by Carl Stalling) is a moment of quiet joy amid the usual tumult.

Snow Business (1953) Granny’s left her cabin to get food; her pets are snowed-in. But all she’s left them is… bird seed.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross