4/25/17

"THE WIZ": A LITTLE DOC ABOUT A BIG MOVIE



Above is a 'featurette' made for God knows what reason about the making of the 1977 movie version of the musical 'The Wiz'. Directed by Sidney Lumet, the film was an enormous and enormously expensive undertaking--the most expensive movie ever made in New York at that time (according to this mini-doc)--and was an enormous failure, both critically and commercially, ending the cycle of 'blaxploitation' films that had begun earlier in the 1970s and dooming the Hollywood musical for quite a long time.

Lumet is interviewed as is Rob Cohen, the producer. That it took two New York Jews to end the resurgence of black cinema is a fact one can't comfortably look away from (or comfortably look at, for that matter). Lumet blathers platitudes about how fabulous Diana Ross is, how 'truthful' young Michael Jackson is ("you have to work very honestly around him...' etc.). He also performs a very interesting dance step at 4: 40--did he choreograph as well? I remember the movie coming on the Z Channel (L.A.'s first all-movie cable channel) shortly after the debacle of its 1977 release and turning it off less than halfway through. From the looks of the above doc it appears rather flat though imaginatively conceived. I'm not sure Lumet was the guy for this job, being a little realistic (as well as just being little--five and half feet, supposedly). Would Bob Fosse have delivered a stronger movie? How about a black director? Were their any? Gordon Parks? Melvin Van Peebles? Perhaps an adventurous co-directing team-- a choreographer and a cinematographer working together to deliver the bang/zoom that the movie seems to lack. I like Vilmos Zsigmond and Twyla Tharp for this version.

At the end of the roughly twelve minute doc, their appears to be B-Roll that somebody spliced on, consisting of silent footage of the Motown offices. What was it for? Why is it there to begin with? A somewhat ghostly way to end this look at the movie that temporarily ended the Hollywood musical. "Annie" was only four years away from nailing the coffin shut for another decade and a half.

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4/12/17

'BYE BYE BIRDIE'--AN APPRECIATION (SORT OF)


Last weekend I went to the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood and saw (among a couple of other films) 'Bye Bye Birdie', starring Ann-Margrock--er Margret--Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Paul Lynde etc. The film, shot in 1962/63, holds up only reasonably well with Margrock--er Margret--being the best reason to revisit it. Part of the problem is that it's poised uncertainly between the disappearing oldish Hollywood and the emerging newish Hollywood--even though 'A Hard Day's Night' hadn't yet appeared it's clear that Hollywood knew that something new was coming on 'the scene' and that musicals needed to be more inventive, filled with a different energy than they'd had in the already forgotten 1950s. The old-school MGM musical was dead, courtesy of the dissolution of the Arthur Freed unit at the end of the decade and MGM's failure to ever get its much touted biopic of Irving Berlin, 'Say It With Music', off the ground. Musicals were still alive, though, thanks to the powerhouse best-picture winning 'West Side Story' and Broadway was now the primary source for film musicals. 'Bye Bye Birdie' was a topical hit (the story involves the drafting of a teen rock and roll idol--Elvis of course) and so what better material to make use of? It sings, it dances, it has groovy teenagers doing sexy stuff and a sort of current topic.

The film that emerged seems to me to falter due to its direction. George Sidney, who helmed among other MGM musicals "Show Boat", "Anchors Away" and"Annie Get Your Gun", was very much a product of the old school system. Indeed, his father Louis K. Sidney was an old-time MGM executive and George basically grew up on the MGM lot, directing his first Our Gang comedies at the age of 21 in 1936. Sidney wound up specializing in musicals and clearly had a special talent for dealing with special talent. Gene Kelley, Frank Sinatra, Betty Hutton, Ava Gardner--all of them trouble--seemed to do well with Sidney. But as a musical maker, I can't make any great claims for Sidney as a visual stylist (no Minelli) or an actors/dancers director  (no Stanley Donen). He was capable, delivered on time and budget and was much respected within the industry, earning multiple Directors Guild of America nominations and a couple of Oscar noms as well. So who am I to say? Below is a four minute clip of Sidney being interviewed about his work with Elvis Presley in 'Viva Las Vegas'. I dig his discussion of his own motorcycle and car collection and how he used it to intimidate Presley.



Alas, Sidney's professionalism doesn't help 'Bye Bye Birdie'. Where the movie should be slick and hip , it instead gets weighted down with unrealized dramatic scenes, ill-conceived story construction, unfunny comedy relief and a general sense of not knowing quite what it wants to be. Paul Lynde saves every scene he's in. Dick Van Dyke is far less self-assured than he is normally. Janet Leigh seems to be in another movie and no wonder--it turns out that Sidney, infatuated with the young emerging Ann-Margrock--titled the story heavily to favor her and played down Leigh's role (and close ups) in favor of the sex kitten talent-bomb that he found himself graced with. In fact, Sidney paid out of his own pocket to reshoot the opening and closing 'bracket' scenes for the credits, giving Ann-M. a solo version of the 'Bye Bye Birdie' theme song (written for the movie). It's pretty frigging great. Dig:



The two other reasons for revisiting the film are the 'Telephone Song' number and "Gotta Lot Of Living To Do". Below I've posted both.





The shows most famous and enduring song, "Put On A Happy Face", is a big cinematic disappointment. The concept is that Janet Leigh is somehow cloned--the 'real' version of her stands by watching skeptically as the hologram version of her comes to life, loving Dick Van Dyke's positive messaging and goofy dancing. I was going to say that the number didn't merit posting but what was I thinking? Failed souflees are often more intriguing than the successful ones so...




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3/31/17

LUCY/DESI COMEDY HOUR: A DESILU JOINT



My previous two posts (scroll down, toots) have reawakened my childhood obsession with 'I Love Lucy', without however managing to focus on that legendary show. This all began with my musings on 'The Lucy Show' and has now moved backward a few years to yet another Lucy-centric television hit. The hell with it. Enough's been written about 'I Love Lucy'.

In between 'I Love Lucy' and 'The Lucy Show' came 'The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour', an expansion of 'I Love Lucy' featuring big-name guests--Red Skelton, Ernie Kovacs, Talullah Bankhead, Danny Thomas etc. The specials were infrequently aired--thirteen were made and shown over the 1957-1960 television seasons and the last one aired the year the Arnaz's divorced. As a kid I recall KTTV (Metromedia Channel 11 of blessed memory) occasionally airing them on Sunday evenings. I especially recall the credit sequence featuring an animated Lucy and Ricky standing on Conga drums--why the hell did I find that so peculiar and interesting? As with 'The Lucy Show' there seemed to be several different credit sequences but above I've posted the one that I fondly remember. It's the second of the specials and the guest star is Tallulah Bankhead who, predictably, didn't get along with Desi or Lucy who, predictably, hated her in return.

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3/29/17

THE MANY CREDIT SEQUENCES OF 'THE LUCY SHOW'



Last week I posted a clip from 'The Lucy Show' (scroll down, baby) which featured Lucy and Vivian Vance meeting Joan Crawford. It renewed my interest in the series, which was Ball's second and which came four years after 'I Love Lucy' had ended its run. As a child I remember watching 'The Lucy Show' with mixed feelings. It was funny, of course. Ball was always wildly watchable and beyond funny with both physical and verbal humor. But what happened to Ricky and Fred? And why did Ethel's name change to Viv? Why did Lucy work in a bank and why had she moved from New York to Los Angeles? The answers are: 1) Ricky and Lucy got divorced and Fred got a role in 'My Three Sons'. 2) With the disappearance of Fred, Ethel reverted to her stage name Vivian Vance. 3) Because the character she played, Lucy Carmichael, worked in a bank in the book on which the series was based (called "Life Without George") and moved to LA as a lifestyle change after...er, losing George.

The show, which ran for seven years (1961-68), started out in black and white and quickly went to color in its second season. This required a new title sequence. All in all, the show had five separate title sequences in its seven year run, as opposed to the single (and iconic) title sequence that was used for 'I Love Lucy' during its seven year run. Why so many title sequences for the later show? One theory that I would posit is that the sixties were a time of much cultural change and movement, as opposed to the fifties which were much more complacent and happy-with-itself.  Nothing changed much in America between 1951 and 1958 whereas much changed in America between 1961 and 1968. The multiple credit sequences of 'The Lucy Show' are a distillation of the style and fad progressions of the sixties. I've posted a very nice video above which shows all of them.

First comes the black and white animation pass, which was used for the first season only. It's crisp, simple and a little bit funny. The caricatures of Lucy and Viv are inoffensive and the joke at the end is a mild laugh at best. Things change, though, when color rears its beautiful head the following year. Credit sequence #2 takes us into the multiple-box split screen fad which begins to look somewhat like modish record album covers of the early sixties. There's a new energy to it but it still traffics in an 'easy listening' mode. We're not in 'the sixties' yet, but we're not in 'the fifties' either. Version three is the Richard Lester/Beatles/'Tom Jones'/'The Loved One'/'A Thousand Clowns/Nouvelle Vague' attempt. It's the in-your-face wack-out version complete with stop-motion, weird rhythm changes, hip and edgy cutting etc. My guess is this one is season three. Number four is the one I remember seeing the most in reruns so my guess is that this is the one that lasted the longest. It features a Kaleidoscopic theme, with lots of swirling Lucy's and a kind of 'candy box' vibe to it--more glamour and less fad. Lucy's beauty shot that ends this pass reminds us of what a 'gorgeous hunk of woman' (Desi Arnaz's phrase) she really was underneath all the madcap. Finally we get to the closer--and by now we're in the sixties even if Lucy and the show aren't quite. This one features alternate drums, strange bouncing balls, and an iffy connection to the psychdelic, albeit a trip one might experience at the house at 1000 N. Roxbury Dr, Beverly Hills 90210 (Lucy's address).

'The Lucy Show' was a hit, even though we don't remember it with quite the reverence that we do her previous legendary series. Ever the hard-nosed businesswoman, Ball decided to end the show after season seven, giving her the opportunity to syndicate it and make a pile of dough. Once the checks were cashed, she turned around and started series number three, 'Here's Lucy', which lasted exactly seven seasons before being sold wealthily into syndication. Smart cookie.

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3/23/17

LUCY AND VIV MEET JOAN CRAWFORD



"The Lucy Show" was the follow-up  color version of "I Love Lucy", sans Desi Arnaz and William Frawley (who, in my opinion, were sorely missed). Such was the greatness of the earlier show that this series has been largely ignored in the popular culture universe. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance are still best friends only now they're 'Lucy and Viv', lending the whole enterprise an aura of laziness. They couldn't even think up new names? And somehow Ball's voice dropped an octave in the two years that intervened between the shows, making her sound like a female impersonator doing Lucille Ball (think Harvey Fierstein).

Nonetheless, the above clip is nothing short of frigging hilarious. I can't find the entire show on Youtube so I've no idea of how the situation resolves itself, but Lucy and Viv inadvertently wander into Joan Crawford's house and meet the star herself, who--through a little contorted logic and circumstantial evidenc-- they think must have gone broke. Wonderful timing by all three women, an incredibly funny double-take by Vance when she realizes whose house they're in, and a formidable comedic line about a banker (Lucy's boss) who "wouldn't lend money to Richard Burton if he put Elizabeth Taylor up for collateral".

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