Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Quips and Quotations (Musical Comedy Edition)


Laughter is much more important than applause. Applause is almost a duty. Laughter is a reward.

--Carol Channing

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Irresistible, You Fool

Dancer/choreographer/singer/actress Gwen Verdon was a mainstay of The Great White Way for decades, but she actually got her start on the other side of the continent as a "specialty dancer" in Hollywood musicals and even nonmusicals that nonetheless needed a dance scene. Generally, a specialty dancer appeared in only one scene, or sequence, and wasn't seen again for the rest of the film. Some specialty dancers, such as Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller, went on to become full-fledged movie stars. That didn't happen in Gwen's case, so the Californian native went east, where she became a full-fledged Broadway star, first in the 1954 show Can-Can, and, more decisively, the next year in Damn Yankees, for which she won a Tony. When it came time to turn Yankees into a motion picture, Gwen was a shoo-in to repeat her role as the satanic seductress Lola, though you might get the opposite impression from the above headline that appeared in the 1950s tabloid Tempo News. In fact, you  might have thought Hollywood was through with her. Why, exactly, was she "too hot"?

Well, according to the article, written in the wake of her Broadway success in the baseball-and-Beelzebub musical, Gwen "can't get to home base with Hollywood umpires", meaning that her scenes were either trimmed or cut out of a movie altogether by censors. Gwen herself is quoted as saying that "Boston has never seen me", but she was "...allowed in...cities where there was progressive education." The latter quote reminded me of the "communities standards" test the Supreme Court once invoked in an obscenity case. I must tell you, I was a bit surprised when I came across this article. I never knew that Gwen Verdon was once thought of as only appealing to the "prurient interest", to borrow another memorable Supreme Court phrase. She was undeniably sexy, and remained sexy for quite a long time (when she was 50, she appeared on stage wearing an outfit much like a bikini in the original 1975 Broadway production of Chicago.) But this article is from the same decade that saw the rise of Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Ava Gardner, and Gina Lollobrigida. Those ladies didn't exactly come across as Taliban charm school teachers. I wonder if the whole thing wasn't written by some press agent, which was a common practice back then. Of course, censorship was a genuine threat during the homogenized 1950s, in particular, and, at the time, famously, in Boston (the joke went that the city's library system had an extra branch just for all the banned books) and the movie studios did have to be careful. However, the well-publicized threat of censorship, but one that was nonetheless successfully dodged (except in Boston), well, that could fill up those theater seats that were being increasingly abandoned in favor of television. So it was a fine line Hollywood had to walk, and someone like Gwen had to dance.

The line was often walked religiously. Literal religion. Until the advent of the beach movie in the 1960s, the greatest number of scantily-clad females could be found in biblical pictures, and 1951's David and Bathsheba is where we find then-specialty dancer Verdon, her red hair hidden beneath a black wig, playing a slave girl (as were most professional dancers in 1000 BC, at least according to Hollywood): 


Now for something a little less devout (unless you're a disciple of Anton LaVey.) In this scene from the 1958 film version of the aforementioned Damn Yankees, Lola presents a ballpark figure to Tab Hunter, who, in a brilliant bit of acting, looks as though he's just been hit with a line drive: 

Gwen Verdon, at her sexy, and, lest we forget, talented, best. As controversial as the above two clips may have been in the 1950s, were they being shown now for the very first time, I doubt there would be any calls for censorship. But even if there were...

 ...Boston can now be easily detoured.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Vital Viewing (Gotham City Domestic Help Edition)

Thespian Alan Napier was born on this day in 1903 (he died in 1988.) He is best know for playing Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred in the tongue-in-cheek, 1960s superhero TV series Batman. The very first actor cast for the show, the  6′ 5″ Napier describes in the following clip how it all came about:

Now here's a clip from Batman itself (note just how much the 6'2'' Adam West, who played the series eponymous costumed crimefighter, and the 6'3" Cesar Romero, who played the villainous Joker, are both literally cut down to size in Napier's presence):

Wow! Did you see Alfred handle the Joker? He could be a superhero himself!

 Albeit a superhero in desperate need of a tailor.

It may be his most famous role, but Napier's career was hardly confined to playing Alfred. A graduate of London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he worked alongside John Gielgud and Robert Morley. In 1937, he appeared in a revival of Heartbreak House, supervised by that play's author, George Bernard Shaw. He moved to Hollywood in 1941, becoming a member of the British expatriate community there, and over the years had roles in such films as The Invisible Man Returns, Random Harvest, Lassie Come Home, The Uninvited, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Hangover Square, Johnny Belinda, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Court Jester, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Marnie. These were all just supporting parts, but in an early (1949) television production of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventure of a Speckled Band, Napier got a chance to play...

...the world's greatest consulting detective. See for yourself:

 Will Benedict Cumberbatch ever play Alfred? Stay tuned. Same bat-time, same bat-channel.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Quips and Quotations (Screen Legends Hobbies Edition)

I touch them sometimes, with the flat of my hand very gently, amazed again and ever again that little tubes of long-dried pigment could be arranged in such lovely order, that an instant of times gone by, people long dead, music faded away, eyes long ago dimmed and empty, could suddenly be alive once more and very real

--Edward G. Robinson, a noted art collector in his later years.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Vital Viewing (Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated Edition)

 It seems that during a flurry of Christmas posts, I let Penny Marshall's passing fall to the wayside. I should state right here that I'm neither legally nor morally obliged to comment on every famous person who dies (in case you're eagerly awaiting that George H.W. Bush tribute), but this really was negligence on my part, as I was a fan of her work, first as Oscar Madison's lackadaisical secretary Myrna on The Odd Couple, and then, what's she's best know for, Milwaukee bottle-capper Laverne DiFazio on Laverne and Shirley. She later became a filmmaker, with such popular and critically acclaimed movies as Big, Awakenings, and A League of Their Own to her credit. The woman was talented. In the following clip we find her, at the height of her L+S fame, talking to Dick Clark:

That was a Bronx accent? All this time I thought it was Brooklyn! But then...

...living as I do in flyover country, what do I know about New York City accents?

Maybe if I took a crash course...

Now, I know this woman is definitely from Brooklyn, and if I really mull it over, her accent is a bit different from Penny Marshall's. But I've never really mulled it over...until now.

Brooklyn, but doesn't sound anything like Streisand, even when you take in account the different gender.

From Brooklyn, and same gender as Streisand, but, if we can talk, sounds more like King.

Finally! This guy is from the Bronx, but doesn't sound all that much like Penny Marshall. Again, different gender (but even so, he sounds more like Streisand's brother.)

Speaking of brothers, here's Penny's brother Garry. He's best known as a writer, producer, and director, but did a bit of acting when he played the network president on the original Murphy Brown series. And even he sounded a bit more like Larry King than Tony Curtis did. Perhaps he's the missing link between Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Queens, an entirely different borough from either the Bronx or Brooklyn. But, you know, I never felt the two pictured here had quite the same accent. Of course, they're fictional characters. In real life, she grew up in Manhattan, and he grew up in...Queens. So his was more genuine. No wonder he caller her a dingbat.

Queens. And she sounds much more like Edith than Archie, even though Jean Stapleton's not really from there, and Carrol O'Connor is! I take back the dingbat remark.

Also Queens, since she was married to the King of Queens. But she doesn't sound anything like Archie or Edith.  In real life, the actress herself was born in Brooklyn (so she was trying to pull a fast one on us!)

Bingo! This memorable TV character is indeed from the Bronx. However, Valerie Harper, the actress who portrayed her, was born in a village just across the Hudson River, and, as her father was a lighting salesman, moved around the country a lot while growing up, freeing her from any type of identifying accent. Another interesting factoid: Harper partially based Jewish Rhoda Morgenstern on her Italian grandmother (maybe the thinking was that the WASPs in the viewing audience would find the two ethnic groups as interchangeable as a Bronx and Brooklyn accent.)  

Brooklyn, soitenly.

 The Distinguished Senator from Vermont is originally from Brooklyn, though I imagine it was his political views, rather than his thick accent, that so captivated college-aged voters back in 2016.

 She may hear cases in Hollywood these days, but this magistrate is originally from Brooklyn, as her accent makes clear whenever she talks from the bench.

The Bronx, even though the Sunshine Cab Company is in Manhattan. Well, people often relocate for a job.

 The longtime (1971-2017) New York congressman was born in Harlem, grew up in Harlem, and still lives in Harlem--despite having a Bronx accent. Go figure.

 The Bronx. Sounds more like Charlie Rangel than Charlie Rangel sounds like Charlie Rangel.

The King of One-Liners. Of course, he's from Brooklyn.

Another comedian from Brooklyn. Thick accent often used for humorous effect. But these days he spends less time cracking jokes and more time issuing denials. 

 Yet another comedian from Brooklyn, but he doesn't have a trace of an accent. Unless he's from Brooklyn, Ohio (we have a Broadway too here in Cleveland, but that's beside the point.)

Now, Paul Newman did grow up in Cleveland (he spent his summers home from college working in his uncle's sporting goods store, where my mother and her high school friends would hang out and gaze longingly at him), but in 1981 spoke with a--well, had that movie been titled differently, I would have sworn that was a Brooklyn accent!

 Born and raised in Brooklyn. Very pronounced accent in Welcome Back, Kotter and Saturday Night Fever. In other roles, he sometimes dials it back a bit, but it never disappears entirely.  In fact...

...you can even hear a trace of it in this movie!

Hizzoner grew up in the Bronx, but doesn't sound much like the other Bronx residents I've mentioned. Seeing as he needed to convince all five boroughs to cast a vote for him, perhaps he tried to make his accent as generically New Yawk as possible.

 He played a Transylvanian, but the actor himself grew up in Brooklyn. That said, if he and Ed Koch from the Bronx were in the same room talking when the lights went out, I think you'd have a hard time telling which was which.

 Queens, and still has the accent (maybe he's the son Archie Bunker gave up for adoption.)

 OK, that last joke was a bit unfair--to the people of Queens. This guy also was from there. Back in the 1980s, some thought his accent (as well as Italian name, and rumors of ties to the Mafia) might hinder his chances to become President. For whatever reason, he never did run. Incidentally, not only were the Mafia rumors unfounded, but two years ago a Sicilian hit man claimed there were plans in 1992 to whack the then-New York Governor during a visit to Italy! The hit was called off after whatever Godfather in charge saw just how big his security detail was.

Ever hear him talk? Thick Brooklyn accent. But as with Streisand, it disappears entirely when he sings. 

Brooklyn. I don't know if the "Wah, wah, wah" would have necessarily given him away, but he talked differently than everyone else on Happy Days, including cousin Fonzie.

I don't know if it entirely accounts for his broadcasting style, but the man who Monday Night Football fans once loved to hate grew up in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn. Sounds like a campy Larry King.

Daphne and Skippy sometimes sounded like they might be from Brooklyn or the Bronx--anywhere but Mayberry.

Mel Blanc, who voiced the wacky wabbit for so many years, once said his speech was a combination of a Brooklyn and Bronx accent. Maybe so, but to my ears, the hare sounds kind of like Cyndi Lauper, from Queens.

 As you can see, when it comes to pop culture representations of New York City accents, Brooklyn beats the Bronx (and, of course, Queens) about 2-1, so I think I can be forgiven for mistaking Penny Marshall for a Brooklynite. I mean, where else was I supposed to think she was from, Wisconsin?

Speaking of Penny Marshall, let's get back to the matter at hand...

Laverne and Shirley never got much respect from the critics. The 1970s was the era of the cerebral sitcom, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the gold standard that all else was measured. But L+S came from a more lowbrow, farcical direction, and, if you accept that, as I do, then it was for a number of years one of the funniest shows on TV. Plus, though I wasn't around to witness it first hand, my gut tells me that not since The Honeymooners had there been a more faithful depiction of 1950s working-class life. And remember, The Honeymooners was actually made during the 1950s. Laverne and Shirley had to recreate it some 20-odd years later from scratch. And did so beautifully (at least up until a head-scratching move from beer-drenched Milwaukee to sun-soaked Los Angeles.) However, the biggest reason for the show's success may have simply been the comic chemistry between Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams. This may sound sacrilege to some, but they were, at least at times, on par with Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, they were that good. Marshall and Williams had an interesting, even fascinating, relationship. They were already friends when Penny's brother Garry asked the two to play a couple of girls from the wrong side of the tracks who go out on date with Richie and Fonzie in an episode of Happy Days, which then became the springboard for their own series. Ironically, it was the very success of that spinoff series that proved disastrous for Marshall's and Williams' friendship. A rivalry developed, the two started feuding. The crux of the problem seemed to be Williams' belief that the show favored Marshall, that she got more lines and airtime (speaking for myself, I remember the two actresses being in virtually every scene together. You saw one, and there was the other. Still, the sitcom was produced not just by Penny's brother but her father as well. Cindy would have been less than human if all that nepotism didn't occasionally get under her skin.) Then Williams got pregnant and dropped out of the series. Laverne and Shirley without Shirley? Not surprisingly, the show tanked in the ratings, and was cancelled in 1983 after eight years on the air. The good news is that, after a cooling off period, Marshall and Williams became friends once again. A few years ago, Cindy was quoted as saying the two often watched TV together. If that's not a sign of closeness, I don't know what is.

Friends or foes, here's Penny and Cindy at their best:

Ah, to be young and single.

And, finally...

 Yep, it's almost upon us, and I just happened to come across a clip of Penny Marshall arriving at a New Year's Eve party. Watch:

I hope she had fun.

RIP Penny.