Friday, October 29, 2021
Quips and Quotations (Halloween Hipster Edition)
Wednesday, October 27, 2021
Headlines and Punchlines
In 1953, the hungry i--no, you didn't accidentally just stumble upon some e e cummings web site--was one of those San Francisco basement night clubs that featured mostly folk singers and catered to a bohemian crowd that the press in a few short years would dub "beatniks". Stand-up comedians usually weren't part of the mix--it's hard to do a BA-DUM-TSS with bongos--but a young playwright-turned-comic named Mort Sahl was looking for a different venue for his cerebral style of humor than some seedy strip club, and a girl he was dating at the time directed him to hungry i. Owner Enrico Banducci liked what he heard, and more importantly, laughed at what he heard, and gave Sahl his first steady gig in comedy. And soon enough audiences also liked and laughed at what they heard. And what they saw they found refreshing. Sahl's routine was anything but routine in 1953. Instead of a tuxedo or suit he wore a V-neck sweater and usually had with him a newspaper from which he riffed on the events of the day. Sahl set off a revolution in stand-up, as suddenly folk music--as well as anything else vaguely bohemian or intellectual--and comedy did mix, and folk clubs and tea rooms and bookstores across the land began employing stand-up comics. In Sahl's Borsht Belt-and-burlesque-blitzkrieged wake came Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Woody Allen, Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, Shelly Berman, Phyllis Diller, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and many others. Soon everyone was hip to the new kind of humor, including...
...Henry R. Luce. At least he knew what moved magazines. Meanwhile, vaudeville had found a home on television, and TV's chief vaudeville impresario, Ed Sullivan, knew what got viewers, and put Sahl on the air. Here's one of Sahl's Sullivan appearances. Keep in mind his humor was very topical and very up-to-date, which or course means much of it's terribly dated today. If you don't know why Shepard got a medal or that once there was a nation-state named Laos (actually there still is, though nobody pays much attention to it anymore,) or the type of girls Liz Taylor and Shirley Jones were playing that got them those Oscars, these jokes will go over your head. Still, you can at least appreciate his laid-back delivery:
I think the math-philosophy-psychology joke has at least withstood the test of time, though to tell it today I'd think you'd have to apply it to both sexes and all sexual orientations and identities.
As laid-back as he may have seemed, Mort Sahl could be as obsessive as the rest of us, and the above news story is what obsessed him the most. Not so much the assassination itself, but its official explanation--Oswald acted alone--which Sahl rejected. He made it part of his act, reportedly reading verbatim from the Warren Commission report but doing so in a sarcastic way. Audiences who just wanted to move on from the tragic event stopped laughing and attending his shows. By the end of the 1960s, Sahl was more or less seen as a has-been. Here's where the laid-back part comes back into play. By most accounts, Sahl accepted his fall from grace with good humor, and considered himself fortunate that he ever attained such heights to fall from in the first place. And he still found work, mostly on the college circuit. Sahl died yesterday at age 94.
Saturday, October 23, 2021
Under the Radar: Peter Scolari
|I'll let you guess which one is Peter|
In 1980, a situation comedy by the name of Bosom Buddies made its debut. Yes, the title was a double-entendre, but for what purpose? The series premise would be considered dated today. Two young men can't find an affordable place to live in Manhattan--that's not what's dated--so they put on wigs and dresses and make-up--that's not dated either; in fact, it's more in the news than ever--and move into a women-only hotel. That's what's dated. Women-only hotels are few and far between these days, and even 41 years ago were on the decline. But the sociological reasons for that decline is not what interests us today. The bosom buddies of the show's title were played by Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari. The show, which I recall was pretty funny, went off the air after only two seasons. Hanks went on to become a major movie star, which he remains today, whereas Scolari simply had to settle for being a well-respected comedy actor who worked steadily, was added to the cast of another sitcom that was one of the major hits of the 1980s, then decades later won an Emmy for a recurring role on the much-lauded (and sometimes much-criticized for sexual content) HBO comedy-drama, Girls, and even occasionally worked on Broadway. Not a bad thing to settle for, in my opinion. Peter Scolari died just yesterday. He was 66.
Odd that it didn't have an original theme song, and instead used a Billy Joel cover. Was it cheaper to do it that way? I don't know.
From 1983 to 1990, Scolari played Michael Harris on Newhart, Dick Loudin's yuppyish producer at a local TV station in Vermont, who also carried on a romance with, and eventually married, stuck-up heiress Stephanie Vanderkellen, played by Julia Duffy. This clip doesn't really sum up their comically vacuous relationship, and it's hard to see at times. But it was the only clip that I could find on YouTube under 15 minutes. And anyway, it's still funny. Very, very funny.
Sunday, October 17, 2021
Vital Viewing (Oral Choreography Edition)
Movie star Rita Hayworth was born on this day in 1918 (she died in 1987.) The daughter of two professional dancers, she herself became a professional dancer at the age of four, appearing on Broadway with mom and dad in The Greenwich Village Follies. The family moved to Hollywood, and before she was out of her teens, Rita had signed a contract with a movie studio that eventually became 20th Century Fox. However, it was the contract that she signed a few years later with Columbia Pictures that made Rita a star. Her considerable dancing skills, acting prowess, and stunningly beautiful features made her one of the top box office draws in movie musicals throughout the 1940s. In this clip from 1942's You Were Never Lovelier, she more than holds her own along side one of the biggest movie musical stars of all time:
There you have it. Rita Hayworth in her full glory singing and dancing up a storm. In this--Oh, wait, it seems I got the weather report all wrong. Rita is still dancing up a storm, but it's...
You can blame the San Francisco earthquake and the Klondike shooting on Mame, but credit...
...Anita Ellis with the vocals that matched Rita's lip movements.
I wanted to study singing, but Harry Cohn kept saying, ‘Who needs it?’ and the studio wouldn’t pay for it. They had me so intimidated that I couldn’t have done it anyway. They always said, ‘Oh, no, we can’t let you do it. There’s no time for that, it has to be done right now!’ I was under contract, and that was it
So, does any of this matter? Was some big con job being foisted on the moviegoing public? Fictional movies are con jobs to begin with. Acting is a con job. Scripted dialogue is a con job. Anything not filmed on location, anything indoors, anything in a different historical period, anything on another planet, is a con job. Maybe con job is too harsh a word. How about make-believe? No more so than musicals which often have characters singing songs that they're supposedly making up at the spur of the moment when they could just be talking instead. As far as lip syncing goes, just about any musical made after 1935 is lip synced. Remember "Over the Rainbow" in The Wizard of Oz? No, I'm not suggesting that's not actually Judy Garland's voice you're hearing. It most certainly is, but it's not what's coming out of her mouth at the very moment she's standing on a set designed to look like a Kansas barnyard. She recorded the song a few days earlier in a recording studio so it would sound like it was recorded in a recording studio and not a Kansas barnyard or even a set made up to look like a Kansas barnyard. When it came time for the actual filming, Garland lip synced herself, which was how they did it in movies then and how they do it in music videos now. You'd have to go back to the early days of sound film to find songs sung as the camera was still rolling. The first sound picture, in fact. In The Jazz Singer, when Al Jolsen sings "Mammy" he's doing so live on film (as contradictory as that may sound.) And frankly, Al sounds better in his later movies than he does there (he comes across as less racist, too.) Once Hollywood decided that what you're seeing and what you're hearing can best be done at two different locations at two different times, it wasn't long before it occurred to somebody that what you're seeing and what you're hearing can occasionally be done by two different people as well. Rita Hayworth was a terrific dancer with a terrific screen presence whose singing wasn't quite terrific enough. Nan Wynn and Anita Ellis were terrific singers but not dancers at all and though both appeared in movies from time to time, neither had what it took to become stars. There are only so many Judy Garlands in this world. The rest is make-believe. Or, if you prefer, con jobs.
Still, you might be curious as to just what Rita Hayworth's voice did sound like. Well, she does talk in her movies. Nobody has ever suggested that was dubbed. But what about her singing? For that we'll have to turn on the TV--early 1970s TV:
Television may be even more make-believe than the movies!
Monday, October 11, 2021
Quips and Quotations (Vegetation Variations Edition)
I had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: "No good in a bed, but fine against a wall".
--Eleanor Roosevelt, from a speech given at the White Shrine Club, Fresno, California, early 1960s, quoted in The Event Makers I’ve Known (2012) by Elvin C. Bell, p. 161.
Monday, October 4, 2021
Vital Viewing (Keeping a Straight Face Edition)
Film comedian Buster Keaton was born on this day in 1895 (he died in 1966.) I almost wrote "silent film comedian" as if that's all he ever was, but Keaton did a good deal of acting in talkies once they arrived, and, later, television. However, it's the 13 years he spent miming in front of a camera that he's best known for. Not just here in the US, but all over the world. Here's an interview Keaton did for Swedish TV in 1960:
I like the way Buster felt he just could go tap that mike after he saw the other fellow do it. He came in loud and clear so it must have worked.
Keaton says in the above clip that he first met Charlie Chaplin in 1912. At that time neither were movie stars or even in movies at all. They were stage actors, Keaton in vaudeville and Chaplin touring the United States with British music hall impresario Fred Karno's comedy troupe (of which Stan Laurel was also a member.) They both went into movies at first just to make a few extra bucks and ended up finding their calling. But was one call louder than the other? To what degree were they rivals? They're now seen by many as having been in this neck-to-neck competition to see who was the funniest mute on celluloid, but that's not how it actually played out during their silent film heyday, a silent film heyday in which Chaplin already had a few years head start on Keaton. If you were to compare it to 1960s rock, Chaplin would be the Beatles, transforming an art form that hadn't even been around all that long, and transforming it to such a commercially successful degree that the act existed in a strata all its own, impossibly above and beyond the reach of the nearest competition. So does that make Buster Keaton the Rolling Stones? Not necessarily. A third player, Harold Lloyd, performed slightly better at the box office. Keaton may have been more The Who or the Doors. But that's when these guys were all still alive. Since their deaths (Lloyd in 1971, Chaplin in '77), there's been reassessments, and even more reassessments. Film scholars now rank Lloyd number three (no shame in that; they all still think he's a very funny guy) and argue whether, artistically if not commercially, Chaplin or Keaton should be number one. The more years, the more decades, that go by, the more these scholars give Keaton the edge. What's causing Chaplin to slip some (and only some) in the rankings? Back when he still mostly was making two-reelers, i.e., short films, critics began referring to Chaplin as an "artist", which he most certainly was, but arguably he was not all that conscious of this artistry. His formal education having ended at age 13, as a music hall entertainer he would have been expected to do just that, entertain, be funny for funny's sake, and nothing of a more lofty nature. Once he became aware that he was being referred to as an artist, Chaplin in fact did take a more lofty approach, increasingly injecting seriousness into the comic hijinks. That seriousness, however, often took the form of sentimentality ("a laugh, and perhaps a tear" the viewer is told to expect at the beginning of The Kid.) He didn't go overboard and get all icky the way Jerry Lewis or Red Skelton often did, but 80, 90, 100 years later, that sentimentality doesn't seem as artistically significant as it once did. As for Buster Keaton (whose formal education was at best intermittent), while his films got generally good reviews, nobody in the 1920s saw anything particularly profound about them, and he was therefore free to be funny for funny's sake. Except that 55 years after his death, film scholars aren't so sure he was being funny for funny's sake, as they look deeper into his work and find that his films are brimming with social observations and psychological insights. As Steve Martin once said, comedy is not pretty.
However the film scholars and film historians and film buffs rank Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, what did these two very talented comedians think of each other?
They seem to have been friends, often visiting each other's sets. Keaton was also in Chaplin's employ during two different periods of his life. In the 1920s, when he made a few films for United Artists, which at that time was 1/4 owned by Chaplin. More significantly, in 1952, when his career had reached its nadir and Chaplin decided to help him out by giving him a part in Limelight, the only time the two appeared together on screen. I was thinking of showing you a clip of them, which comes toward the end of the film, but the emphasis is on Chaplin (for sound artistic reasons; his character makes a showbiz comeback that ends in tragedy) and this post is about Keaton. So I got something else for you instead.