Friday, June 23, 2017

Crime Does Not Pay #7: “Foolproof” (03/07/36)

Well, after all the hassles with my health and the health of my computer, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear returns with our critically-acclaimed dissections of the two-reel shorts in MGM’s long-running Crime Does Not Pay series.  (Spoiler: they are not critically-acclaimed.)  This week’s entry, Foolproof (1936), comes to us via the team of Marty Brooks (story) and Richard Goldstone (screenwriter); both men collaborated on previous entries in the CDNP series (Alibi Racket, A Thrill for Thelma) but Goldstone had the more prolific show bidness career in that he made his way through the ranks of MGM’s shorts department as a producer (he’s credited with several Our Gang one-reelers) before graduating to feature films like The Yellow Cab Man (1950) and The Tall Target (1951).  Dick later went to work for 20th Century-Fox, and in the 1960s was a producer on programs like Adventures in Paradise and Peyton Place.

Oh, and director Edward Cahn gets a separate screen credit.  That should count for something.

Our MGM Reporter (William Tannen)—the man known cryptically as…Jim—is also back with us; they decided to stick him behind a microphone so he would look more reporter-ish.  (He needs it, as you’ll learn in a few.)

JIM: A few months ago, I was seated in the office of Frederick Halliday—who is Captain of Detectives in a large middle Western city…

Even the names of the burgs have been changed to protect the innocent.  The (always reliable) IMDb doesn’t technically identify the actor who portrays Cap’n Halliday, but since Alonzo Price is listed among the players I’m gambling it’s him because a) his name is also listed prominently among the cast in the entry for Foolproof in Leonard Maltin’s Selected Short Subjects, and 2) the IMDb does list his place of birth as Boston, MA (me sainted mother’s birthplace!) …and Alonzo has an accent as thick as clam chow-dah.

JIM: Captain Halliday, I’ve been sent to you to obtain a case history of crimes from your files for presentation to the motion picture public…
HALLIDAY: I think I can do better than that, Jim…the coroner’s jury is just doing an investigation of a very interesting case down the hall…maybe we can sit in on the proceedings…

“But…I’m not properly dressed!”

JIM: Fine—what case is it?
HALLIDAY: The Anderson case!
JIM: Say—that sounds like a mystery thriller…

Or something Anderson drank.  Halliday and his guest are lucky to find a couple of seats up front as the inquiry gets underway.  The actor playing the part of the judge at the inquest is easily identified…

…it’s Stanley Andrews, the character veteran (Meet John Doe, The Ox-Bow Incident) best remembered as “The Old Ranger” on the long-running TV western Death Valley Days.  Andrews’ judge is questioning one of the major witnesses in “the Anderson case”—another TV favorite…

…George Cleveland, who played George “Gramps” Miller in the early seasons of Lassie before his passing in July of 1957.  Cleveland also had plum roles in such TDOY faves as It’s in the Bag! (1945—“Compliments of the management!”) and The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947), and he turns up in the Crime Does Not Pay series often, notably in 1941’s Sucker List…which I covered previously on the blog.  Here’s the thing: at the time I wrote about this short in December of 2010, Cleveland’s credit at the IMDb hilariously read: “Old Man Not Beaten Up.”  I swear I’m not making this up—except if you look at the entry now, the “Not Beaten Up” portion has been removed.  I don’t know if I had anything to do with this or not…if on the off-chance I do have that much influence on the Internets, I offer my sincerest mea culpa because I thought it was funny as hell.

Back to the particulars of “the Anderson case.”  Cleveland, as Mr. Hanson, testifies he was mowing his front lawn when a moppet named Frances came running up to report that her mother Rita (Donrue Leighton) had been hurt.  Hanson finds Mrs. A bound and gagged in the bedroom, and after untying her he runs to another room to discover her husband Frank is really most sincerely dead.  (And someone’s responsible!)

The coroner identified the presence of “anesthetic in the victim’s lungs” as a contributory cause of his demise… “though not in sufficient quantity to kill him.”  “Apparently the drug was administered to stupefy him…after which, the murderer strangled him,” he remarks.  Further study showed that traces of that anesthetic were present on the gag in Rita’s mouth, which apparently put her out for about six hours (the marks on her wrists and ankles bear this out as well).  Detective Whalen testifies further:

WHELAN: A routine checkup revealed no fingerprints—nor any other clues…Mr. Anderson’s pockets had been emptied…his watch and wallet were both missing…so were Mrs. Anderson’s jewels…all windows and doors were in perfect order, except the front door—where apparently the burglar made his entry by filing through a chain lock…

The Widder Anderson then testifies as to her version of events—she and husband Frank returned home from an evening soiree and as she prepared for bed in front of her dressing table, she was attacked by the assailant from behind and (presumably) chloroformed with the anesthetic (she doesn’t remember anything that happened afterward until Hanson came to her rescue).  That screen grab above reminds me of the lyric in Tom T. Hall’s Ballad of Forty Dollars: “You know, some women do look good in black.”

The dowager who threw the affair that the Andersons attended, Mrs. Layton, is identified at the IMDb as an actress named Lelah Tyler—but you can’t tell me that’s not Esther Howard (Leonard Maltin thinks so, too).  (The comments section awaits dissenters.)  Anyway, Layton’s testimony reveals that there was a small disagreement during her party between Frank Anderson and a sebaceous individual named Terry Spencer (Stephen Chase), who starts to get a little handsy where Mrs. Anderson is concerned.

SPENCER: Come on, Rita…how’s about a little kiss?
RITA: No, no, Terry…please…Terry, please stop…
FRANK (approaching the couple): What’s the idea, Spencer?  That’s my wife
SPENCER: Yeah…I’ve often wondered about that…
(He turns his back to Anderson)
FRANK (spinning him around): Just what do you mean?
SPENCER: I’d bet you’d like to know…or maybe you wouldn’t

The donnybrook is just about to commence when a party guest (Niles Welch) who’s been watching the argument starts to step in and settle things…before being stopped by Rita.  He’s later identified as “John Harwood,” though I should strenuously point out he is not the same guy who’s CNBC’s editor-at-large.  Mrs. Layton, who describes Mr. H as “a friend of Rita’s,” assumes that’s to whom Spencer was referring when he made that cryptic “maybe you wouldn’t” statement.  Judge Ranger presses her a little more, and gets her to reveal that “John thought a lot of Rita…but so did Terry Spencer!”

What amuses me about the above screen grab is that Halliday is furiously taking notes while Jim—who claims to be a “reporter”—does nothing of the sort.  The first name in Halliday’s notebook, by the way, is “Spencer Walden”—the third suspect in la affaire Anderson due to his uncomfortable encounter with the victim earlier at the party:

WALDEN: Frank…I…I just haven’t got the cash to meet your note…can’t you give me a little time?
FRANK: Why, I’ve given you enough time already…
WALDEN: But you don’t understand…I’ll be wiped out!
FRANK (finishing his drink and getting to his feet): Sorry, Walden…I didn’t come here to talk business

He seems nice.  As you can see by the headline, the inquest turns out to be a bust…but that doesn’t mean that Cap’n Halliday can call it a day.  (Particularly since he now appears to be doing Jim’s reporter job for him.)  He questions all three suspects…

…and learns that “getting that note extended” was of vital importance to Mr. Walden—providing plenty of motive for Stew to croak Frank.  Walden claims he was home in bed:

Jim will have to leave the room as soon as Halliday breaks out the oranges and pillowcase.
WALDEN: …I came home early that evening…
HALLIDAY: Can you prove that?
WALDEN (after a pause): Certainly I can…if I’d have come home later than midnight the clerk would have seen me…I would have had to waken him to get in…

Next up is non-CNBC Washington correspondent John Harwood, who works for some sort of chemical outfit as head of the sales division.  Halliday has difficulty pronouncing John’s last name due to his Boston accent; it sounds as if he’s saying “Howard” throughout most of this short.

HALLIDAY: Harwood…do you know of any reason Frank Anderson should have been jealous of you?
HARWOOD: I most certainly do not…

“Well, unless you want to include the fact that I was shtupping his wife.”  Johnny’s got an alibi, too—he was staying at a hotel the night of Anderson’s murder, and the next morning he went over to his company’s warehouse to supervise a shipment.  When the greasy Terry Spencer is brought in for questioning, he, too, has a story—he was in a poker game at a roadhouse outside of town, one that broke up at 3:30am.

JIM: They certainly all have airtight alibis, haven’t they?
HALLIDAY: Well, I didn’t expect them to come unprepared

Yes, I chuckled at that.

JIM: What are you going to do next?
HALLIDAY: Let’s see…I think we’ll assign a man to check on Walden…I want to find out exactly what shape his business affairs are in…as for Terry Spencer…I want to know just who he plays poker with every Sunday night…

As for “Howard,” Halliday assigns a couple of plainclothesmen, Finney and Jorgensen, to pose as salesman so that they can infiltrate Harwood’s “sales force.”  Two more detectives (one a female who watches Spencer with her makeup mirror) shadow Spencer in a nightclub, where’s he witnessed paying off a couple of goombahs from a large wad o’money…

As for Walden, still another dick gets the information on Walden’s business from a mousey bookkeeper who’s told not to mention anything to the boss.  Walden becomes the chief suspect after Cap’n Halliday has had a look at his records:

HALLIDAY: In going over his books, we find that his business is going to the wall…a thirty-day extension on the Anderson note might have saved him…a delay, for example—caused by Anderson’s death and the settlement of his estate…and that isn’t all…Walters reports that he’s been putting his affairs in order…it looks as if he’s going to blow town…

I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.  The only thing Walden is going to blow is his brains out, a delicate little matter that Halliday stumbles upon when he and Jim (I guess he’s going out on police calls now) pay Walden a little visit at his modest digs.  While it looks at first glance as if Stewie committed suicide, Halliday soon rules that out since the bullet hole was in his forehead and the Captain believes it’s a little awkward shooting yourself that way (most suicide attempts occur at the temple, he tells Jim).  “Guess that’s why he was putting his affairs in order,” notes Jim inappropriately.  (The Walden family is gonna love him at the funeral.)  Halliday also observes that Walden was killed at nearly the same time on the same day as the unfortunate Frank Anderson—“I don’t think that’s a coincidence at all.”

So, the finger of suspicion is redirected back to Spencer and Harwood.  Halliday has a funny line when talking to the detective who’s been birddogging Spencer; the dick tells him that everyone in the suspect’s poker game will swear he was there the entire time and the Captain cracks: “That don’t mean much—those guys will swear to anything.”  (Terry is quite friendly with “the mob” …though that could also describe the Chamber of Commerce, to be honest.)  But “Jorgy,” in conversing with Halliday, mentions that Harwood’s first stop on his sales route is in a town with an airport…and that gives Freddie an idea…

Halliday and Jim pay the Widder Anderson a visit, where the Cap’n tells Rita that they’re closing in on the man responsible for killing her husband.  “I can assure you an arrest within 24 hours,” he informs her.  Rita is concerned that the assailant will get away, but the cocky Halliday tells her not to fret.  “He’s completely surrounded.”

He had a reason for telling her this—he now knows it’s Harwood, and he further knows that Rita was in on the caper from the beginning when she foolishly calls John to tell him to be careful and your friendly neighborhood police department has tapped her phone.

Harwood is picked up in the same fashion he utilized when he murdered Anderson and Walden.  He snuck out of his hotel room and hid in the back of one of the company’s truck, covering himself with a tarp that he instructed the warehouse guys to place over the shipment beforehand.  When the truck made its first stop, he exited the back of the vehicle and took a plane from the airport to Marion, where both Anderson and Walden lived.  In the case of Frank, he instructed Rita that he would knock her out with the anesthetic so it would look like a home invasion—though when she’s confronted by the police she swears she had no idea John was going to send her hubby to The Happy Hunting Ground.  So why did he kill Walden?  “Like all criminals, you couldn’t stop at your first crime,” sneers Halliday.  Just like Lays’ Potato Chips—you can’t eat just one.  (Rita and John killed her husband for the insurance—the oldest game in the Big Book O’Crime.)

JIM: Rita Anderson was sentenced to twenty years in the Women’s State Penitentiary…

Presumably under the supervision of the happy-go-lucky female warden in A Thrill for Thelma.

JIM: …John Harwood is in the death house now…

When he’s not hosting Speakeasy with John Harwood on CNBC Digital.

JIM: …waiting for the law to exact the final penalty for his foolproof crime…for foolproof it was, only in the sense that it proved an ingenious criminal…a fool

Sorry I cut this one so short this week…but my ass was starting to get numb.  Next time, Crime Does Not Pay goes to the Academy Awards with the first of two Oscar-winning entries in the series, The Public Pays (1936).  G’bye now!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Lubitsch of Arabia

Janaia (Pola Negri) is a breathtakingly beautiful dancer who travels with other performers in a caravan…and who’s attracted the attention of a Bagdad slave trader, Achmed (Paul Biensfeldt).  Achmed has been commissioned by Zuleika (Jenny Hasselqvist), the current favorite in a harem maintained by “The Mighty Sheikh” (Paul Wegener), to procure women for her hubby…because she no longer wants to be the favorite, preferring instead the romantic attentions of Nour-Ed Din (Harry Liedtke), humble (and handsome) clothes merchant.  His Sheikhness, learning of Zuleika’s perfidy, condemns her to death…but she is spared when the Sheikh’s son, Sheikh, Jr. (Carl Clewing), pleads for her life.  Janaia is not so fortunate—the cruel despot bumps off both her and Sheikh, Jr. (they were having a little thing on the side) but before he can add Zuleika and Nour-Ed Din to the body count he is dispatched to the Great Beyond by the hunchbacked Abdullah (Ernst Lubitsch), who’s avenging the murder of Janaia.

All this palace intrigue has been condensed into a fifty-minute cut-down of Sumurun, a 1920 melodrama directed by Ernst Lubitsch before he emigrated to the U.S. and exhibited “the Lubitsch touch.”  (“Sumurun” is the name of the Zuleika character in the original German movie.)  The movie would be released in America the following year and retitled One Arabian Night; the (always reliable) IMDb lists the movie’s running time as a longer eighty-five minutes (another DVD version clocks it at 105).  The 50-minute version is from an Alpha Video release that came out in mid-May.

The shorter running time on the Alpha DVD really hurts the viewing experience, sad to report.  It makes One Arabian Night confusing and often difficult to comprehend, which is a shame because I had heard a good many positive things about the picture and I was looking forward to sitting down with it.  It’s not entirely unrewarding; it’s interesting early Lubitsch (his later themes of infidelity and naughtiness are on full display in this tale based on the pantomime by Friedrich Freksa), and it also showcases the appeal of Pola Negri, who would go on to a prolific career as a silent screen siren.  It was with the success of Night in the U.S. that Mary Pickford was encouraged to invite the director and his star to make movies in Tinsel Town.  Lubitsch would continue to direct classics like Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Ninotchka (1939) until his death in 1947 (his valedictory feature, 1948’s That Lady in Ermine, was assigned to Otto Preminger after Ernst died during production) but Negri, despite box-office hits like Forbidden Paradise (1924—directed by Lubitsch) and Hotel Imperial (1927—the only other Pola film I’ve seen), went back to Europe to work toward the silent era (her thick Polish accent would have been a problem)—only resurfacing in two later American films, Hi Diddle Diddle (1943) and The Moon-Spinners (1964, her final movie).

Sadly, Lubitsch abandoned a promising career in front of the camera with this film (he made cameo appearances in a few of his talkies and in the Ed Sullivan film Mr. Broadway [1933]; he’s also in the trailer for The Shop Around the Corner)—he’s quite good as the sympathetic hunchback who pines for Negri’s character from afar, then later gets an opportunity to be a hero at the end.  I’ve mentioned on the blog before that while I have a tremendous admiration for Ernst as a director his movies just aren’t my particular cup of Orange Pekoe (it’s not him—it’s me) save for To Be or Not to Be (1942), which I will watch at the drop of a hat.  (In Milt Josefsberg’s The Jack Benny Show, he includes an anecdote from his famous boss in which Lubitsch “acted out” how he wanted Benny to play Josef Tura in To Be…so the director never got performing completely out of his system.)  Lubitsch fans will want to check this one out if they haven’t already; many thanks to my friend Brian Kray at Alpha Video for providing me with the screener for this review.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

“Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

The night that I wrestled with the meshuggeneh desktop computer—the one that eventually had to be hauled into the repair shop so that the hard drive could be replaced—I was stuck for something to do while the diagnostic tests were running, so I grabbed the bedroom TV remote and started in with the channel surfing.  Imagine my delight when I learned that DISH has added a new channel to its lineup: BUZZR (channel 245), the Fremantle Media-owned subchannel that offers up classic game shows to those couch potatoes jonesing for a fix of Match Game or Family Feud.  Wikipedia says that DISH added BUZZR in May of this year but I’m still a little skeptical about that only because I go “round the horn” on a frequent basis if I can’t sleep at night, looking to see if I can find anything that won’t require a lengthy time investment.  It seems to me I would have come across BUZZR sooner, but…what the hey.

I’m not a big game show fan as a rule.  I watched a lot of them as a kid, and then eventually grew to understand that most of them are vacuous, insipid, and a clear threat to my logging as many classic movies under my belt before I’m summoned to that Great Movie Palace in the Sky.  Still, I have a soft spot for the panel shows of the classic TV era like What’s My Line?, I’ve Got a Secret, and To Tell the Truth…because there are celebrities on these vintage telecasts that are idolized by your humble narrator like Fred Allen (a panelist on Line from 1954 until his death in 1956) and Henry Morgan (Secret).  The Game Show Network used to run these repeats in the 1990s until Sony’s contract ran out…but by that time, GSN was starting to shift toward their own homegrown programming anyway.  (This resulted in people of my vintage reclining in our porch rocking chairs and grumbling about how great things used to be “back in the day.”  “Remember when AMC and TVLand used to be good?  Those were the days…”)

I can’t quite put my finger on it…but something tells me that unless you subscribe to one of DISH’s major packages (America’s Top 200, America’s Top 250, etc.) BUZZR isn’t going to be around Rancho Yesteryear for long.  (We have the Flex package, see, which—thanks to member of the TDOY faithful Barry—allows us to get channels we’ll actually watch and insulates the ‘rents from any potential danger resulting from my succumbing to The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ withdrawal and running after them with a butcher knife.  Okay, I am kidding about that.  Nobody runs in my family unless we’re chased.)  So I am currently DVRing every episode of Truth, Secret, and Line that I can lay my hands on; it will make marvelous filler for when I’m dubbing off movies to discs.  That’s three down and seven to go…Arlene?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Buried Treasures: Little Orphant Annie (1918)

The members of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful comprise a very erudite crowd (okay, you can take your hands out of your pants pockets now—I’m not asking for money) and they’re no doubt aware that if I were to mention “James Whitcomb Riley” their immediate reaction would be to think of his famous 1885 poem Little Orphant Annie.  Even on the off-chance that some cartooners would respond “Who’s J.W. Riley and what does he do when he’s not tending bar?” they’re familiar with the line in poem that reads “An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you ef you don't watch out!”  The legendary work—a favorite of mine when I was a wee lad—is essentially a morality lesson advising children to mind their parents and other authority figures lest they be snatched away by supernatural forces.  Yeah.  Nothing particularly frightening there.  (“Mother…Father?  Remember that old bedwetting problem of mine?  It’s returned with a vengeance.”)

James Whitcomb Riley, circa 1913
The rights to many of Riley’s works were purchased by motion picture companies in the teens to adapt to the silver screen, and it was the Selig Polyscope Company (a studio founded by Colonel William Selig that started out in the business making travelogues and industrial shorts) who expressed the major interest in bringing the poet’s literary contributions to theatergoers, notably with A Hoosier Romance in 1918 (sadly, this is a lost film).  The studio followed this with an adaptation of Little Orphant Annie that same year—the feature would avail itself of footage of J.W. shot as part of a project involving the state of Indiana’s centennial celebration; “the Hoosier poet” was filmed telling local children the history of the state outside his home in Indianapolis, and what resulted was released to movie screens in June of 1916 (Riley himself passed away a month later).  Alas and alack, Little Orphant Annie would be the last feature produced by Selig Polyscope; it was previewed as a Selig title, then went into general release under the banner of the Pioneer Film Corporation and eventually found a home with World Pictures.  Annie was re-released in 1926 but despite the dedicated efforts of film historian-preservationist Eric Grayson, he couldn’t find any info on the studio responsible for the reissue.

Eric Grayson, a.k.a. "Dr. Film," circa 2016
Back in August of 1916, Grayson—known to his intimates and creditors as “Dr. Film”—initiated a Kickstarter project to restore Little Orphant Annie using a combination of 16mm prints and a surviving 35mm nitrate print (which was already experiencing deterioration).  (This released version, by the way, is the longest version commercially available.)  It had been a dream project of Eric’s for many years, but he was continually stymied in his efforts to generate any attention.  “No one was particularly interested in preserving the film,” he notes, “because it was available on DVD in the form of a cut, murky dupe print that was out of sequence.  The film was being unfairly maligned in the marketplace because it was considered substandard.”  Grayson knew that if the film were to be restored, 2016 would be the opportune time to do so because it would not only coincide with Indiana’s bicentennial but mark the centennial of James Whitcomb Riley’s passing.  Furthermore, the Library of Congress offered the use of two 16mm prints as well as the remaining 35mm footage.  No sooner was“nitrate won’t wait” uttered than the effort to pass around the Kickstarter tin cup got underway, generating $10,647 (more than meeting its $10,000 goal) from 227 backers.

The finished restoration was premiered at a showing in Delphi, Indiana in December of 2016, and the DVD version that was the reward for my contribution arrived in the House of Yesteryear a little over a week ago.  Here’s an example of the benefits of clean living: I received both the DVD and Blu-ray (Eric explained it was cheaper to send both) of the restored movie, so that was a pleasant little bonus.  In the booklet that accompanies the combo pack he references a previous post at his Dr. Film blog by observing: “Those of you who hold this print up against restorations like Casablanca will be disappointed.  While Casablanca has 35mm materials, including nitrate negatives, still available from the year of release, there is no negative extant for Little Orphant Annie.  The surviving prints are all from the 1926 reissue made to capitalize on Colleen Moore’s stardom.”  I knew going in that this refurbishment wasn’t going to be pristine…but what I watched this weekend surpassed any expectations.  Eric and the folks who participated in this restoration have done an exemplary job—the movie looks simply amazing.

This screen capture from the movie can't hide Colleen Moore's heterochromia.  (Oh, it only sounds dirty -- it means she has one brown eye and one blue eye.)
Little Orphant Annie is believed to be the earliest surviving feature starring Colleen Moore, who would enjoy great stardom in the 1920s with such vehicles as Flaming Youth (1923).  Selig Polyscope had cast Moore in the earlier A Hoosier Romance, and had planned to make the actress “the Riley Girl” in subsequent productions but the closing of the studio put the kibosh on that.  “It's easy to see why she became such a popular star,” Eric observed at the time of the Kickstarter project, “since she has a magnetic presence that keeps the viewer's interest all through the film.”  The Little Orphant Annie restoration features an audio commentary from Moore biographer Jeff Codori (he also contributes a history of the film in the liner note booklet) and additional commentary from Grayson and fellow film historian Glory-June Greiff on the film’s restoration.  (In addition, Greiff recites Riley’s magnus opus in a brief segment…on a stage where the poet himself once stood.)  Contributing the marvelous score to the refurbished version of Annie is the hardest-working man in the silent movie music business, Ben Model.

Annie tells her tales.
The plot of the movie is a simple morality play that borrows elements from both the poem and an 1882 story J.W. Riley wrote about the woman who was the inspiration for “Little Orphant Annie”—Mary Alice Smith (Riley’s story is titled “Where is Mary Alice Smith?”).  Young Annie (Jean Stone) acquires her “orphant” status at a young age when her mother dies suddenly and she’s sent to the County Orphants…er, Orphans Home.  As she matures into womanhood, Annie (Moore) must leave the home and she’s placed in the care of her Uncle Tomps (Harry Lonsdale) and Aunt Elizabeth (Lillian Hayward)—both of whom suffer from serious deficiencies in the parenting department (Annie is subjected to constant physical and mental abuse).  Her saviors are a neighboring farmer named Dave Johnson (Tom Santschi) and Squire (Lafe McKee) and Mrs. Goode (Eugenie Besserer); the Goodes (subtle—isn’t it?) take the unwanted waif in (they always have “room for one more”) while Dave is the recipient of a crush from Annie (she often envisions him as a “knight in shining armor”).

Directed by Colin Campbell from a scenario by Gilson Willets, Little Orphant Annie is a most entertaining blend of fantasy and melodrama—the otherworldly elements (depictions of witches, goblins, and other nasties who reside in Annie’s vivid imagination) are doggone impressive for a film of that era (Grayson observes in a featurette that while this sort of thing has now become effortless through CGI, the time-consuming process needed to render this kind of celluloid magic in that era was the very definition of extraordinary), and as I’ve previously stated, the entire presentation (movie, extras, etc.) is polished and would be the envy of any home video release.  “If it hadn't been for Kickstarter, this wouldn't have happened,” Eric declares in the featurette…and speaking only for myself, I’m glad I was able to contribute a few shekels because the end result was worth it.

Monday, June 19, 2017

From beautiful downtown Burbank…

When Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In premiered as a one-shot NBC-TV special on September 9, 1967, several of the show’s best remembered cast members were already on board: Judy Carne, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Jo Anne Worley, and Ruth Buzzi, to be precise.  Larry Hovis also appeared in the special, taking a sabbatical from his regular gig as Sgt. Andrew Carter on Hogan’s Heroes (he would return to Laugh-In later in the show’s run, along with his Heroes castmate Richard Dawson), as did Barbara Feldon—who might have become a Laugh-In regular if her Get Smart duties hadn’t limited her participation to a handful of the early telecasts.  What you may not know (then again, if you’ve read my Facebook compadre Hal Erickson’s book you might) is that Ken Berry was also in the pilot.  Just imagine.  If they had kept Berry in the cast, we might have been spared Mayberry R.F.D.  (Just can’t catch a break.)

If you’re curious as to my sudden interest in Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, it’s because I received an e-mail last month from my good friend Michael Krause at Foundry Communications that the iconic comedy hour—which aired over NBC from January 22, 1968 to March 12, 1973, and was television’s #1 show in the 1968-69 and 1969-70 seasons—has made its home video debut in a ginormous DVD collection available from Time Life and Proven Entertainment.  All 140 telecasts are present (including the final season, which until they recently resurfaced on the Decades channel had long been MIA) and accounted for in this 38-disc set, along with scads of bodacious extras and a 32-page collectible booklet—Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series can be ordered right now at the tariff is $249.95 (for the budget-minded, there's a 40-episode "Best of" set priced at $99.95).  (Fans of the show have my permission to discard their “Best of” Rhino DVDs they may own—eBay operators are standing by.)

The cast of Laugh-In (1968-69)
Like most couch potatoes of my generation, I dropped in on the show’s legendary “cocktail party” from time to time…though admittedly, it was in the show’s declining years, when most of its famous cast members had moved on to bigger and better things and Laugh-In was having to rely on the high-wattage comedy contributions of Moosie Drier.  I’m more familiar with the whittled down half-hour version of the program which aired for a time on Nick at Nite (the series’ original hour-long syndication package consisted of 70 hours culled from the first three seasons, along with the pilot and a few Season 4 installments) but to be honest—I never could figure out what all the fuss was about.  I think Laugh-In’s reputation for hip irreverence is somewhat inflated; creator-producer George Schlatter describes it as “a free fall of television without a net.  It was dangerous.  It was controversial.  It was totally unpredictable and always funny.”  Well, not really.  It was little more than sped-up vaudeville hokum—a mixture of the irreverence of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ and the technological wackiness of television comedy innovator Ernie Kovacs.  (Schlatter was and still is married to Jolene Brand, a cast member of Kovacs’ show.)

Creator George Schlatter (holding sign) and the Laugh-In writers
Laugh-In was critically praised for its “representation of the counterculture” …but in this superb article by Kliph Nesteroff (who recycles some of this material in his indispensable The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy), the argument is convincingly made that the show was nothing more than The Establishment’s idea of The Counterculture (if you read Kliph’s piece, you’ll learn that Laugh-In head writer Paul Keyes played a large role in making Richard Milhous Nixon palatable to TV audiences).  “Laugh-In is commonly considered a reflection of the late sixties youth sensibility, but closer examination reveals a much different picture,” Kliph writes.  “It was, in essence, an establishment show, profiting from the anti-establishment sentiment running through America.  Moderated by the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, Laugh-In was old in style, but draped in the popular fashion of the day.  It effectively garnered a genuine hippie aesthetic, but any actual connection to the counterculture was mostly smoke and mirrors.  The bulk of Laugh-In consisted of eye-catching vaudeville bits that mostly ignored the war, the riots and the protest.  It embraced the look and sound of the hippies and had no problem making references to getting high, but generally glossed over political issues.”

"Sock me?"
This assessment goes a long way in explaining why I experienced disappointment with Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In as I got older: I was looking for something that was never there in the first place.  So I need to temper my criticism from the previous paragraphs with this caveat: if you’re looking for the biting political satire of such 60s shows as That Was the Week That Was or The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, you’re not going to find it on Laugh-In; its humor was more of the toothless Jay Leno-Tonight Show variety.  (In fact, if you read Nesteroff’s article in its entirety you’ll learn that hosts Rowan and Martin eventually bought out producer Schlatter’s interest in the program because the two stars “were very heavily into Nixon.  They actually had a quota of Daniel Ellsberg jokes, a quota of anti-New York Times jokes, and a weekly segment on the [left-wing] distortion of the news.”)  Yet if you look at the series through the prism as one of those classic television variety hours that they sadly don’t make any more, Laugh-In can be pretty amusing from time to time.  (Television to me has become a vast repository of “reality shows” …which you can actually lay the blame for at Schlatter’s feet for creating the successful Real People in 1979.)

Ruth Buzzi, Jo Anne Worley and Goldie Hawn in a Season 3 sketch
The “big names” on the show had already vamoosed during the period I watched Laugh-In although Lily Tomlin was still on the show; she joined in the show’s 1969-70 season, and became phenomenally popular with her characterizations of Ernestine (“Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?”), Edith Ann (“And that’s the truth…thbthh!!!”), and Mrs. Earbore, the “Tasteful Lady.”  Tomlin probably enjoyed the biggest post-Laugh-In career—she garnered an Oscar nomination for her performance in the 1975 film Nashville, which also featured Laugh-In alum Henry Gibson—save for Goldie Hawn, who took home her Academy Award trophy (for Best Supporting Actress in 1968’s Cactus Flower) while she was still performing on the show.  (I’ve watched a few of the early telecasts featuring Goldie, and was amused that her persona of the giggly blonde ditz took a show or two to develop—in her early appearances she plays it perfectly straight.  Also hooty: Hawn was on the show at the same time her Private Benjamin co-star Eileen Brennan was also a regular.)  Laugh-In featured some truly funny comic actresses: Judy Carne (the “Sock it to me” girl who would be doused with water or dropped through a trap door whenever she uttered the show’s phrase), Ruth Buzzi (“I just want to swing!”), and Jo Anne Worley (“Bo-ring!”), who only has to start in with that infectiously goofy laugh to make me chuckle (“Is that a chicken joke?”). 

Buzzi and Arte Johnson as Gladys & Tyrone
On the distaff side, there was Henry Gibson (the poetry guy with the flower), Gary Owens (the old-style announcer with his ever-present hand cupped to his ear), Alan Sues (sidesplitting as “Uncle Al, the kiddie’s pal”), and Larry Hovis (I loved his David Brinkley-like newscaster).  I didn’t find Arte Johnson as hilarious as some of my contemporaries (his German soldier shtick—“Verrry interesting”—got old quickly) though I did like his interactions with Buzzi’s Gladys Ormphby (“Care for a walnetto?”).  (Actually, the funniest thing about the old man was that his official name was “Tyrone F. Horneigh” …though they had to pronounce the last name as “Hor-NIGH” for obvious reasons.)  And I still have a soft spot for Dave Madden, who made me titter as the dour deadpan guy who threw confetti as a reaction to punchlines…because his “Reuben Kincaid” on The Partridge Family is one of my role models.

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In has been released to DVD to coincide with the commemoration of the show’s 50th anniversary, and while I couldn’t score a screener of the set I did receive a wonderful consolation prize that I’ll discuss in a bit more detail in a future post.  What I could sample was a delightful surprise in that the show still manages to be entertaining despite the inevitable dating of the material, and I would not hesitate to recommend a purchase for true Laugh-In diehards—it’s timeless TV.  (You bet your sweet bippy!)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Well—that was easy…

Many thanks to commenter Rick Robinson and a few other Facebook denizens for their moral support during The Great Computer Crisis of 2017.  I took it into Reboot Computer Friday morning—shortly after they opened—and they had the hard drive replaced and ready to rock ‘n’ roll three hours later.  (Same day service, baby!)  If you live in the Classic City (Athens) or in the surrounding area, I’d highly recommend them—we’re probably going to take one of our troublesome laptops in later when we have a few extra shekels.  Thrilling Days of Yesteryear will resume as normal Monday, so make an appointment, hoo-kay?