Todd Robbins Returns in “True Nightmares”!

Posted in Horror (Mostly Gothic), PLUGS, Television with tags , , , , on September 30, 2016 by travsd

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We are very excited to report that our friend Todd Robbins’ show True Nightmares on the Investigation Discovery network, has been renewed for a second season and that the season premiere is tomorrow night (Saturday, October 1, 2016 for those of you readers who don’t know how to look at the dates on blogposts). It is most savvy of them to launch this show during Halloween season!

We watched every episode last year and lapped it up like liquor. How could we not? Read our interview with Todd when he launched the series last year here.

New York Burlesque Festival Opens Today!

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , on September 29, 2016 by travsd

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Hall of Hams #106: William Conrad

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of William Conrad (John William Cann, 1920-1994).

Conrad was one of those figures I frequently write about who were cheated of respect by their times. Conrad was a show business veteran with an amazing resume stretching back decades: an actor, director and producer who was successful in all three media: radio, television and cinema. And yet to millions of Americans in the 1970s, he was just “the fat guy on Cannon“.

My dad was a fan and had remembered him from his radio stardom, so as a kid I had an inkling that Conrad was more than just the portly tv detective. Conrad studied drama at Fullerton College, and was already writing, producing, directing and acting in local Los Angeles radio in his early 20s. Gifted with one of the best voices in the business, deep, resonant, forceful and stentorian, he ranks with Orson Welles as one of the medium’s most successful actors, playing over 7,500 roles over the decades, most famously Matt Dillon in the radio version of Gunsmoke (1952-1961).

Unlike Welles, Conrad was not associated with classics and literature so much as noir and crime stories and the like. By the mid 40s, he had broken into films, too, and you can see him in such gritty classics as The Killers (1946), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and The Naked Jungle (1952). Among other movies, he also produced and directed the camp horror classic Two on a Guillotine (1965), as well My Blood Runs Cold and Brainstorm (both also 1965–busy year!), and produced the rock and roll musical The Cool Ones (1967), and the early Robert Altman film Countdown (1968).

In the post radio days he was still in demand as a voiceover artist and narrator. That’s him as the announcer on the cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle  (1959-1964) and The Fugitive (1963-1967), in the 1970 John Wayne film Chisum, and the tv nature series The Wild, Wild World of Animals (1973-1978).

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And of course, his trilogy of portly policemen on Cannon (1971-1976), Nero Wolfe (1981), and Jake and the Fat Man (1987-1992). One of his last gigs was narrating the movie Hudson Hawk (1991).

These are just a few benchmarks. To truly detail all of his career accomplishments would take a blogpost many times this length. One of the things that interests me a great deal is the parallelism with the career of Orson Welles, and the ways in which they diverged. In a way, Welles was a prisoner of his brilliance as an actor and director — ironically it kept him from getting more of the bread and butter type work that paid the bills and that he was fully qualified to do. He barely achieved even a toe-hold in television. Whereas Conrad was admittedly much more of a journeyman. Because of it, there was room in his life to become the major television star he was during his last couple of decades. But that came with its own ironic twist — very few people knew about his own credits behind the cameras.

And then there’s the obvious fact that they both possessed similar body types, especially in later years. I imagine the pair of them butted heads over many a gig over the decades.

At any rate, a man to be celebrated — he kept millions of people entertained for over half a century.

Tomorrow on TCM: Slapstick in the ’80s and Beyond

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , on September 27, 2016 by travsd

Tomorrow night, Turner Classic Movies wraps up its month-long slapstick series with a look at the 1980s and beyond. It’s a notably strong line-up, and heartening to those who care about the art form and its future (despite my nitpicking).

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8:00pm (EST): Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988)

I’m a huge fan of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, although I am afraid I must annoy you with qualifications. I think their 1982 television series Police Squad!, on which this film was based, was a work of perfection, sharing with their first film Airplane!, a strict, straight deadpan and accurate details in the art direction and cinematography that nail the genre they are parodying. They hit the target they are shooting at. But in the Naked Gun movies, they compromised more and more with each outing. Leslie Nielsen, initially cast because he was “one of those guys”, was to my mind funnier the straighter he played it. In Airplane! and Police Squad! he gave a straight-up Leslie Nielsen performance as though he were doing the real thing, and the comedy came from that. Unfortunately (ironically) that gave him the idea that he was funny, and began to think of of himself as a comedy star. And the creative team began giving him lots of wacky slapstick to do. I don’t blame them too much. It’s hard to fill 90 minutes with a 20 minute idea. One way to do that is to have extended physical sequences. But I enjoy this movie more than its sequels because it hasn’t gone quite as far down the “we’re all wacky and we sure do know it” path.

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9:45pm (EST): Top Secret (1984)

Top Secret was Zucker-Abraham-Zucker’s next project after Airplane! and Police Squad! My friends and I, big fans of their previous work, went to see it when it came out and watched it on video many times thereafter, because it is very funny and contains many laughs. BUT….even at the time it felt to me like a misfire. Unlike their previous two efforts, Top Secret lacks focus. It mashes together many things: Elvis movies, World War II movies, and Cold War spy movies. It doesn’t stick to one single, obvious point. It lacks focus and thus it lacks power. To me, the Cold War aspects were the most interesting. As for the other stuff, I couldn’t help asking: why do that? Disaster movies and cop shows were ripe, juicy targets, low hanging fruit right there to be made fun of. The stuff in Top Secret has got to be reached for. They’re stretching. I was especially unimpressed with the Elvis stuff, which feels off on many levels. A nicely focused parody of an Elvis movie, properly done, would be a beautiful thing, but this isn’t it. All that said, Zucker-Abraham-Zuckers are WHOLESALE gag merchants. They are about the quantity. And this movie contains many funny gags.

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11:30pm (EST): Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

Anchorman is one of my kids’ favorite movies, and thus I have seen it way many more times than I ever would have. I’ve probably seen it 6 or 8 times, where once would have been more than enough. I have never quite understood the appeal of Will Ferrell as either a performer or a writer. He doesn’t impress me on any level. So there’s that. That said, Ferrell does come up with great ideas for comedies though they are invariably realized at a desultory level.  So I understand why Anchorman was a hit, and I enjoy watching it, however frustrating it is. The kernel of the idea: it’s about the first lady anchorperson (Christina Applegate) at a local television station, and all the grief she suffers from her sexist colleagues (Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell, David Koechner). This premise is SO potent and promising. Apparently P.T. Anderson was attached to the project at one point — imagine the movie HE could have made out of this. But Ferrell and cohorts (as they always do) just kind of skate along the surface, never mining the potential at either a dramatic of a comic level. I always get the feeling his scripts are largely improvised. And much of the improvised stuff he chooses to include just isn’t worthy to put in a feature length movie comedy. It’s just random silliness for its own sake, serving neither the plot nor the premise, and not even funny enough to justify the violation. It’s cutting room floor stuff. An entire movie of cutting room floor stuff. I laugh at it, but I don’t respect it.

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1:15am (EST): Strange Brew (1983)

I am VERY excited to be seeing this one for the first time since it originally came out (oh dear I am dating myself). I was an enormous fan of SCTV and Dave Thomas and Rock Moranis’s Canuck characters Bob and Doug McKenzie. The advent of this film was hugely exciting to me at the time, and I enjoyed it to no end, although I understood why it wasn’t a big hit. As so often happens with the SNL/SCTV crowd, their ten minute sketch characters and premises can’t sustain a feature. Still, I’ll always have nostalgic affection for it (undoubtedly in the same way my sons do for Anchorman).

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3:00am (EST): Sidewalk Stories (1989)

I am SO glad TCM included this deserving film in their line up. Charles Lane’s Chaplinesque tale of a homeless man during the age of Reagan deserves to be much better known. This movie affected me a great deal, and I think I can honestly say that it changed the way I look at things. This movie literally changed my life. Read more about in this 2013 article I wrote for The Villager. 

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Again, this is the line up for tomorrow. For my take on tonight’s line-up, the 1970s, go here. 

R.I.P. Herschell Gordon Lewis (on Political Symbolism in “2,000 Maniacs”)

Posted in Horror (Mostly Gothic), OBITS with tags , , , , , on September 26, 2016 by travsd

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Just got wind that the “Godfather of Gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis has passed away.  An interesting dilemma for his afterlife: shouldn’t his “heaven” be some sort of funhouse representation of “hell”? How would that work? It might confuse some folks up yonder.

Anyway, I’ve seen but one of Mr. Lewis’s movies, but I was so mesmerized by it that I considered doing a blogpost about it. Not sure why I didn’t. It may have been during October (Halloween month), which is normally a busy blogging time for me. At any rate, I’ll spill a few remarks about it now. A few red, dripping remarks.

The film was 1964’s 2,000 Maniacs. I’d long known of Lewis’s legend, mostly through John Waters’ enthusiasm for him (the title of Multiple Maniacs is an homage). And the title of the film was also the inspiration for the name of the band 10,000 Maniacs. I expected something bloody and probably boring. It turned out to be neither of those things. (Yeah, there’s blood, but the effects don’t look realistic by today’s standards, nor is their much of it by today’s standards, although there is plenty of torture and violence).

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But more to the point: the film turned out to be surprisingly interesting, even thought-provoking. Oh, don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of “hack, hack, hack”, “slash, slash, slash”, and “crush, crush, crush.” But Lewis, a former English professor invests the plot with all kinds of loaded symbolism that adds something like meaning to the film. Basically, a carload of big city Yankees get detoured to a remote Southern town which is in the midst of a Civil War centennial celebration. They get invited to take part in the festivities. Only too late do they discover that they are to be sacrificed in retribution for a Union victory over the town 100 years earlier. The kids are picked off, one by one, and served up as barbecue, until two of them manage to escape — and then the town disappears, Brigadoon style. The townfolk were apparently the ghosts of the original war victims.

No, but, really, go ahead and fly it over your state capitol

No, but, really, go ahead and fly it over your state capitol

Recall that this came out in 1964, the very time when civil rights workers, black and white, were being harassed, maimed and murdered throughout the South. It gives the film a political and social resonance it wouldn’t otherwise have had, and may well not have been particularly intended. But it’s there to be read: two different value systems clashing. If you’ve ever seen photographs of lynching or other KKK terror tactics (firebombings etc), you won’t regard it as the biggest leap to link a Confederate flag and “horror”.

Offended? Good. Looked at from a certain angle, 2,000 Maniacs just may be a more profound civil rights statement than The Defiant Ones or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Who better than a Gore King to remind us that history is written in blood?

Tomorrow on TCM: Slapstick in the ’70s

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2016 by travsd

Tomorrorow, Turner Classic Movies will be continuing their slapstick series by pressing farther into the future than you might have thought possible.

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8:00pm (EST): Bananas (1971)

To appropriate a line from Stardust Memories, this is one of Woody Allen’s “early, funny” comedies. And for many of us, this was indeed Allen’s best period, the pre-Annie era when his movies, his stand-up, and his humor stories were all of a piece: crazy, absurd, imaginative parodies and flights of fancy, not miles away from Mad magazine. And it is appropriate that the title of this film evokes early Marx Brothers titles; it would certainly live harmoniously on a list that includes Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business and Duck Soup. (Allen was literally palling around with Groucho at the time, and the elder comedian’s influence makes itself felt). Bananas has the most in common with Duck Soup, having dictatorship in a fictional country as its theme. Allen plays one Fielding Mellish, a product tester for a sporting goods company who somehow finds himself embroiled in revolution in a Latin American banana republic. That sounds heavy but it ain’t. The gags fly fast and furious, scarcely a second goes by without a verbal or visual joke happening, sometimes both. Allen’s ex-wife Louise Lasser (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) co-stars.  One of the funniest aspects of the film for me is that the bulk of the cast are native Spanish speakers with minimal to no English skills. That would seem mean-spirited, but the humor is much more abstract than that. It’s funny not because they are “foreign” or “inferior” or something, but simply because it is absurd to hear Allen’s smart-ass New York one liners delivered in this way. One thing I’ll add: we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of Allen as an “intellectual” and “verbal” guy. But his pre-Annie films are all full of genuine physical comedy, real slapstick. And Allen was good at it. Any of Allen’s pre-Annie films would haave fit into this program just as well

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9:30pm (EST): Young Frankenstein (1974)

My second favorite Mel Brooks film (after The Producers) and easily the greatest cinematic parody of all time. Co-scripted by star Gene Wilder, the plot borrows heavily from Son of Frankenstein, and is in fact so knowingly made that it practically deserves a place in the Universal Frankenstein cycle canon as a legitimate sequel (a lot of people think of it that way; at the very least it’s mentally tagged on as a bit of “fan art”) The cinematography, score, sets, and costumes are all uncannily accurate, as are the performances of the crowd extras and bit players. The primary cast however is pretty Borscht belt, including Wilder himself, Marty Feldman as the hunchbacked Igor, Cloris Leachman, Terri Garr, Kenneth Mars, and for some reason I’ve never quite understood or properly appreciated I guess, Peter Boyle as the Monster. (To me it’s the film’s weakest link. It doesn’t strike me as funny. Something to do with his baldness, I guess? Against type, as Wilder was in Blazing SaddlesI intellectually understand it, but it doesn’t make me laugh. I’d much rather see someone like Ted Cassidy, Richard Kiel or Andre the Giant play the role.

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11:30 (EST): Foul Play (1978)

A terrific romantic suspense comedy, written and directed by Colin Higgins during which might be called his “Hitchcock phase”. Higgins had earlier written the North-by-Northwest influenced buddy comedy Silver Streak for Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Foul Play, with its climax of a murder plot set during an orchestra concert invokes The Man Who Knew Too Much. I love this movie, and consider it Chevy Chase’s only really great starring comedy. It showed great potential for leading man stardom. But within a very short time he started making very stupid comedies, spoiling the trajectory. The beauty part is that Foul Play also includes some of his best slapstick, which he’d honed played Gerald Ford and other characters on Saturday Night Live during its first season. Adding to the romantic magic is Goldie Hawn, who would later be reteamed with Chase in the much weaker Seems Like Old Times. Plus Burgess Meredith, Billy Barty, an albino and a snake! And the hills of San Francisco used for car chase comedy in much the same way as Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1973) and it’s totally okay because it works!

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1:30am (EST): The Three Musketeers (1973)

Very astute to put this romp in the line-up. Ostensibly a historical adventure film, it was directed by Richard Lester (of Beatles movie fame) who totally understands slapstick. The film is full of bawdy humor and cheeky, ludicrous physical comedy, some of it, yes, in the context of sword fights, but some of it farcical stuff in boudoirs — because this is France. Read much more about this film (and other versions of Dumas’ tale) in my earlier post here.

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3:30am (EST): The Gumball Rally (1976)

I don’t hate ALL car race comedies, only most of them. This is among the latter.

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5:30am (EST): The Frisco Kid (1979)

A terrific idea wasted. Gene Wilder as a rabbi in the old west — how could it lose? It does, on just about every level. It fails as both a comedy and as a western. The premise is that it’s 1850 and that Gene Wilder is hired from his village in Poland to be the rabbi for a congregation in San Francisco. When he gets to Philadelphia, he has missed the boat (the best way for getting cross country at the time) and so must go by land. He has mishaps along the way: some guys steal his money and dump him off in western Pennsylvania. He is nursed by some Amish people. Then he hooks up with Harrison Ford, a bank robber, who sees him across the continent. Indians, mountains, deserts, etc. They become friends. When they get to the coast they encounter the bad guys from the beginning of the film and have a run in. The Rabbi takes a life. In the end, he becomes the rabbi AND runs the last bad guy out of town, AND marries a pretty girl.

The arc of the story is fine. Here’s where it fails. Director Robert Aldrich, usually a workmanlike director of action films and the like,  has a tin ear for comedy. He has what I think of (rightly or wrongly) as a German sense of humor — a weird lack of compassion. I felt this above all in the early scene where the rabbi is stripped, beaten and thrown off the back of a wagon. It is played for wacky comedy, as though we are supposed to laugh along with the thugs who are doing this cruel thing. And while the scene comes across as anti-Semitic I think that’s accidental. The real issue is a lack of sensitivity which would make one notice the wrongness right off the bat. The whole movie is like that: very clumsily and clunkily — indifferently — shot and edited. Wilder’s performance, though humorous and touching, is lost and wasted.

Equally unforgivable is the historical ignorance that subtly undermines the whole thing. We are accustomed to westerns taking occasional historical liberties. In such cases however we get the sense that the authors have at least had a grammar school education in American history and are simply toying with facts to make a better story. Here, it seems like the writers have not only never been near a classroom but have probably never seen a western! Set in 1850? They did this I guess because the “gold rush” is on, presumably the motive for lots of people going west. Since it plays no role in this story, they should have thrown it out and set it at a later date because every single aspect of the production has more to do with the 1870s or ’80s, from the clothes they are wearing, to the fact that the rabbi is familiar with western lore and “cowboys”, to the fact that San Francisco is already a big flourishing city with a fancy hotel (the boom only started in 1849). Furthermore, along the way, they are attacked by some vague group of people called “Indians” See above for my problem with THAT. It’s rare to find film-makers so slipshod and inexpert that they wouldn’t identify what tribe was attacking, and that they wouldn’t put some knowledge of the tribe into to the supposedly knowledgeable character’s (Harrison Ford’s) mouth. “Indians”! What is that? It’s like saying “Europeans”!

Fields Fest Lives!

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Hollywood (History), Jugglers, ME, My Shows, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , on September 26, 2016 by travsd

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December 25, 2016 will mark the 70th anniversary of the passing from our plane of the great stage and screen comedian W.C. Fields. To mark the occasion we have organized Fields Fest, a mini-festival of talks, screening and other events to celebrate the life and career of the Great Man. Here’s what we have planned. Stay tuned for updates!:

Tuesday, November 1, 7:00pm: Launch event at the Lambs

Did you know that in addition to being one of the most popular American entertainers of the 20th century, W.C. Fields was also a proud member of The Lambs? The clubhouse will once again be filled with the stories and charm so often on display from Fields during a special night on Tuesday, Nov. 1, at 7 p.m. The team behind the upcoming stage show W.C. Fields For President (based on the humor book Fields for President, recently re-released with a new forward by Dick Cavett) will present a night devoted to the showman’s legacy. The event will bring to The Lambs actor-circus performer Glen Heroy, star of the one-man show, and its writer-director, the mountebank Trav S.D. (author of No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous). A suggested donation of $10 supports The Lambs Foundation. 3 West 51st Street. www.the-lambs.org. Attendance is limited, RSVP to Kevin Fitzpatrick, kevin [AT ]fitzpatrickauthor.com.

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Wednesday, November 2, 7:30pm: W.C. Fields for President

Just in time for the election! A one-man show, adapted from Fields’ 1944 humor book Fields for President, which was recently re-released with a new forward by Dick Cavett.  Starring Glen Heroy (Circus, PBS) and directed by Trav S.D.  13th Street Rep: www.13thstreetrep.org

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Tuesday, November 22, 7:30pm: The Bank Dick (1940)

The classic Fields film, introduced by Dr. Harriet Fields, W.C.’s only granddaughter, at the Cinema Arts Center, Huntington Long Island: www.cinemaartscentre.org

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Young Fields in his days as a vaudeville tramp juggler

Thursday, December 1, 6:30pm: “W.C. Fields in Vaudeville”

Trav S.D. talks about the great comedian’s early years in show business as a juggler in vaudeville and a revue comedian, and the many ways those experiences influenced his later motion pictures. The talk will be illustrated and will draw from the author’s research on the comedian for his blog Travalanche (travsd.wordpress.com) and his popular book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. At the Mid-Manhattan Branch of NY Public Library, 455 Fifth Ave, Sixth Floor. FREE

"Sally of the Sawdust" (1925)

“Sally of the Sawdust” (1925)

Saturday, December 10 1.30pm: “W.C. Fields in Astoria: The Paramount Silents”

Many people know that W.C. Fields had one of the most distinctive speaking voices of the classic comedy era. What they may not realize is that prior to the advent of talking pictures, Fields was a SILENT comedy star. From 1924 through 1928 he appeared in ten Paramount features filmed at that studio’s Astoria Queens facility. In this illustrated talk author and lecturer Trav S.D. takes you up close to this lesser known stretch of the Great Man’s career, and shows how much of Fields’ silent work presaged his better known talkies. At Greater Astoria Historical Society, Queens: www.astorialic.org

Sunday, December 25, 4pm: W.C. Fields Memorial Pub Crawl

The culminating event of Fields Fest, in honor of the 70th anniversary of the day in which The Great Man met the Man in the Bright Night Gown. Location TBA

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