Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

You don’t get more of a Depression-era film than director John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Based on John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, the story follows the displaced Joad family from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to the sunny orchards of California.  Darryl Zanuck took a chance when he bought the film rights for 20th Century Fox, but in the end it paid off with seven Oscar nominations—two of which earned Oscars for Best Director John Ford and Best Supporting Actress Jane Darwell.  While it isn’t surprising that the film was nominated for Best Picture; it is a tad shocking that renowned cinematographer Gregg Toland’s striking images were overlooked by the Academy. You see, the story is gripping and the acting is mesmerizing, but the visuals are what make this film a treasure. 

When I read Steinbeck’s 600+ page novel in college I found myself admiring preacher Casy (John Carradine) and rooting for poor Rose-of-Sharon (Dorris Bowden).  I also didn’t really like Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) and I could have done without the intercalary chapters. Thankfully, the intercalary sections were left out of the film and what remains is a story that rips your heart out, chops it up, and then feeds it to the pigs.  Here you have a poor Oklahoma family thrown off the land their family has worked for generations by both mechanization and the banks.  No one seems to care that they have nothing but an old rickety truck loaded to the brim with a few pieces of furniture and articles of clothing.  They search out a new life in California, only to find that they are not needed or wanted.  Along the way they meet mostly scorn and mistreatment (mostly by land owners and law enforcement), but they do meet a few compassionate people.  The most memorable being the diner waitress who sells two peppermint sticks to the children for a penny, when they really cost a dime. 

While red-baiting was taking a coffee break in 1940 America, it was still risky to include Steinbeck’s rather socialistic themes. In one memorable scene Tom asks, “What is these 'Reds' anyway? Every time ya turn around, somebody callin' somebody else a Red. What is these 'Reds' anyway?” Steinbeck, and even Ford to a degree, are making the point that anyone who asks to be treated like a human being and be paid a fair wage is viewed as a “red” agitator. 

Henry Fonda does a good job of conveying Tom Joad’s underlying seething rage. Rewarded with a Best Actor nomination by the Academy, Fonda plays the embittered Tom as a man who could (and often does) explode at any moment. You can see the resentment Tom feels in the way Fonda moves, looks, and delivers his lines. 

In addition to Fonda’s fine acting, Jane Darwell delivers the performance of her life as Ma Joad.  It is the simple and quiet way that she goes about building her character into the backbone of the Joad family that I think most people admire. It would have been easy to play up the stereotypical hysterical hillbilly matriarch that some actresses went for, but Darwell is calm, resigned, and resilient in her role. 

The other standout performance is John Carradine’s (one of Ford’s favorite character actors) as Casy.  He adds an almost spiritual element to the film—and not because his character is a fallen preacher, either. He just seems to have a very reverent screen presence, and he delivers his lines in a prayer-like fashion.  Casy was my favorite character in the book, and while he doesn’t get as much screen time as one might like, I think Carradine uses what time he gets to make his Casy one of the most memorable things about the film.

While Carradine’s Casy is memorable, it is Gregg Toland’s cinematography that steals the entire production. Employing  the purity of black and white film, Toland used wide-angle lenses to capture the parched desolation of the Oklahoma plains and the deserted isolation of the desert.  How small is man compared to such images? When dealing with capturing the human element, Toland used deep focus so savagely that you feel uncomfortable looking at the ragged and malnourished people he sets his sights on.  He also uses shadows in a very clever way to literally illustrate when someone has something hanging over their head or breathing down their neck.  His images are stark, realistic, and uncomfortable—just what the film and the book were trying to convey about the plight of the Joads and thousands others like them. 

Now, some might be disappointed that I haven’t discussed the biblical references in the film. It’s there—Casy’s murder is like the crucifixion of Christ and the whole trip is like Exodus—but I find this element severally lacking from that of the book (much was cut), so I don’t find it to be that important.  What I think makes The Grapes of Wrath an enduring picture is the stunning photography and the nuanced presentation of one of the best examples of Americana during the Great Depression.

Friday, January 27, 2012

CMBA Comedy Classics Blogathon: A Shot in the Dark

It's ironic that A Shot in the Dark, the second Panther Panther film, turned out to be the one that established the formula for the film series. It was based on the French stage play, L'Idiote, which didn't even feature Inspector Clouseau. The play was adapted for Broadway in 1961 as A Shot in the Dark and starred Walter Matthau and Julie Harris. After Peter Sellers agreed to play the lead in a 1964 film version, the actor had second thoughts. He asked Pink Panther director Blake Edwards to take over the film.

Initially, Edwards declined, but finally relented on the condition that it be revamped as a Clouseau vehicle. Sellers enthusiastically agreed and convinced the film's backers. Edwards and William Peter Blatty (who would later write The Exorcist) completely rewrote what Edwards could come to call "the unintentional Clouseau" film.

Clouseau: "You've been cutting flowers."
As with all of The Pink Panther movies, the plot is just a framework for the gags. When a murder occurs at a millionaire's country estate (where everyone seems to be having an affair), Clouseau is sent to investigate. The obvious suspect is the maid Maria (Elke Sommer), who is found in possession of the murder weapon. However, Clouseau becomes smitten with her on first sight and becomes determined to prove her innocence.

Herbert Lom with eye twitch.
A Shot in the Dark introduces several elements that would define the Pink Panther formula. Herbert Lom makes his first appearance as Commissioner Dreyfus, who is slowly driven (literally) insane by Clouseau's incompetency. Burt Kwouk makes his debut as Clouseau's valet Kato, who attacks his boss at the most inconvenient times to "strengthen Clouseau's reflexes" (or so the French detective says). A Shot in the Dark also marks the first appearance of the running gag of a killer failing to assassinate Clouseau (often at the expense of innocent bystanders). This is even the film in which Sellers perfected Clouseau's unique mangling of the English language (in a French accent). In the documentary, The Pink Panther Story, Blake Edwards recounts a weekend in which Sellers inexplicably disappeared during the production. When he returned, Sellers told Edwards that he'd met a concierge whose voice was perfect for Clouseau.

Although there are classic comedic routines in other Pink Panther films, A Shot in the Dark features three of my favorites. The first occurs when Clouseau tracks Maria to a resort that turns out to be a nudist camp. The sight of Clouseau navigating among the camp members--with a guitar hanging strategically in front of him--is brilliant visual comedy. Equally amusing in a more subtle way is the running gag of Clouseau being arrested and carted away to jail for selling balloons without a licence, hunting without a license, painting on a sidewalk without a license, and--of course--indecent exposure while fleeing from the nudist camp. Of course, Sellers isn't responsible for all the best scenes. Herbert Lom's eye ticks and muffled manic laughs are funny on their own, but the part where an irritated Dreyfus accidentally cuts off one of his fingers is a classic.

Kato stops to answer the phone
during martial arts practice.
Yet, while Lom and Kwouk are fine supporting players, A Shot in the Dark--like all Pink Panther films--belongs to Sellers. He can generate laughs simply from walking into closets, destroying a rack of billiard cues, spinning a globe, or mispronouncing a word. Paired with a director like Edwards, who understood the dynamics of physical comedy, it's no wonder that the Pink Panther movies became immensely successful.

What is amazing is that additional Pink Panther films were made at all after A Shot in the Dark. Despite their successful partnership, Sellers and Edwards frequently clashed when working together. In fact, they swore they'd never work together again after A Shot in the Dark. Yet, four years later, they made The Party, a fairly funny film with Sellers as a small-time Indian actor mistakenly invited to a posh Hollywood party.

Clouseau in disguise!
Ironically, that same year saw the release of Inspector Clouseau, which starred Alan Arkin and was directed by Bud Yorkin. It proved that audiences weren't interested in a Clouseau movie without Sellers--though it still left the door open for future Pink Panther films. Seven years later, Edwards and Sellers rebooted the franchise with The Return of the Pink Panther (1975). Its worldwide success surprised everyone--save Edwards and Sellers--and set the stage for two direct sequels and a slew of spinoff and remakes.
None of them can match A Shot in the Dark for laughs per minute and originality. In 2000, when the American Film Institute saluted great screen comedies, it ranked A Shot in the Dark at #48 among the all-time comedy classics. I might have ranked it even higher.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Classic British Spy TV: Sark and Rick Discuss The Avengers, Secret Agent, and The Prisoner

The best decade for spy television series? The obvious answer is the 1960s, in which British TV produced a plethora of well-regarded espionage series from Danger Man in 1960 to The Baron (1965) and Man in a Suitcase (1967). The most influential of these shows were undoubtedly The Avengers, Danger Man (aka Secret Agent), and The Prisoner. All three were imported to U.S. television, where they attracted solid followings. Their popularity hasn’t waned over the years with frequent appearances on cable and through video releases. Sark and Rick, two film and TV buffs from different generations, discuss these classics:

Rick: The Avengers went through several iterations which can be categorized by the different female leads from Honor Blackman to Diana Rigg to Linda Thorson to Joanna Lumley (The New Avengers). Starting with the best, how would you rank them and what’s your rationale?
Linda Thorson as Tara.

Sark: As you suggested, my favorite ladies on The Avengers are easily associated with the series itself. I would rank Diana Rigg as the best, when the series was at its peak -- plus, she’s ridiculously charming and astoundingly beautiful. I also really like Linda Thorson: she was able to capture that delightful quality and starred in some great episodes, though some with Linda weren’t as strong. Joanna Lumley is good, and Purdy is an odd but intriguing character, much like The New Avengers. And while I like Honor Blackman, she was on the show during its early days, where it was stiff and and a little dreary, and her performances unfortunately reflect that. How would you rank the Blackman, Rigg, Thorson and Lumley years?

The one and only Mrs. Peel.
Rick: I agree that the Diana Rigg years were the best. The stories were often witty, the dialogue delicious, and the Mrs. Peel-Steed relationship just vague enough to keep one wondering. My second pick would be Honor Blackman. Yes, her episodes were often clunky, but she defined the kick-butt heroine and--without her--there may have never been a Mrs. Peel (perish the thought!). My third pick would be Purdy--sort of a Mrs. Peel “lite”--and finally Tara. I like that the producers tried to do something different with Tara, to make her more vulnerable than Emma. But I never warmed up to her...perhaps, it was just a matter of still mourning Diana Rigg’s departure. What are some of your favorite Avengers episodes?

Rigg and Patrick Macnee.
Sark: While I do enjoy The New Avengers, I don’t recall any standout episodes. The majority of my faves are Emma-centric: “The Master Minds”, “Quick-Quick Slow Death”, “Death at Bargain Prices”, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station”, “The House That Jack Built”, “The Joker” and “Murdersville”. There’s also “A Touch of Brimstone”, which is great because... well, if you’ve seen it, you’ll know. I think Patrick Macnee had the best chemistry with Dame Diana Rigg, which really did make the episodes much more fun. I do like some episodes with Tara King, however, including her intro and Emma’s goodbye, “The Forget-Me-Knot” and the ridiculously titled “Look -- (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) -- But There Were These Two Fellers...”, which is a good one for Tara. What are your faves? Any with Purdy or Cathy?

Rick: I haven’t seen the Honor Blackman episodes since A&E showed them in the 1990s. As for The New Avengers, I recall enjoying “The Last of the Cybernauts...?”, especially since it linked back to the original show. To be honest, all my favorites come from the Emma years and include the ones you mentioned, especially “The Master Minds” and “A Touch of Brimstone”. Other personal picks include the highly amusing “The Winged Avenger”, “A Surfeit of H20” (what a great opening), “What the Butler Saw” (with Steed as a gentleman’s gentleman), and “A Sense of History” (loved the Robin Hood part). I could talk for hours about The Avengers, but let’s move on to Danger Man, better known in the U.S. in its one-hour format as Secret Agent. The half-hour episodes, which ran from 1960-62 in the U.K. are pretty good, but I think the series took off when it returned in 1964 in its one-hour incarnation. It’s well-written and features some fine guest stars, but--for me--the series works due to the casting of Patrick McGoohan as the anti-James Bond. What say you?

Sark: I agree that the later, longer episodes are better than the earlier ones. Perhaps, it's only because I viewed the half-hour episodes after the more popular versions, but the shorter feel too short, like the story’s just taking off and then suddenly stops. They're wonderful, but just not They’re wonderful, but just not as strong or entertaining as the hour-long episodes. And yes, some great stars! I remember seeing Hammer queen, Barbara Shelley! I like that you called Patrick McGoohan’s John Drake an “anti-James Bond,” but I’ve always maintained that McGoohan would have made a most excellent 007. Since we’ve already discussed The Avengers, how do you think Drake would have fared with a partner, female or otherwise? That would have been interesting, but I like him much better as a solo agent. What do you think?

Rick: I can’t imagine Drake with a partner of either gender. He comes across very much as a loner, which seems realistic to me because relationships could cloud his judgment. I can’t think of an episode in which there was even a hint of romance. Am I missing one? He did express remorse over the fate of a female character in one of my favorite episodes “Colony Three.” In it, he infiltrates a training camp for enemy spies. There are a lot of parallels with The Prisoner, which would come a few years later. Plus, that episode featured the great Niall MacGinnis from Curse of the Demon. Danger Man boasted some fine guest star turns, from MacGinnis and the fabulous Barbara Shelley to Bernard Lee (M in the 007 films), Susan Hampshire, Ian Hendry, Barbara Steele, and Joan Greenwood. Though a big Danger Man fan, I do have some minor complaints about the series. The modest budgets required a lot of in-studio shooting to substitute for international locations. That could look pretty bad, which was sometimes distracting. Also, I think MacGoohan ended the series at the right time, as some of the plots were beginning to become repetitious.

Sark: Speaking of shows’ endings, what about The Prisoner? Not necessarily its final episode, but the fact that it ended so soon. I love having access to quite an abundance of Avengers episodes, as well as Danger Man/Secret Agent, but I can’t readily complain of The Prisoner’s short life, as it never wanes in quality. I think it would have flourished with additional episodes, but for how long? As it is, the series will forever be strong. Any thoughts?

Rick: It ended at the perfect time, though I think the final revelation is one of the all-time great puzzlers. My theory is that every TV series has a specific life span and rarely does that exceed, say, three years. After that, there may still be good episodes, but typically the quality of the show declines. The Prisoner was such a great concept: Retired spy is kidnapped and held against his will in a weird village as his captors try to find out why he left the spy business. It’s a fiendishly clever show--my favorite episode is the Western “Living in Harmony”--but the concept is limited from the start. No. 2 tries to find out what No. 6 knows, No. 6 tries to escape, he gets caught. There are only so many variations to this central plot. I think McGoohan understood that and envisioned a limited series. Yet, despite all I’ve just said, it’s not the plots that made The Prisoner was the Kafkaesque themes and the look of the show, from the Village itself to the clothes and the local “newspaper.” Well, that’s my take on it away. Where do you place The Prisoner in the pantheon of TV spy series?

Sark: As a spy series, The Prisoner is surprisingly effective. I’d have to rank it fairly high because it’s so odd and unconventional. Though, honestly, neither The Avengers nor Danger Man bows to convention. All three series makes spy shows endlessly refreshing. You can even put them together in their own timeline: The Avengers with the playfulness of youth; Danger Man with a world-weary spy; and The Prisoner with the spy in retirement. A playground, a spy at home wherever he is, and a retirement home. I think the best spy series are remembered for the characters, and these UK shows prove that with the titles alone, all referencing the story’s players. Any final thoughts?

Rick: That's a nice wrap-up to close out this discussion. As always, Sark, I had a blast hanging out at the Cafe with you and discussing classic TV. I assume you're picking up the check this time? Otherwise, I wouldn't have ordered the deluxe blueberry pancake breakfast.

Sark: Thanks, Rick, for an enjoyable look at television in the UK. Let’s do this again sometime. And don’t worry, I’ll get the check. I’ll just need a minute or two alone with your wallet.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

I know I am supposed to say Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) is a screwball comedy, but I just can’t do it!  Yes, it has many funny moments in it and the main character is a tad screwy, but I can’t put it in the same category as Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Lady Eve (1941), or The Awful Truth (1937). Plus, being a Frank Capra directed film it has a bit of a dark underside to it—and I don’t mean dark humor. I would actually categorize it as a dramedy, as the first half of the film is mostly comedy and the second half mostly drama (with a few choice comical moments pixielated in).  Whatever you label it, Mr. Deeds is a film anchored by understated, good acting and a strong story about the value of honesty and goodness in a corrupt world. 

A standard theme in Capra films, the idea of the simple everyman exposing the falseness of overindulged city slickers, is a crucial element in this film. Gary Cooper plays Longfellow Deeds, a country gentleman from Mandrake Falls, Vermont, who inherits $20 million from an overindulgent uncle from New York City.  Deeds is a poet who loves nature and plays the tuba, and is often mistaken for a country yokel because of his naiveté and plainspoken ways.  He looks like an easy mark to one of his mrdeeds2-1uncle’s shady lawyers, Mr. Cedar (Douglas Dumbrille), but Deeds knows (and says) that working for nothing isn’t natural and so he instantly doesn’t trust Cedar.  Transplanted to New York City, Deeds finds himself surrounded by many people he doesn’t trust—or worse, who think they are better than him because they are cosmopolitan.  His best friends turn out to be his valet, Walter (Raymond Walburn), and his fixer, Corny Cobb (Lionel Stander)—both of which happen to be working class stiffs.

An idealist in every sense, Deeds finds himself instantly attracted to a woman who faints outside his mansion one rainy night. Thinking he has rescued a damsel in distress, Deeds believes he has found his dream woman in stenographer Mary Dawson (Jean mrdeeds1Arthur).  What he doesn’t know is Mary isn’t a stenographer, but a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for The Morning Mail named Babe Bennett.  She labels him the Cinderella Man and opens him up to the ridicule of the entire city.  Eventually Babe falls in love with her “assignment” and starts to regret what she has done, but before she can come clean with Deeds the truth comes out.  At this point the film’s mood totally changes, and I don’t know that I agree with how abrupt the shift is.

If you have seen the film then you remember the gun-wielding, displaced farmer (John Wray), who convinces Deeds he should give away his $20 million to those who need it.  Up until this point there hasn’t been any meaningful reference to the Depression or the downtrodden (except for the fainting Mary). So, when threata man bursts into Deed’s mansion and aims a gun at him and goes off on a tirade about feeding doughnuts to horses and having lavish parties, it is completely jarring.  Yes, I know it was a plot device to move the story along to the whole insanity hearing part of the film, but I think some earlier ground-laying of this theme would have been useful.  If I have one nit-pick with the movie it is this…oh, and that hideous Robin Hood feather in her cap hat that Arthur wears in one scene—Samuel Lange, you had a short career for a reason!

Both Cooper and Arthur give understated performances in Mr. Deeds. Cooper (nominated for a Best Actor Oscar) always played the geez, smarter than you think country bumpkin well, and his Deeds is no exception.  His slack-jawed line delivery and easy-going physical mrdeeds3mannerisms play well for Deed’s personality.  Some might say that Cooper lacked acting range, but they would also have to admit that he owned his own style and it worked (none better than in his role as Clint Maroon in Saratoga Trunk [1945]). Arthur, for her part, is not, as she is often described, the “quintessential comedic leading lady.” She’s not that funny in this film because this isn’t a screwball comedy!  As a matter of fact, besides a few good one liners and a couple of comical sideway looks, her role mostly consists of her being depressed by her bad behavior or being anxious over the possibility of Deeds being institutionalized.  Am I the only one who notices this?  Still, I always like Arthur—she is just so likable, even when she’s playing a liar.

Overall, Mr. Deed Goes to Town is an enjoyable dramedy.  Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, this is a typical Frank Capra Depression-Era vehicle. I don’t subscribe to the school of film critics who refer to this period of his work as Capra-corn. Instead, like many others, I believe people went to films like Mr. Deeds because they were inspirational and uplifting.  In the end, that is exactly what this movie turns out to be.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Doctor Who: Just the Doctor, I Presume?

The following is meant as a basic introduction to the BBC series Doctor Who and is by no means intended as an exhaustive study of the show’s vast universe. I would like to express my gratitude for my lovely and intelligent wife, a devout fan of the series who provided me with info, tidbits, and insights. Without her, this post would have been nothing more than links to other sites and several dozen pictures.

Time is transitory. The present is ever-changing, the past stays the same, and the future is unknown. For the extraterrestrial Time Lords, however, their abilities make time malleable, like a piece of clay. While stability is best, time can be manipulated to mend imperfections and strengthen its entirety. The Time Lords can travel back to fix a mistake or move forward to prevent it from happening. Perhaps the most famous member of this race of beings is one known as the Doctor.

Doctor Who is considered the longest running sci-fi TV series – in the world, not just in the UK. It was created by Sydney Newman (who also created The Avengers), C.E. Webber and Donald Wilson. The series premiered in November of 1963 (the day after JFK was assassinated) and ran until 1989. A TV movie in 1996 failed in resurrecting the series, but it was finally revived in 2005 and is currently still airing. This year will see the Doctor return for a 33rd series (or what yankees would call a season). Each of the six series since the relaunch has been a compilation of 13 hour-long (with commercials) episodes, discounting specials. The 26 preceding series consisted of a number of serials per series, each serial with varying numbers of episodes, anywhere from two to 12. Episodes were usually about 25 minutes. On DVD or a streaming service such as Netflix, you may see what look to be feature-length films but they are in actuality collected serials (you’ll know when you watch one, as closing and opening credits will roll at the appropriate intervals).

The Doctor has the unique talent of being able to regenerate when death is imminent. In effect, he never dies, but this plot point has likewise allowed the series to never die. A new actor portraying the doctor is literally playing the same character, and there are frequent references throughout the series of the previous versions of the Doctor, called “incarnations.” Officially there are 11 incarnations of the Doctor, portrayed by 11 different actors. There are, in fact, many more actors who have played the Doctor, but specials and movies are not considered part of the official series. Peter Cushing, as a for instance, played the part in two movies, Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 AD (1966). Similarly, Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death, a telethon charity event broadcast in 1999, featured five variations: Rowan Atkinson, Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, and even a woman, played by Joanna Lumley.

William Hartnell had the distinction of
being the first actor to play the Doctor (credited retrospectively as the First Doctor). In 1966, Patrick Troughton was the Doctor, and Jon Pertwee took over the role in 1970. One of the most popular actors to portray the Doctor was Tom Baker, who held the role from 1974-81. Baker was also the narrator of the UK sketch comedy show, Little Britain, as well as its American version, Little Britain USA. Peter Davison, who starred in All Creatures Great and Small and who recently joined the cast of Law & Order: UK as the Director of CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) London, was the Fifth Doctor from 1982-84, while the Sixth and Seventh Doctors were played by, respectively, Colin Baker (1984-86) and Sylvester McCoy (1987-89). McCoy technically played the Sixth Doctor briefly before regenerating into the Seventh (Colin Baker would not reprise the role), and he also returned to the role in the 1996 telefilm before being regenerated into the Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann. Christopher Eccleston was the Ninth Doctor in the 2005 revival, followed by the immensely popular David Tennant for three series (2005-10) and the current Doctor, the 11th incarnation, portrayed by the likewise well-received Matt Smith.

As the 2005 update is truly a continuation of the series, the Doctor has acknowledged the previous incarnations, and they’ve sometimes even appeared together. In the four-episode serial, The Three Doctors (1972-73), the Third Doctor gets help from his two former selves. In the comparably-titled The Five Doctors (1983), the fifth incarnation learns that the previous Doctors are being pulled from their time streams (Richard Hurndall played the First Doctor, as Hartnell had died in 1975). The Two Doctors (1985) showcased… well, two doctors: the Sixth and the Second. In the latter episodes with Tennant and Smith, there have been flashes of previous incarnations, often as pictures of the actors who had previously helmed the role.

The Doctor most often travels with a companion. The companion is usually a young and beautiful woman, but while there have been instances of playful interaction, there is never a legitimate romantic interest between the two. An exception to this was the ’96 TV movie, in which the Doctor kisses his companion, Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), with accompanying dramatic music and a fireworks backdrop to refute any doubts of the intimacy. The first companion, to the First Doctor, was Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), a significant character as she is the Doctor’s granddaughter and has been traveling with him for some time before the series’ timeline begins. Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) is one of the most popular companions, first appearing with the Third Doctor in 1973 and acting as companion to the Fourth Doctor from 1974-76, as well as starring alongside other companions in The Five Doctors and with the Tenth Doctor in various episodes, including the two-parter, “The End of Time”, which introduces the Eleventh Doctor. In addition to Sarah Jane, the third series with Tennant’s Doctor included returning companions, Rose (Billie Piper), Martha (Freema Agyeman, who starred with another Doctor, Davison, in Law & Order: UK), and Captain Jack (John Barrowman). The Doctor’s current companions are Amy (Karen Gillan) and her husband, Rory (Arthur Darvill).

Spin-offs of a show as successful as Doctor Who are hardly surprising. Sarah Jane Smith had her own series, aptly titled The Sarah Jane Adventures, a children’s show which ran for five series and only ended due to Sladen’s death in April of last year. Tennant and Smith, as their respective Doctors, had cameos in separate episodes. Sarah Jane’s robot dog (and companion to the Fourth Doctor), K-9, had a spin-off, K-9 and Company, though it never made it past the pilot. There have been various models of K-9, but he’s appeared on The Sarah Jane Adventures and had a second offset, the kid-friendly K-9 (however, as it was not a BBC production, its ties to Doctor Who are superficial). Captain Jack leads a team of alien hunters in Torchwood, which recently completed its fourth series. Agyeman’s Martha appeared in two episodes of Series 2.

The Doctor’s means of travel is a police box, what we Americans would call a phone booth and which functions as a direct line to the police. In the series, the police box is in reality a TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), a machine designed by the Time Lords for traveling through time and space. The TARDIS can take different forms, but the Doctor’s is a decommissioned relict
stolen from a museum and is locked in its police-box shape. The craft is much larger inside than the exterior would suggest, a fact pointed out by numerous characters throughout the series. In the series with Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, the TARDIS’ essence is placed into a woman, and in this form, she claims that it is she who stole the Doctor, not the other way around.

There are other characteristics of Doctor Who that have been retained throughout the years. The Doctor has long battled the evil Daleks, who made their first appearance very early in the series and remain one of the protagonist’s most formidable opponents. The Daleks are a race of cyborgs hell-bent on intergalactic genocide, summarized by their oft-spoken (and rather brusque) line, “Exterminate!” Another Doctor Who enemy is the Cybermen, who look like robots but are actually cyborgs. They debuted in 1966 and are still showing up beyond the 2005 relaunch, even on the spin-off, Torchwood, in the episode, “Cyberwoman”. Perhaps the Doctor’s true archenemy is the Master, who, like the Doctor, is a Time Lord from the planet, Gallifrey. Quite unlike the Doctor, the Master is predisposed to universal domination. He was most recently portrayed by Derek Jacobi of the medieval murder series, Brother Cadfael, and John Simm of the original Life on Mars. The series has also, for the most part, preserved its wonderfully unsettling main theme, courtesy of Ron Grainer, who also wrote the themes for the cult British series, The Prisoner and Man in a Suitcase. The Doctor Who title sequence has had many deviations visually (though it’s always given the impression of traveling through outer space or with the TARDIS), but the music essentially stays the same.

Doctor Who has appeared in other formats, including novels, audio plays, webcasts, comic strips/books and animated serials. There have also been countless magazines and websites and merchandise. One can sometimes see its influence, not just film/TV (though 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure shared a shockingly similar time-traveling device), but also in the English language, as both “Daleks” and “TARDIS” are now included in the Oxford English Dictionary. One of its most significant aspects is its consistency. The ambiguity suggested by the show’s title is almost ironic, because while companions and Cybermen and even the Doctor himself will change, the series is unmistakably a one and only.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fawlty Towers: Come for the Lodging, Stay for the Laughs

Back in the mid-1970s, in Torquay, an England seaside town in the county of Devon, visitors to the area could stay overnight at a charming hotel known as Fawlty Towers. It was owned and operated by Basil Fawlty and his wife, Sybil. Any guest looking for a place to sleep would likely be content. But someone hoping for rest and relaxation might be bothered by the scornful Basil, whose thinly-veiled condescension was only slightly more conspicuous than his animosity for anyone who spoke or happened to be standing in the same room during one of his seemingly endless rants.

Fawlty Towers was a UK show that ran for two six-episode series, the first in 1975 and the second in 1979. It was created by Monty Python alum John Cleese, who also starred as the neurotic hotel proprietor, and Cleese’s then-wife, Connie Booth, who appeared on the series as Polly, the hotel’s maid who handled multiple tasks (sometimes working behind the desk, in the restaurant as a waitress, etc.). Prunella Scales played Basil’s domineering spouse, Sybil, and Andrew Sachs portrayed Manuel, the porter and waiter
from Barcelona whose English was significantly limited.

The comedy in Fawlty Towers comes from all sides: the husband/wife bickering, Polly helping Basil hide something from Sybil, Basil’s frequent misinterpretations of guests’ intentions or identities. But the highlight in a ceaselessly entertaining show is the interactions between Basil and Manuel. Evidently, Basil, when hiring Manuel, informed Sybil that he understood Spanish. This was clearly a fabrication, as he knows only a few words, and the simplest command for Manuel results in the two men futilely speaking back and forth. One of the best scenes, from the premiere episode, involves Basil asking Manuel for the wine list. Eventually, Basil resorts to pointing to the desired item on a table behind Manuel and – when the Barcelonan still doesn’t comprehend – picking up the wine list and handing it to Manuel so that he can give it back.

The show likewise does a marvelous job of relating all the comedy to the hotel itself. Basil deals with builders working on the hotel, gets word of a surprise visit from hotel
inspectors, and is constantly troubled with orders in the restaurant and the bar. The guests, too, provide much humor. Another amusing sequence, also from the first episode, is a guest signing in and asking for a single room, before quickly changing it to a double because he’s “feeling lucky.” Basil, for his part, is conservative, going out of his way to please a visiting lord and refusing to allow a non-married couple to rent a double room – not even offering two adjacent singles.

One of the show’s best episodes is “The Germans”, the fifth episode of Series 1. It’s noteworthy in many ways, one being that it’s the only episode that doesn’t open with an exterior of the hotel (and its sign altered in some fashion). It begins at a hospital, where Basil is visiting Sybil, who will be undergoing surgery for an ingrown toenail. Basil heads back to Fawlty Towers, where he is anticipating the arrival of German guests. Though he boasts of being able to finally run the hotel properly (sans his unruly wife is the insinuation), he cannot even handle a fire drill. After reminding as many people as he’s able of the impending fire drill, Basil inadvertently triggers the burglar alarm, causing guests to head for the door. He stops them and insists that the burglar alarm sounds distinctly different from the fire bell, which is “a semitone higher.” Then he hits the fire bell but won’t let anyone leave, as he’s merely demonstrating the difference between the sounds. Once that’s settled, he announces that the fire drill will commence in 30 seconds and is visibly annoyed when everyone stands in the lobby and waits (I dont know why we bother; we should let you all burn!). Not surprisingly, when an actual fire starts in the kitchen, Basil believes that an agitated Manuel is overreacting.

“The Germans” shows that Basil cannot honestly function any better without Sybil. In fact, he’s far worse, it seems. And she’s still controlling, with a copious amount of phone calls from the hospital bed! After Basil suffers a concussion and is hospitalized, he heads back to the hotel, against the doctor’s wishes. The result is an even more reckless and unrestrained Basil, who manages to offend the German guests at every turn. To Polly, he warns her, a little too loudly, in his now immensely popular quote: “Don’t mention the war!”

Though Fawlty Towers only ran for two series, it’s become common for British TV shows to only run for two or three series, regardless of popularity. Both The Office and Extras, created by Rick Gervais and Stephen Merchant, ran for two six-episode series, Christmas specials aside. The same is true for The Young Ones from the early 80s. There were only two series for the successful shows, Spaced, 15 Storeys High, and Green Wing, and Black Books and The League of Gentlemen never made it past a third series. The sketch comedy show, Little Britain, really only had three series, as Little Britain USA is generally regarded as a spin-off. The creators of these shows often resist pressure to continue their shows, typically to deter waning quality with additional episodes.

Advocates of humor in British shows sometimes deem it more sophisticated than the U.S. equivalency, while adversaries may find it excessively pompous or stuffy. I disagree on both counts. Fawlty Towers is funny on a global scale. There’s wordplay, physical comedy, a barrage of insults, and quirky characters. It’s a celebration and adoration of the many faults of Basil and his hotel. And the appreciation of its humor is not dependent upon your nationality or locale. It’s funny just because it is.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, collaborated on eighteen films over a thirty year period (1939-72).  While their first true “Archer” production (where they share writing, directing and producing credit) didn’t come until 1943 with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, they had previously worked on four films together.  Usually, it was Powell who did the bulk of the directing and Pressburger who came up with the story ideas and handled most of the production chores (especially when it came to editing and music incorporation). Some of their endeavors are quite memorable, like Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), while others are easily forgotten, such as The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957).  Somewhere in-between their masterpieces and their flops is located I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), which stars Wendy Hiller as a young woman who’d rather marry for money than love.

Manchesterian Joan Webster (Hiller) is supposed to marry wealthy industrialist Sir Robert Bellinger (Norman Shelley’s voice—he’s never seen) on the Isle of Kiloran, but the weather (or fate) in the Scottish Hebrides has other plans.  For wendysome reason I’ve never really liked Hiller. I don’t know exactly why, but I think it’s her voice—it just rubs me the wrong way. Still, she was a decent actress who was nominated for three Oscars (she won one for Separate Tables [1958]) and she worked in the industry for nearly sixty years.  In I Know Where I’m Going! she does a nice job of portraying her character’s steely determination to not be sabotaged by love (and an island full of eccentric Scots).  However, I like her much more in the beginning of the film when she is calling her bank managing father “Darling” (George Carney) than I do when she is risking poor Kenny’s (Murdo Morrison) life to get across to Kiloran.

Roger Livesey (an Archer veteran) gives his usual steady performance as Torquil MacNeil (what a name!). A kilt-wearing naval officer, Torquil is the broke Laird of Kiloran (FYI a laird is one step below a baron) and the owner of the Isle of Kiloran.  He sees in Joan a woman he would like to tame, but unlike Petruchio, he attempts to do it with kindness and pamela brownpatience. Too bad his childhood friend Catriona (Pamela Brown) is married, because she is much prettier and, more importantly, way more interesting than Joan.  It just grates on my nerves when the supporting actress is more enjoyable than the lead actress (see Kristen Scott Thomas and Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral [1994]).  In addition to Livesey and Brown’s nice acting turns, Captain C.W.R. Knight is a hoot as Colonel Barnstaple, a falconer with a delightful sense of style.

What I think sets this movie apart from a number of others during this period is it’s cinematography. This was most probably cinematographer Erwin Hillier’s best work over his thirty year career.  It is said the he didn’t use a light meter at all, which must have made his task more difficult than usual, especially when you consider the weather conditions.  There i-know-where-im-going-film-review1are many long distance shots that capture the overall majesty of the Scottish shoreline.  As someone who has spent time in the Scottish towns of Carnoustie and Killin it was a reminder of just how beautiful the land of Scots can be.  Hillier also used a hand-held camera to capture some of the close-up shots—most notably the ones of the boat struggling against the Corryvreckan whirlpool.  Interestingly enough, what most people don’t know is that Livesey never once set foot in Scotland for any of the location shots because he was doing a play in London at the time they were shot. 

Overall, I Know Where I’m Going! is a somewhat enjoyable light romantic comedy.  Other than some very fine photography, there is not much else that stands out.  Still, it was nice to learn a little bit about Scottish customs, and the bagpipes weren’t played so much that I  wanted to hit mute too often, either.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Opening "Christmas Crackers" in "Are You Being Served?"

This Cafe special, written by natsumi13, was originally published in 2009. It's being reposted this month as part of our tribute to classic British television.

At Grace Brothers department store, the Christmas holiday is approaching, and the ladies and menswear departments have been requested to come in early for a staff meeting. They are to come up with ideas for decorating their departments, but no one is very happy about it. When Mr. Rumbold hasn't shown up to start the meeting, Capt. Peacock decides to go ahead and begin the discussion. After much bickering and insults, Mr. Rumbold arrives and announces that young Mr. Grace has already decided to use items from a theatrical company that he owns.

The highlight for both departments is that they are to have their Christmas lunch that day -- even though Miss Brahms points out, "But it's ages till Christmas!" Mrs. Slocombe reminds her that last year the canteen couldn't handle all the employees at once.

The lunch that follows is hardly what anyone would want. The turkey for five is the size of a cornish game hen and tough as boot leather, with the legs being stubbly; and with the flaming pudding not flaming because the brandy was probably soaked up by a currant, according to Mr. Humphries. The only one to enjoy the lunch is Mr. Lucas because he missed purchasing his ticket and is unable to buy one that day. He is forced to go through the canteen line, which he points out by saying that the others should have had the halibut. At the end of the lunch, young Mr. Grace arrives and tells them to go to the boardroom to pick out their costumes, while their departments are being decorated.

As the lift doors open, everyone has been transformed into fairy tale and fantasy characters. Capt. Peacock is a snowman, Mr. Lucas is a one legged pirate with a fake parrot on his shoulder, Miss Brahms is a fairy princess, Mrs. Slocombe is Robin Hood, Mr. Grainger is Humpty Dumpty or an easter egg (it isn't specified), and Mr. Humphries is Louis the 14th. After the staff members tease each other, the decorations are revealed and everyone joins in singing a Christmas carol.

Are You Being Served? was a UK series that aired from 1972 to 1985. The humor of the show used the class system of Britain as its basis. The characters were middle class and tended to look down on the maintence and canteen staffs. They rarely used each other's first names, always referring to one another as Mr. Humphries or Mrs. Slocombe. It employed double entendres, innuendos, mistaken identity, and sight gags to show humor.

The cast was comprised of:
John Inman- Mr. Humphries
Mollie Sugden- Mrs. Slocombe
Wendy Richards- Miss Brahms
Frank Thorton- Capt. Peacock
Trevor Bannister- Mr. Lucas
Arthur Brough- Mr. Grainger
Nicholas Smith- Mr. Rumbold

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

10 Must-See Classic British TV Series (Part 3 of 3)

Our review of ten must-see classic British TV series from the 1960s and 1970s concludes with: All Creatures Great and SmallThe First Churchills; The Forsyte Saga; and Rumpole of the Bailey. 

James checks out a new friend.
All Creatures Great and Small – James Herriot’s beloved autobiographical stories of life as a veterinarian in rural Britain were first filmed as the movies All Creatures Great and Small (1977) and It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet (1977). Simon Ward and John Alderton played Herriot, respectively. When a television series was developed in 1978, the role of the inexperienced vet went to Christopher Timothy, with Robert Hardy playing his eccentric employer, Siegfried Farnum. Peter Davison played Siegfried’s brother, Tristan, who struggles to graduate from vet school. Carol Drinkwater played Helen, a local resident who eventually marries James. The first three seasons featured this cast and were based on Herriot’s stories. The episodes ranged from funny (Mrs. Pomfrey and Tricky Woo) to charming (the courtship between James and Helen), with a touch of seriousness (as when Siegfried discusses the impending war with sometime girlfriend Margery). After two “Christmas specials,” the series was revived in 1988 for four more seasons. The wonderful Carol Drinkwater was replaced as Helen and the stories were original (as opposed to those written by Herriot). I stopped watching after the fourth season…but dearly loved the first three seasons.

Susan Hampshire and John Neville as a future "power couple."
The First Churchills – Unless you’re a history a buff, you’re probably unfamiliar with Winston Churchill’s ancestors. If so, then you’re in for a treat—for John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, and his wife Sarah were a fascinating couple. He was a great military leader and statesman who served five British rulers during the late 17th century and early 18th century. The strong-willed Sarah Churchill was a political strategist in her own right and, for several years, was a key unofficial advisor to Queen Anne. This well-done 12-part series begins with the first meeting between John and Sarah and ends shortly before his death. The early episodes are the best, as the later ones get a bit bogged down in John’s military exploits. Still, The First Churchills is a fascinating look into the political and social culture of Great Britain during one of its most tumultuous periods. John Neville and Susan Hampshire are marvelous as the Churchills; she evolves Sarah from a headstrong young woman to a powerful, sometimes bitter politician. The First Churchills was shown in Great Britain in 1969 and was the first-ever series shown on Masterpiece Theatre in 1971.

A Forsyte wedding.
The Forsyte Saga – James Galsworthy’s three novels about the Forsytes, a nouveau riche Victorian family, have been adapted for both film and television. Errol Flynn and Greer Garson starred in 1949’s That Forsyte Woman (derived from the first book, A Man of Property) and a popular 2002 adaptation of the trilogy appeared on Masterpiece Theatre. However, the most renowned version remains the 1967 26-episode series starring Eric Porter, Nyree Dawn Porter, Kenneth More, and Susan Hampshire. It included not only the three Forsyte novels, but also Galworthy’s later trilogy A Modern Comedy. When originally broadcast, the series was a huge hit in Britain and was picked up by local PBS stations in the U.S. In fact, its success in America is generally believed to have led to the creation of Masterpiece Theatre.

Leo McKern as Rumpole.
Rumpole of the Bailey – British barrister and author John Mortimer wrote Rumpole of the Bailey as an original play for the BBC anthology series Play for Today in 1975. It was popular enough to warrant discussion of a series, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the Rumpole of the Bailey TV series appeared on Thames Television (and later in the U.S. on Mystery!). Mortimer’s original choice to play the witty, scruffy, late middle-aged barrister was Michael Hordern. Instead, the producers chose Leo McKern—in a stroke of casting genius. McKern perfectly captured the complexities of Rumpole, from his willingness to defend anybody (“I never plead guilty”) to his relationship with his wife (whom Rumpole referred to as “she who must be obeyed”). McKern played Rumpole for seven seasons between 1978 and 1992.
If you missed Parts 1 and 2, click here for capsule reviews of Poldark, Upstairs Downstairs, Lord Peter Wimsey, The Pallisers, The Duchess of Duke Street and I, Claudius.