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Summer Of Movies: Bedtime Story (1964) June 27, 2018

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, Movies.
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I play hooky from writing by watching more and more old movies. And the combo of whatever speed bumps I’ve hit while working on Wagstaff 3 and the discovery of WAY too many old noirs and the like on youtube have produced a lot of regular movie viewing the past few weeks.

I also needed to screen a bunch of stuff to evaluate for classes.

So I’ll begin a run down of what I’ve viewed so far, with some brief reviews and commentary.

I started with Bedtime Story from 1964, the original version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. David Niven and Marlon Brando play the roles that’d be redone as Michael Caine and Steve Martin, while Shirley Jones gets to play the mark that’d be redone with Glenn Headley. And redone better, actually – in the original, Jones is basically the innocent, whose honest love reforms the Brando character. Changing her to another con artist in the remake is a rare example of a story change in a remake that improves on the original. The character change for Headley is altogether brilliant – a way to basically redo the original set-up, where the Niven/Caine and Brando/Martin characters have their private challenge to see who can get rid of the other by taking Jones/Headley for a sap. We can have all the same gags where Brando/Martin pretends to be the soldier with psychological paralysis and Niven/Caine swoops in pretending to be the psychiatrist and so forth, but now our memory of the entire story arc changes when we find out that Headley was not the sappy mark but instead a superior con artist playing both of them (and us) at the same time. I kept waiting for that in the original, but instead got the standard character-reformed ending common to older films.

The original is still fairly funny. Niven is a natural, and Brando isn’t too bad at comedy.  This was post-Mutiny on the Bounty, when Brando’s star power had waned and his reputation for being difficult started to affect his casting, but I suspected he only did a little movie like this only to work with Niven, possibly bed down with some of the babe extras playing other marks, and a little research proved me right, at least on the Niven part. Jerry Lewis’ theory on Brando (and actors in general) was that directors that worked well understood how to confer with the inner “troubled child” inside every actor – Kazan could confer with it, but Lewis Milestone could not. Watch Hearts of Darkness to see Coppola deal with it, or perhaps, lose the ability he once had during The Godfather. Or even better, watch Lost Soul, a fascinating 2014 documentary on Richard Stanley’s failure to complete the awful Island of Dr. Moreau remake. Brando’s sabotage of the film seems to be an act of revenge in defense of Stanley once he had been fired. Val Kilmer’s sabotage was more in defiance of Stanley’s authority on set to begin with. Two great docs on moviemaking, and windows into the later career of Brando, anyway.

Brando took direction here, however. And from Ralph Levy, a longtime TV director. This was his only feature. He went back to episodic TV right afterwards. And this was back in the days where television people were routinely looked down upon like minor leaguers in the entertainment field.

And now we see how important the Niven factor may have been, eh?

For some reason this one never turns up on TV or TCM and I’d never seen it. But you can find it on youtube, and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

And yes, I know it’s presently being remade AGAIN with the STARTLINGLY ORIGINAL IDEA of SWITCHING THE GENDERS!!!!!

OMIGOD!!!! THAT’S NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE!!!! Pat yourselves on the back for that one, Hollywood!

And yes, let’s make sure we follow save-the-cat/McKee story structure like it’s Holy writ, people.

And yes, make sure to insert current pop culture catch-phrases, buzzwords and the like.

And to run the table: keeping in line with the current trend in Hollywood comedies, let’s go totally overboard on bathroom humor, body excretions, and other overused and trite attempts at gross-out humor.

Oh dear GOD, will it most certainly SUCK.

Hollywood actually got a remake correct back in 1988, I guess they couldn’t just let it be. Gotta make sure all remakes are unnecessary and pointless somehow. Just another day at the office.

Meh. The more I think about what will most certainly be in the upcoming re-remake, the more I like the simplicity of the original, and the silliness of the first remake.

When do we get the gender swapped version of Victor/Victoria? I think we will have reached the singularity by then.





Right Next To The Dog Faced Boy May 28, 2018

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, Television.
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It might be the 23rd century, thousands of light years from Earth, but I love that Kirk packs his things in a clunky American Tourister model, circa 1966.

I knew they were tough when gorillas bashed them around, but who knew they’d last the centuries?

Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m a smartass Trek nerd. Maybe I should have been a mechanic. Then I could treat little tin Gods like you…

Here’s director Ralph Senensky on the episode I’m talkin’ ’bout…

It’s also one of my favorite closing scenes, and lines, of any of the series. Senensky directed nearly all the episodes where Spock (or Nimoy) got to show emotion, too. They both handled it well.

Khan Is Tired Of Your Shit May 25, 2018

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, Television.
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You TASK him….

Face it, you’re screwed. He’s got five times your strength, can quote Milton and Melville, and also has this little bastard in the wings waiting for you.

Ugh…. just drop them off on Ceti Alpha 5 and wait for its orbit to shift. Then, fuck ’em. You’ve got bigger things to think about, you know?

Wonderful Behind The Scenes TV Stories From Prolific Director Ralph Senensky May 6, 2018

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Blogroll, Television.
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I’d forgotten that Don Rickles once played a villain on The Wild Wild West, and rewatched that episode today. And then in looking up some stuff about it online, hoping to find perhaps links to outtakes and blooper reels where he became Don Rickles and commented on the mystical evil magician dialogue he’d been given or on Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, I came across this behind-the-scenes story on the filming of the episode written by its director, Ralph Senensky.

Senensky directed TONS of television from the 1960s thru the 1980s, logging episodes of so many of yours & my favorite shows that’s there’s too many to mention here – and it turns out he’s been blogging for years on his memories of them, and has a fantastic website containing all that material, organized by show and episode.

This site is a GOLD MINE! Senensky writes beautifully about what working in television was like back in the days of my favorite old reruns. He brings to life assorted names you’d see on numerous credits of numerous shows – Gene Coon or Quinn Martin and so forth – as well as including interesting stories dealing with both the technical limits & possibilities of the industry all those years ago.  His entries on specific episodes (and check out that sidebar menu for the sheer volume of ’em) include scans of script pages with rewrites & director cues…. amazing stuff, especially for photographic memory geeks like me who can replay the episode in my mind while I’m reading.

And not just the Star Treks he did, either. I can do a lot of the others because ALL I DO IS WATCH TV.

For anyone interested in TV history, or just the old shows & stars & writers you follow in your little nerd-heart-of-hearts, this stuff is indispensable. I can’t believe I didn’t know about it until now.

To quote Spock: “Fascinating.”

Oh, and Rickles? He didn’t disappoint…. Senensky tells us that inbetween takes, he went the full Vegas act on everyone, even making Billy Barty jokes about Conrad’s height. Rickles remains my fuckin’ hero.

And it looks like Ralph Senensky celebrated his 95th birthday a week ago. Happy Birthday, Director!



You Need To See Vincent Price As An Evil Puppeteer Who Turns People Into Puppets March 1, 2018

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, Television.
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Arguably the stupidest episode of “Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea,” which is saying something.

And that something is that it’s GREAT!

Enjoy some silly TV from yesteryear.

In case yer curious: I came across this while searching out old Walter Pidgeon material. He starred in the film the series was based on, and the surfin’ went from there.

It Would Have Been….Glorious February 27, 2018

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Television.
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They added a new channel to my satellite, another one of the “let’s run everything in the library” old TV rerun stations.

In other words, something else I’ll be wasting time on. This one runs EVERY version of Star Trek EVERY GOD DAMN NIGHT!!!

They even run the Star Trek Saturday morning cartoon on Sunday nights! The animation is Space Ghost Coast To Coast level, but the scripts are pretty good, and lots of ’em are by original series writers.

“Heroes And Idols” also runs a ton of old cop shows and westerns, albeit during the day when I WORK FOR A LIVING, FELLA. But it’s nice to sporadically watch old reruns of Hill Street Blues again. The show manages to hold up & give me ’80s nostalgia all at once.

“Family Entertainment TV” is another one I found. They run Hart To Hart & TJ Hooker up the wazoo, along with Maude reruns, but they also run Barney Miller & Peter Gunn.

“MeTV” rounds out the pack, maintaining my Rifleman and Hawaii 5-0 interest. They’re putting all of their better sitcoms, now relegated to a late-night Sunday junkyard, into the vault, alas. I’m hoping they rotate stuff they own like Dick Van Dyke, all the MTM ’70s shows, Bilko, The Honeymooners, Get Smart and The Odd Couple into their prime time slate and finally put Andy Griffith and Hogan’s Heroes to bed for a while.

Yes, this is what I spend my time thinking about.

I’d like to see them add Antenna TV and Decades to pretty much take care of all the other old crap I like being put back on, although for the life of me, I have no idea who owns “Burke’s Law,” a marvelous bit of 1960s Madmen-era silly detective cool that’d actually make a great pairing with Peter Gunn. The episodes posted on youtube will have to suffice.

I realize we’re living in what can be accurately called a new golden age of TV, with upper-end shows like The Americans, Game of Thrones, Curb Your Enthusiasm and so forth being produced with cinematic quality, and writing/character development far superior than most feature films.

But I’ll never get tired of watching those old shows. They retain their honor and glory. Just ask Commander Kor. (Or wait a few years for him to be Baltar.)

Let’s Hear It For Cris Shapan February 25, 2018

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Art, Movies, Music, Television.

Perhaps while surfing online,  you’ve come across some amazingly campy magazine cover, or album cover, maybe it was a pulp book from a long-ago celeb and couldn’t believe it existed…

Well, that’s because it probably doesn’t, except in the work of graphic artist Cris Shapan.

I highly recommend following Shapan’s Facebook Page where he regularly posts this stuff, as well as his Funny Or Die page.

The style of humor reminds me a lot of Drew Friedman, who loves to pick out his favorite childhood celebrities and illustrate them all too realistically in bizarre settings. Check out “Jimmy Durante Boffs Young Starlets” for example.

I’m surprised he doesn’t maintain some sort of regular website containing all this stuff, it looks like he’s content to use Facebook. My other theory is that this guy clearly gets his jollies posting this stuff & then kicking back to watch people repost it thinking it’s real. Shapan’s handle on the recognizable & realistic graphic designs of the stuff he’s goofing on from yesteryear is amazing. The colors, fonts, details of wear & tear, etc. are absolutely wonderful. Look at the wax paper lighting effects on that Avery Schreiber bubble gum pack (I wish I had one of those!) giving it real texture and depth. Great stuff.

Nice to see he gets work in Hollywood, hopefully they’ll let him apply his comedy genius somewhere.

“They don’t write like that anymore…” – Greg Kihn


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The Genius Of Old School Comedy December 31, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, Television.
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Car 54

So what does Wagstaff do over Christmas vacation?

Well, along with going through dozens of old movies & television shows of the horror/scifi variety for an upcoming class (yeah, yeah… blog entries forthcoming), I also grabbed some other DVDs from the vaults and wound up taking breaks from the ’60s spy shows & Vincent Price movies to watch the entire first season of Car 54, Where Are You? which I just discovered is available on disc. Season 2 came out this past year, and while the packaging isn’t great and the episodes aren’t in order, the video/audio quality is pristine and the shows are complete.

Car 54, along with Sgt. Bilko, comprise Nat Hiken’s amazing two-fer as a pair of entries in the funniest TV series EVAH contest.

And, of course, both shows are nearly impossible to find on the air, despite hundreds of cable channels & several channels devoted entirely to running old library material. But unfortunately, Antenna TV and TV Land do not run either of these two.

What struck me this time through, rewatching stuff I hadn’t seen since the late ’80s when Nick At Nite ran them, is how overtly Jewish Car 54 is – the line delivery, cadences of nearly every character, the comic confusion set-ups and payoffs… are all straight from the Yiddish theater/Eddie Cantor/borscht belt traditions. It’s not only Officer Schnauzer and his wife (Al Lewis & Charlotte Rae) whose entire schtick comes from self-deprecating Jew whining – that schtick permeates the entire show, and not only because of its Bronx neighborhood setting.

Much like Homer Simpson, Gunther Toody’s stupidity never gets old comically. Joe E. Ross began on Bilko as Sgt. Ritzik, forever the stooge for Phil Silvers’ con jobs, so the transition into playing the dumb-as-a-bag-0f-hammers cop alongside the smarter and nebbishly shy Muldoon (Fred Gwynne) was easy. Best friends in the show, the two actors couldn’t have been different off-screen – Gwynne, the Harvard grad Broadway stage actor & talented illustrator, Ross the vulgar nightclub comic who married 8 strippers from the parade of them through his dressing room, at least according to this immensely entertaining article.

It’s nice to see a sitcom devoted only to comedy – no messages, no lessons learned, no 1980s era moment of shit…. just characters who play off each other well, who don’t know they’re funny, and who wind up in situations where their mistakes & confusion lead to entertaining chaos playing off human imperfection. And above all, none of my current pet peeve against present-day comedy – none of the “too cool for the room” snark annoyingly ubiquitous in the comedy world. This was a different generation, and while a lot of the material is dated, most of it still works beautifully. Funny is funny.

Highly recommended, and if you’ve never seen it, it’s a must. Each season had 30 episodes – and to quote Colonel Potter, “not a bum in the lot.”

Now I think I’ll go back and watch some Bilkos as well!

Where Comedy Goes To Die (A Double Feature) September 7, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, Movies.
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Part of my own, DVR-abetted alternative program schedule to the political conventions turned out to be two fairly awful comedy films that have always been on my need-to-see list despite their reputation. They both turned up on the ol’ cable this week, so I took it upon myself to trudge through them both.

Meet Wally Sparks was the easier of the two to like, since it actually had a couple of laughs in it. Rodney Dangerfield plays a ’90s-era Jerry Springer-esque talk show host who gets thrown in with a stuffy Southern family values pol.  The plot  first borrows from The Party when Rodney crashes the stuffy governor’s (David Ogden Stiers) fundraiser and wreaks havoc with a marble penis in his pocket and a drunken horse ride, and then turns into The Man Who Came To Dinner, as Rodney takes up residence and (of course) saves the pol while loosening him up a tad. Rodney rattles off a lot of his stand-up routine as we go – you’d think it’d be a good vehicle for him,

You’d think.

Unfortunately, it all has a been-there & done-that-better vibe to it throughout. The party scene, especially the gag with the marble schvantz, reminded me of watching those later Benny Hill episodes, where he’s basically repeating old schtick and phoning it in, and even when a gag or two is cleverly designed, the entire affair feels trite and tired. You can’t escape the feeling that hitting STOP and dialing up earlier work by the same comedian would be a better hit off their particular comedy bong…. ten minutes into The Big Store and I’d rather be watching Duck Soup.  Watching Rodney in this thing made me want to watch Caddyshack or Back To School instead.  As I sat through the endless and fascinatingly unfunny dick jokes of Meet Wally Sparks, I kept feeling like someone saw the bit in Caddyshack when Rodney, sitting at a table of bims at the posh country club, casually leans forward and lets out a fart louder than any Mel Brooks could have imagined and thought “Hey, let’s do that for a 90 minute movie!”

But a couple of one-liners made me laugh, I’ll admit. But overall Wally Sparks fails since Rodney’s character is only likable because he’s played by Rodney Dangerfield. In both Caddyshack and especially in Back To School, Rodney plays a guy we’d root for regardless, a guy who fought his way up into posh society while remaining real. Here, he’s just a walking dirty joke with nothing to ground him in reality, and a family relationship plot angle that reeks of being pasted on.  Now I want to watch both of those again.

What I DON’T want to watch again, EVER, is The Maltese Bippy, a Rowan & Martin movie (I can’t call it a comedy, I just can’t) that tried to cash in on the huge success of the Laugh-In show back in 1969.

This is a would-be comedy without a single laugh. Not a one – EVERY single routine, every line, every sight gag… everything… falls totally flat. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think it’s what kept me going through it as well – I kept wondering if it could keep up the streak of banal boredom and failed humor right to the end, and it certainly delivered.

Bippy attempts to be a mystery/comedy spoofing horror films, where Martin’s character thinks he’s a werewolf, Rowan’s exploitation film director/con artist character wants to exploit him,  and bad guys search for missing jewels in a spooky old house. You can’t escape the feeling that this entire concept may have begun as an attempt at a late ’60s revival of a Hope & Crosby comedy – you have Norman Panama directing, who had directed the final “Road” movie a few years earlier. You have Rowan playing a con man character a la Crosby, with Martin playing the nervous girl chaser a la Hope, complete with numerous scenes with Martin doing panicky cowardly one-liners identical to Hope’s recurring movie schtick. But instead of Hope & Crosby, we get Rowan & Martin, two Vegas lounge guys who made it very big thanks to a break given them on TV by Dean Martin, and who smartly surrounded themselves with a troupe of younger sketch performers in what is perhaps the most dated piece of television ever, in terms of any program being an obvious product of its cultural zeitgeist.

I can’t dislike these guys – they’re too much a part of my childhood. I loved Laugh-In as a kid and I still find it interesting to watch now as a bright, shining cultural artifact. And the Farkel Family is still funny, as is Uncle Al!

They get to do their usual stand-up routine over the opening credits & revert to it as they break the fourth wall and present alternate endings (something Hope & Crosby would also have done, I suppose). In any event, it may be the unfunniest film ever.

But I still preferred it over watching the conventions! Say goodnight, Dick!

Some New Hollywood Era Hardboiled: Point Blank (1967), The Outfit (1973) & Charley Varrick (1973) July 25, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, 1970s, Movies.
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These three films overlap a lot for me – they’re all pretty much from the same era & have similar plots – our protagonist is a small-time criminal who runs afoul of some big invisible (and non-ethnic) criminal syndicate and must fight back somehow.

They’re also all well worth seeing and indicative of a gritty hardboiled style (or self-conscious overstyle in the case of Point Blank) that you unfortunately don’t see made anymore.

Both Point Blank & The Outfit come from the “Parker” series of crime novels by Donald E. Westlake writing as Richard Stark. Parker is a machine-like criminal, plowing through the crime syndicate known as “the outfit” methodically & most often dispassionately, only interested in whatever money they owe him.

In Point Blank (based on The Hunter), Parker becomes Lee Marvin as Walker, left for dead at Alcatraz – shot by his girlfriend who has run off with his criminal cohort. Walker wants the money from that particular job as well as revenge, and works his way up the criminal ladder of the organization, beating the crap out of everyone as only Lee Marvin can. What makes Point Blank even greater than it would have been if it had been simply shot as a straight fist-puncher shoot ’em up with Marvin fighting suit ‘n’ tie corporate style Los Angeles mobsters is how director John Boorman basically turned it into his resumé film for Hollywood.

Boorman throws everything he has at the thing – the entire movie is framed in a way to leave us guessing as to whether it really happened, or if it’s Lee Marvin’s dying fantasy, or if he is some sort of avenging ghost. We get flashback, flashforward, intercutting with continuous sound, cuts that signify time passing without seeing time pass, and an overall surreal feel. There’s wonderful stark & sharply bright photography of 1967 LA, as well as interesting use of color – each character often has a color theme, reflected by their clothing and then, in turn, those colors are used in surrounding objects or lighting to symbolize plot themes.

Offhand, the only other movie I can think of that does this is Russ Meyer’s Beneath The Valley Of The Ultravixens,  – a very different movie, although the first 20 minutes and the last 15 or so are absolutely hilarious & I think Lee Marvin would have enjoyed co-starring.

But I digress.

For example – in Point Blank, there’s one scene where Angie Dickinson must get into John Vernon’s penthouse bachelor love nest to help Lee Marvin gain entrance stealthily. She’s clad all in yellow, Vernon goes from orange to red as he gets hornier (and bloodier). Previously, Marvin had used a bright yellow telescope to case the place. As he enters, we see bright yellow flashing police lights & bright yellow garage pillars. After he’s done the job and exits, both police lights and garage pillars are bright red.

If you want an example from Beneath The Valley Of The Ultravixens, you’re on your own – but if you can avert your eyes from Kitten Natividad’s fantabulous winnebagoes long enough to look at the furniture & walls, you’ll know what I mean. I highly recommend this article which compares it to Soviet film montage.

Are you back from that one? Told you it was worth your while.

Anyway, besides being a solid crime film, Point Blank‘s art house stylings and ambiguous realities elevate the material to something far more interesting.  It’s got a great cast, too – besides Marvin, Dickinson and Vernon (in his film debut), we also have Keenan Wynn, Lloyd Bochner and Carol O’Connor. And from Star Trek, Michael Strong! And from Hill Street Blues, James B. Sikking!

The Outfit follows a similar plotline from a later Parker novel – this time Robert Duvall plays the relentless criminal bent on revenge against “the outfit” after they kill his brother & try to kill him as payback for a past bank robbery at an outfit front. Duvall teams with the third member of his former gang, Joe Don Baker, to commit a series of robberies at other outfit operations until syndicate chief Robert Ryan pays him off. Unlike Point Blank, this one is directed in straightforward gritty-early-70s fashion, without the mysticism or art house touches – but it’s still a solid film with a good cast. Duvall & Ryan are great as always (I’ve lost count of how many times Robert Ryan has played the angry barking head of a crime syndicate), and the supporting cast includes numerous familiar faces in small roles, such as Sheree North as a horny wife.

Sheree North – did she ever play anything other than a floozy? I can remember her as an ex-hooker on Mannix, a sleazy lounge singer girlfriend for Lou Grant on Mary Tyler Moore, a hooker on Archie Bunker’s Place… jeez! I guess that’s how you get typecast when you basically look like the Peggy Lee dog from Lady & The Tramp.

The Outfit reminded me a lot of an admittedly better film with a similar plot – Charley Varrick. In this one, Walter Matthau plays the leader of a group of thieves who mistakenly rob a syndicate front bank, only to incur their wrath and get hunted down. This time Joe Don Baker is the bad guy, doing his familiar redneck schtick as before, hunting down Matthau (who plays the action hero against type very well here) who has a zillion con man tricks up his sleeve. Don Siegel’s direction is tight & economical, more of that early ’70s gritty feel.  Sheree North, another overlapping cast member from The Outfit, appears, along with Andy Robinson (everyone’s favorite psycho from Dirty Harry) as a member of Matthau’s gang.  Charley Varrick is a fast moving con game of a movie, right up to the very end, a real underrated gem from the early ’70s.

It’s nice to watch action movies where there is no need of huge explosions, CGI, or 360-rotation through slo-mo martial arts BS. It kinda makes you pay more attention to… GASP! Character and story! Combine that with solid cast members and you have a sure winner. I’ll watch Lee Marvin beat the crap out of people any old time.

In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “Here comes Lee Marvin! Oh, thank God! He’s always drunk and violent!” Only this time, he’s sober & REALLY violent! Yay!