My Past Continues To Die

A flurry of celebrity deaths of people all connected to the entertainment of my childhood and beyond…

First, producer Gene Reynolds died at a ripe old 96. He’d produced the early seasons of M*A*S*H along with Lou Grant and Hogan’s Heroes, Room 222 and a bunch of other stuff. Especially considering that M*A*S*H’s best years were under his & Larry Gelbart’s supervision, countless hours were spent (and often still are) watching Reynolds’ shows.

Then Orson Bean got hit by two cars while walking in Venice Beach. The first knocked the 91 year old to the ground and the second ran him over. I haven’t read any more about it – I hope it wasn’t some moron on their phone. Bean was a mainstay on game shows like To Tell The Truth back in the day, and more recently was wonderful in Being John Malkovich. Long ago, a friend of mine appeared with Bean in a small theater production out here – a very odd musical about John Cleves Symmes’ attempt in the 19th century to find the hole at the north pole leading to the center of the Earth. I’ll always remember hearing how after the playwright got stone-drunk after witnessing the flop of premiere night, supposedly Bean, playing Symmes’ old professor narrating the tale, came backstage and announced something along the lines of “Looks like we got us here a real bomb, folks!” and everyone erupted in laughter.

For the record, the actors were fine, some set design items were clever… but the script? Ye Gods!

Every backstage story I heard about Bean fit his TV persona.

And then, Robert Conrad died yesterday, star of one of my favorite old shows, The Wild Wild West. Conrad was always reliable for fist fights with his stuntmen buddies in numerous scenes (usually the legendary Red West and Whitey Hughes), and for playing tough guys. He played one of the scuzzier Columbo villains as well, a fitness guru who runs a string of crooked health clubs and murders the guy who discovers the Ponzi scheme behind them. His WW2 TV show got made fun of a lot in its day, but looking back on it in reruns, it’s a decent wartime adventure show with its plots loosely based on the memoirs of Conrad’s role, “Pappy” Boyington.

Conrad had a sense of humor about his image, doing those silly battery ads or losing foot races to Gabe Kaplan on Battle of the Network Stars. Many years ago when Howard Stern’s fans made it their business to phone into the Larry King Live show on CNN and annoy King with endless Stern promotion after King and Stern had some feud, Conrad was on King’s show being interviewed about some project he had coming up, and the Stern-themed calls started rolling in. King kept getting angrier and angrier, but Conrad couldn’t stop laughing and playing along with them.

It’s what Jim West woulda done, with Artie Gordon calling in.

Want more treasured elements of the past to blow up before your eyes? Well, why not start with tonight’s Oscar Awards.

I won’t make any Oscar predictions this year. I just don’t care anymore. I haven’t watched the broadcast in the last couple of years, and I’m not missing anything. I still love movies, but this event no longer has any sort of luster or importance to me at all.

And the WORST of all?

Well, I just got back from running some errands which included a stop at the 99 Cents Only store. And as I browsed the aisles, I noticed more and more items that are NOT 99 cents, but are labeled as supposed “bargains” at 2.99, 3.99, 9.99 and so forth.

They ought to change the name of the store to 99 Cents On Some Stuff, Anyway instead of 99 Cents Only. Amirite?

AND they didn’t have a big plastic pasta strainer to replace the one I have that developed a few cracks. NOR did they have the brand of deodorant I like. THOSE BASTARDS.

But karma – the shopping Gods smiled upon me, and I found a very nice wool winter jacket up the street at Goodwill for only twenty bucks. SO SUCK IT, 99 CENTS FOR WHAT WE BAIT AND SWITCH YOU WITH STORE.

Now I’m home, about to check the math on my friggin taxes. Bah.

Random Thoughts 2/5/20

Item one: Pitchers & catchers haven’t even reported yet, and the Yankees reported today that pitcher James Paxton underwent back surgery to remove a tiny cyst and will be out for TWO TO THREE MONTHS.

Do the months November, December and January exist? Why the hell did they wait until now to do this surgery?

They replaced the pitching and hitting coaches last November. WHEN WILL THEY REPLACE THIS PATHETIC INCOMPETENT MEDICAL AND TRAINING STAFF who can’t prevent injuries?

That team is looking at somewhere around 110 wins if they stay healthy. And those morons are ALREADY messing it up before spring training even begins.

Item Two: Last night, I dreamed that John Wayne told me that he’d been to an educational conference up in Seattle and that Bill Gates kept talking about me and what I could do to help out with school choice. Wayne told me he also thought I was just the guy to do it, and that I had what it took as a man even if I “hung around with nerds,” in his words.

Not sure why I had that particular dream. I hadn’t been watching John Wayne movies, nor have I been in discussions or arguments over school choice issues recently.

Perhaps John Wayne has actually visited me in my dreams from beyond the afterlife, although I’d think he’d have better things do spend eternity on than wonky crap with Bill Gates & then seeking me out as if I’m the anointed one. On the other hand, maybe that’s his way out of purgatory. I’ll try to see if dreaming up a conversation with St. Thomas Aquinas tonight clears up that issue, and as long as I have the saint’s ear, I’ll ask him what the Yankees’ injury prognosis for the 2020 season is.

He probably roots for the Cardinals anyway.

Oh, I just crack myself up.

Item 3: RIP, Kirk Douglas. One of the last great old time movie stars. Here’s hoping you meet up with John Wayne and have some bourbon, come to think of it. Maybe you’ll turn up in my dreams someday, maybe it’ll be about tariffs or infrastructure instead of school choice, or maybe you’ll just ring my doorbell and try to sell me Girl Scout cookies.

Whatever it is, I hope that it’s like what must have been in your contract for countless movies, and you get to take your shirt off and scream at me.

“TRY THE SAMOAS, YOU DEGENERATE SADISTIC OLD MAN! AND YOU CAN GO TO HELL BEFORE I SELL YOU THIN MINTS NOW OR EVER AGAIN!”

To which I’d respond “I’m Spartacus!”

Then I’d tell him not to fight with Von Ellstein and direct “The Proud Land” himself. It’ll be a sure bomb that way.

Good News & Sad News

I’ll start with the GOOD news – one of the greatest awful-yet-entertaining movies of all time is FINALLY getting its DVD release.

Kino-Lorber has announced that The Oscar from 1966 is getting a full 4K restoration, as well as commentary tracks from Patton Oswalt, Erik Nelson and Josh Olsen for Hollywood snark, as well as a track from film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson.

I wrote about the wonders of this film several years ago, so please click on the link to read why you NEED to buy this DVD when it’s released in February.

Harlan Ellison is unfortunately not around to add an audio commentary track, but it looks like the Kino people have consulted his widow, Susan, and hopefully got a lot of material to work with.

I think Jill St. John and Tony Bennett are the only surviving cast members.

The sad news? Well, I just went outside to throw some trash out, and sitting next to my recycling trash can was a cute little rat who looked like he was dying. Totally out of it, barely reacted to me, and it looked from the little puddle of dried piss under his butt that he may have been out there a while.

Maybe one of my neighbors put down some rat poison, in which case I’ll have to make sure to throw him in my grass clippings bin once he’s finally dead to avoid anything up the food chain also stroking out.

Or maybe he’s just depressed and giving up on everything, sitting next to my bin and thinking “Oh go ahead, just kill me and eat me, giant monkey boy” when I threw the trash out.

I feel pretty bad about not doing anything for him. My impulse is to help a sick animal, but it’s probably best to just let nature take its course here. No signs of rats in my house or trying to chew their way in, that’s good. Not sure where a food supply for the little bastard would be, either, since my apple tree’s production days are long months ago.

Poor thing.

UPDATE: I have been informed that Elke Sommer is still alive. And I can inform you that the cute little rat (or large mouse… I really can’t tell) finally died and is out of its misery.

Friday Art: The Forest Fire Sequence from “Bambi”(1942)

Another damn natural wind event, another rash of giant fires, none of which are sparked by natural phenomena. It’s faulty power equipment left unrepaired by scuzball utilities squeezing every last dime of profit out of people, out-of-sight/out-of-mind cooking fires by what I actually saw in a news item today referred as “urban campers.”

Gee, I wonder what that fabulous euphemism is a substitute for? And God forbid such “urban campers” cooking food or meth (oh, excuse me, not supposed to say that, bad manners) during windstorms among dry brush are actually CLEARED OUT BY LAW ENFORCEMENT BEFORE WINDS GET GOING.

I forget, they’re super-citizens who don’t answer to any law. They live directly off the land, like Daniel Boone, before they start fires that burn up entire neighborhoods overnight.

And just to make sure California maintains economic diversity and breaks down the barriers of class, the other scumbags starting fires from the electric utilities are all fairly wealthy. So everyone is in on the action.

Or there’s always good ol’ cars backfiring, or arson. We’ve got a full menu.

One of these fires is on the other side of the city from me, a good and hopefully will stay safe 10 plus miles away.

But I am sick of this.

I can address the aforementioned scumbag utility company turning off my electricity during windy weather in order to cover their asses from lawsuits resulting from them not maintaining their equipment by adding a battery backup to my house, which is in progress. But I can’t seem to do anything about the stupid mismanagement of land, of non-existent cutting and brush clearing, of making giant graft-spreading “public” utilities maintain their equipment, or of addressing blatantly obvious sources of trouble like groups of unbalanced and often mentally ill drug addicts fending for themselves in dry washes cooking with open fires left to their own devices instead of being treated/dealt with/sheltered/moved along. I’d like to see attempted arsonists shot on sight. But my vote is outnumbered or ballot-harvested away by countless morons who keep voting in the same corrupt incompetents over and over again.

End of rant.

Did my rant start the fire under Bambi’s ass though? Well, not quite – that amazing sequence from the 1942 film is put together beautifully – the fire and falling embers-into-exploding-flame effects are realistic and truly scary. The color palette for those backgrounds and the fireshadows on the Great Prince and Bambi as they flee the burning forest bring home the heat and danger at every turn.

Disney made his animators go to art school and for Bambi, had them re-train to illustrate forest animals realistically. For background design, they brought in artist Tyrus Wong, a production designer for multiple Hollywood films, as well as mural art around Los Angeles, to get the natural backgrounds of the forest correctly. (And being Disney, fired him right after an animator’s strike.)

Bambi credits David Hand as supervising director along with a number of sequence directors – I cannot find a source giving me the specific sequence director for the forest fire, so I’ll offer my own theory. One of the credited sequence directors is Bill Roberts.

Since Disney had an established practice of trying out visual material in their comic shorts before placing them in features, I’d be pretty sure that Bill Roberts, the director of the Mickey & Pluto short “Society Dog Show” from 1939 definitely had a lot to do with this scene, since the climax of “Society Dog Show” has to do with Pluto rescuing another dog from a fire that breaks out on stage. While the flames look more cartoony here (as do the animals), the camera angles and narrow escapes from fire danger match up quite nicely.

I’m happy to be safe in my home and able to watch cartoons with fires burning elsewhere.

All because man came to the forest, so to speak.

Friday Art: A Photograph Staged To Violate Every Aspect Of The Hays Code by A. L. “Whitey” Schafer, 1934.

I love the thinking behind this photo: “Tell me what I’m not allowed to do, and I’m going to do it just to flip you off.”

And what a great photo! A decade before film noir got going, and possibly what woulda been a fantastic lobby poster for a great sleazy murder story.

The photographer, A. L “Whitey” Schafer is, unfortunately, far lesser known than the more famous studio still photographers who specialized in glamour shots of the contract actresses. George Hurell or Clarence Sinclair Bull. He started out working for Thomas Ince in the early ’20s, moved on to run the photography department at Columbia by 1935, and then took over Paramount’s photo department in 1941. He died in a freak accident aboard a friend’s yacht in 1951. A stove exploded as he attempted to light it.

Schafer explained his technique of staging photos in an article for amateur photographers in Popular Science in 1943. Basically, never photograph anyone against a blank background (unless their outfit’s lines and patterns will draw the eye). Always have something there to frame them, and use those backgrounds to balance and frame the subject.

Here’s his publicity shot of Barbara Stanwyck for Double Indemnity (1944)

He uses that hat/coat rack in back of her, along with that rather loud necklace, to frame the soft shadows of her face. And is she ever in character for this one.

Don’t trust her, Fred MacMurray! Go back to Edward G. Robinson, he’s the true love of your life.

Shadows in the background can also be used for framing, especially when you want to emphasize darkness over light. How about some Marlene Deitrich?

Every now and then, some contemporary celeb will pose for black and white glamour shots like these, but it’s sadly a rarer and rarer art.

But kudos to Schafer, especially on that screw you to the Hays Code. In our current environment of overzealous speech policing, it’d be nice to see more of the same artful defiance from people these days.

Larry Storch Tested For James Bond

Little known outside of Hollywood lore, when Sean Connery quit playing Bond the first time after You Only Live Twice, numerous actors were tested to replace him before they settled on unknown Australian model George Lazenby.

Adam West was one. And while they were bringing in television actors whose series were over with, they brought in Larry Storch, who assumed somewhat of a make-over for publicity shots like the one above.

Continue reading “Larry Storch Tested For James Bond”

Friday Art: Cats by Franz Marc (1910) + A Pair of Peter Cushing Films

Marc is considered a German Expressionist, although this work, with its super-bright colorful thick swirly brushstrokes, suggests a lot of Van Gogh and general post-impressionist influence.

Marc loved painting animals with a wild color palette. Most of his works depict animals and wildlife. He got drafted into the German army in World War 1 and put into the infantry. By the middle of the war, Germany realized artists were valuable and started transferring notable ones out of the army. But before the orders reached him, Marc was killed at the Battle of Verdun, along with lots and lots of other people.

It’s best to think more about the kitties, isn’t it?

I visited a local pet supply store today just to pet the black cat who lives there. Turns out he’s got a case of the fleas, since one of the tiny little bastards bit me on the hand. If I die from bubonic plague, let it be known that I went out the way I wanted to – petting some lazy ass cat.

I’d like to think Marc went out the same way. It’s the romantic in me.

And yes, more cat pictures and stories. I can’t help myself. I’m fascinated, hypnotized and soulfully owned by the furry little bastards, I admit it. I’ll even watch stupid movies if they’re centered around cats, like my review of “Eye of The Cat” a while back. This time, cats led me to a Peter Cushing film which was not that good, and then another Peter Cushing film that was out and out excellent.

Continue reading “Friday Art: Cats by Franz Marc (1910) + A Pair of Peter Cushing Films”

Four Animated Films Off The Beaten Path Worth Your While (with lotsa clips!)

Funny how we usually still think of animation as a cinematic art form delegated mostly to children’s entertainment. All of the animated features coming from Disney/Pixar or Dreamworks or Ghibli are aimed at kids primarily, with material for adults put in around it all to keep parents interested and build cult following appeal. And usually the best of those films are much, much more for adults in the end – the nostalgia for childhood running through all the Toy Story movies, for example, elevates those films beyond the light-hearted kiddie adventure of talking toys questing after some small thing. Up can’t really be appreciated until you actually develop enough of a sense of your own mortality to relate to the characters. Miyazaki’s films are so multilayered with folk tales, mythology and magic that their complexity outdoes that of mainstream grownup entertainment by a bunch.

The films I watched (one of ’em re-watched after many years) over the last few days fall into the same category – two of them seem to be for kids on the surface but once you start watching, you realize they’re not. And the other two are clearly made for a grownup audience, utilizing forms of animation to accentuate the themes of the story.

Ruben Brandt, Collector (2018) comes from Hungarian artist and (impressively) first-time film maker Milorad Krstic. It’s about a psychologist having nightmares of figures from great works of art trying to kill him – so he recruits some of his criminal patients to steal the actual works for him, figuring that the control of ownership will free him from his dreams. Beyond the interesting ideas on why people enjoy art, or need art, the film follows a lot of the conventions of the modern heist film, with action set pieces, car chases, a nicely woven complex plot with some nice surprises (especially a very ambiguous ending, although the doppelganger-from-my-dream-world theory seems to work here), and interesting characters. Each of the thieves has some sort of psychological problem that turns up in their manner of thievery. Brandt exploits this, but also provides them with artistic paths towards their control over their issues, just like the possession of the art will give him control over his own. The visual style adds a lot to it – the character design mixes elements of Cubism (especially Picasso) and Surrealism, with backgrounds and action mixing both 3D and 2D rendering for an effect of giving us an experience much like one of Ruben’s art dreams.

Check out the trailer!

Even if the trailer, I bet you caught little references to all sorts of stuff beyond the art works too… a little homage to Tarantino here, a little bit of Mission: Impossible there… and there are famous works of art everywhere in the background, either in museum scenes or on t-shirts, posters, ice cubes that look like Hitchcock, you name it… the whole thing feels amazingly original. I can’t really say I’ve seen anything quite like the totality of it, and I liked it a lot.

Continue reading “Four Animated Films Off The Beaten Path Worth Your While (with lotsa clips!)”

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