Wednesday, December 23, 2020



Netflix viewing 

The real-world origin of the mythological figure known as Santa Claus goes way back—I mean waaaaay back—but Hollywood has had their share of fun creating origin stories more befitting such a beloved character. 

I remember, for instance, the Rankin-Bass animated TV special Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, featuring voice actors Mickey Rooney and Fred Astaire (this year is its fiftieth anniversary). In 1985 RB made a second origin story, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.

Last year, Spanish animator Sergio Pablos added his Netflix feature film Klaus to the pile and gained an Academy Award nomination for his effort. A former Disney imagineer who worked on Tarzan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he and his team at SPA Studios animated the film by taking 2D digital animation and lighting it as if it were 3D.

The story involves a young postman, a privileged rich kid, assigned to a remote northern village in order to establish a successful post office and prove his worth. He stumbles upon a way to get it going when he meets a reclusive toymaker and encourages him to make toys for the children of a community at war with itself. Complications ensue. Jason Schwartzman voices the young postman and JK Simmons (who sounds just like Peter “Optimus Prime” Cullen in this) voices Klaus.

I like that Klaus is (mostly) grounded in the real world, with almost nothing in the way of what could be considered “magic.” The usual myths about Santa have a real-world foundation and are developed through the rumor and exaggeration of the children. 

The animation reminded me of the work of Don Bluth in places. It doesn’t resemble the Pixar/Dreamworks CGI style we’ve come to expect these days, but it is something more than traditional 2D. The effect is startling, and it brings a fresh twist to computer animation. I kinda hope it catches on.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Congress saves movie theaters!

“...The agreement includes over $284 billion for first and second forgivable PPP loans, expanded PPP eligibility for nonprofits and local newspapers, TV and radio broadcasters, key modifications to PPP to serve the smallest businesses and struggling non-profits and better assist independent restaurants, and includes $15 billion in dedicated funding for live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions. The agreement also includes $20 billion for targeted EIDL Grants which are critical to many smaller businesses on Main Street.” [emphasis added]

This has been a crappy year all around, but it’s certainly ending on a positive note.


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Zoom and movie fans in 2020

Right now, we can’t go to the movies, or anyplace else, without taking precautions against The Virus. That may change in 2021 (knock on wood). Streaming services have taken over as the primary means of distribution, and with the recent news about Warner Brothers’ game-changing commitment to streaming next year, it’s gonna be how many of us experience movies for a long time, even after The Virus is under control.

New methods for fans to talk about movies have gained prominence as a result of the new stay-at-home culture this year, and one of the most widely used has been Zoom.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The Celluloid Road Trip Blogathon is an event focusing on cities and towns in movies, presented by Hometowns to Hollywood. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Who’s Aftaid of Virginia Woolf?

In the summer of 1995, I worked as a counselor at a sleepaway camp in Massachusetts. To someone whose childhood summers were spent at day camps, this was a new experience. 

While I relished the opportunity, I probably would’ve suffered cabin fever without the occasional break from hikes in the forest, swimming and canoeing in the river, and daily recreation on the camp grounds. This was for the kids more than the adults, after all. 

Fortunately, there was a town to which I could retreat on my days off: a tiny college community called Northampton.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Fourteen Hours

Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is seriously ill, according to her brother Jarrahn, and while a blogathon may seem unimportant in the face of that, Gill from RealWeegieMidget Reviews has agreed to take over in her absence. I don’t know Crystal well, but I know she’s a dedicated classic film fan whose blog has a strong following. Here’s hoping she recovers as soon as possible. Best wishes to her family.

Fourteen Hours

YouTube viewing 

Henry Hathaway tends to be associated with westerns, and indeed, some of his biggest hits as a director were in that vein: How the West Was Won, The Sons of Katie Elder, and of course, the original True Grit. A perusal of his IMDB page reveals a variety of movies, including war, film noir and drama. While he may not have had a clear signature style as a director, he was one of a number of Hollywood filmmakers from the Golden Age who turned out reliable product again and again; a go-to man.

A former assistant director during the silent era, he got his break in the early 30s making adaptations of Zane Grey westerns with Randolph Scott. In 1935, Lives of a Bengal Lancer with Gary Cooper got a Best Picture nomination and Hathaway was on the radar.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Ray Massey in Hollywood (and England)

The What a Character Blogathon is an event devoted to the great character actors of classic Hollywood and the often memorable supporting roles they played throughout film history, hosted by Once Upon a ScreenOutspoken & Freckled, & Paula's Cinema Club. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at any of the host sites. 

Earlier this year, I watched the film A Matter of Life and Death and for the first time, I really noticed actor Raymond Massey. A supernatural drama in which the life of a British WW2 pilot is judged by an afterlife court, Massey plays the prosecutor, an American colonial. His character added a unique perspective to the story, and I found him quite convincing. Like all of the actors in this blogathon, he’s one of those people you saw a lot of in old movies and always liked, even if you never quite knew who they were.

The Toronto native was lured to acting after serving in the family tractor business in his youth and spent almost a decade on the British stage. In 1931 he came to Broadway in a production of Hamlet that didn’t go over well. Fortunately, though, by that time the movies had already came calling.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Netflix new release roundup for November ‘20

I’m watching much more Netflix now than before, and not just for the new releases. I think I’ve come to depend on it a bit, as a way of coping. A movie a day, plus two or three TV episodes, isn’t too much, is it? At least I’m not bingeing.

The Trial of the Chicago Seven. The anti-Vietnam protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and the violence that resulted as a result of the confrontation with the Chicago police, gets revisited in this film from writer-director Aaron Sorkin. Specifically, it’s about the trial of an unconnected group of individuals at the heart of the protests, including irreverent activist Abbie Hoffman, memorably played by Sacha Baron Cohen. He’ll get Oscar nominated for certain. Sorkin uses cross-cutting between places and times to bring life to a very talky but riveting screenplay, in addition to actual television footage from the late 60s. In a time when Americans have been agitating for more drastic change in society than ever before, this movie leaves a deep impression.


So Death on the Nile and Free Guy moved to next year and Wonder Woman 1984 will debut in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. The Tom Hanks western News of the World and the video game adaptation Monster Hunter are still expected to play theatrically in 2020... for the moment. This Slate article goes into streaming amidst the current status quo and how unsatisfying it can ultimately feel in a world with diminished theatrical distribution.

More on the other side.

Monday, November 16, 2020


The 2020 Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon is an event honoring the prolific Barrymore family of actors, especially the siblings John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.


YouTube viewing 

The Barrymore clan of thespians dominated the American entertainment field more than any other family in the 20th century. The modern representative, Drew, is very much active; she currently has a daytime talk show on TV.

The clan goes back at least as far as the 19th century and possibly further than that—this article gives you an overview—but classic movie fans are perhaps most familiar with the triumvirate of siblings John, Ethel and Lionel. I’ve talked about Ethel before; for this year’s blogathon I’ll discuss John.

His father Maurice was a Broadway actor and a middleweight boxer, and was the first in the family to assume the stage name Barrymore (he was born Herbert Blythe), after English actor William Barrymore. John’s mother was also an actor, Georgiana Drew; the Drew name has also been handed down the generations. John was the youngest of their three children, after Lionel and Ethel.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Movie theaters need bailout ASAP

“...We’re pushing for a $15 billion grant program for businesses that have had a substantial hit because of the crisis. These include stages, concert halls, movie theaters. Under the legislation, if you were in business and doing well in 2019 and then got shut down and hammered in 2020, you can get grants of just under half of what your earned revenues were in 2019. That would be the bridge that provides enough liquidity to keep these companies alive until we get to the other side of this thing.”

Not much more for me to add. This interview covers it all.


Sunday, November 1, 2020

Netflix new release roundup for October ‘20

Good movies can still be found this year through streaming sites, and my site of choice remains Netflix. I suspect the overwhelming majority of this year’s Oscar candidates will come via the streamers, so here’s what I’ve been watching over the past weeks. 

Da 5 Bloods. The surviving members of a Vietnam platoon return to Vietnam forty years later to find the remains of their commanding officer, as well as to reclaim a cache of gold they appropriated during the war. Spike Lee captures the beauty of modern Vietnam well, its cities as well as its jungles, and the story is relevant, as you would imagine one of his joints to be. Delroy Lindo’s finest work has always been with Spike, and this may be his best performance ever, MAGA cap and all. A Best Actor nomination is all but assured. Also, how wonderful it was to see the late Chadwick Bozeman one more time, in a key supporting role, to remind us what a treasure we lost in him. Even in a normal year, this would be one of the year’s best.

The Old GuardHighlander meets Unbreakable: a race of immortal beings live in secret, righting wrongs around the world. They encounter a new one of their kind at the same time a pharmaceutical company wants to discover what makes them tick. Gina Prince-Bythewood was known for romantic dramas like Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights. Who knew she had an action movie in her? And this one hits on all cylinders: Charlize Theron, who has been making a pretty good post-Oscar career as an action girl, rocks it in this one: kicking ass left and right, but with a vulnerable and human side to her as well. A multi-culti cast that goes all over the world, in a movie that could be the start of a new franchise—once The Virus is under control, of course.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I feel about Charlie Kaufman’s new film the way I did when I saw Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!: there was definitely a singular artistic vision here, at work in a story that starts out relatively mundane and ends surrealistic and utterly bizarre, but I’ll be damned if I can interpret any of it. My guess is it’s a meditation on aging and the deterioration and fragmentation of memory, though it seems to start as the woman’s story and ends as the man’s, which didn’t make sense. Like Mother!, I went into Thinking blind, assuming all I needed to know was the writer-director and his rep (I have got to stop doing that). Ludicrously talky, it bored me silly in places but I kept thinking well, sooner or later there’ll be an explanation for all this. There wasn’t, not that I could tell.

Rebecca (2020). The critics were less than charitable to this latest version of the world-famous Daphne DuMaurier novel memorably adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, but I didn’t think it was as mediocre as they said it was. The set design of Manderley was thrilling, as were the location shots, and weird dream sequences aside, I found it watchable. Lily James is less mousy as the nameless protagonist than Joan Fontaine, and Armie Hammer felt a bit less cold and uptight than Laurence Olivier, but Kristin Scott Thomas as Danvers was the best part for me. It won’t make me abandon my Criterion DVD of Hitch’s version, but for what it is, it’s alright.

More on the other side.

Shaken and stirred the news, that is. 

It was just a couple of weeks ago that I had watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on Netflix. Hadn’t seen it in years and I wanted to see if it held up. It did, more or less.

But of course, Connery... Sean Connery... will be remembered for much more than that. When No Time to Die eventually gets released (the current date is April 2, 2021), I fully expect it to be dedicated to the memory of the man who helped kickstart one of the greatest film franchises ever and embodied one of the greatest film characters for a generation, and maybe for all time—no disrespect to his successors. James Bond was a product of his time, and though times may change, and characters may evolve with them, the original legend can never truly die.

I’m more familiar with Connery’s later work, of course, especially The Untouchables, where Brian DePalma and David Mamet embellished the legend of real-life hero Eliot Ness by adding a hard-nosed Irish cop who teaches Ness how to bring in Al Capone “the Chicago way.” Larger than life role in a larger than life movie. No doubt in my mind Connery earned the Oscar.

Connery was one of the dwindling number of true movie Superstars remaining. Once they’re gone, the book will have closed on their reign forever.

Maddy’s obit is quite professional

Saturday, October 31, 2020

I Drink Your Blood/I Eat Your Skin

I Drink Your Blood 

I Eat Your Skin

YouTube viewing 

The closure of movie theaters this year as a result of The Virus has led to a resurgence in drive-ins. Here’s a first-hand account from this past summer of a mother taking her family to a drive-in. In Queens, a drive-in has been born (with a Brooklyn extension), plus a local diner set up one in Astoria. Others have sprung throughout the tri-state area.

Years ago, I wrote about ways drive-ins could improve, and while my suggestions would be less feasible in the face of a pandemic, I still believe they could work in normal times. As things stand right now, drive-ins are a nice way to retain the traditional theater-going experience.

In the 60s and 70s, drive-ins were repositories for, shall we say, more adventurous cinematic material, the kind that appealed to younger audiences. Horror films were among the more popular genres. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Love Among the Ruins

The Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn Blogathon is an event celebrating the lives and careers of the famed Hollywood couple, presented by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood  and Love Letters to Old Hollywood. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at the host sites.

YouTube viewing 

Katharine Hepburn made more TV movies than you might suspect for an actress whose film career began in 1932 and was almost as active in the theater throughout her life. 

Her migration to the small screen began after the death of Spencer Tracy in 1967, probably not a coincidence. All told, she made nine films for television, beginning with a remake of The Glass Menagerie in 1973 and ending with One Christmas in 1994, her final film role.

In 1972, Hepburn appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and was asked if she would ever make a film with Laurence Olivier, the legendary British actor who was so big they named an acting award after him. Hepburn smiled and said, “Well, neither of us is dead yet. Even though you may think so.”

And that set certain wheels in motion...

Thursday, October 15, 2020

A Lady Takes a Chance

The 120 Screwball Years of Jean Arthur Blogathon is an event celebrating the life and career of the actress, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. For more information on participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

A Lady Takes a Chance

YouTube viewing 

Well, this movie sure has an unusual pairing: 30s romcom girl Jean Arthur, she of the squeaky voice and slightly-odd-but-still-cute looks, and John Wayne, on the verge of becoming the iconic superstar of the great John Ford westerns, together in a romantic comedy. Huh?

A Lady Takes a Chance realizes they’re an odd couple—from the perspective of a 21st century cinephile, she belongs with Jimmy Stewart and he belongs with Maureen O’Hara—but here they are. Can they believably fall in love with each other despite coming from not only different worlds but different genres?

The film begins with a message on title cards that has a surprising amount of resonance in 2020, a year that has made us all nostalgic for 2019:

“Once upon a time... It was so long ago that people drove sixty miles an hour, and skidded their tires, and drank three cups of coffee all at once, and ate big gobs of butter, and there were more fellows around than there were girls, and everybody was having a good time without knowing it, that’s when our story happened. Away back then... in 1938.

“And here’s hoping that ‘once upon a time’ goes on again some quick tomorrow. 

“Only better.”

Thursday, October 1, 2020

What’s left of the 2020 theatrical landscape

Going to the movies may not be a good idea right now, but discussing the status of the few big movies left on the year’s roster is worth noting at least. Keep in mind this list can and probably will change by the time you finish reading this post.

New York, LA and San Francisco theaters remain closed, with no indication as to when they might re-open, but an estimated 70% of American theaters are currently up and running. Assuming they make it to the end of the year, 2021 will be jam-packed with movies—but first they have to hold on a few more months in a climate where The Virus has not abated yet and audiences remain trepidatious about going to the movies.

Tenet hasn’t been the savior everyone had hoped for. According to Box Office Mojo, so far it has made $41 million domestically (but $243 million internationally), which would be outstanding for most movies, but Tenet had much higher aspirations. So what’s left this year?

Black Widow, the Candyman remake, The King’s Man and Spielberg’s West Side Story moved to next year. A horror movie, The Empty Man, will bow the 23rd of this month.

No Time to Die
, the new James Bond movie, continues to hold firm to its November 20 date, as does Soul, the new Pixar animated film; lots of folks thought it would also go to Disney+. It still might do that; who knows? [UPDATE: It did.] [UPDATE: No Time to Die has been pushed back to April 2021.]

Free Guy, the Ryan Reynolds movie that looks like a live-action Wreck-It Ralph, is set for December 11, while Kenneth Branagh’s new Hercule Poirot movie, Death on the Nile, will go a week later, the same week as the Dune remake (UPDATE: Dune moved to October 2021) and the much-delayed Wonder Woman 1984 is now set for a Christmas Day release.

And as for 2021? So far it looks sort of like this, but of course this too could change.

If you decide you must go to the movies (and if you can), I don’t have to remind you to be smart about it: mask up, check your local theater in advance to make sure it’s taking all the necessary precautions, make sure you’re socially distancing yourself from others in the theater and at least think twice about that bucket of popcorn. And no matter where you go, be it to the movies, work, school or dinner: stay home if you’re sick, especially now that we’re heading into colder weather. We’re not out of the woods yet.

After the jump: an important announcement.

Monday, September 28, 2020

In praise of the cartoon voice actors

If you’re a professional actor, voice acting for cartoons sounds easy, right? Just speak into the mike and do what you normally do. But for those who have made careers embodying animated characters on television, it can be almost as involving as live-action; certainly as meaningful. 

I’m gonna stick to TV for this post; I imagine many of us have at least a passing familiarity with the voice talents who originated in the movies: Clarence Nash, Pinto Colvig, Chuck Jones, Arthur Q. Bryan, Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, to name a few. And I’m only highlighting a few among many.

Alan Reed and Jean Vander Pyl voiced, among other characters, Fred and Wilma Flintstone. He got his start in radio, appearing in The Shadow, The Life of Riley, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show and Crime Doctor, as well as the movies (including Disney’s Lady and the Tramp) and early TV. She also started in radio, appearing in The Halls of Ivy and Father Knows Best, as well as TV. She was in the original Flintstones pilot, when the show was still called The Flagstones.

While Fred and Wilma were visually inspired by The Honeymooners’ Ralph and Alice Kramden, the voices were not. Fred had Ralph’s temper, but not his Brooklyn accent, while Wilma seemed a bit less sassy than Alice. Their voices fit their looks: Fred’s voice was heavy and earthy and Wilma’s was light and thin.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Black Narcissus

The Rule Britannia Blogathon is an event celebrating British cinema, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Black Narcissus
YouTube viewing

Back in May we talked about the writer-director team of Powell and Pressburger, and I’m glad for the opportunity to discuss their movies again. They were beautifully made, with stunning cinematography and lush, vivid color.

If I ever saw Black Narcissus before, I don’t recall. All I knew about it was it had creepy-looking nuns doing nun stuff, but to be more specific: Deborah Kerr establishes a hospital and school with a group of her fellow nuns in the Himalayan mountains of India, but the atmosphere drives them all a little cuckoo. It’s based on a book.

Okay, first of all, I thought for sure that they shot this film on location somewhere in the Himalayas, but it was (mostly) done indoors! Specifically, it was shot in a studio with matte painting backgrounds, so perhaps we should talk about that.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Other favorite cartoons

Back in the 70s and 80s, it was still possible to see animated shorts that originally played theatrically on free television, so the newer, made-for-TV cartoons I watched as a kid were mixed with much older material.

The animation career of Walter Lantz goes all the way back to the silent era. At Universal, he directed Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts and his studio created Woody WoodpeckerAndy Panda, and Chilly Willy, characters that played on TV beginning in the late 50s.

Tex Avery began at the Lantz studio and helped develop the Looney Tunes characters at Warner Bros., but in 1942 he moved to MGM, where his cartoons took on an even wilder tone. In addition to creating new characters like Droopy Dog, he directed memorable shorts like “Red Hot Riding Hood” and the controversial “Magical Maestro” (which is hilarious; I don’t care what anyone says).

Paul Terry co-founded Terrytoons in New Rochelle, New York in 1929, and among the studio’s best known creations include Mighty Mouse (another superhero) and Heckle and Jeckle (a comedy duo).

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Schoolhouse Rock!

In the midst of an intense hearing for Alabama senator and U.S. Attorney General appointee Jeff Sessions, there was a surprising bit of silliness: Jeff Sessions is a big fan of “Schoolhouse Rock!”

During the hearing, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said that there was a “civics crisis” in the U.S. and asked about Sessions’ thought on [President] Obama’s use of executive orders. While arguing that Obama’s use of executive power was an overreach, Sessions said that he felt “Schoolhouse Rock!” was “not a bad basic lesson in how the government is supposed to work.”
There you have it. What more do you need than an endorsement from an actual government representative on the effectiveness of Schoolhouse Rock! as an educational tool?

This series of musical shorts was part of my childhood as it was for most kids of my generation, and I grew to anticipate it as much as the other series on Saturday mornings. They were proto-music videos, with original, catchy songs designed to make kids learn about science and math and history in a fun way, to the point where they don’t even realize they’re learning—and it works. I can still sing the preamble to the Constitution without missing a beat.

“Three is a Magic Number”
The brainchild of ad exec David McCall, who wanted a better way for his son to learn multiplication, he hired musician Bob Dorough to write a math song. The result was the first SHR hit, “Three is a Magic Number.” McCall’s co-worker, illustrator Tom Yohe, made some accompanying images and they pitched it to ABC as a series. The SHR pilot, featuring “Three,” debuted in 1971; two years later came the series. Yohe and George Newall were the executive producers and Dorough, who died two years ago, was musical director.

The following are some of my favorite songs in the series. Links to the videos are in the titles.

—“Verb: That’s What’s Happening.” Music by Zachary Sanders, lyrics by Dorough. The song is all kinds of awesome, but I’m still hoping somebody, somewhere will do something with the Verb superhero character in the video. He’s already cool enough to have his own movie; give him a TV show, a comic book, a toy line, something. 

—“Unpack Your Adjectives.” Music by Blossom Dearie, Lyrics by Newall. Blossom Dearie (yes, that really was her name) was a jazz singer in the 50s and 60s and yes, she really did sing in that high, girlish voice. I liked this video because I can easily imagine a kid on a camping trip who complains the whole time about the tiniest things using adjectives like “frustrating” and “worst” to describe it. Plus, I just thought the little girl slapping signs on everything was kinda funny.

“I’m Just a Bill” taught how a bill
becomes a law.
—“The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Music and lyrics by Dorough. A greatly simplified, but memorable summation of the Revolutionary War, I just remember liking the song a lot. It came in handy while writing my novel, too: I remembered this song while making a passing reference to the war.

—“Interplanet Janet.” Music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Obviously one that appeals to the SF geek in me, this is another character I’d love to see something else done with, but first I think she’d have to be defined. She seems like an alien life form but she has a body like a rocket ship?—which makes me think she’s actually some manner of cybernetic creature. She probably doesn’t need to breathe since she can travel in space, but what does she use for propulsion? If there’s never been a planet Janet hasn’t seen, how fast can she travel? Light speed? Inquiring minds want to know!

—“Electricity, Electricity.” Music by Sanders, lyrics by Dorough. EEE-lec-tricity. Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it. EEE-lec-tricity.

“Conjunction Junction”
taught about conjunctions.
In 1993, a live theatrical adaptation of the SHR songs debuted in Chicago and has enjoyed a number of revivals since, including a sequel.

I worked in Tower Records in 1995, which is how I learned of the rock album of SHR cover songs, Schoolhouse Rock Rocks (which makes an excellent companion piece to the rock album of cartoon theme songs, Saturday Morning Cartoons’ Greatest Hits). Listen to “I’m Just a Bill” by Deluxx Folk Implosion to get an idea of what the album’s like. 

Dorough gathered new groups of musicians together to make more SHR songs in 1994-96 and again in 2009.

SHR aired on ABC, and in 1996, Disney bought ABC, so Disney... sigh... owns the rights to SHR now—but at least they actually play the series on Disney+, which is good.

SHR was and is a lot of fun and it’s good to know it hasn’t been forgotten.

Bob Dorough

Saturday, September 19, 2020

A few words on anime

This is not meant to be a definitive post on Japanese animation. There are other places you can go for a more comprehensive study on the subject. This will be much more subjective and personal and chances are I’ll have missed your favorite show and/or movie, so please, no whatabouts. I just feel I should bring it up because no discussion of Saturday morning cartoons is complete without it.

I was a tad too young for Astro Boy, Gigantor, Kimba the White Lion and Speed Racer, but they were among the first wave of animated programs to hit the States through syndication. The animation is on a par with American cartoons of the 60s: limited, stiff, broad. 

Some of these characters, such as Astro Boy and Kimba, were the creations of the man considered the Japanese Disney, Osamu Tezuka. A cartoonist as well as an animator, he was first published at 17, and his graphic novel series—“manga” in Japanese—remain in print to this day. In 1961 he founded his own animation production company and his TV adaptation of Astro Boy was the first to be dubbed into English for an American audience.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Jay Ward

The cartoons of Jay Ward are different from Looney Tunes in that there’s a higher premium on words. Not that Bugs Bunny and pals don’t engage in funny banter; they do, but with Ward his cartoons are all about the wacky wordplay: the ever-present narrator, the quickness of the delivery, the stronger sense of a plot as opposed to variations on a theme (Elmer tries to shoot Bugs, Wile E. Coyote tries to eat the Road Runner, etc.), perhaps as a means to compensate for the—let’s be honest—limitations in the animation. The scripts and the strong voice acting, shorn of the visuals, would make good radio plays.

Ward, a graduate of UC-Berkeley with an MBA from Harvard, was a television pioneer. In 1948, he and his longtime friend, animator Alex Anderson, made an animated pilot film for NBC, The Comic Strips of Television, featuring a variety of original characters. The only one NBC liked became the first animated series made for TV, Crusader Rabbit, debuting in 1950. Ward served as producer and business manager for the duo’s Television Arts Productions.

I watched some episodes for this post. The roots of later Ward shows are clearly visible: funny animals in a serialized show—squeaky-voiced “straight man” CR and dimwitted partner, in this case a tiger named Rags; villains, of a sort, who are equally silly; an omniscient narrator who interacts with the characters. The animation is very primitive, but the characters are endearingly cute and the serialized format makes one want to know what happens to them.

CR was syndicated nationwide, mostly at NBC affiliates including in New York and LA, until 1952, then a second series was commissioned in 1956 by new parent company Capital Enterprises, but Ward and Anderson lost a legal battle over ownership rights.

Next Ward packaged some more new characters in an unsold pilot, The Frostbite Falls Revue, set in the territory known as the North Woods, which covers northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. It didn’t succeed, but two minor characters from the series did pretty well for themselves...

I suspect I knew, even as a kid, that Rocky & Bullwinkle were a little different from most cartoons. The fast pace, the number of jokes that flew over my head but seemed significant somehow, the humor that relied on bad puns and other turns of phrase—it wasn’t Scooby-Doo by any means. 

I was used to cartoons with, shall we say, a limited range of expression, but I wasn’t accustomed to cartoons this sharp-witted. I still preferred action-adventure shows overall, but I made time for R&B whenever they were on, in its various incarnations (like Looney Tunes, it appeared under different names).

The original show, Rocky and his Friends, aired on ABC in 1959 before switching to NBC as The Bullwinkle Show in 1961. After 1964, it aired in syndication. Ward created the show with Anderson and Bill Scott. Fun fact: Dudley Do-Right, one of the show’s feature characters, began life as part of the original lineup for The Comic Strips of Television. He went on to a spin-off series of his own.

Ward and Scott collaborated on two more series, George of the Jungle (a Tarzan parody) and Super Chicken (a superhero comedy), both from 1967. 

In addition to cartoon series,Ward is notable for his commercial illustration. I never ate kiddie cereals Cap’n Crunch, Quisp or Quake but he designed their mascots. Here’s the first Cap’n Crunch commercial from 1963, and it’s very much of a piece with Ward’s other cartoons: 

He also put together this bit of drive-in welcome/intermission filler.

Ward died in 1989 of renal cancer. DreamWorks Animation currently has the rights to his characters. We could use a little more of their kind of madcap humor, don’t you think?

A Jay Ward visual essay

The live-action movies

Thursday, September 10, 2020


Filmation cartoons were hit or miss for me. Often times, I liked the characters, but the actual animation could leave me cold. It never seemed as lively as it should have been—but there were some good moments.

The studio began in 1963 with three guys: Lou Scheimer, Hal Sutherland and Norm Prescott—and yes, the name is indeed a melding of film and animation, because they worked on both. Scheimer and Sutherland went back in television animation as far as 1957, and Prescott was a former disc jockey, if you can believe that, before getting into movie production.

In the company‘s early years, they did commercials, an Oz movie and some series pitches that never got far. Then DC Comics came to them wanting to adapt Superman and other heroes of theirs for animation, beginning in 1966. This led to series featuring Archie and Sabrina in 1970.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Warner Bros. Animation

For my money, the Looney Tunes characters of the Warner Brothers Animation studio may be the funniest cartoon characters ever created. All I have to do is think of a scene of one of their classic cartoons, a line, even a word or two (“wabbit,” “puddy tat,” “duck season”) and the giggles start.

No, they weren’t always PC (especially during the war years) and some of the characters wouldn’t fly today, but audiences were a lot less uptight about such things back then. People knew how to laugh at themselves without getting butthurt, unlike today.

I’m more convinced than ever that we as a society have lost something precious because of this. In the early weeks of the quarantine, once some of the early Virus-related memes and jokes surfaced, I couldn’t laugh at them. Even now, I find it difficult to do so, but the fact that some people can find humor in something as deadly serious as the pandemic is pretty remarkable—but we’re getting off-topic.

The Looney Tunes are not the only representatives of WB’s stable of cartoon characters by any means, but they are the best, and they have a long and proud history.

Friday, September 4, 2020


Once upon a time, Saturday morning was magical. Armed with nothing more than a bowl of sugary cereal, a spoon and a drink of some sort (it didn’t matter what), you could spend hours parked in front of the TV and commune with talking animals, monsters great and small, heroes both super and non-super, cavemen, aliens, teenagers, sentient cars and little blue elves in funny hats.

You could journey to the farthest reaches of outer space or go forwards or backwards in time; travel in race cars, spaceships, magic carpets or World War 1 biplanes; control giant robots or wear magic rings; go on tour with rock bands or solve mysteries, and all from the comfort of your home.

I’m speaking, of course, of children’s animation. Cartoons.

These days, entire channels are devoted to cartoons, whether from the glory days of Saturday morning or afterschool or newer, more modern material. One can call up one’s favorites on demand from video websites like YouTube and Vimeo, or buy box sets of them on DVD or Blu-ray. This is all well and good, but someone born in the last thirty years or so will never truly understand what Saturday morning meant to those of us who looked forward to it every week.

I’ve wanted to share my memories of Saturday morning in more detail for awhile, as well as show some respect to the people responsible for creating these characters or adapting them for animation. Now seems like a very good time. My focus will be on the creators, but I’ll also discuss their creations, naturally—and afterschool cartoons will be included in the mix where appropriate.

I will not discuss The Mouse and his friends. There is a mountain of information already out there about The Big D, its history, its role in shaping American pop culture (though these days, they buy it from other people and absorb it into their ravenous maw more than they add to it), and certainly plenty of fan tributes. I feel absolutely no need to pay any more homage. At least not now.

So let’s start instead with the company that, in many ways, is synonymous with Saturday morning for a generation of kids.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Books: Roger Ebert’s Book of Film

The 2020 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

I wasn’t planning to include this book this year because of its length (over 700 pages), but I needed to look up some information and once I started re-reading, I couldn’t stop, and since I have all this free time... you get the point.

In 1997, Roger Ebert put out this compilation of film writing, from the birth of the medium in the 19th century to modern times. He divides the book into sections: moviegoing, movie stars, the business, “sex and scandal,” “early days,” genres, directors, writers, critics, “technique,” and “Hollywood.” Each section contains a number of passages, either essays or excerpts from longer works, fiction and non-fiction, on some aspect of the movies.

The lineup spans a century of writing and includes way more than just movie-related writers: Terry McMillan, Larry McMurtry, Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Mario Puzo, Susan Sontag, Charles Bukowski, F. Scott Fitzgerald, even Leo Tolstoy—and that’s in addition to Francois Truffaut, William Castle, Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Spike Lee, David Mamet, Groucho Marx, and so many more.

I bought this book around the time it first came out, back during my video store days, because it seemed like the kind of book that would help me better understand the movies. I was fortunate to have worked in a video store with an extremely diverse selection, Hollywood classics as well as independents and foreign films, and at the time my knowledge was very limited.

This book helped make me aware of who were the important people in film and why. Plus, the novelty of the book itself interested me: movie essays from all over the 20th century (and a bit of the 19th) was quite a lure.

In the introduction, Ebert talks about the hold movies have on our imaginations:
...In my childhood and adolescence I’d liked the movies, to be sure, but they were like other forms of entertainment, like books or the radio, and I didn’t view them as an art form—maybe because I wasn’t seeing very good ones. In 1958, in high school, I saw Citizen Kane for the first time and understood two things: that a movie could suggest the truth about a human life and that movies were the expression of the vision of those who made them.... For me, no other art form touches life the way the movies do.
You can’t go wrong with this book. There’s something for everyone in it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The verdict on ‘Tenet’

They said it wouldn’t happen. Some folks said it shouldn’t happen. But it finally has: Christopher Nolan’s eagerly awaited new movie Tenet has made it into theaters worldwide, despite the pandemic. Is it any good?

Critics mostly think so, though it’s not unanimous. As of this writing, it has a 81 rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Here’s a sampling of the more prominent reviews.

Watching the fan reaction on Twitter, it’s like a hunk of meat has been thrown to a pit full of hungry tigers. It’s almost disturbing how far out of their minds people have gone over wanting to see this movie. Granted, it is Nolan, a director with a proven track record of success, and in a normal year, the level of hysteria for this movie would not be so unusual, but there has been absolutely nothing normal about the buildup towards the release of Tenet.

Still, one can’t deny the reality of the life we’re all living now: going to a movie theater is simply not a good idea at the moment. Sure, I’m tempted; I imagine many of you are too—and I doubt anyone wants to see the theaters suffer for lack of new material—but I had thought The Virus would have been manageable here in the States by now. That hasn’t happened yet, and it won’t for awhile. And it’s not like the threat has completely vanished around the rest of the world either. I don’t blame Warner Bros. or Nolan for wanting to keep the theatrical experience alive—I blame the covidiots who won’t wear their masks!

What we’re seeing now from critics are debates as to the ethics of recommending a new theatrical release like Tenet or New Mutants or Unhinged—i.e., doing their jobs as they normally would—when it means the real possibility of their readers taking their advice, contracting The Virus and maybe dying. For some, there’s no question which way they stand on the issue. Others are more willing to continue as before, but with caveats.

Tenet will be available after The Virus is gone. From what I can tell, the negative reviews for it aren’t that negative; at least, they’re not saying anything unexpected. And while I’m still not 100% sold on it, at this point, I’m willing to wait until the time is right. As for the theaters, they’ve weathered crises like this one before.

But yeah, it looks like I’m done with theaters for now, Tenet or no Tenet... but I don’t believe it’s forever. And neither should you.

 More after the jump.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Europa ‘51

The 2020 Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon is an event in tribute to the classic Hollywood actress, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Europa ‘51 (AKA The Greatest Love)
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Ingrid Bergman first met Roberto Rossellini in 1949. The Hollywood actress from Sweden was so impressed with the Italian director’s work she wrote to him, wanting to collaborate with him.

At this stage of her career, Bergman was a superstar, known for such films as Casablanca and Gaslight, plus her projects with Alfred Hitchcock, Notorious, Spellbound and Under Capricorn. Making a movie outside of the Hollywood bubble, with an unfamiliar foreign filmmaker, was a risk, but one she thought worth taking.

The result was the movie Stromboli, released a year later. In the process, the married Bergman had an affair with Rossellini, who was separated from his wife at the time. The actress and director had a son, who was born two weeks before the American release of the film... and that was around the time Bergman’s troubles really began.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The UFO Incident

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I first became aware of UFO sightings sometime in the mid-80s, and like many people, I dreamed of it happening to me one day. I still believe life of some form other than humanity is out there somewhere, but I suspect the odds of us finding it in our lifetimes is slim at best.

That doesn’t stop people from trying, of course. This 2018 New York article goes deep in re-examining UFO mythology in the age of DT and his proposed “space force.” 

If aliens exist, though, why would they abduct and experiment on humans? Do they see us as an inferior form of life? Possible—but I have a hard time imagining the popular image of little, skinny grey men with large, almond-shaped eyes and big heads (and no clothes) as genetically superior.

And at what point did this become the default image for “extraterrestrial,” anyway? (The emoji for “alien” on my iPhone is a simplified version of this.) It’s as if the same species were observing us for over half a century, and if that were so, at what point would they decide we actually are intelligent and talk to us? Or are they not as advanced as we thought? Could anal probes be their species’ equivalent of cow tipping? 

Regardless, the notion that aliens have nothing better to do than pick apart our insides persists—and one of the first widely-reported abduction stories was turned into an unusual and unsettling TV movie.

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Rutles: All You Need is Cash

The Rutles: All You Need is Cash

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Ten years of this blog and I have yet to talk about Monty Python. For now, I’ll say what practically everyone else says about the British comedy troupe: they’re hilarious, I thoroughly enjoy their material, both on TV and in the movies (I own Holy Grail on DVD), and I could watch them all day. But this is not about Python as a group, just one of them: Eric Idle.

In the sixties, Idle appeared on the ITV children’s show Do Not Adjust Your Set with Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin and Terry Jones and met John Cleese and Graham Chapman as a guest on At Last the 1948 Show.

Idle and the others from Adjust were offered an adult, late-night show at around the same time Cleese and Chapman were offered a series by the BBC. In 1969, after a taping of Adjust, Cleese arranged a dinner meeting between the six of them to discuss a collaboration, and a legend was born.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired on the BBC from 1969-1974, and afterwards, Idle and the others pursued solo projects. In 1975 Idle created the sketch show Rutland Weekend Television, with music by Neil Innes. It was during this period that the two came up with characters that spawned a life of their own.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Spider-Man (1977)

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Ever since the Spider-Man film rights were acquired by Marvel Studios, their signature character has seen some changes. He got himself a suit of armor designed by Tony Stark. He became an Avenger and travelled with them to outer space. He’s met versions of Spider-Man from parallel universes, including a black kid, a girl, even a cartoon pig!

In the comics, back in the 70s, he was still recognizable as Peter Parker, college kid and part-time freelance photographer—living with his Aunt May, fighting the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus, getting no respect from J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle. He began the decade mourning the death of girlfriend Gwen Stacy at the hands of the Goblin, grew four arms for a brief time (don’t ask!), became more of a stud with the chicks than in his high school years, first proposed to Mary Jane Watson (no relation), only to get shot down, and ended the decade in a relationship with a burglar called the Black Cat, who only loved him as Spider-Man and could’ve cared less who was under the mask.

At the same time, Marvel Comics’ inroads into Hollywood grew deeper. You may remember the early animated series from the 60s, including the Spidey series with the awesome theme song. Marvel continued to pursue this avenue, but they also looked into developing live-action material for television. The success of the live-action Batman and Wonder Woman series from the Distinguished Competition was no doubt an impetus for them.

If you’re from my generation, you may remember the Spidey skits on The Electric Company, for example, but that was kid stuff. Marvel wanted something that could play in prime time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Brian’s Song

Brian’s Song
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These are the facts in the brief career of pro football star Brian Piccolo: he was college football’s leading rusher in 1964 at Wake Forest, and was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, finishing tenth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

He was signed by the Chicago Bears as a free agent, after both the NFL and the AFL passed on drafting him. In 1968, the year in which teammate and former Rookie of the Year Gale Sayers injured his knee, Piccolo ran for 450 yards, had 291 yards receiving, and two touchdowns.

In 1969 Piccolo was diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma, and underwent surgery twice. He died June 16, 1970 at the age of 26, leaving behind a wife and three daughters.

Those are the facts... but the facts only tell you so much.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

WSW at ten

It doesn’t seem possible that I’ve made this blog last ten years. When I began, I had unexpectedly returned from living in the Midwest. It was supposed to have been a permanent move, but it didn’t work out that way, and I needed something to get over my sense of failure and disappointment. This blog was the answer.

I had dreams of popularity and success, and while I didn’t become the next Harry Knowles, that was okay. I made some good friends and I rekindled my interest in writing, and that proved more than enough. And I saw some pretty good movies along the way too.

I like to think my blogging style has evolved over the years to the point where I know what I’m doing. I tried everything in the beginning; I was pretty desperate to please and I believed I had to put out content almost every day. I know my limitations better now.

I’m also less concerned with comparing myself to my peers. They blog for different reasons than me and they have different methods and goals. That’s fine. There was a period where I felt more competitive, like I had to be on a similar plane to them in order to be taken seriously. That might’ve been part of the reason I became a classic film blogger for a year. I’ve been forced to become one again this year but much more on my own terms this time. I like that.

WSW has made my world a little better in the past ten years. But my world today is extremely different than it was in 2010.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
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In 1977, Roots held American television audiences in thrall like nothing had before by telling the truth about slavery. It was a true television event that opened up new levels of discussion about race relations and acknowledged how far black people have come and how far we still have to go.

Three years before that landmark, however, another television movie told a story about slavery that was not too different; in fact you could say it helped pave the way for Roots.

A novel was published in 1971 called The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines, and I feel the need to emphasize it was a novel, a work of fiction. It references numerous real people, places and events throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, but it is fiction. CBS adapted it into a TV movie that aired in January 1974, with the teleplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn and directed by John Korty.

The star was Cicely Tyson.